saigon (part 3)

Posted in saigon, vietnam by moonwire on November 8, 2009

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saigon (part 2)

Posted in saigon, vietnam by moonwire on November 7, 2009

My sister left on Monday morning morning and I decided to stay in Saigon just a little bit longer, trying to figure out my next move. Of course, my life of luxury at the Lac Vien VIP room was over, too. Back to Schmutzland. I found a little family run hotel across the street. It isn’t exactly a nice room. It’s far from squeaky clean and it’s got no balcony, just a small window, but the staff is really lovely and makes up for everything else. And oh, it’s cheap — I’m back on the backpackers budget.

I did not do anything special, just walked around several neighbourhoods in hopes of finding something to shoot. There is lots to shoot and yet there isn’t. I didn’t take any breathtaking photos, but I shot a lot, even though it was mostly brightly sunny (and extremely hot) between 8 am and 4.30 pm. It gets dark here, early. By 5.30 pm, the sun sets and at 6 it’s dark.

I did meet Peter Grevstad’s friend, Allyson for drinks and Vietnamese BBQ. Peter lived in Vietnam for 5 years and has been a tremendous source of information (as well as entertainment). It was great meeting her. She took me to some loud place full of locals and the food was exquisite.

Other than that I basically did the same thing. Eat, drink, read, relax, sleep a lot. No touristy things. Just be. And enjoy being here. Vietnam has been absolutely amazing. Especially after Cambodia I’ve become somewhat jaded about seeing ‘new things’ here in the region. Really, wherever you go, you see/hear/smell the same things. Cholera carts, people enjoying food and drinks while sitting on tiny plastic chairs, noise, air pollution, markets, motorbikes. But I must say the Viet people have really made this part of my trip.

Considering the history of this country it is really amazing to see how they are building Vietnam up again. It is chaotic and noisy as hell, but there’s some really good vibes in the air. These people here are friendly, welcoming, gracious and thriving. Things somehow function quite well here. Sure there is poverty, but nothing like I encountered in Cambodia. With the exception of Saigon, I have seen very few beggars, if any. There’s beggars here, and I see the same ones every day.

One of them, Lei (sp?) is a 26 year old guy who lost a leg. Every night he works the streets. I actually ended up having a beer with him at Zoom Cafe and he told me he lost his leg in a motorbike accident. I bump into him all the time, and he always waves at me or comes over to say hello. Does not ask for money, probably because he knows I’ll give him some later at night, when I’ve had a Bia Saigon. Hah!

There’s another one, my sister and I saw him on our first night. A man, could be anywhere between 30 and 50, horribly disfigured; he walks on one side of his foot. The rest of his body is also totally disformed. He wears a hat with a big hole and some of his hair is sticking out. I only saw him one more time. Looking at the condition of his clothes, he most likely has to resort to sleeping on the street. Absolutely heartbreaking.

Also, I haven’t seen the kind of street kids I encountered all the time in Cambodia. But one evening, my sister and I were getting some crepes on the street and this little girl (she looked very small but was probably about 12 years old) who had some sort of Down Syndrome came by to sell us chewing gum. We didn’t need the gum, and I don’t buy from kids on the street, ever. But we offered her a crepe and it was so cute. She started hugging my sister and would not let go. Really endearing. When her crepe was ready, she put it in her bag and continued her way to sell more gum, hugging my sister once again. Wish I had had my camera ready.

So Vietnam has been amazing. Though I don’t have any real outstanding stories, I much enjoyed it here (except for Hoi An). I’m off to Bangkok tomorrow, hoping to get my Myanmar visa there.

I took literally hundreds of photos here and I have not gotten around to processing them all. I’ll post another Saigon photoblog post from Bangkok.

