Vietnam: Do(n)gone it!

Vietnam
Halong Bay Vietnam

Vietnam: A Travelogue By Punam Mohandas

To be honest, Vietnam happened to me for the flimsiest of reasons. It wasn’t on my bucket or even basin, list! I just had air miles to cash in on and figured, why not Vietnam, given my penchant for a nomadic lifestyle. Somewhere, I also had a fragmentary interest in checking out Saigon, imagining it to be full of history and culture.

Almost immediately, I was faced with hurdles, the dashed visa being the primary one. The “visa-on-arrival” tag is a misnomer; apparently one has to first apply online and if the online application is accepted, you get an email to that effect, a copy of which you carry with you and then your passport gets stamped, indeed on arrival! Apart from this, you pay half the fee while submitting the o.a. and the rest on arrival. Too complicated for my simple mind and so I trundled along under Bangkok’s blazing sun in search of the Vietnamese embassy.

Which fortunately, is accessible not only in terms of location but also welcome – any man and his dog can just walk in, unlike the other embassies where you’re stripped of all your worldly possessions before being allowed into the hallowed grounds. Never mind that the welcome is somewhat surly (I realised once I got to Vietnam that the surliness is an in-built genetic trait!)

Once people heard I was planning Vietnam, I got a whole lot of well-meaning advice from my colleagues, all of whom were sending me in opposite directions; at this rate, that redemption of air miles was gonna prove real costly in the long run! Since too many travellers were emphasising on the difference between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) in the south, I zeroed in on these two cities, with a side trip to Halong Bay, just to get an idea of the Vietnamese coastline.

The media as well as the hotel industry is just one incestuous round of musical chairs and never was this fact brought home to me more strongly than when I embarked on a search of hotels in Hanoi. To my utter surprise, I came across Barbie, whom I had last met about 20-years ago when she was working for a spa resort in Thailand. Of such quirky little moments is life made of and she warmly invites me to dinner on my first night in Hanoi.

The aerial shot over Hanoi is quite pretty, of red-roofed houses against green paddy fields. From the airport, it’s a 20-dollar (yes, it struck me as more than odd that the Vietnamese continue to use American currency alongside the local dong, considering the bitter aftermath that American invasion left in its wake!) ride to the hotel. Speaking of which, use only the Noi Ba taxis as the meter is more regulated.

I am staying at the InterContinental Westlake for a couple of nights, which is a hotel fairly on the lake itself, by which I mean that you don’t gotta take rowboats or anything, although though there are some rooms that are surrounded by the water, but not so’s it’s the middle of the lake. The 6th century Tran Quoc pagoda is close by here; one of the oldest temples in Vietnam, it has a Bodhi tree whose cutting was taken from the actual tree in Bodh Gaya under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. I am all fresh and charged up and ready to go for a stroll however, much to my dismay, the ladies at the reception desk inform me it is not a good idea for a girl to wander around alone once it gets dark. And that’s another thing – blimey, the lobby is freezing! It’s cold and grey outside and, listening to Barbie who kept telling me it had gotten warm, I’ve come armed with nothing but a stole I stole off my sister!

The hotel whistles up a cab for me and I’m off to The Home, one of Hanoi’s most famed Vietnamese restaurants, so named because it is in an actual old building, with literally crumbling walls and artfully painted window frames. The food, especially the seafood and the unique method of grilling the prawns over rock salt, is out of this world! Over this epicurean delight, Barbie confirms to me sadly that yes, its true, it’s not very safe for ladies to be out alone and there are plenty of recorded cases of chain-snatching and mugging. Hmm. Seems like I would have done myself a favour had I stayed in Delhi instead of spending all this money to get what one gets back home for free!

Right, I’m up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning coz I want to visit the Old Quarter, which seems pretty much the heart of Hanoi. Much like wily Indian and Thai cabbies, the driver here too slows down deliberately at times in the hope the meter will climb higher. The cacophony of horns is deafening and there are absolutely no road rules being observed; Vietnam had once been a French colony and there are about seven thousand Indians living in Hanoi. Put those facts together and what you get is a traffic sense that is Indo-French, i.e. the Indian habit of noise and no rules coupled with the French penchant for driving/parking on the pavements, leaving the poor pedestrians skipping nimbly in and around traffic!

