Sunday, December 31, 2006

Day 15 - Laos at Last

For more pics, click the links below.

Well, we had 12 days in Vietnam and I think that was enough. It was interesting but the full-on hassle was starting to wear us down by the end. Originally we had planned to do this trip clockwise going from Laos to Vietnam. I think that would have killed us actually. Going the other way was just perfect. Laos is a refuge after Vietnam.

We didn't do much on our last morning in Vietnam. We'd forgotten it was a Sunday and some of the stuff we would have done was closed anyway. We sat by the lake and Sheena enjoyed a coffee and then headed to the airport in a taxi.

The flight was uneventful. It was Lao Airlines and so we exchanged Vietnam Airways' horrific pate for some strange green goo. Ah well, at least it was edible. The flight into the town was quite spectacular. You fly right down the main street quite low.

We landed on what looked like a cloudy day. It was early evening. By the time we made it out of the airport it was dark. It took immigration quite a while to process everyone's visas. A sign at the counter informed us that we had to pay an extra couple of dollars because they were working at the weekend. Poor dears.

A guy was waiting to take us to our hotel. This was pretty close to the airport and was off the main road set alongside the river in some great tropical gardens. These were lit when we arrived and we were welcomed by a couple of friendly dogs and the Australian wife of the ex-pat who own the Nam Khan Villas.

She showed us our room. It looked very rustic and we changed and headed to the restaurant for something to eat. She'd encouraged us to have a bite to eat there before we headed into town. It was New Year's Eve and we were anxious to see if we could find somewhere to catch the vibe.

Our first impression of the menu was that it was a bit limited. This became acute when we discovered that of the buffalo steak, chicken and fish available they were out of both buffalo and chicken. Suddenly, fish seemed a capital idea. We had fish... er two fish.

It was obvious that the staff were learning the ropes. While the manageress taught the cook to cook, we chatted to Joy, our waiter. He wasn't local. He was from Udomxai north of Luang Prabang. He was here for university and he was amazed at how developed it was. This only left us to imagine how undeveloped Udomxai must be. Luang Prabang is little more than a large village. We described Seoul and, thankfully, he wasn't able to imagine it at all. Seoul has nearly twice as many people in it as the whole of Laos put together. Hmmm...

We'd already exhausted conversation topics a number of times when the food arrived. It was okay but neither worth the wait nor the price. This was to become the trademark of our stay at the hotel but little did we know.

After dinner, we headed into town on a tuk-tuk. At $3 each way, we knew we had to solve the transport situation. That was simply too much to be spending on this kind of holiday. Town was, well... quiet. Lovely and quiet.

We were dropped off on Sisavangvong Street which is the main one. All along it were cafes and restaurants overflowing with tourists. The atmosphere was great. Nice and relaxing. Best of all was what we found at the end of the street.

I wanted to explore and we set off down some inviting side streets. We found a beautifully lit temple and then, as we were passing, I caught sight of something interesting in the grounds of a house. Being a tourist grants you immunity to take risks sometimes. Wandering into someone's private property wouldn't normally be okay but we were welcomed curiously.

What had caught my eye was the sight of a long row of fires on which something was cooking. It turned out to be rice cooked Lao style which I'd never seen before. Rice is put into baskets and these are suspended in the mouth of metal pots of boiling water. The rice is steamed. Even more curiously for us was the quantity these people were making. It seemed to be, and turned out to be, one family. But they were emptying the cooked rice into a coooler box that was almost full. It would have fed a hundred people.

We were invited to sit down. They brought us some beer and we began the lengthy process of figuring out what they were doing. Only one guy spoke any English at all and this was minimal. He also had terminal pronunciation and it took us a long time to figure out that he was saying "monk" We eventually realised that they were cooking rice to give the temple monks in the morning and would be cooking all night.

Luang Prabang has something like 16 billion temples and between them they have more monks than any country could possibly need. In the morning, every morning, a sea of saffron greets the dawn and the local people hand out alms consisting of rice mostly but also other types of food. We wondered but never discovered how often this family did this. I guess it must also be a sign of wealth to be able to give this much rice to the monks.

Sisavangvong Street hosts a night market. It is very tastefully done on a small scale that perfectly fits the town. Immediately we noticed that we got no hassle. Everyone left us alone. If we wanted to look, they helped us but they were never pushy. Sheena was in her element!

