Seeking freedom from the frustrating frost, and forsaking February’s frigidity, finds us fancying a fix of foreign frolic, on a fourth foray to Vietnam; followed by a fourteenth fling in Bali for some ‘effing’ sunshine.
Obviously, this trip isn’t about collecting new stamps in our well bruised passports, but rather, simply enjoying the wonders of wandering in a couple of endearing countries that, after so many intriguing adventures, are now deeply rooted within our DNA. Our timing is impeccable, as our departure is on the coldest day in Victoria since 1948; the year I joined the planet!
With the fatiguing flights finally finished, we deploy in Hanoi and queue up for an ‘On Arrival Visa’, discovering Immigration officials dressed in scowls to be such a pain in the ass, I reckon it would be helpful if the airport were to provide a resident proctologist! Eventually cleared, we hail a taxi and brace ourselves for the dreaded driving, which is kind of like a sneeze – you know it is coming but can’t do anything about it.
Sure enough, our driver soon has his cell phone tethered to his ear and is driving the car like he stole it. Perilously sailing right through a red light, he has now become a professional moron, having just given up his amateur status. Clearly not the valedictorian of his class, we have named him “Mr. Pid”; first name Stu!
Arriving at the Serene Hotel we’re surprised to find it wedged between a vegetable stand and a grisly fish market, located on a constricted alleyway only slightly wider than a piece of string. Perpetual precaution is essential in the alley given we’re constantly just a few centimeters away from colliding with the Hanoi-ing snarl of masked motorbike riders using it as a shortcut.
However, hotel staff are super cheerful and have romantically decorated our room with towels on the bed folded in the shape of swans; accompanied by balloons, red roses, and a large sprinkling of rose petals. Also on hand are a complimentary pink dragon fruit and bottle of wine, which we presume they thought might help soothe the transportation trauma involved in getting here. Their clairvoyance is most appreciated!
Jetlagged and unable to sleep, I opt to get up and go for a walk even though it’s only 5 a.m.! In the darkness without a map, I overestimate my navigational skills and find myself lost in the less than alluring vicinity of a train station. This is a tad unnerving as I always carry all my valuables with me; including money, camera, and passport. I know; you’ve likely deduced that I may not be the sharpest quill on the porcupine, right?
My predicament flushes out the thrill gene and catapults me into a heightened state of awareness with eyes in my arse. The sweet light of a six o’clock sun eases my anxiety and helps me find a way back to the hotel, where Christine is now awake. She is just shaking her head at me; no doubt wondering if one day while out on one of my absurd wanderings I might actually run into my mind! OK honey, time to go get breakfast!
Getting lost in the hodgepodge of Hanoi is a must; providing of course it’s within the daytime hours! Aimlessly ambling along the streets we notice an excess of small shops flogging ‘Weasel Coffee’. Being a tea drinker, I may be on ‘dangerous grounds’ here, but I find this coffee absolute crap! Brewed by in-weasel fermentation, the beans pass through the digestive tract of the weasel, or more accurately an Asian Palm Civet, and then get pooped out the back door. Shit; I knew there was a reason I detest coffee!
Hanoi is definitely a hoot. Here a hoot, there a hoot, everywhere a hoot-hoot! In fact, the whole damn city appears a ‘horny’ bunch, with the habitual Hanoian honkers driving us bonkers! Personally, the ‘Hooters’ that works for me is the ‘breastaurant’ back home which is much easier on both the ears and the eyes; and the suggestion of this ‘Honkie’ is to rename the blaring city “Hornoi”, “Honkoi”, or maybe even ‘Hanoise’; as surely, any of these would formulate a far more appropriate handle!
Fender to fender motorbikes swarm about the streets like angry hornets with a busted nest, and the roaring rivers of rubber require a whole new set of skills and braveries for pedestrians. With fingers crossed, we need to step off the curb out in front of the impatient mass of metal, hoping our action doesn’t put us in traction. In some countries people still pray in the streets, and in this country they’re called pedestrians!
A Medal of Valor mindset is needed to step out into the oncoming traffic! Luckily, a Moses-like parting of the traffic miraculously happens, as akin to a fast flowing river meeting up with a rock, it hurtles past both in front and behind us before merging on the other side. The graceful yet terrifying choreography is wondrously chaotic; leaving us always amazed when accidents un-happen on the nerve-wracking streets.
