We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam on March 20th. When we arrived at our hotel, we were pleasantly surprised with our newly renovated accommodations at the IPeace Hotel in a downtown district called Pham Hgu Lao. The hotel was a cool skinny eight-story building that stood alone in the middle of a narrow touristy street. It was mid-day and very hot and we were tired from our early morning travel from Thailand, so we just cranked on the air conditioning, climbed into our beds and watched TV all day, until we fell asleep for the night. The next day, we were excited to rendezvous with our friends from Canada, Jan Wood and Chris Brown. They had traveled Cambodia and came across the border to meet us in Ho Chi Minh. They arrived by bus early afternoon and we spent the remainder of the day swapping travel stories and drinking beer.
On day three, morning came early and we all jumped a tour bus to visit the Mekong Delta. The Delta is where the great Mekong River expands and ends and acts as an important area for the Vietnamese to grow and transport rice. We took a tour boat to the Tan Thauch natural canal in Ben Tre and floated down a cool narrow canal with a pole-powered boat manned by an older Vietnamese lady. Next, we were taken to an area where we sat and tasted local tea mixed with local Vietnamese bee honey and some fresh lime. It was very good, and Drew gulped down three or four cups with in a couple of minutes. Then they brought out the good stuff and we had a small spoonful taste of Royal Bee Jelly. None of us had ever tasted it before, so we were a bit reluctant, but it was pretty good. Then we were moved to another area and we were served a variety of locally grown fruits, such as Dragon Fruit and Jackfruit. While we ate, we were entertained by three very talented local Vietnamese ladies who sang old traditional songs, accompanied by three musicians that had a guitar, a banjo looking thingy, and a weird keyboard. Interestingly, the singers soloed their own traditional song and each one was uniquely different from the other, but all very good. Next stop was an outside Coconut candy factory and we watched the entire process of the making of the taffy like candy. At the end of the production line, we got to taste some fresh warm candy followed by a candy counter where at that point, you were almost obligated to buy. Then the adults on the tour were herded to a bar for a sample of local rice and/or banana wine. It was really odd and strong tasting, and ended up served as a good warm up for the next served sample of local hooch. This strange looking booze was in a normal 40 once clear bottle, but inside was this cloudy golden liquid that was full of booze-embalmed creatures, like cobra snakes, black scorpions and a whole bunch of other smaller disgusting bugs and stuff. It looked awful and indeed it did not disappoint and tasted awful. Still, all the men sucked it up and pretended it was good.
On our fourth day in Hanoi, went to the highly recommended Remnant War Museum, were we learned a lot about the history of the country of Vietnam and about the Vietnam War, that is actually called the American War in Vietnam. Vietnam’s troubled history began along time ago with Chinese rule that lasted over a thousand years and ended with a Chinese defeat 938AD. Over the course of the next 500 years, the Vietnamese people were somewhat independent, but constantly defending further attacks from China and new attacks from the then powerful Mongolians. Then in 1859 the French invaded Vietnam, (known then as Indochina) and the result was, the King was forced to sign a 70 year colonial agreement with the French in 1883. In 1945, Vietnam claimed independence, but the French were not ready to leave, so they extended their colonial rule, which consequently led to war. After years of fighting, the French were defeated and driven out of Vietnam in 1954. In 1955, the country then split in two; the communist North and capitalist South Vietnam. By this time, the Americans were heavily involved and they stepped up their involvement and support of the democratic South Vietnam. War became eminent when South Vietnam president Ngo Dimh Diem violated the Geneva agreement by not calling a democratic election. The result was the eruption of civil war in 1965. The following next ten years would be a hellish war that saw the Americans, drop twice as many bombs as they did in WW2. The museum was well displayed with thousands of war artifacts and graphic information. The external museum had actual war machines used in the Vietnam War, such as US tanks, aircraft and helicopters. Throughout the site, Vietnamese was vets and deformed victims sold books and DVD’s about the war. Inside the museum, we read the details about the spraying of Agent Orange. It was designed to clear and kill the dense jungle to make the enemy more visible for the Americans. Allegedly, it wasn’t until years later that it was discovered that the chemical also caused cancer in those exposed and later birth defect in the children. Apparently, compensation for this atrocity is still in the international courts today. The War ended in 1975 with the North invading and overtaking Saigon with a dramatic tank crashing of the Imperial Palace gates in Saigon. We visited the palace and saw the two original leading tanks that are on display in front of the palace that act as a symbol and reminder of the war and the North’s victory. Later that year, the re-united communist country renamed Saigon, Ho Chi Minh. Today, the country remains unified under the rule of the Communist Party. Anyway, no matter how accurate my interpretation is, the museum was remarkable and informative from a Vietnamese perspective. At the end of the visit, Drew purchased authentic dog tags and a cigarette lighter at the gift shop once belonging to a fallen American soldier. I almost asked him not to purchase them, but then I thought, at least they are real souvenir, and not just more tourist junk. And I hope that the artifacts will remind him of Vietnam and the tragedy of the American War. Right now, from Drew’s perspective, he just wanted the Zippo lighter and the fire damaged dog tags!
