Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
After morning classes, the ship arrived at the port of Ho Chi Minh City in the early afternoon. It wasn't until 4 pm that we left the ship and took the 20-minute shuttle into the center of the city. We were hoping to hook up with our only Vietnamese connection -- a cook from Takoma Park that works at Patti's favorite local Vietnamese/Asian restaurant. Back in December, while picking up her take-out order, Patti told the proprietor that we were going to Vietnam in April and asked if they might suggest anything in Ho Chi Minh to see and do. This cook and our new friend, Hoa (pronounced "hwah"), heard this and with some excitement said that he was from Ho Chi Minh and was planning to be in the city in April. So we made arrangement to contact him when we were in town.
A phone call to Hoa at home in Ho Chi Minh was more challenging than expected. After a number of attempts and some creative talking by Patti, we did hook up for a stroll through Hoa's neighborhood, an alleyway haircut for Dean, and dinner at a local karaoke restaurant. We were joined by our typical traveling partners - Mark and Louise. Hoa's family lives in an apartment over a small, street-level shop where his sister-in-law sews and mother-in-law sells booze. Every apartment on this alley-like back road was similar, with rice, vegetable and meat merchants, household suppliers, barbers, etc. It was quite a nice change from the hustle and bustle of the main streets of the city that were packed (really packed) with motorcycles, mopeds, bikes and cars. We were told that there were 3.4 million motorcycles in the city and it seemed like at least half of them were on the street that we crossed with Hoa! The advice was - don't look, don't stop, don't run just pick a spot and move at a steady pace so the motorcycles can avoid you. How fun!
After an early morning departure from the ship, we boarded the plane for our one and only official Semester at Sea trip - Hanoi. The city lies in the middle of the Red River Delta and is surrounded by beautiful, green, rice fields. We spent the morning with our guides, Nam and Yang, who took us on a rapid-fire tour of the major tourist sites in Hanoi. First stop was "Uncle Ho" - the mausoleum housing the remains of Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of Vietnam. We lined up to enter the building, along with about 1000 Vietnamese people, passed through metal detectors, and were told that nothing (no bags, no cameras) was allowed. Once inside, we were literally pushed along by Vietnamese military types in dress uniform and got only a short glimpse of the Lenin-like preserved body. Just next door, we toured the grounds of the Presidential Palace and the former home of Uncle Ho. We were often surrounded by hordes of Vietnamese tour groups, on their pilgrimage to this important national site. What an introduction to Hanoi!
After a typical tour group lunch at a famous restaurant, Indochine, we visited the Temple of Literature, Vietnam's oldest university. Afterwards, we left the group and took a taxi to the Ethnology Museum on the city outskirts. We barely made it back to our hotel in time (thanks to our lack of Vietnamese language skills) to re-join the group for the evening's main event - a water puppet show. This uniquely Vietnamese cultural event originated in the rice fields of Northern Vietnam and features a live band and puppeteers standing in waist-deep water behind a screen. Using a special bamboo pole just under the water, the puppeteers make the water puppets dance and swim to the music. The puppets emerge from behind the screen and dance across the surface of the water, acting out various folk tales and stories.
The next morning, the two of us headed out before the rest of the group to visit the wholesale flower market. What a beautiful and crazy daily event! As we pulled up, we noticed dozens of guys waiting on their motorcycle taxis just above the market. From below, women were emerging on their bicycles, laden down with roses, chrysanthemums, gerbera daises, and virtually every other flower imaginable. This is the spot where local market women come to buy flowers to be re-sold in the city. We were told that it opens at 3:00 am and we observed that it closes at daybreak - once the flowers were all sold. As we walked through the market itself, we couldn't help but take dozens of photos. Since we were the only non-Vietnamese there, we attracted a fair amount of curiosity and had more than a few vendors offering us flowers!
