essay: Vietnam and Angkor Wat 2005

Vietnam and Angkor Wat, July/Aug 2005


Sat 16/7: A long flight on Vietnamese Airlines from Melb to HCMC – late-model plane, generous meals and drinks, but our light and TV console not working; another 1.6 hrs to Hanoi.  Rochi and I picked up by Vidotour guide Lam Ngo, taken to fine old Hoa Binh Hotel in the old quarter. Chaotic traffic and hordes of small motorcycles.  Next day generous breakfast then picked up by Lam and driver and driven 2.5 hrs to Halong Bay, through endless rice paddies with farmers toiling in the heat in their conical hats, side by side with industrial estates and 3-story modern houses, semi-French design, some very grand.  These personal ‘transfers’ were a pleasant and unexpected feature of the holiday – paid for (cheaply) as part of the trip, and full of interest and information from expert guides. Lam very friendly , full of information about Vietnam and the region; economics graduate, fluent in English and Italian, well travelled – had lived in Perugia.  Cheerfully cynical about national politics, corruption etc.  Stopped for an hour for an amazing Trung Nguyen #1 cacao-coffee, then Lam got us through a crowd onto our own motorized junk for an exclusive tour of Halong Bay and one of its great caves; thousands of very beautiful limestone karsts like huge teeth  filling the giant bay and surrounding countryside.  Fabulous seafood lunch on board, then our hostess brought out Halong Bay pearls to sell to us.  Then another 2.5 hrs of ‘dodgem cars’ driving back via the port of Haiphong.  Lam said best months to visit the north are Sept-Nov; cooler, with blue skies. He gave lots of interesting detail eg about the equality of women throughout Vietnam’s history.  We were glad that our driver looked about 40 and experienced; certainly drove combatively, with much use of horn and lights, all over the road and straight through busy pedestrian ‘crossings’.  Driving/riding seems more controlled by individual skill than regulation.  You’d expect to see many more accidents, but the roads are very crowded with scooters and bicycles, and the speed of the traffic necessarily slower than ours; police seem less in view ?more hidden.

Mon 18/7: A big tiring walking day in Hanoi’s summer heat; followed the ‘Lonely Planet trail’ around narrow packed chaotic little streets of the old quarter – along specialized lanes of rope and mats, tin boxes, jewellery, clothing, shoes, hardware; interspersed with produce markets, little pagodas, the old city gate and one enormous covered 3-storey market where I bought sandals.  Had a memorable lunch of Cha Ca, a local specialty of fried spiced fish/noodles/fish sauce/spring onion, and later on some fine ginger icecreams at Fanny’s (French).  Later in the day we struck out on a long walk to the Hanoi Sofitel at the (enormous) West Lake to see the sun setting over Hanoi; sunset clouded and disappointing, but view brilliant.  The walk had taken us past Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, the presidential palace (all vast blocks of heavy communist architecture) and a vast open parade ground just before the lake.  Took a long cheap taxi ride home, knackered, quiet small meal in the Hoa Binh’s French restaurant.

Then another big Hanoi walking day, starting with a long wait exchanging travellers’ cheques in a nearby Vietcombank, and some soothing parkland en route to the lovely 1000 year old ‘Temple of Literature’, then some heroic socialist art at the Museum of Fine Art helped along by noodles and Tiger beer in its nice little café.  After that walked up to Uncle Ho’s mausoleum/museum complex, which had closed (only open in the mornings!), so found another wonderful Trung Nguyen #1, and walked back to the Hoan Kiem lake by the old quarter, then at 6.30 pm the Water Puppet Theatre – very popular Viet marionettes / music.  Walked home to the Hoa Binh then to a nearby upmarket Viet restaurant, ?Phuong Quoc, for a very nice meal.

Wed 20/7:  Before leaving Hanoi we dashed out to the marvelous Museum of Ethnology, c gorgeous hill tribe costumes and other treasures. After advice to the contrary in Lonely Planet, we agonized over tipping Lam; decided on $US10  – a lot in Vietnam – and a letter with our phone number in Aus.  He took us to the airport and saw us on board an easy 1hr flight to Hue where ‘another Lam’, a young woman named Hong, met us and launched into a formal history of the area en route to our Dong Da Hotel.  Walked to the Citadel and the Forbidden Purple City, a huge complex of temples within an enormous brick wall; elephants walking around and the whole massive site ‘mind-blowing’ in its scale, beauty and complexity.  On to the ‘Stop & Go’ café for a dinner of local specialties: rice pancakes, ricepaper/meat/lettuce rolls with peanut sauce, our congenial host with long blond hair,  a blackout and eating by candles.

