Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Vietnam Marathon

We managed to pack in a lot of Vietnam in just a mere 10 days, mostly by traveling at night and sleeping on trains and buses. We entered Vietnam by land from Laos, spend a couple of days in Hanoi, then took a 2 day trip to the north (close to the border with China), to visit some hill tribes in Sapa, then returned to Hanoi, where we embarked on a 2 day boat trip on Halong Bay. Back in Hanoi again, we took a train down the coast to Hoi An, in central Vietnam. We continued our journey down the coast to Nha Trang, from where we moved on to Saigon. We then left Vietnam by bus, heading to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. Packing every day of this marathon with exciting activities, there was never a dull moment, nor a moment to relax. Now I'm literally taking a vacation from the vacation, by chilling by myself in Siem Riep for a few days, while Anne and Daniel headed to Bangkok for some big city action.

Above: postcard from Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage town.
At over 90 million inhabitants, Vietnam is the world's 13th-most-populous country. Its 2 biggest cities are Hanoi with 5 million and Saigon with 10 million inhabitants. Now try to imagine that almost every Vietnamese person able to walk rides a motorbike. And they all ride at the same time: singles, doubles, triples, quadruples. Sometimes with a few bags of rice, some chicken or other animals piled on top. Going to work, going home, running errands, etc. This whole country cannot be described better than by comparing it to a busy beehive. And just like the bees, Vietnamese people are hardworking, the economy is thriving, and apparently the country has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world.

Hanoi felt gloomy. Maybe it's because at the time we visited it was overcast, and everything seemed grey. Or maybe the pollution is so bad that you can't actually see the sky and the sun? Plus, it had a really... "communist" feel to it. I can't put my finger on what it was, maybe small things in people's modest dress and hairstyle, the signage on buildings, the muted colors, that reminded me of my childhood in communist Romania. Hanoi felt sad. It felt like traveling back in time to a past that you don't necessarily want to relive.

Above is a square in Hanoi. Each level of that building is a coffee shop where you can sit and watch the crazy motorbike traffic in the big intersection below.

One of the best things about Hanoi was the amazing hostel we stayed at: Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. It's probably one of the best hostels in the world, hands down! I'm gonna give them some free advertising right here, because they deserve it. The hostel has 2 locations, and we stayed at the new one, a renovated French colonial building. Like all colonial buildings in Vietnam, it's narrow, long, and very tall. The hostel has 7 floors, with the 5th floor being just a huge lounge area with couches, a terrace and a flat screen TV. The ground floor has a bar, a restaurant with amazing food and it turns into a packed party scene at night. One of their comfy beds costs $6/night, which includes delicious breakfast (French baguette, pineapple and banana marmelade, all you can eat fresh fruit and all you can drink coffee and tea). Fucking A! We used and abused their facilities to the fullest, by leaving our luggage in their storage room during our trips up north and to Halong Bay, using their showers and eating their breakfast for free. We love their hospitality and wholeheartedly recommend this hostel. Sadly, I didn't take any photos there, so I have nothing to show.

The reason why I started the above rant about the hostel is because all the photos above were taken during a walking tour of Hanoi's Old Town, provided by the hostel for free every morning. During this tour, our mouths stayed open in amazement the entire time, as we witnessed squalor, poverty, happiness, people eating in the street, chopping meat on the sidewalk, washing dishes on the gutter, holding butt-naked babies up in the air, so they can drop a poop in a garbage bag or bin underneath, trying to sell myriads of vegetables, fruit, meats, insects, innards, chicken heads and claws, etc. Sometimes the smell was so foul that I had to cover my nose. I blame it on the fish sauce. I didn't take many photos here either. I was so overwhelmed by what my eyes were seeing, that I often forgot to take photos.

We visited a famous pagoda located in the middle of a lake and I tried my best at 5 minutes of praying and meditation. It felt good.

Another Hanoi experience with no photographic evidence is our visit to see Ho Chi Mihn's embalmed body, on display in a granite mausoleum modeled after Lenin's Tomb in Moscow. Streams of people queue each day, sometimes for hours, to pass his body in silence. This is similar to other Communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong. As soon as we arrived there, we had to check in our bags and cameras. If anyone in the line was seen to have a camera by the guards, the person was removed from the line and asked to go back to the check-in area. The guards were very strict about it. The line was made up of hundreds of people, all Vietnamese. We thought it was strange to see so many people come see his body every single day. They must love him a lot! My personal suspicion was that people are somehow forced to visit this mausoleum on a regular basis. I wasn't wrong. A guy we met on a bus later (Vietnamese whose family emigrated to the USA) told us that factories round up people, put them on a bus and bring them to the mausoleum. After the visit, each person gets a free sandwich or some sort of meal. So many of them actually like this process because they know they will get free food at the end. That's just what I heard...

