Saturday, May 01, 2004
Overland from Cambodia to Vietnam
Another day, another long bus trip! For our trip from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, itís the usual story of waiting around, unexplained delays and that feeling of not quite being sure of what's going on. We'd been told the bus would collect us from our guest house at 6.45am, and that it would take 6 or 7 hours to get there. But it was no surprise that we weren't picked up until 7:15, and then spent the next hour driving around the city - picking up from one more guest house, and then filling up with petrol from a shack alongside the road (from plastic barrels of fuel, tipped into the tank through a funnel - right outside my window).
By 8:30 we were crossing the bridge out of the city, having driven past one temple three times, and heading south and east to the border. At 10:30 half the passengers got off to catch a ferry down the Mekong to the border, while we took a ferry over the river to continue along the road. On the ferry we bought some snacks - we passed on the fried crickets, and instead bought a coconut and some lotus seed heads (fresh, the seeds taste like butter beans, but in England we'd normally only see dried heads, used for flower arrangements).We stopped three or four times for drinks, and toilet stops, and eventually reached the border with Vietnam at 12 o'clock.
We were all dropped at a small roadside restaurant for lunch, and then walked across to the border. It was hot, dusty and we felt like refugees as we traipsed through the dirt, first to the Cambodian exit booth, queueing up in the sun waiting for our turn to be stamped out, and then walking the 500m to the Vietnamese entry point.
We quickly got a bit of an idea for Vietnamese bureaucracy - after the passport bit had been done, we then had our bags searched by customs. Or would have had, if they could be bothered - instead we just lifted our bags onto the table, the customs man had me open the top of mine, to see the bag of laundry on the top, and that was it. Then we went to the health point, where our details were filled in from our passport on a form by one man, who then passed it across to another man, who filled in the details in a book (I looked over his shoulder - his reading of passports wasn't great, as all he was writing down was our first name - Mr Raymond, Mrs Sarah etc). We then had to hand over 2,000 Dong (about 8p) and handed a form which declared us to be free of infectious diseases. We then had to hand the form over to the third man in the row, and off we went - now officially inside Vietnam. All of this took us 2 hours!
Things were looking good at this point - the bus arranger didn't have enough seats in his minibus, so he said he'd ordered the four of us a taxi to the city, which would get us there a bit quicker. But first we had to take a little trip down the road, so that everybody else didn't see our good luck. So he hopped us all onto the back of motorbikes, and dropped us off at a shack with a few Vietnamese. He told us that the taxi would be there in 10 minutes, and the Vietnamese there would make sure he took us to the right place, while he went back and sorted out the group at the minibus. At times like this, you have to decide whether you trust what you're being told - after all, we were now on our own, without a guide, and just having to trust what we were being told. In situations like this, we tend to be more trusting than we would normally be, because of the girls. In Asia people are very family oriented, and they make a big fuss of the girls - so we guessed that it would be very unlikely that they'd abandon a family with small children, in the middle of nowhere (okay, a taxi driver in Koh Samui, Thailand, had done just that, but it was fortunately an isolated incident).
After a while it became clear that the Vietnamese were trying to flag down a car for us - hoping to get one bringing people from Ho Chi Minh to take us back to the city. In then end, after almost an hour of no luck, they piled us all into their car, and after an argument about who was going to pay, and drove us into the city themselves. The fixer was there to meet us at his office, paid off the car and apologised profusely for the problems. It was now almost 5 o'clock - our 6-7 hour journey had turned into a ten hour one, exacerbated by the mess-up at the border. We realised that it was an honest mistake, perhaps caused by the fact that it was a public holiday, and few people we making the border crossing today, so we just shrugged and put it down to Asian-travelling-phenomenon (what normally goes slowly, goes even slower when foreigners are involved).
Despite our fatigue, and the whirling buzz of motorbikes that fill the streets in the city, it seemed quite a nice city to arrive into - not as foreboding as people had warned us it was, and we soon found a clean and modern guest house to check into.
Sunday, May 02, 2004
Ho Chi Minh City - or is it Saigon?
There's still confusion about whether the city is called Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon (its previous name until the North Vietnamese won the war), and because its such a mouthful many still refer to it as Saigon (the inner city is still officially called that, while the greater metropolis has the longer name), or HCMC. I'm going to call it Saigon, and hope you'll forgive me.
