This morning we reluctantly headed out of Hoi An in the direction of Hue. It’s only around a three or four hour drive, which is nothing compared to our usual journeys, but we tend to travel large distances at night … Continue reading
“If you feel lost, disappointed, hesitant, or weak, return to yourself, to who you are, here and now and when you get there, you will discover yourself, like a lotus flower in full bloom, even in a muddy pond, beautiful and strong.”
― Masaru Emoto, ‘The Secret Life of Water’
As Hoi An’s relatively small it’s very easy to get out into the sprawling rice paddies of the countryside. Today we hired out a couple of bikes in town and headed out for our first proper taste of South East Asian rural life.
The alternation between vast fields of rice, fish ponds and water gardens was entirely novel to me. I was immediately drawn to the murky ponds of the lotus ‘farms’ so stopped to investigate. ‘Nelumbo nucifera’ (lotus flower) is Vietnam’s national flower and has an extraordinarily long list of uses, being pretty much entirely edible in various different ways; The unusual Vietnamese lotus tea is made using scent from the stamens, for example. The man wading about in the field came over to introduce himself and seemed more than happy to pose for photographs and even made a gift of some of the flowers he was picking!
In fact the country folk in general were extremely accommodating and friendly. We came across a vegetable and herb farm and were invited to ‘help out’ a little – I’m sure being more of a burden than any real form of assistance.
The most exciting surprise though was still to come. After stopping to photograph the water buffalo wallowing in the mud or wandering about the fields, a friendly old man offered to give a short ride on his buffalo through the paddies. It was hilarious – strangely bald and slippery to the touch and it kept whipping me with its wet and muddy tail!
Below you can see a man herding about his flock of ducklings with a large stick. This brought about conflicting emotions, as however adorable it is seeing an entire fleet of baby ducks they are all inevitably soon for the slaughter – an idea that doesn’t particularly sit well with a vegetarian. This is however, an existence far preferable to sitting in a corrugated iron shed though, surely.
Overall, saying that the exploration proved to be fruitful would be an understatement. If you’re planning a trip to any of the main cities In Vietnam, you definitely need to take the time to get out into the countryside – Hoi An would be a great place to start!
Hoi An is undoubtedly my favourite spot in Vietnam as of yet. Being a UNESCO world heritage site, it has been incredibly well preserved as a 15th to 19th century South-East Asian fishing port. Surrounded by old, traditional buildings and a simple way of life, you feel as if you’ve taken a step back in time.
Above, you can see the Japanese covered bridge, an example of the imprint left by the countries that used the town as a trading port in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most evident influence is from China and Japan but there are still undercurrents of the period of French administration such as the bakeries and baguettes/paté etc.
The atmosphere during the day time is incredibly relaxed and mellow – with large areas of the old town being only accessible by foot or bike. It seems apt, therefore, that the original translation of ‘Hoi An’ is “peaceful meeting place”. The town is also filled to the brim with tailors of all sorts of descriptions making this a fantastic place to be fitted out with a very reasonably priced new wardrobe (if you have the luxury of packing space and excess money!) Another local speciality is silk production; you can even stop in to one of the silk ‘houses’ to see the traditional process – worm to scarves:
If you’ve had enough of pottering about the magical streets, or bartering with tailors, then Cua Dai beach is also just a few km away and in my opinion is far preferable to the likes of Nha Trang: Fewer tourists, not built up, cleaner and bigger.
At night time, the town takes on a whole new lease of life. Colourful lanterns light up the streets – dotted along the bridges, buildings, shops and trees. The entire population seem to suddenly emerge from no where and new markets spring up selling locally crafted produce (notably, large collections of the lanterns). Women and children along the riverside sell candles in little paper boats for you to send down stream for good luck, traditionally on the full moon. It’s definitely a site not to be missed.
“The ocean is a mighty harmonist.”
– William Wordsworth
Despite being warned that the snorkelling here at Nha Trang wasn’t that great I decided to head out on a motorboat to check it out for myself.
