Saturday, 29 December 2012

Christmas in Saigon and the Angkor temples

It's been a mixed week for me. On Monday evening my mum, dad and sister arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to spend Christmas with me. I hadn't seen them for three and a half months so I was very glad to be back with them again. Earlier the same day, seven of Jessica's former classmates arrived for a reunion  holiday. Some of them hadn't seen each other for thirty years and they are all clearly loving the time they are spending together, which is really nice to see. Although most of the seven Taiwanese women can't speak English, we have been hearing from Jessica about their experiences at school. The women attended a highly competitive boarding school for girls from poor families. The entrance examination was exceedingly tough, but for those who got a place, all costs would be covered and the students would receive an allowance that they could use to support their families. Nonetheless, the school was incredibly rigid and authoritarian; Jessica and her friends, who were all training to be elementary school teachers, remember how difficult their time there was.

Over the course of the holiday the two parties have followed slightly different agendas. In typical Taiwanese style, Jessica and her classmates have been following a very busy schedule from the day they arrived; my family prefer to spend more time doing nothing while on holiday so we have been loosely following their itinerary with some days off to walk around the local area and relax in cafes. My family's first day here was spent as such, getting used to the climate and recovering from jetlag with strong Vietnamese coffee. The following day, Christmas Eve, we went out for a tour of the city. In the evening Jessica had a special treat in store. Christmas Eve is something of a celebration in Vietnam (or at least in Ho Chi Minh City), whereas Christmas Day is not. To avoid the busy traffic on the roads, we travelled by speed boat down the Saigon river to The Deck, the favoured restaurant of the District 2 expat community due to its stylish design and beautiful setting on the river. Jessica equipped us all with unique Santa hats, which we wore throughout the meal and for the rest of the evening.

With my family at our local cafe

At the Central Post Office, doing the sightseeing tour of Saigon

Lunch at Temple Club

My mum, sister and I onboard the boat

Me and Chris

Entering the city by the river

With everybody, at the Deck restaurant

After our Christmas Dinner we took the boat back to the city centre and walked along the high street to the cathedral, where Midnight Mass would be taking place. It was very busy on the streets; the atmosphere was a bit like that of Bonfire Night in Britain. A sorry sight was the emergence of lots of homeless and handicapped people begging from the crowds- a reminder of all the poverty in this city. Many vendors were selling cans of spray snow, which could have been soap or shaving foam. Jessica bought twelve cans for our group, which were fun but, as we soon discovered, probably made us more of a target for others carrying the same stuff (as did the Santa hats, no doubt). In the square in front of the cathedral we saw a bit of ugliness as groups of boys ganged up on passer- bys and plastered them with pretend snow, so we hid our cans and hurried into the cathedral. The service was surprisingly short and comprised readings from the bishop and a rendition of ' We wish you a Merry Christmas' in Vietnamese along with hand clapping.

Christmas socks
Christmas Day was more laid back. While the Taiwanese group went to the seaside town of Vung Tau to climb some hills and look at some statues of Jesus, my family and I stayed home to share Christmas presents. In the evening we all got dressed up and ate out together at  Camargue restaurant. We did a Secret Santa over dinner and shared gifts with each other. 'We' (as in my family, Chris and I), were shown up by the Taiwanese group, whose gifts included jade jewellery, beautiful ornaments and silk tablecloths. Our contributions were three tins of biscuits, a lantern and a phone case. I think there must have been some confusion about the price limit.

On Boxing Day we went out as a group on a Sinh Cafe day trip to the Mekong Delta. The tour included plenty of obligitary stops for shopping opportunities, but aside from this it was a nice day and I think everybody enjoyed themselves. The plan for after Wednesday was for everybody to fly to Siem Reap to spend four days looking around the Angkor temples. Sadly, for family reasons my mum had to make the decision to fly home early, so I had to say goodbye to her on Thursday morning as the rest of us headed to the airport. Chris, Grace, my dad and I were lucky enough to be upgraded to business class, which gave us a wider seat and an extra orange juice on our one- hour flight. We arrived at our lovely boutique hotel and in the evening went out to catch the sunset over the temples. It was so crowded that we struggled to take any photographs without other people's heads and elbows in the way. It was a beautiful sight, but I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to see any of the ancient sites without beating our way through the crowds. I needn't have worried- although the main temple of Angkor Wat was fairly packed, we didn't have to go far to escape the tourist trail. As a case in point, at one of the smaller temples we visited today, we overheard an exasperated American woman saying angrily "I only want to go to the main one and then go back. I don't want to be here!"'. World heritage sights are wasted on some people, I think.

