I learned that the weather that greeted me as I got off the train in Hanoi was normal for this time of year. February through April is considered Hanoi’s Spring and is characterized by cool temperatures, high humidity and frequent drizzling rain. Unlike the south, which has a dry season, it seems to rain year-round in the north. This makes the countryside beautifully green and also permits growing three crops of rice per year. The dampness in my hotel room reminded of the monsoon season in Pleiku: my bed sheets, bath towels and, in short order, the clothes in my suitcase felt very wet. I realized that my umbrella was not sufficient protection from the constant cold mist so I purchased a raincoat/windbreaker to try to stay dry while in Hanoi.
After catching a few more hours sleep after my early-morning arrival, I got up around 9am, enjoyed the free breakfast (eggs, ham and a baguette) and then spent most of the day just walking around town trying to get a feel for the place. You’ll see in the video below that Hanoi seems less modern than Ho Chi Minh City – the buildings and streets are smaller and there are more bicycles than in HCMC. It seems they are at least 10 years behind HCMC in development. Of course, Hanoi was heavily bombed during the war and perhaps this is part of the reason they are behind. They are working on the roads in many places, which makes getting around difficult, and a large new airport is under construction. It also seems there are more people just barely eking out an existence here: more beggars and seemingly desperate vendors on the streets than in HCMC. It made me sad to know that many of these people and their families, after suffering through 30 long years of war, are still struggling in times of peace. But, I did get the feeling that the country is working hard to improve prospects for its citizens.
On my first evening, I attended a performance of the “Water Puppet Theater.” In this unique and entertaining show, the puppeteers somehow use long sticks under the water to animate puppets that hover just above the water… it’s hard to describe but you’ll see some in the video below.
NOTE: If you cannot view the YouTube video below, click here to view a Flash version.
On my second day in Hanoi, I booked a one-day tour to Halong Bay, the UNESCO World Heritage site that I had been looking forward to seeing since I first began planning this trip. The bay is only about 120 miles east of Hanoi but traffic and road conditions make it a 4-hour trip, each way. For that reason, many people book a multiple-day tour to Halong Bay, staying overnight on one of the boats or in a hotel onshore. But, I had only a couple of days in the area and didn’t want to spend them all in Halong Bay.
At breakfast that morning a fellow hotel guest told me that their trip to Halong Bay on the previous day had been very disappointing because low clouds and rain made it impossible to see the peaks rising from the water. As it was still raining on this morning, I started preparing myself to be disappointed. But, as it turned out I was very lucky because the clouds had lifted enough to reveal the peaks and the cloudy mist lent an eerie quality to the scene. You’ll notice in the video below that there are many, many tourist boats on the bay: it’s a big business. Many of the boats are pretty beat up and we experienced a couple pretty good collisions when other boats got too near us. I think our boat may have looked a bit nicer than some of the others as we paid for the ‘premium bamboo’ boat.
A nice luncheon was served to us on the boat as we viewed the beautiful passing scenery. I sat at a table with two nice Korean-American gentlemen: one from Dallas and the other from LA: they have been doing “buddy” trips like this since graduating from Texas A&M many years ago. The three of us decided not to join the rest of the group when they boarded small boats to get a closer look at a “floating village.” It was raining and I had already seen several floating villages on this trip. Later, we stopped to visit a very large cave which reminded me of Luray Caverns in Virginia. It was a long day. The 8 hours of travel time was lengthened by 20-minute stops halfway between Hanoi and Halong Bay ostensibly to use restrooms but really to bring potential customers into a large souvenir shop. Despite this, I really enjoyed the day and thought it was worth the time and effort of getting there.
NOTE: If you cannot view the YouTube video, below click here to see a Flash version.
On the third day, I booked another full-day tour. This tour was called Hoa Lu / Tam Coc. That didn’t mean anything to me but the brochure said you would see beautiful natural scenery. The only other tour available was to visit some Buddhist Temples and I’ve seen enough Buddhist Temples on this trip :-).
The first stop of the tour was to Hoa Lu, an area about 60 miles south of Hanoi which was the site of the ancient capital of Vietnam until it moved to Hanoi about 1000 years ago. Unfortunately, the guide didn’t seem to know much about the ancient kingdom other than some lame legends about how the King’s wife had had an affair with his general. There wasn’t much evidence of the ancient buildings – a couple of small temples had been rebuilt about 200 years ago but they seemed like standard Buddhist temples to me. I was pretty disappointed with this part of the tour and wondered if the whole day might be a waste of time.
