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Trip to Hanoi Vietnam

or more properly, Trip to Hà Nội, Việt Nam

Thursday February 18,through Thursday February 25, 2016

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Intro

Several friends have recommended Vietnam - the people are nice, they like Americans (almost no reference to the "American War" of 50 years ago), the scenery is pretty, and the prices are cheap. We went, had a great time, and found the recommendations to be true. We had originally planned to go to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in South Vietnam but when we found tickets for $985 to Hanoi, in North Vietnam, (about $200 less than Saigon), we switched cities. Hanoi has 7 million people (fun chaos), Saigon has 20 million and reportedly more pollution, so we like having ended up in Hanoi.

Visiting Vietnam is not like a casual trip to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower and Louvre, or even a trip to Singapore to see their fantastic zoos and shopping centers. It is an exploration of a different culture with wonderful people and history. It is not a visit to what you have seen in school books. It probably should not be your first international trip, but we highly recommend it for experienced travelers.

Getting There - February 18-19

Travel: No question that it is a long way - about 9,000 miles from Austin, less than a 2 hour flight west of Hong Kong. Our usual 1 hour flight from Austin to Dallas-Fort Worth, was followed by a 13.5 hour AA non-stop flight from DFW to Tokyo, then a 6.5 hour JAL flight to Hanoi. We left Thursday morning, and (with the help of the date line) arrived at midnight Friday night, after 21 hours in the air.

Hotel: Hanoi City Palace hotel is a boutique hotel, which usually means a small hotel. This is certainly small (easy to miss if walking by) with only 18 guest rooms. Lots of marble, carved wood - their lobby picture is not an exaggeration. WiFi throughout the hotel, including a free laptop to use in our room (I had brought my own, so didn't check it out). 6 nights with custom cooked breakfast for two (choice of any or all of the 12 items on the menu) cost US$202 for the stay, total charge, not per night.

The arch at the back of the lobby leads to the elevator and grand staircase. The extent of the art-work in the hotel woodwork is represented in this newel post carving.

Even the door to our room was fancy. The room had a very comfortable king size bed, desk, luxury bathroom, and lots of space.

The only negative - the front desk closes at midnight, and we arrived after midnight. Fortunately our driver knew how to find someone to let us in. There were profuse apologies since the lobby lights were off and the overnight staff had stored their motor bikes in the lobby - not off to an impressive start. Well, maybe there was a second negative... 3% surcharge for paying by credit card (If I had known, I would have gladly carried the $202 in cash, but the $6 extra cost was not a big deal).

Where in Hanoi? If you want a feel of the city (like staying in the French Quarter in New Orleans or staying in Manhattan in New York), stay near the small Hoàn Kiém Lake. The "Old Quarter" touches the North end of the lake, the "French Quarter" includes the south end of the lake, and the "Cathedral District" is the west side of the lake. You can easily walk around the lake, only a few blocks long, for a great cross section of Hanoi. Our hotel was in the Old Quarter, a couple blocks from the lake. Most of the larger and "name brand" hotels were not within convenient walking distance.

Visa: Americans are required to get a visa to enter Vietnam. There are many types - the simplest is a tourist one month single entry visa (single entry means no side trips to Laos or wherever). You may send your passport off to a Vietnamese consulate and get the visa for a rumored charge of about $100 each plus postage and handling, but there is a widely used commercial Vietnam Visa service that breaks it into two parts. For less than $20 each, they get the government approval for your visa (our names were on the third page of the approval letter). When you arrive (with a copy of the approval) they get the actual visa entered in your passport for a "stamping fee" of $25 each (cash, US Dollars) in the airport, just prior to immigration. As convoluted as this may sound, it works quickly and efficiently.

Money: We had been told that lots of things were quoted and paid in US Dollars. Our hotel was charged in Dollars, but only a few other things - most of our charges were in Vietnamese Dongs (VND). Since I didn't know what to expect, I withdrew 1,000,000 VND from the ATM (only two of the bills like this) to get started (but that was only $47.40 and our bank refunded the ATM service fee... $0.02). Things are generally inexpensive like our hotel - our most expensive meal was just under a million (doesn't that take your breath away?), but actually cost US$37.50 with wine and tip. Sometimes you will see local prices displayed in thousands - 12.5 is 12,500 VND or 62 cents. Credit card acceptance is mixed... most of our restaurants accepted plastic; US Dollars are accepted at many stores in tourist areas, but museums only accepted cash (of course a 50,000 VND admission fee is only $2.50). Our million VND lasted all week.

