Bailan Bay, Koh Chang or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and be a Flashpacker.

I just finished bumming around on Koh Chang for a week. My three-month visa needed to be renewed. As it happened, the ending of my visa aligned with the celebration of the Lunar New Year. Tet is super important to Vietnamese people. I missed all of the festivities and the rice wine that comes along with it. On the flipside, I wrote part of this with a coconut shake in hand, enjoying a state of relaxation I don’t think I would have achieved amidst the Tet celebrations. I had time off work and was fortunate enough to go to Koh Chang with my friend Ibsen (IG:@ibs_mo). I’m going to go over the logistics of this (mostly) relaxing visa run, offer my perspective on the Bailan Bay area of Koh Chang, and brag about all the awesome food I ate.

 

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Beer Chang on Koh Chang.

 

 

After deciding to take a Thai beach holiday, Ibsen and I discussed a few islands that we could head to. We had bought tickets in and out of Bangkok through Air Asia. After looking at Koh Samet, Koh Phayam, and others in Thailand, Koh Chang took the cake. My priorities were finding an affordable and peaceful beach getaway balanced with a location that could be easily and quickly reached from Bangkok.

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@ibs_mo takes selfie on the ferry

It ended up taking us a whole day to transit– it happens. The Suvarnabhumi Burapha Bus Company runs a service to and from Koh Chang on a VIP bus once a day at 7:50 am, they offer a round trip for 900 baht (~ $25 USD). We asked someone to point us towards the bus terminal. It’s on the first floor of the airport near other connections like the Airport rail link. Despite being there over an hour early, the bus sold out, we took a minibus that left at 9:40, which is allegedly just as fast. After a drive of several hours, waiting at the pier, and a ferry of about 45-60 minutes, our bus dropped us right at our hotel on Bailan Bay for 50 baht (~ $1.50 USD). Bailan Bay is a bit past their last free stop.

 

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The curvy, hilly roads we trekked.

 

When it was time to go home, they tried to charge us 150 baht (~ $4.25) each for pickup. Being cheap, dumb, and stubborn I said we’d take the pick-up truck taxis (songthaew) that run up and down the island for a slightly less. We should have paid for hotel pick-up. The songthaew dropped us 5km away from the minibus pick-up point and wanted an obscene amount to go all the way. We began to walk the very hot, very mountainous roads towards our destination. A regular taxi driver stopped to pick us up and offered us a free ride! He was in high spirits because he had been chartered to drive a couple to the island from Bangkok. In the end, our sweaty and fortuitous exploits saved us about $3 USD collectively. I wouldn’t count on this luck in the future and would recommend not being a cheap butthead like me.

 

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KohChang7’s rustic patio on the sea.

 

We stayed at a resort called ‘KohChang7’ formerly known as ‘Bailan Huts’–most residents of the island, including our minibus driver knew it by the old name. We were quite satisfied with our stay there. The beaches of Bailan Bay aren’t sandy. I got a cut on my foot from a piece of coral while trying to swim. The beach is very rocky and shallow for several hundred metres out. The waters are best suited to quick cool-offs. While the beaches don’t compare to other areas of the island, Bailan has nonetheless developed a reputation as a flashpacker’s get-away. The reasons for this are that there are no backpacker clubs blasting music until 5 am, nor rasta bars slinging “happy shakes” to the sounds of Bob Marley –both have their place, just not at Bailan. The small town shuts down around 1o pm. These qualities make Bailan the opposite of nearby Lonely Beach. It is perfect for a quiet getaway, the village has everything you need to relax and nothing you don’t. If you fancy hitting up the club (we didn’t), Lonely Beach is a short, 50 baht (~ $1.50 USD) songthaew ride away.

 

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“Pepino” cocktail at Barrio Bonito.

