Posted in Asia, English, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 3

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

7 June 2017

Today’s Ho Chi Minh City tour was supposed to happen yesterday, but as the presidential Reunification Palace, which was one of the items on our list, was closed yesterday for a government event, the travel agency had to slightly amend our schedule.

IMG_2322

It was actually at this palace that our tour began this morning. Before the war there was the South Vietnamese Independence Palace here, however, it was a different building, a 19th-century one in the French colonial style. During the war, that one was bombed, so a new, more modern palace was built in its place later, becoming a symbol of the unified Vietnam.

Generally, there was a lot of history today and in the first half of the day it was mainly contemporary history. So, standing next to this tank, which is a replica of the exact North Vietnamese tanks that rammed the Palace gate in 1975 and actually marked the end of the Vietnam war and the victory of the North, Phuoc gave us a brief overview of Vietnamese history since the First Indochina War against the French colonialists, which began in 1946, followed by the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War of 1955-1975.

IMG_2326

The palace itself has maybe a few dozens of rooms and halls, but only three are currently used for government events. Some of the rest are only demonstrated as a museum, and I don’t even know what they do with the others. The basement, for example, used to be a bunker, and is now closed for reconstruction.

IMG_2330

IMG_2331

IMG_2340

IMG_2341

Next, we stopped at the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon , built by the French, obviously, and also located directly opposite the Post Office building, which is another place of interest. There isn’t particularly much to tell about either, especially that we didn’t spend a lot of time there, just walked in, looked around and left.

IMG_2362

IMG_2355

IMG_2357

What followed next felt kind of like bitter medicine – unpalatable but useful. It was the War Remnants Museum, which, by the way, before the restoration of diplomatic relations with the USA used to be called Exhibition House for US Crimes. It’s a rather eerie place exhibiting military equipment, war photos (including those of the Songmi massacre and the victims of napalm and white phosphorus bombs), a guillotine, the replica of a South Vietnamese jail for political prisoners, and – most horrible of all! – photographs of victims of Agent Orange (a toxic chemical, repeatedly spread by Americans in Vietnam) with birth defects and mutations. And not only local people had children born with defects, so did also American soldiers after returning home. In Vietnam, there are still a lot of disabled people who are victims of those chemical attacks: we saw some of them both at the Notre Dame Cathedral, asking for alms, and at the museum itself, producing various crafts for sale – unfortunately, the state doesn’t have enough money to support them, so they have to find means to survive on their own.

20170607_105736

20170607_112658

20170607_113416

20170607_114024

It was all very sad and made me think a lot – mostly about the fact that history doesn’t teach people anything at all, especially in the light of the most recent political events in the world… Now of course, the inscriptions under the exhibits in the War Remnants Museum are characterised by political propaganda, in particular, the northerners are only mentioned as “patriot soldiers” and the South Vietnamese government is called a puppet. We so didn’t expect such evaluative language in the seemingly narrative description of military events, that when we saw a table listing the number of troops from various states, among which the South Vietnamese Puppet was mentioned, we asked ourselves whether the word ‘puppet’ actually meant something different in military jargon, because we simply couldn’t believe that it was meant in its most direct sense.

20170607_105000

20170607_104013

We decided to grab food in a coffee shop right at the museum, and had banh mi –
traditional Vietnamese baguettes (French heritage, as I mentioned before) with chicken, tasting like ordinary doner kebab .

After contemporary history we plunged into more ancient one, also much more positive and entertaining: we went to the privately-owned FITO Museum of traditional Vietnamese medicine. The interior was very interesting, in the traditional Vietnamese style of the 19th century, although the building itself is new.

IMG_2373

IMG_2376

We got to see an introductory video and then a nice lady showed us the exhibits – there was a huge number of antique dishes, medicinal substances (herbs, minerals, mushrooms etc.), tables listing medicinal plants, half-decayed medical treatises by ancient doctors, written in Chinese characters, etc. We were offered to try on traditional clothes of Vietnamese doctors and pose for a photo behind a pharmacy counter. And also, some of the medicines are mentioned in connection with the emperor Minh Mang, although I can’t remember whether he made them himself or had them invented specially for him. But what’s noteworthy is that the emperor had 500 wives and could visit 5 of them in one night!

