Good late afternoon, Vietnam!
Yes, really clever I know, but what do you expect--I'm on vacation. As of now, I have to say that I love Vietnam, and you have been thinking about coming here, you should do so immediately. Seriously. I mean, you should stop reading this--the rest probably won't be that interesting, anyway--and get tickets before it's overrun by tourists. Really, I think the only reason it isn't already is because there's a perception (which I had, too) that it's hard to travel here, but really, it's not. Everyone speaks English, and everyone wants your money ... um, wants to help you. Whatever. So far, our biggest problem has been how much to pay the cyclo drivers to peddle us to wherever we want to go. (Cyclos are like reverse rickshaws or something: three wheels, two in the front supporting a seat, and a driver peddling in back.) And, since the exchange rate is so favorable, we end up arguing over a dollar or less, so that's not really too much of a problem.
So far, we have spent 4 nights in Hanoi, a night on Halong Bay, and two nights in Hue. Hanoi, especially the Old Quarter, was awesome. Moldering French elegance, streets filled with bikes and scooters, life being lived out on the street--all that. The sidewalks are actually so crowded with people going about their business--working, shopping, drinking, eating--that you end up walking on the streets, which isn't as bad as it sounds because there are not a lot of cars here yet. For some reason, the moldering colonialism doesn't' bug me here like it did in Macau. I've been thinking it over, and I think it's because I got the impression the old buildings were left in Macau for only one of two reasons: one, they hadn't gotten around to knocking them down yet; or two, they thought they could make money of tourists from them. In Hanoi it's different though--it's like the city wouldn't be the city without them. Or something. You'll have to excuse me, I've just had a beer--a La Rue Export--and since I've been dehydrated since we landed at the airport (currently, 96 degrees--and it's not a "dry heat") I might not make too much sense. I mean, I never do, but now I'll make less sense than normal.
What else? Halong Bay, which is east of Hanoi, consists of a bunch of rock formations (I think they are called karsts, but I'm too lazy to look it up) sticking up out of the water and is much cooler than it sounds. (If anyone out there has seen Indochine, parts of it were filmed in Halong Bay--the part with the karsts, I'd guess ...) Anyway, it was very pretty sailing around in those all day, although it reminded me a bit of the Great Wall: very cool to see, but when you get there you're like "Okay, now what?" It's not like you can walk the Great Wall or anything--there's nowhere to go. You climb it, you walk a bit in one direction, you turn around, you come back. Same with Halong Bay. You see the rocks, you see more of the rocks, and eventually you realize you are in fact sailing in circles because the bay is not that big and you've been taking pictures of the same rock--pictures that will never be able to really communicate the majesty of the place--for the last 6 hours. Which is not to say I'm not glad I went--I liked it a lot--but it's just an observation.
Hue, on the other hand, I'm not so sure about. It's the old Imperial City, which means it has a lot of palaces and tombs, which are nice, but since Vietnam was under the thumb of China for so long (1,000 years of China, 100 years of France, 10 years of America), it's basically like looking at a smaller, less impressive (but prettier) version of the same stuff I've seen in China. (I believe the phrase "A poor man's Forbidden City" was used at some point yesterday when we were walking around the Imperial Palace yesterday.) Of course, in its defense, it was mostly blown up by us during the "American" war. Hue was the only big city to really fall during the Tet Offensive: the NVA captured it for three weeks or so, killed a few thousand "collaborators," and once the US army had secured Khe Sahn, they blew the shit of out Hue to get the NVA out. They're putting it back together now with the help of Unesco though, so that's something. Anyway, I'm pretty sure my impression of Hue hinges on dinner tonight. I'll let you know. (Random side note: We hung out drinking beer at a bar called "The DMZ" with a guy who had been a machine gunner on a Hue helicopter during the war. Weird.)Other random thoughts:
- The money here is called "Dong." (The exchange rate is also 16,000 to one USD, which is odd.) I'm not going to lie: I've made a few jokes. Like, after grabbing a bunch of coins out of my pocket, I might say: "I have 5,000 dongs in my pants!" or "I've never held so many dongs at once" or "Holly, stop playing with all those dongs!" Somehow, it never gets old. Well, not for me ...
- Everyone here seems to like both Americans and French, which I wasn't expecting. And sure, maybe they just like us for our money, but I'll take that. I mean, being loved just for my money has always been a dream of mine, and since it's looking unlikely that it will happen in the US, I'll settle for it happening here.
- I have heard the Vietnamese say both "VC" and "Charlie," which I find very odd.
- Vietnamese coffee is strong. I mean, STRONG. It's like mud, which is an overused comparison, I grant you, but in this case it's true: it's literally like mud. I guess that's why you dump sweetened condensed milk into it, which is fine with me ...
- They have this stuff here called "Bia Hoi"--fresh beer--that is very good. (Beer with no preservatives.) At the expensive tourist places we went--"Bia Hoi Junction" in Hanoi--it cost 2,000 dong for a glass. At the exchange rate, that means you can get 80 for 10 USD. I thought about buying one for every single person in the street--probably two actually, at those prices--but just got three for myself instead. I'm fine with that.
It seems like there was more than that, but I can't think of any right now. Which is probably fine, since I get the feeling this is pretty long. Not to brag, but I can type pretty fast and I've been typing for like 10 straight minutes, so kudos to any of you who got to the end of this. I'll buy you a bia hoi next time I see you here. We'll be going to Hoi An (I believe most of The Quiet American with Michael Caine was filmed there) tomorrow for three for four nights, so just look for me there if you want to collect. Apparently it's a really small town, so it shouldn't be hard to fine with--just look for the guy with no hair with all the empty bia hoi glasses in front of him ...