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Posted in saigon, vietnam by moonwire on November 4, 2009

Because the train ride from Danang to Nha Trang had proven to be traumatic for my sister (haha), we decided to skip another 9 hour ride in favour of a one hour flight to Saigon. We took the scenic route by taxi from our hotel to the airport and it was absolutely stunning to see the coast line. Unfortunately, a lot of big hotels were building there. In a year or two, that whole part will be populated by package tourists. Such a shame.

The flight was fine and we got picked up at the airport by our hotel. Yes, ladies of luxury, all the way. Well, almost, at least. We had done some research on hotels and the Ngoc Minh looked fabulous. Huge room, balcony, ‘television with remote control’; the works. Well, when we got there, the situation didn’t look so rosy. Yes, the room was big but it had creepy vibes. Having stayed at a variety of shitholes in Asia, I am not easily unpleasantly surprised, but this room was something else. It was clean and it had a kick ass shower but I can’t think of any more positives. We decided to stay the night anyways and look for something else the next day.

Well, after a bit more research, we decided we needed to be in a different area, so we took a walk, hoping to find a nice, cheap-ish restaurant on the way. No such thing. The area in which we thought we wanted to stay was so not our thing. There were Gucci and Versace stores, big hotels and people dressed up in corporate attire. Paying 6 dollars for a sandwich in Vietnam is also completely unacceptable! It was a good thing we went, as we both agreed there was no way we wanted to stay in that area. Back to the drawing board. And back to the creepy hotel.

Things got better. Or, depending on your perspective, worse. Not only did we get creepy vibes from the room… stuff started happening. The toilet would flush by itself. Okay, bad plumbing. But then the television started making popping sounds as if it was ready to blow up and we quickly turned it off. Then, the icing on the cake was the fan that exploded on us. It was actually quite funny. We were on the tiny balcony, trying to steal wifi from the neighbours, and we completely freaked out, closed the door and were actually scared to go back in, in case the fan would fly apart. Eventually, I ran in and cut the power. Yes, it was time to leave the Ngoc Minh Hotel (which we nicknamed ‘The Overlook’ from the movie ‘The Shining’).

And we did. We walked around the area and found a lovely street, Bui Vien. We saw the Lac Vien hotel and it looked really good. We thought it was probably too swanky for a pair of backpackers, but we decided to check it out anyways. Well, as soon as we entered the ‘VIP’ room, we started to hear angels sing. Sold. It was a huge room with 2 big beds, a big bathroom, a lounge area with 2 couches and a fantastic balcony overlooking the street. Happy as clams we moved in there and enjoyed it very much. And all of a sudden our happiness radiated all over the city. Our initial impression of Saigon was not so great, but once we were in a happy place, the sun came out and we enjoyed Saigon very much.

The jaded traveler I’ve become, I don’t enjoy the typical touristy things much. And luckily, neither does my sister. We mainly spent our time walking around the area, eating good food, enjoying each other’s company and having fun with the Vietnamese. And it was remarkably easy to escape the tourist ghetto. Just a five minute walk and we’d be hanging with the locals. Very cool. At night, we’d often to go the Zoom Cafe, right on a corner of a busy intersection and watch the motorbikes fly by.

And it got wilder. One evening when we had some really good pad thai at the Coriander cafe, we met a Filipino couple; Hero and Catherine. They were musicians and were going to perform at the Factory Club. I must have been under the influence because I don’t like clubs, but we said we’d be there. And we went. And it was really cool. There were some foreigners, but mostly Vietnamese. The club was like an old warehouse inside and the music was loud. The band was surprisingly good. It was fun for a bit, then we went back to Zoom, but I’m glad we went.

We did visit a few other places, though. One of them was Cholon, China Town. Honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed with it, though it was lovely walking around without seeing lots of tourists but there wasn’t really much that peaked my curiosity.

