Architecture on LSD

Hang Nga in Dalat is also called the crazy house. It’s a large complex of buildings and connecting bridges, one lazily winding over the top roof, very narrow and without much in the way of handrails. The design lacks the angular simplicity of Gaudi’s work in Barcelona, it’s just… crazy. A large family of hobbits would love it, but all others need to watch their heads.

Dalat is otherwise unremarkable. It’s a busy town around a lake with a few low hills, but nice enough to walk. At 1500m, it’s cool and overcast, unlike hot Hoi An.

Beach tour

There’s a number of beaches around Hoi An and neighboring islands. Fine white sand (somehow managing to be scalding hot in the sun anyway), emerald water with soft surf, palm trees, little beach huts, and very affordable cocktail service. Not unlike Bali except only a handful of people enjoy the beach.

Finding a bicycle big enough for me was a bit of a challenge but I found one. Didn’t break any speed records on this thing though.

Hoi An

Much of the country was devastated in the American War, but a few ancient towns survived. Hoi An is the most popular of those. Almost all buildings in the old center have stood for centuries, and even newer neighborhoods try to be sensitive of the past.

I have occasionally complained about towns that sold their soul to tourism, like Aguas Calientes or Sapa, but Hoi An manages to absorb the inevitable glut of restaurants and souvenir shops with grace. And the tourists all seem to confine themselves to the few main streets and don’t venture into the many small alleys. It’s also somewhat upmarket: there are few budget options and few backpackers, and few pizza places or bars that serve alcohol in buckets. A very pleasant place to stay.

Ho Chi Minh trail

The bus between Hué and Hoi An is so boring that all I remember of the last time I used it is being disappointed that it uses the new tunnel rather than climbing over the mountains separating former North and South Vietnam. So I used a motorcycle tour that took me all the way west to the border to Laos, and then to Hoi An. Part of the road was on the old Ho Chi Minh trail.

At an overnight stop in Prao I discovered this little village in the fields, built from bamboo and wood. Had fun with some children demanding photos, screaming with delight. After an hour of that they led me into the village, and I made my triumphant entry leading a score of small kids and a couple of watchful older ones, with the smallest riding on my shoulder beaming, and several more holding my hand.

So I got invited by the village elder, and was served tea and fruit. On the wall of his house, the biggest of all, hung a picture of Ho Chi Minh and  certificates. He is also a North Vietnamese war hero from the American War, and put on his uniform with three stars on each shoulder, and many medals. He stood to attention for me to take pictures.

Royal city of Hué

On my last visit, they were still restoring the royal citadel of Hué, destroyed in the American War. Now several more buildings are completed, but there is still lots of empty space with the scars of that war. The walled old quarter is still beautiful, tranquil, and amazingly untouched by tourism.

The eastern end of the modern town on the other side of the river, where I was staying in the Orchid hotel, is far more pleasant than I remembered it from my last visit. It’s fun to walk the streets at night.

Fussy eaters

The city of Hue is famous for improbably elaborate meals. Went to a restaurant that I discovered four years ago and instantly loved. It hadn’t changed, except now a tour bus was parked outside. Had my usual ten-course lunch, starting with spring rolls.

How would you serve spring rolls? Put them on a plate, add a salad leaf, done. Not so here. Begin with half a pineapple, hollowed out, with a candle inside. Form a peacock with carved carrots and tomatoes. Put the spring rolls on sticks so they look like feathers – remember, that’s the payload, everything else is decoration. Easy. And so it continues.

South China Sea

Spent a few days on tiny Monkey Island, just off Cat Ba. The area’s highlight is Halong Bay, a dream seascape of steep karst mountains rising from the South China Sea. But I have been there before – and the sky was overcast – so I decided to check out some islands.

My island is boring but kayaking there is great. Many islands there are tiny, some little more than impossibly tall pillars, and are easy to go around. Stopped at a beach – there are countless little beachlets on the islands accessible only from the sea – and immediately had a group of laughing boys on my kayak, nearly capsizing it. They helped me pull it ashore, and the usual photo sessions followed. As if they’d never seen a tall European before. Everyone wanted a photo on an armful of cell phones, almost. More fun than the kayaking…

How to buy an iPhone

Everyone here has a cell phone. There are phone shops all over the place, and they are all similar: a big and usually brightly colored and slightly fading sign over the door announcing “iPhone” or “Apple Store”, a brand-new sign wrapped around the display cases saying “Samsung”, and the actual display cases which are filled with Nokia phones. Apple, and now Samsung, may own people’s dreams but Nokia still owns their wallets.

I did see only one iPhone: an iPhone 4i with 4 GB memory and slightly thicker glass than usual, for 100 €. I bet it has never passed through Apple’s hands. Normally electronics tend to cost slightly more than in Europe, even in KL, which surprised me.

