A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

A trip inland and Uncle Ho's name place

One of my favourite stories from Vietnam was a random article i read in a newspaper somewhere along the line. In it, a bus driver had been arrested for overloading his bus. He had 120 passengers in it, plus 13 who were tied to the roof and covered in a large tarpaulin to prevent detection by the police. You can at least understand why more and more locals are forgoing the occasionally overloaded local bus system, in favour of the almost equally cheap, but much more comfortable and non stop open tour buses.

At this point I was still not necessarily in the most amazing states of mind, but being alone and going into the unknown helped. My mind wandered, and as we started the approach to Da Lat (about 80km out), but climbing up a whopping great mountain pass, including past a handful of roadies - 2 of them going extremely well indeed - I finally started to relax and try and put some of the chaos of the last week behind me.

I liked Da Lat instantly. An old French hill station, it has long been a place to relax a bit, being high in the mountains, and thus a darn sight cooler than anywhere else around or in South Vietnam. More or less by unspoken agreement, it was left untouched during the war, and rumour is that the large old colonial villa's in the surrounding hills were used by both North and South Vietnam senior military figures as getaways and for planning purposes etc. The other big plus about Da Lat is that it is more off the tourist trail (most people seemingly go via Mui Ne or direct to HCMC), meaning it is much more relaxed than anywhere I've previously been in Vietnam, and an almost entire lack of hawkers harassing you at every turn was just what was needed.

I didn't have time to be able to take a 2 or 3 night trip with the infamous and legendary easy riders, a group of local motorcycle riders who have turned into tour guides of high repute, especially in backpacking circles, but although ity would have been nice, I wasn't desperately gutted. I did the only thing I could (and only thing I really wanted), and hired a bike.

IMG_3987.JPG

I spent a day bashing around the local countryside, loving the somewhat lumpy countryside as a way of working out my stresses and efforts of the past few days, and just enjoying being on a bike and free again. On 3 occasions i even turned around at the top, in order to head all the way back down a long hill/mountain, just so I could climb it again. I know you all think I'm nuts, but in fairness, that's rarely been in question.

IMG_3988.JPG

Part of the attraction of the area is the basic countryside itself. A couple of lovely lakes/reservoirs, numerous forests, streams, waterfalls, mountains and inclines to enjoy, and a generous spotting of temples, pagodas and small villages to visit. I mostly wandered
at random, although did make an effort to visit a couple of Pagoda's (I just had to visit the Big Buddha at Cu Sy Lam, the Chinese Pagoda, partly because it was half way down the mountain, and partly to compare it with the ream of other Big Buddhas I have seen on this trip in Korea and Japan). I cycled out to the village of Trai Mat, an invigorating ride of about 12km, where i saw the perhaps overly ornate, but wonderful Linh Phouc Pagoda. If you are in Da Lat, try and visit it. I ended by way of a waterfall, surreal hotel and gallery and 3 laps of the lake for good measure, with a chaotic death defying dash through rush hour traffic, which was significantly more fun than it really should have been.

IMG_3996[1.JPG]

IMG_3997[1.JPG]

IMG_4006[1.JPG]

Thus happily tired, finally relaxed and sweaty as hell, i showered ate and i retired hoping to sleep. That failed yet again. More or less since we left Hangzhou, I've been struggling to sleep. 3 hours has been a rare and extremely fruitful night for me, the majority being a couple of 20minute dozings, and much restless pondering/rolling around. When I used to be a proper insomniac, I had no problem. It was useful, and I managed to use the time very productively. Now whilst traveling, it's plain annoying. I want to sleep but can't, and there's very little I can actually do with the time. Sometimes I wander around the town, but most of the hotels etc are locked at night, so going out means disturbing the sleeping staff (twice, if i come in). I'm not a huge TV person, especially when i can't understand all that much and it's just plain bad; don't have many books or other distractions so invariable I end up sitting or lying in a dark room just thinking and listening to music.

In Ho Chi Minh the next afternoon, it was again sweltering. I've read somewhere (although no idea if it's true or not) that the lowest temperature ever recorded in Ho Chi Minh City in any month (or Saigon as it used to be called - Saigon is now only the central district) was 14degrees Celsius. It wouldn't really surprise me, but it still takes a little comprehension at a time when the UK is partly covered with snow, and home in Sweden is an unseasonably warm minus19 at night.

That afternoon, I did not allot. I barely managed to leave the main tourist area, instead preferring to just veg out with fresh fruit juices/smoothies (I'm really going to miss Vietnam for the fruit shakes/smoothies which are delicious and everywhere) and the occasional cold beer with Paul. The following morning though, in a rare case of me actually achieving anything, I sprang into action. OK, so action may be pushing it a bit much, but by my standards it was impressive. By 10am, I'd trawled the area for accom. (Paul was heading on tour, and I wasn't going to pay 10usd a night solo), found a dorm and moved in, got my washing sorted, made assorted phone calls around the globe, arranged to meet a local based CS that lunchtime, booked a tour for the following day and after confirming that I had delayed my flight for a couple of weeks and with no new developments, booked train tickets back to Ha Noi (whilst discovering that Vietnamese railways isn't entirely integrated, so that the south had no idea that there even were lines North of Ha Noi, let alone any time or price information). And even gone on a bit of a wander. That may not sound allot, but it's more than I normally accomplish in a month working at T-Kartor, as the staff/management can probably attest to. And this time, I'm not even being paid.

