Vietnam

‘The Truth About the Vietnam War’ – Mr Binh, Saigon

Feeling like we’d seen everything that Ho Chi Minh City had to offer, we decided to spend our final day in Vietnam at the Cu Chi Tunnels. For those who don’t know, the Cu Chi Tunnels span 250km and were used by Viet Cong’s main base of operations during the Tet Offensive in 1968. The original tunnels were only 80cm high and 30cm wide… Too narrow for most Westerners. The Americans never defeated the Viet Cong at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

We booked a tour through our hostel and didn’t realise what day it was or it’s significance with the tour. We were actually visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels on ‘Liberation Day’ aka the end of the Vietnamese War and the fall of Saigon. We were met by our guide Mr Binh (Bean) who told us that today was a very, very sad day for him. He told us that he wasn’t Vietnamese but American, and had fought with the American army during the Vietnam War. His father was Filipino but had lived in Vietnam before emigrating to the US before the Vietnam War. Mr Binh then returned to Vietnam with the American army to fight the Viet Cong and the Communist Northern Vietnamese. He told us that after Saigon was captured by the Northern Vietnamese and Communism established as the majority, he was forced to spend 5 years in a ‘Reunification Camp’ to rid him of his anti-Communist beliefs.

After being in Northern Vietnam and visiting the War Remnants Museum yesterday, it was really interesting to hear another perspective of the war. When we got on the bus to the tunnels he asked us if we wanted to know the ‘truth’ about the Vietnam War. He said everything in the War Remnants Museum and Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi was Communist propaganda and utter ‘bullshit’, and that today he’d tell us the truth. Today was a very sad day for him because it was Liberation Day, the day that the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, and the day that marked he end of the Vietnam War. He told us that on this day 39 years ago he took a gun to his head and nearly killed himself because Saigon’s fall meant the establishment of communism as the popularity.

It was interesting to hear his story because he said initially he wasn’t against Communism, but after his fiancée and the love of his life was brutally murdered by the Viet Cong for no apparent reason, he wanted justice. Mr Binh went on to say that though Ho Chi Minh is the city’s official name, to him it would always be ‘Saigon’. Always. (After the Vietnam War Saigon was officially renamed Ho Chi Minh City).

The Cu Chi tunnels were very interesting and it was in part due to Mr Binh’s commentary as he’d actually fought here against the Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese. We started the tour at one of the tunnel’s entrances to show us just how small they were. They were not more than 30 cm wide and Mr Binh told us that the tunnels were too big for the ‘big fat American soldiers’. He also told us how a young woman with a rather large bottom got stuck trying to get into the tunnels yesterday. He had plenty of stories about how the Viet Cong were able to spot Americans soldiers hiding behind trees because they were so big boned.

One of the tunnel's entrances

One of the tunnel’s entrances

Mr Binh then showed us various traps used by the Viet Cong to hinder the American war effort. He explained that the tunnels underneath were on three levels and to maintain air supply the Viet Cong had made vents and tried to disguise them. The Americans quickly caught on and would send a German Shepherd to find the vents by trying to get it to smell ‘fish sauce’ as Mr Binh explained Vietnamese food is’very stinky stinky’. The Viet Cong though had another trick up its sleeve and built this booby trap below with sharp bamboo sticks. They’d put the ‘stinky fish sauce’ under the trap door and the German shepherd would fall to a nasty death. Mr Binh told us that many American army dogs died this way.

Booby Trap

Booby Trap

We then went into the tunnels to get a taste of what they were like and they were very, very narrow. For once being petite served its purpose. A lot of taller Westerners found it very claustrophobic, and one girl even had a panic attack half way through the tunnel we went in. The tunnel rarely went in a straight line and Mr Binh explained this was done by the Viet Cong to confuse and scare any American soldiers that might have made it into the tunnel.

Inside the tunnel!

Inside the tunnel!

The tunnels were really interesting but we could constantly hear the sound of gunfire. There was a shooting range at the end of the tour and you could shoot an AK-47, M16 and others. I was perplexed how Mr Binh who’d fought here and witnessed many people die here could return here on a daily basis. The constant sound of gun fire must be a constant reminder of the horrors of the Vietnam War. The sound of shots being fired gave the tunnels a very eerie atmosphere and I felt like I’d been transported through time.

