Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Three

Correction: Earlier I said that in Vietnam almost all the motorbike riders wore helmets. I mis-spoke. Almost none of them wore helmets. It was in Laos that everyone wore helmets. A great example of the difference between the two cultures.

And now Part Three:

From Hoi An it was on to Hue by car. We had read and been told that the drive would take 4 hours or more, mainly because it was necessary to go over the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) Pass, part of the Truong Son Mountain range, and that the road was slow and difficult. But when I checked at the hotel I was told it would take us 2½ hours. The hotel was right.

What we didn’t know was that the Hai Van Tunnel opened in 2005. The tunnel is a state-of-the-art 4-mile long project that cuts the drive by 20 km and 1 hour. It looks quite sophisticated.

The rest of the drive was not difficult. We traveled along Highway 1, the main north-south route in Vietnam, along the coast of the South China Sea and through the countryside. I was surprised that the traffic was quite light. A few trucks, buses and cars – that’s all. Our driver was Mr. Ho, who also drove us to My Son with Van. He was careful, helpful, and friendly. Can’t ask for more.

We stayed at Pilgrimage Village, a relatively new place on the outskirts of town. I wasn’t impressed with what I read about the centrally located hotels, so this looked good. About themselves, they say:

Pilgrimage Village will awake a breath of memories, a sense of the past, a purity of nature in a fresh and rustic village setting.

Well, I guess so. It is in a rustic setting, reminiscent of the Life Heritage Resort in Hoi An. The two-story buildings are spread out over a large area; the architecture is consistent with local styles. As to awakening my breath of memories – I come up a bit short on this one.

Being out of town was a mixed blessing. The surroundings were lovely. It was quiet. But when we considered going into Hue for dinner, our location was a disincentive. And the restaurant at Pilgrimage Village had an unexciting, unchanging menu for lunch and dinner. So we weren’t thrilled with our food choices. And you may have noticed by now that we do have a hot button about enjoying what we eat, especially dinner.

Our room was large. The bathroom had design features I’d never seen before – like pebbles around a large, open shower into which some of the water disappeared. And we had a veranda (in Hue they call it a porch; in Kauai we’d call it a lanai) with a view of the countryside. The only real problem with the room was that it had an abysmal lack of light, so reading was a challenge.

Reading wasn’t a priority on this trip, but I did finish some good books:
“The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai
“Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie
“Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy
And I got half way through “Snow” by Orhan Pamuk

We had one full day in Hue – February 9, which happens to be the date Sandra and I met and the one we celebrate as our Anniversary. This February 9 marked 33 years together. Given that we have a tradition of celebrating our Anniversary with great food and wine, and given the paucity of both on this day in Hue, we had a mini-celebration and delayed the real thing until we returned home.

Hue is an important city in Vietnam. Americans of a certain age will remember Hue for its role in the Tet offensive of 1968, which turned the American War around for the Viet Cong. For the Vietnamese, Hue was their Imperial capitol in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It is home to the famous Citadel and Imperial City. We decided to hire a guide and spend half our day visiting the Citadel/Imperial City, an Emperor’s tomb and (surprise) a pagoda.

Our guide was Thi, a woman about 30, mother of a little girl. She was OK, but not on a par with Van. Thi did her job competently, but we were unable to establish a ‘beneath-the-surface’ relationship with her that would have made our day more fun and allowed us to learn more about Vietnam.

The Citadel is huge. Its perimeter is 10km long. As the name implies, it was built to enclose and protect the Emperor, his family, and his government. Over the years much has been destroyed, so the few walls, gates and buildings that remain seem a bit lonely inside the large open spaces. Even so, for the people of Hue I had the clear impression that the Citadel is #1 on their list of important things to see.

We were much more taken with the Tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, who reigned from 1848-1883. Tu Duc was a practical guy. He designed this tomb complex long before he died and used it as a place to live and work. I assume he spent time both here and in the Imperial City, but I don’t know for sure. Since the tomb is located outside the city, maybe it was kind of a second home in the country for him. In any event, the design and feel of the tomb communicate a sense of exquisite harmony.

It is a large walled compound set amid frangipani trees and a grove of pines. Long quiet pathways connect the different parts of the tomb. In the middle is a lake, which for me was the tomb’s centerpiece. On one side is a boat landing. On another is a pavilion built out over the water where, it is said, the emperor would sit among the columns with his wives (there were 104) and concubines (countless) composing or reciting poetry. Does it matter if all this is accurate? Of course not.

In another area is a stele pavilion in which the accomplishments, exploits and virtues of the deceased emperor are engraved on a marble tablet. The testaments are usually written by the dead ruler’s successor, but since Tu Duc had no children he chose to compose his own. I’ll resist the temptation for conjecture about the reason for his lack of progeny.

There is a temple, used only by the emperor and his family. There is a sepulcher, in which his remains are buried. And there is a large courtyard used for ceremonial occasions, along the sides of which are stone elephants, horses and mandarins.

We were left with a very positive opinion of Tu Duc.