We woke up in our guest house, called Hotel 127. The Vietnamese have adopted the same functional naming system for many of their businesses as the Chinese, with numbers instead of names. So there are builders called "State joint partnership Construction Number 3" and "Petrol Station 1932". Despite the austere name, our guest house is pretty good. We've got a room with two double beds, air-con, TV and fridge, for $20 a night including breakfast and dinner! The staff are incredibly friendly, and it is really modern and clean, a complete contrast to the miserable guest house in Phnom Penh. Hurrah!
The city also has lots more to see and do than Phnom Penh. Even just wandering the streets is nice, with lots of little shops selling arts and crafts. The girls attract a lot of attention here, with women clapping their hands, or just crossing the road and grabbing them to pat their arms and feel their hair. Vietnamese parents push their small children forward to shake their hands, and then run after them as they disappear giggling.
The streets are much more chaotic here. 10 years ago they were full of bicycles, but now everybody seems to own a motorcycle (well not everybody, but in a city of 6 million people there are 3 million motorbikes). And there seems to be about 50 motorbikes for every car, so crossing the road with four of us is a feat of daring, requiring eagle eyesight and anticipation. There seem to be no road rules, other than generally driving on the right, but even that is ignored if you are turning into a road, or intend to turn left in a hundred metres or so. Even after 3 months of getting used to generally chaotic Asian traffic, it is scary to cross the road here - something I've not felt elsewhere.
For our sightseeing, we grabbed a taxi ($1) across the centre of the city to the Reunification Palace. Having passed lots of French-colonial buildings on our way, it was a bit of surprise to come around the corner and see a concrete and glass building and not a 'wedding cake' kind of palace. It turns out the original 19th Century palace had been destroyed by a failed assassination attempt on the president by his own air force bombers, hence the grand 60's design of the replacement. When the North Vietnamese stormed the city in 1975, they drove tanks straight through the ironwork gates and rushed up to the top floor to unveil their flag.
Then they preserved the whole place, making it a shrine to 60's interior design. Although I believe guidebooks are reasonably accurate considering all the information within them, I couldn't agree with it's description of the palace "Its spacious chambers are tastefully decorated with the finest modern Vietnamese arts and crafts" - unless Formica was a modern Vietnamese craft. The palace is a shining example of concrete facades, walls of glass doors, and brown furniture made of shiny plastic and Formica. In fact, it looked more like the film centre of an Austin Powers movie, or an old Bond movie The government have left it unchanged, so the big desks still have 5 different coloured circular dial phones - not working, although we did pick them all up to see if one of them had a hotline to the White House.
Later on, after a drink, we walked round the War Remnants Museum, a display dedicated to displaying some of the history of the Vietnam War. Although it was interesting, and told some sad stories, the whole exhibition was a story-telling mess, except for one powerful part being the photographs, and stories of individual war photographers who'd died covering the conflict. (By comparing what we'd seen with the guidebook's rave review, we discovered that the museum was being renovated, and the displays had all been moved to some outbuildings in the car park. So perhaps that was the reason we were so underwhelmed by something the guidebook had raved about. It could also be that we'd only recently seen the Genocide Museum in Cambodia, which tells a simple story very well).
In the evening, for the girls, we went to see the Ho Chi Minh City Circus troupe, in a big top on one of the parks. They loved the two hour show, including clowns, acrobats, jugglers, trapeze artists and bare back horse riders. They even loved the little dogs barking out answers to maths questions. I bet that when we're back in England, and people say "What was the best thing about your trip?" they'll say "The little dog that barked the answer to 2+2 in Vietnam".
Monday, May 03, 2004
The Mekong Delta
We had to get up early to go on our tour of the Mekong delta today. This meant waking up at 6.15, and having a shower. This was a novelty in itself, because for the first time since we'd arrived in Asia the guest house had cold and hot taps - so I could shave with hot water for the first time in 3 months. Normally, its cold only, and they have an electric water heater to give you a warm, but not very powerful shower. Its amazing that you get so used to losing the little comforts of home so easily, and almost don't notice getting them back every once in a while.
Anyway, by 7 o'clock we were on a bus, headed west to the delta. The drive, which took a couple of hours, wasn't very exciting - just a long line of lorries and motorbikes heading in and out of the city, and a straight road going past factories, rice paddies and coffee shacks. After leaving our bus at Cai Bai, we hopped in a boat and went to see some local 'factories'. Or at least, that was what the guide described them as.
