A Travellerspoint blog

It had to be Hanoi - Vietnam

26 March - 1 April, Hanoi

overcast 29 °C
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Nestling the northern shores of Hoan Kiem lake lies Hanoi's oldest quarter, bristling with pure raw energy. Swarms of motorbikers haunt the spiderweb of streets and alleyways that are stuffed with cafe's, travel agencies and a great many shops selling the usual plethora of handicrafts, conical hats, Ho Chi Minh shirts and all manner of other trinkets. Beware for the uninitiated, this place unleashes a full on ground assault on all your senses. A constant wail of klaxons fill the air, conical hatters tugging your sleeves at every corner, beggars roaming the streets, pipe smoking cyclo drivers yell out on top of each other "hey, u want ride?!". Honk honk. motorbikes up our ass again. No turning back now because the fruit sellers are haunting us "ey, mista, u want sum fruit, come to my shop". Aaah, get out of our face!

This place is like a lucid acid trip spun out of control. The famous white rabbit tumbling down the rabbit hole. We seek refuge in a cheap nasty hotel with fungus for wallpaper and relentlessly haggle down the price even cheaper. Sure enough we get evicted, politely we might add, the very next day. There's a first for everything. The lines are drawn and so we are lured into a pleasant walhalla across the road - the Sunshine hotel. Inside a haven of peace and tranquility awaits. Almost like stepping into another dimension. We're sold and are so not going to leave this place anymore. Air con, cable tv, complementary fruit, in room internet and buffet breakfast as a bonus. They even have outrageous fortune on the box (through the Asian Ozzie channel showing bits of NZ). We haven't been amongst such luxury for months (but it seems much longer). So it comes that from our ivory tower we plot our next moves on the city; a wild beast that requires taming.

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Madness aside, this part of town is fully immersed into its own vibe of atmosphere. Once dawn announces its presence, the pavements rapidly fill up with color coded plastic kiddie seats where the locals and outsiders alike go hard on the Bia hoi beer and xeo. Episodes of laughter echo through the alleyways while aromatic wafts of fried chicken permeate the air. The cafes are booming with hip city teenagers sipping their lattes and flavored bubble up tea (a sweet tea with goo balls added).

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The choice of foods and snacks on offer is astounding. Garage-style eateries with all manner of fried goods on display, fighting for your custom. The locals go hard on it. Best of the bunch are the mobile doner kebab stands where they whip you up a sizzling but tender pita kebab in seconds, all for only 15,000 dong. Crazy! Pepperoni's is another instant hit - all you can eat pizza & pasta for 79,000 dong. Does life get any better really? A good place for people watching too, all five stories of it. All the well off young Vietnamese pop in on their lunch break and the narrow pavement outside congests with scooters. Properly set up now we can finally re-celebrate Alana's birthday (read our misadventures in Mai Chau) over the next couple of days. There's lots to do and entertainment is at a premium. But first some rice wine from the supermarket.

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The center of Hanoi reaches around the lake so we stroll past the myriad of neon lit shops, have mince turnovers and spring rolls, enjoy coffees from a rooftop cafe and sit in on a nighttime session of water-puppeteering. This ancient art of waterpuppetry originates from the flooded rice paddy fields of North Vietnam and that's where it remains most alive, with farmers operating the multitude of puppet limbs from behind a bamboo screen. No surprise a few of them perished from all manner of water-borne diseases.

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The contemporary setup hasn't changed by much, with the added exception that the audience is seated in plush and comfy loungers watching the play unfold in a waist deep basin of St Paddy's green water to the tunes of gongs, bamboo xylophones, flutes (sao) and one stringed zithers (dan bace). Some of the performances are incredibly eclectic and vivid; fishermen catching fish from their boats, fire spewing dragons and phoenixes courting a graceful dance. How do they pull it off? No less than 8 puppeteers emerge in their waders at the end of the show!

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And so we wail away the days. Downtime is filled up with booking Lao visas, Halong Bay tours and train tickets, in between visits to Hoan Kiem lake (lake of the restored sword) and Ngoc Son temple which gravitates in the middle of it. Legend of the great golden tortoise who leaped out of the water and grabbed the sword from the emperor. Allegedly the turtle still swims around...

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Dedicated to Confucius, the temple of Literature. Vietnam's first university from 1076, to educate the sons of Mandarins with its courtyards, gates and pathways. On emperor Le Thanh Tong's command 116 stelae were erected here from 1442 onwards to celebrate the achievements of its doctorate recipients. It's a pretty serene place to wander about, a break away from the city while idling the time away in its gardens.

