Vietnam

Sapa Tapestry

 

Firewood rather than souvenir stuff for this Red Dzao in Ta Phin

Red Dzao women with their billowing head dresses festooned with tassels and metal trinkets and Black H’mong in colorful brocades and adorned with silver bracelets and earrings.  Never mind that your first contact with them would be through a chorus of “buy from me!”  Interacting with these traditional people living in the hills around Sapa is a wonderful experience in the politics of highland life, tourism, and commerce.

 

Babies on Black H'mong backs

While Sapa is definitely tourist-heavy and traditional villages and people are increasingly opening-up to visitors, much of the people and the outlying villages still retain their charm.  It’s a little putting-off when you see sewing machines inside traditional village houses churning out stuff for the tourist market but at least it helps bring income to these marginalized people and in a way helps sustain, well…. their sense of fashion, something you rarely see nowadays with traditional people especially in Southeast Asia. Plus the vendors themselves point out “this better handmade.. this one from machine.. not good.” After all much of the stuff they wear and like to sell come from their own hands.  Witness the women crouched in some street corner sewing some brocade while waiting to pounce on the next hapless tourist.  Or the elderly women winding abaca fibers around their hands while joining the tourist crowds in their walks across rice fields.

 

A woman and her wares at Ham Rong Mountain

What’s great with Sapa is you can buy a lot of traditional stuff without the guilt of buying something irreplaceable.  Thus the assurance from a Red Dzao vendor in Ta Phin that it was all right for me to purchase the elderly woman’s husband’s piece of cloth wound around the head to make a head covering as she could always make a new one.  It was hanging to dry in one corner of her house which I visited.  On hearing that I was inquiring about a male head covering, she quickly grabbed it and offered it to me.

 

The proper way of wearing a Black H'mong head covering

It’s actually fun to banter with the villagers especially the Red Dzao who aren’t as pushy as the Black H’mong. “Enjoy your meal,” one even told me when I told her I’ve already bought some stuff from other vendors and wasn’t going to buy anymore.  A healthy attitude and loads of patience  towards all the “buy from me” is best so as not to spoil the experience.   At least “thank yous” are quite profuse and in my case, I got free hand-woven bracelets because I bought from them.

 

Tying the Red Dzao head dress

 

The town itself is just like any hill station established by the colonists.  Leave it to the French to turn a plateau to worthwhile recreation site.  The roads are good and there’s  even a Catholic church.

Accommodations are cheap though I find  the height of some hotels too be too obtrusive on the skyline.  A lot of Europeans were going on treks with homestays  but  I didn’t try any of those as the ones I saw at Ta Van seemed a bit too touristy.  I told my guide at Matra than if I were to do a homestay I want one really authentic—staying at a real house and not purpose-built nor modified for tourists and doing what the locals do.  I used the H’mong house we visited in Matra as an example. I think he was quite stunned that I was willing to stay in such conditions.

 

Would you like to live in a house made of clay?

 

 

How about a wooden one?

Food wouldn’t normally be top of mind when it comes to hill towns but Sapa had wonderful options ranging from traditional Vietnamese to Italian and even Indian!  Red Gecko Restaurant had a really quiet and cozy ambiance and their 80,000 set meal (soup, rice, spring rolls, chicken on a  hot plate,  banana crepe, red wine) was good value.  But of course, the best is out there in the streets among the small tables and stools  near the church.  Grilled meats wrappwed around vegetables is comfort food amidst the really cold weather.   There were  whole roasted chickens that I would have wanted to taste but they looked so “dead” with the head and even combs intact!

What I liked most about the eating scene at Sapa are the bakeries with yummy chocolate tarts, apple pies, breads, and cookies. A cup of Sapa tea and a nicely stoked fire place completes the picture. The best of all these bakeries was Highlands Bakeshop though it’s lacking in character.

 

Rice cooked inside bamboo, barbecued beef wrapped around some leaves, and barbecued pork with mushrooms

Near Baguette and Chocolat is the Sapa Museum which should be first on anyone’s list as it provides very helpful information and insight on the colorful human and cultural mosaic that makes up Lao Cai Province.  It’s free and very well curated.

 

H'mong shaman altar at the Sapa Museum

 

On my last day at Sapa, I mustered enough courage to hire a motorbike to bring me to Silver Waterfall and Tram Ton Pass.  The driver could hardly speak English but he was very nice and pointed out sights to me and encouraged me to take photographs.  It was amazing how the weather suddenly changed as we sped away from Sapa leaving behind all the clouds.  For the first time since arriving, I saw clear blue skies and felt the sun rays on my skin.  “Look!” My driver gleefully pointed out the sun to me.

 

Below the clouds is Sapa

Because it was the dry season, Silver Waterfalls wasn’t as impressive.  It was towering though and I had the place all to myself.

 

Silver Waterfall

There wasn’t anything to see at the view point at Tram Ton Pass as everything was covered with clouds below.  My driver offered to bring me to Ta Phin but I declined as I’ve already been there the day before.  So he brought me to Tu Va which was a really small village about 15 kilometers away.  There really wasn’t much to see but the unique colored geometrical patterns painted on the house beams, something I never saw in any of the others.

It’s obvious that not a lot of people make it to the village as the children were really shy and ran away when I approached. They were really cute and small.

Tu Va would be remember however as the sight of the most shocking thing I’ve ever seen in Vietnam or in any of my travels .  As  I  walked to one of the houses, a really old barefoot H’mong woman walking ahead of me suddenly lifted put her leg up and lifted her skirt to pee on some pigs! In broad daylight I saw her hairless private parts!  Eeeeewwwwwww!!!!!!!  I think even my driver saw it as he suddenly turned back.  Fortunately, I had en empty stomach or I would have puked all over.

Come to think of it I’m not quite sure if there really is a village by that name.  Maybe he just made it up so he could earn the extra cash.  Nevertheless the ride along the pass was magnificent with its verdant hills and cloud-capped peaks.

 

I never made it to the other areas of Lao Cai Province and several outlying villages of Sapa were left unexplored.  But what I saw and experienced in Y Lin Ho, Lao Chai, Ta Van, Cat Cat, Sin Chai, Matra and Ta Phin were definitely the highlight of my Vietnam trip and makes Sapa one of the places I’ll never write off from my itinerary.

 

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Seeking Sin’ Chai

“Sin chai?” I asked the school children behind me while pointed forward.  It was past 11am and my last day in Sapa.  They were heading home for lunch on the asphalt road that supposedly led to the village.  I had come from Cat Cat and decided to walk the 5k to Sin’ Chai with a medium-sized Dzao drum bursting out of my small backpack.  The older among them who looked to be about 10-11 years old nodded then hurriedly ran past me.  The younger ones laughingly followed.  I had gotten lost earlier when I was following a European couple with a local guide.  They hanged a left on a dirt track that led to the village.  I kept my distance so as not to let them suspect I didn’t know where I was going and was merely following them.  As they paused for some pictures amidst the empty rice fields, I took a different path thinking that it led parallel.  Motorbike tracks assured me that it led to the asphalt road.  No problem if I get lost.  I’d simply head to the road.  The track was muddy and led me past a few houses until it ended on a house where two bikes were parked.  The road had stopped.  Dead end.  I looked around me. Two small kids were on the track and I asked them, “Sin’ Cha?”  though I knew it was improbable for me to have arrived at the village with only 15 minutes walking from the turn-off at Cat Cat. They didn’t seem to understand.  I probably wasn’t pronouncing the accent right again.  “Sapa?”  She pointed to the right.  “Sapa.”

