This is a sort of travelogue, experiences and observations combined with random contemplations,
of a trip through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in Jan-March 2011. This blog is now closed.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

the end

Like our entire trip, the way back was suitably long, as well, and very relaxed. After four days in Nha Trang beach resort, with little else to do than recover from our intense travel experience, we spent almost a day in Saigon, and then two days in Bangkok, equally recovering from our Nha Trang experience. Upon arriving in Bangkok, it became clear that, if I ever said that Saigon is on its way to become the next Bangkok, that may still take a while: they are in fact light years behind. After a little shopping, some excellent dining and yet another testing spa treatment, we commenced the marathon trip back to Amsterdam, courtesy of Egypt Air.

Looking back, it has been a good trip, a varied itinerary with lots of different experiences. In fact, it was far more varied than we had expected, because the three countries we traveled were very distinct, only bound by an accident of history, its French colonial occupation. Laos had the natural beauty, the trip on the Nam Ou in particular stands out. Cambodia had the nicest people - and the most impressive monument, of course -, which is why we stayed longer than we had planned. And Vietnam? Well, we never really warmed to the country. Where Laos and Cambodia are both unique, very distinct in character, Vietnam reminded us from Day One of China, the same behaviour - drunken shouting in the restaurants, spitting on the floor - and the same mentality, very self-centered and not particularly welcoming. Not surprising, of course, since they have been under Chinese influence for very long, and they come from the north in the first place. Yet they lack the ancient culture, and the refinement of their heritage, and they lack the profesionalism and perfectionism displayed by the Chinese, as well as the ruthlessness of their northern neighbour.

There are attenuating circumstanmces, like years and years of cripling war. After the French were defeated, the country was split in a North and South part in 1955, temporarily, until election could be held. Ho Chi Min decided to invade the South even before the agreed two years separation were over, because the South refused to hold elections. The rest is history, including the fact that the North won despite massive American support for the South - and, how ironic, that the Vietnamese people are still awaiting their first free elections. Reading up on some of the recent history, through fiction (Graham Green) and non-fiction (Jon Swain, Robert Mason, but also Norman Lewis), it is striking how similar the French and the American wars were, in that the foreign powers never actually captured terrain, just fought battles; in that their enemy would periodically just stop fighting, and take on the appearance, as well as the activities, of farmers; in that the Vietnamese seemed to overwhelmingly support Ho Chi Min, no matter where they lived, and the French cum South Vietnamese/American interest was only the interest of a minority, the rich and powerful, and the corrupt (which is how they became rich and powerful, in the first place, of course). What also stands out is the cruelty in both wars, which happily continued after the Americans had left, and North was fighting South without American support. Cruelty committed by French, Americans, but also by the Vietnamese, a subject that is conveniently suppressed in present-day Vietnam. Anyhow, I had said that I would not get back to the war, and there I am.

What else kept us occupied? The food was fabulous, mostly. Sometimes we only found small, uninteresting restaurants, simple Chinese-dominated food, but there were plenty special experiences, as well, and good Laotian, Cambodian or Vietnamese food can compete with the world's best cuisines. The lunch in Vientiene stands out (the place I went back to the next day!), and another lunch in Phnom Penh. Black-pepper crab on a small island off the coast of Kep. Grilled octopus in a locals-only place in Siem Reap. And, after initial disappointment, some of the restaurants in Vietnam also provided spectacular food: steamed fish rolled in rice pancakes, grilled crispy eel, fresh springrolls, pomelo salad, and in the Highlands we had some half-pancake, half-omelet, stuffed with fresh herbs, prawns and whatever else was available, in a small street-side restaurant. The wine was a disaster throughout, whether locally produced Banan Red or Dalat Red, or imported bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, invariably overpriced and often only just about good enough for the sink. But then, most of the time there was gin and tonic.

Will we do it again? Yeah, no doubt, but it may take a while to get back to this part of the world, with so many other places beckoning (with a bit of luck, traveling becomes easier and easier, who knows, Libya or Yemen next year?). Will we continue blogging, next time? Yeah, most likely, I enjoyed it, even though the context was quite different from my previous blog, on Haiti after its earthquake. It takes quite a lot of effort, though, writing, and then editing to cut out the crap and get to a manageble amount of words - I certainly did not always succeed -, then select some pictures, and delete half of them afterwards, once again to keep things manageble. Will you read this again? Up to you, but let me know whether you enjoyed it or not, and what can be done better. Thanks anyhow, for logging on and checking this page occasionally, it is nice to see that people kept on looking at it throughout our trip (I can see that, you know...).

