Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

My Tho, Vietnam

To the east and south of Saigon is the Mekong Delta. Miles and miles of rich rivers and canals. I took a short tour there with some people from Singapore, France, Ireland, and Malaysia…I got to use all three languages I know in one afternoon, switching, depending on the person. We arrived in My Tho and took a small-motorized boat across the broad brown river to the island of Ben Tre.  It was used to house lepers a hundred years ago but now has bee farms and fruit plantations. The family who ran the boat had a young boy, about 4 years old and that was the happiest child I have ever seen in my entire life. He has probably lived his entire life on that boat, but there he was swinging in a hammock, back and forth back and forth singing little happy songs in Vietnamese. He let me take some pictures of him in his hammock, but they were corrupted when I lost my files earlier this week (the one real tragedy).

On the island we followed little gravel paths dotted with small colorful houses and chickens to a shady restaurant where we had some lemon honey tea and sampled the local rice wine and snake wine—nothing like a dead snake in the bottom of your liquor to add zest. After some dried ginger and coconut snacks we were off to explore the little gravel paths again with a stop for fresh fruit and local music and some chatting amongst ourselves, then off again. We got in some canoes paddled by locals and traveled along the shady canals peeking at the backs of houses with clothes drying on the lines. We had gone from motorized boat, to canoe, then to horse cart. Horse carts down a larger dirt road to a restaurant and then some naps in hammocks hanging in a nearby shed. Finally our mini-stay on the Mekong was over and it was back to Saigon in our cramped minibus following the trails of tangled wires back to the raucous world of “capitalism”.

Axel didn’t accompany me on the Mekong trip. He wanted to do it more authentically without a tour group just take a bus into My Tho itself. This was the final stage of 2 weeks of disagreeing over travel philosophy. A planner over a wanderer, public versus private transportation, museums versus markets…a terrible match for travel that we hadn’t previously predicted. In the end, I was unwilling to compromise on what is my only chance to see a country. I wanted to see everything, I didn’t want to waste time by not planning, by fumbling along, I wanted to know what things I could see and have them ready for me. While I might lose an element of authenticity, there was still a hell of a lot of authenticity in the streets I daily wandered and the local people I ate or purchased from. I also enjoyed interacting with the other world travelers. Their stories were also interesting. Hence we decided to finally quit compromising and each do it our own way. I booked a bus straight to Siem Reap, Cambodia chatted with a German guy the whole way and spent the evening eating barbeque with some Italians and British people who had lived in Cambodia for years. You’re never really traveling alone as long as there are others doing the same exact thing. And I got to do a lot more things at the pace I’m used to in the fashion I enjoy. (Mom, I’m home and don’t worry, nothing happened while I was traveling politically unstable countries alone.) I’m sure Axel can say the same thing for his version of the second half of the trip as well.

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Cu Chi

We took some day trips to areas near Saigon. The first to the Cu Chi tunnels. These were the tunnels built all over the Saigon area that allowed the Vietnamese to travel and move supplies without the US soldiers knowing during the war. In fact American soldiers had one of their bases right on top of most of them and just couldn’t figure out where in the hell those enemy soldiers were sneaking in from. There are around 500 km of these tunnels dug by hand, reaching all the way to the ocean. They’d put the extra dirt in bomb craters. The tour guide for this tour had pretty passable English and a good sense of humor, “Now, when we get to the tunnel part, if you get scared you can get out every 20 meters. There are 100 meters total”…What do you mean get scared…what? Then I go crawl in. These tunnels are tiny…very very tiny, and snaking, and hot. Despite spending lots of time in caves…I got out of this tunnel after 60 meters, exhausted from walking crouched over and crawling. 500km? Holy shit, is all I have to say.

Before we left they had us watch a “documentary”…it was straight up a propaganda film from wartime, grainy black and white film. It showed smiling little kids standing on the bodies of dead Americans, young girls receiving awards for killing “capitalist baby murderers” and old men sharpening bamboo stakes for rudimentary booby traps. While I completely disagree about America entering the Vietnam War, much the same as the Iraq war, nonetheless, it was strange to sit there amidst mostly Europeans and watch this “documentary”.

