Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Some more thoughts on Vietnam

Resort style holidays in Vietnam...it exists

From nature to ‘culture’: Vietnam surely has its share of resorts- located in the middle of nowhere, bizzarely at odds with their surrounds

After Nico gave a very detailed account of his adventures in Vietnam already, there is not a lot I feel I need to add to the story. Simon and I followed roughly the same itinerary on our way up from the south with the exception that we spent a couple of days around Halong Bay in the North of Vietnam.

Overall, we left the country with mixed feelings, as Nico is also hinting at in his conclusion- we visited a place full of history, with an enchanting mix of nature and culture, with myriads of culinary delights to uncover, yet, interactions with the Vietnamese themselves were often hardgoing.

What got to us most is the general attitude towards truthfulness- or should I say absence of the same? We were often lied to unabashedly and had to unfortunately realize that you cannot always count on peoples word- which became especially apparent after I had things stolen from a hotel and our dealings with the staff were all but easy.

Cave in the marble mountains, north of Hoi An

What we did take away however is the memory of a varied places that really offers something for everyone- be that the history devotee or the nature lover. We had our fill of amazing food (I was especially delighted by the grilled dried squids on offer everywhere- I am going to miss them dearly…), and delved into history, both ancient as well as more recent. The Vietnam war museum proved to be one of he most full on, intense experiences we had in a while. I left the building feeling physically sick after seeing the images on display and reading their accompagnying texts. I find it impossible to convey here the full impact the exhibition had on me so I won’t even try- suffice it to say, it was hard to deal with.

To move away from civilization (and its rather questionnable manifestations at times), Halong Bay, along with Sapa was truly stunning in terms of natural beauty. We ended up not going to Halong Bay itself but to Cat Ba Island, which lies at the southern edge of Halong and opens up to another, much quieter bay- Lan Ha. The area is famous for karst formations protruding straight from the ocean, forming a vast sea of islands in the bay. We explored the area by boat and kajak, cruised through tunnels in the rock and swam beneath the majestic rocks.

It was welcome relief from the crazy Hanoi city life we had experienced the days before. There, we ended up visiting the Mausoleum Nico describes- a weird experience, to observe how masses of people are ushered past their national hero on a daily basis- if he is not just in Russia for restauration purposes (!)- as happens for 3 months every year. It will be interesting to see for how much longer this arrangement will be kept up.

In conclusion, Vietnam proves a place where appeal and issues merge into one. I am glad I visited- the future will show whether I shall return.

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The Malaysia Déjà vu – The Karaoke Story

Everybody who has been following this blog for the last year might remember our Malaysia posts, in particular the one about a group of Malaysians who invited us for drinks, got us really drunk, took us to three different Karaoke places and drove us around in their fancy BMW.

Well, after I left Hoi An, I drove to a small city along the coast just to stay there overnight before heading onto the Ho Chi Minh Highway the morning after. I was very tired from a long day of driving and all I wanted was some food and some sleep, but before I could even order some food at the waterfront I found myself in almost exactly the same situation as last year in Malaysia. A group of business men invited me and insisted in paying for all the drinks and all the food (the calamari and clams were some of the best I ever had). Only one of them spoke English so the rest of them just used the words “You!” and “Nico!” in order to tell me to drink another glass with them (which happened in intervals of 30 seconds) and in order to check if everything was alright they kept on asking “Happy?”. And, what else did I expect, they took me to a karaoke place. I still hate karaoke but at least this time they didn’t have any English songs, so they couldn’t even dare me to sing. They still asked me to join the singing, which was kind of ridiculous as I don’t speak any Vietnamese.

The beginning of the night

The beginning of the night

The karaoke place was a little bit dodgy though. We got our private room with the table full of beers, fruit platters and beef jerky and we got one private hostess per person. I just hope that this wouldn’t turn out to be some kind of brothel. It didn’t but it was still weird having a paid hostess who’s leaning against your shoulder and feeding you fruit (thank you, I can eat myself). It’s fascinating to watch grown up Asian men turning into giggling teenagers in those situations.

Much later that night!!

Much later that night!!

At the end of the night I was driven back to my hotel I promised the guys to send them the photos I took and of course I didn’t manage to leave early in the morning the next day as I had a massive hangover.

Ho Chi Minh Highway and my Accident

So finally I drove onto the Ho Chi Minh Highway, The highway is indeed incredibly empty and it is just a beautiful road to drive a motorbike on. This highway however was the place where I had my first real motorbike accident, which is kind of ironic after I survived all those insanely busy roads before. As I mentioned in my first post, Vietnamese people don’t seem to possess common sense, so this one guy decided to cross the highway with full speed, without even looking right or left first. So he drove right in front of my

How tanned can you get on a motorbike (where do I wear my watch?)