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The Hao Lo prison is another thought provoking sight we don't mind sweating several miles on the tarmac for. Better known as the Hanoi Hilton by the prominent US pilots pow's who spend some quality time here during the war. An Old yellow french brick facade is all that remains, courtesy of the skyscraper that was erected behind it not too long ago. It was popular, even John McCain spent some time here during his sabbatical, and he never got his flight-suit back either - gutted!

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Most mind bending perhaps is the Vietnamese account of events that unraveled here. Dark filthy dinghy cells, most of the exhibits actually relate to the Vietnamese struggle for independence. It even has part of the original sewerage system some blokes escaped through back in the French era. Entertainment is provided by the great many photos and videos of the great time the American prisoners had during their time here. VIP treatment, Xmas parties, basketball and holiday camp activities to name just a few. Must be the best piece of propaganda we've seen so far and good for a laugh.

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All of this is one big baloney sandwich of course. Bones were broken, souls were shattered, whips were cracked and the monthly electricity bill racked up too, aside from the usual bouts of malnourishment and disease. They were probably at least as good at it as the French and Americans, and the latter remain well practiced today. Yet, none of this is a particularly well kept state secret but it makes you wonder; who are they trying to convince so desperately, and why are they so bad at it?

Our last exploration in town, a venture into the wealthy areas. Amongst which the presidential palaces, embassies and administrative buildings reside. It's an important politically laden neighborhood, judging from the number of guards and guns doing the rounds. The elusive one pillar pagoda lies nigh. World famous in Vietnam we find out it is exactly that - a concrete pillar with a tiny pagoda perched on top. Not sure what to make of it.

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Then the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum next door. An immensely imposing concrete cube inspired by the moody socialist, Leninist, Marxist architecture. You can imagine the thunderclouds brooding above it, yet its a shiny day. At 11am Pandora's box remains firmly shut, courtesy of the ludicrous early opening times it enforces. Bummer too, we really did want to see the revered Uncle Ho. Barred by invisible boundaries we cannot cross at the risk of being whistled at by the army of cops that swarm the cube, and guarding a dead body 24/7 they take their job seriously. We better be on our way.

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Posted by beefnlamb 05:07 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Motorbike meandering to Mai Chau, Vietnam

20th March - 26th March, Mai Chau

overcast 28 °C
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Laden up with day packs, baguettes and water, we take a motorbike and head off for a few days exploring. First destination being Cuc Phuong National Park est. in 1962 as Vietnam's first National Park (~45km away). To keep our spirits up while it rains we sing snippets of old kiwi faves, feeling invigorated as we approach the misty mountains. Once checked in with Park HQ, we warm up with sweet coffees and baguettes before a guide escorts us to the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre.

The center was started by Germans and locals back in 1993 and now houses well over 150 primates that have either been bred locally or rescued from pet hood or illegal traders (esp. to China to become medicinal ingredients). Here the primates are cared for, studied, and bred, before being released into the "semi wild" enclosures that surround the park grounds. The larger aim being to reintroduce these primates into their natural habitat. But for now that remains a tune for the future as hunting pressures are still too high. The black and yellow gibbons swing avidly and gracefully from their branches (14 species of gibbon), and the red-shanked Langurs look like they're wearing red shorts - their Vietnamese name translating to "monkey wearing shorts". How original! The grey-shanked Douc Langur was also bred in captivity just here. A world first!

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The observation lookout, just within the park gates is a short and steep climb up to the tower. We're surrounded by a panorama of misty forested hills and silence except for the chorus of nature. Butterflies flutter around us and we relish in our new found isolation and tranquility.

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It's still a 20km drive into the heart of the park where we'll be staying so we proceed through the dense jungle along a narrow road. Along the way we see a sign which we think is for a 300m walk to the "Cave of the Prehistoric Man". Turns out we misread the decrepit old sign and walk for an hour through jungle and karst with an absence of light, compliments to the dense jungle canopy. Turns out we were in the "Forest Loop Trail"- an adventurous deep trail which they strongly advise you take a guide for. Fair enough, the sign was rather overgrown. But luckily we can retrace our steps and make it out. Only to continue on and find the real cave quite obviously sign posted nearby.

With daylight fading, the vendors are quickly packing up to escape approaching darkness but we conclude it'll be dark in the cave anyway so continue into an amazing multi-chambered monster which does exceed all our expectations immensely! Human graves and tools were found here in 1966 which date back 7,500 years, making it one of the oldest sites of human habitation in Vietnam. Being pretty late we also have the cave to ourselves. With our trusty Kathmandu head-torch we climb the 3 tiers of stairs and explore many chambers adorned with stalactites, stalagmites and crystallized salt deposits shimmering in the torch light. It wouldn't make a bad pad!

