Friday, December 29, 2006

 

Christmas in Hanoi, Vietnam

Click for more photos of Hanoi and Halong Bay.

Since we are staying in HK another 2 months (which Troy is sooo excited about – yeah, right) we decided to go somewhere for Christmas. In addition, all of our friends have gone back home to their respective countries for the holidays so we had no one to celebrate Christmas with. Plus the idea of having Peking duck and pork dumplings with a roomful of loud Chinese for our Christmas dinner just didn’t sound appealing this year. So we headed to Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi is definitely not what comes to mind when you think of a “Christmas destination” but it was loads of fun none the less.

Hanoi was a crazy little city. It has been a while since we have been to a place where things were constantly amazing us and catching us off guard. Every few minutes it was like “Holy cow, Troy, did you see that??? That’s just nuts!” Such things include how the Vietnamese know how to utilize the space on their tiny little motorcycles. Hanoi had prime examples of how they do that. There was the motorcycle driver delivering five, 3 foot tall porcelain vases strapped haphazardly to his bike; 3 rather large pigs lashed to the back of another motorcycle; or an entire calf roped to the luggage rack with his head and legs flopping around every time the motorcycle rode over bumps (hence the “holy cow" remark). Did we manage to get pictures of any of these? Of course not. They came and went before we could get our cameras out.

You could find almost anything you wanted in Hanoi, you just had to know which street to go to. There was shoe street, vodka street, zipper street, motorcycle part street, gullible tourist souvenir street, beer street, etc. etc. There were also no stop signs or street lights, so crossing a street was a challenge. Not only were you dodging the cars and motorcycles, but as you walked you had to make sure you didn’t run into the food vendors with their long wooden poles balanced on their shoulders. One of those things could poke your eye out.

One of the places we managed to stop and see was the Hanoi Hilton. In response to Troy’s question “Was this ever a Hilton hotel?” The answer is no. This was the infamous Hoa Lo prison during the Vietnam War that was renamed the Hanoi Hilton by the American prisoners. This was also where Senator John McCain was kept. The prison which is now a museum even had on display McCain’s flight gear, parachute, boots and helmet that he wore when he was captured. There were many sad things about this place. They had a room that was filled with items that were shown to the outside world at the time of the war to explain that the prisoners were being treated well. Whether it was clean uniforms, new shoes or a pamphlet that had various pictures of the prisoners showing what they did inside. “Oh look, it’s Christmas time again. What fun we are having.” “We’re learning how to cook together” “Yeah, let’s all play a game of volleyball”. When what was actually happening on the inside was a million times different.

About a 3 hour drive east of Hanoi is an area called Halong Bay. This place was absolutely stunning. It reminded us a lot of Yangshuo, China with the karst mountains but Halong Bay had the mountains protruding from the sea as opposed to land. I had booked us on a boat for 3 days/2 nights and we had no idea what we were in for. Are there going to have actual cabins to sleep in or will it be a big slumber party with strangers? Will there be toilets or is it “find a hole and squat”? Is this going to be one of those boats that is also used to transport pigs and cows to other places? To much relief it all turned out good. Cabins were comfy, bathrooms clean and the food wasn’t half bad.

The boat was called Jewell of the Bay and was one of dozens of boats that took tourists around Halong Bay. The boat slept about 18 people and we lucked out and got a triple cabin (well, Troy cheated and saw the number of the key in the "random key draw") so we had lots of room to spread out instead of being cramped into a small 10x10 room. Only one crew member spoke English so everything else involved a lot of pointing and hand gestures. Even though the Vietnamese really don’t celebrate Christmas, they did manage to have a very pathetic Christmas tree on the boat as well as a CD that had Jingle Bells in Vietnamese. The song was fun at first but then got real old after about the second hour of continuous play. We did luck out with some fun fellow passengers. A few Canadians, Germans, Indians and even a French guy who was actually very cool! Christmas Eve the crew had a “gala” planned for the guests. It wasn’t much but we all appreciated the thought and effort behind being served platters of fruit, cake, candies, some very, very bad purple champagne (yes, purple champagne) and even receiving a gift of a small wooden Vietnamese doll. This miniature spread was then followed by dancing with the crew and other passengers to more Vietnamese music. Or rather I danced and Troy laughed - he is always laughing at me.

Halong Bay was very relaxing. It was a little colder then we expected so neither of us wanted to swim. We didn’t do much other then kayak to secluded lagoons you can only get to through caves, see how the local floating villages and their residents live, bargain with the floating market lady to try to get cheap beers and explore some nearby caves that were gigantic.

We spent our last night (Christmas day) in Hanoi. It was very difficult to get into the Christmas spirit because outside of some very sparse Christmas decorations, some Santa earmuffs and the occasional Willy Nelson Christmas carol you would have never guessed it was Christmas.

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Just south of China in the far northeast corner of Vietnam is a bay of nearly 2,000 islands. It is in many ways the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, with an archaeological record 25,000 years old. Fishermen have lived on these islands and waters for millennia. Some villagers rarely set foot on land, spending most of their lives in boats and floating homes.

Halong Bay is also one of the most beautiful places on earth, which is why hordes of tourists hop on junk boats made to look old and they cruise those islands, stopping hither and yon to explore caves and mountains. You can imagine how good the seafood is — and you’d be wrong. It’s even better. True, the life on land isn’t so pretty and the town is a bit of a pit. But you’d be hard-pressed to find better crab or shrimp or saltwater fish than what you’ll eat every day in Halong Bay.

If you get your hands on December’s issue of Gourmet, you can learn more about Halong Bay in my feature, “On the Waterfront.” I haven’t even seen it yet (it takes a while for my copy to get here, and the issues on the shelves around here are always at least two months old). If Halong City is ever on your itinerary, be sure to try the local seafood restaurants on the street heading uphill, around the corner from the post office. Cross the bay to the “other” Halong City to check out the seafood market.

By Blogger halongbayvietnam, at 4:52 PM  

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