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Trip 10 -- Outer Indochina

Message 3: Hue to Yangon

Date: Fri, 17 Feb 2006 02:24:54
From: seth@sethweinstein.com (Seth Weinstein)
Subject: Indochina update #3: Hue to Yangon

Set peacefully along the Perfume River - though to what kind of perfume that refers I'll refrain from speculating - Hue was the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), and it's best known for the magnificent complexes of royal tombs built during that time period.

A moto driver took me around to visit them, as they're quite spread out. They all generally follow the same layout, with several components in a line including gates, statues, pavilions, engraved eulogies, temples, bridges over ponds, and finally the tomb itself. The complexes were built within the emperors' lifetimes, during which they were used as royal retreats. My favorite was Minh Mang's, dating from the 1840s; it has an especially elegant arrangement of lakes and outbuildings, and I had the advantage of getting there early in the morning, so the only sounds were singing birds. The most forlorn was that of Tu Duc, who had to write his own eulogy - he had 104 wives but, for better or for worse, no children.

Besides that, Hue is a friendly city. The manager of my hotel was an especially courteous, helpful guy. The moto driver - his friend - had been perfectly amicable as well. Why, an employee of the nearby Internet cafe even said she'd sleep with me for $20, but I told her my usual rate was $40.

Alas, my train luck ran out on the 16-hour trip to Hanoi. The train was two hours late, my compartment was filled with people violating the no-smoking rule, and the hard sleeper was very hard indeed. Most of my compartment-mates were around 40, and they paid no attention to me, instead focusing on their heavy-strategy two-player card game: Each player got three cards, turned them over, burst out laughing, and gave the other some money.

The other person in my compartment was about 80. He knew one word of English and one word of Russian.

"Cigarette?" he offered.

I declined. He chain-smoked the entire time he was awake.


It had a taste best described as peanut-flavored lighter fluid. In the morning, he offered me a kind of brownish sludge that he called wine. I offered him cookies in return (all I had), but he pointed to where he had two missing teeth and decided it would be bad for his health, I guess.

But whatever the trials in getting there, Hanoi was well worth it. You wouldn't think a formerly dreary communist city would be so becoming, but it was a splendid place to spend a few days. Most of the appeal lies in the old quarter, where in the 15th century 36 little streets were set up, each specializing in one sort of item: Paper Street, Tin Street, and so on. Much of that carries on today: I clearly found Shoe Street, Bamboo Street, and Red Chinese Lantern Street, though I doubt the now-obvious Motorcyle Repair Street and Car Wash Street were there 600 years ago. Noteworthy in the layout of the buildings is that the residences are "tube houses," with very narrow, very long entryways, allowing private areas to surround courtyards set off from the street. This also results in a sort of natural air-conditioning system, as the long passageways create air flow. Indeed, getting into my hotel involved a few steps through such a passageway; it was clearly several degrees cooler.

Hanoi has several lakes, one just south of the old quarter; it's a pleasant place to spend an evening or early morning. It also has, I think, a better selection of restaurants than Saigon, including some fashionably trendy places. An interesting choice was Highway 4, a restaurant specializing in ethnic-minority dishes from the north - it's named after the highway that goes through the region.

Suitably inspired, I took a train way up to the little town of Sapa, near the Chinese border. It's known for its cool climate (it got down to about 50) and for its ethnic minorities - particularly the Black Hmong, named for their dark-indigo clothing, boots, and turbans. They actually looked more northern, almost Mongolian, with darker skin than their southern counterparts in the rest of Vietnam.

A 13-mile round-trip walk took me out into the valley and through some of the Hmong (and Zay - noted for their red headdresses) villages. I left Sapa in a cool, drizzly fog, but as I descended into the valley it warmed up and the clouds remained above me, with the villages below, and the mountaintops popping out of the clouds, with another layer of clouds above.

