Part Three: North Vietnam to Hue
February 20, 2012
Dateline: Hanoi, Vietnam
Latitude at Hanoi 21.02 Degrees North, Longitude 105.85 Degrees East
Today we flew to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines on a late afternoon flight, having gotten our visas ahead of time. We assumed that this would mean a swift and efficient pass through Immigration, but this was not the case. Our entrance into Laos (rhymes with and synonymous with chaos) was as smooth as a NASA launch compared to what awaited us in Hanoi. Our journey through Immigration involved surrendering our passports at one window, which we found to be quite alarming) and then joining a throng of people to await our name to be called, which involved a total mangling of the names at another window. This was followed by an attempt to match a passport picture and a face – dicey at best since to Asians, all Caucasians look alike. In any event we eventually were reunited with both our passports and our bags, and we met our North Vietnamese guide, Lily, who greeted us with xin chao (pronounced “sin chow”) , the Vietnamese word for hello.
It was foggy and cool for our one hour drive into the city, where we found Vietnamese Immigration to be a model of organization compared to the traffic encountered, not just on the roads but on paths and sidewalks as well, which seemed to be used indiscriminately by pedestrians, animals, animals pulling wheeled contraptions, bicycles and bicycles pulling wheeled contraptions, motorbikes carrying people and pulling wheeled contraptions, livestock and cargo and assorted vehicles, which might be hauling anything imaginable.
We got some local money (called the dong which gave us a chuckle) and learned that there are 20,800 dong to the dollar and it comes in denomination of up to 5,000) and has both bills and coins. Vietnamese currency is actually printed in Australia to avoid having government employees conspire to print off a few extra thousand dong and pocket it. It takes a lot of dong to buy anything, but US dollars are accepted in cities so that makes it easier to buy things. Vietnam has compulsory education through Grade 12 and has a 93% literacy rate, which has contributed greatly to their emerging economy.
We learned that Hanoi has around 7 million people of the 39 million who live in Vietnam. Fifty-five percent of those 39 million are under the age of 35. But the statistic that really shocked us was that there are an estimated 28 million motorbikes, which are at the heart of the craziness here. There seem to be few rules of the road, and headlights and taillights are optional. Horns can be substituted for turn signals, brakes and headlights. It is comparable to a New York City sidewalk at rush hour, but there are motorbikes instead of pedestrians. There are a host of traffic rules, but they are largely disregarded.
One unwritten rule that is observed by pedestrians is that you should not stop or change directions once you start to cross a street. The motorists are judging your speed and distance and can only successfully avoid you if you maintain speed and distance. I learned this lesson the hard way when I was rear ended by a bicycle when I paused to avoid being run over (or I thought so anyway) by a taxi.
There are no public displays of affection here (PDA) such as handholding or kissing, no matter how innocently. Except for babies and toddlers, the locals pretty much don’t touch each other, so when we tourists come to town with our touchy-feely ways, it has to be a culture shock for them.
The economy here is sort of Communist Light – that is they talk like Communists, but they conduct business like capitalists. They did a major overhaul of their way of life in 1986 with economic reforms called the “doi moi” in which they allowed free market enterprise, abolished collective farming and set about to
liberalize politics in general . Today US companies are the largest investors in the country. Since President Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in 1996, they have really blossomed. Ironically the world is doing more to defeat Communism with trade than we could have ever hoped for with war. There is a 200% tax on buying vehicles, unless you buy one from China, which will generally self-destruct in three years, thus keeping the demand strong.
We were given information on local customs that we reviewed on the way and found many are the same as in Thailand and Laos. For example you should not touch the head of another person and you should remove your shoes at temples and private homes. If there is a family altar in a private home, do not sit with your feet pointing toward it. You should take a small gift to someone’s home if invited, but do not bring handkerchiefs, yellow flowers, chrysanthemums or anything black since those have bad luck or religious meanings attached. You should wait until you are instructed where to sit and the oldest person is seated first. Do not drink before everyone has a beverage and “clink” glasses in a toast.
When eating, these things should be observed (although they make exceptions for Westerners. You should pass dishes using both hands, place chopsticks on the table between bites and when finished place them on your bowl. In Vietnam you hold your spoon in your left hand to eat soup, whereas in Laos you don’t use your left hand at all.
We were cautioned to ask permission to take photos of individuals, which is a good practice anywhere, and to not photography military personnel. We are also told we should avoid any discussion of the Vietnam War ( which they call it the American War) with locals. From their perspective it is over and done with and there don’t seem to be any hard feelings.
Vietnam is long and narrow with two thousand miles of coastline and a width of only 31 miles at its narrowest point. There are 59 provinces called “tinhs” and 5 municipalities called “thu do”. The biggest holiday in Vietnam is “Tet”, or the Lunar New Year. It is a day of thanksgiving and a time to pay homage to ancestors. The Vietnamese also believe that on this day, the deceased may visit the living. Hanoi is the oldest city in Southeast Asia, recently celebrating in 2010 its 1,000 years of existence. It was built on the Red River in the center of a long gone citadel. The North and South split in Vietnam came into being in 1954 when the 4 great world powers at the time (the victors of WWII – The US, Great Britain, France and Russia) decided to partition the country at the 17th Parallel prior to having general elections. The elections never took place and the division remained permanent with two separate warring leaders emerging – HO Chi Minh in the North and Ngo Dinh Diem in the South. This set the stage for the 15 year war that the Americans call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War. The country was not reunited until 1975 with the fall of Saigon.
Lilly gave us some practical advice while in Hanoi. That is when paying cash, we should pay for something with the correct change or it is likely you will get counterfeit bills in return. Also we should avoid eating street vendor food due to some serious hygiene issues and be on guard for modern day “cutpurses” (sounds like in Victorian times) whereby thieves will slash the strap to a purse or back pack and make off with it and its contents. When buying beer we should not buy draft, since the bartender will substitute their own home brew for a name brand and if buying liquor, you may ask for Jack Daniels, and it may even be in a Jack Daniels bottle, but you will be getting Vietnamese moonshine.
We checked into the Silk Path Hotel, which we found had very little charm – just a business hotel in a big city – but it was very centrally located in the Old Quarter. We set out on foot to find a nearby restaurant that Lily recommend and discovered that, as in the rest of the city traffic is absolutely crazy. It is a life-threatening experience to cross a street. We did have a nice meal and then darted in and out of traffic to get back to the safety of the hotel.
