Ivan's travels experiences.... Vietnam, Hue - Siagon area

Wednesday,September 17, 2003, Hanoi, Vietnam.
Earlier when I arrived in Vietnam I commented that the government was military -- Communist and that the people were capitalist and I was going to let you know if I could work out how that could work.

As far as I can tell all the public officials are state employee working with some state run organisations. Any of those officials, that have any power whatsoever, while working for their Communist masters, are totally capitalistic at heart, of course it is their form of capitalism, so that if they have to prevented somebody from doing something wrong, as our police or inland revenue officials help us, here they find much more efficient, if you help them forget they ever saw the wrongdoing. What I'm saying is that the whole regime, from what I can gather, is totally corrupt.

So now as I am being driven out of airport I'm making notes on some of my impression of this country to date.

They have two currencies the Vietnamese Dong and the American dollar. If you are a tourist they will usually quote you in dollars. This makes things sound ridiculously cheap to an American who will take no consideration of what the average person earns. For example I'm writing this up in Hue, and I just been for a ride on a pedal driven rickshaw, they are parked across from the hotel and the manager of about five of them approachs the tourists and quotes five dollars an hour (average wage here is $3.57 a day). This sounds cheap except my guide (Chong) that picked me up from the airport said you pay one dollar an hour (average wage = $0.44 hour).

My Hanoi guide that had argument with me yesterday and got quite hysterical, passed me a questionnaire from his company, to fill in on the way to the airport. This makes a lot of sense for the company, as most people will not write anything bad in the presence of their guide. I told him his company could read my comments on the Internet. He said fill this in, for the time being, I told him the comments were already on my web site. He thought about this for 15 minutes and then asked me the name of my web site, which I gave him, and told him that his company was already aware of it.

I've seen quite a lot of French here in this country, and some of the French that I have spoken too have yet to find a French-speaking Vietnamese.

The country is Communist, but the guide's all expect a tip from the wealthy foreigners. I have been unable to find out what sort of tip you should give but I'm sure most foreigners give far too much and thereby subsidise the position of guide.

From what I can gather the average wage is 1.2 million Dong a month (approx US$77 a month, 17.86 week, 3.57 day ). In Hanoi it may be twice or three times that. With housing being so expensive in this country, evidently most young adults live with their parents, when the boy marries he brings his bride home to his parents. This means that there may be three generations living in the house, but from what I can gather the houses are standalone and of a reasonable size compared to other Soviet type countries.

My guide claims he works as a 15 day month and only works when the company needs him. The rest under the time he claims he is learning French. Evidently all the guides are employed upon a work when required basis.

On several cars that have high back seats, the head rest are too high for some of the Asians, so they have a small air filled cushion, often these have the star and stripes flag of America. I said to my guide, when I pointed the cushion out to him, aren't those that people that bombed your country, he said yes, but now they come here and spend money, funny, that's what I thought they were doing before war.

In my mind a Communist state means that the people own most of the property and the assets like roads etc, so it surprised me to find that people using the road have to pay a toll to use the road.

I was told that I was allowed one piece of luggage on any plane flights and that the maximum weight was 20 kilos. I had two pieces with one of them being about 26 kilo. There was not even any hesitation at the airport about the extra bag or the extra weight. The plane that I travelled on from Hanoi to Hue was an Airbus 321. Obviously they didn't want to buy an American Boeing and I was half expecting one of the Russian built aircraft like I experienced in China.

So I arrived in Hue, my guide was there to pick me up with the car, told me several times what we would be doing over the next few days, took me to one hotel, I had unpacked and got settled down, he came up and told me we were at the wrong hotel, so I was taken to a bigger one, by the river, closer to town, so I did not complain, particularly when I saw the room which was tremendous in size.

