Archive for the 'vietnam' Category

so long saigon

Tuesday, June 27th, 2006

since leaving hue, we’ve been in a bit of a lackadaisical mode. we stopped off for a couple of days in nha trang, a seaside resort town on the southeast coast, for a little r & r on the way to ho chi minh city (saigon). it was fine for what it was – a little stretch of beach geared toward brits. lots of sun, western food, nightclubs and jetskis. now we’re in h.c.m.c. (though almost everyone still insists on calling it saigon) and a bit underwhelmed. it seems to be a big conglomeration of ridiculously overpriced western shops, 60s concrete crap, and backpacker cafes. unless you’re a real war-history buff, there’s not much in the way of sights, and we’re not big shoppers. i’m almost glad that it’s pouring out right now, so we have an excuse to hide out indoors, drinking beer, surfing the net, reading, and watching endless football. sometimes you need a vacation from your vacation.

but in a perverse way, i also really miss the challenge of a place like china. admittedly, it was downright hard at times, but it made for some really memorable and gratifying moments. it felt like those experiences were earned, dammit – and it made the funny spots that much funnier, the learned wisdom that much richer. for all the times when it was exhausting and chaotic and dirty, it was also startlingly beautiful and completely unique and immensely rewarding. there was never a time when you forgot you were in china – something that is sadly all too easy to do in places that have jumped on the tourism industry bandwagon. for example, i think it’s particularly telling that in the weeks we’ve been in vietnam, i have not even had to learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” in vietnamese. as much as i’ve really loved this country, there has been very little which would force me to operate outside my comfort zone (except perhaps, crossing the street).

and really, that’s where all the best stuff happens.

so with that fixed firmly in mind, we’re off to cambodia tomorrow – a place where the book describes in-country travel as “part of the adventure” and the operating currency is the u.s. dollar, simply because no one has pockets big enough for the stacks and stacks of riel. i’ve wanted to visit cambodia for a few years now, and i’m tremendously excited to finally be going.

we’ll see what adventures await.

off the beaten path

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

one of the best parts of travelling is being able to get off the beaten path – unfortunately that’s often more difficult to do than you might think. first, there’s the reality that the beaten path is popular for a reason – it’s usually where all the best sights and activities are to be found, and then services necessarily spring up around it. getting off the beaten path can be really hard going as a foreigner – outside the main cities there’s usally very little in the way of spoken or written english, the prices are automatically inflated, and transportation is not readily available. that’s not to say these things are insurmountable, but they are definite obstacles – and doing “hard core” travelling all the time is draining. being off the beaten path can be isolating – being the only foreigner for miles around makes you both a target and a walking curiousity. finally, getting off the beaten path can lead to exploitation – there is now a whole market springing up around “treks” to visit remote hillside tribes, and it’s a bit like gawking at animals in the zoo. what you experience is not authentic because the very nature of observation changes the behaviour being observed – tribes now rely on tourist dollars for their survival, while at the same time their customs are watered down and corrupted for western consumption. (j and i have decided *not* to take part in trekking for these reasons.)

still, there are times when you get a glimpse of what people’s lives are really like, and we got to see some of that on the motorbike tour we took of hue, where we were able to cut through the countryside and see how villagers live; to witness the daily rituals of real monks at their midday meal offering prayers and meditating; to see farmers and fishermen at work. as brief as it was, it was truly unique to know that none of this was being put on for our benefit – which made it all the more beautiful.

more photos from our journey here.

war wounds

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

such recent history is not easily forgotten – although in many ways, it’s diffcult to picture this landscape, these people as wartorn (such an apt word for the systemic destruction of society’s fibre, a nation’s fabric) yet the scars are still visible everywhere if you look. it takes such an immeasurable toll on the psyche, by undermining everything you thought you knew about your background, your history, your heritage. those are the kinds of things which time will never erase. here in hue, the ancient imperial city was all but wiped off the map during the war. the relics of millenia of kingdoms, gone in a blink. so much discussion begins with the phrase, “before the war”. children of agent orange walk the streets as a daily reminder. and while communist propaganda and pride is everywhere, so is the poverty of those whom the free market has left behind. there is nothing more humbling than when a hotel manager who works 7 days a week and earns $60/month asks you about the salaries back in the u.k.

