So this is Hanoi. And there are just too many bloody foreigners here! It’s amazing how many European/Western faces I’ve seen, including some, shall we say, more mature travellers.
The journey from Beijing was a two-night job. The set-up was like the Trans-Sib train but the compartment was considerably prettier: white linen embroidered with blue, and blue velvet curtains (even if the curtains were nylon and so a bit scary in the event of fire). The views were more varied too: mountains, trees, little villages, people working in the fields in the suits and conical hats you see on postcards, that sort of thing. I had a roommate, a Vietnamese woman. She seemed really lovely, although seeing as I understand as much Vietnamese as she did English, she could well have been saying really mean things to me through a really smiley mouth and I would have been none the wiser. She kept offering me food but I kept turning it down. For a start, I couldn’t be sure it was veggie, but secondly, I didn’t want to, as the apocryphal tales go, find myself waking up in a ditch three days later minus my luggage and a kidney. But I’m as sure as I can be that she really was just genuinely friendly and I was just too over-cautious; here’s to me becoming more chilled before too long. The most thrilling part of the journey was probably the fact that I had booked my own ticket; it was the first ‘big’ thing I’d done for myself since I left the UK, and it felt awesome. The adventure (really) starts here!
Paying US$6 for a room that’s far removed from the ones I’ve stayed in since the start of the trip but I’ve got the best World Service reception so far. I got a bit cheesed off in the second hotel I tried: three Brits – a pair of women and a bloke – whinging because they might have to pay $6 or $7 for “a room with private bath”. “We’ve been paying $4 so far,” whined one of the women, who has obviously never stayed in a hotel in London.
Made a beeline for Moca Café, for cappuccino and samosas(!). It was a real laugh – the only Vietnamese faces in there belonged to the staff. Had tea in the Tamarind vegetarian café, which was more expensive than I’d expected (although a still pretty cheap) then used the world’s slowest internet café – I gave up after an hour. Even though it’s ridiculously expensive, I phoned home on my mobile; a bizarre experience – walking down a street thousands of miles from home, with Mum in my ear and rush hour motorbikes chugging around me.
Some proper exploring today. It looks like the heart of the city is quite small – only a couple of miles wide, really. There are some modern buildings, but the most impressive of the larger ones are those dating from French colonial times, which seem to be all pastel colours and fancy white mouldings. The “Old Quarter” has loads of character: narrow streets of dinky, Chinese-inspired shophouses; it’s great for shopping for stuff such as lacquerware and beaded items.
It’s no surprise to find a host of museums devoted to Ho Chi Minh, the anti-Colonial struggle, Communist revolution and (what the West refers to as) the Vietnam War. One of these is Hoa Lo prison, described on the sign outside as: “A crime by French colonialists towards jailed patriots and revolutionaries”. ie, a place where Vietnamese agitators against the colonial presence were held until France ceded control of Vietnam in 1954. The exhibits included things like tableaux celebrating the Vietnamese prisoners, such as one showing two women comforting a third who was obviously ailing. “The affection for each other is expressed more than for bloodsiblings,” stated the information leaflet. It was all a bit grim; how could it not be when the place even has its own guillotine? It’s not used now (I hope!) but in the past, according to the leaflet: “This head-cutting machine cut many patriots and revolutionists”. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese prisoners of the French get more attention than the Americans held there as POWs a couple of decades later [who included Senator John McCain, who the previous year – 2000 – had run against George Bush to be the Republican candidate in the US Presidential election, and, of course, went on, in 2016, to be famously dissed by Donald Trump for “getting captured”].
Quote of the day? “You go over there, by where Uncle Ho is living now,” – directions given to me by a young woman near Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
Highlight of today had to be the water puppet performance I went to this evening. Water puppetry was invented in northern Vietnam, apparently, and seeing a show is one thing you have to do as a tourist. I was expecting it to be a twee nightmare, but it was actually very sweet and terribly clever.
Instead of the puppets being controlled from below (hands up their bums) or above (strings), they’re on the end of bamboo sticks manipulated by people standing behind a curtain a few feet away. It must be like playing hockey or something, only knee-deep in water and with L-shaped sticks that you have to make follow a set pattern without bumping into someone else’s L-shaped stick. It really was stupendous. Shame many other members of the audience couldn’t appreciate it other than through the view-finders of their cameras. How much are they missing while they’re concentrating on filming or photographing rather than actually watching? Aaargh! Despite the camera muppets I was really happy as I ambled back to the hotel. Until I looked down into one of the foot-or-so-deep trenches they have instead of gutters here (to cope with the rainy season rains, I suppose?) and saw a dead thing that was either a small dog or a large rat. As an animal lover with a morbid phobia of rats [which will be a constant thread through this dlog – I’m sorry!], I’m not sure which of these options was worse: the thought of a cute dog dying, or the fact that Hanoi boasts rats the size of dogs… Mind you, people do eat dog around here; every time I see a dog I can’t help wondering whether it’s a pet, or dinner.
