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 :)