Tuesday 27 January 2015

Day 250: Ho Chi Minh City - Burning ships

Enjoying dinner and a cocktail on the boat
Our final day in Saigon.  We said goodbye with a dinner cruise on the Saigon River, beginning with careful deliberation about which boat to take.  First we wandered along the harbour examining the options.  Several were too tacky with disco lights and loud music that I could not quite identify but suffice it to say that Debussy had no hand in the composition.  One was shutting up shop for the night (what, already?).  A couple were a bit large and impersonal, including one with a bow shaped like a fish's jaws.  Then there was a low-key wooden affair down at the end of the pier.  Could they offer us a veggie menu?  They would try.  Okay then, this was the boat for us.

We cruised along happily enough, eating course eight (or whatever it was) and looking back at neon lights dribbling down the skyscrapers then changing colour and dribbling some more.  But the real excitement came on the return journey when I saw a couple of orange lights in the sky.  We were in luck; we were in prime viewing position for an impromptu firework display.  It's just a shame that all of the rockets were orange and only one exploded at a time.  Hang on a moment, this wasn't a firework display; it was a sequence of distress flares.

Soon we could see the smoke as the fish-mouthed cruise boat flamed its way back to the harbour.  The fire engine boat was at work (my nautical terms are so well-polished) and hosing down the flames avidly, while speedboats dashed up and down the river asking other cruise boats to stand off until the situation had calmed down.  Unsurprisingly, we spent the last hour of the cruise completely ignoring the dancers on our boat and excitedly taking pictures of the burning ship until finally it shot a green flare and life on the river returned to normal.

It was lucky we weren't in the mood for loud music (not Debussy's) when we picked our ship or our evening could have seen a more dramatic end.  On that fortunate note, goodbye Vietnam!

A dramatic end to the evening with fire ships spraying water on the burning ship against the backdrop of the CBD

Days 248-9: The Mekong Delta - The real deal

Buyer at the floating market 
Water, water everywhere.  And I'm not just talking about the rain (typhoon Hagupit hasn't joined us after all and Saigon remains warm and sunny).  Yet Vietnam is very much a land of water: rice paddies, rain storms, colossal rivers.  Here, a few hours' drive south of Saigon, the Mekong River finally tips the waters of the Tibetan plateau (and China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) into the South China Sea.

We took sporadic boat rides to a series of 'points of interest': the place where they make honey and visitors can hold the bee hive, the place where they manufacture peanut sweets, the place where they play traditional instruments and you discover that Auld Lang Syne is an authentic Vietnamese tune (!), the place where they serve local fruits and warn you not to eat the poisonous black seeds in the jack fruit (then fall about laughing at the look on your face), the place where they manufacture rice noodles and rice paper.  The stops are very artificial; on the pre-fabricated tourist motorway, deviations (and authenticity?) are not permitted.  As in Sapa, every stop seems like a mimicry of itself not its self at all.  That said, the peanut cookie manufacturers are genuinely making peanut cookies for sale on the market, not just showing visitors how they do it; the honey too is real and so is the rice paper.  When it came to it, the cruise was pretty enjoyable after all.

Fish seller
There were two highlights.  Actually three.  One was the company - a Swiss couple and a pair of German-English friends from a school exchange twelve years before (a very lucky exchange pairing!).  The second was the homestay cum picturesque bungalow alongside a river thick with fish.  Insects throbbed; lizards wailed at night; snakes crawled through my imagination.  Before we faced them for the night, we were taught to wrap and fry spring rolls while chatting to some French travellers (including fellow Paris marathon veterans - more good company) then fed a delicious meal.

But perhaps the most exciting part of the homestay was the transport.  As only Guy and I were staying there, from our tour group, we were picked up by motorbike and so learned an important lesson; you may try to avoid Vietnamese motorbikes - and the integrity of all your limbs as well - but the bikes are coming to get you and will pounce at the least likely moments.  There was nothing for it.  I placed the adult-sized helmet on my child-sized head, where it flopped around uselessly for the next half hour, and sat back to enjoy the ride.  And with the exception of road junctions, 'enjoyable' really wasn't a bad description.