Language: The most common language is, of course, Vietnamese (Viet is the largest of 54 ethnic groups identified in the country, with 86% of the population), but English and French are common secondary languages. We never had a problem "getting by" with our English, but did not find any natives (other than tour guides) with whom you could casually chat in English.

Around Town

Your first impression when you step outside (especially if you arrive at night, as we did), is the chaos in the streets. Motor scooters are for freight and families, not just individuals. They take right turn on red, but also take straight through on red (sometimes without slowing down) and left turn on red. One way streets are just a suggestion for the other 80%. I suspect that there is an unwritten rule to not apply brakes unless you first honk the horn at least three times.

Hanoi traffic video from Charlie Plesums on Vimeo.

We had just crossed this street, but it is relatively calm, since some of the cars have stopped. Note the young lady in blue who had just crossed the street in the first few seconds, and the old lady with a scarf who had crossed about the middle of the video. They are very good drivers (to have survived this long), so if you need to cross the street, just be predictable (don't start and stop, or run part way), and they will work around you. Don't expect help from crosswalks or traffic lights.

In addition to loads of packages, scooters carried families. 2 or 3 people were common, but we saw many with a 5 year old standing between daddy's legs at the front (honking the horn), daddy driving, and mommy behind, sometimes carrying a newborn. With larger families older kids are at the back, holding the person in front of them, bringing the total load to as many as 5 people or more. Not everyone wore helmets, and there were NO child seats.

Many of the buildings seem to be about 15 feet (5 meters) wide - including the entrance to our hotel. The ground floor is often retail, with the family sleeping in the store or in the floor above, which may be apartments. One local suggested that land costs US$25,000 per square meter - $2,500 per square foot - so buildings expand up rather than out.

Some of the apartments appear to be quite nice - notice the second floor of the middle building - with the white trim and air conditioning.

Sometimes the 15 foot building is split into two or even three businesses. For example, this store selling bras and panties appears to be "half" width.

"Street food" is very common. Here a lady is carrying the entire restaurant on a shoulder yoke. The pot contains hot broth which is used to heat pre-cooked noodles, then is added to meat and herbs/vegetables to complete the soup. A stackable plastic kiddie stool is provided for each guest to sit. Some street corners had a dozen or more patrons being served at a time by a transient restaurant. We tried "street food" in a sit-down restaurant, but talked to other people who had survived the low cost food from the streets. (My biggest concern was how to order the choice of ingredients in the custom-made soup!)

You have seen the huge trucks used to deliver Coca Cola in the United States. Why not just use a motor scooter? I think I can identify 34 cases of coke, not counting what might be in the closed boxes.

This person was clearly selling plants from the back of his bike. We also saw a motor scooter carrying 5 mandarin orange trees in pots, each over 6 feet tall, with fruit attached.

For more pictures from the streets of Hanoi, click here.

Around Lake Hoàn Kiém

It was a misty day, but you can see how small the lake is... just a block wide (or less) and about 3 blocks long, but with park-like walking paths and flowers.

On an island in the north end of the lake is a Confucian and Taoist Temple; worth the modest admission fee to cross the bright red bridge that starts behind Jenny.

Interesting plantings at the temple on "Jade Island."

As you walk around this lake you encounter this massive statue. Yes this is a communist country (which has discretely found the rewards of capitalism), and chooses its politicians by mysterious process each 5 years. The national flag is red with a yellow star; the communist party flag is red with yellow hammer and sickle. Government displays have both, but homes and businesses usually only show the national flag.

Google translate says that the base of the statue says "to die for the country, for sacrifice." I would welcome a better translation!

At night the red bridge to the temple on the island is dramatically lit.

And many sidewalks and streets have dramatic lighting.

For more day and night pictures from around Lake Hoàn Kiém , click here.

Day Trip to Hạ Long Bay, North East Coast

On Monday we took a guided bus trip to Hạ Long Bay: over three hours on the highway plus another hour around town picking up people at various hotels (our guide called this the free city tour). We left the hotel before 8 am and returned at 8 pm exhausted. Our mini-bus was the English speaking group with people from New Zealand, Moscow, and points in between - only 3 Americans.

