My Son, serene Vietnamese Hindu temples

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About 40km inland from An Bang are the ruins of My Son, once the spiritual capitol of the Cham people.  Public transport isn’t great in Vietnam so I arranged a taxi to take me there and back, agreeing on a 2 hour visit – I have no idea how much it cost but nothing costs much in Vietnam.  The drive there was pleasant enough, the roads are in good condition and not that busy, it was on a Saturday.  One thing I did notice was that may of the houses were blaring local music from their disco speakers either from the porch or lounge.  That’s something I hadn’t mentioned in my previous posts; many households have large nightclub/disco speakers, usually in their lounge – just what purpose they serve I have no clue.  Even if no one is there visiting the volume is above casual listening.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruin complex

 

Brief History & Background

During circa. 4th – 14th century Vietnam as we know it today was broadly divided into four regions:

  • North, ruled by the Chinese
  • Middle (region of modern Hanoi), ruled by the Viet people (not yet known as Vietnamese)
  • South (Hoi An along the coast to current Southern Vietnam), was the Champa empire of the Cham people with Đồng Dương as the capitol till the end of the 10th century, moving further South to Bình Định Province afterwards
  • West, the Angkor/Khmer empire

Before and during the period 4th – 14th centuries there were many clashes between the regions primarily between the Cham and Chinese, the earlier part of that period was dominated by the Cham, the latter by the Chinese, after that period by the Viet.  The rise and abandonment of My Son runs parallel to the fortunes and fall of the Cham.  That is as shorter history and background as you can get!

My Son these days is in an isolated area, arriving there I questioned just how worth the visit would be, that’s how isolated it felt.  The entrance to this UNESCO World Heritage site is odd, the first seems quite ordinary with a few nondescript shops and a small but nice museum.  From there you cross a river by a semi-ornate bridge at which point I thought the main site would begin, I was wrong.  The next stage reminded me of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, a well tarred road with a shuttle service on a golf-cart train (the best description I can think of) taking about 10 minute.  Third and last is a 20-30 minute walk to the actual My Son archaeological site, more about this walk shortly.  The second part of the entry is world class compared to the other places I’d been to in Vietnam, I was impressed.

My Son

“Second” entrance to My Son temple ruins

My Son

One of the many little streams running through the area – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

 

Reverting back to the third part of the entrance, the walk to the actual My Son site.  Well, located in dense jungle, the well paved footpath the only reason you know you are not lost as it weaves through the trees, carpet and walls of green vegetation.  There is an ever presence of water from numerous small streams to the regular trickling of water hidden by the thicket.  Whilst in Hoi An my attire was shorts, t-shirts and flip flops (closed shoes when riding), it was always hot and humid, My Son brought this to a whole new level, especially the humidity…swimming in the sea felt drier!  The walkway is about 2km, by the time I got to the site my t-shirt was drenched, the heat and humidity was relentless.

My Son

My Son was used for more than a thousand years, the site was used prior to the 4th century for what some say hundreds of years, the site was at its peak around the 10th Century – it is a Hindu religious site dedicated to Shiva.  Throughout the centuries Kings, Priest and the wealthy build temples dedicated to Shiva at My Son, in total there were over 70 temples.  I use the word “were” for a few reasons, firstly after the 14th century the site fell into neglect and by and large abandoned, the jungle and time taking over.  Interest in the site was rekindled by a Frenchman in the late 19th century which lead to restoration of the site beginning in the 1930’s.  Of this restoration work it included the main and most spectacular temple called now referred to as temple A1, build in the 7th century.  Secondly, during the Vietnam War the Americans carpet bombed the area over one week in August 1969 destroying most of the temples and obliterating temple A1.  The remnants of the bombing still very evident today with craters and blackened brickwork, the centre of the complex was least affected but did not go unscathed.

My Son

Stele, pedestal and temple – My Son temple ruins

My Son

Stele and remains of a temple – My Son temple ruins

My Son

Entrance and remains of a temple – My Son temple ruins

 

There are 14 classifications of temple groups at My Son (of the original 70+ temples) in 6 architectural styles.  Of the remaining structures all are thought to be religious:

  • Kalan- a brick sanctuary, typically in the form of a tower, used to house a deity
  • Mandapa – an entry hallway contiguous with a sanctuary
  • Kosagrha(fire-house) – a construction, typically with a saddle-shaped roof, used to house the valuables belonging to the deity or to cook for the deity
  • Gopura – a gate-tower leading into a walled temple complex

The site itself is well marked but with grouping and styles I got confused, especially when revisiting my photos months later and trying to link them to which group etc.  It’s not a small area to cover either, not massive but with many temples being propped up, falling apart and many not more than a foundation remaining I’ve decided not to attempt to label my pictures with group &/or style unless I’m 100% confident!

My Son

What remains of a temple bombed during the Vietnam war – My Son temple ruins

My Son

The A1 temple and associated structures, restored in the 1930’s not totally destroyed after carpet bombing in August 1969

My Son

Destroyed temple complex, centre of the My Son temple complex in the distance

My Son is serene, ancient buildings fighting back the jungle (with a little help from us humans), there shapes of mostly sharp edges somehow compliment their surroundings.  The structures are large but not overbearing, they have a symbiosis with their environment; whether this was the case when they were constructed I don’t know, I think they would have been. Their red brick an earthly colour now blackened due to recent history and coloured by green vines and moss, the gentle slow struggle between nature and man in unison.

My Son

One of the many destroyed temples during the Vietnam war – My Son temple ruins

My Son

One of the temples now used to house some of the finds that are not in the museum – My Son temple complex

My Son

I believe this was part of the A1 temple – My Son temple ruins

The exact construction technique is not known except that the sculptures are cut directly into the brickwork – when in the process of building is not known.  There is no plaster or render, nor is it known what was used as mortar; the current hypothesis is that a resin was used in conjunction with the same material used as the bricks.  When you look at the structures now it looks as if the bricks are stacked on top of each other with nothing between.  It is also not known when the bricks were fired (before building or in situ) and when the carvings were done (pre-building or in situ).  One of the reasons so little is known about these structures is because the Champa never left any writing behind, sure there are stele but these are used for religious purposes.  They had and kept written records but wrote on degradable materials, combine that with the climate, these records perished long before any archaeologist visited the area.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple complex ruins

My Son

Good view of the carved brickwork – My Son temple ruins

One thing I must admit whilst walking around the area, I kept thinking of the many Vietnam war movies I had seen over the years (my three favourites being Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter).  Not to get political, I felt sorry for the young Americans sent here to fight in such inhospitable jungle environment that must have been foreign from where they came from.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like in full army gear marching through this wet, thick forest, not to mention during the rainy season.  Without local knowledge there was no way the Americans would succeed.  You could have thousands of Vietnamese hiding around the circumference of My Son and you wouldn’t even know, that’s how impenetrable the vegetation is, it gets even worse the deeper you go.  To some degree the only respite the locals would have had was that they knew the area, for them living and fighting in the tunnels and jungle must have been treacherous too.

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple complex ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

This is a beautiful place to visit, with that beauty comes the unforgiving jungle will all its danger and peril.  Visitors come here every day to see the sites, not always remembering the killing fields around it.  With the indiscriminate nature of carpet bombing nobody really knows who or how many people would have died at My Son and the surrounding areas.  Maybe the only consolation to the killing that occurred here is that now this area has a serenity, an equilibrium between man and nature, I hope making it an acceptable last resting place for all those who died here.

My Son

The once red bricks now blackened, remnants from the carpet bombings – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

Yes, I was sweating like a waterfall, the conditions were uncomfortable, but I left My Son with many thoughts running through my mind war, the cruelty of man, beauty of nature, dedication of ancient civilisations and the lost knowledge of old cultures.  I walked back to the shuttle cart in a solemn mood with and underlying current of joy, joy to be able to experience these things in life.  I only waited for the shuttle for about 15 minutes, I filled my time watching a dog in total bliss playing for some toilet paper.  Who knows where he got it from, but he was having the time of his life playing with it…it’s the little things in life that makes us happy – not a bad lesson to learn.  I headed back to An Bang.

