The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 19th – Perfume Pagoda

Sleep comes only at 4AM, despite my sincere efforts to count sheep and other farm animals. Alarm goes off at 7AM – damn it! Down for breakfast at 7:30. Breakfast consists of a small side buffet with snack-sized foods, fruit and sweets. In addition there’s coffee and tea and a choice of regular milk as well as sweet condensed milk. Finally, there’s a menu with a limited selection of dishes, from which one can be picked by each guest. Everything is fresh and delicious.

We book the 3-day Sapa trip with our friendly receptionist. It seems that our prolonged stay and the fact that we’re arranging numerous trips through the hotel has bumped us to “VIP status”. So when we ask to book tickets for a train to Hue upon our return from Sapa it is the hotel manager, Mr. Son, himself that shows up to take care of it. He suggests we book a late afternoon train instead of the early morning one we originally requested. That will give us more time to rest and allow us to sleep overnight on the way to Hue. Mr. Son also says that he’ll give us a free room to use between our return from Sapa and our departure to Hue. At this stage I’m seriously considering to stay in Vietnam forever. Sure, on the one hand I’ve got my whole life back in Denmark, but on the other hand – free hotel rooms and sweet milk in my coffee! It’s a tough call.

“So let me get this straight – I don’t get paid to work here, but can have all the free coffee I want? Where do I sign?!”

At 8:00 we’re picked up by a minibus to be driven to Perfume Pagoda. The minibus stops at several other hotels to pick up the rest of the tourists. We’re joined by a Vietnamese man with his daughter, a young Spanish-Italian couple and an older French couple. After everyone’s picked up our United Nations delegation sets off on a 2 hour drive to the pagoda complex.

The drive is quite hectic. Our driver has an aggressive driving style and zig-zags through the motorbike masses, honking every few minutes. I have a sneaking suspicion that he believes he’s in a racing video game. At some stage during the drive the tour guide lady turns around and attempts to engage the group by introducing herself and giving us a sneak peek into the upcoming adventure. The group acts bored and largely ignores the guide. So, trying to be the nice guy, I listen to her with almost exaggerated attention, nodding and smiling after every sentence. At some stage she must start to think that I’m a bit retarded, because she wraps up her speech and stays mostly silent for the rest of the drive.

On the way to the pagoda complex we are surrounded by rice fields. I notice that many rice fields have tomb stones on them and ask our guide about this. She explains that up North it is quite common to bury family members on the plots of land the family owns. Down South the space is more limited, so the government enforces burials at central cemeteries. Here in the North you can grow rice and visit your family’s graveyard while you’re at it.

Even in her death my mother-in-law’s disapproving gaze is mocking my farming skills!

After driving through the rice fields and some small villages without proper roads (getting almost stuck a few times along the way) we finally arrive to the Yen River. An almost hour-long boat ride up the river is the only way to get to the Perfume Pagoda complex. We are divided into 2-3 person groups and each group is assigned a boat with a rower. Immediately, our attention is drawn to the curious rowing style employed here. Instead of sitting with their backs facing the front of the boat and pulling the oars towards them the rowers sit at the back and push the oars away from them to move the boat. This is not what we’re used to in the West. Maybe it’s an unknown variation of the Coriolis Effect?

Anything you can do we can do…in more a contrived manner

We get to sit in the boat with our female guide, which turns out to be quite useful as she shares some interesting trivia with us. For example, did you know that the Yen River is filled with many hundreds of boats at a time at the start of the Tet Festival? Locals swarm to the Perfume Pagoda in order to pray to the Buddha and to be cleansed, so that they start the new year from a clean slate. In their rush for this cleansing they rent out every boat possible and effectively block out the whole river. It’s like traffic jams in LA, but on water and without the road rage.

Another piece of information we pick up is about the typical conical hats popular in Vietnam and other places in Asia. The hats are usually made of palm or coconut leaves held together by bamboo strings. Apparently these hats do a lot more than just make you look extra fashionable and uber cool. They also offer sun and rain protection (and are especially quick to dry after rain). They can be taken down and used as fans when it’s very hot.

Finally, they can act as rather effective water filters. A hat owner can push one of these into a river tip-first and the hat will let the water through while keeping the fish, leaves and other river debris away. Then the lucky hat owner can use one hand to drink this filtered water, or maybe even dip his/her whole face in this pool of filtered deliciousness. I assume these hats can also act as pretty awesome Frisbees, but sadly I haven’t seen a lot of “hat frisbeeing” going on. Seriously though, that has got to be one of the most versatile yet simple items of clothing in existence. As long as you’ve got a conical hat and a Swiss Army knife you’re ready to dominate any Survivor series. (CONTUNE TO PAGE 2)

The Vietnam Diaries 2011: July 18th – Hanoi

I am woken up at midnight by Katka shuffling blankets and bed sheets around. Apparently there were some invisible monsters crawling in the bed and she’s on a brave quest to locate and exterminate them. I cannot tell whether this behaviour is the result of some unknown jetlag side-effect or whether there in fact have been some insects in our bed.

