samedi 30 juin 2012


During the summer of 2011, I travelled to Vietnam, starting south and ending up north. The country is a cultural smorgasbord, with many influences. In the south, Indian and Hindu cultures had a lasting influence in the Cham temples. The food is spicy, tempered with coconut. The north is closer to Chinese influence. An enduring French colonial legacy,followed by an american interlude, more than 50 hill tribes, and today's softening but everpresent communist ruling party, make for a very unique country.

vendredi 29 juin 2012

On thursday, july 28th we arrived in Ho Chi Minh Ville, otherwise known as ex-Saigon. What vitality, what energy, a bubbling, always on the go city. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, timeless alleys with ancient pagodas,like this one, markets and shops selling silk, spices and baskets, and rain, rain, more rain, for we are visiting during the very rainy season!!! At each street corner there is a cheap poncho vendor, much appreciated! Impossible not to remember the haunting memories of Saigon, that made for nightmarish daily news with Walter Cronquite on television in the sixties and such film classics as "Good morning America" until the final fall in 1975. The past is the past, and the page has been turned thank goodness. Here is the Thien Hau Pagoda dedicated to the sea goddess, in the chinese Cholon district.

Jeudi 28 juillet 2011: arrivée à Ho Chi Minh Ville, ex Saigon; quartier chinois de Cholon, pagode de la Dame Céleste.

Cho Ben Thanh, otherwise known as the Ben Thanh market; city hall, the opera, the main post office, Notre Dame Cathedral, (not to be confused with the one in Paris!)... and other official buildings in the old french colonial district. Ho Chi Minh was named in honor of the leader who successfully led the nation against France and later the United States. It has retained some of its French colonial influences, especially in this this area. The streets are jam-packed with mopeds and scooters, making it near impossible for foreign pedestrians to cross the streets!!! Walking on the famous ex-rue Catinat, one of the main axes of colonial Saigon, with the Hôtel Continental, near the river, seams to bring you a hundred years or so, back in history.

Les Halles Binh Tay et les édifices de l'ancien quartier colonial avec l'ex-rue Catinat, l'Opéra, l'Hotel de ville...

On friday, july 29th, on our way to the Mekong Delta further south, we made a stop in a Caodaist temple. The Caodai religion is essentially a vietnamese religion, founded in the 1920's and is a funny mixed salad of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianism. What may sound completely outrageous is that their spiritual leaders or saints include Buddha, Jesus Christ, but also Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, Victor Hugo, Descartes, Joan of Arc, Louis Pasteur, Leon Tolstoi, Lenin, or Shakespeare!!! 
Oh and look at that guy carrying a truckload of stuff on, around, in back of his bike, this sort of ordinary scene won't cease to amaze me during the whole entire trip!!! 

Vendredi 29 juillet 2011: départ pour le delta du Mekong; halte dans un atelier de lacque et dans un temple caodaïste.

Mekong means nine dragon river in vietnamese. Life in the Delta revolves around this muddy brown river making villages mostly accessible by boat. A real labyrinth! We stopped in a village that made the most delicious coconut taffee! I bought one bag, but should have bought ten! The vegetation is quite lush; I don't know about the brown water though, yuck!!!! This is the area where they produce most of their rice!  Is this how brown rice is made??? Hmmm....

Croisière au coeur d'un labyrinthe de rivières et de canaux jusqu'au port fluvial de Vinh Long

Arrival in the city of Can Tho for the night. It's raining, it's pouring; who cares, we still have our cheap plastic ponchos that are starting to rip apart, full of holes like swiss cheese!!

Arrivée pour la nuit et par la route à Cantho.

On saturday, july 30th, we took a boat ride again early in the morning to the floating market of Cai Rang. On the way, I couldn't help looking at all the houses along the river. Even if it isn't Palladio architecture, I found vietnamese architecture interesting, I don't really know why! Once we arrived at the market, for sure it had nothing to do with your local western supermarket!

Samedi 30 juillet 2011: ballade en bateau jusqu'au marché flottant de Cai Rang

The boat left us back in Can Tho where we took a walk around the market before taking the road back to Ho Chi Minh Ville. Stopping to look at at all the exotic fruits and vegetables is always truly a treat. 

