Two Nights on the Fanxipan Express

[I originally wrote this as a guest post for a website that no longer exists. I’m republishing it to preserve one of my more interesting travel experiences.]

Vietnam taught me one important lesson: For every blazing-fast maglev train or smooth-riding KTX or futuristic Japanese bullet train, there’s a Fanxipan Express.

Fanxipan express
Departing from Hanoi

I experienced an overnight trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai and back during my two-week stay in Vietnam. The bottom line – the Fanxipan Express sways its way along the tracks, creaking and lurching … but there’s arguably no better way to get to Lao Cai and then onto the popular mountain destination of Sapa.

Some part of me really enjoyed the novelty of the rickety Fanxipan Express, if only to feel a little better about my own country’s Amtrak; enjoying rail travel in South Korea or Finland can give an American a serious train inferiority complex.

Let’s take a look at my time on the Fanxipan Express.

Booking

It’s entirely possible to book online far ahead of time. My wife and I left some room in our schedules, though, so we could evaluate our side-trip options in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. While staying at the Rendezvous Hotel in Hanoi, some references to homestay hiking trips around Sapa — near the Chinese border — caught our eye. We booked through the hotel, with a price that included train travel. The Fanxipan Express website lists a round trip in four-berth “Superior Cabin” as $45 US person, one way. So call it $90 for a round trip per person.

Fanxipan express
Old school vibes.
The Rendezvous website lists our trek as $185 per person including fare for the train … but I recall us paying less than that. Nearly every price in Vietnam is negotiable, and you’re more likely to swing a deal in-person.

The Rendezvous staff dropped us off about 90 minutes before our train’s departure time – plenty of time to get acquainted with the train station situation, and overcome any language barrier problems.

Aboard the Fanxipan Express

Soon, we were aboard the Fanxipan Express. The strains of a super-schmaltzy ballad echoed throughout the cars (maudlin sounds of this magnitude transcend languages) as we found our room, a wood-paneled, four-bunk affair we’d share with two strangers.

Well, we lucked out. We enjoyed the company of a teacher and an engineer who spoke excellent English. The four of us chatted a good bit before hitting the lights in an attempt to search for sleep.

Fanxipan express
A four-berth compartment. Expect at least six to occupy it.

I did manage to fall asleep, but the swaying and creaking jolted me awake more than a few times. I spent a lot of time in that gray area just short of full sleep. I’d call it a combination of the train’s swaying and being a 6’2, 200-pound person jammed diagonally into a bunk not really intended for my frame. I was relatively clear-headed when we arrived in Lao Cai, and I handled the next three days of hiking just fine … so I guess I got enough rest.

Conductors checked our tickets, and an attendant with a snack cart rolled by a few times. To be honest, I had little interest in snacks or drinks. I just wanted to get to Lao Cai, so I didn’t indulge.

Don’t Miss This Tip

Now, I need to tell you something absolutely vital about the Fanxipan Express – it’s time to talk toilets. Western-style toilets are getting more common in Vietnam, but you’ll definitely find more squat toilets. The Fanxipan Express has both types, which my wife didn’t realize. She found the squat toilet first, and assumed all the train’s toilets were the same.

So, if you don’t favor a physical task that’s like playing billiards on a roller coaster, keep walking until you find the Western-style toilet on the Fanxipan Express.

Wrapping up 16 Hours on the Fanxipan Express

We returned to Lao Cai on a chilly evening a few days later. There are plenty of cafes nearby where you can enjoy a cafe sua da (the delicious iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk that’s so popular here) before boarding the train. We spent some time strolling about Lao Cai, but didn’t wander too far because … well, we’d just hiked for three days and were feeling the weight of our packs. That, and the clock was ticking.

Our return trip was much the same as the outbound leg. This time, three other passengers jammed into the four-bunk cabin. My Vietnamese-language skills allowed me to offer some greetings, but that’s it. No cross-culture connection this time. The Fanxipan Express creaked, we tried to sleep … and we arrived back in Hanoi. We said tam biet to our bunkmates and headed off to our last few days in Vietnam.

Vietnamese Motorbikes Carrying Unbelievable Sh1t

From the moment I arrived to the day I left, I couldn’t stop oggling all the Vietnamese motorbikes carrying unbelievable shit. And you know how I am – I rarely use any sort of profanity in this blog. But I need some word that encompasses barnyard critters, propane tanks, bowls of pho, four people and – yes, I’m serious – a grandfather clock!

I unfortunately did not get a shot of the grandfather clock being toted on a motorbike. It was like a shooting star – flashing across my field of view in a brilliant vision, then disappearing before I could so much as touch my camera. Fear not, though. I have plenty of other photos of Vietnamese motorbikes carrying unbelievable shit.

Vietnamese motorbikes
Four? Not bad. But the real pros can get five on that ride.

First up, we have this lovely family of four. These are somewhat rare. You’ll see trios on scooters all over the place. You really level up, though, if you snap a photo of a family of five on a motorbike. Good luck!

Vietnamese motorbikes

OK, this photo doesn’t have anything crazy being carted about on a motorbike. I just love all the riders and passengers being jovial and flashing me peace signs when they notice my lens pointing at them.

Vietnamese motorbikes
“One day, this will be MINE!”

My older brother, JD, is obsessed with cars. Before he was old enough to drive, he yammered about cars and driving – nonstop. Today, he still takes photos of his rental cars and loves to show them to people (I still wonder if he’s just pranking us all). I wonder if this little girl is his spiritual sister. Because clearly, she can’t wait to be old enough to take the handlebar. And to take a photo of every motorbike she rides …

Vietnamese motorbikeThis is one of the first shots I took when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. I was like “HFS, a mom and two kids on a motorobike!” Within hours, I learned that this is kind of a light load.

