Time to move on Vietnam

Meat and more meat

Vietnam was like a long slow intro to South East Asia – getting blasted by the heat as I moved down south, the cheap prices, the bold rats, the slow speed of travel, the hassles, the different pace of life, and the people. I hadn't planned to stay as long as I did – over 2 months – but then I hadn't planned anything at all, and my need to make sure I covered all the key stops combined with a lack of desire to be constantly on the move added up to a lot of time in a country that hadn't been at the top of my travel list.

Teacup Transport

I haven't really summed it all up yet. Sapa was definitely a highlight, a volunteer opportunity of the kind I would have hoped to find but wasn't expecting to, especially relatively early on in my travels – combined with big green mountains, a dreamy fog and postcard perfect terraced rice fields. Paradise Cave was another stunning sight, while watching the coloured paper candle lit lanterns float down the river at night through Hoi An was almost prettier than the walking through the lantern-hung streets during the day.

The muddy fields of Sapa

Hoi An at Night

There were memorable places and transport worth remembering to get there – riding the rails with Mario on the way to Sapa, and taking the luxury train on the way back, where my fears of being locked in a small cabin with a group of men overnight were put to rest as the guy in bunk above me start to play Silent Night on his flute while we left the station. His friend told me about the traditional folk songs from his village that are famous across the country, and showed me a video from one of the songs, which I heard performed later at the Heritage Festival in Hoi An. On the bus from Hanoi to Ninh Binh I was crowded in with the locals, on the day train from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi I thanked the travel gods that I missed getting a ticket the night before, and thereby didn't get stuck trying to sleep in a dingy cabin on a mattress an inch thick, but instead was able to conk out in a seat after watching A Bug's Life on the tv screen hanging across the aisle. Riding a motorbike in the rain to Phong Nha, where my driver stopped for a phone call along the side of the road, as the clouds approached. The mini-bus from Phong Nha to Hue where the driver blasted his horn at everything in his path from the time he could see it until we'd barrelled our way passed. The day motorbike road trip from Hue to Hoi An. The short and painless flight to Saigon, and the bus ride from Binh Minh back to Saigon, where I dropped my sunglasses in the toilet at the rest stop. I covered a lot of ground on almost every form of transport, from North to all the way south.

In the middle of things in Hanoi

Getting the hang of being on the road – finding my way around, learning how to bargain, feeling the wind and appreciating the scenery from the back of a motorbike, indulging in mango lassis until I realised they were all made with condensed milk and sugar and didn't balance out my french fries and pizza – these were all important discoveries. I had trouble with the rampant littering – cigarette butts tossed over the side of the boat outside a cave of national historic importance, water bottles dropped at the foot of famous pagodas, napkins from my dinner plate tossed by my waitress into the gutter – these were some of the many shocks to the system, and couldn't help calling a comparison to Japan, where garbage seemed to magically disappear even though there were few bins to be found. The more aggressive swindles and outrageous doubling, tripling (and even quintupling) of the prices got on my nerves, and so did the heat.

Street fighting in Phong Nha

There was a lot to see, but I think what won out the most was all the people I got to know – old and new – starting with couchsurfing buddies on my first night in the country, the crowd of teachers and students in Sapa, Ottawa friends welcoming me to their home in Hanoi, making friends in Phong Nha, meeting up again with Sapa friends in Hoi An, new friends in Saigon, and my old high school friend in Binh Minh. That was time well spent.

Fowl Traffic

 

Binh Minh High School Reunion

20 years on and still looking good

My last planned stop in Vietnam was a trip to the Mekong Delta, to meet up with a friend from high school who I hadn't seen in 20 years, on holiday in his home village of Binh Minh. I arrived just in time for a party put on by Vinh's parents for a bunch of his family that all live in town. I met Vinh's wife of three months, who is still living down the street awaiting her Canadian visa. We spent the next three days hanging out and catching up on old times. Vinh took me on a market tour where I sampled some of the local fruit I hadn't had a chance to try – jackfruit, the fabled smelly, surprisingly creamy, rich, and somewhat gag-inducing Durian fruit, longans, some hard shiny green pear-shaped fruit, topped off with some of my favourites, litchi and mangosteen. Thanks to Vinh's wife Vi, we also visited a number of vegetarian restaurants, which came as a surprise since I hadn't known these existed, and wouldn't have recognised them had I seen them – the fake-meat pieces were convincing enough to have me asking for a double-check, and the fact that there were other customers in attendance on non-Buddhist holy days had me wondering if there weren’t more vegetarians in the country than I’d been led to believe.

