Too many Banyan trees

March 24th 2017

I’m glad Phnom Penh has come at the end of my trip. I feel uneasy here and I’m not sure why. It is not a walking city even though the sidewalks are no more broken down than in Yangon, which was, and the traffic is no worse than in Hanoi, which could be, and I feel conspicuous even though no-one shows the slightest interest in me or my belongings. Indeed, my hotel guys have told me sternly that the curfew for walking back from dinner is 9pm. No, no danger they hasten to reassure me, it’s just (they look at each other helplessly) too quiet.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1bb5

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1ba8Fortunately, tuk tuks outnumber pedestrians by about 20:1 and one has already committed himself to preventing me from going anywhere on foot. Our first stop is PS21, the high school the Khmer Rouge appropriated as a torture facility.  The audio guide narrator invites me to find a seat in the shade. “I am one of only 7 survivors of this prison” he tells me. Then I learn that after the US dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they did in the whole second world war, Phnom Penh was overwhelmed by refugees. In 1975, the UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1c77Khmer Rouge threw everyone out and Phnom Penh became a ghost town. Many of the quarter of the population they murdered (chiefly ‘elites’ who were usually identified simply on the basis of bad eyesight) passed through PS21 en route to the more than 700 killing fields located throughout Cambodia.

“You are sitting under a banyan tree” my audio guide concludes. “It was planted here after PS21 was liberated. The Khmer people believe the shade of the banyan tree provides peace for restless souls”.  Going back, I notice how many young banyan trees are in the neighborhood around my hotel.

2kCtsuHQRPGmqUn+WMNVqQ_thumb_315d

gp9cX%ZcQWi4rR1Ml9T6jQ_thumb_30d1In pre- K. R. French Colonial days, Kep the nearest beach to Phnom Penh, was replete with iconic art deco villas. My quest to photograph them is several years too late. Only the mango trees and bougainvillea remain to drape over the iconic art deco garden walls. ‘Why no rubble?’ I ask my new trusty tuk tuk driver. ‘People from Phnom Penh want sell land for building’ he tells me. I have learned this is a euphemism for the Khmer Rouge who now pull all the economic strings. ‘No-one buying?’ I inquire and he smiles sardonically. In truth, it’s no surprise that restoring Kep to its former glory as the ‘St Tropez of South East Asia’ is overwhelming,

JIDR%PkLSOCi2bDPFJl7nA_thumb_1c8eBeyond the scattering of French-expat run guest houses (like the oddly named Raingsey Bungalows where I’m staying) the poverty is grinding. The cows, which are the bellwether of economic health, are mere sacks of skin and bone with barely any energy to stagger from one rubbish pile to the next; they are clearly not being fed in the dry season. Kep beach is in the South-East Asia ‘B’ league and there’s precisely 2 things to see (we are on the way to one of them: the Kampot pepper plantations). aJJiHIq6T5Ow1IJnCN+jiA_thumb_1c29

 

But he is stopping unexpectedly to point up into the hills.  “Khmer Rouge lived up there” he tells me. “And this is where they killed my father” he points to the other side of the road. “I was eight”. I struggle for an appropriate follow-up, and finally settle on asking who looked after him. “No-one. Sometimes neighbor gave food. Sometimes no food”. I ask him if he went to school and he looks at me like I’m insane. The lost generation.

E1zUOsDrSW68xGCyZOerlw_thumb_30cc

When I rejoin the conversation he’s in the middle of explaining his grand plan to be a tuk tuk tour guide. “First thing, I need lap-top for website” he shoots me a glance “Other lady, English like you, she gave me money for lap top”. “Then why you still need one?” I inquire. “Couldn’t buy” he says sadly “Daughter got sick and had to take to Phnom Penh hospital”. I decide to channel the Swiss anthropologist I met at the last hotel who spent the evening venting about the shortcomings of the abundance of NGOs that endorse repeatedly giving a man a fish. “Actually” I say “Lap top is not the first thing, first thing you need a plan – what your tour will be, why it will be special” he has heard this before. I relent a bit “If you think about it, I can help you put it into a website”. He has heard this too. “Problem is” he confesses “I can speak English OK, read and write, not so OK”. “So if I sent you an email” I ask “Can you read?” “Probably not” he says resignedly.

