Saturday, March 10, 2007

Asia Trip - Part Two

Here's the second installment of our recent trip to Asia:

Sandra has never met an old structure or ancient ruin she didn’t like. As we’ve gone around the world I’ve learned not to resist her fascination with what I call ‘old stones,’ but to negotiate an acceptable compromise on how many we’ll see. There aren’t any old stones in HCMC, but there are many pagodas and it was no surprise that they loomed large and bright on her radar screen. So off we went this next morning headed for the Jade Emperor Pagoda.

It turned out to be a challenge to find the place. First we told the hotel doorman where we wanted to go. He then told a taxi driver, who didn’t seem to have a clue what he was talking about. He then told a second taxi driver, who professed to understand, and off we went. Except he took us to the Vietnam History Museum which 1) we weren’t interested in, and 2) was closed. By the time we figured out what was going on he had taken off, so we got another taxi to try again.

I don’t know for sure where the breakdown in communication began. It was probably at the beginning, with the doorman. It’s fair to argue that we are in Vietnam, that the language people speak in Vietnam is Vietnamese, and if we’ve got a communication problem because we don’t speak Vietnamese this should be laid at our doorstep, not theirs. It’s an appropriate conclusion. In the moment, however, it doesn’t help.

The language gap is further exacerbated in a place like Vietnam because our attempts to say something in Vietnamese were, to their ears, hopelessly inadequate. Names, a phrase, were unintelligible to them. And vice versa. It didn’t take me long to realize that I had an expectation, based on my experience in other countries, that in Vietnam we would be able to communicate without difficulty in English. That didn’t turn out to be the case.

In any event, the second time around we made it to the Jade Emperor Pagoda. The Pagoda dates from 1909, and was built by Cantonese Chinese. Given the long and turbulent history between Vietnam and China (not the subject of this story,) I found it interesting that the Chinese presence, people/temples/neighborhoods, is as great as it is. As a matter of fact, when we left the Pagoda we headed for Cholon, the Chinatown of HCMC.

The Pagoda is an active temple. It is replete with statues of phantasmal divinities and grotesque heroes from the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. The pungent smoke from joss sticks fills the air. Offerings of food, drink, money, and other miscellaneous items are everywhere. I could say that the Jade Emperor Pagoda is an archetype for similar temples and shrines all over Southeast Asia. It’s got everything you would want in a far out, very foreign to us, place of worship.

I enjoy such visits – certainly the first time, and maybe even the second and third. But then it all begins to blur together. So my preference is to limit the number of exposures. I don’t need to see more than a couple of pagodas in HCMC, thank you very much. Or churches, or mosques, or markets, or monuments, or old stones – wherever they are.

OK, on to Cholon. My agenda was to wander around, discover how this part of HCMC was different from other parts of town, sniff the traditional herb shops said to be located here, maybe have something to eat. We did that. Cholon is, as advertised, very Chinese. On our map of Cholon Sandra had circled not one or two or three, but six pagodas that would be interesting to check out. We settled on two, and everyone was happy. Or at least I was.

The cab ride from the central part of the city to Cholon, a couple of miles to the west, isn’t all that far, but it takes a while. Observing the traffic from the inside of it is interesting, and certainly less harrowing than on foot. It actually appears quite civilized. The motorbikes maneuver for position, crowd into all available space, and seize every opportunity that comes their way, but they do it without much overt aggressiveness or macho behavior.

As in the U.S., traffic travels on the right side of roads. On their side, cars drive on the left and all others (mostly) on the right. The ‘all others’ take up about 2/3 of the driving area. Cars and most of the ‘all others’ comply with stoplights at major intersections, but the ‘all others’ pay no attention to the lights at other intersections. I noticed that women driving motorbikes wore gloves, mostly long ones that went up to the elbow. I didn’t notice any difference in driving behavior between men and women. Finally, there was near universal adherence to what must be a law requiring people on motorbikes to wear helmets.

Continuing Chinese as our theme of the day, we had dinner at Mandarine. Housed in a large two-story building on a quiet street, Mandarine offers an upscale Chinese motif – timber beams, screen paintings and artwork – and both Chinese and Vietnamese food. Frommer’s calls it a “quaint, elegant oasis.” We totally enjoyed it. And our taxi driver knew how to get there. Reminds me of that old Chinese expression: Win-Win.

That’s it for HCMC. An enjoyable but not memorable stop. Crowded. Busy. Very good food. Many pagodas and motorbikes.

