The taxi driver who took me to my hotel in Hanoi proclaimed the city had 4 million people and 3 million motorcycles. Indeed, it looked to me like motorcycles and mopeds outnumbered cars by far.
Everyone was motoring on two wheels. Some drivers steered with one hand, the other arm stretched behind to balance a bundle, or maybe even an appliance. It wasn't uncommon to see three or four people squeezed onto a scooter, limbs hanging out in every direction.
My first time navigating an intersections as a pedestrian was intimidating. 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 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. But when I did, I became part of the flow. The trick was to assume a consistent, predictable pace.
But Hanoi had it's quieter charms as well. In the old quarter, life moved at a slower pace and transportation was more often human-powered. Hoan Kiem Lake was a calming oasis with its gardens, sculptures and pagodas.
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. We stopped on one of the islands to explore '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.
Occasionally we came across a 'floating village' -- a grouping of boats, docks and small floating houses anchored together. These were communities of fishing families were living out on the water, close to the source of their livelihood. The boats mostly looked small and basic, but some had satellite dishes mounted on top of their covered quarters. I imagine other modern conveniences were hidden inside.
Afterwards, 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.
Last night we hopped on the overnight train headed south down the coast of Vietnam to the 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 wanted to join the game. Somehow we figured out they knew the game we call 'asshole', and there were laughs all around 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 enjoyed ourselves immensely, despite -- or maybe because of -- the language barrier.
Hue 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 site of the famous Thien Mu pagoda, 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. I was mesmerized as they chanted and moved with their bowls in harmonious unison. After the ritual was finished, they began to eat silently. What a peaceful, spiritual moment.
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 bought a custom-tailored blouse, made-to-order shoes and a set of beautiful dark wood chopsticks in a matching carved box.
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 to traffic and there were colorful silk lanterns glowing everywhere. Men were sitting on tiny plastic stools playing Chinese chess at low tables, and kids were chasing each other down the sidewalks. There were sizzling food stalls and outdoor performances of Vietnamese folk music -- not all that pleasant to my Western ears to be honest, but all part of the atmosphere.
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 photos and paintings, brought horrifying scenes from this period of history 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. Of course we must move on, but places like this serve as solemn reminder of the tragic and lasting effects of war.
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 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 with veggies cooked in a coconut shell. Plus chicken soup, stir-fried vegetables, rice and fried bananas, all for less than $4 CAD per person.
In most of the country, the absence of North American fast food was noticeable -- and that was a good thing. 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.