24 February 2011

Tra Que Vegetable Village

Not far from the center of town lies the small village of Tra Que, where families have been growing and selling vegetables for around 500 years. It didn’t look too far on that deceptive map of the city, and I had been assured it was only around 2 kilometers. That’s an easy walk, I thought.

Once again, I have fallen into the foibles of not using metric for the past three years. I am not that good with exact measurements or weights, but kilos and kilometers are easy. A kilo is about 2 pounds, so when I am checking the price of fruit in the market, I divide it into half a kilo and instantly know the price per pound. The same with kilometers; one K equals about a mile and a half. Good enough for a rough estimation of distance. The problem on the day I went to Tra Que is that I converted kilometers into pounds and thought it was less than a mile walk when in fact it was over three miles and probably closer to four.

I made this grand discovery of my mistake somewhere around the hour walking mark, with no vegetable farms in sight. I stopped for a drink and asked the owner how much farther until I reached the village. He said it was only 200 meters away. That’s about half a lap on a 440 track, and I could easily do it.
As I passed out of the town area and found myself on a narrow road with traffic zooming by, rice fields to the left and right, I debated just stopping, hoping a bus or taxi would drive by to take me back to the hotel. I could see some buildings way off in the distance but just didn’t think my knee would last me that much longer. I was also rather hot and tired. But a friend had told me how fantastic a place Tra Que was and I couldn’t report back that I wussed out partway there and turned back. I trudged on. And I am so glad I did.
Cute little houses run along the lanes leading to the fields of vegetables. Around a few bends and I found myself looking out over a large plot of land, with immaculate rows of brilliantly colored herbs and vegetables. My friend had told me about a little place to eat in the middle of all this and eventually I found it, tucked into the back side of the fields.

I walked into the covered eating area which really wasn’t a restaurant with menus. I think they mostly do meals for prearranged tours. Nevertheless, they staff greeted me warmly, had me take a seat, and brought over a glass of local tea made of ginger, basil seeds, lemon grass and sugar. It was wonderful. I explained that my friend had told me that I must eat Bahn xeo, fresh spring rolls. The chef told me that it would be no problem; I could walk around the gardens for thirty minutes and come back to eat.

I walked down a concrete path that had dirt paths leading off to either side. I gazed down on perfect heads of green lettuce, laid out in perfect little rows, which lay next to lines of other edible greenery. As I understand it, all the families in the village have their own plots of land within the big field. Several people were out their working the land and I’d occasionally see someone fly by on a bicycle only to return a few minutes later with a basket of freshly picked produce.

I said hello to an older woman who walked along the path. I told her how beautiful everything was. She smiled, leaned over and snapped off a stem of coral colored gladiolas and handed it to me. I continued on down the main path until it reached the river. Had I not done that horrid trek out to the village, I would have walked along the river bank, which was lined with more cute houses.

It was so quiet and peaceful out there. I could easily imagine living in a little house and going out to my garden to plant and collect food. Listening to the breeze and birds I realized just how tourist-congested the town of Hoi An really is. This little trip was a lovely respite from all the hawkers and all the buyers.

I ambled around a bit more then back to the café. It had been getting a little warm out in the sun, but it was surprisingly cool and breezy under the wood canopy of the restaurant. A short while later my meal was brought over on a handmade platter lined with banana leaves. A pile of assorted fresh greens took up a large area. Next to it were little shrimp tied into bundles of other leafy things. There were delicate egg omelet thingy’s and rice paper wrappers. The waiter demonstrated in which order to pile on your fillings, wrap it up, bit it in the sauce, and eat. It was sublime.

Not wanting to walk back, I asked if there was a bus that went by. I was told they could call me a taxi. I have no idea why I had never taken a taxi before in Hoi An. Maybe I thought it would be too expensive. Maybe I thought the distances were too short to warrant a ride. Whatever my reasoning, I was happy to have them order a cab, and be back in town in no time.

