Big Question Marks

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Catching up—10 days in Hoi An

It’s well established on the Vietnam tourist trail, so we weren’t sure how we’d like it after spending a few days as the only tourists (and thus quasi-celebrities) in Quy Nhon. It’s unlike any other spot we’ve been to—on one hand, a somewhat quiet & conservative town that goes to bed around 9 pm, but it’s also a mad mix of history, shopping, and quaint charm. By our third full day of exploring the easily walkable and incredibly picturesque town, we were far from that feeling of “we’ve seen it all”.
Hoi An has been a trading port since the 17th century located on the Thu Bon River, just a little inland from the South China Sea. A stroll through the narrow streets past the old, comfortably decrepit buildings one can feel very much like you’ve stepped into another time. Various influences—French, Chinese, Japanese—blend together in the architecture, making “Ancient Town” a charming collection of buildings with faded yellow plaster walls, mossy roofs, dark wood shutters, and bougainvillea… many of the houses have been passed down within families for hundreds of years; there’s many ornate temples and congregational halls to explore, and then there’s the old tea warehouses, which convert beautifully into restaurants and shops! It’s all set along a (slightly stinky) river and with a strict ban on cars (only “primitive vehicles and walkers” allowed, according to signs), it’s a little reminiscent of one of the islands of Venice.

And then there’s the shopping…

Besides being a magical and historical place, Hoi An is tailor central. Thanks to the availability of gorgeous silk of every colour and texture, about a zillion tailor shops offer to make shopping-hungry tourists custom-made clothing unbelievably quickly and for supercheap. At first, these shops are a bit overwhelming—there are so many of them, for one thing! And then there’s the sales tactics—pressure, more pressure, lots of false flattery, calling out to you to come into the shop as you walk by… just walking down the street can be a bit harrowing, so we avoided them as much as we could for the first few days.
Inevitably, we all get a little braver and enters their first shop. At first we tried to enter and leave as quickly as possible—get the basic info (prices, how long everything takes to make, and take a peek at fabrics and clothing samples) and a business card and get out while you can. We browsed many good and bad reviews of various tailors online before coming, and perhaps were a bit warier than some after reading quite a few horror stories. While Dayle was thinking more about a few dresses (something that can’t be messed up too badly), Adrian was hoping for a nice suit. We visited about 12 shops or so—from tiny and dusty, to high-end ones with elaborate fishponds and lounge areas within the shop—and finally settled on Mr. Xe, a guy who’d gotten great reviews online for his tailoring. At $85 USD for a tailored wool suit, he was somewhere in the middle (we found $60 to $120 was about the average price) and very firm on needing a few days to sew everything well and fit it properly—while some prided themselves on speed, we had a good feeling about the very flamboyant Mr. Xe (if not mixed feelings about the very friendly and extremely “encouraging” salesgirls). And our instincts turned out to be right—Adrian’s suit (and his dress shirts, and pants) turned out great! On the other hand, the dress Dayle asked for to be copied out of a magazine (in a way, to see how well they’d do) turned out to be a little more Amish than Lily Allen. Which brings us to our first lesson of Hoi An tailors: they all have their fortes, so work with them, not against them! Later we found another shop, Blue Rose, with a couple of very trendy shopgirls and clothing samples and great fabrics. The garments we got made—a mix of dresses, casual shirts, and a sporty jacket—look fantastic on, but the sewing and construction is pretty much nowhere close to Mr. Xe’s in quality. We even went to a third shop, which we found to make gorgeous silk dresses and really cool winter coats, but the tailored items were definitely not up to the fit standard we now had to compare to. But we still came out with a lot of cool, really original and well-fitting clothes made for a fraction of the cost you’d find them for in a store back in Canada or Australia (and sometimes for less than what we’d pay just for the fabric). And we had a great time doing it! So Lesson #2: if you go in to have some fun, and don’t expect haute couture for $25 a dress, you’ll leave with a great experience and a wicked new wardrobe.Another thing to think about if you’re going to Hoi An and planning for some tailoring, give it time! Not that we spent 10 days in fittings, but nearly every day there were a few adjustments (and often new orders to make). One of the most frustrating experiences was when Dayle had a pair of shoes made (honestly, she would have been happy just to shop around til one store had the right size). Somehow the cobbler must have cut the shoe too small to begin with, and though each fitting found them a little bigger, there was still that toes-jammed-against-the-front feeling (Ouch!) until they finally agreed to redo it completely. And you feel a bit bad making people adjust things so many times, but you wouldn’t purposely buy shoes a size too small normally, would you? So Lesson #3: Allow time to get things fitting properly, and don't be afraid to be picky! All we lost was time, and we managed to discover many great restaurants and street scenes in the many walks back and forth between tailors and the shoe shop.