Later in the day we went to a museum called the “War Remnants Museum” while about the effects of the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people, it was more of a museum about the horrors of war in general. The people stuck in the midst. Do you defend your home? Do you defend it at the risk of choosing sides? How is anyone to know what you believe? Do you want to sacrifice everything for a future that you were never previously aware of outside of your village?

It was a museum filled with nothing but thousands of photos of bodies, bombs, crying children, elderly people marching. Scientific reports, census numbers, bomb fragments. A whole floor dedicated entirely to showcasing the effects of Agent Orange, not only on people alive during the war, but those currently being born every single day. Unimaginable birth defects. They didn’t die immediately from bullets or bombs, all of these people and children, they live everyday with the consequences of poison from 40 years ago. I watch people cultivating rice from fields that were inundated with thousands of gallons of poison just 40 years ago in Cu Chi.  I was surprised that the only anti-American sentiments I heard spoken the whole time I was in the country were from the wobbly voice of a video from 30 years ago. But nothing had to be said; in each and every city there was evidence of destruction, a past that they’re still recovering from. The museum made me physically ill, but I felt like there should be more of this in every city in the world… we are desensitized to TV, to the shock value of daily media. There is nothing more moving than simple, candid, home photographs taped to walls in room after room, with nothing more than the request to look in silence and think.

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August 10 thru 15

Ho Chi Minh is Vietnam’s other large city. Drastically different from Hanoi, you can definitely see the touch of America on this city. Bright lights, store chains, commercialism. While I feel that most French and European tourists start in Hanoi and head down…the Americans start in Saigon and head up. There are less opportunities to haggle for reasonable (ok honestly, by reasonable I mean dirt cheap) prices in HCMC because most tourists just slap down the money and go. Damn you American’s. Trying to explain that I earn NT not US dollars isn’t very effective when a shopkeeper is stonewalling me for 8$ for a photocopied illegal novel. Finally I leave exclaiming, “It’s a photocopy…a blurry photocopy!” (I later caved and purchased 2 photo copied books while traveling…a verrrry interesting story about the second one that involves beggar children punching each other to follow when I get to the Cambodia posts).

Personally I liked Hanoi a lot more. HCMC reminded me of a loud Florida tourist town but with less organization. Riding in our taxi from the airport (after being followed and bargained with by a herd of 10 different cab drivers…this happens anytime you exit anything). Axel says… “Look!” and points upward. “What?” I look out into the night…what I thought had been some sort of street decoration I realized was actually just a mass of hundreds and hundreds of electrical wires draped from building to building. Giant masses, and tangles of wires, how anything actually works I have no idea…and if something falls down during a storm…damn. I took a picture on a not so busy street but it in no way captures what was really going on. Vietnam is continually a country in progress. Growing in leaps and bounds, giant stacks of bricks and rickety bamboo scaffolding everywhere you look…but no real rules or plans for any of it…do what you will…we’re heading for the future!

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While in Saigon we checked out the royal palace…expecting some old building in the French style or with dragons and tile roofs we were surprised to see a 1960’s mod building (a little ugly to be honest). While the palace was nothing fancy, meeting rooms, tasteful 1960’s décor, official things, the basement was another thing. Apparently the Vietnamese president was so hated, his own army tried to blow him up, dropping bombs on the palace. So he built a big bunker underneath. It is….creepy down there. Endless dark hallways, map rooms, rooms with single desks, rooms with big menacing 1950’s style radios. Really eerie. Later in the day we were checking out the history museum down the street and again creepy basements. Why do they let the public down here? In a looming grey, French style building we wanted to reach the second floor but ended up following arrows downward…and down, and through some metal gates…into some dusty tiled rooms with low ceilings filled with sad black and white photographs and old furniture. I seriously wouldn’t have been surprised if we had found ourselves in the middle of some horror film with zombies and mental patients. Upstairs I posed with some lovely wax people. Tea party!

