Vietnam Blog: 21.05.09 - 05.06.09
The border crossing out of Cambodia was as easy as the crossing IN was hard. We had decided to enter Vietnam by boat and to spend some time in the villages along the Mekong Delta, en route to Saigon. Speeding gently towards the riverside border control in the early Cambodian light gave us time to reflect on the last week and we did so in silence. We'd both admitted that we'd struggled with the emotional toll of immersing ourselves in Cambodia's recent violent past - in our trips to the sites where they were undertaken, the personal accounts we'd been reading and in our interaction with the people, who, though friendly, we had felt to have a reserve we hadn't encountered so far. There was also the high number of amputees begging at sites and in restaurants, who, not being able to help everyone, we had guiltily often turned away. The stretch of the Mekong to the Vietnamese border, as a result, was coloured with the thoughts and experiences of the last fw days and i left the guilt and tears I'd felt and cried in the grasses and murky waters we passed.
After a short stop at the border to get our passports stamped (we had bought Vietnamese visas in Bangkok, as it is one of the few countries we're travelling to that won't give you one at the border), we were back on the boat, but this time we were full of excitement for the next couple of weeks' travel. Hearts light, we were pushed by bicycle taxi into Chau Doc town. Eager to explore, we went out as soon as we had checked in and wandered round the extensive local food market. I wanted to try some of the new foods, so bought a banana leaf parcel from one woman sitting on the roadside. Immediately, she delightedly leapt up and, grinning toothlessly from ear to ear, plucked my chin and squeezed my dimples making me laugh before i realised it. As we continued walking, people would try to catch our attention with a loud hello, but, used to blocking out cries for money or services, we ignored them. It was only after half an hour of this had passed and we'd walked past 50 smiling faces, that it dawned on us: they're really just saying hello! For the first time in a couple of weeks I was smiling from the heart again, and really laughing with relief. Our spirits soared.
We left the port town in the morning and made our way by a short bus ride to Cantho, from which we wanted to arrange a journey to see the famous floating markets of the Mekong (immortalised by the postcards). We had been told that the best way, if you're not on a tour, was to head to the waterfront and you'd be inundated by cheap offers from local fishermen and women. So we dutifully obeyed the guidebook and put off our hotel manager (who was desperately trying to sell us his option before we'd even dropped our bags in our bedroom) and head to the river. We spent the next hour and a half in the burning heat trying to look our most tourist-like and lure people to us, but for the first time in SE Asia no such sales people were forthcoming and eventually we gave up and retired to the nearest air con cafe for an iced fruit shake. It was only later that evening, once we had agreed to take our hotel option and had head back to the waterfront for dinner and were positively hounded by boat owners, that we realised our mistake. Sane people don't go out in the 40 degree midday heat, not even the locals.
But as it worked out, we loved the option we'd taken. Han, our boat driver (and no doubt some relative of the hotel manager) picked us up at 5.30am to walk down to the dock and his fishing boat. We had a simple breakfast of baguette and bananas and sweet Vietnamese coffeeas the sun rose over the Mekong and we motored towards the markets. There was a a morning haze of blue light over the banks, but we could see schoolchildren making their way to school (so early!) and men lined up on the bridges throwing their arms to the sky in their morning exercises. We passed women in cone hats, rowing their fruit and veg wares to the market in unique style that involves standing at the rear of the wide wooden boat and sharply thrusting two long thin blades into the water either side of this position. It looks tiring, and slow, but they always turned to meet us with a smile.
The floating market itself was - crowded. The river was crowded, and the boats were crowded, full to overflowing with pineapples, bananas, jackfruit, dorian, oranges and hundreds of all types of vegetables which were marked for sale by tying one of each vegetable sold to the mast, so that you can see where to head from afar. THe area was alive with noise - motors, and chattering voices not only selling their wares, but also locked ina mothers' meeting natter, boats pulled up alongside the other and cone hats wedged in close, shielding their faces from the sun. Han picked up one old woman who was struggling with a boat full of bananas and towed her to the market, weaving behind our motorboat and calling to her neighbours to take a look at the hilarious sight. Her laughter and wide, toothless smile was infectious and we were practically tipping the boat over with all the howling and handclapping and picture taking going on.
We turned away from the market still sucking on pieces of super sweet pineapple and made our way to the back canals through the riverside villages. Fighting our way through water weeds had Han frequently expostulating and tipping the motor up to free the blades, but we made it to the rive noodle making plant eventually and stopped to watch the family form the wide, flat noodle discs and set them in the sun to dry. Han was an excellent guide, who, though he spoke little English, would excitedly point out the local fruit delicacies and cut them for us to try. He spent a good half hour running through some Vietnamese basic vocab with us and wouldn't stop till we had the pronunciation just right. And he knew the villages - in fact he lived there - and took us to the monkey bridges which crossed the canals, urgingus to cross the terrifyingly thin wood (which I did, still unconvinced that anything with a handrail just above my knee would hold such a massive giant as me). We stopped to drink homemade beer and bits of chewy squid entrails with his friends, which was all going swimmingly (apart from the grim food and drink) until they got a bit overenthusiastic and started proposing to us, causing us to make a sharpish exit!
The sights and sounds and excitements of the day wore us out and we slept well the night before our four hour bus journey to Saigon (HCMC). Arriving in the big city was a bit of a shock after the relative calm of the villages (particularly after nearly being run over by a motorbike stocked chock to the brim with ducks), but we found an amazing bright room on the 4th floor of one of the back alley guesthouses for only $3 each a night. (It's called Hung Thinh, on De Than St, if anyone's looking for a tip.)
