I have been home from one of the best trips of my life for several days now, and only now am I beginning to really emerge from the haze of jet-lag and the terrible head cold (with resulting hacking cough, of course) I have been languishing with since Sunday. 6 days under the weather – that’s enough. Time to write the blog post I’ve been thinking about, off-and-on. Should I divide it up into themes? No – too complicated. Should I just do a standard travelogue? No – boring. Finally I have settled on this. One story, and some accompanying photograph for each day. For those who want to see ALL the photographs, here’s the link: https://goo.gl/photos/ejxBVcGKEPVvxeUR8. It’s all there. It was a spectacularly beautiful and fascinating country, and there are a lot of good shots that I won’t be including here, so peruse to your heart’s content if you are interested.
So, given the time span being covered, I will do this in two posts. You could read it in parts, all at once, or just what catches your attention. However, a few short observations to start off. One – Eli and I traveled pretty well together. In fact, we really enjoyed each other’s company on a daily basis. We were generally interested in the same things, and figured out ways to accommodate divergences in those interests. We laughed a fair amount. He calmed me down a few times, and I did the same for him. We had some good talks, and a few heated discussions, and that’s us – that’s our relationship now, and I’m happy with it.
Two – Vietnam (a) was extraordinarily beautiful, as I said above. Also, it was very diverse. Not only did the countryside vary as we traveled from far north to far south, but the cities really had different characters, too. I hope my descriptions and photos do it justice. (b) had truly delicious food, much more varied than served in American restaurants, where pho seems to be the primary dish. There was plenty of pho, to be sure, but also – banh mi (like a hoagie sandwich, but better, for breakfast), all sorts of salads, noodles, grilled meats, fruits and vegetables of all sorts … and the best of all, Vietnamese coffee. I could drink it every day.
(c) was clean. Amazingly, shockingly clean. The streets, the alleys, the highways, under the roads … not that we never saw trash, but it was rare, and well-contained. There were trash trucks in every town that played music and were staffed by guys wearing conical hats who collected from every house on a regular basis. Best of all, the bathrooms were all spotless. No matter where we went – at the beach, in the back of roadside restaurants, rest stops – even the trains were well within bearable tolerance levels. It was amazing. And, (d) had fantastically friendly people. Kids waved hello with real sincerity, old people (who surely experienced the war) smiled at us and seemed to mean it, which is kind of amazing when you think about where our respective nations were a mere 40 years ago, people said “Merry Xmas” and “Happy New Year” to us on the street, folks invariably tried to help us with directions or whatever help we needed … it was great. There were a few overly aggressive market stall owners, a pair of beach restaurant workers who had an argument over who deserved our business (based on where we sat – in front of her restaurant, or hers – it was partly our fault because we moved, but in our defense, the rules were really unclear), and one modern young woman who pushed Eli nearly to the breaking point by talking loudly on her cell phone during the Star Wars movie – not ok. She had to go to the lobby. 🙂
OK, now the first batch of my 19 stories, selected on a completely subjective basis, one for each day.
Day #1 – 12/14/15.
That first night, after a nice reunion with Eli followed promptly by a nap of 2 or 3 hours by both of us, we wandered the streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. We saw a tiny dog with a sweater that reminded me of the multitude of Chihuahuas wearing Dodger uniforms and god knows what-all I used to see all over Highland Park in L.A. We saw a lot of restaurants with balconies and vowed to eat in one of them. We had dinner at a noodle/pho place. A low-key, quiet intro to the decidedly unquiet craziness of Hanoi!
Day #2 – 12/15/15.
Chua Ba Da, translated as “stone lady pagoda,” is a small temple down a narrow alley that has stood in Hanoi for over 1,000 years. It was the first of many temples we visited, and one of the best. Stepping inside the courtyard, the noises of the street receded into the distance and the cool, dark interior of the temple beckoned. People working nearby motioned for us to go in, and after removing our shoes, we ventured inside to a rich red and gold set of altars and offerings of every type – fruit, soda cans, candy, cookies, flowers … it was all there, along with many statues of the Buddha. To the side (and I saw this in most temples) was another statue, and this differed from place to place. It could be ship, a horse, or some other deity. I wish I knew more about this. Behind the main temple was a small open-sided veranda, lined with brightly-colored banners. It was a lovely respite.
