Thursday, February 7, 2019

Hoi An is A Lovely Little Place

We flew from Hanoi to Danang, then caught a shuttle south along China Beach to Hoi An, a Unesco World Heritage sight that was spared by both sides during the Vietnam war and boasts 800 buildings of Chinese and Japanese heritage that are hundreds of years old.  There was no sign of the war at all in Danang or along the ride south, even though it is right on the DMZ.  We had heard that the Vietnamese don't really make any effort to preserve battle sights here. I think we were just another in a long line of external powers trying to control their country, and we were the shortest lived.

The origin of Hoi An dates back 2200 years. Our hotel (to the left and up the road in the photo above), was just across a bridge from old town Hoi An, was the Little Hoi An Boutique Hotel & Spa, another great find, with excellent, helpful staff, decent breakfasts, and good air conditioning (a must have in July, trust me). We could not have been happier with its location and accommodations.  Here is a photo.

After settling in, we headed toward Old Town.

 It is just lovely, lacking the traffic and some of the modern trappings that marked Hanoi or the nearby Danang. It felt like moving just a bit closer to an ancient, quieter and simpler time. The streets were quaint and really wonderful, even in the heat of the day.

It is a series of non-stop shops and restaurants, with ancient architecture all around.  One of the oldest sights is known as the Japanese bridge, pictured with the boys, below:

The only downside of the whole trip was the fact that the river below the bridge smelled just like it looks. UGH. Fortunately, it only seems to be in this immediate area, and perhaps only during the heat of the summer. The rest of the town just smelled of lovely food.  Speaking of food, the focus in going to Hoi An was some architecture, great food, and tailoring, as it is a renown custom clothing location.  We decided to make our first day the "fitting" day, where we went to a local tailor, Bebe, picked cloth, and got measured for pants, shirts, skirts and all.  I also walked into a shoe store, and came out with an order for two sets of custom shoes -- they traced my foot, took two measurements, had me pick a style from the many on display, and said come back tomorrow to see if they fit.  Hard to believe, but that is the way it worked, and they are awesome shoes.  (Wish the tailor had been that easy, but for me, it took many fittings. :-( ) That took a lot longer than we thought, but once evening came, the skies clouded over, it cooled down a little, and the streets really came to life.

As you can see, tourists mix shoulder to shoulder with vietnamese visitors in everything from shorts to formal, native dress, the colors abound, and the beautiful traditional lanterns are everywhere.  The energy is great, there are a lot of places to eat very good food, and it is as enjoyable a stroll about as you could ask for. After doing just that for quite a while, we settled into Vai's Kitchen, near our hotel, for a variety fo dishes, including dumplings the kids loved (even Alden!), Cau lau pork and a smokey eggplant dish that was so killer we went back for it before we left. From there, we needed to get to bed, as we had a 5:00 am appointment with a private guide and car that would take us to My Sohn ruins at sunrise.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Old Quarter Hanoi is a Happy Place

So in case you haven't figured it out yet, I really loved Hanoi.  That is due almost entirely to two things. First and foremost, the Old Quarter, a place of wall to wall shops and restaurants, where the shopping is great and the eating is better, vespas zoom in and amongst people and vice versa, and the night-time energy was such a contrast to Singapore that it felt like life itself.  The picture above is one of the calmest times I saw in the Old Quarter.  Usually, the streets are filled with vespas, and they don't stop for you or lights or anything else.  You are told that what you should do as a pedestrian is just look them square in the eye, and start walking across the street at a steady pace, without any stop and go.  It is a "just trust them" approach, and it actually worked for us, thankfully. It gets your adrenaline up just crossing your first street though, and probably a little bit every time after that. Maybe that is why the energy feels so high. 

The second reason I loved Hanoi, and Vietnam in general, was the hotels. The Vietnamese really know how to provide superb service.  If it is a good hotel, you can generally trust them to find you great tours, good restaurants, and a decent breakfast to start your day.  Our hotel in Hanoi was the La Siesta Diamond (see below), a superb establishment, with fantastic air conditioning, very nicely done (if small) rooms, and a service staff that communicated so well with each other over shift changes, about every guest, that you knew what you told the staff the night before was being acted on by the morning staff, no worries or concerns.  It was near the old quarter, and provided us with two great tour recommendations (more on that later). Here is a photo of our little hotel.

It was just a few streets over from Hoan Khiem lake, a central part of the Old Quarter.

After breakfast and efforts to get cash our first morning back in Hanoi, we headed off to the Vietnam Women's museum, which we had been told was quite interesting.

After the walk there, we were just happy it had barely sufficient air conditioning.

