Vietnam: Hoi An

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.

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Vietnam Motorbike Tour: Day 9

Well, we were nearing the end and I was beginning to wonder what else I could possibly be shown to make me amazed, sad, surprised, or maybe angry. Then there were the visual and auditory senses, and even some emotional ones. I will start with the last one – it is physically tough riding on the back of a motorbike for even an hour let alone several hours. Despite Toan’s insistence I say if I wanted to stop at any time to take photos, visit a place or just stretch my legs, I tended to let him determine the pace. We stopped every two hours if there was not a place to visit for more than five minutes – I did choose to just sit and enjoy some scenery rather than climbing off the bike, then lining up my phone or camera in an often son attempt to capture a scene. I am not a photographer and I do not edit anything. (Fine, I do not know how to) 

This bridge crosses so much – history, emotion, scenery, shifts in geography, cultures – the new Ho Chi Minh Road. Below it can be seen remnants of the ‘trail’.

Visual and auditory senses were assaulted the whole nine days – there was just so much to take in that it became impossible to capture only one moment a day. Having the history of a culture explained in snapshots is difficult, understanding it would take a lifetime. Day 9 was Thanksgiving in Canada, which made me sort of wish I had someone to celebrate with. Cross cultural small-scale celebrations are not always easy to translate (me explaining, others attemptingbto process into Vietnamese) – how to describe the smells attached to the holiday: wafts of roasting turkey, sage, onion, parsley and butter for stuffing, potatoes mashed to perfection mixed with butter, cream(or milk, or yogurt or sour cream – even cream cheese) and garlic, to someone who has never had turkey? Rather disheartening to be given a bowl of rice and what someone tried to pass as chicken – which was overdone and dry. (Most of my meals have been fair to wonderful)

The scrawniest bit of chicken I have ever seen – this was my Thanksgiving dinner. Note the wilted parsley for colour and vegetable.

This was the day we crossed, in my head anyway, from South to North although we had been in Central Vietnam for quite some time and there is no longer a division between North and South. However, to me this was the beginning of Ho Chi Min Road, with its two glimpses of the Ho Chi Minh Trail far below. The trail was never really a trail, it was built between 1959- 1975 to make it possible for weaponry, people and supplies to pass undetected – which meant most of the trail was actually in neighbouring Laos, no more than 14 km away in some areas. The views were, once again, absolutely stunning and breathtaking as was the switchback road! Meeting cattle and goats foraging along the side of the highway- at times lumbering into the the two lanes – was a time to close my eyes, except I would have fallen off the bike. 

Sitting far above the old and new Ho Chi Minh Roads this community hall was built for for the local ethnic minority – who supported Ho Chi Minh – using traditional architecture. The intricacy of the sweeping ceiling poles are amazing.

The roof slopes so high it was difficult to photograph. The entrance was the only accessible one which made me wonder if the name atop is to view from far below.

A sign says no walking across; however, we did see scooter tire marks and one person ignored the sign.
Despite the sign to not cross this footbridge is the only access, other than small watercraft, to the village on the other side. Their bridge for vehicles was washed away a couple of years ago.

One of the stops I chose to remain on the bike to take a photo – the young woman is also from Canada, we were on the same route and her driver happened to stop here just prior to us.

Of course there was visit to another temple, one I nearly opted to miss considering how weary my backside was getting. The difference here was how isolated it appeared to be and it was, according to my guide, a Muslim structure belonging to the Cham minority, who primarily follow Islam, and to a lesser degree Hinduism. This particular temple is not well kept, being allowed to rejoin the jungle from what I could see, its two stone guards so worn down they were difficult to recognize as a rhinoceros (hunted to distinction) and what might have been an elephant. Reminded me more of what would be in front of a Hindu temple. Perhaps the information given was incorrect.

If anyone can read Vietnamese the mystery will be solved! (Ca Phe means coffee)

We were stopped at a train track, entering civilization again. I tried  to grab a photo of the gatekeeper – no automation here. While he waited for the train to pass he kept busy painting the arm that held all vehicles back until it was time to manually raise it again. We would soon arrive at the last overnight stay before leaving Ho Chi Minh Road and heading to Hoi An where I intended to rest my weary bones and oversaturated brain. Yes, I had finally told Toan I would be do a four day trip with him but this time with my daughter and another driver.