My Son

The area where the most restoration has been done – My Son temple ruins

My Son

My Son temple ruins

My Son

Not much but foundations and low walls remaining of some of the temples after carpet bombing during the Vietnam war – My Son temple complex ruins

My last 2 days in Vietnam were spent on the island of Lao Cham before I headed off to Kuala Lumpur etc. etc.  Lao Cham will therefore be my last blog about my time in Vietnam which I’ll post a few days after this.

My Son

Damaged remnants of part of My Son temple complex

My Son

One of the many little streams (this was one of the bigger) around the area – My Son temple complex

My Son temple ruins

The area where the most restoration has been done – My Son temple ruins

My Son

A dog having the time of his life playing with some toilet paper

 

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Hoi An Ancient Town – Lanterns, Colours, Cultures

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Hoi An Ancient Town is a 15th – 16th century trading port, its diverse history is reflected in the architecture influenced by Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, French, other European and Southeast Asian countries who used to trade at this important location.  Wondering through the streets you could easily be mistaken for being in Spain or Portugal.  It somewhat reminded me of the old buildings in Porto on a smaller scale; buildings with their elegant lines, art nouveau’esc designs – the distinctive mustard yellow paint now aged in the only way that pollution and time can achieve.

The area and town has been called many names through the ages, the locals called Cham (Champa people), were powerful and wealthy as they controlled the lucrative spice route during the 7th – 10th century.  During the 16th – 17th century the town port expanded into and international harbour bringing people from Europe, India and greater Asia to trade, work and settle in what was then called Hai Pho (Seaside Town).  Not only was this estuary town strategic in location, the waterways served as a perfect means of transport inland and throughout the area.  Although it town had been established for hundreds of years it only became a formal port at the end of the 16th century lead in large degree by the Portuguese and the local Nguyễn Lord Nguyễn Hoàng, this was very much the birth of Hoi An.

Depending on which source of information you use, by the late 18th century Hoi An was considered one of the best, if not the best port for trading in Asia…nothing lasts forever.  The region was split primarily into three groups; North, Middle and South Vietnam.  The Tay Son Rebellion brought about the demise of Hoi An, with trade moving down South to Da Nang where the French were given exclusive rights to the port as compensation for supporting Emperor Gai Long.  It seems to some degree that foreign influence was disliked, but impossible to stop.  The compromise was to limit or in the very least control foreign influence, so French exclusivity seemed to kill two birds with one stone.  Hoi An was forgotten about by people and time, reverting back to a small fishing village surrounded by remnants of its wealth and renowned past.

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

These days the mix of the past and present has made Hoi An a tourist destination, along with An Bang Beach at its doorstep it is fast becoming a prime destination in Vietnam.  Like I had mentioned in my previous post about An Bang I spent my time mostly riding around the area between An Bang and Hoi An Ancient Town.

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the old town of Hoi An is both interesting, quaint and diverse with totally different atmospheres during the day and evening.  I was going to say it’s not a large area, I suppose that’s true; by walking along the river you could walk from one end to the next in 20 minutes, but in my opinion it’s the roads parallel and perpendicular to the river that are the best.  Now that Hoi An Ancient Town is a tourist hot spot the roads are filled with touristy shops selling trinkets, far from tacky though.  Lanterns of assorted colours and shapes dangling across the street on string lines light up the roads at night of Hoi An Town, giving it an authentic Southeast Asian fell, almost an ambiance of an intimate carnival.

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

During the day there is a subdued buzz of activity in Old Town, still full of locals and tourists but not quite the same as the evenings.  Most shops are open with a few waiting for later in the day or early evening to start their business day, at night everything is open, and visitors seem to double.  Hoi An Ancient Town is closed to motorbikes and cars, a bonus, I don’t know when they introduced this but I would hate to have visited before then!  Bicycles are allowed and so are rickshaws which vocally “hoot” to get people out of the way, it is so crowded that we tried to ride through on one occasion only, we gave up parked our bikes and walked…walking is much quicker and less stressful 😊

Hoi An Ancient Town

Having a coffee watching life go by along the Thu Bon river in Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

One of the many restaurants and shops the line the river in Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

As with An Bang, life here is at a pace of its own…slow and slower, this is an authentic outdoor shopping centre for want of a better phrase.  A shopping centre set in an intimate historic setting where branded names are nowhere near to be seen….to my relief!  You could visit Hoi An Ancient Town for a day or many times like we did, each time seeing something different, many times we had dinner overlooking the river and ate while we watch the scenery of boats and people pass us by.

Hoi An Ancient Town

Thu Bon River with Cầu Quảng Trường

Hoi An Ancient Town

Lanterns the cross the streets in Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, I love water, especially rivers and streams.  The Thu Bon River still plays a vital role in the lives and livelihood of the people and the town.  Where it passes through Hoi An Ancient Town it is used as part of the tourist attraction taking visitors on rides through the nicer parts of town.  Lanterns used by the boats at night dot the river with faint colour, at a distance resembling coloured fireflies slowly skimming across the water.  It seemed every evening something was happening in Old Town, at first I thought it was a coincidence but Micha & Kim said they are always celebrating something, just about always!

Hoi An Ancient Town

Interesting light fixtures outside a shop in Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

One of the many inventive and creative street vendors in Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Some of the thousands of lanterns for sale

Hoi An is more than just An Bang &/or Old Town, with a population of circa. 120k people.  The periphery around Old Town is packed with locals, stores, street food and many large karaoke halls.  Riding past them at night I had many evening chuckling hearing pop star wanabees belting out western songs like banshees!  No, I didn’t go in at give it a go.  They take karaoke seriously here, the karaoke halls are like the flashy nightclubs inside and out, it is big business!  Our modus operandi tended to be ride around the outskirts of town during the day and spend the evening in Ancient town.  Jumping back to something I mentioned in my previous post, on many occasions heading back from Old Town to An Bang in the evening (it’s very safe, even very late at night) we saw many rats, bloody big one’s too!  I’m in no means being derogatory about the area, and absolutely have no intention deterring people from visiting either, its just an observation – in my opinion it’s a reality of having water, so many open markets, dense population and economic climate.  What I can say, is Hoi An Ancient town is clean as are the restaurants of which there are hundreds that serve delicious food…that includes the street food!

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Water Puppet Show

One evening we decided to go to the Water Puppet Show at the Hoi An Theatre (just before Hoi An Ancient Town when heading into town from An Bang); not as famous as the theatre in Hanoi but the three of us all enjoyed the show in Hanoi so thought why not see another show.  An open multipurpose theatre with semi outdoor seating, like an amphitheatre with a corrugated roof with the sides open and seats a few hundred.  It wasn’t busy and with the heat and humidity I was happy not to be sitting inside a stuffy theatre. The show was entertaining even though I had seen it before, yes, the show was exactly the same (we didn’t know that when we bought the tickets) as the one I saw in Hanoi…just not as “flashy”.  Having seen the show in Hanoi, the most famous of theatres in Vietnam (possibly globally) for Water Puppets any other theatre is likely to come across as second best.  However, I’d highly recommend going to watch the show if you don’t/didn’t get a chance to see it in Hanoi.

Hoi An

Water Puppet Show – Hoi An Theatre

Hoi An

Water Puppet Show – Hoi An Theatre

Even though I had seen the show before I still enjoyed it, it is something uniquely different and doubtful you’ll see anything else like it.  The storyline is identical but that’s not why you go see the water puppets; it’s the puppets, music, spectacle and mythological drama of the story they tell in a simplistic and most creative of ways.  This theatre is much more relaxed, you are able to get a much closer therefore clearer view of the show.  Just like in Hanoi I was fascinated by the reticulating limbs of the puppets splashing around in the water, I would go again to either theatre tomorrow if the opportunity arose.  Is it a life altering show, no, is it unique and enjoyable for all ages, yes – if you get the opportunity to see it I’d recommend you do so.

