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Vietnam - 2011



March 22 - Hanoi

In Hanoiís Old Quarter, we enjoyed street food and dodged the chaotic traffic. Streets are narrow and twisty, with sidewalks blocked by street restaurants and parked motos, so you must brave the street to walk anywhere. I was only struck once by a moto, though many brushed my elbows. We watch in horror at intersections where cross traffic miraculously interweaves without slowing, no traffic lights or stop signs to prevent collisions. Every one liberally uses horns. Total mayhem!

Curbside restaurants consist of a cook sitting on a low stool, surrounded by bowls of ingredients that she flips into a wok or onto a grill. The locals squat on short plastic stools, and shovel the tasty fare using chopsticks. Food is good - less spicy than Thai, but delicious and varied.

At Hoan Keim Lake we attended the splash-happy water puppet show, a Vietnamese cultural tradition. Lively music accompanies a number of skits, the puppets controlled by sticks under water.

In the Old Quarter of Hanoi you can buy anything...

...including huge bronze temple bells...

...and counterfeit money.

This counterfeit money is sold on funeral street. Buddhists burn money at funerals to send wealth along with the departed for their post-earthly needs. Note the US money in bundles.

Dave and I did a walking tour of the Old Quarter. Each street houses a different trade or product - hardware street, mannikin street, wedding dress street, funeral street, florist street.

Hanoi sidewalks belong to business and parking...

...which pushes pedestrians into the street to dodge traffic.

We find the local wet market.

Colorful legumes in baskets.

Overhead powerlines writhe in snaky bundles.

We circle Hoan Kiem Lake to dodge the traffic.

Hanoi ladies enjoy a pineapple break.

The narrow shophouses grew out of small streetfront stalls.


March 24 - Sa Pa

Last night we took an overnight train ("deluxe soft sleeper") to Lao Cai, then a bus to Sa Pa, a mountain town in northern Vietnam, surrounded by minority villages. The tribes here, Hmong, Dao, Giay, and others wear traditional costumes, beautifully embroidered. They are refugees, having fled to these hills to escape political or economic woes in their home countries of Tibet, China, Burma. Earlier settlers got the choicer valley lowlands for an easier life, while these latecomers must eke out a tougher living in the hills. Hmong ladies follow us around town, hoping to make some money. Knock-off North Face gear fills market stalls, at knock-off prices. Thick fog lays on the town, hiding the mountains around with their picturesque rice terraces. Weíve arranged a trek tomorrow, to 4 villages.


March 25 - Minority Villages

The Thai Binh Sapa hotel is great - a heater in the room, plus electric bed pads, most welcome on chilly nights. After a good breakfast at the hotel, our guide met us. He took a look at my Keen sandals and recommended I borrow cheap plastic boots from the hotel. Glad I did. We trekked downhill, the first couple miles on paved street, then on muddy roads, and finally down steep trails through rice paddies. We were accompanied by three Black Hmong women, hoping to sell us handicrafts. At first their presence was annoying, but when we got to the rice terraces, one grabbed my hand to guide me down. I was grateful for her help. Though she was little more than four feet tall, with a weathered face and a gold front tooth, her grip was firm, and feet steady as a mountain goatís. For several hours she showed me where to step, and guided me over bamboo stick bridges and down slippery trails. Other hikers were less fortunate, clad in crocs or tennis shoes, and soon covered head-to-toe in chilly mud.

We visited a Black Hmong home. The family water buffalo is under the same roof, with its own fire. Last week it snowed here, and some families lost their buffalos to the cold. This family had a low fire for cooking and warmth, a hard-packed dirt floor, very little furniture, but did have a television and a single bare light bulb. Strips of pork were drying in the rafters. Seven people, three generations, live in the two-room home. Our guide explained that despite very hard work in the rice paddies, about 30% of families run out of rice each year. It helped us realize how important tourism is to these very poor people. Most will never go to school and there are few jobs. Girls marry at 14 or 15.