Our pagoda of the day was the Thien Mu Pagoda, built on a hillock overlooking the Perfume River. It is tall – a seven story octagonal tower – and old, 1844. It was also closed for repairs. So we walked around the grounds. The most interesting relic we saw at the pagoda was an old Austin car that in 1963 transported a monk, Trich Quang Duc, to Saigon where he immolated himself to protest the policies of the Vietnamese government. A picture of the burning monk was on the front page of newspapers around the world.

The next afternoon we flew to Hanoi. The airport is more than 20 miles from the city, and under normal circumstances it’s a long ride into town. But these were not normal circumstances; it was now a week before Tet, and along the side of the main road were wall-to-wall sellers of Tet-related items, particularly small peach and kumquat trees filled with beautiful pink blossoms and orange fruit. It was slow going or when a car stopped to buy something, no going, on the narrow two-lane highway. We were in no hurry and totally enjoyed the scene, especially watching people balancing and protecting their trees while riding on motorbikes, bicycles or in cars.

We were taken to the Metropole Hotel, our accommodations splurge for this trip. In comparison with other parts of the world, our itinerary allowed us to stay in very good hotels for a lot less than it would have cost elsewhere, an average of about $150 a night, including service and taxes. The Metropole was twice that, but given its reputation we wanted to experience the luxury of what was said to be the best hotel in Vietnam.

The Metropole is a truly Grand Hotel, in the same sense as are Raffles in Singapore (where we haven’t stayed) and the Oriental in Bangkok (where we have stayed – and enjoyed incomparable service.) The Metropole is more than 100 years old and has a classic French ambiance.

Upon arrival we were greeted and accompanied to the reception desk. Someone took our passports and completed the various forms that we usually filled out ourselves. Someone else described the various services they would provide. Within a few minutes we were in our room in the Old Wing. It was glorious, extravagant, impeccable, exactly what we had hoped for.

The furniture, the art, the fixtures, the linen, the windows, the wooden floor, the high ceilings, the flowers, the soap even, were exquisite. And I found this to be the case not only in our room but everywhere we went in the hotel. Just walking down the hall to the elevator, every few feet passing gorgeous small lamps and orchids sitting atop antique tables, was an exhilarating experience. Unbelievable. Un-fucking believable. I’ve never been in a hotel where the design excellence and attention to detail equaled the Metropole.

And the quality of the service matched the décor. Whatever we asked for was attended to quickly, efficiently, and with a smile. Add to all this that the hotel is perfectly located for a visit to Hanoi, and – voila! – perfection. We were thrilled that we would be here for four nights.

Since elegance had become our theme of the day, we continued with dinner at the Emperor, a Vietnamese restaurant not far from the hotel known both for outstanding décor and food. The Emperor fills a beautiful restored colonial building and features an interior courtyard used for dining. Our table was upstairs overlooking the courtyard, so we had the feeling of being both indoors and outdoors. During the evening we were treated to live traditional music. At the end of our first day in Hanoi I would characterize our mood as very very satisfied.

The next morning we went out for our first real look at Hanoi. We headed for Hoan Kiem Lake, a lovely body of water in the heart of the city. In contrast to Ho Chi Minh City, in Hanoi it is possible to find in-city relief from the traffic and commotion. This lake area is the main oasis. Having said that, I don’t want to understate the motorbike population or the challenge of crossing the street. As in HCMC, it is a frightening experience.

At the north end of the lake on an island is the Ngoc Son Pagoda, reached by crossing the lovely Bridge of the Rising Sun. As we walked along the edge of the lake we passed several young couples who couldn’t care less about us, the bridge, or anything except each other and families with children who were enjoying a Sunday morning outing. While there were many people out and about it was not crowded. Our walk around the lake and back to the Metropole was very tranquil.

We had set ourselves up to have brunch at Le Beaulieu, the hotel’s French restaurant, which was advertised as a special eating experience. Special doesn’t come close. This brunch was spectacular. It is a huge buffet tastefully arrayed on maybe twenty tables. Dozens of dishes awaited us. I can’t begin to remember all the choices. Mussels, prawns, caviar, varieties of salmon. Cheeses. Breads. Fruit. Eggs, chicken, meat, noodles, rice. Washed down by a good bottle of white wine.

Brunch wiped us out. I wanted to sleep. Sandra read. If we hadn’t had tickets for a late afternoon performance at the Water Puppet Theater we probably wouldn’t have done anything else for the rest of the day. Anna Hannon recommended the Water Puppets even though she said they were a bit corny and kitschy.

They were that, but also unique enough to be interesting. The performance is in a waist high tank of water, with 11 out-of-sight puppeteers manipulating large brightly painted wooden puppets representing people, fish and animals. Along with a band of flutes, gongs, drums, stringed instruments and singers they present more than dozen vignettes of pastoral scenes and legends. The show lasts less than an hour. For adults it’s more a ‘why not see’ rather than a ‘must see.’ For kids it would be ‘don’t miss it.’

After the show we were supposed to go to dinner at Indochine. But we weren’t very hungry, so we cancelled the reservation. We had a drink and a snack in the Metropole’s Bamboo Bar. We’d had a great day.