Vietnamese motorbikeI don’t even know what this guy is carrying, but I know The Three Stooges would approve. I can just see Larry, Moe and Curly wiping people out with this horizontal load of … what? Sugarcane? Bamboo? Doesn’t matter. It’s awesome.

Vietnamese motorbike
Pho delivery, Ho Chi Minh City style!

OK, this guy is rolling against traffic carrying a tray with a bowl of pho on it! And he’s not leaned up against the curb: He’s actually in motion. And he’s not spilling a drop! He’s killin’ it.

Vietnamese motorbikeCheck out that load of bananas! I seriously know people who carry less in their SUVs.

Vietnamese motorbikeCan someone please explain what’s going on here? I have no idea what this rider is carrying. Not that it matters. When the load obscures the driver, you have attained Motorscooter Master Jedi status.

Vietnamese motorbikeThese are eggs. Lots and lots and lots of eggs. On a motorscooter. Good grief, this is awesome!

Vietnamese motorbikeA guy carrying three cylinders of propane in the motorbike maelstrom of Vietnam is a Darwin Award waiting to happen. This rider is either crazy and soon to die, or he’s a brilliant daredevil who helps keep the country running.

vietnamese motorbikes
These two party animals were having the time of their lives.

I’ve saved the best for last. I may have missed shots of chicken, pigs and grandfather clocks being toted on Vietnamese motorbikes. But I DID NOT miss the headless, gyrating animatronic Santa Claus. The two dudes on this motorbike had Hanoi in stitches with their antics. The Santa would not have been as cool if he’d been fully intact. Seeing this made my trip to Vietnam much, much better. Thank you, Vietnamese Elves!

OK, have any of you been to a country where motorbikes are the backbone of transit? Where they haul as much as a typical American SUV? Tell me about it, and post some photos in the comments!

Random Mekong Delta Photos

I know some of the people who see me often are probably tired of hearing stories about Vietnam. I packed a huge amount of fun and culture into my time there (and more than my fair share of delicious food). Even though it’s been a year since I was there, I still haven’t full gotten through all my thoughts and observations.

Yep, I’m far from done yapping about Vietnam. Today, I’ll let the photos do the talking. These are a few random Mekong Delta photos that capture the essence of the place in all its variety. Enjoy!

random Mekong Delta photos
Paddling in small boats is a super way to get around the edges of the Mekong Delta.
random Mekong Delta photos
Kitties on the Mekong!
random Mekong Delta photos
Quite a few people still live aboard their boats. It was a pleasant time of year, and I would’ve spent a few nights on one of these boats!
random Mekong Delta photos
I guess this is some weird abandoned amusement park on the Mekong Delta. It’s the sort of place I would’ve tried to learn more about if I had more time.
random Mekong Delta photos
If you want to be virile and manly, take a swig of rice wine that’s had a cobra marinating in it. Libido and potency guaranteed!
random Mekong Delta photos
One of the many boats trawling about. Notice the eyes on the bow? We saw those on a good number of similar boats.
random Mekong Delta photos
Sarah can’t resist touristy shenanigans if they involve holding a huge snake.

If you want to experience the Mekong Delta, there are plenty of tours from Ho Chi Minh City. Have fun!

Halong Bay: Why You Shouldn’t Go – and Why You Should

halong bay
You can see why Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site. And why it needs protection.

Halong Bay isn’t quite Lake-Havasu-On-Spring-Break crowded. But it’s not far off.

By nightfall of our first day, we’re anchored among hundreds of other boats holding anywhere from 20 to 100 passengers. Some look fresh from the factory, while others sport worn, weathered wood and a distinctly "seen better days" look. Our Christina Cruise is somewhere between – our stateroom features two oil paintings of Asian women dressed in -- well, barely anything. Still, the shower works (just don’t hog the water).

Halong Bay
And now you get a glimpse of the problem with Halong Bay. This is nowhere near as crowded as it gets.

Boats aren’t the point, though. People come to Halong Bay to see the stuff of National Geographic articles and UNESCO Heritage site beauty. The boats? They’re just the means.

The Big Problem with Halong Bay

And that’s exactly why there’s so many boats – the karst islands popping out of the water are greenery-covered marvels, rare resources that deserve care and respect.

Which is exactly why there needs to be fewer boats.

Halong Bay
Sung Sot is an impressive if over-developed show cave.

I feel like a hypocrite saying this: Because I’m on one of the boats, each one of them spewing fumes from engines and generators. Halong Bay and its tours are big bucks for Vietnam, employing guides and crews -- bringing people to locations they’d not reach otherwise.

I don’t know how to solve this problem. Fewer, bigger boats? Restrictions on how many are allowed to operate versus a Wild West free-for-all? I don’t know. But Vietnam needs to figure out how to preserve and protect Halong Bay. You can see the high volume of traffic has on the islands, from murky water to piles of trash washing up on beaches.

Halong Bay is More than Scenery

Halong Bay
Halong Bay equals jobs for locals.

Here’s the thing about Halong Bay – the karst islands are beautiful. Sung Sot is a very cool experience, even though it’s way overdeveloped for those who prefer real caving to show caves. (One of my suggestions for improvement: Make it easier to get around the outskirts of Cat Ba City so those who are so inclined can do some real caving in the less-developed caves.)

But my favorite part of spending two-and-half days in Halong Bay was spending a day in Cat Ba City. During our November visit, it was low season. Cat Ba City and its many hotels were all but deserted.

Halong Bay Cat Ba Cannon Park
A look at the Cannon Park overlooking Cat Ba City in Halong Bay.

We just wandered the city and its outskirts (be sure to check the hilltop canon fort – it’s well worth the walk). We strolled along some beaches. All that was nice, but what I enjoyed most was getting lost in a neighborhood behind the Cat Ba market. One moment, we’re checking out fresh squid and dried mushrooms – the next, we’re wandering past people’s homes.

