Monday, December 28, 2009

Hue and Hai Van Pass

These are two places that I haven't visited in quite a while-something like 3 or 4 years. And, Hue was where the overnight train led us.

Hue is one of Vietnam's ancient capitals serving as its imperial seat since the early 1800's. Here a citadel was built containing the Purple City-Vietnam's version of the Forbidden City. Also, the countryside surrounding the town is speckled with temples and mausoleums. The later of which either pays tribute to one of the emperors or serves as another's resting place. These, and taking a boat tour of the Perfume River, are the tourist attractions. When I was last here I signed up for the King's Mausoleum tour and found it rather enjoyable.

But this time I figured it would be more fun to get a map, rent motorbikes and tour these sites ourselves, with the opportunity to get lost and engage with the locals being the added bonus. Here is a little of that scenery. The highlight of which was one of the river crossings where the local ferry/boat, transported the lot of us and our motorbikes across the Perfume River. (The music is by Charlie Yoon.)

Hue 12/09 from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

The weather was perfect-nice and moderate during the day and warm at night. We spent most of our time off the motorbikes walking around the city down near the parks that line the riverbanks.  As Joel and Jorge were fond of saying, "this place is so romantic!"

Equally romantic was Hai Van Pass, down above the city of Danang.  A place that I've often referred to as the Big Sur of Vietnam. The Pass is, to quote Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, "a ribbon of perfection" winding its way above the hills overlooking the South China Sea.

At one time this was the only way to travel to the north from the south and vice versa, over the Truong Son Mountains, as I found on my first trip back in 1996.  It was a treacherous journey for all tourist buses and semi-trucks alike because Vietnamese drivers are not known for their patience of standing in line, any line. Now they've built a 3 kilometer tunnel  thru the mountain leaving the Hai Van Pass road nearly deserted but for a few tour buses, locals and adventure seekers like us. Check it out.

Hai Van Pass from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

We left Hoi An around 10:30 am after a night of drinking where Joel and Ric preceded to take over the bar of a local restaurant making drinks for everyone, including the other guests. 10:30 was a little late by my estimates but we braved on making it back to the outskirts of Hoi An as darkness fell.

This map shows our route thru Danang, a critical navigational tool if you were make the trip yourselves. We kind of weaved and bop our way thru the up-and-coming metropolis on the way out and found the much easier path on the return.

If you're traveling thru Vietnam and do make it down to the Central region, do visit Hue's monuments and do opt for a drive over Hai Van Pass, whether it be on a tour bus or rented motorbike.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Traveling Mishaps

Just recently Joel, Jorge and Natalia came over from the US for a little traveling. So, it is completely appropriate to show them the sites. First on the list is the gorgeous Ha Long Bay area.

Now a thing about traveling. It is often said that the journey makes the trip and not so much the destination. Well, I have to say that getting there is half the battle and if you are lucky you will happen upon some great adventures, as was the case with us.

Getting from Hanoi out to Cat Ba Island is really a chore. Normally we would have about four transport transfers from big bus to little bus to speed boat to little bus until we get to the town of Cat Ba. But, this being the winter season and in a country that is in constant flux, I was thrown off course a wee bit. Our normal big bus let us off in the middle of Hai Phong City where upon we had to hike out to the ferry terminal-a local ferry that takes us directly into Cat Ba town. Now you're saying, "that sounds convenient!" I was thinking of the same thing but upon seeing the ferry boat for the first time, I was kind of nervous. There was this mad rush of humanity along with livestock, motorbikes and hug bags of goods, including fresh rice noodles. To say the boat was packed is an understatement. Stuffy doesn't begin to describe it.

Luckily we found ourselves out on the bow of the boat where at least there would be constant airflow. Here we found other westerners looking for the same thing. (In fact, this was where we met Ric and Deanne and asked them to join us on our adventure.)

As the boat motored out of the harbor and out to sea more locals came up front to get some fresh air, and we, really my friends minus me-being a normal yellow face, became a curiosity. Serving as interpreter I helped the two groups communicate:

"Where are you from?"
"How old are you?"
"Would you like a smoke of fresh tobacco from my bamboo pipe?"
"How about a taste of our home made rice whiskey?"

