Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 21 – A brief layover in Seoul

From now on my favorite airport is Incheon International, even though it is heckafar from Seoul. But I need to backtrack a little for you to understand why this is so.

I arrived at Incheon at 5:30 am, in a sub-freezing temperature, with the happy prospect of an 11 hour layover before catching my San Francisco flight. That is a long time to just stay in the airport, so the day before I had searched in the internet ways to get from the airport to the city (I had homed in on the one day pass to use the metro and buses). Just before the immigration check, however, I saw a sign offering free tours for in transit passengers. Hmm, promising.

Lo and behold, as I left Customs I inquired in the Service Desk and was directed to the proper counter, where a nice lady booked me for the free 5-hour trip starting at 8 am. The tour itself is free, but I had to pay a measly US$ 13 for the entrance ticket to the Gyeongbok Palace and for lunch. I had about one and a half hours to kill, so I went to McDonald’s to buy a cup of coffee for an outrageous US$ 3 (I suspect that I got the foreigner surcharge, because as close as I could tell the sign said 1,800 won for a large cup, which would have been equivalent to US$ 1.80).

The tour bus took nearly an hour and a half to bring us to Gyeongbok Palace, in downtown Seoul. This was the palace of the emperors of the third dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty, which in my humble opinion were very Chinese in their aspirations and built Gyeongbok as a small replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Pretty, yes, but without the thousands of courtiers it has the feeling of an empty series of warehouses.

From there we went a very short distance to visit the Jogyesa Temple, which is the main Buddhist temple in the city. The Koreans are pretty hard core Buddhists, and there were quite a number of folks inside kneeling and praying with true fervor. The temple is dominated by three very large golden images of the sitting Buda. From what I understood from our guide the three represented different facets of Buda, with one being Buda The Healer, and the central one Buda in meditation (I forget what the third image represented).

Our last stop was Insadong Street, for lunch and shopping. Insadong has many branching allies coming into it, in which one can find art galleries, antique shops, craft shops, and restaurants. Lunch was some thinly sliced beef in a hearty broth, steamed rice, and assorted veggies to mix with the rice and beef. Pretty good, but I am afraid I wolfed it down to go out into the street and window shop.

The tour guide was a nice middle age woman, who looked over us as a gallina looks over her pollitos. She was terribly afraid that one of us would get lost or left behind, and was really pushing us because some people had a 3 pm flight to catch (curse them, for I suspect we were shortchanged on a drive along the Cheonggyechon stream that runs across the city, and along Hongdae district where all the students hang out at night.

On the way back I asked our guide who paid for this free tour for passengers on transit, and she told me “the government since July 2013”. Before that the tour would have cost US$ 50 to US$70. I suspect it is the Ministry of Tourism, who uses this way to lure passersby to get a taste of the city, knowing that a taste may result on a longer trip at a later time. Clever of them to do that. I wish other cities were as enlightened.

Admittedly this has been too short a glimpse to form an opinion of Korea. They seem to be as meticulously clean and orderly as the Japanese, but I detect a dash of Singapore in the way everything is forbidden (in Singapore, of course, they have draconian fines for things like chewing gum or jay walking). A bit to rigid for my taste. Yet, there is no doubt that they are a prosperous country. Things are expensive here (gasoline is something like US$ 7 per gallon), but you see nice looking Kia’s and Hyundai’s everywhere (but, alas, no scooters), and everyone has a Samsung cell phone.

On the way back in the bus they had a promo film showing the jolly ol’ time two girlfriends had shopping in Seoul, and a great time had by two boys doing a bicycle trek. I think the possibility of visiting Korea on a bicycle is worth considering. According to the film you can carry your bicycle in trains, and I bet they have something like the one month pass for the train. But it cannot be done in winter, because it gets really cold, or summer because it is too warm. Maybe late spring early summer would be the best time. Or perhaps fall.

The real reason Incheon is now my favorite airport is not only because of the free tour. It is because of the free showers! Once you have cleared security and immigration you come into an enormous duty-free area, with anything your heart may desire in terms of brand names. If you take the elevator one floor up, however, you come to an oasis of peace where there comfortable recliners, a free internet center, little tables where you can plug your electronics (only one cluster, however, and inconsiderate people use those chairs to doze rather than letting the connections free for people like me, who would like to plug a computer), a massage and nail parlor, and a place where you can take a shower for free. I had been walking the day before in Hanoi, had spent 5 hours in the hotel, and had done 5 hours of tourism in Seoul. I was pretty ripe, and itchy, and uncomfortable, so the prospect of a shower was most welcome. I walked into a small lobby, where a gracious hostess handed me towels, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste, and then came into a very nicely appointed bathroom where I basked in luxury. I had a clean change of clothes handy, so now I feel like starting the trip all over again!