February 21, 2012
Today we explored Hanoi and left our hotel on a cool and cloudy, still foggy morning. One of the first things we saw was a Vietnamese peasant right out of Central Casting. She had on the black pajama like outfit with a pole over her shoulders with a basket hanging from each end full of produce. There were motorbikes whizzing around her in all directions, but she kept her course and pace steady and thus avoided disaster. Another incongruous sight we beheld just down the street in a park was a bride posing in her elaborate white wedding gown. Lily told us that Vietnamese are quite taken with American-style weddings and they usually have as big a blowout as can be afforded by whoever foots the bill.
Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (who is their George Washington of sorts in that he is considered the Father of the Country, but with very different thoughts on personal freedom and he was not at all bothered by the idea of himself as a dictator for life). Also he is referred to as Uncle Ho, rather than father. He is accorded quite heroic stature here, but much of it seems overdone and contrived puffery. The local people don’t quite seem to observe the required deference. The mausoleum is made from marble from the Marble Mountains near Danang and as the guidebook tactfully puts it – it stands out as “an exception to the graceful architectural environment of Hanoi” – translation: this is one ugly building. The local lady in line ahead of us recognized my Hmong scarf and smiled and nodded enthusiastically at my patronage of local crafts, and we made extremely limited small talk with many smiles and gestures. Her small grandson peeked shyly at Gary from his hoodie, in awe of his relative size, but by the time we advance to the entrance they were exchanging high fives. The Mausoleum is surrounded by a very plain, depressing, and even foreboding looking square called Ba Dinh. While it was a dreary day, I am not sure sunshine would improve things much. Rules were posted in several languages and our favorite was the one that forbade “frolicking” – What? No frolicking at Mao’s tomb? What a buzz killer this place was.
Despite Ho Chi Minh’s request in writing to be cremated, and that no money be spent on any monuments – his requests were thoroughly ignored. Instead they followed the trend in Communist countries where the bodies of the leaders are preserved and there is a daily viewing so the people can see the physical remains of their esteemed leader. (Lenin in Moscow, Chairman Mao in Beijing, and Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi) Unfortunately, Ho died and something went awry with the preservation process. We were told that this is the commonly known story – although the official story is that body you see is really him. If that is the case, it is truly stunning that he died at 79, yet his rosy cheeks and stern face had nary a wrinkle. We think maybe Madame Tussaud’s had staged an intervention and substituted a wax figure for the real thing. We also learned (again this might just be vile gossip) that Ho’s real body was shipped off to Russia several times for some remedial work, but with no success. He died in 1969 during what they call the American War, so he might not have been stored properly to facilitate successful preservation and this climate had to have taken its toll.
In any event, we didn’t have long to personally observe his features. Guards dressed in white were spaced every few feet. The line moved smartly along and we were instructed to walk 2 by 2 (just like Noah’s ark), keep our eyes straight ahead, to not cross our arms or put our hands in our pockets – not sure whether this was for security purposes or a show of respect. I did think they could have used some of the guards posted every few yards to work on traffic detail – maybe save some lives or something amid the bedlam, but I kept that suggestion to myself. But sure enough, they raised Ho (or the surrogate Ho) up out of the basement freezer and into a darkened room with all the lights trained on him for all to see. He was quite short and small, and he looked harmlessly cherubic for a man with such a fierce reputation in the Western World
Ho Chi Minh means “Bringer of Light” but this is not the name he was born with, Nguyen Sinh Cung – but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Ho was a world traveler in his younger days and even lived in Brooklyn for a while. He never married and lived a very simple life, preferring his humble cottage to the palace left by the French.
We walked by the French built Presidential Palace, a mustard yellow building with dark green trim and shutters. We also saw two other beautiful French colonial buildings, the Opera House and the State Guest house which was once the residence of the French governor. It is now used for state receptions and special events. The French structures are really a contrast to the grim graceless tomb. Many have been converted into museums.
We did take the short walk to Ho’s Cottage, also called the Stilt House, on a nearby lake, passing a number of Jumbotron sort of signs that touted the virtues of Communism and the greatness of their leaders, past and present. Ho Chi Minh lived in this cottage from 1958 until his death in 1969, preferring the simple life to the nearby palaces left by the French. The guides told us that no changes have been made since he died. It is a very simple structure on stilts, as the name suggests, with small rooms and minimal furnishings. Ho used two simple rooms, a study and a bedroom, both spartanly furnished. His bedroom contained a narrow bed, a clock, a telephone and a radio. His study had a desk, a typewriter and a bookcase full of books in the several languages in which he was fluent. They said Ho liked to fish in the lake when he needed to chill out. The house is surrounded by informal gardens with weeping willows, mango and frangipani trees. A hospital was built on the grounds in his later years when he was very ill. We also saw his automobiles, two Russian behemoths that look like they came out of the 1940’s and French Peugeot. Ho is remembered as a gentle and modest man dedicated to the nation, although he was reputedly quite a womanizer.
We passed on seeing the Ho Chi Minh Museum which was supposed to be shaped like a lotus blossom, but it looked pretty grim and graceless too. We also passed on the History and Army Museum which the same tactful guidebook described as “a bit stiff on the social rhetoric – translation: you will be awash in propaganda”.
Our next stop was the so called “Hanoi Hilton”, also known as the Hoa Lo Prison, which was only a few blocks from our hotel in the Old Quarter. We were surprised in that we expected it to be in some remote jungle. It was originally a French prison built in 1896 and used in colonial times when it was called Maison Centrale (central house in French), as indicated by the original sign that hangs over the entrance. It was designed to hold 450 prisoners, but there have been as many as 2,000 in the ensuing years. This is the infamous prison where John McCain and a number of other American pilots were held for years, in McCain’s case from 1967 to 1973. The Northern Vietnamese learned that he was the son of an American Admiral and tried to use him as a bargaining chip, but his father refused to consider it. When McCain’s plane went down, he was injured and crashed into West Lake which borders the city. A local fisherman saved him from drowning, but did turn him over to the authorities. His flight suit from that time is one of the museum’s exhibits, amid shackles and whips and more grisly torture devices as well as a still working guillotine. The slant on the torture implements is that the French used them on the Vietnamese. – no mention of any use on Americans. Senator McCain visited Hanoi in the 1990’s and returned to the prison to see it. He also had the opportunity to thank the man who saved his life. Both the Admiral and Senator were stand-up guys back then. Most of the prison was demolished in 1997, but a portion was saved for the Hoa Lo Prison Museum.
