Ivan's travels experiences....Vietnam, Hanoi area
Thursday, September 11, 2003
I am in Vietnam, I think first impressions are always
The drive into the city was an experience. Bicycles have no lights, there appeared to be no road rules that anybody follows, everyone has the right of way, and so the FW D. wound in and out of the motorbikes and pedestrians walking on the side of the road with a liberal use of the horn all of the time. And almost looks like everybody in Hanoi has a motorbike and it looked like last night everybody was out on it, and they will all blowing the horn, whilst they were weaving through the traffic like someone drunk.
We stopped at a little local eatery, where I had some sort of noodle soup, and I, of course was the only foreigner there, dressed of course and my sports clothes and bowtie. As we are driving from the airport we went past the road which had a lot of restaurants and they had a speciality of dog on the menu's. Chong told me that they do love dogs as a pet, but they also love them as a main course on the table.
All shops were still open and doing a roaring trade and I had explained to me that whilst the government was a mixture of Military and the ruling party which was Communist, all of the shopkeepers were capitalists. When I work that out and how it works I will let you know.
A peaceful night's sleep thanks to a couple of sleeping pills, up early for breakfast on the sixth floor, yes the restaurant was there, and Chong collected me at 9 a.m. amongst heavy rain. Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh's tomb, which when I was told I would have to stand in the rain in a queue I said forget it. Chong had been brought up a good Communist so we still went there and as there was a very small queue I consented to go on the match up the stairs and past the body of the most sacred person in this country.
Nobody was allowed to take a camera through the mausoleum, so Chong took my D. 10 to meet me at the exit. I thought this will be interesting so I left my Pentax in my shirt pocket, we went through metal detector and they got my wallet they wanted to know what was on my belt which was the 10 D. battery and chip, did not look at the cord leading to my pocket, Pass, stage one! Stage two was into the mausoleum and a military person pointed to my pants pocket saying what is that, in his language, I pulled out my handkerchief so I was past stage two. At the stairs past guards every few meters into the mausoleum proper and there were a total of eight guards there, I considered pulling the camera out of my pocket and firing a flash shot, but I must admit I was a coward.
Then on through a series of other "must see's" and Chong did admit that this was the fastest tour he had done through all of those various stopping points. Some were interesting, those of Hall building devoted to Ho Chi Minh's life, his doings, where he lived, the bed he slept on and so forth were Ho hum. The minorities Museum was more interesting showing the photos of the minorities, how they lived, their clothing, and the weaving and basketmaking that they did.
Was then on to LaTonkin, and Asian up market restaurant, it looked like a doing a very good business, and I hope you're reading this Major!.
On the schedule was a three wheel bicycle ride through the old town with me sitting in a seat on the front and a driver peddling behind me. Told the guide I was not terribly interested and that I wanted to walk and take photographs, but that was not on the schedule. We got to the old town and it was a lot of expensive hotels and gardens which is what I was meant to the driven around by bicycle, and this was after passing through incredible shopping areas where all the local shopped so I just said "no way". As he is with me for another 6 days, he listened, so was to the shopping part of the old town, out of the car and we started walking. After about five minutes walking Chong said "you are taking a lot of photos". I said yes, did not think anything else was necessary to be said as he had finally got the point. Ended up doing about 120 photographs in the course of about a hour and a half, sometimes I had to take up to four photos to get one without a bicycle or motorbike in it, but I've downloaded them all, edited them, and ended up with 99 so I am very pleased with the results.
I had to rate the digital chip at 400 and I hope this is not detrimental, and only time will tell as to how the quality stands up. There was not sufficient light to get by at 200.
On my walk I went into an Internet cafe, any of you web designers out there that are reading this, have your designs checked out in Vietnam and see how long it takes for that wonderful page you are designed that takes 10 seconds load with the Jetstream type connection, you you'll probably find you will wait two hours in Vietnam.
Chong told me last night that Hanoi is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live, is because everybody owns their own plot of land, I'm not sure how this works with communism, there are no apartments as in Russia etc, so a small house appears to cost about 600,000 American dollars. How this can work with the economy is beyond me and apparently it is no better in Saigon.
