Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘SE Asia 2007’ Category

Lake Ton Le Sap, Saturday, October 6th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

On our last day we visited a school, one of the better ones, because it was sponsored by a small organisation called Caring for Cambodia. En route we stopped to buy some books to donate to the school because the people are so desperately poor they can barely afford to feed the children, never mind buy them books or uniforms.
The other teachers in the group were keen to visit the classrooms, but I hated it. There we were, wasting half an hour of precious learning time of children who only get four hours education per day anyway, while the group was billing and cooing over the cuteness of the children as if they were performing puppy dogs. I caught the eye of one little girl, grave with dignity and a complete lack of comprehension as to why we were there, and my eyes filled with tears. I got out of there and composed myself, and then went and pretended to be interested in the library.
 It wasn’t a school library, but rather one for the whole community, and although someone had tried very hard to make the best of it, what a pitiful thing it was! It was mostly filled with cheap paper ‘readers’, some very tatty children’s novels in English much too hard for any child there to read, and a very few adult novels that had seen better days. The man in charge had so much difficulty with English that Bun had to translate my questions for him, and he was the head teacher!
Still, at least the Cambodians have chosen English as their second language so that as their pool of English speakers increases, they can eventually access university exchange programs across the globe, and – of course – the World Wide Web. (This is in marked contrast to the stupidity of the leaders of East Timor choosing Portuguese, a language spoken only in such economically irrelevant places as Andorra, Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, the Chinese S.A.R. of Macau, Mozambique, Portugal, São Tomé and Príncipe.)
It was hard, however, to see what Cambodia’s future might be when we took the boat trip on Lake Ton Le Sap. The people who live there are so poor it’s appalling. Their bamboo houses have to be moved up and down the river bank as the water level rises and falls with the monsoon. They have a floating ‘library’, basketball court and various other community facilities, some of them sponsored by the west, but some of them were so small and decrepit, it was dreadful.
I didn’t like being taken to geek at these people and their horrible smelly fish farm, not because it upset me (though it did), but because I felt it was an affront to their dignity to be ‘shown off’ so that we would see how poor they are and then donate. What must they think of us: fat, sleek Westerners, flushed with fine food and awash with money, haggling over $1.00 for some useless souvenir? If they feel resentful of us all, I can quite understand why.
 On the way back, Bun told us a little of his own story, one which is emblematic of Cambodia itself. The great age of Angkor was from the 9th to the 15th century and then there was trouble from Thailand on one side and Vietnam on the other until the French Colonial period from the 19th century until 1953. In this period some Cambodians were educated, but then came the puppet government of Lon Nol from 1970-1975. After Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were in power…
Pol Pot drew on the worst of three ideologies: Stalinism meant killing dissidents; Maoism meant disastrous agrarian ‘reform’; and French anti-colonialism meant isolation from the rest of the world. So they emptied the cities, killed all the intellectuals (and anyone who wore glasses was considered to be an intellectual), and in secret from the rest of the world sent the city folk to the countryside to work on the farms. There they were resented by the country folk because they were not allowed to carry anything with them and were completely unskilled. Those in the country had to share their scarce land and its harvest and maybe that’s why they too were so cruel, smashing babies’ heads against trees or impaling them on sharp bamboo stakes. Bun himself was a baby at this time, and lost ‘only’ his grandparents to this murderous regime.
After Pol Pot was despatched to the jungles near the Thai border after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979, schools re-opened, but Vietnamese was the second language taught and students went to universities in East Germany, Russia, Cuba and Vietnam. Bun, however, was able to learn English from an old man who lived nearby and taught it to supplement his income. He trained as a teacher, but had difficulty controlling classes of up to 62 students (who wouldn’t?!) and so he became a tour guide.
It was all a bit sobering, and not quite how I expected to feel at the end of my holiday. I had seen poverty close-up before, in Indonesia, and in Africa where I grew up but somehow Australia’s more recent affluence seemed more grotesque this time. We boarded our flight back to Saigon with a somewhat heavy heart, and I didn’t shake off my mood of despondency until QANTAS mucked up my boarding pass and lost my luggage and these petty irritations jolted me back into my more usual state of mind.
However, the first thing I did when I got back home was to increase my regular monthly commitment to Oxfam, and I have also made a Christmas donation to Care Australia instead of buying all those meaningless Xmas gifts we feel compelled to buy for friends and colleagues. If you are reading this, then you too are rich enough to have access to a computer and the internet, and I would sincerely recommend that you do the same: donate to a reputable charity like Oxfam which supports long term projects that support independent economic development in poor countries around the world. Don’t just make a one-off feel-good payment; subscribe so that the charity can count on your regular support and really make a difference. After a month or two you won’t notice the difference, but a family somewhere in the world, will. And if you visit these places – spend, spend, and spend again, every bit you can, to encourage foreign investment and a meaningful future for these people who have so little.
 Would I recommend a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia? Unhesitatingly, yes. Some aspects of this trip were a bit confronting and the climate is awful, but the people are wonderful, and you will come back a more mature citizen of the world, with a greater awareness of how fortunate we are. Spending your tourist dollar will make a huge difference to so many lives, and you will see so many fascinating sights that you will never forget it.
Pack your bags, take an open mind and a generous heart, and go!

