A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sticky post

Just a quick realtime interlude...new things are happening in the world of Vietnamese food blogs!

First there was Noodlepie. But now to redress the north/south ying/yang thing, Hanoi's got it's own thing going on...

Check out the excellent Stickyrice website for all your streetfood needs, oh yes, highly recommended it is...

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Motorcycle Diaries: Part 4

Refreshed after a night in Dambri, we headed back into Bao Loc for breakfast.

It's beginning to become a bit of a habit during this trip, tucking into a steaming bowl of pho for breakfast, and I have to say it still doesn't feel completely natural, first thing in the morning. The pho place we ate in was a cavernous place, neatly tiled and dominated by huge cauldrons bubbling away with stock, three women adding fistfulls of herbs, beansprouts and thinly sliced beef to the broth.

Back on the road
The weather began closing in, so I was given a pair of waterproof trousers to wear. Unfortunately they were too short. A both ends. It requires some quite frankly painful gyrations to be able to cock my leg over the baggage on the back of the bike, often eliciting a muffled squeak from me as it got a bit too tight for comfort. Strangely though, I mere threat of me wearing plastic trousers proved enough to drive the storm clouds away (probably due to being so embarrassed at my get-up).

Framed
We began our descent down from the Bao Loc plateau (don't think I've ever been anywhere called a plateau before) to the levels below. The countryside whipped past as we nonchalantly curved around mountain bends, the now familiar landscape of mulberry, tea and coffee zipping by.
Duong pulled up abruptly on a mountain road and did a quick u-turn. We foundourselves standing outside a small farmhouse investigating wooden frames lying propped up against the side of the house. We peered closer, and it became apparent that is was a foster home for orphaned silkworms. Once the silkworms have been enticed by the mulberry (or kidnapped if you prefer), they are harvested and brought to live on these frames. There, the worms cocoon themselves in silk. The beggars are then drowned in hot water and the silk thread is then processed. The worms actually looked pretty cool sporting Zorro eyemasks. Once they've been dunked in water, they can be found on sale in Vietnamese markets, generally for pig feed, but it's not unknown for poor families to buy them for their high protein count.

Tofu
We screeched to a halt, dismounted and peered into the darkened room. A mother cradled a baby while two teenagers busily worked away - a tofu factory apparently. I generally find tofu to be a bland, missable prospect, but this stuff was silky fresh, we gripped our freshly fried cubes, blowing on our fingers, our breath steaming as we attempted to cope with the creamy semi liquid centres. A few burnt fingers later, we were back on our way.

Top marketing

Kids willing to have their picture taken, yes...smiley woman with amazing fruit stall no...*sigh*

Duong pulled up in a small town at about 10am, as in commonplace in countryside Vietnam, we were at once greeting by hordes of screaming kids, never shy to have their picture taken, but this stop was for a sweet buying mission for our visit to a minority village later in the day. Our attention was drawn to a fantastic looking stall full of fresh fruit, so we asked the smiley woman whether we could take her picture, as she sat behind the table, conical hat tipped back at a suitably photogenic angle. Typically, she decided that she was too shy and hid behind the stall until we had gone...

The miles ticked over, and the heat began to rise off the tarmac. I was starting to melt in my waterproof trousers, and I could feel the sweat beginning to collect behind my knees - you start discovering parts of your body in Vietnam that you never knew even had sweat glands - I mean your knees? forearm? elbows? I asked Duong about stopping, he shook his head 'Soon, soon, it's almost 11.30!' he replied...

Chop, chop

Duong breathlessly dismounted from the bike beckoning me to follow, once again my crotch-grabbingly tight waterproofs hampered my dismounting. I suggested as it was now baking hot that I could remove them 'not now, later, later' Duong chided me.
Duong headed off down a path to a set of low-rise workshops, where a mechanical clattering sound could be heard reverberating across the dip in the valley. As we approached we could see figures hurriedly beavering away over a variety of workstations. My head swam as I was suddenly taken back to woodwork lessons at secondary school - the horror, the horror! Bamboo lay piled up at one end of the workshop, where women sorted through the piles separating the differently aged stock. Depending on the age of the bamboo it was sent down a different line where it was chopped into 20cm tranches, next they were propelled onwards to what seemed to be a (technical term coming up) woodsplitter. The machine splintered the bamboo into shafts - instantly it became apparent what we were watching - a chop stick factory! The chop sticks were collected from the tray they been spat into and then were bundled up into huge reel, then wrapped in thread dependent on quality and age...to be sent off to another mountain top workshop where they would be 'finished'.
This hive of activity was overseen by a rather unfortunate one armed chained monkey, who seemed to hold the highly esteemed position of company mascot (it obviously knew it was important as it spent most of the time we were there bearing it's arse at us).

High top fades
As the altitude dropped, we watched the valley next to us unfurl. The land below was supposed to be a massive reservoir, but due to the dessicated wet season it lay empty, muddy banks revealed to the sun, islands standing out like hip hop artists sporting high top fades. The greenery a strange mixture of alpine trees and tropical shrubbery.

