Brendon Kearns

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Month: March 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Ninh Bình and Đồng Hới

We wanted to get out of the city and see more of rural Vietnam so we made a side-trip from Hanoi to Ninh Bình with a guide, Mu, and a local driver, Vuong, to show us around. We drove two hours south and stopped in Vân Long (one of the many places in Vietnam that is referred to as 'Halong Bay on land') where we took a boat trip around some limestone cliffs and through a small cave. We could hear birds and gibbons in the forest, but they stayed hidden as it was a cool drizzly day.

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Mu brought us out here to show us a site we might not otherwise see – Vân Long is less popular with westerners (who mostly do trips out to Tam Cốc) but quite popular with Chinese tourists, who come to visit the nearby temple.

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Looking up from inside a limestone cave

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Rower taking us around

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We stopped at a local restaurant for a massive lunch. We read later that in Vietnam you should always leave some food on your plate to show that you are full and satisfied with what your host has provided – perhaps ordering a few extra dishes is the only way to ensure this when eating with westerners! Mu and Vuong joked about serving us dog – which they claimed tasted like goat – another regional delicacy. We passed numerous places advertising thịt chó and thịt mèo (“meat meow”) on the drive.

 

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Next we walked through Thung Nắng village, which is located among some very impressive rock formations. We saw a guy with a cage on his bike actually buying a dog for a wedding banquet, which gave a new meaning to the phrase “Going to see a man about a dog”… Being an animal-lover in Vietnam is hard.

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Our next stop was Yên Mô village, where we'd be staying for the night. Mu took us to see a woman making rice noodles – she soaks the grains of rice, runs them through a hand-operated machine and then drains them overnight to sell at market early the next morning. She makes about 100,000 dong per day, which adds up to less than $2000 a year. But that's a pretty decent income in this village, where people grow nearly all their own food.

After that we went to the local market. Brendon had to keep his head low to stay under the tarp that covered the walkways. We received a lot of stares from locals, along with some obligatory “Hello!”s. One man started shouting at us and Mu translated it as “I would like to say a lot of things to you, but I don't know how!”

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The next day Mu took us for a walk through the fields of peanuts, rice, cabbage, lettuce and morning glory.

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Workers were out tending their crops in the rain among the graves of their ancestors.

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We visited Bích Động Pagoda, which is built on a cliff filled with caverns and caves used as hideouts during wars with China and America. We saw some deep chasms covered in nets into which people had thrown money. We asked Mu what it meant and she explained that during the wars there were so many casualties that the dead could not all be buried. Bodies had to be thrown down into the chasms, and people leave money so that these dead soldiers can have a good life in the spirit world.

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We stopped in for tea with an older man who works at the pagoda as a guide and musician. He offered Brendon a hit of tobacco from a porcelain jar that acted like a water pipe and showed us some traditional instruments – the Vietnamese cello, the Vietnamese violin and the Vietnamese electric guitar, complete with whammy bar. A large group of drunk guys joined us and took turns singing while the old man played and everyone clapped.

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Brendon eating cơm cháy

We took a rowboat around the lake, snacked on cơm cháy chà bông (big puffed rice crackers with pork floss) and chatted to Mu. She's an ethnic Hmong from Sapa, but moved to Hanoi and now works 28 days out of the month. The rest of her family still lives in the remote village she was born in and it sounded like she was the main income earner.

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Mu on her phone

She explained how back in her village girls are often married off early through a “kidnapping” tradition whereby during the Tet celebration a boy will kidnap a girl and bring her to live with his family. That night, the girl's family receives a water buffalo horn full of rice whiskey, which they drink if they approve of the proposed marriage or hold off on drinking if they want to give the girl a chance to turn down the offer. A bride price is eventually worked out and, once married, the girl lives with and works for the husband's family.

Mu explained how she artfully dodged all of this by staying home during the New Year celebrations, learning both English and Vietnamese, training to be a guide in her early teens and moving away from home, although she still has some concerns about losing autonomy if she gets married.

It was interesting hearing how she is trying to reconcile her lifestyle with the older generation's ideas and expectations. She tried giving her parents a mobile phone to stay in touch but only her little sister knows how to use it, she has a 90-year-old grandmother who loves to complain about the food, and a father who has health issues but won't stop drinking his rice whiskey – yep, people are people wherever we go.