Time was moving on. It was getting near 11pm and we had no idea where to go to see in the New Year. We walked and walked but just couldn't settle on a place. In the distance, we could see lanterns rising on the horizon. In the end, we followed the crowds to their source and discovered a huge open-air party going on. It was really quite wild with a band and dancing and everything.

For a price, you could purchase a huge rice paper lantern and a paraffin burner. These were what we had seen rising thousands of feet into the sky. Groups bought these and lit the paraffin. They then held them over their heads until the air inside had heated up enough before releasing them. They looked beautiful as they rose up and drifted away. Not so beautiful was the one that caught a downdraft and landed on the wooden roof of the adjoining French colonial building. A fire engine turned up and doused the building but there was no damge.

We hung around until about 2 and it was getting quite chilly. We headed home eager to cosy up in our nice bed...

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Saturday, December 30, 2006

Day 14 - Tam Coc

Should we or shouldn't we? That was the question. After the Mekong tour, we'd had enough of what being a sheep was like. We'd thought our Dragon's Pearl experience would be different. Having paid a vastly larger amount of money only to find that it was pretty much the same, we were now pretty much convinced that another tour was exactly what we didn't want for our last day in Hanoi and in fact in Vietnam itself.

Which was, of course, why we'd found ourselves handing over $30 to a tour agent the evening before. Now we were sitting on two stools outside the the tour office watching the morning bustle as we waited for our tour bus. We were off to Tam Coc via some temples in the old capital of Hoa Lu.

"Ha Long Bay on land" promised the advertising. We were all set for karsts. Clearly, we couldn't get enough of them. Karsts were all we lived for. What it felt like though was that we were really living for hours of bone crushing misery on tour buses. This one was relatively empty when we got into it. By the time it picked up it's last passenger, a lone Japanese, it was so crammed that she visibly recoiled in shock as the door slid open to let her in. "It's just like the Tokyo subway!" I encouraged her in Japanese.

Hours later, we were poured onto the gravel outside our restaurant. We'd had our appetites whetted by the site of four men carrying an enormous dead pig, skinned and gutted up the road nearby. All of a sudden, kosher seemed the way to go.

Just beyond the restaurant was a flailing mass of rowing boats. The Vietnamese had capitalised on the local beauty by building quite an impressive dock and lake housing something like 200 long narrow rowing boats. Each was manned by a desperate farmer. Allow me to explain.

Some decades ago, when the tourists realised they could come here without being hit by shrapnel, someone paid someone to row them along the river through the karsts of Tam Coc. Someone told his brother and pretty soon there were hundreds of someone's wanting people to row them through the fast disappearing mystique of the idyllic valley. Competetion for this new trade among the local people, devastated and impoverished by war, was fierce. Things got to a head not so long ago when registration took place and a rota was established. It was decreed that whoever wanted to row could do so only they had to do it once a fortnight and do it only once.

While this spread the wealth so to speak, it meant that it spread it so thinly that it now provides hardly any supplementary income at all for the local farming community per individual. This is communism in action in fact and, just like in capitalism, it results when taken to extremes like this, in greed of the most insidious kind.

So, amateur capitalists that we are, we suspected nothing too extreme as we lowered ourselves into our boat. The rower was a middle aged woman with a smattering of French and no English whatsoever. I quickly dragged my French from the bowels of my subconscious where I'd last left it after a less than memorable five days in Paris 15 years ago. We got on okay. She explained how much she got paid for the two hour row and how many children she had and how dependent she was on all this and, fools that we were, we didn't really see anything coming.

Meanwhile though, the scenery was amazing. Picture if you will silence of an intense nature, stillness of water scattered with pond weed and the thrust of immense limestone upward so shearly it almost screams as it rises from the shallow, still waters. Got that? Good. Now add in approximately fifty boats of noisy, camera toting tourists, rowers calling out to each other, boats of touts trying to sell you photos of yourself and louts amazed at the obvious, generating echoes in a cave that is only slightly higher than your own head as you pass through it on your boat. It was a curious mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Again, it was Vietnam concentrated.

