San Diego Baby!

Let me just put this out there: I love San Diego. I’m not sure if I could live there because the taxes are too damn high, but everything else about southern California calls out to me in my dreams. I was lucky enough to visit San Diego in early December right after I got back from Vietnam. My boss had a work trip and took me along out of the kindness of his magnanimous heart (thanks Mark!). We had some spare time on our hands so we got to explore the city a bit.

On our first day, I suggested driving north along the coast since Mark had never done the coastal drive. Blue skies, soaring cliffs, million dollar homes. What is there not to like?

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The view from my Hilton hotel room. Not too shabby.

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Hanging out at Mission Beach

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Funky clouds at Mission Beach

We drove North to La Jolla (which i now know is pronounced La Hoya).

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I opened up Zillow as Mark drove through La Jolla and we oohed and ahhed at the million dollar homes. I’m talking about $10 million and $15 million. I think it’s time to set some new life goals.

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Some of the tress were so weird (in an awesome way), it almost felt like I was on another planet.

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There were some awesome bird action happening, but all I had was my iPhone

The next day, Mark asked where we should go. When he rejected my suggestion of Mexico, I threw out a more sane idea: Balboa Park. Balboa Park is San Diego’s answer to Central Park, home to trails, gardens, the famous San Diego Zoo, museums, and other fun touristy stuff.

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I loved the colorful tiling at this Spanish craft village

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If you’re in the market for colored glass or handmade jewelry, this is the place to go

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Or coffee mugs…

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The Casa del Prado Theatre, a stunning example of Spanish Colonial architecture. According to Wikipedia, the building served as the Food and Beverage Building during the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

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A fountain near the Botanical Gardens

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More pretty architecture

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Vietnam #18: Highlights and Lowlights

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton
Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi
Vietnam #14: Sheraton Hanoi Hotel
Vietnam #15: Need a Reason to Go to Vietnam: Here it Is.
Vietnam #16: How to Pick a Ha Long Bay Cruise
Vietnam #17: Panorama Vietnam

Highlights:

1) Hoi An. I fell in love with the charming ancient town of Hoi An in central Vietnam and its many colorful lanterns. Before I started researching Vietnam, I never even heard of Hoi An. Now, I’m so glad I did.

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2) Ha Long Bay. The beautiful limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay are one of the major reasons people come to Vietnam. And they lived up to their reputation. Our five-star luxury cruise was icing on the cake.

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3) Cheap! Vietnam is dirty cheap. After Scotland, it was so nice to be able to enjoy the finer things in life without worrying what the bill was going to look like. Case in point: We took a three hour taxi ride from Danang to Hue, and it only cost us $50 for two people.

4) Vietnamese children. I have a bit of an obsession with taking pictures of children when I travel. The children in Vietnam were friendly and loved seeing their faces on my LCD screen. That’s what I call a win-win.

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5) Hotels. Hotel points go far in Asia. Our amazing apartment suite in Ho Chi Minh City was only 25,000 IHG points a night. Our beach resort in Danang was only 12,000 Hyatt points a night. Living it up in the lap of luxury made our trip that much better.

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6) Warm weather. I hate winter. I love summer. Vietnam was warm. End of story.

7) History. Vietnam is filled with history. It was fascinating to see the events I read about in high school and college up-close.

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Lowlights:

1) Hives. I’m not going to lie. Breaking out in random hives halfway around the globe was a bit worrisome. Thankfully, a painless trip to a local clinic helped tremendously.

2) Hue. The ancient capital of Hue is a must-hit in the tourist books, but Lisa and I were underwhelmed. It could have been an off-day, or the heat, but we both felt like we could have skipped it.

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3) Working out. Or the lack thereof. Every vacation, I promise myself to use the hotel gym or make time for yoga. And every vacation i fail miserably.

4) Jet lag. As was to be expected, the jet leg on the return trip was a killer. Enough to make me swear off Asia for a while.

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All in all, I loved Vietnam. Before we left, I read many blog posts about people hating Vietnam, especially in comparison to other southeast Asian countries. I loved Cambodia, but I can now also say that I loved Vietnam. I highly recommend it.

