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You may question my slight hiatus – I put it down to  expensive and poor internet connections and the allure of a beach! We pick up the adventure in Saigon…

Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon. The big economic motor of Vietnam, it isn’t as nice as Hanoi I thought but many people prefer it. I went to see the Reunification Palace which used to be the Presidential Palace before the south lost. Really impressive building and lots of interesting history of where some bombs were dropped down the main staircase in 1975, the two tanks that were filmed smashing through the gates in April 30 1975, forcing the surrender of the South, the receiving room where such luminaries as Helen Clark and the Hungarian Prime Minister were received, underground bunkers and the party floor where the Prez had a gambling room, cinema and dancing floor installed. Also the War Remnants Museum which documents the effects of the war with a focus on Agent Orange and other defoliants (and the horrific side effects on children born of those exposed), cluster bombs and napalm. The pictures they have here are truly awful. There was a fascinating section on photographers who had died during the war. There was also an area which covered the prison camp system of the south where they interned captured NVA and Viet Cong and tortured them. All in all, its somewhat amazing how the Vietnamese of both sides can seemingly move on from this awful time and not still harbour resentment against those who inflicted so much pain. For example it is embarrassing how little the US Government provides for land mine clearance, both in Laos and Vietnam. Maybe there is a story there.

Cambodia – Phnom Penh. We scuttled into the backpacker hangout of ‘lakeside’ which despite the swank sound, is a rapidly disappearing lake used for overflow when it rains. The Cambodian government is reclaiming about the middle third of the lake with massive pumps that go night and day in order to develop it. Such shortsightedness! Sitting on the edge of the lake on a pier and looking out at night you could imagine how delightful it may have looked in earlier times. More specifically it really is the theme of my stay in Cambodia – a country really f*cked up after many years of civil war and a now deeply embedded corruption which does the people little credit. The capital is developing at breakneck speed with enormous office blocks being built left and right (including some outrageously impressive buildings for Government agencies and persons such as Prime Minister Hun Sen and his daughter…). There is also a nice Silver Pagoda chock-a-block with hundreds of gold and silver Buddhas.

S-21. Anyways, of course there are two main destinations for travellers in Phnom Penh. The first is Tuol Sleng aka S-21, the largest torture centre during the plague of the Khmer Rouge. This is now a place of contemplation and a shrine and I strongly believe that it is incumbent upon us as world citizens to travel to these places of death and see and understand and communicate how these things were possible. S-21 is slap bang in the middle of town, a former school with four blocks, each three stories high. It has been left largely in the state in which it was found by invading Vietnamese forces who put a stop to the slaughter. All those windows looming over you is very eerie and you can imagine the screams of those tortured echoing around the playground (so as not to worry the neighbors they installed glass windows – fortunately the city of 1.5m had been reduced to 40,000 as Cambodia was being dialed back to  year 0). As you walk through the school you can see the instruments of torture, places where prisoners were held and also the infamous rows and rows of pictures of those detained. They stare out at you in black and white and projected emotions of fear, shock, distrust, blankness and sheer horror down to me. There were many young children amongst the prisoners, its hard now to understand how this was possible. All in all, a powerful experience I am glad I undertook. Today, there is an international criminal tribunal underway to prosecute those responsible, or those still alive (whole story in there). Our very own Dame Cath Tizard is one of the judges. They are currently prosecuting Duch, the chief prison warden of S-21.

Choeug Ek killing fields. The second major destination is the Choeug Ek killing fields which are 15km south of Phnom Penh and this is where the detainees of S-21 were shot, strangled and bashed to death, roughly 18,000 of them. The crazy thing is when you think that although this is the most prominent site, it houses only a fraction of the total killed through this killing system in sites across the entire country (not to mention the hundreds of thousands who died of starvation). It is a peaceful place when we arrived, wonderful weather and no noise from traffic. The place is dominated by an enormous Buddhist stupa which houses about 5,000 skulls and other bones. I lit some joss sticks and placed some flowers, it seemed the right thing to do. As you wander around the place, there are holes everywhere where they dug up mass graves and disinterred the bodies. They haven’t dug up all the mass graves either. The other thing which really brings it home is that as you walk along the dusty paths between the graves, you see scraps of clothing and pieces of what I at first took to be white stones. In actual fact the whole place is littered (scattered?) with bone fragments of the murdered.

