Friday, June 5, 2009

HA NOI TO DIEN BIAN PHU

1. The drive from Ha Noi to Dien Bian Phu (DBP) is an experience I will not forget. Travelling along Highway 6 and Route 279, the scenery was just awesome. I had put it as one of my favourite experiences for our trip so far.

2. We had taken this route because we chose Tay Trang as our border crossing to Luang Prabang, Laos. Our agent, Eviva Tours, had earlier advised us to cross at Nam Can, some 200 km to the SE of Tay Trang, a more direct route to Luang Prabang, an easier drive. We decided to go for the Tay Trang crossing because an easy drive was not what we were looking for. By crossing at Tay Trang, we were able to explore mountain regions of NW Vietnam and NE Laos. We did not expect an easy drive but we were looking for an experience we would not forget. The drive to DBP did not disappoint.

3. From Ha Noi, we were generally travelling in a NW direction to Dien Bian Phu. The drive took us through plains and crossed the mountain ridges which were often above 600 m high, going to 1000 to 1500 m for some stretches. In the valleys between the mountain ridges lied miles and miles of green padi fields. On the slopes of the mountains were cultivated patches of corns, sugar cane etc. Little land was left untouched. See the woman working on the hill slope in the picture above.

4. Scattered among the cultivated areas, either on lowland or hill slopes, were villages. With mostly wooden houses on stilts, these houses were homes of the farmers. We understand they were mostly of Muong, H'Mong, Tay and Thai minority groups. Because of the difficult terrain that they inhabited, they were left alone for hundred of years by powerful forces from the lowland. Today, they still lived their lives much the same way and women still dressed up in their colourful clothes with their distinctive hairdo.

5. To share with you the stunning scenery, here is the 1 min video I had taken.
video

6. Along the way, we managed to take pictures of a few kids; not shy, happy to pose for the pictures. In the first one, if you take a close look, the 2 boys were holding on to strings of dragon flies that they caught. Wonder how many of our kids have seen live dragon fly, let alone catching them They were elated with the Merlion souvenir that we gave them.

7. At one of the scenic spots, we stopped for a quick lunch. Here, the stalls were operated by Muong people staying in the nearby village at the foothills. They were selling the same things- boiling hot corns, rice cooked in bamboo tubes, some fruits, honey etc. By then, we were all hungry. I had a corn followed by the bamboo rice. In the picture below, you see the lady skillfully peeling off the dried bamboo skins to reach for the cooked sticky rice inside the bamboo. We were told that thats how the Viet Cong cooked their rice in the field during theVietnam War.

8. As we were covering the distance in good speed, we decided to head for Dien Bian Phu directly, as against our earlier plan of spending one night at Son La. We made it to DBP at about 8 pm and checked into Dien Bian Phu Hotel for US$20 a night. The last 30 km or so was after light fall.

9. Waking up the usual early hour and after breakfast at the hotel restaurant, we spent the morning blogging and emailing. Got a sketch map of DBP from the hotel reception. Staff advised us to have lunch first as the museum would not open until 2 pm, as it was lunch time. Thought thats not a problem and went looking for lunch. We strolled the main street in the direction of the museum for about a km but could not find a single eating outlet. The street was practically empty and the town looked like a ghost town. We backtracked towards our hotel and still could not see one. Popped into 2 restaurants and gestured that we needed food but the staff simply shook their heads. We guessed that it must be lunch time and everybody must have gone home for lunch or siesta. Back in the hotel, the staff said that in this small town (of 25 000) shopkeepers can choose to open or close their shops as they like. Also, at 1.30 pm, he said that we were very late for lunch and some restaurants might not want to serve. With additional direction, we eventually found a restaurant nearby which was still serving food. By which time, it was raining cats and dogs. Section of the main road was flooded by the time we finished lunch and we were wet when we reached our hotel to pick up the car.

10. To survive in Vietnam, we had learnt 2 important words - COM and PHO, which you can see on the side of the building. Its com for rice and pho for noodles. There was also a practice which required some getting used to. Restaurants and their patrons would simply throw the rubbish on the floor in order to keep the tables clean - tables must be clean but its okay for the floors to be dirty. After lunch, staff would then sweep the floor clean. We were pleasantly surprised with the restaurant that we just had our dinner. It had a basket for waste for every table. Sunny made a point to throw the rubbish into the basket.

