Viet Nam

We Almost Didn't Make It into Viet Nam

On Thursday before we were supposed to leave Phnom Penh on Saturday, we got a message from Cambodia Angkor Air that our early morning flight was cancelled and they had proactively booked us on a flight leaving late Saturday night.  Unfortunately that wasn't going to work for Stephen's work schedule, so we asked to be booked on the flight going out late Friday night instead and figured we'd just eat the cost of another night at our hotel.

All was good on our flight and we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City around 10:15pm.  The queues for passport control were long and we got up to the front about 11pm.  Eli went first, and suddenly the officer at the desk calls over a supervisor, waves Eli's visa form around, and suddenly Eli is following the supervisor another desk across the room.  Stephen follows because it's a bad idea to be separated at a time like this.  Our visas stated that we were going to arrive on Saturday and so the visas weren't valid to let us enter on Friday.  We go over to a separate desk and we keep explaining that it was due to our flight being cancelled, but they didn't want to hear anything about that.  We asked about trying to amend our visas right there.  Not possible.  Apparently we were supposed to have remembered this as a possible problem and gone online to change our visa information and (presumably waited) to have a new visa issued.

At one point they were threatening to send us home, but a (relatively) nice officer said that Saturday was only an hour away at that point and if we hung out in the passport control waiting area for an hour we could then pass through passport control after midnight and our visas would be valid.  So that's what we did.  Since the line was so long, though, after about 15 minutes we got back in line, thinking we would be at the front when 12 midnight hit.  We had to let a few other people in the queue go ahead of us (all the time worrying that the guards would think our behavior suspicious), and had some nice conversations with people as we explained why we were doing this.  When we got back up to the front of the line at midnight, the same officer who had seen us the first time ended up processing our entry again (giving no indication at all that he recognized us from before).

In the end, it was okay and no one had taken our luggage while we were waiting; they were sitting all alone on the floor of the baggage claim area when we finally got through.  We got to the hotel where we're staying and were checked in by 1am.  We're staying at the Somerset Chancellor since we couldn't find an Airbnb that was in the district we wanted to stay in near all the sights.  We've got a large one bedroom suite for not too much money and it's well located right by the French and US consulates.  On a side note, if you're ever filling in an online visa application for Viet Nam, you can make your visa active date earlier than your visa entry date (they're two different blanks to fill out).  We would suggest giving yourself some leeway and setting your active date earlier than your planned arrival date to avoid the same problem we had.

Facing Difficult History: Sites of the Vietnam War in Ho Chi Minh City

Since we had arrived so late on Friday night, we decided to sleep in a bit and were getting a late start on Saturday.  We decided we'd try an indoor museum assuming that it would be airconditioned and therefore more comfortable.  We first checked out the War Remnants Museum.  Most of the photos of the museum on Google just focus on the old US army weaponry on display, and that is certainly part of the museum, but there is so much more.  It's really much more a telling of the experiences and repercussions (or remnants) of the Vietnamese as a result of the involvement of the US in their nation over the course of the Vietnam war.  Start on the top floor and go down.

Each room had a theme; particularly challenging were the rooms about the use of agent orange.  Even more difficult was the fact that, although there were clearly aircon units in the ceiling, it wasn't actually running anywhere.  Eli said that at least we could be uncomfortable for an couple hours as we toured considering how bad we had made it for the Vietnamese for the length of our involvement in the country.  It was interesting to see how they crafted the narrative of the museum for a foreign (and we would say mostly American) audience.  There was a whole section of information documenting international support for the cause of the Vietnamese and and end to the war (including a great deal about internal US protests).  Also, the displays (mostly of photographs) often carried quotes from US officials or notable personalities either at the time or looking back after the fact, that were highly critical of the US war here.

We also stopped that day at the Independence Palace (previously called the Reunification Palace).  It was a mid-century building originally housing the executive offices of the South Vietnamese government along with the presidential residence on the site of the former French colonial administrative buildings.  It is famous for the photograph of the North Vietnamese tank crashing through the gates of the palace at the fall of Saigon.  In addition to being an incredibly designed mid-century masterpiece of architecture and decor (whose beauty doesn't have anything specific to do with the war), you can go down into the bunker underneath the building and see where the South Vietnamese government ran its war operation with the support of the French and US.  Some of the equipment down there is fascinating.