At this walking through one only "must see sites" this morning, I was told that the American B 52 bombers had flattened this particular area and as had been rebuilt a few years ago. I saw a Coke machine in the corner and asked did they drop that as well?
When I see how much the West has arrived in Vietnam, observe the amount of money the Americans spent fighting the war in this country, I wonder why they didn't set up a bank which gave everyone $10,000 and won the war that way.
When I got back to the hotel I found I could connect my laptop to the internet thro this telephone system, so it is OK for Hanoi, who knows what it will be like from here on.
Had my touch of culture tonight, went out to the "water puppets" show, it is supposed to be a world-class event, but I've got to admit I slept through quite a lot of it, and I thought it was as exciting as watching grass grow. There is limit to what they can do with puppets, attached to a long pipe, working in water. There were mainly white faces there and they all seem to enjoy it, so it was probably me rather than the programme, after all I did sleep through the second half of Cats!
They dropped me back at the hotel, so I decided to go out to a restaurant that was close by. I course overlooked the fact that I had to cross the road and to cross the road you got to enter a non stop, continual stream of motorbikes and cars all driving had a steady pace. Another factor of course is that everybody comes out at night to drive around the town so you have double the amount of traffic at night that you have in the day, and a lot of the motorbikes have complete families on them, that is husband and wife and two small children. I've yet to see one like a I saw India with five people on the motorbike, but I guess it will happen.
I think I understand why lot of the Asian race are extremely slim. Last night I saw two men eating whatever flesh there was on Chicken's legs, I think you'll agree that is not much flattening material on those, tonight I ordered roast Rabbit, it arrived nicely chopped up into thin slices so that they could be handled with chopsticks however the amount of meat that was on it was almost zero and I would expect the local population would chew on the pieces and get whatever nourishment they could out in that manner.
My guide did confirm that yes chicken's legs are a delicacy and an Asian can chew on one all-night while consuming at least one bottle of rice wine, which I am told is extremely potent.
However this chicken (me) had to order a knife and fork and cut out little pieces of meat and pop them onto the bed with rice and consider that to be the meal.
Then of course there was getting back to the hotel. I struck lucky this time somebody had turned a bike sideways which stopped the traffic and I sneaked across that way, I think that was cheating, but if I got to, I will.
The most priceless traffic situation today has got to be this evening at ground 6 p.m. where the motorbikes and cars were flowing by the hotel at a steady 30 to 40, kilometers per hour, and taxi pulls up outside the hotel and decides he needs to be back the way he came by about 200 metres so he starts backing up into this solid flow of traffic and there are no more horns blowing than normal and people just swerved round him and he gets back to where he wants to go and there were no accidents, is almost like backing up onto a LA Freeway without the results that would cause.
We stopped at a handicap centre and large room full of people that were physically handicapped through deafness or foot problems, possibly other ailments, doing this fine embroidery of embroidered pictures and the making of women's dresses. It was a place that all the tour buses seem to stop at because there are quite a few was I was there, they stopped to have a bite to eat and of course to look through the very large building with all sorts of handicrafts available for sale.
I wish that the sales people in these foreign countries would come up with another opening line that is not "what country are you from"? But perhaps I am travelling too much when I started complaining about things like that. There was a one rather beautiful piece of embroidery of autumn scene that they were doing, but evidently it was the first time that they were doing it so they had no idea of what was going to cost and did not have one for sale in any case, but of all ones that I saw that was the only one that I considered worth parting money for, then there is the problem of course when you get home what are you going to do with it!
I just getting ready for a sleep on the second part of the journey when we arrived at the Harbour and I discovered that I had a crew of four at my disposal and a 15 seater boat for next four hours. As we pulled out of the Harbour it was a little bit like the driving I've been experiencing in Hanoi, the boat was against the jetty with about three boats lined up behind it, so that was a matter of putting it into gear and forcing its way out, one boat did have sufficient sense to get out of the way but I heard, on our boat, some wood parting way and observed some decorations on the side dropping into the water.
These had decent sized boats, heavy as anything, the just for the tourist industry and now am I being told here that none are over seven years old, but I would have sworn that the one we on was a good 20 years old. My guide tells me that is the seawater and the tropical air that makes them look so old but I've had my own theory.
