A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam

Yok Ðon and Dray Sáp

While in Buôn Ma Thuột, in the central highlands of Vietnam, I spent a long day travelling 170 km on the back of a motorbike. The first stop was Yok Ðon National Park. We rode past coffee plantations towards the Cambodian border. They also grow cashews, beans, maize, capers and salad leaves in the area. The landscape was not truly highland, more like Oxfordshire.

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We passed stilt houses made by Ê Ðê, M’nong and Lao people. Many are beautiful wooden houses that would not be out of place on the prairie. Since each people has its own language, the people around here all speak three or four languages.

My driver, Gob (pronounced Yop), was Ê Ðê. He said that his people came from Indonesia. It is credible. The Austronesians got everywhere at one stage, even to Madagascar, and the Chams traded chiefly with Java. Certainly the aborigines of Vietnam were Austronesian. He says he can understand 80% of Indonesian words. Later waves of immigrants from China, including the Viet, pushed them into the hills, like the Celts in Great Britain.

At Yok Ðon I kicked off with an elephant ride. To get there we crossed the Serekot, a branch of the Mekong. It flows into Cambodia and then back into Vietnam.

The elephant was female, 38, and flatulent. Her name was Ylôm, which does not sound Vietnamese. We travelled through forest completely different from that at Cúc Phương. Cúc Phương is rainforest, extremely dense, the canopy invisible. Here the forest is deciduous and mixed, and much more sparse, often like an orchard. There are fewer birds, but they are visible. The trees at Cúc Phương could not survive at Yok Ðon, where there is a long dry season. When I visited we were already a month into the wet season, but the ground was still parched. In the dry season there are forest fires, and many of the trees have fire-resistant bark.

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Elephants eat about 10% of their body weight every day. Ylôm eats 200 kg, I was told. At the national park they have five elephants; they work for six days and then have 20 days off (although that doesn’t add up).

Our mahout prodded the pachyderm by patting it continually with a heel. It’s an ancient profession, but not entirely so: while driving he made a call on his mobile.

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Riding an elephant again was a mistake. I had forgotten just how uncomfortable is its locomotion. You have to cling on for dear life and you go about half as fast as if you walked. I ended up with a bruised back again.

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After the elephant ride I went for a walk with the guide assigned to me, Nĩa. We head for a 13 km walk and the pace is fast, so there is less opportunity to take all those photos of insects and flowers.

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But here is a stick insect. It is not easy to see.

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We disturb a flock of noisy green parrots. There are a lot of parrots and macaws in the park. Then, a hundred yards off to the right, we pass a couple of ponds. Standing in the ponds are immense waterbirds. Nĩa says they are very rarely seen. They are dark on top with white undersides, have enormous pickaxe beaks, stand well above a metre tall, and their wingspans exceed two metres. They are lesser adjutants, huge bald storks.

Birdwatchers come to the park to see woodpeckers, of which there are several species. The most common are large and pheasant-brown. Oddly enough, though, I didn’t hear the usual sounds of joinery.

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The avian highlight: an eagle, immense - amazing that it can fly through the forest.

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Thirteen kilometres, even on largely flat ground, has the same impact on the body as a walk of twice the length, or more, in the UK.

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On the way back across the river the ferryman had to bail out for five minutes before we could move. He will have to find another job next year, as they are building a bridge on his beat.

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Then we headed a long way to the Dray Sap waterfalls. Dray Sap means ‘smoke falls’ in Ê Ðê. The Vietnamese call the falls Tháp Gia Long, since Emperor Gia Long built a bridge here. I may have said before that a waterfall is just a waterfall, but this is better: a 20-25 foot vertical drop and perhaps five cables wide. A mini-Niagara, complete with water vapour.

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Since the last post I have been to Bangkok and Ayutthaya, and have just arrived in Sukhothai. I am eating extremely well.

