Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hoa Lo and Halong Bay

Just a warning ahead of time that I'm about to talk about some amazing pictures...that you won't actually get to see for a couple of days or so. Sorry about that! I've either lost my flash drive or it was stolen (most likely it was lost) and until I get a new one, it's going to make uploading pics kind of difficult. Luckily my pictures aren't totally lost since they're on Flickr, and I should be able to pick up a new flash drive "cheap cheap" (as everything in Vietnam is declared!).

The British arrived on Monday night, a bit later than they expected after a 25 hour bus trip from Vientiane to Hanoi. We'd originally planned on leaving Tuesday morning for a trip to Halong Bay, but their late arrival meant that we didn't really have the time that we needed to plan, so we spent Tuesday running some errands in the morning and then we went to Hoa Lo Prison Museum in the afternoon. Since the weather wasn't great anyway (overcast since my arrival last Friday and on the cool side), we figured we'd leave on Wednesday for Halong Bay and only spend one night there instead of two.

Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, is where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War, although it had been in use since then late 1800's when the French built it. Most of the focus of the museum was on the French colonial time when Vietnamese prisoners were held captive and these sections didn't hold our interest for very long. Some photo captions and artefact descriptions were in English, but not all, and there wasn't a lot of information given so we were left with more questions than answers. I'm sure those particular exhibits have more meaning for the Vietnamese than they had for us.

The exhibits that focused on the American War (as it's known here) were more interesting. I knew going in that I was going to get a completely different perspective from what is taught in US schools. No disappointment there. After the last presidential election, we all heard from John McCain plenty of times on the torture he received while he was a POW (he was held at Hoa Lo). At the museum, however, there's a picture of McCain receiving medical treatment with a caption testifying to the great level of care and attention given to the prisoners. There's also a number of pictures of smiling American prisoners sitting down to a huge Christmas dinner, playing chess and sports, receiving care packages from home, and otherwise not looking particularly unhappy to be prisoners. As I continue my travel in Vietnam and go to other places that tell the story of the American War, it will be interesting to get more of the other side's point of view.

After the prison museum, we needed some light heartedness. We decided to go to the grocery store for dinner and snacks for the boat trip, and then go back to the hotel where Rhian and Marina were staying to watch a movie and call it an early night. I had checked out of my hostel to stay at the same place as the other girls. It was four of us in the room, including Holly, another British girl Rhian and Marina had met on the bus to Hanoi. Kind of like a slumber party - as soon as the lights went out, that's when the talking and giggling began, lol. But, as we all are adults, we knew that being up and ready for our 7:30am pickup the next morning meant that we had to get some shut eye.

There was a bit of tension between us and the front desk staff the next morning, but that story will have to be saved for another day. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel room, leaving our luggage for storage and just taking a small day pack with us for the trip. We took a van about three hours away to Halong Bay and then transferred to the junk (aka boat, but I'm not sure why it's called a junk). Actually, before we got on the boat, there was more tension because there was a question of whether the boat would be able to leave or not. It was kind of misty and very foggy and pier management wasn't allowing boats to leave. That's understandable, but the tension came about because there were rumors that we wouldn't get our money back. Long story longer, our boat was able to depart - yay!

This is when pictures would be really helpful. The scenery was absolutely amazing. There were huge limestone cliffs and random islands jutting out of the bay all over the place. Those of you on my SPOT email list received this link with my GPS coordinates. Pretty cool, huh? While some people were complaining about how crappy the weather was, I was snapping away on my camera because I thought the mist and fog made everything look very mysterious and romantic. After lunch on the boat, we stopped off at Hang Dau Go (Cave of Wooden Stakes), a cave that was quite possibly the coolest cave I've ever seen. It was massive and had a number of very large rooms to walk through. The stalactites and stalagmites were lit up with pink, purple, green, blue, and yellow lights and while that wasn't exactly authentic or natural, it certainly made everything look pretty! We had dinner on the boat, too, and then we spent the rest of the evening playing cards with Andy and Katherine, a Canadian couple living in China that we'd met earlier in the day.

Today we had the option of kayaking in the morning, something all of us were keen to do. Except that kayaking was to start at 6:30am and none of us were keen on that. We slept in instead and woke up to a bright, sunshine-y day, the first I'd seen in almost a week. After breakfast, we all went to the top deck of the junk to read and soak in some rays. When the boat arrived at Halong City, we got off the boat for lunch and then got back in the van to head back to Hanoi.

In case you hadn't figured it out, there's been a minor change of plans. I'd said before that I was going to HCMC today, the 25th. Obviously that didn't happen. I decided that I'd change my flight and fly from HCMC to Hanoi on March 14th instead. This way, I can work my way south in Vietnam and hang out with Rhian and Marina a bit more. We won't be traveling together the whole time, but since we're going in the same direction instead of the opposite direction, our paths will cross more frequently. I leave tomorrow night on an overnight bus to Hue where I'll spend a day or two before going to Hoi An.


  1. Glad you got to join up with the Brits again and are enjoying some scenery outside of Hanoi.

    Of course the Vietnamese treated all of the US POW's like they were honored guests! I would expect them to say nothing less.

  2. Your trip is just amazing!!! Pictures are beautiful. These are going to be adventurous tales to tell your grandchildren one day.

  3. Well maybe now that your plans have changed
    a little, you and your friends will meet up
    more often like you said and you won't be lonely. I love all the pictures!

    Love ya