The first couple of questions were asked to find out if the westerners were friendly enough. Then, when it was determined that we were, the locals proceeded to get us drunk and high. These tobacco pipes are common everywhere in the north. They offer smokers a way of concentrating the tobacco flavor and potency. Ric attested to this. Then there was the whiskey which needs no explaining. Though, I will have to admit that I did indulge in the stuff. Normally the smell of this is so nasty that a mere whiff would send me overboard, but this didn't smell like turpentine. It was mildly alcoholic in aroma and just sweet enough going down. It was great and I later found out that because of this "great" taste many expats considered this the most dangerous of the local brew. Why? Because before you know it you're bent over the toilet regretting that you are an adventurer and cursing at the bedeviled natives who are trying to kill you.

This didn't happen of course to us but the stories of traveling expats getting completely smashed with the locals are legendary amongst the Hanoian community. I'm sure the local vietnamese are circulating the same such stories too.

Anyway, we had a really nice time out on the bay. I've been taking folks to this little beach with a bunch of bouldering. Nearby we could kayak through limestone archways or explore the little lagoons.

Cat Ba, Lan Ha, Ha Long Again from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

After getting back to Hanoi we immediately headed to the train station to catch the overnighter down to Hue, our next stop. This is where the next mishap occurred and it was entirely my fault.

Before leaving for Cat Ba it would've been smart to buy our train tickets but I figured that we'd have 4-5 hours to buy these before the train departed. But, 4-5 hours were not enough to get the soft sleeper cabins. These tickets were already sold out. We'd have to sit with everyone else in the coach lounge for.....10 hours. Now ten hours doesn't sound bad when you're flying half way around the world but 10 hours to just go 300 miles? I began to panic with the thought.

Luckily the others offered no criticism of me nor sympathy for me. They simply said, "if that is all they have left then we'll just go."

So we regrouped back at my house before returning to the train station later that night. Yet as we were walking out of the station I heard this loud and obnoxious local screaming into his mobile oblivious to others around him. I could tell he was drunk by the way he slouched in his seat and the way he was waving his hands wildly. And as we were waiting for a cab out in front of the station the lout came out front but this time not screaming as loudly. Maybe someone annoyed with him inside told him to go outside and talk? I don't know.

And when we got to our seats inside the train, minutes before it was to head south, who did I find across the aisle from me? From here on out I will refer to him as Native Son.

Son is a Hanoian. He was traveling south to look at some business prospects and see some old friends. And as we got to know him the misperceptions and the mild "coach" discomforts faded away and were replaced by the sense of adventure that all travelers get when they, as Joel and Jorge were fond of saying on this trip to Vietnam, "are deep!"

Here is Son making a newspaper cigarette.

Native Son from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Let me clarify this next one. Son was in the army and from what he told us knows many patriotic songs. When he saw the group of sailors at the front of our cabin he asked if they had a guitar, apparently like all army troupes here do. He said, "since you're all going to sea I'll serenade you with a few songs."

What followed wasn't noisy locals annoying us like many do because to Vietnamese and many Asian societies, being loud with friends means they're having a good time and a good time needs to be shared.

Vietnam Railways from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

This to me was a great big epiphany. Traveling mishaps will push one's conventional boundaries towards, get closer to, those of the people and places you are traveling in.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Food and Americans

Provocative, right? The title? Well, it's true in my world that Americans have made me a glutton.
I was looking forward to being back in Vietnam and eating healthy, fresh food. And, I was doing so well....until my American friends came over. Case in point. Have a look at these photos:

This is Elizabeth, former chef from San Francisco, at lunch-Com Binh Dan in Hanoi, which literally means "common people's food".

And here I am with Mike and Nancy at fancy Mango Rooms in Hoi An-excellent and original plates made from fresh local ingredients.

Here I am with Joel, Jorge, Ric and Deanne. The later two being newly adopted into the American eating family. This was lunch at the base of Hai Van pass. Another Com Binh Dan.

You see. All we do is eat. Sure there are the sights to see like Hue's ancient Citadel, Ha Long's amazing grottos and Hoi An's architecture, but each and every person has uttered the words, "what are we eating next?" And shortly thereafter complete carnage ensues.