The Old Quarter is comprised of crumbling facades and narrow alleys and gives you a strong sense of how the locals still live. Walk into the alley past the Water Puppet Theatre and you’re in a maze of winding gullis. I must say I am taken aback to find such squalor in the capital city of a country that’s doing aggressive marketing in the ASEAN and positioning itself as one of the nations to be reckoned with! Hang Be is the main street here. There are dozens of little shops selling oils on canvas of typical Vietnamese scenes; some of them are startlingly attractive, with blazing colours. Framed pictures start at 6$ while without the frame goes at 4$; struggling to convert into the Vietnamese dong is a bloody pain. The dong is like the Italian lira used to be – wallet bulging with paper with precious little value! (In March 2016, the currency was roughly 1$= 23,000 dong.) Souvenir shops, hotels and little travel agencies are interspersed amid flower stalls – the Vietnamese love their flowers – and all kinds of meat being sold out in the open, so that you find yourself looking sharp to avoid stepping into puddles of blood. It is a surreal juxtapositioning…fresh vegetables, richly hued flowers and dismembered chicken necks or frogs legs. And all the while, the insane flow of traffic continues, dangerously close to the shop entrances.

One welcome legacy the French have left behind is the coffee! Good and strong, freshly roasted beans that are then filtered, with varieties such as Blue Mountain, hazelnut, espresso, the civet and so on. I quickly start hanging out at number 28 Hang Be (that’s it, no name, just the number) a tiny shop with a couple of stools. The owner is friendly, besides, his coffee is only at 15,000 dong compared to the 40 or 50 thousand dong other cafes charge. Incidentally, Hanoi cafes are not as we would find in other cities; look for a higgledy-piggledy assortment of kid-sized little footstools scattered around the pavement just outside the entrance to a stall and you know you’re at a “cafe.” Come the night and these cafes turn into streetside pubs, with just a change in beverage!

I pick up some peculiar tasting dough that’s deep-fried to look like churros. At just 5,000 dong per stick, it’s good protection against the cold. I now want a ride in the really quaint looking cycle rickshaws – the driver sits behind the passenger – and haggle with the dude for a ride around the Hoan Kiem lake, whose famous occupant, an, allegedly 400-year old turtle, died earlier this January. Just across the lake and outside of the Old Quarter, you see international names like Swarovski, Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Popeye….if I sound zapped, it’s coz nobody in Hanoi speaks English! S’truth! A lack of English communication in a capital city in this day and age is like shooting yourself in the foot. It’s the devil of a job for a tourist to get himself understood, I’ll tell you this. I pretty much gave up from the first day and all we spoke is the language of the pocket calculator!

I am booked to stay at Halong Bay the next night, my last here before I catch a flight to Saigon. To my dismay, I learn that transport back from Halong Bay is only in the afternoons – too late to be able to make my flight. In one of those on-the-spot decisions Columbus was famous for too, I decide to cancel the overnight and do just a day trip to Halong Bay. Trundling around shopping for rates gives me a headache and I head to number 28 for a cup of freshly brewed Blue Mountain java. Perked up, I double back to Bamboo Travels who has offered me the most sensible rate of 9$ – compared to 50$ further down the road! Commending my soul to God, I also book myself in two doors down for the following night at Olive hotel which looks like a flea-ridden trap, for the princely sum of 17$ with a basic breakfast. The girl at the Reception desk was NOT pleased I can tell you, when I piteously asked a French tourist holding on to her toddler, as to how the rooms were! Now that the logistics are taken care of, I am off to buy some of those Vietnamese paintings as also some coffee sachets. The shop I go to has a pretty nifty scheme where, for every three packets that you buy you get a coffee filter free, which otherwise costs 25,000 dong. (As an aside a couple of months after my return, let me mention that the coffee was a worthwhile buy.)