Toward the end of our stay in Ho Chi Minh City we also visited the  Cu Chi tunnelsOur guide for the trip was a former military officer (he went beyond his required military service) who gave us quite the (fairly balanced and accurate from what we know) briefing about Vietnamese history on the way up.  We went to Ben Duoc, which are the tunnels that are about an additional 45 minutes away from HCMC thinking that they would be less crowded.  If this was less crowded, we'd hate to see what the other closer to town tunnels are like.

The tunnels are examples of many tunnels that were were used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese during the war to hide out and move supplies.  The tunnels had booby traps lots of different entry/exit points so Viet Cong forces were able to stay down there for quite some time (although at high risk for malaria and intestinal parasites).  As two middle aged guys, we could barely move through the tunnels but our guide (who said he was well practiced) moved quite swiftly through them.  We didn't get many photos since it was so hard to move and have anything in your hands at the same time.  We did get some videos of walking through the tunnels we could crouch through and not crawl through.  We left with the definite impression that if you are motivated enough you can endure most anything.  A motivated populace willing to do what it takes for their cause, even surviving, thriving, and using ingenuity to do it would be hard to ever conquer or pacify.  We also started linking our experience here to the current conflicts going on in Ukraine and in Gaza and Stephen also recently having watched the Hulu dramatization, "We Were the Lucky Ones" about Jewish resistance and escape during the Holocaust.  

Ho Chi Minh City: Sights Beyond the War

Beyond sights attached to the history of the Vietnam war, we did check out a couple of other things.  The first was Ben Than market, which was our least favorite central market we've seen since traveling.  We also stopped in at the Colonial Post Office which was barely worth the photo, Notre Dame church (which was shrouded in scaffolding), and we went to the Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine.  Vietnamese medicine shares many things in common with traditional Chinese medicine, but it uses local herbs and items available here in the area.  Beyond the information on traditional medicine, the building that it is housed in is a beautiful replica of traditional Vietnamese houses and is worth the visit just for that reason alone.

Foodie Adventures in Ho Chi Minh City

We've had some really great food since arriving (even great Mexican food).  Our favorite food experience in town was the scooter street food tour we did.  We each had our own experienced scooter driver whisk us around to various locations around the city on the back of their scooter to enjoy 10 different kinds of street foods throughout the night.  We loved the fact that we got to explore parts of the city that we wouldn't have otherwise gone to and you could tell that these were communities of everyday-working families.  It gave us a different perspective than riding in a car as we got to see more of the city as we scooted along in the open air and really got to feel the vitality with the neon and street lights zooming by.  The streets in these neighborhoods were just teaming with small restaurants and food carts, each full of patrons.  The volume of places on these streets was something we hadn't really seen anywhere else so far. 

We were joined by Jane, who is on a 3 month sabbatical from her job as a chef on a private yacht.  She's working on developing a book focusing on the role of the spice trade in the development of international cuisines across history.  She told a story about how she was in Morocco in the High Atlas mountains and the cuisine and dishes being used by the family who was hosting her had been passed down for generations, so long that they felt indigenous.  But really the pottery they were using was imported from China and the food they made used spices from the spice trade and couldn't have been really "indigenous" if you wanted to get technical about that word.  We talked a lot about how what we think of as traditional Mexican food, with its frequent use of cumin, wouldn't have been possible without the spice trade.  Pommes Frites are a recent invention because potato was unknown to Europe before the 16th century as potatoes are from South America.

In addition to the French influence on Vietnamese cuisine, Ho Chi Minh City, like many other large international cities, has quite a variety of cuisines on offer including Chinese, Korean, and even Mexican.  We went to Sol Kitchen and Bar for lunch one day and has some of the best birria and al pastor tacos we've had outside of Mexico.  We had pretty good dim sum for brunch on Sunday at Dim Tu Dac (for only about $40) and stuffed ourselves at all-you-can eat Korean at Bros BBQ (also for about 40 bucks).  

 We had more food than we could eat at both Bep Me In where we had a huge Vietnamese crispy stuffed pancake and at Quan Nem where we had two HUGE fried crab spring rolls.  We had a nice (if expensive) fusion meal at Elgin.  The miso caramel pudding there was great!

We've decided that, if in doubt about the proper way to eat something in Viet Nam, you can generally do okay and not get stared at if you wrap it up in a lettuce leaf (which, along with other leafy herbs, are generally brought with most dishes).  You just need to make sure to to avoid the fish mint leaves.  Yup, that's right... it's a mint leaf that tastes fishy... neither of us liked it.  We also decided that a Banh Mi is really all about the bread and pate.  