It was definitely interesting inside, mostly relating traditional dress of Vietnams many distinct ethnic groups, along with customs and practices.

However, it was also full of stories of women who worked as Vietcong during what they call the "American War."  As I read story after story about women who went to work for the American military during the day, as secretaries, cooks, laborers, whatever, and then went about passing intelligence and participating in killing Americans at night, it just struck me so forcefully "what were we thinking? We were never going to win this." We were the foreign invaders, one in a long line of many, and they were going to resist to the death with everything they had -- men, women and children.

Exhibit 1: this sixteen year old above, who spied on Americans, and then participated in 17 battles in which 174 Americans were killed.  And then there is the eighteen year old below, who directed an all female guerrilla group that participated in 49 battles and killed 150 Americans. Even if we had known about this, what could we have done about it? Gone around killing these women and children? And would the press have even believed an American officer saying they were guerrilla soldiers?  Like I said, I don't think we stood a chance against things like this, and while I understand that the government controls this information and uses it as propaganda (more on that later), the existence of such units and people is not disputable, and tells us how fiercely the resistance was always going to be.  Military foreigners are never welcome, no matter how good their intentions.

After that sobering experience, we hoofed it in the heat to Hoa Lo Prison, better known here as the Hanoi Hilton.

Here is Aldy standing in front of what remains of the prison -- it is now a museum, with only a part of it preserved.  The wall is formidable though, underneath the bar wire on top of it, there is a whole row of broken glass, glued so all the sharp edges are outward, discouraging anyone from climbing up and trying to slide under the barb wire.

Inside, we were surprised to find that the prison had been designed and erected by the French (it is in the "French Quarter") and used mostly against the Vietnamese.  The rooms depicted leg chains on nefarious back-sloping palates that resulted in your feet being higher than your head whenever you laid down, which you obviously could not do for long without serious head-aches or worse.

The solitary confinement cells looked even worse. I would bet people weren't exactly let out to go to the latrine that often, with all that entails.

It was a pretty sobering experience, where we gained a better understanding of the Vietnamese and their struggle for independence. Ho Chi Minh personally asked U.S. Presidents to pressure France into granting them independence, long before we were otherwise involved there, and was rebuffed. Talk about a big mistake.  Below is a guillotine, faithfully preserved, which the French used on the Vietnamese in the early 20th century! Hard to believe.  Thinking of all those years of struggle, it doesn't surprise me that Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho as he is universally called here) turned away from capitalism, as embodied by French Colonialism, and embraced the alternative of communism.  I am also not surprised at the depth of his determination against the US. He was not about to let another foreign power exercise influence over his country. The tour also made me realize that the French probably taught them all the cruelty that they would later inflict on American POWs.

Speaking of POW's here is the flight suit of John McCain, faithfully preserved in this Museum.  It was here that I felt the insidiousness of propoganda, as all the information was about how humanely the American POWs were treated -- so far from John McCain's story as to be unrecognizable.

As evidence they had many photos like this up, showing Christmas dinners, basketball games, etc.  It forcefully reminded me how important it is to tell all sides of a story, from the different perspectives of the participants, and not just filter from your own perspective. What the Vietnamese put up may seem the truth to them, from the perspective of the bombing the Americans had done to them, and more extensively the French before that. But John McCain's perspective, from a country that usually tries to treat its prisoners with some dignity, could be an entirely different, and still accurate one.  Truth is a slippery and hard thing, it seems.

As we walked back in the heat from Hoa Lo prison to the hotel, we passed St. Joseph Cathedral, which surprised me, as I had these views of Communist Vietnam discouraging anything to do with religion, but the church appeared in good shape and being used.

We headed back to the Hotel to recover from the heat, then headed out for what turned out to be my favorite part of the whole Southeast Asia trip:  A food tour of Hanoi.

Our hotel had recommended that we tour with Quỳnh Nguyễn, who thankfully goes by "Kelly," a 21 year old with fantastic taste and great english.  She took us to ten different places, almost none of which we would have discovered (or walked into) on our own.  It was simply fantastic. Great food, lots of variety, even Alden liked parts of it. (Again, very proud of him, he tried so many new things!) Here is the list, and a few pictures:

1. Nom bo kho: dry beef salad (Ho Hoan Kiem street) -- for some reason, all of the places in the old quarter have these short tables and little chairs. It felt like being in the nursery at church during snack time, but with waaaaaaay better food.  Here is a photo with Kelly in the center.

2. Nem ran: fried spring roll (21 Hang Be). We would never have stopped at this place -- this is literally all it is -- two people on a sidewalk with a burner, a wok, fillings and that wonderful rice paper covering to wrap it all in.  We watched them make our spring rolls, and I have never tasted such a crispy outside and fantastic inside in a springroll. Huge hit for all of us.

