Breakdancing with Lenin

Trip Start Jun 25, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2007

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

He Said:

The last time I visited Vietnam, my traveling companions and I did a twelve-hour, overnight mini-bus ride between Hanoi and Hue was nothing short of brutal. It still ranks up there as among my worst travel experiences...EVER! This time around we thankfully shortened the journey to a pleasant 45-minute flight to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines, possibly the best $60 I have ever spent!

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. Having visited a lot of Asian metropolises, I'd say that this place has managed to hold on to much of what the majority of cities lose in their rush to develop. Instead of the nondescript, high-rise, concrete and glass towers that dominate so many large Asian cities, Hanoi still retains much of its colonial charm. The labyrinthine old city is dotted with lakes, green parks, colonial mansions, ancient shrines, and tree-lined boulevards. All of that gives it a calm demeanor that starkly contrasts with the throngs of motor scooters clogging the narrow lanes from sunup to sundown. Women in conical hats sell fruits and vegetables in street corners, people laze away the afternoon at pavement tea and coffee stands, and shops selling anything from herbal remedies to laptop computers make for a vibrant and energetic streetscape.

The day after arriving in Hanoi, we left town to do an overnight boat cruise on Ha Long Bay located 100 miles to the east. The lovely bay is dotted with hundreds of craggy stone islands covered with lush vegetation. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking and is almost a dead-ringer for the Rock Islands of Palau (see our Travelpod post # 92). Bay cruises on converted wooden cargo boats are one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vietnam. The lovely natural sights are certainly dampened a bit by the dozens of boats jockeying for space at island piers, souvenir stands located anyplace that tourists set foot on land, and "mini-markets on water" being rowed around the bay by vendors hawking anything from Oreos to cheap wine. Oh well, I guess if we wanted a more "authentic" experience we could have hired a private yacht instead of opting for the dirt cheap "$50 all-inclusive, two-day tour". Still though, despite the crowds, the amazing landscape of Ha Long Bay definitely makes it one of the "must-sees" of Asia.

Upon returning to Hanoi, our primary objective was to obtain a visa to travel onward into China. For those readers relatively new to international travel or those who haven't had the "pleasure" of obtaining a visa, there is a simplified explanation following Katie's "She Said" post. Since Chinese visas must be applied for in person and are only good for a limited time period, we had to submit our applications at the last minute in Hanoi. It took us about three hours of waiting in line in front of the Chinese embassy and $80 each to get the visa. But we were lucky! We had gotten in line only 30 minutes after the embassy opened and there were only about 25 people in front of us in line, but it moved so slowly that we were the last applications they accepted during their "working hours"! The woman in front of us in line said that she had waited unsuccessfully at the embassy four different mornings in the last week an attempt to get in! Thankfully there are no other nations on our itinerary that we need to obtain an advance visa to visit!

Between all the running around, we managed to hit many of the major sights in Hanoi. The mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh was certainly creepy. Allegedly, Ho Chi Minh wanted to be cremated when he died, I wonder how he'd feel about the thousands of people streaming into the granite mausoleum to walk past his open coffin every day? (But then again, Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that any monument be built in his honor to be no larger than his desk, and the FDR Memorial is the largest memorial in Washington!) The nearby museum dedicated to the life of Ho Chi Minh was a bit of a head-trip as well. If you want to become versed in a rather one-sided view of Vietnamese communist party history all presented in one of the weirdest and gaudiest settings you can imagine, then that place is a must! If you came to Vietnam and only saw that museum, you'd swear it this nation is a pure Marxist state. There couldn't be a bigger gap between the official ideology spouted by the government versus the reality on the streets, beaches, and waterways of this rabidly capitalist country.

I witnessed something last night that really sums up Vietnam for me. As we were walking through a park at dusk there were groups of locals doing all the typical things you see in parks here. Hundreds of people were exercising, doing Tai Chi, playing Chinese board games, or chatting over tea. As we entered a paved plaza dominated by a statue of Vladimir Lenin we saw I group of teen guys in NBA jerseys and saggy jeans practicing break dancing moves beneath the gaze of the father of Soviet communism. That delightfully ironic scene is so Vietnam! It is a society surrounded in rich tradition, with a population moving at a breakneck pace into the globalized world, while seemingly oblivious to the failed political philosophy that the government still is eagerly paying lip service to.