 

The other quality that makes Bailan Bay great for the flashpacker crowd is the high concentration of epicurean delights. Of the few restaurants in Bailan village, Ibsen and I found amazing food. I loved Happy Turtle for their top-notch coffee, I went every morning and tried a variety of their offerings. I confess the robusta-heavy offerings at Vietnam’s cafes have worn on me. Happy Turtle’s all arabica drip and espresso, made with skill and love were a slice of heaven. I had an amazing Massaman curry there too. We also ate at Lazy Republique, I enjoyed their yellow and green curries. Ibsen loved the pineapple shakes and their volcano cake. We travelled a fair distance to Kai Bae beach one evening to try Barrio Bonito. This was a good choice, Mexican food was missing from my life and Barrio Bonito filled the void admirably. I washed down Nachos and Taquitos with a Michelada and a Cucumber gin fizz named “Pepino”. Both the food and the cocktails were impeccable. All the good eats drove up the daily cost of Koh Chang a bit but hell, I was trying out the flashpacking scene. Totally worth it.

 

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Lazy Republique’s Green Curry.
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My taquitos and Ibsen’s burrito at Barrio Bonito

 

This was my second time on Koh Chang and I hope to return again soon. As one of Thailand’s biggest islands, it has a ton of diversity for travellers. There are several big resorts with a mysteriously high concentration of Russians, a section for backpackers, and then the quieter parts, like Bailan. My return to Koh Chang didn’t disappoint one bit. The food was awesome, I got to read all day, and I really appreciated the opportunity to just chill out away from my frenetic city life. Now that I’m back in Hanoi, I have another three months until I will be doing anything like it again. As we left, we did so with heavy hearts. Neither of us was quite ready to end our time in paradise.

For more shots of the great food and scenery check @ibs_mo on IG.

Ninh Binh New Years

In my long anticipated return to blogging after a month-long hiatus due to a hectic schedule in Hanoi, I will share– mostly through pictures– my New Years trip to Ninh Binh, Vietnam. It was amazing. I loved it. Much better than my other short excursions. Here’s how it went:

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My friends Samantha, Achala, Miguel, and Mariana accompanied me by train from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. Hilariously, we just happened to be sitting next to my friend Duong on the train. I had initially planned to take a solo trip to Ba Vi but, as these things do, it snowballed and evolved into our group trip to Ninh Binh. My main goal was to get out of the city, to avoid hectic New Years parties, and to relax –at least for a little bit– in a hammock. We achieved all of this together.img_1869

Known as ‘Halong Bay on dry land’, Ninh Binh is way cooler that its nickname lets on. Rice paddies are nestled in between the jutting mountains and the reflections, much like the infamous bay look like the floating mountains in Avatar. What makes Ninh Binh so great in comparison to Halong is the fresh air, the quiet, and the lack of 5 million yearly visitors. This is what allowed me my peaceful New Year.img_1873

Our homestay was perfect. After finding out that Duong’s recommended homestay was booked, we found one nearby. We were hardly disappointed. I have always appreciated the type of guesthouse that makes people work a bit to get there. Our taxi driver stopped on a paved road, grunted, and pointed down a small dirt path. We walked about 500 meters, around a bend and arrived at the homestay. In a country where a cafe will charge you for a broken glass, Tam Coc Homestay really made an impression. On New Years Eve, all the guests received free wine, small gifts, and yes, lucky money in a little red envelope. Lucky money is a Vietnamese New Year tradition, however, their new year is Tet, which happens a month after the Western New Year. Their generosity came in addition to the beautiful surroundings, clean rooms, free breakfast, and wonderful service. The best value for $5 USD ever!img_1885

Tam Coc Homestay is named after the popular surroundings, which are part of the Trang An UNESCO world heritage site. It has only been recognised as such a site for about 3 years so tourists like us and the investors that follow haven’t had a chance to ruin it. While Tam Coc village, just outside Ninh Binh city has become a small backpacker ghetto. Our homestay was less than a kilometre outside. Boat tours and sub-standard, over-priced pizzas are sold but the scale of these operations is small. There is also good, and reasonably priced accommodation and food available in the village.img_1886

