A Travellerspoint blog

May 2009

You say Kuala, I say Koala

And why we called the whole (India) thing off

Hello all,

I am typing this in a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur. I’m not supposed to be in Kuala Lumpur, I’m supposed to be in New Delhi, but due to a cock-up of … well, not quite epic proportions, but pretty darned bad, Malaysia Airlines refused to let us on the plane. (No, no, I know what you’re thinking, but we were not drunk and disorderly, honest. We were gonna wait until we were actually on the plane before doing that!) The thing is, we forgot to get Indian visas, and unfortunately they don’t sell them at the airport. It’s our own fault: Pete was convinced he’d checked and it said that as British citizens we didn’t need ‘em; I just took his word for it. Turns out we were both wrong – a bit of a costly mistake! It took Pete two hours of arguing with the airline staff before they agreed to change our flights to another day. Our e-ticket said that we could change dates or cancel for a fee; Malaysian Airlines said that our tickets were not refundable or exchangeable under any circumstances; we said that our e-ticket was a legally binding document, and if they put incorrect information on it that was their problem, not ours… and so it went on!

Still, secretly I’m glad for another few days in Kuala Lumpur. It is a fabulous city – a mixture of modern urban and native rainforest. We love it here! It’s also one of the places I’d always wanted to visit ‘cos I liked its name (*). I first heard it mentioned was when I was very little; unfortunately I misheard what was being said and spent the next umpteen years thinking it was Koala Lumpur. Imagine my disappointment when I finally found out the truth and that it wasn’t a city full of cute eucalyptus-addicted marsupials after all!

(*) Other cool-sounding places I’d like to visit include: Azerbaijan, Timbuktu, Martha’s Vineyard, Alice Springs, Constantinople (before they renamed it Istanbul), Rangoon (before they renamed it Yangon) and my favourite: Looneyville, Texas. (I think I’d be right at home there!)

We spent the first few days here simply relishing the fact that we were back in civilization as we know it, and spent way too long in shopping malls enjoying the restaurants and the cinemas. (And, if I’m honest, the fantastic air conditioning. KL is practically perched on top of the equator, so every time we step outside we are met with a wall of heat and humidity. I think the locals have liquid nitrogen in their veins instead of blood, though, ‘cos there was an outdoor market near our last hotel that sold scarves, hats, gloves and leather jackets! Who’s buying these things, heaven only knows.)

So, eventually we’d seen every movie worth seeing and decided we ought to see if there was anything outside the malls. We were happy to discover the existence of the KL Tourist Bus service, which lets you buy a 24-hour ticket and hop on and off at various points around the city. There is an excellent monorail service here, too, but the buses are more convenient for reaching the more out-of-the-way parts of the city. Taxis are also plentiful, but they are very expensive, plus it’s a miracle if you can get a driver who will agree to put you on the meter instead of offering you an extortionate flat rate.

Two buildings that are heavily advertised here are the Petronas Twin Towers, and the KL Telecommunications Tower. Both have observation decks where you get to see amazing views of the city. The Petronas Towers were next door to the mall we’d been hanging out in, so we grabbed our camera and tried to get in there. No go. Tickets are free but limited; they start handing them out at 8 o’clock in the morning and they’re usually gone within the hour. (Apparently some people start queuing at 5.00am, the nutters!) We agreed that there was no way we were getting up at that indecent hour, stunning views or no, so we switched to Plan B and headed over to the KL Tower.

The KL Tower is not free, but it has a whole bunch of attractions included in the price of the ticket: an F1 simulator, Animal World, Winter Garden, and guided walk through the rainforest. We had half an hour to spare before the next rainforest walk, so we thought we’d spend it in the animal centre.

I nearly never made it.

We were heading that way, but I had to do a sudden about-face when I saw some guy standing by the entrance with a freakin’ boa constrictor around his neck. (Said guy is hereafter referred to as Barmy Bloke, ‘cos no sensible person would voluntarily use a snake as a fashion accessory!) *Shudder*. I hate snakes. Hate them. In case you haven’t caught on yet, I think this is the time to mention that I have a real phobia about the things. They are nasty, slithery, scaly creatures that have no place on a civilized planet, and when I am Supreme Ruler of the Universe, the first thing I am going to do is ban snakes (**).

I immediately cross to the other side of the road and tell Pete, “You go in. Tell me all about it when you get back. I’ll just be behind that palm tree, whimpering quietly.”

Pete says, “I’ll go and have a word.”

Now, from my position behind the palm tree on the other side of the road I am unable to hear what is being said, but I do notice a lot of gesticulating on Pete’s part, and what I am certain is an equal amount head-shaking and eye-rolling from Barmy Bloke. One thing is clear: Barmy Bloke is not willing to do the reasonable thing here, i.e. put the snake in a cardboard box, inside a wooden crate, inside a lockable metal container, seal it with sticky tape, duct tape, superglue, 1000 meters of chain, a blooming big padlock and a welding gun, then call a courier and immediately have the thing dispatched express to Siberia. That would be the reasonable thing to do under the circumstances. But Barmy Bloke, apparently, ain’t going nowhere, and neither is the monstrosity writhing round his neck.

Bummer.

