Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Saigon - Into the Dark

Saigon is what you'd get if you took the commercial and tourist-friendly vast metropolis that is Bangkok and crossed it with the Vietnamese motorbike chaos of Hanoi, and then the two exploded. It's like any big city I suppose, chain brands and busy backstreets. Like a lot of Asian cities it's got that shiny modern front but it's in the alleyways and the back of restaurants where life really happens. Saigon has the same level of chaos as other Vietnamese cities, with the noise and the touts and the traffic, but somehow it all feels much more intense. Also the endurance sport of finding a room is made so much harder here as the buildings are so outrageously tall and thin they all have at least five floors and no lift.

Groovy Baby

As the largest city in Vietnam Saigon obviously has some pretty major sights but the main tourist attractions are morbidly linked to the war that scarred this country for years, leaving a legacy that endures to the present day.
The Reunification Palace in the centre of the city is most famous for that iconic picture of a tank crashing through its huge gates when the soldiers of the north took over Saigon. The palace is a massive, modern place built in the 1960s by the then president of South Vietnam. He was a pretty unpopular guy by all accounts and the palace had to be rebuilt several times after it was bombed by his own air force, and subsequently contains a lot of 60-esque shag-pile carpet, a night club and a bomb shelter.

The Reunification Palace
Into the Dark

The war in Vietnam set the country back years. In the north cities were flattened, meaning that the only style of life that was sustainable was in the bamboo huts of the villages. In the south the story was different, the cities were held by the Americans but the villages were under constant threat from the guerrillas. In many places (especially where locals had been relocated into enforced fenced off towns) the villagers waited until it was night then let the guerrillas in.
A original tunnel entrance at Cu Chi
One area that became a particularly troublesome spot for the Americans was Cu Chi. The Cu Chi tunnels are particularly famous, a vast network of tight tunnels wound all over the area, connecting villages and popping up deep in the jungle to attack American platoons. The Cu Chi tunnels were a truly amazing feat and a horrific fighting technique in a barbaric war. The tour however was totally not what we had expected. Driving far out of the city we stopped off at a factory where victims of the agent orange defoliant worked making souvenirs to sell in the shop next door. At one table a woman sat small and shrunken next to her wheelchair painstakingly making pictures out of crushed eggshell.
Just out side the now innocuous town of Cu Chi a large and busy tourist site marks the location of some of the most brutal fighting of the Vietnam war. In dug out bunkers we watched a dated propaganda video praising the local "hero American killers" of the war before being led out into the forest to see the original tunnel entrances and a captured American tank. Despite the light-hearted tone of the tour guide and the laughter of the tourists as they squeezed themselves into the minute holes the atmosphere of the forest was oppressive. We couldn't leave the path at any point, the risk of traps and UXO still a very real threat, and the tank we looked at was riddled with bullet holes, a huge steel trap lumbering through the forest, in which, presumably, several men died. The guide demonstrated to us a line of sinister looking recreations of guerrilla booby traps, behind bad-taste cartoons showing American troops stumbling through the forest, falling prey to the traps and screaming in pain. Afterwards we were invited to fire AK47s on the shooting range.

A recreation of a guerrilla booby trap
Witnessing the ingenuity of the tunnel system though was incredible. It was amazing how people managed to survive, digging themselves into the ground and continuing their lives. They devised air vents that looked like ant hills on the surface and built levels of tunnels with air locks to prevent gassing, they also built careful systems for cooking, only boiling root vegetables so that steam could be let out at dawn thereby passing for mist.

The Remnants of War

An American helicopter at the War Remnants Museum
Back in Saigon we were dropped off at the War Remnants Museum, which is home to hundreds of photographs taken by foreign journalists during the Vietnam War. It was a truly awful sight. Villagers lay dead or bleeding in heaps by the side of the road, American soldiers dragged prisoners behind tanks. One soldier held up the ragged remains of a blown apart body and women and children, burnt by napalm, wept bitterly. The shiny intestines of a massacred family in a boat caught my eye and Theo steered me away from the dismembered corpse of an UXO victim. It was without a doubt the worst thing I have ever seen, I glanced at the photos, barely even mustering the will to read the details of the atrocities. The sheer numbers of civilians caught up in the war was horrific. Conscripted Americans and Vietnamese alike died in droves, fighting a war that was never openly declared.
Leaving the museum I was mystified how people were walking around taking photos, talking to their friends or even looking closely at the photos on display. Back on the streets I found myself starring at every passing local, working out if they were old enough to remember the war. How could anyone live through such times and go back to leading a normal life? How could you settle down and become a taxi driver and welcome westerners into your country? How could you even survive? That evening I continued to be mystified by how the people of Vietnam dealt with their tragic past, it just didn't tally with the noisy women in pajamas who made our street food and the young women selling books who chased Theo across the city with history books. Flipping through the book we finally bought I was struck by a quote from an American mother, she said she had given the army a good boy and they had brought him back a murderer. Thinking about it how did anyone associated with what happened here readjust to peace time, and that I'm afraid was my lasting impression of Vitenam's capital, a healthy growth of life, sprouting from the rich soil of a grave.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Hoi An - Floating Lanterns and Occupied Beaches