The next day we continued our historical war tour by visiting the Cuchi Tunnels located just 60km northwest of Saigon. These famous 300-kilometer long, three level underground tunnels were actively used by the Viet Cong during the French and American wars. The tunnels were designed and constructed to hide from the enemy. In the mid 1960’s, they were expanded and further utilized to shelter them from the constant American artillery bombings. We learned that the Vietcong were not necessarily Communists from North Vietnam, but were often common civilians simply fighting against the Americans occupation. The Vietcong were hard to identify because, they were farmers and commoners by day and un-uniformed gorillas by night. They obviously did not have the sophistication or might of the US, so they used any means possible to fight back and survive. Some of the more interesting gorilla tactics used included, the retrieval and salvage of undetonated American bombs. They would drag them underground to their make shift factory and hand saw the bombs in half to extract the gunpowder to make landmines. They also made several different types of nasty homemade jungle traps made out of sharpened bamboo. The unsuspecting victims would step on and fall into the hidden trap that was full of jagged bamboo sticks causing severe injury or death. The tour guide demonstrated several different types of these clever traps. One of our favorites was the swinging door trap that was rigged to the inside hut door. When the door was swung open from the outside, a multiple sharpened bamboo stick trap would swing down and skew the unsuspecting intruder. To ensure effectiveness, the spikes were double hinged, so that if the intruder tried to grab the top of the frame to stop its swing, the bottom portion would continue to swing forward at an even higher velocity and finish the job. Brilliant! Another clever trap was called the souvenir trap, which was made out of scrap bombshell metal, shaped into a hollow cylinder riddled with barbed fish hooks. It was then buried just beneath the surface and camouflaged with leaves and dirt. When the unsuspecting enemy stepped on it, their leg would sink into the trap and the hooks would penetrate and lodge in their leg. It was nicknamed the souvenir trap because it was portable and could not be removed in the field, so soldiers would be taken to the hospital for its surgical removal, hence leaving them with a souvenir. Next, Drew was chosen to demonstrate a descending climb into a tiny 22-inch tunnel entrance. He barely could get down there and it made you realize how small the Vietnamese people really are, and subsequently how safe they were in these underground tunnels. Since the end of the war, the underground tunnels have been enlarged for visiting fat tourist experience. I gotta tell ya, it still isn’t very easy! However, we struggled through and we were able to see the amazing fully functional facility, complete with kitchen, weapon room, hospital room and even a library. We were shown how the smoke from the kitchen was the diverted. Several long ventilation pipes run hundred of meters away from the stove, and exhaust in the jungle or under a rock pile, so the enemy could not easily find them. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese army was a formidable army that was the direct uniformed opponent of South Vietnam and the American armies. These northern guys were well-trained military soldiers with heavily supplied arms from their Russians allies. They fought their battles conventionally and independent of the Vietcong, but it was well known that they often worked together, since they both shared the same common goal! In conclusion, by the end of the war in 1975, three million Vietnamese were dead, including two million civilians, and the Americans casualty list was over 58,000 soldiers. The estimated cost of the Vietnam War was a whopping 639 Billion US dollars that was largely due to the extensive American bombing campaigns.
Then it was back to the fun. We were taken to a near by firing range, where tourists could choose from a variety of military guns and shoot war them. There were some pistols you could shoot, but most people selected the AK47, M16, or the 30 or 60 caliber machine guns. I thought about shooting the big honkin 60 caliber (Rambo) machine gun, but it was a little too expensive at 10 bucks around, so I went one step down and chose the 30 caliber
machine gun instead. Lyane and the kids were not supposed to accompany me to the shooting range, but the soldier at the gate didn’t care and allowed them in anyway. In retrospect, it was serious but kind of funny too, to see the three of them standing no more than five feet away from me, anticipating the shots with their cameras ready and in hand. I was supplied ear protection, but they were not and when I squeezed the trigger and blasted 10 rapid fire shots without pause, the three of them stood there shocked, stunned and temporarily deaf! I guess in all the excitement, I didn’t consider the gun’s ring and as I said, the soldier dude didn’t care and may have even enjoyed it.
