Monday, 28 May 2018

[ midnight in the orient ]


There is a place, far away but not too far, where the lights are always on, the kitchen is always open, and the music is always playing.

The streets are perfumed with exotic spices all day, and stream with lanterns and lights all night. It's vibrant and dangerous, mystical and historic.

Welcome to Vietnam, the pearl of the far east.

***

If you've never been to South-East Asia, firstly; go. It's another world entirely, far from anything you've ever experienced before. 

Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as the locals still call it, is a little like Sydney before the lock out laws. But with less idiots, more booze, and no real sense of time. Except, perhaps, for a short gap between 2am and 7am when the city appears to sleep. 

Saigon is fast-paced, hectic, and full of life. Everyone owns a scooter and you can find pretty much any item you can think of in the endless market stalls lining the streets. From bags and perfumes, to exotic fruits and unusual meats. 

This is also where I caught my first glimpse of the coffee stalls in Vietnam. You may be surprised to learn they are the second biggest exporter of Arabica in the world, not least because opinion of Vietnamese coffee isn't that great. 

To be fair, Eastern fare on a Western stomach takes time to get used to; dairy isn't a major part of the culture over there, and lots of their packaged milk has sugar added. The coffee is usually accompanied by condensed milk (skip it, trust me), though you can get 'standard' milk, it's just going to taste a little funky. 

Drink your hot drinks black, or head to Starbucks, is the recommendation. However, don't miss a chance to at least try the coffee there; these people aren't messing around when it comes to their caffeine. Alternately, just drink the booze; it's cheaper than coffee and the Vietnamese are all over a good margarita. 


Traffic is a new and enlightening experience in Asia, and Vietnam is no exception. When I said everyone owns a scooter, I wasn't kidding; not a lot of people can affords cars, so this is the main mode of transportation. Waves of them flood the cities everyday, and you take your life in your hands just crossing the road. 

Horn-beeping there isn't like horn-beeping at home. Whereas we use it mainly as a way to advise other drivers of our displeasure - move please! you cut me off! oi, idiot, watch out! - not so with the Vietnamese. Beeping can indicate anything from turning and swerving to move-out-of-the-way and you-can-go. It's conversational and unnerving, but by your third or fourth day you get used to it. You have to; they don't care if you can see them or not. 

It's loud there, and it's not just traffic noise. Saigon is around a sixth of the size of Sydney with a population about four times the size, per square kilometre. To say it's crowded would be an understatement, people are simply everywhere there. If you came into Sydney during the height of Vivid or at xmas, you still wouldn't quite comprehend the density of Saigon, let alone Vietnam, because the whole country is like this, not just the cities.

Speaking of light shows, Vietnam is a twinkling jewel of a country from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. Made up of mainly Buddhist, Confucist, and Taoist belief systems, to a Westerner the decorations look like xmas come early, every day of the week.

Restaurants and bars, massage parlours and boutiques, all decked out in glimmering lights. Sharp and intense during the day, the lights become a fairy wonderland of a night, shimmering a rainbow of hues over the landscape and everything in it.

Before leaving this city, stop at one of the many parks in Ho Chi Minh and watch the locals do Tai Chi early in the morning. Or you could wander down to see the Opera House and Union Square, and treat yourself to high tea at the Caravelle, a truly luscious treat. Don't forget to take a moment to survey the impressive statue of President Ho Chi Minh in Nguyen Hue Street, which sits in a pavilion with nothing between Uncle Ho and the river but exotic gardens, a testament to his achievements. 

***

Next stop on the tour for us was a short, domestic flight to Danang. Here again, I'm going to relate the countryside to something in Australia, but don't be mistaken; it's a vague similarity at best, and you are better experiencing it for yourself.

Danang appears a little like what the Gold Coast was in the '90's; long stretches of beach, edged as far as the eye can see with resorts and golf courses. Pools and spas are standard, and the general atmosphere is relaxed.

The bus trip from Danang to Hoi An isn't long, but our tour guide had forgotten we all need to eat, so I made an executive decision and talked him into stopping at a roadside noodle house.

It's probably as close to and the safest version of 'street food' you can try, and they make quick and tasty pho, which is basically the national dish. Soup-like fare, consisting of a slow-cooked broth, vegetables, meat (chicken, beef, prawns), spices, and noodles. Which really doesn't convey quite how moreish it is. If you try nothing else in Vietnam (for whatever bizarre reason), don't miss out on a traditional pho. I guarantee you'll be left wanting more.