Our train ran right along by the coast. When the trees parted you could see the cliff dropping straight down beside the tracks. The sea crashed against the rocks at the bottom then stretched out for miles.
Da Nang was a large, busy city with lots of trendy clothes shops and restaurants. Naturally it was heaving with motorbikes. We moved through quickly, fortunately having found out online that the yellow bus to Hoi An stops on a main street next to an easily missed blue pole. Soon we were zipping through urban Vietnam, watching the city suburbs dwindle and give way to roadside towns of one room homes, drinks stands and chickens.

A Full Moon Party With a Difference
A Chinese congregation hall on the night of the full moon

Hoi An is a small, quiet, beautiful town. Very like Luang Prabang it's small streets are lined with almost colonial style houses with shuttered windows. Everywhere there are trees bearing delicate hot pink flowers. There are plenty of tourists but a slow pace still prevails. On our first night we took our hotel's advice and went down towards the river to see the full moon celebrations where the entire old quarter of town is plunged into darkness and lit only by candlelight. Red lanterns lit the shops and temples and all along the river paper flowers holding tea-lights bobbed up and down among the boats. It was a magical sight. The banks of the river and the bridge were heaving with people, locals and tourists. They were eating and chatting and watching the river of light glow away into the distance. The smell of bonfire night was in the hot air. We took that opportunity to see the old Japanese bridge on a side branch of the river. The covered wooden bridge is guarded by dog statues and there is a minute temple in the centre.
Flowers in Hoi An
The sights of Hoi An are largely assembly halls and temples, so we tried to see the top few of the dozens on offer. Theo was the tour guide for the day and led us around the centre of Hoi An into assembly halls of the "Cantonese Chinese Congregation" and "Chinese All Community" assembly halls and halls of the "Fujian Chinese Congregation". Needless to say it all became very confusing. The halls were stunning though, largely Chinese in style they had vast dragon statues decorated with intricate mosaics of broken china, fiery-face warrior statues leering out from behind shrines and pretty courtyards with bonsai trees. Our penultimate stop was the Tran Family chapel where we were greeted by a business-like woman and led through the side door of a low wooden house. She sat us down and plied us with tea and ginger while she explained the history of the chapel. Solely for the worship of family ancestors the front door of the chapel is reserved exclusively for the dead. The altar was stacked with upright wooden boxes, marking all of those who have passed.
A dragon statue in the Chinese assembly hall
Finally we visited Tan Ky House, the home of a merchant which has been preserved by seven generations of his family. It is a spacious, wooden house with a large entrance room and a courtyard. It was full of elegant dark furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. Another very officious woman sat us down and gave us tiny cups of green tea and explained, at top speed, about the house. Marks high on one of the walls show where floods often strike and everything has to be moved upstairs to be saved. Some of the white lines were only a few feet from the ceiling.

My Son

Close to Hoi An are the ruined temples of My Son (pronounced "Me Sun"), built around the 6th century to worship Hindu gods. We took the earliest tour ever and the sun was coming up as we drove about an hour outside of town. 
After a short walk through the trees we came to the first temple complex. Like a mini Sukhothai the ruined temples rose up in the early sun like something out of an Indiana Jones film. Some were still intact and you could go inside and marvel at the pyramid like ceiling. Others were just a foundation. Much of this site was bombed when the Viet Cong used it as a base during the Vietnam War. Our slightly intense tour guide led us around and spent a great deal of time leaning against a vast phallic statue, explaining in broken English what it represented, which was awkward. Still, he seemed to think it was very funny.
The rest of the ruins after that first complex were smaller and less complete. One temple was entirely held up by diagonal poles. Piles of bricks had slid slowly away from the main foundation making the temple look like a sandcastle that was being slowly washed away by the sea.

Welcome to Paradise

On our last day in Hoi An we took our very first trip to the beach, and it rained. Stupid monsoon. Still it's warm even when it rains here and it was a lovely beach. The more secluded of Hoi An's beaches, An Bang was quiet and serene when we arrived. We took refuge under one of the numerous covered sun loungers when the heavens opened and the rain chased us off the sand. We stayed beach-side for the rest of the afternoon, steadfastly refusing further drinks, much to the cafe owners annoyance. In the distance Da Nang slowly disappeared behind the storm. We spent ages in the warm sea getting knocked over by the waves and washing up in the surf. Theo rolled around in hysterics as I got blindsided by forceful waves, rolling around on my bum unable to get up. It was incredible to think that this peaceful stretch of white sand was within view of the place where American troops first landed in Vietnam. In the 60s locals greeted armed American soldiers with smiles and baskets of flowers. Today, instead of soldiers, the beaches of Da Nang and Hoi An are occupied by tourists and locals on holiday. What a sight it must have been, to enter a war in such paradise. On the bus back to Da Nang I struggled to hold a conversation with a Vietnamese woman wearing a face mask and we watched the cheeky young conductor shepherding old blind men and young squealing girls aboard while pelting his colleagues with corn. He sat on the rail by the open door as the bus sped down main roads. Public transport here is certainly more entertaining than at home.