The third highlight arrived the next morning.  While waiting for the hotel party, Guy and I wandered around a market where Guy let out the squeal of the decade when a catfish launched itself from its cramped bucket in his direction.  Giving other catfish (and heaps of live frogs) a wide berth, we eventually boarded our boat which took us into the flow of the river.  It passed between wooden barges; a pole rose above each with a type of fruit or vegetable suspended from it.  This was the 'shop' sign telling you what that boat was selling.

Live "jumping" catfish at the market
Meanwhile, smaller boats, manoeuvred by standing oarsmen and women, flitted between them to make their purchases.  The scene was nothing like the floating market I visited in Bangkok (with its fake Louis Vuitton handbags and tourist tat); this was the real thing.  It was where the home owners and restaurateurs of the Mekong delta come to buy their groceries.  It was picturesque and strange and full of pineapples and cabbages and bananas and Vietnamese hats and tea and boats and beauty.  It really was one of the most photogenic places I have ever been.

Bees making delta honey
Boat trip through the palms
... gave Susan an opportunity to don a traditional hat!
Wrapping coconut sweets
A buffalo cools down in the waters of the Mekong
Dead fish don't jump!
Buyers at the floating market
Boats of all sizes
Buyer (small boat) meets seller (large boat)
This guy has sold nearly all of his pineapples
Boats against the backdrop of traditional houses on stilts
Sellers signify their wares by placing them on sticks above their boats
Hauling anchor 
Making rice noodles
Guy trying his hand at noodle making
Cutting the dried sheets into ribbons of noodles
The ribbons get caught as they come out of the shredder
The different types of rice and rice-derived products produced in Vietnam

Days 246-7: Ho Chi Minh City - Inappropriate selfies

The soviet-built NVA tank that stormed the Palace gates in 1975
Hello Ho Chi Minh City, named for the communist leader of independent Vietnam.  Hello also to MacDonalds, Burger King, Subway, KFC, Starbucks, oh and there's another MacDonalds just over there.  But hang on a moment - the Americans lost the war and the free market stayed away from this country, right?  Hmm.  Perhaps the capitalists should just have waited a few decades; they certainly seem to be doing okay in Saigon now.  That's not to say you can't still see socialist propaganda posts - there's a shop full of them, for tourists to buy as souvenirs, just across the road from our hotel.  But first, I'm in the market for a whole steamed tilapia and the best Pho (noodle soup) in Vietnam at the Five Oysters (which we highly recommend, by the way).

Motorbike parking dominates at the war remnants museum.
This communist [sic] city badly needs public transport!
Joking aside, you can't go sightseeing in Saigon and ignore the Vietnam War.  For more information we headed to the War Remnants Museum, which was deeply shocking.  The pictures of those affected by Agent Orange could be nothing else, of course - tormented, agonising and too-little-recognised - but there were ways in which I hadn't expected to be shocked.  For example, what kind of people stand grinning in front of tanks (in which many people died horribly and unnecessarily in the Vietnam War) so they can have their picture taken?  Worse, what kind of parents encourage their kids to do this?  As a venue for the world's most inappropriate selfies, this museum is well up there.

Leaving the selfie-takers to their macabre entertainment in the museum courtyard, we headed to the museum's interior which was informative, earnest, distressing and, at times, gave a sense that it was trying almost too hard.  Most people consider the American invasion of Vietnam to have been a bad idea or something far worse.  So loading the text with heavy adjectives and condemnations (as though you're trying to write propaganda when actually you're making a widely-accepted case) seemed like a bit of an own goal.  But stylistics aside, the museum was definitely one to linger in the mind in the most harrowing of ways.