On our first full day of sightseeing it was a 5am start to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We arrived in darkness, stumbling over rocks, and waited with a surprisingly large crowd of visitors for the sun to appear not-quite behind the great temple (unusually, Angkor Wat is built to face the West). It was all a bit of an anti-climax in the end as it was too cloudy for any impressive photographs. Still, the early start allowed for more sightseeing during the day. It's surprising how little can be seen in one day when you discount the midday hours (which should be spent out of the sun) and time spent travelling to and from the hotel. On the first day some of us hired bicycles, and in all probably cycled 25km going to and from the temples. Yesterday we saw Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and today looked around some smaller temples in the larger region, much of which had been reclaimed by nature with huge trees growing out of the rocks. There were restoration works going on in parts- we discussed whether the temples should be forever conserved in their original form or whether they should be allowed to return to nature, giving an impression of how the ruins looked when they were discovered in the Cambodian jungle. It is hard to say decisively; perhaps it should depend on the site in question.


...and the following sunrise

The moat surrounding Angkor Wat

This evening we visited the Kantah Bopha children's hospital in the town, established by Dr Beat Richner, a Swiss doctor who moved to Cambodia to help the country's children. The five hospitals he developed have been a huge success story- all treatment is free and the hospitals use sophisticated modern technologies, maintaining a low mortality rate. Of this hospital's $40 million annual budget, 90% comes from private donations, and 10% from the Swiss government. Dr Richner himself performs two cello recitals a week to fundraise for his hospital and gives impassioned speeches, including some brave political statements about corruption in Cambodian ministries and the indifference of the international community. It was very moving and interesting. I will write about this in more detail when I have the time.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Delightful Dalat

A nice end to our two-week tour of Vietnam with two days spent in Dalat. On Tuesday Chris and I hired a pair of run-down old mountain bikes for the day to see some of the sites on the outskirts of the town. In the morning we walked around the Dalat Flower Garden in the sunshine, although a group of girls were wearing thick winter coats (as was everybody in Dalat during our stay). After lunch we headed to Dalat's train station, which unfortunately has no links to the North-South line linking Saigon to Hanoi, and serves only to take tourists on a short sightseeing line to a neighbouring village and back about five times a day. Chris and I did exactly this- taking the train to Trai Mat, from where it was a short walk to an interesting pagoda embellished with roaring dragons and decorated all over with broken tiles. 

At Dalat Flower Garden

Riding the old train line

The tiled pagoda at Trai Mat

Bao Dai's Summer Palace
Later in the day we went to see the summer palace of Bao Dai, Vietnam's last emperor, who abdicated in 1945. We had difficulty finding the place as it was not marked on the map in our guidebook, and the label of 'Palace' on our hotel's tourist map took us to Dalat Palace, evidently one of the grandest hotels in the town. It took some exploring around backstreet neighbourhoods, directions from local people and braving some impossibly steep hills to eventually find the palace, just in the last hour of daylight. Surprisingly, the palace, built in 1933, was a small and slightly grubby art deco building that we actually confused with the toilet block when we first approached it. Inside it was very modest, perhaps because all of the silverware and crockery were stored separately.  But the original furnishings remained, making walking through the rooms feel like stepping back in time. The surroundings were very nice, set in pine forest and with attractive gardens. We returned the bikes just as it got dark and rewarded ourselves for the hard day's work going up and down Dalat's hills with large slices of cake from a lovely bakery.

Yesterday was an even better day. We had arranged a tour with the Easy Riders, the infamous motorbike group of Central Vietnam. We rarely walked down a street or stopped at a bench in Dalat without being approached by a member of the club, or an imitation one, offering us tours and sightseeing, but we already knew that this was something we wanted to do. Our two guides for the day were really fun and friendly guys who had good knowledge of everything they showed us and were able to answer all of our questions. Our day began with a cable car journey over a pine forest up to see a pagoda and the Paradise Lake. From there we travelled by motorbike, admiring beautiful views of forest and countryside and taking in numerous stops, including the largest waterfall in the area, Elephant Waterfalls.