A storm approaching An Bang beach
Playing Sardines...Again

We'd only managed to get top level hard sleepers on the train, which I was a little dubious about, but it wasn't much harder to scramble up the extra level once you were already off the ground. (Soft sleepers have only four sleepers a cabin but the hard ones have a dizzying six.) The only problem was the guys on the bottom propped up the middle beds up on the fold down footholds. Sure they could sit up comfortably but how was I supposed to get down?! We spent the whole afternoon on our little bunks, unable to sit up, reading, sleeping and playing cards. It was the usual Vietnamese madness on the train, shouting, laughing, loud music, everyone pitching in whenever there was a bed dispute. We bought rice and spring rolls smothered in soy sauce from the food trolley and had a difficult time juggling everything about. I kept dropping things on peoples' heads. For eighteen hours we trundled along in our cramped little beds. At six o'clock in the morning we arrived in THE big city, Vietnam's capital, Saigon.

Hue - Royals, Riches and...Rengiss?

Our first contact with Hue wasn't a great success. Tired and sweaty from the train we stumbled out on to the busy streets. I got us lost, we got hassled by touts, Theo almost threw up and there wasn't an empty taxi in sight.
Things picked up later after we had recovered and in the evening we set out to enjoy the city. Hue used to be the old capital of Vietnam and the imperial citadel dominates the north bank of the river while the other holds a rather ordinary looking city, much like Phitsanulok. There are straight, ordered streets and a bridge that lights up in the dark. All along the river front there are dragon boats, their drivers yelling at you to take a ride for a dollar. The night market by the river had clothes and trinkets of every variety and seemed popular with the locals. Under the bridge those without market spots had spread out their wares on plastic sheets and deftly scooped it all up and ran when the police showed up.

The Perfume river at night - Hue

China Through Mauve-Tinted Glasses

The Imperial Citadel
To see the various sights in and around Hue we decided to embark on another tour so our first morning in town saws us trundling along in a bright pink tour bus with rude French and irritating Australians. Our first stop was of course the citadel and we moved rather too quickly through the forbidden purple city. There's not much left of the city now, having been destroyed by war and weather, but it is still easy to imagine how impressive it must have been its day. The gate remains intact and there are signs of where there were palaces and mansions for the king, the queen, the king's mother and grandmother, princes and princess, the many mandarins (advisers) and literally hundreds of concubines. The city steps back over and over again through arches and courtyards and pillared rooms.
Close to the citadel a small garden house was built as one of the many homes for the king's advisers. It was a pretty, simple wooden home complete with Feng Shui lily pond. Our guide showed us the inside, furnished with wooden tables and chairs and a tall shrine. The China urn-like thing on top, he said, was for burning fake money for use by friends and family in hell.
An incense burner in the pagoda
We moved on and visited an ornate pagoda built atop a hill and over-looking the Perfume River. The tower at the centre had the traditional seven layers and was surrounded by small rooms holding sacred stones and another of those giant turtles.
In the afternoon we headed out of town to the tombs. Many ancient kings are buried around Hue and their tombs are vast and majestic sights. The first was a series of hills and oriental style buildings. As you walk down through the complex you go up and down steps, through courtyards and symmetrical sets of doorways to a long garden. You can then do the long walk back beside mirror image lakes. This is a good site for a tomb, according to the guide, it's clean of other dead and has excellent Feng Shui. The last tomb was a vast complex of semi-ruined tombs and lily ponds. There was a tomb for the King, a shrine for his mother and other random dilapidated shrines.


Incense on sale
We stopped at a massive shop and incense and conical hat making "village", essentially more shops, and Theo and I stood around while the wealthy middle-aged tourists bought loads of junk. To get back to Hue we caught a dragon boat down stream. The dragon boats are odd things, essentially longboats joined together to make one enormous lumbering vessel that drifts slightly crookedly down river. The two longboats underneath are topped with impressive dragon heads, hence the name, and they try to sell you all manner of tat while you're aboard. As we sat our guide asked where we were from. On hearing I was from England he got very excited. "Oh yes, England! Where in England? Southampton?" I was taken aback, how did he guess? When Theo then said he was from Wales the guide looked puzzled, before exclaiming, "Ah yes! Rengiss!" Theo and I looked at each other, "Rengiss?" "Yes, Rengiss, you know Rengiss, Manchester!" Light dawned in Theo's eyes, "Ohhh, you mean Ryan Giggs?" "Yes Rengiss."


