Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mui Ne, Vietnam: Sand Dunes in Southeast Asia

I recognize that I posted a blog only yesterday, but the wireless internet happens to be quite reliable here at "Tony's Place" in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Too reliable, in fact, to pass on the opportunity to write another quick post. However, it's merely going to be a sort of "photo blog," as I'll just be mentioning our brief stint in a Vietnamese coastal town known as Mui Ne. I don't really post photos on Facebook anymore, largely due to the fact that Bri is excellent at keeping up to date with that, so this is as good an opportunity as any to post a few.

Firstly, however, I'd like to mention how we arrived in Mui Ne. It takes an exorbitant amount of time to travel through Vietnam, so we found ourselves on a sleeper bus to Nha Trang (which isn't too far from Mui Ne). The bus was supposed to take 12-13 hours to arrive in Nha Trang, but ended up taking a little longer (largely due to the fact that the bus broke down for an hour around 3 in the morning). Being tall was a strict disadvantage on this packed bus, and my legs took a toll on the long, long journey. Luckily, Bri and I snagged two spots near the front, but the back was apparently a miserably hot, packed mess. One tall German fellow left the back, came up to the front, and demanded to be let out at the next city with a hotel. Any city with a hotel. He turned to me with his thick German accent and said, "My god, eet is hot back zaire. I wouldn't put my fecking chickens back zaire. It eez a fucking cheekin coop." He left shortly afterwards with an a sigh of immense relief. In my opinion, it's all part of the experience here in Southeast Asia. You can't expect to magically teleport from destination to destination, so find a good book, and make the best of it. Usually, I actually find the transportation bit enjoyable, as it gives a break in the action to reflect on what you've just seen in the previous destination.

A chicken coop on wheels?
Making the best of a (relatively decent) bad situation

Anyway, we came to Mui Ne to see the sand dunes. This is largely because we had no idea they existed until we arrived in Hanoi and heard about them from some people we met. It seemed too strange, too bizarre to not make an attempt to get there. So that's exactly what we did. Mui Ne is also known for its beach and tourist hub, but as I mentioned, that wasn't our reason for being there, as we'll see plenty of that on our travels elsewhere. I'm not going to give you an explanation of how sand dunes are formed, etc... I'm simply going to post photos of our visit to the red and white sand dunes, which was entirely worth the detour on the way to Saigon. I believe I've already exceeded my text limit for this to be defined as a photo blog, so I'll get on with the show.

The red sand dunes are located closer to the actual town of Mui Ne, and are lesser known, but not necessarily less impressive. Actually, they are less impressive than the white sand dunes, but they're still fascinating. Either way, I'd have to say that any sand dunes in Southeast Asia are impressive. Honestly, I would expect to see this in the Middle East, but not in Vietnam.




I should mention that, as with Hue, we decided to rent a scooter for the day. Thus, right after our visit to the red sand dunes I revved the engine (which sounded like a golf-cart on steroids) and off we went to the white sand dunes. The road conditions were less then favourable, but so much more exciting. The scooter wasn't meant to go off-roading, but that's exactly where we took it. 



The white sand dunes were much larger, more photogenic, and happened to be accented with several sizable lakes. These dunes were the real deal. These sand dunes were the reason we made the trek to get to minuscule Mui Ne, and what a wonderful reason it was. 



So there you have it. That's precisely what sand dunes in Southeast Asia look like. I was made aware of their existence only several weeks ago, and I'm still astonished by them, or more generally their existence.
I now have irrefutable proof that Vietnam has sand dunes, and they're pretty good looking proof if you ask me (although I'm decidedly bias). A night train to Chiang Mai beckons me, so I best be going. I've got high hopes for big destinations like Chiang Mai, but apparently I can be equally persuaded by the Mui Ne's of the world. It's those places that provide the best stories, or photo blogs as it may be.

Hue and Hoi An, Vietnam: Forbidden Cities, Open Markets

Although both respective cities start with an "h", they aren't particularly alike. This may come as a grand shock to those who presumed that cities beginning with the same letter must be, in some way, similar. For most us, however, it will come as no surprise at all. And some individuals may even think that those who thought the former probably shouldn't be allowed to travel on their own and form such silly presumptions in the first place. Although, Hue and Hoi An are similar in that they are both located in Vietnam and have a distinctive charm. Furthermore, both cities are definitely worth a visit if you happen to find yourself on this side of the globe. Let me tell you why.

