25 July 2004

Good Morning Vietnam.

We just left beautiful Halong Bay, Vietnam. It was nothing like anyone expected, and was definitely one of my favorite ports. The bay is filled with huge limestone rocks covered with trees emerging out of the water, with caves inside. We were so unprepared for all of the serene natural beauty in Vietnam – you’ve probably seen pictures of Halong Bay, but never associated it with Vietnam (I certainly hadn’t!). Unlike all the other ports, we were able to get into the port early, and had an extra half day the night before we were scheduled to arrive, which was a nice surprise. It was drizzling when we arrived, and we discovered that it had been raining for the 3 days prior as well- our textbook describes Vietnam's climate as "monsoonal," so I suppose that explains it!

That first night, we walked around the market, restaurants, stores, and karaoke bars lining the beach. There were quite a few young children with bicycle-mounted popcorn cookers, filled with bags of what turned out to be the best kettle corn I've ever had. Five bags for a dollar! The entire trip, everyone was telling us to "wait until Vietnam" to buy things, because everything is cheaper. It's true- we were all millionaires for 5 days (and billionaires if we checked our account balances!) since the exchange rate is around 15,000 dong to the dollar. Sometimes we couldn't even bargain since prices started at 2 dollars! We didn’t even bother exchanging our money since the dollar is the preferred currency for most things.

On the first day, I participated in a field program about the Vietnam War. We took a bus into Hanoi and visited Ho Chi Minh's Memorial (sadly, since we left Halong late, it had closed for visits by the time we arrived, so we didn't get to see him) and former palace. Ho lived in the palace for a short time before deciding it was too large for an unmarried Communist leader, and moved into a small apartment, which we drove by later that afternoon.

Next we visited the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," the Vietnamese prison where American POWs were kept during the Vietnam War. It is now a museum, and it was particularly interesting to read their captions and descriptions on artifacts and photos. The museum focused on the French use of the prison against the Vietnamese, and when it mentioned American POWs, there was emphasis placed on how well the men were treated, with sport games and recreation to keep them fit, and sweaters and blankets in the winter, and how no revenge was enacted against them, despite their role in the south's "puppet government." Definitely a bit of a contrast with what we've all been taught in school, and I know of a few veterans who would beg to differ!

We stopped for lunch at one of the nicest restaurants in Hanoi, and had a delicious lunch of soup, beef salad, banana and prawn spring rolls (surprisingly good!), fried fish, calamari, chicken, bok choy, rice, and cr̬me caramel for dessert. The French influence in the city is everywhere, from the architecture to the pastries! After lunch, we visited the Vietnamese Revolutionary Museum, which featured stories and pictures from the Vietnamese war against the French in the 1950s, as well as the Vietnam War, which they call the American War. This museum was even more one-sided than the prison Рafter studying the Vietnam War in depth from the capitalist/American point of view, it was exciting to see how they describe it. Many references to the Vietnamese working together in the "war of their salvation" and recovering from the bomb damage left by the "imperialist" Americans. We ended the trip with some shopping in downtown Hanoi before taking the bus back to Halong Bay, where we ate dinner at the nice hotel restaurant in Halong- $17 bought four courses each, including filet mignon for $8!

On the second and third days, I visited Cat Ba Island and National Park. We left from the ship on a junk boat and sailed through the bay, stopping for a visit to an enormous, multi-roomed cave in one of the islands before returning to the junk for a fresh seafood lunch (very tasty, but somewhat creepy since everything was still looking at us!) and swimming in the warm bay. It had been drizzling all day, and by the time we got to Cat Ba Island, it had started to really pour. We took a bus to the "nicest hotel in Cat Ba," which was about on par with a La Quinta Inn in the US- I guess the Vietnamese have different standards than us! We wandered the town a while, but most stores were closed on account of the rain, and the outdoor market was flooded. We had a disappointing dinner at the hotel, and amused ourselves watching HBO and Vietnamese MTV for a while before going to sleep.

On the second day, we took the bus in the morning up a winding mountain road in the pouring rain to the National Park on the island. When we arrived, we watched a brief video on the wildlife in the forest- Cat Ba is home to the only wild population of a certain type of monkey, but they live on cliffs, so they're hard to find. We planned to hike through the forest to a cave and the mountain peak, but because of the rains, the hiking trails were flooded, and we were only able to walk around the ranger station until the bus came back. Our guides caught a frog to show us, and some other people spotted deer that turned out to be fenced in. We were supposed to visit the local market as a substitute activity, but it had also closed on account of the flooding. We came back to the hotel for an early lunch, and boarded our junk boat for the trip back to the ship, stopping again to go swimming. Overall, the trip ended up being a bit of a disappointment due to the rain, but the boat rides were certainly fun!

On the fourth day, we went with a group of students into Halong City, and took the ferry across to the other half of the city- the ferry cost around 5000 dong for five of us, about 6 US cents per person! We walked around the shops along the main road in the city, trying to find a tailor to have a suit made cheap. It turned out that none of the tailors took credit cards, and most of the people had never seen one before until Justin showed them his. We tried to find the market, but we weren't aware that it was enclosed, so we missed it. We had lunch at a local restaurant, where we ordered food by casually wandering the restaurant checking out other people’s food, then pointing to whatever looked the best. It turned out pretty good- we're not sure what we ate, but it was delicious! It turns out the Vietnamese have adopted the Spanish custom of the "siesta," and they nap for several hours after lunch, closing all their shops, so we took the ferry back to Halong, and went to the market there since we were able to find it!

The last day, I went on a kayaking/boat tour of the bay, stopping at a local beach to pick up our kayaks. The group spent several hours exploring the crevices and tunnels in the rocks, and capsizing each other's kayaks and swimming in the bay. A bunch of Vietnamese families and students were out kayaking in the bay with us, since it was Sunday. Justin and I accidentally collided with one of their kayaks, and it turned out the three people were tour guides who spoke fluent English, so we stopped and chatted a while about school in the US and Vietnam. We went back to our boat for another fresh seafood lunch and more swimming before the trip back to the ship. We went into Halong again for last minute shopping and a trip to the Internet cafe before the ship sailed.

Vietnam was nothing like I expected, but I loved it all the same! I wish we could have spent more time in Hanoi, or gone down to Ho Chi Minh City to see the tunnels from the Vietnam War- everyone who saw them said it was one of the high points of their trip. Most of the ship went crazy shopping for silk products in the major cities- you can have clothing tailored for less than it would cost to buy it at home! Vietnam has been my favorite port so far, and I would love to come back one day- there was so much to see, I feel like I hardly did anything in 5 days. We only have two ports left, Taiwan and Japan, so I'll be seeing most of you soon- no offense, but I wish I had more time on the ship and a few more ports to visit. I'm getting more excited about Taiwan everyday- it was the port I knew the least about, but since we've had a few lectures on it, I can't wait to see it!

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