Sunburned Shoulders and the Hanoi Hilton – Hanoi, Vietnam

Sunburned Shoulders and the Hanoi Hilton
Hanoi, Northern Vietnam

Kevin in Sapa.

It was my eighth and unfortunately last day in Vietnam. Within 24 hours, I would board a plane and soon have to face the reality of work. My whirlwind visit to Northern Vietnam had been an exciting and memorable one, but my final day in the capital city of Hanoi was more than I ever could have asked for.

I had visited Vietnam during my brief summer vacation. I was aware of the fact that the end of July was the height of the rainy season there, however, it made no difference to me. Personally, Vietnam was one of those mystical places that reached out to me. For whatever reasons, the lack of throngs of tourists, the fact that it has yet to be completely ravaged by globalization or the fact that it is just so beautiful, I simply had to see it. With a new job in Korea, I found myself in a position that made it financially and geographically possible to just “pop on down” for a short vacation.

I had begun planning and researching my trip to Vietnam several months earlier. I was very excited about the prospects of going somewhere so “cool.” It was to be a solo trip, but as things go, the plan changed. It began with one coworker asking if he could join me and in the end, there were five of us. This presented both positive and negative experiences, but anyone who has ever traveled in a group knows, “that’s the way it works.”

To begin with, there is no possible way that someone can absorb a country in eight days. No matter how small a country is geographically, there are simply too many experiences to have, too many people to meet and too many moments to process. For those reasons I had planned to target a small area of Northern Vietnam. I had eight days to see three major areas and the rest of Vietnam would have to wait until another visit.

This trip had more planning than most I make. I usually adopt a “fly by the seat of my pants” approach, but with limited time, I hoped to get the most out of it.

We arrived in Hanoi in early afternoon and decided to only stay the night. Early the following morning we were off to the “jaw-dropping” UNESCO world heritage site, Halong Bay, where more than 3000 magnificent islands jut out of the water in a dream-like way. From there, we trucked it back to Hanoi. We then hopped a train to the northerly elevations and hill-tribes of Sapa, a former hill station in the days of French Indochina. After a few more awe-inspiring days in the lush north, we would make the journey back to Hanoi.

With a population of roughly three and a half million people, Hanoi is the second-largest city in Vietnam and is home to the country’s Communist government. Hanoi sits only 200 kilometers from China. Once entering the city, the French colonial influence upon everything from architecture to cuisine was immediately apparent. Streets are lined with palm trees and dilapidated concrete buildings, painted in a rainbow of pastel shades. Hordes of people, cars and motorcycles seemed to coexist in a form of organized chaos. The “organized” part of this chaos quickly seems to disappear once you step from your taxi and are on foot attempting to cross the street.

We had all stayed at a guesthouse in the Old Quarter our first night in the city. The staff was friendly and quite entertaining, so we decided to go back. That evening we took one of the more helpful staff members to eat at a lovely little restaurant a few streets away.

We had one full day and night left in Hanoi. Until this point, we remained a group. We had ventured to Halong Bay together and then again on to Sapa. With one day left, we all wanted to do different things. Bernard and Andrew wanted to visit a Buddhist grotto several hours outside of town. Steve wanted to cruise around the city on a motorcycle. J.D. and I decided that we wanted to explore the Hanoi’s Old Quarter and see what it had to offer.

We woke up at dawn, which is always a good idea when traveling. It allows you to squeeze as much out of the day as you possibly can. The tooth-turning, lip-curling, high-octane coffee so common to Vietnam is another fabulous way to start the day. After a few mugs of the caffeine-enriched beverage and a fresh baguette, J.D. and I were off to wander the streets. We planned to hit several museums that day, but it was far too early for anything to be open. We explored the alleyways, observing women selling fruit, vegetables, coal and almost anything else you can imagine.

Hanoi Street.

The shops were just beginning to open. It was still relatively cool during these early morning hours, but what started as a crisp feeling in the air began to change as the morning progressed. The sun was becoming more intense and the streets began to fill with a deluge of motorcycles spewing toxic clouds of black exhaust. We popped in out of shops as we made our way to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Hoa Lo Prison was dubiously named the “Hanoi Hilton” by American pilots and officers who were held there as POW’S during the Vietnam War. Men such as American Senator John McCain languished there for years. Only a small portion of the prison remains, but it makes a strong impact nonetheless.

As we walked out of remains of Hoa Lo Prison, we started up Hai Ba Trung towards the Temple of Literature. Making our way towards the temple, I could feel the intensity of the sun on my arms. I was wearing a tank top and had forgotten my sun block at the guesthouse, a cocktail for trouble. It was now well above 40°C, and I felt as if my arms had been laid across a hotplate. Within 20 minutes we were at the temple, where I was relieved to find some shade and a cold bottle of water.

We soon retreated to the sanctity of a pub for a bite to eat and a couple of much-deserved Tiger beers. It wasn’t long before we were pounding the pavement again, weaving our way through a series of narrow side streets, searching for Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the Hanoi Citadel area.

As we entered the embassy district on the outskirts of the Hanoi Citadel area, the streets began to widen and the buildings appeared more upscale. The sun was intense as we entered the giant square in front of the Mausoleum. The size of square was impressive, and I can only imagine the tens of thousands of soldiers who have paraded through it over the years. Giant red flags emblazoned with a lone yellow star flapped ominously overhead, while soldiers with AK 47s watched us quizzically. At one point, in my naivete, I raised my camera to snap a photo of an impressive-looking white mansion. Soldiers quickly ran towards me, waving their arms frantically. I didn’t take the picture.

We wandered through this area for some time, but decided it was time to make our way back to the Old Quarter. My arms were officially burned to a crisp. We plodded along, shopping and sipping on a few beers as the afternoon soon faded into twilight.

It was dinnertime, and J.D. and I decided to end the day with a small parade of Tiger beer. We decided to sit at a lovely little restaurant on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake. The Old Quarter looked beautiful at dusk. Everything seemed to have a bluish hue about it as the sky grew darker. It seemed like a fitting end to my first trip to South East Asia.

My eight days in North Vietnam had been wonderful. They were filled with islands, boats, trekking, good people, great food, a typhoon and a terribly sunburned pair of arms. I can’t wait to go back to Vietnam.

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