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We saw a few different methods for catching fish and marine life – this was a trap Mu pulled up for us to take a look. There were also guys who used electricity to stun the fish under the weeds then scoop them into the boat.

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Roadside coconut debris

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Country roads

We jumped ashore in Tràng An village and stopped for lunch at a fisherman's house. Then Mu pulled out three rusty mountain bikes and we set off down some bumpy country roads for a ride in the rain. After about 20 minutes of Katie's granny-style riding, locked gears and seats that fell down, we checked to see if Mu wouldn't mind cutting down the three hours she'd set aside for the ride to maybe an hour and a half. As a shortcut, she took us down the side of a four lane highway. The trick was to not venture too far to the right because it was all slick mud on top of the pavement but at the same time you didn't want to drift too far left into the wild Vietnamese traffic. To add to the fun, we rode past a very popular temple where we had to navigate through crowds of pedestrians shouting “Hello!” and “Tây! Tây! Tây!” Once out of the fray we biked past a few more families parking their vehicles – parents stopped and pointed us out to the children, who gave us wide-eyed stares and waves.

We finally got off the highway and rounded a corner when a group of roadside workers erupted in laughter. Mu said they wanted to know if Brendon would like to take over some shoveling. A lady drove by on a scooter, pointing and shouting. Mu's translation: “Isn't your other leg cold?” Admittedly we may have looked a little ridiculous – we had both rolled up our right pant legs to avoid getting them caught in the gears.

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Fisherman's backyard

We biked back to the fisherman's house for a cup of tea before piling back into the car for the ride home.

Once back in Hanoi we celebrated our last night in town with a few glasses of wine and a pizza – so Vietnamese!

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The next night we boarded the train to Đồng Hới. We'd booked two bunks in a four-bunk sleeper for a journey of about 11 hours.

When we got to our cabin there were eight people already sitting on the two lower bunks. We looked at each other, confused, until a railway employee walked over and spoke to the people harshly in Vietnamese. Four people moved off Brendon's bed and all eight now squeezed onto the one unclaimed lower bunk. Katie climbed onto the top bunk and Brendon sat below trying to motion to the Vietnamese passengers that it was okay if they wanted to go back to sitting on the edge of his bed.

A minute later the railway guy popped back into the cabin and looked at us, rubbing his fingers together. Uhhh? 'Money!' exclaimed the man. 'Money? How much?' '50,000.' Brendon pulled out his cash and handed it over. The man looked up at Katie and pointed. 'Her too? Ối giời ơi!' The man smacked Brendon in the shoulder while the other passengers giggled. Katie fumbled around for her 50,000. Just then the owners of the other two bunks walked in – the man evicted the eight people from the cabin and the process repeated.

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The owners of the other two bunks were Brendan and Tiffany, long-term travellers (and bloggers) from Canada and Switzerland respectively. We chatted for a while then curled up in our comfy bunks and passed out.

We arrived in Đồng Hới at around 7am and got a lift to Phong Nha Farmstay. It's not actually a farm, but it's out in the country and surrounded by rice paddy fields. The farmstay runs a lot of different tours and it's a good base from which to explore the local national parks and cave networks, if you're into that sort of thing.

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On Day 3 we did the most popular tour out to Kẻ Bàng National Park. The day started with a walk through Paradise Cave, a large cave equipped with walkways, good lighting, handrails and rubbish bins.

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Next we stopped for lunch, put on our swimmers and kayaked across a beautiful blue lake to another cave, where we'd been told we could swim.

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This cave was somewhat more rustic than Paradise Cave – the pebbly floor soon turned to mud as our guide Hung led us further and further in. The path became so muddy that you had to hold onto the walls to keep from slipping in the knee-deep muck – unfortunately the walls were also made of mud. Huge boulders had to be clambered over, at great risk to the almost bare arses of all the girls in the group. We were all filthy and sweating profusely by the time we got to a clearing. Was this the swimming hole? No. It was a big puddle of mud. Hung laughed. Some of the younger, more enthusiastic members of the group gleefully threw themselves into the puddle, while the older, crabbier contingent looked at Hung like we were ready to drown him in it.

