Monthly Archives: March 2008
James and I spent the weekend at the Hanoi backpackers, mainly drinking, well if they will offer free kegs of Bia Hoi on the roof. And besides those Sunday afternoon beers were purely to settle the hangover from the previous night. Apart from drinking we did manage to go and see the water puppet theatre by the river which I loved. The puppeteers are concealed behind bamboo screens and skillfully manipulate the wooden puppets by bamboo pools concealed in a deep pool of water on which the performances take place. There were farmers riding buffalos, dragon boat races, a mating dance of brightly coloured phoenix and two golden segmented dragons that shot fire from their mouths. I think I was more captivated than half the children present! Finally on Sunday it was time for James and I to separate, partly as we wanted to go off to different places and to stop us potentially killing each other in the future, so now I have no chance to redeem myself at cribbage. I left him in the company of three lovely Irish girls and took the rather luxurious tourist carriage on the night train north to Sapa.
I arrived in Sapa at an ungodly hour of the morning with an American guy called Jordan and our new Welsh friend Marina. We spent about two hours eating breakfast in the hotel restaurant watching the changing white grey mist shroud the entire town and countryside…so much for the fantastic views! The rest of the day in the mist was amusing, it was impossible to see more than about 10 metres. Sapa is a tourist town with steep streets surrounded by villages of various ethic minorities of Vietnam, particularly the Black H’mong and the Red Dzao whose women frequent the town in large numbers smiling broadly in their traditional dress and try to persuade you to buy handcrafts from them. They are lovely though once you get chatting and I brought earrings from a woman called Mai, and her friend Mai (same word, different pronunciation that we all failed to get after 10 minutes) and we ended up swapping some of her embroidered wrist bands for my Indian bracelets which she loved! We had sizzling local meat dishes for dinner and played cards and drank mulled wine before Marina and I totally failed to get the fire going in the room, it is pretty chilly up here.
The next day Jordan and I left on a two day trek into the valley with our guide, a 19 year old H’mong girl called Za. All the local guides are women, they all speak amazingly good English and they are highly amusing. The men have no contact with tourists and don’t speak English, where as the women pick up the language and sell handicrafts in the markets and basically end up supporting their families. In the villages of the H’mong, the women are most definitely in charge!
We got dropped off 10km from Sapa and walked down through the rice terraces that literally cover the hillsides like huge green contour lines. In places we were side stepping along the edges of the terraces our hands being held by tiny local women to stop us falling in. We passed ducks bathing in the water, splashing buffalo, women working in the fields and the clouds swirled and drifted over the tops of the hillsides as we passed. The final part of the walk took us down a steep but scenic path into the pretty village of Ban Ho at the bottom of the valley in a crook of the river.
There were about 16 of us spending the night in the homestay in Ban Ho run by a Black H’mong woman called Lam, five months pregnant with two twinkling gold teeth and a wicked laugh. We had the most amazing dinner of beef, chicken, tofu, cabbage and spinach dishes with heaps of white rice. Afterwards we’d all had a few beers and the girls came out with three litre bottles of rice wine, “Happy Water,” announcing we were drinking all of it. And they helped. I don’t know what I expected of a homestay, but playing cards and drinking games and getting pissed with a group of women from a north Vietnamese ethnic minority was maybe not one of them. When any of the boys refused a shot B and Lam would accuse them of being lady boys and burst into hysterical laughter. I told B she had to keep eye contact when saying cheers otherwise she would have bad sex for seven years. She went bright red, the started laughing saying. “I don’t know these things, I’m not married yet!” She then told all the other women and ever time we said cheers they kept opening their eyes wide and laughing. It was a hugely entertaining evening.
This morning we were all not too bad considering the amount everyone drank the night before. Jordan, myself, Za and another couple went for a long walk around the village past the thermal spring pools (we had an almost hot dip in them the previous night) and around to a tiny waterfall falling into a large green pool and falling over the rocks down to the village bridge. Then we had a long walk uphill back to the main road. It had rained heavily overnight and as a result the path was a total mud bath. It was messy and slippery work getting back to the top but amazingly I managed not to fall over. After a noodle lunch we got taken back in a jeep to Sapa and to a warm shower and clean clothes!
