Pretty much everything I know about Vietnam is from movies and a couple days of class time thrown in during high school history class. When I was about 9 or 10 I went to summer camp in Maine for the summer and one of the few cassette tapes we had was the soundtrack for Good Morning, Vietnam - it had a bunch of Robin Williams' lines from the movie and we all memorized them ("It's hot! Damn hot! Real hot! Hottest thing is my shorts. I could cook things in it.") And for a long time (longer than I should probably admit) Rambo, First Blood Part II was my second favorite movie (behind only the classic Red Dawn)...
This is all a long-winded way of saying my Vietnam knowledge is probably a bit too Hollywood and I don't have a great base to compare things to - with that said, it definitely won't prevent me from creating some new experiences while I am here, which is exactly what I've been doing for the past couple of days.
Currently, I am in Hanoi, which is the northern capital of Vietnam. Its a vibrant, but dreary city (largely due to the weather I think - its always overcast) and actually seems to be the most European place I've been (which shouldn't be a surprise given the French used to run things over here). I'm staying in the Old Quarter and I love it. The streets are very narrow and they twist and turn all over the place. Motorbikes seem to be the only form of transportation and they are everywhere. Crossing the street is an adventure - if you wait for the traffic to stop you could be there all day, you just need to take a deep breath and go for it. For the most part the bikes cruise around you. For the most part. Cambodia was similarly overrun by the motorbike, but here while they are weaving in and out they are also constantly honking their horns - one of the first things you notice is how loud the city is!
I've also noticed that for the most part the people leave you alone a bit more than they did in Bangkok. There are defintely tourists milling about, but certainly less than in Cambodia and Thailand. Hanoi doesn't seem to be a tourist city, the people go about their lives and for the most part don't take much mind as you walk down the streets.
The food is very different from Thailand, but fantastic. This may seem like a small thing, but they have great bread here! It's been awhile since I've had a nice baguette... Last night I went to a small hole in the wall place, called Cha Ca La Vong, where they served a Hanoi specialty called cha ca. It was the only dish the restaurant served and you sit down and they bring over a small fire and you cook little white fish fillets in a frying pan with peanut oil and greens (including a lot of dill). You eat it over white noodles. It was delicious, greasy, but delicious all the same.
For lunch today I had pho, which is kind of a beef and noodle soup - it warms you up pretty good, which is perfect because IT IS FREEZING HERE! I know I have no business complaining, but going from 100 degrees to 60's has been quite a change. I only have one sweatshirt with me, so you will probably see a lot of pictures with me wearing it! Luckily, as we head south it will warm up again.
Today I went exploring the city - I met a cool motorbike taxi guy in the morning and he stayed with me all day for 100,000 dong (which is about $6 - 15,000 dong = $1). He took me around to all the museums and would just wait outside for me. I'm definitely starting to enjoy the motorbike taxi rides - definitely a bit dangerous, but its a great way to see the city up close and personal.
The Army Museum and Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton) were pretty interesting in their descriptions of the American War (which is what they call the Vietnam War here). I noticed they used the word "puppet" a lot to describe both our administration during the war (i.e. "puppet president") and the American troops (i.e. "puppet soldiers") - I never did figure out who was supposedly the puppeteer. The Hoa Lo Prison was actually used by the French to hold the Vietamese revolutionaries and then later by the Vietamese to hold the Americans (including John McCain). According to the exhibits, the French tortured the Vietamese inmates by the hundreds, but although the Americans "committed untold crimes on our people, ... [they] suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead they were well treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter." A quick search on the web seems to indicate that there is a <slight> difference of opinion between the official Vietamese version of events and the experiences of the Americans that were held there. As you learn early on, there are two sides to every story...
Tomorrow, Eric and I are heading to Halong Bay for an overnight stay. Halong Bay is just off the Gulf on Tonkin and is supposed to have beautiful islands and caves to explore. I'll tell you all about it when I return!