Bunker in the basement of the independence palace
Continuing the war theme, we visited the palace where the South Vietnam government (known here as the imperialists' puppet government) controlled its troops from basement bunkers then entertained its guests in some of the world's most tastelessly decorated rooms or in the rooftop bar and cinema.  (Notes on arrival for distinguished visitors; there's a helipad on the roof.)  Then we revived with coconuts followed by a steamed Mekong catfish, which Guy belatedly discovered is an endangered species.  Oops.

Saigon day two took us to a land of further inappropriate selfies and, worse, inappropriate gunshots.  'Come to the Cu Chi tunnels and shoot a gun!'  Yeah, yeah.  Shoot a gun in the place where so many civilians lost their lives at gunpoint.  Come on!  The selfie-takers lined up in front of captured American tanks again; the would-be marksmen lined up to pull the trigger; I felt sick and regretted coming.  But with the explosions behind us, historical interest started taking an up-turn in the form of re-created traps set by the Viet Cong for their American enemies; also sandals made of used car tyres (waste nothing in times of war) and of course the tunnels themselves.  They looked about a metre high and somewhat less width-ways.  It was claustrophobia hell.

Susan disappears down into the Cu Chi tunnels
"When the Viet Cong used these tunnels, there was only an exit every half a kilometre or so," our guide (who asked us to call him John Wayne) told us.  "You can crawl along them if you like.  See you in Cambodia!"

But false exits had been built every ten metres to help us pathetic tourists.  I managed about one metre before ducking out again.  On take two, I pulled myself together and managed twenty metres.  The boldest tunnel-crawlers managed thirty.  Yes, you have to be desperate to crawl for five hundred metres then another five hundred then another five in the mud and vermin and malaria and bullet-in-the-dark world of the Cu Chi tunnels.  After all our selfie anger, we were glad, in a pained way, that we had visited them.

US Army Chinook at the war remnants museum
American F5 fighter 
Some of the ordinance left behind by the Americans in Vietnam
Uncle Ho's photo dominates the independence palace
Meeting room in the independence palace
Guy's new office
Man trap on display at the Cu Chi tunnels
Exploring the Cu Chi tunnels

Wednesday 14 January 2015

243-5: Hoi An - The storm abates (or does it?)

Beautiful Hoi An
It isn't my favourite adjective but sometimes you have to use it; Hoi An's cute.  The lanterns on the bridges, the tea shops, the river, the merchants' houses ... it's the kind of place where Lonely Planet tells you to 'knock back for a few days'.  And when Lonely Planet issues an order, many a traveller obeys.

We spent a morning wandering around wooden merchants' houses which have stayed in the same family for eight generations.  Each has a hatch in the ground floor ceiling so you can pull the furniture to safety during the months of the year when the town is waterlogged (starting tomorrow, judging by the state of the weather)!  With their antique furniture and beautifully carved wooden panels, they were easy to wander around for half an hour.  Alas, the Quang Trieu Assembly Hall deviated slightly from the cuteness - while we ourselves deviated substantially from the purpose of a visit to Hoi An by failing to have any dresses made (although Guy managed a drunken teapot purchase) - but all in all we were feeling pretty happy with ourselves as we wandered the streets, ate noodles and spring rolls and fried aubergines, and photographed lanterns by the river.

Shrine on the Japanese bridge
Even the weather (a forceful character in our Vietnam drama) decided life was good and opted to ditch the frowns and constant weeping.  This was too good to miss.  We hired bikes and cycled out to Cua Dai beach - miles of sand with a break almost powerful enough to rip your clothes off (note to self: tighter bikini needed).  A day ago we hadn't expected to be able to loll on loungers and drink coconuts in the sunshine.  A day later we wouldn't believe it had happened.

As the dawn of our third day in Hoi An hid itself in storm clouds and threw a tantrum, we made our escape to the airport to take a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (from now on: HCMC or Saigon).  Saigon merely lies in the projected (rather than current) path of Typhoon Hagupit, so at least it may not be raining there yet.  And after a few days of watching the typhoon's path anxiously, wondering where we should go to avoid it, it seems to be weakening.  So HCMC, here we come.