All good things must come to an end, however, and I need to get back to California. It will not be long before the next adventure, but for now


Vietnam 2014 – Day 20 – The last day in Hanoi

I am back at being a lowly pedestrian L Still, the last day also has 10 hours of daylight, so I might as well do the best I can. My first stop was the Temple of Literature, a vast complex where the first university of Vietnam was established, in 1072 AD, shortly after Vietnam became independent from the Chinese empire. Still strongly influenced by the Chinese system of scholarship and bureaucracy, the university was devoted to the study of the main works of Confucius and other cornerstone writers of his time. The intent was to have a place where scholars could prepare for the national examinations, and having passed those further prepare for examination by the king himself. Those few who passed were elevated to mandarin rank, and were the main bureaucrats of the kingdom.

The temple has several courtyards. One of the courtyards is rimmed by a hundred or so stele, through which the university kept the records of the nearly 2,000 students who successfully passed the examinations over a period of 150 years (the pass rate was definitely low at that time). The back courtyard is where the students lived and studied. Its main building is an imposing two-story building, where the first rector is now enshrined as the tutelary god of the university.

From there I wandered toward the Museum of History, which is housed by a beautiful large building of the French colonial period. The collection is impressive, and tells the story of Vietnam from the prehistory (sites dating as far back as 10,000 years ago), to the Chinese domination period, the independence of what is now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as the Diet Viet kingdom (ca. 1070 AD), the independent period under the rule of a local dynasty, and the French colonial invasion ca. 1880.

A separate building tells the History of the Revolution, which is not as impressive but gives a bird’s eye view of the unrest under the French colonial rule, the formation of the International Communist Party (ICP), the initial protests under the sponsorship of the ICP against the French (ca. 1925), the Japanese invasion during World War II and the resistance movement in Vietnam (1944 to 1945), and the attempts at “recolonization” by the French with eventual help from the US. US involvement started in 1950, with the usual appearance of military advisors, escalated in 1964 with the arrival of the first US troops, and ended with the retreat of the US in 1973.

Much credit goes to Ho Chi Minh, who after fighting the Japanese was elected president around 1945, and remained the leader of the country until the mid 60’s until his death in 1969. Ho Chi Minh did not live to see his country at peace, but his fighting spirit is well remembered by the Vietnamese who love him deeply (he was a bit of a marketing expert, and never missed a photo op while he traveled throughout the country maintaining the revolution active.

Having exhausted myself in museums I killed a couple of hours people watching and window shopping as I ambled through the narrow streets of the old city center. Incidentally, I forgot to mention that Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th anniversary a few years ago, so the trace of the city center is really, really old. I had but a handful of dongs in my pocket, and I was intent on using them to the last dong, so I bought myself a hat, ate some delicious street food, and will have to drink a couple of beers as I wait for my taxi to the airport.

It has been a fabulous trip, and I am a little sad that it is time to go home. But I will return because I love the country and its people. Next time I will fly to Saigon, and will once again rent a motorcycle. There is no better way to see this fabulous land!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 19 – Hanoi, my final exam

After 2,000 km in the motorcycle I figured I could call myself an advanced beginner. Little did I know that Vietnam had decided to promote me to advanced level, and that today I had to present my final exam. I had but 100 km to go from Hai Phong to Hanoi, but in that short distance I was presented with every complication the examination board had to through at me. The setting was a major highway, with thundering cargo trucks and every vehicle imaginable on the road (a sign clearly stated that carts and tractors were not allowed, but such a sign is like a red cloth waved in front of an angry bull. Let’s begin with a light drizzle, just enough to blur visibility and make the highway really slippery. Then we will throw in a few weaving bicycles, slow moving carts and tractors. Then we will introduce all sorts of vehicles doing u-turns right on front of you. Finally, let’s add the ubiquitous scooter going against the direction of traffic. Honestly, it felt like I was in a videogame, where everything that can go wrong will. But I did it! I swerved around all obstacles, cut in front of an 18-wheeler to avoid hitting a little old lady, dropped my speed to zero to avoid an oncoming car, and then accelerated to 100 km per hour in under 30 seconds to avoid the incoming rush of across-the-highway traffic.