It was, in fact, precisely the image I had in my head when I was preparing for this trip. People would ask why I was going and I'd say, "I want to be in pretty places." I wanted to take long walks along mountain ridges, staring out at the greenery, bumping into people from local villages, stopping for snacks whenever I wanted to, and taking in the scenery at three miles an hour instead of twenty from the back of a jeep.

Well, this was the ideal amalgam. The terrain is particularly lush and fertile, and the Hmong in this area cultivate mostly wet rice. The rice is terraced on a supremely impressive scale, sometimes with more than a hundred tiers rising above the little river and segueing into the mountains. Ducks, horses, water buffalo, and scruffy black pigs graze on the terraces, and Hmong children and elderly women, so colorfully dressed, much on sugarcane and wear bamboo baskets on their backs, in which they carry firewood, produce, or whatever else needs to be hauled - though these days it's just as likely to be bracelets or blankets to be sold to tourists.

A loop off the main road took me through the villages. They're well used to tourists by now, and it was hard to walk more than a few feet without being asked to buy something - but it wasn't terribly oppressive. The end of the loop took me past an elementary school and finally to a courtyard where children were pushing each other on a swing, though it looked more like a pillory. Behind them, a man, aided by a water buffalo, was plowing a field using a giant implement shaped like a compass (the kind you draw circles with). A mother hen was crossing the field with her chicks. To the side, other children were tormenting a monkey chained to a pillar. The monkey, as far as I could tell, was eating a basket.

There were other attractions. The river is crossed in several places by bridges; originally they were all made of rattan, though now there's only one rattan bridge and it's in such a dilapidated condition it can't be crossed. There are also large rocks with etchings in what's believed to be ancient Hmong; the symbols - suns, animals - looked almost Aztec to me. In fact the Hmong have never had a proper written language; most of their tradition is oral, and it wasn't until about 1960 that missionaries developed a way to write Hmong using the Latin alphabet.

Having seen the sights, I made my way down the rice terraces to the river, where I paused for a half-hour. Somewhere up the hills were people, but I couldn't see them; I could barely make out motorcycles on the main road; the most prominent moving feature was the animals. It would have made a perfect picnic spot if I'd bothered to stock up on food from the Sapa market. In fact the one thing lacking in the villages was a decent place to have lunch - there were snack stalls, but nowhere with proper food. I say, if the Hmong really want to cash in on tourism, instead of having kids running around selling bracelets they should begin spit-roasting one of those scruffy pigs at around 9:30 each morning. By lunchtime it'd be ready to feed a hundred or so hungry hikers - they could sell sandwiches for $3 and make everyone happy.

I had one more day in Hanoi before flying to Yangon. I paid my respects to Ho Chi Minh - his body is on public display, as is his former "thinking house" on stilts, and there's a more symbolic than factual museum on his life. They must have spent a fortune creating the beautiful lotus-shaped museum building, and the best captions they could come up with were things like "Letter from Ho Chi Minh to his bubby, 1952" and "Speech to the Akron Symphony Youth Choir, 1964." There was, sadly, no indication as to the contents of these treatises.

I walked up to the large, peaceful West Lake, in the northern part of Hanoi, and violated a rule I hadn't broken since 1994: When somebody comes up and offers you something before you ask for it, you're going to get ripped off. In 1994 it was a cabbie in Rome - "Take a yellow cab," my father had warned me, but on exit from the airport I went for a black one, as its driver approached me and I had never discriminated based on color (a policy that has garnered me a few friendships but resulted in some disastrous fashion catastrophes).

This time it was a seller of coconuts. They hack them open and insert a straw, and then you suck out the coconut juice. It's very refreshing, and I was ready for refreshment. I'd even been looking for a coconut seller, so when she called out "Coconut?" I sat down, thinking she'd charge me a fair price. Well, when I finished she asked for 100,000 dong (about $6), and I gave her a look somewhere between amused and bemused. The price went down to 20,000 - which I still thought was a bit high. I offered 10,000 and she made a face that basically told me where I could shove that 10,000. So I parted with 20,000.