I figured I was parallel to the road anyway and I saw some electrical posts above me.  I climbed above a low embankment and came onto more fields and another embankment.  I decided to backtrack.  The couple and the guide were now gone probably heading to Sin’ Chai through the rice fields.

Back at the road, that when I came upon the kids. I followed them for about a hundred of meters before the one I had asked turned left to a track. The others stopped and watched.  I continued walking.  The sound of a dog barking and the pigs scurrying led the girl back to the main road.  They all scurried past me again.  They were soon gone from my sight and I was alone on the road.  Occasionally, motorbikes heading to the opposite direction passed me.  I heard the sound of rushing feet and another group of school girls were behind me.  “Sin’ Cha?” I asked again.  They nodded, laughed, then ran.  When I came to them, they turned to a dirt track that went up an embankment.  “Sin’ Cha?” I asked.  They pointed to my direction.  The road made a sharp turn to the right with a little ascent.  As I heaved myself, the kids were just coming up from the embankment.  It was a short-cut!  They were giggling as I laughed at them and shook my head.  Either they were playing a game with me or they thought I wouldn’t be able to handle the track.

When we reached a wooden house, the kids entered the open door and watched me.  I smiled at them as if to say good-bye.  When I passed the school, the sign read “Sin’ Cha.”  I had found the village.  As the fog grew denser, the road turned into a narrow pavement that cut through a village of one-room wooden houses similar to those I had seen in my other treks.  Two H’mong women sat embroidering on the open doorway of their house.  “Sin Cha?”  I asked.  She nodded and said “Sin’ Cha.”  It was quiet all around and I was surrounded by old wooden houses while bolts of indigo hung out to dry.  The only other sound was a dog barking somewhere and some pigs scrounging around for food.  The fog had cleared about. The pavement continued way past where the houses ended.  I turned back and asked the women, “motorbike?”  She looked at me puzzled.  I made motions with my hands and repeated the word.  She seemed to have understood as she want to an older woman who had emerged from another house.  I looked around the village.  By now, news had probably traveled fast that there was a lone stranger looking for a motorbike.  People had gathered around.  Unlike the women who readily agreed to be photographed, the young man would shy away whenever he came into range of my camera. They had a good laugh seeing themselves on the screen.  Except for the woman I had asked for a motorbike, no one came up to me saying “buy something for me?” in that melodious H’mong voice.

Several minutes later, the older woman was back. It was 50,000 VND for a motobike back to Sapa which was just the amount Lily in Hanoi had told me.  A man who looked like he was in his late 40’s came out with a motorbike.  People had gathered to watch me get on the motorbike.  The helmet wouldn’t fit with my H’mong cap on so I took it off.  They all laughed on seeing my bald head.  I climbed on the back of the bike and waved good-bye.  “Slowly, slowly, ” I told the driver. He gingerly and carefully navigated the wet narrow pavement leaving Sin’ Chai behind us.  A few minutes later, we were back at the asphalt road to Sapa.  He dropped me at the market and shook my head as I gave him the 50,000 note.  He seemed genuinely grateful.  As I turned to the market, I realized I still had the helmet on.  I frantically called  him.  Fortunately, the other drivers saw me  and waved him back.  I handed the helmet to him.  Again, another grateful smile.

We passed by a couple of people who were probably heading to Sin’ Cha too.  I was glad I arrived before them. After the tourist circus that accompanied the other villages I went to, it was wonderful to had an entire village for myself.

 

 

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The Man and the Tiny Temple in Hanoi

It’s a little easy to get templed-out in Vietnam but one temple stood out among the rest.  Not for its size and grandeur but for its quaintness.  I stumbled on this gem of a temple while following the Lonely Planet walking tour.  I was at Nguyen Si street on my way to Dong Xuan market when I suddenly looked left.  On a side street, the yellow temple gates peered.  I backtracked and went to it.

The entire complex was small and seemed squeezed in by taller buildings, not that there were any skyscrapers in the Old Quarter.  Two warriors guarded the entrance gate of the temple.  There were no tour groups nor other tourists inside except for a quiet middle-aged white man who seemed to be drawing the layout of the temple.  He started at the main temple room while he drew small squares on a lined notebook.  He was probably some scholar interested in temple layouts.  I felt so touristy snapping at my camera while he simply looked and drew his squares neatly and quietly. Old women, there were about four of them, were watching television inside.  Unlike the faded exterior, the inside seemed a little more modern.  Walls and floor were of tiles making it look like an altar was akwardly placed in the middle of a kitchen.  There were no joss sticks burning, no whispered favors.  The only sound was the Vietnamese chatter coming from the television set.  It was quite surreal.

The tiny courtyard held a cute colorful dragon with a small throne perched on its back.  Steps behind the tree led to the throne.

 

 

To the left was an altar filled with different dieties, mostly women while opposite it was a family shrine containing pictures of the dearly departed.

The drawing man next turned to the altar filled with dieties and continued his squares.  There was nothing else to do nor see but the quaintness of the place kept me spell-bounded as if I could not leave.  Or perhaps, the drawing man’s scholarly ways kept me from leaving as if I might be missing something.  Perhaps, there was something I was missing that’s why he kept drawing those squares in neat grids.

I looked out the gate to the alley I had come in filled with motorbikes and people seated low on chairs gobbling down some hot noodle soup in the cold Hanoi air.  The temple was along a narrow alley lined with what seemed to be low-rise apartments.

One of the old women came out of the main temple.  She was wrinkled and bent over.  “Xin Chao,” I respectfully greeted her.  She nodded at me.  I decided it was time for me to leave.  I quietly slipped out of this quiet piece of heaven and back to the riotous streets of the Old Quarter.

 

 

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Of Vendor-Stalkers, Traditional Villages, and Trekking in Sapa

 

Winter is not the best season to be in Sapa. Not only is it bitingly cold and wet but Sapa’s splendid views are mostly obscured by the fog which could be so thick that you can’t see anything beyond a hundred meters or so.  On the other hand, there’s less people, you can sip warm red wine by a fireplace, and you can trek all day without breaking a sweat.

I missed the famous Bac Ha  market held only on Sundays as I arrived at the Green Valley Hostel from the Lao Cai train station quite late already.  The hostel was located on the fringes of the town center on the road to Y Lin Ho so I was the last to be dropped off by the van that the hostel had arranged for me in advance for 30,000 VND.  I should have booked a tour in Hanoi so I could have been picked-up at Lao Cai and headed straight to the market before going to Sapa. I spent the rest of the Sunday just getting my bearings around town and heading to Cat Cat village in the afternoon.

