Delicious pork-based meals consumed: 20+
Delicious pork-based meals that were bun cha: 10+
Items of bespoke clothing purchased: 3
Animals seen: 10 or so (easily the fewest of my entire trip)
Entombed heads of state briefly glimpsed: 1
World Heritage sites admired: 2
Instances in which I was run over by a four-door sedan: 1
Packages of Oreos and Ritz crackers offered as recompense for being run over by a taxi: 4
Weeks for burns to heal: 4
Weeks for puncture wound to heal: 7
Major sightseeing trips canceled due to injuries: 2 (see you next time, Sapa and Halong Bay!)
Total money spent: $1,468.40
Number of days in the country: 28
Average amount spent per day: $52.44
Total money spent, minus the hospital costs: $1,026.30
Average amount spent per day, minus the hospital costs: $36.65
New friends made: 6
Old friends happily re-met by chance: 2
Reasons to go back and see more, uninjured this time: 100+
Ho Chi Minh wanted his body cremated, his memory kept alive in the spirit of the soldiers still fighting the war that went on several years after his death. But the leaders left behind upon his passing on September 2, 1969 decided they needed a more visible symbol, so they embalmed his body and erected a tomb in which to display it. The tomb is modeled on Lenin’s, and as with that monument, hundreds of people file past the embalmed body every day to pay their respects.
I’d heard how strict the guards were about not allowing visitors to take photos, but we were allowed to take our cameras into the complex. The mausoleum is only open for three hours every day, and some days the line extends for ages. Luckily for me, the lines were short when I visited, so I stood under an awning for only about 20 minutes before I entered the building. Once we were in front of the building, the guards enforced the no-photos rule, so I have none of the inside.
Inside, we walked single-file past armed guards, up a ramp and into the tomb. The glass case was mounted on a pedestal in a sunken floor, and was surrounded by another four armed guards. We were ushered through quickly, just enough time to see the waxy face and uniformed body of Ho Chi Minh, an eerie Snow White in a glass coffin.
Outside, we were all encouraged to visit the palace grounds. I watched a group of schoolchildren, giggling in their little uniforms, sing a patriotic song together. I saw the outside of the palace, which had been built for French colonial rulers, was then used as the palace for Ho Chi Minh, and is now blocked off to the public.
Ho Chi Minh apparently preferred to live in a simpler building during his presidency, and that building was displayed next to his three fancy cars near the small lake down the path. A little further along was the house on stilts, an even more basic construction that he retreated to during the later part of his tenure.
How much of this humility is legend and how much is the truth of the man, I don’t know. From the little I know of Ho Chi Minh, he did seem to truly believe in the cause he was fighting for, and in the liberation he believed a unified communist state would bring to Vietnam. It’s entirely believable that a man who worked most of his life for that outcome would request cremation and be embarrassed by the mausoleum he received instead.
The Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi combined the single-minded propaganda of the War Remnants Museum and the strange echoes of death sites felt at the Cu Chi Tunnels, resulting in a bizarre experience. A friend and I went together, and we were two of only about thirty or forty visitors in the mid-afternoon heat, so often we were the only people walking through rooms that were once packed full of prisoners, our voices swallowed up by the thick concrete walls.
American prisoners of war nicknamed this place the “Hanoi Hilton” in a bitter jab at the conditions they endured. The official Vietnamese line is that the POWs were treated very well, and learned to empathize with the people they had previously only known as “the enemy.” However, multiple POWs have reported inhumane conditions, including substandard housing, insufficient food, and physical torture.
But the first part of the museum doesn’t even mention Americans. The prison was built during French colonial times to house political prisoners, and the gatehouse that remains as the museum still has “Maison Centrale” arched over the doorway–the central house of the prison complex. Inside, there’s a mix of murals, glass cases filled with objects and scale models of the prison, and life-size sculptures of prisoners chained together and plotting revolution.
The Vietnamese who were imprisoned by the French endured terrible conditions; the exhibits emphasized how resilient the prisoners were, and how they did everything they could to resist their imperial jailers, including gathering under an old almond tree in the courtyard to discuss resistance measures. The guillotine used to execute prisoners was on display, as were the solitary confinement cells, the piece of sewer pipe that 100 prisoners escaped through, and the room that held many more female prisoners than could comfortably fit.