VietnAm Motorbike Trip: Day Three

Day 3
Fairy Stream – no reason for the name other than a direct translation. It is a sandy stream great for walking in simply because. I also found it was like a foot exfoliation from the fine sand. The depth rarely went past my ankles and had few strong currents. The brown is due to the constant movement of the sand. Stand in one spot too long and you will slowly sink. A pleasant beginning to a full morning of sights. 

Fairy Stream. The water is brown due to the sand that constantly shifting. The stream rarely goes above the ankles and then only to mid-calf.

Next was a quick stop at a fish dock minus the dock. The fishing boats remain moored further out while the fish are brought in on coracles and supplies taken back aboard. It was quite amusing to watch a few men, one woman who gave up on the ineptness, trying to get over the surf while a fellow next to them had no difficulty. Once away from the beach these craft move swiftly.

Did I worry about polluted water, of course; however, I did not see anything actually floating in it.

Launching a Coracle is not easy
It was all smiles and laughs the whole time


The stench was not as bad as when the sun beats down but the miasma as a whole was still quite unpleasant.
Much of the area is built on or out of the red sand hills and the sand dunes made me wonder how much the shifting sand will have everything sliding into the ocean. I am glad Toan convinced me to check out the dunes – more exfoliation, great views and how often will I get to play in a dessert like space without the sun beating down in me?

Sand castles anyone?
Random person shows a bit of the scale of the dunes.

Before lunch we made two more stops. A Hindu Temple and a handicapped facility that specializes in sand art. I still have a problem with such places although it appeared the ‘staff’ are all 14+ – not that I saw many. 
The temple, there are three, all quite small ,built in the 9th c. was the highlight of the morning. Seems the followers of the faith had a method of building with brick by using a secret mortar – such a secret the knowledge had been lost to antiquity!

No visible mortar gives the temples cleaner lines

The largest is undergoing extensive work which had meant that, in the process of some excavations more artifacts have been discovered.
A baby shrine – none of the three are very high.

By the time we left the clouds became ominous and the first big raindrops hit us with resounding bursts. We threw on our rain gear before heading to a roadside place for lunch. This generally meant donning rain pants, rain coat &/or poncho, and for me plastic booties. Then everything had to come off when we would stop for breaks unless we wanted to have a steam bath. One such stop had hammocks, common in the south of Vietnam. Heaven. 

I do not think I have ever sat or lain down on a hammock in all my 60 years! I could get used to them.
The rain stayed with all the way to the start of the mountain road we would take – up, up, up. We still had three hours of riding to go. I worried about dark falling. Slow going with two people and all our gear. It reminded me of some nasty off roads on the northwest coast of BC in Canada. It was like crossing a border. The people have much darker complexions, corn became more prevalent than rice and for the first time I saw large pigs. The cows were also going home, along with goats, rather hazardous driving avoiding potholes, potbellied pigs and huge cattle! 
I wondered about the raised thatched homes sitting next door to cookie cutter cement homes that appeared to be in better shape. The government built the new homes for the people to live in; however, they did not like the homes, preferring to live in their traditional structures. So many houses remain unlived in. 

Suddenly, just shy of 4:00pm a loud bang – I was dropped at a roadside place and my intrepid driver went to find a mechanic. 20 mins later he returned. Once again he had to do the repairs himself. Good to know he can! We still had at least two hours to travel and the light was rapidly waning. I did not want to be stuck in a mountain village with the cows, pigs and chickens!

Coffee, peppers, cashews, bananas abound around the canal created by the hydro dam far below us at a rather perilous spot to have a view and take some photos. I do not believe there was really anywhere safe to pull over and when the road narrowed to a cow path, with broken stones, deep potholes and mud, I was convinced we had to have taken a wrong turn. I was flabbergasted when I saw four wheel vehicles rounding corners – usually barreling towards us on a path barely wide enough for our Motorbike. 

The water diverted by the Hydro dam provided much need water for new crops to be planted and provided more than subsistence farming for the people living on the mountain.

