As it so happened, Ben and I lucked out and our contract ended right after China’s second big holiday: Golden Week. This is the week-long celebration for the founding of the People’s Republic of China. You know, the day Mao stood atop Tiananmen Gate and announced that the communist party had liberated China.
Essentially, this added up to us getting to leave a whole week early. So we did just that, and headed to explore the rest of South East Asia. Given that we had spent the last big holiday (Chinese New Year) in Thailand, we decided that it would be unfair if we left Vietnam and Cambodia untouched.
Our prior experiences in globetrotting have taught us that we have a few different ideas about travel. So, just to prove that I’ve been paying attention, I made time for each of our goals. Leaving my history-nerd time to Cambodia and starting with Ben’s beach time in Vietnam. Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on the rainy season holding on through October.
Nevertheless, we were off to Halong Bay!
We established out home base on Cat Ba Island so that we could bike through the National Park (never happened- next time) and take a cruise through the limestone isles of Halong Bay (totally happened). The rain stayed down to a few afternoon drizzles for our cruise and, although it wasn’t the weather we had brought shorts and sunscreen for, nothing could have prevented us from enjoying the fairy-tale scenery. The rain and numb toes didn’t even thwart our plans to enjoy the caves, go kayaking, and even go swimming (the water was actually warmer than the air!).
Our time back on the island found us running into some fellow teachers from Guangzhou! Including some of Ben’s former coworkers! So we caught up with them to enjoy the nightlife of Cat Ba- cheap food, beer, and massages before heading back to Hanoi to catch our flight to Ho Chi Minh.
Through massive organization in transportation (and a really early wake up), we were able to make it back to Hanoi in time to visit just one of the capital’s attractions. We opted for the Hanoi Hilton (officially called Hao Lo Prison). This place was originally used by the French for Vietnamese political prisoners and then later by the Vietnamese for American POWs. The emphasis was how inhumanely the French treated the Vietnamese here in contrast to how humanely the Vietnamese treated the Americans (although John McCain and several others disagree).
After landing in Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon), we again hung our clothes up to dry and then planned our next day over a delicious bowl of Pho. We decided on another early morning so that we could explore a bit of the city before catching our noon bus to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
We started our last morning in Vietnam with a cup of its famous coffee before venturing through the Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral on our way to the War Remnants Museum.
The courtyard of the War Remnants Museum houses American military equipment left behind, which caused Ben to question, “How did we lose?” It was with the background that many young Vietnamese asked two popular questions: “Where are you from?” And then, “Can we take a picture?” Being ever the ambassador (as suggested by Doug) I always agreed. It never ceased feeling surreal- posing in front of military remnants left behind as a reminder of a war between two nations, flashing a smile and a peace sign.
So it is with these depressing images (Vietnam’s museums are not for those with weak stomachs) and wet feet that we filed ourselves onto the bus to Cambodia.