As I always do in Asia, I drew a lot of curious glances. But everyone waved and smiled as we passed their homes. The neighborhood was densely packed. Neighbors can smell each other’s cooking, hear each other singing karaoke and toss the occasional errant soccer ball back out of their yard. It seemed like a very "all for one" environment, with people far less closed off from each other than my neighborhood in Arizona.

Ha Long Bay Stateroom
Nothing like oil paintings of barely covered Asian girls in your cabin!

I know, it’s odd that a stroll through a neighborhood is my favorite memory of Halong Bay – better than cruising the island on a battered mountain bike with a bunch of people from Christina Cruise.

Should You Go to Halong Bay?

UNESCO doesn’t name just anything a World Heritage Site. And I have yet to visit one that isn’t worth seeing.

And there’s the conundrum. Going to Halong Bay made me part of the maelstrom of pollution, part of the proliferation of boats clogging the area. I voted with my dollar that the status quo is OK, and I still have mixed feelings about this. I’m an imperfect traveler trying to strike a balance between a desire to experience things and a desire to leave a smaller footprint.

I have no easy answer to this. That’s just the way it is sometimes. All I can hope, at this point, is that Vietnam realizes what it has in Halong Bay. And that it makes the hard choices for us.

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Best Hotel in Hanoi?

best hotel in Hanoi
The reception area at the Rendezvous Hotel in Hanoi

I can’t tell you that the Rendezvous Hotel is the best hotel in Hanoi. It’s the only one I stayed at. So I truly don’t have the authority and experience to call anything the best hotel in Hanoi.

That said, if I ever return to Hanoi, I will stay at the Rendezvous Hotel again for sure. Here’s why:

Location

It’s right in the Old Quarter. If you are pretty energetic, you can get just about anywhere interesting: The Hanoi Opera House, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Vietnam Military History Museum just to name a few. You’ll also be a few steps away from the crazy night markets that happen a few times a week. At any given time, you’ll be just about overwhelmed by all the stuff you can eat, drink or look at.

best hotel in Hanoi
This might be the very room I stayed in …

The fancy Ciputra area is a fairly short cab ride away.

Services

Free breakfast isn’t uncommon in hotels. And in Vietnam, just about every hotel can arrange tours. We booked overnight trips to Sapa and Halong Bay at the Rendezvous Hotel; they all went flawlessly, and the hotel staff even gave us a lift to the train station.

best hotel in Hanoi
Wait … this has to be Photoshopped. WHERE ARE THE MOTOR BIKES?!

One of the most-impressive and useful details, though, was a well-written binder of good places to shop, eat and visit. The staff even recommended specific dishes – this is where I learned about cha ca la vong, which is my now my favorite Vietnamese dish. The guide also hooked us with a great place to get a great massage that restored some spring to our weary legs.

There’s also wifi n every room, plus a handful of computers for guests to use down in the lobby.

Value

Our price for a large room with wifi, TV and two beds was about $30 a night. Factor in the breakfast, and it gets even more reasonable.

You can find fancier hotels around, for sure. You can pay a lot more. But will that guarantee you a room at the best hotel in Hanoi? Eh. Take my advice – book a room at the Rendezvous Hotel.

 

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So You’re Traveling to Vietnam? Some Straight Truth

going to Vietnam
Motorbikes, carcasses, pollution – they might give you second thoughts about traveling to Vietnam.

So you’re traveling to Vietnam. You have your guidebooks. You’ve read the posts on the big travel blogs. Let me give you a reality check about Vietnam before you drown in travel brochure superlatives.

Here are a few things you really need to know about traveling to Vietnam. I’m basing this on my own experience – just more than two weeks in late 2013.

I spent the first few days wondering if traveling to Vietnam was a mistake.

The Ho Chi Minh City traffic gobsmacked me. When I blew my nose, the snot would be sooty, like when I worked at my dad’s machine shop (yay, particulates!). Walking around on the sidewalks required navigating through a warren of parked motor scooters, sidewalk cafes and people trying to rent or sell you just about everything.

going to Vietnam
Vietnam’s scenery might not pop … but it’s people do – Red Dzao (left) and Black Hmong (right) alike!

Here’s the good news: If you are at all adaptable, Vietnam will start to grow on you. The constant human contact will become more appealing, even as the pollution grows more appalling. Even months after I returned home, my home city still feels empty and distant to me. I still miss eating in places that have four-item menus and serve their meals on tiny tables.

Vietnam has some pretty parts, but --

You’ve seen the photos of Halong Bay Vietnam, and probably some from the enormous limestone caves. All nice. But -- for the most part, there’s a washed-out grayness to Vietnam. It might’ve been the time of year and the humidity and the pollution. It all combined to take the sheen off the colors. Yeah, you can recover some of it in a photo-editing program.

Bottom line: If you’re traveling to Vietnam, don’t expect it to dazzle your eyeballs like Norway or New Zealand. There, the colors explode. In Vietnam, they make a mute little pop.

Traveling to Vietnam is, so far, my most interesting cultural experience.

From Dia de los Muertos to the Haka, different cultures beat me over the head with a cacophony of "I’m important, and you need to learn about meeeee!" It makes me tune so much of it out. If you’re traveling to Vietnam, you’ll find a more subtle enticement to hooking your interest.

traveling to Vietnam
Vietnam at its absolute prettiest.

I found locals and guides less likely to hose me down with facts, and more likely to offer choice tidbits. Those tidbits were enough to get me to ask questions. Whether I was at the Cu Chi Tunnels wriggling through tunnels or poking my nose into a Red Dzao wedding, I heard and saw things to spur my curiosity.