We walked across a river to a Red Dao village, stopping along the way to see water-driven rice pounders and women weaving on looms. Mid-afternoon we arrived at a road for a welcome lift back up to Sapa.

Sapa is shrouded in mist...

Joel treks with our guide and Black Hmong woman hoping to sell weavings.

The minority ladies are persistent saleswomen.

I'm soon grateful for this woman's help across a bamboo stick bridge...

...and down slippery hills through muddy rice paddies.

The steep hills are beautifully terraced.

Ducks enjoy the rain and fertilize the paddy.

Dressed for the weather.

A watermill pounds rice into flour.

We walk through a Hmong village, then to one inhabited by Red Dong.

This water buffalo is stuck.

The misty fog has a special beauty.

A suspension bridge connects the two halves of a village.

Local backpack worn by the minority women.

Sapa snakewine comes with a bonus scorpion.

Carved wood mask in the Sapa museum.


March 26 - Cat Cat Village

Sapa continued to be interesting. We had a great day trek loop to Cat Cat village. More tourist/craft shops lined the path to Cat Cat, but once beyond, the stone-paved path wound down steep hills to a waterfall, then up over more hills along non-tourist Red Dao homes, and back to Sapa.

We enjoy another rainy day trek.

Government school for the hilltribe minorities.

We come to Cat Cat village.

Stairs are carved from a single log.

Steep stone steps wind down to the valley floor...

...to a waterfall...

...then up and over a ridge.


March 27 - Bac Ha

Our hotel arranged a tour to the weekly market at Bac Ha. Here we saw another minority group - the aptly-named Flower Hmong, with their distinctive colorful costumes. Although tourists come to the market, it is mainly for the locals, who come to socialize, find spouses, and shop.

Our guide then delivered us to the Lao Cai train station, to catch the soft sleeper back to Hanoi.

Bac Ha - and the colorful Flower Hmong market...

...where young Hmong girls come dressed in their finest to find a mate.

The local costume is a rainbow of bright colors.

A moto transposts live chickens to market.

Market day is a chance to socialize...

...and select a basket backpack...

...or a wooden plow...

...and a water buffalo to pull it.

Joel samples the local moonshine.

Our guide Maya takes us on one more muddy hike.

Jump aside! Buffalo coming through.

The water buffalo slides down the muddy trail.

At the Lao Cai train station, men make a buck cleaning Sapa mud from our shoes.

The train runs right through Hanoi Old Quarter.


March 28 - Hanoi Again

We caught the overnight "soft" sleeper for the ride back to hectic Hanoi. There we had time to explore the Ethnological Museum, which displays the wide diversity of Vietnamís ethnic makeup. With so many cultural sub-groups itís amazing that political borders are at all meaningful. Very good museum, lots of colorful costume displays, but the best were the outdoor structures showing the different houses and meeting halls of various groups.

Pineapple salesman.

Massive statue of Lenin, a piece of Vietnamese history.

Joel and I select hand carved stamps...

...gifts for family and friends.

We visit the wonderful Hanoi Enthnological Museum.

This minority group is matriarchical, reflected in the carvings.

Interesting fencing on this funeral house...

...the deceased was a contented man?

The museum has wonderful examples of ethnic architecture.

One of many murals around Hanoi.


March 30 - Hue, Vietnam

Another overnight train brought us to Hue, once the capital of Vietnam in the final dynasties, and halfway down the long country, close the the DMZ. Here what we call the Vietnam War is referred to as the American war. We walked to the impressive citadel in the drizzle. Hue has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means international funding is helping with ongoing restoration of historical buildings. This is a lovely city, spanning the Perfume River, and a welcome relief after the traffic noise of Hanoi. We are also getting more courageous sampling local cuisine - very tasty!

Chinese drugstore in Hue.

We walk to the impressive citadel...

Lifesize stone mandarin figures...

...silently guard Hue citadel...

...aided by a fierce lion.

We walk the perimeter of the huge citadel.

Beautiful rooftop detail.