The overnight bus from Hoi An to Hanoi was something of a curiosity. From the front looking in you can see three narrow rows of wooden ended bunk beds, slightly slanted and very narrow and built for skinny people about 5ft tall, not the most comfortable way to travel. And of course the ubiquitous terrible Asian pop music that cranked up at 6am in the morning so loud that the bass was seriously distorted. The Vietnamese bus drivers are real sadists! By 8am we had caught a taxi and arrived at a beautiful old French colonial house just outisde the old part of Hanoi where my friend from uni, Kate was living. It was so nice to arrive in a house, she made us coffee in her huge kitchen before heading off for work and the two of us crashed out for the rest of the morning.
Hanoi is a bustling, motorcycle-ridden fascination of charming houses, insane electrical wiring, suicidal traffic and a lovely central lake. Everywhere you go smiling women carrying balanced bowls of fruit blackmail you into buying delicious bags of pineapple after taking their photos. We spent our two days booking trips and place tickets and getting happily lost in the back streets. On one street we discovered what the death rattles of dying frogs sound like. A lady was squatting down on the side of the pavement with a bag of wriggling fat green frogs. She pulled each one out, held it forceably down on a wooden block and with one swipe of a machete took off it’s head as it emitted a final sad high pitched croak before consigning it to the growing pile of headless animals. Yum! In the afternoon we found a small junction in the centre of the old town with a tiny Bia Hoi cafe on each corner. You sit on the pavement on tiny plastic chairs and drink rather good and incredibly cheap local draught beer for about 10p a glass while you watch the world go past. In the evening Kate took us to a wonderful open air restaurant that serves all the varieties of street food in Vietnam. We had squid, pork balls noodle soup and swan which was rather good. Having seen the dark side of swans on many punting trips in Oxford I have to admit eating mine with a slightly savage relish, no Queen to protect the evil white beauties in Vietnam!
I also went to visit Ho Chi Minh, affectionately known as Uncle Ho and one of the most beloved figures of Vietnam. His mausoleum is a huge grey columned square that attracts throngs of school children and Vietnamese every morning along with a sprinkling of western tourists. You cannot take cameras or bags inside and your every move is scrutinised by guards dressed all in white or pea green carrying intimidating bayonets. As the longline filters inside the building Uncle Ho is laid out in a glass coffin with an eery oranged light bathing his waxy face and hands. Around him sunken down in the floor stand four guards and behind is two huge marble backdrops displaying the twin signs of Vietnam and Communism. Very bizarre indeed.
On Thursday morning we set out on a two day trip to Halong Bay and had a bus load of really chatty, really friendly travellers. Everyone was talking away before we even got into the minivan for the three hour trip and we also had a comedy three stooges (our guide, a trainee guide and another random suited Vietnamese guy) telling stories and cracking jokes the whole way.
At Halong Bay City we boarded a beautiful wooden junk and motored out towards the bay. The weather was grey and overcast which added an ethereal air of mystery, shrouding the huge limestone karsts as we approached the bay and obscuring the line of the horizon so that the small fishing boats appeared to by floating in a sea of grey. The bay is stunning, even in the clouds although not the best conditions for taking photographs. We visited an really beautiful but hugely touristy cave complete with a large penis shaped rocks thoughtfully lit with a red light (that provoked a good 15 minutes of taking comedy photos) before taking kayaks out into a hidden bay under an overhang. The water is a really incredible dark shade of turquoise green against the sharp grey black rocks and lush green vegetation of the karsts.
That night we moored up among the other tourist boats and as night fell all the lights surrounding the area looked like a floating village on the water. Our two boats got together and ended up having a huge Karoke and beer fest until midnight which was highly amusing although I think watching my brother perform Phil Collins is an experience I probably don’t want to live through twice. The next day we were all vegged out on the deck watching the scenery roll past as we made our way through the rest of the bay and past the symbol of Halong Bay, the fighting cock island at the gateway, before heading back to land.
