Saturday, May 11, 2013

Angkor: the lost city

Yesterday we flew from Danang, Vietnam, to Siem Reap, Cambodia, after three days in Hoian. Cua Dai Beach in Hoian was a welcome respite after the craziness of Hanoi. We spent a day of R&R enjoying the sun, white sand and warm, gentle waters of the South China Sea. We rode around on a scooter for the day, Pierre braving the crazy drivers here who dart around, using their horn as a signal. Once we got used to it, it was a good way to get about in this heat. The rest of our time there was spent visiting the old city on foot, enjoying the history of this port, and then a day biking in the countryside around rice paddies, fishing villages and shrimp farms, learning about life in the country.
We are really on the last leg of this long trip and beginning to pine for home. However we may have kept the best for last.
It is hard to believe that we can now visit Cambodia less than thirty years since the civil war and POL POT's regime of the Khmer Rouge destroyed the country, killing over 25% of the population. Today Cambodia is trying to put those terrible years behind it and to move on as it restores its infrastructures after years of war. There is still corruption and poverty, easily visible in the city and surrounding area by the number of children and many handicapped people selling trinkets at the Angkor sites. But we are told that things are improving. This warm, gentle people want a better lives for themselves and their families.
Much of the rebuilding has occurred with the help of NGOs that are a fixture here now. Tourism has increased in the last twenty years making it a major resource in the country. Siem Reap, about four hours north of Phnom Penh by bus, has undergone a building boom, new hotels springing up to deal with the number of tourists who flock here to visit the temples of Angkor.

                                                               Grand Bayon temple

We have spent the last three days temple hopping, starting with sunset over Angkor as seen from
Phnom Bakheng. Because I was wearing a sleeveless blouse I was not allowed to climb to the top so I could only see the view of Angkor through Pierre's eyes and camera. We had better luck on our second attempt. We spent six hours, starting at 5am, visiting several sites with the help of our tuk-tuk driver. The temperature is about 38 degrees Celsius and it becomes unbearable after a while. Dreams of ice cold water and a swimming pool brought us back to the hotel by noon.

                                            View of Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

These sites are spectacular as they rise from the forest around them. We are reminded of visiting Tikal, Guatamala in 1974, when it was first opening to the public after many years of being hidden in the jungle. Some of the ruins at the Angkor site are covered with plants. The roots of trees wind around many of the old structures. There are piles of stones that have been numbered and are awaiting placement in their rightful position as archeologists reconstruct temples that were built, some over 1000 years ago. There is a sense of awe at the spirituality that surrounds these temples. Many thousands of people built them and spent their lives here, governed by the kings who had the temples built in celebration of their beliefs and their own greatness.

Pierre's reaction when we entered the first of several temples was that he was reminded of Indiana Jones as he searched for lost treasure. Sure enough, our tour guide confirmed that not only were we walking in the steps of Harrison Ford, but also those of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider and Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. These temples have had some illustrious visitors over the years.
Climbing to the upper levels of some buildings gives a great view and allows one to see arches, doors and murals at the upper levels. But the stairs up are treacherous, with narrow steps that are worn down with use over time. Even in places where they have built wooden steps up it is a steep climb and in some places we declined the opportunity to get to the top. In fact, we were not too disappointed to be refused entry to the upper levels at Angkor Wat because those  steps only open at 8am. I am not sure that once I got up there I would have wanted to come down!

                                              Descent from the heights, clinging to the sides in fear

For our third visit we hired a guide as well as our tuk-tuk driver. What a privilege it was to hear the stories about these sites. Having a guide also brought us to temples that are not as crowded with tourists and allowed us to know the best times to avoid the crowds. We feel much better informed about the development of this huge area of temples and the religious beliefs that motivated their construction.

                                             Tree roots taking over the ruins at Ta Prohm

                                                     The lady's temple (Bantay Srei)

On our return back to Siem Reap we stopped at the Land Mines Museum and orphanage. This added a sobering reality to our trip here. The testimonies of ordinary people whose lives have been changed as they continue to farm areas where unexploded mines remain, break my heart. Reading their stories and seeing the art work that depicts their experience was very moving. This enterprise is run by a former member of the Khmer Rouge recruited as a child, but who now works at de-mining his country and supporting victims of the land mines. It was heart-warming to learn that a Canadian NGO is supporting the de-mining operations in Cambodia. To add a personal touch to this, our guide, who at age 33 lived during the civil war, showed us a bullet wound on his leg resulting from being shot at while working in his family's rice field. How fortunate we are to live in a country such as Canada where we have known only peace for over 70 years. This thought will be carried home when we return in 3 days. May it last forever.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Wrong hotel, right place

