Tag Archives: travel writing

Version 0.85 (This Moment and Bai Dinh Pagoda)

07/08

I’m back in town, heading to dinner soon but stopped for a coffee, smoothie, and a scoop of ice cream at a cafe. The girl that owns it with her boyfriend (who happens to be French) makes the ice cream herself, simply because she likes ice cream and thought that making her own would be a fun, and potentially profitable, thing to do.

The sun has drifted down to a level now where its light is ever so slightly beginning to wane, and all it touches is burnished bronze. Shadows are getting ever longer, the temperature is finally beginning to cool. It’s an extraordinary scene when walking through town, or just beyond its frayed edges and that light bounces off the still water’s surface or falls softly between tall, rocky crags, refracting and scattering through the distant hazy air, shimmering diaphonously like some ethereal curtain. One might imagine that heaven is like that—sort of a soft, hazy, halcyon, shimmering, euphoric, wondrous place. A place in which one’d wish to be immersed, feeling those feelings for eternity.

Short walk to Tam Coc boat launch where I found a group of children, some in life vests, some not, swimming or learning how to swim amongst the flotillas of boats which where they were pushed together appeared as large, floating islands. Nearby is a woman doing her washing in a basin and the river which a cascade of steps leads down to. Here too is where the children are swimming in supervision of their parents.

The water is gently rippling with the thrashings of the kids reflecting brilliantly the colors of the sky which are still primarily blue, but some apricot skin and rosé accompany, with wispy grey clouds interrupted by the tops of palms and karst formations jutting out of the dark void like termite mounds from a plain.

A young boy whose name is Money or Mani? and speaks little english has sat down next to me. He is maybe eight or nine years old. He mimes something and asks my name, but that is as far as the conversation goes. Currently he is watching me write this. It has been ten minutes.

My big trip this day was driving out to Bai Dinh Pagoda, the largest buddhist pagoda in Vietnam, and wandering around for several hours in the sweltering heat that baked or wilted everything it touched (which was everything not tucked away in the shade). Truly an extraordinary place, and well worth the thirty minute drive beneath a blazing hot sky.

I arrived there, and like everyone else paid and parked on a dusty, dry patch of ground beneath a tent, so to provide shade for the black seats of motorbikes that everyone gets around on. I bought a bottle of water from a vendor nearby and began walking towards the most obvious landmark in the distance: a tall tower atop a hill pointing like a finger at the cloudless sky. I remember too thinking to myself that I should have applied sunscreen.

The grounds were seemingly deserted, though I don’t find that surprising as there is very little shade to be found anywhere, and to walk around is to be trapped without respite beneath the searing sun for great lengths of time, at least until arriving at the main buildings of the pagoda. I remember on my way back to the parking lot passing a group of French kids in their twenties who were quite obviously fagged out from the heat and the long uphill walk to the tower I first visited upon my arrival, asking how far it was to the tower and if there was any shade. Before even getting to the tower, however, one wanders through a gauntlet (there is always one of these) of vendors—essentially a market—selling various touristy knick-knacks and souvenirs, coconuts for drinking, snacks for eating, etc. With the general desertedness of the place the whole block felt like a ghost town with most vendors napping in a chair or hammock within the shade of their shops.

Beyond the tower one follows meandering paths and probably walks down some stairs, eventually coming to a gate or an entrance of a kind (there are numerous scattered along the shaded hallway that encompasses the three main temples on the grounds). Here one can walk for hours exploring the three temples, the courtyards formed by them, and the series of 500 Arhat, or Buddha, statues that line the halls. I passed several groups of Korean tourists, all with fans in hands, sweating profusely. One woman was even desperate enough to ask me for some water from my bottle.

I spent about three hours strolling the grounds and the temples contained within, taking pictures of other tourists and various objects while doing my best to stay in the shade, which was possible probably 80% of the time. Eventually, tired, somewhat dehydrated, and completely over the heat I walked back to my motorbike, passing the French kids I mentioned earlier.