The hostel was nice enough though there are better ones nearer the center.  It needed a lot of sprucing up but it was very clean and was run by a nice Vietnamese family with a cute daughter.  I had  a really large room with two large  beds.  The electric blanket came in really handy at night when temperatures dropped to near freezing.

 

The summit of Ham Rong Mountain

Of Vendors and Stalkers

A few days of being approached with cries of “buy from me” and “buy some more” and I’m ready to flee from the first H’mong or Dzao that I meet on the street.  Make no mistake about it.  These people will remember you and haunt you all throughout your stay at Sapa and one of the biggest mistakes you can ever make is to excuse yourself with, “I’ll buy from you later” as you will have to pay for that statement later with actual purchase or you’ll never hear the end of it.  You can’t even flee as they’re going to follow you even on treks.  A Dzao woman I had already bought from followed me all the way to Cat Cat Village and back.  You can always duck in a nearby restaurant or cafe and or even just head home.  Sure, they don’t go in but they’ll be waiting for you outside.  Stalker!

An all too common sight--- a tourist mobbed with "buy from me!"

 

Trekking popular routes won’t give you any respite either.  Remember that you’re actually heading to their villages.  Ever wonder what those hoards of H’mong are doing following those tour groups?  They’re not there for the walk.  When you take that rest stop at Lao Chao be ready for a sales assault.

Strong-arm tactics are taken literally here,. An elderly H’mong woman  grabbed my arm and shoved some souvenirs under my nose.  I had to extricate myself and literally run away from her.  She could arm wrestle with the persistent vendors in the markets of HCMC and even China.

That being said, it’s actually quite fun to banter (and bargain) with them.   It’s inevitable that the economics of a top tourist destination will not be lost on the locals.  Buying stuff from them is a small price to pay for intruding into their habitation and their lifestyles.  I just hope whatever money they get selling all that stuff actually goes to them so they can have better lives within the parameters of their culture.

Some of the stuff are actually quite good like the fabrics and brocade that decorate their traditional clothes . By the time I was through with my Sapa trip, I had bought a blanket, some small bags, head coverings, bracelets, earrings, and pieces of cloth.   I also got  a Dzao drum(250,00)  at Cat Cat village and a H’mong khaen (300,000) at a stall at the central area.  I also got a Dzao drum(250,00)  at Cat Cat village and the H’mong khaen (300,000) from a stall at the central area in front of the church.

 

 

Trekking the Villages

There’s no point in going to Sapa if you’re not going to do any treks.  Indochina’s highest peak, Mt. Fansipan was definitely out of the question as it would have been too cold and too wet to attempt it.  Perpetually covered in clouds, I never even saw a glimpse of its peak.

Very touristy and a little kitschy was Ham Rong Mountain that looked more like a resort than a mountain with its gardens and paved steps leading to a viewing point that had spectacular views of its iconic peak.  With names like “Heaven’s Gate” and “Cloud Deck” it could vie with China’s Hangzhou for its poetically named sights.  My favorite spot was the forest of limestone boulders near near the viewing point.  A longhouse charged admission for song and dance performances but it all sounded very touristy to me.

I only did two treks which I arranged with the hostel ($20 for Y Lin Ho-Lao Chau-Ta Van) and with a tour operator ($35 for Ma Tra-Ta Phin).  I was told that the Y Lin Ho route was the only being offered as the rest were private tours which meant you had to form your own group. That accounted for the expensive Ma Tra-Ta Phin trek as I was alone.

 

The guide picked me up at the hostel the next morning for the trek to the villages of Y Lin Ho, Lao Chau and Ta Van. I was joined with two young Swedish girls who were on a gap year from university studies.  Far from being alone, we were just one of a  hundred other groups trampling the villages.    We got to the turn-off to Y Lin Ho where our guide paid the admission.  The place was swarming with people getting ready to descend the steep path to the valley.  Children were selling long sturdy walking sticks for 20,000 VND.  I brought my trekking pole but never saw the need to use it during the entire hike nor the one the next day.

Y Lin Ho

The distinction between the villages were blurry as there were no demarcation that indicated where we were except the school in Lao Chau where we stopped to watch kids sing some songs.  They were really cute but I was just wondering the impact of our visit to them.

We had lunch at a restaurant along the river in Lao Chau where we had instant noodles with fresh vegetables.  We had been walking for three house and were so hungry we just gobbled everything up.  A few meters after the restaurant was the Sapa O’ Chau cafe and restaurant which I had come across from one of my internet researches.

I couldn’t really say that the walk was spectacular because fog mostly kept whatever terraces or valleys could be seen.  Or maybe because it’s something I’ve seen before back at home.  Or maybe because there were just so many people treading on the same path.  I liked that I was hiking at least and able to see the traditional wooden houses of the Black H’mong.  There wasn’t much gains in elevation and in spite of some slippery and steep descents to the valley, particularly in Y Lin Ho, it was a really easy hike that anyone without any experience or regardless of age (as long as reasonably fit) could take.

Y Lin Ho

Houses in Lao Chau

The walk to Ta Van was less interesting.  We passed by some home stays that looked like they were set-up for tourists.  I boarded a van that was to take me back to Sapa as the two girls were going to overnight at a home stay.

 

Cat Cat is the nearest village to Sapa.  I went to the place twice— on my first and last days at Sapa.    Very touristy with stone steps that led into and out of the valley, Cat Cat seemed more like a park rather than a real village with real people going about their daily existence.  Tourist stalls lined the path but at least the vendors weren’t very persistent.  There was a 10,000 admission fee collected about 10 minutes to the village entrance.

 

 

A traditional clay house had also been converted into a workshop but there wasn’t any activity going on.  The Black H’mong are famous for their blades and it would have been interesting to watch someone at work.

 

Shake your booty shake your booty c'mon!

Steep steps led all the way down to the waterfall, the focal point of the village.  Food stalls surrounded the viewing deck.  Steps behind the small theater led to Fairy Stream which made for a nice walk away from the crowd though there’s nothing much to really see except the water that wound itself around some cliffs and lots of vegetation.  Maybe I should have joined the three H’mong guys I met at the trail who with their bows and arrows looked like they were heading out to hunt. The apple wine being sold at the small eateries near the waterfall was deliciously sweet and tangy and cost 20,000 a shot.

 

Cat Cat Waterfall

A better hike was at Ma Tra and Ta Phin with a private guide–a local Vietnamese who was a former elementary school teacher.  He picked me up at the hostel and we made our way to the main road past the lake where we abruptly turned right to a trail.  My guide was a cool guy but not as chatty as the previous one. He did walk quite fast and at times I had to catch up with him lest he disappears in the thick fog. It took about an hour and a half before we reached the first village in Ma Tra where we visited a house.  An old woman was cooking some pig food in a large vat in a corner of the house near the doorway.  We sat around a fire while my guide made conversation with her.  I was a little embarrassed as I had nothing to offer to the woman as a gesture of thanks.  My guide assured me however that it was okay.

The house was dark and smoky and I was seated near an alcove which functioned as a bed.  It was a one-room place where eating, cooking, and sleeping was all done on the ground floor as the second level was used for storage.

