Friday, 19 September 2014

N 15.52.48 E 108.20.22 Vietnam from Hue to Ho Chi Minh City in 10 days

We arrived in Hue on September 5 and spent ten days travelling south, with brief stops, through Hoi An and Jungle Beach Resort to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Four days were spent on small uncomfortable private busses for long hours to get to the next spot.  Another country that we just got a tiny taste of and want to come back to do it our way.
Electrical outlets in south east asia.  Love them.
They fit our North American flat plugs and
the round plugs from central Asia, China and India

It is easy to see that Viet Nam is an economic powerhouse in the region.  Lonely Planet says it is set to be one of the top 20 world economies by 2025.  Roads are in good condition, even the rural housing is well built and finished, you see industrial plants and big equipment working.  Unlike India (where the health care issues are leprosy, diarrhea and tuberculosis), Viet Nam’s health messages on the sign boards are seatbelts and smoking, similar to western countries.  It is hard to believe that less than 40 years ago, Viet Nam was coming out of decades of war, first with the French then with the Americans (called the war of American Aggression here).

Things are not perfect, of course, as the country is still dealing with consequences of the war.  Viet Nam has been able to remove much of the landmines and unexploded ordinance, but they are quick to show you the heritage sites that were irreparably damaged.  And the issue of Agent Orange (for which the Americans have yet to admit or pay compensation) continues to plague the villages that were sprayed and the people who survived the initial attacks.

An interesting note is the fact that Vietnamese is written with the Latin alphabet (plus a number of accent marks) whereas Laos and Cambodia as well as Thailand use Sanscrit.  In 1949, when Viet Nam gained independence, their language was verbal only.  All important documents were in Chinese and the upper class (mandarins) all spoke Chinese.  Attempts had been made to use the Chinese characters to represent Vietnamese language without success.  It was the French missionaries that were tasked by the Vietnamese to create the written language – how can you be independent if you can’t use your own language in important documents?  It reminded me  of Latin for the elite and English for the peasants in England.

Hue in a day and a bit

We stayed in a lovely hotel near the river.  One of the front staff (daughter of the owners) had spent a year in Port Alberni as an exchange student.   She also assisted us with packing a silk thread painting for shipping home.  Interesting story, the company that had collected the paintings from local village coops was actually one person that sold them all to the hotel before immigrating to America.  Free market economy at its finest.
Down the street was a lovely restaurant
Had our 39th anniversary dinner here

Lion/unicorn dancers entertaining on the streets

"my" silk thread painting before being packed 

Yes, a two sided embroidery.
If only I had a place to put it

Tranh on the morning we left

With only one day, we chose to do an all day city tour to catch the tombs and monuments as well as the citadel (site of power for the last Vietnamese kings).  Our guide was excellent at combining religion (Buddhism as practiced in Viet Nam with a heavy dose of animism), history and politics. Add a smattering of birds, plants, fabrics, frescoes and a lovely buffet lunch and it was a tremendous day.
Lotus - the national flower of

looks like a snow lion from Tibet
here it is a unicorn

dragon atop a temple.  Decorated with broken bits of pottery that sparkle
in the sunlight

At each of the tombs of the last emperors were "staff" to serve in the afterlife
And Porsche (the elephant) and Lamborghini (the Horse) for play 

the coolest dragons encircled the pillars.
Replacements of the originals destroyed by the French or the Americans
Still cool even if they are modern

Chinese symbol for long life (Vietnamese still not a written
language) with 5 bats surrounding it for health
through the generations

An example of the collage used to decorate the temples, tombs
and other buildings. Originally it was crockery
used as ballast on French ships

Lion dancing started off the Kung Fu demonstration
All the moves in lion dances are actually martial
arts moves

Every dance had this character, not sure who he is.  This young man was a dwarf -
a common affect of Agent Orange

This group, like many, were all orphans taken in
by the master to learn martial arts and go to

Insense sticks.  In Vietnam
they are cinnamon and sandalwood mixed with glue and sawdust


Hue dump trucks taking gravel to a construction site

Turtle for long life


Check the horse carefully.  I've actually
captured his tail moving.
The building in the background is where ancestors are worshiped

urn for pouring hot oil onto your enemies from the 15th century
our guide suggested at first it was the concubine's jacuzzi

Not sure why this guy is so huge
But is shows how the ceramic collage works 

Hue was the area for the Tet Offensive that (combined with the American response) essentially levelled all the important historic sites, as well as the infrastructure.  Viet Nam has chosen to rebuild these with as close to the original processes as possible.  For example, the sculptures with inlaid ceramic and glass (old bits of plates and bottles) have only been completed within the last five to ten years, but follow the process that was used when they were originally built in the mid to late 1800s.  It gave a fascinating glitter to the palaces and appealed to my quilty soul.

The four important animals in Viet Nam are the dragon for power, phoenix for beauty, unicorn for peace and turtle for long life.  The unicorn actually looks a lot like the snow lions of Tibetan Buddhism.  Other important numbers and animals include the Chinese symbol for long life combined  with bats (five) for health through the generations.

