The van came to pick us up at about 10 am. I slept the entire way to the airport.The Bangkok airport was filled with stores, shopping centers and restaurants. Bangkok gave me more and more reasons to be broke.There was a lot of waiting around before our flight, so we had some lunch.We made our way to the gate and sat down waiting for them to let us know when to board the plane. It was a little delayed. Again we stuck out like sore thumbs. Everyone was Vietnamese or Asian.The plane was an older model. Not as nice as the one we rode to Tokyo and Bangkok. The leather in the seats was coming apart from the seams. The walls were dirty and I felt like any minute now someone would walk in with a chicken or some sort of animal. The difference was evident.The flight was about two hours. We landed and were told to get out of the plane and get on to a bus to take us to the gate. It was like one of those movies where someone important is picked up from their private jet. This was a little less glamorous, however.
There was about 50 people on that bus and only about 5 seats. The rest of us were standing hanging on for dear life as the bus made very sharp turns. This reminded me of the buses in Cuba, where you got a lot closer to people than you wanted to at times.I always seems to find light out of unbearable situations and took pictures and laughed the entire time, it seemed like a scene from a really funny movie. One where a lot of people end up on a bus and in each other’s personal space.We got to the gate and waited and waited and waited until our visas were approved and we could make our way out of the airport. We were in Hanoi.The humidity almost pushed me down a flight of stairs. This is a dramatic way of letting you know just how unprepared I was for the heat. It was even hotter than it was in Bangkok.The Vietnamese are a much simpler people. They are colorful, proud (there was a Vietnamese flag in every door) and humble. They also can’t drive but it may have something to do with the fact that there are no traffic lights or traffic signals. There were so many motor bikes! And they fit up to like 5 people on them at a time. To my amazement, Vietnam was also pretty developed. The houses in Hanoi were beautiful, narrow but tall and very colorful. On the way to the hotel, we saw many merchants selling hats, trinkets and even giving hair cuts on the side walk.We stayed at the Hanoi Imperial Hotel. It was in the middle of everything. It was very modern, had huge beds, fluffy pillows and hot water. I thought we’d be roughing it, but we were far from it. They offered massages and manicures and even brought us banana smoothies when we checked in to the room (I was too tired and jet lagged to even take a sip).It was the perfect place to call home for the next few days.
I woke up early today. 2 a.m. to be exact to start working on homework, respond to emails, apply to jobs, etc., lining things up for when I get back.I went to have breakfast at about 8 am. I went for the familiar again; some toast, eggs and fruit. It’s weird for me to have a heavy meal like chicken and rice in the morning when I don’t always have time for breakfast back home. So I’m going from barely eating anything at all to scarfing down an entire chicken and a bowl of rice. I don’t think my body will ever get used to this!We were to meet in the lobby at 8:30. Today, we had a tour guide named Cuong. He was hilarious! He took us around Hanoi.First, we visited Ho Chi Mingh museum. We waited in line for like 20 minutes ( I felt like I was waiting for a ride at Disney World), we weren’t allowed to cross our arms or put our hands in our pockets (I thought this was weird and I didn’t know what to do with my hands) and when we got inside there was a wax sculpture of the frozen body of Ho Chi Mingh which is one of their most revered presidents and almost like a saint to them for how humble and frugal he was and for how much he gave to the people. The sculpture or body was actually quite scary. I almost felt like I was in a scary movie and he’d wake up any minute now and chase me out of the building. To my surprise, this was the only thing exhibited at this building.We got a tour of his home, saw Uncle Ho Chi Mingh’s cars, his grounds, etc. He really did live a frugal life. He had three cars that were all gifts and his dining room was just a table and some chairs, not very decorated.Cuong told us how he had a second house built because one of the dignitaries that was to visit didn’t deem his current home extravagant enough for his visit.We then went to a temple that was hugely inspired by Chinesse culture. There were Chinese characters everywhere. The temple was similar to those I’ve seen in Chinese movies.It was soooo hot that day and basically staying up all night and having to do so much walking, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to make it. I thought my body would give out on me any minute now. Well, I almost hoped for it cause then that way, I’d be able to sleep.Then, it was lunch time and Harry and Cuong really wanted us to try Pho, a noodle soup with meat, which is a delicacy in Vietnam.Across the street from the temple was a little place that sold it. We had beers and sat down and waited for our pho to be ready.