Market on the muddy Mekong

Can Tho is the biggest city next to Binh Minh, and is one of the hubs on the Mekong River expressway where fruits and vegetables are bought and traded from different parts of the region. We hired a boat and drove out into the muddy waters of the floating market, where small wooden boats and larger ones were out doing business, a long pole at the prow with produce speared on the end announcing the goods for sale. Apparently the traffic is less these days now that there are more decent roadways and trucks, but we boarded a small wooden boat selling pineapples, whose owner told us he'd travelled 10hrs on the water to get there, a distance that would take around 2.5hrs to drive. It usually takes him 1.5 days to close to a week to sell his boatload, and then he makes the journey back. I had to stop myself from eating too much of the jackfruit drying in the sun on the awning of his boat, it was sweet like candy.

On the pineapple boat

I wasn't sure if there was more to it than what we saw – our short motor ride past a collection of boats selling produce had me wondering why a trip to the 'famous floating markets' is one of the must-dos for the Delta. We took a long detour on the way back via the town of Tra Vinh, purported to be one of the prettiest in the Delta. The main attraction was the nearby Khmer pagodas, one of which is known as the stork pagoda, with trees filled with nesting storks, where it was raining white droppings from the branches and both Vi and I got bombed. To recover from that and the heat we stopped off for a break at a roadside rest stop bar none – unmatched by any I've seen in the West, this kind is fully intended for extended resting and lounging. A simple thatched awning with drinks and without chairs – instead with hammocks for napping in the shade, nothing more perfect on a hot afternoon of cruising down the pavement. My sugar cane juice had some sludge floating in it, but the hammocks were just right. An idea ripe for export, to be sure. It was a needed break from getting my butt tenderized on the back of the motorbike, which along with the sun had me feeling fried by the time we got back, and I wasn't even driving.

Back in the village I filled up on my new favourite dessert – barbecued banana pieces in tapioca pudding, followed by too much gelatinous banana cake in milk. Vinh tried to convince me to try his favourite local delicacy 'balut', but I couldn't buy his argument that duck embryo cooked alive in the shell was tastier than a Cadbury's creme egg. Perhaps to those less easily grossed out by me, the idea and the sight of it alone was almost enough to put me off my dessert.

Paper Pagoda

Hanging in the afternoon

Aside from some touring around to Can Tho, we mainly sat around and chatted. Vinh is related to half of the town, and we walked down by the river and sat with his aunts and uncles out on little chairs on the sidewalk, who pass the evenings drinking tea and talking. I can't imagine a group of adults doing this night after night at home – partly due to the weather, but even in the summer months, life is more busy and impersonal it seems. It didn't feel like that much time had passed between Vinh and I and we had a lot to say, including talking about why I was too afraid of him to hang out and talk in high school. Maybe if I hadn't been, we might have had a couple of kids by now, according to Vinh. Who knows, but I'm glad we made up for some lost time at least. It was a good reunion.

The open streets of Binh Minh

 

Saigon Snapshots

Saigon - Bitexco tower in background

Instead of roughing it on the rails for the 20hr overland journey, I cheated and flew to Saigon from Hoi An, via Danang. Just over one hour and I was square in Ho Chi Minh city, more modern and more crowded than Hanoi.

Ho Chi Minh in front of City Hall

I didn't see too much on my first stop through – I had some kind of bug and could only haul myself from air conditioned coffee shop to coffee shop along the route of the Lonely Planet's half day walking tour that took me most of the day. I passed some of the major landmarks – the over-priced Ben Thanh market, the Bitexco Financial Tower, which is described not inaccurately as looking like a cd holder with a tambourine stuck in the side, the Continental and Caravelle hotels, the place where the Brodard Cafe from Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American' was supposed to be, the Central Post Office designed by Gustav Eiffel and the Cold War era Reunification Palace which I toured the next morning.

View from the Reunification Palace

The highlight of my visit and that of my return trip was meeting Nga and her 10-year old daughter Nhi. Gathering steam after the sun went down, I had directed my renewed energies to some shopping. I met Nha and Nhi at their plaza stall where they sell scarves and t-shirts, and we got to chatting. Nha showed me pictures of her birthday party with her family from the night before, and I met Nhi's aunt and some other friends who dropped by the stall. After helping them close up they took me out for some sweet tofu dessert soup, and then for Hue-style pho, where a big bowl of beef-filled soup was plunked down in front of me. Nga had understood that I didn't eat pork, thinking I might be Muslim – when it became clear it was the same for beef, Nga asked if I had given up men in my life – it took me a moment after she added in a praying motion to realise she was asking if I was a Buddhist nun. In all of my meat-free years this was the first time I'd been mistaken for a nun. While I hadn't thought of myself as progressing along a path of religious devotion, it was an interesting idea that I might already be partially qualified for a new calling, at least in some countries where swearing off meat might be considered a bigger part of the sacrifice. It was a fun night speeding along on the back of their motorbike, all three of us together, riding through the city.

