Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hoi An

Hoi An must be one of the most beautiful places in all of Vietnam. 
The old town with its Chinese inspired architecture remains largely intact despite decades of war. The town itself is close to one of the largest cities in Vietnam, Da Nang.

We caught a bus here from the ancient Imperial Capital of Hue, itself a great spot for a few days of discovery. Our bus passed through Da Nang with one brief passenger drop off. We will head back there this evening to board the SE7 train for Ho Chi Min City.
 Hoi An's chief attractions include;
 The beaches - just a short bicycle ride from the central area of Hoi An lie gorgeous stretches of sandy palm fringed beaches colloquially known as 'China Beach.' 

Fishers brave the seas in what are little more than small round whicker tubs while tourists play in the breakers and the ever present eagle eyed walking shops try their best to make a sale. They sell everything from cold water to souvenirs and are very keen for everyone to at least have a look!!!


The Old Town - a small enclave of old shops, shop houses and temples that are now souvenir shops, galleries, leather goods shops, museums, shoe shops, restaurants, local produce shops, tailors and still more shops!!! Each shop proprietor 'invites' you into their shop. 

There are a few variations on the standard 'Come in please,' including 'You come in my shop, you looking you buy something..,' 'Hello, where you from, buy from my shop..,' 'You buy from me...' It gets a might trying having to respond to each and every one of them as they do seem to be speaking directly to you.
 The restaurant staff are the same, 'inviting' you to dine in their establishment and appearing quite non plussed at 9.30 in the morning that you might have already had breakfast and not yet be requiring lunch!!! 'Why not?' They ask incredulously when their kind offers are refused!!!

 There are innumerable walking or scooter based shops- guys riding round on scooters or bikes with huge boards full of knock off designer sunglasses who stop and accost you as though you have a pre arrangement with them and they are merely fulfilling your desires, it's like, ' Here are your sunglasses, please make your choice and buy them now as I have many more appointments...' There are the fruit vendors, a basket full of fruit at each end of a shoulder pole. Or the less fortunate vendors whose shops are just off the main strip. They will ride up to you on their bikes and offer to sell you their clothes!!! Umm right, I think we will pass on that, oh, at your shop, I see, still passing on that one…

The barber shop - There is a tradition here that barber shops offer much more than mere hair cuts and shaves. They also clean your ears, a process I am glad to say I have survived unscathed! After your haircut and shave the barber dons a miners head lamp and sets to ones ears with a long razor blade, probes and tweezers finishing up with a small ball of cotton wool being rotated in your ear. The resultant waxy produce is proudly left on the back of your hand so you know it was well worth it…

The Riverside -  There is a 1 or 2 kilometre section of riverside given over to the Tourist Boats that will take you out for an hour or a half hour cruise. There must be at least 50 of these boats with their accompanying staff all trying to win your custom. 

There are many tour groups who are ferried from bus to boat or from bus to cyclo to boat, all very orderly and great business for the tour operators. 

There is also a thriving fishing industry which is good to see.

 On weekend evenings young girls try to sell floating lanterns that you float away on the river for good luck- again the supply side is very strong with knots of girls and an older relative/minder close by. 

 All in all Hoi An is a gorgeous spot to rest and recuperate before the onslaught of another huge Vietnamese city begins. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ha Long Bay

After the frantic traffic and the deafening noise of Hanoi, Ha Long Bay was a breath of fresh air. We are not usually ones for luxury cruises or group tours but this was the only viable option to take in Vietnam’s number one attraction, so we bit the bullet and took the plunge.

The package deals include transfers to and from Hanoi in a vehicle and the first views of the bay from Ha Long City did make us wonder if this was a terrible mistake. I have never seen quite so many boats crowed together in such a small stretch of water and so many people doing the bus to boat or boat to bus swap. A dozen passengers literally jumped into our seats on the bus and drove off before we had even made it inside the terminal building.  But that was the only fleeting moment of regret I felt.

Within a few minutes our contingent of 8 new arrivals had been whisked through the portside chaos and onto a smaller boat to transfer us to our chosen vessel. Once on board the boat we were allocated cabins and served lunch as the captain steered us out into the bay and the number of other cruises boats visible immediately decreased. By evening we were anchored in some secluded bay with only a single other vessel in sight.

There was a range of activities organized to amuse and entertain but the lure was the bay itself and that was entertainment enough. The breathtaking limestone karst formations looming out of the mist and fog were captivating. The overcast conditions added a layer of mystery and a magical quality to the whole scene and over the next 2 days we never lost interest in simply enjoying the views. I was particularly enthralled by the faint outline of ever more "islands" disappearing into the horizon like some scene from a fantasy. The rain and storms we feared were going to spoil the whole experience gradually dissipated and it actually got warm enough to enjoy swimming in the tepid waters while not being too hot or sunny to paddle lazily about in a kayak without getting burnt, feeling that we had the entire environment to ourselves. 

