Vietnam and Singapore
A trip log by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 2001 Evelyn C. Leeper
Table of Contents:
Each trip we take seems to generate the same question from everyone we tell. For Japan, it was, "Isn't that very expensive?" For Turkey, it was, "Have you seen Midnight Express?" For Vietnam, the question seems to be, "North or south?" Just for the record, there is no north or south anymore. (Well, no more than in the United States. There are regional differences, but no one asks "North or south?" about trips to the United States.)
Actually, this question is usually in addition to "Why X?" Fred Lerner gave a good answer when asked why he was going to Estonia. He said it's because people ask why he was going to Estonia rather than saying, "Well, when I was in Estonia. . . ." In this case, it's because we find Asia fascinating and are trying to visit all the countries in it. We had already been to China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, India, and Japan, so the logical next choice seemed to be Vietnam.
I realize that Vietnam comes with a lot of extra baggage for some people, particularly Americans, and I do talk about this a bit later, but as the slogan goes, "Vietnam--it's a country, not a war."
The third part usually goes something like, "How long are you going for?" "Three weeks." "All three weeks in country X?" We're people who spent six and a half days in Lithuania, so the idea of trying to see Turkey, or most countries, in only a few days, seems insane. (Though I will admit we probably could have shortened our stay in Lithuania--to five and a half days.) So, yes, we planned on three weeks in just Vietnam.
We decided not to try to get a rock-bottom fare and so spent a little bit extra to fly Singapore Air (US$1191.30 each). Getting cheap fares to common destinations is relatively easy, but with so few carriers (and flights) to Vietnam, the big savings are just not there. The lack of flights also meant we ended up with three days in Singapore, since they fly only three times a week from Hanoi to Singapore and the day we originally wanted was already full. So we had to fly out two days earlier, leaving us with just 17 days in Vietnam.
I will admit to being a bit worried about this trip, mostly about whether we would be able to get by without knowing Vietnamese, and the whole money situation. In most countries, money is easily managed--you bring an ATM card, go up to an ATM machine, and get the money for that country. In some places (like Japan) the concern might be whether the ATM has English prompts, but that's about it. In Vietnam, on the other hand. . . . Not only are ATMs extremely rare--the Hong Kong and ANZ Banks in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon, but hereafter referred to as HCMC) are about the only places to have one--but how useful Vietnamese currency would be was a matter of speculation. Many prices are quoted in dollars, and it was not clear whether Vietnamese dong would be accepted. (They would, and usually at a quite reasonable rate.) When I quote prices in US dollars in this log, that's because how they were quoted. The conversion rate is roughly 14,400 Vietnamese dong for one US dollar, or about 100,000 dong for US$7. Travellers cheques are (supposedly) not accepted by hotels and such, or even changeable into dong in all banks. And credit cards are accepted some places, but only Visa and Mastercard, and usually with a surcharge of 3-5%. So I was trying to figure out how much to take in travellers cheques, and how much in cash. For Singapore, of course, we would have no problem.
At the end will be a breakdown of costs by category, and by country, since I expect Singapore to be much more expensive, and want to give you an idea of costs in each country. Basically, neither money nor language was a problem.
Other technical details: Times are given in a twenty-four-hour clock (e.g., 18:30 instead of 6:30PM). Temperatures are Celsius and units (mostly) metric. In the web and printed versions of this I will attempt at least sometimes to get the diacritical marks as close as possible for the Vietnamese names and words, but anyone who gets a plain ASCII version is out of luck. Of course, since many books and even the Vietnamese themselves often leave out the marks, and some are difficult to reproduce, I probably won't be doing a very good job. For example, our hotel in Hue was the "Thái Bình," but on their card it was written as just "Thai Binh."
March 2-3: The trip did not start on an auspicious note. The limousine company, which up until now had been very reliable, failed rather dramatically. When we called ten minutes after the pick-up time, it took them another five to establish that the driver was nowhere need our house, and had a flat tire. They said he could be at our house forty-five minutes late, but that seemed like basically a guess. So we cancelled the limousine, threw our luggage in the car, and drove like mad to Newark Airport. With the added problem of parking and taking the bus from the long-term lot, we still managed to get there ninety minutes before flight time rather than the planned two hours, which turned out to be plenty of time. I don't mind leaving the car at the airport, but the parking for three weeks starts to get pricey. Oh, well, that's the cost of travel.
Singapore Airlines is just as cramped as the other airlines, but the amenities are nicer. For example, everyone has his own private screen and ten different movies or video shows to choose from. And everyone gets a footrest. And everyone gets free champagne.
March 4: We flew to Singapore with a stop in Amsterdam, then transferred to another plane for the flight to HCMC. We cleared customs at Tan Son Nhut Airport (I assume this was part of the air base back in the 1960s and 1970s) with no problem (though they do X-ray everyone's luggage going through customs). We were able to change travellers cheques at the airport--it had been reported that the bank there was only open during banking hours, but it appears that it is now open on Sundays as well. It also appears that one can change travellers cheques into US dollars as well as into Vietnamese dong, so if it turns out we need more US cash, we can get some. (There is a 1% charge for this, but that's not too bad, and we won't need to change all that much anyway.) (Later note: Or any. As noted, we discovered that everyone we dealt with took dong. Maybe if we were spending a lot on something in a shop it would be different.)
We had sent email asking for the hotel to pick us up, but no one was there. We waited a little bit, in case they were just delayed, but then decided to take a taxi. (I had not received a confirmation of my email request for a pick-up, and suspected that it had gone astray. And that turned out to be the case.) We tried to head for the metered taxis, but were immediately snared by a driver for a non-metered one. He wanted US$10 for the trip to the hotel, which we realized was a bit high, but not worth arguing about, or fighting through the crowds to the taxi stand. We got in an old beat-up Lada, whose air-conditioning consisted of a small fan mounted over the passenger window, and off we went, after the driver asked at least three times if we had a reservation at the hotel. He was clearly also hoping he could get a commission from a hotel for us as well.
First impressions: HCMC is full of motorbikes, There is a fair amount of English on business signs, and we discovered that enough people speak enough English that we can get by. In terms of general appearance, Vietnam at first seemed to be a lot like India: buildings, cars, and so on, seem very run down, the level of cleanliness is very low, and traffic is chaotic. This turned out to be somewhat inaccurate--later we went down streets that had better-looking buildings. And as someone on one of the tours noted, it seemed as though there was far more equality of economic status. We didn't see as many beggars, and the ones we did see seemed to be as well fed and healthy as the rest of the population. And, we saw begging only from tourists, unlike in India, where there is an upper class for beggars to approach. (There didn't seem to be that sort of upper class in Vietnam. No one was wearing a lot of gold jewelry, or in a private car, or otherwise noticeably richer.)
Door-to-door time was 29 and a half hours.
The Giant Dragon Hotel is actually quite nice, with a large air-conditioned room with double bed, satellite TV, refrigerator, and full attached bathroom for US$25 a night.
Because we arrived around noon, it seemed like a good idea to rest in the hotel room for at least a couple of hours until the midday sun cooled off. I thought I would have trouble falling asleep, but I nodded off fairly quickly and slept until Mark woke me about 16:00.
It had cooled off considerably--it was probably only 30 degrees Celsius instead of 38--and we walked around the hotel area to see what was there. There were a lot of sidewalk book dealers. Each book was wrapped in plastic, whether to protect it from rainstorms or to prevent browsing wasn't clear. These were all books aimed at tourists--novels in English (mostly), French, and German; Lonely Planet guides; etc. Some were used, and some were "new," but the "new" ones were all pirated editions. Mark got a book of short stories to have something to read in the room. The cover looked used, with creases and such, but when we unwrapped it, that was because they had photocopied it from a used copy! And they had set the pages out of order in the first signature! Mark paid 35,000 dong for it (UK list on the photocopied cover was £7.99). This would explain why the selection of books was so similar from stall to stall, and indeed they seemed to be replenished by people bringing in stacks a meter high of the same assortment.
For dinner we walked to the Mother Love (a.k.a. Coconut Tree, a.k.a. Le Lai) Restaurant. It was on the other side of a large construction area. Of course, this area was listed as being under construction on the map in the March 1999 Lonely Planet, and it looks as though progress has stopped.
Dinner was chicken braised with citronella and red pepper, and squid sautéed with mushrooms. Each of these was 22,000 dong. Along with rice, two 330-ml cans of 7-Up at 6,000 dong each, and some pomelo and a banana, the total came to 64,000 dong (about US$4.60). The portions were much smaller than in the United States (where the portions are usually enough for two people anyway), and we certainly didn't go away hungry. However, the chicken was more like bits and pieces left over after the good parts were removed, or as if the chicken backs had been chopped into bite-sized pieces. The result, while tasty, was very difficult to eat.
I will add here that of all my worries about this trip, food was never one of them. We're not picky eaters, we can use chopsticks, and we like just about any Asian food. So even though I may say some negative things about the food, think of these as minor annoyances rather than real problems or complaints. (When I talked to someone about the trips we take, he asked if we brought food with us. I thought this a strange question, but said, yes, we usually brought a candy bar or two for the airport. It turned out he was asking if we brought supplies for our entire trip with us. We don't.)
After dinner, we signed up at Kim's Cafe for a Mekong Delta Tour for tomorrow. First of all, it's a fairly low-stress way to spend the first day--someone else does the transportation and planning, and it's a lot of riding in boats. The other day trip we want to do involves more walking and crawling through tunnels. Also, it's a Monday and a lot of museums and sights are closed on Mondays. (Kim's Cafe has a cafe, but it's primarily a tourist agency--government-sponsored, I believe.)
We picked up some bottled water on the way back to the hotel--16,000 dong for one liter and two half-liters. That's about US$0.56 for a liter. As you will see this made it pretty expensive by Vietnamese standards, but then, the Vietnamese aren't buying this, tourists are.
March 5: We both slept okay. Mark slept through the night, while I woke up for an hour or so in the middle. We finally got up about 5:00. That sounds early, but apparently everything in Vietnam runs on an earlier schedule. For example, most Vietnamese eat breakfast between 6:00 and 7:00. (Tourists seem to eat later, and getting food later in the tourist area is not a problem, though.) We went out about 6:30 and ended up have breakfast at a sidewalk stand selling noodle soup with chicken. Along with the pieces of boiled chicken were little pieces of fried chicken skin--apparently grebenes is a cross-cultural thing! ("Grebenes" being the Yiddish word for that.) One minor problem is that a lot of these sidewalk vendors have very small chairs--they're the right size for the Vietnamese, but for us larger foreigners they can be a problem, particularly the ones that also have arms on them. Luckily most seem to be just small stools or not have arms. Two big bowls were 10,000 dong (about $0.70 for both). Afterwards we still had time to kill before the 8:15 tour, and were already hot, so we had something to drink in Kim's Cafe (the cafe part). I had an iced coffee with milk and Mark had a mango shake. These came to 15,000 dong (US$1.07)--more than the main course. Again, that's because these are tourist drinks served in a tourist cafe.
The bus left promptly. We had been told to arrive ten minutes before departure time, and we did wait an extra three minutes for the last two people, but then left without them. (I don't know yet if this promptness is standard here.) (It wasn't.) The bus was air-conditioned, but true to our luck, the air-conditioning broke down before we got out of HCMC, and we sat for about a half hour while our guide Pha and the driver fixed it.
One interesting innovation I saw was a traffic light that when green counted down to when it would turn red. This is more for the benefit of pedestrians crossing than for the cars.
The street out of HCMC to the highway down to the Mekong Delta was under construction to widen it, so we went slower than we might otherwise have and it was very bumpy and dusty. We had the windows closed, but a lot of people on motorbikes were wearing masks over their noses and mouths, and these seemed to be sold at roadside stands everywhere. Traffic was very heavy the entire way, with vehicles passing each other at every opportunity and motorbikes expected to get out of the way of larger vehicles. And horns are used extensively.
One reason for the vast number of motorbikes is that HCMC has only three bus routes, so anyone who works too far away from one of these needs some form of transportation. Bicycles are also popular, but since China starting selling motorbikes that cost about 20% of what the Japanese ones had, people are switching to those. It is not uncommon, however, to see two or three adults or two adults and two children on one motorbike. Gasoline seems to cost 5,100 dong per liter, or about $1.40 per gallon. Diesel is about 20% cheaper.
We stopped briefly outside My Tho to see a bonsai garden and zoo. Actually, it was probably more to allow people to stretch their legs and use the rest rooms, as it wasn't all that interesting. (We saw these "zoos" several places. They're basically a collection of small cages with snakes, monkeys, and turtles. This one had a porcupine as well.)
We then drove to the dock on the Mekong River, where we boarded our first boat for a trip a little ways downriver, past fishing boats and such, and then back upriver along Dragon Island and then Unicorn Island. The "fishing villages" described in the brochure are less romantic-looking in reality than one pictures them, with plastic jugs serving as floats and so on.
This boat was motorized, about fifty feet long, with about a half dozen benches seating two people each in rows along each side.
On Unicorn Island we took a rowboat (rowed by someone else, of course) through the canals. This was very quiet and peaceful, something that power boats are not. We stopped at an area where there were a lot of little shops and restaurants catering to tourist groups, and had lunch there: spring rolls, vegetable soup with pork, grilled pork, and greens with garlic. This was included in the US$7 per person tour, but beverages were an extra 8,000 dong per soda. We also heard a some Vietnamese music played by a quartet on traditional instruments and ending with that traditional Vietnamese song, "Auld Lang Syne."
After lunch, we took another motorized boat to an area where we walked to a coconut candy factory. I found the candy a bit too sticky and sweet for my taste, and the banana wine they made was very strong (more like sherry) and not very good (in my opinion--I am not a real alcohol connoisseur). We did like the coconut milk--for 3,000 dong you could have a coconut split open and drink the milk (juice, really), then scrape the coconut meat off the inside. Mark and I shared one, and the guide took a picture of the two of us sipping through straws at the same time. People also found it funny when we both tried to sip at once and knocked caps.
Then we walked a ways down the road (having to be careful of passing motorbikes--even this relatively isolated village had its share of motor bikes) to another boat for a ride to a bee farm where a young man was trying to show us the queen bee by pulling wooden frames with combs out of the hive. He didn't manage to find her, but it was interesting to see how he did it. He would move very slowly, easing his fingers down onto the ends of the frame to lift it, but slowly enough to give the bees time to move out of the way. And returning them to the hive was equally slow. I can testify that this works, because they then decided we should taste the honey and I got picked to be first. He guided my finger slowly into this seething mass of bees, which moved aside until I could punch a small hole in the comb and get some honey on my finger. Some other people tried it after me, but not everyone.
The honey was good. The "honey wine" (which was actually rice wine with honey added) was not as good. Again, it was much stronger than wine, in this case more like sake but with a harsher taste.
Then we returned by motorized boat to the dock and by bus to My Tho to see the Vinh Trang Pagoda, about a hundred and fifty years old and well maintained (and still in use). We passed many pagodas and temples on this trip, and although the Communist government in Vietnam worked to suppress various religions between 1975 and 1990, they are no longer as concerned about religion as Communist governments elsewhere, and there has been something of a religious revival, though there is still strong government control.
Then we returned to HCMC, with our driver honking his horn most of the way. This is apparently standard, and earplugs might be advised. (Mark used them.) We got back about 18:30.
After freshening up at the hotel, we walked out and had dinner at Sinh Cafe. I had crispy noodle with squid, shrimp, and pork; and mulberry wine. Mark had regular noodle with squid, shrimp, and pork; and a couple of sodas. The total was 49,000 dong (about US$3.50). The mulberry wine was every bit as mediocre as the banana wine and the honey wine.
We stopped at a couple of bookshops, with similar stock to the stands we had previously visited: books in English for tourists, bootleg editions, etc. One had a shelf labeled "French (and other foreign language)." This in a shop in Vietnam full of English-language books. Think about it.
We ended up buying two more books at the same stand as before, both pirated editions. One was the Lonely Planet Vietnamese Phrasebook (for 15,000 dong); the other purported to be the Lonely Planet Singapore (for 35,000 dong). This was convenient because with only three days in Singapore we didn't feel we wanted to pay full price for a separate Singapore book. But what we got wasn't the Singapore book--it was the last section of the "Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei" book, from about page 500 on. This meant we got the Singapore section and the Brunei section and the index for all three countries, but not the Table of Contents or introductory parts!
Then back to the room and sleep after a long day.
March 6: Breakfast was noodle soup (with beef for Mark, with egg for me) at a cafe across from the hotel. This turned out to be basically ramen, and not as good as yesterday's noodle soup. With a coffee for me, the total was 17,000 dong.
Our first stop of the day was the War Remnants Museum. This museum has gone under many names--it used to be known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. The Vietnamese name is Bâo Tang Tôi Ae Chièn Tranh--maybe someone can tell me what the translation is. (By the way, in Vietnam the Vietnam War is called the American War. Well, that makes sense--all their wars were "Vietnam Wars.")
Because it wasn't too hot yet, we decided to walk from the hotel. The traffic is amazing. I think it's a tie between Bangkok and HCMC as to who has the worst traffic. Crossing the street in HCMC involves waiting for the light to be at least nominally in your favor, looking for a slightly less frenetic stretch and crossing firmly, and keeping a steady pace, because the motorbikes will make their maneuvers based on that assumption. People in a group should not try to watch other members of the group--it's hard enough to watch all the traffic. Don't try to cross in front of cars or buses if you can avoid it. Above all, take the advice of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and don't panic.
Of course, walking on the sidewalk isn't much easier. First of all, there is no "on-street parking." This means that people park their motorbikes on the sidewalk. And there are a lot of motorbikes. Then there are sidewalk food stands, or just tables from restaurants along the street. And the sidewalk is not even level. The shop entrances tend to be higher than the street, so the sidewalk is built up to that height, but the alleys and other space between shops are left at road level. So even assuming there were no obstacles, you would constantly be stepping up and down as you walked along.
The War Remnants Museum is moving away from its anti-American stance, in ways other than just in name. The brochure that you get as part of your 10,000 dong admission used to be titled "Some Pictures of US Aggressive Imperialists War Crimes in Vietnam." Now it's just "War Remnants in Vietnam." It does start with a quote from Robert McNamara in his 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam: "Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why." I think few would disagree with that.