Did I wake up this morning feeling that I was taking life just a little bit too much for granted? Probably. Why else would I have rented a pedal bike? In theory, people in Vietnam drive on the right-hand side of the road. In practice, though, any side of the road is the right side, including the centre. Car drivers seem to stick vaguely to the rules(ish), but there’s not that many cars around. The most popular mode of transport around here is the moto, or small motorbike. There are zillions of them. People seem to view them as an extension of their legs, so using them is just like walking. I guess the best way of describing the rules of the road for motos is that it’s like walking in a big crowd of people – leaving a big gathering at the same time, say, or disembarking from a packed train: everyone is going in the same direction but if you feel the need to go against the flow – you realise you’ve forgotten your coat, say, or want to look at something in a shop window – then why not stop dead, turn around and walk headlong into the other people around you and expect them to weave around you as you weave around them? That said, it is actually rather exhilarating to drive into oncoming traffic (they were the ones going the wrong way, not me!). And, of course, it’s even more exhilarating to drive into oncoming traffic and emerge still alive.
I cycled to the north of the city, to the Thong Loi hotel, where they have a swimming pool that’s open to the public. I have had better ideas. Vietnam may be warmer than Britain, but this is northern Vietnam, and it’s December. Which probably explains why I was the only one using the pool, which is outdoor, and also why the water wasn’t just rather chilly but also a bit grubby too – as though no one had felt the need to clean it because it wasn’t being used. And, as I was swimming, a rat ran along the poolside. It was a rat, not a mouse – I could tell that by the size, even without my glasses on. I got a bit panicky, in case it jumped into the pool – would I be able to swim away fast enough? And even as I was getting out of the pool I was soooo scared, in case it came back and came anywhere near me. Fingers crossed that it and its ratty friends don’t make a habit of going in the pool, or if they do, there’s enough chlorine or whatever still in there to kill off any nasties.
After my swim I cycled around the lakes of Ho Tay (West Lake) and Truc Bach. I went past some really posh houses and some complete shacks – sometimes right next to each other.
To celebrate not being attacked by a rat or dying on a bike, on the way back I called in at a shop and bought a water heating element. I know, I know, there are cafes all over the shop, and Vietnamese coffee is delicious [dripped slowly through these dinky metal filter things, extremely strong and served with condensed milk] but it will be so nice to be able to have a brew without leaving the comfort of my hotel room. That’s the good news. The bad is that a British electrician (not to mention my parents) would have a blue fit looking at it, they really would. It’s a metal coil, like the one my dad used to have to use in his car, but whereas my dad’s plugged into nothing more harmless than the DC current in the fag lighter, this one plugs into the mains electricity supply – by means of nothing more complicated than a plastic disc with two pins sticking out of it. (The plugs round here are two pin.) It only cost a couple of dollars, and as I handed that over, I could almost hear my mates at my funeral: “But she was always so cautious and sensible. I just don’t understand it…” Mind you, as they also know how much I like my brews, maybe they’ll decide that it was understandable after all.
Just back from Sapa, a former French hill station, in the mountains north of Hanoi. Hill stations were where colonial types used to go to escape the summer heat at lower altitudes. I went with a (supposedly) environmentally-sound small group tour: five (Western) tourists and a guide, L.
The itinerary included visiting “hill tribes”, namely the Black H’Mong. It was interesting enough, seeing the conditions people live in – literally scraping a living off the soil, and barefoot children carrying baskets of sticks and other stuff that were almost as big as they were. The baskets were like tall, narrow buckets that go on the back, like a rucksack. I’m not sure if they have a waist strap, but the way of keeping the top close to the bearer’s body is a strap that goes across the bearer’s forehead; I guess if you’ve done that all your life it doesn’t seem weird. Even though I think/hope the tour company pays the people for letting us visit their homes, I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit uncomfortable, as though we were intruding in some way. It was like having a tour group come to my home in the UK to take pictures of “the local indigenous people in their village”. We stopped for tea at one house and when I used the ‘toilet’ it was basically three walls of woven grass over a drain leading to a padi field. That wouldn’t happen at home, of course, and it has rather put me off rice…
On the way back we passed a cemetery and L told me that in Vietnam, the custom is to bury dead relatives in a place where their flesh is likely to rot quickly, then, after three or so years, dig up the remains, wash the bones clean and then rebury them, so the departed can then rest in peace. That’s familial devotion for you! And, thinking about it, one way of reducing pressure on our rapidly-filling cemeteries, although I’m not sure how popular it would prove in the UK.
The countryside around Sapa is really beautiful but the town itself is less attractive, and it’s full of tribespeople trying to sell tourists stuff. They’re mainly very old-looking women who cling to your arm so you end up towing them down the street or young girls squealing: “You buy from MEEEEE!” Yeah, I know tourists are a good source of income for some really poor people, but there’s a limit to how much you can buy. Where the male tribespeople are is anyone’s guess, but according to what the guide said, I suspect there’s a fair chance they’re out of the way, pissed up on rice wine. I managed to escape the vendors and found the proper market. Then wished I hadn’t, as I blundered into what I assume was the ‘meat’ section and came face-to-face with a dog head. Still, it was baked and intact, so probably not as upsetting as it could have been.
