The northern road to Hanoi

We were staying in Hue for a night to trim the train hours to Hanoi. Hue, pronounced as huwey, was once the capital of Vietnam, and a center of power for the French. It gives an air of imperialism with its mighty and historical citadel, with its forbidden city, meditative gardens and lakes fit for kings, it was a staging ground, a rallying point, a witness, and unfortunately, a casualty of many battles. There are also those larger than life tombs of proud feudal lords of the past.  Arriving here just after dusk, the city seems to be brimming with activities. There are night markets not unlike those we have at home. The riverside is lined up with expensive hotels, entertainment centers with bright neon lights, even one of the bridges here are colorfully lit and quite famous for young lovers. There are also some exquisite street food action, making this lane bright, safe, and fun to explore come night time.

Riverside bazaar

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Plan of attack

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Mighty gate to the citadel

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Imperial garden

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Lake fit for kings

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Tallest flag pole in Vietnam

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     The following day, our train wasn’t departing until later that afternoon. In preparation for our impending doom, we rented bicycles, explored the city on our own, tiring ourselves in hopes of sleeping out the whole train ride. Just as Hue was a staging ground for many battles of the past, it felt like one for us too. Come afternoon, we checked out of our hotel, had our last supper, drank minimal amounts of liquid, and headed for the station. The familiar sound of train coming in, we searched for our car amidst chickens running loose, and unreserved ticket holders elbowing each other for pole position when the train comes to a halt. Thankfully, we booked one of the best cabins you can get, a couchette of four. Upon finding our car and cabin, as expected, bed linens and pillows were not for the faint hearted, its exactly what my dorm bed looked like back in college after a whole semester has gone by and linens still unwashed. We were sharing this cabin with an old, friendly Vietnamese couple who looked like they started the trip from Saigon, you know what I mean. The toilets, sad to say, for 14 hours, we never ventured into the deep unknown. When the train started moving, we wore our rain coats for protection, like lab gowns are for laboratories, our packs for pillows, as we began our descent onto our beds. There was no standing up, no moving, no talking, no nothing. From my understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity, time gets slower when a person is in motion, for those who disprove it, they have yet to try this 14 hour train ride for an experiment! Innumerable hours later, I woke up to the sound of our train breaking into a halt, to me, it might have been the sound angels singing. It was then that our friendly old Vietnamese cabin mates animately informed us we can now get off the train. Some ways of saying things are just universal. We have arrived in Hanoi.

Impending doom

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Rocky is not impressed

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Reminiscent of my unwashed dorm bed linen after a whole semster back in college

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     Getting off the train station, you get a different feel from all the other capital cities you’ve ever been, but you do get a feel that you arrived at the center of culture. Its not a backwards society, but its not over commercialized, pushed to its maximum potential. Instead, in the old quarter, you get streets of colonial style two story houses, its no surprise because it used to be the capital of French Indochina. The usual tells are the wrought iron balcony railings, and those chic French windows, and more architectural flourishes that contrast the later communist ideology.  Stores that are properly categorized according to their merchandise, as it has been hundreds of years ago. Brave a dark and narrow alley, if you’re lucky you can get to see functional communal houses. Loud PA devices installed on electricity posts from almost every corner of the old quarter, making announcements. Its early in the morning and there’s a community of joggers, and Tai Chi practitioners around Hoan Kiem lake, while close to it, shop keepers are dutifully opening shops, not without having that sweet but strong Vietnamese coffee or perhaps a Banh Mi, a sliced baguette with meat, greens and sauce inside, the inevitable child of French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.

French colonial architecture in a photogenic state of disrepair

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Ladies getting in shape

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My company doing yoga around Hoan Kiem lake

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Barber street

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     After walking around the old quarter guidebook, in hand, visiting those historical sites, giving respect to one of the good hearted communists by visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the opera house, and more museums, we’ve had enough history, propagandas and  boring bureaucracy. By now, we were starving. In Hanoi and much like the rest of Vietnam, the food they eat reflects their culture and their lifestyle. You will notice that there are thriving street peddlers selling food from a cart served on children’s tables and foot stools. Mainly because Vietnamese people have a dining culture. My theory is because the working population, including women,  doesn’t have much time left beyond their working hours to cook at home, its just more practical to eat out. And with a wealth distribution that doesn’t always equate dining out with eating in western style restaurants, or fast food chains, alas, street peddlers thrive.