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Posted in Cambodia 2007, SE Asia 2007, Siem Reap 2007 | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Friday, October 5th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

 We set off early to see the fabled Angkor Wat and Bun wisely led us through the eastern entrance so that we could enjoy it without the tourist hordes. It really is astonishing. Built by Suryavarman II between 1113 and 1150, it is a huge pyramid temple complex, surrounded by a massive moat. It’s the largest religious building in the world, and the reliefs are often in very good condition even though there has been a lot of looting and even the occasional bullet hole during the 1975-1979 Wars. It’s a Hindu temple, so Bun explained some of the Ramayana stories depicted on the reliefs, including the story of the tug of war between the demons and the good guys above the churning sea of milk. It really is amazing to see these ancient stories brought to life by master craftsmen from so long ago, especially since I never expected to see them in my lifetime. I had first learned about Angkor Wat when I was doing a degree in Southeast Asian Studies at Murdoch University and the Khmer Rouge were still in power at that time so it was not safe to visit.
All of it was magnificent but I was most enchanted by the library. Since Angkor Wat was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992, the temple has had some funding for restoration, but the library was restored by the Japanese. Even when the books are long lost, there is something about the idea of ancient civilisations preserving their thoughts and ideas for posterity that grips the imagination. What is most astonishing of all is that the whole complex was overgrown with massive vines and even trees growing in amongst the masonry, and somehow they have managed to tame the jungle which threatened to overwhelm it completely.
We went back to L’Escale for lunch and tried the set menu: prawns and a pomelo salad for me, and a soup for Tim, and then an assortment of fish dishes and what we thought was a won ton roll made with sweet potato. A brief torrent of rain cooled things down a bit, but we were still too hot and tired to venture out for another temple so we loafed until late in the afternoon and then took a tuk-tuk down to the market. It was not as frenetic as the one in Saigon, and few of its wares were pitched at tourists. We did, however, manage to find a Buddha head as a gift for friends of ours – but Customs found borer in it when we got back home so it never made it out of the airport. Indeed, we had no luck at all with our purchases from this market – a stone statuette that Tim bought lost her head, and the mobile bought for my niece Cressida’s baby fell apart.
We went back to L’Escale for a third and final meal and tried their ‘Innovative Tapas’, which included tidbits such as mango ravioli; onions baked for three hours; and Tom Sum soup. For main course I had duck with bok choy & taro in an orange sauce, while Tim had tuna with passionfruit and cauliflower grilled on a stick of lemon grass. We washed this down with a French Merlot, and we finished up with an assiete of desserts which included tiny little souffles. After that it was an early night before our last day in Cambodia.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia, Thursday October 4th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

