Friday, 22 October 2010

Prey Nokor, Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City

The Trio - Colonial Hotel de Ville, Modern Diamond Plaza, and moldering urban Vietnam

The brand new - Bitexco Financial Tower (helipad on the other side)

The Caravelle Hotel overlooking the Opera House on what was Rue Catinat (now Dong Khoi). I think this is the spot where the car bomb exploded in A Quiet American.

The People's Committee Building - its modern incarnation made clear by the Ho Chi Minh statue in front

One of the city's few green spaces, very well used - Vietnam has the same vitality of life outside the home as most of the more eastern countries I've seen.

The chaos is thrilling, but bad for the soul if you were to live in it.

Uncle Ho in the city of his name. I'd love to know what it says as there is socialist propaganda all over the country.

Shoes, shoes, shoes. The Asian market is interesting, but not so atmospheric as the Bazaars back west a bit.

Wait patiently, then GO!

This is a 'Tiger Cage' used to house 'problem prisoners' by the Vietnamese during the war. I've not talked about the war or the museum below as both are far better covered online elsewhere, but the War Remnants Museum is a must-visit.

Class from a cockroach's perspective.

Mellow in L'Usine.

From a bridge on the Mekong Delta.

The city with three names and 3 faces. Past, present and future coexist on every street in what I, along with most of the locals not in government uniform, prefer to call Saigon.

The past exists in the French colonial buildings, especially the old Hotel de Ville and the Continental and Majestic hotels on what was once Rue Catinat. The future, just a few roads over, is the Bitexco Financial Tower, Vietnam's tallest building complete with side-mounted helipad, and the Diamond Plaza mall. The present is these two put together, and it makes for an interesting city.

Although our primary pastime over the 4 days we were there was drinking coffee, the city had an indescribable allure from the 1st Cappuccino on the unfamiliar ride in, and by the last Flat White before the now familiar ride out I knew it was a place to which I'd probably return.
There's nothing in particular to see or do - the place is packed with temples and pagodas, but like mosques in the Middle East, I've seen enough. There are museums - we picked one, the brutally honest War Remnants Museum, and that was all. There are the generic entertainments of any other city, and we made the most of them, but none stand out.
Saigon though is a city of interest above and beyond the quantifiable; it has a friendly, energetic air about it, and it’s just the right size to feel like you know it well.

Tracing the steps of Fowler in The Quiet American added another dimension to the ordinary. Drinking coffee in the Catinat Café, opposite the Majestic Hotel and just down the road from the Continental and the Opera House, was all the more interesting having read the book and watched the film on this trip (both recommended). With a bit of effort you can imagine the city full of journalists and photographers, or G.I.s looking for some ‘entertainment’ in between missions, only 4 decades ago. Or earlier still, you can imagine it resembling an island of Paris in the surrounding Vietnam.

Then there was L'Usine. We couldn't have found a side of Vietnam further from what we were used to. Conceptual art space, coffeeteacakeheaven, super cool clothes and accessories store, Mac-tastic wifi-using ex-pat patrons. It's easy enough for a city to progress enough for a generic Gucci or Luis Vuitton store to appear and succeed, and plenty have here, but for someone to go to the effort of creating an independent, slightly more subversive place like this, and for it to be busy - that's when you know things are changing.

The Hotel de Ville is now the People's Committee Building. The old US Information Service Building is now the War Remnants Museum. Vietnam seems to have the ability to preserve its past by simply changing the role of its buildings and otherwise leaving them as they are.

We’re now a million more miles from all of this, back in the countryside and riding through the Mekong Delta towards the Cambodian border. The bridges spanning the big rivers running from the Mekong (Mother River) to the sea are pretty new – one built with the help of Australia in 2009 and another thanks to Japan the year before, so I don’t know how we’d have ridden this route last year. It's pan flat, but the bridges are surprisingly steep!

We were very lucky to miss the recent flooding that swept some of Vietnam away. As I watched the story unfold on CNN we were only a week, or 300 miles or so south of the devastation. When you see how much of the country is within inches of water - houses, roads and railway lines - you realise why coastal and delta areas are so under threat from rises in sea level or more extreme weather events.

And finally. Supermarket shopping in small-town Vietnam has turned out to be rather entertaining. We are more than used to being stared at out on the street - I haven't really blended in with the crowd since leaving Italy in March - but in the supermarket, thanks to its confined aisles and possibly slightly higher social class of patron, I can hardly concentrate on which biscuits to buy because out of the corner of my eye at every turn I can see people excitedly (but slightly more self consciously than usual) tapping their friends, parents or loved ones on the shoulder and pointing in our direction. I've not been looked up and down so much in all my life. The entertaining difference from on the street is the presence of people who have realised that it is rude to stare, and buck the trend of their fellow countrymen and women and quickly look away once they've been caught. It's hard not to laugh, and it's good not to be too self conscious. I've learned to deal with people laughing at me every day so staring is not a problem.