Uncharted

Didn’t feel like just taking the train back to Hanoi, so I got on a rickety local bus south to a big lake, at Thac Ba. It’s so off the tourist trail that it took me an hour to find a hotel – not labeled as such of course – ignoring several locals explaining that no hotels exist but fortunately they could offer an enormously expensive scooter ride to Yen Bai an hour away. No thanks.

The reward was a village completely unspoiled by tourism. No souvenirs can be bought there. Walking a few minutes in any direction put me into valleys, fields, or to the lake, or the river leading there. As usual in small villages, I was quickly surrounded by curious people, where one half wanted me to take pictures of the other half. English not needed for having fun.

Bac Ha mountain trekking

Bac Ha is much more impressive than Sapa. Trails run along the mountainsides, high above the valleys with great views. There are fewer villages up there but I had a great guide, Hung, who comes from a minority village himself and got us invited into numerous private homes.

The houses of the Flower H’Mong tribe, so called because of the women’s colorful dresses, are built from clay and wood, with a packed dirt floor, subdivided with curtains. There is an open fire – but no chimney – and a ladder to upstairs storage for rice and beans. There is always hot tea and a bamboo water pipe with tobacco for guests.

Only the very old and the very young stay at home; everyone else is out tending the fields on the  mountainsides, harvesting or plowing with a buffalo. Not an easy life!

Mountains of northern Vietnam

The countryside around Bac Ha is a vertical version of Sapa. Roads wind along the edges of mountains, with beautiful views of valleys and endless ladders of rice terrace upon rice terrace. Scattered between them are the minority villages, just as poor as the ones near Sapa. They build with mud walls here though. The roads are little more than rocky trails, a serious challenge for motorcycles.

Bac Ha is mostly known for its Sunday market, the biggest in the area. Day tourists come here from Sapa, but it’s much quieter before they arrive because few people overnight here. It’s full of minority women in their colorful multilayered dresses, selling to the locals – although souvenir stalls have begun to line the entrances. There are clothes, tools, animals, meat, and anything else made or used locally on sale, plus numerous eateries.

Minority report

All around Sapa are the tiny villages of the H’Mong and other minorities, who live mainly as rice farmers. Every accessible piece of land in the valleys is terraced. I spent seven hours walking among the fields and villages, away from the tourist roads.

We had a major thunderstorm yesterday so the paths are soaked. At first I found the dry sections of the paths, but those got scarce deeper in the rice fields. Rice is grown submerged in water. In parts I was slogging in mud halfway up to my knees, and found it got more traction barefoot where it got really steep. But there are many creeks to wade through and wash up, and the scenery more than made up for my troubles.

At some point I got lost but was promptly “adopted” by a group of Black H’Mong who led me on paths in villages and hugging the sides of mountains that I would never have found by myself. Later I had to cross a road construction site and watched them dynamite the hillside. Couldn’t get really close though because the entire crew had only a single hard hat, and after the bang follows a shower of pebbles and dirt.

Massages and buffalo

Sapa is at the northern edge of Vietnam, at the border to China. I am not planning to cross over into China though, they have tightened the visa restrictions so much recently that it’s not practical. I hope China won’t destabilize… They’ve arrested a politburo member recently.

Anyway, Sapa is high up in the mountains, and the summer is merely nice and warm here, rather than suffocating like in Hanoi. It’s a strange mixture of primitive villages of minorities (who aren’t given much of a chance by the Vietnamese), communist leftovers, and expensive shiny hotels, restaurants, and massage parlors for the tourists.

My room overlooks a beautiful valley covered with terraced rice fields and the shacks the minority people live in. The Vietnamese have set up ticket booths for tourists visiting the minority villages. There’s a strong feeling of exploitation that only the western tourists seem to notice.

Hanoi

I have done all the obligatory sights on my previous visit, so I had time to see the neighborhoods of Hanoi, and talk to the people who live there. I had a guide who took me to the hidden little alleys and distant places where tourists do not normally venture. I have seen barbecued dogs.
Also went to the national park Bavi, and climbed 1600 steps to the temples on the hills. They were built only last year, in the traditional style. I doubt that the government would care as much if Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh) hadn’t visited the place, making it a pilgrimage stop.

Makassar to Hanoi

Roaming the little alleys of Makassar near the harbor, some little wider than a meter, and as always responding to all calls of “hello misterrr”. At one point there was a bunch of older children in an Internet café, and Google Translate actually let us communicate, after a fashion. The crowd quickly grew to 20 or 30 children of all ages, some carried by their mothers. They wanted photos, and were screaming with laughter at the results.

In the evening, I left Indonesia (my visa was about to expire), and after a night in an airport hotel in Kuala Lumpur that charges extra for a towel, I am now in Hanoi, Vietnam. Hanoi is much bigger and much more busy than Makassar. Little seems to have changed since my last visit in 2008. Spent much of the afternoon chatting with locals, who always seem to be happy to try out their English on the few foreigners around. Most of whom have their eyes glued on the next temple or pagoda and ignore everything else. Their loss.