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Hoi An, Vietnam

August 7 thru 10
Hoi An, we trek and trek in the dark looking for a cheap hotel. This town is a bit more stylish, picturesque and hence…more expensive. Finally we find one and relax and take one of the multiple daily showers I need, due to constantly being a sweaty mess. Hoi An was one of the very few towns not bombed during the Vietnam War. It’s another one of the World Unesco sites in Vietnam since all of the houses are traditional style. Hoi An was a shipping center for silk merchants hundreds of years ago and has a very strong Japanese influence.

But really, history aside there is only one word for Hoi An: TAILORS. Hundreds and hundreds of shops, pedaling their tailoring skills. You can get ANYTHING you can imagine made for you for practically nothing. Since my pack was already overflowing I had to restrain myself dearly. Head to Hoi An, get 3 hand made suits, a winter wool coat, and a silk ball gown…total? maybe 100$. Me? I settled for a purple cotton sun dress, that fits me perfectly for 7$. In addition to tailors there are cobblers of course. Any shoe you can imagine designed how you want. So to go with the dress, a pair of yellow leather sandals for 6$ that are cut to fit my sad, skinny feet, though the 8 color “pumas”  and patent leather mary jane heels were also very tempting. Did I mention they make it all in one day? Talk about service.
Since Hoi An is known for its silk I did have to get a silk robe as well, kimono style. (And one for Kathryn too shh!). 10$ each, which was probably too much to pay, but occasionally I get tired of the endless haggling. Unfortunately when I showed up the next day, there was Kathryn’s sitting there – a lovely green/turquoise traditional bamboo silk…but some flowerdy black robe on my hanger. Uh oh.
“Where’s mine?”… “This you pick miss…you like? You put on…looks very nice”…”Uh no, this is not what I picked…the one I picked was brown with green and red…not black and red…believe me I am very, very good at patterns and colors…I don’t make mistakes”….”No miss, you pick this…you pick…see book? (the silk sample book, which conveniently has the one I picked originally no longer there)” After making lots of frowns and not accepting the black one unless it is verrrry cheap, the young shop girl calls her big sister. She reluctantly admits her mother picked the wrong silk. “You pick new, we make you new this afternoon”…ta-da my lost silk magically re-appears. It’s amazing what refusing to pay does. There shall be no switcheroos this time. I pick up the new one 4 hours later.
In addition to “shopping” Hoi An has tons of fantastic restaurants. We ate dinner on the second floor of a little place along the riverfront as night fell. Delicious sweet and sour pork and local beer…I then ordered quite possibly the worst cocktail ever, it tasted like some sort of liqoury animal had died in the bottom of the glass. I guess the food is more of their strong point. There was a little skinny cat climbing along the rooftop from one balcony restaurant to the next, I let him sit in my lap for a while and watch us eat. I do enjoy that about restaurants abroad, animals hanging out. Mi Hao at Abar, the bulldog at the burger place in France, cats sleeping in tea shops. Despite a complete lack of health codes in Asia…I really haven’t gotten sick that often.
We took a day trip to some Cham ruins near by in My Son. The Champa were a large group/still are a large group that reigned in the middle portion of Vietnam and Cambodia thousands of years ago. They made beautiful brick religious buildings…and lots of penis statues. Unfortuntely a lot of people chose to hide in the Cham temples for safety during the war, so the Americans blew a lot of them up, hoping to kill Vietcongs as well. Surely there’s a better way to get people that just going around dropping bombs on every single historical building in a country…what did the buildings do to you? Anyways, lovely wandering around, a long shady path back, but the unfortunate side effect to these cheap area tours…always getting stuck at the gratuitous “souvenir rest stop”. They must get kick backs or something, it is so annoying. But I guess I’ll trade 20 minutes of my time for a 4$ trip to ruins.
Back in Hoi An we checked out some traditional houses, ceramics museum, Japanese bridge, temples…the usual. All lovely and what not. But in order to continue our journey we headed up the road to Danang to catch a plane to Saigon. While we had been bumping along in buses on the ONE highway in Vietnam along the coast (its two lanes with no lights or lines) we were not enthusiastic about a 23 hour drive, sleeper bus or not. Instead 1 hour flight and voila Saigon (the Ho Chi Minh name thing just hasn’t really stuck with the population)