As for Mr Binh, he said he was currently writing his second book which was due to be published next year by Bloomsbury in the US. He said his book would be entitled ‘An American eagle flies down to hell’. Although Mr Binh was a real character and full of war tales, it was hard to know just how much of his story was true. He told us that he’d already published a book about his life and told us it was called ‘Three Moons of Vietnam’ but I couldn’t find it online or in the bookshop he told us about…

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Ho Chi Minh City

After a couple of weeks in Vietnam, our trip came to a close in Ho Chi Minh City. We arrived in the city at around 9 am and after a quick shower we went out to see HCMC’s attractions. I wanted to start with a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral to see how it compared with Paris, but for some reason the cathedral was closed and wouldn’t be open until the evening. We weren’t impressed and whilst trying to decide what we were going to do next we stumbled upon HCMC’s post office. It was quite an interesting building architecturally, but at the end of the day it was just a post office… Nothing more, nothing less.

The Post Office!

The Post Office!

Inside the Post Office

Inside the Post Office

Telephone cabines

Telephone cabines

We then decided to have a coffee break until the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace opened (all the museums seem to close for a 2 hour lunch break) and I’m ashamed to admit we actually went into a Dunkin’ Donuts. We hadn’t seen many fast food or coffee chains so far in our South East Asia trip and Kyle was desperate to have a strawberry frosted doughnut (Missing home much?). We got chatting to a young Vietnamese guy on the table next to us and he actually turned out to be the owner of the Dunkin’ Donuts’ brand in Vietnam. He asked us what on earth we were doing in HCMC and we explained that we were backpacking around SEA and that HCMC was our last stop in Vietnam. He told us we should have made Hoi An our last stop because there’s nothing really to do or see in HCMC. He actually said one of the most interesting things to see in HCMC was probably the post office next door (!). He told us that both the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace were a waste of time. We were unsure whether he was being sarcastic or not, so we went on our way to the War Remnants Museum.

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I was interested in visiting the War Remnants Museum to learn a bit more about the Vietnam War. I thought it would be an educational museum like London’s Imperial War Museum… how wrong I was. The outside exhibits of the War Remnants Museum consisted of US tanks, planes and artillery. There were many Vietnamese people proudly posing and taking pictures with the US tanks. We then went inside and it was the most confusing museum I’ve ever been to. There was no clear layout or commentary, the museum was basically a collection of photographs of dead children and rotting corpses accompanied by captions such as ‘Children killed by US soldiers’. There was absolutely no explanation of the war – the museum was just pure anti-American propaganda. If you had no knowledge of the Vietnam War and you went to this museum, you wouldn’t know that Southern Vietnam was actually anti-Communist and were fighting with the Americans against the Communist Northern Vietnamese.

The most horrific part of the museum was the ‘Agent Orange’ exhibit which consisted of a collection of photographs of deformed children and victims of Agent Orange. There was even a display of two dead foetuses in a jar with deformities as a result of the Agent Orange campaign. It was incredibly sad to see these pictures and I felt quite numb afterwards. Although the museum was sad, I was annoyed with the total lack of commentary in the museum. You forget that Vietnam is still a Communist country so the government of course is only going to show one side of the story.

Also, in the gift shop they sold fake dog tags bearing the names of U.S. soldiers who’d lost their lives in the Vietnam War!

We then went along to ‘Independence Palace’, which was the home and workplace of Southern Vietnam’s president during the Vietnam War. It was only really interesting from a historical point of view because it was on this site that the Vietnam War came to an end.

Vinpearl and Scuba Diving in Nha Trang, Vietnam

After four nights in Hoi An, we got on yet another sleeper bus, but this time for Nha Trang. Our hotel in Hoi An promised to reserve us the seats we wanted on the bus, but that was another broken promise. As soon as the coach arrived there was a scramble to get onto the bus and not end up in the back row. Luckily being the small and feisty girl that I am, I managed to get on the bus and nab us some pretty good seats. We arrived in Nha Trang at 6 am in the morning – the first time a bus has actually arrived at its scheduled arrival time, and the streets were absolutely jam packed with touts and motorbike taxis. We were literaly surrounded by a mob of people shouting and yelling at us asking where we were going, what we were doing, etc, etc. It was way too much and we managed to bundle into a cab and arrive at our hotel.