I decided to go out and take some photographs, was sold the idea of a rickshaw ride by the tout, so the rickshaw took me off over the bridge, on to the marketplace, where I decided to get off and walk, and that used up most of the hour, so was time to go back to the hotel, to download my photos, of course I still have the rickshaw waiting for me, so I decided take it back to the hotel, is interesting experience riding up there in front, and the driver decides turn the corner, and you have all the traffic coming straight at you, you would swear that none of it is going to stop, but you seem to get through a lot only have to do it again at the next corner, so you're grateful to get the hotel, and probably pay much more than what you have agreed just to get out of the vehicle. On the photography side I'm suffering a little bit from under exposure, so I must make adjustments to the automatic settings when I start shooting tomorrow.

Walked down looking for the restaurants, that the guide had driven the past on the way to the hotel, I was pestered by the rickshaw drivers, who could hardly speak English, and am not quite sure how I was supposed to tell them where I was going under those conditions.

Went to the restaurant that had minorities folk music there, and they sat me at a nice table in a good position by a wall, unfortunately on the other side of a wall was somebody else's property, who had dogs, and when the music started they joined in the chorus. I decided the combination was not for restful dining so I walked out and on to the next restaurant, again fighting off the rickshaw drivers.

After a reasonable meal, spoke to a Pom from Liverpool, who dining there, he was a long-distance English truck driver, driving just within England, he was on his third visit, said he loved the place, or it could have been little Asian he had with him.

On my way back I took a different road and came across an Internet cafe for the locals, they charged 100 Dong a minute, the hotel charged 1000 Dong a minute. I will give you five guesses as to which I will be using in the future. Of course there is a downside the keyboard has all the characters almost worn off but fortunately being a two finger typist I automatically found the right keys.

Also bought some cans of diet Coke for 6000 Dong next door, and I had paid 8000 Dong in the marketplace earlier today.

Breakfast at the hotel out of the garden is all rather grand, lots of staff to make sure you got what you wanted, a good selection of Asian and European food.

My guide collected me at 830 and we went on to the Imperial Palace, part of it was designed on the layout of the forbidden city in China, evidently the French had a hand in designing some of it as well, I was told how with the American war much of that had been damaged and how much the current government had rebuilt, I was giving a little bit sick of this continual harping about the Americans, and in the next breath they are asking you for American dollars.

So I asked my guide what was the war at about, he said the North did not want to be ruled by the South, the American lead government, I said so they had a war, your friends were China and Russia, and you plunged your country and into poverty for 30 years, and now you are asking the tourists for American dollars, not Roubles, or Chinese Yuan. You say at that time you were ahead of Singapore and now you're 30 years behind that country. Would you say you picked the wrong side. He then told me of course he was from the South and he was in favour of the southern government, it's amazing how flexible they become.

So we wandered on round the Imperial Palace, their version of the forbidden city, past the Pepsi machine in the corner, through the rooms where no photography was allowed, on to look at the outside of the library which was the only thing the Americans did not bomb, then on past the war museum, which was a few tanks and guns rusting outside, on to the special antiques museum, which was a few Asian artefacts in glass cases, I think I am becoming a little bit of a bore at traveling, when I have to look at piddly little exhibits, after being told how wonderful they are.

They then took me on to the central market, the marketplace I had discovered yesterday and had done a whole series of photographs, to discover the 10 D was under exposing fraction, so I had corrected this today and wanted to make up a few more image's, so I dismissed my guide, this afternoon was a free afternoon in any case.

So before starting off I bought a can of Coke, they asked one dollar or 15,000 Dong, I thought, now, I am experienced this, I said 6000 Dong, they said no no 10,000 Dong, I was walking away to the next stall, they says no 8000 Dong, I kept on walking almost at the stall, there were still following me, said okay 6000 Dong. What a process to have to go through to get a can of Coke.

Wandered around the marketplace, for 350,000 people in the city, it was a tremendous size, selling absolutely everything, the inside part had dishes, shoes and all sorts of things, in the stalls, were piled high and they really could not get much more on their stalls. There was the outside vegetable and meat market that of course is always interesting and so I concentrated a lot of my time for photos there. It was interesting how the people selling poultry were able to pick the birds up so quickly, make them helpless the way they held them, put them back inside the container so fast, it was interesting seeing how the people that bought the poultry, carried it, handled it, and had tied it up, how they transported, almost dozens of them on a motorbike, with still room for the wife to climb on the back.