With Nga and Nhi

On my way back through Saigon from the Delta before departing to Cambodia, I went to the War Remnants Museum, where I saw photographs from the front lines of the American war and disfigured and deformed Agent Orange victims. As with other war accounts I have seen in my Asian travels, it was a new window on a sobering history I knew only little about. The graphic images and personal stories brought home the violence of the war much more clearly than references at home made to a place so far away and exotic.

I saw some photos of a happier sort when I visited Nga and Nhi again. This time after closing we dropped by the small home they share with Nga's mother, sister and her two children. Independent women all, Nga's mother and sister are divorced, while Nga's husband died 9 years ago. I saw photos of the whole family and over dinner heard about Nga's challenges trying to support her parents as well as her daughter on her own, while her siblings are each struggling to make ends meet and for the most part are less able to help out. We went out for vegetable soup with pieces of fried batter with bean curd inside, at a small streetside stand that has been there for around 20 years, and then had fruit and jelly dessert soup at a large dessert place that Nga has been visiting since before Nhi was born.

Dessert stop

I was sorry to say goodbye, without any plans to return to Saigon, it was hard to expect I would see them again. Nhi said “I miss you already!”

A sweet farewell to Vietnam and the friends I made there.

 

Hoi An – on the more meaningful side

Afternoon boating in Hoi An

I took the opportunity to stay in Hoi An for a week – I was feeling like staying put for a little while, to revel in having access to a pool in the hotel and a beach relatively close at hand, as well as to reconnect a bit to my experience with the H'Mong girls in Sapa. My first night in Hoi An I went to dinner at the Streets International restaurant with Ms. Hanh, the former volunteer coordinator from Sapa who had moved to work for a non-profit called Lifestart. I met Sang, a past student of Sapa O'Chau, who was graduating from Streets International cooking school.

Ms Hanh and a newly graduated Sang

Sang invited me to her graduation, as her family wasn't able to attend from Sapa, and after working for 18 months learning how to cook Western food and speak excellent English, she wanted some people to be at her side for her big event. Sang was in fact one of two valedictorians for the ceremony, who read a speech in English to thank the heads of Streets for the opportunity she and the class had been given. It was a fancy event with a lot of cheering over the dinner tables, and clearly an important moment for these students who had succeeded in obtaining a certification that would enable them to find jobs in some of the best restaurants in the country. Even though I didn't get to know Sang as a student, it was still rewarding to be there to celebrate the occasion with her.

My Son in the morning

Another meaningful visit was to the jungle-covered ruins of My Son, the intellectual and religious centre of the kingdom of Champa, in charge in south-central Vietnam from the 2nd – 15th centuries. Like Hue, this site was heavily bombed by the American forces, with the most important monument deliberately laid flat by helicopter assault. But in between the craters and jungle, the remaining slowly decaying rusty red brick buildings facing the sacred mountain that resembles a shark fin impart a solemn sense of the long past. In the quiet early morning it is a place to speak in quieter tones than that of our guide who was busy cracking jokes about the large phallic lingua statues throughout the complexes that were part of the fertility worship in Cham culture. Despite being hurried along faster than I would have liked, and a rather dismal boat ride back that included a stop for a soft sell at a village of wood carving shops, the ruins were a sight worth seeing in the morning light.

With the Malaysian Dance Troupe

Aside from these events there was also some Heritage Festival fun in Hoi An. I got pulled on stage to dance (briefly) with the Malaysian performers, and got interviewed (briefly) by national television (VTV) for my thoughts on the festival. And at the urging of Ms. Hanh, I had a go at trying to Break the Breakfast Pot. It draws a crowd because it's a great game to watch – participants get a woven-grass darkened pie plate put over their face and have to walk four steps towards a clay pot hanging from a pulley. You have one chance to swing the wooden stick and smash the pot – if you do you win a prize and get a big cheer. Most people swing wildly and miss, because you really can't see anything with a dark plate over your face. My first time I was nowhere near the pot, and the second time I just failed to hit it. But out of all the festival type of games I've seen, I think this may be the best one – cheap, simple, fun and no skills required, besides a willingness to take a swing at the dark. If nothing else, not a bad metaphor to hang onto, in a search for the meaningful.

Paper lantern seller

Picture Perfect

 

 

Notes from a Vietnamese Beach

An Bang Beach, Hoi An

It was getting dark when I went out for a swim after my beach yoga class, but like a desert at night, the beach was coming alive with sounds and shining lantern eyes popping out along the shore. Busier than the heat of the day, the water was now filled with people – little kids getting thrown over shoulders into the water, women swimming in t-shirts and shorts, and people laughing. Everyone was making the most of the chance to refresh after a hot and sticky day. A man was rowing out to sea in a woven reed boat that looked like half of a giant coconut, and the clouds overhead were growing, turning darker grey. The water was cool and wavy, only a bit salty, giving occasional little electric stings. The beachfront thatch roofed restaurants had their lights on, beer drinker's shouts of 'mot, hai, ba, yo!' echoing across the water, while the beach was taken over by small camps of families with portable white lights, small bbq fires and large coolers, making food for dinner and to sell. I went to take a closer look and was offered some fish and a large sesame rice cracker dipped in spicy chili sauce that made my nose run. I could have bought some dried squid or waffle rice sheets embedded with little fish skeletons.