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Cobblers at the end of the day eating some dinnerSONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-08 12-48-04

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Japanese BridgeSONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-08 13-06-06

Silk lantern shop and Asian tourists escaping the sweltering sun

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(Ok, ok, more photos later this is taking forever. )

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Hue, Vietnam

August 6 and 7

We took an overnight sleeper bus to Hue. Man, we should definitely travel like this in America. Every person gets their own little seat that allows their legs to be straight forward and for the back to lay completely down like a bed, two levels of these 3 rows with ladders to the top ones. It was bumpy but great, you can actually sleep on a 12 hour bus ride. We arrived in Hue, picked a hotel at random.

Checked out the Citadel. There is the regular city, fairly small, then this massive crumbling brick wall, every so often a gate leads into quiet, shady trees and old buildings. Inside is the old Imperial Palace, or what’s left of it after bombing during the war. Parts have soaring columns and intricate carvings and others are merely some tiles on the ground in a field. Climbing around trees and bushes, we stumble upon parts of houses and shrines, worn out dragons from a festival, wells, and fruit trees, dusty rooms with old furniture. It’s all open and free to be wandered, with occasional signs…this was the palace for the king’s mother…this is the palace for the king’s uncle…this is the palace for the king’s 3rd wife. Interestingly in the midst of all of this is a tennis court, perfectly fine. There is a small sign that notes, “the last Nguyen king reigned in the 1930’s…he had a love of tennis and we have successfully restored this portion of the palace”….great…number one on my list of ancient palace sites to fix….tennis courts…check. I suppose getting replacement tennis nets is a bit easier than say replacement, 14th century chairs.

While wandering the grounds (and Vietnam in general) you are endlessly inundated with “Miiiiisssss, Miiiiiiss, you want cyclo? One hour tour, very good, see whole city…Missssss you want? You want?” Eventually I am worn down, and there are some impending rain clouds…ok how much? “10$ I take you everywhere”……I snort…10$ is the entire cost of our hotel…is the cost of a 12 hour bus ride…or the cost of a ridiculously fancy dinner. No…I begin to walk away, as all good bargainers do. “Ok ok, misss, what you pay…I give you good price”…I’ll pay… 10,000d (50 cents). “Oh, no no no miss, I can make no profit”…..you pedal a cab, there is nothing but pure profit to make…this argument does not fly. Fine, walk away again…..”Ok, ok, miss, 10,000d is good….missssssss….missssss”….I’m already halfway home, this back and forth wears me out…no cyclo ride today, even if it is 50 cents.

In walking however you encounter the unique world of no sidewalks and lawless traffic…there are no road crossings, there are no traffic lights. Crossing the road in a car consists of blowing your horn and plowing through…walking…you merely step straight into the fray. Walk very slowly, so that everyone can drive around you while angrily honking. Little old ladies step straight into rush hour traffic without batting an eye and somehow make it across fine. It’s like real life frogger.

After a day or so of wandering we left to go to Hoi An, down the road a bit. Our life was a series of bus rides…

dragonbwSONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-06 12-04-08SONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-06 13-24-53SONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-06 12-46-19In one of the standing portions of the palace you could pay around 3 us$ to dress in traditional royal clothes and pose on a fake throne for photos. I could just imagine the original royal family freaking out over this tourist opportunity. Asians are so so afraid of ghosts…and well, this seems like prime angry ghost activity. But that little boy is damn cute.

SONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-06 13-21-11Grounds workers sleeping off the sweltering afternoon in a random hallway to nowhere.

SONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-06 12-57-43A crumbling house and small shrine on an island in the middle of a lotus pond, there used to be a bridge but it had since rotted away, so I could only stand on the stairs to the water taking pictures. I want to live on that tiny island!

SONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-06 13-25-59In the middle of a fountain was this giant construction of bonsai and rocks. However if you look really closely there are tiny cermic pagodas and in other photos I have there are little ceramic farmers with oxen. It’s its own imaginary lilliputian land. All I needed was some of my childhood barbies to add to the scene.

