|A Tour of Vietnam|
Vietnam is an enigma. Constantly involved in a tug-of-war by a succession of colonists and conquerors, it has somehow emerged intact.
Today’s Vietnam is poised to follow its Asian neighbours onto the world stage.
Its kind and gentle people welcomed us on a recent trip; its scenery entranced us; and the food blew us away!
Please enjoy this month’s trip to a country we will never forget and one you must visit.
An early flight (well, we think 7.35am is early!) from Sydney Airport and most of the day in a Cathay Pacific A330 airbus had us landing in Hong Kong, dashing across the terminal (rather, up and down escalators, through checks and via – at one point - can’t remember how and where, on a fast underground train link) to just connect with a shortish flight to Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon.
By the time we arrived (around 5pm-ish) Vietnam time, three hours before Sydney’s EST, we were ready to stop travelling. Just 40 minutes later we reached our hotel, the Northern Hotel, in the delightful French quarter of HCM city. As we travelled, our guide, Tuan (means ‘handsome boy’, he tell us with a grin) explains some of the nuances of visiting Vietnam.
To the Mekong
Up early, but for a good reason. Today we head for the Mekong, that long river whose name means ‘mother river’, possibly because it touches and nourishes five countries.
We could have gone by boat upriver but that would take eight hours. By bus it was just a couple. But first the battle through the HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City is such a long name and most people abbreviate it) early morning traffic. Life is lived on the street here and we saw people picking up baguettes for breakfast or slurping down bowls of rice porridge from a roadside stall then hopping back on a motor bike and into the turmoil of traffic again.
Later, as the countryside began, we passed rice paddies, many of them with white tombs in them amongst the shoots of rice. These belonged to family members we were told, and their presence was a bit of an insurance that the farm would stay in the family. After all, who wants the remains of someone else’s rellies on their land? Three centuries ago, this land was part of Cambodia – which still isn’t all that far away.
Our guide pointed out the first signs of the development (complete with golf course) which Michael Jackson’s father is financing. Overseas money is being welcomed in this country.
Finally in My Tho city (pop around 400,000) we visited the large and relatively new (1849) Vinh Trang pagoda with not one, but TWO Buddhas. The present one stands tall wagging an admonishing finger. His half-shut eyes and long ear lobes indicate wisdom, we are told. The other – the ‘happy’ Buddha – looks pleased to be regarded as the ‘next’ Buddha. His responsibilities are some way off, I guess.
There are strict rules about pagoda protocol and I snap a picture of a sign that admonished us to avoid ‘din conversation’.
Next we hurry to catch a seven-kilometre boat cruise along the Mekong for about an hour. It’s good to leave the muggy conditions behind and pick up a little breeze on the water as we pass some heavy-duty barges, fishing boats and fish farms. Almost at the end, our boat heads off into a narrower canal and deposits us at a dock on an island.
From here we whizz through a ‘coconut museum’ then hurry to a small eating place prepared for us with honey tea and plates of tropical fruit. We fall on the jakfruit, a personal favourite of mine, longans and watermelon, but leave the dragonfruit – which always seems beautiful but bland to me.
As we sip and munch we are entertained by a musical trio and three singers. It’s a romantic song, but the words mean nothing to us, although the voices are beautiful, and the melody haunting.
Another stop while some of our group has a hefty python arranged around their shoulders (not me!) and then a much sweeter treat – a coconut candy-making establishment. Here, the hot toffee, flavoured with durian, chocolate, ginger and several other fruits, is spread out on plastic sheets, then cut with pieces of plastic when cooled, then wrapped – so of course we bought. Well, they would make good take-home presents, we reasoned. That’s if we didn’t eat them first.
Minutes later we are led to a village laneway to mount a little cart, pulled by a diminutive horse. Pour little thing. Six of us piled into the cart (‘It’s OK!’ says the driver) but we feel for it as it lugs us a couple
of kilometres through the village to the canal-edge where dugout canoes wait.
We notice grimly that smaller Asian passengers could fit six in a boat. Our group is rationed to three. And we have to sit absolutely central and not wiggle as the boat would tip alarmingly with even the slighted movement.