By the time we arrived in Bao Loc I understood the word and feeling of being knackered. My room was changed for one with a view – I wanted something rewarding for having survived the ride. Dinner was at a nearby hole in the wall. One man was happily getting sloshed, I was the first foreigner he had ever seen in his 75 years. He could say thank you, and shook my hand – strong grip.

Total Expenses 145,000VND = 8.00CAD

Vietnam: Saigon 3 nights

Vietnam
I was dealing with four currencies in one day – very confusing. The VND is in ridiculously high notes – 500.000VND = 30CAD. At least my just shy of 500CNY can be put away for 20 days. I will have to be vigilant about spending, too easy to get confused and end up paying too much for something. The fact USD/CAD/EUROS & even CNY could be used at the airport – besides exchanging – surprised me. I squirrelled my money to brave the streets of Saigon to find dinner. I hoped to do some tours while in Saigon as there was no way I had enough time to work out how to get anywhere on my own.

When I first went to China in 1996 I could not believe how many bicycles there were, to be replaced by motor scooters then cars over two decades – all making for some crazy driving. Move forward 21 years to Vietnam and it is motor scooters – except the streets are insane! The noise is deafening, people jostle for a foot or wheel hold, horns toot, people shout out to passing riders to stop for a bite, parents are fetching children from school, the after school vendors are on their scooters (ready to push off if any authority shows up – happens in China too). Everyone has a place to with pedestrians at the bottom of priorities. Perhaps simply because they must not be going far if walking?

 
I somehow managed to walk to the wet market several blocks down – I had no idea where I was heading – and even tried out some street food. The French influence means some pretty tasty, crusty bread is found at many stalls. One place drew my attention when a crust had just been opened and was being filled with something interesting. The fellow holding it was also quite entertaining while he tried to entice me to try some. It worked. For 20,000VND I had dinner – bread filled with nicely done tofu, a long slice of cucumber marinating in something (most likely to keep it fresh), some pickled goodies, slightly cooked sprouts and a dash of hot sauce. No pictures, no pandas allowed out to share, too dangerous with all those scooters. Probably some fumes mixed in the meal. Picked up some milk to make coffee, then called it a night other than arranging for a full day City tour the next day. 

View from my room.

War Museum, how the hell does humanity still get so entangled to maim, torture, wrest away freedom, deny basic rights, fault religious and political beliefs, enough to kill each other? As my fellow morning seat mate said, I was crying on the inside. We did not have enough time for thoroughly learning about the atrocities of yet another crime against humanity.

Made from shrapnel this sculpture depicts the anguish of the mother’s of Vietnam.

Reconciliation Palace (not the War Museum) ignore the date – itvreally wasx taken in 2017!

While there My youngest daughter tried to call me. Her closest sister let me know then connected us with FB – seems she wishes she had met me in Saigon after all. I said to just come. Logistically it will most likely mean she will be a day behind me on the motorcycle tour. We are waiting on flights and an available driver and bike. (Update – it took a couple of days for her to organize everything so she would meet me in Hoi An after my tour)

Chinatown – sort of the same as any wet market, and wholesale goods in China. No idea why we were brought there other than perhaps to keep us amused for an hour. I think most of the participants were just confused and not too happy at the prospect of hanging around a maze of shops selling everything from spices, chili sauces, dried everything to whatever one might need in the home or office- plus items never even considered, let alone knowing what they were for, this form someone who has shopped in Chinese markets.

Incense cones – individuals buy these to be hung from the rafters. They tend to burn longer than the sticks.
Two deities in full glory – so brilliant behind glass. Note the pink seat next to it – in some cultures a most venerated monk would sit here, I am unsure if that was its purpose as I did not see such seats in Chinese Buddhist temples.

Pit stop for civet coffee. Of course this was the inevitable sales pitch to buy, buy, buy. At least the coffee served was free. 
A short stop, about 20 minutes at the Chinese Temple to the goddess of the sea. Built in the 17th c. The idols were beautifully draped in finery. I was beginning to feel rushed. Lunch stop, I finally had Pho! Naturally this was an extra charge. It worked out because everyone could order what they wanted or go to one of many other small restaurants. They all seem to work together when it comes to large tour groups.



