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Traveldiary chapter 8 [November 2003 - May 2004] as PDF
(Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Laos and Thailand’s beaches)
|Photos: Thailand||More about Thailand: chapter 13, chapter 15, Chapter 17, chapter 34|
Thailand’s beaches: Backpackers Idyll and Sex Tourism!
Vietnam: money hungry people and a communist government
Vietnam immediately gave us many impressions: very chaotic traffic, almost only motorbikes on the road, dirty pavements that were mainly used to park the bikes, but also to sit-,eat-, and work on. The Communist Party's rule was visible through many propaganda-posters and uniformed government employees.
By walking along Ho Chi Minh City's endless streets, to which many of it's 7 mio. inhabitants still often refer to as Saigon, we got a more in-depth look into Vietnamese life. The city-center didn't have many modern buildings, and only a few banks and first class hotels rose a bit higher than the surrounding buildings, but it was nothing, compared to other major Asian towns we had seen before. In a way, it was fascinating, to find a country, that still was so "original Asian". Unfortunately, a lot of rubish was just thrown onto the street, waiting and smelling, until it was beeing collected at night. As we had seen later all over Vietnam, the pavements were often used as the extended living rooms of homes, or by street-hawkers, to set-up their small business. On several occasions, we had seen that people were beeing treated with Chinese medicine, accupuncture, massages or ear-waxing, directly on the dirty pavement. Also hairdressers, tailors and foodstalls had set-up there. Of course, in front of most craftsmen's shops, the pavement was reserved for them to work on, instead of the dark workshop. Was any stretch of pavement left free, then it didn't take long, and it became a parking lot, sometimes, they charged even officially a parking fee.
For us, it was a miracle, how Vietnamese manage the mingling of the traffic. Apart from some traffic-lights, most rules were ignored and the law of the stronger was the only one, that was really followed. Luckily, sofar, there were mainly bicycles and motorcycles on the road, that didn't speed too much, so the risk of fatal accidents was not that high, at least in the cities; overland, it looked different. It was quite a common sight, that up to 4 people rode on one bike. Horror to imagine, they all could afford a car... Against pollution and suntan, almost one third of riders wore mouth- and nose-masks. Of course, there were busses and trucks blending into the traffic, which were either pretty old, or pretty new, whereas cars usually were of modern makes, but there were really not that many.
Everyone tried to horn his way free and some motorbikes had their horn replaced by the sound of a truck, trying to give themselves more weight... To cross a 20 m wide road on foot, with maybe 20 Motocylces next to each other in one lane, driving in different directions, on both sides of the road, was a real challenge!
As a tourist, it was not possible to walk a long distance in peace, as we were constantly beeing bothered by motocycle-taxidrivers and triksha-drivers, who insistingly tried to involve us in a conversation, desperately trying to get overpaying customers, sometimes following us for several hundred meters, before giving up.
The traditional way of carrying 2 baskets hanging on a stick, over the shoulder, could often be seen, even in big cities. The traditional cone-hats and old fashioned clothing (sometimes looking like a night-robe) were still more often seen, than those young people, with fancy jeans.
Contrary to our expectations, we found a few ATM's and so we could withdraw the maximum amount of 2 mio. Dong, which are equivalent to about 100 Euros. What an easy way, to become a millionaire!
We joined a tour to the Mekong Delta, just south of HCMC. It was interesting to see, how the people live along this famous river, which was sometimes wide as a lake. Many houses were built on stilts and trade and transport were mainly done by boat.
Next, we visited Dalat, in the central highlands. Up there, it was substantially colder, especially at night. So we wore long trousers and sleeves not only to please the conservative locals. Dalat was very popular with Vietnamese tourists and it had quite a big replica of the Eiffeltower - not the only one in the country.
When we left back to the coast, the bus drove down the plateau, passing by many fertile vegetable and fruit orchards, where strawberries, grapes, apples, tomatoes and many exotic vegis were grown.
Nha Trang, our following stop, was a city of 300'000 inhabitants.Along the sea, it was made up, to resemble the wide Spanish beach-boulevards. Coming away from the waterfront, however, it looked narrow and dirty as anywhere else. Often, there were open sewage channels, along the pavements, which pleased the rats, who already were king of the rubish, that was thrown onto the roads. We walked out, over a new bridge, passing by dusty shanty-towns along the river, starkly contrasted by colourful, pretty fishing-boats lying before them.
Throning just behind, were some old Cham towers that were Hindu temples, built in bricks during the ethnic Cham Dynasties, between the 7th-12th centuries.
Another contrast: Internet-access was very popular among local teenagers, widely available and very cheap - often 0.15 Euro/hour. Even ASDN connection, Webcam and scanners were included.
