Thursday, June 20, 2013

We Came and We Saw

As far as sightseeing goes, we saw the three things in Hanoi that were on our "must see" list.

Our first stop was at Ho Chi Mihn's Mausoleum. The lines were very, very, very long (like hundreds of people long) but moved quickly. If you visit this site, do not be discouraged when you see how long the lines are - we were in and out in just under and hour.
If you visit the Mausoleum, pay careful attention to the dress code. I debated wearing shorts but thought a skirt would be more respectful; however, the skirt fell to just above my knees which, apparently, was a big "no no". So, my attempt at respectability only got me a new pepto bismol pink saraong that wrapped around my waist and covered my knees. You must also be on your best behavior as the guards are incredibly strict about not taking photos, standing respectfully (quietly, not laughing) in line, walking on the marked path, etc.
It was incredibly smoggy in Hanoi on Saturday. Our tour guide said that the farmers living East of Hanoi were burning some debris left over from the rice harvest and the smoke was blowing into the city.
Then it was on to Hỏa Lò Prison. Hỏa Lò Prison was first used by the French colonists in Vietnam to hold political prisoners. Later, North Vietnam used the prison for prisoners of war captured during the Vietnam War. Most of the POWs at the prison were American Air Force pilots who gave the facility the name "Hanoi Hilton". Although the prison was demolished during the 1990s, the gatehouse remains as a museum.
Except when sentenced to solitary confinement or while waiting on death row, the prisoners were kept as below. 

The photos below show depictions of the abuse suffered by the Vietnamese at the hands of the French colonists. 

A cell intended to be used for solitary confinement. However, the prison was so overcrowded though that these cells would hold many men at a time. 

One of the cells used to hold the female political prisoners. The Vietnamese women waged a strong underground movement to overthrow the French colonists and many were caught and incarcerated here as political prisoners. 

The guillotine.

A memorial in the courtyard. 

The water lotus is the national flower of Vietnam.

The last exhibit in the museum were two rooms dedicated to the "United States' war of aggression against Vietnam". This is the only time/place we were exposed to any sort of propaganda (either anti-US or pro-communist) during our trip. Propaganda was definitely full on in this exhibit and almost every placard began either with the phrase, "anti-U.S. initiative" or "U.S. war of aggression".

Plaques displayed in the exhibit.
In addition to the placards describing the privileges and extraordinary care our U.S. pilots received while in the prison, many photos on exhibit showed smiling U.S. pilots playing cards, reading mail & receiving packages from back home, playing volleyball and baseball in the courtyard and cooking holiday meals. Considering that a couple of books written by those pilots are titled, "Surviving Hell" and when "When Hell Was In Session", I can only imagine the torture they endured to "encourage" them to participate in those photos sessions. The goal of the North Vietnamese in torturing the U.S. pilots was to get photographs and written or recorded statements from them that criticized the U.S. conduct of the war and praised how well the North Vietnamese treated them while in prison. The North Vietnamese then used those photographs and statements to sway international and U.S. domestic opinion against the U.S. war effort. In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged that virtually every American prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton made a statement of some kind at some time.

There are quite a few photographs and items on display of probably the most famous inmate captured and held in the Prison, Senator John McCain. 
Senator McCain returned to visit the Prison in early 2000. I would have to imagine that the exhibit was "edited" in preparation for his arrival.
Another interesting item I learned during our tour was that the the first U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam (Pete Peterson) was an Air Force Pilot who was captured by the North Vietnamese after his plane was shot down. He was held at the Hanoi Hilton for over six years and served as Ambassador for four years. 

We left the prison and stopped to have a coffee in a small cafe across from the Opera House and, interestingly enough, next door to the "real" Hanoi Hilton.

The Opera House.
Our last "stop" of the tour was a walk around the French Quarter. Of all of the places that we went to/saw in Hanoi, the French Quarter was, by far, the cleanest and the nicest. 

A Vietnamese Government building. Although there were several Embassies in the Quarter, we couldn't find the U.S. Embassy.

The couple in the photo below were taking wedding pictures outside of a nice hotel in the French Quarter. Our tour guide told us that they were not yet married but were taking a photo to be displayed at their wedding ceremony. By the time we finished in the French Quarter, we saw 4 other couples taking photos so it must be a Vietnamese tradition. 
The driver took us back to our hotel and we had a late lunch, walked around the Old Quarter by our hotel and then took an afternoon nap. 

After dinner, we went to see a show at the world famous "Thang Long Water Puppet Theater".
From Wikepedia...
Water puppetry (Múa rối nước - "puppets that dance on water") is a tradition that dates back as far as the 11th century when it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam. Today's Vietnamese water puppetry is a unique variation on the ancient Asian puppet tradition.  The puppets are made out of wood and then lacquered. The shows are performed in a waist-deep pool. A large rod supports the puppet under the water and is used by the puppeteers, who are normally hidden behind a screen, to control them. Thus the puppets appear to be moving over the water. When the rice fields would flood, the villagers would entertain each other using this form of puppet play."
My only comment on this activity would be that we crossed it off of our "must see" list. None of us particularly enjoyed the show (the dirty and smelly water really grossed me out) and, because of the way that the theater was configured, Christopher could not see the "stage" for most of the show. 

We walked back to the hotel after the show and packed a small suitcase for our trip to Halong Bay. We were leaving early in the morning and I didn't want to rush around trying to get everyone packed as well as showered, fed and out the door.