On the sleeper bus!

On the sleeper bus!

We arrived like eager beavers at our hotel at 7am and they were nice enough to let us check-in. We showered, found some breakfast, booked two scuba dives for the next day, and made our way to Vinpearl amusement park all before 9am! Vinpearl had roller coasters, a water park, an aquarium, a free arcade, a beach and a dolphin show for about £15 each. The ticket included the cable car ride from the main land to the Vinpearl island – which was worth the Vinpearl entry ticket price in itself for the incredible views.

Vinpearl was actually pretty lame… Some of the water slides were actually painful and I cut my elbow on one of the slides. They needed some serious maintenance! We also tried to combat my fear of heights by going on slides that were basically a vertical drop from start to finish. I very nearly chickened out, but in the end I just went down and it wasn’t too bad! I still don’t like the free fall bit… I hate the way it makes my stomach feel. I’m thinking of maybe trying bungee jumping or sky diving in Australia, but I’m just taking baby steps at this moment in time.

The following morning we went on two dives with Angel Dives, a French-owned dive company. We were a little unsure about doing some dives in Vietnam as we’d heard the visibility was often poor and wouldn’t match what we’d seen in Thailand, but the visibility was actually crystal clear. We got to see some cool coral and fish, but our dive master who was guiding and leading the dive was more interested in taking underwater pictures of the same thing again and again, so I pulled some silly poses while Kyle took pictures.

Underwater selfie

Underwater selfie

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DCIM100GOPRO

After Vinpearl and our dives, we decided it was high time to leave Nha Trang as it was incredibly touristy and FULL of Russians. When all the signs for restaurants, shops and pharmacies are all written in Russian you know it’s time to leave. We’d met this British expat who’d married and was now living in Vietnam on our dive boat who explained why Nha Trang attracts so many Russians. Apparently Vinpearl is joint owned by a Vietnamese billionaire and the Russian Mafia. They have an agreement that Russians are allowed to fly direct from Russia to Nha Trang without a visa.

He also told us the trials and tribulations of being a Westerner married to a Vietnamese woman and living in Ho Chi Minh City. He told us that shopping was a real problem at the beginning of their marriage. He’d go into a shop and see something he liked and the owner would try and make him pay 5x the price a Vietnamese local would pay. He started going shopping with his wife in the hope they’d charge the normal Vietnamese local price, but because she was married to a Westerner they’d charge her 3x the local price. He said his wife would even try to return to the shop a couple days but the owner always remembered that she was married to a Westerner and would charge 3x the local price. He explained how camera phones changed his life because from that moment on he’d just take a picture of what he wanted and his wife would then go and buy it for him – without getting ripped off. I asked him what he missed most about England and he said SAUSAGES – pork and apple ones. He misses them so much that he bought a sausage maker to make his own.

Next stop: Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City

Custom made in Hoi An, Vietnam

After our day out with Mr Trung, we cycled back to Hoi An and dabbled with the idea of getting something custom made. Kyle was thinking about suit and I was considering getting a pair of sandals made. We decided to check out our hotel’s sister’s shop to get a quote for a suit. At this point we were only CONSIDERING getting anything made…

We went into T&C Tailors (our hotel’s sister’s tailor) and were given a Next (!) catalogue to get an idea of the type of suit we wanted. We flicked through the catalogue but found it difficult to decide just by looking at pictures of men posing in suits. The owner didn’t have the right colour fabric that we were looking for and was trying to push us to buy a suit in another colour for $150. We told the woman that it was way too high and she dropped her price to $130. Kyle told her that he wanted to pay $100 max and the woman said no, so I walked out the shop. The woman by this point was being VERY pushy. As soon as I walked out the shop, the woman agreed to do it for $100, but by that point we weren’t interested in having a suit made by T&C Tailors.

We then went on the search for a good shoemaker and found one with an excellent reputation on tripadvisor. We went to the Thien Friendly Shoe Shop and it was absolutely packed with people trying on shoes that they had custom made. An assistant told me to look around the shop at the shoes they’d previously made, flick through their catalogues, or show them a picture of what you’re looking for. You could even have a shoe you already own ‘copied’. I’d been looking for a Tropezienne style sandal since we arrived in Thailand but with no luck. I found a picture on the internet of what I wanted and she printed it, and then asked me what colour I wanted. She gave me several huge wheels of various red leathers… several wheels just of red leathers! It was hard to choose… but I finally found a red leather that I liked, my foot measurements were taken and I was told to come back tomorrow for a fitting.