Posted by Wardsan 21:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Mỹ Sơn

sunny
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My plans, such as they are, are in disarray. I had hoped to be diving in Alor by now, but the people who run the dive shops over there never answer their phones or reply to SMSs, so I ended up staying in Ubud for a while. Ubud is a lovely place, with a rich cultural life and lots of extremely nice shops selling woodwork, silver, art and clothes. Very few of the buildings are abovew two storeys. The main roads form an elongated pi, with padi fields between the two legs, so it is fairly rural even in town.

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A lot of tourists end up staying, and it has a slightly hippyish atmosphere. It is the sort of place where the 'mind/body/spirit' section of the bookshop is the bookshop and where small ads in shop windows sell 'spirit channelling' services to the credulous and the intellectually lazy (most people).

I am in the market for none of these and want to dive, so I came to Sanur, on on the southeast coast of Bali, in search of mola mola. The southern part of Bali contains the beach resorts, and a large proportion of the population is Javanese, or so I am told. Sanur is the resort for middle-aged people with bulging stomachs and wallets, and families with children. Seminyak has more twenty- and thirty-somethings but is not a wild place. I have not been to Kuta but I have a Boschian vision of streets full of vomiting Australians.

I dived at Nusa Penida today and failed to see any mola mola, but did encounter a strong downward current, which was unpleasantly stimulating. I also saw some enormous giant trevally and a gigantic starry pufferfish, and at the other end of the scale two pairs of nudibranchs, each one on top of the other. Nudibranchs - I have previously mentioned that they are hermaphrodites - line up head to toe and right hand side to right hand side to mate, and each fertilises the other. So what the slugs were doing on top of each other I am not sure.

One wonderful thing about Ubud, although not restricted to that location, is the suckling pig. After three months in Malaysia and Indonesia, any pigmeat is delightful, but the babi guling is the moistest wonderfullest pig I have ever eaten. Any lunchtime in Ubud not spent pigging out is wasted.

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Bali is predominantly, and eccentrically, Hindu. The three major deities are not typically depicted in Balinese art, and they believe in a kind of chairman god above the three chief executives. But art and design are everywhere: most buildings are decorated with beautiful stonework, and stone and wood carvings are everywhere. A design ethos seems to imbue society, and it certainly imbues Ubud, in which every restaurant is beautifully and individually decorated. The number of temples is staggering. The temples are guarded by gruesome statutes, which scare off evil spirits. Most of these statues are clothed in sarongs.

Spirits also play an even large role in life here than they do in the Buddhist parts of southeast Asia. Each house has its Lararium, as in Vietnam and Thailand, but each premises puts out offerings to the spirits on to the pavement quite frequently - more than once a day it seems. You often see women weaving leaves into an intricate tray on to which rice, sweets and fags may be placed, and each is a lovely thing in itself, until trodden on or attacked by dogs.

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In Malaysia, if you can't be bothered to accuse a political opponent of sodomy, just accuse him of insulting Islam! Then you don't even have to go through the hassle of putting on a trial.

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The last Hindu culture I saw was in Vietnam, and it wasn't breathing. Between the eighth and fourteenth centuries AD, central and southern Vietnam was under the control of the Cham Empire. The Chams were Hindu, with close cultural links to Java, and the buildings they left behind are Hindu temples. They are usually built of red brick in boat-shaped towers.

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The reliefs and statues that survive depict Ganesh, Brahma, Vishnu, Indra, Shiva, Uma, Skander, Garuda, Naga, Kala, makara heads and animals such as tigers, lions and elephants. The women wear sampots or sarongs.

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There are inscriptions in Sanskrit.

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There are also a lot of lingas and yonis. Here I am at Mỹ Sơn by an impressive linga.

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There is a good Cham museum in Ðànãng. There is an impressive pedestal from Mỹ Sơn, showing dancers, musicians, and hermits in caves. There is also a game of polo in relief.

