|November 16, 2009
So, we were off to a new country and Japan was one of the few we were really not bothered about leaving. By that, I mean some of the other countries, like Egypt and China, we couldn’t wait to get out but we could have happily spent more time exploring Japan even though we felt we had seen plenty in the way of temples and shrines and could do with less of those!
Japan has been great and the people have been so friendly. Their culture is so hard to define for me as you tend from the historical and ceremonious (from the castles to the shrines to the sumo wrestling yesterday) which you can see are truly traditional to the almost complete westernization of many of the youths and their culture. It isn’t a “western” country, far from it, but the influence of America here is noticeable on every street corner. We hadn’t just hung around large cities, either – with Takamatsu and Shodo-shima being just two of the places off the tourist track that we visited. However, the mix of traditional and western is unique and makes for a lovely place to stay. It is such a shame that, if forecasts are to be believed, Japan could suffer in coming years due to a rapidly shrinking population – I can’t remember exactly but I think it was somewhere in the region of the population halving to around 65m in the next 20 years. That is pretty extreme and a scary thought for a nation which not only relies on its people for its economy but also the elders and welfare system which still places emphasis on the young to care for their elders.
I couldn’t pick a favourite thing in Japan but then equally I couldn’t pick a least favourite. It didn’t have the spectacular highlights like Victoria Falls, Petra or the Xin Warriors but then it didn’t have lowlights like Egyptian men and rip-off tours to see a “remote” Buddha surrounded by high-rises! Sometimes you wonder if you’d rather have a trip which was good all the time and a trip which was great sometimes and awful the others. Thankfully, so far, our trip has been a mixture of both with the good and great outweighing the bad many, many times over. I have just asked Elizabeth about her favourite thing in Japan (she always has favourites!) and her answer was okonomiyaki – bloody pancakes! Of all the stuff we saw, she picks pancakes! They were bloody good though!
Sat on the train though, I still can’t believe how built-up Japan is. Every piece of flat land here is built on, particularly in the Kansai region and spreading up to Tokyo. Looking out the train window at some of the steeper slopes, it is amusing to see the line of houses squeezed into the valleys that connect them. We saw some lovely gardens and parks here and I suspect if you go really far south and really far north, or even into the Japanese Alps, you could avoid the urban sprawl to some extent. Save that for next time.
Anyway, we were off to Vietnam next and after yet another uneventful train ride and simple check-in at Kansai Airport, we waited around for our flight, grabbing a lovely Japanese curry for lunch while we waited.
The flight was just over 5 hours and it seemed to drag a little. I hadn’t realized it was that long but when you consider how far north Japan is compared to Vietnam, I guess it makes sense.
Once at Hanoi, we had to queue for our visas, a process which was remarkably inefficient and time-consuming! Rather than get our visas ahead of time, we were “informed” that the quickest way was to get an online approval letter and queue at the airport. Once we’d got off the flight we headed straight for the visa desk and handed our forms in before joining a second queue and waiting. Inside a small room sat a pile of passports and one man entering information onto a computer. There were 5 or 6 other people waiting around watching him and we wandered why they weren’t doing anything to speed up the process. It appeared they had to wait for a senior official to sign the visas and until he turned up, we just had to wait.
Once he finally showed up and signed the documents, we got our passports back and joined another line, this time to clear immigration. This took another 20 minutes or so by which time we were keen to get out of there. It was gone 10pm and given the time difference with Japan, it seemed like it was 2 hours later.
Having gotten our bags quite quickly and left the airport, we found our pickup waiting for us and we ventured off into the Hanoi traffic which was an experience in itself. The scooters and bicycles were everywhere and the road seemed to have a hierarchy – buses stopped for no-one, cars only stopped for buses, scooters stopped for buses and cars and pedestrians stopped for everyone! This resulted in a few close calls as the cars just pulled out without looking and expected the bikes to stop, which they generally did!
We checked in at the hotel and headed straight for the room and pretty quickly we fell asleep – we didn’t have much time around Hanoi and 2 of our 3 days we were going to be out in Halong Bay so we wanted to be fresh for tomorrow for a full day, especially as we had to visit the US Embassy, too.
November 17, 2009
We started off this morning at the US Embassy – Elizabeth’s passport was running low on pages so we thought we’d better resolve that sooner rather than later. Our hotel arranged a taxi for us but the driver was oblivious – he drove straight past the embassy and thankfully Elizabeth was watching as she spotted it and we were able to stop the driver. We don’t know if he wanted to take us around the block to add some fare but either way we weren’t impressed. Equally, it wasn’t the right building so we had to walk a couple of blocks to find the correct one.
