‘Nam

29: Hanoi, Cat Ba, Hoi An, Danang, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

This ain’t your father’s father’s Vietnam.

Makin’ it rain in Vietnam. I always told you two losers I’d be a millionaire some day.

Xin Chào, Ernie and Hadley!

Well, guys, I think we can all agree that India was a bit of a ginormous bummer. I wanted out so badly I flew with a concussion, a gashed hand, injured ribs, and maybe worst of all, only one goddamn cocktail all day. I left my hostel in Delhi at 10:30AM and didn’t arrive in Hanoi until 5 the next morning. I wanted out so badly that I didn’t even care my that arrival was smack dab in the middle of Vietnam’s Reunification Day celebration. What’s that, you ask? Excellent question, Ern. Reunification Day is the celebration of Vietnam’s victory in The American War and the reunification of North and South Vietnam, so what better day for a 55-year-old pasty-white middle-class American guy to be walking through the streets of Hanoi in his hiking shoes, cargo shorts, baseball cap, and fancy little Osprey backpack?

I should take a moment to point out that even at my ripe old age, I’d never once heard it referred to as The American War. I mean, of course it would be, right? The Vietnamese aren’t calling their war with America The Vietnam War – that’d be cuckoo, and yet I was no less dumbfounded the first time I heard it. Never too old to learn, as they say.

I had no real intention of coming here, as you both know. Sure, there’s always at least one person who says “My god you just HAVE to go to yada-yada place,” like when Margot said I simply had to go to India, ranting and raving and insisting it be on my itinerary – right up until the minute my post recounting what a living nightmare it was went live, and she simply wrote, “Right!?!?!?”

“No-no -no, I never said I loved it, Peter,” she defended. “I simply said you had to experience it firsthand.”

SEMANTICS, MARGOT! GODDAMN SEMANTICS!

But when it came to Vietnam, I probably had half a dozen people tell me I needed to visit, not to mention Hoi An coming in at #34 on Lonely Planet’s Top 500 must-see places in the world.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Terraced rice paddies? Probably. Those funny little bamboo hats? Most definitely. People standing in front of street food joints with wiggling squid tentacles being slurped between their lips? I could only hope.

In my defense, most Americans my age and older know just one Vietnam, thanks to being alive while it was still raging, and to that 400-hour series from Ken Burns, not to mention a catchy Broadway musical about a bunch of hard-to-like GIs, and endless 3AM viewings of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket during those late-night Newport years with Erik, Davey, Gusman, and Tope. And “Vietnam” is still such a stain on the memory of America that I rarely come across anything celebrating its modernity, amazing culture, or lively social scene.

And besides – they’re stinkin’ commies, ammiright!?

Interesting note – it turns out they’re also socialists. True fact. And it hurt my brain trying to figure out exactly how that works. I have enough trouble putting the specific differences between Communism and Socialism into words without trying to comprehend The Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the rule of a communist government. I’ve read about it four times now and still can’t tell you how it actually works. So instead of putting my head down and trying to actually learn something, I did what I did all through high school and college, and that was to simply enjoy the ride – and enjoy it I most certainly did.

The thing I enjoyed the most, however, doesn’t appear in the photos below, and that was the gentle spirit and kindness of the people themselves. A communist government can force its citizens to keep a clean storefront and follow rules of law and order, sure. It did seem like Hanoi suddenly became midday active and industrious with the flip of a switch at 7AM, even on a Sunday. But no one can force people to smile sincerely, chat with neighbors, greet one another with laughs, pleasantries, and flowers, and you can’t fake wrinkles, man – the face don’t lie. If you’re a frowner, unhappy, defeated, beaten down, your true self shows in lines your resting face simply can’t hide. In Hanoi in particular, the people looked and seemed truly and sincerely happy and content. Keep that in context, guys. I arrived during a festival, and I’m not pretending life here is all bliss. I was also told that the demeanor of the people is markedly different in the south due to the political history of the country, but even as far as Ho Chi Minh City it was relatively the same (even if most of the locals I met there were the ladyboys of Bui Vien trying to get me to buy them drinks). I’m simply saying that the people and vibe in the small part of Vietnam that I experienced was one of contented happiness and welcome in the context of life that is hard to live all over the goddamn world.

