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Trip to Vietnam

April 2018

Making lanterns must be one of the largest industries in Vietnam - they are used everywhere! Indoors, outdoors, day and night.

We recently spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam with friends. We were all four of the same mindset - explore, observe, chat to the locals and sample the food. We hadn’t planned one drinking beer but we didn’t have much choice - it was half the price of sparkling water!

After two long flights from Cape Town via Dubai to Hanoi, we arrived at our first hotel around 3pm local time. We had arranged a tour package in order to see as much as possible without stumbling around and it seemed the best way to get the correct information about where we were and what we were looking at.

And, what was a bonus all the way, including two internal flights, we were meeted and greeted at each airport and then collected from our hotel and dropped off to catch our next flight a few days later.

What was quite surprising was that although the majority of the drivers couldn’t speak or understand a word of English -

they gave a running report on what we were seeing as we drove along - in Vietnamese. One driver pointed out important landmarks and told us jokes at which he laughed hilariously … we nodded and laughed with him even though we had no idea what the fuck he was saying!

These guys were always on time

(almost to the minute).

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum with ceremonial guard

The gardens surrounding are immaculate and manicured. Run by a uniformed team of gardeners.

Another first - we travelled light, carry-on luggage only! (although I had a about 15kg of camera stuff on my shoulder as well).

It was a psychological and physical adjustment for the two girls. Walking shoes only. Lipstick, yes. Jewellery, no. A sort of wash and wear affair at each hotel - in one or two we did have to resort to the hotel laundry though.

Luckily, on the way to Hanoi (our entry point), we had only a short two hour layover in Dubai - not enough time to do any real shopping, and believe me, the airport is just kilometres of glitzy retail. Duty free ‘se voet’, they get you “in the mode” and you shop. There’s hot plastic burning

in your wallet! You don’t even put your card in the card machine, just flick it at the screen, boom the money’s gone!

Later, homeward-bound, we had over six hours to kill. We walked those retail kilometres to death.

Handbags, beach bags, designer, designer, designer, perfumes, quick stop at Starbucks to get the heartbeat racing again … refreshed. Shop again. “Dates, we’re in date land, must buy dates, dried, coated, caramelised, dates”.

Of course we did. We did. We bought dates in all shapes and sizes and flavours.

Prices are marked in dirhams and US$ - quick, “how many Rands is that?” Doesn’t matter we need one. Does it fit? Tight? And just look at the colours, the design, the feel …

but, there are some very interesting gadget shops selling very interesting stuff at very good prices.

This is a different kettle of fish. Gadget World. USB, Blue Tooth, Wi-Fi. Don’t really need it but I WANT ONE OF THOSE THINGS!

I’m a bit ahead of myself, we have just arrived at out hotel in Hanoi it’s 3pm and the tour operator is coming to brief us a 5. So we went wandering. The hotel was on the edge of the old city - great!

That’s what we want to see for starters.

We walked out of the hotel and into the path of thousands of speeding motorcycles, in the road, on the pavement from all directions and then, bear in mind, they drive on the opposite side of the road, traffic-coming from opposite what we’re used to but in Vietnam that doesn’t matter. Any side, any direction, simply hoot to tell the vehicle in front of you that you are there and that you are probably going to pass them (or not) on the side from which the sound of your hooter comes.

Trying to cross road with this coming at you without break!

Around the corner, was our first obstacle, four lanes of traffic to cross. I was pre-warned.

“To cross a road you must be assertive, raise your hand, wave and walk! If, once you’ve made your move, you hesitate, you’re doomed”.

So, with Maureen clinging tightly to my arm we went. “I can’t do this” she shouted. I pulled her along “Don’t hesitate”.

We’re in the middle of the road, motorcycles and cars moving all around us, no eye contact,

they hoot and miss you by centimetres. The pattern never changes, from city to city every time we had to cross a road it was hold tight - walk! “I can’t do this”.

