Travelling in China and Vietnam one cannot miss a beast of myth the countries share. Dragons lurk above, rear up from fountains, wind along stairwells. Dragons control rainfall, typhoons and floods. They symbolize power and good luck. In ancient China the dragon symbolized the sovereignty of the emperor. Images of dragon decoration in architecture, furnishings, monuments, musical instruments, tools or war and clothing were common. Look closely at the number of claws when visiting royal palaces – five claws were for the sole use of Emperors. The dragon is one of the twelve symbols in the Chinese and the Vietnamese zodiac. Dragons in Vietnam generally have similar symbolism to China. They bring rain to feed the fields, but can also cause destruction through typhoons and floods. A dragon symbolizes power, intelligence and luck and symbolized supreme power to the King. The country of Vietnam is shaped like a dragon.
Here be dragons. Major equipment issues and a resulting blogger breakdown resulted in a few having little information. However, these choices are more for how artists perceived the dragons of imagination.
It was fortunate I had enough sense to record some of how awestruck I was by these magnificent, ancient carvings as, even after going through my very few photos and my notes, I cannot adequately describe what was coursing through my senses. As for pictures, they barely do justice to the majesty of the workmanship – I put my phone and camera away to just enjoy the legacy left behind after the carvers, monks, adherents, royalty and commoners had turned to dust. I spent seven hours marvelling, discussing, pondering, searching, with a young man from the Netherlands I had met at my hostel. It was nice to spend time with someone just as inquisitive as I am about the history of a place. A bonus was how quickly he could look up the meaning of a character – sometimes writing it on his phone with his finger (I need an app for that).
Longmen Grottoes (pinyin: longmen shiku – Dragon’s Gate Grottoes. a.k.a. Longmen Caves) were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. The majority of the 1400 caves with 100,000 statues, plus steles and pagodas, are along the western bank of the Yi River. By the time we had finished the western bank my new friend and I were worn out. An excellent excuse to return another year.
My first glimpse of the Longmen Grottoes and I knew I was in for at least a few hours of viewing marvellous carvings, with their mystery and magic, there was a feel to the air of just how ancient the area is and how revered it once was. The care, the belief, the fortitude of the craftsmen who carved these astonishing statues in their manmade caves out of the sandstone cliffs vibrates. (I am not prone to sensations of a mystical, religious or ghosts of the ancestors nature)
These are artifacts that deserve, and must, to be retained for as long as time can make it possible. There are many, many defaced figures, missing limbs; however, perhaps, in the 21st C. it gives pause for us to understand how fortunate we are to be where we are and how much we have advanced. These figures were chiselled by hand with great care. No electricity, nothing motorized. The smooth cheeks on many of the figures made me want to reach out to touch them. How was this accomplished? My young friend and I discussed this and came up with, from our very limited knowledge of art, the possibility that sand may have been used as the medium – much like sand paper – to rub the cheeks, smooth the brow, encourage the slight curve of a smile, or enhance the intense draw of the eye to the future unfolding before each statue. It is amazing what those stone eyes can make us ponder. From a distance one of the extremely tall, intimidating, powerful, stone guards watches over the area, and yes, his eyes do seem to follow you. Once we made it up the stairs and were at his feet, looking up – you know you will never be at his level – physically or spiritually – I remain still unable to adequately put into writing how the realm of gods can affect the realm of disbelief. As always, and it was absolutely necessary here, I looked up, way up. To my delight and curiosity I discovered a small opening close to the ceiling – with its own, bricked ceiling. Definitely put there for a reason although anywhere close to what we bantered back and forth. My friend and I were so curious (ah, to be young) that he did a search on his phone. It was a resting place, or hideaway for the immortals who embodied the statues! So much better than a place for the tools of the trade that carved the magnificent figures.
Tourists are encouraged to get up close, up the concrete stairs, with railings, along wide, easy to maneuver to appreciate the craftsmanship of over 1500 years ago, with the relics far enough out of reach of accidental, or sadly, purposeful damage.
Visiting the caves is fairly easy – unless provided with a bus number to one of the least numbers of trips. While waiting for probably 40 minutes, on a somewhat chilly morning – I had been in the south until now – I introduced tea eggs and ‘oil’ drum baked sweet potatoes to Tristan. These kept us going until lunchtime when I finally succumbed to hunger and ate both of the granola bars I had packed for emergencies. As for the bus, we decided to walk to the nearby train station, found a bus idling by with its driver looking for passengers. I think once we boarded others were encouraged to also hop on as it soon filled and we were off. Only a 15 minute ride away.
