Understanding Vietnam: Travelogue part II

I’m writing this from the deck of a boat, inside because everything’s soaking wet, but still extremely comfortable, and enjoying the indescribably beautiful scenery. Ha Long Bay has been absolutely incredible. None of us were really sure what Thay Trian meant when he told us that we would be sleeping on a boat made for westerners, and nothing could have prepared us for what we found when we embarked: walking around, we discovered our private, chartered wooden junk, with private cabins, glass-enclosed showers, a beautiful dinning room, and a top-deck complete with cushioned lounge chairs, potted palms, and colorful nautical accoutrements. We spent the first ten or fifteen minutes on the boat jumping around on the deck and hugging Thay Trian, and then proceeded to snap photo after photo of the boat and the beautiful scenery.

We had lunch in the dining room, and while it wasn’t the best food we’ve had so far, it wasn’t bad, and was very, very fresh. I must say that, already, I’m getting a little tired of the food; that’s not to say that it isn’t good, because so far it’s been wonderful – anything that the food I’ve been eating lacks in terms of my normal staples, it makes up in variety of vegetables, fruit, and freshness. I’ve never seen so many different types of vegetables in my life! And the fish we ate today had been scooped out of the bay only hours before. I even learned that, in most Asian cultures, fish isn’t cleaned, gutted, and filleted, but rather is cooked intact, rubbed with salt, and eaten in its entirety. I’ll admit, I was a little surprised to look down at the plate set in front of me at lunch to find a fish eyeball staring back at me, but it was one of the most flavorful, tender fish I’ve tasted – the skin was good, too! However, being spoiled by places like Commons, where it’s possible to get almost any food item imaginable almost any time of the day, my body doesn’t understand what’s going on. Where’s my bread, cheese, and chocolate? Wheat pasta? I would also give almost anything for some ice cream, but for that I just have to wait until Hanoi. Apparently, many Asian people are lactose intolerant, and the weather inhibits the production of many types of dairy products. Vietnam, however, because of its French influence, is one of the only countries in Asia with a strong like of ice cream. Thay Trian was also telling us that, because so many things were introduced to the country by the French, the French words were adopted into the language. Apparently, I know more Vietnamese than I thought: words like train station (gare), cheese (fromage), and ice cream (glace) are already in my vocabulary. Of course, as someone who focuses on French at Bates, I was very interested to see how the French culture here has survived after the Vietnamese independence, in a time when the country is fiercely nationalistic and trying to distance itself from its colonial past. What I’ve discovered, at least so far, is that not many people here speak French, unless they are part of the throngs of French travelers. Most tourists here are French, and Hon, one of our tour guides, was telling us that it is much more unusual to see (and to hear) people speaking English. Conversely, most of the signs here are bilingual, in Vietnamese and English. Perhaps English as the universal language has already made its way to Vietnam? Long story short, I haven’t really used all that much French, but the colonial influence is glaring, and I can’t wait to visit the French Quarter of Hanoi to deepen my understanding of the clash between the two cultures.

Sung Sot cave was amazing, and it was interesting to see the Vietnamese take on touristy cave spelunking. I’ve visited caves in the US, but they always involve an elevator ride far underground, and don’t seem to have been nearly as big as the “surprise” cave. It definitely added to the experience being able to boat up to an island in the middle of the mystical bay, climb up a sheer rock face, and walk directly into the gaping mouth of the cave. This was hindered ever so slightly by the lines of merchant stalls (though better controlled than on our hike the other day). It seems like this aspect of Vietnam’s developing economy is just something that I’m going to have to get used to. In fact, there’s a pretty funny story relating my mounting annoyance with the bombardment of commercialism. We had returned to the boat from swimming (another experience beyond words), and I had popped into my room for a quick shower. As I walked along the side of the boat up to the top deck, a woman in one of the small, ubiquitous boats filled with convenience store-like goods was pestering me to buy something. I ignored her (because I’ve decided that’s about the only thing I can do – they laugh at me if I try to say “no” in Vietnamese) and continued walking. I underestimated how long the overhang on the deck was, however, and stood up too soon and way too quickly, crushing my head against a piece of woods jutting out from the upper deck. As I reeled backwards in a flurry of swears, the woman on the boat began cackling loudly to herself. Karma. I now at least tell the women “no.”

