Archive for the 'Vietnam' Category

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Saturday, March 4th, 2006


Normally I wouldn’t enthuse about restaurants recommended by the LonelyPlanet, as a writeup in LP usually just means that the service has gone to the dogs, and the prices have skyrocketed (and in Vietnam, there’s always the added risk that dog has been removed from the menu).

But I will hereby join the long long list of people raving about the Lac Thanh restaurant, which is already heartily recommended by every single guide in the world. The food is OK – nothing amazing, but very decent and at very decent prices. The beers are also cold, but the beers are cold everywhere these days. What makes it special though is hilarious Mr. Lac himself. Mr. Lac is deaf and mute, so there’s no language barrier, as it’s all point and mime and sign and the place is a riot. The second attraction is what I suspect is the world’s most famous bottle opener. Words cannot describe it, but I was given a souvenir one, and am now available for demonstrations to interested parties with sufficient beer bottles in their fridge.

Oh, and lest I forget. Hue is famous for its food as one of the emperors was very finicky about what he ate and demanded that he never be served the same dish twice in one year, so the local populace had to come up with a lot of different dishes to entertain him. At Lac Thanh, the star of the menu is the roll your own rolls. You get a pile of rice papers, lettuce, mint, green figs, bananas, and the main dish for the stuffing, and you roll your own rolls and dip them in peanut sauce with nuoc mam. Vietnam isn’t a place for the “cook it, peel it or forget it” brigade, nor is it for the squeamish, they like to play with their food here, and there’s no getting around raw uncooked veggies. People with previous experience in rolling big fat spliffs are also at a distinct advantage here.

Hue good

Saturday, March 4th, 2006


Hue, not so far from the DMZ has got sights to see, it seems. It became the capital of imperial Vietnam in 1802, so there should be a fair bit to see, one thinks. Alas, not so. Hue was bitterly fought over in the 1968 Tet Offensive, and was for all practical intents and purposes comprehensively demolished. After the war, the destruction continued, as imperial Hue was much to politically incorrect for the communists, so what little was left when the artillery left, virtually disappeared by the time UNESCO cottoned on and declared it a heritage site in 1993.

Nonetheless, old Hue is still a great city. On the banks of the Perfume river (well, it’s not too bad, but it’s not exactly Chanel #5), is the old imperial citadel of which there’s just enough left on the outside to entice you to fork over the not so modest entry fee, only to discover that inside the walls, it’s practically empty. A couple of buildings have been nicely restored, but of the old forbidden city, just a trace remains. Or, as the locals like to call these things “beautiful vestiges”. Outside the imperial citadel, the city has a great atmosphere and the food is worth fighting a war over, and even further out, in the surrounding countryside, there’s a goodly number of imperial tombs to be visited, all of which are really nicely laid of parks with a few temples thrown in, surrounded by just the right sort of rice paddy with picturesque village countryside to cycle through.

So despite the interesting non existence of the sites to see, altogether not a bad place to come. And that’s before we found the Thien Mu pagoda. Which is a nice pagoda in its own right, but is also the home of one of the weirdest “vestiges” of the war – in 1963 a buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc from said pagoda drove to Saigon in an Austin and set himself on fire, which didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but he did make the headlines all over the world. Anyway, part of the pagoda is sort of a shrine to him, complete with Austin, minus charred remains on display, a bit disappointingly if you ask me. There is a photo of “the indestructible heart” though, so all is not lost.

Hue to go

Friday, March 3rd, 2006


Hue (rhymes with way) is way south of Hanoi. So far South in fact that it’s in what a previous generation called South Vietnam, and South of what 30 years ago used to be called the De-Militarized Zone or the DMZ, which funnily enough, despite the name, was the most fought over bit of Vietnam in the American war. 30 years later, you can still see leftovers from the war – bomb craters and bunkers in the rice paddies and American tourists visiting war sites. Of which there are many, with names most people have heard before, mainly immortalized by Hollywood – Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill, The Rock pile, all of which have been left to decay, so there’s not really much to see. Apparently even visiting the Ho Chi Minh Trail is a popular option in these parts. Which is a bit of a non event for sight seeing as far as I’m concerned, as it was designed to be as inconspicuous and invisible as possible…

“please stop and do procedure to see our beautiful vestige”

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

Hoa Lu & Tam Coc

Is what you read on a sign when you get to Hoa Lu. Hoa Lu is an ancient capital of Vietnam. So ancient in fact that whatever was around when it was the capital (968 to 1010CE) isn’t around any more. All you get to see these days are a couple of temples that were reconstructed in the 17 century, and a few bits of what the Vietnamese call “vestiges of ancient capital”, or as the rest of the world usually labels them “pottery shards”. Oh, ok, and a few bricks of what supposedly used to be the foundations of something.

