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North Vietnam Odyssey

President Barack Obama visited Hanoi, Vietnam in May. This reminded me of the time I visited Vietnam three years ago.

Each summer since I was 2 years old, I have flown with my family to Taiwan to visit my disabled grandmother who lives alone. During these trips, I also have the opportunity to visit and to do charitable work in nearby developing countries.

The flight from Taipei, Taiwan to Hanoi, Vietnam takes three hours by air. It takes 3.5 hours to drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay, the most popular tourist attraction in Vietnam. On Halong Bay, my family and I took an overnight cruise on a traditional boat, called a junk. The scenery is breathtaking.

Junk Boat Cruise

Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, according to the New7Wonders Foundation, contains 1,960 limestone islands of different sizes and shapes. There is an interesting legend about this bay. Long ago, Vietnam was often attacked by invaders, so God dispatched a dragon to Vietnam. The descending dragon spit out thousands of pearls all over the bay, which became the archipelago. This group of islands protected Vietnam and served as a maze to confuse its enemies, allowing the country to resist foreign aggression.

The overnight cruises on small ships, averaging 50 guests per cruise, are in stable and calm waters, since the bay is sheltered from the sea. When I woke up the morning of my cruise, I could see small green islands and emerald water through my cabin window. The view was amazingly peaceful.

I also climbed 400 steps on one of the islands, called Tip Top Mountain. The summit offers a 360-degree view of Halong Bay.

A gorgeous view of Halong Bay

Bo Hon Island Sung Sot Cave, another special island, contains a variety of stalagmites, stalactites, curtains, and other interesting and beautiful rock formations.

Sung Sot Cave

People can kayak through another cave, called Luon Cave, and have the chance to relive James Bond’s thrilling experience in the film “Tomorrow Never Dies.”

Kayaking through Luon Cave. During high tide, kayakers cannot pass through it.

When cruising through the bay, we encountered boats that sell groceries and other everyday items. These are called floating markets.

After leaving Halong Bay, we went to Hanoi and saw the sharp contrast between the two locations. Halong Bay is pristine and peaceful, whereas Hanoi is noisy. For example, the honking of the car horns are extremely loud. The traffic in Hanoi is terrible and frightening. It is absolute chaos. The street is cluttered and narrow, and the cars and motorcycles have no room to yield when a pedestrian crosses the street or when drivers change lanes. Sometimes one can see cars driving on the wrong side of the road. One might think that there is order within the disorder, but in reality, the chances of getting into an accident are high.

The two blurry motorcycles in the background are going in the wrong direction.

From 1859-1954, Vietnam was a French colony. Some French influences on Vietnam include cuisine, coffee, and architecture. But when we visited Honi Confucius Temple, which was built in 1070, we saw some hints of Chinese influences in ancient times. They include the Chinese Imperial Examination System and Confucianism.

The style of Vietnamese architecture is slim and tall because a building is taxed depending on the width of its front facade. Therefore, a narrow width means a lower property tax. Many houses look like the one pictured above. The French inspired the designs of the bold and colorful buildings.

Vietnam is famous for its water puppet shows. Farmers were the first people to perform these shows about 1,000 years ago. Because the villages in the Red River Delta get flooded easily, the farmers performed in rice paddies while standing in waist-deep water. Today, the water is essential to the show, as it is the main stage; it serves as a link between the old shows and the modern-day shows. The water pays homage to the rice paddies in which the farmers once stood. Also, the water hides the puppeteers and the puppet strings, gives the music and vocals a resonating effect, and provides a natural sparkling effect, according to the website Learn NC. The shows present folktales and stories about daily rural activities.

Water Puppet Show (Photo courtesy of http://www.66.hk)

While we were in Vietnam, we also did some charity work with two college student volunteers from Hanoi at SOS Children’s Villages Hanoi. They told us that the Vietnamese people are still upset about the U.S. military spraying powerful mixtures of herbicides on the forests during the Vietnam War. Because of the chemicals, “up to 1 million people are disabled or have health problems due to contamination,” says the Red Cross of Vietnam.

Today, Vietnam is a socialist country and many of its people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A scene from the 1959-1979 Vietnam War. The nude girl’s back had been completely scorched by fire. This picture pulled people’s heartstrings, and it surely inspired others to fight for peace. The image helped create strong public desire to end the Vietnam War. (Photo courtesy of CNN).

Despite these facts, I am so glad that the war is over, and that everyone now has the opportunity to travel to Vietnam, understand its culture, meet its kind people, and see the spectacular natural beauty of Halong Bay. On a final note, I hope that everyone can appreciate each other’s cultures and ultimately come together in peace and unity.

SOS Children’s Village in Hanoi

For more pictures, please watch the following YouTube video.

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