We were heading to Hoi An Ancient Town one evening deciding to take a new scenic route instead of the our usual quick one along the main road.  Why a scenic route considering it was dark I don’t know, but familiarity can breed contempt &/or boredom (a saying one of my managers used to use, don’t fully agree with it), we seemed to try loads of different routes, why the hell not 😊!  We passed what I can only describe as a workshop/house; workshop downstairs (over spilling onto the pavement and into the road) and house at the back and on top.  I couldn’t quite figure out if this was a residential, industrial or commercial area, in all probability it was all three in one…seems common in Vietnam.  At first what made us stop was what they were making, colourful water floats and carnival type masks of various sizes.

After stopping to admire their work and like clockwork their friendly and inviting demeanour we found out it was a family business, we couldn’t quite get to how many family members.  Just like everywhere else they were happy to invite us in and show us what they were up to.  Considering it wasn’t a shop it was in true Vietnamese style that they let up nosily watch them at work and sift through the many things on display and lying about.  In Vietnam they do things differently, a Health & Safety worker in the UK (most countries) would have had a heart attack going through this place – almost all the plugs had live wires pushed straight into the sockets, never mind the welding around the many flammable substances and materials.  We spent near an hour there, and true to Vietnamese style they sold Julie one of their masks…for next to nothing.

Hoi An

At the mask makers

Hoi An

hmmm doubt this would pass health and safety – at the mask makers

Over the road was a communist party hall, closed now because it was early evening, yet every 15 minutes or so they would play government statements bellowing into the area through tannoys.  I found this very interesting, so different to my own upbringing and experiences.  Through my time in Vietnam I didn’t get the opportunity to have a thorough discussion with a local to get their thoughts and opinions on life and politics.  Not that I would want to convert them, but how interesting it would be to get the ideals of someone who has had a totally different experience in their surroundings and upbringing – this is one of the main regrets I have about my two weeks in Vietnam.

Lantern Festival

Once a month on full moon they have the Lantern Festival in Hoi An Ancient Town.  All the main streetlights are turned off especially along the river, the town is awash with colour radiating from lanterns crisscrossing above head in the streets and floating candle lanterns drifting along the river.   Sure, the selling of the floating lanterns is a money maker from the tourists but there are no pushy sales people, they cost almost nothing too!  Old Town changes it’s vibe almost daily, I’ve said so before, this is especially evident in the evenings – a great place to visit, that’s why we went back almost every night!

Hoi An Ancient Town

Lantern Festival – Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

The famous 16th-17th century Japanese Bridge – Chinese used to be on one side of the town and the Japanese on the other. This bridge was to link the different communities

Hoi An Ancient Town

All the street lights are turned off during the Lantern Festival

The lantern festival isn’t like a mardi gras though the place is abuzz including dragon dancing.  We got to Old Town a little late on the evening of the Lantern Festival so missed the show of dragon dancers, we did however get to see them practising on a few occasions.  Doing what must be like a cardio workout in seriously hot and humid conditions must be bloody tiring, not to mention wearing dragon costume!  Watching them practise was insightful, I had no idea how physically demanding dragon dancing could be – I have a new-found respect and admiration for the performers.

Repeating myself, there is a lot to see in Old Town, like all places I’ve visited the more we went there the more I saw and noticed – I know that’s stating the obvious.  Considering how many times we went we still didn’t see everything, many temples/monuments and places of historical interest…that’s just how things go when visiting a new place.  There is an opportunity cost when visiting an area, you see some things at the expense of others in the hope that one day you will return to see the rest, time will tell – I’ve lived in London for 20 years and still have many things to see and experience.  What I like about Hoi An is you could visit for a few hours, a day or a few and still be able to enjoy it.  It’s the kind of place where you can stroll around the streets do nothing much other than looking and still have an interesting and enjoyable time.

Hoi An Ancient Town

stationary river float – Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

Stationary river float – Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An

Hoi An – just some decorations on the pavement

Hoi An Ancient Town is a rustic revival of a once prosperous town.  The mix of cultures and colours easily confuses you at times as to where you are or even what continent you are in, that’s just part of what makes this place so interesting.  It may be surrounded by farmland and to a degree poverty, but here the Vietnamese embrace their historical and current diversity combined with its challenging past – each age of time and all those who temporarily settled here from near and far left their mark now reflected in the varied architecture.

My time in Hoi An and Vietnam was coming to an end, two weeks was to short – I had not anticipated how much I would enjoy the country.  The original plan was to track down to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, instead I got caught up with the sites and lifestyle of Hoi An, no regrets.  During my time in Hoi An I did a day trip to My Son, that will be my next post, after that a day and a half trip to the island of Lao Cham will end my time in Vietnam before I headed off to Kuala Lumpur for a few days then Indonesia.

Always keen to get thoughts and feedback on my blog, if you have the time I would really appreciated it.  My Son should be posted soon….internet permitting!

Hoi An Ancient Town

Apparently a local favourite drink, supposed to be very healthy for you too. No idea what it’s called, came with a flower petal and leaf…tasted delicious

Hoi An Ancient Town

A huge hanging incense spiral, hanging from the ceiling of The Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall – Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

The dragon fountain made out of pottery – The Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall – Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

The Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall – Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

The Quang Trieu (Cantonese) Assembly Hall – Hoi An Ancient Town

An Bang

Back at Hippie House after a night out in Hoi An

Hoi An Ancient Town

Hoi An Ancient Town

An Bang, bohemian Vietnamese surprise

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Getting to Hoi An and An Bang Beach went like clockwork; got back to Hanoi from Bai Tu Long earlier than expected, a quick taxi to the airport where we had some time to kill – the flight left on time arriving at Da Nang airport at 21:00.  Our taxi driver got a little lost heading to our accommodation, can’t blame him as it is tucked away on the outskirts of Hoi An, right by the coast (about 6km from Hoi An Ancient Town) – our host (Micha) was waiting for us and were checked int our rooms in 2 minutes.

Julie had found the accommodation, which goes by two names The Happy Bird B&B &/or The Hippie House; it has two names as they are separate types of accommodation but owned and run by the same couple…more about them later.  We must have arrived near or just after 22:00 leaving not much time to for anything except have an early night, the accommodation I must admit was a very pleasant surprise; slightly rustic with an elegant personalised flare and spotless.  A real little gem hidden away off the main road, well I call it a main road, more like a tiny village road you would find in the middle of nowhere, in the area of An Bang.  No, I’m not paid to rave about the accommodation nor do the owners even know that I’m writing about them – if I ever go back to Vietnam and remotely within the area I would go back to visit them.  Not mentioning the cool area and surroundings, they have hit the perfect balance of homely feel, great price accommodation, excellent food and all-round great friendly hosts.

Hoi An

Lady working on her haunches in her rice paddy

An Bang

An Bang, if it’s a quiet, homely and friendly environment you are looking for then this location should be high on your list if you are visiting Hoi An.  Around the corner from Hoi An Ancient Town and literally 2 minutes’ walk to the beach, I had only planned on staying for 3 days….I stayed there for 8.  A large part of me staying there for that duration of time was because of The Happy Bird B&B and the owners Micha (Michael) and Kim (both from German, Kim’s parents were from Vietnam).  Micha and Kim are fantastic hosts and bent over backwards to accommodate me every time I asked “can I say longer please!” – Kim is a whizz in the kitchen, I can honestly say she makes fantastic food, the best breakfast I’d had in many months!