I suppose it is expected of me that I make some statement about my attitude towards the war. First, let me give some background by saying that I am from an Air Force family and that my father's final tour of duty in the Air Force was in fact Vietnam 1967-1968, including the Tet Offensive. I also attended the University of Massachusetts, one of the more left-leaning schools, from 1968 through 1972. This led me to a more split attitude towards the war than many. I was against the war, but I did not believe that the soldiers we sent (or even the generals who sent them) were monsters. As with so many mistakes, the war can be summed up by saying, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
One argument was that we had promised support to the South Vietnamese government. After a series of coups, however, one could argue that the government in place was not the one we had made promises to. A second argument was that we were responding to the Gulf of Tonkin incident(s). Years later, we found out that one of these "neutral" ships was in fact in North Vietnamese waters on a covert military operation when it was fired upon, and the other was never fired upon at all. And a third argument was that if Vietnam became Communist, all of southeast and south Asia would follow. This didn't happen.
What did happen was that over 2,000,000 people died and we sprayed Agent Orange over 16% of South Vietnam (including 36% of the mangrove forests) in what has been termed "ecocide." I suspect one could make a case that this was chemical warfare and against the Geneva Convention, though technically the chemicals were used as defoliants rather than having as their primary target personnel. Now we express great horror when Iraq sets fire to the Kuwaiti oil fields, yet the motivation and the damage to the environment are not that different. We got involved in a war where we couldn't tell our allies from our enemies, and where we could win every battle, but still lose the war. (Though as has been noted, the ubiquity of Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Nike, Citibank, etc., lead many to say that we lost the war, but won the peace.)
As for why we're visiting "the enemy," I will note that it has been twenty-five years since the end of the war, we have diplomatic relations and trade agreements with Vietnam, two-thirds of the population of Vietnam was born after the war was over, and of the other third, a not insubstantial fraction were on our side. And in spite of the attitude taken by many of the captions in the museum, the Vietnamese people don't seem to harbor any hostility towards Americans, but tend to blame our government at the time for deceiving us. This is not an entirely incorrect view.
Oh, and no one seemed to ask that sort of question when we said we were visiting Japan, who actually did make an unprovoked attack not just on United States ships, but the United Sates itself.
Back to the museum.
The captions in most of the museum are still very anti-American, though it's interesting to note that they appear to have put up English captions first, and French captions (along with Japanese) only later. A part of the museum is dedicated to the war with the French (which lasted from 1945 through 1954). The labels are also arguably inaccurate, with the most commonly cited one being a caption on a photograph holding a Vietnamese body that had been blown to pieces, which read "U.S. soldier laughing as he holds a dead Vietnamese," when the soldier actually appears more to be grimacing with disgust or even ready to cry.
However, once in a while they seem to have slipped up and have a caption that actually appears slanted the other way. For example, a sign on a plane says "used by the US Navy to reconnoiter battles against the enemy infiltration." But they were the "enemy" in that context!
At the entrance were quotes from the Tuyên Ngôn Dôc Lâp, the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. It borrows heavily from the United States Declaration of Independence; the Insight Guide says it contains the sentences, "All men are created equal. They are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Of course, it also says these form the basis of the American constitution rather than being from the Declaration of Independence, so who knows?
The displays themselves include some very disturbing displays and photographs, some of which are familiar. Oddly enough, two of the most famous photographs--Kim Phuc running down the road in Trang Bang, and Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolating himself--were not included. I skipped over the most disturbing displays, which included those of the after-effects of the dioxin in Agent Orange.
One interesting situation, possibly the result of English captions being added after the fact, is that quotations from Americans have been translated back from Vietnamese translations, and sound quite strange to us.
There were not a lot of Americans here. There was a Japanese tour group, and a school group, and maybe one other American. Then again, we arrived at 8:00, which is undoubtedly early for any American tour groups that might come here. Or perhaps the Vietnamese discourage American tour organizers from including this, or the American tour organizers figure, "Why add a downer of a stop?", or there just aren't that many American tourists. Certainly most of the English-speaking tourists we are meeting are Aussies or Kiwis or even English rather than American.
I suspect that, just as the name of the museum has been changed, some of the captions will be changed as more Americans start coming, or as the Vietnamese want more Americans to come. Just as a lot of our anti-Japanese rhetoric was toned down after World War II ended and we resumed (or perhaps more accurately, began) normal relations with Japan, so I expect that as more Vietnamese see more Americans, the anti-American rhetoric will be toned down. As with many situations, I think ignorance and isolation has led to a continuation of the feelings, on both sides.
The one even-handed exhibit was a photography exhibit, sponsored by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, along with UPS and several other American firms. This comprised photographs taken by photo-journalists on both sides during the war. It included the 25 January 1963 issue of Life magazine with Larry Burrows's photographic story of the war, as well as photographs taken by North Vietnamese photographers of troop and supply movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The captions were mostly factual, and emphasized more the horror and sadness of war than an attempt to blame one side or the other. Many of the photographs were taken by photographers killed in Vietnam, and were often labeled "last roll of film."
Again, I would have expected some of the more famous photos to be here, but perhaps the idea was to not repeat photographs people had already seen hundreds of times. Walking through, I was suddenly struck with the odd thought, "What if I recognize someone?" While my father had been on the base pretty much the whole time during his stay, I did know people from work who had been "in country" and though the odds were small indeed, it was possible that I might actually see one of them in a photograph. I didn't, however.
There was a souvenir shop or rather, several. One had general postcards, books, and souvenirs. There was something a bit incongruous about seeing toys (cyclos, helicopters, even backpacks) made from Coca-Cola cans. Are these made from real Coke cans? They look too clean and unchipped. It wouldn't surprise me to find out that the company making the cans is also providing unused sheets of printed metal to toy manufacturers. There was also a stand selling "souvenir" Zippo lighters. I presume they are purported to be left behind by United States servicemen, but there seem to be a lot of them. I suspect there may be some place manufacturing these the way there are factories in Russia still turning out Soviet medals for the tourist trade. In either case, though, a Zippo seems a rather tasteless souvenir.
Sodas were 10,000 dong for a can here, the highest I've seen anywhere. I did keep the Coke can, though. No, not to deny them the raw materials, but because I have a friend who collects international Coke cans, and I suspected he didn't have a Vietnamese one.
We then walked a few blocks to the Reunification Palace, formerly the residence of the South Vietnamese President. It's clear the economy here is growing--not only did we see all sorts of consumer goods like refrigerators and air conditioners, but even a store selling safes! (And from the roof of the Reunification Palace, we could see Manulife and Citibank buildings.)
The Reunification Palace, if truth be known, is not very interesting, unless you care about things like state dining rooms and such. The most interesting part was the basement and its military control rooms, complete with lots of antiquated radio and telecommunications equipment. The same guide now takes you through the entire tour. (According to the 1999 Lonely Planet, each guide had a specific set of rooms and you would get handed off from one to another.)
The video after the tour is fairly odd. First, the room is air-conditioned down to about 17 degrees Celsius. The video player has a display that at first glance would appear to be the volume indicator. But then you notice that the lights are symmetric, and you realize it's just a random kaleidoscopic display ("to add a bit of visual excitement," as George Spiggot says in Bedazzled).
A lot of time was spent explaining how various Chinese characters were represented in the facade of the building. It's hard to explain this here, but for example, they would show a character superimposed over the facade such that the strokes of the character (supposedly) lined up with the columns, the lines between the floors, and other features. Some of the basic ones seemed convincing, but as the characters got more complex, it became more "imaginative." In addition, the characters were all for various ideals that the current government ascribes more to itself than to the South Vietnamese government that built the palace, so I am somewhat skeptical of the whole thing. It's also a newer video than the one described in the Lonely Planet. That one ended with the national anthem and everyone was expected to stand. This one did not, unless the national anthem sounds like a lounge song. There have been a lot of this sort of updating, and one sees signs with the new campaign slogan, "Vietnam--The Destination for the New Millennium."
Outside was yet another one of those ubiquitous mini-zoos with animals in too-small cages with no water. Mark finds it ironic that with all this emphasis on freedom the Vietnamese then put all these animals in cages.
We had a couple of hours to kill before the next museum. (Most museums close for a couple of hours for lunch.) We had a couple of sodas in the little snack bar on the Palace grounds, and wrote in our logs for a while, then decided to walk over and see Notre Dame Cathedral.
This was not a cathedral built to look particularly like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, though the general shape was the same. We didn't go inside--it appears to be locked with iron gates, and though the Lonely Planet indicated that the side entrance was sometimes open, we weren't all that interested. The Lonely Planet also said that because of the large number of foreigners who attend Mass here, the priest was "allowed" to give a short sermon in English or French in addition to his longer Vietnamese one. The implication is that this "allowing" is done by the government, and if this is an accurate representation, then religious freedom isn't quite as much as might appear.
Whenever we travel, we try to visit or at least see the local synagogue. To the best of my knowledge, there are no synagogues in Vietnam. (It's not that impossible--there are synagogues in China and India, for example, though in both cases they are in small cities that happened to have large Jewish populations at one time. There is also one in Singapore, but we saw it last time we were in Singapore. "Well, the last time I was in Singapore. . . .")
Across from Notre Dame was the Post Office, a beautiful building built in French Colonial style. We decided to go in and see if they had any souvenir stamp sets. Unlike most other countries, the souvenir sets sold here are cancelled stamps rather than uncancelled, but they also come in a nice book. We got two sets, one of buildings for a friend and one of flight and space travel for one of our godsons. Outside women are selling more books of stamps, as well as old coins and money, and we bought another book of older stamps for another friend. I already have a set of older coins that my father brought me thirty years ago.
Of course, vendors and cyclo drivers congregate outside the Post Office because tourists go there, and we were now followed by the vendors a little ways and by a cyclo driver all the way to the Revolutionary Museum. Even going into a small park and sitting down while waiting for the museum to open didn't shake him--he left his cyclo on the street and came in to try to convince us to hire him.
The Revolutionary Museum seems to now be called the City Museum, with somewhat more emphasis on the history, geography, flora and fauna, crafts, and so on of the city. Then again, maybe the contents were always like this, and the two names may both be in use. There were still several large halls with revolutionary artifacts: clothing, flyers, radio sets, etc. Signs are in English as well as Vietnamese, but unless you are very familiar with this period of Vietnamese history, the items won't be very meaningful. There was also a large gallery of statues and carvings from various temples--all replicas. This would be okay, but many were chipped and otherwise obviously replicas. Replicas are sort of a consensual illusion (or delusion), and if they stop looking like what they are replicas of and start looking like imitations, it destroys the illusion.
When we finished the museum (and had more sodas--one needs to replenish fluids a lot here), we took the still-present cyclo back to a market near the hotel. Bargaining was not that difficult, though the driver quoted a price which turned out to be for each (a second cyclo had appeared). Though Vietnamese sometimes double up in cyclos, I think the drivers consider Westerners too large/heavy for that. We ended up paying 15,000 dong each (a little more than US$1 each) for a ride of a couple of kilometers.
We had seen the Thai Binh Market as our bus went by Monday, and it looked interesting, but it turned out to be a fairly small market. I did manage to to buy a pair of sandals. One pair of shoes that I had brought which had seemed to fit turned out to very uncomfortable, probably because my feet swell in hot weather. (They were a trifle snug even back home.) The sandals cost 35,000 dong (about US$2.50). I apparently wear a size 39 here.
We walked back to the hotel, stopping for dinner at the Lotus Restaurant. We had curried squid and chicken with ginger. They also make a very good soda chanh duong (seltzer with lime and sugar). Dinner came to 69,000 dong (US$7).
We stopped at Kim's Cafe to book mini-bus tickets and a tour. The former is a system that Kim's Cafe and Sinh Cafe (and probably others) have: you can book an open ticket on a mini-bus (though some seem not so mini) from Saigon to Dalat to Nha Trang to Hoi An to Hué to Hanoi, or for any initial segment. (I wasn't sure if you could book middle segments separately--you can.) We wanted to go as far as Hué, but skipping Dalat (which is an option); that cost US$18 per person. The amount of paperwork seemed enormous though--filling in the ticket books by hand, and copying the information onto other forms, and then issuing the ticket for the first leg. By comparison, booking the tickets for the day trip to the Cao Dai Temple and Cu Chi Tunnels was relatively fast. The latter cost US$4 each, but that didn't include lunch, nor the admission to the tunnels. That alone was 65,000 dong (about US$4.50, but if you pay in dollars, it's US$5).
Mark picked up a copy of the book The Tunnels of Cu Chi to read up on before tomorrow.
March 7: One of the things that takes getting used to in Vietnam is being called "madame" by everyone.
We boarded the bus at 8:30. The air conditioning on this mini-bus worked okay, though the directional vent above my seat didn't work, so I didn't quite get the full benefit. Our guide Phuc was a little less talkative than Pha had been, or maybe it just seemed that way because the ride was longer. It took us about three hours to get to the Cao Dai Temple, which included only one short stop. As we left HCMC, we went down D Cong Hoa which had a lot of furniture shops, and Phuc suggested that people could return the next day if they wanted to buy furniture to ship home. I thought, "Right, like people on a four-dollar Kim's Cafe tour will buy furniture." But later it turned out that one of the people on the tour was staying at the Omni (rooms US$200 a night and up!), so maybe he would. Or maybe he just asked to be let off there so it would look as thought he was staying there. But I doubt it.
Along the way we passed several pagodas, many of which used Asian swastikas in their decoration. We were used to seeing this in India, but hadn't seen it as much on pagodas before.
We drove out past the area near the airport which was once part of Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base. For a long time it remained empty, but now has fancy apartments and a FedEx headquarters building. Closer in there are only small shacks built of corrugated iron--because they are on the flight path, no tall buildings are allowed there.
We saw some old military hardware (probably it was the Number 7 Army Museum) and Phuc told us about how some Vietnamese tried to fire one of a bunch of captured rockets at a B-52. It undershot it, so they added some more fuel and then tried again, and it completely overshot it. He claimed this showed that the Vietnamese don't know how to build, but do know how to repair. (I don't quite follow this logic.)
Then Phuc said he didn't believe this story. Well, war certainly leads to its own set of apocryphal stories and urban legends. The latter, of course, are a major problem, because "it's what you know that isn't so that gets you into trouble." The first war that I know of where this really came out was World War I, where all the people on our side "knew" that the Huns were cutting the hands off Belgian orphans. As I suppose you know, after the war this turned out to be completely false. (One wonders if that was why people were more skeptical of stories of what was going on in Nazi Germany.) More recently was the story of Kuwaiti incubators during the Gulf War.
At the stop, we got ice cream bars for 2,000 dong each. Mine was "khoai mon" (which turned out to be taro root), and Mark's was "dau xanh" (green bean).
We passed rice paddies with people working in them wearing conical hats. We even saw an occasional water buffalo--very typical of what people expect Vietnam to look like. We also saw mats of drying peanuts and corn (maize)--a little less typical.
We drove through Trang Bang, and Phuc told us that the road we were riding on was the same road that Kim Phuc was running down in the famous photograph. She survived and is now living in Canada. (NPR interviewed her last year as part of the coverage of the 25th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, or Reunification, as they would call it here.)
One concept that I suspect there is no Vietnamese word for is "shock absorber." Okay, the previous bus hadn't been so bad, and I was sitting right over the wheel for this one, but it was still the bumpiest ride I can remember since Tanzania. (I discovered it would get worse. As Russsell Hoban wrote in Pilgermann, "I paid him fifty ducats and abandoned all hope. That is, I thought that I had abandoned all hope until I went below decks and smelled the smell there; then I found that there was more yet hope to abandon.")
The Cao Dai religion is a late-comer, being founded just earlier this century. It is an amalgam (or a syncretism, if you prefer) of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Catholicism, and (according to some sources) Islam. I guess they missed Judaism only because there weren't any Jews in Vietnam. Phuc claimed that the different color robes the priests wear indicated adherence to different aspects: yellow for Buddhism, red for Taoism, and blue for Confucianism. This seems unlikely, but in a religion that venerates Buddha, Jesus, Joan of Arc, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Victor Hugo, I suppose anything is possible. The lay worshippers all wear plain white.
The temple is quite ornate, with a lot of bright pastel colors. If they borrowed something from Islam, it was not the dislike of graven images, as snakes, dragons, and other creatures abound in the carvings, and a big portrait of three of the "saints" was in the front entranceway. Men and women worshippers enter from different sides of the hall, and there were some older signs up indicating that at one time they had required guests to follow this rule too, but now all the tourists enter from the same side, and no one seems to say anything. They will say something if you fail to remove your shoes or your hat. I'm not sure why the latter, since all the male worshippers and most of the female ones have their heads covered with what look like small turbans (for the men) or tight-fitting skullcaps (for the women).
The ceremony itself is, like most religious ceremonies in a foreign language, incomprehensible. Tourists watch from a balcony as the worshippers chant and bow, while a gong occasionally sounds. Not surprisingly, people start leaving after about five minutes of this. We stayed about ten minutes and the crowd had thinned out considerably. One thing we could see from the balcony was that birds had built nests in the carvings on the ceiling and were flying in and out all the time. (Since it is so hot, the temple is built with a very open plan, and windows and large doors are left open for ventilation.)
We then drove a short way to a small restaurant for lunch. The cost of this was not in the tour, so everyone wrote down what they wanted on a slip of paper which became their bill. I ordered sour tofu soup and vegetables with rice (and a soda chanh), while Mark went for the snake with onion (and a chocolate milk). Everyone else got served and was eating when Mark flagged down the waitress to ask where his snake was. They had forgotten it! So by the time they prepared it, everyone else was pretty much done. Luckily, they remove the snake meat from the bones here, because snake on the bone is very difficult to eat. I had a taste--it was quite good. I think the staff and Phuc were surprised that a tourist would order such a thing, and Phuc made sure to tell Mark (and everyone else) that snake meat was supposed to be an aphrodisiac. (None of your damned business. :-) )
Then you walk over to a small area about nine square meters and the guide asks you to try to find the tunnel entrance. Given that it is very small (about 30cm by 15cm) it is not easy to find--unless you've looked at the brochure, which shows you a picture of it revealed. The Cu Chi Tunnels guide was able to slip down through it, as did someone from our tour (your arms go over your head rather than at your sides). Other people from our tour tried but were too large.
Then you walk down a path which has trip wires that set off explosions if you touch them. This is one of things that gives this more a "Disneyland" feel than one of a deadly battlefield. (Actually, this is a bit unfair to Disney, since they don't have anything like this. But they have become a generic name for theme parks.) Then comes the firing range, and then finally the tunnels.
