Lions, Dragons and Buddhas, oh my! As already mentioned, I saw a lot of lion dances. There were more as we left Da Lat and headed towards another mountain. I shall always think I was being ushered in and given a grand farewell. We were on our way to Lak.
Stunning lush greens. The hills are planted with all sorts of crops right up to the roadway. There is such little land and so many people that in some places farmers have figured out which crops work together or can be laid in nearly immediately after harvesting of one. One bush overhanging the barrier was very interesting – open up the fuzzy fruit, break open a seen, orange food colouring.
Farmers live very simple lives, we would call the homes in some areas less than hovels; however, their view on life is that they need to land to grow crops, they do not need things and they do not need to travel. Family is the priority. Itbalso seems that piety can be found in the simplest of shrines – whether Buddhist, Catholic, Caodism, Dao or one of the more ancient beliefs. Along the way, from Saigon to Lak, there are Catholic Churches (this is the primary Christian based faith in Vietnam), Buddhist Trmples and shrines to Buddha, Guanyin, and Mary. I would say Guanyin and Mary were pretty evenly represented – rather fitting as Guanyin is the Goddess of Compassion and Mary, also known as Our Lady of La Vang, having appeared in 1798 as an apparition and holding a child in her arms, expressed love and comfort during a troubled time for persecuted followers. For the Vietnamese whatever they believe their faith is strong. However, I was also told many of the farmers are only believers for as long as they can send children to classes and/or share in neighbours helping neighbours. I guess only they really know.
Of course I should have expected another stop for weasel coffee. This was a family business where they also hedged their bets against the coffee market by making some pretty powerful rice wine – I was not about to try it. Not only because I do not drink – the facility had my western senses wondering at the low standards of cleanliness. I have been trying to keep my culture from interfering with learning, yet every once in a while up it pops. I also felt sad for the weasels locked up in cages and had to remind myself they are fed rather than eaten. I chose to drink regular coffee.
A mid-size Silk factory, compared to some of the home businesses I saw, did not hold anything new for me. Collect the SIL, worms, feed them lots of juicy leaves, allow them to make a caccoon, boil the caccoon to extract the siall, wash, card, weave, dye. The poor silkworm? They make a good snack. I was offered some mixed with lemon grass and peanut oil. I declined. Of course some must be allowed to become moths to lay eggs to make more worms.
I was definitely in need of the Happy Buddha, at the Linh An Pagoda, about 30 km outside Da Lat, and made sure I rubbed his tummy for good luck. There was a lot more to see. The Guanyins in waiting were in various stages of preparing to enlighten those who would come to worship. A hand here, a bottle upturned rather than down, headless – I had found a little factory of enlightenment.
It was the time to once again cover a lot of mileage – I felt a bit like the little engine that could as we twisted and turned up and down yet another mountain. Of course, compared to the Rocky Mountains that straddle BC and Alberta in Canada these are just baby mountains, until an attempt to drive up them on a Motorbike with traffics of all sorts whizzing by at breakneck speed. I believe it was this leg where we saw a group of foreigners on bikes stopped and assisting one of their group who must have just had a minor crash. We did slow down but all seemed relatively fine and it was a fair sized group. Which brought up the topic of foreigners thinking they can go on a Motorbike ‘self tour’ – the thought of locals is these people are nuts. Alright, I know most get home safely, but they do not see the backroads, none of them would ever find their way through the first pass we took, and it is foolhardy to think an international licence gives them licence to drive like locals – they simply do not have the skills nor the ability to read signs. (My rant)
To put me back in a happy space we did visit enough temples with dragons for me to forget idiots; although I was beginning to think one dragon looked like another and finally gave up keeping track. Besides, dragons tend to be uncooperative.
I was happy to make it to the hotel at Lak Lake and even share it with my first indoor lizard on this trip so far who was already in the room. He was very tiny. Also too quick for me to take a photo. I will now mention that there was so much information for me to process I knew there was little chance I would retain most of it. It was at this point I decided to enjoy more and worry less about taking notes. Even my photos seemed less important than moments that would never be captured on film.
Expenses: 135,000VND = 7.50CAD
Whenever possible I like to have a view from my room when I wake up in the morning and had to ask my guide about changing my room in Bao Loc as it overlooked the entrance and had a very strong light that penetrated the curtains. I was promised a great morning view of the valley. I woke up to fog.
After breakfast we visited the Pongour Waterfall – well, I visited. I cannot recall if I have said that my guide takes me to various sites but usually does not join me as someone has to stay with our belongings. However, when it is possible, a little dangerous, or the route might be confusing, he is there to, well to guide me. Most of the time he just hands me my camera, says to enjoy and I am off to explore. I think only once so far have I not carried my small Lug with me.
As far as waterfalls go Pongour is pretty impressive and far enough off the beaten track to make it remain untarnished by tourism – unlike Niagara Falls in Canada. The falls tumble over natural steplike ridges which means rather than roar it cascades with a musical lilt – turned high but pleasant all the same. The terrible part of this visit is that I managed to delete two days worth of photos! I am hoping I did not make it permanent. Especially after carrying my camera all the way!
We visited Chicken Village, about 600 Co Ho people live there, where I was encouraged to find the chickens that are different from other chickens. Alright, I am not anywhere near a chicken expert but I have seen enough to know there many kinds. All I could say was all the chickens had gone to bed except for one that ran away with her chicks, one in a field and another that fled into the coop. I also noted the giant chicken at what appeared to be a defunct aquaduct. Did all the chickens perhaps drown I asked, or could they swim? Then the story as to how Chicken Village got its name. Several years ago the government had the bright idea to build a system for the village to get water, engineers and designers came to view the land. While there one of them was told the myth of the area.
A young woman fell in love with a poor young man, and he with her. They wanted to marry but he was too poor so the family said no. (In this particular minority group the man has to go to live with the family of the wife) The couple begged for her family to change its mind. Finally relenting a little they told the young man that if he could find a rooster with nine spurs he could marry into the family. He searched and searched but of course he could not find such a chicken. However, still in love the young woman told her family she would also search for a chicken with nine spurs and set out into the jungle. She was never seen again having been eaten by wild animals, perhaps a tiger. So the engineer and designer erected a giant rooster with nine spurs at the aquaduct in memory of the myth. Although the rooster remains the aquaduct is not used after more modern methods or water were found. It appeared it may have never been used. And that is why Chicken Village is a motorbike tourist destination.
From Bai Loc to Da Lat we kept passing by lion dancers, either preparing to dance or dancing. As in several dozen! Also one dragon dance. We could not stop for any of them although I really wanted to. It was as though they were announcing our arrival too each area. The colourful costumes, red, yellow, green, blue and even one pink one, with their fringes and sequins shaking and dancing was enthralling. Each small group also had a drummer and some had cymbals. The people in central Vietnam know how to celebrate a festival. Much later, in Da Lat as I was finishing a lovely dinner of spring rolls and a fabulous dinner of noodles with lots of vegetables, a lion entered the restaurant! I was thrilled and hoped I managed a few good photos before it headed down the street to another storefront. The drumming was still going strong into the dark night – I fell asleep to the beat. I later found out that all the young people who do the lion dance collect money at each stop – much like Spring Festival at home in Chinatown.
I treated myself to dinner out at a place that was on Tripadvisor – except I made the decision solely based on the look of the place and the menu and completely forgot the name!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.