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Being For the Benefit of Uncle Ho

To celebrate my last days in beautiful Laos, I figured I’d finally get around to posting some pictures from Vietnam (at this rate, I’m hoping to get pictures from Laos uploaded sometime before the end of the current Obama administration). I’ll hold my thoughts on the sometimes-contentious reaction that being an American inspired in some of the more rural / traditional parts of Vietnam for another post; overall, it was a fantastic experience with great people, amazing food, and lively cockfights.

Some highlights:

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Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi. Still affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ho” by Vietnamese people far and wide (though moreso in the north), he continues to cast a hugely influential shadow over the country and its politics more than four decades after his death. Like Mao in China, he’s achieved a sort of demigod status in the national psyche of Vietnam. His face also appears on all Vietnamese currency, like Mao’s does in China. Communists certainly love their demigods.

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I tried the Devil’s Fart. It tasted terribly, as you’d expect. It was only $2 US, for what it’s worth – so I’m not THAT much of a sap.

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Mouth of the cave at the Perfume Pagoda, south of Hanoi. Getting here required rowing out on a river for about an hour, followed by a fairly steep climb up a mountain path. Ultimately, it was a cave. Kinda cool, but maybe not worth the effort. However, it did allow us to meet…

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…This lady, who literally stalked us from our initial departure on the boat (she told me I was “Handsome,” and I believed her until she immediately followed up with “Now you buy my bananas!”), rowing alongside us and hawking her goods the entire time. She then proceeded to follow us part of the way up the mountain, before camping out and waiting for us to return on our way down. At that point, we relented and bought a water and a beer from her.

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The Hoa Lo Prison, a.k.a. the “Hanoi Hilton.” Originally built by the French to house Vietnamese revolutionaries, it achieved more recent notoriety for its use as a prison for US pilots (including John McCain) captured during the Vietnam War – or American War, as it’s known locally. It’s now a museum, which juxtaposes the cruel plight faced by the heroic Vietnamese revolutionaries at the hands of their merciless French oppressors with the brief sojourns of certain American “guests,” whose time there seemed to consist solely of playing ping pong and going to Christmas Eve services, if you believe the propaganda-laden images on display there. The irony was overwhelming at times.

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Kayaking on Ha Long Bay. Surprisingly, we cooperated pretty well and did not kill each other.

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Aerial shot of Ha Long Bay, taken from a pagoda that we hiked up to. And they told us we were the only boat going out that day…

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Hoo boy, story time on this one. We decided to take the overnight bus from Hanoi to Hue, which was apparently 13ish hours away. We’d heard mixed reviews of the bus, but figured it was cheaper than flying, and that we’d save on a night’s hotel cost to boot. How intrepid of us! Well, first of all, these buses clearly weren’t built with people over six feet in mind. Here’s me stretching out in my “bunk.” I could’ve handled the cramped accommodations on their own, but it was also on this trip that I ended up getting serious food poisoning for the first time on this trip. Like the American bombing campaign that devastated much of Southeast Asia’s countryside during the late 1960s / early 1970s, it was violent and unceasing. Not a fun ride.

Oh, also, it was Christmas Eve.

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Countryside outside of Hue.

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Heading into one of the many tunnels near the former North-South border in which villagers would take refuge during bombing raids.

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Big old tub of snake wine. Dee-licious. There’s a reason that no other country on earth will let you bring this vile crap through customs. Ask a local about the taste, and the only defense they can muster is, “But it makes you virile!” This is generally followed by a chuckle, pat on the back, and 5-7 seconds of uncomfortable, silent eye contact.

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American tanks at Khe San, where the Tet Offensive kicked off in 1968. Also the site of the first big battle scene in Full Metal Jacket.

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Is it me, or does this guy look like Cat Stevens? I think this was in Hoi An, which was beautiful, by the way.

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Spent New Year’s Eve on Phu Quoc Island, off the southern coast of Cambodia (but still part of Vietnam, due to some kind of border dispute). Really sweet lady that ran our guest house offered to make a big Vietnamese dinner for everybody staying there. Great group of people, with the possible exception of the surly Russian guy who proceeded to ignore his much-younger wife, make several uncomfortable passes at the unsuspecting Swedish sisters sitting beside him, and drink an entire bottle of Beefeater Gin, straight, no chaser, over the course of dinner. I’ll say this much: he didn’t do much to combat the overwhelmingly negative stereotypes of Russian tourists that persists throughout much of Southeast Asia.

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Made our way down to a bonfire on the beach afterwards for the big countdown with a fun crowd. Somewhat inexplicably, there was a giant projector playing clips from old silent movies starring Charlie Chaplin in the background. Made for a neat ambiance, though.

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The beautiful Rifaat sisters, who met us on Phu Quoc Island for a few days of relaxing, snorkeling, and watching simmering tensions between Zibby and I finally boil over during an innocuous card game. Sorry, girls! Great seeing you!

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Action shot of Zibby on the back of a motorbike, en route to…

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…This beach, on the northern edge of Phu Quoc Island. Was almost completely empty, paradise found.

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At the night market on Phu Quoc Island. Great seafood hot pot and banh mi, and a good place to escape the exorbitantly over-priced restaurants on the beach.

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Last but not least, yes, this is a cock fight. After several days spent lounging on the beach and doing a whole lot of nothing, Zibby and I opted to rent motorbikes and explore the island – to find the “real Vietnam,” as opposed to the tourist-heavy beach scene. We had visions of, say, meeting a sweet old lady and having her invite us to lunch at her home while she regaled us in broken English with tales of days passed. Nope, instead, we found 90 percent of the village immersed in a series of cockfights all day. To be fair, they were more than happy to have us join them.

One thought on “Being For the Benefit of Uncle Ho

  1. We really enjoy reading these bites of Asia, Matt. Looking forward to going over them all again with you in person.

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