Or maybe India had just fucked me up more than I realized.

_________________________________________________

Hanoi

Hanoi’s Old Town blends the traditional with the modern, maintaining its historic charm while providing plenty of American and European creature comforts. There’s a perfect amount of grit to remind you you’re in a country half a world away, mixed with an obvious pride in presentation – so while scooters are parked on the sidewalks, they’re in perfect order. While everyone sits outside eating and drinking at little kid-sized tables in kid-sized chairs, and food is prepared and cooked in open kitchens, the sidewalks – even though they’re so crowded with motos and tables and shop-wares that you can’t walk on most of them – are swept spotless, and food safety at least feels like it could possibly be a thing. There are quaint shops and cafés, hip bars, nightclubs, and a wide array of restaurants, all with colorful lights and lanterns and flags adorning almost every tree-lined street. It was really quite nice.

Too early for check-in, a cup of the best java I’ve ever had in my life at Coffee 24 gave my tired eyes and banged up muscles and bones a much needed boost of faux youthful energy – Time for some sightseeing, WOOHOOOO!
Okay well I might have been a bit overzealous with that “woohooo,” as my first stop would be Hỏa Lò Prison, better known in the U.S. as The Hanoi Hilton. Hỏa Lò was actually built by the French, with its original methods of inhumanity and torture used on Vietnamese who had the audacity to not want to be colonialized. Prisoners would be shackled at their ankles most of the time, as pictured above. This was actually one of the more “humane” treatments inside the walls of this horrible, horrible place. As with most forts and prisons and castles built on foreign soil by the French, it would be abandoned the minute the enemy fought back, with French forces ceding the prison – and its tools and lessons of torture – to Vietnamese control.
Like most countries – the U.S. included – Vietnam is no stranger to whitewashing the truth of its own inhumanities. As a visitor here, if you knew no better, you’d think “The Hanoi Hilton” got its name because it was more like a vacation getaway for the soldiers who were so kindly detained there. Even the description in the photos of the late war hero, Senator John McCain, shows him being “saved from drowning” by “heroic” local fishermen.
The streets of Hanoi suddenly come alive as if on cue. Ebullient greetings to neighbors and friends, shop and café owners joyfully arranging flowers bought from passing vendors, and I being met with sincere welcoming smiles from young and old alike. And sure, some of those elderly not only smiled, but laughed too, making me wonder if my hair was doing that thing again.
Flags and lanterns and trees and plants add to the vibrant colors of a lively Hanoi.
Fruits and vegetables, flowers and nuts, all for sale from Hanoi street vendors.
From the African continent to India to Southeast Asia, riding with three, four, and even five unhelmeted passengers – from kids like these down to newborn babies, pets, and hell, I even saw an eagle once – is commonplace.

Join me, my driver (and all of my gear) on a scooter ride through town. A Steve McQueen chase scene this is not, simply a taste of streets of Hanoi. Click here.
One of the few visual reminders that I was in a socialommunist country was the massive, mostly stark square and monument hosting the body of former Prime Minister and President, Ho Chi Minh, which is on public display most mornings. I assume its only open during the mornings because it just gets too hot in the afternoon and, well, even the best embalmers can only…well…never mind, I feel like I’ve said too much…
No matter where I travel, tourists love doing their anything-but-candid candid photos (Most happiness in photos is a goddamn lie, Hadley, remember that), but the Southeast Asians, well, they are truly the masters, sometimes taking a dozen shots before getting that perfect “candid.”
Candid or not, this one was too pretty a picture for me to pass up.
And then there’s me.