yet in spite of these wounds, or perhaps because of them, there is an undercurrent of resilience, even optimism. people keep on keeping on in the custom of the generations. they still wake every morning to the music and call of the local party headquarters, to sweep their curbsides in unison, and prepare their breakfasts as a community of families. they perform their ablutions and wash their dishes in the company of their neighbours. they open their shops day after day, make their offertories and tend their shrines, as their parents did. they still harvest their rice, set the cattle to graze, catch the fish for the local market.

vietnam is not a victim to its history. they don’t have the luxury of feeling sorry for themselves or dwelling on grievances. they must keep on keeping on because there is life to be lived. there are meals to cook and children to raise. the work hard at getting past their past – in spite of all that has shredded their families, their culture, their country… or perhaps because of it.

it’s a philosophy that has served them well these last 30 years. and that’s what inspires hope about their future 30 years from now.

bitch session

Tuesday, June 20th, 2006

as a tourist, hawkers are part of daily life – some places are better and some places are worse, but they’re present wherever you go, and as an obvious westerner you’d better get used to being the proverbial “walking dollar sign”. to be fair, i generaly don’t begrudge them their attempts to sell me stuff – i understand this is their livelihood, and i am a prospective customer. and after a while, you learn to tune them out and turn them off with a variety of different methods, ranging from benign to outright rude. when i’m in a good mood, they might get a pleasant “no, thank you”, but in a less kindly one, i’ll turn my back on them and put up the palm of my hand (the international sign language for “talk to the hand”). given how effective that is, i assume it’s pretty offensive, but most of the time I just avoid eye contact and shake my head. there are, however, a few key ways to take me from nice to nasty in under sixty seconds: approach me while i’m in the middle of a meal, or grab me. either of those scenarios, and suddenly i don’t give a flying fig about fulfilling the stereotype of the “rude american” – i will get up in your face and make you sorry you ever bothered me. i also don’t respond to being yelled at from across the street, waved or snapped at like a dog, or repetition. you can call out “hey, hellloooo!” until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll never get my attention that way.

the worst thing about it though, is how it makes you automatically suspicious of everyone. which sucks because it puts your guard up, and leaves you less open to people. it wears you down, man.

if this is turning into a bitch session, well i apologise, but it’s particularly annoying today. j and i had a spat this morning and decided to spend the afternoon each doing our own thing. no biggie, and i’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner, given that it was inevitable we’d get on each other’s nerves. so i did some shopping, had some lunch, and came down to the lake to write and read. since sitting down, two people have approached me to sell me books, one lady to sell me pineapple, one lady to sell me fans, one person came up behind me trying to read what i was writing over my shoulder (?!?), one lady spent 15 minutes harassing me for my soda can (which i refused to give her because a.) it wasn’t empty b.) she picked it up from my side to see if it was empty c.) on principle because she decided to try to wait me out), and one crazy guy came over, put his face inches from mine, then laughed when i told him to fuck off.

i just wanted to relax and enjoy the last afternoon in hanoi (before we get on yet another overnight bus). instead i am weary, irritated and peevish from being harrassed.

why can’t people just leave me be??


Sunday, June 18th, 2006

it’s early morning and the mists are still clinging to the green-gray spines jutting out of the turquoise waters as we glide through the quiet channels of ha long bay. the heat of the sun is beginning to dissipate the haze of clouds and warm the jagged spires of dragon scale legend. birds dance on the breeze overhead.

such beauty exists in this world as my eyes would not have believed, and it restores me, heals the damage of neglect like a balm, smoothes the thin patches and fills up the careworn gaps of my soul. it is everything i have needed and more than i could have asked for.

heartfelt hanoi

Thursday, June 15th, 2006

i’m falling a little in love with hanoi, but i can’t help it. after all, it’s hard not to be won over by a city that’s so unapologetically insane. with its giant mash-up of chinese, french and american influences, it’d be easy to write it off as derivative, yet somehow it is still wholly unique unto itself.

first of all, i didn’t think it was even possible to have crazier traffic than beijing, but somehow they’ve managed that feat impressively. scooters outnumber cars about 10 to 1 and the few traffic lights which exist are really just a big waste of electricity. here, drivers slow down for nothing and no one – and they sure as hell don’t stop. crossing the street without wetting your pants takes pure nerve, and provides an adrenaline rush which equals any daredevil stunt. we’ve already witnessed accidents and innumerable near misses, and it’s small comfort that if you *do* get hit, at least it will likely be a motorbike, and will probably hurt less than being hit by a car. actually hiring a motorbike (as we’ve done in other cities) would fall under the category of “adventure sport”, and as such, is specifically precluded under the terms and conditions of our travel insurance. walking around is excitement enough.