The temples are in fact quite nice chinese looking temples, but in the manner of all such things, they all look the same to western tourists and it’s hard to discern any deeper meaning or logic or symbolism by yourself. The Vietnamese tour guide is a stellar example of his species in that he completely and totally fails to tell us anything useful at all, so it’s only after consulting the standard backpacker fallbacks of LonelyPlanet and Footprints, that I find out that the inscriptions on one of the temples say “Dai Co Viet” (whatever that means, sometimes even the footprints guide isn’t all that useful), and that that’s where the modern day name of “Viet Nam” derives from.

Tam Coc on the other hand is beyond spectacular. It’s Ha Long bay all over again, but with rice paddies instead of the sea. Sheer cliffs of black limestone rise out of the muddy ricefields, with a river meandering through them. Once again, no real way of seeing it on your own, but this time it’s at least slightly understandable. You need a boat to go see this place and of course, you can’t rent one, but people are more than happy to row you around.

Which is just as well, as I don’t think any tourist could row the way they do. Most of them row with their feet. Yup, you heard right. They sit in the back of the boat, facing forward, feet on oars, and away we go. Through rice paddies, between spectacular cliffs that would be any sport climbers wet dream, and through three small caves to add to the feeling of the really spectacular.

One day, Tam Coc will be world famous for its sport climbing, I’m sure. In the meantime, it should be world famous for it’s scenery, and possibly also for the major traffic jam of boats on the river, which might also be the only case of Vietnamese traffic that doesn’t involve a lot of ear rending noise.

Planes and trains and boats (no automobiles)

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

Lao Cai – Ha Noi

Like I said, the night train is a wee gem, but this time we’re in the even more luxurious part of the train. Even softer beds and air conditioning. The even softer beds mean that this time there’s no safe luggage storage underneath your bunk like the first time (which meant that anybody out to nick my bags would have had to lift my sleeping body off of the bed first), and the air conditioning means the same it does anywhere else in SE Asia – people trying to develop cryogenic sleep technology should come here first. Well and truly frozen and feeling rather like a side of beef we rattle on through the night and towards Ha Noi. The train compartments might be comfortable, if a bit on the antarctic side, but the train itself rocks and rolls and rattles and shakes and bumps and grinds and shreaks and squeals through what sounds like rail tracks still damaged from american bombing. Not a place for the sea sick, this train, no wonder it trundles along at a stately 35kph, despite it’s sleek modern look. So far, I’ve spent more nights on planes, trains and boats than I did in guesthouses…

The fog clears

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006


The next day the weather is even worse if anything. Not only can you not even guess that there might be a view beneath Sapa, you couldn’t even guess there’s a Sapa right in front of and around you. And it’s raining, or rather there’s water precipitating out of the clouds from all directions. Almost like Irish rain, this Sapa cloud.

Today’s walk takes us further down the mountain though and by the time we’re well and truly drenched, not to mention well and truly muddy, there are actually quite a few things to see, and H’Mong kids selling things all around. Most notably, the kids are selling bamboo walking poles and plastic raincoats. Very authentic, but most of the tourists don’t seem to mind. Now, to avoid any confusion, I fully admit that I’m part of the horde of tourists descending on the hill tribes, but looking at the colourful crowds around me, it’d be anybody’s guess whether Sapa is a better place to see colourful H’Mong or a better place to see colourful French and German tourists.