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Back on the dark secluded road, in a thicket of dense forest, we inhale the clear sweet air, our minds fresh from the raw nature. Clean crisp air, peace and quiet, harmonious nature, freedom. We've had too much consuming cities, pollution, traffic, incessant chatter, begging, pleading, selling, yelling, always compelling... now we're free, back to basics. So Alana considers her birthday to be tomorrow "I will not have much, but I will have it all". The only thing she does wish for is not to travel excessively and have good food! Not too much too ask... you'd think.

Our inflections are suddenly halted as we arrive at the "Bong". A stilted house gathers mist and a lone traveler wanders around the clearing in a trance. He approaches us and confirms our suspicions that this is an eerie place. As we speak the power surges into action and we are welcomed inside by the rest of Adam's crew. A couple of Brits, a Canadian and an Aussie. We have 4 hours of power remaining to sip green tea and get acquainted before heading down the road to the monopoly resto (the only resto for miles) to enjoy a shared meal and some beers until the power sleeps, advising us to do the same.

Awake to a a beautiful birthday blue sky - first clear sky for a very long time! Butterflies flutter in their millions (this is actually no exaggeration), birds chirp, insects hum, hungry tum! Birthday brekky at the monopoly resto - a choice of either vege noodle soup or stir fried vege noodle - oh you shouldn't have! Our trail of choice for today is the thousand year old Tree Loop Trail and Palace Cave - 7km through primary rain forest. Loud local school children swarm around the cave entrance but once we enter the cave, all is quiet. Once back, we enjoy a refreshing swim in the swimming pond and dry out in the sun. Majestic butterflies perform for us - synchronized fluttering in a line, then they link up and fly in a circle. Very elegant - until the grand finale when they home in on a pile of dog poo... filthy buggers!

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We go once again to the Primate Rescue Center - true enough it was pretty good first time round. A great birthday present for Alana when their 2 gibbons swing in a basket and entertain us with their antics. We decide to continue our adventure towards Pu Luong Nature Reserve, a rather obscure park 65km away. It's already 3.30pm but how long can 65km really take? According to various people - 2hrs, 6hrs... nobody seems to know for sure. Our shoddy photocopied tourist maps don't prove conclusive either, different maps tell us different things. So we get amongst it and after about 1.5hrs the signs start coming "Cuc Phuong National Park"...2km...1km...0km"? What the hell, are we traveling back in time or what?

Okay, so the 65km mark starts from here, the other end of the park. How incredibly useful, especially since we had to drive around, and not through, the mountain ranges of the National Park to get here (a back track of 80km's as there was no straight A to B track access from where we were, but which was perhaps 30km's from where we are standing now...2 hours later). But lo' and behold there is a shiny new highway, the Ho Chi Minh Highway, that cuts right through the heart of the National Park otherwise (?!). It's definitely not the greenest solution but hey we don't complain. The road is empty and the fresh tarmac smooths our progress considerably. Now we can actually enjoy the scenery as opposed to vigilantly watching the 1001 potholes in the road. Nevertheless it'll be a stretch, 2 hours to go with 2 hours of daylight to spare doesn't leave a lot of time for finding our way to this village which is way out in the wops. Perhaps we'll have to spend the night in a rice paddy...

Mmm, we pass a traditional village perched along the highway which would otherwise have taken a 3 day tramp from the park's interior. Conscious of the impending darkness we only take a short moment to appreciate the sunset amid the outcrops of karst before we press on. We proceed as fast as the road conditions allow and wonder why everyone drives (dangerously) with their lights off. We soon find out and are forced to do the same to avoid getting smeared with kamikaze bugs. Finally we arrive at a small town called Canh Nang which very luckily has a hotel (audible sighs of relief). Sore butts, bones, but finally it's over. We've generously violated Alana's one prerequisite for a good birthday - to avoid long travel! Settled in, we desperately scrounge the streets for a meal and are eternally grateful for the noodle & meatball dish we get served up. Not exactly háute cuisine on a birthday but at this stage we'll eat anything. We do however manage to source beers and strawberry cream birthday cakes for a toast! Not bad for 4 hours spent moped driving! But you really wouldn't want to spend more time on a bike than that.