However, we also visited the Cu Chi Tunnels……….. My sister put it so well: ‘the biggest trap here is the tourist trap’. It was perhaps one of the most boring things I’ve ever seen. We were put in a tourist bus with another 40 people or so and you were expected to stay with the group. All we wanted to see was the tunnels, not be subjected to propaganda cinema or the shooting range (with a restaurant right next to it; relaxing… not). And on the way there, we stopped at some villlage to ‘look at the Agent Orange people’. You know, those poor people who lost limbs due to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. How disgusting that you can make a tourist attraction out of that. We did not go. Just stayed at the bus. However, there was light at the end of the tunnel (hah). We got dropped off at our hotel area at 3 PM and had some kick ass Indian food at Akbar Ali. All was well.

I did take a lot of photos in Saigon, but none of them are really good, though seeing them together will give you a good feel of the place. So, here’s some more.

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nha trang

Posted in nha trang, vietnam by moonwire on October 30, 2009

We left Hoi An after only two days. Totally not feeling the place. We had to get back to Danang to catch the train to Nha Trang. The original plan was to go to the beach in Mui Ne, about a 5 hour bus ride south from Nha Trang, and as the train ride was already 9 hours, we decided to spend the night in Nha Trang. The 9 hour ride sure was a long one, and not that comfortable. However, we were sitting behind a couple with a young daughter and it was so beautiful to see the father interacting with the child. I haven’t really seen that here in Asia. Children often just run around are being tended to by their mothers, but he fed her, cuddled her, basically gave up his seat so the little girl could sleep and all this while he also took care of his sick wife. Really endearing.

We arrived as planned and checked into the Son & Daughter Hotel, about a 5 minute walk from the beach, just off of one of the main streets. It was a sweet little hotel with a tiny little balcony. At night we went for some beer at the Red Apple where a live band was playing. The vibe was really mellow and we both immediately liked it there. As a matter of fact, we liked it so much that we decided to skip Mui Ne altogether and get our beach fix in Nha Trang.

The beach was totally gorgeous. I’ve seen some amazing beaches during this trip, but this one was sure one of the better ones. Lots of yellow sand, clean water, and just a beautiful setting. It definitely rivaled Kata Beach in Phuket and it wasn’t very busy at all. Most people on the beach were locals just hanging out. Only one day it rained pretty much all day, so we basically just hung out, watched telly, read and played on the computer, but we also had some great sunny weather and we did the ultimate tourist thing… get two chairs and a bamboo umbrella on the beach at the Sailing Club where we spent all day doing more of nothing. It was just perfect. After traveling for about six months now, moving around quickly really wears me out. The excitement of getting to a new place has been replaced by the fatigue of having to pack my bag again. So, even though we did very little, it was just what we needed to relax and unwind. We had some really good food and we went back to the Red Apple several times. Nha Trang turned out to be yet another lovely surprise.

Photography wise, there wasn’t much to shoot. The town wasn’t exactly pretty and it was pretty sleepy over all (except for the traffic). I’ll make it up with my next blog, which will be about Saigon, where I am now.

Nha Trang Airport, not a very busy one.

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danang and hoi an

Posted in danang, hoi an, vietnam by moonwire on October 24, 2009

On Monday morning we took the train from Hue to Danang, about a 2.5 hour train ride. The ride itself was surprisingly comfortable. Definitely not a repeat of the Yogyakarta-Jakarta ‘bisnis’ express. Nobody sleeping in the isles, no people constantly begging and selling stuff and no transvestites with tambourines.

We checked into the ‘Golden Gate Hotel’, which was the cheesiest place ever. It actually had a structure on the rooftop resembling the Golden Gate. The room itself was pretty basic but it had an added lovely touch: a Christmas decoration above the bed. It was cheap and cheerful, for sure.

We got some lunch at ‘Bread for Life’, a restaurant which employs mostly deaf people. It was interesting to see the sign language and we learnt a few words ourselves. Also, something I didn’t know, is that sign language, though there are similarities, is not universal. The staff was lovely, the food was great and it was just a really nice place to relax and hang out.

