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Travelers Digest

2007 Vietnam Review

My name is Michael Smith. My dream job is to travel the globe searching and finding the best and at times the worst of our world. To most it's a big world...too me it's a small world, but always amazing, especially in the SE of Asia. It's a world in a world and offers the best of mankind and the absolute best of nature. My journey into the communist capital of Vietnam, Hanoi was long in coming as I had occupied three months of 2006 and the first two months of 2007 touring extensively in the stunning and unforgettable country of Thailand...from the Malaysian border in the south to the tri river delta in the far north, called the Golden Triangle.

Before heading into Vietnam, as I was saving it for last, so I could have more time in exploring what was soon to become one of my most favored nations, I toured the ancient and poor, but phenomenal, country of Cambodia and onward to Laos. Both had taken me on a wonderful journey back in time...to when people actually enjoyed each other and worked as a community for the welfare of all. Lessons long forgotten by the so-called modern countries of the West.

Leaving the rapturous country of Laos on the 1st of March 2007, I landed in the much whispered about communist capital of a much long fought war in the 60's and 70's, Hanoi. As my generation had partaken in the madness of the war I was quite familiar with the tales and horror stories, especially of the infamous Hanoi Hilton where American POWS had been supposedly kept and tortured. Was it still there, was the one question that drove me to research the hotel and as if time had stood still...it was still a hotel. Remodeled, of course, but just the image buried so deep in my mind drove me to seek it out and book my week long stay at this hotel turned prison and then back to hotel. Definitely a journey I would never forget as I lay awake at nights during my stay and listened in my mind to the probably screams of captured warriors of the past.

I had befriended a couple of young guys, both from Canada, JJ and Josh, while touring in Laos and agreed to meet them upon landing at the Hanoi airport, as they were flying in from Vientiane, Laos about an hour later than my arrival. So, after breezing though immigration and grabbing my numerous bags I headed just outside the main terminal door and squatted for a smoke. The air was heavy and fairly humid and echoed the many sounds of busy travelers humming inaudible sounds in a multitude of languages. My first smoke in a few hours gave me a slight buzz and as usual I drifted...drifted back in my mind to my life and what had led up to my fabulous career. As always I concluded that it had been my gypsy desires to roam freely, explore everything and never take no for an answer...and at 13 years of age I left my family's small N. Texas farm and bade goodbye to my crying Mom, my silent Father and my 6 sisters and my baby brother and hopped a freight train westbound to, hopefully live with my 8th sibling, my eldest sister, in the exciting city on the bay...San Francisco. It was during the days of cheap booze, abundant pot, free love and the psychedelic brain forgings of the Jimmy Hendrix era. Ahhh, life was good and as I eventually found, or more correctly...stumbled, my way to adulthood I learned that the main purpose of life was life itself...living every moment as if it was your last and never...never...hanging onto anything too long. I still adhere to those simple philosophies and Vietnam would just be another side-trip in my never-ending journeys, but one I would not soon forget!

My Canadian buddies arrived on scheduled and after some howdies and hugs we headed off in a taxi to the Hanoi Hilton, as I had reserved 2 rooms. We must have been quite a sight as we drug our bags and backpacks in this now modern luxury hotel, but I must say that regardless of our appearance, we were greeted with welcoming courtesy by the staff. The lobby was grand, but not over burdened and the suites were most accommodating with all the amenities one would expect from such a memorial hotel. After a short reprieve of leisure in the suites we were off to begin exploring the city and getting a feel for the change in the cultural and economical differences from Laos and Cambodia...Vietnam was and is a country on the move.

While walking around the city center in the midst of the local people I couldn't help but feel somewhat timid in my awareness that I was an American. How would I be treated? Were the people still harboring much deserved hatred towards the citizens of the country that bombed, killed and raped their people for so many years? My fears soon diminished as everyone I made eye contact with smiled and were genuine in their welcoming behavior, as they went on with their daily lives. The streets were lined with kids, old people, vendors, motorcycle and bike taxis and uncountable sidewalk eateries. It seemed that every person was, in their own way, an entrepreneur with every imaginable kind of shop...big and small...offering an endless array of products and services...from shoe shining to massages...to push carts full of snacks to gourmet restaurants. Hanoi was an exciting and vibrant city as we soon learned and was full of well preserved history. Museums, libraries, palaces and temples and abundant war relics were everywhere. With my new buddies we were like a trio of kids and wandered both day and night in and around this action packed city of millions, including a a few million motorbikes zinging and zagging in every free space or road and sidewalk. Walking without getting ran over was a major challenge...driving would be suicidal. Never boring to say the least and everywhere there were stunningly gorgeous women...fashionably adorned, postural aligned and cultured with elegance...they were beyond sexual...they were visions of feline perfection.

Taking a $70 dollar taxi we headed off to our next destination, Ha Long Bay. The city is on an amazing harbor and the Gulf of Tonkin is home to some remarkable and bizarre limestone islands. After checking in to our choice hotel we headed out to explore the town a few kilometers away to look around, but mostly to find some edible food, as we were all quite particular on our dining choices. Me, I'm mostly an eggs and bacon kind of man, which I knew from a lot of past experience that such food is rare in Asia...but off we went. The main street lined the bay and was mostly some hotels and very expensive restaurants and a few discrete shops... definitely not much to look at, but the city center was quite impressive in the typical Asian manner...shops, vendors, crowded streets and thank goodness lots of cafes. The sun was still high and after devouring some noodles, rice and ham we walked around for hours in and out of shops, actually boat a jacket, as the wind from the bay was cold. The boys wanted to head to some bars and look for some ladies, what the hell' we're all single...but what happened next is slightly x rated, but it included some thugs, several hookers, a brawl, some busted doors and a run back to our hotel...enough said, as this is a family tourism review.

The next few days were sort of lazy, but we did managed to explore the harbor and took an all day boat excursion to the islands, some deep and impressive caves and an island aquarium...one of a kind as for as I am aware. Don't miss it! During our day long boat tour the weather was not very cooperative, cloudy as all heck. Fortunately, I did manage to shoot a few remarkable photos. As a globe trotter I have came across some extremely impressive places, but these odd and alien shaped islands, hundreds of family houseboats bobbing in the Tonkin Bay and with the eerie islands...the image will most definitely remain deeply imbedded in my brain for the rest of my life.

Next Review; Hue City...coming soon.

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Visas: Obtaining a visa is easy and quick, but must be done before arrival. Extensions are also quite easy and can be purchased at most tourism agencies..
Health risks: Dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, rabies, typhoid, tuberculosis and a minor threat (especially to pregnant women) of dioxins found in the defoliant Agent Orange