A Travellerspoint blog

Huế

semi-overcast 28 °C
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I travelled to Huế overnight by bus. The journey was absolutely vile and I am a wreck. So I am just cruising the town drinking coffees. I’ve got into the habit of drinking cà phê sưa – coffee with milk. Made with condensed milk, it is strong and sweet. A filter is set over the glass, and the dark coffee drips on to the milk. The two layers don’t mix, so it looks like a Guinness upside down. I don’t like it much, but it imparts the necessary drug dose. It’s better iced.

They have power shortages here. There is no power in the mornings, but there is in the evenings. Or maybe it alternates. I didn't understand my instructions.

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Anyone who might be European, American or Japanese goes through Hanoi besieged by taxi-thieves, touts, hucksters, hustlers, hawkers, pushers, pimps and parasites. Actually, not the penultimate as far as I know, but I needed a list. So when anyone talks to you, you instantly think “What does s/he want from me?” And you immediately say “No thanks.” It's difficult to be open when 99% of people just want a piece of you.

I have to admit that I'm finding it hard to like the majority of Vietnamese. There have been many exceptions, notably tourists guides like Tinh at Hạ Long Bay, and all the guys at the hotel in Ninh Bình. But there has been too much naked grasping. It's really tedious going through life as a walking wallet.

Sometimes – but not often, sadly – cynicism lets you down. First was when I used a facility on Lake Hoàn Kiếm. As soon as I walked out, a woman spoke to me. “No, thank you,” I said. But she persisted and I lost patience: “I do not want!” I said, voice raised, in Vietnamese. Turned out, of course, that she was the attendant simply trying to levy the standard fee.

Second was when two young women approached me, at roughly the same spot. “Do you have five minutes?” Well, I have a year. They said they were students. But I assumed the five minutes would involve me listening to some story and then parting with my money, so I walked on. But they persisted, and it turned out they simply wanted me to look over an English assignment – they are training to be interpreters and had a rather difficult piece to listen to and translate - and to practise their English. (How did they know I wasn’t French? They didn’t.)

In fact several people have now approached me wanting to practise their English. That’s fine by me, so long as they only want to practise their English; half the time they want a gift as well. Really the only Vietnamese that tourists are likely to talk to other than touts of one sort or another are people wanting to practise their English, and tourist guides, and other tourists.

All of my tourist guides so far in Vietnam have had degrees in English. Here, the skill with the greatest economic value added seems to be languages: English and Chinese. So, many of the smart people are likely to be studying languages.

The Huế hassle has already started. Not only do moto-taxi and cyclo drivers assail you at every corner, but here the human mosquitoes have a different tactic from in Hanoi: they engage you in conversation. Maybe because we are south of the DMZ here, so more English is spoken. “Where you from?” first. Then “How long are you here?” Etc. One cyclo driver followed me for ten blocks. But it’s not really possible to ignore someone who smiles and asks you where you’re from, even if you know it’s only a preliminary to a sell. I just tell them at an early stage that I do not want a xe om or cyclo. And if that doesn't work, I'm within my rights to tell them to eff off.

As is probably clear, I'm fed up with it.

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On a much better note, congratulations to Vicki and Hasan, who now have a son, Kamran.

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Are you married?

One of the first questions asked of all people in Southeast Asia.

The only proper state for an adult, especially one of my seniority, is to be married. So in Vietnamese, you do not say ‘I am single’. You say, ‘I am not yet married’.

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To anyone going to Hanoi I offer the following:

1. Don’t take taxis, unless you telephone for them first. The meters are usually fixed.

2. Take the motorcycle taxis, xe om. 10,000 dong for a journey of a few blocks; more if going more than, say, 2 km.

3. Consider staying outside the Old Quarter. West Lake and its neighbour lake Truc Bach are nice spots. The government quarter east of the station isn’t bad. Just go to the Old Quarter if you want to shop or arrange tours.

4. Go to the Ethnology Museum.

5. Minimise your time in Hanoi.

Posted by Wardsan 18:32 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Around Ninh Bình

sunny 35 °C
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Ninh Bình itself is, as far as I can see, just a provincial town stretching for a couple of miles down a large dual carriageway. But there is plenty to see around it, which has reminded me why I am travelling. I’m staying at the Xuân Hoa Hotel, where the room is not bad ($12) and the owners are very friendly. The hotel is named after the owner and his wife, but Xuân Hoa also means spring flower. I think.

Ninh Bình is famous for its goat meat. I have had it here twice and it wasn’t very good – nothing like a Caribbean curry. There is snake on the menu but you have to order it. I tried doing so, but the cost makes no sense for a single portion: 800,000 dong, which is 16x the price of my usual dinner here.