I hadn't met up with a locally based CSer since leaving Jeff's in Dongguan in late December, and was keen to get back into the swing of things. I had been gazumped by another CSer (who after that, never showed), but Kelly - an American Pilates teacher and musician -had happily agreed to meet up and spend some time showing me around. We met at the cafe of one of her friends (if you are ever in HCMC and need travel advice/tours etc, instead of any of the main chains who fall over each other to try and grab your custom, I can highly recommend visiting Quan Ngyuen, friendly owner of the #5 cafe on Bui Vien St. And no, I'm not getting a commission on any referrals).

We headed by motorbike over to the Reunification Palace, seen of the South Vietnamese surrender, and famous footage of tanks crashing through the gates and North Vietnamese rushing out onto the balcony waving their flag as the South disintegrated. I'm really starting to enjoy this motorbike/scooter culture. Hanging on the back of one whilst zooming around a city with 3million other scooters all intent on getting there before you is a strangely enjoyable and liberating experience, and an astonishing show of skill (READ: includes a sh1t load of luck) due to a surprisingly small number of accidents. Yes they happen, and lots of them, but in relation to the number of bikes and way they travel around, very few, and even fewer serious ones.

IMG_4033.JPG

The Reunification Palace was a strange building. It had once been a lovely building, but at some point in the 60s after an attack, had been rebuilt using excessive amounts of (oddly communist style, when at that point they weren't at all) concrete to create a strange looking semi-dated, semi-space age building. Most of the Palace was either empty or left exactly how it was at the time of surrender, meaning lots of 60's and 70's interior decoration and furniture. And yet the building is still used quite regularly to receive guests and hold conferences, and how (or where) that is done around all of the old stuff remained a mystery. After a trek to the roof past a helicopter, the route led us down into the basement, which had significantly more of interest. The former South Vietnamese HQ, it told a story, and also enabled us to see stuff like all the old Comms gear, maps and stuff as it had been. Not a large place for many people to be, and the presidents bedroom was a hole off the corridor which would have allowed him only limited privacy. There was also a great propaganda film shown, which obviously was twisted to tell a tale from a specific angle, but interesting to see. I'm a big fan of communist/political propaganda materials, and was quite happy.

Leaving, we met up with Kelly's husband, Will, a quarter Chinese, quarter Vietnamese American musician (formerly with SecretAgent8 for any Ska people out there), and for a change of pace, went to the zoo. HCMC zoo is strange, in that certain species are overly represented whilst others don't exist at all, and despite being sectioned, some animals were either very confused as to their place in the hierarchy of Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians Birds etc or had been wrongly placed. Sadly, many of the animals were in depressingly cramped quarters, whilst even at feeding time and with large chunks of meat thrown at them, none of the large cats - most of whom not actually so large - seemed to be even vaguely interested in their proffered free meal. Some of the monkeys had worked out how to escape their cage as well, and amused themselves by running riot and (literally) scaring the cr*p out of little kids.

We went for a great Indian, and then headed back to their spacious flat (via a quick side trip to see a fantastic church, which had a large Chinese Pagoda with a Christian cross on the roof next to the main chapel) to meet with some friends for a night of musical extravaganza. Yet more fantastic surfers.

If you take a tour in South Vietnam, being on a bus with working Air-con is a definite bonus, if not an outright necessity. So it was that I took a day trip to see Tay Ninh and Cu Chi. Tay Ninh is wonderful. It's home to Caodism, a religion that I had previously never heard of, but which I will certainly investigate in further detail now. A brief overview can be seen at http://www.religioustolerance.org/caodaism.htm. Basically, it was formed in the 1920s as an attempt to create a kind of perfect religion, and takes bits from Catholicsm, Busshism, Taoism and Confucianism amongst others with a mix of traditional Vietnamese heritage and beliefs. The result is a strange mix of things, a religion for whom 2 of the 3 saints are Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sen, and one in which its Pope and all 7 cardinals are now dead, but oddly haven't been replaced, kind of leaving an odd vacuum at the top.

IMG_4050.JPG

IMG_4045.JPG

IMG_4060.JPG
Caodism. The Holy See, The All Seeing Eye, Centrepiece of the religion, and midday worshippers

The main church/temple/synagogue/Holy See/whatever is wonderfully colourful and artistic, and on a slight slope (people go higher, the further up the religious ladder they climb). A lovely building, and one which kind of feels familiar and almost comforting, whilst also giving you a strange idea of the bizarre. The service which we got to see included a large number of white robbed people, plus handfuls of worshippers in White, Red and Blue (although a few had turned into orange or other shades), and was characterised by bowing to the all seeing eye, occasional chanting and traditional music being played. There was no sign of any holy book or scriptures. There wasn't even anybody leading the service. Most of the people were elderly. The most amazing features for me, were (a) just how low down the ladder everybody was, with the top few levels being deserted, and the vast majority being at the lowest level and (b) that despite worshippers taking part in the ceremony 4times a day, every day of their lives, it was necessary for 2 or 3 enforcers to patrol the lines of people, and physically move them a few inches (or in cases metres either way) so that they were perfectly aligned, had no knees showing etc. It was most odd to see the force with which these enforcers (i have no other name to give them) moved decrepit looking old ladies who were maybe an inch out of the line the enforcers thought they should be in. But despite all that, it was great to see a minority religion thriving, despite great problems and which barely 20 years ago had been banned and their land/Holy See confiscated by the communist government. If you ever get the chance to visit the home of Caodism, you should take it, for the spectacle alone.

Somewhere between the service and lunch, 5minutes away, we managed to lose a Korean. He's probably now on his way to be the next high priest.

