By Marj Lacey, 7-time traveler and 4-time Vacation Ambassador from Vista, CA
Sidewalks double as parking lots, cafés, marketplace, and game room. Power lines look like a Rube Goldberg nightmare. Traffic is constant, and motorbikers, fearless. Crossing the street as they roar along is an act of faith or foolhardiness. I’m never quite sure which. Heavy air, hot and humid, hangs over downtown Hanoi.
I’d been drawn to Vietnam by two desires: first to see the karst formations in Ha Long Bay and, second, to experience, however briefly, this country where mine had been so controversially involved for so many tortuous years.
I was to join six others on this whirlwind visit, but only three of us had arrived in time for an early evening walk through the neighborhood around our hotel. It was then that we learned the sidewalks were for much more than walking as we skirted displays of fruit and veggies spread on the ground in makeshift containers, fresh meat for sale in doorways, and tea drinkers perched on child-sized stools and huddled around tiny tables.
At a courtyard café, cooled by occasional misty breezes from fans high above, we ate dinner, then made our way back to the hotel as vendors packed up wares and called it a day.
The next day our other traveling companions had arrived and it was time to strike out for some of the highlights of Hanoi. Our first stop was the massive mausoleum that holds the remains of Ho Chi Minh, president of communist North Vietnam from 1954 until his death in 1969. A massive structure reminiscent of Mao’s Mausoleum in Beijing, the building was closed to the public the day we were there, so we snapped photos of the exterior and walked on to the nearby stand-out yellow Presidential Palace.
Built in the early 1900s to house the French governor-general of what was then called Indochina, the palace was home to Ho Chi Minh only briefly after he came to power and is now used chiefly for ceremonial affairs. Ho believed it inappropriate for one who saw himself as a man of the people and moved to much smaller quarters, which we visited next, on the grounds nearby.
The Water Puppet Experience
With no photography allowed, it’s difficult to convey the water puppet experience. Originating with early rice farmers seeking to please the gods and ensure a good harvest, water puppetry has morphed into an art form of sorts. Standing behind a screen in waist-deep water, puppeteers manipulate their water-bound creations via underwater poles while musicians on platforms on either side of the pool accompany the colorful, splashy performance. For a westerner who neither understands the language nor boogies to the pentatonic scale, it’s… a very long evening.
And speaking of language, as I awakened the following morning—jet lag under control, I became aware of something I then realized I’d heard the day before, but had ignored: a male voice booming over outdoor speakers on the streets below. He was speaking Vietnamese, of course, which I couldn’t understand, so my reaction was amorphous and ill-informed, but simple: 1984. I felt as though I had fallen into that grim novel set in a totalitarian world. This feeling was heightened as militaristic music closed the broadcast.
Later, I asked Lap, our Trip Leader, about that early morning intrusion. “Oh that,” he said. “Those are just news items. The government has done that for years. I don’t know why they continue. Now just about everybody has access to TV and radio and computers, but years ago, those announcements were the only news many of them heard.” Progress is slow.
A Change of Pace
A welcome change of pace later that day took us away from the noisy, crowded city to Bat Trang, a small village whose residents specialize in ceramics, both original, hand-thrown creations and items mass-produced in molds. The “village” turned out to be not the little country town I had envisioned, but a “mini-city” of narrow, multi-story buildings, much like those in Hanoi.
In urban areas, of course, this design permits high-density housing and commerce in a compact area. Called tube construction because of the deep narrow design, it’s widely used elsewhere, however, because after losing a great deal of their privately-owned land when property was “redistributed” in the early communist era, people sold off much of what they had left in order to pay for the homes they then built on the tiny lots they kept.
The highlight of our Bat Trang visit was a luncheon at a very different type of home owned by a family whose roots there go back several generations. Unlike the tube buildings, this home was a large, flowing structure with gracious entries from front and side. Before lunch, we chatted with our hostess in the living/dining room dominated by a large altar to the family’s ancestors in the center of the space.
While Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, and Christianity are all known and practiced by some in Vietnam, ancestor worship is pervasive. Regardless of any other religion a family might observe, their homes most often have altars honoring forebears. As she recounted the family history, our hostess took great pride in showing us not only the altar, but also family photographs that covered the walls of an adjoining room.
