Post Cards From Vietnam
January in North Vietnam is cold. The overcast, grey skies above Hanoi reinforce this weather fact as I step out into the hazy chill of a mid-afternoon. For the locals it’s all about one thing; trying to keep warm. The narrow back streets in the area I’m staying are filled with Hanoians scurrying about in their winter woolens or, if they’re not scurrying about, they’re sitting in small groups drinking glasses of hot green tea.
It’s not completely bleak but compared to the tropical climate in Bangkok – even in what the Thais refer to as the cool season – it’s certainly a bit of a shock. One of the staff at the hotel informed me that the maximum temperature for the day would be eleven degrees Celsius. My first point of call after leaving the hotel would be the warm jacket store directly across the street. North Face has a factory in Vietnam and the price of their Gortex jackets is definitely worth considering. For USD 80 I can guarantee that I won’t get a better price anywhere else in the world. 10 minutes later with my 2XL jacket zipped up, I’m on my way to Hoan Kiem Lake but before getting fully into stride, it’s time to put some calories in the body. At the end of the small lane the hotel’s situated on a lady has set up a baguette stand. She works feverishly filling orders for the line of hungry customers as light rain steadily falls from the grey mass above. She interrupts her baguette filling routine momentarily to unfurl a large blue umbrella and then continues constructing her one dollar culinary delights.
Street food in Hanoi; fresh baguettes for a dollar a piece
The Dutch guy with the broken foot is back. I met him here yesterday and he told me with absolute certainty that “these are the best baguettes in Vietnam. I’ve been travelling for nearly three months and she makes the best I’ve eaten here.” There may be an element of truth in what he says. He’s come up from Saigon by motorbike, stopping at just about every sightseeing location on the way, so my guess is he’s eaten his fair share of baguettes. His luck on the roads of Vietnam finally ran out when, just a few kilometers short of Hanoi, he had an accident. The hospital has advised him to rest up for at least two weeks. No doubt he’ll chomp his way through a few more baguettes while he’s waiting for the foot to heal. I grab my baguette, bid him a good afternoon, and continue on towards the lake. The fact that my baguette munching friend had an accident is not surprising. The risk factor here is substantial when negotiating the roads; even by foot. The menace of the motorbike in Vietnam is not overstated; it’s a blitzkrieg! These people seem to have an even more nonchalant attitude than the Thais in regard to the sanctity of life. The Thais – perhaps due to their deeper Buddhist beliefs – will, when push comes to shove, actually stop; even if it’s begrudgingly. These people don’t. They’ll hardly miss a beat as they weave, and career, around you. Stopping is not on the agenda. Perhaps it’s the weather but they seem to have a harder, more focused look in their eyes; as if to say “I’m going to get it done no matter what it takes.” Another characteristic which differentiates the driving style of the Viets to that of the Thais is the way in which they incessantly blast the horn on their vehicles.
Competing with the traffic blitzkrieg
The motorbike menace of Vietnam
Hoan Kiem Lake is a bit of a focal point for the locals in Hanoi as they gather around it in the afternoon haze to exercise, take photos, paint, and drink coffee. A quick glance at my map reveals that it’s a centrally located landmark in amongst what’s referred to as the quarters of Hanoi. I’m staying in the Cathedral Quarter. The others are the French, Old, and South of Center. Each quarter borders the lake to the North, South, East and West. It has an elongated shape – running north to south – and is approximately one kilometer in circumference. At the southern end and situated roughly in the middle of the body of water, is the remains of an historical structure called the Tortoise Tower. I’ve seen it before on advertising shots for Hanoi and no doubt it’s some sort of iconic landmark. Whatever it is or it’s supposed to represent, it looks less and less impressive as the park's walking track gets me nearer. I glance at the map again. I’m going to do a diversion through the French Quarter, and down towards the river, before looping back to the lake. A few minutes later I’m standing at a T Junction and the river is nowhere in sight. There’s a small park in the middle of a traffic island, so I move towards it and reach for the map again. A fellow traveler gets up from one of the park benches and, pointing across the road, asks “are you going into the museum? Do you know what time they are opening the gate?” I look across to where he’s indicating. There’s a large building in a walled compound and the gates are closed. I look at my watch and note that it’s well after lunch time. We spend a few minutes chatting and exchanging tid bits of information which may or may not aid us in our further individual explorations. He seems genuinely surprised that I’m not interested in having a look at the museum. I raise the camera and mention something about getting shots of the here and now. He sits back down on the park bench and as I wander off up the road the gates are still closed.