We turned back the way we had come, sliding down mounds of mud like they were slippery dips. Eventually we turned down a passageway and came out at a big pool of clear water. We waded in and floated around, cooling and cleaning ourselves off. Afterwards we kayaked back, had a few shots of Vietnamese rum and headed back to the farmstay.

That was about enough excitement for us!

Click the sound button to hear a rendition of “In Tall Buildings”

We spent some time chilling with Heidi and Isaac, a couple from Washington State who were playing hostels and guesthouses to cover their accommodation.

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The rest of our time at the farmstay was spent unwinding from Hanoi with a little reading, writing and relaxing among the rice paddies.

 

Hanoi

Hanoi reminded us of the futuristic dystopian Los Angeles of Blade Runner, but without the robots. The city felt loud and aggressive. Though we knew it would be winter we were unprepared for the constant drizzle and gloom. And being so in love with Luang Prabang only heightened the comedown. We spent most of our time eating, drinking and scurrying between hideouts.

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Hanoi by night

Hanoi by Day

Hanoi by day

We landed late on the evening of Feb 8, grabbed a cab and got to our hotel to check in. Welcome to Hanoi! Would we be going to Halong Bay during our stay?, the desk clerk enquired. Probably… Would we like to take a minute to look through a book of brochures? Er, not really, we’re pretty tired… Maybe tomorrow? Maybe.

The next morning my aunt’s friend Robbie and his wife Thu, who is Vietnamese, picked us up and took us for coffee. Stepping out of the hotel we noticed that the footpaths had been commandeered by shop-owners along with parked motorbikes and scooters. The gutter was where pedestrians walked and it was clear from the drivers’ countenances that it was where they felt we belonged.

What Footpath?
What footpath?

Traffic conditions in Hanoi can be summed up by a slogan we saw on a t-shirt: ‘Green: I can go. Orange: I can go. Red: I still can go.’ Pedestrian crossings and street lights have been installed in many places, but the drivers pay them no mind as they speed onward to their destination. Instead of road rules, Hanoians use their horns whenever one driver wants to pass another – which is constantly. Each driver seems responsible only for what is in front of them with minimal regard for what is going on behind or on either side. This applies to valets backing bikes off the sidewalk and into you as you walk through the gutter or drivers pulling out into traffic without looking. To add, the driving appeared to lack the flow of Thailand as not everyone went the same speed or exhibited the same patience but instead gunned past or weaved around one another.

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This sign didn’t seem to be working

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Transporting a festive peach blossom across town

Crossing the road requires a leap of faith. At the sign of a small break in traffic you have to step out and progress at a perfectly even pace so the drivers can weave around you. Robbie guided us across the road like little children. Over coffee he and Thu gave us some tips and ideas for places to visit. Thu is a travel agent so was a great help as our itinerary had no more detail than ‘Get to Hanoi. Head south.’ Robbie taught us key Vietnamese phrases like ‘Cảm ơn’ (thank you) and ‘Tôi không phải là gà!’ (‘I am not a chicken!’, to be said with hands on hips and a head waggle when quoted an inflated westerner price). Learning any Vietnamese is proving very difficult as it’s a tonal language – all words are one or two syllables and your inflection changes the meaning of the word. There are six different tones or accents so each word could have up to six meanings depending on how you say it and what the context is. Say ‘gà’ (chicken) slightly wrong and you could be saying ‘railway station’ or any number of other things that make it almost impossible for the listener to work out what you’re trying to communicate.

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Cyclo drivers and passengers

After coffee Brendon and I grabbed lunch at Phơ 24 and walked around Hoan Kiem Lake (no sign of the famous turtle). Cyclo drivers circled, shouting ‘HELLO!’. We headed back to our hotel till it was time to go to Robbie and Thu’s for dinner.

Thu cooked a huge meal for us and two French friends, Geoff and Natalie, who live in a village 20km away. They asked about our initial impressions of Hanoi. Chaos! we responded. It’s so intense compared to anywhere else we’ve been. They nodded. ‘Here, everything is forbidden but everything is possible,’ Geoff explained. Robbie noted that the concept of precautions (like safe driving and helmets) didn’t really fit with the Vietnamese way of looking at things – most people don’t understand why you would waste time worrying about something that hasn’t happened.