20170607_124229

20170607_124409

20170607_125118

20170607_125315

By the way, I didn’t mention Chinese characters just randomly. In fact they were used in Vietnam up until early 20th century, when the French colonial government imposed a switch to a romanised alphabet. In this alphabet, the standard five vowels (or six, if “y” is also considered as one) come with all sorts of diacritical marks: not only are there twelve vowels in Vietnamese, but each one can also be pronounced with six different tones, changing the meaning of the word.

Phuoc tells us all this in the car on the way to the local Chinatown. There are about a million Chinese in Vietnam, many of which don’t even speak Chinese anymore. In Ho Chi Minh City they mainly own wholesale stores. In Chinatown we visited the Thien Hau temple of the Chinese sea goddess. By the way, I’ve already been to another temple dedicated to her in Hong Kong. Among other information about Chinese traditional beliefs, Phuoc told us about the 12-year cycle of the Eastern calendar – in particular that previously before a wedding the bride’s and groom’s horoscope signs used to be checked for compatibility, but nowadays clever couples come up with ways to avoid incompatibility, such as arranging the marriage ceremony at midnight instead of midday, or walking into the house for the first time through the back door instead of the front door.

IMG_2388

IMG_2391

And finally, we visited a lacquer factory. Initially, the technique, like much else, as we have already found out, was brought by the French, but then local craftsmen mastered the skill so much that they pretty much took it to the next level. This work is manual, and very laborious and complex. First, a black wooden board is prepared – which of course should be absolutely smooth – then a picture is drawn on it, then either a part is cut out of mother-of-pearl along the outline of the pattern and stuck to the board, or the contour of the picture is filled with pieces of egg shell (which can even be completely crushed) or paint, and then the painting is covered with fifteen layers of lacquer made of lacquer tree sap, and each layer must fully dry before the next one can be applied. Unfortunately, taking pictures at the factory wasn’t allowed, otherwise it would be very interesting to capture the process of creating lacquerware.

This was the end of the Saigon part of our tour, and we said goodbye to Phuoc. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and we decided to find an electronics store to buy additional memory cards for our cameras. I must say, the walk was rather stupid: the store which Phuoc had noted for us on the city map didn’t have the card I needed, and the sellers gave us the address of another store, which we spent ages looking for and as a result found out that it was quite close to our hotel. Had we known that in advance, we wouldn’t even have had to drag ourselves that far in this humid heat. We were quite lucky today that there was no rain at all, but the flip side of that is this sticky heat, as the rain would have refreshed the air.

We continued walking until we reached the Barbecue Garden restaurant, which we chose for today’s dinner. The restaurant is open-air, mostly attended by foreigners, and has a very interesting concept: the barbecue ingredients are served raw, which you then have to grill yourself over the gas burner located right in the centre of your table. Once again we really liked everything and the prices were shockingly low: only 32 dollars for two for snacks, barbecue, side dishes, fruit juice, beer and dessert!

20170607_174427

20170607_174726

And after dinner we decided to finally walk up to the river, taking advantage of the dry weather. We reached the river and walked along the embankment, but couldn’t locate that beautiful skyline with illuminated buildings which we’d seen on some postcard. We slightly got used to the traffic, but it still feels stressful for me – I guess, after this in Baku I’ll be able to cross roads with my eyes closed. At some point, we wanted to cross a wide avenue along the embankment, and spent at least five minutes in front of the zebra crossing, because we couldn’t bring ourselves to step into this uninterrupted stream of traffic, before some local girl – thanks to her! – rushed to our help and literally took us across the road, like old grannies!

20170607_194143

20170607_200401

20170607_200443

20170607_201126

Advertisements
Posted in Asia, English, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 2

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

6 June 2017

I may well be unoriginal and repeat what I’ve said before, but I will say it again: what’s particularly nice about breakfasts in Asian hotels is that apart from the usual boring cheeses/sausages/croissants/toasts you can get stir-fried veggies, noodles, dim sum and even pho! Which is exactly what we did before heading down to the reception at 8 am, where our tour guide Phuoc was already waiting for us, ready for the Mekong Delta excursion.

20170607_073939

First of all, we took a two-hour drive in a comfortable SUV to the town of Cai Be in the Mekong Delta region. As we were driving out of Ho Chi Minh City, and also afterwards, I was thinking of my impressions about the surroundings. There are places which make you say “so beautiful that it takes my breath away”. This is not the case. The Vietnam, which we have seen so far, is best described by the epithet “charming”. And in many respects, it’s charming precisely by its imperfection, including chaos on the roads; assemblages of narrow buildings, sometimes shabby, not wider than a single window; street vendors on the sidewalks, and so on.

