A Travellerspoint blog

Vietnam Day 11

Open Bus to Hoi An


Open Buses run the length of Vietnam providing a cheap shuttle service from one location to another. They collect travellers from their hotels - I'm not sure if they do this in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi; the hotels are too widespread. After a circuit of the local hotels to pick up passengers our pink vehicle heads south towards DaNang and Hoi An. The journey is uneventful except for a bit of delicate manoeuvering around a broken-down lorry high up on the Hai Van pass. The lorry was parked in the middle of a hair-pin bend with a steady stream of heavy-duty traffic coming in the other direction. Vietnamese bus drivers certainly earn their money. I reassure Monica that for once we will not be stopping at a factory outlet selling pearls and jade. We stop for a half-hour's comfort break at the modern Langco Bay Resort, right outside its own VietPearl store. The beach resort is near the town of Nam O on Danang Bay, and the beach itself deserted.


We pass through Danang and drop off our Vietnamese passengers. It is Sunday, the day for wedding receptions. Every hotel we pass in Danang has a large photograph of a happy couple at its entrance which is festooned with balloons and other colourful decorations. There are guests everywhere. Wedding photographers must make a good living here. On the road out of Danang we see dozens of huge anonomous modern beach resorts, either newly built or in an advanced state of development. This must be good for local employment but it comes at a price.


Hoi An is famous for two things: its beautiful old buildings and its tailors. People come here to to get clothes handmade: suits, jackets, dresses, skirts. You can be measured, fitted, and provided with the final product all within twenty-four hours. This means nothing to me: I have all the clothes I need. However, it is good news for Monica. She needs a summer dress. We will be visiting tailors later but first we explore the historic town - like Bath and Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also like Venice, the town is regularly flooded to heights of one to two meters. Given notice, the shopkeepers move everything upstairs. Then, when the floods subside, business resumes. This happens four or five times a year. Amazingly, there is no evidence of flood damage.





Starting in the covered market, we search for somewhere to eat. We settle on a small venue with a few tables, facing the river. There is a scooter parked in the rear. Certainly unpretentious.




The old Hoi An buildings are lovely but virtually all of them have been converted to shops or restaurants. The core of the old town bans (virtually) all scooter traffic. Cars are not allowed. Tourists feel safe enough to ride bikes. At night, only pedestrians and the odd cyclist is seen, the streets lit up with hundreds of coloured Chinese lanterns. This is bliss after Hanoi. We 'tick off' various óf the must-sees in Hoi An: the Japanese Bridge - over four hundred years old; several of the Chinese Assembly rooms - there was a large community of Chinese traders in the town and these were where they met: and several merchants' houses - two we visited were still in the same family after eight or nine generations.




We take a coffee break, sitting at a table outside a restaurant called Tam Tam, and discover why we have seen no beggars in Vietnam. A young man moves from table to table attempting to sell a copy of The Vietnam News, a free paper given away in hotels. A guy on a motor bike draws up and remonstrates with the vendor, eventally wrestling the copies of the paper from him. The youth resists and attempts to retrieve the newspapers. The plain-clothes man holds him by the wrist and radios for help. In less than a minute, two more scooters appear carrying three more hard-looking men in tan jerkins and jeans - no indication they are police. They try to get their new prisoner onto the back of a scooter. He continues to resist. At one stage there are three of them on a scooter: two police, one driving, and one on the back, carrying the kicking prisoner. It won't work. Eventually, they march him off. We feel that if there wasn't a large audience of tourists watching all this things might have taken a rougher turn.


We go to Yaly which has been identified by the Footprint Guide as a reliable tailor's shop. Our assistant is a pregnant young woman called Fairy, with whom Monica instantly bonds. She is given a pile of books with pictures of dresses to study and from which to make a selection. Once decided, detailed measurements are taken. Finally, Monica is photographed - full body: front, back and side. This image, captured on computer is intended as further guidance for the tailors. The dress will be ready tomorrow at two o'clock for a first fitting.

