The rest of my photos from Vietnam are up in the gallery for your enjoyment. I think you will agree that the design photos are especially fabulous. Vietnamese posters were much more prevailent in the South and used a style that the Russian Constructivists would have used if they were working in the 1970’s.
Saigon (AKA Ho Chi Minh City) contains about three million motorbikes. Between the bikes, tuk tuks, cyclos and buses it?s a pretty busy place. We knew about the fall of Saigon and the airlifts off of the American Embassy in the 1970?s which is why it?s amazing that the locals are so welcoming to American tourists. There definitely is a different feel to Saigon. It is more Westernized than Hanoi (but still doesn?t have a McDonalds) and the people are jumping to capitalize on the tourist industry. Although this means you can get a really good hamburger with real Heinz ketchup it also means that touts are getting pushy and prices are over inflated for the region.
We were down to our last few days once we reached Saigon so we really packed in the sites. One day was spent in various boats in the Mekong Delta. It was not a very intensive survey of the Mekong but good enough to get a feel for the place. Any boat with a motor would be heard from miles away, I wonder how the war could have been fought in this area at all–Americans must have been like sitting ducks. We also spent part of one day visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. They were over three levels of tunnels built to house over 10,000 gorillas. The people fighting here were Southerners who joined up forces with the North but were not technically part of the North Vietnamese Army. Visiting the tunnels was the first time on my trip that I felt a bit offended as an American. I like to think that I?m open minded but the illustrations of American soldiers caught in different traps with spikes sticking out of their bodies was a bit gruesome for me. Even worse was the tank left where it was attacked. Our guide explained each place an American soldier died on the tank and then smiled and told us to climb up and take our picture on the tank as a souvenir. The other tourists happily climbed up and posed with big smile right where someone?s son had died.
The War Crimes Museum was another interesting propaganda-filled site. Although the French received a small portion of the museum?s attention, the main focus was on the atrocities committed by American soldiers. I?m sure much of what I saw was true but I?m also sure that similar ?war crimes? were committed by the North Vietnamese. The worst evidence revolved around Agent Orange which is still affecting births as late as the 1990?s. All of our guides south of the DMZ were former South Vietnamese soldiers but they all had different opinions of the war. Although many had been sent to ?reeducation camps? they were still very loyal to the South and America. In response to an Australian?s question about pensions, one of our guides mentioned that America should really be paying the soldier?s healthcare to which I had to laugh. He had forgotten that he had Americans in his group and I couldn?t help myself from grumbling that if the U.S. gave the Vietnamese healthcare before it?s own people I?d be pretty upset.
After my cousin started his long series of flights back to Chicago I decided to take another boat tour of the Mekong as a way of getting across the border to Cambodia. Unfortunately I waited one day too many because a typhoon blew into town making the bus to Phnom Penh a much wiser decision.
I’ve been hearing a lot of griping lately about my sketchbook section not being up. Just for you guys I stayed in Saigon a few extra days holed up in my room resizing images and coding the pages. I can’t tell if the hotel maids are amused by me or just annoyed. In any case, it’s not quite perfect but there’s something for you to look at now.
I was planning on taking a second boat tour through the Mekong Delta (I did a quick one-day tour with my cousin last week) but a typhoon is coming tonight. I’d rather not spend my first typhoon on a small wooden boat in crocodile-infested waters so I’ll hop on a bus tomorrow morning to Phnom Penh instead.
I’ve been heading South through Vietnam for the past three weeks. My cousin flew in from Chicago to travel with me so I’ve been a bit busy riding motorbikes, sailing around Halong Bay and getting 3 piece green suits made to update my site. New blog posts are on the way but in the meantime I’ve uploaded some of my Vietnamese pictures in the gallery. Their descriptions are not up yet but I will try my best to get things straightened out before I head to Cambodia this week.
