Archive for the 'Vietnam' Category

Pearl of the Orient

Thursday, March 16th, 2006

Saigon Ho Chi Minh City

Built by the French in 1859, after they first destroyed the original citadel that was here before (destroying cities is a bit of an age old trend here it seems), it was called good old familiar Saigon up until the Americans were run out of town, after which, instead of destroying it the Vietnamese just changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City (they really do love their Uncle Ho). Everybody in the South still calls it Saigon though, but heaven forfend you should use anything but the official name when talking to Northerners or government officials. Ho Chi Miny City, HCMC, Saigon, Sai Gon or Pearl of the Orient, call it whatever you like, just as long as you go there at some point in your life.
Since all the guidebooks bemoan the fall of beautiful old Saigon to some very dedicated property development (it would seem that Saigon will be destroyed after all, and not by the communists, but by communists turned keen capitalists – this is called doi moi or new thinking, apparently), I was expecting a beautiful city full of cancerous property development growth (my stint as an architect in Queenstown, NZ has convinced me that the main talent required of property development is a horrendous loss of taste and aesthetics).

Thankfully, Saigon is still beautiful. Its looks still owe more to baron Hausmann than to Feng Shui or the real estate market. A glorious city of tree lined boulevards and immense areas of greenery everwhere, with beautiful and grand old french houses it is more Paris than Paris itself. Granted, there are skyscrapers going up everywhere, and while none of them will win any major architectural awards, they are nonetheless more varied than the standard homogenously lacking in imagination fare that passes for skyscrapers in the West. True, the immense Sheraton hotel absolutely dwarfs the old french houses in its vicinity, but then again, the sheer width and scope of the boulevards around it make Saigon better for skyscrapers than any other city I’ve ever been to.

Until the skyscrapers take everything ove though, its still got heaps of old colonial style architecture, a chinatown, a modern and posh downtown area, a river, plenty of colourful markets, and even a backpacker ghetto where you can see what Bangkok’s Khao San road probably looked like 20 years ago. Cyclos and scooters crowd the streets, noodle and bia hoi stands line the streets, there’s shops everywhere you look, but it’s still one of the most laidback and relaxed cities in Asia.

How to speak Vietnamese

Wednesday, March 15th, 2006

Don’t. Even. Try. Ever. I’m serious. Unlike Khmer, Thai and Laotian, Vietnamese uses latin script, instilling a false sense of confidence and ability in the traveller – you can read it, after all, so what could possibly be difficult? It is also monosyllabic, further tempting the naive backpacker into attempting to communicate in Vietnamese.

However, while Vietnamese might use only 24 latin characters and have no long words with complicated spelling, it is also a tonal language, and uses what looks like half a million different tonal marks to denote different ways of pronouncing the same word with completely different meanings. Actually, there are only five of what the experts call diacritical marks (or so I’m told), and what everybody else calls tonal thingies. Only five but there might as well be a million, as your average European doesn’t stand a chance of distinguishing even half of the different tones.
Lest you think I exaggerate, here’s an example or two (due to technical difficulties minus the tonal marks, I’m ever so sorry). The standard guidebook example is the word “ma”. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it. Well, it can mean any of the following, depending on the way you say it: ghost, cheek, mother, which, horse, tomb, rice seedling. Things aren’t that bad, as even the most tone deaf foreigner will probably get the point across just thanks to context I guess – not many foreigners are interested in rice seedlings and are probably just trying to track down so-and-so’s grave. Easy peasy.

Here’s an altogether more difficult problem. Faced with a fruit shake vendor who doesn’t speak English, what could make more sense than a bit of miming followed by an attempt at the Vietnamese name. Want a coconut? Well, mime a big round think, and say “dua”. Which will get you absolutely nowhere, as “dua” can mean watermelon, coconut or pineapple.

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Just give up. You have no hope. Stay away even from basic niceties, as even hello can sound like something else. I wondered why my valiant attempts at even the most basic everyday expressions were always met by blank, nonplussed faces. Here’s why – every time I said hello (“xin chao”), I probably told them my hat is full of rice. You’d be confused too.

Dune

Monday, March 13th, 2006

Mui Ne

Mui Ne is Vietnam’s best strip of beach resorts. Well, Mui Ne is actually the fishing village at one end of a 20km long bay with golden sand, consistent afternoon breezes and no name of its own.