There are very few traffic lights or pedestrian crossings and those that are there are mostly ignored. We are engulfed by this mass of constantly turning wheels, revving motors and noise.

In a taxi. Driver had to turn left across on-coming traffic. So he did. It was a four-lane intersection, two lanes coming towards us, our driver drove and everyone else simply moved around us. And strangely, one doesn’t see any accidents or trashed cars.

I believe there is a population of 7.5 million people in Hanoi and there are 5.5 million motorcycles. The motorcycle is very much the main mode of transport. The husband driving, the wife on the seat behind with a kid sandwiched between them and another between the handlebars and the driver.

If you own a dog he’ll be quite used to riding on the machine too - in front or on the back.

On our short walkabout to scout the area, we found ourselves at a railway crossing. - either side of the line were old, run-down houses and shops - all between two and four storeys high, the gap through which the train ran was just wide enough for it to pass through.

Railway line through a narrow passage of shops and houses

The narrow gap though which a train passes twice a day

A craftsman carves an intricate pattern on a wooden door

People walked along the track, kids played, dogs licked their balls and chickens did what chickens do.

We turned left along the track, lined with front doors to homes and shopfronts.

Origami specialist, coffee shop, hardware, lanterns, you name it. A bustling thoroughfare!

And a railroad runs through it.

We walked into a small coffeeshop, no seating inside but we later discovered this was the norm for street cafes, very low plastic stools with small tables that would be expected in a pre-school classroom.

This was our first face-to-face with a real Vietnamese (other than checking in at the hotel). As one of our tour guides said later if you have round eyes your are assumed to be an America and many locals don’t like Americans so you’re either going to receive a hostile AK47 greeting or a ‘we like US dollars’ reception. We got the US dollars one…

And luckily our host spoke a bit of English, (albeit very little). Eventually we communicated that Maureen would have a ginger herb tea and I would like to try a Vietnamese cold coffee. We took our seats alongside the railway line on these small plastic stools. Our drinks soon arrived accompanied by two miniature custard donut type delicacies which seem to be a Vietnamese speciality, probably a throw back to the French colonial era. The tea was perfect.

The coffee was “different”… served in a small glass, it had a strange taste and there were

two teaspoons of condensed milk lying at the bottom I could get used to this! I normally take my coffee unsweetened and black.

Now about the railway line.

Apparently there is a south-bound train at around seven am and a north-bound one at 7.30pm. Ten minutes before train time, everything is brought inside, the tables and chairs and dogs and chickens and children. Windows and doors are closed.

We returned at 7.30pm to watch.

There’s a guy in a sort of uniform - mainly an official-looking cap, whose job it is to pull a steel gate across the road to stop the traffic flow, problem is the traffic won’t stop, motorcycles just keep coming!

He gradually reduces the width of the gap until no-one can fit through. Took him about ten minutes to block access.

Then this monster train comes along. It’s a sleep-over trip to destination so they are very wide carriages. There is an allowance of about a metre on either side between the train and the buildings. The train disappears in about two minutes and everything opens again - back to normal.

We were now on the wrong side of the road and here came our next challenge … to cross the road at night! With heart in mouth we took the plunge and made the crossing. This was becoming fun, a challenge, adrenaline-pumping stuff. “I can’t do this.”

One thing I couldn’t believe in the organised chaos, there is no road rage, no middle fingers.

There is much noise polluting hooting but no anger, simply a warning of your intentions to other road users.

If you're looking for something pre-used, this is the place.

This is the kitchen of the restaurant where we ate supper on out first night in Vietnam.

It was packed so we thought “way to go” but after some thought, I reckon it was used by a clientele that couldn't afford to et anywhere else ...

Our first supper was at a pavement restaurant which we wouldn’t have touched back home. “if the locals eat there it must be genuine local cuisine” pretend you can’t smell drains and rotting refuse. We shared a bowl of noodles, a bowl of rice, some boiled vegetables and a few thin slices of beef (or cat), we’ll never know. Utensils are wooden chopsticks, rinsed in a bucket of water with the dirty dishes and re-used - probably not too well washed either.

