Subject: Hong Kong to Vietnam
As some of you might remember, my trip this past fall was to Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangkok. I am finally getting around to posting the Readers' Digest version of a travelogue. If anyone wants more specific information, feel free to ask.

We had a short stay in Hong Kong, but enough time for a GTG with Judy Love-Eastham and her husband Tony, as she has already told you. I know Judy will cringe when I repeat this, but the main reason we went to Hong Kong was to try to do some Christmas shopping. Frankly, our time would have been better used trying to do more sightseeing. We were last in Hong Kong twelve years before this trip. The shopping was much better then.

Highlights of our tour were the bird market and the flower market. Those are easily accessible by subway. Unless you really know jade, skip the jade market. It was stall after stall of green things that all looked alike and all seemed to be expensive. Victoria Peak still provides an amazing view, but the mall that has been built there takes commercialism to new heights (bad pun intended).

Stanley Market is still somewhat entertaining, and we did find some nice art and things that looked like antiques there. The prices were such that it did not matter if the things were in fact antiques. There are still sellers of fakes who set up stalls and communicate with each other to warn about police arriving. When there is an alarm, they close up their carts and run no matter what!

If you go, get Judy's book. It is informative and will point you in the direction of something other than shopping!

>From Hong Kong, we flew Vietnam Airlines to Hanoi. The flight was pleasant and uneventful. It is also relatively short.

We arrived at the Hanoi airport late in the afternoon. We had had to fill out three entry forms, and then had to wait in three different lines. Amazingly, the only place we ever encountered a typical communist bureaucracy was at the airports. There, it was the real thing and reminded me of Soviet style full employment! Once through, we did not have much trouble collecting our bags and finding our guide.

We had booked our trip with tours in Vietnam and Cambodia, but the tours allowed us to arrive any day. On that basis, we expected to be a tour of four, and we were. We had a guide and a good sized van with driver everywhere we went that was part of the tour. This was probably a good thing for a group of four women travelling together, but I think I would agree with Ed Clancy that it is not really necessary.

Our tour was to include Hanoi, Hue, Danang and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We arrived just after the devastating floods hit central Vietnam, and had to cancel Hue and Danang. The company changed the tour to add an extra day in Hanoi and a trip to Halong Bay, which suited us just fine. Without that extra day in Hanoi, we really would have seen almost nothing. As it was, we could have used more time.

The other sign of communist bureaucracy was our charming guide in Hanoi. She seemed to have the same university guide training we had experienced several years ago in China. The Hanoi airport is quite a way from the city, and along the way she had an opportunity to tell us everything she knew about her country's economy and rice growing two or three times. She was a very pleasant young woman with reasonably good english language skills, and was very eager to have us think well of Vietnam. She seemed almost frightened to tell us about the change in our tour, and incredibly relieved when we said no problem. She also went out of her way to try to make some additional changes over and above what the tour company had done.

Actually, everyone we met wanted us to think well of the country, and we did. For the Americans reading this, especially those of my vintage, the Vietnamese do not dwell on the American War, as they call it. They are eager for good relations with the U.S. and especially for westerners to spend money to assist their very fragile economy.

One of the amazing things for westerners to see is that there are very few cars but thousands and thousands of bicycles and motorbikes, many carrying entire families and/or livestock. The other popular means of transport is the cyclo. The motorized vehicle drivers in Hanoi feel obligated to honk their horns incessantly as a means of traffic control. It is one of my most haunting memories of our stay there. For those of you who have visited Cairo, the horn honking in Hanoi is worse!

Vietnam has miles and miles and miles of rice paddies. The photos you have seen of the people waist deep in water are reality in Vietnam. Also, they use water buffalo to plow the paddies. We were there when most of the rice was being harvested. We saw the one machine they use--it separates the rice grains from the stalks. The rice is put into bags that are stacked on carts drawn by horse or donkey. Our guide told us they use the stalks for fuel for cooking, but she said that about everything that could not be eaten!

We stayed at the Sofitel Metropole, which I think is the nicest, and among the most expensive, in Hanoi. The two best things about it were the location--walking distance to the old part of the city--and the total peace inside its walls. (The horn honking, you know.) We saw many small hotels in our wandering/touring that looked like they could be quite nice. We did not check any of them out, however.

Hanoi is quite provincial in feel, although it is the capital. Probably the only place worth walking a lot is the old city and the lake at the south end of it. We really enjoyed the time we had to explore there. Also, the night we arrived we took a cyclo tour around the various streets. They continue the tradition of the household goods street, the furniture street, the metal street, etc. One of my friends also took a cyclo during one afternoon to photograph. It was a great way to cover a lot of territory in a relatively short time. I think she had about two hours for a dollar!