Dragonflies filling the sky

The beach had transformed from a still desert to a lively playground in the cool dark. It started to rain as I left.

Stuck on a windowpane

 

A Word on Vietnamese Massages

 

Before coming to South East Asia, I had visions of the whole place as a semi-paradise of cheap living and even cheaper muscle-melting massages. A fabled land where such luxuries could be had for less than the cost of yoga class at home, my muscles were tensed in anticipation. What I rather slowly came to realise after repeated attempts, is that Vietnam is not Thailand. In Thailand, I'm led to believe, everyone from the age of 10 and up knows how to subdue seized back muscles and reset a displaced hip joint. In Vietnam, they would like you to think that having someone softly pat, squeeze or karate chop you for an extended period of time is more or less the same thing. And at a bargain rate it often comes as something of a cheap and oily feel-up.

Soaking at one of the nicer 'spa' establishments in Sapa

My first real massage parlour foray was in Sapa, across the street from the Sapa O'Chau cafe, which, by its proximity and having been mentioned by the staff, I assumed to be of a certain caliber. I came to realise it might be a different story for a foot massage out in the lounge chairs in the open than the full body experience. Before realising this, I had decided to go the whole hog and get a one hour workdown. I was led to a small little room in the back to a bed without a hole to allow lying face down, instead with a pillow to lie on with my head twisted towards the wall, in a not-properly aligned kind of way. Part way through the gentle squeezing and feeling for a pulse, I noticed an assortment of dark hairs (not my own) on the mattress sheet below me, and that's when my sense of relaxation came to an end. Not only had they obviously not changed the sheets, I started to wonder what else was going on in this closed off private room in the back. This couldn't be one of those places could it? Catering to those looking for more than just the release of stiff neck muscles? And what if these were the same sheets?! I debated leaving but I was already oiled, mostly in the buff, and still had the second side to go. With muscles partially tensed, I concentrated on maintaining my distance from the hairs and felt grimy.

View from the massage chair at Sapa 'spa'

On my next attempt I decided to play it safe and stick to a foot and calf massage, at a place on the main strip in Sapa. This turned into a more intimate experience than I anticipated, as I sat upright directly facing my male masseuse, who was determined to stare intently into my eyes for the full 20 minutes. It was only afterward that I realised I should have faked sleep – instead I tried looking away, and wondered if I was not following massage protocol and being rude trying to ignore the person who was obviously kneading my lower calf muscle. When I decided to attempt a casual, 'hey, just saying hello' look in his direction he chastised me with a knowing remark of “ah, you can see”. It appeared he was on to my avoidance strategies, and was pushing for more of a response. Moving on to my feet, he began squeezing the tips of my toes as if they were champagne corks he was trying to pop. I watched them turn red and as he braced himself and pulled, I flinched as my toe knuckles went the way of the corks and popped in succession. This at least had the effect of releasing some of the tension of our staring stand-off, as he recognized I wasn't so experienced in such techniques of foot seduction. We managed a little casual chatting after that, while I wondered to myself why 20 minutes was taking so long. When I finally made to the finish and was heading for the door, his manager asked if I didn't have a tip for him. Still feeling uncomfortable, I didn't have any comments on appropriate eye contact at the ready – instead I handed over some small change and directed my oily feet in a hasty retreat homeward.

This didn't put an end to my massage attempts – instead I decided to be more selective in my choice of establishment, which included looking for ones with 'spa' in the title, and coughing up a few more dollars. I tried an energizing type of massage and a hot stone one in Sapa with some rocks that were a little on the burning side, but there was no awkward interpersonal exchange, which upped the comfort factor considerably.

Modern Meditation

In Hoi An, known for catering to Westerners, I decided to find out if the quality of the massages was on par with the food. In a trip advisor-recommended lavender spa, had a slightly more muscular Thai massage, closer to the real thing than anywhere else I tried (Sapa) – on a bed with a proper hole to lie face down on, though no cushiony pillow to make it more comfortable. And as with everywhere else I've been, they only smoothed out the sheets and refolded the towels to place them back on the bed as I got up to leave. But I was able to relax without anyone staring at me, and in knowing, thanks to the presence of rows of beds on the other side of the curtains around me, that any happy endings would be of the decent and massage-appropriate variety. And that in Vietnam, may be as good a cheap massage as you can get.

 

 

Mountain Motoring – Hue to Hoi An

Hitting the Road

The travel option of choice for adventurous road warriors and wannabes coming to Vietnam is to buy a motorbike and take a roadtrip up country from Saigon or down from Hanoi. The traffic is tough in the cities, but on a bike you can weave and cut people off, squeeze into narrow channels between heavy trucks and sidewalks, ride the highways and the dirt trails, and blast your horn at everyone in sight.

