Putanga – Life on the Road

Stories from my journeys around the world…

Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Trip to Saigon and Hue

Posted by Monica Johansen on February 28, 2011

Finally some time off from work! Unfortunately, I had to work during Chinese New Year holiday, but my manager gave me a couple of days off from work to compensate for the lost holidays, and it was perfect timing because my friend Edward from Norway was coming to Thailand and Vietnam on vacation. We decided to meet in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh, as it is called today), and from there head north to the city of Hue in Central Vietnam.

Park in Hue

I jumped on a plane on Wednesday night and met Edward at the airport in Saigon since he was flying in from Bangkok the same evening. Together we took a taxi into the city to our hotel, and we ended up arguing with a couple of drivers before we finally got there. The problem in Saigon is that the taxi drivers at the airport are always trying to overcharge foreigners, and if you don’t know approximately how much the ride is supposed to cost you will most likely be swindled. We insisted that the driver used the taxi meter, but when we finally found a driver who was willing to do it he took us for a huge detour and we ended up paying a little more than necessary anyway. Luckily everything is so cheap in Vietnam that financially it didn’t really matter to us.

On Wednesday night we met up with a couple of friends from Norway who have lived in Saigon for the last few years. My travel companion lives in Norway and speaks with fellow countrymen all the time, but for me it was awesome to speak my native language and hang out with people with my cultural background. I get along with most people around the world, but there is always something very relaxing about hanging out with other Norwegians.

Local merchants

We stayed only one night in Saigon, and early the next morning we went back to the airport to catch the plane to Hue, a relatively small city in central Vietnam. Hue is famous for the historic monuments located within short distance from the city, and it is a popular tourist destination for people who want to explore Vietnamese culture and history. The city is a lot more relaxed and quiet than Saigon, and Edward and I agreed that it reminded us a bit of Laos.

The first day we had a look around in the city, and in the afternoon Edward wanted to test the hotel pool and relax in the sun. Coming from Norway – the land of cold and darkness – I can totally see why he is so desperate to enjoy every second of sun he can get, but for me, who live in a place where sunshine and heat is the norm rather than the exception, it is simply too boring to lay in the sun for hours, so I went for a walk on my own. I walked along the river and crossed the bridge over to the other side where there was a local market. I never buy anything at these markets, but there is a lot of stuff to see and if you are lucky you can get some nice photos.

Perfume River

On Friday we had booked a guided tour to the historic sites, and the tour bus picked us up at the hotel around 8:15 AM. We started the tour at the old Citadel, which once was the seat of the Nguyen emperors. The Citadel occupies a large, walled area on the north side of the Perfume River, and inside the citadel there used to be a forbidden city where only the emperors, concubines, and those close enough to them were granted access. There are only ruins left of the original buildings, but the Government is in the process of restoring parts of the forbidden city.

Our next stop was a Vietnamese garden where they were planting all kinds of local herbs, trees and flowers. The guide told us that it was the most beautiful garden in Vietnam, but frankly we were not exactly impressed. Maybe we just misunderstood his broken English and there was something else very special about the garden that we completely missed. Anyway, the next destination was much more impressive. We went to see the Thien Mu Pagoda at the banks of the Perfume River. The pagoda has seven stories and is the tallest in Vietnam, and from the temple you have a fantastic view of the river.

The Tomb of Khai Dinh

After lunch we drove a bit further from the city to see three famous tombs. The Tomb of Minh Mang was fully completed in 1843, and it consists of 40 constructions, including palaces, temples and pavilions, designed on a symmetric axis. The Tomb of Khai Dinh was the most impressive of the historic monuments we were visiting. It was built in the hills leaning towards the mountains, and it was completed as late as 1931. The tomb is well maintained and inside is a picture of the emperor surrounded by beautiful ornaments on the walls and in the ceiling. The Tomb of Tu Duc was the last place we visited. The construction was completed in 1867, and it lies in a pine forest about 8 KM from Hue. Within the enclosed area is a small lake with a temple built half way over the water, and a river leads to the emperor’s tomb.