The Pirates of Tam Coc
The second half of the tour was a cruise on a river through a beautiful area surrounded by peaks like those seen at Halong Bay. The scenery was spectacular – in addition to the sharply rising mountains, green rice fields laying along the river’s edge were being tended by local farmers. Tam Coc means “three caves” because, on this river tour, you pass through three caves.
When we were ready to get into the small river boats, our tour guide told us each boat could hold only two passengers and I was paired with a Japanese man named Tom. He and I got into the only two bench seats other than the one occupied by the Vietnamese man in the rear who would row us up the river. As soon as I sat down, however, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I could move over a bit. This lady introduced herself as “Lin” and I came to understand that she wanted to sit beside me so that she could help with rowing the boat. It seemed odd that a single paddle on one side of the boat would help much but what did I know about Vietnamese nautical methods? What was clear was that Lin was quite gregarious. From the beginning she laughed and joked with her friends working on the other boats near us. Her laughter seemed heartfelt and was infectious: she was simply charming. At first, I wondered if she even spoke any English so I was using my ESL teaching skills to encourage her to try to communicate with us. Boy, was I naive! It turned out her English skills were more than adequate for the task at hand.
The views along the river were fantastic even though the weather continued to be overcast and misty. Moving up the river seemed very peaceful despite the fact that about 70 boats full of tourists were moving up the river with us. The caves were also beautiful – wide but low, providing just enough clearance for our heads as we passed through. I really enjoyed it.
After passing through the third cave we turned around and headed back toward the dock. As we came out of the first cave the first pirates attacked.
A flotilla of small boats, loaded with booty and piloted by Vietnamese ladies with determined looks descended on the tourist boats as we passed their position on the river. I could see they were selling drinks and snacks and I wasn’t really interested in purchasing any so I was happy when it seemed our boat had somehow escaped their attention. But, just as we seemed about to escape, one of the pirate ladies rowed furiously to catch up with us and pulled her boat up against ours. While Lin helped keep the boats together, the pirate vendor started her assault… “Soft drink? Beer? Snack?… If not for you, you should buy for your workers: they are rowing hard and are very thirsty…”
Now, by this time we had spent about 40 minutes on the boat, chatting with our hosts and enjoying the beautiful scenery. We had learned that Lin previously worked in the rice fields alongside the river but that she now worked part-time on the boat and part-time making embroidery. We learned that her husband (who was rowing our boat) had bad shoulders which is why he now uses his feet for rowing (you’ll see this in the video below.) And we learned that Lin’s father had fought with the South Vietnamese alongside U.S. troops but now suffered from side effects of exposure to Agent Orange. I didn’t know if all of this was true but she certainly seemed genuine. How could I not buy a snack/drink for her and her husband? For me, the ransom for release from the pirate vendor boat added up to about 2 or 3 US dollars.
As we left the pirate vendor behind us, Tom and I soon learned that the really dangerous pirates were already in the boat with us. Lin started pulling out embroidered scarfs, wall hangings, and other items she had made and gently trying to persuade us to buy some of them for souvenirs. The items were not that attractive but it was pretty clear she had made them herself. She remained very pleasant in her sales pitch but was persistent: when we declined her early offers she just gently kept showing us more items and asking if we didn’t want a little souvenir of Vietnam. Grace and Michael will tell you that I am an “easy mark” at any time. Put me in a boat with a charming salesperson who is obviously poor and I’m gonna buy something. I ended up with a small embroidered piece for 5 US dollars. After I bought this she stepped up the pressure on Tom a bit, probably trying to “shame” him into at least equaling what the American had bought. But he was steadfast and didn’t yield to her pressure. She then pulled out sets of Vietnam postcards and tried to get us to buy them. We both declined the postcards.
At the end of the trip, I had strong mixed feelings about my experience. I was annoyed that the tour company would put us in such an awkward position without warning us in advance. But I realized I had taken this tour without knowing anything about it or the company running it so I couldn’t feel too indignant about that. The other strong feeling was that I genuinely liked Lin and was happy to be able to help her. Even if some of the things she was telling us were were less than truthful, it was obvious that she and her husband could benefit from selling a few of their wares. It seems that each family in the village gets only one chance per week to pilot a boat of tourists (there are a lot of tourists but a lot of local families must take turns piloting them.) When we left I gave Lin and her husband a 100,000 dong tip. That sounds like a lot but it’s only about $5. In total the pirates of Tam Coc took me for about $13 – not bad really and worth the price of seeing the beautiful scenery and enjoying Lin’s infectious laugh for more than an hour.
NOTE: If you cannot view the YouTube video below, click here to see a Flash version.