This was lunch at Bale Well. A great local bbq place in Hoi An, where pork skewers, fried spring rolls and banh xeo-vietnamese crepes are served with a garden of fresh greens and rice paper to individually wrap and dip into a tangy, full-bodied fermented soybean sauce.

And this is what happens after the American invasion. Only if the American army had the ferocity of battle as the traveling Americans did with their devouring appetite of the vietnamese food.

Truth be told. Bale Well did serve all you can eat meals. Phuong sandwiches on the other hand, sells banh mi, vietnamese baguette sandwiches one at a time for 10,000 vnd each.

These are made with the most exquisite bread-crunchy on the outside and soft and airy on the inside. It's filled with pork of all varieties-sausage, boiled and stewed, mayonnaise, fresh pate, greens, hot sauce and the juice from the stewed pork. And at a bargain price we, the Americans, rarely ordered just one. In the picture above you can see seven-a normal amount for 4 people.

Often when we're ordering these at the stall, there would be the lot of us and a hungry throng of Vietnamese locals waiting their turn.

To our credit though, we were told that the more food we ate the better our hosts would feel.

In the Hoi An market we met Aunt Lan. She runs one of a handful of food stalls there. Mike A and I wanted to try the local favorite Cao Lau. We sat down at her stall. Ordered a couple bowls. Looked at what else she was serving and kept ordering-roasted chicken, fried and stewed shrimp in bacon and several kinds of fried greens. She loved us so much that she invited us over to her house for a family meal later that day.

Gluttony. And then some.

In Hue, Vietnam's ancient capital, I got hungry for dinner a little earlier than the others. So while I waited for their appetite to return I ventured out to withdraw some money. On the way back I spotted this Bun Bo Hue stall across the street from our hotel. I couldn't help it! I sat down and inhaled a bowl of this central region's version of pho. It's made of a beef base broth, spiked with lemongrass, tamarind and pineapple juices. The meat provided are pork slices, sausages and hocks. The noodles are big, round and ever so slightly al dente. It is my all time favorite vietnamese dish, one that my mom used to entice me home for dinners.

I liked it so much that later that evening, a mere 30 minutes after having my first bowl, I took Joel and Jorge back for my second bowl. The proprietor simply looked at me.... and smiled.

By now you're probably thinking that it's not just the American appetite but the great Vietnamese food. You're right! Sure the food is fresh and delicious, yet the amount I've consumed is over the top.

Vietnamese food and Americans-the two together will be the death of me...and you. All my American friends, You have been warned!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More Hoi An Abstracts

So before I give you all the lowdown on the second group of friends that just came over for a trip, I thought to continue with more images from Hoi An. This time they are stills. Or, are they?

On our way back down to Hoi An, we stopped off in Hue to visit the ancient mausoleums and citadel, to hangout with my friend Minh and to look at a motorbike. Minh is here studying photography and art at one of national universities. His father, who passed away last year, and I are old friends. If you remember Tu Duy had a gallery in Hoi An. Anyway, Minh is following in his father's footsteps.

He had just acquired an Iphone, courtesy of my US connections. So he proceeds to show me some images he had captured at sunset. One of them had this holga/swing and tilt quality. It was all I needed to get me going again.

Needless to say, I went crazy when I got down to Hoi An. I'm sure the photo count was close to 800 shots. Luckily this is digital. Anyway, here are a few for you to enjoy. For more go to this Picasa link:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hoi An-abstracts

Another reason for loving Hoi An has to do with it’s inspiring architecture.  The city was founded a long time ago in the 16th century as Vietnam’s first port town. As such, the first foreign visitors setting foot on its land left their individual cultural landmarks in the shape of its buildings. They are either old Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese or French, all mixed in with one another in a medley of randomness.

Over the years the paint as cracked and faded with some getting refurbished and others left to patina with time. The colors are vibrant as to inspire bright thoughts on a gray, cloudy day.

Walking the town’s narrow alleyways allows one to get up close and personal with these details. And this little film was made with this in mind.

Hoi An-Abstracts from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hoi An-Trip #2

As far as sites to see in Vietnam are concerned, Hoi An is right up there at the top of the list. For me it might even be number one.