Pete comes back and informs me that the staff have agreed to let us in through the back door, thereby avoiding all things Barmy and Snaky. Good ‘nuff. Inside there are cute things like monkeys and bunnies and guinea pigs. This makes me happy, ‘cos monkeys and bunnies and guinea pigs are fluffy and not writhy and scaly at all.

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Here is a picture of a cute bunny, in case all this talk of snakes is traumatising you. (Don’t worry, there aren’t any pictures of nasty serpents in this blog, ‘cos I wouldn’t let Pete take any!)

It doesn’t last, of course. The reason Barmy Bloke is outside with his freaky pet is to attract people into the building and persuade them to have their photos taken with various (creepy) animals. Pete wants a go. He declines to handle a snake, thank god – I’d have to dump him if he’d done that! – but he did want to hold a little bearded dragon. I am in charge of taking his photograph, which is all well and good, but what you can’t see from the pictures is the row of glass cases just to my right which contain more rotten snakes! I am not at all happy about this, but I take the photos anyway. It is a testament to the quality of my camera that my hand-jitters don’t show in the pictures.

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Pete and a bearded dragon - much nicer than a snake!
Pete's not bad, either :-)

After that I have had enough and beg for my freedom (through the back door again, naturally).

So, having successfully avoided Barmy Bloke a second time, we make our way to the base of the tower and wait for a guide to take us on a short tour of the rainforest. I know there are snakes in the forest ‘cos I saw the warning signs on the way in, but I am hoping that the guide will be carrying a machine gun and few hand grenades in case we see one. (People say such stupid things about snakes: “They’re more scared of you than you are of them” being a perennial favourite. I disagree. Put me and a python in an enclosed space and see which of us ends up drooling in a padded room first. I think you’ll find I’ll win that one, thank you very much!)

Mr. Guide arrives and I am disappointed to see that is carrying nothing but a map and a small photo album. I console myself with the thought that he might have a stun gun or a can of Mace in his pocket. At the very least I am banking on his having a primitive, homemade catapult at the ready. I have no time to ask him about this, ‘cos as soon as our little group is assembled, he’s heading for the trees.

Mr G. is a fantastic guide and is obviously enthusiastic about the natural world. There were four of us on the tour: a guy from the UK, a lady from Thailand, and us two (dis)honorary Kiwis. Mr G. spends a few minutes giving us a Natural Geographic pop quiz: “What’s the highest mountain in New Zealand?” “How many species of orchid are there in Thailand?” and so on, until he realises we are all equally clueless and don’t have a GCSE in geography or biology between us.

He knows the answers to all his questions, though; he is a veritable walking botanical encyclopedia! One of the many factoids imparted to us that day is the fact that cicadas can tell when it’s going to rain. If they are making a noise, the weather will be fine; when they go silent, look for shelter. We didn’t think much more about this other than, “Oh, that’s interesting” until the final few minutes of the tour. Mr. G. stops, listens, then suddenly starts to run. “The cicadas are quiet!” he yells back at us. We huff and puff along behind, and finally make it to the base of the tower thinking it was all a big fuss about nothing… and then the skies open up. It’s a belter of a storm: thunder, lightening, the works. If he hadn’t hurried us along, we’d have been soaked in two seconds flat!

The storm poses another problem, though, ‘cos we haven’t yet been up to the tower observation deck. We decide to go and sit in a café for a while instead, and wait for it to pass.

It doesn’t. If anything it gets heavier, and a thick fog descends.

We eventually realise that we could be there all day, so we figure we have two other choices: a) Call it a day and go home; or b) Go up to the deck anyway and have a look at a whole lot of nothing. We choose b), ‘cos we’d paid 38 Ringgit each for those tickets and wanted our money’s worth.

It wasn’t as bad as wed feared, up in the tower. You could see some of the city, even through the fog.

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Here’s one of our pictures from the KL Tower. Not exactly the spectacular views advertised, eh?

Despite the heat, snakes, storms and thieving taxi drivers, ‘Koala’ Lumpur really is a fabulous city. We are intending to return some time soon for a proper extended stay (not just an accidental one ‘cos we can’t get a plane elsewhere!)

Having finally sorted out the Indian visas, we are now able to fly to Europe. We are heading to Athens initially, but intend to get out of the city a.s.a.p. and go to one of the pretty little islands nearby. Then we are going to find a hotel with a swimming pool and a bar, and do nothing all day except read and drink cocktails. It is this thought that will help me survive two consecutive days of long-haul flights.

See ya by the poolside!

Julie & Pete

(**) Other things I am going to ban include: reality TV (is any explanation really needed here? I thought not.); those *&$##@! stupid shoes with squeakers in the heels that people insist on buying for little kids (You wanna know where your sprog is? Put child reins on ‘em, for heaven’s sake, and stop inflicting that dreadful noise on the rest of us!); root beer, for being the most disgusting concoction known to man; the use of ‘ur’ for ‘you’re’ – actually extend that to cover all l33t ‘speak’; mowing your lawn before 9.00am on weekdays (and 1.00pm weekends); giant soulless malls that sell nothing but designer clothes (to nobody, apparently; the shops are always empty); pubs that insist on showing sports on TV, even when there’s nobody watching; annoying radio DJs (that’s probably 99% of ‘em!); non-existent road works (when your lane is blocked by ten miles of traffic cones, but there’s no construction worker in sight); skorts (the dreadful combination of a skirt and shorts. (Why???? What's the point???); the forwarding of chain letters or spam emails that contain urban myths. (Stop wasting our bandwidth!)