Hoan Kiem Lake; a focal point in Hanoi
Wedding photos in the afternoon haze
Street artists along the lakeside
A flute seller promotes his wares
Time for a bit of serenity at the lake side
This country has a tragic recent history. Most – if you were growing up through the sixties and seventies – are aware of the war that devastated Vietnam. And yet when looking around, I see nothing that indicates that past devastation. There are no bombed out ruins to be seen; the country has been / is being rebuilt. The only reminders of their tragic past are in the war museums, mausoleums, and tunnels and, from what I’ve been told, a lot of what sightseers hear and see on visitations to these places is propaganda; their war is termed “the American War.” Regardless of whose war it was – and most vets on either side will tell you this – no one really wins in a war. The only real winner is death, misery and destruction. I wonder about the logic behind promoting something which is best forgotten? If it’s a lesson that such tragedies should never be repeated then all well and good but let it be a balanced, and honest appraisal of past events. The skewed “American War” dogma in some ways is a face saving exercise which ignores the very fact that many Vietnamese citizens, living south of the DMZ, weren’t too keen on having their free enterprise lives become state enterprise. But this is Asia, the land of the inscrutable mind, so perhaps there is profit to be made from past tragedies? In that regard, the war museums, mausoleums and tunnels will continue to be openly promoted as beacons of idealism – with an entry fee of course – while, behind the scenes, the ruling clique will happily fill their offshore bank accounts.
After continuing on for few hundred meters I can see the busy, dual lane road that I’m on has nothing to offer except unabated streams of traffic so I turn into a side street which will take me back to the lake. It leads me back in to the French quarter and the quieter byway I’m trundling along is paralleled by a spacious tree-lined park / pedestrian thoroughfare. The buildings along the street all have that older colonial look to them; recalling this countries past affiliation to European masters. Up ahead there are a number of locals practicing their moves on a broad, paved area. One kid is scooting about on roller blades while, nearby, a well-endowed local lass goes through a Latin dance routine. I stop to watch and lift the camera. While not missing a beat, in her smooth moves, she obliges me by smiling for a shot. I thank her and continue on towards the lake. The traffic is getting heavier as the day gets later and after nearly two hours spent negotiating the streets of Hanoi on foot, I decide it’s time to chill out for a while over a coffee. At the northern end of the lake there’s a busy intersection with a number of caffeine imbibing establishments. Highlands Coffee is one of the most popular brands in Vietnam and as such has its own chain of cafés to promote its product. The one I was making a bee line for was situated on the third floor of a building right on the busy intersection and provided great views across the lake. I had some stuff I needed to do on the laptop and a few minutes later I’m sitting comfortably in warmer surroundings with a hot cappuccino in my hand. I’m flying out to Dong Hoi the following morning to begin my caving expedition and, although the weather has been a bit of a shock, I was happy I’d had a couple of days in Hanoi to acclimatize.
The reflective twilight calm over Hoan Kiem Lake
My taxi arrived at the hotel – the Hanoi Hibiscus – at 6.30 AM for the ride to the airport. The 40-minute trip was a reminder, once again, of the local penchant for constantly blasting the horn. The driver had taken it one step further by installing one of those five tone air horns which he took great delight in using at least every 30 seconds. Dong Hoi, by road, is approximately 450 kilometers south of Hanoi. By air, it’s a one hour flight with Vietnam Airlines. The reason it seems slow is due to the fact that the plane on this route is a prop job. I’d planned my trip with the idea of hopping down the length of Vietnam with the local carrier, from Hanoi to Saigon. My flights into and out of the country were with Thai and instead of a round trip to a singular destination, I’d flown into Hanoi and would be departing from Saigon. I’d booked my flight to Dong Hoi on my arrival from Bangkok. The cost of domestic flights with Vietnam Airlines is reasonable; the flight to Dong Hoi was USD 70 one way.