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Next day, the epic journey is set to continue after a near useless visit to the Pu Luong Nature Reserve HQ. No advice here but we do get served warm tea by the friendly chaps. We plough on ahead to see if the ferry crossing into the park really does cost the 100,000d as told by HQ... we're dubious. In fact there is no ferry...but there is a bridge and it's free. The road is atrocious at best, but the scenery initially makes up for it - giant waterwheels, terraced rice paddies, water buffaloes, and small clusters of stilt villages. The road soon devolves into a goat track of sharp rocks and steep gradient, interspersed with mud pits. That wasn't on the glossy park map!! But we persevere and after a steady climb up we soon leave the river for dust and are high up in the mountains looking down at the valleys below. According to the map, this trail should be a cruisy 2hr journey... But the brochure is way ahead of its time and is boldly advertising a road that doesn't exist yet! Same goes for the river bridge near the end which shines through absence. We wade through with our bike while locals do their washing upstream. In the end it has taken us 6 hours to cover nearly 60km! Arguably we found our off the beaten track experience and it slapped us right in the face :)

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We arrive in Mai Chau - stunning rice paddy fields and minority villages in the heart of the valley. We opt for the home-stay option in Pom Coong which boasts rustic experiences. No sooner do we approach the village, when we're snapped up by the lady of #1 home-stay (every house here is a homestay). We naively expect an immersion into rural life but instead watch as the lady of the house promptly evacuates her entire family, the kids carry the tv and video out, and we're left to our own devices in a huge, empty traditional stilt house. Pause... We drink green tea on a mat on the bamboo slated floor and observe the Vietnamese pop-stars adorning the walls - even Britney and Justin make a guest appearance. Most of the locals in Mai Chau are ethnic White Thai, and are amazing weavers as shown by the impressive array of textiles for sale underneath each stilt house, and the ladies on their looms outside. The family water buffalo watches as we pull water up from the well. In the darkness the rice paddies light up with fireflies, one leads us home where we crash out on our mattresses on the floor, a firefly for a night light, our energy fully depleted.

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We awaken to the roosters crowing, people working and chatting, men spitting. The day has begun but there are still a couple of hours before daylight. The valley is engulfed in a lingering mist. We move to the next village (Lac) where we've found the perfect stilt-house - it overlooks the stream and rice fields, hammock below, all to ourselves, secluded paradise.

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As we relax in the hammocks and walk through the paddies we observe rural life all around us. People working in the fields, pottering around the house. Mostly a quiet life.

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We head into town for fresh fruit and cheap meals. Even less going on here. One meal that stands out for all the wrong reasons is a mix of rice, peanuts, veges, pork and chicken and a bowl of soupy slop with a carcass floating in it. The meat is scrap - inedible for any palate really. We eat what we can and vow never to return again. Sure enough we are both violently ill later... luckily our pad has multiple door-hinged traditional windows next to our bed! Bedridden for a day and the sky cries for us, so no loss.

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After a few days we head back to Ninh Binh along the mountains, looking down at the villages below. The journey home only takes around 5hrs and goes by fast (compared to the last few days at least). Our Guest House very concerned as we'd told them we'd be away only 2-4 days but here we are now, muddy and fatigued, more than a week later. So where did you go? A map quickly pops out, as they scrutinize the bike for scratches. Surely you didn't take that road, our lady exclaims when she finger points to the gravel road along the park HQ - very bad condition!

Oops! Let's not tell her we took the route where there was no road at all. Outstayed our welcome most definitely. A mad rush around town follows as all the ATM's are out of order sequentially (of course). We have to persist and eventually we get moolah out and jump on the next bus to Hanoi.

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Posted by beefnlamb 03:27 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Nibbling on Kneecaps in Ninh Binh - Vietnam

18th March - 20th March, Ninh Binh

sunny 29 °C
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Our night bus to Ninh Binh dumps us on the kerb at 3.45am - exactly the predicament we'd tried so hard to avoid. Being a quiet town, there is nothing going on, so we stalk a closed hotel until the receptionist awakens and takes us in. Such convenience that they sleep at their desks! We surrender to sleep then wander down to the local market in search of breakfast. A novel experience as no-one hassles us, just friendly welcomes. We see a few resto's that advertise "Thit Cho" (Dog) and see our first fried dog (among many other tantalizing treats) at the market.

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Along the riverfront friendly locals drink beer from kegs. They try entice us to join them at their stations but we've just woken up - maybe later guys! We join some locals for green tea and a fun game of shirades enables a very basic form of communication. We're joined by a businessman who speaks little English and proceeds to invite us to his shop to meet his wife. More shirades follow... He is Guido's age and his 23yr old wife is pregnant with their first child. Ultimately, the inevitable question arises - "why don't you have children?". We read utter incomprehension on their faces when we plead our case, since "children are happiness" they say...

We drink another weasel (poo) coffee and carrot shakes. Maybe we really should learn some Vietnamese to prevent us from ordering such oddities off the menu! We relax with some flaming cocktails, melt a few straws, start a fire... an uneventful night.

