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DMZ/Hanoi/Halong Bay

Demilitarized Zone – July 21st

We has an early rise to catch our bus tour of the Demilitarized Zone outside of Hue.  Up at 06:00, the bus picked us up at 06:45.  There was a fair amount of people on the tour – roughly 35.  It was a surprisingly long driver to get to the DMZ.  I napped as we drove through the rice paddies.  We broke up the first drive when we stopped in the town of Dong Ha for breakfast right after 9.  Here we got into conversation with a Portuguese-born, Australian (living in Perth).  He is going for his PHD in the field of Genetically Modified plants, so we had a nice conversation with him over breakfast before we headed out again.  Our first stop was a giant statue (Vietnam propaganda of course: a female soldier leading two male soldiers) overlooking the vast battlefield.  We then drove over the Ben Hai River (marking the border) where we saw the monument flying the Vietnam flag high.  Finally we made it to the highlight of the tour: the 2000m long, 3 level Vinh Moc Tunnels. They weren’t as small as I’d originally thought (in fact Duncan said  the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon were smaller than these) as they were really wide, and I only needed a slight crouch to get through.  There was a lady who led us through the tunnels giving out information (although this was only audible for the two people in the front, since the tour had to go through single-file).  There was also a little-helper guy (“Mentally challenged”) who ran around.  He couldn’t speak properly (in Vietnamese) and knew no english.  He slobbered lots and had only one tooth, but from what we gathered out of him, he was either one of the handful of children born in the tunnels during the war, or he grew up in them.  After gesturing and grunting this out, the guy grinned ear to ear and gave a giant peace sign, which I thought was absolutely awesome.  As we walked along the South China Sea to enter  seaside entrance to the the tunnel system, he scampered up the hill and disappeared into his own little entrance.  About 5 mins later, as we were going through the tunnels, he magically appeared out of a little hole in the tunnel systems, and stuck his hand out to give everybody a high-five – again, awesomeness.  The tunnels as a whole were a great thing to see.  They were surprisingly  hot despite being underground.  They had their own little meeting rooms, water wells, hospital areas, and exclusively women’s toilets.

After this we drove back to Dang Ha to drop off 5 people, and eat lunch.  Here we added another pair to our trio of conversation, as we chatted with two guys from Manchester, England (and thankfully, fellow Manchester United Fans).  After lunch we headed out to another area of the DMZ.  We first stopped off to observe mountains effected by agent orange.  We then stopped of at a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (now a road).  It was the Hien Luong Bridge, and overlooking some amazing trees on the riverside mountain.  Our last stop was the Khe Sanh combat base on the top of a hill.  It basically housed a few old american war machines.  It was the site of many Vietnamese deaths, and now has a field of coffee beans growing around it.

The only real letdown of the tour was the fact our tour guide’s english was only 75% understandable.  I found myself either tuning out, or inferring what her previous sentence was by her current sentence.  It just took to much of an effort, so I really wasn’t able to get all the historical/background facts.

Of the way back we were the only two dropped off at the outskirts of Dong Ha city as we awaited our bus.  There was nothing to do here, so we basically passed the time at the restaurant we were dropped off at.  I was let down when she refused to cook me battered shrimp (it was on the menu – but I suspect she really didn’t want to put in the effort).  We walked the town for a bit, but there wasn’t a hint at anything to do to pass time.  The population all kept staring at us, since it was evidently a rarity for westerners to walk around there town.  As we got to the town bridge (concrete bride) a big freight truck passed over it.  All of a sudden we felt ourselves fall a bit.  The bridge fluctuated a good 1-2 feet as the truck passed over, and we quickly double-stepped to get to the other end of the river as quickly as possible.  So watch the world news, and if we see a bridge collapse in the Vietnamese town of Dong-Ha killing some people in the near future, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  A few hours later the bus arrived (two in fact, with no help from the restaurant lady to guide us).  This turned out to be THE WORST BUS RIDE OF MY LIFE.  It was a sleeper bus.  The seat is basically molded plastic, in sort of an S-shape, with a little cubby hole for your feet (occupied by my daypack).  I was given NO PILLOW OR BLANKET  so my head was on this hard molded plastic.  Factor in the Vietnam pothole/bump filled roads, and my head was constantly bouncing into + off of the plastic.  I was actually surprised to arrive at my destination (Hanoi) fully conscious, and without concussion-like symptoms.  To compound matters I was in the middle isle on the top.  My seat has little tiny-railings, and the local people pay less to sleep in the middle of the isle, and they overfill the bus.  So I was basically holding on to these tiny railings in a effort to keep myself on my bed, and not fall off crushing a Vietnamese lady with her little baby.  I could just read the headlines now: “Slightly-obese Canadian tourist falls on bus and crushes lady!”  Duncan in the meantime was on the very back of the bus, with slightly more room and a blanket.

