Mountains, mist and H’Mong: the ethereal appeal of Sapa

Sapa town was founded by the French in 1922 as a hill station and colonial holiday spot. This view from the lake is serene. Possibly this is how Sapa looked almost 100 years ago.

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This is how Sapa looks today.

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Like most of Vietnam, growth in Sapa is an unstoppable force, especially with the construction of new hotels. Roads are ripped up to install updated sewers, and every block has some sort of reno or rebuild. Two doors down from our hotel is an old-school construction, complete with workers in flip flops and ball caps.

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We knew Sapa was not a sleepy alpine town, but we were surprised by the number of tourists and the accompanying hubbub.  The main part of town is quite small, very walkable and crammed with hotels, guesthouses, hostels, restaurants and stores selling minority handicrafts and fake North Face products. Restaurants are mainly mediocre and same-same. Someone must have taken a survey about Western preferences and come up with spaghetti, chicken cordon bleu and T-bone steaks; those stalwarts of the ’70s appear on almost every menu in town.

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Ethnic minority tribes, mainly the Hmong and the Red Dao, live in villages around Sapa and walk into town to sell their wares. Their villages are part of the attraction of Sapa – the backbone of the trekking excursions that take tourists out of town and into the countryside.

We booked a one-day, 13-km. hike through our hotel, led by a Hmong woman, Mei. She picked us and a young German couple up at the hotel and we set off, followed by another three Hmong women who joined us along the way. Through town, down a side street and down, down, down, until we were surrounded by fields of vegetables and herbs.
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The massive mountain range, of which Mount Fansipan is the highest in Indochina at over 3000 metres, is almost always at least partially covered by fog this time of year. While we never got clear skies, we were rewarded with tantalizing views through the mist and comfortable walking temperatures.

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Now I don’t want to blame my (almost worn-out) Keens on my struggles to stay upright, but I was having a few challenges finding steady footing on the narrow, slippery red-clay steps and rocks. The young Germans skipped ahead like the nimble gazelles they are and Stephen was doing just fine but I was lagging, so one of the women took it upon herself to rescue me. I grabbed her dry, cracked little hand and safely made it down. All the women kept an eye out for me. At one point Stephen fell down on his backside and they didn’t even look back. It’s a woman’s world out there.

Mei, our guide in green, (who walked 7 km. from her village to Sapa before we began our trek), and her buddies. The lady second from the right was my trekking assistant – have a look at her footwear. These women just walk and walk, sure-footed and uncomplaining.

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The famous and photogenic rice paddies are a marvel of human construction. Mei didn’t know a lot about them, other than to say that the area families built them a long time ago.  It is impossible to fully appreciate what a feat that must have been, as each step looks to be about three to four feet high , and the surrounding terrain is unforgiving.

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The rice paddies are punctuated by stands of massive bamboo, which for some reason inspired Stephen to strike a beefcake pose.

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Strolling along the trail.

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We left the trail and hit a paved road to come to our first village. As we turned the corner, a stonemason’s home was perched right on the edge of the road.

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Further down, a mama and her chicks.

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We met up with some other trekkers on the way to the village.

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A typical village home. The minority tribes are very poor. They grow vegetables and rice and raise animals for food, but for better or worse they have come to depend upon tourism dollars to supplement their incomes. (more on that later).

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One of the shops featured what appeared to be authentic hand-made textiles. The hills are filled with indigo plants – the natural dye used in many of the fabrics. This lady was busy sewing when we walked through and displayed none of the mercenary sales tactics of her fellow Hmong in Sapa. She barely looked up.

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Mei pointed out a marijuana plant as we walked along. There are fields of hemp plants for much of the cloth that is used here for clothing and blankets, and most definitely marijuana plants as well, although we have no idea on what scale they are grown. The woman selling water and coke at our rest stop also had “happy tea”, which we declined. I figured I needed all my wits about me just to keep walking.

Back on the trail and heading for our second village for lunch. See the basket on that woman’s back? Oh yes – you guessed it, the hard-core sales pressure was coming.

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Once we reached our lunch stop, Mei told us the women were leaving and it was “time to shop”. Out of the baskets came pillow covers, small bags, scarves and bracelets and rings.

We suspected all along that these three women were not walking for three hours just to enjoy our company, but the transformation from our laughing trekking pals to hard-sell street vendors was astonishing.  Not buying was not an option.

Nothing in their baskets appealed to us, plus it was all over-priced. The other couple bought two pillow covers and out of desperation we bought a small bag and a little purse. The little lady who had helped me down the hill was now very angry with me for being so cheap and I’m quite sure we were roundly sworn at in Vietnamese. It was upsetting as the whole point of our trip to Sapa was to trek and enjoy the scenery, not be coerced into buying factory-made junk.

Anyway, on our way to the restaurant, our attention was diverted by the strenuous efforts of several men and the frantic squealing of a pig. I thought we were about to witness a slaughter, but Mei told us they were holding the pig down to pierce his nose.

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This was the one trekking day we had but there were a number of options. We could have stayed in a homestay in one of the villages and signed on for 2 or 3-day treks, but we were unsure about what that entailed. We walked by the homestays and saw that  many of them were purpose-built for Westerners. We had imagined living in a rustic home and sleeping in the family’s only bed (which I’m sure is also available), but homestays have turned into a small industry now. Maybe next time.

A final shot of us on the trail.

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While the mountainous countryside around Sapa is its raison d’être for tourists, the town itself is pretty and is worth alloting some  extra time to explore.

One of the attractions is the Ham Rong Mountain Park, which is accessed by a series of stone stairs leading up to several viewpoints along the way.

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Stunning gardens throughout the park.

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One of the shops rented ethnic costumes for photo ops.

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Which brings us to the complicated side of Sapa’s exploding popularity with tourists – the unintended consequences this may have brought to the ethnic minority people.

What happens when people are regarded as a tourist attraction? There is no denying the appeal of the colourful clothing and head dresses, especially when worn by an adorable four-year-old. But that four-year-old is no longer spending her days in her village; she is now carrying her baby sister in a sling on her back while tourists snap photos. She is spending hours squatting down in front of a blanket of trinkets – identical scarves and bags and toys that are being sold by the next vendor and the next and the next. When she is a bit older, she is taught to hassle tourists with toss-off lines,” Hello. Where you from? What’s your name? Buy from me?” She is taught not to take no for an answer and to pursue tourists, even as they try to walk away.

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The Vietnamese children we have seen in the rest of the country are bright and happy and curious; these children are dead-eyed and sad. The older ones are hard-looking and cynical. It might be said that tourist dollars have brought them a revenue stream they didn’t have before, but I don’t buy that. Their lives were poor before but they’re still poor, only now they are captive to the lure of money that only trickles down in a meaningful way to a few.

Government signs are posted throughout the town with “Rules of conduct” for visitors – asking us not to buy from street vendors, but there does not appear to be any enforcement and certainly the tourists aren’t paying attention.

We suspect we are regarded by the Sapa town residents and the ethnic minorities as a necessary evil. We strolled though a number of stores looking for North Face jackets – almost every store carries the identical products, so competition is fierce. One woman called out to me as we entered her store and when I replied I wanted to look, she spit out, “Madam looking. Madam just looking” with such venom it felt like a slap.

The scenery around Sapa is so magnificent that it is worth making the trip. Being on the trails is like no place I’ve ever visited before; it is an essential part of the Vietnamese landscape.  But I do wonder if our interest and curiosity has created a monster.

The Blessing and the Curse of Halong Bay

Halong Bay was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1994 for good reason. There are just a handful of places in the world that have such extensive karst formations and the ever-changing sky and temperature make it a moody and romantic destination. Our photos won’t do it justice, but you’ll get the idea.