We went through the main door at the consulate but that was as far as I got. Only US passport holders are allowed inside the embassy buildings and I was made to wait outside. This annoyed Elizabeth and she complained to the security lady. I just did as I was told and couldn’t be bothering arguing. After all, we needed their services a lot more than they needed our hassles!
Once the passport had been dropped off, we headed for the Museum of Ethnology. Inside, the displays went through all the different regions of the country and the people who lived there, indicating how many of each people were currently living in each region and how they survived and lived. After a while, this seemed very repetitive as there are only so many times you need to read that such-and-such group and hunter gatherers and such-and-such other group are hunter gatherers! Before long, all the groups merged into one and it was difficult to see any differences between the clothes they wore, the tools they used and even the ceremonies that they conducted. They were all close enough to be difficult to be separately identifiable.
Outside though there was a display of wooden houses from around the country. Like the outside museums we’d seen in Irkutsk and Osaka, the houses were quite cool and it was great to go inside them. Many of them were built on stilts and were fairly high to climb up into. The floors on these were rickety and you weren’t sure how strong they were! The carvings of the stilts and door frames were really detailed and many had animals carved into them. One house was a tomb building and around the outside were statue carvings which are described as “sexually explicit” with men with large penises prodding them towards pregnant women, both signs of fertility. These figures are intended to accompany the dead into the afterlife although to me they seemed to be indicative of the creation of life, not the end of it.
Outside the museum was a small souvenir shop. Inside there were lots of cool little items and it turned out they were all made by a Vietnamese craft school. Despite saying we weren’t going to buy anything much here, we couldn’t resist so Elizabeth got a little purse, I got a bag and we got a couple of embroidered pictures. The items we bought came to less than $13 so it was a large improvement on the things we’d bought elsewhere! During the day we saw other things too but none were anywhere near as good as the things we’d bought – we were glad we’d taken the chance to get them when we did.
From there we headed to the Temple of Literature. We had originally intended to go here and then decided not to. Given the things we’d seen in other countries, we were now becoming a little more selective over our choices of sights to visit. This was one we thought we could skip but given we had some time to spare and it was close to where we wanted to go for lunch, we thought we would stop by.
Inside, the temple was really pretty with the large entry gates leading into a courtyard with a pond in the middle before another gate which led to the main temple. It was nicely decorated and was far enough of the beaten track to not be overloaded with tourists. The temple itself was a Confucian temple and the main shrine was elaborately decorated with statues of Confucius and his followers. Whilst the temple and shrine were really cool, the final courtyard setting was a little tacky – each smaller building had been turned into a shop of some sort selling cheap tourist souvenirs and the like. One small room even held an ATM, which was great for us as we needed cash but I’m sure had Confucius turning in his grave!
For lunch we went to a café called KOTO (short for “Know One, Teach One). Whilst it didn’t serve traditional food, it did have a local feel to it and was a charitable, non-profit organization. The café staff were all Vietnamese street children and each year around 30 street children are offered the chance to be trained in the hospitality sector. The children are taught cooking, waiting, foreign languages and anything else deemed necessary for them to thrive in this area. So far, the charity has a 100% success rate for placing the students into further employment whether it is with KOTO themselves or with another large hotel or restaurant. As I said, the food wasn’t very Vietnamese but it was very good nonetheless and the service was good. Combined with the souvenirs we’d bought, we at least felt like we were giving something back to the people without feeling ripped off or without wondering who was profiting from our expenditure.
From there we walked to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. We were completely let down by Lonely Planet here and we should’ve known better by now than to trust these books to the letter. We decided to walk around here to see the area even though the book said the mausoleum was closed. It stated that for 3 months each year the mausoleum is closed so the body can have restoration work done to it. We found out from someone on our tour to Halong Bay that they had been in and seen it. Having seen Lenin and Mao, it would’ve been good to have completed the set but how many embalmed bodies do you really need to see?! Still, we wanted to walk around the complex and see what it was like and we spent some time doing that.
The park around the site was very green and peaceful and the accompanying museum complex was large and imposing, complementing the equally imposing mausoleum building itself.
We had to be back at the embassy by 4pm to pick up the passport so we jumped in a taxi and headed off. This time I didn’t even try and go in and left Elizabeth to it. She returned only a few minutes later with a bulky passport and lots of free pages. Should be plenty for now!
Back at the hotel we rested a little while and got our stuff ready for tomorrow – we were taking a 2 day trip to Halong Bay and didn’t want to take our huge bags with us. After that and a short nap, we headed out.