Once I got to Hanoi proper I crossed the river using a railroad bridge, jumped a red light, wove myself through a prong of scooters that resembled angry piranhas, and even went against the flow of traffic on a major thoroughfare! By the time I got to my hotel I had left a path of scared Vietnamese on my path, who will probably will need a few million dong of therapy before they can forget crossing paths with El Diablo.

Emboldened by my success I crossed the city (again!) To go to the excellent Museum of Ethnology of the peoples of Vietnam. The country has 46 different cultural groups, who speak languages from five different groups, which makes for a pretty mix. Amazingly all of them get along just fine (though the Viet, with 86% of the total population, are clearly top dogs). The museum is pretty far from city center, but it has very fine grounds. The main museum has displays on each of the 46 ethnic groups, with fine displays on costumes, handcrafts, and living styles. A separate building host the Museum of Southeast Asia, which has beautiful art pieces from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The best part, in my humble opinion, are the grounds, which are an oasis of peace in the middle of crazy Hanoi. On them the museum has placed its collection of homes from the different cultural groups. The museum actually went and bought traditional homes, dismantled them, and then brought crews of the original builders to put them together again. They also had a water theater, where the stage is a pond, and the “actors” are puppets that are manipulated from a covered water temple. The result is at the same time funny and impressive. I need to tell my cousin Jaime, the family puppeteer, about this.

Getting back from the museum to downtown was postdoctoral level stuff, since it was around 5 pm and the whole population of Hanoi was on the move. But I did it without mishap, so from now on I will describe myself as a very experienced motorcyclist. I returned the motorbike without a hitch by 6 pm, and Hop, the friendly proprietor of the rental shop (ADV Ride or, invited me to join him and his friends on a beer. They were a delightful group of young Vietnamese, later joined by their three French friends, and all of them made me feel very, very welcome.

So welcome, indeed, that after a couple of beers they decided to go to a Bia Hoi (a brewers) restaurant and they dragged me along. What a delightful way to spend Saturday evening, and my last evening in Hanoi. The beer was good, and the dinner was a real feast, with lettuce wraps filled with cold meats and veggies (and dipped in soy sauce and wasabe), a pork shank baked in cream, breaded frog, and all sorts of side dishes. The only thing missing was slow-roasted dog, because they only serve it on Sundays. Maybe tomorrow.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 18 – Back to Hai Phong

Alas, this beautiful trip is coming to an end. I enjoyed a slow trip across the Cat Ba island (20 km), the short ferry trip, then across Cat Hai island (another 20 km), and the longer ferry crossing to the mainland. Then it was dog eats dog through the port and into the city of Hai Phong. I knew I wanted a hotel along the big canal, and after snubbing a couple of more modest hotels ended in a middle class hotel by about noon.
After gladly leaving behind my parked motorcycle I took a wonderful walk along the canal, enjoying the window shopping. Eventually I came to the market and started weaving through its narrow passages. It was all you could ever dream about an Oriental market, with shops offering everything from flowers to motorcycle parts, dried fish to shining fruit (they even have durions for sale!), and New Year necessities, such as gilded globe lanterns and horse-shaped piñatas (which I presume tell us that the coming New Year, about a week from today, will be the Year of the Horse.
I have solved the mystery of people carrying trees in their scooters. It seems that for the New Year celebration people like to have a decorated tree in the house. Most of the ones that are bare branches are actually flowering trees, which just about now are starting to bloom. On top of the natural flowers they will get gilded ornaments and ribbons, just as we do with our own Christmas trees. On another variant, small potted orange trees are trimmed to have the pointed shape of a Christmas trees, and the small oranges are selectively picked so only a few remain, just like gold ornaments.
In a corner stall I stopped at a small eatery, where I enjoyed a pig’s foot (cold and dipped in a delicious sauce) and a noodle soup with deep-fried pork skins. Very yummy.
Finally, after a very long walk I came back to the hotel for a break. I have a great TV with about 100 cable channels, so I holed down planning to see a movie and enjoy a well deserved rest. In reality I used the time to prepare my first lectures for the Spring semester, which starts three days from now.
At around 7 pm I went out again, to take a look at the lights, the crowds, and the dancing fountains in the park that is immediately in front of the hotel. The crowds had diminished somehow, but there were plenty of people on the go, doing whatever it is that city folk do after sunset. I worked an appetite walking around, and started stalking the street stalls looking for a bite to eat. I settled on a torta or sub of pork gyros style (pretty good except that the lady put some sort of thin ketchup on it that was totally unnecessary), followed by a Vietnamese churro. Yeap, I could certainly get used to living in beautiful Vietnam!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 17 – The Cat Ba National Park

