Posts Tagged 'Vietnam'


We were having our last meal in Hanoi across from the Lenin Skate Board shop which had as logo a rubber ducky. I thought it a brilliant capture of the Vietnamese version of capito-communism.

Earlier in the day we had finally gotten around to try the famous Vietnamese egg coffee. The Vietnamese coffee we had tried so far (‘white café’) drips on top of a layer of sweetened condensed milk. The egg white coffee was served in a dish of hot water. The coffee itself had a creamy yellow foam on top. I imagine it is made from whipped egg white sweetened with the condensed milk. The Vietnamese coffee is strong and got us hooked. One of the curious varieties of coffee in Vietnam is the kind that has gone through the stomach of a weasel or civet or squirrel. The animal digests the outside of the coffee fruit and poops out the bean itself. This kind of coffee is highly sought after and expensive. It is hard to find out whether you are getting the real thing or are taken for a shitty ride so to speak. We bought some coffee that is produced in a non-animal way.

At the egg white coffee café we ran into our young German solo traveler again and shared a tiny table sitting on tiny stools.  Our leg muscles are adjusting poorly to sitting with one’s knees at a 45 degree angle to one’s hips but that’s pretty much how meals and drinks are taken by the locals.

We visited what was once called the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ the prison where American pilots were held. In comparison to the treatment of prisoners under the French regime in the same prison, the Americans appeared to be treated rather nicely. Most of the prison was dedicated to the struggle with the French. The French regime dealt with political prisoners like they did during the French Revolution with a guillotine and iron foot clamps. The exhibit showed photos and thumbnail CVs of ex-prisoners who had risen to power in North Vietnam. It is quite amazing to think that anyone could have survived a stay of even a couple of months in the French ‘Maison  Centrale’ as the Hao Lo prison was called then.

And that was the end of our week in Vietnam. Bangkok tomorrow and the countdown to our return home has started.

Back to the city

We said goodbye to our travel mates who returned to Hanoi in order to take the night train up north for a trek in the mountains. Axel and I and our young solo German traveler boarded a smaller boat in the middle of the bay and set course for Cat Ba Island.

We landed on a small pier where bikes were waiting for us and biked into the national park along a mostly level road. At a small village we parked our bikes had a cup of Vietnamese (milky) coffee, then continued on foot for a walk in the woods. The wildlife, apart from monkeys and the unique Langur (also a monkey), consists mostly of exotic insects. We were told there are snakes and our guide used a stick to announce our presence. We didn’t see any monkeys or snakes but plenty of insects.

We returned the same way we had come and had lunch on the boat followed by a swim before landing on another part of Cat Ba Island where a bus took us to the hotel at the end of a long boulevard. The harbor was full of fishing boats and floating restaurants. Everything floats here – whole villages with their ‘gardens’ where oysters, mussels and clams are farmed.

The boulevard strip in Cat Ba looks just like any other boulevard strip in a seaside tourist town (I am thinking of Salisbury, NH). Much neon, tons of hawkers, bars and restaurants and a night market full of cheap China stuff, maybe the latter one wouldn’t find in Salisbury. Large blow up plastic swimming pools for kids were filled not with water but with something that looked like black rice which the kids manipulated with their trucks and buckets as it it was sand.

Our guide invited us for a beer by the harbor where all the locals seemed to have congregated. It was a jolly place with cheap eats and drinks. Whatever didn’t go into people’s mouths was dropped on the ground. The place was a mess – not just there but at all the restaurants – someone must come in the middle of the night and sweep everything away.

Dinner was on our own – we had about 100 choices but followed our guide’s lead, which was a good oneL fried rice, nems, smoked pork in a noodle dish, and fresh coconut juice.

At night the rains moved in, excalty as predicted on my smart phone. The next day the skies were dark and something akin to a monsoon hit the island. As a result our departure was delayed a bit. Men in uniform at the embarkation pier held us back until the rains had passed.

Day 3 of our cruise consisted essentially of cruising back to meet up with the big boat, the same one we had overnighted on and make a passenger exchange before continuing to Ha Long from where we boarded a bus back to Hanoi.

At night we splurged and ate at a Trip Advisor recommended restaurant on a rooftop overlooking one of Hanoi’s many lakes. The cuisine was exquisite, the cocktails and wine yummy, and the bill high. The Vietnamese currency has so many zeros in it that it feels like monopoly money. Only when we did the conversion did we realize how much we had spent.