This place wasn’t as nice as the other restaurants we had been to (guess we had been spoiled so far). It was small, crowded, the white walls were a shade of brown at this point. It made me a bit uncomfortable.When the food arrived, I was scared to eat it. Before leaving on the trip they told us to be ware of the water and certain foods. I wondered if this is what they were taking about. They gave us limes I must have squeezed about 6 of them in there to give it a familiar taste (I usually add lime juice to soup back at home too) and ate around the beef and the onions. I didn’t know how done the meat was and I just hate onions. I saw everyone else around me enjoying it and decided to give it a chance.I ended up eating the entire thing! There was not one noodle and not one sip of broth left. I devoured my meal and beer. It showed me not to judge a book by its cover.We also visited the Hanoi prison, which I knew quite a bit about after writing a paper on it. It was nice to see it in person however. From the outside, it looked like a nice hotel, which is ironic as it was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. I had never been inside a prison and although this was really just a museum now, it still frightened me. To know that people both men and women, first Vietnamese political prisoners during French Rule and then Americans, were tortured and abused here, was devastating. Pictures and sculptures told horrific stories. There was even an original guillotine exhibited that was used to behead inmates during that time. The prison was home to lies, abuse and murder.We went back to the hotel to drop off our things and roamed the streets in search of cute pants. Hanoi was a lot more expensive than Bangkok, however, so we didn’t buy much.We had tickets to a water puppet show at 5 pm. I was falling asleep at the puppet show. The puppets were colorful and the puppet masters made the puppets dance and swim and fight in the water. The lively music and dancing added to the story line. The show lasted about an hour and after, I went to the hotel and was out like a light by 8 p.m.
The trip to Halong Bay was long, about four hours. We got on the bus and were told we wouldn’t be the only ones traveling there that day. This meant there’d be less room for makeshift bed lol. Our tour guide Rocky, on the way there, talked to us about some must haves before we leave Vietnam and even taught us some Vietnamese. He asked what our favorite meal was and I said “pho,” pronouncing it like “fo” and he started laughing and said that is a bad word. Apparently, the Vietnamese language has tons of words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings. The noodle soup, which is what I was referring to, was pronounced “fuh,” almost like you’re asking a question.
I looked out the window and saw how the country changed from a very congested city to fields and then cities where’s homes and businesses were spread out. Eventually, we got to Halong Bay. I would go in and out of sleep.
We were told to wait until the boat was ready for us. I felt like Beyoncé at this moment. Harry told us we’d be sleeping over on the boat; best of all, food was included.
We walked toward the smaller boat that would take us to our home for the night. As I approached the bay, I was in awe. It was beautiful. It wasn’t a beach but it’s as close as you could get to one. In the far distance, there were like mountains or hills or something and the rest was just dark blue water.
When we got on the boat, we checked in our rooms and set down our luggage and then it was time for lunch. There were about seven courses, literally! I was never more full. There was a salad, a soup, an appetizer, an entrée, and dessert. We then were asked if we wanted to go kayaking.
Kayaking in a Vietnamese bay, how could you say no? I went to change and again we took, the smaller boat to where we’d be kayaking and sailing boats. I hadn’t been kayaking since I was about 10 and having to do it alone, I was a bit scared. I really thought I’d fall in the water and some animal would attack me (I know I have a wild imagination). Kayaking alone was an experience and one of the best arm workouts, I’ve ever done. We kayaked to a floating village, where a school and museum stood.
The classroom was tiny. The desk even tinier and it was sooooo hot even though the doors and windows were open. Rocky taught us more Vietnamese. He wrote “ma” on the board six times. Depending on tone “ma” could mean mother, ghost, horse and some other things. He said staying in Vietnam for about six months, one could become an expert at the language but I find that very hard to believe. It’s really difficult but interesting and intriguing nonetheless.
The afternoon activities also included swimming in the bay. I’ve never been a good swimmer though. I asked for a life vest, which made it really hard to swim. I decided to take a risk and swim on my own but after that kayak arm work out I could barely move my arms. I made my way to the boat’s anchor and held on to that to protect me from drowning.
The water was cool and just what I needed after a day of sweating and heat. It was quiet and truly a peaceful sight to see.
We also got to take a cooking class, had snacks and had dinner but were so tired we didn’t participate in the night squid fishing and called it an early night.
Rocky told us Tai Chi started at 6:30 am. We woke up at 6:20 and Paola, Andrea and I went in our pj’s. I had never done Tai Chi before but if I had to describe it, it’d be a mix of movements done by Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee but in slow motion.
After Tai Chi and breakfast, we had about 30 minutes to get ready to visit the Amazing cave. It truly was amazing, like nothing I had ever seen before. It’s exactly what you see in the movies. It almost look liked we had landed on the moon. It was cool inside and dark but there were lights and stairs guiding us from beginning to end. We took tons of picture, even took some with Rocky. When else would I visit a cave?
The view of Halong Bay from the top of the cave was breathtaking. “How could something be so beautiful?” I thought.
Back on the ship, we relaxed upstairs as our rooms were cleaned and experienced a fruit carving class on our way back to the pier.
