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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Nanjing

This portion of my trip was the first of a few very difficult ones to write about. I anguished over how to provide adequate words for why I was there and where I visited. To assist me I recorded snips to remind me of the immediate impact of the heartwrenching Museum of the Nanjing Massacre. Despite having a very firm grasp of the history of that era, particularly the horrid attacks by the Japanese on Nanjing, Shanghai and the surrounding areas, I was not prepared. Which brought me up short when I finally sat down to write.

I finally decided to keep my visit to Nanjing in chronological order, it made no sense to jump back and forth even though the museum is what stood out. My whole visit to Nanjing in one ugly lump. As with my visit to Suzhou, it was one of the reasons I decided to return to Nanjing. However, I shall begin with my departure from Suzhou and my arrival in Nanjing – another early morning and a hunt for my hostel. I was beginning to think this would plague me with each new city in China and Vietnam.

Despite all the problems with not knowing if I was legally staying at a now un-named Hostel in Suzhou I actually slept and was up by 5:30. Unfortunately, due to the nature of backpacking and the lack of hot water I did not have a shower. Coupled with wearing the same outerwear as the previous day I felt yucky from the start of my day. Bleh. Then as if that were not enough, for good measure, I bashed my head with my coffee press that I had finally managed to pack in its usual top pocket of my bag. So, there was no knowing if my feelings of further bleh were a result of the head bash, no shower, or carrying everything about to taxi, station and train, or all of the above. Wheels were beginning to look like an excellent alternative to a backpack by the time I was on the train.

My first stop once I arrived at the train station – as usual far too early – was to head for whichever fast food place I could find. This time it was KFC, where I ordered a large coffee and watched the day unfold below me. Like watching Geand Central Station in fast motion. (I have only seen this on film) Then it was my turn to join the madness, coffee unfinished. I never like this part of travelling by train in China. A mad dash for the gates, stuff your ticket in, yet another mad dash up, down, over (depending on which train) and find the right car. I still have not figured out how to tell where I am supposed to go despite the colour coding on the platform – the board inside is, of course, in Chinese so I never know the colour I should head for.  Once in my seat I relax. Until my arrival.

Another short train trip, another early morning, another bad taxi driver, and I was very hungry. (One day I need to tell the tale of the driver from hell in Shanghai.) It was easy to get a taxi, not so easy showing him the address – written in Chinese – with the phone number and GPS. When I discovered later that the area is a major spot for tourists all I could do was wonder why some people choose to be taxi drivers. Once he had figured out where I was going he kept muttering to himself – this seems to be something drivers must learn at taxi school – and asking me where the place was, or possibly he meant did I, the foreign visitor, recognize it or see it – this is another common query from drivers. Once we did arrive I was nearly thrown out the door after paying the 22.00CNY in exact change; a demand for extra money was made with all sorts of gestures as to why, along with the driver insisting I hurry up. The result was I dropped my money, which slowed down the process even more, all the while he was yelling st me. I hoped I had not lost 100CNY! If he had not been in such an angry rush our transaction would have gone more smoothly as well as much faster. It was not until the following day that I found out there is a 2.00CNY surcharge.

the hostel kitty – he did not seem too pleased to share his space with a dog and a rabbit.

I was so happy my hostel was just across the street from where I was dropped off – until I was informed there was no power, which also meant no internet, for the whole block. It was not expected to be on until mid afternoon. By this time I was more than a little shaky, and in dire need of food. Although I had not intended to break into my emergency granola bars I was happy I had taken the foresight to buy them before leaving Canada for moments like these. Fortunately my bags could be left in a secured room on the main floor. I was not favouring the idea of climbing to the 4th floor with them! I headed out in search of food and happily discovered a restaurant two doors down that serves food already prepared – breakfast often being a rushed meal – prior to the power being cut. I made my selections, grabbed a set of chopsticks, and headed back to the hostel where I could make coffee – thermoses of hot water are still a major item found in hotels and restaurants in China – to add to my picnic on the large deck. Coffee, breakfast and a book – I was happily unplugged for several hours.

