November 29, 2012

Vietnam By Lantern Light

While on our night train from Hanoi, we passed over the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) which separated North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the war. Our destination was Hue, a city which served as Vietnam's capital from 1802-1945 under the Nguyen dynasty. The 13 Nguyen emperors were just puppet rulers under the French, but they were responsible for some of Vietnam's most extravagant buildings.

Our first stop was The Imperial City, a sprawling complex within two moats where the emperors lived. Some of the buildings are stunning, but only 20 out of 148 survived the war. 

The rest of the complex is tall grasses where you can barely make out the foundations of former buildings. Just like with the Roman Forum, you have to use your imagine a bit.
In the wooded hills just outside of Hue, the emperors built their royal mausoleums…each unique and peaceful in its own right. 

To get to the mausoleums we took a cruise on a dragon boat down the Perfume River (which doesn't smell like anything special). Along the way we passed pretty pagodas, Vietnam's form of Buddhist temples.

From Hue we took a short 3-hour train ride hugging the coast of the South China Sea and landed in Da Nang, which we merely used as a transportation hub. On the way to our next town we bartered with our cab driver to let us quickly stop at the Marble Mountains, a wooded mountain full of caves where a dark and damp den of alters leaves a lasting impression.    

Our cab driver was amusingly excessive with his honking. We could not stop laughing as he would just lay on the horn with only an open highway in front of him. He was a shady guy who tried to divert us to his friends' marble statue stores, but we weren't having it. At least we knew that no matter where he took us, we would get there safely…and with the entire neighborhood aware of our arrival. Beep beep!

Finally we arrived in beautiful and charming Hoi An

This small town is full of postcard images…wonderfully preserved merchant houses with centuries of weathering, a lively market, and lanterns hanging from every building. 

There are boats with eyes painted on the front to ward off evil spirits. There are also sets of wooden eyes above the doorways of the houses.

This is the first city in Southeast Asia that we feel like actually tries. They create atmosphere simply for the sake of atmosphere. In that way it reminded us of Europe, and once we saw it, we realized how much we had missed it.

There are wrinkled old Vietnamese men asking us if we want a boat ride and women who flash huge smiles when we buy little potato and coconut cakes for 25 cents. It's easy to spot families enjoying dinner together or just laughing at something that we will never understand. The family unit seems very strong here.

On the 14th day of each lunar month (which didn't even fall on November's full moon), Hoi An has a celebration. In fact we gave up trekking in the northern hills of Sapa just so that we could be in Hoi An for the Full Moon Festival. It also happened to be our 300th day traveling. Reason to celebrate! 

When we walked out of our room in the morning, the hotel hallways were full of smoke. We were a little alarmed until we went down to the lobby and realized it was just burning incense. All over town people set out offering tables under the moonlight.

Little kids dress up in their Vietnamese best and sell floating candles along the river.

It's considered good luck to float a candle. It's easy to spot them in Hoi An any night of the week, but during Full Moon Festivals, there are hundreds.

There are also games throughout town. Bai Choi is like musical bingo with live instruments and singing MCs. Each player gets a wooden paddle with three words. The MCs draw a stick and sing a song announcing the word while a man parades the word around on a large board and then hangs it on a fishing line. Another man runs around passing out flags to anyone with a match. The first player to match all three of their words wins. After four games, we actually won!

There's also a game where you get blind-folded with a mask and then try to break a clay pot with a stick. Despite the locals' attempts to verbally steer us in the right direction, we both whiffed.

Hoi An has the best food we've had since Chiang Mai in Thailand. We feasted on scrumptious local specialties and seafood dishes. We took a cooking class with a beautiful and sweet instructor named Van. Among many other things, she taught us how to dissect a squid. Now they're not so scary to me anymore. 

In recent years, Hoi An has become internationally famous for fast-turnaround custom tailoring. For two years Steve has looked forward to getting a custom suit made here. It’s really the only souvenir from our entire trip that he wanted.

Picking a tailor in Hoi An is the hardest part because we've read that there are over 600. We quickly narrowed our selection based on online reviews and then went in to compare them. Some stores are wonderful in terms of customer service and look-books but gave us a scamming vibe when they wouldn't label their fabrics. We came back to the same store a couple of times and got different answers about material composition and prices. It's quite unbelievable that they would be stupid enough to pull something like this considering the amount of competition in town.

