Date: Sun, 19 Dec 2004
Subject: Filling some holes
We've been home a few days now and are rapidly catching up with everything. It has a few compensations, not the least of which is to be able to write this on our own familiar, beloved Mac instead of some knackered old thing in an Internet café with a dirty mouse and a keyboard where you don't know before you start which keys you need to bash to get a result.
So... as promised (threatened?), this final one is to go back over where we left our reports on the thin side. As we're sure you'll appreciate, by the time we got to Hanoi after our long self- and externally-imposed radio silence, there was so much to say we didn't know where to start - not to mention the fact that we were both pretty exhausted and had caught colds. And of course we can't possibly (you'll be relieved to read) tell you everything else, so we'll just try and pick some of the more interesting bits, starting where we left off after 'Another unsolicited bulk email'.
We left Saigon for Dalat by tourist bus. This journey starts on the notorious National Highway 1, which it's generally recommended to avoid - the Lonely Planet speaks of 'kamikaze buses' and we did hear second hand of a couple of travellers who had been, a couple of days previously, on a bus that killed two children. So it was a great relief when we finally turned off onto Highway 20 and headed up to Dalat.
What a contrast! Dalat was actually cool, which was a very welcome relief after Cambodia and southern VN. It's in delightful surroundings with a truly temperate climate (they claim a constant daytime temperature of 25° year-round) - they grow lots of vegetables imported from Europe, and even roses - and has, incongruously, something of the feel of an English south coast resort. We stayed at the Tricky Hotel (actually Tri Ky, but they did pronounce it Tricky) which was new and comfortable, if a little hastily finished. Overnight the owner's Mercedes and several motorbikes were parked in the marble-floored lobby. We went to the Stop & Go Café, a somewhat eccentric establishment run by a poet with a Ho Chi Minh beard, with an extremely friendly kitten. While looking for the Stop & Go, we met a very nice Australian resident Brit, Pete, who was engaged in the same search, so we had tea together. The next day we also joined Pete on a trip on a little local railway to the lavishly elaborate Linh Phuoc Pagoda. But before that...
Dalat was where we had our second silliest experience. It didn't quite match the bamboo train, but it came close. We'd walked most of the way round the very pleasant lake and were ready for some lunch (or lun - see 'general impressions' at the end). We duly came across a café, tucked away up a side road, where we had trouble making the owner understand we wanted food, not just coffee. He ushered us through to his garden, which consisted of a rather attractive, if overgrown, pond surrounded by little concrete booths, each containing what appeared to be an old bus seat and a small table. They were totally secluded and there was no-one else there anyway. After a while, he brought out a tray with some tea, a couple of packets of vegetable cracker biscuits and a very odd thing called 'green bean cake': small cubes of stuff that immediately disintegrates with a slight sherbert-like fizz on the tongue. Then he left us in isolation. It was all seeming rather surreal anyway, then after a few minutes he turned on the music... Richard Clayderman, the professional smiler. It was just too ridiculous and we both collapsed in giggles. It was that awful thing with the repeated sixths that's pretty much his signature tune.
Also in Dalat, we met up with the two Easy Riders with whom we'd spend the next three days. The Easy Riders seem to be a semi-organised group of experienced motorbike riders with a great deal of local knowledge and - certainly in our case - a good sense of humour. They were very kind and considerate. Their names were Nguyên (something like 'Nween' - he calls himself Wing for the benefit of westerners) and Thiêt (similarly, Ted to us). At first we'd met some younger guys who claimed to be Easy Riders, but we weren't convinced (there's a lot of this going on), but when we met Wing and Ted and saw a bit of grey hair (they were indeed about our age) we were pretty sure we'd found the Real Thing. They carry books of testimonials from previous tourists, to which in due course we made our contributions.