WJevcWLcR4C0SqoME65ZGw_thumb_1c90Next morning it is the turn of the young man who serves breakfast (since there are only 4 guests there is little more for him to do). “We won’t be here next year when you come back” he announces (Its not clear why he refers to himself in the plural, but I let it go). “Why not?” I inquire blandly “Will get new job as general manager of diamond mine” he tells me. I try to arrange my features to downplay any skepticism. “Great!” I say “Better than hotel” (the high season lasts only from November through February and the rainy (low) season with no guests at all for six months). “We just need computer experience” he tells me “So first thing, lap top for practice. We can read and write English. Fluent”. The tuk tuk guy must have tipped him off. A lap top will cost him $300 in dollars, probably more than he earns a month in the off season and he’s already told me he owes money to the bank for something else. Meanwhile, at least two thirds of the cars in Cambodia are huge SUVs that have been imported with 300% tax. Needless to say they have Phnom Penh plates.

Well folks, time to sign off. It seems like 20 dispatches are a good round number and tomorrow I start the trek back to West Roxbury. Looking forward to seeing you all soon for a South East Asian food party.

March 30th 2017

Onto Cambodia

March 18th 2017

The environs of Siem Reap, gateway to Angkor Wat, UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1a2blook like nothing more than Iowa with palm trees. It is coming to the end of the dry season and the winter rice has been harvested but thankfully they have not yet begun to burn the fields. The overall sense is of ochre in the air until an unexpected downpour scrubs the dust from the trees and reveals a burst of fluorescent green.

Siem Reap, where all three pillars of South East Asian tourism are forced into uneasy proximity. Endless hordes of Chinese tour groups are disgorged from their buses then rapidly quarantined in the startlingly vast (and presumably opulent?) hotels that line the ugly road from the airport. They only appear after 11, when the heat is becoming its UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_31a9most blistering, and so we run into them only by accident. The backpackers have found nirvana in Pub Street and are taking its mantra ‘encouraging irresponsible drinking since 1998’ extremely seriously. They don’t seem to be here to go sightseeing, so we only meet them at night. The bourgeoisie are installed in discretely well-appointed hostelries like our ‘Pavilion D’Orient’ – a JqQ258yaRMGcuKOnn1tBDQ_thumb_31aftropical oasis with a huge infinity pool and plentiful cocktails – and are focused on avoiding eye contact under any circumstance. There are many, many more Americans, looking spruce in white and determined that every interaction with the hotel staff will be a significant cultural exchange. The Brits are suffering loudly from the heat, while the French would like it to be recognized that they were here first. The Japanese mutter to each other inscrutably and remarkably the German/Dutch axis manages to fade into the woodwork.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3291In any case, the full seventy-seven wonder-of-the-world-square-miles of the Angkor Wat archeological park deserves more than our usual lackadaisical approach to sightseeing, so we buckle down and make a plan that will be appropriate for the 3-day entrance ticket (the 7-day ticket must surely come with a PhD). On day one we will reconnoiter of the lay of the land by bike, on day two we will inspect the minor temples and only on day three will we get up close and personal to Angkor Wat itself. (Lest this be interpreted as slow going even for Schwobs, please know that the hotter than hell index is currently approaching a 15 on the Spinal Tap scale, and as we will find out in due course, we can only healthily be outside before 11 and after 4.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3270In the event, we are almost thwarted even before we get started: Two sequential delays in our flight connections the night before left us ravenously chowing down on delicious ham baguettes, while willfully ignoring the well-known maxim that the location with the least incentive to ensure its mayonnaise is up to snuff is the departure lounge café at any airport. Fortunately, almost the best thing about AW is the super hygienic toilets within dashing distance of each of the temples, no matter how remotely they are located and so we avert an ugly outcome.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3257Even so we barely make it round the ‘Grand Circuit’ even with the help of reasonably functional mountain bikes, 4 cans of fizzy sugared beverage and many liters of water. Afterwards we collapse, me in the pool Jim in a darkened room (shades of Italy) and we can barely stagger to happy hour that night. (As an aside our miscalculation of the effects of the weather has not been helped by the forecasts of lowering clouds and rain furnished by all the major news organizations, or by the population who are still dressed in winter clothes (hoodies have substituted for puffer jackets and natty flannel pajamas have surfaced as a style item).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_32a2Day 2, and our helpful hotel has insisted that we need a ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’ experience even though it necessitates a seriously ungodly start at 4:45am. Mr. Karona our trusty (if sleep deprived) tuk-tuk driver indicates his deep desire for us to have a good time so we are moved to share our concerns that we will be elbow to elbow with a million other tourists whose hotels have had the same idea. Mr. K. takes the matter in hand, heads off in precisely the opposite direction to everyone else and finally deposits us at the UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_329ebottom of what seems to be the only significant hill in the area. He points out the way up and settles down for a nap. We finally reach the ruined temple at the top in the pitch dark, and completely alone (fortunately, Jim didn’t forget his cell phone) and right on cue dawn breaks over the plain and Angkor Wat in the distance. The sun does rises in its own good time but not surprisingly we are not at the correct angle to UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1a9dreproduce the iconic ‘sunrise over Angkor Wat’ picture beloved by Google Images, so we refer you to that source. Jim feels he has earned the breakfast picnic the hotel has also thoughtfully provided, but I still need to be prepared for a dash, so I donate mine to Mr. K. (by now much refreshed) and he eats it happily as we set off to explore the fantastic Temple of Ta Prom, of Lara Croft fame.