18 February 2011

The Russians in Town & Boat Ferries

Coming upon a road block on one of the main lanes in the central district, I thought, Oh no; had there been an accident? A crime? I looked at the yellow crime-scene-type tape stretched across the road and the official guys in green government uniforms stopping anyone from entering. In all cases of injured bodies lying in a street, I quickly find an alternate route. But I didn’t see any. I didn’t see any misshapen bicycles or motorbikes. I didn’t see anyone being hauled off in handcuffs. In fact I couldn’t see anything out of place.
Finally we were let through and that’s when I started noticing western men and women with walkie-talkies and several guys in US military fatigues, a jeep and a truck or two dressed up to look like US military vehicles of the Vietnam War era.
One man obviously involved with whatever was going on sat on a shop stoop. I went over to get details. He was Russian, spoke about five words of English, but I did ascertain that they were making a movie. Damn; once again I hadn’t brought my camera. I really do need to buy a cheap one so that I will be prepared at all times for that prize winning photo.

A large green truck with a canvas canopy over the back was parked at the end of the block. They were just getting ready to film the peasants being shuffled in. The Vietnamese extras were rather well attired for a war-era film, but had been grimed up a bit. As they filmed, I watched the reaction of the onlookers, most of them born years after the conflict had ended. I did notice one gentleman in his 60’s and wondered what he was thinking.
The shot finished, I walked closer to the truck and saw who I assumed was the leading lady. Anorexic enough to look like a starving young woman from the countryside, she nevertheless had enough make-up on to look like a Vogue model. Three people simultaneously worked on her hair and maquillage before the next shot.

I debated running back to my hotel to grab that camera, but decided not to. However, I was definitely going to pack it along the next day and come back with the hopes that they would still be there. They weren’t.

Several days later, I ran into the crew in a different part of town and, of course, was without camera. But at least this time I approached the Vietnamese crew members and asked if they would be filming the following day. Yes, they would, but it would be down by the river. The following day, after almost giving up on ever finding them again, I finally was at a film location with a camera.

This time they were shooting a scene that involved a boat laden with chickens and bananas. It was a very artistically arranged vessel that looked in much better repair than the real, working boats alongside it. I went directly over to a man who appeared to be in charge and started asking about the film.
It is going to be a TV movie about love during the war. I asked why a Russian production company was making a film about the Vietnam/American conflict. He pointed out that the Soviet Union had consultants working in Vietnam to help with the communist agenda. That made sense until I later thought about it and only remember seeing portrayals of US soldiers and Vietnamese, and not one Russian. Then again, I only saw a few takes being filmed. I would love to see the final cut, but I’ll either have to go to Russia, or possibly be in Vietnam when it is shown.

I was glad I happened to be down by the docks at that particular time, late afternoon, because the transport boats were coming in and going out. It is an amazing feat to watch. Boats filled with motorbikes and bicycles pull up to the quay bringing folks home from somewhere down the river. In a well-choreographed procedure, people and their modes of transport are off-loaded at a quick pace. A few minutes later, the reverse occurs, motorbikes being pushed up a ramp then aligned in precision and with a speed that is truly impressive. While that is going on, another guy is lifting bikes onto a platform above the boat. People pile on and off they go, just as another boat is coming in.

Maybe I should take a ride on a boat.


17 February 2011

Full Moon Festival

Hoi An celebrates the full moon every single month and last night I got to join in the festivities.

Strolling in the late afternoon along the river walk, I passed people busily setting up make-shift stalls of colorful luminaries. Yo can buy one or as many as you want. As soon as it gets dark, you light the candle inside and send it on down the river. Or better yet, you take a ride in a boat and set it out in the middle of the river.

Farther along the way, I paused in front of a group of Buddhist monks and followers lighting incense and intoning prayers at the river’s edge. I closed my eyes and let the sounds and smells and prayers envelope me in a spiritual embrace.
As the light of the day slowly faded away, I ate a meal of tasty steamed fish in a café just a few meters from the river, and watched as more lantern vendors set their wares out on the sidewalk, and more people appeared on the street.

Walking past all the riverfront activity I decided I really should buy a little floating lantern to send out with all the others. I was deciding who I should buy from when I happened upon a group selling lanterns to benefit a children’s home.

One of the young women working at this booth told me I could now walk over to the edge of the river and place it in the water. That was not going to happen. Except for the candlelight and minimal electric light from the silk lanterns strung about, it was darn near pitch black. It would just be my luck to fall in. She kindly offered to place it in the river for me. She also handed me a fortune which I read and then placed inside the lantern. When the candle burned down and ignited the fortune, it was her hope that it would come true for me.
The area by the water was starting to get a bit too congested especially since it was so dark. I headed to the next lane up from the river which was adorned with colorful lanterns. Shops were open and all of them had placed offering tables out front, brimming with fruit, lucky paper money, incense and other items.