Lowlands
At last we hit the coastal plain, the highland fields of tea, coffee and mulberry left behind. Instead intensive cultivation spread out, primarily fruits and rice fields.
Duong had habit of impromptu stops if anything took his fancy and this happend twice on our way to the coast. The first stop was at a non-descript farmhouse, almost hidden by the tarpaulin sheeted frames standing in it's frontyard. Duong began poking around the sheeting and eventually the home owners came out to greet us. As they stood on their porch, Duong pulled back the sheets to reveal a mushroom farm. Plastic bottles hung from beams full of compost and seeded with spores bought from the local market. The plastic bottles had slices cut out, and from these slits grew different varieties of mushrooms, cat's ear, buttons, shitake, a veritable forest of fungi.
Our next stop was at a farm set a few yards back from the main road. The spiky low growing bushes concealed their crop under old editions of Nhan Dan. Nobblely green objects could be seen peering out from their black and white paper cones. The farmer's wife brought out a mat and draped it onto a bedframe on the veranda of the house, sitting crosslegged she proceeded to unwrap some of the twists of paper to reveal bulbous bright pink fruit with spiky points growing vertically along the body. Dragon Fruit.
Dragon fruit in Hanoi is often a disappointing experience. The amazing skin promising a delicious and exciting interior, often flatters to deceive - a passion fruit in reverse as it were. Often the flesh of the fruit - a negative image of the sky at night - creamy flesh pitted with tiny black seeds - can prove a watery and tasteless experience. For once, the Dragon fruit exceeded our expectations, firm, sweet in flavour, it's white flesh contrasting with the vermilion pink of it's skin.

Next the sea

Duong and Thai saying goodbye at Mui Ne

Service stations in Vietnam vary in quality just like everywhere else in the world (Britain excepted - they're all over priced and terrible). Some are just little shacks with a few banh mi and a packet of Laughing Cow cheese, others have huge canteens offering a whole range of culinary experiences to the weary traveller. Another driver friendly feature is the number of hammocks strung up to pass away the lunchtime heat. The service station we stopped at on Highway one was a veritable Ritz of a place. It's not often that you can tuck into tuna steak and fresh shrimp on the M1 and it goes to show you those little things an easyrider tour can bring to your attention. I think the possibility of blowing 70,000VND at lunch is probably one of the perks of an easyrider lifestyle!

Dambri Falls

Another classic tourist resort, Dambri boasts a 50 metre (I seem to be going all metric since I’ve been in Vietnam for some reason) waterfall which was impressive in a ‘that looks good’ kind of way. But Dambri doesn’t just have a waterfall, oh no, there’s so much more. At the top of the waterfall there’s a small theme park, with mini replica minority houses, giant fibreglass t-rexs, lions, tigers and elephants and to cap it off some fibreglass minority people who looked like they were a job lot of Native Americans who’d been shipped out to rural Vietnam by accident. Scandalously one of the women was topless. Next to our hotel was a small boating lake with regulation swan pedal boats and a tiny electric car racetrack.

Our hotel, the imaginatively named Dambri, is described by the Rough Guide as having ‘smart rooms that could make a good place to rest up in the countryside for a few days’. How on earth they can even mention ‘smart’ and Dambri in the same sentence remains a mystery to us. The room seem to have last seen a lick of paint when the Vietnamese were fighting the Chinese in 1979!

The hotel also seemed to have some ritually symbolic meaning to moth-kind as it was covered in the blighters as they made their haaj to this moth Mecca. On top of the faded paintwork, there was the tastefully cigarette burnt nylon sheeting and 20 watt electricity bulb in the bathroom. The bedroom was lit by a pleasant fluorescent strip light and our bed possessed cobwebs.
The Lonely Planet is often highly negative about any place it mentions, famously repeating the mantra ‘this place was so much better before backpackers discovered it’. However the unmitigated gloom of the Lonely Planet in this case would have been preferable to the whitewashed version the Rough Guide gave us for Dambri!

As we had been warned by Duong and Khai, the food was poor, but thankfully our kilo of beef went a long way and the insipid instant noodles and stirfried veg pretty much remained untouched.

The Dambri is a state run hotel and it’s a shame about the state it’s in as a little bit of love and attention could work wonders for the place.

Tiger, Tiger burning bright
That evening we settled down for dinner with Thai and Duong, we chatted about life in Vietnam and stories about their lives as easyriders. Thai then went on to talk about his family. His mother in law, it turns out has 15 children! He says that when he goes to visit he can’t tell them apart, and that meal times require a bell to be rung to call the brood to the table.Thai also gave us an account of Vietnamese married life, describing his wife as the ‘Tigress’ who definitely seems to rule his domestic affairs. Thai jokingly said that there are only two days in a Vietnamese woman’s life when she is truly happy. One is her wedding day, the second the day her husband dies! He also said that marriage is like a nice prison, all Vietnamese men wanted to know what it was like on the inside. One bottle of Da Lat red wine and one bottle of rice wine later it was time for bed, and an early start the next morning.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Motorcycle diaries part 3: The open road

Dung and Thai - our Easyrider guides

Our second night in the hotel was slightly quieter, but a toddler decided it wanted to practice the 100 metre sprint in the room above us and then the tricycle dash the following morning.


Southern Pho


Both mornings in the Fortune meant I had the chance to sample the southern version of Pho. I've always loved the version in Hanoi so I thought I'd give it a go. The southern version is a different kind of creature. The most important difference is the stock. in the north it is a rich aromatic beefy flavour, while here it seemed to have been highly sugared adding a odd taste to an obstensibly savoury dish. Another difference was the type of herbs used, the emphasis shifted from mint to coriander, with additional beansprouts. The major plus point for the southern version seems to be the quality of the beef - much nicer. Still, on reflection I think I prefer the Hanoi version.

So at 8am we found ourselves sitting on the steps of the Fortune hotel waiting for our easyriders. The last we'd seen of them had been the night before we had parted with $20 each as a deposit. Then Thai and Duong's heads popped round the corner and they began taking our lugguage to the bikes. Huge pieces of plastic sheeting were used to wrap our gear in. There would be no access to our stuff until the evening, wrapped as they were in 'elephant condoms'.

