Saturday, 29 October 2011

Easy-riding in Hue

One overnight train later and we reached Hue (pronounced H-way), once of huge political importance in Vietnam through the 19th Century to the beginning of the second world war. Jumping on the back of a moped, we proceed to have one of the best tours of the trips. Starting our visit with the Citadel, the Imperial Palace modelled on Beijing’s Forbidden City, we raced through Hue traffic feeling totally at ease with our skilled drivers who all seemed to have that Vietnamese trait of amazing special awareness. As with most historical and religious sights in Vietnam, the Citadel was practically destroyed in the Vietnam War, bullet holes visible throughout the site. With great comedic gestures, our guide did his best to rebuild and redecorate the palace in our imaginations. Great emphasis was placed on the number of concubines the former Nguyen emperors had and their life with the Forbidden Purple City, hidden away from prying eyes.

A five minute ride later we visited Thien Mu Pagoda, a Buddhist structure, place of worship and monastery. In Vietnam, Mahayana Buddhism is practised, differing from Theravada as practised in neighbouring Cambodia and Thailand. The first boy in the Vietnamese Buddhist family can be sent to the monastery as a child, living there to receive a religious upbringing although they do attend the local school. At 18, the boy will decide whether to continue monastic life, a choice for the rest of his life. Quite a discussion ensued as to whether it was right or wrong to guide a child in such direction at a young age and whether this is still regarded as normal practise by a family. Another case of needing to stay longer in the country to really understand; I’m somewhat devoid of an opinion.

The Pagoda is a quiet reflective place decorated with well cared for Bonsai trees and another beautifully adorned temple area. The monastery was home to Thich Quang Duc, the infamous monk who in 1963 doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire in protest of the policies by the then president. The image was reproduced throughout the West. Remaining at the Podoga is his old car, acting as a reminder of the event: quick, cameras out everyone! Then back to our trip, I guess without truly understanding what we’ve seen.

With the wind in our hair, rain pricking our skin, our mopeds sped into the countryside surrounding Hue. Within minutes, after skating across a dodgy bridge built especially for mopeds, we hurtled down small brick paths through rice paddy fields, past grazing water buffalos and lone fishermen. I was probably gripping the back of the bike a little tightly at this point. We made a few stops to see an old arena built for the Emperor’s Elephant vs Tiger matches (the elephant was undoubtedly always the winner), a street of ‘workshops’ selling the usual selection of souvenirs with added demonstrations of cone-hat making and incense sticks, more temple ruins, and on to a lookout point over the Perfume river. At one point the narrow path we rode was the only visible solid land in the flooded plains, an exhilarating view of water seamlessly meeting the sky. As the light of day faded, we rode past roadside stalls cooking up evening delights, weaving in and out of other moped drivers eager to get out of the persistent rain. We arrived back soaked, excited and full of tales of things our driver did and things we saw.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

An unexpected trip to Ninh Binh & Tam Coc

As soon as we arrived in Vietnam, we were glued to BBC Weather reports warning of not one but two typhoons heading straight for Hanoi at exactly the same time we were there. With the Philippines pretty devastated by typhoon Nesat, our excursion to the doomed Halong Bay was cancelled much to both our disappointment and relief. Our alternate trip for the day was Ninh Binh, 60K outside of Hanoi.

Leaving Hanoi, weaving in and out of traffic, the scenery very quickly changed from the urban sprawl into rice paddies and dramatically rising conical hills. Perhaps this is the inspiration for the typical Vietnamese hats?

First stop for the day, yet another big temple site built for previous emperors. Our guide for the day explained to us in more detail about the significance of the area and the mix of religion, spirituality and devotion. I particularly liked the significance of the building features such as the wavy style of roofing symbolising the ups and downs of life, the raised doorways to be stepped over to prevent bad spirits from entering and the numerous carvings of dragons, tortoises, phoenixes and unicorns. We were all fairly amused by the offerings laid in front of statues of the emporer – not just incense but packets of biscuits and cans of beers.

