Northern Glory

We arrived in Hanoi on Tuesday morning from Hoi An via a cheap one-hour JetStar Pacific flight (train-$60; death bus-$25; flight-$40). Despite being less populated than Saigon (~12mil), Hanoi (~8 mil) has a much more frenetic, crowded, and busy feeling, especially in the old quarter where every step taken without getting hit by anything/anyone feels like a battle victory. The sounds, smells, and sights are everything you imagine Indochina to be – more so than anywhere we’ve visited thus far (and from what we hear, Hanoi is definitively the quintessential city in the region). You can witness the wide variety of influences in one very narrow alleyway with its French colonial structures, Indian-esque religious statues and alters in each home and business, Chinese red, writing, and decor, and Communist propaganda posters. The people of Hanoi in general are not as friendly as their southern and central counterparts (a generalization, of course, but our experience nonetheless). Scams and ridiculous over-charging are more common. That’s not to say we didn’t have a wonderful time exploring Hanoi and northern Vietnam – and we also met some incredibly nice people along the way – but these are the differences we observed in our own travel situations and think they’re worth mentioning.

Upon arriving at our hostel, we quickly booked a Ha Long Bay cruise for 3 days/2 nights with ODC Tours, set to leave Wednesday morning. We had done a lot of internet/guidebook research about various cruise lines since we had heard and read so many horror stories about the trip, including ships sinking, theft, rats, and serious food-borne illnesses. We used our usual method of picking the medium-priced tour and were lucky to meet a woman in the lobby who had just been on the same cruise and loved it. Feeling fairly confident, we were picked up Wednesday morning and driven almost 4 hours to Ha Long City – site of the harbor where our boat (the Elation Cruise – terrible name) was docked. I sort of held my breath as we walked to the boat, exhaling sharply each time we passed a piece of junk that was not ours.

Fortunately, our boat was lovely – not 5 stars of course – but certainly well-maintained, comfortable, and seemingly safe (hammers and life jackets and flashlights in each room – woohoo!). The crew members were all incredibly nice and helpful, and our tour guide spoke good English and was clearly very knowledgeable about the area. Our little room was perfectly sized with a comfy bed, A/C (which we didn’t need), and really nicely sized bathroom with hot water shower. The food was excellent – we ate like kings for every meal with multiple courses and a wide variety of food (seafood especially) including shrimp, squid, fish, jellyfish, chicken, beef, pork, tofu, and lots of veggies and fruits. Yes – we ate jellyfish – jellyfish salad, to be exact. It has the chewiness of squid with the texture of a gummy worm and is pretty flavorless on its own. We also got lucky with the other guests – 2 women (our age) from Scotland (including a Shivani – yay brown girls with non-Indian accents – I love hearing them haha), 1 Swiss man, 2 couples from Australia (one 22ish, one our age), 2 middle-aged German women, and a couple from the Basque region of Spain (who Tyler essentially interviewed in order to learn more about the separatist movement which we had read quite a bit about in a recent Economist). They were all friendly and fun, especially after a few beers and turning on the karaoke machine, which Tyler started (no surprise there, hehe) with a rousing rendition of Feliz Navidad (the English selection was extremely limited and for some inexplicable reason, heavy on the Christmas music). What better way to spend Halloween?

Ha Long Bay is stunningly beautiful with its 2000+ limestone islands, caves, inlets, cliffs, and calm emerald green water. It’s both what the world looked like millions of years ago and what the earth will one day look like again after the full effects of climate change and the sea levels rise to drown most land masses (as it already tried to do in NYC last week). In addition to cruising on the “big” boat, we spent a few hours kayaking around the islands and through caves, which was easily the most fun kayaking experience we’ve ever had (and the most exercise we’ve done in weeks). We visited the Amazing Cave (renamed from the Surprising Cave due to a certain stalagmite resembling male genitalia – who comes up with these names?!) which is the biggest cave we’ve ever seen. We also trekked to the top of 2 of the islands¬†to see the gorgeous panoramic views of the Bay(s) and Cat Ba National Park. Weather-wise, we were extremely fortunate, as the week before there was a terrible typhoon that wreaked havoc from the Philippines up to China. Though touristy and busy, this is the low-season for the Bay (January and February are high season), so we had plenty of moments, especially kayaking, where we were the only people in sight. Ha Long Bay was majestic, serene, and inspiring, and we did not want to go back to crazy Hanoi.

Ha Long Bay travel tips: try to stay for 2 nights (either on the boat or 1 night boat/1 night island) since it’s a 4-hour drive one-way from Hanoi – you just don’t get to experience enough with only 1 night. Make sure you research the boats and don’t be afraid to spend a little more to ensure your safety and happiness! Other companies we researched heavily and would recommend besides ODC are Indochina Sails and Vega tours. Bring your own water on board (we brought a 5L jug) cause all of the boats charge for drinks. We also snuck 2 bottles of Dalat white wine on board (for $3/bottle, instead of the $15 they wanted on the ship. Dalat wine is barely worth $3 – the Vietnamese should stick to rice wines and liquors).

Hanoi has a lot to offer to an amateur foodie, and we received many recommendations on places to get good northern Vietnamese chow (see below for some of our recommendations). You can’t come to Hanoi and not try the Hanoi-style pho bo, which we enjoyed for its deeper flavored broth, but less so than the southern style which is more crisp, acidic, and refreshing (especially since they add more fresh herbs). We also tried a variety of other dishes and within the course of 18 hours managed to eat both frog legs and snails (former – delicious, latter – not so much). The most “Hanoi” of dishes is called Ban Cha and is essentially tasty pieces of spiced & cured pork in a sweet & sour broth with vermicelli rice noodles and fresh herbs. The pork itself is divine, though the broth is a little too sweet for my liking. Vietnamese food (even the street food) has generally been very agreeable to our stomaches due to the culture’s emphasis on being “so fresh and so clean clean” (Outkast shot-out). Typical households, restaurants, and vendors visit the market twice a day to ensure they use only the freshest ingredients, and there are live animals in all of the butcher shops so you know the meat is fresh (even if it hasn’t been refrigerated).