But there were several other coconut sellers nearby, and I asked the price at each. The going rate was unanimously 10,000. I plunked myself down on one of my seller's chairs and indicated in my best Vietnamese (which is nonexistent) that I was prepared to stay there until I got back 10,000 dong. At first she offered 5,000, but I had the advantage of being able to ward off other customers. It took about 45 seconds to get back the full overpayment.

My dealings with the Vietnamese had generally led me to conclude that everyone who spoke to me was merely after my money, even if it began with an innocent "Where are you from?" (That's actually true throughout most of southeast Asia.) Furthermore, as a foreigner I had better be on my guard, as everyone was out to swindle me. (Also largely the case.) There's even a joke that goes around Vietnam around the time of the new year, when Vietnamese sellers are instructed, in the spirit of the holiday, to refrain from overcharging other Vietnamese. "Overcharge the tourists instead!"

I needed a friendly final interaction, and it came that night at my hotel. The gate was down when I got back (at the recklessly late hour of 11:30), and no amount of banging on it could get the staff to wake up. Eventually they appeared - from across the street, where they'd been eating pig's intestine or some such thing. They invited me to join them; I wasn't up for food (I'd just dined at Highway 4 and consumed one of the scruffy black pigs whose carefree life I'd been envying in Sapa), but I did partake of their vodka, the inimitable Vodka Hanoi brand - there's a reason you don't find it outside Vietnam. And so my experience in Vietnam ended on a happy note.

Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been more or less cut off from the outside world for the past few decades, owing to military rule and sanctions by western countries. In New York, I had to have a cursory interview with a consular official in order to obtain a visa. The application involved filling out one form twice (why they couldn't copy it I'll never understand), indicating, among other things, my profession, height, and address in Myanmar; technically I was supposed to have a guarantor in Myanmar, but I was allowed to leave that line blank. For the Myanmar address I chose a random mid-range hotel out of my guide book.

"You have contacted this hotel already?" the consular official asked.

"That's where I plan to stay," I said vaguely.

"OK, twenty dollars," she said.

That was the extent of the interview.

In addition to the application, I had to fill out a Report of Arrival form, containing much the same information, and just before we landed in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) I filled out a landing card. I sat next to a retired Burmese economics professor from Yangon; he had just been to a conference in Hanoi. In fact, he had lived all over the world, as his father had been the ambassador to Russia and several other countries.

A bus took us from the plane to the terminal. It was a boxy white building, and we entered through a tiny door marked "Main Entrance."

"All taxi drivers the world over are crooks," the professor had said. I tend to agree, but it's especially true in southeast Asia, where rides often have to be bartered for. Fortunately there's a prepaid taxi desk at the airport; for $5 I could go to any guest house in the city center, and if it was full the driver would take me to another one. My first choice, the May Shan Guest House, had room, and it was well located just a few steps from the impressive Sule Pagoda (under bamboo scaffolding, alas, alas).

Arriving that evening, the first thing I did was change money. This is something you generally do on the black market. You don't do it at the airport, because the exchange rate there is only 450 kyats to the dollar, as opposed to about 1100 on the street. And you don't do it at the bank, because the official rate is only about 6.7 kats to the dollar. And only US dollars cash - clean, crisp new bills - can be changed. Credit cards, traveler's checks, and all other currencies are useless, and there are no ATMs in the country. So you're basically limited to whatever cash you bring in with you. I hope I have enough.

Fortunately, several hotels will change money at OK rates - I wasn't about to deal with street moneychangers in the dark, especially when I didn't know what the currency looked like - and so I went around the corner to the Central Hotel and changed $20, in exchange for which I was handed a packet of kyats equal in heft to a Sunday edition of the New York Times. The largest bill is worth a thousand kyats - about 90 cents - so any sizeable transaction involves a lot of counting. The older bills are rather large - they stick out of my wallet - and rather thick, especially compared with the train ticket to Mandalay that I bought yesterday, which is flimsy enough to be used as toilet paper.