I’ve been asked to be outside Bamboo at 7.30sharp on a freezing March morning. I’m here all right, but the van pulls up only at 8.40! So here’s the first news flash – we ain’t going in a big, comfy bus as the ticket promised; we’re going to be smidged in cheek-by-jowl in a mini van. To my utter shock, the ladies next to me are jabbering in – Thai! Oh man. I fell upon them like some long-lost relative, blubbering at the frenzied familiarity! Turns out they are a group of four nurses from a hospital in Pattaya, spending their holiday being remarkably unimpressed in Hanoi. It starts drizzling and that casts a further pall upon our group.

Second news flash – ignore ALL the websites that tell you Halong is three hours away from Hanoi. It is easily 4.5 hours away and all of us were muttering uneasily at just how much time we’d have in a day trip to actually see the dratted place. Turns out, not much. The Vietnamese idea of a day trip out is to stop en route at one of those infernal souvenir shops for a good 20-minutes, both to and fro. After this, once we actually arrive at the pier, we’re turned over to a tour guide in skin-tight trousers with his bum divide showing and Elvis-like hair, who’s got so many groups going that he’s confused and we wait another 40-minutes while he gets his head count sorted! Sometime in this century, we eventually make it on to the ferry. Fortunately, the drizzle has stopped, although the skies are still clouded.

And – lunch is served before we even sit down! I am at a table with a Greek couple from my van and three Japanese males who are part of another group. Lunch is the strangest meal I ever saw, with mounds of unappetising looking rice, boiled cabbage, some dodgy fish in a thin broth and deep-fried, salted peanuts. The Greek girl is promptly sick as she is allergic to seafood and she rushes out on deck, while her boyfriend cold-heartedly tucks into his meal. I ferret around in my handbag and find a croissant I had nicked at breakfast this morning for when I felt peckish, now somewhat battered, and tell him to go give it to her.

The table is briskly cleared of the dishes and out come trays of kitsch which the boat lady displays in a Hitlerian manner, almost compelling the travellers to buy it. However, the Chinese, who comprise most of the boat’s passengers, are made of sterner stuff and bat away the trays almost contemptuously.

Soon, we arrive at our destination. Halong Bay. We are pretty much held captive at the rickety pier, which has a fleet of these ferry boats anchored there. Perish the thought of going for a stroll around town or something. All we can do is pose against the cliffs while some of the more adventurous ones go kayaking; I use the word ‘adventurous’ advisedly, as the water is a thick, green sludge as far as the eye can see, no doubt strongly polluted by all these ferries. Halong Bay itself is known for these imposing cliffs rising out of the sea. Call me biased but I confess to being slightly disappointed, as we have far more spectacular cliff views on Koh Krabi island in Thailand, with fresh, jade green waters.

We are here for a couple of hours, during which time the only interesting thing to happen is that this American woman mislays her bag and starts screaming the heavens down. You can hear her coming a mile off! She accuses the cruise staff of having stolen it and declaims to any hapless passengers along the way of this tragedy that has befallen even as her husband attempts vainly to shush her and act reasonable – God, why are the Americans so loud?! Eventually, it turns out that Blondie had mistakenly clambered aboard another boat and left her bag there and then forgotten which boat that was – as our guide, me and other passengers too had been trying to tell her.

We finally reach Hanoi at close to 10pm, somewhat dispirited. We are dropped off near the lake and not at the travel agent’s, as had been told to us. Fortunately for me, I don’t have far to go. Wonders will never cease – right beside the Olive is an Indian restaurant called Tandoor and I stagger in our of the cold for some surprisingly well-made daal and hot naan. The cook dada is a portly Bong who has lived in Hanoi for the last 20-years and is inclined to be somewhat chatty with Indian visitors, particularly single Indian ladies travelling on their own, a phenomena as unusual for him as a flying saucer.

The next day finds me on my way to the airport, heading south to Saigon; Vietnam is quite spread out in terms of area and the train between the cities would have taken about 36-hours. Also, having seen the state of affairs as they exist, I don’t think I’d be very keen to travel in Vietnamese trains! I have to say I found Hanoi rather grim. The people are poor – and look it. They are gruff and abrupt; life holds too much harshness to smile. I suppose a hard life each day is hardly going to induce sweetness and light but for me, now used to living in Thailand with friendlier and helpful locals, this lack of smiles and bonhomie is dismaying. I must admit that there seems to be a ray of hope with the younger generation, who are confident enough to approach strangers so they can practise their English;  predictably, the female of the species is more outgoing than the male 🙂