The drive to the coast was interesting... lots of farming (rice, bananas, vegetables) and manufacturing. For example we passed a Canon camera factory with 50,000 employees. Our guide said that the Chinese (and many others) are moving manufacturing to Vietnam to reduce cost and improve quality.

We saw many small cemeteries in the distance in rice fields. In Northern Vietnam (where we were) historically family members were buried in the fields where the family grew crops. Today each community must have shared cemeteries rather than burying bodies in their fields. Thus there are two cemeteries for each community - one for the original burial in a wooden coffin, then three years later the family digs up the body, cleans and polishes the bones, and arranges them in a smaller pottery casket that is buried in the "second burial" cemetery.

The bus took us to a tour boat, where we were served a 12 course meal while cruising around the rock formations in the harbor.

Then we switched to the green "bamboo boats" (4 people plus a professional driver/rower per boat to get closer to the rocks

The oarsmen on the boats didn't pretend to speak English, but when some folks on a nearby boat were trying to identify a monkey in the rocks, I finally muttered "I would have to drink a lot more to see a monkey there." A nearby oarsperson (woman) almost fell over laughing.

Yes we went through that tunnel... and back out.

Then back to our tour boat, which shuttled us on to some caves we explored. Along the way we saw a "community" of boats where fishermen live with their families.

The Động Thiên Cung cave was an easy hike uphill to the entrance (not down into the ground) and was dramatically lit. The tour group ahead of us spent a long time trying to learn to pronounce the name of the cave.

Then it was back to the tour boat, to take us to the bus for the return trip to Hanoi.

Winter (February) is the prime time for foreign tourists, as indicated by the solid line of tour boats. During the summer it is very hot, but then the locals from the cities are the primary visitors to the "coast."

Along the way we passed the locally famous "kissing chicken" rocks. Note the tail of another tour boat, for scale.

Museum of Ethnology

We spent the better part of a day at the Museum of Ethnology - there are many Ethnic groups in Vietnam (Viet is the largest group, but there are more than 50 others). Inside the museum was homage to many of the cultures, but outside there were many traditional homes moved from their original locations and reconstructed.

Each color on the map is a different ethnic group. If you want to look at the details, click here for a higher resolution picture with at least 11 groups identified.

This photo was in the museum, of Mr. Pham Ngoc Uyomeone, selling fish traps from his bicycle (1982-1997). His inventory of over 800 traps that he carried at a time, and his bike, were in the museum, but he was only there in this picture that I copied.

This display of a shoe maker and repairman who carried his sewing machine and supplies to various markets to repair shoes, and to make and sell shoes.

Outside the museum were a collection of huts from various tribes, like this very tall hut. Jenny was not as brave as she looks now as she climbed the log ladder.

This is a copy of a large tomb house from the Mrong Ngo village, for the burial of up to 30 people. As the museum label says, "It is decorated by statues of men and women showing off their secret parts, and pregnant women symbolizing fertility and birth." The tomb is to house the deceased in the afterlife.

Other groups had houses on ground level. Sometimes individual shakes (roof shingles, over 6 feet long) were occasionally removed temporarily for inside lighting.

Some of the inside facilities were fairly elaborate, with rooms created with woven walls (for ventilation) and different functional areas.

Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature is a temple of Confucius in Hanoi, built in 1070. In 1076 Vietnam's first University, the Imperial Academy was established here, to educate Vietnam's elite. In 1802 a new Imperial Academy was built elsewhere, and this became a local school (with a 1,000 year history). In the early days, the King judged the oral final exams.

The entrance was very festive - we found quite a few groups celebrating graduation with the usual robes and photos of mortar board hats tossed up in unison.

Amazing giant carvings and decorations ...

in addition to memorals (on sacred turtles) to ten centuries of scholars.

One of the ceremonial drums was so large it required it's own building.

We were welcomed throughout the complex, even though we did not appreciate the meaning of all the symbolism.

Market

We ventured into one of the larger city markets... Jenny loves touring markets, but this one was overwhelming.

For example, might you be able to find that fabric you were looking for here?

