Uncle Ho Ho Ho - Hanoi & Halong Bay, Vietnam

Greetings from the the communist utopia of Hanoi. When we last left off, we had fled the floods of the central highlands to reach Hanoi, the far northern capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Welcome to the capital of communism, or so we had heard, where we thought we might at least see some vestige of a regime we fought so hard to suppress. We had been warned, the northerners were a breed apart, loyal to the regime, more serious and less tolerant of tourists. Far more army green here than is ever necessary in a fashionable wardrobe and men sporting headgear that looked disturbingly like Vietcong helmets. Oh, and the last thing we expected to find in steamy tropical Southeast Asia, the COLD. Vietnam being long and thin, north to south, has pelted us with such a variety of climates for such a small country. Hot and steamy in the south, full-on monsoon in the central highlands and cold and damp up north.

One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi

Yes, the north was different but not in the ways we thought. It was green, well laid out, orderly in ways that Saigon never was. Wallowing for years in the limelight of its brash southern sister, Hanoi is finally stepping out with a style and elegance all its own. 

The beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake smack in the center of town showcases a magnificent floating pagoda and connected by a beautiful arching red bridge. Surrounding the lake is the Old Quarter, a step back in time to a medieval landscape where entire streets were dedicated to a single commodity and families through hundreds of years handed down their secrets. With streets named for their specialty, we walked among dye street, Buddhist alters street, tin box street, straw mat street, towel street, gravestone street and best of all, ‘ghost money’ street. Ancestor worship, as we mentioned before is very prevalent and in one ritual aspect, the people burn fake printed money for the deceased to enjoy and spend in the afterlife. Funny, it seems that even in the afterlife, their dearly departed still prefer American dollars to the Vietnamese dong as seen by the wads of American $5,000 dollar bills on display.  

Also on display was the fascinating herbal street, with dusty shelves packed with glass jars full of items for the modern day witch or warlock. You got your bat wings, your eye of newt, your tiger balm and of course no medicine cabinet would be complete without a scrotum of a spotted cloud leopard, famous for bestowing longevity. Unfortunately this has led to the horrible poaching situation and animal trade with many animals being sold into extinction. All you need to do is check out the wild animal markets with rare gibbons and leopard cubs for sale next to the more mundane chickens and dogs. Chinese and Japanese tourists, devout believers in the curative properties of rare breeds, are the biggest customers. We also saw gruesome displays of snake wine, a long thin bottle with a variety of snakes inside, each slit from head to tail. There were cobras locked in the kiss of death staring out from the glass, and even some larger bottles with pigeons and rats floating inside, bestowing who knows what.  

One day, taking advantage of the amazing bargains to be had in this country, we went out shopping for suits for Doug for the time when he would re-enter the ratrace. Finding our way to suit street, we came across a a small alley lined on both sides with at least forty tailors, their wares all on display. We strolled among them, amazed at the variety of colors of suits.  It seems that mint green and pastel peach are hot colors for the Vietnamese go-getter, who longs for the stylish threads of Don Johnson and Miami Vice. But we managed to find a few more subtle shades. The next problem appeared to be the sizes, as Asians tend to run small, as people go.  Doug was at the upper end of the scale, barely fitting into their largest ones, but we managed to pick out a few beautiful suits that needed only minor tailoring, which they assured would be no problem. They all fit with the exception of the rear, where they tended to recreate the wedgie phenomena. Seems that Asians also run on the flat side, but the amazing tailors whipped the suits away only to return in a few minutes, the nips and tucks duly completed, EVEN before we agreed to purchase the suit. This caused considerable consternation when one tailor without Doug even trying it on, performed the alterations to a mint green number and then demanded we purchase it as she could no longer sell it to her Vietnamese customers with “a big ass” in it! Not one to fall prey to such scams, we shrugged it off and left the street with three beautifully tailored merino wool suits for the bargain basement price of $100 total, and no doubt we paid way too much compared with what the locals pay, but we were happy.  

Doug decided to try one of the street vendors hawking haircuts. He had a neat and trim station that consisted of a folding chair in front of a mirror nailed to a tree. And I loved his artsy look, fingers and ears laced with silver rings and a sparse goatee to match. And he couldn't resist holding conversations with the neighbors and passerbys as he worked.

Doug at a sidewalk barber


The cut was great, with excellent attention to detail around the edge and ears. But it was the shave that was to do them both in. As the haircut was proceeding rather nicely, Doug asked to throw in a shave. 

Giving him that close cut

Now, in the same way that Asian men have no 'back' they also have very little to no body and facial hair. Doug meanwhile seems directly descendant from our hairy brethren. The barber had never encountered such thick and resistant facial hairs, stubbly black beings that are immune to many a dull blade. The blood flowed quickly and tissue paper wads accumulated across his poor mutilated face. The barber gamely continued slicing and dicing his way across Doug's face til the pain became unbearable and we stopped it and Doug left clutching a mop of tissues to his face.

Besides shopping, we took in the major sights, most them religious or communist in nature. The most famous is the mausoleum of the pickled Ho Chi Minh himself. Totally a communist thing, Uncle Ho was embalmed after his death (against his wishes) and sits on display to this day, as do his famous compatriots Lenin and Mao in their respective countries. The only time it’s not open is when he heads to Russia for a face-lift and touch-ups. The Russians have a lock on this sort of thing and western scientists are still amazed at the perfect preservation.  