I like to think we got a bit of revenge on the dog’s behalf when we went for bia hoy (beer) and karaoke in a dingy bar. We were put in a room on our own and we were very soon making such a racket the owner slammed the door shut so hard the walls moved. At my request, we ended the session with a communal, and extremely raucous, rendition of Jingle Bells. Only in Vietnamese, with choruses that went: “Bong bing bong, bong bing bong…” and “Dem No-well, Dem No-well…” We must have been pretty good, though, as the karaoke machine gave us the rather impressive score of 94.
The trip back was a laugh. Sapa is an overnight train journey and an hour-and-a-half minibus ride away from Hanoi. The minibus trip down the mountain was marginally more alarming than the journey up, but it passed without incident. When we got on the train, though, there was chaos. As I understand it, tour operators or hotels can commission whole trains or parts of trains. According to one of the guides, the hotel that had commissioned this train had messed up, and quite a lot of people – many of them tourists, including another group with the same company as us – couldn’t get in the seats booked for them. As it was an overnight train they would have nowhere to sleep; the other group’s guide, H, unsurprisingly, was not pleased. He got into a screaming row with a train attendant – so heated the attendant was threatening to throw him off the train (as in ‘throw’, not just bring the train to a halt and ask H to leave); passengers, cuddling their bulky luggage and looking forlorn, were shuffling through the carriages looking for anywhere to rest; it was dark, hot, late and the train was swaying from side-to-side. And in the midst of all this mayhem little boys were going from compartment to compartment asking hopefully: “Shoeshine? Shoeshine?”.
Another tour today, this time a one-day jobbie to the Perfume Pagoda. That’s a collection of sacred caves, shrines and temples around a mountain about 40 miles outside Hanoi. Not sure I would agree with Lonely Planet’s description of it as “unmissable”, but then if I was a Buddhist and the caves etc meant something to me in spiritual terms, maybe I’d feel differently. The main cave was impressively massive, though, and the journey there was pretty cool.
We were taken in a minibus from Hanoi (that wasn’t the cool bit, obviously) to the Yen River, where we got in little boats to be rowed one-and-a-half-hours each way to the Pagoda and back. That was lovely. The river was clear and still, and jutting out of the water were all these limestone formations covered with lush greenery. At one stage we had a line of around a dozen or so white ducks gliding along beside us, and there were some awesome big, bright blue dragonflies flitting around, too.
Went to see Uncle Ho today, “where he lives now”, ie in his mausoleum. I think I may now have the full set of pickled Communist leaders: Lenin, Mao and now Ho Chi Minh. (No disrespect to Sukhbaatar in Mongolia but I don’t think he’s in the same league as Lenin, Mao and Uncle Ho.) Three top mausoleums in less than six weeks – not bad going, is it? The set-up for seeing Uncle Ho was the same as for Mao and Lenin: no cameras or luggage and file through rapidly and respectfully silently. The mausoleum is by “Ho Chi Minh’s Relic Area”. This includes the “President’s Palace”, a grand Colonial-era building that was Ho Chi Minh’s workplace and official home, with, in the grounds, a simple wooden house on stilts. That’s where, so the story goes, Ho Chi Minh actually lived: “A symbol of his simplicity and gentleness,” according to the leaflet.
The Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution was rather entertaining: lots of iconic, stirring pictures and statues of people with their arms thrust out in that Lenin/Hitler-ish way. Other exhibits included: “Letters sent by some people in (whatever) province to Ho Chi Minh”, a cooking pot used by some woman to cook up medical herbs for him, and a bugle used to rally combatants during some uprising or another. If I was less of a pleb I might have understood the significance of these items but I’m a clueless ignoramus, so I didn’t.
Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island
I’m sitting at a café on a beach on the holiday island of Cat Ba. It was lovely when I got here but it’s now overcast, and I’ve just had some young man demanding money from me for sitting on the café’s beach chairs. I did try to get a cup of tea when I first got here, but when I went to the counter to buy it, neither the young man nor his umpteen mates could tear themselves away from the lurid Samurai drama they were watching on TV to come and serve me, and the bunch of women sitting with them were too busy picking things out of each other’s hair. Nits, I assume?
I’m here because I wanted to see the famously beautiful Halong Bay. The guidebooks say the best way of doing that is to spend a night there on a boat (I think it’s something to do with appreciating the silence and stillness of the water during the night, while the limestone karsts look spectacularly spooky when they’re wrapped in morning mist). The easiest – and safest – way of doing that was through a tour, which in the case of the one I went for, through Handspan travel in Hanoi, included a jaunt to Cat Ba.