Upon arrival in Hanoi (at 07:00), we checked into a hotel in the old-quarter (backpacker district) for $8.  We were thankfully given a room upon this early arrival and we showered off.  While taking my clothes out of my pack, I notice my shoes were tied to the front of my bag, when I tied them to the back of my bag.  When I mentioned this to Duncan, he promptly noticed that his shoes were gone.  After all the bad stuff (swine flu, falling on bike..etc) that happened to me, Duncan was finally not so jolly.  Not that we wanted anything bad to happen to either of us.  I didn’t know whether to be insulted or happy: the robbers went through the effort to untie my shoes, NOT BE IMPRESSED BY THEM, retie my shoes to my bag, then take Duncans shoes from the bag behind me.  It can’t be style since mine were a better look than Dunc’s, and it couldn’t be smell, since the day before I was complaining to Duncan about how stinky his feet and shoes were.  It must have been size.  So we had another thing to do on our trip: shop for shoes.

To start off the day (July 22) we first dropped off laundry (I was going commando for the previous two days!).  We then got a quote from our hostel on Halong bay tours.  They were too cheap and we were warned not to cheap out for Halong Bay, since the quality could really hamper the trip.  We then went accross the street, where a beautiful girl sucked us in to what I suspect what was a slightly inflated price.  We ended up paying $63 for the 1-night, 2-day tour of Halong Bay departing the next morning, which included everything (bus-ride, food) except drinks.  We also booked an overnight bus to Laos here for $23.  We were amazed at the length of this bus, since we’d depart at 05:00 on the 25th, and arrive in Laos at 04:00 on the 26th.  We were told by multiple people that a day bus would take 16-18 hours.  After this we took a taxi and headed to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  We were surprised to find entry was free, and not surprised to discover how anal they were about things: Zero pictures about the corpse, no clowning around, respectful clothing…etc.  This was all enforced by a gaggle of white-uniformed guards.  We were held up until a large group formed in a line, before a guard led roughly 50 of us on a covered route to the Mausoleum.  Camera’s were confiscated along the way.  As me and Duncan were entering the front steps we were quietly discussing the significance of what we were about to see when a guard gave me the look of death and told me with forceable gesture to be silent.  Upon entering the building a chill goes over you with the temperature-controlled aspect of the building.  You walk to the right up a dark set of stairs.  You get into a room where Ho Chi Minh’s bodies is laying in a stone + Glass enclosure which lies in the recessed center of a square room.  At the four corners of the bodies stand four gun-touting guards.  Tourists walk three sides of the room, entering near the side of his right head, going town to his feet, before exiting along the left side of his body.  The corpse itself left be skeptical.  There were many wrinkles on the right side of his body, whereas few on the left side.  Upon leaving I immediately contemplated whether this to me seemed like a real body or not.  It is hard to tell with the light.  Add in the fact this was the first embalmed body I had witnessed, and I am by no means an expert.  If I would have to give my definitive opinion, I would say this is not his body.  To me it seemed to wax-like, and I would say with about 55% certainty (a slight guess in fact) this is a wax recreation, and his corpse would be elsewhere.  After this we paid 15,000 Dong and took a tour of his presidential palace – which was slightly a let-down.  Not much to see at all.

We then walked back to our hostel.  On the way we stopped at the Thai embassy to discover Duncan wouldn’t be able to pick up his Thai visa here since they are closed on weekends, and we need to be out of Vietnam on Sunday.  So we ate it off with some good old fashioned KFC for 49,000 dong.

We then watched some TV in our hostel, while we awaited the reopening of the Loa Lo Prison AKA the “Hanoi Hilton” (closes a couple hours around lunchtime).    We hired Moto drivers for 60,000 dong to drive us to B-52 lake, the Hanoi Hilton and back to our Hotel.  By this ride I was fully confident in the motos, and wasn’t clinging onto the back of the bike as we ripped through traffic.  I was waving a smiling at everybody.  Our first stop was B-52 lake, which is basically a tiny pond surrounded by houses where an American B-52 bomber was shot down.  The remains of the plane still lie there today, and it was quite a sight to see.  The remains look small, but we were told alot of the remains remain under water.  It is kind of surreal in the fact you forget American Pilots died that close to you.  After a few pictures and some discussion, we hopped back on to our motos and headed to the Hanoi Hilton.  Here it was under 20,000 dong for admission.  The majority of the prison dealt with the history of the prison in French-colonial times, with executions of Vietnamese by the french, and various escape attempts.  I was actually a little surprised, since I assumed the prison would emphasize the Vietnam War aspect of the prison.  In fact I told Duncan I thought we might be in the wrong place since I saw no mention of the American soldiers held here.  Finally I was proven wrong when we came accross two tiny-rooms dealing with American POW’s held here.  Senator John McCain’s famous flight-suit hanging in a glass enclosure was the sight I personally came to see, and wasn’t let down.  What was disturbing to me was instead of indifference, the two-room display was HIGHLY propagandistic, in the fact movies blared in each room still preaching the evilness of Americans, the “uninvited guests.”  After this we hopped back on the motos and went to the hotel to drop a few things off before wandering out for dinner.  Restaurants proved to be a hard thing to find in Hanoi, and we quickly got lost in a 1.5 hr quest to find a place to eat.  We stumbled across a little cafe and gave up in frustration, to settle down and eat.  After finding our way back to the hostel, we found this was were the fun started.  The electrical for the outlet day Do-It-Yourself for the hotel, as it hung out a good three inches from the wall, and only worked sporatically.  This was the outlet the fan was on, so we only got spurts of fan relieving us from the heat.  I then had to push the wall in to get access to a slightly-buried outlet to charge my camera batteries.  While doing to the cable wire fell from it’s outlet.  We burst out in laughter to discover this was so cheap, that there was no proper end attached to the wire.  It was simply a cut/spliced wire, prodded into the wall, in the hopes of getting cable.  So we sat in heat, without tv, laughing at how the hell we got ourselves in this predicament.  When doing so I placed something on the windowsill and tried to open the window only to have the ENTIRE WINDOW-FRAME come out and hang inches outside the alley.  I quickly grabbed on to it and pulled it back in, preventing the entire window-frame from falling into an alley and possibly injure/kill someone.  We decided best thing to do was sleep and not touch a thing.