 

Food for the pigs

 

 

Storage area

 

Hopping on stones in Ma Tra

 

The walk along the rice fields and the stream that led out from one of the villages to the main road was beautiful.  With the thick fog, it looked like a scene from “Lord of the Rings.”

It’s amazing how the guides could lead the way out from the maze-like stone paths in the middle of the fields.  I was alone most of the time especially in Mantra and it was only in Ta Phin where I came across other tourists. The feel was more authentic and there wasn’t any of the strong-arm tactics I experienced in Sapa.

 

 

We stopped at a Vietnamese house in Ta Phin for lunch.  I was served noodles with fresh vegetables again.  I sat at one of the benches and tables outside gracefully carved from large  trunks of trees .  Three Dzao women came-up to me to sell me some stuff .  Hearing my protestations that I had already bought some Dzao stuff at Sapa, they insisted that I buy from Ta Phin for more authenticity. They did have a point.  I bought a small pouch from each of them.  Two others came along but I politely declined saying that I had already bought earlier.  “Here in Ta Phin?”  they asked.  They sure do know how to sell.  But they were also very polite and didn’t bother me.  “It’s okay if you do not buy.  Enjoy your meal,” one said as they bade farewell.

Red Dzao women at Ta Phin. The one on the left showed me how the head dress is worn. A more modern head dress is the one worn by the woman on the left. She says it's less cumbersome.

The  Dzao house we visited was larger than the H’mong house in Matra.  There were wooden tables and chairs though we all sat on low plastic stools around a cozy fire where a pot with some innards was simmering and above it a piece of meat was being smoked.   A couple of vendors had followed us inside and we all sat around the fire with the elderly woman who owned the house.  Her son and his wife with their two little kids were also there.

 

The house had all the features of a Dzao house which I would later learn at the Sapa Museum. On the wall were two scrolls with the Chinese-looking Dzao script and some faded paper buntings stashed in a corner. If my guess is right, those were left-overs from an adulthood ceremony.As our visit neared the end, the vendors started selling me stuff. They pointed out my H'mong cap and said I ought to buy a Dzao. They caught me off-guard there. They were right. So I bought a nicely embroidered one for 20,000 VND. The elderly woman also brought out some stuff to sell which I didn't mind as buying from her would be a way of repaying the opportunity to visit her place. But what really shocked me was when I inquired about a male head wrap like the red one that the women wore. She offered her husband's which was hanging to dry to sell to me! It was a long piece of indigo-dyed cloth with brocade sown at both ends. Her son demonstrated how to wrap it around the head.From the clothesline to my shopping bag

I was hesitant to buy it as it could be irreplaceable and her husband might get angry.  The other women, however, assured me it was all right as she could make another one for her husband. I wonder how he would react when he gets home later in the day and looks for it.  I asked to see a musical instrument but they didn’t have one.  The guide said another family had a large flute but it was not for sale.  I told him I had no intention of buying it if it was the only one they had.

It was a short walk to what seemed to be a village square fringed with souvenir stalls and a parking area.  A large crowd of women were there ready to pounce on tourist-laden vehicles that were arriving.

 

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The 4 Steps to Selling Embroideries and the Trip to Hao Lu and Tam Coc

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Hoa Lu and Tam Coc made for a great day out from Hanoi.  We booked a tour for this one as it was much easier and more time efficient. The mini bus was cramped and I was seated with a young lady from New Zealand who was befriended by Rhoda as she was all alone.

Hoa Lu is a small town surrounded by mountains. It would have looked really nice if not for the paved parking lot that was obviously there for the tourist buses.  It looked so shabbily made and seemed so out of place in the otherwise tranquil valley. Fortunately, there wasn’t much of a crowd.  We took a cemented path passed an archway and on to the two tiny temples.

The two temples  dedicated to the king and the the queen’s lover were quaint and looked exactly like each other. The difference was that the queen’s statue was turned towards the king’s temple even if she were in her lover’s temple.

We boarded the mini bus to head to Tam Coc while the others took off on bikes through the countryside.

The trip to Tam Coc took less than an hour and we were deposited to a large restaurant fronting the boat dock that seemed to have been put there to specifically cater to tours.  The buffet lunch came with the tour price.  The spread was large but the food tasted all the same, especially the fried stuff.

With stomachs full, we all gathered at the boat dock where the guide assigned us to the boats.  Jeannette and I shared a small boat for the cruise along the Tam Coc river.  A middle-aged woman  rowed with a paddle  while her son rowed with his feet.  I think the Vietnamese generally row with their feet as I have seen even at the Mekong but the one at Tam Coc was more acrobatic as it involved literally grasping the two oars with the feet and rowing without an engine!  He must have really strong abs and back as I can’t imagine the strain it has to put up with.  At times, the rower would normally row with his hands.

Row row row your boat gently down the stream . . .

Merrily merrily merrily life is but a dream.

The rice had all been harvested so there was none of the verdant rice fields lining the river banks that look so picturesque in tourist brochures.  We did see a few farmers plowing the waist-deep water.  We passed through craggy limestone cliffs and pleasant hills.  It’s a stretch of the imagination though to call it “Halong Bay on land,” as all the tourist literature do.

We passed through three caves and at the last cave the river had been fenced off perhaps to prevent the boats from going further.  We made a u-turn and this is where all the fun began.

I’ve had read all about the persistent vendors on the boats and had been sufficiently prepared to deal with them.  What I had not been prepared for was the pleasant way the woman,  let’s call her “Mother, ” rallied to us to her side.  Years of selling had probably given her an insight on people’s psyche and she came well-armed with the psychology of selling.  I knew she would sell us something as the first thing she did when we left the dock was to pull-out a big plastic bag full of embroidery from a small steel cabinet behind where I was seated.  “There’s her stuff,” I told Jeannette in Filipino.  “Be prepared to say no or bargain.”

As we made a u-turn and to retrace our route back, she showed us a picture of her two kids she refers to as “baby.”  Then she showed us an article about the famous embroidery of Tam Coc.  The selling had began.  Perhaps to ensure the pedigree of what she was about to sell, she showed us a picture of her embroidering.  “Oh…. ah…. really….” Jeannette and I smilingly  muttered.  She was methodological.  I half expected her to bring out a power point presentation of “The Beauty of Tam Coc and Its Embroidery. ”  This woman had probably taken a course in “The 4 Steps to Selling to Tourists.”

Step 1:  Establish rapport with them by telling stories about your family.  If they are Asian, acknowledge how you are both similar.

Since I had pointed out to her that Jeannette had always been mistaken as Vietnamese and they could pass on as sisters, I had unwittingly opened myself to Step 1.

Step 2:  You are not merely selling someone else produce.  You are selling something you made yourself even if it obvious that the t-shirt came from some factory or the blanket your selling looks exactly like the one that is being sold by the other boat.

