macado's se asia adventure I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

2Sep/060

The most beautiful place on earth – Sapa

After being in Sapa for only 2 days I have to say it is probably one of my favorite places in all of Southeast Asia and possibly one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Every view (even from my hotel) looks like it should be on the front of a postcard.  Besides some of the Thai islands, and Angkor Wat, it was definitely the most enjoyable experience so far since I've been traveling and honestly, that says a lot..

While I was in Hanoi, I booked the package tour through my hotel which includes hotel, all means, train and bus transportation, and 2 days of hiking to rural minority villages.  I don't remember what I paid since I did it as sort of a package deal with Halong Bay but I think it was around 75-80 USD.  Well worth it.

The train was an overnight sleeper that left Hanoi at 9:00PM and arrives in Sapa around 6:00AM the next morning.  Not the best train in the world but I had a soft sleeper car so it was comfortable enough.  From the train station, it's then another 1.5 - 2 hour bus ride up all sorts of mountainous roads with breathtaking views until finally reaching the main town of Sapa.  Since Sapa is very high in elevation the temperate is actually very cool compared to Hanoi and Saigon.  There is virtually no humidity which made it quite a change from the rest of Southeast Asia.

The hotel I stayed in was called the Royal Hotel and my view overlooked one of the numerous valleys.  The room was extremely nice like most of the hotels I stayed in Vietnam.  The room had old hardwood flooring and a brick fireplace which gets used in te winter when they occasionally get snow high up in the mountains.  The entire place has a sort of cosy small town feel to it where after a while every local remembers your face and will greet you by name. The included food although very few choices (could only choose from a set menu of 4 things) was excellent and the portions were very large unlike Ha Long bay where the food was pretty horrible and was basically re-heated Spring Rolls.

There are a handful of ethnic village tribes up here that don't really fit anywhere else in the world but here.  They're not Vietnamese, not Chinese, or Laos.  They're just what they are; they've lived here for thousands of years and they don't really fall into any boundary of any country.  The tribes here though are probably most closely related to the Chinese minority tribes than Vietnamese.  In fact, some of these villages here use supposedly speak a dialect of Mandarin (or another Chinese language) and don't speak Vietnamese at all as you get closer to the Chinese border.  All of their clothing is made entirely by them.  Everything is extremely colorful and dyed with indigo. I've got some fantastic pictures. What I found most interesting was the Black H'Mong tribe (as seen in many of my pictures) spoke better English than almost all of Vietnam even though they claimed they didn't go to school for it and learned it entirely from tourists.  Most of the girls all wear their traditional clothing and hike up to the main town every day to sell clothing, bracelets and handbags made of hemp and dyed with indigo to all the tourists.  Even though they live in the villages their entire lifes most of them still have some sort of western influence.  Even in the remote tribes, they have televisions with satelite. I also saw one of them with a cell phone of all things and some of the younger girls even have email addresses! Not too bad for a small little minority tribe.   Still their culture is pretty unique.  I don't know enough about it to explain but it definitely warrants more reading into.  They have no religion and basically worship living ancestors, when people die, they're forgotten about.   Men can have wifes and girlfriends at the same time.

I could have definitely stayed in Sapa for a week, I actually felt bad for leaving and didn't feel like I had seen enough.  The people weren't pushy or aggressive like lots of the Vietnamese people who try to sell you stuff in the markets.  Their smiles were genuine unlike most places in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam who see you as a walking ATM machine.  One of the girls actually gave me 2 free bracelets because I was talking to her.  In return, I gave her a bracelet I bought in Cambodia; sort of a trade I guess.

Anyway, I got back from Sapa this morning at 5AM on the train and walked around Hanoi until 11:30AM to catch my flight to Bangkok.  Now i'm back in Bangkok. My AirFlight took 2 hours, passed through Thailand immigration without any problems. For some reason, it just feels like i'm coming home.  This was my first place in Southeast Asia I traveled and stayed the longest. Coming back to it has a good feel.  It's funny, if you read my first post about Bangkok, I mention that I thought it was extremely dirty, crowded and polluted.  After traveling much of SE Asia, I have to say Bangkok now feels very clean, modern and certainly less polluted than Saigon. Bangkok is certainly less crowded than Saigon which has 8 million people and 6 million motor bikes.  Bangkok travel and congestion is nothing compared to the small side streets of Hanoi. Bangkok looks like a sterile hospital compared to Phnom Penh.  Basically, you get my idea.  After revisiting this place, it just feels more impressive than it did 3 months ago when I first arrived.

