Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Vietnam with Eileen

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Eileen arrived in Saigon on April 29th, the day after I returned to Vietnam from Australia. Although there were some lonely evenings over the course of our three-month separation, we both remarked that the time had passed more quickly than expected. Especially over the last month apart, as the reunion date approached. We did not fall immediately back into our comfortable banter – Eileen admitted to the strangeness of suddenly having a listener around again. But the readjustment was rapid enough, especially after several glasses of imported wine. Buying wine is a fringe, risky undertaking in Vietnam, so we had both bought our duty free limit on the flights into the country. Husband and wife were reacquainted in humid Vietnam, over glasses of Stoneleigh sauvignon blanc from New Zealand and Raven’s Wood Zinfandel from California.

We spent a lazy two nights in Saigon, both recovering from painfully long flights. On the second night, we drank cocktails at the Sheraton rooftop bar, one of the city’s best vantage points.

The following morning we flew to Hanoi. During my travels in Asia, Hanoi has often been on my radar, but I have never visited. Along with Phnom Penh, it is often billed as one of Asia’s most atmospheric cities, with a leafy colonial heritage of boulevards and cafés. But unlike relatively undeveloped Phnom Penh, I had the sense that Hanoi’s historic quarter had become a museum for tourists, stranded in time and overtaken by the clang and commotion of the working Hanoi that had encircled it. I am not entirely sure why that kept me away, but it struck me as somehow sad: a “too late” destination.

That said, we enjoyed a relaxing stay in Hanoi. The first day was sweltering hot and the third day was cool and rainy: typically variable Hanoi weather that contributed to our general lack of motivation for sightseeing. We had a beautiful room on the top floor of a hotel in the Old Quarter. We left this comfortable nest and its expansive views mainly for meals and a couple of short walks. Our one sightseeing excursion was to the Temple of Literature, or the “Museum of Books,” as Eileen chose to name it. The literature component of the temple is rather drab: a set of stone slabs inscribed with the names of important writers, each resting on a stone turtle. But the complex evolved through the years as a Confucian temple, a university and an imperial academy, so it is a rambling mix of influences.

From the balcony of one of the buildings, it appears many visitors toss offerings of money onto the roof below – odd.

On either side of the rear of the complex are two massive hanging drums. Key the obligatory Eileen performance:

Across the street is a popular little park with a lake in its middle. I shot some photos of the park, but my favourite shot ignored the area and focussed on a young girl reading her homework out loud.

I made only one serious photo excursion in Hanoi, and it was for the most part thwarted by rain. I woke up at 5h15 or so to catch the sunrise, but rain and cloud precluded any light show. Instead, I wandered around Hoan Kiem Lake, the symbolic and atmospheric heart of Old Hanoi. At first I was shocked to find it already busy at 5h30 with Hanoians out for their morning walking and stretching. But I was eased back into a dopey dawn state by the quiet procession. Wordlessly, the walkers passed in an uninterrupted counterclockwise stream. The quiet was disarming, given the usual cacophony of Vietnam’s cities. As was the orderly flow, given the usual mayhem of Vietnamese traffic.

Still photos could not capture the scene, so I shot one of the first videos with my new camera. The morning seemed quieter than the video reveals, as I seem to have captured the noise of several passing cars in the background and of me zipping my camera bag. Still, it gives an idea of the silent procession.

Here are some more photos from that rainy morning, including some men playing da cau at a rainy intersection.

From Hanoi, Eileen and I travelled to Cat Ba Island. Every travel guide asserts that a boat trip on Halong Bay is a mandatory component of a visit to Vietnam. But in the same breath they warn against the crowds, the diesel fumes, the crappy food and the scams that accompany that experience. My solution to these very mixed recommendations was to try a kayak trip in neighbouring Lan Ha Bay, which forms part of the same limestone-cliff landscape as Halong Bay, but sits just beyond the range of most three-day Halong boat cruises. Cat Ba Town, on the island of the same name, is the natural starting point for exploring Lan Ha Bay.

Cat Ba Town remains a Vietnamese tourist destination. The majority of hotels, restaurants and souvenir stands cater to Hanoians, who come on weekends and apparently flood the town from June to August. We arrived at the end of the off-season and found cheap, empty hotels in a sleepy town – already an improvement over the reviews of Halong Bay. To illustrate the pace of Cat Ba Town, here is a a dog lying in the middle of the main road at midday:

Some views of the town and harbour:

I had spent the previous 2.5 months in southern Vietnam, which retains many cultural differences from the north of the country. One is the prevalence in the North of streetside beer gardens called bia hơi. The name translates roughly to “fresh beer,” and they serve cheap, light draft that does not contain the preservatives of canned and bottled Vietnamese brews. For the price – we paid VND 8,000 per glass, or $0.40 – you are not sipping a complex Bavarian masterpiece, but it is fun to slosh back a few glasses and eat dried fish with the locals. Here are our bia hơi with the town’s main intersection in the background:

I am not sure why I spent so much space describing Cat Ba Town, as the highlight of our trip was our kayak trip through Lan Ha Bay. More accurately, it was an “adventure tour,” as we kayaked only for the first day and then cycled and hiked the second.

Many areas of Lan Ha Bay are populated by shellfish farmers, who lived on floathomes attached to their pens. Here is an otherwise drab photo that illustrates the typical setup: floating house, pens and a rowboat to commute:

Here is a photo of a dumb, yappy dog that stranded himself on a sandbar several hundred metres from another typical floating settlement:

The attraction of Lan Ha Bay is the dramatic limestone landscape plunging into the calm, protected waters of the bay. Here is Eileen, her colourful kayak and some Lan Ha scenery:

We stayed on land in a comfortable bungalow development, from where I snapped these dawn and dusk shots:

The next day we cycled into Cat Ba National Park to the base of the island’s highest peak (~270m). From there, we hiked up through the sauna of the jungle to a lookout point that was once an artillery emplacement for repelling US Navy ships attempting to bombard the mainland. We were lucky that it was an overcast day, as we were slick with sweat on the ascent. Here is our group of valiant jungle explorers at the top – be thankful digital cameras have not yet evolved to capture odour. Our tour companions were a German brother and sister team name Justus and Tienne, and our excellent guide Hien.

More views from the top, unfortunately obscured by cloud:

After our adventure tour, we retired our active spirits and flew to Phu Quoc Island, a tropical paradise off the extreme southwest coast of the country. We lounged for four nights at Mango Bay Resort, a luxury development 20 minutes by car from the island’s airport. The resort advertises low-density development and a minimum of electrical appliances. There are fans and ice boxes in the rooms, but no air conditioners or fridges. They do offer wifi internet, which seemed at odds with the minimalist theme, but at least it was slow and unreliable. It had the elements you expect from an upscale beach resort: a couple of private beaches, a beach bar, a spa, a good restaurant and a wine list. But the attraction for me was the quiet. After three months in bustling Vietnamese cities and towns, this was my first dose of pure silence in three months. No cars, horns, generators or early-morning market sounds. Just cicadas, wind and waves. We surrendered to the peace and quiet, only leaving resort for a couple of hours one morning for a hot walk through town.

Here is Eileen looking out over the ocean from our balcony:

Like the other cabins on the property, ours was surrounded by a prodigious garden that provided scenery, aroma and privacy.

The following photo does not provide any scale, but it shows a GIANT gecko lizard, who was just shy of a foot in length and as thick as my wrist – a well-fed bug-o-vore. It was a miracle of physics that he could cling to the wall like this:

On our final night at the resort, the skies obliged with a beautiful sunset. The rainy season was just beginning to assert itself, producing the wind-blown swirly water and the multi-layered clouds shown in this photo:

We left our relaxing paradise to return to hectic Saigon for two nights before our flight back to Geneva. We did some shopping and visited the excellent Requiem collection of war photography at the War Remnants Museum. But for me, those last couple of days were mainly spent wrapping up my three-month stay in Vietnam: thanking my sponsors at the university, visiting my favourite restaurants, stuffing my bags and returning my apartment keys. Successful research, a side trip to visit my infant niece and nephew in Australia and a relaxing, scenic reunion with Eileen: a memorable trip.

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Written by Kris Terauds

May 30, 2011 at 22:31

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