And we must mention the restaurants! Hoi An has a few culinary specialties of its own—ie. the noodle dish Cao Lau, made authentically only with the water from the ancient Ba Le well, located in a tiny laneway in a residential area of town. We were never up early enough, but apparently there’s a daily pilgrimage of little old ladies to the well. And Cao Lau (which also comes in a splendid vegetarian version) and Adrian’s favourite, fish grilled in a banana leaf, are the perfect foods to eat at a riverside restaurant, under glowing silk lanterns and washed down by 4000 dong (that’s about 40 cents) glasses of bia tuoi (draught beer).

On the complete other end of the scale, there are the posher eateries, like Tam Tam Café, set in an old tea warehouse with a menu of fantastic salads and French-style sandwiches (hard to find in Vietnam!). And across the street there’s Cargo Club, part white-tablecloth restaurant and part patisserie, which we’re positive makes the best chocolate mousse on the planet!

And if it is possible to get bored/sick of Hoi An, there’s always the peaceful 4km bicycle ride to beautiful China Beach, where American GIs used to head for some relax time during the American/Vietnam War. And there are the ancient Cham ruins of My Son, a sort of mini Angkor Wat set in a steamy butterly-filled jungle (and also decorated with bomb craters from the war), a very fun motorbike ride away from town through the rice paddies.

We must have visited at the most exciting of times too—while we were (sort of) sticking around for Earth Hour, where the town would shut off the lights with many other world cities, there was also a major build-up to March 28 which we were puzzled about. Banners around town mentioned the 28th with a slogan in Vietnamese punctuated by an exclamation mark. Every evening there seemed to be another lit-up, music-blaring boat dressed up in brightly-coloured fabric, flags, and images/statue busts of Uncle Ho. There were musical performances in public areas and finally, a parade of blindingly bright floats covered in Ho Chi Minh, sparkles, and peace doves (complemented by a sky covered in lightning streaks and thunder!) As we noticed more and more Vietnam flags decorating the shops, we also learned in a loose translation, that March 28 is Hoi An’s (and nearby Danang’s) Liberation Day, when the Americans finally left (in defeat?) the area. So while we were getting excited to see the lights go off and candles float down the river, the townspeople were getting excited for a much more patriotic kind of occasion. It was quite the buzz… though not that Hoi An isn’t every day!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Celebs of Quy Nhon

After leaving touristy Nha Trang we thought, "Why not get off the beaten path for a few days?" and soon found ourselves in the sleepy beach town of Quy Nhon. We couldn't figure out why it gets missed by travellers-- it's an unbelievably scenic horseshoe bay of blue-green water dotted with fishing boats, hugged by green mountains and lined with a long esplanade of carefully manicured parks. We scored the marble-pillared top-floor room (more like presidential suite!) of a great little hotel with a giant balcony and a sea view for $11 USD. Our hotel was right across the road from the loveliest outdoor cafe, which was part Hollywood poolside patio and part ancient Hoi An teak house and served delicious iced coffees. All this and barely another Western tourist in sight. It was practically heaven!

There were a few cons to having the town to ourselves. The usual glut of restaurants was nowhere to be found and we were soon introduced to dinners of bony fish and "bitter melon" with scrambled eggs. We tried freshly pressed sugarcane juice for the first time, since that was all the street vendors were selling next to the university by our hotel. (OK at first, then progressively grosser, sip by sip.) And we couldn't walk down the street without everyone yelling excited "hello's"... not to mention anyone who did speak English was dying to practice with us. Renting a motorbike (or even a bicycle) to get to a beach a kilometre or two out of town was pretty much out of the question-- there wasn't enough competition to knock down prices, so we opted to walk... this ended up in us missing the turn-off and heading into the mountains for a steamy hike at noon, until a motorbike driver just happened upon us and drove us the 2 or 3 kms remaining to another--very nice-- beach that we realized was town's weekend hangout as well as the local leper colony... seriously! All because we couldn't ask for directions. On the bright side, there was an ice cream vendor on the way back, where we paid the local prices for a yogurt popsicle-- about 10 cents. Hooray!