The afternoon was spent in the Cu Chi tunnels. In fairness, it wasn't the most exciting of excursions, and the tunnels - despite a couple of crawling sections - were even reproductions for tourists instead of originals which people aren't allowed into. The grounds had a fair splattering of exhibits, and our enthusiastic guides did their best, but it seemed very much a put up show, as opposed to having any real life and history behind lit, like the ones we had seen in the DMZ. Probably the point of most interest to the majority were the shooting ranges, where for 1USD a bullet, you couple fire any number of assault weapons, including the venerable AK-47.

A sweltering journey back was followed by a decent evening with a group of about 12 including Paul, Anna and Tania and the first Geordie's I've met in ages, and another Welsh feck up in the rugby. And with that, there was just time for me to spend a pleasant if hot morning walking randomly around the city, taking in chunks of the old architecture, Notre Dam cathedral and hoards of zooming motorcycles amongst others.

IMG_4072.JPG

Viet Nam has been a strange one to me. The food, after an average start proved wonderful in places (Da Lat had some of the best vegetarian food I've had outside of Hue in my life. I didn't even eat meat once, which tells a story), and several places were nice enough that i'd be very happy to return at the very least. Some bits I was annoyed that i hadn't been able to get to (Halong Bay, Mue Ni, Dien Bien Phu and the Mekong), whilst Da Lat and HCMC definitely needed a chunk more time than I could give them, and leaves me kind of wanting to return to do it justice as soon as possible.

IMG_4101.JPG

Yet despite all that (and even ignoring personal problems), Viet Nam is one of the few countries and territories that I have ever been to (and I guess there's roughly 80 or so of them) that I wouldn't be overly disappointed never to return to. Chunks of it were too touristy and fake to me, and I fast tired of the sheer amount of efforts and concentration needed to avoid being constantly conned/ripped off or pick pocketed. In the end I was delighted to finally leave and without having lost anything and not been ripped off too badly, too often. And to me, you should never be leaving anywhere with such a feeling and perspective. It's just not good, but unfortunately that's how i felt. How/if this feeling changes in the future, and whether I return or not, only time will tell.

But for now, I have a train to catch. I'm going to Lao, which I have also been looking forward to greatly, and have had numerous great reports/stories about. But in my own typical and entirely illogical style, it's not quite that simple. I have to go via Beijing, which for a surface traveller means about a 10 day detour.

See you there

IMG_4100.JPG

Posted by Gelli 00:33 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

The bit where it went wrong

I've decided to just gloss over the next few days. Please don't ask for details, as you wont get them. I also don't need an outpouring of standard comments (please don't be offended) to be added. The only reason I decided to add any of this is so there isn't a hole in my future story, and to show that despite all the great things about travelling, real life has to go on, and consequences met.

This won't be a pretty entry, so you may as well gloss over it, collect 200 as you pass go, and read the next one.

Although Nha Trang probably isn't all that bad, it was undoubtedly the worse few days of my life in many years, which obviously would lead me to be not desperately objective.

In fairness, the beach isn't at all bad. We caught back up with Paul (and Chevy). The weather was excellent, with the first serious heat and sustained heat we had experienced since leaving Shangers. Had some fantastic seafood. The Island boat tour is very good (and would be even better if you could swim, and thus take full advantage), and the place is probably one of many people's favourites. Nha Trang is basically very touristy, and to me it's a really depressing version type of Club Med place. Large numbers of mostly drunk and loud stupid young white people, all of whom generally end up in the same couple of places which are basically beachside meat markets. I know many people love those type of resorts and holidays, but it's just not me under any circumstances.

IMG_3922.JPG

IMG_3935.JPG
The floating bar, and local kids in a small ring boat, on the boat trip around the Islands

It's also somewhere which attracts local opportunists. As well as meeting a number of people near the beach at night who were very definitely out to steal/conn everything from stupid drunk white people, Tania just about survived an bag snatching, ending up on her backside being dragged down the road by a motorcycle who's passenger had made an attempted grab her bag as they whizzed past.

I know i'm probably being significantly over harsh, and many people like those places, but I have a mitigating circumstance.

IMG_3982.JPG

IMG_3983.JPG

In the course of 3 emails (the contents etc of which are known to only a few of those also involved, and it will be kept that way - Please don't anybody go asking for any details. You won't get them), my life in Europe utterly utterly collapsed. Words can't really explain how I was, although I was deep into the zombified "Holy sh1t this is by far the scariest thing that has ever happened" stage, if not deeper.

As a way of quantifying just how scared and screwed up I was (and I am aware that casual readers will have no idea of the significance of this) I booked the first flight I could get back to Europe. It was for 3 days time, and I was gutted that i couldn't get anything sooner. Oddly I didn't even have the kind of demented energy I often have in such situations (where i'm told it's not possible, especially with Travel) and didn't even bother to argue with the agent or look for myself as I normally would.

Whilst I waited for news of anything, I made the mistake of trying to be as sociable as possible, which was obviously wrong.

Sometimes I really am stupid and need to be whacked a few times for some sense to penetrate, although in mitigation, I wasn't exactly thinking straight anyway. There was no way in hell I was going to manage it, and it just ended up with my moroseness and zombie type condition affecting everybody else's holiday. I am a private person and keep all things to myself as far as possible, often going to extremes. I always have. I suppose it's my defence mechanism. I don't care if people pay any attention, or care in the slightest what's wrong, providing they accept that I am having a problem and leave me to it, more or less. But it mean't that nobody knew what the hell was going on, except there was this morose and grim t0sser seemingly hell bend on driving evrybody else down to his level of depression for no apparent reason. Not surprsingly, it wasn't a good situation, and things weren't pretty. And on top of everything else, I managed to kill all the good times from the past few weeks and almost certainly any chance of longer term friendships with agroup of people who's company I ghad really enjoyed. They got increasingly annoyed with me, and I was getting frustrated with them getting annoyed at me. I finally realised that and before things could escalate on that front as well, I gave up and did what I normally do when I need to think or am having a bad time. And what i should have done to begin with.

