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Archive for October 2004

Hanoi & The Perfume Pagoda

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I’m still enjoying Hanoi very much. I continue to be amazed at the organic mass of honking scooters that flow through the streets, weaving around me as I cross the street. I’m still amazed that there are no disasters, but there is some method to the madness.

I’ve explored many of the sites here, although many more remain. On wednesday I visited the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple that served as a university to train scholar officials. The architecture was very attractive, and there were a series of large stone tablets resting on the back of enormous turtles celebrating the graduation of either individuals or groups of scholars. This temple was first founded in around 1072, I think.

I also visited the Army Museum, which is largely dedicated to 20th century military history in Vietnam. It was quite sobering, particularly the display of American warplane wreakage in a courtyard. There were shattered pieces of B-52s, F-111s, F4s and so on, often with insignias evident. Also on display was the NVA tank that crashed through the gates of the presidential palace Saigon, marking a key point in the end of what is known as the American War. There are several very famous photographs of this event that I have seen.

The food is fantastic, whether it’s pho eating at a streetside stall as you sit on teeny stools at teeny tables, or a fancier meal in a restaurant. I’ve had delicious spring rolls, fish, juices and even creme caramel here. The prices are fanastic. A full meal with drinks and dessert runs about $4 at most.

Yesterday I signed up for a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda, about 70kms south of Hanoi. The trip was $12 all inclusive, and about 16 people came along. The bus trip was quite interesting. I got to see a lot more of Hanoi as we drove out of the city. The architecture is distinctive – tall, skinny ornate buildings are the norm. Scooter chaos was everywhere. The countryside is gorgeous, with lush patties and fields, and locals working them in their conical hats. The villages that we passed frequently had dogs in cages, and there is no doubt that they were destined for the table.

After 2 hours, we arrived in a village where in fours we got in small rowboats and were paddled by a local one hour down a placid river, past karst hills, shrinesm fields and even the odd lily just growing wild. We docked our boats, then hiked about 45 minutes up a steep stone path worn smooth by years of feet. At the top, we dropped down a set of stone steps into a massive cave which, while not deep, had an astounding mouth all surrounded by lush vegetation. The cave was a Buddhist temple, although I saw a number of Taoist deities as well. I hope that my photos do justice.

Descending was less sweaty. It’s not terribly hot here, but it is sticky. After a lunch at the bottom, we had some time to explore another ‘pagoda’, a gorgeous temple complex with a series of courtyards and towers, all hung with colours banners and flags.

We rode the boats back into down, then boarded our bus for the trip back into town as the sun went down.

Jeremy Tan arrived last night from Kuching and is delighted by the chaos, I’ve enjoyed meeting new folks, and have managed to meet up with Rory and Jenny from Ireland everyday, but it will be good to have a dedicated travelling companion, particularly one with Jeremy’s character. We’ll visit more sights in Hanoi today, with the highlights being a meal of cha ca grilled fish and a trip to the water puppet theatre this evening. Tomorrow we’ll probably head down to Hue. The original plan was to take the train, but I heard from Rory that you can actually fly for around $60, and fortunately they’ve retired all of their Tupelov jets, so that’s not such a scary proposition. A 45 minute flight is preferable to an overnight train ride, I think.

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Written by sockeyed

October 29, 2004 at 14:33

Train to Hanoi

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I’ve decided that it’s really easy to be a travel writer because when you travel, it’s inevitable that things happen to you that are worth writing about, like my train ride from Guilin to Hanoi.

I realized that it was going to be interesting when I picked up my ticket at it was entirely in Chinese, Cyrillic and German.

The train was about 1/2 an hour late, nothing too serious. I sat in a smokey Waiting Room No.2. Music was playing, and I recognized the tune, and after about 10 minutes, I realized the same song was still playing. It was somehow skipping, but each skip was around 2 minutes long. If the train was any later, I realize that I might have gone mental.

I was relieved that my ticket actually worked, and I was able to get on the train when it arrived. I found my doily-encrusted first class compartment, and was soon joined by a couple from Ireland, Rory and Jenny, and a computer programmer/skier/climber from Ohio named Brian. Everyone was on long trips around Asia, spanning months, and in fact, Brian was working remotely as he travelled. Not a bad life!

In the hallway, I met a fellow and invited him to join us. Peter is a Swiss railway enthusiast. Enthusiast is putting it mildly. He had a quiet passion for trains. In fact, he was most of the way from Portugal to Ho Chi Minh City, all by train. What was his job? Why, working for the Swiss railways, selling train tickets. I guess that he didn’t believe in getting away from his job. He pointed out that our peculiar train tickets were issued in Swiss Francs. Did it have something to do with Switzerland being a neutral country?