The boat cruise was in and around the Harbour of Halong Bay, I was told several times it had a world Heritage site listing. To me it looked a little bit like the scenery one sees on the Li River round the Guilin area in China, of course instead of being on the sides of a River as a whole Harbour area, a large extensive area and we cruised for four hours without really covering the same area twice. We stopped for half hour and looked at a couple old caves with all the buildup one gets from dripping water and limestone mountains. And they had a history going back to some king in the 10th century and I will confirm that is true once I've spoken is to somebody that was there at the time.
After the visit the caves we had a seafood lunch with rice and French fries, I looked at the fish but did not feel like fighting with all the bones, so I made do with a simple lunch leaving most of the food for the guide.
I shot off a lot of exposures, again mainly of boats and round mountains and some of the activity on some of the boats, is good to be up to dial in 1600ASA in the dark area inside the caves and get a good exposure, I am beginning to like this digital business, of course have yet to do something with it, and if I don't, well, it not cost that much for the film or processing.
The boat cruise could be halved in the length and still being good as that was it was just a fraction too long, and am always one believing that you should be left wanting more than feel you had, had too much.
There was a young lady on the boat, whose job was to sell me alcohol or soft drinks, which she failed at, to sell me jewellery for my lady, which she failed at, but she sold me a bottle of water, and I noticed her finishing all my bottle of water just before the end of the trip, and charged the full price for the bottle. However was so very little money that was not worth the debate.
When she found out I was not married she asked me have I ever considered a Vietnamese wife, as she was as ugly as sin, I told her not today thank you, so she did not have a very profitable day.
When the boat docked I took off to the car at a good speed, I think I'm becoming quite a coward.
The hotel for the night, was an old grand type of establishment, large rooms high ceiling, if it was in India I refer to it has been built in the days of the Raj.
We got the marketplace and our vehicle was directed to an underground car park, even the driver was surprised. The car park was in the underground area of the marketplace multi storey building which contained clothing and other articles for sale, but as there was almost no light there I did not even consider as, instead I stayed outside in the meat, fish and vegetable marketplace. An interesting ranges of smells, a mixture of poultry, fish and raw meat. Not pleasant, but typical of Asia, incidentally you are visiting Asia, and you have a sensitive stomach, leave the visit to the marketplace until you've had your last meal and are about to depart.
I obtained a really good set of photographs and could have done a lot more had I been more brazen. Around 11.30 we set off back to the mainland and then on back to Hanoi. We stopped one restaurant for a meal, but they only had fish on the menu, and after the marketplace, I am afraid, that was not on my menu. This restaurant was interesting because the guide stopped their because it was clean and up to European standards unlike the other 12 restaurants we passed later.
I was to remember this reasoning several days later when we pulled into a grubby little restaurant for breakfast and wondered how this related to his earlier definition.
Is interesting to note what the women do around the world for the sake of beauty. In the West some women will spend an incredible length of time and money in the suntanning beds to get all over tan so there no straps or anything like that showing and they want to be a nice brown colour.
Of course if they are brown or black like Michael Jackson they will do all sorts of things to become white. Here in the East, with the yellow skin, some other ladies are going to extreme length to keep any exposed skin away from sunlight, so you see ladies on scooters wearing a total face mask, dark glasses, elbow length gloves, and trousers. My guide tells me that they will wear a maximum sun block underneath all of the about. Evidently high-class Asian ladies and city ladies have a pale skin, ordinary women have a darker skin, that evidently is the deciding factor.
I been looking at the Asian women trying to find these beautiful ones that I had heard so much about in this country, and found the ones that I had seen to date some of the ugliest Asians I had seen. I carried on my inspection for the benefit of my journal when I reached Hanoi, and found there were a few beautiful ones riding round on motorbikes, but nothing like what the stories in circulation.
However enough of that, then my guide dropped me off at a, what he called, the famous restaurant, it was for foreigners, I told them later it could be in any city in the world, however my comment was totally lost on him. After lunch we went to his office spoke to the person had organised my tour, and she organised my flight from Hanoi to Hue without any problems whatsoever, an extra night at the hotel, and the guide had been putting up all sorts of problems, telling me it was not possible and I have to go on the train, of course he is only 24 and needs a lot more experience.