After a very local lunch of more spring rolls, rice, chicken, vegetables and mixed dishes of unidentified foods, we were off to Tam Coc to check out a rather stunning labyrinth of limestone hills jutting out of rice paddies.

Along with a few bus loads of other Halong-Bay-alternate tourists, we boarded small wooden fishing gondolas for two, rowed by a local farmer looking for a bit of easy extra cash. An older lady also joined our boat as an extra rower, spending most of the journey in fits of laughter, poking Jon, exclaiming in broken English how handsome he was. The scenery was beautiful, a maze of huge craggy rocks protruding into the sky out of flat green waters that seemed never-ending: one of those places where a photograph can never quite capture all it’s beauty. It didn’t seem overly-touristy until we surfaced out of the darkness of a limestone cave and our boat remained by a group of other boats selling drinks, bunches of souvenirs pushed into our face. We did buy a drink and snack for our rowers and resisted the attempts to make us buy more in our first truly pushy tourist experience of Vietnam. Armed with how to declare ‘Oh my God!’ ( pronounced something like ‘Oh Shoi Oi!’) in Vietnamese, we delighted our rowers with our language skills and feigned surprised looks at the cost of the merchandise on offer so it was a more amusing experience than annoying. Our hostess continued to chuckle and shout ‘Oh Shoi Oi’ all the way back to Tam Coc particularly enjoying swapping her conical hat for Jon’s baseball cap.

This was a perfect Halong Bay substitute: similar style countryside and peaks bursting out of huge river systems akin to the sea. As for Nesat, well, for my first typhoon, I have to say I was pretty disappointed by its lack of force. I’ve seen bigger badder storms in KL, Manchester even! There wasn’t even much rain just a little windy. The second typhoon hit us a few days later and once again failed to live up to BBC expectations. Scare culture news tactics has permeated the weather updates.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Wandering the streets of Hanoi

I’m a big fan of just wandering, exploring random streets with the hope of stumbling across something different. Before heading out of Hanoi on an overnight train, we had a brilliant day of wandering, with a little help from the LP.

We learnt that the Vietnamese can produce amazing patisserie and French bread, not that I could eat them but the lovely aromas reminded me of childhood holidays to France. I can only assume the bakery skills are one of the left over products of French protectionism (or colonisation, dependent on whose opinion you prefer). We also tested out an ice-creamery, ordering scoops that were sculpted into comedic Vietnamese objects like a trishaw complete with a cone hat.

Our wanders took us into the maze of the Old Quarter where streets were divided up into particular trades: streets of floristry, haberdashery, paper and metal works among them. It was people watching at it’s best. The metal work street was my favourite with sparks flying everywhere and saws eagerly cutting through pipes in every shop, one after another. Pots of food and the small stools full of people slurping down the Pho blocked every pavement. We went down one street and I noticed something was wrong: it was quiet, too small for mopeds to zip down and devoid of eateries for just a few moments of peace.

To see how people used to live in the Old Quarter, we visited Memorial House, a restored traditional dwelling complete with age old crafts. This house was part of a group producing votive paper and fake bank notes used as offerings in temples. The style was very similar to the house in Melaka, with a shop opening at the front and a large open courtyard in the middle of the dwelling acting as an air conditioning system. One room upstairs was completely dedicated to remembering past members of the family, with a temple like ambience.

Walking out quite calmly into four lanes of whizzing traffic, I didn’t really want to move on from Hanoi yet. I could have just stayed, watched the world go by and slurped down a lot more noodles.