Hanoi’s famous “Train Street,” known for a unique coexistence between cafés, restaurants, bars – and oh yeah – an active railway! In America it’d take about 45 minutes before some drunken asshat from Choate slipped out of his pennyloafers and got mangled by a train, and the whole thing would be ruined for everybody else. Not in Vietnam, though, here you’re probably just dumped out back while your table is wiped down for the next set of paying customers.
Check out the train here.
Southeast Asia is silly with Buddhist temples. This would be the first of roughly 11,734, give or take, that I would see in the coming weeks. If the world’s one true religion is based on who has the most idols, all you Imams and Padres out there better buckle up.
Offerings are left at every temple, from crackers to cookies to water to beer (see left). Not a religious man myself, it’s no less moving to see the truly devout in the midst of worship.
Funny story…ehem...so, in the temple that’s in the middle of a lake in central Hanoi, there’s this sacred taxidermied turtle, and it…it…y’know what, let’s let Wikipedia tell it…

Near the northern shore of Hoàn Kiếm Lake lies Jade Island, on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain is located. On June 2, 1967, a Hoàn Kiếm turtle died from injuries caused by an abusive fisherman that was ordered to net the turtle and carry it, but instead hit the turtle with a crowbar. The turtle’s body was preserved and placed on display in the temple. That particular specimen weighed 200 kg (440 lbs) and measured 1.9 metres long (6 ft 3 in).[7] Until that time, no one was sure if the species still lived.

In fairness, funny can be subjective, and that taxidermy job isn’t helping.
Speaking of subjective humor, in another of the Buddhist temples is a massive billboard with at least twenty illustrated examples of the “Laws of Karma,” and let me tell you, it was hypnotic. This is the one that made me realize that Dad just might have been a Buddhist monk in a previous life.
This one, well, of all of the possible examples to illustrate, this finely crafted watercolor horror made me laugh out loud. Is that wrong?

Maybe I should be a little less honest here. Yeah.
Dong Kinh Nghĩa Thực Square is where the bulk of the festivities took place. From live music to street food to performance art to waltzing, games, and more. A decidedly family-friendly atmosphere, but the square is surrounded by places where adults can enjoy a libation or two.
Check out a little panorama video view here if you so choose.
Another funny story. There was a very loud song playing on mind-numbing repeat at one end of the square, something about “Janus,” with a crowd of onlookers staring and waving and taking pictures with this young woman. Obviously, she’s some sort of Vietnam pop celebrity, her name is Janus, and the song is a bit of classic self-promotion, I brilliantly surmised. I figured it’d be amusing to get a picture to brag to my nieces. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized Janus is actually, well, the scooter, a recently released model in Vietnam. This still doesn’t explain why the locals gathered and waved and waited to snap photos with a goddamn scooter. Fuckin’ ‘Nam, man.
The bridge to The Temple of the Jade Mountain, on Jade Island, in Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
Nighttime in Hanoi’s Old Town.
A million scooters and only so much sidewalk space means some creative parking is required. One inch wider and that thing is stuck like Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel.
Insert your jokes here, Ernie and Hads (I do not approve of politically incorrect humor, as you both know), but the stray cats and dogs in Vietnam are crazy skittish, this one having none of my “Hey little buddy” shtick. That look made me remember my conversation with Dr. Demick from Wakefield when I opted out of the preventative rabies shot, assuring her I never ever pet stray cats or dogs…right before telling her I only have four or five adult bevvies in a typical week.

Cat Ba

Cat Baand no, it’s not named after you two – is a gorgeous island about two hours east of Hanoi, located in the Bay of Tonkin, in northeastern Vietnam, and it was going to allow me a chance to get back into nature, from its plentiful beaches to the mountains of its national park. My stay coincided with another festival, this one celebrating something-something that no one seemed able to explain – not because of any language barrier, but simply because they actually didn’t know. Some hotel and hostel owners were even surprised to learn there was a massive waterfront stage being constructed at the end of their street. If Hanoi made me (mostly) forget I was in a communist governed country, this festival would be a stone cold reminder, with the masses turning out to celebrate something something something…