On the way, Phuoc was telling us how people live in country – about low salaries, about taxes and cases of tax evasion, about how, with the emergence of a free market economy, many are striving to own a business, even if a very small one, and that often all family members, including the elderly, need to work as it’s very difficult to make ends meet otherwise.

At some point, we started talking about dogs and the fact that in Northern Vietnam people still eat them despite the government’s attempts to ban this. In 1945, a terrible famine raged in the north of the country and it were dogs that helped many people survive (not by their own will though!), so some still believe that eating a dog brings good luck. At the same time, this doesn’t prevent the Vietnamese from treating the dog as a man’s best friend and even to welcome stray dogs in their shops or cafes – it turns out that dog barking somehow sounds similar to the Vietnamese word meaning wealth, so again it’s believed that dogs bring good luck, even without being eaten. As for cats, the situation is exactly the opposite, since their ‘meow’ is consonant with the word meaning poverty.

IMG_2293

On the way, we stopped to visit the “happy room” (that’s the euphemism used here for toilet, which is quite logical for travellers) in some interesting place, looking like either a garden or a restaurant. Through Phuoc’s efforts, the stop turned for us into something like a botanical lecture: she basically showed us every plant and explained how and for what purposes it’s used. We really got the impression that the Vietnamese eat almost any stems, leaves, fruits and roots (well, except for poisonous ones obviously), including banana tree stems, and literally every part of the lotus. Then, already back in the car, she showed us some books about tropical plants, flowers and fruits.

IMG_2183

Another fifteen minutes’ drive – and we arrived at Cai Be, where we had to get on a boat and continue the journey on it. The boat was big – like a sampan – enough for 10 people, but it was just for our mini-group. First, we headed off to see the famous fruit and vegetable floating market. The population in the Mekong Delta area is mainly engaged in farming, and growing fruit is a very profitable business. The local climate and fertile land definitely help. But as for rice, for example, growing it is not that financially rewarding – the market price of one tonne barely covers the labour costs of the workers involved in producing this very tonne. Coming back to our floating market, we were told that in the early morning there are particularly many boats selling goods, and by 10 am (which is the time when we arrived), mostly everything is already sold out with only a few boats remaining. That is, to enjoy the floating market in all its glory, we would have had to spend a night in Cai Be.

IMG_2200

IMG_2213

IMG_2201

Our first stop is a local village with several family businesses. Here, for example, they make coconut candy by boiling coconut milk with sugar and sometimes flavour additives like coffee and chocolate. Coconuts, by the way, are used very extensively here – pulp and milk are used for food, and the shell is used as fuel, for crafts or even for activated charcoal production.

IMG_2215

IMG_2220

IMG_2219

And here there’s clearly a rice business. A woman is making edible rice paper on a brazier. Not far away, rice alcohol is being produced and there are big jars of alcohol infused on bananas, lychees and even venomous snakes. Rice is also used for making pictures – every rice grain gets painted in the appropriate colour and used for the kind of mosaic as in one of the pictures below.

IMG_2224

IMG_2221

IMG_2222

IMG_2225

And a little bit further they are making puffed rice, frying it on a hot pan with hot black sand. Further on, this rice is mixed with various additives – sugar, salt or ginger, and even pieces of pork or beef – and pressed into something similar to the rice cakes that we know.

I have to say, all these braziers and pans make me feel like in hell in this not-very-cool weather, I sweat a ton, but finally we are sat under fans for a cup of jasmine tea with different sweets made of banana, ginger, sesame and peanuts. Jasmine tea here is very special, much more fragrant than, say, in China or elsewhere. Phuoc explains this by a higher proportion of jasmine flowers relative to tea. Enjoying the tea, we look around and notice that they sell all sorts of things here – coconut oil, crafts made of coconut and other trees, some ointment with cobra venom and even the famous Tiger Balm, although not in the familiar little red tin.

IMG_2214

After the tea break, we again board the boat and drive on to the An Binh island, where we are supposed to enjoy fresh fruit and local music. Just as we take a step off the boat and onto the ground, we immediately feel knocked down by the smell of durian, and in a minute, we understand why: right in front of us there are durian trees, laden with large “fragrant” fruits.