 We flew out of Saigon for Siem Reap in Cambodia at about eleven, Tim upgraded to business class and me gnashing my teeth back in cattle class with the plebs, because once again the system hadn’t recognised us as a husband and wife since we have different surnames. Still, it was only a short flight and (unlike the return flight home) not worth any major indignation. And I was rather charmed by the ‘well-wishers’ gallery’ in the departure lounge…
Cambodia is very different, with a stunning new airport building in the shape of pagodas and symbols of the Buddha and elephants here and there. We were met by our new guide, Bun, a more reserved personality than the ebullient Long, but very nice and helpful all the same. The bus ride to our hotel was quite comfortable along the highway, but we discovered later that the other roads are not so good, with potholes everywhere. Ok if you have a careful driver like the one we had, and if it’s dry, but probably terrible in the rain.
 The Day Inn Angkor Resort was splendid. To service the Angkor Wat tourist market there are huge new hotels springing up everywhere, massive because they emulate the palaces and pagodas but attractive because there’s a height limit. Ours was painted crisp white with red tiles, surrounded by lush gardens. All the rooms face inward to the Olympic sized swimming pool with covered verandas for lounging about with a G & T after a swim. Here there were silk hangings on the walls instead of garish paintings, white tiles instead of dingy carpets and the aircon was excellent. The poor old Grand Hotel looked very mediocre by comparison!
 Tim and I whizzed into the hotel restaurant for a hasty spring roll and won ton, just in time to depart for our tour of Angkor Thom. It is a fantastic temple, built by Jayavarman VII – rather like Borobodur except that Borobodur ascends in levels which show the Buddha’s enlightenment and detachment from everyday life whereas this one is full of little scenes of daily life, including blacksmiths and carpenters, cooks and charioteers and so on. But oh dear – it was so hot and humid! Not only that, there were some perilous stairs that completely defeated my wonky ankle so I had to walk around from the west gate to the east by myself while the others clambered up to see the sights.
After that we saw the Elephant Terrace of the Leper King. It was used as a platform for the king to view his armies but most of it is a ruin now, though you can still see the elephant carvings at one end. However, by this time we’d had enough of the heat and Bun wisely took us back to the hotel to recover…
After a rest, we took ourselves off to the restaurant next door. It’s called L’Escale and it’s run by a French chef who uses local ingredients and recipes in fusion with French techniques.
 We had the set menu, which started with a delicious light soup, followed by eight tiny appetisers: one little serve of crumbed frog’s legs; a scrumptious snail; three small slices of pate; a cold rice paper roll; a fried spring roll; soup-in-the-middle; fish amok (fish with coconut in a banana leaf); some more morsels of fish with dipping sauces & some herb juice and rice wine. Then we had ‘beef cooked seven different ways’: mild curry; dried and mixed with a kind of coleslaw; flattened, barbecued & impaled on a piece of lemon grass; some tiny little morsels sauteed in a kind of soup; more in a sweet tomato sauce and two more which neither of us could remember when I came to write in my journal about it the next day! We remembered dessert, however: creme brulee with banana & passionfruit sorbet.
We washed all this down with a familiar Australian D’Arenburg sauvignon blanc, with a Sidecar for Tim beforehand and something called a Mai Tai constructed out of all sorts of weird things for me. We were very impressed by this restaurant, and were not at all surprised to discover when we got home that it is Siem Reap’s premier restaurant.

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Last day in Saigon, Wednesday October 4th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

We hadn’t planned to spend our last day in Saigon shopping but the lure of an air-conditioned department store was too hard to resist. Tim had developed a minor obsession with finding some jade cufflinks so we mooched around the jewellery stalls to no avail, but then had more luck with a place that sold men’s shirts & silk pyjamas in size huge for westerners. I had a rush of blood to the head and bought four handbags (I, who use *one* ‘investment’ handbag for years on end!), a black silk shirt and some ornamental bits and pieces, including a frog for Glenda’s collection as a thank you for looking after the dogs for us at home.
Back at the hotel for a rest, I found myself having to defrost the fridge! I’d put some damp hand towels in the freezer to use as a cool pack for Tim’s foot rash – and forgotten about them. They were welded to the freezer, and I had to boil up water in the kettle and shove a hot towel in there with them to get them loose. Not exactly how I had planned to spend my afternoon…
In the evening there was a farewell dinner at a restaurant called Vietnamese House with Long and then it was time to pack for Cambodia!