I heard you can be drunk and lazy if you want.

Okay, so you want a typical beach vacation. But you want it someplace exotic that will make you sound more adventurous than someone going to Puerto Rico. Gotcha. I hear that Nha Trang is the place for that. Russians love it, and they flock there for alcohol and sun; there’s even a direct flight from Moscow.

traveling to Vietnam
Nha Trang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You probably underrate traveling to Vietnam.

I was talking with a couple of co-workers; one of them mentioned how he knew a couple that was trying to decide between going to Vietnam or France for their honeymoon.

"That’s a no-brainer," piped the second co-worker.

That pearl of wisdom came from someone who’s never so much as cracked open a travel guide about traveling to Vietnam -- and probably buys into the inflated romanticized notions of western Europe. Vietnam would be a fine place to spend a honeymoon, especially if you get away from the big cities. Your money will go far and let you level up on luxury. It can be very quiet and tranquil. And yes, the beaches can be spectacular. So don’t speak from a place of ignorance – learn about going to Vietnam before you rush to ill-informed judgments.

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What NOT to Do With an Expired Passport

expired passport Boeing 787 Dreamliner
My flight was waiting for me … all I had to do was bring the right passport.

 

Shortly before the government shutdown in October, I realized my passport would expire just days before we left for Vietnam. I filled out the paperwork and sent the money for an expedited renewed passport. Two weeks later, I had a shiny-but-blank passport. A few days after that, I got my old expired passport with a hole punched through it. I tossed them into my top drawer.

The morning we left (the day before Sarah’s birthday), I stuck a paw in my top drawer and grabbed my passport. Of course, it’s only after a cab dropped us off at the airport -- and after we’re nearly to the check-in agent -- that I realized something.

I grabbed the old expired passport!

I told Sarah what’s up andsaid to get on the plane, and that I’ll go home and get my passport. Naturally, the first cab up was a hoopty minivan ill-suited to high-speed hijinks. Still, it got me back home. I stormed into my room, grabbed the new passport, tossed the expired passport somewhere safe, petted the cat good-bye again, and bolted back into the cab.

Everything turned out alright. I got back to the airport in time. We got to the gate … where we had some delay because the gate crew didn’t want to let me board. For some reason, they thought I needed a Vietnamese visa to even board the flight (which was to San Jose, never mind that travelers get visas when they arrive in Vietnam).

But I caused more stress than I really needed to. So here’s your simple piece of knowledge to take from this: Store your old and much-stamped expired passport somewhere far away from your current passport.

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A Visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels

cu chi tunnels
Looking down one of the modified-for-tourists sections of the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Plenty of writers like to call the Cu Chi Tunnels "an underground city." But that’s just a facile throwaway phrase that trivializes nearly aspect of life in the Cu Chi Tunnels during a time of war.

Out of every site I’ve visited in my travels so far, I rate this as the most thought-provoking of them all. I can’t even say that I just had fun during my visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels. It somehow feels more accurate to say that it was sobering, that it made me better realize what lengths Vietnamese villagers went through during wars against the French and the United States. I mean, people didn’t dig out three levels of tunnels stretching more than 100 miles for fun.

They created the Cu Chi tunnels to survive.

That said, I love mines, caves, tunnels – really, anything underground. And I’ve always wanted to fire an AK-47, which I also got to do at the Cu Chi Tunnels war memorial park near Ho Chi Minh City. It would be very easy to close your eyes to everything the site means -- to keep the experience at superficial level where it’s all about sinking into a foxhole, checking out booby traps and standing on the burned-out shell of an armored tank.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Tourists gleefully pose on a destroyed tank at Cu Chi Tunnels. Strange.

But we were fortunate that our guide from Saigon River Tour had bigger plans. He identified himself by the nickname "Big T." He was the most well-spoken and reflective of all the guides we encountered in Vietnam. I mentioned Big T in an earlier post; to recap, his father served in the South Vietnamese Army. When the United States left Vietnam to the communist government, men like Big T’s father paid the price in labor camps, or worse.

His father’s service, though, made Big T a great guide. Since we were in a small group that day, he had more time than usual to share insights with us.

Cu Chi Tunnels
Slipping into a fox hole at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Big T painted a grim picture of Cu Chi. First, he told us, the tunnels began as a way to fight the French forces in the early 20th century. He explained how the French weren’t even the worst enemy: That was the tunnel conditions themselves. No sunlight, no sanitation, no ventilation. But even that was better than the alternatives on the surface.

And it became even worse in the Cu Chi Tunnels when the villagers fought American forces.

They recycled everything, turning unexploded bombs and bits of shrapnel into their own war material. They expanded the Cu Chi Tunnels. They constructed traps designed to wound rather than kill: Big T explained that a wounded soldier took a few of his comrades out of action to remove him from the area and get treatment.

CU Chi Tunnels AK-47
I couldn’t resist a chance to fire an AK-47 at the CU Chi Tunnels range.

Big T urged us to look around the trees that form a shady canopy over the area. It didn’t look like this during the war, he said. The area was devoid of vegetation from carpet bombing and artillery fire.

And here’s the really interesting insight: Big T told us the villagers who were fighting so hard to stay alive didn’t think of themselves as communists. They just wanted so survive. What he said doesn’t quite square with the propaganda films made about the Cu Chi residents fighting American forces. And why were they fighting if they were far into what was then South Vietnam, and such a short distance from Ho Chi Minh City?

Cu Chi Tunnels
Peaking down an undeveloped area of the Cu Chi Tunnels. This is closer to what it would’ve been like during wartime.

On the other hand, it’s also hard to believe that people living a largely agrarian existence were really fighting for political ideologies. Is it more likely they were just propaganda tools? Probably so. Like so many things in Vietnam, I’ll have to do more reading to try finding the answers to my questions. It should help square what I heard from Big T and what I learned during a semester-long course about the Vietnam War when I was in high school.