In the afternoon we walked to China Beach and it was fantastic. Quite a beautiful beach with a lot of chatty local people. We talked with a bunch of curious giggly students who barely spoke English, but yet it was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I had caught yet another cold (the third one in a bit over a month) and I was exhausted and felt crappy in general, so at night we hung out in our Christmas room watching sappy movies.

We were so presently surprised by Danang, that we decided to stay an extra night. The next day we basically did the same thing. We had brekkie, then walked to China Beach again. The weather was significantly different from Hue. It was hot, humid and when we got to the beach, the sun also emerged. It was nice walking on the beach, but it was hard to cool off. The water was hot, the sand was hot, the ‘breeze’ was hot. There was no escape from it. Though it was nice to feel a bit of heat again after chilly Hanoi and Hue.

When we got back to the room, we took a shower and a nap and at night we were ready for some good food. Though we love the food here in Vietnam, it doesn’t fully agree with us all the time. Eating on the street just didn’t look so appealing. We had found a lovely Vietnamese restaurant from the guide book and decided to have dinner there. Well, when we got there, it turned out it had been torn down. We then decided to hang out with the locals but when we got to the restaurant, the waitress only yelled one thing which we didn’t understand. Then when we wanted to make clear we wanted to eat and drink she shook  her head.  So we left, back to the Bread of Life across the street, while we watched other people actually eating at the place we were told ‘no’. Bizarre, but in a funny way.

After our late lunch, we went to the Bamboo Bar for a few excellent beers called ‘Biere Larue’. We had fun just watching life go by in Danang. There isn’t all that much to see and do there, but the people were wonderful. We got constant hellos and waves, flirtatious men, too. It was lovely not to be bothered by people trying to sell you things constantly, though there was one cyclo driver who was not going to take ‘no’ for an answer. We have nightmares of him showing up in other places to terrorize us.

Two days in Danang was enough, so on  Wednesday morning we took a taxi to Hoi An, about 30 kms south of Danang. We both thad he same feeling about the place from reading about it. When we got there, it actually looked really nice. Hoi An is a UNESCO world heritage site as well (like Hue and Luang Prabang). The architecture looked worn, but lovely, and we saw lots of nice looking cafes and restaurants in old colonial buildings. Not too bad.

Sure it wasn’t, but the constant hassling was bad. You cannot take two steps without hearing ‘buy something pleeeaaase!’, ‘come into my ‘sop’, have a looook’, ‘where are you going? motorbike? cyclo?’ Totally not relaxed. After we had rice and tofu for lunch, we walked around town and it was just a tourist theme park with a lot of hassling. Such a shame, really. I understand that without the tourists, the town probably would not have been preserved and the lovely restaurants definitely wouldn’t be there, but the place is a caricature. However, at night we had some of the best Indian food ever, followed by some more Biere Larues at the Treats Cafe. It was a really nice, mellow night, quite the opposite from what Hoi An is like during the day.

The second day in Hoi An, we didn’t do much. We ate and drank, walked around for a bit and mostly just relaxed. I hardly took any photos there as it didn’t inspire me at all. Despite the tourist trap factor, we had a good time in Hoi An but it’s definitely not a place I’ll ever want to return to. Next: Nha Trang.

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Posted in hue, vietnam by moonwire on October 18, 2009

We left Hanoi on Friday morning and took the plane to Hue. The flight was less than an hour and when we arrived we took the bus, all backpacker style, into the city. We got dropped off at some point and managed to find our hotel without too much trouble. We’re staying at the Orchid Hotel, which is really quite fantastic. So yes, I’m taking these places as a real treat as on my own I would never stay here because they’re just above my budget.

The first day in Hue was a bit of a downer. It lacked the character and hustle and bustle of Hanoi. It seemed very quiet here and we saw quite a few ‘tourist restaurants’. However, the next day we ventured into the Old City and it was wonderful. Hardly any tourists, just locals going about their non-tourist business. Lots of little streets with wonderfully coloured houses in French colonial style. We ended up having a great day with a wonderful lunch.