The first thing that anyone mentions when talking about Hoi An is the clothes. The town started out with a few tailor shops but as it?s reputation grew more tailors opened to cater to the increasing number of tourists. Now there are hundreds of tailors and droves of tourists coming to town just to get clothes made. Although I knew my cousin wasn?t going to be as excited about this stop on our trip I was adamant about coming.
My first day in Hoi An involved reserving plane tickets to Saigon, a taxi to the airport and a tour of the nearby My Son ruins. Once the boring stuff was out of the way I got down to business–checking out the shops and shopping around for good prices and fabrics. I ended up with a tiny woman in the back of the cloth market later that night, being measured and discussing the sketches I brought in for her to replicate. If I had planned I could have brought photos of the clothes I wanted made, but the sketches worked out fine. I asked for a few practical things like linen shorts, pants and tank top for wearing on my trip ($4-5 each). I also had a suit made with pants and a skirt ($35). The most troublesome piece of my order was the dress. I had drawn a boat neck, cap sleeve dress and discussed a ?1950?s-style? skirt. I wanted the skirt to twirl around when I spun. Twenty hours after ordering I went back to try things on and my heart sank when I saw a simple a-line dress. We discussed it for about 20 minutes–she knew I was upset but didn?t want to put the time or material into making a larger skirt. Finally, after a lot of pouting on my part, she agreed to do something with the skirt.
In the meantime, I had convinced my cousin that he should at least get a few shirts made since they were cheap. We went with a different woman in the cloth market this time which turned out to be a good decision–she did a wonderful job. I wasn?t going to get anything until I saw the beautiful silks and had to get a few dress shirts made. I next saw a shimmery green cotton fabric, what better to make a suit out of! A green suit demands a vest, so we set out to determine how my suit should look and if I needed pockets on the vest (where else would I put my pocket watch?). To top it off the suit?s lining is an electric blue!
I was so excited about my suit I could hardly think of anything else that day. Our time in Hoi An was spent evenly between looking for clothes and eating. The food was the best we had in Vietnam, in particular the dumplings called ?white roses?. After plenty of dishes of dumplings and fried won tons and a tour to the My Son ruins we went back to the market to try on our clothes. My dress had a full skirt! The green suit fit perfectly! My cousin?s white linen suit drew laughter from the entire market! I flew out of Danang Airport that night feeling very pleased with myself.
We flew into Hue to save ourselves the 12-hour train ride. I wasn?t quite sure that my cousin (who?s over six feet tall) would fit into a sleeper compartment so the 6:30am flight from Ha noi was a sacrifice he was willing to make. Hue was the seat of the Vietnamese government up until Ho Chi Minh took over in the late 1940?s. Surprisingly, the government didn?t see the potential for tourism here until very recently and many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair. This is where we really started to feel the heat. The sun was so intense that we spent as much of the afternoon in the shade as possible. Hue was also our first look at Southern Vietnam–where people still call Ho Chi Minh City by it?s former name Saigon.
My cousin persuaded me to get on a motorbike for a tour of the city?s tombs and pagodas. I had avoided motorbike rides up to this point because I am deathly afraid of turning corners in any motorized vehicle–I?ve been in one too many car accidents. The ride turned out to be easy and I didn?t feel like I was going to fly off the back of the bike. My driver (and our guide) was a woman about my age. She was very curious about the American healthcare system (or rather lack thereof) and dating customs. I enjoyed talking to her but would have preferred not to attempt to understand broken English while on the back of a bike travelling through busy city intersections. The tomb of Dai Noi was the most impressive site we visited. Built on a hill overlooking the countryside, every single object was covered in intricate carvings. By contrast, the other tomb we visited, Tu Duc, was practically a shed. The Perfume River is gorgeous running through the hills, I wonder how much of the vegetation we saw is new since the DMZ was removed? Vietnam is a pretty country but I think much of it?s history was destroyed during what they call ?The American War.
My train from Sa Pa was faster than I like–arriving in Hanoi at 4am. I stumbled out of the train half asleep and sat on the dark corner outside the station until daybreak. The moto drivers were very confused by me but I didn?t want to speed off on a motorcycle in the dark when I didn?t know where I was going just to find myself in front of a hotel that wasn?t open.