Step 3:  Remember everything in Step 1 and use it as an advantage to sell more.  One really good line is  “We are sisters… so you buy more…”

I heard some rustling behind me and lo and behold! Our boat had turned into a mini souvenir stall with t-shirts, blankets, table cloths, and embroideries.  We did buy  some embroidery because they were really pretty and quaint and Tam Coc really is known for its embroidered pictures.  Jeannette bargained hard and we got ourselves a good deal.  It was all in good fun anyway as we kept laughing all along and in fairness, “Mother” wasn’t very persistent by Vietnamese selling standards.   We were lucky as “Mother” never resorted to Step 4:  Don’t let them off the boat if they don’t buy. 

We did see some boats parked along the banks with the rower persistently selling to the harassed occupants.  We never stopped or even slowed down as we made our way back.  Perhaps “Mother” with her cunning ways had already psyched us out as being softies.

Don't be fooled by this woman. Beneath her quiet demeanor is a cunning saleswoman.

As we arrived at the dock, “Mother” asked for a tip.  I jokingly said that I’d give her a tip but she has to return the biscuits and drinks we bought for her and her son from one of the boat vendors past the last cave.  We gave her 15,000 to split between the two of them.

It was a pleasant experience really in spite of being “hostaged” to buy something.  Given that kind of situation I think the best way to deal with it to simply do so with a smile, banter while you bargain, and not let it ruin the entire experience.

Such was not the case with Julie and Eva whom we had  to “rescue” her from their  rower who did bring them back to the dock but wouldn’t let go until Julie bought a shirt.  She was all frowning and had turned a bit rude.  When she asked for a tip we simply turned our backs and fled!

In the meantime, I have to find a wall where I can frame and hang my 5 mini embroideries.

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Museum and Masoleum in Hanoi

The Old Quarter is home to old French colonial architecture

I had a good night’s sleep at the train ride from Hue to Hanoi.  I was originally bunked with three Europeans who were on a tour but their guide exchanged berths with me so they could be together which was swell as he a lower berth.  The compartments were old but kinda clean by Vietnamese train standards.  Opposite me was an elderly local who was very very quiet while on the upper berth was occupied by a European couple.  I stuffed myself silly with the bahn bao I bought earlier.  I managed to sleep and woke-up as the train was about to pull into the Hanoi station at dusk.  It was drizzling and with all the confusion with trying to get a cab, I got one with the aid of a tout.  I did ask to use the meter which apparently ran faster than the train.  The driver dropped me off at the hotel with a 300,000 bill which should have been just 70,000.  Oh well.  I think it was better to just have negotiated the price up front.

The receptionist at the Hanoi Atlantic Hotel along Hang Cot was very apologetic as he wiped away the sleep from his eyes.  I think he was supposed to pick me up as he quickly put aside a piece of paper that had my name on it.  My room was okay.  Kinda small with a large and comfortable bed but very clean.  I got a few winks in around 5:30.

At around 8 in the morning I made my way to Little Hanoi Hotel ll where Rhoda, Jeannette, and Julie were.  They had arrived in Hanoi from HCMC the night before.  Fortunately, Hang Ga is the continuation of Hang Cot. I would later learn that streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarters sometimes change names when they intersect with another street.  Thus Hang Cot becomes Hang Ga which later becomes Hang Dieu.

After a week of traveling alone and amidst strangers, it was a pleasant sight to see Eva on one of the computers at the hotel’s lobby.  The other three were still in their room and getting ready.  Little Hanoi was a beehive of activity as people were coming and going while Lily, the receptionist who spoke English very very well, was attending to everyone.  She’s by far the coolest and most helpful hotel staff I’ve ever met.  I rented a car for the day ($ 60) to take us to the sights.

 

Where Uncle Ho quietly sleeps

It was past 10am by the time we got to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex where venerable Uncle Ho is on display.  If anyone is wondering why there are hardly any pictures of this big big park and its sights, its because bags and cameras were asked to be left at a counter near the entrance.  What was weird is that we seemed to have been one of the few ones who actually left their cameras behind as all around us people were happily snapping photos, even at the museum!

As expected, the entire thing was one touristy affair especially at the area of the One Pillar Pagoda which was filled with people.  It didn’t look quite as tranquil or elegant as it does in pictures.  Everything closes at 11 so we simply stared at the mausoleum from the sidewalk.  Guards shooed anyone who even dared put a foot on the pavement on the square facing the mausoleum.   It was a really big disappointment.  Sigh.

When we returned at the counter to get our stuff back, it had magically transformed itself into a souvenir stall!  Gone were the guys in green security uniforms issuing numbers and taking the little bags that housed the cameras.  We showed our numbers to the vendor and he gave us our bags.

 

See all those dishes?

We had lunch at Quan An Ngon where we broke Rule # 1 of dieting: Never order when you’re really really really hungry.  We were spoiled for choices and ordered a dish too many— friend rice, spring rolls, shrimp on sugarcane sticks, pork with rice flour cake, and many more.  After days of watching what I eat and how much, I guess simply went berserk.  Or maybe I was just too happy that I actually had company to eat with.   The place was quite full and we were lucky to get ourselves a nice table. This really popular restaurant is probably the best place to sample a variety of Vietnamese dishes at a nice open-air setting.  Servings were plentiful and you could simply go to the open kitchens to point out what you like in case words on the menu fail to stir your imagination.

 

The next two stops were particularly hilarious as: (1) we didn’t explore the entire Temple of Literature and (2) we went around the entire block of the Temple looking for the Fine Arts Museum.

The Temple of Literature is  one of Hanoi’s IT sights.  What is undoubtedly a haven of piece in the middle of Hanoi’s chaotic traffic wasn’t what greeted us with crowds of people thronging the  courtyard with its main temple  housing Confucius and the halls that had been converted into souvenir shops.

 

Inscribed on these centuries-old stelle carried by stone turtles are the illustrious graduates of the temple

 

 

Like a Disney theme park, pretty young girls in graceful "ao dai" were on the grounds ready to pose for snappy-happy toursits like me.

We only realized that we had missed the innermost and probably the best part of the temple when we were walking outside the temple’s perimeters in search of the Fine Arts Museum. None of us even bothered to go behind the  main temple where apparently there was a entrance.

I had misread the map and we circled the entire block of the Temple of Literature before we realized that the Fine Arts Museum was just across!  This wasn’t the first time I got disoriented.  I circled the entire block of the National Museum in Phnom Penh when the Royal Palace was just beside it!

 

Housed in a large French classical building, the museum had splendid collections of bronze Hindu statues in the little galleries on the ground floor. We were a little pressed for time so the only other galleries we visited were the ones on the upper floors that housed the folk art collection.These statues looked scary in their life-likeness

More splendid and awe-inspiring was the Museum of Ethnology.  I totally envied this museum which had creative and very informative exhibits on the culture and customs of Vietnam’s ethno-linguistic groups.  The buffalo pole used for rituals that greeted visitors at the lobby was particularly interesting with its colorful buntings and its construction that allowed the upper pole to swing around when tied to a buffalo.  Life-sized displays of rituals such as the H’mong burial and the Dzao wedding were well-presented.  An even more brilliant idea were the videos showing the actual real life contexts of the displays.