Marché à Cantho avant de reprendre la route pour Mytho et retour à Ho Chi Minh Ville.

Sunday,  july 31st before our flight to Da Lat, we took one last walk around the market and a street nearby full of antique dealers. I have a hunch that they were new antiques like in China! Yes, there are 85 million people in Vienam, endlessly rolling hastely here and there; how do they expect us to cross the streets... they never ever stop! I don't believe I ever saw a "stop" sign during the whole trip!!!! Perhaps we could suggest them to put some, but I'm not sure it would change matters much! The Vietnamese although, very kind and polite, go by their own rules!

Dimanche 31 juillet 2011: quartier des antiquaires à Ho Chi Minh Ville.

Around mid-day we landed in Da Lat north west of Ho Chi Minh Ville, on the Langbiang Plateau at 1500m of altitude, not as hot and humid but nice and cool. Also known under the name "le petit Paris"!!!, it is the city of thousands of pine trees! Because of the climate, the French endowed the city with villas, which look like swiss chalets,during their colonial days. The train station is supposed to have been inspired by the one in Deauville, here in France. The architecture of Da Lat is dominated by the style of the French colonial period, so that even today, it almost feels like we were hiking somewhere in the Alpes!!! We started out by visiting the last emperor Bao Dai's kitschy summer residence, built in 1937. The gift shop was simply surreal..., no comment!

Arrivée par avion à Dalat, station d'altitude; visite de l'ancienne résidence d'été du dernier empereur Bao Dai, la gare, le quartier des colons français.

The following day, on monday august 1st, we took the road towards the high plateaux northbound, stopping in a coffee plantation and first villages of Eddé and Mnong tribes.

Lundi 1er août 2011: plantation de caféiers. Premiers villages des peuples Eddé et Mnong des hauts plateaux.

After lunch we took a nice pirogue ride on the lake Lak before going elephant back riding! Wow! Good thing asian elephants are smaller than africans!!! Imagine driving your very own elephant on the Champs-Elysées!!!!Yhen we arrived in Buon Me Thuot, the coffee capital of Vietnam. 

Ballade en pirogue sur le lac Lak, et à dos d'éléphants avant d'arriver à Ban Me Thuot.

On tuesday august 2d, we left for Pleiku, home of the Jarai hill tribe, then for Kontum home of the Bahnar hill tribe. The central highlands is one of the most remote and least populated regions of the country, with its virgin forest, mountains, and wildlife, much of it having been destroyed during the fierce battles of the american-vietnam war in the 60's. Oh my gosh...; the area is rather poor, and all of a sudden, who do I see? Is it the vietnamese version of Ringo Star playing the drums in the middle of nowhere? 

Mardi 2 août 2011: départ pour Pleiku et ensuite Kontum

Tiger balm is made from the Camphor tree. Also a stop in a pepper plantation, rubber trees that give latex, rice fields and tea plantations...

LeCamphriers (avec lequel on fait le baume du tigre), plantations de poivriers, hévéas (qui donne le latex), rizières et plantation de thé.

We arrived in Kontum, near the borders of Laos and Cambodia. In the Banhar dialect, "kon" means village and "tum" means pond, or lake. The town is surrounded by ponds and lakes. When it rains the roads look like rivers. During the french presence, missionaries were trained here to evangelize the minorities of the region.

Arrivée à Kontum.

On wednesday august 3d we visited Jaraï, Eddé and Banhar villages.

Mercredi 3 août 2011: Villages Jaraï, Eddé et Banhar.

Cemetary, where each family has its own lot in a Banhar village. The tombs are a replica of home, the table being set for lunch or dinner!. 

Cimetière collectif par famille dans un village Banhar, dans lequel les tombes sont des répliques de l'habitat.

Wooden roman catholic church on stilts in Kontum and an orphanage. I kept a bagfull of ballpoint  pens to give away, that I brought with me and thought this would be the perfect place to leave them. This was a very emotional place, as I had never set foot in an orphanage. To see these poor little ones, was truly heart breaking. I don't like taking photographs such as these, but then I don't want to ever forget this, so as to always remember how lucky we are. 

Eglise en bois à Kontum et orphelinat catholique.

Here is a french built seminary in Kontum, which also hosts a small museum on local tribes, mostly the Banhar. The french missionary presence dates back to 1851. After that we went to a Jaraï village nearby.

