Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Exploring Vietnam: Finding inspiration at Ha Long Bay

Day 5 and 6 of our continuing trip in Vietnam brought my wife and I to H Long Bay. This was a part of the trip I had been particularly looking forward to, not only for the pure pleasure of seeing the famous islands, but because I knew they would help inspire me for a world I’m building for my upcoming Zoone book series.

About Hạ Long Bay

Hạ Long Bay is a world heritage site containing 1,969 islands (our guide informed us that we could easily remember the number because 1969 was the year that Ho Chi Minh died). The islands are limestone cliffs topped with tropical forests, and they jut out of the water in numerous shapes.

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The name Hạ Long means “Descending Dragon.” According to legend, in the early days of Vietnam, the people were invaded by an army from the north, via the sea. The people prayed for a miracle and a mother dragon, along with her children, descended to repel the attacking ships. The dragons gushed fire, but also jewels and jade, which became the islands that now sprinkle the emerald waters and form a natural barrier to protect Vietnam.

As the story goes, after defeating the invaders, the dragons fell in love with the realm and decided to settle in the bay. Where the mother dragon settled is now called Hạ Long, and where the children settled is Bái Tử Long Bay.

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Getting to Hạ Long Bay

You can find places to book tours to Hạ Long Bay (and many other sites in northern Vietnam) on almost every street corner in Hanoi. Prices and quality vary. Most hotels will also offer to book tours as well, which is the avenue we took. Our friend Shaughnessy, who was staying at a different hotel, decided to book the same tour as us throughout hotel. So, the next morning, he got up with the first honking scooters to trek across town and meet us at our hotel, where the tour bus was coming to fetch us.

It is about a four-hour ride to Hạ Long Bay. The first part is spent navigating the busy streets of Hanoi, and then it’s out to the countryside. However, the same principles of driving in the city apply to the country—our bus driver would eagerly slip in and out of lanes of traffic (one of those lanes being the shoulder of the road) and would often pass vehicles without the slightest concern for the oncoming trucks speeding directly towards us! Having been to enough countries where this is the norm, I didn’t find this part too concerning, but others on the bus were gripping their seats a little tightly!

Our guide was named Viet An, but recommended we just call him “Andy” as foreigners usually bungled the pronunciation of his name. Along the way, he told us a few stories about Hanoi and gave us some advice about crossing the street. According to Andy, the smallest is always right on the streets of Hanoi; scooter beats car, and pedestrian beats scooter. The pedestrian is always right and scooters and cars will do everything to avoid hitting them. Not exactly our experience in Hanoi!

Speaking of scooters, we saw a lot of them on the arteries leading in and out of Hanoi, and many of them seated entire families. I noticed a bit of a system in terms of how the family is ordered:

  • If only a mother and child, the child goes in the front.
  • If mother and two children, the order is mother, smallest child, oldest child.
  • If entire family, the order is smallest child, father, next child, mother.

I saw a few variations on the above, but this seemed to be the main approach. What was even more fascinating was the number of riders who were sitting behind the driver of the scooter, completely asleep. The way the scooters swerve in and out of traffic . . . I thought for sure someone would fall enough. But, of course, they didn’t. What seems completely mind-boggling to the Western mind is just a way of life here.

Our journey to Hạ Long Bay included the obligatory half-hour stop at a giant tourist mall. We didn’t really care much to buy anything (well, except Marcie), but it was good to stretch our legs after being on the cramped bus for an hour and a half.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination. Despite it being low season, there were countless buses unloading at the piers, and swarms of tourists clamouring to get on their boats.

Marcie, Shaughnessy, and I instantly regretted not packing warmer clothing. The wind was up, there was a chill in the air, and rain was threatening. Thankfully, in Vietnam, there is a store pretty much everywhere for tourists, so we bought some fleeces at the pier (mine only cost $20).

Setting out into Hạ Long Bay

I find the problem with any tour is the busy itinerary. We were loaded onto our boat, assigned rooms, and fed lunch, and by that time our vessel was speeding towards our first stop on the tour. There was not a lot of time to rest, relax, and dwell on the gorgeous landscape!