11. We got to the War Museum by about 2.30 pm. Specially dedicated to the battle of DBP, this museum is located in the spot where some of the most intense battles were fought. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that effectively ended the war. This museum contained numerous pictures showing the various tactical battles, equipment used, a huge "sand-table" showing the terrain and layout of defended areas, and space for showing a 4-5 mins video. Directly facing the entrance was table with Ho Chi Minh and General Nguyen Vo Giap in deep conversation. For those who wanted a more indepth understanding of the Battle of DBP, the museum was on the thin side, especially on the strategic aspects of the Battle. Most explanation boards included English but maps and charts did not.

12. Directly across the Museum was the DBP Cemetery which commemorates the Vietnamese who died at DBP. More than 4000 Vietnamese died at DBP, with another 9000 or so wounded. On the French side, some 2300 died with about 5000 wounded among the 11 000 soldiers captured. At DBP, French forces mobilised some 16 000 soldiers for the defence of DBP, while Gen Giap moved close to 50 000 combat troops for the battle.

13. It was raining by the time we crossed the street to visit A1 (French called it Elaine) defended area, where some 2000 Vietnamese and 800 French soldiers lost their lives over a period of 36 days before the position fell to the Viet Minh forces.
The trenches, bunkers and wire fences had been preserved, with a French tank seating on top of the hill.







14. There were other war related sites and memorials which we could see around the town. As it was raining, we decided to call it a day at about 5 pm.

15. Will be off at 8 am tomorrow to get to Tay Trang border crossing which is 36 km from DBP. If all goes right, we should be driving towards Luang Prabang by late morning.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

LEAVING HA NOI

1. Today is 4 June. Left Teng Lam's house at about 9 am, to continue our journey to Laos. It was a very relaxing 4 days break in Ha Noi, made alot more enjoyable by the very warm hospitality of our hosts, Teng Lam and his wife, Iris. We had our 2nd pools session at Horizon Hotel last night. Played to 1 am, over Whisky on the rock. We were reluctant to leave and yet keen to get on with our journey to Laos. We expect travel to Tay Trang to be fairly smooth, but on Laos side we are not sure. Read a blog that said that speed of travel on the Laos side could be as slow as 100 km in 10 hrs, although scenery is expected to be fantastic. May have to stay one night somewhere between Luang Prabang and the border which are about 200 km apart.

2. We had an easy day yesterday, 3 June. After a wonderful home breakfast, we spent the morning blogging and tidying things up, getting ready for the road trip to the border. Also, lunched in.

3. After lunch, Sunny and I left for the 2 pm meeting with the Vice Chairman of The Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), Mr Nguyen Manh Cuong. VNAT is an agency of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) which exercises the state management function over tourist operations and activities throughout the country. Mr Dinh Ngoc Duc, Dy Director of International Cooperation Dept met us as we arrived at VNAT and interpreted for us at the meeting.

4. I first met Mr Cuong in Aug last year in Hoi An for the annual Joint Vietnam-Singapore Tourism Committee Meeting. Mr Duc was a familiar face in many ASEAN tourism meetings and we met many times over the years.

5. It was a very cordial meeting. Mr Cuong remarked that Vietnam and Singapore had strong tourism cooperation over the years and he was glad that I had included Vietnam in my car journey and to explore Vietnam. I added that having travelled 2000 km in Vietnam so far, from South to North, we could see that the tourism potential of Vietnam was huge. Told him we loved Da Lat, Central Vietnam attractions of Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue and My Son and Tam Coc in Ninh Bing. Sunny added that the beaches at Hoi An and Da Nang were beautiful, as good as any that we had seen. Mr Cuong added that the beaches on some of the islands were even better.