There’s a tonne of potential activities close to Ninh Binh for the touristically inclined. Cuc Phuong National Park was Vietnam’s first and is also the country’s largest nature reserve. The park has many caves and mountains to explore and plenty of flora and fauna to discover. There are also many relics of the past for the history buffs out there. Hoa Lu is the ancient capital of central Vietnam. The Bich Dong Pagoda complex, built around 600 years ago, offers stunning views from the top of Ngu Ngac mountain. Phat Diem Stone Cathedral and Tam Diep Defense Line also offer insight into Vietnam’s struggles with the West both recently and further back. img_1918

In lieu of rushing from spot to spot, I opted to spend my three days in Ninh Binh slowly exploring the area around the homestay. I saw plenty. This guy was laughing at me as I cycled around in circles between paddies, taking pictures of animals and farming equipment. More in the style of Vietnam’s youth, we decided to take a selfie.img_1916

Right now the fields are fallow. At other times of the year, one can find these paddies a lush, yellow-green. I quite like the aesthetic of the off-season, though. The temperature hovered above 20 degrees celsius, however, the quiet, dormant feeling of winter prevailed. There is still life despite the wintery vibes. I had an awesome time interacting with the animals kicking around as well. Cows, water buffalos, goats, dogs, paddy rats, kingfishers, and ducks were all plentiful. Lots of animals, both wild and domesticated centre their lives on the narrow paths between the paddies.

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The rural air and slow pace were exactly what I needed before returning to the busy life in Hanoi. Ninh Binh was the perfect way to kick off 2017. I was blessed with good company, beautiful surroundings, and plenty of opportunities to relax, read, and lazily explore.

Sleepless in Sapa: Our Visit to a Human Zoo

Dat, Derya and I went to Sapa last weekend for a quick getaway. We took a night train there on Friday, spent Saturday in Sapa, then took a sleeper bus back to Hanoi that same night as we all had things to do on Sunday. People say you need more time in Sapa but we didn’t really feel that way. This was Sapa for us:

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Night train to Sapa. Don’t be cheap like me and book soft seats!

We started at 10 pm on Friday night. Dat told us that the cheapest way there was soft seats on the train, that sounded nice enough to us. Mistake. My thinking was that if I can sleep n an airplane then I can sleep on a night train. I could not. The chugga-chugga that would be calming in a bed just kept launching me into armrests, other passengers, and the wall. People were playing music, answering phones or having raucous conversations. I managed to break my headphones in the first 5 minutes on the train. I did not sleep.

img_1642We got to Sapa in the early morning having taken an hour-long bus ride from the train station. It was cold and foggy but the air was so fresh in comparison to Hanoi. This is my primary reason for cherishing short day trips out side the city. Vietnam’s countryside is gorgeous. Sapa in the early morning had mountain town vibes that reminded me of Canadian destinations like Jasper or the Thai hippy getaway of Pai. Same same but different; cool and calm. Then it all changed.

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Foggy, early morning Sapa.

As the morning moved along, the touts emerged. Tuoi (General Secretary of YESD) had warned us that it was touristic but we did not fully understand. H’mong and Dau (Zao) people are indiginous to the area, however all I got to see of their heritage was the styles of dress and mass produced “crafts” they were trying to sell. They would follow you around begging you to buy scarves, dolls, hats, and other miscellaneous souvenirs. They were out in the hundreds, all with the same merchandise, each one stopping you to try and make a sale. Interestingly, they were all women.

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Dat and Derya send their best.

In an attempt to escape the incessant pitches we decided to go for a walk outside the town. On our way out, new versions of the tout women began to make sales pitches for tours around the surrounding villages. Everyone began with “Where you from?” they would then proceed to follow you hoping to answer a question or two and hit you up for a fee. The only way to get them off your trail was to completely ingnore them behind you. Even then, many followed us for up to a kilometre. As we got further out, they dissipated and we were alone with the wildlife and the odd kid coming home from the half day of school they have on Saturdays.

