Archive for May, 2011

Milonga in Vietnam

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Back in Hanoi after Ha Long bay I had to decide where to go next. Plan A was rejoin Hannah in Bangkok on May 28th. I think we rushed Cambodia and I really liked what I saw of it so plan B was go back there for a while. Plan C was bump up the country count and go to Malaysia for a while. Plans B and C both include going back to Thailand for a couple of weeks to get in a diving course and some beach time in the islands before the next leg on my round the world ticket.

I spent a couple of days in Hanoi seeing the city and deciding that Plan B was the one to go for. There are direct flights from Hanoi to Siem Reap but they’re very expensive. Flights to Phnom Penh are indirect via Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh and are a bit less expensive. Another two days on buses was the cheapest way to get to Cambodia. For this time rich, money constrained traveller the best price/performance compromise was to fly to Ho Chi Minh and take a bus back to Phnom Penh. Factoring in the taxi fares and a night in a hostel in Ho Chi Minh the journey cost about US$100.

I tried to get a Chinese visa in Hanoi. According to the embassy website it is possible to get a same day visa but when I arrived at the embassy on Wednesday morning they said the earliest I could collect it would be Thursday. Oh, and I needed to provide additional documentation, not listed on the website or on the application form. So I went off and collected the additional paperwork they wanted and got back to the embassy at a couple of minutes past 11am to find it closed. The sign on on the door says it’s open Monday-Friday from 8am-11:30am for applications and from 4:30pm-5:00pm for collection only. Grrrr.

On Thursday I flew to Ho Chi Minh with Jetstar. The flight was delayed seven hours, which I didn’t discover until I tried to check in at Hanoi airport. Luckily they managed to transfer me onto an earlier flight which was also delayed. So I got to Ho Chi Minh pretty close to the advertised time of my original flight. Second time around Ho Chi Minh seemed slightly less chaotic. Google told me about a possible milonga on Friday night. That would be worth an extra night in town. An email to Tony, the organiser, confirmed it was on.  Ta.Tango organise a weekly class and milonga on Friday nights at Press Cafe – 14 Alexandre De Rhodes, District 1 – walking distance from my hotel. I spent some time in the afternoon trying to find a shoe shop with something more appropriate for dancing than flip flops. My search was unsuccessful. By the time I had showered and eaten dinner it was too late to get there for the class.  When I arrived at the venue the milonga was just starting and I found a mixture of about twenty locals and foreigners, regulars and visitors. Numbers were fairly well balanced. The music was traditional, arranged in tandas with cortinas. Refreshments were provided and everyone was really friendly. My trainers were too sticky on the floor so I danced in my socks. I felt rather rusty having not danced tango since early March but didn’t do too badly. The evening passed far too quickly and I was sad to say goodbye to everyone at the end of the milonga. If I’m in Ho Chi Minh again I’ll be sure to visit again. If you’re passing through the city and want to tango you should too.

Next morning I was up early for the bus to Phnom Penh.

Vietnam gets better

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Vietnam did not create a good first impression. Immigration at Moc Bai was a complete shambles. It was tempting to go to the airport in Ho Chi Minh/Saigon and get on the first plane to anywhere else.

The temptation wasn’t eased by the chaos that is the Ho Chi Minh traffic. In a city of 10 million people there are about 6 million motorbikes, only 90% of them are on the road. The rest are all over the pavements (sidewalks for the Americans); being driven on them or parked on them. Walking down the road often means literally doing that because the pavements are impassable on foot.

Next day we visited the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Vietcong and local resistance fighters in the guerrilla war with the American army. The “information” film about the heroic locals fighting off the evil American aggressors was hugely amusing – hardly biased at all. OK, it was hardcore propaganda. In the interests of balance I’d have to say the traps they used to maim the American soldiers were every bit as evil. On the way back to Ho Chi Minh we visited the War Remnants museum covering the physical, social and human effects of the Vietnam war. The human cost of the Agent Orange defoliant used by the American forces was truly horrific.

Hannah was keen to get back to Bangkok to do another massage course so we went our separate ways; she to Hanoi by plane and me to Hoi An by bus. Twenty four hours and two buses later I reached the pretty little seaside town. It’s the ideal location for anyone in the market for a new suit or seafood dinners. A much nicer place than Ho Chi Minh. I spent a day here but could have easily stayed two or three more and just chilled out.

