Travel Weekly reporter Jeri Clausing is experiencing Vietnam for the first time. Her final report from the country follows.
From Hue it was back to Hanoi, where we saw Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, the old section of downtown and the Hoa Lo Prison, known to American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton," where John McCain and other captured American pilots were imprisoned during the Vietnam War.
Much of the prison is now gone, replaced by huge, modern apartments and office buildings. But the remaining section is a small museum, which shows the history of the prison, originally built by the French to house Vietnamese political insurgents.
Many of the exhibits show the inhumane conditions of the early years, when Vietnamese political prisoners were held there. The information about the American POWs paints a different picture, showing photos of them getting medical attention, celebrating Christmas, playing basketball and getting packages from home.
We also visited the old section of Hanoi, hitting it right at lunchtime as people spilled onto the sidewalks, where they pulled up small tables to cook and eat on the streets.
Though just as busy as Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi almost felt like a different country. Hanoi is the political capital, and hence retains more of the traditional Vietnamese flavor. In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's business center, there are Western influences because of all the outside investment.
The next morning, we headed to Ha Long Bay for overnight cruise aboard the Emeraude through the thousands of limestone islands that earned the bay a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Emeraude is a replica of a paddle steamer that used to cruise the bay.
The bay is beautiful, though I'm sure the water is not as clear as it used to be.
We had a relaxing evening and great food aboard the boat, but the three-hour ride from Hanoi to the bay was long and stressful. Most of the ride was on two-lane streets crowded with trucks, scooters and buses that were constantly dodging each other, racing to pass around corners and other blind spots.
Before we even left Hanoi, we saw one scooter driver who had just been killed by a truck. An hour later, we happened upon a tour bus that had just collided head-on with a truck. Needless to say, we were quite happy to finally arrive at the boat.
The next day it was back to Hanoi for the long trip home.