Now as I said, the Lonely Planet says that these are reconstructions. The guides, of course, do not say that, although they admit (or perhaps "assure" is a better word) you that these have been enlarged for larger Western tourists. You have an opportunity to go down into a tunnel, either through a thirty-five-meter stretch, or all the way to the end of the hundred-meter stretch. Thirty-five meters was enough for me. The enlarged tunnels were 1.3 meters high and 30cm wide, and had electric lights strung along them. The enlargement doesn't really make them less accurate, because as long as they are in the same proportion to your size as the originals to the average Vietnamese's size, you get the same feeling. But the lights are a cheat.
The entrances, by the way, are clearly reconstructed, with large openings and steps, or at least a slanted ladder, rather than just small holes. This, and the fact that the various stretches and rooms they show you don't appear to connect, but rather are free-standing, make me think that the Lonely Planet is correct in calling these reconstructions.
Assuming, however, that the proportions and general feel are correct, you come out of these tunnels thinking, "Anyone who was willing to live like this for years deserved to win." Intellectually, you realize that one should look at the philosophies of the two sides, etc., but there still is that immediate gut response. (This also explains some of Jane Fonda's statements, made after being huddled in a bomb shelter with a family while we were carpet-bombing the area.)
We returned to HCMC across the rice paddies. We didn't quite get the "beautiful sunset over the rice paddies" mentioned by the brochure because of low-lying clouds, but it was nice nonetheless. This was the first day it wasn't overcast. In this heat, overcast is not a bad thing.
We had dinner at the India Restaurant, okay but not great, just for a variation from Vietnamese food.
March 8: For breakfast we had some sort of minced meat in rice rolls, along with some sort of processed meat slices, at a street stand opposite our hotel. Mark liked it, but I was not all that thrilled.
We didn't have a whole lot planned for today, or rather, we had a lot of things we could do, none of which were all that enthralling. We started with the Art Museum, which was close enough to the hotel to walk there. Of course, this didn't stop us from being pursued by cyclo drivers.
We walked along one street that seemed to be a food market, with lots of stalls set up with women selling produce. We also passed a block of hardware stores. This seemed reminiscent of New York, where an entire block will have a series of all the same type of store.
We got to the Art Museum at 8:30 and discovered that it now opens at 9:00 rather than 7:30 as the Lonely Planet said, and it is no longer free--it's 10,000 dong each. (Why doesn't the government change the unit of currency to drop the last three zeroes? It seems like it would be much easier.)
As noted in the Lonely Planet, the first floor houses temporary exhibitions of current artists. However, the second floor no longer has revolutionary/Marxist works of the last quarter century, but still more current artists. There are some cases containing older pottery or figurines, but these have had draperies hung in front of them and paintings hung there. Frankly, those pieces would have been more interesting, or at least provided some variation. There were also some war relics like an old radio or map case, somewhat out of places in an art museum. The third floor had old works, statues and carvings from various temples and sites. There was a gap of several hundred years between the older works and the modern ones--I guess artwork from the colonial period is not deemed suitable.
In retrospect, we might have been better off with the National History Museum, but since so much has changed from what the Lonely Planet said about other things, who knows what it would have been like?
The Bin Thanh Market was a couple of blocks away so we walked over there. This is not as easy as it sounds, because it was on the other side of a giant traffic circle. One could either cross three of four wide streets with thick traffic, or cross a thirty-meter-wide swath of somewhat thinner traffic twice. We opted for the latter, figuring it gave the motorbikes more room to maneuver around us.
This market was somewhat larger than the other, but not as huge as we had expected. The Lonely Planet says it is "11 m square." This is clearly a typo for something, but we can't figure out what. This Lonely Planet (March 1999) has more typos than others we have used, usually minor things like "$US$" instead of just "US$".
Along the major aisles the vendors can spread out a bit, but for most vendors, their shop is a little stall about a meter on a side on an aisle that's less than a meter wide. And that square meter is for all their stock and for them to stand in! I can't see how some of these vendors can make a living, or even pay rent for the space, since there will be dozens of them all selling the same sort of thing (underwear, cloth, etc.). There is some variation, but it's so difficult for people to go down the aisles that I can't see how they can even get a lot of people looking at their stuff.
The market also had an outdoor section in back for meat and produce. There was some attempt at refrigeration, with ice being thrown on top of crabs and fish, but even so, just taking the meat home in this heat has to be a bit iffy. Then again, the people here aren't getting sick all the time, so maybe it's not as bad as it looks.
The touristy stuff is near the front entrance. We got a "Tintin in Vietnam" T-shirt for a friend, and Mark got a vest of many pockets for himself (for 170,000 dong, or about US$12). Further in I got a Vietnamese drip coffee maker. In aluminum, it was 3,000 dong. I could have gotten a stainless steel one for 15,000 dong, but all the ones I've been using at restaurants are aluminum, so that's a better souvenir, although it does tend to bend and dent unless packed carefully.) The stainless ones seem to be a brand called "LC1 SP2INOX" (with the "1" subscripted and the "2" superscripted). I've also seen just "LC INOX." I don't understand it at all.
We stopped and had a couple of sodas, and then wandered around some more. Mark decided he wanted to eat lunch at one of the stalls. I was too wiped out by the heat to want to eat anything, but told him to go ahead. He had "com chay," rice with vegetables, which he said was good, for 6,000 dong.
Something Mark found in the Lonely Planet was supposedly the best place in HCMC to get ice cream, and that appealed to me, so we went to Kem Bach Dang and got their special, ice cream served in a coconut with candied fruit on top. This was priced more to Western standards, at 27,000 each. (Okay, you couldn't get it that cheap in the United States, but given that an ice cream bar costs 2,000 dong, there is a major difference.)
Supposedly there were bookstores along this stretch of street, but either I misinterpreted what the Lonely Planet said, or they have been replaced. (There were several stationary stores, though.)
By this point we were still really hot and tired, so we decided to go back to the hotel and recover. We got cyclos for 10,000 dong each and headed back. The sun was so hot, I thought my feet would bake just being exposed to it. I don't know how the cyclo drivers do it. We added a little extra onto the fare because it was so hot.
One thing you should be warned about is that it's hard work to get a cyclo started, and easier to keep it going. So cyclos do not stop for red lights. This can be a bit unnerving.
Well, we had thought we would rest a couple of hours and then go out, but we eventually decided that not of the things we might do sounded all that good, particularly in this heat. (It was probably about 40 degrees Celsius outside!). So we lay around in an air-conditioned room, working on our logs and reading.
We tried watching a movie on the satellite TV, but they seemed to have an odd set-up, whereby you will be getting, say, HBO on channel 5 for a while, then suddenly channel 5 will cycle through a series of stations and then settle on to StarTV. That will last a while, then you get something else. Mark thought this might be just whatever the hotel staff wanted to watch at a given time. In any case, it made trying to watch a movie impossible.
For dinner, we went back to the Lotus. Mark had barbecue chicken which he had to grill himself at the table, and then wrap with greens in banh, or rice paper pancakes. I had shrimp soup and tofu with mushrooms. The soup was not bad, though sweeter than I would have preferred, but the tofu and mushrooms were fairly mediocre and didn't seem to have much flavor at all.
March 9: Breakfast was split between the two adjacent restaurants in the alley by our hotel. Mark had rolls and pate; I had noodle soup.
There were a couple of Vietnamese at the other end of the table from Mark who asked where we were from. "New Jersey, near New York" said Mark, New York being much better known in Vietnam than New Jersey. (I guess The Sopranos hasn't gotten here yet.) "We know where New Jersey is," they laughed. It turned out they were Americans whose family left Vietnam in 1975, and one had even worked for AT&T at the same time we did!
We talked to them a while about Vietnam. One said he had been back every year since 1998, when the Vietnamese government started allowing, and even welcoming, overseas Vietnamese to visit. Mark asked how much Vietnam had changed. Well, he didn't really remember it in 1975, but he said that every year when he comes back, it's like a decade has passed--change is that fast. Mark is more convinced than ever than we came at the right time.
We checked out of the hotel. This was both quick and slow. Quick, because all they do is pull out the sheet of paper representing your bill, and you hand them the cash. No keying things into computers or waiting for credit cards to go through. (The hotel does take credit cards, though only Visa and Mastercard, but probably charges 3-5% extra for it.) Slow, because first they pulled the wrong paper and realized something was wrong when that showed only two nights instead of five. Then even when they had the right one, the clerk multiplied US$25 by 5 nights and got US$100. We corrected him, and gave him a hundred-dollar bill and two twenties. For change, he had to go outside to get the manager (?) who is apparently the person in charge of all the American money.
We walked over to Kim's Cafe. The bus for Dalat, though there were only about a dozen passengers was a full-size tourist bus. Our bus for Nha Trang, with the same number, was a Ford mini-bus. It was clear it was going to be cramped, so I suggested to Mark that he sit in front with the driver. This gave him more room and a better view, although with the way people drive, not everyone would consider this a plus.
(We took the 7:30 bus, which stops in Mui Ne. There is also a 9:30 bus, and someone thought that might be a full-sized bus. I'll be curious to see if the other buses are larger.)
As someone else noted in their log, the first thing the driver does after loading everyone on is to get fuel. Why this couldn't be done before is not clear, except that customer service and convenience may still be a new concept here.
HCMC looks much better when the shops are open. Earlier, I had commented on how poor it looked, but that was partially a function of all the shops being closed up for Sunday, and partially because the road in from the airport is not the best district. As we left on a Friday, things looked a lot more prosperous and lively. It isn't up to Singapore or Hong Kong--there's none of the brand-new buildings and glitz--but everyone seems to be dressed well. Even the beggars are dressed sufficiently, not in rags like in India. The people are thin, but don't seem malnourished. Both guides we've had made a big thing out of how Vietnam was the world's second largest exporter of rice last year (after Thailand) and they hope to be the biggest this year. One hopes this goal is not achieved at the cost of widespread want in Vietnam, but so far that doesn't seem to be the case. Of course, so far I've seen only one city and a small area around it, and if there were shortages, they would probably be in parts tourists didn't get to.
Vietnam has definitely progressed--or perhaps regressed. They now charge a toll on the road to Nha Trang. I couldn't figure out how much it was from the sign. (There's also a toll on the road to Mui Ne.) For this, the driver pays at one of a couple of small booths by the side of the road before the toll plaza, then drives through one of the eight gates and hands over the receipt. Clearly the large toll plaza on the main road--about the size of the one at the Tappan Zee Bridge or on the Garden State Parkway--is for show, because the time-consuming part takes place at two small side booths, and basically the toll plaza itself is unnecessary. (At the Mui Ne road, it's just the booth.)
We passed a billboard that said "Vietnamese Golf and Country Club: 36 Holes of Championship Golf," all in English. I suspect that is aimed more at visiting businessmen than even at tourists, but certainly not at locals. There are also blank billboards, some saying "To Let" in Vietnamese with a phone number, but some saying it in English.
Women riding motorbikes often wear long gloves and hats, as well as face masks against the dust. Men also wear face masks and caps. Baseball-style caps are far and away the most common type of head-gear, worn by men and women.
We passed through Bien Hoa. This is of little interest to most people, but it was the location of the first air base where my father was stationed during the war. Today, it looks like any other town--the road we drove through on seemed to be the area specializing in dirty, rusty automotive parts. I took a couple of pictures which I hope come out, mostly to show my father.
Traffic. Traffic in Vietnam is amazing. In HCMC, I thought the traffic was on a par with Bangkok. If you factor in the highways, Vietnam has to win the award for world's worst traffic. (Or if it doesn't, I don't want to be in the winner.) There is a lane and a shoulder in either direction. The shoulder in your direction is mostly for motorbikes and slower traffic. The lane in your direction is for vehicles. The lane in the opposite direction is for passing vehicles that are going too slow. And the shoulder in the opposite direction is for passing vehicles that are passing, or swerving into when approached by an on-coming vehicle when passing.
Just when we thought the driving couldn't get any worse, a cell phone rang and our driver tried to have a conversation, though he seemed to keep losing the connection.
We passed a school crossing just as school was letting out. The way they make vehicles stop is they make vehicles stop--crossing guards pull ropes across the road, blocking traffic from crossing the crosswalk until the students have passed.
We stopped at Mui Ne Beach for lunch, and Mark again got something he had to cook himself. This time it was squid. I had steamed fish with ginger, probably swordfish. The bottled water here is Vinh Hao, probably because it comes from nearby.
It had gotten very windy as we drove, and eventually rained (a couple of brief showers). We saw a couple of rainbows, which helped make up for it. We weren't outside in the rain, but I worried a bit about the slickness of the road, as I hadn't checked the tire tread before we left.
We rode along, lurching back and forth as the driver swerved to avoid something. By now, I was sitting further back and couldn't see what--probably just as well.
We tried some "plums" one woman had bought at our afternoon stop. They're nothing like our plums, but that's the translation given in the Lonely Planet phrasebook. We read up all sorts of advice before we travel, then promptly ignore most of it. So far this trip we have had ice in our drinks, and have eaten lettuce and unpeeled fruit. (Wait, it gets better in a day or two.) However, when I discovered a worm on the second plum, I decided to stop.
We got to Nha Trang about 16:30, an hour later than listed. The first thing that happened was that the driver stopped to put air in the tires. Again, why not wait until we had been dropped off?
The mini-bus first stopped at a hotel connected with the tour company (Hahn/Ha Phuong) and some of the people took rooms there. The rooms were probably okay for backpackers, but we wanted something a little fancier. The mini-bus took us to two hotels we asked for, the Seaside and the Thanh Thanh. The Lonely Planet said that the latter had balconies overlooking the sea, which is true, but they also overlooked the construction going on between the hotel and the sea, presumably for a sort of small amusement park or sports club. (I couldn't tell which.) The clerk initially showed us a room on the top floor, but we asked for something lower. The noise wouldn't bother us nearly as much as the stairs. With air-conditioning, private bath, and television (in Vietnamese), this was US$15 a night.
For dinner we picked a restaurant at random along the promenade. The menu looked very good, but even though they were on the menu, the restaurant had no abalone, no eel, and no wild pork. We ended up having shrimp steamed in coconut milk and grilled quail [with] bird sauce. The former were served in a coconut in the milk, and had to be fished out and then peeled. (For that matter, not only were the shells still there, but so were the heads.) The quail was with a spicy sauce that was very good, but there isn't much meat on a quail. The portion consisted of two, also complete with heads still attached. Good, but skimpy and stringy.
We walked back by the sea along the walk there. This would have been more peaceful with the bicycles and even occasional motorbikes using the same walkway. Still, the temperature was down to a reasonable level, and the full moon reflecting on the walk made a pretty picture.
March 10: Breakfast was chao, which is something like congee only with the rice less disintegrated. Mark got a seafood version; I got the shrimp. As the previous night, the shrimp were unpeeled, and it's really messy to try to peel shrimp after it's been in rice soup. There must be a trick to it, but in any case I may skip shrimp in the future as being too complicated to eat.
We had signed up for a boat ride to four islands, this apparently being the thing to do in Nha Trang. Many people seem to like this, but we found it a major disappointment. We signed up with Mama Linh's. The most famous was Mama Hahn's, but apparently that got so wild that the police shut it down last year. The itinerary said we would go to one island for swimming and snorkeling, then another island for lunch and a swim with a floating bar, then a third island, and then a fourth with an aquarium and fishing village. Snorkeling equipment, lunch, and red wine was included; admission fees and other beverages were not.
Well, the first thing you should know is that "swimming" doesn't necessarily mean "beach." I can't swim but I do enjoy wading into the water from a beach. This was not an option. At the first island, Ebony Island (Ton Mun), we anchored about fifty meters out in water three to four meters deep and if you wanted to swim, you had to just jump in from the boat. The island was rocky cliffs and people were warned not to try to climb on the rocks because of the barnacles.
So Mark and I (and quite a few other people) sat on the boat talking while people (mostly younger people) swam and snorkeled. I talked to two couples from Australia, while Mark talked to a couple from Worcester (Massachusetts) who were on their honeymoon. Like all the other Americans we've met, they were "overseas Vietnamese." He had left later than most, in 1980 when he was ten years old, as one of the boat people. He stayed a while in Singapore, then come to the United States. He worked for IBM (I think); his wife was a pharmacist for CVS.
While the tourists were snorkeling here, the crew was diving to find sea urchin (uni) which you could then try in either a soup or raw for 50,000 dong. Mark really likes uni, which costs about twice that for just a small bit in a sushi restaurant, so he decided he would get the raw uni. He seemed to be the only one who got it raw, then several others did get soup. I don't recall if the books specifically warn you against eating raw seafood when traveling--they may think it's so obvious that they don't have to. Anyway, Mark got a plate of uni mixed with onion and seasoning, about five times the amount he would have gotten back home, and said it was very good--not bitter as it sometimes is. And he suffered no ill effects from it.
Lunch was at another island (Hon Mot), where we also anchored offshore. Lunch included grilled abalone, squid, and beef; noodles with vegetables, spring rolls, fried fish with a spicy sauce, boiled shrimp, and rice. Quite good, and there was more than enough to eat. (The amount of food wasted from these things really bothers me.) After lunch we were "treated" to a half-hour of international songs sung enthusiastically, if not well, by the crew of the boat while accompanying themselves on two guitars (possibly left behind by GIs in the 1970s from the look of them), a plastic tambourine, and drums made of kitchen pots.
When the crew deemed that enough time had passed after lunch for people to go back in the water, they set up the "floating bar." This was a box on life preservers with bottles of wine (and possibly other beverages). People then sat in the centers in life preservers and floated out to the bar. You didn't have to do this to get the wine, however: they also served it to people who stayed on the boat. It was pretty bad. I'm no wine connoisseur by any means but this had very little flavor other than alcohol, and was probably closer to 20% alcohol than wine's usual 12% or so. As I said to the Australians, "Australia's wine industry has nothing the worry about."
Our third island. Hon Tam, was a "resort." Well, I suppose. There was a 4,000 dong each charge just to get on the island. Once there, you could parasail, windsurf, jet-ski, and so on--if you had time and if you had money. With only an hour, there wasn't much time for anything. Even sitting on a beach chair cost 5,000 dong. We walked along the beach--strewn with washed-up litter--and eventually found a place to sit past all the built-up area. (Actually, I suspect that in season the beach chairs, etc., extend this far, but it was still early.)