Anyway, feels good to be back in Thailand.  Though it's much more touristy, the people are friendly, you don't get hassled as much, and of course Thai girls are just beautiful to look at.  Staying here until the 4th and then I fly to Australia!    I'm off for some Beer Chang! 8% alcohol.  Stay turned for updates from Sydney

30Aug/061

Ha Long Bay and Hanoi

I'm currently in Hanoi but I haven't really spent much time here at all. This place is maddening.  Even though Saigon was much larger with a population of nearly 8 million people, Hanoi is just as congested and overrun though it has a distinct almost old world feel to it.  I'm staying in the Old District which is interesting because lots of the buildings here use French architecture.  Because it's the North Vietnam, the majority of the people here were never educated by the Americans like South Vietnamese during the war so it seems the older population doesn't speak English as well as they do in Ho Chi Minh City.  French however seems to be spoken at least by some of the older generation whereas the younger Vietnamese tend to speak or know basic English.

 I just got back from a 2 day boat trip tour to Ha Long Bay.  So far this has been the highlight of my Vietnam trip.  I'd go as far as saying the scenery in Ha Long Bay is some of the best in the world.  No words really can describe it but i'll try my worst to convey what it was like. The pictures can't really capture the magnitude of the bays and cliffs. The entire bay (scratch that), hundreds of individual bays are enclosed by huge towering limestone cliffs that completely encompass the surrounding emerald green waters providing for an extremely calm place for boats to dock and for visiting communities to live.

Besides the fanastic scenery, these bays are also home to many small fishing villages or floating towns on water.  From the looks of it people spend almost their entire lifes living in floating wooden shacks to fish.  Even in this place though, they're not without modern amenities.  Almost every shack has an electric generator, a radio and a television complete with Vietnamese karayoke which the every Vietnamese person seems to love.  I've got some really nice pictures of some of the floating houses and some of the little kids having water fights and being pushed off their boats by other kids.  It was pretty amusing to watch.

Our boat consisted of about 16 people. The trip included breakfast, lunch and dinner and a one night stay on the boat in basic but cramped rooms (exactly what you'd expect on a boat).  For our first day we sort of drifted around going in and out of the various bays taking pictures, later on we visited several massive limestone caves.  The caves are pretty unique because although they're existed for millions of years, they were only recently discovered in 1993. At night, a caravan of about 50 boats all docked in the same bay for people to sleep.  We had dinner there and later went on the roofs of our respective boats to relax and drink. The sight of about 50 boats all with lights enclosed in a bay surrounded by limestone cliffs with a crystal clear sky showing all the stars was also extremely impressive.

There's really not much else to report about Ha Long Bay.  It's probably one of the most beautiful places in the entire world (definitely south-east asia) and everyone should see it if they decide to go to Vietnam.  It would be an absolutely tragedy to miss it.  In the morning we went swimming and rented a kayak for 2 hours where me and another person discovered a small tiny island with a perfect beach. We..okay.. we didn't discover it butwe were the only two people adventerous and foolish enough to paddle to the island. It literally looked like something out of a Corona commercial.

I'm currently waitiing for my overnight sleeper train to leave for Sapa tonight. Sapa is one of the remote places in North Vietnam very close to the Chinese border.  It's very mountainous and is very highly elevated so the climate will be much colder than the rest of Vietnam, something i'm desperately looking forward to.  Can't wait to escape the humidity of Hanoi. The town like Ha Long Bay is also famous for it's breath taking views and colorful minority tribes which inhabit the area.  I will be staying in Sapa for two days for trekking until I go back to Hanoi on September 2nd which interestingly enough is Vietnamese Independence Day so I would imagine Hanoi will be a mad house.  Supposed to be lots of parades and Vietnamese people here on holiday to see Ho Chi Minh's tomb.  Just hope I can make it to the airport in time to catch my flight to Bangkok.  The next time you hear from me again I'll be back in smelly old Bangkok for a couple daying recouperating for my flight to Sydney, Australia!


30Aug/060

No Man’s Land (The Demiliterized Zone)

I didn't really spend much time in Hue though from what i've seen of it it's a decent city.  Very clean with lots of motobike traffic though not anywhere to the extent of Hanoi or Saigon.  I just walked around and went to a few bars, nothing to report.

Before I left Hue I took an all day tour to the DMZ "Demiliterized Zone" which pretty much covers the majority of the famous war sights from the era such as Hamburger Hill, The Rockpile, The Ho Chi Minh Trail (now called Ho Chi Minh Highway), Ben Hai river which basically marked the division of North and South Vietnam almost directly at the 17th parallel, Khe Sanh military base and the town of Dong Ha which has approximately 17,000 people was basically the head of the U.S. marine division during the Vietnam War.  The tour left approximately 6:00AM in the morning and got back around 5:30PM at night.

It started off on Highway 1 which is the main road linking Saigon to Hanoi.  We eventually crossed Ben Hai river and stopped on the Northern side of it to see a small monument and large Vietnamese flagpole.  The monument depicts a Vietnamese mother and son on the south side of the river waving at the father (who is persumably a North Vietnamese soldier) on the opposite side. After this we moved along to our first destination, the Vinh Moc tunnels.