The last few hours I spent in Halong Bay were wonderful, and after a (rather lengthy) bus ride, we arrived at a Buddhist temple about 40 minutes outside of Hanoi where Thay Trian had done doctoral research translating and transcribing temple records. A beautiful, rural temple, the complex had some of the most stunning elements architecturally that I’ve yet seen. There was just one problem: I’m pretty sure I embarrassed myself in front of the monks.

Thay Trian decided to start our visit with a tour through the temple, but a few of us had drunk far too much water on the bus, and needed to find a WC… immediately. Four of us stayed with the group long enough to hear the professor’s introduction to the site, but then slipped away quietly to search around the temple. We weren’t seeing any signs, and the temple was, helpfully, surprisingly long, allowing us to stop every few feet to poke our heads into various temple buildings. Finally, we saw two monks standing in the doorway near the monk living quarters, and attempted to ask them, “bathroom? Toilettes? WC?” And my personal favorite, my interpretation of the pronunciation for “nhà vệ sinh?” Nothing was working until it finally dawned on one of the men what we needed, when he began to laugh, and pointed us towards a well. We didn’t really have time to spare, so we took our leave of the men and began to walk through the living quarters in the general direction of where he pointed. After passing a group of elderly women wearing disapproving glares, we found the monk’s showers and toilette. This was a satisfying find, but none of the four of us could help but to feel that we had somehow come across as being disrespectful Westerners – our nervous laughter while talking with the monks probably didn’t help our image. This is something that I can’t seem to avoid, yet which really doesn’t describe my personality or feelings of respect towards these sacred, beautiful places. Whether because I’m sometimes wearing shorts, have a camera in my pocket, or because I simply look differently than many of the people traveling to these sites, there seems to be sense of unwelcome or xenophobia which is very much in contrast to the guiding principles of the temples and pagodas. It’s almost understandable, though; in a way, I can’t blame the Vietnamese for hesitantly accepting foreigners – they’ve been attacked and invaded so many times, why shouldn’t they be a bit skeptical? They just shouldn’t be when I really need to find a bathroom.

This temple was particularly interesting for its iconography, especially the Quan The Am (also known in Sanskrit as the Avalokitesvara and in English as the One-thousand armed, one-thousand eyed bodhisattva). This was a statue we had seen at various sites around Vietnam already, but here was the original. A gorgeous piece whose goddess figure is surrounded by thousands of arms and eyes, and is particularly intricate – overall, it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve seen on the trip.

The two days we had off in Hanoi were completely necessary – it was genius of Thay Trian to build them into the schedule, because by that point we were all tired of our constant traveling. The first day, Q and I had a very relaxed day planned for ourselves: we checked out my Lonely Planet, and found a famous little café in the Old Quarter which is popular with lots of Westerners – of course, a prerequisite for going there was that they served Vietnamese iced coffee. It’s strange to me, as someone who loves to travel and will always pick the international or cross-cultural option while in the US, to pack myself full of Western food in my time off – I guess I’m making up for how adventurous I’ve been in the last week. So, we finished our coffees and crepes with maple syrup – I have been missing pancakes like no one’s business – and planned out the rest of our day. All we wanted to do was to make sure that we walked around the Old Quarter, conveniently located just outside of our café, find some ice cream, and perhaps get a massage. Around 3:30, we were going to meet up with Thao’s friends to go shopping in a market. Of course, our first day off brought with it the worst weather we had seen yet in Vietnam, but we made the best of it and grabbed our umbrellas; this, unfortunately, did not help our image at all as obnoxious Westerners, walking around with huge umbrellas and sunglasses, because most people here simply wear ponchos when it rains.