There were just a few small rooms devoted to the prison’s use in the ’60s and ’70s. These held artifacts like John McCain’s flight suit, a bed used by the prisoners, and a guitar and badminton net from all the leisure activities the POWs were supposedly allowed.
The two most striking things I saw in these small rooms were a video from the time of the war, and a document listing the regulations of the camp. That list started with:
American servicemen participating in the war of aggression by U.S. administration in Viet-Nam and caught in the act while perpetrating barbarous crimes against the Vietnamese land and people, should have been duly punished according to their criminal acts; but the Government and people of Viet-Nam, endowed with noble and humanitarian traditions, have given those captured American servicemen the opportunity to benefit a lenient and generous policy by affording them a normal life in the detention camps as practical conditions in Viet-Nam permit it and conforming to the situation in which the war is still on. [sic on everything]
The video was a marvel of propaganda. It alternated scenes of American POWs playing basketball and grinning at dinner with scenes of Vietnamese cowering from falling bombs and picking through the wreckage afterward. It was a genius video; who could watch it and not sympathize with the Vietnamese, who were so generous to the people who were daily trying to kill them? Of course the smiling the POWs did for the cameras was all done under duress, and it was sick to hold up these tortured men as examples of how beneficent their captors were. But just because the POW sequences were lies doesn’t mean the bomb and wreckage scenes were. It was a bloody, hateful war–as they all are.
My interest in the prison derived from my knowledge of the Vietnamese-American War, but once again, seeing the place in person showed me a side I wasn’t aware of–how significant the prison was to the Vietnamese as a place where they had been tortured and unjustly confined by French colonial forces. There wasn’t even a straight line drawn between the displays showing how badly the Vietnamese were treated, to displays showing how well the Americans were treated. That was a line you could draw, yes, but the way the museum was set up, it was more like it was a museum about the prison under the French, and the heroic Vietnamese prisoners who lived and died inside; and there were a few rooms about how the prison was later used.
It was fascinating, and sobering, and nothing like I’d expected.
I went to shows in different countries on this trip, seeing types of theater particular to the region, like kabuki in Japan and hula dancing in Hawaii. In Hanoi, that meant seeing water puppet theater, which started in the rice paddies of northern Vietnam in the 11th century, if not earlier. Farmers put on shows after the flooded paddies had been harvested. The shows were a way to celebrate the end of harvest, and also a way to honor the water spirits of the paddies. As with so many forms of entertainment, it eventually became something used to entertain wealthier people, and the show moved inside. Now there are several shows a day in a few different theaters in the capital city.
A live band played hidden behind screens stage right, and three women in traditional dress sat in front of the screens and narrated the show. They took turns talking, while TV screens showed English translations of what they said, and they sang during the performance. The stage was a large rectangle of water, and the puppeteers hid behind the large scrim and manipulated the puppets using long bamboo poles.
The puppets were small metal and wood creations, and they acted out love stories, country dances, and religious ceremonies. The narrators described each dance before it took place, and the TVs gave credit to the choreographers; this is an important art form here, and there are various awards to be won for choreography, story, and execution.
It was fun to see, but I confess I didn’t get all the intricacies of the form. The puppets have jerky movements, as puppets do, which distracts me. Maybe their constant exposure to water made them rustier or slower than they would have otherwise been. I enjoyed watching them dance and spar, but puppets in general, not just ones in water, have never really captured my attention. Still, I’m glad I went.
Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature in Hanoi was the first place I’ve been to that literally makes a shrine to learning. When I visited, it was the end of the school year and dozens of schoolgirls congregated to pay their respects to ancestors and ask for success in the future. It was cool to see a specific place you could go to hope for academic success, a place that had been the seat of learning for almost 1,000 years.
I met another American in line for tickets, and we split the cost of hiring a guide. Hanh, our guide, was a middle-aged woman who was thrilled to hear we were from the States. She related the facts about the temple, but mostly she wanted to talk about how proud she was of her daughter, who is at college in Nebraska. It was fitting to hear a running commentary on the benefits of education in a place devoted to the celebration of it.