Morning came, and it was time to visit Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which dates back to the 13th Century. The Quarter evolved from workshops that were organized by trades (guilds), and to this day some streets are dedicated to a product or trade (as was the case in HCMC.) I love these old areas. I guess my first Old Quarter was Old Delhi in 1962, and since then I’ve been in quite a few. While each is unique, there is also a similarity quarter-to-quarter and country-to-country. These are the places where life happens. They are not about tourists. They are authentically themselves. They are crowded. In places the streets narrow to a few feet. Here there are more mobile shops – women walking around selling produce from long bamboo shoulder-poles with baskets at each end. There are more cyclos (cycle rickshaws) than in other parts of town. I love ‘em.

Of course we needed to make an obligatory temple visit. Ms. Marsh suggested Hanoi’s oldest temple, Bach Ma, which was built in 1010. I thought it was a brilliant idea. After all, my day wouldn’t be complete without visiting a temple. So we went. Our day was now complete – but not finished.

We went to Cha Ca La Vong for lunch. Appropriately, Cha Ca La Vong is on Cha Ca (fish) Street in the Old Quarter. It is a narrow and simple place, with too many wooden tables squeezed into the small space. We had to wait a while for a place to sit. Each table accommodates 8-10 people. Fortunately we found ourselves next to a Thai guy and a Filipina (business colleagues they said) who spoke English and knew how to prepare and eat Cha Ca. We followed their lead.

A seriously hot charcoal hibachi was put in front of us. On the side were bowls filled with boneless chunks of white fish, noodles, greens, peanut oil with dill, peanuts, tumeric and fermented something. Our job was to cook it and eat it. Which we did. For me, cold beer completed the picture. It was delicious. Cha ca is a well-known Hanoi dish. Cha Ca La Vong is a well-known Hanoi restaurant, frequented by both tourists and locals. I totally enjoyed being there. They say the family that owns and runs Cha Ca has been doing it for five generations. I can believe it.

As we walked around Hanoi and HCMC we noticed many tall, very very narrow buildings. They looked strange, and we couldn’t figure out why they were built that way. Then we found out they are called ‘tube houses.’ Turns out that in Vietnam properties are taxed on the basis of their street frontage, so it makes good economic sense to minimize the width and concentrate on organizing the various components of the house and/or business front-to-back and up-and-down.

We relaxed for the rest of the afternoon and had dinner at the Club Opera restaurant. It was – OK. OK food. OK ambiance. Nothing to write home about.

On our final day in Hanoi we went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. By the time we arrived the Mausoleum itself was closed, which was fine with me. I had no interest in checking out a stuffed Uncle Ho. In earlier years I’d passed on viewing Lenin in Moscow, but I had gone to see Mao in Beijing in 1983. One national hero under glass was enough for me.

The Mausoleum is an imposing, somber, granite and concrete structure modeled on Lenin’s tomb. The complex is a traffic-free area of parks, monuments, memorials and pagodas. Ho’s house is there, as is the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There were many police and/or soldiers patrolling and guarding. For the most part they were serious, humorless young men. They made sure we walked in the proper places and didn’t take pictures where we shouldn’t. They weren’t really a problem, but they seemed out of place in present-day Vietnam. They reminded me of their counterparts I’d seen in Indonesia in the 1960’s and in the Soviet Union in the 70’s and 80’s.

We walked from the Mausoleum Complex to the Temple of Literature, another relaxing retreat in central Hanoi. The temple was founded in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius in honor of scholars. It was here in 1076 that Vietnam’s first university was established. Doctoral examinations were held every three years between 1442 and 1778. The names of the 1,306 doctoral laureates who managed to pass the rigorous exams are engraved on 82 stone stelae that line the temple’s third enclosure.

In the Temple of Literature are beautiful Chinese/Vietnamese-style gates that set five courtyards apart, each gate filled with statuary and ornamentation. Lovely old trees and flowers along the central pathway complete the picture.

We ate dinner alfresco on the terrace of the hotel’s Spices Garden restaurant. We needed to pack and prepare for an early morning flight, so we didn’t want to have a late night.

And it was an early start the next day, like up at 5 and in a taxi to the airport at 6, since we wanted to be there by 7. Surely, we thought, at this time of day an hour is more than enough time to get to the airport. Again we underestimated the entrepreneurial zeal of the Vietnamese.

The markets were in full swing. They were packed with people and the road we were on was packed with delivery vehicles. It was like our drive in from the airport four days before, only more so – and it was still dark. At one point an accident somewhere up ahead brought traffic to a standstill. We had a very aggressive taxi driver who fought for every inch of space he could get and pissed off a few other drivers in the process. I thought, if we get through this without having an accident it will be a miracle.

We managed to get through one market area and the accompanying traffic jam only to come upon another one a short distance ahead. My calm associated with having more than enough time to get to the airport disappeared. I was now in my on-the-edge pre-travel mode, not worried about the flight but the logistics associated with it. Sandra was, as usual, cooled out.

In the end we arrived not too long after 7 and even beat the bulk of the other passengers through check-in and security. I relaxed. I was ready for a change of scenery.

End of Part Three


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