Or if you need a larger quantity, how about here... each of the "drums" is a solid roll of fabric from which you can buy whatever quantity you want, wholesale lot or retail. Many purchases appeared to be in 100 meter (yard) lots, spread on the floor and rolled up for delivery.

Perhaps you would like some hats? Or 100 hats to start a store?

Maybe some shoes? This section with shoes went down aisles to the left as well as as far as you could see ahead. The aisles were often so narrow that you could not get through or turn around... you had to back out.

Perhaps some suitcases or briefcases?

Kid's clothing was displayed in the staircase. We heard there was also a wet market (meat and fish) but we never got that far.

Sights

The Cathedral was impressive from the outside but not as dramatic as expected inside. Services were only in Vietnamese or French.

We found the church that had an English congregation (one mass per week) so we went there. It was the ... uh ... yellow of many of the government buildings.

If you are from the North and living near the equator, you might miss snow at Christmas. So maybe you would like some fake snow (cotton)?

And you can make a grotto look like a Christmas Tree.

Near our church was a section of the old city wall... including holes at the lower left and top left where it had been struck by canons.

However, the wall was far thicker than those cannon holes suggest.

Walking along a street we came to a monument to King Le Thai To, a leader of the resistance against invaders in the 15th Century. Their history sure goes back a long way.

We walked by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It is only open for visitor viewing a few hours per day, a few days per week, but honestly, we didn't care. He is still held in high regard as a national hero.

The one pillar pagoda is a respected tourist attraction. Of course it has a stairway almost as large as the pagoda to get to see it. Check that off the list.

Hanoi Hilton (Hỏa Lò Prison)

The Hỏa Lò Prison was built by the French in the late 1800's when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina, to hold Vietnamese political prisoners. It was designed for 460 inmates, and later expanded to hold 600, but was used for up to 2,000 people in subhuman conditions. When the French left in 1954 it became a Vietnamese prison, and was used for downed US pilots from 1964-1973. Much was demolished in the mid-1990s, with only a small portion retained as a museum.

Men were often confined to bunks, with one or both feet shackled to the bottom of the bunk. The name Hỏa Lò translates to "fiery furnace" or "Hell's hole."

Women were confined with their children. Propoganda films show American prisoners playing chess and basketball, and eating large meals. The winners write the history, at least in the local museums. Despite brutality, no war crime trials were held against the Vietnamese, who claimed their thousand year culture insured that they would treat "guests" well.

This display was, of course, how the French treated the Vietnamese, not how the Vietnamese treated the Americans. They wrote the history. The American Pilots gave it the "Hanoi Hilton" nickname, which the Vietnamese claimed as evidence that the prisoners had hotel-like facilities.

The guillotine used by the French was on display... this is not a model, but the actual unit that was moved to the public area each of the many times it was used.

Water Puppet Show

The water puppet is a Vietnamese art form that dates back to the 11th century performances in rice paddies. Wooden puppets are controlled with underwater rods in a 4 meter (13 feet) square pool that functions as a stage, with musicians on each side.

There were a number of skits, explained in the English program, and some amazing puppetry. For example, fight scenes amongst elegant animal puppets moving too fast to photograph in the dim theater light. (My excuse for few decent pictures.) The hour+ performance is a "must see."

Returning Home - February 25

Travel: Our flight left Hanoi for Tokyo just after midnight. With the extremely cheap room, we kept it for the day so we could nap and shower. The hotel recommended departure the usual three hours before the international flight - actually we could have made it in one hour, but enjoyed the lounge provided by JAL before their flight to Tokyo. Then on American airlines from Tokyo to Dallas, and Dallas to Austin, so we were home by Thursday noon. The date line takes away on the trip west, and gives back on the trip east!

This was an absolutely wonderful trip. Not a trip to see in life what you saw in school textbooks, but the exploration of a different culture with very amazing history and very kind and friendly people. (Jenny was tired, and rested her foot on a doorstep to tie her shoe. As the homeowner came out, she bent down, and tied Jenny's shoe for her, expecting nothing but a smile. Can you imagine that kindness anywhere else?) It is a communist country that has more capitalism than anywhere we have been. Most people are not rich, but they are happy, well clothed, well fed, and good workers. We always felt safe. We recommend it highly for any experienced travelers.



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