Tuesday, September 8, 2009

NAM Tour of Duty


We took to 'nam for 10 days with two friends. Had a blast! We shopped at markets for factory-priced treasures in Saigon, made customised dresses and suits in Hoi An, sat on tiny low stools and ate street food in Hue, walked kilometers upon kilometers to get to our designated sights, braved the chaotic traffic and motorbiked to the magnificent tombs of Emperors, and drank litres of aromatic strong Vietnamese coffee.

Upon arriving home we were pooped - I was a bloated mess and hit the sack once I unpacked. Getting to Vietnam was more of a chore as we traveled from Kuching to Singapore to Saigon to Danang by plane and hopped on a 2 hour bus ride to Hoi An (that's 7.5 hours travel time) but the initial excitement kept our adrenaline pumping :)


One of the gorgeous French-influenced
residential homes along the main street of Hoi An



Looking back at the whole trip, we agree that Hoi An was our favourite destination. The locals are friendly and converse with visitors. The residential homes are quaint and the architecture breathtaking. Prices in Hoi An were considerably cheaper, and we give this small laid back town extra points for its cheap lanterns, tailor-made shoes and speedy tailors.



While in Hoi An, we visited one of the wet markets and sampled one of the best tasting dishes in Vietnam (we think) : Cau Lau. Cau Lau is a dry noodle dish topped with pork, fresh vegetables, mint leaves, tawgeh, spring onions and shallots, sprinkled with handmade rice flour crackers. The recipe for the handmade noodles originate from Hoi An as the noodles were, and still is in these parts, originally made from water drawn from the Ban Le well situated in Hoi An's ancient city . It is believed that only by using the water from this well will the noodles churn out the taste and colour that it does.


Woman preparing Cau Lau broth in market


Yummy chilli paste!!!


Believe it or not, we were lucky enough to find the old stone well, situated behind a residential home. A dripping wet tin bucket lying by the well suggests that the town folk still adhere to their age-old Cau Lau recipe.


Ban Le well in Hoi An's ancient city


At the same market, we had leather shoes and heels form-fitted onto our feet. The woman at the shoe stall traced the sole of one foot onto a piece of A4 paper, measured the circumference and marked the paper where the heel and longest toe stood. Once we decided on the style, colour and texture of the leather, and height of the heel, we were given a receipt and asked to come back the next day for a fitting. The deal is to come for as many fittings until you are satisfied. Good deal eh?

Since we were at it, why not get some tailor-made suits and Ao Dai? Ao Dai is the national dress for Vietnamese women - a tight-fitting long flowing mandarin-collared tunic paired with long silk pantaloon pants that blow in the wind as you walk. Áo is derived from a Chinese word meaning "padded coat" and Dài means "long". My Ao Dai is a turquoise top with white pants, and Adel made two tops, one in a gorgeous shade of deep purple and another in white with light blue prints.


Blue Dragon's springrolls were the best!


Just opposite the Cloth Market, we had dinner at a New York Times featured restaurant - The Mermaid. We savoured in their specialty appetizers (their adaptation of "white rose" is so far the best, but the springroll at Blue Dragon is better), and flavorful main dishes (white rice with side dishes of beef, pork and stirfried vegetables).

Amongst the other sights we visited in Hoi An were the Japanese Bridge, the Tran Family Chapel, Museum of Ceramics, Hoi An Handicraft Centre and several temples.

We stayed at Green Fields Hotel just off the main strip. A nice budget hotel with friendly staff, spectacularly clean airconditioned rooms, ensuite bathroom, cable TV and a fully stocked mini fridge. It has a swimming pool on the ground floor (never did get the chance to take a dip), a comfy dining area where we had our breakfast every morning, and free internet access on four computers in the lobby. We were welcomed into our room with a basket of fruit and rose petals strewn on the bed... nice.

Our room at Green Field


From Hoi An, we took a Jetstar flight to Hue. Our main objective in Hue was to visit the infamous tombs and the ancient Citadel.