Our new hotel is smack in the center of something big; when we returned from our dinner the streets around our hotel were completely filled with people (several hundreds is my guess) sitting on the tiny plastic stools, drinking and eating. It was a bit like Bangkok’s Chinatown’s pop up restaurants, but much louder. Rave music pumped through the air, indicating that there were some very popular bars hidden behind the mass of people on their plastic stools.

The tourist business is Halong Bay’s main business it seems. Hundreds of tourists, bussed like us from Hanoi and elsewhere, embarked on a variety of junks, ranging from small to large, from junky to elegant. This is why it took so long to pick a cruise operator – there too many choices.

We boarded a small sloop, put on our orange life jackets (everything is heavily regulated) and found our way to our home for the next 24 hours, a midsize boat with, to my relief, its center of gravity at a reasonable level.

Our tour guide (Dung but call me Danny) presented the program, we got our cabins (small but comfortable), and then came up for a wonderful lunch while we wove our way between the majestic limestone rocks formations that, according to legend, represent dragons sent here to defend against the ever agressive Chinese. Slowly the pack of boats dissolved as everyone went their own own. Only a handful remained on a similar course

At lunch we learned that Axel’s helpful gesture to turn the fish after we had finished one side, brought bad luck, according to our four table mates, two of them from Singapore and the other two from Canada but all with far eastern ancestry (China, Taiwan, Thailand and Korea). That explained that after he turned it no one ate anymore fish

We stopped for a kayak outing, with rather heavily used kayaks being brought to our boat. I was a little anxious about kayaking which I haven’t done since my rotator cuff operation. Luckily we were in a double and Axel would pick up the slack when my weak arm muscles refused to work. After about an hour, and doing 30 paddles at a time, then 1 minute rest, just like my exercises, the muscles started to obey and things got better.

Hot and sweaty we went for a swim off the boat before cocktail hour arrived on the deck, followed by a cooking lesson (fresh spring rolls) that we ate on the spot. We had lively dinner conversations with our co-travelers most of whom had selected the two day/one night cruise and would leave us the next morning. Only three of us continued, Axel and I and our young solo traveler from Germany.

Squid fishing was also on the program but we were too pooped from the various activities and called it an early night. When one of the Flamish travelers told me her parents would never ever take such a trip and do such exhausting things as kayaking and swimming off a boat, I felt OK for being tired.

The next morning we climbed up the nearly 500 steps to the top of Titop Island with countless other tourists. Titop is (was?) a Russian the Vietnamese clearly revered, with an island named after him and a very Soviet looking statue of him sternly looking out over the waters in his crisp granite uniform.

Next on the program was a visit to an enormous cave, called surprise cave, presumable because the large stalagmite that stuck out like a sore thumb looked a bit like a penis, lit with red flood lights for extra effect. We learned that the French discovered the cave. I had a short experience of wriggling through a small hole in the wall into a bit of darkness. It’s not my piece of cake. I think these spelonkers are very brave.  I am sure there are thousands of caves more here, waiting to be discovered. The ones that were, up and down the country, were used to hide people and supplies at war time, probably since ancient times.

Smoke and mirrors

We picked the worst time of the year to come to this part of the world, according to our AirBNB hosts (but we picked the nicest place and host). He recommends October and November. At that time it might even be cold up north. People wear coats and hats.

We had another kind of Pho breakfast before going to the Temple of Literature which is one of the oldest universities in the region, founded by Confucius. It is a beautiful arrangement of buildings, portals, courtyards and water reservoirs. It is graduation time here and this is clearly the place to go and have your class pictures taken. We saw hundreds of slender young Vietnamese, the women in their long silk and satin dresses with the split on the site and the pants underneath and the men in white shirts and dark creased trousers, graduation robes and caps slung over their arms or dumped on the ground, much too to wear.

Schoolkids also made the trip to the temple, with their white blouses and red handkerchiefs around their necks, reminding me of the Komsomol youth I saw when traveling around the USSR in 1974. They said their prayers and burned josh sticks. Two boys with offerings places them next to the large than life size statues of the Chinese educator and his disciples: cans of Fanta and beer, dragon fruit and Choco Pies. Here too the ancestors like Choco Pies, just like in Mongolia.

Nearly every statue in the compound sat on a turtle, symbol of longevity I learned. I was reminded of there being turtles all the way down.

