Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’
I am in an internet cafe in Hue, in the middle of Vietnam. The woman at the station next to me is internet chatting with someone in Vietnamese. I don’t know how they make Vietnamese come out of a keyboard.
We flew in to Hue yesterday afternoon, and the flight was painless. It immediately feels different here: it’s lusher, greener and has even rained a few times. The city has a much more provincial feel to it, with quieter streets and a more traditional way of life. The conical hats are ubiquitous, and cyclos are the way to move everything from granny to large piece of furniture and pigs. It’s monday, and all the school girls are wearing the traditional Vietnamese outfits, the name of which I’ve forgotten. When a gaggle rides by on bicycles, it seems like something from a painting.
Hue is full of history. It was the site of a major battle during the Tet Offensive, of course, and there are still scars. There are many newer buildings from the 1970s that probably replaced those destroyed, there are pill boxes, and there is a park will about 10 rusting American tanks in it. We’re only a short trip from the DMZ and places like Khe Sanh as well. Hue was also the centre of the last dynasty in the country, and there are numerous palaces in the imperial city dating from the 19th century that we visited this morning. There are many temples and pagodas to visit as well.
We’ll stay here tonight and head to Hoi An tomorrow, where we may spend the night, or we might just come back. We fly back to Hanoi at 8:30pm the day after tomorrow.
I’ve booked a trip to Halong Bay for when I get back. I’ll spend three days there, one night being on a boat. I’ll be part of an all-inclusive tour, which is the standard way to do it. It was $60 for everything. I’m a little anxious that the trip will be full of young yahoos, but who knows. I’ve had great luck meeting people so far. Helen – I would have booked a trip through your old friend Huong at Handspan, but his company is really upscale, and seems to charge about double for the same trip. I did go into their shop and it was very swanky.
Poor Jeremy is back at the hotel recovering from some bad pho. We had a choice for breakfast this morning – eggs or pho. I chose eggs, he chose wrong.
We did have a fantastic meal last night of the famous Hue cuisine. We had a cripy omelet with shrimp smothered in peanut sauce and greens, and amazing spring rolls that you wrap yourselves using fried shimp, greens including mint, star fruit and greens figs, all dipped in zesty peanut sauce. We also had another dish of sticky rice flour and shrimp paste all cooked in a banana leaf. There was more, and I also had hot lemon juice while Jeremy had two beers. It came to all of 67,000 dong, or $5 for everything! We had delightful service from the deaf mute owner. When you don’t speak Vietnamese, I don’t think that language really matters.
Damn, I didn’t bring enough film! I’m on my last roll of the good stuff, so I’ll have to switch to something else soon. I’ve shot 8 rolls of 36 exp colour print film, plus a couple of black and white. That doesn’t include all the digital (many short video clips too).
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.
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.