Published: April 29th 2009April 14th 2009
It was our first city in the former North Vietnam and we arrived early in the morning after a 14 hour bus ride to the nations capitol. We noticed right away that it was a much older city than others we had experienced; in fact, Hanoi is celebrating their 1000th birthday next year! We headed straight to the Old Quarter of the city what was once famous for having the streets named after what was being primarily sold by the vendors. The roads all twist and wind back on one another which gives it a really cool character. The streets have since changed names but the streets still have themes of what the stores sell. Our favourite were the stores dedicated solely to selling celophane tape!
We spent a couple of days touring around the city and were continually awed by the hundreds of motorcycles, bicycles, cyclos and pedestrians that all intermingle on the streets all narrowly escaping colliding with one another at any given second. Motos carrying hundreds of pounds of cargo (sometimes live!), bicycles overflowing with items for sale, Vietnamese ladies in their conical hats shouldering baskets of fruit, cyclos taking tourists around the city, and pedestrians
Can you image this was your front yard?
in a hurry to get to thier destination all weave in and out of each other without any order what-so-ever. Even though we are seasoned professionals now at crossing busy streets, it is still an adrenaline pumping, exhilarating and death defying experience each time we set foot on these chaotic streets. Although Hanoi is home to many museums, including the Ho Chi Minh museum which houses the embalmed Ho Chi Minh himself, we spent the majority of our time sorting out our trips to the areas outside of the city: Halong Bay and Sapa. We did however take in a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show. Originating by the farmers of the Red River Delta area, they would often use ponds and rice paddies for show grounds with whatever materials they could come up with for puppets. Now a days, water puppets are made from wood, often weighing up to 15lbs, and the shows tell stories of rural Vietnamese folk tales. A Vietnamese orchestra accompanies the show and uses traditional instruments to provide the background music. The show was really great and we highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Hanoi. Halong Bay
Halong Bay was something that I had
been looking forward to since the onset of researching for this trip. Hundreds of beautiful limestone karsts jut out from the turquoise ocean forming a sureal landscape in the north east part of Vietnam. We had heard from many other travelers that you get what you pay for on a Halong Bay trip so we decided that we would spoil ourselves a little and not go for the most budget option we could find. Hanoi Backpackers offered a tour that friends of ours had done and so we signed ourselves up for a 2 day one night junk boat tour entitled, Rock Long and Rock Hard!
Halong Bay is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, which basically means that it has been exploited to the max with tourists, of which the most popular thing to do is board a "junk" boat for a couple of days to tour around the rock formations sprouting from the ocean. We arrived to the pier to find it packed with literally hundreds of other similar boats docked and waiting to take people aboard. It was tourist central! We boarded our boat along with 30 other travelers and set off into the cloudy fog
that unfortunately would follow us for the entire trip. Despite the reduced visibility we were still able to appreciate the beauty and were awed by the natural rock formations. We hoped into kayaks for a couple of hours for a closer look around the karsts and toured through a cave with amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations. Our boat docked in a beautiful bay surrounded by karsts (and along with about 20 other junks) and we kicked off happy hour which started things off for a great night aboard the boat.
We had a great two days aboard our junk however we were quite disappointed at how exploited the area is and how overrun it is with tourists. As with everything Asian the amount of money they are able to generate overshadows the need for the preservation of this beautiful area. With hundreds of boats cruising around the area each day servicing thousands of tourists, it won't be long before the area is completely ruined. We saw the beginning signs of this happening already with the water being very polluted with garbage and oil stains. Conservation is much needed in order to preserve this amazing natural wonder. Snake Village This portion of the blog is dedicated to Linds' Aunt Sherry who is deathly afraid of snakes and we wish we wwer able to see her reaction to this experience in person! ***Disclaimer***
If you are eating, about to eat, or have a weak stomach in general, you may want to prepare yourself for what you are about to read!
On our Halong Bay tour we met a few people who were raving about this snake village they had gone to the previous night. Wanting to go out of South East Asia with a bang we decided to embrace a local tradition and enjoy a Vietnamese delicacy. As one delicacy is eating dog meat, and not able to bring ourselves to even think about trying poor Benji, we decided to try out the more socially acceptable, reptile version of snake!
