Preparing for an online Coding Test

I was recently approached by a headhunter from a reputable cloud want-to-be company through her LinkedIn search effort. One of the early requirements was to take a one-question 60-minute test at HackerRank.  This has become a trend in recent days.  It is a screening process to weed out non-coders or non-programmers. I was not sure about this, since I am not a true day-to-day coder any longer.  I see myself, more or less, as a system architect and algorithm designer. Unable to fend off my curiosity, I took that challenge. As a result, I am documenting this experience for the benefit of my programming and technical friends.

First, you should "google" with relevant keywords to read about other folks' experiences.  There are many tips and practice runs you can use without coming in to the test cold. You have the privacy of your home/work environment. Definitely you should have the environment set up comfortably for a quick search for the problems being presented to you. If you are coding daily in your work, the famous LonelyInteger and Print-Odd-Numbers should definitely be easy for you. Nevertheless, force yourself to polish your skills in an environment with a limited time window.

Seriously, in a one-hour or 90-minute setting, they should not expect you to come up with a working implementation from scratch for the Bellman-Ford algorithm or the like. However, I suggest that you do practice the quick online search, and solve/learn/copy a few simple ones to get the hang of it.  Almost all well-known algorithms can be found online. When you go in for an in-person interview later,  it is totally reasonable for the company to ask for pseudo or real code of common algorithms required by your job.

Now, let us get back to my own story. I ended up spending most of my one-hour in C++ googling for simple iostream class and examples. To my dismay, this customized test did not give me language choices. My limited raw knowledge on simple "cin" and "cout" was not enough to cut it.  Dealing with variable length input line, one needs to use the istringstream paradigm.  Furthermore, detecting syntax error needs to know the public member function fail() and how to swallow bad inputs as you go.  There was no way to learn and polish all this in the one precious hour exam time for me :-).

Here is the example I present to you:

Event Set Processing

TEST INPUT/OUTPUT: stdin and stdout

First line: number of lines to be processed (N)
Second line and onward till the N+1'th line:
    permutation of positive integer numbers between 1 and M, inclusive

Success : received "M"
Failure : expected "M", but received "X".
Failure : syntax error
   (including non-integer, negative integers)

All lines should be processed, and each line should produce a "Success" or "Failure".

  • Example Input and Output
  • 4
  • 1 5 4 2 3
  • 4 3 1
  • 5 x 4 3 2
  • 1 6 5 -4 3 2
  • Success : received 5
  • Failure : expected 4, but received 3
  • Failure : syntax error
  • Failure : syntax error

Practical Guide

Before the exam -
Practice input-output coding for the language(s) you can be tested with.
Don't just do "Hello, world!" as it is simply not enough. Read the input line-by-line with an unknown number of fields in each line. Do some syntax error check, including non-integer input and negative integers. You should have working example handy, to simply re-type them as required.  Note that copy-and-paste is normally disabled during your test session.

Very often, the required logic in the exam itself is very simple due to time constraints.

During the exam -
Run a simple test early on, and see the test cases and input patterns. Focus on getting those processed correctly and no more. Skip the nuances and details, just pass the test cases provided. Save those high standards you might have for the software you normally write.

For example, you don't need to detect duplicates in the input line in the example I provided earlier. Use a simple large array for the input processing without dynamically allocating the storage space, assuming this method is sufficient to pass all given test cases.

Finally, for the testing organizations and employers

1) Repeat a similar test in person to defeat impersonation.
2) Randomize testing cases to be non-deterministic.
3) Perform some simple randomization of testing input line content to defeat outrageous correct output echoing by the code.


Highlights of February 2017 Yunnan Excursions

This eleven-day Yunnan [1] trip, February 12 to February 22, 2017, covered close to 3000 km in distance. There was no single central theme focusing on one place or region. Logistically, the tour centered on the capital city Kunming [2]. We traveled in all the cardinal directions, and thus I called the trips excursions. We visited a few peculiar geological formations and land forms, cultivated terraced fields, and most interestingly we had a 6-mile walk in the blossoming canola fields [3].  Yunnan is a province in the southwest of China bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.  I'll visit the border towns next time.