The picture of the sandal I wanted

The picture of the sandal I wanted

The following day at breakfast we felt the repercussions of saying no to a suit by T&C Tailors, our hotel’s sister’s shop. One of the members of staff rudely interrupted our breakfast to ask us why we didn’t buy a suit at her sister’s shop. We told her that we weren’t interested and she kept telling us that we MUST buy one and that we should go there right now. We couldn’t quite believe that she had the audacity to bother us while we were eating breakfast about a suit. That was T&C Tailor and Nhi Trung Hotel’s last chance… they definitely lost our business!

After spending the day walking around Hoi An, we went back to Thien Friendly Shoe Shop for my sandal fitting. On first try they were absolutely perfect, and exactly what I was looking for. For 20 pounds I chose every little detail of the shoe from the finish to the buckle. Pretty good price really!

The shoe shop told us there was a tailor across the road that was number 1 on tripadvisor. We went to Hoa Nang Sunny Cloth Shop to have a browse and a chat, and the owner was very professional and didn’t push us to buy anything at all. Her policy is if you don’t like the finished product, don’t pay. While Kyle talked suits with the owner, I looked around the shop at the different styles of dresses they’d previously made. I saw a plain cotton dress that I liked and I tried it on for size. Within five minutes of walking into the shop I’d already had my measurements taken, chosen a fabric, pattern, neckline, the length, and told to come back tomorrow for a fitting. I entered the shop with no intention of buying anything!

A rubbish picture of me at my dress fitting!

A rubbish picture of me at my dress fitting!

Kyle trying on his suit!

Kyle trying on his suit!

A day with Mr Trung, Hoi An

The following morning we were met by Mr Trung at our hotel at 8.15am. He’d even brought me a sun hat to wear so that I didn’t get burnt! We rent bikes and cycled 15 minutes out of town to the local fish market where he explained the young fishermen in his village came here to sell the fish they’ve caught at 1am everyday. We then cycled to his fishing village and he gave us a small history of his village. Mr Trung was really sweet and spoke good English – although he often used ‘sorry’ when he met ‘umm’

‘Sorry I now give you a history of my fishing village…’

Local fish market

Local fish market

He then took us to the pottery part of the village where we had a go making a pot on a wheel… The wheel was operated by a lady kicking the wheel every 5 seconds. I wasn’t very good at it but Kyle admitted he’d regularly attended pottery camp when he was young. He was actually pretty good at it! The pots are then left out to dry in the sun for 2 days before being put in a kiln.

Spinning the wheel

Spinning the wheel

Having a go on the wheel!

Having a go on the wheel!

Mr Trung then took us to a pond to do a spot of fishing. I’d never caught a fish before so it was pretty exciting. The fishing pole was pretty basic and just made out of bamboo. I managed to catch at least five fish but I absolutely hated taking the fish off the hook and throwing it back into the water. I hated the way it was struggling and flapping about in my hand – I genuinely felt sorry for the fish. For a second I even dabbled with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, but that was quickly forgotten when Mr Trung took us to his house for a cooking lesson and lunch with his family.

I caught a fish!

I caught a fish!

Kyle thinking about catching fish

Kyle thinking about catching fish

Mrs Trung taught us how to make a chilli, lemongrass and garlic marinade which we then put on a freshly caught white snapper and BBQ’d in a banana leaf. We made and ate so much food that we had little food babies.

Cooking lesson with Mr Trung

Cooking lesson with Mr Trung

Spring Rolls

Spring Rolls

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White Snapper in a banana leaf

White Snapper in a banana leaf

After the cooking and all the eating, we had some fresh tea and talked to Mr Trung about his life. He explained that used to be a teacher but was now retired, and that he works a couple hours an evening in Hoi An at a restaurant in the hope he’ll convince someone to go on his tour. He explained that he had to keep working to pay for his daughter’s education. (School in Vietnam is not free).

