We arrived at the last stop on our vacation. It’s the longest time that we have been away from our family and we miss them all.
The capital of Vietnam has had name changes that reflect the ruling “party” and just like in olden days when a new king came to power the old temple gods were destroyed, so too in modern day Vietnam.. the names of cities change with a change in ruling power. The capital of the South was called Saigon but when the North won the war and the name changed in 1975 to Ho chi Minh to honor the North’s communist leader. (see)
The sheer number of motorcyclists is mindboggling. They even take to riding (or is it swarming) on the sidewalks during rush hour. It’s like an army attacking the road. You’d think that you’d get used to seeing this mode of transportation but it is endless…
We walked around central city and took the elevator 49 floors to the top of The Bitex center to get a 360 degree view of the city.
The architecture is a mix of French colonial with magnificent building mixed with more typical small building.
We visited the Post Office building which is a working post office, then off to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and to the Presidential palace or as it was renamed The Reunification Palace. Lots of important meetings took place here and there is huge bunker in the basement. It’s an impressive building built in the 1960 architecture style surrounded by palm trees with a helicopter pad on the roof. It is associated with the 1975 fall of Saigon to the North , yet it is as though time stood still.
The war remnants museum is a reminder of the Vietnam War. There is an exhibit that details the US involvement and an exhibit of war photos among them the famous naked girl running from a napalm bomb. I have been reading the book ” The Girl in the Picture” which gives a detailed description of those days. There are also photos of the victims of Agent Orange the chemical weapon that was used.
Vietnamese use herbs to cure almost anything. We visited the Fito museum which is an old house in the Chinatown neighborhood and learned that the bones of different animals can produce different medicines. Dried herbs are used with water to remedy other stuff. Cinnamon for example mixed with water can cure diarrhea.
To finish our tour we visited two temples. One is a religion called Caodi which is a monotheistic religion established in 1926.
Our adventure is almost over. We started in Hong Kong which is reminiscent of New York with the tall buildings and a modern skyline. Then we flew south to Cambodia to embrace the ancient temples of Ankgor Watt . We then continued to Vietnam; starting in the North and going down south as-if following the communist Viet-Cong on their way to conquer the south. It is a different world. We tasted different foods with different spices. We learned about the religion. We talked to people who grew up after the war yet carry in their DNA the effects of the war.
Vietnam is a communist-run country with strong capitalistic influences. The government is corrupt but there is no alternative… yet. There is beauty in that world and I am glad we chose to go there.
Halong Bay is three hours from Hanoi. Once we get out of the city see rice fields and Buffalo grazing. We stop at a rest stop which really is a shopping trap for tourists. You need to spend half an hour there in the hope that you’ll buy an embroidered picture or a semi precious gem. One can define it as “Capitalism” at it’s best..
Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As the dragon charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible.
We boarded a “junk” sailing boat for the overnight exploration.
There is a mystical atmosphere as you look at the islands that pop out from the water at different perspectives. For a close look at the limestone rocks we take a kayak. It was a lesson in coordinating strokes as no one wanted to fall into the bay. We saw a floating fishing village although some boats were stuck on shore..
The next morning we went back to Hanoi and flew south to Da-Nang. Da-Nang is the third biggest city. We did not stay there but arrived at the most amazing resort – The Nam Hai. There are three infinity pools ending at the beach… breath-taking.
These are the best beaches in Vietnam by the China sea. Hoi-An is a historical village 15 minutes away which is another shopping mecca. You can get a suit or shoes made in 24 hours . We took a tour of some old houses. It seems that the architecture of the house did not change there is a long room which is divided between living/bedroom and kitchen in the back.
Half an hour bike ride took us through palm tree field, rice fields and into a farming village. The farmers grow rice for their own consumption, raise chickens, pigs , banana trees, papaya trees, lemon grass, basically anything they eat they grow.
We were treated to a home-cooked meal of spring rice rolls and learned how to make rice by separating the husk till the white kernel emerges.
We then continued biking to a vegetable garden village where they grow vegetables to sell at the local market.
we could see how the Viet-Cong were able to hide in between the palms or rice fields and come out at night.
Most days we woke up to a gray sea but on our last day the sun came out so we indulged in a day of rest, it is a vacation after all.
We landed at the new Hanoi airport (it opened yesterday). We drove to the hotel on the new highway and the new bridge which took 20 years to build with help from Japan. There are motorcycles everywhere, like a swarm of bees. We find out that motorcycles are the favorite mode of transportation, as cars are expensive and the price of gas is controlled by the government.
The contrast between the temples and rice fields of Cambodia to the busy streets of Hanoi makes me feel as though I am in a different planet, a different civilization. It’s not only the new airport but the amount of people and being in a city where you are immediately immersed in the busy life.
The Metropole Hotel, where we stay is an old magnificent hotel. We are staying in the original wing and our room was used as the first Israeli embassy in Hanoi in the years 1994-1995. There is a plaque outside our room (111) dedicated by President Shimon Peres. What an interesting coincidence! During the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it the “American War”) Hanoi was bombed. There is a bunker in the hotel where the guests took shelter. It’s three narrow rooms with low ceilings and feels like a prison. Joan Baez who came to visit the American soldiers in prison composed the song “where are you my son?” during the Christmas bombing of 1972.
Here is a link to the full story.
We had one full day to explore the city. Early morning we headed to see the Ho Chi Minh memorial, well it is a mausoleum. You walk in line, soldiers in white uniform watch you and make sure that your behavior is respectful of the dead president. I entered the room where Ho Chi Minh is lying on a bed, the body is embalmed but he looks alive. I did not expect to see a body. You cannot stop or talk, but just keep walking. We walked to see the house where he lived in the last three years of his life. He was “married ‘ to politics and lived a spartan life. He brought communism to his country. He believed that order will save the Viet-Nam nation. (Viet is the name of the people who live in the country which is Nam which means South as in South of China)
We then went to see the one pillar pagoda which was build by a king who prayed for son everyday till his wish came true. We continued to the Temple of Literature and were introduced to Confucius who supported education, respect for one’s elders and much more. It is the university of the past. There are 82 doctorate stelae standing on top of turtles and engraved with the names of the royal court doctors who passed the royal exams from 15th to 18th century.
We took a ride on a motorcycle, it was scary to sit behind the driver while he maneuvered in between the throng of motorcycles and cars. We arrived at the “Hanoi HIlton”. It’s not the hotel but the oldest prison in Hanoi where the French and then the Japanese kept their prisoners shackled at night and the American prisoners were kept during the war.
We walked around the lake, saw a water puppet show and ended the day with a fabulous Vietnamese/French diner.
Hanoi is the second biggest city in Viet-Nam and was the capital of the North.