Once again small plastic chairs and tables, no English - at all - we ordered from a page of very bad photographs. The food arrived and it was delicious. we ate with gusto. But the menu photos where probably taken somewhere else. There was NO resemblance.

At the table next us was a family eating chicken and rice, they ate with their fingers and when a bone was clean, it was thrown to the ground and followed by a bunch of serviettes.

Maureen not could believe or accept this and in her best school teacher voice, made known her disgust. They looked at one another, not understanding a word she said and simply had a good laugh - I think they got the meaning though but didn’t give a stuff.

Seemed to be the norm at this type to eatery. It was part of the waiter’s job to clean-up after.

Each resturant has a motorcycle attendant in a blue shirt. He writes a chalked number on the saddle and gives you a ticket. The bikes are parked all over the place. When you return, he finds your bike for you as they are constantly being moved as patrons come and go.

What the boys have discovered so far - beer is cheaper than sparkling water (obviously depending on point of purchase). A can of 333 or Tiger can cost R8 in a street grocery store but the same can will be R30 in an upmarket (and believe me,'upmarket' is relative) eatery. This leaves us with not much choice.

We drank a lot of beer.

The next morning we were collected by a 20 seater tour bus built for small people, to see one of the tour highlights, Halong Bay.

The sheer rock face of the islands in Holang Bay. A passenger boat can be seem=n in the bottom of the gap between the two mountains

A range of tall island mountains, in a calm sea. Ha Long Bay is an area of around 1,553 km2 and includes about 2,000 limestone islands.

The core of the bay has an area of 334 km2 with a high density of 775 islands. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments. The islands are covered in dense tropical vegetation - very few are inhabited. Most rise vertically from the sea and some tower hundreds of metres above the water.

There are over 4000 tourists a day visiting this Wold Heritage site.

So it was us and another 3996 people …

It was a cramped, bouncy four hour bus ride from Hanoi.

Our busload of new best friends, were transferred onto a barge, handed life jackets and transported to a much larger boat - with twelve double cabins - which was going to be our base for the next 24 hours.

An overnight passenger boat at Holang Bay

Travelling between the towering islands, including a visit to a recently discovered cave with tree enormous chambers covered in stalactites and stalagmites all dramatically lit (reminded me of the Cango Caves but wetter).

A promised seafood extravaganza for dinner and the next day a cruise-about to more places of interest awaited.

Passenger barges fighting to get a spot to drop off passengers to walk up to the large cave.

There are about 200 tourist barges vying to get ashore at the caves’ landing place so it gets quite chaotic. Each cruiser tows a barge, and passengers are off-loaded from the boat to the barge to go ashore.

On our return to the boat, we were informed that there was a Monsoon approaching and it would be too dangerous to stay out overnight. The seafood dinner was served for lunch while cruising.

A couple slightly more expensive beers down the hatch and then we were loaded from the boat to the barge and back on the bus for the four hour drive back to Hanoi.

12 hours of traveling.

We were knackered when we got back but we had sights to see and supper to search for, it was ail part of the experience.

We walked and walked, tried a couple of restaurants but it was 9.30 and most of the eateries were closing! Eventually at about 10pm we found one and entered. Bad sign, the chef was untying his apron. We were starving. After begging and pleading they agreed to serve the four of us.

All this walking was thirsty work so a couple of beers disappeared while we waited for our food and a couple more while we ate. Maureen enjoys her daily glass of Sauvignon Blanc with dinner so I chose one from Argentina. The local wines are undrinkable - slight improvement in vinegar. Served in a large red wine glass filled about a third of the way, or two thirds empty by my standards. That was a R90 hit!

While we were eating about ten more people walked in and were accommodated - then the ‘closed’ sign went up on the door.

If you'd prefer to cook at home there's a wide variety of food available at the roadside, turtles, fresh meat (simply brush a few flies off)

Fresh turtle on the menu ...

