Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Ha Long is a piece of string? 10 days in Vietnam.

Coming out of Cambodia, I felt a great sense of relief in many ways. In retrospect, I don't think I was ready for the poverty I saw there, as well as the challenges it would present to me personally. I was really looking forward to Vietnam. Firstly, I love Vietnamese food, which is an excellent reason to go to any country in my opinion! Secondly, I'd heard so many fantastic things about Vietnam - that it was like Thailand was before the tourists got to it 15 years ago. But mostly, I was looking forward to seeing Mum, who had booked this trip before I took my redundancy. What better opportunity to travel with your Mum?? Best of all, Mum's friend Jodi is a travel agent who booked the whole trip, posh hotels, transfers and guides included. Bloody brilliant. Better still, she came too!

After a few nervous moments with my visa, I managed to get a flight in the night before Mum and Jodi arrived. I'd heard so many things about the taxi drivers in Hanoi - that they'll rip you off, possibly hold you in the car until you pay a certain amount of money etc etc. I was suitably prepared though - asked for a quote from the hotel on how much it should cost and then agreed to that cost with the (albeit reluctant) taxi driver. In the end he hit the nail on the head with the fare and I tipped him out of gratitude to the universe that I hadn't been ripped off. Try figuring that one out.

I cannot tell you how freaking excited I was to sleep in a proper bed, have fluffy towels and TOILETRIES! Oh the little soaps! The body moisturisers! Joy! Rapture! And also complete contrast to when I was working when I thought they were there for the schmucks who forgot their stuff. Not this greedy little traveller, I left nothing behind!

After a brief walk around Hanoi, I met Mum and Jodi back at the hotel for a long-overdue hug. They'd been picked up from the airport by Nam, our tour guide for this area. Looking a bit rough after their flight (sorry guys, but you weren't looking your best), they were keen to see what Hanoi had to offer.

And after going through Thailand and Cambodia, there are a few obvious differences. Hanoi was much cleaner, and I wasn't the only one with a smart phone. I was also aware that the people were much better dressed, the stores shinier and more expensive, and the pace was much much faster. I recognised more brands, but this may have been simply because I could read the letters. By adopting Arabic letters, the Vietnamese may have done themselves a huge favour in this era of globalisation. Compare this with Thailand which has 44 characters in its alphabet with 6 different tones, or Cambodia where they may not leave a space between their words, and you start getting a taste for the complexities of these languages.

Walking around the lake that evening was fantastic. In cities as crowded as Hanoi, the people really make the most of public spaces. Old people in a line massaging each others' backs then switching over in synchronicity, all the while chattering away, laughing and chiding each other. Tai Chi and other forms of calisthenics, people walking their dogs, children playing ... it's all happening.

But if you think this is a relatively serene environment, think again. The lake is surrounded by roads, which in Hanoi means it is surrounded by about a million scooters. All of them swerving in and out of traffic, beeping their horns incessantly, and dodging petrified pedestrians. This is in stark contrast with the Hanoi of even 5 or 10 years ago, where I'm told people predominantly rode bicycles. I'm certain things would have been a hell of a lot more peaceful then.

Our next day was action-packed. A trip to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum (he wasn't in - possibly having a tea with Mao whilst getting patched up in Russia) and house where he lived during the war. Incredibly, it was here under his house where he held his war council. Next to the house was a bomb shelter, and that was about as high-tech as it got. Mentally I compared this to where the Americans and their allies may have made their plans and in my mind they couldn't have been more different.

We crammed in several more sites - a temple or two, the Lotus Pagoda (famous for being on a single pole), a rickshaw ride around old Hanoi, a water puppet show (which was just flat-out strange) and the relatively new Ethnology Museum. This was a real eye-opener for me. Vietnam is filled with dozens of different ethnic minorities, many of whom still observe their traditions in their every-day lives. Our guide Nam belonged to the Viet people who make up about 80% of the population, and he and his family observe the tradition whereby they exhume family members 3 years after their death to wash their bones and re-bury them in a smaller coffin. Bear in mind this is in Hanoi, not in some country backwater. Apparently the first time it's pretty full-on but then you get used to it. At times like this I'm glad for our Western ways!

