Back from Nam

What can I complain about today?  The vacation so far has been good.  We have more good things to do.  Vietnam was a hit.  Those don’t sound like complaints.  How about I hate my job.  My job has started to feel like a job, whereas last year I never felt I was working.  I don’t like this school; it’s people, or the city.  Feel better now?  You have some complaints.

We got back from Vietnam Tuesday at 2AM.  It’s always good to not have high expectations when you go somewhere, and we didn’t.  We chose Vietnam because it’s warmer, it’s close, and it’s cheap.  That isn’t always the best criteria for choosing somewhere but amazingly enough, sometimes you get lucky.

I loved it.  Shujie thought it was okay.  I think a lot of the reason is that it is close to China so she didn’t feel like she was seeing anything special.  I didn’t feel I was seeing anything special (except for 1 or 2 things), but it was pretty, the people were nice, things were cheap, we were busy, and I just thought it was a huge success.

Before I give you a brief rundown with pictures (of course), let’s start off with this and don’t look any further until you decide what you’re looking at.

onion rings

No, they are not donuts.  These are the biggest Onion Rings I’ve ever seen or eaten.  They were delicious and were found in an American restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).  This could be the most amazing thing I saw.

We arrived in Hanoi and went to the hotel because it was too late to go anywhere.  We just walked around downtown, which is old and dumpy.  The hotel was new and dumpy.

The next morning we went on a 4 hour drive to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise.  It was good but we could have used some shorts (even though it was only 19C) because there was some kayaking involved.  It was pretty but the sky could have been clearer.  There were about 12 of us thrown together on the cruise.  We were not on an organized tour with the same group.  The company we dealt with would put us on different tours.  There were about 12 people on the boat and we lucked out.  Most of them were in their 30’s (so that’s my age) and were quite nice.  Most tourists are from Australia and I think we met 1 American the whole time in Vietnam.  On our cruise was a Canadian couple from Montreal.  They live together and she was about 4 days pregnant.  A little early for an announcement, but any excuse to drink.  I had more to drink than I’ve had for years but somehow the 4 Vodka and Lemon Juices, the 3 tequila shots, the 4 shots of Bailey’s and the 2 other drinks didn’t seem to affect me.  But we had a good time.  Here are some pictures of Halong Bay.

martin and shujie on boat

Us on the boat

Halong Bay

Halong Bay2

Halong Bay 3

Shujie rowing

Shujie in cave

The 3 top are of Halong Bay.  The next one is Shujie kayaking.  The last one is Shujie in the cave.  She looks like a lurking vampire.

When we returned from Halong Bay to Hanoi it was time to grab a bite to eat and then board the train for our overnight trip to Sapa.  Sapa is in the mountains and is supposed to be absolutely beautiful.  In October.  It was January.  It was colder than cold (or felt that way), and the weather was foggy, rainy, and misty.  It was a mistake to go there and it was my fault.  I was advised it wasn’t a great idea but I felt if I was going to Vietnam, I should visit Sapa.

The train ride is about 9 hours.  We had a “soft sleeper” which means a hard bed and 4 people in a tiny room.  The cabin looks like this:

train cabin

We saw a few interesting things.  I bought new running shoes and a new winter jacket since I didn’t bring one.  Vietnam is warm.  It goes from about an average of 19 degrees Celsius in Hanoi (north) up to 33 degrees in Ho Chi Minh City except for Sapa.

There are a lot of minority groups in Sapa including the gang who are nagging you to death to buy their cheap wallets and purses.  I thought if I bought one from the start, I could just whip it out to protect myself from the others.  It didn’t work.  They don’t let up and I understand that this is how they make a buck (or a dong) but I’m sorry, I can’t give money to everyone.

We were in a small village and we were walking and my walking gets worse all the time.  There is a picture below of some old lady and young kid helping me.  The old lady might be really young (they age fast there).  Were they being nice?  Not really.  It was just the prelude to their sales pitch.

Another picture you’ll see is our guide and I on a man made bridge that didn’t seem too stable (like me).  Shujie loved it.

The hotel was colder than ice.  There was no heat in it.  They give you a space heater, which must cover 2 square feet at max, and a heating blanket on the bed.  We were so happy to leave there.

us in sapa

Us in Sapa.

not too clear in sapa

On a clear day.

me and guide on bridge

Guide and I on bridge.

us at waterfall

Us at a small waterfall.

helped in Sapa

Helping the lame and infirm.  (That’s me).

We took a train back to Hanoi and stayed in a hotel for about 4 hours to clean up and get ready for the next trip.

We took a flight to Hue, which is the old Capital of Vietnam.  It’s a beautiful small city with a temperature of about 25 degrees.  I loved it.  We were wheeled around on a bike, there were tons of foreigners (they were everywhere), we did a couple of tours and just generally enjoyed the atmosphere.  We stayed in the nicest hotel of our trip, which was quite pleasant.  There were lots of decent places to eat at and one night we ate at a French restaurant mentioned in the Michelin Guide.  I had the pepper steak for the amazing price of $8.  I told you it was cheap to eat there.  We loved Hue and it one of our two favorite places to visit on the trip.

me pushing Shujie

Giving Shujie a tour of Hue.

maybe Ho lived here

Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) might have lived here.

nice pic

nice pic 2

nice house

nice grounds

Some pictures around Hue.

pagoda

A pagoda.

kung foo knife

From a cheap Kung Fu show.  The guy digs his neck in a spear.  This was after he smashed a tower of bricks with his head.  What people will do to make a living.

From Hue we drove to Hoi An (about 3 hours) which is a small town with an old city and a beach.  There are about 300 tailor shops in the old city and I bought a suit (and I never wear suits).  Naturally it was made to measure and I bought made to measure shoes to go with it.  I will model it in a later post.  It looks similar in a way to the suits the Beatles first wore back in the early 60’s and I’ve always wanted one.

