Leaving Hoi An, an overnight train from Da Nang brought us to Hanoi on March 13th. We stayed two nights in Hanoi, one night in Ha Long Bay (Kiran to post Ha Long Bay soon), and came back to Hanoi for two more nights before leaving for Laos on March 18th. Obviously this wasn’t our train, but I thought it made for a cool photo.
The train leg from Da Nang through Hue (en route to Hanoi) is supposed to be the most scenic route in all of Vietnam. I really wish I would have washed our cabin’s window so our pictures came out better, since I think the views rival any views of Big Sur on the PCH. Here are a few photos I took from the train’s corridor with the window down so you first get the idea of what the colors would look like sans window.
Here are the views from our cabin window. It makes me sad actually, these pictures can never do the lush scenery justice. You really have to go see it yourself, it’s just turn after turn and bay after bay of the most beautiful view you’ve ever seen in whole life … it’s literally breathtaking.
Just go see it, trust me.
This time, the nicest sleeper cabin had only four beds per cabin, so we had much more space than our last trip. Kiran slept rather well that night.
It’s always a potential nightmare wondering with whom you’ll share your cabin. Your cabinmates could be foul smelling, thieves, or worse yet someone with tuberculosis. Thankfully, from Da Nang to Hanoi, we had the best of all possible scenarios. The third bed was empty and the fourth was filled by our new friend Bich. Bich, we would learn, was a 22 year old young woman who was studying Chinese in her final year of university in Hanoi. Thankfully, she knew English very well, and we spent most of the evening talking and talking until we all went to sleep.
Please know, she would want you to know, she wanted us to know, that you do not pronounce her name “bitch.” It’s Bich, sort of a mix between beek and big and bic, or like the German ich without the guttural vocalization behind it. Bich.
Upon our arrival in Hanoi the next AM, we said our goodbyes and made plans to meet up with her sometime later during our stay there.
Regarding our stay, we were struck first and foremost by how absolutely terrible the air quality is, and you really don’t notice it until nighttime. Here’s the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum at night. You’d think there was something wrong with Kiran’s camera, but there isn’t – it’s the smog!!!
And we walked and walked and walked. around the Old Quarter and the French Quarter. The Old Quarter has houses that date back to the 1400s, and the reason they’re so skinny is because the Chinese used to impose taxes based on the width of the house, so they built up not out.
Honestly, I find most of the Old Quarter visually hideous. Most of the buildings are pretty run down and almost all contain gawdy storefronts. This photo is actually a picture I took of a Cebu Pacific in-flight magazine flying to Manila on Sunday. You can see how ugly the Old Quarter has become
Speaking of visually hideous.
Technically these may be French-style houses just within the border of Old Quarter, but you get the idea.
We went to Hoa Lo prison, otherwise known by imprisoned US pilots during the Vietnam War as the Hanoi Hilton. John McCain called this home for over five years. FIVE YEARS!
Here’s John McCain’s flight suit
I wonder which cell was Senator McCain’s
Much of the former prison has been torn down, replaced by this sky scraper.
The front gate and a small portion of the prison remains
As does the bullshit propaganda.
The “best living conditions for US pilots” ?!? Ask John McCain about the beatings and the torture and the starvation that drove him to attempt suicide in Hua Lo prison and then tell me about the “best” living conditions. The outright lies and misinformation in Vietnamese ‘museums’ is a joke, to put it mildly.
Speaking of a joke, here’s the Lenin park during the day
Moving along, we went back to the Ho Chi Minh museum one morning.
Interestingly, there was modern art at the Ho Chi Minh museum. Kiran seems unimpressed.
I swear to God I meant to be bending my elbow just like Ho Chi Minh, or as the Vietnamese call him “Uncle Ho.” Unfortunately, the photo looks more Hitler than Ho.
Even crazier than (accidentally) flashing the heil hitler was going to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body. Communists love embalming their cherished leaders, so on our last full day in Hanoi, we woke up early, stood in line for 30 minutes, and went to see Uncle Ho himself. He looks amazing! Amazing. Once you enter the dimly lit room, you quietly and respectfully walk in a procession around his glass coffin and seriously, the guy looks incredible. We learned they take his body to Russia for three months out of the year for ‘touch ups.’ And unfortunately photos weren’t allowed. But he was embalmed against his will, so how making an exhibit out of his corpse is OK, against his wishes, but pictures are disrespectful is beyond me.
Shifting gears, we also celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in Hanoi. I took these pictures in honor of my sister since March 17th is also her birthday.