Then we had a fruit buffet on the boat. Again, lots of food: pineapple, dragon fruit, oranges, lychees, plums, soursop, watermelon, and so on. Some of the Europeans didn't recognize the watermelon.
The fourth island was Mieu Island, home of a fishing village and "outdoor aquarium." Now, supposedly you can go ashore here and see how the people live, or you can observe the fish in their outdoor cages. However, though there were floats with outdoor fish cages that boats could pull up to, our boat did not pull up to one of them, but anchored in the middle of the harbor. There were also apparently no longer any floats to allow you to walk to the island. So the only choice available was to pay for a ride in a round bamboo boat, which I don't think took you either ashore or to the fish cages.
Then we went back to Nha Trang.
Now this is probably a great trip for people who are comfortable swimming from a boat in deep water. And for US$7 including food it's a good deal. But we had hoped to walk on a (clean) beach and see the fish farming, and were quite disappointed. So be warned.
Coming back to the pier, you are "greeted" by beggars missing limbs and otherwise massively injured. They are not victims of land mines or anything like that. They are apparently dynamite fisherman, and because the dynamite is old and unstable, it sometimes blows up in the boat.
We got back to the hotel in time for several short power outages. This seems to be standard.
We decided that the Cham Towers nearby, while probably interesting, did not warrant spending an entire extra day in Nha Trang, so we needed to get our bus ticket for Hoi An and we needed to do this at the Hanh Cafe office. Well, we passed a Hahn Cafe office on our street, and went in to ask if we could convert our open ticket to a ticket for Hoi An the next day. "Sure, sit down." After a phone call, he then said we would have to go to the main office to do that. I knew it seemed too good to be true.
So we went there, got our tickets, and returned by cyclo for only 10,000 dong for the two of us. Obviously, Nha Trang cyclo drivers are much more willing to take more than one person at a time. Perhaps we should have bargained, but it was already so cheap it seemed foolish to.
March 11: Today is my father's 87th birthday. Happy Birthday!
We were up at 5:00 so we had plenty of time for breakfast. However, finding someplace serving at 5:30 wasn't easy, even though we had heard Vietnamese eat breakfast early. Perhaps places like Nha Trang are more easy-going. We eventually found a place where they spoke almost no English, but we managed to order pretty much from the sign: bang mi op la and bahn mi bo [something]. This turned out to be baguettes with fried eggs and with Laughing Cow cheese. Baguettes are very popular in Vietnam, a left-over French influence.
We checked out, got back our passports (I'm sure most hotels are careful and honest, but I still worry), and were picked up by a mini-bus about 6:45. I thought this would be it, but we were then driven to Sinh Cafe where we transferred to the same full-sized bus that Sinh Cafe was using! Since I thought Kim's Cafe and Sinh Cafe were business rivals, this seemed a bit odd, but I guess in the off-season they would rather send one full bus than two half-full ones. It does make the question of which one to sign up for rather academic.
As for the passport thing, in HCMC the hotel kept our passports for only a half hour, just long enough to get all the information. But other hotels want to hold on to it the whole time. Why? Well, without credit cards, they have no way to make sure people don't skip out without paying their bill. Since you generally need a passport to change money, the hotels will ask to hold your immigration and customs form if they give back your passport.
I just wrote in my Boskone report: "The first part of this report was written on our flight to Vietnam. The following is being written on a mini-bus from Nha Trang to Hoi An. Since this trip is supposed to take eleven hours, I hope to get a lot done, potholes permitting." And then, "Update: We just transferred from a mini-bus to a full-sized--and full--Daewoo. The potholes and general road surface are even worse than those on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. And the BQE has no ox-drawn carts to complicate things."
We stopped for a rest break at Dai Lanh beach on the South China Sea. This was a real beach, smooth sand, clean, and empty. Of course, it's also in the middle of nowhere. This doesn't mean there aren't vendors--given that tourist buses stop here, it's not surprising there are vendors. We bought a bunch of a dozen finger-length bananas for 5,000 dong, which I think is a high price by Vietnamese standards, but cheap for us (about US$0.35).
We saw a lot of gorgeous scenery. Buses take up time, but the scenery is worth it. For this stretch, try to sit on the right-hand side if you are headed north. The left-hand side headed south isn't quite as good. However, if you're nervous, you might be better off on the other side; along with "shock absorber," "guard rail" seems to be another concept not used in Vietnamese.
We stopped at the Nha Hang Bai Tien for lunch. I was starting to come down with a cold, so I had noodle soup. (I'm sure people will ask me if I got sick in Vietnam, and when I say yes, I'll have to explain that I got a cold, not that I had digestive problems.) The restrooms left a lot to be desired, particularly since they seemed to be just open holes to the sea below. I think I'm glad I didn't order fish.
They are not nearly as many petrol stations as people need here, so there are a lot of black-market petrol dealers. All the soft drink and water bottles by the side of the road are not filled with orangeade--that's gasoline in them!
I have a theory that you can measure the economic well-being of a country by its currency. It is inversely proportional to how dirty the currency is. In Vietnam, most of the smaller bills (10,000 dong and smaller) are so dirty you can't tell one from another without reading the numbers even though they were different colors originally. Also, the bills are smaller in size than most Western currencies. And Vietnam doesn't have any coins. This means that there are no vending machines or other coin-operated services. Bill readers are fairly expensive and probably couldn't read many of the bills anyway because they are so worn.
After a while we pulled over. I assumed this was another rest stop, but the shop where we pulled over was closed. When the driver climbed under the bus with a tool kit, however, we concluded it was an unscheduled stop.
So we stood around in the middle of nowhere watching rice dry. Really. People spread the rice along the sides of the road to dry. If it's on dirt, they use mats, but they spread it directly on the road itself. They rake it with wooden rakes to turn it and dry it evenly, then scoop it up in what look like 25-kilogram sacks. If the rice is spread far enough from their homes, they use two round bamboo baskets on a pole to carry it to and from the drying spot, that being easier to carry than a sack.
Suddenly we heard loud music getting closer. It was a man on a cyclo, but instead of a passenger seat, he had a box in the front which said "Kem Ly." This was the local equivalent of the Good Humor man. I immediately asked Mark, "Want some ice cream?" and we got ice cream cones for 1,000 dong each. The ice cream was more the consistency of sherbet, but vanilla-flavored and with a little chocolate syrup dribbled on top. It was just the thing after standing around in the heat, but for some reason hardly anyone else bought any. I guess they were worried they would get sick, but that seemed pretty unlikely to me.
We had one more scheduled rest stop. When we got off the bus, I realized that in spite of this being an "air-conditioned" bus, it was cooler outside than inside. So after we started up again I opened the window a bit to get some cool air in. I suspect if I had been toward the front, the driver might have objected because of the dust. This helped quite a bit.
What was originally listed in HCMC as an eleven-hour trip, and then in Nha Trang as a thirteen-hour trip turned into a fifteen-hour trip. We got into Hoi An at 21:15.
The hotel situation in Hoi An is not good. There are supposedly only twenty hotels, all relatively small, and we had just arrived with forty other people. The only suggestion the driver could make was for a couple of rooms which he said would be US$20 a night, but when we got there they had just a US$30 a night room and a US$50 a night room. These are very high rates for Vietnam, but that's because the hotel situation in Hoi An is very tight and because the hotel (the Vinh Hung II) is a 350-year-old trading house and the rooms are furnished with antiques. For the other people with us, this was way too expensive, but considering the lateness of the hour, and my cold, and the fact that it was still cheaper than a Motel 6 back home, we took the US$50 room.
Now this will be redundant, because I'm sure Mark will have described the room, but here goes anyway. It's a big room, really designed for a family, with a double (queen?) bed and a twin bed. Given how small Vietnamese people are, it could sleep a family with three adults and a couple of children easily.
The beds had mosquito netting that you could put over them. The headboards and other furniture were carved from a dark, heavy wood which was then been vanished (lacquered?) many times. In addition to the two beds, there were three chairs, a couple of small tables, a long bench with a back and arms (like a sofa, but not upholstered), and a long table in front of it. There was also a wardrobe and a long chest. There was a refrigerator sitting in one corner, but the hotel must have decided it didn't fit the decor, because the next day they had put it inside a small cupboard. How they managed to find an "antique" that it fit so precisely into perhaps does not bear close questioning.
The bathroom was very strange. It had normal (Western) fixtures and all, but it was about a foot higher than the room, so you have to take a big step up or down every time you enter or leave it. I just hoped if I used it in the middle of the night I would remember this!
March 12: Breakfast was included with the room, which made things convenient. My cold was really dragging me down--I was functioning at about 80%.
We walked to the Hanh Cafe and booked tickets for a tour to My Son (now US$2 each, down from the US$6 they used to be) and for the bus to Hué. We talked to the manager, Nguyen The, for a while. He had worked for the American army in the 1960s and 1970s. After Reunification in 1975, he had a very hard time and worked as a cyclo driver for many years. Finally, things eased up and he could get a job managing a tourist booking office. He sleeps in the back and his most treasured possessions are letters from the Americans he knew. Apparently the United States government was willing to accept him as an immigrant, but the Vietnamese government wanted him to pay 5,000,000 dong (almost a year's salary) to leave so he couldn't. It seems to be like this everywhere, though admittedly we've only been in the southern part so far. People who sided with the South Vietnamese government or the Americans, or the children of these people, have been ostracized and discriminated against for a quarter of a century. Now what I suspect is happening is that Vietnam wants tourists and business and so people who speak English are in demand. That would explain why it is such a high proportion of the people we meet who talk about these problems--they tend to end up in the tourist business.
Hoi An Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Possibly because of this, they have changed the way admissions work. It used to be that for US$5 you got to choose any four out of seven sites listed on your ticket. Now you get a ticket for 50,000 dong with has five categories and you get to pick one from each category:
1--Museums: History and Culture, Trade Ceramics (formerly Diep Dong Nguyen Old House), [another one I didn't note]
2--Old Houses: Tran Family Chapel, Phung Hung, Quan Thang, Tran Ky
3--Assembly Halls: Trieu Chau (Chaozhou), Cantonese, Phuc Kien (Fujian)
4--Other: Quan Cong's Temple, Japanese Bridge, Handicraft Workshop
It's even more complicated than that, though, because it turns out that Quan Cong's Temple doesn't take its ticket, but is combined with the Museum of History and Culture on that ticket. And the Japanese Bridge doesn't really require a ticket unless you go into the little chapel off one side of it (because the bridge is actually a public thoroughfare). One the other hand, there is no indication where the Handicraft Workshop on Ticket 4 is, and Quan Cong's Temple doesn't use Ticket 4, so giving it up for the Japanese Bridge is no big deal. I didn't copy down the name of the third museum before they took that ticket--sorry.
The reason for the price drop is that apparently the rate was 10,000 to the dollar when Vietnam a few years ago decided that they were not going to price things in US dollars any more and so converted all the old prices to dong.
According to the signs posted, you need a ticket card just to walk around the old area. This is hooey. It also said that the ticket card was good for your whole stay. They put a date on the card when you buy it, but since we did all five in one day, I don't know if they look at that.
In Quan Cong's Temple and in the various assembly halls (which are really temples), they ask you to dress modestly, covering your shoulders and your knees. Observant Jewish women would be all set--except of course with all the idols inside they couldn't go in anyway. Actually, they couldn't go in almost anywhere here, because all the shops seem to have little shrines set up in the back. Most are Buddhist or other Eastern religions, but the Cafe Dudi has a shrine to the Virgin Mary. (Apparently there is a Vietnamese word for Jewish: "Do thái giáo." No word for synagogue, though.)
The Museum of Culture and History has signs in minimal broken English, and often there is a lot less English than Vietnamese. This reminded me of some of our tours in India, where the English part took a lot less time than the Hindi one, and phrases that we could recognize in Hindi didn't show up in the English at all.
We visited the Phuc Kien (Fujian) Assembly Hall, which had a very elaborate carving in the courtyard made from a tree trunk. The carving was probably relatively new, since the plaque on it (in Vietnamese) including a telephone number.
Everywhere we go, when we type on our palmtops, people (usually children) come up and ask "Email?" We passed a post office that listed a lot of services, the last two of which were identical in English and Vietnamese: FAX and Internet.
Apparently there was a film crew here a week or two ago filming The Quiet American. While that might have been interesting to see, they also took every hotel room in town and backpackers were sleeping on the floors in the lobbies. (Given that our hotel room may well be the most expensive in Hoi An, I wonder who stayed in it.) Lots of tourists were also hired as extras to play French soldiers, since they couldn't very well hire Vietnamese for that.
We went to the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Tran Ky house. At that house, the only part officially open to the public is the front room and courtyard. The rest of the house is a private dwelling, though I have heard that if you offer something extra the owners will usually show you through. However, it looked a lot like our hotel, which we can already see.
The big thing to do in Hoi An is to buy clothing or have clothing made. All the shops have signs from satisfied customers saying how this is the best shop in town, etc. One had someone saying she had planned to get one or two things and ended up getting 36 and her friend got 45. Well, this is hardly going to get someone on a budget in, that's for sure. All the trip logs on the Web talk about buying clothing, where to buy clothing, how cheap clothing is, how they bought more than they planned, etc.
When we were in China twenty years ago, I bought a silk blouse. It was a very good deal, but I only wore it a few times before it shrank (or I grew). Since then, I limit my clothing purchases to things I know I'll wear a lot. This means mostly T-shirts (or here, a pair of shoes). But the T-shirts are mainly tourist junk or things I would wear back home. I don't think a Vietnamese flag would be very popular--even if it did also say "Good Morning, Vietnam"--or a picture of Ho Chi Minh. The only one worth getting was the Tintin one I got earlier. If I can get a cheap photo vest in Hanoi, I might do that--by then I will have ditched a pair of shoes and two or three shirts, so I should have room.
As for art, there is a lot of it here, but I am absolutely no judge of what is good and what isn't.
I do, however, know books, so we went to the Book Exchange at 83 Tran Phu; Quay Sach, Le Loi BookShop at 48 Le Loi; and Hieu Sach, Khai Tri Bookshop, at 52 Le Loi. ("Sach" means "book." I have no idea how to translate or parse the rest.) They had small selections, mostly books traded or sold by tourists who had finished them, but some newer looking pirated editions. We got a copy of The Quiet American which had a Penguin cover, but with the blurbs on the back apparently written by a Vietnamese, with strange phrasing, misspellings, and odd word breaks. The last is actually a good clue, because a lot of multi-syllabic words in Vietnamese are written as separate syllables. For example, you will see "Sai Gon" rather than "Saigon." And inside was yet another country--it seemed to be a photocopy of a German edition with line numbers, probably as an edition for learning English. Definitely strange.
It was raining lightly through most of this, a gentle rain that seemed more like a mist and didn't seem too bad. We would pay the price for this tomorrow.
After a rest back at the hotel, we had dinner at the Yellow River: White Roses and a fish fondue/hot pot. White Roses are steamed shrimp dumplings, but with the shrimp left exposed in the center so they look like. . .white roses. The fish fondue was actually a hot pot, pretty good. The people on one side of us decided it looked good, but opted for the beef. The people on the other side got the shrimp. We found out later that the Yellow River peels the shrimp before putting it in the hot pot, and we might have ordered that had we known. (I'm tired of trying to peel shrimp that have been in soup, sauces, or otherwise messy.)
March 13: Our ground transportation problems seem to dog us. We had told the Hanh Cafe which hotel was ours, made sure they knew it was the Trinh Hung II, and even pointed it out on a map. But when the bus was twenty minutes late, the clerk called Hanh Cafe and we discovered they had gone to the wrong hotel and were pretty much driving around town looking for us! The clerk didn't see anything wrong with the name of the hotel on the ticket, so I suspect the confusion was on the part of the Hanh Cafe. Someone showed up with a motorbike to take us to the bus. I went first, after having to be shown where to put my feet. I had never ridden a motorbike before. While I waited for him to make a second trip with Mark, the tour guide and Mr. Nguyen Tre had an argument, no doubt about our lateness.
We did have a long chat with the hotel clerk while waiting for our mini-bus pick-up. His father was in the South Vietnamese army, so he had problems getting into university, etc. He majored in English, which involves learning not just the language, but also American (and British and Australian) culture. Obviously the goal is to train people to deal with foreigners in a business context rather than an abstract learning of the literature. For example, they learn that while in Vietnamese society, it is considered okay to ask people what their salary is, it is considered very rude by Americans. He said they read some American authors: Ernest Hemingway, Henry David Thoreau, and so on. The emphasis seems to be on easy-to-read (he's the second person here who mentioned Hemingway and that he wrote in short sentences) and political correctness. We expressed the hope that as the younger generation comes into its own, the old enmities will fade away, and he did seem to think that things are getting better.
The hour-long bus ride was over roads even worse than the road between Nha Trang and Hoi An. That's not too surprising, since the latter was a major highway and these were back roads leading to an abandoned archaeological site.
My Son was just declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. It consist of ruins from the Champa culture, the only Hindu-influenced culture in Vietnam. Unfortunately, it is more ruined than it might be, because in the late 1960s, the Americans discovered the Viet Cong were using it as a base and bombed it heavily. The largest temple survived the aerial bombing, so the Americans sent in a ground crew to blow it up. When news of this got out, a French archaeologist wrote to President Nixon protesting this destruction, and Nixon told the troops they could continue to kill Viet Cong but they shouldn't destroy any more monuments. Better late than never, I suppose, but I'm not sure these orders were completely followed. It's also worth noting that many of the buildings were destroyed in previous wars going back hundreds of years or simply by the ravages of time.
We got to the site and had to slog through the mud left by yesterday's rain. In addition to being messy, it made the path very slippery and the last thing we wanted to do was to fall down in the mud. I would strongly recommend that visitors come expecting mud: suitable shoes, pants no lower than the ankle, etc.
After we paid our 50,000 dong entrance fees, we slogged through some more mud and over a bamboo bridge. From there we took American Jeeps a couple of kilometers to the site--or closer to the site, where we got to slog through yet more mud. The site itself was not muddy, thank goodness.
The Jeeps were quite an experience. They were in good shape for being at least twenty-five years old, which of course they were, since we haven't sent a lot of Jeeps over to Vietnam since 1975.
The ruins are quite beautiful, set in the jungle with cloud-wreathed mountains in the background. They are built from bricks, and after been built had fires set around them to set the mortar. In general appearance the site reminded me of some of the Mayan sites in Mexico, particularly Uxmal.