It’s easy to approach the remains as those of a dead culture. The empire has disappeared – one of the northern Vietnamese kings eventually drove them out – but, like the Incas, the Chams themselves have not. There are still a million of them, mainly in southern Vietnam. Nowadays they are mostly Muslim but they still use some of the old sites for religious ceremonies.

From Hội An I visited Mỹ Sơn, one of the more extensive Cham ruins, which has structures dating from the eighth to the fourteenth centuries. I took an early bus at five in the morning, and a later tour back, thus staying on site for three hours or so. I thought I was being smart but actually the site is not very large, so I ended up looking at lizards and insects.

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Once you’ve seen Machu Picchu or the Forums in Rome, it’s not awe-inspiring. I have to admit that the Cham artefacts do not wholly grab me – they are worth a detour, but not a holiday - although I do like the Kala and makara heads.

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Mỹ Sơn may be extensive, but most of it is in a sad state. This is not the result of the inevitable depredations of time, but because there was fighting at Mỹ Sơn in the American War, and American helicopters deliberately bombed it to prevent the Viet Cong from using the site. A distinguished French professor of the Extreme Orient wrote to President Nixon to demand him to impeach his forces from deliberately destroying the site, and Nixon complied.

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Posted by Wardsan 14:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

The end of the rainbow

all seasons in one day 28 °C
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I'm back on the South China Sea - first glimpsed four months ago - in Kota Kinabalu, wondering what to do next. In theory I am here to climb Mount Kinabalu. But a dodgy ankle, sustained in a pratfall off the pavement in Semporna, while embarrassingly sober, casts that into question. As the first post made clear, I haven't had a plan since arriving in Bangkok. While that affords complete flexibility, sometimes I would like to have a better idea of what I'm here for. There is a constant tension between the intensive and the extensive: should I stay in a place and try to understand it a little, or see as much as possible? At the moment the latter strategy is more attractive. Without a plan I'm also likely to criss-cross around more than I need to.

So where next? In Borneo I have been looking at animals and diving - nothing cultural at all. It has been very enjoyable. I feel like more of the same, which rules out Java for the moment. The Philippines have great diving, but it is very wet season now (most seasons are the very wet season in the Philippines). Bali and Lombok also offer good diving, but it is peak season. There is interesting diving in Sulawesi and in Timor, but I want a prescription mask first, and may not be able to get one outside of KL, Singapore and Bali. Peninsular Malaysia has KL, the Perhentians, Kota Bahru, Rendang, Rantau Abang, Tioman and Taman Negara National Park. But August is the school holidays and it's busy; and I know I'll want to go east again afterwards. And the Olympics and then Ramadan are approaching. There seem to be too many constraints. Grateful for ideas.

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There were very few Italians in Vietnam, but Sabah is full of them. In Semporna I dined and dived with Italians. It was fun trying to speak Italian (it didn't work too well, but most of them spoke even worse English). There are also a surprising number of Nordics and Scandinavians.

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This blog has had 20,000 site visits. Keep them coming.

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The short flight from Tawau to KK had plenty of interest. The area around Tawau is supposedly less logged than, say, Sandakan. But as we lifted off, oil palms stretched to the horizon. The only primary rainforest left in Sabah seems to be in protected zones, which cover only a fraction of Sabah. Around the Kinabatangan I had been wondering why they were planted square, when they could fit more in by planting hexagonally. Perhaps it's something to do with transporting the heavy palm nuts? Well, around Tawau they do plant hexagonally.

A very large proportion of the cumulus clouds on Borneo tower miles upwards, perhaps because the air at low level is so warm, which would create strong convection currents. There are a lot of thunderstorms too, of course.

I have seen the end of the rainbow, and it's just oil palms. From the plane I saw a double rainbow. One was the brightest sky-arc I have ever seen; I somehow expected to be able to see more than just the usual seven colours. The rainbows ran vertically from the ground to the clouds.

And as we came to KK, Mount Kinabalu appeared on the right. It rises sharply and majestically out of a sea of cloud. There are hills nearby, but no real mountains, so Kinabalu is a singleton, like Fuji or El Misti. It looks craggy and enormous - another reason to think twice about climbing it.