I b*ggered off and I walked. Like a zombie with my headphones in. I've no idea where or how far I walked in the next couple of days, whether I ate or not, or what I did. Frankly i'm amazed that nobody pickpocketed me or even stole all my clothes, as there is no way i would have noticed. The fact that I didn't get hit by a car or motorbike is solely down to the skill and practice of Vietnamese at avoiding people. The only thing I did apart from walk was make phone calls, and I spent a chunk more on calls that I probably will on everything else inclusive in my entire time in Vietnam, and then some.

Late on the third day, against all odds, I amazingly got the news that the really really scary one was over with a supremely unlikely happy ending. I turned from a morose zombie to a gibbering wreck on the spot. I had so burried myself expecting the worse and preparing myself that I lost it when It turned out to be good. Euphoric wasn't the word. Things were not solved, but the worse case scenario was out, and that was all that mattered.

By then, I had no idea what to do, how to react (everything else was still going on, and news there wasn't as good) and had managed to completely alienate everybody I was with. Yay. Go me. I figure that in those really dark situations you find out allot about yourself and those around you, and i'm not entirely sure i liked any of the realisations that I came to. And that one will run and run in my head for a long time.

After more phone calls and some confirmations, I decided to delay the flight by 3 days, awaiting developments and further news. And returned to being a gibbering walking wreck.

It was time to go alone and just be.

Even before i had got to NT, and everything had happened, I had realised that I was breaking my own rules and it was bound to implode. Helene and i had been traveling together too long without any time apart at all, and especially after Paul had flown out, I had realised that I needed a couple of days away before any tensions got to the point of us killing each other. This is no reflection on any of us, rather just a way of life. Spending 24/7 with people is unnatural and gets to everybody at some point. For myself (a solo traveller by nature), 6 weeks in constant company of the same people was too much and I just needed a couple of days doing something different.

It was a natural parting of ways. Richard was hanging around for his PADI, Paul had been in NT too long and left for Mui Ne alone, Chevy was enjoying NT too much to leave and the girls were sticking to their original plan of heading to Mui Ne and a beach hut. The previous few days had obviously taken their toll on everybody (for which I can only continually apologise), and the dynamic was kaput. I was obviously affecting everybody else, and ignoring all other factors, I needed to be alone and this was utterly reciprocated as everybody else needed to be away from me!

Much though I had wanted to go to Mue Ni and rent a bungalow on the beach for a day or two (i've never been anywhere where thats been possible before, excepting Sidmouth which is a bit different), I was running out of time in Vietnam anyway - my extended visa and other commitments (assuming I got that far) meaning that I had to leave Vietnam, by the 19th.

And with me really wanting to visit Da Lat, the decision was made. It was a no brainer and the first easy thing i'd had to do all week.

And no. You can't have any details, I'm sorry. This is between those it's already between and nobody else.

IMG_3902.JPG
School kids in Nha Trang, delighted to see assorted strange white people!

Posted by Gelli 00:00 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Up, up and Hue? And onwards to the shopping paradise

If you ignore the sheer volume of overly persistant Cyclo (and to a point, motorcyle) riders desperately trying to get your business - to the point that some will happily follow you for a couple of hours trying to sell their transport to you every 20 seconds or so - Hue (pronounced kind of like Hway, as in 'Hway the Lads') is a nice little place.

The former Imperial capital, it has a kind of neglected and slowly decaying feel which is actually very pleasant. The Forbidden Purple City is central to that. Vast, yet half in ruins and most of it open and seemingly unexplored, making wandering lovely and never knowing what you would come across next. Including 2 elephants, something i've never seen previously except in Zoos or on TV. The sun was out, the weather warm, and life was just good. I was starting to feel at home in Vietnam. Hue Imperial city has fairly recently been added to the UNESCO heritage list, and as such there is a sign that some restoration is occuring. But whilst this is obviously a good thing, I can't help feeling that being actually restored to its former glory would actually mean the Palace losing some of it's draw.

IMG_3745.JPG

IMG_3754.JPG

If for no other reason, come to Hue because of Tinh Tam. I admit that the idea of me championing the cause of a vegetarian restaurant may take a bit of getting used to (can somebody slap Jim - and probably many others - around the face with a wet cod to release him from the shock?). but gawd damned it, that is one amazing restaurant. The place may not look much, but the food is equisit, and it's the sort of place I may very well waste my entire holiday allowance - and then some - and make the entire 40ish day round trip from Sweden to, just for a couple of meals.

We spent an extra night in Hue to take in the more or less obligatory DMZ tour. The girls had continued through to Hoi An instead of stopping over in Hue, meaning there was just two of us to arouse bleary eyed at 5.30am to crawl on the bus.

The tour itself wasn't desperately noteworthy, but had to be done, and wasn't bad at all. We stopped at the Ben Hoi river, the former boundary between North and South and saw the monument (scarily, despite the war being over for 30years, it took them until 18months ago to finally put a monument up), and also the change from forests to clear fields - with many bomb craters - which occurs for 10km either side of the river. Then onwards to a small village on the Northern side to a small museum, and a trip into the tunnels. Every village in the area essentially moved underground, and so a huge warren of tunnels exists. The Americans never discovered this (they were mostly bombing this area by air, as oppoosed to being on foot) and there surprsingly few casualties in them.