and you have to walk *in* the street because the primary function of the sidewalks is as car park for all the millions of motorbikes. the pavement which is *not* overrun by bikes is instead comandeered by sidewalk cafes. not sidewalk cafes in the western sense, mind you, but eateries where all chopping, cooking, boiling and grilling is done only inches off the sidewalk while crouched over tiny fires, and the seating consists of miniscule plastic stools. noodle soups, skewered meats, corn on the cob (asians *love* corn on the cob, it’s everywhere!), steamed rice, roasted banana leaf parcels – all prepared and consumed just inches off the pavement and only feet from the zooming scooters and fetid gutters.

which is really only disturbing when you get back after a day of walking and find your feet completely blackened. as a bit of a foot snob, i’ve taken great pains to keep my toesies clean and tidy, my heels smooth. but hanoi has presented a mighty struggle, and i’ve resorted to using an old toothbrush to scrub them. the streets are really gross.

but so much about hanoi is enormously appealing. the shops full of exquisite silk dresses and handbags, beautiful laquerware and wood carvings. the unfailingly delicious food and genuinely friendly people. the city which is still laid out by speciality: tinworks and hardware, banners and ceremonial needs, clothing and shoes. the vestiges of french architecture found cheek-by-j0wl with ancient community temples and concrete communist party monstrosities. croque monsieur sandwiches, curries and stir-fries. hecklers shouting “madame!” and then plying their services in u.s. dollars. women wearing traditional straw field hats balancing huge baskets of fruit while listening to an mp3 player. hanoi is all these things and more – a city of contrasts and culture clashes and chaos.

and it’s wonderful.

(photos to follow soon – internet in vietnam is again limited and censored by the regime, so uploading is a p.i.t.a….)

hell and back again

Wednesday, June 14th, 2006

we’ve spent the past few days in vientiane, the capital of laos. due to a strategical error (read: numbskullery) we’ve spent three days waiting for the entry date on our vietnam visas. vientiane, meanwhile, is a strange little nowhere-nothingsville of a place – a curious bit of hellishly hot backwater suspended in a state somewhere between renewal (if you’re a glass-half-full type) and decay (if you’re not). j calls it a shithole, though i wouldn’t say that. there’s nothing overtly wrong with it – but there’s precious little to recommend about it, excepting its function as a transport hub for, oh, anywhere but here. so our days were filled by shuttling between air-conditioned oases: eating at bakeries, noodling at internet cafes, and watching world cup matches at pubs. nothing to write home about.

so once our visas became valid, we hopped on te first bus to hanoi. as i write this, we’re in the 23rd hour of what has become the journey from hell. vientiane and hanoi are probably roughly600km or so apart, as the crow flies. so how, one might ask, does this entail such an epic bus ride? let me explain.

it’s important to understand, first of all, the distinctions between the several different classes of bus journey. the highest class is what’s known as the “v.i.p. bus”. this is a tourist class coach, of varying degrees of plushness, but the commonly found characteristics include three things: tourist priced ticketing, super-freeze air-conditioning, and an on-board toilet. the natural habitat of this “v.i.p. bus” is limited to within the borders of thailand (though some may say it has a close cousin in the chinese “overnight bus”, however the chief difference is that such “overnight buses” make absolutely no pretence at plushness.) the “v.i.p. buses” are often promoted as “sleeper buses”, the theoretical notion being that one departs in the evening, sleeps through the night, and awakes refreshes at their destination in the morning. having taken several of these, however, i can safely attest that absolutley no such sleeping takes place. these buses are also often billed as “express buses”, a description which might lend one to believe that they arrive at their destination significantly faster than other buses – but that belief would be highly erroneous. a unique and entertaining feature of many of these buses is the airbrushed artwork on the side (in imitation of “old-skool” graffiti artistry) and the neon halogen lighting, creating a funky urban thai hip-hop kinda vehicle.