Hoi An 

Two and a half days in Hoi An allowed those who wished to to have items hand tailored before we left.  Yes, I have two hand tailored blouses, and I also have a great memory/story about the ladies helping me to create my Laos quilt square.  Hoi An is a world heritage town, so heavily geared toward the tourist in the old town area.  For generations, Hoi An was an international port, hence the Japanese as well as Chinese influence.  Silting up of the river moved the port facilities north to Da Nang which kept the historic buildings intact.  Personally, I found the constant pressure from shop keepers with indifferent souvenirs to be wearing.
Zipping past a beach and not stopping

Prize for the most unique place to stop for a wee break
A statue factory

We spent a day travelling to My Son, another world heritage site.  This one, is recognizing the Champa civilization that existed in Vietnam from the 8th to 15th centuries.  The Champa were originally from India and brought Hinduism to the area.  Of 70 temples, only 20 remain after the American bombing.  Our guide was not the best (totally unexpected after the many guided tours we have been on) so we quietly slipped away from the group and had a lovely time at our own pace.  The areas were well signed in English.  We actually bumped into a Canadian tour group, most of whom were from Alberta! The way home was partly by boat on the river including stopping at one of the artisan villages which specialized in wood carving.
Adding to my collection of treadle sewing machines

One of the interesting things about this architecture
is that the building of brick were built without mortar
. Somehow the bricks meld into each other and the building
survives for centuries.  Repairs with mortar last about
20 years and they are experimenting to see if
they can replicate the old way

8th century temple seriously damaged by American bombs
Under restoration.  My first thought was
"Hey, it has a roof just like the Waterhole post office"

Hand inlaid mother of pearl
We watched the artist choose bits of shell and hand cut the shape

Every workshop stores nails and such
in tobacco tins

Folk art museum Hoi An
This is a foot powered mortar and pestle
for grinding medicines

The neighborhood gas pump
for the hundreds of motorcycles and

Jungle Beach was interesting but...

Another loong day in a cramped bus got us to Jungle Beach, a primitive resort near Na Trang but some distance off the main highway.  The good part was that the owner (and expat Canadian) and staff really worked to make our time enjoyable.  The weather was lovely and I got a chance to swim in the ocean and try out my waterproof camera case.  However, it was only one day and basic was really basic.  We were essentially camping on the beach in a malaria area – native style huts certainly didn’t keep the mosquitoes out and the mosquito netting didn’t make the grade either. Food was ok, but quantity didn’t fill up a western body.

There were dozens of little crabs climbing on these rocks
all faster than I was at trying to take their picture

The original underwater photo

Zoomed in to show the school of almost transparent
sardines swimming around me.
Pretty cool

Photo by Cal

Ho Chi Minh City in two days

We travelled to Ho Chi Minh City on a sleeper bus – looked interesting when we had seen them on the road, but in practice it was one more loong uncomfortable bus ride which ended with an 8  (yes 8) block walk with our full kit from the bus stop to our hotel then a climb of 5 flights of stairs.  It’s a big city like any other big city and we stayed in the middle of backpacker central where we were warned about purse snatchers and even the guys who should have known how to take care of themselves were warned about being on the street at night.

That said, we discovered a lovely restaurant near by with excellent Vietnamese food as well as a bakery to make breakfast and lunch for our next road trip.  I also discovered “iced black coffee with milk” which everybody had been telling me about for days.  The French influence means that Vietnam takes coffee making to the next level.  Even the Nescafe that we bought for early morning do it yourself coffee is different and great.

We headed out on our first full day to find the War Remnants Museum.  On the way we had one of those experiences that will be a forever memory.  One of the sellers of coconut juice stopped and chatted with us, encouraged us to try his carry yoke and take our pictures (very heavy, by the way, you see little ladies carrying their weight in the baskets on each end) then proceeded to prepare a juice for us.  What could we say, I was sort of thirsty and had been intending on trying these some time.  He asked for 150,000 VZD (about 8 dollars) and we paid it before we realized how much we were paying.  We actually saw him later that day and he smiled and remembered us and sold us one more!  The next day we noticed the going rate at the juice stalls was 4000 VSD (about 25 cents).

The War Remnants museum was an eye opening experience.  I was 17 in 1972 when the Americans withdrew from Vietnam so my memories were of “the bad communists” and of American anti war demonstrations.  The story from the Vietnam side is very different, also laden with propaganda, but I think it is something that needs to be remembered.  Maps (using American data) show the overwhelming numbers of bombs dropped on civilian targets and there is no getting around the devastation of Agent Orange. What Vietnam is dealing with now is the third generation to be affected.  The original men and women dealt with burns and cancers then passed on the genetic mutations to their children who have a range of moderate to severe disabilities.  Now there are young people so disabled that their families cage them for their safety.

Next day, we headed out to the Cu Chi tunnels, used by the Viet Cong to bring the war to the doorstep of Saigon. Interesting but disappointing in that it was heavily commercialized (souvenirs made by victims of Agent Orange, please support them) and our guide who seemed determined to entertain us rather than inform us.

What I will remember about Vietnam

The people who are friendly and resilient and seem able to talk about the problems of their government.  The affects of war are long term and keep repeating themselves.
Vietnam is a big country and can’t truly be discovered in the short length of time we had.  I would like to visit the north and also get out of the cities to hike and explore.  Spend time in the Mekong delta.

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