Séminaire à Kontum et village Jaraï dans les environs.

A Jaraï village, and last evening in Kontum. As most everywhere in Asia, I'm always impressed by all these street vendors who come to sell their products on the sidewalks. 

Village Jaraï et dernier soir à Kontum.

jeudi 28 juin 2012

On thursday august 4th, we left for Hoi An, a once prosperous port in the 17th and 18th centuries. Long road. On the way we stopped in two Cham archelogical sites: Khuong My and Chien Dang. The Cham civilization came from Indonesia which flourished for a thousand years between 500 AD and 1500 AD; it  was a mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and indigenous cults. Unfortunately most of the artistic legacy has been destroyed in recent years by neglect, vandalism and war. Oooh! Silkworms!!!

Jeudi 4 août 2011: en route pour Hoi An, ancien port très prospère au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Arrêt aux sites archéologiques cham de Khuong My et Chien Dang.

On friday august 5th, we visited Hoi An, an exceptionally well preserved trading port from the 15th to the 19th century. The heart of the old town is quaint and very charming full of winding lanes and its old chinese style merchant houses. In 1999 UNESCO status was awarded, which has attracted mass tourism with its lot of tourist shops, (like this shoe store!!!), restaurants and galleries. A nice stop in a comfortable western hotel, with swimming pool and everything making it a nice halt in the middle of our trip. Imagine doing your your grocery shopping with one of these... no, don't even think of it; it's so heavy, how on earth do they lift these things???

Vendredi 5 août 2011: visite de Hoi An, bourgade inscrite au patrimoine mondial par l'Unesco avec ses demeures en bois de riches marchands.

Here is the Japanese covered bridge Chua Cau or Lai Vien Kieu, which was built around 1593 by the japanese community. Renovated in 1986, it is today the symbol of Hoi An.On one end is a dog statue and on the other a pig statue representing the year the construction started and ended. 

 Pont japonais bâti en 1593 à Hoi An.

Look at those fruits; talking about food, vietnamese cuisine is simply marvelous! We learned how to make spring rolls while in the south, and we're now almost cham(ps)!

My Son (which means Beautiful Mountain in vietnamese), is another Cham sanctuary very active between the 4th and the 12th century, with its cluster of something like 70 or more ruined hindhuist temples made of red bricks. The ruins were discovered in 1889. It is another UNESCO world heritage site but was heavily damaged during the Vietnam war. I remember hearing that name very often on television news at the time, a period one would prefer to forget. On our way back to Hoi An we stopped in a place where a woman taught us how to make rice pancakes, the ones you need to make spring roles!

Site archéologique hindouiste de My Son, la Vallée Sacrée du royaume du Champa, actif du IVe au XIIe siècles, et visite d'une fabrique de galettes de riz sur le chemin vers Hoi An.

On saturday august 6 we left for DaNang. During the Vietnam war Danang was a major air base for both the south vietnamese and US air force. The marble mountains around, explain for the marble industry. Whether you are looking for great big marble buddhas or some other awful souvenirs, this is the place to go to! What is worth the stop is the DaNang Museum of Cham sculture. It houses the greatest colection of Cham sculpture, many if not most from My Son. There are some strange stringy trees in front; what their names are, I don't have the faintest idea!!!

Samedi 6 août 2011: départ pour Danang, 3e ville du Vietnman, base aérienne américaine. Visite d'une marbrerie et du musée d'Art Cham, vestiges de My Son.

Continuing north towards Hué along the coast, before crossing what was once the border line separating the north and the south. It seams like the vietnamese have quickly understood that tourists are great for buying stuff. Darn materialistic world!!! Here you could buy pearls if you wished! Just a look at pearls developping in an oyster was enough of a treat for me.

Continuation vers Hué en longeant la côte et en passant le col des Nuages, ancienne frontière entre le Nord et le Sud.