Sitting on the pavement, in the heat, meat uncovered with a chopping black between her knees. The butcher. Choose your cut!

The main dishes in Vietnamese restaurants are pork, prawns, duck (often), rice, noodles a variety of steamed vegetables and thin soups. A lot of the time, we couldn't really tell what we were eating! The coffee is an acquired taste it is strong and has a sort of vanilla “nose” to it.

And then there’s beer, always served in a beer mug filled with ice! Very few places seem to keep drinks in a fridge.

No-one expects a tip but they are gratefully accepted. One or two waitrons even turn it down they can’t seem to understand why you want to pay extra.

Grilled Talapia

One evening we walked around a lake in the centre of town, surrounded by restaurants, entertainment venues and temples. It was about 6pm, still light, sitting on the pavement outside a large temple was an elderly man with four plastic basins, each basin contained turtles of different sizes (the turtle is a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, and is able to defend itself on its own.

Pay according to size.

It personifies water, the moon, the earth, time, immortality, and fertility. Creation is associated with the turtle and it is also believed that it bears the burden of the whole world.) It is considered lucky to buy a turtle and release it into the lake. But here’s the thing - as soon as the old man sells a turtle, he grabs his net and follows the purchaser to the water. The second the animal hits the water, he scoops it into his net and returns it to the basin - no point in expending energy searching for new turtles when he already has a captive stock!

We then discover that we are standing outside the local Water Puppet Theatre, a traditional form of Vietnamese puppetry that is on Maureen’s ‘to-do list’. The puppets are colourfully decorated and each is a specific character. Controlled by sticks from behind a curtain. The performance takes place over water - the entire stage is a pond and the puppets are constantly in and out of the water.

There is an ethnic orchestra consisting of about a dozen members plus a singer. The theatre itself must be an old colonial building - even the seats seem to be the originals, uncomfortably so …

Water Puppets in action - the entire show takes place over a pond on the stage

Water puppets during the intermission

The show started. I saw a dragon appear from behind the curtain! I fell asleep - as a did my friend. We woke up when the performance reached a crescendo as it concluded. The women loved it. I vaguely remembered the fire spitting dragon whose fire turned to smoke as he submerged. I believe the story follows a plot which, once you get the gist of it, is quite easy to follow.

The next day we were bussed up to an old sacred Temple site - once again in a ”small people’s bus”.

It’s a large, multi-acre site with about fourteen to fifteen temples on it. Problem is, the Americans bombed the shit out of it during the Vietnam war so we were looking at crumbled walls and piles of rubble and stone.

The lumps all around are bits of temples

There is an attempt at restoration but it’s pretty-much a weed covered landscape with old buildings on it, mostly built of brick, black with age, dating back to the 14th century. There are actually still bomb craters all over the place and some buildings are tilted at odd angles. Interesting human/monster/dragon sculptures and hieroglyphics carved in great detail into the black stone. It’s a very intriguing and quite spiritual setting the thought that people were using some of these buildings over 7 or 8 thousand years ago, is hard to accept.

And then you look around at the weeds and piles of old, black bricks and black brick walls and you think, “what the fuck am I doing here?” It took two hours on the little people’s bus and we’ve still got to go back to the hotel!

Before departing, we were entertained to some well-choreographed traditional dancing, obviously dramatised for tourists with bright red and blue lighting and accompanied by musicians playing traditional instruments accompanied by vocals.

Dining Al Fresco

As interesting as it was, it takes an Eastern ear to enjoy Eastern music … in my humble opinion anyway. The music is pretty-much squeaks and and scratches and the the vocalist comes on and he sounds like a cat whose tail got caught in a door …

We moved on to Hoi An. A one hour internal flight to Da Nang, the fourth largetst city in Vietnam and then an hour by taxi.

(In the back of my mind I find all these city names familiar and reminders of the the Vietnam War)

With a really happy chappie driver explaining all the sights, monuments and places of interest as we drive along. He was pointing and explaining and telling jokes that he found enormously funny so we all laughed but didn’t understand a fucking word! A good time was had by all.