A bonus at the end: we came back over the Alps.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Nha Trang

A beach resort it is! Kilometers of white, if coarse, sand. Hundreds of hotels, restaurants, bars. Hawkers trying to sell sunglasses, books, food, anything you can think of. Tourists everywhere – but not that many. Nha Trang is actually a very pleasant place, with all the amenities of a beach resort, except the over-crowdedness. This is the high season, well, the tail end of the high season, but still prime time for the tourist industry, yet, they must be struggling. Mind you, this is the most touristic place we have been to, in the past 10 weeks, but it still doesn’t compare to a Spanish, Italian or Turkish resort town. All very small scale, except for this enormous beach. And still, like Danang, there is a massive building effort going on, mostly large, luxurious hotels, setting up shop along the boulevard. I wonder if they ever fill up. If it does, it will do so with Russians, every restaurant here has a menu in Russian, every shop advertises in Russian (something we haven’t seen anywhere else in Vietnam).
There are several restaurants on the beach, as well as a government place that rents out deck chairs with large pillows, under straw parasols. Which is where we spent one morning, or, to be correct, where we parked our stuff one morning, so that we could enjoy the sea, and the huge waves crashing onto the beach. Every 8 or 10 seconds or so another decision: jumping over the wave, or diving through it. Exhausting! But good fun, and it was only much later that we noticed that we had both badly burned.

(1) Nha Trang beach in the high season, and (2) the surf from our hotel rooftop bar.
They also do boat trips to the various islands offshore, which have been classified as to their activity, one for snorkeling, one for lunch, and another for sunbathing on the beach. Especially the snorkeling appealed to us. Mind you, you cannot mix up activities, there is a rigid pattern. And obviously, all boats follow the same pattern.
(3) Tourists boats lined up, the number of tires being a measure of their confidence in the captain’s abilities (or those of other captains).

(4, 5, 6) Some examples of fish which one could, presumably, see offshore, snorkeling.
We didn’t take the tour, went to the Oceanographic Institute instead, where we watched the various fishes in the aquarium…
This is Champa country, of course, and true to form, Nha Trang also has its Cham towers. Quite different from My Son, these ones are heavily restored, and come with dancing and music performance, and bus loads of tourists, the four kilometers to town easily covered. All a little artificial. Far more attractive, in fact, are the fishing boats in the harbour, next to the towers, and in the river mouth: far more picturesque. On Monday morning, 9.30 am, there was some activity, not much, obviously slow starters, the Vietnamese.  
(7) Musicians at the Cham towers in Nha Trang, note their enthusiasm.

(8, 9, 10, 11) The fishing boats.

(12, 13) Some activity offshore, note the rowing with the feet – must be more comfortable than using your hands, why otherwise apply this technique?
(14) And activity onshore.
This being the last day of our stay here, and the first day of bright sunshine again, we burned a little further whilst walking back from the harbour, before we got into a taxi to the hotel, checked out, spent two hours eating an enormous plate of shusi, then another half a hour devouring ice cream, followed by a lazy coffee on a terrace in the shade, an hour-long full body massage, another short spell on the beach in late afternoon, and a few Vietnamese springrolls, to make sure we wouldn’t go hungry, before we got to the airport for our flight to Saigon, and on to Bangkok. It feels like a very long time, but we have only been away for ten weeks. Only.

Monday, 21 March 2011


(It appears that not everybody can see the photos; I couldn't log on for a few days myself. It would be really nice if the Vietnamese government, weary of even mild criticism, was blocking my site - the biggest compliment one could et, no? -, but I don't think that is the real cause, more likely a problem with the blogspot site management. I hope this has now been restored.)

(Also, I am afraid it has been raining quite a lot, unfortunately affecting the photos, once again. To be honest, I don't think that is the Vietnamese government's doing, either).
Vietnam has a railway network. Well, network is maybe too much said, there is only one major line, a single track of 1727 km from Ho Chi Mon City to Hanoi. There are no less than seven trains per day in each direction, the fastest taking 29 hours and stopping at just six stations in between. That’s almost 60 km an hour: high speed hasn’t arrived yet in Vietnam, but we knew that already.
Obviously, this was something we had to try, perhaps not for the entire length, but at least part of the route.
So we boarded the train in Hue. All passengers are gathered in a waiting hall, the door of which is opened some 15 minutes before the train arrives. And is then immediately closed again, so there is no way back. Hue station has seven tracks – indeed, for seven trains a day, plus the occasional freight train -, but it hasn’t got any platforms! And let me tell you, climbing into a train from ground level is quite a distance, especially if you are hauling up a few 20kg suitcases, as well. But the train was comfortable enough, good soft, reclining seats with plenty of leg room, and the view! We were heading for Danang, Vietnam’s third largest city, 2.5 hours to the south along a track that runs for a significant part right along the coast. Pity the weather, it was overcast and most of the time raining, but the journey was a spectacular one, overlooking from some 100 meters above a rough sea, with huge rolling waves crashing onto the rocky shore, alternated by the occasional secluded beach. Well, secluded: there is nobody around, indeed, but for those seven trains a day.

