Tag Archives: Vietnam

Shui-mo painting alive: Halong Bay, Vietnam

(left) Halong Bay, (right) watercolor in the Shui-mo style

Have you ever wished you could live in a postcard? You can if you cruise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Situated on Vietnam’s north east coast, it has been an important player in the nation’s history and economy for over a millennium. It doesn’t hurt being one of the most beautiful sites on the planet.

Hundreds of limestone island mountains have been sculpted by centuries of erosion. The bay itself opens to the Gulf of Tonkin, the port of Ha Phong and the vast Pacific. It has been an artery of wealth for Hanoi and north Vietnam, as well as the cultured pearl capital of the country. The bay, like so many expanses of water in Southeast Asia, contains floating villages. Unlike floating villages on lakes, Halong Bay’s are not as polluted or dangerous for residents, although the average family wage is less than US$800/year – owning your own floating house can run 20X that amount.

floating village of Halong Bay

The main occupation is cultured pearl farming and it’s an extraordinary art. A thin slice of the oyster’s skin is dissected under microscopic glasses and transformed into “seeds” that are surgically inserted into the live oyster. Several seeds may be implanted in one oyster, but, after 3 to 7 years gestation – depending on the type and color – less than 20% will ever produce gem quality pearls. Packed in baskets suspended from bamboo floats, this important crop waits for the luxury world beyond.

(left) $US1,000 gold cultured pearl necklace, village oyster baskets and farming docks, seed pearls, inserting seed pearl, (bottom) extracting pearl

Prior to the Indochina wars that ravaged Vietnam during the 20th century, Halong Bay’s limestone islands provided shelter for villages and isolated Confucian and Buddhist retreats. During the war they served as protection from air raids and today they are fascinating caves for everyone to explore. Several caves have been transformed into “tourist-friendly” sites complete with guides and dramatic multi-color theater lighting illuminating an otherworldly scene that takes on the look of an “otherworldly tourist attraction” – shapes of hanging feet, a large erection.. etc. (I keep on saying – the truth – that Southeast Asians are playful and NOT dour.) It’s fun to walk through the caves.

(top left) Chinese charactors for “the world outside”, (bottom left)  the giant penis of Halong Bay’s Hang Hanh cave.
Halong City

Halong Bay’s a year round destination but summer is its high season. March was still chilly and damp but added a mystical mist to the entire scene. There are islands that have summer beaches and there are a variety of ways to visit the bay. The most popular is by taking an overnight cruise on a small Chinese Junk-style ship carrying between 10 – 35 passengers. From the port of Halong City, the ships sail into the center of the bay – about one hour – and anchor. From there passengers are ferried to the floating villages, pearl farms, caves, kayaking through caves and to beaches. There are over 400 ships that ply the bay ranging from small day-trip boats to “luxury” cruise junks. I place the word “luxury” in quotes because it’s difficult to determine beforehand which ships fit that description. Our ship, the Hanoi Opera, booked through the highly recommended Explorer Tours, was a fine ship carrying 20+ passengers but whose beds were designed for ascetic monks – the futon mattress was perhaps 1.5 inches thick to be generous. Paying $US420/couple for 2 nights to sleep on a wooden pallet was very uncomfortable. We discovered that there were many other ships that offered a higher level of comfort at less cost. Having researched the options for a month before booking the cruise, and after extensive conversations with fellow travelers, I would not recommend booking ahead. With so many ships available for tours, the best options are: (1) stay overnight in Halong City and take a day excursion on the bay, or (2) stay overnight in Halong City and check out the overnight ships to see which ones offer real beds. A one-night cruise is sufficient and should run around US$150 – $165/couple, including meals.