Hanoi sights for the average LP day-tripper

Sightseeing in Hanoi provides interesting insights into Vietnamese culture rather than being astonishingly beautiful or spectacular, although I’m saying this having seen other parts of Asia. Ngoc Son Temple situated in the Hoan Kim Lake in the middle of the city started my slightly confusing journey into the spiritual and religious life of the Vietnamese. From what I gather, Vietnamese are Buddhists, Taoists, Confucian (which I had never heard about before), a mixture of all as well as worshiping previous emperors. Attempts at trying to unravel all of this would require a rather long stay within Vietnam. What is obvious is the important role religion and belief has in Vietnamese society from small shrines decorated with fairy lights and lit incense found in every dwelling to the burning of money (fake money so we found out) at the start and end of a shopkeepers working day for hope and to give thanks.

The Temple of Literature was more obviously devoted to Confucius and those educated there over 700 years ago. The most interesting exhibit was the huge stones recording the names of those passing examinations carried by tortoises. Tortoises are figures of endurance and strength, one of the four symbolic animals, the others being dragon, unicorn and phoenix. Without much of a guide to go off, I think we missed out on true understanding of what the temple was all about.

The best insight into the political culture of Vietnam came from the Hanoi Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. Built in the 19th Century, the museum focussed on the occupation by the French and the conditions of imprisoned American soldiers during the Vietnam war. Exhibits describe in detail how well American POWs were treated, a case of outstanding historical propaganda. That evening, we googled information on POWs during the Vietnam war, especially John McCain’s experience, painted so rosily in the museum contradicting the brutal account on an internet site reproducing parts of McCain’s autobiography. A further shining example of the contradictory nature was the name given to the prison by American POWs : Hanoi Hilton – an ironic term as conditions were so bad or, as the museum states, because the prison was just like staying at a Hilton Hotel. It’s hard to get a true picture of the reality, it would be easy to simply discount the government run museum’s account as fiction but the historian in me would like to see more source evidence and read more about it before coming to a final judgement. One conclusion I can make, the museum is a visible example of the communist regime here which is somewhat hidden to the non-Vietnamese speaking tourist behind the seemingly capitalist everyday life.

The ancient Vietnamese art form of Water Puppetry ( is one of the major tourist must dos in Hanoi. The 45 minute performance in Vietnamese (we had a basic outline as to what was happening in the English programme) was entertaining but 45 minutes was enough, especially with the tiny seating space for my legs. The performance featured Vietnamese traditional music and song as well as depictions of rural life using a variety of intricate puppets dancing on the ‘water’ stage. It was worth seeing but definitely geared towards the paying visitors. I did ask our guide whether the art form was still prevalent in rural Vietnam but she was unsure; I hope a more authentic version still exists somewhere.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

For the love of food – Vietnamese delights in Hanoi

Little pop-up eateries and bars are everywhere. With no fixed dwelling, someone with a pot of the local favourite ‘Pho’ (a beef noodle broth) or a barrel of the local draught beer ‘bia hoi’ fresh from the brewery sets up their restaurant/bar with sprawling mini plastic chairs in the middle of the pavement, off the curb and into the road. They are on every pavement and street corner throughout the city and, they are unbelievably busy all day long. We had particularly enjoyable experiences at ‘bai hoi’ corner where our mini chairs were crowded together spilling into a chaotic traffic junction, mopeds just skimming your knees. No-one seemed to mind much with the beer at 12p a glass.

Hanoi, and Vietnam in general, is a gastronomic delight. My fears of getting sick were soon washed away by rice noodle galore, clay pots of pork, self rolled amazing spring rolls, and chicken served in a hundred differing ways. In Hanoi, we ventured to obvious firm favourites: Little Hanoi 1, 69 Restaurant and Newday, all equally as lovely as the next. It’s almost a paradise for the gluten free eater: soy sauce is seemingly rarely used and nearly everything is rice based bar egg noodles which I’ve mistakenly ordered twice. Most of the dips are fish sauce based which I have found a new liking for.