Indulge in these things while you still can, people, as my Master Plan will come to fruition soon. Now will you please excuse me while I go off and do a bit of maniacal laughing for an hour or so? Thank you…

Posted by Julie1972 18:48 Archived in Malaysia Comments (2)

Miss Saigon?

Maybe. It’s been fun, but we're also ready to go somewhere new.

This will be my last post about Vietnam. Our thirty days suddenly came to an end, catching us by surprise.

After our busy time in Hue we wanted to go somewhere a little more relaxing, so we headed out to the historic town of Hoi An. It’s a popular place for tourists – especially those who like crafts and clothes shopping (*) – and don’t the locals know it! I can sum up Hoi An in just three words:

“Hello. Buy something.”

Morning, noon and night, wherever you go, people are nagging you to enter their stores. Still, with over 300 tailors and 190 souvenir shops it is easy to understand why they are so desperate for custom. It’s hard to see how any of them make a living. Plus it’s especially difficult right now because the recession and fear of not-swine flu means that there are fewer tourists than usual.

However, they find creative ways to get money out of you. When the taxi driver dropped us off in the town centre, the first thing he told us to do was buy a ticket. We erroneously assumed that we needed this in order to enter the town at all. Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so it kind of made sense that there would be an entrance fee. This wasn’t strictly speaking true. The ticket allows you to visit 5 historical places within the town, but you don’t actually need one unless you plan to see those sites. We saw 2/5; the ticket is valid for three days, but it was just too darned hot to go wandering round a bunch of old, non-air-conditioned buildings, even though some of them were pretty impressive-looking.

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Trieu Chau assembly hall in Hoi An.

Despite Hoi An being primarily about shopping and clothes, we were there longer than expected. The place has its own peculiar charm, and we liked the prevalence of restaurants and bars that we could chill out in and escape the heat.

When we were feeling totally chilly, we decided it was time to move on. We couldn’t leave without taking a peek at the largest city in the country, so we then flew down to Ho Chi Minh City. Well, we got there eventually – our flight was delayed for over 2 hours. They apologized, of course, but with an excuse that would have made British Rail (**) proud:

“This flight was delayed due to the late arrival of the plane.”

Translation:

We’re leaving late ‘cos we didn’t get here on time.

Yeah, we already worked that one out, geniuses!

Anyway, one way or another we made it to Saigon.

My first impression was, “Oh no. It’s just like Hanoi!” The same chaos: crowds, cluttered streets, heavy traffic and too much noise with car horns constantly blaring. At first it didn’t seem to have much to recommend it.

We spent a day or two exploring, however, and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the more central districts. Saigon has a very strong French influence which is visible in the architecture (and surplus of bakeries); the European look and feel was comfortable for us, and I didn’t feel as stressed here as I did in Hanoi.

A couple of bits and pieces we saw while we were there:

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Notre Dame, Saigon. Nowhere near as impressive as the famous Parisian version, and you can only get in for a good look around at certain times of the day.

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Inside the Emperor Jade Pagoda. We’ve seen a fair few temples and pagodas on our travels, but this one was pretty special due to the fantastic carved figures they had inside.

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The Independence Palace. The one fact I remember about this place is that during reunification after the Vietnam-American war, they battered down the gates with a tank. Now that is a job I would have wanted. (Except for the fact that I probably would have gotten carried away and rammed the building too!)

At the end of the day…

Our stay in Vietnam was unusual – for us – in that we spent so long here and saw a large chunk of the east coast. There were good bits and not-so-good bits, but I wish now that I had done a bit more research beforehand so I wouldn’t have been caught by surprise. We came here in a hurry, however, keen to escape Bangkok while the riots were going on, so our sudden arrival here was in unusual circumstances.

Below is a short of summary of my personal highlights and lowlights, including some things I wish I’d known before I got here!

The lowlights:

Tannoy systems

The majority of towns and cities have a series of loudspeakers along their streets, and twice a day The Authorities (or someone) blast out very long and very loud speeches. At first we didn’t know what this was for, but we later found out that it is a mixture of news, public service announcements and propaganda.

The really annoying thing about them? They generally start at 6am, and there’s usually one directly outside your hotel window!

Traffic

I think the proper way to start this section is with a public apology to cyclists in Japan. Those of you with good memories will remember my complaint about the prevalence of bicycles on Tokyo’s city streets, but I understand now that I completely overreacted. Sorry, guys! Compared to Vietnam, getting around Tokyo is a pleasurable stroll in the park!

Now, I know I have already ranted at length about Vietnamese drivers, but I have news for you: drivers in Saigon are even worse than their northern counterparts. They drive their motorcycles on the pavement then have the nerve to honk at pedestrians! It is unlike anything I have ever seen, and makes leaving your hotel room a dodgy prospect indeed. Saigon bikers are also the rudest, most impatient drivers I have had to deal with so far. When I am driving in New Zealand I don’t tend to get road rage, but walking down the street in Saigon brings on a bad case of Pedestrian Rage. Here’s an example of what we had to deal with:

Saigon_traffic.jpg
We actually had to cross this road, and only managed to do it by cheating: we latched onto a local and followed her! We couldn’t face crossing back again when it was time to go home, so we stayed where we were and hailed a cab.