The ride took us through this stunning landscape and two caves until we came to what was suddenly The End. All this consisted of was a few bamboo poles across the river. You could easily have got out and waded further. But no, the tourists had their own defined area and we had to make do with that.

On the way back, the softsell got harder. We pulled alongside another boat and a small metal trunk was brought on board. From this, regular souvenirs were revealed as if they were the treasures of the orient. We really weren't interested. She persisted. We really weren't interested.

We pulled up closer to the dock. She slowed her rowing and went into overdrive. Apparently, there's a whole family starving in Tam Coc now because we didn't give her a dollar tip. You know, the irony is, we would have tipped her had we not been pressured to. And the pressure was intense. As I got out of the boat, a guy on the dock grabbed me forcefully pushing me back towards the boat screaming "Tip! TIIIIIPPPPP!!!!" at me.

I fought my way to our tour guide who was standing in a yellow suit and high heels on the dock. Then began what was by far the most bizarre insight into Vietnam we had while we were there. I asked her how much the rowers get paid for their two hour fortnightly trip. It was a paltry $2 and the price was fixed by, who else, the tour operators.

"But we paid $15 each for this trip." I began.

"Oh but you pay for much more than the rowing," she countered, "You have to pay for me all day but them only two hours." She'd done little more than walk us around some temples earlier and give us some memorised details of their history. Hardly taxing stuff.

"And," she continued unashamed tapping her head, "You pay for my thinking." I was amazed. I wanted to push the boundary here.

"But Vietnam is a socialist country." I ventured. "Aren't you supposed to treat each worker more equally?"

"No!" I was surprised at her conviction. "We need to change this country but change comes too slowly."

What could I say? She was young and the winds of change were definitely blowing through her hair. I honestly don't think anyone would have said something as boldly as that ten years ago in Vietnam. Change seemed, to me at least, to have come so rapidly the country was almost falling over its own feet in an effort to modernise. How she could be impatient with it I really wasn't sure. When she had been born the country was dragging itself from the devastation of thirty years of the most intense and brutal war the century had seen. Now its cities were screaming maelstroms of development. It bewildered me.

Back in Saigon we headed over to an Internet cafe. It was there we learned the sad news that Sheena's grandmother had passed away probably very close to the time that I'd had this conversation. Being 90 it wasn't exactly unexpected but it still came as a shock to Sheena especially. And, as if it knew she needed comforting, the Internet cafe cat walked across her keyboard and curled up on her lap. It was kind of crusty... but comforting at the same time.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Day 13 - Dragon's Pearl II

John attempts to warm himself over the toaster at breakfast...

Our humble homely cabin

We woke to the sounds of other boats pulling away. It was an overcast chilly day - a perfect day to be inside. This was a good thing. First item on the itinerary today was a visit to the Amazing Cave. Well, I have to say, cynic that I am, that I was quite prepared to be less than impressed.

It took ages to dock our immense vessel as smaller, less cumbersome boats nipped in to the dock ahead of us. We finally emerged and climbed the steps to the entrance. Sure enough, we entered a small-ish and much molested cave complete with graffiti. It was amazing the amount of stuff that had been destroyed by wandering souvenir-hunters over the years. It almost made me weep when you considered the millenia it took to form the stuff in the first place. The only consolation was that they'd installed some pretty lights... (click to enlarge pics)

But then we moved on...

and on...

and in the end, I was very impressed indeed. Not by the intricacy so much as by the sheer scale. It really was well worth a visit.

At the exit of the cave with the bay and boats behind us.

Most of us on the boat retreated down below decks until lunch. Sheena did her best to brave it, writing postcards up above.

By lunch, we'd figured out where the vast bulk of the $100 per person we'd paid had gone and it wasn't on the trip itself. It was on the food. The lunch buffet was great. We'd wondered why we hadn't had the luxury of a buffet before after we'd sat through interminably long courses twice before. Someone in the kitchen though obviously had too much time on their hands...

I shouldn't mock it. It was the only glimpse of a junk's sails we'd had on this boat!

By the time we were finishing lunch, we were arriving at the dock. They really rushed us off, quite forcefully evicting us from our cabins mid tooth brushing which wasn't nice at all. The Vietnamese can be really pushy when they want to be (like when people invade their country and so on) and we were getting pretty fed up with this after our tenth day.