Halong Bay really was spectacular – limestone karsts soaring out of a turquoise sea and all that – but I spent almost all evening getting worked up, and then all night actually awake, because some considerate person told me they had met some people who had had to decamp to the deck because of rats in their cabins. Of course, I had to have that conversation while we were merrily sailing into the bay and it was too late to opt to stay on dry land, so the best I could do was hope that, as Handspan is supposed to be one of the posher companies, the pest control on their boats would be better than that of the cheaper operation the rat people had travelled with. It wasn’t much help, though. I had a cabin to myself and I just could not allow myself to go to sleep, and every sound put me on the verge of a panic attack, partly because I hadn’t really thought through what I would do if there actually was a rat in the cabin. Would I scream and wake the whole boat? Would I lie still and hope the rat left without making contact with me? Would I try to flee the cabin? If I would, how would I do it? How easy would it be to open the door and get out without standing on the floor, especially as the cabin roof was scarcely taller than me? What if the rat was on the shelf near my head? It was horrible, horrible, horrible. And after all that stress, I didn’t even have a bloody rat in my cabin anyway!
It’s only now, after a day unwinding in the quieter parts of Cat Ba that I’m starting to remember just how stunning Halong Bay was. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all. Cat Ba is OK, but I’m sure my life would still have been complete if I hadn’t seen it.
My final day in Cat Ba was notable for two things: torrential rain and, secondly, an encounter with a drunken and frankly rather seedy man who accosted me on a bench by the beach. He put one arm round my shoulder while, with his other hand he tried to get hold of my water bottle to take a drink, then offered me the services of three grubby teenage girls for an hour “bangy bangy” for 15,000 dong (around US$1).
Now I’m in Hué, in Mandarin Café, watching the tail end of torrential rain that Sod’s Law dictates I was caught in – on a bicycle. Even though I have a stinking cold I thought it would be a good idea to cycle round the Citadel, the fortified, moated oldest part of the city, which, of course, it would have been, if it hadn’t started pouring down.
The main lesson I learned on the train from Hanoi is that “Hard Sleeper” really means just that. I had promised myself that I would stay in a fancy gaff in Hué, but as I walked out of the train station in my knackered state the sizeable le Loi Hué Hotel was pretty much right in front of me, and it looked ok and was only $4 a night.
Hué is a lot quieter than Hanoi, although I haven’t really had chance to explore properly yet. First impressions are lots of French Colonial architecture (like Hanoi), and huge holes in the road, which aren’t marked in any way.
Sight of today: probably the cyclo carrying a moto driver – and his damaged moto. (A cyclo – and the clue is probably in the name – is a sort-of bicycle taxi. It’s got a back like an ordinary bike, including a seat for the driver, but at the front are two wheels, side-by-side, with a bin-like seat between them, in which the passenger sits. Or two passengers. Or three. Or one passenger and the entire contents of their market stall, or, in this case, one passenger and his damaged moto.)
Result! Saigon FC football team is staying at my hotel! They may have a habit of kicking footballs down the corridors, but they do rather brighten the place up a bit (ahem). And speaking of brightening things up, massive kudos to the hotel laundry; I gave them the grey socks I’ve been handwashing since I started my trip and within hours they’ve made them brilliant white again.
Today I did a motorbike tour of sights on the outskirts of Hué. The tours are run by a family of one sister and 10 – that’s 10! – brothers. The sister, Thu, organises and books the tours from the café she runs, while her brothers actually do the tours, taking tourists out on the backs of their bikes. The café is called “Café on Thu Wheels”.
My guide was Thu’s brother Minh. Our first stop was the Thien Mu pagoda, a graceful pagoda that is seven storeys tall and therefore the tallest religious building in Vietnam. Thien Mu is famous (or notorious) for another reason – it’s the place from which, in 1963, the monk Thich Quang Duc started a journey to Saigon, where he burned himself to death to protest against the South Vietnamese government’s ‘discrimination’ against Buddhists. The car he used is on display at the pagoda.
Next was Tu Hieu pagoda, which was more conventional looking (as Vietnamese pagodas go), then the tombs of two Vietnamese emperors Tu Duc (ruled 1848-1883) and Khai Dinh (ruled 1916-1925). These emperors were members of the Nguyen dynasty, which ruled Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 and was based in Hué. The tombs were grand but a bit beaten up, which was actually good, as it added to the atmosphere. I think Tu Duc’s was my favourite; the grounds include a really pretty moat or lake with lilies floating on it.
The highlight, though, was probably at the Thanh Toan bridge, a covered bridge over a canal. It dates from around the middle of the 18th Century and it’s also known as the Japanese Bridge because it (apparently) looks a bit Japanese. What made it fun, though, was that one of the other people on the tour was this really dainty Canadian girl, who was probably less than 4ft 10in tall, and a local (Vietnamese ) girl got really excited because she was actually taller than a Westerner!
We ended by going up a hill that had offered a stunning view of the Perfume River, which runs through Hué. The sights had been nice enough, but the best thing of all was the excited yells of the local children as we sped past.
Yesterday was a loooong day: a tour of the DMZ, the De-Militarised Zone, the area that separated North and South Vietnam between 1954 and 1975. I’m ashamed to admit I don’t really understand the significance of everything we saw, but I guess the most memorable bit was going into the Vinh Moc tunnels. They were created by local people as shelter from US bombing, but ‘tunnels’ is probably a misnomer, as they’re more like a series of caves joined by tunnels. The complex was big and extensive enough to allow an entire village to live underground for extended periods.