Hue Citadel's flag tower


The Citadel served as Vietnam's capital from 1804 until 1945. Approaching the Citadel that spans a massive 10km, the first structure we saw was the massive flag tower (Cot Co). Within this old capital stands 140 temples, pavillions, residences, terraces and palaces, with the Imperial City positioned in the centre. Impressive eh?

In Hue, we stayed at Halo Hotel. Nice guesthouse - close to the main attractions, clean, cold airconditioning and very hospitable. On our final night, the owner's son volunteered to cook us some Vietnamese fried instant noodles in 3 variations : beef and lemongrass; pork and onions; and lemongrass and egg (we walked in on him having his supper and we started salivating, he didn't have any choice in it really).



Since we only had one full day in Hue, we hired motorbikes. Equipped only with a map provided by the owner of the guesthouse, we ventured into the outskirts searching for tombs. Personally, I had a lot of fun on the bike. Don't get me wrong, the traffic in Hue was still scary! But that was what made it so exciting :)

We travelled 8km, stopping frequently to ask for directions, to the tomb of Tu Duc. This tomb covers 12 spectacular hectares (!!!), with 50 structures of various levels of terraces within its surrounding wall. Emperor Tu Duc constructed this colossal arrangement from 1864 until 1867, residing here with his wives and concubines in the summer months. A case of smallpox left Tu Duc impotent leaving him without a biological offspring. Even though it is known as his tomb, Tu Duc's actual resting place is not known up to this day.

Twelve kilometers from Hue is Emperor Minh Mang's tomb. Similar to Tu Duc's, I preferred Minh Mang's tomb as this Emperor was in reality buried under this complex architectural wonder. Minh Mang passed away in the midst of construction and his son continued the Emperor's plans to its full glory. A crescent shaped lake embraces the circular wall that surrounds Ming Mang's grave.

Bridge over the Perfume River in Hue


On our way back to town, we stopped by the Citadel again. Since we had some time before we returned the motorbikes, the boys decided to visit the war museum (within the Citadel) and the German tanks on display. We parked our bikes and saw a man with friendly eyes, sitting on his cyclo in the shade. He greeted us and smiled. We started talking and he mildly introduced himself as Tran Van Thinh, a man who studied at a Buddhist Pagoda when he was young. We could tell just by talking to him that he was genuinely an honest soul, someone who is merely being friendly to visitors in his country. Seeing that he was so nice, we asked if he would join us for coffee to which he responded by asking us to follow him to a nearby stall that locals frequent.


The boys with Thinh


We hopped on our bikes and followed him on his cyclo to a nearby road side stall. He ordered our coffee and we sat on low stools while Thinh was busying himself with the proper positioning of the table. While enjoying the luscious coffee, we asked Thinh about his life. He told us that he is an only child and his father died when a bomb dropped on their family home during the war. He and his mother were forced to live in the market. Impoverished, he decided to study in a pagoda (temple) at the age of 11. At the pagoda, he studied under a Buddhist teacher named Thich Nhat Hanh who taught him the art of palmistry, martial arts and the essentials of Buddhism.

After coffee, we moved on to another stall off the main street for a dish Thinh recommended as a local favourite. The lady behind the stall served us the most awesome shrimp thingies marinated in tasty sauces wrapped in rice flour. I can't remember the name of these babies but man, were they L.U.S.H! (and very filling too).

Meeting Thinh was one of the highlights of our time spent in Hue, such a sweet and patient man. He kept on saying how lucky he was to have met us but we insisted that it was us who were lucky to have crossed paths with him.

After returning our bikes, we strolled around the main streets and along the alleys. A small corner shop caught our eye - Healing the Wounded Heart. This colorful little shop of handicrafts made from recyclables returns all its proceeds to Vietnam and Nepal to fund primary health care, medical and educational projects. Here we purchased some handmade bookmarks and bowls woven from recycled telephone wires.