Naturally, after I did finally have a bunk to call my own, I was also ready to explore. My first stop was to the Fuzimiao (Confucian Temple) down the street. I rather liked the apples and ribbons hung on trees by couples – either for good luck or progeny, probably the latter considering the importance of family according to Confucius. No clear explanation as to how Confucius (b. 551 BCE) would be where many Chinese choose to show their devotion. However, his philosophy on moral standards and filial piety were, and remain, the base of Chinese culture. I have always wondered why temples were built to venerate Confucius – temples were generally erected for religious reasons. Confucius never considered himself a god, not even a messenger of God. I spent some time making friends with the few Temple cats sunning themselves. I also had to don my sunglasses to hide my tears for Mozzy. (This would happen pretty well every time I visited a place that also had cats in residence)

I could not resist this very cranky looking kitty with his brush and stand – not that I was going to try to pet him!

After the truncated visit to the temple I visited Nanjing’s very busy, pedestrians only, Fuzimiao (Confucian Temple) Street and surrounding area where the hostel is handily located. In addition to the Confucian Temple and the Imperial Examination Hall there is a lot to see. I did not make it to the latter – too worn out. In hindsight I wondered just how much I missed of the Confucian Temple though, the time I was there, and what I saw, certainly did not cover what I have since read about it. (The Temple and site were undergoing extensive renovations which did explain why some areas were not accessible) Next time I visit a place I will have to be better prepared! I The various wares and food did not draw my attention nearly as much as what I consider a new trend – mainly with young men – tattoos. A cross on the throat of one young man, others with various neck tattoos. Young women seem to keep their inkings to shoulder blades or arms – perhaps easier to cover up or be discreet. I blame my lack of enthusiasm for trying out the many delectable selections to the morning head bash, no electricity and a cranky driver. My mantra at the end of each day was rapidly becoming – I was worn out! I was in my bunk by 8:00pm.

This funny fellow seemed to belong to a wax museum.

My plan for the following day was to visit the Museum to the Massacre of Nanjing. Even two months on I remain unable to adequately put into words what I felt and saw. This became palpable throughout my trip each time I visited a recent (20th Century) historic site of conflict.

I did not take any photos from inside. However, the monuments and statues outside tell the story far better than I can.

What I first saw once inside, formally called The Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invader, was a mass grave, with many of the skeletons laid out relatively straight. It was an eerie sight; who took the time? It is important to know that the anthropologists, the forensic scientists, anyone involved with the discovery of this mass grave, pulled no punches when describing the atrocities against these victims – they were all brutally murdered. I wish I had known the importance of the flags the majority of the visitors were carrying, and just how much the tragedy of the massacres (as with earlier and, sadly, later mass ‘war losses’, worldwide, I doubt there is no knowing how many more mass graves remain undiscovered) to this day has an affect on the citizens of Nanjing as well as the whole country. As we solemnly passed by, and around the grave site, then – in mute harmony – matched numbers to photographs, visitors left a flag next to a name, a picture, a story, a memory.

A question came to mind while a few visitors were taking photos of the bared bones. (As visitors came closer to the exit they appeared to lose the shroud of quiet respect with a need for the air of modernity – death, particularly of such magnitude – is easier to leave behind from behind a lens). I should remark here that 10,000 bodies are not under scrutiny at the memorial, I did not make a note of how many – one being too many when considering why they are there – skeletons are displayed at the memorial, although I think fewer than 150 based on the numbers laid beside each remains. The question was were we, who are visiting, collectively guilty of ghoulishness, or was it an attempt to keep the memory, or a reminder to never let it happen again? Not that it has not happened since.