After returning to Saigon, it was so hot, we all agreed it was time to retreat to the coastal beaches, so we jumped a bus and headed north to the beaches. Other than the extreme heat, we relly liked Saigon. We will forever remember it as a big friendly city of 11 million people. Not once did sense danger and we never experience any conflict with the humble citizens of Saigon. They are truly nice people. Thank you to the great staff at the IPeace Hotel and to the helpful restaurant guy named Hi. Even the desperate street merchants were nice, especially the persistent older man that followed Jessica for five days and finally sold her a pink hammock for $2.50. But the ever lasting memory of the city will be the tens of thousands of motorbikes buzzing down the streets with multiple passengers or oversized cargo on them, like lumber, propane tanks, pipe, bottles, or bulky vegetables bags. W will never forget the day we saw these two young guys doubling on a motorbike, dangerously weaving in and out of traffic with a six-foot high pane of glass wedged between them. Now that was dangerous!
Later that day, we arrived at a touristy beach called Mui Ne Beach. We found a nice little place right on the beach with a second story balcony over looking the China Sea. Our travel buds, Chris and Jan got a really cool little beachfront cottage hanging right over the sea and was less than 200 feet from ours. Mui Ne beach is world reknowed for it’s perfect thermal winds that attracts thousands of Kite- surfers every year from all over the world. We talked to this old guy from Hawaii and he said he was one of the pioneers of Kite-surfing and he proclaimed that Mui Ne is the best place in the world. It is quite a sight to see. The surfing area is probably no longer that three kilometers long and there is literally hundreds of kite-surfers everyday sharing this quaint phenomenal beach. From a distance, they look dangerously close together, but when you get closer, you see their limited space and their level of skill. Drew and Jessica were excited to try it, but were disappointed when they discovered that lessons were $45 an hour with a minimum of five hours of dry land training before attempting a solo surf. They both thought you could just harness up and sore with the wind and waves, but obviously, it wasn’t quite so easy. Our first night, we all got together on Jan and Chris’s ocean front deck and watched thousands of lights appeared in the distance, and we all thought it must be an island or peninsula. The next morning we were told that lights was not land but hundreds of night fishing boats, fishing for squid. The distant lights were the powerful beam lights the boats point in the water to attract the squid. There were so many boats one has to wonder how there can possibly be enough quid in the sea to sustain that large of a catch every night! Amazing. Early the next morning, I watched a different style of fishing. At sunrise, hundreds of little round boats called, “Tumes” float off the shore to net fish. They are cool little single manned vessels that look like a giant coconut shell that are cut in half. The single paddle of the circular boat is harnessed to the side and the fisherman propels the boat with a strange tight circular stirring motion. Remarkably, the boat moves along pretty well. I have never seen anything like it. They then throw light fishing net into the water and attempt to catch small fish. It’s a though way to make a living and I saw several fisherman bring in their nets many times empty. I talked to one local girl fisherman who had been out for about four hours and she had about thirty little finger size fish and a dozen or so tiny crabs that she was going to feed her family breakfast with. I don’t know how many were in her family, but I could see her grand parents sitting on the steps of her hut waiting for her return. Every meal they eat is served with rice, so I guess the amount of catch determines how much rice has to be cooked. I didn’t talk to her long because her English was very limited and my Vietnamese was worse. I was also getting embarrassed with the situation because she was about twenty years old, fishing in her bra and panties! She didn’t care.
On our third day in Mui Ne Beach, we took a half-day tour with a local driver and jeep while Chris and Jan followed behind us on their rented motorbike. The first stop was an incredible fishing port that docks thousands of beautifully colored fishing boats. This impressive port was one of the most picturesque sites on our entire trip. Next stop, we traveled to Vietnam’s famous white sand dunes. It was really cool isolated area that was like being in the desolate desert of Saudi Arabia!