We saw a number of cottage industries and were able to enter Vietnamese people's homes to see how they made their living. These included making rice paper, brewing rice wine, cultivating silk worms, growing coffee trees and even the production of Ca Phe Chon, or 'weasel coffee'. A special Vietnamese delicacy is coffee that has passed through the body of a weasel. The acid in the weasel's stomach improves the quality of the coffee, we were told. This technique was first discovered by the French, who introduced many new crops to the fertile soils around Dalat, including coffee. They found that weasels would eat the best coffee beans and excrete them nearby. Somehow or another, they were to discover that this made for improved-tasting coffee after roasting. We saw a room of caged weasels used to create Ca Phe Chon at the back of a house that also brewed rice wine and raised chickens. It was interesting to see how households often relied on multiple incomes in this way; the people who made rice paper also collected scrap materials to sell in Saigon and the coffee farmers used waste coffee shells to create organic fertilisers and also kept bees to create honey from the pollen of the flowers of the coffee tree, ensuring a reliable income outside harvest season. Many buildings we drove past were drying coffee shells in their front yards, gardens or roadsides- this even included petrol stations and pagodas- any spot with sunshine was claimed.

Another interesting part of the tour was visiting a village in the countryside that has been supported by the government since 1975 when people from the highlands were forced into the lowlands and taught how to produce a variety of new crops. Here, the society is matriarchal ("Like us", I said of me and Christopher). We were told that if a man wants to go away travelling he must ask permission from his wife first. If she agrees, she will stamp her foot-mark on a piece of paper, to be carried around by her husband during his travels. If he returns later than agreed then... bad news. Our guide told us to look out for old men around the area walking with a limp.

We learned a lot during the day and really loved travelling by motorbike through such beautiful scenery. At the end of the day we were both sunburnt and I had one bruised knee and one burnt ankle from a hot exhaust pipe, but we were both very happy. Today it was a tedious nine-hour us journey back to Saigon, but it's good to be home. In only two days we will be welcoming my family and Jessica's friends over for Christmas.

At the cable car station

Dalat flowers

The Easy Riders at Paradise Lake

At Elephant Waterfalls

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Danang, Hoi An and Dalat

Chris and I had a lovely few days in Danang. As an early Christmas present my parents bought us two nights in a beautiful beachside resort. I kept it a secret from Chris throughout our trip; it was only when our taxi pulled up in the grand hotel entrance that he said "Wow. Are you sure you only paid $25 dollars for this?" We had a wonderful stay and when we had to leave I felt heartbroken (I tried to be mature and resisted the urge to cry).

On the beach in Danang

During our stay we made us of the hotel's shuttle bus to the beautiful neighbouring town of Hoi An, an ancient fishing town that has grown up along the banks of a river and specialises in silk production. For this reason it is now a popular shopping destination for foreign tourists, who enjoy its pretty streets, old houses and beautiful silk products. Trees and bridges along the river are strung with silk lanterns; it's simply delightful. Here, Chris had a suit and a pair of Cuban heeled boots tailor made, and I had a Chinese-style dress made for myself.

Over the river in Hoi An

Traditional Hoi An silk lanterns

Chris in front of the Japanese Bridge
We travelled from Hoi An to Dalat by overnight bus last night. This was a new and strange experience for both of us. The seats in this bus are reclined into beds and are surprisingly comfortable. The bus holds three rows of such beds over two floors. Chris and I were assigned two of the five beds at the back, which are in a row without spaces inbetween. We were very, very grateful that there wasn't anybody in the middle! I was packed into a corner with the bags and couldn't get comfortable. I was sure I hadn't slept a wink until I saw the sunrise and realised I must have been sleeping (Chris later confirmed that I had been snoring). In all it was a pretty good way to travel besides the bumps in the road that sent us flying.

Our bus arrived in the seaside town of Nha Trang in the early morning. We had breakfast at a diving club cafe before boarding a small minibus packed with passengers, luggage and bikes for the four-hour journey to Dalat. The bus was hot and the driver erratic, but the mountain scenery was lovely.

Dalat is the major town of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It was popular with the French during the colonial era and remains a favoured holiday retreat of Vietnamese, especially artists. It has a cooler climate than the lowlands which favours the cultivation of strawberries, avacados and other fruit and vegetables not available in the rest of the country. Dalat is also surrounded by pine forest.
Today we went for a casual walk around the lake in the town and then visited the Crazy House, a whacky hotel designed like a large tree, with unique rooms featuring tiger sculptures and mirrors over the beds, all interlinked by a network of ladders and bridges. It was dark by the time we turned up to look around and the place felt spooky, but I was charmed by the quaint rooms that were like Alice in Wonderland rabbit burrows (complete with miniature tables laid with tea sets).