One of the joys of independent travel is the unexpected surprises that sometimes come at you. Such was our surprise upon arrival in Hoian, the beautiful historic trading town on the South China Sea. Hoian is just south of Danang, best known for its uses as a landing base for US troupes that first arrived in 1965 at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Our plane arrived in Danang and we were pleased to be greeted by a driver from the hotel I had booked on line while in Hanoi.
Our choice had been the Cua Dai Hotel, given its location between Cua Dai beach and  the old city.  Frommers gives glowing reports of wicker chairs in cozy lounge areas, lovely rooms with mosquito nets, set around an inviting pool. When we were dropped off at the hotel, we found a barrack-like building beside a large school with dormitory-type rooms that were huge and very cold. Where was the pool and the lovely wicker furniture? Not to speak of the other tourists....there were none!
We slept poorly our first night on a rock-hard mattress, kept awake by bright lights in the corridor that never went off. Next morning we asked about the pool. There isn't one. Walking around the area, we realized we were miles from town, there were no bikes for rent, and the surrounding buildings all appeared to be abandoned hotels. It was at this moment that Pierre suggested that perhaps we had not got the hotel we had originally chosen. A quick Google search confirmed his suspicions. We were not at the Cau Dai Hotel, but at the Cau Dai Beach Hotel! When I looked at the Trip Advisor site for the first hotel, there was a quick switch on-line showing pictures of the Cua Dai Beach Hotel. Such false misrepresentation is hard to believe, but we were not the first, as there were other reports on Trip Advisor describing the second place as a nightmare and something out of a horror movie.
A quick reversal of plans and we were out of there. Luckily a taxi drove up into town to the Cua Dai Hotel where a friendly receptionist was pleased to offer us a choice of rooms. After that first disappointment we chose a poolside room with a small terrace where we can sit and enjoy the garden.

So on to Hoian. Yesterday we spent the day walking around the old city. It was established as a trading centre with China and Japan given its proximity as a sea port. Many of the old buildings of wealthy merchants have been restored to their original state. These were mainly Chinese homes and throughout the town the Chinese architectural style is predominant.
Last night for dinner we ate at an old restaurant on the riverfront. The owner and chef, Mr. Kim. is an elderly Vietnamese man who speaks good French. The restaurant food is very original and always a surprise. Mr. Kim comes to your table to show you how to eat the carefully prepared food. Jacques Brel songs were playing on the radio, along with those of Georges Brassens. There is a picture of Mr. Kim with Brel, Brassens and Leo Ferré, when he was a chef in Paris. Pierre felt quite choked-up listening to the music that reminded him of the songs of his youth. All this for the modest sum of $20.
The other activity in Hanoi is to the many shops that make shoes and tailored clothes. Both of us had cheap sandals made. I treated myself to a well-deserved pedicure and Pierre had a barber cut his hair, shave his beard, and deep-clean his ears, a specialty at all the barber shops. Now he can hear what I say even when I whisper.

Trekking in Sapa

Our last excursion was to Sapa, after spending several days in Hanoi exploring the old city and of course paying our respects to Ho Chi Minh who lies peacefully in his mausoleum, worshipped by the Vietnamese people.
Sapa is in Ha Chiang Province, eight hours north of Hanoi by train. If you continue further north you arrive at the Chinese border. The overnight train was clean and confortable, getting into Lao Cai at 6 am. There a taxi drove us up the winding road to the town of Sapa. This has long been a place to visit going as far back as the French colonizers who came here for cool mountain air and beautiful vistas. The Tonkinese alps that stretch all the way to China are very impressive. Rice paddies are built in terraces cut into the sides of the mountain. They are presently in various shades of green, depending on whether the grains have just been thrown and not yet seeded, or whether the seeds have taken and the tiny plants have grown big enough to be transplanted.

                                                            Rice fields near Sapa

We were able to walk down to the next village of Cat Cat  on our first day and see the local Black Hmong as they work in their fields, tend their animals or sell weaving and trinkets in little stores. These Hmong are dressed in dark colours. They carry baskets on their backs and walk to Sapa market everyday to sell their wares. Some of them accost you in the street and ask you to "buy from me"or "where you from?". They are persistent sellers. On our way down to Cat Cat, one woman followed us for about 1 kilometer until she finally gave up on us buying anything. Then she climbed back up the hill and waited for the next person to come down. As these women walk, they spin hemp that is wrapped around one hand, twisting the fibres with the other to make a thread fine enough to eventually be woven into cloth. The thread is dyed with indigo, which grows abundantly in the hills. The clothes of the men, women and children of the black Hmong are thus very dark blue or black.

