Friday, November 27, 2009

Tomb Raiding on Two Wheels, Hue, Nov 25-28, 2009

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
Ming Manh Tomb

Bao Quoc Pagoda

Khai Dinh Tomb

Ming Manh Tomb

Thien Mu Pagoda overlooking Perfume River

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Heavenly Halong Bay Nov 21-23, 2009

Halong Bay if you believe the Vietnamese, is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. It has a UNESCO stamp to back it up, plus there is nary a soul anywhere who will tell you that its overblown and overrated. The 2000 drop-dead gorgeous limestone pinnacles rise from the emerald coloured Gulf Of Tonkin, like humps on a dragon (if you believe the local lore). Whatever, after 8 exhausting, demoralizing days fighting H1N1, and God knows what else in Hanoi, it was a ladder from the almighty, giving us our first fabulous days in Vietnam. Smog and motorbike free, our lungs could breath and we could finally chill without the constant threat of a motor bike wrapping itself around us.

Our one regret was our limited time. We booked a 3 day, 2 night cruise and wound up spending a night on Cat Ba Island. The jungle trek under a canopy of lush green foliage alone would have been worth the trip.
Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island sunset

Another interesting feature of this area, and other coastal regions, are the fishing communities. They are total functioning communities floating around their fish farms. Stores, gas stations, eateries...they're all there. We saw an abundance of dogs on them and feared that they were food. However we were told that they were guard dogs, and thefts among neighbours and fellow fish farmers was common. Children are boated to private schools on Cat Ba Island

From Cat Ba we also beached for a few hours on Monkey Island, where the 'wild monkeys' on the beach make moves on your cameras and bags, anything that can pass as containing food. Pesky critters.

Alas, has we been healthier, we'd have gone for a longer and more remote stay, with better kayaking and biking. This spot immediately shoots up to Trish's top five, and is one spot we would return to.

Early morning, Cat Ba Island harbour

Thursday, November 19, 2009

H1N1 In Hanoi and Mao vs Ho

Presidential Palace
Temple of Literature

Hanoi, Nov 14-21 and 24

Well before one lands in Vietnam, you are forewarned and buried with redflags and alerts about touts, scams, thieves, annoyances, dangers and cheats. Indeed we saw evidence of this immediately after hitting the arrivals area when teams of young men plied us with questionable offers. But then a women walked by and said with perfect English and a casual smile, "good evening", and kept going. It was an unsolicited, spontaneous courtesy we rarely received in China.

We were also unprepared for H1N1. Of all the gin joints in all the towns, we (or Wayne) have to get H1N1 here. Why not the first week back at work? Why not a more serene locale like Phu Quoc Island. Our buddy Tom says Hanoi on a good day is dark and cold. On a better day it's grey and cold. Don't think he was only talking about the weather.
Hoan Kiem Lake

Last week Wayne had similar symptoms but licked it in 2days then hiked for 7 hours. Unbeknownst to us, that was H1N1 playing hide and seek before the full assault. So it's unplanned downtime. This is partially why independent travelling works----go at our own pace, speed, and when health and desire are there. But its excruciatingly painful sitting around. Thankfully Hanoi isn't really a place to do world class sights, museums, we don't feel like we are missing the world. Truthfully, it's a rather unattractive town.

Yet it's an atmospheric town. Sure Asian chic, colonial architecture, French thumbprints enhance it all. And there's some lovely parks and lakes. Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, other temples and museums (tho it'd be pretty hard to impress us after China).

Speaking of Ho, as in Uncle Ho, or Ho Chi Minh, he is much venerated, as is Mao in in China. But in China, it's almost mocking-like. He's on cigarette lighters, t shirts, mugs, every cheap trinket as well as currency. Uncle Ho doesn't quite get the demi-god routine, but it's real for him. There seems to be more or a genuine reverence. He smoked the French, then the Americans and delivered Vietnam from colonialism. He travelled and lived the world, and wasn't so much the idealogue that he wouldn't speak with the US and French (who ignored his attempts at dialogue pre-war). So as we joined the masses to view his embalmed body, it was viewing a legend who'd come by it honestly.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Mao was a peasant and his thoughtless policies costs millions of lives. He is remembered for establishing the PRC, but the economic miracle has nothing to do with communism as it does with i.ndividual moxy. But the Chinese love symbols, however plasticized.

Back to the motobikes: their ensuing beehive of haphazard energy that underscore and italicize Hanoi for us. With the doorman at the hotel, I rode shotgun on one of these death traps. There is no signalling, no shoulder checking, darting in and out, barrelling up the wrong side of the side....its as if everyone assumes the other motorists in the same road psychosis and a mutually assured destruction will occur if anybody begins to follow sensible rules of engagement.I'm in no hurry to for another ride in Hanoi, though we plan to rent our own in Phu Quoc Island.

Until one crosses a laneless road with an endless cacophony of these bikes honking and jetting about, one won't get Hanoi. And here in the historic heart, the old town, aka the Old Quarter where we are ensconced in Hanoi Hotel A1 (our big splurge of $45US), the narrow maze-like alleys and streets are dominated by these pesky projectiles. Ironically, it is the volume, congestion, pollution and seeming chaos we'd expected in China. We're convinced the smog levels contributed to our poor health.