Vendors

As you may have gathered, the vendors in Vietnam are, on the whole, very pushy. They see you coming from a mile off, and will start shouting at you before you get anywhere near their stalls. Many of them won’t take no for an answer, and some of them act angry or offended when you refuse them. (The teenage girls are the worst; they have perfected the Death Glare!) We understand that it’s just business and they are trying to make a living, but at the end of the day neither of us likes being bullied at or feeling pressured. We got very good at refusals in the end. The first time they asked, we gave a polite, “No thank you”; second time we simply said, “No”; and thereafter we ignored them completely and walked away. On the whole we tried to avoid vendors who nagged; if we had a choice, we’d always go to the one who asked politely.

Perceived rudeness


The constant horn honking, yelling and general aggressiveness of some of the people here can feel very rude by Western standards. On the surface, Vietnam seems a quite inconsiderate nation. We’ve been woken up more times than we can count by locals having ‘conversations’ (i.e. shouting) outside our door at all hours of the morning; the pavements are constantly crowded with bikes and café furniture; pedestrians have no rights whatsoever; and don’t expect anyone to move if they’re standing in your way: you’ll just get a blank stare if you ask to get by. It can be quite some time before you recognise that they’re not deliberately being difficult and trying to raise your blood pressure to boiling point, it’s just the way things are here. The differences in cultural standards and social interactions are easier to cope with once you understand that you need to ignore your Western filters and start thinking like a Vietnamese.

The highlights:

The people

Despite everything I’ve just said, we met some genuinely lovely people during our time in Vietnam: Thao, our tour guide from Ninh Binh, and Long and Ken, the cheerful cyclo riders from Hue who invited us out for a beer with them after our second trip. Even though English is not prevalent here, the majority of locals tried hard to interact with us, and many took obvious pleasure in simply being able to say, “Hello”. Also, whenever we stopped to consult our map, someone would invariably wander over and offer to give us directions. Although there is poverty here, the Vietnamese people seem happy with the little they have, and we saw no evidence of the social problems (violence, vandalism, etc.) that plague certain first-world nations. Crime rates are low, and we felt safe on the streets both day and night (apart from having to play dodgems with the traffic, of course!)

Sailing down the Tam Coc River

For me, this particular trip will always be memorable for two reasons:

i) It was my first glimpse of Vietnam’s stunning countryside.
ii) It was here that I first realised that I could enjoy Vietnam after all.

All in all, it was a very peaceful and relaxing couple of hours.

The Vinh Moc tunnels

It was a goal of mine to see Vinh Moc, and I am still in complete awe of the ingenuity and stamina of the locals who created the tunnels. It is one thing to read about something or see it on TV, and quite another to experience it for yourself. Me, I’d have gone stir-crazy in such a confined space in no time at all!

In conclusion:

I’m glad we saw Vietnam, even though it is not a place I plan to revisit any time soon. It is a beautiful country, and has the added bonus of being cheap, making it a great destination for anyone on a budget. I did have a problem with culture shock for a while, and although I am glad I was able to work through that, I think perhaps it would have been more sensible to leave such a challenging country until later in the trip. (On the bright side, though, now I’ve survived Vietnam, I’m pretty confident I can survive anything!)

So, goodbye, Vietnam; it’s been fun, but we are now ready for something new. We’re off to Malaysia next.

Bye for now

from

Julie & Pete

(*) Apparently if you want custom-made clothes, Hoi An is the place to go. We discussed having some things made briefly, then decided that we could do without the extra weight to carry. We may pop back on our way home… if we have any money left, that is!

(**) For those of you lucky enough never to have experienced train travel courtesy of British Rail, check out this list of excuses. Some of them are incredible. This is one of my favourites: “There will be no further trains due to a giraffe becoming entangled in the overhead wires”. It’s comedy gold!

Posted by Julie1972 03:52 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

A Long Hue To Go (continued...)

If you were paying attention last time, the heading should make sense.

I know I promised to post this a few days ago, but my previous hotel’s Wi-Fi connection refused to cooperate. Sorry. Also, due to the number of photos in this post, I've had to make them all thumbnails. Click on them for the bigger versions, as usual...

So, where was I? Oh, yes…

A couple of days later we ran into Long again. This time he had the bright idea of giving us a half-day tour of the area on motorcycles. If I was concerned about the cyclos, the idea of getting on a motorbike in Vietnamese traffic made me break out in a cold sweat. Again Pete was unconcerned, and Long, as usual, was persuasive. He introduced us to his friend, ‘Ken’ (not his real name, but close enough), who would be riding the second bike. He was also a really nice guy. He had all his limbs, full sight in both eyes and a bike that seemed solid with no evidence of being in a recent crash. (Picky, maybe, but a girl’s gotta have standards!) He also told me that the bike was his own and he had been riding for over fourteen years. And then he produced a crash helmet that actually fitted me.

I guess by this time I was kind of committed to the project, doubts or no.