How tanned can you get on a motorbike (where do I wear my watch?)

motorbike as I was coming along the highway at full speed (70 – 80 km/h) and I crashed full on into his bike and head-dived straight onto the highway. Miraculously I ended up having a few scratches only and no other injuries at all, only my motorbike was half destroyed. The part that followed was actually worse than the accident itself. About 25 people surrounded us, nobody spoke any English and I couldn’t communicate with anybody. Some people indicated that I should just bugger off, which I couldn’t as my bike was destroyed and actually the other guy should have paid for my bike anyway. So the police came, then more police came and then more police came. They all didn’t speak English and nobody seemed to know what they were doing. Finally there was a guy who spoke some German and another guy who spoke some English. The first one agreed that the accident was the other guy’s fault, but that I should just piss off anyway, which I refused. The other guy agreed as well that the accident was the other guy’s fault, but told me that I should pay the repairs as the guy was very poor (which doesn’t justify driving like that), which I refused as well. Finally a police truck came and took our bikes to the mechanic.The police decided that the other guy should actually pay for my repairs, but they asked me again if could pay at least half, as he supposedly didn’t have enough money. Just because I wanted all of this to be over (that was already hours after the accident) and to get out of there I agreed. The man who caused the accident never apologized and never thanked me for paying what he should have paid, but this seems to be the general Vietnamese attitude, which I will talk about in detail at the end of this post. At the end I was lucky to be basically unharmed and I was glad that the day was over, but the way Vietnamese people deal with this kind of situation made me fairly angry and left me wondering how they could be so incredibly inconsiderate.

Hanoi and The Snake Restaurant

Train Tracks in Hanoi

Train Tracks in Hanoi

After my accident I just wanted to get up to Hanoi, so the day after I drove 10 hours straight. The last 5 hours in the rain. Getting into Hanoi City Centre was tricky as the traffic was as insane as in Ho Chi Minh City, but I somehow managed and arrived safely in Tourist Central. The next few days I spent discovering the city with some Belgians I met in my hostel and I reunited with Anna and Simon.

Hanoi’s old city is a maze of small streets which is difficult to navigate, but bustling with shops, cafes and restaurant. Besides the old town there are a few sights which include the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh’s body is publicly displayed (which is ironic because he wanted his body to be burned after his death, so the Vietnamese basically ignored the wish of the person they glorify) and a few museums. Other than that Hanoi is not a very spectacular city, so we spent most of our time eating and drinking. Before Simon had to fly back to Australia we went to a fancy Vietnamese restaurant.  The food was quite good and the restaurant itself looked really nice, but the service still lacked behind western standards, even in this posh environment. Two days later Simon left and Anna and I were in our own again.

Typical Hairdresser

Typical Hairdresser

As we had enough of smog and traffic we decided to leave Hanoi as soon as possible, but before we left the city we decided to go for dinner in a snake restaurant. So we hooked up with Nathan, one of the Belgian guys and ventured for the snake village. After quite a long taxi ride we found the place we were looking for in some small back alley in a dodgy looking area, the restaurant however looked quite alright. Right after entering the place we were led to the cages and asked if we wanted to eat a cobra or a bamboo snake. We went for the bamboo snake as it was cheaper and supposedly better. We were allowed to touch and hold our snake just before it was slaughtered right in front of us. They cut out the heart and the bile and drain the blood into a glass. Then they chop off the head and take off the skin. After that we were seated and they served us rice wine mixed with the snake blood and bile and one person was honoured to eat the beating snake heart. Unfortunately I lost stone-scissor-paper and Nathan got to eat it. The heart and bile are not really meant to taste nice, but the Chinese believe those parts to be very healthy and therefore they eat them as well. During the next hour we were served 7 different courses prepared from our bamboo snake. Snake spring rolls, crispy snake skin, snake soup and snake liver with mushrooms were just some of them. Overall the snake was very good and well prepared; if you ever get the chance to eat a snake, go for it.

Our bamboo Snake!

Our bamboo Snake!

Draining the Snake Blood!

Draining the Snake Blood!

Yummy Snake!

Yummy Snake!

Sapa

I sold the motorbike in Hanoi (and lost some money) and we took a train to Sapa, which is up in the mountains very close to the Chinese border, and which was going to be our last stop in Vietnam before crossing over to China. The whole North-West of Vietnam is very unique as there are many minorities living there who can’t be found anywhere else in Vietnam and who still live as they have decades or even centuries before (only nowadays they have tourism as a second income).