Still, it was a quiet and peaceful trip down the canal with the jungle almost meeting overhead and unseen birds singing from the shadows. Although just centimetres from the water we could not trail our fingers in it as having hands over the side of the boat was strictly prohibited. Other boats passed by, almost touching, and it would be just too dangerous.
Lunch at last – we were hungry, despite the coconut candy – and the NGOC Gia Trang Restaurant at 196A Ap Bac St, My Tho had a surprise for us too.
Years ago on a Mekong visit I had seen perhaps the most unusual ‘snack’ ever. It was being made in the gardens of a zoo at Can Tho, further west, and I’d watched entranced as within a few minutes a small blob of paste in a large wok containing hot oil, swelled to something hollow, crisp and golden, and the size of a basketball.
Our guide had told me it was called xoi phong and was made from glutinous rice, and he had arranged for one to be made for our group. It arrived, every bit as spectacular as I’d remembered it.
This time, rather than just snacking on it, it came as an accompaniment to our meal. Our waitress carefully cut into the ball which amazingly stayed intact (rather than shattering or deflating) then cut it into strips which we ate with the dusk we had been served. It provided a lovely chewy contrast to the tender flesh and was quite irresistible. We’d already polished off an equally stunning whole fried fish (an Elephant Ear) still with scales which had curled up like fingernails all over the skin. For this, the flesh was removed by the waitress and we were directed to wrap pieces with the accompanying salad in rice paper wrappers.
After such a morning, of course we snoozed all the way back in the bus, rousing only when we hit the stop-start rush hour traffic of HCMC.
With time to spare before dinner we took the opportunity to explore the nearby city blocks. I was keen to try a true Vietnamese coffee made by slowly dripping intensely strong coffee through a small metal container. I had already bought one on the street the night before. Next to Bach Dang (said to have the best ice cream ‘in the world’ - coconut ice cream served in a coconut shell) we located Trung Nguyen Café. They served us a delicious this authentic drink, prefaced by a complimentary glass of green tea as we waited for the coffee to drip through (a fairly slow process).
From there we strolled to the ‘mother-in-law’ markets (dubbed this by our guide who quipped the goods were not good enough for wives or children) but found the stallholders all packing away their bolts of silk and swags of clothes, the watches and mountains of shoes and handbags. Six o’clock closing it seemed and the lights started going out just as we reached the food section, to which we had been drawn by the strong and unlikely aromas of durian and coffee and dried fish.
So then, it was on at last to our dinner venue – The Open Kitchen (Nhà Hàng Ngon) at 160 Louis Pasteur Street, a place everyone in HCMC should visit.
The place is well-named as two open kitchens extend up either side of the central dining area. The place was packed with diners inside under ceiling fans and fairy-lit trees, or outdoors in the tropical air with more trees and fairy lights. Either area is ideal. The system works well. The ‘kitchen’ is a series of work-stations, and each set of cooks prepare just one or two hawker-style dishes on charcoal braziers and domestic-sized appliances.
I am almost ashamed to say how much we ate – hungrily ordering more and more. My notes tell me we had green papaya salad, vermicelli and grilled pork, spring rolls, a Vietnamese rice pancake as large as a dinner plate but crisp and lacy and stuffed with bean sprouts and herbs, curry chicken, grilled lamb and juices. My notebook also reminds me that we spent 300,000 dong. Which is about $15 for the two of us!
Ahhh! Vietnam. We are already falling for this place!
HCMC and off to Hoi An
The skies over HCMC are smiling on us as we finally get to see and experience the great city itself. With its maybe twelve million people, it is a busy, bustling place, the roads crammed with ever-honking motorbikes.
During one long wait at traffic lights, our guide Tuan takes an opportunity to teach us some Vietnamese words. We obediently practice one we hope to use often: Xin chào (hello) which seems to sound like Zin Chow. Another important one is Cám on (thank you) which we anglicise to Come on! Later, to the patient and understanding Vietnamese people we try it on, despite our dreadful accent, it seems to at least be intelligible.
First stop is the Reunification Palace set in lovely landscaped grounds. It’s a hot morning and by the time we climb several flights of stairs (and tour some of the opulent public rooms) and then descend even more flights back down into a bunker-like basement, some of us are feeling, well, quite faint.
