Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Durian fruit warning

We were intrigued by Durian, the spiky and smelly asian fruit. When we saw durian ice cream in Hoi An we vowed to try some, which we managed to do in Hanoi.

It wasn't worth the effort. It tasted to me like a cabbage dumpling, which is not a flavour of ice cream that I would recommend.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Ha Long Bay

The rocky crags of Ha Long Bay are the iconic image of Vietnam but unlike a lot of iconic places in the world, Ha Long Bay doesn't disappoint. There are 1,969 islands in the world heritage area, small islands rising steeply from the turquoise sea.

We on a junk built for eight, but with only four of us on board. We went to a quieter part of the bay and quietly drifted through the islands. It was blissfully quiet and peaceful.

We heard a lot about pollution and rubbish in the area, but we didn't notice any where we were, apart from the 'winter mist' caused by the biggest coal power station in the country nearby.

The Hanoi Hilton

We were lucky enough to be able to stay with our friend Amber in Hanoi. Amber and Sarah lived together for a little while in Port Moresby, and Amber has since been posted up to Hanoi, and a very nice apartment in the French Quarter.

Hanoi is in Northern Vietnam, is smaller than Saigon, and has the reputation of being a bit more laid back, but in the context of Vietnam that's still pretty busy. Hanoi has some wider boulevards and felt a little less hectic to us. There is some nice French colonial arhitecture, a lot of which seem to have been converted into very nice restaurants. Hanoi had a bit more of a French feel, until we got to the Old Quarter. This is just a maze of tiny streets and shops, barely big enough for a car and a scooter to pass. It's a great place to just wander around and become lost, which we did a few times. There's a constant parade of food going past, shoe repairs (they were quite persistant with the need for my sneakers to be repaired), lighters. The streets are named for what they used to sell, and even now the shops cluster together. A striking one was 'Christmas decoration street', not to celebrate Christmas, but to sell all the decorations.

There was a bit more to see in Hanoi as well, including the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where I was told off for shuffling past Uncle Ho with my tumbs hooked in my jeans pocket, and Sarah was told off for walking too slowly. Uncle Ho looks pretty good for being dead almost forty years, but he is lit in a warm yellow light. He was just back from being rejuvinated overseas, in Russia I think, where they have experience of preserved leaders. The process of getting in is typical of Vietamese ticketing systems. You buy a ticket one place, then get it stamped or torn at another. The additional excitement at the mausoleum was with cameras. You couldn't leave your camera in the cloak room, but they gave us a special bag to put it in. You then carry this bag further along the queue to another booth where you hand it in. After make the trip around Uncle Ho you come out at a different spot, and lo and behold, there is your camera. It was intriguing and strange, but it must work for them ok. We snuck in a shot of the mausoleum.

Hanoi also has the Temple of Literature, which is the old university. There is a list of graduated carved into stone slabs dating from about 1400. The art gallery was interesting at times as well (although relentless). There were some very nice lacquer works, and some good paintings on silk. I was surprised to see some fellow patrons fingering the art, which I thought might explain why a lot of the lacquer work looked a bit dull.

John McCain spent five years in Hanoi at the jail ironically dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, and received injuries so severe that he can't lift his hands above his head. He has since made his peace with the country, as many former combatants seem to do. They were planning to knock down the prison completely, but after protests some has been saved as a museum. Perhaps missing the irony of the original title, they decided to build a Hilton hotel on top of the old site. It's a grim place, although the museum portrays the American POWs as having a great old time when they stayed there.

Up the spine of Vietnam

We started out in Ho Chi Minh City in the south, which was a great way to dive straight into the country. It's the biggest city, at about 6 million people, and is always interesting. Just walking around the streets is entertainment enough.

Our next stop was Hoi An, halfway up Vietnam, which is famous for tailors and its old town. Sarah took advantage of this by ordering some custom-made suits which they whipped up in a couple of days. Despite a noisy hotel room which was effectively located on a traffic island, and which had a strange water pump which throbbed and banged every time someone on our floor flushed the toilet, Hoi An was a pretty relaxing place to wander around. The old town reminded us of Venice in the sense that it is architecturally beautiful and heritage listed, but dominated by tourists, and shops selling things for tourists. If you manage to look past the shops and tourists there are some lovely buildings, and like Venice, there is a lot less traffic, so you can amble the streets without quite as much fear of being knocked over.