Other Americans have had a very different experience from Senator McCain’s, most notably, President George W. Bush visited Hanoi and brought with him around one thousand security people as well as his own cars, food and helicopter. The entourage rented the entire Sheraton Hotel for the visit.
The museum is pretty heavily laden with propaganda such as photos of Americans playing ping pong and getting letters from home and it portrays only the most humane treatment. While the North Vietnamese can claim victory in what they call the American War, with the final US withdrawal in 1975, it was a bitter victory. The country lost an estimated 3 to 6 million people, plus 3 generations were plagued with disease and birth defects caused by Agent Orange.
There are four religions here: Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Christianity. Our next stop was at the Confucian Temple in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It is also called the Temple of Literature or the Van Mieu. It was established in 1070 and founded in honor of the Chinese philosopher, Confucius and it served as a center for higher learning for centuries. We entered through the historic Van Mieu Gate to find a series of 5 courtyards.. Khue Van Cac (an ornate gate built in 1805) opens onto the courtyard of the Well of Heavenly Clarity which occupies the third of five courtyards. The well is actually a rectangular pond with 82 surviving stele (short little tombstone like things) out of an original 112 lining the garden walks around the pond, with the names and brief histories of those who passed the rigorous exams and achieved scholastic greatness. The most interesting was called the Tortoise stele because it is mounted on a pedestal shaped like a tortoise. Among the other highlights were the Human Chess board where people dress as chess pieces and move according to directions given by players.
We also saw the Bai Dong (the House of Ceremonies) which has an altar with huge cranes (birds, not mechanical) standing on top of tortoises. We learned that in Chinese mythology there was a dragon King with 9 sons, one of them named Bixi who took the form of a tortoise. I believe our guide said that cranes were auspicious creatures bringing good fortune, but I could be making this part up. Behind the Bai Dong was the Temple of Confucius with statuary of him and four of his disciples, dressed in elaborate robes, wrought in elaborate gilt and red paint. We were at the temple at the same time as a gazillion school kids which undermined the tranquility of the place, quite a bit, so we had to imagine that the Temple of Literature as the tranquil place it was intended to be.
We also saw the Chua Mot Cot Pagoda, built on a single pillar, by the Emperor in 1049. It is built of wood, but the pillar supporting it is stone and is sitting on a lotus pond. It was built because the king, who had no heir at the time, was visited by the Goddess of Mercy sitting on t lotus flower and she presented him with a baby boy. Shortly after the dream, he married a young queen who gave birth to a boy, so this pagoda was built in her honor. It has suffered a lot of destruction and much reconstruction over the centuries, including being burned by the French in 1954, which seemed to be mostly an act of spite.
In the Old Quarter there are 36 Streets that are named after the merchandise the shops feature. This tradition dates back to the 13th Century when shops were built to cater to the palaces of the royalty and nobility. For example Hang Gai Street (literal translation is the Street of Hemp – rope, not marijuana) sold rope. Today stores are filled with silk embroidery and silver as well as bootleg CD’s and DVD’s that sold for about $2 US (no guarantees on quality). Another street is Hang Quat (the Street of Fans) which today offers not only fans but religious items and funeral and festival flags. Hang Buom Street which back in the day was “Sailmaker’s Street, but today, all along the street there are shops selling candy, coffee and tobacco products. There are also streets in the old quarter named after trades or crafts including Leather, Silk, Paper Products, Hardware, and Shoes. One of our favorites was called Hang Mam (hang being the word for street, mam being the word for pickled fish – and thus it was called Pickled Fish Street, but with the shrinking demand for pickled fish, today the stores are selling headstones carved with likenesses of the deceased
We had lunch at the Pho 24 Noodle Shop (a chain owned by a Vietnamese who left and came back). Most of the wealthy and merchant class are returned ex-pats. The locals who stayed and tried to make communism work are typically the laborers. One area where Communism is trying to keep Capitalism at Bay is in land ownership. You cannot own land, but the government will lease it to you for 50 years. By modifying the Communist rules, the country is able to prosper. We had cam pho, which is rice and noodles in a tasty broth.
After lunch we visited a lacquer workshop and gallery called Minh Thu, selling lacquer artwork, silk and pearls. The lacquer artwork is made with an 18 step process starting with a teak board on which the design is drawn. Then various materials are glued on such as crushed eggshell, mother or pearl and gold inlays which are hand cut in very delicate shapes to form the materials for the mosaic. Then there is a process of lacquering and sanding and lacquering that is repeated to achieve a high gloss. We bought one for our home from a tiny sales girl who looked to be about 14, but who told us she was 24. It was shipped to us and arrived in about 4 months as promised.
Our next adventure was a cyclo (trishaw) ride where were pedaled by a man sitting behind us down wide avenues in the French Quarter where we were surprised to find high-end designer luxury stores. We didn’t think Prada and Gucci were part of Ho’s plan. We asked Lily who buys from these shops and she said it the Vietnamese who left in 70’s and came back with money. They were actually welcomed back after some time had gone by. Other patrons are tourists from other countries. Once we left the French Quarter and entered the old Quarter, there was an increasing cacophony of sounds, sights, and smells.
Sidewalks are the responsibility of the stores they border and many are loaded up with locals doing their cooking and running their various service businesses such as hair cutting, sewing alterations and shoe shining. These enterprises are fronted with rows of parked motorbikes and lounging people, who are sitting on plastic” kiddie chairs” having a beer. We weren’t sure why they have such small chairs, but perhaps they are a better fit given their small stature. The shop with the most intriguing name (in English anyway) was the Half Man Half Noodle. We had no time to explore and so it will have to remain a mystery.