The tour the next day reminded me, once again, how much I do not enjoy tours. We were picked up across from the hostel, and stopped to pick up other passengers also going on the tour. Our guide seemed horrified she would have to be in charge of two foreigners and eventually asked if there was anyone on the bus who could look after us. Or something along those lines. The poor fellow had his work cut out because we tended to not follow the group like sheep. I do not know why he volunteered, his English was worse than my Chinese!
First stop, Shaolin Temple and Kungfu School of China, 1 1/2 hours out of Luoyang. Yikes! As we scurried after our guide, once we had arrived, I felt like I should start to Baa – I think I managed to refrain. It was difficult to enjoy anything because we kept being rushed hither and thither. One of the supposed highlights is to watch a performance put on by students. A rather slick operation getting everyone inside and seated for the short show then out again for the next crush. I tried to be impressed.
For some reason I took very few photos of the White Horse Temple. I can only think it was most likely due to all the driving to get anywhere. A lunch stop in the middle of nowhere provided a chance for a quiet, cobbled together picnic – those granola bars do come in handy – before heading for the last stop of the day. It was quite busy and once again less seeing anything of significance (much the same happened at the Wu She School) and standing around waiting.
We did not get back to Luoyang until dark – descends early and suddenly – and were then hustled into a smaller van before finally getting into a car and eventually a public bus to the train station. We were tired, hungry and happy.
Of course the highlight of my time in Luoyang was the Longmen Grottoes; however, meeting a new friend, sharing meals and hanging out at yet another apartment turned into a hostel were all part of why I enjoyed my time there. In all I spent three nights, the first simply a matter of having arrived too late to do any exploring, and the only item on my list that I missed seeing was the Luoyang Museum after spending a whole day at the grottoes. A quick calculation indicated I had spent barely 1000CNY = under 200CAD including half the train fare from Guilin. Somehow I was managing to stay on budget! My next destination was Xi’an – home of the Terracotta Warriors.
After agonizing over whether to go south to Malaysia then Indonesia my with my daughter I chose to stick to my original itinerary of taking the train to Nanning – a city in southern China where I lived with my daughters for just under one year. It was time to return to my ‘going home’ portion of this trip.
I made a discovery during my 28 days in Vietnam. You do not have to compromise when travelling solo. This is mainly with regard to travelling with another person – even if only for a few days. I also came to the realization that, just as my youngest daughter had been saying over the course of her 1 1/2 years of travel, it is not necessary to like every place you visit. Which is just as well considering my take on Hanoi remain mixed. As my photos are mainly of scenery, people and architecture, that do not convey the feeling of a place, I also recorded short snippets of what I was thinking. What I said about Hanoi was not all glorious.
Even a month later I can still say I have no idea what it is about Hanoi that enamours visitors. There is only so much to do in the Old Quarter – unless the plan is to eat, drink and sip coffee at every establishment – and it was so insane with noise, traffic, motor scooters and people that it was not until my last day when I finally felt just slightly comfortable walking along the densely crowded streets. By that time I was nearly arrogant with my streetwise ways as I darted around and past, most likely, newcomers staring forlornly at the swarming mass bearing down on them before plunging into it. (There are many one way streets so it is likely the swarm is headed for a head on collision with you)
I think there is no need to stay beyond 2-3 days unless the plan is to include an overnight boat tour of Ha Long Bay and to visit the surrounding area. While I had considered the two night boat cruise, or even the one night, and my daughter was happy to join me, I finally decided against it as the weather was not great and swimming seemed unlikely. In addition, there are far too many cruises – it made me think of whale sightseeing on the coast of B.C., and brought a latent memory of how crowded the Li River between Guilin and Yangshuo was 15+ years ago. (More on Yangshuo in another post) My daughter and I also had to think if we really wanted to spend two nights forced to remain together in tight quarters. Far too many variables for disaster. Finally there was the cost. Although not really a compromise it sort of felt like one until I said I could see Karst hills in China and I live by the ocean.