An Bang

Part of the Happy Bird B&B / The Hippie House

An Bang

My room at the Happy Bird B&B / The Hippie House

An Bang

Happy Bird B&B / The Hippie House

Unlike me to digress, back to An Bang.  There isn’t much in An Bang, the pace of life is relaxing, a few kilometres South along the coast it is more commercial with hotels and resorts but here, oh no, this place turns the speedometer of life whey down!  I can understand why Kim & Micha decided to call their first accommodation Hippie House; a decorative collaboration from visitors given free reign to add their personal touch to what has now become Kim & Micha’s home.  That seems to have come from the environment around them, tucked away from the main tourist attraction of the area, Hoi An Ancient Town, this area is a secluded getaway.  For some reason I imagined this is what a lot of Thailand would have been like 20 years ago….I hope it stays like this for many years to come.  That’s not to say there is nothing to do or see in An Bang, with the beach on your doorstep you can relax to the sound of gentle waves breaking against the shore, take a stroll down the “High Street” and eat delicious food whilst been treated like a local.  An odd thing I found was how many massage parlours there were, I’m not referring to “dodgy” places either 😊!  An Ban was and to some degree still is a fishing village, here time has decidedly not caught up with the times, not much has changed over the years, yes, they have more tourists now but it is far from commercialised.  The round bamboo fishing boats (I used the word boat very loosely) scatter the beaches during day, most fishing happening in the evening when you can see faint red lights bobbing in the water.   Personally, I thought it was the perfect place as a base and head out from there, would I want to stay in central Hoi An, no not really.

An Bang

An Bang beach with the round bamboo fishing boats

An Bang

An Bang beach

I was sceptical at first about hiring a bicycle, it turned out to be a brilliant idea.  Hiring a bicycle in some places I’ve been to is a death wish, here in Hoi An there may be the same amount of cars vs. bicycles, it’s very safe and for me the perfect way to explore, see the town and surrounding areas at a pace fitting to the vibe.  For my entire time in Hoi An except for one day when I went to My Son, I/we spent our time to and fro riding from An Bang, Hoi An and any route or path we saw on the way.  For me, riding around on a bicycle forced me to slow the pace of life right down, it gives a very different perspective and the freedom to stop and go whenever we felt like it.  Riding through the farmlands with green rice-fields surrounding the town, palm trees jotted along the paths, the faint sound of water trickling through the jigsaw of rice paddies and the occasional frog croaking – I often forgot just how close we were to the vibrant, hustle and as I’ll get into my next blog post, polluted and dirty town centre.

Hoi An

Thu Bon River – between An Ban and Hoi An

Like I’ve already mentioned An Bang is an old fishing village, fast becoming an alternative location to stay in when visiting the area, and why not with quiet (most places) beaches, more locals and less commercial vibe, I’d say a slight hippie/bohemian atmosphere – with the added bonus of being around the corner from Hoi An Ancient Town, the space between filled with rice paddies, other tiny villages and a labyrinth or roads and pathways you can explore on bicycle or foot.  There are no “no-go” areas, in fact the more off the beaten track we went the friendlier the people became, more curious too; most people tend to stick to the tourist areas so locals are surprised and I’d go so far as to say happy to see visitors.  If I counted how many times strangers said hello I’d have needed a calculator to keep track. Vietnamese people (away from touristy areas) must be the some of the happiest and friendliest people I have every come across.

Hoi An

Some of the many holding dams for watering the rice paddies between Hoi An and An Bang

Uh, a lot of waffle written with not much said.  Considering the majority of my time in An Bang and Hoi An consisted of cycling around &/or going to Hoi An Ancient Town I’ll going to try to break this blog post into these two categories.  Yes, I know I’ve already said a bit about An Bang…there’s more.

There’s a lot of water in the area, can’t think of any place I went to in Vietnam where there wasn’t, the land between An Bang and Hoi Han is dotted with small holdings amongst residential areas and rice paddies.  Like a jigsaw puzzle trying to fill any piece of land in between suburbia, rice paddies fill any void with a carpet of plush green.  These fields can stretch far and wide as they creep into every nook and cranny broken by punctuation’s of roads, houses, holding lakes and dusty bumpy pathways weaving through this green sea like a snakes and ladders board.

Hoi An

Waterways and rice paddies

It’s an odd landscape, not just An Bang but the how area around Hoi An, parts are tranquil with the feeling of being secluded hundreds of kilometres from human habitation, yet quite the opposite.  Most parts of Vietnam I saw was very much the same, farmland intertwined with cities, towns and residential areas, very little land left to its natural state (at least from the areas I visited, but that’s certainly not the case everywhere, my trip to My Son a perfect example).

Hoi An

Rice paddies covering every inch of land between towns and cities

In most part the people I met and encountered live a simple life, they may have a flat screen TV and mobile/cell phone I just couldn’t help but feel their life is tough.  You wouldn’t think so if their attitude is anything to go by, mostly smiling and happy to have visitors in their country – in the more touristy areas they can come across as curt.  There are two reasons for this change in attitude in my opinion, firstly, dealing it pesky tourist constantly wanting to bargain with them must become tiring and some tourists can be downright stupid, irritating, ignorant and rude.  Secondly, Vietnamese people can be quite direct, not in a rude way, similar to that of how people stereotype German &/or Scandinavians (personally I like the directness of Germans and Scandinavians).

Hoi An

The moon shining through the murky hue

Yes, there are many places I’ve encountered people calling out “hello” when passing by, here it is just more frequent and an authentic tone to them too.  At times I felt quite guilty riding through these villages on the outskirts of An Bang and Hoi An; here we were taking in the “sites” and environment, but this is their life, these conditions that they live in is their life.  Me taking pictures as if at a show is a snapshot of what they do or how they live every day.  There were many times I went off into my own world, riding on autopilot and hoping that what I see, experience and emotions I felt will be a lesson I take forward with my life.  For people who have so little material things in life, they sure seem happier than me, not a bad lesson to learn.

Hoi An

Riding through the little villages between An Bang and Hoi An (Julie and Mila)

One arbitrary observation I noticed about the houses around An Bang and surrounding area  is they almost all follow the same design; very boxy, the bottom floor with a little garden/courtyard (normally very tidy) leading to double doors into the family/tv room.  A big TV with the rest of the room sparsely furnished (the dimensions normally quite small, 4/5m by 3-4m) with one or two couches at most – 50s/60s style wooden couches.  Kitchen behind the lounge (those that have a kitchen – some cook outside outback), bedroom/s and bathroom upstairs.

On one of our rides just South East of Hoi An off the beaten track not a tourist in site for hours, we rode through the twists and turns of alleyways through another village.  Not too different visually from many of the other places, but here I got the sense the inhabitants seldom to never see any of the tourists; this was where the locals live, there are no trinkets to bye or touristy shops.  I got the feeling that we were the “site” to see as everyone pleasantly smiled as we rode by, just like before many saying hello.  Here, people still live from the river and they eat I think just about anything they catch.  They grow their own vegetables which they sell in front of their houses or in little markets of 3-4 stores.  The river has been their lifeline for hundreds of years and still is, now the population is hundredfold and with that comes pollution…there is no way I would swim in the river.  At one of the larger markets a kilometre or two from the village in the space of 100m we must have easily seen 10 dead floating rats…not to mention the muck washed up onto the shoreline…the pungent smell made me feel queasy.

Hoi An

Cockle type shell fish caught in the Thu Bon River – between Hoi An and An Bang

An Bang

One of the little street side markets

An Bang

Fresh fruit from the street side market

Keeping on the theme of how happy and welcoming the people are, I lost count of how many times we stopped to speak to people to ask them anything from directions to what they were selling.  Without hesitation they would offer us a taste, sometimes that was nice others not!  On one occasion we had what was similar to cockles, I think, very salty small shellfish.  Communication throughout Vietnam can be a challenge, not for lack of trying on both sides it’s just their language is so different from Latin languages. These “cockles” are soaked in very salty water for some time (we couldn’t figure out just how long), then rinsed and eaten just like that.  Who knows how many you would need to eat to fill your belly, maybe they don’t consider them a meal and instead just a snack, like popcorn, who knows!