A note on our tour guide...we booked a guide & driver through our hotel (the Hanoi Imperial Hotel) and were not all that impressed. While the guide was very nice and took us exactly where we wanted to go, he really added nothing to our experience. I learned more about Hanoi and the different sites that we visited (& the sights we saw) from reading my travel books. As we later discovered, his other part time job is working the front desk at our hotel so I guess you get what you pay for! The hotel was very clean and in a great location to the Old Quarter, restaurants, shopping, etc. It was very basic though so if you are looking for a little more luxury, I would stay at one of the larger "chain" hotels - we saw a Sheraton, the Hilton and a Sofitel which all looked very nice and a bit more modern than our hotel. 

Have a great Friday!

And They're Off!

I cannot believe how quickly the birds grew out of the nest. One was already gone from the nest when I checked on them mid-morning and I quickly took some photos before this one flew off as well. 

At least I can leave knowing that they are out on their own!

Have a great Thursday!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


In my opinion, an opportunity to travel and visit different parts of the world is an opportunity not to be missed - there is so much to be learned and experienced while visiting another city, state or country. Kevin and I often talk about how fortunate our children are to not only live the ex-pat life but also to have visited the 10+ different countries we have been to over the past eight years. I know they probably won't agree with me, but they both have a greater knowledge of and appreciation for the world and our place in it because of their travels. They have experienced so many different cultures and opportunities that most people only read about. I don't think I will ever regret taking a trip (and dragging them along) anywhere. There is always something to be gained by visiting another place and being immersed in that culture, even if only for a short time. 

That being said, I don't know if it is a good sign that I am still very undecided about how I felt about our trip to Vietnam. I guess I should say right off that the side trip we took to cruise Halong Bay was the highlight of our trip - as our tour guide said, "you cannot say you have visited Vietnam if you haven't visited Halong Bay". More on Halong Bay later.

Unfortunately, Hanoi was a smaller, dirtier, louder and poorer version of Bangkok - and so similar to other Southeastern Asian countries that we have visited. Unlike Bangkok, however, there was never a break from the noise, the traffic, the just went on and on and on. Street after street, hour after hour. In fact, we left the hotel at 6:00 am yesterday for the airport and, even at that early hour, the streets were chaotic and horns were blaring. I have such a love/hate relationship with Bangkok and was surprised to find myself frequently thinking, "thank goodness we live in Bangkok!". Hanoi was just too much noise and chaos for me. Add in the poverty and the filth and I was done. 

Hanoi is not a pedestrian friendly city and crossing the street is not for the faint of heart. I found this video on you tube (courtesy of Lonely Planet) which very accurately shows the challenges of navigating & crossing the streets in Hanoi. Coincidentally, the video was shot right near our hotel on a street that we crossed (by the grace of God) several times without incident. Once you make the decision to cross and step into the street, the general rule is to just keep moving. I hesitated at one crossing and our tour guide simply said, "don't worry, they won't hit you". You really have to take a leap of faith and trust that the cars, scooters and bicycles will all weave their way around you. And they do. The locals pay no attention to what is coming at them as they cross - they text, chat on the phone, etc. Kevin's "trick" was to follow a local and stick to him/her like glue until we were safely on the other side. If we lived in Hanoi, I don't know how long my heart would be able to take that kind of stress. I probably would never go out. 

Hanoi wasn't all that bad. The pros: the coffee, the food and the artwork. In that order. 

The coffee in Hanoi was beyond delicious - it was truly liquid gold. I was so bummed to wake up this morning and have my "usual" French Roast. I bought several bags of Vietnamese coffee to bring home and, a short time after we returned to Bangkok yesterday afternoon, I found an on-line distributor that delivers to the U.S. The coffee was that good! Vietnam is the largest robusta coffee-growing nation in the world. Although the quality of the coffee has been sketchy in the past, the coffee bean growers and the government are making major efforts to improve the quality and purity of the coffee being produced. Most of the Vietnamese coffee crop is grown for bulk instant coffee production but there are small farmers that are growing excellent robusta and arabica beans to meet the rising demand for specialty and gourmet coffees. While most coffee is roasted at about 500 degrees (F), the Vietnamese roast their beans over an open fire for a longer time and at a lower temperature. The longer roasting time at the lower temperature allows the flavor to fully develop throughout the bean and prevents the exterior of the bean from burning. This different method of roasting results in a coffee that has a full, rich flavor without the bitterness, or charred taste, of modern dark roast coffee. 

One of my "to dos" on this trip was to try Vietnam's famous "weasel coffee". Civets (weasels) eat the coffee cherries and defecate the partially digested fruit which is gathered by the farmer, thoroughly washed, sun-dried and then slowly roasted. 
Weasel coffee is said to be the best (and most expensive) in the world with a rich, smooth taste and fragrant aroma. Apparently there is something about the natural fermentation that occurs in the weasel's stomach that makes the difference in the taste. Caitlynne and I found some in a small cafe but since I am finally recovered (knock on wood) from my Cambodian stomach issues, I opted not to push my luck and passed on trying it.

The food. The oh, so delicious food. Everywhere we ate - street cafe, restaurant, on the boat - the food was absolutely amazing. Everything was so fresh, flavorful and not at all spicy (like Thai food). The only thing that I did avoid were the dishes served with shellfish or seafood that could not be identified - and that was only because of my shellfish allergy and not because I was worried about the quality of the fish or seafood.
We didn't go thirsty either! The adult beverages...
I did try a Vietnamese white wine which could very well have been vinegar.

Fresh fruit smoothies for the kids..
Hanoi has a large art community and I wanted to buy a couple of oil paintings while we were there. We found a very nice art gallery while we were out wandering around one afternoon. Their selection and prices were amazing and I was able to cross that "must have" off of my list. The kids even picked out a piece for each of their bedrooms. I am sure it will cost me a small fortune to have everything framed but the paintings will be nice mementos of our trip. 

I will post tomorrow about what we did in Hanoi and about our cruise on Halong Bay.

Have a great Wednesday!