So began our mini-adventure, two days on the open road with Duong and Thai as guides.
Our motorbikes were suprisingly comfortable with well padded seats, and distintly superior suspension. They were pretty powerful beasts as we whipped past more conventional mopeds and scooters as Duong opened up the throttle.

Trading places

The first day's tour was a whirlwind trip through the lifestyle of the Vietnamese country folk. Once again the differences between north and south became apparent. The south has three distinct groups of people living there. The first group are southern Vietnamese, who have been living here for generations. Many remember the war period and the hard times that followed. The second group are new settlers predominately from the north who moved southwards searching for land or work after 1975. Many of the places we visited had newly built roads and schools, fresh paint could be seen on the pagodas and churches.
The third group predates the Vietnamese - the Cham and other ethnic minorities. Many minorities live happily in parts of the southern central highlands, some have become assimilated, wearing western style clothes, while others still possess more basic lifestyles.

Old scars


Our descent from Da Lat began with a short ride and stop along the mountain road leading to the plains below. Thai described the affect the American war had on the countryside. Pointing across the valley at the mountainous slopes opposite, he described how the bald, scarred hilltops were just starting to recover from the effects of being napalmed by the Americans, as they had played an important role in the distribution of supplies to the Cong Sang VC guerillas. He also went on to talk about the terrible affects of Agent Orange on the people of Vietnam today.

50 Scents


If ever you needed an indication that Vietnam's economy is changing then this was it. Once, people struggled to have enough to eat, now farmers on the outskirts of Da Lat are digging up their vegetable patches in order to build plastic sheeted sheds to grow flowers. The economic returns are so much more lucrative.

Swords into ploughshares


Our next stop was a visit to a local blacksmith. It's still a common sight to find a blacksmith slaving over a hot furnace, constructing useful farm implements such as hoes and machetes. What was different about this blacksmith was his ingenious use of old war materials. Two of his anvils were constructed from old US army shell cases, and I imagine some of his metal probably came from the same sources.

The blacksmith, ably assisted by his wife had a pretty large family and two of the smallest girls quite spontaneously gave Felicity a bunch of wild flowers.







1001 things to do with rice

Half an hour later we found ourselves outside a stilted wooden farmhouse, standing on the edge of a hill overlooking a valley. It was here that we spent a bit of time going through the rice wine making process - very straight-forward it was too. Rice plus water, left to ferment in the sun, then heated and distilled. We ate some of the fermented rice which had that distinctive starchy taste plus a kick similar to vodka. The basement of the house also contained a pig pen teeming with piglets and what must be the most gigantic pig I've ever seen.

Basket cases


Bamboo and rattan play a vital role in Vietnamese country life. So our visit to the basket weavers showed an important aspect of agrarian productivity. Huge baskets, silkworm frames, and backpacks were all made at the small house. The family business consisted of mother, father and teenage daughter all dextrously weaving and platting strands of bamboo before attaching hoops to create the basket shapes, woolen gloved, crouched over and using their feet, it looked backbreaking work.

Following the thread

Vietnam is rightly famous for it's silk, a trade that goes back to pre-Christian times. I have up to this point remained ignorant about how you get from worm to beautiful garment, so the visit to the silk factory proved to be an eye-opener.
Large baskets full of silkworms cocoons were racked up, ready to be used in the process. These cocoons which still contained the live larvae were plunged into hot water trays sitting just below the spinning wheels. The workers would would then tease the threads of silk onto the highspeed bobbins, creating silk thread. I can only look back in awe to the time when this was done by hand. It must have taken ages and the expense would have been staggering.
After the thread was created, the silk is then dyed and eventually added to the loom. The loom we saw was electric, it's patterns determined by what looked like punch cards on a continual loop.

Elephant falls


By now it was a blazingly hot day, so what better thing to do than take a trip down a steep slope, while clambering over rocks? To be fair it was worth it as the waterfall looked pretty nice at the bottom (unfortunately I did have to suffer a mild dose of vertigo for the pleasure). The Elephant falls unfortunately have nothing to do with the giant pachyderm and are just named after the nearby mountain.

Bricking it
After a spot of nature it was onto light industry. Vietnam can sometimes feel like a gigantic building site, so the bricks have to come from somewhere. Now this isn't something I normally would consider doing in England - it doesn't sound very interesting does it - a brick factory? The thing in Vietnam though, is the small scale nature of production. There are no extended lines of distribution between raw materials and production. The brick factory sat in the middle of clay pits and the surrounding bald countryside vividly attested to deforestation on a pretty wide scale. Khai frowned about the environmental damage, as he seemed pretty keen on the government's commitment to repopulating the barren landscape with trees.

Tea as far as the eye can see


Coffee roasting

The climate in the southern central highlands is ideal for tea and coffee growing. You can pass for miles with coffee and tea plantations stretching out to either side of you. Vietnamese coffee is excellent, and I'm at a loss explaining why I've read bad reviews of it before our arrival here. I think the reason people are so unfamiliar with with it, outside of Vietnam may be due to two factors. Firstly, a large amount of coffee is sold to large international firms who use it in their own blends, without really crediting it's origination. Secondly, I think the Vietnamese need to think about their branding. South American coffee uses English brandnames, such as Blue Mountain, while Vietnam uses the frankly almost unpronounceable Trung Nguyen which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. The tea is equally as good - fresh green tea is a speciality and tons are shipped to top tea slurping nations such as Russia and Turkey. I have to say though that I'm not sure the Vietnamese passion for super strength boiling hot tea will necessarily catch on, as it leaves me as a sweating, twitching wreck as my nervous system tries to cope with the caffeine rush.

