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Tales I’ve Forgotten to Tell, pt. 1: NYE in Vietnam, 2014-15

Recounting a trip to Hội An and Hanoi to celebrate New Year’s Eve several years ago.

It’s been more than three years since I started writing this blog, the reason for doing so being that I wanted to keep a record of where we’ve traveled, what we’ve done, and any other interesting predicaments we’ve gotten ourselves into along the way. I love keeping this blog and will continue to do so because I find it extremely helpful for me and it’s fun looking back and reading about these events, but sometimes a story or two will slip through the cracks. A perfect example of this is that I never finished writing about our Central American trip, the time we spent volunteering in Honduras being the sole reason we went!

I have already written a post about places we had visited in the years before I started Dr. Tan’s Travels, including this very trip, however, I was looking through my phone the other day and noticed there were photos that I had no recollection of taking, dating back to December 2014. That was three months before we moved to Pondicherry, India and the birth of this blog so with Anna’s help, the dates on the pictures, previous Facebook posts, and most likely a lot of assistance from Wikipedia, I’ll try to piece together this missing time leading up to the creation of this blog and the pieces I forgot to include after its conception in this series of posts, ‘Tales I’ve Forgotten to tell.’ Let’s start with a trip to Hội An and Hanoi, Vietnam just prior to us leaving Singapore to begin our 15 month stay in India, Germany, and the USA. Brace yourself for a lot of photos.

December, 2014 – January, 2015
If you can remember New Year’s Eve clearly, you simply didn’t do it properly, thus it comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone that I had no idea that this NYE celebration actually occured. This would be our last opportunity to have a Southeast Asian getaway for a couple of years and Anna and myself both love Vietnam, but we had only been to Ho Chi Minh a few times. So when our Japanese friends Momoko and Takuo, told us they were coming over for New Year’s, we decided to take them to Vietnam, but this time to an area we hadn’t been either, further up north. The trip also coincided with Takuo’s birthday, but it took a bit of convincing to get him to travel to Vietnam. You see, Takuo has an almost pathological hatred of coriander and he had heard that they put it in all Vietnamese food, almost leading to him boycotting the trip. I’m not a coriander fan either, but this was taking it to a whole new level! We managed to convince him that it isn’t quite as prevalent as he had been led to believe and we had a great trip away, one that began in Hội An on his birthday:

Hội An, formerly known as Fai-Fo or Faifoo, is a city with a population of approximately 120,000 in Vietnam’s Quảng Nam Province and noted since 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Old Town Hội An, the city’s historic district, is recognized as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, its buildings and street plan reflecting a unique blend of influences, indigenous and foreign. Prominent in the city’s old town, is its covered “Japanese Bridge,” dating to the 16th-17th century.

Monday, December 29, 2014
We began with a cool, wet night at a restaurant on the beach for Takuo’s birthday, him still extremely cautious about the coriander content of the food, but he was definitely warming to the idea of being in Vietnam. Our holiday could only improve as the journey continued.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014
On our first full day we hit the town and decided to have a look around, as well as grab a bite to eat. Everyone that goes to Vietnam tries phó, the really good beef noodles, but one thing I love eating is bánh mì, a sandwich consisting of a baguette split lengthwise and generally stuffed with meat and vegetables, such as chả lụa (pork sausage), cucumber, and pickled carrots with some mayonnaise or chili sauce on top. One of the most popular place to pick up a bánh mì is The Banh Mi Queen – Madam Khanh, a tiny street stall that is run by an elderly lady who has been making these things forever! We gave our orders, waited for them to arrive, and enjoyed one of the best sandwiches I had ever eaten, although, despite the abundance of containers of Laughing Cow cheese in the cabinet, it wasn’t an option as an ingredient. It’s a shame, I love that stuff. Anyhow, here’s how it looked:

Bánh mì is pretty light, but we still thought it wise to walk this one off. Hội An is a really beautiful city with a lot of cool old buildings and it really didn’t seem like life had changed a whole lot in the past 50 or so years, despite the fact that everyone knows that simply isn’t the case with any location in Vietnam.
We wandered around, just checking out the architecture, both old and new, as well seeing people carving incredibly detailed Buddha statues out of wood with just a hammer and chisel. We then meandered through a market and stopped off for some incredible pork noodles while we were there, before making our way back home to the Hoi An Beach Resort for a few afternoon libations and dinner. Our day, however, didn’t finish there, we hit the town again that night, going to a cool little bar called Before and Now for some beers and a shisha. Some of the sights from that afternoon and night:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014
It was New Year’s Eve and we decided to spend the day taking a tour of the Old Quarter of Hội An:

In 1999 the old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port of the 15th to 19th centuries, with buildings that display a unique blend of local and foreign influences.