In the evening, we eat in Morning Glory'' which is named after a ubiquitous edible Vietnamese plant (I know it has other meanings). We have some with our meal. It's not the best thing on the menu, though the rest of the food was excellent. On the way home we pass a collection of Vietnamese men seated in a restaurant garden, watching a large screen television. Manchester United are about to play West Brom. They look at me expectantly. A question hangs in the air: will I join them? Monica says, go on, but you'll have to walk me back to the hotel first. I move on. The result is a foregone conclusion and I have a heavy day at the tailor's tomorrow.

Posted by mikemonica 09:24 Comments (1)

Vietnam day 10

Hue - Bathing in the rain.


The small print in our guidebook says "Hue has a reputation for bad weather ..... even in the dry season an unbrella is handy" By way of an explanation, it talks about cold air being bottled up in the nearby mountains. The message seems to be if it is cool and wet, then welcome to the dry season. We wake to another damp morning. A fine drizzle will prevail for the rest of the day. This doesn't interfere with our plans which centre on a visit to the Imperial city on the other side of Huong Giang - the Perfume River. On route, we pass through a riverside sculpture park with a number of modern pieces on display. One is particularly apt. Called 'bathing in the rain', it is a bronze of two figures, a male and female, stretching out to embrace the rain. In a rice growing country, rain is a good thing.


We cross the river via the Trang Tien bridge which permits only scooter and cycle traffic. Very civilised: no cars are allowed but there is a footpath on each side. The Imperial City, which is on the North side of the river, is Vietnam's version of Beijing's Forbidden Palace. Unfortunately, it was destroyed twice in wars: first by the French in 1954, and next by the Americans during the Tet Offensive in 1968. It is slowly being restored to its former glory, a massive enterprise underwritten by UNESCO, which has declared it a World Heritage site. We cross a first moat and pass through the outer walls of the citadel. Now we can see the enormous walls of the inner castle, and in the distance, the restored Royal Gate (Ngo Mon). There is a military museum nearby, displaying captured ememy weapons in its gardens: tanks, and field guns, a helicopter and American jet. Apparently, the Vietnamese are content for the enemy ordnance to rust and decay, while they take care that their historic pieces remain in good condition. All around Vietnam, enemy weapons like these are a reminder to a new generation of the sacrifices of the old.


As Monica is admiring the tanks and guns, we are approached by a rickshaw cyclist with a novel chat-up line. He admires my beard. "Very nice beard," he says, stroking his naked chin. Then, having broken the ice, he shows me enticing pictures of ancient artifacts. He can take us to see them- "önly one hour, very cheap". I'm ready to follow him anywhere but Monica is unimpressed. We head for the main gate of the inner citadel. Three bridges cross the second moat in front of the Royal Gate. There are five entrances in the structure. The central entrance was to be used only by the Emperor; the two on either side by courtiers and soldiers; and the outer two by horses and elephants. We enter like courtiers. Labour is not a problem in Vietnam: two young ladies provide us with our tickets. We walk ten feet and a man at a desk, who has witnessed this transaction, stamps them.


Only a few of the several hundred buildings that used to occupy the site have been restored. It is painstaking work. The palaces, pavillions, temples, inside and out are lovingly recreated using the same materials and methods originally employed on the build. It may take several decades or more to return the compound to its original state. However, even now, there are enough buildings to make a visit worthwhile. There are a couple of elepants in the grounds. I understand visitors can ride these in peak season. As an aside, the old Emperors used to be entertained by fights arranged between tigers and elephants. The elephants always won.




Next, we get our daily fix of Vietnamese song and dance - though possibly not the sort that the locals regularly watch. This time, as befits our locale, the performance is given by artists dressed and playing in the style of court entertainers. This is a more highbrow concert than those we attended in Sapa. One of the refurbished buildings, the Duyet Thi Duong Theatre, acts as venue and for the first time we are charged a small entrance fee. It is a colourful spectacle with elaborate costumes and unusual instruments. The musicians and singer/dancers double as acrobats. The dragon dance is a highlight - we witness the courtship and mating of a couple of lively dragons, and birth of a baby dragon. The finale is like something out of the Folies Bergere. First, there is a fan dance. Then the dancers perform a series of acrobatic tableaux while holding in each hand a candle encased in a paper flower.