Version 0.84 (Tam Coc, Ninh Binh Province: Recommended)

07/07/19

Did a bit of touristing today as well. Went out to Hang Mua, which is a popular area of enormous karst rocks that protrude from the earth like half buried treasures, and meandering rivers set within a landscape of green rice fields a short bicycle ride, or an even shorter motorbike ride, from Tam Coc town center. The main attractions are the two buddhist shrines built atop a particular couple of these karst rocks, and the long, undulating stone dragon mounted near the highest one. HOWEVER, in reality the main attraction is the view from high atop these things: stunning vistas where if the air were clear and dry one could see for many miles (though one can still see quite far even through the humid, smudgy atmosphere thanks to the flatness of the land), though much of what is attractive about the landscape is within the immediate vicinity; the distant landscape offers little to feast ones eyes on.

To get there of course you will probably ride a bicycle or motorbike, and then navigate the gauntlet of restauranteurs attempting to scam you into paying them to park at their restaurant by acting as though they are the official Hang Mua parking (not sure if there is a charge for bicycles at the official parking lot by the entrance). However, if you ignore all these people with their arms waving and flailing and signs for parking, you’ll find yourself at the entrance gate where parking is just beyond. If you fall for the ruse though, life isn’t so bad; you’ll just have a couple hundred meters of walking to do to get to the ticket booth and entrance.

Once you arrive and pay the entrance fee (100k dong) you will wander through a sort of wonderland (in progress when I was there) beside the enormous rocks with flowers and vegetation sprouting up from everywhere, a small, green lake for paddle-boating, and of course the ubiquitous stalls selling coconuts, beer, coca-cola, snacks, etc., until you reach a set of stairs that wind up, up, up quite steeply until splitting in two, one set going left, the other right, each leading up to a different shrine. The views from the top of the highest are quite dramatic, with a wide and calm river winding far below between the bases of the karst rocks, often with the small tour boats, that one can pay a sum to take a two or three hour ride in, gliding unhurriedly along the river too, like autumn leaves carried along by the current of a bubbling creek. Of course once you get up there you’re very nearly surrounded by the numerous tourists that climb the stairs in order to be photographed in a beautiful locale highlighted by an extraordinary backdrop, then later uploaded to the social media of choice (I often think this is the only reason anyone bothers visiting). It’s a bit strange, but nowadays so common as to be expected, so much so that if no one was up there posing for a photograph or taking a selfie there would be a dissonance as if one were listening to a symphony and all at once the members of the orchestra played a portion of it off key.

After leaving Hang Mua I thought I might drive back through town and just cruise along the main road watching as the landscape flowed by me, looking for what I don’t know, but looking at everything because everything caught my interest. Somehow, perhaps I took a wrong turn? though I don’t recall making any turns off the main road, I arrived at Bich Dong Pagoda, a place I was planning to visit, just not on this day. I thought I might possibly be turned back because I was in something like hiking/running garb, and not something that one would wear in a more conservative environment (such as a monastery!), but some old man waved me over and asked for payment of 20k dong to park my scooter. It was a relaxing way to end the day as there were very few people and the monastery is set into a cliff overlooking a pond, and surrounded by lush jungle. The monastery is lived in and used, as a few monks were wandering about in their drab, brown robes finishing up their daily chores. It’s truly a beautiful monastery that effused a calm and contemplative atmosphere. It was obviously quite old as the stone inscriptions were in Chinese calligraphy. Among the banana palms that grew in a grove at the bottom of the pagoda around some of the old buildings was a cat hunting, it’s tiny, shining eyes glancing up at me before running off through the palms. After meandering and sauntering around for about an hour, poking my head in and out of different buildings I finally felt the need to leave as the sun was falling behind the rocks and the shapes of things and the landscape were blending and taking on the hues of mauve and blue as the light dimmed.