Being a closed society, there are a few other oddities. The Internet is largely restricted, and Hotmail and most other Web-based e-mail clients are banned. The official news reports generally focus on the progress that has been made in building new roads - but most people have satellite TV and get their news elsewhere (the incongruence of the masses of satellite dishes planted atop the old, peeling four-story buildings is astonishing). And Myanmar may not have Fanta, Crush, Crest, McDonald's, and KFC, but they've heard of them, and they have Fantasy, Crusher, Best-T toothpaste, MacBurger, and a fried-chicken place called KLCC. The people in Yangon are a colorful mix of Burmese and Indian and Chinese immigrants - which translates into the best street food in Asia. Pots of curries and woks of rice are available for inspection on the sidewalk, as well as Indian and Chinese snacks, pieces of grilled meat on skewers (for two cents each), fresh fruits, fruit ices, and my favorite: a spongy fried-egg pancake sprinkled with coconut and sugar.

Despite the decades of oppression, the people are an easygoing bunch. I don't feel that everyone's after my money, as I did in Vietnam. There are no motorcycles - that alone makes Yangon substantially quieter than Hanoi. People obey traffic lights and wait for traffic to clear before proceeding into roundabouts, as opposed to Vietnam, where you dart into the intersection and leave it up to everyone else to avoid hitting you.

I played the Great Money-Changing Game at Yangon's central indoor market yesterday: Basically you stroll down the main aisle and wait for people to approach you with offers. The first one offered 1200 kyat to the dollar, but I told him I wanted to have lunch first, which was code for "I want to shop around a bit and see what other people are offering." He led me to the food area, but to my surprise, he left me alone after that.

No one else came close to 1200. I was offered rates of 1130 and 1140, and then 1100 and 1120 - these could be negotiated up to about 1135, but no higher, which made me suspicious of the first guy. I was closing in on a deal when he reappeared.

"Did you have lunch?" he asked.

"Yes," I lied.

"Do you still want to change money?"


He led me to a back stairwell within the market. We sat down, and he motioned for one of the shopkeepers to come over. The shopkeeper thrust a wad of bills in my lap and asked to see my $100 bill. I showed it to him but didn't let him take it.

"I want to count the money first."

"Count?" said the initial agent. "You can't count it. Too many police. Trust me, the money's good."

"I have to count it."

And with that the deal was off. "Go away," he said. "Too many police." I gave him back his stash - however much it might have been - and returned to the center aisle. In the end I settled for 1130 kyats per dollar, but at least I got to count them before handing over my own money. I carry the bills in my backpack and they weigh me down like an anchor.

Yangon's most important structure is Shwegadon Pagoda, a golden monstrosity that dates from 1485 but has been added to and renovated over the years. Apart from the main stupa, which rises almost a hundred meters and is topped with a 76-carat diamond, there are at least a hundred other pavilions, temples, shrines, and the like - amounting to what seems like thousands of Buddha images. It's an important pilgrimage site even more than it is a tourist attraction; Buddhists make offerings of money and food and burn incense for good luck, and the sound of a hundred of them chanting, with the late-afternoon sun brightening the main stupa and casting shadows on the whole complex, is transporting indeed.

Also transporting was last night's dinner. The nicest restaurant in Yangon, Le Planteur, puts on an all-you-can-eat barbecue three times a week - sort of Burmese-meets-French-meets-Brazilian-churrasco. It's held on the lawn of a colonial house, surrounded by palm trees and red lanterns, and it costs $18 including wine and beer. Completely self-indulgent, of course, but worth every kyat to sit out under the stars and be fed grilled giant prawns until I ached. Now why am I here again? I hear there's been snow in New York.


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