The rest of the bay is lined with a fair few resorts and guesthouses, and even more people busily scrambling to get on the tourism gravy train. Every patch of land next to the beach is rapidly being built upon by people keen to part dollars from the tourists sweaty hands. There are two main attractions to be capitalized upon – the first is a stiff afternoon breeze that has already attracted droves of kiteboarders and windsurfers, and a few of the resorts seem to cater only to fanatic lovers of the kite or the sail.

The second attraction is a lot more unique – Mui Ne sits on Vietnam’s answer to the Sahara. For some reason unbeknownst to me, this seems to be the only part of Vietnam not covered with rice paddies. Which might just be because it is in fact covered by lots and lots of sand dunes. Not just sand dunes, but sand dunes of varying colours, depending on which part of the beach you visit. Bright shining white in one spot and a deep red in another, will all shades of yellow and orange in between.

The sand dunes continue through straight from the hinterlands and into the sea, with a line of coconut trees in between. Sorry, the dunes used to go straight into the sea. Now, there is a long line of guesthouses and coconut trees in between, which at the moment isn’t too bad, but don’t put off visiting Mui Ne for another 5 years.

At the moment though, this place would be a bit like beach paradise, if it wasn’t for a couple of factors spoiling it. The major factor is the wee fishing village at one end of the bay. The village might be small, but its fishing fleet sure isn’t. When all the boats are in port, it looks like a major beachhead invasion. This in itself isn’t so bad, as it’s what provides the plentiful and cheap seafood to be had in all the restaurants along the bay, but the fishermen (and indeed it would seem everybody here, not just the Mui Ne fishermen) still have a very non western attitude to trash – if it’s trash, out the window it goes, or in this case, over the side of the boat. Meaning that unless there’s been a heavy swell to clear the beach, this gloriously beautiful long stretch of sand can just gloriously be littered by an amazing assortment of garbage.

The second thing I don’t understand is this: the whole area seems to be nothing but coconut trees. Chock full of coconuts just waiting to fall on your head and ruin your day. Try ordering a coconut in a bar or restaurant though. “Sorry, we no have today” is the nicer option I’ve had. At another place, the barman litteraly had to walk about 5m chop one coconut off any number of midget palms lining the resort (not even having to climb it), hack it open and bring it over. Price? Twice that of a big bottle of beer.

Never mind though, stay off the coconuts unless they’re very obviously displayed at a very decent price, stay off the beach unless there’s been some heavy seas recently, and stick to the beer and the dunes, and it’s a lovely place.

Nyah nyah nyah!

Saturday, March 11th, 2006

Nha Trang

Nha Trang (pronounced Nyah Train) is famed for its turquoise waters and beautiful islands, it is Vietnam’s only real seaside resort city, apparently. In fact, it’s three cities, Nha Trang proper, where life and business goes on, regardless of the sea and the tourists, where in fact no tourist ever goes. Then there’s the Nha Trang catering to Vietnamese tourists, and sandwiched in between the two is a rapidly expanding western tourist ghetto.

This is where Vietnam finally starts to look like the rest of SE Asia. Beaches, tourists, and pubs everywhere you look. But don’t look too closely, as I can’t shake the feeling that the locals might have seen photos of what a western tourist town dive should look like, with happy hours in the pubs and banana pancakes for breakfast, but nobody has ever been to one to figure out what actually happens there. There is sort of a Khao San road wannabe, there is what I guess will some day turn into a decent red light district, with ladies of negotiable affection standing there, but at the moment they’re just looking sort of confused and unsure of what they’re supposed to be doing, the bars shut at 10 p.m., and there’s an all pervading sense of “looks sort of right, but doesn’t quite feel right”. They’ve seen images of western decadence, but they haven’t got a clue how to set about being decadent themselves. Yet.

Do go and visit it now though, as I’m sure they’ll cotton on to how it all works, and before you know it, it’ll be just like any other place in SE Asia. For the time being though, there are no crowds whatsoever, and the tourist part of town is in the middle of the longest bay, with beautiful golden sands, and good happy hour deals are to be had just one street away.

The rain in Nam falls mainly in the plains.