While the museum details many of the different minorities' dress and traditions inside, outside it has full-scale recreations of their different housing. It's very cool to be able to walk around in these buildings - some of which were being frequented by pre-weds getting their wedding photos taken before the day in rented western-style dresses. On the big day apparently it's a relatively small affair with the family in traditional dress. We saw this couple during our rickshaw ride... Somehow I can't imagine us doing this in front of Myer...

The next day we had free in Hanoi, and we took the opportunity to meet up with my cousin in the Old Quarter and took some time out for pampering (it must have been about 5 days since my last massage at this point...).

That night we headed to the train station and caught the overnight Fanxipan train to Lao Cai. I'd never caught a sleeper train, but this one was pretty cool! You had your own compartments, clean-ish linen (at my cousin's suggestion, we brought along our silk sleeping bags) and air conditioning. We played Uno in the cabin, and while Jodi may have beaten us, her victory dance was truly retarded...

The next morning we met our tour guide for the north at the station and then embarked on the 2-hour drive to Sapa in the northern ranges of Vietnam. Despite the disgustingly early nature of this journey, it was absolutely beautiful winding up through the mountains with some of the most incredible scenery. I think we drove our driver nuts with requests to stop and take photos, but it was just so breathtakingly beautiful that we couldn't help ourselves! It will never cease to amaze me what tiny and remote places people will cultivate rice paddies on...

That day we saw the Ethnology Museum come to life. Right from when we arrived in Sapa, the local ladies were onto us, flocking to our minivan with shrieks of "she's mine, I saw her first" in their native tongue, translated by our guide. They followed us in their ornate traditional outfits with conversations of "What's your name? Where are you from?" trying to get us to go to their shops or buy from them in the street. Even if you were in a restaurant, they would talk to you through the windows. While relentless, everyone was very friendly.

We took our time walking down from town through some villages to Cat Cat falls. The main reason for taking our time was that it was bloody slippery and we were going down hill - a recipe for an Australia's Funniest Home Video if ever I saw one. We walked past rice paddies and local shops, bargaining along the way. We had the pleasure of seeing inside their houses - their massive stockpiles of dried corn and the huge vats of indigo dye used to make their local clothes. The local women's hands were the same colour as their clothes. It was such a privilege to see them in their homes and their traditional dress.

The falls were beautiful, and thanks to the rain, flowing rapidly. Once I put my camera away, it was great to sit there and be hypnotised by the falls. Every office should have one.

The next day we set off in a deluge to Cocly which has a small market not far away. It was times like these I was glad that I'd bought some decent footwear, which were nearly perfect for these muddy conditions in that they didn't come off. Unfortunately they had so little grip it was like trying to walk on mud on plastic ice-cream container lids. Let the games begin...

We bargained again with the locals, tried the local 50% alcohol corn wine (at 10am), watched our tour guide go from friend to friend trying out their tobacco pipes and refused some of the local animals' entrails for breakfast. The best thing about this market was the Flower Hmong Women were dressed in their traditional clothes, very different from their not-so-distant neighbours, but much more colourful.

We walked and slipped our way through a Trung Do village after a boat ride along the Chad River whose shores glisten with actual silver. I have to admit, I lost my sense of humour after coming a cropper in the mud at this point. Funniest Home Videos are funny because you get to laugh at others. While I was walking through the village I could smell something strangely familiar. We walked past ducks, geese, cats and houses, and all the while I was trying to remember what that smell was...


We had tea and a tour of a local family's house. We saw where they honour their ancestors, their bedrooms that open up to the family room. We also met her father and heard of how she was courted by her husband on the back steps of the house.