There is a reasonable amount of housekeeping with a digital camera, you really have to carry a laptop computer with you, and you cannot just make one copy of the image's, but you should make another copy on a portable hard drive, and then of course you should burn a CD so I am currently upto CD number 23 for the trip. I carry these three copies of my image's in three different suitcases. I did there for a while post the CD's back to New Zealand which perhaps is the safest move, but maybe not from Asia. So this afternoon I will be burning another three CDs and relaxing a little bit, and it's far too hot to go out in the afternoon sun at 33 plus degrees and goodness knows what humidity.

While the CDs have been burning I been looking through the stamp album that I purchased in St Petersburg from the guy like came up to me in the street. It is a beautiful collection of stamps, probably worth nothing, but beautiful collection of pretty stamps, Pretty is not something that I associated with Russia, it's funny how you get this austere, practical, no frills concept of a country and just how wrong you can be a some aspects.

Went back down the road to the same restaurant as last night, if it is not bad don't change it, on the way down passing all the shops selling what you could loosely describe as souvenirs, I thought well why not take some small home, so I started looking at small pipes, first looked at a small water pipe, it was interesting, 150,000 they where asking for it, so I went on to dine, and stopped off on the way back, the shopkeeper had a pipe out of the glass case in a flash, then I spied another one, carved and painted a little, 120,000 for that, Bottom price? This price with 10,000 off, I walked away, she said how much, how much, and pasted me a piece of paper, I wrote down 70,000, she could not believe her eyes and asked was that a seven, I confirmed it, she wrote down 100,000, passing me that pad expecting me too come up in price, I pointed to the 70,000 again, she said no, no so I walked away and when I was out of the shop, she said yes, yes.

I wonder what I could really bought it for, I wonder at what point it would not have sold, I guess at $4.50 US I can live with that, but that's what I must not do convert back to a Western currency.

8 30 pickup, this morning I have a boat cruise on the schedule, the boat was a long narrow one that could take eight Europeans or 12 Asians, the difference being, evidently, is its stability, and of course that must be to do with weight of the people.

First, we went past the floating village, not very many boats, not close enough to do any good photography, when I looked round to the back of the boat I was on and the women had laid out on the floor a lot of shirts and other souvenirs they expected me to look through them and purchase as much as I could carry.

Well I did not do that, then I had to just contend with the "exciting" 45 minute boat cruise along that Perfume River which was a beautiful colour of mud, to the Heavenly Laday Pagoda, and another temple. However this is not just any temple but the temple from which the Buddhist monk that burned himself to death in Saigon possibly in the Fifties, for, I think, it was something that the Catholic Church was doing. So this temple had a certain amount of reverence because the monk came from here. They had also on display an old Austin car that he drove to Saigon and this was on display. I was thinking it was just as well he had not flown by Boeing 747 otherwise they may have had to have one of those on display!

After this exciting visit it is back on the boat for another 60 minutes cruising along the muddy river, could make a song out of that, to another temple, part of which was under reconstruction, I am getting so that I cannot tell one temple from another, there was another temple we were due to go to, but I begged off that.

Is very obvious with yesterday having a half free day, today he having a half free day, to free day at the next location, that what ever length of tour you wish to do, you see precisely the same number of sites but with more padding, in reality they should select the best temple, okay perhaps two temples and give you more interesting things to do like visiting families in a village or something where you are in contact with the people. Of course if they limit the number of things you see, as I am suggesting, then the people not come as long, and they will make less money.

When I was in Hanoi, I thought by 18 day tour could probably be done in 10 days, now that I am in Hue, and see all the free day that I have here and coming up, I am convinced of it.

So after scrapping the last temple on the tour, we went back to the hotel, and the driver had us here by 11 30. At the last temple I bought an ice cream, and walked over to the car eating it, and my guide said hello "you have an ice cream" am afraid I said no I have a cigarette. He would have qualified for a stupid sign, and if you have not seen this series of stories visit this page on my site, we all meet people that need these signs every day.