I land in Saigon – well, the official name is of course Ho Chi Minh City, but the locals persist in calling it Saigon, as do I – at 5pm. A most unprepossessing aerial view, of cluttered houses dangerously close to the runway, does cause a sinking of the heart. This time, I am better prepared for skirmishes with cabbies but most fortunately, I am in time to catch the airport bus (no 52) to the city – at just 5,000 dong! My spirits perk up visibly. It’s an air-conditioned bus and will take roughly the same time as a cab, so I’ve saved a pretty penny AND the bus stops right outside the Pullman, which is gonna be my abode for the next coupla days. Incidentally, the traffic is even more bizarre and horrendous than Hanoi if that’s possible! Nobody stops; they just zigzag around you.

That said, Saigon is definitely livelier than Hanoi – is it to do with the fact that we’re in the south? People are more loose and relaxed; the weather too is balmy and pleasant, no need for those infernal woolies. (Having said this, it is also more urban; if you want to experience a swirling kaleidescope of Vietnamese life in actuality then I would suggest you visit Hanoi.) I quickly dump my luggage in my room and come charging out, ready to hit the town. Uh oh – here’s the by-now familiar litany from the Front Desk dude about bag-snatchers; say, what IS it about this place?! So I sling my rucksack back to front to appease him and set off in my thirst for adventure and, well, thirst! It’s suppertime for me.

Staying at the Pullman was the best decision ever, as the hotel is so centrally located. It’s just a ten-minute walk to the famous Ben Thanh market, which closes at 6pm, however, there is a flourishing night market outside it on the weekends. Of course I amble around – whaddya take me for? It’s the same old, same old, with fewer food stalls compared to Bangkok. I head back to the park I had passed along the way that has an open square where children are skating and sit awhile to observe life. There is a street vendor cooking some crepe like thing over a portable coal heater; a thin sheet of rice paper, on which she breaks a couple of quail eggs, adds chopped spring onions, fish sauce, red chilli powder, dried prawns or chopped pork as per your wish and scrambles the whole thing around till the eggs are cooked, after which she folds it into half and slides it onto paper sheets. She grins at me and signals if I want one but pork’s a no-go for me so I walk on. I am amused to bump into a westerner fellow tourist at a traffic signal, who presumably has had the same bag-snatching warnings issued to him, coz he too is wearing his mini backpack on the front.

The next morning I’m ready to take in the sights. The hotel has shuttle rides to the main attractions and I opt to get off at Notre Dame Basilica. Unfortunately, it has closed during lunchtime but here’s the real kicker – no one seems to know when it will open! A notice outside says 5pm but one of the officials who have snuck out for a ciggie and whom I corral, says 3pm. Disappointed, I turn instead to the post office that’s across the road from the cathedral. No ordinary post office, this – it’s a 1,000 years old and still functional. Inside, it isn’t very prepossessing; an arched, rounded ceiling and a long, plain room, at the far end of which are the post office counters. At the entrance, leading left and right are more souvenir kitsch shops.

I step out into the blinding sunlight – trying to get used to this, after grey, overcast Hanoi – and walk around for a bit doing some people-watching. Interestingly, the female Vietnamese dress is much like our salwar-kameez, except that the lower garment is like pants instead of the salwar paunchas while the shirt, although ankle-length, has waist-high slits with some of the midriff showing. The entire ensemble is form-fitting, rather than loose and shapeless.

I make my way next to the Opera House which is just a few blocks away. Frankly, it’s not that impressive and I’ve seen better, however, it IS one of the remaining examples of French colonial architecture and was designed along the lines of the Petit Palais. The strange thing is that, post 1956, it was actually used as the Lower House assembly and reverted to being used as a theatre again in 1975. I brave the stone lions and walk up the steps where a pair of half-naked plaster-of-Paris ladies are propping up the ceiling. A very real, fully clad albeit mini-skirted termagant blocks my path. Apparently, during the days that shows are on, visitors are not allowed to tour the Opera House. She tries to cajole me into buying a ticket for a 6.30pm show on how life used to be in Vietnam in the good old days, which doesn’t sound very appealing to me, aside from the fact that what am I going to do with myself from now until 6.30? I ask her if I can just take a sneak peek inside. She frowns and tells me I can just look into into the foyer. Huh? Well, okay. As soon as I put my foot on the red carpet to get a picture of the gilt-edged stair railings and the overhead chandelier, she informs me I’ve over-stepped my boundaries! I concede I’ve met my Waterloo and make myself scarce.