Hanoi restaurant recommendations:
Highway 4 – fried frog legs and rice liquor in a really nice setting – ever so slightly more expensive but worth it! be prepared to take off your shoes
Quan An Ngon – a great concept restaurant – 100+ menu items cooked by the permanent hawkers situated around the outside of the restaurant
Newday – delicious and cheap – wide variety of dishes but we ate the pho bo

Though our time in Hanoi was mostly spent eating (le duh) and getting lost in the Old Quarter and trying not to get run over, we also visited the Ethnology Museum which we highly recommend. Not only does it have great exhibits inside the museum discussing the wide variety of ethnic groups in and around Vietnam, but the courtyard area surrounding the museum is speckled with representative houses and village buildings of each of the ethnicities. It’s truly fascinating – many of the structures were actually transported from a village to the museum – and by being able to walk around and inside (removing your shoes first, of course), you really get a feel for village life, both historical and contemporary.

The Museum wasn’t enough hands-on enough for us though, so we decided to actually experience village life in Mai Chau – a rural area about 4 hours northwest of Hanoi. We had originally discussed visiting Sapa, but after hearing from other travelers who had recently visited, we decided the 18 hours spent on a rickety train, additional cost, rumors of really annoying hawkers, and throngs of backpackers weren’t appealing. We chose quiet, less touristed Mai Chau instead, and we’re glad we did because we had a wonderful experience. The region is home to 2 major ethnic groups, the Black Tai and White Tai, most famous for their stilt houses (built that way to protect them from tigers and floodwaters). Indoor plumbing is less common than wifi and satellite tv. We stayed in our own slightly elevated bungalow and explore for 3 days/2 nights. Our days were spent cycling, motorbiking, hiking, and even learning some traditional dancing. I had a tough time sleeping the first night – the cacophony of ducks quacking, roosters cock-a-doodle-doo-ing, crickets chirping, water pump beeping, dogs barking, random bug and lizard rustling, etc. – was both a treat and a menace of an experience. For the 2nd night, I took a benadryl and slept like a baby (carrying around my own little pharmacy comes in handy). The meals were simple but tasty and included a breakfast of coconut peanut sticky rice cooked in a bamboo stick (surprisingly delicious and quite filling). Lunch & dinner included rice, some sort of veggie soup, boiled or bbq pork, 1 or 2 varieties of boiled cabbage, spring rolls, and some fresh fruit.We were fortunate to be visiting concurrently with a large group of school kids from Hanoi and watched their talent show, which included a hilarious rendition of Justin Beiber, LMFAO, and of course Gangnam Style. 14 year old girls and boys are the same all over the world, and it makes me SO happy to see it.

Wandering through rice paddies and meeting various locals, we learned just how difficult the daily life of a farmer in this region is. Two major observations, which span across Vietnam though were probably most clearly evident in Mai Chau:

1) Vietnamese women are absurdly hard-working and the men are kind of lazy (in comparison to the women, but not in comparison to south/central american men – again HUGE generalizations and yes, I’m stereotyping, but I swear we’re not making this stuff up). Tyler’s the one who first made the observation, so don’t think I’m trying to be some sort of female-power monger. It’s just true- while women work the fields and stores, the men sit in coffee shops playing Chinese chess. All of them? Obviously not. But it’s something you will see VERY often and one that locals will point out and agree with, especially the 20-something year old women, who on MANY occasions confided to me that they didn’t want to get married because then they’d have to deal with a husband who doesn’t work and probably drinks too much.

2) Too old to work? NO such thing. The age of the women working the rice fields, fish sauce factory, fish patty factory, tailor shops, etc. ranges from pre-teen to ancient. There were numerous 80+ year olds in a permanent hunch-over cutting down the last of the rice to turn into hay for the water buffalo. Though my very first reaction was pity, it quickly faded into utter admiration. These women are true superheroes and will do absolutely anything for the benefit of their families. Remarkable and humbling.

We spent our last day in Vietnam in our Hanoi hostel, glued to our television set and refreshing facebook and CNN every 2 seconds. It was Wednesday, November 7th, but the night of the 6th at home, and we were anxiously awaiting the result of the presidential race. Regardless of your political affiliation, please don’t lose sight of the marvel that is American democracy at work. We are so lucky, and I can say that with even more perspective and emotion now after having spent so much time around the world in places where choices are limited, opportunities are non-existent, and dissension is forbidden. What makes me most sad is that we used to be a country where people could agree to disagree – where you could have an honest discussion about an issue and at least be sure that the other person was listening to you, even if they didn’t agree. There’s no listening anymore – it’s just constant yelling and berating – and not even on the issues, but on superficial things like race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and whatever other classification a person can easily come up with (like socialist or the 1%)- things that just shouldn’t matter. We cannot be a country built on an “us versus them” mentality. People around the world notice this – they ask us about it – why our 2 sides can’t seem to work anything out – why they can’t even seem to talk to each other without some sort of ridiculous accusation. And we have no answer. I probably don’t help – instead of trying to have intelligent discussions with people on the other side, I just blocked them on my Facebook feed – I was tired of reading their ridiculous posts. That’s lazy though. And unfair to the American discourse. Our country can truly be great again if its people rise to the occasion and fill it with maturity, honesty, innovation, character, charity, and open-mindedness.

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