As promised, I present herein my final photo report from Vietnam, finally, nearly eight weeks after we returned. I always forget how much I get carried away with travel photography and how much time it takes to process, curate, tag, group and upload the photos when I get home. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’ve been on 3 separate trips out of the country since then… But I digress. The main thrust of this post will be to present a small selection of photos I took in Hanoi (Hà Nội) and Hạ Long Bay.
We really liked Hanoi and found it to be a charming, bustling, intense, quirky and friendly capital. Hanoi (and especially the Old Quarter) provided a compelling peek into the past – once you got past the teeming hordes of motorbikes. Hanoi really tested our road-crossing mettle but we applied our hard-earned experience and were moto-dodging like old hands around the merchant lanes (Undertakers Lane, Blacksmith Street etc). At least we never succumbed to the cyclo touts – we saw more than one organised mass cyclo tour with bored-looking tourists stretching off down the street and wondering what they had agreed to.
We used Hanoi as a bit of a home base as we made tracks for Sapa and then Hạ Long Bay, returning to the city twice, and appreciating it more every time. We even made it out to the Hoan Kiem lake three separate times before 8AM to observe and participate in the morning exercises around the lakeshore. These exercises were often comical to watch, with people seeming to see Tai Chi more as an inspiration rather than something to be adhered to, and we saw more than one elderly Hanoian vigorously punching themselves in the stomach/head/crotch. We even saw the same chap furiously shadow-boxing his way around the lake every morning. All that exercise made us even more keen to dip into Hanoi’s famous street food scene, and we ate very very well indeed…
We did do a bit of sight-seeing, visiting the beautiful Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.
But the true experience of Hanoi is always going to be wandering through lives lived mostly on the street, from the roving portable kitchens and merchants to the unbelievably cute kids who always mug for the camera with the biggest shit-eating smiles they can muster.
I look very fondly on our time in Hanoi and hope to return here again someday. For more Hanoi photos, please see my Flickr group here.
Hạ Long Bay
Next it was on to a fabled destination: Hạ Long Bay, the jewel of the North, the fairytale of limestone karst islands and languid journeys on a faux-“junk” (really a party boat with a sail whacked on top for show) around cliffs and visited floating fishing villages – and even the odd cave.
In truth I was looking forward to Hạ Long Bay with a bit of apprehension as my research indicated that the bay, while magnificent to the naked eye, tended not to come across so well in photographs, as the vast majority of photos were taken from sea level and lacked perspective. So I made a point of asking our tour boat if it was possible to include a trip to somewhere with a vantage point and they obliged.
My final image of this post (and indeed my Vietnam trip) will have to be of the sunrise I captured by rising at 5:15AM onboard our boat. I had the deck – and seemingly the world – to myself, and I was happy as I could be.
There are quite a few more photos in my Flickr set of Hạ Long Bay here.
Well, it is with relief that I can say that this is the last of the Vietnam photos (for now). We did visit Kuala Lumpur for a while and I did take a boatload of videos on the Canon 7D, but both of those will depend on further review and quality and/or time issues. But never fear, I have a few more posts on the boil:
- Catalunya: Barcelona and Alt Emporda
- And I am sure I will have a London post brewing before too long…
In an effort to speed up my faltering photo posting progress from this trip (which was finished over a month ago, mind) I am combining two cities into one post again even though they are miles apart, both in terms of disposition and in terms of geography.
We were led to believe by a couple of people that Huế was the less touristic, more “authentic” and historically significant alternative to Hội An, but I would be the first to admit that we struggled there. Despite staying in an excellent hotel, we found the actual city to be imposingly big and hostile to pedestrians, with some of the most persistently annoying cyclo touts (I recall beginning to wince at the approaching shout of “HELLO!”) and moto drivers around. It didn’t help matters that on the first day we slogged through a couple of miles of this annoyance to cross the river to the Imperial Citadel in oppressive jungle heat. Think Adrian Cronauer’s forecast of “continued hot and shitty” and you’re there.
