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 17th – Hanoi

We land in Hanoi around half past two in the afternoon, after flying above some breathtaking sights of the country. Many of us are foreigners, so we all pile up next to the “Visa On Arrival” booth. Katka and I are carrying fifty US dollars in crisp 10-dollar bills. These are needed for the “stamping fee” to get our pre-approved visas.

The “Visa On Arrival” booth is operated by several men and women in brown-green uniforms with red stars and other patriotic symbols on them. We deliver the documents in one window and are asked to go around to the second window to get the actual visas. I dunno, maybe it’s more impressive that way?

Another young couple is waiting in front of us. At some stage they run into trouble with their payment and turn to us with a 20-dollar note. Figuring that they just need to break the twenty, we give them two of our 10-dollar bills in exchange. When our turn comes to pay we give the visa-woman our cash, including the twenty dollar bill we got from the couple. The woman feeds each note to some sort of machine at her desk. After the 20-dollar bill goes through the machine the woman turns to us and says: “Not enough!”.

Following a short back-and-forth we find out that what she means is that the 20-dollar bill is unacceptable. The reason? The machine says so. Why does the machine say so? Nobody knows, but since it’s the 21st century arguing with robots is futile. The only conclusion I can draw is that this advanced gizmo estimates the extent of wear-and-rear on the bill. According to Lonely Planet Vietnamese will refuse to accept US dollar bills if they are too wrinkled. I guess building an apparatus to evaluate these wrinkles was the natural next step.

There you have it, America – not all your bills are created equal

In the end we’re rescued by a third young couple behind us, who take our bills and pay for all four of us with a single 100-dollar note (I think the machine actually said “Chaaaa-ching!” in human voice when the visa-woman fed the bill to it).

We head to “Information”, where we’re told we should pay around 300,000 dong (15 dollars) for a cab ride to the city centre. Katka takes out some local currency and we’re set to go. As we near the exit we’re intercepted by a guy who flashes a business card with a picture of a car on it and tells us he’s from the official taxi company and can take us where we need to go. Because nothing signals “official taxi company” like a guy sneaking around the interior of the terminal with a home-printed business card, while looking around his shoulder every few moments.

Before we can respond to the man he’s approached by another guy and after a short but heated verbal exchange the “official” man and his “official” business card leave the building. The second guy now waves for us to follow him. He leads us outside to a neat row of cabs parked by the curb. Together with his colleagues he throws our bags into the trunk and then gets into the driver’s seat. Looks like we’ve gotten ourselves a ride into town. We agree on a price of 350,000 dong for being driven all the way to our hotel.

After passing a toll booth our driver makes gestures with his hands and speaks some numbers. Assuming that he’s asking for more money to cover the toll booth costs I shake my head and tell him we’ve agreed on the price already. He drives silently for another five minutes and then suddenly turns off the road and stops the car by a sidewalk. Katka is sure that he’s going to throw us out for arguing (or maybe even sell us as slaves to some underground gang). Instead, he takes out a bunch of notes and starts counting them. Then he hands them to me. Just as I get excited at the prospect of getting free money I realise that he’s showing me what he expects us to pay at the end (damn you, logical thinking!). Since it adds up to 350,000 dong I nod my approval and our journey resumes. No free cash this time, but one can always hope.

“Sir, you got another bag delivered. Shall I put it by the window with the rest of them?”

As we get closer to our hotel the streets get narrower and livelier. We’re now driving through Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Tiny sidewalks are filled with people, most of whom are eating outside of cafes, playing a mysterious game with long narrow cards, or selling various merchandise. Our driver asks for directions from a nearby local and finally turns onto our street – Nguyen Van To. Narrow and tall “tube houses” huddle next to each other on both sides of the street and goods from street merchants spill out almost onto the road. There are fruits and vegetables, all sorts of plastic household goods, toiletries, souvenirs and many other random articles being sold. Our driver squeezes the car past all of these and carefully nudges forward, until we finally reach the hotel. (CONTINUE TO PAGE 2)