Our trusty guides and scooter drivers

Rural Life in Viet Nam: A Day Trip to the Mekong Delta

We hadn't really thought about making a trip down to the delta, but after talking with Eli's friend Amy, we decided to do it.  Depending on where you go in the delta, it's about a 1.5 to 3 hour trip from Ho Chi Minh City.  You can do a houseboat cruise in the delta, similar to what we did in Kerala, India.  Many of the reviews of tours we saw, though, were pretty down on the experience; the complained about being shepherded from one tourist buying opportunity to another.  Luckily we found Mango Cruises.  The reviews of Mango were very positive and, while more expensive than the other options available, it seemed that the kinds of experiences they offered were more our style.  Unfortunately they were all booked for the overnight cruises, but they do have a day trip experience so we chose that.  Or if you don't want to/can't cruise, you can stay at their 48 bungalow property overlooking the river for a night.

We started with a boat ride of about 30 minutes to our first stop.  Our guide, Vy, told us about the fishing nets posted all along the shore and how the rising and ebbing of the tides was a passive way for the fishermen to catch fish.  She also mentioned that climate change and the damming of the river further up have caused salt water intrusion during the dry season making it harder to fish.  She also mentioned that no one in Viet Nam actually owns the land they live on; it's all owned by the government and you get permission to use it.  It seems that it is more a formality than anything else, but we could imagine a scenario that if you piss off the local government official, they might make it hard for you when it comes time to renew your permission.

All of the stops we made on our journey are what the government considers "small businesses" so the people who work there and the businesses themselves don't pay extra taxes to the government.  Our first stop was at the site where they do brickmaking.  They do it here in the traditional way by hand using rudimentary machinery (basically just a mechanical brick press)  while there are now many places where it's done in a factory setting.  The fuel for the firing kilns are discarded rice husks.

We bicycled to our next stop, which is a coconut processing business, which is the main agricultural commodity in this area of the delta.  We had imagined the delta to be filled mostly with rice farms, but the soil in this part of the delta isn't as good for that and those hamlets are further up the river.  We saw people shucking coconuts by hand as they came in off of boats on the river.  They get paid about 10 cents per coconut and a good processor can process about 1,500 coconuts in a day... you do the math.  We stopped at a coconut farm up the river a bit and learned about the three different coconut types that they grow; one is good for meat and oil, the other is good for coconut water, and the third they mostly use locally for constructing thatched roofs.  The discarded husks are ground at another locally owned processing plant and used as fertilizer. 

We moved from our bigger boat into a rowboat and we were guided down a small canal with a canopy of the water palms that they use for thatching.  It was quite beautiful; we saw kingfishers (birds) diving down into the canal to catch fish as we went.  Our next stop was at the home of Ms. Hoang who is an older woman who has a farm and who offers tea to guests of Mango Cruises in an idyllic setting.

We headed back to Mango's compound for a relaxing lunch overlooking the river, and then headed to meet a 70 year old gentleman who makes rice wine to sell at the local market.  It takes one kilo of rice to make 1 liter of rice wine, and he can make up to 10 liters a day.  He also does a special banana infused rice wine that was pretty good (40% alcohol).  He is able to sell all that he makes and the liters sell for about $1.50 each at the local market.  Our last stop before getting back on the bus to head back to Ho Chi Minh City was at another older couple's home; they make rice paper to sell at the local market.  Rice paper is kind of like a toasted and crispy crepe made of rice flower with coconut flavor and sugar.  We got to each take a turn making a crepe (it was set up for right handed people so Stephen had a hard time).  We'll definitely have to look for that while we're out and about.

We enjoyed our visit immensely learning about what rural life is like in contemporary Viet Nam.  It's clearly a tough life, but there are also these pockets of creativity in the local economy that were interesting to witness.  

Hoi An: Architecture, Food, and Culture in the Historic Trading Port

We flew to Da Nang in central Viet Nam and the had a private transfer for the 45 minute drive to Hoi An.  Hoi An is a historic trading port on the central coast stretching from the 12th through 20th centuries.  Many of the buildings in the old town date from the 17th and 18th centuries and reflect the mix of Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese influence up through the French colonial period of the 19th and 20th centuries.  There are lots of restaurants and stores that have converted some of the more recent (19th and 20th century) buildings.  Many of the historic houses that date from even earlier are made available to enter by their owners, some of whom trace their history to their property back to the original builders.   The families typically still live on the 2nd floor and open up the ground floor for visits.   You can buy at ticket which allows you to enter 5 different historical properties of your choosing for about $5.  Also, you can visit many of the historic civic community centers built that represented gathering places for the different communities that made up Hoi An. 