We crossed a long bridge over the very, powerfully flowing and wide ‘Led Liver’ there was an old bombed bridge alongside. Even with all these battle scars it’s hard to believe that such savage encounters took place here.

The main attraction at Hoi An is the Old Town. Historical old buildings surprisingly untouched by bullets and bombs.

Hoi An is a river port that comes alive at night, restaurants and entertainment, crowds of people, exploring and eating.A main feature is the covered Japanese bridge which has a temple on it.

The old Japanese Bridge

And floodlit at night ...

A stationery shop in the Old Town.

Typical of the Vietnamese style, a facade not more than 4m wide. Each plot is about 30 to 40m from the road to the end of the back yard (if there is one) most are built from boundary to boundary. The houses are often increased by storey upon storey as the in-laws or parents get older, they move in and when the grandchildren arrive the parents move up too. Some house are four storeys high by 4 metres wide! The grandparents babysit and work around the house.

The first third of the ground floor is normally a retail store or food outlet/restaurant so the family can earn money in order to pay the government for the property.

It’s all very authentic and quaint, eateries encroach onto the pavement using small red plastic stools and tables - someone must’ve seen the gap and opened a red plastic stool company.

The chairs are everywhere!

Sometimes you see the family elder (male) sitting on his red stool and watching the passing flow of traffic and people - the granny works alongside the mother and the husband either plays cards with his buddies or sleeps in a hammock at the back of the shop. There is no pressure until a customer walks in and then they’ll go out of their way to make a sale - while the husband sleeps. In most shops except high-end designer, you can negotiate the price, starting at about 60% of the asking price, all part of the game.

Hoi An during the day is a place for boat rides and tourist shopping. Overpriced ...

Shopping and river rides

I bought some local rice wine which is quite potent (had a tasting), then bought a sealed bottle of rice wine into which had been put a large black scorpion and a 200mm-long cobra! This made it medicinal apparently but is pretty-much unpalatable.

At a market a couple of days later I saw the same thing at one of the kiosks, I asked the price (it was more than double what I’d paid at source) but when I told the guy I already had one and was simply curious about the cost, he physically chased me away shouting that I was wasting his time! “You waste my time you bruddy lubbish, you go way!”.

I must tell you that the more interesting parts, the older sections of Vietnamese cities are really unhygienic places. Rubbish piles up on the pavement, and is collected by a woman pushing a barrow.

Barrow lady collecting garbage. walks past rows of people eating on the pavement.

Kitchen staff dump the rubbish in the street - night and day.

The sidewalk is then hosed off at night. You constantly have to watch where your’e walking, there are shallow puddles and deep puddles all terribly unclean and the constant smell of blocked drains. After the first five days I took my walking shoes to the hotel laundry and asked them to put then in a washing machine and then dry them - they stank too much to have in the bedroom. For two days I walked around in slip slops!

My feet got first option for a scrubbing in the shower at the end of the day.

We did a few more guided tours some of the guides were pretty clued-up but English was a problem -especially in the north, Hanoi and Ho Lang Bay. As we moved south, the understanding and verbal ability improved and this led to a better understanding of the country’s situation.

In retrospect, we should have started our trip in the south and then moved north. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is pretty cosmopolitan - American food franchises, KFC, Starbucks and many dedicated designer brands.

The last tour guide we had in Saigon, Duc, was outstanding. We spent four absorbing hours travelling to Co Chi tunnels and back, listening spellbound as he unfolded the story of his country and the damage done by the Americans and then he backed it up with movie clips.

Tunnel entrance is covered bu=y a board and camouflaged with forest carpet

This trip was in an electronically-enabled, big people’s bus (even had WI-FI) but he wouldn’t release the code because he wanted everyone to pay attention to his story. We arrived at the tunnel site and were shown around. What an undertaking 150km of tunnels. We managed a few metres on hands and knees. Hands and knees stuff …

I waited for last so that there was no-one in front of or behind me, took an escape route after about 20 metres and then had a claustrophobic panic attack!