Unlike the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, the Vinh Moc tunnels are unmodified and have not been made enlarged to fit fat western tourists.  They were built entirely by the Vietnamese people to escape the constant shelling and bombing in the area. We spent about 20 minutes walking inside just a small percentage of the kilometers of tunnels present.  They're very dark and cramped with the exception of a few lights guiding the way.

Although the DMZ was essentially declared a fire free zone on both sides of the border this was far from what actually happened. The DMZ was one of the most heavily bombed and mined areas in Vietnam.  According to our tour guide approximately 10 people/per month just in the town of Dong Ha still die from landmines. All along the border, craters are still evident in the rice paddies beside the roads while in Dong Ha you can see huge eucalyptus groves which are also remnants left over from the war.  It's a pretty strange sight.  All over the mountains you can also see huge patches where trees and foliage once grew but are now baron due to the chemicals such as Agent Orange which were used for defoliating the hills so the Viet Cong and NVA couldn't hide out.

Later on we passed some of the other famous war sights such as the Rockpile, another famous helicopter/artillery base though there's not much left of it these days. Lastly, we headed to the Khe Sanh Combat Base. One of the most remote and famous military bases for the U.S. marines.  During January 1968, American intelligence had assumed the Vietnamese were planning "another Dien Bien Phu" (famous battle where the Vietnamese ultimately defeated the French in 1954) when N. Vietnamese forces began increasing around the base and they were determined that the base would not fall.  As a result, the base was heavily armed and occupied to prevent it's takeover.  Later on it was learned that this was a major error in U.S. intelligence. With the help of this massive diversion, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive overrunning Saigon in 3 days until it was later re-occupied again by the Americans and the South Vietnamese army.  Eventually after heavily fighting and bombing the Khe Sanh base was later abandoned in June of 1968.

That's about it. Along the way back we also passed a few minority tribe villages where the bus was surrounded by about 20 little kids trying to beg for money.  The tour itself was pretty impressive if you're interested in the Vietnam war.  It quite strange to hear it from a Vietnamese perspective rather than reading about it from my Political Science books.  Highly recommended if you like that sort of thing but it could also be pretty boring since it's quite a lot of driving before you get anywhere.

25Aug/060

Handsome man!

I swear the first English words they teach Vietnamese girls out of the womb are "handsome man!".  It's all an elaborate and complex plot to get fat and ugly western men like myself to buy more clothing.  Let me tell you; it usually works.

I left Hoi An after having 2 suits made, 5 dress shirts, 2 pairs of designer jeans and a pair of Puma sneakers.  Hoi An absolutely ruined my budget.  When I left I had an entire new wardrobe.  I now have so much clothing that I needed to buy a completely new suitcase. I managed to haggle down a ridiculously fancy but nevertheless fake hard-shelled polo suitcase on wheels for about 20 USD with enough room to fit all my clothing.  I guess this makes me no longer a "backpacker", I moved slightly up in the ranks/class system and could accurately be described as a "suitcaser on a backpacker's budget" whatever that means.  I'm trying to slim down whatever extra baggage I have for Australia/New Zealand so I'm going to most likely be shipping my backpack and some extra shirts home so I won't have a problem flying.

I figured this would be better for traveling if I managed to stay in one place for a longtime, plus the Polo suitcase is executive size and will fit almost everything I own, allowing me to take it as a carry-on.  That means no checked bags! Another bonus since I hate checking things.

Anyway, I used three main clothing shops for all my purchases.  The first being Kim Huong which I originally described as a good shop from my first post.  While the quality here is still great, after going around numerous other places and learning a bit more I quickly learned that you get what you pay for.  The prices here are low but you need to be extremely specific about what you want otherwise it won't get done.  For example, the lining which I thought was silk ended up being synthetic and the shoulder padding isn't as thick as some of the other suits I've seen elsewhere.  Nevertheless, it still came out great.

I also had them copy/design 4 dress shirts, two long sleeve shirts and two short sleeve shirts. All four are of decent quality and fit extremely well but you can see in some places where the fabric may have not been the best quality.  The tailoring itself is superb though.  For the short sleeve shirts I had them copy one of my 50 USD Topmann shirts and they did it to a tee with all the details.  All and all, Kim Huong was a good shop; you just need to be very specific and specify exactly how you want stuff made. I.E. pleats, cuffs, double stitching, real silk, lined pants. etc.

The other main shop I used was A Dong Silk. They're a fairly larger shop with two locations and are rumored to do all of their work in house as opposed to farming it out to factories.  The prices were of course MUCH higher than Kim Huong $80 versus $110 and up for a suit but you could instantly tell the difference.  Everything was done without question and the shop girls were extremely specific by asking me exactly how I wanted stuff done unlike Kim Huong.  The shop itself also had a much larger selection of fabric to choose from, two floors plus whatever was present at the other shop.  What I have seemed to learn in my brief lesson in custom tailoring is that often the fabric makes the suit. The tailoring could be fanastic but if the fabric is poor, you're ultimately going to get something subpar.

