Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hoi An Day 3 and 4 - Meeting Mysterious Mister Phong

Day 3

We rented 2 motorbikes for $7 each, just outside the hotel door, and headed for Mr X's village. Mr X led the parade with Mom, the 2nd motorbike was Dad, I was 3rd, and an Australian couple at the rear. I've never motorbiked before.

I've never motorbiked before. Let's go zig-zagging in ridiculous highways. My travel insurance does not cover motorbike accidents.
Whizzing through the rice fields on a few dusty, bumpy roads among other motorbikes was fine. Then we saw the highway ahead and followed Mr X straight into the traffic, and to the LEFT (so we had to cut through oncoming cars and trucks from both directions) I was very tense! But I managed.

We made it safely to Thanh Quit village and Mr X's house. There he gave us a real history lesson about Vietnam and the war, the role he played as officer with South Vietnam... Against the Viet Cong, in which his uncle was fighting. After US marines fled Saigon he was captured like most of his SV soldiers and had to get "communist re-education". (Or brainwashing) Because he had connections, he was only emprisoned for a year, while others were emprisoned for 2-3 years. He told us: "The whole time we learn everything about communism, we say Oh I didn't know that before! And to make sure we can leave we answer Yes, communism is a good idea, yes! But we don't believe in it, no, we don't believe in communism." Of course he wouldn't say these things in public in Hoi An. Only to us in his home.

Getting an authentic first hand, Vietnam history lesson from Mr Phong.
Mr X explained that while the population of Vietnam is approx. 90 million people, only 3.5 million are "communist members". There are specific criteria to become a communist member. You become an elite member of society, with higher priviledges and access to higher level jobs reserved for communist members.

Here is Mr Phong, chatting with his uncle's wife. She was so lovely. Sadly she passed away a few months after we met her.
After visiting Mr X's small house (big compared to the rest of the village) walking around the small streets in the sizzling sun, seeing watermelons, drying rice, rice wine (strong liquor), jackfruits, drying tobacco, cute kids and a cheap barber shop, we had a delicious lunch prepared by Mrs X: whiterose springrolls (with shrimp), wintermelon soup (also with shrimp), fried morning glory with garlic, and a pork & veggie stir fry.

Delicious lunch.

I learned that his daughter, who looks 20 yrs old, is actually 40 yrs old. Say what??? Vietnamese women look so young... None of us could believe it.

This hardworking man was rolling leaves of tobacco full speed. His palms were black with a thick crust of tobacco leaves that must surely be seeping through the pores of his skin.
Mr Phong's uncle who also fought in the Vietnam War. They're both very happy to be at peace again.
Back by 4pm, in one piece - luckily, cause saw a car accident on the road - we returned the motorbikes. I went for a 2nd (and last) fitting of my orange aodai: the chest is a bit floppy (yeah yeah, laugh away) but everything looks lovely. It would look better on a super-skinny vietnamese girl of course.

Pool time and then dinner by the river. We sat with the locals on tiny stools for some traditional cao lau, this time with Quang noodles. Delicious! We walked around Hoi An by night one last time. So many colorful lanterns!

Day 4

Every time we come back from the beach or from biking on the island, and we really feel at home. We recognize our street corner easily, and the banana-pancake-lady, and the mango/pineapple stand...

This morning we rent 1$ bicycles and head over to the ferry. We paid 20,000 dong each ($1) for the ferry. Then we realized that locals were paying 3000-5000 dongs. Damnit! We'll refuse to pay on the way back.

We wandered around Cam Kim Island, rice paddies, drying peanuts, tabacco and rice, cute little paths... It's still authentic here, compared to touristy Hoi An. But it won't be long for theisland to develop the same way.