The food in Hue was a bit of a mixed bag, we had some great stuff at a restaurant called Hot Tuna and a truly awful meal at a small vegetarian restaurant. My veggie burger came just as slices of meat flavoured tofu, rather than the usual bean burger style thing, no bun, no salad, nothing. Our best find while we were there was a small restaurant where we manged to get a bottle of Dalat (Vietnamese) wine for under three pounds. Then before we knew it we were off again, back on the good old Vietnamese railway heading for bustling Da Nang. Barely pausing for breath we were crashing through the varied sights of Vietnam.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Ha Long Bay - A New World Wonder

"You must see Ha Long Bay!" the Vietnamese woman screamed at us. She worked in the hotel next to ours, arranging Ha Long Bay tours, and resembled a small cyclone (see previous post). "Now there is storm but in two days should be fine but just in case don't book anything! You must, must see Ha Long Bay!" We nodded a lot and assured her no no, we would not be booking a bus or a train away from Hanoi until we were sure the tour would go ahead. She smiled a lot and raved about the beauty of the bay and kept shouting "don't book anything!" until we were out of the door. She wasn't wrong about the bay, it is one of the most stunning sights you will ever see.

Ha Long Bay

A New World Wonder

The storm did eventually clear and our tour went ahead so after two days in Hanoi we found ourselves embarking from Ha Long dock on a mini cruise ship and sailing to the jagged shapes of the rocks on the horizon. Rocky islands of all shapes and sizes loom out of the still waters of the bay. The maze is so vast and complicated that even with the swarms of tourists that visit everyday the bay can manage to be quiet and serene. Sheer rock faces towered above us, densely wooded and untouched by humans. When the sun went down the islands became alive with the familiar sound of crickets and the water around us glistened from the lights of the nearby boats. When we awoke on our second day we could pull back the curtains and watch the majestic scenery glide past. Sometimes the rocks were so close they loomed large over us, casting deep shadows across the boat. Sitting on the top deck of the boat was breathtaking as well, as the engine chugged along we sat, mouths agape, waiting for it to maneuver round yet another jut of rock, anxious to see what further beauties lay on the other side.
We were lucky on our tour, having heard toe-curling tales of rip-off cruises with rats and peeping toms. Our boat was lovely, two floors of cabins, a restaurant and bar and a top deck with loungers for taking in the view. Our cabin was nice enough and the view from it was incredible, not only did we have huge windows that dominated one wall we had a decent balcony that stuck right out of the stern, allowing a sweeping view of the rocks as they dwindled into the distance.
On board we ate every kind of seafood imaginable, so much so that we were sick of it by the end. We had fried prawns and fish basted in all sorts of tasty sauces. There was chewy squid with vegetables and whole crabs seasoned with lemon. Our tour guide for the two days was great too. He was an energetic young man optimistically named "Quan" by his parents, meaning soldier, in the hope that this would guide his career choice. I don't know how they felt about the fact that he changed his name to "Happy", spiked up his hair and became a tour guide, but he certainly lived up to his new name.

All at Sea
The floating village
There were also plenty of activities to do en route. Our first stop at a floating village allowed the opportunity to kayak. We set out, in a double kayak again, through the chaos of a small floating dock, dodging fishing boats and cruise ships alike and glided towards a cluster of islands. A cave opening in the rock like a wide mouth led us through into a sheltered bay within a circle of rock. Up close we could see the craggy, unforgiving nature of the vertical cliff-face and the birds and insects wheeling about, the only creatures capable of inhabiting such a place. The floating village was a strange place. It was incredible to see people living in such confinement; a wooden house and bit of decking is all they have to call their own. You can't exactly storm out and go for a walk if you have an argument with a family member. The people there are driven into the bay because of their poverty, they can't afford any land for their home so they are forced to build one in the bay. It must be strange to live somewhere so many people are desperate to see and to see so much wealth glide past everyday when you have so little. There is a school and a bank, and lots of tiny boats to get between them all. It looks sort of idyllic until you think of the remoteness, the sanitary conditions and the fact that when there's a storm they have to flee to land and pray there'll be a house there waiting for them when they return.