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Sapa’s famous terraced rice paddies

In many ways the walk out, the non-stop sales pitches, and the feeling of guilt for ignoring them was worth it once we were alone. The scenery is amazing. Dat said we came in the wrong season, we came after the harvest so the rice paddies that have made Sapa famous were fallow. Most of the day, the forested mountains were shrouded in fog. Nonetheless, I was impressed. I understood why Sappa has become a tourist town.img_1680As we got further out, we began to hit gates where they were charging entrance fees to tourist villages. It was 40,000 dong (~2$) to enter Cat Cat village, we came across a couple other ones as well. We decided not to go in, not because the cost was prohibitive but because Derya and I had a sneaking suspicion that the villages were going to be full of more sales pitches and devoid of any actual education on the region’s history and the traditional livelihoods that the copious tourism has clearly destroyed. Further research has confirmed we were right.

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This piggy don’t care ’bout no tourists.

Dat said that he likes to support the development of the region by infusing his cash into it, however, my view was that maybe it could have done with less. That is not to say I wish poverty upon the locals, far from it. I don’t wish to go back for the same reasons I avoid Niagara Falls in Canada. It feels like a giant theme park, everything feels fake, constructed to separate visitors from their funds. Even worse, Sapa has the feeling of a human zoo, where tourist villages present simulacra of traditional life to sell mass-produced handicrafts and ‘authentic ethnic village tours’.

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Beers, Bob Marley, and a view like this equal perfection despite it all.

After a nice morning “hike” (the road is paved), we returned to town for lunch. We decided on a lazy afternoon, waking through town. We stopped for a couple hours and a few beers at a bar overlooking the valley. The touts streamed by but we had become more adept at convincing them we were not going to buy their offerings so only a couple very persistent ones managed to annoy us.

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New lots are being carved out of mountains at a rapid pace.

It is clear that Sapa has attracted a lot of investment. Much like Hanoi, buildings are going up everywhere. We saw several lots that had been created by carving out space from the side of mountains. The people that live in Sapa are very clearly trying to make the most out of the region and the country’s emergence into the global economy. This visit, much like my visit to Halong Bay, further contextualised YESD’s mission in Ha Giang province for me. The rapid development has clearly had effects on the environment and local culture in ways that many would argue are unsustainable and irresponsible. img_1686Using tourism to engage in profit-taking doesn’t have to be bad. Tourism can bring cultural interchange, raise capital to develop community services, promote education, and create jobs. All of these activities can serve to improve quality of life and reduce poverty. Engaging in travel today can’t really be called “sustainable”, for one thing we use huge quantities of fuel on planes, busses, and motorbikes. I also think the idea of preserving ‘dying cultures’ is slightly misguided. We all live in the 21st century, we can’t expect traditional cultures not to change and adapt to modernity. I think the important point is that situations like Sapa have completely decimated tradition. The economy seems to be entirely reliant on tourism development, which, paradoxically, is destroying the natural beauty and unique heritage that makes Sapa such a popular destination. Alas, it seems to be the way of the world.

 

So that’s that. Been there, done that. Probably won’t go back.

 

I Went to Halong Bay and I Got Offered a $30 T-shirt

I went to Halong Bay on the 19th. This post will recount this YESD day trip through pictures. First, we took a bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay, then we boarded a river boat for a lovely lunch and a ride through a few of the thousands of unique islands in the bay. Following this, we kayaked through some smaller nooks and crannies with like 100 other tourists in a predefined circuit, then saw Thien Cung cave which looked more like a movie set or a rave in a museum than a natural phenomenon. I am glad to have done this in just a day trip as opposed to spending a long time there, I was so tired by the time we got home. We all were.

We were: Jamie, Quyen (Vietnam), Derya (Turkey), Ibsen (USA), Igna (Sweden), Amanda (Sweden), and Yass (France). All but Yass are volunteers at YESD.

My pictures from the day were pretty shit so I have been graciously allowed to use Ibsen’s (Insta: @ibs_mo) much better photos. He’s a very talented photographer with the balls to bring his DSLR camera into a kayak with me. Follow him on Instagram.

