Un-pho-gettable: Vietnam 2

Vietnam may be the best place in the world to catch a cold — all these steaming bowls of chicken noodle soup everywhere…

After our first couple days in Hanoi, the crew (Emily, Sam, Joyce, Colleen, and I) took off for Halong Bay, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site. Take a look at our junk. Seriously, that’s what the boats are called. Junks.

V Pirates of the Caribbean. Even our tourguide said that our junk is affectionately called the Black Pearl.

We lounged around the boat and took in the scenery. After docking for lunch, Joyce, Colleen and I went for a swim and successfully avoided the huge jelly hanging out to our left. Afterward, we headed to another point where we loaded ourselves into kayaks and paddled around (and sometimes through) the limestone karsts.

Unfortunately, the kayaking trip was the last straw for Joyce, who had been feeling a bit sick throughout the day. A speedboat stopped to pick her up and bring her back to Cat Ba Island for the night.

The rest of us continued hanging out on the boat, and were treated to a huge dinner of fish, squid salad, clams, french fries, and a few other unexpected things. After dinner, we played cards amongst ourselves and then with our guide.

The next morning, we had an early breakfast (that I almost slept through) and a visit to a fishing village. Our guide pointed out the different kinds of fish being farmed there. The fishing farm that we visited had dogs, as did many of the others we saw.

We headed back to Cat Ba Island afterward, and stopped at Hospital Cave, which was used during the Vietnam War as — you’ve guessed it — a hospital. I was taken aback by how huge it was. It had a system of hallways and rooms, which led to one huge room for meetings, and then to an escape route in the back.

We scooped up Joyce back at the travel office, and headed back to Hanoi. Look at the happy travelers. Bonus points to anyone who can spot Joyce’s head.

First stop back in Hanoi was a famous pho restaurant in the Old Quarter. It was so famous, in fact, that we waited a good 15 minutes in line for our bowls.

Then we headed to a bookshop that I had been looking forward to checking out, called Bookworm. I was able to find “Outlander” there, the first of a series of novels (and also a Netflix series) based in the 18th Century Scottish Highlands.

Afterwards, we said goodbye to Colleen, who was heading back home, and Emily, Sam and I checked out a local Czech-style brewery.

From there I walked to the Women’s Museum, which included a really well-done series of exhibits on marriage, child-bearing and rearing, and women’s roles within the various ethnic groups of Vietnam. There was also an interesting video documentary about the lives of women vendors in Hanoi, suggesting that many of them are from more rural provinces and leave their families to come make money in Hanoi to send home. These women see their families maybe once or twice a month. Farming alone — given decreasing agricultural subsidies — is oftentimes not enough to get by on anymore.

Later in the day, Emily and I went to the Fine Arts museum. We spent a considerable amount of time browsing and reading in what (we found out after) was not the main museum, but a subsidiary. By the time we reached the main museum it was about closing time, so we raced through a couple floors of what I’m sure was some seriously fine art, and then we headed out.

We met up later that night for banh xeo, which tastes a bit like an eggy, crispy pancake. After filling it with meat and veggies, we used rice paper to make something like spring rolls. Delicious!

The next day was essentially a self-guided walking tour around Hanoi. I said goodbye to Joyce in the morning, since she was heading back to Seoul, and then I bumped into Emily and Sam at a banh mi restaurant. I hung out with them at a hipster-y cafe for a while, and then they left to head back to Vientiane.

I wandered for the rest of the day, up around West Lake, and then over to a popular Indian food restaurant for lunch — when in Vietnam, eat Indian food ya know. Then back across Hanoi to Cong Caphe, which apparently means “Viet Cong” in Vietnamese. The cafe’s decor is totally reminiscent of the time, in what I think is meant to be a satirical/humorous way — industrial clocks/fans, propaganda posters, bare brick walls, etc. Interior design aside, their coconut coffee is pure gold.

In the evening, I set out for Sapa, a beautiful town in northern Vietnam. It’s set amongst mountains and is home to many ethnic groups. I had signed up to hike Mt. Fansipan, which is often called the “Roof of Indochina” — at 3,143 meters, it’s the tallest mountain in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The hike was incredibly difficult (think straight up for 7 hours) but worth it. Unfortunately, we didn’t get much of a view at the top — we were entirely in a cloud, and a freezing one at that.

At this point, I made the call to take the gondola ride down instead of hiking down the following morning. My knees had had enough, and I knew that they would (and therefore, I would) feel pretty awful hiking down what I had just climbed.

The gondola ride down was incredible. My gondola buddies, however, were not. I had the pleasure of sitting with a bunch of Chinese tourists who didn’t hesitate before taking their cameras out to snap pictures of me from every angle (despite my humorless “no’s” and head shaking). I turned my head to enjoy the view, and the picture snapping occurred behind me anyway, usually with people taking turns to sit next to me in the pictures. I relieved a little of my frustration by getting a solid pano of them. Those jerks.

I spent the following morning walking around Sapa and enjoying the views.

Then I took my train back to Hanoi.

Back in Hanoi, I spent the next couple of days going on long walks through the city.

I drank lots of coffee (nothing new here)…

I visited the B-52 Museum (and found it closed), but had an enjoyable walk there...

I visited the site of John McCain’s crash landing and saw the wreckage (yikes)…

I checked out the botanical gardens…

I visited the citadel of past Vietnamese monarchs, dating back to the 11th Century…

I took a lap at the night market…

And I ate a lot of Vietnamese food…

Thanks for joining me on what has been an un-pho-gettable ride so far. Part 3 soon.

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