|Above: postcard from Hoi An, a UNESCO heritage town.|
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.