We came back, didn't pay for the ferry and went out for lunch. Banana blossom salad was delicious! Then we just sat on a patio for 3 hours and talked, watched people, drank beer, chilled. We got a cheap ride to Danang to head straight for the airport. I had expensive pho bo ga and took an evening flight to HANOI!! The old capital reminds us of Saigon a bit, the jumbled mess of electric wires at every street corner, but the traffic is not as bad. Buildings in most of Vietnam cities are very narrow (5-6 feet wide) but super long (20-30 feet deep) so sometimes you can see a small shop and their home in the back, it goes in very deep into the buidling. But everyone is happy because they all get a bit of the sidewalk! Sometimes you can see that the 3rd, 4th or 5th floor's façade just doesn't fit with the rest of the building: it's probably because it was added afterwards.

We headed straight for our Hong Gnoc Hotel, 6th floor bedroom at the front of the building. Our room was the same width as the building, so once we opened all the curtains we had a 270 degree view of Hanoi by night. Cooool...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hoi An Day 2: My Son Ruins and An Bang Beach

We were outside by 4:30am. Which meant stepping over the 2 reception staff sleeping in the lobby on their cots, unlocking the hotel door, and climbing over the small gate. It was still dark outside.

There were two other young tourists sitting on the sidewalk so we asked:
- "Hi! Are you going to My Son as well?"
- "... uh... Wha... Where?"
- "The Champa ruins, the sunrise tour?"
- "No we, we were, uh... We're looking for our hotel, hostel. We dunno where we are. Hahaha! *hic!* Can't remember the, uh... the name of the street... or the hotel. *hic!*"
You know... some people get up at sunrise, others party til sunrise.
Direction: My Son (pronounced "mee son") ruins of the Champa people!  The Kingdom of Champa reigned from yrs 400 to 900 in central Vietnam. The temples here, outside Hoi An, were built for their king and no one else. Not even monks could occupy the place! Some of the temples were royal tombs... They look very different from Angkor, because they used brick and resin.
Champa ruins of My Son, outside Hoi An
Champa ruins of My Son, outside Hoi An
Many restoration projects are taking place around the site. My parents and I tried to communicate with some of the workers who were restoring a particularly old structure. They were so very proud to show us the bricks, the bucket of resin, the tools, and eager to show us their extremely slow and meticulous process of fitting the new bricks in one by one, by trial and error, adjusting the shape with sandpaper each time. Ôi Chúa ơi! ("Oh my god" in Vietnamese.)
Restoration project on one of the temples can take years. Yay, more jobs!
According to our guide, There are only about 160,000 Champa people left today, scattered about Vietnam and Cambodia.

We were back on time for breakfast! That's how early we got up this morning...  

After the ruins, it was pool time, siesta time, and we rented bicycles (for $1) to go to An Bang beach, which was a lovely break from the heat! Just the feeling of COLD waves was one of my best moments in Hoi An. I biked back to town in my super short shorts. Shouldn't have done that. My legs were an extremely dangerous distraction for the drivers on the road.
An Bang Beach, 30 minutes bike ride north of Hoi An.
We wanted a light healthy lunch and ended up eating some not-so-good local banh xeo (really oily & eggy pancake) and deep fried spring rolls for lunch. Greasy... We spent an hour at the Sinh Tourist planning our next stretch in the north of Vietnam: Hanoi, Halong, Sa Pa!
The famous Japanese Bridge in Hoi An
More colorful lanterns along the Thu Bon River in Hoi An.
We spent the evening walking around Hoi An. It's very touristy: it's all restaurants, tailors, cooking classes and massage. There's too much choice!! I went back to BELI tailor for a first fitting, to cut the shoulders a bit more and tighten the neck.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Hoi An Day 1: Tailored Aodai, Delicious Cao Lau and an Intriguing Invitation from Mr X

Since the day we landed in Saigon, every time we went in or out of the hotel there was a guy with a ponytail in front of the vietnamese fastfood next door. He talks to a line up of people on motorbikes, then in a big microphone, then to more people, it goes on and on all day. It took a while for me to figure out what's up: He's the drive-through guy! People stop by and order food, and he repeats it all for the kitchen, through his mic. "2 Saigon Beers, 2 sticky buns, 2 pork rice cakes, to go!" And everything is prepared at light speed. So we tried some fast food rice cake. Gotta eat like the locals!