I am definitely falling victim to the infinite charms of Vietnam. This place is coming close to rivalling India for the sheer number of photogenic opportunities, whether it is farmers plowing rice paddies with huge horned buffaloes, the women in their cone-shaped hats paddling with one oar down the river, or the beautiful 18th and 19th century architecture in the town of Hoi An. The food is wonderful, the history is intriguing, Vietnam has, over the centuries fought off most of the big bad boys of Asia; the Indian Chams, the Khmers, the Chinese, and of course more recently the French and the US. I found this quote in the history section of the guide book that I particularly liked written by Le Loi who rallied the country successfully against the Chinese in 1428:
“Our people long ago established Vietnam as an independent nation with its own civilisation. We have our own mountains and our own rivers, our own customs and traditions, and these are different from the those of the foreign country to the north…We have sometimes been weak and sometimes powerful, but at no time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”
James and I arrived in Hoi An in the late afternoon after a scenic drive through the rice fields and along the sea front through the town of Danang. Hoi An is full of charms, full of restaurants serving white rose (shrimps wrapped in rice paper bundles), hot pot soups of sea food and spice, LaRue beer, cafes, bars, a river front lined with brightly coloured boats- all with ominous white and black eyes painted either side of the prow, markets, old women in pointed hats selling sticky slabs of sugary peanuts, the streets are lined with brightly coloured beautiful houses, palm trees, red and pink flowers creeping over tiled roofs, old ceremonial chambers with Japanese, Chinese, French and Vietnamese architecture all blended together, and most dangerous of all Hoi An boasts an incredible 400 tailor shops.
W e were recommended a tailor shop called Peace by our hotel and we went around on our first morning. I planned to get one dress and maybe get a copy done of the top I brought in Brazil and have worn to death travelling. The women in our tailors are lovely, and the things they make are beautiful and lets just say that this is day three in Hoi An, James has one suit, two trousers and three shirts and I have a total now of one Vietnamese traditional outfit, two tops, one dress, a formal skirt and a winter coat. Whoops. I have told the owner if she talks me into getting anything else I will stop recommending her shop to people!
Apart from popping into the tailor shop (which invariably involves the girls getting me to try some weird fruit or sample a local soy bean drink while we have a chat) we’ve been wandering around the old town, visiting the historical sites, sitting drinking Orangina in cafes, cycling down to Cua Da Beach and vegging out on the soft sands, eating incredibly well in the wonderful restaurants in the evenings and drinking ice cold beers while we play cribbage in the bars (I am still loosing)!
Today I left James and went to have a half day cooking course with the Red Bridge Cooking School in town. We started off with a tour of the local market and I found out what a good deal of the unusual fruits and vegetables were, my favourite being a nobbly wrinkled green fruit which is a bitter melon. Tastes like crap apparently but is very good for the body! Unusually for someone who generally has the domestic leanings of a fruit bat, I ended up buying kitchen utensils! A very funky mutli-purpose blade that slides dices, peels and shreds, it’s actually very cool! After the market we all piled into a colourful wooden boat and travelled down the palm fringed river to the cookery school pausing to watch a local fisherman expertly fan out his net into the water to catch fish. Well actually he wasn’t catching any fish just then, he was showing off for the cameras and then frantically paddled up to ask for some money!
The cooking course was brilliant, and our chef had a very dry sense of humour which is unusual in Asia, he kept saying the most amusing things in a totally dead pan tone:
“For this use lemon grass, or if you don’t have lemon grass use fresh ginger. If you don’t have fresh ginger in your country…move.”
We learnt how to make spring rolls, rice paper, seafood salad, Hoi An pancakes, Aubergine in clay pots and cucumber and tomato carving. We ate all the food we made and then had yet more for a late lunch, we were all stuffed as pot-bellied pigs when we climbed back aboard the boat back to Hoi An.
I have no excuse for the blog title whatsoever, apart from the fact that it was too wonderfully cheesy to resist. James and I spent our day in Hue on a City Tour, all the obvious sights and sounds of the city in one hit and to be honest it was a pretty good day. We visited the Forbidden Purple City in the centre of the old citadel with its ornate ceilings, carvings and roof work. In typical Asian style if you an emperor of days past the done thing was to stock up on many royal concubines. Then build them a city that only you had access to and leave a substantial guard of eunuchs on guard to preserve their chastity and so you could be sure that your heirs were your own. Sadly for Emperor Tu Duc he was made sterile by small pox, so he concerned himself with ordering his tea to be made with the fresh morning dew instead! We also stopped by one of the traditional Madarin houses from the previous century. The Mandarins were the educated elite in Vietnam, those who held doctorates and were much involved with the politics and administration of the state. They were also not above, it seems, when they didn’t like a particular emperor or his heirs, bumping them off to improve the situation!
