Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Good Morning Vietnam: Hanoi

If there is one country in southeast Asia that everyone has heard about long before they discover the region, its Vietnam. However such Infamy has not always been for the right reasons; but this is a new Vietnam, one that has arose from a century of titanic struggles, imperialism and war and into one of the most intoxicating places on earth. Its a kaleidoscope of vivid colours and subtle shades, of exotic sights and curious sounds, of compelling history and very contrasting cultures and climates. This is a stunning place, emerald green rice paddies and soaring mountains similar to Laos, but unlike Laos, Vietnam has a curvaceous coastline, filled with beautiful beaches, lagoons and hidden coves that brings divers, surfers and sun ware-shippers here in there droves. The sorrow of war weighs heavy on the people who remember it and its story is told at significant and poignant sites across the country and with powerful impact. Its important to understand that the history of Vietnam did not begin or end with the American war and that the country is littered with battles, empires and conquers that has shaped the people of Vietnam. They are fiercely independent, hard working and protective but they are also happy, humorous and positive people who welcome you in to their country as long as you are not a would be conqueror. I will be spending 4 weeks in Vietnam traveling north to south starting in the capital Hanoi visiting Halong Bay, before heading south to Hue, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and finishing in Saigon the old capital in the south that most people refer to as Ho Chi Minh City.    

We arrived late in the night of 27th September after a 30 hour long drive and so stayed in the first place we found, unknown to us we had found a communist government building; I was wondering why so many military men were walking around the place. We promptly moved to the Backpackers Hostel up the road and stayed there for almost a week. We had planned to visit Halong Bay but due to two Typhoons hitting the North East coast we had to delay the trip and stay in Hanoi until the weather improved. What can you say about Hanoi? Hanoi, situated in the north is the grand old power of the orient that has an at atmosphere you can cut in half; bustle, heat, food, exotic smells, energy, noise, moped capitol, life and at such a pace that if you don't keep up with it, it will suck you in to its 1000 year old cauldron of history and spit you back out before you can say, 'Xin Chao'.

Hanoi in all its glory
When you walk around the web of small streets of the Old Quarter life is carried out on this packed theater by traders of all descriptions; fruit sellers, butchers, traders, hawkers; an old man drinks his coffee, or considers his next chess move, women cook up steaming hot pans of  'pho' (soup) producing aromatic smells that slither in to the air and beyond, swarms of mopeds beep and jostling for position as they hurry past, and the rest, the rest of us get busy living life in the fast lane; 'surely gonna lose your mind'.

Its an experience to feel so muchenergy in one place, perhaps similar to the old market traders in Liverpool years ago. You can feel the pulse of this resurgent city. I enjoyed this energy, it had more purpose, more defiance; there is method in the madness here as opposed to madness is in the method and most days we would just walk among the city streets and soak it up.

The Vietnamese eat anything that moves; cats, dogs, snails, carp, pigeons, rats, brains....I mean anything. One day as I was walking around the streets I witnessed a women outside here shop cutting the heads off her pigeons. I was glued to it. I just watched as she pulled a fresh one out, pulled the knife out, and cut the heads clean off, BING BANG BOSH!!! into the bucket, simple as that. I then turned into a row traders you were pulling live fish out of their tanks, butchering them on the floor and I remember feeling quite sorry for the six dogs strapped to a moped, caged up going to the slaughter house. But this is their culture and its not always for the faint hearted, but the food over here is very good, mostly consisting off rice, noodles and soups called 'pho', served on the street on child like table and chairs. Its good to sit down, have some street food and watch the city move over a beer. Beer is cheaper than water, costing about 30p a bottle. Great stuff!!!