Goodbye Ho Chi Minh City that everyone still calls Saigon. We were really starting to feel at home. The traffic was the most mesmerizing thing to observe.

Short flight from Saigon to Danang, which wasn't our actual destination. But Hoi An, 45 min south, has no airport. We drove right through Danang, a strangely developing city. The streets looked empty and many shops were closed. Lunch time siesta maybe? During our drive to Hoi An we barely saw the beach on the left because there are so many high fences blocking the view, with giant photos of "5 star castle coming soon" and "dream resort paradise" and other promises. A huge part of the coastline has been sold to big investors and blocked off from local fishermen. But the plans to build beach resorts and 5 star hotels are moving so slowly (or are on hold in some cases) that it simply looks deserted. 

Once settled in our lovely Thran Van 1 hotel, Dad made me notice the French architecture and antique furniture in the room. Some of it might date back to the early 1900s. Our room was cramped and dark, but the hotel was kinda cute, with small indoor bridges crossing over the pool at the 2nd and 3rd floors, with flowers everywhere, actual good computers with fast internet, and a friendly staff.

Mom and Dad having a refreshing swim!
Flowers everywhere around the 3rd floor made me forget how many steps I'd just walked.
We quickly organized our morning trip to My Son ruins (pronounces "mee son") for the next morning and we went hunting for a tiny home-restaurant called Ba Thanh, recommended by one of the staff girls. Surprisingly, I found it! It's someone's home. We tried their local dish called Cao Lau. It's a bit like pho, but there's no broth, thicker noodles, more greens, peanuts and croutons. Yummm!
Traditional Cao Lau in Hoi An. Delish!
Forget big fancy restaurants when you travel to Vietnam. Find out where the locals eat.
We got caught in the rain on the way back - first rain of our trip - and took shelter under a blue tarp where old ladies were making little deep fried omelettes in a batter shell, for which I have no name. We felt compelled to buy one each. Oily but tasty!
If you know what this is called please tell me! I asked many Vietnamese people.
I checked some of the tailor shops, and the price for a knee-length, sleeveless aodai (pronounced "ow-ee-aye") was always between $30 and $50. You get what you pay for! If you want quality silk and two fittings, pay up. So I went into BELI tailor, which is a family business compared to many other commercial shops and I ordered an orange aodai! First fitting tomorrow night.
This tailor doesn't realize that tourists in 35 degree heat are not interested in winter coats
We had dinner along the beautifully lit Thu Bon river. It's like a contest between every restaurant and bar: who has the most number of colourful lanterns? It's at riverside restaurant that we met Mr X (I'd rather keep his name anonymous). He was helping with orders and tables. He's a family man with many stories to share. "You motorbike to my house and I will tell you all about Vietnam War, and when I fought for South Vietnam. I will introduce you to my family, show you around my small village and then my wife will make a delicious traditional lunch for you. $12 per person." Sold. We're in. He's a good entrepreneur!

Dinner at Quang Thang restaurant where we met mysterious Mr X.

A little walk along the Thu Bon river brought us to the cheaper food, Vietnam style. Food is cooked outside, everyone eats the same thing (in this case, cao lau) and sits on small stools. But we ate already, so maybe tomorrow night.
Lanterns and lights everywhere along the Thu Bon River. 

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Mekong Delta - Part 2

Our beautiful Van Phat 1 hotel prepared a succulent buffet breakfast that I throughly enjoyed. We were still the only group there.  A mix of vietnamese and western breakfast food. Yes I am still blogging about food.
Again, here the coffee already tastes a bit like hazelnut... 
We got to the wharf and took a motorboat to the Cai Rang Floating Market, the biggest in all of the Mekong Delta. At our first approach, 3-4 small boats rushed our way and their passengers stood up with a rope and hook to hold on to our boat. It happened so fast it totally felt like a pirate attack! "Coca Cola? Bottle Water? Coconut? Bananaaaa?" Ah, yes, tourists... That's what they buy.
We're getting close to the Cai Rang Market!
There are multiple floating markets on the Mekong, where local businesses buy wholesale goods (large quantities). If a boat sells watermelon, they will hang one from a tall bamboo stick so people can see from afar. Most of the crazy busy shopping happened around 6-8am. So by the time we got there, yes there were many boats of all sizes scattered all over the river, selling watermelon, bananas, mangos, potatoes, jackfruit, more melon, etc... But not so many people buying & bargaining.
Wattomelooons, potatoooes!
Just as we were leaving the market a speedboat drove past and the waves almost knocked over a poor old lady's tiny row boat. WHOOAAA! And there goes half her stack of fruits, lost to Davie Jone's locker... Apparently the famous Mekong floating markets are getting smaller. They will probably shift gradually towards cleaner, ventilated indoor areas. (Then at least when they drop merchandise it won't sink.)

Our boat took us into more small canals off the main river. There are hundreds of small canals like this, along which people live in stilt houses. If they're lucky, they have a paved path for motorbikes running near their house. Otherwise they get around by rowboat or motorboat!
Martina, our new friend from Finland, observes how this adorable kid in X-Large flip flops will cross this makeshift bridge. If he can do it, you can! 
We stopped by a fruit farm and wandered around the gardens: pineapple, jackfruit, mango, papaya, coconut, banana, lotus flower, dragonfruit, mini-oranges! But it was so hot and sticky out, we just couldn't wait to get back in the boat to feel the tiniest breeze on our faces...
Jackfruits are enormous! 
C'est comme CA qu'ils poussent les dragonfruits!?!?
Me and me Dad on the "monkey bridge".
I had a delicious squid lunch at the hotel, while the parents kept to the more casual food. We took the bumpy bus ride back to Saigon. Thank you The Sinh Tourist for another wonderful, packed, interesting tour!
Thank you for the great trip, Sinh Tourist! It was a VERY good deal.
For a last night in Saigon I decided to take mom & dad to a night market recommended by a fellow traveller.

Actually, funny story... Dad loosened his fake tooth by biting on a coconut candy today. So while we looked for our night market, Dad stopped in front of a random but clean-looking dental clinic and just went in.
"How late are you open?" 
"We are close in 45 minute." 
Dad explained briefly to the very young dentist that his tooth with a crown was falling out and he needed a temporary solution. From behind his mask the young man replied: 
"Is a crown, yes? I can do quick, I put temporary glue ok? Only... 5 minutes. Ok?" 
"How much will it cost?" and under our surprised stare the young dentist said: 
"No no. Free for you, ok? Come."
Cool! That was easier than we expected. Walk-in clinic, free medical care. But finding my night market with tons of open restaurants was not so easy... It was an epic fail. We got a bit lost, walked in circles and never found it. Maybe it just doesn't exist anymore! So we ended up in a small vegan restaurant having meatless hot pot. Meh...

