Translate Very Itchy Feet

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Swimming through Central Vietnam.

We woke up bright and early the next morning..upon the insistence of the bus driver! For some reason, we were being subjected to Vietnamese music, up full boar, at 5.30 in the morning. Go figure! I was not about to psychoanalyse this as well, but I did go and politely ask him to turn it down. On the bright side, it couldn't possibly get worse than the night before (recall the kung-fu fighting).....or could it?

I had read that Hue boasts some of Vietnam's most aggressive touts, but I was not really prepared for what was about to happen upon our arrival. It was mid-morning when we arrived, and we were virtually mauled as we stepped off the bus, with a range of people trying to sell us accommodation at their hotel. Have I previously mentioned how very difficult it is to listen to a multitude of people all at once? One man was tranquilly telling us about his hotel, when another almost bowled him over, wedging himself between us, and then placing himself almost on top of me, as he began to give us his spiel. In no mood at all after last night, I put my hand up to his face, and told him that he would have to step back a little and wait, as I was speaking to someone else. He got all hoity-toity and aggressively asserted that, no, I had to speak to him then and there! I don't think so! I was in no mood after last night! I virtually barked at him, and screamed that I chose who I spoke to, and when, and where! He did not like that at all! As he came towards me, and his hand approached my shoulder and pushed me back, it was again on for young and old. It was like the sequel to the night before! Again, Alex was bellowing at him to lay off me. There was another karate kick on Alex's behalf, followed by someone hitting him on the back of the neck (luckily, he was not hurt). When I saw Alex hit, it was my turn to see red, and this time it was my turn to go wild. I was like a dog with rabies, and it was with virtual spittle oozing from my mouth that I howled at him. Livid, I bellowed that he was a disgrace to his people. I went on to cry that bulling and being aggressive is not the way to treat people. The piece de resistance, was when I was several inches away from his face, begging him to show all of his friends what a man he was by punching me! Needless to say, that did not occur and he ran away like a dog with his tail tucked between his legs! By this point I was hyperventilating, and needed to sit down and cool off! I was by no means proud of my public display of anger at all. I had had a rather large audience of both Vietnamese as well as foreigners, but I repeat, this behaviour is NOT all right, and I will not let it happen and do nothing about it! I will not be complacent! I am currently well aware that after some 14 months, patience is no longer my best friend! Not that it ever was!

With kung-fu episode number two out of the way, it was on to look for a place to stay. Luckily, we were very close to the bulk of the budget accommodation, and found a decent place to stay, rather quickly. It even came with a computer in our room, at virtually no extra charge! That was a first! But, you will later learn that it was a blessing in disguise! Once settled, we had a relaxing afternoon walking around Hue, and taking in its atmospheric surroundings. This place is all about art and architecture, and it's packed with palaces, pagodas, temples and tombs. We were hoping for a cultural injection, and the next day provided us with just that.

Hue is justifiably famous for its Imperial City, or Imperial Enclosure, housing the emperor's residence and the main buildings of the state. As most of Hue's sights and population reside within the 2 kilometre thick , 10 kilometre walls that surround the city, the Imperial closure really is a citadel within a citadel. We had a wonderful, and very laid back afternoon wandering around and exploring. In true Vietnamese style, peak hours were packed with package tourists, but as they only go and look at the "main" buildings, the rest is wide open for relaxation and exploration. We felt like we had been thrown back in time, as we walked up, around and over parts of buildings that were hundreds of years old. We walked into the Halls of the Mandarins when we were suddenly shaken from our tranquil dream. This building is the one in which the mandarins prepared for the court ceremonies. I could almost imagine the royal splendour...... we walked in to find a cheesy tourist set up in which one can pose....in Imperial costume...on the throne...and.......for a price! Alex and I sat down, observed, and chuckled quietly. I think it was part of the Asian Disneyland theme!

Later in the day, we visited a museum, which was housed in an exquisite building which was once a school for princes and the sons of high-ranking mandarins. I felt the most fascinating part to be the collection of several old war tanks out the front. As I walked past, read and observed, a tingle shot up and down my spine. I have never understood, do not understand and will never understand war! What a waste of sooooooooo many things, and needless to say, lives!