Stocking up at Bao Loc
Our day was punctuated by a stop off at Bao Loc. The Rough Guide describes it as a 'sheet of paper that's been first crumpled, and then flattened out again' which I think might over romanticise the place. A medium sized town it sports a good sized market where we stocked up on provisions for our evening barbeque, as we'd been warned the food at our hotel that night wouldn't be up to much. It strikes you when you visit a place like Bao Loc just how friendly the Vietnamese can be. As we meandered through the stalls, Duong was assailed by shouts from the stall holders 'where are they from? Who are they?' massive smiles splitting their faces. After buying sesame seeds and rice paper, we moved on to the meat section. A cheerful woman sat cross-legged on the counter, her wares placed in front of her. Duong obliged her with some traditional bargaining, complaining the price was too much (75,000VND a Kilo or just over 2GBP!), and she hadn't put a kilo of beef on the scales. In response she cut a nobbly bit of beef off the haunch in front of us and tossed it on, tipping the balace in our favour. Once again grinning broadly she asked where we were from, happily responding that Britain was nice and that Felicity was a 'Dep Gai' a beautiful woman (Duong had already said that Felicity was 'same,same as Vietnamese women' refering to her shape and that she should get an Ao Dai - it's a wonder she managed to get her head inside her motorbike helmet!). After the compliments we mounted up and headed out of Bao Loc.

Later that afternoon we arrived at Dambri Falls. Our stop for the night.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Taking it easy

Mildly reinvigorated after our night we trekked down to the lake and had a coffee, then we began our search for an easyrider to take us over two days to Mui Ne.

Easyriders are a Da Lat phenomenon. A group of older men (usually in their late 30s to 50s), with heavy duty bikes have become famous for offering tourists a more authentic approach to travelling through Vietnam - on the back of their bikes.
Formed as an unofficial group in the mid-1990s, the easyriders were christened by the editor of the Lonely Planet guide, who came to Da Lat to investigate this unique group.
After listening to the group's story, he dubbed them the easyriders after the famous 1970s roadmovie starring Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicolson. So a legend was born.
Now the easyriders comprise of about 70 members based out of Da Lat. Imitators are rife - accept no substitutes!

Ten minutes walk around Da Lat will guarantee you some one offering their services as an authentic easyrider. There some tell tale signs to look out for. Firstly dismiss anybody who's on a small bike, all the easyriders have hefty lowslung Honda numbers. Secondly, they are generally older than most Xe Oms. Thirdly the real easyriders generally have pretty good English and a 'feel' for their environment.

We found our dynamic duo, but visiting a hotel that the riders are known to hang out around. The woman who worked on the counter had an easyrider brother (again, beware of imitations - everyone and their dog in Da Lat claims to be an easyrider - just like everyone in Hoi An can reccomend a tailor).

We were cheerfully told to wait in the cafe next door for our drivers, and half an hour later Duong arrived, map in hand to give us a little run-down on our route.
Duong had a really nice aura about him, perhaps now in his early 40s, slightly chubby faced, bronzed, with teeth a chipmunk would have been proud of, he exuded cheerfulness and professionalism. He suprised us on numerous occasions with his command of English and extensive vocabluary. He also possessed an endearing vocal tick, ending every sentance with a 'nyerr'.

We sat waiting for a bit for his driving companion and 'leader' Thai to turn up. Thai was still on the road back from Nha Trang.

Thai in comparison to Duong, was a slightly gaunt looking man, but his face when he grinned crinkled, his eyes often with a playful twinkle. He had classic motorcycle helmet hair, plastered flat to his head, good English and a cheeky sense of humour. This look was completed by his weatherstained Harrington jacket. Thai is 50 though it's hard to credit it as he could easily pass for something short of 40.

We agreed we'd spend a half day touring Da Lat with them so we could decide whether we wanted to use them for the following two day trip.
We immediately took a liking to the pair, and they showed us all the sights around Da Lat for the rest of the afternoon. Again the difference between the north and the south in terms of the war became apparent through the time spent with Thai and Duong.

Da Lat was relatively unscathed by the American War (apparently both sides agreed that there would be no large scale engagements or bombings in the area). The only major attack on Da Lat occured in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, and the Cong Sang VC held the town for a few days. The Americans had a small helicopter base in Da Lat and had attempted to establish radar stations in the surrounding hills to dominate the area. It doesn't appear to have been too successful as a large number of the high peaks surrounding Da Lat appeared to have been Cong Sang VC strongholds. Even today some of the hills bear the scars of napalm attacks.

Thai lived in Da Lat during the period and spoke about the guerillas entering the surrounding village at night to get supplies, which was not always popular with the local farmers.
The general impression we got was that people just wanted to be left alone during the war and didn't really care for politics.

In terms of economics, Thai pointed out the extensive vegetable farming was changing, and more farmers were moving over to the more lucrative flower growing.

He also spoke about the economic crisis following the end of the war, and said that during the war the south had economically been on a par with Thailand. By 1975 there were major shortages.

Thai thought the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 - had led to a change of policy by the government (interesting theory - a break with Soviet economic orthodoxy, but the new economic policy predates that, with Doi Moi being adopted in 1986 - maybe it took a good few years before it had an affect?).

He also seemed to make a distinction between the communists of 1975 and the current leadership, describing them as 'clever communists'. It reminded me a bit of the Bolshevik's relationship with the peasants just after the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks gave the land to the peasants and were extremely popular. After changing their name to the Communist Party, they introduced War Communism, which tried to nationalise the land. This meant you could meet peasants who loved the Bolsheviks and hated the Communists!

Ultimately, Thai struck me as a pragmatist. He said it didn't matter, capitalism, communism, what matters is whether the people are happy. He would often say I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but today things are getting better, we are a lucky country - his face cracking into a grin.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Da Lat's all folks


Hmmm...