I stayed an extra two days in Kunming to visit places frequented by tourists. Those included the Provincial Museum, which was recently renovated. It was very informative to spend a day there. When I am in a large city and not pressed by time, I often use the public transportation to get a first-hand feel of the city and its people.

We had 19 people in total, including the tour leader. The tour leader was a thoughtful and experienced young man who specializes in outdoor and exploratory trips. This was the second trip I took with him. More information can be found at http://www.worldhey.com/.

About Yunnan

Yunnan in China
Yunnan is noted for its very high level of ethnic diversity. Among China's 56 recognized ethnic groups, 25 are found in Yunnan. It is the most southwestern province in China, with the Tropic of Cancer running through its southern part. The northern part of the province forms part of the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau [4].

We basically traveled in the northeastern part of Yunnan on this trip. The altitude ranges from 230 meters to 2000 meters, with many micro climates in between. The changing terrain also creates many terraced fields and is home for diverse flora and fauna.

To my surprise, I found that the tequila plant thrives in Yunnan. I could not clearly identify whether it is "agave azul" [5]; that type could be used to produce tequila for sure. Yunnan is known in China for its tobacco products.  Going for liquor production is a questionable proposal here :-)

Around the 3rd century BC, the central area of Yunnan around present day Kunming was known as Dian. Many Han Chinese brought into Yunnan an influx of Chinese influences, the start of a long history of migration and cultural expansion. The Yunnan area remained an autonomous state or group of semi-autonomous states for more than a thousand years, with frequent conflicts and wars against Chinese dynasties and peace time in between. In 1273, Kublai Khan finally created the province and, after the Burmese campaigns, it included significant portions of upper Burma. Since then, Yunnan has remained a province of China, with complicated border ambiguities with her neighbors.

It is interesting to note that railroads were built more than 100 years ago in this region. The opening of the Kunming area began in earnest with the completion in 1906–1910 of the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway [6] to Haiphong in North Vietnam (part of French Indochina). This was built in the frenzy of early railroad building in China [7].

Highlights and Pictures

Here are some annotations and background for the pictures throughout the trip.

1) Earth Forest at Yuanmou Langbapu
Earth Forest in Langbapu
Earth Forest in Yuanmou

The direct translation from Chinese 土林 is "earth forest" in the area of Langbapu, Yuanmou County [8].  These land forms are quite soft, and thus calling it a stone forest might be a bit misleading.
Land forms are peculiar in the Yuanmou area. Although the formation of these geological protrusions is different from that of Hoodoos, it reminds me of the Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah [9].

2)  Canola Fields in the Luoping area
Canola Field in Luoping Area

Canola Moment in Luoping
Canola Field Collage in Luoping Area

Walking in the midst of Canola Fields
This was probably the most enjoyable part of the trip.  We were fortunate to have the flowers blossoming, and the weather was gorgeous when we made the 6-mile hike in the canola fields.

Our tour leader found this secluded area a few years back. He developed a long-term relationship with a farmer family in the area.  We had real superb country dinners with local ingredients all from the land.

The canola fields are used to produce canola oil for human consumption. The shape of canola seeds is similar to that of string beans. The seeds are harvested to produce canola oil. The oil content is amazing high, about 44%.

I was told that there are about 20 to 30 million mu's (Chinese acres, which is 0.1647 Imperial/US acre) of canola planted for oil production in Yunnan every year. A farmer gets about 1200 RMB ($200 USD) per mu for the seeds they gather. The extraction of oil from the seeds is typically done downstream in a more industrialized setup.

Open Seating Country Dinner

Paul next to the Cliff

 I overcame my fear of coming close to the edge of a cliff on a local hill. The next most fearful thing would be to dangle my feet out into the open from the cliff.

Cascading Falls in the Luoping Area

The cascading falls in the Luoping area were quite a pleasant surprise. Although they were not huge in size and varied in form, it reminded me of the Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia [10].

3) Terraced fields in Yuanyang area
Yunnan Yuanyang Terraced Fields at Sunset

Yunnan Yuanyang Terraced Field Walk
Photography Enthusiasts for their best shots
Yunnan is mountainous with many rivers and cultivated terraced fields. The terraced fields have beautifully lit views with reflections at sunset and sunrise.