We found a couple of antique stores that has valuable old clothing and embroidery. I wonder how the shops got those things from their original owners. Maybe they just bribed the peasants with a few shiny material things, telling them they want all their old traditional clothes. I bet the poor villagers up north are stoked to receive some food in exchange for their old clothes, not knowing how valuable they actually are. The clothing (shown in the two photos above) was old, worn out, partially patched, but so unique and authentic. I felt humbled by their intricacy, knowing that each thread is sewn by hand.

Anne found some cool Vietnamese gear (we didn't really know what that "scarf" was or how it was supposed to be worn.) that made her look like a rabi.

One of the highlights in Hanoi was our visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. It's a world-class museum, with a lot of information and exhibits on all the tribes that inhabit Vietnam today, their location, customs, crafts and traditions. We got a great insight into ethnicities we didn't even know existed before this trip. Apparently, there are 54 officially recognized ethnic groups in Vietnam. The exhibit above shows how traditional Vietnamese rice hats are made, shown in different construction stages. These hats are still widely worn today throughout Vietnam. You see them everywhere in the countryside. In cities, they are worn mostly by street vendors and women who work in markets.

Bicycle carrying fish traps. A guy used this bicycle from 1982 to 1997 to sell fish traps throughout the Red River delta. He would often carry, as here, more than 800 traps of different sorts for catching small river fish.

 A cool dagger handle made of a goat (?) hoof.

Hmong and Yao Tien women have perfected the art of batik. They employ a wax-resist painting technique to create batik patterns to decorate their clothing using a pen-like tool. The point of the pen is made from a copper plate and attached to a bamboo piece. The edge of the pen is dipped in hot wax and then applied to the cloth. After applying all the wax in reservoir, the cloth is dipped numerous times into vats of indigo paint, which dye the cloth into a dark, rich blue color. The cloth is then boiled and the wax melts revealing the design in white against the indigo blue background.

What is going on here? As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, our bus stopped at a roadside restaurant for us to eat. The first thing we noticed was the garbage under the tables. Chicken bones, food leftovers, napkins, cigarette butts all lying on the floor under each and every table. We later saw the same thing in restaurants in Hanoi and in the village home where we stayed in Sapa. We got the scoop: when men eat, they throw everything that's considered "garbage" on the floor. After they're done eating, the women or children sweep the floors. Get it? Does it make sense now? It's a Vietnamese thing. Pretty gross if you ask me, but we saw it everywhere. We ate at this restaurant, and just to mess with the server who was staring at us, we started throwing shit on the floor too. After all, when in Rome, do as the Romans.

A while ago I wrote a blog post (Halfway Thru), talking about my feelings towards all the garbage in this world, how people do or do not dispose of it, and how I'd like to get more involved with conservation and recycling efforts in my future job. Here's one photo showing a tiny bit of the garbage on the streets of Hanoi. People just dump their garbage behind this building and who knows when and how it gets picked up.

 On our minivan ride to Halong Bay, before we boarded the boat for the overnight cruise.

So this is the famous Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO Heritage. The name Hạ Long is derived from the Sino-Vietnamese, meaning "descending dragon." Some superstitious locals still believe there is dragon swimming in those waters, although nobody has ever seen it. Ha Long Bay is located in the Sea of China and it boasts almost 2,000 limestone islands. We only saw a handful of them, maybe 100 or so at most. This place reminded us the most of the weather back home in San Francisco: cold, foggy and windy. It was actually the only place on our trip so far where we experienced the same weather as San Francisco's. And let me tell you, we don't miss it at all. In fact, both Anne and I talk about how much we dread going back to that bone-chilling San Fran weather.

There was not much to do on the boat cruise, so we spend a lot of time eating. The food they provided us was mediocre and in insufficient quantities and we found ourselves fighting at the table to make sure we each get something on our plates. But we had fun regardless, as you can see. Late at night the Brits (3 boys and 3 girls) heated up the mike in a karaoke sesh which, to my excitement, included some Beatles and Oasis tunes.

 The upper deck on our boat. No sunbathing that day.