The French Quarter is truly beautiful, and some of the municipal and governmental buildings literally look like they were plucked from the streets of Paris (with the exception, perhaps, of the brightly colored paints which the Vietnamese seem to love). One of the most frightening moments of the day was when Q and I walked in front of the post office along the lake; a man walked alongside us, said hello, and asked us where we were from. Stupidly, I replied, and he continued to follow us for two or three blocks. Finally, a little frightened, I “reminded” Q that we needed a post office, which was just across the street. The man said, “no, no the post office is this way” and pointed in another direction. Once inside the post office the man watched us from across the room, while we sat on some blue plastic chairs and planned our escape. We thought about calling Thao or Thay Trian, but instead decided to run out the door to catch a cab. As we left, he didn’t follow us, and we though we were free – then, a block later, he appeared, trying to sell us post cards and asking why we had left him. I finally told him “no” pretty forcefully, and he left us alone. That set the tone for the day, and even though I enjoyed my time in the Old Quarter and my massage, we missed meeting Thao’s friends because of the monsoon which drenched us in the afternoon. Once back at the hotel, Q and I more or less collapsed, and didn’t move until dinner.

I have a few thoughts about that day: the first is how wonderful the Old Quarter is. Despite the fact that the merchants were particularly forceful there, and it was nearly impossible to walk on the sidewalks or the streets, and the streets occasionally smelled like garbage and sewage, I thought that the area was one of the most architecturally interesting we have seen yet on the trip. I love the way that the old, colonial French architecture is visible, but only underneath years of grime, graffiti, signage, and unsold goods. It’s easy to tell that the streets were once a beautiful recreation of the oldest sections of Paris, with sweeping trees, airy balconies, and sweeping French doors, but it’s also comforting to know that the Vietnamese have reclaimed the buildings, finally able to add their own character to an area of the city which was closed to them for so long. That’s one reason why I find the French tourists who come here… remarkable. It’s almost as though they come to Vietnam trying to re-create the colonial mentality for their holiday plans, as though they want to live their fantasy of living in an exotic locale tended to by the local population. Though, I suppose, the same thing could be said of an American tourist who comes to a land where his own country had been in the process of dropping bombs some 35 years before.

The other thought that occurred to me was just how conservative Hanoi really is. I had read in my Lonely Planet guide that sometimes Asian women who travel with Western men will be considered prostitutes by the locals, but didn’t really think much of it until I traveled around with Q. Granted, Q wore a pretty short jean skirt, but the looks that we endured as we walked around the city were tiresome. That night, we walked to dinner in an especially racially-diverse group: myself, Q, Mert, and Kimall walked four abreast to our café, proudly displaying our Caucasian, Asian, Middle-eastern and African American heritages. Needless to say, we were stopped frequently for photo opportunities.

I decided that the second day off in Hanoi was going to be mine and mine alone, after all of our morning activities. A group of us chartered the bus, and started our day by visiting the Ba Trang ceramic village just outside of the city. This was pretty cool, and if nothing else it was nice to get out of Hanoi with the constant honking and wall-to-wall people into a smaller town. One of the only problems I had with the town was the fact that all of the shops started to look exactly the same after about five minutes. Andrew found a very modern boutique selling free-form pieces, some with holes in the middle of the vase, all for around $20 – I wish that I had a safe way to get piles of these ceramics home, but it just didn’t seem feasible to travel around the country with them for another three weeks and then expect them to endure our 20 hours of flying. One thing I noticed in the shops is that the owners would turn on their lights and fans only after we had entered them, which I think is pretty symbolic of just how dependent much of the country’s economy is on tourism – the fact that these merchants will make themselves comfortable only when westerners are inside their shops because it’s too expensive otherwise is sad, but telling.

After the ceramics, we piled back onto the bus for the trip back to Hanoi where several people decided to eat snake, snake heart, and drink shots of snake blood. I can’t comment too much on this, as I stayed on the bus for the majority of the festivities, but it was one of the more shady operations I’ve seen while here – the “restaurant” was a table set up in a corner of a family’s garage, where they raised, killed, and cooked their snakes. I think the group ended up buying five snakes just for the hearts, something which really bothered a few of the girls – they said that killing the snake was one thing, but killing I just to eat the heart was entirely another. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole process: I don’t eat every part of a cow, but I like hamburger – does that mean that I’m doing something wrong? The bigger problem for me was seeing the snakes killed and watching them drain the blood. So instead of staying, I hopped back on the bus and read a little. I think it was Thao who told me after that no one in Vietnam really eats snake, but it’s a great (and lucrative!) way to get money from tourists.