Mr Trung and his family

Mr Trung and his family

I really enjoyed the tour with Mr Trung and felt quite honoured that he’d taken us to his fishing village and introduced us to his family. It also felt much better to give your money to a local person rather than a huge tour operator.

xx

Day 1 in Hoi An, Vietnam

With train tickets in hand we arrived at Hue’s train station in good time for the 10.39 service to Danang for Hoi An. At 10.39 there was no train in sight and it was only an hour later that a train pulled into the platform for Danang. If you need to catch a connecting train in South East Asia you need to give yourself a minimum five hour window to ensure you make it in time! The train we got on had come from Hanoi and its final destination was Saigon in some 30 hours. Some crazy people actually do the 36 hour journey in one leg and had enough food with them for a couple of days. I don’t know how they do it though because I was feeling very, very queasy just after four hours on the train. It was a very bumpy yet scenic ride.

When we finally reached Danang some hours later we took a taxi into Hoi An and went to our hotel. The receptionist at the Nhi Trung Hotel gave us some spiel about not listening to people who tell you to come to their tailor (Hoi An has like a million tailors) as the price will be really expensive because they’ll add 30% commission. She said we’d be better off visiting her sister’s tailor and we’d get 10% off our bill. At this point we weren’t even looking to have anything made…

Where Krabi had massage parlours, Hoi An had tailors, and within seconds of walking out of our hotel we were hassled by a random lady on a motorbike trying to sell us a suit. We then spent the afternoon walking around the charming and picturesque town of Hoi An. It was quite different to anything we’d seen in Vietnam with its brightly coloured buildings and streets lined with glowing lanterns come nightfall. Plus, the polluted air of Hanoi and motorbikes was nowhere to be found. Hoi An is a simply stunning little town.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An

Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An

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We stopped for dinner at a restaurant by the riverfront and enjoyed glasses of what they call ‘fresh beer’ or ‘bia Hoi’ in Vietnamese for 15p a glass. After dinner our waiter like everyone in Hoi An wanted to sell us something. We couldn’t even have dinner without a million people trying to sell us origami cards, peanuts or friendship bracelets. One little girl begged us to buy something so that her parents could afford to send her to school. Anyway… our waiter asked us if we wanted to go on a tour of his fishing village the following day. We were a bit skeptical at first but he brought out several note books with written testimonies in every language going. We decided to take a leap of faith and give our money to a local rather than a pushy hotel owner.

Another pre-wedding shot!

Another pre-wedding shot!

'Bia Hoi' - 15p a glass!

‘Bia Hoi’ – 15p a glass!

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Beautiful lanterns in Hoi An

Beautiful lanterns in Hoi An

Hué, Vietnam

After our cruise in Halong Bay we returned to Hanoi for a few hours before getting on the sleeper bus to Hué. Unfortunately as we were the last ones on the bus, we were assigned sleeper bunks right at the back of the bus next to the toilets. :-(.

The bunks at the back of the bus were clumped together and it was like a double bed for three people. The bed situation was fine at the beginning of the trip, but then the bus driver would randomly stop on the motorway and pick people up to make some extra money. We soon had a delightful Vietnamese guy who stank of alcohol join us in our bunk. It was like we’d arranged a sleepover with a strange Vietnamese guy, and it was way too close for comfort. Our Vietnamese friend, we soon learned, was very, very restless. He’d also never heard of putting his phone on silent and played games on his phone all night long. He eventually stopped and we fell asleep only to be awoken at 5.30am with more games!! Plus by this point the toilet was really starting to smell. I couldn’t wait to get off!!

We finally arrived in Hué and were soon surrounded by tuk tuks and touts trying to sell us a night in a hotel or a tour. It was crazy and too much after that nightmare bus journey. We managed to get away safely and into a cab to our lovely hotel.

Hué was the the capital of Vietnam during the Nguygen Dynasty, which ruled Vietnam between 1802 and 1945. We decided to rent a motorbike for the day to visit the imperial city and royal tombs.

On the motorbike

On the motorbike

At the Tomb of Khai Dinh

At the Tomb of Khai Dinh

Khai Dinh's tomb

Khai Dinh’s tomb

Kyle trying to be one of the statues!

Kyle trying to be one of the statues!