This attracts many photography enthusiasts aiming to obtain a few good shots of the terraced fields during a short window of few minutes. Equipment for advanced photography can be heavy and varied; I found that local porters were hired for transporting them. It was not unusual to find them engaging in occasional arguments, juggling and jostling for positions.

We spent a few hours walking and strolling on the ridges of the terraced fields to see them up close. A few children were catching loach (mud fish) with a specially crafted bamboo stick.

4) Yunnan's deepest lake Fuxian Lake and Kunming's Green Lake
Yunnan Fuxing Lake

Kunming Green Lake (Cui Hu) and Migrant Birds

Fuxian Lake [11] is 155 meters deep at its greatest depth.  It is known for its unique fauna. It is tranquil and undisturbed. The lake would be a good place to visit and relax, or even for retirement. Green Lake [12] in the Kunming city happened to have migrant birds when I visited.


I was able to take many good pictures with my simple iPhone and iPad. Nevertheless, there are many challenges for the unprepared and uninitiated.

1) Difficult and unacceptable toilet facilities some of the time.
2) Garbage can be seen in creeks. People throw things out of their personal property, and there is no good city planning for collection and recycling.  This is unfortunately a myopic view of the world that disconnects us from our environments. In my view, we have schizophrenia at the societal level.
3) There are many winding roads in this area with no roadside mirrors. Horns are used often to warn oncoming traffic.  Drivers have to figure out how to pass each other if it is too narrow for both to travel at the same time.
4) Noises of drones in scenic areas are not uncommon. They are used presumably for aerial videography or photography.
5) Many of these places were not well known until the advent of the Internet and fast communications. However, the development pace for these new travel destinations is too fast and not planned for sustainability. We are destroying the natural beauty and resources in a hurry for short term gains.

[1] Yunnan - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yunnan
[2] Kunming - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunming
[3] Canola - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canola 
[4] Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yunnan%E2%80%93Guizhou_Plateau
[5] Agave (tequila plant) - https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave
[6] Yunnan-Vietnam Railway - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kunming%E2%80%93Hai_Phong_Railway
[7] Chinese Railroads - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport_in_China 
[8] Yuanmou County, Yunnan, China - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuanmou_County
[9] Bryce Canyon National Park - https://www.nps.gov/brca/index.htm
[10] Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia - http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/98 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plitvice_Lakes_National_Park
[11] Fuxian Lake - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuxian_Lake
[12] Kunming's Cui Hu (Green Lake) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Lake_(Kunming)


my Angkor Wat trip

I joined a 5-day, 4-night Taiwanese tour group to Angkor Wat, Cambodia [1] in mid January 2017, which cost me about $1000 USD with everything included. This tour uses a chartered airline (Far East Airline), and it has no mandatory shopping. The fees for the Cambodia visa and all meals are included.

The paperwork was so streamlined that our passports were collected and processed as a group. The departure date stamp was on our passport before we actually were in the airport on the last day.  They have all the form and appearance of an international formality, but much of the meaning, like departure stamp, has been lost in the process.  Similarly, gratuities for the tour leader, local tour guide, bus driver, and bell boys all have fixed prices and are handled as a group. These fees are not truly voluntary with this practice. The lodging accommodation was excellent with all four nights at Angkor Palace Spa and Resort [2].

Angkor Wat and Tuk Tuk Car
This tour includes not only the traditional Angkor Wat [3], but also the Angkor Thom (Great or Large City) [4] and the nearby freshwater lake, Tonle Sap [5].  There are more than 1000 temple ruins in Cambodia today, but most of them are in the Siem Reap area. These monumental temples were originally for Hinduism, but later the country embraced Buddhism.  Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia today, practiced by more than 95 percent of the population. Mahayana Buddhism is the religion of the majority of Chinese and Vietnamese in Cambodia.

Angkor Wat at Dawn

Angkor Wat and its Reflection
Angkor Wat means "City of Temple" in Cambodia language and is in the Siem Reap province.  It was prosperous between 800 and 1400 AD.  Today, it has an international airport, mainly for tourism.  Tourism is the second largest industry after the textile manufacturing. If you google "Angkor Wat" images, you'll find many good pictures.  I have no intention of outdoing those.  Here is a small collection of my images reflecting my particular viewpoints. 

