Archive for June, 2007

Hanoi, part one

Monday, June 18th, 2007

I took the overnight sleeper bus to Hanoi. Arguably more comfortable than a regular bus, the seats were foot-wide beds, complete with a seatbelt should one toss in their sleep, leaving me contorted in a horizontal position between the window and my day pack, which was in the end better than being slumped over it a regular bus seat. Thankfully there was a toilet on board, and even more thankfully, some fun fellow travelers who willingly shared the rest of their vodka and travel mishap stories.

After rolling into town early the next morning I wandered the streets of the old quarter, bleary-eyed, looking for a hotel. The first place I looked was an affiliate of the hotel I’d stayed at in Hue, where I had forgotten my passport the day before; they were to send it to this address within the next couple of days, but at this hours I found the doors closed. Wandering some more, I was taken to a hidden hotel by a tout and ended up at a pretty decent place in the middle of the action. The hotel manager told me this place was smaller than other choices in the area, but better because it is family run, etc. The rooms were clean and decent to boot, so I was sold. I was also sold on a package tour of Sapa and Halong Bay, both popular destinations in the area that were on my list, and unfortunately easier and cheaper to access with an organized tour.

After a day on the town, upon my return to the hotel I was informed that I would have to change hotels for a night because some older family member was coming to town. In other words, they’d overbooked the hotel and I seemed like a nice, understanding, gullible guy. Well I may be, but I was pissed. I’d succumbed to a charming sales pitch early that morning and already paid for two tours, and if I was being treated like a member of the family, here I was the dunce cousin. After an hour of giving the guy a really hard time I managed to get a discounted room at a hotel next door, where serendipitously both the kids from the bus and the hot Norwegian girls from Cambodia were staying. The ensuing night would consist of drowning the day’s frustrations away with beer, vodka and Jenga.

Hanoi is Vietnam’s capital city, crowded with grand socialist monuments, European-esque eateries, art galleries, and busy street life. The old quarter of town is a maze of streets that at times make perfect sense and at others confounded even my internal GPS. I would pass one corner, noting its graffiti and kabob vendor for future reference, then continue down what I assumed to be a grid-like layout, only to pass the same vendor and graffiti from another approach. While I’d thought I’d gone one direction, apparently there existed a wormhole that delivered me plum where I’d started. This would happen time and again, and the days before I finally got the hang of things I spent mentally exhausted and unnerved.

Good thing that one of the inescapable corners in the old quarter is an intersection of street-side vendors serving Bia Hoi, or cold, freshly brewed beer. Kegs of it are delivered each morning and are good only for that day, and locals and tourists alike enjoy it at 2000 Dong per glass. That’s 12.5 US cents. Sitting on little plastic stools under bare incandescent bulbs, this is but one of the many street-side refreshment options. At night the neighborhood is alight with the dim bulbs of vendors selling soup, dessert, noodles, coffee and nuoc mia. The crowded sidewalks here are clearly not made for pedestrians. During the day they are further crowded by vendors selling everything from stuffed animals to housewares, art to hardware. In the thirteenth century these streets were settled by artisans of all trades who formed guilds, and eventually each alley specialized in a specific ware. Though the street names reflect what was once sold on them, they are now mostly one and the same, offering both respite from the interminable heat by way of fresh drinks and food, as well as chaotic crowds and the honking of motorbikes that would eventually drive me insane.

It was interesting to see how people live very much in the streets here. Even if people are not eating curb-side, often their living rooms open onto the alley and evening family life is visible to any passerby. Often, houses are designed such that their street-level room doubles as a storefront, again selling everything imaginable. I even saw a dentist operating on a patient, the lights of his ground-floor office illuminating the dark alley he was in. Somehow, an operational dentist’s chair seemed completely congruous with the rest of what was offered here; after all, entire lives are led in the street. At five in the morning old ladies set up their plastic stools and tables, heating up breakfast pho. Other vendors sell coffee, tea and bia hoi to parched passers by at noon, when businesses are closed for the requisite 2 hour break. By 6pm it is dark, and between art studios (painting and selling paintings in any style desired) and pirated DVD shops spring up more noodle stands and kabob shops to feed the masses. Most bars and restaurants are made to close (or at least pretend to close) around 11 by police, and by 12 or 1 in the morning the streets are mercifully quiet, save of course for the occasional remaining street-side crowd.

I would come back to Hanoi to explore some more and actually see some sites. After a couple of days this time around, though, I was off to Sapa to explore the rice paddies and meet ethnic minorities on my organized tourist excursion.

Hue

Monday, June 11th, 2007

I spent a couple of nights in the pleasant town of Hue, traditionally a cultural center of Vietnam. Hue was the national capital from the 19th century, until 1945 when Emperor Bao Dai abdicated to the Communists. In the sixties the city was a major site of the Tet Offensive, a series of bloody battles sprung on the south by northern forces. During this time many of Hue’s historical sites were destroyed or damaged, and until the nineties they were viewed as politically incorrect by the Communist regime. Today they constitute a Unesco World Heritage site.

