Hoi An to Ho Chi Minh City

15 04 2012

Our friendly bus drivers got us to Da Nang in good time for our train which was about half an hour late in arriving and the journey passed without incident. I spent the night on the top of three bunks with little or no head room but managed to catch up on my diary despite the pencil bouncing over the page as we trundled over the tracks. I even succeeded in sleeping for short bursts until my hips hurt as they dug into the wooden bunk through the thin mattress and I was forced to turn over. I had added extra cushioning in the form of my inflatable sleep mat which, I am sure, gave me at least a few minutes of extra sleep as I definitely slept better than I had on the outward journey without it (or maybe I was just extra tired!?).

We had been advised not to use one of the taxi companies by our in-country agent, Kwah and we were not entirely sure how far it was from the railway station to our hotel and so how much we should expect to pay, so there was always going to be a an element of “winging it” when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City. I think we were also a little bit blase and definitely rather sleepy and most of the group were happy to just follow a leader and go with the flow.  We had managed to find a couple of minibuses quite easily in Da Nang to take us where we wanted and we were probably guilty of thinking that a friendly and trustworthy bus driver would present himself here as well.  This was not to be the case and the next half an hour proved to be quite stressful and not a few impatient and tetchy words were exchanged between team members and us.  I put my hand up here as a guilty party – anxious not to take over but probably overestimating the capacities of a very tired group of young people, I tried to push them to make decisions and for somebody to step forward and take the responsibility of organising the transport.  In retrospect, this was definitely one of the elements of transport that it would have been good to have planned in advance.  Nevertheless, eventually, once the concourse had emptied of all the other travellers and the initial clamour of taxi drivers trying to take our bags and shove us into taxis had gone, a group of the students did step forwards and phoned a taxi company and we managed to get 4 taxis together to take us to our hotel.  We paid well over the odds – another lesson learned, but we all arrived safely despite some confusion about who was in which taxi!

The hotel was a tall and narrow building in a busy street, our rooms were spread out over 4 floors, no lift and a narrow staircases up which we had to negotiate our luggage, but the rooms were clean and the showers were exceedingly welcome!  Half an hour to settle in and then a meeting to decide what to do for the short time we had in this giant of a city.  A few of the team were keen to go out to the local markets and have a smooch around, take in the atmosphere and generally experience the hum of the big city. The rest of the team was happy to relax in their rooms, have leisurely showers and watch the TV!  The food team still had to recce a place for tea and so a meeting time was set, warnings about what to do in the city were given, we checked that they all had a means of contacting us and then they were off.  Howie and I had a welcome coffee down the street and had a catch up about how the next 24 hours was going to pan out before having a little wander around ourselves.

We invited Kwah and his family to eat with us as we had to return the train tickets to them and check up on some details about getting to the airport.  The “food group” had identified the restaurant next door to the hotel as a possibility and that is where we ate.  It was a little disappointing on the last night to not venture a little further afield and find a more traditional restaurant but I really think that the team were ready to go home and adventure was the last thing they wanted!

There was some discussion about what we should do on our very last morning.  We had to be out of the hotel by 12.00, taxis had been arranged to pick us up at 12.30pm to get us to the airport in good time – the last thing we wanted to do was miss the plane home!  It was clear that a few of the team would have been happy to hang around the hotel until the taxis arrived, but the majority were keen to make the most of their last few hours in South East Asia.  Some wanted to see temples, others the markets but most wanted to find out more about the dreadful recent history of Vietnam.  So, we headed to the War Remnants Museum which tells the story of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective.  Once again we underestimated the time it would take us to walk to a place but it was a lovely day and it was fascinating being out in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.  We struggled to find somewhere that sold bread to buy for our breakfast but eventually managed to assemble enough loaves from the roadside sellers for everyone to have one.  By now, we were pretty confident about crossing roads, and there were even traffic lights that the motorists and bikers took some notice of that provided brief respite from the moving traffic and allowed us to cross the road without having to dodge between oncoming bikes and cars! What we were not prepared for were the hoards of  motor cyclists who bypassed the traffic lights and hopped  on to the pavement to steal a few extra minutes from their journey time! Negotiating a wall of motorbikes coming towards you and trying to keep an eye on our 14 charges caused us some anxiety but we all came out unscathed, thankfully.

We only had an hour and a half in the museum to ensure that we had enough time to get back and to get ourselves some lunch, but for most of us it was enough.  The images of civilians and soldiers being killed, the photos of the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons, the propaganda reports in the newspapers and the first-hand stories of both Vietnamese and American soldiers were graphic and shocking and left little to the imagination.  For Howie and me who had some memories of seeing TV reports and hearing about the Vietnam War through documentaries and films, it was disturbing enough, for the youngsters in our charge, the majority of whom had barely even heard of the Vietnam War before planning to go on this expedition, the material they saw was mind-numbing.  They were shell-shocked.  Some of them came to talk to us to ask for some explanations, others could only take so much of the images and went to sit outside.  I don’t think any of them were unaffected by what they saw even if they were not particularly interested in history and the military. It would be interesting to know how many of them talk about it to their parents and friends, maybe it will take some time before they feel ready to talk about what they saw, and maybe they never will but I am sure that those images will live with them for ever and some time in the future they will reflect on them and they will somehow put some perspective on them.  I started off taking photos of some of the images but after a while I stopped – it somehow seemed rather voyeuristic and I realised that I didn’t need physical images to help me remember what I saw and read in the short time we were there.  I intend to take some time to read more about that history now that I have been in Vietnam and amongst the Vietnamese people who were all kind, generous and friendly wherever we went.