Yes, ok – it’s no Maldives but you can still find incredibly beautiful arrays of vividly coloured coral beds. All the usual suspects are flashing about for you to admire: Parrot, trigger, butterfly and clown fish etc (despite their irritating talent for dodging the camera). There were also a variety of stunning live cowries – relishing, no doubt, the absence of any avid shell collectors.
I enjoyed the presence of the slightly more unusual cornet and trumpet fish – two of the more ridiculous looking creatures on the planet – with hilariously elongated ‘noses’ . I also love the way the Moorish idols (what a lot of people, including me, inaccurately call angel-fish) seem to leave little white scribbles behind them in the water as they dart about.
The trip out on the boat also provided the opportunity to find more natural, secluded spots than the bustle of the main beach. One of the stops was a tiny little island, complete with miniature Buddhist shrine. Another interesting sighting were little fishing villages built to entirely float on the water. Built largely out of corrugated iron, they weren’t particularly photogenic, but a novelty nevertheless.
Getting out of the town allowed me to see a more endearing side of the Nha Trang area. It was sorely needed. Particularly after being practically mugged by an old lady demanding money in the street in an incredibly violent way – grabbing my arm in a vice-like pincer grip and trying to pull my bag off my back! Not what you’d expect from an innocent looking ‘grandma’.
I assumed that an overnight bus would simply constitute an ordinary bus that travels at all hours. I was amusingly surprised, therefore, to discover that these buses are set up more like a moving dorm room, with seats set up in bunk bed fashion that recline almost to horizontal level. Needless to say that it was still pretty difficult to get any sleep with all the noise and changes in motion, but at least they tried!
Nha Trang is yet another bustling city but with the significant addition of a large beach. As city beaches go, it’s pretty fantastic, but having not researched into the location I was a little disappointed; I’d been expecting a more isolated haven like some of the idyllic beaches I’ve been spoilt with on previous trips. I’m not such a big fan of resorts, skyscraper backdrops and sunbeds as far as the eye can see. However, this disappointment was purely self inflicted, without preconceptions Nha Trang would have been a lovely surprise. The water is the perfect temperature – warm yet refreshing – and incredibly clean considering that it’s on the banks of a growing city.
One thing to be wary of is the danger of being ripped off along the sea front – as is the case with the majority of seaside resorts! A small sandwich can cost up to $10. There are plenty of smaller, more genuine Vietnamese restaurants just a couple of blocks back towards the city. For lunch, for example, I tried out the classic local ‘pho’ (rice noodle soup) for just $1.50. Granted, the salad stuff on the side looks a little dodgy (and salads should probably be avoided anyway due to the unclean water) but the soup itself was fantastically full of spice and flavour.
The town itself doesn’t have quite as much to offer in comparison to places like Ho Chi Minh but there are still a few places worth checking out if you can drag yourself off the beach. Long Son Pagoda, established in 1963 to honour the monks and nuns who died demonstrating against the Diem government, is a beautifully serene temple amidst the surrounding city chaos. You quite possibly might expend your life in the elaborate dance through the motorbikes across the road trying to get there but if successful then you’re in for a treat!
152 steps from the temple take you up to the white Buddha sitting on a hill which gives you the only views possible over the city. It’s definitely worth getting here in the morning though as around eleven it was starting to pack out with tours of people.
We headed out yesterday morning in the direction of the ‘mighty’ Mekong Delta. As far as ‘tourist-traps’ go, this was fairly high up on the list, but was, nevertheless, an interesting experience. We hopped on a motorboat and went first to see some of the local ‘coconut candy’ production – using the flesh of coconuts to make cream and then a sort of toffee which is actually rather good. The rate at which the team of ladies were wrapping each sweet was extraordinary.We then were herded into a cart pulled by an impossibly small horse and taken through the village to eat at a restaurant. The menu was pretty eccentric, including the delights of crocodile, snake and turtle.