IMG_2253

Fortunately, we aren’t offered any, instead on our plate we have pieces of ordinary watermelon, exotic but familiar pineapple and mango and quite unusual guava (something like feijoa and, as it turned out, closely related to it) and jackfruit (similar to durian, a bit smelly too, but, oddly enough, belongs to the mulberry family, and the pulp is bright orange, slippery and sugary-sweet, tasting like either melon or bubble-gum). At the same time, several performers entertain us with Vietnamese songs accompanied by guitar and some kind of folk instrument, and even with small performances.

The next item on our schedule is a ride on a traditional flat-bottomed rowing boat along a narrow canal. There are cork trees growing right in the water, which, according to Phuoc, protect the soil from erosion. Generally all the vegetation around is pretty luxuriant, often covered with unfamiliar fruits. Behind the plants one can see houses on stilts. Some of them look better – obviously, the owners are making good money by growing durians – and some are pretty shabby. And yet, as I already said above, there is a particular charm to all of this, especially when you pass by a house where a nice-looking middle-aged lady is sweeping her terrace to the sound of some Vietnamese song playing at full blast.

IMG_2286

Not counting the Vietnamese song, there is a peaceful silence around, broken only by the splash of water under the oars and by boats occasionally passing by.

IMG_2282

Meanwhile, the helmsman on our sampan is already waiting with young coconuts for us. Once again, so far we are very impressed with our tour, everything seems to be arranged at the highest level! And so, sipping refreshing coconut water, we headed back to the island, moored and walked to an eco-tourism complex with an orchard, where we were served lunch. The lunch was home-cooked and pretty tasty, consisting of fish that had to be wrapped with vegetables in rice paper and dipped into fish sauce, deep-fried spring rolls, grilled shrimps, vegetable soup (we liked it the least) and pork with rice. Fish sauce, I must say, is an extremely smelly substance, but it tastes a lot better than it smells. Phuoc said that the Vietnamese fish sauce is much better than the Thai one, because it is made of anchovies, while in Thailand it’s made of mackerel.

IMG_2298

We washed it all down with Vietnamese coffee, stronger than many varieties of coffee, but less strong than Turkish coffee. That’s when Phuoc told us that the tradition of drinking coffee is a French colonial heritage, as well as colonial architecture and baguettes, and this, in her opinion apparently shared by many Vietnamese, exhausts the list of positive effects of colonisation, absolutely not offsetting the complete plundering of royal treasures.

We also starting talking about the Vietnam War – how Saigon was much more developed, more or less in step with Singapore and Hong Kong, and then, destroyed by the war and the communist regime, fell hopelessly behind – and about relations with China, which are much better than in the 80s, but, according to Phuoc, quite dangerous and could potentially lead to the occupation of Vietnam by China.

Actually, we went into these lengthy conversations for one simple reason: while we were having lunch (luckily, under a canopy), a heavy downpour started. I have to say that we’d been lucky with the rain from the very beginning – all weather websites I know were forecasting it right in the morning and for the whole day. And it only started when we’d already finished sightseeing.

IMG_2301

After lunch, the only thing left was a boat ride to the town of Vinh Long, where our driver should have already been waiting for us. The rain kept pouring. Fortunately, the boat also had a canopy (unlike the flat rowing boat we were on literally a couple of hours ago), but at some point a wind broke out forcing us to put on raincoats so as not to get wet. Because of the rain, we didn’t stop at the Vinh Long market, and headed straight to the pier. As there were only a few metres remaining to the pier, the waves became so strong, making the boat reel so much that I seriously feared that it would scoop up water and capsize. But thank God, it didn’t, and we drove off back to Ho Chi Minh City. The rain was pouring non-stop throughout the whole two-and-a-half-hour drive, but not as intensely as before.

Today we decided to have dinner at the Ngon restaurant, recommended by Phuoc, which turned out to be a good choice. The restaurant is a ten minute walk from our hotel and is located in that fancier area we didn’t reach yesterday. The interior is very pretty with palm trees everywhere. The menu has several sections: Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese, and of course we went for the latter – aren’t we in Vietnam after all? I had bun bo hue (spicy beef soup with rice vermicelli and greens – more precisely, it is the chili pepper served separately that makes it spicy), chicken thighs barbecue and for dessert, something like banana cake with coconut milk – not sweet at all, which I really liked. Generally, I’m enjoying the Vietnamese cuisine and finding it somewhat less intrusive compared to, say, Chinese (which I like as well but tend to have had enough of soon) – mainly because dishes taste precisely like their ingredients and all sorts of sauces and spices are served separately: you can add/dip/sprinkle if you want, but you don’t have to. It all cost us twice as much as yesterday’s dinner (almost 30 USD) – it’s a fancy restaurant after all, but we also ate a lot more.

