I was pretty well packed and ready to go, all I had to do was put on my runners, drink my tea and finish chatting to my daughter who had decided she will meet me in Hoi An as there was not enough time for her to fly to Saigon and catch up with me. I received a message saying my ride had arrived – 45 minutes early. I decided right then we would get along. I hate being late for anything.
I need to stop here to say most of the day remains a bit hazy. I must have been more overwhelmed by the experience than I realized as I simply cannot recall one clear memory. It was more of a sensory overload. I needed to become acquainted with the bike and driver, and he with me. Trust is a major factor when sitting astride a motorbike. First I had to hop aboard – easier than it sounds. Then getting out of Saigon seemed to take forever and the traffic remained crazy although not quite as insane as in the centre.Fortunately it was a nice day – heck, it was HOT! I applied sunscreen 3-4 times and still had a sunburn on my back where it is never easy to reach.The weaving in and out of traffic, light touch of the horn as we passed by others; the city giving way to lush green, with too much garbage on the roads to mar picture perfect moments. The smell of oil, fish, garbage all mingling into a barely bearable bouquet that we finally left behind before our first stop for coffee.
It took quite some to get out of the city, Saigon and the surrounding countryside is huge! I thought we would never leave the traffic behind. Finally crossed what I thought was a toll booth but was the entry to catch a small ferry boat across to an island -.this seems to cut down on time and is far more pleasant to sit for about ten minutes without all the exhaust. To help with the fumes, dirt and wind Toan bought a cowl like cover up for my face. We drove off the ferry towards a monastery of sorts. I would find myself getting rather confused as to just what I was visiting at times. The way I understood it this was a retreat of sorts for monks but with a distinct Chinese influence.
Of course I do not read Vietnamese so the first notices telling visitors to remove their shoes went unheeded – oops. Thank goodness there was not anyone around. I remembered before entering the largest hall, it helped that I saw shoes but no people right away. I put away my worries about the, being stolen. I was quite sure nobody would want my runners – not a common type of footwear.
We did a lot of driving and had to stop in one place when the motorbike started to make strange noises. Eventually it was suggested I be dropped off at a cafe while my driver went in search of a mechanic after the one he wanted was closed – it was Sunday. I suggested Highland – I had seen it a couple of blocks back – because I was quite sure they would have AC and a western toilet. Ah, the conveniences we prefer. I was also able to charge my phone and iPad. As I said, trust was important. After all, I had paid him and he had all my stuff except my purse and daypack. About 40 minutes he came back, had to jury rig what he needed because the piece could not be found anywhere.
Of course we wasted a lot of time so made it to our hotel just before dark. I was exhausted, and Toan was most likely worried I would be unhappy with the turn of events. However, we had stopped for coffee a couple of times and lunch as well as short stops for him to point out places and explain them to me. Money has yet to be discussed other than the cost of the tour it self which includes my guide, the bike, fuel etc., accommodation and entry fees to sites. For the day we took turns until dinner. When we discussed thwt took up his offer to being me chicken and rice to the room which he insisted on paying for. I was ready to fall asleep.
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.
The most frustrating part about travelling is trying to capture the trip by carefully writing down highlights, along with the not so pleasant aspects, with everything still fresh in the memory bank. Of course with pictures. Which I may have deleted. Imagine, after using up several hours overnight at an airport finishing a piece to share with anyone interested, discovering that it is not there! Seems I forgot to save my draft about my visit to Suzhou. Which is why I have always take notes!
I started out with good intentions to take the subway to the train station. Once I carried my pack down the first set of stairs I quickly changed my mind and walked back up to find a taxi. It was here I decided that saving money should never mean sacrificing my back. It also meant less likelihood of falling over and landing on my back like a turtle – sometimes that fine balance between remaining upright and tipping is wobbly.
‘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? The above had me momentarily rethinking my choices for accommodation. I had the number for the hostel, I had my new Chinese number, I was at the door and it was still relatively early – no real need to panic. Once I connected with the owner I was able to go up to drop off my bags but had to wait a few hours before checking in. That seemed reasonable at the time. Divested of my bags I walked, in a drizzle, to the Suzhou Museum. 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. It is also far too common to be given the wrong directions rather than be told ” buzhidao” – I don’t know. The best way to avoid being incorrect but still helpful is the hand wave in whichever direction is thought to be correct.
Suzhou, China’s Vienna, the city where Marco Polo is said to have spent much of his time. Like where I am from, Victoria Canada, a city of gardens. It is in the setting of gardens that the museum was built. I had wanted to see the Suzou Museum after watching the documentary, “I.M. Pei: Building China Modern” 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, who was well into his seventies during the construction, this was like a gift from him to Suzhou. He is perhaps best known for designing the Louvre Pyramide. However, the Suzhou Museum was also a work of love.