Next up was the ethnology museum, which was wonderful. The interior exhibits were interesting in terms of the overview that they provided of the different ethnic groups in the country, but they took a little more effort to understand than what I was willing to give to the museum on my day off. I think my favorite exhibit was one demonstrating the making of a conical hat, and the bike next to it pilled high with hundreds of the hats. The best part of the museum, though, by far, was its grounds. Outside, they had examples of of the various indigenous dwellings of many of Vietnam’s ethnic groups, built by workers trucked in from their respective regions of the country. So, while one walks through the park-like grounds from house to community hall to tomb site, one also has the pleasure of sitting by cool streams and ponds, wandering through medicinal gardens highlighting Vietnam’s climate which is favorable to a host of medical herbs, and to pass by a ceramics workshop. It was a gorgeous refuge from Hanoi’s busy streets, and I could have spent my whole afternoon there – we even passed a newlywed couple having their pictures taken.

That afternoon, rather unexpectedly, we ate at a street side café full of Hanoi locals on their lunch breaks, where the driver did the majority of the ordering for us (Thao, unfortunately, wasn’t with us, which severely limited our language skills). We were all a little worried at first that, A) we wouldn’t have any idea what we were eating, and that B) we wouldn’t exactly be accepted as the only westerners at the lunch spot. Of course we were stared at as soon as we arrived, but as soon as everyone say us sitting on the miniscule, kindergarten sized plastic furniture like everyone else, they didn’t seem to care that we were there, and lunch turned out well after all. I was glad to finally have the chance to experience eating like that, which seems demonstratively Vietnamese. I took the rest of the afternoon off, and decided that I was gong to treat myself to a lavish dinner, since I had completely missed out on the group’s outing to Bobby Chin’s the night before – that, and I really, really needed some Western food. This is not to say that I am by any means tired of Vietnamese food, but my body was asking me to mix it up a little, so I took the opportunity to plan out my evening. I would start out by taking a taxi to the Sofitel Metropole, the hotel Thay Trian had stayed at with his Harvard group, and the nicest one in town, according to Lonely Planet. There I would ask for a reservation at its French restaurant for one sometime around seven, and then I would leave to pass the rest of the afternoon sipping Vietnamese iced coffee in a café and reading until my reservation, which is exactly what I did. Walking into the hotel and searching for the concierge, it was clear that I had found exactly what I was looking for. Built in 1901 by the French to be a crown jewel of their imperial, colonial lifestyle, the hotel was literally out of a movie. Gorgeous palms contrasted with sparkling white marble and dark mahogany wood, and from the moment that two silk-draped young women opened the double French doors for me, I felt special. I managed to get a reservation at Le Beaulieu for seven (for one, a little pathetic, I know, but I really needed some alone time), and I left the hotel in search of a café. A bit uninteresting, perhaps, but in a beautiful spot was one of the same cafés at which Q and I had eaten the day before. Overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, the café was definitely a western tourist spot, but it was perfect for a leisurely afternoon. Out of the burning sunshine underneath my little “La Vie” umbrella and attended to by a waitress who neglected me just enough so that I could read without being disturbed, Hanoi and I reconciled our differences. Looking out over the circular lake, seeing the constant motion of all the bikes, motorbikes and pedestrians circling around it in a never-ending stream, an interesting though occurred to me. In the middle of the lake is a site of particular note: the Ngoc Son temple. The lake seemed the perfect metaphor for the city: modern life never stops, is always moving and going forward, but it is always anchored to the past, circling around it. Here were these thousands of Hanoians, going about their daily lives, but circling around a site indicative of their religion and culture. Hanoi is an ancient city, and the people there are resilient. Tourism may have become their newest mode of survival, but I could no longer fault them for it. Slowly, I began to understand that the city wasn’t nearly as superficial as it had first appeared to me, and that even though people might have to harass me on the streets to make a dollar, or even just out of curiosity, it was because it was so set in its ways. I didn’t love Hanoi, but I began to understand it.