 

Tay stilt house

 

Most interesting of the artifacts were the funerary statues of Giaria of Central Vietnam. The wooden icons all had varied expressions. They were placed around burial houses to accompany the dead to the after-life.

 

 

This is one cool lunar calendar shaped like a fan and made from bamboo. From the Muong people.

 

Our last stop was Ngoc Son Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake.  The tiny temple had a stuffed giant tortoise on display.  It was really huge and all leathery. More interesting were two colored photographs of tortoise sightings on the lake.  I was a little disappointed with the lake maybe because I had Hangzhou’s West Lake pictured.  Hoan Kiem was definitely smaller and had none of the leafy promenades of Hangzhou.  Perhaps it’s best appreciated early morning before tourists start filling its pretty bridge.  The iconic Tortoise Tower stood on the far opposite of the temple.

 

Is there a tortoise hiding somewhere here?

Just across the lake is the water puppet theater.   All tickets for the dates we wanted were all sold out so we settled for the 2pm show on January 1 instead.

 

 

 

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3 Tombs and a Citadel

 

Ngo Mon Gate of the Imperial Royal Enclosure

I normally don’t join tours unless transportation options are difficult and the entire process of going to where I want to go a real hassle.  But it was raining when I arrived in Hue and the threat of more rain the next day prompted me to sign-up with the tour that was on offer at the Original Bihn Doung hotel.  It was quite cheap– a bus to the tombs, the Citadel, Thien Mu pagoda, and boat back to Hue. Plus there was a buffet lunch:)

The mini bus picked me up around 8 in the morning and as soon as I got in, I suddenly remembered why I disliked tours in the first-place—-too many people in a cramped bus!  I took a seat right where the tire of the bus is which meant it was one of the tightest on most uncomfortable.  I took pity on the teenager whose knees were on his chin already when he had to move to the window seat to make way for me so I changed places with him so he could at least stretch his legs on the aisle.

Our guide spoke relatively good English (read: we could at least understand his diction) and was quite well-versed with the sights.  Our first stop was an incense and conical hat workshop along the road to the tombs where we spent about 10 minutes just browsing around.

 

The pavilion where Tu Duc would sit with his concubines and recite poetry.

To Be Entombed Royally. Boldly challenging the idea that all material possessions are left on earth when one dies, the royal tombs of the Nguyen emperors are magnificent complexes that stand as monuments to their power.  The Chinese have always gone off into the nether regions in style and the Vietnamese surely are not to be left behind.  Only three tombs are open to the visitors and they were all palatial grounds with beautiful temples to worship the emperor and the empress , spacious halls, ancient stelles that glorified the emperor, leafy esplanades, quiet lotus ponds, and courtyards with stone mandarins and soldiers standing silently.  They all reminded me of the beautiful gardens of Suzhou in China.  It is easy to lose one’s self in the complexes for some leisurely walking or even finding a favorite spot for some Zen-like meditation.  Most majestic of all was that of Tu Duc who had more than a hundred  wives and concubines but was without offspring.  As our guide said, “with all the women around him he was unable to make anyone of them happy.”  Not only was the complex huge but it was very serene and leafy with its large ponds and walkways lined with pine trees and frangipani.  The complex was designed by the emperor himself and was used during his lifetime.

 

Steps to the temple where Tu Duc and his wife, the empress, are worshipped

 

Rivaling it is the tomb of Mihn Mang with its stone bridges and temples that blended harmoniously with the natural landscape.  Unlike Tu Duc’s where everything seemed huge, and quite enclosed, almost citadel-like,  Mihn Mang’s had a more open layout with bridges spanning ponds and temples set on terraces with the mountain as a natural backdrop.  The tomb looked like it was growing from the hills,  According to tour guide, Mihn Mang is the most loved of the three emperors as it was during his rule when the empire was at its most glorious.

 

 

 

The beautiful central bridge laid of marble for use by the emperor only.

What really took my breath away is that of Khai Dinh who supposedly (again, according to our guide) liked to play with men more than women.  If that indeed were true, then it would come as no surprise that the effeminate emperor would have the most beautifully decorated and most unique tomb.  Looking like a gothic structure rising from the hills, the blackened concrete structures were wonderfully carved with intricate designs. Visiting this tomb requires a lot  of stair climbing as stone steps lead to different levels of the complex.

Like the other tombs, it had a courtyard of mandarins that bore silent witness to the passing of years.

 

The main building was jaw-dropping with its gilted walls and ceilings and on its center was a gilt bronze statue of Khai Dihn looking so regal.  The interiors would not be out of place in a European palace.  Khai Dinh’s tomb was the last of the tombs we visited and some people opted to just stay outside its gates.

The tombs are set on the countryside among quiet villages by the banks of the Perfume River outside the main area of Hue which made for  a nice diversion from all the noise of the city.  It was way past lunch time when we arrived at the Stop & Go Cafe along the main travelers drag of the city.  The food had grown quite cold by then and we all rushed to the buffet table for some fried rice, noodles, vegetables, prawn crackers, soup, and tofu.  The food was quite bland but extreme hunger can make everything taste good especially when you just gobble it all up. Burp!

Wouldn't you like your own reading room in the Forbidden Purple City?

 

The City Within the City. Walled cities are always interesting because of their rich heritage and their unique layouts.  The Citadel is a lively city with its old neighborhoods spread around its perimeters.  Within it is the Imperial Enclosure housing the royal residences and buildings and accessed via the  imposing Ngo Mon Gate facing the Flag Tower.  Color coding was well and alive during the time of Emperor Gia Long who built the Citadel.  Anything yellow references royal use. Hence, the yellow entrance at the center, was reserved for royalty.  Today, it was the entrance for the locals.  Foreigners use the left entrance.

At the heart of the Imperial Enclosure is the Forbidden Purple City which is sadly no more than some crumbling walls and a couple of beautifully restored buildings like the Royal Theater which has shows on Hue’s royal music and dance and the Emperor’s Reading Room.  There was a lot of restoration going on and walkways were being built.  I wonder of the reference to the color purple.  I can imagine the city resplendent with the color of yam.  Makes me crave for some ube ice-cream.  We only had an hour to explore the Citadel so it was more of a mad dash to try to take in the large complex.  I did manage to climb up the top of Ngo Mon Gate for beautiful views of the Citadel. Again, I was reminded of why I disliked joining tours— you’re bounded by some schedule.

On the way to Thien Miu pagoda, we detoured to one of the so-called garden houses which Hue is famous for.  These houses are actually residences of well-to do locals such as the mandarins (court advisers).  They’re traditional wooden houses beautifully crafted and surrounded by a garden.

 

The one we visited was quite small.  The center of the house is dominated by an altar while the hallway on both sides had tea tables.  Men stay on the left while women to the right.

Final stop was the iconic Thien Miu Pagoda along the Perfume River.  The pagoda itself cannot be accessed inside.  More interesting was the monastery behind it with its serene garden and novice monks trimming the bonsai plants and sweeping the courtyards.

 

We boarded a large boat for the ride back to the city where we disembarked at the dock near the backpacker district.