Surprising Cave

In the evening we stopped near Cat Ba, a vast island that houses a national park. Here we swam in the warm salty sea, Theo leaping off the top deck of the boat while I clambered carefully down the steps. On the second day we visited Surprising Cave, discovered and named by the French. Starting small the three parts of the cave, situated halfway up a massive island protruding out of the bay, became larger and well, more and more surprising. The last part is a vast deep hole that winds far back into the rock. It doesn't feel at all claustrophobic however as steps lead up to a wide mouth way up the cliff face through which the sunlight pours. The rock shapes inside the caves are fascinating, having been shaped by gradually descending sea levels. The ceiling looks like it's been gone over with an ice cream scoop and Happy showed us all sorts of interestingly shaped rocks; the Happy Buddha, the elephant and the turtle who, it is said, grants long life if you pat his head and leave him money. Up at the cave mouth we had a view out over a shimmering section of bay. We could see the white cruise ships drifting like tiny ducks among the picture perfect scene, all blue sea and green slopes and jagged peaks.

Cruise ships in Ha Long Bay at night

You Must See Ha Long Bay!

We were sad to leave that afternoon as we waited for the small boat to take us back to shore. We chatted for the last time with the other tourists, some English, Danish, French Canadian, Chinese and Vietnamese. The Vietnamese couple tried to teach us a card game which was interesting as we couldn't speak a word of each other's languages. Theo and I just sat there holding hands of cards, throwing in random cards when prompted receiving either smiling nods or shrieks of derision. Eventually they just took over and played for us, until we won because they'd totally forgotten about their own hands. Back on dry land it was all over too quickly and we had to wave goodbye to the fleeting luxury we had enjoyed as cruise-goers, a totally alien experience for both of us. All I can say in conclusion is, if you're ever in this part of the world "You must see Ha Long Bay!"

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Hanoi - Motorbikes, Mayhem and Moist Marionettes

Our first glimpse of Hanoi was as our plane circled over a flat and rural landscape. I thought we must have been in the wrong place when I looked out at the insular clusters of habitation spread out across the farmland. It took a while to get the visas sorted out, the guys in the kiosk being far too busy playing an advanced level of "Plants vs Zombies" to deal with us, then a man at passport control took an immense dislike to my face and became convinced that (due to a slight haircut) I was in fact not me. It felt like we were back in Bangkok as we bombed down the highway to the city. The road was dead straight and lined with billboards and there were lights everywhere. The first thing that really strikes you is the traffic, we leaned over the front seats of the taxi to watch as we got further into the city. At big junctions cars and motorbikes all cut across each other in different directions. One taxi even realised he'd taken the wrong exit and slammed into reverse, backing out into the chaotic junction. Watching the traffic is endlessly entertaining. It's as if everyone is involved in some kind of chaotic dance. It looks crazy and like it should end in disaster but due to years of practice they somehow simply glide past each other. Near misses make you wince every few minutes. Oh an I've discovered there's nothing you can't get on a motorbike; plants, air-con units, massive panes of glass and whole families.

A typical Hanoi street

Dodging Holes and Doggy-Do

The next morning, in the daylight my brain was scrambled. We stepped outside our high class hotel (Theo had just remarked what a great hotel we'd booked when part of the stairs fell off as we strolled down them) and stood vaguely in the street. "What is happening? What's all this noise, this madness? Oh that's right, I'm in Hanoi." There are no pavements in Hanoi, well there are but they're used as motorbike parks so you have to walk in the road. Making your way down the street is a massive achievement. You have to avoid walking into the parked motorcycles, or burning your bare legs on their still boiling hot exhaust pipes while dodging the moving bikes, bicycles, other pedestrians and ladies balancing baskets across their shoulders. You have to watch your feet, dodging poo and huge unexplained holes in the ground and the locals outside their shops. Everybody sits outside on tiny plastic stools cooking food and watching the world go by. Ladies sell things out of huge baskets in the streets or from the back of bikes. As a rule the buildings are a mess, as if there were some that made sense once upon a time but now too many people have crammed their own houses in between. There used to be a tax on how wide your house was so most of the buildings are shaped like tunnels, no wider than a few doors but long enough for numerous rooms. Shops are one room at the front of someone's house, piled floor to ceiling with biscuits and crisps. There is luxury here too, it's a big city after all complete with posh hotels, beauty spas and flashy phone shops.

The Old Quarter

Our walking tour led us through all this chaos first to a welcome oasis of calm in the form of a small temple straight out of China. A quiet courtyard led through to two small ornate rooms which are said to be the oldest in Hanoi. The shrines inside were piled high with money, food and even cans of beer for the spirits of dead ancestors. Back out on the street we stumbled across an art exhibition of traditionally made conical hats. The entrance was flanked with rows of hats on small haystacks so it looked as if dozens of villagers knelt with their heads bowed and their backs toward us. Next we went to a traditional house preserved in the style of the old quarter at the end of the 19th century. It was a beautiful place, all dark wood with an open courtyard and a small terrace. Folding doors let light flood the whole house and once inside even the noise of the street seemed far away.

