Sacred site vs. bomb site

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

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!

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?

” “

March 4th, 2006

Hue

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

March 4th, 2006

Hue

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

March 3rd, 2006

Hue

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”

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)

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

March 2nd, 2006

Sapa

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.

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