She Said:

Our flight from Hue to Hanoi was the best money spent so far on this trip! We were both growing weary of long bus and cramped train rides, and to travel 400 miles in 45 minutes was down right luxurious. When we arrived in Hanoi, we brought the rain with us, which hung around for the next several days. We still managed to walk around the Old Quarter of Hanoi and take in the French charm of the place. Hanoi is very different than Saigon...everything feels colonial and historic, and the streets are dotted with coffee shops and little noodle restaurants. There is a pretty big lake on the edge of the Old Quarter, which has wide walking trails and is beautifully landscaped with flowers, bushes and all kinds of statues. A very picturesque Ancestral Temple in the middle of the lake connected by an arched walkway bridge is an absolutely stunning setting that makes you forget that you are in a city of over three million people.

The next day we left Hanoi for a one night boat cruise in Halong Bay. The scenery is amazing with giant rock formations sticking out of the bay everywhere, and the setting is quite peaceful. There were only 16 people on our boat, most of which were backpacker couples in their thirties, and one family consisting of a British guy (who didn't speak any Thai) and his Thai wife, her 2 small kids, and the wife's Thai parents that didn't speak any English (on vacation from Bangkok). Watching this family interact for the two days provided endless conversation topics, and we continued to be amazed at just how absolutely BORED and glazed-over the grandparents looked. We weren't surprised one bit to see the grandpa cracking open his first beer at 7:00am. The kids alternated between being absolutely precious and downright annoying...from playing cute little games with each other (precious) to waking up at 5:00am and running all over the wooden boat stomping their feet (VERY ANNOYING). Perhaps the most amazing thing about this family was the very sexy wife. She was always perfectly made up with perfect hair and full makeup (even foundation and mascara... remember everyone else is wearing t-shirts and flip-flops), and wore pretty fancy dresses with 4-inch stiletto heels all the time. The boat made a few stops to some tourist sites, both of which required you to climb at least 400 stairs to see the view from the top of some of the rock formations... and yes, she climbed them in the heels, and didn't seem to produce one drop of sweat. We started thinking that she might have been the Thai version of a Stepford Wife!

Back in Hanoi, we spent the following two days seeing all the sites on foot, and taking part in the delicious food Vietnam has to offer. We have become quite fond of noodle soup (known as "pho"), and have even managed to get pretty good at picking up individual noodles with chopsticks. One of the big things for tourists to do in Hanoi is to see a Water Puppet Show. It is so popular with tour groups that tickets are hard to come by, and we ended up purchasing the only remaining tickets for the last show of the evening at 9:30pm, which is very LATE for us (since we wake up at 5:30am every morning to all the motorbike honking outside). The stage is a large pool of water with a curtain at the back, and the puppeteers stand behind the curtain and move their puppets around in the water using submerged control rods. There is a live traditional style Vietnamese band seated next to the stage playing the "soundtrack" for the show. All in all, it is a site not to be missed if you are in Hanoi. The show was really cute, and I think we would have really enjoyed it if we had gone a little earlier in the evening....I had to keep digging my fingernails in my hand to keep myself awake!! We are getting old....

We Said:

A simple explanation of visas for international travel

As a US citizen, you can travel as tourists to over one hundred other nations without prior permission or documentation other than a passport. You just show up at the border or airport, the immigration official stamps your passport with the number of days you are allowed to remain in the country, and that's it. Occasionally, you may have purchase a visa at the border, but this involves nothing more than paying a fee before they admit you. Due to political or security concerns, some nations require you apply in advance for permission to enter their territory. In most cases, this is a pretty straightforward affair; you fill out an application, include a photo and processing fee and then either mail it or deliver it in person to that nations embassy. After they do their background checks or security screening, the embassy then places a visa (which is usually a sticker or rubber stamp) in your passport granting you permission to enter for a certain purpose and for a specified time period.

All of the above only applies if you are a tourist visiting for a limited time. You will be required to obtain a visa in advance for almost every nation if you are traveling there for business, to get a job, go to school, immigrate, adopt a child, conduct missionary activity, or engage in any other "official purpose". For tourists though, the process is usually pretty simple. The only problem is that often times embassies have rather cryptic rules regarding visa applications, offer very limited office hours, and have unbelievably inefficient bureaucracies. The rule of thumb to save endless headaches and wasted time waiting in line is to apply early and by mail if possible.
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