Although it’s nearly 500 kilometers south of Hanoi, the weather in Dong Hoi isn’t much better. I disembark from the one hour traverse to find the grey, overcast conditions are still with me. The temperature, although a couple of degrees warmer than Hanoi, is still cool; the jacket stays on even during daylight hours. I book my onward flight to Saigon before catching a cab to the hotel. My original intention was to fly on to Dan Nang, or Nha Trang, but the desk staff is quick to inform that I’ve only got two options; Hanoi or Saigon. I pass over the equivalent of USD 80, in local currency (1.8 million VND), and receive a confirmed flight booking for the following Monday. The taxi ride to the hotel takes about 30 minutes. I’m booked into the Saigon Quang Binh Hotel for three nights. A nice room with a view across the river is USD 80 per night. After getting settled in I make arrangements with the desk staff for a hire car and driver for the following day to take me up to the caves area. The price for the 8-hour hire is USD 80. In hindsight – and I know hindsight is a beautiful thing – this was a logistical mistake. For future trips here I will go straight from the airport by taxi to the Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park. It’s approximately 38 kilometers from Dong Hoi airport to the small town of Phong Nha which sits at the entry point to the National Park. There are a number of guesthouses / backpacker hotels there and cheaper transport, including hired motorbikes, can be used for accessing the Park and surrounding environs.
There is really not much to do in Dong Hoi. There’s a paved walkway along the river front which goes all the way down to the headland where the river meets the ocean. I take a walk later in the evening and the only thing of significance I discover is the façade of a bombed out church. It’s in a fenced off area with a large sign, out front, proclaiming “evidence of war damage.” Finally, I’d found some war ruins. Admittedly I hadn’t been in the country very long but it did appear that the locals’ preoccupation with the war that afflicted this country for so many years was rather minimal. The following morning the taxi picked me up at 8 AM and we took off to Phong Nha – Ke bang National Park for a great day out at the cave sites. For a full trip report, follow this link to my visitation to the spectacular Thien Duong Cave – AKA Paradise Cave.
My accommodation in Dong Hoi
Colourful lights on the bridge across the estuary
“Evidence of war damage”
The round floating basket is a traditional Vietnamese fishing sampan
The beauty of Paradise Cave at Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park, Quang Binh Province, Vietnam
The day trip to Paradise Cave was one to be remembered and with a day’s rest after the physical activity involved in making the tour, I was refreshed for the flight down to Saigon. It was a midday departure from Dong Hoi and, after an hour and a half in the air; I was stepping out into the warmer climes of the southern capital. I had no hotel booked but Stick had given me the heads up on a reasonably priced, mid-range hotel in downtown Saigon; the La Jolie. Saigon is the busier, more hectic, more commercial and more modern of the two major cities of Vietnam. Even though its official new title is Ho Chi Minh City I keep calling it Saigon because that’s what I knew it as when I was growing up through the war years and, up until 1975 when the North finally got what they wanted, that’s what it historically has been known as for centuries. Apparently, after hostilities ended, a deal was struck between the power brokers of Saigon and their new communist masters in Hanoi; to avoid having the old boy’s body entombed in the southern capital they’d rename the city in his honor, and the northern zealots could keep the cadaver in their city. So the story goes.
In the end they’ve all reverted to type; entrepreneurs all of them. Hanoi may be less developed than its southern cousin but its citizens are no less enthusiastic about hustling a buck. Communism was just a phase; a rallying cry and a means to an end. Whatever mindset or thought processes made one a communist; very little of that is now visible in this country's citizens.
“They’re a stubborn, determined lot and quick to pick up on ideas to improve their own situation,” said my newfound English friend that I’d struck up a conversation with as I was enjoying a street side cappuccino at the Coffee Bean.
“In that regard they’re quite a bit different to the Thai persona,” I said.
“Definitely. I’ve been here six years and I’ve found them to be a hardworking and focused people. Persistent to the point of being annoying. In that regard they can be difficult to work with. The Russians were here in a big way for a few years after the war. They pulled out because they realized that it was going to cost them too much money to stay here.”
“Interesting,” I said enjoying the coffee and also the fact that I no longer had to wear a jacket.
I thanked him for his time and with the shadows lengthening and the traffic beginning to peak, decided it was time to roam the streets for a couple of hours with the camera. I had a map with me and kept pretty much to the main commercial district of the city, eventually ending up at Saigon’s tallest building; the Finexco Tower. The building is apparently home to Saigon’s stock exchange and other financial activities of the major players in the country's economy. My interest in the building was what appeared to be a viewing platform, adorning its exterior, some three quarters of the way up. Being a bit of aficionado of views taken from tall buildings I figured it had to be a great place for an evening vista of the city. I arrived at the 52nd floor to find that the viewing platform for was nothing more than a cosmetic attachment to the building with no access. My disappointment was compounded by the fact that the fogged up windows provided very little incentive for getting photos. With the sun well and truly down and the city lights shimmering below, I made my way back to the hotel for some rest and a meal before venturing out into the Saigon night.
