Kiss me goodbye and write me while I’m gone…
Goodbye my sweetheart, Hello Vietnam.
-Johnny Wright, “Hello Vietnam”
If you’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s epic Vietnam War movie “Full Metal Jacket” then you’ve heard that song in the opening scene when the soldiers are all getting their heads shaved. I couldn’t get it out of my head the past five days. While much has changed, obviously, since the end to the Vietnam War almost 40 years: it is still unfathomable to imagine that just a few short decades ago; more than 50,000 Americans lost their lives in this beautiful and peaceful country during a war that we never should have been involved with in the first place…sound familiar? Be that as it may, Vietnam is a fast developing country where tourists flock in droves and have for years. The air is heavy, polluted from millions of motorbikes racing the city streets. The people are friendly, the prices are dirt cheap and the natural beauty is apparent. There is a real buzz and vibe to Vietnam from Hanoi to Saigon. It makes you want to wake up and scream “Good Morning Vietnam”, just like Robin Williams in the classic movie of the same name. I’m not going to lie; I think I did it at least twice!
My second trip to Vietnam focused on the north of the country. There is so much to see and do in Vietnam that a few weeks is probably necessary to see everything but five days can get you a good feel for the north of the country. I was stationed in Hanoi, the capital of the country and a pretty awesome place. I also checked out Halong Bay, which is a world heritage listed bay of misty mountain islands jutting out from the bay about four hours drive from Hanoi. Both were very good.
Hanoi is a bustling little big city. It feels little but is big. You can find cheap accommodation here if you research online on sites like Expedia. The residents race around town on motorbikes, polluting the air, scaring the hell out of you and they don’t apologize for anything. Hanoi is a really nice looking town with French architecture their calling card around the city’s pretty lakes but the heart of the city is the old quarter.
The old quarter in Hanoi is the Asia you dream about. It is lined with little shops and stores selling everything imaginable for dirt cheap prices that you can negotiate even lower. It is backpacker ghettos, cheap hotels, hostels and guest houses, amazing little food stands, cheap and even free beer and a place that grubby travelers can get together and talk travel as travelers tend to do. You know, the usual conversation, “Where have you been, where are you going, where are you from?”
You will have no problem finding clean, cheap places to stay for $40 maximum in the old quarter. In fact, $5 gets you a hostel bed with free internet and beer-yes there is such competition between hostels in Hanoi that they give away free beer. Not that it would cost you too much anyway for a local Hanoi, Saigon or Tiger but it’s still cool they do it for free.
Hanoi has a lot to do. First and foremost, don’t get nailed by a motorbike. If you’ve been to Saigon or Hanoi then you know what I mean. There are so many and there is no real rhyme or reason for their methods to driving, nor real traffic rules or patterns followed. I can’t even imagine how many accidents there must be per year but it is kind of fun to play Frogger (1980’s Atari video game reference for the younger set reading this) with yourself as you try and cross the street. Assuming you make it, there are two major sites to see. The first is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the tradition of Lenin, Stalin and Mao. It is pretty well kept and is a nice place to visit. The park contains a museum, a single pillar pagoda which is way overrated and of course the famous Mausoleum to the man that led them in the American War (what the Vietnamese call the Vietnam War).
After seeing a changing of the guard you should head right over to the Hoa Lo prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. This is the notorious place where many American POW’s were held when they were captured during the war. Most notably of course, was John McCain-yes the same guy who lost to Obama in the last Presidential election. There are a few pictures of him up in the prison which is essentially a museum now. There is also his flight jumpsuit he was wearing when he was captured after his plane went down (below). He was held at the prison for 5 years.
The very interesting place has some cool exhibits, including the guillotine where the condemned prisoners would be beheaded (2 down). Guillotines are always weird and uneasy to see, especially when they were used just a few decades ago. The French built prison is only noticed because of the words “Maison Centrale” on the front of the entrance. It is a very unassuming place and surrounded by massive apartment buildings which kind of make it weird.