It turned out that 'factory' was a description for a bamboo hut where things were still being manufactured in a traditional way - it seemed like something from the middle ages, with whole families involved in the production of rice paper, coconut sweets, puffed rice (like Rice Crispies) and rice sweets. Grandma and grandpa made the rice paper, steaming a thin layer of watery rice powder for 30 seconds until it formed into a sheet of paper, for making spring rolls. Then it was laid onto bamboo mats and put out into the sun to dry. This method of drying things is the same all over Asia, and because things are dried out in the open under the sun, they normally smell really bad and attract hordes of flies - especially the dried fish products. The sweets were being made by Dad, who mixed sugar and coconut milk to make a delicious paste, which thickened and eventually hardened into a toffee-like consistency. The sweets were then cut up by Mum, and wrapped by her and her daughter by hand. This was the bit that really surprised me - all those thousands of sweets, all wrapped precisely by hand. I had somehow imagined that automation would have crept into this job. The last 'factory' we visited was a back yard where 3 men worked over a searingly hot pan, popping rice, just like popcorn. They came out all fluffed up and white, and were then used to make sweet blocks, just like the Rice Krispy cereal bars.
Then it was back into the boat to cross to an island in the delta, for lunch and a wander around, before piling back into the boat for a visit to a brick factory. (This sounds like a typical 'Communist Country' tour agenda, but we'd found the morning interesting, as we got to see just how simple production is for many of the foods we'd been eating while we were here). There's obviously no phrase in Vietnamese for 'Health and Safety' as we wandered around the production floor, between kilns and raging fires, watching raw clay being turned into bricks and pots (pots which sell here for less than £2, and for £50 at home!).
Our final boat trip took us to the city of Vinh Long, back on the mainland, to visit the market, which was full of ladies in straw hats selling their fruit and vegetables. The hats are mostly worn by country women, or older generations - today's city women wear baseball hats, which is the standard for all the men in Vietnam. The Vietnamese women also seem to go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that they don't get sun on their faces - they want to keep their skin as light as possible - so they can be seen riding around town on mopeds, with hats, sunglasses, and two face masks - one on their forehead and one over their mouth. At first I thought the facemask was an anti-pollution thing, until I realised that they take them all of when they're out on their bikes in the evening. It's a funny old world - women from Europe working hard on their tans, women from Asia working hard on keeping their skin as light as possible.
We got back at 7pm in the evening, and the girls wore themselves out on a huge bouncy castle in a funfair on the walk back to the guest house, and we all went to bed, worn out by another hot and long Asian day.
Tuesday, May 04, 2004
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi tunnels are north of Saigon, in a wooded area, where the Viet Cong used to live and fight underground against the American and south Vietnamese troops. There are 200km's of tunnels, up to 8 metres underground, and they contain kitchens, bedrooms, meeting rooms, and fighting bunkers. Until you see them, you wonder how anybody could hide such a tunnel system, but then you see the way that the entrances were hidden. Spot the tunnel - there's one in the photo on the left.
There you are - the hatch was hidden under the leaves. We'd all walked right past it until the tour guide doubled back and showed us what we'd missed. What a great photo opportunity! A chance to stand in a real wartime tunnel, and have my photo taken. I couldn't resist. I vaguely remember the guide saying that the Americans hadn't been able to get down the tunnels, because they'd been built for the small Vietnamese build, not the bulky Westerner ones. It was a bit of a squeeze, and I couldn't get my chest in at all, but at least I got the photo.
Can you lip read? If so, you might be able to see what I'm saying in photo number 3. I've just discovered that getting my hips through on the way down was a lot easier than lifting them back up. Although I had the strength to lift myself upwards, I didn't have enough to squeeze my hips back up, when I was also bending my legs to find the tunnel edges to get an extra bit of lift. Hmm, looks like I'll have to buy an annual pass, as I may not be getting out of here in a hurry!
Phew - the Vietnamese army guide, and a Japanese tourist who looked like he was straight off the set of Banzai, came to my rescue. It turned out that after me, nobody else in our group wanted to try it - especially after the guide talked about the fact that cobras tended to wander into the holes to lay their eggs. Later we all walked through a specially widened-for-tourists network of tunnels, covering 30m, bent double so that I was almost touching my toes. Now I've seen them, I can understand how they must have petrified the troops that were sent in to clear them (you had to be careful if you were short and thin in the US Army).