Ken was a really careful rider. He knew I was nervous. Well, it was kind of a clue when we introduced ourselves and the first thing out of my mouth was, “Pleased to meet you, Ken. I’m Julie. Whatever you do, do not drop this bike!” He just laughed and kindly agreed to let me hold onto his waist, but it was clear within about twenty seconds that I was gonna crush the poor guy’s ribs. I considerately switched my talon-like grip to the rail behind the seat; I swear he sighed with relief. I don’t blame him in the slightest. Driving is bad enough in this country without having to worry about having the air squashed out of you by a panicky tourist!

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Long (left) and ‘Ken’: very nice guys and great drivers!

What a day that was. We started off touring a couple of royal tombs (Khai Dinh, which was incredibly ornate, and Minh Mang, which was quite boring-looking in comparison).

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Khai Dinh was Emperor of Vietnam between 1916 and 1925. He financed the building of his tomb by raising taxes on the peasantry. It's easy to understand why he wasn't terribly popular!

Long wanted us to do three tombs in total, but really, two dead dudes is more than enough for us in one day, so instead we asked to be taken to the Ho Chi Minh museum. We didn’t have any particular motivation to see this place; neither of us knew anything much about Vietnamese history or politics other than what we'd seen in movies, but it was an interesting way to spend an hour. ‘Uncle Ho’ (as he is known here) was obviously a very intelligent guy with strongly-held beliefs about what was right for his country. Whatever your political ideology, it’s hard not to admire someone who has the nerve to stand up and tell politicians that they should be honest, good role models, and take responsibility for their mistakes. The West could learn a thing or two there, I think.

After the stifling heat of the museum, we were keen to get back on the bikes and spend some time in the open air. Long had a bright idea:

“I take you to Japanese bridge,” he told us.

“How far?” we asked.

“Not far,” he replied.

Of course, we should have realized that ‘not far’ in Long-ese could mean anything up to 100 kilometers away, and the bridge turned out to be outside the city. I have to admit, this was my favourite part of the whole trip. Not the bridge itself, though that was pretty enough, but the getting there. I’d forgotten how much better the world looks from the back of a bike.

The journey took us through the countryside and several Vietnamese villages. Unlike in Hoi An, the locals weren’t putting on an act for the tourists’ benefit, and we got a glimpse into their daily lives as we drove by. I enjoyed seeing the unexpected items in their front yards: the small shrines, the haystacks, ducks and chickens and even a few buffalo. There is a lot of poverty in Vietnam, but the overall mood was positive. Even in the most run-down areas people were cheerful; many waved and yelled greetings at our drivers as we passed. This was a pleasant thing to see. Vietnam has had a rough past, being occupied by the Chinese, Japanese, French and Americans. From the little I have gathered talking to local people, they are now enjoying being a free nation again. Good for them!

Ken and I actually arrived at the Japenese bridge way before Pete and Long. For a while we were worried they’d fallen off or something, but it turns out they’d just run out of petrol. Never mind; while we were waiting I was distracted by the most gorgeous puppy. He was obviously only a week or two old – when his owner put down a plate of food for him, he got pushed out of the way by half a dozen greedy chickens, that’s how small he was! I, being a dog lover, was completely smitten by the cute little guy. If I could have brought him back with me, I would have. Ken and the other locals found my preoccupation with the pup hilarious. Although they keep dogs as pets here, their attitudes towards them are very different. Dogs aren’t pampered or petted they way they are back home, and are not encouraged to approach people for attention. On the whole, the dogs I’ve seen here have been very well behaved. Of course, this makes sense in a country where they are also considered food. It’s less a case of ‘dinner’s in the dog’, but more ‘dinner is the dog’, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, Pete and Long finally arrived; my cute puppy, having eventually managed to rescue some of his dinner from the chooks, curled up and went fast asleep. I had no more distractions, so off we went to inspect the bridge.

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Thanh Toan Bridge (a.k.a. the Japanese Bridge). Tran Thi Dao, the wife of a high-ranking Mandarin in Le Hien Tong's court, initiated construction of this bridge in order to improve transportation and communication in the village. Emperor Khai Dinh (him with the posh tomb I mentioned earlier) obviously wasn't all bad, as in 1925 he granted Tran Thi Dao a posthumous title for her good works, and ordered the villagers to place an altar on the bridge in her memory.

On the other side of the bridge was the smallest museum I have ever seen. It had a staff of one: a tiny, elderly Vietnamese lady who spoke barely a word of English, but who still managed to entertain us for twenty minutes or so by giving us practical demonstrations of equipment used by the local farmers in everyday life. She took us through the rice harvesting cycle, miming cutting with a scythe, then showing us how the grains are separated, ground and made into flour. She also demonstrated buffalo herding, field ploughing and catching fish – all the while smiling broadly for the camera and encouraging us to take photos. At the end she wouldn’t let us leave until she’d had a picture taken with each of us in turn – we were surprised by how tiny she was; Pete looks like a giant next to her!

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This little old lady is possibly the most enthusiastic museum curator anywhere, ever!

On the way back to the bikes we were accosted by another little old lady. This one spoke better English, and said that she wanted to tell my fortune. I think palm reading is a load of old hooey, but I indulged her because it was easier than saying “no” a hundred times ‘til she got the message. Madam Fortune Teller made three predictions:

1) I’m going to have 3 kids; the first one’s due next year apparently. (Um, no; not in this lifetime, anyway.)
2) Next year I’m going to be very happy (I do hope so.)
3) There will be alcohol in my future (Ditto.)