The next 24 hours happened – we made it to the airport safely and far too early but Howie and I were happier that it was early rather than late!  The team passed the time in the airport playing the by now obligatory card game that Vu and his friends had taught them in the Vietnamese stilt village and it was soon time to board and take the final leg of our journey back home.

A group of 14 very tired, but very happy students and 2 very tired and very relieved leaders arrived back in Auckland to a welcoming party of parents and relatives in Auckland after an adventure in two countries, seven cities and lots of travelling with new found friends that was full of memories they would remember for a long time to come.


January 2nd 2012: Cycling in Hoi An

14 02 2012

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Bike Ride – in the rain! It was a great day and good to get out and away from the shops and noise and bustle of town.  It was my first opportunity since Yok Don.  It was very wet, at least to start off with, and after an early breakfast at Bobo’s we arrived at “Love for Life” Cycle Tours where Vinh was waiting for us.  Our bikes were all ready – Built-for-comfort seats, single gears with a large basket on the front complete with bottle of water and rain capes of various pastel colours!  We had a few moments sorting out the bikes, making sure the seat heights were correct and laughing at how ridiculous we looked in the capes before setting off!  It was pretty unnerving, to start off with, cycling through the streets with motorbikes zipping in front of us, and more alarmingly coming towards us, cars tooting at us to move over and trying to avoid the pedestrians who were walking on the road because the footpaths were blocked with motorbikes!  We made our way nervously to our first stop; a pagoda which Vinh says is less beautiful now because of the recent floods. I think the floods have washed a lot of rubbish into the courtyards, lakes and ponds and there has not yet been an efficient clean-up operation, if indeed, there ever will be.  However, the splendour of the temple is still there; the mosaics and tiling are beautiful and Vinh told us some of the cultural and historical background.  This was a temple dedicated to Confucius and his philosophy is based on four facets of learning which he believed formed the basis for being a good, well-balanced person; Music, Painting, Chess and Poetry.   All children learn to play a musical instrument or sing.  Confucius says that this gives people an understanding of beauty, rhythm and balance as well as exercising the brain and coordination.  Chess enables people to learn strategies that will help them to plan their lives and be successful. Painting develops coordination and an appreciation of beauty and colour, but this also involves writing and reading as the characters of the language are learned and practised.  Studying poetry gives a person a broader understanding of life and an appreciation of language.  It also gives you something to talk about and conversation is seen as an important part of life.

There is a large mosaic panel at the entrance to the temple which is very beautiful – I am a bit of a sucker for mosaics though, I remember taking lots of pictures of the tiled walls in Samarkand!   This one has a paintbrush on one side and a sword on the other – this symbolises the two aspects that all men should develop to be balanced and to be good men.  The paintbrush signifies understanding, appreciation of life and beauty and the sword signifies strength and the ability to protect the family.  All boys learn Kung Fu for at ;least part of their lives.  Vinh said that one of his brothers has been practising King Fu for a long time  and is now a White Belt (traditionally the highest level you can reach), another brother practised it for five years but Vinh said he was not very good at it so he gave up once he had learned the basics.  He explained that the fact that all boys learn Kung Fu and the art and discipline of fighting is the reason why the Vietnamese have never been defeated in war.

He also talked about the traditional roles of men and women in society.  in the past only men had formal education although women would also learn music and dancing. Women’s main role was to look after the family and specifically the men.  Their mothers would teach them to cook and to sew and to keep house.  When they married they would go to live with their husband’s family and would be expected to prepare the food.  They were expected to look after their husband’s needs and also those of their Father-in-Law.  If they weren’t good enough the family would throw them out.  If that happened they would also be shunned by their own family as they would have brought shame on the family.  Sounds like a hard life to me, not sure I would have passed!

Back on our bikes and on through some narrow back alleys which gave us a glimpse of some different areas of Hoi An, bigger, more modern houses with large gardens. The French colonial influence was still there with ironwork balconies and the walls painted the traditional orangey-yellow that we had seen in the old part of the town. We then stopped at a Buddhist temple where Vinh talked about Buddhist philosophy.  The Wheel of Life, what goes around comes around , what you do in this life has an impact on what will happen to you in the next life.  Meditation is essential to be a calm and thoughtful person; you need to clear your mind and banish evil thoughts from corrupting you.  I can’t remember everything that Vinh said but he commented on the fact that the pagodas have odd numbers of tiers which reminded me of what Vu told us about the Ede and their superstitions – odd numbers for the living and even for the dead.  Often there are three tiers with a Buddha in each one – one for the past, one for the future and one for the future.  Everything you do goes through the Buddhas. What happens in the past has an impact on your present life which in turn has an impact on the future.  He also talked about the symbol of the Swastika.  I already had some notion that this was an ancient symbol that the Nazis had misappropriated.  Apparently, it is the symbol of the God of Fire who lives in the Himalaya.  The God of Fire gives power to cleanse and fight off evil.  Once again the temple was beautifully decorated with colourful  mosaics, intricate carvings, flowers and gardens.  The temples really are oases in the greyness and the poverty we see around and about.  Having said that, the people around Hoi An do appear to be more affluent that what we have seen elsewhere – their houses are bigger and more solid, their gardens are well-stocked with vegetables and they are all serviced with piped water and electricity.  I guess they reap the benefits that tourism brings with the USD.

After that we spent more time on the bikes.  We cycled along the paddy fields where the ground is being prepared for sowing.  The fields were full of men and women flattening the soils so that they can sow the seeds.  They use water buffalo for ploughing the wet soil beforehand but otherwise everything is done by hand and the tools they use, as in Cambodia, look like the sort of thing used in the 18C here in NZ .  We could see which fields had been seeded and which were still waiting.  We also saw women knee deep in water transplanting the seedlings. I still don’t have a clear understanding of the process but it certainly looks like back-breaking work using primitive tools. This is mass production using mass labour – no machines, and I will definitely appreciate my rice more in the future.