Hanoi Opera Ship: the dining room takes pride in garde manger

The three hour bus trip from Hanoi to the Bay – included in the cruise fare – was equally interesting. Although not comfortable given the condition of Vietnamese roads, passing through rural countryside and old villages undergoing rapid middle-class changes was enlightening. Rice paddies with Water Buffalo pulling wooden plows are next to French/Vietnamese style “McMansions” of  affluent Vietnamese. Anyone owning a house more than 9 feet wide is affluent since ancient real estate tax laws dictate high levies on any structure wider – although depth and height are excluded. Catholic churches towered over Confucian and Buddhist temples. Trash, dust and too much traffic for the narrow roads was typical. Nineteenth century farming and building techniques were side-by-side with 21st century office buildings, truck dealers and technical schools.

9′ wide house, vegetable plots &  rice paddies, bamboo canes for beans, cemetaries in rice paddies, a Catholic church, a Vietnamese mansion

Of course, the bus does make a shopping stop at a stone carving studio. Vietnam has an abundance of both limestone and marble. Hand-made marble carvings, especially garden fountains and statues, in sizes that are quite large, are available and shipping can be arranged – don’t look for bargains, these are top-of-the-line. Silk embroidery – some of it quite fine – is an art that frequently employs the disabled and is widely available, as well as jewelry and women’s ready-to-wear clothing – as long as you’re a size 8 or less.

Hanoi at 1,001

Past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation.”  Senator Robert F. Kennedy, 1968

DISCLAIMER: I did not group these myself. They were in the gift shop of the Temple of Learning

There’s little visible evidence of Hanoi circa 1010 – the city was established by Chinese expanding southward on settlements along the Red River that had been there already for 2,000 years. Actually, there’s little evidence of Hanoi pre 1870’s. Confucian culture preserves the spirits of the ancestors, not their buildings. Even if decades of war and millions of tons of dropped bombs had not significantly damaged the city, ingrained capitalism would have dictated their presence superfluous. The drive from Hanoi’s dreary Noi Bai International Airport – 28 miles (45 km) from the city’s downtown – passes extensive rice paddies boardering high-rise office complexes, narrow mold-streaked French colonial-style town houses next to another BMW dealership before winding snake-like into the heart of Old Hanoi with it’s 21st century sensory overload.

“old” 19th century buildings, chic cafe and typical traffic

“Charming” is a term to apply to Hanoi only if you believe Manhattan deserves the moniker as well. Frenetic is my description. The motor bike horns begin by 4:00 AM, followed by the publically broadcast music from the computer/TV store across the street starting at 8:00 AM, then the TV in the hotel’s breakfast room entertaining the owner’s young son with the Cartoon Network dubbed in Vietnamese. Outside is pandemonium if not prepared.

(top from left) monument maker, traditional medicine clinic, pastery and mushrooms, (bottom from left) plumbing supply store, ginsing, cinnamon sticks over a foot long.

Hanoi is a city that would make Donald Trump proud. Everyone is an entrepreneur and quite aggressive in their selling methods whether it be a cyclo driver following you down the street because you really don’t want to walk (?), or stepping over and around another sidewalk café while saying “no” to the hundredth deep fried donut, peeling the hand of the seller off your arm because you really do not need another map of the city all the while being aware that you’re walking in the middle of the street, because there’s no sidewalk space, along with cars, motorbikes and bicycles. Everything is for sale and streets, not just in the Old City, are frequently dedicated to a product – silversmith, watches… The Hotel Ho Guom was located on the edge of the Old City and the French Quarter and most of the surrounding shops were computer and TV stores.

Street life is not attractive compared to Thailand and Laos. The city is dirty. In Thailand and Laos both the cities and countryside were virtually trash free and yet there was not an overabundance of trash cans. Residents and shop owners simply picked up after themselves. Not so in Hanoi. There is an air of freewheeling rampant capitalism with a “me-me” attitude. It is nearly impossible to simply stop on the side of the street when walking to take a photo without having to dodge a vehicle, a person, a pile of discarded greasy food or a hawker. Yet Hanoi is a rich city. It is Southeast Asia’s most expensive real estate, everyone is either working or eating (or both), Bentley, BMW and Mercedes cars share the streets with motor bikes, high rise buildings are going up and the lakes are beautiful – even if they’re still not havens of quiet.