Here we learned how to make incense sticks and pointed hats; who knows? It might come in handy some day!!! Then Emperor Tu Duc's mausoleum near Hué. Tu Duc reigned from 1848 to 1883. He started building it long before his death as this was also his summer palace. It called for so much labor and extra taxation, that there was an abortive  revolt against Tu Duc in 1866. He wanted his tomb to be a fairyland with poetic features, making it a lifetime dream and a world for his eternal life after death. The crazy thing is that he isn't even buried here, but somewhere in or near Hué, but nobody knows exactly where! It is one of the most beautiful works from the Nguyen dynasty. Had he been Emperor Michael Jackson, for sure he would have called it Neverland! By the way Nguyen has got to be the most wide-spread family name, like Smith or Martin in the west so if you think someone is a descendant of the royal family... it probably isn't the case.

Leçon de fabrique de bâtons d'encens et de chapeaux. Mausolée de l'empereur Tu Duc.

On sunday august 7, we took a boat ride 5 km north of Hué, up the Perfume River. That day, it just so happened it was the Celestial Lady Festival where people come from all over this part of Asia to get unbewitched!!! On the boat, we had vietnamese vendors who wanted us to buy  clothing! The vietnamese are always trying to sell you something or other!

Dimanche 7 août 2011: remontée en bateau de la rivière des Parfums depuis Hué. Fête de la Fée Céleste (pour se faire désenvoûter!!!)

We stopped to see the seven storey Linh Mu (or Thiên Mu meaning celestial lady) buddhist octogonal pagoda, which is also the highest in Vietnam. It dates back since 1601. Today because of the festival, it was quite crowded, but unexpected events such as this one is certainly always a nice treat.

Escale au temple Linh Mu avec sa célèbre pagode octogonale.

12 km from Hue is Minh Mang's mausoleum, fairly similar to the previous Tu Duc one, but slightly less lavish. Here we saw a couple of young newlyweds to be, getting their photograph taken for the event. Oh my, how romantic!

Tombeau de Ming Mang.

The Imperial Purple Forbidden City in Hué. Unfortunately most of the buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam war, but many have been rebuilt since.

.La citadelle qui abrite la Cité Pourpre Interdite à Hué.

A rickwhaw stroll around the city ended our day before flying to Hanoi, with a stop here and there: Ho Chi Minh's house. (He could have offered us some tea, but didn't... I wonder why?); the military museum with american tanks left behind... the sort of thing that gives me goose bumps, just thinking about it, that period of time being such a nightmare. 

Ballade dans Hué en cyclo-pousse, maison de ho Chi Minh, musée militaire. Envol pour Hanoi.

Monday august 8th in Hanoi... oh gosh, when it rains it surely pours around here at this time of the year. In less than a quarter of an hour, some streets are totally flooded, what a sight! If we really want to go sight-seeing here, perhaps it would be best to put on our swimming suits!!! People here are used to this and just go on with their business. Needless to say the traffic jams can really be something!!! A rickshaw stroll again here in the old section of Hanoi; a nice way to start the visit of the city; I just wouldn't want to be the poor driver, not to mention that we westerners are much heavier than the lean and slim vietnamese! Human exploitation, less polluting than gasoline, but come on now...

Lundi 8 août 2011: Hanoi sous le déluge, bouchons et inondations...; visite de la vieille ville en cyclo-pousse.

The Jade Ngoc Son temple in Hanoi dates back to the 18th century and is located on an island on the lake Hoan Kiem. The religious site above is on the north end corner of the lake. A wooden bridge connects the island to the mainland. Ngoc Son means jade mountain.

Petit lac au sud de la ville, Temple de Jade Ngoc Son.

Also on lake Hoan Kiem is another temple, that of Quan Thanh, a taoist temple dedicated to Xuan Wu, one of the main Taoist deities. The big black genie is Tran Vo, was made in 1677 and weighs about 4 tons. (I guess not all vietnamese are feather weight!!!)

Temple Quan Thanh (avec son gros génie noir) au bord du grand lac Hoan Kiem.

Last but not least the Tran Quoc pagoda, the oldest of the capital; and finally to end the day, a traditional puppet show on water on Thang Long avenue!

