Hanoi, Halong, Hue, Hoi An & Ho Chi Minh

red lanterns hanging in a shop window in Hanoi, my first stop on a trip down the coast of VietnamThe cab driver who took me to my hotel in Hanoi proclaimed the city had “4 million people and 3 million motorcycles”. Indeed, I could plainly see that the motorcycles & mopeds certainly outnumbered cars by what seemed 100-to-one.

Motorcycle city: Hanoi

Everyone was motoring on two wheels. There were toddlers standing on scooter floors between their mothers’ legs. Teenage girls wearing heels and long gloves. Men with one hand behind them balancing huge bundles or even appliances. Elderly ladies clutching their drivers tightly. It wasn’t uncommon to see three or four people squeezed onto a scooter, limbs hanging out in every direction.

My first time exploring the streets of Hanoi required navigating my first couple of intimidating intersections as a pedestrian. There were no traffic lights, but rather a continuous sea of cars, motorcycles, bicycles and people on foot, some carrying long poles with baskets or bundles hanging from both ends.

People and vehicles moved at a slow but steady and predictable pace, somehow weaving around each other without colliding. There was some strange form of unspoken road discipline at work , and it took some courage to step off the curb the first time.

woman in a conical hat walking with two baskets balanced on a long pole in Hanoi Vietnam

street scene in Old Hanoi

Our guide later told me that the motorcycles and mopeds I had been dodging were mostly fake Hondas. The cheap Chinese-made copies were selling for around $600 US while the original Japanese machines carried a price tag closer to $3,000. This explained the recent proliferation of gas-powered transportation in what was once a city full of bicycles.

Motorcycle fuel was being sold in street-side stands in old soda and mineral water bottles. It came in all kinds of lovely bright colours, which could easily be confused for Gatorade if one wasn’t careful.

Islands in the mist: Halong Bay

The scenery from the boat while sailing through Halong Bay was stunning – misty and moody with huge limestone towers and islands. There were also a number of “floating villages”where fishermen and their families were living out of their boats on the water, as they do all year round.

We stopped to check out a huge cave on one of the islands called “Surprise Cave”. It was all fixed up for tourists inside, with walkways and lights placed strategically to highlight the stalactites and stalagmites. A bit hoaky, but beautiful nonetheless, and a cool relief from the hot sun outside.

islands in the mist in Halong Bay VietnamAfterwards, the boat navigated to a quiet cove. We jumped over the side to have a refreshing swim in the sea. The water was so salty that it took very little effort to float.

On our way back to Hanoi, I noticed many uniform-clad school children carrying small red plastic stools. Our guide said they take them to school on Mondays for the weekly assembly. There they salute the flag and learn about the government – propaganda for the nation’s children.

Watery Hue

Last night we hopped on the overnight train headed south down the coast of Vietnam to city of Hue. It was four bunks to a sleeper car, and I was slotted in with one of my tour mates and two local young men.

When we broke out a deck of cards, the Vietnamese men motioned that they would like to play with us. Somehow we figured out that they knew the game we call “asshole”, and so we all enjoyed some laughs as we competed for the title of President. A few other locals gathered in the doorway of our compartment to watch the spectacle and laugh along with us. We did not speak each others’ languages, yet we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Pefume River near Hue, VietnamHue is the wettest part of Vietnam. It was raining when we got off the train this morning, and some of the streets were flooded. Now that the rain has stopped and most of the water has subsided, it’s lovely and sunny with wet surfaces glistening brilliantly everywhere.

As we were touring the sites, we heard some beautiful singing coming from a nearby building. It was a monastery with an open-air dining room where monks were blessing their mid-day meal before eating. A few of us perched in some nearby bushes and watched, mesmerized as they chanted and motioned with their rice bowls in harmonious unison. After the ritual was finished, they ate slowly and silently. What a peaceful, spiritual moment.

monks blessing a meal in Hue Vietnam

Hoi An: capital of custom tailoring

I’m a bit embarrassed to report that most of my time in Hoi An was spent shopping. The town is famous for its tailors and streets full of shops. I got a few custom-tailored pieces of clothing, made-to-order shoes and some gorgeous lacquered wood items.

We were fortunate to be there on the night of a full moon to witness a lunar festival. In the evening the streets were blocked off to traffic and there were colorful silk lanterns glowing everywhere. Men were sitting on plastic stools playing Chinese chess at little small low tables and kids were running around everywhere. There were outdoor performances of Vietnamese folk music – not all that pleasant to my Western ears to be honest, but part of the atmosphere.

shopping street in Hoi An Vietnam

Remnants of war: Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam’s most modern city was also the most sobering for me. In The War Remnants Museum (formerly the War Crimes Museum), there was an entire building full of photos taken by journalists who were killed in the war.  These, along with other photographs and paintings, made some very horrifying scenes come to life — interrogation and torture sessions, soldiers grinning over decapitated enemy bodies, and disfigured victims of bombs and chemical weapons.

Some of the victims died during the war, but some were children or grandchildren of those who were there. Even jars containing malformed fetuses that were miscarried were on display. It seemed strange that life outside was sunny and normal. But obviously people must go on.

street scene in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam - last stop on a trip down the coast of Vietnam

Cheap eats

My first Vietnamese meal was – not surprisingly – a big bowl of noodle soup. I spied a small cafe full of locals slurping away happily, so I stepped inside. I sat sat down on one of the tiny kid-sized plastic stools, my knees drawn up awkwardly to the side as they poked above the low rough wooden table.

Before I had figured out how to to order, a steaming bowl of delicious broth was plopped down in front of me. I later found out that these “one-item-on-the-menu” places were quite common, and one of the cheapest and tastiest ways to satisfy hunger.

Great food at good prices was everywhere in Vietnam. Lots of seafood, endless varieties of noodles, crisp-cooked veggies in fragrant sauces. For breakfast there were fresh baguettes and all kinds of exotic fruit, including dragon fruit, lychee nuts, jackfruit, lychee nuts, mangoes and more.

One excellent meal shared with my tour-mates was some of the best food I’d ever had for the least money. We had squid in chili sauce, peppered beef and shrimp & veggies cooked in broth inside a coconut shell. Plus chicken soup, stir-fried vegetables in soy sauce, rice and fried bananas. All that for less than $4 CAD per person.

colonel sanders and ho chi minh look alike

Notice a resemblance?

In most of the country, there the absence of  North American fast food was noticeable. A good thing in my opinion. But I did spot a few KFC locations in Ho Chi Minh City. It seemed the Colonel was the only one who had made it into the country. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of his striking resemblance to General Ho Chi Minh.

Good night Vietnam,

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