You can go to one or two of the community centers and homes and then you've definitely got the picture of what they are like.  The most interesting parts of the homes were the incredibly sculped support beams and wood paneling throughout.  Our favorites were the Tan Ky house for its woodwork, the Hoi Quan Phuoc Kien assembly, the Museum of Folk Culture (you get to go and see what an upstairs in a traditional building would have looked like since there is no family living there), and the Traditional Art Performance House (which is airconditioned and a welcomed respite from the heat).  The Performance house has a number of shows throughout the day.  The dancing quality was just okay, but we enjoyed listening to the band of traditional instruments.  The Japanese bridge was closed for renovations while we were here, but it is supposedly another "must see."  We went to the Terra Cotta Garden and shouldn't have.  There were a bunch of replicas of famous buildings sculped in clay, but some more interesting contemporary pieces from around Viet Nam.

The old town is fairly compact; it is basically 3 east-west streets and their cross streets running for about 2km.  The streets are also festooned with colorful lanterns as you walk down.  There is also the river which runs through town; at nighttime the river is crowded with lantern boats taking people on a 15 minute trip to see the other boats and to drop a lantern offering into the river.   We did it for $6 plus 50 cents from a street vendor for a candle lantern to launch on the waterway.  The heat here has been unbelievable  the last few days.  Even when we try going out as early as 9am we are sweating immediately after we leave our homestay.  The streets were pretty empty during the daytime, but the town really comes alive at night when the sun and temperature goes down.  There are a number of bars just over the footbridge from the Old Town that have bands playing, most all with Vietnamese singers doing varying jobs of singing pop and rock tunes in mostly English.  We hung out and had drinks at Madam Kieu as the two guys singing there were the best of what we could hear from the street.  They is also a Vietnamese version of Bingo on the street, called Bai Choi, that involves singing songs that include the words on the tiles drawn from the bin.  It's kinda fun to watch and we've included video of it below.

Hoi An is also known for its cuisine that melds the influences of its varied immigrant history.  Some of the specialties of the area include chicken and rice, white rose dumplings (which we didn't think were that special compared to other dumplings we've had), and iced coconut coffee.  One day while Stephen was recovering from working overnight, Eli did a cooking class at Ms. Vy's, which was recommended to us from Jane, who we did our Saigon street food tour with.  They have a variety of different kinds of classes and you can learn to make all sorts of things.  Eli had a great time with his class, hanging out with a lesbian couple on their honeymoon.  Vy has a number of restaurants in town.  We went to her Morning Glory Original and had a great meal; Stephen's duck breast was the standout but Eli enjoyed his fish also.  We've had another great meal at Green Mango, which is owned by another local chef who has a few restaurants in town a well; Eli had the Hoi An chicken and rice and Stephen had a smoked duck breast and both were excellent.

In crazy stories to tell you family, as we were heading out from the building where the cooking class was, we heard someone calling "Stephen, Stephen!"  We looked up and it was Ron Feller (and Nancy appeared later).  Ron and Nancy are good friends of Stephen's mom and the run-in with them all the way across the planet was a fun happenstance.  It reminded us of the time we were in China and Stephen's parents were on their three month bucket list cruise.  As we were reading through their posts from Hong Kong on  Facebook, we thought they might be heading to Shanghai at the same time we were going to be there.  We were able to meet up for a brief lunch before they continued on with their cruise group and we had to head home.

In another example of opportunities that present themselves, we're staying at a homestay on Cam Na Island, which is a short bridge walk from Old Town (but not the island with all the bars and music).  Our host was hosting a family gathering honoring the death day of the family matriarch during our stay.  Family would be coming in from all over the area (about 70 people in all)  to make an offering to the ancestral spirits at their shrine and then to have a meal.  She invited us to join the family for the meal.  We did a little research on practices for this kind of ritual in Vietnam.  Apparently it is customary to bring fruit or beer as an offering.  We decided we would pick up some fruit to be included in the offering; we should have gotten beer.

Our host was very thoughtful and sat us at a table with relatives who mostly spoke English.  As is true of family gatherings in many cultures, the women hung out in one room, the men in another, and the kids in another.  The beer was fairly free flowing among the men, although because of the heat they are constantly adding ice to their beer cups, watering down the taste and alcohol content (which was fine by Stephen).  It seems customary here to toast and clink each time before you take a drink, even for beer (although the chant of "mot hai ba, yo" didn't happen as frequently).  The guys seemed incredulous that we were as old as we were (we told them it was because we didn't have kids).  We remarked to each other after everyone left that no one asked us if we were brothers (which happens frequently in our travels).  