There are hardly any cars in the town and we rented bikes one day and a motorcycle on another day.  We visited the beach and me just standing on the beach for ½ an hour with a hat on still got me this awful burn.  Shujie loved being at the beach.

The people at the hotel were great and they loved saying my name.  No sentence to me began without them saying my name first.  Shujie’s name gave them a little trouble.  I know we’re not friends, but they made you feel as if you were.  Hoi An is a great vacation spot to relax and well worth visiting.  We went to some good restaurants there and I had my best Tomato Soup ever.

We took a tour to My Son (pronounced Mason), which has a lot of old remains of Buddhist temples dating back to the 4th century.  It was quite beautiful.  Everything was beautiful.  I know it costs a lot to fly there from North America, but if you’re in the area, you should go and visit, if just to go to Hue and Hoi An.

my son 1

my son 2

my son 3

my son 4

my son 5

The 5 above pictures are from My Son.

Hoi An beach 1

Hoi An beach 2

Two from the beach.

We spent 3 relaxing days in Hoi An.  In Hoi An.  Restaurants were good all over Vietnam and as I said, cheap.  We were busy but it was relaxing too.  I still don’t want to laze on the beach for hours but there are other ways to relax.  One way is to take off all your clothes, lie down on top of your bed (no blankets) and take a nap.  And you nap until one of the hotel staff opens your door with their key (why? I don’t know) and you scare them and it’s so fast I don’t even know who it is.  Therefore she would be more embarrassed to see me, than I would be to see her.

From Hoi An we flew to Ho Chi Minh City which was formerly known as Saigon.  We visited the old Presidential Palace (what a waste of money to spend in a country in the midst of a Civil War).  We also visited the Cu Chi tunnels.  These are some of the famous tunnels used by the Vietnamese for hiding and escaping from Americans.  You read things that the Vietnamese stored things down there and lived down there but those are just myths.  The tunnels zigzag and are totally dark.  They are about 1 meter high and less than that across.  You have to crawl.

We went into one of the original tunnels and were told we had 50 meters to crawl through.  I didn’t want to do it, but when would I ever have this opportunity again.  There was an escape hatch after 25 meters if you wanted.  Most of the people left after 25 meters (you’ve done 25, you’ve done them all).  There were young people much more fit than I coming out drenched in sweat.  You would think crawling 25 meters would be nothing, but you’d be wrong.  How did they do this constantly?  I gained a lot of respect for the Vietnamese during this trip.  Forty years ago their country was a shambles and they’ve rebuilt.  I never thought the war made sense, but when you’re there the total banality of it really hits you.  The Americans were there for financial reasons and to “stop the spread of Communism”.  All they accomplished was prolonging a war the Communists were going to win (because the country wanted to be Communist), and getting 50,000 or so Americans killed and thousands of Vietnamese.  You think about the Germans or the Japanese and them doing horrible things are not shocking.  But Americans!  This isn’t supposed to happen in the land of the free.  The people in charge were really war criminals just for going there and sticking their noses in where they didn’t belong.  Intellectually I knew this, but to be there and experience just a touch of went on really drives it home.

On the tunnel tour we were shown some “booby traps” that the Vietnamese would make to kill Americans.  They were pretty clever working with not much material and Shujie thought it was a pretty horrible way to die.  I’m with James T. Kirk when he said, and I quote, “there are no good ways to die”.  It’s hard to feel sorry for people that died in a place they had no business being in.

We visited the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called the “War Crimes Museum”.  I would go with the original name.  It is filled with pictures that just break your heart and reduce you to tears.  I’ve heard of “Agent Orange” but didn’t know much about it.  Looking at the pictures of the people, especially the kids who have suffered takes your breath away.  You think, “Americans?  How?”.  But it really did happen.  And it still goes on as the children of the children exposed to it are still born with horrible deformities.  There is the girl who has to live in a cage because she bites everything within reach.  There are the armless and the legless.  There are the kids who I can’t imagine looking at every day who have parents who still love them and care for them.

I didn’t take pictures of the pictures because I thought it would be disrespecting to do so.  But sometimes I would have to leave the room to compose myself.  The only thing “new” I thought of was what’s worse, knowing you’re victim and the deformities you are going to cause in their body (a la Joseph Mengele), or anonymously dropping bombs and chemicals and having no idea who you’re victims are.  It’s quite shocking when you find yourself comparing Nazis and Americans.

On our last day we saw a bit of the Mekong Delta and that was nice.  It was a pleasant day out and not emotionally draining at all.  I think after the museum and the tunnels I was wiped out.  As I quote from Kurtz, “the horror!, the horror!”.

trap 1

The trap is hidden.

trap 2

The soldier steps on the trap and begins to fall.

trap 3

And voila!  Soldier Kabob.

Shujie in tunnel

Shujie in tunnel.  All the light is from the flash, otherwise it’s pitch black.

mekong delta

On the Mekong Delta.

I had a great time.  Shujie had an okay time she says but I think she enjoyed herself.  Who can understand the Chinese?  Not me.  We haven’t done much else this week.  We leave for 10 days in Baoding on Tuesday for the New Year.  That’s a 10 hour train ride there (oh the horror!  The horror!).  After Baoding we’re taking the plane to Harbin (average temperature about -30C) for 4 days.  They have an annual ice festival that is supposed to be beautiful.  Harbin is close to Russia and it should be interesting.  I’m looking forward to that.  We are coming back to Baotou by train after that.  That’s only a 29-hour train ride.  Then that’s it for long train rides.  We come back on the 20th and school starts up March 4th.  I hate this place but I will survive.

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