Two out of three ain’t bad, I suppose. We thanked her and gave her a few thousand dong, then returned to the bikes, laughing at prediction #1 (she was so obviously telling me what she thought women of my age wanted to hear!), and discussing the likelihood of prediction #2; we reckon that prediction #3 will help enormously in #2’s development.

So, another good day; but the sightseeing wasn’t yet over in Hue. The one place I really wanted to see when we came to Vietnam was the DMZ: the demilitarized zone from the Vietnam War (or, as they refer to it over here, the American War).

The DMZ is approximately 70km outside of Hue. There are bus tours available, of course, but they are 12 hours long, starting at 6am. (Noooooo!) Some quick research on the Internet confirmed our worst fears: of these 12 hours, 8 were spent on the bus. Many people also said that these tours tried to cover too many places in one day (most of which we had no interest in seeing anyway), so we rejected this as an option and instead choose to take a more expensive private tour. We hired a car, a driver and an English-speaking guide, and took a trip that lasted approximately seven hours (starting at the more reasonable hour of 10am). Instead of trying to see everything in the area, we just focused on the highlights.

First we visited an abandoned American military base, of which little remained except the rusting shell of a tank and a couple of bunkers; the rest was overgrown with thick weeds. The DMZ was supposed to be a ‘safe zone’ between the north and the south, but as we walked along the guide pointed out holes in the ground: large ones (craters from explosions) and smaller ones (where locals have dug up unexploded bombs). She told us that the bombs are still a problem in the area, and that there are several deaths every month, mainly children who don’t fully understand the dangers. She herself had a small hand injury from a bomb that exploded when she was in primary school – some boys were playing football with it when it went off. The stories were sad and the abandoned base was vaguely spooky. In all honesty, I was glad to leave.

From there we headed to the Ben Hai River and the Reunification Bridge (a duplicate, as the original was damaged in the conflict). During the war each side painted part of the bridge in ‘their’ colours, so one half was red, and the other half was blue. It’s strange walking across that bridge now, knowing how the country was divided then. Family members didn’t see each other for years! The two sides finally reunified on July 2, 1976, becoming the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

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Us posing on the Reunification Bridge, trying not to look too windswept!

The best part of the tour by far was our visit to the Vinh Moc tunnels. This network of tunnels was used to transport soldiers and supplies towards the south, and covered 100s of kilometers on three levels. When bombs were dropping, up to three hundred Vietnamese people lived in the tunnels for days at a time. There were tiny ‘family areas’ – barely bigger than a large box – water wells, washing rooms, cooking areas, meeting rooms and even a health station. Our guide told us that 17 babies were born in the tunnels; amazingly all of them survived. (What a start to life they had, eh?)

We got to walk through part of the network. It was a bizarre experience. It’s hot and stuffy down there, the steps are steep and slippery, and the tunnels are cramped (for us tall Westerners, anyway!) It’s impossible not to bump your head on the ceiling in places (*). Although it must have been a very strange way to live, the tunnels were a success: none of villagers were killed, and the one bomb that made a direct hit failed to explode, so they used the resulting hole as a ventilation shaft!

Julie-Vinh_Moc_Tunnel.jpg
Me and our guide (name now forgotten!), in the Vinh Moc Tunnels. There are similar tunnels in Saigon, but I'm glad we got to go to Vinh Moc. I've heard you have to crawl through the other ones - not good for claustrophobics! I don't think I'd have enjoyed that very much.

And so ended a tiring few days in Hue. After all this touristy stuff we decided we wanted to hang out and chill for a while, so we continued down the coast to Da Nang and Hoi An. I shall tell you all about our overindulgences there very soon!

(*) Still, looking on the bright side, after many, many years of head-banging by lanky tourists, the ceiling height will increase and we won’t have to stoop any more!

Posted by Julie1972 01:12 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

A Long Hue To Go

This heading will only make sense once you've read the entry. Sorry.

So, after a week or so of being a couple of beach bums, we are now back on the road being good tourists doing touristy things. We’ve been exploring cities in central Vietnam, starting with the ancient city of Hue (pronounced ‘way’. That heading makes a tad more sense now, eh?). In contrast to many of the places we’ve seen up north, Hue is very Western-orientated, and there are many more European faces. It’s a nice change from Sam Son where we felt very conspicuous!

It is worth mentioning at this point that our major mode of transportation over long distances has been the train. The trains offer a variety of services of varying standards, and the quality of the service is determined by the prefix before the train number. Roughly speaking, trains starting with ‘TN’ are cheaper, but do not necessarily have comfortable seats or air conditioning; we use the ‘SN’ trains which are more expensive, but you get an allocated seat in an air-conditioned carriage. For more details, check out the website below, including information on overnight sleeper carriages:

http://www.seat61.com/Vietnam.htm

Note to the wary: Many hotels and travel agents will offer to buy train tickets on your behalf, but it is worth noting that some of them charge a ridiculous amount to do so. You know you are being ripped off when your tickets are handed to you with a piece of cardboard carefully stapled over the price! We removed them, of course, to discover we had paid double the actual value of the tickets. In this case we didn’t mind too much – we figured it was worth the extra for the convenience – but we will keep this in mind for the future and buy them ourselves when possible.

