Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hats off to Hanoi

So here we are, on our last night in Vietnam. It's been a fun ride, that's for sure--between the mountains, the beaches, the swampy river deltas and the crazy big cities, deep history and shallow bays, we've had a blast. A few too many hassles, but it comes with the territory. The food was OUTSTANDING (bun cha was our favorite dish) and deserves special mention, as it was very very cheap. Bia Halida with the ring pop opening was my favorite brew (though Beer Lao is still the best in southeast Asia). When you come here, make sure you pull up a kindergarten-sized stool and have some tasty street food. But bring ear plugs--it's LOUD here. We definitely tip our hats (see left) to this country as a whole.

We settled into Hanoi pretty quickly, acquainting ourselves with the madness of the Old Quarter. It feels like Canal Street meets the wholesale district in midtown--people hawking everything under the sun. The blazing hot sun (though the last few days have been blessedly overcast). We've spent the majority of our time here walking around the Hoan Kiem Lake in the middle of town. This scenic lake has its own Arthurian legend as King Le Loi (who has many streets named after him here) was given a sword that helped him defeat the Chinese invaders. Le Loi gave the sword back to the magic turtle who lives in the lake, thus fulfilling the prophecy. Pictures below. And can anyone interpret what the street sign on the right means? Our guess is "don't drive into trucks."

We spent one morning visiting Uncle Ho at his mausoleum. This is quite an involved process--bringing your passports (then never showing them to anyone), dressing properly, no bags, no cameras, no talking, walking through 3km of lines with pushy tour groups and reverent locals. And don't walk on the grass or the guards will blow their whistles at you. Seeing Ho Chi Minh's actual embalmed body was surreal. It looked very waxy, but his beard is perfectly preserved; and he looks short. At the left is the outside of his mausoleum, which sits next to his old house, the one-pillar pagoda and a fine assortment of other attractions that we were unable to take pictures of. So it goes.

From there we headed down to the Temple of Literature, the first university in the country. Dating back over 1000 years, this beautiful courtyard and pagoda complex was well worth the visit. It's very tranquil and surprisingly quiet inside the walls. There's a nice pond inside lined with stone turtles with stone slabs inscribed to honor all the teachers of yesteryear. Turtles, along with the phoenix, the dragon and the unicorn/dog, make up the four sacred animals in this culture. Check out Deanna posing with a phoenix (yes, they look more like flamingos or peacocks) below on the right. On the left is a huuuuge gong that would call the students to class.

Another day here was spent a few km outside of town at the museum of ethnology. It was really nice to see aspects of the 50-some ethnic minorities that make up this country. The museum was laid out very well and had some great stuff in there--ritual buffalo sacrifices, water puppetry (see left), funeral rites (see below left; does that remind you of Dubya or is it just us?). It was nice to contrast the hill tribes here with the ones we hiked through in northern Thailand. Outside were full-scale models of tribal houses. The 40' tall A-frame community meeting house (below right) was our favorite.

One last highlight of Hanoi was going to see a water puppet show. We caught the late bill on Saturday night (and the theatre was packed to the gills). It was a great combination of Punch and Judy and a Shamu show at Sea World. The skits spanned all aspects of Vietnamese life--from working the rice paddies to coming home from school to mythology and cosmology. Below on the left is the stage/pool with the band set off to the left. On the right is King Le Loi giving the sword back to the sacred turtle (it's grainy, so open it in a new window to see).

Tomorrow we head back to Thailand to decompress at some fantastic beaches. Koh Tao is our first stop to try scuba diving. Look for another post coming soon about our amazing time in Ha Long Bay.

PS-- Congrats to Jen and Jeff for getting engaged in Costa Rica! We're so happy for you two :)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Crossing the 17th parellel

After our great stay in Hoi An we continued north to Hue, the old capital of Vietnam. We were a bit soured on this city from the get-go, as I got pretty sick on arrival and the city cuts off electricity every day (alternating between mornings and afternoons)--and every hotel owner we encountered lied to us about it. So after recovering from the flu and getting over the annoyance of 95 degree days sans fan or AC (hey, we better get used to it--Indonesia in June is going to be HOT), we set out to explore what the old city has to offer.

We started out the old imperial palace complex, which consists of the Citadel (above), the imperial enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City (at right--but all the namesake purple flowers were destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968). A few pagodas along the Perfume River and a huge lunch later, we went outside the city limits to see some of the old emperors' tombs. These huge park complexes were a great breath of fresh air--no noise, smog, zooming motorcycles or trash. Enjoy some pictures below.

Before taking a boat back to Hue, we stopped at a little cluster of huts to see two ubiquitous items being made--the conical hats and sticks of incense (pictures right). The hats are so iconical (credit Deanna with that pun) and make for amazing scenery on long bus rides (staring out into rice paddies and seeing women's hats poking above the bright green). As for the incense--well, we've seen/smelled incense for years, yet we never knew how it is made. Pictures below.

The following day we took a tour of the DMZ (pictured left). Running along the 17th parallel (and the Ben Hai river), the demilitarized zone separated North and South Vietnam during the war. There are almost no remnants of the American presence there--one tank remains on a hill where the base was. On the northern side of the river were stacks and stacks of loudspeakers used to broadcast propaganda to those in the south. From there we went a bit farther north to visit the tunnels at Vin Moc. Unlike the ones at Cu Chi in the south, these were civilian tunnels--aka tall enough for me not to have to crawl. 17 babies were born there during the war. There were three levels--at 13, 17 and 23 meters below ground. We spent about 45 minutes walking through the different levels, which ultimately let out right at the beach. Entrance and exits shown below.