The next day we were on our own. On our way out of the hotel a different desk clerk asked how we were liking Hanoi. We tried to think of something nice to say. Yes, he cooed. And would we be going to Halong Bay during our visit? Not sure yet, we replied, and exited hastily. We had identified a cafe round the corner where we wanted to go for breakfast but getting there involved dodging not only speeding motorbikes but also ladies selling doughnuts, guys selling knockoff Zippos, women selling fruit and, worst of all, the sneaker shine guy. He could, I believe, sense our fear and, before I knew it, one of my All Stars had been wrested from my foot and he was applying super glue to the sides, scrubbing it with a soapy toothbrush and reheeling it with half a tyre. And where are you from? he chatted away happily. Can I please have my shoe back? I replied. But I’m fixing it for you, see? I have put some tyre here. And how much will that cost? I asked. 150,000 dong, he replied (about $7.50). For both? No, each. I yanked the shoe back and we handed over the cash. This chicken is now walking around with one ‘fixed’ sneaker and one normal one.

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We arrived at the Hanoi Social Club, a cafe/bar run by a guy from Melbourne, and ended up staying all day. We tried egg coffee (cà phê trứng), which was delicious, like a combination of coffee and eggnog. I can’t explain how excited I was to have a plate of lentil bolognaise after months in Asia. And of course we had a few Halidas! The cab driver who took us back to the hotel was awesome and taught us how to say ‘Oh my God!!’ (‘Oi troi oi!’, pronounced ‘Oi zoi oi’ in the north and ‘Oi joy oi’ down south), which Brendo has been using on a daily basis, much to everyone’s amusement.

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Mixed vermicelli, no meat (miến trộn không thịt)

On day three we toughened up and sought out some local street food. The first place we went is still my favourite. It was a small shop at 15 Ngõ Tràng Tiến, an alley in the French Quarter that fills with stalls from the morning till about 2pm. We ordered by showing the guy at the stall the words I’d typed into my phone, and received two huge bowls of miến trộn không thịt – vermicelli noodles with tofu, morning glory, lettuce leaves, shallots, herbs, bean sprouts, peanuts, fried garlic and a sauce involving fish sauce, sugar and chili. Usually this dish would also have beef but ‘không thịt’ means ‘no meat’ – asking for dishes this way is the only practical way to get vegetarian-friendly street food in Hanoi. It was 20,000 dong (~$1) per bowl and absolutely outstanding.

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After lunch we roamed around the French Quarter, which is the ritzy end of town where you’ll find luxury shopping malls, European restaurants and an Opera House built by the French in the early 1900s. Even in nice areas like this it was always easy to find cheap food and drink – we stopped down the road for Vietnamese coffees at Argento that were still only 22,000 dong each.

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In the afternoon Brendon went to get fitted for a suit for his friend Bilal’s upcoming wedding. The tailors laughed as they reached up to measure the tall American. The suit took about 4 days all up, and we were sort of stuck in Hanoi till it was complete, but the end product was definitely worth it.

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Strung out and ready for bún

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Shrimp pancakes

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Perhaps this sauce is an acquired taste…

Food highlights in Hanoi included bún bò nam bộ – beef, vermicelli, garlic, ginger, peanuts, herbs, lettuce and fish sauce, 55,000 dong (~$2.75) a bowl – from a well-known place at 67 Hàng Điếu, and a visit to Quán ăn Ngon, which is an outdoor food court with a huge menu of regional specialties. I got crispy shrimp pancakes and noodles with fried tofu in shrimp paste sauce – the dipping sauce smelt like the devil’s bungholio. Eventually a kind waiter took pity on me and brought me an alternative sauce to try! Brendon got fresh spring rolls with pork and prawn and a wild duck phơ. We weren’t blown away considering the cheaper and more flavourful street food we had already tried, but they have a huge range of dishes so maybe we just didn’t choose the right stuff. It ended up being 232,000 dong (~$11.50) for two entrees, two mains and two cokes.