Our last stop for today was at the Water Puppet Theater called the Thang Long (translation “Soaring Dragon ) Theater presenting the art of water puppetry called “roi nuoc”. The performance is a highly ritualized folk play based on beliefs and legends, with a mix of buffoonery and morality, accompanied by melodramatic music featuring a 4 stringed instrument called the “ty ba”. There were also special effects including smoke, firecrackers and a water-spewing dragon. The puppets were operated on the surface of a pond,which served as the stage. The puppets were manipulated by puppeteers with sticks on the sidelines behind a curtain. We had a program in sort of fractured English to guide us through the plot (such as it was). The play opened with the “Drumming”, followed by the “Dragon Dance” and the “Buffoon Tea”. The next segment was called “Buffalo Fighting” which was not really fighting, but more a show of strength in sort of a frolicking scenario performed by assorted water buffalos to underscore the slogan, “the peasant’s wealth starts with a buffalo”. Then we had a segment glorifying farm work and a segment called the Village Guardian. Worship of the Village Guardian god has to be done just right or he will get angry and cause all manner of grief. The next exciting segment was called Van Singing which included songs in praise of the deities including one they call the Holy Mother, but this is not the Holy Mother in the Catholic sense. This was followed by a horse race, more singing called Quan Ho singing which is intended as sort of a romantic musical exchange between a man and a woman, followed by “Coconut Picking”.
The grand finale was the changing of a carp into a dragon, which was the basis for the legend of the first emperor of the country they called Thang Long at the time. At the end of the performance, a curtain was raised to reveal the puppeteers, in waist deep water. It was a very odd performance, odd plot, with live and really irritating music, but actually entertaining as it was such a unique experience – we can check that one off.
In the course of our afternoon, we learned a lot more about modern day Vietnam. Regarding government and laws, we learned that they have elections (which many mispronounce in English as “erections” which makes us titter), but there is only one candidate, selected by the Communist Party. As for traffic laws, speeders are fined, when they get caught, but that seems to be the only moving traffic violation that raises an eyebrow. Their most drastic punishment is death and that is reserved for drug dealers, and in fact that is about the only crime in the country of any consequence (aside from speaking out against the Communist Party). At one time it was estimated that 45% of the Hmong Tribesmen were opium addicts and so they are really trying to reverse that with really draconian measures.
We also learned more about social customs. They have funerals where they cremate mostly now, but for burials – they bury the body for 10 years, then dig it up, clean the bones and take them up into the hills. The Wedding Season is March to November when the weather is the best (that is not as wet and not as hot), but they do have them in other seasons in case of an emergency, such as a pregnant bride. Another emergency would be a sick relative. Local tradition says that you should not marry within 3 years of the death of a family member. So if grandma starts to feel a little poorly, an engaged couple may decide to move up the wedding day so they don’t have to wait so long. English is mandatory in schools – it is the language of commerce and anyone who wants to be successful in Vietnam needs to be fluent. There are 6 tones in the Vietnamese language, but not nearly as many words as in English. One word (e.g. “ma”) can have 6 different meanings and thus it is easy to get into trouble here trying to speak the local language
Dental clinics are big here – overuse of antibiotics and drugs has made many people’s teeth soft and dark so cosmetic dentistry is big business. Also plastic surgery and weight loss surgery are big, the latter mostly for foreigners. Locals typically want western looking eyes and a bridged nose. As a rule, Vietnamese are very appearance and weight conscious. They think an over-weight person is one heavier than 50 kilograms which is about 110 pounds, so they must really think we foreigners are grossly obese. We were told that since the trade embargo was lifted in 1995, Vietnamese women spend 50% of their income on clothes. Shopping was doubtlessly pretty limited in the old days prior to that with drab colors with a baggy fit, so it is understandably if they went a little crazy when they got merchandise from the outside world.
As for public utilities, they have the most bizarre rat’s nest of electrical wiring hanging on the outside of the buildings. When they have a problem, they don’t trouble shoot, they just run more wire. The City of Hanoi was built on the Red River and a dam was built, but not operational. They are forced to buy power from China.
In addition to all the motorbikes, cars, cyclos and buses, trains run the 1800 kilometers between Hanoi and the Port of Haiphong to Ho Chi Minh City – once known as Saigon. The Chinese ruled here for over 1,000 years with brief interruptions for the French Colonial Period of about 150 years and the Japanese invasion for 2 years during World War II. The Vietnamese are still experimenting with this independence business.
Their houses throughout the city are tall and narrow, with multiple generations per dwelling. Typically the elders live on the first floor, their adult children on the second floor, and the grandchildren on the third floor with any great grandchildren. Vietnamese women marry and go to live with the husband’s family, often in a very crowded household. This has given rise to the so called “love hotels” which rent by the hour by couples who desire some privacy. They have snake wine here which is essential truly awful tasking wine with a snake inside the bottle, sort of like the worm in a bottle of mescal. They call it the Vietnamese Viagra and is very popular with those seeking out an assignation in one of the Love Hotels.
Lilly told us a story from her family in which a new bride and groom were in their honeymoon bed eating candy that was given to them at the wedding. However the mother-in –law was sleeping on a cot in the same room, separated by only a curtain and stuck her hand through a part in the curtains to demand that they share with her. There are only 2 nursing homes in all of Hanoi since families are expected to care for their aged until they die. Those nursing homes are only for those with no family.
We had dinner at a local restaurant specializing in French Vietnamese cuisine called Indochine (a.k.a. Dong Duong), which was a short walk from the hotel with the added advantage of having a crosswalk to get to it – and a lot of good that did – but the food was great and we returned to our hotel unscathed by the evening.
February 22, 2012
Dateline: Halong Bay, Vietnam
Latitude at Halong Bay 20.84 Degrees North, Longitude 107.21 Degrees East
Today we drove the 3 hour trip (170 km) by car to Halong Bay to board the Bhaya, our sampan-type vessel for exploring the scenic bay and our overnight accommodation. Halong Bay is just off the Gulf of Tonkin, which is part of the larger South China Sea. The Gulf of Tonkin is the place where in 1964 two American destroyers reported being fired on by North Vietnamese vessels, resulting in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in Congress which gave then President Lyndon Johnson the power to increase US military forces in Southeast Asia, which we all know didn’t end well. But the very peaceful Halong Bay has been designated at UNESCO World Heritage site and remains tranquil. It stretches for 580 square miles, with more than 2,000 limestone and dolomite pinnacles rising up out of the sea. These pinnacles (called karst) are made of sediment that settled on the sea floor in prehistoric times, but it subsequently rose to the surface through geographic upheaval and formed into spectacular shapes due to erosion by warm slightly acidic rain over the millennia.