I stopped in front of a young man playing the most beautiful traditional music on a very simple wooden flute. Further down the street several other musical groups began to appear and fill the air with sweet sounds.
A small bridge crosses the river inlet and it was packed with people enjoying the view in all directions. I walked across, stopping to look down on those who had boarded boats for an evening cruise to deposit lanterns in the river. Depending on the level of the water, there is often not quite enough head room for those passing under the bridge. I watched as passengers quickly flattened themselves to avoid major injury.

On the other side of the bridge there are numerous, permanent stalls that sell silk lanterns in every shape, size and color. At night, when they are all lit up, the street becomes one fabulous land of enchantment. On Full Moon nights, everyone seems to be there to marvel at the spectacle and take pictures in front of the brilliant displays.

Everything winds down at about 10pm which seems reasonable. After all, it will only be a few more weeks until the next full moon and the whole affair begins again.


15 February 2011

Clinton Stayed Here?????

I am in a really, really nice hotel. I am by no means a 5-star traveler, but am way past the super-budget rooms of my younger years. I suppose I’d be categorized as a Flash Packer, which is the group between the two extremes. And this hotel is a bit above that level. However, when a friend raved about it and I looked it up on line, I decided I could do with a taste of very modest luxury for a few days before looking for something a tad less expensive.

As it happened, there was a promotion going on so I received a 10% discount. And after two days here, I was given even a larger discount. When I compared the wondefullness of the room and the amenities, including a huge breakfast spread, it was coming out to not much more than the other hotels I had considered.

These other hotels are where one runs into difficulties, at least in Vietnam. What you see on their web page is rarely what you get. I pretty much knew this before making my latest journey here. My instincts were further confirmed when I started to notice that all the hotels I looked at in HCMC seemed to have the same picture of the rooms available. Fortunately, a Vietnamese friend did all the leg work and booked a place for me. After I’d been in that hotel for a while, I went on a scouting expedition to see how the online hotel pictures compared to the real-time view. It was frightening to see how little resemblance they bared to their hotel websites.

This was just one more reason I was more than happy to stay at a hotel where someone I knew had recently stayed. I loved the hotel and my room the minute I saw it. I wasn’t so thrilled that the “city view” was actually a balcony opening on to a small street with a view of the neighbor’s living rooms, but it was better than the alternative of an interior view to the pool and other guests’ rooms. I wasn’t overly concerned when the guys across the street had their Saturday night beer party on the front porch. But Monday morning at 6:30am I started to get worried. It was then that I realized there was an elementary school across the narrow street and less than half a block away.

I’m always up early, I don’t mind the voices of kids in a school yard, but they do things differently here and it was yet another Vietnam fact that I had forgotten. Monday morning is outdoor assembly time. All the kids are in the yard, (which is directly across the way), and one teacher is on a microphone that is so loud it can be heard for miles. She’s yelling something and all the kids are responding. This went on for close to an hour. And that didn’t seem to be the end of it. I swear at least a hundred kids at a time were out for recess the entire day. The noise never ceased until around 4:30 when I saw the last ones leave.

Ready to sit down and write, I was jolted out of my chair by music blasting at nine million decibels. I thought that maybe there was a nightclub nearby. It turned out to be the small kiosk next to the school, or at least I think it was. I couldn’t even see any people. It was so loud I could feel the reverberation in the floor. This simply was not going to work as a place to relax and write. I needed a view of rice paddies or jungle.

This morning I told the young man at reception about the problem with the noise and that I didn’t think I would be able to stay here much longer. He assured me that it only happened on Monday. Not being 100% convinced of that, I spent a good part of today searching for different accommodation. I made a list of the places I had found online before coming here and searched through sites like TripAdvisor for recommendations. I marked places off on my little map and hit the road.

Nothing is that far away, but the hotel-provided maps leave off a whole bunch of streets making things much farther than expected. It seemed I had walked forever before I got to the Phuoc An Hotel. They had very nice rooms listed online for $20 a night and I was hoping to get a discount for a longer stay. Guest reviews seemed to speak well of their establishment.