Our only complaint would be the over pampering and over feeding! We now need to find some more rigorous exercise to compensate. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

SAPA: stores, sales, stalls, shoppers and sellers- a photo essay



“Buy something?”

“Just looking. OK!”

“Buy from me.”

“Maybe later?”

“Come in. Looking!”

“Little, little.”

“Very good.”

Friday, October 11, 2013


I took me a while to connect with Vietnam. I guess having come from Bhutan where we felt instantly at ease, well informed and engaged and totally in our comfort zone, it was a shock to be a tourist again. At first I didn’t even read the guide books or know what I wanted to do, but slowly that yearning to know, that excitement to discover and the sheer hive of bustling activity that is this city took over.

The old quarter is a maze of small lanes and narrow streets onto which goods tumble from the tiny shops. Each street more or less confined to a particular type of product- votive paper makers, shoes, coffee, traditional medicine, door furniture and hardware, clothing, sporting equipment, stamp carvers etc. They are all interspersed with a selection of street side cafes and tea stalls and serviced by a roaming band of mobile suppliers of food, plastic goods, fresh flowers, vegetables, cane products and more. The noise, the chaos of the traffic and the bedlam of frantic business transactions sits side by side with the quiet calm of those who spend their days sitting on low stools on the pavements and watching the world go by.

There are snapshots of lives lived in close proximity and as a part of a close knit community: a grandmother with blackened teeth squatting on a low stool in the open doorway, with a small grandchild on each knee and obviously blissful, an elderly wispy bearded refined looking gent in traditional white Chinese style clothes puttering slowly off into the traffic on his ancient motorcycle oblivious to the mayhem of the traffic, elegantly dressed young women wearing their Ao Dais and gracefully strolling along chatting and looks of concern and interest as 2 middle-aged men shout abuse at each other, one from the balcony above and one at street level wildly gesticulating. All 4 scenes we saw in the space of 10 minutes in the late afternoon yesterday and whilst none were captured in photographs all illustrate the daily throng of activity.

World-class museums have grabbed our attention and provided a great deal of food for thought as well as answering the myriad of questions that arise when one leaps feet first into a new culture. Frankly I was surprised at the trilingual labels and the accessibility of essential information. Ethnicity, fine arts, religious practice and history and patriots all offered up, displayed, explained and analyzed for the enquiring mind. There is a lot to digest and many misconceptions have been overturned. Uncle Ho features throughout as the father figure of the nation but I am unsure about how much is propaganda. The colonists get a caning. The warmongers, aggressors and oppressors rear their heads in public art and literature. But what stands out beyond the rhetoric is the indomitable spirit of the people. One cannot help but admire them.  They seem just as resolute today.

Colonial buildings abound but are increasingly giving way to a jumble of concrete modern structures.  Those remnants left seething with life in the crowded old quarter seem to be crumbing into dust, while those in the hands of government and military establishments stand as testaments of their grandeur. In the quiet avenues embassies and the well to do occupy mansions that recall an era now gone but never forgotten.

As we continue the journey I am intrigued to know how much remains of the spectacular rural scenery and ethic minorities’ lifestyles remain intact and if Hanoi, with its diversity, intensity and eclectic blends, is an enigma or truly representative of the nation. 

And as for the food well that deserves a whole blog to itself !

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Vietnam- I finally made it!

We arrived in Vietnam yesterday morning and I struggled to take it onboard initially. I am not a morning person and rising at 4am and screaming at break neck speed to the airport in Bangkok, did not start the day on a positive note for me. Snoozing on the plane and landing drowsy and confused added to the surreal feeling of being in another world. While we waited in anticipation for the airport pickup we had ordered for the first time ever, we managed to get cashed up and connected via Vinaphone. The person holding a sign with our names on it never eventuated but a driver with our request on his phone screen did, so off we headed into fog, haze, dust or smog- not sure which but visibility was low. The usual WOW factor reaction I always feel when arriving somewhere completely new never happened but as the scenery transformed from airport construction to open fields of ripening rice, corn and dense market garden style vegetable cultivation to absurdly chaotic CBD traffic I realized I had just landed somewhere I have wanted to visit for more than a decade!!

Check in at the hotel was painless and the room small but clean and well appointed. Once we hit the streets we quickly developed a strategy for survival as pedestrians and became accustomed to the plethora of motorbikes, scooters and cyclos playing dare devil with the cars. The old quarter of Hanoi is exciting to explore. This is a noisy, bustling, humming, buzzing hive of industry, commerce, entrepreneurship and social activity. Old meets new on the footpaths and in the alleys. 

Life is lived in the streets and half the vendors are mobile carrying their wares on bicycles, trays or about their bodies. 

Bamboo is being split and turned into beautiful functional items right next door to tiny stores selling the latest electronic devices and technology. Exquisite coffee aromas blend with the wafts of garlic, ginger, Chinese medicinal herbs and garbage. Hang on to your hats, watch your step and dive in!

We can already see a huge adventure has begun and can hardy wait for the next 29 days to unfold.