Before embarking on this trip away, I thought I knew my fruits and vegetables. Cue dragon fruit tasting like a kiwi, a pink spikey fruit much like a lychee inside, a huge grapefruit that tastes like an orange and small round yellow balls containing a sour opaque fruit– all amazing, refreshing and peel-able (according to many a travel guide and my mum, unpeeled fruit like apples are a no-no as you can’t guarantee what it’s been washed in). Coffee is served with condensed milk and, like in Malaysia, it is thick and black but slightly more bitter. I’ve avoided trying the speciality which is a coffee bean digested by a weasel and then used to brew the coffee. My adventurous nature stops at weasel poop.

Taking a Group adventure

We’ve opted for a guided trip around Vietnam and Cambodia to take the hassle out of booking everything ourselves and so we can experience something hopefully a little different than the LP’s list of sights. Nearly every Westerner we see has a copy of the LP in hand. It makes those unique Vietnamese experiences hard to find (which ironically the LP is about creating) without a pile of other tourists there. Through G Adventures we hope to fulfil something I don’t think we can create ourselves.

Travelling as part of a group has always been a positive experience for me. On the whole, the fellow travellers tend to be like minded, willing to join in and help each other out especially when in need of a painkiller, plaster or if you want to try their food. This time round has been no exception with a mix of American, English, Australian, Swiss, Swedish, Finnish and Danish of all ages. On group travel adventures, you also get a great sense of other Western countries as we discuss politics, health care systems, jobs, social problems and lifestyles of our respected homelands. It’s engaging, sometimes heated but always friendly.

For the majority of the trip, we take meals together most days, bunk up in train compartments and hang out together on ‘free’ days. It’s all good fun and I’ve always enjoyed travelling this way.

Hanging out in Hanoi (for slightly longer than expected)

Good morning Vietnam!

If KL really is crazy, Hanoi is insane. The minute we got off our very nice and efficient Air Asia flight, we embarked on the most nail biting drive of my life. Witnessing the road traffic here is worth the visit to Vietnam alone. Mopeds rule the roads here, weaving in and out of each other, dodging cars and trucks, carrying the most ridiculous loads: trays of eggs, hens strapped down on to a pile of straw, crates and crates of beer carefully balanced – all travelling on the highway.

It was a hazy, polluted filled blue-orange sky that greeted us to Hanoi. Since then we’ve seen nothing but cloud and rain so perhaps we should have appreciated it more. From the airport to Hanoi, today’s Vietnam was summed up: water buffalo and rice paddies between Canon and Panasonic factories. The architecture of the city is totally different to any other place I’ve visited in Asia. Five to six storey, very thin, perhaps 8-10 ft in width buildings are packed in together with barely any patches of greenery in the actual city (the surrounding areas very quickly become fields of some sort). Most of the buildings are very long to compensate for lack of width, to keep the dwelling cooler.

Our first venture outside Anh Hotel, a lovely little place, did not see us going far mainly because we lacked the ability to cross a road and had absolutely no idea of direction! We witnessed the end of the school day, watching kids pile on to mopeds driven by their parents – one kid on the front, one on the back, neither wearing helmets, chuckling away. After looking like bunnies in headlights, we returned to the hotel, eager to meet our tour group and guide and work out just how the chicken crosses the road.

Hanoi is an organised chaos, probably why I loved it. It’s a true hive of constant activity. Everyone is busy doing something from early in the morning to late at night, seven days a week. There doesn’t seem to be any demarcation between work life and social life: everything is mixed together. People are asleep in their shops, moped drivers are constantly dropping by for a chat, some sort of meal is being eaten. People’s homes are turned into make-shift grocery stores and coffee bars, with their laundry hanging up to dry and a TV blearing in the background. We went to one little coffee shop and after serving us, the whole family upped and left on a moped leaving us baffled as to who we were to pay as the chickens hopped around our feet.

The stereotypical image of a Vietnamese lady in a conical hat carrying two baskets adjoined by a wooden pole placed on her shoulder is reality. Such an efficient way of carrying produce but, having later tried one out, it must lead to some serious back problems. Add to this image all the zooming mopeds, wandering dogs, food cooking away on every street corner, constant stream of people buying and selling and tapping away on mobile phones and you’ve got Hanoi.