Finding Face. I met up with Paul, a friend of Richard L. who has been living in Phnom Penh for the last two years. He kindly invited me to a film screening of a documentary which is partly set in Phnom Penh and addresses two areas in Cambodian society, the culture of impunity prevalent here; and female acid attacks. I know, pretty hard core for a traveller! The movie was kept secret as there were fears it would be shut down otherwise. The title was Finding Face and in brief it concerns the story of a beautiful 15 year old girl who becomes the mistress of a senior Cambodian Minister and when his wife finds out, she finds the girl and pours a bucket of acid over her face and body. Horrific stuff but the catch is that due to the Minister’s connections and position, his wife 10 years on has not been prosecuted. I could write screeds on the stories of corruption I have heard but I shall refrain! In short, nothing is ever what it seems in any developing country and I thank Paul for opening my eyes to this scourge which incidentally is not limited to Cambodia, also being prevalent in India, Bangladesh and other countries where the ultimate destruction of a women’s self, begins with her primary asset (as reckoned in most third world countries), her beauty.

I am now in Siem Riep after a short stint at the beach in Sihanoukville.

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Blogging is a discipline and I am feeling the wrathful lash of being required to sit in internet cafes to feed the ravening hordes! Despite the discipline I love you still and comments are welcome 🙂

Hué. After the rigors of Hanoi, it was a relief to escape down the coast. Not that it isn’t a nice city but the hustle is wearying. We embarked on a sleeper bus to Hué for 12 hours (these things are amazing – felt like I was in a spaceship!) which was great and I actually got some sleep. Hué contains yet another World Heritage site – the old royal palace compound from which the affairs of Vietnam were carried out. It’s an enormous walled city block with a huge moat, surrounded by an even larger wall which contains the entire old part of the city. It was heavily damaged in the war but is now being restored. The Palace is huge and you can see how it may have been pleasant to while away the days accompanied with eunuchs and a harem of the most comely ladies. Harumph. We also hired some scooters to go and see an impressive monument Tristan saw from the window of the sleeper bus. Unfortunately he must have fallen asleep again because after driving for 70 km out of the city on State Highway One, no sign of this apocryphal structure had appeared. Instead we were informed by a nice railway signaller that it was only another 40km away, i.e. smack bang in the DMZ which takes most people an entire day to go and see. Ah well. Hence ‘I’m sure its just around the corner’. 140 km on a scooter is not recommended. On the plus side we are both still alive.On the way we saw many war cemeteries of Vietnamese dead. Many of them unknown soldiers.

Hoi An.This is the most beautiful placeI’ve seen so far in Vietnam. Very laid back and flat (good for biking) and the old part of the city is very pretty with frangipani flowers draping themselves over the street and the tailors (that the city is famous for) hawking their wares with languorous detachment. Actually that’s not true, they are as sharp as anywhere else, I just wanted to use the word languorous. And it was hot. Mid 30s, so where do you go if you are dying of heat? The beach of course! Palm trees and spring rolls. And the ever present hawkers trying it on constantly with trinkets, gewgaws and sunglasses. Always with the sunglasses. Anyway, I also celebrated my 28th birthday in Hoi An, a romantic dinner with Tristan overlooking the river and then onto the bar trail, one bucket down (they put in some kind of Vietnamese stuff similar to Red Bull and Vietnamese ‘Rhum’ that probably contains amphetamine of some sort) we ended up at the beach dancing! Coming back to town I uncharacteristically told a moto driver I would rather give birth to a chair than agree to a ride home. Sometimes you just have to be firm. Next day head not so happy. Insha’Allah or something!

Nha Trang.This is the place people come to party at the beach. Formerly a major location for American GIs to go for R&R. It has a 6 km long beach and lots of hotels! Arriving at 6am from Hoi An, the beach was packed with Vietnamese! They really have a thing about preserving their skin during the sunny day, something to do with preserving their beauty for their husbands and also maybe something to do with peasants being browner from working in the fields so staying white is in, tanning is out. Anyways, didn’t do a hell of a lot here, mostly sat on the beach and drank beer with some mad guys we met in Cat Ba. On their good authority, the pool at the beach bar I spent my birthday night at is a pit of carnal pleasure and STDs. Shocking. We hired some scooters and decided to do a two day mission to Dalat, inland and slightly south west of Nha Trang.

