Crazy crazy crazy!
14.08.2012 - 12.09.2012
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh was OVERFLOWING with motorcycles! Before we even stepped off the bus that drove us to our first Vietnamese city we couldn't keep our faces off the windows. The wide streets seemed like a net of intersecting loud, shiny, colorful, metallic rivers. Two-wheeled vehicles in all directions, honking incessantly, weaving around each other, going the wrong way, getting up on the sidewalk, swerving around people crossing the streets. We loved it already!
Our first minute on Vietnamese grounds readied us for keeping our guards up when a taxi tried to charge us $10 USD to take us literally two blocks from where we were standing. Fortunately we looked at our map before jumping in with him! Soon we were in a very decent budget hotel, excited about our upcoming weeks in this new-to-us land.
We purchased an open bus ticket that would take us at our own pace from Ho Chi Minh all the way to the capital Hanoi, north of the long country. But first we explored a little of the place we were at. We went to the War Museum, a well arranged building displaying original weapons, tanks, bombs and airplanes, as well as horrible photographs and detailed information about the war between North and South Vietnam, the awful role of the United States in it and the after-effects on its people and nature. Nicely enough though, the display ends with a section dedicated to peace and agreement of respect between nations, which does its part of restoring a little of your faith in humanity after having presented the attrocities of which it's capable. We walked out of the museum to be "attacked" by at least five rickshaw drivers offering tours of the city, jumped on to one, had a great time for about eight blocks, got viciously overcharged and decided to start heading out of the city as soon as we could =).
Cat Tien National Park
Our first stop was Cat Tien National Park, where we finally got used to the idea that hard-core bargaining is part of the culture when after trying to lower the price for about five minutes to what we'd heard it was worth, we still got charged more than twice the value of our ride to the entrance. Juan spent long hours walking along the forest trails while I took to reading and going for shorter walks, and he got to see one of the most beautiful monkeys ever: the Gray Shanked Douc! Unfortunately they were really high up in the trees and he wasn't able to get a picture of them =(. The great thing about this park was it was so off the beaten track that the last five miles of the road to it were covered with different harvests spread out to dry on the sun-heated pavement. That left barely a car's width to drive on through there, and it made for a beautiful rural sight.
Mui Ne was lovely with its long road along the beach filled with nice bars and pleasant people there for the windsurf and the night life. We stayed for a few days to enjoy the vibe and visit the surroundings. A must-do in Mui Ne is a tour to the dunes, that spread out for miles around the area! Children run up to you with long sheets of plastic, renting them for forty thousand dong (about two dollars) for you to slide down the sand hills at delightful speeds, but even without indulging in those little thrills, the mere view of the different dunes is beautiful. One has a river running through it, another is known for its bright orange sand, another is bordered by a glistening lake.
A very developed coastal city it reminded us of Cancun or Jaco with its large hotels lined up along the water and cushioned stretchers for rent under thatched palapas on the sand. What we enjoyed the most here was a free little art gallery we came upon by chance. We walked in attracted by the nice tree-shaded areas and what we thought were paintings depicting traditional Vietnamese scenes, but when we took a closer look at one of them we were astounded to discover they were embroidered works of art! The detail, the lighting, the composition, the shadows... they were beautiful! This form of embroidery is typically done with silk threads, and the artists use linear stitches placed one along the other so close together that even from a close distance it's easy to mistake the work for brush strokes. This was one place where we wished we weren't on a backpacker budget so we could bring home some of these gorgeous masterpieces!
This was both Juan's and my favorite town in all Vietnam. It's a World Heritage and easy to tell why. As soon as you walk into the city center the stone streets are shaded by trees, the elegant mix of French colonial, Japanese and mixed Asian architecture bursts with colorful crafts, silk workshops, small art galleries, Vietnamese embroidery, local and international gourmet restaurants and hundreds of tailor shops. Old women in non la (traditional conical hats) carry fruits and sweets in baskets, tourists and locals dress nicely and walk slow or pedal calmly on bicycles. During the day the bright colors of cloth lamps hanging along bridges and in the trees contrast with the sky, and during the night their lights give the narrow streets a feeling of constant celebration. Small drama clubs put up free plays, varied organized groups lead traditional games, and out of different restaurants you hear the friendly chatter of people having a good time.
During our stay here we went on a morning trip to Marble Mountain, which is a tall hill near the beach adorned with temples in its caverns and famous for the astounding quantity of marble found in its vicinity. The streets around Marble Mountain are packed with shop after shop selling marble sculptures of all sizes and themes. Even the waste baskets for the mountain were solid marble! But the vibe here in the mountain, which was really only about thirty minutes away from Hoi An is completely different from the cozy feeling of its near neighbor. We remembered with the over-insisting sales and the loud talking and fast moving people that we were in Vietnam, and soon were on our way back to our little haven.
Best Vietnamese food we had in the whole country! We really wanted to try more traditional food along the way but since we don't speak Vietnamese and few people speak English, we had had a difficult time sometimes trying to figure out what people were offering us (and we weren't too keen on being surprised with stuffed cats or anything of the sort). We read about Lien Hoa and were greatly satisfied with what at the moment seemed like the most delicious fried spring rolls we had ever eaten, along with "interactive" soup served in a large elevated bowl heated by a candle, with fresh varied vegetables on the side to put in gradually as you ate along. We had such a nice meal we returned the next day and largely over-ate to the point of regret. It still tasted great though.
The capital is as busy as it gets, and to cross the street you might as well just close your eyes and cross your fingers. There's no such thing as a functioning street light or stop sign or anything of the sort, and the millions of motorcycles simply ride around you guessing at your walking pace. The best way to cross safely, as a guy we met along the way wisely said, is to "be predictable", so that's what we tried to do. Tuk tuks and vendors go out of their way to follow you and annoy you into buying something from them; in contrast, if you try to ask someone a question and they don't understand you, most people will turn away and wave their hand at you to stop. We got ridiculously overcharged once by a metered taxi that marked more than three times as much as another metered taxi that had taken us earlier on the same route... But believe it or not, all of this is part of what makes Hanoi fun! It's just so different and so demented and chaotic that it works. If anything upset us we would soon laugh it off, and we were able to enjoy some nice attractions, like the ancient Temple of Literature and the unforgettable Water Puppet show.
Juan couldn't resist the temptation and we rented a 250 CC dirt bike which was the center of attention anywhere we stopped. I personally can barely tell the difference between that and a scooter, but what I did notice was everyone's heads turning as we would ride by. We went on a six hour trip up to Ba Be National Park, hoping to see some rural areas and wildlife along the way. The devastating reality is that there is little wildlife left in most of South East Asia -even in what little forest is protected- due to the thriving market for every conceivable wild animal for 'medicinal purposes', and also for just ordinary meals! In any community market and even upscale stores it's common to see snake skins adorning drums, live song birds sold in cages, stuffed civets or deer, jewelry made with boar husks or other animals claws, rare geckos and snakes fermented in bottles of rum... There just isn't anything near to any kind of awareness regarding conservation in the popular culture. So by going to national parks and spending a little on activities in those areas, besides hopefully increasing our chances of seeing some of these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat rather than -well- dead, we hoped we were also contribuiting our little grain of sand to show that nature tourism is worthwhile. Maybe little by little people will start seeing the benefits of conserving their natural treasures.
Ba Be displayed breathtaking views of its lake and the placid life of the countryside. We did manage to see three different species of snakes, which we were very, very excited about, but other than that we left the protected area with more of a cultural experience than with wildlife sightings. Juan walked past a family cooking up a dog for the national holiday (very common in Vietnam), and later we tried some delicious hand made sweets (not dog) packed in bamboo and banana leaves.
Gorgeous cruise among the islands of the brilliant blue Halong Bay. We marveled at the scenery for hours on an old fashioned wooden boat, and loved the break on the white beach to just soak in the salty water after kayaking a while around it. Sadly we were not surprised at the immense variety of wildlife sold in the moving sea markets along the way. Everything from cuttlefish to sea horses to snakes to mantis shrimp to sting rays... Juan and I just wanted to jump in the water and free them all! Again though, it's all a question of culture and not cruelty, but as fast as we can we must do what's in our hands to become aware and share this awarenes with others, before we finish with what little we have left of our fantastic natural heritage.
Our port of exit to Laos! By then all we could think of was our next step crossing to the neighboring country. Already we could sense the calm energy of the following land. Barely any vehicles on the streets, people walking slowly, every single shop closing down completely at noon for a daily nap and opening up again for only a couple hours after. We wandered around the market, had a baguette for dinner, and said our good byes to Vietnam after a good month of exploring its charms!