Crazy who you run into while traveling.  Great to see you, Ron and Nancy!

This was the spread at the lunch after the honoring of the family matriarch.

Ba Na Hills Resort: Is It Worth It?

Ba Na Hills was originally a French colonial resort built in the 1920's as a getaway for the European population in Viet Nam.  It's at an elevation of 5,000 feet, and so is noticeably cooler than the countryside at sea level.  It was a short detour on the way between Hoi An and Hue, our next stop, so we decided to include it on our way with our driver.  Eli was a bit more excited than Stephen about the visit, although we were both looking forward to escaping the heat.  Stephen was hoping to get a peek at what the life of leisure of a colonial expat would have been like in the 1920s.   He knew it had been developed since then but was hoping to at least see some vestiges of its former glory.

We should have known upon arrival that we were in for something else entirely.  First, it is now branded "SunWorld Ba Na Hills."  Our driver dropped us off at the parking lot  and we were quickly whisked by a bus to the "transportation center."  The transportation center buildings are in a traditional imperial Vietnamese style (with a Disney flair).  You weave through these buildings up a number of escalators to reach one of the 6 cable cars, depending on which is in service.  The gondola cable cars take people up and over the hills on a 30 minute ride (it is the longest single stage cable car in the world), to the resort.  You arrive at the top to a pastiche of French architectural styles without much rhyme or reason.   We figured the shift from Vietnamese monumental architecture on the ground to the French architecture above was to indicate that you're entering a different world, so to speak. There are only two buildings lower down on the hill, though, that we could identify as being from the original resort; everything else was new.  The temperature up on the hill was at least 15 degrees F lower than the temperature on the ground and there was a nice breeze blowing.

The buildings mostly house hotels (all managed by the Mercure brand), and restaurants.  Mostly people walked around and took pictures for their Instagrams.  There are a few "rides" at the resort, including a roller coaster that was non-operational and a ride that we think would have been like Soarin' at Epcot Center, but they all cost extra beyond the cable car fare (of about $40).  There were a number of live performances from "people from around the world" (meaning not Vietnamese), including a roller-skating pair (of which the guy looked to be about 60 years old and a little rough around the edges).  Eli joked that this could have been Stephen had he stuck with his skating (and Stephen had the same thought but wouldn't admit to it).

The restaurant scene is a mix of Asian food served in French surroundings and generic European food like pizza (which is clearly not French).  We ended up having lunch at at Korean fried chicken joint that was some of the best fried chicken we've had in a while.

In all we spent about 3 hours there including lunch (plus the 60 minutes up and down on the cable car).  So, was it worth it?  For us, the opportunity to be out and about and not drenched with sweat (but just a little bit of sweat), was worth it.  And it was certainly interesting in the way that Las Vegas is interesting.  We also had fun watching the tourists interact with and marvel at the site.  But as a sight to plan to see purposefully, we'd suggest not.  Had it not been an easy stop on our way from Hoi An to Hue, we would have been disappointed had we made a special trip.

Hue: Exploring Imperial Viet Nam

For only a brief time prior to the colonization of Viet Nam  by the French was the entirety of what we think of as Viet Nam united under a single government.  This was in the period between the late 18th and mid 19th centuries.  And unified Viet Nam was ruled from Hue.

The big sights to see in Hue are the Imperial City and Citadel, which in layout feels a lot like the Forbidden City in Beijing.  Then there are the tombs of the kings set in various places to the west of the city near the river (like the Valley of the Kings in Egypt).  We split our visit over two days so that we could be out in the morning and skip the heat of the mid-day.  You could conceivably visit the Imperial City and some of the tombs in a long day, though.

We booked a guided tour with BeeBee Travel and had a very informative guide.  The Imperial City is very spread out and so it is definitely useful to have a guide so that you're not wandering about aimlessly trying to find the highlights to see, or having to back track to see something important.  Overall, though, we appreciated the tombs more that the Imperial City itself.  We ended up seeing three tombs, each different based on its date of construction and reflecting the king who is buried there.  Like the Egyptians, Confucian customs say that this life is only temporary, and the life after death is eternal, so the kings spend a lot of their time as kings getting their tombs ready for their deaths.  The tomb of Khai Dinh,  constructed in the early 20th century during the French colonial occupation, was the most interesting, blending European and Asian elements with a healthy dose of Gaudi inspired mosaic tilework.