Traditional Mong Woman

Traditional Mong Woman

As soon as you get into Sapa you see and feel the difference to the rest of Vietnam. You feel the difference as it is actually quite cold and you see the difference as there are hundreds of locals dressed in traditional clothing all over the place. We soon realised that Sapa itself is not a nice town. As mentioned in my previous post, touristic places in Vietnam tend to turn into some kind of surreal parallel universe which has nothing to do with the real Vietnam. In Sapa the main tourist street is lined with dozens of pizza and “we serve everything you could possibly imagine, but it’s all bad” type of restaurants while traditionally dressed locals roam the streets to sell some bracelets.

So the only right thing to do is to venture out of town and into the countryside as quick as you can. We decided not to get a guide (as most people do), but to rent a scooter and to discover the region by ourselves. And once we left the town and drove into one of the valleys we could understand straight away why thus place was so touristic and visited by many foreigners and Vietnamese tourists alike. The landscape was just stunning and the rice terraces which are running up and down the hills are just beautiful to look at. And once you get further away from the town itself you start seeing less and less tourists and the real country-life takes over again. It must be amazing to drive through the whole North-West on your motorbike or to do a proper multi-day hike, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time (again). Nonetheless were glad to have seen the place, even though we just stayed for a little while and I would like to come back one day to stay there for longer.

Rice Terraces

Rice Terraces

Final Words

I have not included every encounter I had with Vietnamese people in my posts, because I didn’t want to bore people by going into too much detail and to concentrate on the most relevant information about my travels. But in order to draw a conclusion about Vietnam and to explain why it is a country of extremes (as the title of my post states), I have to write a few words about Vietnamese people in general at this point. Besides a few very nice people (see Karaoke story above), I met a lot of very rude and unfriendly Vietnamese (as have Anna and Simon). As with my accident, people don’t seem to understand if they did something wrong and I seriously never heard the word sorry or even thank you from a Vietnamese person. Anna was on a 12 hour bus-ride and asked the bus driver if he could stop because she needed to go to the toilet, he just said “no” and ignored her. People tend to push you and ignore you in general and if you smile at somebody you might just get shouted at in response. One woman even attacked Anna and Simon with a plastic chair because she wanted them to pay more for the beer than what was stated on the sign. It just makes it so difficult to deal with people, because the way they treat you and the way they seem to think goes beyond my comprehension and you can’t even file it under cultural differences because the level of rudeness is often too extreme to be acceptable from a western point of view. I try not to generalise and as I said before there are always exceptions, but after one month in Vietnam I think I can say that people are unproportionally unfriendly and rude, which is a pity as the country itself is beautiful and has so many amazing places to discover. I am already curious about China as I here from many travellers that Chinese people can be quite rude as well, but that will be another chapter….until then, stay tuned,

 Nico

Traditional Clothing

Traditional Clothing

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As I am writing this I am already sitting in the bistro cart of the train between Kunming and Guiling in China (which takes 24 hours) and I am hoping to upload the Vietnam posts as soon as possible so that the blog is up to date again. This is even more difficult as all sorts of blogs, including ours, are blocked by the Chinese government, but if you read this at some stage during August you will know that I found a way around the great Firewall of China.

Alright, first of all we decided to go separate ways in Vietnam, which means that I left Anna and Simon behind in Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon) planning on meeting them again a few weeks later in Hanoi. Therefore we have two different stories to tell and there might be a second post online in a while telling Anna’s and Simon’s Vietnam story.

Motorbike Mayhem

Motorbike Mayhem

Ho Chi Minh City

So we crossed the border from Cambodia via boat into the Mekong Delta. We stayed only for one night in the delta and headed straight for Ho Chi Minh City (the city formerly known as Saigon was renamed after Ho Chi Minh finally marched into the South and took the city). Brittney and Joe, two travelers who we met last year in Goa/India were teaching English in the city for a few months, so I stayed on their couch and Anna and Simon checked into a small hotel in the city center. Vietnam is crazily crowded compared to the last few countries we visited (88 million Inhabitants and they are expected to enter the world’s top ten in terms of population in the next few years) and they are more developed than many other south east Asian countries. So you get both in Vietnam, the undeveloped countryside, poverty and people living in very poor conditions, as well as shiny shopping malls, rich locals driving brand new luxurious cars and holiday resorts which are not only built for westerners, but for the new Vietnamese upper class.

The kids always get the standing tickets!

The kids always get the standing tickets!

