October 15 – October 27, 2016
By Jenn & Steve
Welcome to Vietnam, land of fishsauce, extremely strong coffee, and the Honda Wave. Though a direct neighbor with both China and Laos, we definitely found it to have its own unique history, food, culture, and modern situation.
We arrived in Hanoi by plane from Luang Prabang, Laos on the 15th of October. Using the wonderful app – Maps.me – we smoothly got ourselves downtown to the old quarter by public transit and walking. Quite the accomplishment in the narrow winding alleys and chaotically busy streets of old-quarter Hanoi.
The first of two days in Hanoi was spent exploring the streets and museums. Hanoi is full of neat museums to check out. Our first visit was to the National Vietnamese History Museum, a museum full of historic bones, artifacts, and communist propaganda. It was a little tattered and dusty, but interesting enough. The second museum of the day was the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, a more modern museum built around vastly under-appreciated roles and perspectives of women. This museum was very informative and thought provoking, featuring interactive displays and information on Vietnamese history and lifestyles. The wing dedicated to women’s roles in the Vietnamese War (in Vietnam it is fittingly called the “American War”) was particularly poignant. The many displays featured photographs and stories about individual women’s roles during the war. It was extremely interesting and refreshing to learn about the Vietnamese War from the perspective of Vietnamese women, in contrast to the narrative of American men that we are familiar with. This change in perspective makes for a very different version of history indeed, involving much sacrifice, courage, and strength from the Vietnamese women who fought side-by-side with men in the war to protect their country and families. Prior to our visit we would never have pictured Vietnamese women fighting in the jungle. This museum visit was an important reminder of the biases and holes in our understanding of history, and how often we do not learn about the perspective of women.
We visited a third museum in Hanoi upon our return to catch a flight to Hong Kong, and we’ll mention it now while on the subject of museums. The Hoa Lo Prison was the French prison for Vietnamese “radicals” during colonization, and was also used for American POW’s during the war. The museum is located in a partially renovated wing of the prison, so you actually walk through the buildings that saw thousands of prisoners over the past hundred years, many of whom never made it out. Once again, it was very interesting because it presented everything from the Vietnamese perspective that we rarely hear of in the west.
Our museum day concluded with an evening of recuperation for Jen (the sickness was beginning to creep in); while Steve wandered the streets soaking in the night scene. Busy streets full of motorcycles (dominantly the popular Honda Wave), market stalls, music, cheap street food, and beer make for a busy night life experience unique to Hanoi.
The majority of our second full day in Hanoi was a hashing day with the Hanoi Hash House Harriers. This bunch take their runs very seriously, dedicating an entire afternoon and evening each week to club activities. Jenn woke up that morning feverish and very sick but had her stubborn heart set on doing the Hanoi hash, and so both of us found our way to the assigned meeting location. From there, we all loaded onto 2 busses and headed north for an hour and a half into the Vietnamese countryside. Despite feeling (and looking) like death, the countryside hash run through dirt roads, streams, jungle, and rural villages was amazing and made Jenn feel a lot better (for the run portion at least).
From Hanoi we caught a cheap flight south to Hué, in Central Vietnam. Hue, like the vast majority of Vietnam, was devastated during the war with over 80% of the town flattened during a major battle centered around the ancient capital’s palace. Hué highlights would have to be the ancient capital palace (modeled after the Forbidden Palace in Beijing), ice cream by the riverside, Steve catching Jennifer’s deadly sickness and suffering the consequences, bike rides to the ocean (our first taste of the Pacific Ocean from Asia), and maybe, most memorably, the extreme friendliness and good nature of Tam and his family, the owners of the guesthouse we were staying at (more on this later in the blog).
After Hué, we caught a bus to the highly recommended city of Hoi An, a small town on a river renowned for its French Colonial architecture, cafés, and history. It was beautiful, but like many highly recommended places, it has become very touristy with restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops filling the old quarter. As a result, it doesn’t really feel like Vietnam anymore. It also did not help that we were both recovering from an epic cold, spending much of our time in bed.
After 2 days in Hoi An, we headed back North to Lang Co, half-way between Hué and Hoi An, for the Angsana Laguna Lang Co Marathon and Half Marathon. Instead of staying at the sponsoring resort, Angsana Laguna Lang Co. (which is very beautiful, though very much out of our price range), we stayed 10km away at a little place we found on booking.com called Nguyet Anh Guesthouse, which was more in our budget at $25USD for three nights. This spot turned out to be splendid; while resting up for the run we got to stay on ocean front property (great views and swimming), eat seafood so fresh you pick it out from a bucket live before you eat it, and experience a small Vietnamese fishing village. This was definitely more our style of traveling, relative to the touristy Hoi An. To top it off, we were able to rent a scooter (something you have to try when you are in Vietnam) to get to and from the race.
So race day came quickly enough and we were up at 4:00am for the races which started at 6:00am. The run itself was beautiful, following countryside roads through rural villages. There were adorable children running to the roads to see what was happening and shout “alo!” to the runners passing by. Perhaps the best part about the run was that it was so small – only ~75 participants in the full marathon and ~200 in the half –so you got to recognizing people quickly and cheering each other on. This also worked in Jenn’s favor; with only 5 women participating in the full marathon she was able to stay ahead of them all and finish as first female, which always makes for an amazing running experience.
Steve successfully completed his second half marathon, which is awesome considering he said that he would never run one again after he ran his first half 2 years ago in Wolfville, NS. He now says he will stick to 10km races only, but we shall see…the racing/running brain has a strange way of vividly remembering the good times and erasing memories of pain and suffering. Jenn tends to forget the pain a bit quicker, but thinks Steve will also soon forget and repeat the runner’s cycle.
Next we head back north to Ninh Binh for 2 weeks of woofing. More on that experience in the next blog. Thanks for the read!