 

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Our View of Halong Bay from the Boat (by @ibsmo)

 

As a UNESCO world heritage site, Halong Bay is a tourist hotspot with over 5 million visitors each year. As a result, it is packed and everything is stupid expensive. At the gates, some guy tried to sell me a T-shirt for 500,000 VND, the equivalent of $30 CAD, a bit less than the cost of my entire day trip. One of our amazing and hospitable students at YESD, Quyen really wanted to take us to Halong Bay because it is one of the big draws in the North. She arranged a tour for us and took care of all the logistics. It was an interesting experience for us. I would likely not have done this of my own accord, knowing the reputation as a World Heritage site. My preconceived notions of Halong Bay as a tourist trap were affirmed. Nonetheless, I am grateful to have seen Halong Bay; it was beautiful. To have shared the experience with Quyen, and my friends here in Hanoi, rather than on an extended itinerary involving running from hotspot to hotspot, is just one benefit of slow travel. We were all pooped after just one day of standard tourism and happily returned home together for a day off.

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Tasty lunch with homies. Left to right, are YESD volunteers Amanda, Inga, Ibsen.

 

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The necessary food shot (by @ibs_mo)

Lunch was served to us on a well-appointed riverboat. As we ate alongside a friendly Quebecois professor of finance we had met on the bus. I sampled the veggie options but by all accounts, everything was delicious and filling. As the boat –and lunch– progressed slowly, we looked out the windows at the enormous island-cliffs jutting out of the water around us. A Japanese guy that Yass befriended (he is always making friends) told him that the cliffs inspired the intro to Dragon Ball Z. Ibsen, our resident film buff confirmed and we looked at pictures of Dragon Ball Z (never watched it).

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Yass, le Français Fou comme toujours. (By me)

After lunch, we retired to the balcony on top of the boat. The smokers smoked, the rest of us just chilled. One couple decided to perform some couples yoga on deck for us. Check my Instagram feed (@damiejuncan) for Amanda and I performing our own. As our boat approached the harbour, we prepared to disembark so we could explore some spots that the riverboats could not reach by kayak (or rowboat). Quyen, stayed back and drank a coconut on the boat. Today was her vacation from the kids, so I think she was inclined to relax.

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One of the caves we went through in our kayak (By @ibs_mo)

Our kayak route was pre-determined and was packed with other tourists. We collided with both the rowboats and other kayaks many times because there was literally no space at the cave openings, which served as bottlenecks. Many of the kayaks had missing ends, presumably due to countless collisions. That said, it was gorgeous when you could find yourself away from the many others around.

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Amanda and Igna went out of their way to hit this crack (by @ibs_mo)

This crevice was well out of the way on our return to the docks that hosted the kayaks. Inga and Amanda, the adventurers that they are, led us towards it. There were many stupid jokes made regarding them and the crack. Also, there were some nice photos taken here because there weren’t so many others around to collide with and perform floating photo-bombs. Upon our return, we boarded out riverboat once more to head towards our last stop of the tour, Thien Cung cave.

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Inside Thien Cung cave (by @ibs_mo)

The cave comes with a lot of cool mythology and scientific baggage. The caves were formed under water over millions of years. A slow trickling of water formed the stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the unique patterns in the walls. Below is a copy of the legend I have stolen from a tour operator.

“Legend has it that a beautiful young lady named May (cloud), caught the eye of the Dragon Prince and he fell in love with her. They were betrothed, and their wedding lasted seven days and seven nights in the very centre of the grotto. In honour of the wedding, small dragons flew about through the stalactites and stalagmites, elephants danced together happily, snakes twined themselves around trees and two stone lions danced with their manes flowing in the wind… In the centre are four large pillars supporting the “roof of heaven.” From the base to the top, many strange images seem to live in the stone: birds, fish, flowers and even scenes of human life. On the north wall of the grotto a group of fairies seem to dance and sing in honour of the wedding. Under the immeasurably high roof, stalactites make a natural stone curtain. Somewhere there is the sound of a drum beating, but it is actually just the noise made by the wind blowing through stone… [There were] three small ponds of clear water. Legend has it, that this was where May bathed her 100 children, bringing them up wisely and happily into adolescence. One path meanders out of the grotto; it was the way May, together with 50 of her children, took to harvest new lands. The 50 remaining children, together with their father, were left to build the native land. Left behind by the mother was the natural stream described above.” (http://www.orientalsails.com/thien-cung-cave-halong/)