The ride back to Hanoi took forever and wasn't worth describing. We'd found ourselves a much cheaper and nicer hotel option close to where we were dropped off. We had a nice meal in a restaurant nearby at the Bamboo Hotel (which interior isn't worth the time to describe - you can guess right?).

Sitting next to our table was a young man, obviously an East Asian tourist, poring over a guidebook. We didn't realise he was Korean until his fried rice came. He then promptly whipped out what looked like a toothpaste tube and covered his meal with red chilli paste. I guess it's the equivalent of us carrying tomato sauce with us and slapping that on everything. It makes you wonder why people bother to leave their countries sometimes!

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Day 12 - The Dragon's Pearl I

John looking dissaffected?

We hadn't slept badly in our strange room at the Lotus Hotel, but we didn't want to pay for a place that wasn't where we didn't want to stay. First thing, we packed up and crept out. Thankfully, there wasn't anyone at reception so we just left the key with $12 under it.

We lugged our packs the 20 mins north past the lake that sits in the middle of old Hanoi. All along the shore the world and his wife was out getting their morning jerks. In several places, they'd strung badminton nets across virtually the only place you could walk. Rather than playing badminton though, they were playing a game we'd seen all across Vietnam. Using something that resembles a shuttlecock but seems heavier and a bit more flexible, they were kicking this over the net volleyball like in teams of five or six. Oh yes, we did see one game of badminton - six-a-side!

Some old ladies were leading tai-chi sessions. Other, less martially qualified old-ladies were leading aerobics workouts to what sounded very much like communist marching songs. In this, the old North Vietnamese undefeated capital of the communist victors in the American War (aka the Vietnamese War), that would hardly be surprising really.

We made our way sweatily to the offices of Handspan, the tour agency that we'd booked a two day and one night trip with to Ha Long Bay. A bit pricey, we'd decided to book with them on the recommendation of a freind in Korea who'd been on three separate Ha Long Bay tours. Their office was located deep inside a cafe in the heart of the old quarter.

This cafe stood in stark contrast to the rest of Hanoi. Pushing past the glass doors, you left the screaming world of mopeds and hassle behind you and entered a sanctuary of waffles, westerners and wi-fi. It was early but the place was packed, mostly with people, like us, on tours leaving that morning. Entering was also to leave behind one thing which, above all, makes Vietnam worth visiting: dirt-cheapness. Everything was in dollars on the menu which is a bad sign for backpackers in SE Asia usually. We contented ourselves with watching others eating breakfast. We'd already got ourselves something from a nearby bakery.

Soon though, we were bundled into a minibus and were off to fight the rush hour tide as we left Hanoi south east. Our tour guide was cut from the same cloth as all the others we had in Vietnam. As we left the city, she did a spiel about the trip and that was about it. Tour guides are allowed to say whatever they want to each bus-load they accompany as long as it includes the following: ironic comments about how long it's going to take to get there, apologies for the traffic, warnings about how many people die every day on the roads in vietnam, reassurances that the driver is the best in the company, apologies for the traffic, how many mopeds there are in Hanoi/Saigon [delete as necessary], why no one ever wears a helmet, apologies for the traffic, explanations as to how difficult their name is to pronounce and claims that in "your country" the journey that we were now on would only take ten minutes and not over three hours because of the (sorry) traffic. Apart from that, they can say whatever they want.

A long time later we were sitting on the deck of the Dragon's Pearl, a junk with an engine that was state of art and sails that were a right state. Still, they did give us a nice drink on deck and a wet towel to rid us of the dirt of the road. And the sun was out. It wouldn't last long. We were treated to a barely comprehensible speech by the chief man wearing a white uniform and then shown our cabins.

The man in white is visible on deck... (click to enlarge)

We were two decks down and had a teak-panelled nook with twin beds and a little shower/toilet. Very nice it was too. As lunch was being served we headed for the restaurant as the boat pulled away from Ha Long quay.

The attraction, according to our guide book was the World Heritage Site of Ha Long Bay with it's innumerable karsts rising from the calm bay. But according to the brochure for the boat in our room we'd entirely missed the point: "leaning over the railing you can feel like a character from a film" I can't tell you how grateful we were that we'd found this out right at the start. After lunch we hurried up to the sun deck to find out which particular characters we were going to feel like.

