The Hills Are Alive…Part II

From North to South…

On Wednesday I still had to work so the fam had one more day to explore Hanoi before our departure to Saigon. They paid a visit to Hoa Lo prison and had a last wander around the Old Quarter whilst I was working. We planned to meet outside my school once I finished at 3:30 so they could have a drink at West Lake and enjoy the view in the day time. This didn’t really happen as my school has several campuses (I’m told that Chu Van An is the best school in Hanoi, hence the size – ooh get me) and even though I gave them my address, the taxi drove them to the main high school campus. By the time I’d found them we barely had any time left to see West Lake. To be honest, the smog was particularly bad that day and we ended up walking past a bit of a grotty corner where there was more litter than usual and dead fish. At least we found the Blackpool-like area and managed a quick coconut before making our way to the airport.

  Admiring the dead fish.

After a brief flight to Ho Chi Minh City and a little nap we were soon on our way into the city centre, which goes by its original name, Saigon. As we were told by many of the Saigonese (if that’s a word), the South has only two seasons: the hot season, and the hot-and-wet season. It was toasty and humid, like Hanoi in the summer. 

I knew that Hanoi and HCMC were supposed to be very different but that became evident almost as soon as we stepped outside of the airport. I’d go as far to say that it feels like a different country. The level of English speaking is noticeably higher for a start, and the size and layout reminded me of American cities I’ve visited. Hanoi has an element of chill, despite the traffic and population. People seem to go at their own pace; they certainly don’t have the same pressure to be working like human conveyer belts. As I’m sat here writing this, the coffee I ordered ten minutes ago is just about to be brought over to me. Pretty sure that would be considered unacceptable in your regular coffee place in the UK (but it’s a really good Trung Nguyen coffee so I’m not complaining.) Yes, there is that element of calm in Hanoi. However, in HCMC you can see how much more relaxed the residents are in terms of lifestyle. Individuality is certainly more acceptable.

It sounds extreme, but driving through the city made me think of the contrasting photos you see of North and South Korea. Not in the sense that the North has an insane dictator, or anything like that. But where I hear my TAs constantly complain about being ‘fat’ and rarely see an overweight adult in Hanoi, there are plenty of people in HCMC who are clearly happy to indulge a bit more. They are also seemingly less fussed about appearance and fitting in with the crowd. The tiny and ancient Old Quarter of Hanoi has tiny pavements filled with motorbikes or plastic stools, but in HCMC you can actually walk together in a horizontal line. In Hanoi, the police are always dressed in crisp, slightly intimidating uniforms (even if they are happy to ask to pose with foreigners for pictures, or ask for our names – not so intimidating), but HCMC police don’t seem quite so polished. There was also the bizarre experience of actually recognising brand names throughout the city.

  
 
After spending a few days there I really warmed to HCMC and I’m looking forward to revisiting with Dad soon. However, I’m still glad I was placed in Hanoi for my internship. I think it might have been to easy to live like I do at home, and my main reason for wanting to work abroad was to challenge myself (and goodness knows Hanoi has been challenging at the best of times!) I think if you were to spend just a few days in HCMC you wouldn’t feel as though you’d seen ‘real Vietnam’, as tenuous as that sounds. Hanoi on the other hand is more traditional and often regarded as more ‘cultural’ (even though that’s a subjective opinion).

We reached our first hotel, The Paragon, booked a tour for the next day to save wasting time, grabbed dinner nearby and enjoyed what the hotel had to offer. The beds were comfy and shower spacious. I’m sure the breakfast would have been decent too, had we managed to get up in time before the tour. Oh, and if Mum had remembered to book it with the room. Lolz.

Củ Chi

The Củ Chi Tunnels were a priority for us, so we were picked up in a mini-van the next morning (not a cramped bus – you have no idea how much of a relief that was). I think this was an eye-opener for all of us. I’ll admit that my knowledge about the Vietnam/American War was virtually non-existent before I came to Vietnam, and I don’t feel like it’s improved that much since being here. I’ve been to a fair few museums which have been helpful, but the ones in Hanoi do seem to assume prior knowledge and the translations aren’t always great. There’s also the issue that any information available is hugely biased and there’s also very little to read. Bookshops that sell English prints are few and far between, and the ones that are available are pricey and you can smell the propaganda from a mile away. Don’t get me wrong, after our experiences in HCMC I can see why the war is such a deeply sensitive subject. It would just be nice to have an objective breakdown of all the details. (Having said that, this reminds me of a seminar I had during my masters about Richard J. Evans…hmm, this probably isn’t the right place for such a discussion).