Q

It seems nearly an insult to write of the more pleasant visit I made to the city wall of Nanjing. Similar to the Great Wall outside of Beijing, and across the country, the ancient cities of China had fortifications built to keep enemies out. Nanjing, as well as Xi’an, had built a wall to surround the city. For a fee, senior discount for me, it is possible to climb the stairs to the top of the wall and go for a very pleasant walk. The sections that are open to the public stretch to six kilometres – I walked only 3. It is also much easier than the often arduous climbing of the sections of the Great Wall. I spent a couple of hours walking, taking in the view of the city on one side and a park on the other. Birds chirping, a slight breeze, and trees shimmering below were a balm after the museum. As this was a Sunday there were people cycling, walking, classical singing, tai chi, playing instruments were only some of what I heard and saw A photo shoot was happening on the wall – how the woman managed to climb the stairs in the long, flowing gown, was beyond me. I have noticed that women often carry, or have them carried, a pair of heels when heading to have photos done. Once again I was not sure if this was an wedding party or a fashion shoot. This time the dress was red – making it even more difficult to figure out. Unfortunately, by the time the Japanese attacked Nanjing on Dec. 13, 1937, the wall was useless against the bombings. It made me wonder if the Japanese were laughing at the ancient fortifications once considered strong enough to push back any invading army.

the inscriptions in the bricks are many, many centuries old, with some dating back to when the wall was first built. Although some histories say it was the builders who wrote them that seems unlikely as they were labourers and unlikely to have had any formal education.

After walking down from the wall I walked about 100metres before encountering the strangest sight – people had crossed over the low fence across from the lake and were kicking the trees before stooping down to gather up whatever had fallen to the ground. There were gingko trees and some trees I did not recognize which seemed to indicate this was a rather nifty, relieve your stress at the same time, way to harvest the fruit that would otherwise just fall and rot. It was quite funny to first hear the whack, whack of foot against trunk and more so when I saw it! Life carries on.

This lovely tearoom was built within the Nanjing Wall during extensive renovations during which time some internal modifications were necessary in order to keep the exterior as close to its original look as possible. I chose a less expensive repast.

Vietnam Motorbike Tour: Day Ten

Amazing! After ten days we arrived at Hoi An where my intrepid driver/guide/new friend dropped my off at the hotel I had chosen and where I would meet my daughter who had flown in the previous day. That however is the next chapter. Day Ten was another day of adventure, history and laughs. To date I had not mentioned laughing, I should have as we certainly had some hilarious moments, ranging from misunderstanding words, the changing weather patterns and people I met on the way.

Poor Toan, he had no way of knowing that my responses of okay, or mhm usually meant I had not heard everything he was telling me as we were flying past a place of some significance. As I said already, I left most of the stops up to him, this also meant he had to decide which gems to let shine. My goal had finally become, ‘sit back and enjoy’, learning more, and retaining everything, about places was a bonus.

The most significant stop of our day was at the monument where the Ho Chi Minh Road takes a sharp turn to the left – and Laos – before heading northwest. The monument itself is hidden behind some trees, looking rather forlorn considering the importance of the spot. However, comrades who survived the severe, daily bombings in the area between 1969-1975, visit annually if not more often, to remember their friends, family and fellow soldiers who were killed or have since died. This is a crossroads with all sorts of messages. 

Monument to the dead and deed.

I was invited to dismount from the bike and walk across the bridge that separates Ho Chi Minh Road from the highway facing Hoi An. It was a poignant moment, not taken lightly. I rarely ‘feel’ the energy emanating from a spot or region, I usually scoff at such silliness – until I too sense more than just my presence. Whatever it was, I did feel awed that each step I was making took me towards, and away from, the past. Perhaps it was the emptiness of the bridge, I saw only 2-3 motorbikes crossing it when I was walking, it was easy to go to the opposite side without worrying about being run down. I chose to turn back just before hitting the end of the bridge – it was not the distance – something just made me want to leave that side of history alone.

Ho Chi Minh Road

Heading south.

I walked back to the present where I was met by trucks, cars and motorbikes vying for space. Once I safely made it back to the shade of the trees and the monument I discovered several men chatting with Toan who were far too interested in seeing if I would fall off the bike! To commemorate arriving I also had a picture taken; I could barely stop from falling over laughing as these men were smiling and laughing at me. So, a rarity, a photo of me.
Oh my, I was looking a bit like a mad woman!

We still had miles to go, with a final meal and coffee together before saying adieu and see you in five days. Oh yes, we were still booked for that four day tour. 

Some sort of rice noodle dish. The noodles tell me it was not Pho. Similar. Good. Filling.

So many photos, so many stories. I hope to share more with short captions. 