Although I felt completely safe, and never really worried about theft, I could see how a purse or pocket could be easily picked – that one jostle, if not aware, could be the last time your phone is seen, or you are suddenly poorer. I also encountered beggars again, had not seen any since Saigon, which I found troubling. One woman had badly misshapen feet that reminded me of the horrific practice of footbinding in China. She was begging outside the perimeter of an ice cream parlour that was doing a brisk business. I was one of the the patrons. Most of us sat outdoors on one the low stools so this woman had an audience. As she slowly made her way along someone would drop a 1000, 2000, or 5000VND note in her basket. For the first time since arriving in Vietnam I felt compelled to do the same.
My whole time was not really all that miserable. I just felt a little disappointed, I did enjoy visiting and walking around Hoan Kiem Lake – weekday, weekend daytime, as well as a Friday or Saturday provided a lot of entertainment! The night market was a dizzying blend of people, colours and goods. I also loved St. Joseph’s Church. It is an architectural testament to endurance. The food was delicious, as was the coffee. It would be easy to stay solely in the Old Quarter of Hanoi for a month and eat at a different place every meal – quite possibly on one street! I took my time to see everything. I visited an old house now turned into a small museum – free too – where there are friendly guides to answer questions or explain certain elements of what it had been used for. Some places were closed for renovations, or for reasons unknown – Ngoc Son Temple, had a fee – museum, or was not yet open – Opera House.
My farewell to Hanoi was bittersweet, my daughter had left her hostel earlier in the day, whereas I still had a full day ahead of me. My first stop was to my daughter’s favourite breakfast spot in Hanoi – we rarely ate this meal together because I eat so much earlier and we were not staying at the same place. (personally, although sharing a room, I think I had the better place) I only bought a coffee to go. I then headed for a last walk by the lake choosing not to go all around, then did some serious window shopping. Except most of the shops do not have windows. Check out had been made for 1:00pm, for which I was grateful although it did mean I still had about five hours to kill. It was time for some uninterrupted reading.
By the time a taxi was called for my brain was saturated. Fortunately I did have enough sense to triple check I would be going to the train station further away from theOld Quarter. Just as well, despite how great the staff at the hostel were, there was some confusion. I pulled out my train ticket. One of the young men working there (the hostel has the rather strange name of Backy Posh Hostel) presented me with a box of a Vietnamese sweet delicacy. I have absolutely no idea what it is called; however, it was delicious and lasted me all the way to Yangshuo! Station sorted, bags in back seat, change to see the rest of Hanoi as darkness settled was a treat. Guess what, there is a whole city beyond the tourist craziness.
As usual I was early for my departure. When it came time to board the train one woman took it upon herself to ensure I boarded the right one and the correct car. I did manage to get lost when trying to find my bed though! ‘Someone is sleeping in my bed’, said the little bear – in my case two tired pandas. I have learned to be a hardened traveller, there was no way I would give up my bunk just because the man was older than me. Two Chinese girls were also in the cabin – they were heading home after writing IELTS tests in Hanoi. Both were happy to practice their English and allowed me to butcher their language.
I love the rocking and chugging of trains, they lull me to sleep faster than anything else. So being rudely awakened at 2:00am was not appreciated. We were at the border check to leave Vietnam. Everything carried onboard must leave with you. Argh! It was all a bit of a blur other than everyone traipsing along to board again. I had barely fallen asleep again when another call was made to disembark – this time for Chinese Immigration. Yes, I did know these two stops would occur, and I was prepared with my passport and papers. I had not taken into consideration boarding and disembarking to and from such steep steps with my backpack. I had been spoiled when travelling on bullet trains. None of the passengers anticipated the computer would fail either! At least we were inside. The train was about two hours late.
Back in China
Nanning you have grown up. I had been provided with easy directions to the hostel, take the subway to such and such stop, take this exit, see the building, double back to cross the street and presto, there in about ten minutes. The host had lost me at subway. 15+ years ago there was not a subway! I did find the place, the owner has turned an apartment into a hostel. (in my city, heck the whole country, this would not be allowed) Everything is done via phone – good thing I had a SIM card for China. I dropped my bags off, said hello to other guests, then headed out to visit where I had once been a teacher and where Mozzy, my Chinese kitty had been born. Another subway ride took me right to the gates we used to enter. No need for students to live on campus anymore. Where Mozzy was born had been razed, of course, although nothing has been built there other than a road. It must have been the rest period as I did not see anyone. Perhaps some of the teachers I worked with are still there. I lost touch with one good friend, she may have eventually moved to New Zealand . The last time I spoke to her I was still living in Shanghai and she was literally passing through as she headed to the karst hills near Yangshuo -my next destination – to work with a NZ geologist as a translator. Every once in a while her name crops up when my daughters and I talk about Nanning – usually with my saying perhaps she got lost in the mists of the hills. I think it is in vague reference to a Chinese story about the area.
