Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Hanoi part deux

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

[June, 2007]

With my Sapa and Halong Bay excursions behind me, I decided to spend the rest of my Vietnam stay in the capital. Allowing myself an upgrade, I moved to a nicer, more professionally run hotel, almost breaking the bank at twenty bucks a night.

I spent most of my time wandering the exploring the streets. With newfound photojournalistic aspirations, I observed and documented every-day life – barbecued dog and cold beer during the two-hour lunch break; respite from the sun in shaded alleys; traffic-lit card games at night; the traffic..

Hanoi was an overwhelming and often difficult place to visit. With so much of life taking place in the streets, one’s senses are pummeled during open hours — roughly from 5am until 11pm, and later if you should find yourself drinking an illicit beer at a bar staying open past the legal closing time. The heat, as I have mentioned too many times already in this blog, was oppressive; yet, being unable to rouse myself at the crack of dawn every day, I would, time and again, go out and see the town when the sun is strongest, exactly when most people are taking it easy.

But the weather wasn’t what was getting on my nerves. I have to admit that it was the people. With so many people being rude all the time, my Vietnamese experience had by this point turned me more misanthropic than usual. Don’t get me wrong; I did meet many warm and engaging people — from enthusiastic Easy Riders to random passengers at the train station wanting to practice their English — but there was a definite antagonism towards tourists throughout my time here, likely amplified by the realization that no, i was not going to buy that crappy trinket. But maybe it’s just me; maybe I’m looking at it exactly the wrong way. Maybe the Vietnamese are, by and large, honest, no-bullshit types. Perhaps they simply don’t fake niceness the way the Thais and Japanese do, and that is a sincerity to admire. Or, maybe it’s just a gray by-product of communism; after all, I’ve had rude gruffness pierce me to my basest core in China and Poland as well. Not to mention New York City, where a fuck you passes as neighborly. Perhaps I’ve simply been softened by San Francisco and gentle, PC California. Either way, I’d reached lows unfelt since I’d left NYC.

One day I went to visit the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex and surrounds. Though the museums were closed that day, it sufficed to wander the grounds and admire the oppressive and impressive buildings. Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed corpse is on display in a massive, cubic edifice in the center of a sprawling square. It is said that the body goes to Russia every year for ‘maintenance’, and though I didn’t get to see it, I imagine it looks just like Mao’s corpse in Beijing, resting in waxy repose for some kind of posterity. There are armed guards in white military uniforms, and even outside the rules for visiting are authoritarian.

To wit, when I was setting up a self-portrait in front of the building I got into some trouble. See, I hadn’t brought a tripod, so was using my backpack to position my camera on the ground. The instant I set my knee down on the pavement to look through the viewfinder one security guard started yelling at me and another hurriedly walked over to explain that I couldn’t kneel in front of the building. With amused disbelief, I decided this would be a fun farewell game to play. When the guard walked away I went over to a group of tourists, who, exhausted, were taking a seated break on the sidelines. They told me they’d just gotten in trouble with the guards when they tried sitting on the grass, and then again when one of them put her head in her boyfriend’s lap. Rolling my eyes, I asked one of them to take a photo of me. Helping him set up the shot, I warned him that I would be doing a handstand in front of the the mausoleum; after all, I had to continue my series of paradas-in-famous-places, and fuck if this wasn’t gonna be good now that it was sacreligious. “Um.. Okay” he said, and readied himself. I had all of a second before the commotion started, and we nailed it. The security guard from before stormed over, not smiling this time, and pointed to the camera, shouting in Vietnamese. “Oh this?” I pointed, “no, it’s okay.” He continued his shit-fit, and I continued in turn. “No, really. Thanks though” I said, smiling, and walked away.

It was exactly the kind of fun I’d desperately needed in the last few days.

As I started to ready myself to leave for the airport the humidity finally cut and it started to rain. A breeze offered me a chance to reflect on my time in this country. I had had a challenging stay for various reasons, but was leaving the better for it. It is certainly a fascinating country, and put in the context of its neighbors I appreciated it that much more. Fiercely proud independence, revolutionary ideals versus newfound entrepreneurship, overwhelming population density, incredible scenery, stunning sunsets, unexpected cultural and religious heritage, amazing food… these are the phrases I will remember in retrospect. I’ve seen Vietnam on the tourist track. Next time I come here I will be sure to do it differently, see more, go deeper.

Halong Bay

Monday, August 6th, 2007

[June, 2007]

The second half of the organized tour I’d purchased in Hanoi was the infamous tour of Halong Bay, about 4 hours from the capital. So it was that I found myself sitting in the lobby of my ‘hotel’ half-asleep, wondering what I’m supposed to do at 5 in the morning. The night train from Sapa had arrived in town about a half hour earlier, and I managed to wake up one of the sleeping hotel workers to somnambulously let me in before passing out again.