While here, we had a few nice meals, but nothing really particularly stood out.  We did a sampler plate at Madam Thu, which was a good introduction to some of the specialties of Hue.  They do a much thicker fried rice crepe here than what is done in other places.  Also, salted coffee is the specialty here like coconut coffee is in Hoi An.  

Bottled water as an offering.  Or is it for the worshipers?

Beer Pong for Vietnamese kings.

Sights and Sounds of Hanoi

We're enjoying a much deserved respite from the spate of hot weather we've experienced the last few months.  Hanoi temperatures right now are highs in the mid 80s and lows in the upper 70s (with quite a bit of humidity).  We started our in-town sightseeing with a self-guided walking tour of the old town recommended by Lonely Planet.  The streets of Hanoi are much narrower than in Saigon, even outside of the old town, and scooters still park on the sidewalks, but that means that there really isn't enough room to walk on the sidewalks for pedestrians, leaving us on the edge of the roadway.  With that said, the city feels a lot cozier than Saigon.  Our walking tour was low on sights but heavy on atmosphere, mostly taking us through the various lanes of old town dedicated to certain products.  Some of these lanes, although now selling contemporary versions, can trace their original purpose back hundreds of years.  This kind of design we've seen in India and in Egypt, and even in Barcelona.  It did, though, take us by Ngoc Son Temple, St. Joseph's Cathedral, and the Traditional House.  We got stopped along the way by a mom or a teacher who had some kids around 6 or 7 years old asking tourists to practice English with them.  They had a series of questions that they had been practicing and asked them.  Stephen's kid didn't seem to care that much about the response but was on to the next question.

Our next foray into the sights of Hanoi was to visit the area around the citadel.  The citadel is the fortress built on top of the old imperial city when the capital was moved to Hoi An.  The buildings visible are all from the early 18th century, and they are just now doing excavations to unearth some of the remains of the original buildings from the 11th century.  They have a number of exhibits in the later buildings about what they've found so far.

Across from the citadel are a cluster of government buildings including the Presidential Palace (which you can't take pictures of), Ho Chi Minh's stilt house (which closes mid day and so we missed being able to see it), the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Mausoleum (which was closed the day we were there but we weren't disappointed by that), and the Assembly and Central Committee  buildings.   We went into the HCM Museum.  While we definitely got an appreciation for late 80s socialist design, we can't say we learned much about his life or work from having visited (you'll see why when you check out the pictures).  Across the "quad" nearer the river is Quan Tanh Temple which was busy the day we visited with people burning all kinds of play money.  There was also a Spanish film crew filming the goings on as well.

The Hoa Lo Prison Relic, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, was another stop we made.  It was originally a French prison built to hold political prisoners during the colonial period, and so (for obvious reasons), it focuses more on that part of the building's history.  There are a few rooms of information about the American prisoners held there, mostly, it would appear, to contrast the conditions of the Americans (with photos of them smiling, playing cards, and decorating for Christmas) with the conditions of the Vietnamese imprisoned there by the French.  Clearly, though, that's not the whole story to be told about that period of the building's history.

On Amy's recommendation, we checked out the Women's Museum.  She said it was interesting and it's a good read on how the State views women's empowerment.  Definitely there is lots of information on women heroes of the revolution, and the propaganda posters targeted at women were interesting to see.  Beyond that, though, was information about the folkways and traditions of the cultures of Viet Nam, including lots of textiles, information about traditional farming tools and baskets, and information on various marriage traditions.  Some of the examples of tools and baskets were from the last twenty years; it was hard to imagine farming was still very much using these handmade goods within the last twenty years.

Stephen also checked out the Ceramic Mosaic Mural and the Opera House.  The mural is basically the retaining wall for a highway.  He walked along it starting near the Opera House for about 10 minutes and then picked up a Grab scooter and rode the rest of the way along the mural back to our flat.  

Old Friends, Good Food, and Great Beer: Our Culinary Adventures in Hanoi

Our culinary adventures in Hanoi were quite varied.  One of our favorites was a craft beer tour around Hanoi that we did with Amy, Eli's friend from college, and her husband, Nitesh.  For Eli it was great to get to see them after so much time and for Stephen to meet like-minded people.  They had all kinds of skinny on what being in Viet Nam is like full time, and some of the difficulty of still living and working in a country run by an autocratic regime.  As beautiful as the country is, it still has lots of challenges.