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Mekong Delta - Part 1

"The weather out there today is hot and shitty with continued hot and shitty in the afternoon. Tomorrow a chance of continued crappy with a pissy weather front coming down from the north. Basically, it's hotter than a snake's ass in a wagon rut." (Good Morning Vietnam)
Indeed. Today we explore the Mekong Delta with The Sinh Tourist. 2h bus to Ben Tre Province where the Mekong has been buzzing with life for thousands of years. We got on a motorboat in Ben Tre, on the wide, brown Mekong and turned into a smaller branch, with lush forest all around.
Me and the 'rents on a boat in the Mekong.
We stopped at a small house where we got to taste local honey and fruits. And buy souvenirs of course.
Can't remember how we call this strange alien fruit. It's a bit like lychee ínside. 
After the succulent fruit tasting we got a performance of live local singing and music which I can't wait to show you on video. But I won't upload video because the connection is crap.
Theỉr traditional singing is just so so so different! Lots of high-pitch, nasal tunes. But in a good way.
Instead of getting in the boat again we were seated in small rowing canoes which they call a xuong. It was magical. And it was a good break from always hearing the loud motor. Most of the locals rowing the boats were women. They look old and delicate but they are so strong! That's how they travel most of the time.
Rowing along the quiet Mekong canal, listening to the cicadas.
Julie contente. 
A lovely, elegant local saying thank you and good bye.
We then stopped at a coconut farm where they make dried coconut shreds (delicious), coconut candy and many other coconut based snacks. They boil the coconut water until it thickens, then they spread it in strips to harden and cut them in small pieces.
Young gỉrls working hard despite the humid heat.
Coconut Candy! Don't eat that ìf you have a fake tooth, right Dad?
Also there happened to be a snake.
Finally after a delicious farm lunch with chicken, grilled fish, morning glory, pork stew, veggies we headed towards Can Tho (more boat, more bus, I think I slept through the bumpy ride...)
Two Chinese dudes who really wanted a photo with me. Happens ALL the time.
Part of the organized 2-day trip included our 1 night at the Van Phat 1 Hotel, a four star fancy hotel outside the Can Tho city centre. It's a good thing that our group came, because this huge, brand new, beautiful, four-star, refreshing, the hotel was eerily empty when we arrived... Weỉrd.There is a huge, clean swimming pool, a giant banquet hall on the main floor, empty. Another empty dining room on the 7th floor, from where you can get a great view of the sunset over Can Tho or the sunrise over the Mekong.

There was a beautiful eating area outside, with rooftops, a cute pond surrounded by trees and little lights.. . In fact I don't know why it was so empty! We ended up having a sumptuous dinner there.  
It's a shame the hotel & restaurant were so empty. Look at that!
After dinner "went to town" to see the Can Tho night market. We just sat with a beer on a patio and observed the crowds: Sooo many young people with motorbikes, just hanging out late. Some of them are dressed so posh for 32 degree sticky heat! Well... if I lived in a small, dark, damp, even hotter, miserable home (which many of them do) I would also hang out as late as I can. It's really the cheapest stuff here because it's the locals who shop here. Lots of t-shírts with Chinglísh (gibberísh that makes no sense).
Joelle, I was going to buy thís for my nephew Leo but I don't want him to become illiterate.
Finally after a long, tiring day, my mother and I went to the 6th floor for a cheap massage. Lady? Sir? Looking for massage? Well, for 120,000 dong ($6.00) Van Phat 1 Hotel has unexperienced young "massotherapists" who sit on you, give an awkward, improvised massage, who test the limit until you say "Heyo! Hands off!" and dress like they offer other things, if you ask for the massage with a happy ending. Whatever makes you happy!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Chinatown de Saigon

Par habitude je me suis reveillée a 4am, 5am et 6am... Alors je me suis rendue a la piscine a 6:30am sous le regard des petits geckos qui couraillent sur les murs.

Apres le déjeuner on s'est promenés dans le grand marché de souvenirs de Siem Reap. Même constatation qu'hier: Il y a tellement de stuff!! Une centaine de kiosques avec les memes bebelles: foulards, chapeaux, biblots, peintures, évantails, flutes, petis bouddhas, gros bouddhas, flipflops, bracelets, lunettes, "Ale Baba" pants, chemises, faux vetements de marque, porte-clés, cartes postales, housses de coussins, ... a n'en plus finir.  Mais j'aime pas les bebelles. J'achete soit un morceau de vetement qui se porte... ou des choses qui se mangent. Hehe!
J'ai vu un million de touristes porter des "ale-baba" pants. Les memes qu'au Perou et les memes qu'au Marche By.
On a repris le tuk tuk a l'aéroport avec notre driver Mala - on lui enverra un petit email avec des photos. Aw-kohn tom-tom!  Apres un long vol d'avion de 45 min, nous re-voila a Saigon, une ville qui ne dort jamais et qui bourdonne d'activite! La majorité des gens l'appellent encore Saigon, et non Ho Chi Minh City.