IMG_3763.JPG

The tunnels are kind of scary, just for their scope. In our one, 17people had been born (16, including one of our guides, are still alive), although the "maternity" room was barely 2 x 1metre in size. And that was one of the big rooms. Family rooms, were maybe half that, and yet whole families lived in these tiny cubby holes in the sides of the tunnels for many years. Wow. The "meeting room" - a kind of wider and taller passageway - had been designed for 70people, but even our group of 20 or so struggled to fit in.

IMG_3775.JPG

IMG_3778.JPG

We then headed out towards the Lao border, down a long valley which had been one of the most strategically important during the war, past the sites of numerous old bases, a stop off in a small minority village, and finally to the former Tacon American base. None of us were impressed at all to discover the inevitable hawkers selling dogtags etc, which they had found with metal detectors and dug up off dead bodies to sell, although i'm sure there is a market for them. Tacon was the site of the 1968 battle which completely rocked the Americans and South Vietnamese and was the diversion used before the stunning Tet offensive (arguably the turning point in the war and its most important battle) took place 2 weeks later on. The feeling and energy of the place was just strange. It felt and looked so quiet and peaceful, and yet there was something there, and obviously everybody knew it's history - and not exactly ancient history at that - which also played a part. Wierd is the only way I can really describe it. Headed back to Hue, notable only for a couple of breakdowns (astonishingly my first, i think, on this trip) and a prolonged stop due to a water leak which was fixed using the hithertunto unknown proceedure to me, of using a blow torch to fix the rubber piping. Strangely, it even worked.

IMG_3781.JPG

That evening, amazingly, Sweden won the Hockey beating undeafed arch rivals Finland in the final, although they celebrated Silver happily anyway. Annoyingly, despite a crowd of Hockey fans (something you don't really expect to find in Vietnam), the TV cunningly decided - it must have been a standard programing thing, and it wasn't just our TV which went - to switch from the final towards the end of the second period to Leece v Juventus.

We were not amused.

Reduced to following the remainder of the game on a text webcast in Finnish was not something which any of us especially wanted, although (especially withoutr a single Finnish speaker present) it did have some kind of bizare enjoyment value. Joy for the Swedes victory was slightly tempered by the Manure somewhat destroying Wigan in the Carling Cup, and then the Welsh being demolished by the Irish in the 6 nations, in the only game i've so far managed to see, and in all likelyhood will all season. Grrrr. But even thats of no relevance after hearing of Scotlands Calcutta Cup triumph!

That night Helene came down with a really bad tooth problem. I had had a few twinges in my wisdom teeth before Christmas and am still praying that I will survive this trip without tooth incident, but she had a recurrence of a known issue with her's, and it wasn't pretty. Travelling is such a whizz of events, excitment, meetings, images and sensory input and delight that you sometimes forget that normal everyday things occur as well, and bring things back down from some where near La-La land (Dipsy Land??) to the ground.

It's odd, and perhaps it's because i'm getting old(er), but incidents like this and the Shanghai birthday always seem to end up with me feeling like some old grandad looking after people. The fact that it always happens and I keep trying to help suggests that I probably enjoy it, at least subconsciously. That is in no way a criticsm of anything/body, just a very strange personal feeling I get, and one i'm still trying to work out (a) why; and (b) if its a good thing. Answers and words of wisdom on a postcard, please, or as I have no postal address right now, perhaps on an email.

Thus it was that a constant supply of cold drinks (in lieu of ice packs) had to be found, and when the pharmacist openend the following morning, I had the delights of wandering around town trying to explain what the heck was wrong and what was needed using both my words of Vietnamese, neither of which were "tooth" or "pain". Astonishingly, it even worked (second try) and I hit the jackpot, finding useful antibiotics, complete with English description. But from there it was a case of rest, wait and hope. And then get on the bus.

And with that, we headed to Hoi An. Another random place, like Kyoto, which i've stopped in not solely because it is an anagram of it's capital cities name.

Hoi An is basically a clothes shoppers paradise. A small town near the coast, south of the city of Da Nang, Hoi An has something like 300 tailors (and shoe) shops, all doing dirt cheap and high quality tailor made clothing. For a female or somebody with a credit card, it's a dangerous place, but when an entire wardrobe can be had for a few hundred dollars (cost for the same in Europe, maybe 10000), you can see why. Everything is custom amde to fit, with your exact specifications. If you want extra pink spots on it, you can. And if you don't know what you want, they have hoardes of catalogues and magazines to browse through until you find something you do. Or just take something you already have and it will be copied. The post office in Hoi An quite possibly has the greatest average cost per item posted of any in the world, as everybody spends loads and then posts it home.

IMG_3881.JPG

All of the girls, plus Yvonne and Richard, two friends the Danish girls had met in Halong Bay spent a chunk on clothes, and more or less had to be prised away from the town. Along with virtually everybody else we met, including the now familiar group of people on the same Bus ticket as we were who were doing the same trip at about the same time. I'll probably regret it later on, but I didn't actually buy anything. I don't need much stuff, and have all that I need. And things like suits and shirts are for people who have serious real jobs that require dressing up, not traveling cartographers...

IMG_3899.JPG

We even finally braved a bottle of snake wine, allegedly a huge aphrodisiac with great healing powers. It had an interesting taste to it, and was approximately drinkable, although I probably won't be experimenting much more in the near future. How the dickens they manage to get the cobras inside the bottles and positioned as they are, gawd only knows. Now that is one i would like to find out.