I left my café a bit early, and took the long route back to the hotel through the French quarter. Arriving at the hotel a little early (and a little sweaty), I read in the lobby for a bit before my reservation. Dinner was phenomenal, and phenomenally expensive, but worth it, as far as I was concerned. To make a long story short, I had about four waiters and a hostess, had a private table set for one ready for me when I walked in the door, and was seated directly in front of the string quartet who played western chamber music for me all during dinner (this almost made up for the fact that there was nothing playing at the opera house). I had a great asparagus pastry appetizer, buttery veal cutlet, Perrier sparkling water (which is so difficult to find here), and a trio of pastries presented by a pastry representative from the hotel. The only qualm I had about the meal is that I would have done anything for a Caesar salad, but never ordered it because it wasn’t on the menu. I found out later that they make them on request. Curses! It was a great day.

After we left Hanoi, we moved on to Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s first capital city. There we visited two temples dedicated to the first kings of Vietnam; the temples were gorgeous, mainly in terms of landscape, but also in ornamentation. I’ve never seen mountains like those that surrounded the complex. It’s a new experience for me seeing temples which specifically memorialize kings and leaders important to Vietnam, especially since they are revered also as religious sites. We saw a few similar things in Hanoi – I think that much of it returns to the country’s base in ancestor worship and the demigod status of its kings. Just interesting.

The next hotel we stayed at was a little bit of a paradox – it is a four star hotel, and is gorgeous architecturally, but the services and practices there leave a bit to be desired. Thay Trian often talks about Vietnam’s emerging status as a developed nation, and with that comes an uncertainty of how to cater towards clients with westernized conceptions of service and amenities. I’m talking about little things, like not having towels by the pool, mixing up items in the laundry service, playing bizarre selections of music in the lounge, having staff members who speak almost no English, and food selections that end up being neither Vietnamese nor western but rather an undesirable hybrid. It will be fascinating to see how Vietnam continues to develop and refine itself as the tourism industry keeps growing and the country’s economy expands. Also in the Quang Binh province was the beautiful Phong Nha cave, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was truly remarkable, and even though I took pictures, I’m sure that they didn’t capture any of the grandeur of the place. Of particular note were the bomb craters which were visible on the hike up the mountain to the entrance of the cave; if Thay Trian hadn’t pointed them out to us, I would never have known they were craters. Smallish and perfectly circular, the craters were mainly in rice paddies and were filled in with water, so that they could almost have passed for naturally-occurring ponds. It’s great to think that the land has begun to heal from many of the wounds caused over 35 years ago.

Next up was Hue, and I can truly say that it is my favorite town so far. The minute that we pulled into the city, the entire bus began remarking how much cleaner, tidier, and nicer Hue was than Hanoi, the only other city we had to compare it to. The first night we were there, we had dinner at the most beautiful monastery in Hue, and, since Thay Trian knew the abbot, we were treated to dinner and a tour around the complex with him. These private receptions by abbots are getting to be too much they’re so wonderful! Not only did the man, who had the most infectious laugh I’ve ever encountered, sing and play the flute for us, but he treated us to a performance by the young apprentice monks, we sang for him (albeit poorly), and toured private areas of the monastery. The food, also, was terrific, and very, very plentiful.