Da Lat has taken an almost mythical position in the Vietnamese psyche (and one westerner we know - eh Kate?). It is portrayed as the land of eternal spring (and to be fair the weather remains within a respectable 10-30 degrees bracket), overflowing with bounteous fields of flowers and vegetable gardens.

My work colleagues rave about the place, and it's the top destination for Vietnamese Honeymooners apparently. In fact 'Oh Da Lat!, it's sooooo romantic' is the considered opinion of my fellow workers.

Well. Now we've dealt with the myth, let's look at the facts.

Da Lat has only one good thing going for it. The road out of it preferably seen from the back of an easyrider motorcycle tour bike.

Don't get me wrong, and there's lots of evidence on this blog to prove it, I absolutely love Vietnam.

I love every small town I pass when travelling, I think about what it would be like to live in a H'mong village nestled below mount Fanzipan, I daydream about living as a fisherman, using one of those brightly painted boats with the giant eyes on the prow, a Vietnamese flag fluttering in the sea breeze, or bending low, up to my knees in muddy water as I bring in the rice harvest...all very romanticised I know.

But I will never, I repeat never will consider living in Da Lat.

From it's garish amusements (Vietnamese dressed up like cowboys driving pony traps? Please!) to it's lake (read muddy pond), I just cannot see the attraction of the place.

Da Lat itself is a very diffuse settlement, with the accommodation snuggled around a low rising stretch on land on the north side of the pond, mostly consisting of grey Soviet style unpainted concrete blocks. Even the much vaunted market is a disappointment, consisting on it's ground floor of identikit stalls selling the same stuff - sugered dried strawberries, tea and coffee.

Above the market is a row of brightly lit cafes (there's no real nightlife to speak of), and we passed a few hours in a place that did a half decent attempt at pizza. What is it about mountain resorts in Vietnam that ensures the food is so poor? It's one of the few things that takes the shine off Sapa too.

Da Lat supposedly is brimming full of interesting tourist attractions, but I think we must have missed them, so instead we went to the 'crazy house' and the 'railway station' - sounds good already eh?

The Crazy House to be fair is actually pretty remarkable. It has been designed and built by the daughter of a former President of Vietnam, which explains her blatant flaunting of any planning regulations. It was however the one highlight of our time in Da Lat. It had the air of something from Alice in Wonderland about it, all curling staircases, concrete toadstools and animal themed bedrooms (you can actually stay in the house). A veritable temple to the versatility of concrete.

The other highlight - and it had good reviews in the Rough Guide - was the art deco railway station, finally put out of action by the Cong Sang guerrillas in the mid-1960s, cutting Da Lat off from the rest of the national rail network up until this day - another triumph for the VC then! ;-)
Ultimately the art deco station was another disappointment. It's architecture smacking of suburban tube station (for once the French architect had an off day). I actually think Hanger Lane tube station might have more original art deco features.

Of course, I'm quite willing to admit that this view of Da Lat may have been coloured by other factors. Firstly our friend Kate has been absolutely raving about the place since we've known her, and as she has impeccable taste we thought we'd be on to a winner. Secondly it pissed down with rain for most of the time we were there, giving it an atmosphere akin to off season Blackpool according to Felicity, and thirdly our hotel the Fortune was a disaster.

Looking at the hotel from the outside we were happy with it. A giant block perched in one of the streets leading down to the mudhole (lake).
It makes a pleasing impression on the eye, with rose frontage, neon pink 'FORTUNE' on the front, and a nice use of white fairy lights down it's extensive window frontage. The reception was a gigantic space and the young woman working on the reception was very efficient and helpful. It felt clean and modern, including a smart looking lift, which chimed pleasantly when you reached your floor.

Our room was on the fourth floor, with a view onto the street below. The bathroom was nice and clean and there was plenty of hot water. It was strange staying in a room where air conditioning wasn't necessary, so much so that we needed a duvet.

I suppose you're beginning to wonder what the problem was. Well it only became apparent later. At this point we nipped out to meet Mark and Kate for a drink as they were in town waiting to start their week long easyrider tour of the central highlands.

After eating at the completely adequate V Cafe we joined Mark and Kate for drink in the dingy Saigon Bar - described in the guidebook at being Da Lat's only 'western style' bar. The bar was so low lit that we thought it was shut when we went past it the first time. Soon we found ourselves BGI beers in hand, pondering the fact that there doesn't appear to be a single comfortable seat to be had in the whole of Da Lat. After a swift drink it was back to the hotel after wishing Kate and Mark good luck for their forthcoming motorbike tour.

So return to the hotel we did, exhausted by our brush with death earlier, ready for an early night.

Now the problem with the hotel became apparent...

The Fortune is basically a gigantic concrete shell, with the rooms built around a central shaft containing the lift and stairwell, the unfortunate by-product of this design is that all sounds, be it a sneeze on the ground floor, or a child walking on the floor above reverberate throughout the entire hotel as though it's happening just outside your door.

The hotel had also decided to cover almost every surface in ceramic tiles adding to the swimming pool acoustics. Much of the following hours were therefore filled by cheerful Vietnamese tourists coming home and whispering good night to each other at 50 decibels, a baby being taken out into the corridor somewhere in the hotel, because it was keeping the inhabitants awake (what about the rest of us!?), and a man who had been exiled to the corridor because he had only managed to cough up half of his lung and had to spend the next three hours getting the second half up out of his windpipe.