The Irish couple, Brian and I decided to seek something to eat in the “dinning” car, so at around 5pm we wandered over. We sat there for an hour watching the entire crew of the train eat in shifts, then we were allowed to order. When our 2 dishes came, we realized that there wasn’t going to be enough food, so we tried to order more. We were told the kitchen was closed. Not only that, there was no beer to drink, only Pepsi and a bottle of rose wine that served as more of a decoration on the table. Nonetheless, we opened the bottle and found it to be Kool-aid like sweet wine with a rose flavour. Ack. We were to have an hour-long stop in Nanning, so we figured that we could get some more food in the station. Wrong we were.

When we pulled in at around 8pm, they showed us to a fancy new waiting room with huge leather chairs and locked us in. There was a snack bar, so we bought beer and nuts and crackers. The Irish couple decided to use up as much money as they could, so they bought 8 beers and lots of nuts.

We were released from the waiting room after a bit less than an hour, and our polyglot bunch made our way back to the train which was reduced to a mere two cars. Back in our compartment we played cards and I lost in record time, so I decided to go to bed.

At about 2:30am, we were waked up and our passports checked by the Chinese authorities. Before long, we pulled into Dongdang in Vietnam and piled off into the station with all of our bags. We had the place to ourselves, and border staff outnumbered us, I figure. There were several people at one window giving out entry cards, several people changing money and selling snacks, and about 5 checking each passport and taking into a back room for closer scrutiny. The best was the quarantine check, which cost 2000 dong (about 14 cents). The fellow behind the counter stuck the same electronic thermometer in everyone’s ear, pretty well guaranteeing that if one person had some terrible disease, we’d all get it.

After about an hour in the waiting room under Uncle Ho Chi Minh’s portrait, a new two car train pulled up (Vietnam has a different guage) and we got on. I slept until the sun was up, then watched the Vietnamese countryside roll by for the last hour of the journey. It was clear that we were in a different country now. Locals were working the lush fields in conical hats, motorcycles and bicycles rolled by in profusion, and the architecture was no longer tiles and glass like in China, but more ornate, decorative and colourful.

Hanoi is lovely and exciting. The narrow curving streets are jammed with masses of scooters, bicycles and motorbikes, all honking madly. Women with conical hats are selling flowers, fruits and vegetables from their carrying poles, and men drive by wearing those classic green pith helmets. People generally want to sell you something, but are friendly and pleasant. There is no shortage of great things to buy for not many dongs, either, such as paintings, silk, clothes, lacquer ware, and so on. I didn’t find much to buy in China, but here is a different story. Well, off to explore more of the city.

Jeremy Tan arrives tomorrow, then we’ll probably head south, or maybe north into Sapa.

Written by sockeyed

October 27, 2004 at 23:36

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Yangshuo & Guilin

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I’m afraid that this won’t be an epic entry like the others, I only have a bit of time before I have to get on the Mao to Ho (Beijing to Hanoi) Express.

I have a ticket that looks like it was printed in 1962 and is entirely in Chinese, Cyrillic and (East?) German, but as far as I can tell, it will get me down to Hanoi sometime tomorrow morning. The best part is that we have to change trains at 4am (the guage is different down there), and I heard that crossing the border takes a mere 3 hours. Joy!

I am in the world’s largest internet cafe somewhere underground in Guilin. I think that it’s called the Purple Horizon, which is certainly my first choice for a name for an internet cafe. I came in by bus from Yangshou this morning. The two and a half days that I spent in Yangshou were great. Despite the fact that there are more foreigners there than you can shake a joss stick at, it’s a truly beautful place nestled among the karst hills. I actually found more of the old China in the small town and countryside around there than I felt in modern and a bit bland Guilin.

I did all the requisite things in Yangshou. The day I arrived, I went on a 1 1/2 boat cruise in Xingping, then ate at the outdoor market near the bus station. Alas, I didn’t not partake of the readily available dried smoked rat, but I enjoyed some great noodles and veggies with a French couple, Bruno and Nathalie, that I met on the boat cruise. I also watched some frogs get done in. Noisy late-night karaoke blaring up from West Street inhibited my sleep. I should mention that although there are boodles of westerners in Yangshou, the Chinese tourist outnumber them about 10 to 1 and are far, far louder.