The place was established as the Imperial University in 1070, and it only closed in 1779. By 1802, the Nguyen dynasty set up the university in Hue, and the Hanoi temple became less important. For a 300-year period, large stone stelae were inscribed with the names of those who passed the rigorous examinations to hold the highest titles of learning in the land. The stone slabs were set up on the backs of stone turtles, which represent longevity and appear in various guises around the temple grounds.
The Chinese influence in Vietnam was strong for many years, and Chinese was the language of learning for centuries, much in the same way that Latin was the language of learning in Europe until recently. So most of the writing and inscriptions were in Chinese characters, including the stelae and the planters lining the central path, which spelled out virtues learned scholars are expected to possess.
Temple of the Jade Mountain
Hoan Kiem Lake is at the south end of the old town of Hanoi, and it’s a popular place with locals and tourists alike. I saw lots of Vietnamese relaxing by the shore on their lunch break or walking around the perimeter. There’s a tiny island of a shrine in the middle of it, and separately, there’s a Taoist temple, Temple of the Jade Mountain, accessed by a simple red bridge.
I found it an odd temple once I crossed the bridge: a few cartoon-like paintings on the stucco gates, a garden of patchy grass, a couple dusty back rooms. But the altar was well-maintained, and the view of the shrine on the lake was nice, and there was the preserved body of a giant tortoise on display. Giant tortoises are something of a legend in this lake, not appearing very frequently but always happily received when they do. The one on display was one such adored specimen.
Getting custom-made clothes is a popular thing for tourists to do in Southeast Asia. A whole industry has sprung up in Thailand and Vietnam. The attraction for Western tourists is that you choose from an array of local silks or other fabrics, the outfit is made to your measurements, and it’s all done so quickly. I’d thought another attraction was a cheap price, but I didn’t find that to be the case when I had clothes made there.
Part of the problem is that I couldn’t find reliable information on what a good price was. Or any information, really. I’m a notoriously poor Googler–when people joke that I like books so much I should be a librarian, they are misunderstanding the many research duties a librarian has and my total inability to fulfill such duties–so when I Google “prices clothes thailand” or “cost of tailor vietnam” I get a lot of posts on travel forums of people saying how much they liked or didn’t like a particular tailor. But no one seems willing to write down in black and white how much they spent, which I think must be largely because people are worried that they didn’t get a good deal, or not as good as the other guy, and they don’t want to talk about it lest they get found out.
Okay, so here’s the breakdown for me: I spent $200 on two dresses in Thailand, $25 for a skirt in Vietnam, and $50 for a shirt and trousers in Vietnam. I bought silk from a silk warehouse in Chiang Mai and used some of it for a dress I had made there, and some of it for the skirt made in Vietnam. Otherwise, I used the fabric they had at the tailor’s shop, which is how it’s generally done. Did I get a good deal? Did I get my money’s worth? Sort of.
The pink dress I had made with the silk I bought off-site turned out exactly how I’d hoped, fit well after two small adjustments, and garnered all the compliments one hopes for when one shows off a new frock and nonchalantly says, “Oh, I had it made in Thailand” when asked where one procured it. Worth it.
The purple dress, made specifically for me to wear while standing up in my sibling’s wedding, was much more problematic. I’d brought in photos of designs I liked, and I looked through the design books they had at the store. I talked at length about what kind of design I preferred, and the tailor recommended a design that seemed to fit best with what I needed. I described the kind of purple I needed to match the color palette, and he brought out just two swatches, both of similar texture. I chose one and we went from there. But he failed to mention how ill-matched the design and the fabric were. No way this kind of material could hang the way the material in the design did.
So at the first fitting, I was horrified to see something very different from what we’d talked about. But the material had been cut, there was no turning back. I’m no fashion expert (if I were, I would’ve figured out the material/design divide), but I made suggestions on how to spice it up here, make it less scandalous there. Eventually, I ended up with a dress that I thought was okay, but not great, and not noticeably better than something I could have got off the rack somewhere. Not worth it.
I had a skirt made for my cousin in Vietnam, half from material I’d bought in Thailand, and half from the tailor’s store. I went to the slightly chi-chi place recommended by my guesthouse. It turned out beautifully, and my cousin liked it. Worth it.