Hue

Hue's best known as a former capital of Vietnam during the early 19th century all the way up to middle of the 20th century. I bet many of you didn't know that when World War Two struck in Vietnam the capital was Hue, and not Saigon or Hanoi. And, quite honestly, I wouldn't blame you, but if you did know, then I congratulate you with a virtual pat-on-the-back that will likely (never) be delivered in the near future. As a former capital, it possesses an heir of importance and authority that you can't necessarily build or buy. It wasn't the capital for all that long, historically speaking, but nonetheless it still held the title, and that's worth something in my books. 

The most striking evidence of Hue's former glory is the Imperial City. It served as both a citadel and a palace, and it's defensive prowess is immediately observed even from the street, as well as it's historical value. 

The Flag-tower of Hue's Imperial City

As you may have noticed, the first line of defense began with a 10km moat and 2 metre thick stone walls. The interior beyond these walls is simply enormous. It took us several hours to walk around the enclosed area. In the middle sits the "Purple Forbidden City," which was essentially an enclosure for the royal family (the short lived Nguyen Dynasty). It was rewarding to walk around, but I was overcome with the notion of what this might have been. This area was initially spared from the American offensive because of its intrinsic historical value to humanity, but eventually that was ignored (not surprisingly). From the looks of it, this gorgeous area was mercilessly bombed. It was terribly sad in that regard, but it's encouraging to see that there is a large-scale restoration project underway. To put it in perspective, only 10 major buildings survive of the original 160. No restoration project can repair such immense damage. Personally, I would have had a difficult time there if I'd been an American. The photo below shows the beauty of the sight, but keep in mind that the view in front should have included several immense palaces in symmetrical order, and not a vast open area.


Renting a scooter was a definite highlight for me. Unfortunately, Bri was under the weather, but after ensuring she was alright, I stepped out the door, rented a scooter, and was whipping through the streets in no time. As Jeju insinuated, I have an infatuation with these vehicles, so it's lucky that the rest of Southeast Asia seems to share my passion. 



I stopped at a few places on route (namely Nam Giao or "The Temple of Heaven"), but my goal was to reach Tu Duc Tomb, which was located just under 10km outside of Hue. I'm not going to lie, I was loving the wind in my face on that scooter, despite its ultimately questionable cleanliness. It was also surprisingly delightful  to be a direct part of the chaotic Vietnamese traffic. It's difficult to watch from the sidelines, but I felt as if I was in the "eye of the storm," so to speak. Tranquil Tu Doc Tomb impressed me in the first five seconds. The compound is separated into the "temple area" and the "tomb area," and you enter directly into the beauty of the temple area with a gorgeous view of Xung Khiem Pavilion perched on Luu Khiem Lake. The withered water-lilies on its surface served to make the view all the more enchanting.


Like the Imperial City, this complex was also rather large, but it was a pleasure to take a moment to walk these grounds. In fact, it's the only way to properly view a place like this. I took well over an hour to peruse both the temple and tomb areas and was completely enveloped by what I saw. While the above picture was my favourite part of the temple area, I'd have to say that my favourite part of the tomb area was the Emperor's Grave. As the name of the whole complex would suggest, the tomb belonged to Emperor Tu Duc, who was the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty and reigned from the mid to late 19th century. Elaborate structures guide you to the tomb where you're confronted with a simplistic, yet powerful, stone tomb. It's very straightforward, but I think that's what makes it remarkable. 

   
I departed from this tomb to headed to another. It was a significant distance from where I was, but with a scooter, distance isn't a worry. However, the sun was fading by the time I reached Minh Mang Tomb, so I wasn't able to give it a proper viewing, which is disappointing because it's quite renowned. My late arrival was somewhat a result of the expedition I embarked upon with my scooter. I often took back roads to see where they would lead, and they often led to interesting places. 