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Anyway, I have a feeling that blogs about enjoying oneself are less interesting than the converse. (At the opening of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously claimed that happy families are all alike, unhappy families unhappy in their own way. It is an impressively portentous opening sentence, but I suspect it's false.) So let's go back three months to Vietnam.

In Ninh Bình I pedalled to Bich Ðọng and Tam Coc and was couriered to Vân Long, Ðông Vân Trình and Kênh Gà.

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Bich Ðọng was a pleasant surprise. It is a pagoda built within a limestone cave. Actually there are three pagodas, each on a different level. There are hordes of tourists, 99% of them Vietnamese or Chinese. There must be a lot of French people in Ninh Bình because everyone calls me ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’.

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Tam Coc is billed as ‘Hạ Long Bay on the rice paddies’, because the same limestone crags burst vertically out of the fields. Tourists come to Tam Coc to be rowed along the river admiring the landscape. The paddies start at the edge of the river and it is difficult to say where the river ends and the fields begin.

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The river passes through three caves. The view is slightly spoiled by signs with slogans such as ‘the marvellously of mountains and rivers’ and ‘let’s protect our natural landscape’. Well, yes, you could start by not planting signs everywhere.

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All tourists who visit Ninh Bình go to Tam Coc. The jetty is surrounded by tacky souvenir shops and you can’t walk a step without people shouting at you.

As such it is a good example of how to ruin a good spot. Ten years ago it would no doubt have been a lovely experience. In Vietnam many of the big tourist experiences leave a bitter taste. Those making a living from tourism at the sites cannot just give you a service, but do their best to leave you feeling shit at not setting them up for life. I thought I was lucky, at first. My rower, Hong, and I chatted a bit in Vietnofrench. I bought him a can of beer at the far end.

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Like many Vietnamese men, he wore a pith helmet.

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But on the way back, the hard sell began. In Tam Coc they push embroidery. Ancient women transfer from boat to boat selling to conscience-stricken tourists. Hong duly opened a box and handed me a pile of embroidery. I looked and did not like; it’s hardly my thing. I declined to buy, and then received the full story: you buy, I have family, babies, give me $10. Well, fuck off. As if it's my problem. As if no-one else in VN is in that situation. And then he asked for a tip. I gave him all the small change I had – 15,000 dong – and he paddled away looking sour.

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While I walked around the paths over the paddies barking came from the water all around: frogs.

When I next parked my bike near a temple, the guy tried to charge me a dollar. I had just heard him say 5,000 dong to someone else in Vietnamese. I corrected him and paid him; then he tried to give me the wrong amount in change. This is sadly common.

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After that I saw Thai Vị temple, a monument to the 14 Tran kings, beginning with the guy who defeated the Mongols at Bạch Ðâng. A nice temple beneath the outcrops, originally thirteenth century but much restored, with an old wooden bell-tower.

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A Chinese-looking guy with a long wispy beard, looking like a caricature from a 1930s movie, gave me a limited explanation and received a limited donation.

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The following day I visited Vân Long and Kênh Gà on the back of a motorbike driven by Cương. These are both better places to visit than Tam Coc because they have not yet been ruined. Before we set off Cương reassured me: I have been driving for two years. That’s OK then. I was worried for a second.

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Vân Long is a beautiful wetland reserve with karst features. Again, the visitor is rowed around it. The boat is woven and tarred bamboo. It can be punted and rowed. The rowlocks are of rope.

Vân Long is much more peaceful than Tam Coc. The only sounds are birdsong, frogs and the splashing of oars. For the first half hour I saw one other boat.

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My rower, Dung (pronounced like a psychoanalyst), is 30 and the mother of children aged 13, 8 and 4. She speaks three words of French, and tries to sell me nothing. We pass a man punting a little coracle; he is after crabs.