Of course the second temple was on the programme, and my driver said we will come and collect you this afternoon to take you to the temple, obviously once the thing is on the programme it must be done, I just said no thank you, so I have another free afternoon and a blister on my left heel which may appreciate the time off.

Spent the first half of this afternoon talking to a 58-year-old Vietnamese photographer who owns a cafe and does photography as a little bit of a sideline and for his own satisfaction. He took up photography not knowing anything about the craft and practice and studied it for two years, and the last seven years has put together a very nice portfolio of photographs of the people of Vietnam which he has in his cafe.

He was from the south of Vietnam and was working for the Americans, so had a fairly hard time after reunification, tells me he did not work for 15 years. Came from a very poor family, and has built up his cafe from nothing, and has as photographs hanging on the wall of his restaurant with no indication on the outside that there is such a good set of photographs on show.

An Italian company saw them and set up an exhibition for him in Italy which evidently was an outstanding success. He has quite old gear, naturally, and finds it very difficult to get together enough money to update any of his current gear. He has a low margin on the prints he sells and really has all the cards stacked against him, because now he is feeling physically tired with the life he's been through.

I made quite a few suggestions for him to help him try to sell more photos, but the market he is in, is a strictly a tourist market who want to spend as little money as possible, and I worked out he had had to sell 400 prints to get the lens I had on my camera. A formidable task. He's a very nice guy and I would like to try to help him if I could, and if anyone is reading this can think of an outlet for any of his work, remembering he has no money to outlay big investments, drop me a line and I will put you in contact with him.

And early departure from the hotel's this morning to head to Danang City where we visited a museum holding a collection of artifacts, of the minority group Charm, evidently they once were rulers of most of the country and their power slowly got depleted until finally they just became a minority group. So quick walk through their do see some of the old statues that had a Hindu flavour and then ones that had early Buddha flavour and then a combination of them both with along that of the Chinese Dragons thrown in. It was extremely hot at the stage so I did not linger, so it was back into the car to head back down to Holan. On the way we stopped at some people gathering shells from a large lake, got some interesting photos except my stupid guide wandered into three of them, wonder if I can put a pigtail and Mao suit on to him through Photoshop.

The traffic, as we were driving down, was a little chaotic, there was one portion that was extremely hilly and very many bends with many no passing signs and often I looked out and there was a truck passing us with a bend coming up, our driver was not much better taking the shortest route through every curve which meant he was on the wrong side of the road a lot of the time, a 4 W.D. wagon that passed us must have missed the oncoming traffic by millimetres.

Our driver only had one close shave which considering how the other drivers were driving I guess was pretty good. My guide told me as we were getting close to the hotel, that this is the last time was see this particular driver, in English that meant pay the man a tip, now but I believe a tip is for extra service for people that do more than they should. Perhaps by cutting the corners he was getting the two my destination sooner, but I didn't quite see it that way.

Then it was for a wandered through the old city, and I get taken by my guide shortly for the official walk through which is on the programme, and I walked through the market spending quite a lot of time there, I looked at sets of chopsticks which, had I been given them, more less, could been worthwhile, but I could not think of an occasion when I would be use them so did not pay the small price that was wanting for them. But I did get a pair of salad servers made of hardwood for a ridiculously small price.

Talking an Aussie, he said going back through customs, the salad servers would create all sorts of problems for them in Australia, thinking about it that, possibly they will for me, and then when I think about the opium pipe made from a buffalo horn I might be lucky to see that on the other side of customs because of foot and mouth disease, I wonder if Vietnam is one of those countries. This rather fortunate I did not pay very much for either.

Spoke to a Canadian who has spent three weeks in a Vietnamese village training them for home stay's and other things they need to know about dealing with tourists. The tourist pays $30 for a home stay and the villager gets one dollar so a lot of the money stays in Hanoi and does not get to the village at all. I guess this is the way with all tourism.