Every day and most nights we strolled Guam lake. The park reminds me a lot of Central Park, except instead of homeless people and senile elderly folks feeding pigeons, it’s packed with youngsters cuddling on park benches overlooking the lake. The lake is an important courtship area in the city, as most Vietnamese live with their parents until marriage, so you have to have SOMEWHERE to make out.
We saw the famous Water Puppet show
We ate at some rice shop that Anthony Bourdain ate at recently. Dinner cost $3 that night.
Still, I think our favorite part of Hanoi was hanging out with our new friend Bich. She was so kind and so intelligent and so sure if herself … a big city girl. She knew the town, she knew the culture, it was just great.
Here’s Bich with Kiran.
One night, Bich said she and her friend would come by on two scooters to give us a tour of Hanoi. The night pictures of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and Lenin park were from that tour.
Before they came, Kiran and I discussed who should ride with whom. Vietnamese, and Asians here in general, seem to have issues with showing affection or even touching one another in public. Given the ‘intimacy’ involved with two people riding on a motorbike together, we decided if Bich’s friend was a woman, I’d ride with Bich and Kiran would ride with her friend. I just prayed her friend wasn’t a guy, since then I’d be straddling a dude.
The two girls showed up, I breathed a sigh of relief, but that relief did not last long. The only other time I have ridden on the back seat of a motorcycle/motorbike was with Uncle Dave on his Harley Fatboy years ago before I started riding motorcycles myself. Since then, I’ve always been in control of the bike, for better and for worse.
Let me tell you, there is a WORLD of difference riding on the backseat of your uncle’s Harley Davidson through the country roads of Eau Claire, Wisconsin compared to riding on the backseat of a little 125cc motorbike during rush hour in a city of millions and millions of people, being driven around by an 85lb girl you barely know who struggles to keep the bike upright because you weigh so much and you can’t stop fidgeting and shifting your weight (out of fear). Add to that the fact that she’s not watching the road but having a conversation with her friend and Kiran on the motorbike beside you.
At the start of our ride, Bich mentioned to me that I seemed really nervous riding on the back of her bike. I told her I was, but wondered how she knew. I then realized I was clamping down on her hips with my thighs as tight as you’d clench a horse that you’re riding bareback.
The feeling of being absolutely powerless, your life completely in the hands of another person, it’s not a feeling I enjoyed one bit. It gave me an entirely new perspective on times when I’m annoyed by Kiran whimpering that I’m riding too fast or swerving too much. Sometimes I slalom imaginary cones with Kiran on back – I don’t think I’ll do that again, not as often at least.
Later I explained to Bich the concept (and misogynistic meaning) of riding “bitch,” the person riding on the backseat of the bike being “the bitch.” Well, that night, I was Bich’s bitch, it was terrifying, but she skillfully did well not to crash, while I squirmed like a little …
After our motorbike tour, Kiran and I took Bich and her friend out to dinner. It cost me $10 to pay for everyone that night. $2.50 per person doesn’t get you much decor however.
During dinner, Kiran mentioned she didn’t eat pork. Bich asked ‘why?’ Kiran said it’s because she’s Muslim. Bich said, ‘Oh. In Vietnam, we eat beef, pork, chicken … and sometimes we eat dog’ My jaw dropped. Kiran mentioned something about that earlier in Vietnam, that Chinese and Vietnamese people sometimes eat dogs. I figured it was like having an uncle in the KKK – everyone knew about it but no one discussed it openly.
To hear Bich bring it up, unsolicited, was pretty … um … I don’t even know what to say. But I had to dig further. I asked her if certain breeds of dog had characteristic tastes. I imagined puppy Labrador would be buttery and tender; terriers might be a little tough or chewy; Pomeranians a bit tart? She said she wasn’t sure, but I’m pretty sure my sarcasm was lost on her.
She told us a story about her cousins dog dying and her uncle serving it up for dinner. Bich said she couldn’t eat it since she knew the dog. Bich also later asked if all Americans name their dogs after important people or loved ones in their lives. I said some, but not all, and added that as a non-pet owner (my mom never let me get a dog), I personally feel that peoples’ disproportionate affection towards pets serves, in part at least, to fulfill intimacy otherwise lacking in their own lives.
So as they say, when in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do. This is fried golden retriever.
Relax! It’s a brownie sundae I had in Malaysia. I really hope you fell for that one. Now go put those rain boots on your dog and take it for a walk.