Hoi An

Little village main road near Hoi An

Hoi An

One of the many little villages surrounding Hoi An

One of the most poignant experiences I had in Vietnam, actually throughout my time travelling, happened on An Bang beach by Happy House.  We had spent the day riding about, after dinner we decided to take it easy that evening and have a glass of wine on the beach (Julie and I, obviously not Mila, she would have fruit juice).  We hadn’t even found a place to sit down when we spotter a group of 4 local men, I’d say early 30’s, digging around on the beach with spades and torches.  Clearly, they were trying to catch something, one of them was carrying a large bucket and they were digging far to deep for just the enjoyment of it.  To cut a long story short, they were catching crabs in a way I have never heard of or seen before.

Quick summary:

  • Find a fresh clean hole dug by a crab that doesn’t seem too deep
  • Take the spade and dig quickly until the hole disappears but you can still see the outline of the hole
  • Start digging with your hand until you find a chamber where you will hopefully find the crab and grab it…trying not to be caught by one or both of its pincers
  • If you’ve taken too long to dig then they crab may have started to dig another tunnel from the chamber – keep following the hole until you find the crab, or your arm is too short to go any further
An Bang

An Bang beach – catching crabs local style

We followed the group for the best part of an hour striking up a conversation along the way.  They seemed very happy that we were paying such interested in what they were doing and happy for us to participate too…we were not successful in catching any.  Conversation was challenging to say the least, made more so because they spoke very fast and thought their English was good, most of the time I had no idea what they were saying.  It really made no difference and after both sides repeated themselves many times we all just laughed.

They invited us to join them for dinner later that evening after they had caught enough crabs, honestly, I was a little sceptical; why would strangers invite us to dinner, was it some ploy?  We headed further up the beach to have our wine, 30 minutes later they returned and were persistent we join them…this made me more sceptical.  Upon arriving at their little restaurant just 50m off the beach, now long past opening hours, they turned on the lights arranged seating for us as they took the circa. 20 crabs to be cooked.  My scepticism was that they may now try to totally overcharge us for the food or something along those lines.  Well, once the food was ready they whole family came out, pregnant sister and brother-in-law, brother, friend, wife (of the main person we spoke to – so pissed off I cannot remember his name) etc. etc. about 8 of them and the three of us.  The crabs fried whole in a chilli sauce served in a soup, not sure what type of soup – bloody crunchy with the shells and all but absolutely delicious.

An Bang

A poignant dinner at the Red Apple – An Bang Beach

Here we were, joining their family dinner, they don’t have much, but we took pride and place at the table and were treated like honorary guests.  Communication was “interesting”, it really didn’t matter, I still had a niggling feeling at the back of my mind as the evening went on, hmmmm this seems to good, too unlikely to be without an agenda.  Two or more hours must have passed, we had eaten and had a long funny convoluted conversation long after the plates had been cleared, time to leave.  We had explained that we were just out for a walk on the beach and didn’t have money with us, I didn’t even have my wallet with me, they were not fussed at all.  Julie had a little money with her 200 000 Vietnamese Dong, about £6.  She gave it all to them after many times of them refusing, objecting that if we were to give them anything 200 000 was far too much, we insisted.

We left hugging and shaking hands, leaving down the little path back to the beach I had a sinking feeling of guilt.  I enjoyed the evening, food and company, but that little niggling feeling I had through most of the evening couldn’t have been further from the truth.  They really weren’t interested in the money, I wouldn’t say they were poverty stricken (they have a little restaurant (the Red Apple Restaurant) and homestay – the whole family works there) compared to many people we had seen but they certainly were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, maybe they would be categorised as lower middle class at a push (grrrrr even using those terms makes me cringe)!  We showed a genuine curiosity and interest in what they were doing, they in turn opened their door to their house, introduced us to the family and fed us like we were long lost friends.  I’ve not encountered hospitality like this before, language barriers meant nothing, we discussed everything for tourism, politics, weather and life in general.  If you are ever in the area go have a snack at the Red Apple, please.

Days had passed, I pondered my perceptions of people and the world, recounted the events of the evening many times over too, I still think about it regularly (now 4 months later).  I’ve not come to any epiphany, it has however given me some humility of thought and now I question my perceptions of people to much greater extent than I possibly would have in the past.  Vietnam had been an odd journey of experiences to date, filled with people so different to what I have been accustomed to in my life.  Through all the countries I had been to so far I’ve experienced a true undercurrent of humanity, sometimes from the smallest gestures – these are the stories I have learnt from the most and will last in me till the end.

Uh, I’d say that about covers it for An Bang.  Next post will be on Hoi An Ancient Town, vibrant town filled with culture mixes from China, Japan, France and of course Vietnam.  I do hope this post was at least a little more interesting than my last (Ha Long Bay) – enjoy and thank you for reading.

An Bang

Happy Bird B&B / The Hippie House

Old Quarter Hanoi, wonderful effervescent city

Gallery

Moving into Old Quarter Hanoi had nothing to do with my homestay, they were fantastic, I wanted to be in the thick of it, that means Old Quarter Hanoi.  I had been at the homestay for 3 nights which gave me two full days of sightseeing, my new hotel was Mai Charming Hotel and Spa.  Lots of hotels have a “spa”, nothing fancy nor what I would call a “spa”, it normally means they do massages, waxing etc. I chose it because of the price and location, slap bang in the middle of Old Quarter Hanoi, perfect.

Something I forgot to mention in my previous post (Hanoi, cauldron overflowing with charisma) was the weather.  Although overcast and murky on most days, it wasn’t cold, with a few days having a light drizzle even a few heavy rains during the evening.  Even so, I wore shorts and a t-shirt just about the whole time, only needing my fleece on two evenings.  Even though the sun wasn’t out during most of the days, it stayed hot and muggy, fine for traipsing about the city but not so great for photos.

Old Quarter Hanoi

Think of Bangkok’s busiest area, then condense it, add more people and scooters, a less well-off and heaps more charm, that’s the easiest way to describe Old Quarter Hanoi.  You could explore the area till the soles of your shoes wore through and you’d still only see a fraction.  It’s not because it’s so big, it covers a reasonable area, no, the reason is the mesh of roads of varying width and what seems like hundreds (exaggeration) of alleyways, added to that, every centimetre is used for something.  Example, what I assume would have been an entrance passage to an old house is now a clothing store, where if you walked straight instead of sideways, your shoulders would brush both sides of the clothing hanging up.  So many of the “restaurants” are so tiny they only have seating for 5 or 6 people, the rest side on the pavement.

Old Quarter Hanoi

Street vendors carting their products like they have done for many years

Old Quarter Hanoi

Just on of the labyrinth of alleyway roads in Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

An example of just one of the hundreds of narrow shops that line the streets of Old Quarter Hanoi

Mixed between high-fashion brands is an array of colourful stores selling everything, I mean absolutely everything.  Describing Old Quarter Hanoi as vibrant is an understatement, with the buzz of people punctuated with a backdrop of noise, colourful stores and the smell of delicious food wafting through the air.  Of course, there are many knock-off clothing stores, especially outdoor brands but they are outnumbered by the craft stores from paintings to pottery, the latter of very high standards.  There is no uniformity, I walked past an exclusive whisky store (very high-end) tucked in the middle of nowhere.  The only part within Old Quarter which is a little familiar i.e. well-known coffee franchise and Western’esque feel, is just in front of St Joseph Cathedral on Nha Tho road.

Hanoi

A colourful road display of Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

Beautiful hand-made pottery on the wheel at a tiny store in Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

The vivid coloured paintings from one of the many art stored throughout Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi Food

Not having much choice for food by my homestay, moving to Old Quarter Hanoi was a double edge sword; with so much to choose from it was difficult to choose.  I tried to eat at a different place every timey, only eating at the same place twice.  To confess, my first meal in Old Quarter Hanoi was at a upscale restaurant, great food but for the price no worth it considering the great eating street food you can get at a fraction of the price.  Even the little restaurant/stalls, the food may not look flash, but they are full of flavour and gives you a much better experience to every day like of residence of the city.  My fear for want of a better word of eating street food had long past, since my first few days in Bangkok.  There were many times in Hanoi that the food may not have look very appetising, only to be proved wrong once I taste it. I can honestly say there was nothing I ate that I would go back to tomorrow to eat again.  Vietnamese food throughout my time in the country grew on me, I really like the variety, simplicity and mixtures of flavour.