The city has the old charm preserved in its architecture, its food and its people. I’ve been coming here at least once a year for the last 10 and if I’m lucky, I will have visited Hoi An three times this year alone.

I’m still traveling with Mike, Nancy and Megan. Joining us is another American friend Mike Ayon, also a climbing buddy. Like us, Mike A also loves to eat, making him the perfect companion on these trips.

Before coming here Mike A had expressed that, through his research, he wanted to be here for the Full Moon Festival, or what locals refer to as the Old Town Festival. It happens once a month but not on the actual full moon as we know it or as it’s often depicted on a Julian calendar. One needs to refer to the lunar calendar that Southeast Asian and Chinese Buddhists use. The operative word being “Buddhists”. This calendar has 28 days per month and Hoi An’s Old Town Festival falls on the 14th day.

It is a small but a very important detail. Mike A ended up missing the festival because of this, and I’ve made the same mistake in the past by asking my Catholic relatives which day the full moon falls on. Now I know better but this is what Mike A missed:

Full Moon Festival from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Fluorescent lights are turned off and only incandescent bulbs and candles illuminate the town this night. Motorized vehicles and bicycles are banned on the streets of the Old Town allowing for only walking traffic. And the music heard is that of the traditional Vietnamese countryside.

So on this evening the four of us, without Mike A, strolled the streets of the town, took a boat ride on the river and had desert in one of the colonial French houses. Oh yes, we also released candle lanterns into the river.

Some may think that this place is too touristy. There are only two real bars in the old town and they shut down about midnight or one AM at the latest. At any given time one could be inundated by schools of tourists crowding the narrow streets, clad in requisite matching hats or shirts and led by a native tour guide. Too many storefronts sell the same familiar collectable wares-Bia Saigon t-shirts, bamboo bowls and silk scarves.

But if you look past these inevitable signs of progress for a people needing to put more on their table than just food-like education for their children, you will see that as they require an increase in quality of life they too want to preserve the virtues that got them here.

For example, yesterday we had lunch at Ba Le Well, a place serving the local specialty of BBQ pork and shrimp, fried egg rolls and Vietnamese crepe all self wrapped in rice paper with fresh vegetables and dipped in an amazing savory soybean sauce. (Not to be mistaken with soy sauce.) The proprietor came over and showed us how she rolls them then proceeded to hand us roll after roll of perfectly proportioned wraps. But, as we ate and ate it never seemed like we were making a dent in the portions. Because in our frenzied chow session, like sharks feeding on their prey, our eyes too were rolled up in our brains blissfully unaware that the owner kept ordering more and more meat and wrappers.

“What makes me happy is that you are enjoying the food?” She said to me. “And however much you eat the price is always the same-60,000 VND.” For all that food, it only cost us $3 per person.

She is proud of her food just like the other locals here who are proud of their city. And pride is shown through a willingness to share. And sharing makes visitors feel welcome. This is why I keep coming back. This is one reason why I like this place so much.

Ninh Binh

A couple of weeks ago, my good friends Mike, Nancy and Megan Tsoi came over for a visit. Mike and I are old climbing buddies and at a time when I was homeless-being that I didn’t want to have my own apartment from too much work travel, he took me in. On his couch I was surfing for quite some time. Anyway, he met Nancy and decided to sell his condo to go traveling and out I went. Shortly thereafter they got married and soon bore this little angel name Megan.

This I believe is the Tsoi family’s first international, real traveling experience. Vietnam and I are very to lucky to have them. The goal was to see the sights and eat. The sights are first and the food segment will appear in a later post.

The first stop on the traveling itinerary were the sites around the city of Ninh Binh, less than 100k due south of Hanoi. The guidebooks describe this area as being very picturesque, the Guilin of Vietnam and Ha Long Bay on land.....They are so right!

Trang An-Ninh Binh from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

On day one we were encouraged by the hotel staff to visit Trang An, a labyrinth of caves and grottos connect by a crystal clear waterway. Our immediate impression was how spotlessly clean this park is. The boats are human powered so the water did not have that oil slick sheen. Our boat had a trash can and the local operator was adamant that waste be disposed there even though we had our own trash bag. When we set foot on land for a brief hike up to a viewing spot high on the mountain side, there were signs everywhere extolling the virtues of keeping the park clean of trash. I was astonished. Still am. Only if these standards are imposed throughout Vietnam this country would be even more beautiful!