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Part # 17: Panorama Vietnam

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton
Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi
Vietnam #14: Sheraton Hanoi Hotel
Vietnam #15: Need a Reason to Go to Vietnam: Here it Is.
Vietnam #16: How to Pick a Ha Long Bay Cruise

While I love taking and posting my own pictures, I don’t have a panorama option on my DSLR. Thankfully, Lisa’s camera does, and she loves taking panoramic shots. She does a great job, and it’s a neat way to get a feel for this fascinating country.

Thanks Lisa!

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A row of motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City

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A row of shops in central Ho Chi Minh City

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The beach at our Hyatt hotel in Danang

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Fishing boats in the Hoi An countryside

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Lang Co Bay en route to Hue

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A street corner in Hanoi

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Sitting on a tree in Hanoi overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake

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The stunning and incomparable Ha Long Bay





 

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Bring it On: February 2016

February is nearly upon us. Things I’m looking forward to:

    • Politics, politics, and more politics. I know I’ve said this before, but presidential politics is the candy to my inner child. Nothing makes me happier than attack ads and political shenanigans. I expect February to be chock full of both.
    • The end of winter. I happen to believe that February is the last month of winter – no matter what the calendar or the weather gods have to say about it. So I am ecstatic that winter is two-thirds over, and this horrible snow will melt when the temperature hits 62 degrees this week. It doesn’t matter that I grew up in Chicago. I will never ever like winter.
    • Utah planning. My sister and I booked a Memorial Day weekend trip to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. I’ll update the blog later on the details, but I just ordered a bunch of hiking books from the library and can’t wait to dig in.
    • Murals! I can’t believed I’ve lived in DC for seven years (cumulatively) and didn’t know we have street art right here under my nose. I can’t wait to check them out.
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The Crazy Things We Do For Points

As you know, points make it possible for me to travel the world. I’m also one of those weird people who love the points game (aka “the obsession”) – the organizing, the tracking, the credit cards, the absurd opportunities that allow people like me to rake in thousands of points.

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There aren’t as many opportunities to do that as there used to be, but IHG (the umbrella company for Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn) offered the points obsessed an opportunity this winter. Many other blogs have reported on the details (here, here, and here), so I’ll spare you the technical requirements.

Here’s the short story: IHG’s Priceless Surprises promotion allows participants to earn points without hotel stays. All you have to do is fill out a 3×5 piece of paper with your name, address, phone number, and other required information – all handwritten. You are allowed 94 entries, and each entry must be in a separate envelope. Prizes range from 500 IHG points to free nights to much bigger (and less likely) prizes.

Bloggers figured out that participants are statistically very likely to win something with every entry. The costs of stamps alone will cost $46.06, but even if you only win 500 points per entry, that will be enough for one night at a  five star hotel in Europe.

I started small earlier this month with 16 entries. Warning: My arm hurt like hell. And I grew despondent when I heard nothing in return. Then, this week I received 16 emails inviting me to play the Priceless Surprises game online – an easy process of picking one out of six floors on a make-believe elevator. My 16 entries earned a total of 13,500 IHG points. This pretty much made my night – not exaggerating.

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I quickly filled out another 62 entries, and have another 16 to go. My right arm for a free night? Sign me up!

 

 

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Vietnam #16: How to Pick a Ha Long Bay Cruise

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton
Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi
Vietnam #14: Sheraton Hanoi Hotel
Vietnam #15: Need a Reason to Go to Vietnam: Here it Is.

How to pick a Ha Long Bay cruise? Great question.

We spent months googling “best ha long bay cruise.” There are hundreds of cruise options, ranging from low-budget to the height of luxury. Every blog/article/review more or less said the same thing: You get what you pay for.

So we decided to pay a little bit more. We made a conscious decision to skip the low-budget backpacker option. While it’s possible to do a day tour of Ha Long Bay, it’s not advisable. It takes a good three to four hours to get from Hanoi to the port. The most common tours are one night or two. We chose a two day/one night tour.

