Friday, 31 August 2012

Day 518: Hoa Lu and Tam Coq

Landscape around Hoa Lu

I went on this day trip on a whim, because the museums in Hanoi were going to be shut that day, and it turned out to be one of the nicest trips I've taken.  Not Hoa Lu, specifically, though what's left of this ancient capital of Vietnam was a pleasant diversion.  These days it consists of a couple of attractive temples surrounded by mountains and some open areas where the city was.  What really made the day, coming completely unexpectedly, was the boat ride along the waterways through the landscape of karst hills, and even sometimes under them.  We followed that up with a bike ride, albeit a short one, along a path that would through the rice fields and along the base of the same hills.

Entrance to the tunnel under a karst hill

Waterway through the karst hills
Things to note:
Hoa Lu is 2 hours out from Hanoi, not too bad for a day trip
Keen cyclists shouldn't get their hopes up about the advertised bike ride. It was pretty short.
I doubt the boat rowers get paid much money and it's accepted that they will supplement this with tips, attempts to sell you handicrafts and even what is virtually a scam at the far end of the river trip, where you're encouraged to buy drinks and snacks for your rower even if you don't want any yourself.  I strongly suspect the rowers sell these back to the snack saleswomen later on for a share of the profit.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Days 507 to 513: Hue

South gate of the Imperial City, where you pay. The citadel is bigger, extends around it and contains houses, cafes, shops, etc.

From the end of the 18th century to the start of the 20th, Hue was Vietnam's capital. I liked it much better than Hoian, even though the food, as several tourists have noted, is far from spectacular. I spent my days wandering around the city, especially the citadel, and the best part of three days inside the imperial city. You have to pay to go in, so it is very nice and peaceful when you get there.  I bought two little books, one which explained all the buildings and one that told stories about the lives of the royal family, the concubines and the legends of the Perfume River running outside. Whenever I got too hot from wandering around, I sat on a bench and read for a bit.  The imperial city really is a city with streets lined with walls.  On the other side of the walls, palaces, temples and theatres are set in gardens with ponds, urns, ornamental plants. There are lots of inscriptions in Chinese and I got a kick out of seeing how many characters I could read (not many).  A lot of imperial city was destroyed during the war, so the best surviving buildings are in the outlying sections.  A lot of renovation and reconstruction is under way, so perhaps Hue will be even more exciting next time I go there.

Building in the Imperial City
Inside one of the palaces, currently under renovation
Looking towards the gatehouse from the temple in honour of the Nguyen emperors

I always wanted to experience Asia's rainy season, and I have been well served. As people who know regularly explain, it doesn't rain all day every day.  What you get is one torrential downpour a day, or maybe every other day.  It's actually rather easy to miss them, but here's some pictures from a time I didn't. I had walked to the train station to buy tickets and decided to walk back on the other side of the river under the walls of the citadel. It was sunny when I made that decision.  As I crossed the fancy new bridge you can see below, I could see blackness rolling up the river towards me.  Luckily, the bridge has been built with shelters.  I waited about half an hour until it was only raining about half as hard, then continued my walk. I still got soaked, but it is warm enough that it isn't unpleasant.

The fancy new bridge from my shelter
Two bikers wait for the rain to pass.  I'm in a shelter like this one on the other side, with another motorbiker, a cyclist, a couple who were fishing, and a man with a ladder and several paintpots who was touching up the finish on the shelter.

If you're in a boat you can always shelter under the bridge.  I imagine with rain like this you would have to start bailing out water otherwise!

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Days 499 to 506: Hoi An

View of the river on the 5-6km bike ride between the town and the beach
Hoian is a very touristy little old town, much too touristy for me really, but it has some nice features. Bicycles are at least as common as scooters here and much more common that cars so riding around is fun and easy. The old buildings are really lovely, but the whole town has been taken over by restaurants and cafes (some excellent) and tailoring shops. I gravitated to taking pictures of those parts of town that didn't have those features, but really, a street of wall to wall tailors would be more representative, though they are in pretty old buildings. 

Of course, the opportunity to get things made to measure is amazing since it's completely unaffordable for most westerners at home.  I got a winter coat done - not only would I normally never find a coat that fitted me this well, but I'd struggle to get the design I wanted.  I like super plain designs, whereas most designers for the mass market feel they have to compete by making their clothes elaborate in some way. 

I went to Kimmy Tailors which seemed to have one of the best reviews on Tripadvisor, sat down in front to a laptop and looked through over one hundred coat designs without the embarrassment of trying on things that make me look hideous.  I picked a Burberry pattern and asked to have the collar modified to make it even simpler.  The lady said we would fix that at the first fitting, which we did, with minor discussion and help from the older lady in charge of the fitting shop.  After picking the design, I chose my cloth, my lining and got measured.  I had to go back for two fittings and finally to pick up the coat, but I'm sure it still took me less time that picking one out off the rack.  Plus it cost $120 USD which isn't really a price for which we can get winter wool coats.

I had to turn the AC way up and try to photograph myself wearing this coat, but it didn't really work
I have only two minor criticisms of tailoring in Hoian.  First, the quality is honestly no better than you would get in average priced off the shelf clothing in Europe or America. If we were getting something tailored at home and paying ten times these prices we would expect it to be put together like a work of art. You really have to watch the quality at the fitting, for example, I asked them to straighten up the hem of the coat, which they said was fine.  It was a lot more fine two hours later after they had straightened it.  Secondly, they do rely rather on tourists being rushed.  I have heard this criticism from several other travelers who were only staying a couple of days, just time to get clothes made and no time to deal with quality issues after they got the clothes delivered. I was staying a week because I'm travelling very slowly and spending a lot of time writing, so I had plenty of time. Basically, you have to keep your expectations reasonable.