We returned to Hoi An, confirmed with Nguyen Tre that he knew where to pick us up tomorrow, and that it would be with a mini-bus rather than a motorbike. (I'd rather walk the four or so blocks to the Hanh Cafe with my luggage than try to carry it on a motorbike.) I took a shower and we rested a bit, then went out and walked around for a while, covering basically every interesting street in town. We ended up sitting in a park, where we were approached by a variety of vendors, and of kids seeing our palmtops and asking, "Email?"
Vendors and cyclo drivers in Hoi An are a little less aggressive than in HCMC or Nha Trang. Well, it's not surprising for the cyclo drivers. They say "One hour, one dollar," but the town is so small that it's not clear where you could go that would take an hour. Even strolling you can cover all the interesting streets in less time than that.
Richard Price says on the Web:
"In Cambodia and Vietnam, the sales pressure was relentless and sometimes discouraging. As I walked through the markets, if I hesitated at a stall for a nano-second, or if my eyes lingered briefly on any item, the vendor would jump up, grab something (anything within arm's reach), shove it my face and scream, --You buy, you buy, good price, good price.' I often wanted to ask them just how often this coarse sales technique actually worked. I mean really, how many western tourists say, --Oh my God! Now that you've shoved a size-ten woman's shoe in my face and hollered at me to buy it, I suddenly realize that this is what I've wanted all along! It's perfect. Wrap it up. In fact, I'll take two. Cost is no object. I must have it.'?"
"And this illogical sales pressure was seen in other areas of service and sales. In Hanoi, I had shoe shine vendors dogging me for a block trying to convince me to get a shoe shine because it was --good price, good price.' I was wearing sneakers."
"Map vendors would also follow me and try to sell me a map of the city. Even when I reached into my pocket and showed them that I already had the exact map that they were trying to sell, they kept shouting, --You buy anyway. Good price, good price.' As if I would simply want to collect dozens of maps of Hanoi just because they're on sale. (When it comes to supply & demand, they have obviously mastered the concept of supply, but they don't have a firm grasp on the idea of demand.)"
"In Vietnam, every night as I returned to my hotel, cyclo drivers would try to sell me a ride. (The fact that I was walking into a hotel and not out of a hotel was of no consequence to them.) --What,' I asked once, --are you going to drive me through the hotel lobby to the elevators?'"
The best I can report is that nine months later, things don't seem quite as bad, though it may be because it's the off-season. (I swear, not five minutes after I wrote that, a shoe shine boy came up wanting to shine Mark's nylon and suede running shoes or my vinyl sandals!)
Mark is better at having conversations with locals that I am, which is odd because I am better at starting up conversations with people back home (or actually, people who speak English in general). Mark claims he often doesn't understand much of what is said and doesn't know how to extricate himself, but he had a long conversation with the guide on the way back from My Son, and has just finished another with the extremely persistent shoe shine boy. We were sitting in a park which was okay, but eventually children came over and starting touching us. Now maybe they were just curious about the hair on Mark's arms, but they always seemed to be near his wristwatch and I guess we're just naturally suspicious.
In Hoi An, we also started to have children asking us for American coins or American pens. We didn't have any coins with us (do a lot of tourists carry a pocketful of useless change with them?), but we had brought extra pens because they seem to be popular throughout the world. I don't know if asking for the coins was just to have something American, or if they would collect a dollar's worth and then trade it back to an American for a dollar bill. (There was at least one occasion in Peru when a shoe shine boy asked us for a dollar for four quarters.)
For dinner we went back to the Faifoo. Mark was thinking of having the five-course dinner, but settled on two courses instead: White Roses and noodles with squid. I had nem (spring rolls) and bánh xèo ("country pancakes").
Then back to the room to back for tomorrow's (shorter) bus journey to Hué, which should take only six hours, including a one-hour stop at the Marble Mountains and a fifteen-minute stop at China Beach. We'll see.
March 14: We checked out from our hotel. I gave them two US$100 bills, but they didn't have US$50 change. Given their rates, that's hard to believe, unless they keep most of the money elsewhere. So I gave them exact change. I certainly have enough small bills to get me through. The hotel gave us little wrapped gifts when we left. We opened them later and they were small Buddha statues, not identical. That's a nice touch.
Contrary to what Mr. Nguyen Tre told us, it was motorbikes and not a mini-bus that showed up for us. It turned out to be not too bad riding one even with the luggage. My suitcase coverts to a backpack and I was wearing it, and the only other thing I had was a plastic bag which was hanging on my left wrist. The seat extended far enough back to support the backpack, so it was actually pretty good.
We were taken to the Cong Doan (Trade Union) Hotel and waited for the bus. And waited. And waited. It finally showed up a half-hour late, at 8:30, and was a mini-bus, and we were as usual the last to get on. So I got a seat over the wheel and Mark got the front seat with the driver.
The bus was scheduled to make a one-hour stop at the Marble Mountains, but that is apparently only if someone wants it. The Marble Mountains are five hillocks made of marble with caves inside with stalactites, stalagmites, and statues. They involve a fair amount of climbing, so we would probably have given it a miss anyway. But first of all, I couldn't even understand what the driver was asking when he pulled over and asked if anyone wanted to stop. And second, how likely is someone to say, "Yes, I want to climb this. Everyone on the bus should wait here an hour for me"?
At the base there were men carving marble with high-speed rotary planers and such without any sort of protective clothing or even goggles. I can't help but wonder how frequently they are injured by flying chips of marble.
We were also supposed to have a stop at China Beach, but that never happened either. I don't think anyone objected--in fact a couple of times the driver did stop for a rest stop, no one got off. Having experienced the long rides, we basically just wanted to get there as soon as possible.
We drove through Da Nang, a large city of no particular distinction these days. After Da Nang, we headed up over the mountains and it got very interesting indeed.
The view is gorgeous but the road is really dangerous. It is a 10% grade of hairpin turns and sheer drops, which would be bad enough even without the Vietnamese penchant for passing anything moving even slightly slower than you. And the fact that you can't see whether there is any oncoming traffic around the next curve doesn't stop them here. All it means is that they use the horn a bit more.
Not surprisingly, there are accidents here. We saw not one, but two overturned trucks! (This was apparently a good day. Other tourists said they saw even more on their trips.) At first, the second one looked as though there had been a major accident involving several motorbikes, but then we concluded that the truck was carrying motorbikes that spilled out when it overturned. I'm not sure how long the second one had been there (it obviously takes a while to get something up that road to clear the wreck), but the first still had police and such as well as a very large crowd.
There were also several buses which had broken down, including one parked across a hairpin turn. Obviously he didn't trust his brakes enough to park along the side of the road.
We reached Hai Van Pass and did get out for the view--and were immediately beset by vendors. They were the most persistent here of anywhere, and also the least honest. One trick is to take a 20,000-dong bill from a customer, palm it, and then show a 2,000-dong bill and ask for enough more to cover the purchase.
However, they are about to be put out of business, because the government is building a tunnel through the mountains to speed up travel (and make it safer), and when it's finished in 2003, I suspect not very many buses will make the journey through the pass anymore.
Coming down on the other side we passed fields which were demarcated with strips of videotape! There were also videotape streamers set up to scare away birds. Everything is recycled here, I guess.
We arrived at the outskirts of Hué City and went over the worst stretch of road yet, a road that was more potholes than road. So just to keep in step with everyone else, our bus broke down as well, apparently from water either in the fuel or in the fuel filter. The driver fiddled with it for a while and finally got the bus started again. We still arrived about 13:30 instead of the scheduled 14:00.
The weather in Hué had been reported to be cold and rainy. It was actually hot and muggy.
We went to the Thai Binh Hotel, recommended by a mother and daughter in Hoi An. They apparently had only two rooms left, but the one we saw was fine at US$25 for a room with a double bed and a single bed, a private bath, TV with CNN, and breakfast included.
We needed to go to the railway station to make our train reservations. (Well, we could have asked the hotel to do it, but they charge a large commission and it also is very difficult to explain what you want if your first choice isn't available.) The clerk said it was a twenty-minute walk, so we started off.
We were immediately "befriended" by a cyclo driver who really wanted to take us for a ride, so to speak. Had we realized how far it was, we might have taken him up on it, but we had been sitting for several hours and walking felt good. Also, we passed a sculpture garden along the river and it was nice to be able to stop and look at it, and to stop to talk to some people we knew from the bus. Still, we were pretty hot and sweaty when we got to the railway station.
The booking office was well-labeled in English, as was the office for sales to foreign travelers, who get to pay a whole lot more than Vietnamese for the same seats. Ground transportation problems seem to be the these of this trip, with no soft sleepers available the night we wanted to travel. There were some available the next night so we decided to stay an extra day in Hué, and by the time the clerk finished dealing with the computer, we had already figured out what to do with the extra day (a boat trip on the Perfume River).
I am pleased to tell you that since the last Lonely Planet came out, they have computerized the reservation system. They have not computerized the tickets, however, which are still written by hand with little sheets of carbon paper for making the copies. And computers are the same everywhere: it took a little extra time because after the clerk entered his password on a screen entirely in Vietnamese, he got a message in English saying "file access denied."
Soft berths, non-air-conditioned, on the S6 are 396,000 dong. This is about US$28, but when the clerk quoted us a price in dollars, it was US$31. Since the railway does not officially take payment in dollars, I suspect he was doing a little quick foreign exchange on the side, and a US$6 profit is a lot of money in Vietnam (where the average annual wage is US$360). Paying him wasn't easy, though. I gave him a hundred-dollar bill and he seemed to be having problems making change. When he started counting out some of the change in dong, I pulled out three twenty-dollar bills. Then suddenly he remembered more American money he had. (For some reason, you supposedly get a better exchange rate for fifty- and hundred-dollar bills than for smaller ones.) He still wanted two dollar bills to make the change easier, but refused one I gave him because a corner was torn a bit. Compared to Vietnamese money, it was practically pristine, but this a big thing here with American money.
The train leaves Hué at 15:47 Saturday afternoon and arrives in Hanoi 8:30 Sunday morning. That will leave us with two full days and two half days in Hanoi (Sunday after we find a hotel and Wednesday before our 14:15 flight to Singapore).
Then we had a couple of Pepsis at the snack bar before venturing out and getting two cyclos to take us to the Imperial City (for 15,000 dong each). Cyclos come with their own air-conditioning (at least for the passenger), so are actually more comfortable than a taxi (which is probably not air-conditioned).
The ticket seller will tell foreigners that the ticket for the Imperial City costs US$5. It's actually 55,000 dong, or a little less than US$4, if you pay in dong.
Unfortunately, there isn't much left to see of the Imperial City. There are a few buildings, and they are reconstructing some others, but most were destroyed in either the Franco-Viet Minh War or the Vietnam (American) War. The plaque at the entrance says, "Most of these buildings were destroyed by war in 1947." Interestingly, the French description says, "La plupart de ces bâtiments ont été détruits lors de la guerre en 1968." No, not really--I was just kidding. They both say 1947, which is interesting, since everything else I read seems to blame the Americans.
The cyclos back were also 15,000 dong each. The drivers couldn't change a 50,000-dong note and we were out of most of our small bills, but they were perfectly willing to take US$1 plus 1,000 dong.
We had dinner at the Xuan Trang Cafeteria, recommended by the Lonely Planet, but only okay. Service was very slow, and Mark's spring rolls arrived after his main course. Also, after a while all the Vietnamese cafe menus have a certain sameness to them, and there is too much fried food for our tastes.
On the way back to the hotel we passed a couple of Internet cafes. These are everywhere, and they are cafes in name only. As CNN was saying, "The only Java they serve is a programming language." The government had shut down all the Internet cafes in 1997, but they're back now, and very cheap. The standard rate is 300 dong per minute, or about US$1.30 an hour!
March 15: The slogan for tourism here used to be "Vietnam--It's a Country, Not a War." Now it's "Vietnam: Đięm Đęn Cúa Thiên Niên Ky Mói" ("Vietnam: A Destination for the New Millennium").
We were up at 6:00 for the DMZ tour. The hotel staff was not; they were sleeping on the floor of the lobby. This is standard for the night staff--the clerk in Nha Trang was also asleep on a couch when we went down at 5:30.
Our guide's name was Thach (I think--it's hard to understand the accent here). She didn't join us until we got to Dong Ha, which was after the skeleton of a church in Quang Tri which showed hundreds of bullet marks in the walls, the remainder from the heavy fighting in Quang Tri Province in 1968.
Our trip would cover 360 kilometers over the worst roads yet. The latter wasn't too surprising, since up until now we had been primarily on National Highway 1. Even that is pretty bad, and they are in the process of repaving the whole thing from end to end. But in the DMZ we would be taking secondary and even tertiary roads (nothing requiring four-wheel drive, though).
We had breakfast in Dong Ha Town about 8:45: bread with cheese or eggs, and coffee or tea. For some reason black coffee (listing at 3,000 dong) is included, but if you want white coffee (listing at 4,000 dong) you have to pay the full 4,000 dong extra. For some of these things it would seem as though adding a dollar on to the current US$11 cost of the tour and including them would make the tourists a lot happier and actually make more money for the company.
Thach said that in Dong Ha Town, they didn't rebuild for many years after the war because there were too many bodies buried in the ground to build a lot. Eventually, they started rebuilding, but she didn't say whether they moved the bodies or they had decomposed.
Probably because most tourists these days are Australian or European, Thach kept calling this area the "Dee-Em-Zed" instead of "Dee-Em-Zee."
We apparently saw parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, though I wasn't always sure what I was seeing. The trail was started in 1959, and was actually a large system of trails and roads, 20,000 kilometers long in total. There were five main roads (one through Laos and Cambodia, one by sea, and three through the center part of Vietnam), with a lot of side roads. The Americans tried to block it by bringing 10,000 Marines into the area and attempting to install an electrified barbed wire barrier across the entire area.
Thach talked a lot about how the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong got a lot of support from the local people, including the hill tribes in the area. She also referred to "liberating the south," etc., but was fairly neutral in her telling, and not as negative on the United States as the museums tended to be. She did talk about how the United States stayed in Vietnam after the 1973 Paris Agreement meant that "the Vietnamese couldn't solve their own problems." Oddly, she seemed to refer to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong as "Commies," a strange slang to hear here. The Americans finally left 13 April 1975.
There are 72 cemeteries in Quang Tri, with 70,000 soldiers' graves. There were 100,000 killed in Quang Tri, and 20,000 gallons of Agent Orange sprayed on the area. (Why use gallons instead of liters, I wonder?) 700,000 hectares of forest were destroyed, and this caused massive flooding because of the lack of ground cover. The Vietnamese government, with foreign assistance, engaged in an emergency reforestation effort, with the result that all the trees in this area are introduced from elsewhere, mostly Australia. So there is a lot of eucalyptus, gum tree, etc. The Australians on the tour said they felt right at home. Of course, for us the Australian trees looked just as foreign as the Vietnamese ones, so we didn't have the same reaction.
Because of the Agent Orange, 7% of Vietnamese children born in this area are deformed in some way. Again, as part of her even-handedness, Thach said that many American soldiers also suffered from the effects of Agent Orange.
We drove past the Rockpile, which is a 350-meter high rocky hill used by the US Marines as an outpost because the caves at the top provided protection while allowing artillery placed there to control the surrounding area. Apparently longer tours, possibly with four-wheel-drive vehicles, get closer and some people even climb to the top. (During the war, there was a place on top for helicopter landings.)
We passed over Dakrong Bridge. There had been an historic bridge built there in 1975, but it collapsed last year and a new bridge was built to replace it.
We stopped at an "Ethnic Minority Village" populated by Bru (Van Kieu) people. This to me is a very unnerving sort of thing--there is something a bit zoo-like to it all. (See the "Twilight Zone" episode "People Are Alike All Over" for what I mean.) Basically, four mini-buses pull up and six dozen tourists with cameras pile out and start wandering around the village, taking pictures of people's homes and quaint costumes. One tries to convince oneself the people don't mind, but I noticed that when we drive down the road throughout Vietnam, children along the road would smile and wave. Here, they just looked at you sullenly. No one smiles, and you get the feeling that the government has told them that they have to let the tourists visit them.
The women all smoke long pipes here. Even from the bus, I could tell it wasn't tobacco they were smoking.
We drove through some sort of "Laotian-Vietnamese Joint Enterprise Zone" which didn't seem to have much enterprise yet, then down a side road a few kilometers to Khe Sanh Combat Base. Once a supposedly critical base, this was besieged for 75 days before the siege was lifted, then abandoned about two months later and is now being used to grow coffee.
It's interesting that the guide and the museum describe the battle for Khe Sanh as having been won by the North Vietnamese, with the Americans fleeing in helicopters and leaving the Sputh Vietnamese behind, while the books we have describe the siege as being lifted, but that the base was abandoned in secrecy two months later.
There were a few pieces of armament left: a tank and an artillery piece. But not much, because when the Americans left they either destroyed or buried everything they couldn't take with them. According to one book, local scrap metal scavengers once unearthed an entire bulldozer! There were also a lot of mines, though the area has been cleared. Mark noticed along the roads where they are doing construction they are using metal detectors before digging because of all the unexploded mines and shells.
There were a couple of souvenir vendors selling bullets, silverware, and other items supposedly excavated here. They also had some dog tags. Again, I assume those are fake, because if they were real, the MIA search teams would certainly have claimed them.
The whole question of MIAs is another political hot potato. The Lonely Planet's opinion--with which I have to say I agree--is that of the official number, a very high percentage probably died when their planes were shot down and their bodies have disappeared into the jungle floor. Of others, some were probably killed by villagers whose area they were bombing (this almost happened to John McCain) or were captured and died in captivity. I can't think of any reason why the Vietnamese government would continue to hold MIAs in secret.
We returned to Dong Ha Town for lunch. As usual, Mark's order arrived after almost every one else had finished eating. It was spring rolls--not exactly exotic.
After lunch, we took National Highway 1 north to Hien Luong Bridge, built across the Ben Hai River, which in 1954 replaced 17th Parallel as the boundary between the "temporary" North and South governments. At the end of World War II, the Allies arranged with the Viet Minh that they would receive the surrender of the Japanese above the 17th Parallel, while we would receive it below. Then followed the Franco-Viet Minh War, at the end of which a truce line was placed by the Geneva Accords at the Ben Hai River, a more natural boundary than an abstract parallel. There was supposed to be a general election on 20 July 1956 for all of Vietnam. This never happened--according to the guide it was because Diem knew that Ho Chi Minh would win. Instead, elections were held in both parts. Since the elections held by Diem in the South resulted in his getting a third more votes in Saigon than there were registered voters, one can say that they were probably rigged. Diem got rid of various crime syndicates and private armies, which the United States liked, but also populated the government almost entirely with his family, showed blatant favoritism to Catholics while discriminating against the Buddhist majority, became increasingly tyrannical in dealing with dissent, and reversed the land reform of the 1940s. Eventually Diem was killed in November 1963 in the first of a series of military coups. These didn't help the situation, which was rife with corruption and incompetance. By 1965, there were two thousand desertions a month from the South Vietnamese army, in part because though they were losing five hundred men and a district capital a week, only one senior officer had even been wounded in the last ten years.
Meanwhile in the North, there was an attempt to eliminate the opposition, with 10,000 to 15,000 executions, and the imprisonment of 50,000 to 100,000 people.
So for twenty years, the North was fighting to reunify the country, as was supposed to have happened in 1956. On a monument at the bridge are the dates between which the river divided the country. Reunification finally occurred 30 April 1975. Actually, officially it was in July 1976; in the interim was in effect a carpet-bagger government in the South of Northeners, shutting out even those in the South who had opposed the South Vietnamese government.
After this we went to the tunnels of Vinh Moc. Unlike the tunnels at Cu Chi, these are the original tunnels (or what is left of the system) rather than reconstructions, and were designed for living in rather than for fighting from. They are therefore considerably larger, though we still to to duck our heads in parts.
One reason much of the system has collapsed is that it use wooden planks and beams to shore it up and after the war was over the people came back to the tunnels to remove the wood for building materials.
We went through 500 meters on three levels and exited to the most difficult part--the hawkers and vendors. The Australians later said that the one thing Vietnam needed to do if it wanted to build up tourism was to get the hawkers and touts under control. Mark described Vietnam as Thailand crossed with India--and the hawkers and touts are definitely the Indian influence.
We saw restaurant signs advertising "thit cay." I think this is dog. Neither of us had any desire to try this.
The road signs here are fairly standard international symbols, e.g., a triangular white sign with a red border and a black exclamation point to mean "caution." The difference is that they are not metal, but are painted on woven mats.
We arrived back at Hué about 19:30 fairly exhausted, so we just went to the Indian restaurant at the end of the alley (Omar Khayyam's). I had tandoori chicken and naan; Mark had a mutton curry that he said had a sauce "to die for." After all the fried foods we've been eating, a plain piece of grilled chicken and plain bread was really good.
It was incredibly humid in the room--the clothes we washed the night before still weren't dry. I think we had the air conditioner set wrong though, because I fiddled with it and it got better.
March 16: I should describe the coffee here. It's drip coffee, made in a distinctly Vietnamese coffee maker. That's like a small aluminum or stainless steel cup that holds about a hundred milliliters (four ounces) with small holes in the bottom. The coffee is put in, then another circular piece with holes is put over it and hot water is poured in. It slowly--very slowly--drips through into a small cup or glass. If you want coffee with milk, some condensed milk is put in the glass beforehand. (The first time I ordered coffee with milk in Thailand, I thought they had forgotten the milk, because it came in a cup and I couldn't see the condensed milk on the bottom.)
They have several brands of cheese here, all clones of "Laughing Cow" and all with laughing cows on each triangle.
We got taken by mini-bus to our "Dragon Boat." This is just a wooden boat with a painted sheet metal dragon's head stuck over the front, and dragon scales painted on the sides. There seemed to be two classes of Dragon Boat. Ours was the smaller, with seats for about fifteen. These seats consisted of those small Vietnamese plastic chairs I talked about earlier which were not designed for large Westerners. Sitting in them was okay, but if you shifted at all, torqueing the chair or leaning back, the legs folded up. (At least one person actually broke his chair.) We discovered that stacking two together firmed up the legs enough for us, but there weren't enough chairs to do that.
The other Dragon Boat was more like a catamaran, with a flat surface across what seemed to be two small boats. These seemed to seat about twice as many, and provided a table for lunch, while we got to sit on mats on the floor. They probably also had less load balancing than us. We had the woman in charge directing people from one side of our boat to the other as people moved about.
I'm not sure how the Perfume River got its name, but given that I saw several large drainpipes running from small shacks behind houses at the river's edge directly into the river, I suspect it is now a misnomer. We saw a lot of house boats, and a lot of boats transporting what appeared to be sand from upriver to Hué.
Our first stop was the Thien Mu Pagoda, which in addition to being a very nice pagoda along the river, is known as the pagoda from which Thich Quang Duc left on 11 June 1963 to go to Saigon where he immolated himself in protest of the Diem government. In a room behind the sanctuary is the Austin car in which he traveled.
Getting on and off the boat was a little tricky at times. Again, I think the larger boats put down a gangplank, while we had to make do with climbing over the side onto the shore. Luckily, it wasn't very muddy.
The next stop was the Tu Duc Tomb. The boat stopped at three tombs, and each tomb charges 55,000 dong. In addition, this one is reported to be far from the dock and so people would have to take motorbikes to get there (another 20,000 each). I say "reported to be far from the dock" because two people told us that the motorbikes actually take a roundabout path to make it seem longer, and if you take the direct path it isn't that far. The motorbike drivers seem to have stopped the practice of trying to run down or block people who chose not to use their services but to walk instead.
The next stop was Hon Chen Temple (22,000 dong), followed by lunch. Lunch was included, but for US$2 for the whole trip, we didn't expect much, and were not disappointed. Some vinegared vegetables, a bit of fried tofu, noodles, and rice was the extent of it. Beverages were extra.
We didn't even get off at the Khai Dinh Tomb, which really was a long walk (looking at the map). We were saving ourselves for the Minh Mang Tomb, reportedly the most magnificent. To get there, of course, you must pass through the gauntlet of hawkers. If I have just refused pineapple from twenty hawkers, why does the twenty-first think I might want to buy some from her? Frankly, my desire to buy seems to be in inverse proportion to the persistence of the sellers. I usually buy postcards, but I have bought only a few here because so many people are badgering me to buy some. I guess I have the feeling that if I actually buy from one, all the rest will descend on me even more.
The Minh Mang tomb is quite beautiful. It's not just a tomb, but a whole little park, with a lake, a pavilion holding a tablet listing Minh Mang's accomplishments, a temple, and a mausoleum as well as statues and landscaping.
Back at the boat, the woman running the boat wanted to collect everyone's souvenir tickets for this tomb, even though she hadn't for the others. This has got to be part of a ticket scam. The tickets are rectangular, with a square part that gives the name of the site, a blurb about how it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the price, and the serial number. There is also a stub that has the serial number as well. When you enter, the gatekeeper cuts off the stub. I would bet money that the woman has confederates who then try to sell the square souvenir part as complete tickets to unsuspecting tourists. I noticed that some of the places stamp a logo across both the square part and the stub so that when the stub is removed, it's still somewhat evident that there is a piece missing. At Angkor Wat, reselling tickets got so bad that they now take your picture and issue you a picture ID when you buy a ticket!
We returned about 15:30. Not too surprisingly, there was no mini-bus for the return to the hotel. Well, there wasn't anything to be gained other than customer good will, and it was only a few blocks to the hotel anyway.
We walked back and collapsed in the room--almost literally. I was completely exhausted. I drank some more water, thinking it might be dehydration, but it was more than that. We probably had the air conditioning too low, because at some point I started shivering and had to get under the covers. We had no energy and no desire to go out for dinner, so we stayed in, ate a couple of chocolate chip cookies, and fell asleep.
March 17: A good night's sleep seemed to solve our problems, although as soon as we left the air-conditioned room for the hot and humid hallway, I felt exhausted again. We carried a thermometer with us--it was 32 degrees Celsius out (90 Fahrenheit) and there was no breeze at all. I noticed particularly that this was the first day that the flag on the flag tower of the Imperial City was hanging limp, as was I.
We checked out, leaving our luggage with the hotel until our late afternoon train. Our plan was to see the Imperial Museum, Military Museum, Natural History Museum, and have lunch. We figured this would take most of the time. We had again failed to take into account how small most museums are in most countries.
We took cyclos to the Imperial Museum. This got us involved briefly in an altercation between the first driver who had approached us outside the hotel, and two other drivers who were apparently "official" cyclos for that area. The cyclos often have the name of hotels on them and so this is probably true to at least some extent. There are also cyclos that are obviously designed for freight rather than people, with no cushions on the metal seat, but lots of straps for tying things down.
The Imperial Museum was 22,000 dong each (about US$1.57) and consisted of one large room in a very nice old pavilion. Most of the better pieces had disappeared during the various wars and revolutions, but there are some pieces remaining. When you consider that Vietnam went through fifty years of war from 1940 to 1989, it's a bit surprising that anything is left. There is some English, but even in Vietnamese there wasn't much information.
In the courtyard were many cannons, some displayed nicely, but many just sort of piled in a corner. Across the street was the "Military Museum," which seemed to consist mostly of rusting pieces of military hardware in the yard of a school. All the pieces of American hardware have signs making reference to how these were used by the Americans and "puppet soldiers" during the war.
Our cyclo drivers had waited for us, wanting to give us a one-hour tour. Well, it turned out to be more like forty-five minutes, but it was a nice ride around the city, first around the wall of the Citadel, and then through a variety of streets, ending up back at the hotel. This was US$2 each, which may have been twice the going rate, but it was very hot. For us, the extra dollar is so little and for them, it is so much.
We immediately went into the nearest cafe and had two Coca-Colas. Then we sat there a while and had another Coke. Then we sat a while longer, and had lunch. There wasn't much else to do, so sitting and getting our logs up to date seemed as good an idea as any.
From there we moved to the hotel lobby, but eventually it was time to go. We collected our luggage and got two cyclos at 20,000 dong each. This is a bit higher than normal, which is probably more like 10,000 or 15,000, but they know that people going to the railway station with luggage are not in much of a position to argue. And really, it's only about US$1.50 each.
The cyclos did not go on the main road along the river, but a street somewhat parallel but further inland. It was probably a slightly longer route, but there was far less traffic to dodge and no problems with having to stop for traffic lights and then restart.
All the announcements at the railway station were in Vietnamese, but since we thought everyone was there for the same train (there are only eight trains, four in each direction), we figured we would follow the crowd. For example, at some point after an announcement people starting taking their tickets over to a desk and bringing them back with holes punched in them. Okay, this probably mean we needed to check in, and in fact that was it.
A train pulled in about 15:30 and we figured that was our 15:47 train. But no one moved to get on. Around 15:45 another train pulled in blocking it heading south. Pretty soon it became clear that our train would be late. When they finally made an announcement for Hanoi and lots of people got up, we did too, but the ticket master at the station door turned us away. This was in fact the train scheduled to come through after ours. I guess because this was the express, they let it pass our delayed train rather than be held up. In fact we left almost two hours late, after that train. Train schedules here are suggestions only, I guess.
We shared the four-berth compartment with a couple from Perth. Shortly after we pulled out the conductor (or someone) came around with sheets and blankets, which is good because the old sheets were still on the berths. Then they brought around water and food, which is included. It was sort of like airline food--some greens, a bit of chicken with pickled vegetables, a stuffed grape leaf (or something like it), and rice. We could also have gotten beer (not included).
When we finished, the conductor came around and cleaned up. This consisted of keeping the plastic tray everything was in and throwing the rest--individual thin plastic cases, foil, plastic spoon, etc.--out the window!
Unfortunately, we left so late that we didn't have much chance to see anything before it got dark. We should get some extra time in the morning, since I don't think trains make up time--they just get later.
The train is very noisy. If you put the steel shutters down it might be quieter, but then you wouldn't get any breeze.
March 18: For breakfast, a woman came around with xoi, which is a glutinous rice paste served with chicken sausage between two leaves. We thought it was the train breakfast but she came back later wanting payment--20,000 dong each! Well, it's our fault for not asking first, I suppose, and at US$1.44 each that's still less than we would pay for a glutinous rice paste served with chicken sausage between two leaves in the United States, though probably more than most of our readers would pay for a glutinous rice paste served with chicken sausage between two leaves anywhere.
A young soldier that the Australians had met earlier came in and talked with us a while, though his English was very minimal. It turns out that writing words down helps a lot in both directions--the accents came be the real obstacles. I think he said he was a career officer, and that people didn't like him because of that. I guess the army's popularity has declined somewhat.
The weather in Hanoi had been reported to be cold and rainy. It was actually hot and muggy.
The train station in Hanoi is total chaos. In Hué someone had given us a brochure for four hotels--three were in the Lonely Planet and the fourth was too new to have made it. There was a special offer of US$5 off the "superior room" rate if you stayed three nights, so we had decided to go with the newest one. Another representative of those hotels was on the platform at Hanoi and he said he would get us a metered taxi which would cost no more than 20,000 dong (US$1.45). Meanwhile, touts from every hotel in Hanoi were pursuing us (and everyone else in sight) asking if we needed a place to stay, a taxi, etc.
After surrendering our tickets at the exit (they check them there to make sure no one snuck on, though obviously the touts get in somehow), we plowed our way through the crowd to the taxi, and off we went to the Phan Thai.
The meter came to exactly 20,000 dong. One reason it's easier for someone to guess it exactly is that the "flag-drop" of 14,000 dong takes you two kilometers, and each additional 1,500 dong takes you another fair distance (200 meters or so according to the book, though it seemed like more).
We got out at the Phan Thai. They asked if we had the special offer, and then apologized that they were full, but said one of the other hotels, the Anh Dao, had rooms and they would pay for the cyclo to get us there.
So the two of us, and our luggage, piled into one cyclo and off we went. Luckily for everyone it was only about three blocks.
We got a room on the second (British first) floor rather than the fifth because there was no lift. Lifts are not all that common in Vietnam except in somewhat fancier, or newer, hotels. The room, like all our rooms, had a refrigerator. It also had satellite TV, but this just means CNN Asia, MTV, a French-language station, and Australian television. CNN Asia repeats a lot the same stories every hour for at least a week. The French-language station did have an interesting documentary on dirigibles, though, and we managed to catch the Larry King Show where he interviewed several Oscar nominees. (We get back the day of the Oscars.)
After checking in, showering, and changing clothes, we took a walk that Fodor's describes as being through the French Quarter. We started by walking through the Old Quarter where our hotel was, past Hoan Kiem Lake, and towards the Opera House. On the way we walked past several bookstores on Pho Trang Tien. Now in Hoi An someone wrote how they intended to buy one or two pieces of clothing and ended up with thirty-six items. We went into a bookstore to buy a couple of souvenirs and ended up with a dozen books in a language we don't read. This is not unusual. For example, I collect Sherlock Holmes in other languages, just to show the range. So I got The Hound of the Baskervilles (my preference, since it's the best known) and a collection of short stories. The latter was bilingual--this is apparently not uncommon here as a way to encourage learning English. We also like to get science fiction in other languages. Here we got Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and The Lost World (Conan Doyle is well-represented). And we got a couple of origami books (the words are less important), a couple of books about cinema, and so on. Even so, it was under US$10 for everything, including the 6% sales tax which apparently applies to purchases over 100,000 dong. (I say this because we bought more books later and didn't get charged tax.)
They even have "Harry Potter" here, though not in a single volume for each book, but in a dozen (or more?) installments, sort of the way Stephen King did The Green Mile. I guess the reasoning is that people cannot afford to spend the total amount all at once, but can buy an installment a week, or month, or whatever. Many books that we would have in single volumes are split into two or three here.
We were saved from buying more, though. There was a new "superstore" bookstore opening in the next block, but not until the day after we left. It did not appear to belong to any of the known Western superstore chains, but was considerably larger than the existing bookstores.
The Opera House was built by the French and recently restored, keeping the French Colonial style. The Vietnamese name for it, Nha Hat Lon means "House Sing Big."
There is a Hilton Hotel near the Opera House. I don't know what it is called, but I can almost guarantee you it is not the "Hanoi Hilton"! It must lead to some confusion with cyclo drivers, though I suspect that people staying here use taxis, and they can tell which people mean.
We were followed by yet another T-shirt vendor. Mark started asking, "How much?" and making a counter-offer, which pretty much implies you will buy, and we did get a T-shirt as a gift for a friend at a reasonable price. (I won't say what here--the friend might see it!)
We passed several embassies, mostly of countries we're not getting along with (Iraq, Cuba, and so on). The larger countries have embassies further away from this area, though the French Embassy is in the French Quarter.
As we walked we saw barbers with a chair and a mirror cutting men's hair along the sidewalk.
We passed the Ambassador Pagoda, established hundreds of years ago as a place for visiting ambassadors to stay. It's interesting that there are still many embassies in the area today.
Nearby was the Hoa Lo Prison, a.k.a. La Maison Centrale, a.k.a. "Hanoi Hilton." Most of it has been torn down and replaced by the Hanoi Towers, two office buildings, but the front part has been retained as a museum. Everything we read about it indicated it was yet more propaganda. Most of the description refers to the French use of the prison against the Vietnamese, with only some reference to its use during the Vietnam (American) War. And there it talks about how the prisoners were treated fairly and humanely by the Vietnamese and shows (staged) photos of happy prisoners playing ping pong and such. We figured we had seen more than our share of propaganda and didn't need to see more.
(Later, we met a couple we had met previously, and they said it was very interesting. They had tried to go the day before, but it was closed, apparently for filming The Quiet American. It turns out that Michael Caine is not directing that as the people in Hoi An were saying, but stars in it along with Brendan Fraser. It is directed by Philip Noyce and comes out later this year. My guess would be in December along with all the other "Oscar fodder," but it may show up at the Toronto International Film Festival.)
We weren't hungry for dinner yet, so we wrote for a while, then took two cyclos to the Water Puppets. While the cyclos are a bit wider here, they're still pretty small, and the only times we shared one was when we were getting them at random somewhere off the tourist path. At the hotels and tourists sites, there are enough of them and they want one person per cyclo. We had asked the hotel if they could get tickets for the Water Puppets for us (according to their brochure at no extra charge). They hadn't gotten them yet for the 18:30 show, and it was almost 18:00. The clerk said he could send someone over for just 5,000 dong extra per ticket, but we said we would just go ourselves.
Tickets for the Water Puppets are 40,000 dong for first class or 20,000 dong for second class. First class tickets also include an audiocassette of some of the music, and I think got all the front rows, while the second class were further back. The seats were ramped, but not enough for tall Westerners, and after trying to see past the person in front of me who moved back and forth like a metronome, I ended up standing in the side aisle for the last half. Everyone got a paper souvenir fan.