What a contrast the next morning was...as I removed the plump pillow from on top of my head...maybe it was the heady mountain air, or had I developed appalling bad taste overnight, as it sounded like I'd been transported to the set of 'the Sound of Music'...was it my imagination or could I really hear teenage girls singing alpine songs presumably about goats, milking and other healthy outdoor pursuits just outside my room? My brain slowly clicked into gear...no it's not Switzerland and it's not 1939...they're singing in Vietnamese, a song about cats apparently, as the ditty ends with a giggly 'MEEEOOOWWW!!' from the alpine chorus.

Ah yes. I forgot. In addition to the murmurings from the other hotel guests the other night, the lift made a revenge appearance, it's sleek modern look and helpful cheery chime came back to haunt us as it appeared to be irresistibly drawn to our floor throughout the night - DING DONG, DING DONG, DING DONG returned again and again, as the phantom lift caller ensured we would always be on our edge.

Things that go bump in the night

Today was a bit of a long distance haul, with a taxi to Da Nang (no, still not worth visiting), flight to Nha Trang and a car ride to Da Lat.

What would have been a pleasant hanging out in the smoking room at Da Nang airport rapidly took a turn for the worse, when a walking cliche interrupted our smoking time.

One bloke, in his late 50s, wearing chinos and polo shirt with a military logo and sporting a buzzcut, and a younger tall black guy in his early 30s joined us in the smoking room.

Both had that definite services look about them. The older man had the air of somebody travelling around his old stamping grounds, dreaming of the times he gave 'charlie' a good kicking. The younger man perhaps an eager hanger-on or desperate for promotion...Unfortunately for us (they unsuprisingly spoke loud enough for everyone to be able to hear), they came out with the usual prejudiced claptrap:

Old Guy: 'Only in a communist country would you use a bus to take you to your plane sitting on the airstrip' (er no, actually it's pretty common in the rest of the world, perhaps you ought to get out more?).

Then they proceeded to complain about their lack of time devoted to exercise, while ironically smoking themselves stupid:

Old Guy: ' I managed to clock up a good parallel swim and thirty laps before breakfast' (*cough*)

Young Guy: ' Man, I like, you know, really miss my fitness regime' (while tugging on a Malborough Light)

Yawn.

A short flight later courtesy of Vietnam airlines PROPELLER driven plane (and a more dangerous looking lunch roll stuffed with unidentifiable meat paste) we arrived in Nha Trang and met our driver for the three hour drive up 1,500 metres to Da Lat.

All was going well as we wended up way, higher and higher up via a twisting and scenic route. We had just past the sign welcoming us to Da Lat as night fell, when our driver eventually lost his patience and let the frustration of the slow ascent get the better of him. We veered into the other (incoming traffic) lane to overtake a slow moving lorry in front of us, a bit risky as it was on a blind corner and a cliff dropped to the other side of us.

****LIGHT*****

****BUMP******

****LIGHT*****


Headlights flood the car, we screech to a halt as a gigantic truck brakes in front of us, just stopping short of our bumper. HYUNDI glares at us in what looks like 10 feet high silver letters from the front of the truck's grill,

As we sit there in disbelief, the truck we tried to overtake a few seconds earlier then gives the front quarter of our car a good bash as a big 'up yours' for attempting to overtake (they don't bother stopping either, despite the fact they know they've just crumpled the car).

Our driver - the lunatic that he is - is a quivering wreck, and we heard burbling and murmuring from him for the last ten minutes of the ride (plus a few smacks to his forehead). We eventually arrive in Da Lat without further mishap.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Hoi An again

Hoi An just can't disappoint. Although this time it was busier compared to our last trip during Tet it still is one of our favourite places in Vietnam.

Alright, I know it's not exactly authentic in terms of 'keeping it real' in a backpacker kind of way, but there's some thing really great about the way the local authorities have ensured that its past has remained intact - something which I really hope Hanoi remembers when it comes to renovating the Old Quarter.

This time we eschewed the more cultural activities (of which there are plenty - Chinese clan halls, merchant houses and My Son) and concentrated on the good life, visiting the beach twice and indulging ourselves with seafood platters and local food specialties.

On our first night we visited the Scout Cafe and tucked into the local favourites of Cau Lau and White Rose - parcels of minced shrimp and crab wrapped in steamed Manioc flour parcels, topped with crispy fried onion.

Cau Lau is the local noodle dish comprised of long, firm wheat noodles, bean sprouts, mint, star anise, rice flour crackers and topped with delicious slices of marinated pork. This dish is such a local specialty that it requires the use of the water from a local well - nothing else will do - hence it not being available anywhere else in Vietnam! Unfortunately for the Scout Cafe that night, somebody must have been half asleep when they served us as we found fish herb instead of mint in our Cau Lau - bleugh!

We eventually settled into a routine of visiting the Hong Phuc, a truly fantastic family run place sitting on the side of the river and staffed by a pair of cousins, who by the time we left, treated Felicity like a long lost family member.

The Hong Phuc is in the Rough Guide and by early evening it can often be hard to get a table. The same can't be said for the place next door, and you have to feel sorry for them as I'm sure the food is just as good, it's just that they haven't been anointed by the Popes of the travel guides.

On top of the food, Hoi An also possesses a great beach and we spent two wonderful afternoons there catching the sun. Just as before, there was a regular troop of beach vendors with classic sales pitches including: 'Open your heart...and your wallet', which for the first time can be pretty entertaining but by the end of the afternoon can be a bit wearing. The exception to the rule was Binh, a nine year old boy who sported a sun hat at a raffish angle and whose salespatter was straightforward enough: 'Pineapples, 15,000' (they normally cost about 3,000 VND in Hanoi!), but his cheery grin and the steely look in his eye when he insisted that we only buy pineapples from him won us over.