 

 

 

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Bahn and Bike at Hue

It was a scooter really and not a motorbike.  But it still ran on two wheels and we were in Vietnam, not exactly the best place to start conquering your fear of riding a motorbike, okay, at least, a scooter.  But I guess, even dangerous things start having a life of their own once you start seeing more and more of it.  And in Vietnam, riding a bike seems de rigeur, especially for tourists.

I was ALMOST tempted to try one at Hoi An, touted to be one of the safest places (read: slow drivers) for bikes.  On the highway from Danang I did notice that everyone seemed to be going at a slower pace.  Well, after the craziness of all those maniacal motos at HCMC, everything just has to look slower.  But if even the moto drivers in Hoi An are less pushy, then there must be really something.

I literally threw all caution to the chilly wind as a climbed behind Quan when he picked me up along Ly Quan.  He promised me a good dinner of all those bahn specialties of Hue I have read all about.  I also made him promise me to drive slowly and to keep looking at the road as he had the tendency to look at me whenever he said something.  Thankfully, it was past 7 in the evening and the traffic was very light.  As we rode along the streets, my nervousness slowly dissipated.  There was nothing to be afraid of after all or maybe it was because he was only going on a speed of about 30.

 

See that smile?

From the main road, we turned right to a small lane and stopped in front of  a tiny house-eatery that was just about to close its doors.  The only indication that it served food were the words bahn painted red on the glass.  Quan said something in Vietnamese and the lady let us in.  They were closed already but he knew her and he asked her to open up as I was a foreigner, Quan explained.  I was a little embarrassed though quite surprised as it as only seven in the evening.  What would normally be the living room was the dining area.  We sat at the only wooden table.  Small tables were folded and stools stacked against the wall.

Who would have thought that such delicious morsels of food would come from the simple place.  We were first served small parcels of a pinkish chewy paste called nem .  It has a strange sour taste that grew on you.  Next came a large round tray that held small saucers of ban bo topped with shrimp and pork cracklings and served with a sllightly sweet nuoc mam with chili. It was absolutely delicious!  But the best was yet to come.  Steamed leaves held a pasty rice flour topped with what seemed and tasted like chopped fish and shrimp while another was an entire shrimp encased in a thick sweetih paste.  It was Vietnamese cuisine like no other!  Very tasty!  The entire meal plus a small bottle of water cost VD 100,000!  It was worth every risk and fear I had to swallow with the bike ride.

 

Stomach full and taste buds happy, I wasn’t as nervous anymore.  We rode around the outside of the Citadel and on the side streets in the center of town.  Even in the travellers area, there weren’t much people.  I enjoyed the ride very much as I got to see parts of the city outside the tourist map.  It was very cold though as it had been raining the entire day since I arrived from Hoi An around noon time.

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Rainy Hue and Bun Bo Hue

Nowhere is it more gratifying seeing your name printed-out on a piece of paper than stepping off the bus from Hoi An to rain-soaked chilly morning at Hue.  I had not expected that my hotel, the Original Bihn Duong, located a little away from the traveller ghetto would send a free car to pick me up.  But there it was!  As everyone was trying to get their bearings in the cramped lobby of the hotel where the bus dumped us all, I looked up to see a man standing outside with a piece of paper.  Thank god for hotel pick-ups.

I had a really nice room at the hotel and the staff was ultra friendly and accommodating, pouring everyone a cup of hot green tea every time they sat down at the lobby.  Since my room was still occupied, they gave me a temporary room on the third floor which I could use.  It was a really big one with three beds.  Looking out the window, I saw a sign on top of a local eatery— “bun bo hue” it read.  It was listed at Wikipedia as the place for this specialty.  And it was just what the weather ordered.

I took one of the few empty spots and sat down. There was no need for any words in this local eatery.  You merely sit and wait.  A server soon set down  large steaming bowl of noodles in a hot herbal broth with chunks of pork.  The flavorsome broth slowly melted the cold away.  The soup was so good I was halfway through before I took a break from slurping.  Thumbing through my Lonely Planet Vietnam, the bespectacled guy  beside me who came in just about the same time as me, asked me where I am.  He looked  like he was in his early twenties and Vietnamese.  “Philippines.”  “I’m from New Jersey.”  That explains his English.  He’s from the US and is  currently on vacation with his family.  He reminded me of Israel, a college classmate.  He was always hungry he said and can finish two bowls of soup.  After this, he was going to buy some  bahn beo at a stall down the street. I walked several paces behind me to see where the stall was.  With my broken umbrella, I could say that I was looking to buy a new umbrella at one of the general merchandise stores lining the street should he spot me.

I did discard my umbrella for a new one which cost a whopping $ 4!  I never made it to the Citadel though I reached the foot of the bridge that spanned across the river.  With the driving rain, I had to turn back.  Kinda hard to be holding an umbrella while you’re looking at a map with the other hand.  What to do next?  Get some bahn beo to soothe the frustrated soul. I got one plus the some smaller fried ones.  I ate them back at the hotel and they were good.

Seems like the rain won’t let up the rest of the day.

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Pretty Hoi An

It’s a bit strange to associate a certain color with a town.  But whenever I remember Hoi An I remember a town beautifully bathed in the varied hues of red.  I arrived at this ancient town, a short flight and taxi ride from Danang away, just as dusk was settling and the  town  was  lighting itself up.  Meandering along the small streets that wound around found myself at the Thu Bon River.  I heeded the call of one of the cau lao vendors who had set-up Lanterns festoon the shops and the Thu Bon river is lit-up colorfully with lights and lanterns. After the flight from HCMC to Danang and the 45-minute car ride along the non-descript and grey highway, it was simply enough experience to just sit at my small stool and slurp my cao lau in one of the many street stalls along the river with the quaint Japanese Covered Bridge behind me.

Walking the Old Town

What surprised me most about the Old Town wasn’t its smallness, after all ancient towns are supposed to be small, like cute arte d’ objects but its seemingly laid back atmosphere in spite of the massive tourism industry and the hundreds of souvenir shops and tailors.  Even the xeom and cyclo drivers are not as aggressive.  Surprisingly, the tailor shops are a little sedate.  Sure they call out their services but at least they don’t run after you.  More aggressive are the women selling the miniature clay figures and whistles made in the pottery village of Than Pho.  In my last night at Hoi An, having a slice of White Chocolate Kahlua Cake at the patio of Tam Tam Cafe, a woman parked her bike at the side and approached me with a bag of the clay figures.  I shook my head.  She hopped back on her bike and sped away.  Now how many people would actually get down on a bike and walk-up to you just to sell you something?

 

Museum of Trading Ceramics

 

 

Temple at the Japanese Covered Bridge

It costs 90,000 VND to enter any 5 sites at the Old Town.  It was a challenge trying to decide which one to choose as there were a lot of interesting houses and temples.  I was a little tempted to buy another Old Town ticket for an additional 5 sights but decided a peek from the open doors would be enough.