The trains aren’t particularly clean, but then Vietnam is an untidy place. There are no waste bins, so people just leave their rubbish wherever. The train staff do sweep the carriages at regular intervals, however, so the mess never becomes a health hazard. The worst thing by far about Vietnamese trains, though, is a method of torture cunningly disguised as entertainment; it goes by the name of RailTV. Each carriage has a couple of televisions attached to the ceiling, and these play a series of non-stop programmes very, very loudly. Some of the shows are okay – dramas, cartoons, kids’ shows – but the overwhelming majority of the time is taken up with annoying ads and equally annoying music videos. Having spent a fair amount of time in the presence of these things, I came to the conclusion that they were showing a medley of Southeast Asia’s rejected Eurovision Song Contest entries. What’s that you say? Southeast Asia doesn’t enter the ESC? Thank heaven for small mercies!

On one particularly memorable 6-hour journey, I spotted a guy in our carriage who was wearing an identity tag proclaiming him to be a RailTV employee. It was very brave of him, I must say. I’m amazed that the rest of the passengers didn’t get together and beat him to death with their hand luggage. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking this way. The one time the TVs went on the blink the whole carriage gave an audible sigh of relief.

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: take an MP3 player with you, and make sure it is fully charged. Time flies much more quickly when you don’t have to listen to an Elvis looky-likey belting out the Asian equivalent of boy-band songs. Trust me.

Other notes about trains, before I get back onto my fantasies of strangling the sadistic inventor of RailTV:

1) They have toilets – some Asian-style, some Western – but they are generally not very pleasant. Take your own loo roll as there’s no guarantee any will be provided.

2) They (often) provide free bottles of water, and have a food service. They sell a variety of snack foods: corn on the cob, chicken wings, popcorn, etc. but if you order a main meal you don’t get a choice. From what I saw on one train, you get a lot of rice, some veg and a couple of meatball thingies. Large serving sizes, though, and it seemed popular with the locals.

In conclusion: the trains aren’t particularly fast, but they are pretty reliable and get you where you’re going without all the swerving, honking and near-death experiences associated with driving in Vietnam.

And in such a fashion, we arrived in Hue.

I liked it immediately. The place had a really friendly, laid-back atmosphere, plus dozens and dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which offered Western food. Having just over-indulged in all things yummy at the Sun Spa resort, I was keen for more of the same, and we soon made ourselves regulars at an Italian restaurant and drank way too much imported - and therefore horribly expensive - wine. (They actually list the price of wine in US dollars, ‘cos the good stuff costs over one million Vietnamese dong. They’d need to supersize their menus to print the prices!)

Anyway, when we weren’t eating and drinking, we went exploring. Hue has a lot of tourist attractions in easy travelling distance… and this is how we met Long, Vietnam’s only serenading cyclo driver.

Long, to put it mildly, is quite a character. He has a way of ‘wooing’ customers, making a point to shout a cheerful hello at any passing tourists and initiating a conversation when possible. He carries a little book of testimonials written by satisfied customers, and he is quick to show you all the nice things people have written about him. He has a cheeky grin, a wicked sense of humour, and is impossible not to like.

On day 1 in Hue, Long convinced us to hire a couple of cyclos for a trip to the citadel. I was slightly apprehensive due to the crazy traffic, but Pete seemed relaxed enough about the idea, so I just shrugged and trusted myself to Fate and the innate unwillingness of the Vietnamese to run over tourists ‘cos it’s bad for business.

As drivers went, Long wasn’t bad. He even stopped at red lights sometimes. And, because he didn’t have a horn or bell on his vehicle, he’d pedal along shouting, “Beep beep!” at anything that got in his way.

The thing that I will remember forever about that day, though, is being driven over a bridge in a drizzling rain listening to Long belting out a selection of Beatles’ songs (in pretty good English, it must be said). It was quite surreal, very amusing and altogether unexpected. I am hoping for a serenaded nighttime gondola ride when we return to Venice later in the trip, but I’m sure now it’ll just remind of Long and his slightly off-key rendition of ‘Hey, Jude’. Who needs opera, anyway, eh?

Some 'serious' piccys from Hue citadel (click on 'em to enlarge 'em):

hue-citadel01.jpg hue-citadel02.jpg
hue-citadel03.jpg hue-citadel04.jpg
The citadel was built in the early 1800s. The complex is huge, containing an imperial palace, temples, gardens and tombs, but much of it has been destroyed by wars and fire. Restoration projects are currently underway, but we enjoyed the parts we could see. The architecture is amazing in places - so much colour and fine detail!

And a not-so-serious piccy from Hue citadel:

Pete-cannon.jpg
Pete playing silly buggers. Honestly, I can’t take him anywhere!

On the way back, we got a free peek at the tanks outside the American Museum. This is the one that I want:

julie-tank.jpg
Dear Santa, please can I have one of these for Christmas? I promise to be really, really good. (Yeah, right!) One of these days I am going to go on one of those tank adventure days where you get to crush a car. I’m not sure where I get my destructive streak, but this idea definitely appeals to me!

Ooh, look, I’m waffling again. I think I’ll split it into two, like I did with the Japanese entries. More tomorrow…

Posted by Julie1972 05:59 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

No, We’re Not Paranoid…

They really are out to get us!