To truly appreciate the nearby attractions, we hire a motorbike and head 9km away to the countryside where karst rock formations erupt from the fields of rice paddies. Built into a karst cave is "Bich Dong Pagoda" (Jade Grotto) where burning incense pervades the senses while sun and rain fight to break through the overcast skies. A holy site of pilgrimage for Vietnamese - quiet and tranquil (only until the tour buses arrives - abort abort!).

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Various back roads reward us with idyllic karst landscapes, decorated with houses and cemeteries backing onto mountains, a sea of green lapping at their doors.

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Enough procrastinating - time to brave the touristy and potentially financially hazardous boat trip up the river - the Tam Coc Tango as they call it. We pay entry fees 30,000 Dong each plus another 60,000 for the boat. We sit back and relax while two guys row us up the Ngo Dong River. Soon enough Guido is handed a paddle and puts in the token stroke while the primary and secondary rower row away. Lots of muscle power going on for a river that other rowers paddle lazily with their feet (no doubt a fair bit of extortion for tips and souvenirs will come our way - we've been warned!). But mostly, Tam Coc is renowned for its grotesque and low caves that the river flows through, and life is superb while we cruise through these, surrounding rice paddies and rugged limestone formations. Soon we spot the first fellow tourists on their return trip - getting pestered by their secondary rower to buy t-shirts and embroidery souvenirs. Let's dance!

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We vow to remain strong and when our secondary rower tries it on with us we do not buy into it. Nor do we succumb to the pressures of the ladies who chase us through the caves with their assorted foods/drinks on their boats. They try unsuccessfully to scam us into buying drinks for our rowers (which they sell straight back to the vendor for half the extortionate price). Very cheeky! By this stage our secondary rower has realized that we are a lost cause and duly bails onto another boat. An unprovoked outburst from our primary rower follows demanding we tip the other 'poor' guy. Guido happily infuriates him further by asking him for a tip. True enough, Guido did at least, if not more, rowing than the other guy! Almost back and our rower changes his tune - he's happy now. Tipping time comes around the corner and we give more than a day's wage. Another outburst follows as he demands double. Pretty ungrateful. Still we had a great time admiring the surroundings and managed to avoid getting scammed too badly!

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We take the scenic back road route and accidentally end up at Mua Groti, where a daunting staircase winds up to the top of a small pagoda which looks out over the river (we'd actually spotted this from the boat earlier). This stairway to Heaven really takes your breath away (literally and figuratively). At peace we sit here and enjoy the panoramic views of nature at its best. Somehow we've also finally escaped the sellers and the noise. So there are limits to how far they will come to pawn off their goods...

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Pressing on, we head to the ancient citadel of Hoa Lu; the capital of Vietnam from 968 - 1009, chosen for its natural protection by the surrounding karst. It is undergoing seriously major reconstruction so we seek solitude in the two remaining temples up top, paying homage to the giant Buddha within (and seeking shelter from the dynamite blasting of rock outside - hello safety reg's???). Inside we're especially quiet and respectful (as our teeth are glued shut with toffee snacks).

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Time for Thit Cho at a dodgy looking local resto out on the back roads. Alana is very reluctant while Guido gets stuck right in. Tastes kinda like roast beef. A petrified/mortified Alana works herself up to take a bite. Oh how the tides have turned from when dogs took bites out of Alana - ha! Meanwhile Guido is skulling shots of rice wine with the local guys. Since it is rude to refuse, they all take turns challenging Guido... it wasn't a big bottle anyway (and only 10 000 dong!). Before we take our leave the chef brings out his specialty dessert - and he proudly presents us with a plate of doggie kneecaps... maybe it was the rice wine that made G think it was a good idea to try this...

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At the bottom of our dog bowl remains what we think are spring rolls - G tries them, and confirms that they are most definitely not spring rolls. We inquire with the chef who points at his intestines. Mmm, time to leave. We don't get far though before we head back for something we left behind. We get pulled in again by the same guys for some green tea - and the rice wine makes another appearance. Such firewater is not for the girls however and Alana, by now, bored with not getting invited to drink with the guys does so anyway - receiving a seriously stern growling from the elder of the group in the process. Instead she may pour Guido rice wine shots while subsisting on green tea (grrr)! But Alana the devil's advocate gets the last laugh the next morning when Guido is on his death bed (mwahaha).

Posted by beefnlamb 07:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

A Whirlwind of War Tourism, Vietnam

Dong Ha, 18th March

sunny 29 °C
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It's 6 am and our city block lies flooded and dormant from the aftermath of a tropical rainstorm last night. Temperatures hover around the high twenties - humidity so thick you can cut it with a knife. Still half asleep we stagger aboard a dilapidated coach bus which from first appearances has been in service a few decades too long. Another 30 minutes of cross-country driving follows as we pick up more, more, and even more fellow farang and their packs from their hotel safe havens. Soaked with rain and dressed in military fatique, a young man marches past, a M60 machine-gun swung casually over his left shoulder - bizarre! The city is stirring - let the DMZ (demilitarized zone) tour begin!