I've seen my fair share of pagodas while in Asia, but it's worth noting Thien Mu Pagoda, seeing as it's Vietnam's largest. It was only a few kilometres from the city centre and, overall, I appreciated my time there. It's not necessarily anything to write home about, but it possesses great meaning for the people of Hue and Vietnam, and that's reason enough to take a moment of my time and pay my respects.

Honourable Mentions 

I simply must give a big shout out to the fantastic Jade Hotel in Hue. This place cost us about 12 dollars a night, but I would have paid ten times that had they asked. The rooms were clean and comfortable, the food was delicious, and the kindness of the staff was unparalleled. Literally unparalleled. When you came back in from the heat, you were lovingly bombarded with cold towels and the sweetest lemonade money could buy. Not to mention that it's centrally located. An absolute steal, that's what the Jade Hotel is. 

We had yet another rendevouz with our Dutch friends Robin and Ilona who we met in Ha Long Bay. Once again, it was a great evening of dinner and drinks that ended at a lively bar in Hue known as Brown Eyes. That place is good fun, especially when they bring out the free shots. They hand out free shots and the drinks aren't even expensive. That's classic Vietnam hospitality right there. 

Hoi An

I'm not entirely sure why, but Hoi An is likely my favourite city from my time in Vietnam, and Bri seems to concur with that notion. There wasn't really all that much to do, but that may actually be why it's my favourite city. Cities like Hanoi and Saigon constantly bombard you with noise and pollution, but there's a little more room in Hoi An to control and appreciate your surroundings. It doesn't hurt that your surroundings are drop dead gorgeous. 

We were only in Hoi An for a few days, but it has left a lasting impression upon me. It is unquestionably the river that gives Hoi An its charm. Apparently, the river has been charming for quite some time as well, because Hoi An was Southeast Asia's largest port all the way back in the 1st century. The entire city is actually a UNESCO World Heritage sight, which I whole-heartedly agree with. For me, it took one view from a bridge to fall in love with this city. It puts a smile on my face to know that "Hoi An" roughly translates to "peaceful meeting place."


I could easily envision the same murky, brown water aiding the trading ships down river from the first century on. It's difficult to establish where exactly the new town in Hoi An would be, but we spent a fair bit of time in the Old Town or Ancient Town. Conveniently, you can purchase a pass to visit any five historical sights in that area, thus forming your own tour based on your own interests. We entered the Old House of Quan Thong, which was somewhat interesting, but I certainly enjoyed the Quang Trieu Assembly Hall significantly more. Honestly, it's not any one, two, or five sights that make this place special, as Hoi An is already packed full of special. However, the Japanese Covered Bridge happens to be the only known covered bridge in the world that has a Buddhist pagoda on it. I'm not entirely sure how many other bridges are vying for that feat, but it's worth noting! 

In recent years, Hoi An has become somewhat legendary for its shopping, especially in the old town area. Specifically, Hoi An offers cheap custom made suits, dresses, and any other clothing you can imagine. While tempting, I passed on the custom suit in order to maintain some semblance of a budget in the early part of my travels. No jokes aside, people come from far and wide to clad themselves in custom attire. I didn't purchase much, but the streets provided a joyful sanctuary for a stroll. 


I've always been a sucker for canals in cities, but this river was especially fitting, and the unique ornamentation of the bridges added to the effect.


If a river is simply too measly a body of water for you, then you're nicely covered by the seaside Cua Dai Beach. Bri and I rented bicycles to reach the beach and it made a fine afternoon, as you can imagine. I'm not a beach connoisseur, but it seemed to me as if Cua Dai had everything you'd need. Warm sand, an endless view out to the sea, and a fairly good tide aiding waves to the shore. The Thu Bon River is right nearby if you change your mind and decide that smaller bodies of water are better after all. I'll post a photo of both to adequately portray your options, although I probably wouldn't recommend swimming in the latter.

 

Honourable Mentions

The cuisine is Hoi An is delectable. Its proximity to a number of seafood filled bodies of water ensure that the restaurants are offering up succulent treats from the sea. I'd never tried crab in a noodle dish before, but the restaurants of Hoi An pulled it off with flying colours. I've made myself hungry again just thinking about the food there. 