TET has just ended and we’re puzzled by an abundance of motorbikes that seem to have sprouted peach or cumquat trees. Investigation reveals families have no room to permanently keep the celebratory potted trees, so after TET is over they are returned by the bikes to garden shops that will care for them until the next trip around the sun. Pink peach blossoms are meant to ward off evil and orange colored cumquats to bring prosperity, with each family having either a tree or branches to bring luck in the New Year.
Dawdling about the back streets of the Old Quarter where locals go to buy everything from bamboo to buttons, we see them feeding the mouths of metal barrels with paper items, urgently being eaten by the flames. The traditional Vietnamese belief is that death does not mean the end, the deceased just move on to an afterlife where things are the same as in the living world and therefore require their home comforts as much as the living.
Therefore, the living relatives buy paper effigies of the needed items and then set them on fire to transfer the objects to the afterlife through the smoke. Paper offerings being burned include rice cookers, washing machines, cars, motorbikes, US dollars, cigarettes, dentures, and even iPhones. Who knew there is cell-service in the here-after?
Other flames come from locals grilling meats on the streets over charcoal burning fires intensified by the use of an electric fan. The tantalizing aromas nesting in our nostrils, beneath titanic tangles of snarled powerline cables hanging down like a mammoth mass of black spaghetti.
Vietnamese people happen to be sensational ‘squatters’, and love to hang out in the streets sitting in preposterous tendon-snapping squats that would make even a gymnast proud. If we were to mimic this action, I swear you’d hear the twang of our hamstrings snapping all the way back in Canada!
Mingling with traffic, three wheel cyclos are pedaled about by men wearing pea-green pith helmets, making them look not dissimilar to soldiers. Also competing for space are the rail-thin, but deceptively strong ‘ yolk-ladies’, who move quickly and adeptly through the clogged veins of the city without stopping for man nor motorbike, with bamboo shoulder-poles groaning under the weight of their burdens.
We hook up with a couple of girls from a company called Hanoi Kids; a group of students offering to act as tour guides in order to hone their English competency. Just for the smell of it, they take us to the Botanical Gardens and then on to a vast flower market near West Lake. Finally, we stroll over Red River on the busy, iron-trussed Long Bien Bridge, built by the same dude responsible for the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
After a fun day we ask the girls to take us to a place serving good Pho. Leading us down a little alleyway, we come to a stall with a lady hunched over a ginormous steel cauldron, ladling up the tasty Vietnamese staple. A set of chopsticks accompanies the pho-nomenal meal, but when it comes to using them I think I’d have better luck teaching an emu how to knit. What I actually need to appease my hunger, is to trade in my oversized bamboo toothpicks for a set of salad tongs!
Sadly, the best I can do in my slapstick attempt is to try and balance the oodles of noodles over the twigs and then inhale. This earns me no points for eating etiquette, as the slippery strands either try to find their way up my nose holes, or slap at my ear lobes on their way to being sucked into the vortex!
The iconic people’s beer here is called Bia Hoi or ‘fresh beer’; made fresh each night and delivered around the city the following morning. Deciding to take the brew for a test drive, we convene with locals at the Bia Hoi Corner where the décor is akin to the children’s section of Ikea, with throngs of bright shin-high plastic tables and matching 12” stools!
Male imbibers, except for me, socialize by smoking tobacco from long whistling bongs, stroking their chins, and carpeting the curbs in spit out sunflower seeds shells. Sipping the fresh new brew with my knees up around my ears and my backside spilling over the edges of a silly stool designed for dwarfs, I feel like a giant who has lost his bean stock. Fee-fi-fo-fum, my bum is getting numb!
Ever the fastidious fashion fanatic, Christine fancies some fresh threads; and exercising due diligence today, I am trailing along for damage control. Shopping in Vietnam can often be fatiguing when dealing with verbally-incontinent merchants who just don’t know NO! Subscribing to the theory that persistence beats resistance, they could likely talk a dog off a bone.
Stopping to look at an item, one of the wizened ‘lookey lookey’ ladies is shouting ‘Sochi Sochi’ at me. At first I think she is just over enthusiastic about the Russian Olympics currently on TV, but then I realize there is no TV. The dentally challenged one is simply ‘p-less’, and trying to convey ‘so cheap’! Taking a page from her book, I inform her that the price is ‘expen-expen’, which causes her brow to crumple as her head does the old RCA dog head tilt.
Suddenly the light goes on and she grins, realizing I’m not simply an ATM with legs. With ground rules now established, we engage in the customary haggling dance; tooing and froing before settling on a good-for you- good-for-me price. Many moons ago I learned that travelling with humor as a companion is an absolute must; especially in these linguistically cumbersome and every seventh word understood conversations.