On our way home, we visit a nearby complex devoted to the art of silk embroidery. This comprises an idealised village of workshops, where young women sew the patterns onto screens; and galleries and shops where their work is displayed and sold. It is an oasis in the middle of the noisy city. There are ornamental trees and plants, a small goldfish pond with a bridge, a tea garden overlooking the river, and so on. It is all very upmarket, and a million miles from the usual sales outlets. Indeed, there is no attempt to sell.The handiwork is beautiful, much closer to painting than embroidery - at first glance the works are indistinguishable from paintings. Unfortunately, the prices are way out of our league. We return to our hotel and book the Open Bus to Hoi An. At six dollars each ( in Vietnam, everything is quoted in dollars), this is more in our price range.


Posted by mikemonica 09:25 Comments (0)

Vietnam day 9

Hanoi to Hue - nothing much happens.


We arrive in Hanoi at 04:30. It is cold and drizzling, a sharp contrast with the weather in Sapa. This is ironic. When we planned the trip, the idea was to start in the North where it would likely be cold and wet: it is March after all. Then, as we made our way south it would get warmer and drier. At least, that was the hope. I now have an uneasy feeling that Sapa weather may be as good as it gets. Our penultimate destination is Moi Ne a seaside resort in the south not far from Ho Chi Minh City. We are due to spend three days there, languishing in the sun, or in my case under a sun umbrella. We shower and breakfast in our former hotel before catching a taxi to Hanoi Airport (Noi Bai). We are booked on the 12:20 flight to Hue, the former capital, famous for various the elaborate tombs of former emperors and its citadel, a copy of Beijing's Forbidden City.





It is twenth-six degrees and drizzling when we arrive after an hour's flight. A mild precipitation that persists the rest of the day. We wander along the banks of the Perfumed River. The citadel is on the other side of the river and we plan our route for tomorrow. There are lots of boats for hire for an hour or more's cruise. Few boats are active. It is late in the day and business is slow. On our way back to the Hotel we admire the old French colonial buildings on the riverside, and the occasional Buddhist centre. We have seen our first monks here, purchasing a scooter. Out of deference, Monica refused to take a photograph, undermining for ever her paparazzi credentials. She does though photograph a grand hotel built in 1901. We are not staying there.



Back at our modest hotel we encounter a German couple in the foyer, she with her left leg encased in plaster. Assuming this to be a long-standing injury, I joke: "I hope you weren't hit by a scooter". Poor timing on my part. It turns out she has broken her ankle in two places, has had pins inserted and must now return to Hamburg for an operation. She tripped on a kerb stone earlier in the day. The couple are philosophical about it but their holiday is over. We dine in La Carambole Restaurant which specialises in a mixture of French and Vietnamese cuisine. We are seated next to a young couple from Dublin and get to chatting. These Irish get everywhere.


On our bed, when we return, the towel sculptures have been changed. When we left they were of two swans. Now they are of two pigs. True works of art. For contrast Monica photographs them against the silk dressing gowns provided by the hotel. Did I say modest?