One of our bigger annoyances, were all these hawkers, who tried to sell their stuff everywhere. Even in the most unsuitable situations, they would bother us, like when we were unloading our backpacks, boarding a bus or crossing a busy street... If we stopped with a bus or sat in a restaurant, somebody came round every couple of minutes, asking whether we wanted this or that. But tourists weren't their only target. We discovered, that they bothered Vietnamese just as well. These vendors tried to sell anything; often copies of some expensive brands of watches, sunglasses or clothing. The most astonishing of all, were photocopied books of bestsellers as Harry Potter or travel-guides from Lonely Planet. The cover looked very professional, but flipping through the pages, you could quickly see the differences.
They are real copycats, they didn't only copy things. If one Vietnamese started a successful business or restaurant, the neighbours didn't hesitate, to start a competing company, offering the same services, sometimes even under the same, or almost the same name. The weirdest example of this, was the restaurant, opened by a deaf-and-dumb man that found recommendation in many travel-guides, who now has two "deaf-and-dumb " competitors next door...
Tourist accommodation was one of the pleasant sides of Vietnam. Although they did not have real rock-bottom deals, as in neighbouring Thailand, we got luxury hotelrooms for far less than the same standard would have cost over there. Normally, we got new doublerooms, equipped with western bathrooms, hot water, minibar, telephone, airconditioning and satellite-TV, roomservice and daily fresh towels included, for as little as 5.50 - 8.00 Euros.
Hotel-reception desks were always well staffed and usually they were very insisting about selling their tours and onward-tickets, asking us about three times per day, if we needed anything else. Once somebody said, Vietnamese are quite "money hungry", and after 3 weeks in this country, we think he had a point.
While watching TV, we realized, there were never any bad news - how refreshing! Even in the Vietnamese news eddition, broadcast in English or French, we only "learned" about how many good things The (communist) Party did for its people. How foreign countires helped build new hospitals or schools, how farmers succeeded in breeding frogs, cultivating flowers or vegetables. There was never any comment or critique, and except for the weather and football results, no mentioning of any foreign country... When we had been to China 12 years ago, we had obtained much more and better information, about what was going on in the world, even if there were things that didn't please the party.
Although it was possible to receive satellite programs in Vietnam, the decoders were set up, that only those programs could get through, the government would agree with. In some places, we could receive BBC worlds news, but they were kind of "dubbed" by Vietnamese talking, that didn't sound like translations at all, making it certainly very difficult to understand, for someone who wasn't very familiar with the english language, worse, if he could understand Vietnamese. During the advertisement blocks, interrupting films, a short break was accorded by showing party-propaganda, rather than western style adds.
There was also an English-language newspapaper available, with a content as on TV, so we quite agreed with the sarcastic comment of Lonely Planet Guidebook "it's best use is, to wrap fish".
As chicken-flu was at its peak, beginning of 2004, the state TV was assuring its people, how successful the government was working, to bring it under control. While our parents were worrying at home, about our health, "The Party" had already banned all poultry and eggs trade, first in Ho Chi Minh City and 10 days later, also in the rest of the country. This posed a real threat on our diet...
As all over Asia, chicken, ducks and eggs, were an important part of daily nutrition and this meant, that the menu-cards were now reduced to less than half of their usual choice. We now had to miss out on many delicious items, as zabaillone or pancakes, that would otherwise have been available. Some French influence was still left behind in many of the food-stalls, restaurants and shops: crusty baguettes, famous cheese-spread "la vache qui rit", butter "beurre du president", flan caramel (before the total ban) and wine- or pepper-sauce on beefsteaks and filet mignon. Further, strong coffee and yoghurt were consumed by everybody. By looking around, we also could find croissants, pain au chocolat and pain au raisin.
Surely, we survived bird-flu, but the pigs, now occasionally sold in chicken-cages on the markets, certainly didn't. There was never a shortage in food of any other choice.
What we experienced as the typical kitchen, was strongly influenced by Chinese dishes - with less oil, and by Thai dishes - with less spices. The most traditional thing, was white rice-paper, in which anything could be rolled in. Sometimes it came pre-made, sometimes it was to be prepared by ourselves with a choice of herbs, salad, noodles, meat or fish served on the plate. This was the unfried, fresh Vietnamese springroll.
The people apparently got the reputation, of beeing the "Prussians of Asia", which meant they eat at a given time, rise early - often at 5 am, and go to bed when their chicken did - as long as they had some... Everything closed really early! By 10 pm we were usually the last people on the streets and felt as if we were revellers...
After a few days in Nha Trang, we spontaneously hopped off the bus in Qui Nhon, where it had stopped for lunch. This place didn't see so many tourists yet, and we soon realized, that we were a kind of curiosity and it was nice to get to know one place, that was at least a bit off the beaten tourist-track. Many children and also adults, would call "Hello" and were obviously turning around after us. Some naughty children were even asking for money, while hiding their Coke behind the back. Although, we had occasionally seen some beggars, there weren't as many, as we were warned of. It seems that the government could suppress this "business" at least in areas with many tourists around.