Another Pit stop, this time at one of several (I discovered this the next day)Handicapped Handicrafts tour/sales pitch. The sign says 100% of the proceeds goes to the care of the individuals doing the lacquer work but how do we know? The Reunification Museum – where the tanks crashed through the gates in 1975 which basically ended the war – has about 100 rooms but we only had an hour to rush through maybe half of them. I know it sounds crazy for someone interested in history but I chose to give it a miss and headed to Highland Coffee outside the gates where I had an iced coffee and stayed cool. The gardens did look lovely, but I could see hem from outside the wrought iron fence. When I asked a fellow passenger what she thought she said it was only alright and they were rushed. Happy with my decision. Perhaps I will return to Vietnam.

Notes Dame Cathedral, built in the 1880s, was on the list of places included in the tour – too bad they did not bother to mention, until we were there – that it has been closed past three years for major renovations. All we could do was peer through the fence and take photos from a distance. I would have loved to see inside. However, with the Central Saigon Post Office right across the street I might have managed some interesting pictures. The post office was built in 1886, busy times back then, with a definite French architectural influence from the time. This is a favourite stop for tourists to buy a postcard, buy a stamp and have it postmarked from Ho Chih Minh – I wonder if they mail the postcard to their address. 

The arched, high ceiling of the post office.

That ended my first full day. I foolishly booked a 5:30am early morning tour plus the Cu Chi Tunnels for the next day. It was time for bed.

Day Two

Time for my early morning tour. I opened the door to don my sturdy, comfortable, Clarke’s sandals that used to be my mother’s….to discover they were not there. I looked inside, I checked my room, I checked all the rooms, although I knew full well I had left them on the door sill. Someone had stolen my shoes. So much for trying to live like the locals. I thought I was doing what everyone does by removing my shoes before entering a home. Seems they also bring in their footwear before retiring, I was furious and angry. I hoped the shoes would bring him nothing but misery – perhaps trip and break a leg; a possibility considering they were a size 8 whereas most women in Vietnam wear a couple of sizes smaller. Perhaps it was a man. So, that place will not be recommended.The poor guide who met me was unsure what to do with a sobbing woman the age of his grandmother when I informed him I did not know if I was up to a tour. All I wanted to do was pack and go home. 

I persevered, we headed out to see the sun rising, feel a cooling breeze and watch the city wake up. Although my guide, whose name has now escaped me, suggested I turn around to watch the sunrise I chose to watch the reflection on the river and buildings in the centre of the city . Much prettier than the garbage and rat I saw scurrying nearby.


Saigon has a massive population of over 20 million, very little space and few tall buildings to put them in. They do however have the Saigon River and many people live on the water selling a variety of goods. Most of these people come from further north, only going home during major holidays. Their children stay with grandparents to attend school. The one boat we were hoping to visit was not yet pulled into shore so we chatted about the lives of the people and some of the goods they sell. This one appeared to sell plants and, like nearly every other boat, coconuts. Each boat has living quarters and a small kitchen at the bow and lots of space for goods. They all had large, stylized eyes painted on the prow looking down to frighten away any evil spirits lurking in the water. Unlike many fishermen off the westcoast of BC when I was young up boat dwellers know how to swim – we discussed this and came to the conclusion that it is easier to climb out of a river than an ocean if you fall in. I should note that nowadays fishermen in Canada tend to know how to swim and have all sorts of flotation equipment. 

My guide was sweet, he asked if I felt any better and could he give me a hug. He was an awkward 22 year old so I thought it was alright. I did indeed feel better. Our next stop was the wholesale flower market. Flowers, flowers and more flowers. Made the me think of the musical My Fair Lady where everyone is preparing to sell and buy flowers for the day. The market never closes, 24 hour flower power. Deliveries of flowers from the delta arrive in the early morning – usually by 4:00am – and flower shops from all over the city pick up their choices starting around 6:00am. Not only were there flowers to sell in large quantities though; some stalls had astonishingly large arrangements prepared, others were preparing fancy arrangements and everywhere was busy. I learned that a display including purple and white flowers are for funerals whereas ones with red flowers are for good luck. We stopped at a stall where roses and orchids are sold where my guide presented me with a red rose. I knew it was a gimmick but his sincerity washed that thought away. 



