We have been in Vietnam for about 10 days. Which means we have been wet for 10 days.
Northern Vietnam is the wettest place we have ever been to, and it's not even monsoon season! We've pretty much experienced moisture in every form here. In Hanoi, it rained in regular intervals for three straight days. In the mountains of Sapa, we drove straight through clouds so thick that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It was there that we also saw some of Vietnam's torrential downpours, and let me tell you, they don't play. In Halong Bay, the entire seascape was filled with eery, magical fog. At times, the precipitation turned to a superfine rain-mist that permeated every fiber of one's clothing until soaked through, but without ever actually noticing you were getting wet. When we climbed to the top of a cliff in 90% humidity, we ended drenched in a mixture of our own moisture and the environment's. And even as I type this, the entire room is filled with a dampness we cannot shake. Our toes and fingers are perma-prunes.
Our matching and not-at-all-dorky REI rainjackets are making themselves worth every penny during this leg of the trip, but even still the weather is not spoiling the fun. Vietnam is a spectacular place, and there is no wet blanket wet enough to dampen our enjoyment of it.
Hijinks in Hanoi
We spent three days in Hanoi, the capital city in Vietnam, a place steeped in history. What an amazing city.... I have always been curious about Hanoi ever since teenage-me was obsessed with Phish and listened to the album Hoist over and over and over, including the song Dog-Faced Boy (track #10, and I didn't even have to google that)... opens with “I can't spare a moment on the dog-faced boy... I won't lend another hand to the worm girl of Hanoi... don't deplete my oxygen for the guy who's turning blue.... But ask me, and I'll do anything for you.”
Now, normally song lyrics doesn't force teenagers to the encyclopedia, except if you're a huge dork like me. But yes, it's true, that at the age of 14, I wasn't really sure what a worm-girl of Hanoi was, but after laying on my bedroom floor listening to this album on my Sony Discman approximately 73 times, I finally trudged downstairs, pulled out my parents' Encyclopedia Brittanica, Volume H (burgundy leatherbound with gold trim), and read the entry about Hanoi. Remember when everything you needed to know came in the form of one to two columns of text in an actual book? This particular bookish moment was a vivid tweenage memory indeed. And now, a mere 20 years later, I am here!
Hanoi is every bit as weird and strange and beautifully harmonious as that Phish song. Upon first glance, the city feels like total insanity. Like that kind of informercial “INSANITY!!!” where you think... “if I hear that guy say that word one.more.time... I'm going to throw a brick at the TV!” Well, that's sort of how it feels here, except the thing that might push you over the edge is the sound of car horns. Whether using the horn to simply warn others of your presence, or whether it's to express dissatisfaction of a fellow driver's maneuvers, I'm pretty sure that in Hanoi driving schools, they require new motorists to demonstrate competence in honking and driving simultaneously. From motor bikes to cars to buses, it's beep. Beep beep. Beep. BEEP. BEEEEEEP. All the time. Usually in tiny, short little sonic bursts that are just relentless.
At first, it felt like utter cacophony. Combined with the whizzing grumbles of motorbikes on every street, Hanoi is LOUD. And it does take the ears a while to adjust. But you just have to be in awe of this crazy moving web of traffic, and how everyone fluidly flows through it. Forget crosswalks, there are none. Pedestrians cross the street by slowly wading into the river of motorbikes, which flow around the people like stones in a stream. Motorbikes then usurp pedestrians for sidewalk space so that the entire walkway is blocked by parked bikes, forcing everyon to walk IN the street. Cars gracefully weave between buses and trucks like a thread through a needle, and then the motorbikes weave around the cars. It's crazy, but the whole thing just works. And really, it's like a beautiful symphony of sound and motion.
That said, every time you cross the street, you really might die. Crossing the street is Hanoi is a lot like accepting a nude acting gig, I'd imagine. It takes GUTS, and no one looks at your face... only where your body is going.
We adored the crazy energy of Hanoi. The streets are lined with junky cafes where everyone spills out into the sidewalks (between the parked motorbikes) and sits at low tables and stools in what I call the “Hanoi Squit”. You're technically sitting, but also in a squat, in which it takes some serious quad action to maintain the position. The brightly colored plastic stools are only about 8 inches off the ground. But this nursery-school seating is where all the action happens... from the best food to the best coffee to a cold beer. Maybe it all just tastes better in the Hanoi Squit.
The city scenery here is so beautifully detailed, I'm finding it hard not to take a million photos. From an impeccably-dressed line of 200 Vietnamese people waiting to pay homage at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleam, to beautiful ancient architecture, to a ramshackle countryside village, to the colorfully modern city itself—this place is a photographer's dream and I'm barely doing it justice.