I started out at the Tran Family Chapel, a musty house whose centerpiece was the altar where ancestors and gods were worshiped.  I read somewhere that altars have 3 levels with the highest reserved for the ancestors, the middle for the gods, and the lowest for the offerings.  Rectangular wooden boxes standing upright held stone tablets detailing the birth and date of the deceased plus some personal items, an old practice that has since been replaced with pictures of the dearly-departed hanging on a wall.  I still like the wooden boxes with the biographies because they have stories to tell unlike a single photograph. They’re like a museum-in-a-box.  With all my favorite personal effects, I’d probably need more than a box, a chest perhaps to contain my piano and some of my other instruments.

 

When you're long dead and gone, all that remains is your history contained in one of these boxes

The Hoi An Deparment of Managing and Gathering Swallow’s Nest in spite of it’s royally grand sounding name (how many towns have a department dedicated to nests?) looked like a typical office with nary a bustling activity.  Perhaps it isn’t nest-gathering time.  I can imagine people lined-up on the streets wearing their conical hats and a bunch of twigs in their arms waiting for the nests to be weighed while overhead swallows circled crying foul.

Chinese presence, like everywhere around the world, is made known through their communities.  No, there’s no Chinatown but there are a couple of assembly halls where they congregate according to the province they came from.  The Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation looks more like a temple with its plethora of statues and even a Chinese boat.  I liked best were the figures behind the altar which represented the 12 ba mu (midwives) each carrying a baby and representing the different skills babies need to learn.  It is said that childless couples come here to pray.

Less atmospheric is the small Quan Cong temple dedicated to its namesake, an esteemed general worshiped as a symbol of loyalty, sincerity, and integrity—attributes I wish our own generals or the rest of the military would have.  It’s amazing how the Chinese and even the Vietnamese have temples dedicated to highly-regarded public figures especially military figures.  It does say a lot about their history and how military conquests played a significant role in their nation’s history.  More amazing is these people are worshiped like saints.  Small it may be, the temple has life-sized figures of General Chua Xuong, one of Quan Cong’s guardians and his mandarin, Quan Binh, plump and looking a bit jolly which is just my image of mandarins.   There’s also a life-sized horse that recalls the real one ridden by him.

More of a souvenir stop rather than a sight to see, the Handicraft Workshop is housed in a large Chinese trading house and rightly so because all kinds of Hoi An crafts were there—  sculptures carved out from stone and bamboo roots, the ubiquitous colorful Chinese lanterns that you squeeze so that it folds-in, and beautiful embroidery., one of which I was tempted to buy if not for the  high price.  The most interesting to watch was the woman weaving a large mat with a loom.  Too bad, there wasn’t any musical performance going on when I visited.

 

Of the five sites, the one I really like best is the Tan Ky house on the street that runs to Bach Dang along the river.  It’s really popular as it’s a perfect well-preserved example of a well-to-do home in the 19th century.  Past the short corridor that opens up to the center of the house are beautiful panels with Chinese characters formed entirely of birds.  An alcove on one side held up an altar.  A group of us sat at the sitting room while we were served tea and a young woman detailed the history of the family and the house.  Above the entrance is the matriarch while those of the later generations are on the wall of the sitting room.  Three beams on the ceiling (representing Heaven, Earth, and Hell) are Japanese architectural influences.  A stairway leads to the second floor which is closed though there is a view of the beautifully carved balconies from the small courtyard.  There’s  a small bedroom on the hall past the courtyard whose outside walls are marked with flood-water levels in the past years the highest of which was 2m in the 2007 flood.  The back of the house opened-up to Bach Dang and to the river.  The house is quite small but really nice and filled with original period furniture.

 

The house "guides" actually try to sell you some pendants representing your Chinese horoscope.

 

 

Wouldn't you like sleep in this cozy little bedroom?

The Japanese Covered Bridge is as quaint as Hoi An itself so it just rightly so that it has chosen it to be its emblem.  On one side is a small temple dedicated to a dragon which legend says, once lived there.  It remains open in the evening when the guardian isn’t around so no need for an Old Town ticket to gain access.  Besides, it’s really small and you can see everything by just looking in from outside.  The small bridge is guarded by a pair of dogs on one side and a pair of monkeys on the other.

I stayed about two full days at Hoi An and I never tired of walking its maze of streets.  Sure, numerous tailors and shops selling all kinds of souvenirs, cafes, restaurants, all vie for space with assembly halls, museums, workshops, and old houses; but there’s always something interesting to see and it always makes for a pleasant stroll.  The An Hoi peninsula  on the other side is less-interesting as there’s nothing ancient there to see.

The Shopkeeper, the Puppets and Me

The most unexpected thing that ever happened to me was, of all activities, during shopping for some souvenirs.  There are lots to be had at Hoi An and everywhere are really good shops for browsing. The little market (currently under renovation) sells everything from fresh food, household stuff, to gongs and lanterns.  But it was at a particular shop that caught my fancy with its display of royal clothes and water puppets.  The attendant was a mild-mannered guy who happily entertained me, showing me how to work the puppets at the small stage in the corner. He owned the shop and there were lots of curious including some small old-looking gongs.  I apparently caught his fancy as he kept touching me all over and I kept squirming.  Each time I asked him to take my picture or every time I took a picture and he would look at the lcd display, he would explain “beeyottifulll,” while he touched my arms and rubbed my chest.  Anyway, at least he gave a me good discount.

One of my best buys at Hoi An was a “singing bowl” so called because of its beautiful ringing sound every time you hit it with a stick.  According to the business card, it was casted from a nearby bronze-making village.

Lantern Nights

Hoi An is best in the evening.  Beautifully lit  Hoi An looks so romantic.  Lanterns festoon the street and the Thu Bon comes alive with huge animal-shaped lanterns floating on the water while people meander on row boats (something I should have tried).  Small colored open lanterns lit with a candle inside which you can buy for a couple of dong from the many children  then float it on the river reminds one of Thailand’s Loi Krathong.  On its banks, people dine on cheap eats of the famous Cau Lao, grilled pork, and even black sesame soup.  Nearby, the Japanese Covered Bridge is lighted up creating a dazzling illusion on the still water that runs underneath it.

 

True to its image of a heritage town, performances also abound.  At the Old Town Booth at the corner of Hai Ba Trung Tran Phu, men and women practice some songs.  In front of the Museum of Sa Huyn Culture at Tran Phu is a shy girl playing the dulcimer.  I bought a 20,000 ticket for the show at the Performance Center which was on the second floor of a restaurant.  There were about 10 of us and nobody checked for tickets.  The dances were so-so but the music, especially the ensemble playing of a drum set, the dan bau (1-stringed monochord), the 16-stringed zither, a flute, and a lute were really excellent.  I especially liked the flute and the dan bau.  The ensemble even played “Jingle Bells” as it was Christmas Eve.

The really interesting show was at the small plaza where a game was being played.  As announced by one of the “hosts,” it was a Vietnamese binggo. People sat around in a large circle holding pallets and yellow flags.  Game show contestants would get a pallet and hang it on a string strung across the plaza.  I really couldn’t understand how the game went on but it drew a sizeable crowd as the hosts seemed to be joking a lot judging from the crowd’s reactions.

I hope Hoi An retains its charm in spite of the massive tourism taking place.  It’s one of the towns that I found hard to leave behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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