As with most hotels I’d seen throughout the country, there is always at least one person sleeping on the floor in the hotel lobby, ostensibly for security. In this, the friendly ‘brother-run’ mini-hotel that had already given me the run-around (see first Hanoi post), the entire gang was splayed out like flotsam in the lobby. Too tired and confused to make a fuss, I set my luggage down and checked my email. Only when a fellow trekker from my Sapa trip arrived twenty minutes later did I realize the ridiculousness of the situation. I was supposed to amuse myself until 7:30, when I’d get to shower and change in a room whose occupants were supposed to check out at 7, before catching an 8am van to Halong Bay. When this sunk in we both got mad and I managed to get a bed and hot shower down the street at a ‘sister hotel’ (of course). Now, don’t get me wrong. These guys work really really hard all day long dealing with customers, making likely thin margins on whatever package tours they manage to sell. I appreciate the effort they put in. However, it’s all about the principle of managing expectations. Don’t sell me on a room if you’re gonna ask me to move later that day because you’ve overbooked and you’ve already sold me a tour. Likewise, when booking the tour, realize that I’m gonna get back into town at the ass-crack of dawn and have a place for me to crash. Don’t fall back asleep.

Needless to say, I wouldn’t be staying at this charming little place when I’d get back from my boat trip.

In any case, the trip to Halong Bay departed on schedule, and after catching up on sleep I watched the changing scenery roll by. The area is known for the hundreds of craggly limestone mountains jutting out of the water, nearly identical to those in Gui Lin, China. Scattered throughout the bay, they create freeform bays in which mostly tourist boats meet for kayak rides, swimming and sunset watching.

Our modern version of a junk set off from the mainland straight to a heavily visited island that features well-lit, colorful caves. Though impressive in size and formation, they host swarms of slow-moving tourists and get old pretty quickly. Our regimented day on the boat was followed by a kayaking session and swim, including twenty foot jumps off our boat, followed by dinner.

Following a stunning sunset, slow-paced night of dominoes and wine, we were taken the next morning to Cat Ba island, where the first item on our agenda was a strenuous hike up into the limestone hills. I’d been warned by people in Sapa that the trek is exhausting and mediocre in terms of views, so I was delighted when my fellow passengers were, like me, in no mood to hike. So we found ourselves killing a couple of hours by the foot of the trail, playing dominoes and watching a very buff, uniformed Vietnamese official show off his biceps by doing pull-ups on a tree branch. Much better than hiking in that ridiculous humidity for a seemingly unremarkable view.

After a day at the beach on a nearby island, we spent the night at a hotel in Cat Ba town. Despite having the charm of the typically gray, generic beach-side strip dotted with weathered 70s-style hotels found anywhere in the world, the town is bustling with seafood restaurants and cheap-jewelry peddlers, and is evidently popular with Vietnamese tourists.

Our group at one point included a man who works at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Saigon, and evidently much better off than the average Vietnamese family. For a while I entertained the idea that this man, along with his wife and family, were the real-life government minders I’d so hoped to get upon setting foot in this country; that his company polo shirt and near-perfect English were a disguise, and his wife, who said not a word, was secretly taking notes while observing the rest of us. Alas, my kitschy reverie, fueled by travelogues from the nineties was but fantasy. Vietnam is, as I am reminded time and again during my visit, a rapidly-emerging economy; another Asian tiger or dragon nipping at Thailand’s and China’s heels; the number two exporter of coffee in the world. Still, our new friend’s stilted questions at dinner that night — “So, how do you like traveling in Vietnam?”, “Do you find Vietnam easy for tourists?”, “How safe do you find Vietnam?” — had me questioning his motives. Perhaps he was in fact an undercover officer of the Tourism Bureau. Or, perhaps, he was merely one of Vietnam’s new middle-class, working long hours at a foreign accounting firm and vacationing like the westerners do with his wife and five year-old son.

The next day it was time to head back to the mainland for a final meal (and birthday cake for Andrea) and ride back to Hanoi. On the way back I pondered everything and nothing. The cheezy tourism of my last two trips. The random, friendly people I’d met over the past week (not to mention few months). Along the highway we passed by single-story foreign-owned factories producing aluminum parts, inkjet cartridges and garments, all for export, and all hopefully sweatshop-free. We passed by rice fields occasionally interrupted by small, disorderly cemeteries, rectangular headstones jutting from between the plantations only to disappear into the distance. Small towns occasionally lined the highway, their narrow plots allowing for slim, multi-story houses resembling the colorful tombstones on their outskirts; some are ornate, with large bay windows, roof-top glass domes, spires… They too disappeared as we drove on, one after another, until they stopped disappearing and simply turned into the sprawling capital.