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Mekong Delta, Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

We began with a long drive down to the Mekong Delta, and then a somewhat alarming boat ride, followed by an even more alarming transfer into a sampan which took us up a narrow winding stream to Coconut Island. In the oppressive heat and with the ever-present threat of mosquitoes, it felt a little like the voyage of the African Queen – though the vegetation was different, and alas, nobody on board looked like Humphrey Bogart…
On Coconut Island we were shown a lot of tropical plants we’d seen before (in places like Safeway), had a morning tea of fruit and tea, and then watched coconuts being hand-made into coconut sweets – outdoors on trestle tables, along with flies and the occasional dog – but these relaxed hygiene standards seemed not to bother anyone much and trade was brisk. Tim then went to inspect some beehives while I and my allergy to bees kept well away. Then there was a silly photo shoot with a python kept miserably in a cage, followed by lunch and the trip back up the river. It was not really much fun, but our hosts tried so hard, and it seemed best to put it down to our good deed for the day and tried to buy pointless souvenirs to help the local economy whenever we could.
 Back in Saigon we stopped at a brilliant Chinese temple that featured enchanting little carved figures all around the topmost walls, and then a too-quick tour through the wholesale market. We followed Long single-file into a rabbit warren of tiny stalls, where – had we had time – we might have bought dear little dresses, hats and tiny little shoes for my just-born grand-niece Ariella. It was a wonderful treasure-trove of sights and scents, but alas, night was falling. Long had already been more than generous with his time – and he had not yet finished his day…
Once before in the topics, in Bali, Tim had got a nasty rash on his feet and by this time into our Vietnam trip, the rash was back with a vengeance. So (with Long’s help to find it) we made an unscheduled visit to the International Clinic where anti-histamines were prescribed and we learned that it was probably an allergic reaction to the unrestricted use of chemicals in agriculture.
 This somewhat alarming news did not discourage us from venturing out for dinner – to the Continental, where Graham Greene used to stay. (I had a Daiquiri in his honour). Our entrees and main courses weren’t especially memorable, but we had a wonderfully theatrical performance by the head waiter who made our crepes Suzette for the edification of his young understudy. A splendid cognac finished the meal off nicely and we made our way back to the hotel feeling much better!

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The Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Remnants Museum, and the Presidential Palace, Sunday, October 1st, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on December 8, 2007

The Cu Chi Tunnels are about 70k from Saigon, and stretch for about 250k from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to form an underground guerilla escape network that flummoxed the Americans entirely during the war. With camouflaged entrances just big enough to admit a small Vietnamese frame, these tunnels were on three levels, complete with kitchens, hospitals and escape routes. According to our guide, Long, and the prevailing propaganda, these tunnels were built in response to carpet bombing by B52s and the use of napalm/Agent Orange by local peasant villagers with no engineering background. Who knows? It seems an astonishing engineering feat for uneducated people…
The booby traps we were shown on this tour were certainly primitive in conception if not in design. Made with great skill out of recycled bombs, scrap metal and rubber these gruesome things were deliberately designed to capture but not to kill, so that victims could be interrogated, but they were also intended to inflict terrible injuries. We saw an adaptation of a tiger trap with bamboo stakes to impale anyone who stumbled into it, and a door trap deliberately designed to emasculate and disembowel the victim. It is quite confronting to see these things displayed alongside massive American B52 bomb craters, especially since the Vietnamese seem to present them with pride in their own ingenuity. I thought they were revolting, providing further evidence that war brutalises all sides so that the participants become indifferent to atrocities they would otherwise abhor.
These days some of the tunnels have been widened for Western waistlines so that tourists can venture down for a look, and there is also a shooting range where they can play about with AK47s so that the tourist experience is enhanced by the ear-splitting sound of machine gun fire – but such activities seem grotesque to me. The unspoken truth about Cu Chi is that it is an unmarked graveyard, and it seems to me that it should be treated with the same respect that Australians demand for Gallipoli. I don’t blame the Vietnamese for turning it into a tourist attraction: they are poor, the tourist dollar is vital for their economy and few people would visit if it were otherwise – but it was a place that made me feel very uncomfortable.
I was glad to go back to Saigon, and glad to be out of the jungle where they say there is still unexploded ordnance once off the beaten track. After lunch, however, there were more horrors to come. We visited the War Remnants Museum, also very confronting, especially to the former GIs who were wandering about the displays in silence that was utterly unlike the usual noisy behaviour of Americans Abroad. Outside in the sunshine there were captured American planes and the detritus of armaments, and it seemed rather banal, but inside there were graphic photos of gruesome deaths, wholesale destruction of homes, and atrocities such as the massacres at My Son and My Lai. Equally ghastly was the collection of malformed foetuses preserved in formaldehyde and the photos of deformed children who had been affected by Agent Orange. The most revolting of all was a photo of a GI tossing around the shredded remnants of a Vietnamese man, still recognisable as a human being despite his horrific injuries. I could not bear to look at much of it, and felt ashamed that my country had followed the Americans so blindly into this stupid, pointless and cruel war.
From there, to more pleasant things – a tour of the Presidential Palace. We posed in front of the gates that the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through so spectacularly in 1975, passed by the gardens where American helicopters had scooped up those fleeing the victors and checked out the interior. It was less opulent than I had expected, indeed quite Spartan in a 60s minimalist kind of way, (which ought to be a lesson to anyone else trying to build something splendid in an era of architectural barbarism).
From there we had a quick look through Notre Dame Cathedral, which is somewhat faded but still has very impressive stained glass windows – and also the Post Office, built by the French with materials brought entirely from France. These French colonial buildings inspired us to seek out a good French restaurant called Camarque where we had a truly splendid meal to restore our spirits after a rather sombre day!