But we got to the Imperial City and the Forbidden City within and were impressed by the old buildings and the new – some of them restored to former glories after pesky bombings by the Americans in the 60s. We chanced some fairly dodgy street food (congealed pig’s blood, anyone) and dodged yet more cyclo drivers. On the second day we battled through small intestinal distress and retook the city, this time on a smarter conveyance: bicycles. This was a much more pleasant way to see the city as it precluded the cyclo touts approaching and also cut the city down to a manageable size, allowing us to get around to the central market and the surrounding canals.
Half a country away on the Chinese border is the former hill station of Sapa. Whereas we had been wrongfully advised of Huế’s “authenticity” and lack of tourists, several fellow travelers had shared horror stories of the tenacious hill tribe touts of Sapa, so we arrived expecting the worst. As it turned out, aside from an initial encounter with a gaggle of Black H’mong women swarming our bus on arrival, and a bit of a rip-off tour booked from our hotel, most of our time in Sapa was copacetic and we found Sapa quite relaxing even as it was touristic.
Our time in Sapa was mostly visiting the surrounding countryside of steep rice terraces, villages, parks, and the odd waterfall. It was on one of our excursions over into the village of Cat Cat that I decided to lay down on my back to get a beauty shot of a water buffalo and did my back in, a condition that has only exacerbated over time and is still affecting me over a month later as I type this in Nigeria. But we continued with our hike and our overall experience of Sapa was a positive one which made me want to come back and get a bit more off the beaten track next time.
I couldn’t resist including the shot below, which I forgot I had captured. These two German girls were the two biggest marks in Sapa, by which I mean that they had developed no defenses against people approaching them on the street. Every time a H’mong woman came up to them, for instance, they would stop and chat and check out whatever she was selling. Except that this always drew a crowd of other H’mong merchants, so that wherever these girls went, they always had a convoy of hill tribe women attached like lampreys.
We are into the home stretch now, in the next post or two we will cover the buzzing capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, as well as the beautiful karst wonderland of Ha Long Bay. By which point I will well and truly be ready to change tack onto other destinations… Barcelona awaits.
My last trip report had us heading north up the coast for a bit of seaside relaxation. After this, we cheated a little bit and hopped on a plane up to Hội An, a ridiculously charming (and deservedly touristic) French colonial town about halfway up the coast towards Hanoi.
We had approached Hoi An with caution due to its reputation as a tourist trap, but we were in luck as it was Reunification Day holiday weekeend, which meant that the sheer numbers of Vietnamese tourists meant that we didn’t feel like Hội An was some sort of theme park for Western tourists. We had a blast in our three days there, and managed to hook up with some friends who were heading in the other direction.
Hội An is a small town, easily walkable, with a charmingly down-at-heel look about it (my folks would have called it “elegantly shabby”). It was generally a friendly town, with a great deal going for it on the food scene, and a lot of history to trawl through. There was also a great central food market. We had day trips out to the Cham temple ruins in My Son as well as some very scenic beaches and outlying villages surrounded by rice paddies.
As it happened I found Hội An extremely photogenic and came away with over 700 photos of the place. Clearly I will not be subjecting anyone to the full 700, but I still uploaded a bulging set of 50 of my favourite Hội An shots to Flickr. I present a selection of my favourites below but I highly recommend a browse of the other photos over on Flickr.
Next time around: The imperial city of Hue. Then onwards to Hanoi, Sapa and Ha Long Bay…
Update, July 12 2011
Thanks to WordPress.com featuring this on their “Freshly Pressed” section on July 11th, 2011, this photo report post has had a tremendous amount of traffic, thanks entirely to you lovely folks who have chosen to bestow your click-favours. I might add in an oh-so-cheeky way that more of my photographic travel delights can be found in the Travel Photography posts section (let’s be honest, the most interesting part of this blog for blogger and reader alike)…
Also, for your delectation, I have other Vietnam photo posts as well:
After the hectic experience of Saigon, desirous of some sun and fun, we headed north out of the city towards the southern coastal resorts of Mũi Né and Nha Trang. Never ones to sit around on the beach, we did a fair bit of exploration in each place, seeing how the people in both towns were getting to grips with combining their traditional lifestyles (fishing, mostly) with increasing numbers of tourists and their various demands and proclivities.