Earlier when I had arrived and parked my bike there was an old stick of a woman trying to sell me souvenirs and incense. I didn’t then, waving her off and making gestures that I would buy something when I finished my tour of the pagoda. And so I did making a purchase of a small foldable bamboo boat (a small model of those which they paddle tourists along the river in), as well as a couple of bundles of incense from her. I would have felt a heartless wretch had I not. One only need see the state of this skinny, old woman, a woman who looked like she could have just earlier in the day made her escape from the Gestapo she was so frail and emaciated looking. Many people in Vietnam do not have a decent income and so it only seemed right that I do this for her; she was practically begging me to buy something, reaching out for me, cajoling me….

Today ended as an extreme success, despite the loss of my phone. Quite tired and excited to get back to my dorm which I am only sharing with one other: an amiable woman from Finland.

Peace. Quiet. Calm.

Version 0.83 (Perception of a Situation Defines the Situation)

07/07/19

Today I lost my phone, incredibly enough while sliding it into my pocket.

How?

How does one do that?

This is one of the great mysteries of the universe humanity will never get to the bottom of.

I was following Google Maps, which showed that the alley I was walking through made an elbow before letting out to the road that would take me to my homestay. Yet after the elbow the alley shortly terminated at a property with no continuation in site. I turned around, naturally, with my phone in hand and backtracked thinking I possibly missed something or read the map incorrectly (keep in mind it’s like 35 degrees Celsisus and uncomfortably humid, even by the standards of Vietnam, and I’m walking with a heavy pack on my back, a bag of art books and a separate smaller backpack in one hand, and the phone in my other). I realized I missed nothing and that Google was in this case simply wrong, and so I slid my phone into my pocket (or so I thought), and walked back out to the main road which would also take me to the small, dusty, dirt road that my homestay was located at the end of. It wasn’t until five minutes later when I wanted to make certain of where I was that I realized the phone was mysteriously not in my pocket. I backtracked, but clearly about thirty seconds too late as I think a guy who passed me leaving the alley on a motorbike and who said something to me about there not being hotels down that way picked it up.

I am now eating. There’s nothing I can do about the phone at this point, and I would still like to enjoy my time in Tam Coc and elsewhere rather than fret for hours or days over not having a phone. I got along fine in my past life without a cell phone, so I think I will manage just fine here. I still have my laptop, and the homestay has wifi. Hopefully my hosts are at the homestay so that i can rent a motorbike and scoot around, see some sites: do all that I planned to do, regardless of having a phone.

[Later]
At Gia Minh Restaurant and Bar after unsuccesfully finding Thuy Linh Restaurant. These are the things that happen when one loses his cellphone. I’m eating a sort of spring roll or garden roll that has surprised me. It’s a fresh rice paper wrapper around sliced mango, pineapple, cabbage, and carrot with a passion fruit-peanut dipping sacue. Wasn’t expecting it to be as good as it was, but all that tropical fruit made for a very lovely, bright, vibrant, energetic, healthy-feeling dish. It paired well with the fried tofu and papaya salad as well. Not so much with the beer, but I didn’t expect to order what I ordered when I ordered the beer.

I am actually quite delighted to have found this place, and will be returning for dinner another day. It’s a family-run place (as most places in Vietnam are), and I’m laughing being entertained by two young girls and their friend who are full of energy, giggles, and very good english. In fact, part of why they are so excited by my presence is to practice their english. So, here I am having a ball with these children, andnhaving a delicious, healthy dinner all thanks to the loss of my phone.

It really turns out that your perception of a situation will define that situation. If you’re intent on enjoying yourself you will.