After lunch, we returned to our hotel in Hanoi, then regrouped for a walk with Lap to two of his favorite haunts—an iced coffee shop and a “fresh beer” sidewalk café. At the former, we were served a brew of iced coffee and condensed milk, the resulting flavor being a rich, smooth mocha. Moving on, the low-alcohol-content “fresh beer,” so called because it’s served soon after brewing, was an even more welcome refreshment on a muggy Hanoi evening.
The following day brought the long-awaited trip to Ha Long Bay, a four-hour bus ride from Hanoi through the flat, verdant countryside of rice paddies and swaying palms, broken only by an occasional simple village. We made a couple of brief stops, including one at a cemetery where Lap demonstrated the Vietnamese practice of honoring ancestors by burning fake money, a symbolic act representing the belief that the living are responsible for the care of their deceased ancestors.
Arriving at Ha Long Bay, we immediately boarded a tender which took us to our home for the next two days, a traditional wooden Vietnamese junk. We soon sat down to lunch, which was almost immediately interrupted when I noticed we were approaching some of the more iconic karst formations. I was joined on my hasty exit by most of my compadres as cameras came out and we clicked away.
On the Bay
Docking after lunch at one of the larger islands, five of us disembarked to hike through one of the largest caves in the bay. It was immense with a series of spacious chambers illumined by multi-colored lights and accessed by a man-made path leading eventually to an outdoor platform high above the bay.
Early the next morning I was greeted by a spectacular sunrise. Pajama clad, I rushed out to get one more scenic photo, but foiled by a foggy camera lens, I failed to capture a memorable shot. All was not lost, however; I took advantage of the peaceful early hour to go and took in the sights and sounds as the sun continued to rise and the bay came awake. Birds chirped, cicadas droned, small boats putt-putted through the water, and people began to stir on the live-aboard boats.
Later, we got a close-up look at live-aboard life when we were taken in small boats oared by young women for a tour of their unique fishing village of houseboat dwellers. Tied up around an inlet, their abodes were served by vendors going “door to door”—or, more accurately, porch to porch—in rowboats as residents hung out laundry, chatted with neighbors, or relaxed in hammocks which hung on nearly every porch. The community has a small elementary school, but no access to education beyond that. It’s hard to imagine a life so circumscribed in this interconnected age.
The next day, we awakened to rain—the first we’d had in Vietnam and, of course, at the least opportune time; we were scheduled to disembark and return to Hanoi. The tender took us to shore where the only way from boat to bus was via 20 or so steep, narrow steps (6 inches wide at the most) with no handrail. With the rain pouring down, our Trip Leader and crew insisted on escorting us up one by one, kindergarten style, as we held the hands of our protectors on each side. Juvenile as we may have felt, the climb was treacherous and I think all of us were secretly grateful for the help.
Back in Hanoi, we made just one stop before checking into our hotel. That stop was at a place we’d all heard of, but never thought of as a tourist attraction: the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American veterans of the war in Vietnam. I had heard stories of the atrocities committed there and not knowing the long history of the facility, was surprised to learn that although much of the prison had been demolished after the war to make way for commercial structures, the remaining portion had been turned into a museum.
Touring the facility, I learned Hoa Lo had a much longer history than I realized, having been built by the French in the 1890s to house Vietnamese political prisoners. Much of the museum is devoted to that earlier era and focuses not on the treatment of Americans by the Vietnamese but on the treatment of the Vietnamese by the French. Understandably, it presents the Vietnamese view of those conflicts and a sanitized version of life there during what the locals call the “American War.” It was a sobering visit.
The next morning, however, a fellow photographer and I managed to end our visit on a high note. With nothing scheduled before we were to take off, we struck out on our own to explore the neighborhood one last time. Noticing kids with backpacks scurrying along, we wondered where the school was. Simple solution? Follow them.
On a narrow byway, we soon came to the school and a group of lively young students, eager to pose for photos as they let off steam before their teachers arrived. As usual, we found the kids eager to interact despite the lack of a common language, and as we prepared to leave a young girl came racing up with parting gifts—handmade bracelets which she had retrieved from her treasure trove in the classroom. It was a wonderful, upbeat send-off as we prepared to depart their fascinating land.
From bustling city life of Hanoi the serene seaside of Halong Bay, explore the diversity of Vietnam during our Inside Vietnam adventure.