Good Morning, Vietnam

Trip Start Dec 11, 2008
Trip End Mar 06, 2009

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We are currently in Hue, Vietnam (Central Coast about 50km south of the DMZ)  celebrating Tet (Chinese New Year) with the locals.  They celebrate hard for about three days and continue moderately for another week or ten days, ushering in the lunar new year.  Last night we had dinner at a nice French restaurant (I had the $4 duck l'orange New Year's special) and had some drinks in a restaurant full of rowdy Vietnamese and French revellers and counted down the new year and said "chuc mung nam moi" (happy new year) to everyone and walked outside to some fireworks we didn't expect (we should have- they make them right next door.)  It took us a couple minutes to realize we had a hotel room with a balcony on the seventh floor a couple blocks away directly facing the fireworks, so we ran home and got there in time for the last few minutes- it was really cool.  

We are quite glad to be out of Hanoi.  We took an overnight sleeper bus the night before last just to get out before Tet in Hanoi (and just Hanoi) got any crazier.  Hanoi is an insane city with entirely too many people and too many damn motorbikes (mopeds).  We have adjusted to the fact that most people in Southeast Asia ride motorbikes (scooters) and they are crazy and everywhere, but Hanoi takes this to unbelievable proportions.  Traffic is truly the definition of chaos and insanity- but somehow it works- most of the time.  Four directions of traffic- motorbikes, cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, pedestrians and all things in between will converge on an intersection with no regard for traffic lights (of which there are few) and just plow, bump and nudge their way through, all while laying on the horn the whole time.  It's really something to see- from the safe-ish confines of a taxi.  Crossing the street is a sport in itself.  For a city of 3.5 million people, it's amazing to us that there are only 30 motorbike fatalities a day (seriously).  20,000 people die on motorbikes a year in vietnam, the majority in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).  We hear the motorbikes are even worse down in Saigon- can't wait!  It's unfortunate because it makes it very difficult to feel comfortable exploring the city for fear of your immediate life, and long term- the pollution is out of control.  Everyone wears masks while driving and some just all the time.  I got sick our second night in Hanoi (first time for me) and thought it was mild food poisoning or flu, but it cleared up in 24 hrs after leaving Hanoi and going out to Halong Bay and I really think it was from the fumes that were collecting in the open-front restaurant we were eating at on the street and after walking around all day sucking them down.   

We spent one day doing museums in Hanoi.  We started with the Ho Chi Minh Museum Complex, which was really quite fascinating.  He is something of a Jesus/George Washington figure around here.  They call him "Uncle Ho".  In Lenin fashion, they keep his body on display in a public mausoleum for viewing- which is a very solemn and regular practice for the Vietnamese and tourists alike.  We were quite disappointed to find out that it's only open in the morning (it was just after noon).  I wanted to see if I could visually confirm the rumors that when it's "sent to Russia for maintenance between late October and early December," it's actually being handled by Madame Tassaud's, of Wax Museum fame.  This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of his death at 79, and I imagine it's quite hard to keep a dead 79 year-old body fresh that long- I'm even more skeptical of Lenin.  

We arranged a trip out Halong Bay, which is about a four hour bus ride out of Hanoi.  The minibus was packed to the gills (per usual) and I was sick to begin with.  It was a miserable ride and the weather was terrible, and so was my attitude- I was so disappointed to be in such bad shape with the weather so miserable for Halong Bay, one of the most amazing natural sites in the world, and possibly the part of Vietnam I looked forward to the most.  Halong Bay is a large greenish-blue water bay with over 3,000 limestone karsts (vertical islands) of varying size and shape jutting up out of the water, some vertical and sheer-faced limestone cliffs, others mellower and covered in green.  When we got there, we were blown away by the number of boats at the harbor- hundreds, each of which hold between ten and fifty people.  They call them "junks", but they are actually quite nice- somewhere between a riverboat and a small wooden cruise ship.  Our boat had sixteen people, a group from France/Singapore,  some from Germany, and a couple from Hong Kong.  We headed out for the day trip, gathered in a rather nice dining room and had a six course seafood lunch, which I would have loved normally, but repulsed me then.  Despite the rather dismal weather, the islands were still there, though the viewing distance was minimized.  In a way, the gray fog kind of gave them a mystical or dreamlike quality that sunshine and blue water could never do.  They took us to some caves that were discovered by the french about 120 years ago that the entrance is halfway up a cliffside in a near-perfect circular cove.  The tour guides claim that either one of the cave rooms or the whole thing is the largest in the world- it was quite huge and impressive with all the limestone stalactites and -mites, but I can't verify their claim- anyone wanna do the research- Yeager?  We had a nice dinner after that, where we anchored in another cove for the night, spinning in a slow circle, rocking with the waves.  Our cabin for two was surprisingly nice, especially since it was the first bathroom we had in weeks where the toilet wasn't in the middle of the shower (a terribly annoying Asian thing).  I got some rest and woke up refreshed, though freezing, the next day.  It was incredibly cold that day, and we just aren't really set up for it.  We had breakfast and slowly lumbered back to the dock through the morning.  They gave us yet another seafood lunch once we got back to land before packing us back into the van for Hanoi.       

Maybe we didn't give Hanoi enough time, but all this coupled with being quite cold and rainy, we decided to go south before our relatively poor image of Vietnam was irreconcilable.  As soon as we got back to Hanoi, we booked a sleeper bus 10-12 hrs south to Hue, went back to the hotel where we stayed previously where the girl at the desk offered us an open room for showers (sweet girl), then boarded the bus and headed south, all the while picking up hitchhikers on the road trying to get to their families for Tet.  It slowed us down, but we could hardly argue- we had the sleeper seats, they had the floor.  Plus it's the holiday, plus it's chuc mung nam moi!
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