Hoan Kiem Lake
Emperor Lý Thái Tổ

It is not a tourist city, it’s for business. Evidence of the horrific wars that tore the country apart are nowhere to be seen except in the museums – none of which are worth seeing unless you’re really into war and politics. The most prominent statue to a political figure is the huge monument to Emperor Lý Thái T (974-1028) who ended Chinese domination over Vietnam. One of the city’s largest structures is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Joseph (1886). Over 15% of Vietnamese are Catholic and Saturday night Mass was packed.

The Temple of Learning, built in 1070, dedicated to Confucius, functioned for more than 700 years as Vietnam’s Imperial University educating the country’s nobles, royalty, mandarins and other elite. If after years of study and a month-long series of exams, a student graduated as a Mandarin their name was engraved on stone stele that sits on large stone turtles in the temple. Annually about 8 out of every 3,000 exam takers ever reached that loftiest of degrees. The temple consists of a series of five landscaped courtyards. The first two are primarily gardens including fanciful designs and topiary. The third one has a lotus pond and the stellae. The final courtyard holds the shrine to Confucius. The northern half of Vietnam has been Confucian for centuries. More a social and political philosophy based on ethics and behavior, and quite compatible with capitalism and central government, Confucian thought – although complex – does guide Vietnam today. Ancestor worship and offerings to the animistic spirits of nature by burning incense and leaving food and drink on alters, in trees and at monuments is as common in Vietnam as anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

the many Confucian ways of prayer

Within the Old City are several privately owned houses many within the same family dating back several centuries and are open to the public. They give a glimpse of middle class merchant life that, in reality, still exists today. The front of the house was always the store, and directly above were the 2nd floor store rooms reached by a staircase. Behind the store is the residence dominated in front by the alter to the ancestors. At least two courtyards open the houses to outdoor light and rain water. Chinese architectural influence is paramount in these pre-19th century structures.

87 Ma May Street

Most “tourist attractions” signal to me to “stay away,” but Hanoi’s Water Puppet Theater is unique and well worth the US$3.00 admission (for a front row seat). Started during ancient rice harvest festivals, the flooded rice paddies were transformed into magical puppet theaters. Puppets are a beloved form of entertainment throughout Asia, but these puppet masters control their elaborate characters from behind screens and actually under the water. Fire breathing dragons compete with dainty court dancers and palm tree climbing coconut collectors. A live orchestra in traditional dress playing on traditional instruments completes the experience as one of the best cultural venues in the city!

The Water Puppet Theater

Cuisine is not Hanoi’s forte. There are a lot of places to eat and, as usual on this Earth, they’re mediocre. The finest restaurant in Hanoi is also the most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, 3 story French art nouveau town house. Opening at 11:30 AM it is full within the hour. Founded 20 years ago by concerned Australians and Vietnamese, it is a culinary training school and refuge for disadvantaged/abused/orphaned young adults. If I had not known this in advance, I would have assumed it’s simply a superbly well trained staff serving creative dishes at moderate prices. It was the best meal I had in Hanoi. Cost for two was less than US$18.00

Koto
the incomperable Vietnamese Pho: soup, frequently eaten for breakfast, with noodles and beef

Unfortunately, many restaurants in Hanoi listed in guidebooks or on user reviewed travel sites were geared to tourists with Western taste (Australian beef burgers) and overpriced for the country. One important note of traveling in Vietnam is that it’s the least expensive of the Southeast Asian nations. A metered taxi (don’t travel any other way) is a couple of bucks anywhere within downtown, dinner for two with beer is under US$20, a first class hotel is overpriced if it’s rates are more than US$55-75, admission to any museum is a couple of bucks. I did have a very interesting, but not consistently well prepared, dinner at the top rated Highway 4, on a dark and dreary street north of the Water Puppet Theater. Deep fried crickets were fascinating – like eating feathery nuts, but beef flamed in foil was tough and other unexciting dishes were under seasoned. Although they advertise such exotic foods as Water Buffalo penis and fried scorpians, none of these were available. The Hotel Ho Guom, $55/double, was centrally located with an energetic and helpful staff – although the web site pics are better than reality. The room was comfortable and the breakfast provided a nice choice of traditional and Western foods.

