Vietnam – Frogger, hard feelings and…Happy New Year!

She Says: I don’t really know what to say about Vietnam.  I think it might be the first time I write a somewhat negative post about a place we visited. Before continuing, I would like to say that my perception may be somewhat swayed by the fact that I was ill due to food poisoning our first couple days there.

To get to Vietnam we took a bus from Phnom Phen.  It was about a 6 hr ride. I remember telling John that sometimes when we are driving/riding at night I imagine we are back in the states.  I did that on this bus ride.  When it is dark out and you are driving and cannot see the landscape it is very easy to imagine that you are back home.  I used to do this a lot when I was in Iraq.  Perhaps it is a coping mechanism when you get homesick.  If I wasn’t already homesick, I definitely was after Vietnam.  I think John and I both were.

Anyways we arrived in the evening right in time for rush hour– oh no wait, traffic is ALWAYS like this in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).  I have never seen anything like it.  There were thousands and thousands of motorbikes everywhere!!  On top of that there were thousands of cars everywhere!  It was a mad house– and like every other SE Asian city, there are no real traffic laws.  Crossing the road is a sport in it’s own right.  Please bring a helmet and knee pads if you plan to visit HCMC, you will need them.

The bus parked and we unloaded.  There were lights, music, people, traffic and we had no idea where the hotel we booked was located.  We were a little dazed and confused from all the hustle and bustle around us.  A taxi driver approached us and said he knew where our hotel was.  He said it would be about $10 to get us there.  I thought that was  a steep price but he had already put our bags in the car so we just decided to go with it.  He started driving away from the main tourist area.  I told J that I bet he is going to drive us in  a circle, and said that if he makes one more left turn I am saying something.  Of course he did, so I told him that he is driving us in a circle.  His response was that the hotel was on a one way street so he had to go this way.  Lo and behold when we finally arrived the road was NOT one way.  We told him we weren’t paying him full price and gave him $5 which was still more than he deserved.  The hotel was literally 2 blocks from where the bus dropped us off.  We had heard there were a lot of scammers in Vietnam, but we had no idea we would experience them in the first few minutes of entering the country.  😦

The madhouse right outside our hotel room...might as well have been inside it with us.

Once we arrived at the hotel they informed us they had overbooked and we needed to get a cab to their sister hotel.  I said, okay as long as you pay for the cab because we just got ripped off by one.  The guy agreed and actually took the cab with us.  The room was nice enough but there was a live band playing just outside our window until about midnight.  The honking from the road was enough noise on its own.  It seemed we couldn’t catch a break.

The next day we decided to walk around and explore the city.  It was very hot and humid.  The first thing we found we wanted to buy was cherries.  I picked them up to ask the lady how much they were and she just shook her head.  I thought maybe she didn’t work there.  I then walked inside and she was standing there with a man who did work there and all he did was say no and shoo me away.  I kept trying to ask how much but all he did was give me a scowl and continue to shoo me out of the store.  Apparently there are still hard feelings from the war.  It was an older couple so J and I assumed that perhaps the man served in Vietnam.  But we will never know as they would barely look at us.  This was somewhat prevalent in all of HCMC.  Most people didn’t smile, most did not look at you, and few were helpful.  A complete change from the land of a million smiles.

I think the “unwelcomeness” mostly comes from the older generations.  Most of the young people we met were pretty nice and didn’t seem to have any problems with us.  It is odd to John and I how long people can hold grudges for so long, and not only that, but generalize an entire race.  I mean– for all the old couple knew we could have been from Sweeden, but because we were fair skinned they wanted absolutely nothing to do with us.  I think that is at least one thing our generation has gotten right: we get over things pretty quickly, relatively speaking. 🙂

The next day I was really sick from something I ate and spent pretty much of the day laying in bed and hanging out with the toilet.  It was awful but the next day I did feel better so I think I got most of it out of my system.  We were heading to Hanoi the next evening so I was hoping our experience there would be a little better, and it definitely was. I had almost written off Vietnam entirely after only a few days due to HCMC.

He Says: We heard mixed reviews about Vietnam before we actually made it there. Some said they loved it. Others said they were fine with never stepping foot in the country again, mostly because they felt unwelcome. We tend to agree with the latter group. Considering Vietnam’s history, it’s not surprising many of the people view outsiders so negatively.

This was the one time getting stuck in Vientiane, Laos was useful. The original plan was to take a bus from HCMC to Hanoi (from the southern tip to the northern), at least a two day trip, and that’s if you don’t stop anywhere. Because of the extra time in Vientiane we decided to fly across Vietnam instead, saving us valuable time. After two nights in HCMC we were happy to be flying to Hanoi and skipping everything in between. I’m sure there’s plenty of enjoyable things to see heading north along the narrow coast, but we were just fine missing them.

I wouldn’t say Hanoi totally changed our view of Vietnam but it at least kept us from despising it all together. Oddly enough, the people in the north seemed a bit more welcoming and helpful. For the most part, we felt like we could trust them and not have to worry about getting totally ripped off.