We finally went with A Dong Silk, a tailor who clearly labeled their materials and prices and had the fabric pattern that Steve liked. The first step is to look through their catalogs and pick out a cut for them to copy. They asked Steve so many questions that had never even been on our radar before. Should the lapel be 6 cm or 7 cm? Should the back be double vent or a single vent? Should the collar be spread or pointed? What does all of this even mean?! It was so fun! I'm glad I had a man traveling with me just so that I had a reason to go through this process.

Once the cut and the fabric were picked out, they checked, then double-checked, then triple-checked the measurements to make sure they got them right. 

I mentioned that Hoi An prides itself in fast turnaround. Steve's first fitting was the next day. So that night we actually got to go across the street to the factory and see his suit being made!

All-in-all he had three (very necessary) fittings. Our wonderful sales lady, Loanc, even came in for the last fitting on her day off just to close everything out. After losing so much weight, this is Steve's first piece of clothing that actually fits him. My man looks GOOD!

Meanwhile, I was also attempting to get some leather boots custom made by a different company. They kept making stupid mistakes – like not following their own measurements. One day we were in the showroom with the sales ladies for a fitting and they had to call in the shoe maker. There were some Vietnamese words exchanged, and then he grabbed the boots and literally ran off to his motorbike. So funny.

After four fittings they just could never get them right…and they knew it. We were so surprised when they actually offered to give us our money back. Maybe Hoi An should just stick to what they do best…suits. 

One day we rented bicycles to go to the beach which is only 4 kilometers outside of town. Given that Hoi An has a beach, our new business idea is to open up a custom tailored swimsuit shop. But since this is Vietnam, there would have to be some sort of side scam involved. That's not our style.

Right before we left town, we made a last minute trip across the river to Mr. Minh Hien to buy some lanterns. He didn't even have to work for our money. We were in a hurry, we knew what we wanted, and we didn't try to negotiate. He seemed happy, but even so, he still tried to up-sell us. That's just how these people are. They are never satisfied even if you did just pick them out of the five other vendors, who are standing next to them selling the exact same thing for the exact same price. They are always hustling for another dollar. If you happen to be in a bad mood that day, it's annoying. If you happen to be in a good mood that day (which we were), it's sort of charming.   

Sometimes we are just so tickled by what we a motorcycle making its way through traffic loaded up with lantern skeletons.

Or a real-life three blind mice.

Or the old woman who fell asleep by her bananas.

But easily our most vivid memories of Hoi An will be the romantic lantern-lit streets. 

This has hands-down been our favorite place in all of Southeast Asia. In the week leading up to it we were starting to feel run down, but Hoi An was exactly what we needed. It rejuvenated us and geared us up for the last leg of our trip.

We spent 5 days in this tiny town. That's more than we dedicated to London, Rome or Melbourne…and we loved it.

November 22, 2012

Good Morning, North Vietnam!

From Laos we flew to Vietnam, breezed through customs in under a minute, and entered the capital city of Hanoi

Even though it isn't, Hanoi feels small. It certainly doesn't give off the mood of a capital. Important government buildings and high rises are hard to find. Instead, Hanoi is a city of two faces. On one hand is the Old Quarter which is a contested mess of tangled streets that are grouped by the merchandise that's sold. There's the paper street, the shoe street...

On the other hand is the French Quarter with wide tree-lined boulevards where, as a pedestrian, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Every moment in the French Quarter feels a bit boring when you know that you're missing out on the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter.

Hanoi is an assault on the senses. It's fun to see, but I can't imagine living like this day in and day out. It's loud with constant honking, and the driving is the craziest we've seen to date. I guess technically vehicles are supposed to drive on the right-hand side of the road in Vietnam, but honestly, they're all over the place. Sometimes I used Steve as a human shield.

Sidewalks are reserved for motorbike parking and sales merchandise. This makes the streets even more hectic as pedestrians are thrown into the mix. 

The streets change names every two or three blocks so that Bat Dan becomes Hang Bo which becomes Hang Bac. We attempted to bicycle the city, but only on our third day after we had warmed up to the symphony of motorbikes, cars, and cyclos who weave through oncoming traffic. 

My most enduring image of Hanoi will be the women in conical hats who hawk goods from their baskets. Each woman specializes in one or two items and takes great pride in making sure that their displays are beautifully arranged.  

First there are the women who dangle their products from a contraption which perfectly balances on their shoulders. They kind of shuffle down the street, nearly breaking into a speed walk. They gracefully navigate through traffic mayhem to cross the street without dropping a single tangerine or garlic clove.

The alternate mode of commerce is via the bicycle. These displays on wheels are equally as beautiful, but often much more elaborate in size. There is a bike in here somewhere.