Unfortunately the next stop was not for the faint-hearted either. The History Museum (or War Remnants Museum) brings back the all too recent history of the last war in this country, called by the Vietnamese, the American War.
Nine years ago on our last trip to Vietnam, I toured this museum and was brought to tears by pictures which underlined the youth of the victims on both sides, the cruel acts and what I feel is the futility of war itself. Unable to see how a second exposure could benefit me, I and a few of the ladies on the group decide to take a walk. Interestingly the street we choose is lined with shops all selling the same thing. Safes and padlocks!
As luck would have it, though, we also find a delightful coffee shop - with excellent air-conditioning! I indulge my newfound love of Vietnamese drip coffee, and the others revel in the fact it belongs to the Snowee chain and have long cool icy drinks.
Back on the bus and we are taken for a scenic (and understandably slow – remember all those bikes) tour of the city, passing the glorious Notre Dame Cathedral which we’d seen the previous afternoon, and other public buildings, many painted the popular buttercup yellow and built favouring French architectural styles
One of the souvenirs most tourists bring back from Vietnam is lacquer-ware and we are soon privileged to take a tour of a lacquer making factory. It’s amazing how many processes are used to build up that rock-hard mirror-shiny glaze, and how may wonderful pictures and designs can be created using this technique.
We see everything from chests of drawers, occasional tables, paintings and ornaments to vases and jewellery boxes. The Vietnamese seem to be a nation of elegant and classy artists, able to create beautiful goods in a variety of mediums.
We discover that lacquering is not easy work, and the strong chemical smells must make working with these products very unpleasant for those who do it day after day. We’re glad to escape into the showroom and its bewildering range of options. To the people of this country, there is nothing that is impossible. You want a lacquered dining table? You need it for Australia? No problem. It can be shipped. Even the prices, when we now consider the length of time and level of expertise needed to create each item, are very low.
By now it is lunch time so we head for the Pho Xua or ‘ancient town’ restaurant for lunch – a relatively quick one – as from here we are to travel to the airport to catch the plane for Hoi An, about halfway north along the country’s eastern coast. However, a 'quick' meal in Vietnam is still several courses. So an appetiser of banana blossom arrives as soon as we are seated. It is prepared with morning glory (a favourite green in this country) and pork comes with magnificent crisp rice breads thickly studded with black sesame seeds.
Next a spring roll of avocados and rice noodles, cut almost like sushi, then a delicious main course of grilled chicken with julienned lemon leaves (delicious!) and fried sticky rice patties. Then stewed fish and pork in a clay pot as well as stir-fried cove bean with mushrooms. When the rice arrives we recognise it as the local code for 'the meal is almost finished'. This time it is different. The rice has been cooked with sesame seeds and steamed in a flat banana leaf parcel. It is sipped open at the table and instantly releases the most amazing nutty aroma.
Only one more dish - a departure from the more common pieces of fruit. Today we have a creme caramel that is silky and delicious.
After an hour’s trip we land at Danang, (Da Nang) Vietnam’s third-largest city after HCMC and Hanoi. It has a population of a million and increasing almost as you watch. Immediately we have picked up our bags we are driven north from Danang to Hoi An, about 45 minutes away, where we are to stay the next two nights.
The number of resorts and golf courses and condominiums and developments lining the highway are jaw-dropping. Tuan describes Danang as a ‘very developing city’ and we can see he is right. Some houses are priced at US$1m – some even with their own piece of beach – and all this in a country where the monthly wage is $150 or less. This area is obviously geared to become a world playground, with people from the former fishing villages being paid to leave so more development can take place.
So it is with a small sigh of relief that we enter the lovely time-capsule of Hoi An with its narrow streets and ancient houses. Its old name, we are told came from two words Peaceful and Meeting and we feel instantly calm again just hearing that.
Better still, the old town is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage site and it will stay this way. By now it is night, time to check in and prepare for dinner.
Day three ended with a lovely meal at a restaurant called Cau Do Red Bridge, riverside we presumed but so dark and drizzly it was hard to tell. We later discover the river in question is, of course, the Hoi An River. The restaurant, like many places in Hoi An, also presents cookery classes.
The meal made up for the conditions though and we relaxed at last, comfortably seated outdoors in big cane armchairs filled with cushions.