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Then a 2 hour long uneventful journey as we make our way to Dong Ha, an equally unremarkable town pitched near the South shore of the Ben Hai River - the defacto demarcation line that, like present day Korea, once separated North from South. Drawn roughly across the 17th parallel following a stalemate between the Ho Chi Minh-controlled government and the french colonial forces, this segment of Vietnam soon turned into the focal point of a drawn out conflict. Special Forces Base Camp Carrol, Con Thien Fire-base, Lang Vay, Hamburger Hill, Khe San and Cunningham; familiar household names linger the landscape. Most of them clustered within the 20 km radius along McNamara's defense wall, extending east to west, to prevent infiltration from the North.

Our tour, like any other organized trip here, always to be taken with a generous sense of humor, speeds along Highway 1 to Doc Mieu base-camp. Faded photos and pigeon English provide narration as we warp into time. Not sure what to expect from all this. The enormous amount of American firepower that went in (40,000 tonne of explosives where dropped around Con Thien base alone in Sept '67) suggests visions of the Armageddon apocalypse - a sparse wasteland pockmarked with bomb-craters, half-destroyed bunkers and pill boxes, trenches overgrown with weeds and leftover shell casings. Mmm, perhaps a canny and morbid fascination for the darker side of mankind's savagery?

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But there's none of this at all. As we tread nearer, hedges of lush foliage greet us from which eludes a grand granite statue iron curtain style. Three pacing guerrilla's with their guns ready at the draw frozen timelessly in stone. We're left to wonder what it represents but assume it celebrates the endless dedication, sacrifice and patriotism for the motherland. A fairly safe assumption we figure as there are legions of statues which celebrate communist victory all over the country. One will be forgiven to think there are two sides to any story. But in Vietnam, this (South Vietnamese) side of the story remains predominantly expressed through the many mass graves that have been bulldozed and war cemeteries that have long since fallen into disrepair, willful neglect from a regime that prides itself with reunification. However, as of yet there are no tours taking us there.

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Driving across the Ben Hai River, the abundance of lush foliage, rubber plantations and ever green rice paddies seems to suggest that people may have moved on from their fiery past four decades ago. The occasional bomb craters, barren depressions several feet deep on which nothing grows even today, break up the endless green of the paddy fields. Thatched houses have been built around them and crater lakes provide a means of living, functioning as fish hatcheries.

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Visibly few tangible links remain between the past and present. Yet dig deeper and one might stumble upon remnants of scrap-metal. A thriving and lucrative, but equally dangerous trade in metal scraps from mines, projectiles and other assorted unexploded ordinance continues. And with six million unexploded projectiles remaining in the ground, and a fifth of Vietnam's surface area affected, it's a trade that's set to continue for a wee while.

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The nearby Vinh Moc tunnels are something else altogether. An incredible underground network of passageways spanning around 28 km with tiny chambers providing necessities of life; including an underground nursery where 17 odd babies were delivered. We're lead around by a munty little tunnel rat and as such are not exactly convinced that we'll see the light of day again. The musty smell of damp clay fills the air and sure enough we eventually unearth at the beach on the other side.

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Other places we visit require a bit more imagination. Such as the "rock pile" which aside from the Marine lookout once perched on top is exactly that; a piece of bare rock. Or take the Dakrong suspension bridge which crosses a famous branch of the formerly and now tar-sealed Ho Chi Minh trail.

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Then our final and perhaps most famous stop - Khe San combat base solemnly awaits on a high hill plateau which tapers off to deep forested valleys below. A small museum, re-enacted bunkers and rusty military hardware don't do away from the hazy atmosphere and tranquility that surrounds this small outcrop.

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A peaceful vibe reinforced by a multitude of chirping birds and neatly manicured hedges that line the various pavements to helicopters and anti-aircraft apparel. It's hard to comprehend that 200 American soldiers and another 10,000 North Vietnamese died on this spot amid a blaze of saturation bombing, machine-gun fire and exploding mortar rounds - perhaps the bloodiest and fiercest battle of the conflict.