Our boat had three decks and sufficient space for all the passengers. Our cabins included a large bed and our own private bathroom.

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Of course, we didn’t intend to spend much time in our cabins anyway; as soon as we could, we set out onto the decks to gaze at the stunning rock formations.

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I had always wanted to come to Hạ Long Bay, partially because I had seen its beautiful landscape in advertisements and film. The James Bond films, The Man with the Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies were partially filmed here, as were the more recent movies Pan and King Kong: Skull Island.

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So, between myths and movies, I feel there is a certain element of adventure invested in the island-cliffs of Hạ Long Bay. Shaughnessy and I kept an eye out for giant gorillas, but before long, the boat came to a stop: a place to go kayaking near a pearl farm harboured in a ring of islands. We were only given 40 minutes to kayak, so Marcie and I quickly hopped in our vessel and began fervently paddling to see as much as we could.

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We made it far enough to see one of the famous islands with the head of an eagle (you can see it in the photo below, in between the two other island clusters).

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The shacks you see on the left side of the photo are part of the pearl farm. A visit to the pearl farm is included in a three-day, two-night tour of Hạ Long Bay, but we had opted for a one-night tour, so did not get to visit the farm directly.

Then, back to our boat, and we were whisked off to Ti Top Island. The island got its name from Ghermann Titov, a Russian hero in the second World War. The beach has a crescent-shaped beach and series of steps that you can climb to the top.

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We had just enough time to either go swimming or climbing, and we opted for climbing. Most of the other tourists made the same decision. There were scores of them ascending the mountain—at least to begin with. The way is steep, with over 400 steps, and not everyone could make it.

But, if you can make it, the view is spectacular.

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We snapped many photos, but the sun soon started to set and I had noticed that there were no lights on the steep stairs coming up, so I urged Shaughnessy and Marcie to start heading down before it was pitch-dark. The stairs twist and turn, and there are railings, but the last thing we wanted was to go tumbling down and break something on an island too far from civilization.

At the bottom, we waited to be picked up by our taxi boat and watched visitors far braver than us go for a swim.

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Then our taxi arrived, and we all piled on. It was at this point that I remembered that we had been brought over in two separate boat loads, but now, we loaded everyone onto the same taxi. The boat was really struggling to leave the island and some of the passengers at the back even hopped out to push us. Then the pilot frantically began moving us about to balance the boat.

Well, it was only a ten-minute ride, and we ultimately made it without incident. We watched Ti Top island disappear into the mist then arrived back at our main boat.

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Fishing for squid

The night was free time, so while many people chatted or watched a movie on the main deck (unsurprisingly, they were showing King Kong: Skull Island), I decided to wander out and try my hand at squid fishing with our guide, Andy.

It was only he and I, and I quite enjoyed hanging with him and plying him with questions about Vietnam life.

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We directed a giant light from the boat into the water to try and trick the squid to rising to the surface and snap at our lures. We had no such luck that night, but I did find out a lot about Vietnamese cuisine by picking Andy’s brain about the various things I had seen being sold on the streets of Hanoi. He explained to me recipes for preparing eels and these types of river worms that I had seen an old lady selling. Apparently the worms are fried up with onions and spices and made into a sort of patty.

He also told me there were many islands in Hạ Long Bay inhabited by monkeys. He said sometimes you could hear them shriek—but, though I kept my eyes and ears open, I found no hint of them during our tour, just like that elusive King Kong.

The boat children

The next morning, Marcie got up at 6 am to go do tae chi with Andy on the upper deck of the ship.

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I wasn’t quite that earnest, so I wandered out to the bow of the ship and watched the islands in the mist. It was while I was lingering here, amidst the mist, that I heard a plaintive voice call out, “Something to buy? Something to buy?”

I peered over the edge of the ship and noticed a girl right below me, piloting a flat-bed boat full of snacks and drinks. It was a floating corner store! She was moving from cruiser to cruiser, offering her wares. It was a little to early for me to entertain a warm soda pop, so I thanked her and she set off to find custom at the next ship.