Our hotel is in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and the streets here and narrow and compact. It is a really “cosy” area but even with all the people around it doesn’t feel the slightest bit unsafe. We headed to an Indian restaurant, figuring the tour would stuff us full of Vietnamese staples, and found a large restaurant full of westerners obviously with the same idea as us! The curries and naan breads were very good and thankfully it was so much cheaper than Japan. I’m sure it wasn’t cheap by local standards but we were happy enough! Afterwards, we walked around and tried to find a small bar called Red Beer which served micro-brewed home beers but it seems the place doesn’t exist at the address we were given. Oh well, it’s not like we needed the beer, really!
November 18, 2009
Today we got up early and headed off on our tour. It had been arranged by the hotel and seemed to be a good deal. We got the bus early for the long ride to Halong Bay and were actually glad we were picked up early as the bus was packed and some people had to sit for over 3 hours on temporary seats on the bus. Even a stop at a tacky tourist place didn’t help ease the pain on the buttocks much!
We arrived at the Halong City to catch our boat around 4 hours after leaving Hanoi and once our passports had been checked we boarded the junk boat. We were expecting something quite rustic but it was actually very nice with a large dining area and decent sized bedrooms. There were 15 people on the boat and 7 or 8 staff members but there was plenty of room to move around. The main problem on the boat was that our guide didn’t really tell us what was going on so we spent a lot of time sitting in the dining area waiting to do something.
After a stop for lunch just outside the bay, we headed to one of the caves inside the bay. The cave was called “Amazing Cave” (I’m sure the local name is something different!) and it lived up to the name. Inside the cave opened up into a huge cavern and the rock formations were really interesting. It was just a shame that there were so many tourists in there. It seems in an effort to preserve the site from tourism, the authorities were pushing all tour groups to the same sights – good in theory, I suppose. Our tour guide, called Du or “Star” in English, spoke realy good English but his knowledge of the caves and such like was really lacking, telling the group a complete load of rubbish about what stalactites and stalagmites are made of. Even the guides at the caves in Bermuda were correctly taught that!
From the caves we headed out of the cove a little so some people could do some kayaking. Given the cold weather and the amount of large boats around, Elizabeth and I decided it wasn’t something we wanted to do. We were quickly getting the impression everything we did and saw would include hundreds of other boats in viewpoint. Every time we stopped at a dock we were jostling for position with a bunch of other junk boats.
By 5pm, we were anchored for the night and it seemed our “cruise” wasn’t going to involve much cruising. I suppose this was one way to make them some more money as they saved in diesel for the boats!
The food on the boat was pretty good and was mainly seafood, which meant Elizabeth didn’t like much of it.
After sitting around chatting to some of the other tourists and enjoying a few beers, we headed to our little cabin to sleep. It was still early really but we were both tiring from the recent late nights and early mornings.
November 19, 2009
On the second day we awoke still in our same spot and as we ate breakfast our boat started cruising. This time, we were cruising towards Cat Ba, one of the only inhabited islands in the bay. Here a few people got off the boat as they were spending a night here but we were heading back.
The scenery within the bay was outstanding as the green-covered rocks jutted out around the bay and were everywhere within view. Again, it was just a shame we seemed to do such little cruising and there were so many other boats. I’d happily pay more to do this tour and have a bit more peace and quiet.
We were back at Halong City by around 11am and, like most tours of this type, were shepherded for a stupidly early lunch. We weren’t really hungry and the food wasn’t much good anyway so it wasn’t a problem avoiding eating!
We then had the joys of the long bus ride back and again felt glad we had a proper seat rather than the temporary seats. This bus seemed to have even more people packed in than the first one.
The bus rides, both ways, had provided some really cool scenery, with areas of typical paddy fields punctuated by the odd little village, all with houses which looked a bit out of place. The houses were often 3 or 4 stories and the top was often an open verandah. The funniest thing about them was the way they were built, almost always standing solitary with completely grey, faceless, windowless walls, almost as if there should’ve (and maybe even used to be) a property of similar standing next to it. However, these buildings were really interesting and my only issue was that the bus was going so quickly and so bumpily along, it was impossible to get pictures. Of course, when we stopped again, we were nowhere near any of these cool things we’d seen, stuck once again in a tourist trap. This is by far and away the most annoying thing, for me, about any of these tours – you miss way more than you actually see. I’d have foregone an hour stop at a crappy lunch place for a couple of stops on route to check out the countryside and the little villages. It’s a no-brainer for me.