Dalat. Wow. What a drive. A new highway that cut 100 kms off the journey from Dalat to Nha Trang was opened 2 years ago and allegedly is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam. Waterfalls, landslides, sheer cliffs and impressive engineering work. The mist again is present and the area is very sparsely populated so fairly natural looking. Dalat has a large lake at the centre and is very hilly, like a Swiss hamlet! It’s very known for its coffee and wine. Also, it is terribly kitsch and perfect for Vietnamese honeymooners. It was very quiet on the foreigner front and the Easy Riders (motorbike tour guides very desperately trying to secure our patronage). We visited the ‘Crazy House’, an architechtural nightmare built by the daughter of a former president of Vietnam. Some kind of Hundertwasser-esque hotel with themed bedroooms and mirrors on the walls and ceilings… awesome. We also visited a naff waterfall and it started to rain… and didn’t stop. Unfortunately we needed to get back to Nha Trang in order to catch our bus to HCMC. We fitted some cheap 50c ponchos and bravely decided to try the journey back. Pouring rain and stinging droplets in the face. We witnessed two overloaded scooters skid out with 2 people on one and 4 on the other. We stopped to see whether they were alright. The rain was carving great grooves in the deep orange clay cliffs and pouring across the road. At a certain point it intensified to such a degree that we were forced to seek shelter in a shed that was no doubt used by the highway builders. I’ve never experienced rain like that. I’ve been inside but never outside in it at speed. It’s painful! There were others sheltering there as well and once we had dried ourselves and knocked back some tea and rice wine shots we were ready to brave the elements again once it had slackened. The journey was very hairy but also something I am proud to have completed – it took 5 hours (compared to the 3 and 3/4 it took the previous day in blazing sun). A warm shower and change of clothes and a night bus to Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City.

Now in Saigon and leave to Cambodia tomorrow morning.

I am aware that I owe you, avid readers, some pictures. Blogging without pictures is like eating a welldone rump steak without a glass of red. I confess with little remorse that I’ve been too lazy to work out how to put them up until now. Here are a selection of my favourites and I will try to get some more up when appropriate. I’ve decided to stay with low res. at the moment but may try and get some larger ones up if that makes more sense. Yay for my new camera! No photos of birthday debauchery however 😛

Thailand.

Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi panorama

Thailand

Sunset on Koh Tao

Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur Batu Caves

Laos

Vang Vieng Monsoon River

Vang Vieng ropeswing

Luang Prabang Wat

Luang Prabang Waterfall

Luang Prabang drinks

Dear fleet-fingered netziens, we are once again in the belly of the beast travelling south along the coast of Vietnam, consuming vast quantities of bottled water and supping from the teats of Bia Hà Nội bottles.

I last left you hopefully petrified by my story of our bus trip to Hà Nội. As a corollary I shall relate a brief discussion Tristan and I had on the bus:

Tristan – “What do you think he is trying to avoid, swerving like that?”

Julian – “Bats. Big f*cking bats.”

Hà Nội. I reveled in the heedless swerving, unnecessary tooting and damn near suicidal scooter calisthenics on the roads of Hà Nội (David L. of course being intimately familiar with said “driving”). Hà Nội is the capital of Vietnam and from where Ho Chin Minh directed the prosecution of the American War (as it is known here). We stayed in the so-called Old Quarter which is where the French colonialist swine filled in old canals to form a densely built area with high (4-6 stories), narrow (4m or less), deep (50m or more) buildings most not more than 100 years old. The sheer narrowness of the buildings is apparently due to the fact property taxes used to be levied on the width of the road frontage. Unfortunately most of the more modern buildings built in the last 10 years is of  questionable architectural merit, dominated by some weird quasi-Greco/Vietnamese mish-mash which emphasises Ionic columns, green and pink pastels and elaborate balconies.

We hit the main sights – the old quarter with its specialised streets (stationary, scooter repair, tea, clothes, food, brasswork, coffee beans, Buddhas, flowers and toys to name but a few), Ho Chi Minh Museum (chronicling his impressive life) and the Ho Hi Minh Mausoleum where they preserve his body (and nifty looking goatee) forever in a dimly lit glass walled sarcophagus guarded by intent looking white-clad soldiers who grab you if you tarry too long. We also visited the Ha Lo Prison where American aviators were interned during the American War including John McCain. Somewhat ironic as the depressing prison was also the center of the French oppression and executions during the 1930s and 40s.