But Quy Nhon, for better or worse, holds some of the most vivid experiences we've had yet in Vietnam. Stumbling across the most kick-ass vegetarian restaurant (next to the Buddhist pagoda), not really ordering anything but "2 meals", and getting treated to a smorgasbord of veggies and tofu cooked in about a million ways. Delicious! We also had the chance to learn a little more Vietnamese, by locals who were only too happy to teach us. And we also discovered the cool local hangout-- bizarre as they come-- a dark bar where karaoke is sung to a background of a live band (in Hawaiian shirts) while semi-professional dancers do the tango in front of the stage... for about six songs until the place ramps into high gear and a DJ cranks some cheesy dance/pop music for another five or six songs. And so on...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Nha Trang in a Nutshell

It's crazy how easy it was to spend an entire week in the beachside city of Nha Trang (and how happy we continue to be that our visa extensions allow for this kind of travel). When we left this past Tuesday, we had finally felt we'd seen and experienced enough of the city to feel OK with leaving-- but it wouldn't have been that hard to lose a month there.

Beach culture in Vietnam is altogether different than in Australia (well, duh!). In fact, many of the locals don't come to the beach for a swim until about 5 pm-- we're pretty sure this has to do with staying pale and avoiding a tan. The beaches are generally crowded with people, hawkers, and often trash. Peace and quiet can be hard to come by when you're getting bugged to buy snacks, drinks, and paintings (yes, really) every two minutes. We watched one English guy react very badly to this... but no matter how annoying the sales pitches can be, you've got to keep your cool-- yelling at a little old lady won't accomplish anything aside from giving the rest of us tourists a bad image...

And maybe it's for this reason there are so many people saying how much they dislike Nha Trang on travel forums online-- sure, it's very touristy, some things are a bit overpriced, and the beach isn't pristine-- but in our opinion it was a nice, scenic place to relax for a while! We actually haven't gone sunbathing in ages-- the scorching Aussie sun made it a very dangerous and painful endeavour. So we delighted in being able to throw down a sarong in the sun and just be lazy. And we did splurge a little one day and rented lounge chairs & got served drinks all day at the private beach of a great local brewery/restaurant, the Louisiane Brewhouse.

But besides the wide, long beach (OK, the sand wasn't close to as soft as some beaches we've been to) surrounded by mountains and carefully manicured boulevards, there's more to Nha Trang than just the scenery. There's a certain vibe to the place-- an easygoing attitude that allows one to wear beachy clothes around town without getting stared at (normally everyone's quite covered up in Vietnam!). There's also a wealth of nice hotels at very competitive prices-- our room in the Nha Quyen was huge and well-located, with a balcony and a/c for $12USD-- and about a zillion restaurants to choose from in the tourist area. For those in need of culture, there are the ancient Po Nagar temples built by the Cham civilization around the 7th to 12th centuries (we're not experts on this, but we gather they were a Hindu kingdom which occupied the area around that era), and countless Buddhist sights to take in. There are many snorkelling, diving, and island boat tours-- which we opted against, as we've heard whisperings of "dynamite fishing" being done not so long ago in the area, and now many of the reefs are a bit lunar-looking and devoid of sea life. The number of dried seahorses for sale at the local market made us a bit suspicious of the underwater scenery too.

We also made some really great local friends in Nha Trang-- while indulging in some excellent Italian food at a little restaurant called Olivia one evening, we ended up chatting for hours with our very bubbly waitress (who we later learned was the owner). We exchanged some English for some Vietnamese, shared some laughs, and suddenly Kim Anh had elected herself our personal tour guide, taking us to the local vegetarian restaurant with her cousin (we'd arrived in the midst of a monthly? Buddhist rite when everyone eats veggie for three days around the full moon), another day around all the important Buddhist temples in the city--even for a feast with a bunch of young monks!-- and later on to her family's house for the meatfest that ends the vegetarian days (eek! says Dayle), where we drank beers with the uncles and her grandfather and learned a bit more about everyday life in Vietnam. We feebly tried to repay the kindness with an introduction to the almighty fajita at a place called El Coyote...

The moral of our story is that we're realizing more and more how important it is not to have expectations about a place before going there, and to stop feeling the need to see every sight/going to all the tourist traps to get the real vibe of a place. Sometimes not being a total tourist can work in your favour-- if we hadn't slowed down and had some beers on our balcony instead of hitting the bars, we wouldn't have noticed the goings-on of the local brothel across the road (in daytime it appears very much like a nail salon!). If we'd run screaming at the first sight of a cockroach in the bathtub, we wouldn't have had six very bug-free nights-- and lovely days on the beach!-- after that.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Weasel Coffee

Around the world cultures indulge in their fine cuisine: the French eat horses, the Inuit have their whale blubber, and Vietnamese have their weasel coffee.

So when in Rome, right?