More motorbike mayhem; Saigon style
Overloaded but making light of it
Life on the streets of Saigon; similar to Hanoi but no winter woolens to be seen
At 9 PM I was stepping out on to the rooftop bar – The Saigon Saigon Bar (9th Floor) – of the Caravelle Hotel. Wiki travel mentioned it as a place worth checking out and their information on the place was current; the Cuban band is still playing there. As luck would have it, a couple of guys I’d seen at the hotel (La Jolie) were there as well. I ordered a round of beers and we chatted away in earnest with the bright lights of Saigon spread out around us. One of the guys, Doug, was from the USA but was now residing in Australia working in the same industry I was in; oil and gas. Doug, a regular traveler to this part of the world, was on some time off before heading back to another contract down under. He’d had a couple of hectic weeks in Bangkok and was in Saigon to decompress for a few days before plunging back into it in the Big Mango. As all Asia hands are prone to do I asked him where the action was. He told me that if I lived in Bangkok I’d be severely disappointed with Saigon; there were no Baccara standard gogo bars in this town. I mentioned a bar across town – the Go2 bar – that Wikipedia had mentioned “was crawling with prostitutes after dark til sunup?” He laughed and said “Wiki got that one wrong.” He was staying in that area and it was pretty much backpacker central for Saigon. We downed another couple and then made our way over to an intersection at De Tham and Bui Ven which has bars with roadside seating on all corners. It is as he implied backpacker central and resembles what can be seen down at Khao Sarn Road. We grabbed another couple of beers and took up a position curbside to watch the circus. Having done quite a bit of travelling in the region in the past two years it has occurred to me that the young traveler in this day and age seems to do nothing more than go from one exotic location to the next with the primary purpose of getting rat arsed or drugged.
The Finexco Tower in the distance with its artificial viewing platform
The Opera House where the original Q-Bar no longer exists
There seems to be some kind of partying circuit which they rotate through; Khao Sarn Road, Koh Phang Ngan, Krabi, Saigon, Mui Ne, Vieng Vieng, Sihanoukville, and so on. And there doesn’t appear to be much point to it apart from getting stinking drunk or drugged to the eyeballs in one tropical location before moving on to the next to get stinking drunk or drugged to the eyeballs. By 1 AM I’d had enough and seen enough and told Doug I was heading back to the hotel to get my head down after a long day. I already had it in mind I’d be going to the local Thai Airways ticketing office to change my flight for later that coming evening, instead of waiting another three days to depart. I could see that apart from the museums, mausoleums, tunnels and partying, there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do in this place. I’d leave the drunken street revelry and gamnan style dance routines to the young traveling party brigade while I planned my next caving expedition to Mae Hong Son.
I flagged down a motorbike taxi for the run back to the hotel. Hurtling around the streets of Saigon on the back of a motorbike, at 1 AM in the morning is an experience in itself. The roads are easier to negotiate at that hour and just like Bangkok, it’s when the seedier side of life comes to the fore; all be it in a grittier and more dimly lit environment. The driver keeps badgering me about taking a girl for the night. “Only 50 USD and very beautiful.” His persistence is really beginning to grate and in the end I tell him to drop me off short of the hotel. I’m back at the Caravelle. Directly across the road is the Opera House where according to Wiki Travel sits the original version of Q Bar.
“Where you go?” says the irritating driver as I hand over the fare.
“Q Bar,” I said, motioning across the road.
“Not there, finish long time,” he replies with a smug look on his face.
“Hmmm,” I reply disinterestedly.
It looks as though that’s something else Wiki will need to update.
“I get you beautiful girl, take back your hotel for one hour,” he says with ever more persistence.
I’ve had enough and start off back to the hotel. These people have taken hustling to a whole new level; far beyond what I’m used to with the Thais. Just to prove that my insights are not ill founded, a pair of heels comes clattering own the road. I turn around to see a short, rotund little woman running up behind me. Catching her breaths she fires off the standard spiel “beautiful young lady, only fifty dollar for one hour.” I look at her and laugh.
“You need to spend some time in a gym.”
“No, not me. What hotel you stay at? We bring lady there for you.”
I’m sorely tempted but my experience is that having sampled Vietnamese fruit before in Singapore, sex with Vietnamese hookers is not all that great. It’s a bit like doing it by numbers; there’s a time limit on everything. And besides, I’ll be back in Bangkok in another 18 hours. I shake my head and walk off into the night. I’ve had no sex for the six days I’ve been here; another few hours won’t kill me.