Friday, March 10th, 2006

Pleiku – Kon Tum – Buon Me Thuot

Tiring of being gawked at like in Quy Nhon, we decide nevertheless to continue off the tourist trail and head inland into the Central Highlands of Vietnam. At least that’s what they’re called, as Kon Tom is all of 500m above sea level, but I guess in low lying Vietnam, that’s practically mountains. In keeping with the rest of the country, the “mountains” are home to the Montagnards, or hill people. Slightly different tribes than up North, but colourful and different nonetheless. Not that it’s very obvious at first glance, as these hill tribes seem to have assimilated into modern Vietnamese society much more than up North, and they now live in pretty standard Vietnamese houses. The only thing that jumps out is the community hall house, which has the highest roof of any thatched cottage I’ve ever seen, to show the world how important it is.

Apart from this, the region is not nearly as scenic as we expected, but it is a lot hotter than we were led to expect, and without the solace of a cooling sea breeze, its positively roasting here, which makes our mid-day bike ride around the countryside not the smartest idea to date. Never mind, this is as good a day as any to practice saying “one big bottle of mineral water” in Vietnamese. Which is a tonal language, so while I’ve got the words down pat, there’s no guessing about the intonation, so for all I know I’m telling the shopkeepers that their mother is a cow.

Can’t have got it all wrong though, as we make it through the day without being set upon by irate shopkeepers and without heatstroke, so chalk up another linguistic win. Besides the satisfaction in that, the whole region is a bit of a let down, so we decide to get the long bus ride back through innumerable coffee plantations (Buon Me Thuot is home to most of Vietnam’s coffee production, and delicious coffee it is, too) and back down to the coast. Since we’re off the tourist trail, the bus is close to a chicken bus, and expensive to boot. This must be the only place in asia where the tourist buses are cheaper than the local chicken buses. This small detour through the mountains has cost more than the whole tourist bus ticket all the way from Hue to Saigon.

Celebrating International Women’s Day

Wednesday, March 8th, 2006

Quy Nhon

Despite being thoroughly off the tourist track, while being in fact right on it, and conveniently placed half way on a major tourist run, Quy Nhon never sees any tourists, which makes it a very interesting town to visit. Never in my life have I felt quite so exotic, with passers by openly staring, little children daring each other to run up and shout “hello!”, and people on scooters doing double takes, staring and almost falling off.

Besides the attraction of actually featuring as the whole town’s attraction yourself, the town has a half decent municipal beach, only slightly marred by a large fishing village smack in the middle of it, and a bit more marred by the fishing village not having any sewerage facilities to go with the mass of people living in it.

By far the best beach though is a short bike ride out of town, at a nearby leper colony. Yup, you heard right – there’s a leprosy clinic with a very nice village for the patients and their families, situated in a secluded bay just outside town, with a long deserted, casuarina-fringed beach with golden sand. Usually it’s supposed to be deserted, as the locals don’t really go in for beaches, and possibly because they don’t go in for leprosy that much, but today is International Women’s day and a public holiday in Vietnam so the beach is full of Vietnamese picnickers.

While I’m surreptitiously checking for fingers and noses in the sand, a friendly local approaches with more determination and bravery than usual and explains that he and his school’s people’s commitee are on the beach for a day’s outing celebrating women’s day, and that they would very much like to see a couple of foreigners and talk to them. Not wishing to appear unfriendly, we graciously agree to join them. Let me tell you, I could get used to be being a star attraction – not much talking occurs, as the only person who speaks English is the school’s English teacher and his English is virtually incomprehensible (no wonder nobody speaks understandable English here if that’s the standard of the teachers). We do however get offered heaps of fruit and local snacks and again, politeness overrules the “cook it, peel it or forget it” rule, but the real fun part for the locals is offering the tourists rice wine and making them scarf it down in one. Oh, well, at least it will hopefully kill the germs on the unwashed fruit. It might not kill the germs, but the midday sun combined with the midday alco binge does kill all inclination to move around and explore for the rest of the day.