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Afterwards, Andy explained to Marcie that this girl was one of the boat children. They live with their families on their junks. Traditionally, they make a living by fishing, but now they are clearly trying to adapt to the tourist industry. Andy said many of the children live their whole lives on the boats and receive no formal education, never learning to read or write. The government is now trying to instil regulations to make sure the children go to school. I found the situation fascinating and my mind began percolating with ideas for a story . . .

Hang Sửng Sốt Cave

After a hasty breakfast, we set out on another mini-tour, this time of Hang Sửng Sốt cave, a UNESCO world heritage site. Hang Sửng Sốt, which means “surprising” or “amazing”, is a giant network of caverns on Bo Hon Island. It was originally discovered by the French during their colonial rule, but then forgotten about and rediscovered in recent years by a Vietnamese fisherman trying to find haven from a storm.

Nowadays, it’s a busy tourist site! Andy got us there ahead of the morning rush, but even so, the place was still teeming with people.

The caves are huge, and photos don’t really do them any justice, but if you examine the two photos below, you will spot people in amidst the stalactites, and that might give you a sense of scale.

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A path has been constructed through the caverns and everything is safe and well-lit, affording clear views of the alien-like rock formations. The guides eagerly point out the many shapes to be seen—this one looks like the mother dragon, this one looks like King Kong, and so forth.

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The caves were unexpected inspiration for me. I had not really researched them beforehand, but I found them overwhelming in scope and scale and was instantly put into world-building mode. I kept kicking myself for having left my sketchbook on the boat. I consoled myself by snapping as many pictures as I could and then making a promise to myself to sketch as soon as I got back to my book.

It takes a good hour or so to go through the caves. There are many outcroppings that allow visitors to view the water. And, of course, on those outcroppings there are also souvenir stores! At the largest outcropping, you can see a pair of giant stone “feet” dangling off the edge. Perhaps some troll got caught daydreaming here at sunrise.

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Here is a view of the bay from the outcropping, showing the pier where the water taxis dock after ferrying tourists from the larger ships.

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Some time to brainstorm

After leaving the caves and returning to our main boat, I snatched up my sketchbook, flew to the top deck of the ship and began jotting down my thoughts and inspirations. I had the entire deck to myself and, to be honest, this was my favourite part of the entire tour. The boat was on the move, the islands were sailing solemnly past, and I had time to just be.

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Well, that was it for our tour. The boat headed back to dock and it was back on the bus towards Hanoi. It was our last full day in this country.

I have loved my time in Vietnam. The people are inventive, hard-working, and earnest, carving existences for themselves in what would be impossible circumstances for most of us hailing from a western sentiment.

Farewell to Vietnam . . . and, now, on to Cambodia!

 

 

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Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 4: birds, burning, and bumbling around

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 4: birds, burning, and bumbling around

Day 4 of our ongoing trip in Hanoi, Vietnam, and we spent the day meeting up with a  friend and just discovering more about this city.

By complete coincidence, it turned out that a friend of ours from back home was planning a trip to Southeast Asia at the exact same time as us; today, our paths finally crossed.

Shaughnessy arrived late the previous night from Bangkok, but had been in no shape to go out, so we connected with him this morning. We decided that an easy thing to do would be to take an electric bus tour of the city. It only cost us 300,000 VND to rent the bus and driver for an hour’s tour of the city. Marcie and I had walked so many of these labyrinthine streets already, but it was neat to see from this new perspective, whipping around in this tuk-tuk-style vehicle.

In truth, we spent most of the trip catching up with Shaughnessy and hearing about his adventures in Thailand and comparing stories. One thing that did catch my eye, was the old city gate.

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Built in 1749, this is all that remains of the wall that once surrounded the old city of Hanoi.

After the tour came to an end, we caught some lunch, then ended up helping Shaughnessy finding a hotel for a night. Seems like he had bungled up his booking, so had no place to stay for the night, so we ended up scavenging the city in attempt to find him a room. One hotel sent us to another, then another, and each meant another trek through the chaotic city.

