Stickman's Guide
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7 Days In Vietnam

By OJ


Hi everybody, before I begin to tell you about my short stint in Vietnam I would like to apologize that this submission is a bit "on the dry side". I only stayed in Vietnam for 7 days. So I did not sink my teeth deep enough to write anything too meaningful. It’s just a quick travel description of northern Vietnam with a couple of pics to go along.

Hanoi

It does not take you a long time to realize that Hanoi is not Bangkok and Vietnam is not Thailand. Oh no, not by a long shot. And I am not talking about the little things like a Quarter Pounder being called a Royal with Cheese. Because it’s not called anything. No Ronald McDonald clowns here.

The first thing you notice in Hanoi is the traffic. You probably think Bangkok traffic is bad right? Well, it is but it’s very different here and much worse. Hanoi feels like a pissed off beehive in rush-hour except all the bees are scooters and they are stressed, angry, manic and out to get you. They zig zag around at high speed with little regard to what traffic regulations there may or may not be. It’s amazing they don’t hit each other more often.

Love em’ or hate em’ but the scooters are also your transportation around town. Most of the zillions of scooters will give you a ride for a few bucks. But please note that you’ll need some hard liquor and a change of underpants after your first trip. It’s very scary and takes some getting used too. You can get ordinary taxis but they not always easy to find.

The second thing you notice is the architecture. It's so very Vietnamese with that certain something Parisian flavour to it. Its tréz cool. There is actually a lot of nice things you notice about Hanoi once you get over the traffic. I for instance love the way the old-timers play badminton in their undershirts all hours of daylight. After that the kids take over the very few available square meters not populated by scooters and play soccer. This city would be a real gem if only they could sort out their traffic problems.

I did not really figure out if there is a "scene" or not in Hanoi. If there is it's probably one of those Karaoke things I do not understand.

The Vietnamese have got real funny money. Ever wondered how it would feel to be a millionaire? Well, here you can. One million Dong is about $65 USD. The new bills they got all feature uncle Ho and kind of look like you would expect from a modern country. But set your faces to stun if you get your hands on some of their old bills. It's communist kitch in extreme. All happy smiling workers in factories and pictures of power plants and mills etc. Luckily the Vietnamese are slowly phasing that part of their history out. Ok, too slow for my liking but there you go. It's also worth noting that the best ATMs for farangs is from the VietCom Bank. Another bank's ATM in the street (not connected to a bank) rebooted in DOS and then started Windows 98 with my card still in it! It took about 5 minutes before ejecting my card. Phew... That was even more scary than riding the scooters! I guess some USD and other hard currencies is the thing to bring and then exchange them as you go along.
 

Halong Bay

I think it’s against every law of tourism to visit northern Vietnam without a boat trip in Halong Bay. Everybody comes here so it’s a bit crowded. But it’s still real nice and very pretty. These trips comes in all shapes and sizes but they usually involve a night on the boat or a night on Catba Island or both. I would suggest both. Catba may not be the prettiest island in the world but I found it quite pleasant. The main city/village is a real tourist trap kind of place but without that many farangs. It's mostly families from Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam that come on vacation here and I got a kick out of watching them go about their vacation. It's a fun experience to be a kids first farang sighting. I might as well be green with wings or horns or something. I did not try the night on the boat but I gather that there is canoeing and night swimming and should be good romantic fun if you bring your girlfriend. Overall I enjoyed myself a lot and met some real nice people on this trip.
 

Perfume Pagoda

This place is eerie! This is an important religious site in Buddhist Vietnam. But never in my life have I been to a place that kind of oozed satanic evil (with the exception of Newark). It's hard to put a finger on it but the place just freaked me out. Its damp, foggy and utterly creepy. This is like an ecosystem all to itself where creepy crawlies grow to giant sizes and I so hate big bugs! Somebody could make a classic horror movie here. These pagodas can only be reach by rowing boat operated by Amazonian farm girls. These girls make a living of rowing fat tourists around so they are strong and not to be messed with! Then you hike up a mountain where other farm girls take it upon themselves to be your guide. Later on they hit you up for money claiming they study to become doctors and need donations. They sure made a successful wallet biopsy on me! I did not like this trip much at the time but I am real glad I went now. The nature there is extraordinary and a skilled photographer could take some really great shots there.
 

Sapa

This place is usually reached by a non-stop night train from Hanoi. I got a bunk bed and slept well trough the night. Some people I spoke to tried to save a little money by taking another train with no bunks and many, many stops. According to them it was the train ride from hell and should be avoided like the plague. Ahhh, but what can one say about this place among the clouds? This place is just a big, big wow! I have tried to write this section a couple of times but I can never do the place justice. The city of Sapa itself is rather small and is used as a base camp for all kinds of mountain treks. These walks will take you through different villages and colorful mountain tribes. You can even climb the mighty 3,100 high Fansipan mountain if you like.

The area is one rolling hill after another filled with the most intricate paddy fields you’ll ever see. Everything revolves around rice here and I was amazed to learn that these people rarely sold any of their harvest. Its all for basic survival. Each village house is spread out in every valley. The reason for this is mudslides. If the village is unlucky a mudslide can take out a house. If the houses are built together bad luck could bring down the entire village. Although I got the feeling that the tribes likes tourists one can’t help to think how our presence must erode their culture. Most of the kids I met in the villages spoke great English although they never had a class in their lives. They learn English from following the tourists around selling trinkets. If you want a handy (or maybe not so handy) tip I got their parents to sell me some moonshine. They have two kinds. One that looked and tasted a bit like apple juice with a LOT of vodka in it. But this I was told was a girly drink. The clear one they sell is the mans drink and nearly lethal. Remember "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"? Buyer beware! :-)
 

Sapa was the best part of my trip and I shall no doubt return. I think there is a whole lot more to see in this area. Especially if one gets off the tourist trail. But I have a feeling that goes for all of Vietnam. It was also in Sapa I had my first Vietnamese noodle soup for breakfast. It worked on me like spinach work on Popeye. Fantastic stuff!

All in all a great trip. I can’t wait to get back to Vietnam.

 

Stickman's thoughts:

You make Vietnam sound interesting, and worth a visit.
 

The author can be contacted at: jannikoj@hotmail.com.

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