Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

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.

Dalat

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

I arrived in Dalat not really knowing what to expect, only that I was leaving the crowded streets of Saigon for what the guide book describes as the jewel of the central highlands. I was not disappointed when the bus let me off in a mountain town that could easily sit somewhere in the Swiss alps. The cooler air was a respite from the stupidly humid heat I’d experienced of late, and combined with hilly streets brought memories of SF, whose cold summers I’ve been pining for.

After showing me a few hotels and guest houses in the rain, a local easy rider convinced me to take a tour of the area with him the following day. The Vietnamese easy riders are a network of motorcycle guides who offer tours of the country, primarily in the central highlands, that can span anywhere from one day to two weeks. Having already purchased tickets on the touristy open-bus circuit, I settled on a one day excursion.

Our first stop was the Hang Nga Gallery and Guesthouse, possibly the coolest looking, though at times creepy, place to crash I’ve seen to date. Designed by Mrs. Dang Viet Nga, who studied architecture in Moscow, it is a counter-cultural maze-like complex of rooms that borrows freely from some amalgam of Disneyland and Alice in Wonderland. The rooms look like dens in a hollowed tree, with irregular wooden furniture and large animal carvings. Five-foot tall eagles, bears and other creatures maintain guard and fake shiny stalactites line the hall to the dining area. I’m not sure I would want to stay here alone at night, but certainly makes for an entertaining visit that wakes up the kid in you. Maybe that is one reason the place hasn’t been torn down by the government as anti-socialist or counter-revolutionary.

Next I visited one of the palaces of Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam. Like the Reunification Palace in Saigon, this palace has been left largely unchanged since it was last used, in this case the mid-forties. This was his summer palace, a peaceful getaway overlooking the valley, and a perfect vacation spot.

Dalat seems to be a vacation destination for many people these days, and the great number of classy mini-hotels and attractions here point to domestic tourism, something I hadn’t seen much of in Cambodia. In fact, Dalat’s attractions are highly polished for visitors. I visited a modern pagoda, finished within the last ten years, whose neatly manicured grounds and beautiful interiors are on par with those I’ve seen in Japan. It overlooks a pristine artificial lake whose dam controls the flow of water to, among other places, a waterfall I would visit next. In addition to the normal half-mile hike down to the cascade, one has the option to take a single-car roller coaster, replete with hand brakes. The tracks guide you quickly through lush gardens down to the picture-perfect water, giving what is usually a nature-oriented excursion an amusement park feel. Likewise, a local makeout spot called the Valley of Love now charges admission to its lake, souvenir shops and costumed cowboys.

Ouf.. I managed to escape the tackiness and find a little local character at a small coffee and tea plantation, local vegetarian restaurants and the windy alleyways in town. But the main attractions are cheesy, seemingly for the honeymoon set.

It’s too bad, really, because between the tourist traps are the beautiful and lush fields, the region being famous for its artichokes, strawberries and wineries. Now that I think about it, it sounds a lot like northern California, which may explain why I enjoyed it so much. I was pretty tempted to take the Easy Riders up on a ride through the Central Highlands to my next destination, but for some reason I was feeling less than adventurous and decided to stick to the tourist bus, where everyone reads the same guidebook between naps.

With a sigh, I’ve promised myself to do it right the next time around.

Saigon

Friday, May 25th, 2007

The bus ride from Phnom Penh to Saigon was the worst I’ve ever taken. Feeling a little out of sorts to begin with, I took my place in the back of the bus, which was overstuffed with scruffy backpackers. Apparently, the Koreans at one point decided to design buses with no storage space, as I was crammed in the back seat, trapped by two dozen backpacks which lined the narrow aisle running down the vehicle. If having barely an inch to move wasn’t bad enough, I was in the middle seat, essentially sitting with my back to the massive diesel engine, which would heat my seat for the next several hours. The air conditioning, barely functional, failed to reach me, and so I sat, doubled over, dozing in and out of sleep, sweating my entire body weight into the nylon seat and fellow passengers. We stopped over for lunch at the border with Vietnam, where we had to walk several hundred meters under an unforgiving sun, from the Cambodian building, a shiny modern Khmer thing, to the impressively communist looking Vietnamese edifice to be processed.

By the time I got to Saigon, the headache I had started the day with had turned into some horrible migraine. For the next four days I would be mostly stuck in my hotel room, prisoner of some god-awful combination of dehydration, overheating and viral infection. When I found enough energy, I managed to walk a small radius around mini-hotel alley where I was staying. Most of the time, however, I had barely enough energy to walk a block, the pain behind my eyes making it hard to focus and concentrate. It was my first bad case of travel illness, and though it may sound like I’m over exaggerating, there were hours-long periods when I wished I’d had something as simple as terrible diarrhea. It was boring (how many cable movies can you half watch in a day?), frustrating (all I really wanted to do was walk around, and here I was wasting time) and lonely (I’d just spent the past week traveling with friendly folk, and here I was, moaning into a pillow in the middle of the night.) I eventually went to a clinic for some blood tests. I was already feeling better, but wanted to confirm it wasn’t Dengue or Malaria (it wasn’t, but was likely due to some other viral infection.)