Finally, I got an overnight order made my last night in Hoi An. I didn’t go to a recommended place, just chose from the many shops lining the streets of the old town. I didn’t really intend to buy anything, but I obviously looked interested enough for the tailor to give a good sales pitch, which I fell for. I got a pair of linen pants, and a linen/cotton hybrid long-sleeve shirt. I picked the designs from the mannequins lining the shop. The shirt turned out well, needed no adjustments and looked pretty good. The pants were hemmed too short and started pilling from the moment I wore them. Not really worth it.
Part of the appeal of these places is that you can get custom-made clothes in just a few days, before you go back home or move on to your next tourist destination. But how is that possible, unless an army of seamstresses sews overnight to get it done? It’s very like most of what we consume, actually; you pick out what you want in a comfortable environment, with a salesperson eager to make you happy, and then you go off to have a nice dinner while underpaid workers labor ceaselessly to make what you require. I definitely should not have bought anything at that last place, where it literally had to be done overnight because I was leaving the next day. Possibly I shouldn’t have supported the other places either, but I feel more okay about those, because they had 3 days to make the skirt, and 7 to make the dresses. That seems like a fair expectation of labor. And the quality from those places was better, too, which is not a hard equation to figure (more time = better quality).
Did I overpay, though? I talked to a few fellow tourists who had more clothes made, for less money than I’d spent. I don’t know what the quality was like, and I don’t know if the clothes were more complex than mine. My shirt and pants started falling apart quickly enough that I think I did overpay for them. The purple dress has a bit of a shine on it from bad ironing after one of my fittings, but it’s otherwise good, and the pink dress and the skirt are great, so maybe I paid a little more than I could have elsewhere, but maybe it was for good reason.
This turned into a very long post on what I bought on my trip, but I am hoping it’s helpful for others who plan to get tailor-made clothes in Thailand or Vietnam. (Keep in mind, too, that although I say “tailor” throughout, the person you talk to is usually not the person actually sewing the clothes. They are the salesperson, with a good understanding of the process, and the best English out of everyone in the shop.)
I don’t know what a “good” price is, but this is what I spent: $200 for two dresses (one that I was also buying material for and one I wasn’t), $25 for a skirt, and $50 for a shirt and trousers. Probably your Googling skills are better than mine, so you can find better info that way. Prices were given to me in baht in Thailand and dollars in Vietnam, and I could pay in either dong or dollars in Vietnam.
Here’s where I went:
CM Tailor in Chiang Mai. I went to the branch off the main road, but by the third round of fittings for that tricky purple dress, the tailor took me to the main shop (on Rajchapakinai Road) so his boss could oversee things. It was an all-male operation, while everyone was very cautious of my modesty, they were definitely flirting in a persistent way, and telling me how great I looked in a way that seemed disingenuous and not helpful in figuring out the actual issues of the dress. A lot of the reviews online (which is how I decided to go to this shop) were by men who got suits made, and probably that’s a very different experience. The problem dress was made from their fabric and the good dress was made from mine, so maybe go to the main branch to see the full selection of fabrics, and bring your own if you don’t like what you see. They did as many fittings as I needed for me to be satisfied, they were not pushy in the sales pitch, and they do offer to ship anywhere in the world. Recommended, with reservations.
Kimmy Custom Tailor in Hoi An, on Tran Hung Dao Street. Super busy shop, designs displayed on fancy tablets and computer monitors, fitting room upstairs. I was a little rushed here, but they did seem to grasp what I wanted right away, picked out a complementary color for the skirt immediately, and had it ready as scheduled. Recommended.
Anh Thang in Hoi An, on Tran Phu. Lots of cool examples to choose from. Pushier sales pitch than anywhere else I went, which made me uncomfortable but also worked on me. It is easy to see how well the end result turns out when you have the 3-D version of the design right there in front of you, so I liked that. Not great quality and I probably could have used more fittings, if I’d allowed the time. Not recommended.
Is the answer to go to the big-name places that have all the Trip Advisor reviews? Can you trust your guesthouse to give you a good recommendation, or just a place they get a kickback from? What’s been your experience having clothes made in Southeast Asia?