En route along the highway, we noticed many people carrying baguettes in a plastic bag – apparently a hold-over from French Colonial times, although the Vietnamese add a twist of their own – they like to hollow them out and fill them with ice cream. The drive was also extremely entertaining in the wide variety of cargo spotted on motorbikes and in small cars. We saw chickens coops stacked on the back of a moped, a live pig (hog-tied if you’ll pardon the pun, on the back of a motorcycle, as well as a piggy we saw on his way to market in a small trailer towed by a motor cycle. Our favorite, a water buffalo stuffed into the backseat of a tiny sedan – his head sticking our one window, his rump out the other. We also marveled at a live goose trussed and hanging by his feet from the handlebars of a motor-bike – talk about vertigo!
There were a large number of see-through buildings that had been intended as factories and apartment homes for factory workers built by foreign investors who worked on the premise that if you build it, they will come. However, they did not come and there are blocks of empty structures in mile after mile of abandoned projects. The primary investors were the Japanese and there is an abandoned high speed rail project and many “bridges to nowhere” that they funded. In the old days of Communism, they called Cuba Little Brother, Russia was Big Brother and East Germany was just Brother. Japan didn’t really come into the picture until the economic reforms of 1986.
All guides in Vietnam are young and fluent in English – non- English speakers are all older and rapidly dying off. There were a number of rice paddies scattered in among the abandoned projects and occasionally we would see the hammer and sickle flag, although the national flag is red with a yellow star. We were amazed to see that they really do wear the conical straw hats to work in, and when seen with a water buffalo in a rice paddy, it requires a photo op stop. Instead of scarecrows, they use flags in the fields to scare off birds from the rice seedlings. Homes in Hanoi tended to be shotgun style, built behind a shop in the same narrow style. They are accessed by a narrow path or sidewalk, just wide enough for a bicycle and everyone takes their bicycles inside at night since they are extremely valuable in this country and tend to disappear if left unattended.
Monks in this part of Vietnam live in temple complexes and do not go out seeking food donations, as we saw in Thailand and Laos. Instead food is brought to them. Here they practice Mahayana Buddhism, not the Theravada of Thailand and Laos. Monks are not very much in evidence here either – in fact we didn’t see any out and about. There are two other main sects of Buddhism, Vajrayana and the more familiarly known, Zen, which is a derivative of Mahayana and which focuses on meditation as way to attain Enlightenment. The Mahayana sect focuses on compassion, with their central devotional being the bodhisattvas, spiritual beings who work to free other beings from their suffering. The image of a bodhisattva is often portrayed with multiple eyes and arms, ( 1,000 eyes and arms according to their beliefs) which makes for interesting sight-seeing.
We stopped at a village called Hai Dong about half way to Halong Bay to visit a government sponsored ceramics factory. This area is known for its white clay, which is in much demand for ceramic production. At this facility, the government is training the disabled to take away skills that they can teach in remote villages. The place was called Chan Thien My – but is sounded strangely like “ca-ching” when it is pronounced. We passed a village called Duc Phuc, and had to suppress an immature snicker. We didn’t ask Lily about it – some things just get lost in translation (as well they should).
En route Lily told us about some of the wedding customs in Vietnam. The bride and groom are required to keep lists of who gave them what, and they are required to give a gift of equal value to weddings in the gifting family or else risk “losing face”. We also saw the “market train” (not the high speed version that the Japanese envisioned). This train is strictly local and carries animals and produce, as well as passengers.
Once we reached the coast we saw oyster farms, which were essentially shacks build on poles. These are intended to be pearl farms, but the oysters themselves are edible as well. The beaches here were both muddy and rocky and we were told the much more scenic beaches were to the south. Lily also pointed out the summer residence of Ho Chi Minh, which has been turned into an international resort for tourists. We were thinking that Uncle Ho would have been horrified at the commercialism of it all. Interestingly enough, we found they don’t much like the Chinese here or the Russians. They say that hey ship shoddy merchandise and do poor work. The port of Haiphong, a common bombing target during the Vietnam War, has since silted up and is no longer much used. They have built a new deepwater port to replace it.
At last we arrived at Halong Bay and boarded our sampan, the Bhaya, in a cold wet fog. We could tell right away we would not be seeing the turquoise waters and emerald islands as advertised in the guide books. We saw the limestone karsts that rise up out of the bay, stunning on a sunny day, but still beautiful as ghostly shapes rising up out of the mist in mirror calm water. Along with the sampans gliding along, there were also traditional sailing junks with rough cotton hand-made sails shaped like fans. They are dipped in vegetable dye to protect them from the elements, giving them a yellowish ochre tone.
The name Ha Long means descending dragon. Halong Bay according to legend is where a dragon descended into the sea and left stone ramparts that are the dramatic limestone pinnacles visible today. We fancied that someone once thought all these rounded formations rising out of the mist might just be the humps of a dragon.
We visited a floating fishing village called Vong Vieng, transported there by a woman who rowed to our vessel to pick us up and then took us to the village where all the houses, the one room school house and a sort of community house are located, all built on poles over the water. They also had a structure called the “Babysitting House” which was their version of day care. We were alarmed to see that toddlers and older small children play by the water with no railings and no life jackets, and we could only hope that adult supervision was immediately at hand. There are also floating fuel stations, herb gardens, kennels and pig pens. The main industry here is pearl farming and they do laundry for the commercial boats as a sideline, and of course they bring the tourists to see the village. The pearl farms are roped off in squares and rows of oysters that have had a grain of sand introduced between their shells. They will each form a pearl and dangle from ropes until they are harvested.
Back on board we had cocktails at the Bhaya’s bar and again had to learn we need to keep it simple when ordering cocktails. A martini is not known to them and while they will make an effort, it is not usually drinkable. To entertain us as evening approached they held a cooking class to learn to make egg rolls. We did roll a few and ate a few that were quite tasty. They also showed us how to make flowers from vegetables and the prize for that went to an Italian surgeon, who created a masterpiece with carrots and a tomato, but we figured he had an unfair advantage since he knew a few things about knives and scalpels.
