Here we go, finally the details of my last big trip of my semester abroad. I can’t believe this all was only three weeks ago (also sorry again for taking three weeks to post this. It’s just me being lazy. It’s really not that hard to upload pictures and write about them, I promise.) Anyway, I was really excited for our trip to Vietnam. We were a big group of girls, and it was promising to be fun. We didn’t go in with too many plans, and it worked out really well overall, in my opinion.
The plan was to fly into Hanoi, in the northern part of Vietnam, and then to work our way to Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon) in the south part of Vietnam over the span of 10 days. The only planning we had done was to book the first couple nights in a hostel (with free airport pickup) to avoid any sketch taxis after being on a plane all morning. This worked out spectacularly when we arrived. They gave us fresh fruit, coffee, and tea when we arrived at the hostel, and according to Mareike and Alexis, the coffee was the best they had ever tasted. I was drinking tea (I just don’t really like coffee, ok?) but when I tried their coffee, even I had to admit it was pretty good. This also was the beginning of the quest for the best Vietnamese coffee, which was incredibly challenging, as almost all the Vietnamese coffee was excellent, or just really strange.
Once we settled into our room and cleaned up, we went to go eat some lunch, specifically PHO! Pho is basically a noodle soup with your choice of meat, usually beef or chicken, and some herbs. And it’s delicious. David our hostel guy had recommended a place a few blocks away where we could walk and have some of the best pho in town, but it was closed. We decided on the place next door, and we were not disappointed.
Another interesting thing was that every town in Vietnam seemed to have it’s own beer (or two). I ordered a Bia Ha Noi beer with my first meal in Hanoi, and I made it a point to try each beer I could while we were traveling.
In Hanoi: Bia Ha Noi and Saigon beer
In Hue: Festival, Hue, and Huda beer
In Hoi An: Hoi An, Saigon, and Biere Larue beer
Most of the beers were pretty light, maybe on par with a Coors Light at home or Fireman’s 4 if they were good. But it was fun to try all the different ones!
Another interesting thing about Hanoi: all of the streets were named after the type of items they sold on that street (or maybe the items are sold there because it is named that way). For example, we were on a street named after chicken (gà), and there were other streets named after silk (lụa) or shoes (giày), and all you would be able to find on those streets were silk shops, or shoe shops. It was really interesting. No need to drive from store to store looking for the perfect pair of shoes, they’re all in one place.
On the first day in Hanoi we visited the Hỏa Lò Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton) where they kept U.S. pilots (including John McCain) during the Vietnam War. The prison had a long history before that, being used by the French to hold Vietnamese political prisoners then the Vietnamese took it back over and used it for their political prisoners, along with U.S. pilots. What I found troubling about visiting here was that they seemed to show all the U.S. pilots as enjoying themselves. Having Christmas dinner. Writing lots of letters to their families at home. Getting lots of outdoors time gardening and feeding the chickens. It seemed so wrong so see them enjoying themselves. That’s not what prison is for. But if you look closely at the pictures, none of the pilots were smiling. It started to become clear that the Vietnamese were creating this propaganda of how well they were treating our pilots, and the only thing the pilots could do was frown as deeply as they could so as not to endorse the propaganda.
Just keep in mind whenever you’re traveling that, yes, you’re there to learn about other cultures and history from different points of view, but keep in mind that everyone skews history in their favor, including the U.S. and including Vietnam.
After having a couple days to explore Hanoi, which was a really fascinating city, we booked an overnight cruise for Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay was something we all refused to miss even though there was no way to do it without being uber-tourists. For the first time, we were the people following the guy with the flag around… But once we got to our boat, it didn’t matter anymore. They served us good food, and the bay was beautiful. We had a few scheduled activities, like going to a lookout point for photo ops and a “beach,” and going through some caves (which were cool, but our guide didn’t know much about them and just kept pointing out interestingly-shaped rocks instead of giving us actual historical information about how the caves were formed or anything useful). As touristy (and kind of stupid) as those activities were, the best activity by far was being able to kayak around Ha Long Bay. We were able to finally go off on our own, and as long as we could find our way back to the boat we could go wherever we wanted.
Some of the girls kayaking! We saw a couple monkeys and a cool cave/alcove place, and just generally had a good time floating around.