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It blows proportions so it's hard to get a handle on such things. With mixed impressions I stare back at my reflection from the Chinook helicopter window which radiates in the glow of the afternoon sun. Evidently, the local Vietnamese have long since moved on - maybe we should too...
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Posted by beefnlamb 13:19 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Dragonboats and Imperial hangouts in Hue, Vietnam

Hue, 12-17 March

overcast 26 °C
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The enigmatic Perfume River and the imperial Nguyen dynasty bid thee welcome. Or so we imagine the young chap saying as he jumps aboard whilst our bus rolls to a stop on the main causeway. It takes a second or two to register the true meaning of his words. No surprises here, he's actually jabbering about his hotel and the fine swimming pool we just stopped in front off. We've joined the open tourist bus trail.

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Being first timers and having spent most of our time on dodgy local buses left us wondering how the masses of tourists got around. They certainly weren't wedged in between sacks of potatoes and elderly farm ladies salivating over betel nut on dodgy local transport. With that mystery duly solved now it also explains why this random guy on our bus is shoving his business card in our faces. Since he really doesn't want to leave us alone voluntarily and (yet again) we haven't got the foggiest clue where we are we decide to temporarily enlist his services. And so he whips out his rather professional looking business card and shows us the way to the river. Not very far that way? Sweet, with our location challenge solved we set off. Leaving behind a confused Vietnamese with a trace of daft recognition flickering in his eyes as he realizes he's been had. That's role reversal for a change.

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A slog down the main drag along the Perfume river follows, where rather suddenly an alleyway pops up with all the guesthouses in hiding. There are not many visitors around these days it appears. All the owners out on the street outbidding each other for our custom being the dead giveaway. One of the upmarket hotel managers promptly shows us his best room. TV kaput he continues, finger pointing at the carton 'box' that now replaces it. We chuckle, as the pun must surely be unintended. But it's an easy choice today; one lady is by far the friendliest and offers us a deal we can't refuse.

Peacefully nestled on the banks of the Perfume river lies the citadel city of Phu Xuan. Encircled by a moat and a thick retainer wall of some 5 metres high and 10 kilometres long, Emperor Gia Long and his Nguyen dynasty ruled much of the country that is present day Vietnam. The history of this place is as colourful and turbulent as the Perfume River itself. Staunchly objecting to colonial rule over Tonkin in 1885, French infantry promptly razed the city to the ground, burning the imperial library and confiscating from the palace all items not firmly bolted to the floor - nice!

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The '68 Tet offensive followed and the Vietcong took over for a couple of weeks, eliminating 2,500 people, so called unfavorable reactionary elements to the regime, in the process. In response, over the next few weeks anything left standing inside the citadel was subjected to a barrage of American artillery and South Vietnamese ground offensives, killing another Vietnamese 10,000 brethren. And, shaded by dark purple skies which envelope the city in a damp broody climate somehow it's that impression the city leaves behind today; a veneer of former imperial grandeur replaced with sheer weariness. Still, many of Hue's inhabitants proudly live within its citadel walls.

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With daylight slipping we make our way across the Perfume River to the citadel for a late exploratory nosey. Bathed in the strong purple hue this river is justifiably famous for we wander through one of the many fortified gates that guard the enclosure. Little too late it seems as a massive exodus of people preempts the city in front of us; the working day has finished. Aside from playing with some tanks and anti aircraft apparel there remains little to do but to search for a nourishing feed. Not much of that either it appears. Only one avenue lined with street vendors in town and they all sell garden snails marinated in chillies, with quail eggs I might add. Incredibly random, but worth the try? After all the French managed to make snails palatable with lots of garlic, and the slimy creatures from the Mekong Delta with their subtle lemongrass flavouring were also divine. But no trifling with such subtle aromas today, it really does taste distinctly like snail - fleshy, gritty and earthy flavors all fight for dominance of our taste papilla at the same time. Yep, it's definitely snail - no arguing about that. Yet another gastronomic delight we have had the opportunity to sample!

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Fueled by eggy omelets, jam baguettes and a brew of coffee strong enough to stir the dead we set off to explore the Citadel proper. Meandering at a snail's pace through its streets we come, amongst others, by the Perfume River (we get to do this a few times), makeshift street stalls selling aquarium utensils (of all things), a true Ho Chi Minh shop selling communist household items (as well as a huge golden bust of the man himself), and herbal pharmacies selling jarred monitor lizards and associated fowl - whole or in pieces, your pick. There's also lots of war paraphernalia on display; cracked aviator helmets, rusty bullets, dog tags, and sure enough there's even a claymore antipersonnel mine for sale, hopefully defused. See if we can smuggle that through customs.

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Once in the Citadel again we soon find ourselves pondering Hue's mighty flag tower waving the communist star; Vietnam's tallest at 37 metres. Its terrace a playground for a multitude of school children. Flanked by the nine Holy cannons which represent the four seasons and five elements, the symbolic protectors of the imperial palace and its kingdom. Never designed to actually fire a shot they stand witness to what little remains of the Emperor's royal court today.

