Vietnam 2009 Travelogue

23 October 2009 – day 7 – Friday - Hanoi, Vietnam

Today we had the choice to pay for an optional tour to a rural village or free time on our own. Of course, we chose the tour. So we got up early, ate breakfast and got on the bus. The bus took us about an hour out of Hanoi. There were plenty of good photos from the bus, but I was dismayed by all the missed opportunities for interesting photos. For example, I saw a small child, maybe three years old, playing in the street with matches, trying to light things on fire. There were plenty of adults around but nobody seemed to care.

Another time I saw a man driving his motorbike with one hand and carrying a 20-foot long metal pipe in the other. It looked like he was jousting or something! For every good photo I took, there were at least four others that I missed because I was too slow with my camera. Still, we got some good shots.

To me, it's roasting hot. In Minnesota, we've already gotten our first snows and it was dipping down below freezing on a regular basis before we left. Here in Vietnam, I don't know the exact temperature but it feels like 95F / 35C with 95% humidity. We're dying of heat here and sweating like pigs. But the people here don't even break a sweat, even though they work hard. Worse yet, they bundle up like it's cold! I swear to God it's true, and they've got to be crazy! Some of them wear handkerchiefs on their faces and Lee joked that it's no big deal to enter a bank that way because everyone looks like a bank robber!

A couple of times we stopped on our way to the village and took photos of various things, such as teams of farmers harvesting rice by hand. They would sow it with a small hand sickle, hoist it onto shoulder-baskets and carts and haul it up to a machine that separated the grain from the green.

As the bus drove away we also saw how the people dried their rice: They just laid it out on the sidewalk out front and baked it in the sun.

The houses here are very tall and narrow because the land is expensive to buy. That made for some interesting architecture.

We also stopped at the house of Lee's friend. He owns a nice house, but he could only afford it because he had three jobs. The first job was that the family made roofing tiles, and we saw how they did it. First they take the clay from a huge pile

and form it into a ball. Next, they slap it forcefully onto a mold or template.

Then they use a wire tool that looked like a cheese cutter to slice the clay at the template, then they peel it off

and set it in the sun to dry. A few of our group, including Kathy, tried to peel the tiles from the mold, but they never got the hang of it. I didn't try it.

After the roofing tiles are dry, they fire them in a kiln to make them hard, then they add it to a big stack of inventory they had.

The second job of the family was to help harvest the rice in the fields. The third job was to raise pigs, but I'm not sure whether they sold the pigs for slaughter or sold the piglets for stock.

Their house was beautiful inside. It was sparsely decorated; no clutter to be found.

When we got to the bedrooms, we discovered why our hotel bed—the rock of Hanoi—was so hard: That's how the Vietnamese people expect it. The beds had no mattresses at all. They were basically just wooden cots.

The only odd thing was that, like most people, they parked their motorbikes in the living room at the end of the day. Every house has a small ramp built into the front steps so they could ride their motorbikes inside the house.

After that, the bus took us to the village. We walked down to the river and got onto a small ferry.

The ferry was run by three enterprising women. It was good to see. Women in Vietnam are apparently involved in all forms of business, even major construction jobs.

Lee told us that the village was once known for manufacturing small ceramic funeral boxes, the kind that hold ashes and/or bones after a cremation. Everyone in the village made them for a living.

The business was eventually outsourced to another village, but the villagers still had lots of funeral boxes sitting around. So they used them for things like the retaining wall of the river and to build houses.

Because they lost the funeral box business, the village changed to something more lucrative: making rice paper. Consequently, all over the village were bamboo racks with rice paper drying in the sun.

Once again, the electrical wires in the village were an electrician's worst nightmare.

The streets were very narrow

and we were interrupted a few times with motorbikes or bicycles that wanted to pass. At one point, I saw a motorbike parked outside a house. The scooter had a basket attached and much to my surprise, the basket contained a live goose!

I seriously don't know if that goose was a pet or “what's for dinner,” but it seemed content to stay in the basket. It didn't complain one bit.

A bit farther down the street we saw a woman sitting in the road, forming charcoal patties by hand, working from a big pile.

Earlier we had seen the charcoal, formed into round bricks, sitting around in piles. Apparently that's what the people used for cooking. We wondered how they were transformed from the balls into the cooking cylinders.

Walking down the road, we met three elderly women. The oldest one was 82 years old but they were still very mobile and in good shape. They were also dressed nicely. The showed us some nuts they were eating. These nuts have a chemical reaction with human saliva and causes your teeth to turn black. It was very strange to see but the women didn't seem to mind. They just laughed and showed us their teeth.

Scrawny chickens walked around outside without a care.

The best part of the village was the people.

I especially liked the school children that were running around everywhere. I took lots of photos.

We walked to the house of a man who used to be a Viet Kong soldier for the North Vietnamese army in the Vietnam war. During the war, he had marched—along with thousands of soldiers—from North Vietnam down to Saigon along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Apparently, he doesn't harbor any bad feelings against the Americans. He was also a musician and he showed up how to play the various instruments.

The man's family business, like most of the villagers, was to make rice paper, which replaced the funeral boxes after that business dried up. His wife gave us a demonstration of how to make rice paper, and many of our group decided to try it. Kathy and I took turns and photographed each other. None of them turned out as good as the professionals.

Then the man showed us his musical instruments and played some songs for us. We also met his wife. They were charming people.

We took a different ferry back across the river, where I spotted a man who was rowing with his feet!

Then we boarded the bus and headed back to Hanoi. We had the bus driver drop four of us (Norma, Cathy, Kathy and I) off at the famous “Hanoi Hilton” which was a prison built by the French when they occupied Vietnam. Later, American prisoners of war were kept there. There were some interesting propaganda and cool old photos. I didn't feel anything unusual but Kathy said she felt something negative in the place. She was clearly creeped out.

After we left the Hanoi Hilton, we took a taxi to the History Museum. We paid a camera fee so that Kathy could take photos. The museum was interesting but I wasn't too excited about it. I was more tired and hot than anything.

We left the museum and studied our map to got our bearings, then walked to the opera house, which was nearby.

We were hoping to get in, but it was closed. So we pointed our cameras inside and took the few photos we could.

Not too far from the opera house was the “real” Hanoi Hilton, so I took a photo just for the fun of it.

According to our map, we were only a few blocks from our hotel. I have a pretty good sense of direction. The other two women acted very skeptical and advised a taxi, but I guided us expertly back to our hotel on foot and they were glad they had saved the money.

Now it's time for my overloaded vehicles of the day: