Ha-long is the Hue to Hanoi?
Trip Start Jul 26, 2004
23Trip End May 31, 2005
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When we last left you we teased you with the story of our bus trip from Hoi An to Hue. As previously stated the drivers in Vietnam are whack. Fortunately we had Michele and Eric with us so the Canadian embassy would have been on full alert should 4 of us have fallen off a cliff. We also met some cool Aussies, so we kept ourselves busy singing along to the 7 song soundtrack that played over, and over, and over again during the 5 hour ride. The views were incredible as we lurched and lunged up and down the cliffs north of Hoi An, while shamelessly passing vehicles. If we had fallen over the edge of the cliff at least we would have had a good view on the way down.
Upon our arrival in Hue (pronounced "Hway")we checked into our hotel and walked to dinner
Before being split into two countries (North and South Vietnam) Hue was the political centre of Vietnam under the rule of the emperors. We visited the Citadel, an impressive structure that contained the previous Royal palace. There was also an area called the Forbidden Purple Ciy, which was an odd name seeing as there were no buildings, the colour purple was nowhere to be seen and we were there so it was hardly forbidden. Unfortunately much of it had been destroyed during the Vietnamese war, but we were able to see some of the beauty that remained.
We also joined up with a motorcycle tour to see some of the sights. It was run by another Vietnamese character named Thu, who besides organizing the tours with her ten brothers ("Ten bananas, one coconut in my family."), ran the family's lively cafe and was a movie star in Saigon during the down season
Thu's brother, Minh, led our tour of Hue and the surrounding countryside with five of his fellow bananas (brothers). We visited two of the main pagodas, (one had the singing and chanting monks -check out our video), a Japanese covered bridge that was surrounded by the lush green of the rice fields, Bunker Hill where the French had set up their armament that overlooked the beautiful Perfume River during their war with Vietnam, and finally the tomb of one of Vietnam's final emperors Tu Duc. He was well known for being married, having 103 concubines and yet had no children (our guide Minh, "Broken banana"). The tomb was created by the army over four years and was set in the country estate where the emperor had lived. It took us an hour just to walk about the complex carved out of intricate grey stone. The rides through the countryside were magical and seeing people at work in the rice fields wearing their conical hats, or bartering in the marketplaces or greeting us as we zoomed by with Thu's brothers on the motorbikes, was highly memorable.
From Hue to Hanoi was a short flight but an interesting change. The city's population is larger than that of the whole country of Laos (our next destination) and everyone must own a motorbike or scooter
A pleasant surprise for us was bumping into some 'old friends', particularly in the craziness of a city like Hanoi. When you travel for a long period of time and get to meet other travelers it is very exciting and comforting to run into them in other parts of the country, or continent
Staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi was interesting on its own, as every street is full of stores selling the same items. Seeing as the names of the roads change regularly and for no reason, we would use the shops as indicators of where we wanted to go (eg."Yeah, we're staying on Muffler Street but we hear that the restaurants on Wine and Candy Street are overrated. For something good to eat, you should check out Gravestone Street").
Life thrives on the pavement of the crowded Hanoi streets. People don't use the sidewalks to walk (how silly). Instead, at any given time you can find people setting up to serve a five course Vietnamese meal, giving pedicures, getting close shaves and haircuts, painting tombstones, selling anything from pirated CDs to panties to live eels. It can be interesting, hilarious, a little treacherous, but ALWAYS entertaining.
The Old Quarter surrounds a lake that is said to hold a silver sword that 250 kg turtles protect. We visited a temple in the middle of the lake with a stuffed tortoise. Our 'guide' was a lovely Vietnamese guy we had met earlier that day
That evening we went to a very interesting and eccentric (kind of like our families)puppet show. Hanoi's Water Puppet Marionettes are apparently world famous- and we could see why. The entire show took place onstage in a pool of water where the marionettes danced, fought, swam, and fished, reenacting different scenes of life and history in Vietnam.
Another highlight for us was our side trip to Halong Bay, which is about three hours north of Hanoi. We stayed over night on a Chinese Junk boat. We splurged a bit and got the best boat with the best food, etc...which was important as it was cold (not Canada or Sault Ste. Marie cold, but we were wearing pants and sweaters and jackets) and drizzly. Halong Bay is surrounded by limestone islands with soaring green cliffs. We visited a cave with huge stalactites and stalagmites, that was spectacular. Until 1999 some people actually lived in there until the government kicked them out and gave them boats to live on instead. We had only wished we could have stayed longer and that the weather had been better, nevertheless- it was a phenomenal sight to see.
We had a great experience our last night in Vietnam at a restaurant in Hanoi. There are a couple of restaurants there that are set up to train homeless street kids for a career in the hospitality industry. We frequented one such place for breakfast and it was amazing food, very relaxing amidst the chaos of the city, and the staff were great. For our final meal we went to the other restaurant called KOTO, which stands for: Know One, Teach One. The meal was of gourmet quality and the staff were so earnest and lovely. Our waiter told us how he had come to Hanoi a couple of years ago and had to live on the street. He tried to shine shoes and sell post cards to tourists to support his parents in the countryside. He said it was a terrible life, but then he was accepted into this program. He will graduate in March after 18 months. He has learned all the skills necessary for waitering, bartending, hosting, concierge, etc. He has also learned English (he was quite good) and a number of other 'life skills'. The program feeds and shelters these kids and they have a 100% employment rate in the five star hotel/restaurant industry upon graduation. There was even a picture of Bill Clinton with a bunch of the kids. He didn't seem to be touching any of them inappropriately, but he did have a huge smile on his face.
Alas, it was time to bid adieu to the chaos of Hanoi and our eighth country since August. We are moving on to Laos, a country that has been described to us as similar to Cambodia in many ways: relaxed.
Some final observations on Vietnam:
Vietnam is the least 'communist' country we have visited, at least in an economic sense. Free enterprise is alive and well here. Almost everyone we encountered was out to make a buck.
You need to bargain for EVERYTHING in this country: your hotel, a taxi, a piece of clothing, a cd, a banana, even items that have fixed prices...
The washroom is referred to as "the Happy Room", or "stopping for happy feeling".
Vietnamese movie dubbing is the most absurd and entertaining form of entertainment we found. They have 1 woman do all the characters of 'Hollywood' movies, without expression or change in intonation. We caught a bit of "Grumpier Old Men" and the Veitnamese woman did the voices for Jack Lemmon, Walter Mathau, Dyan Cannon,and Rue McClanahan. It was very entertaining. We also saw her 'voice' John Travolta and Halle Berry.