The Windbell Homestay was as luxurious as the Taj Mahal. I've never been to the Taj, but that's what I imagine. Last minute, I spotted this place at 40 percent off, and man am I glad that I did. The villa we stayed in was at least two times bigger than our apartment in Korea, and about fourteen times nicer. The unbearably cute puppy that snoops around the premises happens to be an added bonus. 

So there it is folks. Two cities in one swoop. I hope that it wasn't too much for one post and you didn't succumb to boredom and click on another page. Although, if you'd done that then you wouldn't be reading this in the first place, which would surely be your loss. In all seriousness, life is treating both Bri and myself extraordinarily well right now. I'm writing to you from Ayutthaya, Thailand, and adventure lurks around every corner. However, the clock has just peeked past midnight, so let me bid you farewell, wherever you are in this crazy, wonderful world of ours. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam: Beaches and Barges

It was a pleasure, and perhaps a necessity, to leave the ubiquitous busyness of Hanoi for quieter climes. Ha Long Bay (literally translated as "descending dragon bay") offered such an opportunity, although I wouldn't exactly say that it was particularly quiet or solitary. Ha Long Bay did offer some silence, but the footprint of excessive tourism was everywhere. It was, however, void of the excessive honking and smog that I came to know so well in Hanoi, so it was a step in the right direction. Either way, Ha Long Bay offered a great peek of what Vietnam is all about, both good and bad. Today, I'll just be focusing on Ha Long Bay, as I've only got an evening here in Battambang, Cambodia to put this together, but perhaps next time I'll find some more time and cover several cities. As I previously mentioned, uncertainty is one of the finer parts of travel, and I don't intend to establish a routine that would nullify all the glory that uncertainty carries along with it.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is one of the most popular tourist attractions that Vietnam has to offer, and it's safe to say that most travellers nowadays have this place within their scopes. It's a massive area consisting of approximately 2,000 islands with some of the bluest blues and greenest greens around. Not surprisingly, they managed to tie Ho Chi Minh into Ha Long Bay by conveniently claiming that there are 1969 islands, which happens to be the death year of Uncle Ho. Even with geological phenomena, the Vietnamese find a way to show some reverence for Ho Chi Minh. Ha Long Bay is considered to be one of the "seven natural wonders of the world," right alongside Jeju Island (Part II). Ha Long Bay is spectacular, but unfortunately I don't think it will be that way much longer. A revolving door of tourism has essentially put a fast forward button on the lifespan of this precious area. In my opinion, the tourism goals of Vietnam appear to be rather short sighted in order to cash in quickly, which isn't altogether surprising considering their economic position. Nonetheless, it's heartbreaking, especially considering that I'm ultimately contributing to its decline. There lies the traveller's paradox - You want to see these places before they're ruined, but in the process you're actually ruining them. At the end of the day, all you can do is try to travel consciously and responsibly despite the overall efforts put forward by the respective country. 


To explore this vast area, we employed the services of a worn down white ship that slowly but surely chugged through the clear waters. This river barge came complete with our own room, a nifty little lounge set-up on the second floor, and my personal favourite, the rooftop - equipped with some broken down reclining chairs and unbeatable photo opportunities. We spent our first night actually sleeping on the ship as our boat rolled back and forth with the waves in a little inlet. Bri and I met an absolutely fantastic couple from the Netherlands (Robin and Ilona) on board and we ended up diving into some great conversation on the top deck. All the while, the Vietnamese captain of our ship confidently steered ahead with his feet. The photo below should explain that a little better. 


While the boat was more than I could have asked for, a better way to discover Ha Long Bay is surely with an intimate kayaking excursion. That's exactly the opportunity that was afforded to us, so we embraced our inner Canadian and off we paddled. It was rather humorous to watch some of the older couples from countries not named Canada who never quite figured out how to get a rhythm going. Luckily, the affection we have for lakes in Canada ensures that we're well suited for aquatic activities. Both Bri and I relished the beauty of it all, but no matter how far we paddled we couldn't ever seem to quite escape the sight of another boat packed full of eager tourists. Nonetheless, it was one of the first experiences to truly solidify the feeling that we had begun this grand escapade through Southeast Asia that we'd been planning for so long. We snapped a few photos in our water-proof camera case along the way. 


