Monday, June 30, 2008
A quick dip in the sea is a marvellous way to wake up. We proceed to spend a lazy morning on the beach where I read a few more chapters from ‘Life in Hanoi’ by Pam Scott, an account of locals’ and expats’ lives in the city.
Once again I come across the story of Christine Yu, who traded a luxury lawyer’s life in Hong Kong for the fickle world of fashion. She came to Hanoi with her husband and decided to use her imagination and the skills of the exceptional craftswomen to design handbags. The amazing part of this story is that her label made it onto the great catwalks of the world and onto the arms of famous Hollywood stars and important politicians. I make a mental note to visit the Ipa Nima store if we still have time when we return to Hanoi.
Back on the boat we enjoy more sights of islands and cliffs. We jump into the glowing lagoon for a swim before changing boats and anchoring in Halong Bay with many other traditional junks. The sun is just about to set over the surreal landscape. We’ve each got a Vietnamese beer in hand and on the faces of my fellow travellers I can see that it is not only me who will remember this trip as a highlight of my life.
When we eventually stumble into bed, Susi says: “The boat and all its facilities look exactly as it does on the brochure. We got exactly what we paid for.”
Friends and other travellers warned us that it is better to go for a more expensive tour organised by a tour company rather than a budget tour organised by a hotel. It turned out to be invaluable advice. The food on the boat is good, the guides are jovial and everything is clean and tidy.
Our last stop is the Amazing Cave, where Vietnamese soldiers used to hide during Vietnam’s many wars. Today it is set up for tourists with lights accentuating the natural wonder of the stalagtites and stalagmites.
As we approach the end of our tour a thick mist clouds the limestone cliffs and dark thunder rolls in. Soon it is raining and the whole scene takes on a fantastical edge.
We all become quiet. By now we are filled with about as much wonder as human beings can take in a few days.
* From 'Life in Hanoi' by Pam Scott
Friday, June 27, 2008
Hanoi was formerly known as Thanh Long, which means ‘City of the Soaring Dragon’. The legend goes that the dragon came down into Halong Bay and splashed its tail in the water to split the land into a million little islands so that hostile ships would not be able to navigate through it all and instead go down before reaching the shore.
Today we are going to see these karst islets for ourselves. We cross Long Bien Bridge on the way to the coast. The original bridge was built by the same architect who designed the Eiffel Tower and parts of it are still standing. During the American War (as it is known here in Vietnam) the US military bombed this bridge repeatedly and every time the Vietnamese built it up again. Apparently they only stopped bombing the bridge when US prisoners of war were made to build it.
Along the way pointy hats and water buffalo pop out of the rice fields and motorbikes overloaded with produce further add to the romantic scenery.
The limestone formations become more intense until the sea appears on the horizon.
Our little bus stops at the harbour where a host of traditional junks are lined up for tours along the Gulf of Tonkin. We board ours with only a handful of other tourists and sail off into a magical world.
In 1994 Halong Bay was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. I can’t help but think this is where the Vietnamese got their artistic eyes from. Being surrounded by such overpowering beauty must somehow inspire the locals to a higher form of craft than that of other Asian countries.
Soon it is time for us to do some kayaking around the National Park. Susi and I glide over the water as though it’s a smooth gem. The lagoon doesn’t sparkle. Instead it glows, basking the whole area in an ethereal silence. When I look up the limestone cliffs seem to be even higher.
We paddle through some small hidden caves. I find it dark and eerie but soon we enter into a small lagoon where the birds and the plants seem to be in their element. I don’t I think I have breathed in such fresh air, perhaps ever.
Paddling is hard work and neither Susi nor myself are very fit. So by the time we get back we are tired. We get into a different boat now as we are going to cross the open sea towards Cat Ong Eco Private Island where we are staying for the night.
We chat to our fellow travellers and enjoy a few local beers until we reach the island. Our tummies are rumbling and after a quick sunset swim in the sea we are ready for a feast. Small plates of Vietnamese delicacies arrive at the table: fresh and fried spring rolls, fish balls, stir-fries, barbecue prawns and fish, fresh dragon fruit, ah.