Vietnamese love to roll tasty fillings inside something else. This time to begin with the ubiquitous spring rolls were replace by beef, peanuts and soya sauce wrapped in ‘lot’ or wild betel leaves. Truly delicious. This was followed swiftly as is the case for groups in these restaurants with salt and pepper squid with chilli dipping sauce, and grilled turmeric shrimp wrapped in banana leaves, made even better by the addition of shredded coconut and daikon.
Finally, chicken breast strips stir-fried with cashews, Vietnamese basil and chilli jam (yum!) arrived with rice and mixed greens (morning glory, we suspected to which we were becoming a little addicted) and the chaser of choice in most places, fresh fruit.
Back then to our accommodation at Ancient House River Resort, too dark to see the river, but a lovely open plan room and best of all after a long day – a wide inviting bed.
Hoi An - in the rain!
The Hoi An area has one of Vietnam’s highest rainfalls, and we fully believe it the next day when we wake to steady rain.
Our day begins with a visit to Hoi An’s pagoda the Phuoc Kien (Fukien) Assembly Hall at 46 Tran Phu Street, memorable for one thing. Inside there are many ‘chandeliers’ of red incense spirals which families can buy to light then let them smoulder there for months, taking up prayers to heaven on behalf of their departed relatives. There is a philanthropic angle to this temple too, we realise, when we see bags of rice which have been brought here as donations to disaster victims or for the poor.
From here we walk (or rather slosh) into the old town with its beautifully preserved old houses, tiny laneways creating a maze that have us all lost at one time or another later that day when we take some free time to explore.
To begin with we walk together as a group, though, passing streets full of tailor shops that offer to measure, sew, fit and deliver jackets and dresses, suits and virtually anything we want within 24 hours. Vietnamese fabrics, silks and woven goods, are truly beautiful and the workmanship is fast and good. A few in our group succumbed and added to their wardrobes before the day was out.
Although the old town of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, it has kept up with the times. The clothes are fashionable, and the bars and cafes are hip and popular. Of course there are endless streets of shops selling lacquer goods, toys, souvenirs and jewellery to keep up with the hordes of tourists, but the quality is high, and the prices low.
Occasionally a narrow street leads to an arched bridge and more twisting streets and shops. The good thing is that although there is much to buy, the vendors are respectful and’ No, thank you’ is all you need to say.
When we see Tam Tam restaurant in Tran Phu street, I decide to see for myself the place mentioned in the Lonely Planet World Food Vietnam book I had brought with me. Or rather think is mentioned. This one is really Tam Tam Jardin, though. We order a Vietnamese coffee but it is not a patch on the HCMC one, even though the restaurant is dry and cosy.
We escape the rain at one point to see a silk showroom, climbing ladder-steep stairs to an upstairs room where cages holding silkworms and various stages of silk production are on view. Most of the women in the group can hardly stand still long enough to listen to the shop’s presenter, as the racks of clothing in glowing colours is so tempting. Downstairs, young girls bend low over screens holding fabric which they are stitching with silk threads as fine as hair.
Lunch at Viettown Restaurant, was developed, according to the brochure, as a miniature of Hoi An Ancient Town, and designed in the style of the originals. From the upstairs windows we look out on the roofs of surrounding buildings with their famous curved tiles arranged in a Yin Yang style.
Upstairs, the dishes come swiftly: green papaya salad with shrimps and prawn crackers, then Hoi An traditional spring rolls in lacy wrappers much like the Greek kataifi pastry. Grilled squid with a very mild satay sauce arrive soon after, then meltingly tender caramelised pork which has been baked in a clay pot, along with vegetables and rice. Interestingly dessert is not fruit, but delicious little individual banana cakes. Downstairs we explore a series of rooms holding silks, handcrafts, an art gallery, and of course a tailor!
By now the rain is teeming down so going back to the hotel seems the only option and we don’t re-emerge until it is time to catch the free shuttle bus from the resort back into the city. We’ve been told of some good restaurants there, and we want to see some of the bars.
The bus drops us at the far end of town near the Central Markets, but they are dark and closed so we walk on in the dim light, dodging motorbikes that zoom at us without warning.