And chaotic it was. You see, when we started out in the early afternoon, the streets were quite sedate (I find it always quiets down here at that time of day), but, as our venture continued,  I could feel the energy on the streets palpably increase until it reached a full frenzy. Welcome to Friday evening in Hanoi, I guess!

So, despite this being our fourth day in the city, there were all kinds of new sights to be seen, including:

  • A rooster (crowing like it was sun rise)
  • Many people burning votives (offerings)—so a lot of open flames on all the already-perilous sidewalks
  • An old man peeing in the middle of an ornamental garden
  • People with super-loaded bicycle carts of goods to sell

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  • Song birds in cages lining the back alleys
  • An infant girl strutting out from her mom’s shop, onto the sidewalk, hiking up her dress, and peeing like no tomorrow.

To be honest, too much peeing for my liking . . . but the song birds were a surprise. We have been down so many alleys and narrow streets, but today was the first day we saw so many birds out. Perhaps, it’s a custom peculiar to Fridays? My preliminary research hasn’t revealed much except that keeping song birds is a cultural customs here.

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As for the burning of offerings, it seems to be something done according to specific days in the lunar calendar. I saw people burning paper and different types of colourful fabric, including felt.

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Here’s a few pictures I tried to snap while we navigated the frenzy:

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In the midst of all this, we passed a school, and got to watch the amusing and universal scene of children scampering out of their classrooms on the last day of the week. Except here in Vietnam, there are no parents waiting in their cars to collect them. They’re waiting on their scooters. And on the children jumped, and off they zoomed, into the moving maze.

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Eventually, we sorted out a hotel for Shaughnessy, and Marcie and I and made our way back to our hotel. Along the way, I needed to fetch a pair of trousers I had purchased in the morning that had needed tailoring. What an expert job, and completed within the day!

After a quick rest, we headed back out into the streets to reconnect with Shaughnessy and visit the Friday night life of Hanoi. The whole of the old quarter is entered around Hoàn Kiém Lake. The road that rings the lake is usually teeming with traffic, but on the weekend nights they close it to the traffic and it’s magically converted into a family playground. Instead of incessant honking, you hear live music, chatter, laughter, and all the sounds of mirth that go with a world suddenly being released from the grim reality of the workday.

We had a lot of fun wandering around the lake, watching all the activities. We began at the enormous stage in one of the main round-about. Music blasted from this so loudly that you could feel the thrum in the pavement. I think there is a big concert happening there on Saturday night, but on this night, it was just pre-recorded music playing, with some dancers.

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Heading away from the stage, we found families immersed in many different entertainments. Children played skipping rope, or built wooden towers, or drove around in toy cars.

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There were live musicians, karaoke, fortune tellers, and, of course, plenty of treats to eat.

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The buildings and the remnants of old architecture were lit up. In short, we were in the midst of a festival!

nightmarket_archThe weather was perfect; the rain from earlier that day had abated and we found ourselves in mild twenty-degree weather.  We eventually made our way back to the main square and ventured up the market street. Like the main ring road, it had been closed to scooters and, here, countless vendors (and I mean, countless) had set up to sell their wares. To be honest, I didn’t find this part very interesting—it was just more of the same regular items that you can find everyday on the streets. I was hoping to find something antique or mysterious (like perhaps a doorknocker!), but if that section of the market exists, I haven’t found it (yet)!

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Well, that was are day (and night). Here are a few shots of the various details I discovered during our wanderings.

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Next up, a two-day tour of Halong Bay!

 

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 3: prisons, papers, and puppets

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 3: prisons, papers, and puppets

Another day in the city of Hanoi and my wife and I continue our explorations.

The only thing we had planned was some pre-booked tickets for a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show in the evening, so the whole day was ours to discover.

We decided to set into the city and make our way towards Hỏa Lò prison in the old quarter. This historical museum was once a functioning prison, built by French Colonial powers in 1896. It was originally designed to detain Vietnamese resisters and it’s quite chilling to see the different cell blocks. Visitors can visit the block for male prisoners, the block for female prisoners (and their children), and the one for prisoners designated for execution.

