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Same, Same but Different - Visitng Hanoi & up country by Sandra Scott
By Sandra Scott
 
Same, same but different” is a familiar saying in Vietnam. Ten years ago, my husband, John and I were in Vietnamese restaurant and he ordered spinach.  The waitress said, “We don’t have.” Pointing to another item on the menu she suggested. “Try this. Same, same but different.”  The phrase stuck with us. After ten years we have discovered that Hanoi and Vietnam is, “same, same but different.”
 
Some of the changes are dramatic.  This time we opted for the newest hotel in Hanoi, the InterContinental Westlake.  It breaks the molds of city-style hotels.  The hotel is made up of a main building and several two-story pavilions built on pillars in the water making it seem more like a resort than a city hotel.  Ten years ago there were only a few name-brand hotels. The Hanoi Hilton, next to the Opera House, was nearly completed during our last visit.  At that time we wondered how a hotel named “The Hanoi Hilton” would do considering that for Americans “The Hanoi Hilton” meant a POW prison camp.  Not to worry.  The Hilton is doing fine and so is everything else.  As one person told John when we asked about the “American War” as it is called in Vietnam, “That was then, this is now, let’s go forward.”  Most of the Vietnamese people were born after the war.
 
The sea of bikes that traveled the tree-lined Hanoi’s streets like schools of fish have been replaced by motor scooters and new cars trying to maneuver streets not designed for motorized vehicles. The ting-tings of the bike bells have been replaced with a cacophony of horns.
 
We took advantage of the InterContinental’s personalized Insider Tour to visit the same places we did ten years ago. Our private guided tour took us to all the important places in the Old City. At the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, where the much-revered “Uncle Ho” is laid out in the tradition of Lenin we stood in line with other tourists to pay our respects. In the well-tended garden behind the mausoleum we viewed the Stilt House where Ho Chi Minh lived. Nearby, those wishing for a male child pray at the One-Pillar Pagoda built in 1054. The serene grounds of the Temple of Literature, built in 1070, is a wonderful respite from the dynamic city. Dedicated to Confucius, it honors scholars and men of literary accomplishment and was the country’s first university. These sites are much the same except now they are abuzz with many tourists.
 
I really enjoyed the Museum of Ethnology, which I don’t think was open during our last trip.  It has wonderful displays of the ethnic diversity of Vietnam and should not be missed.  Excellent outdoor exhibits display homes of the various groups. InterContinental’s Insider Tours are tailored to the guest’s desires and are a great opportunity for guests looking to shop for some of the great deals available.  Their professional guides help guests avoid any scams and lead them to the best deals.
 
One of my favorite things to do in Hanoi is attending the unique Municipal Water Puppet Theater.  Ten years ago there were more puppeteers and band member than there were people in the audience. Now there are several shows a day but they still perform with a live band. Even though the performance is in Vietnamese a program is provided in several languages plus the action is easy to understand as they deal with every day life. The vignettes are complete with smoke and fire-breathing dragons with action punctuated by gongs and drums.
We visited the Hao Lo Prison where presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain and the other American POWs were held.  It was not open when we were in Hanoi previously. Maybe more than any other place we visited we came to understand a little bit of Vietnam’s long and difficult history. Most of the museum is dedicated to the hardships the Vietnamese suffered in the prison. America’s involvement in Vietnam was just one page. Most of the rooms of the French-built prison are dedicated to the Vietnamese struggle for freedom from the French. The American POW section is at the end of the tour. One change we noticed was at the War Museum where they have toned down the part that deals with the American War. No longer is there a downed US plane with the pilot’s name emblazoned on it and we didn’t see any of the anti-American that we found so shocking during our first visit. 
 
Today, young ladies seldom wear their long, silk traditional outfits, which we thought were so beautiful and genteel.  We were sorry to see the demise of such an elegant native dress. Now it is jeans and t-shirts, cell phones, and sitting in cafes sipping coffee and chatting with friends.
From Hanoi we flew to Danang and China Beach, which is on the way to becoming the Cancun of Vietnam.  The American soldiers referred to this area as Up Country. The long, sweeping beaches have several upscale hotels including Nam Hai, which is setting the standard for luxury stays in Vietnam.  Hard to imagine but the hotel has 43 pools and 100 villas, of which 40 have their own private pool, and they are not plunge pools but of a size suitable for a villa.  Locals are quick to mention that many big-name resorts are building in the area. We loved walking around historic Hoi An and especially enjoyed the Red Bridge Cooking School, which may be the best value in all of Vietnam.  The cooking lesson included a full meal, a 25-minute boat ride to the school, and a tour of the wet market for $18.
 
In Danang we stayed at Sandy Beach Resort and took the free shuttle into town. We toured the Museum of Cham Culture, took a tricycle ride to the Cao Dai Temple, and wandered along the waterfront lined with marble statues that included one of a Native American chief. Traveling up the coast we stopped at Lang Co Beach Resort.  A lovely place with almost no guests, probably because it was February. We would like to return to the area when the weather is warmer so we can spend some time enjoying the beaches.
Hue, the former Imperial City, is filled with history of the Nguyen emperors. Just wandering the ground of the Citadel, the Imperial Enclosure, and Forbidden Purple City we could feel the weight of history and feel sad about the history lost due to the heavy bombings during the French and American Wars. Just outside the city are the Royal Tombs. If you are going to only visit one consider Khai Dinh, as long as climbing steps is not an issue.  The view from the extensive tomb is magnificent.
 
When we returned to Hanoi we decided to stay where we did ten years ago – the Army Hotel.  Yes, it is owned and operated by the army. The hotel is amazingly the same with the same large swimming pool.  Forget that is it owned by the army, it is still one of the best accommodation bargains in Hanoi.
Good times seem to have finally arrived in Vietnam but the people are still the same welcoming and friendly people we met on our first trip. We plan to return to visit the south of Vietnam where we were told the changes are even more dramatic.  Vietnam is same-same but different.
 
 
 
Travellady Magazine