By now you are undoubtedly asking, "What are water puppets?" Well, water puppets are hard to explain. They are supposedly a traditional art form practiced when the rice paddies are flooded. It's hard to believe that, but that's what all the books say.
The "stage" is a pool of water a meter or so deep. At the back is a screen, from behind which wooden figurines come out onto the water and enact various rural and mythological scenes to the accompaniment of traditional instruments. The first one is a pair of dragons that scoop up water in their mouths and spit it out--at the musicians, not the audience. Two more dragons join them, with firecrackers and sparks coming out of their mouths.
Other scenes include boys fishing or herding water buffalo, a pair of phoenixes producing an egg which produces a baby phoenix, and the story of the Restored Sword (something like Excalibur, only returned to a giant turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake). Throughout this all you see are the wooden puppets in the water and you can't figure out how it's done, especially since some of the figures spin or turn somersaults. At the end the puppeteers come out from behind the screen and they are wet only from the waist down, so it wasn't people in scuba gear.
Everyone who has written about this asks the same thing: "Is this for real, or are they having the tourists on?" Everyone in the theater was a tourist. On the other hand, this may be true of a lot of culture shows that do depict real cultural forms. Whether the people in the rice paddies spent a lot of time at this, or whether it developed from a much simpler form I have no idea, but I doubt it was invented solely for tourists. It has become, however, one of the things a tourist must do in Hanoi.
Our cyclos were there when we left and we returned, then went out looking for a snack. We went to the Tamarind Cafe, whose menu sounded very good, but whose food was somewhat bland. I had sweet potatoes mashed with garlic, wasabi, and peanut cream. It came in three scoops and I couldn't tell if each one was one flavor, or if they were all mixed. Mark got tofu stuffed with cellophane rice noodles, also not very tasty. And he said his pineapple smoothie tasted just like banana, which is what they use to thicken all the smoothies here.
March 19: We had breakfast at the hotel. It was a small buffet with a heavy European influence: bread, pastry, eggs, cheese, various meats, fruits, and so on. No pho or chao or anything like that.
This being Monday, all the museums were closed. So we decided to do the Old Quarter walking tour from the Lonely Planet. (Every guidebook has one, and they cover much the same territory.) The Old Quarter was founded by one of the emperors as an area for the various merchants and guilds. It is also known as the "36 Streets" because that was the original number. Now there are about twice that many. Each street has a specialty. For example, one street has all the leather merchants, another has all the hat makers, and so on. In some case, the items have expanded to include more modern variations. For example, there is a street which specialized in "ghost money," money and paper objects burned to make an offering to one's ancestors. These might have included paper models of houses and so on. Now the street sells this, but also party decorations, greeting cards, and other paper products of that sort.
This being our day to walk around, it was raining. However, it stopped fairly early and this was the only rain we had on this trip, so we were really lucky.
We started slightly outside the Old Quarter at Hoan Kiem Lake (home of the sword and the turtle). There is a temple in the center to the turtle and around the back a very large stuffed turtle.
Crossing back to the mainland, we passed the Martyrs' Monument, dedicated to those who died liberating Vietnam. It doesn't specify, so I assume this includes the entire period from 1940 through 1975.
We couldn't spend too much time looking at the monument, however, because we were immediately approached by a postcard and book vendor. This one managed to make a sale by having Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War, though it took some bargaining. He was pointing to the (original) £8.99 price on this (pirated) copy and saying he'd discount it 10% (and possibly also interpret it as dollars). I pointed out it was US$2 in HCMC. Well, I hadn't actually seen it there, but all the books were about US$2.50. We eventually settled on 50,000 dong, or about US$3.59.
The Sorrow of War is considered by the Lonely Planet to be the best novel to come out of the Vietnam (American) War. It was written by a soldier in the North Vietnamese Army and is widely available in English in Vietnam, but banned in the original Vietnamese! I guess anything that portrays the liberation as anything but a glorious struggle and a great victory is not considered appropriate.
It's interesting that the great anti-war novels (which to some extent this is) have come from countries other than the United States. From World War I it was Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, and from the Vietnam War it is this.
We walked around, looking at various shops. Mark bought some Buddha statues for his group, but so far we didn't see much that appealed to us. We did enjoy walking around seeing the city. Most of the goods seemed aimed at Vietnamese rather than tourists, things like groceries, or baby clothes, or kitchenware, or a set of screwdrivers. And there seemed to be a lot of them, and people seemed to be buying them. Whatever went wrong with European Communism doesn't seem to have happened here, but that may be because in Europe Communism started much earlier and had a longer time to make mistakes, while in China and Vietnam, they have been able to see what problems Europe had and avoid them. They seem to have avoided them by taking a sharp turn into capitalism, of course, and globalization seems to have come at the right time for them in this regard.
We walked through a (mostly) food market. Seeing all the meat out in the heat, and still in recognizable form (pigs' heads, various organs, etc.) could easily make one a vegetarian. There were also other vendors, and Mark bought a pack of "ghost money" which were copies of United States hundred-dollar bills--the new design. This says volumes about everything. First, though they also sell copies of Vietnamese money, it looks more like some old version rather than the current bills. This may be because the current bills all have pictures of Ho Chi Minh on them and burning them would be disrespectful. Or it may be that they've stuck with a traditional design there. But the only non-Vietnamese "ghost money" was American. In other words, your ancestors will be pleased with either the traditional money or American money, but not any of those other currencies. And not just any American money, but only the latest design (about five years old now, I guess).
Getting around is a real adventure. The streets are narrow and filled with pedestrians, women with long poles with baskets at either end with fruit or eggs, motorbikes, cyclos, bicycles, and occasional trucks, cars, and buses. And it's not just the vehicles. You may pass a cyclo carrying five-meter length of pipe, or a bicycle with a basket of live chickens on the back, or a motorbike with three cases of beer balanced behind the driver.
There are CD shops everywhere. I guess the emperor didn't set aside a separate street for them, though you would think they might fall under the topic of musical instruments. The CDs are all pirated of course, at 12,000 dong each. There are a few priced higher, such as Rocky Horror Picture Show, at 20,000 dong. Each CD comes in a little plastic envelope, complete with copy of photo art and booklet cover. I'm not sure how the copies are made, though. The Rocky Horror Picture Show copy was mirror-image, and the booklet copy for at least one other had all sorts of typos and misspellings (e.g., "Mimoy" for "Nimoy"). A pure photocopy or even a scanned computer image wouldn't have typos, but using OCR wouldn't seem likely either, as that would not have the images.
We took a break at the hotel around noon to drop off our purchases. Then we went out again and had lunch at Cha Ca La Vong. "Cha Ca" supposedly meant "roasted fish" when the street was first named that, according to one guide, but that's not accurate anymore. It now describes a particular fish dish, and Cha Ca La Vong has been serving it for over a hundred years.
And that's their entire menu. You enter and climb a flight of steps not unlike those in our hotel in Hoi An to the second (British first) floor. You sit down. A waitress brings a card that says (basically): "We serve one dish: Cha Ca Fish. It is 60,000 dong. Beverages extra." You tell her what you want to drink.
(I should mention at some point that 330ml cans of Coca-Cola cost about twice what 300ml bottles do. This is because the bottles are deposit but the cans are not. So I guess the three cans I'm bringing my friend really cost about 12,000 dong or a little under a dollar. On the other hand, we got those where they had only cans, so it's academic.)
They bring the drinks and then a charcoal brazier with a cast iron skillet on top. In it are boneless chunks of fish sizzling in oil. They set this on your table. They also bring a bowl of fresh dill and coriander, a bowl of fresh shredded spring onions, a plate of rice noodles, and a bowl for each person. They put some dill and coriander in the oil; you can add more as you want. Then you just scoop out the fish and greens with the spoon (or better yet, with the chopsticks--it lets the oil drain off), put them on the noodles, add a little vinegar and eat. It is very good. As Vietnamese standards go, of course, it also very expensive. With beverages, it was 147,000 dong for two, or US$10.50, by far our most expensive meal in Vietnam. (No other meal was over 100,000 dong.) But for us it was well worth it, and I definitely recommend it to others.
We walked around some more streets. One, specializing in towels, had a shop with a "Gone with the Wind" towel on which Rhett's and Scarlett's features had a definite Vietnamese cast, so naturally we bought it. We didn't even bargain with the quoted price of 60,000 dong (about US$4.20) since that seemed quite reasonable and we weren't sure if people bargained over things like this. We also got a woven shallow basket with a face painted on the bottom--basically a mask, though not quite--for US$1. This at least is lightweight and doesn't take up much room, as it can be filled with a T-shirt or something.
We went to Dong Xuan, the indoor market, which had be rebuilt after being completely destroyed by fire about seven years ago. It may have had character then, but now it seems to be a concrete shell with a lot of uninteresting (to us) vendors--not unlike the market in HCMC, but without the food.
So we walked to the Long Bien Bridge, which is a real patchwork, having been bombed about a zillion times during the war and repaired each time. There is a newer bridge just south of it, though the trains still use this, and so do a lot of bicycles, motorbikes, and even some pedestrians. We were going to walk across it until I realized we had been walking a while and still hadn't reached the water. A check in the book indicated it was 1682 meters long, or about a mile. We decided not to walk all the way across.
So we caught a cyclo back to the hotel (here is where the driver put both of us in one cyclo). Later we went out looking for dinner and ended up at Linh Phung, where I had sweet and sour cucumber. The cucumber was more like the pickling cucumbers than the large salad cucumbers.
March 20: Our ground transportation jinx, combined with the whole bargaining thing, practically drove us crazy today, but we managed to escape unscathed.
We started with two cyclos at 15,000 dong each to the Army Museum. The drivers said something about waiting, but we said we would pay them and then if they wanted to wait they could, but didn't have to. This was because we didn't know how long we would be.
The Army Museum (10,000 dong each plus 2,000 dong for a camera) started out with a tribute to "The Heroic Vietnamese Mothers." Then there was a large exhibit devoted to the defeat of the French. One thing we started to notice here was that the Vietnamese transliterated foreign names so that when read phonetically in Vietnamese they were close to the original. This was to make up for the fact that there were letters not in the Vietnamese alphabet, or letters pronounced differently. For example, the French "Delattre de Tassigny" ended up as "Dolatdotatxinhi." And this transliteration was used in the English text. Only the French had the original. This is different from English, where names already in a Roman alphabet are left alone, even if they are pronounced totally different from English phonetics--for example, "Delattre de Tassigny."
The exhibit talked about French atrocities, and showed Vietnamese humanitarianism. I noticed they were a bit more explicit about the French atrocities in the English description than in the French. But the Vietnamese were shown giving food and water to captured enemy soldiers, etc.
This seemed to be the entire building, but we knew there were exhibits about the Vietnam (American) War somewhere. Eventually we found the building behind the building. In the area between were some anti-aircraft guns, some shells, and the wreckage of a B-52 (or at least some of the wreckage).
The exhibits were not anything special. In both sections, as in other museums, the emphasis seemed to be on photographs and things like "rice bowl used by Nguyen Do of the Fourth Brigade during the fight for liberation." There was a film of the Fall (Liberation) of Saigon along with a large table-top model showing troop movements for that.
We left the museum, having spent two hours there. Not surprisingly, our cyclo drivers had moved on. This was okay, though, because we figured we should do the Air Force Museum next (to make sure we have enough time there) and it was over five kilometers--too far for a cyclo.
Or so we thought. But the cyclo drivers were insistent about us saying where we wanted to go. We showed them. Two quoted a price of 30,000 each. This may have been reasonable, but a taxi would be cheaper, so we said no, we would take a taxi. They kept dropping their price. Eventually they said 15,000 each. Now this seemed ridiculously cheap for the distance, but it wasn't like we were pushing them or anything. If anything, they were pressuring us to take them. So we agreed and off we went.
And went and went and went. And it was a long way. One of them started talking about how tired he would be tonight, and how he had three children, etc. We figured that we would add a little extra at the end.
But when we got to the end, suddenly they were claiming we had promised them more. They might have been more convincing if they had stuck to a single story, but they fluctuated between claiming that we had agreed on 115,000 each, or US$15 each. Not only did we know both of these to be false, but given that we had kept saying a taxi would be cheaper, and these were both way more than a taxi, it didn't make sense that way either. One driver kept saying, "You pay mean" and they wouldn't take the 15,000 dong each I tried to pay them. So eventually I just walked away.
Not surprisingly, they followed (or rather the leader of the two did). He kept insisting, "You pay mean" and that it should be more. On the one hand, I agreed with him. But he had quoted us that low price, and quoted it with the intention of trying to rip us off at the end. Unfortunately, we couldn't escape him, because it turned out the museum had just closed for lunch.
However, it was also unlikely that the guard at the gate was going to let them do anything overtly hostile, and there wasn't much point for the driver to berate us for two hours, so eventually he took the then 20,000 dong each we offered, gave us one parting, "You pay mean," and left.
Now I will re-iterate that, yes, 15,000 was too low for that ride. But that's the figure they suggested and we accepted. And they clearly suggested it planning to rip us off for something well above a reasonable price for the trip in a taxi, which is what we would have done had they not insisted they wanted to take us. So I don't have a whole lot of sympathy for them.
We walked around the outside of the museum, where the larger exhibits, like planes and helicopters, were. Then we sat down to write in our logs until the museum opened. But at some point the guard decided we shouldn't be inside without paying. We tried to say we would pay when the museum opened, but he spoke no English and pointing to the sign with the hours on it didn't help. Finally we decided the easiest thing was to pay him and then return. So we paid him and signed we would go eat and then return--at which point he returned out 10,000 dong each. I guess he was willing to trust us when he could tell we weren't trying to cheat the museum (the way he thought we were cheating the cyclo drivers, maybe?).
We walked down the street a few blocks and suddenly saw a sign that said "Com. Bia." That's rice with side dishes of meat and vegetables, and beer. In other words, lunch. We went in. No one spoke English. Apparently what one does is take two or three side dishes, each of one specific thing off a steam table. But we hadn't figured that out and took a little bit of several things all on one dish. We took that to the table, the waitress brought rice, and we ordered drinks. I got "bia," which was beer out of a keg with a fairly low alcohol content, and cold. Mark asked for a Coca-Cola and they brought one for each of us, so Mark had both. All this came to 17,000 dong, or US$1.22 for both of us! The drinks must have been about half that.
After lunch we still had time, so we walked around some more, picked up a Vietnamese "Spiderman" comic and a Vietnamese comic book of Jurassic Park, and in general killed time. At 13:00 we returned to the museum, paid our 10,000 dong inside and saw the rest of the museum.
Frankly, the outside was more interesting, though Mark was really excited at the chance to sit in a MiG cockpit. It must be a guy thing.
Now was time to leave. We would have taken a taxi, but there were not a lot coming by. There were moto-taxis (motorbikes that take paying passengers), but we weren't feeling that adventurous. There was a bus stop, and one of the buses listed even appeared to go near the Old Quarter. So we figured we'd take that if nothing showed up before it, but also that standing at a bus stop might encourage any taxi going by to stop.
So while we're standing there, a cyclo pulls up. We figure that this not being a tourist area, he's more likely to be honest. We show him where we're going (the Opera House). He says 50,000 dong. Mark writes on a piece of paper "50,000" and shows it to him, indicating it is for both of us. He agrees. We get in and off we go.
Cyclos in Hanoi are wider than elsewhere, but we're still cramped and I still have to sit on Mark's leg the whole way there.
We get there. We hand him a 50,000-dong bill. He starts in about how that's not enough and something about "metered." Cyclos are not metered. Mark shows him the paper again. He mumbles something about "metered" but does not follow us as we walk off.
By now, all this nonsense was getting to me and the thought that we would be leaving the next day and not have to negotiate all this stuff, and then argue about it again at the end, was starting to sound really good.
We stopped at a store for two Cokes. We asked for bottles and the woman seemed concerned that we wanted to walk off with them, gesturing that we would have to drink them there. I gestured that I understood by going outside and picking up one of the small stools, then mimed sitting down and drinking. I guess a lot of tourists haven't figured out that the reason that cans are more expensive than bottles is that you're paying for the can.
We walked over to the History Museum, which covered Vietnamese history from Neolithic times through the establishment of the state under Ho Chi Minh. It has a good collection of stone carvings, coins, and ceramics from the various eras, with labels in Vietnamese, English, and French. The labels seem professionally translated (unlike many other museums) and are not "Communist"--no "idols from superstitious people" or "this luxury showed how the Emperor oppressed the people" sort of thing.
We spent a couple of hours here, towards the end followed around by a couple of busloads of schoolchildren. Every once in a while, one would come up to Mark and ask, "Excuse me, what time is it?" "3:21." "What is your name?" "Mark. What is your name?" "Phuong." Nice to meet you." "Excuse me, what time is it?" "3:22." "What is your name?" "Mark. What is your name?" "Dinh." Nice to meet you."
They probably got very little chance to try out their English on English speakers.
We finished up here and walked back to the hotel, not wanting to deal with any more cyclo drivers. We stopped in the Hanoi Bookshop and bought a couple more books--a simplified Frankenstein which had great illustrations and another book of origami.
After resting up we went to a restaurant called Little Hanoi for our final dinner in Vietnam. It had been recommended and was quite good. It wasn't expensive, and it was a lot of the same dishes we had been having elsewhere, but very well-prepared and well-presented.
Then back to the room to pack. This involved ditching my old shoes (which had a hole in the sole, etc., and I brought intending to leave) and four shirts also considered expendable. This meant everything still fit in my carry-on suitcase, even though I had bought a dozen books, a couple of T-shirts, a mask, and who knows what else?
March 21: As a fitting end to our trip, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum. This meant one last cyclo negotiation, but as this was with the "hotel" drivers, and for a standard trip (to the Mausoleum, wait for us, and back), this was pretty straightforward at 20,000 dong each.
The Mausoleum is not unlike Mao's tomb (or mausoleum, or whatever). It is a large imposing structure which some have said looks a little like the Lincoln Memorial. Well, not really. (I pulled out a five-dollar bill and compared it.) Both are rectangular with columns, but the Lincoln Memorial has Ionic columns and a more Greek style of design, while this is plain stone with no elaboration. Also, in the Lincoln Memorial you climb the steps and enter into the columned part; here you enter into the base and the "temple" part seems only for external appearances. And of course Lincoln's body is not in the Lincoln Memorial. (It's in his tomb in Springfield, Illinois.)