Hoi An proved to be the only place on our journey where Felicity felt brave enough for us to hire a motorbike, so we used it for a couple of days to have a jaunt around the surrounding countryside and few shuttle trips down to the beach. After crossing over the main bridge in Hoi An we drove past the monkey and Bia Hoi me and Mark had seen a few months previously.

Hoi An has suprisingly large suburbs and the road went on for about 15 minutes before finishing abruptly at the river. As we engineered a classically executed seven point turn, we were accosted by a group of small children screaming:'Coca! Coca!' we paused and a young girl ran over to a deserted stall and proceeded to rifle through a very battered looking Coca Cola cooler box. Felicity dismounted and joined her, peering into the container - false advertising! No Coca! So we decided we'd have a water anyway. While I parked the bike Felicity shrewdly negotiated the price. 3,000VND a go, by this point it was as though we'd stuck a stick into a termite mound as we were inundated with the neighbourhood kids excitedly watching the strange westerners drink water.

Shortly later, one of the girls who had sold us the drinks returned to us solemn faced. She muttered to Felicity: '5,000, the water is 5,000'. We had spotted her going back to her house just before and had obviously been told she'd charged us the local's rate, not the tourist price. We were for once in a strong negotiating position and knew that we could quite correctly stick to our guns. A deal's a deal in Vietnam once you've agreed a price. As we prepared to leave, Felicity picked up her bag, the eagle eyed children missed nothing and one of the spindly boys grabbed her pen, dancing a jig of delight as he held aloft his prize. The children began chorusing: 'Pens! Pens! Pens!' but unfortunately we had no more to give and with a cheery wave we made our way back to Hoi An.

Hoi An, had the architecture, the beach, the food, the small town atmosphere but on top of all that it also has some of the best bars in Vietnam. We frequented Treats most of all, finding its strangely kitsch decor more homely than the painfully trendy Mango Rooms, where you had to wonder whether it was a modern art installation in front of you or an ash tray. For a colonial style G&T nothing beats the TamTam, with its cream walls and dark wood interior, palms and red dressed staff. However our latest discovery was the Lounge Bar, which on our previous visit had been so full we'd given it a miss. The Lounge Bar was great, all simple modernism, cool lighting and casually dressed staff.

Typically, the weather cleared on our last morning as we sat around the pool waiting for our taxi to Da Nang to get our flight to Nha Trang and our journey that afternoon to Da Lat.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hue to Hoi An - we'll get by with a little help from our friends

I've already mentioned the former southern Vietnamese army war photographer, but how could I forget our other official guide on the An Phu bus?

The other person can only be described as a charismatic blackhole, all colour and interest were drained by this poor students inability to inject any life into proceedings.

In short, she was long on preamble and distinctly short on FACTS (we could be going past war monuments, French buildings, old US pill boxes and bases, but all she wanted to talk about was her brother's primary school). As a student doing work experience for the summer she appeared to have been fast-tracked onto public relations. Unfortunately for everyone on the bus this meant we were subjected to two lines of questioning.

One was 'how many bags have you got?'- not that our answer led to any stunning revelations; and secondly, whether we had 'an open tour ticket?' - which apparently no-one on the bus had.
Despite the fact that nobody, including ourselves possessed such a ticket (and if they did have one they were keeping it very quiet) she then proceeded to tell every single person on the bus that hypothetically we would have to inform her one day in advance of our future travel arrangements. Thanks for that singular FACT.

Another couple on the bus shared the back seats with us, and had been told by the bus driver to take their luggage with them to the back of the bus as he knew they would be getting off early (they had bought a ticket for a small resort halfway between Da Nang and Hoi An). This caused our little helper no end of consternation as she scanned their ticket, almost in disbelief exclaiming: 'have you booked accommodation? No? Let me check the ticket. Does the driver know you're getting off? How much luggage do you have? I must check with the driver that he knows you are getting off. Do you have an open tour ticket?' Thankfully for all involved, the An Phu bus always stops at the resort and to everyone's relief the couple escaped and the bus returned to a much needed sense of calm.

Finally, as we neared to Hoi An, the hard sell began. An Phu doesn't just run buses, it has a veritable tourist empire. Our war photographer, turned tour guide (did I mention he'd been shot in the head?) began extolling the virtues of An Phu and the various services his company offered - including their bloody open tour ticket which he used as an interrogation technique: 'We also offer an open tour ticket (thanks for that, I didn't know), all you need to do to use it is inform me one day in advance of your travel plans (Oi! That's not right, we've got to inform our little helper - not you!)'. It then turned all a bit sinister as his voice took on a tight, Teutonic air: 'I zink I know zum of you af ze open tur tikets. Ve af vayz of finding zis aut Tommy Inglander, don't yu vorry!' I obviously made the last bit up, but I'm convinced he was fiddling with the thumbscrews in his pockets as he ended the speech.

It was with distinct relief that we had arrived in Hoi An so that we could swiftly exit the bus and find safety in our hotel around the corner.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Hue ahead

It's been easy so far...a taxi, a plane, a taxi and here we are.

First on our list was Hue. Once imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue is comprised of two cities, distinctly different in character.

The old city is encompassed by brick city walls, quiet leafy streets and an easy going attitude (not that anything is particularly stressful about Hue). The new city is a bit more of a bustling place, but retains some beautiful old features, that out of all the places we have visited in Vietnam so far, reminds me of France. Wide boulevards dissect districts comprising of art deco style blocks cheek by jowl with older structures made up of one story wooden houses similar to those found in Hoi An.