The scene was a small restaurant just off the main strip called Pho Cali – in Nha Trang. Nothing major, pretty simple actually, the place was decked out with a few nice stool seats and had a menu of some cheap eats. We were very stoked because we had been able to order everything in Vietnamese and could understand their responses. It was probably this confidence that had Adrian muster the guts to ask for ‘café chon’ – weasel coffee.

The order garnered a lot of attention from all the staff in the restaurant, mostly giggles. Our waitress did a sort of double take and repeated what Adrian had ordered; just to be sure. The most amusing part for us was when our waitress made absolutely sure of our order by imitating a weasel itself. Suddenly managers where sticking their heads out of office doors and some school children were watching us intently while the staff rushed around preparing our drinks.

One of the horrible stereotypes about South East Asia is that they’ll eat anything. And mostly it’s true, but one of the most bizarre of world cuisines is here in Vietnam and took it as our duty to sample some.

In the central highlands there are huge coffee plantations, mostly set up by the French. Then someone had the idea to feed these coffee beans to our furry friend, the weasel - who then poops them out. It’s up to some poor fellow to sift through all that poop and harvest the digested beans one by one; and the pay is pretty crap (had to pun, sorry). The process either removes caffeine badness or adds flavour, but in the end it’s the most expensive java here, ringing up at 20,000 Dong a cup. Take that StarBucks!

We took ours with milk, naturally, and then down the hatch it went with a quite hush from the restaurant staff, grinning the whole time.

The coffee itself was pretty tart, and strong – with a flavourful bouquet finish. Fruity, one could say. All in all it was like any other coffee, and strangely enough we debated whether or not you’d classify it as vegetarian. It was a great way to get some ‘props’ from the locals, who were delighted at our bravery, but for us it was another adventure to cross off our lists.

Proudly finishing our last drops both of us did notice that we had a pretty thick layer of ‘the pasties’ on our tongues afterward.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Nha Trang Beach Bums...

Hello again! We're currently in Nha Trang, Vietnam, just soaking up some rays and enjoying the deep aqua of the South China Sea. Blog to come soon... we promise! Now pass the sunscreen...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Kitsch in the Mountains: Dalat

After a few weeks of sweating out the muggy days and nights in Saigon, a visit to the charming mountain town of Dalat was a refreshing change (in temperature and in pace).

As soon as we stepped off the bus ($11 AUD/$6 USD for the six-hour ride!), we felt like we'd reached another country. Surrounded by tall mountains, the "small town" of about 185,000 people is built in tiers, so looking around there are layers and layers of colourful homes everywhere. It's got a bit of a European Alps feel to it, with stone steps and old-looking buildings. Without much of a search, we found a decent guesthouse on one of the main streets for $8 USD a night with a big balcony overlooking the street-- an excellent vantage point for watching a torrential downpour the next afternoon we learned!

Dalat is a bit of a honeymoon spot and weekend getaway for Saigon residents, evident in the many dimly-lit, French-style restaurants around town. It's also a place that loves its kitsch, and in embracing the cooler climate, we even saw a few Swiss-chalet looking hotels (one complete with plastic snow and icicles hanging from the roof). We wandered around the street market in the centre of the town and found everyone milling about in thick sweaters, scarves and mittens (OK, it was cold, but not that cold!) One of the nicest parts about Dalat for us as well was that despite being a tourist town, many of the visitors were Vietnamese, and we felt like we could blend into the background more than other places without being bombarded by sales pitches from everyone we met.

Dalat is also somewhat of an artist's spot, so on our second day we took a walk to visit a real architectural wonder-- Hang Nga Crazy House. Nope, not a lunatic asylum, but a bizarre creation by a Vietnamese architect who had the cash and inspiration to build a very Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-Gaudi complex which is part hotel, part playground, and part tourist attraction. It's a tribute to the nature Madame Hang Nga loves, with the structures shaped as giant trees, with fishponds, toadstools, and giant concrete giraffes hanging out together. We spent hours exploring the many themed animal-themed hotel rooms and climbing windy bridges between the concrete "branches" of the zany artifical trees. One of the other cool things is when we asked the lady selling admission tickets what the house was made of, she replied, "I made it from concrete..." and we realized it was the architect and mastermind herself, Mrs Hang Nga, humbly hanging out in the ticket booth, answering questions and selling admissions-- amazing!

We noticed some black storm clouds coming in thick and fast and just as we arrived back at our hotel to drop off some things, the rain started. There was so much water coming down the street in front had become a series of lakes and people were madly trying to get shelter and get off their motorbikes. We witnessed a few kamikaze trucks zooming down the road, splashing all the way to the buildings (and anyone unlucky enough to be in between!). It was quite the sight... and of course, in an hour, was all over and sunshine again!

