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!
With the fatiguing flights finally finished, we deploy in Hanoi and queue up for the ‘On Arrival Visa’ and ‘Immigration’. These officials dressed in scowls, are such a pain in the ass I reckon it would be helpful if the airport were to provide a resident proctologist! After being cleared, we hail a taxi and brace ourselves for the dreaded driving which is kind of like a sneeze; you know it’s coming, but can’t do anything about it.
Sure enough, within minutes our driver has a cell phone tethered to his ear, and straddling the center line, perilously sails straight through a red light! He has now become a professional dullard, 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 in a constricted alleyway only slightly wider than a piece of string. Perpetual precaution in the alley is essential constantly being just a few centimeters away from a brush with injury from the Hanoi-ing snarl of masked motorbike riders using it as a shortcut.
However, the hotel staff is super cheerful and has 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 is a complimentary pink dragon fruit and a bottle of wine, which we presume they thought would be appreciated after the transportation trauma involved in getting here.
Jetlagged and unable to sleep, I opt to get up and go for a walk, even though it’s 5 a.m.! In the darkness, and without a map, I overestimate my navigational skills and find myself lost in the less than alluring vicinity of a train station. This is unnerving as I always carry all my valuables with me; including passport, money, and camera. 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 my head on a swivel. After what seems forever, the light of dawn helps me to 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 joy; providing of course, it’s in the daytime hours! Aimlessly ambling through 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! 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 that’s much easier on both the ears and the eyes! The suggestion of this ‘Honkie’, is to rename the blaring city of Hanoi to “Hornoi”, or “Honkoi” or Hannoy. Hell, maybe just tack on ‘se’ and call it ‘Hanoise’. Surely, any of these would be a far more appropriate handle!
Fender to fender motorbikes buzz about like a swarm of angry hornets with a busted nest, turning streets into roaring rivers of rubber, which requires a whole new set of skills and braveries for pedestrians. With fingers crossed, we need to step 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; in this country, they’re called pedestrians!
After making that nerve-wracking first step with motorbikes bearing down on us, a Moses-like parting of the traffic miraculously happens. Akin to a fast flowing river meeting up with a rock, traffic hurtles around us both in front and behind, before merging again on the other side. The graceful yet terrifying choreography is wondrously chaotic, and we’re always amazed when accidents un-happen in this transport crazy city!
TET has just ended and people seem in a good mood having had time to spend with family, but we are puzzled by all the motorbikes that seemingly have sprouted peach or cumquat trees. We learn families have no room to permanently keep the potted celebratory trees, so after TET, they return them to garden shops to care for them until next year. Each family has either a tree or branches to bring luck in the coming year. Pink peach blossoms are meant to ward off evil, and orange colored cumquats to bring prosperity.
Dawdling about the back streets of the Old Quarter, where locals go to buy everything from bamboo to buttons, we witness locals feeding metal barrels with paper objects being urgently eaten by the flames. The traditional Vietnamese belief is that death does not mean the end, as the dead 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. But how do those now dirt-breathing ancestors obtain money, pets, washing machines, cars, etc.?
Well, living relatives buy paper effigies of the needed items and then set them afire, transferring the objects to the afterlife through the smoke. Other paper offerings being burned include rice cookers, motorbikes, US dollars, cigarettes, shampoo, dentures, and even iPhones. Who knew there is cell-service in the here-after?
Nesting in our nostrils are the tantalizing aromas of grilling meats on the streets over charcoal burning fires, intensified by the use of an electric fan. Overhead are titanic tangles of snarled powerline cables hanging down like an immense mass of black spaghetti that must be any electrician’s nightmare.
Vietnamese 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 that make 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 as their bamboo shoulder-poles groan 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 practice their English. Just for the smell of it, they lead the way to the Botanical Gardens and a vast flower market near West Lake, before taking a stroll over the Red River on the busy iron-trussed Long Bien Bridge, apparently 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 small stall with a lady hunched over a ginormous steel cauldron, ladling up the tasty Vietnamese staple. Slurping ourselves silly with the pho-nomenal meal, my eating etiquette with chopsticks leaves much to be desired. In fact, my skills with these oversized bamboo toothpicks are so tragic, I think I’d be more successful in teaching an emu how to knit!
Sadly, the best I can do in my slapstick attempt is to try and balance the oodles of noodles over the twigs and inhale; with the slippery strands either trying to find their way up my nose holes, or slapping at my ear lobes on their way to being sucked into the vortex!
The iconic people’s beer called Bia Hoi or ‘fresh beer’ is 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 shin-high bright plastic tables and matching 12” stools!
Men socialize while smoking from long whistling bongs, stroking chins, and spitting out sunflower seeds that carpet the curbs. Sipping this 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 that has lost his bean stock. Fee-fi-fo-fum, I am getting quite a numb bum!