Only one night in Nanning. I gave up any thought of exploring memories after becoming completely turned around. The only place that had not moved was the train station I arrived at. On one of my recorded snippets about Hanoi and Nanning I had made the observation that perhaps I would feel more in my element once in Nanning. Sadly not. I spent the evening visiting with a German woman who has been riding her bicycle around the world – check out her Blog, some of her entries have been translated into English. She is travelling solo, sleeps most of the time in a tent, has had some incredible opportunities to meet people. An amazing feat! (cyclingcharlotte.com) The bike is Charlotte.
I took a chance and went directly to the train station to buy my ticket from Nanning to Yangshuo rather than ordering it ahead of time. I was curious to know how close to West Street the Yangshuo Station could be. Not very. Yangshuo had mushroomed into an ugly, widespread, mass that undulates through the valleys of the karst hills. As it had never had a train station one was built about an hour from the once popular backpackers delight of West Street, the Li River, and the surrounding hills. The hills are still stunning, shrouded in mist, jutting from the green like toys scattered by young giants.
The positives were that the train trip was uneventful, maybe six hours, and the bus trip from the station did provide views. Unfortunately it was difficult to find the right one and a nightmare of epic proportions to find transport once we were close to my destination. I feared I would be lost in the karst hills – except they were not very close. At the bus station in the centre of Yangshuo I was dismissed with a vague hand flapping towards the exit and a gutteral command to ‘go there’. After a few phone calls, me determinedly stating I would not pay the outlandish cost demanded by some motor cart drivers, and fending off all the others, I started to walk. Although I had no idea where I was going I looked like I did. I probably made it no further than 20 metres when a motorbike pulled up beside me and the driver said he would take me for ten kuai. No more than 2.00CAD. Hey, I had just done 14 days on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam so no problem. I hopped on like a pro, still wearing my backpack and other bags – no helmet, no idea where we were going. Barely five minutes later we were there. I would have never found the place on my own.
Yangshuo is no longer quaint, no longer has silly names for hotels, bars and restaurants. Gone were the rather seedy Fawlty Towers Hotel, Minnie Mao’s Restaurant, and Hard Seat Cafe as well as all the other wonderful, family owned places I had discovered with my children when we lived in China. (I checked for the hotel after, it does still exist although I could not find it) To my absolutely horror and amazement, just down the street from my hostel was a McDonald’s and around the corner a Starbucks! On West Road, the main pedestrian street (1400 years old) was a KFC and a Pizza Hut. Yangshuo had fallen hard to the gods of consumerism. Even the tourist shops had taken on a more polished look. However, there was still a load of bars and restaurants to choose from, and I did find some great, if somewhat more expensive than in less touristy spots, street food. I admit that I did take advantage of being so close to McDonald’s a couple of times to buy coffee when I ran out of milk to make my own. After my first full day, and again on my last night, the hostel staff admitted that the little town had grown so quickly that there was little organization – everyone had fallen to the mighty dollar. (Where had the interests of the collective gone? – tongue firmly in cheek)
I became somewhat disheartened when it seemed nearly impossible to actually get to any of the hills without breaking the bank or endangering life and limb by cycling to various spots. I could have rented a bike and ventured out on my own if I were not deathly afraid of cycling on the road. Especially without a helmet! I never ride on the road at home and I wear a helmet on trails. I had hoped to find find a guide looking for potential riders – they all seem to have disappeared or work for tour companies or rent out bikes. I did not want to spend my time shopping for a tour with guide which meant I also had to accept I was limited to the immediate area. I went on a cruise instead. This time from Yangshuo, past Xingping but not all the way to Guilin. It was a pleasant morning to mid-afternoon to relax, take a lot of photos and enjoy the misty Karst hills that the region is famous for. I am happy to report it is still mainly mist rather than pollution. The main difference from 15 years ago, other than the guide speaking only Chinese – thank goodness she did not talk the whole time like on some tours – was the lunch is no longer freshly caught seafood, cooked at the bow of the boat. There was fresh river crab, and another dish – for a price. Modernization means rubbish and tasteless. We were given microwaved meals served in disposable trays. To add to the sad realization everything would be thrown out was just how chock full the river became with boats wending their way up and downstream. I was part of the problem rather than the solution. Sigh.