IMG_3789.JPG

I don't want to turn this into a boring "we did that, we saw this entry" like almost all of mine have been, so at this moment I head of in a completely irrelevant direction and will break the news to an almost certainly sniggering audience that Kiki has managed to track down another of my email addresses (luckily, still not a desperately important one). Thats not the news however, the details emparted to me was that their marriage is seriously on the rocks. For those of you that don't know the story, shame on you. I don't write this b*llsh1t for my own enjoyment you know*. Apparently, Christian has had a change of heart and a couple of sudden realisations have hit him...

Undoubtedly, there will be more on this as the story unfolds

  • ok, ok. Actually, I know it's really just for me. Yes, I admit it.

The town itself is lovely anyway. Another UNESCO site, it's a wonderful mixture of old French colonial architecture and local twists, with a great laid back feel, a river front, beach just a few km away, and a relative lack of all the types of hawkers that have blighted Vietnam so far. And the local food was excellent. Fresh Fruit shakes and juices are a feature (and a great one) in Vietnam and Hoi An was no exception. Cau Lau, a local kind of semi soupy noodle dish, and a dirt cheap one, is also glorious, and fried wanton is tasty beyond description. White Rose, a prawn concotion isn't too bad either, and the local beer was about 3000 (1.5yuan or SEK, urm, about 6pence at a guess) a go.

IMG_3795.JPG

When I said that I might use all my holidays in the future just to visit Tinh Tam, I might have lied. I would have to also spend a few days stocking up on Cau Lau and Fried Wanton in Hoi An.

And whilst we are on the subject of food, I would like to highly recomend taking Cooking Classes in Hoi An. We did, and they were great. We paid (i think) 6usd a head and got to choose 5 dishes - we could pick what we wanted, regardless of price - and then spent a great 3 hours learning how to make them. We chose Stuffed Squid, Country pancakes, Fish in banana leaf, Sweet and Sour Crab and Fresh Spring Rolls. And of course, we got to eat our creations as we went along, and not a single one of us actually got poisoned.

The electricity failed a couple of times, but as we were cooking on gas (and BBQ) that was of no problem and we cooked by candle light. The crab - we named him Boris - was stabbed at the begining and then continued to struggle and wave its legs in the air (with a huge carving knife sticking out of its belly) for the next hour or so, before valiantly giving up the fight after a few more twists of the knife.

He was very tasty.

IMG_3797.JPG

The interesting thing about the class was how ludicrously simple all of these wonderful delicacies actually were to make. In no way am i trying to say that chefs etc are not talented (completely the opposite). I'm just saying that even if you had given me just the required ingredients for one of those dishes, it would have probably taken me 100 attempts before I even got close to producing anything that looked or tasted anywhere near so good. It's amazing how simple some very complex looking things can be when you just know how. This isn't a promise by any means, but if any of you happen to drop by and I have time to source stuff, I'll happily try and recreate the wonders of Hoi An food for you. Assuming you sign a disclaimer absolving me of any responsibility in case of death or seious poisoning, of course.

IMG_3802.JPG

And to end our time in Hoi An (and to prevent further damage to credit cards in clothing stores) we took a trip to My Son. If the americans et al hadn't bomed the sh1t out of it in the war, the site would almost certainly be even better known. Sadly, large chunks of the complex were destroyed, but even so - whilst admittedly on a much smaller scale - My Son is still worthy as being Vietnams equivalent to Angkor Wat. An assortment of temples, ruins, statues and artefacts (plus bomb craters) dotted around a lovely green site up in the hills, and also site of some traditional dancing, music and singing, which was, how shall we say, curious - but not uninteresting - to say the least. Although the fact that the show ended when the CD player broke down was kind of ironic to a traditional music show...

IMG_3834.JPG

IMG_3836.JPG

IMG_3864.JPG

Posted by Gelli 20:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Introducing Uncle Ho, snake wine and chili vodka

Including meet the revolutionaries, the world of Vietnamese conn people and an unexpected burst of violence.

Sleeper buses in China are interesting. They vary slightly, but essentially they are 3 rows of bunk beds (with a very cozy 5 in a bed section at the back) all facing the direction of travel. But passing through huge gorges, and then over mountain passes at breakneck speed when you are facing the way you are going (as opposed to on a train, where you are generally at a 90degree angle), on a top bunk and without much to hang on to can be an interesting experience. At one point I was literally hanging on for life to prevent being catapulted onto the floor or the next bunk, as we hurtled around sharp bends on a mountain pass. On two separate occasions, we passed lorries which had ended up on their sides, and at one point as I leant out of the window to spit (horrible habit, but it is China where everybody does, and on a bus, you don’t have many options to remove mozzies from your mouth), made the mistake of looking down to discover that the back wheel that I was above, was actually half over the edge and I was staring straight down into nothingness.

We rolled into Hekou, the border, at about, and made the proper acquaintance of Anne and Tania, two Danish (sorry, with the cartoon issue still causing trouble, Germans) who had been the only other foreigners on the bus. I went in search of a restaurant and we headed to breakfast for much needed coffee, notable for our ability to select from their extensive list of coffee’s one which would have made Irish coffee seem alcohol-free, and also for somehow ending up with enough food to feed most of Guanxi, and possibly Yunnan as well.

IMG_3640.JPG
Hekou modern art

The border crossing to Lao Cai, across a bridge over the river was strangely easy. There was a moment of much exclamation and Chinese being thrown at the Danes which was a bit worrying until we finally realised that it was the fact that they had Vietnamese visa’s but didn’t actually need them (apparently, since 1 Jan, Finns and Danes can enter without. Don’t know why). And 20mins later, we were in Vietnam and being comprehensively ambushed by huge numbers of taxi, bus and motorcycle riders wanting to give us lifts, and assorted folks trying to sell stuff. We brushed them off, walked across the river (bridge, not Jesus), got some cash and bargained our way onto a bus to Sa Pa.