From bottom left
Then it was on to leave the suitcases at the hotel, then wander around the city for the rest of the afternoon finishing up with a total today of 124 photos, after I had eliminated those that did not pass the test. I am learning that I will have to keep the ASA rating up in doubtful light and I am a little concerned with some of the contrast, but time will tell.
Was unable to log onto the Internet with my laptop, so went into an Internet cafe, cleared those that were spam, and read the four messages that were intended for me. A Pom called Mike Ryan that I met at Munich airport told me that his Web company is filtering out the spam with their accuracy of down to .01% failure rate. Must do something about this when I get home, ploughing through at least 60 spam mails a day is no fun.
Well, at nine o'clock my guide came to collect me and took me to the station to get on the overnight train to Sapa, the soft sleepers are cabins with four beds, myself and my guide took two, and a Korean couple took the other two, as I discovered when we arrived.
With the strange surroundings and things like that and a full day of tramping ahead of us I decided I wanted to be sure to get a good night's sleep so again I popped a couple of sleeping pills, I must make sure this does not become a habit. This resulted in a good night's sleep, except one part of the night where a couple in the next cabin had other activities beside sleep on their agenda, it did sound an interesting activity.
It's obvious that they are all well used tourists because most had something that they were trying to sell to all the tourists and it became a little bit of a nuisance as they could not take no for an answer, but I guess they have found it is one of the easiest ways of working and making money, and probably been paid three times as much as the product is worth.
I bought a small backpack and cap to carry my lens and overcoat, the backpack price started off at 75,000 and I purchased it for 30,000. This was the same product in two different shops because even I would have a conscience cutting the price down so much.
I had a field day with my camera with all the faces, doing about 100 photographs, so was a quick download onto the computer, change batteries, lunch, and back into the bus to go out for the trek.
We drove out on an extremely rough road which was to be four-wheel-drive country. We arrived at the drop off point to be greeted by about 20 young children or with bamboo walking rods they had made which they wanted to sell to this one tourist. It probably would have been handy to have had one of these but carrying a camera and a backpack was just too much.
So we started and walked in to the Black Hmonog minority village. This is an interesting walk over a swing Bridge and over marginal walking country, marginal because had it been raining it would be probably very rough going, later as I was getting close to the end of the three-hour trek, I thought I should be old enough to avoid things like this.
Going through these villages we were probably about 10 years late because now these people have discovered that tourists pestered long enough will part with their money so it has become very, very commercial with at every corner somebody has something that they try to sell you. In actual fact you see almost nothing of village life because they have discovered that this is a moneymaking venture.
There is fortunately, quite a few people working out in the fields and I got some very good photographs of that, the main problem is the small children following you for at least 15 minutes almost walking under your feet wanting you to buy something which spoiled it for me. Possibly for the people that come from a crowded city, the sheer fact of being outdoors in a country area may have an appeal all of its own, however I would like to think that sometime, they could come up with a system where you pay a fee to do the walk and you could have the opportunity of seeing normal village life with out the commercial aspect and they could still have a shop with the items for sale.
We went on to the "Day" minority village which was right next door to the Black Hmong, when I say right next door the houses were almost beside each other when you crossed over the invisible boundary, and these people evidently are very money orientated, they work their land and their property to maximise their return, their houses are substantially better, good enough to offer homes stays, where as the neighbours spend their money as soon as they get it on creature comforts and never have any spare money. It interesting how to minorities can live side by side for what must be centuries and be so different.
I must admit at the end of the three-hour trek I was glad to see the bus to take me back to the hotel. However a can of cold Coke and I was ready to again start taking some photographs of the minorities that were still wandering round the town trying to sell to all of the foreign tourists that were quite obvious, by the way they dressed and the colour of their skin.
However first I had to clean my boots and one boot had sunk ankle deep into the rice paddy with mud even on the inside, and the toothbrush supplied by the hotel served a useful purpose of this occasion.
The ability to change the ASA rating on the Canon 10 D which is simple and fast has proved a real bonus in the varying light conditions that I have experienced since being in this country.
