Vietnam: Ghost Citadel to Disney’Nam

12 April 2011

25th February 2011

The Citadel at Hue
A towering ancient gated wall conceals the haunting contradictory innards from view of the cylco-swarming street. Walking through the thick high vaulted corridor my eyes scan the walls, ceiling and floors pitted with bullet holes like small pox scars. I feel like I can hear the distant echo of fatalistic screams. Once inside, overgrown scrubby grass gives way to the occasional pagoda-esque building, stairway or wobbly paving slabs, the grey stone aged and dreary. The occasional crisp packet flits epileptically across across our path and dips into a once stunning tranquil pool, now a sludge pit lined by steps that look like melted dolly mix squares. Tourists mingle around, a look of bewilderment on their faces that express a mix of ‘is this it?’ and feigned concern over the events that once took place here.

Hue Citadel Photograph

Paint pots permeate the site, claret dripping down the aluminium. Lumps of ruined stone, freshly hacked, lay tumbled on the ground and rusty metal supports languidly lean against remnants of walls. The odd pristine roofed corridor stands out like an over-made up transvestite, ‘I am the genuine article, I am!’ it seems to scream. ‘Restoration’ work has begun here, although all too sporadic and a little half-hearted. Areas clearly planned for rebuild in various stages of dismantle or complete overhaul have been abandoned. This ‘restoring to former glory’ attempt is all to common across Asia and sits badly with me.

The Citadel at Hue had historically been the Dynastic home for South Vietnam’s Emperor. In 1968 it was the site of the bloodiest battle of the Vietnam war, the Tet Offensive. At least 2,800 – 6,000 civilians were massacred by the North Vietnam and Viet Cong in just four weeks. Their bodies lay in mass graves. After the war, the victorious regime left the Citadel to ruin, viewing it as a relic of a feudal regime. However, the promise of tourist dollars was too much to bear and the ‘restoration’ programme began. With every thickly applied lick of paint layering over fire-ravaged walls and poly-filler clogging the bullet holes, a little bit of the memory is wiped. In the distance, the ‘DMZ’ bar with it’s graffitied walls, oozes 90s music, stale beer and fag ash whilst echoing teens do shots between adulterated ‘Apocalypse Now’ quotes.

Whilst I don’t suggest everyone should be moping around burdened with the melancholy weight of what transpired here little more than 40 years prior, not for the first time in Vietnam I have found my prematurely ageing self muttering ‘a little respect, a little decorum, please’.

Hue Citadel Photograph

Hoi An
The cobbled streets of Vietnam’s old port are, in spite of their age (not as old as you’d think thanks to the ‘widening’ restoration programme to accommodate tourist cattle) are alive, vibrant and welcoming. One may be forgiven for feeling that here is a place that has been frozen in time – if you squint a little so you don’t see the tourist shops and chic cafes crammed into every tiny wooden doored building. It is all to easy to linger here too long. The ambiance is reminiscent of an old European town, visitors lounging in cafes as they laugh in relaxed glee with companions or diligently plough through a tattered book, contemplate their navels or do the one finger prod at some miniature technological wizardry. Cakes flow as abundantly as noodles. Young girls on their gap year clutch handfuls of bursting shopping bags and boys exchange notes on tailors. For this is tailor heaven and if you didn’t know it before you got here, it is rammed down your throat at every availability. Anything you want can be made for ‘cheap price’. The sheer overwhelming quantity of tailor shops in Hoi An does not necessarily indicate quality.

Hoi An Photography

The rickety buildings are beautiful and are considerately preserved to highlight the very best of their ageing features. At night the streets come alive in mass of twinkling lanterns and flickering candles casting ethereal silhouettes on the stained, cracked walls of the historic buildings. We sat by the river watching floating candles in coloured paper boats float like satellite stars down the dark river and sighed with content, cake-filled tummies. The Disney-esque town seems like a million miles away from Vietnam.

Hoi An Photography

Vietnam: Eggs and stilettos

28 March 2011

19th February 2011

With heavy hearts we left wonderful Hanoi but we were excited about beginning our 700 km journey to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The first leg would be an overnight train to the city of Hue just south of the De-Militerised Zone (DMZ). Our cabin was small, quaint and a little grubby but there was clean(ish) bedlinen on the bunks so we couldn’t complain.

shoesWe had arrived early and were half way through devouring our snacks when our room-mates arrived. A tall, stooping man in his 60s appeared at the door. He wore faded denim jeans pulled up a little too high and belted tight to restrain the red polo shirt that was fiercely tucked in. He had a bush of snow white hair on his head and face and the space in between was occupied by square black rimmed glasses. He had a kind face and I was instantly relieved that we would be sharing the night with an ageing gentleman. “Hi” he said enthusiastically as he entered the cabin and we exchanged greetings. From the corner of my eye I could see someone else lurking in the doorway. I turned to look and noticed at first the impossibly high, faux snakeskin, gladiator style, stiletto heels. I looked at the girl tottering in these shoes and smiled. Then out of her mouth came “Hello. My…name…is…Guan!” in a deep baritone voice to rival Arnie Schwarzenegger. Whoa!! It would have been less of a surprise if I had noticed the veiny masculine hands, impossibly padded, pillow-like breasts and the ginormous adam’s apple grazing the neckline of his/her t-shirt.

