You can't go to Vietnam without thoughts of what happened in the past, but the vibrance and chaos of Hanoi, along the beauty of the countryside and Halong Bay quickly reflect the uniqueness that is Vietnam. I didn't really know what to expect and the country did not disappoint with its culture and people.
Vietnam has a lot of limestone formations and islands that dot the 600 mi² Halong Bay area. The jutting mountains and hills were reminiscent of the karsts we saw in China and it was a very relaxing boat ride around the bay as we saw fisherman, Sea Hawks (not from Seattle), and beautiful natural scenery.
At the end of our trip, we stopped at some caves that were along the bay. They are always interesting because of the formations and colors that just seem fantastical. We went into the "grotto" where you could walk into the depths of the caves and it was as if you could disappear into another dimension if you wandered off the path (which was not that well marked so definitely a possibility!)
The conical hats that are traditional in Vietnam were out in force everywhere we went. They are not just for pictures and Hollywood movies, but are part of daily wear. They really are lightweight and practical and I would definitely wear one to work outside. We were able to visit a workshop where they actually make the hats and I can verify that some are made by hand. (Like everywhere else in the world, unfortunatley, there are lots of "traditional items" that are available that are made in China.) The plants used to make the hats are laid out to dry, ironed flat, and then woven and stitched into the hats. Colors and silk can be added to make them fancier and more colorful. If only my suitcase had been bigger...
We also saw workshops where they handmade birdcages and all kinds of baskets and cool light fixtures. I really enjoy seeing the process and I am glad there are still craftsmen out there who can keep the traditions of handmade art alive.
Warning: the streets are not for the faint of heart or the slow in step!
Having lived many places in the world, I think I can say with some authority that Vietnam brings new meaning to the phrase "dance of the traffic". It is one of those things you have to see for yourself as I tried to get it on video but it just couldn't capture the general mayhem and chaos that is daily traffic. But, somehow it seems to work as everyone uses both sides of the road -- at the same time --and their horn to go whichever direction they like. As long as you can remain calm and go with the flow you are okay; if not, close your eyes and say a little prayer.
We saw several other handicraft workshops that were also unique and interesting to watch. The hand embroidery was fascinating and the workers were actually creating them from photographs. The sculptures were very diverse with several different artist styles and really cool designs. I imagine you have to have just the right space for a giant stampede of horses but someone must or they wouldn't make it! Unfortunately for us, the ones we liked just would not fit in our suitcases nor meet the weight restrictions.
Since we were near water, it makes sense that we would visit some pearl making places. I say pearl making because they showed us the process that is used to make cultured pearls. I have to say that I couldn't have told you where they came from or what the difference was between a cultured and natural pearl, but now I know! Basically there is a small bead of natural material inserted into an oyster, along with a little irritant that stimulates the process. The oysters are then put in the rack pictured above and placed in the bay (above, bottom right). It can take several years for the different types of pearls to be ready. It really is worth seeing the process if you get the opportunity.
No matter what you are looking for, someone probably has it on a cart, bicycle, or in a basket and all you have to do is take a walk down a street or alley to find it. I like the thrill of finding something I haven't seen before or didn't know that I needed. I blame the airlines and their luggage policies that keeps tourists from supporting the local economy that I didn't get all the trinkets and baubles I would have liked! The architecture of Vietnam was really varied as there were Russian style housing projects that looked like slums, French style neighborhoods, and individual houses that looked like they should be in a gated country club community, all right next to each other. The buildings were all very narrow with anywhere from three to seven stories going up. Usually the business would be at the street level and then the families would live on the other levels. Similar to early American colonial days, the taxes are based on the frontage so keeping it narrow and tall is a financially smart move. If you want wide open spaces and elbow room, you have to live out in the country.
If you are looking for something different to do, the water puppet theater should definitely be on your list. Who would have thought that puppets under water would be a good show or two things you would ever put together? Somehow it works. The puppeteers are behind a screen and the puppets are attached to long wooden boards that are manipulated in the water. Water puppet theater has been around since the 11th century and although there is no popcorn or Milk Duds, I would have to say a much better show than at the Cineplex 24.
You really miss out on the shopping adventure in the states when your options are only like Walmart or Kroger. A series of alleys and crowded streets hold a myriad of merchandise to soothe the skin, fill the belly, spice up the palate, or decorate the living room. You never know what you might find in the marketplace in Vietnam or who you might meet. We always see fruits or unknown foods that we've never seen before and get the chance to decide "Will we or won't we?" I think that is the best part of the experience because you actually connect with real people. Even though all I might know in Vietnamese is "hello" and "thank you" a friendly attitude and smile always helps.
If you've never been to a country with local markets and corner stores like in the old days, you are missing out, in my opinion, on the excitement of discovery. I will admit that I do miss Walmart and Target on many occasions, but I like knowing that I am helping the "little guy" to succeed.
There aren't many vacations where you have to cook your own meals but we had the chance to learn to make spring rolls and a variety of other Vietnamese food in our cooking class at One Pillar Pagoda. It was a fun time to get to be "top chefs" with our group and we were definitely ready to eat after it took us two hours to make all the parts of our meal. I think that is why fast food is so popular!
Besides the culturally eclectic street scenes, we also went to the Museum of Ethnology and saw the various people groups that have cohabited in Vietnam. Along with literary hundreds of other people, we filed past the tomb of Ho Chi Minh as he lay in rest in his mausoleum, and visited the Presidential Palace. Vietnam is full of "timeless charm" as the slogan says and definite worth a visit.
The Asia world gets ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year at the end of January, with the Year of the Rat (yes, rat, not mouse). According to the Chinese Zodiac, rats are clever, quick thinkers; successful, but content with living a quiet and peaceful life. Whatever the animal or reason, a new year is a great time to refocus and reflect on our lives. chúc mừng năm mới Happy New Year!