I spent the morning walking under the canopy of Cat Ba National Park. The park only has a limited paths, all asphalted or with stone stair steps, which were inherited from old village paths when the area was declared a national park. At the very start of the walk I realized I had not brought a hat. No problem. I sighted a discarded sack of concrete and with the help of my trusty pocket knife I soon fixed for myself a mason hat (the type that looks like a pointed boat, which my dad used to make for us when we were camping as little kids). With that and a stick I tackled the mountain, eventually making a grand total of about 15 km.
There were a couple of high points from where I could take a look at the landscape, but most of the walk was through pretty tight equatorial jungle. My thoughts soon wandered into wondering if I would be able to survive in such a jungle. A knife would be the first tool needed, for which the best I could come up with would be the serrated edge of a limestone. One would also need to find water, which in limestone terrain is easier said than done. The trick, I believe, would be to get to a low point and dig a hole. You would also need some sort of vessel to collect water, for which the pliable bark of some trees I saw would be a good way to start (I have seen this done, so it would be a matter of trying to recall the details). Alternatively I could try to find some clay and try my hand at some pottery making. What about fire? There were some thin vines that could be used to make a fire bow, and from there it should be possible to start a fire (note to self: make the test once I get home). Shelter could easily be arranged with the abundance of broad-leaf plants around me, and the vines could be used to tie a roof together.
Food would be the largest challenge. I couldn’t see any fruits, and being winter there were no berries on sight (and after the Hunger Games I wouldn’t trust any berries anyway). A spear and an atlatl would be easy to craft, but I didn’t see any likely targets. If I could catch something big, like a deer or a pig, then the stomach would make a useful water container, and the gut would provide the string for a bow. Realistically, my best bet would be to go after birds, so it would be useful to know how to make a snare (note to self: try this at home first). Ah, all this beautiful theory, but I suspect life as a Robinson would be anything but easy.
Back to my trusty motorcycle I completed the exploration of the island, which had plenty of scenic surprises in store to hold my interest. I came back to the town of Cat Ba around 4 pm, in time to have an excellent meal (giant clams cooked in butter and garlic, and a delicious veggie spring roll), and to snap a few pictures of the spectacular sunset. All in all a very satisfying day.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 16 – Cat Ba Bay

Today was a day of wondrous beauty. I spent half the day on a boat, drifting between the majestic landscape of Cat Ba and Ha Long Bays. The limestone pinnacles, the coves, the channels metamorphosed from minute to minute, as the boat quietly glided through the misty mountains. I stood on the prow mesmerized by the symphony of lapping waves and the myriad of islands that form this archipelago, taking picture after picture in the knowledge that they could hardly capture the magic of the moment.

The boat was doing messenger service, delivering passengers from one miniature port to the other. On the way we passed several pearl banks and fish farms, and from time to time encountered small floating villages, where people live year round. There may not be much room to move around, but children and dogs play like in any other town, running nimbly along the narrow planks that join one fish farming plot with the other.

At our farthest reach we picked up a family from Finland, including mom, dad, two teenager daughters, and two American teenagers (I presume the latter were staying with the family and were brought along in the family vacation). Together we made a stop at a small inlet, where we rented bicycles and biked to a small farming town about a kilometer inland. When we came back to the boat we were served a delicious lunch that included fried chicken, fish in a tomato sauce, a veggie stir fry, tofu in tomato soup, spring rolls, steamed rice, and a nice plate of steamed clams. The girls were all together at a table and had their own serving of the goodies, while mom, dad and myself were on another table. The Fins were not very adventurous eaters, and were flummoxed by the clams. “What is this?”, they asked, and then added “we don’t have this in Finland”. And then some small devil whispered in my ear and, making a face of mild disgust I said “Those are clams, and you really need to develop a taste for them. Sometimes they taste like mud but, please, by all means give them a try.” That did it. Each reluctantly took a piece, tasted it, and had no more. So I had the big nice plate of clams all for myself!
After lunch we headed back, and once again I got lost on the beauty of the trip. The only place I can compare it with is the Magallanes Archipelago, along the southern coast of Chile, but that is a barren, glaciated landscape, whereas Cat Ba is a lusciously green karstic paradise. It is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited (and this is not my first time to the rodeo)..