On to more of the same in Cambodia, no doubt...

Monday, 18 October 2010

From the Sea to Saigon; 8 months and 7000 Miles

The view from our beachfront balcony

A duck wrangler

The volume of bikes at school closing time puts Amsterdam and Copenhagen to shame. Unfortunately in a few years these girls will be recreating this scene on a scooter instead of a bicycle.

Two fishermen laying their nets in a break from the squalls

My first attempt at wakeboarding. Coolness factor minus 10 for the cyclist tan

Do I go left or right? Remember: if you look at the obstacle you hit the obstacle.

A regular sight, along with pigs, chickens and ducks. I tried to confirm with the rider of the scooter that these are on the back of whether they were for eating or if he worked for the Vietnamese RSPCA. He seemed to say yes, very tasty. I was relieved though to learn that 'chien' on the menu means 'fried'...

Approaching a town, riding home with the happy, enthusiastic kids

Another 1000 down and we're in Saigon! A sweaty 1248 miles and 24 days of riding from Hanoi has encompassed 2 mountains, 4 beaches, 2 historical towns, 1 beautiful bay, 3 battle sites, more noodles than any one person should eat, more mystery meat, animal fat, whole chickens, honking and scooters, rice drying in the sun on the highway, monsoon rain storms that hurt, blistering sun, terrifying trucks, friendly roadside food stalls, shared vodka shots with locals, overloaded and underattentive riders, horrific karaoke, hotel rooms and tiresome breakfast and dinner missions, lots of bartering, condensed milk coffee, arguments, chance meetings and re-meetings, áo dài wearing bicycling schoolgirls and race-me boys, 2 punctures (mine), 1 crash (mine), 1 stomach bug (mine), very little English, and very much attention.

Vietnam has so far been the easiest and safest country I've ridden through. There exist none of the water scarcity issues of Turkey and Iran and none of the food scarcity issues of the same. None of the spice and hygiene (and later on, bowel constitution) issues of India. None of the continual mountain climbing of the Himalayas, Turkey, The Balkans or the Alps. None of the extreme dry heat issues of the desert, and none of the accommodation issues of the more scarcely populated parts of the world, as well as none of the navigational problems of anywhere else. This leaves the adventure a little wanting, but saves a lot of energy by cutting out the worry. I think Cambodia will heighten the adventure a little more, but we are still in the heart of backpacker and gap-year territory so the only real stress is self-created.

Nha Trang, a few days' ride south of the previous post, provided a welcome beach break and a chance to scratch my boardsports itch a tiny bit with half an hour of wakeboarding. Other itches also scratched to a greater or lesser extent include the wine drinking itch and the romance itch. Let's just say my eyes have been opened and China is now firmly back on the route plan...

Another few days' ride south was the smaller version of Nha Trang, Mui Ne. In typical tourism style the actual town of Mui Ne is 10 km away from the Mui Ne that we visitors know, where the resorts and tourist amenities have been slowly growing. Luckily with our route in and my poor navigation (congrats to Georgie for getting it spot-on and letting me lose graciously) we got to see the real fishing village as well as the alternately white and red sand dunes out of town, allowing a guilt-free day on the beach with no pressure to see or do anything for fear of missing out.

Saying farewell to coastal Highway 1 which has been alternately a beautiful, tedious and infuriating path to follow, we followed the ever decreasing kilometre markers to TP. HCMC which began way back in Hanoi at 1719km. The traffic increased steadily to the point of gridlock and we flowed downhill threading the needle with eyes only for our last hotel before the final morning push into the city.

Now, after arriving safely and promptly yesterday through the (relatively) quiet Sunday streets, thanks in part to our impromptu scooter guide in pink, it is time to explore the streets of Graham Greene's Saigon in The Quiet American. And drink some proper coffee.