Hoan Kiem Lake is also worth a look but is often dreary looking because of the permanent haze that looms over the city of Hanoi from all the pollution. It is pretty much the epicenter of the city though and contains some nice places dotting the shores.
Aside from street food, some notable restaurants were Green Tangerine which was recommended as the best restaurant in Hanoi to me and didn’t disappoint. In fact it was fantastic as a Vietnamese fusion kind of place with a charming setting right in the old quarter but you wouldn’t know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. The other place I liked with Al Fresco’s which I ate at my last night as I was craving pizza or Mexican and they allegedly specialized in both. I am not going to say it was world changing but it satisfied a craving and was a pretty cool place right in town. Other than that, street stalls are the way to go.
I then headed out to Halong Bay to stay overnight on a junk, which is a big wooden boat that plies around the islands of Halong Bay. Halong Bay as a visual was pretty awesome to be honest; the natural misty setting makes the mountains jutting out from nowhere look pretty cool in person. However, it doesn’t translate into great photography. The major issue with Halong Bay is the mass of tourism and the severe overcrowding really does take away from the overall experience.
Upon arrival into Halong town you head to the docks to get your junk. There are literally thousands of people doing the exact same thing on hundreds of different junks. It is particularly annoying because you have to wait in line for everything and everything seems to take time. Plus you cannot get any pictures without several boats in the picture. Locals also ply the waters selling whatever they can and using boats that have motors making the worst loud sounds possible. Basically, it’s not a peaceful kind of relaxing place you may imagine it to be.
My advice is to pick the nicest boat possible. Mine was pretty nice and very affordable at $63 including round trip transfers to and from Hanoi plus all food. The cabins were decent and the staff and crew were very nice. After dinner they arrange a karaoke night which was fun. We had 12 people on the boat which is essentially a booze cruise which included 6 Malaysian girls who loved karaoke and entertained us all. I must brag that I did win the applause contest after my stirring rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”!
I also recommend waking up very early and watching the sunrise as the dawn (above) is the best time to see the islands in peace and quiet. I was the only one awake on my boat so it was finally relaxing and I really got to take it in. It also makes for decent pictures but the memories are what I will take from a picturesque morning on the bay.
Within Halong Bay there are some actual sights and the main one that every single boat goes to and the exact same time is the big cave. It is a really impressive cave that has colored lights to amplify the experience and particular points of interest. The problem of course is there are too many damn people and you have to constantly wait or get knocked into. But the only way to handle that situation is to just accept it and brush it off and take the cave and the islands for what they are. Gorgeous is what they are.
I found myself comparing Halong Bay to the islands off Palau that I visited earlier this summer. The similarities are vast and all the tourist hype goes to Halong Bay but the Palau islands are nicer, the water is a lot cleaner and they are much more beautiful I believe. Nothing against Halong Bay which is lovely but it didn’t win me over quite how I envisioned. Palau is off the travel map so people don’t know much about it. Perhaps I am a bit jaded about these things but I was just really turned off by the masses of tourists and the amount of pollution in the water. The Vietnamese should really do a better job of keeping the place clean and orderly. Especially since Halong Bay is their crown jewel and calling card. That aside, it was again a very nice place-just be prepared for the masses.
So my Vietnam portion of this trip was a success and I had a blast and got to see some awesome things and places I had wanted to see for some time now. I hope to get back sometime to see Hoi An at some point in the future. I will probably do that on a Southeast Asia clean up trip where I will see all the little places I’ve missed the other times I’ve been like Luang Prabang, Borobudur and Bagan.
I am at the Bangkok airport now connecting to Penang where I will spend one day then a few nights in Langkawi, Malaysia before heading to Singapore to fly home for Thanksgiving. I am looking forward to the Malaysian food in Penang which I hear is awesome and then some much needed beach time in Langkawi. Check back soon!
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