Back at the hotel I was in a bit of a daze, but it was only 1 pm and there was no point in wasting a perfectly good afternoon. So I got my motorcycle and went cruising through town, only to discover that they have a whole little bay devoted to tourists. Hotel after hotel, and restaurant after restaurant are to be found, all facing a beautiful waterfront boulevard and the glorious landscape behind. Toward one end of the bay there are a couple of all-included resorts, and toward the other end is the regular town, with its eclectic market.

The one thing missing were the typical souvenir stores, where you can buy a hat or a t-shirt. Finally, on my second pass I saw a small street-side display with some necklaces and conch shells. I wanted to get a present for my Honey so I stopped to look. Little did I know I had stopped at the gates of Hades, and that there was a pack of harpies waiting for my naïve approach. The first one was all smiles, and claimed I was her first costumer so she needed to make a sell for good luck. It was hard bargaining, but given that I was in Pearl Island I ended making a purchase. No sooner had I concluded the deal when the second witch popped by my side, asking for me to look at her own display, and giving me all over the sob story. The precise same tactics used by those devilish Girl Scouts! To make a long story short, I was handed from one smiling sorceress to the next, and I ended with enough baubles to outfit a full harem. Darn, but they were good!
The problem of being on an island is that there are only so many places you can go. Ah, but with a motorcycle every narrow road is an invitation to adventure, so one thing led to the other and pretty soon I was speeding along a twisty cliff-hanging road, or plunging into a canyon and then emerging on the other side of the island. I thoroughly enjoyed the rush of speed and zooming around the curves in practically deserted roads. I can see why motorcycling is an addictive activity!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 15 – Ha Long Bay to Hai Phong to Cat Ba Island

Before leaving Ha Long Bay I made a stop to visit their new museum. It is a beautiful black glass building, but the collection is a bit of a mish mash of Paleolithic tools, Chinese pottery from several periods, a spotty display about coal mining in the district during the French occupation (including canes used by the company bosses to punish the miners, and a collection of rusted weapons used to repel the American invasion. The most significant piece of knowledge I acquired is that Vietnam has some coal resources.
The 80 km or so to Hai Phong was a mix of crossing over beautiful, modern bridges, a highway in construction, heavy truck traffic, and very poor air quality (dust plus diesel particulates).
Hai Phong is a big city, and I had to cross it to go down the Hai Phong peninsula in my quest for Cat Ba Island. A bit crazy traffic-wise, but actually quite handsome. One canal in particular reminded me a bit of Amsterdam. I was navigating by feeling and did quite well. Eventually I made it to the airport, which was the right direction, but from there it was all guesswork. I had guessed there would be a ferry to Cat Hai Island, and from there another to Cat Ba Island, so from there I asked about a boat to Cat Hai. Fortunately the guard at the airport understood what I had asked, and I thought he was telling me that I had to go back the airport boulevard to the second roundabout and then make a right. I did, and then got to a T intersection. I turned right again and the road became more and more empty as it moved through large container yards, sand and gravel pits, and far apart business parks. Then, to the left on a small street, I saw a sign to Ben Pha, and this stirred a memory of Day 7 and the fact that Ben Pha had led to a ferry. There I a go and … bingo! … there it was, a rusted old ferry waiting to take me across to Cat Hai.
As we approached Cat Hai Island I became a bit disappointed. The island is flat as it can be, without much to recommend it. Sure, the little town was as quaint as any other little town in Vietnam, but I had come a long way to see it and wanted something more for my money. Forging ahead I got to the second ferry. It was a hazy afternoon, and I couldn’t get a very good look at Cat Ba Island, but as the ferry got closer out of the mist a gorgeous landscape of karstic pinnacles came into view.
The 20 km from the ferry to the small town of Cat Ba were absolutely fabulous and, given that I was in a far away island, the traffic had dropped to nearly nil. I did enjoy the ride through a fabulous landscape that made me think of the mountain roads of Gran Canaria. I made it to the port of Cat Ba around 5 pm, and once again scored with a great hotel. Inexpensive (US$ 10 per night) and I my room faces the beautiful bay. I think I will park myself here for two days, spend a third night at Hai Phong, and on the fourth day I will make a bee line to Ha Noi to conclude this trip.