We really began to explore the city on my birthday, which was another unexpected treat. In the morning, excited already about going to visit the beautiful Hue Citadel, I waited in the lobby with the rest of the group to board the bus. Everyone was wishing me a happy birthday, and even though it was the first birthday for which I wasn’t at home with my parents (let alone in the US), I didn’t really mind – I’d been having a great trip. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the manager of the hotel come over to me with a huge bouquet of tiger lilies covered in sparkling water and glitter, saying that the hotel wished me a happy birthday. How great is that!? After running upstairs to put the flowers in some water, I stepped back onto the now-boarded bus, where everyone sang me “happy birthday,” and Thay Trian supplied us with conical hats. I felt like I was at a kid’s birthday party, Vietnam style. The citadel was amazing, and I was most surprised at the similarities between it and the Forbidden City in Beijing. It was a bit depressing to see just how much of the complex had been destroyed over the years – the Viet Cong truly were masters of propaganda, hiding in their country’s national landmarks so that they could further vilify invading forces, but at what cost? Thankfully, massive restoration efforts are underway, and the whole city is on its way to being completely reborn. I think the most impressive thing for me was the sheer size of the Citadel – we walked around perhaps 2/3rds of it, and it took more than the whole morning. Also fascinating were the nine memorial urns constructed locally out of solid pieces of bronze for the Nguyen emperors. Apparently, each one took over 60 kilns to fire – 60! They were an impressive sight.

That night, we had another boat tour, this time eating on it, complete with my promised “four beautiful Hue girls,” musicians playing traditional folk songs from Hue. The night was capped off by releasing candles into the Perfume River which rested on “lotus blossoms,” and a huge birthday cake, courtesy of Thay Trian, which we shared with the musicians. The day is definitely one of my favorite birthdays ever.

Also of note are the three tombs of the Nguyen emperors which we toured in the countryside around Hue. My favorite was the first that we saw, the tomb of Ming Mang – not only was it park-like, but it was also very symmetrical, and I love symmetry. I wandered off from the group at one point across a bridge which led to the furthest, deepest point in the tomb. At the top of a huge flight of stairs was a massive set of doors which could just be seen through at the crack between them, opening up to a lush green hillside. Next to the doors was a sign essentially stating that the doors used to be opened on Ming Mang’s birthday so that his wives and worshipers could celebrate his life there, but that they hadn’t been opened for some time, and that somewhere in there lay the emperor’s actual tomb. It was just a quiet moment for me there, across the bridge and pond, by myself, peering into the mysterious hillside which guarded the emperor’s secrets.

I haven’t written for a little while because I ended up getting quite sick in Hue right after my birthday. The days following my sickness are all a bit of a blur to me, but I do remember that the Asia hotel was extremely helpful in finding me a doctor to make a room call (who ended up being entirely unhelpful in his own right), and that the healthcare system in Vietnam is fascinating, considering that I was able to pay a bit of extra money, have an endoscopy and be seen by a doctor in just over an hour. I realize that this is partially because I’m a westerner and Thay Trian pulled some strings, but it was much quicker than at home. Granted, I had no idea what was going on half the time and the endoscopy, for which I was awake I might add, was one of the worst experiences of my life, but it was still an interesting experience. I’m curious how the medical treatment would have been different at the General Hospital in Hue. Long story short, I probably had food poisoning, which I’m not sure I believe, since I never was throwing up and I’m still not feeling that great, but I’m getting better. We’re in Nha Trang right now, and even though it’s raining, I’ve still been trying to enjoy myself – I sat on the beach this morning underneath a thatch umbrella, and, well, just relaxed. We’ve all felt awful for Thay Trian recently, since members of the group are dropping like flies (well, not literally, but many of us are getting sick), and he’s needed to put so much effort into keeping us going. We have seen some great things, though – we’ve started on the Cham portion of the trip, and the My Son site was fascinating as a way to reference all of the readings I’ve done on the culture. I still can’t comprehend how people could destroy buildings like that, but it’s nice to see that some restoration work is in progress. In a way, though, the Cham Museum in Danang is almost more informative about the culture, simply because of the concentration they have of the beautiful lingas. The Cham is a fascinating culture because of the way that they assimilated themselves to so many of their invader’s cultures, often as a way of survival. It’s also great that many of the sites we’ve visited are still used on special occasions by Cham people as worship sites. Hoi An was a treat, and Thay Trian really took care of us in terms of getting our custom clothes made. It might be a bit of a tourist trap, but the people at Yaly really knew what they were doing, and I can now talk at length about the life cycle of a silk worm. I was getting a bit burned out, but if this nausea eases up, I’m thrilled for Saigon and the Mekong Delta, which is next up. Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh!