Vietnam - set 1, with captions by Fish
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Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,
Good morning from a misty, cloudy, wet but vibrant Sapa. It's my last day here of three and tonight I head back to my entry point into Vietnam, Hanoi city, where I'll be taking in the New Year.
I arrived there on Christmas day after leaving Scotland on the 24th. I'd hoped to avoid the entire commercialised aspect of Christmas but the 6 foot Santa in hotel reception and the endless renditions of "Jingle Bells" on the in house system declared there was no escape. The long drive from the airport got me to the hotel around 9.30 pm and by the time I'd unpacked, showered and got my nerve up to venture into the streets it was 11 and everything was closing. I walked a couple of blocks in the dimly lit back streets and then decided to let it go and get an early night and sortie out in the morning.
I had a day on my own until I would catch the night train to the north west provinces at 9 that evening. A small breakfast in the hotel at 8am and then the excursion into the frantic bustling rush hour of Hanoi city. Crossing the road was the first trial as even though there were zebra crossings no one took any notice. I found the trick was to wait on a slight gap in the traffic which mostly consisted of scooters and mopeds and then launch yourself across to the other side, moving relatively slowly to give the riders a chance to avoid you. You have to keep your eyes open all the time, checking both ways as sometimes the bikes would cut corners against the traffic. It was more a dance movement than a road crossing manoeuvre.
I headed toward Hoan Kiem, "the lake of the restored sword" where an Arthurian like legend had occurred to a bygone warrior who had fought the Chinese in centuries gone by. Not a beautiful damsel as the provider of the said sword but rather a giant turtle. The cynic in me did question the biological fact that a turtle would have a pretty hard time handing over a weapon with its flippers! It didn't look like there are many turtles left in the murky waters!
The area around the lake was used by locals to practise their exercises and Tai Chi moves so the stroll had a certain surreal dimension. I was heading for the old quarter as first on the "to do" list was a bowl of Pho (a noodle soup famous in the city).
I threaded my way through the myriad of streets crammed with shops of every description offering all sorts of wares from incredible pieces of copied artwork and breathtaking acrylic paintings to meat and fish products being carved up in the gutters, fields of vegetables, racks of pirate clothing, ironmongery, electrical goods, incense and candles - you name it, you could buy it here. I was travelling light so the last thing I needed on my first day in country was a consuming exercise. I found a restaurant and managed to order my Pho as I watched the world go by.
Another hour or so wandering aimlessly and I decided to head for Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in the west of the city. Hailing a cyclo (a Pedi cab) I hit aim no. 2 in the "to do" list and was pedalled in the now drizzling rain through the streets to the ominous concrete edifice of Ho's tomb. As luck would have it the mausoleum had just closed and I was left in the rain with no real plan.
I was approached not for the first time with an offer from one of the motorbike taxis. I've never been a motor bike person never mind a scooter kind of guy but threw caution to the wind and jumped on the back to be taken on an exhilarating ride to the Temple of Literature, about 15 minutes away. It was now feeling like an adventure!
I hired the scooter for a few hours and he waited till I'd sated my explorer fancy and partaken of a bunch of Nikon moments in a temple which, as you'd expect, catered solidly for the swelling tourist hordes braving the drizzle in search of cerebral fulfilment.
Lunch in a nearby restaurant, Kotos, which supported homeless and deprived street kids. A bit more expensive than the local fare but I figured I needed to back up my karma.
Back to my hired pilot Gian and his moped and off to the army museum which as you'd expect had a slightly biased slant on recent history! I'd been reading "A Bright Shining Lie" by Neil Sheehan since I left Scotland and was coming to grips again with the political and military turmoil in South East Asia. The French war was well covered and the exhibits especially the Dien Bien Phu film show and scale model were enlightening. Had my photo taken by a Huey helicopter, another "must"! The American war was also well documented and covered and the similarities to Iraq were creepy to say the least. The bombing of Hanoi was a dark echo.
