Where the Sidewalk Ends

Usually, being a walker is a benefit as a traveler. You get to see more of a city, find some hidden treasures, interact more with locals, and get some exercise to work off all the good food you’re discovering.

But so far in Vietnam, I haven’t found walkers to be a particularly relevant or important part of society. I’m often the only person walking down a road – not even the locals walk more than a block or two, it seems. EVERYONE has a motorbike, or a bicycle. The country seems so anti-walking, in fact, that though there are broad sidewalks, they are usually covered with parked motorbikes, or people sitting on stools outside their shops chatting, or mounds of dirt and construction materials, and pop-up restaurants/weber grills/food carts which take up the whole sidewalk with their cooking apparatus, ingredients, and tables and mini-chairs. So I often end up walking in the street, simply because there isn’t any room to walk on the sidewalk.

Also, almost half the people I see on motorbikes wear masks over their mouths. They hook over your ears and cover the entire lower half of your face. (Some extend to cover necks and ears, too.)  I’ve been told the masks are popular because people value light skin, so they do this as sun protection, but I also see some people wearing them at night- not as many, but a few. And the reception person at my hotel said that many people wear them for the “dirty atmosphere”, too. So I spent my 40 cents to buy one for myself, because my throat is a little rough, I’ve almost lost my voice, and I think defense against all the air pollution here will help out my laryngitis a little. And this way, I get to keep walking.  🙂

Here are some street and (blocked) sidewalk scenes in Hanoi:

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The Imperial City

The entire city of Hoi An was declared a UNESCO site, (there are only 7 in Vietnam) but Hue has a UNESCO area, too- The Imperial City. I spent hours walking around this enormous walled fortress on the banks of the Perfume River.  (One source said it has a circumference of 10km.)  It was built for the Nguyen dynasty emperors, with the work starting in 1804.

Surrounded by a moat and stone walls, it contains the emperor’s palace, and many temples and family buildings.  And, strangely, 2 elephants. The koi pond was the other “interactive” component of the site. I bought a little bag of fish food to throw in the water and enjoyed watching the resulting noisy frenzy.

Though it was heavily bombed by the US during the Vietnam war, there were some buildings that survived, and many others that have been restored. But they were hard at work on continuing to reconstruct the many crumbled buildings that remain there. And there were a few areas that resembled the old ruined castles I used to tramp through in England as a child…

… stairways leading to nowhere, doorways from the outside- to the outside, opening from roofless walled rooms onto grassy green courtyards.  I can’t imagine how grand it must have looked two hundred years ago, but the parts that remain today are beautiful.

 

I loved the dragons that line some of the stairways and appear to be flowing down them to greet… or maybe threaten you?

The symmetry and size of the buildings is impressive, as are the colors and detail that decorate the gates, roofs, and lintels.  Besides food, a peek at another country’s culture and history is my favorite part of traveling.  And what could be more fun than getting to walk through a place called “The Forbidden Purple City”?

 

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Train travel in Vietnam

I got my first taste of cross-country train travel during my quintessential college Eurailing experience. Seeing Vietnam by train has been equally enjoyable. The train is such a great way to see more of a country and its landscape- often one of the most beautiful and unique aspects of a place.

 

I’ve been taking the Reunification Express, all 1726 km from the South (Ho Chi Minh City) to the North (Hanoi) with several great stops along the way.

Apparently you can get a very cheap open-ticket for a bus along the same basic route, but you miss much of the scenery, and you don’t get a chance to sleep in the train!

It’s not only a nice way to avoid a night’s hotel cost, but also a very relaxing way to travel and spend the night. The cost is even cheap enough to enable one to spring for a soft sleeper with air conditioning (Nam Mem Dieu Hoa) for many parts of the journey. But you don’t need it for the short bit between Da Nang and Hue, which also might be the prettiest.  The train curls along the side of beachfront cliffs, hugging the edge of the green mountain. What views!

On one of my journeys, I made friends with the little Grandmother sharing my cabin. Since I had a middle bunk, she invited me to sit on her lower bunk with her in the morning while we ate breakfast.

I had the chicken rice soup from the train’s food trolley, and she had brought her own rice and chicken. After I thanked her for the taste she gave me, she then cut part of her chicken meat off the bone and chucked it onto my plate. I have to admit it was better than the train food.  Then it was time for peek-a-boo with the little girl in the cabin next door. I encouraged her to pose for some photos, and when I handed her my sunglasses to wear, she immediately put one hand on her hip, and assumed the pose of a runway model.

I’ve got some great video of her parading up and down the train passageway. At one point, I thought I wasn’t going to get my sunglasses back. Despite the language barrier, we all got along very well and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to spend time with ordinary Vietnamese citizens.

The train can be a great way to meet people and immerse yourself in a country.  Plus, it just seems more, I don’t know, romantic and traditional than a bus. There’s something to be said for traveling “old-school”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streets in Vietnam

I’ve now been in 5 cities in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Danang, Hoi An, and Hue) and I have to congratulate this country on having the most consistent and helpful street signs I’ve ever encountered before- anywhere. Considering that I’m no expert on the Vietnamese language, it’s so reassuring that almost every street corner (and I think it really was every single one in HCMC) has street signs, so you don’t ever have to get lost.

And every hotel I’ve stayed at has given me a handy little free city map, so I just carry that around in my pocket, and I’ve never been lost here for more than 1 block. It’s fantastic.  It’s really helpful considering that the street names in each city are at least 50% the same as in every other city. I keep seeing the same street names repeated in each new part of the country- all the way from the South to the North.  Everybody has a Hai Ba Trung and a Dien Bien Phu, several Nguyens, and a Le Thanh Ton, etc, etc.  I know we have a “Main Street” in every town in the US, but many of these streets are named after important historical figures or sometimes serve as descriptions of the items sold on each street. And that’s an historical practice in itself. Regardless of the name origin, I’m glad that the Vietnamese are invested in keeping me from getting lost!

These are just some little shots from the streets of Hue, (much less crowded and crazy than HCMC, for the most part) and a view from my hotel room in the evening.

Coming up soon… The Imperial City!