20170606_192640

Posted in Asia, English, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Vietnam – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

5 June 2017

Our Vietnamese trip began last night, when we left Baku for Doha and from the latter, after a 2-hour connection, flew straight to Ho Chi Minh city. The flight, albeit a long one, felt okay, in many respects due to being an overnight one: we literally got on, sat down, went to sleep, woke up – and suddenly it was already brunch time with just two hours remaining.

In general, everything went pretty smoothly, even though getting the visa took ages. First, we had to fill out a long form asking about everything one could possibly ask about, including religion and information about family members. Then we handed the documents to the officer and were asked to wait. And wait. And wait again. In total, the waiting time was less than an hour, but it felt like eternity.

We were anxious that the travel agency representatives wouldn’t wait for us, but obviously they were aware of the speed of the visa issuing process, so of course, our fears were groundless – we were greeted by a nice lady called Phuoc, picked up by an air-conditioned car and taken to the travel agency office to settle the outstanding payment balance. On the way, she showed us some flashcards with basic phrases in Vietnamese and told us about the history of Ho Chi Minh city and how it was only in the 1970’s when it was called so, because its previous name, Saigon, was too reminiscent of the Vietnam war. By the way, the name Saigon, as per Phuoc, is the modified form of the old Khmer “Prey Nokor” (yes, yes, don’t be surprised!), which used to be the name of the city in its pre-Vietnamese (i.e. Cambodian) times.

IMG_2171

The office turned out to be a small room with a couple of computers, piled with boxes and smelling of mothballs for some reason, where we were warmly welcomed, served iced tea, handed an ancient Nokia with a local sim-card to stay in touch with them, and, of course, charged the outstanding payment. Overall, for the time being, it feels like the agency is taking good care of us!

Then we were brought to the Lavender Boutique Hotel, where they left us – nothing is planned for today and we have the evening free. So after freshening up, we went out to explore the surroundings and get some dinner. The moment we stepped out into the street, we felt like in a bath – the air temperature is about 30 degrees Celsius and it’s very humid. The vegetation around is quite tropical with lots of greenery, palm trees, etc.

Walking around proves to be very, very difficult. Firstly, one must take into account the crazy traffic: most people here don’t drive a car, but a scooter, which there are lots and lots of. And if car-owners at least follow some traffic rules – that is, stop at the red light and before zebra crossings – you can’t expect the same from motorcyclists, so you have to manoeuvre between them literally risking your life! They even drive on sidewalks! Secondly, the sidewalks themselves are tiled pretty badly – chicken soup to our Bakuvian souls! – and are very uneven. And thirdly, the sidewalks, which aren’t very wide anyway, are clogged up with all sort of things: parked motorcycles, low stools with people sitting on them, street food and fruit stalls. And very specific scents are exuded both by the food and the fruit, as among the latter, durian dominates confidently with its unique smell, and it is at every corner!

IMG_2176

IMG_2181

IMG_2178

Among all this unglamorous disorder, we discover a nice-looking restaurant, where, as we can see through the window, most customers are Vietnamese but there are some foreigners too, which we perceive as a good sign: the place is, therefore, not very touristy, but still foreigner-friendly. We tried local beer, some drink made of aloe vera with chia seeds and rice noodles with pork, cucumbers, peanuts and something else, and everything was tasty. And it all cost us less than 15 USD for two!

20170605_181240

After dinner we tried to walk to the Saigon River, which was supposed to be nearby, but had to give up as a terrible shower started pouring and didn’t stop for a good half an hour. Our Singapore raincoats, which we’d prudently taken with us, came in handy, but didn’t help much – we still had to wait under canopies every time the rain intensified (that is every 5 minutes), until we finally got our feet so wet that we decided to turn back, almost making it to a fancier-looking area than ours. The people here are obviously accustomed to downpours, especially since now it’s the rainy season – everyone has raincoats, huge umbrellas, even scooters are covered with waterproof covers. While waiting, by the way, we walked into a shopping centre selling clothes, which even smelled of cheap clothes – not a sight that can surprise us, who had seen the Baku street markets in underground passages.

20170605_192715

20170605_192759

So here are my first impressions of the city: very colourful, much poorer than the previously seen Asian cities (such as Singapore or Hong Kong or Shanghai), scooters swarming all around and everywhere smells of durian.

20170605_193304