From North To South – The Ha Long Bay
I’ll Tell this Story Backwards, From North Vietnam and down to my arrival and departure city of South Vietnam’s capitol of Saigon. Now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
My trip began with a host of problems, while booking tickets for flights and hotels, my cards went frozen. My visa required me to leave China within 24 hours, and not even the airlines had no record of me being on the flight that I was 30 minutes inbound to board.
Amidst the stress… I somehow made it aboard.
And all my planning started then. An “all or nothing” approach ensued, grew on, and on, and never died.
The Vietnam Diaries Part One
Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa Village, and More
Vietnam is a remarkable country with a tropical and energetic vibe. It is strange to think that by the interaction you find and the friendliness of locals, that things could have been so different just a generation ago.
Pictured: I sit alongside a fellow Englishman I met who was traveling. We joined an American-Vietnamese family as we all parted on the Ha Long Bay cruise. The man behind me, shared stories of how he fled the country by boat during the beginning of the war. At that time, he and six other men ventured out in the night on a canoe with no food or water. They drifted for six days, and he told of the horrible things he saw as others tried to flee the nation.
Today, we all sat there and enjoyed authentic meals together, and he told us of his life as a happy owner of several restaurants Midwest USA. He has a bright daughter pursuing a law degree, and a happy family. Even in that 24 hours on the cruise, we all became a lot closer as we ventured into the Ha Long Bay together.
The Ha Long Bay, one of the seven wonders of the world. Now loaded with villagers on boats packed with cases of beer, wine, and oreos. Our ship was encircled by three small boats. We could hear the cries of, “Beer, wine, oreos. Come and buy. We’re much cheaper.” Their English was amusingly good.
The Ha Long Bay, heading towards the Hang Sung Sot cave.
[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_l90hU7ZGLg[/youtube]
Our ships dropped us off at an amazing point. The site of the caves that were formed by hundreds of millions of years of earth’s aging. It was rumored, that even the in the height of the war, some Vietcong came to hide out here. Like the Taliban of the waters, they went undetected and, for some of them, unknown.
In that boat ride, I became closer with that older man who shared the story of his escape. He encouraged me to explore the country more. To marry a Vietnamese, he joked, or to find work opportunities. Yet his pressing suggestion, for me to leave China and head to Southeast Asia, was taken in stride as both a kind joke, but a joke that really stuck. I loved the people I came across in Vietnam.
Maybe some words could describe it, but I can’t find them.
We even tried the infamous scorpion wine. The tail broke off inside the bottle. Unsure whether it was still venomous, we decided to slow down and sip it instead. It wasn’t wine, and it wasn’t vodka either. Whiskey? Not sure. It tasted terrible though. But between me and the Englishman, we knew it was our job to finish it. No hangover.
Perhaps one of the most buzz inducing qualities of the exotic country is the genuine feeling of vicariously living through the pop culture movies, novels, an other remnants of the Vietnam generation.
Growing up as a kid, I recall watching Platoon, Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, and a variety of other American portrayals of the war in all it’s grit and all it’s colors if the jungle.
But today’s Vietnam is a stark contrast to it’s past.
And beyond the stereotypes held, or memories molded by years of pop-culture in film, music, and the media, a journey into the country is lush with tourism. It is a rush, a fascinating and addictive rush to see and feel all the details of the country as portrayed in American pop-culture. I’m talking the humidity, the bugs, the foliage, the nights spent on Saigon streets. Those Viet girls, the motorcycles, and the barren ruins of lost civilizations of yesterday covered by the jungle roots and earth of today.
Sa Pa, a Village in North Vietnam
A dog rests by a villager talking on a cell phone.
Vietnam is a lot different today than it was then, but something about the scenery, just summons rumors and stories from the history books you once heard about.
Villagers of Sa Pa showing of local made jewelry.
I guess a double irony of venturing into the village of Sa Pa, was that it was also labeled as a tourist attraction from the start. Elegantly yet natively designed outfits were worn by many villages, but there was no hiding their intention to make a quick dollar. Every villager approached us asking us if we wanted “To go shopping” and offered cheaply woven purses, and other souvenirs.
But there was a Sad Irony – A village uses a dremel tool to refine more sculptures for an incessant flow of tourists. Given the abundance of statues and figurines nearby, I can only suspect he was sculpting North Vietnamese souvenirs for other areas of the village and its other tourist traps.
A villager offered me Raw Cane at a rest stop ending our trek down the village sides.
Squeezed, served, on what looked like dry ice…
I tried a lot of things, so when it came to the raw cane sugar I figured why not. It was delicious, with a little bit of a grassy taste. But after hiking down the mountains, past waterfalls and jungle shrubbery, it was an excellent choice.
While traveling alone across North and South Vietnam, I came across numerous locals that were not only eager to help me in my race to explore the country in nine days, but were willing to join me. Some of the greatest people I met in Vietnam, I was able to connect with through Couch Surfing, and meeting on the street.
Hanoi – The Capital of North Vietnam
A Post-War Generation in Post-War Nam
On my first night in Hanoi, I walked into a rock bar after booking my hotel. In minutes, upon the warnings given by locals to avoid getting tangled into the arms of would-be muggers, the conversation slowly turned into something more peculiar.
A local asked me to step in for a rock band that was missing it’s pianist. After a few beers and skepticism I obliged… It turned out to be an opportunity I couldn’t have predicted. So I got up and played the rock organ live. While it wasn’t my particular style, the experience itself was more than memorable. The bar was full of expats, Australians to be exact. And the French.
A few days later, I walked into a bar in a Northern Vietnamese village and ordered a glass of scotch. The whole down was pitch black. But there’s a party going on here. Chinese sputtered night chat atop a cafe overlooking the now dreary cool and invisibly cliffsides of the Sa Pa village. And I’m left sitting here sipping, thinking of how I got here…
Vietnam has this tangible feeling, as a tourist, like an escape-like vacation but into the jungle countryside, woven into downright adventure. But then the history brings a question you try to ask…
But the whole time you remember that voice of Martin Sheen’s monologue in the opening of Apocalypse Now, and you feel like you almost could imagine what he described in 1975.
That Jungle. That humidity. That kind of unique “Vietnam”, Vietnam.
30 years later, and I was just a few days away from departing.
To have experienced both happiness, helpful advice and goodwill both across North and South Vietnam. It’s amazing to be born into a generation that can share that happiness.
For a trip that honestly almost never happened, I can say the post-Cold War nature of these countries I have come to explore, learn the languages of, and to connect with locals continues. In both daring and borderline wreck less adventure.
And like a child reaching for match sticks, you leave me wanting more. Amidst the reckless sense of adventure you provided at the time, you were exactly what I was looking for.
[youtube height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJv8bFBabTs&feature=youtu.be[/youtube]
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