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In true French style, two guillotines were installed in the prison to perform said executions, and one is still on site.

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The conditions of the prison are what you would expect—horrible, and nothing brings it home like wandering the cold and dank corridors and cells.

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The museum also features many display cases that exhibit personal items used by the prisoners, plus other grisly objects such as shackles and clubs.

In one of the outer courtyards, you can see segments of what was once the sewer system of the prison. Some prisoners were actually able to escape Hỏa Lò through this sewer grate. They went on to become influential political leaders in Vietnam.

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Another part of the museum focuses on the second phase of the prison: detaining American’s during the Vietnam War. Many prisoners came to Hỏa Lò Prison between 1964 and 1973, including US senator John McCain. These men were treated much better than the Vietnamese were by the French Colonial powers—in fact, an American nickname for the prison was “Hotel Hanoi.”

After we left the museum, we wandered along the wall of the nearby courthouse (also built during French Colonial times) enjoying the textures, colours, and patterns of the blacked stone.

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We passed the courthouse and Marcie discovered a fashionable clothing store that sucked her in like a black hole. I lingered outside, taking in the sights and sounds, when she suddenly reappeared with an expression somewhere between bemusement and anger. When I asked her what was up, she said the lady kicked her out because she was too fat.

“She didn’t actually say that,” I said, and Marcie went on to explain that the lady kept pointing at her body and throwing her hands wide then gesturing to the clothing and narrowing the gap. So, yeah. More or less, she said “too fat.”

We rounded the courthouse and Marcie was instantly cheered, because we found ourselves on a quiet street composed completely of bookstores (well, okay, one shop was a café, but it was full of books, too, and called “The Book Café”).

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We had so much fun exploring the different stores and finding familiar titles, but written in Vietnamese.

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Then, in one shop, I discovered the Vietnamese version of a book by my friend Margriet Ruurs, Stepping Stones, which is a beautifully-conceived picture book about refugees, and illustrated with stones. We felt compelled to buy it! Actually, we ended up buying a few books, even though they were in Vietnamese. Well, what can we say. We’re book people.

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We ventured onward, through the old quarter of Hanoi, absorbing and trying to digest all of the street life. I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but the contrast here is sometimes overwhelming. You can find a boutique clothing store and, next to it, a dingy alley, then a temple, then a humble grill where someone is serving street meat. Many people sell their items right on the sidewalk or by riding up and down the streets on their bikes.

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At one point, I noticed a woman trudging by with a type of styrofoam cooler filled with writhing—well, I can only think to call them worms, though I’m sure they were something else. Larvae? They were most definitely intended for eating. I didn’t stop her to probe for enlightenment.

We also noticed many people in very poor physical condition, such as one woman walking on legs bent at right angles at the ankles, her contorted feet splayed outwards. Still, people carry on here, despite their conditions. It really makes us feel grateful for the clean simplicity of living in Canada.

There are so many textures and small details to notice in Hanoi. It’s hard to capture them all—but I try: doors, shutters, and bits of ornamentation peering out from the clutter of the city.

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Our final adventure of the night was visiting the Thang Long Water Puppet theatre and watching a mesmerizing show.

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Full disclosure: puppets kind of terrify me. It’s their frozen faces and stiff limbs. And the human puppets fit that exact bill, but there were so many other wonderful creatures to be seen in this show: happy ducks, the legendary tortoise of Hoàn Kiém Lake, a playful cat, and dragons that breathed fire (that effect in particular was spectacular).

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The performance consisted of fourteen “mini-shows” chronicling fables and stories from Vietnamese culture. The stage, if you will, is a pool of water and this is where the puppets play. The puppeteers are hidden behind a curtain and wear hip-waders (they came out afterwards for a bow), After leaving the theatre, you can enter the foyer to see many traditional puppets on display.

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Some puppets are also available for sale. Marcie, of course, ended up buying one: a fairy puppet with diaphanous wings.

One more day in Hanoi before heading off on an over-night trip to Halong Bay!

 

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

My wife and I continue to explore the city of Hanoi as part of our “inspircation”—a vacation that involves research and world-building inspiration.