Next day, another exclusive boat trip with a young Viet woman as our guide and her mum piloting our dragon boat on a wonderful tombs and pagodas voyage  along the Perfume River.  First the beautiful Thien Mu pagoda at the river’s edge, with no entry fee.  There had lived the monk who famously self-immolated in protest against the Diem regime just before the ‘American War’.  The old Austin he used to drive to his place of sacrifice was there on show.  Then a bumpy clinging on for dear life pillion passenger ride to the Khai Dinh tomb complex, about 7k into the hills; the main chamber decorated with fabulous reliefs and mosaics.  On by moto to the tomb of Tu Duc, a vast moated complex of temples and lily-padded lakes. Back to our dragon-boat and on to the next (similar) Minh Mang moated tomb complex – most of these dated from early-mid 19th century – not very old but very grand and beautiful.  These exclusive trips are nice, despite a lot of pressure to buy an array of goods the guide produces once she has you captive on the boat.  Rochi bought a lovely black silk wrap dress / pants for $US15.  Then at each tourist site a gauntlet of vendors, and for any services a tip is expected.  That night another fine Viet meal and 2 large bottles of Tiger Beer (becoming rather fond of it) for the embarrassing sum of $A7.

Fri 22/7:  Picked up by Hong for the 3 hour drive to Hoi An; another friendly but somewhat formal (her English not as fluent as Lam’s but still remarkable) tute with much local info, peppered with words like ‘very famous’, showing national pride perhaps.  Instead of going over the mountains and running another gauntlet of souvenir vendors, we took the new 9k tunnel underneath – a massive, impressive Japanese/Canadian hole about 10m tall. Then through Da Nang – a large, deep harbour ringed by sawtooth mountains, and on to Hoi An through villages of stonemasons selling impressive polished statues of lions, dragons, buddhas etc.  It’s quieter, smaller, more provincial, but we have a very grand 4-star hotel (the Hoi An) with a large pool; and the nearby Central Market sells everything; walked around streets of tailors, shoe shops, clothing shops.  Banana pancake, coconut icecream and a mango shake for lunch, and returned to the pool early for laps, Tiger beer and reading.  Dinner at the Brothers Café, a very swish restaurant overlooking the river in a row of French terraces.  Several very large frogs hopped by and the landscaped pools had big frogs that ‘barked’ as you walked past: “Where’s the dog??”

Next day was quieter, walking the cultural trail, though Hoi An is really one big market with lots of fine old French colonial architecture, ornate meeting halls of various Chinese communities, and scads of tailors.  We did our best (read disinhibited) shopping at night though, after a nice Italian meal with Da Lat wine, then home to our fab hotel where a large garden karaoke concert was in full swing.  Very serious high quality karaoke by good looking young Vietnamese, but my plastic chair collapsed!!  The Hoi An is the biggest hotel in Vietnam, state-run, with expansive beautiful grounds, outdoor bars and dining under huge trees, and a big pool with gracious surrounds.  Early next day looked over a fine old historic home, full of beautiful polished jackfruit wood intricately inlaid with mother of pearl.

Sunday 24/7:  Easy flight from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), its intense traffic reflecting a population of 8-9 million; staying on the top floor of the Saigon Palace Hotel (3 star) in a ‘junior room’ – smaller than the others and no view, but quiet.  Had an orienting walk, practiced survival technique for crossing roads, then a nice cheap Viet meal close to the hotel.  Spent Monday walking to the museums and sights of central Saigon: the Museum of HCMC, the Fine Arts Museum, the Reunification Palace – a beautiful piece of modern art deco with a fine open design, and the grim War Remnants Museum.  More rice, noodles and Tiger beer for lunch, then back to base just in time just in time to see a big storm envelop the city, watching from the 5th floor restaurant.  Found a little pizza restaurant closeby for a nice dinner.  Next day started at the Saigon PO, another fine old building dominated by a large painting of Uncle Ho; then walked to the huge Diamond Plaza department store, and after that the History Museum – large and interesting, a beautiful pagoda style building in the grounds of the zoo – also large, but a bit sad, with depressing rundown little cages, but the elephants were active and relating happily to the crowd, and the reptile house was very good.  Then came the rain, so we caught a taxi to Cholon (Chinese sector, famed for its markets), where we walked around the huge indoor multistoried An Dong market.