Joel checks our a huge bronze urn.

Happiness character in ceramic.

Overhead wood ceilings are ornately carved and painted.

Between squalls we dash to pavillions.

The citadel is picturesquely moated.

Roof tile detail.

Unrestored gate.

Every gate is a picture...

...or a picture frame.

Huge model of the king's chop (seal).

Nice gutter gargoyle.

The next gate beckons us to explore.

Example of broken-pottery frieze.

Last lion bids us adieu.

The next morning a moto-taxi picked us up...

...to deliver us to a dragonboat...

We sail up the Perfume River.

First stop was an impressive Karate exhibition.

Then to Thien Mu Pagoda...

...historically important as a center of Buddhist opposition to colonialism.

The dragonboat carries us onward.

The river is dredged for construction landfill.

We pass gardens and water buffalo.

Our dragonboat parks on the riverbank.

Sometimes the banks are slick with mud.

Each stop is more interesting...

Stone figures guard the mausoleums.

The stonework relief echos embroidery detail.

Ancient crumbling gates.

Inside, buildings fit for the king.

Exquisite details everywhere

...including the protective roofline dragons.

Gate leads to another courtyard...

...and yet another...

...with a moat

Bronze column with dragon.

Looking back...

...the view is even better.

The final enclosure holds the tomb.

Carved wood detail in doorjamb.

Crumbling fancy brickwork lines the moat.

Khai Dinh's mausoleum was over-the-top baroque.

Again mandarin guards line the courtyard.

This one's gown has an intricate turtle...

...and a fine rooster on the sleeves.

Above a dragon keeps watch.

Inside, ornate broken-bowl mosaic covers the walls.

Can you spot the imposters?

Tiles for a rooftop repair.

Would they miss just one???

Tu Duc's mausoleum is appealingly situated on manmade lakes.

He didn't wait for death to enjoy the setting.


April 1 - Hoi An

From pretty Hue we took a bus to Hoi An, where our fancy Long Life Riverside Hotel picked us up. A short walk across the river, and we were in touristy Hoi An, mecca for custom tailoring. Joel took advantage, and had some clothing custom-made, overnight and excellent quality, at a very reasonable price. I shopped in the fabric market and bought a few meters of Vietnam silk for $5/meter. And Dave and I bought a dozen collapsible fabric lanterns!

We stay at the lovely Long Life Riverside Hotel in Hoi An...

The river has been in use for trade since Marco Polo stopped by.

The town is filled with shops and sights.

Many come to have clothing custom tailored.

Joel sucumbs and is measured...

..it takes 3 women to measure the crotch.

Clothing can be ready overnight!

Pretty Hoi An is full of temples...

...each with a quiet courtyard.

The urn leg has a serious overbite.

Very old wooden "Japanese" bridge.

It's worth looking up...

...at gorgeous roof details.

An inviting courtyard.

Detail of a door panel...

...and a lintel cartoon.

An quiet oasis is steps off the busy street.

One smoky temple has hundreds of lit incense spirals.

Wooden frieze tells a story.

Staff has one animal eating another.

Dragons fight in a fountain.

Hoi An clan house with painted guards.

Shops and restauants line the river...

...where time seems frozen.


April 3 - Ho Chi Ming City

We flew the last leg to Ho Chi Ming City, aka Saigon, where we visited the War Remnants Museum, a surprisingly balanced look at the American War. The upper floors had exhibits on the lasting damages from Agent Orange, and a photography exhibit honoring the courageous photographers to braved the front lines to report war coverage. For Dave and I, this was our generationís war, impactive on our lives in so many ways, and it tore poor Vietnam apart. Vietnam today is communist/socialist but to all appearances moving rapidly toward free market capitalism. The energetic Vietnamese are creative and hard-working, in pursuit of education and a buck. In fact, the US dollar continues to be the preferred currency in the larger cities, as the Vietnamese Dong suffers 15% inflation.

Vietnam was interesting, the people welcoming, the food tasty. I think we will be back.

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