Tree Grown On Top of a Temple Gate

Bas Relief with Hands Flapping to Fly

I am not an art person per se.  But the tour guide was nice enough to explain many special features of the bas reliefs seen in many temples.  I enjoyed very much this animated bas relief with its hands flapping to fly up.

Unfinished Temple with Narrow and High Steps

I enjoyed the strenuous climbs of one unfinished temple. During its construction, the temple was struck by lightening, which was viewed as a bad omen and thus never finished. This temple has no carvings, statues, and other decorations. It has very narrow and high steps and make the climb a little challenging.

Tonle Sap means "Freshwater Lake" in the Cambodian language.  It is a huge lake about 12,000 square kilometers in area during monsoon season. That is 1/3 of the size of the Taiwan island.
Police Station Floating on Tonle Sap
The total area of the lake shrinks to 1/4 of its maximum size in dry seasons.  Many of the houses and structures are thus built on stilts.  Other permanents structures or institutions are on floats like this police station shown here.  You can see schools, churches and shopping venues on floats.

Coconut Drink Treat on a Hot Day
Cambodia has two seasons, that is, the rainy monsoon season from May to October, and the dry season from November to April.  Rainy season can have 22 degrees Centigrade, but the dry April can go up to 40 degrees. Visiting in a rainy season would be quite messy walking about. January and February are usually a great time to visit, with the "mild" temperature of 30 degrees. I enjoyed very much a cold coconut drink after a hard day of walking around the ruins.

Roadside Elephant Ride

The elephants were very much part of the ancient Cambodia history and culture. I only saw a few of them in this trip. This photo shows a roadside opportunity for people to ride on an elephant. The local tour guide explained that much was lost in this war-torn country, and there is not much to be spared or left with when more than 1/4 of the human population was killed. You can watch the award-winning movie "The Killing Fields" that depicted the horrors done by the Khmer Rouge [6].

A simple two-room CTEP school
I took the free/shopping time in town on the last day's afternoon to visit a non-profit project CTEP [7]. CTEP (Cambodia-Taiwan Education Project) is a Taiwanese outreach program in Cambodia with 30 small schools that train young school-aged pupils to be employable in the labor market.
The schools teach computer skills, the English language, and the Chinese language, with the ultimate goal to educate the students enough for the many industries in Cambodia.

The picture shown here is a simple two-classroom structure attached to one of the local elementary schools near Siem Reap.
CTEP class/exam in session
The other photo was taken while a class/final-exam was in session.

The project founder and director is one of my acquaintances in my National Taiwan University days forty years ago.  I find his personal vision and persuasion in doing this work at the grass-root level very convincing and meaningful.  He has a good model going for this war-torn country that regained peace only as recently as 1998.

[1] Cambodia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodia
[2] Angkor Palace Spa and Resort - http://www.angkorpalaceresort.com/
[3] Angkor Wat - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Wat
[4] Angkor Thom - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angkor_Thom 
[5] Tonle Sap - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tonl%C3%A9_Sap
[6] The Killing Fields - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Killing_Fields_(film)
[7] CTEP - http://camtw.com.tw/


my Badain Jaran Desert trip

This six-day trip, October 10 to October 15, 2016, covered 2000 km in distance. We had 12 persons in total, including the tour leader. The tour leader is a thoughtful and experienced young man who specializes in outdoor and exploratory trips. More information can be found at http://www.worldhey.com/.

Alxa League in Inner Mongolia

The starting point was the capital city YinChuan [1] in Ning Xia Hui Autonomous Region. Historically, this was the capital of Xi Xia [2] at the time of South Song Dynasty.  We traveled in and around Alxa League, Inner Mongolia [3].  This league has three banners, i.e., the Ejin Banner [4], the Alxa Left Banner, and the Alxa Right Banner. We started from east (Alxa Left Banner) to the very north at Ejin Banner first on the north side of two deserts, Tengger Desert [5] and Badain Jaran Desert [6], then south to the west (Alxa Right Banner). After the Badain Jaran Desert exploratory visit, we traveled back on the south side of two deserts.

