Monday, November 27, 2006
Vietnamese airport officials leave you in no doubt that you're entering a communist country: stern, straight-backed officials with massive peaked caps and firm eye-contact. What a relief to bump into Mum and Dexter in the Immigration queue! (I think Mum was in shock for a good ten minutes at the sight of us.)
After a mild snafu with the pickup/luggage, Marie and I met Hoang and his parents Mr and Mrs Nguyen and headed into town. There, we caught up with Mum and Dexter at their posh 5-star hotel for a family get-together in a far-flung land.
We stayed at the excellent Tan My Dinh Hotel in downtown Saigon. (I thoroughly recommend this hotel as having a great location, friendly and helpful staff and good, clean facilities.) Mr and Mrs Nguyen hosted us at an awesome Vietnamese restaurant, where we were toasted and feted like celebrities. We had fantastic food, inclduing some minced-prawn-on-a-sugar-cane-stick delicacies. Just superb!
We caught up with Phuong and Claire too and later Thanh, Khanh and Caitlin who were visiting Khanh's relos further out of town. We also met Dong (Thanh and Hoang's oldest brother) and his family. Mum, Dexter, Marie and I went to the crazy Ben Thanh Market for some cheap-arse clothes shopping.
The next day, we all piled into a 15-seater bus and headed south to Long Xuyen, travelling through the countryside and towns, crossing at various punts and generally averaging about 35 km/h. We checked in at the Long Xuyen Hotel (no great shake) there and met a group of crazy Brits who were riding from Saigon to Cambodia for some charity. Nutters. We had dinner with more relos - uncle and cousins I think - and discovered the delicious local spring rolls.
On Tuesday we rolled out to the small village of Lap Vo. This is where Thanh and Hoang spent their boyhood holidays and went to school for a few months. We were warmly greeted by their four aunts (sisters of Mrs Nguyen) who laid on a fantastic spread of fruits. We went up-river on a boat (Apocalpse Now style) to the family burial plot to pay our respects. Walking through the market in the village was like being Brangelina - the pointing, excited chatter, kids following etc. I was told it was quite likely that most of the kids had never seen an "Ong Tay" (= "Mr Westerner") before. Equally surreal was that Thanh was recognised by villagers from his stay some 30 years ago who stopped for a chat. Bizarre.
Then the four aunts treated us to a huge lunch consisting of many, many courses and giant yabby-like creatures the size of small crayfish. They were very sweet and it was clear to all of us that Thanh and Hoang were the apples of their eyes and those boys were very much loved.
(Incidentally, Long Xuyen will forever be in my memory as the first place I saw Mum ride in first a cyclo and then a motorcycle. Whoo-hoo! She also drank her first beer in two decades in Saigon and took to it like a duck to water. The same can't be said about the karaoke.)
On the trip back, Claire and Caitlin decided to teach Marie and me some Vietnamese. We started with counting to five, which is quite difficult since Vietnamese is a tonal language. This meant that our efforts sounded to them like "One, two, three, constipated, five", as "bong" pronounced differently has different meanings. They found this incredibly funny. For about an hour and half.
On our return to Saigon, we found that President of the US of A (a certain Mr George W. Bush) had rudely taken up residence in the hotel opposite ours. This demanded roadblocks by Very Serious Men with Automatic Weapons (who looked like they were yet to start shaving). Once we left our hotel for a late night apperitif, we couldn't return without the bellboys being summoned to fetch some official papers for us allowing us into the exclusion zone. It was all a bit of a pain. Thanks, Dubya!
The next morning we said our goodbyes and, leaving Thanh, Khanh and Caitlin behind, flew up to Hanoi. Marie and I checked into the Trung Nam Hai Hotel in the Old Quarter, just behind the Cathedral. We then caught up with Alison, who arrived that day via KL. Another run in with a family member while overseas! She suggested we have dinner at a restaurant that she'd visited a few years earlier, but couldn't remember the name. Hoang got a recommendation and took us to Indochine - which turned out to be the very place Al had in mind!
After that, we parted ways as Marie and I were hanging in Hanoi for a couple of days while the rest of the family tripped off to Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay. Marie and I really like Hanoi and it's Old Quarter. We didn't know the rest of the city, so we hired a coulpe of cyclos to take us out to the distant Thu Le Lake and Park (and shitty zoo). Great fun. It was sunny and mild (mid-20s) and though still quite humid made for a pleasant change from the heat of Saigon.
A highlight for us was catching up with Marie's 21 year-old cousin David, who's been backpacking Europe for the last few months with his mates. Needless to say, it was quite a beery occassion. At 10c a beer ("bia hoi") it's hard not to. As for the Long Island Ice Teas ... much fun. I really like the idea of bumping into relos overseas.
Certainly Hanoi is shaking off its frumpiness that I remember five years earlier. Back then, even the tourist bars shut at 11pm and the place was a desolate wasteland after 11:30pm. Now, the bars are still jumping after 2am and the number of motorcycle drivers offering marijuana has increased eight-fold. I still think Saigon has more street life and energy, though.
The rest of our visit in Hanoi was spent lounging around and perfecting the art of "stationary tourism" whereby one holes up in a street-stall sipping coffee and patiently observes the goings on outside. Of course, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum where we spent 30 seconds processing past his laminated corpse. We also took in the propoganda at the Museum (a salient lesson for John Howard in political interference in writing the national story) and mocked the ugly communist architecture there.
We also visited the Water Puppets again, this time paying more attention to the music than the puppetry. It's taken a while, but I think I've developed an ear for the high-pitched nasal singing and speed-up/slow-down rhythms. Thoroughly recommended!