Street peddler

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Street food action

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My company getting lost in the goodness of her pho from a street peddler

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      With fairly equal opportunities, making for a tough competition, only  quality street peddlers survive. The best guide will always be the number of locals who dine, or even queue. If street peddlers aren’t your thing, there are some long standing restaurants, barely meeting our ideology of what a restaurant should be, that serve some of the best meals I’ve had in the whole trip. Cha Ca La Vong at Cha Ca Street, serves only one dish for decades now, you simply walk in and order how many orders you want. The best bun cha, a perfectly grilled meat eaten with rice noodles, mixed with some fish sauce and light greens, served from an institution of a place aptly called Bun Cha at 1 Hang Manh Street. Glorious meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo. Although in general, you would be hard-pressed to settle for a bad meal in Hanoi. After our long and arduous journey through Vietnam, it taught us that food is better from carts than those cooked with roof above their heads.

Reusable wooden chopsticks. Yum!

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Bun Cha from 1 Hang Manh Street

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Meat filled rice paper by Miss Ann from 72 Hang Bo Street

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72 Hang Bo Street

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Street party in Hanoi

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We found Bobby Chinn

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      After a much deserved overnight cruise to the mystical Ha Long bay, we bid Vietnam farewell. When it was time to catch our flight bound for Manila, I reminded myself that just as all good things come to an end, the most underrated thing about traveling is coming home.

Ha Long Bay

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Ha Long Bay from our junk boat

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Getting deeper into Vietnam

When my company and I were planning this 14-day south to north Vietnam trip, we knew it wouldn’t be complete without experiencing Vietnamese trains. When the French built a colony here, much like any other European super power of their time, they brought railroads with them, as it is one of the most functional forms of logistics and transportation. I presume these trains would have been state of the art in their time. It had the air of luxury for the first class cabins with their butlers and buffet cars. And that industrial look of the coach which of course, the rest of the blue collar masses had to partake in. When the French left, the trains continued on , much of it the same with what they used in their good days here. With a little research and visuals, we have formed a brief but solid idea of the current state of these trains, and the conditions of taking them as our main source of transportation. It would have taken almost 2 days of a train ride marathon to reach Hanoi from Saigon. With the figures in hand, we counted how much water consumption versus visits to squatting toilets. If shower is even possible, would it make us cleaner than our previous unbathed states? Or are those couchettes worth the bites? It was then that we decided to cut the trip in half by taking a domestic flight from Saigon to the city of Da Nang, located in central Vietnam. A strategic point, from which we can cut the train ride ordeal significantly.

When we arrived Da Nang airport after an early morning flight from Saigon, we were glad to have made arrangements for transfers to Hoi An, A UNESCO world heritage site in central Vietnam, instead of having to bargain with drivers at 7 o’clock in the morning. From Da Nang airport en route to Hoi An, we would be able to visit the famous marble mountains of Da Nang. There will be some exquisite marble carvings lined up below every mountain, just before the entrance, tempting the most impulsive tourists to ship larger than life sizes of these marble carvings. These five marble mountains spread around the city are more like larger hills. It should not intimidate the most out of conditioned travelers, there is a lift for a nominal fee, if you don’t care to walk. There are pagodas that dot each mountain, small caves that may open up to buddhist idols carved out straight from the mountain itself. For the curious kind with keen eyes, there will be lots of small pathways veering off of the provided map, some will be your most rewarding lone moments because these mountains are quite touristy. But the most rewarding view would be once you get to the peak of the hill and enjoy a 360 degree view of Da Nang. Mountains on one side, and the seemingly interminable coastline of Vietnam on the other. From the time of visit, there have been lots of on going construction of what seemed to be chain of hotels along the coastline. I can only imagine how this pristine area, with its white sand and near perfect shores will be the next hot spot of tourism for Vietnam.

Off the map walkway

A charming pathway off the map in one of the marble mountains

Marble statues carved out straight from the mountain

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Made it to the top with my guidebook!

From the top of one of the marble mountains

Marble mountains side

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Interminable coastline

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     Upon arrival in Hoi An, we decided to stay in nearby Cua Dai beach that’s lined with hotels fit for a James Bond villain. After all, we have spent some rough but fun times during the previous half of our trip. Hoi An is nicknamed “The Venice of the East”, for its beautiful river streets and historical significance of being a wealthy trading post, giving this town an air of wealth and grandeur. The Portuguese settled and traded here too. Its got a preserved architecture and grid city street planning. Buildings are indubitably similar to each other, a whole town filled with old Chinese and Vietnamese houses, now in their antiquated yellow-washed but intact walls, the reason that it has become a tourist attraction. But what I really like about Hoi An is that it still remains a place for locals to live in. They have not been gentrified by negative aspects of tourism. Local industry is still intact. You will have some of the best tailor made silk clothing here as you will see from every tailoring shop. There’s also some good food at cheap local prices to be had from those stalls lined up across the river, apart from the more established restaurants within the town.