Khai Dinh's Tomb

Khai Dinh’s Tomb

Khai Dinh's Tomb

Khai Dinh’s Tomb

Khai Dinh's Tomb

Khai Dinh’s Tomb

Thien Mu Pagoda

Thien Mu Pagoda

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Next stop: Hoi An!

xx

Halong Bay, Vietnam

North Vietnam is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage site, Halong Bay. We booked a 2 day/1 night trip with Dragon Cruise with a night aboard a ship. We were picked up at 8.30 am and we drove three and half hours to Halong Bay. On the way there our driver conveniently needed to take a ‘rest stop’ at a silk and limestone factory for half an hour… We were told to look around to see if we liked anything.

Kyle wanted to buy this shirt at the 'rest stop'.

Kyle wanted to buy this shirt at the ‘rest stop’.

We finally arrived at Halong Bay port where we took a long tail boat to the boat where we’d be spending the night. When we arrived on the ship we were given a free welcome drink of lukewarm tea and then we were given the keys to our cabin. Our cabin was actually pretty nice and looked vaguely like the pictures in the brochure! Since going on we on this gap year we’ve learnt to take everything you’re told or shown with a pinch of salt.

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We had a nice lunch aboard the ship and then cruised along Halong Bay taking in the beautiful scenery. We then made a stop at ‘Amazing Cave’ which was actually pretty amazing. It was absolutely huge and our guide had obviously been here many times as he kept pointing out stalactites and stalagmites that looked like a couple kissing, a fat buddha, or a chicken… It was all very amusing and our group enjoyed coming up with ridiculous ideas of what the rock formations looked like.

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After the cave we were stopped at a beach for an hour for ‘sunbathing and swimming’. The water was absolutely filthy though from all the boats and sewage. Halong Bay is beautiful but it’s being destroyed very, very quickly by all the tourists. The guide said he hopes that there will be an increase of a million tourists visiting Halong Bay in the coming years! I couldn’t think of anything worse for Halong Bay.

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What really made the trip though was all the different people we met and their stories from their travels. There were about 20 people on our boat from all corners of the earth – US, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Germany, Holland and France. There was a 36 year old Australian guy who told me that he was having a midlife crisis and decided to quit his job and travel for a year.

There was also a group of Americans with some pretty wild tales of their travels in South East Asia. They told us how they went to a shooting range in Cambodia and how for $10 extra they could shoot an AK47. They decided to do it and were told to wait 10 minutes while they prepared the AK47. The shooting range then apparently brought out a duck and told them to use it as a target for the AK47. They were apparently a bit hesitant about shooting a duck, but they decided to do it. Apparently the Cambodians then took the dead duck and then fed it to an alligator. It was a really horrible story actually.

The food on the boat had been a bit hit and miss. They’d bring out small portions of fish and meat and then a huge bowl of rice. We felt it was really stingey given the price we’d paid for the cruise. Breakfast, however, the following morning was a hilarious affair. We were served a small plate of cut up frankfurter sausages and something that resembled an omelette to share between four of us, and then the biggest pile of toast I’ve ever seen. They put like 24 slices of toast on a plate for a table of four! 24 slices of stale toast. The guide then went around asking everyone if they enjoyed their breakfast and one of the American guys told him it was ‘the most amazing breakfast I’ve ever had’, which made me chuckle.

All in all we had a lovely time in Halong Bay!

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Hanoi Hilton, Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

We decided to spend another day in Hanoi before taking a cruise along Halong Bay. We started the day weaving in and out of Hanoi’s motorbikes to make it to Hoa Lo Prison.

Hoa Lo Prison was built by French colonialists during 1900s and was used by the French to torture and interrogate political prisoners rallying for independence. The prison even had the guillotine on show that was used to execute prisoners. After Vietnam’s Independence from the French in 1954, the Hoa Lo Prison was actually then used by the Vietnamese to incarcerate American POWs who’d been shot down during bombing raids.

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The Hoa Lo Prison today tells a very different story of the treatment of the American POWs at the hands of the Northern Vietnamese. The prison denies any knowledge of any torture or interrogations of American POWs. The museum paints a very different picture with photos showing American POWs enjoying their stay at the prison. The photos had captions like’Americans making Christmas Dinner’, ‘American pilots listen to Ho Chi Minh’s speech’, ‘American pilots enjoy playing games in the yard’ and so forth. All the pictures suggest the prison was more like a hotel and the museum even goes on to how say American POWs called it the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
I found the prison a little disappointing with all its Hanoi Hilton propaganda and its inability to show both sides of the story.