They took us on a wonderful 3-day adventure up into the Central Highlands, the biggest town we visited being Buon Ma Thuot. We stopped at all manner of interesting places: plantations for this and that (among them rubber, black pepper, cotton and coffee, the sweet scent from whose flowers was all-pervading), a mushroom farm, a silk factory and the silkworms themselves. All fascinating stuff. For every meal Wing and Ted ordered wonderful things we wouldn't know how to begin ordering, and always picked out the best morsels for us. They very expertly put our big packs on the backs of the bikes in such a way that we could lean against them - it was all very comfortable and there wasn't a moment's hesitation from either of us about the safety of their driving. They even provided crash helmets, and wore their own.
We spent the first night in a minority village, sleeping in a long house - more or less a thatched dormitory on stilts, accessed rather precariously by a ladder in the form of a log with notches cut in it. Given that Chris's greatest problem with travelling is sleeping in strange circumstances, he didn't expect to get a wink that night, but with the aid of earplugs and an eyeshade it turned out to be the best night's sleep of the whole trip.
The following morning provided one of the most magical moments we experienced. The village was on the edge of Lak Lake (high up in the mountains, and shallow), which we went to have a look at when we got up early. To our amazement, walking slowly towards us across the lake were three elephants, with various people including a small child aboard. It really wasn't specially put on for the tourists, and for the locals it was no doubt a routine event, but the whole thing just made us melt. The elephants emerged from the lake next to us and walked on into the middle of the village, where they were parked while the riders went about their daily tasks, and the child presumably went to school. What a lovely way to get to school.
After that, Wing and Ted took us to a series of magnificent waterfalls, and Ted took us scrambling over some rocks to a lovely, quiet 'swimming pool' in the river, where we did indeed swim. Then on the final day, they took us back down to the coast, to a resort called Jungle Beach (a little way north of Nha Trang, for the map-followers), where we parted company.
One of the signs Wing and Ted taught us to recognise was the words 'Thit Cay' [or 'Cay To'] outside a restaurant. This, apparently, means they serve dog meat, and once we knew this we saw the signs everywhere. Some of them also serve what they call 'little tiger' (ie, domestic cat), which is no doubt good for the libido or something. Everything is good for something in Asia!
Jungle Beach was where we caught up with the tail end of the typhoon, and the weather was grey and damp, but still warm, and we had a couple of pleasant swims in the South China Sea (sounds exotic, doesn't it?). We were ready for a day off at this stage and that's exactly what we got. As the French-Canadian owner of Jungle Beach says, there's absolutely nothing to do there and that suited us fine.
After a couple of nights there we set off to Danang (immortalised in history as the place where the American troops first landed in 1965), flying from Cam Ranh airport, which serves Nha Trang. Unfortunately, there was a delay of several hours, but the weather had improved a bit and the airport's virtually on the beach, so we walked over to the dunes and relaxed for as long as we dared, before heading back to the less than fascinating departure lounge.
From Danang we took a taxi the relatively short distance to Hoi An, where we spent three nights in a first floor room with a balcony overlooking rice fields full of frogs - we couldn't actually see any frogs but we sure could hear them. The weather still wasn't up to much, but that didn't stop us getting our lovely new togs, or exploring this delightful little town. Some people have said it's too touristy. Well, yes, it is fairly touristy, but by no means excessively so when compared with, say, Bourton-on-the-Water or Carcassonne. The old houses are beautifully preserved, and alongside the usual market there's a special cloth market with vast amounts of every conceivable type, colour and pattern of cloth, as well as rows of women working away at sewing machines. There's also some good grub to be had, in particular from the Café des amis where there's no menu, only a choice between seafood and vegetarian. The owner simply produces the set meal he feels like cooking that night, and the one we had was excellent.
From Hoi An we took an excursion to My Son (not, of course, pronounced 'my son' but something like 'mee sonn'), one of the most important sites from the old kingdom of Champa (there's still a Cham minority living in Vietnam). There were until comparatively recently something over 70 monuments there, but most of them were destroyed by American bombs, leaving only about twenty that are anything more than a pile of rubble. The structures are all of brick and it's amazing how well preserved some of them still are, the oldest dating back as far as the 7th century. The site, smothered by jungle, was discovered by French archaeologists in 1898. It's in a lovely setting: a beautiful, verdant valley with streams trickling between the monuments, and birdsong and butterflies.