We knew that Mũi Né was going to be our first stop as we headed north, because it was a pretty manageable five-hour bus ride from Saigon. Having investigated a bit and determined that the main strip of Mũi Né looked like a catastrophic mix of Russian, German and Australian package tour hellholes, we booked a bungalow in the private resort Pandanus just outside the main strip. As the man in Indiana Jones said, we chose…. wisely. We hired some bicycles the first afternoon and toddled down into the fishing village north of the resort strip, where we were lucky enough to see the fishing harbour just as dusk approached. It was our first encounter with the curious rattan “bathtub” dinghies that are such a feature of waterfront life in south Vietnam.
The next day we hired scooters, and took to them like ducks to water. Riding around a relatively low-population area like Mũi Né was the perfect way to start driving in Vietnam – not sure I would have wanted to kick things off in Saigon, for instance. Happily we carried on through the main resort strip and south to Phan Thiết, the main fishing town near Mui Ne, where we knew we’d be able to see some Cham temples, and also look into a fishing harbour I had seen from the bus the day before.
First stop was the Cham temples on a hilltop overlooking the town: leftovers of the old religions of the Cham people, who are still around in greatly reduced numbers and greatly reduced influence. The only other visitors to this temple complex were a bridal couple and their photographers, who were happy to pose for us in between having their love committed to digital eternity….
After the Cham temples we continued on down to the main fishing section of Phan Thiết and, after struggling to work out how to get to the actual quay-side from the main street, we eventually just did as the locals did and drove our scooters into a warren of tiny rutted alleyways, somehow managing not to scrape ourselves or our bikes down the sides of people’s houses, till eventually we popped out on the quay and got to see some of the fishing boats and dinghies at close quarters, and to see what conditions the fishermen lived in when they weren’t out casting for squid and scallops…
We were tempted to keep going around a headland as we saw a beach on the other side that looked like it needed investigating. However, the pavement and packed earth had run out and in between us and the beach was the motorcycle’s bane: sand. We were about to turn around and give up when a toothless grandmother laughed at us and pointed through the sand. Shamed, we duly attempted and conquered the sand challenge. When we came to the beach we dismounted and walked down to observe some scallop fishermen freshly arrived and disgorging their catch via the dinghies to women waiting on shore, who were busily shucking the scallops and discarding the shells onto the beach in great mounds (there were countless thousands of old shells about). It was a fascinating scene, and they were very surprised that we as tourists had made it around to see them. They were friendly enough, though, and we felt we were well off the trail.
I don’t want to over-romanticise this experience though; the beach was filthy, very different to the sanitised versions at the resorts nearby which were cleaned obsessively. This beach was an environmental disaster of discarded shells, rubbish, excrement, and a recently-dead dog. The entire place smelled like three-day-old shit, and we made our excuses. Getting back off the beach involved driving through someone’s patio (seriously) and driving through a family of four eating their dinners on either side of an alleyway, who only pulled their dishes and drinks away at the last moment. We continued back into the main resort strip and found a place for lunch, where we remarked that the three-day-old shit smell seemed to pervade the town. It was only a few minutes later that we discovered to our horror that I had trod in some of the three-day-old shit and was tracking it around. This was special stuff, probably banned under the Geneva convention, and suffice it to say that after multiple cleaning attempts and an overnight soak I was forced to throw this set of beloved sandals away. That’s some serious shit.
The next morning we got up early and walked down the road from our resort to climb the red sand dunes, a famous local attraction which is probably best explored using a jeep, and the main idea is to do sand-surfing – or at least that’s what all the touts would have you do. Of course I skipped the sand-surfing and went photo-surfing instead….
Of course, we didn’t spend all of our time sightseeing. There was a beach to play in, as well, and we did. But nobody wants to see other people’s beach pictures, so I’ll suffice with this one:
After three days and two nights in Mũi Né we decided to push up the coast to Hoi An, with a one-night stopover in Nha Trang, another beach resort, to break up what would otherwise be an 18-hour bus journey. As it happened, the five hours to Nha Trang did us in, as we had inadvertently booked a sleeper bus – for an afternoon journey. It was fairly hellish, let’s just leave it there. Once in Nha Trang we agreed that we needed to find some other way to continue on to Hoi An the next day. As it happens the urgency of this decision was removed from us by some dodgy shellfish and an ensuing everything-must-go bout of food poisoning. So we ended up spending two nights in Nha Trang, recuperating and preparing for the next journey. As it happened we lodged in the Sheraton on the main strip, so this was not what you would call a hardship to extend our stay. We checked out the town, but it was roasting hot during the day so we mostly explored at night (somehow seeming to end up at the Sailing Club each night) or during the early mornings.