After all that, I was glad to get back to the madness of city traffic and the guest house. We had time to shower and change, before we packed up, paid our bill (2 million Dong!), and got a taxi to the railway station, for our sleeper train north to Danang. Most backpackers travel through Vietnam by bus - a ticket from south to north costs $21, with as many stops as you want - because of the cost. But we prefer travelling by train, and the girls love sleeper trains. So despite the fact it costs twice as much, we took the train option. We opted for a 4-berth soft-sleeper cabin, and didn't have to share with anybody, and could lock our door overnight so that we didn't have to worry about our rucksacks getting pinched. By 10, we were all in bed, and because of the freezing air-conditioning, tucked under duvets and sheets.
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
A day for the girls
All the time that we've been travelling, we've tried to mix together sightseeing and some fun things for the girls. So we decided to go to one of Saigon's waterparks for a bit of playtime. Like all good plans, this one fell apart straight away! We took a taxi to the Saigon Water Park, on the outskirts of the city. The taxis in Saigon have meters, so there's no negotiation to be done beforehand, which makes it very stress-free to get around. The only thing is, because $1 is worth 15,500 Dong, the meter ticks around at an enormously fast pace! I couldn't decide whether I should be watching the meter, and panicking, or watching our progress through the traffic - and panicking! As there are so many motorbikes, and seemingly no road rules, traffic is heart-stopping. Red traffic lights are only for those people who are nervous - the rest plunge straight through. The only road rule appears to be that the bigger you are, the faster you can drive straight through junctions and make unusual turns. Bicycles give way to motorbikes, who give way to cars, who give way to buses, who give way to lorries. If you're in a car turning out of a side road, or even pulling away from the curb, you just do it - no looking, no indicators, just go!
But, after the taxi meter had ticked up to 65,000 Dong, we arrived safely at Saigon Water Park, to find it is closed every Tuesday. To the sounds of Emily howling in the back seat we turned around and headed back to the other side of the city - through the traffic again. Fortunately Saigon has more than one water park, so we drove instead to Shark Waterland (which marketing person though that was a good name for a swimming pool?), which turned out to be a bit dowdier, but open. And the meter had only managed to get to 170,000 Dong (phew - £7). We spent the rest of the day there, splashing down the slides and generally having a laugh.
We had to wander the backstreets to find a taxi to get home, passing drivers sleeping in their cyclos (rickshaws, Vietnamese style), an open air pavement barber (complete with hydraulic chair), ear wax cleaners (here itís a profession, not a packet of cotton buds) and the ubiquitous 'Cobra Wine' shops. They sell bottles of spirit, containing full size cobras and other snakes. At only $2 a bottle, it seems good value for a drink and a snake to scare your friends with. But why, oh why, would you drink it? I guess it's no different to the Tequila worm, but you're not exactly going to be able to swallow it without it chewing are you?
Thursday, May 06, 2004
When we woke up we were far away from any city, and deep in rice paddy country. Outside the window was an idyllic scene of vivid green rice paddies, being tended by people in pointy straw hats, and with water buffalo roaming the paths. It is like sleeping in a hotel room that moves. The Vietnamese railways seem fairly similar to other Asian railways - each sleeper coach has its own guard to look after you,and a couple of squat toilets at the end of the carriage. We were the only foreigners on the train, so the girls had drawn quite a crowd as we set off, with lots of women wandering down the train to see their blonde hair and fair skin.
When breakfast was delivered, they started visiting again, to watch the girls eat with the chopsticks. They gamely tucked into rice, chicken and pork under the eyes of half a dozen women, all chatting and chuckling at their slow paced eating with chopsticks. I guess to them it looked cack-handed, but I was amazed that the girls just tucked in and got on with it, despite the audience and the food (next time, I think we'll take some breakfast things with us on the train, as everybody else seemed to do!)
We arrived in Danang mid-morning, and took a taxi the 30km to Hoi An, a World Heritage town on the coast. After the chaos of Saigon, it was a relief to arrive in a nice, quiet city with few cars and where everything's in walking distance.
Actually, the 'taxi to Hoi An' bit wasn't as easy as it sounds. The actual experience was something like this:
We walk out of Danang station
Taxi 1: I take you Hoi An for $10 (nice shiny taxi)
Taxi 2: I take you for $6 (old grotty taxi)
Us: Okay, we'll take you (Start walking towards grotty taxi)
Taxi 1: Okay, I take you for $6 (We change direction and get into nice, shiny taxi)
Taxi 1 takes us 100 metres away from the station and stops, and then says: You give me $10 or I not take you.