Another day I took a walk in Yangshuo Park, a local, nearby area popular with retirees, families and a great gathering place for musicians. The clear air, when I was there, and surrounding sharp hills had great acoustics. Parks are quite popular as autumn slides towards cooler days. As I had made the choice to forego expensive, hurry up tours to the various famous hills I headed for one of a few that have paths from the park. None of these are very difficult to climb if you are fairly steady, in relative good health and are not afraid of heights. Good knees are a bonus. Considering my knees and fear I took and watched each step with care. First climbing attempt I found two used needles. Needless to say, I turned around. Another hill (these ones were not really in the class of mountains) chosen to ascend was more difficult with its twisty, steep steps and paths. There is no way to reach its peak so I rested at a natural platform, where I met up with a young couple, to take in the view. Climbing down was not as easy, I was worried I would slip. (Which I did but we will not tell my children and I did not fall). Another spent needle. Oh China.
I felt so good after that climb and descent I did one more. This time to a reach a pagoda that I discovered had two lower sections to it with little bridges to them. Great for taking a break. It was interesting to see the attempt to make the well polished stone steps safer by covering them with concrete. Concrete that was crumbling and made the way more difficult to traverse. It also mars the the carvings in the steps although some have had enough of the covering chipped off over time to see them now. I have no idea how old the steps or pagoda are as there were not any notices. I also did not make it to the third tier. One fellow, perhaps in his 40s came running up the steps, encouraged me to continue, then came running down while I was picking my careful way back.
To vary my routine of walking along West Road I took a bus to the village of Xingping, a miniature version of Yangshuo, pedestrian street, river access and tourist traps included. At least I did not see any of the western traps there. I even managed to get to the bus without getting lost this time. A great way to waste a day away, take the bus for the views, spend some hours window shopping, eat lunch, then the bus back to take in the view on the other side. I will admit that although I was no longer smitten with Yangshuo I was still in love with the mountains.
On my last night I took in the Impressions Water Show. I am so glad someone on a Facebook post told me about this although I rather doubted it could really be the highlight of a visit. I had no idea I could be so mistaken. Created by Zhang Yi Mou, the director and choreographer of the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, and the movie Raise the Lantern, the outdoor venue, Shanshui Theatre (Mountain & Water) with the natural backdrop of Karst hills, and the Li River main stage, tastefully lit by lowlights, is magical. As darkness descends the audience din lowers to an attempted murmur – the seating capacity of 2200 anchored, and built up, at one section of the natural bowl of the space, does tend to move in waves, much as the music did. Any amplified instruments and singing was easy to hear whereas natural voices were often overcome by the audience and the whims of the winds. However, the magic that literally unfolded in front of us did not miss a beat. Six hundred local, a good portion of them from the ethnic minority, performers give the audience a fantastic 70+ minutes to be drawn into ancient myths that wrap around the culture. A perfect ending to what was most likely my last visit to Yangshuo.
Little end note. The bus I was to catch to the show forgot about me so I ended up, once again, on the back of a motorbike, this time with one of the hostel staff and the driver, no helmet, in the dark, to the venue. With repeated instructions to meet the bus driver at #99 at the entrance after the show I hopped off and was swept up by the flow of attendees. The magic had me forgetting the worries of getting back until I had left the theatre and entered the mass exodus headed for buses, cans, cars, motorbikes and bicycles – at a completely different gate from the entrance. I was lost in the dark. I felt despair. I felt anger. I felt little. All very well but not very useful. As I gained my equilibrium I took out my phone and hit the language app Baidu, typed in entrance then showed it a few people until someone figured out where I had to go. A little reminder that it was, after all, an adventure.