ubebKFiASvWS+GajSq45cA_thumb_1aea

Day 3 of the Angkor Wat marathon also does not disappoint. Thanks to due diligence the day before at the Museum we feel very confident with the Hindu deities, but we are completely thrown by how much the outside of AW resembles an English Stately home – Chatsworth or Blenheim maybe. All that’s missing is a fountain of some description at the front. We start with the outside galleries with their massive bas-relief narratives of UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3225famous battles between deities as well as the among the ancient Khmer and their foes. Within about 5 minutes and despite having more than one erudite guide book we can’t remember the difference between the bird deity and the goose deity, who has 4 arms, 8 arms or 20 arms and whether the monkeys are good or bad. Still it is all fantastically executed and we find that if we discretely glom onto various tour guides we eventually get it straight. E3forc4gQ8+0oweWG8tNQg_thumb_3262It takes so long that when we finally emerge into the unwelcome sunshine the Chinese have appeared and are energetically photographing each other in every available nook and cranny. Fortunately, it is a religious holiday so we do not have to fight them to climb up the central towers which are blocked by marching grannies with bouquets of lotus blossoms (remember them?). Instead we clamber to the top of a side tower seriously lacking in selfie opportunities, so when we get to the top we have it to ourselves.

Jim departs for Bangkok and I set off for the last stage of the trip

UWc1Jr93R3KiXe1mSIICDQ_thumb_1b8e

Laos: Indochine rampant!

