Escape to another world

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Asia » Vietnam
August 29th 2006
Published: November 8th 2006
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Dong van (Ha Giang province)
After a short flight from Korea, It soon became apparent that any expected regional similarities ended somewhere in the departure lounge. The sight of red-roofed ochre buildings peppered across a broad sweep of vivid green rice paddies sent chemicals of joy flooding through my body in anticipation. In retrospect these undistinguished fields and dishevelled dwellings won't even rouse a reaction in the following weeks. But after six months in Seoul, seeing the world through grey-tinted glasses, my captivated mind feasts on the colorful banquet in feverish desperation. It is not by chance the colour green symbolizes nature, life-energy, vitality and ...GO!

The taxi driver pulls up to the entrance of our requested hotel, and as I open my door I'm pounced on by a smartly dressed man who informs us it's full, though of course they 'have beds in the other branch nearby'. This scam is as old as the hills, though I fail to let on since I don't want to be hauled out of my dreamy introspection's by feelings of mistrust and confrontation. Our immediate priority is to set out and explore the Old quarter of Hanoi in the late afternoon's flattering tones

Ethnocentrism, and the current year I've just spent in Asia seem to nullify the onslaught of Asian characteristics that would have prevailed had I just stepped off the plane from London. Hanoi feels like a lost European city rediscovered by the chaos of modern Asia. Streets lined with trees whose trunks bend inward searching for light, create a canopy above the constant chaos of mopeds, rickshaws, shops, market stalls, temples, pagodas and trendy restaurants. Above the branches and the bustling onslaught of modernity are faded yellow, blue, and green facades, housing windows with wooden shutters and balconies with ornamental balustrades, giving an ethereal aura of a bygone era. We buy a photocopied guidebook from a street hawker and retire with pastries and coffee to one of the charmingly tranquil cafes overlooking Ham Viem Lake and hammer out a plan for our trip.

Next morning we're picked up bright and early from our hotel and driven in a convoy of mini-buses to our destination where we squeeze in amongst hundreds of other sodden tourists sheltering from the driving rains. After being herded into boats, the flotilla plows out into a low brooding drizzly sky that silhouettes the thousands of islets jutting out of Halong Bay in a mysteriously mystical air. We retreat to our cabin and just as we begin to simmer down the programme has us trudging around an illuminated cave led by our boatman/guide amongst dozens of other shuffling rain-jacketed tour groups. We then forsake the temptation of donning orange life jackets to go kayaking in the rain, instead staying back on the boat for a lazy afternoon's reading.

That evening after a lively sociable meal I took a seat out on the deck and stared into the darkness at the dozens of brightly illuminated boats huddled securely together in the cove, miles away from anywhere. A poignantly surreal symbol of mass tourism. Many people return feeling shortchanged from these Halong Bay excursions, particularly on rainy days like this when the only tolerated variable has failed to deliver (Modern consumerism will not tolerate any variation from the pre-planned schedule). Halong Bay is a special place, however, if you like your travel laced with a little adventure and a sense of discovery you may find yourself under-awed by the regimentation of it all.

Group mentality is usually a fairly benign force, but on our return trip to Hanoi we were witness
Pac SumPac SumPac Sum

(Ha Giang province)
to its pitfalls. Whenever people are interacting, behaviour tends to drop to the lowest common denominator of civility and intelligence. This is merely a result of human nature, and as such it is very hard to resist. The group mentality that seems to affect people when they are the majority seems to then justify almost any excess as long as it is directed towards the 'other'. The 'other' this time was that favored enemy of our times; Islam. An Israeli group member led a diatribe on the imminent threat it posed to mankind and further expressed his desire to go home and start eradicating its threat on our behalf. At the time, war was still raging in Lebanon and since it was apparent that most of the people on our bus had been away from the media for the duration of the conflict, or possibly their entire lives, I gave freedom of speech the benefit of the doubt, remained silent and bit my tongue very hard. Though inevitably Socratic irony led him willingly into the realms of Attila the Hun. Jennifer reached boiling point and unleashed the tempest, which in turn embroiled me, leaving him facing two heavily-loaded barrels.

It is ridiculous to believe you can change any one's opinion through direct public challenge, but as we sat in the silent bitter after-taste of confrontation, I felt extremely proud at Jennifer's stand against passive injustice. Though saddened at the paradigm shift experienced over the last 5 years which has allowed open hatred and bigotry of another group to be so acceptably preached whilst moderation on both sides has been virtually drowned out.

The North

The air-conditioned tourist express pulled into Lao Cai just before dawn. Scores of mini-buses line the car park, each displaying ‘Sapa’ as their destination. We wander around looking for something heading to Bac Ha, but there's nothing. The local bus we are told leaves at 06.30am, so we retreat to a nearby cafe for an early breakfast of noodle soup and wait. Another train arrives, hordes of tourist’s stream out of the station, hop into mini-buses and disappear towards Sapa. Another train arrives and the scene is replayed. I am equally frustrated and encouraged by this spectacle, as until this moment I never realised Bac Ha was such a radical alternative, and we hadn't even begun to get off the beaten track yet.