We had a good dinner of fresh fish which was toned down considerably in the spice department for our Western palates. The locals tend to like it hot – real hot. The guests were a mix of Australians, British, Canadian, and American, with a few Germans, Italians and Japanese thrown in, but all tours and demonstrations were in English. For those non English speakers, there was typically a guide who did speak English so all information was conveyed by a Vietnamese speaking English to a German (for example) who then translated that into German. There is no telling how this turned out. We did notice the non-native English speakers walking around looking a little dazed, and we ourselves were often at a loss to understand what we were being told– and this was with only one step – Vietnamese to English.
The ships that take tourists around Halong Bay are of varying sizes. Ours was in the medium range with 16 guest cabins. It was advertised as a luxury vessel, but it was fairly rustic by our standards. There were no chandeliers, but we did get rose petals sprinkled on us when we arrived and they did use silverware and cloth napkins.
February 23, 2012
Dateline: Hue, Vietnam
Latitude at Hue 16.46 Degrees North, 107.58 Degrees East
Awakening on board the Bhaya on Halong Bay, we learned there was a sunrise Tai Chi lesson on deck (we only watched) at 6:30 a.m. although there was so much fog and clouds that the sunrise was totally obscured. Then we departed in smaller boats to explore more of Halong Bay, including Surprise Cave Hang Sung Sot (also known as Cave of Awe). We noticed a number of rules posted in English, including one that advised that we should not throw dust or engage in other non-hygienic behavior. The cave was sort of a smallish version or Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, and like those American explorers, the Vietnamese tended to see a lot of images in the stalactites and stalagmites including, a chicken and Buddha, and most notably, in this cave a Giant Phallus believed to be a fertility symbol. . They do have an appreciation for a good sized belly on men here – it is viewed a status symbol (actually better than a Rolex since there are so many watch knockoffs here) and sign of good luck and they think nothing of giving it a rub, even if you are a perfect stranger. Our cruise director, Ronald felt that he had a Buddha belly, but it was quite paltry compared to the Western men’s profiles.
We came back to a hearty breakfast (the better to build your status symbol belly) and motored back to port, arriving at 10:30. We met Lily and Mr. Driver and drove back to the Hanoi Airport to catch our flight to Hue. Our drive back to Hanoi was every bit as entertaining as the trip out in terms of strange sightings and information about the customs culture of Vietnam. On the trip out, we saw a water buffalo in the backseat of a car, on our return we saw a slightly smaller version strapped to the buddy seat of a motor bike. We saw a motorbike hauling 6 people – dad driving with one child in front, 3 children in the middle and mom hanging by a fingernail on the last 2 inches of the seat. We found it interesting that only the dad wore a helmet.
En route we learned more about weddings. As a dowry, the groom’s family used to give the bride’s family gifts. Now everyone just gives money since it is more practical. Also people often live together before marriage and select their own spouses – unheard of in the old days. We actually saw a wedding in progress right off the highway. They had erected a tent in front of a row of houses and businesses, which served as the wedding pavilion and party room. Lily explained that this is a modest income wedding. The wealthier rent hotel ballrooms or use their own homes. The parents of the bride and groom conduct the marriage ceremony after having gone to the town hall to get the license. Wedding guests put stickers on the car windows to bring “double happiness”. Among the Hmong people, a man can have 3 wives, but we were told nowadays, most men forego the extra spouses and just have a mistress or two that they take to their local “love hotel”. Having a mistress is actually illegal here, but like helmets and traffic lights, it is a law largely ignored. We were also told that the man having the illicit affair often buys tiger balm (a blend of camphor and menthol used topically as a pain reliever) to mask the smell of perfume after a romantic interlude.
We had heard many rumors about Vietnamese dining on Fido and Kitty – Lily told us that yes, the local people sometimes eat dog meat called cho) and cat meat (meo) but not regularly. It is more of a specialty item on a menu for good luck at certain times of the year. The word for meat is “thit”. Once Lily told us this, we began seeing it advertised quite a bit along our route and no longer assumed it involved cursing with a lisp. Many of their rituals are attuned to the calendar, in particular the new moon and full moon and they always look for auspicious dates, and numbers. Lily told us of a Vietnamese saying which may sound like good advice, but may not suit all palates : Eat everything with 4 legs but the table. Eat everything with wings but an airplane”. Going through the towns is endlessly entertaining, and occasionally disturbing to our Western sensibilities.
The highway we are traveling on is two-lane with a passing lane of sorts. It is not really a separate lane, but is sort of squeezed out of the middle and it is not infrequent to see cars traveling 3 abreast. The trick is to make sure you are not passing when someone coming the other way is passing. There is not much in the way of highway stripes here so it is pretty much a free-for-all. We also noticed that motorbikes have little or no status on the highways. They are expected to yield to cars and trucks. We noticed that no orange cones are used here. For a truck breakdown, the locals will place a large tree branch or even a stump in the road.
We stopped for a pineapple tasting at a road side stand. It was delicious, as were the tiny “two-bite” bananas they call “lady fingers”. We also stopped at a farmers’ market and saw many familiar types of produce including fennel, dill, basil , butter lettuce and onions.
We skipped the optional butcher shop tour, not sure of what offensive sights we might see, but we did see the Snake Village Restaurant where you can order live cobra. The blood is mixed in with your wine and the meat is chopped up and cooked. This is one of those things we decide we could skip without irreparably damaging our Vietnamese experience. We made a stop at a much more mundane ceramic pottery center, which was pretty dull after the Snake Village. Mr. Driver kept up a steady stream of chatter either to Lily or to himself (we weren’t sure which or perhaps it was both) when she was not talking to us, but since it was in Vietnamese, we had no idea what was on his mind. We suspected he could have been laughing at how we turned green at the Snake Village when we saw the menu. We were also told that many of the locals fish with electricity – again not legal, but not enforced. The catch is not used commercially, but for personal consumption. There are not many environmentalists in these parts.
Lily told us that abortion is legal here. By law they are only supposed to have two children or risk fines, and due to traditions, families prefer boys. It is not uncommon for when an ultrasound indicates a girl, an abortion ensues. Because girls are frequently aborted, consequently there is today a shortage of wives for all those boys. All along our route there were children smiling and waving, and as soon as we stopped anywhere, they would rush over to practice their English on us.