As I walked into the hotel I was greeted by a young man inquiring how he could help me. I asked what the price for a room was. He said, “$200.” I figured there was some language miscommunication so restated the question. I got the same answer. This time I asked if he meant $20, not $200. At this point he began to get rather agitated and wrote out “200”. I said something about that not being possible and did a quick check to make sure I was not at the Hilton. The 30-somethings walking down the stairs with backpacks assured me I was in the right place.
By this time the guy was waving his arms and repeating, “$200 a night”, over and over. When I didn’t jump at the opportunity to book the room immediately, he said, “Bill Clinton stayed in this room”. Huh? Again he kept repeating “Bill Clinton”, “very special room”. It took me about a minute to finally ask about rooms other than the Clinton one.

“Oh”, he said, as if understanding for the first time, “you want a different room?” I nodded my head. “We don’t have any others.” A bit more questioning and I finally was told that 
                                                                                the rooms started at $30. It was time to leave.

All told, I spent about four hours walking around looking at hotels. They were either more expensive than the one I am in, (and of a far inferior standard), or slightly less costly but of a way lower standard. So bum knee throbbing, I hoofed it back to the river, found an upstairs café with a view and ate cake and ice cream.

It was 5:00 pm when I got back to my hotel room and as I turned the key in my door, I braced myself for the onslaught of blaring disco tracks. There wasn't any. I sat down to relax and wait. Still no sounds other than people talking on the street or an occasional dog barking. I am so happy. I had already been mapping out my hotel-search-trek to the other side of town for tomorrow. Instead I can get back to the business of enjoying Hoi An.


14 February 2011

Hoi An

I’ve arrived in Nirvana, was my first thought as I rolled into the town of Hoi An a few days ago. After a month of noise, pollution, and 90F/32C degree temperatures, this is such a welcome change.

For one who adores heat, I was finding HCMC a bit too much. I’m not sure why that was; not enough time to acclimate? Horrid air quality? Whatever it was, I am glad to be out of there. Hoi An has been overcast since arriving, with temps around 70F/20C during the day, and dipping a bit at night, It’s cool, but not cold. Yet the locals are wrapped up in bulky jackets and knit caps in the evenings and mornings.

Hoi An sits on a river, just a few kilometers from the beach and a forty minute drive from the city of Da Nang.

Hoi An Ancient Town is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site. (UNESCO World Heritage Convention) whc.unesco.org

The World Heritage people go on to say that Hoi An is the only such town in Vietnam that has survived intact for several hundred years. It was a major, international trading port 400 years ago. They have also found archeological evidence of trading as far back as the 2nd century BCE.

I’ve spent the past several days meandering through the narrow, winding streets lined with traditionally designed shops and houses. The influence of the Chinese merchants who settled here is obvious. But there is also the Japanese Bridge, dating from the 18th century, and other contributions from Japanese who moved into the town as well.

There were lots of tourists here over the weekend, both foreign and Vietnamese. Either visitors who come here are different than those in HCMC, or it’s the ambiance of the town that seemingly lowers everyone’s metabolic rate to “slow and leisurely”. Since that is the effect it has had on me, I am assuming it does the same to all. Consequently, I was not at all bothered by the folks wondering and enjoying as much as I was. But it was a lovely surprise when I headed out this morning, Monday, to find nearly empty streets. I had forgotten that not only are there more people here on weekends, but also it was the end of the Tet holiday which accounted for many of the Vietnamese tourists.

I like to explore the neighborhoods of wherever I happen to be. In Hoi An, that means taking a left instead of a right, which puts you in the non-tourist areas in just a few short minutes. Yesterday, in the early evening, I walked through the blocks behind my hotel. All of the front entryways to all of the houses I passed were open. Some folks were inside watching TV; others sat on the front stoops with kids and/or dogs. As I passed, I’d see a serious face looking up at me. I’d smile, do the requisite head-bow, and say xin chao, (seen chow), (hello). Immediately, the person I spoke to grinned from ear to ear and returned my greeting. If it were a mother with a child, she’d encourage him to say hello and wave. Sometimes I’d stop to exchange a few words; me in limited Vietnamese and them in limited English. We’d all end up laughing and waving goodbye. It is the most wonderful feeling to stroll along an unknown street and be welcomed by all you pass.