By 8 am, we were back on the bus and headed for the mountain village of Mai Chau, located about 120 kilometers to the west and world's away from the crowded streets of Hanoi. Along the way, we enjoyed the breathtaking scenery of limestone mountains, lush rice paddies, and several small towns and villages. We also made stops for the "happy house" (the Vietnamese prefer to be indirect) - some were happier (and cleaner) than others.
Around lunchtime, the bus stopped on the side of the road and we hiked in the last few hundred yards to our home for the next 3 days - a White Thai longhouse set in the middle of one of the most incredible valleys we have ever seen. The Mai Chau valley is surrounded on all sides by beautiful green mountains and is filled with undulating rice paddies and longhouses, both traditional ones and slightly enlarged versions (for tourists like us). The longhouse itself was set on stilts, leaving room for livestock (water buffalo, chickens, goats) underneath. The upstairs was comprised of two multi-purpose rooms with split bamboo flooring, rattan mats, and a thatched roof.
After a nice first meal in the longhouse (served local style, sitting on the floor at small tables), we went for a short hike through the valley. The colors were amazing - the rice was still 'teenager rice' (meaning it was still several months from harvest) - and we saw lots of folks working in the fields. Dean had a very meaningful exchange with a large water buffalo, until it was scared away by an 8-year-old girl with a small switch. We even enjoyed watching another water buffalo frolicking in a mud pool, while Yang explained what an easy life they have in Vietnam! In the evening, our hosts treated us to a traditional White Thai song and dance performance.
The White Thai are one of 53 different ethnic groups in Vietnam today, and are closely related to the Thai people in Thailand. They are primarily rice farmers and have a variety of cultural traditions associated with agriculture and rain dances. They are also relatively egalitarian and men and women are equally powerful in their society. Each home has a loom, and every woman knows how to weave and embroider beautiful scarves, fabrics, and tablecloths. Men specialize in weaving beautiful lidded baskets, using vines gathered in the nearby mountains. We spent a fair amount of time wandering through the little village, talking with local vendors, and trying (unsuccessfully) not to buy everything in sight. Just wait until you see the basket we brought home on the plane!
On the second day, we headed out for our official "trek" to Mong (Hmong to us) and Muong villages in the higher elevation areas. The scenery was nice but the trekking was frustrating because Yang was clearly more interested in trekking for its own sake than in spending quality time in local villages. We did wander through the community pictured here and had a chance to interact with school kids at recess. In the afternoon, we did a slightly longer trek and walked through several small villages, where people were curious and children were somewhat frightened! Back in Mai Chau, several of us sat and watched the afternoon rain fall on the rice fields, listened to the distant thunder, and noticed the fireflies making their first appearance. Before dinner, Yang played an April Fool's joke on us - telling us that dinner was going to be snake, dog, cat, and water buffalo dung!!! We all took the bait and the two of us were telling each other that we could eat anything but cat. Later, they put up the mosquito nets and laid out the cushions for our beds.
On the last day, we returned to Hanoi along the same picturesque road (but visiting different "happy houses"). From the bus, we saw a local market where a variety of edible animals were being sold live in small cages. The students were shocked to see puppies along with the chickens and gerbils! While Nam fibbed that they were pets, the two of us exchanged knowing looks.
When we arrived in Hanoi,, we escaped the group again and managed to find a wonderful Pho (noodle soup) restaurant, where we were actually eating with Vietnamese people! Afterwards, we wandered through the Old Quarter, the local vegetable market, Silk Street, and an amazing fish market with LIVE shrimp, eels, fish .and so on! We found a small café, where Dean had amazingly strong Vietnamese coffee (sludge with sweetened condensed milk) and managed to buy the perfect ao bai (traditional Vietnamese dress) for Patti - in navy blue!
Finally, we flew back to Ho Chi Minh City, road back to the port, tried desperately to spend the last of our Dong at the hawker stands in the port, and collapsed in exhaustion in our cabin.
China is only 3 days away. Unbelievable.