Leaving Hoi An, we took a car first back to Danang, where the driver waited while we visited the Museum of Cham Sculpture, where quite a few of the exhibits come from My Son. We were shown round by the splendid (and tiny) Monsieur Louis, a professor who, from time to time, would ask us questions and reward us with prizes (sweets) when we got the answers right. He wasn't supposed to take money for this, so we paid him furtively behind a pillar. Then on over the mountain pass to Hué.
We didn't really have the greatest time in Hué, although the Citadel is undoubtedly worth visiting. The weather was at its foulest, and when we took a boat trip to the Thien Mu Pagoda, the tower of which is one of Vietnam's icons, we found the tower completely shrouded in scaffolding. (NB: the tower - a bit like the one in Kew Gardens - isn't the Pagoda in Vietnam, and many of them don't have a tower at all. The Pagoda is the other building which serves as a temple.) Also from Hué we did a tour of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone - which you have to pronounce 'dee em zee'), but that turned out to be an extremely long day (c. 06:00 - 19:30), most of it spent sitting in the minibus. The climax of the tour, however, was the Vinh Moc Tunnels, which are definitely worth seeing (we didn't visit the better known Cu Chi tunnels from Saigon). We went into and through some of the tunnels, marvelling at the very idea of living in there for four years, which many of the local people did during the war. Seventeen babies were born in the tunnels, and there was a slightly wider area in one of them which we were told was the schoolroom.
We took the night train from Hué to Hanoi, expecting to arrive at 05.00, instead of which we were a full hour early. After the taxi got us there we had to rattle the front door of our hotel to be let in (the only one we booked in advance the whole trip, apart from the Angkor Village where we started).
Now, we must clear up a bit of confusion over Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh to you). It appears he wasn't in Moscow at all for his refurbishment. It struck us as pretty daft to send him there, with all the precautions and arrangements that must require, when it would be far easier for the technicians to come to Hanoi to do the job - and indeed that's what happens. In fact, the Vietnamese technicians are more or less up to the job themselves these days, and one or two Russian experts come over just to oversee what they're doing. They do close the mausoleum for a couple of months each year, but by the time we got back from Ha Long Bay and Sapa (see our 'Last leg' email), he was once again on show, looking uncannily alive. They (whoever 'they' are) say that of the three great Communist mummies - the others being Lenin and Mao - Ho is the best preserved. We filed respectfully past with everyone else and it was all rather eerie. This was part of a city tour we had on our last morning, which we shared only with a Korean-American couple and a woman from Singapore. Again, we had a very good (and again, very small) guide, who took us to various interesting places, possibly the most impressive being the Temple of Literature (or 'literatures' - see 'English pronunciation' below).
We'd done our own walking tour of bits of the Old Quarter on our first day in Hanoi and, for all its congestion and pollution, it really is fascinating. To a large extent, it still keeps to the old scheme of particular streets for particular trades, including a remarkable street of blacksmiths, where there seemed to be some welding going on in every shop - and without any kind of masks or other protective equipment. Health and Safety isn't exactly Vietnam's strong point, we felt.
And of course we had to see the Water Puppets. This show really is a gas. There's a big tank full of greenish water, with bamboo screens across the back, behind which the puppeteers stand nearly up to their waists in the water. The puppets are all operated via poles under the water, so they do appear to be floating, rising and sinking in the water. Some of it's very funny, accompanied not only by (more or less) traditional music, but by shouts and cheers and other vocal noises from the musicians and others. There's a series of short sketches, lasting an hour altogether. One of the best was 'Agriculture', where, among other things, you see the rice growing before your very eyes.
Our final fling in Hanoi was Minh's Jazz Club, which turned out to be amazingly good. More about this in Chris's forthcoming special music report.