The kids were excited to rent dune sliders, (like a crazy carpet) and slide down the steep hilly white sand, but were quickly disappointed when it really didn’t work very well. The hill was steep, but the resistance of the sand slowed them down to the point of a crawl. After a few attempts we left in a hurry, because it was extremely hot and the high winds were peppering us with fine sand. Next stop was the nearby contrasting red sand dunes that were as impressive as the whites. It was so hot that Drew, Jan and Chris decided to go and stay in the shade while Lyane, Jessica and I trekked up the heavy hot sand. We were greeted at the foot of the dunes by about a dozen of the local kids, who offered us their guide services and the rental of their sand sliders. We asked them how much it would costs, but they ignored us, and we all joyfully walked up the hot sand dunes, holding hands, laughing and singing with them. When we got to the top of the red dune, the local kids prepared the flat sled by loaded up the surface with wet sand and then sitting Jessica on top. The weight of the wet sand on the carpet was the trick and Jessica went speeding down the steep red dune laughing and screaming all the way down. The local kids insisted that Lyane and I to try it, but we repeatedly refused and we headed back for the jeep with the local kids in tow. Again, on the way back, the kids were happy and playful, but when we got back to the jeep the business side of the kids reared its ugly head. After much discussion and argument, we gave them six or seven bucks for Jessica’s single slide, and it still wasn’t enough. As we drove off, we could still hear them yelling and screaming at us for more money. Bad little buggers! Lastly, we drove to this really weird shallow stream and trekked along it for about two kilometer. At first it seemed a bit bogus, but after a few hundred meters in, it was pretty cool. The rock and sand formations were very unique and we took several pictures of the terrain. At the end of the stream was an unimpressive waterfall that we played around in for about five minutes and then we headed back. It sure was an excellent and really cheap tour, only costing us twenty dollars each for the whole day. It’s no wonder you see so many young people traveling Asian countries like Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. It is so cheap, they can virtually live off 8 to 10 bucks a day in comparison to Europe where 8 bucks wouldn’t even get you a hamburger! Anyway, after we returned to our hotel and we all went swimming in the ocean right in front and happily got tossed around by the five foot waves. It’s really scary to do with your kids, but they were very confident in the water and enjoyed the wave challenge immensely. That evening was Earth Day, so we went over to Jan and Chris’s beach front to celebrate and watch the Vietnam coast house lights turn off. Jan was particularily excited when the turn off the lights hour struck, but was disappointed when not one single light (except ours) turned off! It was kinda funny, but sad as well, so we all had a half-hearted laugh about it and celebrated anyway.
The following morning, we rented a SUV and driver and drove about four hours north up the coast to the touristy town Nha Trang. In Vietnam, it is recommended that when you hire vehicle you hire a local driver too, because the cost is the virtually same, and
because the driving in Vietnam is very dangerous. There were several close calls along the way with semis, buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and lots of people walking, all going in different directions and all jostling for a piece of the two lane highway. It in truth is really indescribable. Fortunately, we arrived in Nha Trang safe and sound and rented one of hundreds of cheap hotel rooms in the area for twelve bucks a night. We dropped our luggage in our rooms and headed for the six-kilometer long beautiful Nha Trang Beach. The waves were an incredible seven feet high that crashed violently into the shore. The water was nice and clean, and the people that were playing in it, were just getting hammered by the massive rolling waves. The kids watched the show and laughed hysterically at the oceans victims and couldn’t wait to try the waves themselves.
We held then off that day and the next day, we all went to the beach and tried our luck in the large crashing waves. The kids and Chris did really well in them, and I did alright, while Jan got a little beat up, and poor Lyane got the worst of it and ended up getting washed up on shore head over heels. It too was kinda funny, but at the same time a little scary. You really have to be careful out there, because there are no lifeguards and waves are deceivingly dangerous. The biggest annoyance on Nha Trang beach was the relentless beach vendors. At first it was kinda neat because they had some unique things, like fresh boiled lobsters, locally made jewelry, post cards, weird fruit, flat bread, and even massage services. But after a while it got old and they were constantly harassing us. They were not rude, but they just didn’t take no for an answer, and repeatedly said in corny broken English: “Cheap price for you”, “Happy hour”, “Just for looking. “ Just for looking alright! If you showed any interest, at all, in an item, they would stay with you and bug for hours!
