HeddLynnston Southeast Asia Travelganza: Hanoi and Halong Bay
February 11, 2015
Laura and Russ came to visit for the HeddLynnston Southeast Asia Travelganza! They left last night so now I have time to post some of the pictures we took on our trip. We visited Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane and Hoi An. We spent time in three countries, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. They arrived on a Sunday morning at 9am after more than 24 hours of flying. We let them stretch their legs for a few hours in Da Nang and drink coconuts by the ocean, then forced them to get back on a plane to fly to Hanoi the very same day.
Hanoi is a very crowded but vibrant city. We stayed in Old Town, which is a part of downtown with cute, narrow, windy streets. The traffic in Hanoi is pretty intense. John and I have adjusted a little to the haphazard traffic laws in Vietnam, but not on the scale that exists in Hanoi. Crossing the street involves pretty much walking headlong into traffic and hoping the motorbikes go around. My favorite tactic is to find pregnant women, women with strollers or old people who are crossing the street and use them as a shield.
Hoa Lo Prison (The Hanoi Hilton)
While we were in Hanoi we visited a few sites in the city, the most famous of which is Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. This prison was first used by the French to house Vietnamese dissidents during the French colonization of Vietnam in the early 1900s. Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs, was made most famous by its use during the Vietnam/American War in the 60s when American fighter pilots were housed there as prisoners of war. John McCain is the most well-known former POW housed in Hoa Lo Prison after his plane was shot down and his flight suit is proudly on display in the museum.
The information booklets and and displays throughout the prison were written by the Vietnamese government and I really enjoyed the stark difference in wording between the descriptions about the Vietnamese prisoners versus the American prisoners. The French treatment of Vietnamese prisoners is described as “barbarous and bloodcurdling,” which is most definitely was. The Vietnamese prisoners under the French were tortured, starved, and left in squalid conditions in their cells. The pamphlet also describes how the “patriotic and revolutionary [Vietnamese] fighters were staunch, persistent, and undaunted in their struggles against French harsh prison conditions,” and how they snuck communist materials to each other while imprisoned to continue their patriotic duty and eventually rise against the French.
By contrast, the portion of the pamphlet and museum dedicated to the Vietnam (or American) War is very vague. They describe how the American prisoners were allowed nicknacks, played soccer, had their medical wounds tended, and were treated humanely. The information in the pamphlet and throughout the museum is a facade over the real treatment of US prisoners of war during their time in the prison. The North Vietnamese tortured American POWs, forcing them to release public statements condemning America’s behavior and praising North Vietnam’s during the war. They also forced the prisoners to claim they had been treated well in the prison. Hoa Lo Prison is the reason McCain still can't raise his arms above his head, and also why he's such a vocal advocate against torture. He was held as a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years in total. You can read more about Hoa Lo Prison here if you're a Vietnam War buff. After visiting the museum I am more appreciative of the efforts by some in our government to expose America’s transgressions against our prisoners, and I’m grateful we have the freedom to speak out against our government when we find they've done terrible things to people they capture.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
From Hanoi we visited Ha Long Bay, which is cited as a must see when you’re in Vietnam. We took a 4 hour bus ride to the ocean and got on a boat that took us out into the bay where 1,961 islands shoot straight up out of the water. The islands are incredibly cool as far as natural wonders go, but I was pretty meh about our trip there. After about 15 minutes of looking at the islands I was like, “Ok, that’s cool. I can be done now.”
You visit a cave on one of the islands and go kayaking, but you’re basically in a line of tourists the entire time which I find very depressing. The tour through the caves was pretty hilarious, though. The guides walked around pointing out rocks that looked like other objects. Our guide pointed out a piece of rock coming down from the ceiling that looked like a cucumber and then we all got to take a picture of it. There is also a rock that looks like a turtle and you rub its head for good luck. Buddhists believe that turtles have mystical powers but they’re terrified of real turtles. I would have loved to see how that dynamic was created. There’s also some rocks that look like puppies and a hole that’s shaped like a heart. Such an exciting first adventure.
Unfortunately while traveling through Ha Long Bay there were a lot of scenes like the one above. Trash covered scenery and junk floating in the oceans were some of the first things we saw from the boat. One of the issues that developing countries face is first-world packaged goods with a third-world trash infrastructure. When we were in Tanzania two years ago similar scenes greeted us in nature. It's a bummer when a country has incredible natural wonders but doesn't have the ability to keep it clean with the influx of tourists and industry.