After lunch, we went to visit a few of the old tombs built to house the remains of 19th century emperors of Hue. The Tomb of Tu Duc set amongst pine trees with a beautiful wooden poetry house built on the edge of a large pond. And the impressive hill top tomb of Khai Dinh guarded by rows of stone mandarins. We visited the beautiful Thien Pagoda, the first built in Hue and learnt how to distinguish the ‘small monks’ from the ‘young monks’ and the ‘real monks’ based on their hairstyles and then took a brightly painted dragon boat back down the perfume river to the city. In fact the only downside to an otherwise pleasant day was James continuing to kick my ass at cribbage. I have now lost the Thailand cribathon, got trounced in Laos and suffered three straight skunkings in Vietnam. Clearly the gloves need to come off!
After two days in transit we are finally in Vietnam and without the border crossing rip-offs that we’d heard so much about. We spent our final day in Don Det in the four thousand islands doing the best thing possible, very little. You wake up, stumble out onto the balcony in the morning and sit reading in the hammock whilst contemplating breakfast. Eventually you put on a t-shirt and wander up to a riverside restaurant for some pancakes and coffee before a morning stroll and then it’s back to the hammock to lie, sway and read. Mid afternoon the kids of your bungalow owner pop their heads round to say hello and have a play with your digital camera (which they are surprisingly adept with, the two attached are ones that they took) and spend the next half hour photogrpahing other travellers walking by! And if you are really lucky the farang with the bakery will stop by your bungalows mid afternoon with buns and carrot cake for sale. Actually we did manage to go and hire ourselves a boat to motor out into the islands and watch the sunset on our last day. We rode out past the inhabited islands, the wooden bunglalows framed with palm trees and continued weaving between sandbanks and green bushy islets until we reached a wide area of the Mekong with the hills of Cambodia in the distance. Just us and the fishermen and the sun reflected in the still waters as the day came to an end. I tell you, this travelling life is incredibly hard work.
Our next two days were slightly less relaxing. To get from Si Phan Don to Savannakhet took one boat, one minivan and one incredibly slow local bus that stopped for everything; piling on cargo, bags of rice, quick stop for the driver and his friend to have a beer, you name it, we stopped. Plus, and I never thought anything would surpass having to watch the ‘Perfect Storm’ three times on buses in Mexico, we were subjected to Thai Karoke videos for about six hours. For those of you that have never had the delight it is the worst ear-bleeding music you have ever heard accompanied by the kind of videos that make your brain cells voluntarily start committing suicide out of your nostrils. So it was 9pm, with a heavily impaired IQ and sense of sound, that we arrived, found a guest house and then discovered all the restaurants were closed. We managed to find somewhere for some noodles and a Pepsi before collapsing into bed. Then 5.30am we were up again and back to the bus station to get the local bus to the border. Now I like to think of myself as a veteran of the Asian local bus, I’ve been on the good, the bad and the ugly and I’ve seen livestock on plenty of buses, but seeing pigs wrapped up in sacks with just their snouts sticking out and put squealing in the luggage hold under the bus, is a new one! Still, we got to the border and after convincing the Vietnam official that I was the person in the passport (the new haircut doesn’t help) we were in Vietnam. We managed to get a minivan straight to Hue at a pretty reasonable price and found a guest house before realising that nobody had tried to rip us of or exhort money out of us along the way. Ah well, there’s still time!
Hue is a chilled out but bustling (if the two things are possible) city on the river opposite a huge citadel we are visiting tomorrow. We checked in and headed straight to tourist central, the DMZ bar, and sat in the restaurant above it drinking beer and eating burgers and pizza, okay so not very local but hey, we’ve been on a bus for two days. Definitely time for a little guilty backpacking RnR!
I left Vang Vieng with a hangover so it was just as well that it was only a short bus ride of four hours or so to reach the capital of Laos Vientiane. One of the things that amazes me about Laos is just how many people are backpacking here. So much so that for a while it looked like we would be sleeping on the streets of the capital. Guest house after guest house had signs up saying FULL as Bron, James and I trundled along with all our stuff. Finally we ended up sauntering into the rather smart lobby of the Intercity hotel on the river front on the off chance they had a vacancy that wasn’t too overpriced. It was the only room we could find. So for US$20 each (really expensive by Laos standards) we ended up in the deluxe room on the top floor with all the trimmings and a balcony overlooking the sunset on the far side of the river. This kind of inconvenience I can occasionally handle.
Vientiane is a fairly relaxed Asian capital city and feels more like a large town. Most of the river is a dried sandbank at this time of year providing a huge area for evening strolls and kids playing football. Tiny food stalls and market stalls line the pavement and give rise to the unmistakable smell of an Asian city, the fragrance of noodles, chicken and chilli sauce in the evenings. We decided not to visit the usual temples in the city and instead hopped on a tuktuk out of town and went to visit Buddha Park, 25km away. Buddha park is a kind of theme park full of the most unusual and bizarre Hindu and Buddhist sculptures I’ve seen in Asia so far. It is the brainchild of a priest-shaman called Luang Pu built in 1958 and runs amok around the traditional religious style of Hindu gods and symbolism. A giant reclining Buddha lies across one side of the park in a vaguely familiar pose, around him are multiarmed serpent gods, giant crocodiles, Grecian styled women carrying flowers, skulls, winged men, horse-bound warriors and a giant pumpkin you can climb up inside. What more could you want from an afternoon in the park? Our side kick, Bron, left us to head back to Thailand and James and myself caught a rather swanky sleeper bus complete with duvets and bad Laos karoke TV down south overnight to Pakse, breakfast, one minibus and one rickety wooden boat ride later we arrived on the island of Don Det in Si Phan Don, otherwise known as the four thousand islands.
At the very southern point of Laos by the Cambodian border the Mekong river fans out creating a series of tiny to large islands, sandbanks and waterfalls. Most of the islands are deserted and the others populated by farmers and fishermen, chicken and buffalos. The farmers on Don Det have cheerfully jumped on the backpacker buck and just about all of them have built a few simple wooden bungalows on the water’s edge, and set up tiny restaurants and even two internet cafes to keep us travelling bums happy. It took a while to find somewhere to stay but our walking was rewarded by finding a place on the emptier west side of the island with the perfect viewpoint for sunset.
Life on Don Det is very, very laid back. In the afternoon we hired a couple of very girly looking bikes and cycled down the length of the island passing through dry fields, grazing herds of uninterested buffalo and theoccasional local game of pétanque. At the end of the island we pushed our bikes over the rocky obstacle course that serves as a bridge with the neighbouring island of Don Khon and visited a tumbling white water fall disappearing into a narrow gorge and then on to the tip of Si Phan Don where a sandy area of beach led down to the water. By now I was desperate for a swim and dived into the cool green water, I let some American guys go first, just to be sure it was safe!
The evening is when this area really becomes its most captivating. On the terrace of our bungalow the heavy clouds were reflected in the still waters as the sun gradually disappeared behind them. A few fishermen started up their narrow boats and began disappearing between the floating clumps of bushes and the cicadas started up a deafening chorus in the trees.
I can’t help but love Vang Vieng depsite the fact that it is one big backpacking cliche from the ‘happy’ pizzas, internet cafes, bars showing friends episodes and bonfire parties on the island. It is, however, stunning beautiful, a shallow swift flowing river runs through the town in front of a backdrop of huge limestone hills, bamboo bungalows and palm trees, at sunset the setting rays twinkle over the ripples as the river flows beneath a series of rickety wooden bridges and local kids play around in the shallows. we’ve also run into a bizarre number of people here, because everyone tends to travel the same way through Laos you run into people from your slow boat trip, or from Luang Prabang, and it’s actually quite nice to bump into everyone along the way!