(Okay, okay, it's the wet season in central Vietnam right now.  Enough with the meteorological crisis ...)

The interior of Phung Hung House

The Japanese Bridge

Fishermen in the river

Inlaid pearl birds form letters in one of the houses

Demon(?) statues in the Fukian Assembly Hall

Another great shot of one of the bridges at night

Days 241-2: Hue - Baroque monstrosities and seasonal storms

Beautifully adorned buildings in Hue
An orphaned script is a strange thing.  Chinese characters adorn the red and gold throne room in Hue's Imperial City, once the capital of Vietnam, yet modern day Vietnamese people learn their language in the Latin script.  The flowing Chinese lines will not find many readers here.   But perhaps they never did; with a single-figure percentage of the population able to read and write, queues of would-be readers in Hue's throne room were never exactly a problem.  So out with the old script; in with the new.  The Imperial City's black lettering may shout its message at deaf ears until the buildings crumble (they're already well on the way) while the occasional word-lover, literature student or all-round nostalgic looks sadly on.  Perhaps I mean a childless script, not an orphaned one?

But some of the words in the Imperial City were very much written for today's readers.  Most of them accompanied maps of the Paracel Islands and their surrounding waters and informed us that the archipelago ABSOLUTELY belongs to Vietnam and ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT belong to China - and there the record player got stuck.  Reading up on the dispute, it looks as though the exhibit's authors may have a point.

Never mind islands, water became a major theme of the rest of our stay in Hue.  After a high pressure shower on our way back to the hotel, we stepped into another vertical bath the next morning on the way to join a Perfume River cruise.  An Irish bloke greeted us as we stepped aboard with a huge grin and the words:

And the rain fell... making it quite picturesque actually!
"This is my first holiday for three years but I've got violent toothache, it's pouring with rain and there's a typhoon on the way.  You've got to smile, haven't you?"

We tried.  As well as the inside of a raincloud, the tour took us to a traditional wooden house with a pond in the garden to deflect spirits who will see their reflection in it.  Looking at the house's furnishings, the proportion of atheist / Buddhist Vietnamese people became a matter of dispute.  "Eighty percent of people are atheists," our guide told us.  "But I was told that eighty percent are Buddhists," someone countered.  The guide's view was that God didn't help the Vietnamese very much in the Second World War, when so many people were starving, so the locals gave up on him after that.  But as God seems to remain a strangely popular fellow in other disaster zones, despite the divine no-show at critical moments, I wasn't entirely sure about this line of reasoning.  The rain meanwhile contributed the thought that it didn't take a strong view, one way or the other, just so long as it could keep on pelting down.

Shrine after shrine at the tomb of Minh Mang
The afternoon took us to a pagoda then a series of mausoleums of former emperors.  The first was beautiful and seemingly endless; shrine after shrine strode away along a pathway.  Impressive as I found it, I'm OK with just having a bog-standard grave when I die, thanks.

The second shrine was even more striking but very far from beautiful.  The French influence had seeped into Vietnam by this time and the result was a baroque monstrosity.  Thank goodness the Chinese influence resurfaced in mausoleum viewing round three.  Even the rain was so shocked it stopped temporarily.  But probably not for long.  When we arrived in Southeast Asia we were looking for a change from the hardships of the Himalaya.  Well, we've got a change all right.  Unlike Rolwaling, the water here is definitely not frozen; it's flowing at shower setting number ten (Spinal Tap setting eleven).  Where's the umbrella shop, quick?!

The citadel with the Vietnamese flag proudly flying

Gates to the citadel

Thai Hoa Palace in the citadel

Thai Hoa rear elevation

Screen doors in the citadel


Thien Mu Pagoda

Buddha on his mobile

Working temples


Dragon boats on the river

These huge butterflies (the size of sparrows) were comparatively easy to photograph as they flew so slowly

The tomb of Khai Dinh

Ruins at Tu Duc's Tomb

Tu Duc's tomb