For someone who is not really driven by the need-to-eat phenomenon, Hoi An has changed me. The food here, no matter where you go, is fantastic! I’ve always have a hard time explaining to people that the “wonderful Vietnamese food” has eluded me in Ho Chi Minh City. I know there are good restaurants there, and I have eaten in some of them, but it has not been that often. I mostly found myself eating tasteless meals. And that simply does not happen in Hoi An. Yesterday, I ordered veggies and tofu expecting a boring meal like I’d get in HCMC. Was I ever surprised. This meal was scrumptious! And the price was at least half what I’d pay for that cardboard meal in HCMC. I find myself eagerly awaiting the next restaurant outing, something unheard of for the gal who prefers to munch on nuts and fruit when traveling.

My favorite part of any day in Hoi An is walking along the promenade that lines both sides of the river inlet that cuts through the central tourist area. Magical fishing boats sit in the water waiting for their next outing. Elderly women, in long, thin, low-to-the-water row boats, wait for a tourist to book a short ride with them. People sit in café’s along the street, drinking coffee and eating. People drive by on bicycles and share the roadway with the motor scooters who are much more well-behaved up here. I want a house on the river so that I can wake up every morning to this glorious scene.


06 February 2011

Tet Flower Street 2011

Tet, the Lunar New Year, just doesn’t get any better than in Ho Chi Minh City. Every house and every shop and every big building is embellished in red and gold, with flowers and plants and decorations out front and on windows and doors.

The absolute best, however, is what they do to Nguyen Hue Street, in the center of town. This is a massive, wide boulevard that runs straight down to the Saigon River. Every year, for about the past ten years, the street is closed to traffic and turned into a park. And we are not just talking a few potted plants; the actually lay bricks and mortar to create winding flower beds, install giant fountains and, this year, a central lotus pond with concrete walls. It takes about two weeks to build, is open to the public for one week, and then it comes down.

I learned that before the annual park, came into existence, Nguyen Hue Street was where they used to have the flower market that I had visited last week. It had taken place every year for as long as anyone could remember. The city fathers, however, were tired of the mess it created and tried to put a stop to it. Finally, someone came up with the ingenious plan to move the flower market to a park, and turn Nguyen Hue into a temporary Tet garden.

Even though half the population has left the city to go visit relations outside of town, that still leaves a goodly number of residents. The traffic is very light in comparison and it is not quite so dangerous to cross the street. Nevertheless, that half of the population descends on central HCMC to walk amongst the gardens of Tet. And this is why one needs to take a stroll down Nguyen Hue at 6:00am.

When I got out of the taxi at 5:55, it was still pitch black. Even so, there were already people doing the walk which was lit by beautiful lanterns in various shapes. I tried to find my friend and thought I should have brought a flashlight. No need; 15 minutes later, there was plenty of light. That’s another interesting thing about life here; the sun comes up in a blast and goes down with almost no warning. Light to dark, dark to light in a quick flash.

All the types of plants I had seen at the flower market lined the sides of the streets, and down the center, arranged like a mini-Versailles. My friend and I stopped every few feet to marvel at the intricate displays and beautiful colors. Cat statues, in various forms and sizes, dotted the entire route.

My favorite was the lotus pond. I couldn’t believe that they were going to tear it down in a week. I asked my friend if maybe they would leave it. She looked at me like I was nuts. I thought about it and realized it was actually situated in a car lane so no, I guess they’d really have to remove it.

About an hour later, we stopped off for a cup of coffee then headed over to Tao Dan Park to see the flower show; yet another horticultural wonder. Upon entering, we were greeted by the most spectacular flower dragon I have ever seen. His body went on for what seemed like a mile.

Among the tall, tall trees and areas of grass, various plants held court. The special Tet trees, in yellow as well as red and pink, stood in pots throughout one section of the park. Bonsai plants filled one area, orchids in another. There were a few things I had never seen, like these gigantic potted gardens that had been made with rocks and bonsai plants, and contained little ceramic figures of people and buildings. I was a bit sad that there were only a few of the dragon figures that are made entirely of plants, vegetables and fruit. It must be a dying art.