It also understood how to guide foreign tourists, including independent Backpackers, to the places, ready to show. Several buscompanies, partly owned by the government, offered very comfortable and reliable daily services at a rock-bottom price, in between major tourist destinations. On all these places - only about 8 in the whole country - a good choice of cheap sightseeing-tours, was on offer. To reach any other place, it was usually necessary, to arrange a private tour with a guide, which could be pretty expensive. Sometimes, this involved also permits to go to some places and some Expats living here, told us, they had not been welcome and were soon questioned by the police, if they went just a few kilometers off the tourist-cities.
Hoi An, our next destination, was certainly the nicest place, we've visited in Vietnam, even though, it was the most touristy one! It's old center has been declared a World Heritage Site, thanks to the fact, that it's old buildings have neither been destroyed, renovated nor replaced by new ones. This charming little place was nestled along the Perfume river and surrounded by rice-paddies and beaches.
Usually, upon arrival in a town by bus, the touristcoach was recommending a hotel or two, where they certainly got commission, before bringing the passengers to the guesthouses, they asked for. Often, these recommendations were new hotels, a bit outside of the center, eager to get first guests, even if they paid next to nothing... The most luxurious, we had in Hoi An. We got a posh room in the new three-star hotel PHUONG NAM HOTEL, for the promotion price of just over 6 Euros, bicycles and internet access were included, to spoil us even more...
Hoi An's inhabitants specialised in crafts for the tourists. Tailorshops and souvenir-making was big business. For those who liked or needed to dress-up, the most elegant suits could be ordered at very cheap prices. Heinz tried to order a casual airy type of shorts, but got stuck in cultural misunderstanding. Not that the Lady, that took his measurements, wouldn't have understood his English well enough. And not that Heinz wouldn't have said clearly and many times over, how wide he wanted the shorts to be... As all over Asia, cloths are meant to cover everything, never the less, figure-hugging. So that Lady just couldn't imagine, that he really wanted shorts so loose and what he got, fit almost as a pair of Latex knickers...
The cheap cost of labour was also reflected in the fact, that tearing down a large concrete building, was still done by hand, with no help of machinery. Heavy labour was also often done by delicate women.
We came across many items, manufactured in Vietnam, which were also sold in Europe. In order to obtain the eco-label "clef vert" (green key) for example, many French (Naturist) resorts replaced their plastic garden furniture, with environment friendly wooden ones. After seeing such tables and chairs all over the country here, and seeing some factories, where they were made, we were told that most of the wood comes from Malaysia - from the rainforest ?
After a week in Hoi An, we proceeded to Hue, to which the road led over a very well built and scenic pass-road. Fortunately, the touristbus we took, was in good shape, but for many other vehicles, it was rather challenging. On the steepest 10 kilometers, we saw 2 local busses plus at least 15 trucks that had a break-down.
HuEitself wasn't a very special city, apart from it's famous citadel. Therefore, let's mention a special dinner: we ordered an eleven course set-menue, which was a mixture between French "haute cuisine" and Vietnamese cooking. It was superbly decorated, as for example springrolls mounted on the trunk of a hollow pineapple with a candle burning inside or patErolls arranged as a peacock. Unfortunately, they didn't give us much time to enjoy each dish, as all 11 courses were served within just one hour - which wasn't the worst we had experienced. At one occasion, we were served 6 courses within only 10 minutes, but still, it came one after the other, as we were promised, when we were sceptically ordering. Spending all evening eating, is certainly no Asian habit. After learning the hard way, we started ordering only one course, eat it, order the next, eat it, order again, if we still could, and so on and on.
As Huè was very near the Lao border, and the capital Hanoi, still a 15 hours overnigh-busride away, we started collecting information about transport and visa-requirements to Laos. There were many travelagents in town, catering for tourists and there were just as many answers about the visa requirements. At least, they all offered similar bus-connections and prices. Instead of feeling frustrated, we decided to be adventurous and find out, what it was all about, with these bribed "Honorary Consules", that apparently could do visa in 1 hour for a small "present", or the possibly new introduced visa, obtainable at the border. And we were lucky! Together with only 8 other tourists, we headed in a big bus towards the Lao-Bao border. We got 15 day's-visa stamped in our passports, with no problem or bribe, except, if it was secretly included in the busfare. At least, we were surprised that we didn't need to unload our luggage from the bus for checking and and we didn't need to carry it the one kilometer from one borderpost to another, as all the local people had to do, and we had seen the busdriver handing over some money to the customsclerk.
The only annoyance there, were maybe 30 young women, eager to change our money; they all tried to squeez into our bus before we tourists could leave it, and they also pressed us, when we were queuing at the customs-counter.