Celebrities that support The Spiral Foundation


Our last stop (and longest stay) was Saigon. Unlike the laid back town of Hoi An and Hue, Ho Chi Minh city was bustling with honking motorbikes, cars, cabs and tourists aplenty. Even the bicyclists had their own little "tring-trings". The rule here is motorbikes and bicycles avoid pedestrians, but everyone gives way to cars. The art in crossing a busy road is to take baby steps and the two-wheeled vehicles will masterfully swerve to evade collision (buses and lorries honk at you like mad if you're in their path).

I get the notion that the Vietnamese prefer dogs as pets. We came upon shitzus, pugs, chiwawas, and a golden retriever named "Snowy". No stray dogs in sight. Rarely did we see cats, except for this one time we saw a white one on a long green nylon leash in a t-shirt shop.


Trung Nguyen Coffee


We stayed at Kim Hotel in Pham Ngu Lao, an extremely value for money guesthouse that feels like a hotel (there's even a lift!). Mdm Kim, the owner, is very friendly and helpful, she supplied us with maps, directions and tips on places to visit. The staff here made us feel so comfortable that we sat and chatted with them some evenings. Our room came with all the perks of a budget hotel plus free wi-fi, how great is that?

We walked a short distance from our guesthouse to Notre Dame Cathedral. From a distance we could see the statue of the virgin Mary standing amid the structure's soaring bell towers. Only as we got closer did we realise that the tiny yellow dots encircling the statue were sunflowers. The cathedral itself really is quite a sight.


Notre Dame Cathedral

Established by French colonists and built between 1863 and 1880, the cathedral measures 190 feet in height. All building materials were imported from France, with the exterior wall's bricks brought in from Marseille. Coated concrete was not used at the time but the bricks have retained their bright red color until this day.


Notre Dame's central stained-glass window


Across the street from Notre Dame is Ho Chi Minh City's Post Office. Designed by architect Gustav Eiffel (no prizes for guessing his other call card to fame), the post office was built in 1886 during the French colony. The dome shaped ceiling reminds me of a train somehow. At the very end of the main hall hangs a large picture of Ho Chi Minh.

Saigon's Central Post Office
(The Eiffel Post???)


Telephone booths at the Post Office
(with still-functioning phones)



Within the vicinity of our guesthouse, we didn't have to travel far for meals, shopping and supplies. Pham Ngu Lao is a haven for backpackers. At every corner there is a hotel, coffee shop, watering hole, t-shirt shop, grocery store, 2nd hand book store, guesthouse, handicraft shop, restaurant, or souvenir shop.

Something that really strikes a distinct chord in Saigon is their version of the "art gallery". Specialising in oil painted works on canvas, these galleries parade their masterpieces along the walkways, on easels or leaning against a wall on the ground. Here's the good bit : not only are works exhibited, they can be custom-painted to order.


The Asian corner


Ask any painter in these parts on their area of expertise and expect a response along the lines of "anything you want", and they are dead serious. Personal portraits, one-of-a-kind motifs or an exact replicate of Monet's Water Lillies, these artists can produce anything in any impressionism - warhol - pop art - cubism - realism - abstract - postmodern - expressionism style. Intend to superimpose your ecstatic face onto Marilyn's skirt-blowing pose? No problem. I love this place :)


Guess who?



The Fonz!


One particular cafe we frequented during our stay in Saigon was Nam Giao for their delicious Bun Bo Hue (Hue Beef Noodles). Bun Bo is noodles in an aromatic broth with a generous serving of crab and shrimp balls, gargantuan beef balls, chunks of ham, fresh mint leaves, chives and lemongrass topped with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts.


Nam Giao's Bun Bo Hue
in Pham Ngu Lao



Most evenings we would wind down at the Shake & Cake with Fresh Beer (Bia Tuoi).





Vietnam Online

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