One must check all cameras, food, drink, computers, cell phones, and anything else they see that they don't think appropriate. This is free--all the signs say so--but then they hand you a descriptive brochure and say it's 4,000 dong each. This is clearly a tourist rip-off, but I have no idea who's pocketing the money.
On the other hand, tourists do get to queue in a separate line and every few minutes are allowed to cut into the non-tourist line about a block from the entrance. Since the non-tourist line stretches for about six times that length, this is an advantage and paying 4,000 dong is a cheap price.
Ho Chi Minh, of course, would disapprove of all this. First of all, he wanted to be cremated, not embalmed and turned into either a relic or a tourist attraction. And he almost definitely would object to foreigners being given preference over Vietnamese, even if (or perhaps especially if) they pay for that preference.
Anyway, we walked through in two lines through the rather chilly room where Ho Chi Minh ("Uncle Ho") is lying in a glass coffin looking a bit like something out of "Sleeping Beauty." The one similarity to Lincoln, I suppose, is that like Lincoln, he led his country through a war to re-unify it, and never lived to see the results. (When he died in 1969, the student newspaper at the University of Massachusetts ran an editorial titled "The Affect of Minh," which I think says it all about the educational standards at the University of Massachusetts, at least among those who worked on the student newspaper.)
After the Mausoleum we decided to skip the "House on Stilts" where Ho Chi Minh supposedly lived for the last few years of his life. I say "supposedly" because people consider that it was far too inviting a target for American bombers if they had actually thought there was even a chance he was there. Instead we took in the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
This is a very strange museum. People say to hire an English-speaking guide to explain the symbolism, but we really had only about fifteen minutes or so and a good explanation would take much longer. There are a lot of modern sculptures and other art whose meanings weren't always clear, even with the explanatory labels. For example. the Edsel bursting through a wall at one point is supposed to be an American economic failure representing the American military failure. For someone interested in art, particularly modern art, I would highly recommend allowing more time here than we did.
We left and returned to our cyclos. Or rather to one of them. The other driver had apparently not waited or something. (The remaining driver signaled something with his wrists crossed. In the United States this would mean he was arrested, but that seems somewhat unlikely.) Anyway, the remaining driver rounded up another driver, thereby complicating what had been a straightforward transaction. But I figured that as long as we handed him two sets of money with 20,000 dong each, it was up to him to sort out the subcontracting. And that turned out to be the right approach.
Our airport taxi arrived on time (thank goodness), and was US$10 paid through the hotel. The taxi driver didn't try to hit us up for the toll (24,000 dong) or ask for payment again, which by now seemed remarkable.
Noi Bai International Airport is building a new terminal. However, we got to use the old, dark, and small one. First you show your passport and customs form and have your baggage scanned. Then you pay your departure tax (US$10 still, though we had heard it was US$12) at a small booth and get a two-part receipt for it. Then you check in. Then you go through the departure tax check, where they take half the receipt. Then comes the real passport and customs check. Unlike any other country we've been to, Vietnam makes everyone not a child go through individually. (Everyone else lets couples go through together.) After this we sat in a departure area for a while until they opened the gate area. To get there you pass through the security check (X-ray). Finally you have passed all the hurdles.
I discovered that my fine Vietnamese sandals had one small problem--the hard rubber (plastic?) soles got no traction on the very nice-looking but treacherous slick tiles of the departure lounge. Luckily, I managed to walk without slipping, and nowhere else had this problem.
The flight itself was very stuffy--I think something was wrong with the air circulation. But it was only a three hour flight, and the champagne and good food were a relief from the trials of Vietnam.
This makes it sound as though I didn't like Vietnam, and that's not entirely accurate. Vietnam was a difficult trip, our hardest except for India. The constant haggling in the constant heat wore us down a lot; the food, while certainly okay, was not great and tended to be far oilier than we have become used to; and the bus rides were very rough. It was certainly a fascinating experience, but not one I can wholeheartedly recommend to most people. I will say that I'm glad we went, and glad we went when we did, because if things get easier in the next few years, it will make the experience a bit less fascinating.
If Vietnam is a country still in the past (though rapidly moving into the present), Singapore is a country well into the future. The difference between Hanoi's Noi Bai Airport and Singapore's Changi Airport is almost literally night and day: Noi Bai is dark while Changi is ablaze with light. Noi Bai has almost no facilities; Changi has everything. (Changi is consistently rated the best airport in the world.)
One thing Changi has is a hotel booking desk. In principle this is great--you arrive, look at a list of hotels, and they make all the phone calls to confirm availability. In practice, it has some drawbacks. First, there is no map of where the hotels are (though most can be found on one of the free Singapore maps available everywhere). So trying to get something centrally located means checking every hotel on the list against the map. Also, the list has only about four or five dozen hotels, while there are many others. And if you arrive late in the day (we landed at 18:30), the selection is even more limited. There were maybe eight hotels in our fairly wide price range and location that weren't already marked as full, and three or four of those were full when the desk called. Eventually, however, we did find a hotel that fit our requirements (the Hotel Supreme).
We took the airport shuttle to the hotel. Other than the driver stopping after dropping all the other passengers off to run off to go to the bathroom, this was without incident.
After checking it, we were hungry for dinner, so we went across the street to Kopitiam, a chain of food courts. Dinner was roast duck with noodles, and dumplings with noodles. With a pineapple juice, it was S$9.50, or about US$5.45. (A Singapore dollar is about US$0.60.) One reason for choosing duck was that duck is not much served in Vietnam. They raise a lot of ducks, and eat the eggs, but the ducks themselves get shipped to China.
March 22: Singapore is very quiet compared to Hanoi, or at least it seems that way in the morning because there is not a constant honking of horns.
We walked out towards our museums, passing Bencoolan Street, where we stayed at the Hotel Bencoolan the last time we were in Singapore ("The last time I was in Singapore. . . ."). At that time, the hotel was being remodeled and construction work was going on during the day. I can report that construction work is still going on! (The Cathay Cinemas, under whose awning we took refuge, is still there, but being either remodeled or torn down, and all the small bookshops in the area are gone. I assume the synagogue is still there, though we didn't check.)
We ate breakfast at a different Kopitiam. I had "fruity yogurt" with a slice of bread, while Mark had something more exotic. (I think it had abalone.)
There is very little litter on Singapore, certainly as contrasted with Vietnam, but there is some in spite of heavy fines. (We also apparently broke the law by importing chewing gum, although I had read that it was allowed for personal use.)
Our main stop for the day was the new Asian Civilisations Museum I. Asian Civilisations Museum II is scheduled to open in 2002, though it has been delayed already from 2,000. Asian Civilisations Museum I covers Perakanan culture and China; Asian Civilisations Museum II will cover the rest of Asia. (That seems a bit skimpy.)
We took a docent tour with Elizabeth Johnson, a Briton who seems to have lived all over the world, including New Jersey (Princeton) and Toronto.
The introductory room covered the various dynasties for which my notes are as follows:
Obviously "Republic" is descriptive rather than a dynasty. I'm not sure how one would label the current rule.
Johnson pointed out that not every statue in a Buddhist temple is a Buddha. Many, particularly the female ones, represent Bodhisatvas--people who have achieved enlightenment but have chosen to remain in this world to help other achieve it as well. (There is clearly something Christ-like in this notion.) One of the most popular is Guanyin, who is similar to the Virgin Mary in that she represents mercy and people pray to her for assistance. in times of trouble.
We found out that celadon was named for a character in a French play who always wore green, and that Ming blue-and-white ware inspired Delft and Wedgewood.
The main exhibit in this museum seemed to be about the Perakanans (pe-RAK-a-nans). The Perakanans were the descendents of Chinese traders and merchants who married Malay women. It used to be called "Baba Chinese" because the men were called "babas" (and the women "nonyas"), but this term has apparently passed from favor. The resulting culture had aspects of both, although in many cases it held to Chinese customs even stronger than the Chinese did. Its belief system (Johnson preferred that term rather than religion) was an amalgam of Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and Malay religions. There were a lot of examples of Perakanan embroidery and beadwork, as well as many examples of cases with the implements for chewing betel nuts, all these being important parts of Perakanan culture.
The other main exhibit was on calligraphy. One interesting exhibit was a set of storage cases for the twenty-four histories which stack to form a rectangular cabinet. What is interesting is that the cases are not all the same size, but rather different size and shape rectangles which fit together to form another rectangle only one way.
There are apparently five different scripts for Chinese writing: seal, clerical, cursive, regular, running.
In Vietnam the museums had no elevators. In Singapore not only do they have elevators, but the elevators talk, telling you what floor you are on, when the doors are closing, and so on. There are also water fountains with drinkable water. Even the tap water is drinkable. And everything is air-conditioned.
After the museum we stopped in the main store of MPH, a local bookstore chain. Judging by their "flagship" store, they're about on a level with Waldenbooks, but with more emphasis on business and computers. Books seem to be more expensive here, mostly because they are almost all imported from either the United States or Britain. All the books have an "MDC" sticker on them--I assume this means they have been passed by the censor.
Stores here all have plastic sleeves at the entrances for wet umbrellas.
Since we still had time left, we went to the Singapore History Museum a couple of blocks away. The docent tour was not as good here, partly because every place she wanted to take us were hordes of schoolchildren.
There was a set of dioramas about the establishment of Singapore, a Perakanan House display, a display on secret societies and gangs, a display on Hainan culture, a jade collection, "From Colony to Nation," and "Propaganda in the Pacific War." The Perakanan House display somewhat duplicated the other museum. One reason the Asian Civilisations Museums are being built is that the Singapore History Museum has far more items than it can display.
The propaganda exhibit was very interesting in that it showed propaganda from both sides. It even had some Japanese film clips (which they showed with a soundtrack of music from Schindler's List and The Shawshank Redemption!).
"From Colony to Nation" outlined the history of that period (1945-1965). Singapore was initially excluded from Malaysia because of concerns by Malays that the Singaporean Chinese would have too much power. Singapore was concerned that she couldn't survive on her own, and eventually in 1963 Malaysia united with Singapore, Sarawak, and Saba. But Malaysia had always shown official preferences for Malays ("Malaysia for the Malays") and Singapore refused to go along with this ("Malaysia for the Malaysians"). So after two years Singapore was rather unceremoniously kicked out. Now, of course, Singapore is doing very well indeed, and Malaysia is going through all sorts of crises.
For dinner we wanted to try Fatty's Eating Place, recommended by the Lonely Planet. It claimed it was in the Albert Complex. This is not the same as the Albert Centre right across the way, but after searching both, we still couldn't find it. Finally we asked someone, and it was now in Burlington Place, about a block away. Their cards list the new address, but the menus still list the old one, so the move must be relatively recent.
Fatty's is a Cantonese restaurant, and the dishes come in small, medium, and large. We decided to get three small dishes instead of two medium ones, and had chicken in a clay pot (surprisingly spicy), dried baby cuttlefish in some sort of sauce, and sautéed green vegetables with garlic. Because the cuttlefish was dried and the sauce a bit sweet, it tasted almost candied. This came to S$33.58 including tax and service charge, or about US$19.25. Clearly Singapore prices are higher than Vietnam. (The hotel was S$102 per night, or about US$60).
Movies in Singapore are the same movies we have back home, and we've seen almost all of them. The malls have CD/VCD/DVD stores with a wider selection. There are a lot of VCDs (video compact disks), a format that caught on in Asia but never seemed to take off in the United States. They are much cheaper than DVDs and there seem to be a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies released on them. Now with the popularity of DVDs, though, I suspect the format may be doomed.
The DVDs here are primarily Region 1, with the notable exception of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, available as Region 3. I assume that most people have "regionless" or switchable players. Singapore is Region 3, but since a lot more of the popular movies are released first (or only) in Region 1 (United States and Canada), people in other regions often modify their players to play them. I don't know how they handle the NTSC/PAL decoding.
Then a sherbet at Swensen's and back to the hotel.
March 23: We tried a different place for breakfast and had congee (not as good as in Australia, I have to say) and a couple of pieces of dim sum.
Today was our day to do the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. These are actually quite a ways from Singapore City. Most people think of Singapore as just the city, but there is actually a lot of island that isn't city, or is considered different towns or areas. We took the MRT (subway) from Orchard Road seven stops to Ang Mo Kio, then caught the 138 bus to the zoo. The zoo is almost a half hour by bus away from the Ang Mo Kio station. Mass transit here is very cheap, S$1.20 each for the MRT and S$1.30 each for the bus, or about US$1.50 for the entire trip.
There are a variety of options for tickets: Zoo, Night Safari, Zoo plus Night Safari, Zoo plus Night Safari plus tram, etc. We got the Zoo plus Night Safari plus tram, since the tram is the best way to see most of the Night Safari. The combination tickets were S$28.20 each (about US$16).
They make a big thing about how the Singapore Zoo is built using the open plan, with moats and natural barriers instead of cages. It is marginally better, but the animals still don't have very much space to move around in. All the major zoo animals are there, as well as some rarer ones from Southeast Asia or the surrounding area (like Indian rhinoceroses). There is an elephant show. They have signs warning you that the front rows may get wet, but in fact the elephants spray harder than that and you need to be well back if you have a camera or other items you don't want drenched.
They also have something we didn't do, "Breakfast with the Orangs" (or "Tea with the Orangs" in the afternoon). For this you sit down at a table with orangutans and have a meal.
I am not going to describe the zoo in detail--it wasn't that different from a lot of other zoos.
The Zoo closes at 18:00. The Night Safari, right next to it, starts at 19:30. There are a couple of restaurants where you can get something to eat before the Night Safari opens, so we had roast duck with mei fun noodles and a couple of sodas. You don't have to do both the Zoo and the Night Safari on the same day--the combination ticket is good for six months--but if you're a tourist, it's probably best.
As proof that Singapore expects people to use its mass transit, there is a big sign posted near the entrance that tells you what the latest bus is, and what the latest bus is that will let you catch the last subway (23:00). (New York is the only city I know that runs its subways twenty-four hours a day, and New Yorkers are often taken by surprise to discover that there is such a thing as the last subway and that they have just missed it.)
The Night Safari was designed to let people see animals that are primarily nocturnal, since during the day, they would probably be sleeping behind a rock or in the bushes. Obviously some light is needed, but they seem to have tried to keep the level at what it would be with a full moon and a cloudless sky. The tram goes around most of the park while a guide at the front gives commentary over the speaker system and tells people where to look to see the animals. There are also three trails that you can walk along at your own speed and see many of the same animals and some others.
We took one of the first trams and this was good, because after about an hour or so, the park really filled up and though they asked everyone to be quiet so as not to startle the animals, this was advice not really followed. The description makes it sound as though it will be a quiet moonlit walk watching the animals in peaceful surroundings, but the reality is that the noise level is still pretty high.
We finished about 22:00, in plenty of time to catch the bus and MRT back.
March 24: Up until now the weather had been in our favor. Today, however, things changed. At 6:00 there was a clap of thunder to wake the dead. Mark slept through it.
We finished packing, and checked out, leaving our luggage until this evening when our flight is. When we went out around 10:00 it was still raining, and we decided to change our plans. We had planned on doing a walking tour of Chinatown, but we had done something similar last time and it seemed too much like what we had been doing in Vietnam. So we decided to do what Singaporeans do--we went to the malls.
We started with Raffles City, then CityWalk which connects Raffles City with Suntec City. We browsed. We stopped for a smoothie and a latte. In Suntec City, we went to the San Bookshop. Mall bookstores in the United States are new books only, but in Singapore the climate has driven almost all the shops into malls, and San carries new and second-hand books for sale or rental. Books are arranged in categories and within a category alphabetically by the author's first name (and from right to left). This must be related to how with Asian names the family name comes first. Books have two prices marked--they sell for the upper and will be repurchased within two months for the lower (that's the "rental" part). Each time they get re-sold, the price goes down, so it pays to check the prices of all their copies. It has a lot of books from the United States, particularly in the science fiction section, but also British books unavailable in the United States. And it's cash only--no credit cards. Luckily, I had just hit the ATM, because we managed to find five books here that are unavailable (or very hard to find) in the United States.
After this we had lunch at a sushi restaurant. Mark had uni (relatively cheap here) and we also had lobster salad sushi, something one doesn't see back home. Then, tired of shopping, we checked out the cinemas in the last mall we were in and discovered they were showing Snatch, a movie we actually had some interest in seeing. So we decided that made as much sense as anything.
After the movie we walked back to the hotel, got something to drink (it's very hot and you need to replensih fluids a lot), then picked up our luggage. We stood outside trying to flag down a taxi without much success and were just about to go inside to call one when a taxi pulled up to drop off people from the airport. So we grabbed that one and headed back to Changi.
The fourteen-four flight to Amsterdam was the flight from hell, with two babies doing tag-team crying the entire time. (Could one make an argument that taking a baby on a trip that will cause it to cry for fourteen hours is a form of child abuse? And of course, for the rest of us listening to the rattle they were using to try to distract the baby wasn't actually much of an improvement over listening to the baby.) The eight-hour flight to Newark was marginally better--one crying baby that didn't cry constantly.
March 25: Since we had no checked luggage, we were the first ones from our flight out of the Customs area in Newark. And as one final ground transportation "gotcha," they had put up all sorts of construction barriers in the lot where we parked, and I kept ending up at a dead end when I tried to get to the exit. I finally saw a construction worker, drove over, rolled down my window, and asked in a plaintive voice, "How do I get out of here?"
Expenses were as follows:
Film & Developing
Vietnam (17 days):
(per diem $55.19)
Singapore (3 days):
(per diem $134.53)
(The Netherlands amount is for two boxed CD sets in the airport during the return stopover.)
As you can see, my concerns over having enough cash in Vietnam were ill-founded. We had brought enough to cover the expenses of a first-world trip with plenty to spare. If you are the sort who buys a lot of souvenirs, you will need more.
On the other hand, we did buy more books than many would. Several co-workers were taken aback when I said that during a three-week trip to England I had restrained myself and bought only thirty books. Here (in Vietnam and Singapore), we bought thirty-one, several in a language we don't even read.
We haven't decided where to go next, but so far Germany and Guatemala are short-listed. (This doesn't mean much. Last year I asked Mark where he would like to go in Hawai'i and after an hour on the Web he turned to me and said, "Ireland.") My one requirement is that it not take thirty hours to get there.
Evelyn C. Leeper (firstname.lastname@example.org)