Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ho Chi Min City (AKA Saigon)

Saigon is quite a different place than its northern cousin, Hanoi. While Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam in a political sense, Saigon is undoubtedly the commercial center of the country. It’s big and modern, with cosmopolitan cafes and restaurants lining its boulevards and a busy lilt reminiscent of the western powers that held sway here for so many years. It’s also steamy and hot compared to the cool, crisp air in the north – a bit of a shock to the system.

Jen was stuck in bed nursing her knee, but Gil and Sue teamed up together to explore Saigon. We stayed in Pham Ngu Lao, the U.S. military enclave turned backpackers ghetto, which is lined with cheap eats and street side “bars” serving up beer in plastic jugs. From there, it was a short walk to the city’s best cultural and art museums, as well as a few nice parks – a welcome respite from the motorbike clogged streets.

As with Hanoi, there are many sites that are historically significant to the Vietnam War. The Reunification Palace (originally built as South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace) marks the location where the Communist tanks plied into the city on the day Saigon surrendered in 1975. It has been left exactly as it was on that day. Another reminder of the country’s troubled history is the War Remnants Museum, which documents the atrocities of the war in heartbreaking realism, including photographs of victims of the war and children born long afterward with defects as a result of Agent Orange and other chemicals used by the US military.

Sue and Gil also took a trip out to the Chu Chi tunnels, part of the infamous network of tunnels that reached all the way to the Cambodian border and allowed the communists to maintain control over the rural areas outside of Saigon. Guided by a former Viet Cong soldier who was clearly proud of the fact that he had a hand in defeating a global super power like the USA, they patiently listened to intricate (and often uncomforting) explanations of booby traps used to capture US soldiers and then filed into the passageways to experience the claustrophobia first hand. They passed on the opportunity to shoot off a machine gun though – the potential liability of a per-bullet pricing system just seemed too great…

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Hoi An

Vietnam is an incredibly long country. Since our buddy Sue only had a couple of weeks there, we indulged in the luxury of a few plane rides that cut trips that would normally take a two of days down to two hours. One of these flights was from Hanoi to the ancient city of Hoi An on the central coast.

Hoi An is one of those places that is so incredibly quaint you feel as if you’ve found yourself in a replica at Disney Land rather than the real thing. Having been named a Unesco World Heritage site a few years back, the local population has gone out of their way to preserve the unique architecture and beauty of this city that sits unassumingly besides the Thu Bon River.
Mingling with the Chinese and European influences seen in other parts of Vietnam, Hoi An has a strong Japanese influence, and the dark teak homes are interspersed with ornate temples, 19th century public halls and even a Japanese-style covered bridge. Many of the buildings have been converted into lovely cafes and restaurants and we spent many days enjoying French pastries, Vietnamese coffees and local delicacies, such as the “white rose” shrimp dumplings and cao lau flat noodles floating in a special broth made specially from water procured from the famous Bale Well.

One of Sue’s co-workers, Bao (who is Vietnamese) happened to be traveling in the country at the same time and he generously explained to us the finer points of Vietnamese culture, such as having a case of beer delivered to your table upon being seated! He also took us out to an amazing seafood dinner, which was one of the culinary highlights of our time in South East Asia.

Hoi An is almost as famous for its main trade as it is for its architecture. With hundreds of tailoring shops and locally crafted silk, no visit would be complete unless you walk away with at least one piece of clothing perfectly customized to your dimensions. But, cheap tailored clothes are kind of like potato chips – bet you can’t order just one! Of course, we stocked up. (Thanks, Sue, for lugging it all home!)

There are also some interesting sights nearby Hoi An, including the famous and beautiful China Beach and the jungle ruins of Mai Son. Both featured prominently in the Vietnam War, the latter when the US suspected it to be a hiding place for the Vietcong and bombed it almost into complete destruction. Unfortunately, on the way to catch the bus to Mai Son, I got hit by a truck and was slammed to the ground - hard! The egg sandwich in my hand splattered all over the windshield and I was suddenly surrounded by worried Vietnamese women petting my hair and rubbing strange smelling oils on me.

Remember that terrible fortune from a few weeks back? Apparently, running across the street without looking was not the right move… but, actually, I was pretty lucky – a sprained knee and some other scrapes and bruises were the only injuries and it could have been much worse. And now we have an excuse to spend more time lying around the beach!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Halong Bay

We left Hanoi and headed east to Halong Bay for an overnight boat trip to take in this spectacular region, which has aptly been designated a Unesco World Heritage site. The drive was tiring, but it gave us the opportunity to take in the surrounding region. The rice paddies were full of farmers carefully planting individual shoots rice in what appeared to be an amazingly labor intensive process to grow this nation’s staple food source. We also passed thousands of people on motorbikes and we were constantly amazed at the cargo, be it complete families, oversized parcels or baskets full of livestock.

When we arrived to Halong City, we were pleasantly surprised by the comfort of our boat. After waiting a bit to depart, we headed out into the Gulf of Tonkin to navigate through a maze of thousands of limestone pinnacles. Legend has it that the area was created by the thumping tail of a dragon who descended from the nearby mountains and the number of secret caves and hidden grottos in the region certainly make it seem like a perfect habitat for a mythical creature.

Our first stop was one of those caves, seductively named the Surprise Cave. It was a lovely deep cave full of unspoiled stalactites and stalagmites, some of which resembled dragons, turtles and other “surprising” objects – we’ll let your imagination run wild from the picture…

Outside of the caves, floating vendors rowed from one boat to the next selling their wares to tourists. These women not only make their living on the sea, but also make their homes there, with small floating cabins and fish farms sprinkled throughout the bay.

From this aquatic village, we jumped into kayaks to explore the islands up close. At one point, we passed through a natural tunnel covered with mussels and other tiny sea creatures into an enclosed grotto lush with tropical vegetation. It really is a magical place and we were lucky that the weather cooperated and provided a warm and sunny winter day for us to experience it.

In the evening, the boat anchored and we enjoyed a few drinks on the upper deck watching the sunset and then later gazing at the stars. It was not as peaceful as we might have imagined because there were many boats docked one small area of this large national park, but it was still a worthwhile experience.

The next morning we woke and traveled through other regions of the park, mesmerized by the many different shapes and sizes of the islands. It was a very relaxing trip, with little to do other than admire the natural beauty.