Marie and I took our last Vietnamese meal in what has been an increasingly daring round of gastro-intestinal brinksmanship. How we didn't get sick eating sub-$1 crab meat and seafood sold in the gutter is a testament to the powers of wishful thinking. We've been egging each other on into more and more "authentic" (=cheap) meals for some time now. This must stop when we get to India.
--- posted by Greg 8:19 pm
Friday, November 17, 2006
It's time to put finger to keyboard and provide an update on some of our travel on this trip.
We've spent the past week in Ton Sai Beach, on the Railay Peninsular near Ao Nang, in Krabi, Thailand. Marie and I were here a, and really enjoyed the long relax. It's relatively inaccessible, requiring access from a long-tail boat. We just spent the week lounging on the beach, drinking coffee at the little bungalows and enjoying the beer and nightly fireshows (and awesome "sea boxing") with the tourists. The beach was almost entirely populated with climbers of various flavours (from dreadlocked to corporate). We've noticed some changes - more bungalows, more development and Ao Nang has the highest density of ATM machines I've ever seen - at least one every 10m on both sides of all the road.
We stayed at Country Side Resort which was pleasant enough except for two irritations - the bed bugs and the generator just 20m away. After a few days, I got used to both and managed to go to sleep to the growl of diesel turning into electricity and awake to a few tidy rows of (surprsingly unitchy) bites. It was okay, but I wouldn't rush to re-book. While it's only 10 minutes from the beach and pleasantly removed from the busier parts, I think there are better options for accommodation.
One highlight from this time was seeing one of the larger rock monkeys descend from the cliffs and hop onto a table in a bungalow. The customer tried to frighten it away but the cheeky bugger just bared his fangs! The waiting staff appeared with slingshots and the monkey, presumably having seen this before, promptly shot up a tree to hide out without a shot fired. While Marie valiantly swam ashore to protect our personal effects, I watched with amusement as a customer threw a rock at the monkey, only to see the monkey catch and throw back the same rock!
After the requisite swimming, eating and sea-kayaking we returned to Bangkok and caught a train up to Ayutthaya. We spent three nights there which, in retrospect, was probably a night too long. It's the former imperial capital of Thailand and the key attraction is a collection of about 20 wats (or temples) in various states of decay. For most of the past 1000 years, Thai kings fought more or less constant battles with their neighbours - mostly from Burma but also Laos and Cambodia - and each victory required the construction of a wat. The Thai's seem to have won about half and on each occassion they put up a commemorative wat. (In some instances there are also condolence wats mourning a loss.) The result is that the area has the wattage of a hydro-electric dam.
We spent our days there cycling around (it's very flat - built on a flood plain at the confluence of a number of rivers), checking out the sites. I was impressed with the elephants, carefully "parked" and awaiting tourists. We stayed at a delightful guesthouse, Baan Suan, run by a very nice gentleman. It was a great place with a well-maintained and much-loved garden. The bungalow (featured on his website) was great - clean, air-con, cosy. The proprietor warmed to us after a day or so and was very helpful. It even had a nice little bar out the front which was packed with locals (well, a dozen - it's tiny).
The only downside is the dogs. Ayutthaya has a terrible problem with local dogs. They roam the streets in gangs, slinking around at all hours, looking for food, often limping or carrying other wounds (and, no doubt, disease). They bark, they fight, they shit and root in the streets. You can't go anywhere without seeing a bitch suckling a litter, or a pack harassing some lizard or something. It's really quite terrible, though they don't seem dangerous to people. The first night, we were both shocked that the barking and fighting went on for several hours ruining our sleep. I'm pretty sure the results of each night's fights are reported in the local press. I spotted a "Bark Stopper 2000" (or similar) supersonic dog control device plugged in and had a chat to the proprietor about his plight. It seems the neighbourhood dogs are protected and there is no civil or criminal redress for their awful behaviour. The poor bloke is at his wits end but it seems the problem is widespread throughout the whole town. That said, the third night wasn't too bad: the site of a run-over dog out the front, it's guts spread out over a couple of square metres, steaming in the hot sun, probably put the mongrels in a more sombre mood.
We returned to Bangkok for two nights, which is a great city to just wander around. We were staying in the Banglamphu area, near the river. We caught a boat up and down the river and just spent a day poking around the markets and "must-see" streets. I especially enjoyed catching a bus back to our hotel (number 53 from Hua Lamphong Station). It took about an hour and went through all the major districts. While I'm no stranger to Bangkok's crazy traffic, this bus trip was something else. Amazingly, the bus employs quantum superposition to enable navigation though Chinatown, where the traffic actually occupies 120% of the available road area. It has to be seen to be believed.
Our hotel for two nights was the New World Lodge Hotel. We found it to be a really nice hotel, well run, clean and comfortable. The location is great, seeing as how it's a few hundred metres from Khaosan Rd. The buffet breakfast was the best I've had in Thailand with a designated egg chef ready to whip up an omlette or over-easy as you please. Okay, so the Muslim ownership means there's no booze - but there's plenty of that around. I will definitely re-book when next in Bangkok.
Speaking of food, in the laneway off from the hotel is a great street eatery where we had the best cheap meals of our trip. Giant prawns, fresh squid, delicious spring rolls all prepared by a flamboyant Thai-Chinese chef right there on the street. You haven't seen showboating with a wok until you've seen this guy working the crowd. Great stuff!
OK - next we're flying over to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to catch up with a large chunk of my family for ten days in Vietnam. Going to be a blast!
--- posted by Greg 9:07 pm