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 Tour: Day Two

I had expected I would sleep in after a tiring day of riding in the sun. However, I was up at my usual 5:00am. I finally headed out to find something to eat at about 7:30 and sent a message to Toan letting him know where I was. A bit of confusion, he thought I wanted to go for breakfast whereas I was already eating. Seems my choice of next door was not his first pick. Oh well, the Pho (pronounced Fa, like in Fa,la,la, la… ) was still one of the better bowls so far.

We packed up and were on the road by 8:30 with our first stop at the hill where the Viet Cong/Communist members first hid from those opposing their cause. A war memorial has been built and the site is now a National historic site. Hi Chih Min’s statue is prominently displayed for people to pay homage. 

The flag and the dragons caught my fancy
The shrine to Ho Chih Min. He was a well loved leader.

In the same area is a Cao Dao shrine where one of the early disciples meditated from 1927-1933. The religion was established in Southern Vietnam in 1926 and has about four million followers. The religion seems to be a combination of Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism. Talk to most scholars of Religious Studies these days and they say Confucianism is a philosophy, not a religion. They also tend to agree there are different types of Buddhism. So why not start a new religion that teaches the concept of a universal family for universal peace. 

I was trying for the view, rain clouds were not cooperating.

Once we reached the top it was a beautiful view, perilous steps in the rain when barefoot! It was just over a half km uphill to get there. Did I mention it was raining? Along the way, and close to the memorial are huge granite stones the opposition, including the Americans, pockmarked by firing upon them in a vain effort to flush out the Viet Cong. (before they were the Natl Liberation Front). One such place is now a shrine to perhaps men who had fallen. 70% of the NLF were men – women, according to my guide, were far less willing to be involved in what was surely going to, and did, result in war. So many reminders of the stupidity of war, politics and interference by outside forces.
Considering the rain and this was a natural shrine – to open sides, gigantic granite stone for the roof – I am rather pleased this even turned out.
If anyone can enlighten me as to what the holes in the rock mean please do!

We headed out again in a downpour – I got very wet after my water resistant pants, and my raincoat, did not hold up to the pelting. Then my runners were soaked through when Toan did not see a giant puddle across the road until we were in it! Thank goodness I had my pink flip flops bought during the downpour in Saigon. About an hour later we stopped for a much need coffee and of course it only stopped raining long enough for us to hope for a dry ride – that did not happen. Rain until our next stop at a hole in the wall for lunch. We had pork as there was not any chicken. All I could do was hope it would not disagree with me. 


French cannons at the top of a hill some distance out of Saigon certainly were a surprise – my first question was how on earth did they get them there? They are huge! By placing these cannon here the French had a bird’s eye advantage. They could control the passage of ships and any country, or Vietnamese for that matter, attempting an attack from north or south. The site is now a popular spot for families, couples and partying young men, to picnic and have their pictures taken by, or on top of, one of the cannons. The route is quite steep with many twists and turns – we met one hapless fellow on the way down who probably had too much to drink. I think he had been on the back of a motorbike. 

This was one of 3 or 4 cannonball storage areas. Each had a ramp nearby for rolling several up to the cannon at once
If I recall the twisty road to the top of the Big Mountain is about 1.5km. I am still searching for how the French got six of these up let alone one!

After passing countless lovely looking resorts and seeming to come close to the end of likely choices, as well as rapidly losing light, we finally stopped at a hotel. Beautiful location, gorgeous view of the ocean, outdoor restaurant attached – I was ready for a shower, dinner and bed. The sun was setting as I sat in a chair watching the skies slowly, then suddenly, darken. Our day was done.

A room with a view – our stop in Miu Ne. Who cares if it was raining!

Breakfast 35,000 (2.00CAD) Toan said it is not a very good place but the Pho was so far the best I had in Vietnam. He said the coffee is 2/3 corn (chicory?) oh well, it served its purpose; Dinner for two 238,000 (13.50CAD); (time to discuss how we will be dividing coffee and meal breaks) Water & toiletries 30000 (seems expensive)

I am finding it too time consuming, and most likely not all that interesting to readers, to put down all the expenses so from now on I will do the total in VND and CAD.