Man does need sustenance though, and in the evening we decide to treat ourselves to a nice seafood dinner at a posh local restaurant, which comes strongly recommended by Barbara. Once again, not a soul speaks a word of English, which makes it hard to order anything beyond drinks, but a solution is quickly found in that would the tourist come to the fish tanks and point out the fish he wants. Sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? Not quite, as the waiters seem determined to not see the apparently cheapo fish I’m pointing out, and seem set on me pointing out the Iguana next to the fishes. We finally seem to agree on a fish, and I return to the table, dreading how I’ll explain the massive lizard about to be served to us to ever patient L, but thankfully, some sort of fish duly appears, although the cooking process seems to have changed it’s shape dramatically from when I pointed it out swimming in the tank. No worries though, at least it’s a fish, and big enough for two so we’re all set and happy, but before we’re halfway through the fish, it turns out that we seem to have ordered a huge seafood hotpot as well. Dreading how many other things on the menu we’ve unknowingly ordered, I make a quick escape back to the hotel, well, a slow waddle is more like it, to get some more money as the place really is posh and expensive looking, and waddle back before we get enough food to feed Africa, only to find out that an evening’s being waited on hand and foot in the most expensive restaurant in town, with enough food to feed a family of eight and drinks to go with it, costs about 15us$. Compared to prices anywhere else in the world for the same service, it would be cheaper to fly to Quy Nhon just to eat here.

Kiwis to the rescue!

Tuesday, March 7th, 2006

Quy Nhon

I might have given the impression previously that independent travel is impossible in Vietnam. Not quite so, but here’s how it does work:

Buying tickets for transport is virtually imposssible on your own. Ticket offices at the train stations will ignore you, see straight through you, and generally pretend that the oversized white person with a big backpack turning a bright shade of pink in front of them, jumping up and down and generally beginning to behave quite unrationally, just doesn’t exist. Tickets are therefore bought through hotels and travel agencies, which means that every tourist in Vietnam, down to the very last one, mainly travels up or down the exact same route with the exact same stops in the exact same spots. No imagination is allowed as per government decree it would seem. The only upshot to this is that the open bus tourist buses are so cheap there is no humanly possible way of doing it cheaper. To somebody as tight when travelling as me, that makes up for most failings.

Sometimes though, it doesn’t take much at all, and you’re stranded in “no tourists ever” land. A simple move, such as getting off of the bus halfway between Hoi An and Nha Trang (a mammoth 12 hour journey otherwise), and stopping in Quy Nhon, a big fishing and industrial port, with a sizeable town attached.

This is where independent travel problem #2 manifests itself, as a fair number of embarassed receptionists manage to convey after much gesticulation, miming and broken English: “hotel not allowed foreigners“. Which, as you can probably guess, throws a bit of a spanner in the works as these foreigners would very much appreciate having somewhere to stay.

Virtually no English is spoken anywhere since Quy Nhon is very much off the beaten path (which is funny, as it is in fact, very much on the path, the bus goes right past it – I have travelled long and far in my life to get to remote places in the hope of finding somewhere actually remote, and it is quite an insult to find such a remote gem right in the middle of it all).

Boiling in the midday sun, we find one hotel that’s listed in the lonely planet but it turns out to have reverted to an army hostel and foreigners very much not welcome (or maybe the receptionist was just enthusiastically pointing out the view of the pavement across the road, I’m not sure), so we stumble ever onwards and just as we are on the verge of despair, not to mention heatstroke and dehydration, we stumble into ta-daaaaah! (major fanfare please):

Barbara’s Kiwi Cafe and Hostel
A haven for the independent traveller, run by a genial kiwi lady called Barbara (as you might have guessed). The hotel is a gem of an old building, slightly run down compared to the mini bar cum satellite tv splendour of the standard tourist fare, but with an even more splendidly decadent feel because of it. Barbara is wonderfully helpful (an added bonus in a town where she might be the only person who speaks english), the hotel has cold drinks and food (the only western food in town at that, if you are so inclined), and last but not least, Barbara being a kiwi, she stocks a whole collection of items designed to make a kiwi homesick, (and me even more, err, I guess kiwisick would be the word – I don’t think I’ve ever missed Queenstown quite as much as I did that night in Quy Nhon), from all the magazines all the way to vegemite and Anzac biscuits, Barbara has it. Great place, great ambiance, worth stopping in Quy Nhon just because of it, it will quite possibly make it on the top hostels ever list.

Sacred site vs. bomb site

Monday, March 6th, 2006

My Son

My Son is an UNESCO World Heritage site just outside Hoi An. A collection of Hindu temples built around the 10th century CE by the Cham people who used to live in central Vietnam, it is very much like Angkor in style, but a lot less overgrown. It lies in a remoteish valley surrounded by mountains, and was pretty much undiscovered until the 20th century.