What strikes me most in these “remote” villages is that all these “simple” hill tribe folk (one can’t but get the feeling that the Vietnamese have a very condenscending attitude to them), are actually capable of speaking many more foreign languages and a lot better at that, than the official Vietnamese tourist guide assigned to escort us around the villages. All the better to sell you stuff, of course, as the walk through the really nice villages, and the beautiful rice paddy terraces, is more of a stroll through a blanket, cap, bag and musical instrument market than a trek through remote mountains.

The official tour guides in Vietnam are the only real let-down so far. As far as I can tell, you can’t really tramp around the country on your own here, it all has to be done in organized trips, and at the best of times, your bus/train ticket has to be booked through a travel agency and any sights to be seen that aren’t smack in the middle of town, are accompanied by a Vietnamese guide. Who as a rule speaks next to no English, the English he can speak isn’t understandable to anybody but him, and if you are so lucky as to understand what he’s got to say, do not, under any circumstance, try to ask a question he is not well and truly prepared for, as you’ll just get a prerehearsed answer to one of the “standard 20 questions tourists ask”.

By the time we get back to town in the afternoon, the cloud has lifted, and I am amazed (and not a bit shocked) to see that there’s more to Sapa than met the eye the day before. A lot more in fact, as it turns out that Sapa’s about ten times as big as one could make out the day before, and besides all the hotels, also has a church, a lake, markets galore, and a lot more. Alas, it’s even less attractive than it was the day before, so it’s back to Lao Cai and the train we go…

Smelly feet? Not me.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2006

Ha Noi – Hue

The Reunification Express is another overnight gem of a train. It runs from Ha Noi in the North to Saigon (oh, ok, if you insist HoChiMinh City) in the South. It’s the same sort of deal as the train to Lao Cai – airconditioned four berth compartment with soft bunks. Leaves Ha Noi in the evening, and gets to Saigon quite a while later. But it does stop in a few places in between, and the ancient imperial city of Hue is where it stops late in the morning the next day so it’s just grand.

And so is the airconditioning. Somebody in the compartment could do smelly feet for the olympics and it’s not me. The way the train is rocking and heaving and jumping all over the place you don’t even have time to notice the smell though, as you’re hanging on for dear life – the train might be nice, but the tracks sure aren’t. This is worse than Cambodian roads

Tourists in the mist

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006


The overnight train from Ha Noi to Lao Cai on the Chinese border is a real gem. Meaning only that not too much money gets you quite a lot of comfort and happiness. It leaves Ha Noi in the evening, you spend the night in a lockable 4 berth compartment with nice soft bunks, and get to Lao Cai in the morning, nicely rested and ready for a new day. I could get used to this sort of travel.

Lao Cai is the border crossing into China, heading towards Kunming, and the gateway to Sapa, meaning that it’s just a transit sort of a town, where you either go into China (obviously) or hop on a minibus going up into the mountains towards Sapa underneath Mt. Fansipan. Sapa is a funny sort of place, miles out in the middle of very hilly nowhere on the China-Vietnam border, reachable only after 12 hours on a train, it should be well and truly in the sticks, but it’s not. Sapa is well and truly on the tourist map. The French came here first, decades ago, mainly because it’s nice and cool and in the mountains, and they felt at home with a climate that’s made for apples and cherries rather than mangos and pineapples. These days this is where almost every tourist in North Vietnam comes to gawk at hill tribes, me included, of course.

In my defense, the hill tribes a.k.a montagnards, or as they prefer to call themselves the H’Mong, the Dzao, the Tay and I’m guessing many more that slipped my mind, are indeed very colourful and ethnic, and their villages all quaint and picturesque, but the main attraction should be the hills, and even more so the rice paddy terraces that have been carved out of the hills. These apparently cover every bit of every hill around, and stretch all the way to Mt. Fansipan, Vietnam’s highest mountain.

Or so I’m told, after all, it’s still spring here, and it can get quite cold and misty up in the mountains. So much so that for the most part of the day, all you see is confused tourists on so called “treks” appearing and disappearing into the mist, interspersed with the occasional “Hello! You buy blanket from me!“. Not much of a view today, but every cloud has a silver lining (and believe me, in Sapa you’re well and truly inside a cloud), because whenever the mist clears a bit, the glimpses you get of Sapa just reinforce the initial impression of it being a rather spectacular dump, on the edge of a rather spectacular view.

Oh, rats!