Is interesting watching a tour bus arrive with individual tourists it is immediately surrounded by locals and minority people all trying to sell something or to organise something, cards and pieces of paper being waved in the air people being mobbed and then as they slowly moved off to their destination being followed by the minorities trying to be the first to sell their product.
Breakfast at the hotel I am staying at is at a different location which is part of the same establishment, I finally worked out what they were offering me and accepted that and when it arrived I looked at it, looked at the knife and fork, looked at the bun and wondered how many hands had handled that and I decided that a quick retreat was again the best choice. I went to the restaurant I been eating at which looks clean at least and did not have a dog wandering round inside.
If pass any group of young men with a motorbike they all want to offer you a motorbike ride somewhere for money of course, guess it beats working.
I seat and watched the passing traffic of tourists and locals for five hours today, I did try a walk down to the village that my guide said was accessible, but he was thinking of a mountain goat. There is a motorbike area I spoke of the earlier, the locals use them as a taxi service, that is when they have not conned a European into riding on the back at a Times factor of the locals. I noticed one of two or the Europeans hiring a bike by itself and travelling into the local traffic with their lady on the back and no crash helmets.
The local minorities selling pillow cases etc, soon learn if you are rude to them not to bother you. So was peace on that front, however the boys on motorbikes were not as easily pulled off and they just approach you and say "motorbike" expecting you to leap into the arms and know what all about, the knowledge of their English is limited to the word motorbike so I have no idea how you would tell them where you want to go. A couple adopted me during my five hours stint, one could speak reasonable English, reasonable by his standard, in fact he thought he spoke very good English, he could not understand why when he said "motorbike" to European, they just ignored them, he thought they had been very rude, hopefully that gave them peace, but found that I had to go on being rude to him to get peace from him.
Two of the motorbike guys got into fight in front of me and the loser got quite upset and lifted the seat of his motorbike, pulled out a flick knife and was all set to do business on the other guy and was restrained by some of the others. He approached me later and said "motorbike", he was not able to work out why I said no quickly.
2 .30 rolled round in my guide arrived on the scene, with the driver and we set off to the Red Dao Peoples village, my guide warned me that was quite a commercial village, in other words they would pester me like previously, so we arrived there did the walk through the village with one lady following us, and another joining us near the end, should one of their items the interesting and if it was cheap enough, I have added it to my overweight baggage, but her idea of cheap enough and mine were quite a distance apart.
So then we are the way were on our way back to Lao Cai, the rail station and the overnight train to Hanoi. We stopped at a restaurant that was a friend of the guides, and they were gracious enough to store our luggage for us, and many others, who I noticed all ate at the restaurant, so they had found a good business venture.
Wandering round the small market that was there a young boy offered to clean my muddy boots for 15,000 Dong, having had them cleaned for 5000 in Hanoi, I was one step ahead of him and told I would wait until I got to Hanoi, he immediately came down to 10,000 and when I held firm agreed on 5000. He went off buy the brown nugget that was necessary, and came back to me, said sitdown, and then he cleaned one boot, when he finished one he said what a good job he had done and then suggested I should pay him 5000 per boot, I suggested 5000 or nothing. He cleaned the other boot and I paid him 6000.
I then met up with a Swiss couple, touring through Vietnam and hoping to go on to Cambodia, they had four weeks to do all of this before they had to return to university and were hoping to be able to finish their itinerary. We had a good long chat, he was going to be a lawyer and she was into media studies, when I questioned her about her ideal job, she said she would like to be a foreign correspondent, however, she said, that is what all the media people want to be, so they are like photographers wanting to be travel photographers or like.
It was then time to board the train, and met with the two travelling companions on this occasion, they were two French ladies from Paris, one could speak English and the other couldn't. Eventually my sleeping pills took effect and next thing I knew it was 530 in the morning and we arrived in Hanoi.
Wandering back to my guide I told him it was not suitable and I need one soon, and sat down to see what the choice was the breakfast, I had two options rice noodles soup, or rice something, I saw it on somebody else's plate and it looked so tasteless, and the restaurant so doubtful on cleanness (and I've eaten right through China) I decided to pass. So I took my camera and wandering around doing a few photos, eventually my guide in driver were ready and we were on the way, I again emphasised requiring a European toilet, and we went on to the ancient capital city of Vietnam and a temple that was built in the 10th century AD in his honour.