In particular, I’ve come to Vietnam to gather ideas for an upcoming book in my writing schedule (part of the new Zoone series that I’m working on with HarperCollins).

The day did not disappoint, as I found plenty of inspiration . . .

We began our itinerary by venturing out into the spiderweb of streets radiating out from our hotel. Nothing makes you feel as alive as navigating the whirling, buzzing, roaring streets of Hanoi. Back home, I see people crossing the busiest of intersections with their noses firmly planted in their phones, but such habits would lead to certain injury here!

The sidewalks are a maze of people socializing, cooking, selling wares, entreating you for your custom. It’s also not uncommon to suddenly hear a scooter humming from behind you! The paving stones are often uneven and broken. At one point, a car turned into an alley and struck a block of stone fallen away from the sidewalk. The driver did not discern what was going on, so kept pressing the accelerator—only to have the wedge-shaped stone suddenly spit out across the alley like the payload of some ancient catapult. This created quite a stir amongst the onlookers!

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There is always something different to see here. At one moment, you happen upon the most derelict door . . . the next a French Colonial building, painted in bright colours and sharp trim. Then, suddenly, a beautiful tree has insinuated itself into the architecture, its roots and vines twisting upwards through electrical cables.

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The collision of past and present is very apparent here. The scooters weave in and out, but it’s not uncommon to see the riders wearing nón lá (traditional Vietnamese hats), or to suddenly espy a woman wandering along, carrying a quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a bamboo stick).

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So many sights, smells and sounds. Especially sounds. The cacophony of the traffic noise is relentless. Honking is a way of life here. I have fantasies of discovering a shop that specializes entirely in installing, enhancing, and fixing car horns.

Yet . . . these are all things I love about this city. You certainly feel alive. Some people like to go for a beach holiday, but to me, nothing makes me feel more present and clear than exploring a city like this.

In just one day, we’ve become pretty adept at crossing the streets here, drawing on our previous practice in Bangkok. The trick is timing the scooters, cars, tuk tuks, and buses—all coming straight at you at different speeds and angles, and often swerving as they approach.

I should add that most intersections don’t have lights. The ones that do are a bit more manageable, but the ones that don’t—there’s some mystery at play here as to how the drivers and riders on the different intersecting routes sort themselves out. As a pedestrian, there is no opportune moment to cross—you just have to go for it. The key, is never stop moving. You stop, you juke, you jag . . . you’re probably done for.

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Eventually, we did require a break from the din, so we ducked inside the palatial gardens of the National Library of Vietnam. The library was originally founded by the French Colonial government, and it shows in the very European layout of the place. It was amazing to take a few steps off the street and suddenly find ourselves in a place where the traffic was muted and the birds were squawking.

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The library itself featured many old texts and newspapers, many of them in French.

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After the library, we found our way to the Museum of History. We purchased our tickets for a humble fee of 40,000 dong (less than 2 US dollars) and began exploring the gardens. There were many statues here, interspersed with beautiful bonsai-type trees.

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The trees gave me unexpected inspiration for a different world I’m building for Zoone, but I was most intrigued by the statues . . .

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That last one is a mythical tiger. Mythical, I suppose, because of that mischievous grin!

After we had our fill of the gardens, we went inside the museum itself. The museum covers the history of Vietnam from the prehistoric age, through the middle ages of repelling Chinese incursions, to French Colonization.

A couple pieces in particular caught our eye . . .

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This pair of whips jumped out at me (once again, for world-building purposes):

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One is made of bones, the other a manta ray tail.

After a quick lunch, we back-tracked through the city to the Women’s Museum. This is a unique exhibit chronicling the contribution of women in all aspects of Vietnamese society—from child-rearing, textiles, food preparation, agriculture, and even war.  There’s a different floor to cover each aspect.

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The museum is designed around a central installation of these beautifully decorated nón lá:

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I found a lot of unexpected inspiration here—unexpected because so many of the traditions and customs had been previously unfamiliar to me and they really helped me consider some angles for the world I’m building. In particular, I was quite interested to learn that many of the ethnic groups within Vietnam employed a matriarchal approach. So, instead of the woman going to live with the husband’s family, the reverse was the case.

