World Clock

Sunday, 30 March 2008

from one capital to another

The flight to Japan was not direct. Flying Korean airlines, we had a four-hour stopover in Seoul from 0530hr local time (2 hours later than Vietnam). Not the most opportune time since our flight left Hanoi only 4 hours before. But we caught a few winks of sleep in the airport.. My first airport nap.. Exciting stuff! We finally arrived in Tokyo's Narita Airport at 1130hr and had to find our way to the hostel via the city's extensive (and very confusing) subway system. Another 4 hours later and we had checked in.
The first afternoon and evening was spent walking around the Shinjuku area, in awe of the mass of neon lights, karaoke bars, game parlours, restaurants and crazy amounts of people out on a Wednesday night. For our first dinner we got straight into it.. Just about every restaurant you find (namely the Shokudo restaurants) has examples of their dishes in the front windows - not just photos, but actual plastic models of each meal with a corresponding description (in Japanese) and usually an item number. Upon entering the restaurant, immediately inside the doorway is a vending machine with each dish as a separate button. You select and pay for your meal then it gives you a ticket which you take to the chef to prepare. Some machines have pictures of the dish, but the majority don't, and so you generally are just choosing blindly unless you remember the number from the window display. Luckily, every meal we've picked in this way has been pretty damn good so no complaints there!
Continuing the vending machine theme, drink machines can be found literally on every street - and they don't get vandalised! And it's not just soft drink that they offer; there are juices, cigarettes (for around A$3 a pack), beers and spirits, even hot coffee and tea in a can! Hot-drink vending machines.. What an invention.. Perfect for that wintery afternoon.
We are finding the lack of English signage quite widespread here, even some subways show the station names only in Japanese. It's definitely a challenge, especially in a station like the one in Shinjuku with around 30 exits. Maybe parallel with this finding, we have not seen all that many Westerners here as compared to, say, Saigon. This could also be just that the population of Tokyo is so huge that no matter how many foreigners were here, their numbers would still pale in comparison. Either way, it's quite nice being amongst only Japanese - makes you feel as though you're getting in on the culture a little more.
Although the subways can get quite confusing, they are also a brilliant (although not all that cheap) way to get from place to place and we took full advantage - I think I worked it out to be around A$40 each that we spent on the subway in the one week that we were in Tokyo! Because of this ease of travel, we visited each main area of the city a number of times over that period...
1. in the Seoul airport
2. ordering a meal in a shokudo restaurant
3. the subway
4. plastic food displays
5. drink vending machine!
6. just a little confused
6. check out the number of overhead signs.. so straightforward..


The reclining seats in this Manga (lit: comics) cafe are quite relaxing.. You could go to sleep in one of these things.. And people do. It's around about 2330hr as I write this from an underground internet cafe in the heart of Tokyo's "neon" district, Shinjuku. This place is certainly a change of pace from when we were back in 'Nam (I've always wanted to say that).. The traffic is orderly, the streets are clean, the people tend to keep to themselves. Pretty much chalk and cheese really..
One of the things I've noticed and that I like the most about this country so far is that even in one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world, people still find the time to welcome and say goodbye to every single person that walks in and out of their stores. Respect is one of the focal points of the Japanese culture and it shows.. I have even witnessed a "yakuza" (or gangsta-style) group bowing to each other. As another example, when people hand out flyers here they don't just shove it in your face as they do at home, instead they will announce what they're selling and then present the flyer to each person individually. It's lovely to see.
Another point I would like to make in favour of this country is that Tokyo is supposed to be one of, if not the most expensive city in the world, which is the reason why a lot of people tend to deflect their travels to other parts of Asia. To be honest, I'm not too sure what these people are talking about: it's pretty easy to find quite a big meal for under A$10 - there's a place like this on nearly every street corner, beers from the convenience store are around A$3 each, even the taxi fares aren't all that bad..
In short, I'm really enjoying my time in Japan so far.. Even if I can't understand a single sign..