We rode on through country lanes where the houses lining the lanes were filled with small trees in clay pots. Vinh explained that these were Kumquat trees which are grown especially to be shipped around Vietnam to the wealthy people who prize them as ornamental trees for Chinese New Year.  They grow well in this region and are certainly very striking with their bright orange fruit.  There were also row upon row of salad leaves, carrots, beans, peas, tomatoes, and flowers all grown organically and tended by hand.  By now the workers in their rice paddy hats were familiar sights and no longer the novelty they were when we first saw them.  These people lived in poorer dwellings but their market gardens were immaculate and they seemed to take so much pride in them.

Vinh told us the story of the Betel Nut tree and why the older generation chew the Betel nuts.  Of course, it is a love story; a young married couple lived in a house in the village.  One day the husband and his brother went off into the forest to hunt. They were away a long time and the wife started to worry.  Somehow the two men became separated but managed to make their way back to the village.  The brother arrived back first and believing that his brother was dead, told the wife who embraced him in grief, but was thankful that at least one of the brothers was alive.  At this point the husband emerged from the forest and seeing his wife embracing his brother was heartbroken and fled back into the forest. The younger brother decided that he needed to go back into the forest to search of his brother and so set off the next day. The older brother, in his grief had walked a long time until he came to a waterfall and sat down next to it to rest. He was so exhausted that he fell asleep and died and his body turned into a limestone boulder.  The younger brother walked and walked searching for his brother.  he too came to the waterfall and finding the boulder sat down on it and, exhausted, he fell asleep. He too died in his grief for his brother and his body turned into a tall Betel Nut Tree.  After a while the young wife could no longer bear waiting and so she went looking for her husband and his brother in the forest. She walked and walked until she came, exhausted to the waterfall where she sat down on the boulder under the shade of the Betel Nut tree.  She too fell asleep and died with her heart-broken.  Her body turned into a beautiful Bougainvillae flower that grew and entwined itself around the boulder and the Betel nut tree.  So the three were reunited.  Vietnamese people chew the nut wrapped in the leaves and the redness that comes out is said to be the lifeblood of the these three.  The red of the Bougainvillea is the same as the redness produced when the Betel nut is chewed and is used  at weddings to symbolise unity.

The next stop on our journey was Cua Dai beach – we were very excited by the sea. Well I was – another expanse of water that I can say I have paddled in – the South China Sea!  We had a drink and a snack there – some delicious roasted peanuts which were incredibly moorish! It is a beautiful golden  sandy beach – according to Vinh it is one of the top ten beaches in the world although I can find no evidence of it on the internet!  Nevertheless, despite the cloudy, damp weather it was a stunning beach and the crashing waves made it even more dramatic.  We were amazed to see people out fishing in the tiny coracles, being tossed about on the waves. The sea was not violent but there was a pretty good swell. I couldn’t resist beach combing and spent a happy half hour walking up and down the beach, head down, scanning the sand for shells.  Nor could I resist putting my feet in the sea and I was soon joined by half the team and we shrieked excitedly as the waves washed over our feet and up to our knees.  There are strict rules governing how deep Challengers are allowed to go in water but there was no danger of us infringing those rules! Going back to the coracles – these are small round vessels made of bamboo and coated with resin from the trees to make them waterproof.  They have a very pleasing shape and are usually used for inshore and river fishing as they are pretty small. They have bigger boats for going further out to sea.  Earlier on by the river we had seen the fishermen mending their nets and greasing the boats in readiness for putting out to sea.  This is an area where the people live off the land and off the sea – a simple life but threatened by progress and the temptations of the consumer society.   You have to wonder what real benefits tourism brings to this sort of community.  Once again, I reflect on the impact that the European colonists had around the world in their bid to “tame the savages” bringing Christianity to “save their souls”.  Is tourism the new Christianity?

We spent a good half an hour at the beach before pedalling onwards. It was very peaceful winding through the lanes, along the river and then past the shrimp farms.  We had a bit of excitement here negotiating the mud and had to get off and push a few times.  Morgan and Caitlin both keeled over as their wheels ground to a halt in the mud and they lost momentum!  Covered in mud they cycled valiantly on. I really enjoyed the serenity of the countryside here, we cycled on raised dykes between the flooded paddy fields and shrimp farms.  We were only a couple of kilometres outside Hoi An but it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere.  Lunch was back in Hoi An, at a restaurant probably owned by a cousin of Vinh’s.  It was delicious; another make your own spring roll place but the meat was scrumptious – freshly cooked spicy pork on a barbecue with a chilli sauce. There were also little pancake type things that went with the rice paper rolls.  There was more than enough food and we all ate our fill and probably more! With our bellies full to bursting we clambered back on to our bikes and navigated our way back to the Love of Life office.  Vinh checked where the boat was before we cycled the last leg to the river front.  This was stressful as the group ended up being split up – it was very difficult staying together in the middle of the town trying to dodge motorbikes, cars, motorbikes and pedestrians.  A couple of the less confident girls found it quite intimidating.  I tried to keep them in front of me but as close to the  group in front as possible so we didn’t get even more split up and in my anxiety I was probably quite terse as I shouted at them to ride faster!  In retrospect, not the best way to handle the situation.  In the end we stopped and regrouped , confident that Vinh would come back to find us.  He did, and we continued on, a little more slowly.  Originally we had had another guide with us but Lachlan had a puncture and , since surprisingly, they didn’t carry a repair kit or spare tubes, he had to go back to fix the bike, leaving his for Lachlan to ride.  Having a backmarker would have reduced our anxiety riding through the streets but we survived and made it to the boat, some a little tearful but no lasting damage!