(1) Hue station – no platforms!, and (2) our train arriving (where in the world can you stand on the track photographing the train arriving?).
(3) Tunnel along the track from Hue to Danang.

(4, 5, 6) The view from the train, rocky coast, rolling waves and secluded beaches.
Danang is big, but like all Vietnamese towns, the centre is remarkably small, and cosy. Just a few streets, on the banks of yet another river, is where everything happens – and to be fair, that is not a lot. However, Danang has one of the cutest museums I have ever seen, the Cham museum, with a collection of sculptures from the old Champa empire, of which we saw already some remains in My Son. Where the sculptures in Angkor Wat seem to adhere to a certain prescribed posture, a standard pose we found back in all the temples, Champa art looks more frivolous, and especially the smaller, supporting sculptures are much more varied, yet finely executed. The only prescription seems to be an obsession with large, round breasts, present everywhere. I also like the history of the museum, which was started when one Charles Lemire needed space to display his collection of sculptures “discovered during his travels” – what better euphemism for robbery can you think of?

(7) Champa obsession, (8) a very unusual champa sculpture, in bronze – but still with the same obsession, and (9) some of the more frivolous sculpturing.
Danang also has an enormous stretch of sandy beach, over 30 km of it, and most famous as Rest & Recuperation destination for American GIs during the Vietnam War. But there are no people now. The fishermen here use some kind of funny basket to go around the nets, close to shore, and many of those are stored on the beach. However, not for long anymore, there is an incredible amount of construction going on, resorts and hotels, but more than that, enormous apartment complexes, all along the coast. Vietnam is getting a middle class.

(10, 11) Danang beach, and its fishermen baskets.

(12,13) Danang’s fishing fleet, in the Han River.
However, Vietnam’s preeminent beach resort is Nha Trang, further south, and - since we plan to fly back from Saigon anyhow, next week - in the right direction. So we hauled ourselves once again onto the train, this time for a nine hour stint, equally comfortable, with further fine views of rice paddies, rice paddies and more rice paddies, and free entertainment from all the happenings inside the train.
(14) Not easy, taking photos through the train window….

Saturday, 19 March 2011


Hue is Vietnam’s imperial city, but in fact it has been so only for the last 200 years. Somewhere early 19th century the capital was moved from Hanoi to Hue, in recognition of the fact that the country was now “united” (I commented on that before). Most of the subsequent emperors were in fact puppets of the French colonial regime, installed by the French and maintained by the French, as long as they followed orders from the French.
On the north bank of the Perfume River – no reference to its smell – is the city’s citadel, which contains the Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the fairly attractive restoration of some of the buildings and pavilions in the center, much of this complex has fallen in disrepair, and the whole thing looks a bit shoddy. In one of the corridors a motorbike is parked, somewhere else a few corrugated iron-covered sheds seem to accommodate guards, or workers, building materials are stacked in a court yard that otherwise would have been quite nice. A raised platform of uncertain origin and function is overgrown with grass, and its stone stairs are crumbling. And yet, wandering around, away from the main palaces – and away from the tour groups – one gets a better feeling of authenticity, crossing small bridges over narrow moats, walking around weed-filled ponds, and peeping around gates with faded decorations. One could almost imagine the outlying quarters being occupied by the hundreds of wives and concubines, let alone the children, of the emperor.
(1) Entrance to the Citadel.