Owing to the increased number of tourists visiting Hoi An a variety of activities are emerging that allow guests to get out of the old quarter and explore by motorbike, bicycle, kayak, or motorboat. The Thu Bon River is still essential to the region more than 500 years after António de Faria first navigated it and it remains an essential form of food production and transport. As such kayak and motorboat rides are becoming an increasingly popular tourist activity.

This longtime trading port city offers a distinctive regional cuisine that blends centuries of cultural influences from East and Southeast Asia. Hoi An hosts a number of cooking classes where tourists can learn to make cao lầu or braised spiced pork noodle, a signature dish of the city. This culinary experience has become an increasingly popular activity for visitors.

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I bet they make the apprentice do it.

I’m not sure of our mode of transport for the tour of the old town or most of the sights we saw, but as I scroll through the photos a few things stand out, such as the fact that I missed out on the opportunity to have my ears cleaned at a barber shop (left). Only the finest barber shops offer ear-cleaning among their services in my honest opinion and I should’ve done that just for the reaction alone, my ears are disgusting!
Let’s not dwell on missed opportunities though, we took a tour around this part of town, beginning with the Phúc Kiến (Fukien) Assembly Hall. According to a plaque written in both Vietnamese and English, albeit with a few translation errors, at the entrance to the hall:

Phúc Kiến Assembly Hall, a typical architectural project in Hội An, was built by the Fukien Chinese in the late 17th century. It serves as a meeting place of Fukien colony and a temple worshipping their Goddess of Thiên Hậu Holy Mother, 6 Highly Esteemed Generals (Lục tánh Vu’o’ng gia), Heavenly Midwives (Bá Mụ)…
The assembly hall is a great construction with a triple gate, a vestibule, the sanctuary, the rear house, the left and right wings. Further more, this assembly hall also serves as one of the religious centers in Hội An, where people come to pray for their safety, offspring, wealth and happiness, especially when festive events are held here in Nguyên Tiêu festival on lunar January 16th, in the celebration dedicated to the 6 Highly Esteemed Generals on lunar February 16th, the birthday celebration of Thiên Hậu Holy Mother on lunar March 23rd and the Midwives worship day, lunar February 1st. On February 17th, 1990, this assembly hall was recognized as a national relic of history and culture.

The hall was predominantly a lot of Chinese artworks, sculptures, and statues, but check some of them out for yourself:

We finished looking at the Assembly Hall and next on the agenda was a journey into town to have a look around and cross the Japanese covered bridge:

One of Vietnam’s most iconic attractions, Hoi An’s Japanese covered bridge dates back to the 18th century and is a beautiful historical piece of Japanese architecture. It is claimed that it was created by the Japanese then living in Hoi An as a way to reach the Chinese quarter across the water.

The bridge was opened by Nguyen Phuc Chu Lord in 1719 who carved three Chinese symbols above the door in commemoration. The bridge also features the sculptures of two dogs and two monkeys representing the Chinese years in which many Japanese Emperors were born along with the fact that the building of the bridge began in the year of the dog and was completed in the year of the monkey.

On the north side of the bridge you’ll discover a temple dedicated to the Taoist God of weather, Tran Vo Bac De. This is where locals will often pray to stave off any impending earthquakes. The monkey and dog animal statues guard the bridge at either end along with an ancient Chinese script at one end written in Chu Nho, listing all the benefactors who contributed to the restoration of the bridge.

This bridge was beautiful, with local artists inside selling their works, as is the case with a lot of Hội An, but another thing that makes it cool is that it is apparently the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side. We would also find the Cup of Confucius while we were walking around; If you fill it more than 80%, it will spill when you try to drink it, teaching you about greed or something or other, and a house near the river that constantly floods so the owners mark the water levels of past floods on the wall. Anyway, enough from me, take a look around:

If you’ve made it this far through this post, you’ve probably forgotten that this tour all took place on New Year’s Eve. Do you know who didn’t forget? Our hotel. Yes, that’s right, they even had a compulsory New Year’s Eve dinner for all of their guests that had the look and feel of an awkward high school formal, there was no getting out of this one. Although I can’t recall what would’ve happen if we hadn’t have gone, it was made rather clear to us that attendance was a requirement. Oh well, a free meal, I guess. To be honest, the food was pretty decent, it was the entertainment that was excruciating — A Vietnamese Steven Segal lookalike who did ear-splitting Michael Bolton covers. This guy was just so bad it was too funny and he inadvertently provided us with the soundtrack for the rest of our holiday.
Once we had finished consuming our mandatory free dinner we hit the town again in order to do New Year’s Eve properly. It was on that trek into town that we first realised how many weddings were happening that night! Generally speaking, December is the least popular month to get married, but for some reason everyone in Hội An was getting hitched that night. Maybe it was just convenient because everyone was home for the holidays, however, one would expect Tết to be both a more convenient and auspicious time, an event which fell in mid-February 2015. Whatever the reason, we stumbled upon so many tacky weddings on our way.
We eventually made it to a bar, pulled up some seats, and started drinking with everyone else when I got roped into an official drinking contest that was more rigged than the electoral college. My opponents were a caucasian girl who came up to my shoulder when she stood on a step and some Vietnamese guy. Naturally, I finished my drink first, but somehow the Vietnamese guy won. I guess the winner was whomever came second.
Later we heard word about a huge New Year’s Eve concert so we headed down there in the rain and that’s where we spent the rest of the night. I must’ve been pretty drunk because it looks like I’m dancing in one of the photos! Tim don’t dance! Check out our night:

Thursday, January 1, 2015
After an interesting few days and an unusual New Year’s Eve in Hội An, the two couples had to begin 2015 by going their separate ways; Takuo and Momo were due to head back to Tokyo, and Anna and myself would be going further north to spend the follow days in what we at the time didn’t realise would become our favourite place in Vietnam and one of the best holiday destinations in the world — Hanoi, the anagram-lover’s Hội An:

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and the country’s second largest city by population. The population in 2015 was estimated at 7.7 million people. The city lies on the right bank of the Red River. Hanoi is 1,760 km (1,090 mi) north of Ho Chi Minh City and 120 km (75 mi) west of Haiphong.

From 1010 until 1802, it was the most important political centre of Vietnam. It was eclipsed by Huế, the imperial capital of Vietnam during the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802–1945). In 1873 Hanoi was conquered by the French. From 1883 to 1945, the city was the administrative center of the colony of French Indochina. The French built a modern administrative city south of Old Hanoi, creating broad, perpendicular tree-lined avenues of opera, churches, public buildings, and luxury villas, but they also destroyed large parts of the city, shedding or reducing the size of lakes and canals, while also clearing out various imperial palaces and citadels.

From 1940 to 1945 Hanoi, as well as the largest part of French Indochina and Southeast Asia, was occupied by the Japanese. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). The Vietnamese National Assembly under Ho Chi Minh decided on January 6, 1946, to make Hanoi the capital of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. From 1954 to 1976, it was the capital of North Vietnam, and it became the capital of a reunified Vietnam in 1976, after the North’s victory in the Vietnam War.

By the time we landed in Hanoi and checked into our hotel, it was also time for dinner and Anna had already done her research and found what she wanted to eat — snails. Being a former French colony, it only makes sense they retained some of their previous occupier’s traditions, the food being one of just many, and the escargot in Hanoi are supposed to be great. Anna found a restaurant that was apparently among the best in town for escargot and even if it was more about quantity than quality, all we could hear and feel on our way there was the ever increasing crunch of empty snail shells beneath our feet. We sat on the inconvenient stools out the front of the restaurant, ordered some escargot and clams, and definitely weren’t disappointed. I know a lot of people instantly decide that the idea of eating snails is disgusting, but don’t knock them until you try them, escargot are delicious, it’s just a little difficult to pull them from the shell with what essentially amounts to a shiv:

With dinner sorted we decided to go to a bar, figuring that it wouldn’t be all that busy out, being January 1st and all. Boy, were we wrong! We ended up at a little joint called Green Pepper, a bar that lists its operating hours on Facebook as “always open,” for a few beers. It was absolutely packed both inside and out, but that didn’t pose a problem; the more people that arrived, the more stools and tables they brought out onto the road, eventually filling the entire street and giving us the perfect vantage point for some world class people-watching. We had a quite a few drinks there and then stopped in at The Rock Store for a nightcap on our way home, another bar that played some great music, and our night was booked:

Friday, January 2, 2015
Our first full day in Hanoi was upon us and we woke up reasonably early so why not start the day off with a cup of weasel coffee? Don’t worry, it probably IS exactly what you’re thinking:

Vietnam is the world’s second-largest coffee producer, but also one of the most obscure. Unlike coffee exports from countries such as Brazil and Ethiopia, Vietnamese beans are typically used in cheap instant Western coffee, which earns scant international commendation. His country, he declares, needs to market a trendy style of coffee drinking—like Starbucks, he adds, but finer. “Civet dung,” he proclaims. “Civet dung makes coffee good. It’s natural, and it makes real coffee.”