Ever the fastidious fashion fanatic, Christine fancies some fresh threads today, and exercising due diligence, I am trailing along for damage control. Shopping in Vietnam can be fatiguing at times; dealing with all the verbally-incontinent merchants who just don’t know NO. Irritatingly subscribing to the theory that persistence beats resistance, these folks 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 first I think she is just over enthusiastic about the Russian Olympics currently showing on TV, but then I realize there is no TV and the dentally challenged one is simply ‘p-less’, and trying to convey ‘so cheap’! Taking a page from her book, I inform her that her 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, 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 the hotel before making 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, just 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 is mind-messing with 200 gastronomical delights on offer; including whole cooked swallows, lobsteresque size prawns, grilled turtle, crunchy crabs, chewy octopus, snails, frog hot-pot, and other thought-provoking items. We sample a host of edibles, formerly unknown to our intestines, from this eat till you drop buffet. Later, bidding farewell to our gracious hosts we pack up for the next leg of our trip.
At Hanoi’s airport, we learn our flight to Danang is delayed because the plane is ‘broken’; and laden with frustration, sit twiddling our thumbs for six long hours. The plane somehow gets ‘mended’, and after the befuddling confiscation of Christine’s wine corkscrew we’re finally allowed to board. 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 be more different! Hoi An is a well preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the historic river town’s name translates to “peaceful meeting place”. Nope, there’s not a chance in Hell that Hanoi could wear that one! For the next week we plan to recharge our mental batteries at a wonderful gem called the Betel Garden Homestay.
In town, diminutive ladies in triangular paddy hats shuffle along hawking heavy wares hung from bamboo poles across their shoulders, balancing their burden like a human scale. A flotilla of diverse boats anchor in the river in front of the ancient buildings and the setting sun’s soft light plays off the peeling palette of pale yellows on the building walls; the quintessential picture of an old Vietnamese town.
Hoi An is also a foodie’s favorite; offering fantastic, flawlessly fused flavours from the both the French and Vietnamese. The sensational salads including green mango; banana flower/lotus; and shallot/pomelo are enough to 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! OK then, all I have to do now is figure out how to get 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, with residents switching off all their lights and hanging cloth and paper lanterns on their porches and windows. Motorbikes are banned from the Old Town; while televisions, radios, street lights, and any winking neon are also extinguished.
Once the sun goes down, the town’s only lighting is a bloated marmalade moon above, and paper lanterns containing a flickering candle being sold by grandmas and kids on the streets. The river is an endless stream of soft golden halos from these ‘good luck’ luminous lanterns bobbing along in the moonlight. Around town, cloth lanterns dangle in abundance, bathing the streets in a soft glow and making it impossible not to enjoy the ambience of a night done right!
Hoi An is a ‘so-so’ clothing kind of town, as streets are bursting at the seams with more than 200 tailor shops hosting clutters of cloth and an army of joyless faced mannequins. Christine’s passion for fashion has her desperate to add to her already outrageous 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 with my purchase being more than a million dong deal, I find myself cashstrated after being dedonged, and in need of a bank!
Today we’re off on a photography tour, traveling by bicycle and boat to a village where the peaceful Thu Bon River empties into the sea. Massive traditional fish nets are suspended over the sea, and fish boats moored off shore have eyes painted on their bows to keep the fishermen safe and lead them back to land. As the sun falls behind the mountains, fishermen lower the nets into the water to trap whatever swims into them.
Using foot-powered winches, the splashing with life nets are ‘pedaled’ up and suspended above water. Then runty boats paddle beneath them, as fishermen who depend on this ‘net income’, manipulate long bamboo sticks to guide their slippery prey into the bottom of the net before spoiling them directly 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 that’s 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. Vietnamese learn to row these hard working little vessels almost before they learn to walk. The trick is to row them without spinning round in circles, which is easier said than done using only a single oar. These boats are bamboo strips woven together and made s-turdy by covering the bottom in tar and lining them with cow flop to make them as watertight as a duck’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, so we stop and 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!
The wizened one looks like she shouldn’t be buying any green bananas, and speaks absolutely no English. However, she has a great betel-nut stained smile under her paddy hat, and her crinkly laugh lines and smiling eyes immediately endear her to us.
We warily step into a boat that looks more like a floating flower basket on growth hormones. The wrinkled one, in need of an oral health plan, spits out a red splatter between her betel-ravished teeth, and we’re on our way, with grandma clapping her work-hardened hands when we show her the pictures we are amassing.