Taxi 2, pulling alongside: He no good - I take you for $6
We unload ourselves and our luggage from Taxi 1, and get into Taxi 2 for a smooth journey to Hoi An, with no further hassle!
The moral of the story? Don't expect somebody to stick to the price they'd already agreed, especially if they're driving the smart green and white taxis at Danang station!
Friday, May 07, 2004
Hoi An town
We woke up this morning to find that Hoi An town is as peaceful as it had seemed last night Well, all things are relative, and it's peaceful in a Vietnamese sense - its still full of the sounds of moped engines, and their honking horns, but these are inescapable in a country where there are no traffic rules other than 'biggest wins'. Oh, and drive on the right unless you're a lorry, in which case drive down the middle of the road. Our guest house, Nimh Binh 2 (it means Peace, and itís a popular name in Vietnam), is costing us $18 a night, including breakfast, and is a good deal, as its clean, the air-conditioning works, and there's even a balcony with table and chairs!
We spent most of the day just wandering the streets of this World Heritage Listed town. All over the world monuments, temples, towns and whole natural regions are being rapidly 'World Heritage Listed' - I'm not sure what it means really, but it does seem the mean that the country its in wants to preserve some of it, because its good for tourism. And Hoi An is no exception - in the old town itself they've banned cars, and as it is so compact, it is easy to walk around (although you do have to be aware of bikes and mopeds whizzing around). They've also got very stringent preservation laws, which means that although many buildings in the town are being turned into shops, cafes and galleries, they still retain much of the original charm that I imagine the town had.
As the town is set in the middle of countryside, the market is the most important thing in the town, and every morning streams of women from the surrounding villages come into town to sell their surplus vegetables. And then a good number of them head to 'Poker Corner', where they form a crouched circle and gamble with their takings! As has been the case since we arrived in Vietnam, the girls generate a lot of interest on the street, and we end up moving down the road very slowly, with all the people that want to look at them, touch their hair and skin, and pinch them (Charlotte is learning to suppress her "Ouch"-instinct, but she does complain that much of the pinching really hurts!).
As we've come 500 miles north from Saigon, it has got noticeably cooler - the daytime peak is only about 32-degrees, and the evenings dip to 27-degrees - and it is very welcome to us all. In fact, if it gets any cooler in the evenings, we'll be needing to unpack our fleeces!
Saturday, May 08, 2004
Hoi An boat trip
To get a break from walking, we hired a boat this morning for a trip down the river towards the sea. For an hour we just pottered along the river, watching life carry on on the banks. One of the strangest sights, that we hadn't expected at all, was the coracles that the local fishermen use to get to and from their boats. I remember learning about them in history in school, from Ireland, so it's a bit of a surprise to see them here in Vietnam, made of bamboo and being paddled by men in pointy hats.
We also passed crowds of women, packed onto similar boats to ours, heading back from the market. The boats were crowded with empty baskets, and cages which had held chickens and ducks, and they were busy counting their takings. As we passed the small dock at the market, it was a bustle of activity and goods of all kinds were being passed around between boats. We were only on the boat for an hour, which cost us 60,000 dong ($4), but it was long enough to get the flavour for life on the river without reaching boredom-point for the girls.
As we've been in Asia for over 3 months now, we've started to not notice how different things are here, and what might have seemed unusual at the beginning, we just see as normal daily life. Take this photo as an example. On all the restaurant menus in Hoi An, they print "Our Ice is made from Purified Water". And I'm sure they're absolutely correct. But what they don't tell you is what happens to the ice after it has been made from the purified water. This cart/bike is taking a dozen blocks of ice into town, where it is chopped up for sale to the fish sellers, restaurants, drink vendors and for sliding onto boats for the outlying villages. The cafť owners then carry it to their shops, either over their shoulders, or on the back of their motorbikes, where they chop it up even smaller, and drop it into your drink. So although the ice was made with purified water, who knows what's in it buy the time you drink it! But we haven't avoided ice here, because lets face it, if the locals drink it, why shouldnít we? Mind you, its always a strange sight to see a cafť owner pop off on his moped when they've run out of ice, and then come back with a block on the back of it - at least you now know why you're iced-Milo was taking so long!