I bumped into some Australian guys the day before who’d been to the restaurant and ordered snake. The staff brought out a live snake and proceeded to cut its head off with a pair of blunt scissors and pour its blood into shot glasses to drink. The still beating heart was placed on the table for them to watch as it slowly came to a standstill. This is all deadly serious– I had the pleasure of watching the video recording they’d taken of the whole gory scene. Obviously I stayed well clear of that dodgy side of the menu.
Another local speciality which we tried was their honey tea into which they mix the local honey with bee pollen and the juice of little Asian mandarins. (Of course the whole aim of the exercise was that we were then expected to buy a bottle or leave awkwardly, as ever.)
To break up the two hour return to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped off at our first Vietnamese temple. Although, to be frank, the inordinate number of Buddhist temples scattered across these countries is resulting in them already becoming a little repetitive!
It seems that in an ironic way, the Dalai Lama would agree:
“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
– Dalai Lama
That being said, they aren’t exactly an eyesore.
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, (previously Saigon) is a fantastically vivacious city. One thing you’ve really got to watch out for, however, is the traffic! Over 2 million motorbikes saturate the roads and pedestrian crossings appear to be a completely foreign concept. You basically have to walk out into the stream of bikes and walk steadily across whilst they swerve around you. You’re advised not to stop whilst you’re walking as it can confuse them. This is much harder than it would seem as basic survival instincts would encourage you not to carry on walking into the path of a fast moving vehicle!
The period of French administration has left a firm mark on the city. Beautiful French architecture is dotted about along with an abundance of bakeries!
Of the many interesting activities available, I’d recommend the Art museum; despite being rather poorly exhibited it boasts a really interesting and unique collection of Vietnamese art. It’s also got a note-worthy collection of Vietnamese propaganda posters from the war. After having whetted your appetite you can pop across the road to the buzzing ‘Ben Thanh’ market to have a look at some of the beautiful local artwork and other bits and bobs for sale.
Another endearing quality of the city is the food selection. I’m likely to be biased as I have a bit of a thing for Vietnamese food but the fresh spring rolls with nutty hoisin sauce are just to die for.
About an hour out of the city you can find the Cu Chi tunnels – an elaborate and extensive network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.
These holes are no ‘Bag End’; they epitomised “nasty, dirty” and “wet… filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell”. It’s shocking just how small the tunnels are and how well the entrances can be concealed. Essentially, the analogy generally used is to rats tunnelling under the rice fields to avoid being caught. You pretty much have to be the size of a rat to navigate through them. It seems impossible to imagine how they were used for communication, supply routes, living quarters and shelter, at times for days on end! Some of the tunnels have now been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists but it’s still an experience to avoid if you’re even remotely claustrophobic!
Cu Chi also has displays and demonstrations of the methods of the Viet Cong including some fairly gruesome traps and a chance to fire a variety of the different guns (ranging from an AK-47 to the M60 machine gun) in their firing range!
It was interesting to see the war from a different perspective – with the Viet Cong as the protagonists – after studying the Americans involvement in school. The man showing us around the site had actually fought with the Viet Cong himself and had bullet wounds in his arms and leg to boot!
Today we went through a tragically sombre enlightenment into Cambodia’s gruesome history. If, like I was, you are not fully aware of the terrors that have taken place here in the 70’s then prepare to be shocked. As a horrific example of the extent of human evil, the years 1975-79 under the rule of Pol Pot could rival the holocaust.
Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar) led the communist revolutionary party called the ‘Khmer Rouge’ who, after thoroughly sowing seeds of forced support for their regime in the countryside, took over Phnom Penh in April 1975, with Pot initiating his dictatorship and the concept of ‘Year Zero’: evacuating the entire city on the pretence of suspected American bombings. These evacuations were actually to push the population further into ‘Khmer Rouge’ territory and to help to stamp out capitalist habits. The people were then made to work in collective farms or forced labour projects inevitably resulting in malnutrition, disease and widespread death. Pot even claimed that only one or two million of the eight million population were actually needed to build his ‘agrarian communist utopia’. As for the others: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”
He initiated a mass genocide of any potential or conceived threats to the regime – stretching as far as all the educated individuals such as doctors, teachers and lawyers. All of their families were included (even babies and infants) for fear they may seek revenge themselves for the loss of their loved ones. In order to achieve his ‘utopia’ of a pure Khmer race he also banned religion and purged Buddhist monks, Christians, Muslims, disabled people, people in contact with western countries and any Chinese, Laotians, Vietnamese or ‘impure’ Khmers.
Some were put into the S-21 camp here in Phnom Penh where they were subject to obscenely inhuman torture in order to extract, largely false confessions. The camp is now know is the ‘Tuol Sleng’ Genocide museum where you can view the camp pretty much as it was left, with its miniscule cells and torture implements. The site was actually built initially as a secondary school which further heightens the sadistic nature of the use to which it was put.
We were taken ten minutes out of the city to one of the ‘Killing fields’ sites. The ‘Choeung Ek’ genocidal centre is much like a Cambodian equivalent to Auschwitz. It was here that vast numbers of people were brought to be temporarily imprisoned then taken out in large numbers to be killed each night. Bullets were deemed too expensive to be wasted on the prisoners so they were instead brutally beaten to death kneeling on the edge of the mass graves with hammers, hatchets, axes or even with the serrated edge of a type of palm tree branch. Music meanwhile was played on loudspeaker to drown out the screams.
Walking around the site was a very sickening experience. We walked past graves labelled as ‘Grave of 100 women and children’ or ‘166 headless bodies’. Collections of skulls and bones had been excavated and presented in boxes or in the memorial monument.
The birdsong and sounds of children playing in the nearby school only heightened the eerie sense of the incomprehensible loss. There are 20,000 mass graves in sites like this one across Cambodia. The total death toll is said to be up to 3 MILLION out of a population of 8 million. As Nassim Taleb points out in his book on uncertainty ‘The Black Swan,’ at this point it ceases to be a story or something we can relate to and merely becomes a statistic.
Apologies for this thoroughly morbid post – I’m simply sharing what I’ve learnt today. Unfortunately I have a feeling that this is going to be the thing that imprints itself the most in my mind from my brief stay in Cambodia.
In an attempt to lighten the mood I’ll carry on with a little more info about Phnom Pehn. It’s a remarkably easy city to navigate around. Highlights include the Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and Wat Phnom temple – you can find plenty of beautiful temples and monasteries dotted throughout the city.
For lunch I decided not to join my group in one of the many westernised cafés along the river front and headed instead to the buzzing local food markets in the back streets.
As I’m on a budget, I’ve mostly been eating fried noodles with an egg and vegetables – served at most of the street stalls. Today I had a local Khmer rice noodle soup with a really bizarre plate of ‘salad’ to accompany it and some sort of dried ground fish sprinkled on top. Not too bad!
We woke up this morning before the birds. A 4.45 departure time wasn’t particularly welcome considering the long travelling day to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Bangkok yesterday combined with the fact that I’m still on the wobbly side of full health! However, the aim was to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, which seemed worth the effort. The only problem was that every tourist and his dog seemed to have the same idea. Apparently it’s the ‘thing to do’. Unfortunately it does rather diminish the experience being crammed in with a pack load of tourists, ravenous for good photos. It was still spectacular and calming nevertheless.
The crowds didn’t die down after breakfast. We headed first to ‘Angkor Thom’ (Angkor simply means ‘city’) which was a vast collection of ruined temples – like the rest of the site they were originally built in the 12th century as largely Hindu temples but being renovated into Buddhist temples in the late 13th Century. What was striking to me was how much the site reminded me of the various Mayan ruin sites in Central America. The blatant difference being the crowds of people and the hype! Don’t be fooled by my photos – I painstakingly tried to avoid snapping random tourists. There were a lot more people than it seems!