When our bus pulls up, we are helped into it by a friendly conductor and promptly charged 10 times the 'local fare'. After I inform the conductor I am aware of this ratio he reduces it to 5 times, but no further. He's offered a price, I know it to be too high and yet I pay it. Supply and Demand. The next bus isn't for another seven hours and Jennifer and I only have 10 days left together so I assuredly inform him this is his lucky day. However, despite my capitulation I feel irked; it feels as if we are being penalised for inadvertently straying onto a local bus away from the protection of the flock. Half an hour into our trip the bus begins to fill up with colorfully dressed tribal women and my petty stress is replaced by a feeling of warmth and wonder. I almost expect the conductor to come over and whisper conspiratorially in my ear, 'This is why you pay more'.

Every day feels like Sunday in Bac Ha - that is until Sunday itself arrives and hundreds of tourist day trippers hop on mini-buses to descend on this sleepy little town in what is said to be one of the most interesting markets in Vietnam. However this was Thursday, and after a pleasant afternoon exploring some nearby villages our thoughts were further a field.

Since I'd first started researching the trip to Vietnam one destination above all had filled me with longing. Situated in the far north of Vietnam, Ha Giang province contains some of the most spectacular scenery in Vietnam, and to boot receives hardly any visitors due to a requisite government travel permit. We had planned to hire a couple of motorbikes for the trip there, but since we were carrying all our bags and this was Vietnam's wettest month, we upgraded to an old Russian jeep.

The road between Bac Ha and Ha Giang is sparsely travelled and turned out to be mesmerisingly beautiful with vistas of rice terraces as picturesque as you'll see anywhere in Asia. Crossing a major river or descending into a different valley brought about a major shift in scenery and often a major change in attire for the ethnic tribe inhabiting that little niche. It was one of those trips when the scenery just gets better and makes you grateful for the invention of digital cameras, allowing for deletion of once beautiful scenes, superseded by the next, only to be further eclipsed around the next bend. The only consistency being that of the smiling faces and friendly waves we experienced en route.

After a night in Ha Giang we enter the frontier province and head up into the mountains towards the Chinese border. Travelling through lands of greenery interspersed with wonderful uplifted karst outcroppings and smiley faces seemingly untouched by the greed, fear and insecurity of the modern world. Filling me with naive dreams of Utopian agrarian societies and the perfectibility of man. In reality, Hà Giang is one of the least accessible and poorest provinces of Vietnam, and living conditions are extremely harsh. There is barely any arable land on the rocky mountains, and in order to grow corn the tribal people have to carry soil up from the valleys to fill hollows in the rocks, which after ever harvest is washed away by the seasonal rains. This annual toil however, must intimately connect the people to every stone and stream; anchoring them to nature in a way unbeknown to urban man. A world in such stark contrast to the city life I had just left, where civilized man possesses even greater powers of bending nature to his will, and yet as we become more technologically advanced we choose to build soul destroying cities of grey decay, which dehumanize by isolating us from our ultimate lifeblood; nature.

Early Sunday morning whilst driving through Dong Van we stumbled across a local market. Hundreds of tribal people from the surrounding villages and across the border had come to buy and sell their wares, be seen, socialise, get drunk and create a living patchwork of arguably the most colorful market I have ever witnessed. Even after reading all the hype and pouring over maps, it's impossible to envisage how anything will actually look or just how beautiful something can really be until you see it with your own eyes. Add to that a myriad of beautiful people and the most scrupulously descriptive travel information couldn't possibly give the faintest idea of the profound sense of liberation that can be achieved through nature.

Arriving back in Ha Giang after two days in the mountains, most of the rain the season had promised exploded from the sky. We woke at

(Ha Giang province)
4am and travelled hard all day on local transport to reach Nin Binh with enough steam to hire a bike and catch the sun setting over Tam Coc aka "Ha Long Bay on the rice paddies". Next day we drove to Kenh Ga Floating Village where a unique form of rowing is still practiced amongst the inhabitants who manage to propel their boats using a conventional paddling motion using only their feet. Then that evening despite the pitch of our hotel owner we decided to forego the ridiculously cheap tourist bus (with tickets as low as $23 from Hanoi to Saigon), for the marginally more expensive yet infinitely more comfortable train to Hue.

Hue is dominated by The Citadel, a moated, walled fort, within which lies the forbidden City. However the damage inflicted to the architecture during the Vietnam War is still being repaired and as a result is nothing to write home about. In somewhat better shape are the various royal tombs of the Nguyen emperors, which we spent a wonderful afternoon visiting by motorbike, despite experiencing a puncture and running out of petrol. And in the process further fuelling the argument that getting into trouble in the
getting in on the action...getting in on the action...getting in on the action...

Lung Phin (Ha Giang province)
‘developing’ world as a foreigner gives you a far higher chance of Samaritan rescue than in your own land.

The seductive lure of saving a dollar or two however, eventually led us onto the tourist bus to Hoi ann from Hue, thus missing out on what is according to Paul Theroux, one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. An opinion I wasn't to learn until after I had left Vietnam and unsurprisingly, not one of the tourist attractions touted by the commission led Hotel owners and travel agents in Hue.