Travelling on, you'll glimpse the Dragon Bridge spanning the Han River, which lights up of a nighttime. Nearby, you can also see the Bridge of Love Locks, where people have taken engraved padlocks and fastened them to show the strength of their emotions.

Further on the way to Hoi An are the Marble Mountains, five large limestone and marble hills, named for the five elements (in Taoism); metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. You can stop at any number of marble shops/factories, where the people carve extraordinary pieces with only base tools to work with.

7m elephants stand trunk-to-hip with Buddhist gods, while thousands of pieces of polished jewellery line rows of glass shelves. The craftsmanship is exquisite and the skill phenomenal. You could walk around for days, studying each item, and have not seen half of the work done there. These are people who, aside from large-scale infrastructure, make everything by hand, and here is one of the best places to observe it.


From there, head into the heart of Hoi An, and what a feast for the eyes you're in for. A personal favourite, Hoi An reminded me somewhat of Seminyak in Bali; the village feel, the people wandering and wheeling about on scooters, the soft, warm breeze just inviting you to go for a swim. We were especially spoiled by the opulence and warm welcome at Palmy Villas.

In the old town part of Hoi An, you must walk the streets there, not drive, but you'll enjoy the wander. Be wary of your tour guide saying it's a short walk from the hotels to the town itself however, as getting to old town is actually more like 45 minutes, and not pleasant in the heat.

Once you get there though, stop for a cool drink and a peruse of the local wares. Quaint little stores and shacks flow through the streets all the way to the river, where a fresh food market sits selling crisp, raw ingredients, enough to make your mouth water.

Hoi An is famous for their tailors, and for good reason; these are some of the fastest, most efficient, and cheapest places in the world to get quality goods made. From suits and shoes to formal dresses, belts, and accessories, if you can imagine it, they can make it. And at a fraction of the cost than in the Western world. Ask for recommendations before you go, or try Yaly Couture or BeBe.

***

Saying goodbye to lovely Hoi An, you head into the mystical mountain heights of the Hai Van Pass. Here, our trip turned misty and mysterious, and the temperature drops surprisingly.

From a tour bus, you can view the winding road through the pass, surrounded on all sides by dense, green vegetation. The roadway is generous at nearly two-cars wide, but traffic up there is the same as anywhere else in the country; buses trundle around bends with no care for the bare arms-length between you and the mountainside drop, while scooters whizz past at breakneck speed, unfazed by the proximity to other vehicles or the aforementioned drop.

Trust the locals and make peace with the dizzying heights, and you can then enjoy the wondrous sight of the hills rising up around you, with occasional glimpses of the ocean. At some point, you'll pass the beautiful little fishing of Lang Co, which nestles like a piece of forgotten history in the depths of the Hai Van Pass.


Next stop is Hue. Busy, but not quite as much as Saigon, Hue is home to the Forbidden Purple City inside the Imperial enclosure, which was almost entirely destroyed during the Vietnam War.

However, on a rain-drenched day which lent a suitably eerie air to the tour, we saw the remaining ruins, and they are truly breathtaking. Intricate lanterns and wall hangings nestle inside structures decorated with fantastical creatures such as dragons and unicorns (in Vietnam, unicorns may look a little more exotic than you're used to, so keep your eyes peeled and get a guide to point them out).

Around 3km from the citadel sits the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, which towers 7 storeys above you, and it is said to be good luck to take a turn around it's base. You can also marvel at the enormous stone turtles with stele on their backs surrounding the Pagoda.

Head up the hill to see the Perfume River in all its glory. Again, on a drizzly day such as we had, the captivating sight of seeing the river from one length to another was simply astonishing. High up on the hill, surrounded by verdant forest and the graves of monks, made of stone and shaped like lotus flowers, it's worth the trek.

***

To get to Hanoi, we took an overnight train, and here again is an experience that surpasses words. But we'll give it a go!

Quarters were tight and facilities almost non-existent. Take rolls of toilet paper and hand sanitiser - in fact, that's a good tip for the whole trip, and you can thank me later. Drinking during the ride is 50/50 a good/bad idea; considering the situation, do you fare like you did when you were 20 or are you a Cadbury's kid? Keep in mind the sometimes bumpy tracks and you do eventually have to try and get some shut-eye, even for a few hours. Choose wisely. 