HCM City is a good starting point to introduce you to the craziness of the country. The traffic is absolutely insane. Many people think of Vietnam and they think of Bicycles, well, all those bicycles have been replaced by scooters and motorbikes. There are not that many cars roaming the streets but thousands and thousands of scooters driving without rules and making crossing the street a challenging and even life threatening experience. One day I took a motorbike taxi. So I climbed on the back of the motorbike with my big backpack on my shoulders and very quickly I realised that my driver must have been the craziest driver in the whole city. We missed an oncoming truck by only a few centimeters while overtaking and shortly after my driver decided that we were still going too slowly and drove straight onto the side walk where we were driving at full speed between pedestrians, restaurant tables and water hydrants (I remember almost being knocked off the bike by a sign board). After that he drove straight back onto a huge road, cutting right in front of hundreds of scooters without even looking if he might crash straight into somebody. I survived the traffic but I felt like I had 5 heart attacks during that ride. One might think that this is not much different from many other countries where we have been so far, but the Vietnamese really take it to another level.

Besides the traffic HCM City is as torn between modern times and tradition as most big cities in this area of the world. There are the big shiny office buildings, shopping malls and five star hotels right next to the traditional old school markets and noodle shops. Furthermore the city changes greatly after the sun goes down. There are streets which are empty during the day, but at night the shop fronts open up and dozens of food stalls and hundreds of plastic chairs make it difficult to recognize the same street after nightfall. At the same time curfews are strictly enforced and outside the tourist quarter the city is dead after 11pm. I took a motorbike taxi back home after midnight one day and the huge streets which are filled with thousands of scooters, honking and other noise during the day suddenly seemed deserted and I felt like driving through a ghost city.

How many different kinds of rice can there be??

How many different kinds of rice can there be??

Besides eating Vietnamese food and avoiding to get killed by traffic there is not that much to do in HCM City besides visiting a few sights, including a couple of museums and temples. We visited the reunification palace, which is the palace where the former South Vietnamese president lived and ruled and where Ho Chi Minh’s army finally broke through the fences with their tanks and took over the power over the South. The palace itself is quite ugly, the interior nice to look at, but the place is overall quite unspectacular.

That's how Vietnamese men relax!

That’s how Vietnamese men relax!

The war remnant museum however was worth visiting, even though it was a very intense experience. The museum displays the whole Vietnam War from the beginning to the end including weapons used during the war, video material and loads of photographs. One area of the museum is dedicated only to Agent Orange, one of the chemicals mostly used in chemical weapons by the Americans, and its victims; and on the upper floor there is the requiem gallery which is a collection of war photographs from photographers all over the world who were documenting the war in Vietnam and many of whom died during the war. Even though we all know about the war and the cruelties that were part of it, it is still another experience to stand in this museum and to look at those photographs and to read the stories behind them. I don’t want to talk too much about the war and history in this blog, but if you ever end up visiting Ho Chi Minh City I strongly advise you to visit the War Remnant museum, as it is an intense and moving exhibition (even though displaying a lot of Vietnamese propaganda too) which will remind you of the unbelievable cruelty that human beings are capable of.

Check out the baby seat in the front!

Check out the baby seat in the front!

The Mountains and the Sea

As mentioned before we decided to go separate ways for a while, so I said goodbye to Anna and Simon and to my generous hosts Brittney and Joe and took a bus up to Dalat. Dalat is a mountain city which was greatly influenced by the French during their time in Vietnam. So there are around 2500 old colonial style French villas left in and around the city and as the city is located up in the mountains the temperatures are much more pleasant than elsewhere in the country. And indeed, as I left the bus I felt the cold air chilling my bones and I produced my jacket from the bottom of my backpack for the first time in a long time. What a strange feeling, I was still sweating like crazy just a few hours ago. Anyway, Dalat was a bit of a disappointment in the end. My plan was to rent a motorbike for a few days and to discover the mountains by myself. I wasted half a day just to figure out that there was no place around renting proper motorbikes (only scooters). The next day I decided to rent at least a scooter for one day to discover the area around the city, but it started raining like crazy and I couldn’t really do anything.

My first motorbike!

My first motorbike!

The next morning it was still raining and decided to leave for the coast before I was wasting all my precious time sitting around in the rainy mountains. So I took a bus to Nha Trang a coastal town with a beautiful beach catering for local and international tourists alike. The town itself was terrible, as most backpacker tourist places in Vietnam you feel like living in a parallel universe created only for tourist who don’t care about authenticity, but who want to get drunk cheap, hang out with other foreigners, listen to bad mainstream music and who want to eat pizza and hot dogs. Why bother with traveling to Vietnam for this if you can get the same on Ibiza or Mallorca one might ask…I still don’t know. I ended up meeting some nice people anyway and ended up having a few decent days in Nha Trang. I was still keen on the whole motor biking idea and I was looking around for a motorbike I could rent in order to ride it up north for a week or so. I found out however that two Belgium guys were selling their bikes and….well, take a guess….out of a “you live only once, let’s do something crazy” mood I bought a motorbike, still without owning a motorbike license.