On the way to Ejin Banner on the west, the driver pointed out to us a couple of times a mirage [7] in the desert, which was discernible as a few islands spread over a sea or lake. That was my first mirage, not counting the less phenomenal "fake water" on the hot-road during the summer time in the United States' Southwest.

Here are some annotations and background for the pictures throughout the trip.
Guang Zong Temple on the west side of Helan Mountains

1) Guang Zong Temple (also known as South Temple or Nan Ssu) on the west side of the Helan Mountains [8] that purportedly is the resting place for Dalai Lama VI [9]. His death or disappearance was mysterious during the Qing Dynasty.
   This temple had more than 1500 monks a century ago. This legendary Dalai Lama was born outside of the Tibetan region.  He was a very talented poet and spawned many legends during his life.

Huyang Trees in Ejin Banner area
Huyang Tree Reflection in Ejin

2 and 3) Huyang (Poplar Diversifolius) trees [10] reflections at Ejin Banner.
  This is a species of poplar tree in the willow family. It can be found in many desert areas around the world, and it is very much adapted to dry conditions.  The forest of these trees in the Ejin Banner area is famous for its formation and water reflections, as experienced by many travelers in recent years.

4) Sea gulls near the reed wetland in Juyan Lake [11]
   The Juyan Lake is one of several terminal lakes for the inland Heihe River (Black River). There are few rivers that don't flow to the oceans. Heihe is one of them. I normally associate sea gulls with oceans. Apparently they don't need oceans to exist, they just need the right water environment, I imagine.
Sea Gulls in Juyan Lake

Juyan Lake Sunset

5) Sunset in Juyan Lake
   This was a rare chance to take good pictures during the sunset in this wetland area with many reeds.

6) Strange Huyang Forest
Strange Huyang Forest

We went to this forest before sunrise. Supposedly the environmental changes in this area caused all trees to die, but the arid condition in the desert areas prevented the trees from decaying further.

7 and 8) Ruin of the Black Water City and Walled Fortress
   This was an important city for the Xi Xia (Tangut) State on the western end of its territory. It was known by a few different names, including the Mongolian name Khara-Khoto [12]. It was conquered by Genghis Khan in 1226, but it continued to flourish.  It was abandoned, though, for more than seven hundred years after the Ming Dynasty defeated the Mongols and took the city in 1372.  Its importance was lost during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.  Interestingly enough, this city appears in the "Travels of Marco Polo" as Etzina.
Various expeditions and excavations in the 20th century unearthed many books, xylographs (woodblock prints), scrolls, and manuscripts in Tangut language. The Mongolian Buddhist stupas [13] traditionally house the sacred scriptures and religious articles. Dictionaries were among the unearthed items, including a Chinese-Tangut glossary that made the Tangut (Xi Xia) study possible today.
Stupas of the Khara-Khoto Ruin from the Distance

The Mongolian Buddhist Stupa in Khara-Khoto Ruin

9) Badain Jaran Desert Jeeps - Toyota Land Cruiser Prado
10) Mongolian Yurt
11) Sand Dune and Desert Lake
12) Badain Jaran Desert ridge at sunset

Expedition with Desert Jeeps with Camels in the distance

Sand Dune and Desert Lake
The Badain Jaran Desert [6] covers an area of 49,000 square kilometers, which is about 30 percent larger than the island of Taiwan. It has more than 140 lakes, and many are in the southern region of the desert.  These lakes provide life sustenance for the herds and limited vegetation. This desert is home to the tallest stationary dunes on earth. The Bilutu Peak measures 500 meters from its base, and is the tallest stationary dune in the world.
   We hired three desert jeeps for our group for an excursion trip going up and down the sand dunes and visiting/viewing the oases.  We stayed in a guest house for one night with dinner and breakfast served.  There was no shower.  Water was precious. We got the the place early enough and did not have to stay in a yurt/ger.  We have 5 twin-sized beds for men and similar ones for women.  The tour leader told us that the yurt is usually not as well heated as our small brick compound.
Mongolian Yurt

Sunset on Sand Dune Ridge


I was very fortunate to be in good health throughout this trip.  I was able to take many good pictures with my simple iPhone and iPad. Nevertheless, there are many challenges for the unprepared and uninitiated.
1) Difficult and unacceptable toilet facilities on the road.
2) Dry air that caused allergic reaction for one team member.
3) Huge temperature swing between day and night for the travelers who had to get up around 5am three times to see the sunrises.
4) On the rough and exciting desert jeep ride, two members had to bail out after the first 5 km due to severe motion sickness. Fortunately, there was a decent hotel near the entrance of the geopark in the desert.