All that being said, an overnight train in South-East Asia is a brilliant adventure and we wouldn't have skipped it. The endless countryside can keep you mesmerised for hours, and armed with enough snacks, a good book, and a decent squishy pillow, you're all set. 


The 5am arrival isn't going to thrill anyone, as it sucks no matter where you are in the world, but the day ahead has lots to offer, so buck up and get ready to be charmed by the sights of Hanoi city. 

Vietnam's first national university is there, and encompasses the Temple of Literature which is a temple of Confucius.

Small children in graduation gowns flood the area, as part of the process is touring (read = running) through all the temples and paying homage before you get to move on. It's quite a delightful, though somewhat overwhelming, spectacle, only somewhat marred by the realisation that the speeches being delivered in a bark by teachers and older students alike are akin to a good brainwashing.

That being said, this is an entirely different culture, with a different set of values, ones that have survived for a very long time. If you can suspend your disbelief, even briefly, you'll enjoy it for what it is; kids being kids in a great centre of learning.

Onto a short break away from Hanoi, and you're in for some real luxury on an overnight boat tour of Halong Bay.

***

After another bus ride to the rather extensive wharves and harbour leading out to Halong Bay, you take a little skiff out to your junk

Like the ships of old, they are a cross between an over sized yacht and a pirate ship; lounge chairs on the top deck and curlicues a rapscallion of the high seas would be proud of. The quarters are cozy but by no means cramped, and look out onto famous emerald green water of the bay. 

Surrounded by mini-mountains of limestone and piles of shrub-covered rocks, you float gently with a variety of other ships. Lie back on the deck with a cocktail and enjoy the scenery while watching the light change colour on your surroundings and the horizon. 

The staff of our junk were friendly and the food delicious. A truly talented chef can make amazing creations like flowers and stars out of vegetables and a peeling knife. Even when we bumped into the side of another ship to dock, ours had hands that were rock-steady and calm. Should you get a chance to see the chefs in Vietnam produce the food creations they are famous for, pay close attention; Masterchef would be all over this if they knew. 

During your sojourn, you might take a brief trip out to the caves nestled in the mountains. A note in advance; if, like yours truly, you are mildly claustrophobic, you may wish to think twice about downing 4 glasses of wine and going on the one-way hike through them. Thinking happy thoughts is great, but you can always just lie on the beach at the base and wait for the tour to come back down.

Sleeping on a boat is pretty great. Just saying. Try it at least once in your life, and maybe try it in Vietnam. It's quiet, surreal, and a little mystical. The rocking motion is hypnotic and the sound of the sea is undeniably soothing.

By the end of the trip, you'll probably be feeling a little sad to leave Halong Bay, but know that there is more in store for you back in Hanoi.


Our tour ended with dinner at a place called KOTO, which stands for Know One, Teach One. It was opened by a Vietnamese Australian, Jimmy Pham. The concept is to give at-risk and disadvantaged youth a place to learn and thrive, and here, he has done wonders. 

KOTO is a funky little place with bright, bubbly staff and heavenly food. It was a personal favourite of mine, as I got to see how encouraging of young people it is, as well as a glorious fusion of our cultures. A must for any foodie traveller if you can make it!

***

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't glad to slow down a little after the whirlwind pace of the last two weeks. After spending so much time with a big bunch of people, it was pleasant just to be with my main gal again and cruising around the city. 

Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake is a picturesque spot to sit and do some people watching. Plant yourself somewhere with a view into the old quarter and down into the city, and marvel at the unnerving traffic acrobatics you thought you'd got used to. 

As a last minute treat, the Sofitel Legend Metropole does a simply splendid high tea with the option of their chocolate indulgence bar. Pretend it's 1920 and swish your way through the tea room to lounge in plush chairs while being served by immaculately dressed waitstaff. 

Wander into the Old Quarter in Hanoi and get your hair done, your nails scrubbed, or your aching muscles soothed. Pick up some jewellery, a nick-of-time gift, or just some yummy tidbits to tide you over. 


As you leave the city for home, keep your eyes peeled for the endless light shows you've come to expect from Vietnam; the Nhat Tan Bridge (only completed in the last few years) bathes you in ever-changing colours as you whizz over the city with all your treasures - both real and memorable - tucked away to pore over later.

Don't say goodbye, say see you later. Knowing you'll be back for more gems someday from the pearl of the far east...



~*LTM*~