Day #3 – 12/16/15
We leave Hanoi, a bit reluctantly, early in the morning to start our boat tour of Ha Long Bay. Boarding our boat in the busy harbor, we cruise Ha Long Bay and take in the sights. My story, though, is about the food. 🙂 Here we are, on a fairly rudimentary boat, with a kitchen in back of the cabin with two burners. The crew is about 4 guys and the taciturn captain. There are 10 of us tourists – an Australian family of 4 who speak German (the dad) and French (the kids), as well as English; a German couple who speak some English; a French couple who speak … French, and me and Eli. Eli surprises me by remembering way more French from high school than I ever would have expected. In the meantime, my Georgian is useless – of course. Our guide Van joins us, and we all sit down to a dinner that was so delicious it was almost shocking. There was soup, rice, green papaya salad, fried taro balls, a full-on roasted fish, and multiple other dishes. Sitting out in Ha Long Bay, snug inside the cabin, sharing good food with nice people speaking about 5 languages, usually at least 3 going simultaneously – yeah, it was fun.
Day #4 – 12/17/15
I think I will tell the story of the kayaking and cave exploration we did. Sadly, that leaves out the fantastic bicycle trip to Đảo Trà Bản, making spring roles at the homestay that night, and the overnight sleeper to Lao Cai, but, I’m going to keep my word. One story. I’ll throw in a few extra photos below – it was a packed day.
So, for those of you who are still reeling with shock from the first sentence of the paragraph above – that’s right! I kayaked! And I have photos to prove it. While I have no doubt I provided a fair amount of amusement for the crew, who smiled tolerantly while watching me climb down a tiny ladder into a kayak waiting in water below, I was kind of proud of myself that I managed to do it at all. As for Eli’s feelings, I think they were an interesting mixture of embarrassment and glee at how silly I looked, but that’s ok – he hid it well, and I can’t really blame him. We kayaked to a nearby cave and explored it thoroughly, stalagmites and all, and learned about the local legends. Afterwards we all kayaked some more, but our paddling was cut a bit short by my discovery of a fair amount of blood smearing the bottom of my sandal. Apparently I had cut the bottom of my big toe pretty badly on a rock, so we headed back to the boat to clean it up. Good thing I brought all those band aids and antibiotic cream from the Peace Corps medical kit – this wouldn’t be the first time I would need them. Oh, no, it wouldn’t!
Day #5 – 12/18/15
This was mainly a travel day – from Đảo Trà Bản back to the mainland port, then a van back to Hanoi, then a short break, then a car to the railway station and an overnight train to Lao Cai for a visit to the far north, home of the Hmong people. Our first experience on a Vietnamese sleeper train.
My story for that day concerns that few hours we were in Hanoi in the evening. We wanted to find a street vendor to buy a second pair of jeans for Eli, as we left his only pair of pants with a local laundry to pick up when we returned on Monday, and shorts were NOT going to suffice – it was cold, and about to get a lot colder as we headed up into the mountains! We walked the streets, and I easily bought a sweater while he checked out one tiny storefront after another. At about the 4th or 5th one, we found an amiable owner who helped him search through piles of jeans for his size. He found it, and bought the pair for a reasonable price – without trying them on, since there was no fitting room. When we got back to the travel agency, he went in the bathroom to put them on and came out with a very chagrined expression on his face – they were way, way too small. He thought it was the cut, but a quick examination revealed that we had taken a pair that was about 4 sizes too small. Whoops.