Sapa

Friday, July 20th, 2007

[June, 2007]

Once settled into the overnight sleeper train, I easily forgot the sweaty hustle of Hanoi and fell asleep to some magazine article and a healthy dose of Sigur Rós on my iPod. I woke up to the sight of early morning Northern Vietnam rolling past my cabin’s window. Bleary-eyed, I scrambled off the train in Lao Cai village, a transit town on the Chinese border. A minivan then took me and a dozen other tourist-types, up the winding roads to Sapa.

An early-twentieth century hill station, Sapa was once a French retreat town (gee, who would have guessed?) offering a cooling reprieve from the hot and humid rest of the country. In the last couple of decades it has re-emerged as a major tourist destination, the perfect spot to meet Montagnards, the minority hill-tribe peoples of this area. I’d been warned not to come here by a jaded French tourist I’d met in Nha Trang; disgustingly touristy, a hassle, not worth it. Thankfully, the next couple of days prove him wrong; well, partly.

The town is indeed littered with tourists, and the locals have more than adapted to their influx. The population of Hmong and Dzao/Dao minorities, long reliant on subsistence farming, have evidently embraced the free market dollars that outsiders bring in by the bus-load.

Having gotten off the train around six, my sleepy morning continued up here in the mountains, where the package tour offered us an hour and a half to get ready for the ensuing day’s hike. A cup of coffee and rudimentary bathroom wash-up later, a group of us started our trek. As we walked down the road and through the town, I quickly came to see what the Frenchman had warned of — in addition to our six hikers and tour guide, we’d gained an entourage of enterprising Black Hmong ladies, each overly friendly and eager to butter us up to sell their wares. Each morning they wake up at half-past four and hike up to the tourist hotels in town wearing traditional garb and plastic sandals, each with a large pack on their back full of handicrafts and garments, some carrying infants to boot. They then accompany hiking-gear-laden tourists down on their half-day trek into the valley and hope to unload some of their goods along the way. Their persistence was impressive, charming and cloying. Nevertheless, as I had come to realize, one cannot allow oneself to get annoyed in this type of situation situation. Between the well-worn tourist track, the package tour, the busy pit stops along the hike and the dozen women trying to make a buck off you, I would normally quickly have been at my wits’ end if it hadn’t been for the scenery.

That spectacular scenery, the valleys dotted with rice paddies and water buffalo, protected from the enshrouding fog by tall, verdant hills; it made it all worth while. You know all those bucolic images you’ve seen of this region, with its otherworldly landscape and people, those familiar-yet-foreign vistas and faces? Well hiking here is like stepping into a postcard. Despite the throngs of tourists in town, a short hike in the valley is all it takes to make the rest of the world melt away. It is quiet here, and the vast expanses of land almost make you feel like you’re the first outsider to visit. Until the guy in the other party half a click behind you falls into the rice paddy, ruining his camera in the mud, anyway.

After a half-day’s walk and several pit stops we settled into a village that has been opened up to the tourist trade. Set amongst fields and near a river, several of the village’s houses take in tourists for overnight house stays. A large, dark barn-like structure, it sleeps ten or so upstairs, with a kitchen and large open living space below. As our tour guide began preparing an impressive multi-course meal, we cracked into well-deserved beers. Somewhere along the way we had lost our morning entourage; one lady who had been trying to get me to buy something eventually gave up with an annoyed huff. Shit. Oh well. Not three minutes into our new digs, and here was a new group of young artisans, selling everything from pillow cases (which I ended up buying) to pants and shirts. Being of a different ethnic group than that of the owners of the house, they were only allowed to peek in from the outside. They would, however, persist until late in the evening, standing at the threshold, trying various sales methods, dispersing only after we promised to buy something in the morning. Unsurprisingly, they came back before any of us were even awake, hocking even as I dragged myself to the outhouse. One lady in particular, Cho, was a total riot; with a giant grin and broken English she bantered with us and we quickly decided she should have her own television show. Guess you had to be there… Anyways. Perhaps I’m not selling the experience very well, focusing on the annoyances that come with the territory. Outweighing them was an excellent evening spent swimming in the river, watching the sun set, its rays peeking beyond the distant fog, an impressive meal followed by beer and local rice wine. We all became quick friends and stayed up late bullshitting, annoying a crabby Frenchman in the house next door who came out to complain, only foddering our amusement. Good times.

The next morning we set off again on another half-day hike and were picked up down the road and taken back to town. My friend Douglas had apparently come here in the off-season and spent the entire time watching the fog from his hotel room. With rains on my last day there, I can see how the weather would quickly foul up any excursion here. The trails washed out, I’d imagine there would be nothing more to do than hit a karaoke bar and drink hooch, slowly going mad Jack Torrance style.

Despite my general dislike of packaged tours, this one turned out to be a lot of fun. After a couple of refreshing, temperate, fun-filled days I sort of dreaded boarding the train back to humid Hanoi; but I was off to see another major North Vietnamese tourist destination, Halong Bay.

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.