[1] YinChuan 银川 - Capital City of NingXia Hui Autonomous Region -  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yinchuan
[2] Xi Xia 西夏 History in China - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Xia
[3] Alxa League, Inner Mongolia 内蒙古阿拉善盟 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alxa_League
[4] Ejin Banner 额济纳旗, Inner Mongolia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ejin_Banner 
[5] Tengger Desert 腾格里沙漠 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengger_Desert
[6] Badain Jaran Desert 巴丹吉林沙漠 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Badain_Jaran_Desert
[7] Mirage 海市蜃楼 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirage
[8] Helan Mountains 贺兰山 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helan_Mountains
[9] Dalai Lama VI - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/6th_Dalai_Lama
[10] Huyang Tree 胡杨树 - Diversifolius poplar - Euphrat-Pappel https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%83%A1%E6%9D%A8  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populus_euphratica https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euphrat-Pappel
[11] Juyan Lake 居延海 (Gashuun Nuur) - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juyan_Lake_Basin
[12] Black Water City 黑水城 /Walled Fortress and its XiXia Cultural Treasures - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khara-Khoto
[13] Mongolian Buddhist Stupa - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stupa


English with an American Corporate Accent - 040

This is another collection from recent meetings and trips. It works best if you can find a native English speaker with exposure to corporate America to elaborate on the finer points that I cannot cover well here.

* They are squatting in our device name space. [They are simply sitting in our device name space.]
* Peter said not to hold our breath for that decision. [Peter said not to expect that decision to come anytime soon.]
* Pre-allocating them will give us some head room to operate. [Allocating them beforehand will give us some leeway to operate.]
* Let's sort them out in chronological order so that we can formulate a punch list for execution. [Let's sort them out in chronological order so that we can formulate a to-do list for execution.]

* There are bigger fish to fry. [There are more important things to worry about.]
* We should hold their feet to the fire, otherwise, nothing gets done. [We should keep the pressure on, otherwise, nothing gets done.]
* They made a valiant effort to deliver that project before the gate closes. [They tried their best to deliver that project before the gate closes.]
* I am going to write an email to them for a waiver. This requirement at the 11th hour is impossible to meet. [I am going to write an email to them for a waiver.  This late requirement is impossible to meet.]

* We are in the weeds for the last forty-five minutes. [We are overwhelmed with details for the last forty-five minutes.]
* It will be an unbounded path if you enable that feature by hand. [It will be an uncontrolled path if you enable that feature manually.]
* Is there a chance that the rug gets pulled out from underneath when you are traversing that linked list? [Is there a chance that the linked list gets modified when you are traversing that linked list?]
* That stock is certainly on the up and up, although we don't know why. [That stock is certainly reliable and honest, although we don't know why.]


My first Vietnam trip - Hanoi and Ha Long Bay

This was my first trip to Vietnam.  I learned from news and various media that communist Vietnam is also going through incredible market economy changes to modernize herself. I have many Vietnamese friends, and almost all of them or their parents came to America when the American and the South Vietnamese lost their war in the mid 70's. They don't like the communist regime.