Our last stop before the airport was a temple and a pagoda dedicated to a national hero Nguyen who died in the 14th Century. Many symbols were incorporated into the structure, such as the phoenix for peace, the turtle for long life, the unicorn for kindness and wisdom and the dragon for power and intelligence. The phoenix is the queen’s symbol and the dragon is the king’s. There was sort of a carnival atmosphere here – in stark contrast to Ho’s tomb. There was much frolicking going on including water pistol fights. Inside the pagoda you could leave your shoes on. People burned paper moons and left offerings
and they also made wishes in a wishing well. One of the most interesting offerings was a can of Coke. We wondered why would a guy who had been dead for centuries think a Coke would be just the thing? We supposed it to be easier to get a can of Coke, than a cup of mead or whatever they drank back in Nguyen’s day. Gary and Stu were offered a ride on a motorbike for $1.00 so they took a spin around the complex. The drivers asked if they spoke American or English so they said both.
The Vietnamese are a very superstitious people. Lily says most do not believe, but they hedge their bets with observing old customs just in case. Fortunes are told here as revealed in the face and hand. Fortune tellers are often consulted with pregnancies to answer questions such as will it be a boy or girl? With questions on whether a couple should marry give their astrological signs. Some couples will have a second wedding to make sure they have an auspicious date. Bodies are buried in the fetal position so that reincarnation is easier (i.e. it can simulate birth).
They go through all sorts of contortions and expense to offset bad luck with good. For example, Lily’s mother- in – law died in the year month and hour of the tiger which is very bad ju-ju. So the family spent over 5 thousand dollars to pay monks and soothsayers to undo this bad luck. The fortuneteller told them that they must pray for one and one half days non-stop to reverse this. They had no sleep and very short breaks to eat quickly and go to the bathroom, praying the whole time. A dark freckle or mole is commonly removed because it is bad luck. A light colored one is okay.
We did see quite a bit of the traditional clothing worn by women- a cheongsam which is a sleek tightly fitting dress or an aio dai, which is a long tunic with side slits worn over pants, also a very sleek look. These are so iconic to Southeast Asia, we were always glad to see them – much more so than the Viet Cong Pajamas or even more ho-hum, jeans and T-shirts.
We had a fairly long wait at the Hanoi Airport since our flight was not until 8:00 p.m., so we had dinner there. Despite its cavernous ceilings and vast spaces, we remarked on how quiet it was. Vietnamese people rarely raise their voices, something we also noticed in Laos and Thailand. We felt it makes for a much more relaxing environment. When they travel to the West, the cacophony of our airports must be overwhelming.
The airport at Hue is called Phu Bai Airport, and was the former US military base at Danang. We met our guide for Central Vietnam whose name was Ngoc (pronounced “knock”) and our driver Thinh (pronounced “tin”). Hue gives the appearance sleepy provincial town, although a million people live there. We noticed that people were not spilling out into the streets as they were in Hanoi., and thus giving the appearance of a small city.
Hue was once the religious, economic and cultural center of Vietnam and the Imperial headquarters and political capital until 1945. It was largely reduced to rubble in the course of the Vietnam War. Aside from loss of life there was an immense loss of architectural treasure. Thirteen Nguyen Dynasty Emperors ruled from here in a fortress built around the ancient city. The citadel was modeled on Beijing’s Forbidden City with walls 30 feet thick, which proved quite useless in Tet Offensive in 1968.
During the “Tet” Offensive, the North Vietnamese launched attacks on over 100 targets, taking the US and the south Vietnamese by surprise. Both Hue and the US Army base Khe Sahn, fell during that offensive. It took a month to re-take Hue (while reducing it to rubble) and two months to re-take Khe Sahn. It was a huge wake-up call for Americans, who had been led to believe the North Vietnamese were incapable of such attacks. The destruction of Hue had started over the centuries due to floods and monsoons due to typhoons, but the Viet Cong holed up there during the fighting and the bombing by Americans was the final blow. Today most of the Citadel walls stand, and there are still a few remaining French colonial houses and outlying tombs and pagodas, but much of the art and architecture have been lost.
Ngoc and our driver took us to a beautiful Hotel called La Residence Hotel and Spa overlooking the ancient Citadel and the Perfume River. It was the former residence of the French Governor and thus the beauty and grace of the architecture. The lobby and hallways were filled with fresh flowers and oil paintings and décor was quite elegant, and tastefully so. We sank gratefully into our cushy four poster bed and slept soundly in the blissful cool quiet.
February 24, 2012
Hue is situated on the narrow strip of land between mountains and coastline that comprises Central Vietnam. The northernmost point of this area was the site of the Demilitarized Zone during the Vietnam War, which separated North from South Vietnam. Today we would tour Hue, including the huge citadel and royal tombs. Hue is situated on the so called Perfume River. It got its name from the frangipani trees that once lined its banks. They are still growing at tombs and temples along the river but there was far too much boat traffic to smell any perfume that nature might offer.
Hue is just south of the former De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). Hue is pronounced “way”, as in way too hot here. Even in the early morning hours, it was steamy hot – a major change from Hanoi. Actually the temperature was moderate at 88 degrees, but the humidity was in the 95% range.
Hue was the capital of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty from 1802 to 1945, when the last Nguyen emperor, Bao Dai who had no children, surrendered the throne and moved to France and the power vacuum created by that became the source of much contention, setting the seeds for partitioning and the Vietnam War. The first Nguyen emperor had one wife and 500 concubines so he was quite a busy man. The king was served by eunuchs who volunteered for service (and surgery) at the age of 17. They did all the matchmaking for the king – e.g. finding concubine candidates. The Mandarins (coming originally from China) were the nobility and thus the leaders in both the military and civilian life. The mandarins wore an interesting headpiece with prominent ear flaps that did not flap, but rather stuck out from the head at 90 degree angles, sort of giving the appearance of literally a “propeller head”.
The city of Hue is 90% Buddhist, 5 % Catholic and 5% Tao, Confucian or other religions. Buddhist Monks here do not enter and leave the monkhood, as they are free to do in Thailand. Here monkhood is a commitment for life, (but perhaps, not as great a commitment as that of the palace eunuchs of the olden days). The monks wear 3 different colors of robes to signify their status. Brown is for novice monks and they also have their heads shaven except for one long hank of hair (sort of like a very long Mohawk haircut). The intermediate monks wear gray and the highest level wear yellow. Ho Chi Minh went to high school here which was taught in French at the time. We learned a new term – “Bamboo Dragon”, which indicates one who curries favor with whoever appears to be strongest on any given day. Of course, given his power, Uncle Ho had a host of Bamboo Dragons around him, who, while still paying Communism lip service, have since evolved to the more pragmatic approach of capitalism.