The view over the lake to the 'Eiffel Tower' radio mast

Our walk around the lake

Crossing a little bridge at the Crazy House
We are happy to have some time to take it easy here in Dalat. We plan to spend another day seeing the town and on Wednesday, will take a tour of the surrounding countryside with the famous Dalat Easy Riders motorbike tour group. We return to Saigon on Thursday.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

A few days Up North

Hoan Kiem lake in the evening
Our first day in Hanoi was quiet as we were both feeling tired from traveling. We were staying in a great little guesthouse in the Old Quarter called Madame Moon; the rooms were clean, spacious, stylish and only $25 a night. In the morning we could go to their sister hotel a few doors down for a generous breakfast on the seventh floor dining room with a view over Hoan Kiem lake. There was also a useful travel agents in the hotel. After resting up a while I took Chris around the beautiful Old Quarter and for a walk around the lake. In the evening we saw a waterpuppets performance, which Chris described quite fairly as 'boring, but a cultural experience'.

The following day we joined a tour to visit the Perfume Pagoda, a temple within a vast cave in the Huong Tich Mountain around 60km southwest of Hanoi. We were picked up by bus in the early morning for the two-hour drive, during which time it became cold and grey and rain started spitting down. Luckily the rain held off for the boat journey to the foot of the mountain, which took an hour. After arriving, we had lunch and visited a small temple. Our guide explained that a major Buddhist festival is held across the various temples in this mountain every year, so between January and March four to five million people will pass through.

A cable car system set up by a local restaurant owner can take visitors to the top of the hill, but Chris and I decided to brave the slippery steps and walk up. It was a gentle snaking route lined on either side by stalls selling tourist tat, although most of these were empty and unoccupied as it is low season. Some offered caged squirrels caught on the mountain for visitors to pay to be set free.
At the top we descended a set of steps to enter the huge cave, which was strung with Buddhist flags and glowed serenely with candlelight. From deep within its belly came the eerie chanting of praying monks. The echo from the rocks gave the impression of a hundred voices, but when we climbed down into the cave we saw there were just three monks praying in the darkness before an elaborate glowing shrine. It was very beautiful and spooky.

We came down by cable car to begin the long journey back to Hanoi by boat and bus. It was a long day of traveling for a very short amount of time spent at the temple, but with the boat ride, walk and cable car trip it was a fun and interesting day out.

At the entrance to the Perfume Pagoda
Paying my respects (while looking stylish) at the altar inside
Taking the cable car back down
On Wednesday we headed out even earlier. We were going to see Halong Bay, the beautiful landscape of karst cliffs protruding from the sea that is counted as one of the wonders of the world. I didn't want to join a tour from Hanoi as they are very expensive and I worried that the only sort within our budget would be shoddy. Instead, we travelled to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay, from where I hoped we could take a trip for a lesser cost and hopefully escape the tourist rat-pack. This meant getting up at 5am to catch a 6am train to Haiphong, and then taking a boat to the island.

When we arrived at Hanoi main station it seemed that the only seats available were the hard wooden benches in the rock-bottom class. Inside the carriage it was deathly cold as the morning air whipped through the gaps around the windows, and the wooden seats were unforgiving on the bottom. It was an uncomfortable two hours!

Throughout the journey we noticed an old woman sat across from us looking over and smiling. She began talking to us and commented that we looked like a lovely couple and reminded us of her youth and being in love. She told us that she loves England and dreams of going there; sometimes she goes on Google Maps and looks at pictures of Buckingham Palace and Big Ben, she said. Then we got talking about South Vietnam. She had grown up there and was in Saigon in 1975. She told me in whispers that her daughter was imprisoned for three years for dissident activity, and was under house arrest for another three. People are still afraid to talk about such things in Vietnam, she told me. She was a really interesting woman, and reminded me of the things that the older generation of Vietnamese have lived through and keep buried behind smiling faces.