The city is small and walkable, but I decided to take a bicycle to explore the area surrounding the old Citadel in the north bank. Wandering the alleys I met several nice families, the first warmth I felt in two weeks of traveling within the country. By and large I have found the Vietnamese to be rude, gruff and borderline contemptuous towards westerners; not so here. One man was all too happy to welcome me into his living room to show me carvings he makes; despite my not buying anything from him, his family was all smiles. Further along, a nuoc mia lady laughingly asked if I was interested in her daughters as she pressed sugar cane juice into a plastic bag for me. That is not to say that everyone in town was my new best friend.. it was just a relief to find out that not all of Vietnam has a chip on its shoulder.

I explored the enormous Citadel in town, a massive complex with a 10km perimeter wall. Within are buildings where various imperial functions and court ceremonies took place, as well as the Forbidden Purple City reserved for the emperor’s personal use. Unlike Beijing’s Forbidden City, there is not much to see here, as it was mostly destroyed in 1968. Rather, the vast palatial grounds are now overgrown with vegetable plots; I wasn’t kidding when I said that not an inch of empty space goes to waste in this country.

Hiring a motorbike, I took a ride around town, visiting the Thien Mu Pagoda, described by the guidebook as a “hotbed of antigovernment protest during the early 1960s”. Indeed, in addition to the typical religious sanctuary edifices, on the pagoda’s grounds is the car that monk Thich Quang Duc traveled to Saigon in for his famous self-immolation. He and others burned themselves in protest of the government’s anti-Buddhist policies, prompting Madame Nhu, the president’s sister-in-law, to proclaim the event a barbecue.

Numerous imperial tombs lay scattered around Hue. I visited that of Tu Duc, for use as a retreat during his life as well as after death, surrounded by a ginormous octagonal wall. The grounds are home to a lake, forest, pavilions, hunting grounds and of course the royal sepulchres, though it is unclear whether or not Tu Duc was actually buried inside. Not sure what I would do given with all this space; well, I suppose I’d have kept a concubine in each building complex and tended to the lily ponds till I died, like a good emperor.

Hue was definitely fun for a couple of days, offering relaxing outdoor beer opportunities in addition to the various historical sites. But I was on my way up to bigger things in the North, and eagerly caught a sleeper bus to Hanoi.

Hoi An

Friday, June 8th, 2007

I arrived in the ancient trading town of Hoi An by overnight bus, and after working up a quick sweat finding my bearings, checked into a room in the old quarter in town. Once known as Faifo, this city was for centuries an important port of call for many trading nations. The old quarter retains this sense of history by preserving the old buildings, and one can easily imagine Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Persian, Indonesian traders walking its streets, trading wares.

The heat here was relentless, with sustained 100 degree temperatures and high humidity for most of the time I was there. However, one must carry on, and I managed to explore the city, albeit having to change out of sweaty clothes several times a day.

The photogenic old town, with its yellow walls and historic houses, just oozes charm. I visited the Tan Ky house, currently occupied by the seventh generation of the same family that owned it two hundred years ago. Like many other historical sites in the old quarter, the family’s house is open to the public for several hours a day. In traditional Chinese and Japanese styles, the wooden interior welcomes you with its grandeur, the dim light framing the family portraits therein. With no windows, all natural light comes through the open courtyard in the middle. After a cup of tea I was able to wander around the ground floor, spying an octogenarian who most likely was born and will die here. As the region is prone to flooding, an ingenious pulley system exists to lift furniture up onto the second floor, and when not in use remains hidden, unobtrusive in the ceiling.

Besides traditional homes, other sites include the Museum of Trading Ceramics, which showcases old pottery from centuries of trade, an old Japanese covered bridge, and various Chinese congregation halls, with elaborate statues, altars and gardens.

At night, the streets here are filled with shops selling lanterns, their dim colored glow illuminating the alleys. Hoi An is a shopper’s paradise, filled not only with housewares, but mostly with tailors who will create made-to-order clothes in an afternoon. At first not wanting to purchase anything to make my pack any bigger than it already is, I was eventually wooed by one of the hundreds (no kidding.. hundreds) of tailor shops, and got a suit, a hooded corduroy jacket and two pairs of pants made to my specifications. I’d like zippers here, make them the same color as the piping, and can you hem this in a little? No problem. A hundred bucks and a day later, I found myself throwing out various useless items I’d been carrying around since Thailand to make room. Teehee.