Hanoi itself is was enjoyable. Much less chaotic and more charming than HCMC. We were lucky to be staying in the Old District where it felt exactly how you would think an old east-Asian town should feel. Narrow streets, rickshaws, alleys lined with people sitting on tiny stools eating noodles, shops and restaurants stacked on top of each other without any rhyme or reason. It had it’s own brand of quaintness that we found relieving after HCMC. Our hotel was, thankfully, tucked in a cramped alley off the main streets so the noise was minimal. We found plenty of places with good food and, my favorite part, had a few beers sitting in the street on stools watching the traffic zip by. Walking around Hanoi wasn’t nearly as stressful as HCMC so seeing the sights was actually feasible: visited a temple and a mini festival, walked around a lake, took pictures of weird art, had some coffee and people-watched.

Taking advice from a couple we met, we caught some local entertainment at the Water Puppet Theater. Like its name implies, it’s a puppet show on water. The whole production was in Vietnamese so we had couldn’t follow the story line, but it had something to do with fish-gods, dragons and growing rice. At the very least, it put smiles on our faces.

J enjoying a beer streetside

Watching traffic zip by.

The Old District

She's got the whole world in her hands. 🙂

In any case, the whole reason we went to Hanoi (and Vietnam) was to see Ha Long Bay. It makes up a large part of Vietnam’s northeast coast and is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mostly due to thousands of huge limestone formations scattered across the bay. Ha Long translates to “descending dragon”, which makes sense when you see the rocks undulating in and out of the water. We had heard many travelers raving about how beautiful it was so we decided this was the one thing we wouldn’t miss while in Vietnam.

Our cabin on the boat

Some of the other boats out and about with us

We didn’t plan it this way but the one night we reserved for our boat tour of the bay happened to be New Year’s Eve. We booked our trip only a few days ahead of time so our boat pickings were slim. We found the last available room on one of the more low-key boats (family rather than party oriented), but I think we both preferred it that way. It ended up being one of the most unique New Years I think either of us will ever enjoy. Our group was a good size at about 20 people, mostly Vietnamese and Germans. The first day started off normally enough with good food and the usual conversation between new friends. We stopped at an island with some colorfully lit caves then kayaked around a few of the huge cliffs. At night we anchored in a spot with all he other boats and ate an amazing dinner. The fish looked a little scary at first but was actually delicious.

Spelunking in Technicolor

J kayaking us around the bay

Enjoying the view

The descending dragon...

The dining room

I think they called this a praying lobster??

Hanging out on the top deck.

Fantastic views.

Once our tables were cleaned off the TV was turned on and karaoke commenced. We were asked to join but politely deferred because all the songs they played were in Vietnamese. Besides, watching everyone else sing was entertaining enough. Eventually, they moved on to songs we could understand, even more entertaining. Asians singing English songs is always hilarious (think A Christmas Story – Deck the Halls). A younger Vietnamese boy, who had been practicing his English with us earlier in the day, was clinging to the mic all night long and singing his heart out. It was painful to hear but we had to give him props for persistence.

Getting the night started with some karaoke.

J buying late night snacks from the "boat woman"

Close to midnight everyone gathered in the galley with bottles of wine and truffles. There was no countdown so once we had a good idea the clock had struck twelve the crew put on Happy New Year by Abba and cranked up the volume loud enough for all of Ha Long Bay to hear. We listened to that three or four times then danced to other classics like Boney M by Daddy Cool and 90’s hip-hop by a German rapper. If you’ve never heard of Daddy Cool, look them up on Youtube right away and you’ll immediately know much fun we had. So awful it was good.  🙂

After a few glasses of wine everyone gathered in a circle and took turns showing off their dance moves. Even more entertaining than the Vietnamese kid singing was watching an older German couple awkwardly dance to the 90’s hip-hop. There was off-beat tapping of the feet, slight swaying from side to side and sporadic pumping of the arms. It looked more like electrocution than dancing. 🙂 Once the festivities died down, TB and I went up to the boat top  for a little star gazing. The clouds put an end to that so instead we watched people on the boat next to us jump in their underwear to the cold water below. Like I said, one of the most unique New Years either one of us will ever enjoy.

The New Year's spread!

Happy New Year!!

Our shipmates!...right before we danced to German hip-hop.

So by the end of it we felt a little better about Vietnam, though maybe not enough to ever return. Shortly after Ha Long Bay we flew from Hanoi back to HCMC but this time never left the airport. We found a dark corner in the terminal and spent a nice quiet night on the floor. Much better than a noisy night in a hotel.

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One response to “Vietnam – Frogger, hard feelings and…Happy New Year!

  1. Being from the generation whose mission was to save their country by destroying it coming on the heels of decades of French colonialism, I’m not surprised to note the coolness if not the hostility the older–my–generation has towards anyone Western. That doesn’t help lessen the impact of the cold reception for you, but it is heartening to see the younger Vietnamese being more cordial, open, and receptive. Independence is a marvelous thing.

    Beautiful photos as usual. They tell a powerful story as well about a land the vast majority of us will never visit.

    namaste – j

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