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One border of the wetland is a main road on a dike. As I watched, a truck driver knocked a man off his overloaded bike, ran out, picked him up, got back in the truck and drove off. Presumably it happens a lot. Just down the road, an enormous belching cement factory, one of very many in Vietnam. Like its northern neighbour, Vietnam has an infinite appetite for cement.

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Attached to every vertical object in the reserve are small pink lentil-like objects. They are snails’ eggs. They pop like caviar but the contents are much stickier.

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The largest birds on view are white, with long beaks. They are called chim cò and are probably storks or egrets.

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It began to drizzle steadily. We took refuge in a cave every bit as large as the largest at Tam Coc, and there came upon a sheltering group of Korean tourists in boats. One sang a Korean song, very loudly. He had a very good voice and we all applauded.

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In the afternoon I went to Kênh Gà: chicken village. I was irritated to be asked to pay 80,000 dong for two tickets. But for that I chartered a whole boat, 25 or 30 feet long, powered by an engine, for three hours. Because of the engine, the trip was nowhere near as peaceful as Vân Long.

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Despite its name, Kênh Gà is a fishing village that has turned into a town. Women occupy boats in pairs. One lounges back and rows slowly with her feet, one oar at a time. They even feather. The other repeatedly drops a basket to the riverbed and raises it again by rope. Each time a bucketful of sand and snails pours on to the floor. Again, there are snails’ eggs everywhere.

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It’s productive fishing, and when they have done with that they harvest the leaves that grow in the river. Leaves play a big role in many Vietnamese dishes. They don’t cook with Thai basil very much, which is a shame, but they do use mint to great effect.

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Naturally, the Hoang Long river (named after a dragon, of course) is the town’s aorta. People work in it and wash in it (it’s silty and unappetising). Children play in it, boys on one side, girls on the other.

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There are also surprisingly big cargo boats on the river, eighty to hundred feet long and more. Families live on them. They can’t be transporting fish. My guess is that they’re transporting sand and aggregates in one direction and cement in another. It’s surprising that they can navigate the river when laden.

Many, if not most, villages in Vietnam specialise. One will make a certain kind of crockery, another fireworks, another paper, another silk, another ink, another embroidery. It is a demonstration of the advantages of clustering. There must be economies of scale, perhaps from spillovers of specialist skills and from distribution costs. Retailers in the cities also cluster. One street will sell only paint, another only DVDs. This is, of course, an ancient pattern: the streets in the Old Quarter of Hanoi are still called Silk Street, Paper Street, Coffin Street etc. If you want to find a pharmacy you have to travel.

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At the far end of the trip I got out to walk a mile or so a cave, Ðông Vân Trình. A cave is a cave and I have seen a few, so I was unenthusiastic, but it turned out to be worth a walk. There are mites and tites by the score. The main cavern is perhaps 90 metres across and twenty metres high, like something dwarvish from Tolkien.

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Everywhere are gothic organ pipes, fans, car radiators, melted wax, baleen. There are no guides, no railings and few lights; these long-exposure photographs exaggerate the available light.

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The visit is marred (very slightly) only by the persistent attentions of a chainsmoking group of Vietnamese tourists. They don’t mean to harass, but one of them follows me around trying to communicate by repeating himself and speaking loudly –as so many Brits do when talking to Johnny Foreigner.

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The bike ride back was great fun, too, as we travelled through dramatic landscape along a half-finished road. No ‘road closed’ signs, no cones, no contraflows. People just drive on the drivable bits past the workmen. And we finished with two litres of bia hơi for 20,000 dong at just about the only pleasant spot in Ninh Bình, by a lake.

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Posted by Wardsan 22:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Chơlơn

sunny 31 °C
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In Vietnam I was probably accosted by motorbike taxis and cyclo riders about 10,000 times (that's a genuine estimate). I said no to all the cyclo riders but the last. I realised it was my last chance. They irritate the Saigon local government, which is making life difficult for them by banning them from lots of streets. If I ever go back to Vietnam they are likely to have disappeared.