The festival was like attending the world’s largest retirement party at your local Club 44, with seemingly endless droning speeches and plaques and awards being handed out at the same time the pasta and chicken is being delivered to everyone’s tables. No one seemed to care what was happening on stage, though, as long as there was food and drink and fun. Well, almost no one.
This guy was a little too overzealous for my taste, his balloon-accompanied patriotic swaying in no way matching the mood of the moment. All eyes are on you, bud, and not in a good way.
“I have a great idea for the kids. Picture this, I dress as an adult-sized version of the nightmare-inducing flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz…”
Some of the mesmerizing islands of Cat Ba Archipelago I saw while boating, kayaking, and swimming in Ha Long Bay.
The fisher-men-and-women live in floating homes throughout the stunning bay. Video here.
Funny story 3. Part of our trip included kayaking into the bay caves. I wanted to kayak alone, but one of the organizers asked if I’d go with this woman – an elder Vietnamese who spoke zero English. What the hell, I thought, this might be fun. Funny, maybe, but not fun. To start, she literally paddled backwards. Literally. I had to stop another kayaker to ask him to please translate my instructions. From then on she simply smacked the paddles down into the water, left, then right, then left… As I tried to steer us to shoreline caves, she resisted my efforts. When we finally went through the “signature” cave and came out into a gorgeous inlet surrounded by hills and mountains and found ourselves peacefully alone, she panicked and wanted to go back immediately, while I fought the urge to hit her in the head with my paddle and quietly slip her over the side.
My destination for the day – the peak of Gnu Lam Trail in Cat Ba National Park.
I cut down and dragged this entire tree all the way to the park entrance before someone told me it wasn’t what I thought it was.
Hot, humid, and filled with cicadas brandishing mini buzzsaws (listen), but the Gnu Lam Trail peak views were stunning.

Panoramic view here.
On the road to Cat Ba National Park I would also visit Hospital Cave and Trung Trần Cave, just a couple of the countless cave systems throughout Vietnam. Here I am with my guide, Manơcanh, in Hospital Cave, which got its name during the war because it was a…well, you know.
Inside the well hidden cave entrance, a series of steel doors led to hospital treatment rooms as well as rooms for war planning and strategy and more.
In this room is a display showing how nurses worldwide actually spend most of their days.
Mom knows what I’m talking’ ’bout.
This huge “second floor” was used for physical training, combat training, a movie theater, and more.
I ain’t ‘fraid of no snake. In fact, I befriended and took this one home in my shirt pocket and then shipped it to Mom on the States. Speaking of which – Mom, watch for a package from Vietnam!

Also, pick up some mice.
Sunset from Cannon Fort above Cat Ba.

Hoi An

The ancient trading port of Hoi An is the location that brought me to Vietnam, coming in at #34 in Lonely Planet’s Top 500. Whether this UNESCO World Heritage Site should come in that high is up for debate – much like Slovenia’s Lake Bled – but it sure is a quaint and beautiful city with wonderful history and tradition.

Easily, 70% of the sites to see were temples, but all were beautifully appointed.
Temple offerings.
Nguyễn Thái Học.
This is “Arby” (not his real name), a hanger-on from India I met when arriving in Hanoi, who proceeded to follow me to a few countries (not entirely uncommon when backpacking). He’s a very wealthy Indian making American money, who relentlessly worked everyone in these tourism-starved countries down to bare minimums on sales (and would then walk away over a 50-cent difference on items like clothing). Here he’s working this woman over an entire bunch of bananas. In the end he paid just a few cents, and when she, clearly disappointed with the end result, said “I have to be able to eat, ” he offered her one of his bananas. I would eventually dismiss him for good when he outed himself as a hardcore racist, tripling down when given the opportunity to clarify or backtrack. I’m too old to have people in my life who hate, and Arby did very little to repair my exceptionally negative experience in India. My one regret here is I didn’t hand this woman a tenner, but then charity can be just as insulting as being chinced over goddamn bananas.
Pointy hat jackpot during a Bamboo Basket Boat ride in the coconut groves of Hoi An!

Click here to see a bamboo boat in action for way-too-touristy entertainment.