We took a break whilst on the bus at a small ‘services’ which consisted of a small stand selling weak coffee and pot noodles and a craft shop. Initially I thought great, another tour guide racking up his commissions. However, what I hadn’t realised is that the crafts people were victims of Agent Orange. As we walked past the stands to see them at work – carving, painting, collage with various materials – you couldn’t help noticing missing or stunted limbs. This was a stark reminder that the war is very much living memory for many Vietnamese people.

On reaching the tunnels, our group, which also included three women from Malaysia and Singapore – very friendly people indeed – were taken on a tour of the various remains. In case you didn’t know (I didn’t until recently) the tunnels were constructed by the village people of Củ Chi as a means of hiding from American soldiers. We were able to look inside some which were so tiny. In fact, when we later walked a few metres through a tunnel that had been widened for tourists, I couldn’t imagine how anyone would have gotten through the original tunnels at all, let alone resided in them. It just goes to show what people achieve in desperate times. 

  
Now you see me…

  …now you don’t.

  

There was a small exhibition displaying the various weapons made from bamboo which were pretty horrific. There was also a firing range later into the tour. You could hear it before you saw it. The guns available were models used during the war and were available for shooting. I was quite unsure about the ethics of having a go (as we had no idea who was manufacturing here weapons etc.), but admit that I was curious to experience the guns for myself to see what it must have been like. 

A guide led Dom and I to the shooting range. The firing shots became deafeningly loud, to the point that I could feel the vibrations shaking my organs; it was honestly quite terrifying. Dom went first, and tried an AK 47. When it was my turn I reluctantly pulled the trigger and was amazed by how forceful the M16 was against my shoulder. To think that young children were (and still are in various parts of the world) firing similar weapons was harrowing. It certainly hammered home the horror of war.

  

We got away from the firing range and had a tapioca lunch before watching a final video. It was rather dated, and our guide had mentioned that a lot of American tourists have been quite upset about the content (more proof of the North/South divide – I can’t imagine a guide in Hanoi being quite so honest ). I suppose I could see why when it used phrases such as ‘we stopped hunting animals and started hunting Americans’...

  
Is this not the best tap ever?

  
Tapioca and crushed peanuts. Yum.

This concluded our trip, and we headed back to HCMC. The guide stopped at a banh my stall (essentially a baguette-style sandwich) so Mum and Dom got a taste of another Vietnamese speciality. We finished the evening with a trip to the Hard Rock Cafe, just so I could experience something Western for the first time in a while, and then collapsed into bed. Dom and I both fell asleep on the same bed, despite our bickering, so stayed there all night fully-clothed.

  

  View of the hotel

Mekong Delta

After our Củ Chi trip we moved into the lush Grand Hotel (such a treat for me to have such luxury!) We actually got up in time on Friday morning, and enjoyed a kick-ass breakfast before departing on another tour, this time to the Mekong Delta.

We had a little stop off on the way at Phuoc Vinh Pagoda. It’s easy to get a bit templed-out in Vietnam as they are everywhere, but the architecture was very different to that in Hanoi, so it was quite interesting. The temples and Big Bellied Buddhas in the North seem to resemble those that you’d associate with China, but the style of Southern temples look similar to those you would see in Thailand. (If anyone can give me more formal terminology regarding the architecture, be my guest – I haven’t the foggiest!) We were lucky to catch the monks chanting before we left, something I’ve not seen before. 

  
  
We arrived at a Mekong Village, although unfortunately I don’t remember seeing what the name of it was. We took a tour across the river on a boat (in conical hats of course – they are the best sun shade!) and enjoyed the sunshine – quite a change from the boat trip in Halong! We were then taken to a honey restaurant which sold various products made from honey, all of which claimed to have varying health benefits. The lists of vitamins and minerals seemed pretty legit, but I don’t think we were convinced by the anti- erectile dysfunction claims. Maybe someone can prove us wrong.

We were then taken to a coconut candy factory, by which I mean a wooden structure, with a machine that whisks coconut milk and sugar together to make the candy. The candy was actually very nice, and it was quite interesting to see how each of the different products are made: coconut water, coconut milk, and desiccated coconut. Not something you see in action every day.

  
Strips of coconut candy

Just in case we hadn’t got enough of the Mekong’s culinary delights, we were then taken to another small restaurant to sample various fruits: dragon fruit, papaya, pineapple and jack fruit. Is was pretty ‘delish-tish’ to quote Mum, except for the Jack fruit. Neither of us were enamoured by it’s smooth texture or strange taste.

  
Following this, we took a boat tour up the Mekong river. The boat was rowed by a woman who stood at the back with just one paddle – impressive. This particular tributary of the Mekong was lush. Both sides were bordered with palms and, despite the odd motorboat that passed by, it was very tranquil. The North has some beautiful spots: Halong, SaPa, Ba Vi, to name but a few, but I think the Southern countryside is particularly beautiful.