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Halong Bay

August 3 and 4
We decided to take a tour package to Halong Bay. 60$ got us two days and one night aboard a wooden junk. Cruising around all the towering rocks and islands was really lovely and beautiful. Late afternoon after some lackluster and crowded caves we just rode and rode, past floating villages, ancient ladies selling fruit, and young boys rowing fishing boats. Amongst all the rocks and trees, we sat in wooden chairs over looking everything with a soft wind. Later in the day we finally got some relief from the heat, leaping from the boat’s roof to go swimming. Dodging the jellyfish, I paddled about in the surprisingly salty waters. A fancy dinner, and watching the moonrise over the edge of one of the karsts with a French family, a Vietnamese couple, an old Thai man who spoke so many languages and a Pakistani businessman we mixed languages, shared food, and chatted about all of our travels. We finally retired to our small cabins for some sleep.

I awoke early to the rumble of the engines restarting. I shuffled my way up to the deck, hiding behind some plants in a chair in the corner, kicking my legs up on the railing. I watched the old Thai man taking an early morning swim, “C’est merveuilleux non?” (his French was impeccable) and sketched out the misty islands with the tiny fishing boats. Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I’d have to fully agree…gorgeous, peaceful, huge and eerie with its presence. One of the most beautiful places I visited in Vietnam.

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Hanoi, Vietnam

August 3 and 6

We arrive in Hanoi at the airport bright and early in the morning. We somehow make our way on to a public bus heading into the city, the only westerners since all others had opted for taxis. We begin our drive through the countryside. I can’t believe it, its like something out of National Geographic, old ladies with baskets, men working in miles and miles of lush green rice paddies, little children playing ball in the road. Endless construction of quaint, skinny houses that tower up 3 stories but are only 5-7 feet wide. They’re all so colorful and decorated. The countryside is booming with growth and agriculture. We arrive in Hanoi, trek to the hotel to discover the switcheroo…there are 6 or 7 hotels all named Camellia. I finally figure out the address to our specific one and we’re off. A cold shower and a nap later and we wander the city.

Hanoi is an older style city where the lights and speed of commercialism haven’t quite taken over yet. Streets are organized by the thing they sell…a whole street of shops selling toys, a street of mirrors and metal cabinets, a street of religious icons, a street of shoes, a street of tailors, a street of spices, a street of hardware shops, all independently owned with their wares bursting from the walls and all over what passes for a sidewalk. Hanoi is a loud city, crowded with cyclos, cars, taxis, and tons of motorbikes, each of which feels the need to honk whenever they see anything in front of them at all. The perpetual cacophony of horns is something to be heard indeed.

In Hanoi we visited Hoan Kiem Lake with is in the center, lined by a thin park where all sorts of people are sitting, resting, relaxing amidst the heat, slowly waving fans and drinking iced coffee. We got up early, dressed nicely in pants and long sleeves despite the temperature and headed to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, trotting through lines and security checked multiple times we finally got to go inside the giant concrete building. Silently we shuffled past Mr. Ho Chi Minh himself, not looking too bad, sleeping in his glass case, and just as quickly we were back outside in the glaring sun. We went into his museum, where we saw things like “this is Ho Chi Minh’s towel” “this is Ho Chi Minh’s toothbrush” “this is the paper Ho Chi Minh handed some obscure public figure in some irrelevant county speech” …plus, quite possibly any correspondence he ever sent. In between all of these ‘fascinating” documents and items were “interpretive” installations about communism and history that were pretty far fetched but still amusing….”This structure is mean to represent the brain as the plateaus of rice production” “This flashing light and random slices of European paintings are meant to represent the light of the Vietnamese people and their creativity”.

Side note: All museums in Vietnam are not air conditioned or have one or two paltry fans from 1912 blowing about the hot air. Hence, perpetual sweating as you shuffle amongst the masses to read the tiny placquards. Not once did I ever enter a museum that was not stifling.

Also seen in Hanoi: one pillar pagoda, another pagoda in the middle of the lake with turtles, and the Temple of Literature which was shady and lovely with many different courtyards and ancient trees.

SONY            - DSLR-A100 - 2009-08-02 18-20-18Old men playing Go at Ngoc Son temple.

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