Another scoot across town to Ho Chi Minh's museum. A totally surreal experience. Hard to describe in this blog but it was fascinating to discover the rise of this nation and in particular the icon who was Ho, someone I had come to greatly admire over the years. An accidental communist and fervent nationalist his life is well documented here although I was lost in the French and Vietnamese letters and diaries that followed his life from his experiences in Paris after World war 1 through the French war and into the American war and to his death. The art installations were provoking and proud.
Finally a last ride clinging to the back of a motorbike and the hotel to pack for the trip to Lao Cai on the evening train.
Hanoi station is like something out of the '40s. You reach the trains by walking over the rails and the foot high concrete platforms in the near dark. I had a sleeper cabin to myself and settled down for the journey. Rolling out of Hanoi and watching the hordes of motor cyclists gathered at crossing points on the track as if in worship of the train before the immense bridge across the Red River and the darkness pushed home the reality of where I was.
I arrived in Lao Cai at 5am and was met by Kung, my guide for the next three days. A welcome Vietnamese coffee at a nearby cafe zipped me up and we headed for the hill town of Sapa in the mist and fog I'd become more than accustomed to. We hit the mountains in a battered Toyota Landcruiser that had a top speed of about 30 miles an hour. Just as well as the oncoming motor bikes rarely had lights and fired out the fog with frightening alacrity. It was a hairy ride up the mountain with visibility only a few metres.
The journey took so long we missed the stop planned on the itinerary at a big local market and to cap it all we broke down a couple of miles short of our destination. The Toyota was well and truly knackered. We would have been quicker on horseback. I didn't really care.
Sapa was shrouded in mist and the view from my hotel room toward the highest peak in Vietnam - Fansipan, just over 3000 metres - was lost in the grey. I still haven't seen the mountain!
A quick breakfast and then off. Well not quite! The Landcruiser showed up again and after 5 mins it broke down. I refused politely to travel in it and Kung organised a van to take us over the mountains via Heaven's Gate into Lai Chau province. The Polish roads were motorways by comparison. Kilometre after kilometre of muddy track all being repaired by hand by squadrons of workmen who lived with their families in sheds covered with blue plastic sheeting. The wives cooked while the men worked, breaking up hardcore with hammers and laying the surface with picks and shovels. It looked a soul destroying occupation. The only plant I saw were mostly ancient rusting diggers and occasional rolling machines, no graders or other technology. Not a single plastic cone and the route marked out with pieces of bamboo cane. I saw one theodolite on the entire journey. Just endless mud and pot holes while we avoided oncoming traffic that drove on whatever side of the road was easiest. And of course swarms of motorbikes laden dangerously with all kinds of produce vying for space as trucks and vans and the occasional 4x4 crawled along the dirt track with perilous drops awaiting the unwary. God knows what it was like in the snow. Kung told me a bus had gone off last year killing 34 people. Breaking out on the other side was a revelation. The mist cleared and we were in another world of bright sunshine.
We dropped into the valley and headed to a village where we disembarked from the van and walked through the stilt houses and paddy fields gathering crowds as I'd decided to wear my kilt while visiting the ethnic tribes. It was truly another world. The kids were running after us as we threaded our way through a village that was so remote and poor it made me wonder how they survived. But everywhere there were smiles and we were invited in to see how they lived. It took my breath away. Above the area where the water buffalo were stabled and the pigs and fowl lived, the sleeping and living area was so simple. A shrine, an ancient Singer sewing machine, bag after bag of rice and foodstuffs and a TV! The kitchen consisted of a fire in a grate and an array of pots and pans with the toilet and washing area a large basin in a tiny room separated from the rest of the space by a plastic curtain. The sleeping areas were boxes off the main room again divided by curtains. I was in awe and had nothing but total respect for these people.
The two of us left the village and headed into the countryside and through the endless paddy fields that supported the community. Soon we were off path and walking along the narrow dykes that patterned the entire valley. For Kung it was easy. Five foot eight or so, light footed and nimble. For a near six and a half foot Scotsman and well over a hundred pounds and a bit it was a different experience. The balancing act was comical and I was fortunate to have only slipped into the clay muck only once. I imagined what it would have been like for a French infantryman carrying 40 pounds plus weapons on patrol in the '50s.
