Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

If Saigon is the irrepressible teenager, then Hanoi, Vietnam is the genteel, elderly aunt. There is a strange energy about this city. Wherever I went, I felt a heaviness; an oppression. Stone-faced police are everywhere, standing around in groups. Whereas in Saigon smiles come easily, in Hanoi most people scowl. Hanoi residents in general are thicker-bodied and move more languidly than their Saigon counterpart – as if they are just going through the motions of getting through another day. Even the traffic here is more sedate. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but perhaps it has to do with an almost unbelievable corruption that permeates the north of Vietnam.

For example, I have been traveling throughout the country using a company named Sinh Cafe. They’re a good company and come highly recommended by Lonely Planet, but there is a problem with the Sinh Cafe name in Hanoi. Sinh Cafe holds the copyright for that name from the southern tip of Vietnam, all the way to Hue. North of Hue, however, there are no copyright laws, so there are a total of 86 Sinh Cafes in Hanoi – 85 of them being copycats that regularly steal the money of clients who think they are booking with the real Sinh Cafe. Fortunately I knew about this ahead of time, because I passed four other Sinh Cafes on my way to the real one this morning to book a city tour for tomorrow and a Halong Bay tour on Monday.

In the Old Quarter, one vendor offers live eels

In the Old Quarter, one vendor offers live eels

After arranging these two tours I took a walking tour around the Old Quarter, snaking through impossibly narrow streets where vendors set up in the middle of the road, leaving only 18 inches or so on either side for pedestrians, motorbikes, and bicycles. You have to see this market to believe it. One lane was nothing but clothing. Another was fruits and vegetables. A third was fresh meat – huge beef and pork slabs were carelessly tossed out on wooden plank tables and freshly plucked chickens were suspended from makeshift roofs while flies buzzed around the carcasses. Yet another lane featured seafood of all types – huge live catfish swimming around in white porcelain pans bowls full of squirming live eels. Running water from hoses is continually pumped into the pans to keep the fish alive and the excess water overflows onto the narrow concrete walkway, making for slippery, treacherous footing,especially whenever I had to dodge a speeding motorbike. Read More

Vietnam has been ruled by a series dynasties. The most recent of these was the Nguyen Dynasty, which lasted until 1945, when the last emperor abdicated power. Due to its central location, Hue, Vietnam and its environs was home to each of these dynasties and the countryside is fairly littered with historical temples, palaces, tombs, and pagodas. Although many of these architectural gems were destroyed during the Tet Offensive in 1968, there are still many fascinating sites to visit. Hue is divided between the old fortified city and the new urban sprawl that has grown up on the south side of the Huong River. It was this suburb that I found myself in last night – thus my comment about finding Hue disappointing after Hoi An. By the light of day, however, I discovered that I was only a short walk from the Citadel and the Forbidden Purple Palace, so I set out early this morning to see what I could discover.

Walking anywhere in Vietnam is difficult. First, no one understands my desire to walk. They think I am crazy to be out walking in the hot sun when I could be riding. Second, every few steps I was accosted by an enterprising motorbike, taxi, or pedicab driver who tried to sell me a tour or convince me to take a ride with them. It always starts with the same opening: “Hello, madame, where you from?” If you answer them, then you have to fend them off for the next 15 minutes. I literally had one pedicab driver follow me around for half a mile today, sure I would relent and hire him. So, eventually, I resort to ignoring them and being totally rude, which makes me feel guilty. There has to be a better way but I haven’t found it yet.

Courtyard at the Forbidden Purple Palace

Courtyard at the Forbidden Purple Palace

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I hit the buses again today, this time for a short 3.5 hour ride to Hue. Unfortunately, for the two hours preceding the bus ride I was sitting at a computer with an abysmally slow Internet connection, struggling to get my photos uploaded for my two most recent posts. I got the last photo uploaded just as the bus pulled up, so I unplugged my laptop, shoved it in its case, grabbed my suitcase, and ran for the bus. What I did NOT do was go to the bathroom before I got on the bus. And about an hour into the ride I was a tad bit uncomfortable. No worries, I thought, they always stop at least once during each trip – twice on longer trips. So when we pulled into a roadside restaurant, I quickly headed for the toilets.

In almost every other instance, the bathrooms we have stopped at have been sparkling clean. In fact in a couple of places I was required to leave my shoes outside the door and don special plastic flip flops provided just for the bathroom. So I was unprepared for the level of filth I encountered in this bathroom. Any other time I would have just “held it” but this was definitely not an option in this instance. I HAD to go. The floor was wet and covered in mud, so I couldn’t put my backpack down. The stool itself was filthy so I didn’t want to sit down. So, if you can picture this, I unzipped my pants and simultaneously let them drop while trying to Read More

It is still drizzling so I opt for a private tour in a car rather than a motorcycle. The price is highway robbery at $40 for a half day, but it affords me the luxury of customizing the tour to my liking and being able to stop wherever I want for as long as I want, so I splurge. My driver speaks only a little English, so the hotel clerk tells him where I want to go; we’ll figure out the rest with sign language as we go.

View of the coastline from atop Hai Van Pass

View of the coastline from atop Hai Van Pass

We head for Danang, which is 30 kilometers north. I will be going this way again tomorrow but the bus takes the new tunnel through the mountain that separates Danang and Hue and I want to go to Hai Van Pass at the top of the mountain. Although patches of fog linger, as we ascend I am treated to glimpses of pristine beaches in hidden coves all along the rugged coast. In the sunshine these waters must sparkle like emeralds, but today they are hiding their jewels under their skirts. Even so it is beautiful – the swirling mists giving everything an ethereal feel. From the moment I step out of the car at the summit I am accosted by a shopkeeper who follows me around, determined to sell me one of her cheap bracelets or a set of postcards. I say no repeatedly and finally have to climb a mountain path to get away from her. At the top I find American gun battlements left over from the war; Danang and China Beach were major base for us during the war. Read More

Bougainvillea bursting with magenta blossoms hang heavy over doorways and awnings. Fishermen drift lazily along the river, casting long coils of box nets over the side of their simple wooden boats. Delicious aromas waft out of Pho shops. By 6 a.m. I am walking the streets of Hoi An. In the soft dawn light and misty rain, the colors of these ancient houses merge into a suffused golden glow. Through the shutters of one golden house drift strains of classical music being played on a piano. Everywhere I look, another photo is screaming to be taken.

Colorful streets of Hoi An

Colorful streets of Hoi An

Fisherman lets out a fish creel on the canal

Fisherman lets out a fish creel on the canal

Massive blooming Bougainvillea overhangs a shop entryway

Massive blooming Bougainvillea overhangs a shop entryway

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Good morning everyone! First, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who is reading this blog on a daily basis. I know there are many of you because you have left comments or sent me emails. I simply cannot answer them all, but please know that I read them all and am most grateful that you are tuning in on a regular basis. Hopefully I am amazing you, entertaining you, and making you laugh. I am certainly laughing – because if I didn’t I’d probably be VERY frustrated – traveling in a country where you don’t know the language is extremely challenging.

Seeing the sights on a motorbike in Nha Trang, Vietnam

Seeing the sights on a motorbike in Nha Trang, Vietnam

I am dedicating this portion of the post to my good friend and Yoga teacher, Mary Jo. You see, in Yoga, we do hip openers – a series of asanas (poses) that are designed to help open up hips that have become tight from sitting behind a desk all day long. Well, Mary Jo, I have discovered a new hip opener asana. It’s the “sitting astride a motorcycle all day long” pose. Mind you, it’s been MANY years since I even rode a motorcycle, much less spent an entire day on one. Read More

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