Of course, every person’s view of the Cu Chi Tunnels will skew according to their background.

As an American, I’ve grown up with movies about the Vietnam War. I never really imagined having the chance to look at the war from this angle.

Cu Chi Tunnels booby trap
A booby trap on display at the Cu Chi Tunnels. It’s hard not to admire the ingenuity even while understanding the aftermath.

Speaking of angles, imagine what a guy who’s 6’2 has to do to get around in the Cu Chi Tunnels. I spent a lot of time folded in half. And we’re mostly in the cleaned-up section that allows easier movement. This is the luxury hotel section, even when we descended to the third level. Fortunately, I’m not claustrophobic – and the dramatic tourist accounts of how "harrowing" it is to get around in the tunnels amuses me. The open sections are in great shape and very clean; we’re not in a combat situation, the lighting is more than sufficient. People get so hyperbolic; I promise, it’s not even that bad in the tunnels.

Cu Chi Tunnels foxhole
Big guy in a little hole – yes, I managed to shimmy all the way into a foxhole … all 6’2 205 of me.

Bottom line, a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels is worth facing your fear of small spaces. It’s worth hearing the other side of a common story. It will make you think – possibly more than many other sites you’ve visited before.

Extra Knowledge for Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels

Skip the two-hour bus ride from Ho Ci Minh City to Cu Chi Tunnels and find a tour operator with a boat. Saigon River Tour was excellent, but you may find others in Ho Chi Minh City. The boat takes half the time and you won’t get jostled by potholes and bad suspension. You’ll probably miss out on a chance to see someone transporting a grandfather clock on a motorbike, though.

Wear long pants and real shoes. (What is it with tourists and flip-flops, anyway?) You’ll have to crawl in the Cu Chi Tunnels, so why get all scraped or sprain an ankle?

Saigon River Tour
Heading to the Cu Chi Tunnels with Big T and the Saigon River Tour crew.

Bring some water. Even in the cooler months, the southern part of Vietnam is warm and humid. I travel with a hydration pack. And so should you, because dehydration can make your vacation suck.

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Thoughts on the North-South Divide in Vietnam

Hanoi
Soldiers on the move in Hanoi. Could be 1961, could be 2013.

Ask people in Ho Chi Minh City, and they’ll sing you the same song about Hanoi in a multitude of keys and time signatures.

"Hanoi is 15 years behind."

"You’ll feel like someone is watching you all the time."

"Watch out for the people. They cheat you."

"They’ll steal from you."

"They’re mean."

We even heard foreigners like us parrot the same lines.

Vietnam culture
Soviet-influenced icons are everywhere – north and south – to remind residents and visitors of Vietnam’s past.

And we didn’t find any of it to be true. Not that we don’t understand – Ho Chi Minh City (then Saigon) and many of its residents wound up on the wrong side of Vietnam politics when the United States left the country to the communist government in Hanoi. People like Big T, one of our tour guides, still feel the repercussions of a conflict that ended before he was born. His father served in the South Vietnam military and wound up in a labor camp. The labor camps were one of the prices people paid in the aftermath of what Vietnamese people call the American War.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City is racing ahead – some say it’s leaving Hanoi behind. See them both and decide for yourself.

Even today, Big T tells us, high-paying government jobs and a shot at upward mobility are off-limits for him and his family. His father made this clear to him at a young age, and gave him some advice: "Don’t worry, and do the best you can. Enjoy your life."

So I understand the root of the bitterness and friction.

As a visitor, though, I have no clue why another traveler would have a harsh word to say about Hanoi and its people.

The traffic is just as bizarre. The street vendors are just as insistent. The prices are just as low.

There are differences, especially if you stay in a central location like the Old Quarter. The streets in that part of Hanoi are even more congested than the larger, wider boulevards in Ho Chi Minh City. But you can also get away easily to areas where you can stroll on the sidewalks without stepping around people and motorbikes.

Vietnam culture
Hanoi’s vibe hit me as more relaxed and more European than Ho Chi Minh City.

And those streets will lead you to some very nice parks and urban lakes. They’ll also take you to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the president’s residence and a multitude of government buildings.

There is a strange vibe in this part of Hanoi, at least for a visiting Westerner. Uniformed soldiers stroll around, and some even carry AK-47 rifles. The presence of Soviet-related images like the hammer and sickle add an aura that’s slightly disquieting for someone who grew up during the Cold War – and never expected it to end.

Vietnam culture
I wonder what Ho Chi Minh would make of his near deification – and what your average Ho Chi Minh City resident thinks of it.

Still, Hanoi is where my attitude changed about Vietnam. When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City from the U.S. (with a brief stop in Tokyo), I had a hard time settling in. I questioned our choice of destinations. The traffic and general mania of Ho Chi Minh City grated on me the entire first day. I started to like it a bit better after a few days.

But Hanoi is where I started to really have fun -- despite constantly getting lost in the warren of Old Quarter streets, where the street names seem to change every 200 feet (This is absolutely true. The names reflect what used to be sold on the streets – and sometimes still do – so they translate into things like Drum Street, Casket Street, Fishcake Street and many others). We started to pronounce the few words we know better. We got away from the areas that cater to foreigners, and spoke with and ate with people who have no part of the tourism trade.

Vietnam culture
Ho Chi Minh City has much of its own “peoples’ revolution” imagery.

In Hanoi, we met a few local people through running the Song Hong footrace. They’re now our Facebook friends, and they shared their thoughts about how things work in Vietnam.

Don’t take any of this as a knock against Ho Chi Minh City. We met plenty of friendly residents.