Marcie and I were very captivated by the floor dedicated to women’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They were truly instrumental in that conflict; their strength, determination, and zeal really comes across in the exhibit.

The museum is very modern, incorporating a lot of multimedia, but, for me, I’m always the most attracted to the physical items. Here are some of my favourites that caught my eye . . .

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womens_museum-quang_ganh-two_baskets_bamboo_pole

After the museums, we were pretty tuckered out, so we slogged back to our hotel and arranged traditional Vietnamese massages.

We’ve made arrangements for a tour of Halong Bay towards the end of the week—as for tomorrow, we’ve left it wide open for more exploration and discovery.

 

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 1

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 1

My wife Marcie and I just finished up a creativity camp in Korea and have now made our way south to Vietnam and Cambodia for some must-deserved R&R—and to discover new inspiration.

Visiting Vietnam is a bit trickier than going to other countries, just because of the advance paperwork that has to be completed. Visas have to be sought in advance and, once you arrive at the airport, it’s not a simple matter of going through immigration. You have to actually line up three times—once to hand in your passport and visa documents, once to retrieve them after they have been processed, and then once to go through the regular customs, like you would in any country.

Thankfully, Marcie had us prepared and we went through all the stages without a hitch. The only thing we needed during this time was patience, but we had only been on a five-hour flight from Korea, so weren’t plagued by jet lag, like so many other travellers we saw, scratching their heads as they tried to sort out the various steps.

Marcie had also arranged a car for us, so, once we cleared customs and collected our luggage, we were quickly on our way. Our first afternoon in Hanoi was rainy, misty, and just a bit magical. In fact, we were only in the car for about five minutes, when I looked out the window and saw my first water buffalo. Welcome to Vietnam!

Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough to snap a photo, but here’s a look at the landscape without Mr. Buffalo:

vietnam-mistonthewayfromairport

Hanoi itself is a collision of cultures. The remnants of French colonialism can still be found in the architecture and the streets are a mixture of people in traditional clothing (love the hats), riding old bicycles or zipping along on scooters. Crossing the streets here sure keeps you on your toes. Having been to Bangkok several times, I have some experience!

hanoi-architecture

After getting settled into our hotel, the first thing we decided to do was go out and explore. Our hotel is a few minutes walk from Hoàn Kiém Lake, which means “Lake of the Returned Sword.”

According to legend, the Viet hero Le Loi was given a magic sword by the Divine Turtle that lives in the lake. Le Loi used the sword to fight off the invading Chinese and, after a successfully doing so, restored the weapon to the lake.

Today, Hoàn Kiém Lake is in the historical centre of Hanoi and its focal point is Tháp Rùa, or “Turtle Tower”, in the center. The haze was still clinging to the city as we ventured around the lake, giving us many mystical views.

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hoankiemlake-turtletower

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It may seem cool from the photos, but the temperature was in the 20-degree Celsius range and there was a tropical hint of humidity in the air. We ventured across the red bridge and visited the temple shrine on the other side.

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This afforded us not only a close look at the temple and its unique Vietnamese architecture, but at the various tropical trees.

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marcie-temple

I especially love the details that we find in these spiritual places. Just check out this gorgeous incense burner . . . the handle actually appears as smoke billowing from the creature’s maw.

incenseburner

I also decided that this tree root system looked like a sleeping giant who had been petrified by some magical force. (Or, perhaps, just by time!)

hoankiemlake-sleepinggiant

After leaving the temple, we walked the circumference of the entire lake, which actually did not take very long, but gave us a glimpse at more of the old quarter. It is not uncommon to find bits of architecture just like this, sticking its neck out through modernity to remind us of the past.

hanoi-oldarchitecture

At this point, evening had settled in on Hanoi—and with it, the buzz of nightlife. We caught dinner in a lounge on a multi-story restaurant tower, which allowed us to sample local cuisine and also get a great view of the lake.

hanoi_at_night

More adventures await us!