One weird experience in Hà Nội was being woken up by a call at 3am in our hotel requesting something I could not understand because of the accent. Presuming (innocently) that it was the hotel receptionist asking something, I went to answer the resultant knock on the door and was somewhat surprised when a young Vietnamese man sauntered past me, until he saw Tristan asleep on the bed and must have realised he has made a mistake. Leaving, we heard words in the room next door, where a pleasant middle-aged Japanese man was staying. In the morning we were surprised to see on our bill an item for our ‘telephone call to Australia’ on it (~250,000 Dong, roughly NZ$25). So you see,even the hotels in Hà Nội are discreet!

Ha Long Bay/Cat Ba Island. Ha Long Bay is the large bay to the southeast of Hanoi (another UNESCO World Heritage site) which contains several hundred steep limestone islands where a fleet (apparently 580 of them) of tourist junks ply their trade amongst the islands. We opted not to go on an overnight tour and somewhat regretted this as it sounded fun – getting on the lash with tanning Danish lasses. Ah well. We visited the enormous and garishly lit up caves at Hang Dou Go before arriving at Cat Ba which is one of only two inhabited islands (the others being too rugged). Cat Ba ended up being really busy with Vietnamese tourists – summer holidays. We blatted around the island on scooters with a well-met Frenchman and puffed our way to the top of a peak in the National Park to take in the view atop a rusty, dodgy looking viewing platform 20 m above the hilltop. There are apparently man-eating Langur monkeys on the island but we didn’t see any. All in all, not somewhere to spend a heck of a lot of time, unfortunately we ended up there for 3 nights but on the plus found the first kiwi bar yet (The Flightless Bird, and no NZ beer. Shocking)!

Sa Pa. After the miss with the Ha Long Bay tour we opted for the first tour of our trip so far. An overnight train to Lai Cai town and bus to Sa Pa. Sa Pa is a frontier town in the far north-west of Vietnam and very close to the Chinese border. The overnight train was wicked – my first experience. When we arrived at the station in Hà Nội, they were christening our carriage as the first under new management (the tickets for many train carriages are wholesaled to tour operators rather than Vietnam Railways) so we were presented with lychees and complimentary bottled water before being photographed for presumably their promotional material! Sleeper trains are fun!

Sa Pa is nestled up high with daily mist snaking its way around the surrounding hills. It is overlooked by the highest peak in Southeast Asia, Fan Si Pan Mountain (3142m). The valley below Sa Pa is home to many minority tribes whose colourful clothes tend to attract tourists with cameras. We embarked on an overnight trek down past rice paddies and lowing water buffalo trailed by a friendly mob of local H’Mong women trying their damnedest to buy their trinkets and knick knackery. Walking with two Israeli girls, a Dutchman and a fellow Kiwi, we did not lack for conversation. The guesthouse was delightful and was on the floor above the house of our 21 year old guide and her husband and baby. She was a gem, spoke good English and desired to send her planned two kids to high school. She cooked up a veritable feast for two hours over a wood fire after which we ‘got on the rice wine’ and played cards. Awakening, we realised a pig had been slaughtered not to long ago and was now for sale in front of our guest house alongside the tofu the family also sold! Trotters and Coke bottles full of pig’s blood greeted the grossed-out Israelis! Breakfast of crepes and bananas was followed by a climb to the top of a waterfall and swim in the river. Returning to Sa Pa and our hotel we pottered around the touristy town and I resisted the urge to stuff my backpack with handicrafts.

I’m in Hanoi at the moment relaxing in luxury in the Old Quarter. US$20 a night for some swank digs with a computer in our room – perfect for blogging!