Anyway, this trip through what Megan referred to as “time-tunnels” was fabulous, a must-not-miss when visiting the sites around Ninh Binh. 

Day two dawned foggy but by the time we drove over to the township of Tam Coc, the sun began to peek through the clouds. The boat landing was a bit more touristy than the boat launch at Trang An. This is a much older attraction and has had time to “develop” the tourist support system, i.e. open more gift shops and vendor stalls. But after about a dozen pulls of the oars we were in a dreamlike state floating amongst limestone towers that are thrusting up through the swampy landscape. This trip did not have as many caves. Three in all really. But between the caves are vast expanses of craggy hillsides and lakes. The left over scattered, thick clouds from the morning fog made for incredibly dramatic lighting.

Every once in a while mountain goats could be spotted prancing the hillsides. Gaggles of ducks were seen waddling on nearby shores then hopping into the glassy lake. Women were scouring the lake bottoms for snails while men were trolling for tiny shrimps, waist deep in the water. All around them danced rays of the sun, dabbled by the clouds. can see it all right here.

Tam Coc-Ninh Binh from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Towards the end of the boat ride we began to acquaint ourselves with the two local rowers, family members of Tam Coc village . They like many families in Tam Coc are registered with the local tourism board on a lottery system. Over 500 families have permits to take tourists out on their own boats, costing $300, for a measly $3 per head. The boat ride takes two hours and because there are 500 families they are lucky to receive three callings per month. I found this out when I asked if they ever get sick of this wonderful view. “Well we don’t see this all that often.” They replied. They normally farm rice and on the side they do embroidery work. And fine work they did two. We were more than happy to give them our money for all their hard work.

The price to pay for all this beauty is rather inexpensive.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cuc Phuong National Park

Just south of Hanoi is Vietnam's very first National Park. Established in 1962 and christened by Ho Chi Minh himself, Cuc Phuong National park was mostly a tropical jungle teeming with wildlife once upon a time. Now it's filled with with the bloodsucking critters such as mosquitoes and leeches.

My fellow victims to these vampires this go around are Daria, Kim, Kristi and Vianney. With four motorbikes we braved the outskirts of Hanoi to find beautiful roads through a picturesque landscape of limestone hills and river ways,as you can see on the video.

The weather had just begun to cool in the north making for perfect motorbike touring temps. So, when it came time to rent out bikes there were none to be had. Kim and I searched for the entire week prior to leaving, and it wasn't until the night before that I was able to secure one.
Anyway, it was a great bike ride. We listened to the advice of Hanoian friends and took some detours around the larger cities. Most of the roads were smooth and comfortable but just before the park there were about 20 kilometers of rough riding. Then once inside the park we were rewarded with another 20k, but this time it was 20k of concrete perfection. It twisted, banked, climbed and descended through a paved path that cut through the thicket of jungle that at time encased the road in a canopy of green. I wished we had more video footage of this. Somehow most of filming was done with the camera off. Oh well. I hope you enjoy it anyway.
As you can see, we went on a little jungle trek with two Muong guides. Both were born within the park boundaries and naturally knew the terrain very well. All together we hiked for 8 kilometers, more or less. It was humid, a little buggy and full of leeches. The pictures of our pant legs tucked inside our socks was our protection from the blooksuckers, while the guides had their own special gaiters.
Up until we set camp, it never dawned on any of us that we might face inclement weather. Yet it began to rain. So, out of the two tents that the guides brought, they slept in one-the leaky one, and all five of us cramped into the other. What ensued was a night of tongue-twisting games to tease the lone Frenchman, Vianney and not too much rolling around in the small space.
For most of the night and into the next morning the rain came down in increasing intensity. The climax happened as we drove out the 20k to the park entrance. All of us agreed that it was the heaviest downpour that we had ever driven in. Good thing the park road was virtually empty.
For obvious reason, we don't have footage of the heavy rains. What you will see at the end of the movie though is the return of the good weather with the dramatic landscape.