The day before yesterday I finally got to see the Citadel properly. Only this time I went on foot rather than by bike, because it was still chucking down (it’s easier to hide from the elements in waterproofs on foot than it is on a bike!).
The Citadel itself is an island surrounded by a moat. The perimeter is something like seven miles long, so it’s not small. Within the Citadel is the Imperial Enclosure, the administrative centre of the Nguyen Empire, and within that, the Forbidden Purple City, the Emperor’s private quarters.
The whole thing felt rather like the Forbidden City in Beijing, only smaller and less famous – and therefore less visited and far more peaceful; in some parts I was the only person around, and I reckon there wouldn’t have been that many more people even if the weather had been better. There’s also a lot more open space than there is in Beijing – the Citadel has been comprehensively bombed twice in the last half-century, in 1947 (during fighting between the French and Viet Minh) and in 1968 (the Tet Offensive). Even buildings that survived and have been restored bear witness to the fighting: the Hall of Mandarins, for example, looks damn-near perfect, but the tiles on the floor around it are pock-marked with golfball-sized holes that I’m thinking have to have been created in 1947 or 1968.
However, it’s not just war that has created havoc – the weather has done a lot of damage, too. For example, there was one building that was little more than a shell. If you were in a tragic frame of mind you’d be sure it had been bombed to bits in 1968. In actual fact it was wrecked in a typhoon in the 1980s.
Even when it’s not going to extremes, the climate here has to make caring for buildings a never-ending task. Another building was so covered in mould you’d assume it had been abandoned years ago, while, according to the sign outside, it had been fully restored in 1985. It’s actually really unnerving; in Hanoi, for example, I’d walk past some Colonial-style building that looked so neglected I’d think it must have been abandoned by the French when they left several decades ago, but then I’d see the date stone and it would be 1995! Like, just six years ago!
I had a crafty chuckle while I was wandering around the North Bank of the Citadel. The souvenir shops there are all selling wire models of cyclos! To appreciate how amusing that is you have to have spent a day in Vietnam being pestered from dawn to dusk by cyclo drivers touting for trade. I know they’re only trying to make a living and everything, but how many times can you say no in one day? And so why on earth would you want to take home a model of a cyclo as a souvenir?
Other memorable sights of the past couple of days? The day before yesterday when I went for a walk around Hué and stumbled upon a man who obviously thought he had found a private spot for his morning constitutional, so was squatting with his trousers round his ankles, over the edge of a jetty of the (perhaps unfortunately-named) Perfume River. And a bloke wee-ing out of a window of a bus that sped past us as we made our way back from the DMZ.
Having been in Vietnam for a couple of weeks now I’ve had a few random thoughts:
Dogs: How comfortable would you be having a dog as a pet if someone opened a thit cho [dog] restaurant next door but one? Do thit cho restaurateurs keep dogs as pets?
Price difference: Yes, that again (as in the Kremlin). The entry fee to the Citadel is 5,000 dong for a Vietnamese person but 55,000 dong for a foreigner. Yes, that’s a policy and price set by the Government, and they’re quite open about it, but you know that at markets and so on, where the price isn’t marked, ‘local price’ is a lot, lot lower than ‘foreigner price’. Like I said over the difference at the Kremlin, it’s difficult to get upset when (almost) everything here is still a lot cheaper than it is at home and I know I am so much richer than so many of the local people. But the price difference does stop you realising and understanding just how low wages are in Vietnam. If, say, a coffee costs a foreigner around 4,000VND, the foreigner might assume that ‘local price’ is maybe 3,000 or 2,000VND, but in reality it’s a fraction of that because that’s all the locals can afford to pay. For example, in Thu’s the other day I met this Australian expat who told me that a Vietnamese person who has a ‘good’ job in a hotel may earn just over a dollar a day (ie 15,000VND).
Paradox: One of the things that has struck me (already) about Vietnam is what a paradox people are, especially the younger people. They are so young but yet so old. This is still a rather conservative country so, as one local person was telling me the other day, there isn’t much “intimacy” before people get married, but people are working too hard to court and get married. So in one way, people of my generation and below are actually rather ‘young’, inexperienced and naïve. Not just because they haven’t been “intimate” with someone, but because they haven’t got the ‘adult’ responsibilities that go with that – like setting up and running your own home, and making sure your children are fed, housed and kept safe. But at the same time they are exceptionally mature; they may not have their own homes or children but they do have a tremendous sense of responsibility to their families as a whole, and their parents in particular, especially as there’s no welfare state to provide for them. Few seem to have the luxury of choosing a career – you have to take whatever work you can get otherwise you’ll starve. And, of course, people of this generation started their lives in a country at war, with the horror and hardship that would have brought with it. All Vietnamese people, what, 25 and over will have some experience of war, while anyone from Hué who is 30 or more will have lived through the mayhem of the Tet Offensive.