Luckily we got in a bit of sightseeing in Hue, because the next day it was all over! The skies opened and it hammered (as in poured) for some thirty five hours! I have categorically never seen anything like it in my life! It was raining elephants and whales! Get the picture? It reached the point where it was impossible to even walk around! Step in computer in our room! All we did over the next two days was sleep, relax, and get brilliant value out of our "in house" computer! Occasionally, we would step, or I should say wade,out for a meal. At one point the water was knee high, and over dinner one night we actually saw a tourist jump out and have a swim in the street. I should mention that it was the rainy season in Vietnam, and only a few weeks earlier there had been a major typhoon. As my Dad will attest to, I have this amazing penchant of rocking up to places just before or after some major catastrophe has occurred! I want to make a special mention of Brown Eyes Cafe, run and owned by the very affable Bich (pronounced Big)....great food, great portions, great coffee, and great person! As it was only a short swim away from our hotel, and due to the horrendous weather, we virtually lived there for a few days! Bich assured us that this kind of weather this time of year was actually quite normal!

After being couped up for a couple of days, we decided that it was time to move on. It had not stopped raining completely, but at least the elephants and whales seemed to have stopped falling from the sky. So, we booked an overnight bus to Hoi An, which is further down the coast.

Hoi An was once a sleepy riverside village, but now firmly set on the tourist trail, well, the tourists are now busting from its seams! And speaking of seams, this is the place to have anything sewn and made -up, from jackets to shoes! This is definitely one of the town's claims to fame! The old, or historical centre oozes charm, with its old wooden buildings, many sitting right on the edge of the Thu Bon River. Whilst we did spend a couple of days here, it pretty much rained the entire time, but not as heavily as it had in Hue. Having said that, it was heavy enough to not be able to hire a bicycle, and/or explore properly on foot. Yes, I did attempt to get a couple of pairs of shoes made, which ended up being a small disaster, but I managed to escape without the disastrous shoes, and persuaded the lady to sell me a newly made "sample"pair! I am personally not into having things made up. My theory is if you try it and fits you, buy it! Having things made up especially, seems to include too many "unknown" factors and probabilities. Not into that! The street food was also great here. To be honest, it seems to get better as you move down the coast, and get further away from China, where it begins to lose that Chinese influence (as it has up north).

Rain, rain, go away, come again another day! Over, over, over it! Time to move on, so we booked another overnighter to Nha Trang. What can I say, another day (or night!), another adventure! What was supposed to be an overnight trip, ended up finishing at around 1.00pm the next day. Why? Because part of the road was so flooded that it was impassable! The bus had to stop for some 5 hours, as we waited for the water level to drop enough to...well, pass! Needless to say, we were sooooooo over it upon our arrival, and all we wanted was a place to dump our bags and chill out. We settled on a small, and clean room, in a quiet part of town, which was still central. This part of the country also had rain predicted, but we had to stop somewhere. Luckily, we were in luck, so to speak. We only spent a couple of days here, and the weather was great! Great, as in no rain!

Nha Trang is known for its pristine beaches and its scuba diving. The former? Well, I am Australian, and a thus a bit of a beach snob! Yeh, the beach was OK. The latter? After weeks of alluvial downpours, we were told that the visibility was shocking. So, we bypassed both, and opted for a mud bath at the Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre. It was a five kilometre walk out of town, and an interesting walk at that. We had to pass the Cai River, where we saw traditional houses on stilts, lots of fishermen, lots of fish drying out in the open (and on piles of rubbish at that!), and the subsequent smell that came with it! It was obviously an area which was quite poor. It's amazing to see how the real people live, only kilometres out of the central area, where most foreigners end up staying. We also stopped to see Po Nagar Cham Towers, which were built between the 7th and 12th centuries. The pagodas and temples are very beautiful, and very tranquil, and to this day Cham, ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists come to pray and make offerings, according to their respective traditions.

A little further on, we arrived at the Thap Ba Hot Spring Centre. What a brilliant way to chill out and do something both different and healthy at the same time! Our experience began with sitting and slopping around in a wooden tub full of hot thermal mud, after which we baked in the sun for a while, waiting for it to dry. A bit like a face mask , but all over your body! We then washed off, and got to soak in another wooden bath tub, this one full of soothing natural mineral water. After this "treatment" there were plenty of other pools of varying temperatures to laze and lie about in. We did them all, and loved it! Needless to say, we felt exhausted after all the pampering and relaxing. Not about to walk back after all that, we caught a ride on a couple of motorbikes, which is very much the done thing, here in Vietnam.