On Thursday I took a taxi motorbike 45km to Cúc Phương National Park. There I saw the Primate Rescue Centre before heading 20km inside the park to check in. I stayed the night and walked on both days before heading back, exhausted, to Ninh Bình. The park was wonderful, even though I was eaten alive by mosquitoes. I was going to say countless infinities of mosquitoes, which is of course not true. But say there are 10 mosquitoes per square metre in the park (and I can tell you that there are a hell of a lot). That makes 100,000 mosquitoes per hectare. The national park is 22,000 hectares. So that means 2.2 billion mosquitoes, I think.

A mosquito weighs, on average, 1 milligram. That is before eating. They can eat three times their own weight in blood. They manage this partly by immediately urinating all but the plasma. So the mosquito biomass of Cúc Phương national park is, according to my estimate, 2,200 tonnes.

I am reacting badly to the bites I got in the park, perhaps because there are so many of them. There is no malaria around here, but there is always dengue.

Yesterday I was still tired after the national park, so I got up late and took a public bus to Phát Diẹm, otherwise known as Kim Sơn. It cost 12,000 dong to go 30km or so. There is a cathedral there, built in 1890 or so. I think I remember reading that 20% of the population of VN is Catholic, but they are concentrated in pockets. Most of the Catholic population fled south in 1954, but many have returned. To judge by the cemetery outside Kim Sơn, two thirds of the population around here are Catholic.

Graham Greene wrote about the cathedral at Phát Diẹm in The Quiet American. I don’t remember it, though, which makes me think I haven’t read the book as I had believed [a wrong subsequently rectified].

The cathedral is known as the stone church, which sounds banal; but most temples around here are wooden, so it is noteworthy.

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There are four chapels around it, all closed except for mass, like all churches in Vietnam. Plus three grottoes. One of them, according to Greene, is devoted to Our Lady of Fatima. Might it be this? No idea.

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There are familiar European gothic elements, particularly inside, but the exterior is largely indigenous religious architecture. The free-standing campanile holds an absolutely enormous bell (two tons in weight), with a gongy breathy sound. At 12 it struck 30 or so.

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I wandered around Kim Sơn and saw a nineteenth-century covered wooden bridge.

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Then I whiled away the time waiting for a bus by watching the cyclists. A guy on the bus back told me they were celebrating Buddha’s birthday in Ninh Bình, but I saw no evidence of it.

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A lot of the signs around here advertise Rươu Kim Sơn. That just means spirits or wine from Kim Sơn. I bought some. The proprietress filled a small water bottle with a clear spirit from a large water cooler. It cost 8,000 dong, about 25p. Everything around here is made of rice, bamboo, teak or rattan, so it’s a fair bet that this is a rice distillate. It smells slightly of obstler. It tastes a little fruity and then a little nutty. Very nice indeed, and a bit of a bargain. I’ll stock up before I go to Huê.

Today I hired a bike and pedalled through back roads, lanes and paths to Hoa Lư. There were no signs and I didn’t know where I was so I stopped and asked directions three times and watched where people pointed. Actually it is probably difficult to get completely lost, because it’s a cartesian world here. The roads and lanes run in rectangles, no doubt because the irrigation systems require it.

About half of the people I passed shouted 'hello!'. I am an object of fascination here. If a Martian landed in London and took the Tube, we would ignore it, as long as it didn't make too much noise. Not here.

Hoa Lư, a ruined citadel now, was the capital of the Ðinh and early Lê dynasties between 968 and 1009. In 1010 Lý Thái Tổ moved it to Hanoi, which celebrates its millennium in 2010. The citadel, three square kilometres in area, is ruined, but two old temples still stand, the Ðền Thơ Vua Ðinh, celebrating Ðinh Tiên Hoàng and his family, and the Ðền Thơ Vua Lê, celebrating Lê Ðai Hành and his family.

This is inside the temple of Ðinh Tiên Hoàng. I haven't featured many pictures taken inside temples. This is partly because Buddhist architects don't share the Christian compulsion to use scale as one means of inducing a sense of the ineffable. And it is also because it's not always I can pluck up the gall to photograph worshippers, and certainly a flash is out of the question. So you end up with dark photos of fruit and fag packets.

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I’m not getting much out of the temples in VN, probably because I have never had a guide and haven’t the faintest idea what I am seeing. The Ðền Thơ Vua Ðinh seemed a lot like the Temple of Literature in Hanoi to me. So, again, the best part of it was the getting there.

Here was a postcard vendor resting on the threshold as I left.