the second class of bus is known as the “local bus”. this is the bus which the native-born countrymen take for long distance trips. it is usually characterised by uncomfortably narrow vinyl seating (reminiscent of a classic schoolbus), and hideous decor, often consisting of leftover wallpaper remnants, children’s bedroom curtains and dustruffles. the amenities on this type of bus are usually limited to basic airplane-like ventilation (or electric ceiling fans) and overhead lighting which is turned off for the duration of the trip, rendering it decorative only. while these buses are somewhat cheaper, the ticket price for foreigners is in no way reflective of what the locals actually pay (a fun little custom called “price tiering”) and the savings are often offset by the need for in-person purchasing and navigation of the chaos which is the public bus depot. this, in and of itself, requires one to call upon unexpected depths of patience and fortitude. furthermore, the “local bus” makes all “local” stops, some of which include mr. smith’s driveway, grandma jones’ convenience store, and a multitude of assorted random intersections and curbsides. depending on road conditions, refreshment/toilet breaks, whether or not mr. smith/grandma jones is travelling, and the mood of the driver, these buses can take from 2-6 hours longer to get where you’re going.

and finally, there is the “chicken bus”, which I believe i’ve described here before, but suffice to say they are often distinguished by the presence of livestock.

our current convoy falls somewhere between a “local bus” and a “chicken bus”, inasmuch as there are a few hundred kilos of rice and fruit lining the aisles, and no toilets, but it does have air-conditioning. still i am beginning to desperately wish we’d shelled out for a plane ticket.

when we boarded the bus, nearly 24 long hours ago, i knew it would be trying, but it didn’t seem too bad. they piled all the luggage into the back rows of seats because the holds were already full (of contraband imports, to be sure), but there were still rice sacks to load so they formed impromptu aisle seating for extra locals. we waited an extra hour for a few more locals and all their accompanying luggage (also piled in the aisles). a family of five squeezed into two paid seats. the tall guy behind me protested when i tried to recline my seat. the lady in front protested when j’s knees impeded her recline. it started to pour, so the windows were shut and it because close and steamy. i was starting to feel uncomfortably claustrophobic and we hadn’t even left the car park yet. ten minutes after we finally got underway, they turned off the overhead lights – so much for finishing my book. i napped a bit and we stopped off for a few pissing-in-the-ditch breaks (never straying far from the road, in case of landmines), but we seemed to be making good time.

six hours in, however, shortly after midnight, we stopped at a roadside cafe. and that’s when j suddenly recalled that this particular route entails a six hour layover. so after a plate of noodles, the cafe closed up shop and the restauranteur family gave the driver a place to sleep and went to bed. leaving the rest of us with no choice but to pile back into the cramped, hot bus to try to sleep. we sweated and stirred and sighed – sleep was impossible. many abandoned the bus and spent the evening sitting in the cooler air outside. mosquitoes were rampant. i’ve never been so intensely, annoyingly uncomfortable.

but light finally arrived on the horizon, and two hours later we arrived at the border controls, first in the queue. only there was no queue, only a teeming mass of swarming locals shoving passports and bribes in the faces of the officials and a bunch of bewildered foreigners getting trampled in the stampede happening at the window. stamping our departures, then, understandably took quite a while, what with the piles of scattered passports and money, people constantly breaking into the office to try to personally plead with the immigration officer, etc. etc. etc.

and then we had to enter vietnam – vietnamese immigration a model of efficient communist bureacracy, if ever there was one. it took them two and a half hours to shake us down for a few u.s. dollars and stamp our pre-arranged pre-paid visas, while we helplessly watched them suffle the small red and blue books from one pile into another, take a coffee break, scan them on the new passport scanner, curiously examine all our other stamps and visas, take a call on their mobile phone, take care of dozens of local passports, flip through ours again, put them aside – all in time-warp super-slow-motion, before finally extorting another 30,000 dong to hand them over.

our passports moved less than 10 feet during the entire two and a half hours. it took supreme feats of self-control not to start screaming.

back on the bus, it seemed that was the worst of it. yet the trip continues to drag on, twelve hours hence. at lunchtime the sin read “hanoi – 350 km”. at a second lunch break the sign read “hanoi – 150 km”. the bus broke down and was fixed. i engaed in tug-of-war with the lady in front of me over control of my window curtain. i got gum on my ass. my ipod battery died.

it’s now been 24 hours and 13 minutes (12 hours driving, 6 hours “sleeping”, 3 hours immigrating, 3 hours eating) with no end in sight.

i’ll let you know if we make it there alive.

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