We had paid cash. No receipt. But I said, let’s just go back there. Let’s see. So we made our way back, found the right store, showed the jeans to the proprietor and explained the mistake. You know, that guy could have easily sent us on our way. He really wasn’t under any obligation, but instead he made a surprised/amused face, laughed, and immediately started digging for the right pants in the right size. This time Eli tried them on, semi-hiding behind a pile of clothes, and they fit. We exchanged them, no problem at all, thanked the guy profusely and were on our way.
Reading about Vietnam on-line, I was apprehensive. It seemed like there was a lot of cheating going on, a lot to be careful about. But my experience – not just this one, but many others – just didn’t play out that way. There was the waiter who warned me I was putting down a 5,000,000 dong note instead of a 5,000 dong one. There was the travel agency (Ethnic Travel, if anyone wants to know) that delivered exactly what it promised at a good price, and more. There was the hotel who let us take a room for the day – not the night, just the day, so we had a place to shower, rest and repack before taking a night train – for $20. And it was a really nice room, too! There was the small music store in Da Nang where I left my cellphone, which they kept for me until I frantically arrived there the next morning looking for it. Later, I discovered a PM on Facebook, purportedly from Eli, that said “Oh, I’m saleswoman in DVD shop Bach khoa, your mother forget her cell phone in our shop, we keep it for you, you can comeback to take it. I don’t know how to contact with her, so I use her FB, I’m sorry, hope to see you soon.”
That was my experience, overall. There were a few experiences that didn’t play out quite that way (see my Hue story), but for the most part, I found people to be honest and helpful in pretty much every way possible.
Day #6 – 12/19/15
We arrive in Lao Cai, about as far as you can go without hitting the Chinese border, on the early morning train, and immediately drive a few hours east to the Bắc Hà district, 1200 meters above sea level. Our goal is to explore the countryside, the Sunday market in the town, stay at the home of a local Hmong family, and learn more about minority cultures in Vietnam. Eli and I went our separate ways for several hours – he to hike to villages surrounding the town with our guide, a sweet Hmong girl named Pan, and I to explore Bắc Hà town. I think the most interesting part of the day, actually, was the 2-3 mile hike out to the homestay after we finished our explorations. I was carrying my large pack, as well as my smaller bag, it was very cold, and it was a long walk. But – the mountains, fields and rice paddies surrounding us were sublime. The air was fresh and clear. I was somewhere doing something I had never done before. That’s all – it’s not really a story, I guess, but it’s the dominant memory of the day, along with a keen recollection of how very cold it was that night. Multiple blankets and some calming words from Eli were helpful.
Day #7 – 12/20/15
OK, without a doubt, the story on this day was the Sunday Market at Bắc Hà. Though there were lots of tourists there (on Sundays only – the day before, as I wandered, I was the only Westerner to be seen), it was quite clear that this market was not created for them – at least not exclusively! There was food of every kind, tools, tobacco (of which Eli partook), textiles and clothing of every type imaginable, especially made by the surrounding Hmong. The three main Hmong groups in this area are the Black, Blue and Flower. They can be easily distinguished through differences in dress, but also have slightly different customs and foods. However, according to Pan, they frequently intermarry and there is no hostility between groups.
So the market was absolutely thronged with people from all the different villages and towns in the area. We walked in from our homestay pretty early in the morning (happily sans heavy luggage, which came by car later in the day) and got there before the tourist buses started pulling in. We spent about 4 or 5 hours just wandering. There was so much to see and take in. During all this wandering I managed to book train tickets to Hue for the following evening (that 250,000 dong [about $11)] I spent on a data plan and SIM card – money well, well spent), buy several gifts, buy some silver jewelry, eat some mysterious but delicious snacks, play with Pan’s adorable toddler son, who had more fun with a toy gun and tiny race car than I would have thought possible, and eat a pho at the communal restaurant area that nearly transported me to heaven. Eli did all of these things too, plus he smoked a traditional pipe and then bought one, along with tobacco, which he smoked every day of the rest of the trip, sometimes joined by Vietnamese men who saw the large pipe protruding out of his pack and enthusiastically begged him to smoke with them.