Here’s something interesting: Not a single Hanoi resident said a bad thing about Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it’s easy to be magnanimous when your family wound up on the winning side of a conflict that continues to define the country -- when you have the upper hand and the opportunities. The biggest difference I noticed is that some Ho Chi Minh City residents still call it Saigon; not a single Hanoi resident, however, used "Saigon."

There might already be some change in progress: Ho Chi Minh City local Elly Thuy Nguyen still pokes fun at Hanoi in her handy and funny eBook, My Saigon: The Local Guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam … but with a sly, ironic tone that says "I really don’t believe everything I’m writing."

I hope Nguyen isn’t alone in her attitude. And that the future holds an equal chance for everyone in Vietnam – no matter what choices previous generations made.

Until that happens, visit Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. Then decide for yourself.

Humanity Versus Hostility – Thoughts from a Jam-Packed Asian City

traffic Vietnam
The motorbikes come to a rare stop at a rare stoplight in Vietnam.

It’s a head-on collision in the making. Two fast-moving motorbikes, a mountainous road slick with rain.

The riders see each other at the last second. They slam on the brakes, fishtail, come to a stop inches from each other. They smile, shrug, get back on their bikes and putter off.

If this happened back in Phoenix, there would be a lot more drama. Some yelling and gesturing at a bare minimum, with a possibility of punches thrown.

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Vietnam, though, is that the people are fairly relaxed toward each other – even behind the wheel or handlebar.

Vietnamese culture
Could Buddhism be part of the easygoing Vietnamese attitude?

I saw it on the first day as Sarah and I perched on a curb, waiting for a break in traffic to cross a street in Ho Chi Minh City. There, traffic seems like chaos. It’s intimidating and stressful. I had no idea what to do. I noticed a local woman start to cross, and I followed her. We walked a straight, slow, steady line. The motorbike avalanche flowed around us. Nobody honked, nobody got mad. I looked over my shoulder, and Sarah was still on the curb.

The local woman noticed. She went back across, took Sarah by the hand and towed her across the intersection. Without saying a word, she taught Sarah -- "This is how we do it in Vietnam."

Vietnamese culture
Maybe after a long history of armed conflict in its borders, Vietnamese culture doesn’t sweat the small stuff … like traffic.

It makes the Vietnamese sound very friendly, doesn’t it? And they are, but not in the way we associate with Aussies and Kiwis. They’re not really outgoing and jocular. It took me a few days to feel plugged into their mannerisms; once I did, I saw courtesy and humor in many of my encounters.

The streets strike me as microcosm of the culture. I sense that people connect with each other, and give each other the room they need to exist. When one motorbike rider cuts in front of another, nobody gets upset. Everyone just goes around each other, making room for the occasional alpha predator like a bus or semi-truck.

What’s the root of this? Buddhism? Living in close quarters? A period of peace after a long history of conflict?

And what’s the source of the uptight hostility I sense back home? Phoenix is a sprawling place, as are many Asian cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. But density accompanies their sprawl, where Phoenix-area people are spread out. It’s possible to walk for a mile in Scottsdale, where I live, and not see another person on foot. Since I’m just a few weeks removed from my trip to Vietnam, my area feels vacant -- especially with the out-of-business car dealerships that blot the southern part of the city.

You won’t see the hostility in every encounter here. People here are relatively polite one-on-one. But controlling a vehicle turns us into impatient, self-centered misanthropes just a minor traffic inconvenience away from fury. That includes me.

My conclusion – our cars and our homes are bubbles. We grow to hate being outside them, and we resent any reminder that there are other human beings out there. We starve for human contact without realizing it. We grow isolated.

I see this as a very regional and varied phenomenon. I consider the Pacific Northwest the friendliest part of the United States. People walk quite a bit more, and the drivers are civilized. It’s not unusual for a local to strike up a conversation with someone.

So is more people walking the answer? No. People walk all over in Washington, D.C. -- and I consider it one of the least-friendly places I’ve ever visited. Consider that I’ve spent well more than six months total in the area, and I consider my view valid.

I have no solution, nor a solid idea of what makes one population so much quicker to anger than another. All I can take away is a bit of awareness -- and a reminder to ask myself “What would a Vietnamese motorbike rider do?”.

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Examining the Hind End of Vietnamese Cuisine

I never really meant to start something called Poop Chute Theatre. It just came to life on its own. I trace its birth to a quick stroll through Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t go to Ben Thanh Market looking for souvenirs – it was way too early in the trip for that. I just like seeing what locals buy, checking out the Vietnamese cuisine and trolling for some of those incredible little mandarin oranges that seem to be everywhere in Asia (and yes, I found them). And I intentionally overlooked pho, since that’s really more of a northern specialty.

That’s when I passed be a three-by-two-foot mound of cow intestines, their flat-white color sucking in the ambient light. The mound inspired this Facebook post:

Two crazy things I’ve seen today: some dude riding a moped while carrying a bowl of pho in his left hand, and some stall at a market selling a prodigious pile of poop chute (aka beef small intestine).

The best response to that post came from Nick, who said: Just a pile? They might sell more if they put them on a big spool and sold them by the foot, like at a hardware store.

I saw a chance at some funny stuff here, so I kept my eyes peeled for more poop chute. But first … you might wonder why a market sells intestines. Well, tripe is a pretty common ingredient in foods from around the world beyond Vietnamese cuisine. Americans are squeamish about stuff like this. I’ve eaten tripe in menudo and pho. I’ll be honest – I’ll never go out of my way to eat it. Is that, at least in part, a result of growing up in a picky First World society that has so many resources that it can afford to throw calories away, or grind them up to use in dogfood and (probably) Big Macs? Yes, I’m sure that’s part of it. Because the texture isn’t far different in my mind from the rubbery feel of calamari. And people go crazy over that … but generally just when fried.

