A route via a stop in Kuala Lumper in Malaysia was how I finally made my way to my latest overseas adventure. Identified one of the group in the seat behind me on the second leg and we were met at the airport having made our way through both immigration and collected our luggage successfully without too much hassle. I’m sure when I checked I needed to get a visa to enter Vietnam & so had the extra sheet of paper which clearly wasn’t at all necessary after all but had sent my new travel buddy into a small panic as he had no paperwork re a visa. Ah well, better to be safe than sorry I say!
Arrived at the Anise Hotel about 2.30pm desperate to sleep but also, not wanting to knowing how badly I’d then sleep in the evening. I showered & managed about a 20 min power nap before venturing out to try familiarising myself with the locality of the hotel & what amenities we had close by. Having failed to have changed any money into dollars prior to my trip I was on the hunt for an ATM. I found two and was rather panicked that neither would accept my card. I was moneyless in a foreign country & felt very very vulnerable. I realised that despite all my prior research to the trip we in the guide book we were actually MUCH closer than I had initially anticipated to the Old Quarter. I was grateful to Mike (off of the Cambodia trip last year) for the introduction of maps.me which I recommend strongly as you can drop pins on where you are at a particular point in time and name them what you want etc. (helpful hint – download the map that you need on wifi and then you can use it off line as it works on GPS.)
Our initial meeting of the tour to tell us a little about Vietnam & to meet the others that would become companions for the rest of the trip, was held on the top floor of the hotel where the restaurant was – the 11th floor and only one away from my room. I’d say the views out were stunning but, as it was dark I’d have to wait until morning to find out. Already one of the ladies was clearly sticking out as one that would irritate not only me but the majority of the group in the fullness of time. Not listening to what our guide (Hung) was saying EVER & then asking him to repeat it as she didn’t hear. The temptation to point out to her & her friend the obvious was clearly going to come out of my mouth at some point this holiday without my being able to do ANYTHING about it.
Supper was a set menu in a delicious restaurant very close to the hotel called 5 Spice. Negotiating the puddles, pedestrians & potholes in themselves was quite some feat but add in the scooters factor and oh dear god – NIGHTMARE! I was catered for so that despite the set menu I was able to eat as the meals were tweaked accordingly, I was very impressed, and there was beer. Much needed beer.
Our first walking tour was in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, which was good as it was nailing it down with rain as we first walked out. Negotiating the traffic for every direction and of every form is something of an art form. In the UK we have pedestrian crossings painted on the ground and only on a few occasions do cars ignore them. Here THAT is the norm but it’s scooters, 15 years ago it would have been bicycles and it wouldn’t surprise me to see more cars on the roads here in 20 or so years. Hung told us that the average car price for nothing fancy was $25,000. In my book that’s A LOT when the average wage is around $150-200 a month. But there would be no room for them all anyway were they to start becoming more affordable. With the rain beating down they were all wearing ponchos that have a see through rectangle at the front that covers the handlebars and lights and so on. Clever. Here was one lady using the same that I spotted on a bicycle.
The historic Old Quarter was a maze of packed streets that were an explosion on the senses with the noise of the scooters to the smog from their engines. The sidewalks are crammed with parked scooters and the small shops were stuffed full of a plethora of goods which often spilled out and onto the side walk, then you have the shopkeepers making their simple meals on the pavements too – some selling food and some just creating for themselves. You have the street sellers passing with fruits freshly picked and presented in bamboo baskets and sellers on scooters with a record player shouting out what they were selling as they slowly made their ways down the streets. Food hygiene leaves A LOT to be desired and although Hung kept telling us the food would be ok but the issue with the hygiene would be more to do with how they washed the plates and so on rather than perhaps the food itself. We had heard their staple breakfast was a duck embryo boiled and still in the shell of the egg. None of us were keen to try, a step to far in my book. None the less Hung got one for himself and we all stood round in the rain as he showed us how it was prepared and how it was eaten from a street seller. My stomach churned and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one!
We continued through the streets taking in the sights and sounds, dodging the scooters from all angles. We passed what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist temple in the city originally dating from the 11th century but the current building dates from the 18th century. Bach Ma was originally built by Emperor Ly Thai To honour a white horse that led him to this very site where he chose to construct his city walls that now has evolved into this fascinating city.