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This is the garden in front of the tomb of Lê Ðai Hành.

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I also climbed up to the 207 steps to the Ðinh tomb, where again lots of people stood next to me to have their photos taken. Like Zelig, I am heading into the photo albums of hundreds of Vietnamese families.

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207 steps is not so many, but the heat was oppressive at 2pm. On the way down I realised I was seriously dehydrated, which is my excuse for shouting at a woman who tried to charge me a dollar for a small bottle of water. A glass of cane sugar juice solved that problem.

Tomorrow I hope to cycle again, this time to Tam Coc. This is wonderful cycling country: utterly flat, and the only wind comes from the air resistance and the beer.

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[Slightly edited, and photographs added, 1 June.]

Posted by Wardsan 20:15 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Hạ Long Bay

A dragon descending

overcast 29 °C
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On Saturday morning a week ago I headed east to Hạ Long Bay in a minibus with three women in their early thirties: Antje, Inga, and Jule. I had booked a trip on a tour operated by a Hanoi travel agent.

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They are from Frankfurt, and speak good but not perfect English, so it is easier for them to talk in German. So I have learnt some German by the passive smoking method. Listening to their soft Frankfurt accents made me feel really ignorant, forcing them to talk English, so I’d better learn some upon return (I have more chance of actually learning some German than bloody Vietnamese). The best thing I learnt was “ear worm” – a good phrase for that tune in your head that won’t go away. In return I taught them “brown trousers moment”.

Our guide is Tinh. He is 27 and has a degree, of course, in English. He is a good chap, and extremely enthusiastic, and proud of his country.

Hạ Long means descending dragon. The old name for Hanoi, dating from 1010, is Thanh Long, ascending dragon. The islands of the bay were created when the dragon landed, carving out valleys. And why would you want to argue with such a poetic explanation?

Hạ Long city seems a bit of a hole. The port is chaos: tens of junks, hundreds of tourists. But after a minor delay to sort out ticketing errors (the difference amounting to 10,000 dong) the four of us have lunch on a large junk capable of accommodating 16. They are nearly vegetarian, at least while in Vietnam, so I get most of the junk food.

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After lunch we set engine, and motor past lumps of limestone, looking like teeth (or, occasionally, cakes) dropped on to a plate of custard. The magnificent scenery is the point of the trip.

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Like the landscape at Sapa, and at the Perfume Pagoda, and around Ninh Bình, it is karst. The whole country seems to be karst.

As far as I know, karst is a landscape of half-dissoved soluble rock, usually limestone. The surface and fractures are dissolved by mildly acidic rainwater. There are lots of caves, sinkholes, and underground rivers.

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The original Karst – with a definite article and a capital letter – is above Trieste. People there speak Slovenian, and in Slovenian, it is Kars. In Italian it is Carso. The Austrians – temporary possessors of that part of the world where Teuton meets Slav and Latin – called it Karst. But the karst in Vietnam is like nothing I have seen in Europe.

The main island, Cát Bà, is surrounded by floating fishing villages. People row between house and fish farm.

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We stopped late afternoon for a spot of kayaking – actually canoeing, in pairs. C2, in the code. Although it was quite fun, it was pretty pointless. It would be a good way to paddle around the many caves around Cát Bà (woman island), but we just paddled around a bit. I would have liked to have done it on my own, and for longer.

After canoeing we switched to another boat, the second of four or five during the trip. Each had a special function: the first was our lunch boat, the second the post-kayaking boat. The boat took us to our private island, Cát Ông (man island), staffed by four or five young guys and a young woman, for us four. This ratio is normal in Vietnam, where underemployment is rife and labour cheap.

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There is a central pavilion, with sofas and a bar, and half a dozen bamboo beach huts equipped with electricity – perfect. This is mine. At high tide the balcony got wet.

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On this holiday I have been drinking cocktails, which I seldom enjoy, simply because the prices are absurdly low. More of the same here.

There are lots of Alsatians around the place. In German they are not named after a former province; they are ‘sheepdogs'. One of the dogs is obsessed with rocks. It thinks of rocks and nothing else; wakes up and thinks of rocks; sleeps and dreams of rocks. And on this rock I will build my life. Every person it meets, you can see it thinking “will this two-leg dog play rocks with me?” And if you do, oh bliss. Canine nirvana.

Dinner is merely adequate, save for one of the best shrimps, beach-barbequed, that I have ever tasted. After a day on the water we are tired and hit the hay immediately, and fall asleep to the sound of the waves. I sleep under a mosquito net for the first time I can remember.

At breakfast the next day a large buzzard, or some such, was circling the beach. 49 falconiforms are listed for Vietnam, so I am none the wiser.

