And yes, we went to Vietnam. Just over 2 weeks, most in Hanoi but a 3 day excursion up to Sa Pa, one down to Halong bay.
First off, it was fabulous. We stayed in the old part of town, narrow streets full of people, noise and excitement: the antithesis to home here on the property. But we fell into it surprisingly easily. It was our first time for an extended visit to SE Asia and concerns and preconceptions were not met. We moved carefully - kept away from markets where there could be live animals, didn't stray to areas that could have dog restaurants: overall we were pleasantly surprised by the number of well loved dogs and cats around. So to some thoughts
The people - were overall the most friendly we have met or come in contact with anywhere. A young punk in a clothes shop was dismissive and the hotel staff didn't apologise for the sour milk & sent housekeeping up to check we hadn't raided the minibar when we left (minor irritations). Most people we cam in contact with had good english - including the 'minority' women in Sa Pa - and we were approached at the lake in Hanoi by a couple of students wanting to practice their excellent skills. People were helpful but not diffident and had a great sense of humour. (The most annoying people all trip were an american and some aussies in a cafe; a group of french, american and english trekkers; and being stuck in a bus with for late 20s silverspoon expats).
Technology - Mobile phones everywhere, in the hands of everyone; free wifi all over the place (the only time you have to pay is expensive hotels); big TVs even in the low Sa Pa valleys. A reminder of how ubiquitous this all is.
Hanoi, Sa Pa, Halong - We saw three different parts, to get a taste of the country. Hanoi is busy, exciting, full; Sa Pa is beautiful and the overnight train trip (done in style on an orient-express style sleeper with dinning car) was wonderful. The mountains are the home of various 'minority' group (see also the Museum of Ethnology) whose way of life has been maintained and is being supported as a major attaraction. We went on a walk through a couple of villages with a Hmong guide and it was eye opening. And then Halong, beautiful and relaxing - though the ride down is long (3 hours in a minibus) and there isn't enough time on the cruise)
Ho Chi Minh museum - an amazing high point. The first two floors are ordinary, the second has photos of local heroes etc - but the top floor is dazzling. As you move round the circular building you see episodes from the history of the world, communism and Ho's life in modernist dioramas. A constructivist painting of a tower lives as a model, parts of Guernica emerge from the walls as sculpture, there is a bit that looks like a cross between superman's citadel and the tardis.It is really weird and yet also an overwhelming sculptural artwork, full of symbolism and mystery.
Traffic - the only time it is quiet is from about 2 to 6am: when we got back from Sa Pa it was strange to be able to walk almost empty streets. motorbikes, motorbikes, motorbikes, cars, people people people, parked bikes. There seem to be few road rules, just suggestions; size matter (don't mess with a bus); go with the flow, even through red lights; take care but be forceful. We didn't see any accidents, and the closest we came was someone coming to park their bike on the pavement (which is full of bikes, walk on the road) and just came straight for us.
Food - we were less adventurous here. Vegetarian so fewer options, western worries about street food. We found a few good places in hanoi we liked: the Tamarind, only 5 minutes from our hotel and a begetarian menu we never got through; Cafe Kangaroo, better than you would think, excellent local food plus some home comforts (vegemite, weetbix); the restaurant at the Museum of Ethnology, run as a training centre; The Loft, a little french based cafe/patisserie. And the hotel in Sa Pa and the boat on Halong were great.
Music - or should I say musak: terrible piped music of slow torch songs in many places. My portable sound system came in handy. And I even played Quet Americans Vox Americana in Hanoi. Nice one.
Communism - what is communism these days? There were people driving Bentleys, you have to pay for late secondary or higher education, is there equality?
I could go on, but I don't want to bore y'all. But it was an epiphany (if you can have one over 2 weeks) about a reality of Asia. Loved it.
|puppets at the museum of literature|