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Today's topic is: Vietnamese Cities that Start with the Letter "H"

Written on: Sunday December 21st, 2008

Anxious to leave China, I opted for the three hour flight in lieu of the 48 hour train ride.  Arriving at midnight, I found myself in Hanoi, Vietnam, waiting for my shared taxi to fill up and take me to the Old Quarter of town.  In the van I struck up a conversation with two other travellers: Ksenia and Dennis from Russia.  We ended up staying in the same hotel and, since it was late, made plans to hang out the next day. 

The next day was brilliantly different from China.  Warm and sunny, it felt good to leave the jacket in the hotel while we explored the town.  After a quick lunch we meandered around Hoan Kiem Lake, taking in the sights of the city.  Hanoi was an extremely busy town.  Small shops lined the streets, and interestingly, each block is dedicated to one trade or item for sale.  The block on which our hotel was located was full of small hardware stores, one after the other.  Before that the street was lined with glass merchants, and one block further away housed all the tin workers.  It seemed like an unusual set up, but apparently worked well.  Similar to the rest of Asia, the traffic was a bit crazy, consisting mostly of mopeds zipping around pedestrians.  The horn was seemingly every Vietnamese motorists favorite item, as the perpetual beeps drown out all other noise in the city.  After the lake I introduced my new comrades to geocaching...or finding 'secrets', as they affectionately referred to it.  We bagged one and headed back to the hotel...they wanted a couple hours to relax and I wanted to go for a run.

Based upon the recommendation of a friend, they wanted to try snake for dinner tonight!  Seriously?  OK, let's do it!  We caught a cab to the outskirts of town, where the infamous 'snake village' exists.  We chose a restaurant and prepared for the show.  The first step was killing the snake, an occurance that K and D chose not to witness.  But I caught it all on video.  First they slit the snake at the base of its head, collecting the blood into a small glass.  To this glass some vodka was added, and our first taste of snake was prepared: snake blood cocktail.  Fortunately all that could be tasted was the vodka.  Next they cut out the still beating heart and offered it to us to eat.  We all refused.  Sipping a more conventional drink (beer), we waited briefly as they brought out eight successive courses of snake prepared in different ways.  There were two soups, fried bits of snake with olive oil and herbs, grilled snake pieces that reminded me of squid, snake skin chips, snake spring rolls and the ominous looking snake wine, which was wine fermented in a vat of snake heads!  If you got over the negative mindset of what you're actually ingesting, a couple of the dishes weren't bad. 

The next day we set off for Halong Bay, a world heritage site three hours from Hanoi.  This place, although touristy, was teeming with natural beauty.  We hopped aboard our boat and sailed toward the series of islands just offshore.  There were hundreds of limestone monoliths jutting out of the water, towering up to 200 meters above the sea.  Hidden among the islands were dozens of caves, adding an even more exotic element to this place.  We spent one night on the boat before touring more of the area.  There was a floating city of 1600 people, complete with a school and ATM outlet.  There were merchants on boats, paddling right up to your berth to offer food and beverages.  But the highlight had to be walking through the immense cave system of Thien Cung.  This truly was quite spectacular to experience, and more than made up for the sketchy orgnaization and customer service provided by the tour operator.

Returning to Hanoi, we boarded the overnight bus to Hue in central Vietnam.  Our plan was to contiue south, but the bus didn't depart for another six hours, which allowed us time to grab a bite and explore.  We all hopped in a rickshaw and had the drivers take us to The Forbidden City.  It paled in comparison to it's Beijing counterpart, but did offer some interesting sights all the same.  After touring the temple, we stopped by a museum of American military artifacts left over from the war.  It was a strange feeling to look at the tanks and think of the destruction they caused so many years ago.

Leaving Hue we once again boarded the overnight sleeper, this time en route for Hoi An, just a three hour jaunt south.  This town was a shopper's paradise, offering loads of Vietnamese paraphenalia at ridiculously reasonable prices.  K and D bought some clothing, beautiful lamps and even had a pair of silk shoes made.  I opted to buy nothing in an attempt to keep my pack weight down, for tomorrow I would don it again as we headed for the beach!