We gave our friend a ride in our taxi to the town centre, before continuing to the port, from where we took a hydrofoil to the island. Most of Cat Ba is covered in jungle, and we saw this from the bus that took us round the coastline from the port to the town, where there is a strip of hotel blocks. Chris had been feeling unwell and by this time was very tired and ill, so I put him to bed after checking into our hotel and went out to find painkillers and bananas.

We had a very limited amount of time to see Halong Bay but I didn't want to rush Chris so we took our time. As we were too late for the mainstream tours which departed at 8am, one of the hotel workers offered us the use of one of his family's boats for the day for a cost of around £50. We set off at about 2pm so we didn't have time to go far before it went dark, but I still think we got a good deal. We had a large motor boat to ourselves and could recline on the top deck on a cushion and admire the beautiful scenery.

We went around Lan Ha Bay, a small part of Halong Bay that has the same geological features but is less frequented by tourists. We took a kayak to explore a beautiful cove with striking red corals and eagles soaring overhead. We also stopped off at Monkey Island, where we climbed to the top of a rocky peak for views over the bay. We heard some monkeys but didn't see any; the real monkey-man was Chris, who climbed to the highest rock and straddled a steep ledge to take photos of himself- I was very nervous!
Relaxing on the boat

The beach on Monkey Island

The view from the top

We got back just in time before it went dark. On the way back to the dock we passed through a floating village where fish are farmed. Each farm had a little house where the family would sleep, and usually a dog to protect the property. I contemplated what an unusual life it must be for somebody who had grown up on a floating home, living a poor life farming fish beneath one of the world's most stunning natural sights.

In the evening we were invited by one of the hotel staff to eat fresh seafood at a floating restaurant in the bay. We walked right in to a tourist trap- the restaurant was soulless and the seafood was overpriced. We ordered from an opening in the floor where captured fish and crabs flapped about in the sea below. I was sure to be conservative and we ordered one small crab each, costing 400,000 dong (about £12). I only had limited knowledge of how to eat crab and Chris had no idea, so we struggled through. But the green mush of its internal organs or God knows what else was more than a bit off-putting. We didn't hang around long and asked to be taken back to shore. Next, the boat driver tried to rip us off for the 40 metre boat ride- I was not happy! We went to a cafe for a second tea and picked up some chocolate brownies from the town bakery to eat back at the room.

The following day was rainy so we didn't have much to do. We spent the day traveling back to Hanoi by boat and bus; in the evening we took the overnight train to Danang, where we are tonight.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Imperial Hue

We had a lovely first day of our trip in Hue yesterday. Hue is a town in Central Vietnam that served as the imperial capital from 1802 to 1945. On the banks of the Perfume River is a large citadel, within which is the imperial enclosure, encased within a 6 metre-high wall. It was here that emperors of the Nguyen dynasty would reside and host visitors. Most of this area was destroyed over the course of two wars but reconstruction and restoration efforts are ongoing. Chris and I hired bicycles to cycle around the citadel, but went round the imperial enclosure on foot. It was delightful to explore the ruins with few other tourists around; the crumbling remnants of another era were intriguing and very beautiful.

At lunchtime we headed out of the citadel and ate streetfood at a hole-in-the-wall cafe with a welcoming owner. We ate bun bo- a delicate Hue speciality of noodle soup with meat, infused with lemongrass, and minced meat kebabs served with rice paper, green leaves and hot chilli jam to make tasty pancake rolls, and caramelised fish served bubbling in a clay pot. Chris thought he'd died and gone to heaven.
Delicious Hue street food
In the afternoon we followed the trail of the Nguyen emperors from their living quarters to final resting places. Emperors would plan their own tombs during their lifetimes and would often use them as relaxing retreats while they were still alive. There are several tombs to be visited along the road out of Hue but we went to the closest, and supposedly most impressive- that of Tu Duc, the notorious emperor with 104 wives. It is also said to be his fussy eating that gave birth to Hue's wonderful cuisine. His tomb is set in a wooded garden, in the centre of which is a small lake for boating with a man-made island in the middle that attracts rare birds and animals. We were again lucky to find few other visitors at this site, and at dusk it was lovely to walk around the peaceful lake, the temples (one of which was dedicated to Tu Duc's 'minor wives') and the woods.
It was really a whistle-stop tour of Hue but I'm sure we made the best of our day by seeing some beautiful sites and eating delicious Hue streetfood. We spent last night on the overnight train and will soon be arriving in Hanoi.

At Tu Duc's tomb