Laos: where people don’t need much to be happy
Laos started, and another 3 hours later, we arrived at our first destination, a place called Savannakhet. On the way, we noticed the first differences to Vietnam: as more wooden- and bamboo-houses, often set-up on stilts, the ricefilds here were dry and brown, there was far less motorised traffic, the people were of darker skin and they cared less about covering themselves up from the sun, neither with hats or facemasks, nor with long gloves.
On that same evening, we already had discovered what the travellers before us meant, when they said, there was something very unique and attractive about Laos, but hardly could describe; it's friendly, unobtrusive people!
Wherever we went, people either left us in peace, or greeted us shyly, especially kids would often wave and give us a wonderful hearty smile. Here we weren't constantly beiing bothered to buy something and if somebody started a conversation with us, it was only to have a nice chat and would not turn into some "business subject". The mentality was so different, to the business-keen Vietnamese, that here in Laos, WE were bothering shop-keepers, or restaurant-waiters and owners in their peace, when ordering or buying something. We don't believe, this was due to communism, as the influence of the Party was only seldom visible, we felt it was rather leaning onto the Chinese example. However, with the mentality of the Lao-people, it was no surprise, that Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai- or Western Immigrants had been faster in setting up businesses. Although, the country is still way behind the others, it seemed more civilized than Vietnam, in respect of cleanlyness, traffic-noise and order. They didn't live on the streets that much and pavements were used by pedestrians rather than motorbikes for parking.
Most probably, because Laos is so poor on one hand, but so easy-going for foreigners, it seems to be the darling of international aid-organisations. The WHO finances and maintains public rubbish-bins, waste collection was beeing organized and paid by the German government, some generous countries have aided in establishing water purification and a hydropower-plant on an artificial lake. We know now, that EU money doesn't only finance new roads in its own backward countries, but also in Laos, where they compete in help with the Thai- and Chinese government. They have realized, that if the two want to strenghten their trade, then they better build the connecting hiways themselves, otherwise, they might have to wait a few decades...
On a very crowded bus, taking up more than 100 people on and around it's 40 seats, we continued north for 9 hours.
|Photos: Thailand||More about Thailand: chapter 13, chapter 15, Chapter 17|
Thailand’s beaches part 2: back to civilisation!
After saying farewell to Angelika & Karsten, we went to stay at Haadrin once again. Not really because it is the nicest place we know on Koh Pha Ngan, but because it's the most convenient. Now we appreciated again to have electricity and fast, reliable internet access around the clock. Also, the bigger choice of restaurants was nicer, especially since seafood here was either fresh or stored deepfrozen, not half frozen and therefore healthier.
On April 13th,
Foot soldiers carried plastic backpacks, filled with water with a spray-gun attached, or maybe a port of white or colored paste, made from harmless talcum powder, to smear the passersby. To get wet, was rather refreshing, because in the meantime, it was the peak of the Thai summer and temperatures had soared up to 40 degrees. It was a humid heat, much hotter than we had experienced it before and people assured us, it was a bit higher than usual. Day and night, Heinz - and now more often also Brigitte, was bathed in sweat. Not even bathing in the sea was refreshing anymore, since the water temperature on the shallow beaches, was meanwhile above 30‹C.
We wanted to get out of this heat! For the continuation of our trip we were initially considering going first via
Quite spontaneously, we booked a flight to Vancouver, that cost just Euro 380./each. This way, by the time we leave
Wishing to spend the remaining time in
The main road through the
Thanks to this, those resorts that remain open, try to lure customers in with rock-bottom prices. We stayed in a nice resort with a pool besides the beach and we got a wonderful bungalow, that was nicely decorated and really had space for 4 people. It had
As exotic and different the life of Asian people appears, compared to our western style, we realized that in fact, the differences are not quite that big, if you search for the reason why they do live like that. Somehow, it's frustrating to realize that - as in the West - most Asians are more concerned about what other people think of them, than what they really would like to do. In order to keep face (the ever important thing here) and to gain respect, they suppress their own wishes and don't question anything but bleat with the flock to remain conform. Only very few perky young folks (often new rich) break out and do almost anything, to be different and to make the eyebrows of the elders raise. Everything, everywhere in the world, is just the same, almost as they always say in
Unfortunately, some more appreciated differences between East and the West, seem to evade. During our stay, more and more often we got fruit-juices served, made from re-constituted concentrate, instead of freshly squeezed fruit and on the other hand, for ice-coffee, they suddenly started to use fresh milk, instead of the thick condensed milk, which made the coffee watery.
After a week on Koh Lanta, we went on to Krabi which is famous for it's scenery with rocky cliffs and karsts formations, raising from the sea and countryside. Krabi town surprised us with a rather big and busy center, considering it has only 25'000 inhabitants. We stayed nearby at the tourist
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