We only had a little over a week left before our Vietnamese visas would run out, so we decided to move on, and check out Dalat in the central highlands. The weather was pleasantly fresh here, and the vibe quite different to the coast. Actually, it was quite different to anywhere we had visited in Vietnam. Once a former French colonial outpost, it looked a little more like the French Alps. Whilst it did not pour, there was certainly on and off drizzle. We managed to eat some great food here, finding a local place with some girls who were able to help translate the menu (as we were the only foreigners in there). This ensured, real, traditional food at local prices. Remember the old saying about when you are onto a good thing.............yep, we stuck to it, and went back several times. We also walked a few kilometres out of town and took a cable car to a temple close by. The views of the surrounding, and very lush countryside were breathtaking, and the temple was an oasis of calm. A beautiful end to our short time in Dalat. Very close to the Xuan Huong Lake (created by a dam in 1919), I went for a run here for the short duration of our stay here. It can be circumnavigated along a 7 kilometre path which runs all the way around it, and past many of Dalat's main sights, including a flower garden. So, I got to sight see whilst running!

Speaking of running, time to move on. Last but not least we would be off to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), from where we wanted to cruise the Mekong Delta by boat, before finishing up in Cambodia.

Ombi

This time I will leave you not with a quote, but a poem of sorts. It (along with some comments)was sent to me by a friend, Samantha Bulmer, after she read our last blog. She writes:

"First they came is a poem attributed to Pastor Martin Niemöller(1892 -1984) about the inactivity of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power and the purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

When the Nazis came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn't a Jew.

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.

This poem is the perfect punctuation for the story of the hotel bully. As soon as I read your blog I remembered this poem. Poignant. Perfect. Enjoy yourselves and keep out of trouble. If that is at all possible."

Thanks Sam! The poem and your comments simply further aid in highlighting how destructive and damaging complacency and inactivity are. Until we take a stance, we will continue to see history repeating itself!

(Photos:1.- Communist, or is that socialist propaganda? 2.- Hue architecture. 3.- Eaves on a traditional house in Hue. 4.- Inside the Imperial City, Hue. 5.-Inside the Imperial City, Hue. 6.-War memorabilia, Hue. 7.- Trying to keep dry in the alluvial downpours, Hue. 8.- Another day, another alluvial downpour, Hoi An. 9.- Buying some fresh produce at the local market, Hoi An. 10.- Taken from the bus, as we made our way from Hoi An to Nha Trang. 11.- Stilt houses and boats along the canals, Nha Trang. 12.- Soaking up the mud, hot springs, Nha Trang. 13.- Washing "on the line", Dalat. 14.- Competition for China? What exactly is a long dung? Want our version?)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Everybody was kung fu fighting.......ha!

Vietnam is surprisingly "easy" to travel in. Perhaps too easy! There are so many organised tours and buses, that if not careful, your whole time here could potentially turn into one big, extended tour! Tam Coc, although only a couple of hours south of Hanoi, is no exception, and is definitely a popular day trip from Hanoi. Not to be deterred, the aim was to do it ourselves!

Thu Giang Guesthouse (brilliant to the very end!) organised for a couple of motorbike drivers, to take us to the local bus station, which was a good fifteen minute ride away, from where we took a bus the short two hours to Ninh Binh (not to be confused with Nimbin!). Even on the back of those two bikes, we were stunned at the amount of other motorbikes we saw! Zipping and weaving as they were doing, it's anyone's guess as to why more accidents do not occur! Before we knew it, we were in Ninh Binh, which is the jumping off point for Tam Coc, which has been poetically coined, "Halong Bay on the rice paddies". After finding a place to stay, we took a stroll around town. With not many foreigners around, it was a great place to watch the locals. We found a food market, and had a bit of a wander as well as doing some food shopping. Bargaining is tough in Vietnam, and you really have to bargain viciously for everything...whilst keeping a smile on your face. In that way no-one loses face. This can become really tedious, and after so many months of travelling, at times, downright boring! We'd heard about it, we'd talked about it, we were told it was true, and we finally saw it for ourselves! I did a take two, as I walked past the meat section in the market (which I usually try to avoid).....was that a dog's head I saw? Yep! Rover today, dinner tomorrow! Jokes aside, dogs are not bred in Vietnam for food, and pretty much any dog is fare (or is it fair!) game! I couldn't believe it when I told Alex, and he said that he hadn't seen it. Them, actually, as there were a few! So, as discreetly as the only two foreigners in the market could, we walked past to take another look! Yep, definitely Rover!