Well the sun deck should really have been named the "windy haze deck" We weren't there at the best time of year and it was pretty chilly in the wind. Unfortunately, having lured us all the way here from the four corners of the earth, the staff onboard had done their best to keep us eating our way through 17 courses of food below decks while the World Heritage rolled past. By the time we got up there, we were miles into the bay. It was stunning through (stun deck?)
Sheena takes in the view (click to enlarge)

Free filter... use your sunglasses! (thanks dad!)

The bay is immense and there are literally thousands of karsts ranging from immense islands to tiny pinnacles. In the haze they only had to be a few hundred metres away to be silhouetted. This gave the whole place a very surreal atmosphere. There wasn't another boat to be seen. It was dead quiet and peaceful. We just lay back and took it all in.

We passed through a couple of floating fishing villages on the way. These are small communities that live entirely on the water. Because it's a national park, no settlements are allowed on land. These twin girls stared in wonder at our boat as it passed their home. Apparently, they were new arrivals and hadn't yet had time to build a proper floating home.
After a while, we docked at a small island which had a beach not 50m wide. There was a path up the mountain and we went for a stroll. Curiously, only one other man apart from us from the 30 or so people on our boat bothered to climb to see the view. The water was pretty nippy so Sheena simply paddled. We managed to get 10 mins in a kayak that was supposed to be for another tour group. We'd have liked longer but that may have to be for another time.

Click to see the view from our kayak under a karst.
Back on board we chilled out as the sun disappeared taking with it whatever heat remained. Dinner was again 24 courses or something including what apparently have the honour of being one of the most expensive delicacies in Vietnam: dragon prawns. I was the only one on our table who could be bothered to fight their way into them for the scant meat that they supplied. Not bad but hardly worth the effort.

We finished the night off with a game of Scrabble with another guest as our boat nestled among the seventeen hundred other boats that ply the bay with tourists every day. Dreams of nights in secluded isolation have given way to the terror of nights of piracy it seems.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Day 11 - North to Hanoi

On the river terrace on our last morning in Hoi An.

And so it was time to say goodbye to Hoi An. We were up early to make the most of our last morning. Trouble was, our shoemaker was being a pain in the... well a pain in the foot really.

We'd gone in two days before and been measured up and chosen some designs from a couple of magazines. The next day, we'd had a late fitting and things had not gone well. All our shoes had either been too small or the soles way too thin. Design-wise, things were fine.

We'd told them clearly that we had little time to lose on this day as we had to leave from the hotel just after 12. They'd said this was fine but when we went in at 10, they told us to come back in half an hour.

Half an hour later we were told to wait. It was getting perilously close to 11am. Then, back came the shoes. Mine seemed to fit (it was only when I got back to Korea that I realised they were too small!) but Sheena's boots were so narrow that she couldn't zip them up. I have to say this though, the Vietnamese reputation for tenacity and pursuing something to the very end, which the US discovered to their cost, is absoluately true. Putting Sheena on the back of a motorbike wearing her boots, they drove her over to one of the workshop which serve all the shoe shops in Hoi An.

Flying through the town on the back of a stranger's motorbike on her way to who knows where, Sheena found it all slightly bizarre and amusing. She turned up at a place where tens of shoemakers were crafting footwear under mountains of leather and rubber. In this hive of activity, Sheena was remeasured and her boots altered magically so that, within minutes, they fitted.

Sheena came back to the shop and then headed back to the hotel to pack up our stuff and get ready to leave. This left me to pay. Now, the first thing I'd said to the woman running Happy Soles (for this was the name of the shop) was that we'd have to pay by Visa. No problem she said. But it had been a problem when it came to paying the deposit. She couldn't use the machine and had to call some guy who came and did it for her. It was too much to ask that she would pay attention enough to do it hereself when it came to the final payment. She tried it three times and even took my card over the road to a friend's shop to try it there. No joy.

I was getting a bit irritated now as I had precious little time to waste before we had to leave to catch our flight to Hanoi. She was being very pushy, demanding cash which I didn't have and refusing to give me my credit card back. Eventually, there was nothing for it but to call the same guy again to do the same thing again. Thankfully, it worked. I virtually ran back to the hotel.