6. I told Mr Cuong that Eviva Tours had done a great job obtaining the various govt approvals for us to drive the car in Vietnam and in facilitating our travel, adding the tour company was recommended by the Vietnam Embassy in Singapore. We thank VNAT and the various Vietnam government agencies for approving our trip here. I added that over time perhaps ASEAN Tourism Forum could consider harmonising the documentation and procedures for self drive holidays in the ASEAN countries as this was a tourism segment that could also be promoted.

7. We briefed Mr Cuong that we would leave Ha Noi the next day, 4 June for the border, that we planned to stay the night at Son La and Dien Bien Phu before crossing the border at Tay Trang on 6 June morning.

8. The meeting ended at 2.30 with photo-taking. As we departed, Mr Duc said that we could call him if we needed help in Vietnam. I thanked him and jokingly said that I would call him if we got stuck at Tay Trang.

9. In the afternoon, we had a wonderful and relaxing 2 hr massage at Teng Lam's usual joint, followed by a delicious buffet dinner at Sen Restaurant in a beautiful colonial building.

10. Time now is 10.50 pm, 4 June. Arrived Dien Bian Phu at about 8 pm and checked into Dien Bian Phu Hotel for US$20 a night. As we were making the distance in good time, we decided to skip Son La and head straight for Dien Bian Phu. All in, we travelled about 500 km today. We now have the whole day in Dien Bian Phu tomorrow before crossing the border to Laos day after tomorrow, 6 June.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

HANOI

1. In Ha Noi, we are not just having a great time visiting the city and its attractions but enjoying the wonderful hospitality of Teng Lam and his wife, Iris. Both are friends of Sunny for many many years, and are godfather and godmother to Sunny's son, Willie. They stay in a 6 storeys rented house which serves as their home and office for the last 15 years. Iris prepared a room on the 5th storey for Sunny and I to use. After the first 2 night, Sunny moved 2 floors down, as his legs cannot tahan.

2. However, one thing that we will miss most in the coming days will be the home cooked food that Iris prepared for our stay here. She went through great effort to ensure that we have dishes that we like over the last 3 days. The other that we will miss is the high speed broadband at Teng Lam's home office. Uploading pictures and videos have been a joy the last 2 days.

3. For our stay in Ha Noi, like HCM City, we left our car parked and moved around by walking or taking a cab. City traffic is never a joy, especially in a city that one is not familiar with. Ha Noi has less motorbikes than HCMC, but there are still many many of them. When traffic lights turn green, they move like a swarm of bees. Like HCMC, if you were to wait for the road to be clear before you cross the road, you would probably stay on the same spot for the rest of the day. When you see a small gap, you just have to confidently move across and hope that the motorbikes will avoid you. Normally, they would.

4. The other thing that Sunny and I found interesting was that Thuan and Teng Lam would only use cabs from certain companies. Between them, they seemed to want to avoid cabs from smaller private cab companies. Thuan would rather dial a cab and wait for it to arrive than waving a cab from a private company. He said that meters in these cabs are known to have been tampered with and each time the driver brakes, the meter jumps. For longer trips, Tian Lam said that the difference could amount to as high as 10 000 dongs. When asked, Thuan said all locals know about this and will generally avoid these cabs. Only tourists and people from outside Ha Noi would use these cabs, he added. So, how do we differentiate them? He said by the company and tel nos marked on the cabs. Also, drivers in cabs owned by govt companies and bigger companies would normally wear uniforms. By end of today (3 June), hopefully, I can differentiate them better. So, arent they regulated? Yes, they are, but they will find their ways.

5. On our first full day in Ha Noi (1 June), we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, the Temple of Literature and walk the streets near Hoan Kiem (say return sword in Cantonese, and you will be close to it) Lake and the old (or French) quarters.

6. The vast prison complex of Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French in 1896 to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries. During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong used it to house American POWs. The museum is divided into sections to depict the 2 different periods. Only the front part of the prison was preserved and converted for use as a museum. The rear end had given way to an office development.