After a few bends in the river she paddles us into a remote water coconut grove and stops, pulling out a small machete. Oh-oh; are we about to be chopped up and fed to the fishes? Uh-uh; in a lovely gesture the bird-like old dear starts chopping palm branches, and with amazing ingenuity and dexterity quickly creates two ‘leaf hats’ for us to help keep the sun off!
We try our hand at rowing the little round contraption, but end up going around in circles like a one-flippered seal. Our granny paddling phenom just cannot contain her cackling. 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 made for a Hoi An highlight, and is a great ending to yet another set of travels in the wonderful land of wows, that is Vietnam.
We leave Vietnam to reacquaint ourselves with the Bali, as our love/hate relationship with this island of head-scratching contradictions continues. Wonderful magic makes its home here, but unfortunately, also in residence is a much darker side lurking 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 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 with 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; not exactly the kind of air conditioning one might expect in a new airport!
A couple of hours later, we are 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 fruit bonnets atop their heads; village ducks herded in pretty little processions; multi-coloured 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 whittles my wallet down, I end up framed, with the new purchase slung around my neck. Wearing the all-too-familiar yoke-like, beast of burden look often occurring when shopping with Christine, I’m now a perfect pedaling portrait of a man with only beer thoughts ricocheting around in my frontal lobe. Vowing that after getting back to our bungalow I’m going for a nice romantic walk – to the fridge, where those icy cold beers in hiding will ultimately join their fallen comrades!
After a morning cup of tea, we meander through the Monkey Forest to try for a few good pictures at sunrise. Walking over a moss laden bridge decorated with fang-toothed demons, we’re surprised to see a slithering snake racing us across to the other side. The sun can’t reach us under the protective canopy of giant Banyan trees, and savaged by the determination of hungry mosquitos in the gloomy forest, we quickly decide to trade mosquito bites for gigabytes, and head off to find an internet café to catch up on our email.
The sidewalks in Ubud are always an adventure, as the ‘limb snappers’ have more ups and downs than a fiddlers elbow, and keep us on our toes as they reveal festering rubbish in the sewers below through far too many gaping holes that can easily swallow 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 daily presented with offerings called ‘Canang Sari’. These little gifts to their wads of Gods supposedly express gratitude to good spirits, and placate mischievous demons to prevent them from disturbing the harmony of life. The only problem with this is we’re constantly on alert to avoid ‘sidewalk surfing’ on the widely scattered offerings.
Not much bigger than a deck of cards, tiny baskets are artistically woven using coconut leaves and spiked together using thin strips of bamboo. The offerings often contain a bit of rice, betel leaf, and flowers; along with a stick or two of incense. Incense is used because no one knows exactly where the Gods might be at any given time, and the Balinese believe the aroma from the incense smoke is sure to reach a divine nose or two. Balinese Gods 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. As the ducks plump up to an edible size, they are herded into fields to munch algae, insect pests, and weeds with their waddling about providing needed oxygenation for the growth of the rice roots. Relaxing outside on our balcony, we soak up the Indonesian sun and scenery with merry ducky chortlings from the rice fields next door falling soothingly on our ears.
Today in Sanur we’re pursuing the perfection of pleasure at a spa. An hour of sensory bliss passes by in a blur of elevated contentment, leaving us as happy as a mosquito in a nudist colony! Living like a king, with people literally hanging off every arm and leg pampering me is something I could definitely get used to!
Loitering at the bungalow pool has my skin acquiring a paprika-like color, and oddly enough, a bunch of empty beer bottles have congregated nearby. Fortunately there are still a couple of beers left in the fridge, so I bravely carry on, holding a quiet memorial service for those previously guzzled into extinction.
With our holidays ebbing away we move on to Kuta, as it is closer to the airport. While representing the negatives in Bali, Kuta does offers great shopping without being afraid that you may have to sell a kidney to pay for it! Every store tries to entice buyers with the four letter word Ms. Shopalot cannot resist; S-A-L-E!
Personally, I have difficulty with the concept that buying at a reduced price can save money, but I say nothing as a closed mouth gathers no feet. With her wallet rapidly shedding weight, Christine now has an overkill of inescapable shopping assistants following her around like a little posse of personal stalkers.
Out walking about Kuta I’m quite accustomed to being pestered on the streets on any day of the week ending in a ‘Y’ by the plethora of yap-flapping touts flogging everything from watches to women, and perfume to pot. However, tonight I am approached by one of these two-legged cockroaches, asking if I want to buy Viagra or Cialis.
Hmmm, I wonder if this 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 candidly advise him to 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 of these is now being challenged with the recent mass tourism taking its toll.
The onslaught of foreign visitors per year has exploded from less than 300,000 in 1985, when we first visited, 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 its success will be in keeping a balance. Ahhh yes, as in life ………… it’s all about maintaining a balance!
Mark Colegrave March 2014