We ended our journey on a refreshing boat trip on the Perfume River, and it was a nice change from the hot and crowded bus. Both Edward and I were exhausted after running up and down temple stone steps, so after dinner we went to bed early and had a good night sleep. I usually don’t sleep a lot, but it is amazing what a bit of fresh air and exercise can do for you.

On Saturday we didn’t have any plans. Edward wanted to spend some time at the pool again, but after a couple of hours in the sun he realized that the sun in Vietnam is a lot stronger than in Norway and his skin was starting to get quite red, so he gave up the sun bathing by lunch time. We spent most of the afternoon looking for some souvenirs that he wanted to bring home, and having dinner at one of the great restaurants in town. Everything we ate in Hue was fantastic, and the price for food and drinks was ridiculously low.

On Sunday morning our journey was coming to an end, and we flew back to Saigon together before we split up. I had to fly back home to Singapore, and Edward was flying back to Thailand to spend a week in Phuket. I guess he can never get enough of beaches…

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Weekend in Saigon

Posted by Monica Johansen on December 15, 2009

I have just had a couple of great weekends. On Saturday December 5, my American colleague Bill –  who I met for the first time in Bangkok in July last year – came to South East Asia for work, and he decided to take the opportunity to do some sightseeing.

Mekong River

Bill is a bit like me, he likes to spend some time exploring the places he visits for work, and I was lucky enough to be his local guide in Singapore on the weekend. He is quite adventurous, especially when it comes to food, and he had heard about the infamous Southeast Asian fruit durian, so he wanted to try it even if he had been told that it tastes like shit. For some strange reason, the locals love durian and they eat it in cakes, pancakes and other desserts, and I have tried durian in many variants before, but I just don’t get used to the awful taste. Anyway, Bill wanted to try, so we bought a durian pancake in Chinatown, and while I had to spit out my small bite because I couldn’t stand the taste, he actually ate the entire pancake!

On Wednesday last week Bill continued his journey to Ho Chi Minh City (or commonly called Saigon) in South Vietnam, and he invited me to come over for some sightseeing on the weekend in the areas outside the city. I never turn down an opportunity for an adventure, so I booked my flights and flew over to Saigon on Friday afternoon. Friday night we walked around in the city and had a look at the chaotic traffic and the excessive Christmas decorations. Early Saturday morning we were picked up by our guide for the weekend, and we drove about 3 hours south of Saigon to jump on a boat on the Mekong River and cruise down to see the floating marked and the villages. Our guide was a funny, smiling Vietnamese guy with a name it was impossible for us to pronounce. His English was quite good, and he happily answered all our questions and informed us about the plans for the weekend.

Local workshop

Our first main stop on the river was in Caibe, where we visited a local workshop and learned how to make pop rice and pop corn. There is also a floating marked in Caibe where the locals were trading different products. At the end of the trip we tried out one of the small water taxis on the river, where the boatman is using oars instead of engines. The boatman left the oars with me so I could try to row for a little while, but it was more difficult than it looked since the technique is quite different from what I am used to. After the Mekong River cruise was over we were transported back to Saigon and dropped off at our hotel. We ended up having dinner in the hotel since the city was very busy and stressful and we wanted to go to bed early in order to be ready for the next day.

On Sunday morning our guide met us in the hotel lobby, and we drove about 1.5 hours to Cuchi to see the famous tunnels used by the locals during the Vietnam War. The area where the tunnels are located has been made into some sort out outdoor museum, and it was interesting to see how the locals used different tactics against the American troops. The only thing that I really found tasteless was the introduction video we were shown before we entered the area. The video was made several decades ago, but it indicated an intense hate against Americans, which I think both Bill and I found a bit repulsive. Apart from that the experience was mostly positive, and we both learned more about the Vietnam War.