Anyway, I soon encountered more poop chute. And this time … I snapped a photo and added the caption: A lovely mound of poop chute for your post-holiday culinary plans.

hind end of cuisine
The photo that started my Facebook misadventures into the hindquarters of cuisine.

Soon, the madness continued. I assume these are cooked intestines since they don’t appear very sausage-like. It’s also the first time I used the phrase that defined every photo to come: That’s right, it’s time for a new episode of Poop Chute Theatre!

Vietnamese cuisine
Awaiting your bowl of pho?

Roy, a friend from the UK said: Hey Justin remember it’s breakfast time here in the UK when you post these photos! It’s putting me off my eggs & bacon. 😉

Heh. Maybe he should eat pho for breakfast to get into the spirit of things! Still, I switched things up a bit with the next installment of Poop Chute Theatre:

Today’s edition won’t make you lose your appetite for breakfast sausages. But it WILL make you think twice about drinking coffee at my house. Vietnam grows lots of coffee. And weasels enjoy eating the coffee berries. Hours later, poop goes the weasel – and out comes a coffee bean. As part of the No Coffee Bean Left Behind program, someone harvests the beans the weasels pass … which you can buy a Weasel Coffee at many fine markets.

Vietnamese Cuisine
What does the weasel poop?

I’m still skeptical about the claim. This coffee is too cheap to have gone through that much labor. The Economist agrees with me. Either way, the stuff is delicious. Whip it up using a French press, and it needs no cream or sugar. I suspect this involves good soil and a nice roast rather than a weasel’s digestive tract. Most importantly, the winning Facebook response comes from Mark. He’s fully into the spirit of these posts … which is NOT “look how weird people are in other countries.” His words:

this is amazing. kinda want to try a cup. btw i have you in vietnam and another friend in singapore right now and you are both absolutely kicking ass (in your case almost literally!) with sharing your cool adventures on FB.

Next comes a simple post: Submitted for your approval - Poop Chute Theatre.

Vietnamese cuisine
Poop Chute Theatre continues with this gem.

Now, here’s where things got really funny. I was sure my poor friends were worn out with photos of Vietnamese cuisine through the Poop Chute Theatre filter. So I decided to give them a break with this post (see the photo caption for the Facebook post text).

vietnamese cuisine
“Alright, alright … I’ll show you something nice. Hanoi in the morning.”

And Kym weighs in with a pair of responses that still make laugh:

I’m sure there are poop chutes in that water….

Three minutes later, Kym has more to say. And this is where it gets super-funny.

Why would I even say that? What has your Vietnam “poop chute theater” done to my brain…?

So, here’s the conclusion to my Poop Chute Theatre posts … more intestines waiting for the cooking pot. I spotted this scene shortly before heading out for three days of hiking among the Hmong villages. Sheldon called it an “organ recital” with his usual penchant for wordplay.

Vietnamese cuisine
“You didn’t really think I’d head off the grid before a good ol’-fashioned episode of Poop Chute Theatre, did you?”

Sheldon made me laugh, as did my old bandmate and friend Laura, who said:

“Dear god, that one in the middle even looks like it has a butt!!!!”

And Dan made a good account of himself, too.

“I keep hearing the song “Poop Chute Riot!” when you post these pics.”

So, what ultimately do I take from Vietnamese cuisine through my Poop Chute Theatre posts? Not a whole lot. You can eat well without any intestines making it into your meal. But you can see that intestines appeal to our tastebuds and eyeballs very little. I’m sure that’s a product of our culture – and I’m guilty of it to some extent.

I know many cultures use quite a few parts of the animals, snouts and sphincters included. As Nick says, though, we don’t use intestines as the end game. I’ve eaten rotten fermented shark meat and boiled silkworm larvae. I slammed a shot of rice alcohol aged with a dead cobra. I’m game to try new things. Still, intestines rank low on my “Eat This Again” list.

One thing is for certain: I don’t look down on Vietnamese cuisine or that of any other country for flying its digestive tract flag high. I find humor in it, sure, and you can blame Christopher Moore for inspiring me to use the phrase “poop chute” in his wonderful book “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.” But it does me no favors in getting the uninitiated to try a bowl of pho.

If you switch it around, though, I’ll bet people from around the world get a kick out of some of the things Western nations consider tasty. And I’d love to know what they are.

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Travel in Vietnam – A Few Quick Thoughts

travel in Vietnam
When you travel in Vietnam, chances are you’ll come away with more than just photos of pretty sites. It’s a thought-provoking place.

It’s been one week since I’ve returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam. Over the next few months, I’ll have a lot to share with you about what it’s like to travel in Vietnam.

Obviously, a lot of people have asked "how was your trip?" It’s impossible to wrap this trip up with a sentence or two, so I just have to say "It was great." There’s a lot more to it, though.

Here are a few key thoughts from our travel in Vietnam, which I’ll dive deeper into with my future posts:

    • This wasn’t my most high-flying, adventure-packed vacation. But it was, hands-down, my most culturally thought-provoking.
    • Vietnam has some environmental problems, and I think it’s still possible to change course. Quite a bit hangs in the balance for it – tourism, health concerns and the long-term status of resources like the Mekong River.
    • There’s a very interesting divide between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. People in the south have little good to say about the north. Oddly enough, it seems a one-way street: I never heard any HCMC-bashing in Hanoi.
travel in vietnam
I hope Vietnam makes protecting its natural resources – like the Mekong River – a high priority.
  • Speaking of Ho Chi Minh City -- I was surprised to learn that quite a few people there still call it Saigon.
  • People often ask why we decided to travel in Vietnam. Well, it’s because we like the food. I can’t tell you how much pho I’ve eaten in the last few years. We figured that was as good a reason as any.
  • That said, I didn’t eat any pho at all in Vietnam. We learned of many great items that I’d either overlooked on menus here in the U.S., or they just haven’t made their way here.
  • As a kid who grew up in the Cold War and then saw the fall of the Soviet Union, it was really interesting to see the hammer and sickle in so many places.
  • Holy shit, the motorbikes. They’re everywhere!
  • Suddenly, my home city feels empty and sterile – and stripped of a huge percentage of human-to-human contact.