Posted in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) 2007, SE Asia 2007, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: , , | 5 Comments »

Saigon, Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2007

Its official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone still calls it Saigon. We flew in from Hoi An, trouble free, and checked in at The Grand Hotel, which despite its imposing front desk, isn’t grand at all. Our view was downright ugly – a construction site, complete with a crane and concrete blocks, which for some bizarre reason needed to be moved about, noisily, late at night. Not the hotel’s fault, admittedly, but the indifferent service certainly was, and we would not recommend this hotel.

The BBQ dinner at the 3T Restaurant was not for the faint-hearted. We followed Long across a maze of streets, and upstairs onto a roof terrace which was packed with diners, mostly Vietnamese. They made a space for us and we sat down to barbecue our dinners on a burner at the table. The waiters brought out successive plates of this and that, which Tim expertly turned over with his chopsticks, aided and abetted by Ken with the basting spoon. All was well until they brought out the prawns, which were skewered, but still alive! It seemed best to put them out of their misery by cooking them as quickly as possible, but the more squeamish among us could not make ourselves eat them…

Long, an excellent guide who made the whole tour a pleasure, then took us downstairs to Fanny’s, which sells the most astonishing ice-creams! We had expected him to want to spend his first night back at home in Saigon with his girlfriend, but no, he set this night up on his own initiative so that we would have some fun on our first night in his home town. I had a sorbet called The Colonel (lemon sherbet and vodka) and Tim had a Havana (rum and raisin with bacardi and coconut). Very refreshing!

Posted in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) 2007, SE Asia 2007, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Hoi An Old Town, Saturday, September 29th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2007

Our guide, Long, met us at nine and we took a walk through the Old Town, where mercifully there are no cars or motorbikes allowed and it was uncharacteristically peaceful and quiet. Here we saw the prettiest temple of our tour (at the Assembly Hall), a ‘Japanese’ bridge, and the oldest house in Hoi An. It was over 200 years old, and had survived regular flooding in the monsoon by having marble bases to its supporting columns which prevented them from rotting. There was also a trapdoor from the upper storey so that precious items could be hauled up during the floods, which sometimes reach 1.5 metres during the wet season. I was especially taken with the three household gods, with a baby for happiness, a hat and a ‘happy belly’ for prosperity, and a walking stick for longevity. Although the house is open to visitors it is still in use, and upstairs a seamstress does the most beautiful silk embroidery by hand, presumably for long hours each day. I bought some lovely tablecloths and matching table napkins which I shall treasure, for I know how poorly my attempts at needlework compare with the work of this charming young woman.
We had a refreshing cup of Chinese tea, and then everyone else went off to buy shoes while Tim and I took a stroll along the riverfront instead. It was very pleasant exploring this less frequented area, and we were left in peace to enjoy it. Although we’d made a booking for dinner at the Morning Glory restaurant, we couldn’t resist a snack beforehand, so we went back and sampled little dumplings and corn pancakes. Our route back to the hotel took us back past Hoi An’s most famous landmark, the covered Japanese bridge, built in the 16th century, though possibly not by the Japanese. There are statues of two dogs at one end, and two monkeys at the other, probably representing points of the compass and not, as commonly believed, the Year of the Dog and the Year of the Monkey because that would mean that it took two years to build the bridge, which seems unlikely. After loafing about with a book and a snooze at the hotel, we took lunch at Miss Ly’s Cafeteria 22 (where we had another lesson in folding spring rolls), and then discovered the market. The rain was very heavy but we splashed along quite happily and plunged into the undercover part where we marvelled at the range of goods for sale, crammed into every available scrap of space. (I finally managed to buy a moon cake here, but I forgot about it afterwards, and had to throw it out – what a waste!)
Our dinner at the Morning Glory Restaurant was every bit as good as the previous night. We had Three Brothers crispy noodle pancakes (chicken wrapped around a stick of lemon grass, like an icy pole on a stick), some fried spring rolls, stuffed squid for Tim and Long’s recommendation, Cam Lan, which is noodles with pork and nuts. We love the crisp/silky contrasts of texture and taste in Vietnamese cuisine!