The next day, we hired some bicycles and cycled the 10 kilometres out to Tam Coc, which was, expectedly, absolutely full of tourists. After purchasing our tickets, we proceeded to the dock, from where either one or two people take you out in a small boat, down a gorgeous river, culminating in some spectacular caves. As we looked around, whilst breathtaking, we could also see the work going on to make it look......well, more like Disneyland! Shouldn't be long now folks! The essential Tam Coc experience is to sit back, and be rowed through the Ngo Dong River, culminating in three caves, and a hard sell to rival the Mormons! Whilst, yes, it was spectacular, and watching the karst peaks jut out of rice paddies whilst riding along a serpentine river did not fail to impress, it's the part at the end that I found most "enjoyable". Lonely Planet refers to the scam as the "Tam Coc Tango". We knew it was coming, as we had heard about it and were prepared for it! Read on! It begins with boat vendors following you and urging you to "buy drink for madame" (after paying a ridiculous price for the drink, and offering it to the"madame" who is rowing your boat, "madame" then sells it back to the vendor and makes a nice little sum). Despite being asked several times, we stood firm, and said no! (whilst watching the multitude of other tourists buying their rowers both drinks and snacks). As the others bought copiously, and our rowers could see that we were not going to buy, we started to make our way back to the starting point. Time for hard sell number two! A mystery chest seemed to appear out of nowhere, and out they came a-rolling.....t-shirts, embroidered table cloths, hats and a number of other things. We continued to say no politely several more times. Whilst firm in our resolve, it did distract from the surroundings around us! Option two fatigued, they went for the jugular, a manoeuvre they hoped would work, as by this point we were over it......."tip please"! We had considered it, but they blew it when they asked, and asked, and asked, and asked! I think perhaps the Mormons would have been more lenient!

We virtually ran off the boat, and waved goodbye! After picking up our bikes, exactly where we had parked them, close by, we took a few hours to cycle around the immediate area. With virtually no tourists, this was a spectacular way to see how the people live and work in their environment. The locals were harvesting rice, and the husks were all around us, and indeed on many occasions, we had to cycle over them. It was not a problem for them, and so it was not a problem for us! We got a lot of stares and "sin jows" (hellos), which is always beautiful. We cycled through rice fields, and saw little wooden houses, where people lived in basic living conditioners; we saw people working the fields; we saw little pagodas without another human in sight; we saw children playing; we saw temples. We went to another bigger pagoda, called Bich Dong. It's a cave pagoda, and quite popular amongst the Vietnamese, but it was the scenic road winding through rice fields, hemmed in by karsts, and ending in a dusty village, which I felt to be the highlight. On the way back to Ninh Binh, we stumbled upon another cave pagoda. To reach it, we had to walk up an outdoor stairway for about fifteen minutes, but what a rewarding view! This time we got a sea of karst peaks from up high!

The next day, we took a couple of bikes again, and decided to cycle around the countryside. It proved to be one of our favourite days in Vietnam. We cycled along rivers that were at times wide, and at others thin. We cycled far enough that we were without a doubt the only foreigners in sight. We cycled on roads, we cycled on dirt tracks, and at times we cycled on tracks so narrow that they were more like railings! Again, mind blowing scenery coupled with the locals living their lives, continued to present us with the lessons one learns from the University of Life. We seem to complain about such trivial things, when these people do it hard! Really hard! The women, despite their small stature haul everything from bags of rice to barrels of water. The kids aren't doing a bad job either! Child labour? No! Kids helping the family in order to eke out a very, very, very humble living!

On our ride we passed Hoa Lu, which was the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh (968-80) and early Le (980-1009) dynasties, and whilst no Angkor Wat, it was pleasant enough to stroll through. The trip towards Kenh Ga was the truly mesmerising part, possibly because it's the best place outside of the Mekong Delta to see river life....but the package comes without the hordes of tourists! It truly was one of those magic afternoons, as we saw the karst peaks, in all their glory, as a backdrop to a people who call this their home. We cycled through places that were so narrow that the only form of transportation was bicycles and motorbikes, as nothing larger could fit through. Again, we saw women husking rice, men fishing and children playing, who were as mesmerised by us as we by them. Alex stopped to play with them, and although shy at first, they were soon full of laughter and smiles. This was food for my soul! As I stood back and watched Alex, as he really is a kid magnet, out of the corner of my eye,I saw a young man in a wheelchair, who was with his mother. As our eyes connected, he waved me down, expressing wanting us to have a photo taken together. I obliged! As I put my arm around his shoulders and smiled for Alex's (forever "snapping") camera, he too gave me a smile from ear to ear, and so did his mother. But they were two very different smiles. The young man's was because I had clearly made his day by making the effort to communicate with him, and his mother's expressed total and absolute thanks! And then there was my smile, which lifted my heart and appeased my soul!

With so much more to do in Vietnam, we would be catching a night bus on to Hue in Central Vietnam. We decided that (on this trip) we would bypass the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which was basically the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the first Indochina War. During the second Indochina War (more commonly referred to as the Vietnam War), it was the demarcation line between the communist North Vietnam, and the south.