As for religion, we were happy to see that Catholicism is alive and well in the North with all his kitchy flavor right down to the neon crosses

For entertainment, one evening we took in a water puppet show which originated in North Vietnam. As an artform, water puppetry is over a thousand years old and set to beautiful live Vietnamese music and singing. The performance takes place in a large water tank, the water deliberately cloudy to hide the puppet mechanisms. Puppeteers stand waist deep in water hidden behind a bamboo screen decorated as a backdrop, and manipulate large puppets with floating bases attached to long poles. They all have articulated limbs and heads and look as if they are walking on water. Most of the stories portrayed were delightful pastoral scenes of harvesting rice and hunting for wives. We watched in amazement as these long green stalks of rice ‘grew’ out of the water as the puppets gracefully harvested it. One farmer went fishing for fish and caught a wife. There were also scenes of grandeur: puppet parades and depictions of historical legends, but the best were the fire-breathing dragons who danced in and out of the water, spewing live fireworks. Not to be missed. And as part of the price, they throw in free, a tape of the music performed.

Another evening we purchased a ridiculously cheap ticket to see a performance of the Vietnam National Symphony at the famous Hanoi Opera House. Yes, they actually have a national symphony, with musicians all classically trained in Russia, another communist legacy, to our delight. The building itself is a historical monument, a delicate frilly wedding cake of a place, complete with bridal couples taking photographs outside all day long. Inside the half- filled auditorium, we watched a superb rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons led by a great Vietnamese violin soloist, famous the world over. Afterwards, hobnobing with the other half, we watched Hanoi’s elite ride away in a fleet of luxury cars into the night, as we put our feet to the pavement and headed back to our hotel. 

An aside on hotels, they are CHEAP! and if you are willing to pay a bit more, you can get elegance and luxury like you never could at home. We are paying $17 a night double for our modern, awesome hotel. We got a marble bathroom, nicely appointed furniture, a fridge, an a control on the nightstand that controls the TV, the air-con unit, and the lights. Must be a cheap Japanese thing. oh, and full breakfast every morning. It was Hyatt quality at basement prices.

For food, Hanoi differs from Saigon because rather than sporting restaurants with twenty page menus, they offer joints that specialize in one thing only. One evening we had the Hanoi specialty of cha ca, sumptuous hunks of fresh fish fried at your table with a mound of greens. One type of beer, one type of fish, that’s your choice but it was so good. We also became regulars at two small dives, one serving sandwiches and plump white dumplings filled with meat and Quail eggs, and the other, a fantastic rendition of pho, noodle soup laden with wontons, meat and greens. As these places were directly across from each other, we often would end up eating at both, so as not to offend our new found friends. Together, the different items managed to make a full meal. Oh, and we haven't mentioned Vietnamese iced coffee. They bring a glass of ice, the bottom filled with sweetened condensed milk and a small French metal filter perched atop and the hot coffee is brewed directly into the ice and milk. Then with a quick stir, you have a delicious 'coffee shake.' They love it sweet!  

Ann enjoying one of our many street meals.

But truly our most memorable meal came off a small island in Halong Bay. A UNESCO heritage site, Halong Bay has 3000+ islands and unusual limestone rock formations with hundreds of grottoes and caves within the clear emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Some of the rocks are mammoth outcroppings, dwindling down to a small point rising out of the water, teetering precariously it seems - a inverted triangle. 

We spent an evening on Cat Bau island, the largest in the bay. Just off shore, a mini-metroplis of dingy boats were anchored, creating a bizarre cityscape. One evening we decided to check it out. We hired one of the many boatmen down by shore to take us out among the dark, clap-board boats. We wanted to try one of the famous floating restaurants. We nearly toppled the boat climbing in, a small patched rickety number tarred over to keep out the water. We slowly paddled through this eerie landscape, populated by small patched boats, barely sea-worthy, but still sporting the mark of progress, large numbers of satellite dishes and antennaes sprouting from their tarpon roofs. We passed by numerous boats with the eerie glow of the TV highlighting the rapt faces of a Vietnamese fishing family glued to the boob tube. We asked him to take us to the best. 

The so-called restaurant was a floating platform atop large oil barrels, with a family at one end glued to the TV and no tables in sight. Before we could ask if we were at the right place, a plastic table and two lawn chairs were placed before us and we were seated. A menu thrust into our hands listed simply: fish, prawn, crab, squid, eel. Nothing else. But then, we were hastened back out of our seats and over to one corner of the open platform. Our host squatted down and pried loose one of the wooden floorboards exposing the water below. He began to rapidly gather up a large net and suddenly in a great splash, three fishes were flopping about the floor, he beckoned us to choose one, and we did, the smallest of the bunch, which was not that small. Absolutely no idea what kind of fish it was. Then we were motioned to another area, the process repeated and soon we had humongous king prawns in our hands. I have never before looked a live shrimp in the eyes. Then at the next station, we found ourselves laden with crabs of all shapes and sizes, some great horned beasts that wanted no business with us. We chose out two blue crabs and cried uncle to our host. Too much, too much. This feast was back at our table within five minutes, the fish duly fried, and the prawns and crab steamed to perfection. Now that is FRESH! The taste is unbelievable, like nothing we have ever had, at the finest seafood restaurants in America, dipped in delicious nouc mamh sauce and all washed down with more Vietnamese beer. Faced with this glut of fresh food, we had no idea how to eat it. We cut gashes in our fingers trying to pry open the king prawns, but the young son in the family, who spoke a bit of english, laughingly showed us bumpkins how to crack it open like a hinge, as with the crabs. And all this came at the rock-bottom price of $7. We must have tipped them extravagantly because the young son joined us for the ride back to shore and we later saw him gambling with a bunch of friends.

Speaking of food, another one for laugh riot that is foreign menus. At one place, the special of the day was ‘steamed crap’. When we questioned the waitress, she said that we could have our crap fried or boiled also, if we preferred. Maybe later.

Over and out

ann and doug

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