Click here to see river karaoke – the people here do love their goddamn karaoke.
Street vendors of Hoi An.
All of the street vendors here appeared to be women, now that I go through pics. Hmm.
Small birds are kept in cages for sale all over Hoi An. For pets? For snacks? I never found out. But a woman was holding this one as I walked past when it jumped onto my back. After she removed it, well, I think it’s safe to say we had “a moment.” I sometimes wake in the middle of the night thinking I should have bought and saved it. Or at least seen what it tasted like.
Hoi An’s iconic Bridge of Lights.
During the 16th and 17th century, lanterns appeared in Hoi An. Hung in front of houses, they were believed to bring good luck. In recent decades the Lantern Festival, which takes place on the 14th of each month, made its appearance, during which locals and visitors alike worship deceased loved ones with lit candle lanterns set afloat in the Thu Bon River.

Click here to see Dad’s spirit celebrated on the Thu Bon.

Danang

With origins dating back to 192 AD, Danang is Vietnam’s fifth largest city and also one of its most important trade ports. Modern hotels line its beautiful and active South China Sea coastline, with ancient temples, caves, and scenic national park hiking routes all within a short scooter ride.

Danang Beach at night.
The $88 million, fire-breathing Dragon Bridge stretches over the River Hàn.
The gorgeous coastline of Son Tra Peninsula. I rode the scooter along the winding, scenic roads a couple of times for views and hikes into its park – and to visit the country’s tallest Buddha…
Son Tra Linh Ung Pagoda features the tallest statue in Vietnam, the 220-foot tall “Goddess of Mercy,” or “Lady Buddha,” which looks out on the sea and ports of Danang. Whether you’re a Buddhist or not, this is one impressive and beautiful statue.
All along Danang Beach were groups of fishermen working nets like these. Five, six, or seven men (and couple of women) slowly walk backward, pulling and stacking the long lines, then rotating to the front of the line. I sat for twenty minutes at one point, hoping to see their catch, but despite hundreds of feet of rope being pulled ashore, I saw no nets until I was riding past later in the day…
Excitement turned to a bit of melancholy, however, as hours of labor in the blazing heat and sun resulted in a catch of small fish, crabs and shellfish that wasn’t enough to fill a five gallon bucket.

Fisheries across the world have been raked of their resources, folks.
Like something out of Indiana Jones, Huyen Khong Cave is easily the most impressive of the caves of The Marble Mountains, a series of five hills rising suddenly above Danang. The Marble Mountains contain a vast system of passageways and caverns with ornate temples and impressive viewpoints.

During the war, American forces occupied Danang. Despite this occupation and an allied airfield nearby, the Vietcong actually occupied The Marble Mountains, and even had a hospital within one of its caves (different from Hospital Cave). Former U.S. soldier-turned-journalist-turned-screenwriter, William Broyles Jr., once said that the [Vietcong] were so “certain of our ignorance…that he had hidden his hospital in plain sight.”
The walk down the stairway into its main chamber is breathtaking.

Walk into Huyen Khong Cave with me.
Cellphones, man. Ugh.
Am Phu Cave in the Marble Mountains was filled with statues supposedly representing Buddhist Hell, but the guy on the ground seems to be enjoying it a bit too much…and the guy standing up is wearing makeup and lipstick and toenail polish…why is this so damn familiar…
Waaaiiit, now I remember, I accidentally walked into a club like this in New York City once.

No, wait…twice.
Coconut break.
Followed by an Imperial IPA at Dirty Fingers, owned by an expat Louisianian named Scott who came to Vietnam decades ago to work in the oil business. Dirty Fingers started as a place “where I could drink beer and play music with my buddies,” Scott said. “We had no silverware, so you had to eat everything with your hands.” Thus the name.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

I would end my visit here in bustling “Saigon,” the largest city in Vietnam, an unplanned transfer point to my next destination – but I’m glad I did. If not just for its historical significance, depicted so often in movies and novels and broadway musicals, then for its own little version of Bourbon Street, Bui Vien.