The beer tour is run by A Taste of Hanoi, a group of Westerners who have a love of all things Vietnamese cuisine related.  Our guide was a New Yorker who has been living in Hanoi since 2015 after living here previously in the early aughts.  He took us around to some way-out places with very interesting beers being brewed.  He also gave us a history of Viet Nam in beer, tracking how politics and history impacted the development of beer in Viet Nam (and a little bit of the reverse as well).  You couldn't ask for any more out of a food tour.  Most craft beer brewmasters do not grow up thinking that will be their line of work.  The first brewmaster we met at Labtory used to work as an information officer in the Vietnamese government.  He does very small batches of 6 beers right now, but he hopes to build up to 10.  He creates beers that are geared toward the expat market, but incorporate distinct flavors unique to Viet Nam.  He does one with a local flower, one with a Saison pepper (which is kind of like Kampot pepper... see our Cambodia page), and one with coriander and mandarin, which was the favorite of everyone in the group.  Our next stop was at Ibiero, which is just starting to export beers to the US market.  They have one that has nice toasted rice flavors that should be appearing in the US soon.  Our last stop was at Pasteur  which does a great passion fruit ale that is Amy's personal favorite.

We love Vietnamese food and has some great meals at mostly mid-priced restaurants, never spending more than about $30. The street where our Airbnb is has a lcoal specialty named after the street.  Banh Cuon Ngu Xa (our street is named Xu Nga)  is a thing renowned all over Hanoi.  There are two rival restaurants right across the street from each other than tout aggressively for customers.  It's kind of like the rivalry over cheesesteaks in Philadelphia.  Stephen ended up liking the Banh Cuon more than Eli, who felt it was disappointing and not really that different from other similar rice paper wrapped food here.  Crab hot pot was the star at 1946.  We had a couple of good  vegetarian meals, one near our flat at Nha Hang Chay Aummee, and another at Sadhu, which was recommended by Amy.  Sadhu is a "buffet," but it's not served on a buffet.  It's actually just all you can eat, but you order off the menu.  This caused some confusion for us at the beginning and the front desk staff weren't very helpful, but it all worked out and we had some great food.

More recent old friends hailed us on Facebook when they saw we were going to be in Hanoi at the same time.  We met Rhonda and Brad on our Intrepid trip to Egypt and Jordan.  They're Aussies with a good attitude, always fun and interesting, and we loved hanging out with them on the trip.  We were glad to get the chance to catch up and at least explore a meal together in Hanoi. We knew it was a good sign when they recommended The East, which is one of the places we wanted to try but hadn't yet.  It was like time hadn't passed, the wine and conversation flowed, and we're looking forward to hopefully planning to meet up somewhere purposefully next time.  We also got to celebrate Brad's birthday.

Ninh Binh: A Day Trip to Historic Temples, Scenic Landscapes, and Limestone Caves

Ninh Binh, and more specifically Hoa Lu,  was the capital of the kingdom of the North until it was moved to Hanoi in the 11th century and then moved to Hue upon the consolidation in the late 18th century of most of what we think of as Viet Nam now.  It's also thought of as the land version of Halong Bay as it contains the same limestone outcropping features on land/river vs. sea.  It's an easy day trip from Hanoi, which is what we did, but there's enough to do and enough beautiful scenery to justify a few nights.  Most of the people on our tour were staying in Ninh Binh for a few days.

We're doing a day tour through Chookie Tours, which were recommended by Lonely Planet.  They arranged van transport for us from Hanoi and we all met up at the Banana Tree hostel before getting started.  We're touring with a young doctor couple from New Zealand, a single young woman from the Netherlands, and a single guy from London.  This was our first experience where the group had a member with a very different agenda from the rest, and it definitely impacted the vibe.  We assume that travelers who would travel to some far flung places would have a certain mindset about being a respectful and interested traveler, but that isn't really always the case.  We talked a little bit with some of our other tourmates about how travel can actually just reinforce preexisting beliefs rather than creating new ones.  Those who were open-minded on arrival tend to leave that way (and even more so), and those who had a certain set of expectations tend to have those reinforced as well.  We still managed to have fun and enjoyed the time with our group.