Our last day in Nha Trang, we took a city tour and did a little shopping in the local market. The market was huge and was well sectioned into categories of local products, such as food, hardware, clothing and souvenirs. Like the street vendors, bartering is a way of life in Vietnam and we found it very confusing to negotiate because the currency exchange rate is $1800 Vietnam Dong to $1.00 Canadian dollar. We finally got smart and went on the Internet, and made a make shift currency conversion chart on a piece of cardboard. Then we were good! The down side of that is sometimes you get a little carried away and end up haggling over pennies. It’s a tough game that you are forced to play, otherwise, they will rip you off ten fold!
Then came the night terror train. We entrusted the purchase of or first class oven train tickets to Denang, with our sneaky hotel clerk. We arrived at 10pm to Nha Trang station to catch our train. When it arrived, there was much confusion on where to go and we ended up being the last passengers to board. Suddenly, the train staff was frantically yelling at us to hurry up! We followed the clerk’s panicked eyes down the narrow oncoming track and saw another night train speeding down the track right towards us. Chris, Jan, Jessica and Drew were log jammed into the steps of our train while Lyane and I stood desperately outside the train with the train staff yelling at us and pushing us aggressively in the back into the train. The problem was, that our luggage was too heavy for the kids to lift up the stairs of the train, so Chris and Jan had to reach over top of them to help. Honestly, just like a Hollywood movie, we all fell forward on to the floor of the train with our luggage sprawled all around us and the oncoming train whizzed by a second later. We then collected our luggage, (and nerve), and struggled down the narrow hallway to our assigned berth (train bedroom). When we arrived at the room, the door was locked, so we had to find a train clerk to unlock it. He unlocked the door and swung it open, and over his shoulder I could see a bunch of people scrambling around the berth. The train clerk immediately knew what was going on and he harshly chew out the violators and they quickly exited the room. After they left, we realized that these were not the first class accommodations we had paid for and maybe not even second! Inside the birth there was supposed to be four soft beds for the four of us, but instead, there were six congested hard beds with still three people sleeping in two of beds. We had a quick meeting out side the room and realized there was nothing we could do, so we hoisted our oversized luggage into the tiny room and organized it the best we could, but we still ended up sleeping with most of our luggage. Drew and I slept on the top coffin like bunks with no more than six inches of breathing space from the ceiling, and Lyane and Jessica slept in the middle bunks with the majority of the bags. Below them our new roommates consisted of a mother and her baby in one lower bed and a strange lady in the other lower bunk. As the night slowly progressed the strange lady in the lower bunk started waking up and opening the berth room door, making noise and letting in the hallway light. We began to retaliate and close the door from our top bunks and then she would return and angrily bark back at us in Vietnamese. What a long night that was. The morning did come, and we exited the train without incident this time and caught a cab to our next accommodation just outside of Danang called Hoa’s Place. The hostel was recommended for back packers in the Lonely Planet travel guide, so we thought we would give it a try. Upon arrival, the place looked a little substandard, but the little Vietnamese man owner named Hoa greeted us with a welcoming smile and spoke really good English. It sure wasn’t the best room we have ever stayed in, but Hoa was a first class businessman that knew how to take care of his customers. Our room was clean, but small with only a box spring for a mattress to sleep on. There was no night security and our room had only a crappy single pop type lock on it. The upside was that the room only cost $7 dollars a night to rent and in the evening, Mr. Hoa severed a delicious smorg style dinner every night for under, 3 bucks! Hoa also had this giant self-serve cooler of ice cold beer that customers were encouraged to help themselves to on a gracious system. Everything purchased at Hoa’s was on the gracious system and customers were responsible for their own billing by way of a tick sheet. The beer was so cheap at only 45 cents a bottle that you have to assume that Hoa learned many years ago that not too many people would cheat the system. This little operator is an amazing guy who stays very busy in amongst existing and growing stiff competition. He was basically full every night, while most of the larger hotels were operating at about 50% capacity. The beach and ocean was only a couple blocks from Hoa’s Place and it was nice, but not fantastic. The ocean water was shallow with rough choppy waves and the setting wasn’t as appealing as we were accustomed to. The one great thing about the beach was that the local beach merchants were few and far between and predominately only sold traditional items like jellyfish cakes, snails, and this bun like thing that had a half cooked pigeon eggs in the middle. Lyane ate one, but no body else did. At the beach bar, we meet this older American guy who came to Vietnam with the US Army in 1965, and he virtually never went back home. He talked very little about the war or why he never returned home and we never pressed him to elaborate. He was a very interesting intelligent man, married a couple times to Vietnamese women and who was obviously now an alcoholic who lives mostly alone. He had been married three times to Vietnamese women and new the language and culture very well. The culture of Vietnam was his favorite subject and he didn’t mind sharing some of it with us. I did ask him why he chose to live most of his life in Vietnam and he replied, simply because the Vietnamese are the nicest people in the world. There is no question that there is some merit to what he says. They truly are very nice people. He was a very interesting dude and I felt fortunate to meet him and I felt I understood more about Vietnam than any other country I had visisted.
