The Citadel in Hue
As fascinating and mindblowing as Vietnam can be, it`s a spender`s nightmare. From any street corner to decent hotel, this country shops, sells and hawks as good as any.
Yet it`s not always a relaxed experience. It`s a safe assumption that as a traveller, any interaction involving money often means being overcharged, played, bilked and or manipulated until proven otherwise. The nicest smile, friendliest face, and fairest deal will still leave you wondering at what cost. I'd heard even North American Vietnamese are as perplexed with this as we. An agreed upon price changes, sudden charges appear, hoteliers and cabbies work in collusion to corner your business. For us westerners, not being able to trust, and having to ascertain a stranger`s honesty leaves us disadvantaged.
For all this griping, our dollar still goes a long way, and Vietnam isn't all that different from other parts of South East Asia.
Speaking some Vietnamese, looking like a local, or just rolling with it helps. But out of principle, a buck here and or there and everywhere, not only add up, but wear you down. Some will say that`s the functioning economy and part of the experience. But we`ve learned that price gougers look away when asking you especially outrageous prices. It was not uncommon for people on the exact same tour to have paid very different fees. For all of the challenges China threw at us, scams were minor by comparision.
Speaking of China. It`s not much older than Vietnam. Yet comparing Beijing to say Hue, the old imperial capital of Vietnam (and site of a big battle with Americans), is like comparing Perth to Paris. The Chinese were great stonemasons and builders and have ornate, intricate and over the top architecture and cultural relics down to a fine science, many wonderfully restored (we`re speaking of that which the Commies didn`t destroy). While the Vietnamese who built largely with wood which rotted away, then brick for the Royals in the 1800s, have little left behind comparatively speaking.
Where they do slam dunk the Chinese are the evocative settings. In UNESCO designated Hue, tombs, temples, palaces and pagodas are never far from the mysterious Perfume River. Yet most are crumbling, sometimes simply rubble. There is some restoration work going on, but if you like mossy, moody and evocative relics and monuments, this is nirvana. If images of steamy tropical climes, slow paced locals, and scampering over ruins that are largely for you alone, then forget China--this is your kind of place. For us, the peace and serenity are haunting.
KhaiDinh, Tu Duc, Ming Manh, Bao Quoc....this is an area flush with the dead and chanting monks. We went from one temple to ancient tomb to another, hanging on for our lives on the back of mortorbikes driven by two greeceballs. The exhilerating ride thru villiages was half the fun. One of our favourite spots was the Tu Hieh Pagoda. It`s a functioning monastery where the chanting of monks can be heard as one walks amidst the lush forest with a canal and ponds. Nearby is an atmospheric cemetery for monks and eunuchs, all draped in emerald green moss and lichen.
Tu Hieh Pagoda
The Citadel with the Forbidden Purple City is largely destroyed, almost 20 of the 128 buildings still partially stand after wars with the French and Americans. Yet poking around these ghostly relics conjurs up a greatness that was, a proud people with a rich history. Again we had this pretty much all to ourselves.
Hue with it's relaxed pace, is a wonderful respite from the lung busting pollution of Hanoi. And though my H1N1 are largely licked, Trish has some sort of sinus cold, strep throat---who knows what. But these kinds of days are especially exhausting and home comforts are missed. There will be no early return home, but we've vowed no more divey hotels/hostels. $30-$40 US gets us far and the Vietnamese offer a level of service and hospitality that shames the Chinese.
Favourite Food: Saigon Pho served up fabuous meaty shrimp, in a heavenly noodle broth, $1.25, this was especially comforting as Trish suffered through something. Had to go back 2 days in a row it was so good. Honorable mention to the gornozola pasta and spaghetti with fresh clams at Mediterraneo
Most Interesting People: Ty and Rose, 2 farmers we hired as motorbike guides and drivers. Both were unusually safe drivers and who signalled!! They're rice farmers who earn most of their living growing fruit and veggies. Both kids go to school ($30US a month each, excl meals, supplies, uniform). Ty's dad fought with the US and , like many of the Southern soldiers and supporters, jailed in 1975. He died 2 years later. Ty would never see his dad again, and left school at age 10 shortly after that.
Some locals are exasperating and impossible to read, yet others come across as so humble, and simple. There is a quiet pride amongst them. And why not, they've faced down 3 superpowers in the last 55 years.
Now the north and south are still very much divided. Animosity and distrust is apparent. The north is poorer but they get the better govt jobs. The south did very well pre-war and under the Americans, but much of their wealth was confiscated by the Commies. But today their entrepeneurial skills have them shooting ahead in the food chain.
Vietnam By the Numbers:
The size of Germany, 40% is mountainous, 40% tropical forest, and only 20% level land.
$52USD: cost of live in nanny for a month.
Bac Quoc Pagoda
Bao Quoc Pagoda
Khai Dinh Tomb
Ming Manh Tomb
Thien Mu Pagoda overlooking Perfume River