Our guide sampled some more of the local tobacco with the strange, whistling pipe, and we were off.

On the way back to the boat, I remembered what that smell was. It was the smell of the colonics in Thailand. I'm glad I remembered this on the way back to the boat.

After another trip on the Fanxipan, we headed back to Hanoi to be picked up and taken to Halong Bay. The boat we stayed on here was better than any of the hotels we had stayed in thus far - so luxurious and exciting to be on a huge wooden boat in the middle of some of the most picturesque scenery in the world.

We climbed all 440-odd stairs to the top of Titop Island and it was worth the trip. I'm just glad there wasn't a swear jar.

After a quick boat around the floating village, along with the enormous contingent of Australians on the boat, we enjoyed a cocktail on the top of the boat watching the sunset. Just magic.

The next day we headed into the Surprise Caves, and they were magnificent. I particularly liked their use of coloured lighting to perk the place up a bit.

A quick flight later and we were in Hue on the central Vietnamese coast. On the way from the airport we drove past the infamous 'China Beach' where the Americans spent their downtime during the war. Their hangars are still at the airport. More American troops lost their lives in this provence than in any other area of Vietnam. Hue is also home to the Forbidden City, a place where thousands of Vietnamese people died during the war after the are was bombed. There are large sections still under construction, and the enormity of the destruction is still evident. .

Hue is also dotted with beautiful Chinese style temples, some of which we'd had enough of by that point, however the boat ride down the Perfume River was intriguing, watching people in traditional Vietnamese hats trading goods from their boats as we bought knick knacks from our gracious hosts... their small boat was their entire house after all.

The next day we made the short journey to Hoi An. We stayed in the best hotel of the trip so far - the Life Heritage Resort, right next to the river. With enormous rooms and the best coffee of the trip so far, this place was a perfect end to our tour.

Hoi An is a charming place. Old bright yellow houses line the streets which are packed with tourists taking in the old-world atmosphere. Hoi An was left untouched by the war as the Americans were based here, and it retains its character beautifully. It also maintains its links to French colonialism in its cuisine, resulting in the most mouth-watering meals of the trip. These Hoi An wantons were my favourite - I didn't realise how much tomato the Vietnamese used in their food, so this semi-spicy blend was a delightful surprise.

We also had the opportunity to try our hand at the local fare with a cooking class at the Red Bridge Cooking School. We started with a tour through the local markets which were packed with vendors, odours, herbs, spices and still-squirming meat.

Next we boarded a boat to travel down the swollen Hoi An River to the cooking school. We cooked several dishes, but the most exciting with Hoi An Pancakes - a steamed rice flour pancake wrapped in soft rice paper and filled with prawns, coriander and greens. These were so absolutely delicious, I have vowed to try and make them again when I get home!

Sadly our tour was coming to an end, and Mum and I were going to go our separate ways for an unknown period of time. Trying not to dwell on this, we made the most of the fact the sun had come out for our last day in town, before heading off to Ho Chi Minh City to catch our connecting flights; hers to Singapore and then home to Brisbane, mine to Hong Kong. Anyone who knows me knows I'm particularly shitty at goodbyes, and this one was never going to be easy. We survived, and I got to keep a friend. Pepe lives with me now - keeping me company around the world. Turns out he's a great drinking buddy too.

Vietnam is a great country. It seems to have the right balance of tradition and modernism tempered by communism. The people are incredibly proud. Interestingly the Vietnamese call the "Vietnam War" the "American War". This is to distinguish it from the other wars with Cambodia, China, Mongolia and France. A people who can continue to overcome such adversity while retaining their own character have every right to be proud.

Vietnam reminds me of a hornet's nest; they don't play. If you mess with Vietnam you will probably come off second best. If you're lucky enough to take the time to appreciate it, you'll uncover levels of complexity and beauty that are unlike anywhere else in the world.

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