The next day, Hoa arranged for a driver (who did not speak a lick of English) to pick us up and take us on a mini local tour. The first stop was a place called, Monkey Mountain, where we took several more pictures of a yet another giant Buddha statue, a Buddhist temple and a bunch of cool statues. Further up Monkey Mountain was an abandoned American airfield and some in active radar equipment. It was very weird and eerie. The city of Danang was a dividing line in the Vietnam War between the north and the south, and therefore there is a lot of war history there. On the way back from Monkey Mountain, we spotted an abandoned military aircraft hangers sitting amongst the major hotel development. It seemed so strange to see it sitting there still intact while demolition was going on all around it. You would think that the enemy military buildings would be the first be removed, but there they sat! The construction and development going on in the Danang, China Beach area of Vietnam is astounding. They are really throwing up a lot of big hotels and are obviously banking on and expecting a lot of company! The next stop was a centuries old town called Hoi An. Hoi An is the gem of Vietnam with historical architectural influenced by several different cultures who visited and inhabited this little port town. The first to arrive in Hoi An to trade with the Vietnamese were the Chinese and then later the Japanese, and finally the French, that colonialized the area it in 1845. Amazingly, during the Vietnam War, both sides, agreed not to bomb Hoi An and so fortunately it remains as an important historical town and virtually looks as it did it hundred years ago. One of the big tourist attraction in Hoi An, is the 15th century Japanese built covered bridge. The exterior has been preserved and still has beautiful Japanese hand carved wood. The bridge flooring is arched and is also wooden. At each end of the bridge astrological statues guard and symbolizes the year the bridge was started and finished. At the beginning of construction, two dogs stand guard and at the other end, the astrological monkeys symbolize the year of the bridges completion. The town’s other claim to fame is the shopping. There are thousands of retail type shops, including over 500 tailors. These skilled tailors can make custom-made suits for men or women for 50 bucks and up in less than three hours. The town also has several shoemakers who can make any kind of shoe or runner you can imagine. Jessica and Drew were ecstatic when they found out they could design and customize their own knock off brand name shoes. Each of them customized two pairs each, and picked them up complete the very next day. Drew designed and purchased a pair of snakeskin (fake) skate shoes and a second pair of purple and yellow LA Lakers high tops, while Jessica designed her own pink and black Nike high tops with a green swish and selected some funky gladiator strapped shoes. We continued to stroll around the old town for a few hours, constantly warding off street merchants, until we came across these two really cool little old Vietnamese ladies that were selling bananas. They immediately caught our attention with their traditional outfits and their conal hats. They looked like twins or at the very least like sisters, and they both had to be 80 years old or over, and stood no higher than 4 feet tall. We bought some bananas off them and asked if we could have our picture taken with them. Although their English was very limited, they quickly obliged by grabbing Jessica and hanging their long stick, double basket banana carrier on her and stood themselves on each side of her. As I positioned myself to take a good picture of the three of them, the one old lady called out the picture instructions in English, “1,2,3… lovely” It was so cute! They didn’t know much English, but they obviously knew the tourist picture drill.
On our last day at Hoa’s place in Danang, we decided to take a short fifteen walk to an ancient temple site, located right behind him on the mountainside. Good thing we did, because it was amazing. The caves were full of centuries old marble and rock Buddha statues that were hidden away in the mountains crevasses. We explored for a couple of hours and then visited the industrious marble town below. Here, hundreds of craftsmen chisel out massive marble stones into giant fabulous statues all with just a hand chisel, skill saw and a power grinder. Then it was time to return to our place and say goodbye to our travel companions of ten days. Chris and Jan were not in a hurry and decided to stay in Danang a little longer, while the clock was ticking for us to complete the tour visit the north, before we had to leave the country. It was great to travel with them, and the kids really enjoyed their company. Thanks guys!