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The best thing we tried, though, was the Mexican coffee buns from Anh Tú Bakery. (As far as we know these are not actually Mexican.) These huge, warm, doughy, sweet, crispy buns filled with runny chocolate became an integral part of our morning routine.

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Atrium at Cafe Phỏ Cổ

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Cashing out

These were generally chased with an intense Vietnamese coffee from Cafe Phỏ Cổ, which is like stepping into another world (or about three due to the number of terraces). You enter by walking between a t-shirt shop and a silk shop, then you come out into a big atrium. You order from the girl, head up one flight of stairs past the family altar, then up a spiral staircase to the verandah that looks out over the city and Hoan Kiem Lake.

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Many combinations of chicken and noodles on offer

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Brendon took a liking to our local chicken shack which served sliced chicken over sticky rice, chicken pho, chicken spring rolls and chicken miến trộn. All of these came with a dish of tasty pickled cucumbers.

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Bùn chả with pork patties and crab spring rolls from 67 Đường Thành Street

He went off on a solo mission to investigate a lead on crab spring rolls and pork bùn. He also made repeat visits to one food vendor on Lý Quốc Sư that sold a variety of deep-fried nibbles, including a vegetarian dumpling that, while containing no meat, also contained no vegetables and was really just a ball of fried dough.

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Detail from Thái Nguyên iron and steel complex (1962) by Búi Trang Chước

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Detail from Uncle Ho on a military campaign (1985) by Nguyễn Nghĩa Duyện

We didn’t visit many of Hanoi’s cultural venues (unless coffee shops count) but we did go to the Fine Art Museum. There was some interesting art with the coolest being the lacquer engravings.

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Once Brendon’s suit was finished we headed out to the post office to send it home. We stopped at the place with a big neon sign that read ‘Post Office’ out the front of it. It looked pretty small – one desk and a rack of postcards. ‘This must be it,’ I said trustingly. Brendon looked skeptical. ‘Is this the post office?’ he asked the woman inside. She looked at the big bag of stuff we wanted to post and then said, ‘Next building!’. Calling your knockoff business the name of the other, more popular business next door seems to be pretty standard practice here.

Bygone Days Before Motorbikes

Bygone days before motorbikes

With the suit finished and mailed off we were keen to get out of Hanoi. We wanted to go to a farmstay in Dong Hoi next, but they were booked up so we ended up sticking around town a few more days. When the staff at our hotel realised we wouldn’t be booking a Halong Bay tour with them they moved on to something different. As we came downstairs one morning the boss lady and one of the regular clerks asked how we were enjoying our stay. We nodded and said it was good. Boss Lady opened a drawer under the desk and pulled out an envelope. Would we write a positive review for the hotel on Trip Advisor? she asked, waving the envelope. Sure, we said. She smiled and handed the envelope to Brendon. It contained an ingratiating handwritten card wishing Mr Kearns a happy and prosperous new year. We headed out for the day. When we returned drunk hours later the desk clerk stopped us on our way up to our room. Have you written the review? he asked. We explained we’d do it later. You can use the computer right here! he exclaimed. You can do it now! We made our excuses and went up to bed. The following morning on our way out he asked again about the review. Then again when came home. Then again the next morning. And again when we got home. We flip-flopped between feeling annoyed and feeling bad – they were obviously doing what they thought was necessary to run a good business but they came off as so transparently insincere. And we still haven’t written the bloody review!

On our last day in Hanoi we went down to the train station to book our tickets to Dong Hoi (with a little help from The Man in Seat 61). We took a number and waited to be called to the ticketing window. The system was like what you’d see at an RTA or DMV office – press 1 for ticket purchase; press 2 for refund or exchange, etc. Hanoians, however, had their own systems, which involved either crowding around the ticket windows and talking over the person currently being served, or taking one ticket from each category and seeing which came up first. But, with a little time and patience, we successfully booked two bunks on the sleeper train outta town.

I don’t mean to sound like there was nothing enjoyable about Hanoi. If you have a strong constitution, you love shopping and bargaining, you visit at a different time of year and you stay no more than a week it could be a pretty fun place. But it just wasn’t for us.

Tạm biệt Hanoi! I don’t think we’ll see each other again soon.

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