Strafed by brilliant yellow and white butterflies as we traversed our way across the valley floor to the meeting point, I was reminded by Kung of the danger of local snakes. I couldn't imagine him carrying me if I had the misfortune to stumble upon one that hadn't made its escape in time on feeling the vibrations from my thumping boots and Kung's endless happy singing in high register. It turned out he was a Ronan Keating fan and I had to stop him a couple of times. Viet Minh marching songs were acceptable but Irish sugar pop ballads were a no no! I'd already given him the name of the "Paddy Elf"!
When we reached the hamlet across the paddy fields we had a climb up a steep path to the road. Kung it appeared had an aversion to dogs and we were met by a gathering pack of mangy curs all guarding their domain. I got thinking about the anti rabies shots I hadn't been able to get between the tour and leaving and was having that horrible premonition that comes under the marker of "Murphy's law". Kung was winding the dogs up and when a particularly nasty bastard devil dog with scarlet eyes and snarling fangs took great exception to his stone throwing and switch flailing I knew we could be in real trouble. We nervously kept walking as the pack surrounded us and faced them off. Reaching the road was a relief. We had been walking for nearly two hours.
We stopped off at a local restaurant which was more of a converted garage. Lunch was water buffalo, fried bamboo shoots and finger fish in tomato sauce. I avoided the cold boiled chicken. Refrigeration was non existent and I was not ready for a profound toilet experience. I welcomed the local hooch though. Home made rice wine otherwise know as "Happy water".
For me, a hardened veteran of worldwide alcoholic drinks, it was a tickle, much to the disappointment of the locals in the restaurant.
After our break it was back to Sapa and the gruelling drive over the mountains, the highest route in Vietnam with accompanying stunning views. That was until we got to the eastern ridges and the all pervading mist.
A local meal and a wander through the misty town which had a distinctly Ridley Scott "Bladerunner" feel to it as there were a number of ethnic tribes that were purveying wares on a constant basis. It was colourful and exotic but always friendly. You weren't hassled and a polite "no thank you" meant a disengagement of salesmanship. Nowhere like the aggressive Egyptian haranguing I had come to loathe on my visit to that particular country.
The local BBQ tent was an eye opener. Everything that flew, crawled or walked on a stick was available it seemed. Sparrows, doves, dog and the usual chicken, duck, pork. water buffalo etc and the one that really did my head in - duck embryos in their shells roasted on a brazier. Sorry but I'm not that brave! Walk away!
And the crowning glory of the night was a visit to the Pink Floyd bar! Run by a Mr Bang this establishment was bizarre to say the least. Kung knew the owner so we headed down the misty side street as the strains of "The Wall" got louder as we approached the bar. A brazier was burning outside what looked like someone's front room with a dining table and chairs and the obligatory Christmas tree that was present in every establishment in town. It turned out they only had one DVD and that was ironically of Roger Waters performing The Wall in Berlin in the early '90s. That and some dodgy MP3s of Dark Side was the only connection. Mr Bang was "the" rock guitarist in the province and had been told about the Floyd by some passing Australian tourists. He had been sent the DVD and thus fell in love with the band and named his bar. There were only the three of us that night not counting the two smiling bar staff. It was a fabulous experience topped by Mr Bang offering me a shot of snake wine. It had been hard not to notice the demi johns of rice wine in the corner of the bar each containing at least nine species of local snakes embalmed for posterity including a menacing looking cobra arranged with fangs displayed! How could I say no! A musty taste I found it hard to believe that it increased virility.
The three of us partied round the charcoal fire inside his living room until I sauntered soberly into the mist and the hotel. Tomorrow was going to be a demanding trek into Sapa valley and a six mile plus hike.
I was up early for my muesli, fruit and Pho before setting off at 9 for a short bus drive to the head of the valley and the hike down to the river and beyond. We met and passed a number of colourful and varied ethnic tribes people all offering bangles, bows, blankets and shirts. How do you haggle with an eight year old?