It was time to go back to Hanoi. I almost didn’t want to leave. Another four hours and what’s worst is the bus had no Wi-Fi even though it claimed it did.
This would be our last night in Hanoi.
When we arrived back at the hotel, Andrea decided she wanted to go look for a charger for her laptop and little did we know, it’d end in us embarking on an adventure.
The person at the front desk sent to a place where she was almost certain they’d sell individual charges. She gave us a map, gave us directions we barely understood and sent us off.
We realized the place was close to a cathedral the rest of our group wanted to check out, so we all left together and when we arrived at the cathedral, we promised we’d be back in about 10 minutes.
We managed to find the place the front desk person sent us to and they told us they didn’t sell changers on their own. So they sent us elsewhere.
We had no idea where that was. So a few blocks later wee walked into another place and they sent us to that same place. We walked and walked and walked. We managed to find the place with the use of the map, few words we knew in Vietnamese, and body language.
I realized that one could never say they don’t know someone’s language or that they can’t communicate with someone because there are options, ways to do so. All it takes is patience and effort.
We took a tuk tuk back to the cathedral and realized we had been gone for 45 minutes. We didn’t see the group anywhere and because we had no access to Wi-Fi or data, we decided to go back to the hotel.
The person at the front desk told us our friends were looking for us and had just left. We went to put our things down and she gave us directions to go to the restaurant they said they’d be at and also got directions to the night market.
We went there and didn’t see them anywhere. Apparently, they had never been there (we showed the owners a picture of our friends). So we made our way to the night market.
We walked towards where we were told the night market was held. We asked a tourist, if it was the night market or where we could find it and he told us the night market is only available on weekends. It was Monday. We had been looking for something that basically didn’t exist.
He invited us to a hostel, that promised free beer and Western food. After a week of noodles, it was time for some pizza.
The hostel was a bar, a place to sleep for employees and a nightclub and best of all, had Wi-Fi. We text the rest of the group and had one of the best nights of our lives.
I fell in love with Hanoi.
Unfortunately, tomorrow we were off to Saigon.
We got to sleep in before our flight to Saigon, which is in the South of Vietnam, also known as Ho Chi Ming City. It was one of those days where you feel like doing nothing, where you barely make it out of bed. And today of all days, the airport personnel were going us a hard time. I don’t think I’ve ever waited around longer to be helped/serviced or been more annoyed by their rules and precautions. Maybe I was just cranky but I’ll never understand why you have to arrive 2 hours before a flight only to still have to wait forever to get on the flight.
We arrived in Saigon. It seems like each hotel is better than the last. We were in the middle of everything but at the same time in the middle of nowhere. We were told by our Hanoi friends that Saigon was known for its partying. It dint look it. Near us, there were tons of hair salons, hotels, restaurants and the market. No sign of a party anywhere. No sign of fun. We had dinner at a local place and shared fried rice, shrimp and vegetables and bought mango and salt (my favorite) from someone walking by.
One of my sorority sisters fro Vietnam told me that when in Vietnam, one must get their hair washed. I found this to be a little odd but felt like if she recommended it, it was worth the try. There was a hair salon next to the hotel that stated that for $10 they could wash and blow dry our hair, when in Miami, they do the same for about $40.
We walked in and were sat down. The hairdressers brought a bottle filled with water and shampoo and began pouring it on our head and massaging it into our scalp. The full head massage felt pretty good. This went on for about fie minutes. She said once the back room cleared up, we’d go back there. I guess the back room was for hair washing but because there were so many people there, they washed mine in the styling chair.
Room cleared up and I was escorted to a dark room where peaceful music played. There were no chairs only like massage beds with a sink at the end. She asked me to lie down and started washing the suds out of my hair. I ended up having my hair washed; head, neck, temples and shoulders massaged and then asked her to do my arms and legs too for the extra cost since we were already there. I never felt more relaxed. I was there for about 20 minutes. Then, my hair was blow dried and ironed. Walking out of there, one can’t help but feel beautiful and calm. I could get used to this! An all-in-one hair salon/massage center needs to be built in the U.S.
Today, Harry said we’d be taking a bus out of the city. The ride was about an hour. So we got to the city just to leave again lol.
We were headed for Dragon Island, home to dragon fruit. We took a small boat to the island. When we got off the boat, it almost looked like we were in a jungle and then we stumbled upon a small shop where they sold natural ingredients made from products found on the island like coconut candy, banana chips, ginger candy, and snake wine. We also passed by someone who made delicious rice paper and got a ride to a town that offered us musical entertainment and a taste of their treats: honey lemon tea and tropical fruits like jack fruit and dragon fruit. There were tons of shops along the way, making you want to buy anything from a hammock to pants.