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Hue to Hoi An, Friday, September 28th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 20, 2007

We spent the day travelling by bus to Hoi An – only a short distance, but we stopped at a number of interesting places en route…
First we travelled up and over the Hai Van Pass through spectacular scenery overlooking the South China Sea. At the very top of the mountain there’s a sort of plaza where we were assailed by street vendors determined to be our friends (and sell us souvenirs).
One young lady named Vuong attached herself to us so enthusiastically that after we had inspected the gun turrets, we gave in and allowed ourselves to be escorted to her stall – where I purchased some bracelets I shall never wear and some possibly genuine Vietnamese pearls and a shell necklace probably made of plastic. (Why else would our notoriously tough Australian customs have let me bring them back home, eh?)
From the pass we went to the Cham museum at Da Nang. Records of the Cham Kingdom begin in the 2nd century, and by the 9th century they ruled the central area of Vietnam and westward into Cambodia. They are now a minority group in Vietnam, but have quite a large population in Cambodia, where they are mostly Muslims. In their heyday, however, the Cham were Hindu, and their sculptures are fantastic. They’re mostly carved in sandstone, and are in remarkably good condition considering the humidity, which is breathtaking. At the museum shop I did my bit to support the restoration appeal by buying a jade bracelet and a book about Vietnam’s World Heritage sites.
Then it was on to China Beach, famous as an R & R base for American servicemen from nearby Da Nang during the war. It was a pretty beach and some of our group went swimming while the rest of us loafed at a local cafe. From there we went into the Marble Mountains where we climbed 500 steps to the top to enjoy a spectacular view. There was also a superb Buddhist temple complex with a truly beautiful one in Wedgewood blue – an amazing accomplishment to build these glorious buildings in such an inaccessible place, up so high. Here Tim got to pat a Happy Buddha, one which clearly shows why Western men are often given the nickname! There were caves there too, including one that the South Vietnamese had used as a hospital during the war, but once again I couldn’t risk going down the steps with my dodgy ankle so Tim went down on his own. Alas, the camera wouldn’t work in the dim light, so we don’t have any photos…From there we went on to visit a marble factory where they make most beautiful things but, mindful of the weight of our luggage, Tim just bought a small tortoise. Then it was back on the bus to the small town of Hoi An…
Much of the old part of Hoi An maintains features of Southeast Asian trading ports of the 15th-19th centuries, and so it was declared to be World Heritage by UNESCO in 1999. There are no cars allowed within its boundaries, so after checking in at the Hoi An Hotel we walked down to the Morning Glory Restaurant – for a lesson in Vietnamese cooking. We began by slicing white eggplants and moved on to learning the art of folding spring roll wrappers, much to general hilarity. We sampled a variety of Vietnamese herbs, all of which apparently will cure every digestive ailment known to man. While some of these herbs were familiar, others such as the anise basil and the wild watercress were new to us and will necessitate a trip to the Springvale markets at home if Tim is to replicate the authentic flavour of the cold spring rolls. After most of us had managed to construct a somewhat flimsy but tasty roll, they took pity on us and took over the cooking. We tucked into a splendid meal, cooked by experts. There was a lovely curry vegetable soup, and the fish and mango sauce was scrumptious. Tim was very impressed by Madame Vy – who is not yet 40 and owns four such restaurants and a hotel. A fine example of the entrepreneurial spirit of Vietnam under ‘Đổi mới’ indeed.
After dinner, Long took us to a tailoring shop where most of the group settled down to some serious retail therapy, but we sloped off to the hotel where we had cocktails by the pool and I christened my new bathers. The room was like a sauna when we finally went to bed, but with the aircon on full blast it eventually cooled down and we got a sound night’s sleep after all.

