Published: January 29th 2009January 29th 2009
In the domestic terminal of HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat airport in December 2008, I solved the mystery of why the only people you ever hear of being the victim of petty crime this city are predominately western, frequently tourists. Yes, ‘westerners’ are relatively wealthy set against a backdrop of South East Asia and, yes, they are vulnerable with their uniform, copied Lonely Planet maps, their ‘whiteness’ that emphasises their lack of familiarity with their surroundings. But here, waiting for my flight to Danang, it all suddenly makes sense.
The terminal was swarming with backpackers, French tourists and well-dressed Vietnamese. I was on route to the central coastal regions of Thu’a Thein and Quang Nam provinces. Considering at this point I had lost my voice and had resorted to a pantomime routine at ILA, a break was much needed. (I exemplify the notion that teaching is 99% entertainment and 1% information.) As I work in a floor above an modern and expensive plaza, often works of art in themselves, it frequently strikes me how much a shame it is that they are nearly always empty. Sales assistants of myriad perfumes or designer skin whitener (yes, imagine!) probably have a customer target
also called 'bridge from afar'
of one a month. And considering most of their clientele is Western, Japanese and Korean you’d think by now they’d recognise that hovering next to browsing customers makes their skin crawl. If they could just affect the same boredom and apathy as European sales advisors they could begin something of a revolution!
It wasn’t until another extremely fashionable Vietnamese women sat next to me, at once making me feel as though I had crawled out of some rubbish container, that the trend in muggings becomes clear. If you can find a thief who would not be deterred by her bling bling jewellery I’ll make you a millionaire, payable in VND$. Her diamonds would light up a dark alley like it was the final Christmas. If you find one bandit that wouldn’t be petrified of her potential makeshift weapons/six-inch Prada stiletto heels, I’ll eat my hat… though only if it’s designer, of course.
Everything looks green and picturesque in a rural sort of way as you fly in over Danang. The sheer amount of paddy fields, swamped with water, irrigating the land for future crops is overwhelmingly comforting for an Irish girl who has deposited herself in the cramped
and chaotic HCMC for nine months. Most of the farming seems to be done by hand and water buffalo. Watching all the activity you feel as though you have been transported back to some distant century. Until you see the airport itself with the remnants of abandoned American machinery and buildings, that is. My first destination was a place called China Beach. It was made famous during the Vietnam war by it becoming a popular ‘R and R’ location for off duty soldiers. I was staying in a place I had read about online called Hoa’s Place, south-east of Danang city. When I arrived I thought I had entered hippie-village or the set of a Stanley Kubrick movie - rooms were 7USD$ per night (that was the luxurious room by the way), there were surf boards for free and you were encouraged to attend the communal meal of traditional Vietnamese food that ‘Hoa’ caught or cooked himself. (I’m not sure which because I was mentally fortifying myself to live in a 3x4 cell.) My room was a damp container with a rock-hard mattress and a window that didn’t close, the ensuite featured the original toilet from Full Metal Jacket (you
know that section of the film when all the new soldiers are remade into inhumane killers) and it looked as though Hoa had wallpapered the box in mould that once had been a feature of the Hanoi Hilton where captured POWs ‘resided’. All for the sake of the bloody elusive ‘Authentic Vietnam Experience.’ Next time I’m getting my worst enemy to do the booking…
Installed in my detention camp, I made my way to the beach (10 metres away) with a bottle of Tiger beer. This was a moment to celebrate. Before leaving Ireland, China Beach seemed so exotic, the idea of perfection. If I made it here, I’d make it anywhere or something to that Sinatra beat. So beer in hand I strolled what seemed like an eternity of brilliant white sand; it was like walking on light itself. In Ireland I had pictured a hammock, a surf board, some good looking Australians/ex-Baywatch type surfing experts. Instead, I had an hour of more realistic but comparable pleasure, congratulating myself I had made it and simultaneously regretting that now I needed another place that represented perfection again. The Vietnamese call this stretch My Khe, My An and Non Nuoc