The bars turn out to be quite trendy – Q Bar, White Marble Wine Bar, especially – with some with blackboard menus featuring Australian wines. Then in Nguyen Thai Hoc after passing several Italian restaurants, at 106, we locate Morning Glory, a restaurant we’d had highly recommended to us. It’s actually opposite the main Tam Tam Café , the one we’d thought we’d been at earlier in the day.
Morning Glory is famous for being a street food restaurant and cooking school owned by local cookery legend Trinh Diem Vy. The menu‘s description tempts us to begin with white rose rice flour dumplings filled with shrimp, but I am keen to follow it up with banh xeo the local crispy pancake, known as happy crepes. By now we are on an eating roll, ordering Hoi An chicken rice and bun cha, grilled meatballs with cold rice noodles. Somehow Hoi An pho, a soup with papaya pickles, and a pomelo salad with chicken, prawns and chilli jam find their way onto our overcrowded table and into our groaning bellies. In Vietnam, two particularly well known varieties of pomelo are cultivated – one called bưởi Năm Roi in the Trà Ôn district of Vinh Long Province of the Mekong Delta region, and one called bưởi da xanh in Ben Tre Province.
It is all just so good, and we are amazed by how the chefs just keep feeding such a packed restaurant with the huge variety of wonderful dishes – all this amongst the potted plants, and with a soothing background of cool jazz.
Hardly able to move, but knowing we have to make the hotel shuttle bus on time for the return journey, we finally waddle off, along the darkened and now quieter streets, past shops pulling down the shutters and closing up for the day. At last.
Hoi An to Hue
Never having been known for a great love of heights, this morning I choose Option B. While some of the group decide to climb the 400 steps up the Marble Mountains – five sacred hills containing dozens of Buddhist shrines – then descend another 400 (Option A), I choose to go with the remainder of the group to where the marble ends up.
The marble workshop and showrooms have plenty to keep us occupied, although most of the more attractive items are just a tad heavy to consider bringing home. Although in this country having something – anything shipped is always possible. Regardless I wander through the stony crowds of statues, entranced by how delicately this very hard stone can be shaped, but ultimately fall for a sandstone elephant - possibly a god – with smooth lines that are very lovely.
The group reassembles and we board the bus. This day will be largely taken up with coach travel as we have to reach Hue (pron. Hway) by afternoon. The sweetener is that if the weather is good (it’s not at the point when we leave) we can go OVER the mountain, the Hai Van Pass, the divide between North and South Vietnam and enjoying breathtaking views.
The booby prize will be if the weather is bad. Then we must use the tunnel through the mountain because the road over the top with its multi hairpins and steepness would be too unsafe.
But before we leave the area, we take a very brief stop at Red Beach, site of the first US landing in 1963, and a popular R&R beach for soldiers during the ‘American War’. For many soldiers there would be happy and sad memories associated here, but all we saw was a long beach, golden sand, and greenish water under an overcast sky. Oh, and the prospect of sharks further out. Maybe.
In Danang again, we visit the Cham Museum representing the Champa region of central Vietnam. The relatively small building is filled with weathered artefacts, statues, and gods – some of them huge and weighing tonnes – which had been excavated in the jungles in 1902 by a French archaeological team of Henri Parmentier and Charles Carpeaux. The haul has been likened to the treasures of Angkor Wat. Some pieces are intricately carved and most are remarkably well-preserved.
We see a little more of Danang today and revise upwards our previous assessment of the city. The architecture has a very obvious French influence and there is a lively waterfront esplanade beside the Han River. There are still some old-style shops and topiary trees add a jaunty air.
But now we head north, and the weather has not cooperated. Our trip will be quicker as the tunnel is only six kilometres long whereas the twisting mountain road is 22 kilometres. Motor bikes are not allowed to use the tunnel. To pass through they must be loaded on a truck.
I had hoped the weather might have cleared on the other side of the mountain, but it has not. We pass fishing villages and resorts right on a beautiful curving bay and a lagoon with fishing boats, looking possibly as it has for centuries. Tuan, our guide, points out stalls selling small yellow bottles. ‘They are eucalyptus oil,’ he says. The sticks we see in the water indicate shrimp farms, he tells us too.