Yesterday I rounded out my Yangshou experience with an organized bike ride, bamboo rafting down a smaller river, 2 hours in the massive Water Cave (including a swim, much to the excitement of other Chinese bathers), and an end-of-day jaunt up Moon Hill as the sun glowed orange on the horizon. Just two of us signed up for the trip – me and a woman named Louise from Malaysia who was at the end of what sounded like a brilliant trip through SW China. I had the local speciality beer fish for dinner, and had the standard Yangshou breakfast with my French friends this morning: banana pancakes, yogurt with fruit, toast, coffee and fresh orange juice.

So, next that you hear from me, I should be in Hanoi, where I will meet Jeremy on thursday. I’ll have a few days to myself there first. I plan to sleep and avoid anyplace with karaoke. Thanks for all your messages!

The fashion sense in China is actually not bad at all. The bui sook in their navy suits are close to extinct, at least around here. The young folk dress well, but the english on their shirts still doesn’t make sense. But in Hong Kong, everyone still dresses dreadfully. It’s a fullscale fashion disaster there that leaves me queasy just thinking about it. It seems like a long time ago that I was there!

Written by sockeyed

October 25, 2004 at 18:48

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Preparing for China

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So, I spent the day getting organized and wandering around. I took the bus in to Tsim Tsa Tsui with Kin-yi, she checked in at work, then we went to meet Rehman (who is flying to London today to sell suits). Rehman took me to the Chungking Mansions where I got some USD, then we went to China Travel Service where I got my bus ticket to Guangzhou. Turns out I couldn’t buy my train tickets there, so I went back to Kin-yi’s office and we called Titan in Guangzhou to see if he could help out. He was able to get me a ticket to Guilin, and I decided to go tomorrow night instead of friday, as even the university dorms are going for 400Y right now!

The ticket is all taken care of, and Titan will meet me at the China hotel tomorrow at lunch time. I’ll have about 5 hours in Guangzhou before the train leaves. This means that I will have to get ahold of Zhang Feng’s friend in Guilin, and let him know that I’ll actually be getting in on friday morning, not saturday. I’ll email Feng, and I’ll try and call his friend. I realize that he will be working on friday morning.

Back to my day. I had some Shanghai noodles with Kin-yi for lunch, then took the MTR to the Golden Shopping Centre, the computer mecca. Alas, it no longer sells pirated software and CDs – must be the Chinese influence. They do sell lots of computer stuff, and I picked up a 512mb memory card for my camera for $50. I rode back towards Tsimsy and wandered over to the Star Ferry. Alas, the view wasn’t breathtaking as the haze is thick and palpable. The Star Ferry is still a hoot, and a great deal to boot. The lower deck cost $1.70 each way. I don’t know how they stay in business. I didn’t do much over in Central besides having a look at the HK Shanghai Bank building. Back on this side I got a bit lost, but eventually found my way back to Raja.

Tonight, it’s dinner in Tai Po with Les Kwoks. Huzzah!

And tomorrow it’s off to China and the biu sooks.

Written by sockeyed

October 21, 2004 at 00:41

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Arrival in Hong Kong

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I’ve arrived and am comfortable establish in Kin-yi’s apartment! I’ll keep this a bit brief because I’m pretty tired – after all, it’s almost time to get up in Vancouver. The flight was fine. I was next to slightly over-chatty Calgarian, but otherwise was comfortable. I managed probably about 4 hours of sleep, which help the 13 hours go by a bit quicker. Kin-yi was at the airport, as planned, although it took a while to spot her in the crowd (she doesn’t exactly stand out). We took a double decker bus into Tsuen Wan, and she called everyone to tell them that I arrived. I even got to talk to Baht Baht on the phone. As you can imagine, the conversation didn’t get very far. Ne hau. That’s about it.

Kin-yi seems to speak a very interesting dialect of chinglish these days, kind of using words from each language where she feels like it. Fortunately I can understand. I wonder if it comes from talking to Rehman? Her apartment seems to be about the size of our living room. Good thing she’s not very big! Nice place, though. We just finished up a dinner of take-out congee. Anyhooo, I should get to bed. My goal is to try and make it to 10pm, which I might just do.

Tomorrow, Kin-yi and I are going to run errands in Tsim Tsa Tsui (or however you spell it) – change money, train tickets, etc.

Some complications have come up regarding Guangzhou: theres’ a huge trade fair on, and all the hotels are full up, including Dad’s favourite, the Guangdong Guest House. Ping found me a place, but it’s a 4 star hotel costing $600hk a night, which is a bit dear for me. Kin-yi and I are going to call the youth hostel tomorrow morning to see if they have any room. I’ll keep you posted. Tomorrow I’m heading to Tai Po for dinner Chez Les Kwoks, which will be delicious as always!

Written by sockeyed

October 20, 2004 at 04:37

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