The next stop was to a park for breakfast where people gather to hang their bird cages, sip coffee and eat breakfast while visiting. Hundreds of bamboo cages were hanging above the low tables where the birds could have fresh air and provide some rather pleasant birdsong. I would have though so many varieties of birds would create a cacophony of noise. It was actually rather pleasant. Of course we had coffee. I am becoming good at saying absolutely no sugar although I do get some stares of horror. Thick, heavily sweetened, condensed milk added to a Espresso shot is practically a national drink in Vietnam. In addition, a glass of iced green tea is often provided to help cut the bitterness. Coffee and Pho, not a bad was to end my early morning tour. We went past the two hours so had to hustle to my next tour – the Cu Chi tunnels outside of Ho Chih Minh.


The war in Vietnam was a tragedy, as is, in my opinion, any war. The politicians do not suffer the indignities or war. So, again, how often do we need reminding?  The tunnels are about a 1 1/2 – 2 hour drive from the city centre. We made one stop at yet another Handicapped Handicrafts site – a chance to stretch my legs while avoiding the sales pitch. 

The Cu Chi Tunnels were built and used by the Viet Cong from the 1940s, hidden in the jungle, as a way to escape the French during the Indochine war and eventually from American soldiers into the 1970s. The Viet Cong lived in the tunnels when absolutely necessary but otherwise had camps above ground also. Rather gruesome traps were built to prevent discovery, hidden air holes were drilled and hidden for staying underground for several days. Quick escapes into and out of the tunnels were built and camouflaged. I did try one of the tunnels, these are nasty places even now with low lights to guide visitors. I am only 5’2″ but had to stoop to pass through. It is impossible to carry a bag on your back and in some spots it is necessary to nearly crawl forward close to the ground – I did not make that attempt. Not a place to visit if claustrophobic.

Like an enemy soldier, it is possible to stand on one of the escape hatches without knowing it is there.

When I finally made it back to my room there was still no sign of my sandals. They were truly gone. I went in search of dinner, got turned around at one point – not a good idea in a city maze – finally made it to my corner, bought my dinner then was stuck where I was when a major rainstorm hit. An hour passed, I ate my dinner, sat on a chair provided by a shopkeeper and watched as water poured from the sky, down the road and into ditches. We were nearly inundated. I finally made a dash for my corner again to be stopped by water that would most likely go half way to my knees. So I did the only sensible thing – I bought a pair of pink thongs (flip-flops).
Fast food in Vietnam.

Exciting last night in Saigon. I would be heading out in the morning on a ten day motorbike tour – I hoped for sun.

Vietnam visa 25USD; SIM 15CAD;Taxi 165,000VND;Room 1.9 mill (106CAD) includes brkfst; Lunch 51,000; Entrance fees 15,000; Tour 9USD; TAXI 62,000; Iced coffee 49,000; Dinner, water, milk 42,500; Morning tour 25USD; Tunnels 125,000? + 110,000+ lunch 70,000 Pho & bottle water; Dinner: bought two eggs 6000VND; one orange 12,000!; donair because caught in a rainstorm 17,000; thongs 39,000

Or, to make things easier, I spent about 75.00CAD per day. 

Suzhou

Suzhou, the Vienna of China, a place for scholars, artists and gardens. This is where Marco Polo was said to have spent much of his time in China. I was returning for one reason only – I wanted to visit the relatively new Suzhou Museum. However, I need to backtrack a little to my departure from Shanghai and my arrival in Suzhou. Many visitors can now make this a day trip but I chose to stay in Suzhou for two nights. With good intentions I headed to the subway to catch my train. 

I made it down the first set of stairs (stairs play a major role for anyone travelling in China) before I turned around to take the escalator up and flag down a taxi. That fare, to the nearest train station – there are three stations – was 21.00CNY. My train ticket to Suzhou was 39.50 plus 6.00 processing fee. The cost of  visiting any of the major world cities can eat up a budget just in taxi fare. However, saving my back and knees from injury caused by a heavy backpack made it worth the expense. I made the decision to try to keep taxi travel for when I am heading in or out of a city with my bags. It also helps that food is still very inexpensive if eating like the locals. 

The view outside from within the tearoom.