March 15th 2017

Luang Prabang! Let’s hear it for the redoubtable French who, happening on a dinky little fishing village at the confluence of three rivers (the Mekong being one, the other two being unpronounceable) re-imagined it a glorious monument to Indochine architecture, or at least a perfectly lovely little riverside town with stunning photo-ops on every corner.VxfUWI+NR4uSOmd064tsGA_thumb_3367 Let’s also hear it for the Lao who, when the French were ‘encouraged’ to leave in the 1950s didn’t immediately sashay into town with dire paint and garish fairy lights, but evidently tiptoed away, quietly locking the doors, allowing the dust to settle on the gramophone in the bar, the bougainvillea to drape itself with increasing exuberance everywhere and the bromeliads to colonize every possible vertical surface.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_195c Let’s finally hear it for our regional fairy godmother UNESCO, who came bustling into town forcing the dust to be dusted, the drains to be fixed, the internet to be available and the gramophones to be wound up so we can all enjoy the party. Here we are then, at the wonderful Maison Dalabua, where the rooms are fetchingly distributed among UNESCO-monitored lily ponds, chock a block with all the tropical horticulture a heart could desire (plus orchids), a gourmet restaurant within spitting distance and a swimming pool right off our terrace, and all for $40 a night. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1a56For unlike the Vietnamese who confront the same opportunity by charging $2 for dinner, but then need to feed 100 to make ends meet, the canny Lao charge $20 and thus only need to feed 10, plus the rancid backpackers are frozen out (they are bitter and try to retaliate by spreading the canard that Luang Prabang has become a theme park; to which we say Pshaw! there’s a reason we vacation in the Marais and not the Banlieu). So not only does everyone smell better and are better fed, but we are all happy and the Lao can slope off early to finish converting their bamboo huts into French colonial facsimiles, which is what everyone was doing during our bike ride around the countryside yesterday.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_19a2Yesterday has made it clear that venturing much further afield will not be feasible by road (only one road is paved and the rest are so pitted and stony it took us 2 hours to cycle 5 kilometers on our horrible hotel bikes), so we have engaged the cheery Mr. Phet. Mr. Phet does not require a French colonial bungalow because together with his wife and son, he lives on the boat we have hired for the day. Fortunately for us UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_32e5they are both away (she to teach high school, Phet Jr. to advance his primary education) and so he and his home are at our disposal. Our goal is the Buddha caves a convenient 2-hour trip up the Mekong (only 1 hour on return since we don’t have to fight the current). En route Mr. Phet not only introduces us to some of the le vrai Lao in the riverside villages but also delivers a sardonic primer on Laotian politics over his right shoulder (we inadvertently opened the floodgates by inquiring who could afford to build the staggeringly vast riverside palaises on the Luang Prabang outskirts). Not only are we treated to a discourse on the entire spectrum of government graft, but we learn that the omnipresent ticket collectors enjoy patronage positions uncannily like those on the Mass. Pike. Plus ça change.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_32d8Mr. Phet also tells us that he was a Buddhist monk for 4 years, and finally I get the chance to put my observations of monks in all 4 SE Asian countries into context: I have identified 2 distinct flavors – the professionals look stern, even austere. Unless they are shopping for ‘Buddhist monk gift sets’ (to be found in all the major Thai malls and providing all sorts of laundry and personal hygiene products done out in a fetching shade of saffron) they never laugh. Professional Buddhist monks often seem to be praying (In Burma they are always praying, but there again so is everyone else, particularly the flag-men on the railway, which was especially disconcerting at the viaduct and going down the mountain). In contrast, the 2nd flavor – teenage/milenials – are most likely to be checking iXPickgJQ3uAcxIq5Mg6Ww_thumb_1989Facebook on their cell phones; the thought of prayer has clearly never entered their minds. Mr. Phet tells us that parents who either can’t afford to pay for education or prefer to invest their resources elsewhere can rid themselves of their obnoxious teenage dude offspring for a few years by putting them in the monastery (opportunities for mean girl daughters also exist but they are less abundant). It occurs to me that we might be in a different place now if Mrs. Trump (mère) had had the opportunity to shave her son’s head dress him up in a silly orange sheet and have him get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to go and beg for his food in his bare feet. As SE Asia seems to prove, four years of that every day is entirely sufficient to rout out any dude-like tendencies in any male, alpha or otherwise.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1983

Hoi An does seaside right!

March 10th 2017

What a marvelous way to wind down this epic trip to Vietnam with a full five days in Hoi An. Sure its heaving with tourists, but so few are American (although regrettably they do tend to punch above their weight like the guy in the restaurant tonight loudly interrogating the waitress about how she makes the ice. Of course, she says ‘I buy it from the store’ so he’s none the wiser whether the old lady in the kitchen preparing the iced tea is also slicing up the chickens, which is what he really needs to know). The rest (the usual suspects of French, Germans and some spectacularly unlovely Brits) hardly count.