Version 0.82 (A Brief Note and a Recommended Cafe)

07/06/19

Back in Hanoi, and at Loading T,  a favorite cafe of mine notable for its location (set on the second floor of a beautiful, and gradually crumbling away, French colonial building), ambiance, decor and most importantly, its coffee, distinctly known for the aroma and light taste of cinnamon. I recently read that the cinnamon aroma and flavor comes from cinnamon sticks that are roasted with the coffee (rather than adding ground cinnamon to each and every beverage). Supposedly this is why its aroma is more apparent than its flavor.

This will be, unless I purchase another, my last coffee in Hanoi for a very long time. Tomorrow morning I take a short bus ride to Tam Coc where I will be for a couple of days, then over to Nam Dinh to visit Huyen and her hometown for a day, then Hoi An, then Da Lat, then perhaps Saigon, before heading back up to Da Nang prior to flying back to the U.S.

I really have nothing to write. I knew this was a questionable idea…. Spending time day dreaming about opening a Vietnamese themed cafe back home….

Version 0.81 (Weather)

07/05/19

Bright, misty morning. Nothing but white, white, white.
The air is heavy with them: these vast impenetrable clouds.
Sa Pa hidden below, mountain slopes lost above.
Peering into this nebulous void is like trying to see into the future:
all that is visible: that which is around me now,
and even that is impossibly indistinct at times.

These inscrutable clouds that move in from all around.

Version 0.80 (Personally I Think Smooth, Safe Roads are Priority)

07/04/19

Looking like it’s going to rain all day. It’s been going on since early morning; I woke up to it beating on the metal roof of my homestay in Lao Chai. I was presented for breakfast perhaps the best phơ I’ve eaten in all Vietnam (to add to the great dinner accompanied by a large amount of rice and corn wine). Mama Suu and I settled on a price and then I bought something from her, negating the “discount.” It seems I can’t help not budgeting myself. I could perhaps write out a budget but I am not that kind of a planner. I wouldn’t stick to it anyway. Mama Suu found me a responsible motorbike driver to take me back to Sa Pa, which I didn’t have to pay for. Responsible is the key word. Safe, as well. Because the village is situated at the bottom of the valley and Sa Pa is at the top, or a good distance up, when it rains the rutted out, muddy, gravel and rock strewn road, trail or path (whatever one may consider it) turns into a river. It’s all too easy to imagine an unskilled driver wrecking himself and maybe his bike. It’s rather disappointing to see with all the construction going on in Sa Pa that more important infrastructural improvements such as proper roads, and bulwarks to prevent soil erosion and landslides in important areas are taking a backseat. Small steps perhaps? But as with most government and business related projects, money, and namely what can make them money is prioritized.

Version 0.79 (A Homestay)

07/03/19

I’m jotting down some notes here that I will attempt to put into some sort of clear and detailed summary of my thoughts later when I have the time. Currently I’m just sitting in the gathering space on the first floor of the hostel with a little girl named Matchi. She’s Japanese, and five years old. I think one of the owners of the hostel may be Japanese, or perhaps the husband to the wife who owns it is. I’m not quite sure. Anyway, this cute, little girl, Matchi, is sitting across the table from me watching me write. She’s very inquisitive, but also very shy. She seems to be happy just sitting near me watching what I’m doing. Her understanding of the english language is spotty for sure. Or she’s just very shy and doesn’t want to talk.

At a table nearby is a group of possibly-Israelis. I can’t tell the language because I’m terrible at that sort of thing. At first I thought they were speaking Russian, but perhaps it is Yiddish? I don’t know if those two languages truly sound even remotely similar, but as I stated, I’m no expert on languages. They are basically eating junk food for breakfast. Where they got the awful cereal and milk I have no idea. Perhaps they’re traveling with it because they don’t like Vietnamese food? No idea. People do strange things. As far as I’m concerned Vietnamese food is some of the best on the planet, so why anyone wouldn’t like it is beyond my conception.