On the boat we had a good hour and a half to relax, look around at the other boats on the river and the islands. We all had a turn at “driving” (do you drive a boat or is there another word?)  which was fun, as our guide sat cross-legged at the side keeping a watchful eye that we didn’t run his pride and joy aground or into another craft.  We sailed up the river then down an inlet and back to the main river; we watched as fishermen cast their nets and waved at other people on the river. It really was a lovely way to end the day.  The evening was spent on last minute dress fittings, shopping and, of course, eating!  Cafe 43 had been recommended by Vinh and was also in the LP guide so we headed there.  It was hidden away down a back street, not the most salubrious of places but the food was delicious, cheap and the people there were very friendly.

Back at the hotel, Dung and Van were waiting for us as arranged and soon we were on our way back to Danang Railway Station.  Another long train journey!

New Year’s Day 2012: Ball gowns, shoes, suits and history….

3 02 2012

There were a few bleary eyes after the late night last night but breakfast at Bobo’s was good – mocha iced coffee is great and very chocolatey and the fresh fruit shakes were also fantastic. Pancakes and omelettes were definitely a notch or two up from the Peace Hotel standard and we ate our fill.

Lots of the team members had dress and suit fittings during the day so we decided to buy Hoi An Old Town tickets for everyone. Some of the team had done some research and read the Lonely Planet guide which suggested which of the places were the best to visit so they passed that information on to the rest of them and we left them to manage their own time.  A check in at 1.30pm was arranged and then free again for the afternoon. Treasure Hunt time! As we wandered around the town, visiting the houses and temples, shopping and having our own fittings, we bumped into our team members and shared stories.  I am sure that some of them did more shopping than cultural enrichment but that was their choice and after all they are teenagers!  Howie and I tried to get round everything as well as browsing the shops and market stalls and taking in the atmosphere.  First stop was the Japanese bridge which is tucked away up an inlet to the river which confused us for a short while.  It is a little bridge guarded at one end by a pair of stone dogs and at the other by monkeys.  It is quite simply decorated by comparison with other structures, but beautiful.  It was flattened out whilst the French were in power so they could get vehicles over it more easily but has been restored to its original hump backed form now. We didn’t visit the small temple in  the northern side of the bridge but carried on to find even more market stalls selling all manner of trinkets, scarves, clay pottery, wooden carvings, jewellery etc.  I think it was here that Howie was first referred to as the “Happy Buddha” by the wood carving man!  It was a comment that was to recur over the next two days, causing much mirth! (well, for me anyway!)  Just as well Howie has a sense of humour!

We then went along the river to find the Tang Ky House.  This ancient house has been in the same family for seven generations. A family of merchants, their fortune has ebbed and flowed with the tide and was at its height, I think, in the 18th century when Hoi An was a major trading port and the river was busy with ships coming from all over the world to transport goods to and fro.  Since then nature has changed the face of the coastline,  the river has silted up and the large ships can no longer navigate the shallow waters to reach Hoi An, so trading has all but ceased.  Hoi An is no longer the important trading post it was in its hey day.  The family have maintained the house which was built over several generations and has withstood many floods, the most recent of which was in 2011 when the water rose 1.5m and damaged a lot of the wood carvings and some of the furniture.  It is a beautiful house with evidence of three distinct styles of architecture like some of the other places we saw today.  Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architectural styles sit comfortably side by side complementing each other.  The Japanese have a structure that represents the lifelines of the hand; three arches which are the lines for long life, happiness and health (I think) and the five fingers are the supporting columns.  The intricate carvings and inlaid Mother of Pearl on the columns are beautiful and there are also detailed wall hangings, beautifully embroidered, or watercolours on silk, somewhat faded with age but striking nonetheless.  There are no windows in the house, instead there is a central courtyard with a well, which serves for ventilation and brings natural light to the house. It is reminiscent of southern Spanish houses where this layout keeps the houses cool in summer but retains heat in the winter. It also provides some greenery and a connection to nature which is important to the culture. We were offered tiny doll’s house cups of artichoke tea and invited to sit on ornate wood carved benches as we were told the history of the house.  Clearly Tang Ky is nothing but a tourist attraction now, which is a shame, but symptomatic of a historic town which is having to reinvent itself to survive; it has lost its original raison d’etre as nature has affected the course of the river, and world economic demands have changed.

We headed next to the Trang Family Chapel only to find it closed for lunch but we went back there later in the afternoon.  Again we were greeted with artichoke tea and some crystallised ginger and coconut which was delicious. The chapel remains an active place of worship but customs have changed over the years.  Originally, when women were not equal to men, there were two doors; men entered from the right hand side and women from the left, now the left door is closed and everyone enters from the right.  The main front door is only opened and used on the 11th November and on Vietnamese New Year.  Here again we saw evidence of three architectural styles and the intricacy of wood carving and ornate painting.  At the shrine there are lots of boxes and the guide explained that there was one for each member of the family who had died.  Each box contains mementos of the deceased person.  Nowadays they have a photo on the wall instead which takes up less room.  The photos and the boxes are inscribed with the Date of Birth and the Date of Death, and on the anniversaries of those dates, incense is burned and food is laid on the altar for three days.  After that it is eaten by the family.  There is a garden at the rear of the Chapel where traditionally the placentas and the umbilical cords of new born babies are buried.  This was done to symbolise that wherever the children may go during their lives, they will always be together in spirit and they will always be able to find their way home.  The custom is no longer practised because most babies are now born in hospital and not at home. Once again the tour leads you to a gift shop and the gimmicky Ying and Yang coin demonstration and tale serves only to suck gullible tourists into buying!  (I’m being cynical again!) Apparently if you shake two coins, then throw them and they turn up with one heads and one tails, that is lucky for you as it means you have a good balance of Ying and Yang!  Howie and I are both lucky and will live long lives, apparently!