Pagode Tran Quoc sur une presqu'île près du lac de l'Ouest; spectacle de marionnettes sur l'eau sur l'avenue Thang Long.

mercredi 27 juin 2012

On tuesday august 9, on the road again, this time towards the north-west mountains near the chinese border. The roads are terrible, full of holes, and the next few days are going to be very bumpy to say the least!!!  First stop in Hoah Binh 82 km from Hanoi, new encounter with ethnic minorities, who still wear their traditional embroidered costumes, which wasn't really the case around Dalat; the question is for how long? Western clothing seams to be the universal norm these days; what a pity. We spent the night In Mai Chau. I'm really keen on minorities, with their customs and traditions so obiously I am going to like this even though at it feels a wee bit touristy at times, but who can blame them. Land of the Thais and multi-colored Muongs, here we come.

Mardi 9 août 2011: en route pour Mai Chau, porte d'entrée du pays Thaï, en passant par Hoa Binh; rencontre avec les peuples Muong et dao.

Rice fields around Mai Chau. I just love that all this lush green!

Mai Chau, dans les rizières.

A village of White Thai. There are 54 ethnic groups and the Thai number over a million people making them the second largest minority in the country. Then there are also the Tay... how do you tell them apart? I don't know.

Mai Chau, village de Thaï blanc.

Traditional folk dances with bowls and chopsticks, fans and all sorts of accessories; nice!

Spectacle de danses traditionnelles.

On wednesday august 10, we entered H'mong territory far from modern civilization. Pleated skirts hung to dry under the roofs which womewhat reminded me of fourth of july decorations in the States!!! These are Blue H'mongs. With, as I already said,  54 ethnic tribes around here, you've got to be real precise when it comes to color, and it has nothing to do with discrimination but tribal identity!

 Mercredi 10 août 2011: route de montagne qui surplombe la rivière Noire et traverse le territoire h'mong. Village de H'mong Bleu.

Here are Black Thais, no, not tuxedos!!! And as you can see, we are in the mountains. The people who are walking in line on the road with what looks like white towels on their heads are attending a funeral. In many asian countries white is the color for mourning; they must be horrified when they a bride here, all dressed in white!!!

Thaïs Noirs, enterrement sur la route et peuple H'mong.

If these people weren't around, I would have sworn we were in Switzerland! Perhaps the cow is a tourist from Geneva?

Nearing the famous Dien Bien Phu valley, a sad chapter of french history. A real slap in the face episode but probably well deservedi

Passage des cols Pha Din et de Tuan Giao avant d'atteindre la vallée de Dien Bien Phu.

Another Black Thai village, and I promise not to pull that silly joke again, once is enough!  The women here wear their long hair in a high rise bun; they usually pin an old french indochina silver coin, a relica of the good old days, and so very chic! You should see them put their mandatory helmet on top when riding a motor bike; I really don't think it protects them if necessary, but the law is the law, and they all must wear one. Tje law doesn't precise that it should fit tightly or even be sturdy to be efficient!

Village de Thaïs Noirs juste avant d'arriver à Dien Bien Phu.

Time to go home little fellows! This woman in the rice fields who is looking for her little ducklings, is also very elegant in what looks to me is a long formal evening dress!!! I think its just her working clothes!

On thursday august 11, we visited Dien Bien Phu. No doubtedly, every little school children in France have read and heard of the battle that took place here, a key moment in the Indochina war, which took place between the 13th of march and the 7th of may 1954.It is after this defeat that the french left for good. The Geneva agreements brought an end to the first Indochina war in 1954, after which Vietnam was seperated into two camps north and south. Museum, cemetary, remnants of the old battle field, and the general headquarters and bunker of General de Castries. I suppose the big teck trees around, were witnesses of this sad page of history.

Jeudi 11 août 2011: musée, cimetière, vestiges de l'ancien champ de bataille de Dien Bien Phu; arbres de teck et PC du général de Castries.

Again a village of black Thai... and everyone, parents, kids, pigs live happily together! Not exactly our conception of western hygiene!!!

Village de Thaïs Noirs.

Arrival in Sin Ho, and as the song goes "to market, to market, to buy a fat pig!" Now here are some other hill tribes: Red H'mongs and Black Daos. Dig those great big turbans! Even in India they don't get this big! Wow!

Arrivée à Sin Ho, marché avec des H'mongs Rouges et Daos Noirs.

The hotel (bottom right picture) was a bit rustic to say the least! and the beds were as hard as rock!!! Not great for sleeping! So what? A little stiff in the morning after a sleepless night? It's part of the fun! Well at least we didn't see a single western tourist here in this far remote place!