I woke up late this morning. Outside: all mist and drizzling rain. The mountains are in the clouds. Not just their peaks, but pretty much their entirety, like a dirty, white sweater has been flung over them. I’m supposed to meet my Hmong homestay host in an hour but honestly I would prefer to just stay at the hostel. The weather discourages me. I’m so intrigued by the thought of the homestay, though, that I will not cancel on her (I have her phone number, and so could call).

Last night while I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom of my floor there was a boy smoking a joint, readying himself to go out, preening in front of the mirror just like a little duck, as I’m making for bed.

[Later at the homestay]
I met my homestay host, Mama Suu, late this morning. As we walked from town to her village we talked a bit about what exactly it was that I wanted to do, and the cost. Her first assumption or idea was that I wanted, or would pay for, two days of trekking and an overnight stay plus meals, the cost of that being about $50. This is much more than I want to spend, and I told her so. Really, I’m just not interested in trekking. I just want to spend a night in the valley experiencing the life, or as much of it as I can in such a short period of time, of a Hmong household. We ended up kicking the can down the road on the expenses part of the homestay and will settle on something later for a day of trekking (really just a long walk along a dirt trail through a couple of smaller villages in the hills and through the forest, avoiding what counts for a road out here, to her homestay in the valley), a night at her home, and all meals (lunch, dinner, breakfast).* I really have no idea if this will be worth the money. I know if I had just booked a homestay myself through a website like AirBnb or Hostelworld, and rented a motorbike it would cost me quite a bit less, but the walk, or “trek” was nice, though I have yet to decide if it was worth paying extra for, so…

Well, this valley is a jewel. A long and wide meandering jewel like a great green snake winding beneath the mountains, rice paddies as far as the eye can see, and even further, narrow dirt and gravel paths spreading through it from home to home all along a central corridor like veins and arteries feeding and being fed by a great heart lying somewhere further along, or maybe behind, and the river winding along with it roaring and sparkling in places, trickling in others.

There was a woman in the fields beyond the restaurant I had lunch at spraying fertilizer with a long gun and a pack on her back.

[Later that night]

There is such a special air quality here in the valley. It seems not so much that the sun’s light is simply illuminating the landscape, but that it is illuminating the very air itself. In that way it obscures the landscape, or the details of, and in doing so instills it with a greater mystery but also an unalloyed vibrance, a lambent, shimmering radiance.

Watching a rooster and hen tear up a garden plot here at the homestay, a tiny one on the patio just outside the house, searching for insects, or likely anything edible for that matter. I’ve had a shower, and am sitting at a table on this patio that I’ve just mentioned, outside. The sun above the silent mountains is obscured by what looks like rain clouds. A red motorbike is gliding down the slope on the opposite side of the valley, and the waterfall pours down the rockface in a loving, though swift, caress.

Three young boys and a girl have just rushed onto the patio from outside, immediately making a racket but then quickly quieting (aside from the sounds of gunfire issuing from the oldest’s cell phone.) I’m not sure why I am surprised by the level of technological sophistication and abundance here, but I am. Maybe because my guide only used an old Nokia. Vietnam in general is not very well developed in terms of basic infrastructure and medical care, particularly in rural areas where most of the poor and minority ethnic groups live. I was not expecting wi-fi here, and I would not have been surprised by squat toilets. Mama Suu tells me she and many others love the increase in tourism to Sa Pa, because through homestays and trekking tours in the valley, and selling their handmade goods on the street and in the market they’re actually able to make a decent income, have homes made of brick or stone and with quality metal roofs, as opposed to bamboo structures on a muddy slope. I suppose if it ever turns into a place like Bali or Venice they might change their tune, but until then (IF that ever happens) I suspect they will be more than happy with the extra income. It was only thirty years ago that no one bothered visiting Sa Pa (this I am told), twenty years ago local tourists would sometimes come out on weekends, and the numbers have slowly increasted until now in its current state it seems the cat is out of the bag, and loads of new construction is taking place. It will change in the next few years even more, and besides more money coming to the region it is impossible to say what that will mean.