Onwards to the handicraft Workshop to see the 3.15 show of Vietnamese folk dance and music.  It was very entertaining; graceful dancers and musicians beautifully attired in colourful costumes and playing traditional instruments.  The operatic number was a bit strange but the actress was clearly very talented.  Some of the team also made it to the show but didn’t stay long – not sure it was really a teenager’s cup of tea!  We also managed to visit the Quan Cong Temple which is dedicated to a Chinese General who was highly regarded for his integrity and loyalty.  There is a large papier-mâché statue of him flanked by his Ambassador – a rather portly, pasty-faced official, and his “tough guy” guard who looks quite ferocious but unable to lumber his large frame anywhere very quickly!  It is a serene place with a pond beneath an open roof that lets in light and ventilation.  Coi carp swim and roll peacefully beneath the beautiful carvings on the roof of phoenix, carp and dragons.  The carp is a symbol of peace in Vietnamese culture.  The two “life-size” statues of horses hardly seem big enough to carry the General and his aides but are quite lovely.

My dress fitting went well – a few adjustments necessary as it was rather tight and have decided to have a narrower skirt.  I was generally pleased but spent so long in the shop waiting for Howie’s suit to arrive that I ended up ordering a pair of purple silk harem pants!  It has been amusing walking around with Howie as clearly the Vietnamese assume we are a couple – I guess there is no reason why they wouldn’t as we are a similar age.  Then half a dozen teenagers all turn up to chat to us and they assume we have a very extended family – the puzzled looks on their faces is a sight to behold!

The food group picked another great place to eat.  Howie and I were starving as we had only had a corn on the cob from a street stall for lunch.  It was delicious, though, especially the spicy sauce that we had with it. Once again we all sampled some of the local delicacies; Cao Lau, sauteed wontons, spring rolls, wonton soup, Banh da and pork or fish wrapped in banana leaves.  Fruit drinks have also been a highlight here because there is an abundance of fresh fruit.  Lemon Juice is everyone’s favourite (it is the cheapest and also very refreshing) but mango, guava, watermelon and strawberry are all excellent.  Nongh! ( good in Vietnamese!)  We have a couple of girls who are struggling with feeling a little sick – not sure whether it is really just tiredness setting in now, but we are keeping an eye on them and they are steadily improving.  

We have had a relatively early night tonight, but we had a bit of business to sort out before tomorrow.  After talking to the Budget group, we decided to take in all the group money, count out what we had left, apportion what we needed for the last few days’ accommodation and transport in and around HCMC and to the airport, and then share out the remainder for the team to manage themselves for food until the end of the trip.  We have been eating well in Hoi An and have enough money to continue to do so as the team has budgeted effectively over the last few weeks.  It is just as well since food here is much more expensive than elsewhere, whether that is because we are here over New Year or because it is a prime tourist spot, we don’t know.  We also ended up paying more than three times as much for our hotel due to a miscommunication over the phone when we booked.  Communication is something I think the team has learned a lot about this month.  I don’t think they really understood how difficult it would be to talk to people; they have a naive expectation that everyone will speak English fluently and have been surprised that they don’t.  They have also found that the Cambodians and Vietnamese don’t always understand their Kiwi accents and unusual turns of phrase and have started to learn to speak more slowly and clearly, giving shorter chunks of information and asking for confirmation that they have been understood.

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New Year’s Eve: Hoi An

2 02 2012

Morning dawned and we stretched our stiff limbs and crawled reluctantly from our bunks, sleep deprived from having woken regularly during the night to turn over and relieve the aching pressure points on hips and shoulders, but ready to change position and be vertical rather than horizontal!  Some of us warmed up the instant noodles we had bought in the, by now far distant, unimaginable, surreal supermarket in Nga Trang – surprisingly good despite being a little chewy because the water was not boiling!

It was raining; we passed field upon field of rice paddies, people wading up to their knees, bent over, working in the fields, tending the crop by hand and we were complaining about feeling stiff and weary – we know nothing of the hard work these people live through on a daily basis!

Finally we arrived in Danang; the 4th biggest city in Vietnam.  I clearly had not read the Lonely Planet Guide attentively enough as I had envisaged Danang to be a small sea port!

The map suggested that it was a 2km walk to the bus station where we could get a bus to Hoi An.  After our experience in Nga Trang we were ready to set off, packs on backs to find it but we were greeted by the usual posse of taxi drivers pressing us to use their services. One guy was particularly persistent and as we were loitering a little indecisively and wondering which way to go he pushed his luck.   He said he could take us to Hoi An for $3 per person – this was as cheap, if not cheaper, than the bus fare quoted in the Lonely Planet guide so we decided to risk it.  Five minutes later we were in two minibuses driven by what seemed to be two very friendly drivers, Van and Dung, in the maelstrom that was Danang traffic. At one point Van stopped and dashed out of the bus, leaving us stranded at the side of a very busy road, cars and motor bikes zipping all around us – he came back after several anxious minutes, that seemed much longer, with a parcel which he explained in broken English he had to give to a relative in Hoi An.  We arrived in Hoi An half an hour later safe and sound!  Their integrity was confirmed about half an hour later when Dung came back into the hotel with Howie’s wallet that he had unknowingly dropped in the minibus.