Later, at our dinner place, Cathi bar, we were served by a bunch of giggly girls, who had picked up a tiny bit of Dutch. They thought us some useful Vietnamese. They were both looking for a nice guy, with a ‘hot body’ as their first priority. Though we didn’t find any hot bodies at the DMZ bar later, we did have fun just chilling out on the covered patio, drinking Ricard and Campari.

Today started off with a lot of rain. It rained quite a bit yesterday as well, but we still had about 6 hours of dry weather, though barely any sunshine. Today it was only dry for a few hours, in which we ventured out to check out a large supermarket as well as a bit more of the Old City. After we got back we watched some ridiculous Viet music videos before we headed off for a massage. The place looked legit from the outside but once we were in there, it looked like a whorehouse. I’ve never had a girl in a tiny mini skirt and high hooker heels give me a massage. The massage was okay. It was a hot stone massage, though I really do prefer a Thai massage even if it hurts sometimes. After the massage we had a decent pizza and headed back to our hotel. Just feeling so lazy and exhausted.

Off to Danang by train tomorrow. We’ll probably only be there for one day, before we continue on to Hoi An.

Here’s a few more from Hue:

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Posted in hanoi, vietnam by moonwire on October 15, 2009

I left Bangkok on Saturday morning and flew into Singapore as my sister was due to arrive two hours after me. All went well. Her plane landed on time and we headed into the city to our hotel. At night we had Indian food at the outdoor Lavender food court and it was great. The next day we went to Orchard Road, which wasn’t really inspiring. I am not a big fan of Singapore, though I admire the cleanliness and the availability of everything.

Early evening we flew to Hanoi. I had arranged for the hotel to pick us up but they weren’t there so we took a taxi into the city. When we got to Mike’s Hotel they did not know about the pick up. Also, they had two rooms reserved for us. It was a bit bizarre but they offered us a free upgrade on the room. Well, when we saw the room big smiles appeared. A lot of space, a computer, fridge, safe, balcony. Absolutely fantastic. Really nice staff here as well so it’s all good.

However, at night we were hungry and didn’t realize that most things close early here. We couldn’t find any restaurant open at 11.30 pm, so we ended up with cup noodles. And we got lost trying to get back to our hotel. This city is a maze and the two maps we have, including the Lonely Planet one, are different from each other, and neither is  accurate. Every time we leave the hotel we get lost somewhere. We started making jokes about it when planning our walking routes. We’d find the spots where we would get lost. And were pretty much right about it every time. However, after 4 days we’ve gotten slightly better.

We’ve taken it pretty easy. What we usually do is look for places to eat and then we walk around town getting there. So much to see here and it’s not overrun with tourists at all. I love the little streets and alleys. The people are friendly and the food is delicious. At night we do the same thing, but add a few beers to the story. The first two days we had great weather but for the past few days it’s been raining pretty much non stop. It doesn’t bother me all that much, but it’s hard to take photos when the rain comes down in biblical proportions.

The food in Hanoi has been great. We had the best spring rolls ever at Little Hanoi. We also had some delicious ‘cha ca’, which was roasted snake head fish in a broth with fresh herbs. They serve it with rice noodles and peanuts. It’s a good thing we only googled ‘snake head fish’ when we got back to the hotel, the photos didn’t particularly look appealing. However, the dish was very very good.

The city is fantastic. Probably the best city I’ve visited yet. I have a soft spot for Cambodia, because of the people, but city wise this is much nicer than Phnom Penh. The people here are easy going and friendly and there’s tons of little alleys with shops and restaurants. There’s so much to see here. And except for one afternoon, we haven’t ventured out of the Old Quarter. The newer part of Hanoi we saw wasn’t very inspiring. However, I could easily spend another week here, but we’re not. We’re flying out to Hue tomorrow morning.

I’m not really in a writing mood tonight, so here’s a few more photographs.

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