7. In the 1930s, the French authorities housed some 2000 male and female revolutionaries there when it was designed for much less. Exhibits included gruesome exhibits, prisoners chained to each other in a large chamber and prisoner in solitary confinement, French guillotine used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries. Here, it gave a list of Vietnamese revolutionaries beheaded, pictures of them and the papers at that time showing the heads displayed in public (obviously to frighten the Vietnam people then). In the female cell, the exhibits include children. Thuan explained that pregnant revolutionaries were also imprisoned and after deliveries the mothers had to look after the babies.

8. In the section showing the American POWs imprisoned here, condition depicted was much better than what the Vietnamese revolutionaries were subjected to by the French. Discounting some exaggeration I would believe theres some truth here. In this section, theres a picture of John McCain been saved from the lake by Vietnamese people after he parachuted from the A4 Skyhawk when his plane was shot, his pilot suit and McCain's visit to the prison some years after US normalised relations with Vietnam.

9. Our next visit was to the Temple of Literature. One picture shows the location where you ought to alight from the horse. Lonely Planet said that if you are only planning to visit 1 temple in Ha Noi, this is the temple to visit. Dedicated to Confucious and site of the first university in Vietnam, the temple was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong of the Ly Dynasty to honour scholars and men of literary accomplishments. The university functioned for more than 700 years, from 1076 to 1779. Modelled after the Confucious temple in Qufu in Shangdong, China, the complex had 5 courtyards. The 5th courtyard was the ground of the university. It was destroyed by French bombings and was rebuilt in 2000, though less the 2 dormitory buildings for students studying there. Restored a couple of times in the last century, this temple showcased some of the best preserved traditional architecture of Vietnam.

10. I found the 3rd courtyard the most interesting. On both side of the Well of Heavenly Clarity were 82 steles mounted on bodies of stone turtles. Names of scholars who passed the doctor laureat tests were engraved on the steles, categorised into 1st, 2nd, 3rd grades. As there were very few students on the steles, I would imagine that the exams were strict and difficult. System was not dissimilar to those administered in China for thousands of years through the various dynasties. The steles recorded 2,313 students graduating as doctor laureats. Emperor Le Thanh Tong (1442 to 1497) of the Le Dynasty was noted for establishing the tradition of carving the names of the laureates of the university on stone steles dating back to 1484. Of the 116 steles corresponding to the examinations held between 1142 and 1778 only 82 remained. Here, we saw many students coming to touch the heads of the tortoises, the steles and then their foreheads to bring them luck for their coming examinations. Apparently, this is a ritual for many students. On many of the steles, we noted that some names were scratched away. Thuan explained that when the officials fell out of favour and punished, the Emperor could demand that the names on the steles be eliminated.

11. After lunch at the restaurant at Hoan Kiem Lake (terrible service quality there!!), we took a walk around the Old (French) Quarters. A area characterised by narrow roads, this was Ha Noi's historic heart. Buzzing with life, very busy, each street, by some design, sold only specific items. Its like a huge department store at ground level. You can just stop your motorbike, pick up the things you want and off you go. They looked like wholesale business, but dont think they mind doing retail too. Together, they sold practically everything - toys, dried food, herbs, clothes, zips, containers, funeral stuff, arts, and many many more. As the streets were narrow, they provided good shade - an enjoyable stroll through the area on the way to Teng Lam's house.

12. Above the shops, we could see remains of beautiful colonial houses, one after another. The facades of the shops were awful; big and loud signboards, little sense given to asthetics. In due course, I am quite sure they will be tidied up. On the other hand, we could see many beautiful colonial buildings elsewhere that were fairly well maintained, particularly those used by govt agencies.


13. Early next morning (2 June), we visited the office of Eviva Tours. Grateful for the services provided to obtain the approvals from the various govt agencies to allow us to drive the Pajero in Vietnam and assigning the cheerful and dedicated Thuan to accompany us throughout our tour, we wanted to drop by the office to personally thank the bosses there. With an office of some 20 plus staff, mostly females based on what we saw, the place looked fairly well organised. We went upstairs to call on Ms Nguyen Bich Van, the General Director of the company. The other ladies in the picture are Ms Trang (red) and Ms Duong (pink).