Old Quarter

Years ago homes and businesses were taxed according to their width. So most places are narrow but long, usually 3 or 4 stories high at most. Every inch of space is taken up by roving motobikes, relentless hawkers, knockoff vendors, eateries (which usually means a woman with a few pots, bowls and some short plastic stools rustling up some pho, or BBQ pork over vermicelli), 'legit' stores where we scored great deals on genuine imitation HUGO BOSS prescription glasses ($60) and a GUCCI watch ($20), open stalls for meat and produce, and on and on. Sidewalks you ask? You mean those bits of broken paving stones and humps of sand? Why they're for the parked motobikes, ya silly.

It's a long way from Kansas yet it's both modern and medieval, appealing but also as Tom says, dark and cold----sunlight has rarely penetrated through this canopy of activity, and there is way more crumbling concretechicture than there is real colonial charm. And the truth is, despite our whining here, Hanoi is known as the grand dame of Asia, far less polluted and dishevelled than say Bangkok of Saigon. Joy.

Historically, each street in the Old Quarter was named after the items or merchandise it sold or produced. So you have silk street, blacksmith and chicken streets, but also pickled fish and clam worm streets. If they renamed the streets based on today's fare, most would be called tourist trap alley.

Nevertheless, one soldiers on because the relentless options and places to buy has a hypnotic pull. And you can all but be guaranteed of a really, really good street baguette somewhere, a decent cup of coffee, service with English and a smile, and not having to dodge spitters and clouds of second hand smoke (our post China traumas are coming out here).

At first I thought the tightness in the chest was the exceedingly poor air quality. Indeed it'd be Waterloo for any asthmatic. Thank God for the food. There's high end western dinners with imported wine for $12-15 pp. Or low brow local for $1.75 on a plastic stool as motobikes whizz by. I reckon each is great. Though I'd rather eat in places where Trish is the only white flesh around, versus joints where I'm the only Asian around. For now, while I'm sick, she's squashed the street eats, especially since she is showing a few early flu signs herself.

Nov 24. We've just returned from Halong Bay. We're still a long way from healthy but three days away from the motobike rat race will massage the soul and we finally got some decent days in Vietnam. With just hours in between our Halong Bay cruise to our overnight train to Hue, its good riddance to Hanoi. Sorry we'll always remember it for 8 days of sickness, but that's travelling.
Favourite food: Embarrassed to say, but the homespun Italian at Mediterraneo was to die for, so it's the hands down winner for western food.
For local, the deep fried crab and pork spring rolls that are served with a mixed grill of mystery meat, and a mountain of fresh herbs. The locals line up for this $2 meal that's impossible to finish.

Vietnam By The Numbers:
1.Butts it kicked (6)--- The Khmer, The Cham, The Mongols, The Chinese, the French and the Americans
2. Population: 80 mill
3. Estimated number of motobikes: 18 mill

Monday, November 16, 2009

Destroying the Past To Make A Brighter Future (Kunming, Nov 5-7, 2009)


Kunming as capital of the province of Yunnan, and our last major city, is the gateway to our last region of China. It's hardly worth noting except for the pix that show some of the seemingly wanton destruction of the past and unchecked race to glamour and shine.

Twenty years ago Kunming had a provincial charm to it. One of the furthest cities from Beijing, it sauntered at its own pace; it housed many of the distinct minority groups within China, especially the Chinese muslims. Now the muslim quartered has been bulldozed over. Old Kunming as seen in the pix, is also being flattened for, "a Brighter Future.”

It will be rebuilt to resemble the old but for yuppified China. And shiny it certainly is. But it does offer something we havent seen in more than 6 weeks---clear blue, blue sky.

Amidst the shining new pedestrian walkway, we found 16 blind masseuses (ok, some weren't really blind....this is China after all) So we all got massages of varying quality.

Then Trish found a pearl from heaven in the form of Dairy Queen. With some new mates from San Francisco, Curtis and Linda,

two people we connected with immediately,we dug into blizzard ice creams. Yet DQ like the surrounding modernity, was so new that wires hung from the ceiling, the windows had just been installed, the locks weren't in place, the uniforms still had the creases of newness; typical. The race to wealth, the sprint to succeed, the price of prosperity. Our continued segment into less urbanized, minority rich China shows the other side of the Olympic glitz. Even Chinese tv is replete with glitz, images of harmony, wealth and progress. Truth enough, hunger has largely been eradicated, 100s of millions no longer live in poverty. Yet the media have a saccarin fa├žade, critical self analysis or dissent is unheard of, all is great, and will soon be even greater.

But Kunming still has West Lake Park. For China, it's a decent city park and shows a laid back urban vibe we haven't seen lots of. Street musicians are scattered about, playing for the joy of it or cigarettes. One such bloke on slide guitar (see pix) did a funked up Chinese classic before launching into a pretty decent rendition of, "Jingle Bells."

Kunming is also the beginning of the end of China for us. Vietnam is around the corner, and though we are ready to move on, its been a great run, better than we imagined. Seeing China 20yrs later and with Trish’s eyes has been enormously gratifying. She understands my mom’s and my eccentricities better. She gets why we talk so loud. She sees that being able to sleep anywhere and in any position is an element of superiority we Chinese have. And she sees that everything revolves around food and family.

Job For Losers: Traffic Cop

Job For People With No Social Skills: Complaints Office (or as they say, Informant’s Line)
Favorite Bad Translation: Deformed Man Ending Place (toilet for disabled)

Next: north to Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

For Wayne Ng's latest travel adventures and book " Finding the Way: A Novel of Lao Tzu ," please go to his website and blog at...