After extensive research, we settled on Indochina Junk, which is described as a luxury cruise. We were specifically drawn to them because they operate exclusively in Bai Tu Long Bay – away from the hundreds of other junkets. Indochina Junk offers a couple of options. We chose the Dragon Legend, a 24 cabin boat with a maximum of 46 passengers for $219 per person. This price included transportation, lodging, four meals, and activities.

dragon legend map

Our itinerary

I won’t mince words. We LOVED it. Of course, it didn’t it hurt that the view was absolutely stunning. But it sure was nice to enjoy the limestone karsts from the luxury of a five-star cruise.

Our “luxury van” picked us up at our Hanoi hotel Sunday morning at 8 a.m., and I’m happy to report that it was rather luxurious – especially the wifi.

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Four hours later, we pulled up to the port and boarded a small transfer boat. And then, finally, finally, we boarded our cruise ship.

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The ship was extremely comfortable, with nice bedrooms, a lovely deck, lavish meals, and a very affordable spa. Our guide was friendly, and we loved having the bay to ourselves.

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And of course, here is our mind-blowing, breath-stealing view:

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We had an amazing time. Ha Long Bay is truly beautiful, and the Dragon Legend made the trip that much more enjoyable. I’m not surprised the cruise ranks number five on TripAdvisor. If you’re confused by the array of tour options, and you’re willing to spend a little extra, I highly recommend the Dragon Legend.

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Vietnam #15: Need a Reason to Go to Vietnam? Here It Is.

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton
Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi
Vietnam #14: Sheraton Hanoi Hotel

I knew Ha Long Bay was going to be pretty. But I did not expect it to take my breath away. And I did not expect the expression “take my breath away” to be quite so literal.

I now know why Ha Long Bay is a “must see” on all the traveling lists. It is beautiful in a way you can’t fully appreciate until you see it with your own eyes. So if you’re looking for a reason to go to Vietnam – here it is. Ha Long Bay. Don’t skip it. It is amazing, and I readily acknowledge that “amazing” doesn’t do it justice.

We were lucky. After a couple of days of rain, we woke up Sunday morning to sunny blue skies and 70 degree weather. We also chose our cruise company (more on that later) specifically because it took us to an isolated part of the bay, far away from the traffic jam of tourist cruises you so often see in pictures. This meant we had the unique karsts all to ourselves.

Warning: There is an absurd amount of pictures below. It is not my fault. I plead temporary insanity on account of the natural beauty.

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We spent some time sitting on the deck and doing absolutely nothing. Just basking in the afternoon sun and screeching with glee.

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And then we took – you guessed it – more pictures.

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I even took a video.

A Taste of Ha Long Bay from Nam Writes on Vimeo.

In the afternoon, we took out the kayaks for a a tour around the bay. It took Lisa and I a while to develop a rhythm, but soon, we were speeding along. Ha Long Bay is definitely the most beautiful place I’ve ever kayaked.

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I’m fairly certain we look like Olympic kayakers here.

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I think the technical term for this pose is called “killing it.”

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As the sun set into the water, the ship anchored for the night, and we enjoyed the colorful sky.

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The next morning we woke up at the crack of dawn – literally – to watch the sunrise. After shivering for a bit, the cold morning gave way to the warmth of the sun.

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After breakfast, we hopped over to a nearby island to visit an underground cave and relax on the beach.

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Lisa and I on the passenger boat en route to the island

We spent fifteen minutes exploring the cave.

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And then enjoyed some beautiful views while we dipped our toes in the sand.

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Our cruise ship anchored in the distance.

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Lisa is never happier than she is on/in the water.

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After that, it was time to head back to the mainland. Lisa and I were exhausted and headed straight for the airport for our flight home. But what a way to end our Vietnam trip. If you need a reason to go to Vietnam, it doesn’t get better than Ha Long Bay.

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Vietnam #14: Sheraton Hanoi Hotel

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton
Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi

We opted to stay at the Sheraton Hanoi Hotel, located on the edge of West Lake, Hanoi’s largest lake. The Sheraton cost a mere 3,000 – 3,500 points a night. The northern location is a 45 minute walk or 15 minute drive from the Old Quarter, but the Sheraton offers a complimentary shuttle into town (but not back to the hotel), and taxis are so cheap that it wasn’t an issue.