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Weighing in at 10 tonnes each they won't take off in a hurry so we wander across the road to Ngo Mon Gate - the principal gateway to the imperial enclosure. Cubed in by a 6 meter high, 2.5 kilometre defense wall it is sort of a citadel within a citadel. Richly decorated with meeting quarters on top (the Belvedore of the five Phoenixes) for such occasions as royal coronations it was obviously never intended for mere mortals like ourselves.

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Inside, a bridged lotus pond with millions of mentally challenged carp who vigorously and repeatedly respond to pretend feeding, separates us from the mighty Thai Hoa Palace. A spacious chamber whose dragon-lined timber roof is supported by no less than 80 lacquered carved columns. Used mostly for state occasions such as official receptions and court proceedings it was where the mandarins paid homage to their emperor. Wandering through the hall you can imagine it happening.

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But unfortunately one of the reasons it requires such elaborate description is because it is also one of the few monuments that remains standing, having survived the onslaught brought about it by successive wars. Walking through we enter the inner courtyard, sided by the onerous Halls of Mandarins in anticipation of officious receptions. Behemoth cauldrons dominate the yard, where you can drop a penny for good blessing or have your photo taken donned in imperial outfit (you pay extra to take place on the throne).

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Beyond lies the Forbidden Purple City; the core of this lavish imperial cosmos. Once the holiest of inner citadels, and reserved purely for the Emperor's use. Not much remains now. Sad, even the ruins are gone. A laden air of nothingness hangs in the drizzly air which hangs over the grassy plains ahead.

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Alas, such nothingness can only be cured by a mighty feed, and a taste of imperial cuisine might just do the trick. Seated in an oldish pagoda-style dining area of traditional design - a Hue family home which overlooks a peaceful pond, we go straight for the vodka and a seven course feast. Peacock lookalikes with carefully crafted carrot heads and pineapple stalk tails play host to spring roll overload. Royal banh khoai (rice cakes), steamed lotus seed rice, and green bean cake molded like fruit draped from branches.

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A remnant of Emperor Tu Duc's (1843-83) legacy who demanded 50 different dishes, prepared by 50 cooks, served by 50 servants each and every meal. How's that for extravagance? Only washed away properly with a hot brew of Vietnamese coffee at a serene lakeside garden cafe where a condensed milk coffee cost as much as a rum coffee - we came to the right place!

Running out of things to do we venture further out of town, aboard a true dragon boat - mighty fine! Such little tours often schedule unforeseen activities, such as cruising past poor floating, incense and conical hat-making villages and sitting in on elaborate kung fu demo's. Fun little side trips but most of our tourist colleagues remain outside, duly disgruntled about the extra $1 admission fee that wasn't incorporated in the $6 all-day tour fee. So our crew scatters; the consequent rounding up of this chicken pen proves time costly, and so we run behind schedule for the rest of the day =). No worries, such activity ambitious tours always do.

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Icing on the cake, and one of the main reasons for signing up is an opportunity to see Thien Mu pagoda. This 21-metre high octagonal stepped tower looms from the banks of the Perfume river. Such majesty leaves the monks in contemplation. The unofficial symbol of Hue city, it comes with stunning pavilions, manicured courtyards, bronze cast bells and many Buddha's. The place is also renowned for its entrenched political history; many a peaceful demonstration has taken place here on this hill since the sixties.

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1963; It was from here that monk Thich Quang Duc protested Diem's harsh government policies and drove to Saigon, to publicly immolate himself to death - his image continues to haunt people's minds. Today, the aqua-colored Austin Martin remains undercover, its panel work left to the elements.

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Our memorial time here runs dry; next stop another nondescript temple. Mmm, temple overload, we sit it out. Ten kilometres further south we approach the Minh Mang tomb, Hue's royal ruler from 1820-1840. A majesty hard to describe on paper and which has to be seen to be done justice truly. More of an extravagant mausoleum than a tomb, this sepulchre burial mound lies surrounded by a circular wall that nobody may cross. And set amidst the crescent-shaped lakes of Tan Nguyet (lake of the New Moon) in a phenomenal park of pine trees bedazzled with stone staircases, court yards, temples and grand pavilions which harmoniously blend into its green environment - a crazy place to wander around!

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Such handfuls of these royal tombs remain scattered around the area. Back into town, we pass through a popular eatery before our final departure - Hanoi beers, hot coffees, delicious prawn pancakes, plates of salad and peanuts, and bowls of green bananas and figs -a Hue specialty.

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Posted by beefnlamb 06:45 Archived in Vietnam Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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