Our hotel was not quite ready for us as we were earlier than we had expected to be so we waited in the foyer – the group were very patient – I think by now they are used to chilling and taking things as they happen, and maybe we are all a little tired too!  The Hoi Pho hotel is very tidy; it definitely looks a better class of place than we have become used to. It is not far from the old part of Hoi An and very close to rows upon row of silk tailor shops.  The hotel manager was very insistent on us trying some particular tailors and equally insistent about ones we should avoid.  I guess they get a cut if they send guests to certain ones and others may be people they have fallen out with! (am I being a cynic?)

Once we had freshened up the group were keen to get out and sort out their ball gowns and suits so we let them loose on Hoi An with a few words of warning and advice.  Howie and I also succumbed although I had not intended to buy a dress.  I probably spent far more than I needed to – bartering is not my strong point – but then I guess this may be the chance of a lifetime!

The “food group” booked us into the “Phon” for New Year’s Eve dinner.  It was a small “bijou” place down by the river, rough washed walls, and lizards zipping around the local crafty wood carvings and paintings on the walls.  The food was good, although the portions were smaller than we have grown used to, and the last person served was a good 40 minutes after the first!  In fact the first served were already on to their desserts before the last were served!   The boys had fun building drink can towers – a throw away comment from Howie on the trek about drinking Fanta and Coke on New Year’s Eve was taken to heart by the team, so they started in earnest!  We all sampled new delicacies – I had sauteed wontons in sweet and sour sauce which were a little greasy but very pleasant.

As I mentioned the restaurant is down by the river and across the river from us was a rock band blaring and lights flashing – the party had clearly started.  Red, paper lanterns were sent floating down the river which was beautiful and fairy lights twinkled in the trees and in lanterns hanging along the streets.  All in all it was lovely atmosphere and I would have liked to have lingered longer but there were a lot of people and we were a little anxious about keeping track of 14 teenagers amongst the crowds.  I think the kids, too, were happier heading back to the hotel to chill.  We stopped on the way to buy a couple of crates of Fanta and Coke. Some of them watched television and others played an insane game of “Snap” – it was great spectator sport!  We brought in New Year 2012 on the balcony of the hotel singing “The Final Countdown” and then shouted “Happy New Year Vietnam!” at the stroke of midnight, motorbike horns tooting at us as they passed!  Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

Friday 30th December: leaving Da Lat

31 01 2012

Da Lat‘s Crazy House certainly lives up to its name! It is quite a beguiling place, Gaudi-esque; quirky and bizarre, it is a maze of  winding pathways, staircases and bridges lead you and lose you as you explore.  One of the staircases leads you over the roof and you have a fantastic view of Da lat. Look in all the corners as surprises lurk in them – giant cobwebs, little doors, gnarled “wood”, ladybirds, mushrooms, giraffe’s bottoms!  Real trees and concrete trees wind around the building and you feel like you are walking around a fairy tale and half expect a pixie or a gnome to pop out at any time!  It is a delight to explore and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. There are also gift shops round every corner!  Unfortunately there is extra development going on so some areas of the place are under construction, which doesn’t mean they are closed, just that you feel like you are in a building site in some areas.

The Crazy House is also a 3 star hotel – the rooms are quite expensive but they look very inviting.  It says in the Lonely Planet book that it would be like waking up in Wonderland which is a pretty good analogy. The rooms are tucked away along the stairways and have beds built into the alcoves of moulded concrete, en suite bathrooms and little tables and chairs where you can have your meals.  It was great walking round and spotting the members of our group peering out of windows, walking over the bridges, waving from on high as they took the lofty path over the rooftop.  Hand rails seem to be non-existent and in places the walls on the bridges are lower than knee height.  Not sure I’d like to have young children running around exploring – they would love it, of course, as it is like a huge maze and very exciting, but as a parent you would have your heart in your mouth!

The Crazy House, or Hang Nga Guest House was designed by Ho Chi Minh’s daughter, Hang Nga.  Another building she designed was torn down by the government as it was seen to be anti-socialist but after a struggle she did manage to get permission to continue work on the Crazy House and it has become an iconic place in Da Lat.

The rest of the day was spent either waiting for a bus or sitting on a bus, waiting for a train or lying on a train!  The bus from Da Lat to Nga Trang which we were told would leave from the hotel at 12.30 finally arrived at 1.30; what a junk bucket!  It was a tatty looking bus and somehow we managed to squeeze in our luggage and then find seats.  It was another sleeper bus, so we had space to lie down.  Howie and I shoe-horned our way into the back where we actually had quite a lot of space despite not being able to sit up. We also had the benefit of a window that opened which provided fresh air. The bus was filthy and who knows how many heads had lain on the pillows and how many times the blankets had been used without being washed! Fortunately it was too warm to use the blanket and I just tried not to think too much about the pillows!  I spent a lot of the four hour journey watching the scenery go by; I found that I could squeeze up between the framework and perch behind the upper level seats to look out of the back window, but I could also open the side window next to my “seat” and point my camera out to get some photos.  Not sure how blurred they will be, though!

We made our way up through the mountains and then travelled quite high up along the edge of a gorge before descending into the valleys. Incredibly green and lush, the forests gave way to banana plantations and rice paddies lower down the valley. The villages seemed very poor;  delapidated wooden huts with, here and there, more modern, but quite possibly less comfortable concrete boxes with smallholdings where a few chickens scratched an existence even more meagre than their owners, it seemed.  It was much more  humid as we left the mountains and the fog and mist that cloaked them and we could feel the dampness in the air that came in through the window.  We stopped for 20 minutes at what can only be described as an oasis; a huge restaurant area, obviously quite new, proper toilets, clean and hygienic and a landscaped area where you could sit and enjoy the stream and .  It was quite odd given the poverty all around.  There were also some strange animals in cages around the back of the building which intrigued us.