Almost all of the people selling to tourists in the marketplace and the rickshaws talk in dollars and not local money and on that basis most of them get at least double of the going rate, which is I guess good for them, and their situation I would be doing the same, but better, but does hide what the correct price for a product is because they always start high, however I guess I should not get paranoid about it as we are not talking of very much money.

I was told by a Vietnamese today, that if a northerner goes to Saigon and looks for a government position he will get one before the other southerners because he is from the North and what they look upon as being a true Communist. I remember what I was told in the Ukraine, where under communism, everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others, I guess that philosophy applies here.

I said to my guide on the way down here had he ever considered if the South & America had won the war in Vietnam, how many billions of dollars the Americans would have poured into the country, like they did in Korea and Japan and how much better everybody would be off today, he again claimed from being from the south and was for that anyhow, but still toes the party line by calling it the American war.

As I was wandering back to the hotel last night I saw a person with a New Zealand T-shirt on and shouted out "Hello Kiwi" and it turned out he was from the Auckland area so we stopped and talked for about an hour, he loves Vietnam and comes here for two months at a time several times a year.

He rents out his house when he leaves New Zealand and he says he does not get as much as he could, something like $50 less a month, because he has a dog and the people have to look after the dog. I said tongue-in-cheek well when you go home you should shoot you dog, for that money you could have a nice little Vietnamese girl keeping your company, I am afraid to say that by the time I had finished talking to him, all that had moved onto his thinking, as a agenda, except he was not going to shoot the dog, but given away to some sort of humane society. He talks of the being able to rent a hotel room with all amenities for around seven American dollars a night and really likes the cost of living here.

I re-met the Swiss couple I met up in Sapa, they arrived here about the same time as I did, we had lunch at together, wandered through the town together and I was teaching Maya some of the basic points of photography as I see them, not much other activity here today as there is just so many things to photographs and in a town the size this can be done easily than half a day from my point of view.

Monday, September 22,
This morning my guide & driver collected me, drove all the way through to the old American airport, onto the plane, and shortly later I was in Saigon, and there was no one to meet me, after about half an hour with nobody appearing, I took taxi into the hotel that was on my itinerary, except it turned out it was not the hotel I was to be staying at, so some telephone calls to Hanoi, and shortly they told me to go off to another hotel, take a taxi and they would reimburse me.

The guide arrived at one o'clock and took me off to Chinatown and a large marketplace, not dissimilar to many that I have seen so far on this tour, it, like some of the others, was designed as a wholesale market place, and they had many units of the same item, for bulk selling, but each little shop was still the same as the retail end of the place, individually owned and very small.

He told me of a lot of things that were supposed to be exclusively Chinese, which I have seen in Vietnamese marketplaces throughout the country. Obviously these things that were supposed to be exclusively Chinese were not always pleasant.

Then we walked through the marketplace seeing much of what we'd seen everywhere else and finally was time to go to the car and then the next exciting things that I had on my itinerary, was another war museum on the American war, the French war, and possibly some other wars, I could think of nothing that I would see there that I had not seen many times before, then there was the Chinese pagoda, been there, done that, two days ago, then there was the French style buildings, would they be something like in Paris I asked? So we ended up coming back to the hotel, and quite frankly Saigon is just another one of the world's largest cities, that are difficult to get around, and quite frankly I thought it was boring, boring, boring.

Tomorrow, Tuesday was to be an other free day, Wednesday is a free day when I'm seeing a friend of Richard Flemings, so I looked at the itinerary, decided tomorrow would be the day to go to the Mekong Delta, leaving at 630, combining two days into one, and fly out on Thursday.

So then it was off to Singapore Airlines to change the flights, which presented all sorts of problems in so much that a lot of flights from Singapore to Melbourne or New Zealand are full, so I ended up flying on the one day all the way through from Saigon to Singapore, Singapore to Melbourne, Melbourne to Christchurch, well more or less the one day, I do not see the suitcases until Christchurch.