We began our adventure with an early pick-up in Hanoi, a 4-hour minivan drive to Halong Bay, and a quick transfer to our boat, Paloma.

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We had arrived in Hanoi and immediately booked a tour through our hotel. We had certain criteria – we wanted to plan our trip based on weather forecasts (we are about a month too early for dependable weather in that area). We read about the budget boats that were barely seaworthy booze cruises with rats running on deck and substandard food. Big pass on the substandard food.  We wanted a mid-range boat with good amenities and a small number of cabins and civilized fellow passengers.

We found them – our tablemates Emma and Jacob from Australia (at the head of the table) and Tom and Ellen from Denmark (across from Stephen and me). They really helped to make our cruise a lot of fun, but we got to know everyone on board, since we had just 27 guests. We lucked out on all counts – a great group of people, excellent staff and good weather.

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The dining room view from the other end:

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Our boat had an Agatha Christie feel to it – all dark wood and polished surfaces. Our room was cozy and spotless. We slept like babies, with our wooden windows opened wide to the cool sea air.

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Service was exceptional – all staff spoke some English, and our guides were knowledgable and so attentive. Jimmy (on my left) lives in one of the fishing villages we visited, while Justin lives near Hanoi. They were both so sweet and as you can see, Jimmy is about 85 pounds soaking wet and as friendly as a retriever pup.  Everyone loved him – one of the Aussies even picked him up and carried him around. Justin is a bit older and a bit more reserved. We had quite a chat in the minivan from Hanoi to Halong Bay. He was open about his contempt for Trump and had a few things to say about his own country. Most people here are very careful about what they say and to whom, so it was interesting to get his perspective.

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They work 16 days straight, get one day off and do it all over again. I wondered about them – both so young, working so hard, with no opportunity to have friends or a romantic involvement or a life of any kind beyond work. How do they do it and keep their positive energy?

So…to back up just a bit before I tell you about our experience. When we were researching Halong Bay, it was becoming quite depressing to read about the masses of tourists and hundreds of boats with music blaring into the wee hours and the bay filled with garbage. We so wanted to see the karsts, but didn’t want to spend all that time and money to get grumpy and annoyed if things were as bad as we had heard.

We read about Bai Tu Long Bay which is in the same body of water, with the same landscape but northeast of Halong Bay and at this point, far less tourist-y. Perfect – that made our decision easy and it turned out to be exactly as we had hoped. When our ship dropped anchor for the night, there were just 13 other boats in the very large sheltered bay. We saw the odd plastic bottle in the water, but there was almost no garbage.  We have no idea how it might have been had we sailed into Halong Bay, so I will have to leave that to someone else to report on.  We were surrounded by dramatic views; this one taken from our lower deck.

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Once onboard, our guides welcomed us with a quick briefing about our itinerary and we had our first meal – a delicious multi-course lunch – before heading back down to the lower level to climb on our small boat for our first outing – to a nearby cave and beach.
The cave was fine, nothing special (said the jaded one who has seen some spectacular caves), but the sail around opened up whole other vistas for us.

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Another ship who anchored near us for the night.

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Back to the mother ship by 4:30, and we were invited to go for a swim, jumping off the back of the boat at the lower level. A number of guests took advantage of this, including you-know-who.

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Those of you who have spent any time with me at Clark Bay will know that I’m a water chicken – the temperature has to be just right. So I won’t make excuses but I have to admit – all the bobbing heads in the water did make me feel like I was missing out.

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Up to the top deck  for a sunset party – we were treated to a little spread of fruit and crackers with some outrageously priced cocktails. I loved the table decorations – masterpieces carved from carrots.

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And an ambitiously endowed fisherman:

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We enjoyed a delicious multi-course dinner in the dining room, but we all agreed that the beverage prices were unreasonably high. We all would have ordered bottles of wine if they had been more fairly priced.

The next day, we were up at 6:45 for breakfast and then off on our little boat for a full morning.  First stop was a floating fishing village. There used to be over 1000 people living and fishing on their boats, but the numbers have dropped to 300 and the village was moved by the government to a location away from the tourist route, which means they have a much longer trip back to port with their catch.

As we approached the main dock area, we passed by some boat homes.

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And some floating homes:

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Jimmy was telling us there used to be a school, but it is gone now after the move, so if there are children in this area, they do not receive an education. How can that be?  To travel through the less-accessible areas, we all transferred onto small boats, rowed by women. Our tourist dollars have changed their lives – some of them have become a taxi service, and I wonder how they feel about that. Have they entered a trap from which there is no escape?

Gorgeous views along the way:

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If you’ve seen photos of Halong Bay before, you’ve likely seen images like this, with tourists kayaking underneath. As of April 1, 2017 (just days before our trip) the government pulled the plug on all kayaking in the bay. This represents hundreds, if not thousands of kayaks that are now up on shore. Tourists are disappointed, as kayaking was a big part of the trip and tour operators are frustrated but it is impossible to find out the reasons for this decision.  If our guides knew they were being tight-lipped about it and a Google search just showed a Vietnamese document stating the decision had been made.

Next stop was an oyster farm where pearls are cultivated. It was interesting – a pearl takes about three years to develop and it is quite a process. Our guide pulled up a number of racks out of the water holding various kinds of oysters – this held some of the largest variety.

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Back to our ship for one final activity – learning how to make spring rolls. After a demonstration, we all leaned in to make our roll – take a piece of rice paper, add a spoonful of filling and roll. How hard can that be, you ask? Well, my roll came out with about an inch or rice paper on either side – more like a Christmas cracker than a spring roll. Must be time for me to get back in a kitchen again.

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And that was it – our cruise was over and time to get back on the bus for Hanoi.

Was it worth it? Absolutely – a trip to Halong Bay, no matter where you sail to, should not be missed.

The Resurrection of Dong Hoi

Never heard of Dong Hoi? Neither had we – it was our pitstop to move on to bigger things –  some of the world’s largest caves, to be exact.   We chose to stay in Dong Hoi, which is 40 km. away from the park, for a few more amenities and access to our 5:00 am train to Hanoi.

We were very pleasantly surprised to arrive to this:

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March 31, 2017. Dong Hoi is a charming little city set on a river that spills out to the ocean, intersected by canals and lined with impeccably manicured parks and delightful French colonial homes. A broad promenade follows the curve of the river and it is actually possible to walk or ride a bicycle without fearing for our lives. Just to the north of the city are sand dunes and a 12-km. white sand beach.

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February 11, 1965. Due to its strategic location just north of the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), Americans launched an intensive B-52 bombing attack that razed the city to the ground. Everything you see in these photos has been built since then – the only thing left standing after the bombing was a water tower, a citadel gate, a single palm tree, and this – the Catholic Tam Toa church, built in 1886.

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It is fenced off and stands as a reminder of the American War of Aggressors and the war crimes committed here. Signs were in Vietnamese, but for one small plaque in English and I was unable to find out numbers of casualties or many other facts about this event.  We haven’t been able to speak to many older Vietnamese because of the language barrier, but they are extremely friendly and welcoming. Evidence of the war is still everywhere in Vietnam and museums and memorials are important and eloquent reminders, but people want to look to the future. Outwardly, it seems, the war is over.

Dong Hoi was one of the poorest cities in Vietnam after the attack and the slow rebuild. Finally in 2000, the government recognized that the city needed significant financial aid and it shows in a civic pride that is not evident everywhere in SE Asia. Garbage on the street is at a minimum and tidy residents are out sweeping in front of their homes.

Boulevard plantings are inventive and precision-clipped. The boulevard leading along the riverfront is lined with shrubbery “boats.”

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The streets are cozy and filled with really pretty homes and hotels. The French colonial style found everywhere in Vietnam was not lost with the war – it has become the Vietnam style now.

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Just around the corner from our hotel:

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To appreciate the colour and life of Dong Hoi, we walked and biked in both directions along the waterfront and through the neighbourhoods. We wondered about the canals – how much they had to be rebuilt after the bombing.

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We found ourselves at the fish market, where the women were lined up to meet the boats coming in with their catches.

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We strolled unaccosted through the market until we hit a rowdy bunch of women selling produce. They called out to us and made rather cheeky suggestions about our love life;  that was the ice-breaker we needed to start kidding around with them. I have a huge soft spot in my heart for Vietnamese women. They are so hardworking and many of them have a tough life, but they’re resilient and funny and I believe their sisterhood keeps them going.

This woman was calling out to Stephen, demanding he take her photo.  (He gets the ladies wherever he goes.)

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Not to be outdone, this lady called out to me with her own duck lip pose.

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As we were walking home, Stephen noticed a photo place and we popped in to have a copy made of the photo of his new friend. We stopped by the market this morning to give it to her and the reaction was unbelievable. The women were shrieking and laughing and teasing her and she looked quite overwhelmed. For all her bravado, I’m quite sure this is the first time a foreign man has paid this much attention to her.

So…on to the caves. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site of 400-million-year-old karst topography  that contains the first and third largest caves in the world.There are not enough adjectives to adequately describe the many caves – we only saw two. They are all different, all spectacular in their own right and all worth visiting. Our next time in Vietnam, we would come back, stay for a number of days and take a more adventurous approach. Kayaking for 7 km. inside one of the caves is possible – so is zip lining and being buried up to your neck in mud in another.

For the well-heeled bucket-listers,  a 5-day trip through the world’s largest cave, Hang Son Doong, is yours for $3000 US. They only accept 500 people a year and there is a one-year waiting list. For that price, you and 9 other trekkers are accompanied by a 25-person team, including guides, a medic and 20 porters and you have the distinction of belonging to an elite group of adventurers.

The caves we saw, on our one-day outing in a minivan with 12 tourists, were quite beyond my expectations. Our guide Huong did a great job of explaining everything and also left us plenty of time to explore comfortably.

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First stop – the dock at Lipstick River to pick up our boat to Phong Nha Cave.

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We clambered into these skinny boats and settled down for a leisurely 30-minute ride down the river.  As soon as we entered the cave, the boat team removed the tarp roof, cut the engine and silently paddled into a jaw-dropping otherworld.

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Phong Nha Cave runs for 44.5 km. (but we only travel 1.5 km.), and it is 100 m. high and 150 m. wide at is largest point.  There are certain places in the world that defy description and challenge the average photographer. We all kept saying things like, “Oh my God”, “Wow”,”Surreal”, “Unbelievable”, and other pointless inanities.

The “wet” cave can only be visited in dry season and as it was, our boat barely fit under the first overhang; the water is higher than normal this year. We travelled through for about 45 minutes, trying to take it all in. Being in a massive cave can feel slightly claustrophobic, but in a strangely out-of-body way. I never felt the need to bolt to daylight, but it did alter my senses.

After we finished our ghostly boat tour, we disembarked to walk the part of the cave where supplies were hidden during the war, and where a small hospital was installed. No evidence of either these days, but here is a sample of what we saw.

After lunch, we hopped back in the van and headed to our next destination – Paradise Cave, which was only discovered in 2005. Like Phong Nha Cave, we were only able to explore a fraction of its 31 km. length – just over 1 km. and this time all on foot.

We began with a long sweaty climb up a mountainside – with some great views as an incentive to keep going.

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Once at the top, we entered the cave through this tiny entrance, and began a long climb down  and straight into very welcome natural air con.

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There is a lighted walkway through the cave, and the most notable features are backlit, but it quickly swallows you up into its own cave spell. Even with dozens of people walking through, it was silent and powerful. Although Paradise Cave is a dry cave, there are tiny fissures and water drops constantly – sometimes that drip-drip-drip is the only sound.

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and another shot…

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We came for the caves and they more than met our expectations, but our stay in Dong Hoi was a delightful bonus.

Chasing ghosts in Hue

“Seven people died in that house.” “Right there on that field – many Viet Cong dead.” “This wall – look at all the bullet holes.”

IMG_0144“This wall” is part of the Citadel in Hue, which came under vicious attack in a Viet Cong military incursion known as The Tet Offensive in 1968. The battle lasted three-and-a-half weeks until the Americans and South Vietnamese ultimately regained control of the town. During that time  whole neighbourhoods were levelled, much of the Citadel was destroyed and over 10,000 people were killed, most of them civilians.  Our cyclo driver Song was eight years old at the time and he remembers it very well.

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We were at the gates of the Citadel when Song accosted us with the usual “where you from?” I was preparing to walk by but for some reason Stephen stopped to listen and we both decided it would be fun to have a one-hour tour of the neighbourhood inside the Citadel walls. I had watched so many tourists go by in these things and never thought that we would be talked into it but before we knew it, a bench seat was pulled down, Steve hopped on, I wedged in front of him and we were away. We paid Song’s full asking price, which was about twice the going rate, as we found out later.  Anyway, as they say here in Vietnam, “never try, never know!”

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We had a fantastic tour of an area we would have been unlikely to visit on our own. Song was a chatty guy with plenty of war memories, but also  full of other stories about ordinary life in Hue.

The walls around the Citadel are 23 metres thick and surrounded by a moat. The Imperial Palace is inside the Citadel and enclosed by another high wall. The area inside the outer walls that surrounds the Palace  is an enchanting neighbourhood.

We began our tour by cycling through some lovely leafy streets with quite a mix of house styles.

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Some were very modest –  I think we call this one a tear-down.
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Some were charming and colourful cottages.

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Others were grand. As we rode through the streets, we saw a lot of construction, both new builds and restorations.

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Song pulled in beside a Buddhist temple.  The blue house next door to it was on the site of a house that had been hit with a bomb and all occupants killed. Song hinted at divine intervention, since the temple remained untouched. Since a heavenly presence had not prevented the death and destruction of the war,  salvation of the temple might be considered merely a coincidence.

IMG_0157 We made a few more stops – an old bridge, a Japanese garden, a school Ho Chi Minh attended and a lookout tower. Song pointed out schools, community halls, waved at neighbours and rode merrily along until he came to a series of one-way streets. As we turned,  I called out that there was a DO NOT ENTER sign, to which he replied, “No problem! I am a good driver.”  Perhaps divine intervention saved us in this case.

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Tour over – Song deposited us in front of the Palace gates, and then he pulled a fast one. He put on a sad face and told us our tour had gone over one hour – it was an hour and a half and he wanted more money.

Stephen and I looked at each other, looked at him and just paid him the original amount we had agreed upon. It was such a letdown – we had enjoyed our tour and his company so much and then it was spoiled. We checked our cameras to see when our first photos were taken and in fact our tour had gone over by about 7 or 8 minutes. We spoke to other tourists at lunch and they had an identical experience.   It was really disappointing to be treated like dumb tourists, but the tour we took with BeeBee Travel the day before more than made up for it.

HUE FREE WALKING TOUR is part of what this tour company does ( they offer other tours for a small fee), and tour guides Sam and Vui were excellent ambassadors for their city.  Seven of us met up at a coffee shop and after a debrief, our guides took us on a free walking tour of downtown Hue. We started with Hue’s grande dame, the Hotel Saigon, where many famous people have stayed, including Charlie Chaplin.

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Down the road a bit,  we stopped to examine a bronze monument erected in 2005 to honour the revolt by the poor residents and Ho Chi Minh against the crippling taxes and forced labour inflicted by the French.  I commented to Sam that the gentle Vietnamese had beaten back the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and the Americans – they were warriors. She replied that wasn’t necessarily the case – the Vietnamese could just wait it out until everyone else got too tired to keep fighting.

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We crossed over the bridge to the north side – to Dong Ba, Hue’s oldest market. Sam took us through the fish and veggies to a display of the classic conical hats. We learned these iconic hats are little works of art . When you hold them up to the light you will see small images that have been created right in the fabric of the hat.

We moved on to the outskirts of the Citadel, to admire the enormity of the Citadel walls and see how parts of the moat have filled with flowers and water vegetables.

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Inside the gates, we admired  the display of U.S. planes and tanks, left behind from the war.

imageWe ended our time together with a great lunch at a local place, and a group photo.

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We’ve been here for four days, and our weather  has been cool and rainy – par for the course for this city.  Hue is particularly atmospheric in grey drizzle – we didn’t mind the break from heat at all. It did mean we took a pass on a boat ride on the Perfume River, but we admired the river from shore – starting with a view of the bridge.

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A beautiful promenade runs along the river, and we had a number of interesting experiences there. We met up with a few Vietnamese students wanting to practice their English. They were led by a young man who speaks English about as well as I speak Spanish, and his crew of young students who barely speak at all. They were charming and fun, but it was a bit awkward. One young man wore a hat with the logo FUCK LIFE. When Stephen asked him if he knew what his hat said, he looked genuinely puzzled. Many Vietnamese buy clothes at the market and have no idea what the English words mean.

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Shortly after we left these students, we ran into this pair, who wanted a photo with me. The little girl knew how to say, “Hello – pleased to meet you”, so we went back and forth with that phrase for quite a while.

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You just never know what you might find on the promenade. Two men were preparing their birds for a cock fight. I asked for a photo, but didn’t want to stay around to watch the main event.

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The promenade is far better suited to more peaceful activities, like enjoying the gardens.

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And of course, a trip to Hue is not complete without a visit to the Imperial City. We strolled the grounds in pouring rain, but it only added to the moody setting.

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A small bridge survived, but the main structure did not; vegetation has grown over.

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A corner of one of the buildings that has been restored. Intricate carvings and mosaics adorn the exterior and the trees grow at a jaunty angle.

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An ornate entrance gate.

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Le Ba Dang was an esteemed painter who lived most of his life in Paris, but was a patriotic Vietnamese who never stopped loving his country. He was a contemporary of Picasso, and had his works in galleries all over the world. The LeBa Dang Art Foundation is his gift to Hue.

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The exhibit covers a broad range of his work, many of them expressions of war:

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More war images, these fashioned from the wreckage of a B-52:

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To expressions of his love for cats:

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I couldn’t stop admiring this couple who sat across from us at dinner. Their clothes matched the decor.  After dinner, they pulled out cigarettes and very elegantly smoked them. When you’ve been travelling for months with no makeup and the same stretchy yoga pants, you notice these things.

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Not all linen and designer frames though. We love the insouciance of a woman who can belly up to the bar wearing jeans and a black bra.

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To top it off, we walked a few steps past this startling sight and a squirrelly-looking man on a motorbike sidled by, hissing, “marijuana” at us. We don’t partake (not that there’s anything wrong with it, dear friends who do) but it’s been a long time since we’ve been mistaken for potential customers, so it gave us a good laugh.

Hue – still struggling with its past and not quite up and running as a saturated tourist destination. Perhaps that is part of its charm – for once, we got here before the crowds.

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Ancient Town Hoi An in photos

This blog posting will be less tell, more show.

First a quick intro: Hoi An was a major shipping port in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Dutch, Japanese and Chinese traders passing by these very walls. It would have become a much bigger city, but in the 19th century, the river silted up and big ships were no longer able to pass through. The town  languished until its 1999 designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site turned it into one of SE Asia’s most popular tourist destinations.

IMG_0043The tourists are here in huge numbers, and that is the one critique I have of this town. Ancient Town is a madhouse and as a tourist myself, I am adding to the mayhem, so my criticism is hardly fair. If it is uncrowded streets and mellow moments you are looking for, get here really early in the morning.

IMG_9752Since Hoi An’s tourist life revolves around the river, we will begin there. Boats are for hire, for short cruises at sunset or for longer tours.

IMG_9991While Ancient Town runs back from the river on both sides for several streets, the riverfront promenade provides a natural gathering place and events are held most nights. A Food Festival was on one night, with two intense and sweating chefs  stirring the pot.

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Further down the promenade, we watched two girls wade into the river, which is really filthy.  Here, they’re gathering around to show off their catch – big black snails.

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As the late afternoon turns into early evening, the light and atmosphere on the waterfront is magical. The heat and sun has been replaced with a welcome light breeze.

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There are outdoor art displays, buskers, food vendors and good old-fashioned people-watching.

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These kids were having a great time pushing each other around on this little bike.

IMG_9760This little one was quite unabashedly twirling her skirt and mugging for the camera.

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I watched this beautiful woman for a minute or two – she never moved. Deep in thought or just enjoying a quiet spot away from the tourist throngs.

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Many Vietnamese carry parasols – an excellent idea now when the sun is so hot.

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I was caught by the expression on this mother’s face. She was showing something to her little children and had their full attention.

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There are so many twisty little alleyways – it would take days to explore them all.

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Great boughs of bougainvillea and flowing shrubs hang over doorways – bright bursts of colour against the ocher walls.
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Hoi An has a number of art galleries, with striking contemporary art by young artists.

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This young man was painting on the sidewalk, and took a moment for a smoke break.

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To enter Ancient Town in Hoi An, you must buy a pass (about $8) that entitles you to the entrance of five old shophouses, or assembly halls or museums. That money goes to a foundation to help preserve the old structures.  I took this photo from the second floor of a Chinese merchant hall. The railings and staircase felt a little fragile, and the walls are dark, but we got a good sense of how the town must have felt in its trading heyday.

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The Japanese Covered Bridge is another example of the carved wood and rolled roof design of the structures in Hoi An.

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Tailor shops and  textile handiwork is huge business  in Hoi An. In this room, a number of young women were at work embroidering fabric. They spoke no English, so I was unable to ask them about their work, but I suspect they put in long hours. If you look carefully, you can see two women sleeping on the floor.

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There are hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An, but only a few of them are well-regarded. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.  Many turn out identical garments in 24 hours or less and they can be of poor quality. Having a suit or dress made here requires careful  research and word of mouth recommendations.

We wondered who the target market is for these bouncy and confident suits.

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I stopped to take a photo of the catchy sewing machine display – an homage to one of the town’s big industries. But then, the model caught my eye. Where did they find this Caucasian mannequin with mussy bedhead and a slightly regretful expression in her eyes?

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The food in Hoi An is fantastic, and the range of restaurants is staggering. Everything from ladies selling sweet potato cakes on the street to reservation-only hot spots with American prices. We ate so well, and darned if I did not take one photo of food. I just kept forgetting – the food would arrive, we’d start to eat and make a mess of our plates and then, I’d remember.  You’ll have to take our word for it.  This was our view from a favourite restaurant.

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And now, a sunset and evening tour of Hoi An:

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Lanterns are a big deal in Hoi An. The streets are strung with them, people buy small floating lanterns with candles to launch on the river, and they are for sale everywhere. This display proved to be an irresistible backdrop for a holiday photo.

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The bridge over the river is adorned with two graceful signs –
especially beautiful when lit at night.

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Good-bye Hoi An. Thank you for giving us such a relaxing and elegant vacation.

The exquisite beauty of perfect Hoi An

Walking through the streets of old Hoi An is a photographer’s dream – you can feel like a creative genius just by showing up.  Ancient Town is filled with museums, Chinese and Japanese shophouses, art galleries, assembly halls and pagodas, bridges, old wells and masses of flowers. Every street is intersected with dozens of alleys, so you could spend a couple of days happily wandering and see a different sight at every turn. The 17th century merchant halls are now filled with Tiger Balm and silk scarves, but otherwise the area is a living museum – beautifully preserved.

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Look up and see lanterns swaying in front of a crumbling roof; look down an alleyway and find bougainvillea spilling over a doorway and look straight ahead…and you’ll see this:

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Oh yes, the tour groups have discovered Hoi An as well.  Wiry chain-smoking drivers wheel flocks of tourists through the narrow streets like oversized toddlers on an outing. Vietnam is solidly on the senior tourist radar and Hoi An is one of its most popular destinations, with very good reason. It’s small, walkable, flat enough to cycle out to rice paddies and the beach, filled with amazing restaurants and hotels  and shopping and day trips are varied and affordable.

There is so much to tell you about Hoi An and area that I’ll do two blog posts – beginning with the countryside. There is as much to see in the area around Hoi An as there is right in town. Our hotel is about halfway between the ancient town on the river and  An Bang Beach on the ocean. This has worked out perfectly for us, as we’re tucked on a quiet side street and can hop on one of the hotel’s (rusty, squeaky but free) bikes and make a quick escape. About five minutes from here we come across this scene:

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Just outside of town, there are rice paddies for many kilometres on both sides of the highway. We’ve discovered the joy of hopping on one of the many small roads that run through them and being transported into the most green, serene world you can imagine. Every ride is different  – you never know what creature you might run across.

These guys gave us a wary look, and we gave them a wide berth, but going on the theory that cows are docile, we felt comfortable enough.

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The water buffalo are a slightly different story. I’m quite sure they would not do us any harm, but their horns are intimidating, so they were fun to watch from a distance. We first saw a big male, submerged up to his ears in a mud-hole, and then realized we were in the middle of a herd. As we rode on, so did the buffalo, leaving their grazing to head for water.

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We were getting quite blasé about water buffalo sightings and then we came upon this man. Traveling around in the paddies can feel like being in the middle of an Asian silk painting – so timeless and peaceful. That man on his water buffalo has been around for hundreds of years.

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This was not a sight we expected to see…

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We were heading down that stone wall to see the tomb of a Japanese trader who is buried in the middle of the rice paddies. (on dry land – more on that in a minute). This man was ahead of us  and he suddenly stopped, put a cage down and called out a command. This macaw emerged from the cage and then took off – flying and swooping before landing again and waiting for treats.   It was quite the sight; even more remarkable that the bird didn’t seize his opportunity and fly to freedom. Stephen spoke to the owner for a bit – apparently the bird is just 7 months old, so the two of them will grow old together.

As we were walking back, the macaw flew about and landed on Stephen’s shoulder. He started pecking at his hat, then spied the better prize – a silver necklace. Before he could lacerate Steve’s neck, the owner called him off.

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The Japanese tomb is visible in the above photo, a low flat stone structure on the horizon to the right of the bird.  It holds the remains of a 17th century Japanese trader, as a testament to the historical  friendship between the Japanese and Vietnamese. Interestingly, the massive rice paddies, which are mainly in water, are interspersed with squares of dry land and home to random tombstones, small homes and vegetable patches.

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We have found our routine while we’re here – up early and out by 8:00 am to hit the rice paddies for our dose of zen time. Then, when we have gathered enough nerve to hit the highway on our bikes and compete for space with dozens of motorcycles, scooters, delivery trucks, buses, minivans and assorted and sundry other vehicles, all of them speeding and honking and passing one another…we head for the beach. So far, so good, but you really need to be on your game, as regard for the safety of others is not at issue here in Hoi An. We were told the driving here is the worst in Vietnam (an unscientific opinion) but I’m inclined to believe it.   Anyway, just another 10 minutes from rice paddies to beach and this is our reward:

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We stake out a sun bed and thatched roof shade (ours for the day for the price of an iced coffee). We bring a book and a towel, and alternate between swimming in calm, delightfully refreshing water and sitting on our sunbeds, reading or napping. When we’re hungry or thirsty, we eat or drink. It is quiet and civilized and such a tonic – our first real beach time since we’ve been travelling.

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The beach has lots going on besides lazing about. We ran into a family who brought this massive inflatable beach pool with them from their home in Switzerland. The kids and Dad were having a grand time.  We must have stood there for 5 or 10 minutes while the same scene repeated itself. Dad fills pail with water from the ocean and pours it over his son. Son shrieks. Every time. We had a good laugh with the mum and she let me take a photo of the goings-on (similar scenes repeated daily on beaches around the world.)

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These distinctive round basket boats were on shore – possibly to be rented and taken out, or maybe they are simply fishing boats, but no-one was around to talk to about them or their history.

 

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The one downside of the beach and also of Hoi An, is the persistent and aggressive nature of the vendors. They walk the beach and come up into the restaurants with very similar wares – fans, little dolls, tiny china cups, place mats, plastic jewellery – cheap stuff that nobody wants.  A simple “no thanks” is ignored. Most of them speak English quite well and the line is always the same, “Where you from? Canadians help me feed my children. I need money for my family.”
By not buying, what you are doing is not turning down the chance to buy a lacquer mirror, you are refusing to help her family. It is very difficult, because although the line is the same, the circumstances are likely legit for most of the vendors – they are poor and struggling. We talked to Ming for a few minutes.

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Ming was quite forthcoming about her situation. When she found out we had two sons, she told us we were doubly lucky. Having a son is important in Vietnam – a family with only girls is at a disadvantage. She has three daughters and seemed so disappointed by that – once they are married, they will go to their husbands’ homes and  she will be left with no-one to care for her.

We told her we would have been happy to have a daughter as well, but now we were lucky to have a daughter -in-law. She was unimpressed – girls and women have less value here. So much more to talk about on that subject, but at another time. It left us feeling so sad for Ming – she has spent her life being devalued because she’s female.

There is still a culture in Asia that crosses all economic levels –  the cherished boy who is brought up to be catered to and waited on and becomes spoiled and lazy. We have heard the anecdotal stories and witnessed some examples of it already – groups of men, young and old, hanging out during the day and doing little.

This is not the case in every family, of course. We have met many gentle and hardworking young men and devoted family men. But it does say to us that cultural understanding is so complex, and we would need to be here for a long time to make sense of things, or at least not believe they are wrong just because they are different.

See you in Ancient Town Hoi An in a few days.

Nha Trang: The Russians are Coming!

For those of you too young to get the reference, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming! is a 1966 Norman Jewison comedy that played into American fears of a Russian invasion.
Nha Trang is a Vietnamese beach town that is as famous for its long white crescent beach as it is for the very literal invasion of Russian tourists and expats who have made this their personal playground.

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Oh sure, you’ll see Asian tourists and a few Europeans and even the odd Canadian, but Russians outnumber us all by 10-1. Hotels, restaurants, tour groups and stores cater to the Russian market. Most menus are in Vietnamese, English and Russian and if you are hankering for a massive wooden platter with potatoes and five varieties of grilled meat, you have come to the right place.

We had heard iffy reports from fellow travellers, but we were there for a day and two nights to break up our long travel north to Hoi An.

The promenade along the ocean is lovely, lined with high-rise hotels and softened with a shady, sculpture-filled park. Walk two streets away from the beach and Nha Trang is not a pretty place. It’s got a bit of a reputation for being a hard-partying town.

Nha Trang could be a beach in a lot of places, but nothing about it feels like Vietnam.Any nationality in large numbers will dominate and define and ultimately change a place. The dignified and modest Vietnamese residents have been bombarded by people who look fresh from auditions for “What Not to Wear”.

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Butt floss and banana slings are alive and well in Nha Trang. But it’s not all tacky t-shirts and buckets of booze.  There are plenty of Russian families, many of them multi-generational,  playing in the sand with their kids.

I didn’t encounter many friendly Russians – my smiles were met with stares, but hey – they’re not here to make new Canadian friends. They’ve got their squad with them.

The Asian ladies on the other hand seem fascinated with me. When we were in Laos, I saw three women staring at me and smiling and one of them surreptitiously took my photo. On our bus from Saigon, I had two ladies come to me and start stroking my arm and laughing.

And yesterday Stephen and I were sitting in the park beside the beach, watching two women posing for photos. The next thing we knew, they were cuddled right in beside me, with their friend snapping away madly. We think it is my white hair – many Asians have dark hair until they are very old, so I am a bit of a novelty.

Stephen told them I was a famous Canadian movie star, but I don’t think they understood him.

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We continue to be amused and curious about the sometimes quite intricate choreography that goes into the Asian photo or selfie. I would love to have access to some of their photo albums.

This lady had posed by a tree with her scarf draped provocatively, one leg kicked back, and hair tossed. Then… another, more serious and reflective, gazing skyward. She will have at least 20 similar shots, not including the many they took with me.

We watched this group for quite a while. They had four or five people photographing them as they clapped their hands, waved them overhead, did small steps , etc. At first I thought they were practicing for a routine and we would be treated to an impromptu performance.

 

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and another group …Mum, daughter and friend. I think the whole world’s gone mad.

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We dipped our toes in the water and Stephen went in for a swim, but mainly we entertained ourselves by people-watching and walking the promenade.

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Halfway down the beach is a massive complex with multiple pools, sunbeds, umbrellas, food kiosks  and all manner of beach accoutrement catering to the Russian tourists. The facilities were lovely and prices were extremely reasonable (a sunbed rental was about $3), and its easy to understand the appeal of a foreign destination that speaks your language.

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It’s not all borscht and blini though. As we walked by, this crocodile was slowly turning on the rotisserie. Two hours later on our return walk back, all that remained was his head and skeleton – he had been picked clean. We haven’t tried crocodile yet -they say it tastes like chicken.

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Here’s a healthy food choice – the tempting array of fruit that can be found on most street corners in Nha Trang.

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We came to Nha Trang not expecting much, and yet it was still an intriguing place to see –  just for a couple of days. If it’s not our cup of tea, that’s not holding back the many work sites in full swing. Like much of Vietnam, Nha Trang is in the middle of a building boom.

We wonder about the saturation point – at what point will there be too many hotel rooms in this city ?  We had building sites all around our hotel and across the street. This big project says it all (in English!)

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Dalat: Le Petit Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower

Dalat became a vacation favourite of French Colonialists because of its temperate climate, abundant flowers and mountain and lakeside setting, and the name “Le Petit Paris” stuck. The French influence is still evident – many older Vietnamese speak French and the architecture and food have a strong Gallic stamp.

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Dalat is also known as the City of Eternal Spring, and I am overjoyed because for the first time in two and a half months, I am not schvitzing. Last night, I put on a sweater to go out. Dalat is a small pretty city at an elevation of 1500m with clean air and pine trees. The streets wind up and around hills with numerous roundabouts and sightlines to the lake. Walking or biking is a pleasure as the circumference of the lake is ringed with a tree and flower-lined path.

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We saw packs of cyclists doing laps – as it turns out, they are on the local soccer team and this was part of their training. The green space in the background is a golf course.

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The city is just on the verge of bursting out, flower-wise. The jacaranda are in full bloom, and the cherry blossoms are about two weeks away. This is the time of year the locals wait for – when the city is so colourful and fragrant and they can finally strip off their parkas. The flower garden on one end of the lake was gorgeous.

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We passed a lot of men fishing, either in companionable groups or quietly solo. Since the lake is quite dirty, I imagine any fish would be caught just for sport.

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Around ten percent of Vietnam’s population is Christian, and the grounds around the  Notre Dame Cathedral were filled with people in quiet prayer. The church was not open, but we enjoyed just walking around the gardens.It is called the “Chicken Church” – look closely at the top of the steeple and you’ll see a chicken.

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Like much of Vietnam, Dalat is growing by leaps and bounds. We were told that just ten years ago, this was a quiet small town with no big buildings and simple houses with vegetable gardens out front. Now, the traffic is non-stop, grand hotels are springing up and modern government buildings like this one have transformed the landscape.

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Just around the corner, we found Hang Nga Crazy House, which defies description. One can call it surreal, outrageous, artistic – this house has enraged and offended the neighbours and delighted almost everyone else. It sat empty for almost a decade until legal skirmishes were settled. Architect Dang Viet Nga put her life’s work and finances into this dream and it is not finished yet. The molten walls and vertiginous stairways lead the visitor from one acid-trip room into another.

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Crazy House is massive in scale, and spreads over several buildings, joined by tiny little steps with 2-foot railings that would never pass code back home.

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I posed for the requisite “middle-of-the-bridge” shot.

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Dalat is the breadbasket of Vietnam, producing much of the country’s fruits, vegetables, rice, silk and coffee. We booked a tour which took us to a number of locations outside town. Seventeen of us took part – from Quebec, the U.K.,  Norway, Finland, Germany, Singapore and Canada. Our charming guide Chi gave us an excellent day and told us not only about what we were seeing, but offered some insights into life in Vietnam. She is 23 and works 7 days a week as a tour guide. It is not untypical for a lot of Vietnamese to work that hard. Here, she was explaining the distillation process of rice wine and offered us a sample. She called it “happy waters”  and made veiled references to how much many of the local men partake.

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About 20 minutes outside of town we began driving into the agricultural belt. Acres and acres of greenhouses grow all manner of fruit and vegetables, with strawberries and artichokes being the local speciality. Flowers are the other huge cash crop – everything is grown year-round and much of it in greenhouses since the rainy season and the bugs would otherwise destroy the crops.

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We stopped to walk through a huge flower operation. Roses, carnations and sunflowers were currently growing. Beautiful roses like this one sell for about 20 for $1.

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On to the silkworm farm and factory. This was such an interesting process to actually witness the path from pupa to silk scarf. Chi carried out the first stage on her hand – pupa, silkworm and cocoon. Silkworms are eaten in Vietnam – a couple of brave souls tried them and agreed they tasted like potato.

imageThe cocoons are put into boiling water, and only the pure white ones are kept. The inferior ones are sent to China. Once they are sorted, they are assembled in a huge machine with workers at each little hook. They take the fine thread of silk that emerges from each cocoon, attach it to the hook, and the spinning begins. Silk threads are first wound around spools on one machine and then transferred to this section, where the silk is gathered into long strands. After these strands are dried, they are ready to be dyed and woven.

On the subject of eating strange and unusual things, Chi told us “Vietnamese eat everything.” Whether this comes from a history of deprivation and necessity or whether it is cultural, but our next stop made all of us a little queasy. We were in search of crickets, washed down with rice wine, but first we went on a tour of the facilities and came into a holding pen where the crickets were kept. In the same room was a couple of civets (destined for someone’s dinner plate), some porcupines (ditto), some bamboo rats (same-same), and then three or four cages of these little critters.

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Chi told us they were being raised to be sold as pets, but we’re not sure. Guinea pigs are popular in South America and if the Vietnamese eat rats, these little guys cannot be far behind. Cats and dogs are eaten here , although only among the locals.

Crickets, though – that is why we were there and we moved on to the tasting room. They were served, roasted, with a splash of chili sauce, and they tasted like a salty, crunchy snack – full of protein, apparently. This little girl was not sure about them, but she gamely tried one and didn’t go back for seconds.

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The area around Dalat is full of waterfalls and even in the dry season, there was still plenty of water. We visited Elephant Falls, which required us to climb down to the bottom by hanging on to steel poles and overhanging vines.

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The climb down was worth it – the falls were impressive enough, but as is often the case throughout SEAsia, there is so much plastic and garbage, it spoils the view. Chi explained that education about littering is slow here –  people see the outdoors as being a dumping ground, and they either litter or burn toxic substances, so it is still a problem.

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We stopped by a village of the K’ho minority people who work on a coffee plantation. The village consists of about 800 citizens and it is a matriarchal society, in terms of authority, certainly not of advantage. The women must pay for their husbands, who do not work but stay home all day and drink. The women and children work on the plantation all day – the children do not attend school.

Chi walked us through part of their village and showed us inside one home – dirt floor, dark, no electricity or running water. There were few people around and it felt uncomfortable.

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Our last stop was a coffee plantation tour and tasting. Vietnam has grown to become the world’s 2nd largest producer of coffee beans in the world, and this area is one of the prime regions for growing Robusta beans and increasingly Arabica. A speciality  coffee that is produced here is weasel (civet) coffee.  The civet  cats are fed fruit to flavour the beans as they make their way from one end to the other. Once the beans are cleaned, dried and roasted, they produce a coffee that is a bit sour. Only a couple of our group tried the civet coffee and they didn’t care for it, so it might be regarded as a novelty item.

There were a number of sleeping civets in cages – this one was awake for his photo.

imageThe rest of the coffees were exceptional – we enjoyed them while looking over the valley and the plantation.

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And back to the city of Dalat. We booked a room with the stupendously misnamed hotel “Nice Dream”. It is right in the centre of town, with the night market all around us, and non-stop traffic, so noise is a bit of a problem. The hotel is newly renovated and run by state tourism, with all the warmth and charm that implies. At first, we thought the front desk staff were cyborgs, but we have been getting smiles, so it may just be old-fashioned corporate training.

One final shot  – the night market in front of our hotel.

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Chasing Graham Greene: Finding history on every corner

Number 214. The Continental Hotel, Saigon. This is the room Graham Greene stayed in while he wrote his epic novel, The Quiet American, about American involvement during the demise of French colonialism in Vietnam in the 1950s.

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And this is the Continental Hotel – I can imagine Greene parked at a corner table, drinking and writing. The hotel’s history is brought to life through photos and datelines, in an exhibit down one hallway off the lobby. The Continental does not appear to have been updated much. It is Saigon’s first hotel, and the luxury hotels since then are far grander and more well-appointed. But this hotel has such interesting ghosts!

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From The Quiet American to The American War of Aggression, Vietnam’s history of oppressors has left an indelible mark in Saigon.  You can’t visit here (or you shouldn’t) without seeing the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace.

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We began with the Reunification Palace. The Vietnam War was such a strong marker of our youth; imprinted even more throughly by the books and movies that followed. A stroll through the Palace was deja vu all over again. The tanks crashed through the gates on April 30, 1975, the day Saigon surrendered, and everything in the Palace looks exactly as it did on that date. We strolled through two floors of rooms, frozen in 60s limbo – drawing rooms, the President’s office, dining rooms.  I recognized the teak furniture and the scratchy yellow and brown upholstery from my childhood.

Then we went to the bunker, where the President and his family lived towards the end, and where the command post was secreted away, complete with maps and phones.

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That visit was a trip down memory lane, but it was a whole other story with the War Remnants Museum (once known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes).

It is no secret that the American War was a disaster that cost billions of dollars, millions of lives and millions more ruined, but the most gruesome part of this museum was the section devoted to Agent Orange and its ongoing effects. Originally used by the Americans as a defoliating agent to make detection of the enemy easier, the secondary effects were devastating beyond anyone’s imaginings.

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We walked through one exhibit hall of hundreds of photos of malformed fetuses, conjoined twins, children born without limbs, horribly disfiguring facial features, mental retardation, blindness and skin diseases. We could not bear to walk through the whole thing, but the most horrifying aspect of Agent Orange is that it did not disappear with the first generation. The chemicals appear to have become part of each victim’s DNA, so that children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still being born with significant deformities. Forty + years later and the effects of Agent Orange aren’t over yet.

Another hall showcased the great photojournalists of the day – Larry Burrows, Robert Capa, etc. – who died while documenting the war. Many of the photos are iconic; all of them are extremely poignant.

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These great photojournalists captured such emotion -the viewer feels the fear of those children.
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The section  of war crimes on unarmed women, children and the elderly  was stomach-turning. The My Lai Massacre is well-known and so is the attack led by Lieutenant Bob Kerrey, who confessed to those crimes decades later (as a U.S. Senator).

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The Fine Arts Museum is a refreshing antidote to the heaviness of the War Remnants Museum. It is a stunning colonial building, whose architectural details alone are worth checking out ( old wooden lift, wrought iron everywhere, stained glass, soaring ceilings), but much of the art is contemporary and has war influences.

Young soldier home on leave.

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Son and wounded father

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And now for some random Saigon moments. I will begin with some Stephen silliness to change the mood. Lisa took us to the Russian Market and if you are a fan of Nike, Adidas, North Face or Under Armour, this place would put you in a cold sweat.  Under Armour T-shirt = $8 CAD, three-season North Face down jacket = $35 CAD. These are not knockoffs – they are made in Vietnam, and that is the “firm price.” Lisa and I made Stephen buy a shirt, and with his requisite purchase in hand, it was time to entertain the ladies.

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After our shopping excursion, we walked through the neighbourhood of modest apartments, alleys and pho stands. We were reminded of how sometimes we only see the outer layer of life as we walk by. Stephen spied a picturesque clothesline and backdrop outside a window,  and as he was aiming his camera to take a second shot, a woman’s face appeared and she threw a glass of water down on him. It was only when he looked at the photos later that he saw why she might have felt invaded.

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Alleys add to the mystery of Saigon – so little revealed from the street, but they are the arterial flow of the city. People live there, work there, have businesses – you just have to walk down one to discover a whole other side of the city.

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Stephen photobombing the selfie girls.

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On our last day in Saigon, we visited the Botanical Garden. The garden is a lush hideaway from the city, with a butterfly garden, orchid garden and many bonsai. The downside to the garden is it is ringed with a sad zoo – giant squirrels imprisoned in giant birdcages, demented gibbons hopping about in domed cages the size of an average suburban bedroom and a couple of hyenas sleeping on concrete  – I couldn’t look any further.   We did see lovely birds though – we think this is a giant ibis. Whatever it is, it is the size of a nine-year-old kid – this is a very big bird.

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And this bonsai – dozens of them on display – beautiful.

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There is so much more to tell you about Saigon – not nearly enough time or space. I’ll sneak in this one photo of the subway they are working on – hoping to relieve current traffic congestion and anticipating future growth.

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But will a new subway or monorail lure the Saigon residents away from their motorbikes? As long as one is able to cut through traffic by hopping up on the sidewalk (warning pedestrians with a gentle beep) it may be a tough sell.

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Good-bye Saigon – over all too soon.  Next stop – the mountain town of Dalat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tales from Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)

Before I talk about Saigon I want to share a cautionary tale about the importance of checking your visa dates before you attempt to cross into Vietnam. I’m about to make a long story short (first time for everything).

We went to the Vietnam embassy in Vancouver in November to arrange for our 3-month visas. They arrived in the mail, we tucked them in with our passports and never gave them another thought.  Four days ago, we discovered our visas had been incorrectly dated – to end May 2018 (not 2017). This did not sit well with the border guards, who took over  an hour and a half to determine what to do with us. In that time, we a) held up our bus and our fellow travellers while they waited for us, b) entered a Kafkaesque state of despair and fear as the guard holding our passports and visas had disappeared and no-one knew where he was, and c) discovered what breaking the rules in a socialist republic country feels like (hint: no need to try this yourselves). Finally, an English-speaking official was called in on her day off, it was determined we posed no threat, a work-around was figured out and we were on our way.

This inauspicious start to our six weeks in Vietnam was soon forgotten as we neared Saigon’s downtown. Among the mad swarm of motorcycles that buzzed around our bus was this rider and his eager little passenger.

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You know how you visit a new place and complete strangers offer you a place to stay for a week? No? Well, this happened to us – and while the Chute family are not complete strangers – they are friends of friends – we had never met each other.  I have a deep-seated worry about putting anyone out, so the idea of doing anything more than meeting them for dinner made me uncomfortable.

Lisa, Tim and their son Simon moved to Saigon seven months ago to begin their new life there with an international school. They live in a beautiful, leafy area of the city with a park across the street and a landscaped canal running beside a main shopping street.

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Before we knew it, we were ensconced in their home (on our very own floor) and I was having my hair cut at Lisa’s hairdresser.  Tim took my misbehaving computer to his workplace (it is now fixed), and Lisa took us out on an insider tour of Saigon.

Their incredible hospitality has been a highlight of the trip for us, and best part – they are now our new friends.

The Chute family and friend Sierra about to enjoy fabulous pho at one of their favourite restaurants.

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We’ve told you about the legendary traffic in SEAsia, but Vietnam probably earns top spot for sheer volume. We’ve navigated the roads all the way along, but I was having difficulty understanding why I wouldn’t be  run over. Surely there would be at least one biker with a grudge against Westerners? Someone texting or eating or carrying parcels and children while driving with their knees?  But no, as with the other countries, there is a flow and Lisa explained it perfectly.”Think of it as the river and the rocks. The motorcycles are the river – you move through slowly and they flow around you like water. Anything bigger is a rock – they are immovable – you wait and walk around them.”  For all of you who have been here already – you know this. For anyone else contemplating a visit here – pay heed. This tip is the exact image you need to be safe and confident on the roads.

In this clip below, our strategy would be to wait until the crush of bikes went by, look for a break in the traffic, and wade through.

So…on to Saigon and our impressions. I’m calling it Saigon instead of Ho Chi Minh City because that is what most Vietnamese call it.  Also, I like the name Saigon – it conjures up romance and history and danger.

Our immediate impressions of Saigon have  been overwhelmingly positive. Of course – it is a massive city – I’ve heard anywhere from ten to fourteen million people, but the areas most tourists want to visit cover a small, almost entirely walkable part of the city called District 1. The impressive skyline is dominated by the distinctive lotus-shaped Bitexco Financial Tower with a skydeck jammed into one side.

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This is the view from 68 floors up; a city with moderate high-rises, bisected by the Mekong, and intersected with numerous canals.

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The joy of Saigon is how they have combined their modern growth with respect for heritage architecture, which leads to some intriguing sightlines of old and new. Every street brings another perspective and strolling down the alleyways could keep a visitor occupied for days.

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Lisa took us past the big French influences – the Notre Dame Basilica…

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…around the corner to the Central Post Office.

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The interior of the grand concourse have painted maps of South Vietnam and Saigon, as well as a prominent portrait of “Uncle Ho.”

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Ho Chi Minh is a revered figure among the Vietnamese people – his vision of a united Vietnam was shared by all and his portraits and statues are everywhere. Here, he stands guard in front of the City Hall.  Between the City Hall and the Mekong River is a magnificent pedestrian-only promenade.

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This area is fronted by elegant shops and old hotels, such as the Rex Hotel, which had a cherry red Maserati in front of it the day we walked by.

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Most of our friends would love this next stop. There is a delightful small street that is dedicated to bookstores. Just bookstores and coffeeshops – all set on a quiet, shady street – can you imagine anything nicer in the middle of a busy city?

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Saigon is full of trees and parks and places to find a bit of solitude.

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There is so much to take in here – I think Saigon is a city that needs a fair bit of time to begin to understand and discover. We can hit the main tourist spots, but without our insider knowledge, would we have discovered the bookshop street? We are only here for another day and there is so much more to talk about, but I wanted our first blog posting to be about the city and the people.

Some fellow travellers have told us they found Vietnamese to be rude and not that friendly. We have encountered exactly the opposite, and I’ll give you a few examples.

A couple of days ago as we were waiting for our bus to take us downtown, I struck up a conversation with an elegant Vietnamese woman who spoke English and French and who had an interesting story to tell. She lived in New Caledonia, a French Island in the South Pacific, until 1964, at the age of six, she moved back to Vietnam with her parents. That simple fact hung there in the air, as it carried so much potential information about her life. It isn’t appropriate to start grilling people about their experiences during the “American War of Aggression, but like Cambodia, you can’t help but look at anyone of a certain age and wonder what burden they carry.

This lady, Huan, carries her life with grace. She invited us to have coffee at her son’s restaurant, and we were honoured to be asked. We were joined by her friend, who is a Saigon native and retired architect, but for all her urban polish has retained the charming habit of cooking up food (in this case, a sweet potato) and bringing it in a little baggie to share.

Huan (by the wall) with her friend.

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Huan’s son owns three restaurants called Modern Meets Culture – http://m2ccafe.com
They are very modern indeed – he is also an architect and designer. Lisa told us about the phenomenon of the Việt Kiều – the “overseas Vietnamese” who left the country after 1975 for Los Angeles, and whose U.S.-educated children are now returning back to their country as adults. They are bringing new life, entrepreneurial ideas and cash infusions into Saigon – many of them are barely in their 30’s. That, combined with the fact that foreign investment is strictly curtailed, is helping Vietnam prosper and grow independently.

Many of the Vietnamese are quite curious about us and are quite funny. We were at the Museum of Fine Art yesterday when we came upon this scene:

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We stopped to take photos as well, thinking this might be a Vietnamese celebrity, but it was just a fashion shoot. We were turning away when the photographer in the white shirt caught sight of Stephen. He could not believe his eyes, “What a beard you have – can I take a photo to show my brother?” He explained that Asian men can’t grow beards and they are fascinated by them. He took a few shots from different angles – how I wish I had my wits about me to take a photo of Stephen’s expression!

While we were in the museum (more about that in the next posting), we met one of the artists whose works were on display as part of the “Hanoi artists” exhibition. We were especially drawn to his work as it was contemporary and strongly influenced by water. His name is Nguyen Van Trung and our conversation with him was though his interpreter. I told him I was interested in seeing art created after the war, and what those influences would look like. He talked about the “aloneness” of humanity and how that can be both painful and peaceful. It was such a pleasure to be able to converse a bit, since language is obviously a complete obstacle to getting to know anyone here, unless they speak English.
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And the food! Our first dinner out was with Lisa at The Secret Garden – discovered by walking down an alley, up five grotty flights of stairs to a garden-like setting, with simply delicious food. We would never have found it on our own. That is our goal – spend the next five weeks searching out the local gems.

Lisa snapped this shot of us at the Secret Garden on our way out.

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I have so much more to share about this beautiful city – the War Remnants Museum and  Reunification Palace deal with the American War, and that is an inevitable part of travel through Vietnam. But there is a whole lot more – Saigon looks to the future, not to the past.