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We took a third boat to the harbour near Viet Hai village (Viet sea) on Cát Bà, past lots of fish farms and people rowing in their front to front way. To get to the boat we were each ferried by canoe. Tinh took me.

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We walked five km along a road to Viet Hai village.

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The cicadas were very loud, and I heard birdsong for the first time in ages.

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Then we climbed a rocky and slippery path to Navy Peak, maybe 270m high. The climb was not so difficult, but the humidity is high in Vietnam, and higher still in forests, so we were dripping at the top. I’m sure the view from the summit was delightful, but we were attacked by mosquitoes and did not linger. This is Inga flicking her towel at the mosquitoes. One might as well order the waves to retreat.

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After a huge lunch at Viet Hai we took the boat back to Cát Ông. The wind had got up and I got seasick.

On land I played fetch with the lithophilic dog. In its transports of delight, its teeth came into contact with my hand. I don’t think its teeth marked, let alone pierced the skin, but it made me stop nevertheless. A single bite would mean a trip back to Hanoi and several injections. My rabies injections would just give me more time to be treated. Even a scratch or a lick can transmit rabies if you have a cut. But I think the dog was merely deeply stupid and obsessive-compulsive rather than mad, so I chanced it. No symptoms so far, beyond my usual aversion to unadulterated water.

The wind got up on the final day. The girls’ boat trip was cancelled, and then my bike ride was cancelled too because of the storms. Lightning struck about 150 metres away while we were on the boat. So we just minibused, very slowly, to take the daily hydrofoil from the port in the afternoon.

We stopped along the way to throw stones from a cliff. The tide was a quarter of a mile out. This was my attempt to recreate a famous painting of his wife and of Anna Ancher by P S Krøyer, which hangs in the Skagensmuseum at the northernmost tip of Jutland. It should be retrievable somewhere around here.

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Actually the light was nothing like that in Skagen, so I am not sure why that came to mind.

Then we visited a cave that had been turned into a military hospital by the VC during the American War. There was a small concrete swimming pool. The largest cave was turned into a cinema.

We ate a few yards from the war memorial near the port. We shared some clams, with a sweet chilli sauce, with the various Vietnamese men around the place – our driver, tour guide, guys from the resort and from the restaurant. I’ve never eaten better.

We helped it down with Hanoi Vodka, steeped in the leaves of a local plant that Tinh said cures headaches (salicylic acid – aspirin – came from willows. It’s much more plausible than tiger penis or bear gall bladder). This was a bit like a flavoured Russian vodka, and we drank it à la russe – very quickly. Our driver not excluded. You say “tram van tram” [ie, 100%] or “mot, hai, ba, cho!” before drinking. I had half a dozen shots.

Then we had lunch: prawns, potatoes, greens with garlic, fish balls with lemongrass, chicken with lemongrass. All simple and delectable; the cook (female, invisible, indoors) was an unheralded genius.

Posted by Wardsan 20:15 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

In Ninh Bình

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Goodbye and, I hope, adieu to Hanoi. It grew on me, but only a little.

I'm now 93 km south of Hanoi, in Ninh Binh. In five minutes I'm off on the back of a motorbike to Cuc Phuong National Park, where I'll be walking a bit and staying the night.

Posted by Wardsan 09:04 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Perfume Pagoda

Chùa Hương

overcast 29 °C
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Chùa Hương Tich, the Perfume Pagoda, sits on Hương Son, Perfume Mountain, 70km southwest of Hanoi. The mountain, 381 metres high, is a limestone karst outcrop. It is perhaps so named because of all the incense burnt at the temples. It is the most important Buddhist site in Vietnam, and has been the subject of songs, poetry, books and paintings.

Every year between February and April the Chùa Hương festival takes place. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the pagoda from all over Vietnam. On busy days 40,000 people visit.

I had calculated that Thursday was, as far as I could tell, an odd day on the lunar calendar, so it ought to be less busy. I can't be sure, but I think it worked; other photos that I have seen have far more boats on the river and larger crowds at the temples.

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Actually it is a series of temples. A legend says that the Chùa Hương festival is to worship a princess who incarnated Avalokitasvara (a bodhisatva and disciple of Buddha) and attained Enlightenment there. The shrine in which she worshipped was discovered in the 15th century by three monks. In 1687 the Superior Bonze Tran Dao Vien Quang came to Hương Son and it was transformed into a major Buddhist sanctuary, starting with the Hương Tich temple.