When we arrived back in Hanoi the next day, we all decided it was time to move on to the next city. After two hours of debating whether to go to Sapa to see the tiered rice fields or onward south to Hue, we finally booked a night train to Hue. I was really excited for this leg of the trip, because Hue is one of the closest cities to the demilitarized zone in Vietnam, where a lot of the historical sites are. This was part of the reason why I was so excited for the trip to Vietnam in general. But first we had to get there. The train ride was not the most comfortable. We were all on the top bunk (out of THREE bunks), and pretty cramped. Mareike and I were in the same cabin, and there was a super creepy old man with only one eye on the bunk below me, so both of us were nervous to look down. In the morning there was also an annoying lady practicing singing in our cabin. Mareike luckily managed to sleep through this…
We finally arrived in Hue and headed to a hostel we had read about in the Lonely Planet, hoping they would have vacancies. They did, and we dropped everything off and went for food, as usual.
Hue was a cool town, with a nice river and some cute shops. It was much more walkable than Hanoi, mainly because the traffic was infinitely less crazy and sometimes people even obeyed traffic lights. Actually traffic lights existed here. The walk down the river was nice - there were lots of students out studying and walking around, and it didn’t feel touristy at all. It actually started to feel uncomfortable at some points because people would openly stare, just because we looked out of place as a large group of white girls. oops.
On our last full day in Hue, Alexis and I went on a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone), while the others rented bikes and rode around town. Getting to and around the DMZ was A LOT of driving. SO MUCH DRIVING. I think we actually drove from the east side of Vietnam to the west (it’s not actually that far to be honest though). The most interesting part of the DMZ was the Vinh Moc Tunnels, where some Vietnamese people lived for up to five years during the bombings in the Vietnam War. Some of the tunnels were dug down to 25 meters deep. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels and as many as 17 children were born inside.
This is an old radio tower that they used to use to broadcast war news and propaganda.
Each of these tombstones are marked with the words:
Chưa Biết Tên: Unknown Name
Liệt Sỹ: Martyr
These tombstones represent the approximately 200,000-500,000 Vietnamese that died in the war.
We also had a beach day in Hue, which was really relaxing. The water was clear, and the beach was close to empty. I’ve learned in SE Asia that for a group of white girls who only have bikinis to wear to the beach, an empty beach is a blessing. Otherwise, people stare openly at you because you aren’t completely covered up. We spent the day laying out, reading, swimming, an relaxing.
From Hue, we left on a four-hour bus ride to Hoi An, another smaller town famous for its tailor-made clothes. It was crazy when we arrived - nearly every other store was a tailor shop or a shoe shop. Apparently people come from all around the world to Hoi An to have clothes made. Alexis got a sweet professional dress, and I got an awesome pair of blue oxford shoes. They measured my feet and everything, and they had them ready by that evening.
The wet market in Hoi An was incredibly vibrant. Out along the streets were all the food and produce vendors, and just a few steps back would be the shoe and jewelry stores again. People would cruise by on their motorbikes and bicycles, and it seemed like there were no rules on the streets. People strolled up the center of the street, bikes and motorcycles weaved around and honked until they got through. And no one was bothered. The vegetable ladies didn’t seem worried about getting exhaust or dirt all over their veggies.
Also, the conical hats are not just a tourist thing. They really do wear them, all the time.
One of my favorite places in Hoi An was Reaching Out Tea House. Reaching Out is an organization in Hoi An that helps the disabled, and all of the employees of the tea house were deaf or hearing impaired. I really wanted to see if I could try signing with them, but as soon as I tried, I realized that wasn’t going to work. I just stuck with the basic sign for “thank you” which they seemed to understand. You ordered your tea and snacks by bubbling in a little card. Then if you needed anything, you could point at the little word blocks they had like “bill,” “ice,” or “thank you.” It was so peaceful and calm inside, and my herbal tea was fantastic.
This lady makes lanterns by hand. Everyone in Hoi An seemed to be a craftsman of some sort. Clothes, shoes, lanterns, jewelry, you name it.
I flew out of Da Nang (the next city over from Hoi An) to Ho Chi Minh, then back to Singapore. At this point I wasn’t really realizing that in less than 12 hours, at 6 a.m. I would be on the long journey back to Texas.