Once we returned to the hotel, I ended up in an argument with the manager. I wanted to know how much we owed him for the hotel, tour and taxi rides we had taken. He gave me the amount in dollars and I told him I was paying in dong. The current exchange rate is about 17,500 and he multiplied the number by 19,000. I told him I was not paying that rate and would pay at market rate. He gave me some crap about how it would cost him to translate the money to dollars and I pointed out that he lived in Vietnam and didn’t need to translate his own currency into a foreign one. I was quite irate at his blatant attempts to rip me off and he even tried (incorrectly) to explain exchange rates to me, only shutting up when I told him I was an accountant. I told him I would not pay what he was asking and suggested he think of a better rate to charge me. A bit later, I headed back down and he had left – I had found buy/sell rates on the internet and wanted to tell him what I was willing to pay. His assistant called him and he agreed the rate. I guess us threatening to report him to the Vietnamese tourist authority was the deciding point. We are still going to report him as the amount he was trying to rip us off by was around 10% of what we owed him and would’ve been enough to pay for an extra night at the hotel! I don’t think it is right and had I not seen him type in “19,000” into the calculator I’d probably have paid, as I suspect many people do.
Back in Hanoi we headed out to try and see the water puppet show but unfortunately it was sold out – we’ll have to try and see one of these shows in Saigon. From there, needing a decent feed we found an Irish bar and tucked into some hearty food.
Hanoi has been pretty good so far, although we’ve not spent much time in the city. I don’t think Elizabeth has liked it too much as the streets are busy and crossing a road is a walk-and-hope experience. It is one of those things you just have to get used to and keep alert and aggressive – put your best foot forward. Invariably, the bikes will swerve around you so you just have to watch the cars and buses! Easy!
Back at the hotel we packed our bags, ready to head to Hue tomorrow.
November 20, 2009
This morning we headed to Hao Lo Prison, formerly known as the Hanoi Hilton by the US pilots who were held there during the Vietnam War. It appears it is still known as that as our hotel receptionist didn’t recognize the name Hao Lo but was quick enough to understand Hilton Prison!
For once, our taxi headed straight there without the now almost inevitable additional trip around the block. Inside, we walked through the section of the prison which still remains. Many of the displays talk about the prisoners who were kept here during the early part of the 20th Century, many of whom were accused of conspiring against the leadership here. It seemed to brush over large parts of the Vietnam conflict until we finally found the last couple of rooms.
In the early part of the prison we saw the shackles used to hold the prisoners, the cells where prisoners who had broken rules were kept as well as, most creepily, the guillotine used to execute some of the prisoners and the cells used to keep prisoners who were due to face execution. Four such cells were labeled with the name of one of the occupants and the date and method by which they were executed. The area here was tiny, not just the cells but the corridor between them, and it was really weird. I tried thinking how this compared to Alcatraz and while Alcatraz had a certain weird aura about it, this place went from being just another run down building to a quite creepy, disturbing place in a matter of seconds.
When we reached the area talking about the Vietnam War, there was a lot mentioned in relation to John McCain, a former POW here and now US Senator. They had the flight suit he had been wearing when he had been captured as well as pictures of his capture and, later, of his release as one of the last batches of Americans handed over after the war. The propaganda here was blatant and while most people agree the Americans had no place in Vietnam in the first place, it was funny reading how the Vietnamese claim the marches and protests going on in Washington and around the US were to save the lives of the Vietnamese and reckoned the US people were trying to appeal to the government to leave the Vietnamese alone. From all that I have ever heard, read and understood about the US reaction to the war, the reason for the marches was the needless deaths of thousands of young Americans who had been dragged into a political war being fought without reason (sounds all too familiar to me, too). I don’t think for one minute that anyone but a small percentage of marchers and protesters actually gave a damn about the Vietnamese, rightly or wrongly.
Still, this was Vietnam and they can paint the picture how they please. If anything, the picture they create is good for the average American tourist, especially if the locals are taught that the American public wanted to save them but the big, bad government wanted them killed.
The prison was interesting and gave an insight not only into the Vietnamese perspective of the war with America but also the rise of the socialist republic it now is and the fight against independence from France.
Back at the hotel, we relaxed a bit before we checked out and paid our bill, the manager still claiming what a nice guy he was having not been allowed to rip me off. He was still wittering on about black market exchange rates. This just annoyed me as we’d been into an exchange place this morning where he could take my money and exchange it to dollars for 17,800 – nowhere near the 20,000 black market rate he claimed (apparently the 19,000 offered yesterday was his discount on the black market rate – what a great guy?!)
I was glad to be leaving there. The hotel had been clean, the breakfast reasonable, the room was big, it was conveniently located but one little incident with an obnoxious rip-off artist just seems to jade everything and makes you wonder how much the tour really should’ve been that we went on.