Despite there, of course, being a number of other areas to the city I enjoyed spending the short amount of time that we had in this city just familiarising myself with the organised chaos of the Old Quarter. It felt all a bit too much on first view but once you got used to the different pace & way of life, I really rather liked it.
North Face jackets were on every street corner, blatant knock offs – some looked good & some looked & felt frankly shocking. None the less I wasn’t about to buy one for the sake of it. I don’t need one back at home & I had a perfectly decent pac-a-mac with me (nothing remotely like Mr Flatman’s almost famous black bin bag coat I hasten to add).
Popping out of the Old Quarter by the Hoan Kiem Lake we met our bus which would be swooping us up and ferrying us away from the hustle and bustle of the street and the peace of a bus – all kitted our with WiFi – too as we headed off through the busy traffic to the complex where we would see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and other sites on the complex. It was all rather surreal as you were literally allowed nothing as you walked around – everything had to be handed in and you were walked like working ants from the ticket office to the Mausoleum itself and encouraged just to keep walking around the frail body of Uncle Ho. I’m JUST not sure if it was/is him lying there or not?! He’s of course been embalmed (in Russia apparently where he returns for a month every year for ‘maintenance’) and lies in a sarcophagus surrounded by guards who are members of the National Army who were all wearing the ceremonial dress of white (this included white wellie boots which made me think of fish mongers or butchers) and we all thought that honestly they looked a little ridiculous – not that I was about to tell them that! It looked like they were cheap as sh*te sets from a fancy dress store rather than OFFICIAL uniform. I was pulled along at one point – still not quite sure why. A member of the group was asked to take her glasses off – they were those dark ones that turn into dark glasses and they had ‘gone dark’ and another was pointed at as we shuffled past as he had his hands in his pockets. The whole area was an open expanse and traffic free and you could tell that there has been a soviet influence in the design as there is plenty of opportunity for parades in front of the Mausoleum. What makes me so angry about it all with the pomp & ceremony is that it’s clearly been stated on a number of occasions that actually Uncle Ho was not in favour at all – his dying wish was that his ashes be scattered in a number of locations the length of the country. We also saw the stilt house where he actually lived in the gardens, he chose this over the Presidential Palace whenever he was in the city. It’s been preserved just as he left it and sits on a pond FULL of koi carp. The actual Presidential Palace is still used today and so visitors are unable to go inside of it but it’s a bright sort of orangey yellow colour and immediately reminded me of the building up on the hill as you drive out of the centre of Bristol on the M32. Apparently all of the presidential palaces are this colour throughout the country.
Our first stop of the day was to the Royal Palace which is where the current King is usually in residence. The flag was up as it is when the Queen is in residence back in the UK but I think I’ve heard on 3 different occasions that the King left for his seaside residence for new year on the train yesterday. Here we needed to be appropriately dressed, no short shorts and no shoulders showing – no need for long sleeves as I’d packed for as t-shirts will do thankfully. I’d kind of imagined the necessity of covering all skin as much as possible not just the bare minimum. I guess that as it’s so hot in the height of their summer visitors would be wearing very little as even though it’s their winter it’s still a tad sticky.
Sadly, despite being pretty warm the sky was overcast so the photos don’t perhaps look as spectacular as they could. It’s an impressive complex within the gated walls and thankfully the large majority of it has survived the Khmer Regime of the late 70s. During that period the King was kept under house arrest, not allowed out for any visits to his people as he is known for.
The Silver Pagoda was another beauty, again photos of the interior were banned sadly. Not silver in appearance from the outside however, so named because of the remarkable floor which is laid in silver tiles each weighing 1kg in weight and there are 5000 of them! Covered in carpet in the main and visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entrance there are parts of the carpet peeled back for you so see the beautiful floor. The building was rebuilt in 1962 as the first building here was from wood in 1892. The contents are simply stunning despite being massively depleted in number since the regime when a large percentage of the contents were stolen or destroyed. The main highlight is the Emerald Green Buddha thought to be made of Baccarat crystal which sits a top a guided pedestal. Also, which was rather impressive, was the life sized gold Buddha which is decorated with 2086 diamonds, the largest of which is in the crown and is a whopping 25 carats. It was created in the palace workshops here and weighs approximately 90kg. The steps leading to this treasure-trove is made of Italian Marble, and although still early in the day a nice cooling sensation on the feet!