The hat exhibition

South of the old quarter likes the Hoan Kiem lake at the centre of which is Ngoc Son temple. The temple is reached by a bright red bridge and is surrounded by pretty stone walls with gnarled trees stretching out towards the lake. The temple itself feels very oriental with red double doors thrown open and a vast dragon guarded vase of incense outside. In the centre of the lake stands the tall, ornate turtle tower, an unreachable shrine that honours the massive turtle that resides in the waters beneath.

Uncle Ho

Of course we couldn't visit Hanoi without taking a trip to see Ho Chi Minh, bringing my pickled communist spotting quota to two! After a serious queue around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex, and a lot of security, the towering mausoleum finally came into view. Looming over an open area and flanked by some smart gardens, where nationalistic music echoed out, the huge hunk of stone is a pretty horrible sight. White-uniformed guards with guns and bayonets flanked the red carpet that leads inside, where it is absolutely freezing, presumably to preserve the body. It was literally like walking into a tomb. Like Lenin, Uncle Ho lies in his glass case illuminated by a strange yellowish glow. His body is a shrunken husk, reduced by the pickling process while his head and hands remain as they were. Inside it is gloomy and eerily silent, it is forbidden to stop and guards nudge you on if you loiter for too long while filing through. Further attractions in the complex include ''Ho Chi Minh's Used Cars'' (a pretty unprofitable business seemingly) and the sparsely furnished stilt house where he lived for a time. The museum was a disappointing experience, jumbled and surreal with very little by way of explanation.

The water puppet show

Strings and Surround Sound

One thing that is absolutely not to be missed in Hanoi is the legendary water puppet show. Originating from peasant performances in flooded paddy fields the water puppet show is a part of North Vietnamese culture that has been lovingly preserved and perfected in Hanoi. Settling down in the theatre we were faced with a stage with an oriental house backdrop (a bamboo screen at the bottom like a door for the puppets) and a large square pool in front. The musicians emerged and played some enchanting traditional music to start and we listened to a solo on a peculiar one-stringed instrument. The puppets were fairly simple, people and animals mounted on platforms and controlled by underwater mechanisms by puppeteers in galoshes. Only the arms really moved, but they are very colourful cleverly made, if occasionally a little battered. The water corrodes the puppets quickly and every few months they have to be replaced. First there were drummers, crashing around in the water, then dragons, then an elegant phoenix dance where long-necked bird puppets dipped in and out of the water. Singers accompanied the musicians in creating hauntingly beautiful songs. A lot of the stories reflected peasant life, we saw scenes of fishing, frog catching, hilarious coconut picking and farm work. Rigid cows and stooped women with baskets marched through the water in orderly rows. There were also stranger scenes, like dancing traditional hats and puppets with flaming torches accompanied by songs and shouting in Vietnamese, but it was still entertaining to watch. It was an odd show, some of the puppets were a little wooden (excuse the pun), but the frogs and the fish were incredible, leaping about so realistically you almost forgot they were puppets. The final piece showed the transformation of a carp into a dragon, part of the legend of Emperor Ly Thai To, the founder of Hanoi. A brightly coloured fish danced with his friends then thrashed around, water bubbled, lights flashed and 'poof!' a dragon reared his vast head out of the water, spraying the crowd. All then went black as a puppeteer came out, wielding a glow-in-the-dark dragon that spiraled around the pool before being taken up by someone else and dancing around the house above. Finally he shot straight up from the house into the sky. A masterful and ingenious end to a wonderful show.
Our final piece of entertainment in Hanoi was distinctly more modern. With time to kill before our sleeper train south we delved into the wealthier side of Hanoi wandering around a vast shopping centre in search of a cinema. It was strange to be back somewhere so blank and generic, shopping centres look the same in every country and I felt strangely out of place in my beat up shorts and 'Laos' t-shirt.

Vivacious Vietnamese

The main reason I would say to visit Hanoi is to soak up the frenetic Asia atmosphere, specifically the people. We'd heard some bad stories from travelers in Laos who had already been this way and I was pretty nervous about interacting with people when we arrived but those fears were totally unfounded. The locals shout and wade into each other's dramas head on, but they're quick to laugh and to yell and interactions with them can often feel like getting hit by a small, intense cyclone (the women who we booked our Ha Long Bay tour with being a perfect example). Everyone we met was eager to help. They're kind to their children and respectful to their elderly and they're very hands on. At one point we were accosted by three ladies selling bananas from the baskets that hang from longs bars over their shoulders. They dumped their baskets on us and put their hats on our heads before going on to discuss whether or not I was pregnant, but they did say Theo was very handsome. We've seen that at least two-thirds of the old french saying is true- The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow while the Laos simply listen to it grow.

