Thursday, November 8, 2018

Vietnam

I think ever since I watched Apocalypse Now and Good Morning Vietnam I had a desire to see the complexity of Vietnam.  In planning the trip to Vietnam, I had about 2 PBS documentaries, a handful of textbooks on the war, and maybe 1 guidebook of accumulated knowledge.  Honestly, I was ill prepared for the reality of modern Vietnam.  This is not a country that is war-torn, but still has war tourism, a country of coffee shops, malls, and museums a short bus ride away from old tunnel systems that plagued colonial powers for a century.  Communism has morphed into a surreal capitalism that has all the trappings of other modern countries while still maintaining a Vietnamese twist.  Coffee shops on the street sell traditional foods but everything is served with some of the best French bread that I have ever tasted - and yes, I have been to France.  Museums about the war are mostly about American and other world-powers atrocities, and you can still see the old Soviet style architecture on many buildings, yet half of the old Hanoi Hilton, (the prison camp before and during the American-Vietnamese war), has actually been torn down and turned into a hotel.  The irony did not escape me in the slightest.  Vietnam seems to still be torn in a sense; North and South, Capitalism and Communism, Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City.  Ask in conservative Hanoi about the status of the country and you will get a far different response from the liberal Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.  In both places, however, you will be hard pressed to not find some amazing food, ATM machines, uber-like taxi apps, and anything else the modern person needs.

"I'm still only in Saigon"

Anything in modern Saigon is only a Grab Taxi (or if you are smart and brave) a Grab Bike away.  Never, ever take a car in Saigon.  If I was dying I would rather have someone strap me to the back of a motorcycle than try and take a car in that city.  Sidewalks, alleys, one-way streets, anything is fair game to drive on in Vietnam.  As with most countries in Southeast Asia, I have started to think that the driving rules are more of suggestions, and if people could drive on the rooftops, they would probably try. 

I had long ago had my motorcycle virginity in Asia taken, and we immediately jumped from day one on the back of some random person's motorcycle from Grab App.  I attempted to film it, while just gripping with my legs while the driver swerved all over God-knows-where, and did a pretty good job. 

 

 

 



After wandering a bit around Saigon, our first major trip outside the city was to see Mue Ne, famous for sand dunes, cows (??), and more sand dunes. 

My big request was to visit the old tunnel complexes and crawl through them, which we did.  Needless to say, it is claustrophobic to crawl through a N.V.A. tunnel for any distance.  I was proud that we made it about 50 yards through the tunnel and then popped up the other side.  Wow... Never again.  

Mue Ne is a "beach" town that has a lot of fishing and a lot of sand.  The claim to fame is the sand comes in lots of different colors, and apparently there are herds of cows that live on the sand dunes.  Danielle appropriately named them "Dune Cows" and has been obsessed with them ever since...














To say it is beautiful is an understatement, a long way out to get there, yes, but beautiful.  Thank God we found the cows we were searching for.  Pay no mind to the rest of the pretty things, when you travel with Danielle, it really is all about the cows.  



The other advantage to having large amounts of sand is to have the chance to make dune angels along with rolling down said dunes.  I think that playing around on sand dunes might have been one of the best sunburns I have ever had, along with the fact that our driver... borrowed? stole? whatever, broke the dune buggy.  Then told us we had to get out of there quickly before they figured it out and chased after him.  Not the first time traveling I have had someone tell us to get in the car quickly and then have them gun the engine.  Probably not the last time either.  The entire drive back to town he was keeping an eye behind him, watching for the owner of the dune buggy.  I still am not quite sure what happened there.  I probably don't ever want to know to be honest. 






Needless to say, after that mishap/adventure/whatever I was not too happy about the driver and his lack of ethics, but he did get us there and back in one piece... which I guess is what I paid him for. 

After Mue Ne we had some more time in Saigon, and met up with a few local couchsurfers who took us around for the evening.  As it was Tet (Lunar New Year) Holiday coming up, one of them invited us to her home in the countryside.  It was an awesome chance to see a beautiful area, meet her wonderful family, and really have some time outside the city.  She is still a very good friend, and it was one of those amazing happenstances that work out so well in traveling. 

The other interesting thing that we got to see while we were in the countryside was the center of Caodaism.  Caodaism is a very fascinating religion that really would take many posts to explain in the complexity that it deserves, so please just click the link if you are curious about it. 




 

I am also not sure if we were just lucky or if it is a normal event, but when we were hiking a mountain that is quite famous in Southern Vietnam, we happened to get invited for lunch at the mountaintop monastery.  





 I was also a huge fan of this dog helping the monk with the chanting.  I mean, I really think this dog has a future in this...



 
We also had the chance to check out the night flower market and just wander around with our friends on the back of their motorcycles.  As you can tell, there is never really a point in trying to get around in a car.  I just cannot imagine doing it at all.

 

After a quick week-and-a-half in the South, we decided to catch a plane to the North.  Our original idea was to take the train, but as we were only going to be in the country for about three weeks, we decided that it would be best to fly.  After watching a man get hauled off the plane for fighting with someone in the seat behind us (punches and throwing baggage), we finally made it to the north.  

The North is quite a different feel and atmosphere than the South.  Honestly I felt like it was closer to being back in China than actually being in Southern Vietnam.  Not that it is a good or a bad thing, but the feel of the place is very different than the south.  We did the usual Hanoi things - ate our way through town, visited where John McCain and the others were held prisoner - now half torn down to make a hotel of all things - and eventually made our way out to Cat Ba island for what we thought would be a relaxing last few days.  

Hanoi is a beautiful city, with a real mixture of old and new.  We did the obligatory viewing of Ho Chi Minh's body, toured the Hanoi Hilton, saw McCain's flight suit on display, and then made our way to the bus and boat to Cat Ba. 




 
Cat Ba was where we decided to really learn to drive motorcycles.  We hit it off with a few other foreigners and then decided to bike around the island.  The first two days on Cat Ba were gorgous.  We sped around on motorcycles, took in the beauty, and just relaxed.  The last full day was full of wanting to die, but I will get to that later.













Cat Ba had many tunnels during the war, and we found and explored one of them while we were biking.  Most of them are open to the public for a small fee, and it was a very cool exploration.  

The last photo, of the cows almost was the last photo of my life.  I thought the cows were cute, so I stopped the motorcycle and took a photo.  What I did not notice was that across the street in the bushes was a very territorial bull.  He charged, and I gunned it just as I felt the snot from his nose hit my arm.  I have no idea how I got out of there without getting gored or trampled, but he certainly was not a fan of me.  Cute cows though.

The last full day on Cat Ba was a day of throwing up uncontrollably and wishing we were dead due to food poisoning.  I think we were vomiting for upwards of 12 hours straight.  I have never felt that bad in my life, and if someone had offered to kill us both, I would have thanked them.  I have no idea how I managed to walk the mile round-trip to go buy us both water with electrolytes, but that was more willpower than I have ever used running half-marathons.  

I guess, looking back, Vietnam is a wonderful country, but NEVER eat at the "Green Mango" on Cat Ba island.  NEVER.