Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Travel Log: Roaming in Southeast Asia (Part 5)

This has been a long time coming... Now is time for the final installment of the "Roaming in Southeast Asia" series.
On our final night in HCMC, some members of the tour group decided to visit an upscale Vietnamese nightclub. Each table at the club had at least 5 servers on hand to wait on customers which made the ear-splitting volume of the music worth it. This also made it worth it...

We suddenly found ourselves the stars of the night with our names on the big screen! 

On our final day in HCMC, our tour group paid a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels about a 1/2 hour bus trip outside of the city. The Cu Chi tunnels were instrumental in the winning of the Vietnam War for the Vietnamese people. 

The Vietnamese soldiers were able to relocate entire families into cramped underground tunnels under the dense jungle where the Allied Forces were trying to push their way into northern Vietnam. The Cu Chi tunnels demonstrate the endurance and tenacity of the Vietnamese resistance. The Vietnamese soldiers carefully booby trapped the surrounding jungle and successfully hid themselves from view by hiding in the tunnels. In this way, soldiers were able to engage in battle--almost as though appearing from no where--but also find shelter quickly in a dangerous situation. Sometimes the occupants of the tunnels spent days underground without fresh air and sunlight. Most tunnels were barely large enough to crawl through, certainly not large enough to stand. 

The Cu Chi tunnels are a worthwhile trip outside of HCMC city where you can see relics of the War and try your hand crawling through the tunnels. There was also a shooting range bizarrely enough but the noise provided a fitting background for roaming this forested area.  

That same day I boarded the late night train (going anywhere) to Hanoi. The train ride would take me 30 hours to reach my destination. Why, you are probably wondering, would I possibly decided to board a train that would take 30 hours to reach its destination? There are two reasons, 1) morbid curiosity; 2), I hadn't realized flights would be cheaper. Besides, Top Gear had romanticized Vietnamese rail travel for me.

At the end of it all, I am not going to recommend train travel in Vietnam. You're probably rolling your eyes and saying, "No, duh" right now. Well, even after enduring two nights sleeping in the most expensive, yet still cockroach-infested bunk with mute bunk mates (because they didn't speak English), watching the beautiful Vietnamese countryside from the train window, and making friends with one happy-go-lucky American dude, I finally arrived in Hanoi. 

Hanoi train station was awash with tourists and taxi touts (several of which kept trying to lure me into privately owned, unmarked taxis) which I navigated until I finally found a taxi  belonging to an honest taxi company. (Note: PLEASE be careful if you ever go to Hanoi Train Station, my friend arrived later that same day at the same station and almost had her iPod ripped out of her hands by a thief). I gave the taxi driver my hotel's address and off we went. Imagine my rising panic when we arrived at a construction site. With dismay, I surveyed the deconstructed building and realized I had become the saddest of scam-victim cliches. Naively  I had been dreaming of the hot shower that awaited me after 30 hours of sweating in a mobile cesspool. I began rummaging in my bag for my travel agent's phone number or anything that would save me from this desperate situation. The taxi driver watched me with suspicion from the rear view mirror. A construction worker saw us idling outside the gate and came to ask if we needed help. The taxi driver and the construction worker conversed in Vietnamese and eventually the taxi driver showed him the address I had been given. The construction worker pointed down the street. My travel agent had given me a map of the hotel and surrounding area to show the taxi driver, the taxi driver now turned and showed this same map to me. He pointed to another hotel on the map nearby which belonged to the same hotel chain. I understood that this is where he was taking me. 

After arriving at this second hotel, confused, I approached the front desk wondering "How do I explain this?" but the front desk staff member stood and informed immediately me they had been expecting me. It turns out my hotel booking which had been made through a travel agent had been changed to this hotel. Unfortunately for me, my travel agent decided that this was information I did not need to know but luckily (largely thanks to a chance meeting with a construction worker) I had arrived at the correct hotel.

One hot shower later, I walked the short distance to Lake Hoan Kiem, a huge lake in the centre of the city where the Turtle Tower (Tháp Rùa) can be seen in the lake's centre. Left and right retirees could be seen circling the lake in a perpetual parade of thrumming movement. I decided to join in. All along the lake shore, the elderly were taking part in tai chi, aerobics classes, stretching or just jogging. The taxing humidity seemed not to deter them. After coming to terms with my egregious lack of physical fitness while being overtaken by countless Vietnamese "Betty White" characters, I adjourned to a cafe for breakfast with my aforementioned friend (who had retained her iPod, unsuccessfully tried to locate me at my original lodgings, but had managed to contact me by cell phone).

Hanoi held many wonders to keep the two of us captivated over the following couple of days...

The water puppet theatre on the edge of Lake Hoan Kiem is a definitely must for any itinerary. To get an idea of what the performance is like, take a look at this YouTube video. Photography is permitted with the purchase of a $10 permit (but to be honest, no one was there enforcing this rule so my friend and I were able to sneak some pictures). Born of an earlier, simpler time in rural Vietnam, the water puppet shows used to be exhibited in watery rice paddies and tell stories of related to a Vietnamese agricultural lifestyle.  Tickets can be bought directly from the theatre the day of the show but they sell fast so line up in the morning, have lunch, and take in a show in the afternoon.

Despite its difficult location, my friend and I also managed to find the downed B52 bomber which landed in Hanoi during the war. Perched in the centre of a wide pond in a middle-classed neighbourhood, the local people decided to leave the bomber where it was and erected a monument to the war at the pond's edge. 

The Temple of Literature is a beautiful architectural display in the heart of Hanoi. For those with careful eyes, there are many secret carvings of birds and monkeys to be found around the temple grounds. Delightful gardens surround this lovely temple of which only a few hundred scribes have graduated from since the temple (or perhaps "university" is a better word) was built 1,000 years ago. 

There are plenty of great markets throughout Hanoi where you can pick up a bargain or two. Vietnam is a great place for shopping as you will find that many brand names have factories (and therefore factory rejects and factory direct stock) in Vietnam. 

If I had had more time, I definitely would have made an effort to see Sapa (known for its terraced rice paddies) or Hoi An (where you can buy tailored clothes at a fraction of the cost). Sadly, the end of my trip was marred by a huge monsoon that swept through northern Vietnam and forced me to cancel my planned trip to Ha Long Bay. Even though I didn't fulfill my lifelong dream to see the rock formations of Ha Long, getting to visit Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam was amazing and an unforgettable collection of fun memories and life lessons. I know one day, I will go back (I am determined to visit that beautiful Ha Long Bay!) and it will be just as stunning as it was the first time. 

I hope you've enjoyed my Roaming in Southeast Asia series. Thanks for joining me!

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