Sunday, May 09, 2004
Further north to Hue
After three nights in Hoi An, we're ready to move on again, just 70 miles north this time, following the coast to Hue. It's very strange being in Vietnam for the first time, because lots of place names ring bells from history, but my knowledge of the Vietnam war is so thin, its probably from watching things like Good Morning Vietnam. Like today, when we drove back through Danang, and all I could think of was Robin Williams singing into his microphone on the film. And Hue is another one of those names that I've heard of, but don't know why. Must have been some fighting here at some point!
The road to Hue is quite picturesque, as after Danang it winds through a range of hills overlooking the coast. At the Hai Van pass we stopped for a break, and saw the remnants of an ancient Chinese-style hill fort (like a mini-Great Wall of China, built to control access between two provinces), and 1960's concrete bunkers, built for the Vietnam war, and with exactly the same purpose - to control access and provide a line of defence against the North Vietnamese (we're not yet on the line where the two sides faced each other, but the DMZ is only a hundred kilometres or so further). After the bus stop, a Vietnamese lady gave Emily a necklace, and Charlotte a bracelet, that she'd just bought from the roadside vendors. As well as all the pinching, hair-stroking and hand-shaking, the girls have also been given lots of small treats by the local people in Asia. Its very touching to see, as often the things come from people who have so little themselves.
We arrived in Hue at lunchtime, and quickly got a guest house sorted out (Binh Minh this time) - we'd been given some recommendations by Madame Cuc, the owner of our Saigon guest house, and they're all turning out to be great places. Binh Minh is costing us $22 a night for a family room, including breakfast, and we think it is probably the nicest room we've stayed in during our whole trip. The bathroom is not only spotless, but modern, and the room itself looks like it was painted yesterday. It's a million miles better than the dismal, padded velvet-covered walls of Diamonds Guest House in Phnom Penh.
Moving around means making plans, so while the girls enjoyed some playtime in the room, I walked across town to the railway station to book our onward tickets to Hanoi later in the week. The city seems an odd mix of French-colonial and red-flag-communism. Alongside the wide, tree-lined boulevards, and the French-style colonial mansions, you're treated to hundreds of red flags flying around the city, and posters extolling the virtues of collective farming and modern industrial revolution. You know the kind - women driving tractors, and billboards dedicated to the glorification of the People's Army.
Later we rented a couple of cyclos, but I paid one of them to go and have a cup of coffee while Sarah was pedalled around town by one of the drivers, while I pedalled Charlotte and Emily around in the other one. The biggest adversary wasn't fatigue or hills, but the other traffic. The cyclo is obviously well down the pecking order when it comes to moving through junctions, so I had to spend my whole time looking out for other traffic moving into my way, or cutting me up. But I think I had it easier than other cyclo drivers, because most drivers gave me a wide detour when they saw that it was a foreigner cycling his own children around town. By the time we finished our city tour, an hour and a half later, I couldnít work out whether I'd done more damage to my nerves or my behind (cycle saddles, which are hard and narrow, seem to be designed to hop on and off easily, rather than to make life more comfortable for a wide-bodied foreigner!) Still, I've now got a fresh reminder of what it feels like to work for a living, and sitting behind the seat of a cyclo is definitely physically more tiring than sitting behind a desk.
Monday, May 10, 2004
Hue is an amazingly beautiful city - not only does it seem to have a slower pace than other cities in Asia, but the river right through the middle provides a centrepiece to the parks and shady side roads. Outside of the city, amongst the hills and paddy fields, are tombs of the previous Emperor rulers of the province, and last night we'd negotiated a boat trip to visit one of them. A ticket in the tour group costs just $2, but they visit half a dozen tombs, and we knew that the girls would be less interested in yet-another-tomb, so we hired a boat to ourselves for the morning, for $10.
After an hour and a half boat trip, and a ride from the river bank through the paddy fields on the back of a motorbike, we arrived at the tomb, in the middle of nowhere. After handing over our $4 entry fee (beside a sign that said "Foreigners $4; Vietnamese $1") we walked through the walls and took in the beauty of the mausoleum. The Emperors in Vietnam obviously had significant wealth and power, because this tomb has two lakes, a river, three temples, various meeting rooms, and bedrooms for the king, his 102 wives and his concubines (try explaining what a concubine is to a modern child!). The building on the left is just one of over 30 buildings on the site, all reeking of wealth. The only thing missing, in fact, from this tomb is a body! The Emperor was buried in great secrecy, somewhere around the area, but because the 200 servants that buried him were immediately beheaded, nobody has been able to find the body, and as importantly the treasure buried with it.