We spent the second leg of our journey through Ha Long Bay on Cat Ba Island. It's the largest island in Ha Long Bay, and a tourist hub of sorts in the region. Bri and I were accompanied by some new people on Cat Ba, which is always a positive. Our first stop after landing on the island was at Cat Ba National Park, which covers roughly half of the island. We hiked for about an hour to reach the summit of a moderate mountain in the national park that offered some pleasant views, as any good summit should. This summit was unique in the fact that it had an old, rusty, rickety watchtower on it. Yes, I climbed it, but in retrospect I don't think it was the safest structure I'd ever witnessed. If presented with another opportunity like that, I'll likely pass (as my parents are surely delighted to hear), seeing as my heart was beating fairly quickly and I could almost hear the structure creaking. I'm sure my mom is cringing while reading this, but not to worry, as I clearly survived those adrenaline filled moments and lived to tell the tale. Besides, standards of safety are a little different here in Southeast Asia, so, in essence, it was an attempt to acclimatize myself to this new and foreign land. Yup, that's the story we'll go with.


What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? I've quickly learned during my travels through Vietnam and Cambodia that safety is defined a little differently. The general idea is that if you manage to injure yourself, then you've got nobody to blame but yourself, which is generally true. However, in North America there is a tendency to look for someone else to blame immediately, essentially denying responsibility for your idiocy (hence the phenomenon known as "suing somebody"). Bottom line, this is not the West, and I hope it stays that way.

Monkey Island is a short distance from Cat Ba Island by ferry and definitely worth visiting, even for just a few hours. If you're looking to stay longer than that time period, then there's a rather overpriced resort located on the island that can surely help you out. We were accompanied by some of our new found friends, namely a friendly girl named Monique from New Zealand, and Tim and Loes, a lovely Dutch couple. Together, we enjoyed the warm sands and views of mischievous monkeys. Honestly though, it makes total sense why this place is called Monkey Island, as the monkeys put on quite a show. Bri even managed to get a picture of one drinking a beer. That's the stuff that dreams are made of.


 Interestingly, the sights I witnessed on the ferry between Cat Ba and Monkey Island actually caught my eyes a little more. Floating cities of merchants and fishermen bounced up and down in the wake of our ferry boat. I'm literally referring to an enormous population of people, families and all, who live in these sprawling shanty towns upon the waves. I've never seen anything like it before, and I may not ever again.


Honourable Mentions

Despite the touristy vibe, Cat Ba Island provided a great night out for the group of us...or perhaps it was because of that touristy vibe. After all, we did end up at an established Kiwi bar in the main district. Included on the menu were 1 dollar massages, as well as 1 dollar pedicures and manicures. Peculiar indeed, but whatever works I suppose. Surprisingly, everything closed down fairly early, so after briefly considering Karaoke, we called it a night. Bri and I certainly had enough Karaoke in Korea to last a lifetime.

Sung Sot Cave (literally "surprising cave") is probably worth giving a quick mention to. It's one of the most popular in Ha Long Bay and is quite large and impressive. Personally, I saw a handful of caves in Korea, and now maybe I've lost a little interest in the whole cave experience. Perhaps it's because of my lack of hardened knowledge, but all caves tend to look the same to me, or at least similar. There was one part that did look unique to me, though. Our tour guide described it as a "finger," but you can be the judge. They even illuminated this rock with lights to make sure a passerby would notice it, or at least that's my theory. I've graduated from my adolescent immaturity, but something about this structure seems to betray the notion that it's just a finger.


I've battled some mighty poor Cambodian wireless internet to put this post together, but finally it appears the conclusion can be written. As much as I try to keep these posts relatively short, I never seem able to totally adhere to that. I believe that's largely because I find it utterly boring to talk about sights and places I've visited without at least inserting a little opinion into the matter. In some sense, that's why people read my blog, or if they strongly disagree with me, then it's the reason they don't. Either way, it's fine by me, but I'll continue to write when I get moments along the way because it's what keeps my curiosity fired up and my eyes always on the lookout for something hidden. So I'll continue to write, unless future wireless connections have contrary ideas.