Christine stops into a lingerie store to make a few cheeky little purchases, and I’ve just realized that while I started out today with the intent of simply buying a pair of sandals, I’ve succumbed to the perils of wandering. In addition to the floppy footwear, I’ve also accumulated a collection of blue jeans, a bag of beer, eight pairs of racy underwear, and a fruit called mothers milk!
Our time in Hanoi quickly rolls by, and on our last night our old friend Smiley has invited us to dinner. He gathers us at our hotel and quickly makes a surprise stop at a revolting street stall selling ‘thit cay’ (dog meat). Clearly it’s a man eat dog world here, but fortunately for us this is not dinner, it’s only a photo op.
At Smiley’s house we learn that he and his family have arranged to take us to an international restaurant called Sen Tay Ho. The immense place is capable of serving over 1200 people, and offers an opportunity to experience an amazing cross sampling of Vietnamese cuisine, providing you come with an open mind as well as an open mouth.
The variety has a mind-messing 200 gastronomical delights on offer, including whole cooked swallows, lobsteresque size prawns, turtle, crunchy crabs, chewy octopus, snails, frog hot-pot, and other thought-provoking items. We sample a host of oddities formerly unknown to our intestines from this eat till you drop buffet before bidding farewell to our gracious hosts and packing for the next leg of our trip.
Our flight to Danang is delayed because the plane is ‘broken’, requiring us to twiddle our thumbs for six long hours until it is ‘mended’. From Danang we taxi to the magical little town of Hoi An. Now, while Hanoi and Hoi An may be a perfect anagram, with all the letters being the same, the two cities could not differ more! The historic river town of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its name translates to “peaceful meeting place”. Nope, the chance of Hanoi wearing that one is the square root of zero!
We plan to recharge our mental batteries for the next week at a little gem on the edge of town called Betel Garden Homestay. Diminutive ladies wearing conical paddy hats shuffle along through town hawking heavy wares hung from bamboo poles across their shoulders, balancing their burden like a human scale, while discombobulated ducks tethered upside down to bicycle handlebars occasionally pass them by.
A flotilla of boats anchor in the river in front of the ancient buildings as the setting sun’s soft light plays off the paint-peeling pale yellow walls. The scene is the quintessential picture of an old Vietnamese town. Hoi An is also a grub hub of fantastic, flawlessly fused flavours from both the French and Vietnamese. The raw-mazing salads include green mango, banana flower/lotus, and shallot/pomelo, bring glee to the uvula and make your taste buds want to stretch out and kiss and you!
Today at lunch, I order a Bia Hoi beer costing 3,000 dong (14 cents US) for a 12oz glass. Giddy with delight here in ‘beervana’, what else can I do but order another? That was a waste of a line wasn’t it; I’m sure most of you already made that leap. As a matter of fact, I unabashedly order a third, with my total cost being a whopping 42 cents! All right then, all I have to do now is figure out how to acquire my immigration papers!
We have timed our visit to coincide with essence of Hoi An; the full moon lantern festival. Every lunar month the riverside town gives modern life the night off. Residents switch off all their lights, televisions, and radios; while street lights, winking neon, and motorbikes are also banned.
Once the sun goes down, the town’s only lighting is provided by the bloated marmalade moon above, and paper lanterns containing fire flickering candles, being sold by grandmas and kids on the streets. The river is an endless stream of soft golden halos from these ‘good luck’ lanterns bobbing along in the lunar light. Around town, cloth lanterns dangling in abundance bathe the streets in a soft glow, making it impossible not to enjoy the ambience of a night done right!
Hoi An is a ‘so-so’ clothing kind of town, with streets bursting at the seams with over 200 tailor shops hosting clutters of cloth and an army of draped mannequins. Accustomed to the feel of finery, Christine’s passion for fashion has her again adding to her wardrobe and I shudder as she places her voluminous order.
Clearly, joining her on this spendathon is a tactical error, as she’s not satisfied until talking me into ordering a sports jacket. I ultimately succumb and whip out my dong. You do of course realize that ‘dong’ is the local currency in Vietnam, right? Yes, the zeros are long on the dong and my million plus purchase has left me almost completely dedonged. So, having just been cashstrated, I’m now in need of a visit to a bank!
Traveling by bicycle and boat on a photography tour, we stop at a village where the peaceful Thu Bon River empties into the sea. Fish boats moored off shore have eyes painted on the bows to keep the fishermen safe and lead them back to land. Massive traditional fish nets splashing with life are ‘pedaled up’ up using foot-powered winches and suspended above the sea; while fishermen who depend on this ‘net income’ paddle runty boats beneath the nets, using long bamboo sticks to help spill the slippery catch into their boats.