Vietnamese food is fantastic. Even and especially in the small street kitchens dotting Hanoi’s inner city.

Makassar

Makassar is the largest town on Sulawesi, and has very little touristic value. Found a nice neighborhood at the old port, some distance from the center. Lots of old wooden Bugis boats, tightly packed, being loaded by people carrying sacks of cement, sugar, vegetables, and more. Talked to a sailor who loves to read Goethe and Tolstoy. All happy families are alike…

Children follow me everywhere, trying out a few words of English, have their pictures taken, and erupting in laughter when seeing the results. I have only seen one other Western tourist today, and I am much taller. I seem to be a bigger attraction to the locals than Makassar is to me.

Trekking in Tanah Toraja

Just returned from a two-day trekking tour north of Rantepao, with a local guide. The countryside is hilly, with many fields, bamboo forests, and small villages. Everything is bright green, as only rice paddies can be. We followed the walls between the paddies, but it had rained the night before and the paths were very muddy and slippery.

The villages are really just Huddleston of traditional houses with the boat-shaped roofs typical for Tanah Toraja. Most are used to store rice, but we also saw a dozen of them built specifically for a funeral.

Saw a cockfight: a large field surrounded by platform houses, lots of people, and much shouting and money changing hands. Then two cocks with long vicious blades tied to one foot are set upon each other, there is a flurry of wings and feathers, and then just two dead cocks a:de two small puddles of blood. A draw. The next fight had a winner. All this is illegal of course but is a very well-organized and popular event. I guess they just don’t invite the police.

Funeral in Tanah Toraja

Got the full ceremony today. The bodies were brought out after resting at home for a year, and pushed up to the family home (pictured – note the peculiar roofs)  one last time before they’ll be finally buried. There were hundreds of guests in large wooden pavillons built specifically for this ceremony, plus a couple dozen tourists.

Feeding that many people takes a lot of meat. There were pigs tied to bamboo poles all over the place, and every few minutes one was taken out back to the open fires, screaming and thrashing, before being killed and put on the fire whole. I have never been served pork as fresh as this.

They also slaughtered one of the many buffalo on the grounds: one man held up its head and another cut its throat with a long knife in one fast strike. There was a great splash of blood, the buffalo was struggling soundlessly for a few seconds, before falling down with blood still gushing out its neck. Then they skinned it right there, with a child playing with the tail. Later saw two small children dragging bloody hooves behind them on a string, like a toy car.

Rantepao

Rantepao is a town in the middle of Sulawesi. It’s hard to get here; the interior roads in Sulawesi are so bad that it takes three days by bus from one end to the other. There aren’t a lot of tourists here and the town doesn’t have a lot of tourist facilities, besides a number of simple hotels. Although Rantepao isn’t very interesting, the countryside is: lots of green hills, bamboo forests, huge terraced rice fields, women in conical hats threshing rice, and water buffalos plowing.

Today was all about dead people: tradition demands that when someone dies, the body is embalmed and kept for years at home. Then it’s buried in an elaborate ceremony – which we missed but will see tomorrow. We did see a cave where the sarcophagi are stored, until they rot away and the bones tumble out, at which point the skulls are tastefully arrangend in niches or piled on flat stones. Lots of skulls. And they put up effigies in a bizarre rock wall into which balconies were hewn. To top it off, in past centuries babies often died young, due to dysenteria and other diseases, and they cut a hole into a tree, put the body in, and closed off the hole. The idea was that the tree grows and carries the baby up. None of these traditions are still followed except the embalming and ceremony bits; the rest sounds a little unhygienic.

I wish Google would hire someone with software experience so I could add a picture. I can’t post to Google+ either because every way to post there has some fatal bug.

Last diving day

More muck diving plus corals. Saw lionfish that looks like a mobile circus, stingrays, and lots more of those oddly named nudibranchs that look like many-colored jewels on the corals. Also a mimic octopus trying but not quite succeeding to blend into the seafloor, until it shot off to safety, away from all those big creatures noisily blowing bubbles and pointing cameras at it. Please refer to the Southeast Asia marine life identification chart: http://xkcd.com/928/ .

Muck diving

Sounds charming, does it, but it really means diving over a dark sandy seafloor. The guide pokes this and that with his pointer, and suddenly a small school of fish bursts out of the ground, or a warty Devil Scorpion Fish gives up its perfect camouflage and swims away, or a fish with tall fins somehow materializes from soft coral, or a stingray with bright blue spots flaps away. Mud diving is all about the little creatures.

But the first dive of the day was to the wreck of a big Japanese freighter at 16-30 meters, all overgrown with corals and little curious animals living in them: nudibranchs are the butterflies of the sea, in all sorts of bizarre shapes and colors. Like that bright purple slug with yellow antlers.

This was my first real dive that wasn’t part of my training. The nice thing about those is that the dive center staff puts together the gear and cleans it afterwards.