Hanoi

Hanoi food

Hanoi

Hanoi street food

A stupid yet obvious observation to say, if you don’t eat properly whilst travelling it eventually comes back to bite you in the ass, with lack of energy and motivation…for me that includes bad headaches, if I don’t drink enough water too then migraines.  So, no matter where I go I make sure I eat properly, luckily Hanoi have fantastic food, for long trips I try keep at least one banana (or fruit) and always some nuts to snack on to take the edge away.  As much as I hate to admit it, I was rather pedantic at my house in London when it comes to cleanliness, I had to become flexible with my stance on that as soon as I started travelling – except for a little hiccup in Koh Phangan I have had no problems whatsoever – going make to my “mantra” Learn, Explore and Expand your being…I’m trying hard to do all.

Hanoi

Hanoi street food

Hanoi

Hanoi street fruit and food

Temple of the Jade Mountain

I had walked around quite a bit on my second day in Old Quarter Hanoi, I’ll get to why I didn’t do much on my first later.  Throughout Vietnam, there are streams, rivers, dames and lakes everywhere, in Hanoi that is no different.  Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the bigger lakes in the city, with the Temple of the Jade Mountain located on the lake access by a red footbridge.  For such a prominent location I was surprised I could find much information about it, it is dedicated to Confucianism, Taoism and Trần Hưng Đạo the latter a 13th century war hero, the mix of these three is odd in itself!  It was built in the 18th century with repairs done in the mid-19th century

Hanoi

Temple of the Jade Mountain in Hanoi

Hanoi

Temple of the Jade Mountain in Hanoi

Wondering around the temple, I didn’t go in, gives you some fabulous views of the city even though the muggy murky sky gave a blanket of haze.  The island trees have taken a life of their own, the very opposite to the potted trees that resemble bonsais, so perfect some of them don’t seem real.

Hanoi

Temple of the Jade Mountain in Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake

Itself has an interesting story, Hồ Hoàn Kiếm meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake of the Restored Sword”, very similar to the Lady of the Lake story of King Arthur, only this time the lady is a golden turtle.  The lake’s name was changed by Emperor Lê Lợi to honour and thank the God as he used to sword to conquer the invading Ming Chinese.  I haven’t been able to find out when the lake was built but seems there has been a lake in the area since the 15th century at least.  On the other end of the lake is Turtle Tower, this was built circa 17th-18th and is linked to this folklore.

Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake with Turtle Tower in Hanoi

 Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre

Water Puppet show, never heard of it, never knew there was anything like it not to mention Hanoi being famous for it.  I heard lots of people mention it, with my first day in Old Quarter Hanoi having heavy rain I had cabin fever, at least I got to catch up on some writing.  Next morning was spent exploring the area and took the late afternoon show.  Terrific location for the theatre right across from Hoan Kiem Lake very near to the Temple of the Jade Mountain, I had no idea what I was going to see, at worst it was only a 45-minute show so why not.

Old Quarter Hanoi

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – Water Puppet show in Old Quarter Hanoi

Well, what an entertaining show which mixes theatre, music, myth and legend in a style unique to Vietnam.  The tradition of Water Puppetry dates back to the 11th century, in Vietnamese they call it Múa rối nước (I have no idea how that is pronounces! ?) which translates to “making puppets dance on water”, and that is exactly what they do.  Without getting too descriptive, there is a pond for a stage about waist deep, the puppeteers hide behind the curtain at the back of the pond.  The puppets are attached to a rod (I guess) that stays hidden in the water and controlled by the puppeteers, sounds simple, that’s what I thought.  Not at all, some puppets have articulating arms, there are water spouting sea serpents, magic turtle misting the water, phoenixes, fire breathing dragons along with everyday scenes from catching fish to planting rice, it was a great show, every interesting and an experience I’ve never heard of or know of another country that has it.

Old Quarter Hanoi

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – Water Puppet show in Old Quarter Hanoi

The next day started off much the same, it may sound crazy but I just walked around, up and down roads into areas I had not been, even revisiting the same areas.  I headed towards the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, just up the road I found and intersection that to a degree reflects my thoughts on Western brands arriving into Vietnam.  What is quite a stylish building, now plastered with advertising, what a pity!  Vietnamese food is great, why they hell would they want some rubbish burgers etc!  Along my surveying of the city I came across a road running parallel to a raised train line on Phung Hung Street, under the arches were painted frescos of various scenes, many of Vietnamese life from city to countryside.  I’d classify it as organised street art, they were painted in celebration for the Lunar New Year, Tet in Vietnamese – these paintings have become quite an attraction for the locals.  I love urban/street/graffiti art, what I found intriguingly interesting was how the locals were interacting with the art; where as in most other countries I’ve seen people take pictures of the art, not always, but here most people were taking photo’s to be a part of the pictures.  As if taking the pictures as if they were in the countryside or part of the actual picture.  Nothing wrong with that, I just found it interesting how culturally different they were interacting with these paintings.

Old Quarter Hanoi

Western branding adorns many of the old buildings in Old Quarter and throughout Hanoi

Hanoi

urban/street art murals in Hanoi

urban/street art murals in Hanoi

NB. Before I carry on with my story I wanted to mention about using my mobile/cell phone:

  • Mobile phone reception is quite good in Vietnam (at least where I went) and in Hanoi especially.  With the road names not being clearly signed compounded by their density and the myriad alleyway roads it is easy to get lost and disorientated, so getting a PAYG (pay as you go) sim card is in my opinion essential so you can use the maps on your phone – I used Google Maps and it was perfect. Converting back into British Pounds it was very cheap; I can’t remember the exact prices, but I bought a Viettel sim with a few gig data and cost me around £5-8 – I used it heavily throughout my two weeks in Vietnam without topping it up.
  • You can get sim cards everywhere, I got mine at a large phone/electronics store in the middle of Old Quarter Hanoi, it took about 10—15 minutes at most to get everything up and running.  I’m quite reticent to use little corner stores that sell everything including the kitchen sink to buy sims, but that’s just me.

Hanoi Street Train

Scouring travel blogs, I read about a street in Hanoi where a train runs through a neighbourhood so close to the houses that you can touch it (definitely not recommended!).  I found the location easily, very much in the heart of Hanoi, just a little on the outskirts of Old Quarter Hanoi – from my hotel less than 10minute slow walk.  The first time I got there I had just missed the train, I got there just before 16:00 as I was told the train comes past at 16:00, wrong.

Even during daylight, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how close the train tracks are from the houses.  Running through this residential area twice a day there is about 2m either side of the tracks before the backdoor “porch” of the houses begins, these themselves vary in width, with widest 1.5m max.  All the residence belongings outside are packed against the properties, the following evening I’d experience first hand just how close the train passes through.

Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi Street Train – Old Quarter Hanoi

For anyone planning on going to see the Hanoi street train, here are some help points:

  • The most common and easiest location to see the train is near where Tran Phu and Ha Trung streets meet
  • The train is scheduled to pass through at 15:30 and 19:30
  • It often runs late, for me it was 30 minutes late.
  • It goes faster than I thought it would – don’t try to touch it when it does, guaranteed to hurt or injure

The next evening, I arrived just after 19:00, like I mentioned above it arrived 30 minutes late, so I killed the time pretending to act like a professional photographer clicking away.  Hmmm, some pictures came out ok, many not – still learning how to fully utilise my Fujifilm X-T2….with little success and more frustration (it’s the user’s fault not the camera ?)

Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi Street Train – Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi Street Train – Old Quarter Hanoi

Finally, the train arrived, it’s a bloody big train!  I’m used to trains living in London, this is one of those older types of trains (the horse more like a freight train), it seems even bigger as you stand on ground level, obviously there is no platform.  It motors past at what speed I don’t know, I recon between 40-50km/hr.  Only once the train arrives do you really appreciate how close to the houses it passes, it must be near 4m high too!  As quickly as it arrives it goes by just as quickly, like nothing had ever happened the residence come back outside to carry on with their daily routine.  This is an odd “tourist attraction”, to me it just reinforced how densely populated the city is and how it has grown organically whilst adapting to its needs.

Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi Street Train – Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi Street Train – Old Quarter Hanoi

If I think to how some other countries are (my adult experiences are dominated by living in London), this sort of thing wouldn’t be allowed for a hundred of reasons, health & safety would have a heart attack!  Here common-sense with the economic drive of a capitol city (no doubt money plays a part too), the inhabitants are not concerned with this minor inconvenience, no, they’ve adapted to it and no doubt have other more pressing issues in life to worry about – not a bad lesson to take through in life.

St Joseph Cathedral

After the delayed Hanoi Street Train my stomach was calling me for attention.  I headed back into the hub of Old Quarter Hanoi to get some dinner, finding a hostel with a terraced rooftop restaurant overlooking St Joseph Cathedral – a central point for tourists, hostels, homestays etc. etc.

Old Quarter Hanoi

St Joseph Cathedral – Old Quarter Hanoi

A great example of Gothic Revival, it’s made to look even more gothic with the pollution stained concrete.  Reminiscent of Notre Dame on a much smaller scale, it was built in the late 19th Century when the French occupied Hanoi, it was completed in December 1886.  It has a checkered history.  An 11th temple pagoda was destroyed in order to build the cathedral, given, the pagoda was in a very bad state from its original glory at 80m high.  After the retaking of Hanoi by the Vietnamese (Viet Minh) circa. 1954, the government closed down the cathedral, it was reopened in 1990.

Taking a look back at my time in Hanoi (part 1 – Hanoi, cauldron overflowing with charisma) including what I have written in this post, I feel I have not done it justice.  Hanoi is a beautifully ugly city that is underrated in every respect, I wouldn’t hesitate to visit it again.  Filled with friendly people, delicious food, tradition, religion, politics and colour, this is a city and people that against many setbacks have refused to give up.  Amongst the many deteriorating buildings, the city blooms with flowers, literally and figuratively, there is an effervescent undercurrent of positivity and determination.  From strolling through the streets like I did, I only touched the surface of what this city has to offer, so much more to learn and explore.

Tomorrow I would be heading to Bai Tu Long National Park, my time in Hanoi was sadly at an end.

Old Quarter Hanoi

There are lots of flowers throughout Hanoi, these just randomly around a tree base…no they are not plastic

Hanoi

Temple of the Jade Mountain in Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi Street Train – Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Town Hanoi

The Puppet masters – Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – Water Puppet show in Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Town Hanoi

Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre – Water Puppet show in Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi

A turtle in Hoan Kiem Lake

Old Quarter Hanoi

Old Quarter Hanoi

Hanoi, cauldron overflowing with charisma

Gallery

Hanoi has some similarities to Bangkok, you either love it or hate it, my feelings are the former…but only after a few days of exploring.  Hanoi is a city with everything, it’s noisy, dirty, busy, chaotic so what’s to like!?  All you need to do is take a step back, walk the streets and get lost in the congested labyrinth, that may sound contradictory, it’s not, this city has charm oozing out of every crevice.  For such a deteriorated city it is possibly the epitome of South East Asia heaving itself into the 21st century mixing the past, fundamental socialist tendencies of recent times with the present interconnect world and all that comes with it!  The result, an eclectic volcano of colour and awkward dovetail of capitalism and culture pushing forward with gusto!  For a city in much need of restoration, the Victorian era houses lining streets throughout now many fashioning years of additions like corrugated iron, shutters fronted by pavements filled with scooters…of the hundreds of thousands that are not on the road.

I say a city in much need of restoration, that has not deterred the city, especially Old Quarter being crammed with Western brands with their flashy signage buttressed between streets shops selling anything and everything.  At first, I almost didn’t notice Hanoi is filled with street lined trees, huge distorted trees mutated over the years, they have adapted to become the very fabric of the city; twisting, turning, intertwining with their environment whilst reaching for the sky.  I do not recall ever seeing so many huge trees in a city, yet here the foliage disappears between the flashing neon lights and the trucks camouflaged by the stained concrete buildings.  Hanoi is different, but you need to give it a chance, don’t judge it at first glance or you will sorely regret what a unique and extremely interesting city this is.  Would I like to live here, most likely not, would I come back to visit, yes, many times over!

Hanoi

Central Hanoi, trees growing into their surroundings

Driving from the airport into Hanoi I questioned all of what I had see and read of Vietnam and Hanoi, granted I had done much reading or research, but still had some images in my mind; I had been told and thought Vietnam was less developed than Thailand.  From what I had seen from the airport on route to my guesthouse conflicted with everything, in fact it reminded me more of Dubai!  Sure, I had arrived in the evening, I was expecting something nearer to Cairo, not at all, the highway was many lanes wide, the place looked like it was new and clean, the pavements and highway shoulders were lined with hundreds of palm trees planted in neat rows.  It didn’t have the grandeur of Dubai but as a first impression it was impressive, I felt rather disappointed that I had arrived in a “Western style” city.  Hahahahahaha oh my I couldn’t have been further from the truth, once I got into “Hanoi” the real city revealed itself with a bang of reality! I was somewhat relieved.  The difference between the newer part of the city and the old couldn’t be more strikingly different!

Hanoi

Evening in Hanoi, filled with scooters and restaurants on the pavements

Hanoi

Central Hanoi, if you look carefully it has quaint buildings…in need of care and attention

Back to what I had become accustomed to over the past weeks, packed roads, hooters, scooters being used for anything and everything from taxis to delivery vehicles, people everywhere driving chaotically with purpose yet somehow in unison.  Uhhhh, this was more like I had imagined.  I had arranged through my guesthouse to be collected from the airport, the driver, very friendly, with no knowledge of English and even trying to use Google Translate didn’t help – that’s more likely because of my pronunciation.

After getting a little lost on the way to my homestay I arrived at TU House Homestay in the Ba Dinh district, less than a kilometre from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  I arrived late in the evening, only a little corner shop was open meaning dinner was some yogurt, crisps and nuts (I always try keeping nuts with me).  For some, central Hanoi may bit a bit much, making the Old Quarter over the top in comparison so staying out of this thick of it could suit people.  I extended my stay from one night to three considering how late I arrive the first day, after that I moved right into the heart of the Old Quarter Hanoi.  What I can say about TU House Homestay is the owner and her sister were superb!  Their genuine smile and friendliness no matter the time of day was so refreshing, it made for a warm welcoming environment and I felt a guilty when I moved to my new accommodation.   If you are every in need for accommodation and don’t want to stay in the city centre their email address is tuhousehanoi@gmail.com.

My first day of exploring was insightful, knowing Vietnam is a socialist country I hadn’t known to what extent until I explored Hanoi, this would be reinforced throughout my time in Vietnam.  No matter where you go, especially in the city there the Vietnam flag is flown everywhere, from state buildings to little corner convenience stores.  Flying your country’s flag isn’t a sign of socialism of course, it is that and everything else combined that you see that enforces their socialist past and present.  The Vietnamese people that I met are proud, I’d go so far as to say the country are a proud nation; not over the top or “in your face” like some Western countries, no, they have a history of being wars with much larger and more powerful countries and have always come out on top.  They are not a warmongering nation, they seem to be proud of their achievements but by no means boastful.  It felt like all the people I met were happy that “we” would come visit their country and were proud of what it has to offer.

Hanoi

The Hanoi Club overlooking Ho Tay Lake in central Hanoi

Hanoi

An interesting water fountain in central Hanoi, like a lotus flower

Whether or not I’d like to admit it, my years of watching movies about the Vietnam (totally Hollywood Western biased in 99% of them) would undoubtedly have sown seeds of perception about the country and its people – even though I had spoken to many people who have visited the country in the past 15 years.  Thinking back on my time in Vietnam, I cannot think of a place where I have met so many happy and smiling people; not false facades for the tourists so see.  Yes, it is a poor country, I may not agree with their political ideology, that was not the reason I when to visit the country.  Yet, I cannot ignore the fact of their positive nature, their unpretentious, pride and determination – not just in present times but through their history of the past few hundred years.