The last thing I commissioned A Dong Silk to design was another copy of my Topman shirt though with a different color fabric and one of supposed better quality. Like I said in my previous post, the shirt came out even better than I expected and I couldn't have been more pleased.  Even though I liked the ones from Kim Huong, it was pretty clear which ones were better.  The bottom line is you may end up paying a bit more at A Dong Silk but it's well worth it. They also stitch all of their clothing with custom logos inside the jackets and shirts, something most of the smaller shops don't do here. The suit bag I was given also contains their logo.

Lastly, I found a place called CQ jeans and I had them copy my pair of Diesel jeans.  While every other shop "claims" to do "good jeans" this place specifically specializes in jeans. I gave them my pair of $160 USD jeans to copy that were ripped in Nha Trang and they reproduced them perfectly and beautifully down to the fading and the stitching.  Needless to say, I was very impressed and they only cost $30 USD.  Also, instead of being plain or having some generic logo, they also sewed their own custom logo on the back and inside.  The buttons too also have their name on them. A nice touch.  They're a bit more expensive than what some of the other tailors charge for jeans but they're worth it.  I had one other pair made at some random shop and the fabric is very plain and the entire pair looks very generic.

After my clothing adventure I decided to see a bit more of Hoi An.  I ended up befriending a group of Canadians at my hotel and we mostly walked around town and went to the beach. Though they were a bit older than me, mostly early 30s, they were a nice bunch.  Walking around the tailoring shops and stores really gives you a good feel of Hoi An.  On my 5th day I practically knew how to get anywhere in town.  It's a pretty small area and you manage to see the same faces over and over again.  This town is also a mecca for cheap art.  Lots of nice oil and color paintings here.  You can get very large and complex wall pieces for about 40 USD.

I mostly stuck to a smaller beach called An Nang which was just as nice as the bigger beach but with less tourists.  At one point me and the Canadian group were the only westerners on the beach.  As a result, we were surrounded by large groups of Vietnamese kids trying to sell everything from bags of peanuts to bracelets, hats.  It got extremely annoying after a while since we were the only people on the beach they could harass.  It was all in good fun though.  They weren't overly annoying and aggressive like the ones in Nha Trang and we ended up having a good laugh listening to them speak broken English and us speaking even more broken and limited Vietnamese. Still I do wish I could find a beach where I don't get bombared by people trying to sell me stuff every 5 minutes.  After a while it's something you learn to phase out though.

For one of my other days, I took a tour to a place outside of Hoi An called My Son which is famous because it was built by the Champa dynasty in Vietnam.  It is consisted one of the most important Hindu sights in Southeast Asia. The area itself is pretty unique; all the structures/temples are build mostly using some type of red brick unlike the vast temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  Though most of the structures are in ruin due to the Vietnam war, reconstruction and repairs are ongoing due to My Son recently being declared a cultural heritage sight by UNESCO in 1998.

It's funny but after coming here, you immediately get a better understanding of geography surrounding the area.  I had read many books for school and novels about Vietnam but at that point I could only identify it on a map.  Now after going to Hoi An, My Son, Hue and some of the other areas in Central Vietnam and actually seeing the bomb craters and building still being reconstructured you instantly get a better understanding of what took place here.   An example would be in My Son, right next to this beautiful temple was a huge impact crater from where a bomb hit.  As a result, it damaged most of the temple and it's now being held up by sticks and poles. I just finished re-reading some books from a political science class I took on the Vietnam war where it depicts American accounts of Hue and Hoi An and I now instantly understood what they were talking about.  It's a cool feeling.

Anyway, i've finally left Hoi An after 5 days of intensive shopping and beach-going and arrived in the city of Hue.  Hue itself is much different from Hoi An.  It's not very laid-back at all and instantly I can begin to see the increased pressure of the motodrivers and the cyclo drivers trying to take you for a "proverbial ride"  I've walked around a bit today along the Perfume River and captured some nice photos.  I don't really plan to stay here long though.

Tomorrow i'm taking a trip north of Hue to the infamous/famous Demiliterized Zone (DMZ) to see more of the famous war sights such as the Vinh tunnels and the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  The Demiliterized Zone is famous because it served as the diving line between North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  You may also know it as the 17th parallel which was a "provisional military demarcation line" established by the Geneva Conference in 1954 which officially split the country of Vietnam until free elections could take place.   As you may now know, these elections never took place because the United States knew that it would instantly mean a victory for Ho Chi Minh thus they refused to recognize them or allow elections to take place.

Tonight I will work on finding an Internet cafe to upload some more photos from Vietnam.