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lunedì 26 novembre 2012

Good morning Vietnam

Who doesn't have an idea of what Vietnam looks like after seeing dozens of war movies? We all know about the green fields with water buffalos,the wonderful sunsets, people walking around with the typical Vietnamese hat. We mostly remember images of that disgraceful war though, and of all the pain and sorrow it caused. I chose this video because it combines extracts of one of my favourite Vietnam war movies (Full metal Jacket) and another great one (although not one of my favourites) (Forrest Gump), accompanied by a great song sung by one of the greatest voices of rock. (John Fogerty when he was with CCR). I actually think the best war movie about Vietnam of all times is Apocalypse now followed by The Deer Hunter. With these considerations in mind a few years ago I decided to explore the country given my deep love for South East Asia at the time.
So I arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and I have to say it was a little shocking at first. The noise, the motopeds, the dirt, the moltitude of people were almost unbearable and the place where I ended up (with my sister at the time) was very squallid (although highly recommended by Lonely Planet)with neon lights and suffocating rooms in a not so central area. I remember the first impact with Saigon during a stroll at night was a fast race with a rat as big as my cat Sofia, which even ended up fighting with a dog of basically the same size. Not very pleasant I can tell you... So we decided to change accomodation and ended up in Huong Sen hotel in the center. Huong Sen where at breakfast me met a few Italian couples who had come to Vietnam to adopt their children and it made me think about how retrograde our country is in this respect, since in order to be eligible for adoption you have to be married for three years. Therefore if you are just a couple living together or a single parent you are banned from applying. I guess this is what you get for having the Vatican at your doorstep. In general I didn't really like Saigon although it has some highlights I really enjoyed. For example all the Pagodas: Giam Lac , Jade Emperor Pagoda, Quan Am,Phuoc An Hoi Quan and many others.
Then the War Museum originally known as ""The House for Displaying War Crimes of American Imperialism and the Puppet Government [of South Vietnam]." Later it was known as the Museum of American War Crimes, then as the War Crimes Museum until it changed its name to War Remnants museum. It shows all the military equipment of the war plus pictures "covering the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical defoliant sprays, the use of napalm and phosphorus bombs, and atrocities such as the My Lai massacre. Curiosities include a guillotine used by the French and the South Vietnamese to execute prisoners, last in 1960, and three jars of preserved human fetuses deformed by exposure to dioxin "(Wikipedia), which, trust me , is not at all a pretty sight. We were really shocked, coming out of there, but then again as I pointed out in my previous post about Cape Town, respecting freedom of choice of course, I believe when in a country also the unpleasant things have to be seen , since they are part of their history. Coming to food, Vietnamese is a very particular and tasty cuisine and my favourite place was Huong Lai Everybody working here is a street child as they point out on the menu, and the owner supports the local orphanages also by giving them meals regularly. From there you can take a taxi or a train and go to the Mekong Delta. I didn't really see that much of it when I went there but you'd better stay for a few days and enjoy it because it's a place that needs to be seen properly. I remember I had an interesting conversation with a guide about how disgusting some European and Japanese food is since: while in Vietnam they eat, amongst others, dog, cat or mouse meat (I know i know.. I just makes me want to cry) us disgusting Europeans eat raw meat and the disgusting Japanese eat raw fish......(what's there to say?) We took a five hours bus ride to see what the Lonely Planet calls a " must see" a place in the mountains called Dalat. Well, you know how some guides are more reliable than others also amongst the ones by Lonely Planet. The one about Vietnam is not in fact at all reliable in my opinion . Dalat turned out to be a real let down so I would suggest not to go there at all. Plus it was cold and humid which didn't make it any better. From the pictures it may look nice but I think that can be misleading.
From there we took another bus ride to go to Nha Trang on the sea side and that was also not worth it. We found a really nice Italian restaurant owned by Marinella a woman from Bergamo, who had been living there for many years and it was a really nice experience. La Bella Napoli.