Boats on the river, on a day I cycled inland from Hoian
Oh, I nearly forgot! I also had a wallet that suited me perfectly but was falling apart. I took it into a shoe shop and they remade it for me in leather to exactly the same pattern. I was very happy about that, because I'd looked around the shops in Bangkok's shopping metropolis and found nothing that suited me.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Day 499: Night bus to Hoian

I took my first ever sleeping bus from Nha Trang to Hoian and am now about halfway up the country of Vietnam. What can I say about the sleeping bus?  It wasn't exactly like in Harry Potter but I was comfortable enough.  I'm not so sure about the people who got on last, by which time there were more people than beds (well reclining seats, really), which seeemed to precipitate a major row between the driver and the assistant.  In Vietnam, if you book a bus through your hotel, you usually get picked up at your hotel and herded to your bus in a minivan, which is a very good idea for making sure tourists don't get lost on the way.  It takes a while though, I'm sure it was about 2 hours between when I was picked up and when we actually left Nha Trang.  But the most important thing is, in this case it made the difference between getting a bed and getting on a the bus station by which time they were all taken!

Days 496 to 499: Nha Trang

View towards Nha Trang from the harbour, admittedly one of the most rural parts of Nha Trang
 I intended Nha Trang as a mere stopover on the way to Hoian, which is a bit complicated to get to otherwise.  I ended up staying essentially three full days, since I was taking the night bus to Hoian. I thought in the end that Nha Trang was better than Mui Ne.  True, it has that city on the beach feel, with a few high rises, but that has some advantages.  Access to the beach front hasn't been almost completely commandeered by private resorts and more importantly, it has its waste water disposal under control.  The sand is golden and the water is sparkling. The landscape is also prettier, in that here, the mountains come down to the sea. In contrast, at Mui Ne, there was waste water outflow running across the beach and crusts of yellow foam in the water at certain times of day. I couldn't believe people were wading through it, and personally I stuck to walking and the hotel swimming pool.

We snorkeled under cabins like this, I don't know what they're used for.
Nha Trang has all the facilities of Mui Ne such as nice restaurants and cafes with every nationality of cuisine and there are lots of activities, for those who are into that kind of thing.  I'm still very much in work mode, so the main things I sampled were 1) an evening at a fancy restaurant where I ate fancy Vietnamese grilled fish and 2) a snorkelling trip.  I had a really great time on that.  Tourism in South East Asia is very easy.  You tell your hotel what you want to do then switch your brain to enjoyment mode.  You get picked up in a bus, taken out in a boat, handed some snorkelling gear, ferried around to great snorkeling places and have a fancy meal cooked for you.  All you have to do is look at fish and coral, chat over lunch and finish your tiger beer on the sun deck.  Only disadvantage: I got my first sunburn of the trip.  Yes, neither Mike nor my Mum were there to tell me to put suncream on, so of course I didn't.  No comments, please...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Days 489 to 495: Dalat

I went to Dalat in a minibus of all things.  We were crowded into it like sardines, and the girl next to me got the seat that isn't properly hooked to the ground.  Luckily she is technically competent and managed to get it fixed at the statutory coffee stop.  We arrived in a downpour and I threw all my soaking things into a taxi, disregarding the glares of the driver.  My hotel is 20 minutes walk out of town in some neighbourhood, so I decided to save any investigating for the morning and ordered takeout.

My neighbourhood in Dalat

In the morning the receptionist gave me a map and I set off for the town centre.  About an hour later, having explored all the streets but one within half a kilometre of the house I went back to ask for help.  It is a truly beautiful neighborhood here though, with gorgeous houses and lots of greenery.  Turned out of course the road to town was the one I didn't take. 

My restaurant in Dalat

After this I got into a routine.  I spent some of the morning writing then attempted to find my way into town.  Once I succeeded, I walked round the lake, ending up at the one particular restaurant on its shore where I had lunch.  I ended up completely addicted to their spicy tofu hotpot and had to order it three times!  After that, I would attempt to find my way back to the hotel, stopping to buy a snack and some fruit once I was sure I was reasonably close.  Dalat is a labyrinth, spread over rolling hummocks at the top of a mountain range. It is pleasantly cool though sometimes rainy and it is very pleasant to walk around.  I should know because I must have walked on just about every one of its streets.

Forest near Dalat in the rainy season

Mountains near Dalat in the rainy season

One day, I went trekking up Lambian mountain and had a very enjoyable time seeing the countryside and lay of the land, though not much of the view unfortunately.  It is the rainy season after all. I'm sure Lambian is no steeper than our mountains at home but for some reason it took me several days to recover from this trek.  Some things, you don't lose though.  On the way down, in a proper bus this time, I would have been having an enjoyable experience of a mountain road, were it not for some unfortunate passenger who was seriously and constantly travel sick all the way to the bottom.  Oh well.

Conclusion: Dalat is one of those places in a far off country that had me thinking I could live there. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Days 482 to 488: Mui Ne

Mui Ne in the rainy season.  A cooling shower of rain is actually very welcome.
I decided to hole up in this resort town and do nothing but catch up with some work, walk up and down the beach and drink mocktails.  Don't die of excitement, anyone.  Life here is pretty good, though if you happen to be wondering whether you should go to Mui Ne or Nha Trang, see this post.