beaches. Although all the R and R facilities have disappeared, hoteliers and developers use the more famous China Beach address. After losing my way in a marshy field, an hour later I had found the tourist attraction Marble Mountains. As I stumbled along a highway, a women leaped off the back of a motorbike and offered to show me where to start the climb. As long as I visited a marble-cutting workshop her father owns. After asking my age (same as her!), marital status (same as her, coincidently) and about the shape of my third toe (from the right) on my left foot, she asked, ‘Where you staying?’ And imagine our surprise when Hoa turns out to be her Uncle! The mountains are basically three or four limestone promontories that literally rise out of a very flat plain. On some of these mountains are ancient pagodas and fantastic caves to explore, decorated with shines to Buddha and Confucius. The walk up is more difficult that the ‘Jesus’ statue in Vung Tau; why they made the steps so tall when most Asian people were, comparatively speaking, dwarves, is the interminable question that you ponder all the way up. A light drizzle
began as I started my descent back towards the prison, almost like Ireland I thought. During the communal dinner that evening, where I chanced upon another ILA teacher that my flatmate is friends with, that drizzle turned into a gale force storm. Disconcertingly like Ireland. The mosquitos having their fill of us, I retired to bed and tried to convince myself I was having the ‘true’ Asian experience, as my window kept flying open in the howling wind. I must have fallen asleep because at 5am a beating drum roll filled the air, the waves seemed to be outside my window and I sat straight up, suddenly aware again of the damp smell enveloping my small shoebox. The drum roll continued for 10 minutes at which point there was the sounds of maybe fifty men exercising in a tropical storm that sounded like a mega- tsunami. Or being punished perhaps. Turns out that there was a police barracks right across from Hoa’s that during the day played ping pong and in early morning they wake by an assortment of merciless torture routines.
The beauty of solo travel is that spontaneous decisions are easily made. At breakfast the next day
I was introduced by my ILA friend to Treasa who was taking one of Hoa’s taxi’s to Hoi An to collect clothes she was having made. All around me people were arranging onward flights out of Danang, abandoning Hoa’s cabin due to the weather (it was like the rain you see in war movies), I arrange to share the ride and get someplace where I could do indoor sightseeing (museums, tailors, old houses, tailors, did I mention the tailors?) other than count the mould lumps in my bathroom and await the next big insect that would try be my friend. Treasa is a dance instructor and actress from Melbourne. She had spent time in the South with Vietnamese family and was, like many Australians I met, working their way North to Hanoi. Like everywhere in Vietnam, the taxi Hoa arranged was a friend’s/relation’s of his. The tailor we were going to was one recommended by Hoa. In Vietnam, efficient business is local, personal and ‘for you…special price.’
The taxi we took was half the going rate of a normal taxi. It was an old Russian silver make that had lumpy mustard seats and what looked to be a bamboo
root as a gear stick. In the force 12 storm we were driving against, we had one dirty wiper. Treasa and I bobbed around in the back, talking/reminding ourselves why we came to Vietnam, as we fell suspension-less into the giant pothole that is the road from Danang to Hoi An. As Treasa tried on all the clothes she was buying I started thinking about hotels. I had a comforting list but after finding the first three booked out or ridiculously priced sue it being 31st December, the tailor started ringing from her equivalent of the yellow pages. All full. 45$USD seemed unreasonable now I had survived a 7USD$. The tailor finally found a room for 15USD in the Trade Union Hotel in Hoi An, a government run organisation that was a sort of last option for most staying there. After ordering a skirt in thanks, Hoa’s son/cousin/mafia associate dropped me off and I revelled in the luxury of two dry beds, an ensuite with tiling and novelty mosquito net that made me believe I was a princess. Ironically this was to be the most expensive place I stayed and the only place I found an undesirable insect (god I
sound like Hitler)that felt the full weight of a complementary flip-flop.