1. This Manga cafe
2. A side-street near our hostel
3. The Subway map - not confusing in the slightest
4. In Shinjuku!

Friday, 28 March 2008

The Last Hoorah

Saturday night, after we got back from Halong Bay, was Lee's and my last official night with the Intrepid crew so we organised a group dinner to say goodbye. I say organised, but what I really mean is that a group of 16 people decided we'd go out to dinner without a booking on a Saturday night.. Needless to say, we were walking around for about half an hour trying to find a restaurant with space enough for us.. We got there in the end! And it was a nice dinner too. Tom stood up and made a short speech and toast to us, that was lovely.
The next day, Easter Sunday, was, as Lee has said in her blog, one of the most active I've had in my life. Carmel, Shirley, Tom, Sandy, Anders, Lee and I took another crazy bus (I tried to get some good footage of this guy in action but missed out) to Co Loa citadel, the country's ancient capital for 5 years between 939 and 944 AD. We took a short walk through a couple of the pagodas there - absolutely packed full with tourists - and learnt a lot about the history and legends of the area. The best part was yet to come.. We borrowed bicycles from a nearby shop and rode through the rice fields and small towns amongst the amazing mountainous scenery. Shirley and I were constantly being left behind as we were taking so many photos.. We couldn't help it, the place is just so beautiful everywhere you look.
We stopped for lunch at an all-you-can-eat-style Vietnamese restaurant and it was amazing.. I was disappointed when we had to move on to the next part of the tour :) The final part was great except for the persistence of the people trying to sell you stuff. We took a boat trip (2 per boat) on a river through some grottos and rice fields which was lovely. However, half-way through a lady from another boat jumped into ours and tried to sell us tablecloths (what a random thing to sell on a canoe). Then when we got to the end of the line, there were people waiting to sell us food and drinks which is fine but they just wouldn't let up even when we told them we had no money.. Kind of ruins the experience a bit..
On the way back to Hanoi on the bus is where we saw a lot of those accidents I mentioned in my last post, including the guy laying on the road. Not nice. That night we had to move out of our hotel into a cheaper one of our own choice. We chose the cheapest option of around A$10/night. And it was pretty dodgy.. The powerpoints were stuffed, you couldn't change channels on the TV properly, and there was mould on the walls, not to mention the holes in the roof.. Meh, it did the job though. For dinner we had a dish called the "chucker", which is basically fish in a stew hotpot-style and it was delicious! The rest of the Intrepid crew came to the same restaurant for dinner with their new guide and so we said a short hello/goodbye before retiring to bed.
Monday was spent, in its entirety, in an internet cafe updating our blogs (of which I only got through about half before the day was out) and just general internet stuff. And I mean in its entirety.. From about 0900hr to 2200hr. The whole day.. It was nice sitting out of the hustle and bustle of the city for a bit though. During this time, Michael, the German we met in Hoi An, just happened to pop in to the same internet cafe for a brief period which was wierd as there are literally hundreds of them around the city.
Tuesday, our last day in Hanoi and Viet Nam, consisted of visiting Ho Chi Minh himself. Against his wishes of being cremated when he died, the powers that be decided instead to have him embalmed and put on public display in a glass coffin. We found the start of the lineup to visit him and so we started walking to the end of the line.. and we walked and walked and walked and walked.. The line was around about 1km long I would say. It was ridiculously long! Eventually we found the end of the line (made up of about 80% school children) and it only took about 30 minutes to get to the building that housed Minh's body. It was really strange. You're not allowed to wear hats, sunglasses, shorts, etc. You can't talk - especially not sniggering - you can't put your hands in your pockets.. Simply follow the orderly line as it circles the coffin. The room is dark and basically the only lights are focussed on Minh who is dressed in a dark outfit so as to accentuate his face. Strange looking at a dead man as if some sort of circus attraction. Yet the Vietnamese have so much respect for him that they flock from all over the country to see him, especially during this month - the month of Pilgrimage.
After a little more walking around, we decided on an early dinner as we needed to catch a shuttle to the airport for our flight out at 1930hr. We organised with Michael and Sonja to meet up for our last dinner in Vietnam in a quaint restaurant for spring rolls (one of our favourite dishes here) and banana shakes (OMG they're good - I could live off those things), then off to another place for lemon juice and banana pancakes. So good. The time came to be around 1905hr by the time we'd left the guys and were heading back to the hotel to pick up our gear, so we were stressing a little as the walk to the bus terminal is around 15 minutes. Having street names like Thanh Duc, Thanh Quang and Tran Thanh it can be a little confusing and in our haste we got slightly lost and so decided to catch a cab. The driver tried to rip us off by saying he had no small change when I gave him a big note and took his sweet time doing so when he knew were in a huge hurry. Eventually we sorted the whole business out, but not before we had become extremely aggravated.
I felt this was quite a fitting end to our time in Vietnam.. Like I said a while back, it's all business and you just have to have your wits about you, but I think we both felt we'd had enough for the moment and it was time to move on. Vietnam is a wonderful country and I am planning on coming back again sometime in the future, but it's definitely not a country that you can just sit back and relax in, that's for sure! And why would you want to???

