I flew to Saigon from Hoi An. Already on the way to the Hoi An airport I got acquainted with Pieter, a Dutchman taking the same plane. I call it the traveller’s syndrome – when a person tells all their life to a total stranger met accidentally on the road. You do that because you know that we will certainly never see each other again. In the first hour Pieter told me all his life, including numerous wives of different races as well as salacious adventures on every continent. He turned out to be 52, but he looks fifteen years younger – there is definitely something to learn from these Dutch! On arrival in Saigon we settled in the same hotel and went to discover this crazy place together, with the condition that on the next morning we would move in the opposite directions. Saigon by night… A kaleidoscope of subcultures, crazy local food, heat, all-permissiveness… From an eatery hidden in a hole in the wall we moved to a bar full of randy Europeans hunting money girls to a bikers’ bar filled of pot spirits and so on.
This evening included, I had 1.5 days for Saigon. Which is nothing. And in general, nine days for Vietnam is a crime. This country is so rich in history, impressions, cultural diversity, that I felt like I barely scratched the surface during tats time. I am definitely coming back.
Saigon’s official name is Ho Chi Minh City. Which is often shortened to HCMC. Where are you going? To HCMC! It got this name in 1976, when the North definitively defeated the South. Uncle Ho himself died seven years prior, at the height of the war. When he passed away, there is no way he could have been certain of the war’s outcome. So there is a historical irony that Saigon would get his name. But I like the word “Saigon” – not because I am into revisionism, but simply because Saigon invokes some special Indo-Chinese exotic, a particular spicy hot Asian spirit.
Saigon by night:
Continue reading The city that Ho Chi Minh conquered →
Fellow travellers showered effusive praise on Hoi An, a little town in Central Vietnam known to be a tourist magnet. A diametrical opposite of entropy filled Hanoi, Hoi An is a quiet, calm, sophisticated place living in practice for and because of tourists. It was a commercial centre of Vietnam once, receiving ships from far and wide. Eventually the river that connected it to the sea became stilted, and just like in Brugge this allowed Hoi An to remain conserved in time. As it was a key port, many a Chinese merchant opted to live there. As a result, the cultural heritage of Hoi An is painted in Chinese colours. The main attractions are Chinese temples, houses of Chinese merchants and the so-called Assembly Halls – community houses of various Chinese provinces.
Hoi An’s old quarters are grouped around the river, which served as the main commercial channel. The water of the colour of earth and the grey fog surrounding the city reminded me of my visit to Mandalay in 2012. In the evening though Hoi An suddenly flowers with a kaleidoscope of light, turning its streets into fairytale channels piercing the darkness.
Lamps on the river:
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I decided to spend the Catholic Christmas on the boat in the bay of Halong. Halong (Hạ Long Bay, to be precise) means “descending dragon”. The dragon descended from its mountainous lair and ambushed the landscape with its mighty tail and that’s where these incredible islands piercing the sea and the sky come from (cf. legend). Islands are indeed a myriad, there are several thousand of them, and this natural spectacle occupies 1000 square kilometres. It is the main tourist attraction of Northern Vietnam and all tourists visit it from Hanoi. I opted for a two day excursion, with a night on the boat.
A company car picked me up from the hotel early in the morning. It took us about 4 hours on a microbus to get to the port of Halong and to board our vessel. It is always a fascinating moment to discover on a tour like that who would be your co-travellers. This time I shared the boat with a German backpacker Lukas and two large French expat families, living in Singapore and UAE. As the Frenchmen travelled together, most of the time I was talking to Lukas. Yet when the time for the Christmas dinner came, we all found ourselves behind a common Christmas table, which naturally progressed into French champagne drinking and some rather crazy dancing on the upper deck of the boat. Quite unexpectedly even I received a Christmas present – a Tiger! What a pleasant surprise.
The port of Halong
Continue reading A Christmas meditation in Halong →
Hanoi is a paradoxical place. Crazy Asian energy and genuine Communist enthusiasm live there together with the devotion of Catholic cathedrals and Buddhist temples. In December in Hanoi it is sunny and the temperature is around 20 degrees. I had the impression of getting into the Estonian summer in its best manifestation. So I wandered around Hanoi and enjoyed it thoroughly, despite the aggressiveness, even machismo of the Vietnamese, which takes time to get used to and to see it as openness and directness.
I will start simply from the street photos. Maybe these motocycles crossing every which way and these big groups of people sipping lemon tea together will communicate the energy of this place.
Continue reading Crazy Hanoi →