I left the next day for to spend one night in Guilin before catching a train to Luoyang. Guilin was another surprise after swearing I would never stay there again all those years ago. I could be convinced to give it another try if given the opportunity. Yet another city with a subway system that was not even a suggestion when I lived in China. Like Nanning, also very new and anchored to the train station. Smart engineers.
My ten day trip ended in Hoi An where I met with my daughter who had arrived there the previous day. Unfortunately, she was not happy with my choice of hotel and let me know it every s i n g l e day. We were there for FIVE days! This was a major reminder as to why I travel solo – I was beginning to doubt the upcoming four day trip we had booked would happen. So much so that by the second day I was in Hoi An I cancelled my driver and was looking into flights back to China or even home to Canada – always follow up on consequences once stated. My daughter was shocked enough to ask me to try to reverse that decision. I mulled over it, told her some concessions were necessary, then contacted my lovely guide. The trip was on, my daughter and I agreed to only spend some of the time together – Hoi An was looking friendlier.
I liked that although our hotel was not within the immediate vicinity of Old Town it was close enough to withstand the heat and humidity that I found it was only just bearable. Each day I left with my hat, umbrella and a full bottle or two of water as well as a granola bar. When my daughter asked if I needed anything from home I asked for more granola bars. She threw in a pair of sandals she had travelled in the previous year – to replace the pair stolen from me in Saigon – because she knew how much my knees would suffer if I only had flip flops. These ended up being my main footwear for the remainder of my travels except when my sturdier walking shoes were necessary. It is these actions that remind me my daughter is basically a good person. We just have to take each other in small doses.
We visited Old Town a few times. This is definitely what draws tourists. The area has a quaint, lazy bustle feel to it during the daytime with many opportunities to visit small, local museums, a couple of old courtyard homes and of course the 18th century, Japanese wooden bridge that sits at one end of the old town. This a favourite spot for photos – nearly impossible to get one without a complete stranger staring out from one section or an entrance. I do not think I growled at everyone to get out of my way for the shot above. Depending on the time and disposition of the ‘guards’ posted at each end there is a fee, or no fee. When we were caught in a downpour everyone nearby huddled at an entrance to avoid paying to go further along.
as we widened our walks behind the main walkways we stumbled across this wonderful house sitting rather forlorn, a beautiful remnant of French influence with enough of an Asian twist to have both of us exclaim in delight, “I want this!” We remained for a few minutes of adoration and dreams. It really was close enough to the heavily visited Old Town to seriously consider for anyone with the money and time to turn it into a boutique hotel.
Evening brought a different vibe. This is when the area becomes very crowded, vendors are out in full force, a wonderful market with all sorts of delicious food and fabulous goods open their stalls and everyone is in a great mood. We ate too much. We joined many others posing with stunning lanterns – my daughter was quite swift at ducking in, angling for a shot, then bowing out with one of her winning smiles. Red lanterns are strung above, beautifully crafted lanterns in all sorts of designs and patterns are lit up to entice buyers, lanterns to drop in the river as prayers to dearly departed, or the gods, are sold left, right and centre. I am quite sure this is not great for the environment. It did cross my mind there are most likely people who drag the soggy remnants out at the end of the nightly revelling. Happy, easy revelling. People may have been a little drunk but never belligerent. A place for families, single people, couples, old and young.
We mainly took it easy for the five days in Hoi An. I had a pedicure. My daughter had her hair coloured and cut. We even made it to the beach. I walked – 40 minutes of insanity in the heat. My daughter sent me a message to say she was taking a TA I and would meet me. I was nearly there by the time she showed up. We seemed to have hit a time when a storm was brewing. This meant absolutely no swimming. However, all the many, many ocean facing restaurants and bars had great seating for viewing the waves, sand and anyone silly enough to get too close to the water. (The two photos show just how close I came to being swept off my feet by an exuberant wave) Dare to sit down and a lifeguard was immediately there to chase you away. Our day wandered into lunch, some cocktails (I drank water), reading and relaxing. The storm did not arrive.
It was soon our last night, time to pack our bags before heading out on a four day Motorbike Tour into my guide’s home country. He had rather happily cancelled a trip from Hanoi, in the north, to Hoi An when I had first suggested a second tour. His home is about a 30 minute drive to the country – he had time to go home for a few days before our tour. I was looking forward to discovering more of this wonderful, diverse, beautiful, small country.