3. Bun cha: grilled pork with vermicelli, (Obama's dish) (12 Dinh Liet). Apparently, when President Obama travelled to Vietnam, he came to the old quarter and sat down for some food. Kelly made sure we went to the same place, and ordered the same dish. Here we are, taking it all in.

Notice the hanging chickens Alden is passing as he walked in -- this is one of those places we probably wouldn't have gone in on our own, but the food was great!

4. Pho ga tron: dry chicken noodle ( Hang Chi alley). Again, another place I would not have walked into to order on our own, but I remember this being so very very tasty.

5. Nem lui: grilled pork with lemon grass (72 Nguyen Huu Huan)  This place, and this dish, was fantastic. Highly recommended. Here are a couple of photos:

Those little shish-kabob like things were just killer.

6. Banh xeo: Vietnamese fried pancake (95 Hang Bac). This is a restaurant we would have walked into without reservation, and it did not disappoint. Excellent food, great service.  Loved the fried pancake.

7. Banh mi: Vietnamese bread (14 Hang Buom). Simply the best sandwich I have ever tasted. Period. So good! And yet the whole place consisted not of the buildings behind her, but just the little food cart she is standing next to. Amazing.

8. Kem xoi: sticky rice with ice-cream (95 Hang Bac). I don't have photos of this, and it was the only place on the whole tour that I probably wouldn't seek out again. But that is a pretty good batting average, if you ask me. Kelly was just awesome. Could not recommend her more highly to anyone going to Hanoi.

By the time we were done, we were waddling, and lucky not to be rolling, we were so full.  What a great day it had been, though. When we got to the hotel, we arranged for a last minute personal tour to Bai Dinh and Trang An, with a guide and driver.  Trang An is a Unesco listed world heritage sight, so we were excited.

The day started early, and we rolled out of bed for a light breakfast before heading out on our tour which was an hour and half or so away by car.

It was already so hot before we got there, and it was baking in the unrelenting sun that fell on our boats, but it was a beautiful place.

Each boat has its own paddler, all women, who move them faster than you would think they could, tiny as they all are.  It was hot work, and I was amazed at how tough they must be.  There were only two respites from the heat: umbrellas and caves.

As you head upriver you pass through a couple of these, and they are quite long. Coolest I felt all day.

As we continued upstream, we became increasingly surrounded by limestone pillars on all sides, with a beautiful clear river the temperature of bathwater underneath us, turquoise and green, with verdancy all around.


We were smiling despite the heat, because of the amazing beauty all around.

The boat trip ends in this amazing grotto like bend in the river, where a Buddhist temple, Bai Dinh, has been established. It would be a really amazing place to meditate and pray (if it weren't for all the people that come to see it -- though we lucked out on that front, as the heat scared everyone away).

Here is the hot and happy crew, refreshed after a little ice cream that they sold at the temple.  After wandering around for a bit, we headed back downstream.  Our guide, Vicky, told us how much to tip these ladies that had worked so hard, but apparently I gave a lot more to our boat than Kathleen did to hers. I must have missed a zero or two on our currency, but the last thing I saw was the two ladies yelling at each other, and one looking at me with very hard eyes.  I would have given more to the other one, but they were already paddling away, jabbering loudly at each other. Oops. No good deed as they say. Besides the heat, it was the only mar on an otherwise amazing experience.

We headed back into town, deciding to catch one last museum on the way, which was part of the tour. It was theVietnam Museum of Ethnology, highlighting the different minority cultures (there are surprisingly quite a number of them) in Vietnam.  It included a few outdoor exhibits of typical living quarters and other buildings. Here are a few pics:

With that we were exhausted, and headed back to the Hotel. We spent the night doing a little shopping (there are excellent bargains in the Old Quarter), where it is a blast to barter and bargain with shop owners. We had many laughs as we tried to work them into better prices.  A nice meal back at New Day, and we hit the sheets for our last night in Hanoi. 

The next morning, we headed out to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum.  The Mausoleum was closed, but we spent a little time in the Museum and on the grounds. Lots of propaganda and white washing, but also interesting information and perspective.  Here are a couple of photos.

Our last visit in Hanoi was to the nearby imperial citadel, a Unesco site because for a thousand years it was the center of Vietnamese culture and power.

And with that, our time in Hanoi was finished. We headed to the airport to fly to DaNang, where we would drive south for 45 minutes to picturesque Hoi An, our last stop in Vietnam. There were many things left undone in Northern Vietnam, though, and I would not hesitate to go back. It is a great spot for a vacation, and I loved the people we met. It was worth the half way around the world flight.