I have to say that next the few hours that followed made this journey one of the strangest I have ever experienced. The kind older gent was a Canadian who, for six months of the year left his family in Canada and drove to Arizona for his holiday. But he wouldn’t stay in Arizona long, jumping on a flight to Bangkok. There was no doubt that Guan was not a lady by birth and the fact that she had met her bus-pass boyfriend in Bangkok only helped seal the stereotype. The Canadian was very friendly and chatted away but the more he talked, the more it seemed that he was either a little odd or an apple short of a full fruit basket.
“Do you put eggs in the fridge?’ he burst after there had been a comfortable silence for some time. “Pardon?”
“Do you put your eggs in the fridge?” he repeated.
“Erm…” (Chris and I look at one another slightly bemused), “yeah, in the egg tray, in the fridge door”.
“Oh yes, that’s what that’s for. I guess you do. Hmmm…” he paused to think, “I met an English woman. She said that in your country the eggs aren’t in fridges in the supermarket”.
So the conversation about eggs, fridges and ‘our’ country continued for an unnatural amount of time until eventually he was satisfied with the outcome and it ended as abruptly as it had begun. And all the while Guan lay there, quietly snoring, his/her legs wrapped around him.

Things didn’t quite improve when we all finally fell asleep. Every hour or so I’d be violently woken by the snowy-haired loony shouting. Sometimes it would just be grunts, parts of words, screams. Then there was the odd sentence like, “There’s no need to push, it’s open….the door’s open” or “don’t come in!!!”. The only constant was the intermittent outburst of “Trixie! TRIXIE!!”. God knows who Trixie was but I was hoping that poor snoring Guan couldn’t hear his/her lover’s adulterous exclamations. When the morning arrived I arose from my crumb infested bunk to the sight of Guan re-aligning his/her pillow boobs that had shifted in the night and now resembled baps accidentally placed in the bottom of a shopping bag.

We parted company with our ‘roomies’ once we got to Hue, to cheery chants of ‘good luck’ from the gent and deep words of “next time you have baby” from his man/lady friend. That irked me almost more than earlier seeing the Canadian mime a request for something involving his/her mouth and the privacy of the train toilet.

Needless to say, we vacated the locomotive with exceptional speed.

Vietnam: Descending Dragons

27 March 2011

15th February 2011

Hạ Long Bay. Vietnam’s darling. Vịnh Hạ Long in Vietnamese literally translates as ‘Descending Dragon Bay’ and you need few clues as to how this UNESCO world heritage site got it’s name. The large bay is a maze of thousands of monolithic limestone islets and karsts dating back to between 500 million (for the limestone) and 20 million (for the karsts) years ago. The unique site is a treasure trove of historic sites, biodiversity and geological phenomena.

Ha Long Bay - Vietnam

So of course we had to go. After searching for ways of doing a DIY trip from Hanoi, to our disappointment it became apparent that the only way to explore the bay was as part of a tour. Having read plenty of scare-mongering about the safety of the boats and given the chilly temperatures, we decided on a long day trip rather than the more popular overnight tours. After several hours on a bus, we finally arrived at Hạ Long Bay port, a heaving, chaotic mass of tour groups being rounded up like sheep by their guides – wolves with dollar bills in their eyes. Large junks chugged in to the port awaiting their cargo and like a punter perusing a lot of second hand cars, I studied the line up and ear-marked the best looking boats whilst praying that none of the worst looking vessels would be ours.

Our chariot was adequate, a creaking mass of wood and windows. We pulled out of the port and joined the fleet of ‘apparently’ 1000 boats cruising around the looming islets. It was breath taking. The damp cold air created a thick eerie mist enshrouding the dark monoliths as though they were forgotten church towers on the misty moors. Occasionally the grey veil would drop and the rough, grooved textures of the limestone would be visible. We were taken to large technicolor lit caves hidden within the islets and guided around the bits of ancient rock that, if you look hard enough, apparently resemble an elephant, a horse, a couple, a dragon, a penis…and so on and so forth. We were shipped to the ‘floating fishermen’ from whom you could buy the catch of the day for your lunch. Of course the tourists assumed they would be dining on the fruits of Hạ Long Bay but the fish were actually caught out to sea and brought to the floating fish shop for tourists. I realise that as a vegetarian I have a happy-clappy animal lovers view on things but I couldn’t help looking upon the once radiant coloured cuttle-fish huddling limply in the corner of their tiny sea cage and feel a pang of sadness about the scene.

As we chugged back to port I reflected on the day. For certain I was pleased that we had seen Hạ Long Bay’s Descending Dragon but I loathe being herded, wasting time in the obligatory tourist shops from which there is no escape and being dragged through one contrived over-visited site to another. I just wanted to come and gaze at the splendour of millions of years worth of nature at work and drink in it’s ethereal atmosphere.

Ha Long Bay - Vietnam

The following day we were shocked to learn that there had been a tragedy at the very site we had visited. In the night, one of the junks had sunk taking it’s crew and sleeping tourists with it. Eleven perished in the murky waters. There was a buzz in Hanoi as travellers with furrowed brows conveyed the news and warnings to others. We met a journalist who had been sent out to establish the effect of the news on Vietnam’s reputation and he explained that the police were still keeping a tight veil over the situation until a finger could be pointed with some certainty. As we were drip fed pieces of information it became apparent that it had been human error but the gossip (from staff, travellers and ex-pats) in the cafes yielded other warnings: cowboy operations, badly or untrained staff, unmaintained boats and poor safety to no safety standards (we were certainly aware of the latter as we noted the complete absence of life-jackets on board, let alone a safety briefing).

The Hạ Long Bay deaths are a travesty. The 22 year old captain, the under-qualified crew, the boat company for not training their staff or maintaining their boats, the tour company who sold the tickets and the local authorities for their inadequate controls are all to blame. I can only hope that this incident (along with the deaths from previous incidents) will encourage local authorities to ensure that standards of health and safety are put in place and maintained so that visitors can enjoy this incredible sight in safety.

In short, for us, Hạ Long Bay was a sad place.

Ha Long Bay - Vietnam

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