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The weird lights that have been installed everywhere inside (by @ibs_mo)

Despite the fantastical mythology of the cave, it feels like one part movie set, another part rave. Whoever maintains it has installed a bunch of coloured lights and very conspicuous cameras. Moreover, there is a roped off path streaming countless tourists through the caves as expeditiously as possible. All of this is to say that rather than feeling like the very cool geological and historical site that it is, it feels like a constructed space. The natural wonder is not left to shine through. There is even water pumped through a small section to imitate the flows that dried up long ago. Who am I to tell them not to operate this way, though? It obviously draws incalculable revenue if the number of visitors is anything to go by.

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This is most of us (Taken by Igna with my phone)

So this was our trip. We checked off one of Vietnam’s “five H’s”. Like I mentioned, I wouldn’t have made the trip if it hadn’t been for Quyen. I’m glad I did. I will go out on a limb and speak for all the volunteers at YESD and say that we are so lucky to have such enthusiastic and friendly hosts and students– who are now also friends. They are so keen to show us around their city, and even their country. On this point, another friend, Dat is taking Derya and I to another hotspot, Sapa this weekend. These types of getaways give me the context necessary to understand YESD’s mission to operate responsible tours. Stay tuned for my post on our trip.

 

 

Romance and Frenchmen

 

The other day I went on yet another exploration of the city. This time the owner of my favourite café, Dat took Yass (my lovely, crazy French homie), Derya (a new volunteer at YESD/ my new Turkish friend), and I on an adventure through parts of Hanoi that I would never have found myself. Derya needed to exchange some US dollars for Vietnamese Dong. Initially, this is all I thought we would be doing. A quick errand became something entirely different. The only thing better than an adventure is a surprise adventure! As per my standard format, my –often grainy– iPhone pics will aid me in recounting our escapades. We started around 16:30 and were out until well after dark, albeit that happens at like 18:00.

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First Stop: Temple of Literature

On any trip into the older parts of Hanoi from the newer area of Ha Dong, the Temple of Literature serves as the landmark that lets me know that I should turn off the main road. We stopped to take a few pictures and to discuss what we actually wanted to do. It was decided we would drive around to some free landmarks around Tay Ho, a central lake in Hanoi rather than paying 40,000 Dong (~$2) each to enter a variety of interesting and historical but largely similar attractions to the above one. The architecture is lovely from the outside anyways. It was a good decision because we ended up going to a spot where locals go to worship, make blessings, and pray. The Temple of Literature is largely historical, having served as the first national university. Phu Ho Tay (Tay Ho temple), is where locals go today. It is present history, which in many ways is more interesting to me.

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Along the lake, we found this caged monster

We parked the bikes at a restaurant and took a walk along the lake shore towards the temples that Dat said he thought would be cool to show us. Along the shore, people were selling common items to offer at the temple like food items, incense, and blessings written in Chinese on coloured parchment. One of the vendors also had a kitty, which reminded us of Dat’s lil’ cutie and café mascot, Eric. I think Eric wins the cuteness contest, though.

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Picture of Eric swiped from Derya’s insta: @diirya

I refrained from photographing people worshipping at Phu Ho Tay, although locals come with their offerings to pray in front of the shrine. Then they bring their offerings to the main building. At each shrine, offerings have been arranged by the monks of the temple; this one features tomatoes, CocaCola, and Heineken (premium offerings!)

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A shrine at the Tay Ho Temple

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The grounds are quite beautifully appointed around Buddhist places of worship. They often feature a variety of trees, flowers, and statues. We spent a while taking it all in. Below is Yass asking about a banzai, which is apparently a tiny variety of fig tree. Tay Ho lake is in the background. It serves as the centre of the historical quarters of the city. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is just south of the lake and most of the tourist attractions surround it. The districts around the lake probably host the most foreigners anywhere in the city.