Being the well prepared individual I like to think I am I had the address and phone number for my next accommodation to give to a taxi driver. I am now fully convinced taxi drivers in China just do not like me. It is as though I have a radar that sends out a message to give me a difficult time. They invariably have to pull over, point with exaggerated gestures at the address (and map if there is one) asking if I know where the place is, sigh out loud with an exclaimed aiya, then head off muttering away about cray foreigners. This driver was not too bad, he did get me to the place in one piece and I kept my thoughts quiet. There it was, a blue door. (Actually a tempered glass door with a blue metal frame)

Then the following happened.

                     Darkened forbidding hallway – Doorbell unanswered – Modern technology call.

I have no idea why I am wanting to think in a simplified haiku form – perhaps a need for less chaos? I had the number for the hostel, I had my new Chinese number – no real need to panic. Finally divested of my bags and unable to check in for 3-4 hrs I walked, in a drizzle, to the Suzhou Museum. There is more to this tale. I had forgotten how grossly people here underestimate distance – plus the fact I thought the man at the hostel was stressing blocks, not km. However, although it felt like 5km a look at my tracker showed it was indeed about 3km. So this time it was not out of range. 

Mainly taken for my scholar daughter – a scholar’s study.
This is an exquisite porcelain dish – either for decorative use only or possibly fruit.

I wanted to see this museum after watching a documentary about the architect and his dream for the museum. It is a simple design, fits into the area and invites the outdoor & indoor environments to be enjoyed. Designed by I.M. Pei, (he designed the Pyramide du Louvre) and opened in 2006, the museum is a simple design that blends in with its ancient neighbours. Although it was drizzling, then pouring, the outdoor elements – small areas with rockery and bamboo, pomegranate and other trees – make viewing the artifacts a pleasant pastime. Adding the Lotus Pond was a stroke of genius. There is a giant wisteria where visitors can sit outside the nearby tearoom. It was too wet the day I was there. I did not make it to the Lotus Pond until the following day, soothes the soul. As did the small thatched scholar’s studio, a Song Dynasty pavilion that had me wondering if I could hide out in such a place for a while. The standard artifacts abound along with ‘local finds’. I even found sustenance at the tea shop – if a thick slice of sweetened, cold, cheese ‘toast’ can be called a good choice. Weird stuff served in China. The coffee was decent. I was also able to recharge my phone battery to 40% – it seems to be sapped far too rapidly. It was a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon despite many others having the same idea. It is also free and accesses the various structures of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Not exactly a walk in the park day so this a perfect way to finish up my visit. 

My idea of a perfect place for reflection.
One of the wisteria winding around the outdoor area. It must be stunning when the flowers are in bloom. The trunks of some of these twine round and up eaves.
Cheese toast Chinese style.

Although I could have walked back it was still raining quite heavily so I flagged down a taxi to head back to the hostel. I had been given a key card for access – I certainly would not have left all my bags otherwise – so I headed up the stairs to meet the owner who had said she would be three hours or so. Claire, her English name, is a very nice person, her English is very good, her rapport with guests is great. So what was the problem? It seemed that when I called her she was st the Public Securoty Bureau where she was informed she could not have foreign guests for probably a month. (Every five years the PRC holds a National Congress during which delegates gather, posts are made, as are various decisions. I have no idea how this affects a small hostel in Suzhou, particularly when the most important date is not until October 18.) Was I willing to let her find another place for me or wait until late evening in the hope I could just remain. I found out the next day that other guests had to be moved. I stayed. I stayed two nights, nothing like inadvertently thwarting the government – certainly not my intention! 

The hostel is not great, it actually has some pretty significant problems, but I really did not want to be dragging my stuff about. When we heard the next day that some other places were completely shut down for the duration it is just as well I did not. So I stayed. I had a tour arranged for the following day and eventually headed to bed. Day two was very full, very noisy, completely out of my sphere of language skills, and fabulous most of the time. When the Chinese go on a tour they make sure they get their money’s worth. 

Aesthetics?
Uh oh, look what is opening up near the museum and gardens.