And the children here are so charming! First of all, kids are everywhere. Supposedly 50% of the Vietnamese population is under 30, and my eyeballs say that about 25% are under the age of 10. The children are so friendly and adorable and eager to practice their English. We've had many encounters with kids, from city kids to country children... some working on school projects (we got “interviewed” and were kind of American celebrities for a second) and some just excited to see a westerner they can speak English to. But it's been a really memorable part of our time here, and something we haven't experienced anywhere else.
Soggy in Sapa
After Hanoi we took the overnight train to Sapa, a mountain town about 500 km north of Hanoi. Overnight trains are officially the worst, as our train to Sapa DERAILED with a shocking jolt (yes, people, it derailed). Of course no one would tell the passengers what actually happened, and just let the 8 hour train ride elapse into 13 hours as we sat idle for about an hour, then limped along to Sapa at arund 10mph. Luckily for us, we had great sleepercar-mates in a wonderful Dutch couple named Rosalie and Martin. Beers and a good chat can make the time pass much faster....
We started off by visiting the Chinese border, which was surprisingly exciting ("There's CHINA!") and also we became insta-celebrities for being caucasian. Our guide said this particular area is not-oft-visited area by westerners and so throngs of Vietnamese tourists came to take photos with us. We obliged until we realized it may never stop, so our guide graciously pulled us away. But we snapped one for our own posterity because no one usually wants our photo, except our Moms and Dads.
Otherwise, Sapa was a bit of a bust for us. We had one semi-decent day of three days. The first day, we eeked out a few of their famous rice terrace mountain vistas before “THE FOG” rolled in and obscured the entire world for the next 60 hours. What we did see was simply stunning. The mountainside of Vietnam is one of the most wild and rugged landscapes I've ever seen. How the Chinese invaded from the north, I'll never understand...
Northern Vietnam is the most populated area in the nation for ethnic minorities. The ethnic make-up of Vietnam's population (and SE Asia in general) is so complex and important, and I'm still having trouble wrapping my head around it fully. There's the majority (Viet), and then more than 300 ethnic minority groups, which overlap into Laos, Thailand and Cambodia as well.
Many of the ethnic minorities lead very traditional lifestyles, still living in the traditional homes made of mud or wood, with grass roofs, etc. In fact, the home style is one of the key identifiers as to what kind of village you are in. We visited several villages, including the Flower Hmong and Black Hmong, and were fascinated. Of course, there is a dark side to all this... as there are only a few ethnic villages that are open to tourists and the rest inaccessible due to government decree. Our guide was quick to tell us not to give any money to the children, because their parents keep them out of school to earn money from tourists, despite the fact that their school is free (not the norm in Vietnam). And giving them money only encourages their parents to do this. Children as young as 5 or 6 were out with their baskets of wares, giving the tourists big sad eyes. It was hard to say no, even if I do agree that school is the far better option.
Happy in Halong Bay
Our next stop was Halong Bay, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And indeed, it's a worthy place to be among those natural treasures. In fact, it's so crazy beautiful, it almost looks unnatural! We didn't get great weather here, either, but in the glass-half-full mentality, it did give the whole experience an almost mystical quality which was stunning. Halong Bay's giant limestone karsts towering out of peacock blue waters so still they look like glass, well, it just doesn't make sense. How are there so many formations? How did they get here? How is the water so blue?
We're spending three days and two nights on a small cruise boat, but during the day we're mostly kayaking... and also exploring the famous caves here, and even climbing to the top of one of the karsts for a bird's eye bay view. Despite the fact that there are way too many tourists here populating dozens of boats, we've managed to find some secluded lagoons and private beaches to explore. And our visit to the local pearl farm was truly unique! Chris picked an oyster with a pearl in it! I didn't. Only 30% do, even in farms, once again proving Chris is lucky at everything.
But once again, despite all this natural beauty, the pollution problem is truly deplorable. There is floating trash everywhere, and especially in the secluded lagoons where currents collect. We watched locals just dump trash into the ocean, and no tour operators seem to care about their footprint, either. Given the UNESCO status of Halong Bay as global treasure, Vietnam's government should be ashamed at the awful state of pollution here. The fact that there are zero controls or concern for the water pollution is a crime against nature, and a slap in the face of all the beautifully protected lands and waters that weren't bestowed the great honor of being named one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. (Yeah, that's right, I just slammed the Vietnamese government on the internet. It was nice knowing you all.)
Tomorrow we head back to Hanoi for one final night in the mayhem. We plan to eat all the Vietnamese food we can get our hands on, do the Hanoi Squit, and maybe even find the worm girl.