1. Working the rice fields
2. Lee bargaining with a street vendor for a banana snack
3. On the bike ride
4. Always working
5. A small open temple in the old capital
6. The last night with everyone
7. Always behind
8. in the boat
9. Mmm.. Not a translation mistake..
10. Amazing scenery
11. Shirley and Lee buying bananas
12. Our lovely cheap hotel
13. A Champa offering.. Vodka and wafers

the Capital and the Bay

The train ride was again long. Longer than any before it. 14 hours, in fact. It was also the last we would take in Viet Nam. Our last 5 days in this country were spent in the north, the bulk of this time in the country's capital, Hanoi (admittedly, before I got to Vietnam I thought the capital was Ho Chi Minh City - an honest mistake I feel since Hanoi is actually smaller than HCMC).
We arrived into the city about 5:30am, again by bus, and a little too early to get breakfast so we all spent some time in the hotel discussing our dismay at the lack of guidance given by our "tour guide" Nguyen. Lee, Carmel, Jason and I decided to take a taxi to the country's Intrepid office first thing to have a chat with the head of the branch. He was really helpful and understanding and even offered to pay for a group dinner that night, which we graciously accepted but made sure he knew that they couldn't just fob us off with dinner and that we demanded action. Again, I don't want to go too much into detail but as a result, Nguyen and the company came to the agreement that his contract would be terminated in 10 days. This came as a bit of a surprise to me but I think it was probably for the best; if someone is not willing to put in the effort, especially in a profession like this, they should not be employed as such.
With that unpleasantness aside, the city of Hanoi is much like HCMC.. It's noisy, dirty, crowded, crazy.. The difference being that there seems to be a lot more French influence on architecture, and the drivers pay even less attention to you as a pedestrian! You really have to watch yourself here and I can attest to that: I saw a girl get knocked down by a motorbike on a roundabout, a woman with her bike underneath a truck, an 18-wheeler truck which had driven through the front of someone's house, and a man laying on the road who I seriously suspect had been hit and killed a minute earlier. That was actually quite a horrible sight if my suspicion is correct.
The rest of our time that first day in Hanoi was spent trying to follow the walking tour as suggested in the LP book.. A bit of a waste of time in terms of interesting sights, but good as far as an orientation of the city goes. In the evening, most of the group went to see a water puppet show - a Vietnam special, started many many years ago as a source of entertainment in the rice fields - and then the group dinner as organised by Intrepid before popping into a popular jazz bar for a few swinging hits.
Jacob's 19th birthday was on the 21st and we celebrated in the morning with the traditional handing over of gifts. There was a remote-controlled helicopter, a really annoying squeaky hammer and, from me and Lee, a bottle of snake wine. We all then jumped on a bus readying ourselves for our time in Halong Bay.
Halong Bay - a World Heritage Site - is one of those utterly majestic places that you have to visit within your lifetime. I likened the Bay a lot to New Zealand's Milford and Doubtful Sounds, but simply much larger in scale. Shear cliffs jutting dramatically out of the Gulf of Tonkin through the morning mist, thousands of them, one or two boats in the distance dwarfed by these massive islands. The word spectacular comes close. After sailing out into this wilderness for a good couple of hours, we docked at one of the islands for a walk through the biggest cave I have ever seen and some swimming a little later on - although I didn't swim, I was merely a spectator to the antics of the daring few that went diving off the boat into waters the locals were saying were too dangerous due to rocks.. They did it anyway, and everyone survived!
An hour or so later we had arrived at our accommodation for the evening on Cat Ba Island in the bay. The bus driver was insane travelling at around 60km/h around sharp bends - which may be OK in a car but not with a busload of people - so much so that we had to ask him to slow down, which he did for a few minutes.. The island itself was just as beautiful as Halong Bay in that the terrain was just so rugged and for the most part uninhabited. After a short walk around the seafront and the markets, we all caught up for dinner and drinks. I played many-a-game of solitaire with Beth in the local bar and the best we could achieve was 2 pegs remaining. Disappointing.
The next morning was unfortunately rained out and so our optional activities of a bike ride or kayaking were cancelled. Because of this, we basically did nothing for the rest of our time on the island until our ferry back to the mainland at midday. I would have loved another day here as there is a National Park and a few smaller settlements that I wanted to explore. Oh well, maybe next time... But for now, our journey takes us back to Hanoi for the final few days...