We landed in Hanoi on April 3rd evening and took a cab to the city centre a long hour away from the airport. It was late at night when we arrived to our downtown hotel and our first impression was a not great. It was dark and rainy and there were a lot of seedy looking people milling around the narrow street. Most noticeably, was the loud and drunk young back packer, who were staying in nearby cheap hostels. Anyway, we braved it out and hurried down the road with our awkward luggage to our hotel. Once again, we were relieved and pleasantly surprised at how nice the hotel was on the inside and how helpful and friendly the staff was. When we entered our room, we were surprised to see that the room had a PC. The kids were happy to see that, but were quickly disappointed because Face Book is prohibited in Vietnam and subsequently, could not be accessed. The next morning, we poked our heads out of our room and onto the streets and we were relieved that the city looked friendlier in the daylight. It didn’t take long to realize that downtown Hanoi is a very busy and congested city. We were really surprised at the number of tourist milling around the core area known as The Old French Quarter. The streets were crammed with shops and mini-markets and the sidewalks were blocked by thousands of parked motorcycles and scooters that forced pedestrians on to the streets of swarming traffic. It is estimated that there are six million people in Hanoi and over two million motorized bikes. Crazy! To add to the confusion and congestion, local people cook right on the sidewalk as well. They cook with these open fire barbeque lie stoves that is heated by an unusual looking charcoal pellet. Then they place these little short stools everywhere in hopes of attracting customers. The amazing part is, it all seems to work in some sort of organized chaos and to be honest, it was kinda fun! In the middle of the city, there is a nice lake (the city’s name Hanoi means city surrounded by a lake) that is really pretty at night, with colorful lanterns and fancy lights all around the lake’s treed perimeter. Just down the street from our hotel was a stunning 17th century French Catholic Church called Saint Joseph. The first morning we walked by it, there seemed to be a lot of activity and Lyane got excited when she realized it was Easter Sunday morning! We ran back to our hotel and got the kids and we attended a French Easter Sunday mass. Don’t forget that Vietnam was French occupied from the late 1800’s until 1945, so there is still a lot of French influence in Hanoi. When we entered the massive church the Sunday service was in full swing and much to our surprise, it was packed with French (France) people, with a significant Vietnamese minority as well. The priest was Asian, and assumed to be Vietnamese who spokes very good clear French. It was really nostalgic experience!
The next day, we took a three-hour road trip tour to a beautiful rural place called Tam Coc. There we climbed aboard a small rowboat that was rowed ironically by a French speaking elderly Vietnamese women. Lyane was again tickled pink. The old women rowed us up this amazing river system for about an hour, past these incredible odd shaped rocky
mountains and peculiar land masses. In the flat areas of the land, famers were busy at work in their rice fields. It was nice to get out into the country and it was the most beautiful part of Vietnam we had seen. Unfortunately, the euphoria of the tour came to an end when the river system ended into a widened area where there before us was an army of floating boat merchants with more tourist junk to sell. I tell ya, the merchant thing and tourist junk gets really annoying after a while, but you have to always remind yourself that is the way these poor people feed their families. There are few jobs in Vietnam and these merchants put in long days everyday without a day off in hopes of making a little bit of money.
Late that afternoon we returned back to Hanoi and walked through the crowded local market. We had walked through many big city markets before, but this was the first time that we had ever seen barbequed dog for sale! The kids were shocked and totally disgusted by the site of the cooked dogs that were displayed with their tails sticking straight up in the air and their mouths shaped to show their grinning teeth. Eating dog is an ancient Vietnamese practice and is believed to bring good luck to those who eat it. If it is any consolation, the dogs are farmed animals like cows and pigs and they all look the same. So in other words, you can’t go to the market and buy cooked Poodle or barbequed Wiener dog. At least not at the mainstream markets. After the market, we went for dinner and had a variety of meat to eat. Drew had chicken, Lyane had pork and Jessica and I had beef, which sparked a long discussion with the kids about discretionary animal meat consumption. It was an interesting conversation as they both tried to defend the dogs inherent right to just being a pet, all while justifying the slaughter and consumption of chickens, cows and pigs!