I booked a tour through a travel agency and a minibus with about 12 of us plus a guide set off at 8am. It probably took a couple of hours. Among our group were two Vietnamese brothers, originally from Hanoi. One had brought along his wife, originally from Beijing, the other his son. They had left Hanoi about 50 years ago and gone south. They had left Vietnam in 1975 and settled in Orlando, Florida. The son, born in the USA, spoke reasonable Vietnamese. He was slightly taller than me and much bigger than his father. For his uncle, it was the first time back to Vietnam in 33 years. I love meeting people like this - their life stories are moving.

We stopped at the village of Mỹ Đức. There is a road from Mỹ Đức to the pagoda, but almost everyone travels the last stretch along the river Yen. There are hundreds, if not thousands of boats at Mỹ Đức. There is a boat for every visitor, or so it appears.

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For a non-Buddhist, the water section was the highlight of the journey. The river flows through a dramatic karst landscape. Limestone crags jut unreally from a flat plain.

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We all got into one large rowing boat. It was powered by one woman rowing at the stern, and two young people pushing/pulling an oar at the bow.

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The method of propulsion is curious to someone brought up on western-style rowing. Unlike the western method, the rower faces forwards, usually standing up. The rower therefore has to push the oar away from her. For power, the western method relies on the strongest muscles in the body: the quads, buttocks and lower back. The front-to-front method relies largely on the triceps, which are puny in comparison. The only way to make it work is to lean forward, employing the weight of the body. This is no use if you are sitting down, when the stomach has to substitute.

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All the rowers also feathered the oar before they had finished their stroke. I couldn’t watch. But it was a perfect way to reach a temple.

The chap trying to get out of the picture is Brice, who is a French teacher in Ho Chi Minh City.

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Although not too hot, it was humid, and rarely have I done anything so intelligent as take the gondola. Those who walked up were sopping by the time they reached the top.

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Near the top is Chùa Trong, the Inner Temple, aka Hương Tich cave.

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There has been a shrine there since 1575 at the latest. The cave is dotted with stalagmites and stalactites. Naturally, they have names, such as golden tree, silver tree, silver worm and basket. Nine stone drops are called the Nine Dragons (the Vietnamese see dragons everywhere). Nui Co - the maiden and Nui Cau - the youth – are supposed to look like heads. Women who want children often go to Hương Tich and pray at Nui Co and Nui Cau.

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I didn’t know any of this at the time. I just saw a huge cave with lots of people praying at various rocks. A bit like some churches in southern Spain. As at all Buddhist temples, the worshippers made offerings: fruit, vegetables, biscuits, chocopies (mmm, chocopies), beer, golden lotus flowers, cigarettes.

Then I headed downhill. It became clear that the Perfume Pagoda is an idyllic spot ruined by unrestrained development. Between the entrance and the cave at the top, the path winds over slippery limestone for perhaps a couple of miles. This path is a one-dimensional shanty-town.

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Shacks line its entire length, selling an identical range of crap. They either sell souvenirs, or a place to rest on the climb up or down, or the facilities of a WC (ve sinh). There are a lot of WCs.

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Each stall along this linear favela generates its share of rubbish, which is dumped over the side of the path. So there is a huge amount of rubbish on the way.

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On offer:

• Golden lotus flowers, some of which carry the face of the goddess of mercy;
• Name scrolls;
• Hats, cowboy and coolie;
• Sweets;
• Herbs and spices;
• Waistcoats for children, saying ‘souvenir of Chùa Hương’.

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Many of the shacks play loud music. It’s ghastly. All rather like my memories of Blackpool.

The shacks are there, of course, because people buy from them (many are not there outside peak season, apparently). In this case, it is Vietnamese tourists, most of whom were wearing or holding Chùa Hương souvenirs. You would think that half way up they would have no chance, but such are the crowds on peak days that everybody gets business.

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They are also there because the government, which owns the site, allows it. If it had any sense it would corral the commercial ventures into a single place, enforce dumping regulations and ensure that the holy places retain the atmosphere that they originally possessed.

There were some nice things to look at on the way, but they were partly accidental. These were flowers that had fallen from a rice tree next to the path.

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Having had lunch at the bottom, I headed to the lowest pagoda, Hương Tich, which you’re supposed to go to first. And, at last, I could see the point of the place. There were very few people around, and in one or two courtyards I had the place to myself.

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You could see that it wasn’t just a tourist attraction, but that monks actually lived there. In a courtyard was a lovely pond with painted turtles.

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Dragonflies VTOLed.

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But unfortunately I had discovered the real deal too late to have a proper leisurely look.

The journey back was just as lovely, I think, although a lunchtime beer made me drowse.

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Posted by Wardsan 23:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (3)

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