Adjacent to the Opera House are two malls or rather, make that three: Parkson Plaza, Vincom Mall and the newly-built Vincom II. Unlike, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore etc, where you’re tripping over a mall every five steps, these are few and far between in Saigon. The malls here are absolutely unfriendly; the only concession to consumer comfort is piped music! No seating, no cheerful or innovative displays. Parkson has a brisk, no-nonsense food court, where I sit awhile feeling sorry for myself. I check out Vincom next, where there’s more life and some of the usual suspects in brand names to be seen. Not being much of a mall shopper, I’m done quickly and head to the new Vincom across the road, which is like a ghost town. Absolutely empty and I kid you not! No shoppers, two girls at the information counter downstairs, one salesgirl on the first floor, no human being or even, opened stores on the upper level. Indeed, the most noteworthy thing I’ve seen in this area is the only pedestrian signal in Vietnam that actually works – the one outside Parkson Plaza!

I am decidedly NOT going to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, a vast network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong and a grim reminder of the Vietnam war. Visitors can actually crawl along some of the safer tunnels. I have no idea why somebody with a sane mind would want to attempt to re-create the horror and darkness of this period; I have been to Dachau concentration camp in Germany and the Killing Fields in Cambodia and those are enough to last me this lifetime.

The next day, I am back at Ben Thanh market. Remarkably like Calcutta’s New Market, it is a huge, cavernous hall crammed with little stalls selling souvenirs, clothes, shoes, dried fruit chips such as jackfruit – incidentally, cheaper than Bangkok – and what-not. The New Market image is reinforced as the wily shopkeepers attempt to draw one in with their sales spiel. I stop at one such stall simply because the owner appears more honest, courteous and likeable than the others and negotiate for a pair of paintings that are splendidly colourful and an unusual combination of oil paint, mother-of-shell chips and egg shells! The cacophony in this crowded market is quite deafening. I buy some jackfruit chips and make my way back across the park to the hotel.

Sadly, I don’t get to try many Vietnamese specialities apart from the Goi Cuon or spring rolls made of fresh rice paper sheets filled with chopped, fresh vegetables (and pork/seafood variants too) certainly not the Pho or soup noodles, as they usually have pork in them. Therefore, I am quite pleased to come across this Pho stall that offers vegetarian varieties, however, one quick look inside assures me that the hygiene element is less than satisfactory, so I opt for – what else – pizza.

At noon the following day, I get the hotel shuttle to drop me across the road from Ben Thanh; the central bus station is supposed to be somewhere around here. I’ve decided to repeat the 5,000 dong trick to get to the airport. It could be just me, you know; I mean, normally I’m quite a quick-witted journalist but there have been moments when I’m notoriously clumsy and short-sighted and this seems to be one of them coz, for the life of me, I can’t see a way of getting into the ruddy building! Finally, one of the ticket counters slides open and a disembodied voice says something. I pretty much follow the sound and find that the rear is the entrance! Nobody can tell me what time the bus is expected to arrive, but, since about five people point me to a particular awning, I toddle across there. Pretty soon, I am joined by Rani and Sati, a middle-aged but lively sardar couple who live in Glasgow and have been touring Vietnam and had the same pennypinching Indian thought of hopping on to the bus! We strike up a conversation which takes us all the way to the airport, thence to go our separate ways and thus ends my visit to Vietnam.

As a footnote: If I am honest, living in Thailand has blurred my thinking, if you will; I am spoiled for choice be it for natural beauty or the cheer and kindness of the Thais and therefore, when I visit neighbouring places such as Bali, Laos, Cambodia and now Vietnam, I tend to make comparisons. Indeed, I often lament to myself why I left home at all when there is so much still to be seen in Thailand but then…a nomadic heart follows the call of the wild.

Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work.  Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.

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