Hue was once the capital of Vietnam and is still regarded as the intellectual capital with 12 schools of higher learning. It’s a wet area, and rains 300 days a year. We can believe that as it hasn’t stopped all morning.
Finally, a late lunch at La Thong Restaurant with a large hall and Japanese-style garden. The menu says the chef is proud to present regional local produce, so it’s possible the fish cooked in the claypot and the prawns and squid came from bays nearby.
With the weather misbehaving, out boat trip has been deferred until tomorrow and instead visit the tomb of Khai Dinh the last of the Nguyen dynasty. There is flight after flight of steep grey stairs and we feel we’ll never reach the top. They are slippery too, and we see a couple of other tourists take a skid. Inside the tomb itself, the effect is amazing. At first glance every surface appears to be made from elaborately painted and glazed sculpture, but on closer inspection it is composed of pieces of broken glass and pottery assembled to give that impression. Regardless of this, the effect is opulent without being kitsch.
After carefully negotiating those stairs we are back on terra firma - well terra 'wetter' and are taken to the Mercure Hue Gerbera, our hotel right near the river.
The restaurant is located in the old town again, and for dinner serves ‘royal cuisine’ which seems to mean that every dish is more decorated. The spring rolls come as part of a peacock with a carrot head, carrot feathers and the tail is pineapple leaves. We have the happy crepes which are a feature of Hue – basically a crispy crepe with vegetables cooked inside, so that makes me happy, as I had wanted to try these.
Some of the dishes are a little special too, such as the fig salad (made using tiny local figs) with pork and shrimp served with rice cakes, and steamed lotus rice. The meal ends with not only fresh fruit but green bean cakes formed to resemble fruit, reminiscent of the Sicilian marzipan fruit.
Next morning we visit The Citadel in Hue, a huge block like fortress opposite the gate of the Imperial City. It is heartbreaking to discover that ninety percent of the city was destroyed by bombing during the war, and much is still in ruins, although the brave and resourceful Vietnamese have plans to ultimately rebuild it. ‘The bombing took two weeks,’ we are told. ’It will take 20 years to rebuild.’
Inside the city walls there are a couple of elephants available to take people for rides and to be photographed with. Our guide tells us there were once thousands of elephants in Vietnam – now there are only 80.
There are few tourists, so we wander around absorbing the old city. There are some bizarre things, too, that look like fat red telephone boxes with a carved statue inside. Their resemblance (apart from the colour) to a Tardis is uncanny.
We carefully return back down the steep stairs and onto a boat for a relaxing ride on the Perfume River. We have the wide boat to ourselves and also a private salesperson, a pretty young woman, who begins to sell us clothing and souvenirs as soon as we leave the shore. It’s all a lot of fun and of course we can’t resist this novel opportunity to shop.
Lunch is at The Ancient Hue Royal Cuisine & Gallery. With more time we might have explored the five authentic Hue houses on the site, but we have a plane to catch for Hanoi shortly after lunch. The meal is gracious and elegant, most memorable for the dessert which is coconut ice cream in soft meringue (a little like a Vietnamese take on bombe alaska) but with the added finesse of a pastry palm tree planted on one side of it.
Hanoi and Beyond
On a guided tour, no matter how good the tour or the tour guide is (and ours are superb) it’s wonderful to have some free time to explore by yourself. So after breakfast (which I have to say at the Medallion Hotel offers one of the best of the trip so far possibly because I have fallen for the huge crunchy dead-fresh Vietnamese rolls) we head off into the surrounding streets, map firmly in hand, plus hotel business card in case we need to seek directions back to it again.
A sense of direction is almost useless in the old city and as we dodge motorbikes (in my mind facing almost certain death or mutilation) and turn corner after corner, I am totally disoriented. Gordon is more on top of it and I follow him and soak up the colour and life of this place.
Once you get used to it, the pace is not as frenetic as you first think. The vehicles move at a reasonably slow speed, always considerate and fitting in with other vehicles or pedestrians like us. There is a huge amount of tooting, but we learn that the message is ‘I’m here’ not ‘get outta my way!!’