Back from my rambling thoughts.  Around the corner from my homestay is the Dinh Ngoc Ha temple; I’ve done a lot of searching and cannot find any concrete information about it.  An unusual setting for a temple, hidden away between residential blocks of flats and wasn’t open when I got there – not far from the little lake where a B52 crashed and they left it as is till today…only found out after I let Hanoi GRRRRRR.  I spent very little time there so headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum via the Hanoi Botanical Gardens.

Hanoi

Dinh Ngoc Ha temple – Hanoi

Hanoi Botanical Gardens

Well, I’ll caveat all I say about the Hanoi Botanical Gardens with the fact that the weather wasn’t great; overcast, dull sky with a minor chill in the air that I forgot about because of me walking about..when the sun comes out it got very humid.  Back to the gardens, honestly, it is the worst botanical garden I’ve ever seen – Hanoi and Vietnam have many more beautiful parks and gardens by comparison.  It felt run down, neglected especially if you compare it to the gardens around Ba Dinh Square.  I really wouldn’t go back to visit the gardens, I would however go back in the late afternoon when the park and gardens fill up with locals. Locals can access the gardens for free and come in droves to exercise, meditate, play ball games and use the exercise equipment (old and very outdated but you can see they are used).  Lots of people arrive walking briskly and swinging their arms in all directions with gusto as the speed walk around the park; it’s an exercise “technique” I’ve never seen before but so many seem to do it – I wish I had taken a video!

Hanoi

Hanoi Botanical Gardens

Hanoi

Hanoi Botanical Gardens

I don’t know how it happens, I’ve written near two pages and covered very little of Hanoi!  So, like I enjoy doing I continued to Ba Dinh Square detouring along the way if I saw anything interesting.  Visiting a place only for a few days my modus operandi is if I see something interesting or I want to know what’s down that e.g street then I go…never know and in all likelihood, I may never get to come back and hate the monkey on my back of “what if” or “I wonder”.

Ba Dinh Square

Ambling along a convoluted route to my destination trying to soak up this different world, bloody busy one at that I arrived at Ba Dinh Square, really only a kilometre or two of walking.  Ba Dinh Square in my opinion is the epicentre of Hanoi, from here you can fan out to all the districts and here is where Vietnams recent history is revered with socialist tinsel.

Hanoi

Ba Dinh Square – Hanoi

For such a well-known person there is a lot of grey areas about Ho Chi Minh’s life.  In part he takes up a near mythical character, what he did and where is was before coming into prominence and eventually leading Vietnam, even his date of birth isn’t universally agreed upon.  Not to contradict what I said and thought of Vietnam earlier, at Ba Dinh Square there is a flagrant display of pomp and ceremony not to different from what you would see at Buckingham Palace.  Here, guards wearing pristine white uniforms (very unpractical I thought) guard and monitor the area – I asked one of them for directions and I must say he was very friendly.  What I’m not used to, is seeing the red flags with gold hammer and sickle in full view and aplenty – a reminder again of movies I watched when I was younger, sometimes even now.  Growing up this emblem resembled the “enemy”, I don’t agree with communism but the people I met in Vietnam are certainly no enemy; different yes, the whole world is different, enemy, absolutely not.

Hanoi

Ba Dinh Square – Hanoi

Hanoi

Part of Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square – Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

I didn’t go inside, for no real reason except I was enjoying the experience and views on display from Ba Dinh Square.  Collectively the whole area in and around Ba Dinh Square which includes Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and many other governmental and historical sites (even some of the adjacent roads which are lined with government embassies) is a “show piece” area of Hanoi; lots of military security, very clean and orderly, an area of Hanoi quite different to the rest of the city, near polar opposites.

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square – Hanoi

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square

There is something quite distinct in many communist monuments, a uniformity, austerity, sometimes offering very little to no emotion or individual artistic impression.  They remind me of Roman or Greek monuments without the frills, just the structural skeleton.  Far from being bare, their minimalist nature portrays strength, a solid structure that looks immovable yet void of any passion, its purpose to last for centuries, not necessarily to portray or convey any sentiment.

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum surrounded by manicured gardens

Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the background – Hanoi

One Pillar Pagoda

Of all the sites I visited in Hanoi this was the busiest by far because the area is small and around it is lots of little stores selling memorabilia and food.  The queue was very long, those that were waiting to climb the few stairs seemed in most to be visiting as a religious pilgrimage, so I didn’t join in.

Visually it is insignificant, more so peculiar in design compared to others I had seem, set in the middle of a neat small proportioned square pond.  Looks can be deceiving, the One Pillar Pagoda is considered one of Vietnams most iconic temples; it is almost 1000 years old being constructed in 1049 by Emperor Lý Thái Tông.  What is seen today unfortunately was rebuilt after 1954 as the French forces were leaving Vietnam they destroyed the original.

Hanoi

One Pillar Pagoda – Hanoi

Hanoi

One Pillar Pagoda – Hanoi

I sat down to have a coffee, an outdoor coffee shop next to the One Pillar Pagoda.  Being in no rush and since I like watching people it was the perfect place to observe people.  Vietnamese coffee is strong, not like Turkish coffee, it is like very strong filter coffee, I like it!  Observing and sipping away I had a random thought, here I was in a socialist/communist country I could be anywhere in the world.  Vietnam has been through a lot of challenges, still is but, the people seem to be a resolute in their fundamentals; they fought long and hard for their independence to choose a way of life that they wanted, they didn’t want to be “Western” – rightfully so to decide your own identity.  Here I was sitting, what I saw was most people wearing the latest Western brands, shops like any high street packed with every brand you know, it is as Western as you could want.

Watching the locals, I couldn’t help but think about the movies, a resolute people fighting in the toughest conditions against much more powerful nations for a cause they believed in.  Now, through the backdoor they have succumbed to be their past adversary.  If wars were fought by brands, lifestyle and image nothing would defeat it…. maybe not today, it may lose a battle or two but would win the war.  To change ideology no war needs to be fought, just send in companies with flashy well-known brands, sports teams and celebrities, they are more powerful than any army.

My sightseeing was near done for the day, I took a different route back to my homestay before heading back out to meet up and have dinner with Julie and Mila (I met in Thailand).  Dinner around the central market in Hanoi was interesting and delicious, sitting on tiny plastic chairs down an alleyway with hundreds of other people doing the same.  Every now and then having to shift my chair in the let a car or scooter past.  The atmosphere in Hanoi at night is effervescent, packed with people eating on the streets, roads like arteries filled with hooting motorbikes and cars.  Although the city is bellowing with life in the evening it dies down quite early, by 23:00 the place is quiet, at 00:00 only the odd car of scooter is still riding about.  I walked back to my homestay about 3km away, getting there near 00:30, I only passed maybe 5 other pedestrians along the way.  At first, I was cautious, but subsequently did so many times in the early hours of the morning with my camera dangling from my hand – Hanoi is safe, I felt much safer walking its street in the evening than I would in London that’s for sure!

Hanoi

Street food with Julie and Mila

Hanoi

Very different street decorations, walking around at night in central Hanoi

I’ll leave things here for now, no, Hanoi isn’t finished, I’ll need to split this post into two parts…Part 2 to follow soon…I hope.

Before Hanoi I was in Thailand, if you haven’t already seen the posts here is a link to two of them, there are much more:

 

Hanoi

Nhật Tân Bridge from the airport to Hanoi – taken with my phone inside the taxi

Hanoi

Nhật Tân Bridge from the airport to Hanoi – taken with my phone inside the taxi

Hanoi

Nhật Tân Bridge from the airport to Hanoi – taken with my phone inside the taxi

Batnomad

….forgot, bought new sunglasses since mine broke during the scooter accident in Koh Samui

Hanoi

Near Ba Dinh Square where all the foreign embassies are based