Monday, May 4, 2015

Vietnam: Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Lan Ha Bay, Hue, and Hoi An

H and I took a week off to spend some time in Vietnam recently.  We had a great time and want to share a few random photos from the places we visited. Vietnam has been on our list of must-see places for a while and being here in Seoul, it is only about 4.5 hours away on a direct flight out of Incheon Airport.  What a great place.  Beautiful country, friendly people, lots to see, fantastic food, a fascinating mix of old/traditional and new/modern, and best of all, cheap.  Outside of some American vets back to see their old stomping grounds, as well as a handful of backpackers, we saw few Americans, but lots of European visitors, particularly French.  We found it interesting to see them back in their former colony; they were unceremoniously thrown out of the northern part in 1954 and left the southern part in 1956.  Of course, the same thing could be said about the Americans there as well, particularly those like us who visited some of the old Vietnam War sites.  Vietnam was never our colony, but our departure from South Vietnam in 1975 was not very ceremonious either.  It was hard to envision the Vietnam we saw as a "communist" country.  It is certainly authoritarian and controlled by the Communist Party, and there was the typical communist-type propaganda posted on many billboards and street corners, but the country is really very market-oriented.  Everyone it seemed was trying to make a buck.  People on the street, particularly the younger crowd, did not act like they lived in an oppressive society.

Over a 9-day period, we visited Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Hue, and Hoi An.  During the trip, we also toured some military sites, including Khe Sahn, which I will include in a follow-on blog entry. 


Once the jewel of the French empire, Hanoi today is a vibrant city, full of commercial activity, lovely French colonial architecture, crowded streets, twisting side alleys, and stark contrasts between the old and traditional and the new and modern.  The number of motorized scooters/mopeds was mind-boggling.  If the growing number of cars ever catches up with the scooters on the roads, one could easily see Hanoi's traffic and parking becoming some of the worst in the world.  We spent most of our time in the Old Quarter and the French Quarter.  I like what Lonely Planet says about the Old Quarter 'cause it's true:  "This is the Asia we dreamed of from afar.  Steeped in history, pulsating with life, bubbling with commerce, buzzing with motorbikes and rich in exotic scents, the Old Quarter is Hanoi's historic heart.  Hawkers pound the streets bearing sizzling, smoking baskets that hide a cheap meal.  Pho (noodle soup) stalls and bia hoi (draught beer) dens hug every corner, resonant with the sound of gossip and laughter.  It's modern yet medieval..."  Out of a number of indelible images I personally walked away with was the one of a tiny elderly lady wearing simple peasant garb, including the banboo conical hat so closely identified with Vietnamese peasants and farmers (and the Viet Cong from the war years), pushing her little cart of steaming hot food down the street while she texted on her smart phone.  Talk about a picture of the old vs. the new. 

The Hotel Metropole Hanoi, a very famous hotel with lots of history in the heart of the French Quarter.

"Bun chao."  Yum.

While we note the 40th anniversary of the "fall of Saigon," Vietnam was celebrating the unification of the country.

Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay

Cat Ba Island sits about 45 kilometers off Haiphong on the edges of the famous of Ha Long Bay and the less famous, but almost equally spectacular Lan Ha Bay.  Lan Ha Bay is relatively unknown next to the world famous Ha Long Bay, but we found it quite beautiful.  We stayed at a lovely resort on the beach for a few days, taking the time to explore a little bit of Cat Ba island on one day and Lan Ha Bay on another.  Much of the rest of our time was spent simply relaxing at the resort.

Our ride from Haiphong over to Cat Ba Island.  The seas were a little rough on the way over and a number of passengers were starting to look a green by the time we entered the Cat Ba Town port.
Beach side cottage.
Our bathroom.
And the view.

Cat Ba Town port.
Another shot of Cat Ba Town.

Above the town is an old artillery battery site for coastal/island defense.

And some nice views of the island.
And surrounding seas.  That is Lan Ha Bay.
Lan Ha Bay

A floating fishing village.


We stayed in a resort about 6 kilometers outside of Hue and ended up only spending about a day in the city itself, which seemed to be enough.  Outside of the Citadel, there really was not that much to see, even though Hue is the old imperial and cultural capital of Vietnam.  The Citadel was the actual capital and palace.  It was built in the early 1800s and heavily damaged during the Vietnam War.  During the Tet Offensive of 1968, a division-sized force of North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong soldiers attacked and occupied the city.  US Marines and Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops retook it, but much of the city was destroyed in the process.  The Citadel saw some particularly tough fighting and still shows the effects of war, but there is a government and an international effort to restore the palace to something close to its original form.

We took an overnight train from Hanoi to Hue.  12 hours in a sleeper car...uggh.

The Flag Tower.
The palace.

And what every citadel needs, a moat.

There was more than one of these posted around the Citadel and in a few museums we saw.  Claims to Vietnam's sovereign rights over islands that are disputed by China, including the Paracels and the Spratlys.

In the background, you can see a heavily damaged wall that has not yet been restored.  It is a result of the 1968 "American War" or the "War of American Imperialism" as Vietnam today calls it.

There also a number of these type photos around the Citadel showing the combat conditions in 1968 and the resulting damage.

Hoi An

Hoi An was once  a thriving fishing and commercial port, but when the local river delta filled up with silt, it faded.  In the last 20 years or so, however, it has regained its mojo as a tourist town and UNESCO world heritage site, famous for its historic buildings, architecture, temples, tea warehouses, restaurants, and pleasant atmosphere.   We spent about a half-day wandering around, taking in the sights, and eating some wonderful food.
"China Beach" south of Da Nang.  China Beach was a hangout for US servicemen during the war.

Streets of Hoi An.
One of Hoi An's iconic sites, the Japanese  Covered Bridge, built in 1593.  There are temples inside the bridge.


The Pilgrimage Village

We would be remiss to leave out a few comments and pics of the place we stayed outside of Hue, the Pilgrimage Village.  Absolutely lovely place with a great staff that made every effort to make us as comfortable as possible and address our every request.

The view from our room.

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