Hoi An was next. To get there we flew 600 miles north to Danang where we hired a taxi to drive us to Hoi An, a 45-minute ride. Hoi An has a great history going back 2,000 years. In the Old Town many of its 19th Century wooden buildings are well preserved. Lonely Planet says Hoi An is “a living museum that oozes charm and culture…the most enchanting place along the coast.” In 1999 Hoi An was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a ‘must see’ for tourists. And that’s the problem. At this point Hoi An is all about catering to tourists.

In Hoi An we traded the motorbikes of HCMC for tour buses and groupos scurrying around on a mission not to miss anything. I was reminded of San Gimignano in Tuscany. A wonderful location. Wonderful things to see. And a main street overflowing with curio and souvenir shops and groupos on a tourist mission. Lord, have mercy.

To see the main attractions requires a ticket that costs $5. But the ticket has restrictions. You can only visit one of five different attractions. In our case we were most interested in old houses, not museums, assembly halls, and the like. So we could only see one old house. That was annoying enough, but what really pissed me off was that 2/3 of the time we spent on a tour of the old house, the Tran Family Chapel, was devoted to trying to sell us stuff. No, thank you.

There’s no question that Hoi An has charm. It is set on the lovely Thu Bon River. The old Japanese Covered Bridge at one end of town is beautiful. The architecture is special. It is a small, quiet place. It must have been great before it became a ‘must see.’

OK, that’s off my chest. Fortunately, that’s not all there is to say about Hoi An. We stayed at the Life Heritage Resort, right on the river and adjacent to the Old Town. It consists of several two-story buildings surrounded by lush gardens. We had a suite with a garden view. The space was large, well designed and comfortable. Also, we had a private porch. The staff was friendly and helpful, and we had no problem communicating in English.

Our favorite spot in Hoi An was Brothers Café, a short walk from the Life Resort. We checked it out the afternoon of our first day and were totally seduced. The restaurant is in a French colonial building. You pass through a large bar area into a beautiful garden with small ponds and tropical flowers and trees out toward the river, where the dining tables are located – overlooking the river. We checked out the menu, Vietnamese food, and chose our table for dinner.

When we returned at sunset it was even more beautiful. Very romantic really. The weather was perfect. In fact, we were favored with great weather for the entire trip. Very little rain. A little warm, with highs in the low 90’s, but we expected that, and lows between 70 and 75. We liked Brothers Café so much we returned for dinner the next night as well. A special attraction was the frogs that serenaded us while we ate. They intrigued Sandra. Also special was observing the small fishing boats out in the river doing their thing. Very idyllic, Brothers Café.

About an hour drive from Hoi An is My Son, a place with old stones. So of course we had to go there. My Son was the intellectual and religious center of the ancient kingdom of Champa and was occupied for about a thousand years, from the 4th to the 13th Centuries. With a heavy Indian influence, it is considered to be a smaller counterpart to Angkor in Cambodia, Ayuthaya in Thailand and Bagan in Myanmar.

It’s hard to know what was originally built in My Son. There are traces of 68 monuments, temples, sanctuaries, etc., but only 20 have survived the pillaging over the centuries and bombing during the American war. For us, these Cham remains were interesting but not stunning. While it is unfair to compare My Son to larger complexes like Angkor, having seen both such comparisons are inevitable.

The best part of our visit to My Son was Van, our guide. We’d arranged for a guide through the hotel, one who would be with us on our drive and tell us what we wanted to know at My Son itself. Van more than filled the bill. First of all, she’s a she. I somehow had an expectation that in Vietnam a guide would be male. She has a great personality, was willing to discuss anything we brought up and speaks excellent English.

Van is about 30, tiny in stature, is unmarried, and lives near her parents but separately in an apartment with her sister. She gives the impression of being a responsible free spirit. Our drive to My Son took us through the countryside where women were working in the newly planted rice fields. I’m not a big fan of the color green, but on this ride I was reminded of how beautiful the color of young rice plants is. Van talked with us about how average Vietnamese in these areas live, the economics of their lives, family life, and more.

We learned about her, how she learned English (less through school than being around English speakers and practicing,) her life as a guide, her life as a young woman in Hoi An. In college she studied to be a teacher but couldn’t find a teaching job when she graduated. She talked about how fast attitudes are changing in Vietnam. Certainly, 10 or 20 years ago, as a single female she wouldn’t be out living on her own. Sandra tells me that what stands out about Van for her is her desire to improve – her skills, her position in life, her well being.

A sign of the times: we traded email addresses with Van when we said goodbye.

End of Part Two


Post a Comment

<< Home