After dinner, we had to beetle back to our room because we had to get up early and we took another tour to one Vietnam’s top tourist attractions called Ha Long Bay. For the second day in a row, the bus ride was long and took about three hours. We arrived at a port and boarded a replica turn of the century Vietnamese sailing boat for an over night stay. Aboard the vessel were 16 other tourist and 5 crewmembers. We sailed through several more remarkable odd shaped mountain/island type structures, protruding out of the open sea. We then docked on this island and toured this incredible vast cave that was inhabited by humans over 4,000 years ago. Inside the cave were ancient artifacts that were only discovered by the French in the early 1900’s. Then it was back to the ship. The crew enthusiastically tried to encourage the next scheduled event of jumping in the ocean off the boat. To save the event from total failure, Jessica and Drew volunteered, and they hesitantly and dramatically jump off the side of the boat into the shallow cold water and quickly swam back on board. Night fell and the crew of the ship turned on a bright nightlight at the back of the boat and supplied us with some fishing rods to try and catch squid. We all gave it a try for a while, but soon grew tired of the lack of game. The kids didn’t give up though and kept fishing for hours. Later, they came running up to us in a state of panic and we thought they must have caught the illusive squid, but much to our disappointment, they wanted us to know that the neighboring tour boat had just dumped its ships garbage into the water. We came down to investigate, and sure enough there was garbage everywhere floating on top of the water. There were disgusting tied plastic bag waste, paper and cardboard wrappings, bottles, and raw food waste all floating around boat. It makes you wondered how many of the thousands of tour boats dispose of their garbage this way and how much longer can the ecosystem withstand the waste before it collapses and turns into a giant cesspool. Ironically, days later, I was reading a global tour guide that was reporting on the top ten endangered ecosystems in the world and Hal Long Bay, Vietnam was ranked number seven. Early the next morning all the garbage had disappeared off the waters surface and it was time to go kayaking around the bizarre islands. Drew and I partnered up and Jessica and Lyane teamed up and we followed each other through the islands and we paddled through the interesting floating towns. One town is fairly large and even has a floating school. Then it was back to shore and back on the boneshaker for another three hours back to Hanoi. On the way back, I had an interesting conversation with our tour guide about life in communist Vietnam.
He was about 25 years old with a wife and no children yet, living and supporting his and her parents. He explained that there is no old age pension in communist Vietnam, so it is common practice for the children to support their parents when they are old and can no longer work. He, himself, works two jobs just to make ends meet and he was so tired he could barely stay wake on the bus. I asked him how much sleep he gets and he estimated about four hours a night or less. He angrily spoke out against the corrupt Communist government in Vietnam to me. He told me that the reason he has to work two jobs is because the government does not have a minimum wage control. And because unemployment is very high, private businesses abuse and grossly underpay their employees. The majority of the business owners are rich Vietnamese governmental officials or wealthy Vietnamese citizens who made their money outside of Vietnam and have returned to invest and capitalize on the situation. This condition has created an extreme imbalance of rich and poor in the country and he believes that a revolution is eminent. The population of Vietnam is approximately 90 million about 70% of that are very poor rice farmers. The government does not involve it self with the regulation of rice production and the vitality of the famers. The farms are left to their own survival tactics and sell harvested rice for what ever they can get that day to the local markets and various big businesses. Farmers work very hard and their life expectancy is very short only averaging 65 years of age. You can see then young and old in the rice fields that grow right up to the edge of the highway, bent over weeding and fertilizing their rice fields from early morning until dusk. Traps are set in the rice fields to capture snakes and rats and are subsequently served for dinner that night. He also explained that, Vietnam is very rich in oil and coal, and is the government’s main source of revenue. The majority of the government’s expenditure goes to maintaining the army. He does support this spending because he believes it is necessary because of the growing tension with neighboring Chinese. Apparently, the government does hold elections every four years, but according to him, no one votes because it is fixed anyway. And to that point, it is illegal for the people of Vietnam to have any form of demonstration or protest. Individual public complaining about the government is dangerous and you will be thrown in prison.
I really did sympathize with this guy, and I think that most of what he told me was true. When the tour came to an end, we gave each other an emotional manly hug and I wished him good luck. What I should have wished him was a miracle! He was certainly not the only one that we met that didn’t have the same story. The employees at our hotel slept on the floor together on a dirty old mattress in the middle of the hallway. Taxi drivers tell of long hours with no days off. Street vendors try and sell piddly little items like used books and three dollar sunglasses with out a sale for days on end.
In conclusion, we really did enjoy Vietnam and we all learned much about it. We will miss the many really nice people we met there, and we hope and pray that things do get better for them all some day soon. Goodbye Vietnam. Hong Kong next!