Feeling outnumbered, Linds hopped into the van with me and the 6 other guys who, at the time seemed more than willing to conquer the serpents. Upon our arrival, it was not still quite clear if the constant chattering coming from everyone and the boasts about how many snakes each would be eating that afternoon was
a sign of the truly brave or a coping mechanism for the underlying nervousness that both Linds and I were feeling. All it took to figure out which of these two it was, was to let loose a still-venomous cobra right onto the floor that we were standing on and proceed to try and aggravate it so it would flare up for our sake. If you were ever wondering what the best way to see 7 grown men instantly quiver and admit that they indeed hate snakes was, I would say it was the method they chose that day at the Snake Village. Granted it was less than 2 minutes of being there so they did have the element of surprise, but it was effective none the less.
After our "flirt with death", we were then escorted to the next area which to our relief was not a dimly lit "Indiana Jones death chamber" where we were awaiting a bathload of snakes to be dumped on but rather it was a well lit dining table. Surely nothing bad could happen here, right? Once again, enter the live snakes. This time around however, they didn't let them run free along
Boarding our junk boat
the ground or have them flare up for our fright....ahem, amusement, but instead they started to massage their necks (do snakes even have necks? As far as we're concerned, they are a neck). About 10 seconds later we were horrified to learn that they were not in fact massaging, or aiming to give pleasure to the snakes in any way, but they were instead trying to locate the snakes heart. Once they found it, they did the next most logical thing; they slit along their bellies and bled them out into a cup. Far from being done with the once seemingly horrifying critters, they then proceeded to rip out the still-beating heart from the snake and plopped it into the awaiting shot glasses. At this point we could only imagine why a shot glass was the chosen vessel to place the heart in. As seemed to be the theme at this point however, we were quick to learn just why the heart was placed in a shot glass; to accompany the half blood, half snake wine of course! (for snake wine, think rice based liquor that is added to a recently deceased venomous snake for flavouring). Not to waste any
part of an animal, the two Vietnamese guys disassembling the snakes in front of us then proceeded to rip out the poor thing's gall bladder and collect all of the bright green bile into yet another shot glass. The rest of the snakes also did not go to waste and shortly after the removal of the heart, we were presented with multiple dishes all made out of the previously writhering snakes. It is pretty true what they say about snake too; it does kind of taste like chicken. We especially liked the sauteed snake meat, yum yum!
So what exactly do we have after all of this carnage you might ask? Well, if you were asking the Vietnamese guys at the snake village (and we did since that's where we were) they would tell you that you have one of the best concoctions for naturally increasing your virility. We, as I'm sure most of you at home saw this rather barbaric ritual in a much different light, however. As it turns out, in Vietnam it seems to go that anything that is remotely phallic shaped or anything that is powerful or anything that may be somewhat taboo to any
other culture is therefore good for your virility. This may begin to explain the ever growing population here in Vietnam. In any case, the first couple of beers that we had already downed had started to make us believe that we were all due for a virility booster and the mob mentality was starting to take over. In case you were ever wondering what the best way to peer pressure a bunch of want to be macho-dudes (including yours truly) into downing a shot of snake blood/wiskey/still-beating-heart and snake bile, it is having a girl do it first. Such was the case with Lindsay. She figured that it has to be done and there was certainly no time like the present, so down it went. Not to be outdone, and especially not by a girl, the rest of the group eventually downed this juicy tonic. We also learned that day that the best ice breaker for a new group of people seems to be dismantling a live creature and consuming it! What a great way to spend an afternoon!
So what does a still-beating-heart paired with a shot of snake blood taste like? I can only describe it as
well....a still-beating snake heart. It really is something you'll just have to try for yourself. I will mention this however, it does take some getting used to in having a temporary second heart beat as it slowly makes its way into your stomach. I'm sure this is what most people who suffer from arythmia must feel. And why would we submit ourselves to such a ritual? We don't really know, when in Rome I guess! Or in this case, when in Hanoi!
There are more photos below