Hotel fit for a James Bond villain

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Night swim in our hotel

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Established riverside restaurants

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Munching on some tasty cheap food from Hi restaurant just across the bridge

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Buildings in their antiquated yellow washed walls

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Hoi An at night

Hoi An at night

     After recharging for a couple of nights, we were ready for the next half of the adventure. From Hoi An, we made a short stop in another Cham kingdom relic in My Son en route back to Da Nang, from where we are taking a famous, afternoon scenic train ride to Hue. For our first train ride in Vietnam, we were expecting something quite worse than what we actually experienced. The train cars have definitely come from the French era, but apart from old carpets, worn, funky smelling seats, universal dusty curtains and a distinct smell of dried fish brought by some suspected passengers, it didn’t turn out as bad as predicted. This three hour train ride goes through coastal railroads, and as the sun sets, unobstructed by the sea stretching into the horizon, it makes for the most glorious back drop. Each tunnel we passed through was an eclipse of total darkness, until a different cove appears, darkness gives way for orange skies, reflecting on undeveloped white sand beaches, sometimes just cliffs that fall straight to the open sea. But my favorite is whenever we cross arched stone bridges as we head for a turn and sneak a photo from outside the window when no official is looking. Its one of the most moving train rides to be had, just make sure you sit on the left side. Over all, I would do this trip again.

Vast My Son relics from the Cham kingdom

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Ga could be either chicken or train station

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Inside the train

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Coastal railway view

Scenic train ride from Da Nang to Hue

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     That’s it for now folks! Watch out for our following misadventures in Hue, impending doom of a train ride to Hanoi and the rest of our north Vietnam experiences from the next and final installment of my Vietnam series.

A preview of what happens next

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First taste of Vietnam

We entered Vietnam via Cambodia through a convenient tourist bus company, apart from our door collapsing in the middle of nowhere which caused a delay,  eventually making us miss our bus connection and forcing an overnight stop at Phnom Penh, at least immigration went smoothly.

     With no shower and a clean toilet for almost 48 hours now, my company and I met up with a friend who is a long time expat in Saigon. Saigon because only foreigners call it Ho Chi Minh. After all the pleasantries and the much needed shower, we headed for our first experience of a proper Pho, a Vietnamese version of noodle soup, from one of the many interesting restaurants along Pasteur Street. Like among every city I’ve been, I usually get to know the people with what they eat. I find that what people eat has a direct relationship with their lifestyle, culture and history. But more of that in a while, let me take you to my first legitimate Pho experience. My friend and I ordered two of the classic Phos which you will encounter in any self respecting Vietnamese restaurants, the Pho Ga, meaning with chicken, and the Pho Bo, with beef. Pho is served with greens on the side, which tells me that the Vietnamese are humble people because they allow you to adjust the taste to your preference. Phos arrive, clueless on how to start, our friend taught us the universal Truths. First, you taste the broth, only then do you add those curious greens on the side. Basic greens consist of basil, bean sprouts, and the most distinguishable taste even after mixing them together, cilantro. As for my personal experience, I would not advise adding that tiny looking chili on my good friends, it might have ruined the whole experience for me had I not been warned against it. Instead, i was told to try it on a separate bowl to my good fortune. To the Vietnamese, the broth is always the star of the show, not the rice noodles, which are almost always perfectly cooked anyway. Each sip of broth, mixed with rice noodles, and the occasional bite of distinguishable cilantro was  worth the trip in itself. We would also later discover that Phos made from street peddlers are so much better than ones that come from kitchens with roof above their heads. There are also other staples that do not cross Vietnamese borders, like Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that has been serving only one dish for decades now, also that Bun Cha, a perfectly grilled meat in tube form, and my favorite breakfast, Banh Mi, made with sliced baguette with some meat, mostly greens and lightly added with a mayonnaise like sauce, a positive offspring of the French colonialism and Vietnamese resilience.