We traversed the valley floor, crossing rickety bridges and hiking along meandering pathways through clusters of houses and makeshift huts surrounded by paddy fields all belonging to different ethnic minorities. It was a fantastic experience, Kung singing his diverse range of walking songs minus Ronan Keating and conversation savaged by expletives he had been learning from me. I'd even taught him to empty his nose Scottish fashion using his thumb although genetic differences made it a bit awkward and messy sometimes.
It was demanding and the first time I had seriously hiked since Duke of Edinburgh award days at Dalkeith High School in the '70s.
I was aching when we finally exited the bamboo forest and made a precarious descent down to the valley again by the side of a 300 metre plus high waterfall. It was exhilarating and the best day I can remember having for ages. Close to 5 hours of hiking up and down the mountain slopes and more balancing acts in paddy fields with lunch in a local tribal family hut finished off with Tiger beers in a makeshift bar by a rope bridge. Perfect!
Back to the hotel and a massage after a soak in the hot tub. I was feeling fitter than I had done for years. The holiday was kicking in.
After another local meal it was back to the Floyd bar. I met up with an Ossie and a Dutch guy who had lived on and off in Vietnam for the last 10 years. We talked about music and the changes that had occurred in Vietnam in their time here. They were shocked at the speed of the changes especially in the big cities. I was glad I was here now.
I left the bar with a flagging Kung at around midnight as "The Wall" span one more time in the player. Aptly "Comfortably Numb" was the lullaby that escorted me up the seemingly permanently misty streets.
Another hike this time up Ham Rong peak that rose directly behind Sapa. We were both suffering and I introduced Kung to Beroccas. It was a trial and we had to stop more than a few times as we struggled up steep stairways in town and the stone pathways of the mountain in the mist. It was a bit of a let down as the weather was so bad. The drizzle and cloud made views across the valley to Fansipan impossible. The orchid garden was a huge disappointment (the flowers only come out in Spring), the ostrich enclosure (?) was like Edinburgh Zoo ("too cold, they all asleep inside!"), the gardens miserable and the physical activity the only plus.
Back into town and we headed for the colourful glory and mystery of the market. The produce on offer was incredible but my stomach did a cartwheel when I saw a woman hacking flesh from a dog's skull. A delicacy heralded above pork, chicken or duck and as you'd not expect more expensive. The place thrived with ethnic costumes and my Nikon was on fire. We had Pho at a stall and got talking with some tribal women. The Thai group wore a kind of tartan and we discussed through Kung the similarities between the kilt that I'd got used to wearing every day while trekking, and their head dresses. We drank corn wine with the locals and I handed over a bunch of Beroccas to a father whose young son was suffering from a hellish cold. No surprise in the damp cold conditions that seemed the norm in Sapa. Despite all the hardships and poverty you engaged nothing but smiles.
That afternoon I headed back to the hotel for a nap that turned into 18 hours of sleep. I hadn't realised just how tired and stressed out I was.
And that brings me to today.
The usual breakfast and email download over zappy coffee and Camels before a wander in the streets. It was time to get out of Sapa and move East to Hanoi and beyond. I've had enough of the mist and cloud. Kung invited me to lunch with his wife and 3 month year old in their single room apartment. A truly humbling and wonderful experience. I am filled with admiration for them and in all honesty am jealous in some ways. This trip is more than I could have imagined. Last night I made a decision. This may be a long blog but the experiences I am undergoing could never be expressed in these postcards from abroad. These are just route markers on a map that I need to paint in a lot more detail in another form.
I wrote this on battery power as I sat through a power cut in my last afternoon in North west Vietnam whiling away the hours in a damp bar. My carriage awaits. The train leaves for Hanoi in a few hours and I have to cross the mountain again in the mist to get to Lao Cai.
By the time you get this it will probably be 2008.
A gloriously happy new year to all of you, I'll write again soon!
Onkel Fish xx