 

deep fried crickets, beef flamed in foil: Highway 4 Restaurant

 

 Hanoi is not a comfortable city, and I’d suggest no more than a two day stay. Yet, for someone of my American generation it was an important visit. Barely avoiding the draft in the late 1960’s, brought up on  ideas of “communist domination,” it was valuable to learn that it truly was all lies. If Vietnam is a “socialist” state, Wall Street’s full of socialist. The war was a nationalist independence movement to throw off Western domination so that they could resume the rampant capitalism Vietnam always enjoyed before the French imposed their colonial regime. Vietnam succeeded, and if, along with their Chinese cousins, they eventually dominate Southeast Asia it will be through capitalist investment not ideology.

 

 

Hanoi: 24-hours

First Impressions…Hanoi

                            …in a much anticipated visit to Vietnam. 

photos: Marc d’Entremont

music: Ai Oan Lamentation, Phong Nguyks Vietnamese Instrumental Music on the Đàn bầu.

 

 

43 Days: The Things I’ll Carry

 “The things they carried…P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…they carried diseases…malaria and dysentery…lice and ringworm and leeches…and the land itself…the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles…They carried their own lives.”

from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Haughton Mifflin, 1990)

It’s been a quarter century since peace finally came to the  lands of Southeast Asia. For centuries it was part of the fabled “spice route” between the eastern and western worlds, yet in the 20th century more than twice the tonnage of bombs were dropped on Indochina than in all of World War II. I’ll be leaving Sunday to spend 43 days in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I’ll have no worries or fears, unlike the brave but misled soldiers of that ill-fated war.

For me who narrowly escaped experiencing the horror of those past times, it feels odd that I’ll enjoy first class hotels, renowned cuisine, stunning scenery, cities and sites that have survived millennia of wars and legendary hospitality. From all my research of the past six months in preparation for this trip I expect to see, or even feel, little evidence (except in museums) of last century’s strife. As a chef, historian and travel writer I’m preparing myself for a flood of experiences that will test my ability to process this trip with all five senses – especially taste. Foods that few westerners ever have the opportunity to see, no less taste, await me, with fusion cuisine developed over centuries of east-west contact – durian cheesecake anyone?

Oddly, I’ll carry some of the same objects listed by Tim O’Brien – can opener (cork screw in my case), pocket knife, wristwatch, mosquito repellant, bottled water, sewing kit and malaria pills (one-a-day for 51 days). I’ll have to still be mindful of bed bugs – carrying bed bug repellant (fortunately I’m  already aware of what they look, and feel, like.) Lice, leeches, dysentery are all still present – this is the tropics – which means swimming in lakes and rivers is out. I’ll carry my ignorance of customs – no pointing either with fingers or, especially, with one’s foot. I’ll be ignorant of the languages. For the first time in my life as a traveller I’ll be hopelessly unaware of what anyone is saying (with the exception of tourism workers that speak English). Language will become music, much nicer than the karaoke sounds my research says is the favorite throughout all four countries.

The best thing I’ll carry? A sense of wonder.

My first blog, from Bangkok, will post Tuesday, 8 February.

All is calm: Wartime Christmas

 “It is Christmas in the heart that puts Christmas in the air.”
W. T. Ellis 

March In: 19 December (2010) Valley Forge

It is well documented that over the past 12,000 years of human existence, there has never been “peace on Earth” on any day. Is there a more visceral holiday wish for anyone that’s ever been fighting in war, or even amidst a war?