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After the leaving the temple, we drove around the neighbourhood a while longer. Our initial errand, getting money exchanged was incomplete, so we went on a mission through the winding streets of the Old Quarter. Businesses operate under a historically Chinese model in which many vendors of the same type concentrated in one area. For example along one street, you might see 10 furniture stores all in a row. This model forces businesses to diversify the options available and the competition keeps prices down. In line with this, Ha Trung street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter is more or less a row of currency exchanges. Here you can find many currencies from all over. The odd café or restaurant breaks up countless store fronts that even look the same inside. White tiles, red and yellow sign, gold detailing, and a screen showing the latest global exchange rates to the person behind the counter.

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As our errand was complete, Derya and I grabbed a beer and a late bite to eat, then headed home. Much more tired than we expected, much later than we expected but with smiles on our faces. Each day I spend in Hanoi, I am shown new hidden corners by the lovely and most hospitable new friends I have found in the locals. Making friends like Dat isn’t necessarily something that is very likely when staying in a hostel. This is why I am so grateful to be staying at YESD where I have the opportunity to become a regular somewhere while still meeting people from all over. Here, the owner of our fave coffee spot is eager to make friends, to show us around, to sit with us and drink tea. It’s a wonderful life; my present is full of romance for this new city & new friends.

The YESD Life

This post will be about Youth, Economic, & Social Development (YESD). YESD (yes-dee) has been providing me with a place to stay and with food to eat since I arrived in Hanoi. I will be describing what YESD does, what I do for YESD, as well as why I ended up choosing YESD out of many organizations.

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Phuong and I are off to class at a local public school

In exchange for a couple hours of teaching English each day, they give me a place to sleep, delicious home cooked meals, Vietnamese lessons twice a week, and introductions to many young Vietnamese people eager to share their culture, show me their home, and tell me about their lives. I couldn’t conceive of a better deal. What’s even better is that YESD has amazing values that really align well with my own.

YESD was started by three awesome young women, Tuoi, Tuyet, and Trang, they saw a need for practical experience and the creation of job opportunities for young graduates in Vietnam. A lot of young people in Vietnam have access to formal education, however, the system draws heavily on theory and textbooks at the expense of practical experience. Seeing an opportunity to improve their own lives and the lives of their peers, the three friends decided to start YESD.

YESD performs a few functions. The first is language training, they offer low or no cost English classes in informal settings to young people looking to get ahead in their careers. They also have deals with local public schools and small English centres to generate revenue for the enterprise. English has become a global language of commerce and is quickly becoming the de facto second language of Vietnam. Despite the well-founded critiques that can be leveled against teaching and learning English due to its colonial history, it is an effective way for people in Vietnam and elsewhere to improve their earning potential. The classes include university students trying to improve their chances of a job post-graduation as well as graduates seeking advancement.

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In addition to the language focus, YESD provides training in responsible tourism skills to young people. This means that they focus on teaching young people to provide tours in environmentally and socially responsible ways. They note that oftentimes, the emergence of tourism has affected the environment and traditional livelihoods in negative ways. In response, they drafted their responsible tourism guidelines. These guidelines are used to train youth in Hanoi, giving them practical experience as guides for visitors to Hanoi. The guidelines also provide direction for their function as a tour operator.

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YESD offers tours in the Northern province of Ha Giang in line with their values of sustainability and cultural preservation. The rural areas of the north are home to several ethnic minorities with unique traditions and cultural practices. They want to avoid the degradation of traditional life and the environment. This has happened in other areas of the country, like Halong Bay, which is a major tourist destination. At the same time, YESD’s strategy wants to extend to locals the economic and personal benefits of the tourism industry. This is done through a homestay model, where tourists and locals can exchange information about their cultures in a respectful and environmentally sensitive way. They provide structure and safety to practices that are often damaging.