Posted by mikemonica 20:41 Comments (1)

Vietnam day 8

Last day in Sapa


After the exertions of the previous two days we decide to spend the day in Sapa shopping and relaxing, as counter-intuitive as that sounds. Sapa has four main types of commercial enterprise directed at tourists: hotels and restaurants, shops selling ethnic crafts, massage parlours (proper ones) and stores selling 'North Face' outdoor sports gear: anaroks, boots, rucksacks, that kind of thing. Every third shop sells North Face goods. We were advised yesterday by our trekking friends that this is the place to buy them - they cost less than a quarter of the price back home. How come? It is suggested that maybe they are 'seconds'. Who knows? North Face products are manufactured in Vietnam. All this is good news because Monica needs a light anarok and fleece. She is on the point of buying a combined set, just the right shade of red, in one of the small stores near the market when a young Dutch guy enters. He wants to see some anaroks but only those made in Vietnam; no Chinese, he insists. This is news to us: Chinese? Yes, he says, you've got to beware of Chinese fakes. They look the same but are of poor quality. The detail is the giveaway: the cuffs (should be plastic); the zips (should have these tassels); don't rely on the 'made in Vietnam' label. That can be faked too. What about this one, asks Monica, proffering her potential purchase, but already knowing the answer. Fake, says our new guide in these matters. We make an excuse and leave.




Monica purchases her 'North Face' gear in another shop, displaying an expertise in the niceties of the design that leaves the assistant breathless. I buy a baseball cap to replace one mislaid in New Zealand. I had hoped to buy a bush hat like Mi's, with Vietnamese ensignia on it. Unfortunately, when I try one on I am unable to match her cool look. I settle, temporarily, for the North Face product, a light waterproof cap with a long foldable brim. Without the cuffs or zips, I can't make a definitive call on it's provenance. It says 'made in Hong Kong' on the label.


Talking of fakes, when we were in Halong Bay, Thomas told us a story about Vietnamese craftsmanship. A Danish company he visited had set up a factory in Vietnam to produce 'Danish-style' hand-painted ceramics. The Vietnamese artists were required to copy the design of originals when producing (say) plates. The problem was that the copies were too perfect. They looked manufactured. The Danish management had to explain to the workers that each hand-painted item ought to differ very slightly demonstrating normal human flaws, otherwise customers would think they were machine-made.

We rest by the lake, the most picturesque part of town and untypical of the rest. Monica has bought an embroidered dress for a future grand-daughter (no pressure, girls). We have seen many children on our tour around they area but none wear dresses like this. Maybe, they are only made for tourists now. In fairness, as the girls grow older, they do adopt the traditional costume. We eat our lychees and watch two Australian couples race each other in swan-shaped paddle boats. So much energy. They obviously weren't trekking yesterday.




There's a great deal of building work going on in Sapa, mostly new hotels and restaurants. It is surprising to see the way in which rough cuts of wood are used as scaffolding to support heavy concrete floors. Until very recently, bamboo was the building material of choice. We were told that ten years ago there were hardly any hotels in the area. In ten years time, there'll be nothing but. In fairness to the Vietnamese authorities, they are making efforts to ensure that the fruits of this development are shared with the hill tribes. A portion of the trekking fees is given to the villages. Entry to the villages is controlled by licensing, and the guides are all local people. Schools are being built in every village. The government places great emphasis on educating the people out of poverty - though Mi told us that many children drop out of school early because they can make easy money from the tourists.



We have a final meal before we return to Lao Cai by minibus. The road back down the mountain is positively alpine: all twists and turns, hair-pin bends, and sheer drops. Sitting behind the driver, I have a good opportunity to observe Vietnamese driving techniques at close hand. It is permitted to pass on a bend so long as you beep loudly. Driving with one hand on the wheel is mandatory. This enables the other to be used to make telehone calls. Our driver is skillful, able to use two mobile phones almost simultaneously. He's done this many times and knows every bump in the road. At Lao Cai, we get our voucher swapped for tickets. It is not possible to buy tickets directly until shortly before the train leaves. The Government introduced this arrangement to prevent enterprising individuals from buying up stocks of tickets in advance and then selling them to tourists at inflated prices. We share our compartment with a silent German couple. I would have described them as elderly but Monica says they are younger than us. We retire early, anticipating our 04:30 wake-up call.