I’ve not seen that much of Vietnam so far, but Hoi An has to be one of the prettiest places in the country. It’s said to be the only town untouched by war and it’s chock-full of character: tiny streets of 200 year-old shophouses, built by merchants who got rich trading with China and Japan before the Perfume River silted up. There are some modern buildings, but they’ve been kept outside the old town bit, and it looks all the better for it. The river (the Thu Bon?) is a bit grimy and there are holes in the pavement – a nightmare in Ratwatch terms – but the town is lovely all the same. Unsurprisingly, Hoi An is very popular with tourists – three visitors for every one resident in 2000.
The place is packed with lovely restaurants serving delicious food, much of it Western, or Westernised Asian, which Vietnamese people probably wouldn’t like, and probably couldn’t afford anyway. There’s hardly any of the basic places with tiny plastic chairs and plain but tasty scran that I’ve seen elsewhere.
I’m exploring the delights of Hoi An with P, a British lad I met on the bus from Hué. P was travelling with his girlfriend but she’s been lured home to take up a fab new job, while he’s decided to stay on the road for a few more months. It’s been rather fun having someone to hang out with. We’ve done a bit of sightseeing but mostly we’ve just stuffed our faces. Highlights? A café that does breakfast cereal and cappuccino. And another that serves blinding apple-cinnamon muffins and cappuccino, and offers a selection of British and Australian magazines as well! It felt like ages since I’d encountered any drivel about celebrities and it was ace. They did make me hanker just a bit for a time when I wore something other than travel trousers and walking boots. OK, so I’ve never been exactly a fashion plate, but I do sometimes want to jab one of the glossy pictures of a celeb in smartish day-wear and tell P: “I can look like that, you know”. Mind you, if I was still living the life that required me to dress like that, would I be having the amazing experiences I’m having right now? Er, no.
Anyway, I have made some attempt to be glam. Hoi An is famous as a centre for tailoring; if you want clothes made, this is supposed to be the best place to do it. First up I had some shoes made – and they’re (ta dah!) heels! My arches have been aching a bit recently and I’m hoping that wearing heels once in a while will ease them a bit. I told the cobbler what I wanted and he made them up for me in a day. They have a heel just over an inch high, and they’re brown suede. They’re kind of like slingbacks: a solid front, but just a strap at the back, which goes around my heel. (I figured that the less suede they contain, the lighter they’ll be.) They fit perfectly and they’re really comfortable (so far) and they cost about US$4.
P and I decided to use a tailor recommended to me by an expat I met in Hanoi. You could design your outfit or they could copy one from one of the English magazines and catalogues they had (including a Next catalogue from a couple of seasons ago).
P ordered an entire outfit – a three-piece suit and a shirt. I decided to order a black silk dress and an ao dai, the Vietnamese national dress. It comprises a long tunic – around shin-length – but slit to the waist on both sides, with long, fitted sleeves and a mandarin collar. It’s worn over loose, full-length trousers. Apparently, the Communists once tried to eliminate the ao dai from the national consciousness, because it wasn’t progressive enough or was elitist or something, but the people weren’t for letting it go. Vietnamese women don’t wear them all the time, but you do see them around. I nearly bottled over getting one for myself. The tailor had a book of photographs of previous customers. They were almost all Westerners, and almost all of them were wearing ao dais. The ao dais were all lovely, but even the skinniest, daintiest Westerner looked ginormous compared to the tiny Vietnamese girls you see out and about in them. But what the hell, when in Vietnam and all that, and if it did look totally grim, well, I’d never have to wear it again, would I?
P and I were both measured to within an inch of our lives – like, the circumference of my bicep and then my wrist, the distance between the base of my neck and my shoulder, my inside leg and my outside leg. You name a body part and it was measured. I chose a petrol blue silk for the top and a mid-grey silk for the trousers. That was at 11.30am. “Come back at 6.30pm,” we were told. So we did. P’s suit, in midnight blue, needed one tiny adjustment but otherwise fitted perfectly. My black dress fitted impeccably too, but I’m not sure how often I’ll wear it as it makes me look like a Spanish widow – my fault, seeing as I designed it and chose the fabric. And my ao dai? It was like a second skin, and am I allowed to say it looked stunning? OK, so I’d still look like a crumper next to a Vietnamese girl, but for a Westerner, I didn’t look too bad at all. Ever since I’d met him P had been going on about how great his girlfriend was, how absolutely beautiful and how madly in love he was with her. When I walked out of the fitting room his jaw dropped. When a man who is totally in love with his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend looks at you like that it’s probably safe to say you’ve made a good choice. I don’t know how much P’s suit cost, but my dress was US$28 and my awesome ao dai? US$16.
We’ve not just stuffed our faces and had clothes made. We’ve actually done some sightseeing too. We took a “river cruise” to My Son, site of the most important Cham ruins in Vietnam. The Chams originated in India, found their way to Vietnam and set up the Kingdom of Champa. My Son, built between the 4th and 13th centuries AD was their capital city. The Chams were, in effect, Hindu, and the buildings of their capital reflected that.
The site was badly blasted during the Vietnam war, when it was a base for the Viet Cong and attacked regularly by American forces. The ruins are nice enough, but, obviously, they aren’t anything like as impressive as they would have been in they hadn’t been bombed to bits, or pillaged by various invaders before that, but the lush jungle setting was pretty cool.