Due to the incessant downpour I chose the first restaurant for dinner, Treat’s Same Same Café. An Australian guy called Miles introduced himself and asked me to join a pool tournament. I don’t remember who or if the winner of the tournament was decided. I do however recall thinking it was a fantastic idea to have shots of snake wine, a legendary wine that makes man virile. What could be more desirable and delicious than nail varnish that had bits of dead snake skin floating in it? Bring it on! At midnight, just after I made a few long distance calls telling people I was elephant women and that pool is easier if you can make the white ball bounce, the staff gave all customers incense sticks to burn. See pictures for visual appreciation of the merriment. At 3 am I discovered that my communist hotel was shut and I had images of sleeping on the streets. Giving no thought at all to horror stories of what happens down alleys, I knocked on the window of a restaurant/bar and they, in fear I wanted to spend the night
sleeping on their doorstep, rang my hotel to wake the security guard. Delighted with my adventure I made some more long distant phone calls which I do not remember…although did I phone someone and tell them that I’m better than any toaster?! Only select blog readers have the answers but I will not., as many of those phoned have since demanded, submit to blackmail.
That night of revelry was the perfect way to start my visit to Hoi An, although it meant the next day was pretty much written off as R and R - recovery and regret.’ I met backpackers that I would meet repeatedly over the next few days there (and even two weeks later when I was back at work). I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves (I have hundreds) but Hoi An is often cited as many traveller’s favourite destination. While it is very touristy, it may be the only place in the world I have been that can look pretty in the rain. Every second shop is a tailors, the old historic part of the town is UNESCO World Heritage Site and the choice and quality of food is astonishing. It’s charm is its
laid back atmosphere and romance. I rented a bicycle after the first day for about 1USD, getting lost in the winding streets thronged with visitors. My bike was rusty, my brakes were mainly my feet and there were no gears. But it was the best way to see it all without seeing the tourists; on a bike you almost get treated like a local and there is no ‘you looking in my shop now’ style harassment. My abiding memory of Hoi An will be the difficult decisions where to eat - everywhere was good. Oh and of course the tailors.
My day on the bike should have told me something about sightseeing. If you can, do it yourself. From my limited experience to date, official and company tours are pretty much useless. I took one bus trip to another UNESCO site called My Son (pronounced Me Son), a sort of tourist attraction loosely and very creatively billed as the ‘Vietnamese Ankor Wat’. Don’t believe it for a second. My Son has about 70 Cham ruins dating between the 4th and 13th centuries, discovered by the French in the 1890’s. There are only about 20 in relatively good condition, although
I don’t know why they can’t be titled so that tourists know what each are. The tour was a meagre 4USD$ which included an apparent tour guide but I’m not sure which guy he was. My biggest problem with tours in Vietnam is that for the most part, the tourists spends more time collecting tourists from their hotels, travelling to the site, or stopping in perhaps a government sanctioned, official craft workshop, where they hope the rich cattle will buy some overpriced statues than at the actual attraction. Having arrived in My Son, I walked to the site itself about a kilometre away though a forest like road. There was a novelty (some cynics would say ‘obligatory’) American Army truck you could ride in, eight people at a time, but not seeing what this had to do with Cham ruins I decided not to wait. Anyway, as the guide was quick to remind us, we had to be back at the bus in forty minutes and, with over 100 people in line, time was precious. On most of the ruins you are able to see exquisite details and imagine the painstakingly tedious amount of time it took to build them.
They are pretty breathtaking to see but you just can’t shake off the feeling that a tour here, for the time being, is rather pointless if you don’t know anything about Cham architecture. I had many tourists taking pictures, not of the ruins, but of my fold out map with explanatory notes!
Having spent a fortune in Hoi An, namely on food and clothes, I decided to hightail it to Hue, from where I was flying home to HCMC. As you pass Danang’s beachfront area you can see the beginnings of multimillion investment in the development of the area. The bus route was spectacular because it travels through the region known as the Hai Van Pass on the Truong Son Range, allowing a spectacular view of Danang Bay and numerous mountains covered in thick tropical forest. It all was very enjoyable, even if the bus driver seemed to be on some sort of hallucinatory narcotics. Which is slight unnerving considering the mountain roads (which seemed to be a series of hairpin bends that Top Gear uses for crash testing) all featured, every few miles or so, mangled protective barriers from where motorbikes and buses going to Hue had veered
over the drop. Added to this disarming situation was the guy sitting next to me, who the bus picked up in Danang. He was constantly squirming, folding his arms over the back of the girl’s chair in front of him, texting, sleeping across two chairs and half of my legs, basically as annoying as you can get. It distracted me from willing the driver to slow down with the power of concentration, maybe to use his mirrors occasionally instead of blowing his horn as he turned into corners on the wrong side of the road.