Monday, 4 October 2010

10,000 km, Hue and Hoi An, and the Monsoon Strengthens

Challenging the Macedonians and Turks for World's Biggest Flag

The Imperial Enclosure within the Citadel in Hue, home to Emperors, Eunuchs and Concubines

Very hungry fish at the Citadel - great idea of the employee to give them the plastic bag that the food came in to eat as well

Crafts- and tradesmen are still rebuilding and replicating the Citadel after it suffered heavy bombing by the Americans

Chinese influence at the tomb of Khai Dinh - the Chinese alphabet only stopped being used in the country last century, a change that helped Vietnam become almost entirely literate

These guys knew how to grow a beard, though weirdly mine gets so much attention and most of the population seem unable to cultivate even a 'tache

Paddy fields and mountains have been our accompaniment since Hanoi, though it wasn't until Danang that we had to climb over one

Look closely and you'll see the colour-coordinated figure of Georgie half-way up this 7 mile, 8%, 40° climb along the coast

A sweet old lady selling bananas? You want me to take your photo, and you want no money? OK. Click. And bam - photo money, buy bananas. Eeevil.

Someone enjoying solitude in the cramped and bustling market in Hue

6,200 miles for the British and American amongst us. I’ve been riding with my speedometer set to miles-per-hour since leaving the UK despite the fact that every sign post and distance marker has been in kilometers since getting off the ferry in mainland Europe. This involves a lot of mental arithmetic while riding and results in a far less impressed stranger when I show them how far I’ve ridden, and then try to explain it’s not, in fact (only a mere) 6,200 km.

While I’m on the subject, since being welded back in Switzerland after only 1/10th of the current mileage the bike has held together impressively – I changed the chain and cassette back in Tehran, and the bottom bracket in Hanoi, and have done nothing but lube the chain since. Only 4 punctures and a handful of broken spokes despite carrying a bit too much weight and riding on some awful roads, as well as the freehub implosion – the abundance of sweat and humidity have rendered my leather handlebar tape a mould breeding ground but it’s nice to have the company.

So we’re currently somewhere in the vicinity of the site of the My Lai Massacre, where American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civillians before covering up the whole affair at every level, military and government. 42 years ago is very recent history. Could it happen today? I can’t help but wonder what all the toothless old ladies, straggly grey bearded old men and elderly amputees have seen, from Independence to colonisation to Independence again to starvation to war and an old age under communism. I wish we shared a language as there is so much I’d love to know and so few genuine sources to hear it from. Iran was such a special experience because the ability was there to ask questions and learn from the man and woman on the street. Despite apparently being on the increase as a second language, English at any deep level (i.e. deeper than those sentences dealing with financial transactions) seems very sparse and pretty much nonexistent outside of the tourist centres. I can’t even get people to understand my pronunciation of ‘bread’ so aside from the simplest of pleasantries my Vietnamese is never going to develop.

So a fun time was had playing the tourist in Hue, Vietnam’s old capital and ‘intellectual and cultural heart’. As always with these places it seems that the future has spoiled the past and history is covered up by snack foods and fashion – every second shop sells one or the other. We glimpsed some of the country’s varied past, from Emperors and their eunuchs and concubines to the Chinese, the French, independence, war, communism, theism and atheism. Does anyone remember the immolating Monk in the Sixties? We saw the car he drove to the site of his immolation in to protest about the repression of Buddhism in favour of Catholicism.

Georgie and I gave up our independence for a day to be lead around the city’s spread-out highlights, and while enjoying not having to find our own way for a change we both resented the lack of freedom. After 2 days we were ready to move on and take the short ride down to Hoi An. An incredibly pretty old trading town and home to no fewer than 200 tailors, out of approximately 250 businesses, with the other 50 being restaurants and hotels, or so it seemed. Chicken and the egg, Catch-22 – a place has a genuine reason for interest, people visit, people capitalise on those wanting to visit and before you know it the original reason to visit has been all but wiped out. Hoi An must have some kind of preservation society as things hadn’t run away too far, but strolling around the narrow streets of the Old Town while being serenaded by ‘hey you, come in my funky shop’ and the less refined but refreshingly upfront ‘BUY SOMETHING!?’ it was hard to get into the mind of a fellow doing the same a century and a half ago. Still, we made the most of these 21st Century ruinations and enjoyed a hotel with a swimming pool, a ridiculously decadent chocolate tart and the best dinner I’ve ever had that wasn’t cooked by my Mum.

We’re now into the beach-focused leg of the trip and will hopefully spend a few days lounging on one of the many white-sand and clear-water beaches the southern coast has to offer, in between the bursts of monsoon rain that make the temperature plummet to a chilly 25 degrees C (can you imagine?) before hitting the chaos of HCMC which is currently 520 miles away.

My waving and helloing energy is seriously depleted so I hope the Cambodians are significantly less friendly or else I won't make it to Singapore! Adam, where are you when I need you?!