I haven't worked up the nerve to drive a bike, but I have hired people to do it for me. This is a less hard thing to do in Vietnam, where I rarely passed through an intersection without hearing the call of 'moto-bike Madam, moto-bike'. Mr Teo, my driver around the tombs in Hue, suggested taking to the open road for a day-long trip from Hue to Hoi An, rather than the less scenic 3hr bus ride through mountain tunnels. After some negotiations I decided a taste of a longish open road was worth the time, and we headed out on a day of driving that took me passed flat rice fields lying between green mountains that reminded me a bit of Sapa and blue sea, up and over mountains, through the modern city of Danang, and finally into the pretty town of Hoi An.

The mountains and mountains of rice

Our first stop was at a small fishing village area where I stood around awkwardly for a few minutes watching a couple of people fix their boats. The next stop at the Elephant Springs was no more thrilling – a crowded small water hole that didn't look particularly elephant-shaped. I saved my swimming time for the next spot, at a large resort restaurant with a beautiful expanse of empty beach and the clear South China Sea behind it. I left all of my belongings in the hands of Mr Teo as I floated, cooled off, and appreciated having a sea and a set of wheels at my disposal.

Fishing Village

Driving passed village after village the evidence was clear that Vietnam is a developing country – in that almost every building and street-side looks like it's in the process of getting built. There are piles of bricks and construction materials everywhere, in between unfinished and ripped up bits of sidewalk, in front of hastily-thrown up buildings that look instantly aged and already ready for repair or tear down. There are no clear street fronts of businesses or residences – no unistone or charming gardens, instead motorbikes, stacks of metal tables and chairs, laundry and other debris of daily life flow in an uninterrupted stream from the front door to the road, giving the impression of a move-in that was abandoned partway through. The buildings are small and life spills over into the surrounds – construction, commerce, communal eating – a large part of it happens out next to or on the street in Vietnam.

Views from the road

We drove passed villages that smelled of eucalyptus – with small kilns along the roadsides, burning wood to extract medicinal oil, little glass bottles filled with clear green or yellow liquid lined up in rows for sale on stands next to them. We passed peasants planting rice in large green fields next to the highway, and later funky up-scale cafes in Danang.

Danang Serpent Bridge

Our last stop was up through the mountains at Hai Van Pass, where you can see the sea on either side, and the city of Danang further down the road ahead, from a bullet-scarred French fort that was used as a bunker by the South Vietnamese and US armies. It was windy and clear, perfect viewing conditions for one of the most scenic drives in the country.

On the way to Hai Van Pass

We made it to Hoi An by late afternoon. Despite the lack of driving skill required, riding on the backseat is still hard work – the sloped seat turned my behind to bruised tenderloin, and the sun fried the rest of me. By the end of the day my butt felt like stiff leather and my burnt skin resembled it. I couldn't face the idea of sitting down again in the near future, unless it was on a puffy mountain of pillows. A one-day roadtrip was a good taste of cross country motoring, one that called for me to make the most of staying put and recovering in Hoi An.

 

 

Hue – Past and Futures to be Seen

Watching the Passage of Time

My short visit to Hue was a glimpse through different windows in time – from impacts of the Vietnam/American war, remnants of Imperial history in ornate tombs and palaces, seeing young orphans in search of a future and an enterprising old racketeer spinning fortunes for hopeful female Western tourists.

At Thien Mu Pagoda

On the way to Hue I stopped at the Vinh Moc tunnels, where a community that had been decimated by American bombs moved underground – they dug a network three levels deep of small narrow tunnels, with little closet spaces for families to live, including an alcove that functioned as a maternity ward where 17 babies were born. That they could carve out and live in such a confined space was a testament to sheer desperation. After crouching through the dark tunnels it was disorienting to emerge into blinding sunlight on the empty and picturesque white sand beach of the South China Sea.

One of the many entrances to the Vinh Moc Tunnels

On the banks of the Perfume River, the ruins of the Citadel take up a great chunk of the centre of Hue, though the former Imperial Palace grounds are bare in many places and littered with pieces of rubble and craters from bomb blasts that wiped out centuries of history. The parts that remain give a sense of some of the former glory of the Nguyen empires, grandeur unrivalled in the country. It was one part of Vietnam that has come close for me to echoing some of the beauty and tranquility of the temples of Japan.

In the Citadel

Emperors lived in Hue and died there as well – the surrounding countryside is home to many elaborate tombs that pay tribute to their reigns. In addition to being burial grounds (though most Emperors were actually buried elsewhere in more secret locations) many of the tombs were enjoyed pre-demise as countryside resorts. Tu Duc Tomb, one of the most famous and the first I visited, has a small lake with a tiny man-made island in the middle, where the Emperor somehow managed to hunt small game. It also has a gazebo where he read poetry to his concubines and possibly some of his 104 wives.