Posted by mikemonica 17:53 Comments (2)

Vietnam Day 7

Trekking to Lao Chai and Ta Van


Now that my legs have seized up from yesterday's hill walking, it seems like a good time to arrange a ten kilometre trek to Lao Chai and Ta Van. These are two hill tribe villages, the former: Black H'mong, the latter: Dzao with their distinctive red head dress. I'm becoming an expert in local tribes - I've seen their dances. It is another very hot day. The temperature is soon in the thirties. Ideal for a hike. Our guide is a cheerful Black H'mong woman called Mi. Four foot tall like all her tribeswomen, she is to lead a party of ten of us: eight Westerners and two honeymooning Vietnamese.


All trekking parties are accompanied by a small group of camp followers, women in H'mong traditional dress. Our group is no exception: we acquire a set of five, two carrying babies, who will accompany our every step. They adopt us collectively and individually - a twenty-one year old called Su, with baby Lang on her back, becomes Monica's minder. She helps her on tricky parts of the path, crossing streams, etc. She is also propriatorial - when Monica attempts to buy an item from a girl in Lao Chai, she intervenes: "No. You buy from me". No attempt is made to sell us anything until the end of the journey when we have bonded with them. Their presence enriches the trek. They walk this route every day. It is how they make a living.




We walk down a steep, winding hill path to the village Lao Chai set in lush paddy fields. The views are spectacular. On the route down we pass some small children playing. One, about twenty months old falls down the hill and starts crying. Monica comforts him and gives him her last New Zealand Airlines sweet. The other children crowd around expectantly. She gives them her cough sweets. They are satisfied. In Lai Chai, she stocks up with more sweets, thus laying the foundations for tooth decay in a later generation.




We only ever see women wearing the traditional dress. The men refuse to wear it, Mi tells us. This is the price of progress. Mi is twenty-nine with three children. She's been acting as a guide for four years. Before that she sold crafts in the street, but it is hard now. Too many women are doing it. The tourists can't buy from everyone, she explains. How did she learn English, Monica asks, in school?. No, from tourists. What about the men, what do they do? They drink, and sleep - No. I'm only joking, she says. Does she work every day? Yes. Even at the Tet festival, when in her village a pig is roasted and people drink 'happy water' (rice wine).



In Lao Chai we stop in the house of one of the locals. We meet the woman who lives there - the mother-in-law of Mi's brother. She shows us traditional tools for grinding rice (no longer used, here), a vat for dyeing clothes, a flax weaving machine, a polishing stone to put a shine on material, etc. All around are clothes made in this hut using this equipment. There is a bamboo instrument on the wall that plays plaintive notes, a bit like a bagpipe - we heard it at yesterday's concerts. This is used to play sad songs, Mi tell us, such as when people die. As we leave the village Monica photographs the children.





We hike on to Ta Van where we have lunch prepared by Mi and a friend. In the region, there are numerous tribes living in close proximity but who speak different languages and wear different costumes. Few speak Vietnamese. Mi can speak better English than her official tongue.



After Ta Van we trek uphill though a bamboo forest to a waterfall, distinctly short of water today due to a prolonged drought. We haven't seen a cloud in the last two days. The trek is quite tricky in parts. Difficult enough in the dry, it must be a nightmare when it rains. I only take young people then, Mi jokes, "old people too slow". This remark is not pointed at Monica, one of the fastest round the course.




To get to the spot where we catch our bus home we have to cross a river. The footbridge is being repaired by two men using a blow torch so we have to descend to the river bank and cross via an improvised bridge comprising a couple of thin metal girders. This is a shaky edifice built for small people with small feet. There's no way I'm going across on that, Monica says. But she does.


Before we catch the bus we have to buy some objects from our H'mong companions. Most of the women cluster around Monica. She has been identified as a soft touch, and their instinct is infallible. After she buys some unnecessary stuff from Su at inflated prices, keeping her family in food for the next six months, Su gives Monica a bangle as a gift.


Monica tips Mi generously." I always remember you, Monica", she calls out as we leave on the bus back to Sapa. I'm sure she will.

Posted by mikemonica 03:04 Comments (2)

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