We also visited a pretty cool cave, which could've been cooler had they not plastered it all over with colorful spotlights. Pink, green, blue and yellow lights intersecting everywhere made the cave look like a night club.

 Before nightfall on our boat in Ha Long Bay.

After Ha Long Bay we took an overnight train to Da Nang, where we haggled with a minivan driver to take us to Hoi An, Vietnam's second Unesco world heritage site. We really, really loved it here! This quaint little town is one of the best places to visit in Vietnam: it has cute old architecture, romantic restaurants, a great beach on the China Sea, the best tailors in the world and some cool ruins to visit. It is an old trading harbor, dating back to the 1st century, that later had Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian settlers. You should read more about the history of the place on its Wikipedia page.

Covered bridge built by the Japanese community in the early 1600's. In 1999, the old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries, with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences.

 I took a lot of photos of Hoi An's streets, just because they're so picturesque and worth sharing.

A trendy bar in Hoi An, where the walls were plastered with all sorts of "revolutionary" and tongue-in-cheek anti-capitalist paintings and slogans, such as "Google knows what you did last summer" and the one above. No idea what Marylin and Monica Belluci are doing amongst those guys. It would be more accurate to say "Facebook knows what you did last summer," but given that Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, it may not resonate with them as much as it does with us.

Two local ladies on bicycles ran into each other and stopped for a chit-chat. I found it endearing that a lot of old women (who look like they could be in their 60s) ride bicycles. They slowly cruise on their bikes, like they probably did for the last 50 years of their lives, not giving a shit about the big cars and honking motorbikes swarming around them. I feel sad thinking that their ancestral way of life has been destroyed by modern transportation. I'm trying to imagine how cool it must've been before motorbikes and cars existed, when everyone in town rode bicycles. Probably a lot quieter and less polluted.

The riverfront in Hoi An is lined up with nice restaurants. Some of them are expensive by local standards, but still quite cheap for westerners. You can probably get the same dish at a local market for 1/4 of the price you pay at a restaurant here. But I guess you pay for the ambiance, for a clean table cloth and for the lack of flies or garbage piles around you. At one of these restaurants we tried the traditional Hoi An dish one night: Cao lầu, rice noodles which are not quite as slippery as pho and a bit closer in texture to pasta. The secret is the water used to make it, and authentic cao lau uses only water from a special well in the city. The noodles are topped with slices of roast pork, dough fritters and lots of fresh herbs (coriander, lemongrass, basil) and veggies.

Sculptures made of bamboo roots, yet another Hoi An specialty. I am thankful that I am traveling for 6 months with a small (and full) backpack, else I'd have bought one of these guys.

 So in love with this town!!!

One of the days we rode bicycles to the beach, which is 5km out of town, past rice paddies and a romantic river side. So this is how a beach looks like in Vietnam! Packed with teenage Vietnamese teenagers, hanging out on bamboo carpets, eating and having a good time. Each bamboo carpet is the equivalent of a restaurant table. "Hostesses" chase you down on the beach with the menu and if you sit at one of their "tables," they'll serve you cooked food and beer.

Set in the jungle of Central Vietnam, My Son Hindu temples were built by the Champas who ruled Central Vietnam from 200AD to 1,700AD until finally annexed by the Vietnamese in the 19th Century. Right now, the ruins are heavily destroyed, mostly from American bombs during the Vietnam war. I've done some reading and apparently this is what happened: The US Government knew this was an important historical site so they ordered it not to be bombed. Knowing they would be safe from bombs here, the Viet Cong used the ruins as a base. As a result, the Americans bombed the shit out of it and now the Vietnamese are really pissed about it.

So this is what remains today from the former My Son glory, ruins taken over by the lush jungle. By the way, My Son means "beautiful mountain" in Vietnamese.

Ruins taken over by nature. Some guidebooks apparently compare My Son ruins to Borobudur in Java or to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, but are not as impressive, mostly because they were heavily destroyed. However, they were all erected as part of the Hindu religious system and they share similar architectural traits and motifs. I later learned that when Buddhist civilizations took over, they just re-purposed the buildings as Buddhist temples and replaced the original Hindu sculptures with Buddha statues. They did the same thing at Angkor Wat.

Despite not having that much "to see" in terms of ruins, the place was still gorgeous, surrounded by mountains covered in lush tropical forest. The jungle intimidates me in that it seems so impenetrable. Being there in that place, I could not help but think how terrible it must have been to fight in those conditions during the Vietnam war.

One of the My Son sites was completely destroyed by bombs and now German archaeologists are trying to restore as much as they can. This is how it looks now. The metal props are preventing the walls from collapsing, while the roof is preventing rain from causing further damage. This temple is surrounded by bomb craters, some of which have turned into tiny ponds. I tried taking photos of them, but they don't turn out well enough in the photos. The bomb craters are covered with grass and they look like someone had dug a hole and just left it there.

 The road back from My Son ruins.

From Hoi An we took a night bus to Qui Nhan, another small beach town down the coast. We never made it there. Long story short, our driver forgot to stop at 2am where we were supposed to get off the bus, and we arrived at 7am in Nha Trang, Vietnam's beach Mecca. The photo above is the beach in Nha Trang. I guess if you've never been to Vietnam (like us), you'd never guess they have such gorgeous beaches. This could be Rio or Miami! We really didn't want to stop in Nha Trang, but since we were there, we made the best of it. We swam, ate some American BBQ and bought bus tickets to our next destination, Saigon.

And here we are in Saigon, our last stop in Vietnam. Some people claim Saigon is how Bangkok used to be 10 years ago. I guess they mean "less developed." To me, both Saigon and Bangkok are not places where I'd like to go again, unless I really have to, for a business trip or as launch point to some remote destination. Saigon is a big clusterfuck. Maybe if you're rich and have a car driving you around from your hotel to a luxury restaurant and back, you might enjoy it, but that's because you never had to struggle to cross the street or hear the million hunking motorbikes about to run you over. Some refer to Saigon as "vibrant" and "beating heart of Vietnam" - but to me it's just a nicer version of hell.

Visiting one of the markets in Saigon.

 A street in Saigon.

Hotel in Saigon, old French colonial architecture.

The Reunification Palace in Saigon. I thought it was ok. Anne liked it a lot, so she has more details and inside photos in her blog post here: From Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. The palace has been left untouched since the Viet Cong occupied Saigon in 1975. It's a cool remnant of 60s architecture and furniture, but other than that I found it to be lacking.

A cool park in Saigon, an oasis of greenness and silence in the ocean of motorbikes. Originally built by the French.

Remnant of the French colonial period.

The main post office in Saigon, another building from the colonial era.

Inside the post office. Notice Ho Chi Minh's portrait in the background. It's everywhere, all over the country.
Motorbike parking lot in Saigon.

Inside the Reunification Palace. So retro!

 Inside the anti-bomb bunker underneath the Reunification Palace. Austere, cold and so 70s!

Outside the War Remnants Museum. The courtyard of the museum was full of U.S. war machinery: helicopters, planes, tanks, etc. Since in real life I could probably never get my photo taken next to a U.S Air Force plane, I used this opportunity for a quick snapshot.
Photographer Ron Haeberle was hired by the US Army to go with the troops and photograph the war. He took the photo above and wrote about it: "Guys were about to shoot these people. I yelled, 'hold it', and shot my picture. As I walked away, I heard M16s open up. From the corner of my eye I saw bodies falling, but I didn't turn to look."  Haeberle later testified that he personally saw about 30 different American soldiers kill about 100 civilians. Most of his photos were censored, but he took some photos with his own camera and was able to publish them later.

The War Remnants Museum was a paradox. It contained a lot of painful imagery of the destruction caused by the war, but it also felt propagandistic and very anti-American.All of the things said and shown were very true, all the stats about the war, the number of bombs dropped, the chemicals used, the experiments carried out by US military against civilians. All that is now known to be true. However, the tone in which the captions were phrased sounded unnecessarily hateful towards Americans. All that said, what happened in the Vietnam war is in my opinion comparable to the Holocaust, and I think every American (especially young ones) should know about it and be fully aware about the destruction and pain the decisions taken by its government have caused other people.

The photo above shows an anti-American demonstration organized in Romania in 1966. Given the freedom of speech Romanians had in 1966, I find this photo to be ironic.

 Bomb leftovers from the Vietnam war.

And finally, not related to the war, but exhibited at the War Remnants Museum was this photo of two American travelers and dreamers. These two guys set off on a motorcycle trip across Vietnam some time in the 70s, before the war broke out. This is the last photo of them, taken before they disappeared. Nobody knows to this day what happened to them. Looking at their faces, I cannot help but hear the song "Imagine" by John Lennon ring in my head.