X8sD7mT3TKau6K0esRnmRw_thumb_1904Anyway, what’s not to like? At one end of the road, we have the charming old port, replete with street upon street of achingly beautiful ochre-washed and bougainvillea draped Chinese and Japanese merchant houses (still doing a roaring trade but sternly monitored by UNESCO to make sure the outsides, at least, stay firmly rooted in the 18th century). When dusk starts UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3419to fall the thousands of silk lanterns strung between them and wafting gently to and fro in the welcome breeze are delicately illuminated, it’s not surprising Hoi An is called (or should be at least) city of a million selfies. In fact, it seems to specialize in festivity, not only the UNESCO area is adorned gaily, but as the distance increases the lanterns are replaced by hammer and sickle bunting. And Woman’s Day is huge: all the little girls sporting pink balloons, their millenial sisters sporting pink roses, cocktails half price at the restaurants (lady only) and the food stalls in the market repurposed as a karaoke bar (also lady only and packed to the gills).

%6Nwn6pMS9WSuXH%Z0Pn8w_thumb_33a3UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1803
At the other end of the road, a mere 4km bike ride away, we have the deliciously warm ocean and silver sand beach of An Bang, organized efficiently as only the Vietnamese can with ample loungers, bamboo umbrellas and even cheaper ($2) cocktails. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1952Located conveniently in between them the ‘Golden Bell Homestay’, yet another $20 find, has provided me with a huge room, balcony and bathtub and Snickers in the minibar at half the price of home (the wine unfortunately is twice the price but its Vietnamese so there’s no temptation to try it).

To top it all off Hoi An is street food central for Vietnam (to be fair everywhere else I’ve been, with the sole exception of Ninh Bin, has made the same claim, BuXCbKVCQn+ez2t2bRPApQ_thumb_3464but with much less justification IMHO). So, as soon as the lanterns light up out pop a veritable grandma’s army with their carts, red plastic stools and the wherewithal to rustle up their specialité de maison in a flash. Each cart offers only one dish, so depending on how assiduous one wants to be about selecting who to patronize, a full dinner can entail a significant trek from first course to last. Unlike their sons and daughters who staff the actual restaurants and who always ask me in tones of disapproval mingled with pity ‘You came alone?’ grandmas entirely support my solo wanderings and are always insisting I sit in the seat of honor next to the stove so they can slap extra stuff on my plate.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_33fdDespite all evidence to the contrary It is winter in Hoi An. I find this out when I ask the driver Golden Bell has helpfully sent to pick me up from the train station, why most of the motorcyclists are wearing one, and often two, puffer jackets. ‘But it’s not cold’ I argue (in fact it’s about 90° and we have the air conditioner on). ‘But it was this morning’ he says, ‘very cold’. I look it up later; the minimum temperature was 70°C. This cognitive dissonance is particularly disconcerting on An Bang beach where the old ladies who set up the loungers under the bamboo umbrellas, bring round fresh coconuts, pineapples and mangoes and serve lunch and cocktails are bundled up not only in several hoodies and flannel pajama trousers but also thick scarves and for some unknown reason, face masks. Other An Bang old ladies not employed in the hospitality business are also at the beach, similarly attired gazing with horror at the skimpily clad 20 somethings willing not only to expose themselves to the elements but also throw themselves willy-nilly into the ocean. It is clear they find this behavior both totally inexplicable and highly amusing. Remarkably enough the only local men around are the old guy on crutches who sells the English language Vietnamese paper for the exorbitant price of a 3-course meal ($2) and another with what looks like cerebral palsy who brings the same packet of peanuts around every couple of hours. There are no obnoxious young dudes (in fact I have literally yet to see one in the whole of Vietnam), which the 20 somethings appreciate deeply. I spend a restorative 3 days at the beach and emerge ready for the next chapter in Laos and Cambodia with Jim. I am trying to discourage him from bringing his winter jacket, but who knows, he might fit right in.