The view from our hotel’s rooftop terrace was pretty striking at night, watching untold thousands of scooters cruising up and down the strip, and the otherworldly construction side next door:
Of course we did manage to get out onto the beach here, and because it was the start of a bank holiday weekend there, there were genuine Vietnamese tourists visiting the beach in droves:
Early on the final morning in Nha Trang we went up to the fishing marina and saw the fishermen getting about their work. We carried on around the bay to another set of Cham temples on a hill overlooking the harbour.
That was it for Nha Trang, and we headed out to catch our chosen “cheating” transportation up to Hoi An: Vietnam Airlines.
You can see more photos of Mũi Né and Nha Trang in my Flickr set here.
Next time: A photo report from the charming old colonial town of Hoi An. Reports from Hue, Saigon, Sapa, and Ha Long Bay will follow…
I’m back baby, this time with another collection of interesting (to me) photos collected on yet another jaunt overseas, this time to sunny / ridiculously-hot Vietnam for a three-week south-to-north journey starting in Saigon and ending in Hanoi. I didn’t post as I went along during the trip, mostly because I was shooting almost entirely in RAW and had only an iPad and no means to develop them on the road, nor was the internet connection ever particularly impressive there.
But the upshot is that I’ve got 5000 photos to edit down and develop, and rather than wait till I am done with the lot, I am going to break the trip up and post as I go, in chronological order. As it happens, due to the vagaries of my job I am actually posting this from Dubai, which will be the subject of a future photo report.
Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City if you are strongly communist-leaning) was our first stop on our Vietnamese odyssey and what a way to start – this place was full of life, bustling with a million mopeds, combining Western opulence and architecture with southeast Asian street life. In Vietnam, life is lived on the street, especially once you get onto the back streets. Soup ladies carry entire kitchens on poles over their shoulders, right down to the little plastic stools that are a challenge to Western knees (and balances). Little old ladies peruse fresh herbs being sold right on the pavement, often next to unrefrigerated meat, and little children scamper everywhere, impossibly cute until they decide to pee into the gutter right in front of you.
Obligatory Scooter Shots
In every Vietnamese city, Saigon especially, seemingly every square inch of street is filled with revving, beeping scooters (carrying people, families, commercial merchandise, and/or livestock) which thread through and around each other and pedestrians like streamers in a Maypole dance. Visiting Vietnam means quickly working up the necessary courage to cross a seemingly-impenetrable two-way, four-lane road heaving with motorised threat, which is only possible if you do it the way the Vietnamese do: slowly, steadily, and without stopping. Magically, the traffic parts around you, and we learned from watching Vietnamese over time that it is entirely possible (though challenging) to cross a busy two-way road without looking in either direction.
Everywhere you look in Vietnam, there is food on the street, whether it be from cafes or streetside restaurants, or from pho places that set up on the same pavement every night, or from the little soup or banana pancake ladies who constantly move around a set of favoured perches, setting up shop the moment the passing foot traffic looks promising…
The Saigon River
We made a day trip out to the Cu Chi Tunnels (quite an experience, if not a photogenic one) and this involved a jaunt on the Saigon River, passing many barges and fishing boats along the way. The Cu Chi Tunnels will be featured on Facebook and possibly a video in the future, but I did want to share the tapestry they had up illustrating the intended use of the traps that used to be laid around the area…
More photos from Saigon can be found in my Flickr set here.
Part 2 of the trip report will be coming in the next two weeks, and will include photos from the coastal towns of Mui Ne and Nha Trang. Part 3 will focus on Hoi An and potentially Hue as well. Then it will be on to Hanoi, Sapa, and Ha Long Bay.