‘Ta Prohm’ was similarly breathtaking but, again, rather obscured by excessive tourists. What was so beautiful about this temple (where tomb raider was shot, I’m told) was how the jungle was interwoven with the ruins. Colossal, twisting roots and trunks clung to the walls – simultaneously holding it together and breaking it up as the roots made their way into the gaps in the structures.
I think you’d have to give up around three days to properly explore the complex as just whizzing round the highlights took us eight hours! A long time when you’ve been up at 4 am!
After heading back into Siem Reap for lunch, a couple of the girls in my group and I decided to visit the local ‘Acodo’ orphanage. It was shockingly small, with just two small buildings for the 76 girls and boys to sleep in and only a couple of English classrooms. However, the people running the place seem to have a clear set of aims and objectives for the project and are doing remarkably well with the money donated to them. Again, I made a comparison in my mind – this time with ‘Goroka’ school in Papua New Guinea where the money isn’t so much the crucial issue as how it is used – with large sums frittered away on teacher’s parties and gifts etc. Here they’ve built several structures including a kitchen, water filter system, a couple of class rooms for English lessons and have separated the boys and girls dorm rooms. They also send the elder children in their free time out to the Acodo farms to learn useful farming techniques whilst helping to reap the benefits of the land to feed themselves and the rest of their fellows.
If you’re remotely interested in volunteer work in this part of the world then I really think Acodo orphanage would be a very worthwhile destination, instead of volunteering through a travel agency. They do take on volunteers on a regular basis but are often short and the results are immediately visible.
We tried to make ourselves useful by bringing along some treats and bits and bobs for the kids and helped some of the older girls to practise their English. The younger children were pretty entertained with our cameras for a while which was amusing.
“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
– Mother Teresa
“The most magnificent creature in the entire world, the tiger is.”
– Jack Hanna
Today had been extremely challenging in many ways but also worth the trouble. Having been up the entire night with a fresh bought of illness and fever I was very disinclined to carry on with the tour that I’d booked the previous evening. However, it was non-refundable. So I grabbed a toilet roll and off I went!
This was perhaps a little stupid. I proceeded to faint in the middle of the street on arriving at the Dumnoen Sadwak floating markets and then collapsed on the ‘squat’ style toilet. Not pleasant. Thankfully I managed to perk up fairly quickly with the help of some fellow tourists and a noodle soup, so I hopped on a little boat to float down the market. It was disappointingly swarming with tourists, which was a little frustrating – slightly idealised views of the markets off films also left me feeling ever so slightly disappointed. Highlights however included seeing giant monitor lizards swimming about in the rivers as we floated by!
We then headed off to the bridge over the river Kwai which apparently is pretty famous, although I must admit I hadn’t actually heard of it until then. The bridge itself, part of the old rail track from Bangkok to Myanmar was fairly unexciting. Walking through the market, however, I found a man with a pet 8-month year old Jaguar which he was letting people feed for a small tip. I know you probably shouldn’t encourage these things but just look at it! Of course, I couldn’t resist!
The last stop was ‘Tiger temple’. About two hours from Bangkok is a monastery (now steadily becoming a tourist attraction) which also doubles up as a wildlife rescue sanctuary. The ‘temple’ seems more like a miniature game park – except with the odd shrine, Buddha, monk and meditation centre dotted about. It gets its name as the monks reared tigers there by hand and, having increased in number, with cubs being thoroughly familiar with human company from the word ‘go’, has resulted in a huge number of incredibly docile beasts. At first I thought they must have been drugged but we were assured by the American volunteers at the sanctuary that they were just naturally lethargic in the afternoon heat and total unperturbed by humans. It was certainly a fantastically novel experience!
I now have some serious sleep catching up to do – particularly as we’ve got an eight hour journey to Cambodia starting early tomorrow morning!