Another two buses and nineteen hours later I reached Hanoi. As they say in SE Asia “same same but different” – smaller than Ho Chi Minh and with slightly less manic traffic. There were still motorbikes everywhere and billboards covered in propaganda posters for the elections held on 22 May. I arrived on a Friday and pretty much all the museums and tourist attractions were closed. It was grey and raining too so not a great day for sightseeing. All the tour booking offices were open though so I booked a three day two night trip to Ha Long bay leaving the next morning.

Cruising around Ha Long bay on a junk was lovely, the cave visit and kayaking not bad either. Overnight on the junk was nice and Cat Ba island was good too. The trekking was rather hazardous but no-one broke any bones on the slippery and uneven path or the jagged limestone and fortunately it wasn’t a stupidly hot day. The view from the hill we trekked up wasn’t really worth the effort and it was no better from the top of the precarious looking rusty iron tower which occupied the summit. Cat Ba town is another seaside town full of hotels and restaurants and a seafood aficionados delight. Outside all of the restaurants tanks of fish, crabs and shrimps waited for pointing fingers and “I’ll have that one” to condemn them to the cooking pot. In the harbour floating restaurants serviced by the waterborne equivalents of tuk-tuks looked rather sad during the day time. At night they were brilliantly lit and easily won the competition with the neon signs on the land based restaurants. It reminded me a lot of Blackpool.

In Vietnam the constant barrage of “tuk-tuk sir?” calls while walking around has been replaced by “motorbike sir?”. Polite, but every bit as irritating after the first few dozen  (ie: about two minutes) refusals. Despite this, after a few days the place is growing on me.

Heart of darkness

Friday, May 20th, 2011

Just three nights in Phnom Penh for us after a six hour bus ride from Siem Reap. First impression was totally manic traffic; mopeds and motorbikes everywhere – literally. And shiny new 4x4s, many of them pimped up. Opposite the anti-corruption police department HQ a string of three pimp-/Mafia-mobile dealers including Range Rover.

We met up with Joe and Phoebe on the first night and bumped into them again the next afternoon at the National Museum and Royal Palace.

We hired a tuk-tuk for our final day for the princely sum of US$10. First stop was the S-21 museum, one of the detention centres used by the Khmer Rouge for interrogating and torturing their victims. Harrowing is a pretty good way of describing it. It seems people are never so creative as when they’re inventing ways of hurting and killing each other. It’s also a damning indictment of the utterly stupid and unsustainable socialist and communist ideals. The Killing Fields at Choeung Ek were all the more haunting for having seen S-21 first. Having spent three months or so in S-21 being abused and tortured about 20,000 people were brought here over a period of three years to be clubbed to death and thrown into mass graves. Clubbing them to death was cheaper than shooting them. Estimates for the total number of people murdered by the Khmer Rouge range from 800,000 to 3,000,000. So much suffering and death, so incomprehensible.

The road to Choeung Ek was about the dustiest and smelliest I’ve encountered so far on this trip. Lorries, cars and bikes threw up the dust for the wind to blow in our faces. How the tuk-tuk driver managed to see where he was going I don’t know. We passed a building site employing the tried and trusted brick moving technique of a bloke on the ground lobbing them one at a time to his mate on the second floor. His mate was catching them one handed. We also passed a large hangar-like building which may have been called “Rock” with unlit neon signs saying “Tango” and “Cha cha”. Unfortunately I didn’t get to find out if it really was a dance hall, and if there really was tango to be danced there. Our final stop with our tuk-tuk driver was the Russian market. I sat in the air conditioned comfort of a nearby KFC. Hannah went on a gift shopping spree in the baking heat under the tin roof and bought up half the market.

After dinner and drinks that night we tried Phnom Penh’s most infamous club. The blurb I’d read described “Heart of darkness” as just about the seediest, sleaziest place imaginable. It’s also supposed to be the playground for the city’s spoilt young rich things. Six bouncers on the door made sure no-one took in anything they shouldn’t. Inside there was a smallish bar with punters, hookers and curious tourists. To the right a half full pokey little dance floor. Cheesy old dance music from not the world’s greatest DJ gave people something to move to and we joined in. The DJ changed at midnight, the mixing became smoother and the floor filled up. I spent three out of the four hours we were there dancing with a pretty Cambodian woman. I assume she was a she, and not a lady boy. It wasn’t tango, it wasn’t west coast swing, nor even modern jive; just clubbing. But it was dancing and I loved it. A nice antidote to the horrors of what we’d seen in the morning. If “Heart of Darkness” really is the sleaziest club in town then the others must be filled with nuns and choirboys. We left just after 3am for a couple of hours sleep before catching the bus to Ho Chi Minh.

As usual, there are photos at Flickr.