AkgITLDrSXm8mU4JW+L1Ww_thumb_33b8It seems highly appropriate to sign off from Vietnam with yet another postal anecdote. Fortunately, the 5-word rule is not in operation and I can repeat the conversation verbatim. Characters: Me; Ching the nice young lady who runs the Golden Bell and DD a doughty denizen of Vietnam Mail.

Ch: Going out? Want bike?

Me: Yes please, I’m going to the post office.

Ch: Why?

Me: Because I bought some souvenirs and I thought I’d mail them home rather than carry them around.

Ch: But why going to post office?

Me: Because I bought some souvenirs and I thought I’d mail them home rather than carry them around.

Ch: No but why going…

Me: Because I bought…..

Ch: No, no, no, no need going (she picks up the phone and makes a rapid-fire phone call then tells me: ‘Sit there, 5 minutes’).

In seven minutes a little tuk tuk motorbike arrives, driven by the DD. He is carrying a cardboard box and a big shoulder bag that contains: 2 rolls of packing tape (one spare), a roll of official Vietnam Mail Tape, a big pair of scissors and a scale. Within 5 minutes he has: weighed my things, packed them expertly in the box, cut the box down to a better size, taped it up, used the second roll of tape when the first one ran out, finished off with official VM tape, filled in the customs forms, told me how to fill in my part of the customs forms, stamped everything, given me a receipt for web tracking, charged me the same price I would have paid if I’d schlepped it all the way to the post office, and left with my package. I am flabbergasted. And if that isn’t enough, apparently, my package from Myanmar mail arrived in Boston last week.

The West is over folks.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_18f7

A bend in the Perfume River

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_184aMarch 3rd 2017

The Perfume River splits Hue, that city of ghosts, in two. On the north bank slumbers the vast and crumbling citadel, once home to the whole slew of Nguyen dynasty emperors who labored mightily to reimagine and then reconstruct Vietnam as a society that could have a toehold in the 19th century, but then completely lost the plot barely 100 years later. On the south bank sits their many and varied tombs, and not far away from the well-worn route tourists beat between them, thousands and thousands of other anonymous graves nestled into the forests that line the river banks, a jungle tribute to ‘Midnight in the Garden’.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_182bVietnam, like Turkey, has a complicated relationship with its pre-revolution history. Certainly, when I show up at the citadel rising from the mist at the hardly bright and early hour of 11, there are a smattering of Western tourists and no Vietnamese except for the bouncy elderly gentleman who interrupts as I convene with Lonely Planet.  ‘I’m from Finland’ he announces turning the inevitable conversational opening gambit on its head ‘don’t you believe me?’ he proffers his passport as proof. I allow that I am a bit surprised, but unusually he wants to talk history not origins. ‘I have to say those old emperors did a pretty good job, not like the current crowd who’ve turned a blind eye to the Chinese occupation of the north again’. Barely have I wrapped my head around all this tantalizing new information than he has bounced onward. But he’s right about the emperors: Later I find a gaggle of village folk and their animated guide processing down the cloister that lays out the imperial accomplishments in order. They nod approvingly to learn how the first handful (they only reigned for about 20 years each, who knows why) knocked Vietnam into shape with provinces, ministries, a civil service, standardized education and everything else a naturally industrious people needs to chug along efficiently. They have not yet got to the end whereUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_188a the surprisingly candid blurb labels the last emperor who squandered it all as a hedonist with a weak character. After 4 hours peeling the citadel apart like a set of Matryoshka dolls, onto the promising display of shot-up fighter planes front and center in the history museum courtyard. As for the museum itself, its padlock is rusty and it may have never, ever been open. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3456