I Miss the Point of a Sleeper Train

We left Hanoi on my first ever sleeper train, having wrestled with the semi-ordered (take a numbered ticket) semi-chaotic (then just push in regardless) system of buying a ticket a few days before. Theo winched me up on to the bunk with much shoving before the nice Vietnamese lady and her son who were sharing our cabin pointed out that there were some convenient fold-down footholds. The train was nice enough, the bunks were fairly comfortable and we had all sorts of shelves and hooks and cubbyholes for our stuff, plus a handy bedside light. The only problem with the train was that it was impossible to sleep. It was pretty hot and sticky due to some asthmatic excuse for an air-con unit and the carriage shook and rattled. It tossed us about so much and I built up such a rhythm I was afraid I would jump free of the bar on my bunk. Passing lights danced through the chinks in the curtain and at the foot of my bed a bottle of water shook in our cubbyhole, like some enormous beast smacking its lips in the dark. Every time we slowed to a stop the carriages crashed into each other sending reverberation the length of the train. And that is how, for more than 11 ours, we lurched southwards to Hue.

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Thursday, 16 August 2012

Luang Prabang Part 2 - Birthday Boun Boun


July 20th. A big day. Our first excursion outside the beautiful city of Luang Prabang and time for Mr Riley to pull out the big guns. Why? Because it was my 23rd birthday. And boy was it the best birthday ever! We were picked up by the All Laos Elephant Camp at 9am and headed out of the city with the rest of the group. As we approached the hills we drove through a huge construction site where a new road was being built. The monsoon had hit a few days before and the whole place was thick with mud. It wasn't long before our minivan was stuck. It took some time, a lot of barefoot westerners and a JCB to get it out. I think the locals were surprised at how willing we all were (well, not all the girls) to jump out and take off ouir shoes and help shift the van from the warm gooey mud. When we finally got through we took a short boat trip up river and found ourselves in a forest clearing full of massive footprints and elephant poo and then, we saw them. Lumbering through the forest they were strangely silent as they moved, with their young mahouts perched on top. It was so surreal to see them just walking towards us through the jungle, so vast and yet so graceful. My foolish, western, media saturated brain thought for a moment that they must be CGI or something. We climbed aboard the howdah by means of a wooden scaffold and off we went for my first ever elephant ride.
Our elephant ride!


Our elephant was a little tempramental, she really did not want to go on a walk just then and trumpted away for a while, shaking her head in annoyance. I was pretty nervous, being high up and on a pissed off four tonne animal but the mahout, a 15 year old boy with minimal English, didn't seem too bothered. The view from up there was incredible. We stomped through the jungle for about a hour, hanging over the edge of the wooden howdah to watch the elephant walking. They are surprisingly sure footed for such big, cumbersome beasts.
Returning down river to the camp for lunch we learnt the mahout commands, ''pai'' for go, ''hao'' for stop and ''yaya!'' for no bad elephant, before heading back up river in our attractive, oversized mahout uniforms for some proper training. I thought the heavy denim uniforms might be a little over the top but when you're sat on the neck of an animal that enjoys mud baths and has tough wire-like hair over its entire body you're suddenly grateful that you're not wearing your own flimsy clothes. I tried to angle for what I thought was a slightly smaller elephant when we got back to the clearing but I was still pretty dubious when the elephant stood up and I was way up in the air balanced on its neck. Getting up is no mean feat, even if it does crouch down which it often won't, and it took a substantial bottom shove from Theo and an awful lot of pulling by the mahout to get me properly mounted.
When you're up there all you can see in front of you is this massive hairy head and floppy ears and the ground ahead. Every time she looked around or especially down I felt like I was going to topple off. My nice teenage mahout held on to me for a while before he decided to take a nap, which was very reassuring. Theo's mahout actually got off the elephant and just strolled along behind. I got used to it after a while and started to really enjoy the feeling of "driving" that vast animal through the jungle, not that it listened to my feeble cries of "pai!" when it didn't want to. It was surreal sitting atop an animal so vast it barely notices your weight and you can hardly see any of it from where you're sat.

The author pretending to be a mahout

Boun Boun!

The way down to the river was just a long slippery, muddy slope. I was at the back of the group and watched Theo's elephant slide down, get one foot caught and slither on its knees towards even ground. With a sigh of relief I registered that my boyfriend was still alive, he had not been cruhed by a falling elephant, then it dawned on me that it was my turn. The mahouts seemed to find the elephants lack of grace absolutely hilarious, which we found very comforting. I was so hot and sweaty with fear by this point that it was wonderful to have a dunk in the river. Half submerged my elephant rolled around, enjoying her bath, and responded enthusiastically when the mahout stood on her back, counted to three in Lao and shouted "boun boun!" (spray). Over and over again her periscope trunk came flicking out of the water and doused me. Elephants can hurl as much as ten litres of water out of their trunks at a time and I took some pretty forceful jets to the face. Back on dry land we rode up the slope and then with a graceful slide down while hanging off her ear my elephant ride was over.