Early evening on Bui Vien, from The View Rooftop Bar atop my hotel, the Duc Vuong. This legendary bar was, unfortunately – like so many places in my travels – still “temporarily closed,” its tables and chairs and bar simply looking like they’d been cleaned and locked up for the night, awaiting the arrival of the morning’s Bloody Mary crew. Covid has devastated so many of these places that are almost entirely depend on tourism, but signs of recovery are starting to reappear.
Bustling Bui Vien. I can’t imagine what it’s like at peak tourism, though Mardi Gras comes to mind.
Whippets – balloons filled with nitrous oxide – were something I hadn’t seen since my French Quarter days. Here, however, waitresses seemed to be serving as many of these as they were cocktails.
Good news, white people – the Vietnamese have less rhythm than we do!!!!

The Go-Go dancers all along Bui Vien (this is an outdoor, street view) were fun to watch, but the lack of actual rhythm was even more intoxicating than the Tiger Beer.
The downside to any seedy place of joy is that joyful seediness happens when a blind eye is turned by local officials, and then, too, by the rest of us. Well after midnight I saw young boys working the streets, children as young as four or so running along through the bar crowds, unaccompanied by any adults in view, and mothers with infants in their arms as ear-piercing music blared from every single bar, resulting in a mishmash of unintelligible noise. The boy pictured above is carrying a plastic jar of fuel for fire-breathing. He and others would fill their mouths, breathe, spit, the potency of the fuel filling my own nose and throat as I passed. I imagine the life expectancy isn’t long for kids in this field of work. Seedy fun is all well and good, but there are limits, people.
Can I see one goddamn “Notre Dame Cathedral” that isn’t in a total rebuild???
The famous Saigon Central Post Office includes elements of Gothic, Renaissance, and French colonial design. Still today certain publications credit its design to Gustave Eiffel, but it was actually designed by French architect Alfred Foulhoux. At some point the French surrendered and ran away when angry Vietnamese postmen brandishing letter openers rushed the entrance.*


*A probably true historic assumption.
Maybe my favorite little side street in Saigon, Nguyễn Van Binh, lined on both sides with nothing but a dozen bookstores and a couple of cafés.
For my brother Jon.

I shipped a dozen home to you. They didn’t have dry ice but I sent them priority so all’s good.
Sunday in Tao Dan Park, where kids gathered under a gazebo to play music and sing while others danced, participated in exercises classes, practiced with their band, did Tai Chi, or simply enjoyed a coffee and a walk – exactly for what parks are made.
Whether in Vietnam or America, Ukraine or Russia, the senselessness of war brings out the same human emotions. Why and for whom and for what? It’s easy – and lazy – to think of the “Vietnamese” as wartime “enemies,” but parents and children and spouses and siblings everywhere are, in the end, no different than any of us. Few besides politicians and corporations truly benefit from war. Life is short and precious, and to have it cut short or destroyed by senseless acts of death and destruction is endlessly heartbreaking.
That said, there was zero chance I wasn’t having a Kurtz’s Insane IPA at the Heart of Darkness Saigon Brewery...and even less of a chance I wasn’t have two.
A little taste of Vietnam.

Until next time, Ernie and Hads, be good and kind to Jason, Rachel, and Grayson – and coming soon, a place where cats are king!

4 Comments

  1. jackie duhamel says:

    Loving these posts! Not only is the writing fantastic, love all the different aspects of each locale you cover (even the ‘hanger-on from India’ lol) Videos are great. Vietnam looks lovely.

    Like

    1. peteredodd says:

      Thank you so much, Jackie! Only a couple more months to go (for now). Hope you’re well!

      Like

  2. Joe Geoghegan says:

    I may never make it to Viet Nam. My wife has been. I’ll have to be happy just visiting County Kerry every year. So your photos are counting as my “visit” to Nam.

    Like

    1. peteredodd says:

      Thank you – and you’ll never have regrets if County Kerry is your annual destination, Joe!

      Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s