  
  

We enjoyed lunch over the river side with other people on the tour. One American man told us that he was here on business  as he needed to oversee a factory for the company ‘Made’ that he worked for. Mum asked him whether it was a fair-trade company which was met with a blank expression and pause. ‘Do you mean as in minimum wage?’ he responded. Bit awkward.

The day finished with a final boat across the river with free coconuts (excellent). We enjoyed the final hours of sunlight, as all of us would soon be returning to duller days. Once we got back to the hotel we enjoyed the pool side and then later met up with Oli, the son of one of Mum’s colleagues, in the hotel bar. We’d never met him before, but got together at our hotel bar to hear about his travels in Australia and South East Asia. I’ve taken a few things away for my impending travels. It was a nice way to round off our final evening together.


All good things must come to an end

The final day of the trip.

After initially feeling as though we needed to get up and do everything possible we decided to have a little bit of a lie in. After a week at work, the weekend in Halong, another three days of work, and then two early starts for the tours, I was most certainly in need of a bit more sleep. And why not make the most of a comfy bed when you have the opportunity?

  City Hall

We took a walk down to Bến Thành Market, passing the huge Bitexco Financial Tower and City Hall on the way (I hope to visit some more of the sights when I’m here with Dad.) My friend, Rosie, had been to HCMC a few weeks before and had warned me that they buyers were more forceful than they are in Hanoi. I think I have successfully cultivated a firm ‘khong‘, but I had to laugh at Mum and her haggling. She’s a total pushover, bless. You can see it in her face and hear it in her voice so the sellers made a beeline for her. I, on the other hand, was a steely-faced cow. One man noticed me looking at a Christmas card and immediately said ‘you want? 80 000.’ I blankly replied ‘no thank you. They’re 20 000 in Hanoi.’ He responded ‘ok, 20 000,’ as he could clearly see I wasn’t fooled. Three months ago and I would have felt like the world’s biggest bitch. Now, it seems to be my alter-ego.

We snapped up a few last minute bits and bobs and planned to get straight on with the sight-seeing. However, the heat defeated us, and we stopped for a cold drink for an hour. This gave us time to decide how to spend our last few hours, and we agreed on the War Remnants Museum. I was told that its exhibitions on the war were poignant and after a day in the tunnels we were interested to find out more.

The museum certainly lived up to expectations; in fact, I won’t deny that I teared up at certain moments. Again, you could you see that the information was very one-sided, but I think it would be impossible to deny that many of the atrocities were simply evil. Walking around the first exhibition we were presented with images of slaughtered civilians and learned that Bob Kerry, who later became a US senator, had unnecessarily disembowelled a child. This probably isn’t the place for reams of disturbing images, but I’ve shared one as the text was interesting.

  

There was also an exhibition concerning the effects of Agent Orange which was particularly poignant after seeing some of the effects for real on the way to Củ Chi. The exhibition even featured preserved foetuses with deformities which was a bit much, to be honest. One particularly striking image showed the face of a man who had suffered terrible facial injuries from UXO (undetonated explosives – there’s still millions of tons of it left around SE Asia). If you’re familiar with Katie Piper you can imagine what it looked like. On our way to the market that morning we had encountered a few people begging for money, but one that stood out was a man who had facial injuries identical to the ones in this UXO photo. Not only living memory, but still a reality for some.

It all sounds a bit depressing I’m sure, but we were very glad we made the visit. To end the trip on a high went to …hum Cafe. It was another veggie restaurant that happened to be on the same street as the museum. It was our last supper so we indulged by pigging out and ordering virtually everything. There was some pressure to get to the airport in time, but it was absolutely worth it. I’d say it’s one if the best meals I’ve eaten in Vietnam, not to mention the beautiful layout and great service. The manager even arranged our taxi to the airport.

  
  
Now that is a glass of water

The trip to the airport was tight and we were starting to think we were going to miss the flight (are you surprised?) To top it off, we were told that the flight was overbooked, and the check-in staff didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get us sorted. We needn’t have worried though, as we actually made it through in plenty of time. We didn’t get to sit together this time, but it wasn’t all bad news as I got chatting to the girl next to me, Thuy. She suggested we share a taxi back into Hanoi to share the fare and have some company which suited me well.

On the other side, we collected our luggage and then it was time for us to go our separate ways. The fam still had a four-hour wait until their flight back to London, but as soon as I’d picked up my rucksack I had to leave. It was a slightly tearful goodbye. I think we’d all had a great week, crazy as it may have been, and even with the wonders of FaceTime and social media to keep you connected, it’s not easy being away from your family and friends. I also realised that taking my two months of travelling into account, I was actually only half way through my time abroad, so there was still some time to go before seeing them again.

On the plus side, it’s almost Dad’s turn to visit 😀

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