It was not far after that to Nga Trang – too late for the beach as it was dark by the time we were dropped off outside a hotel not far from the beach but 2km from the railway station! Sixteen of us carrying packs on our backs and our fronts walking in crocodile formation through the bustling streets of Nga Trang.  We have become quite good at this now and manage to look around and take in the atmosphere whilst also keeping in touch with the person in front of us. The Christmas and New Year lights were amazing, imaginative, creative, very colourful and dynamic.

At the station we found that there was nowhere to leave luggage so eight of us stayed with the bags whilst the others went looking for food and then we swapped over.  Unfortunately, according to the Lonely Planet most of the restaurants are down by the beach – too far to go back to in the time we had.  Eventually we found a place on the 4th floor of a department store – quite surreal but the food was surprisingly good. It was on the same floor as the children’s play area and the entrance to the cinema so the noise was overwhelming.  Food shopping for breakfast and lunch for the next day in a supermarket in Vietnam was definitely surreal – instant noodles, biscuits and bottles of water ( oh, and the kids bought huge pots of chewing gum in weird flavours!)

Getting on the train in the dark was an experience and the n working our way down the carriage to find our compartments was a bit of a challenge, but we were soon settled into our respective bunks and we were off.  Vietnamese trains have two classes of carriage; hard sleepers and soft sleepers.  Guess which we had!  The hard sleepers have 6 bunks in a compartment, number 1 is on the bottom and has the most head room, number 2 is in the middle – lying down only and number 3 is on the top with your nose just about touching the ceiling!  Hard as nails and, if you were unlucky enough to take the bunk over from a previous traveller, a used blanket and pillow! We squeezed our way in and settled down for an uncomfortable night.  Surprisingly, I managed some sleep but couldn’t quite shake the headache that had descended on me as the humidity has increased.

Thursday 29th December: more of Da Lat uncovered, and the wanderers return.

26 01 2012
My original invalid woke up feeling much better and so we decided that we would try to get out to Bao Dai’s Summer Palace this morning. It is a bit of a walk but we had time to fill before the rest of the team got back from the trek this afternoon. The other two invalids were still fast asleep (I’m guessing they were up watching TV last night) so we went down for breakfast and, by the time we had finished, they were awake.  They didn’t want to come for a walk so we decided to go alone; they were safe enough in the hotel and, as long as they stayed together, could venture down the road to buy bread and fruit for lunch. They had a fully charged phone and we had the other, so I felt confident leaving them for a couple of hours.
Just as we were about to leave, another phone call from Howie came to say that Lachlan was coming back to the hotel.  He had been struggling yesterday with a sore leg and had woken up this morning unable to stretch it out or put much weight on it.   It turns out that he has somehow stretched his ligaments/tendons in the back of his knee. We went out anyway (I felt happy enough leaving him as he is my son and he was not sick – old enough and ugly enough to fend for himself!), leaving instructions with the girls and our room key for him so he could lie down.

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Unfortunately, I messed up on the old navigation and map reading skills – I had somehow got the location of Phat Tires in relation to our hotel wrong and so we ended up about 2km away in completely the opposite direction!  However, when the names of the roads didn’t match the map I realised our mistake and we doubled back. As a result we walked about twice as far as we needed to have done and it took twice as long!  Never mind, we needed the exercise!  It was a good walk at a brisk pace and the convalescent had no problems.  She is struggling a little this evening after such a busy day and the noise of four chattering girls squashed in one room after being used to the calm and quiet of just the two of us, but nothing a good night’s sleep won’t cure.
Bao Dai’s Summer Palace is an Art Deco inspired building, somewhat shabby and in need of a coat of paint both indoors and out.  It has essentially been left as it was when the King and his family left it to live in France in the late 1940 /early 50s.  Nevertheless, it has a certain charm and it is interesting to imagine how the family lived. The Queen, Nam Phuong was not of royal stock but came from a wealthy family, and according to the information boards around the palace, she was a “Miss Beauty” of her region for many years!  Unfortunately, she died young at the age of 47 of cancer. The King took a concubine when she went to France to live with the children and then later remarried to a French lady after his wife’s death. I am interested to learn more details about Vietnamese history as the information boards are fairly sketchy and the English translations are sometimes difficult to understand. We walked through the living room with its brit orange uphstered furniture and the austere photos of members of the family hanging on the walls. The French windows look out onto well-maintained gardens with low box hedges in a sort of maze with bright flowers planted in between. A corridor leads to the “dressing up room” which we initially passed on, but later on we decided that it would be quite fun to dress up as royals and we went back.  For the princely sum of  15,000VND (about $1NZ) you can dress up in the beautifully decorated costumes and sit on the Royal thrones!  I was given the Queen’s clothes and my charge was given the Princesses dress.  We giggled as we put them on and it made me think of days, long ago when, as children we would dress up in our Mum’s clothes, shoes and jewellery and parade around the house thinking we were such refined ladies!  An attendant led us to the throne and placed us in the appropriate pose and then a photographer appeared wanting another 20,000VND for the privilege of taking our photos!  We decided that we could take each other’s photo and then another tourist came in and took one of the to of us together. It was a strange thing to do, but actually a lot of fun!
Upstairs, are the bedrooms and the lounges.  The princes and princesses had adjoining rooms with large en suite bathrooms, pink for the girls and blue for the boys.  Just down the corridor was the eldest prince’s bedroom; once he reached a certain age, as the heir to the throne, he had his own room decorated in yellow to signify that he was the heir. There was a lounge area with a large semi-circular sofa which, we were told, was for the King and Queen, two armchairs for the princes and two, rather austere-looking, upright chairs for the princesses!  In the sun room that opened onto the deck which looked out over the city and the valleys, were silk hammocks and recliners.  The King’s bedroom opened onto a balcony which looked out over the gardens where he apparently had a telescope and he looked out at the stars.  The protocols around the way that they lived were interesting to read about and the glimpses that we were given about their lives were tantalising and I am eager to find out more.  I think there must be a voyeur hidden inside me as I am intrigued by the lives of those who lived in the past!  The equipment in kitchen, pantry and laundry were frighteningly familiar – surely I am not so old that I remember gadgets from the 1950s?  Not at all, but my Grandparents and Great Aunts certainly had items of a similar ilk in their houses.
As you head out of the palace you are led through a whole raft of tacky souvenir shops but the stroll through the gardens is pleasant.  We sat and ate some of our bread and fruit on the paved area overlooking the wood and then made our way back, downhill, back into Da Lat.  On the way back I took my, now recovered, patient into the market to have a look around and then we headed back to the Peace Hotel.  Lachlan had arrived and was esconced in our room.  We had already arranged with the hotel manager which rooms we would be using once the rest of the group got back so moved him into his own room and waited for the team.
They arrived not long after, we saw them from the hotel window trudging along the street in a long line, shoulders drooped and bags heavy on their backs.  What a shower!  We listened, a little ruefully, as they regaled us excitedly with their tales, then the clean up began!  Showers were welcomed and gradually they emerged, clean and shiny, refreshed and ready for an afternoon on the town!  There was still some planning to do for tomorrow but once the bus times were confirmed, and wake up times and breakfast was sorted, we gave them some free time to explore. A good time had been had by all on the mounatin and they have come back proud and happy with their achievements.
PS.  There are a few photos here of the trek taken with my camera but not by me!