Also in Vang Vieng there is a lot of going out, drinking bucket cocktails with Lao whisky and partying around fires in the bars on the island in the lake. Then yesterday James, Bronnie, our new Aussie sidekick, and I all went tubing which is the thing to do in Vang Vieng. We got dropped off north of town with our rubber tubes and set off drifting down the river. We hadn’t got 50 metres when we got pulled in to the first riverside bar. Then a group of guys with Spider Bar written on their chest virtually kidnapped us into the next one…well what could we do? In total the two hour trip took us seven hours to do and the sun had set by the time we washed up on the banks of town. There may have been a significant amount of drinking stops going on but it was so much fun! Let’s just say my dry weeks of alcohol freedom in North India are long since passed! Today however, after a relatively chilled evening in the sunset bar with some friends last night which ended about 4am, I am feeling slightly worse for the wear. Am I getting to old for all of this?
James and I left Luang Prabang on a local bus to reach the eastern town of Phonsavan about 10 hours away. The day was overcast and surprisingly cold and torrential downpours and thick fog made the journey over winding hills through stunning, but cloud shrouded scenery, a little hairy. We nearly broke down leaving the town and a mechanic had to disappear under the bus to investigate some clouds of black smoke before we could leave. We passed two accidents on the hill roads and almost got stuck as we approached a jack knifed lorry across the road between the cliff face and the drop down the other side. We all got off the bus which managed to just squeeze round the side without toppling over and we were on our way once again.
Phonsavan is a small, frontier style town nestled among low lying fields and farmlands in the East of Laos and is the closet place to the Plain of Jars, a series of sites that hold hundreds of giant sandstone jars believed to be anything from 2000 to 3000 years old. There are two current theories about the use of the jars, some believe they were used to store Lao rice wine and others believe they were used for cremating the dead whose urns were buried beneath the jars. This is hard to prove as hundreds of years ago Chinese invaders dug under the jars looking for loot and toppled many of them over. Others were blown up during the secret war but I’ll come back to that in a moment. We spent a day on a tour with many of the tourists we’d met on the bus down from Luang Prabang visiting three sites of jars surrounded by gentle rolling hills, small villages and rice fields. The jars themselves are not spectacular in themselves but the large numbers of them strewn around beneath the trees on the hill tops and the history surrounding them, not to mention the comedy photo opportunities made for a good day trip. We also got to visit a village where they make the rice wine which we all had to sample. As local paint stripper goes, not bad. And we stopped by a rusted Russian tank next to a local village as well.
In the town after we came back from the jars we went to visit a small display shop set up by MAG, the Mines Advisory Group. I was quite horrified to realise that up until now I was completely unaware that the most bombed country per capita in the world is Laos. In 1962 at the start of the Vietnam war, America signed a Geneva treaty to state that Laos was neutral territory and would not be targeted as part of the war. Then between 1964 and 1973 they dropped 2 million tonnes of bombs at a cost of $2.2million per day on southern and eastern Laos in an effort to prevent supplies reaching the Viet Kong and to cripple the burgeoning communism in the country. 2 million tonnes of bombs, the vast majority in the form of cluster bombs which break open in mid air showering down hundreds, thousands and millions of tiny fruit-like explosive devices called Bombies that fall onto the countryside like rain. They weren’t aimed at military targets, these were aimed at killing civilians; women, farmers, children. Thirty percent of the bombs that fell didn’t explode and have killed 20,000 people in the ensuing decades. Every time the country wants to build a new road, schools, hospitals the ground has to be checked and cleared of unexploded ordanance, UXO. When farmers need to till their land, stake in Buffalo ropes or look to expand their farms they risk striking and exploding bombies and other UXO. A third of deaths and casualties are children than come across the bombies and pick them up thinking they are toys or fruit. A group of ten of us watched a 50minute documentary about the war and the work that MAG is doing in Laos and were all very moved by the experience, more so for actually being in the country where it occurred. All the restaurants and guest houses in Phonsavan are filled with bomb casings as ornaments and bombies as ashtrays. It’s very bizarre. What is crazy is that Laos was never even declared war on, it is such a beautiful country and full of more warm and welcoming people than anywhere else that I have travelled. And yet they are still living through this terrible legacy. Even at a rate of clearing 100,000 UXO a year, the grandchildren of today’s generation will still be farming land where they run the risk of coming across unexploded bombs. I consider myself a reasonably well read and well educated individual and in constantly horrifies and humbles me just how little I know about the world.