Just like everywhere else in Vietnam, it was the girls that turned out to be a bit of tourist attraction themselves. Every few yards they were slowed down by Vietnamese women, who wanted to touch and talk to them. Although its nice for them to receive so much attention, they do find it a bit annoying at times - especially when we're all trying to look around ourselves.
Time to make this diary a bit more interactive with a challenge. Here's two pictures from the next place we went to, Thien Mu Pagoda. I'll send a Ho Chi Minh T-shirt to the person that emails us with the reason I took a picture of a car, and the name of the monk.
Sorry, too late to enter
The monk in question was Thich Quang Duc, and I took a picture of the car because it is the one that carried him from Hue to Ho Chi Minh to immolate himself. The winner was the very-worthy Mike Barnes, who's now the proud owner of a Vietnam T-shirt!
Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Finishing Hue and on to the train
On our last day in Hue, we travelled across the river to the Forbidden Purple City. This citadel, used up until the middle of this century, was the residence of the Emperor and his clan - including his 104 wives, his concubines and his eunuchs (now, explain that one to an 8-year old). It was very reminiscent of the Forbidden City in Beijing, with a Tiannamen-style square in front, and a massive gateway to enter through. But once inside, we saw the big difference. The entire palace had been destroyed (apparently by the French, during the battle for independence in the 40's). Although some of it has now been rebuilt and restored, much of the land inside the walls was just grass and vegetation, with the foundations of buildings dotted around. It's not the same - seeing a sign that say 'This is where the hall of the concubines was' doesn't compare to seeing a real building. They had rebuilt the Emperor's Mother's house, and put inside a display of historical photographs of the royal court in action - hundreds of flunkies in their robes, bowing to the Emperor on his throne. Like an old Hollywood movie, but for real, and from just 60 years ago. (I wonder, will we look at pictures of Trooping the Colour with similar awe in another century?)
Later, once the heat of the day had risen to intolerable levels, we showered (in this heat, its possible to have 3 showers a day, and still feel grimy?) and changed, and went to the local 4-star hotel for a slap-up buffet lunch. There were at least 4 justifications for this - 1) where else can you get a gourmet lunch for $3; 2) we are going on the overnight train later, and as the food is so bad, we thought we should fill up first ; 3) the restaurant was the only one we could find that was air-conditioned; and 4) because we're worth it!
I've spent my travelling life laughing at people who take pictures of buffets on holiday (or even worse, video film of them), so I felt guilty taking a picture. But it is sufficiently different from everything in Asia, it seemed worthy of record!
Later, it was onto the train, into our 4-berth compartment, for the overnight trip to Hanoi. This trip is about 700 kilometres, and cost us $25 each.
Wednesday, May 12, 2004
Arriving in another famous place - Hanoi
We're here - another city name that rings a bell - Hanoi. Isn't this where Robin Williams said 'Hanoi Hannah' lived? Is my cultural understanding so low that my knowledge of the world is set by Hollywood films? (That's a rhetorical question, not one to email me about. I already know the answer you'll give me!)
Anyway, we arrived at the central station at 5am, to be greeted by crowds of touts for taxis, hotels and tour companies. Always a great way to be woken up!
We were a bit delayed getting out of our carriage by a couple of backpackers ahead of us carrying guitars. What is it with musical instruments and travellers? Why lug one of the world's most awkward-to-carry instruments around the world? It makes my heart sink when you're just settling in to a good book in a quiet backpackers cafť and somebody walks in with a guitar. You know you're in for an hour of somebody playing a quarter of a tune, then running out of inspiration, and moving onto another quarter of another tune. Oh, and the out-of-tune singing that normally goes with it.