The old city also is home to the Forbidden City, home of Vietnam's emperors up until the early part of the 20th century. To be honest it was a little dissappointing. A large number of the structures had been constructed from wood, and no longer existed. The one's that were still there didn't really have anything amazing about them...even the throne room, decked out in gold and red just about passed the 'that's nice' test, in terms of interest. It is a truly huge expanse, but you have to wonder about what it was like as Emperor sitting in the rotting wooden buildings as it went to rack and ruin around you.

A large part of the Forbidden city by the middle of the 20th century had become farmland for the city people, and only a dozen of the structures were still standing when the American war rampaged it's way through...with the citadel being taken by the Cong Sang Viet Nam soldiers during the Tet Offensive and then retaken at huge cost by the US a few weeks later...

The new city is a little more rough around the edges, lacking Hoi An's polished lustre, but the important point is that the old buildings still remain, giving you a taste for what Hue must have been like on that fateful day in the late nineteenth century when the French Expeditionary Force landed a few miles away.

The Hue town planners/People's Committee deserve fulsome praise for the place that Hue is now. The modern architecture is a wonderful compliment to the traditional, with a dash of French flair added to the mix.

Like the old city, the streets have ample tree cover, and wide pavements. Life is that little bit slower than anything we've experienced in Hanoi, partially due to a lack of motorbikes. Locals still use cyclos here for everyday travel, often piling two or three up into the distinctly one person version popular in Hue.

The two cities are seperated by the Perfume River, although I can't confirm that the river exudes a positive aroma, it certainly isn't noxious, adding a sense of space to the town.

The French left behind their turn of the century colonial architecture, but also a modern sensiblity with art deco styling still popular with modern developments - Hanoi are you listening?

However there are a few problems. Our taxi driver who met us at the airport told us that one of the problems with Hue has been the lack of jobs. Fundamentally Hue relies on income from tourism, he added that many students leave Hue for work in Ho Chi Minh City as opportunities are limited.

Food and drink
Hue possesses a good number of specialities, so we thought we'd try them out.
I had already researched some of them at www.noodlepie.com, and pieman hadn't been too positive about Hue cuisine, but we thought we'd give it a go anyway.
First up we started at the Mandarin Cafe and gave the Banh Khaoi a go. Bank Khaoi is a corn yellow coloured fried pancake stuffed with carrots, beansprouts, and pork slices and was served with a sweet, salty peanut and seseame dip called nuoc leo. I have to say it was a poor effort and to be honest didn't really fancy another go at the grease feast...of course we did try again at Lac Thien a restaurant famous for it's own take on Hue food. There it was a completely different beasty, packed full of fillings and served with the all important herbs and unripe banana and cucumber, that cut through the oily taste. The greens weren't the only difference, the whole pancake was then wrapped in ricepaper and dunked in a far superior version of Nuoc Leo.
Next up was the Nem Lui, a similar combination of the ingredients above, but this time lacking the crispy pancake.
We also had My Xao Bo, crispy noodles with papaya and green beans. We also sampled for our lunches Bun Bo Hue, which was a soupy concoction of beef, pork, glass noodles, cabbage, bean sprouts, herbs, and green beans with a good kick of garlic and chillie and a bowl of Bun Bo at Lac Thien, which was pretty much the same as the Bun Bo Hue, minus the cabbage and with rice noodles instead of the glass noodles of the previous day - really good stuff, with a nose wateringly powerful kick of chillie - food's definately spicer down here!

The next day we plumped for a motorbike tour of the surrounding area with our guides Mr Thanh and Mr Thanh (one's got an accent).

The two guides zipped us around Hue, stopping off at a conical hat maker (Felicity bought one) and then off into the countryside, visiting an 18th century covered bridge (predating Hoi An's), had our fortune told (I will have 5 children and be very happy and rich for the rest of my life, in case you were wondering), saw incense being made (didn't know it was a glutinous resin before it was rolled onto sticks) and then off to a Buddhist training school set in pine scented woodland and then a quick dash up a ridge to a US firing position overlooking the Perfume River. It seems that everywhere we went we passed through large graveyards, tombs or war monuments. It was strange to think when you looked at the craggy tree covered landscape that thousands of people died here. After a short break we ended up at a circular brick structure. We had no idea what it was for. It looked Victorian in period, but I couldn't swear to it. Eventually Thanh explained it was a tiger arena. Apparently it was built for one of the Vietnamese Kings. He had been in a foul mood for a period of time, so eventually King Minh Mang's concubines (all 104 of them!!), clubbed together and built him the Tiger Arena. The Arena hosted fights between elephants and tigers. Just like the colluseum in Rome, one could say that there was a prefered outcome (I wondered how the betting must have worked, as I'm sure no-one was betting on the Christians V Lions match). Apparently King Mang liked elephants, so to ensure the 'correct' result was obtained, the poor tigers had their claws removed!

Finally we finished the tour by paying a fleeting visit to Ho Chi Minh's old school (he was expelled for revolutionary activity) where a stutue on the man stands outside. Unlike all the other statues of Ho, this one is him as a young man, a clean shaven jaw jutting out, traditional clothing and a distance gaze in his eyes.

This part of Vietnam has a different take on the war it seems. One of our guides during the time we were in Hue, talked about how his mother had to leave her village because it was unsafe due to the VC being around, also mentioning how he sat as a youngster on Le Loi street breathing the stench of death as US army trucks brought back corpses from the DMZ.

Another guide on our bus to Hoi An spoke of his time as a war photographer and talked about his American, Thai and Australian colleagues...just yesterday in Hoi An we spoke with an elderly man who had lost a leg in an US bombing raid...here the war seems more muddy and confused, more a civil war, with the shadow of war cast over both sides...but it's all done and dusted. What's happened, has happened, and people are happy to make money and earn a living.

next...the An Phu express, Hoi An food, demon pineapple sellers and much, much more!