The crowd seems festive but I cannot keep my eyes open anymore. I close the mosquito net around my cosy bed in the bamboo beach hut and fall into a peaceful sleep.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Silk Street is a bustle this morning. Street vendors are carrying baskets of luscious fruit and vegetables like scales around their necks, or on the back of bicycles.
Our cyclo (similar to a rickshaw) drops us at Little Hanoi restaurant here in the silk shop area of Hang Gai, for some breakfast. Perhaps we would have done better in ordering the local food options as my BLT comes with really tough bacon and Susi’s toasted sandwich is pretty oily.
However, the local coffee has oomph to it and with food in our tummies we are ready to walk around the Old Quarter, where French colonial architecture and Asian scents exist in harmony with the narrow congested streets and carefully made handicrafts.
That’s one thing about Vietnam, the products really are made with care. Lacquer work cannot be mass produced because it involves a timely process that has to be done by hand, while the embroidery and silk work cannot even be compared to the cheap standard in China. The Vietnamese seem to take pride in quality, not quantity.
Even the noodles they so love to eat are freshly made, daily, and have to be used or discarded by the end of the day.
Everywhere I look is a pretty picture… lantern shops, Buddhist statues, cyclists wearing pointy straw hats, sidewalk cafes and pretty girls drying their hair out in the morning sun… that’s until we get to the fish market – chunks of meat sitting out in the sun, fish or not, has never been pretty and it makes my stomach turn.
Soon Susi and I are getting weighed down with all our shopping bags and decide to make our way back to our hotel, stopping at Ocean Tours, to arrange a boat trip to Halong Bay for the next three days.
Monday, June 23, 2008
“We refuse to process visas for Africans. I trust you will understand.”
This is the reply my German friend Susi receives from Vietnam after making an express visa enquiry for both of us.
She writes back: “If Lize cannot get a visa neither of us can go and spend money in your country, as we are on holiday together. I trust you will understand.”
One day later we both have our visa confirmation and I even get to pay the European fee of $40 at Noi Bai airport instead of the African fee of $80.
Our good luck lasts as we find a great budget room at Hanoi Stars Hotel in the Old Quarter. The rooms are clean, furnished in dark wood and fitted with a small safe, while the lift is certainly an asset as I over packed and carrying my suitcase up the narrow stairs is not an option.
Susi and I are both tired after all the visa stress and travelling, so we decide to grab a quick bite down the road and make sure we get a good night’s rest before hitting the city in the morning.
What a great surprise to find fresh and flavourful food at an unassuming little restaurant late at night. Good food is always a good start to any holiday.
“Susi,” I say before I fall asleep, “if I don’t find love I will marry for a European passport.”
Saturday, June 21, 2008
It’s early and the mountains are draped in a morning mist. The cable car takes us up and up until the Great Wall of China becomes visible and then disappears again in the distance.
We decided to visit the wall at Mutianyu, since it was recommended to us by our other colleagues as the more authentic part. At Bandaling the wall has apparently been reconstructed in places and tourists hoard this more popular part of the wall.
Mutianyu feels almost deserted this morning and I get the sense that the mist veils a thousand stories, ones that we will never know.
I take a deep breath, ah, there’s nothing like mountain air, before I climb the steep stairs to the top. Then, suddenly, I am there, walking on the only manmade structure that is visible from space. Lush green tumbles down into the valley below. The wall crawls out into the mist, mysteriously writhing into the distance.
When we stop walking it is so quiet that I can almost hear my own thoughts. A sense of nostalgia fills me, a longing to rediscover the peace and quiet I experienced as a child, a desire to live somewhere majestic, close to nature, once again…
“You can only make money in cities and without money you cannot look after yourself,” the voice in my head answers.