14. We started the day early because we did not want to be late for Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Opens only between 8-11 each day, we were expecting long lines as school holiday had just begun. And we were right, long lines when we got there at about 9+; many children with their parents, with many parents fanning their kids as it was already very hot and humid. Some waiting time, but the line moved fairly briskly through the Mausoleum. People took off their hats and sunglasses, and foreigners were asked to cover up, out of respect to Ho Chi Minh. Inside the Mausoleum lied the body of Ho Chi Minh, small built, bearing a very peaceful look. Thuan said that the museum only opened half a day each day in order to keep the temperature down to better protect of the body of Ho Chi Minh. Apparently, for 3 mths each year, the body is sent to Russia for preservation work. Also, no cameras were allowed into the Mausoleum.

15. After the eviction of the French forces from Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh refused to stay in the Palace of the Governor General. This building is now used for state functions. Instead he stayed in a more modest colonial building nearby between 1954 to 1958, while he asked that a 2 room stilt house be built for him, modelled after the house he used to stay in North Vietnam during his revolutionary days. A very modest home, he had a study room, a bedroom (no sofa bed, just rattan mat) and work area below the building. Apparently, he was very fond of Japanese kois. Adjacent to this stilt house was an underground bunker, not open to public, for HCM's use during US bombings of Ha Noi.

16. Walking to the Ho Chi Minh Museum in the same complex, we passed the One Pillar Pagoda. Very delicately built, the Pagoda stood on one concrete pillar, with a wooden structure above that looked with a lotus flower. Dedicated to Kuan Yin, this temple was built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong who ruled from 1028 to 1054 after he dreamt that he met Kuan Yin and had a son after that.

17. We spent a great deal of time going through just some of the exhibits in the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Could spend the whole day here. Other than pictures, some videos, there were many letters written by Ho Chi Minh and newspaper articles, neatly compiled for visitors to read. One wing was devoted to Ho Chi Minh and the Guongdong province of China, where Ho Chi Minh spent some time there, and where he formed the Vietnamese Communist Youth League. Under one of his pictures were some of Ho Chi Minh's last words:
"All my life, I have served the homeland, the revolution and the people with all my heart and strength. If I should now depart from the world, I would have nothing to regret, except not being able to serve them longer and more" Ho Chi Minh, 1969.
He passed away in 1969. That aptly summed up the life of Ho Chi Minh.

18. By the way, Ho Chi Minh's given name was Nguyen Sinh Cung. As a revolutionary, he had many names in his life, including one Nguyen Ai Quoc. He started using Ho Chi Minh more singularly from 1940s onwards. Must say that theres little about his personal life, including his early years, in the museum. Between us, there was also much debate about whether he was married. Thuan said that he was never married as he wanted to devote his life to the revolution. One source said that he married a Chinese girl named Zeng Xueming during his stay in China on Oct 18, 1926; she was 21 and he 36.

19. As it was school holidays, the complex was swarmed with kids, some in uniforms that looked like scouts. Nice to see that they were all having fun (ice cream was popular), enjoying themselves like kids everywhere.

20. Away from the complex, we next visited the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum. Among its various collections, I like the arts collections best. Spanning 2 floors, the collection was sizable, relative to others; lacquer, oil, water colour etc. I would have spent more time browsing through the arts collection if not for the rumbling of our stomachs. No flash photography was allowed. Sorry.

21. Thuan brought us to a nearby street to try Bun Cha, a BBQ pork noddle soup, something thats unique to Ha Noi, he explained. Quite good, a little sweet. Below is the picture of the tower in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Was told that from this point to the Reunification Palace in HCMC, it is exactly 1730 kms.

22. At 5 pm on our 2nd day here (2 June), we went to see the Thang Long Water Puppet Show. First opened in 1959, the theatre was located near to Hoan Kiem Lake. With a capacity of probably about 200, theatre was almost full, mostly tourists. The various acts were based on traditional legends and stories (including the hoan kiem story a thousand years ago), backed by a 7-8 member musical group with 2 female singers (Sunny complained they have too high a pitch). Thuan said that some locals found it boring. For tourists, it was a good introduction to the Vietnamese culture and music. I have put 2 videos here to give you a taste of it. The 2nd video shows how the show was done.

video video