Being the official residence of King Sihamoni there are only a few buildings actually open to the public. The Throne Hall being the main one is tipped by a 59 Meter high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor an tod was inaugurated by the king in 1919. It’s used for coronations and ceremonies such as the presentation of credentials to diplomats. Whilst the building was kept in tact as I mentioned by the Khmer Rouge the contents of some of the buildings that were on display were destroyed. You weren’t allowed to take photos of the room itself. It was long and had a splendid full length carpet in the same style of the mosiac on the floor surrounding the room. The throne as you can imagine was incredibly ornate and golden and the ceilings were adorned with paintings of a Cambodian story similar to an English one (at this moment I can’t remember what it was). To the right of the Throne Room was a separate house that is still used for meetings today that was also where the King would once alight the elephants – his chosen mode of transport for centuries for when he went out to the countryside to visit his people, however clearly modern modes of transport are more viable in this day and age!
The Silver Pagoda complex itself is surrounded by a mural depicting the classic Indian epic of Reamker (as it’s known in Cambodia). Created in around 1900 there are many parts of it that were destroyed or defaced during the Khmer Rouge regime. There are also several stupas within the complex which are shrines, ashes of the deceased are kept inside them one housing the previous King in a stupa dedicated to his 4 year old daughter.
Just before the exit was the Elephant Room which had a whole load of the seats that the various kings and dignitaries would have sat in over the years on top of the elephants. Some were more ornate than others as you would expect. Quite strange in a city so full of mopeds to think that elephants were once the choice of transport for the royalty.
From here we headed to the National Museum of Cambodia which we could have actually walked to from the hotel if needed as it was just round the corner, I’d stumbled across it the previous evening on a stroll having had a tactical nap and shower after the flight over. It’s a terracotta coloured building built in the early 20th century with a beautiful courtyard garden. The sculptures from across the centuries are in chronological order and we had our own guide that showed us round with our own commentary. It seemed that the majority of the pieces had come from Angkor Wat and surrounding temples which kind of made you wonder of the was actually anything of any significance left at the sites! Many Buddha, Vishnu, Shiva, Laksmi statues, enough to make you feel some what lackadaisical about them come the end of the tour. I’m sure that they will feel more beautiful and relevant when we see any at the temples themselves later on in the week. The religion in Cambodia is a real mid of Hindu and Buddhism as far as I can work out, quite confusing initially to be seeing Vishnu statues in a country I thought was Buddhist bit according to our guide they celebrate all gods. Buddha is seen usually in 4 different forms, teaching, meditating, and I can’t remember the other two (will fill in later!) and we saw enough of each in the museum to sink a ship!! It was getting ridiculously hot by this stage but we still had one more thing to visit before our lunch stop Wat Phnom which we got back on the bus to head out to.
Wat Phnom is the only ‘hill’ in the city standing at 27m high on top of which is a Buddhist temple and multiple shrines at which there were many of the locals laying gifts to Buddha and to other gods as it is new year this evening. Lions and naga (a mythical serpent) adorn the eastern staircase which was how we accessed the temple. Many of the locals come here to wish for good luck and if it comes true then return to bestow gifts to the gods such as lotus flowers, fruit, suckling pig (this might have been an exception to the rule tho!) they also set free birds to take away their bad luck (they often return to the cages as they are trained to so the guide book tells me). It was ridiculously busy and there were numerous beggars and so on trying to sell us things with signs in English about how they are trying to make a living. On the one hand one wanted to buy abut the cautious soul in me avoided like the plague, mindful of tourist scams and the fact that is then be surrounded by others trying to sell me similar things.
Lunch was on route to our afternoon cultural activity that I was mentally preparing myself for. I tried the fish amok as recommended by H to try as it was delicious. Made with quite a meaty white fish it’s a very flagrant mild current with a lot of lemongrass. I rather liked it – for a fish dish!