Found on every Vietnamese table!

Found on every Vietnamese table!

Cau Lao!

Cau Lao!

Riding a motorbike in Vietnam – And historic towns

So I jumped on my new bike, left Nha Trang as quickly as possible and drove north along the coast. It is always amazing how limited many tourists seem to be in their choice of location. Right in front of Nha Trang the beach is crowded and full of people, but drive five minutes north and you find a beautiful empty stretch of sand lined with palm trees and without a single soul around.

I drove along the coast past beautiful beaches and picturesque fishing villages until the small coastal road joined with Highway number 1. Driving on this highway which is the main transport connection between the south and the north was challenging if not frightening. As mentioned before there are basically no traffic rules, or at least nobody cares about them. Survival of the fittest is basically what it comes down to. Trucks take over without even caring if they drive right into the oncoming traffic and if you don’t get out of the way you lose. Furthermore the highway doesn’t go past cities but right through them, so besides other motorbikes, cars and trucks you have children, bicycles, chicken, cows and what not all over the highway making your life as a motorbike driver quite stressful. Therefore I decided to stay on this highway only until I reach the demilitarized zone in central Vietnam and then head left onto the Ho Chi Minh Highway which leads north through the mountains and which was supposed to be beautiful and much more relaxed to drive on.

Fishing Villages

Fishing Villages

The next town I reached was Qui Nong. There were hardly any international-, but many local-tourists strolling around the beach promenade and eating fresh seafood en masse. I stayed there for a day, relaxed on a beautiful secluded beach and had plenty of seafood. The day after I headed further north to Hoi An, a beautiful small town full of restored French houses and glowing lanterns in the narrow streets , which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. And this town turned out to be full of surprises. The moment I arrived on my motorbike I met two girls I had met in Nha Trang before. While looking for a cheap room I bumped into two Brazilian guys we had met last month in Laos and I followed them to their guesthouse. They told me that they had met Anna and Simon in Hoi An and that they were going to meet them for dinner. So I was going to meet them that night again as well. After I checked into my room I walked into the lobby and who did I meet there, the two Belgians I bought the motorbike from, plus another Brazilian guy I met in Nha Trang. So it was a day of reunions and we had a good night out.

Buddha in the Marble Mountains

Buddha in the Marble Mountains

The next day Anna and Simon left Hoi An and I stayed for a few more days enjoy the city’s atmosphere. The city as absolutely beautiful and atmospheric but again it feels absolutely fake. I like the city for what it is, a historical Disneyland, a museum city that you can live in, a parallel universe created for tourists, but it is definitely not Vietnam, at least not the area around the old town. Nonetheless it is a place one can linger around for a few days just to get away from loud, noisy and traffic choked Vietnam. One thing Hoi An is famous for are its tailors. There are literally hundreds of tailors and most tourists who come here get something hand-tailored. So I decided to go with the flow and got two suits tailored. Where else in the world could you get two hand-tailored suits for $ 300? So I spent my days going to the tailor for my fittings, went to the marble mountains (which consist of…take a guess…marble) with a Dutch girl and had a massive bonfire on the beach with a bunch of people, grilling 5 kilos of fish and prawns from the market.

Hoi An's Lanterns

Hoi An’s Lanterns

After my suits were finished and I had enough of this UNESCO Disneyland I headed north again to Hue which was the capital of the former Vietnamese kingdom. I did some sightseeing, looked at the old citadel and some beautiful temples for a day and went further north to look at the Vin Moc tunnels. Those tunnels were built during the Vietnam War and the whole village of Vin Moc lived down there while American bombs exploded above their heads every few minutes. Going down these tunnels is already a claustrophobic experience now, but it is hard to imagine how it must have been back then, without electricity, hundreds of people down there and the sound of bomb explosions in the distance.

Dreamy Hue

Dreamy Hue

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Yes, we are still alive and the blog-entries for Vietnam are done and dusted, but as we are already in China by now we encounter some difficulties with accessing our blog. China is blocking all sorts of websites, as most of you will know, including facebook, You Tube, Wikipedia and most blogs, including ours. So we can only access our blog in certain places and most of the time the internet connection is so slow that uploading our photographs is hardly possible. But don’t be disappointed, I am sure I will find a way to work around this, until then stay tuned…

Vietnamese Woman

Vietnamese Woman

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