Sheraton Hanoi map

The decor in rather dated, and I was surprised to find out the hotel was only 10 years old.

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The best part of the hotel though is the Sheraton club room. Although I have no SPG status, the SPG business credit card gives me access to all Sheraton club rooms. It may seem like a silly thing to get excited about, but after nearly two weeks of traveling, it was a pleasure to have constant access to water, diet coke, and fresh fruit, not to mention other snacks. Of course, the views didn’t hurt either.

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Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton

Top of Hanoi is a rooftop bar on the 65th floor of the Lotte Center in Hanoi. The rooftop is hip and modern and provides heaters and blankets to counter the nighttime chill. Entrance is free, but the menu prices are almost as high as the view.

But totally worth it.

Walking out of the elevator, you walk down a long, dark corridor, designed to give you the impression of entering another time and place.

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The north side offers views of West Lake.

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The south side offers views of central Hanoi.

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Vietnam #12: The Hanoi Hilton

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi

There was one thing I really wanted to see in Hanoi: The Hanoi Hilton. No, I’m not talking about a hotel. The Hanoi Hilton was the name given to Hoa Lo Prison, the prison used by the French colonialists against the Vietnamese, and later, by the North Vietnam to imprison American POWs during the Vietnam War. As an avid politico, I had read all about the Hanoi Hilton. I was desperate to see it in person.

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Hoa Lo means literally “fiery furnace,” derived from the prison’s location among a concentration of stores selling stoves. It is also an apt name given the prison’s horrific conditions.

The museum is small with exhibits occupying its modest two floors, all of which emphasize a central message: The French colonialists cruelly massacred the Vietnamese prisoners while the Vietnamese treated American POWs with kindness and generosity. I am not being facetious. Like most of the museums we saw in the south, Hoa Lo Prison is an exercise in Vietnamese propaganda at its best.

We entered Cell D first, “the largest cells of Hoa Lo Prison where the French colony kept male prisoners…It was this same cell that the French used to detain many revolutionary Vietnam soldiers. These soldiers subsequently became senior executives of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Government of Vietnam…”

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Cachot is a tiny prison room at the far end of the first floor. Acording to the sign, Cachot was “used to confine prisoners who broke the regulations of the prison. Cachot in Hoa Lo was ‘hell of the hell,’ dungeon was dark and narrow. Prisoners were kept seperatelly, put in stocks, and to eat and relieve themselves on the spot. All the prisoners confined here were puffed with oedema, their eyes were clouded over and their bodies were covered with scabies caused by the lack of light and air.” [Spelling is not my own.]

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Some exhibits demonstrate the lengths the Vietnamese went to escape.

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Outside, a memorial honors the “struggle against enemy’s terrorism” and efforts to turn “the prison into a school to propagate the revolutionary argument.”

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*2015-12-03 10.09.57We then moved on to the Vietnam War era. A sign offers context: “The United States government carried out sabotage warfare by using their air and naval forces against the North Vietnamese from 05 August 1964 to 15 January 1973… Some of pictures and objects in these two exhibition halls show details of US pilots’ lifes when they were temporary imprisoned at Hoa Lo prison.” [Spelling is not my own.]

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These were the beds used by American POWs.

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Here I am sitting in a prison cell. It’s not particularly comfortable.

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Hoa Lo’s most famous POW was Senator John McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona and the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. He was captured in 1967 when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. Contrary to the propaganda in the museum, McCain was put in solitary confinement and severely tortured. Today, he can’t lift either of his arms above his shoulders. He can’t comb his own hair. Here is a photo of his capture.

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U.S. POWs, including John McCain, pictured at their release in 1973.

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The museum paints a very rosy picture – almost hysterically so – of the conditions in Hoa Lo during the Vietnam War.

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Christmas meal for the American pilots in prison

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The American pilots held a Christmas ceremony in the prison

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Army doctors treated a wound for John McCain an American pilot arrested at Truc Bach Lake – Hanoi on 26 October 1967.

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American pilots play billiards

While I obviously didn’t buy into the propaganda machine, it is fascinating to see the historical pictures and the tale that is still being woven today by the Vietnamese government, more than 40 years after the war ended.

 

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