We were unable to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum or museum. Our guide told us Uncle Ho was in Russia for technical restoration! Outside the museum, we say the only people who seemed to think at all about war. It was a group of men and women who all appeared to be at least in their 60s. They all were wearing medals, men and women alike. Our guide said the women were mothers of men who had been killed at war. We do not know which war since the Vietnamese have been at war with so many countries throughout their history. Judging by the ages of the people, I would guess it was either the American War, or the war with Cambodia that followed.

By chance, we visited what is left of the Hanoi Hilton. I found it to be very sobering. Of course, it was a French prison where Vietnamese were cruelly interred for many years before the Vietnamese used it for downed American pilots. There is one small section where they have photos of some of the American pilots--including the current ambassador to Vietnam and John McCain--enjoying their stay--cooking, eating together, going to church. We think the Vietnamese must not understand the meaning of the photo of the young man in church giving the photographer the finger.

We visited the temples that are listed in the guidebooks, and we really did not need a guide for that. It was nice to have the van, but I am sure we could easily have hired a driver. If you visit and have a short time, I recommend the Temple of Literature where the royal sons and mandarins were educated. It dates from the 11th century. While there, we had the pleasure of seeing and hearing a small group demonstrating traditional Vietnamese musical instruments and songs. Unfortunately, the felt compelled to give a rendition of O Susanna, too. We also visited the Fine Arts Museum which houses Vietnamese sculpture and painting. I am not well-versed in understanding art, but I thought it was interesting to see the history in the art.

The Vietnamese are very friendly people, and apparently are very happy to have us visit. We paid for most everything in dollars, and changed very little money in Vietnam. Our guides encouraged us to use dollars. Everything in Hanoi was very reasonable outside of the expensive hotel. One night, we met a friend of one of my friends who travels to Vietnam for three month periods to teach at one of the agricultural universities. He lived there full-time during and after the war. After drinks at the hotel, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant (Nam Phuong) a few blocks away and had dinner for five with wine for about $48. I think our drinks at the hotel cost that! The food was excellent, and the place was full of Vietnamese. I think it must be an expensive restaurant for them, however, because the Vietnamese who were there were all pretty well dressed.

The people still live upstairs from their shops, and often do not have plumbing, even in Hanoi. They actually carry the water up the stairs every day. In the evening, the streets were crowded with people in front of their homes cooking and eating. The trash is thrown in the gutters of the street, and women come around every night to sweep it up and put it in big bins that they push along. The city does not look dirty.

Hanoi does not have many traffic controls. The motorbikes and bicycles seem to come in a never ending stream. There are few cars. Our guide told us all cars are owned by tour companies or the government, and I suspect that is true. Crossing the street is a necessary but hair-raising experience. We quickly learned that one does not cross in front of a car, but if it is motorbikes and bicycles, just step out and walk slowly across. Never run or jump. If you walk slowly, they just go around you.

We took a trip one morning to Bat Trang. It is a village of pottery makers that has been doing the same thing, I think in the same way, for centuries. The trade is handed down through generations. The kilns are wood and coal fired, and it is amazing to see the coal in piles being shoveled into baskets carried by little ladies in conical hats. They form the coal into small pats (for lack of a better word) that is then stuck on the side of buildings until it is needed. Of course, many of the families have shops where they sell the finished product. I found tiny tea sets for my nieces and some rectangular dishes which I am using for hors d'ouevres trays and spent less than ten dollars! Then, of course, I had to get them home. That is what that dirty laundry is for!

Our visit in northern Vietnam continued in Halong Bay. It was a four hour drive from Hanoi, but there is now helicopter service (at some outrageous price, of course) that takes an hour. This is a popular resort area, but in November it is not at all crowded. It is one of those incredible landscapes that one must see to understand. If any one has been to Guilin, China along the Li River, that is the terrain of Halong Bay, except that it is a vast bay populated with thousands of limestone karst formations. Most of them have caves inside with magnificent stalactite and stalagmite formations. The area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the cave formations. We had very little time there, so were only able to take a half day boat ride on the bay and visit the cave that is set up for tourists. Even with the colored lights, one can appreciate the beauty of the caves. Anyone who enjoys cave exploration should put this area on their list!

The town itself seems to be typical seaside tourist town. Most of the hotels are set up to look over the bay, and it was spectacular. What better way to enjoy the evening than cocktails on the balcony overlooking Halong Bay?

We returned to Hanoi the next day for our flight to Saigon. I will save that for next time!

Lisa in Chicago