Pho Ga and Pho Bo

Pho Bo and Pho Ga

Cha Ca La Vong

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Banh MiImage

     After that glorious first meal, we decided to learn some history at the graphic, albeit biased Museum of American War Crimes. It was the saddest thing we have ever done in the whole trip. In hopes of clearing our minds from haunting photographs of human atrocity, we decided to go for some bright architecture that surrounded Ho Chi Minh square. The French definitely left better buildings than what has been destroyed during the war. The central post office on one side of the square, and the Notre-Dame Basilica, a stone’s throw away, are true testaments to French colonial architecture.

Museum of American War Crimes
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Around Ho Chi Minh square

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Notre Dame cathedral of Saigon

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     The most obvious problem you will have in Saigon is crossing motorcycle plagued streets. In my pedestrian judgement, there seems to be more motorcycles than people here. Take note, Saigon might be a pedestrian nightmare but there is a brave solution on how to maneuver the dreaded crossing of busy streets and intersections. Once you’ve made the first step away from the curb, you don’t stop, hesitate, or avoid motorcycles, they will avoid you. Live by that rule and you will live. Reminds me of Bruce Lee’s famous lines, “Be like water.” It took a while before my sense of self preservation got used to turning a blind eye on motorcycles that seem to be gunning after me. So when I finally had the chance to rent a motorcycle along Pham Ngu Lao or better known as backpacker district, it was finally my turn to instill fear on some unfortunate and innocent tourists, so says the man who said “if you can’t beat ’em, join them.” My Mad Max moment ended our momentous and gratifying city tour of Saigon.

Motorcycle plagued street

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My turn to harass innocent tourists!

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     Next on our itinerary was a day trip to the mighty Mekong Delta. The Mekong Delta is a river that stretches over around 4,500 km, all the way from the Himalayas to Vietnam, passing through different countries of Indochina, making those fortunate lands fertile for agriculture due to its abundant source of irrigation, making Vietnam one of the top producers of rice. Our day trip only allowed us to visit certain areas, which would be a speck of dust compared to its vast totality. After a 2 and a half hour bus ride from Saigon, we arrived at our first destination, a tourist stop where you can sample exotic delicacies which include some local rice cake which is very comparable to our bibingka, which wasn’t a surprise because we are both rice growing regions.  Also some rice wine with the usual suspect of a baby cobra inside, supposed to make you more potent. Take it with a grain of salt, I always do. If everything I’ve taken where I’ve been told will make me more potent, I should have an indefinite sense of sensuality. After those tastings, we finally got in on our man powered boat, wearing cone hats that the Vietnamese people are almost known for. Curious enough, it was the woman’s legs which were doing the rowing. While she rowed gracefully, we were cruising and snaking along some beautiful tight mangroves, narrow enough to touch the greenery that surrounded us. It wasn’t the best experience we’ve had, factor in the unforgiving sun, humidity, the persistent mosquitoes and the almost unpredictable chance of a shower.

One narrow mangrove of the interminable Mekong Delta

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Rice Wine

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     The following day was spent on another day tour to the mighty Cu Chi tunnels. Made by the Hanoi backed Viet Cong, the armed resistance during the Vietnam war, these tunnels were dug to conceal and protect them from the US backed Saigon army and more especially, from their aerial supremacy. But what goes beyond amazing is that they have made communities out of these tunnels. This will be your first hand experience of real Vietnamese resilience. Besides the fact that these tunnels have functional kitchens, toilets, bedrooms, and most of the basic necessities for living, these tunnels stretch for hundreds of kilometers, giving possibility for the Viet Cong to travel in safety. With these tunnels, the Viet Cong employed guerilla tactics against their southern nemesis. Giving them enough perils regardless of how much more advance they are in terms of technology and fire power, to make them decide to give up and end one of the most atrocious events of the 20th century.

Cu Chi tunnels

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      In contrast of all the violence involved in our previous destination, we visited the curious Cao Dai temple in Tay Ninh afterwards. I do not always encounter a religion that’s got some interesting selection of patron saints such as, Victor Hugo, Joan of Arc and Winston Churchill, to name a few. We then got a timely chance to watch what seemed to be like a mass. A pleasant contrast of the colorful temple and white robes of its members. Its architecture just as its beliefs seem like a mix of different religions, making it seem familiar but still strange enough for imagination.

Cao Dai temple

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Contrast of white robes and the colorful interior

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     When it was finally time to leave Saigon and the rest of southern Vietnam, we were armed with basic Vietnamese survival skills taught by our most precious almost local friend. He taught us words for bargaining, lying, gratitude and some really really mean words. From here, we’re going nowhere but up.

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