Bamboo may be the most iconic staple of Asia, and there is a saying here: ‘A man is born in a bamboo cradle and goes away in a bamboo coffin. Everything in between is possible with bamboo’. With over 30 years kicking around in Asia, we’re aware of the enormous affinity to the remarkable bamboo, used for everything from its edible shoots to construction. Coincidentally, while cycling home we spot a bamboo bicycle in front of a shop where I end up purchasing a lovely shirt made from the same versatile vegetation!
In the villages around Hoi An, small round bamboo basket boats are placed out to dry in the sun and look like mega mushrooms growing on the sand. The trick is to row them without spinning round in circles but using only a single oar, it’s like trying to type with boxing gloves on. These boats consist of bamboo strips woven together, and are made s-turdy by covering the bottoms in tar and lining it with cow flop to make them as watertight as a frog’s rectum. Cow crap is waterproof; who knew?
Cycling down a lumpy dirt path we spot a few of these tiny round boats tethered together in a channel of the Thu Bon River, and stop to negotiate renting one from a family; surprised to learn that it will come with a ‘driver’. The boat owner has commandeered his elderly mother to be our paddler!
With her face creased like a walnut, the wizened one looks like she shouldn’t be buying any green bananas, and though the old girl doesn’t speak a word of English, her merry eyes and great betel-nut stained smile instantly endear her to us.
We warily step into a boat looking more like a floating flower basket on growth hormones. Bonneted in a typical paddy hat secured under her chin by an orange ribbon, our ‘driver’ spits out a red-brown splatter between her few betel-blackened teeth and we’re on our way; with grandma clapping her work-hardened hands whenever we show her the photos we’re amassing.
After a few bends in the river she paddles our water chariot into a remote water coconut grove and stops, pulling out a machete. Oh-oh; are we about to be chopped up and fed to the fishes? Of course not; in a lovely gesture the bird-like old dear starts chopping at palm branches and with amazing ingenuity and dexterity quickly creates two ‘leaf hats’ for us to help keep the sun off!
Trying our hand at rowing the little contraption, our granny paddling phenom cannot contain her cackling, watching us row around in circles like a one-flippered seal. We totally love our spur of the moment river outing, even though it’s quite a humbling experience to see the tiny Vietnamese grandmother, in all her crinkly glory, rowing with Olympic prowess. The day has been a Hoi An highlight and is a great ending to yet another set of travels in the wonderful land of wows, that is Vietnam.
It’s time to reacquaint ourselves with Bali, as our relationship with this island of head-scratching contradictions continues. Wonderful magic makes its home here, but so too does a much darker side which lurks just below the surface. The ‘ying and yang’ is like no place else on earth, with good and bad waging a constant battle. As with their Gods and demons, there is pristine and polluted, gentle and violent, kindness and crime, calm and crazy; with the ever present paradise and purgatory all forming the enigma that is Bali.
At the airport in Denpasar we watch as the carousel gets picked bare, but once again our luggage has not accompanied us. Supposedly it will be on the next plane in about ninety minutes, so exhaling a gale-force sigh, we decide to wait. Chatting with the guys in the lost luggage department, they tell us ‘new airport no good’, as corruption and bribery helped India get the contract, and they cheaped out big-time on the construction. We think these boys may have a valid concern, as just recently a large portion of the roof collapsed; hardly the kind of air conditioning to be expected in a new airport!
A couple of hours later, we’re finally chilling out at Yulia Bungalows in the village of Ubud, immersed in the captivating Ubudian soundscape of gently clonking bamboo wind chimes, exotic birdsong, croaking kodocks, giggling geckos, and of course the tinkle of ice in our glass. Ah yes, how nice to be back under the spell of Bali’s Zen again!
These days, we have to look harder to find the declining rewards, but once off the tourist grid they still await. The haunting and hypnotic sound of a gamelan; women carrying offerings like tall fruit bonnets atop their heads; village ducks herded in pretty little processions; varicolored frangipanis; stone statues pimped out with hibiscus flowers; fiercely green rice paddies; lotus flowers reflecting in the ponds; and ancient moss-cloaked temples. Yes, this is where the real magic of Bali shines.
