Archive for February, 2006

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. :)

Ha Noi Towers

Saturday, February 25th, 2006

The French might have liked their villas built along classic lines and understandably so. And the Vietnamese might have liked certain French ideas well enough to adopt them despite hating the french. Things like baguettes and cafe au lait seem to have struck a chord with the Vietnamese. French architecture less so.

In Ha Noi, they like their houses tall. Apparently it’s to do with taxes, but honestly, this has gone beyond taxes. Photos will follow, but try to imagine this: what seems to be a standard Ha Noi house is about 3.6m wide on the street front, I know, I know, it doesn’t sound that bad, and everybody needs street fronts for shops, but it’s also say around 20 or 30m deep. Still doesn’t sound all that bad, doesn’t it, but here’s the thing, all of these places are also 6 or 7 stories high. I kid you not. These houses are one room wide, 10 rooms deep and 7 stories high.

In town, where these houses all stand right next to each other, you don’t even notice the funny skyscraper wannabe proportions, but out in the suburbs, where it’s not all built up yet, where these beauties tower skyhigh and are surrounded by rice paddies they are an amazing sight.

The towers fade in comparison to old city streets though, towers or not. It seems that in the old days the guilds in Ha Noi all got one road each to ply their business and they’ve carried on the tradition. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, so you can get one street with shops selling just paint and nothing else, go round the corner and you’re on sock street, turn a corner again, and it’s tyre alley. Amazingly enough the streets really do sell just the one type of thing. Well, amazing that is, until you realize it’s late, you want to go to bed, and your hotel is located far far far away from water bottle street or soda can alley. Then again, if I want to buy a glass cabinet before I go to bed, this is the street to live on.

In keeping with tradition of the one trade street, the Viet Cong have come up with the one trade town block and turned one whole section of the town into Ho Chi Minh memorial park. There’s uncle Ho’s mausoleum, uncle Ho’s used cars, uncle Ho’s house, uncle Ho’s fish pond, Ho Chi Minh vestiges, the Ho Chi Minh museum and I’m sure we missed a few. All this in a beautiful great big park chock full of dressed up soldiers to herd the masses around and prevent you from going where you want to go. Want to go down that obvious path leading to the Mausoleum? Not allowed for tourists. Go over there? No, go away! Still, a nice place for a dose of communist pomp.

There are 9 million scooters in Ha Noi

Friday, February 24th, 2006

That’s a fact. A blatantly obvious fact as soon as you make it through immigration and customs. A slightly less obvious fact is how it all works. Granted, a thoroughly jetlagged mind, still coping with the effects of a long haul Air France flight and the mathematical exertions of figuring out how much the millions of dong in your wallet really are in real money, might not be the best way to start figuring it out, but still…

Imagine this – there is no stopping, no yielding at intersections, no slowing down, no nothing in fact, even no mercy. People charge full tilt down the roads, through the intersections, going in all directions, never braking, just weaving and dodging and somehow it all falls together. Or more to the point, doesn’t fall together. Densely packed swarms of motorbikes meet each other going at right angles, nobody stops, and somehow, everybody passes through and total carnage is avoided. At least bodily carnage. The Vietnamese drive one hand on the accelerator, the other hand on the horn. Combined with the daunting prospect of crossing ever a minor side alley, the ungodly din of scooter horns are more than enough to frizzle fry your brain. I know what you’re thinking – he saw a standard SE Asian traffic jam and lost it, but trust me, this isn’t gridlocked Bangkok with cars, tuktuks and scooters jammed every where polluting but not really moving. This is motorbike mayhem with a full horn section soundtrack.

The traffic might be motorbike mayhem, but the city itself is tranquil beauty. Parks and lakes are everywhere, big, leafy trees line every street, and the big boulevards are nothing but a dense green tunnel under double rows of gigantic trees, with wide sidewalks left and right, lined with beautiful old french villas. All of which, and I do mean every single last one of them, are painted a deep yellow colour with dark green shutters. If you’re investing in newly emerging asian markets, invest heavily in yellow and green paint. trust me on this, you can buy me a pint when you end up making millions on Ha Noi alone.

Damn ‘Nam (ain’t going to Vietnam)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006

Is an old blues song by Leon Thomas, who as far as I know really never went to Vietnam.

I on the other hand, visas sorted, tickets in hand, am going there tomorrow. Watch this space.

Almost there…

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006


I’ve got most of the old stuff up and readable. missing only one or two countries.

and I’ve got a form of galleries working on the wonderful marela site, and a few galleries already there, so go check them out if you’re interested, and I promise I’ll remove the useless “almost there” posts ASAP and start posting some actual content. :)

so? what do you good folks out there reckon?