Next morning <sob>, it was off to the airport and home, but there was one interesting footnote en route. Between our two flights we had to spend five hours incarcerated, we thought, in Singapore Airport's transit lounge. However, it turned out to be a simple matter to pop into town for an hour or so on the excellent, efficient light rail system - not unlike (for the Londoners) the Jubilee Line extension - and have a quick look round. Oh dear, what a contrast. Of course this can't be taken as in any way representative, and someone who knows the city could doubtless show us something completely different, but the part of Singapore we saw seemed to be nothing more or less than an interconnected series of shopping centres. (A lot of the rest, as we could see from the plane, is a dense forest of high-rise accommodation.) We did see the outside and into the lobby of the famous Raffles Hotel (the original one), which was all very impressive; and we went up the highest tower in Singapore to the Equinox Bar at the top where there was a fine view over the city, but it was very noisy and full of thrusting young executive types, so we didn't stay for a drink. Apart from all the affluence compared to the preceding five weeks, two other things we noticed when out on the street were the lack of squashed chewing gum on the pavements (it's banned there) and how incredibly quiet it was. Very few motorbikes; instead, new and expensive cars that whispered along without tooting their horns all the time. Above all, though, what it all reeked of after Cambodia and Vietnam was: MONEY.
Finally, a few general observations, in no particular order
Every town has at least one; the cities have several, some of them huge. What struck us was the sheer quantity of goods on sale there. They're usually more or less organised into areas, so that you turn a corner and find yourself, for example, in hat alley, where there's a row of stalls selling, between them, thousands of hats, stacked up in great columns, hanging from every available spot, and so on. Some of the markets are surprisingly quiet, especially the big one in Hanoi's Old Quarter - it's quite restful just to stop and listen to the ambient sound.
In the big cities, women walk round the streets selling their goods (fruit, veg, meat - usually food of some sort) from pairs of baskets, suspended from the ends of a bamboo pole they carry over one shoulder (they swap over from time to time). When full, these are incredibly heavy - up to 60 kg, apparently - and there's no kind of padding between the pole and the shoulder. They have a special, bouncy sort of walk and they must be immensely strong to keep this up all day. Apparently they come in from the countryside for a week or two at a time, staying in shared rooms and eating meals costing about 20 US cents.
Physique and diet:
Most of the people there are small compared to us in the west - Chris, for once in his life, felt relatively tall much of the time - and very few of them indeed (that we saw) could remotely be described as fat. Most westerners we encountered (and Chris doesn't except himself from this!) seemed like great galumphing slobs next to the locals. Some of the younger people in the cities are taller, as more protein-rich diets have become available to them, but the diet in general struck as as being pretty healthy. Breakfast there isn't usually dairy products and fry-ups, but a bowl of noodle soup (pho), and very nice too. We're already rather missing that.
This is quantity again. Unless you've been there you wouldn't believe the numbers of them on the streets in both Saigon and Hanoi - especially the latter where (in the Old Quarter at least) the streets are that much narrower and there's a generally rather frantic feeling in the air, and all the pavements are clogged with parked bikes. There's a special technique for crossing the road, because nobody stops for you: you simply start off and walk slowly and they all weave around and miss you (usually). It sounds - and is, the first time - terrifying, but it does work. If in doubt, look for the nearest little old lady crossing and do what she does. This multitude of bikes also of course produces its own pollution and Mary, like many of the local women, ended up having to buy a mask for walking round the streets of Hanoi.
This of course is downright churlish on our part, because let's face it, our Khmer and Vietnamese really aren't up to much. However, we did find it curious how, in both countries, most people seemed unable to put the final consonants on English words unless they were n, m or ng. We can only assume this is a hangover from French pronunciation, where of course there are a lot of redundant final consonants. So, for example, you pay a goo pry for your rye, which you tay to your how and ee for lun(*). 'Lun', I'm afraid, has stuck. Some of the better English speakers are clearly aware of this shortcoming and overcompensate by adding final consonants where there are none - in particular, by making singular words plural ('literatures', for example).
(* Just in case there's any doubt: a good price for your rice which you take to your house and eat for lunch.)
We did, of course, take far too many - all too easy to do with a digital camera. In due course, Chris will put a selection up on the web for anyone who's interested to see, but it's not a trivial task so it may take some time. We'll send out a final mail to everyone when they're ready. [Way-hay - we just have! It only took 9 months...]
Apart from that... that's it.
We hope you all enjoyed reading these reports.