Holiday season, 1970, Dublin, Ireland. I am a 20-year-old student spending my 3rd year of university at Dublin’s National University (UCD). Walking back to my flat from a party, some time after 3:00 AM, through the peaceful quiet of St. Stephen’s Green, I pause to admire my favorite statue – Theobald Wolfe Tone, leader of the 1798 Rebellion. It wasn’t the first time I’d admired the striking, 10 foot modern bronze on its 3 foot tall square polished granite base. In the early morning Dublin mist, the abstract visage made me particularly mindful of the sacrifice (his life) that this wealthy Protestant gave to Ireland’s Nationalist cause. It was sometime after 3:30 AM when I continued on. Sometime shortly after 4:00 AM the statue vaporized – plastic explosives on the back side  hidden by bushes. Fortunately, the only damage was to property.

interior of hut: Valley Forge December 2010

19 December 1777, the Continental Army marched in to its 6-month winter encampment at Valley Forge. The village of Valley Forge was in the middle of the Great Valley, the wealthiest agricultural and industrial region (water powered mills) of the 13 colonies. Yet the enlisted men suffered through that Christmas nearly starving on “fire cake” (fried flour & water). For three weeks food was absurdly scarce to feed between 8,000 – 10,000 troops all due to incompetence and lack of central planning. Neither the enlisted men’s diaries nor Washington’s letters were kind during these weeks. By mid-January, the food issue was solved, but it was a bleak Christmas.

For me, the Web’s greatest asset is its ability to tell people’s stories. The earliest tragedy of World War I was its failure to be over by Christmas 1914 – as so much propaganda had predicted. Of all the poignant moments within the catastrophe of that pointless war was the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. In the late 1980’s singer/songwriter John McCutcheon told of this event with heart-rending lyrics. The creator of this U-Tube video of John’s song has paired the lyrics with moving art and photos.

The bitterly satirical 1969 film, Oh! What a Lovely War effectively dramatizes this seminal event:

In recent years, revisionist have questioned this incident citing that it romanticized war. Recent scholarship indicates such Christmas Day truces, unofficial although many may have been, did exist – and not just in World War I.

Yet the bitter irony of juxtaposing the sacred and the profane is belted out later in Oh! What a Lovely War when a soldier sings, “It was Christmas Day in the cookhouse, the happiest time of the year, Men’s hearts were full of gladness and their bellies full of beer, When up popped Private Shorthouse, his face as bold as brass, He said, We don’t want your puddings, you can stick them up your tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of co-omfort and joy. It was Christmas Day in the harem, the eunuchs were standing ’round, And hundreds of beautiful women were stretched out on the ground, Along came the wicked Sultan, surveying his marble halls. He said, Whaddya want for Christmas boys, and the eunuchs answered tidings of co-omfort and joy, comfort and joy, o-oh ti-idings of comfort and joy…”     (Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

World War II Christmas Decorations at the Wall House

The Wall House in Elkins Park, PA, dates from 1688. It has seen a lot of war. Two rooms are devoted to its World War II era residents. Besides letters to and from the Front among family members, holiday trees reflected the realities of war. In the picture above, center, is a field hospital “tree” decorated with blue and white ribbon/paper and painted tongue depresses. To the right, is a small living room tree decorated in paper and tin ornaments. The prized German-made glass ornaments were unavailable and unpatriotic.

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: decorated for Christmas 2009 (http://travelphotosbydave.shutterfly.com/)

“I had always thought there was no recognizable smell for impending death, but this country reeked of it…It was everywhere, no one left unscathed, no one left untouched, no one emotionally unscarred…It was the only time in my life I’ve ever felt a mutual, unconditional love for man and mankind…”       James Worthington, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam

I traveled in Vietnam in March 2010. That same 20-year-old kid that escaped being vaporized in 1970 along with Theobald Wolfe Tone, narrowly missed being drafted earlier that year in the first military draft lottery, or at best this might have been my second trip. I know/knew Vietnam Vets, some are no longer alive having succumbed to the demons of post-war life. I was lucky. Instead of Vietnam, I was in Ireland that Christmas. In his memoir, Silent, Holy Night: Respite in Vietnam, John Worthington reminds me what Christmas 1970 may have been like.

Peace on Earth, a tenuous dream that we humans never want to give up, yet never want to try. Worldwide, we celebrate our cycles of rebirth year after year – solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah – hoping that some year the magic will work. Let’s not stop the hope.

the big blue marble: Earth (Paul Winter Consort, December 2009)

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