Mr Hung is one of a handful of Vietnamese aficionados trying to revive tastes for this epicurean and elusive beverage. At specialised coffeeshops around the world, this coffee sells for around $30 a cup. As it happens, civet cats are coffee connoisseurs. With their long noses, they sniff out and eat the best and fleshiest beans. Their digestive enzymes ferment the beans and break down the proteins. These beans, harvested from the faeces, then create a coffee that tastes rich and slightly smoky with hints of chocolate. The beverage is known in Vietnamese as ca phe chon, or civet-cat coffee, and is also commonly produced in Indonesia and the Philippines. The final cup delivers a smooth, dark palate that is stronger but, some say, less bitter than typical coffee.

coffee

When a weasel finds and eats the best coffee beans but can’t digest them, just make coffee out of its turds.

Two piping hot cups of civet shit coming right up! Very rarely will people pay premium prices to drink animal faeces, but when you’re in Hanoi it’s just something you have to try. How did it taste and was it worth the price? I honestly can’t remember, and no, not due to the sheer amount excrement I have imbibed in my life, I guess it was more just because it tasted like a super-strong cup of coffee, that’s all. Anyway, with what we were going to be witnessing  over the course of the day, we probably wouldn’t care what type of shit was stirred into our coffee, we’d just be thankful for any kind of caffeine hit.
After the coffee we went to get some grilled chicken noodles for breakfast and I think it’s safe to say that they were the best thing we ate on this trip, including both the snails and the cat turds. An elderly woman just grills up chicken and serves it in soup with some rice noodles, as well as some salad, and it was spectacular, but I did have a little mishap; I mentioned earlier that the stools used in Vietnam are a little inconvenient for me with my abnormally long legs and I made a bit of a fool out of myself at the noodle store — As I went to get up after we’d finished eating, the legs of the tiny little plastic stool I was sitting on buckled under my weight and then launched out behind me at a blinding speed, leaving me splayed out on my back on the footpath with everyone on the street pointing and laughing, including the elderly lady that ran the store, who was absolutely pissing herself! It actually would’ve been pretty funny to see, except for anyone that was hit by my stool, that is.
Still on a bit of a caffeine rush, we spent a lot of the morning taking in the sights of this beautiful city, including giant turtles and a flautist who was born with no eyes, before stopping off for phó for lunch:

I also mentioned earlier that we’d need that caffeine kick from our poop-coffee for something we would see that day. Well, we hadn’t witnessed it yet, but we would soon when we paid a visit to the museum at what remains of Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” A little background information about where US Senator John McCain (R-AZ) spent some of his five and a half years as a P.O.W. in Vietnam for you:

Hỏa Lò Prison  was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. During this later period it was known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, although the gatehouse remains as a museum.

The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. When prisoners of war began to be released from this and other North Vietnamese prisons during the Johnson administration, their testimonies revealed widespread and systematic abuse of prisoners of war.

Regarding treatment at Hỏa Lò and other prisons, the communists countered by stating that prisoners were treated well and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. During 1969, they broadcast a series of coerced statements from American prisoners that purported to support this notion. The North Vietnamese would also maintain that their prisons were no worse than prisons for POWs and political prisoners in South Vietnam, such as the one on Côn Sơn Island.Mistreatment of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners and South Vietnamese dissidents in South Vietnam’s prisons was indeed frequent, as was North Vietnamese abuse of South Vietnamese prisoners and their own dissidents.

After the implementation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, neither the United States nor its allies ever formally charged North Vietnam with the war crimes revealed to have been committed there. In the 2000s, the Vietnamese government has held the position that claims that prisoners were tortured at Hoa Lo and other sites during the war are fabricated, but that Vietnam wants to move past the issue as part of establishing better relations with the U.S. Tran Trong Duyet, a jailer at Hoa Lo beginning in 1968 and its commandant for the last three years of the war, maintained in 2008 that no prisoners were tortured. However, eyewitness accounts by American servicemen present a different account of their captivity.

After the war, Risner wrote the book Passing of the Night detailing his 7 years at the Hanoi Hilton. Indeed, a considerable literature emerged from released POWs after repatriation, depicting Hoa Lo and the other prisons as places where such atrocities as murder; beatings; broken bones, teeth and eardrums; dislocated limbs; starvation; serving of food contaminated with human and animal feces; and medical neglect of infections and tropical disease occurred. These details are revealed in famous accounts by McCain (Faith of My Fathers), Denton, Alvarez, Day, Risner, Stockdale and dozens of others.