We first visited one of the gardens close to the museum, all I can recall is that it was not the Humble Administrator’s Garden. We spent about 1 1/2 hours there. For such a relatively small space it had pools, pagodas, grottoes, a small version of the stone boat in the Summer Palace of Beijing, many varieties of plants, small structures serving as places of reflection, a library, and similar uses. I spent the whole time scrambling over rockery, viewing plants, enjoying the care taken to preserve the garden and just being in the moment.

After this everyone in my group visited the Humble Administor’s Garden while I headed back to the museum to view the Lotus Pond from outside. I was not aware there were extras to the tour package if anyone wanted them; this was fine by me because I had wanted to go back to the museum. (I also knew there were Western style toilets in the washroom) I revisited the pavilion – seems many others had decided to go that day also. The Lotus Pond is wonderful, calming, aesthetically pleasing. 

Noodles, a boiled egg, some sort of mushroom, vegetables and little spongy cakes – green tea, Lotus, and two others I did not like. They were not meant as a dessert.

And then we were off to have lunch. Another package extra I was not aware of until I was asked to pay 30CNY. Considering I had nothing else to eat I paid up. After lunch, a bit of a walk outside then to the bus I was suddenly dragged off by the tour guide who insisted I go with her. No explanation. I was rather worried until she brought me into a store that sells wearable and bedding silk. I said I really did not want to go shopping. This time I was not expected to – there was a gift of a silk scarf for each lady. No idea what I will do with it, it is not raw silk so I cannot even wear it when on the motorcycle.

When I was a teenager we lived in a house painted these colours!
Once renovations are complete visitors will be allowed inside again although most likely not to upper floors.
Capturing a good image was difficult with no easy access.

A quick trip to the nearby , under major renovations, Beisi Temple, a confection of a pink and chocolate brown pagoda, this Buddhist temple was first built 1700 years ago. We could not see much with so much construction. Then we were then off to catch a canal ride because why go to Suzhou if you do not intend to get on the canal? It is at times like these that I see where planning anything in China is not easy – even for tour companies. We all dutifully lined up like lemmings heading to the precipice, single file with very little opportunity to turn back unless climbing over. It would be expected that a tour travels together – not when catching a boat up to Tiger Hill. Three of us, plus the guide, had to wait while everyone else piled on a canal boat to be gently lead upstream. Fortunately our extra, hot 15+ minutes wait was washed by a light rain, this after probably 20-30 minutes with everyone else.


While not exactly Star quality it was a chance to sit and enjoy the views while gently meandering up to our destination. We had one very close call when another boat did not give the right of way to our pilot which resulted in some angry shouting, shoving against the wall with a long pole against the wall of the canal and commiseration between passengers, poleman and pilot. I was expecting we would be caught in the low swells – we felt nothing, these boats are widebodied enough for waves to roll under without causing any rocking.

Like the history of China, time may have clawed at the pagoda yet it remains.
Trying to capture the beauty in a photo.
A final look back from the bottom of the steps.

A pleasant half hour later and we were docking near the base of Tiger Hill. Tickets collected, numbers counted, we climbed into open, safari style vehicles to drive to the top of the hill. An amazing leaning, ancient pagoda greeted us. Rarely do I experience silence in China, a spare 2-3 seconds of collective breath of appreciation). Built during the Northern Song Dynasty (959-961) the pagoda has stood the test of time. All of my photos appear as though my camera was slightly tilted; however, the pagoda leans 3.59 degrees. A famous Song Dynasty (960-1279) poet, Su Shi said, ‘It is a lifelong pity if having visited Suzhou you did not visit Tiger Hill.’ Which I never had until now. We spent enough time admiring the pagoda – I will just share photos here although they do not do justice – before heading down the stairs to catch our bus back to the city.

Pomegranate tree at the Suzhou Museum – until that day I had never seen them growing.

I was displeased when asked to take a taxi from the main stop rather than being dropped off where I had been picked up. So goes travel in China. Thank goodness I still had a bed despite there still being a ban on foreigners. I packed my bags, had a taxi ordered and turned in early for my 7:00am train to Nanjing.

Expenses: Brkfst 25; Day one lunch 40; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10 (I will never grow tired of these); Water 2; Lunch 30; Random fee 20; Taxi 22; no recollection of dinner the second night. Some expenses seem to have disappeared – too bad it did not show up in what I had left!