Nha Trang
Then, determined to go north we tried in vain to take a flight and instead ended up getting a train. Now here's a suggestion : I have travelled by train in many countries including Malaysia,Thailand, Morocco and South Africa . I have to say I'm not a fan of long journeys anyway and if I really choose to take them I would like to have a little comfort especially now that I'm older. This is to say that if you have to travel in Vietnam by train for 16 hours (which turned out to be 22 in fact since the train broke down) maybe you shouldn't take anything else but first class. Anything lower will be: six bunkbeds all crammed together with a dirty floor and people who smoke in the compartment throwing everything they eat on the floor, a newspaper put into the only hole for the light and air which makes you feeel like being in a box, wake up call with fish soup cart in the morning at six even if the train is due to arrive at 3 in the afternoon and of course a terrifying common toilet in the corridors . At least this was my experience. I can only tell you that when I got to Hoi An at 4 in the afternoon we went for a walk in the city and went to sleep at 7 p.m. Now, Hoi An is a very beautiful place and it makes you feel like you're back in time since it's an ancient city with gravel roads and ancient buildings. Before collapsing into bed we tried the local delicacy : Cao Lau i.e. vermicelli noodles with pork, herbs and rice crackers. Delicious (at the time I was still eating meat).
Another thing we did in Hoi An was to get clothes made for us in about half a day. There is an area where you're basically dragged into and your measures are taken with an impressive precision within seconds in order to have whatever you want which can be tailor made . I chose an Ao Dai Vinh the typical Vietnamese dress which you see all the time especially on school girls.
Ao Dai Vinh
Hoi an
Hoi An by night
Then we went to beautiful and ancient Hué where you can spend a few days wondering around the majestic remains of ancient history. I would not suggest to go in August as I did because the heat was really unbearable. Nevertheless it was an amazing experience. We were taken around by motorcycles (two amongst the 2 millions you find everywhere in Vietnam) and were guided by these locals who did not speak English but somehow made themselves understood. We were also taken to a temple or pagoda where there were only women monks (or nuns?) and we followed the ceremony, which was really interesting.
Buddhist female monks
Then we flew to Hanoi, which I really enjoyed and liked much more to Saigon. That's the place where I noticed some things I neglected before, like being awaken at six o' clock by political propaganda coming out of the loud speakers in the streets, or the manic traffic all over the place, or the public aerobics classes in the park at night.
There I remember this very good restaurant called Brothers Cafè where you can go and have a nice and fancy meal. A good thing to do, if you are not too fussy is to sit in the street and have Pho Bo a beef noodle soup, or vietnamese Spring rolls. Or you can just sit in a cafè and have a Vietnamese coffee(Ca phe). If you never had one and you're a coffee lover then it's a MUST.
Vienamese Spring rolls
Ca phe
Hanoi is very fascinating and very different from the rest of Vietnam. There are a lot of expats working in embassies and a lot of places you can go and have great experiences. I would suggest three things: 1) go to a hairdressers and plan to spend there a couple of hours: not only do they wash your hair, they will give you a shampoo massaging your scalp for half an hour, then they would give you a face massage and then a neck a shoulder one for (at the time) as little as 5 Euros.We went into a local one (there are many for tourists) and it was great.
2) Have some tailor made clothes - same thing: go to a local tailor where quality is better: I had two shirts, a skirt, and a dress (all in silk )made for 60 euros.
Us and our Vietnamese Tailor friends
3) Take an organized trip to Halong Bay for two or three days on one of the typical boats they use. This is what it looks like.
Halong Bay
I have to say Vietnam is not an easy trip(at least it wasn't for me) compared to other countries in South East Asia is definitely more difficult since it one of the few communist countries left and it has been opening to tourism later than the others. However, it's a beautiful destination with all its differences and all its contradictions and difficulties, the roughness of the people and a very painful past. You may feel uncomfortable at times or even annoyed but hey that's the beauty of travelling. You'll see that at some point the smile of a Vietnamese child will surely cheer you up.