“River cruise” is in speech marks for a reason. It was supposed to be a leisurely sail incorporating a language class and a cookery lesson as well as the visit to My Son. The weather was crap (think November in Britain but a bit warmer), the boat was open, we got frozen. The cookery lesson was basically watching two blokes make our lunch, with us rolling our own spring rolls, and there was no language class.
Far more fun was the day we rented bikes and cycled to Cua Dai beach, around three miles from Hoi An. The beach wasn’t too spectacular (although it was nice to be on a beach for a change), but while we were there we met two Irish blokes, whose adventures put mine well in the shade. For a start, they started their world tour in India, taking only Irish punts as currency. They ended up trekking in Nepal because they decided to follow some other travellers. They were in a cafe there and they asked the owner what day it was. He didn’t know, so he went into the kitchen to ask his wife. Then he ambled across the road and started talking to his neighbour. A few minutes later, he strolled back. “It’s Thursday,” he said… That, apparently, sums up Nepal quite nicely.
The day P and I met them they had rented a motorbike – and immediately crashed it into a tree. The hotel owner was explaining to them how it worked and they just told him they’d be OK, even though neither had ridden a bike before. Three seconds later, they shot across a road full of morning rush-hour traffic and hit a palm tree, which, fortunately, blocked the entrance to a crowded restaurant.
The episode, though, illustrated the level of medical care in Vietnam. The pair were told that two Aussies staying in their hotel had had a bike accident a couple of days before and were now in hospital… in Bangkok. They (the Irish lads not the Aussies) have been away for over a year but they’re going home soon, and when they do, Ireland will have the euro. How weird will that be, arriving in your home country without any of the local currency?
It’s nearly midnight, I’m knackered, surrounded by more Westerners than I know what to do with and I’ve just ordered an expensive curry. And I can’t find P anywhere. He left Hoi An yesterday and we had made tentative plans to meet up in Nha Trang. He seemed quite down about not being with his girlfriend and/or at home at Christmas, so I really thought I should check he was all right. But I’ve tried to find him and failed. I was going to stay somewhere rather swish, it being Christmas and all, but almost everywhere is full (bloody tourists!) so I’m in a rather basic place, at $5 a night. And I’ve decided Christmas is crap without presents. There’s burger all to look forward to tomorrow without them.
That said, today has been pretty great, once I’d got over the shock of leaving Hoi An at 6am (brutal!). I got a bus from Hoi An to the town of Quang Ngai, where I hired a motorbike taxi to take me – and my 20kilo backpack – the 13km each way to the village of Son My and the site of the infamous My Lai massacre. I reckon I paid over the odds for the moto (100,000VND!) but it was worth it. The site is green and so peaceful now, and it was difficult to believe that something so dreadful had happened there less than 35 years ago. But it had; the foundations of some of the village houses have been left, and next to them are plaques giving the names and ages of the family members who were killed there. It was all so moving and thought-provoking, although I could have done without the propaganda-esque artwork dotted around the place; it was kind of intrusive and ruined it a bit. However, I met this bloke, who, who is Irish, 69 years old, and has been travelling independently and alone around Southeast Asia for months. He was so cool. I want to be like him when I grow up!
Anyway, I had four hours to wait at Quang Ngai railway station for my train to Nha Trang, and during that time I was befriended by the station nurse, P. It’s her job to look after local people who have to be sent on the train for treatment in Hanoi or Saigon because the local facilities aren’t up to looking after them. She was ace. She took me to a café and bought me Vietnamese tea and Che Chen (like sago pudding, but made with light sugar syrup rather than milk – and bloody delicious). She started copying things from my phrase book so I gave it to her, and then we talked about her patients, such as babies who are born premature (although I’m not sure how premature eight-and-a-half-months is classed as now in the West!) and die; could it be because of Agent Orange, she wondered. Can someone who tells you about sad things still be a joy to talk to? In P’s case, I’d say yes. She really was so lovely. She even gave me a note to use when I was buying some sugar, so I wouldn’t get overcharged.
The train journey here was great too. Yes, I was tired and hot and worried about finding somewhere to stay, especially as the train was only due in at 10.30pm, and also a bit homesick – it is Christmas, after all. But it was so enchanting, looking out of the window and seeing these houses decorated with Christmas lights. Mandarin Café in Hué had a Christmas tree and had been playing Christmas songs as background music, but Mandarin is aimed chiefly at tourists, especially Western ones. These were houses in the middle of nowhere, the homes of people who couldn’t have been pandering to tourists. I’m not sure how much of it was down to the residents genuinely celebrating Christmas – this was once a French colony and despite the years of Communism there is still a Christian legacy here – and how much to them looking for any excuse for a party. Whatever the reason, there was something so comforting and uplifting about those tiny lights twinkling away in the absolute darkness (of rural areas without street lighting).