Well, undiscovered by the western world, I’m sure there were a few locals who liked to hang out here, but they probably don’t count. This would normally mean a pleasant stroll through a really well preserved temple complex, but no, since the Americans and the Viet Cong managed to preserve Hoi An through apparently mutual agreement, they needed somewhere else to vent their frustrations.

In what seems to be par for the course in Vietnam, the Viet Cong holed up in the temples, and the Americans proceeded to carpet bomb the area with B52s (you don’t want to go walkabout in a jungle full of locals holding a mighty grudge, do you). Since once they levelled the temples, they couldn’t make out the ruins from the trees, and couldn’t find the Viet Cong, they dumped agent orange defoliant all over it too.

Despite their best efforts they managed to miss a couple of towers, and thanks to a few dedicated archaeologists (and more probably a good number of demining experts), a few buildings have been restored for our viewing pleasure today. Not much remains though, and if you’ve ever seen Angkor proper, or Angkor style temples in Southern Laos, don’t bother. They are nice, and quite interesting if you’ve never seen the like before, but they don’t really merit the world heritage site status for their sightseeing value.

In fact, it has just dawned on me that all these world heritage sites in Vietnam have been given the status not so much on merit compared to other places in the world, but because of a long history of non appreciation of their value by the locals and their not so welcome visitors, UNESCO status being their one and only hope of ever surviving.

Bia Hoi in Hoi An

Sunday, March 5th, 2006

Hoi An

The road South from Hue leads past Danang, a big industrial sort of place, past China Beach (of, I’m told, TV series fame), where GIs used to come for R&R, and on towards Hoi An.

Hoi An is an old chinese merchant town, sort of like Melaka and Georgetown in Malaysia. A very quaint old town, situated on the banks of a river and full of very atmospheric and picturesque old chinese trading houses. The whole old part of town is another UNESCO world heritage site in Vietnam. Not only is the town a world heritage site, it sits right next to another one – My Son, a collection of roughly 1000 year old Cham hindu temples that look a lot like Angkor in design, but are a lot less overgrown. Hue, Hoi An, My Son, Ha Long bay – all UNESCO world heritage sites – they lay it on a bit strong in these parts, don’t you think?

Anyway, before you come to Hoi An, you need to prepare. Despite its world heritage status, there won’t be much sightseeing being done here. Shopping is the order of the day and there is no mercy. Hoi An is famous for three things – its old town, its tailors and silk shops, and its seafood. Well, amongst tourists it’s really only the second two that count. The town is just a pleasant backdrop while you shop and dine your way to oblivion. Actually, on second thought, it’s just the shops that matter, the town is pleasant background, and the restaurants are just where you pile on the calories for the next marathon shopping session. There are tailors selling everything you could want everywhere you look in every sort of material in every sort of style. Contrary to the tailoring in Thailand, this doesn’t even look half bad. Get measured up in the morning and you’re all kitted out by the evening. And if you’re in a rush, they will also do you whatever you want overnight.

The tailors and restaurants are two sides of the same coin, of course. The shops are full of enthusiastic female tourists choosing materials and designing their own clothes, and the restaurants are full of vaguely dazed looking blokes knocking back “bia hoi” – the local vietnamese sort of cheap beer, hoping to get to a decent anesthetic buzz going before they’re faced with the tonnes of clothes they’ll have to lug through the rest of the country.

Beer Ahoy!

Sunday, March 5th, 2006

Bia hoi translates into “fresh beer” and it is world famous in Vietnam. Basically, it is cheap, weak tasting, watery beer, made to be drunk as quickly as it is brewed. Cheap and watery it may be, but nasty it is not. In fact, with the tropical heat frying your brain, you soon learn to appreciate the decently refreshing volumes of bia hoi you can drink without keeling over totally legless.

The only down side to it is that as it isn’t designed to last long, it can’t be transported, so if you get to like one sort of Bia Hoi, you aren’t likely to find it in the next town down the road. Which isn’t much of a biggie, as I’ve yet to find a bia hoi that didn’t hit the spot. There is possibly a second issue with it as well – since it’s too cheap, most restaurants won’t serve it and you only get it at improvised roadside stalls and the likes (apart from in Hoi An, where you get it everywhere), but since bia hoi rings in at around 0.20us$ a decent glass, who could possibly care?