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After the Hoa Lo Prison we walked to the Temple of Literature which is also Hanoi’s university. The Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius, who put a lot of emphasis on the importance of studying and scholarship. Like the lake yesterday, the Temple of Literature and the surrounding grounds were full of students in graduation gowns and traditional Vietnamese dress taking pre-graduation photos. I still can’t get my read around pre-graduation/weddings photos but hey!

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We then decided to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. I’d read in the guide book that despite Ho Chi Minh’s desire to be cremated, the Vietnamese buried him in the mausoleum. You can apparently spend 10 seconds in front of his preserved body in his glass casket. We heard the guards at the mausoleum were very strict: no bare flesh, no smiling, laughing or talking, you must be silent and walk in two lines, and hands can’t be in your pockets, nor can they be crossed. We thought it sounded like an interesting thing to go and see, but unfortunately I’d read the entrance times wrong and the mausoleum was closed!

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Next stop : Halong Bay!

Hanoi Kids Club

After the Museum of Ethnology we headed back to our hotel as I’d arranged a free tour of the Old and French quarter of Hanoi with Hanoi Kids Club. The basic idea of Hanoi Kids Club is that students will give you a free tour of the city so that they can practise their English.

We were met by two lovely Vietnamese girls at our hotel and they took us to various sites. We started off at St. Joseph’s Cathedral which was built by the French and its style is meant to replicate Notre Dame in Paris. Visiting the cathedral prompted a conversation about religion and the girls explained that about 80% of Vietnamese people aren’t religious. I was really surprised by this because Thailand was so religious in comparison. The two girls said they were atheist and when I told them I was Catholic they had lots of questions about how often I went to church, whether I got in trouble if I didn’t go every week or if I had to give the church some of my salary.

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We then made our way to Hoan Kiem Lake or ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’ in English. They told us about the legend behind the lake’s mysterious name. Apparently emperor Le Loi was boating on the lake one day when the Golden Turtle God came to the surface and asked for his magic sword… Anyway there were loads of what looked like couples on their wedding days and students in graduation robes around the lake with photographers. I said to one of the girls that it must be their wedding day or something and she said:

‘Oh no! It’s not her wedding day. These are pre-wedding day pictures!’

The photographers were taking pre-wedding and pre-graduation pictures! The girls explained that you would then have these pictures on display at the wedding (or graduation party) for your family and friends to see. She was so surprised that we don’t have a ‘pre-wedding pictures’ tradition in England. She asked what English people show their guests at their weddings and couldn’t get her head around it.

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Seeing the couples and graduation robes prompted a conversation about what they were studying at university and their goals in life. One girl said she was studying accounting at university but said it was actually her parents’ decision. She said she would have liked to have studied tourism and become a tour guide but her parents had discouraged it. Her mum had told her that later in life it’s difficult to be a tour guide and a mother, whereas you can work part-time as an accountant, earn good money, and still be a good mother.

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We then went to the French Quarter of Hanoi and saw their version of Paris’s Opera. It wasn’t spectacular but it was nice all the same. We then went inside this swanky hotel called the Metropole which still had its bomb shelter from the Vietnamese war. It was a five star hotel and when we walked past prices for a day in the hotel’s spa, one of the girls was so shocked that the price was nearly the same as her mum’s monthly salary.

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I’m really glad we did the tour with Hanoi Kids Club because we definitely got a sense of what it was like to be a young person in Vietnam, and because they took us to this really cool cafe in this back alley with a really nice view of the lake. The two girls encouraged us to try the Vietnamese ‘Egg Coffee’ where egg whites are used to make the froth of the coffee. Apparently it had been invented by a bar tender at the Metropole Hotel during the Vietnamese war when a guest had asked for a Cappuccino but they had no fresh milk. The froth is made from egg whites and condensed milk, and it was actually quite nice!

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We were on the third floor of this cafe and on the way down we passed a room with an altar. They told us it was an ancestor altar and that you put pictures of dead family members, bowls of water and candles on it. It’s basically a shrine to them and you do it to maintain a good relationship with the dead. I asked the girls if they had an ancestor altar in their homes and they said yes, which surprised me because they said they weren’t religious! It seems like quite a religious or spiritual thing to do..

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