I think I will have this one for my dinner please
The Army Museum was very interesting, thanks to its large collection of weaponry that surrounds it; Soviet and Chinese equipment, alongside French and US made weapons captured during the years of warfare. At the front of the museum sits a T35 Russian tank, perhaps one of the greatest tanks every made. The centerpiece is the MiG-21 jet fighter that looks amazing but was no match for the US F4 Phantoms that controlled the sky's during the Vietnam war and shot many hundreds of MiG-21s down. For me the best part of the museum collection was the captured US helicopter, and F-111 plane that sit stoically next a variety of different ordnance (bombs) including the infamous cluster bombs and napalm bombs. There is also an amazing artistic sculpture made from the remains of the great killing machine, the B-52 bombers that were shot down over Hanoi. Next to the army museum is the hexagonal flag tower, one of the symbols of Hanoi that was originally built by the French in the 19th century and has had the North Vietnamese flag flying since 1954.
UH-1 Helicopter

The mighty T-54 Russian tank that stromed the presidential palace On 30 April 1975 signalling the end of the Vietnam war.

Sculpture made from parts of US planes shot down over Hanoi

The weather finally improved and on the 2nd of October and we went on a cruise around Halong Bay, the majestic and mysterious wonder of Vietnam. Halong Bay consists of 1,959 Islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and some of the scenery is simply breathtaking. When we were there they were applying for the status as one of the wonders of the world. We sailed around the Bay stopping off at different locations to Kayak, visit limestone caves, watch fishing villages go about their business and best off all to dive off the boat. On the second day we went trekking up to the highest point on Cat Ba Island, climbing up a very dodgy watch tower that is so rusty and broken it wobbles uncontrollably (like I was) when your at the top, but what a view. To finish the cruise we visited Monkey Island, which as you've guessed is full of monkeys. But don’t be mistaken into thinking these are lovely cute monkeys you just want to pick up and cuddle, these monkeys are evil, often drunk little baddies who want to attack you. A Russian couple got lulled into this false sense of security and ventured a little to close to the monkeys; she ended up with two monkeys hanging onto her hair, and one nearly biting her finger off, as another monkey attacked her husband, before the monkey ran off with the mans shorts over his head. What a scene, It was very funny though. Ha Ha Ha. 

Lime Stone Cliffs

Cat Ba Island home of the evil monkey
Dodgy Dive

Me and Laura nervously getting picture took before the watch tower falls down

What a View from the top of the watch tower on Cat Ba Ilsand

Sun set on the boat

Sunday, 9 October 2011

South Laos: Vientiane to Don Det

The south has its own charm and beauty; from the sleepy capital Vientiane to the remote 4000 thousand islands on the Cambodian border. On the journey one can explore the mountainous Plain of Jars, witness mighty cliffs and the breathtaking 7km limestone cave of Kong Lor, at every turn you encounter beautiful waterfalls, sip the best coffee on the famous coffee plantations on the Bolaven Plateau, pay homage to the impressive ancient temples of Wat Pho and relax on Don Det watching the Mekong river in all its glory and power drive by; a day here could very easily pass into a week... believe me.

On the 11th September we arrived in Vientiane, the 450 year old Capital that is set on the banks of the Mekong river and has been an important strategic point since the 9th century and has been controlled by the Vietnamese, Burmese, Siamese and the French. Their influences have all been left and interwoven into the culture of this sleepy capital. The highlight of the visit was meeting a Buddhist monk who's nickname was Ping. He invited us into his temple showing us all traditional ways of living until he pulled his laptop out and logged onto 'Facebook'. He was fascinated with our way of life and wanted to know everything about us, so I told him all about my family, Kirkby, Liverpool and showed him pictures of All Saints and told him about school life and the pupils. He was a Manchester City fan, which actually makes a change as everyone in Asia it seems supports Man U......Isn't that a shame? I told him that he must watch a real team, the mighty Liverpool!!!

Me and Ping
After a short drive from Vientiane on the 15th September we arrived on the southern tip of the Plain of Jars, a place called Tad Leuk. Here we camped next to a beautiful waterfall in a very secluded spot with a group of other travelers. I done some fishing just next to the waterfall, and caught one and then lost it, (a fishermans tale) but it must rank as my best ever fishing peg, what a view. 