Cycling the Champuahn Ridge Trail far above the Ayung River, we stop for water and happen to find a hand carved wooden frame we like. After a little haggling and my wallet whittled down, I end up framed with the purchase slung around my neck. Wearing the all too familiar yoke-like beast of burden look that occurs when shopping with Christine, I’m a perfect pedaling portrait of a man with only beer thoughts ricocheting around in my frontal lobe. If I make it back to the bungalow I’m going for a nice romantic walk; to the fridge! My riding incentive is having those icy cold beers in hiding ultimately join their fallen comrades!
After a morning cup of tea, we wander about the Monkey Forest to try for a few good pictures at sunrise. Walking over a moss laden bridge bedecked with fang-toothed demons, we’re startled by a snake, as the writhing reptile races us across to the other side. The sun struggles to penetrate a protective canopy of giant Banyan trees in the gloomy forest, and savaged by a miniscule enemy with a mind for feasting, we quickly decide to trade mosquito bites for gigabytes, and head off to find an internet café to catch up on our email.
Sidewalks in Ubud are always an adventure, with the ‘limb snappers’ having more ups and downs than a fiddlers elbow, and often reveal festering rubbish in the sewers below through far too many gaping holes easily capable of swallowing a careless person at night.
Few societies in the world exist where religion plays a role such as it does in Bali. The many unseen Gods and demons are treated as honored guests by the superstitious Balinese, and are presented daily with offerings called ‘Canang Sari’. These little gifts to their wads of Gods supposedly express gratitude to good spirits, while placating mischievous demons to prevent them from disturbing the harmony of life. The only problem with this is that we are constantly on alert to avoid ‘sidewalk surfing’ on the widely scattered offerings.
Not much bigger than a deck of cards, the tiny baskets are artistically woven using coconut leaves spiked together using thin strips of bamboo. The offerings often contain a bit of rice, betel leaf, flowers and perhaps even a cigarette. A smoldering stick of incense is also used, because no one knows exactly where the Gods might be at any given time, and Balinese believe the aroma from the incense smoke is sure to reach a divine nostril or two. Balinese Gods seem to require notorious coddling judging by the prolific offerings!
Another of Bali’s small pleasures is the ducks quacking it up in the rice fields. For centuries ducks have had a symbiotic relationship with the sweeping rice paddies. While the ducks plump up to an edible size, they are herded into fields to munch any algae, insect pests, and weeds; and doing so, their waddling about provides oxygenation needed for the rice root’s growth. Feelings as calm as a Hindu cow, we bask in the sun on our balcony, with the merry ducky chortlings from the fields next door falling soothingly on our ears.
Pursuing the perfection of pleasure at a spa in Sanur, an hour of sensory bliss passes by in a blur of elevated contentment. Living like a king and queen we’re as happy as mosquitos in a nudist colony, with people literally hanging off every arm and leg pampering us. Definitely something we could get used to!
With our holidays ebbing away we move on to Kuta because it is closer to the airport. The congested and dirty town represents the worst of Bali, but does offer some great shopping without being afraid you may have to sell a kidney to pay the tab!
Stores try to entice buyers with the four letter word Ms. Shopalot cannot resist; S-A-L-E! However, I personally have difficulty with the concept that buying at a reduced price can save money, but say nothing, as a closed mouth gathers no feet. With her wallet rapidly shedding weight, Christine has an overkill of inescapable shopping assistants following her around like a little posse of personal stalkers.
Wandering about Kuta, we’re accustomed to having a plethora of yap-flapping touts watching us like a lioness eyeing an impala on the limp. They try desperately to hawk everything from watches to women, and perfume to pot. Tonight however, I’m approached asking if I want to buy Viagra or Cialis and am wondering if the sleazy squirrel-shagger pulled a groin muscle jumping to that conclusion. In need of no such product, I’m annoyed by the cocky little prick, and precluding pleasantries, advise him to go and perform an act of reproduction with himself. After all, he’s just not a stand-up kind of guy!
In Balinese philosophy happiness can be achieved through Tri Hita Karana, meaning establishing and maintaining three harmonious relations; namely between human and God, between human and human, and between human and environment. However, the latter is now being challenged, with the mass tourism of late taking its toll.
The onslaught of foreign visitors per year in Bali has exploded, from less than 300,000 in 1985, when we first visited its shores, to over 3,000,000 today, and we worry that the staggering and steady increase of camera-dangling tourists is resulting in the beloved island being ‘loved to death’. As a local once said to me, “Bali is like a bowl of sweets, and the ants come from everywhere.”
Hopefully, Bali will manage to hang on, like its sticky-toed geckos, to their cultural smorgasbord. The secret to the island’s success will be in keeping a balance. Ahhh yes, as in life, it’s all about maintaining a balance!
Mark Colegrave March 2014