In fact, now I'm on the subject, I've decided that 'Backpackers with Guitars' are the round-the-world equivalent of 'Volvo Drivers with Caravans'. You know how it is - you're driving along a nice, windy country road, at a reasonable speed, when you see around the next corner the back of a caravan. Your heart sinks when you realise that it's moving at 10 mph, and yet it speeds up just enough to stop you overtaking whenever there's a straight bit of road. Well, try following a Guitar-toting Backpacker down a railway carriage/bus corridor/narrow street. You canít overtake, because of the way their luggage hangs out every side of them - all guitar-toting travellers, have smelly trainers tied onto the outside of their packs, by the laces. Presumably it's so that they can get a wider inconvenience-radius when they move. And they move at a snails pace because they keep having to stop and apologise for bumping into people who were standing within 6 feet of them (or not, if they are Israeli, but that's a different backpacker's story). And then, when you've found a lovely place to sit and relax, they then come along and plonk their
Anyway, back to Hanoi. After breakfast, it took us 2 hours to find decent accommodation, because the standard of guest houses here falls way below that of the other cities of Vietnam. We either had to double our budget, or lower our standards. In the end, we did a bit of both!
Wandering around the Old Quarter of Hanoi, where we're staying, reminded us just how difficult it is to walk around the streets of Vietnam. Hanoi suffers from the same problem as everywhere else, but worse. Basically the street is divided into quadrants, none of which are intended for walking on.
Right outside the building is the 'Motorbike zone', where bikes are permanently parked, completely filling the pavement - sometimes somebody had to move a bike so that you can leave the building. Then there's the 'Poo zone'ch starts at the back wheels of the motorbikes, and completely covers the gutter and first foot of the road. This isnít entirely full of dog-poo though, itís also where everybody throws their rubbish. There is a great system of rubbish collection in the city, as ladies pushing hand carts sweep and clean late at night. Unfortunately that means that everybody can safely throw their rubbish in the gutter all day, knowing it will be cleaned up overnight. Not good for daytime pedestrians.
Then you're into the 'Traffic zone', which is definitely unsafe for walking. Its where the anarchy of Vietnam's traffic takes over, and you're asking for trouble walking in it. And if you do, you'll constantly have your way blocked by cyclo-drivers, who stop right in front of you to try and get your business. Oh, and the final zone, the 'Cooking zone' can appear randomly anywhere - it's where the small streetside restaurants set up. In other countries this is normally in the gutter or a small alcove back from the street, but in Vietnam it's right in the middle of the pavement, wherever bikes aren't parked.
So basically, there's nowhere to walk in Vietnam. But this doesn't bother the locals, because they all have motorbikes, which they park on the pavement right outside their house/shop/cafť, and they never have to walk anywhere. They go everywhere by motorbike. Maybe the answer would have been for us all to have a motorbike too!
Thursday, May 13, 2004
Bad Hair Day
Do you remember this photo? It was taken a week ago, when we visited a water park in Saigon. What we didnít know at the time was that three days later the girls' hair would turn green! After soaking their hair most of the day in what was obviously a pool full of strangely-chlorinated water, everything seemed normal. But then, two days later a sheen appeared on their hair, which turned into what looked like bright-green highlights on the third day. Well, it certainly made the Vietnamese stare a bit more than usual. After a week of living like this, we've finally found some better shampoo and conditioner that has sorted it out, and turned them back into blondes, but it's a warning to anybody that fancies a cooling day in an Asian water park.
Saturday, May 15, 2004
Sunday, May 16, 2004
Shopping in Hanoi
The other thing that makes shopping difficult is the pavements, something I've described before. But here's an extra bonus feature - motorbikes inside shops. Its because there are a few streets where people aren't allowed to park their motorbikes on the pavement, so they park them in shop doorways, or the shops themselves. This chap is trying to get into a clothes shop, squeezing between two Honda Dreams casually parked in the door - and out of sight there's another pair to their left, even further inside the shop! It's so bad, that sometimes you can't get into the shop at all, until somebody moves their bike. And what makes it seem worse is that most of the bikes seem to belong to staff - could you imagine this at Sainsburys? Its bad enough when the staff get all the parking spots near the entrance, but at least they don't park in the entrance.
Monday, May 17, 2004
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Give me a minute, I can do better than that!
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
Packing up to move on
Fortunately we're not going to have to drag it all over Asia with us, as we should be able to leave in Kuala Lumpur in a few days time, and then carry it down to Singapore somehow before we finally fly home in a month.
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Who wants to be a millionaire?
And here's the sad bit - it's not just a couple of Dong. It is ONE MILLION DONG! - that's about $60 in real money - and its completely worthless. We're keeping our fingers crossed that weíll find somebody travelling to Vietnam that we can sell it to (If you're going on holiday to Vietnam, well, you know our email address!).
And failing that, I'll have to run another competition on this website, and make somebody a millionaire!. And then they can have a bulging pocketful of Dong. Watch this space.