If I ever come back, it will be on my bicycle. The ride from Lao Cai to Sa Pa was fantastic. 35km long, of which the last 31 or so were up the side of a mountain, along a lovely twisty road which regularly advertised 1 in 10 gradients, and with great views down the valley. In good weather – and this was – it would be a brilliant climb. It was the perfect introduction to Vietnam.

The first impressions of Sa Pa were excellent. The sun was out, it was hot enough for my toes and legs to make their first lasting appearance since Japan, and the town is wonderfully situated in the mountains, with peaks and terraced hillsides all around, locals wearing traditional costumes, and lots of old French colonial architecture.

IMG_3658.JPG

One of our chief Chinese irritants had proved not to have disappeared in Vietnam. On several occasions when we had entered a café or restaurant, we had noticed that the music being played was suddenly replaced by western music. This in itself would be tolerable to a point if they didn’t all seem to go directly to the Backstreet Boys. And in our first Vietnamese place, this was no different, except that the CD was just 2 songs long and on repeat.

Shudder.

We also had our first introduction on what would fast become a major irritant, in the astonishing number of people coming up and pestering you to buy things from them (in Sa Pa, this mostly took the form of older ladies selling blankets, and guys trying to sell motorbike tours), which are impossible to ignore, and not always easy to brush off. Some just do not understand the concept of “no”. Dinner included Wild Boar amongst others but was nothing to write home about, disapointingly due to the fact that Vietnamese food had been very highly touted.

IMG_3656.JPG

IMG_3649.JPG

Sa Pa is a great place, and one which I would highly recommend as a base for trekking etc, but you need to get lucky with the weather. We hadn't realised on our first day just how changeable the weather was, but day 2 saw a constant and ever changing bank of clouds running right through the town and obscuring any kind of view. There wasn’t any point walking to any of the local villages, hiring bikes to head out or going up a mountain, so after a day wandering at random and practicing haggling skills in the markets, we left the girls to persevere, and headed to Ha Noi. The trip down the mountain was fun, with visibility in places being about 30cm (no joke), and the driver relying entirely on memory, luck and occasional white pillars by the road sign to prevent us all rolling down the side of the mountain. On one occasion, all 5 Vietnamese in the bus looked at each other shrugging and laughing whilst trying work out where the hell the road was. We got conned with our Night train tickets as well, having been told that no hard sleeper was available, we paid the extra 20,000 for soft sleeper (including a meal amongst other stuff), to discover at the station that our reservation was for hard sleeper after all. B*stards. But not really feasible to return up the mountain to retrieve our 70ish pence each conn…

IMG_3644.JPG
The ever changing cloud line in Sa Pa

We got conned arriving in Ha Noi as well, in what is fast becoming an unwelcome theme. Admittedly 04.20am arrivals aren’t ideal, but all Vietnamese night trains seem to arrive at silly hours of the morning, probably for market/employment reasons. We avoided the hordes of touts, and got a metered taxi to the hotel (where we got to watch Death wish 279? instead of trying to sleep). Which turned out to be a big mistake, as the metre flew round at speeds not seen since the taxi driver left the crashed motorcycles in a hurry in Kunming, and probably cost us close to 4 times the real cost.

B*gger.

Vietnam was stunningly depressing. The realisation that for the first time since, probably, Moscow, I’m properly back on the tourist trail hit me very hard. The sheer number of white people and tourists around, plus native English speakers is scary and depressing. No local language knowledge seems necessary, and you don’t have to play charades to undertake a simple transaction. And many of the menu’s are not even in Vietnamese, only English and French. It’s just sad, and a reminder to me how much I like the adventure and feeling of being somewhere a bit different and which you have to work at.

The fact that everybody without exception is always out to conn/scam you is also a bit wearisome. I am naturally very paranoid, and am always taking precautions and looking around normally, but here I’m having to be even more vigilant, and the 100% concentration required everywhere means you don’t ever really relax, which on a holiday or travel in particular, you really want/need to do.

IMG_3713.JPG

I had really been looking forward to Vietnam, as it had appealed to me allot more than the rest of SEA, which appears to be utterly overrun by the tourist trail, and backpackers all “doing” SEA. Thailand in particular I had limited intention of visiting, reasoning that if I really want to see hoards of drunk, sexed up 18year old Brits living it up in their first taste of ‘travel’, I could just as easily go to Sydney. But only a couple of days in, I’m wondering if my ideas of Vietnam have been sorely misplaced. Kevin and Solene, my wonderful stalkers, lasted a month here - indeed only leaving the day we arrived - but hadn’t seemed impressed at all and were delighted to leave. Liz (her of the tea bag delivery in Tokyo) and her friend had left after only 3 days, whilst Dave and Casey (my hosts in Zushi/Kamakura in Japan) had also not been overly impressed and happy to leave, with the exception that they had loved the food.

I already miss China, and I miss it allot.

And with that, the first order of business on the first working day we were in Ha Noi was for all 3 of us to apply for new Chinese visa’s.

Ha Noi did grow on me though. The visa process meant we were there a week, and couldn't even do any of the trips and tours, such as out to Halong Bay as we had hoped) because we didn't have passports. But the old city in Ha Noi - once you have got used to the fact that there are scooters/motorcycles everywhere (on pavements, in shops, on bars, in hotel receptions, in bathrooms etc) – is actually very nice. A lovely array of higgledy piggeldy old French architecture and other ideas, a couple of picturesque lakes, some great street markets and little things which you come across which surprise you.