HALOGN BAY

The next morning we woke up to go to Halong Bay.  It was a short walk across to the travel agency where we were picked up at 08:00.  We were quickly introduced to an Australian family we would be on the boat with: Sandra (wife), Morris (husband), Sarah (daughter), Chris (son).  We were relieved to discover our guide Suan (pronounced “Swan”) spoke near perfect english.  We got on our boat at noon, and departed the Harbour.  I was slightly disappointed to discover Halong bay wasn’t as quiet/tranquil as I expected.  I expected lots of tourists,but was amazed when Suan told us there was now roughly 500 ships operating for tourists.  We then met the rest of our shipmates (in addition to the Aussie family): A 34-year old New Yorker named Sam; a “travel couple” in Ryan (Sydney, Australia) and Angela (Valencia, Spain); and a couple from south Korea (Hyun Joo and Young Hlyun Bae).  We quickly cracked some beers, before we headed to the “amazing caves”.  We took a shuttle boat to these limestone caves, which were a sight for the eyes.  After the caves, we were dropped off at the Kayaking place.  We boarded the Kayaks (doubles) and explored some islands.  Me and Duncan hopped off on this little island where I scaled a lighthouse tower.  After 45 mins of Kayaking we returned our Kayaks and headed back to the ship for a swim.   Here we all jumped off the top deck of the ship and swam around in the salty water.  We then sailed around the amazing bay and witnessed sunset before tying up with another boat to spend the night.  I climbed accross the other boat to explore and say hi.  The people on that one seemed like duds compared to ours, so I quickly headed back (not before that boats crazy tour guide poured beer on my feet for some weird reason).  Our boat then ate an amazing dinner before heading up top to enjoy the stars, some beer, and lively discussion.  About 2 hrs later, and Australian (completely tanked) came over from the other ship to invite us over to celebrate his girlfriends birthday.  Then everybody on our ship promptly pound back more beers and climbed over.  They had some straight Vodka going out of the a “chalice,” which I thankfully steered well clear of (Duncan took a few gulps).  The other boats guide promptly reinforced his craziness with some blaring Karaoke.  At the end of each song he yelled out “In your bum, don’t tell your mum”… thereby proving the fact he’s completely nutters.  Morris (the australian father) got the most tanked than night, as he kept pounding back the vodka.    As the night down he proved his drunkenness by clearing out the party in the most awkward way: dropping his pants.  Me and Duncan quickly yelled out “that’s it, I’m about ready to hit the hay” before hightailing it away for this pant-less man.  We then woke up, and enjoyed a nice breakfast in the bay before Ryan and Anglea were taking off the ship for their extra day of the tour, while some others from more ships came on our ship.  We then basically just boated around the bay, making our way back to the harbor.  I escaped the crowds by climbing onto the very top of the ship and perched myself at the back, quietly taking in the amazing landscape by myself.  After  a couple hours of this relaxation I headed into the captains room, where I chatted it up with Suan, the Captain and the Shipmates.  I was put in their good book, and he soon turned over the wheel to me.  I drove the ship for about 5 mins, honking the horn, and putting on his captains hat… thankfully not hitting anything.  We got to harbor at noon, and ate lunch.  We all got back around 16:30.  We bartered down a nice hotel for $16, before heading out for dinner.  He bumped into the Koreans twice while out, before grabbing Ice-Cream and heading to the night market before hitting the hay.

Today (July 24th) we’re basically kicking around Hanoi awaiting our bus to Laos (17:00).  Next update will be from Laos… 

And to all my Laos friends who know the inside joke: “Ohhh shiiiiii, ohhh, Shiiiii”

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