Friday, August 22

Hanoi, Vietnam

(see map) mike: For us, visiting Vietnam was just another country to experience. After emailing home to let our parents know the plan, we realized they have a very different perspective:

"It still seems strange to me that you are going to some of the places I went out of my way to avoid when I was young. Time changes everything."

"When I hear all these South-East Asian names, it takes me back to the 60's and the ongoing Vietnam War."

"Coming from a different generation, the idea of going to Hanoi sort of boggles my mind!"

We hoped our time here would help us better understand its history and gain perspective on our involvement in the region.

Vietnam Airlines from Laos to Hanoi.

We got our first taste of crazy and intense Hanoi on our taxi ride from the airport to our hotel in the old quarter. We found out later there are 1.7 million motorbikes in the region (source). It did not take us long to accept this number as reasonable.

The energy of the narrow streets is indescribable, dwarfing that of any SE Asia city we've been to thus far (Bangkok in 2nd). Since the sidewalks function as motorbike parking lots or curb side restaurants, pedestrians, bikes, cyclos (bike taxi, below), motorbikes, and cars all try to get to their destination utilizing the same very limited space. The combination of motorbike whine, relentless honking, yelling only add to the experience.

Yield rules are based on size. So buses yield to no one and pedestrians yield to everyone. Stop lights are very rare, we came across two. There are painted crosswalks but you could stand there all day without one person stopping.

Since Trin was still recovering from her motorbike accident in Chiang Mai, crossing the street the first day was a little gut wrenching for both of us. Our hotel clerk made it sound easy, "just walk slow and steady while crossing and the bikes will go around you". Yea right!! When possible we tried to cross next to a local functioning as a bodyguard.

The first floor of many homes have been converted into stores often carrying only one type of merchandise. Imagine a series of seven stores selling just boxes, bubble wrap and tape. We also came across the party supply block, muffler lane and door knob alley.

We made it safely to our first meal at Cha Ca La Vong. The raw fish in sizzling oil was served along with a clay pot full of hot coals. Rice with chopsticks definitely gives us a hard time. Our neighbors (rear of photo) make it look easy. I still feel self conscious lifting the bowl up the my mouth and scooping it in though this approach definitely seems to work best.

We opted for a cyclo to make it home. Trin commented how she wished she had horse blinders to minimize of the shock of oncoming vehicles on a collision course.

One of the must do activities according to guide books is the Vietnamese water puppet show. I had my doubts but in the end enjoyed it, even though the entire production (minus intro) is in Vietnamese. The entire show takes place on water, as the name suggests. The puppet masters stand behind a curtain and bring life to these wooden characters connected via a pole. Check out this youtube video to see for yourself.

On a day tour we checked out some pagodas (equivalent to a Wat in Laos or Thailand) and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho (more info) seems to be the George Washington of Vietnam so when he died (against his wish to be cremated) North Vietnam preserved his corpse and built this resting place. USSR actively participated in construction we read it is similar to Lenin's Mausoleum.

All visitors are lined up in twos and instructed to march through the viewing area. It was a strange experience. The guards strictly enforce no speaking and hands at sides etiquette. The interior consists of a high-ceilinged, dimly lit, room with marble walls. The cranking air-con had the room at least thirty degrees cooler than outside. His body is encased in the center, with a guard at each corner. No lingering is allowed so you are in and out in under a minute.

One Pillar Pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda

After day four, finally comfortable with navigating the old quarter on foot, we were off to Halong Bay for some R&R.

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