My best ever fishing peg, Tad Leuk waterfall
The next day we travelled to Kong Lor, the mighty 7km limestone cave formed by the Hinboun River, a place were you are surrounded by beautiful high limestone karst cliffs and small traditional villages that make you feel like you have stepped back in time to a bygone age. You explore the cave by canoe, its complete darkness inside, the main cavern reaches up to 90 meters wide and 100 meters high in places, and the boat stops along the way to observe stalactites and other limestone formations. It is pitch black, and the sound on the river, the water lapping up against the rocks and the shadows created by the guides flash lights makes you feel as if you are in a 'Lord of the Rings' movie; there were times when I have expected Gollum to jump out from behind a rock....Frodo Baggins!!!. On the way back to our Hotel the local children were intrigued by us, as always. I watched children as young as 4 or 5 fishing for food, carrying firewood and other resources essential for their family. I stopped to play with them, chasing them down the road until I was like the pied piper with a line of children behind me all wanting to play. Its really amazing to see children who have absolutely nothing, who have to work most of the day and in most cases never get the opportunity to go to school and yet they are happy. They also have the upmost respect for you, when you sit down the children duck down as they pass you by so they are below your head height as a sign of respect to you. We can learn so much from these children, and it puts it in perspective on how much we take things for granted back home.

The South in all its tranquility

The breathtaking Limestone Karst cliffs of Kong Lor

Enterance To the 7km Kong Lor cave

The children just want to play

It feels like the who village wants a chase

That night we had a truly enriching experience when a family in the village invited us into their home and into their family to eat dinner and take part in an important ceremony practiced in Laos culture called a 'baci'. A baci ceremony is carried out to mark important events, so to have one in our honor made us feel very special. Lao people are very spiritual who believe that spirits called 'phi' leave and enter the body all the time, the ceremony brings them back making you spiritually enriched and filled with good luck. The ritual of the baci involved the women of the house tying strings around your wrist to preserve good luck, chanting and singing prayers to you as they tie them onto your wrist. Before we ate our meal of sticky rice and chicken, the full chicken was placed on the table, in which all present was given a small piece and a prayer is chanted. This lasted about 15 minutes and then well all tucked in, washing it all down with plenty of Beerlao, as is always the custom here in Laos.

I take my piece of chicken as a prayer is chatted to me
Sticky rice is beautiful...Notice the strings tied on my right wrist for good luck

We travelled to Thakhek and stayed there for one night before heading to to Tad Lo on the Bolaven Plateau, spending the morning getting a tour of the coffee plantations by a slightly crazy Dutch man who has owned the plantation for years. It was very interesting and I learned all about the different types of Coffee beans and drank some great strong coffee that was roasted and prepared for me from cant get fresher. We then visited Tad Yueang waterfall in Paksong, a big powerful waterfall, really beautiful before spending the night in sleepy Pakse.

Tad Yueang Waterfall
Wat Phu (or Vat Phu) which means "Temple on the Mountain" in Lao language is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Laos, located in Champassak province along the Mekong River in the southern most part of the country. It is 670km from the capital Vientiane and 50km from Pakse. Wat Phu has a complex history involving two religions; Hindu and Buddhism and spans over 15 hundred years, but the surviving structures date from the 11th to 13th centuries. Its is enchanting, mystical, peaceful and has a genuine spiritual atmosphere that engulfs you as you slowly walk up the mountain side and into the low hung clouds of the mountain once considered the home of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, the supreme god who has absolute authority over death, rebirth and immortality. The link below gives a detailed informative overview of Wat Phu and is worth a look to really appreciate the history of this place.

The mountain that was once considered the home of Shiva

The Buddhist Era

A look of Wat Pho from the top of the mountain
We spent one night in Don Det, which is part of the 4000 Islands, before we got on the express bus back to Luang Prabang. We spent 3 nights there relaxing, got our Vietnam Visa and booked our sleeper bus to Hanoi. The sleeper bus was eventful, bumpy and a little crazy and in all took us 30 hours to get to Hanoi. This is a new country with a different culture, a different people, and is stepped in some of the most volatile, brutal and significant history of the 20th Century that still indirectly affects us today.

Chapter 3: Vietnam.