We took a cruise on the Perfume River in a dragon boat, which afforded us a slight breeze while underway, and we also had the opportunity to do some shopping since there were dragon boat vendors assaulting our tourist dragon boat from all sides, plus our dragon boat crew had dry goods of their own. Our hosts had their very cute baby in a hammock swing of sorts accompanying Mom and Dad to work. We were again saw the conical hats worn by working people in the fields, planting rice by hand all along the river banks. The countryside was luxuriant with foliage and vegetation, but a haze of humidity, coupled with the blazing sun, seemed to cast a yellowish tint to the scenery.
We disembarked our dragon boat to pay a visit to the Thien Mu Pagoda, built on a bluff above the river, and the oldest of over 300 pagodas in the city. The name Thien Mu translates as “beautiful lady”. The pagoda was built in 1601 by Nguyen Hoang. It has a 7 story tower whose name means the “source of happiness” and a pavilion with a bronze bell, which can reportedly be heard 6 miles away. Inside the main shrine is a statue of a Laughing Buddha in bronze , along with those of other kings and disciples. This site is a working monastery as well and the lodgings and gardens for the monks are on the property. A monk from this order named Thich Quang Duc, made history in June of 1963 when he drove a blue Austin Healey to Saigon to protest against the Diem regime. He carried out his protest by sitting down in a city square and setting himself on fire. The images of this were publicized world-wide, but his message was widely ignored. The car he drove is on display in a garage here at the monastery as sort of an historical footnote.
After our boat ride we visited the old Imperial City (also called Da Noi, or the Great Enclosure) within the walls of the Citadel, built by Emperor Gia Long in 1805. We entered through the elaborate Ngo Mon Gate, with its ornate watchtower where the emperor often sat on state occasions. From there we went across a bridge to the Thai Hoa Palace, which was the grand throne palace of the emperors, awash in red lacquer and dragons, the symbol of the Nguyen dynasty. An open courtyard overlooks what was once the Forbidden City, now essentially a vacant lot.
There were originally 3 concentric enclosures here- the Civic, the Imperial and at the heart of the complex, the Forbidden Purple City. The Forbidden Purple City housed the Emperor’s personal quarters, comprised of courtyards and approximately 60 buildings, but there is little that survived the 1968 Tet Offensive bombings. Today there is not much left to see – more of where things used to be, although the Royal Theater and Royal Library are still there. The Forbidden Palace was forbidden to all men except the emperor, the queen and 9 separate ranks of concubines and female servants and eunuchs. Entry to this area was only allowed to those who had a pass with the king’s stamp, and, the penalty for unlawful entry was taken seriously and generally resulted in a beheading.
On the other side of the open area where the Forbidden Purple City used to be, we found the Hien Lam pavilion, built by another Nguyen Emperor in 1824 to honor those who built the Nguyen dynasty and provided its power. Nearby was the Mieu, (the Temple of Generations,) an elaborately decorated temple honoring the Nguyen dynasty, again in gilt and red lacquer. We were told that the altars were once stacked with gold ingots which, have understandably, have long since disappeared. Between the Mieu and the Hien Lam Pavilion, we saw the Cuu Dinh, the famous nine dynastic urns, each of which commemorates a particular Nguyen emperor and weighs around 2 ¾ tons. They are decorated with symbols in bas-relief and are filled to the brim with water to provide striking reflections. They are called funerary urns, but do not contain ashes. Instead they are meant to stand as symbols of the power of the emperors they represent.
The highest point of the citadel is the Cot Co (Flag Tower) which at 120 feet dominates the skyline of the Citadel and the city itself. Its claim to fame in recent times is that on January 31, 1968, during the Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong overran Hue and erected their flag. It took a great deal of bloody fighting for the US and allies to recapture the city to take it down.
Upon leaving the Citadel, we visited the Dong Ba Market, just outside the Imperial City where I bought a hand held fan to fend off a heat stroke. We noticed an abundance of face masks in the city- the little white disposable ones that some have termed the “ear brassiere”. And then there were some who had bandanas worn “bandito” style, looking like they were ready to ambush the stagecoach. Ngoc told us they are primarily worn for protection against air pollution from the exhaust of the zillion motor bikes darting around the city. Since we had an air conditioned van, we didn’t have to don masks, but we did dab on some eucalyptus oil to be applied topically to fend off mosquitoes.
We had the option to do a bike tour of the Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Emperors, but it was way too hot for that. Instead we opted for a driving tour with brief stops. The tombs are scattered across a wide area just to the south of Hue. While 13 emperors ruled on the imperial throne from 1802 t0 1945, only 7 were given their own lang (mausoleum) We stopped at the Tomb Khai Dinh, one of the 7 tombs for a little exploration, including one for a emperor named Duc Duc (loved the name), one of the more modest tombs. Khai Dinh was the last emperor to be entombed in his own mausoleum in 1925 and it is the grandest. It is sort of a mishmash of Vietnamese and European styles, built into a hillside on three separate levels, with a bust of the emperor at the top. This exploration just about did us in, so we settled for a drive by of the other tombs.
We had lunch at the Mandarin Café – going native ordering noodles and eating them with chopsticks. In the afternoon we returned to our cool and elegant hotel to drink gin and tonic and retire to our rooms for a nap. We had hoped for a swim, but the pool was closed (we suspect due to the fact that the water in it was probably coming to a slow boil by then) so we had to make do with drinks and naps. We had experienced a problem with the water in our bathroom (e.g. there was none) earlier in the day and the management had not only seen to its prompt restoration, but also sent an arrangement of orchids to our room with a handwritten note of apology from the hotel manager, confirming our impression that this was indeed a fine hotel.
We had a great noodle-free dinner at a French restaurant across the Perfume River from the Citadel called Le Parfum. We have really enjoyed our many meals with Asian food, but I don’t think I have ever been so thankful to see steak and potatoes. We know that we left much left unseen here – we would come back when it was cooler, but since we were there in February and it’s the northern hemisphere we aren’t sure exactly when that cool time might be.