My cyclo took me from Chơlơn to the Ben Thanh market and it took half an hour. All that time we were in the middle of the traffic and the fumes. The ride was uncomfortable and bumpy. I felt sorry for the guy and tipped him. It’s no way to make a living, and it’s no way to travel.

Chơlơn – ‘big market’ – is the Chinatown of Saigon, albeit quite a bit less Chinese since 1975 (many of the 'boat people' were Chinese). I can’t tell the difference, visually, between the Chinese and the Cochinchinese, but you know you’re in Chinatown when you start seeing lots of paunchy shirtless men.

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I visited seven temples. Most are temples to Quan Cong. The temples in Chơlơn have the best roof decorations of any pagodas in Vietnam (some in Bangkok are comparable).

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Mendicants outside a temple.

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There is also a section of shops selling roots and herbs, most of which I think are medicinal rather than nutritious. The products on sale included the biggest mushrooms I have ever seen. (The largest life forms known are fungi of the genus Armillaria. There are several huge examples in the US. One in Oregon covers ten square kilometres.)

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Other shops sell festival goods such as hats and dragons' heads.

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I am starting to get Chinatown drunk. Since visiting Chơlơn I’ve been to the Chinatowns of Bangkok, KL, Melaka and Singapore and they are merging in the memory.

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I’m in Kota Kinabalu, formerly Jesseltown, capital of the Malaysian state of Sabah in northeast Borneo. My hotel is hardly as described in the guidebook but there is a shower, a television and a TV. The rooms can also be rented for two-hour periods but I don’t think it’s actually a brothel. It’s two-thirds of the price of the oubliette in Sing-Sing.

I arrived on a rainy evening and KK was not at its best. It seemed unfriendly and evening a little threatening. Today the sun is shining for a change, and it looks better.

Ninh Bình and Huế are regional capitals too, I think, but they are far more foreign than KK; there are western-style shopping malls here, and branches of KFC, McDonalds, Burger King, Body Shop etc. Presumably that is because Malaysia is (a) five times richer than Vietnam (income per capita, PPP basis), (b) more open to foreign investment and (c) a former British colony.

I’ve come to Borneo without doing much research so today it’s time to find out all that can be done. Provisionally, I want to go to Kota Kinabalu national park and climb Gunung Kinabalu; go diving in Sipadan; and visit Tabin wildlife reserve; and see whether I can ride a steam train to Tenom. It all seems rather difficult to organise after being spoon-fed for a few weeks. [Update: it is difficult to organise. One travel agent basically refused to speak to me because I'm travelling alone. Some of the places and tours don't cater for less than two people. The train line to Tenom is closed for renovation - why travel when I can get this experience at home? - and the park at Tabin is protected by economic fortifications. But, for the first time since Penang, I'm really excited at the prospect of my next stop...]

Posted by Wardsan 12:49 Archived in Vietnam Comments (1)

Superstition in the pigeon

semi-overcast 31 °C

I'm still in Singapore, trying to buy a camera. I like the place a lot more after eating a beautiful meal in Little India: mutton Hyderabad, bhindi masala, naan, served on a banana leaf - enough for two. Two hippos. Last night I ate in Chinatown: sliced pig trotters with jellyfish, followed by a congee with abalone, fish, meatball and dried pig's intestine. Lovely.

I'm still in Singapore because my attempt to buy a camera has been delayed. I have found prices in at least ten stores, and returned to the best yesterday only to find that I could not buy at that price because it was a 'superduper' price that only the manager could sign off on (S$250 below standard quote), and he was absent. At least I know I got a good price. I'm buying a Canon EOS 400D with a Sigma 18-200 OS lens, with international warranty. The combination is much heavier than my current camera, but not as heavy as carrying two lenses, and I use the zoom a lot, as you can see from the animal portraits. I'm buying an SLR for better performance in low light/high ISO/fast shutter speeds; better lenses; filter flexibility; hotshoe attachment; faster focusing; RAW data. It's costing S$1450 minus the 7% VAT reclaim. To get to sterling, multiply by three and divide by eight. Do it in your head, right now, and help delay senility.

