Walking down the streets of Hanoi at night, we pass by a man and his son playing hacky-sack, a group of people working on their disco moves to music on a boom box, and many others practicing ti chi. Above us, spanning the boulevard from one side of the street to the other, are what look like Christmas decorations but, upon closer examination, we see that the center of each of these brightly lit banners consists of a hammer and sickle, blatantly displayed. Even decades after his death over 45 years ago, images of Ho Chi Minh are everywhere on posters, billboards and sides of buildings. His face is also on all the currency. We see many shops selling replicas of 1960s and 70s propaganda posters. They are really very cool looking and beautifully designed. One that catches our attention shows Nixon portrayed as a crazed, blood thirsty ape hurling a bomb onto a map silhouette of Vietnam with the (translated) caption, "Nixon - Mass Murderer". Yet, everyone is friendly and welcoming to us when we tell them that we are from the United States. Apparently, what goes on in the tourist shops stays in the tourist shops.
One tends to forget that this country considers itself communist, as we walk through scooter clogged streets of shop after shop offering everything you could imagine but just not all on the same block. For some reason, you walk down one street and it will be the Avenue of Shoes. Turn a corner, and you've come to Porcelain Street, just up from Cheap Crystal Housewares Boulevard. Maybe that's what separates capitalism from communism--a sense of orderliness. Otherwise, aside from the fact that Vietnam is a poorer, less developed country, it's hard to tell the difference here from the political ideologies of Thailand. Actually, only about 4% of the 92.5 million Vietnamese citizens are members of the Communist Party. And, according to our guide, Vietnam is a hybrid of communism and capitalism but, from what we have observed, capitalism has the decided edge here.
On our nighttime walk, we followed a path through a park alongside the large lake that lies in the center of the city. Every 40 feet or so, we pass by a bride and groom in full wedding costume, the bride professionally made up and in a gown that sparkles. They each have one or more photographers complete with big lighting apparatuses following the lucky couple around and capturing the magical moment by the lake, which has a Disney-esque pagoda and fountains lit up in the center of it. Along a wide boulevard are more brides having their pictures taken on the steps of a shopping mall featuring high end stores like Cartier, Gucci and Ferragamo. We join the paparazzi and take a few photos of the spectacle.
It doesn't matter how many ships there are or souvenir shops selling cheap trinkets, Ha long Bay evokes a sense of mystery and otherworldliness. It consists of hundreds of rocky island cliffs shooting up from the sea randomly like an obstacle course of floating islands from the film, "Avatar". Placid seas and a tropical climate make the passive act of staring for hours at this strange and beautiful seascape seem perfectly acceptable, even to Woody Allen or Jim Cramer types.
It would be easy to get used to a longer visit to Hue. Lots of English speakers and welcoming to tourists, Hue also has some major historical sights like The Citadel and incredibly delicious and inexpensive food. For our $16 gourmet dinner, we had a green mango salad with shrimp and tons of shallots, a green papaya salad with beef, grilled eggplant with lemongrass and ginger sauce, and sautéed shrimp in lemon grass and peanut sate sauce. Also one giant beer and a diet coke--with tip it ended up being about $18. It was hard to think about the bloody past this city has seen while sitting in this easy atmosphere over a wonderful dinner.
Apparently, this is still the rainy season in central Vietnam and the rains catch up to us in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site/city of charming buildings from the 15th to the 19th century. Cars and trucks are prohibited from the City Center so it is less frenetic than other places we have visited and even downright romantic and peaceful when walking around at night after a downpour. The specialty here are brightly colored paper lanterns which add lots of color and light to the narrow streets.
From there, it's on to Nha Trang, a brief stopover on the way to the mountainous, agricultural town of Dalat where we will head tomorrow morning. A sorry excuse for a beach resort, Nha Trang is a dirty, un-charming city full of large and loud pasty-skinned Russian tourists buying up cheap trinkets and Vietnamese rice vodka. An excellent day for us to drop out, finish up this Vietnam email "blog" and to go get a massage!