Elephant bath time


We tubed back down river, which basically involved sitting in the inner tube of a truck tyre like a rubber ring and floating along in the current, and walked over to the less than inspiring elephant information centre. This consisted of a large room covered in pictures of elephants walking, bathing and mating (graphically) as well as various diseases and afflictions in absolutely no logical order or with any explanations. Our tour guide Chai filled the time while we were waiting for the others to finish looking telling us about his home in the mountains and how his father abducted his mother when he decided he wanted to marry her. His grandfather then swung a chicken in the air, for reasons we failed to understand. Each to their own I suppose.

Getting Pally with the Locals

We were so exhausted the next day (and I had some serious groin strain from holding on for dear life) that we spent the day relaxing in the city before renting bicycles for the evening. This was an adventure in itself as it tuned out. We found the bicycle shop deserted and on hunting down a side alley for someone who worked there we found ourselves befriended by three elderly Lao men. They hollered to the shop boy before inviting us to join them. They gave us Lao Lao (oh no!)  and beer and let us share in their meal of fried meat and salad with chilli sauce then a whole dried fish. It felt totally surreal to be invited in to someone's lesiure time like that, we were hardly the only tourists out and about then but the men seemed generally insterested in hearing about where we came from and where we were going. We were pretty woozy by the time we actually got bicycles and only really managed to wobble along beside the Mekong looking for food.

Whiskey Village Deja Vu

On our last day in Luang Prabang we crammed in the final sights outisde the city with another tour. We were picked up by the most adorable tour guide ever, little Touy. Touy was only twenty and was still in training with the company. He told us all about his family who lived hours and hours away in a place with no water or electricity. He told us how he longed to see them and to go abroad but he didn't have the money for either. He had taken the job as a tour guide to learn English and because he liked meeting new people from places he would never see, and learning American slang. Touy stole our hearts immediately, which was good because the tour was slightly chaotic.
At the elephant camp Theo and I of course felt like old pros at the riding and clambered on confidently while the rest of the group wobbled and shrieked. With Theo on the neck and a dutch boy and I in the howdah we set off on a relatively short trip through the trees. It was a pretty easy route compared to the last one and we all took turns scrambling on to the neck. Theo and I shouted "pai!" and "quoa!" at every available opportunity which the mahouts walking along side and taking photos like paparazzi seemed to find pretty amusing.
Leaving the camp we went to a small whiskey village, which really was exactly like every other village we'd been to except that was turned over to the tourist trade. It comprised of wooden homes and dusty streets and stall after stall selling scarves and nicknacks. The only difference here was that you were plied with Lao Lao and rice wine to sample and make you buy something. Back at the elephant camp we had to sit around wait for an angry American couple, who having been forgotten in the morning, had to be taken to the whiskey village we had just left. With everyone grouped together again we travelled to the Pak Ou caves, a stunning set of caves in the side of a sheer rock face dropping straight on to the Nam Ou river. We shot across the river in a frail little boat and climbed first to the higher cave then the lower. The higher cave had a strange metal gate covering its entrance and was pretty dark when you got right back inside. It was full of tiers of tiny Buddha statues brought there by pious Lao People. They showed up like eerie lines of soldiers in the light of the camera flashes. The lower cave was much more open with a Mediterranean style white wall and set of stone steps. It too was bursting with Buddhas of every shape and size but seemed more of an open place of worship than the dark Buddha storage centre of the higher cave.

The Pak Ou caves

On the long drive to the Kuang Si waterfall we had to stop again at the pesky whiskey village and wait in the sweltering minivan while two more girls who missed it earlier looked around. Finally reaching the water park the first thing we saw was an enclosure of black bears, a species being conserved in this area. The black bears looked as relaxed as the locals while tourists gathered just a short walk away, around the breath-taking series of pools at the bottom of Kuang Si. The river is wide and falls in short cascades down into deep blue pools where we swam for an hour or so, avoiding the big rocks and crabs. The main pool is surrounded by people eating drinking and diving in from a rope swing or jumping off the waterfall. Theo and I went past this chaos and found our own private pool for a little while slightly further up stream. It pays to explore. After our swim Touy led us up to the top of the waterfall to see the most impressive cascade. The drop was huge but it was punctuated with a few steps high up the cliff and lots of little side waterfalls contributed to the full picture.
Lastly we stopped at a Hmong village, another one of one room houses and muddy half naked children and cheap bracelets, before making the long drive back to Luang Prabang.

Kuang Si waterfall

The next day was spent almost entirely in a local restaurant waiting for the time to pass. When it was finally time to leave the trip to the airport, check-in, security and boarding all went by very fast. Before we knew it we were taking off, aboard a surprisingly plush Lao Airlines' plane and being given teeny tiny sandwiches and cake!

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