As we approach the next watchtower I stumble over the uneven stones and the smell of old urine breaks the spell. A tout tries to sell us some souvenirs. It’s time to go back down in order to keep this memory pure.
At the foot of the mountain there are more touts: “One dollar, only one dollar…,” but we manage to make our way to a taxi without too much harassment.
We drive past a host of cherry farms back into Beijing where the pollution in the air and the minds of the city people is as thick as the mist on the mountain.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
The cable car to Po Lin (Precious Lotus) monastery envelops us in the natural quiet of the mountainous Lantao Island in Hong Kong. It’s almost, well, enlightening, to look down over the city rush and not be a part of it.
Up and down we go, over Tung Chung Bay, the mountains and the valleys. The South China Sea stretches out and out in the clear light of this day. 25 minutes later we arrive in Ngong Ping Village. The fresh air is intoxicating.
An 80-foot-tall bronze Buddha overlooks the village and the monastery here. ‘Big Buddha,’ as he is known, is sitting in the lotus position and holds his hand up as though waving or offering a blessing. It evokes awe for the sheer size of it.
The Chinese style village here is somewhat commercialised but it doesn’t have that empty feeling that often goes with commercialism. The tea house offers traditional Chinese teas and tea sets, the shops sell soulful trinkets and even the ‘Monkey’s Tale Theatre’ seems worth a visit – the souvenir toys are gorgeous.
For those who want to know more about the story of Buddha, there is also a multimedia show that takes visitors through his journey to enlightenment.
My colleagues and I decide to enjoy the outdoors scenery instead. We climb the thousands of chairs up to the world’s biggest sitting Buddha and indulge in the free ice-cream, our reward for making it to the top.
The small museum features Chinese calligraphy depicting the wisdom of Buddha, as well as some precious relics. However, what interest me most are the enchanting view and the colourful Chinese monastery below. It’s really pretty.
In fact, I would have to say that I have only felt wow, wow and wow from the moment I got into that cable car today. From the flower tea and the fortune sticks to the traditional architecture, the dim sum and the glorious natural scenery over which the Buddha towers.
I know that I am moving much too fast at the moment to experience true peace and contentment, but for this one day I truly feel it.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
There’s no lack of energy in Hong Kong. People walk with a purpose here, whether it's businessmen rushing to a meeting or expats shopping for the new Prada fairy bag.
Flashing billboards throw colourful lights all over the city and at night the skyline adds to this smorgasbord. All that, combined with the smells of Chinese medicine shops, spices and rain makes this a kind of tropical New York.
Just being here makes me fizz with joy. So I decide to order a glass of champagne and toast one of my favourite cities.
My colleagues and I are in Lan Kwai Fong, an area packed with bars and clubs of any kind imaginable, from Irish pubs and dirty drinking joints to classy bars and the rooftop spot on top of the IFC centre from where all the city lights evoke awe.
It’s tempting to stay out all night but then we’ll miss our shopping day.
Any day in Hong Kong should start with Dim Sum, the steamed snacks that the city is famous for. We grab some at the centre across the road from Sunrise supermarket in Causeway Bay. It’s just behind the Regal Hotel where we are staying.
From there we proceed to Sogo, a Japanese department store, where we stock up on so much tea, teapots and other Chinese tea accessories that we probably never have to buy tea again. The excuse? Well, Asia is the only place in the world where I can ask for green tea and get a reply such as “What kind of green tea do you want?”
We drop the tea off at the hotel and catch the MRT to Moongkok station, where we follow the signs to the Night Market and the Jade Market in Kowloon. Our noon timing is not exactly good as its best to visit the Jade Market in the morning for ‘morning price’ and the Night Market only really buzzes from about 4pm. However, on our short visit we have to make the best of the time we have been given.
The Tin Hau temple which we pass on the way is a traditional delight.
“Those who can run can also be still,” says Deepak Chopra in his book, Buddha: a story of enlightenment. There is no better example of that than the peace that emanates from this holy place right in the middle of the thrill called Hong Kong.