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Visitors tour the area with local guides, eat with their host families, work in the fields with them, and have the opportunity to create traditional handicrafts. This model provides a supplement to traditional livelihoods rather than a replacement.  Tourists and locals can participate in cultural interchange and experience authentic rural lifestyles without doing as much harm to the environment and to the unique cultural traditions of rural Vietnam. This also reduces the risk of commodifying and reducing traditions to novelties for the amusement of wealthy foreigners. Striking a balance between cultural preservation and economic development is tough to do, however, I believe that YESD is on the right track.

**Many of the photos in this post were taken by former YESD volunteers. I used them with the express permission of YESD, who have the rights to use them for these purposes.

Read YESD’s Responsible Tourism Guidelines for visitors to Vietnam.

Check out YESD online to book a tour or a work-away.

Playing Tourist

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I have been living in Hanoi for about a week now. I have only had the opportunity to explore small pockets of this enormous city. For my latest adventure, my new friend, Kien took me to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, his house on stilts, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which is so big I couldn’t even get through one floor.

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Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

 

For the moment this is all there is to see at HCM’s tomb. One of the consequences of having a body preserved like Lenin’s is that it must stay preserved. Every year for two months, Uncle Ho’s worldly vessel is shipped off to Russia for touch ups. The guards and security don’t take breaks, however, they remain all over the grounds.

 

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The upper level of Ho Chi MInh’s house on stilts

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The mausoleum is among a complex of buildings where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked during the war, all centred on Ba Dinh square. The sqaure commemorates a popular revolt against the French in the late 19th century. It is also where Ho Chi Minh first read Vietnam’s declaration of independence. Most Vietnamese people absolutely adore him, he is considered the founding father and bringer of independence. He famously chose to live in a house on stilts, styled after traditional Vietnamese architecture, rather than the palace that was alloted to the national leader. Kien tells me that this example is very modern and stylish compared to the ones you find in rural Vietnam today. I would totally live in one of these small spaces though. Very chic.

 

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Statue of the man himself in the Ho Chi MInh Museum

While there is much less visible propaganda than I expected, when there is, it is dedicated to the man himself. He is not revered like a god, nor is he granted super powers like the Kims. He is simply the man who led his country to independence. This giant likeness greets all visitors to the Ho Chi Minh museum, which is part nationalist art, part anti-colonial history museum. The other place where I consistently see his likeness is in public schools, where his photo hangs in the style of socialist nations.

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A room dedicated to the socialist struggle on each continent.

The parts of the museum that I had a chance to see showed documents relating to anti-colonial struggles that occured prior to the American war. National heros that organized and rebelled against French domination are celebrated through material evidence of what life was like under French rule and how socialist leaders organized at the national and global level to undermine the colonizers. There is also a bunch of art dedicated to the (inter)national unity (their word) created by the struggle for independence and socialist revolution. This should not be read as some political endorsement, I just convey what is told to me. This history and the different perspective from which it is told fascinates me. It makes sense, considering Vietnam’s long history of submission and resistance to foreign rule. They have been under the thumbs of Chinese, French, and American colonizers at various points in their history.

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Tran Quoc Pagoda on Tay Ho

From the museum, Kien took me to West Lake, or Tay Ho. This lake serves as a major landmark in Hanoi. You will find both tourists and locals enjoying the paths around the lake and the many historical sites on its shores. We stopped for a tea (trá) outside of the Tran Quoc Pagoda, one of the oldest temples in Hanoi. I am told it dates back to around 545 AD, a time when Vietnam was revolting against another invader and colonizer, China. It was originally positioned elsewhere, along the banks of the Red River, but was moved to its current locale many years ago as the river began to move in on its buildings. Many come to pray here, or to release turtles into the lake for good luck. You can also visit with the monks that live there. I find it very cool that there have been people living in the pagoda for centuries, maintaining traditions, offering incense and food, praying, and meditating.

I will have to spend more time learning about Vietnam’s extensive history. Coming from Canada, I am used to looking back a few hundred years at my heritage. The Vietnamese have so much more material (and drama) in their national heritage. I plan to visit other museums in town like the Museum of Ethnology, Women’s Museum, which are just two of the many learning opportunities that exist here in Hanoi.

Thanks for reading,

JD