Tu Duc Tomb

Most conveniently, the vast and beautiful grounds contain public toilets fit for a King, and declared by me as Winner of the Best Public Toilets of my 2+ month visit to Vietnam. They were clean Western models, one had paper, there was soap, and they were aesthetically pleasing, with no scary spiders like at the Vinh Moc tunnels. On top of that there was perhaps the first handicapped stall I've seen in the country – all of that, for no extra fee. Something to marvel at, along with the wonders of the extravagant tomb.

Best Public Toilets - Vietnam Tour 2013

The Tomb of Khai Dinh was memorable for more traditional reasons – built part-way up a hillside, it's a dramatic dark and gothic set of temple-y buildings, a real departure from the red-tiled roofs and brightly painted exteriors of its counterparts. The interior was another surprise after the moody exterior – 3-dimensional dragon mosaics of colourful glass and ceramic shards winding over the walls and pillars, the second chamber coated with mosaics, offsetting a life-size gold-coloured statue of the Emperor, holding reign from the afterlife.

Khai Dinh Tomb

While the tombs and pagodas of Imperial Vietnam were characterised by their riches and decorative excess, Duc Son Pagoda was a stark contrast in its barren and institutional look. Jerre from Sapa had recommended a visit – 'Go there and give them all your money', or something along those lines I think was what he said. The Buddhist nuns of the pagoda operate an orphanage that is home to loads of disabled and healthy children of various ages. I wandered in behind a large group of Vietnamese adults donating food, and walked around largely unnoticed, passing rooms filled with shiny steel bed frames lacking mattresses and bedding, which looked empty and clinical. After a while I was directed to two of the nursery rooms where I was soon joined by two Australian girls, one of whom was a frequent visitor to the orphanage and who had brought specially made mosquito nets to cover the children's cribs, along with some toys. One of the boys quickly figured out the easiest way to make the plastic pig squeak, by stomping on it repeatedly in his crib. Kids came running in and out of the room while we played with them and Kira fed a brain-damaged and malnourished 8-month old girl.

Mosquito-free cribs

I didn't get the full story on the pagoda – I wanted to know why the walls of the open play area were lined with cheesy dress-up professional photos of the kids, with young girls wearing filmy adult-looking dresses and boys in suits in front of a fake backdrop of cars. Was this meant to show they were having a good time? Advertising to prospective parents? Or just a decorative contribution from a well-meaning photographer? I wasn't sure what those at the orphanage made of my presence either, if I was considered a potential adoptive parent or just another onlooker, or to the children, another pair of arms to be passed to and from.

Buddhist nun at Duc Son Pagoda

A different recommended stop outside Hue was a visit to the local fortune teller, Madam Dieu. I was almost more excited about this than the historical stuff, since I love the idea of psychic assistance, and also if you've read Eat, Pray, Love, which my year off of travels does not resemble, you will know that the fortune teller she visits on the magical island of Bali accurately predicts her rampant success in making money, and general happiness and well-being. Here was my genie in the rice paddies of Vietnam, who surely could assure me that at least if fortunes didn't await, then all would be right in my world. Madam Dieu, however, was not quite the medium I had in mind. If she'd had an idea of what was on my mind, she might have touched on some other areas of my life rather then talking extensively about past partners who were now married with children or with girlfriends. None of this was at all accurate or as far as I could tell, in any way relevant to my life or where I might be headed. Unlike the group of Australian tourists ahead of me who were gratefully hugging her for the camera, I came away feeling that Madam Dieu was disappointingly not even a convincing liar. I later found an article online that said she is a self-professed reader of 'love fortunes' who seems to only be able to read them for Western tourists, and whose prediction for the girl mentioned in the article was a happy romantic future strikingly similar to mine. Recycled small tales from a small old woman. In a city full of such rich history, I would have expected a little more drama, colour, or at least a decent story to take away with me.

On the Japanese covered Bridge, Madam Dieu's haunts

 

 

Phong Nha Ke-Bang!

Tu Lan Cave Entrance

In Ninh Binh I learned that troi oy! is how you say oh my gosh! in Vietnamese. As in, troi oy! there are a lot of big caves in Phong Nha Ke-Bang! It's the Himalayas of caves, in the oldest karst mountains in the world, and declared home of the world's largest cave in 2009. National Geographic did a feature on Hang Son Doong in their Jan 2011 edition, and the photos are out of this world. Hang Son Doong is only accessible for scientific research, at least at the moment, but they are looking at offering 1 week exclusive cave adventure tours in the near future, starting at several thousand dollars a pop. Time to get your ticket now and beat the rush.