Wednesday 28th December: Another lazy day in Da Lat

26 01 2012
Another lazy day in Da Lat, the days are dragging somewhat and I am still frustrated at not being able to get on to the mountain. However, I am trying to be positive and make the most of being here.
Da Lat (which means “water of the people of Lat” – the Lat are one of the ethnic minorities and original settlers in the region) is a curious place.  There is a real mixture of styles; there is a very distinct French influence with some large villas on the outskirts if the town and many of the inner city homes have roof gardens, intricate ironwork balconies, colourful shutters on the windows, and the flowers, that are everywhere, add a very European flavour.  However, you also see and sense a more Asian ambiance; concrete blockwork houses, metal sheet awnings, workshops and shop fronts that spill out on to the narrow streets, food sellers everywhere with their wares in baskets balanced across their shoulders bending under the weight, food waste, drink cans and packaging litter the gutters and side alleys and the stench of untreated sewage is overpowering and comes in waves as you walk around the town. As in Cambodia and other towns we have been through in Vietnam, the shops seem to be somehow organised into areas –  there will be a whole street full of shops selling car and motorbike parts, then clothes, then the beautiful carved wooden furniture that is typical of this area, then electronics, and so on. The shops are perhaps a little more mixed up here but the trend is similar. We have found little in the way of gift shops, the shops are all very utilitarian despite this being a tourist hub. There are a couple up the road selling some of the woven products we saw at Chicken Village and a shop selling embroidered silk pictures which are beautiful but very expensive. There are also lots of shoe shops selling popular brand names such as All Stars and clothing shops with outdoor gear all at very good prices. Whether they are the genuine article or rip offs I don’t know but I have bought a pair of All Stars for Gus which I think he will like.
The noise of motorbikes, car horns and the squeak of the street sellers as they advertise their presence with the insides of squeaky toys is incessant. I don’t think this city ever sleeps, there is a constant drone of scooters and motorbikes which quietens down a bit at nights but it is still there. Cars and trucks beep at motorbikes to shift out of the way which, in turn, beep at bikes and pedestrians – madness!  We have become quite adept at crossing the roads now and are more confident about standing in the middle of the road waiting for a gap as the traffic goes around us! We have realised that they don’t want to knock us over so they will slow down and weave around us. However,  you do have to watch then as they are quite adept at texting whilst riding although not so good at watching the road at the same time!
After much trawling of the internet, reading the Lonely Planet guide book and a few fruitless phone calls, we managed to book  hotel in Hoi An over New Year. They wanted us to pay in advance which required a trip to a bank. The Maritime Bank staff were incredibly helpful, spoke to the hotel manager on the phone which made me much happier about sending $176 to an unknown bank account. We have no idea if it is a god hotel or not, reviews were mixed, but it was the only one we could get at short notice as everything else was booked.
We walked down to the Botanical Gardens this morning; a steady stroll (I desperately need to do something more strenuous as my legs are seizing up!) and then had lunch under a tree – delicious ruby-red, water melon, peanut butter and banana sandwiches and lychees!  The gardens are beautiful, though; the Vietnamese are really into their topiary and the displays of bonsai trees are spectacular. The gardens are full of displays and stands especially set up for the Flower Festival and there are still some empty ones waiting for their displays. The girls liked the rubbish bins and took photos of them all as they were in the shape of different animals. We also marveled at the topiary snakes, dogs, dragons, coffee pots, chickens …it seemed that whatever they could think of had been created with the topiary shears.  The colours of the flowers are spectacular and the gardens are imaginatively laid out and beautifully maintained.
We had another good dinner in “Chocolate” again, and we all ate heartily which bodes well for the recovery of my invalids!