In Hue, after a few friendly disagreements with xeoms drivers who wanted me to stay with their cousin for special special price, I finally arrived in the alley of the hotel I had booked for 10USD$. At first another hotelier tried to convince me there was no HALO hotel here but that his hotel was very nice. From somewhere another women pestered me that it was indeed true, this man’s hotel was very nice. Within three or four minutes, about 4 total strangers were trying to convince me HALO didn’t exist but that their brother/sister had one free room for a good discounted price,
just for me. My xeom was about to turn around when one of the harassing crown gave up and, with a OSCAR worthy monologue said’ Ah HA-LOW - It’s just over there!’. I made some sort of gesture that represented what exactly a halo was (I formed my hands in a circle and put them over my head), then realised they were probably Buddhist, gave up and checked in.
I’m going to let the photos do the work here. In Hue I rented a bike again and explored the Citadel (another UNESCO site) and the Demilitarised Zone or the DMZ. This later attraction I did by bus again; the tour guide was pretty good this time as he knew a little of the historical background. The tour takes you to Quang Tri Province and very close to the Laos border. (In fact the tour guide was in hysterics at us taking pictures of scared looking motorcyclists who stop very close to the border to hide cigarettes and other goods for selling in Laos. The tour brings you over the Hien Luong bridge and on to the Vinh Moc tunnels which, unlike the Cu Chi tunnels near HCMC, were more
‘residential, long-term’ tunnels. They are far wider and less visited than the more famous Cu Chi ones. Just before we entered the tunnel, I asked the guide how long would we be underground and he said I shouldn’t worried about the length of time I would feel claustrophobic but rather worry about the snakes. Nice. After that it was on to Khe Sanh combat base which includes a museum with the captions that slightly give away their creator’s political preference… “Look here at photographs of the ‘American soldiers frightened and running away’ or look here and see ‘an American breaking down because Viet Cong Army too strong and fearless.’…now let’s go see some tanks abandoned by cowardly enemy…” as in the War remnants museum in HCMC, it was an odd feeling to finally see in person, what up to now, had been contained by academic books.
The sunniest day I had in my entire trip was in Hue and I spent it in one of the most fabulous sights I have seen in Vietnam, Hue’s Citadel and Imperial City. Established by Emperor Gia Long in 1805, the citadel has undergone extensive restoration and now is a majestic example of
how Vietnam has a longer, richer and more colourful history than just the overshadowing Vietnam war. This war did great structural damage also, in particular in the 1968 Tet offensive. The citadel is divided into three enclosures; the Civic, Imperial and Forbidden Purple Cities. I know you all want to know what is so ‘forbidden’ about that last one. Apparently legend has it that only the emperor was allowed to go into the Purple city. If this rule was ignored, whoever set foot in there would instantly be killed. I’m taking it that snake wine hadn’t been invented yet and this prevented silly adventures or drinking games…but what if you were a chronic sleepwalker?
I finished my last few days in Hue by visiting Dong Ba Market (which was heaving with Tet shoppers), taking scenic boat rides on the Perfume river and generally being accosted by Vietnamese men who wished to practise English. My last day in Hue I rode around wearing a poncho that covered my entire body against the perpetual rain. I felt suddenly anonymous in my disguise; no more a tourist. Stopped at traffic lights a husband and wife stare at me, surprised I’m not one
of them. In my delirious, drenched but exhalted state I shout at them over the roar of engines that I love their county. (I must have seen tourists in Ireland do this all the time when it rained and yes, then I thought they were ridiculous). The couple simply smile and zoom on. I curse myself after because, had I given it more thought, I would have told them in perfect tonal Vietnamese “Toi thich Vietnam” and they would have been very impressed. There’s always next time I suppose.
There are more photos below