Still under exploration with massive caves being continually discovered, the Phong Nha area is an 'emerging tourist destination', which means right now the prices are higher and the options are fewer. That being the case, my cave adventure tour to Tu Lan and Kim caves (latter cave discovered in 2012), clocked in at a relatively high but still manageable $70.

All set for cave swimming*

My two other cave visits, consisting of getting caught up in crowds of loud Vietnamese guides and tourists on boardwalks and off tour boats, didn't compare with the adventure version of swimming through two caves in my clothes, helmeted, head-lamped and life-jacketed, trying to avoid the waterfalls. Our guide only mentioned these in response to direct questions yelled out as we tried not to rush past, carried away by the current – “which side?” “…left…, yeah left. Waterfall on right”. One of the girls on the trip didn't know how to swim and got yanked back by her life jacket just as she was about to head over one of the falls. After that one of the guides pulled her along, through the first cave, the river that we swam through to get to the second cave, through the second cave, and all the way back again. Right up until we turned around I hadn't believed him when the guide said we were taking the same route back. It was already 3pm, and navigating through the water was hard enough when we were going in the same direction as the current. Luckily grip-able side walls stood between me and the watery dark abyss, and I picked my way against the rushing water not exactly with ease, but surprisingly less difficulty than anticipated.

Riverside lunch spot

The caves were big and impressively dark, filled with bats diving towards our head lamps, attracted by the bugs drawn to the light. We saw rare cave pearls (round white stones), spider eyes glinting out of the darkness from every rock face, assorted stalactites and lagmites. Getting there and back we swam through brown rivers and walked down and back up steep and slippery wooden boards, passing jungle where tigers have been spotted in recent times.

Post-caving fence relaxing*

Paradise Cave was a different experience altogether. Although part of the Phong-Nha Ke-Bang National Park UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation that prohibits construction, the private owner of the cave decided to build a boardwalk with viewing platforms through the first 0.6km of the cave, notifying the UN office in Geneva by an email timed to be seen after the official public opening, when it was too late to do anything about it. While Paradise Cave is certainly a sight to be seen, the question is, by whom? The spotlights and convenient platforms show off the cave's stunning formations to best advantage and enable access by all kinds of people who would never have ventured a trip – the disadvantage is that most of those people shouldn't have made it.

The many marvels of Paradise Cave

After millions of years of small drips of water forming stalactites (and mites) at a rate of 0.13 millimetres per year, touching by oily hands distorts the growth of the formations. And despite signs throughout the length of the boardwalk and the occasional guard hoarking over the side of the fence, I saw people touching the stalagmites within reach, climbing over the fences to stand next to them, with garbage littered off the sides of at least one platform. That and crowds following microphoned guides, annoyingly just behind me the entire way, distracted from the sense of stillness and wonder that would otherwise be expected with a cave visit this spectacular.

Cave seaweed

Many of the formations looked like sea life from the bottom of the ocean – wavy thin fronds of seaweed hanging from the ceiling, tall coral statues, sculptures of piled cupped jelly-fish shapes, all with a light sand-coloured soil at their feet. There were giant frozen water fountains and all kinds of drippy stone shapes. It was a breathtaking sight, and I hope it will survive the passage of as many tourists as it has seen years.

Caterpillar in Wonderland

As part of the trip to Paradise Cave, I toured through some of the park, hearing about some of the history of the area, visiting a re-furbished part of the Ho Chi Minh trail where countless lives were lost in the making, many of them students who were conscripted and given a ration of food and water for 2 days, the length of time they were expected to survive the bombings and the physical exertion of hacking their way through the jungle. The Phong Nha cave was critical in connecting supply routes between the north and south, reportedly with a bridge being hidden inside and brought out at night to move goods. It was bombed repeatedly by the Americans when they realised what was going on, but they were unsuccessful in blocking the entrance.

Coloured lights of Phong Nha Cave

On my last day in the area I biked to the more garishly-lit Phong Nha cave on a 10km ride filled with kids running out on the road to meet me, holding out their hands for a drive-by handshake or slap, which I wasn't coordinated enough to do and keep from steering into them at the same time. Troi oy! 20kms of non-stop “Hel-lo! Hel-LO!” is a few too many to keep me in a friendly mood at the end of a hot and sweaty day. The echoes started to fade as it became darker and I lost my way on some bumpy dirt trails in between rice fields. There was no jungle or yawning mountain caverns in the vicinity, but if I hadn't spotted the bright lights standing out in the distance from the backpacker lodge, I think the landscape might have swallowed me up all the same.

