Hanoi itself was rather uninteresting. You can spend a few hours waiting to look at Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body through a class if you wish (I did not), visit a few pagodas, and that is about it. However, Hanoi serves as the launching point for many tours to Halong Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Here you can see literally thousands of stone islands jutting out of the water in various different shapes. Everyone we talked to suggested taking one of the multi-day tours where you actually stay on the islands, however we had not allotted our time accordingly and only had time for the single day tour. In hindsight, I wish we had planned for more time there because for the single day tour you spend more time on the bus traveling to the bay than you actually spend on the bay itself, but I am at least thankful that we still got to see it because it is truly beautiful. We had the misfortune of going on an overcast and slightly rainy day, but it was still beautiful nonetheless. The next day we all went our separate ways: James' friend to China, James back to Singapore, and me down to Ho Chi Minh to do some solo traveling.
The reason for me heading to Ho Chi Minh City was to go on a few tours that I had heard about and sounded interesting, but I was also just looking forward to traveling on my own. The first day in HCM I just wanted to get settled in and go explore the district surrounding where I was staying. It is often times the random things that you get to experience that you do not plan for that turn into some of the most enjoyable parts of your trip, and this was certainly the case for me. While I was walking through a park next to my hostel, I was approached by a few college age students and asked if I would mind talking a few minutes with them because they wanted to practice their English. Seeing as I had no plans for this first day, I obliged. As I talked with the students, whose English fluency varied across the board, the group soon grew to around 15 to 20 different students and I ended up talking to them for around two hours. And then came a really cool opportunity. Before leaving, one of the guys in the group offered to show me around the city the next day on his motorbike. What better way to see the city, right? The funny part is that while I was waiting in the same park the next day to meet this new friend, I was approached by ANOTHER group of students that wanted to practice their English. When my friend with the motorbike showed up, I mentioned to the new group that we were just going to be going around the city to a few places and asked if they would care to join, not really expecting them to be so whimsical, and they jumped at the opportunity. A day that I previously had NO plans for had quickly turned into an amazing and adventurous day. With the group we went to the War Museum (which was VERY propagandist towards Americans and a little awkward being the lone American in a group of Vietnamese), to a nearby street vendor that they frequent, and they even showed me their university where I got to go in, meet people and help a group of students make paper sunflowers to be given to children with cancer. All of this spawned from being willing to take some time and have a chat with a group of complete strangers, and the friendliness and hospitality of the Vietnamese people is beyond anything I have experienced anywhere else in the world (Yes, it puts “Southern hospitality” to shame).
The next day I was set to go on one of my tours to the tunnels of Cu Chi. These were the tunnels that the Viet Cong used during the American War (Vietnam War for Americans) to move forces incognito and have a secretive, underground, and ever changing base of operations. These tunnels gave the American soldiers hell as the tunnels would also lead to many different hidden hatch doors in the surrounding area that led to a whack-a-mole style of fighting. What was so fascinating was learning about and seeing what the life was like for these soldiers underground and learning the measures that they took to avoid discovery by the Americans (they designed their air ventilation shafts to look like termite mounds). Tourists are allowed to even squeeze into one of the hatch doors, which I am certain would make a claustrophobe out of anybody. The tour is then culminated with a 200 meter walk through one of the actual tunnels to practice a little historical empathy. As you walk through completely hunched over, shoulders almost scraping both sides of the walls, fighting for air, and pouring in sweat it is hard to wrap your mind around the fact that these soldiers could spend weeks at a time down in these tunnels and walk many kilometers. All the history of the experience was really interesting; however, the highlight of the trip came in the middle of the tour at this rest area/gift shop that happened to be next to a shooting range. Here one could pay to shoot some of the guns that were commonly used in that era. The three big hitters were the AK57, the M16, and the M60 turret style machine gun. I went for the M16 machine gun because I wanted to test its accuracy and see if I could hit one of the can targets they had down range, which I did. The Cu Chi tunnel tour was both historical and testosterone inducing, what more could you ask for.
The following day I went on yet another tour to the Mekong River delta. I am not a fan of group tours, but in this case it was unavoidable as that is really the only way to see these things, and it worked out well as the tour provided experiences and opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. Now, I have to be a little bit honest here and admit that I really had no idea what to expect on a river delta tour and the main reason for me even going was because the Mekong River delta is one the destinations in our families 501 Places to See Before You Die book and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sign off on another place that nobody in my family has yet. So I suppose it was more my competitive nature more than interest that motivated this trip, but it turned out to be a fantastic tour. You start out by getting on a bigger boat and making a couple pit stops in different villages. First, we stopped at a village that harvests bees and makes their own honey, which they showed us and of course encouraged us to buy. Next, we went to another village where they make coconut candy, which was interesting to see the process in action and even get to sample some. After the tourist traps, they then take you in a large canoe style boat for nice peaceful paddle ride through the jungle on one of the Mekong tributaries. Even though the rain poured down on us, it was still very peaceful to be floating through the jungle. At the end of the ride you reach the final destination where you get served lunch. This is where the trip got REAL interesting! The lunch was a pretty standard chicken, rice, and vegetables…BUT you had the option to pay more and eat a black cobra if you wanted (a local delicacy). Wanting the full cultural experience and not wanting to pass the opportunity to eat snake, me and two other British guys decided that we would split it. What they failed to mention until we had already ordered was that they bring the snake to your table first ALIVE! This drew a big crowd from the other tourist who wanted to watch the decapitation of this snake, and before many cameras the man proceeded to cut the head off with a pair of scissors. Here is where it really gets bad…they then squeezed the snake’s blood into a glass that was diluted with water. Apparently drinking the snake’s blood is a sign of true manliness in their culture. At first I insisted that there was no way in H-E-double hockey sticks that I was drinking that, but the other two English boys were on board and I didn’t want to be the only one to miss out so I toasted to unique cultural experiences and threw back a shot of cobra blood. The eating the snake came easy after that. Following the meal, we were taken back to Ho Chi Minh, and my stay in Vietnam was brought to an end as I flew out the next day.
Vietnam was truly one of my favorite places I have visited thus far, and most of that is due to the people. Yes, there are many neat things to see and do there, but I have seen and done far greater things in my opinion than what I saw and did in Vietnam. It is the people and their friendliness that makes this trip stand out to me. Prior to going to Vietnam I was curious as to how my interactions with the Vietnamese would be, being that the war between America and Vietnam is still fresh in both nations histories (I even told people I was Canadian for the first part of the trip). I was pleasantly surprised to find all remnants of animosity from the war days are practically extinct. If Vietnam is not very high on you “Countries to Visit” list, then I suggest that you bump it up a few notches.
Which One is Not Like the Others?
My New Friends
Making Paper Sunflowers
A Tight Fit
Cu Chi Tunnel
A Float Through the Jungle
Not your average Bloody Mary