The Forbidden City, in all its glory and disrepair: (2) one of the restored buildings, brightly red painted, (3) a gate at the periphery, faded, and (4) another gate, to a gate, to a gate. (5) Some soft furnishing, even, with feeling for decorative detail.
Outside the Forbidden City is the old town, which could have been very attractive, with its many canals and ponds, but in fact is even shoddier, most of the water covered with weed, and most of the houses having been modernized, somewhat. With a little more effort, Hue could turn into a real nice gem of a city, but it seems that this effort is just too much asking for. Perhaps some of this initially had to do with all imperial being tainted, after the communist take-over of the country, but by now even the communists see the financial potential of this utter expression of bourgeois: Hue is the most popular tourist destination in the country.
(6) A pond in the Citadel, overgrown with lotus weeds.
(7) The moat must still contain some fish.
Outside Hue there are several royal mausoleums, and here it is very much the same story. Some of these places are really nice, well maintained, and surprisingly attractive; there is Tu Doc’s, with a lovely pavilion on a small pond, and old, wooden temples, as well as the emperor’s tomb, amid well-kept gardens. Some other mausoleums are equally active, so to speak, and receive bus loads of visitors, whilst others have been allowed to crumble, buildings in a state of disrepair and the site unprotected – which, of course, makes them great to explore, unhindered by these bus loads. It is not entirely clear to me what determines the fate of a mausoleum, the length of the emperor’s reign, number of good deeds, economic or social achievements, or quantity of concubines (one of the emperors apparently had no less than 142 children).

(8, 9, 10) The Tu Doc mausoleum, the best preserved and most visited.
(11) Another mausoleum, closed, and not getting better for it.
To see the mausoleums - some of them, at least - I rented a bicycle, after all, this was going to be flat country, no?, piece of cake? Right, relatively flat it was, but for an inexperienced cyclist like me, still challenging enough. And whilst most of the route was through pleasant country side, across small tracks, part also followed these mean roads I wrote about before, including 500 meters of Highway One from Ho Chi Min City to Hanoi, with all the traffic I had hoped to avoid. In addition to the cycling I found that many of the mausoleums are spaciously laid out, and have a significant number of steps leading in and out of the buildings, ie up and down, so I was well and truly exhausted afterwards. But, a nice enough day out, and a good preparation for the next golf season.
(12) In the vicinity of one of the mausoleums incense joss-sticks are being made, and offered for sale.
(13) And outside Hue, wooden sticks are being used to set fishing nets.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hoi An

Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which usually means a place worthwhile visiting. And it is, a predominantly Chinese traders town dating back to the 16th Century, on a now silted-up river, with lots of narrow streets, old wooden houses and balconies, and the Chinese Assembly Houses, which were the community centers of the various groups of Chinese families that settled in Hoi An. The town is an open-air museum, really, but one that shares the open-air with an enormous market. Not so much the fresh produce that you mostly see in Vietnamese markets, no, more the tourist variety, multiple galleries selling tacky wooden souvenirs and uninspiring paintings and other works of “art”, cheap jewelry at expensive prices, and cloths: the town is one large tailor atelier, you can order a shirt, skirt or suit to measure, and within a few hours, half a day at most, you have it. And if that takes too long, you can buy any brand polo shirt off the shelf, cheaper than you find them in China or Thailand.
Such a tourist spot also guarantees lots of tourist facilities. The availability of gin and tonic is defined as a tourist facility, so we could finally move off the Dalat wine, and back to something less haphazard, more predictable.

(1, 2) Hoi An houses, not all dating back from 16th Century, but still charming enough.

(3, 4) The Japanese bridge, Hoi An’s symbol (even though the Japanese retreated long ago, and left the place to the Chinese traders).

(5, 6) Chinese assembly halls, cutely decorated, and (7) one of the old houses. Inside.

(8, 9) And further traces of Chinese influence in the market.
An hour outside Hoi An is the ancient site of My Son, the former capital of the Champa empire, another one of those obscure, hardly-known polities that existed in this area in centuries past. The Champa heydays were somewhere around the 7th to 14th century, coinciding, and furiously competing, with the Khmer empire in Cambodia, but it then got gradually subjected to Vietnamese influence by southward migrating Vietnamese, who ultimately incorporated Champa in their own empire. Incidentally, they did this quite well, there is little left of the Champa, apart from a few small communities here and further south, and a smattering of ruins, of which My Son is the most important.
My Son is no Ankgor Wat, not in terms of size neither in terms of architectural and artistic quality. We are merely talking about a couple of towers and tombs here, all of which would fit easily in one of the Angkor temples. Besides, much of it was badly shot up in the second Indochina war, and it looks unlikely to me that it will ever be restored again to its former glory. Yet, the site has a special quality, different from what we have seen so far. And we certainly had that Indiana Jones-feeling again, briefly, just before the tour groups arrived. Curiously, the towers are built up with bricks, whilst there are large sandstones outcropping not far away, and the site is surrounded by high mountains, surely also hard stone. Had they used that, the monuments may have been in a better state today.

(10, 11, 12) My Son temples, and decorations.
You know, there is just not much more to tell about our few days in Hoi An. The trouble with these World Heritage sites is that it turns the traveler into a tourist.