Afterwards we went to the Hi Chi Minh mausoleum. We were whistled from underneath the covered walkway which was, we assumed, reserved for party officials – of whom we saw none. That too reminded me of my travels behind  the Iron Curtain back in the 70s. The whole area is destined for parades and shows of force and cohesion and didn’t do much for me. The inside was unfortunately closed for the day. I would have liked to see pictures ‘from the other side.’

We escaped to the Hanoi Social Club to take a break from the unbearable heat and humidty. It is a hangout and workplace for hipsters and trekkers. When we traveled eastward from Lebanon, nearly 30 years ago, we didn’t have to worry about power sources (there was nothing in our small luggage that ever needed charging), or internet connections. We were informed by old guidebooks and word of mouth. Now the amount of information about where to go and stay can take days to sort through.

We had a lovely (vegan) lunch and set out for the Vietnam Women’s Museum. Downstairs we learned about the social and cultural life of the women of the various ethnic groups in Vietnam while upstairs we learned about their role in the two colonial wars, first with France and then with the US. Pictures of radiant and beautiful young women, some barely out of their teenage years, holding their klashnikovs or wading through muck and mud. They weredetermined to mow down the enemy and the tally below their pictures showed they had dne so indeed. Few survived.  Display cases held artifacts and pictures from their short lives; handkerchiefs, diaries, and stuff they hid secret documents in. There were pictures of the underground tunnels and lives that went on: babies born, midwives at work, kindergarten, women selling pots and pans.

During downtimes I am reading the backstory of the beginning of the American role in Vietnam in Seymour Hirsh’s ‘Dark side of Camelot.’ It is maddening to see how much of the suffering was caused simply by selfish men (the rules of society did not apply to Jack and Bobby) with too much testosterone for their and our good. I am nearly at the end of the book and this is the only conclusion I can draw; gone up in thin air the ones I thought heroes and statemen. It was all smoke and mirrors.

In search of wants

We had breakfast at a recommended Pho place. No one spoke English and there were no foreigners in sight. So we simply said ‘pho’ and got a wonderful meal. We are not in the part of the old town where the tourists hang out, as we discovered later which makes conversation difficult. It also means English menus are missing – here people know what they want and say so. We will point at what looks good and experiement.

In our neighborhood the coffee houses are local. The people who work there don’t know what and expresso is. They serve Vietnamese coffee which Axel didn’t dare to try given his reaction to any coffee that isn’t brewed in the expresso way.

We searched on our phones for our kind of coffee place and discovered the Bialetti Café. Mr. Bialetti, recently deceased, invented the octogenal moca maker which we possess in 4 sizes. We figured we could get the right kind of coffee there. But both Google maps and Waze pointed us to a place that was not the Bialetti Café, even though the address corresponded to our search results. All hot and sweaty we asked our phones to point us to the closest Starbucks where the coffee was right and the airco on extra high.

We have tried to use Uber but with taxis costing about a dollar and being in abundance, Uber (if you want a car rather than a moto) turns out to be a royal pain; try to spot your car in between 100s of motos. We tried twice and then canceled. The Uber moto appeals to me but Axel has no interest in this kind of transportation.

At Starbucks we arranged for a pedicure. I had expected to find mani-pedi places on each street corner here but we are either in the wrong part of town or all the mani-pedicurists have moved to the US.  We had another wild goose chase to find the place of our appointment which turned out to have branches, each with a different name. The treatment was disappointing – I have had better – and this in what I thought was the center of the mani-pedi universe. Axel basically had his nails cut and mine were varnished in addition-nothing more.

We treated ourselves to delicious but exorbitantly priced lunch in a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant; no regrets but for that amount of money we could have eaten street food for the next 5 meals. In the evening we did just that, although the food was served inside and not on the street. It was a specialized one dish restaurant: pieces of fried fish with a mountain of dill and scallions cooked in a small frying pan at our table, then poured over a bowl of cold noodles, peanuts, a lime/fish sauce, chilies and fresh mint and other herbs we couldn’t name. It is fast and cheap and with high turnover of customers, clearly a money maker. Madam, the owner we supposed, was sitting at a table next to us counting her money – stacks of it.

After dinner we walked around the lake accompanied by thousands of motos, locals and tourists. This place swings at night, even with the heat and humidity that doesn’t let up. We are here during the wrong season we learned.

We are still trying to figure out what to do from Sunday on. The choices are legion and there are tourist traps everywhere. With internet access we are heeding the ‘Buyer Beware’ but it is a lot of homework that we probably should have done weeks ago.

October 2018
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