Following the unsuccessful search for bed bugs Katka goes back to sleep. I try to do the same, but with less luck. You see, my brain often does this thing where it goes into thinking mode and won’t switch off. If I applied all that brain power for good I would have secured world peace about ten years ago. Unfortunately, the things my brain usually focuses on at such moments are of the “did I remember to pack a toothbrush” and “what’s our ‘to do’ list for tomorrow” variety.

After attempting ineffectual remedies like reading and trying to fix the banned Facebook, I finally fall asleep around five in the morning. I sleep until one in the afternoon. It is too late for the breakfast served downstairs, so we have a quick snack in our room with the complimentary fruit and 3-in-1 coffee provided by the hotel. Then we head downstairs to arrange trips for the next day and do some extended sightseeing.

Upon seeing the receptionist I say “Good morning!”, since my brain has been awake for less than half an hour and it is indeed morning back in Denmark. The receptionist answers with “Good afternoon!” and gives me a wide smile. Schooled in the art of English by the “water poo pet” lady – touché! We arrange with her for one of the pre-packaged trips to the Perfume Pagoda the next day and then head out to explore. Before we step out we’re given an umbrella, which is supposed to protect us from the sun (in Denmark this function is served by layers of rain clouds that don’t go away).

Two-thirds of the Danish population are unable to correctly identify the object in this picture

We have a quick “breakfast” (it’s around two in the afternoon by now) at a cafe full of westerners. Prices are high compared to the rest of Hanoi, but still well below anything we’re used to in Denmark. Here we do some planning for the upcoming days and settle on a three-day trip to Sapa, which is yet another one of the tours organised by Rising Dragon III hotel. We find out that the umbrella is more a burden than anything else, so for the rest of the trip I carry it lodged between the backpack and my back, like a (very ineffective) Samurai sword.

We still don’t know much about Hanoi and the must-see places. Fortunately, Lonely Planet has a ready-made one day tour meant specifically for tourists who spend less time researching their destinations than Kesha spends inventing song lyrics. We decide to follow this tour, which starts at the same Hoan Kiem Lake that we’ve visited the night before. We discover that our traffic navigation skills have already improved dramatically and we make it to the lake faster and with far fewer near-death experiences than yesterday.

In the middle of the lake on a tiny island lies the Ngoc Son Temple, which is built in honour of Tran Hung Dao. According to the first link this guy “defeated a force of 300,000” Mongolians. I assume he had an army to help him achieve this feat. Else he’s the 13th century equivalent of Rambo, only armed with nuclear weapons (and otherwise well equipped, if his “subtle” middle name is anything to go by). The small wooden bridge leading to the island is filled with groups of people pouring in and out of the temple. We take a few pictures of the island from the bridge and decide to skip the temple visit itself for now. Instead we follow our receptionist’s recommendation and head on over to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Here we get tickets for the next evening, after our planned return from the Perfume Pagoda.

As we leave the ticket booth we are ambushed by a female street seller carrying various fruit on a stick to which two baskets are attached. Before we can say “what the fuck is going on” her hat is on Katka’s head and the stick is thrown over Katka’s shoulder. The woman points towards our camera, while constantly nodding and smiling. I snap a picture of Katka. Then the hat and carrying stick migrate to my head and shoulder. Katka snaps a picture of me. The woman throws some random fruits into a plastic bag, hands it to us and asks for 100,000 dong. I know this is way too much from my extensive online research during the sleepless night before. We end up leaving her with 50,000 dong, bringing the price level from “daylight robbery” to “steeply overcharged”.

Those kiwi fruits better have gold flakes in them! Wait, on second thought, I really hope they don’t!

Katka is on a hunt for some Vietnam-appropriate pants that are comfortable to wear with all the humidity, so we swing by a clothes store. We agree that I’ll be the official price negotiator for this trip, even though haggling isn’t exactly my forte. Katka settles on a pair of Ali Baba Pants and calls me over to negotiate. I apply all of the advanced bargaining techniques I’ve learned from reading stuff. They include going to below half of asking price, pretending to leave, stating that I’ve seen the pants sold cheaper elsewhere and threatening the shop owners with a gun. OK, I didn’t try that last one, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it work in a movie (or ten). To my surprise I manage to bring the price down from the starting 320,000 dong to 150,000 (although I have no clue whether even that price is reasonable). (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)