Monday, February 27th, 2006

Halong Bay

Alas, the first day’s impressions of a boat tour of Halong bay are somewhat dimmed by all the rats that seem to start their party as soon as the boat’s generator switches off. Picture this, you’re at sea on a really nice junk, happy and well fed, the bumps of life smoothed out by a liberal application of Bia HaNoi, the boat life slowly winds down and you decide to turn in. You make it to your cabin without falling overboard and a couple of minutes the generator switches off, plunging all into complete silence. Nothing but you, the boat and the rocks in the misty night.

About 30 seconds later it begins. “squeeak squeaaak squeaaak” and you can just imagine the little buggers having a big party in the spaces between the walls and the decks. Scuttle scuttle, squeak squeak. All night long. Which might even not be so bad, as it sort of drowns out the fact that the walls between the cabins are so paper thin that you can, without much effort at all, hear the person in the cabin next to you inhale and exhale.

But no matter, this is but a small bump on the road of life, and rats are a fact of life on the road, even when the road turns out to be in fact the sea. I still heartily recommend the overnight cruise on Halong bay to everybody, not just stingy backpackers (I mean, come on, the equivalent in Milford sound, NZ would probably require you to sell your children into slavery).

A slightly bigger bump on the road is the fact that I actually fully intended to go deep water soloing in Halong bay. Which offers endless possibilities to the budding and not so budding deep water soloist. Now, I know this might be just me chickening out, but somehow, while cloudy, drizzly, foggy conditions might help the atmospherics of Halong bay, and possibly not really deter determined climbers, the winter conditions really did deter me. Winter in North Vietnam is not to be underestimated. This might still be the tropics, but very tropical they’re not in February. The sea’s freezing and the air temperature isn’t much better. The only thing soloed were a couple of deep glasses of the local brew.

Halong? Very long and very wide.

Sunday, February 26th, 2006

Halong Bay

Which means “dragon descending” apparently. A fantastic Karst landscape, traditionally believed to be created by the thrashings of a dragon descending into the bay. Slightly less traditionally believed to be created by water acting on the limestone rock. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and all that. Regardless of how you believe it was created, an amazing landscape of uncountable islands and jagged rocks, rising straight out of the sea, shaped in the most amazing forms, full of overhangs and caves. The sort of landscape which, if you’d see it on a painting in a Chinese restaurant, you’d go “ye gods! what utter, total kitsch”, but in real life even more impressive.

In fact, probably the only thing in the world that outnumbers the islands and rocky outcrops in Halong Bay are the junks that take tourists on cruises to and through said islands and bays. Get to Halong city harbour and you are faced with what seems to be a million junks, and what seems to promise a major stinking traffic jam all the way through the islands for the next couple of days.

But ah! Not so grim, as it turns out. To begin with, this is affordable backpacker luxury unimaginable anywhere else in the world. 30 us$ per person gets you on a huge junk together with about 12 other tourists. There is a top deck to watch the scenery slowly float past, a big middle deck where you’re served the meals included in the price (more food than any horde of starved backpackers could demolish on the best of days and twice a day at that), and the lower deck with the cabins. Nice double bed cabins, every single last one of them with an en suite bathroom, electricity and warm water (ok, I admit, warm water only on occasion, but still). Luxury beyond belief.

Still, no amount of luxury and good food would help if you were stuck in a steaming, fuming traffic jam of tourists. Which is where the sheer size and scope of Halong bay comes into play. The place is so huge that apart for a few key choke points, you never really get too crowded as all the junks find their own way through the islands and bays and moor in their own chosen little romantic spot for the night.

And it still gets better and better. Even the spots that get visited by every single last one of us tourists are more than amazing enough to make up for it. For example – every boat visits Suprise cave. Fully expecting this to be an overhyped dive of a cave, packed chock full of tourists, it turns out to be the most amazing little gem, and trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been to the much hyped Skocjan and Postojna caves in Slovenia, one of which is an UNESCO site in its own right. This cave might be much much smaller, but the formations aren’t far behind and well, what can I say, the day you can rock up to Skocjan on your own romantic little cruisey sailing junk and explore the cave at your leisure, that might be the day these two can be compared. :)