Travel

A chunk of Hoi An and a bit of Hue (Hoo-eey)

 

 

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A woman took this photo four times.

Rose asked someone passing by, and the woman seized the chance like a long lost love. Maybe a failed photographer in her past or an aspiring one in her present, she snapped a shot once (the one above), said “Hang on. Let me get some more”. Then took another one: in which my smile went from “Cheese” to “Uhh”, and Matt’s expression seems to say: “What is she doing?”.

Then a third shot: Rose’s smile in that one looks pained, her teeth appearing more like knives waiting to hit a target. And finally, the fourth shot- where Juliana looks dazed, unsure if the woman was going to give back our camera.

It also happens to be one of the few shots we’ve got together. Maybe the woman sensed this and wanted to rattle off one for each of us?

In any case, it kicked off our visit to Hoi An – a UNESCO world heritage site (Remember them?) – so enshrined for its ancient town that is still well preserved, showcasing its past as a major 18th Century trading post for China and Japan. Its history in trading continues, but rather than dealing in goods for residents, its dealing in us – tourists – which means a lot of this:

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Plus plenty of touts (this is a title we’ve come to learn traveling in Southeast Asia. I didn’t get it at first, because, well I like to confuse things – but it means someone “touting” something. Remarkable how that came together, no?). At every restaurant we passed along the canal in the ancient town, someone was waving a menu while running off a version of: “Hey. Where you from? Come in boss. Cheap beer. Good food. We give you good price”.

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There was a crucial moment in our stroll one evening when Rose approached a tout, giving the menu a closer look, then decided to keep walking. But before making it four steps, the tout shouted after her:

“COOOOMMME ON LAAAAAAAAAAAAADYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!”

This quickly became the refrain between us for the rest of the trip, invoked by anyone when any other member of Team Canada (male too) was either slow on the uptake or didn’t understand something.

I heard it a fair bit.

The other side of things that Hoi An is known for is tailoring. You can get a suit made for some insanely ridiculous price – (I wasn’t looking, although a tux on a beach or wearing it to wander through temples has its own perverse appeal). One group of guys staying at our hotel were going on and on about their appointment with their tailor, and when they had to pick up their several suits – all of them saying this wearing no shirts, only shorts and flipflops. It looked like a cry for help.

After wandering through the many stalls, and things for sale along the waterfront, including women selling lanterns to tourists to drop in the water (and left as garbage on the shorebank)

 

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plus dipping our heads, scrunching down, and dodging other tourists taking photos of everything around, including one guy who, at the entrance of THE tourist attraction in Hoi An (a Japanese covered bridge), where piles of tourists walk through constantly, he gestures to Juliana, with a look of exasperation: “EXCUSE ME”, while waving her away with his hand in the air, as if bothered by a mosquito, which seemed as useful as motioning cars to get out of the way of the Arc de Triomphe – All in all, I found Hoi An, umm, ha du you zzay in Franch… behn un peu trop “tout-y” la.

However, we at least, left with our two souvenirs: “COME ON LADY!” and “EXCUSE ME!”, which we packed with us for our one-day whirlwind in Hue the Vietnamese capital until 1945, which is yet another….have you guessed? Uh-huh. You got it. Straight outta history to your modern day tourist eyes….. a UNESCO world heritage site!

This one designated, in particular for its Citadel where the former Vietnamese Emperor also ruled:

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Since we only had one day, we made the Citadel our single site to explore. It was an interesting spot, with massive ponds in front:

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Then inside the walls, two long hallways, one on either side of the garden:

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And, at this point, I thought. “Ya know. A gold dragon would really button up the place”. Annnnd behold…

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Amazing. I know. Fanks ever so much.

And, after the piece de resistance, some of us were too blown away to move:

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But rather than sleep on a bench for the night, we met up for dinner with our two UK travellers from Halong Bay, Jon and Sara from  http://alongwayfordumplings.travellerspoint.com fame who also happened to be in town, which you’ll have to take my word on, because I haven’t got photo proof.

But, I do have proof of what we did the next morning:

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Which landed (thankfully), in Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City aka HCMC aka our espresso connoisseur finds her Stanley cup aka museum stops aka even more traffic stops AKA our last stop in Vietnam.

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Talk soon

 


Cave dwelling

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That’s a cave opening, which we drifted into on one of these boats:

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It’s part of Vietnam’s Phong Na-Khe Bang national park where, in the 90s and 00s, British explorers found a massive underground cave system. National Geographic did a big spread on it earlier this year, which, if you’re interested, you can find their much better photographs: http://www.lovethesepics.com/2012/07/mysterious-massive-world-hidden-underground-paradise-fairytale-caves/.

While we’re not visiting the one touted in the magazine as the biggest cave in the world, simply because it costs $3,000 and a few days trek to get there. We opted for the easier cave versions: this one above and the other one called Paradise cave – only discovered in 2005, and open to the public in 2011.

Interesting enough on its own, but I also thought, as a name for a cave, seems a little odd, and makes me wonder how the marketing team came up with it:

“Okay, everyone. Let’s look at what we know.

It’s a cave. It’s dark. It’s humid. It’s underground. It’s dark. Did I mention that already? Well, I should again: it’s very dark. It drips a lot of water. There’s some strange creatures that live there that aren’t found anywhere else. Bats hang around there and, let’s be honest: they shit a lot. Ok. What have we got? What can we name this thing for tourists?

“Um. How about PARADISE?.”

“PARADISE! That’s it. Great job. It’s a paradise. YES, Paradise Cave. It’s official”.

While the name choice seemed strange to me, to another member of Team Canada it may have sounded just right. Juliana was stuck in the crosshairs of jet lag, unable to sleep at night, and during the day, but still tried her best wherever she was:

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So, for someone who was badly sleep deprived, a dark cavern where you couldn’t tell if it was day or night, might live up to its billing.

But, unfortunately, she’d have to wait to test the theory as our first stop was riding a boat through the first cave, followed by a small stroll afterwards.

It was a pretty remarkable spot, with huge formations growing off to the side of the boat as you passed:

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Sadly, most of my shots look like that: i.e. what is it exactly? I figured as much when I was taking them, but hoped something might come through. This one, I think, can at least provide a sense of scale:

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We wandered through here for a bit, and had a funny encounter with someone who was hawking photographs. When everyone got out of the boat to wander the remaining part of the cave, the photographer stopped us and tried to assemble us into a group to take a photo.

But two things:

1. Our group was not some tight crowd who had been traveling for weeks together (Team Canada excepted). We “met” about 30 minutes earlier, and our general relationship, to that point, was about as profound as meeting a mall greeter.

2. Everyone. Yes, everyone (I know I exaggerate, but this time for true) – had their own camera.

It was on. Flashes were flashing. Clicks were clicking. Photos were hungrily being saved on disk space by everyone in our group.

Yet, we were nonetheless stopped by this one photographer to pose for a group shot. Everyone’s reaction was more or less how you could imagine.

People wandered off, doing their own thing with a look of disbelief saying: “Yeah, right”. Essentially, the attitude was:

Had he superimposed our faces on a cave formation, then put it on a t-shirt, keyring, magnet and mug, and sold the whole lot for $10 then…

Ok. No, I still wouldn’t buy it. But, I think it would, at least, be a more inventive approach.

With no group souvenirs in our hands, we left the first cave and made our way to the marketing wonder, Paradise cave.

From the start, it didn’t wear its name well, as we had to climb 500 stairs to get the opening. Jet lag or no, Juliana’s reaction wasn’t altogether surprising at the top:

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After we caught our breath, and REM failed Juliana yet again, we all headed into the hole to see what was there:

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It was massive. We followed a 1km long wooden track, which in a separate package, we learned you could walk an additional 30km afterwards. But we opted for the short version, not least of which because three of us couldn’t carry Juliana for that long, plus the guide admitted it’s a lot of a cave with one 1km not much different than the next.

Regardless, for the shorter version, I thought the formations here were already impressive:

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Again, the scale doesn’t work, but the colours and shapes were really cool, some even bizarre:

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As we wandered out, Juliana, who had tried to lie down on a bench in the cave, persisted on the walk, not wanting to miss a thing – and on the way out of the cave, turned to Rose (who, in her former life, was a real estate agent) and said:

“No, I don’t like it. It’s not for me. There’s no windows. I think the renovations would cost way too much”.

Tired yet amazingly lucid, Juliana made it out of the cave, into her bed, and something miraculous happened. She slept. The entire night through.

Just in time for our next stop. UNESCO heritage site – Hoi An then a quick stop to Hue before flying south to Saigon or what everyone now likes to call it: Ho Chi Minh City.

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Hanoi Hustle 2

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The next morning we connected with our newest member of Team Canada (via Argentina), Juliana – who would be traveling with us for the next two weeks.

While still in the throes of jet lag, she bravely joined our sweat brigade as we moved through the “holy shit’ streets of Hanoi.

Heading out with intention and purpose, we strode across traffic as if we had our own private lane, bypassed vendors with nary a look or acknowledgment, and held the line walking down the street, refusing to flinch as taxis came within inches of our toes.

But, no matter how determined we were, this cat had the answer which we refused to accept:

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You can’t beat the heat.

So, after making it only six blocks, we accepted the inevitable and dripped into one of the seemingly, hundreds of neighbourhood cafes to sprawl out with a drink.

Having drunk a ton of iced coffee, with condensed milk in Lao, I’d become accustomed to the sweeter taste of the drink. Plus, drinking hot black coffee on its own, I’d made peace with the slightly sweeter taste of the beans.

However, while I considered myself a regular coffee drinker – Juliana approaches coffee as a vocation. I can’t prove it firsthand (but by all means clear it up in the comments, Juliana), but I’m pretty sure her espresso machine is the second hardest working appliance after her furnace.

Coffee is espresso. Coffee is hot. Coffee is not, “whatever the hell this was”: said the look on her face after a sip.

And so began Juliana’s odyssey for the next two weeks – where to find a rich espresso? However, with one of her addictions hanging desperately in the balance, Juliana bared down, and industriously replaced it with a whole new beverage: Mango shake.

With some balance restored, and feeling a little cooler, we headed out to the street to visit the nearest attraction: The Citadel.

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After a few steps, the heat wrapped itself around us again and we slowed down.

Seeing our pace slow, a nearby hustler chatted us up with the usual sidewalk sales pitch: “Where U from?” “Aaah Canada” “Cold”.

Normally, I’d toss off the talk and move along, but Rose was in negotiations with the guy already over a price, for something, of which I only learned after looking down at his business card: he was a motorbike taxi.

At first, I thought it was crazy. But then, after the three of us each took off on the back of a bike, I realized it was crazy.

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And, a ton of fun.

We zinged through the streets, now looking at them from the other side, missing pedestrians by inches, and vendors by less while merging through every intersection with one horn on the thumb blasting our presence to everyone driving near us.

Traffic felt like being in the middle of a school of fish – there were no straight lines of bikes or cars in designated lanes, instead, they just floated around, moving in and out to jostle for position, even if it was only two feet:

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En route we stopped at the city’s oldest university: The Temple of Literature, which is dedicated to the study of Confucianism, represented by these tortoises: each with a Confucian saying, such as: “When the temperature gets too hot. Get on the back of a bike and ride.”

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Wise man: moving through the streets on a bike is a good way to have a constant flow of air on your face.

Afterwards we paid adieu to our hogs and bikers:

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And greeted the next member of Team Canada: Matt (or Matty) who would also be with us for the next two weeks:

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(This is the first photo I have of  him – an action shot, which provides a bit of foreshadowing into our Hanoi evening).

That night, Rose arranged a food tour of Hanoi with some local university students who offer their know-how and guidance around menus and parts of the city, in exchange for the chance to speak English.

We headed out with another backpacking duo who Rose and I met at the airport, shared a taxi with and invited to join us on our gluttons tour.

First stop: Pho.

And, the first morsel of knowledge – we learned that Pho – rice noodle in broth, traditionally with beef – originated in Hanoi, and the two girls brought us to what they considered, the best version in the city, which I was suspicious of at first, because it was a restaurant.

I thought the best Pho would surely be from a sidewalk vendor. Regardless, it tasted really, really good, and became the foundation for the rest of our night.

With guides in tow, they led us through block after block jammed streets, a night market here, a packed sidewalk restaurant there, and navigated us through the standard traffic wall of a million bikes by raising their hand, like Iron Man (but sadly no laser blasts), to tell people to step tha F**k back.

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A kind, and bold gesture, which sort of worked. By final count, as many people blew by her hand as stopped, but at least it reduced the volume of bikes we had to sidestep.

However, all of this was leading to the main evening’s event – the Beer corner. The same neighbourhood Rose and I found ourselves upside down in the previous night.

Amazingly, the crowds were even more insane. All eight of us managed to squish into a tiny spot in the middle of a big crowd, sitting on the beer corner’s best stools, which were only tall enough to milk a cow.

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Then our guides advised us on some things to eat, like this:

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And, also that animal’s colon: chicken gizzard. Surprisingly, the gizzard wasn’t that bad, and went well with beer.

As we ate and drank ourselves full, we watched the scene in front of us as cops would shut down a line of chairs at the front of each restaurant that pushed too far out into the road. But as soon as the cops had gone down the road far enough to bother someone else, that restaurant re-opened the line of chairs to more people.

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The scenario repeated itself a few times at different spots. It was pretty funny to watch.

I’d said earlier that day, I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be to walk drunk through the streets of Hanoi. Thankfully, I didn’t get to find out. But I did find a slight buzz made all the coming and going traffic, shouts from vendors, and honking horns sound a lot more musical.

Next stop, UNESCO world heritage site: Halong Bay for a three day, two night boat cruise through limestone hills.