 

Well, that should give you an idea of the shape of things to come. And yes, I’ll have some concrete tips for planning your own travel in Vietnam. We learned a lot that will help you get even more out of your time than we did.

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How I Found Good Flight Deals to Vietnam

787 Dreamliner flight deals to Vietnam
A United Dreamliner will be our ride back from Shanghai.

I haven’t said much about my latest upcoming trip. So here’s the news: This time, we’re headed to Vietnam. It will be our first time in Southeast Asia.

Sarah and I had some intense conversations about our possible destinations – Vietnam and the southern part of Australia. The good flight deals to Vietnam swayed us (tickets came to about $1,200 US each from Phoenix to Ho Chi Minh City, and then from Hanoi back to Phoenix).

So, how did I score such good flight deals to Vietnam?

I logged into all my existing frequent flier accounts to see whether they offered flights to the cities I wanted. Being based in the United States, my air mile accounts are with U.S.-based airlines -- none of which thrills me for intercontinental travel. But some share airline alliances with my favorite carriers like Asiana Airlines.

flight deals to Vietnam.
Our travels will give us a look at Vietnam Airlines.

The options from Asiana Airlines were challenging. The layover was tight for the flight to Incheon, South Korea, that would connect to a flight to Ho Chi Minh City. It was also on an Airbus A330, which I don’t much like (see my review of Scandinavian Airlines).

The price I got while logged into my account with a fellow Star Alliance airline didn’t impress me.

Working My Flight Options

I usually avoid airline aggregators like Orbitz. I booked on one once, and didn’t have a great experience. But they’re great for finding other airline options you might not normally consider.

Here’s where I struck gold: I plugged my preferred dates into a Google search. I got a bunch of good flight deals to Vietnam cheaper than I could find logged into my frequent flier accounts.

flight deals to Vietnam
One of the reasons I worked to find good flight deals to Vietnam – the caves!

Here’s what I came up with: Phoenix to San Jose – from there, we take a All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 to Tokyo Narita, where we connect to via an Air Japan 767 to Ho Chi Minh City. I’m very interested in the first outbound flights since ANA is a SKYTRAX 5-Star airline: The last 5-star airline I flew was Asiana, which is still the airline to beat in my book. On the way back, we have a Vietnam Airlines flight to Shanghai, where we have a United Airlines 787 back to Los Angeles and then on to Phoenix.

Good Flight Deals to Vietnam – and Easy Booking

The booking link for my flights took me straight to the United Airlines website, where having my account made short, easy work of the process. That means no sweating over frequent flier points – and the booking info goes straight to my smartphone. There, I can access it through the United Airlines app.

flight deals to Vietnam
We’re also hoping to find some tasty food in Vietnam.

Should anything cause us to miss a flight, booking from an airline’s website has – in my experience – also made getting back on-course run quite a bit smoother.

Expect some honest reviews from the economy class after this is all over. We’ll have a lot of flying to do (including two trans-Pacific Boeing 787 Dreamliner flights), and I consider it a big part of the fun.

And yes, watch for some first-hand accounts of caving, hiking and exotic food-eating in Vietnam, too!

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Arizona Mountain Bike Racer’s Hanoi Bike Tour

hanoi bike tour
Rich Maines tackles the hills and rainy weather. (Courtesy of Rich Maines)

Rich Maines is one of the faster mountain bike racers in Arizona. The guy absolutely flies on a singlespeed.

Even better, Rich makes a strong case for me to label him The Most Interesting Mountain Bike Racer in the World (stay hydrated, my friends). Why? Well, he combines cycling with travel. He blogged in-depth about a four-day cycling tour of the mountains west of Hanoi, Vietnam – Hanoi, Son La Province, Phú Yên Province, Tam Đảo – in March. I really admire this since Rich is a local rider, not a superstar in the Hans Rey sort of mold. He’s a regular guy who went out on his own to craft a cool Hanoi bike tour adventure – and he succeeded by any measure. Rich logged 27 hours of total ride time, 370 miles and 22,913 feet of elevation gain during his tour. He also encountered buckets of rain since March is the rainy season.

Rich got his share of awesome views – sugar cane fields, rice paddies, banana treas and enough fields of tea leaves to keep America awake until the next ice age.

Hanoi Bike Tour
Rich gets some carbs and electrolytes during his Hanoi bike tour. (Courtesy of Rich Maines)

The route had more hills than Rich expected … which led to some challenges on a singlespeed, fixed-gear road bike. Judging from some of the photos, a mountain bike would’ve been at home.

“I just figured I’d walk what I couldn’t ride. If I couldn’t hit all the planned destinations, no worries, I was there to see the beautiful surroundings and enjoy the experience," Rich says.

Rich’s trip proves the power of the bicycle: Local kids were eager to greet the strange Westerner pedaling through the mountains. He had no shortage of offers for food and invitations to stay and visit.

"The people of Vietnam were very gracious and hospitable, even in the tiny, remote mountain villages,” Rich says. “Getting the opportunity to pedal there was an incredible thrill."

You can – and should – read more about Rich’s racing and riding adventures at his Rich Maines – Endurance Mountain Bike Athlete blog. Just prepared to be jealous since he’s sponsored by cool companies like Ergon, Stan’s No Tubes and Hammer Nutrition.