After a very frustrating and painful start, I was more than ready to go exploring. Luckily, my new friends Scott and Zoe had decided to spend a couple of weeks in Vietnam before heading to Laos, so we spent a couple of days wandering the streets, taking photos. We visited the Reunification Palace, once known as the Presidential Palace, and the seat of the South Vietnamese Government. A giant postmodern concrete building, it has evidently been left exactly as it was in the mid-seventies, when the communists crashed the gates and took power. Well, they’ve since fixed the gate, but visiting the interior is something out of old spy movies: extravagantly decorated meeting rooms, a gambling hall, movie theater, bedrooms, all decked out in the finest decorations and furniture the seventies had to offer. Beneath it all, in the basement, one can walk the long, narrow hallways that connect the various offices and war rooms, underground reinforced bedrooms and perfectly preserved then-state-of-the-art communication equipment. It is actually really cool. Large maps of Saigon’s tunnels; strategic plans showing the whole of the country; old desks with multiple colored telephones, and, of course, big red buttons.

Next up was the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government), which features a great photo gallery from the Vietnam War in addition to loads of American warplanes and helicopters, guns, prisoner cell recreations and the like. All in all, it’s pretty much as you expect, a reminder of the horrors of war; not as poignant as the Holocaust museum in DC, but worth a visit. [My one complaint is not seeing Monsanto’s name mentioned in the gallery of Agent Orange victims. In case you didn’t know, agri-business giant Monsanto, today proponents of genetically-modified, “roundup-ready” crops, provided the US government with Agent Orange (along with Dow and other companies.) So, before they started suing hapless farmers, whose crops have inadvertently cross-pollinated with patented Monsanto corn from down the road, they were busy making defoliants that ravaged forests and caused a generation’s worth of birth defects. So, there. Fuck them.]

We wandered the streets of Saigon, eventually finding everything from alleyway noodles and vegetarian pho (yum) to entire streets devoted to manufacturing street vendor carts. What was striking about Saigon is the much better preserved (or reconstructed?) French-style buildings and cathedrals, sitting right next to communist-style plazas. Colonial-era buildings have been converted into government buildings, flanked by statues of Uncle Ho. Surprisingly, there is little disconnect between it all. It works. It’s a large city, in some places modern, others ancient and grand, and others yet grey and sprawling like any other metropolis.

I hit the tourist path some more and visited the nearby Cao Dai Great Temple, the largest temple of Cao Daism, a modern religion that merges Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native spiritualism, Christianity and Islam. Trying to describe the site doesn’t do justice to its very colorful mix of symbolism, from the Eye of Providence (which you may recognize from such currency as the one dollar bill) to Buddhist imagery, Sun Yat Sen and Victor Hugo. Worshipers hold four prayer sessions per day, which tourists are allowed to watch. After fifteen minutes of watching and listening to their beguiling chants it felt like more of an intrusion, but thankfully our tour moved on to another major tourist attraction: the Cu Chi Tunnels.

The tunnels are part of the extensive underground network started by the Viet Cong in the forties, and later finished and used Viet Minh during the American/Vietnamese war. The tunnels allowed the Viet Minh to travel right under the Americans’ noses, and even exited in one place at a noodle shop frequented by US soldiers. The vast network let the Vietnamese not only hide from and ambush US forces, but were designed for extended residency to survive chemical attacks from above. Today, tourists can crawl through small sections of the tunnel, which have been widened but remain cramped. On the grounds are also examples of different gory traps and makeshift weapons employed by resourceful Viet Cong. Tourists can shoot AK47s, hide in underground holes and pretend to live in the humid jungle under constant threat, all of which I did with some glee, abandoning my general reservations about tourists traps. After being bed-ridden for a few days, this was pretty fun.

Coming from Cambodia one notices that nothing in Vietnam has been left to crumble idly. From urban construction projects in already dense cities to rice paddies and agricultural fields in rural areas, not an inch is left unused in Vietnam. The miles upon miles of unused (or underused) land in Cambodia are made laughable by sheer necessity here. With about six times the population in less than twice the space of Cambodia, the difference in development and efficiency is felt as soon as you cross the border. It makes me wonder what Vietnam looked like just twenty years ago, before the massive economic and infrastructure investments. I can’t help but wonder what Cambodia will be like twenty years from now.

After a week in Saigon I’d seen about half of what I had wished to see. However, feeling stressed for time, it was time to say goodbye to Scott and Zoe and the south and hit the road. My next stop, the mountain town of Dalat, near the Central Highlands.