There are some great places to eat as well. As with most of the food in Vietnam it is really fresh and tasty. There is a dish which originates in Hoi An called Cau Lau, which are noodles made with water from a local well (reputedly). Most meals are served with a big plate of fresh herbs or lettuce, and often some kind of broth. Salads are popular as well, with green papaya or banana flower, often served with shredded meat. We had better meals in Hoi An than Sydney, and it was quite sad coming back to all the proccessed food we have here.

So while Hoi An might not always be the 'real' Vietnam, we enjoyed the food and relaxing by the river with a cocktail at night.

I also had my birthday in Hoi An, and the fantastic Mango Rooms. It was a very inventive menu and well cooked (can't remember for the life of me what we ate now, but I did have a few cocktails under my belt). Sarah also organized a Vietnamese birthday cake by asking one of her tailors where she could get one. Rather than tell her where to get it, the tailor just hopped on her scooter and fetched one herself. It was damn tasty, all cream and sugar and light sponge. More please.

Cu Chi tunnels

The Cu Chi tunnels area bout 100km outside Saigon, and were a Viet Cong stronghold during the American war (as the locals call it to distinguish it from the many other wars they're had). The Viet Cong virtually lived underground here in 200 miles of connected tunnels. At their peak 16,000 people lived underground. They were used to launch surprise attacks on the Americans, who didn't figure out the significance or extent of the tunnels for a long time.

The Cu Chi area was peppered with B52 bombs, agent orange defolliant, bulldozers, psychological warfare, defections and spies. By the time the Americans pulled out they were on their last legs, but the tunnels allowed them to survive for much longer than a direct confrontation with a better armed enemy would have. I read a good book about it, so I can be very boring on the subject, but I might post in more detail later.

Same same but different

There is something about the curiosities of travel that opens your eyes to different ways of thinking. The contrast to our normal life and routines highlights the human condition, those traits we share with people who live in an entirely different culture. While the similarities are a comfort to the traveller, it is the small diferences which excite the senses, such as a family of four riding one small scooter, the constant merging and dividing of traffic, the electricity poles covered in cables like ivy, the music vendor of wheels, blasting out music as he wheels around the streets. And all this just in the car ride from the airport.

Flying into Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) the hazy yellow lights illuminate busy streets and shanty towns, then suddenly you're in a taxi which is inside the flow of scooters, some with babies wedged in between the parents, sleeping peacefully. They weave in and out, riding on the footpath when the road is full, carrying mattresses, crates of beer, pigs, chickens, car tyres, and using the seat for canoodling when parked next to a lake. Crossing the road is a daunting experience. The first attempt is the most difficult because it takes faith in the scooter riders to go around you. It is a Moses-like feeling as you stride out into a busy road and emerge safely on the other side, despite the traffic never having stopped.

As a foreigner you assume they all know what they're doing, but we were told later than there are over 25 deaths per week just in Ho Chi Minh, and an enourmous number per year in all Vietnam. When you see people riding one-handed while talking on their mobile, it's not hard to see why. We saw about five accidents ourselves, a couple in front of our eyes, so any appearance of safety is an illusion. The protocol when riding in traffic is to avoid the people in front of you, but ignore everything behind you. It is their responsibility to beep their horn and let you know they're behind you. You also don't have to give way (or look) if you're turning right onto a busy road, it's other people's responsibility to miss you. All this adds up to noisy and chaotic streets, but it's part of the colour and excitement of Vietnam.

Vietnam videos

One of the major roundabouts in Ho Chi Minh city during a quieter moment:

Smoke coming out of the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong. The smoke from cooking fires was passed through several chambers to dampen it down and make it harder to spot:

Friday night is group dancing night in Ho Chi Minh:

More dancing - you could probably teach yourself to count to four in Vietnamese using this video:

When I ride my bicycle on the pavement in Sydney people yell "It's a FOOT-path". I don't think they would enjoy walking around Vietnam:

This blind musician was playing some nice sounding Vietnamese blues. It got stuck in our head for most of the day:

Hoi An markets - they were more interesting than those in Ho Chi Minh, and actually seemed to have some locals buying food, rather than just tourist junk:

We got up early for the Hoi An fish markets, which turned out to be a small space with a lot of yelling and pushy women. Some good looking fish though:

Drifting through Ha Long Bay:

The streets in Hanoi's old quarter are so narrow that even scooters can cause a traffic jam, with a few pedestrians trapped in there as well:

Sarah braved a scooter ride in Hanoi (you wouldn't get me on one). You can see her adjusting her helmet as she departs:

Morning is exercise time in Vietnam, either badminton, happy sack, volleyball, or dancing. Check out this guy's wiggle: