Archive for May, 2010

Vietnam 2: Hoi An, Huế, Hanoi

From Saigon, I headed to Hoi An. This is a beautiful heritage town filled with old buildings, most of which now house custom tailors! These are places that will make you any sort of garment, usually overnight. Prices are good but sadly quality isn’t, so I didn’t get anything made. Instead, I wandered around the alleys, rode out to the beaches (Cua Dai and An Bang), and took a boat to one of the nearby islands to ride around there. That was an easy way to get off the tourist track – there were a few streets with shops selling local crafts, but once I got out of "lazy walk" range, it was just me and the locals: farmers farming and school children on the way home yelling "Hello! Hello!"

I took a few photos, which are here, but overall found it hard to get good photos of most of the old buildings…

Huế was next.. it’s a great place too. Robin and I took a motorcycle tour around some of the sights. We saw a roofed Chinese bridge way out in the countryside and a museum of farm tools then headed through farmland (and past a river full of ducks) to an old WWII bunker (also used in the Vietnam war) and then a mausoleum. There are a few of these in the Huế area.. the one we saw was built for King Tu Duc, who lived there for about 15 years of his life and then was buried there. A lot of effort for one guy! After that we saw the Thien Mu pagoda, a symbol of Huế. At this place, there’s also the car driven by Thích Quảng Đức, who self-immolated in Saigon to protest of the repressive government. Finally, we visited the Citadel in the heart of Huế, which was mostly leveled in WWII.

Photos of some of the things we saw in Huế are here.

After Huế, onto Hanoi. We tried to see Uncle Ho on our first morning but the site was closed by the time we found it. We also tried to find a downed B52 in a lake, but ended up being directed to the B52 museum, which was closed. Then we walked across town for lunch at KOTO, a restaurant dedicated to training former street youth for work in high end hotels and restaurants. It was across from the Temple of Literature, which we toured next, before walking to Hoan Kiem Lake, the site of a famous Vietnamese legend wherein King Le Loi returned a sword used to defeat the Ming aggressors to a turtle in the lake. We capped off our busy day by seeing the water puppets. These are pretty awesome.. they’re controlled by underwater rods and cables by puppetters behind a screen.. so all you see are the puppets!

The next day we got up early and did manage to see Uncle Ho.. that’s what they call Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. He’s now embalmed and kept under glass, and you can go in and see him for free… creepy. No photos allowed though :( Then we headed to the Hoa Lo Prison, complete with an old guillotine… also creepy. For the rest of the day, we just wandered around, mostly in the Old Quarter. This is a series of twisty lanes with names like Hang Bong – each is the name of whatever is being sold on that lane (I don’t remember what a "bong" is, but it has nothing to do with smoking.) So, for example, there’s a lane dedicated to herbal medicines, and another to electrical supplies. Every shop sells the same things, usually identical products even. I don’t know why.

Photos from Hanoi are here.

Vietnam 1: Mekong Delta, Saigon

Robin and I entered Vietnam on a boat from Phnom Penh to the Mekong Delta and spent a few days there. The delta is one of the regions that feeds Vietnam (and probably other parts of the world too..) I didn’t see much rice growing, but the evidence was all along the river: random floes of rice on the surface, huge piles of rice on the shore, awaiting shipment, and boats loaded down with bags of it. We did see lots fish farms though. These are simple floating decks with nets underneath (and usually houses for the owners on top.) Feeding is via a hole in the deck – we got to see that on a tour. The water was boiling with fish!

We also saw the Can Tho floating market. This is where boats anchor themselves to sell mostly farm produce. You can tell what each boat is selling because they put up bamboo poles with samples on top: melons, cabbages, beets, potatoes, pineapples… our tour boat stopped alongside a boat that was selling pineapples to tourists. The vendor skillfully skinned each pineapple then sliced it into spirals – easy to eat and delicious!

Other random things: I climbed Sam Mountain (a small hill, really) in Chau Doc, and we toured a small vermicelli factory. My Mekong Delta photos are here.

Then onwards to Saigon (nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City).. what a lot of motorcycles, motorcycles, everywhere! We took a bus out to a waterpark and spent about 15 minutes on one particular roundabout which was choked with motorcyclists ignoring traffic laws (as I’ve mentioned, these are not respected at all in Vietnam.)

As a day trip from Saigon, we took a tour of the Cao Dai "holy see" (main church) and the Cu Chi tunnels. Cao Daism is a weird made-in-Vietnam religion. Most Vietnamese are Buddhists and this religion is seen as a strange upstart – our tour guide described it as "Catholicism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism in a blender." As far as I can tell, they worship 3 saints, an all seeing eye, and bright, saturated colours.

The Cu Chi tunnels date from the Vietnam war, when a small anti-American resistance force used them to hide out. Most of the tunnels have been widened for tourists but they’re still a very tight squeeze. I managed to fit into one of the unwidened tunnels as well. Apart from the tunnels, there were a few neat things onsite: a translated propaganda film from right after the war, models of booby traps, a captured tank, and a firing range where Robin and I fired 5 bullets each from an AK47. That was neat but I’d like to repeat the experience under different conditions (maybe in America).. the problems were that the barrel of the gun was locked down (I guess they didn’t trust us) which made it hard to aim, and 5 bullets isn’t nearly enough :)

Photos from the Saigon area are here.. sadly I didn’t take any of the motorcycle traffic, which was mind blowing.

(I was in the Mekong Delta on April 9 and 10 and in Saigon on April 11-13.)

Beijing break

Robin and I are in Beijing, taking a much needed break from moving every few days. Also I’m still getting ready for the rest of my trip… cycling in Tibet and the Trans-Siberian.

So… how we got here, in brief: from Dali, we took the bus to Kunming, the train to Guilin, then a short bus ride to Yangshuo. One last day of climbing on the wonderful limestone peaks we’ve been roughly following all the way since Tonsai, then back on the bus and on another train to Hong Kong. Robin went to an amusement park in Guangshuo while I spent another day in HK hiking on Lantau Island, and we met up in Shanghai. A brief tour of the city and expo, then another train to Beijing.

So many stories, and so many photos… I do have 48h of train time (Beijing -> Xining then Xining -> Lhasa) coming up so hopefully I’ll make a dent in the backlog…

Oh yeah, and I’m flying back to Montréal on August 2nd. I miss you all :)

Sometimes, planning is hard…

Things I’ve had to deal with lately:

  • Getting a Russian visa. Apparently this can only be done at home, or in a country where you have permission to stay for 90 days or more. For me, this means Hong Kong. I had to buy an "invitation" online for 45 USD, print it at a business centre (rich person’s Internet café, found in fancy hotels everywhere) for 20 HKD, and apply for an "urgent" visa at 1000 HKD. I don’t want to work out what any of that is in real dollars.
  • Tibet travel permits. I still can’t figure out if I need one to buy train tickets or just to board the train. Getting one (for me) is relatively easy: the company running the bike tour will mail one to Beijing. But Robin wants to come to Lhasa with me (yay!) which is more complicated… likely she needs to pay over 100 USD for it!
  • My flight out of Nepal (to Guangzhou) has been delayed 3 whole days. It’s now too late to book a reasonably-priced flight somewhere else in China. Thanks, China Southern!
  • In Beijing: I need to extend my China stay (beyond 30 days) so I can do the bike trip) AND get a Mongolian visa. Joy.
  • Inconvenient trains: China doesn’t seem to run small trains. They’re either 15 carriage monsters or nothing, which makes service frequency… low. Kunming <–> Lijiang is served by 2 trains per day. There are 2 night trains from the Hong Kong area to Shanghai, which sell out quickly. Etc.

Other than that, Hong Kong has been nice & I’m moving on to Shanghai today.

1957 Minsk

I met a traveller outside a café in Saigon who was strapping a variety of tools and parts to the back of an antique motorcycle. He told me it was a 1957 Minsk and he was riding it to Hanoi over the next few weeks. He had just bought it for $300 (USD) and had it overhauled by a local mechanic for the equivalent of $20 and he was heading out for a day’s test ride.

I’ve seen a few old Minsks since then and it makes me wonder how he’s getting on. Antiques aren’t known for their reliability, but I imagine these are relatively easy to fix and well known by the local mechanics.

This all brings to mind Jas’s stories of East German motorcycles (though to be clear, the Minsk is made in a different former Soviet republic.)

Vietnam might be a good place to do motorcycle touring, but I’m not sure. I’ve seen western motorcycle tourists (sometimes on Minsks) driving into town in the early evening, and they never look happy. Traffic is absolutely crazy and there’s a high death toll on the roads. The rules of the road (as practiced by the locals) seem to be:

  1. Don’t hit anyone.
  2. Don’t get hit.
  3. Use your horn at every opportunity.
  4. Wear a helmet.

The helmets are the one nice thing.. in other countries, I’ve had to beg for helmets (even when renting motorcycles as opposed to getting a ride across town) but in Vietnam, a moto driver will hand you a helmet after your negociations as if to say "OK, I will take you to your destination at the agreed upon price."

As a cyclist, riding through mostly 2-wheeled traffic feels safer and easier than riding through mostly 4-wheeled traffic. The big downsides are the noise and pollution. The little 100- to 125-cc engines on the motorcycles used in Vietnam put out a lot of both, and the constant horn use doesn’t help with the noise either.

The temples of Angkor

I’ve uploaded my photos from the temples of Angkor near Siem Reap, Cambodia.

We spent a very full day visiting the temples. We got up at 4:30 and got on our tuktuk for a ride through complete darkness to the ticketing station. Then, up to Sras Srang, a small reservoir, for sunrise.

After that, we saw the nearby temples of Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm. These are largely unrestored, and Ta Prohm has a few large trees growing out of the stonework!

Then we stopped at Ta Keo. I started wishing I had a rope and some gear – this temple in particular would be great for free climbing! Sadly, I had no rope and that’s probably illegal anyway so I settled for taking the hard but not too dangerous way down some metre-high blocks.

We also stopped at Thommanom and Chau Say Thevoda on the way to to the Angkor Thom complex. The main draw at Angkor Thom is Bayon, a large temple with over 100 huge stone faces. It’s quite the sight. The face was allegedly of the god worshipped by the locals, but historians believe it strongly resembles the king.. a great way to cement your power, I suppose.

Also at Angkor Thom: Terrace of the Elephants, which is a long wall covered in – well, guess. Baphuon was closed for restoration and not too interesting from the outside, but there were some neat posters explaining the problems with the original construction and how they were fixing them.

After Angkor Thom, we still had a good bit of daylight left so we convinced our driver to take us all the way up to Ta Som, a temple at the north west corner of the main group with another tree! This one was growing out of the rear gate without blocking it, pretty cool :)

Then finally: Angkor Wat. It was anticlimactic after everything else we’d seen. There’s scaffolding and construction netting everywhere due to ongoing restoration, and of course it’s full of people. I got one good photo though, from the north side where few tourists venture. The temple is rotationally symmetric so the front looks the same, or will once they’ve completed their work…

All told, a long day and a great one! I’m not a big fan of the restoration work though – it’s all a bit artificial, not to mention expensive. I found the temples that were mostly unrestored to be more interesting – natural decay, and nature reclaiming her own.

Photos are here.

Robin and I visited the temples on April 5, 2010.

Phase III: China

We entered China on May 1 after a bit of a misadventure coming down the mountain from Sapa: I realized about halfway down that I’d left my passport at the hotel :( We were in a full van of people which obviously couldn’t turn back just for me, so Robin and I continued to the Lao Cai train station where I luckily found a van leaving immediately for Sapa (these vans take individual passengers but leave when full, which means about 15 people crammed into seating designed for 12.) On the way up the mountain, we ran into a huge traffic jam so what should have been a 1 hour journey took almost 2½. I retrieved my passport uneventfully and then negociated a motorcycle ride down the mountain for about 3 times more than a van ride.. this was to avoid getting stuck again, since motos can maneuver around stopped 4 wheelers.

Of course, Murphy’s law held true for the trip down. Not only was the traffic jam gone, the moto also got a flat tire! But that was interesting in itself. We limped to a roadside repair stand where the driver woke up a woman sleeping in the back of the "garage", which was a bamboo shelter containing a few tools and parts. She disappeared on a motorcycle and about 10 minutes later, the mechanic showed up on the same motorcycle, alone! In the meantime, the driver attempted to use the air pump (which he couldn’t start) and helped himself to the mechanic’s tobacco pipe (incidentally, I now know that tobacco through a water pipe still tastes terrible.) Once he arrived, the mechanic quickly changed the tube, inflated the tire, and reattached the wheel. The rest of the drive to the train station was uneventful. Total cost for the repair was about $2.50, so the driver still made a profit on the trip (which cost me the equivalent of $7.50.)

With that out of the way, we ate lunch and crossed the border into Hekou. Our original plan was to see the rice terraces of Yuanyang, but we’d missed the last bus of the day so we booked a sleeper bus to Kunming, intending to transfer to a day train to Lijiang. The bus made for a very uncomfortable night. It had 3 narrow beds crammed across the width of the bus, and they were too short for me to stretch out fully. I also woke up every time the bus stopped, which was every hour or so. We arrived in Kunming a bit late at a bus station at the opposite end of town from the train station so we missed the one day train to Lijiang. Not to worry – there were lots of tickets on the night train and there was just enough to see in Kunming to make a pleasant day.

The night train was much more comfortable than the bus. The train was huge: 15 double deck cars with 4- and 6-bed compartments. We had a 4-bed compartment to ourselves. We got into Lijiang on time, fended off several minivan touts, and boarded a municipal bus for the old city.

What a place! Lijiang is awesome. The old city is a preserved heritage site with beautiful carved wooden buildings all over. There are stone walkways (motor vehicles are banned) with canals flowing alongside, which used to be the city’s drinking water system. If you’ve ever read Memoirs of a Geisha, this is what I imagine Gion looked like around the time of the book – moreso than anywhere in Kyoto itself even!

We stayed in a guesthouse called Mama Naxi‘s, housed in one of the wooden buildings. Mama was a character in herself, ordering people around and helping us out in a mixture of Naxi, Mandarin, and broken English. "You dinner? 15 quan." To some friends leaving town that night: "You dinner? 20 quan, you no stay Mama." The dinner was amazingly good!

Actually, the food so far has been great all around. We’ve had hot pot in Hekou, fake meat in Kunming (good fake meat, like at Chuchai in Montréal), and in Lijiang: jerked Yak (Tibetan), Naxi bread cooked in a clay oven, and Mama’s Naxi dinner.

We explored Lijiang the day we arrived. The next morning, Mama booked us a minivan to Tiger Leaping Gorge, on which more when I’ve deal with the photos, but let’s just say it was gorgeorific..

Now we’re on a short train to Dali, where we’ll spend the day before heading to Yangshuo for yet more climbing then onwards to the big cities: Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.

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