Meanwhile the population of Hue reconciles themselves to their history-free existence with ice-cream on the far bank of the Perfume River.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_18aeThere comes a point in every bike ride at which a crisis of confidence necessitates asking directions. This is particularly true for those undertaken without maps. Although the Emperors’ tombs (my goal for today) LQz+3zWhSQSd9SxYUuuRYQ_thumb_18baare well visited, tourists go with guides, so the English map of Hue resolutely ends at the city limits, with only an unhelpful arrow indicating ‘to the tombs’ disappearing into the bottom margin. Sadly, at the same time the old man I rouse from his hammock doze is pointing me in the right direction (‘15 kilometer’ he says firmly and he’s spot on, unlike Burma where ‘15 kilometer’ can mean anything, but always more than 25) I am both realizing that besides gears the bike is also lacking functional brakes (Travelfish, a more practical guide to SE Asia than LP has already warned me that ‘there are no decent bikes in Hue’ so this is no great surprise) as well as recollecting that LP has described the tombs as having a spectacular setting in a forest in the mountains. The upshot is that by the time I arrive it is noon and 35°C and I am so dehydrated that the prospect of tackling the ride in reverse seems insurmountable.

 

But wait, shouldn’t I be able to minimize the pain if I can descend to the river and follow the one lane roads that sureUNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_344cly hug it? More helpful directions later I am on the right track and descending gradually through the forest when I spot a path off to the left marked by the official Vietnamese sign for ‘Point of Interest’. It is closed by a chain, so I must walk to the top where a vast bend in the Perfume River opens out below me  – and also the five or six bunkers with their gun slits perfectly positioned in each direction. They are noticeably undamaged. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_17ccThere is no-one at all around yet the echoes of the past are palpable. Unusually I feel the need to leave in a hurry. As I continue on my way I am overtaken from time to time by older men who dismount from their motorbikes ahead of me. As I in turn pass them I see they are paying respects to their ancestors (or siblings) lying in the thousands of tombs that crowd out the forest on either side of the road for miles and miles.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3449

Deep in the rice paddies

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_34e7February 27th 2017

At the other end of the Halong Bay geologic formation the Karst towers of Ninh Bin erupt out of rice paddies rather than the ocean, but the image is still iconic. The 6-hour journey is ample time to reflect on the ticketing agent’s parting comment “be careful where you get off the bus madam, your hotel will be nowhere near Ninh Bin” – shades of Burma? it is clearly called the ‘Ninh Bin Valley Homestay’. But no sooner have we pulled into Tam Coc (Nam Coc? it’s not on the map) I am hauled off the bus by a rather severe young lady with a clip board, and after a quick phone call with no input from me settled in a pick-up truck apparently en route to NBV-H, which turns out to be nowhere near anywhere at all, let alone Ninh Bin.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3504NBV-H is located beside a lake at the very end of the very furthest rice paddy in a narrow valley hemmed in by Karst towers that are populated by a herd of goats desperately and unsuccessfully attempting to answer their hormonal drive to mate (evidently the herd doesn’t contain any males) and so is somewhat noisier than its bucolic setting might suggest (thankfully management acquires a male goat next morning, which calms everything down somewhat once he is released into the mountains). NBV-H accommodations don’t disappoint – bamboo huts, each with its own lakeside terrace, jaunty hammock and mosquito net over the bed because there is no glass in the windows and the walls leak like a sieve. Its single shortcoming is that it is so remote from the elusive Ninh Bin (and everywhere else) and the road between the rice paddies is so narrow, it would be positively dangerous to venture out once the sun has set, leaving us at the mercy of the spectacularly untalented on-site chef. The two millenials who appear to run the establishment are cheerfully unapologetic about the menu’s many failings until they sense a revolt is afoot, then they try to mollify us with the promise of a goat barbeque, which (maybe unsurprisingly) is a specialty of the region.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1684Bright and early after breakfast I steer my bike through the mist rising off the rice paddies further into the Karst to the Na Trang river. Na Trang is a well-kept secret, advertised only in Vietnamese and unlike the more touristy and apparently meager 1 hour boat ride out of Tam Coc, is a 4-hour tour that traverses no fewer than 9 caves.  Most of the few other tourists are Vietnamese so I endeavor to elbow my way onto the only other boat with Westerners – Chelsea from Cedar Rapids, Mike from South Dakota and his Vietnamese guide Xum (in response to my inquiry as to whether this is his first trip to Vietnam, Mike replies ‘Oh no I’ve been coming here since 1969’).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_167fWe are under the command of a dowager equally adept at rowing with her hands or her feet, which comes in useful since each of the 9 caves has only one feasible route which she must navigate to within an inch of her life, while the ceiling lowers and plunges around us. Thank goodness for Xum who can translate her indistinct murmuring as ‘Duck! Now!’ enabling us to prostrate ourselves hastily on the bottom of the boat (our dowager is so much tinier she doesn’t have to). UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1685