I joined a 5-day, 4-night Taiwanese tour group, which cost me about $1100 USD with everything included. This tour uses Vietnamese Airlines and it has no mandatory shopping. The fees for Vietnamese visa and all meals are included.  The visa is on a separate piece of paper, and there is no trace of the visit on your passport. This becomes a common practice when visiting certain countries. The lodging accommodation was excellent with one night at Ha Long Bay Novotel, one night at the Indochina Sails Cruise Junk, and two nights at the Hanoi JW Marriott.
Indochina Sails Cruise Junk

Logistically, the flight from Taipei was very early, so that we managed to visit a couple of tourist spots in Hanoi before we took a 4-hour-long bus ride to Ha Long Bay in the afternoon.  The bulk of the travel on the road is of State Highway caliber at best and often goes through small towns.  It will be a quick 2-hour run in the future for this 200-kilometer trip when they upgrade to true Interstate Highway caliber roads.

Ha Long Bay is truly beautiful and is a mature karst and limestone landscape.  It is Guilin on the sea, but at a much larger scale.

Panoramic View from the top of Titop Island

Sunrise in Ha Long Bay

Early morning in Ha Long Bay

Vietnamese straw hat at the Boat Terminal
I had my Vietnamese straw hat before the bay tour.  It was handy and good thing to have for the weather in this region.  But it immediately conjured up the image of a Viet Cong from the Vietnam War era.

Like many developing nations, Vietnam had to balance the zealous development projects with environmental and ecological concerns.  This half-finished amusement park near the beach was an example that many of my tour group members felt unnecessary at all.
Half-finished amusement park near the Ha Long Bay beach

On our way to Ha Long Bay, there were many unoccupied resorts and buildings near the beach.  We were told that they were yet to recover from the 2008 economic recession because of over-development.
Unoccupied beach-front resorts and buildings

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. It has more than one thousand years of history, and for the most part, it was dominated by the Chinese.  Hanoi was taken by the French in 1873. It became the capital of French Indochina in 1887.  It became the capital of North Vietnam in 1954 when the colonial period ended.

Spectacular telephone pole wiring in Hanoi's Old Quarter
Modern-day Hanoi is divided by a river.  The New Hanoi quarter was built in the last twenty years, and roads and streets are well planned with many new modern buildings and hotels. Old Hanoi quarter is the original Hanoi. This picture shows spectacular telephone pole wiring.

Typical tall and narrow buildings in Hanoi and suburbs
The architecture and style of the houses and buildings are heavily influenced by the hot and humid weather and by the French adaptation of existing Chinese structure. They are in general tall (high ceiling) and narrow.

Temple of Literature (Confucius)
Ancestral Workship Hall

Chinese writings are visible only in temples and ancestral worship halls. The Temple of Literature, aka Temple of Confucius, followed the Chinese civil examination system to promote study and to select government officials.
The Vietnamese pronunciation has very strong similarity to some of the southern Chinese dialects. Modern-day Vietnamese romanization/writing is based primarily on the Portuguese pronunciation system.  I was told that the grammatical structure is a mixture between that of Chinese and French.

The French brought in Catholicism to Vietnam. I visited the St. Joseph's Cathedral in the old quarter.  My old habit of looking for Catholic Church happens to be part of the tour :-)
Hanoi St. Joseph's Cathedral

Hanoi Hotel Metropole (Sofitel Legend)

The historic 1901 French colonial-style Hotel Metropol is charming and beautiful.  Our tour group had one of the lunches there.

Ho Chi Minh Museum is a place to see Vietnamese history from the North Vietnamese perspective.  The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum is next to the Ba Dinh Square. The tour guide said that there is an annual maintenance trip to Moscow in the Fall. This is quite unbelievable to me though. The communist party did not honor Ho Chi Minh's wish to have himself cremated. He was out of the country for 30 years, traveling and residing in many countries, until he came back to Vietnam in 1941 to lead the independence movement. I was fascinated to learn that he was in Canton, China between 1925-1927 at the Whampoa Military Academy, where he would presumably have been acquainted with many Chinese Nationalist and Chinese Communist pioneers. It was documented that he married a Chinese wife, Zeng Xueming, in that period.  But this is denied by the Vietnamese government to perpetuate the myth of his celibacy.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

We went to see a water puppetry show in a theater.  It is pretty interesting to think about the techniques required to perform with controlling sticks under the water.

We visited the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in whirlwind style.  It was best to do it that way, because the humidity level was quite unbearable for the June weather.
Vietnam has many small ethnic minorities, who need education and job training to keep up with progress in the whole country, and there is much to do.