                                                Indigo dye from leaves rubbed into hands

                                                    Cat Cat village with Tonkinese alps

Our trek on day two started out in the rain, and we were in clouds most of the day, although every so often they lifted to allow us a view of the mountains and valleys. We climbed through the forest on a narrow path used by the villagers to get to Sapa town. We saw cardamom, yellow berries like raspberries, pumpkins, hemp fields, indigo plants and of course rice. Once we reached the top and were on a plateau, the clouds lifted for a while and we could see the beautiful Tonkinese alps around us. Little villages are built on the hills and workers tend their fields, with the help of water buffalo who break up the earth and move it around. The water buffalo roam around the roads as well, sometimes herded by little children, sometimes not. Although we were reassured that they are harmless animals, it was a little nerve-racking to meet one as we walked down the steep narrow path. A baby buffalo ran after us part way down, and as we walked to our picnic spot I slid on a big pile of buffalo poo. and fell....adding a little spice to our day.
This area abounds with waterfalls. After the rain, water was rushing down the mountains. Walking  for the last part of our trek was difficult as we trekked down over rocks, muddy paths and rivulets of water.  It was slippery and dangerous at times, requiring vigilance at every step. What a relief it was to get down onto level  ground again.

                                         Flower-wreathed trekker followed by baby buffalo

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Typhoon in Halong Bay

Today is April 30, the date in 1975 on which Saigon was liberated and the war ended after ten long years. This is a holiday here. There are flags and banners everywhere to mark this important date in Vietnam history. For those of us who were alive during that time, the Vietnam war is a distant memory. In Canada it was lived mostly through the news of massive demonstrations against the war as well as the arrival of draft opponents in Canada, plus movies and songs on the subject. Last year when we were in Washington DC for Memorial day to see the huge parades of Vietnam veterans, we again were reminded of the horrors of that war. Here in Vietnam we can feel the pride of the people in their victory and independence after so many years of oppression and war.

Another hallmark of Vietnam is the mysterious Halong Bay. It is on every tour agenda in Vietnam; a must-see according to tourist books. The Bay has Unesco World Heritage status. The water is emerald green. Three thousand islands composed of tall limestone cliffs jut out of the Gulf of Tonkin. The weather is unpredictable and there are days where the Bay is engulfed in cloud and rain. You take your chances, as do the millions of others who come to Halong Bay.
Pierre has longed to visit Halong Bay, ever since he first saw Catherine Deneuve in the film "Indochine" where she sails dreamily between the breath-taking mountains in the myst, searching for her fugitive son-in-law. Today he was to fulfill that dream with an overnight stay on a replica of a Chinese junk, floating over the bay, between the limestone towers.
We took an early morning bus for the four hour trip to Halong Bay, along with many other people, both tourists and Vietnamese people who were enjoying a holiday.
Half-way there, our tour guide announced that the coast guard was not allowing any boats to stay overnight on the Bay because there was a risk of  typhoon. But, we were told, we would get our money back, minus $50 per person, to cover the cost of the bus and the day tour of the bay. What a disappointment, but what could we do? We boarded our boat and were greeted warmly. The boat circled around the harbour for what seemed about 2 hours while we were fed a delicious Vietnamese meal of prawns, squid, rice and vegetables.
There were many other boats doing the same thing. We all were anxious to get out further into the Bay and enjoy its beauty. More people boarded the ship and off we went to visit a huge grotto. These caves are formed in the limestone karst, as we had seen in Laos. The area around the grotto was a mass of tourists boats, honking to get others out of the way.

Once inside, after a climb up steep stairs, there is a disney-like atmosphere complete with coloured lights shining onto the stalactites, to say nothing of the hundreds of people walking though the cave. The cave is spectacular despite the numbers of people who are testimony to the popularity of this tourist attraction. But did we really need to be part of that crowd? We certainly asked ourselves that question many times.

Back on the boat we were taken a little further into the Bay and were able to kayak among some of these impressive structures. Some people chose to travel in Vietnamese bamboo boats, rowed by lovely Vietnamese women who row up to 8 people per boat. What strength! We passed fishing villages consisting of a little houses on rafts of large barrels. These are then anchored by long cables hooked onto the rocky formations in the Bay.

                                                       Fishing village in Halong Bay

                                                        Bamboo boat with rower

We got back on the boat, after about 45 minutes.  As we watched the sun begin to set over the Bay, our boat, along with all the others, headed back to the harbour, only about a mile from where we had been. We piled back on the bus and endured another four hour drive back to Hanoi. In the end, it did pour  rain and there was plenty of thunder and lightening, a slight comfort for those of us who were doubtful that there would be a typhoon. We will never know what it was like on the Bay but we are reassured that such precautions are taken to prevent a disaster that could involve many people.
By the time we arrived back to our hotel, not having eaten since lunch, it was 11pm and most restaurants were closed. Equipped with umbrellas we ran through the streets of the Old Quarter, dashing through puddles, past women closing up their street food stands. At last we found a small place where we could eat. To complete this somewhat upside-down day, a big rat scurried across our path as we picked our way through the dark streets on the way back! The joys of travelling...each day brings new surprises, some good, some not so good.