Many of these women have left behind their families in hill villages to try to make a few dollars in the city. They get up around 3:00am to buy their produce from the wholesale market. Then they arrange their baskets and begin selling around 7:00am. They finish anywhere from 5:00-7:00pm before they retire to their women's dormitory, where they stay for 35 cents per night. They shower, eat dinner, and then get up and do it all over again…a sign of the tremendous Vietnamese work ethic we've begun to observe.

It seems that when the Vietnamese in Hanoi want to kick back, they head to the streets for refreshments and perch themselves on the smallest plastic seats ever made. 

It looks so ridiculous to have this many grown adults sitting on stools built for first graders.

We can say from experience that these chairs get really uncomfortable after about 15 minutes. Their only redeeming quality is the accompanying Bia Hoi – a genius idea in which street-side entrepreneurs sell draft beers for 25 cents. Over three nights we became friends with one of the Bia Hoi owners who likes to tell people as they're getting up to leave, "See you tomorrow!" It worked on us.

One morning I went for a run around Hanoi's lake to take in the sites of the Vietnamese early morning exercise routine. The lake is feeling a bit segregated these days. On the west side is old-school tai chi where everyone is swinging limbs and limbering up. On the east side is modern aerobics set to loud music – if it gets any louder it's no doubt going to interfere with the tai chiers serene environment. On the north side are two South Americans trying to bring tango to Vietnam. They compete for space with some local ladies doing fan dances. It's quite the people watching scene.   

No matter what day of the week, it's pretty easy to spot brides (sometimes they allow the grooms to tote along) getting their photos taken. They are so predictable with their locations…in front of the Hotel Metropole, in the park directly adjacent to the Hotel Metropole, and the side of the lake nearest the Hotel Metropole. They wear Western wedding dresses but are typically so done up that at first I wondered if it was a fashion shoot. Hanoi's army of brides can be seen in full force on Saturdays when the Hotel Metropole gets so crowded that they have to sit on the tiny stools and wait their turn. They look pissed off. I would be too if it was my wedding day and I was relegated to take photos in front of the Cartier or Louis Vuitton sign…or maybe that was their intention. Either way, it was funny to watch these brides jostle for position – all for a photo with three other brides in the background.

Even though street life such as this is the real site to see in Hanoi, we also paid a visit to some legitimate places of interest. We bicycled and ate lunch along the small lake where John McCain parachuted when his fighter was shot down. Then we went to Hoa Lo Prison (AKA the Hanoi Hilton), where he and other POWs were held during the “American War”. 

Inside there were lots of picture of the POWs playing volleyball, opening up care packages from home, and cooking huge Christmas Day feasts. We wondered how few and far between these happy moments really were…and how many of these photos they stashed away when John McCain came back to visit in 2009. 

Not too far away was the building which houses Ho Chi Min's body. He lived a very modest lifestyle, but against his wishes, he was embalmed and put on display in an over-the-top mausoleum. We missed out on seeing “Uncle Ho” because he gets some work done about this time every year. 

The Temple of Literature is Vietnam's historical center of learning, and while we were there, The Amazing Race ran through. I hate to say it, but The Amazing Race is a bit fake. The leading contestants arrived before the human Vietnamese chess game was arranged, so they had to disappear and then reappear with the cameras rolling after everything was (slightly) more organized.

3.5 hours east of Hanoi lies Halong Bay, yet another self-proclaimed “8th Wonder of the World”. We if had a dollar for every time a country tried to weasel its way onto the list…

Halong Bay is a series of 1,969 limestone islands rising out of the sea. That doesn't even count the 2,000 additional islands further north towards the Chinese border. 

We spent three days cruising the bay, spending the night either on Cat Ba Island (depressing) or our fancy boat (awesome). 

We were unlucky with the weather, but to make ourselves feel better, we kept saying it was “mysterious”.

One of the highlights was going inside of Hang Sung Sot cave. Every boat in the bay brings their passengers here, and they use colored lights throughout for dramatics. We hated how commercial it felt, but as far as caves go, it was the most spectacular one we've ever seen.

We were reminded that sometimes Southeast Asian countries don't exactly know what to do when Mother Nature hands them a gift like this. Trash in the water was abundant, and even though there are probably thousands of caves inside these monoliths, they cram everybody into the exact same place…at the exact same time. We couldn't help but feel like it was a bit of a missed opportunity, but still, you can't deny that something very special happened to create this little place in the world.       

We rounded out Thanksgiving on a night train from Hanoi in North Vietnam to Hue which lies along the central coast. We have so much to be thankful for…our health and safety, a family anxiously waiting for us to get home, and 25 cent beers. Happy Thanksgiving!