Day #8 – 12/21/15
This is our last day in Hanoi, and one of my very few regrets is that we didn’t stay longer. It was a truly lovely city, filled with narrow, congested streets crammed with thin, high vertical buildings. At street level, thousands of stores selling just one thing, restaurants with balconies, street vendors selling every kind of food you can imagine, hotels/guesthouses, and millions of motorcyles and mopeds everywhere you go, along with trees, clean parks, lakes and rivers. The name Hanoi means “on a bend in the river,” and it has that feeling. We couldn’t do all we wished in such a short time, since we were on an overnight train to Hue, but we managed to see a water puppet show and go to the Women’s Museum. The museum was really awesome, but didn’t allow any photographs inside, so for anyone interested, here’s the link (click the British flag in the upper right-hand corner for English version):
But I digress. Here’s my story. We went to the train station and after buying some street food to eat on the train, Eli went outside to smoke, leaving all his luggage and mine with me. I spent time playing peek-a-boo with a small baby of a young family sitting next to me. They were so friendly – smiling and angling the baby toward me and waving his hands. I amused myself by this crossing of cultural lines for a while – because after all, a cute baby is pretty much irresistible everywhere – until I started to wonder where Eli was. Sitting on the other side of me was a man of indeterminate age, a guy who clearly had worked at hard, physical labor all of his life. He looked a little gruff. When I got up and went to the station entrance to look for Eli, though, he came up behind me and smiled broadly, displaying a total of about 3 blackened teeth, and pointed him out – he was sitting way over on the stairs smoking with some guys. The man laughed and mimed tilting a bottle back to his mouth, and I laughed back, shaking my head and miming smoking. We went back and forth; no one prevailed. When Eli came back in, I mimed to the baby’s mom that the child was hers, and here was mine. I think she understood. And off we went.
Day #9 – 12/22/15
Hue. The minute we got off the train I knew we were out of the north. It was cloudy, muggy, drizzly and hot. We decided to walk to our hostel. We spent the day bicycling around and visiting the Citadel, which was impressive and beautiful – I’ll put up some pictures below. But my story is from the morning. It was interesting. We were trekking on down a main road with our packs, when a much older man enthusiastically approached us and greeted us in good English. He was wearing a snappy suit. We chatted amiably for a while; he said he fought for the American side in the war, which was certainly plausible, as we were just north of Da Nang. Then he said he was now a volunteer for disabled children out in villages. As a matter of fact, he was on his way there right now. Could we give him some money to buy them chocolate?
Well, this was a bit of a dilemma. Should be trust this guy? Was he legit? Eli decided he was, and gave him 5,000 dong (about 25 cents, but enough to buy a little chocolate at Vietnamese prices). The man sort of laughed disbelievingly, and said that wasn’t enough to get chocolate for everyone. He wasn’t rude or anything – he just was asking for more. Eli started to give it to him – and I stopped him. I said to him, Eli, you haven’t got much money, please think about what you are doing. And so he decided not to give him more. And the man was ok, no high pressure tactics or anything.
Was I right to do that? Was this man hustling us? I think he probably was, but if so, it was the most genteel hustle I’ve ever encountered. Should I not have cared that he was hustling us, he was old and if he needed the money, we should just give it to him. After all, it can be assumed that we have more than him, since we can afford to travel. But – is that an accurate assumption? I don’t really know that, actually. Should I be offended by the fact that he was essentially pulling a con? If he had just asked for the money, would we have even stopped? This was the only experience like this we had in Vietnam, and I’m still not sure I perceived the situation correctly. Maybe Eli’s instinct to give more was the right one. Maybe not … I’ll never know, but it’s an interesting conundrum.
That’s it for this post. The final installment will come sometime next week, hope you enjoy this one! In the meantime, tomorrow is Monday and back to work at CHCA, here in Georgia, as Vietnam recedes into sweet memory.