Waking up at four in the morning, I caught a ride with the easy riders for an excursion to nearby My Son, a Hindu temple complex from the Champa kingdom that was destroyed by the Americans during the war (the Viet Cong used the ruins as a base, and the Americans were stationed nearby.) The remaining brick ruins showcase different art styles and architectures, Buddhist, Hindu, and others. Had I not had a guide to point the various details the morning sun’s heat would have had me running back to the breeze of the motorbike much earlier. In fact, the site is quite interesting despite being much smaller than those at Angkor. The most amazing detail is the brickwork from hundreds of years ago — it has withstood the elements and looks newer than the replacement bricks put in twenty years ago during repairs. This was also my first time encountering the incredible mimosa plant, whose leaves fold when touched. Too cool.

The ride back to Hoi An was enjoyable, riding through rice fields and seeing local, uniformed kids riding to school on their bicycles, on cell phones or in packs, gossiping. We stopped by a rice paper factory, cotton mill and pottery factory to see how those products are made. A fun diversion and photo opportunity, but at this point all I could think about was getting something to drink. After an ice cold Nuoc Mia (pressed sugar cane with lemon and ice), my newest addiction, I was dropped off at my hotel in time for a deserved nap.

Hoi An is definitely worth a visit, despite its prominence on the tourist track. It really is a beautiful, charming and walkable town. In making my way up to the north of Vietnam, I have found that I’ve abandoned most hope of getting off the tourist track. The heat and humidity here have worked a spell, depriving me of motivation, and I’ve become all too happy to let someone else organize my transport. It’s all a little too easy here; I’m determined to take my next trip to Vietnam off the beaten path.

With a sigh, I boarded a bus for the short ride north up to Hue.

Nha Trang

Friday, June 1st, 2007

Keeping with the theme, the rains came hard as I got into the beach resort town of Nha Trang; luckily they lasted under an hour. The only thing hot and humid Nha Trang has in common with the cool and breezy mountain town of Dalat, from which I’d just arrived, is the visible tourist infrastructure, catering to both foreign and domestic crowds. The beach-front promenade stretches for a few kilometers, palm-frond parasols sprinkled throughout, and gives way to a large plaza in the middle where locals congregate at sunset.

I heard mixed things about the development boom here; evidently investment in tourism comes to a head with bureaucracy on a regular basis. A large concrete tower construction project was halted halfway through when the government polled its constituents on the matter. Its remains, coupled with other high-rise hotels under construction, give the area the feeling of a half-built club med. On the opposite end of the spectrum, recently a nearly mile-long cable-car system opened to connect the mainland to the nearby Vinpearl resort island that features luxury hotels and amusement park.

I got a closer look at the 49 meter tall cable car towers on a SCUBA trip, as our dive boat maneuvered between them and the enormous cargo ships docked at the port. The dive was better than that in Cambodia, as there was more healthy coral and more fish to see. Elaborately decorated hermit crabs, a large, sleepy moray eel and the sight of an inch-wide jellyfish being eaten by a slightly larger fish were highlights. All in all, a good outing, worth staying the extra day.

On the outskirts of town I visited the Po Nagar Towers of the Cham empire. Built between the 7th and 12th centuries, the site has had religious significance for everyone from the Hindus to the Buddhists since even before the towers were build. The original structures were wooden, but were destroyed by the Javanese in the year 774. They were subsequently rebuilt out of stone and brick. The towers range in size, and were built at different times, but each one is tall (the north tower about 28 meters) and looking even bigger from the inside, the scant available light disappearing quickly up its chimney-like, sooted pyramidal interior. Inside each tower is an altar with statues and the occasional lingam, dedicated to various Hindu gods.

Perhaps the highlight of my stay in Nha Trang was the gallery of local photographer Long Thanh, whose prolific work showcasing his country are stunning. He insists on shooting black and white film to this day and develops each print in the back, using materials he has sent to him from abroad. Though I wanted to, I didn’t purchase a print, partly because I couldn’t decide on one. D’oh. Thankfully, I hear there’s a gallery with his work in San Francisco.

I think it was somewhere in Nha Trang that I realized that I’d grown not only accustomed to cafe sua da, but somewhat addicted to it. I never thought I’d like my coffee sweet, let alone over-sweetened with condensed milk. This has perhaps fueled my recent edginess. I’ve grown a bit impatient, feeling like I’ve not enough time left to travel, leaving me feeling rushed. Or perhaps I’m on edge because of the country; it’s loud and crowded, from the crammed streets to the internet cafes overflowing with kids playing ddr and mmorpg video games, yelling at each other. Though I’ve met very friendly people in Vietnam, I’ve also dealt with people who have clear contempt for foreigners. This is the first place I’ve been looked at as if I’m a vampire from another planet when I’ve tried to use my phrasebook, and it’s happened more than once, leaving me pretty jaded. How hard is it to smile, people? I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but perhaps I should stop saying I’m from the US when asked.