Fishing for Cows in Phong Nha

 

*These two photos courtesy of R. Anand

 

Breathing Dragon Fire in Ninh Binh

View from my bus seat

The temperatures went up and so did the hustling when I started to make my way south from Hanoi, to my first stop in Ninh Binh. I took the local bus, which was scheduled, as much as things are, to leave in 15 minutes. The catch here was 15 minutes or when the bus is full – whichever comes first. There was only one other person on board when I got on, and a few others trickled in slowly as we crept towards the station exit. I had been holding on to the idea that once we left the station (after a good half hour) we would be on our way, but began to realise that if there's still one empty seat, no one is going anywhere, except possibly around the block. This is why it's necessary to have a bus hustler. Our man, who had steered me from the ticket desk to the bus, was constantly on the look-out, leaning out the side of the bus and shouting at people walking down the sidewalk, who suddenly seemed to realise they needed to take a 2hr drive to another town, and jumped on board, no baggage in hand. I couldn't tell if he was making a sales pitch – 'Ninh Binh is a great place to avoid Hanoi's Friday afternoon traffic' but some people seemed to take a little convincing.

On the river in Tam Coc

We finally made the 2hr drive in about 3 hrs, and I arrived just in time to get to Tam Coc for the last boat ride of the day down the Ngo Dong River, to see what's billed as 'Halong Bay on land' – the same giant karst limestone cliffs, this time erupting out of rice fields rather than water. The Lonely Planet warns of the sales pitches to be expected on the river, so I thought I knew what was in store, but I wasn't anticipating the level of calculation I encountered. While waiting for my boat I wandered round the market, looking at a man holding out a poisonous snake to a gathering crowd, but there wasn't much else to see. A beautiful older Vietnamese woman signalled me from under an awning area to come sit with them, out of the sun. We sat until it was time to take my boat, both agreeing that it was hot, and she was so warm and friendly I was glad to find she would be my rower. She did her best to make friends – she kept taking my photo, about 20 of them, and picked rice to give me. After we floated through the first two river caves one of her cohorts sidled up in a rowboat, with drinks for me to buy – buy one for her, the woman urged. I was prepared for this one, I'd heard all they do is sell the drinks back to each other, and I wasn't falling for it.

Enjoying the ride

We rowed on, and she had me take over so I could try rowing with my feet, the way they all row on the river. That was the warm up for the hard sell. In less time than expected we had turned around and were heading back, first stopping next to a bed of rice, where my rower got down to business. She pulled out a bag of cheap embroidered wallets and assorted souvenirs – you buy? She tried it a second time further down the river after the first time didn't work, and after that she said she was tired. Not tired of trying to ask for money, because she asked for a tip soon after, but apparently over-exerted from having to row at the same time. In memory of the first half of the trip I gave her one when we got to the dock – it wasn't big enough for her, and she asked for more.

The wily oarswoman of Tam Coc

Hustle and hassle number three was arranging my tour to Cuc Phuong National Park. It's supposed to be a birdwatcher's paradise and I wanted to make sure I got a guide who really knew the park birds, so I opted to arrange a motorbike taxi from Ninh Binh and get my own guide in the park instead of going with one of the hotel's pricey-sounding tours. It was a scorching hot day as we drove past the limestone cliffs – those in Halong Bay are believed to have been formed by a giant dragon charging down the mountains to the coast and I felt like there could still be dragons breathing fire underground – the air was so hot I was choking trying to catch my breath on the back of the motorbike. Against the heat I struggled up one of the cliffs to get a view of the river passing through the landscape, this time more busy with boats than my visit the afternoon before.

Ngo Dong River from on high

By the time I got to the park it was late afternoon, rivers of sweat were running down my body, and the next round of negotiations around getting a park guide for the birds had me feeling dragon-like. It's better to be in the park centre to see the birds, they told me, but it's more money for a guide to get there – petrol, have to get up earlier. Too late I realised my bargaining error – there were no other options to choose from for a guide in the park. And the accommodation in the park centre only had air conditioning for about 4hrs in the evening, because they run on a generator. I just rode through an inferno to get there, so the prospect of spending a night without air conditioning was almost more than I could bear. But I didn't make the trip to miss out on the birds, so in the end I paid more to be met in the centre. The next day my guide told me it would probably be better to go to the park entrance because it's more open and easier to see the birds. And March is really the best time for birding in the park – you can easily see a hundred species in a day, rather than the 22 that we saw. I also found out that I needed a guide to see the primate and turtle conservation centres, another extra.

Butterflies number in the millions in Cuc Phuong

On the way back to Ninh Binh I stopped at the Van Long Nature Reserve, where I took a beautiful and peaceful rowboat ride through some marshlands and past large forested cliffs, where we heard growling sounds, likely from some langurs, if not a lurking dragon. The rower held out her hand for a tip at the end, and refused my first offering, which I suppose was too small to take seriously. My motorbike driver had parked next to one of the few stalls on the road, whose owner offered that I only needed to buy a 'petit souvenir, petit souvenir madam'. I don't think he understood me when I asked him, why I would I need to buy something to remind me of being constantly hassled for money? Reminders are the only things that come for free.

Van Long Nature Reserve