In addition, the Hanoi Hilton was depicted in the eponymous 1987 Hollywood movie The Hanoi Hilton.

I obviously wasn’t alive at the time so a lot of what I could say about the chilling Hanoi Hilton would merely be opinion and perhaps even understate the atrocities that occurred within those walls. Instead, I’ll just let some picture I took there do the talking, some recreating the way of life inside Hỏa Lò prison using life-size replicas of the inmates.

WARNING: SOME OF THESE IMAGES ARE QUITE DISTURBING SO IF YOU ARE EASILY DISTRESSED, IT’S PROBABLY BEST TO JUST SCROLL ON PAST THEM!

Hỏa Lò prison is damn spooky and just like when we spent part of honeymoon watching torrential rain wash human remains up out of the ground after a tour of the Killing Fields in Cambodia, we’d definitely need a drink after this tour. Something a bit stronger than poop coffee would be in order.
We walked around and found some places where we could have a drink, as well as grab a bite to eat. There was also the option of me getting a haircut at the pub, but I’m not sure if this place did ear cleaning. Seriously, there are barbers everywhere in Hanoi, but getting hammered and then deciding on a new hairstyle couldn’t possibly have good ramifications. Anyway, we moved on past the street-barbers and stalls selling homemade bongs and opium pipes, and landed at a place called Coffee Diiing & Drink for some beers, a coffee with an egg in it each, and some dishes we’d struggle to find elsewhere. Unfortunately, they were out of the fried udders so I just had to settle for pig stomach instead, which we ate while a man walked up and down the street singing Amazing Grace through a large water bottle with with the bottom cut out, in lieu of a megaphone.
After our beers, guts, and the second irregular cup of coffee of the day, we went out to find somewhere to spend the night. The first place we tried was called The Doors Cafe, a not-so-subtle Jim Morrison reference and a bar that is renowned for its live music, however, we must’ve caught them on a slow night because they had a pretty average cover band playing. Fortunately for us, though, luck was on our side. We met a couple of local guys inside that had their finger on the pulse of what was happening behind closed doors in Hanoi. Most bars and pubs there have to close at midnight, but the two guys we were hanging out with took us down a bunch of backstreets and up the rear staircases of buildings that should probably be condemned so we could keep drinking with them in a lock-in, the outside world completely oblivious (or maybe just paid off under the table). Some scenes from that night:

Saturday, January 3, 2015
There is so much to do in Hanoi, but unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to fit it all in so we spent our last full day in town doing what we do best — Eating. First on the menu was chả cá for breakfast, a dish consisting of fish sausages in soup with noodles and vegetables and it was awesome, providing us with the sustenance and energy we’d need to make our way through the local market to find lunch.
It wasn’t just any market, it was a seafood market that had fresh fish, frogs, and snails among other items ready for the pan. We figured that this would be our last opportunity to have snail soup for a while so we made the most of it while we there, this time opting for grilled snails. I’ve come to the conclusion that snails must be absolutely rampant in northern Vietnam because there is a ton of snail meat floating around and, despite their size, you don’t really get a whole heap from one snail, but I’m not going to question these things, I’ll just accept the fact that the soup is delicious and move on with my life.

After eating we went for a bit of a walk around town and it was here that I found one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. The arts are extremely popular in Vietnam and over the course of this trip I had seen:

  1. A man hand-carving statues of Buddha from a lump of wood using just a hammer and chisel,
  2. Women cross-stitching landscapes,
  3. A variety of other paintings, engravings, and statues,

But I mentioned that these artists were not the most talented people we saw during our journey and there was a reason for that; Nothing could even come close to the gift possessed by a man we encountered in his own little shop doing hyper-realistic black and white portraits with what I think was charcoal. Whether he was just sketching a celebrity for fun or doing a custom job for a client, each piece was unbelievably accurate and in many cases, clearer than the original photo that he was using for inspiration.

Soon it was time to start wrapping up this holiday so we had some dinner and then stopped off at bar for some beers and a shisha. We couldn’t go to hard, however, as we were flying out the next day. Some scenes from our last day in town:

From what I remember, that was our best trip to Vietnam, Hanoi quickly becoming our favourite city in Southeast Asia. In fact, on September 12, we will be flying out to Hangzhou, China for a few days, however, I land a day before Anna because she has to give a talk in Hanoi, but there are no direct flights to Hangzhou. I don’t get to go on the Vietnamese leg of the trip, but Anna better think of me when she’s having snail soup!

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