The rainy season had started in earnest in Southern Vietnam, and our days were punctuated with bouts of monsoon showers which had everyone running for shelter or hiding under multi-coloured plastic sheets with hoods, but we managed to make it to the sites we wanted to see. Central Saigon has a huge market full of clothes, souvenirs and food stalls and we got lost one rainy morning buying cheap earrings and snacks. Venturing out for a 5-hour saunter around the city (which is no mean feat given the crazy lack of road crossings or road safety!), we stopped off at the Reunification Palace - the ex-President's palace before the reunified Vietnam 34 year ago - and toured four floors of grand rooms, cinema and casino (but a truly pathetic library!). Having watched the historical video (in Vietnamese, so we didn't learn much!), it was interesting to see that what is now a plain, box-like structure once had a facade to rival Versailles. The french architecture was destroyed in 1954 (when Vietnam became temporarily divided and the palace became the centre of government for southern Vietnam) in a bid to reflect the country's own heritage and not it's french protectorate's.
Most memorable of our time in Saigon, though, was a trip to Ve Vao Cong, the War Remnants Museum. I found it baffling that the Vietnam War is so much a part of popular culture and our recent history, and yet i had SO little awareness of the historical facts or chronology of the events. Reading the Vietnamese point of view, and seeing the pictures of the people left disfigured for generations from the Agent Orange experiments, was hugely enlightening and moving. From a PR perspective, it was also interesting to see how the facts as presented by the Vietnamese notice boards were reported very differently in the American press at the time, even magazines like Time.
If our stay in Saigon gave us a a cold hard hit of reality, then you could say that next stop Hoi An, midway up the country, was a trip into fairyland. Flying in (in a bid to save 15 hours of bus journey on what was already too short a trip) we descended into a UNESCO World Heritage Site of yellow-bricked houses on the banks of a brown Mekong. Coloured lanterns line the streets and fill the trees where at night the locals father to play a traditional form of bingo. Here there is no fluoro lighting or dodgy chicken leg - the organisers sing (apparently very) comical songs while pictures are drawn from a box and paraded around on wooden slats before being hung from a string of paper lanterns in the middle of the group. Every time your picture appears, to match those on the wooden slat you have bought, you get a yellow flat and when you have three flags, you win. There is a real community spirit in the game, even though they welcome foreigners, and when the local nutter wheels her bike into the centre of the group and starts striking a few pantomime poses, refusing to be removed by the jester-like character of the set up, there is no malice behind the locals' laughter and head-tapping (though equally it doesn't actually occur to them to be a bit more politically correct or sensitive!!).
Hanoi is a dress lover's dream. There are eight tailors to every street, handmaking coats and suits to any style. Desperate for an original and well-fitting winter coat (even though the thought of wearing one in this heat was laughable), I picked out a dream design, was fitted, and 24-hours later was the proud owner of the most beautiful aubergine silk-lined black evening coat. Gingerly i carried it lovingly in my arms to the post office and watched through my fingers as the postmistress took it from me and screwed it up tightly, taping it in reams of packing tape to be sent home to England. I just hope my sisters don't get a hold of it before I'm home or I'll never see it again!
And if you're not at the tailor's, you're probably in the restaurants in Hoi An. Famour for local specialities like White Rose (a white prawn dumpling), wontons with bruschetta-esque toppings and Cau Lau (a pork noodle soup), it really is a culinary dream. We spent an afternoon in school, learning to cook some of the dishes we'd tried and loved (including spreing rolls and an incredible chilli and lemongrass fish dish), and wandering round the local food market with the owner of our favourite restaurant, Gioan, learning how to pick out the best pineapple, fish and vegetables. Borough Market isn't going to know what's hit it when i'm home!
Most of the rest of our stay in Hoi An was spent cycling around the local villages, vegetable plots, and to the beach. It was the best way to see the locals' habits, usually sat outside their homes playing games and glancing up as we cycled by. The beach itself was beautiful and full of first schoolchildren, the workers, winding down on a sunny friday afternoon. Bikini-clad sunning wasn't really the thing, as the locals swam fully clothed, so we mainly read and watched them fly kites as the light failed.
We made the capital Hanoi our last city stop in our two week stay in Vietnam, and mainly saw it as a stop off point en route to Halong Bay where we wanted to spend one night on board a junk. We did spend a day walking round the city, seeing sites like the Temple of Literature (full of Confucian teachings) but it was another hot and smoggy day after the relative calm of Hoi An - and Jess got her wallet pinched on the streets - so we were glad to leave and lose ourselves on the water again. The only real highlight was sitting around the lake in the centre of town as the sun set and the locals limbered up for their regular joint exercise sessions. We got chatting to one fo the students from the city's university and were soon joined by an ancient professor of mathematics who delightedly expounded his latest chinese medicine theories to me in French (which, incidentally, have worked since i started employing them that evening!).
The Halong Bay trip was HEAVEN. The water was calm, the sea and sky were perfect complementary shades of blue, and the limestone rocks which rose majestically from the sea were shrouded in a haze of blue-green light which combined to give an impression of sheer magic. Even the other dark wood junks full of tourists added to the scenery as they unfurled their wide orange sails and docked in the bay. We kayaked and swam as the sun set, leaping off the top of the junks into a golden red mist landscape and cool turquoise water. The night was spent laughing under the stars on top deck with the other passangers - especially a 64-year old chinese woman from Newcastle who was en route with her neighbour to boogie the night away at Koh Phangan's full moon party, which she told us in still not perfect English, but with a decidedly pronounced "innit?!" at the end of her wonderful sentences.
Two weeks is not long enough to spend in Vietnam. I can't wait to go back (armed with MANY more designs for those Hoi An tailors!).