I have mentioned before that Vietnam is very much an in-your-face kind of country. Tourists attract a lot of attention, and we sometimes feel like we are on display when we’re out in public. I am thinking of changing my name to ‘Hey’, ‘cos a hundred times a day that’s what people shout at us before trying to sell us some product or service. I think ‘tourist’ is synonymous with ‘walking ATM’ in Vietnam. They are insistent salesmen, too; one guy jumped onto a moving bus simply to push a business card into my hand, and we’ve had the same guy offering us the use of his taxi three times in ten minutes. The epitome of optimism, though, had to be the bloke in Hanoi who tried to sell me a baseball cap… while I was already wearing one! It gets a bit wearing saying, “No, thank you” all the time, though. Perhaps I should get it tattooed on my head. Or sewn onto the front of my cap. Maybe the vendors will notice it then.

Anyway, the point is, we are a bit of a novelty in this part of the world. While we were on our day trip to the Thai Vi temple in Ninh Binh a couple of weeks ago, two Vietnamese people approached us and asked if they could have their picture taken with us. We were a bit confused as to their reasons, but agreed, seeing no harm in it. The girl immediately grabbed hold of my arm and grinned like a Cheshire cat, while the fella she was with snapped off a photo. I can only imagine what it’ll be like when she gets home and shows the pictures to her family and friends:

“This is me outside the temple… and this is me next to Buddha’s shrine… oh, and this is me with a couple of European hippies we found wondering around looking a bit lost. Aren’t they simply the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?”

The mind boggles! Oh well, at least they didn’t try and charge us for the pleasure.

The other way in which you can start to feel like a target here is simply walking down the street. The traffic is crazy – like nothing I have ever seen. If they have a road code, nobody pays the slightest bit of attention to it. It is impossible to walk on the pavements because the Vietnamese treat them as car parks, and it’s scary walking in the road because of the sheer amount of unpredictable traffic. And the noise! Everybody honks their horns all of the time, which can be rather deafening.

When I was in sixth form college back in the UK, I had a friend called Nettie. The college was next to a busy main road, but the pedestrian crossings were inconveniently located away from the college gates, which lead to a lot of jay-walking. Nettie had an extremely idiosyncratic approach to crossing the road: she would dash across as quickly as possible, screaming all the way. I once asked her why she did this, and she replied, matter-of-factly, “Oh, it’s in case the drivers are blind. At least this way they’ll be able to hear me.” At the time I thought this was just another example of Nettie’s hilarious quirkiness; now I am convinced that she lived in Vietnam in a previous life. All the guide books will tell you to simply walk at a steady pace when crossing the road here, and let the drivers swerve around you, but Nettie’s dash-and-scream approach seems a lot more realistic. It’s certainly what I want to do every time I set foot outside the door!

Anyway, after more than two weeks of observing traffic here, I think I have worked out the road rules. Below is my take on the Vietnamese Highway Code, should such a thing exist (which I seriously doubt).

THE ROAD CODE, VIETNAM-STYLE:

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre

MSM is for sissies. Just rev your engine and pull out without looking. Nobody will mind if you cut them up, honestly. Some of them will even make an effort to avoid you.

Road signs and road markings

Purely for decoration; ignore them.

Traffic lights

Pretty, aren’t they? Don’t worry what colour they are; red, amber and green all mean ‘go’.

Overtaking

Is some inconsiderate person in your way? No problem! Lean on the horn until (s)he moves. If the aforementioned inconsiderate person refuses to move, simply pull into oncoming traffic and honk at them instead. Someone will give way… usually.

Cyclist and motorcyclists

Are you in a big car, bus or truck and want to overtake a cyclist? Easy! Simply sit on their tail and blare your horn at them until they take the hint and get out of the way. Alternatively pull along side them and nudge them off the road into the nearest ditch or paddy field.

Pedestrians

If you see a pedestrian walking along the side of the road, honk your horn at them. If you see a Western tourist, laugh, speed up and aim at them. Honk only if you feel like giving them a sporting chance. Remember: if they’re not pale and terrified, you’re doing something wrong.

Pedestrians II

If you see a pedestrian trying to cross the road, park immediately in front of them. They won’t mind walking 500 meters down the road to the next available gap, even if they are carrying heavy backpacks.

Night Driving

Are you the only driver on the road at 3.30 in the morning, feeling lonely? Don’t worry; honk your horn to cheer yourself up. People don’t mind being woken for no reason and they won’t curse at you... much.

Alright, this is just a bit of silliness I dreamt up during my first few traumatic days in the country, but I'm not kidding about how manic the traffic is here. Check out the blog below for some photos that beautifully illustrate my point:

http://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Vietnam/blog-377029.html

But, intimidating as this all seems at first, you really do get used to it. We no longer care that we are walking targets, and the honking is just another part of the background noise. Actually we have pretty much reached the conclusion that the locals are reluctant to run over us – after all, they can’t take our money if we’re squished all over the road! (Cynical, me? Surely not.)

And, despite my saying that pigs would fly before I trusted myself in any vehicle other than a taxi, I have actually travelled in a cyclo and on the back of a motorbike. That, however, is another story, so look our for my next update very soon.

Bye for now!

Posted by Julie1972 22:15 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

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