Pei incorporated elements of light, air, water, and fauna to create spaces that invite visitors to linger. The entrance looks onto Lotus Pond and has two wings for exhibits. Yes, it did seem the standard artifacts were in abundance in addition to local finds, but, the lack of a mish-mash of items thrown in to fill space shows care in what is included – and what was not. I was quite taken by the simplicity of the scholar’s study, it was not just crowded into a corner like so many other displays I have seen. This was s room of its own, just as a scholar would have had – albeit most likely a relatively well to do scholar. The choices of calligraphy and scrolls of art were selected with care, and everything is displayed for visitors to really look at the items as a whole and as individual pieces. The small windows in several rooms draws in the outdoor without causing damage to artifacts. A small courtyard to one side with a single pomegranate tree; another with with a stand of narrow bamboo; the Wisteria Garden and of course the stunningly simple Lotus Pond provide a calm, reflective space.
By the time I made it to the thatched Song Pavilion, that duplicates a scholar’s studio from the Song Dynasty, (960 – 1279) it was raining quite heavily. This made the effect of entering the pavilion magical. I doubt it would have been cozy during chilly days in December of January – it does snow, although rarely – when the only warmth would have been most likely from a brazier. The scholar’s room I mentioned was not displayed here. The quiet, the rain tapping of the thatch and simple garden had me wishing I could either hide out there for a while or have something built at home. Not likely to ever happen, I do not even have a garden.
It was a nice way to spend a rainy late morning to early afternoon despite many others having the same idea. Of course, being free and adjacent to one section of the famous Administrator Garden makes this a popular spot. It was not exactly a walk in the park sort of day so the buildings in this section of garden were appreciated. These were where the owner of the gardens resided. When I visited there was a lovely exhibit of fans by an artist who still uses the methods from hundreds of years ago. I had no idea that the craft of fans was so intensive.
I even found sustenance, if a thick slice of sweetened 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 time to head back to the Hostel to officially check in. Except I couldn’t – or certainly not officially. When I had called the owner she had been at the Public Security Bureau where she and other similar owners of hostels in a specific area were being told they could not have foreigners staying for about a month. Was I willing to take a chance, hang out until evening and maybe have to be moved to another hostel. I figured why not? My belongings were put in the room where I hoped I would be staying and I waited. By 9:00pm rolled up I was ready to sleep and the PSB had not come knocking. Or ringing.
Suzhou: Day Two – Chinese tour
The tour booked was going to be in terestng was all I could think. However, it was also s lot less expensive than anything I would find for foreigners with a translator. I was the first to be picked up. I also had little idea of where we would visiting after not really paying attention, it sounded like I would enjoy it. I believe one garden, a canal cruise , Tiger Hill. The cruise goes to Shanghai Taxi to train station 21; Breakfast 25; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10;Water 2; Lunch 30; random tour fee 20; Taxi 22 (I was irritated to discover the tour bus would not be dropping me off where I was picked up)the hill from what I understood. For the equivalent of about 20CAD. However, I do know the pace of Chinese tours and can only hope I can keep up!
So where did we go, one garden in the morning before we parted ways to do our own thing according to what we had paid for. I opted for a return to the museum. That took up about two hours, visiting gardens in Suzhou, and many parts of China is serious business and are not simply a plot of land planted with flowers and shrubbery. They are carefully planned, often over many years, places for reflection, creativity and meditation. Rockery, water, plants and walkways play an important part in making the gardens accessible at all times of the year. Dwellings were always considered when the gardens were built, and I use built because they certainly needed some manipulation of materials to fit into the space available. There were many sections to each garden, all with lovely names to suit the space. If only I had thought to take photos of some of them!
We also visited the Beisi Pagoda, also known as the Bao’en Temple, which was wonderful to see for its pink and brown colouring alone! Unfortunately for us it is undergoing massive restoration so we could only manage to walk some of the grounds and attempt to get some pictures. What I found fascinating is the colours are exactly the same as a house I lived in for a couple of years as a teenager! I could not find any reason for the colour scheme.
Lunch was a matter of pay or starve unless, as some did, smart enough to prepare a picnic. However, I thought it friendlier to join everyone even if few of them spoke English. Wo bao.le! (I’m full) Noodles in broth, cabbage/mushroom/tofu mix (like a small salad or soup garnish), one boiled egg (should have saved it) & glutinous steamed rice something – ate two, sampled the other two. This after four xiao bao. Thank goodness we would have plenty more walking to do! And my first squat toilet this trip.