We track down a few restaurants I had spotted from the ‘green’ electric bus the night before and a whole street, almost all cafes, selling the beans too. One variety has a disturbing picture of a weasel on it. I don’t have the language skills to ask if this is like the Indonesian coffee, kopi luwak, in which the beans first have to pass through the digestive tract of an animal.
In fact we don’t stop for coffee anywhere, as the next corner, the next shop, the next intersection beckons us on. Some streets are so narrow that parking is impossible and I watch amazed as people cycle up, call out to the shopkeeper and load up with anything from noodles to toilet paper, then pay and zoom off again.
One place fascinates us – an artist sits painstakingly copying photographs and rendering perfect portraits. You could be sure that all the world’s famous people had posed for him, yet he is using only pens and brushes and his fingers.
We lunch together as a group at Ha Hoi Restaurant (down a tiny laneway off Ha Hoi Street). The menu is in French except for
The French Colonial style extended to French wines and a pretty place to eat – white cloths, a garden at the front, terracotta tiles on the floor, ceiling fans.
As the capital, Hanoi, has many museums we visit next Museum of Ethnology built by the French and opened in 1994. It is set beside a Cham compound with mud buildings and farm implements, a water puppet show and Khmer racing boat designed to carry 52 rowers.
The main building is built in an open and airy atrium style showing craft and artifacts, colourful costumes and objects of daily village life from the various tribes. Strangely there is also a large walk through area that deals with the dangers of HIV.
While this is all fascinating and should take us hours, we have seen something else we are interested in. The Hoa Sua project aims to provide employment and careers in the hospitality industry for disadvantaged youth and the project has already assisted 4000 youth. There is a training restaurant in the city and several other places around Hanoi. A café run by this group and staffed by the young people is on the museum grounds so we take a break to have the coffee we have been longing for all day.
As we sit on comfortable lounges with a cappuccino and a Vietnamese drip coffee (my current passion) we marvel at the standard of the service. There are pastries and baguettes too, quiche, pizza, tartines and sandwiches for sale, but no time to snack as we have been promised a short stop at the Museum Shop in the grounds near the entrance steps and the word from Tuan is that it has good quality items for sale. He’s right. There are some wonderful silk scarves, embroidered bags and purses, jewellery and more - and it is here I buy (very quickly) most of my take-home gifts for friends. Oh, and a few things for myself too.
By now it is late afternoon and with a train to catch this evening we are watching our the clock. Just enough time, though, for our bus to take us by West Lake, and for us to see in daylight where we dined last night. It’s a lovely relaxed area, with the road forming a causeway between two parts of the lake. There are swan-shaped paddle boats for people to hire and take out on the water, and a memorial on the spot where Sr John McCain was shot down.
As a special treat, we stop at a large supermarket. This is not such a strange inclusion on the itinerary. Because we are travelling overnight on the train, some of the group want to stock up with provisions. I always just like to experience a supermarket in another country too, to get a feel what the locals buy and use.
Here, it seems very familiar as there are many Sydney suburbs with Asian supermarkets, although here I find just-baked fresh baguettes, French wines and imported liquors, and tropical fruits. I buy some kitchen implements (spoons) including a textured ‘rice spoon’ which is said not to allow the rice to stick to it. I now know that was a good claim.
On then to an early dinner at La Lua Wild Rice Restaurant where we soon wonder why we’d felt a need for extra food for the trip! The location in a converted home is French colonial elegance-meets-contemporary Vietnamese at its best. Smoked glass with bamboo showing through from behind makes a feature wall, and we dine under delicate art deco-style flower-shaped lights. Black and white photographs are all that is needed for the walls and other pictures are projected on a rice paper screen.
The meal is one of the best and deliciously different ones of the trip. To recite the menu does not do it justice. The crab and baby corn soup and prawn and banana fried spring rolls (different and wonderful) set the tone. Grilled chicken comes with the piquant accents of chilli and lemongrass, and while the fish is fried and battered, it is accompanied by pickle apricot sauce.
After a send-off like this, we feel a pang at leaving Hanoi, but we’re told our overnight transport will be leaving soon. Any train with an excitingly romantic name such as the Fanxipan Express could not be kept waiting!
The Hill Country
The train from Hanoi was remarkably comfortable and we slept well, unless you count being woken at around 5.30am. They had provided biscuits and a banana and water too so our provisions were hardly needed.