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In the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam, one of the authors recounts a story in which his bike broke down in the countryside. A friendly soul helped him out and refused payment. His conclusion: this was the real Vietnam and the real Vietnamese, the people the tourists don’t see.

If you broke down in the countryside in Montana, someone would probably help you out. In my experience the highest proportion of people who are sincerely friendly and helpful is to be found in Canada, the United States (outside Manhattan) and rural Scotland. In Canada, you wouldn’t bother mentioning it in the guidebook. In Vietnam it’s worth mentioning, precisely because it is out of the ordinary. About 95% of the Vietnamese you meet as a tourist – and my sample size is very large – are brusque and charmless. There are heroic exceptions – I would want to mention people in Ninh Binh and Dalat in particular - but they are in a small minority of the people who deal with tourists.

The Vietnamese haggle as if at war, aggressively and without humour. If you don’t offer a price they are prepared to accept, they look at you as if you just spat your spleen at them. It makes no difference if you smile. (A lot of the Thais are out to get you too, and some can be just as charmless. But a good many are very ready with a smile, which makes the process of bargaining much easier.) The only code is: screw the customer; he’s a cretin; the more you diddle him, the greater the triumph. Try offering ten times the real price and see if he accepts. I don’t think this is directed to foreigners alone, although the Vietnamese are in general understandably nationalistic and xenophobic after over a millennium of Chinese rule and nasty wars with the French, the Americans and their imperialist aggressor lackeys (not to mention the Mongols, and China in 1979).

In England, if a bus driver tried to charge double the price, people would disapprove and someone would probably speak up. Occasionally you hear that some taxi-drivers rip off unsuspecting foreigners on the route from Heathrow to London; they are condemned as thieves. In Vietnam, when the same thing happens the other passengers will support the bus driver. Foreigners are, by tacit agreement, there for the taking.

In every country where there are tourists, people are out to get to the tourist dollar, but there are different ways of doing so. Just because you want to trade with someone doesn’t mean you have to treat them as an enemy.

Now, there is a strong selection effect here. Most of the people who talk to you as a tourist are selling cigarettes, books, sunglasses, drugs, transport or erotic experiences; but in fact four in every seven Vietnamese works in agriculture. But from the tourist’s perspective the touts are the real Vietnam, and a guidebook should be honest about it instead of burbling an apologia for the invisible.

This is not just my twisted opinion (and I should mention that I quite like the Thais, Malaysians and Singaporeans and very much like the Laos); almost every traveller finds the same thing.

To aver that the real Vietnam is what you don’t see, while what you do see is not real, is asinine (that Plato did it does not make it valid). You could use the same reasoning to assert that, at home, the Vietnamese have two heads, green skin and can fly. Not only is there no evidence for it, it contradicts the evidence; this is the sort of failure of inference on which superstitions (and religions) are built.

  • **

After that, I'd better mention some good things.

Best Vietnamese restaurants: Nam Phương, Hanoi; the Temple Club, Saigon; Quán Ăn Ngon, Saigon; Cafe Can and Café 96, Hội An; the live fish restaurants on the beach at Hội An; Khanh Kat, Nha Trang.

Best beer: the pilsner at Le Lousiane, Nha Trang, head and shoulders above the rest. Honourable mention: Tiger, Heineken (brewed in Vietnam). Raspberries: everything else.

Best spot for a coffee: Highlands Coffee on Nguyen Hue in Saigon, from where you can see the Rex Hotel, the Hotel de Ville and the Municipal Theatre; Highlands Coffee, next to the Opera in Hanoi; anywhere on the lake in Ðàlạt; the posh hotel in Quy Nhơn.

Posted by Wardsan 11:24 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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