As we are driving I made the comment that the Chinese had a much better variety of food than the Vietnamese, at that point he told me he hated the Chinese, but yes the Vietnamese food was much more bland
Arriving there we wandered through the temple which was a duplication, more or less, I what I've seen in Hanoi. At the temple again I asked about a European toilet, and my guide that would be there would be one here, I immediately thought you have got to be kidding, but No he was serious, so I go off in the direction pointed and found another Asian toilet, and at this point lost my cool, and I asked my guide what he was playing at, his immediate answer was he could not be expected to know where all the European toilet were throughout the country. My reply was, is he not supposed to be a guide? I then went on to ask does he act as a guide to Europeans or Asians, his reply was Europeans, so again I asked him what his agenda was.
At this point he really lost his cool and things became quite headed which was interesting, possibly why women make better guides than men, they don't have this masculine thing to protect, and have other ways of making the point other than arguing.
He finally agreed to stop and I ask in every restaurant that we came across and he would find a European toilet. We went on to the next location which was at Tam Toc where I was due to go for a three-hour boat ride along the river and through some more caves, which were not so really exciting, for me, being cramped up in a boat for three hours without being able to stretch my legs, that I need to do with my artificial knees. We pulled into a restaurant, he said you'll find a European toilet here, the first one that we had stopped at, it turned out this was where I was due to have lunch, and he was aware of it all the time, but was obviously following his own agenda.
I asked him why could we not have had breakfast here instead of the grubby little hole that we went to. He said the other one was on the itinerary and this one is too far out of the way, I said well we are here now we could have come here first and then gone to the temples, he however could not see the logic in that, I suspected the difference between the two restaurants was the price with the grubby one being substantially cheaper.
So after the toilet, way then went down to the boats, when I saw the boats, I thought three hours in one of these, not on your Nelly, he told me how wonderful caves were, and how safe the boat was, and I noticed one pulling away with some Asians in it, with the water quite close to the top, and I thought I do I want to do this? Not be able to come up with a reasonable answer I wandered back towards the car with my guide totally bewildered. I went around the town doing a few more photos and then decided to go back to Hanoi and told this to my guide, he told me it was 930 and I what have my lunch now? It was on the itinerary that we lunched at this particular location, he was not quite sure how to handle it at this stage. I said no will go back to town now.
I asked my guide what the difference was between the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese, he told me the South ones, till 1975 had been controlled by an American government, that was all ended in that year when the North and the South became one, I said so you have had 30 years of hard slog, he said yes. And I said now things and moving the way they would have done had it not been the war! He obviously did not want to agree that could say nothing other than yes.
Stopped the car for a few more photos on the way and close to Hanoi my guide and told me he would take me to a Vietnamese restaurant to taste the local food. I questioned him on the quality having been to the local restaurant this morning, and he assured me it was a high-class one, so yes we went up two flights of stairs and into a room full Asians, mine being the only white face, and they found me a table, and English menu, I ordered what I thought was reasonable, ordered a bottle of rice wine, when it arrived I look at it and it was rice vodka, but that was okay.
When my meal arrived the chicken was mainly bones, and again remembered the Vietnamese love chewing bones, so I picked the meat I could off that, ate my fried rice with some good dollops of warm vodka, remembering seeing it being drunk in Poland almost frozen, and thinking with this hot humid weather that is the way should be served.
I had to buy a bottle because they did not served by the glass, my guide said it would cost 13,000 Dong, but when I paid for it, they asked for 30,000, the difference between the Asian 13 and 30.
I would also comment on the fact that one should not confuse fluency in English with comprehension. I've made this mistake several times in the past and I am making the judgement that whilst my guide is fluent his comprehension of the meaning of the words requires more work. He often tries to guess what answer you are wanting and gives you an answer which does not make sense.
back to my original hotel, collected my suitcase that
was in storage, catch up on my writing, download my photographs
and all other bits and pieces to get mentally prepared
for the next portion of the journey.
LIKE to receive my travel journals as they are written just click