Hoi an's rich trading past has gifted the town with an eclectic mix of wonderfully well-preserved Asian and European influences. Giving such a sophisticated feel, that the tourists wandering the streets serve to eternalize the cosmopolitan ambiance rather than taking away from it. Add to that some great food, a growing reputation for affordable tailored clothing, artwork and a fantastic beach just a short bicycle ride away and you have a truly world class destination. I was enamored by the place and would highly recommend a visit before it becomes one of South East Asia's backpacker hot spots, bringing all the baggage that entails or more likely, is recognised as the jewel it so obviously is, and becomes so exclusive the average traveller will be priced out of town.

The South

With Jennifer's bags stuffed with gorgeously tailored dresses, she flew back to Europe for a wedding, leaving little old me to continue the exploration of Vietnam alone. However, on the bus south to Nha Trang I met two English sisters who unilaterally designated me their personal tour guide. A sociable pair who talked at me for two days, either in direct competition with each other, or in tandem. Their chosen specialised subject was 'LOST' a programme to which I was once uninitiated yet was now enlightened to the entire plot, sub-plot and possible consequences for future series. Then one afternoon on the beach we were joined by another two British girls and approximately 10mins after a pleasant round of introductions the conversation turned to that cultural pillar of our times 'LOST'. At this point I developed an uncanny urge to go and pick a fight with a random bigot, but instead opted for the solitary downtime I was so obviously craving and took the opportunity to get LOST!

Nha Trang's beach is a rather untidy orange affair, backed by a growing city. Me Nui's in contrast was a wild white windswept affair, without a city in sight. When I got bored with all that, I took downtime to the extreme and had a guy drive me around the towering sand dunes and quaint fishing villages in the surrounding area.

Former capital of the south, Saigon, with all its scrambling modernity and pollution, is a long way in distance and feel from the grand old man of Hanoi in the north. A definite must-see for anyone visiting Saigon is The War Remnants Museum which avoids the pitfalls of many such museums around the world, as in its own words, "... it is not for inciting hatred, but just for learning lessons from history..."(however if you do come away hating America, or mankind in general, I suggest reading Howard Zinn's, A people's history of the United States, in order to truly appreciate the lengths thousands of average American's went to, to bring about an end to the terrible war). Whatever the museum's aims, it certainly took the spring out of my step for the remainder of the day and whilst walking home
Rice terracesRice terracesRice terraces

(Ha Giang province)
that evening my mood wasn't lifted when I was twice approached on motorbike by middle-aged lady-boys offering the services of little boys dressed as little girls.

The contemporary backpacker-ghetto clone of Pham Ngu Lao awaited me - complete with everything the modern traveller is supposed to desire, along with a few unique local innovations like the 'Karaoke Massage'. And to be honest that night I became a little perplexed by Saigon and tourism in general. I seriously considered jumping on a plane back to Europe or heading off to a random spice island in Eastern Indonesia. Instead I opted for the tourpacking option and a three-day tour of the Mekong Delta promising to deposit me all culturally fulfilled and refreshed in Phnom Penh (These tours, as with most offered in Vietnam do save you time and money, though in reality are little more than a collection of pit-stops at incense and sweet shops, and you'll likely come away feeling whether saving time and money is really the purpose for your visit to Vietnam).

Overall, I was really impressed by Vietnam. I've heard many people complain about how unfriendly the people are here, in the same vain as some people complain about the people in China. I personally found them to be a very hardworking and personable bunch. Vietnam's long history of resistance against China, France and America over the last century has given the people an enormous sense of pride and self-respect. So if, as in some other countries in South East Asia, they don't bow down or look up to you when they meet you, it isn't necessarily a sign of hostility. And if a rickshaw driver rips you off, or a tour doesn't go to plan should it taint 80million people? Besides, nobody in my photos looks unfriendly do they?

When the United States fought in Vietnam, it was organized modern technology versus organized human beings, and the human beings won

Howard Zinn

Additional photos below
Photos: 91, Displayed: 33


enjoying the scenery.enjoying the scenery.
enjoying the scenery.

near Vinh Quang (Ha Giang province)

8th November 2006

Don't believe the hype
I miss Vietnam so much! I'm glad you all liked it too. Don't worry about LOST, it used to be crack in TV form but this season sucks. Especially since they killed off my Nigerian drug lord :'( Are you going to make a US blog?
8th November 2006

good man, keep them coming now...
9th November 2006

Truly Inspirational !
I was deeply moved by your blog. One can only aspire to the level of understanding and wisdom you've achieved about the world through your was a pleasure to know you.....cheers !---JC---
12th November 2006

jason mate good to hear from you ..send me your email adress...any time you fall in
12th November 2006

Your photos are wonderful. The smiles on the people assure that you've made them feel relaxed and happy. Good for you.
18th April 2008

Just a little correction of the name of a place in your Vietnam blog. It should be "MUI NE", not "Me Nui" like you wrote.

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