We are on the backs of scooters again, although the woman from Amsterdam drove her own (she uses a scooter as transportation back home).  We rode down the twists and turns of the roads through the limestone hills enjoying the views as they passed by.  Our first stop was the historic capital with the restored pagodas of the three different dynasties of the North kingdom.  The style and architecture of these pagodas were not significantly different from those we saw in Hue at the imperial city there, but we were able to get some nice shots.  We weaved our way down the country roads again, stopping for lunch, and then on to Trang An caves.  We hit a little bit of rain at the start of our boat trip along the river and into the caves.  Our guide provided ponchos, though, and the boat had umbrellas for us, and it only lasted about 20 minutes of the 2 hour journey.  The ride down the river and through the caves was breathtaking, even in the rain.  It's mostly women doing the rowing, as the men are back on the farms nearby.  As much as we enjoyed our sea kayak experience in Thailand, these vistas were much more impressive.  It also didn't feel too crowded, even though it is a quite popular attraction.

A note about our guide, he was a very strange mix of rigid and fun, insisting on photos to "make memories" and getting us to buy into his "concept" photos.  Stephen rode on the back of his scooter, and our guide was very direct when he told Stephen to get on and off the bike saying, "You get off now" or "You get on now."  He was very knowledgeable about history, though, and we thought his concept photos came out pretty good (but we'll let you be the judge).

Our final stop was to hike up to the Hang Mua viewpoint.  It's 500 steps up and the steps are steep and pretty uneven most of the way, but we did it with a couple of rest stops (behind the rest of the group of 20 somethings).  The view is really outstanding from up top.

We then headed back to the Banana Tree to have a beer (included) and hang out for a while before heading back to Hanoi.  The hostel was in full afternoon hostel vibe, with tons of 20somethings in the pool playing volleyball, party music blasting, and lots of activity at the bar.  A fun vibe for sure.

We'll have to see what we think of Ha Long Bay, but this trip will be pretty hard to beat.

Our guide's "concept" photos

Sailing Ha Long Bay: A Scenic Adventure

Okay, so Ha Long Bay is freaking gorgeous.  Even though the geography is similar to what we saw in Ninh Binh, there are endless combinations of interesting cliffs and rocks and vegetation.   We spent a great deal of time scoping out options for boats.  There are over 400 boats licensed for Ha Long Bay.  200 of the do overnights and 200 are day boats.  What we found was that many of the 3 day cruises basically had the same itinerary.  We ended up choosing Orchid Cruises, which is considered one of the more upmarket ships.  While cruising, we were mostly on our own without other boats in sight, but at our stops and when we dropped anchor for the night on both nights, it was pretty crowded.

Our cabin was luxe and large and the boat was well-maintained.  The food was good and diverse as is necessary to please a variety of palates.  They did a great job catering to the passengers' every whim (especially when it came to the food).   Overall, though, the ship experience was lackluster but the scenery made up for it.  Stephen felt like some of the activities on the boat were kind of hokey in a Poconos Lodge/Dirty Dancing sort of way.   We both agreed that we would have liked more information about the geology, flora, and fauna of the bay that we were visiting.  Unfortunately, the pictures don't do it justice.  You will notice, though, in the photos that often the water was marred with plastic pollution.  When we went out on the kayak, that could have been another opportunity for environmental education; if they gave us longarm nets, we could have had a competition to see who could bring in the most trash.  Biking on Cat Ba island was another fun activity to get to see the scenery in a different way.  We would have liked to have more time to do that.  It was paired with a visit to a local village, but the visit didn't really illuminate much about their lives.  Most of what we could see now was just outlets selling drinks to tourists and offering fish foot massages.

We hit a little bit of rain again while we were in the rowboat coming back from a cave.  The rain, though, didn't stop the fishermen or women on rowboats selling cheaper beer and sundries to the passengers.  They will send up your goods in nets with long arms and you return the money back in the net.  We just did happy hour on the boat, which was two for one.  There were only about 3 hours on the boat where we weren't eating or out on excursion that weren't happy hour.

One of the highlights of our time on the boat, though, was chatting with the rest of the passengers.  We lucked out with the group.  At the welcome meeting, they had us sit with the other gay couple on the ship, who were from Philadelphia... We joked about getting set up.  Lots of other interesting people to chat with as well.  On the way down to the dock in the van, we were traveling with a family from Quebec, and we had a few nice conversations with a couple from Kent in England, not too far from where we went to visit Tudor and David.  They had lived for a while in Texas, so they had interesting stories of culture shock (Texas, after all, is culture shock to many Americans).

In answer to our own question from the last post, it maybe didn't beat Ninh Binh, but it was a welcome complement, and wholly worth doing both.