I’d read that train travel in Vietnam was comfortable and cheap, and the best way to see the countryside if you didn’t have a lot of time. I found it somewhat comfortable and well priced, and a good way to see the countryside. It was also a chance to talk with other travelers.
I traveled from Ho Chi Minh City to Nha Trang on a nine-hour journey. I purposely chose a daytime trip, so that I could see the landscape as it rushed by. When I boarded the train, it looked like most of the Vietnamese weren’t really paying attention to their assigned seats, and they just sat wherever suited them best. The tourists, on the other hand, stuck with the number on their paper, so it was a funny mix of me stubbornly searching for the seat that matched my ticket while everyone around me negotiated with one another for favorite spots.
There were a few other tourists in the same car, and that’s how I met Laura, a lovely woman from London. She was traveling with a friend, Kate, whose seat was somehow several rows behind ours. Laura and I chatted most of the trip, and I hung out with her and Kate in Nha Trang, and later in Hue, when our paths crossed again. I probably should have just offered my seat to Kate so they could sit together, but I liked my window seat and didn’t want to break the rules. If I hadn’t stayed in my spot, I never would have met them and hit it off so well, so the moral of the story is that sometimes being uptight pays off!
The train had a couple TVs on it, playing flashy ads and soap operas. Nearly all the coat hooks were being used to hold people’s bags of food. A cart came around a couple times, selling treats and drinks. At one point the train stopped longer than usual at a station, and Laura nudged me, pointing out the possible reason: a couple of men in official looking uniforms, arguing with a middle-aged woman in a seat six or seven rows in front of us. A couple stations later, the uniformed men led her off the train, carrying what looked like a toy machine gun. We’re guessing the toy was hers and it wasn’t allowed? We really hope it was just a toy. It remains a mystery.
I took a train from Danang to Hue, and that was the prettiest train ride of my trip. The tracks followed the coast, and even though it was an overcast day, I saw plenty of lush tropical forest tumbling down the hills and into the ocean. This train was empty, so we all just picked which seats we liked best, which was good because the seat I was assigned seemed to have some springs poking out of it. This train was not as nice as the first one, but with scenery like that, who cares.
The last train I took in Vietnam was an overnighter from Hue to Hanoi. I was determined to be picky about my seat, since I’d paid extra for a bottom bunk in a six-bunk cabin. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in the cabin and found the pillow and blanket tossed to the side, and a man sitting on my bunk. Once I showed him my ticket proving it was my spot, he gave it up and sat on the other bunk with his friend and the woman whose bunk it was. I only meant he couldn’t sleep there, not that he couldn’t sit while we chatted, but that was just the first of a series of small misunderstandings. I fit my bags in around the five-gallon jar of homemade whiskey the guys were transporting, and then we faced each other and tried to talk. I had bought a small bag of sticky rice at the station and ate that while we talked, which the three of them found hilarious (I am not very good at chopsticks).
The two men had very limited English, and I only knew how to say “please” and “thank you” in Vietnamese, so it was a real struggle to talk. The most astonishing sunset was taking place outside the hall window, but every time I tried to peek out there, the guys pulled me back and tried to talk some more. There’s a lot to be said for cross-cultural communication, but when the language barrier is this huge, there’s really only so much that can be said. They would ask a question, and I would respond, and they’d smile, uncomprehending. Then I would ask a question, and they would respond, and I’d smile, uncomprehending. Any attempts to clarify what was said were met with more smiles and shrugged shoulders. I learned that their names were Tien Troung and Van Hien (they wrote their names for me in my notebook), and they were engineers on a work trip to Hue, returning home to Hanoi. They brought the homemade whiskey with them and were eager to return to their wives and children. Tien Truong showed me a photo of his six-month-old. That, at least, is universal. I congratulated him, and he grinned proudly.
Sleeping on that train was nearly impossible, since the guys played music on their phones and two other passengers climbed in the middle bunks midway through the night, and I had to use the bathroom twice, and tried to forget the experience each time because it was so disgusting that if I remembered how nasty it was, I’d never be able to go again.
We arrived in the capital around 6am on Gio to Hung Vuong Day, a celebration of the Hung Kings, who founded Vietnam. I said farewell to my cabinmates, scooted my bags away from the whiskey jar, and left the train behind.