Wed 25/7: Off  to Cambodia, for a few days sight-seeing at Angkor Wat.  Slow tedious Saigon airport queues but an easy 45’ flight to Siem Reap where we were met by our very friendly English-fluent guide Sam So and his driver. Sam So like Lam had studied in Italy!  They took us in air-conditioned comfort straight to Angkor  – oh dear, a truly staggering experience, making previous temples seem small and quaint; this 12th century wonder so vast and so detailed in its mile upon mile of finely carved stone.  Some very steep climbs up the steepest steps we’d ever seen – almost vertical – both at Angkor and closeby at another 1100 year old temple atop a hill – with elephants too.  Back to Siem Reap and a fine spacious new hotel, the Day Inn, with large pool and a cheap delicious buffet dinner followed by a night walk into this charming little tourist town.  Then another enthralling day visiting the temples of Angkor with Sam So; lots of monkeys on the road, and it was sad to see the amount of pillaging of the 9th-12th century temples; many statues had been decapitated.  Also a little alarmed by the freedom with which we tourists are allowed to climb all over the ruins – it must hasten their decline.  It was good to see evidence of several international teams at work restoring temples, though the task is huge.  We finished up at a temple that had been partially reclaimed from the jungle, its terraces and walls disrupted by great trees with massive roots, and lots of masonry lying around.  Again, astounded by the incredibly detailed stone carving – countless hectares of fabulous stone relief, floor to ceiling.  We had fine Cambodian meals at local Siem Reap restaurants – little cheap ones and big spacious ones.  Last half day was quietly spent at Siem Reap, waiting for a 5.20 flight back to HCMC; it’s a pleasant small town stuffed with an increasing number of big hotels, as Angkor tourism is Cambodia’s main industry – fortunately for us it was the quiet season.  Clearly it’s a poor country with few natural resources, recovering from the dreadful civil war and Pol Pot’s ‘killing fields’.  Sam So’s family had been well to do, and his father a general; his parents managed to survive by luck and cunning, running a little bicycle repair shop.  Corruption, and theft of land by the rich from the poor continues.  Sam So clearly had strong opinions but was muted in his criticism of the government; his family have learned to keep a low profile.  Easy flight back to HCMC.

Sat 30/7:  Driven 4hrs from Saigon to a last chill-out week at Mui Ne; a slow 2hrs getting out of Saigon traffic, then through rubber and dragon fruit plantations (like cactuses), and over rivers crammed with colourful fishing boats as we reached Phan Thiet near Mui Ne.  Our “Blue Ocean” resort looks very nice, with thatch-roofed terraces around a big pool.  Big Viet lunch and small Italian dinner at the local ‘Good Morning Vietnam’.  Relaxed beach days and despite our resort’s name the South China Sea surf is yellow and warm, with lots of spume; the colour a little off-putting but caused by tiny pieces of macerated kelp and suspended small brown globules of jelly which feel strange around your body – like sago – as you swim.  The water seems saltier than in Oz.  Nice beach walks past wall to wall resorts.  Very fine Viet bbq at the Hot Rock restaurant across the road – washed down with Tiger beer of course. We rode a motor bike to the local village and the big sand dunes – a local feature.  The scooter was very dodgy with burnt out clutch, almost no brakes and malfunctioning ignition lock, so we drove quietly there and back.  Our room had a lovely garden setting near the pool, with a verandah for end-of –day Viet gin and mango juice.  The resorts restaurant overlooks the beach, great for lunches of toasted club sandwiches and fresh pineapple juice. Beach walks pass traditional fishing boats like round baskets, with bigger curved ‘lakatoys’ and fishermen mending their nets.  Breakfasts are uniformly generous and gorgeous in both Vietnam and Cambodia – not only cereals, fruit and fine breads, jam and cakes, but many cooked choices, salads etc – clearly brekkie is a big meal here.  On another day we took ‘motor bike taxi’ rides to Phan Thiet (about 12k for $4 return) – quite a big town – and had a few hours walking around taking pics of the crowds and Viet houses, and a little shopping.  Then the same cheerful motorbikers met us and returned us to Blue Ocean (Bien Xanh) resort for another peaceful afternoon of reading and swimming (reading Robert Templar’s ‘Shadows and Wind’ – interesting and detailed insights on modern Vietnam), then vodka and peach nectar and a last dinner on the beach at the resort restaurant – it has been perfect weather for a whole idyllic week.  A final interesting drive to Saigon Airport on 5/8 with an expert and careful driver in a new AWD, past many big RC churches, then the crowded traffic of vast sprawling HCMC. Smooth but exhausting all-night flight to Melbourne; we didn’t sleep at all, and back to a cold snap, with mountain snowfalls over the next week!



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