Saturday, August 16, 2008

Hanoi, Vietnam

To travel in Europe is to assume a foreseen inheritance; in Islam, to inspect that of a close and familiar cousin. But to travel in farther Asia is to discover a novelty previously unsuspected and unimaginable.

- Lord Byron

To view photos from Hanoi, click here.

...I met Gill and Tony in Hue at their guesthouse in time to take the night bus together to Hanoi – another 12 hour wild ride! We all settled into our ‘beds’ (reclining seats that have an enclosure at the bottom, like a box, that you slip your feet into), when I heard a bit of commotion at the front of the bus. I leaned my head out into the aisle where all I could see was Gill’s hand gesturing in a way that told me she meant business! Her hand was pointed at a Vietnamese bus driver who had told her (in a not so polite or meek manner) that the seat she was in was his (for sleeping shifts) and she would have to take one of the seats at the back of the bus on the bottom level (this is where the bus drivers normally sleep). Gill had tried sleeping there on our Nha Trang-Hoi An sojourn where she was the victim of a bus driver's wandering hands, so this time, she wasn’t having any of it).

'I paid for my ticket which SHOULD ensure me a decent seat on this bus so I am NOT MOVING!’

Bursts of cheer and applause came from the rest of the bus as Gill gave the bus driver the ‘What for?’ and in the end he had no choice but to accept her decision. All of us had probably been in a similar situation somewhere along our travels (being told to do something we knew didn’t make sense or was not fair) and witnessing Gill refuse to take any crap, did all of our little backpacker hearts some good.

When sleeping on an overnight bus, one never really SLEEPS. You are constantly woken up by either the blaring of the horn, the blaring of Vietnamese music through the speakers located inches away from your head or the bus driver having to suddenly break for oncoming traffic and random cattle crossing the road. By no means is bus travel a SAFE way to travel, but it is definitely interesting of all, it’s incredibly CHEAP!

When we arrived in Hanoi, it would have been convenient had the bus dropped us off in the Old Quarter, where all of the guesthouses are located but no....that would be too easy. We were dropped somewhere on the outskirts of Hanoi and had to negotiate a decent fare with a taxi driver into the city, not really knowing how far away we actually were. Then comes the gruelling task of finding cheap accommodation that is firstly and most importantly safe, and secondly, clean. This can be an impossible feat at times ... add the hot and humid weather, lack of sleep, laptop, camera equipment and backpack to the mix and it’s not the most enjoyable task. This time, it took us well over an hour of walking from place to place, splitting up, meeting and comparing prices before finding a decent option.

When we were in Hoi An, we met 2 Australians, Ross and Gary. Gary lives in Cairns and does things like wrestles crocodiles and tags tiger sharks for a living! Ross is a Health Advisor for the Australian Embassy in Hanoi and was gracious enough to offer up his extra room if one of us wanted a place to stay. So later that day, I took a moto to the embassy to meet Ross (about 20 minutes away from the Old Quarter) and spent the next 4 days there. I took a moto to the Old Quarter during the day to cruise around Hoan Kiem Lake and catch up on photo editing and writing. I met some lovely expats at the cafe I went to (‘hello’ to Edwin, Caroline and Samuel - sorry we didn't get to reconnect) and had some good quality Tracey time:) In the evening, I met up with Ross for dinner. It was so nice to stay in a non-touristy area and amongst true Hanoians. Ross and I had many a stimulating conversation over delightful, authentic Vietnamese food and I can't thank him enough for the hospitality.

Since my Vietnam visa was running out fast, I had to choose whether I would go to Sapa in the north of Vietnam or Halong Bay (about 2 hours away from Hanoi). In the end, I opted for Halong Bay based on other traveler’s recommendations and its proximity.... I was told it was ‘ a must see’ and it really was truly spectacular...stony mountains covered with greenery casting their watery shadows... like tender leviathans sleeping in a glassy pool. I must admit, I had low expectations of what our boat was going to be like based on stories from other travelers, such as the lack of safety precautions taken, i.e. no lifejackets. But to my surprise (and delight), not only did our boat have lifejackets, it had amenities such as a restaurant, KARAOKE machine, sundeck and our very own cabins (with bathrooms even!).

We explored caves, went swimming and kayaking at sunset, had more than enough tasty gourmet food to eat and the best part of the trip - the people onboard! I met 2 ladies from Australia – Helen and Marg, best friends traveling together from Melbourne and Jeanette, an Australian English teacher moving from Bangkok to France who all had there eye on a fellah on board who didn’t have the best of intentions with me. They became the matriarchs of the boat and I was happy to have 3 Halong Bay 'Moms' looking out for me. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of their company and plan to meet up with them again somewhere down the road.

Then there was Nathan and John, both from L.A. and Carolina and Rodrigo, from New York. Nathan and John were on a whirlwind trip of Asia and I shudder to think what kind of trouble they must have gotten into after hearing stories of their trip thus far. Carolina and Rodrigo were on vacation spending their last few days in Halong Bay before finishing their travels in Laos.
The latter part of our last eve on the boat was spent on the top deck chatting and having a good laugh. I was sad to leave everyone the next day but the fun wasn’t completely over yet as Carolina, Rodrigo and I made plans to meet for dinner when we arrived back in Hanoi. Spending time with such a loving couple was so refreshing. They were always affectionate with one another – something you don’t see enough of these days - and what was even more heart warming is that they are BOTH ridiculously awesome people – loads of fun, worldly, great storytellers and beautiful inside and out.

I decided to spend my last day in Hanoi paying homage to the man himself, Ho Chi Minh. I went to the Mausoleum, where his body is preserved for viewing. The story goes that Ho Chi Minh wanted his body cremated ('Not only is cremation good from the point of view of hygiene, but it also saves farmland.'). Despite his request, he was instead pickled and put on display in a Lenin-esque sarcophagus.

To pay a visit to Uncle Ho, one must wear proper attire (no skirts or bare shoulders) and keep your hands at your sides or in front of you and remain completely silent while inside (as enforced by 4 guards within the mausoleum dressed in white). In case you are not familiar with who Ho Chi Minh is, he was responsible for uniting the country against first the French and later America, making Vietnam an independent nation and a force to be reckoned with. I must say he looked absolutely stunning, angelic almost. If you want to pay respect to Uncle Ho, try to do it between February - October as he goes on vacation to Russia for a refresh (primping) sometime between November to January.

After having spent 6 weeks in Vietnam, a Communist and Buddhist country, I was to say the least...confused. Vietnam is a country of contradictions with a diverse and colourful culture, history, scenery and people. Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the world, it has managed to avoid globalization, i.e. didn't see ONE Starbucks!, and preserve its own traditions and beliefs.

Sure there were some lowlights for me along the way, but the highlights greatly outweighed them. I got to see their side of the story (Vietnam War) and gained a greater respect for its people - they are tough! And on a lighter note, I have some really good stories to tell 'round the campfire:)

"Are you a god?" they asked.
"An Angel?"
"A saint?"
"Then, what are you?"
Buddha answered, "I am awake."

In traveling: a man must carry knowledge with him, if he would bring home knowledge.

- James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson

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