In my quest to see more of Asia, I boarded a flight and landed in Hanoi, Vietnam. Westerners arriving in Vietnam must have an invitation letter. This is easily arranged through a third party, many of which are found on the internet. With my letter in hand, I went to the visa window at the airport, paid another fee and stepped into the Hanoi madness. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam but is not as crowded as HCMC; however, when it comes to motorbikes, Hanoi wins the prize. Motorbikes are the main transportation method for Hanoi residents, so better watch out while crossing any street. I stayed at Holiday Diamond Hotel an excellent and cheap hotel located in the Old Quarter. Prior to my arrival I contacted “Hanoikids(www.hanoikids.org) an organization staffed by student volunteers who needed to practice their English skills in return for taking you around town for FREE. My wonderful guide met me at the hotel and with my aggressive schedule, off we went to visit: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum
(could not enter due to renovation), Ho Chi Minh Museum and Residence, one pillar pagoda, Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi Hilton – this was an important site for me to visit; only about a third of the prison is still intact but still worth the visit), the Citadel, Vietnam Military History Museum, Tran Quoc Pagoda, and the famous Hanoi Flag Tower. On my own, I went to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater even though I was told the performance was sold out. I lucked out when the theatre had a few cancellations, but the show was somewhat disappointing as it was not as good as the show I had seen in HCMC two years back. I braved the traffic and walked across to the famous Long Bien Bridge; the bridge is dilapidated and falling apart but it is a neat feeling to be walking on such a famous landmark with traffic all around. In addition, seeing the poverty around the base of the bridge was a strange experience. If you plan on walking the bridge, I recommend you plan for a daring climb across the elevated railroad tracks for your return trip.
On my last day, I took a trip to Halong Bay for the mandatory tourist cruise but I was sorely disappointed in the seeing so much pollution in the bay and I did not enjoy the experience. Following Hanoi, I hopped on a plane and flew to the former imperial capital city of Hue. At the Hue airport, no need for a taxi – to get to town, just go to the bus counter near the airport exit door and buy a voucher for the shuttle bus that will drop you at or near your hotel for a charge of about US$2. In Hue I stayed at the Holiday Diamond Hotel (same chain and same quality stay as the hotel in Hanoi). The great attractions in Hue are the Tombs of the Emperors where many are located along the Perfume River south of the city. For this venture I hopped on the back of a motorcycle and first visited the Tiger & Trumpeting Elephant fighting arena, then on to Emperor Tu Duc’s Tomb and Khai Dinh Tomb, followed by a trip to the Thien Mu Pagoda, the most famous monument in Hue. For the trip back from the Pagoda, I boarded a dragon boat and went down the Perfume River to my drop off point; two tombs were more than enough. The next day, I visited the Citadel in Hue’s Old City, the Flag Tower, Ngo Mon Gate and the Forbidden Purple City (similar to Bejing’s Forbidden City), home to Vietnam’s Royal Family before 1945. All the sites I visited in my Hue stay are worthwhile, so pick and choose but be aware that many of the sights are in very poor condition. For the final leg of this trip, I made my way to DaNang and the famous “China Beach” on the back of a motorcycle; this was about a 7 hr. journey with a few stops along the way. It was a trip of a lifetime; simply terrific! The Hue to DaNang journey was through some of Vietnam’s most spectacular scenery; I traversed the Hai Van Pass and enjoyed the pristine coastline, stopped at the Marble Mountains (five stone jagged crests that represent the five elements of nature), finally stopping at the famous China Beach. With many memories, I then boarded a flight to Chiang Rai for a visit to the Golden Triangle.