We've got one more day in Hanoi before we head down to the Thai beaches. We'll try to get another post up ASAP of Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, but I'm not sure ha long it will take (credit Aaron with that one).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The romantic city of Hoi An

We spent a good 5 days in the small town of Hoi An, on the Thu Bon river. This quaint, picturesque town has the best examples of Vietnamese architecture still standing. The old historic center is full of beautiful two-story yellow brick buildings with wooden balconies. It felt a bit like the French Quarter in New Orleans, without the smell of all sorts of bodily fluids, trash everywhere, drunken idoicy, etc.

Most of our time was spent strolling the streets (right), winding through hidden alleys, staring at the beautiful Japanese covered bridge (below right), enjoying the beauty of the town lit up at night (below left) and lots of shopping (more on that later).

This town is famous for its artisans, painters, tailors and even lantern makers (right--getting ready for the full moon lantern festival, which we missed). It was very hard to prevent ourselves from buying up the whole town (read: Deanna getting loads of clothes handmade to her exact measurements). All the crafts and paintings were gorgeous, so it took us 4 days to decide on one painting to buy. Below on the left is our painter standing next to two smaller versions of the one we bought (which has three women and was already packed up in a tube when we took this shot). On the right is Deanna and her tailor in her brand new suit--not pictured are the two pairs of pants, the shorts, the winter coat, the high heels and the leather boots she also got made (for a grand total of $200)

One highlight of our time in Hoi An (and our SE Asian experience so far) was a windy afternoon spent flying a kite. We had no idea that we would get such an amazing response from the local kids when we brought a kite to the riverside. Luckily for Charlie Brown with the red beard, there was an older man who helped us get the kite flying while Deanna held his beer (the old man's--sadly Aaron did not have one). Enjoy the pictures below.

Enjoy this video of us all playing together. Afterwards, I gave the kite to the littlest one to keep, which produced the most memorable smile.

We also took a day trip to the ancient ruins at My Son. This small jungle complex reminded us of the Jesuit mission we visited in southern Paraguay. Actually, it looked the exact same. Below are two pictures so you get the idea.

Now we're in Hanoi with only 6 more days left in Vietnam. At the end of the month we fly back to Bangkok to start working our way south through the Thai beaches.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A breath of cold air and back to the beach

From Saigon we took a ride north through the countryside and up into the mountain town of Da Lat. This city was settled by the French as a resort town during the colonial period. There's even a TV antenna as a replica of the Eiffel Tower (see right). It was the first time in our two months in Asia where it was not scorching hot. We even wore our hoodies for the first time since the airplane ride from LA to Bangkok! I can't underscore how nice it felt not to be constantly sweating.

The only problem with Da Lat is that it is 100% kitsch. It looks and feels like a small town nestled in the Swiss Alps. The city is surrounded by hills covered in pine forests and they dug out man-made lakes all around. As cute as it was, it was a bit hard to get over the fakeness / Epcot feel of the town. But then we remembered--wait a minute, we love Epcot! So we embraced the kitsch by touring the forest in a gondola sky ride, posing in front of cheesy topiaries, riding a bumper car/toboggan down to a waterfall, and taking our picture at the Valley of Love--picture the lawn furniture section of K-Mart during a post-Valentine's Day clearance sale, all set up in a park to earn this city the title of Honeymoon Capital of Vietnam. See pictures below.

But, despite all that, we did manage to visit a Buddhist meditation center (below left), watch silk embroiderers work their magic, have some top notch Vietnamese meals, and tour some old French aristocrats' villas (below right--me at the desk of the fanciest/richest villa pretending to be important with two phones).

The countryside around town was just beautiful, as you can't really go wrong when you emulate a Swiss chalet town. The waterfall was nice (though they all pale in comparison after Iguazu) and we caught sight of a perfect Vietnamese scarecrow--shirt on a stick with the ubiquitous triangle hat. See both below.

Another thing we found really interesting was the Dragon Pagoda. They started building this temple 15 years ago and still have lots of of work to do. The entire 7 stories of the chedi are mosaic, being assembled by hand. On the right is one of the many dragons that adorn the temple. Below on the left is a pile of bowls waiting to be broken (delft is VERY big here); on the right is a man on bamboo scaffolding working on the outside of the 4th floor.

And for good measure, they let me ring the bell. Can't argue with that! After a few chilly days in Da Lat we descended from the mountain ridge and went to the beach. We *love* the beach! Especially when we're running low on reading material and the touts are selling $3 xeroxed copies of books we want to read... Nha Trang was beautiful and relaxing. The South China Sea was the perfect color and temperature, with great beach bungalows for rent. We spent a week doing just about nothing there, though we did manage to find the best pizza in all of Asia there. Miss Universe 2008 will be held there in August, but the convention center is just a huge ditch right now. Some pictures below.

We're in the gorgeous city of Hoi An right now and will try to get a new post soon. In the somewhat-sad-news category, we finally booked our return tickets back to the states. On August 8 we fly from Auckland, NZ to Los Angeles, spending a few days with my nieces, then on to DC, NJ and finally back to NYC!

*Note* Sorry for any weird spacing issues... It is impossible to view any blogs in Vietnam (government censorship?) so I can't proof any of these posts. The weird thing is, blogger.com is fine, but any blog itself is blocked.