If you're ever in Hoi An and need shoes, don't bother checking out Happy Soles - Unhappy Sales more like.

But we had another city to get to grips with, a few hours later, we were picked up from Hanoi airport by a man with hairiest mole we'd ever seen. At first we thought it was simply a fetish he had... then we spotted lots more men sporting hairy moles. It seems they must be revered, perhaps as indicators of wisdom. A macabre tendency to scare people more likely. The hairs on these moles are usually white and we saw some at least ten cm long. The men who sport them are always clean shaven except for the mole. It's a little bit like someone keeping a bonsai tree. I imagined them spending hours pruning and carefully training the hairs to grow in particular directions.

Perhaps the mole was an omen and we should have taken notice. It turned out that the man was taking us not to the Old Quarter of town, as we had thought but to just south of the lake about 2km from where we'd booked. There seemed to be a simple explanation for this: we were going to the Lotus Hotel and, sure enough, the Lotus was on our map just south of the lake. THe only spanner in the works was that we had booked at the Tung Trang Hotel north of there. When we arrived outside it, it looked nothing like the place I'd seen on the web and inside it looked even stranger.

The entrance was through a restaurant and then up some ladder-like stairs. Our room literally opened onto a reception that the receptionist slept in (and watched TV in until we told him to can it.) The room had twin beds and was filled with furniture that was obviously leftover from a car boot sale that hadn't quite been succesful. We had a wardrobe but couldn't get into it as it was blocked by a coffee table and a chair covered in spots of paint. Our "bathroom" resembled a greenhouse of frosted glass. Clearly, this was not what we'd booked.

If they hadn't had our name on a sign at the airport I'd have thought we'd been snatched by a rival hotel. But they'd even spelled our name right so it wasn't completely bogus. Perhaps the orignal hotel had been overbooked and they'd passed us on to this place. But it was a room and we knew we could look elsewhere. We dumped our stuff and headed into town.

I guess experience has taught me this but, just before we left, I clarified the room rate with the receptionist. $25 I was told. Surprising this as it had been $12 in an email I had a copy of. Okay, $15 then with breakfast. No, er, $12 or nothing.

Teddy bear anyone... please someone take a teddy bear!!!

We walked through town discovering Hanoi (basically Saigon with trees and older buildings) and headed for an obscure travel agent's office in the Old Quarter. We were going to the nerve centre of the place that had booked the hotel in Hoi An for us, the Vinh Hung resort. There, we pleaded our case and asked for a $40 refund, the difference between the room price we'd paid and had actually stayed in. After a bit of persuasion, and a call to the hotel reception to check we weren't pulling a fast one, we were very glad that they paid. Nothing but an apology though for not telling the hotel we needed a car to collect us from the airport.

A typical street with typical tourists in the Old Quarter of Hanoi

Take your pick ladies: wood, copper, rubber or stone!

We ate out and went home to our strange room...

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Friday, December 22, 2006

VNA Update

Well, we're back with the answers you've all been waiting for (see earlier post on Vietnam Airlines (VNA)).

Actually we only have one of the answers to the two questions we challenged ourself to answer on our last flight out on VNA. Unfortunately, what we actually got on was not a VNA plane at all but Lao Airlines so please forgive us for not finding out what was actually in a VNA sandwich. It's probably more fitting that we never know actually as it was pretty indescribable anyway.

What we can tell you though is that the three individuals banned from ever being served by VNA were all banned for "joking" about having bombs in their bags. In each case the flight was cancelled and, according to our source in Hanoi, they claimed that they were using the word "bomb" to refer, not to explosives but to money in actual fact. Likely story. As a result, they were taken to court, fined and banned from ever using VNA again.

We did go to the airline office to preorder a vegetarian meal this time in an effort to avoid the VNA sandwich. When we checked in, we enquired as to whether our request had been fulfilled."Ah yes," beamed a check-in clerk obviously in the running, if not the favourite, for the happiest employee of the year award "You have special meal."

When the Lao Airlines cabin crew came round with refreshments then, we were kind of excited to see what we'd get. In the end, it turned out to be exactly the same as everyone else i.e. a vegetarian meal anyway consisting of two sweet pastries and free keyring each (Happy New Year!)

So much for that then...

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