Funny story: on the bus waiting. Tour guide tells me to follow her. No idea why. We go into a store so my immediate thought is that I am expected to buy something. Silk. No, I was given a gift of a scarf – as were the other ladies. Incentive to spend money. I did not. Not even 1:00 and I was exhausted – the humidity remained high throughout the morning and part way through our afternoon activities.
Thank goodness for some cooling rain by the time we headed to our canal boat ride. Our group ended up being split up, leaving four of us, including the guide, behind. As often happens in China it was s matter of hurry up and go nowhere. By the time we were aboard I think we were all wondering if maybe there had been a jam upriver. Nice respite though. We were headed to Tiger Hill where there is an ancient Pagoda. Well worth the trip. There were a few precious seconds of awed silence as we rounded the corner, we were on open air carts, to have our first close up view of the pagoda. The Pagoda leans, has done so for several years.
I was tired but happy by the time I was dropped off and caught a taxi to my hostel. Still no PSB. I packed everything – bed around 10:00, and slept relatively well.
Shanghai Taxi to train station 21; Breakfast 25; Tour 198; Room (eventually) 100; Xiao bao 10;Water 2; Lunch 30; random tour fee 20; Taxi 22 (I was irritated to discover the tour bus would not be dropping me off where I was picked up)
My daughter shared a funny dream with me before I left on my trip to China – except it was probably more of a nightmare for her. She is a nurse, and she will be having a surgical procedure soon, (nothing to worry about) so her dream of course took place at the hospital she works at.
Without going into detail of her particular job (nearly impossible for me to explain) it seems her fellow RNs were doing work up for the day’s patients and my daughter was expected to do her work. Except it was her wedding day so she was trying to change into her wedding dress. While patients were arriving she was stripping down and asking for help. Everyone kept telling her she had to do her job and she kept saying she could see the boat at the dock getting ready to sail – without her! I am quite sure she cannot actually see that far but the hospital does overlook the lake and she is getting married onboard a paddle boat.
As I live in a different province in Canada, and am now travelling in China and Vietnam, we are trying to keep caught up with things via email. Just prior to leaving my daughter said she needed an RSVP by date – I was way off with what I thought appropriate and it seems that even the date she chose may be too soon for people to make a commitment. I had no idea planning a wedding was so complicated. Her one omarried sister ended up changing her plans so we had barely three weeks to plan.
Dress shopping has sort of started. I have seen four photos of ones my daughter likes and she is planning to go to a Bridal Fair in her city. I said if she finds exactly what she wants at a trunk sale she should buy it! She can always send me a picture with her in it. If she does not then it is off to Toronto in January with her sister, two of her friends and me for a show and dress hunting! That will be as close to Kleinfeld’s as we’ll ever get. New York is pricey. Soon she will be saying yes to the dress.
If I could figure out how to buy a dress for her while in China or Vietnam I would. Always beautiful and sometimes not priced out of the stratosphere.
Travelling in China is a challenge even if you are from there – unless you have a private driver or someone to do all the legwork for you. Factor in a major holiday when millions (that is plural) will be trying to get to, or away from cities at the same time and it is amazing the train, bus, and airline systems do not crash.
Booking trains is a test of patience, tickets are generally only available 30 days before your proposed departure date. Even if you manage to find tickets they are often not what you want. For instance, an overnight sleeper is so much more comfortable than a hard sleeper. If however, you end up having to book a hard sleeper because you were asleep in your comfy bed in your home country when everyone in China was madly booking the soft sleepers, do try to snag a lower berth. Keep in mind though that you might be fending off what may seem like rude strangers trying to take over your space if you are not actually occupying the bed. It is not uncommon for people in the middle or top berth to hang out on the bottom berth. So make friends, have a picnic, laugh with newfound friends. (If on a strictly overnight train then everyone will most likely go straight to sleep)
Back to booking when Chinese citizens have the advantage of a time zone ahead of yours. I know there are intrepid souls who want to go it alone – “he who thinks himself…is a great fool” – so I give this warning, be prepared to be infinitely patient when attempting to book in the month before a holiday! With that in mind, and having a fairly good understanding of how the rails system works, I chose to once more book through an agency. Let them deal with finding the seats and sleepers for my dates, or come up with alternatives for me to choose from. All I had to do was send my itinerary along with the type of train, and seats, I wanted. They sent back a quote, including their fees, payment options and extra information – I only had to send the money! I used China Highlights because I already knew they come through. Heck, they even pick up errors in dates – mine.
As for the third leg of my trip, Hanoi to Nanning; Nanning to Sanjiang, and beyond…..I am hoping with the holiday over I will not be “a great fool” by doing my own bookings. Besides, I have been down that track before.