I spent the day walking around town, getting my bearings and waiting for my cousin to arrive from Chicago. I still couldn?t believe that he was actually coming to Vietnam. Many people have told me that they?d travel with me in the past but not one has ever come through on their offer. Once he arrived we set out a plan for the two weeks he?d be in Vietnam. With so little time we didn?t have a day to spare thinking about when where we?d like to go next. It was hard for me to understand how much of a culture shock it must have been for him to wake up that first morning and be lead right into the path of hundreds of motorbikes. I had obviously become very accustomed to Asian culture by then and gave no thought to walking into oncoming traffic.
Surprisingly, Vietnam was a bit of a shock for me after spending 1.5 months in China. Signs were in English, local people smiled at you and the tourist industry had everything laid out for you. Although most people would be pleased, I was very upset about the ease of our travels. Within my cousin?s first hour of walking around Hanoi we?d secured a tour to Halong Bay and plane tickets to Hue. It was just as simple as giving someone your money, and a lot of money at that. I had heard countless times that China was much more expensive than SE Asia but I found Vietnam to be much more expensive because of the way everything for tourists is so rigidly structured. My cousin was not up for staying in the cheapest hotel rooms but the cheapest rooms in Vietnam were still twice as expensive as in China.
Hanoi turned out to be a jungle of motorbikes and small, tangled streets. Most of the streets in the old quarter are named after the goods sold there. One street may have only shoes shops and another tombstones. This system is ideal for the consumer because they can browse between shops without walking all over town. The early morning was a great time for a walk around the lake. At 7am the sidewalks are filled with elderly people playing badminton, practicing fan dancing, lifting weights or exercising. We didn?t see too many ?sites? but I did enjoy the museums, especially the women?s museum which displayed traditional costumes and the prison nickname ?the Hanoi Hilton? where American pilots were held during the war.
In the middle of our stay up north we took a 2-day trip to Halong Bay. Sailing around the oddly-shaped islands was beautiful but there was nothing our guide could say to get me to jump off the boat in the middle of that dark water. I don?t have much to say about the area but it is really beautiful so you should take a look at the photos in the gallery if you want to get a feel for the place.
Sa Pa is a fairly small town surrounded by mountains near the Vietnamese border. Leaving China was a bit shocking, even though there were many similar minority groups it felt very different. The Vietnamese and Chinese majorities act and treat foreigners very differently. A much larger amount of people spoke English as soon as I crossed over into Vietnam. Surprisingly, the minority groups spoke the most English which is their third language after their own and Vietnamese. Many of the children spoke enough English to carry on a conversation but admitted to only knowing a few words in Vietnamese. These were the people selling bracelets and embroidered materials in the street so they were the most industrious at learning anything that would help them make money. The children from the Blue and Black H?Mong tribes spent their days in Sa Pa selling bracelets and earrings to foreigners but they still seemed to enjoy themselves. Even if you didn?t buy anything they wanted to talk to you and ask questions about your life. This was in stark contrast to the Chinese peddlers who could be fairly rude if you didn?t buy from them. I spent a lot of time with two girls in particular, Sue and Dong, who showed me how they do their hair and talked to me about school and Dong?s boyfriend (which she denied to have).
Although it?s known for being a beautiful town Sa Pa is surrounded by mountains which causes it to be covered in fog the majority of the time. I spent one day hiking down from town (and away from the fog) through the rice patties and minority villages. My guide was a local Black H?mong girl just shy of her 18th birthday. She spoke nearly fluent English and was able to support her family by being a guide. Although most girls in the area get married by 14 or 15 she wants to wait until she?s in her early twenties. It?s obvious that the recent outside contact with Westerners has affected the tribes people. I am not sure what the town will be like in five years but it will definitely be more crowded–we saw the new road being blasted above us on our hike.