From Lao Cai we were taken on a bus south-west to Sapa twisting upwards into the mountain areas. Sapa is at an altitude of 1600 metres but although it was cooler, it was still pleasant.
Immediately on arrival we were taken to a restaurant just a few doors away from our hotel, the Chau Long Hotel. Here we had one of the most interesting breakfasts of our trip - freshly made omelettes, pancakes with syrup, fried balls with green bean filling, banana fritters, potato soup, all laid out on large tables.
The local people are very colourful in their dress, very friendly, and very persistent in their efforts to sell their handmade craft work. It is beautiful, though, and much of it embroidered and cross-stitched. You see them sitting and working almost anywhere. I bought one cushion cover and it reeked of the smoke from an open fire, proof that it had been probably stitched in the half light at night by an open fire. They work incredibly hard and many walk to the markets each day from their villages kilometres away.
We spent an afternoon wandering the streets of Sapa and then enjoying the markets on the football field where handmade items were laid out on the ground, displayed for sale. Even here, the ladies kept sewing. Despite the hours of painstaking work, around 100,000 dong (around $5) buys a cushion cover, a cap or a scarf.
There are several hill tribe people: the red hmong, blue hmong, black, white and flower hmong. Each are easily identifiable by their headgear and clothing once you know what to look for., The red hmong women shave off their eyebrows once they marry.
These red hmong look like they are discussing photography with Gordon but really they are trying to sell him their needlework!
The market in Sapa is vibrant and extensive. When I went one morning plucked chickens – the ones we are used to, as well as black ones – were lined up ready to sell. When I returned later in the day, the benches were empty and the vendors were counting their cash.
There were many varieties of fish, too, pig's heads split in half, almost any meat you could think of to eat for sale, as well as vegetables, bean sprouts, chillies, bunches of morning glory (a popular green vegetable), and fruits, eggs, noodles and little stalls selling freshly fried breads and spring rolls.
The local women carry their belongings and goods for sale in wicker baskets on their backs. Note the umbrella. It rains a lot in this area.
Babies are well-loved, and well-protected, always closely bound to mother's back. Sometimes we saw a young girl, perhaps the baby's older sister, running nimbly on a hillside with a baby on her back.
Sapa town has a wide range of restaurants and cafes, some serving Italian fare, and of course catering for what has become a major industry here - tourism. For this reason the sort of Vietnamese food we have become used to is not as upfront here - which is perhaps why we so enjoyed that first breakfast and also our last dinner at a family restaurant at the top end of town.
There is a 'frontier town' feel to the place. You can be shopping for the finest silk dresses or heritage silver jewellery, then step outside and see water buffalos strolling up the centre of the main street, with the traffic simply making way for them to pass.
On our second day in the hill country we hiked to a local village. While the distance was only a few kilometres, the trail was greasy and slippery as we descended into the valley. At every turn there was yet another view of rice paddies and terraces, misting away into the distance.
We clambered over log bridges, skirted a quarry and for a while walked with a band of little children who chanted over and over: 'You buy from me? You buy from me.' They wanted to sell us bookmarks and bracelets, anything we would take, and were relentless in their sales pitch.
At the end of the morning's walk our guide led us on a 'shortcut' through a paddy field much like this. One slip and we would have been drenched.
One delicacy of the region are small roasted birds, often threaded on a wooden skewer while cooking. At one roadside stop a group were gathered around a charcoal brazier, evidently enjoying a quick and tasty snack.
In the main street of Sapa, tasty spreads such as these are common, just waiting for a passer-by to select something to be quickly cooked and served on the spot.
This tot was at a roadside market sing-songing 'You buy from me?' Our guide told us he was worried that children are kept home from school in order to use their 'cute-power' to aid sales, but other people I spoke to said they wanted their children to have an education.
Truly the Switzerland of Vietnam, Sapa and the hill-country has mountains and cool-climate flowers and fruits. Many houses in the town are built in a chalet style too.
Finally it was time to head back to Lao Cai and the Fanxipan train, but not before a detour to the river which separates Vietnam from China. We stood in Vietnam and looked across to China, but to cross that bridge we would have needed a visa.