Posted in Hoi An 2007, Hue 2007, SE Asia 2007, Vietnam 2007 | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Temple Crawling, Thursday September 27th, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 17, 2007

Morning is the best time to go for a walk in Vietnam, so before breakfast, we braved crossing the road and took a stroll across the Trang Tien Bridge which spans the Perfume (Huong Giang)River, so called because traders used it to ferry sandalwood downstream, and there were also beautiful scented tropical flora on its banks. There were shops of all sorts on the other side of the road, but we’d run out of courage by then and stuck to the riverside. We walked through a lovely park and discovered this dance class learning the cha-cha in one of the open spaces. One of the young ladies offered Tim a free lesson, but he gracefully declined…
 After breakfast we set off with the tour group for the Citadel and the Forbidden City. Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty from 1802 to 1945 and its major tourist attraction is the remnants of its imperial city. Naturally, there were fortifications and gun emplacements to protect it, so at the entrance there are cannon – four on one side representing north, south, east and west, and five on the other representing the five elements: earth, air, water, fire and wood. Unfortunately, both the French and the Americans failed to be deterred by these fortifications…the French burned and looted the Imperial City in 1885, forcing Vietnam into becoming a protectorate of France, and thousands died during the Tet Offensive – which also wrecked most of the rest of the buildings. The Communists neglected it for quite some time after 1975, until they realised its tourist potential and in 1993 UNESCO declared the whole complex a heritage site and is gradually restoring it.
Once you walk in through the main gate, you can see why. It is extraordinarily beautiful, in a gently faded way. There’s a splendid moat, and a succession of lovely temples. In the Temple of Generations there are ten funerary tablets honouring the Imperial rulers, each one with a picture of the Emperor, and a couple of grey-green to-die-for porcelain vases and other ornaments. At the back behind the altar were two shrines, one for each of the Emperor’s parents. (We had to take our shoes off to go into this part of the complex, and it wasn’t easy to get them back on again in the heat!) Most things – columns, walls and the roof – were painted red and gold (for luck), and outside there is a courtyard for the supplicants, who had to line up in order of rank on a sort of grid, flanked on both sides by statues of an elephant, a horse and four impressive Confucian gents. One can only feel sympathy for any supplicant at the end of the queue on a busy day because it must have been sheer torture standing on this concrete courtyard in the humidity and heat!
From the gates to the temples,it was the intricate carvings and mosaics which took our breath away, and even with tourists crawling all over the complex there was an atmosphere of peace and serenity in the beautifully landscaped courtyards and gardens.

From the citadel and the Forbidden City, we went to the Heavenly Lady Pagoda which the emperor dedicated to a deity he had seen in a dream. She advised him where to build the citadel so that there would be peace in Vietnam, but she obviously didn’t foresee the dreadful warfare that took place at the citadel in the Tet Offensive in 1968. 30,000 civilians died when first the North Vietnamese Army took it, and then the Americans and the South Vietnamese military under Marshall Ky tried to get it back. Now there is nothing to show that there was ever warfare here but much of the complex was destroyed and although there are ambitions to restore it, it’s going to take a vast amount of money to do it. Given the sad history of this place, I suspect that the Americans – who have been extraordinarily generous with funds to support restorations in Europe, everywhere from Venice to the chateaux of the Loire Valley – will be less keen to help out with this project…
After the temple we took a ride on a so-called dragon boat which is just a flat bottomed boat with a couple of limp-looking dragons in the front of it and a vast quantity of stuff for sale on board, which was rather trying. Still, the scenery is beautiful and it was certainly nice to sit and rest, especially since it rained and there was a light breeze. Thick vegetation lines both sides of the river and here and there we could see pretty little Chinese style houses nestling amongst the trees. There were also junks carrying sand dredged from the river, which look charming too until you get up close and see how dingy they are and how hard the people are having to work in the heat. From there we clambered up a hill and back to the bus, and called in to see how incense and Chinese ‘coolie’ hats get made. We then headed back to the hotel to meet up again with Louise and family in the Panorama Bar, before dinner in a local restaurant. It was here that Tim first tried grilled duck with lime leaves, an item now added to his culinary repertoire at home – whether made with chicken or duck, it is truly delicious, with a unique flavour. Highly recommended!

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