Direction Marche chinois Binh Tay: Pistaches, champignons séchés, fruits, crevettes séchées, fruits de mer, épices, nourriture bizarre que j'oserai jamais gouter... La majeure partie du marche est en en fait un enorme entrepot ou les gens peuvent acheter en vrac. C'est pour les petits magasins et les restaurants, pas vraiment pour les touristes! On se sentait dans le chemin un peu... au lieu de se faire courrir apres pour acheter des souvenirs, on se faisait regarder un peu croche, comme trois grosses chenilles dans un mega-nid de fourmis qui grouillent.
La section plus "entrepot" du grand marché chinois Bonh Tay.
 Maman a eu une experience particulierement chinoise, aux toilettes. Moi j'ai tout vu, en Chine en 2011. Mais elle n'en revenait pas: Dans la petite toilette publique, sombre, humide et pas mal dégueu, il y avait une ligne d'attente. Maman se demandait pourquoi les planchers étaient si mouillés et elle a vu une petite vieille qui remplissait des seaux d'eau et qui les jetaient par terre. Heureusement il y avait un bon drain au centre. Lorsqu'elle s'est enfin rendue a une cabine, elle etait barree. C'est une autre madame chinoise qui lui a montre comment faire en placotant en chinois: Si t'as envie de faire un "numero 2" va dans la cabine. Mais pour un "numero 1", tu te baisses les culottes ici la devant tout le monde et tu pisses pas terre. Comme ca, regarde! ... Et comme de fait, elle s'est accroupie devant la cabine de quelqu'un pour pisser. On aura tout vu.

Pouvez-vous croire qu'il y a une pauvre petite vieille qui passe sa journee a pitcher des seaux d'eau par terre pour nettoyer la pisse du monde??

Apres avoir tourné en rond un peu perdus dans l'énorme quartier chinois, on s'est retrouvés subitement devant un enorme centre d'achat a 6 etages, presque vide. Il y avait de toutes les marques les plus dispendieuses de parfum, de maquillage, de linge sport, de souliers, de montres, de bijoux, etc. Quel contrastre! Personne ne peut se payer ca ici! Peut-etre 2% de la population du Vietnam! Qui a eu l'idee parreille de batir ce centre d'achat de luxe au centre d'un quasi-bidon-ville?
Les extremes contrastes entre la pauvreté et la richesse sont hallucinants.
 En tout cas... l'air climatisé nous a fait beaucoup de bien pour quelques minutes... On a encore une fois observé le traffic ridicule de Saigon. C'est fascinant. Des milliers de motocyclettes. Pas de feux de circulation. Pas de "shoulder check"... Le pere conduit, et la mere a un bébé dans chaque bras. Ou encore un gars conduit et sa blonde est sur son iPad, derriere lui. Ca se coupe a l'aveuglette d'un bord, et de l'autre. Un taxi tourne a gauche dans le gros traffic qui s'en vient dans le sens inverse, et toutes ces motos et voitures devront ralentir, ou meme arrter, pour que le taxi passe. Ca regarde jamais derriere, juste en avant.  

On commence a comprendre comment traverser la rue sans perdre une jambe: S'il y a 50 voitures et motocyclettes qui approchent a 40 km/h, tu n'as qu'a marcher tout droit, lentement, de facon continue et previsible. Tous les vehicules vont s'ajuster comme l'eau d'une riviere autour de toi. C'est fou, mais ca marche! On a traversé ces rues occupées au moins 30 fois depuis le 19 avril! Jusqu'a date, 30 sur 30! (Une chance...)

Dodo apres une bonne soupe Phở Bò traditionelle.