IMG_3669.JPG

IMG_3734.JPG

Went to a few temples (Ngoc Son is over crowded, but Tran Quoc, a bit out of the centre was stunning), and a couple of museums and galleries (at least one kind of Vietnamese art has me hooked – they take a piece of lacquered black wood, carve in out and then paint the bits that have been carved out to leave a proper painting, which looked amazing). All musuems in Ha Noi have an obvious propaganda twist to their exhibits, and whilst the Revolutionary Museum (worth a tour) is probably fair enough, you don't expect it so much in the Womens Museum. But it was no different. Pictures and exhibits showing the poor female peasants galantly fighting the evil American (and French) oppressors were much in evidence. Took in an evening show of Water Puppets (literally, puppetters in the water behind a screen, with puppets swimming in the pool in front of them, fireworks and all) and ran into - stupid celeb alert - the 2000? Danish winner of the Eurovision song contest...

IMG_3678.JPG
Ngoc Son

IMG_3706.JPG
Tran Quoc temple

IMG_3689.JPG
The water puppet show

We went and paid our respects to Uncle Ho, former leader of the North Vietnamese and communuist founder Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho died in 1969, before his dream of reunification came true, and despite his explict request that he wanted to be cremated in a small family ceremony, is today lying peacefully in a mausoleum in the middle of Ha Noi, receiving guests by their thousand. As with Lenin in Moscow, it felt very strange, although in fairness, the queue for Uncle Ho went down much quicker, with only a short period of waiting. You also got to walk much closer to him than Lenin, although he does look significantly more fake and Madame Tussauds like - if less orange - than his Russian counterpart. Thus it was that i'd now seen 2 of the 3 great dictators in their death, with only Chairman Mao (I will rectify my failure to see him before) to go.

IMG_3728.JPG

The Ho Chi Minh museum is probably my single favourite thing in Ha Noi. It was absolutely wonderful. It wasn't so much that it was a museum about him, it was more the fact that so much of it was entirely random and of no obvious connection to anything. It had a Picasso. It had giant sized tables with giant sized fruit on it. And a room made of cloth. It was just brilliant. Don't you dare miss it.

In Hanoi, everybody is out to conn you. And it justs get wearing. People are always trying to sell stuff to you, give you motorcycle or cyclo rides, overcharge you, add your bill up wrongly or worse. One (lovely) fish restaurant charging 70,000 each (we thought we would splash out) charged 70,000 per top up as well, which didn't go down well. At least 2 of the girsl had attempted bag snatchings or people feeling them up. I had 3 pickpocket attempts. Unfortunately for one Vietnamese guy, 2 happened within about 15minutes of the first one, and with me not in a great mood by them, I didn't bother to try and disentangle his hand from my pocket and just hit him. I really have no idea if he or I was the most surprised (probably me), but he left my bits where they were and we went our seperate ways.

IMG_3705.JPG

We didn't bother with the snake wine at this juncture (large bottles of alcohol with cobras and assorted snakes (and sometimes, scorpions) inside the bottles, but i fell in love with one large bottle. 300usd was over the top for 5 litres, but i will be trying the stuff on my way south, for sure. And I got to see some of the olympics with Chevy (he of the mad beer fish night in Yangshuo). Not a great British showing, perhaps (both curling teams had collapsed after strong starts), but the Swedes were starting to look good, and with the Americans and Canuks both managing to crash out of the hockey early on were starting to dream of hockey gold. It might not sound a big deal, but to the Swedes - and with me being essentially an adopted Swede - it is. We have to be able to beat the Swiss, don't we?

IMG_3722.JPG

Depressingly, somehow the girls had worked out when my birthday was. This is a closely guarded secret, and it is rare that anybody outside of my family knows the exact date or realises in time. It's the way I like it. But in this case, it worked out surprisingly well. Lets just say that if you had told me last year that i would be spending my 27th birthday in Vietnam, having a revolutionary picnic under a statue of Papa Lenin, the chances of my believing you would not have been high. It was also at this point that the now fast becoming infamous Chili Vodka was first perfected. Helene is a vodka person, and with vodka so cheap in this country, we had started carrying a bottle around. We had been experimenting with different mixes, but by accident had stumbled across a drink worthy of the gods. Half vodka, half apple juice (orange is nothing compared to apple) and with an assortment of whole and chopped chillis mixed in. It's divine. And if every third person you happen to meet in Vietnam is extoling it's virtue's, thank (or blame) Helene for bringing it to the masses.

IMG_3698.JPG

IMG_3716.JPG

Topped it off an evening jaunt trip to a famous jazz bar, although it turned out to be elevator jazz as opposed to anything more exotic, although It had started with the most ludicrous breakfast. I had tried to fulfil my bacon craving with a bacon and egg sandwich, only to be brough a roll and plate of scrambled eggs, and when i complained, to recieve the same again.

Gawd damned it, i just wanted some bacon!

And finally with passports back and visa's in hand, which annoyingly had meant we couldn't go on an overnight trip to Halong Bay (a stunning UNESCO site to the East of Haiphong, which Anna and Tania had visited and agreed it was lovely) which required passports, it was time to finally leave Ha Noi. We had been there too long and were itching to see some of the country. Paul gave in, and booked a flight to Nha Trang, further south, in what he hoped was to be the final hunt in our long search for the promised land. So we headed onto the bus for the overnight trip to Hue.

IMG_3663.JPG
One of my favourite shops in a long while. the baby food and spirit store.

IMG_3676.JPG
Erm...

IMG_3690.JPG
They haven't quite got the right idea here...

Posted by Gelli 06:14 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 4 of 4) Page [1]