Nha Trang, when we arrived, was mayhem. Glorious, wonderful, ebullient mayhem. All the churches were decorated with fairy lights and the streets were packed with people – Vietnamese people that is – in Santa hats wishing me a Merry Christmas. I was stressed about finding a hotel, I was sweating like mad, and my backpack was so heavy I felt like my back was breaking. But I was grinning from ear to ear.
And now I have a bed for the night and I’m chowing down on a blinding Veg Masala in the Sailing Club, being alone and x thousand miles from home on Christmas Day doesn’t seem quite such a grim prospect.
Train to Saigon
Taking the overnight train tonight to Saigon to meet Bill [Californian friend from University], who is coming over for a week or so.
I’m not sure I’m a big fan of Nha Trang. It’s supposed to be Vietnam’s premier beach town or something. The beach is OK and everything, but the town itself is a wee bit ugly. Or maybe I’ve just been spoiled by lovely Hoi An?.
I bumped into P very late on Christmas Eve – or rather very early on Christmas morning, I guess – and he was fine. He was stumbling out of a very loud bar with some people he’d met on the bus down. They’d arranged to have Christmas Dinner together, but the restaurant was fully booked, so I couldn’t join them (which turned out to be a good thing – I saw P later and he said the meal was crap). My Christmas Dinner was a cheese toastie on my own, and I did nearly cry when I was doing my Christmas emailing – I felt so very far from home – but it was actually pretty cool ambling on a beach in blazing sun and contemplating what England would be like right then.
Yesterday was a bit pants. One of the things you’re supposed to do here is take a boat trip around the islands. Some trips are complete beer-fests but I chose one that was supposed to be more restrained and I was looking forward to dozing on a sunny deck, admiring some stunning scenery and maybe even having my first dip in the South China Sea. If ours was one of the more restrained, goodness knows what the party boats are like. We had this really annoying Australian guide who kept blasting out AC/DC at top volume (yes they are one of my favourite bands, but there’s a time and a place…) and playing air guitar and screaming at us to sing along. From the uncooperative grunts of the people around me, I’d say they felt like me – just looking to chill and maybe swim a bit round the islands. The islands were nice but I was actually pretty glad to get off the boat and get some peace.
This morning was interesting. I was in a café near the beach and I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation of these two blokes sitting near me. One looked Western, the other Asian. They were Americans, and travelling together. It turned out that the Asian man was a Viet Kieu, “Overseas Vietnamese” – one of the people who left Vietnam after the Vietnam War. He looked youngish, though, so he must have been a baby when he left, or maybe even been born soon after his parents arrived in the US. I have heard about Vietnamese people, especially in the north, being quite mean to foreigners. For example, expats who understand Vietnamese have told me about buying stuff from locals who, while smiling broadly at them, are saying insulting things about them in Vietnamese to their neighbour, such as: “How much should I charge the stupid Westerner?”. That’s not everyone, by all means, but it does happen. Anyway, according to what this Viet Kieu was saying, if you assumed locals would be nice to Viet Kieu, on account of them being fellow Vietnamese, you’d (often) be wrong: the locals can be meaner to Viet Kieu than they are to practically everyone else. They regard Viet Kieu as traitors, or cowards – for leaving when things got tough, that kind of thing. Some resent Viet Kieu for their ‘indulged’ Western lifestyles, or see them as a soft touch, and either charge them higher prices for stuff than even regular ‘foreigner price’ or lay a guilt trip on them in the hope of ‘persuading’ them to pay over the odds. The Vietnamese government seems to be becoming more conciliatory towards Viet Kieu, in the hope of persuading them to invest in the ‘old country’, but it looks like those attitudes have yet to filter down to street level.
The most noticeable thing about this bloke was just how different he looked to the Vietnamese people around us. He was taller, for a start, and while he was certainly not fat, he was certainly heavier built than the local people, and his clothes looked more expensive. I suppose he just looked generally ‘glossier’ than the Vietnamese Vietnamese people.
It was raining this morning, but it had cleared up by this afternoon, so I rented a bike. I cycled a couple of miles to the Po Nagar Cham Towers (like My Son but smaller and less important). They were OK, but swarming with souvenir sellers. Then I went to the Yersin Museum, which celebrates Alexandre Yersin, the Swiss/French bacteriologist who discovered the bacillus that causes bubonic plague (hence the name – Yersina pestis). He has a museum in Nha Trang because he settled there, and founded the Pasteur Institute research facility. The museum was actually really interesting, if a bit gross.
On the way back, some scrotes tries to rob me. Every time I’ve rented a bike I’ve clipped my backpack into the basket, just in case. While I was cycling down one of the faster roads, I had a kind of sixth sense that something was about to happen, so I got hold of one of the backpack straps as well. And a few seconds later, two men came past on a motorbike and one of them leaned over and tried to grab my pack. The look on his face when he realised he wasn’t going to get my stuff was priceless, although I really should get someone to teach me the Vietnamese for “Scumbag!”. I think Nha Trang is a bit of a bad place for crime, for tourists, at any rate: the Irish blokes we met in Hoi An were mugged there, and another couple I met in Hoi An suffered an attempted mugging there. So much for the beach paradise! Fingers crossed Saigon will be more pleasant…