Well, I am back in Suzhou after a wonderful time of traveling around Southeast Asia for the past month.
My future profession... Pineapple courier
I started my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Saigon to you old-timers). It was hot and humid, which felt great after freezing the past month and a half in Suzhou. I spent a couple of days touring around the city, including seeing Reunification Palace, which was the Vietnamese Capitol building prior to the end of the war (the tanks plowing through the gates at Reunification Palace signaled the fall of South Vietnam and Saigon), and the "War Remnants Museum", which essentially was a museum showing all of the atrocities of the Vietnam War (which they call the "American War").
I flew next to Hoi An, about halfway up the coast of Vietnam. Hoi An is famous for being spared any bombing during the war, so it has a really neat old town area with original French-colonial type buildings. It is also famous for having hundreds of tailor shops in the city (and it's not a big city by any means). I wasn't planning on buying any clothes, but the dang Vietnamese women are such good salespeople, that I ended up buying a tailored wool coat and suit.....both for $100. Of course, this required me to pack the clothes with me for the next three and a half weeks in my backpack. I think they're close to being unwrinkled by now, though!
I count five tailors in a row...
After a couple of days in Hoi An (which turned out to be one of my favorite places of the trip), I rode the train up to Hue, and spent a day touring the city. I then flew up to the capitol, Hanoi, in the North of the Country. I joined a tour group for a 2 day/1 night trip to Ha Long Bay which included sleeping on the boat in the bay for the night. Ha Long Bay is VERY touristy, but since the Bay is so big, it didn't seem crowded at all, and it was beautiful.
Ha Long Bay
The group on my tour was really fun and after arriving back in Hanoi, I spent the next couple of days with a Canadian couple that had just finished teaching English in Korea and three Brits that were traveling around as well. We toured Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (I can confirm that he is dead as I saw his embalmed body), and the "Hanoi Hilton", the POW prison where John McCain spent about 5 years (including some interesting pictures of [a MUCH younger looking] McCain and the other POWs playing soccer, cleaning toilets, etc.).
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
I had another day to kill before my flight to Laos, so I decided to head south a couple of hours to Ninh Binh, which I had heard is sort of an "undiscovered" destination in Vietnam. This is saying something because I was AMAZED how touristy and filled with Westerners Vietnam was. Ninh Binh was great - my hotel told me of a place within bicyling distance that was just starting to gear up for tourists (their application to be approved as a World Heritage site has just been submitted, meaning it's going to get crazy in the next couple of years). I boarded a little boat, and a sweet little lady paddled my along a river through some great scenery and some caves, the longest of which was over 400 meters long! Luckily, the woman seemed quite experienced at avoiding the stalactites, although I did have to duck and bob a couple of times to avoid a direct hit from the caves' appendages.
Trang An caves and river... Just a matter of time before it's swamped with tourists!
I headed back to Hanoi and the next day I headed to the airport for my flight to Laos. Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. I made it to the airport about 2 hours later than I should have due to a really bad traffic jam on the only road to the airport. After spending 3 hours stuck in traffic, I missed my flight and due to the fact that there's only one flight a day to where I was going, I got to spend another full day in Hanoi (which by then, did not really please me as I was ready to leave Hanoi). Luckily, the next day, I was able to take off and head to Luang Prabang, Laos.
Vietnam as a very interesting place. I had been wanting to go there for years, and I'm so glad that I was able to see it and experience it. The food was amazing (the best pho I've had, and spring rolls everywhere) and the people there were SO friendly, even when they found out that I was an American. Never once did anyone seem remotely put off by the fact that I was from the country that destroyed a huge portion of their country. It also was interesting to see how much it differs from China. I've decided that China is to the US as Vietnam is to Mexico. Going to Vietnam was in a lot of ways like going to Mexico - it's a lot dirtier, and the infrastructure is not too good and everyone wants to be your friend for one reason or another. Also, all of the menus are in English and everyone speaks English. China on the other hand, is clean, has efficient transportation, but all of the menus are in their language and no one (okay, a little bit of an exaggeration) speaks a foreign language... Sound like the US at all?!
I will update this soon with part two of my trip. I hope everyone is doing well. I have added more pictures than those shown in the body of this entry - they should be in the gallery portion of the webpage.