Unfortunately, a little scuffle broke out as Alex and I were waiting to catch the bus to Hue, which originated in Hanoi. It was supposed to arrive at 9.30pm, but did not arrive until well after 10.30pm. A couple of guys from the hotel we were staying at, walked us to the main road, which is where the bus would pick us up from. It finally arrived, and as we were getting on we recognised a Dutch couple we had met in Hanoi. We were telling them about the nice place we had stayed in in Ninh Binh, and then the owners proceeded to give them some details. In the middle of their conversation, another "seller" (from some downtown hotel) steps between them, and starts his blurb on his hotel! My response to this was to ask him to move away, and give the couple a chance to chat to the other people first. He looked at me and continued his rude and brash behaviour! I was really taken aback, and the other couple obviously overwhelmed, so I stepped up rather closely and told me he was an "anus" (the word has been changed so as not to offend!), after which I proceeded to place my large backpack in the luggage compartment of the bus. Having said my bit, I thought it was all over! Oh no! This guy gets right up close, surpassing all boundaries of personal space, and starts abusing me. I was taken aback! Not sure exactly what ticked him off - me calling him an "anus" or the couple not taking him up on his offer of a place to stay! Why had I opened my mouth in the first place? Because he was being aggressive and a bully....and I don't like bullies! What ensued was something along these lines : I told him to get the f!*?k out of my face or he would have to choose between a hospital or a police station, to which he became a little bit too touchy feeling......well, for Alex, anyway! What Alex did next stunned even me....he bellowed out, "Get your f!#?$!g hands off my wife", which he gracefully followed through with a beautifully executed kick, smack bang in the centre of his chest! In the next few seconds it was on for young and old; Alex had fallen on his back as he'd lost his balance, whilst the irate Vietnamese man was trying to rip some bamboo off a fence close by, and clobber one or the both of us! Was I scared? No! Well, OK, a tad! Was I furious? Like, yeh!!!!! Nobody touches or threatens me! And if I cannot deal with it, or need a helping hand, Alex is by my side. The guy kept hurling abuse and telling us that HE would call the police! Yes, I repeat, that HE would call the police. Yep, we've got a hero here that's few cans short of the proverbial six pack! This is another one of those stories that I will happily go into on my return home. But it will cost you....a coffee or two!

Time to jump in the bus! I do not think it's appropriate here to mention my exact parting words, but I proudly and defiantly gave him the one finger salute! And with my hand high in the air, the doors closed and the bus took off! It was dark, but I could see his red and angry face! My system was pumping with adrenalin, as it had been a long day (as we had cycled some 40 kilometres), and an even longer night. The sleeper bus could not have been any more inviting! Luckily, here in Vietnam, the sleeper buses are a little wider, longer and more comfortable than their Chinese counterparts. We settled in, and we were soon asleep.....physical and mental exhaustion!

Ombi

NOTE: I have decided that there is actually something that I loathe more than arrogance and rudeness (I despise both equally), and it's called complacency! HOW does the world change if we all sit back and watch without doing anything! I will not shut-up, and I will not be silenced and my voice WILL be heard!

I shared our little kung-fu adventure with a very special and dear friend, Annie Whitlocke, a few weeks back, just after the event occurred, and this is what she had to say:

"I agree 100%, the worst thing we can do is nothing. By not voicing our opinions we accept injustice not just for ourselves but for others. Many do not have the opportunity to voice their feelings, it is up to people like you to be courageous and yell until they are heard. I also know that if it was a popularity contest, we would be in the back seats by now!

Many times people have told me to shut up and mind my own business, but the reason I speak out is to address a deep gut ache. It goes beyond words.

Complacency is like a disease, once it sets in it affects every aspect of our lives and I believe it also affects our physiological body and organs.

I love your passion....as does Alex no doubt ( :

All my love

Never stop screaming

Annie"

Thanks Annie. We love you too! And I promise that I will NEVER stop screaming!

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom" - Anais Nin (1903 - 1977).

(Photos:1.-Cycling around Tam Coc......oh, that's not one of our bikes by the way! 2.- I'll have half a kilo of Rover, thanks! 3.- Stroke, stroke, stroke...with your feet! That's our oarsman taking us to visit the caves of Tam Coc. 4.- A mini floating-market, Ngo Dong River, Tam Coc. 5.- Husking rice! Work goes on as usual for the locals of Ninh Binh, despite me cycling over their rice! 6.- Karst peak, on the way to Kenh Ga. 7.- Kids having some fun, on the way to Kenh Ga. 8.- Food for the soul! Making somebody happy! 9.- Sunset in the Kenh Ga area. 10.- Contemplation! Little boy in Hoa Lu. 11.- Vietnamese dong (their currency) as an offering in a temple.)