We headed back to the city to the war remnants museum. We were instructed to start on the last floor and make our way downstairs. I started in a room that told the stories of the war through pictures. It was at this moment, validated, for me, that as a journalists, our jobs are to tell stories; that our job entitles us to inform our audience but we also have a responsibility to not exploit others. I admired these photojournalists for risking their lives to get those stories but at what cost? One photojournalist captured innocent people getting killed and told the killers to allow him to get the shot before they killed him. As he walked away, he heard shots in the background. What angered me most is that, people were harmed, people lives were put out for the world to see and weren’t help. We don’t know the victim’s names but we know the name of the photographers. These people died so that these photographers earned awards and became successful and to me that wasn’t okay.
The museum exhibited pictures, clothing, war gear, etc. But most of all, this museum told stories of terror, horror, of murder, of frustration and showed me just how ignorant I am, we are. There’s no reason why so many people, years later, are suffering from the effects of this war like the victims of Agent Orange. It’s important to inform ourselves and never just believe something someone says. It’s important to do our own research and really uncover the truth and to make sure that things like this never happen again.
Today, we woke up bright and early. Harry asked us to be downstairs at 8:15 am. At about 8:20, we headed out of the hotel and began walking the streets. In my mind, I asked myself where the air-conditioned bus was that usually waited for us and how far we were walking. The heat was unbearable even early in the morning. There’s really nothing you can wear to feel prepared for the weather here.
Luckily, we walked a few blocks away and stopped at a park. Harry introduced us to a group of students called the Saigon Hot Pots. They give free tours and do a lot of community events. They were so excited to meet us. I’m not a morning person but I tried being as excited as they were. I appreciated that each of them made the effort to speak English.
We started by introducing ourselves and playing Simon Says and other ice breakers to basically “break the ice” and were then broken into teams. Our team consisted of Drea and I and two members of their team. We came up with a group name: the Hot Pot Panthers, a combination of both our groups. We also had to come up with a slogan. It went something like “feeling hot, hot, hot. Hot Pot Panthers, rawr.” Coming up with it, I could see just how shy and modest they were. They were complete opposite to Drea and I as we are loud and extroverted.
We were tasked with playing the “Amazing Race” It was basically a scavenger hunt where we worked together and learned more about Vietnamese culture. When Harry said the game would last six hours, in the hot sun and required traveling all over the city, I almost burst into tears lol. I’m really not a morning person.
Nonetheless, we made our way to the first destination, which was the Ho Chi Ming art museum and I remember becoming frustrated because we couldn’t understand the clues. We had to find three paintings or art pieces and take pictures with them. Seemed simple enough but we even went over the 15 minutes that we were allotted for this part of the race. I didn’t see our chances getting better after this.
Next stop was the market where we played something very similar to mankala. We managed to get the full 100 points. We had the chance to play a mini-test where we could receive more points for that challenge and received no points. We had to take three pictures with three different types of vendors and when you get back to the post you pick one folded paper out of a group of folded papers. Some offer hugs, others advice, some points and others nothing. Andrea got one with nothing.
After that, I refused to play any more mini-tests.
We went on to the next parts of the race. At the cathedral, we were to find and turn 5 statements that were true. Every part of it had to be true. WE got one wrong, so we received fewer points. The next part required us speaking Vietnamese and asking for a picture of pancakes. Some people looked at us like we were crazy, others laughed and said they didn’t know what I was talking about and finally, one group of girls had the pancake picture. The last step of the race required us to figure out a statement disguised as numbers. I didn’t know if we had to add or multiply or what? We thought of Morse code or if what we though were exponents were the place the letter was under that number on a keypad. We were able to figure this out quickly and received full pints.
By this time, we were hot, sweaty, tired and happy that it was over. We got lunch and lots of it; enough to feed a family. So much so, we didn’t finish it all.
Then we walked around, and our partners gave Andrea and I a tour of the city and took us to the mall. I asked them where we could sit and just lounge for a bit while we cooled down and they said nowhere unless we were buying something. This was strange to me because in the U.S., I find myself always finding some place to sit while my mom takes a plethora of time in one store.
After sitting at a coffee shop’s seating area without buying anything, we went back to where we started the park. WE were one of the last teams to arrive. Apparently, the first ones to get to the park received a bonus. I kind of wish I knew that sooner.
The point of the game was learning more about Vietnamese culture. Each part of the race required us playing games to receive parts of their version of Cinderella. Now it was show time! We were each to act out any part of the play that we wanted. WE went third and received all thumps up from the 6 judges. When they added up the scores, for a second I hoped they called our names because who doesn’t want to be a winner. They didn’t call our name but I couldn’t be any happier. We had a good time and made two really good friends!