Luang Prabang.This is a UNESCO world heritage town which is alleged to be the most picturesque city in Southeast Asia! Its long tree-lined boulevards bounded by Laotian Wats and French-influenced maisons. Luang Prabang is squeezed on two sides by rivers and the peninsula thereby formed is where the Laotian kings lived. Very slow place but very restful and ended up meeting two kiwis and two aussies (kiwis being very thin on the ground so far)! The drinking curfew that starts at midnight is only excepted in the bowling alley because it’s sport which means its healthy and what activity can be judged healthier than bowling balls sloshed at 3am? The only downside being having to turn down all the offers of opium and weed from hopeful moto drivers on the walk home. The big highlight in Luang Prabang was visiting the waterfall 1 hr drive away and lounging around in the lagoon about 50 m above the base of the falls. The mountain water was a shade of azure so inviting, we had to scale some treacherous path to paddle in its Blue Lagoon-like waters…

In any case, Luang Prabang is most suitable for honeymooning couples and those with a particular bent for architecture and building restoration techniques. You can also travel between Luang Prabang and Thailand via slow boat.

Luang Prabang to Hà Nôi.Our most epic adventure yet! By bus to Hà Nôi was an inspired move in order to save ourselves the cost/danger of a flight via Air Laos. Therefore we decided to drive via public bus to the border crossing of Na Xoi (Laos)/Na  Maew (Vietnam) which our trusty Bible (Lonely Planet) appellated the most remote border crossing in Laos. Well. Leaving at 10.30am via public bus (not too bad actually, not many people on the bus but acts rather like a taxi where they honk in every village they go through and people get on and off as it proceeds, it being the only form of public transport in these parts, once a day) we drove northwest through some really beautiful highland rural areas where the villages cluster along the roadside, little bamboo huts on stilts from where they farm incredibly steep, misty hillsides for tobacco leaf and bamboo. We wound our way up the hills into some pretty rugged areas, rutted and potholed, and through a National Park where they still have tigers in the wild. We were the only foreigners on the bus and we shared the first leg with farmers taking their crops to market (three enormous bags of tobacco leaf – good for sleeping on I found) and people visiting their families from the cities.

We arrived in Sam Nuea (aka Xam Nua), a dusty and uninspiring provincial supply town at 1am and woke an innkeeper from his slumber to crash for a few hours. By 7am we were at the other bus station (one being for destinations west and the other north and east) to probably get ripped off by purchasing a US$35 bus ticket to Hanoi. This journey commenced at 8am and we drove alongside a twisting river towards the Vietnamese lowlands collecting an eclectic collection of fellow travellers. The border buildings were appropriately massive Soviet-style edifices with appropriately non-existent traffic. After being searched thoroughly by the Vietnamese border guards and our details taken down in a large leather-bound book (no computers here!) and temperatures taken (to check for H1N1 symptoms) we stopped for lunch of course!

The views were incredible with the bus travelling through another National Park through twisting gorges eastward with farmers tending their rice paddies using water buffalo to pull their plows, water wheels in the rushing river lifting water to the upper paddies and bamboo chutes delivering the water to paddies lower down. They were in a harvesting phase with rice fronds (?) being sickled and gathered ready for threshing. The detritus was being burnt and the rice being dried on large tarpaulins by the side of the road. Following some wonderful scenery and inspired bus driving (regular honking to drive cows off the road and warn oncoming cars as well as McCrae-esque swerving to avoid potholes) we arrived in Thanh Hoa where we celebrated with the bus drivers by chopping a mug of beer with them. This is also where the bus driver was delighted to find a live turtle left on the bus by a passenger (almost under my seat!) which he no doubt turned into a family feast that night!

The Bus of Doom. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. We switched buses for the last stretch, three hours into Hanoi. Without a doubt the most harrowing transport experience of my life. the shuddering bus horn noise still grates as memories of this mad trip subside. The driver I suspect had a point to prove by being the most insane driver in the fleet and attempted to drive the bus as if it were a supercar. I had heard that the stretch of State Highway 1 into Hanoi was a dangerous stretch but had no idea! He banked and swerved to overtake buses on a two lane road, (by the way it was pitch dark by this stage) riding the horn constantly, overtaking a truck overtaking a truck with a truck oncoming, avoiding potholes by swinging the wheel as if it weren’t chocka with white-knuckled Vietnamese, blasting ambulances out of the way, deciding two lanes really meant three and ducking back into the lane with the barest of margins. After all that he did in fact stop for 10 min to check the tires, safety first! A blend of skill and insanity. You take your life into your hands travelling on this stretch of road so we are taking the train next time!

Next post will cover Hà Nôi, Halong Bay and Cat Ba (perhaps with a little Sapa thrown in too!).