As wondrous and beautiful as everything was, I was most touched by the people of HCMC and their love of the holiday. Families were out in all their finery, laughing and smiling and taking photos in front of picturesque backdrops. Young women, dressed to the nines, posed like Vogue models while they took turns taking each other’s picture. Grannies and grandpa’s and the whole extended family stood for group photos. Mom’s and dad’s, their kids dressed in bright silk, traditional costumes, had a bit of trouble getting the little ones to stand still, but eventually got their shot, laughing the whole time.

The sheer joy of the entire population is something I have never experienced in any country for any holiday. It has been a week of everyone smiling and everyone being happy. Wherever I walk, I greet people with Happy New Year, in my somewhat understandable Vietnamese. The reaction I always get is a giant smile and a return greeting.

It seems to me that the Year of the Cat is off to an excellent start.


01 February 2011

Strange Rabbits & A Flower Market

 The Vietnamese and Chinese New Year begins the evening of February 2nd. Before leaving the US, I made sure I knew exactly what year on the animal wheel it would be so that I wouldn’t appear stupid. I found out that it would be the Year of the Rabbit.

The Lunar New Year is the biggest event of the year in Vietnam, and the city has been gearing up since before I arrived. Main streets in the central district are bedecked with ornamental lighting. Huge flower/plant markets are set up in all districts of the city and most likely throughout the country. Red and gold decorations depicting the animal year and traditional tokens of luck, such as pineapples and coins, are sold on street corners, supermarkets, and most shops.
Soon after arriving I started to look for a funky Rabbit Year talisman. I couldn’t seem to find any. I clearly remember buying gold plastic little horses and pigs when it was there year. So where were the rabbits? I looked at all the posters and door decorations on both houses and stores and the only animal I saw was a very strange rabbit with short ears. And I kept seeing variations of these critters. Perhaps Vietnamese rabbits were different from the ones I knew.
Several days ago I wondered by Nguyen Hue Street where they were busy constructing that temporary flower park. At the top of the street, at the main entrance, where they always have a large display of the current animal, I again noticed to the short-eared rabbits. Then I noticed the long tails. OK, so what I had been seeing wasn’t a mutant rabbit but a cat. That would make sense except that I had been certain we were going into a rabbit year. Maybe it was now rabbit and we were transitioning into cat.
While in the lobby of a hotel, waiting for a friend, I asked the receptionist what year it was going to be. Cat, she said. I explained my confusion about thinking it was rabbit and asked if we were just ending rabbit and going into cat? She finally set the record straight; this year in Vietnam will be the Cat, but in China it will be Year of the Rabbit. All of the other lunar animal years correspond exactly to the Chinese ones except for this year. This actually was a fact I had known but forgotten. Now I can go out and get some cat ornaments.
Before doing that, however, I made a trip to one of the flower markets, this one located in downtown HCMC. This particular park runs between Pham Ngu lao and Le Lai Streets. It’s at least a block wide and at least five blocks long. Always a pleasant place to stroll, rather than on its bordering streets of insane traffic and noise, it’s truly exceptional before Tet when growers bring in their flowers and plants to sell for the New Year celebrations.
Pots of chrysanthemums and sunflowers and many others I can’t put a name to, are packed into sections. A salesperson or two sits in their midst. There are sections devoted to the flowering “Tet trees”, just days away from blossoming, and alcoves of stunning orchids in all shapes, sizes and colours.
Many people are there to purchase the plants, but many more are there to inhale the splendor and take pictures of their friends and family amongst the foliage. Kids pose in front of tall sunflowers; others kneel in the middle of a patch of tall, blooming beauties.

Butterflies flit form plant to plant seemingly unaware that they are actually in an urban jungle and not the countryside. Everyone is as happy as can be, including me.

I may not know all the names of the plants, but I had seen them all before except, that is, for one; the plant of the dragon fruit. What a total shock to find out that it was some sort of succulent or cactus. It was like I had discovered a long lost secret of the universe that other people had known about but somehow I had missed. I usually know from whence my fruit comes, but not this time. It was like the first time I saw a banana tree and was totally dumbfounded to find out that the fruit grows up, and not down, as I had always pictured. These little bits of new knowledge make one realize just how remarkable the world can be.

Dragon Fruit