The next morning was all gorgeous blue skies and we seized the opportunity to rent a motorbike ($6 USD for an automatic) to explore the sights in the hills outside of town. There are countless motorbike riders selling personal tours of the surrounds (the Easy Riders, they call themselves) but as we like to do things our own way-- and were sick to death of their pestering-- we opted for our own wheels. It wasn't long before we were off the map and totally lost in the mountains, trying to find our way to the scenic-sounding Tiger Falls. We zoomed past the proper turnoff about four times and the villagers on either end had probably seen enough of us by the time we made it... but it was a beautiful way to take in the countryside-- Adrian as the driver and Dayle as the hand-signaller. :) We did a bit of off-roading-- Vietnam mountain roads are not as smoothly paved as Thai mountain roads, it seems!-- and eventually found our way deep into a valley to the Tiger Falls, named so apparently from a legend that there once was a mean tiger who lived there. All we found was an old man, a few cute humpy dogs, and a big concrete tiger to climb inside of (oh Dalat!), but it was good times. We finished off our cruising at the "Valley of Love", a cheeseball Disneyland-for-couples attraction that's a bit hard to visit seriously-- two-person swings, naked statues, heart-shaped painted wooden frames to take photos inside of, staff dressed up as cowboys-- well, of course we opted for the super-cheese and squeaked our way into the Valley of Love's lake on a rusty, creaking swan-shaped paddleboat...

And just when we had had our fill of cheesiness for the day and were going to make a quick escape from the "Valley"... we found ourselves with a flat front tire! Oh damn, we thought, how much will this cost us? And however will we explain this, in our feeble Vietnamese, to the hotel staff who rented us the bike ? Well, it turns out that there are motorbike mechanics everywhere, and it takes about 15 minutes and costs about $1.50 AUD to fix a flat in Vietnam. Woohoo! Now that's true love!

Friday, March 6, 2009

Trapped by Twinkle Lights

So, you'll never guess where the last two weeks of travels have taken us-- Saigon, and more Saigon! Aside from our three-day jaunt down to the Mekong Delta last week (which was a fantastic time), we've pretty much been stationary in Vietnam's biggest city. There's a certain pull to the place that we're having trouble putting our fingers on: during the daytime, it often feels like just any other city, exciting enough and different, but just another place where the goings-on of everyday life happen. There's some sort of switch that happens as soon as the workday is over: around 4:30pm, the streets are crammed with motorbikes (good luck crossing by foot!), the sun starts to dip lower, and as soon as it's nearly dark, HCMC's lit up with a billion neon signs and there are strings of twinkle lights everywhere... and that's when we fall in love with the place all over again. Or maybe is it just the slight change in temperature that does it?!

We've been flirting with the idea of staying in HCMC, landing English teaching jobs (or better yet, media and web jobs, if they're out there), getting motorbikes of our own, learning Vietnamese, and settling into expat life here. We even got going on our resumes and started making contact with the English-teaching world... but after more than a week of flip-flopping between staying and making a go of things, or continuing our leisurely travels, it seems fate is pointing us in the way of the holiday. Contrary to the impressions we had before, it's NOT as simple to slide into a decent English-teaching job here without getting a TESOL type certificate (something we're not prepared to fork over a lot of our savings for, at least while in Vietnam-- ie. $800-$1200 USD a person!). We've met a good bunch of English teachers who are loving the life in HCMC, but right now there aren't many classes going (the Tet new year celebrations have just finished= not so much spare $ to go around for English school) and people are lucky if they get 10 hours a week! And then there's all the set-up of starting anew... something we know so well from our various homes in Australia. Our hearts just weren't totally in it. And then, on the morning we were about to start printing resumes and getting serious about the job hunt-- OUR AUSTRALIAN TAX RETURN APPEARED! Now if that's not fate, we don't know what is. So it looks like we'll be taking the travelling option once again, and see what happens...

Not that we haven't immensely enjoyed relaxing and really getting to know Saigon! We have found the BEST coffee--in a suitably dim and ancient-looking coffeeshop which feels like we've stepped into 1970s Saigon; ridden cyclos, those bicycle-cart thingies; observed the after-work routine of kicking around a shuttlecock in the park; sampled much random food (OK, there's been quite a bit of eating involved!); and have explored street after street. [Check out our new photos!] On Saturday we'll head north to Dalat, a charming mountain town about six hours from the city, and then onward north to explore this amazing country...