1. the Water Puppets
2. Bjorn and Anders having a Titanic moment
3. Our captain
4. Majestic
5. Awesome
6. Just beautiful
7. Jeronimo! Anders taking a dip
8. Hang Sung Sot cave
9. Rock star
10. boats in Cat Ba bay

Monday, 24 March 2008


Hué. Our next stop. This city was the site of the bloodiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive, staged by the VC. The Tet Offensive was the turning point in the American war. In January 1968, the VC launched a major attack in the Demilitarised Zone in central Vietnam. This was essentially a mass diversion to draw attention away from series of strikes they were about to launch against more than 100 cities and towns, including Saigon. As the cameras rolled, the VC guerillas took over the courtyard of the US embassy in central Saigon. The US had no choice but to respond, and they did so by bombing heavily populated areas, killing tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers. Having this footage beamed into their households, many Americans could see what destruction the American occupation of Vietnam was causing. Public tolarance and approval ratings for the war plumetted, even as the military was claiming major successes, and the cost of fighting the war became too high for America.
At the same time, stories were leaked out about massacres and savagery against the unarmed population of Vietnam - including the infamous My Lai Massacre in which 504 Vietnamese civilians had been rounded up and systematically murdered or raped, including 182 women (17 of which were pregnant), 173 children and 37 elderly men. After many investigations, only one Lieutenant was convicted and spent only 3 years under house arrest before being paroled in 1974 after the US Supreme court refused to hear his case. Again, walking the streets of this historic town, you would have no idea that these atrocities had occurred there only some 40 years ago.
After making a few stops on the bus, including Marble mountain - a set of temples erected on a mountainous site near Hoi An, some even inside caves - we arrived around 1500hr. As we only had the equivalent of around 48 hours here, straight away a group of us took a walk to the markets where we came across many delights including a 2-pack of milo milk. Beth (the Aussie) and I bought one, and to our dismay it tasted nothing like the milo we've come to know and love; more like a watered down room temperature powdered hot chocolate.. Not ghastly, but definitely not milo.. After this, we had a few beers at another Why Not Bar and some dinner there a little later on too.
The following morning, the entire group each had their own motorbike guide and we took to the backstreets and rural paths checking out life outside of the towns. Our guide for the day was extremely informative (much more so than Nguyen) and we learnt a lot about the history of Hué and Vietnamese life in general. After stopping off at a rural market and township for some fun and fortune-telling, we took a spin through the rice fields along paths not much wider than a motorbike. This didn't, of course, stop us when there was traffic heading in both directions, not to mention a herd of water buffalo taking up the entire path - we just kept on going.. as you do..
We visited the emporers tomb and mausoleum followed by lunch served by the local monks. It was an awesome vegetarian feast (Shirley, the strict - yet friendly - vegetarian of the group, was certainly happy!) and afterwards they invited us to sleep on floor mats for an hour which half of the group did, including myself. That was definitely one of the best lunches I've ever had..
I was one of the last people to awake and everyone was already on their bikes, raring to go, helmets and all. We stopped for a few moments to see Vietnam's equivalent of the Colosseum, where elephants and tigers would battle to the death - I understand that the elephants would usually win in this instance. A couple of metre-wide bridges later and we came to our last stop of this mammoth day tour.
Originally founded in 1601 because a "Fairy Woman" (Thien Mu) appeared, as the legend goes, and told the people that a lord would come to build a pagoda for the country's prosperity, the Thien Mu Pagoda has become somewhat of an icon of Vietnam. The biggest event associated with this Buddhist temple was that of the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc in 1963 as a protest against the persecution of Buddhists.
We all saw the famous photo on the front page of newspapers when it happened (and if you weren't around in 1963, you would have seen the front cover of Rage Against The Machine's self-titled album) - this is Duc. He drove, along with 2 other monks, to a busy intersection in Saigon and sat in the lotus (meditative) position in the middle of the road while one monk poured gasoline over his head. Duc's final act was to rotate a string of wooden prayer beads around his neck, recite the words "Nam Mo A Di Da Phat" ("homage to Amitabha Buddha") and strike a match. He is said to have remained in the lotus position for 10 minutes while he burned before his body toppled over and the congregation of monks put out the flames - what discipline that must've taken! That evening thousands of Saigonese claim to have seen Buddha himself appear in the clouds, and he was weeping.
The car in which Duc was transported to the intersection on that day is now housed at Thien Mu Pagoda. It sounds strange but it really was humbling to have seen even the smallest detail of the event in person, i.e. this car - it was no longer just a photo.
This was such a huge day that we needed a little nana-nap when we got back. The next day was quite busy as well and a bunch of us headed for a few hours to the city's massive citadel (fortress) after which we ate lunch at a roadside eatery in which neither party, the customer and the waitress, could understand each other.. It was great!
Three o'clock was the meeting time for our last overnight train...

1. Guarding a doorway in the Citadel
2. A life-size statue of a warrior
3. entrance to the Emporer's tomb
4. Young monks in the making
5. A man rests
6. Inside Marble mountain
7. Lee and Shirley getting nowhere fast
8. Our bikie gang!
9. Just in case I forgot
10. My driver
11. Lovely view
12. Lunch!
13. Everyone, hold on for dear life...
14. Cruisin'
15. The Austin motorcar
16. Thap Phuoc Duyen, the 21m-high octagonal tower in the Thien Mu Pagoda