When we arrived back in Ho Chi Minh City, Duc insisted that the bus drop us, not back at our hotel, but at the Vietnam War Remnants Museum. This building is surrounded on the outside by American armaments, tanks, Huey helicopters with gun ports and fighter jets.

Once you've crawled into the hole, there is the tunnel - may be up to one metre high ...

The three-storey interior is filled photographs and tragic stories of atrocities and heroism of a war that shouldn’t have happened.

Right, now we move too the language. Looks easy, all Roman letters, some have dots and commas attached so we can assume that they have a different sound but not so easy, everything has a different sound.

Tôi muốn một đôi giày (I would like a pair of shoes), it’s not pronounced the way it looks in English by a long shot. So, when you read a map or look ask for

Typical temple pergola. One is expected to remove shoes on entering.

a street name it’s not what you think - ask a local a question in English, as you read it, they have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about - bloody foreigners.

And a word spelt one way can have 5 or 6 different meanings depending on intonation. Confusion.

There are about 75 ethnic groups in the country, each with it’s own dialect or variation.

The Official language is Vietnamese and that’s it! English is now being introduced at school.

Everywhere one sees the Communist and Vietnamese flags flying side-by-side.

In Saigon we had a fabulous meal one evening at a sort of pop-up street market. We ordered a kilo of prawns which are fished out of a tank and thrown on a fire. And we b=drank a couple of beers while they were cooking and then some more while we were eating.

About 8 enormous prawns for each of us. With a bowl of rice.

Prawns on the fire with some snails and in the background a couple of langoustine.

Two young ladies arrived at our table with the prawns and proceeded to peel them for us.

Pop-up Kitchen at the street market - 5 chefs!

On our last day, we took a cab to the Saigon History Museum. Old sculptures, armaments, carvings, old fabrics and so forth. Spent a couple of interesting hours browsing.

Then we went next door to what was once the world renowned Saigon zoo …

The temperature was close to 40ºC.

At the entrance was a sign reading “under 1.3m half price” so I went to he ticket office on my knees. “You too owh - mean chi’un, no you”.

And so the four of us dragged ourselves around what is now a sadly dilapidated, half empty, scrappy display of caged animals. Moth-eaten lions in a glass enclosure, lying on a concrete floor, a tall, skinny giraffe, Indian elephants with dark tears on the their faces standing rocking back and forth. A reptile enclosure with most of the reptiles missing and the glass so dirty you couldn’t see through it anyway.

We exited the zoo.

Not only was it hot, it was humid. We walked. We walked. We walked until we got to a wide promenade following the river. Dying of thirst, we were dehydrating - fast. Not a kiosk in sight!

And then we saw it. Food stand (or was it a mirage) about a 1000 metres away. We made it! It was a bakery, they only sold bread and cake, no drinks.

20 minutes later we found a pub. 4 beers and 2 sparkling waters later (about ten minutes), we headed out once more, intrepid explorers in the heat and humidity of the concrete jungle.

Roads to the left of us, highways to the right. We had a small map and eventually identified our position. We’d walked 12kms since getting out of the cab at the museum. Only about 4 kms back to our hotel. We found a pavement cafe and ordered a cheese roll each. And four beers and two sparkling waters.

We’d booked a room at the hotel for the afternoon so that we could have a shower and change before heading for the airport - thanks goodness for foresight!

The airport shuttle driver was unusual in that, besides the fact he never spoke, he never moved into third gear either. We had a frustratingly slow ride to the airport. When we’d reached our destination, “We hea”. He got us there exactly on time as arranged - in time to check in and have a couple of beers … and then on to Dubai for a 6 hour lay-over and five hour shopping spree!

We had a date!

And a tall black at Starbucks. The very thought of another beer …

Back in Cape Town we all agreed that we’d had a really great ten days and the long flight had been worth it.

Bye bye Buddah (for a while anyway).

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