On the way back, I notice that dead goats have materialized for sale beside the road. Every single one looks as though it has fallen off a mountain and lain in the heat for several days. Even the vaguely sketchy guys selling them look a bit embarrassed. I’m only slightly sorry I’ll miss the goat barbecue, the day after I leave.

 

 

Cat Ba Island

February 25th 2017

Should Tolstoy have had the opportunity to visit Cat Ba Island’s main town, he would surely have found a way to expand his famous “All families…”:  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_35e7Because all seaside towns, particularly during off season, are also dispiriting in their own way. As one who was born and raised in a seaside town I can immediately see how Cat Ba – looming out of the mist that has accompanied the dusk – fits in: The aged trees along the promenade strung with dim and dusty fairy lights; the badly lit seafood restaurants with uncomfortable chairs and the same mediocre menu; the thoroughly unwelcoming bed and breakfasts promising tepid water, thin toilet paper and damp sheets. This being Vietnam another layer is the battalion of backpackers currently changing guard at the bus station, one cohort moving out to be replaced with the second moving into the restaurants in search of dinner for less than a dollar. Out come the jungle drums, and within five minutes we are all congregated around a convivial table swapping travel tips (I have been enfolded to this elite group by virtue of inadvertently staying at one of the most dispiriting Stalinist era B and Bs in town.

My fourth-floor room may have a balcony that overlooks the sea, but I can’t see it through the mist and to get to it I must navigate the most uncomfortable bed in South East Asia, a faux tempurpedic that takes a full 8 hours to acknowledge the presence of my body; I have not yet been able to identify toilet paper). The backpacker contingent is a vast symbiotic organism that inhabits the even more rancid hostels. They know all the deals, all the scams, all the places to go and to avoid. If only I could remember a tenth of this information my travels would exist in a completely different orbit.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3582The next day a significant subset of my new BP friends, plus two other ladies of a certain age (a grumpy woman-splaining Swede and a fierce Spaniard) embark on a 9- hour boat tour of Lan Ha bay. Halong and Lan Ha bay provide those iconic Vietnamese images of massive limestone Karst towers thrusting out of the turquoise ocean, but while Halong is wall to wall Chinese tourists in obnoxiously noisy packs, Lan Ha, because it is only accessible from the more remote Cat Ba Island, remains largely unexploited. When the sun makes an unexpected appearance, our guide suggests a couple of hours kayaking through the caves and lagoons. I see him expertly weighing up his senior contingent, and not surprisingly he asks me whether I want to canoe with him. UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3579Fortunately, I can rebuff him for Grace a clearly capable 20-something from Berkeley who has taken me under her wing. We give each other a quick J and C stroke refresher, seize headlamps to ensure we don’t brain ourselves on the roofs of the caves, and we’re off! What a blast! The icing on the cake comes as (no thanks to me) we emerge expertly from one cave into a remote lagoon to a family of critically endangered Cat Ba langurs (current worldwide population about 70) sunning themselves on the beach. The guide too is ecstatic he tells us even he only sees them every couple of months. Poor guy, he has ended up with the lazy Frenchman who is preoccupied with Ambre Solaire, and who has put his feet up and refused to paddle. By the end of the day we are all even faster friends and they suggest ending with a night of karaoke. I regretfully decline in favor of my intransigent tempurpedic, and an early start tomorrow for Ninh Bin.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_354c