The People's Committee Building

Sunday afternoon it was time for me to say goodbye, and I headed to the airport to catch my 5:30 PM flight home to Singapore. Usually, I look forward to getting home after a weekend in a third world country, but this time I was actually quite sad to leave. I love traveling, and I am used to be on the road all by myself, but nothing beats having great company while exploring interesting places.

Now I am back to the loneliness in Singapore, but hopefully it will not be for very much longer. By the way, today I have lived in Singapore for exactly two years, so I guess I have a small anniversary to celebrate… 🙂

By the way, here are some more photos: http://monicaaj71.vndv.com/20091212/index.html

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English 0.1 Build 001

Posted by Monica Johansen on March 25, 2009

I have read somewhere that more than 90 % of all face-to-face communication consists of body language. In other words, body language is known to be the most important factor in daily human communication. However, I would like to dispute this statement with regards to technical discussions in a work environment, because I strongly believe that when I am trying to explain a technical constraint for a customer, the way the customer will interpret the message is much more related to the words I am using and how I construct the sentences than to my facial expression and how my arms are placed.

A well deserved mango parfait

A well deserved mango parfait

For instance, how would you explain a complicated technical procedure and the consequences of not following that procedure without using words? This is something I am facing at the moment when working in Hanoi in an environment where people hardly understand English. In order to make myself understood I have to use a combination of sketches and simplified English, and by simplified English I mean that I have to reduce my sentences to a bare minimum where I remove all inflections, conjugations and little help words that you normally would include in sentences. Every single sentence has to be evaluated in order to avoid confusion, and I have to speak very slowly so that the customer will pick up every single word I am saying.

But that is only one part of the problem. In the other end you have me not understanding the customer because the English they are trying to speak is so poorly pronounced that I simply have no idea what they mean. Sometimes I have to ask them to write the words down on paper in the hope that I will understand them if the spelling is not too far from correct. And when I finally understand which words they are trying to use I have no clue how they managed to pronounce it so completely different from the way it is written. It is quite amazing actually, and it explains why some languages are very difficult to learn unless you are brought up with it.

Naturally, these issues result in some very interesting situations where I for instance can ask the customer a question which is NOT a yes or no question, and the customer will answer “yes”. Then I will repeat the question in a different way in a desperate attempt to make myself understood, and the customer will reply “no”. And all I can do is to give it yet another attempt and make the sentences even more simplified, in English version 0.1.001, combined with some squiggling on a piece of paper, and hope that the message this time will not be lost in translation.

The language barriers do not only affect the quality of the work, but it also makes it very difficult to have friendly and people connecting conversations about everyday stuff. These everyday conversations will often strengthen the relationship to the customer, and it simply makes it more enjoyable to be in the office when you can get to know the people you are working with on a more personal and non-formal level. Besides, it is a very uncomfortable feeling when you are sitting on a restaurant with your colleagues during lunch as the only foreigner, and you are not able to understand a single word people are saying. It certainly doesn’t make you feel very welcome.

Well, at least the hotel is nice and the food is great. I have allowed myself a mango parfait after dinner ever day since I really think I deserve it after a long and frustrating working day. I desperately need to speak to some native English speaking people again before I go nuts!

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Hanoi Express

Posted by Monica Johansen on March 22, 2009

This morning I had to jump on a plane again, this time to the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. The trip was a bit of a rushed arrangement (I seem to do that a lot these days) on Friday evening after an urgent request from a customer who had a tight time schedule to complete a deployment, and since my calendar is more or less full until May the customer was happy when I decided to squeeze in a couple of days before I start working on a larger project the coming Thursday.

Shopping street in Hanoi

Shopping street in Hanoi

Unfortunately, Singapore Airlines has only one flight from Singapore to Hanoi and one return flight every day, so there are not many options for departure. The Singapore-Hanoi flight departs around 10 AM, so I didn’t get much chance to sleep in this morning. Not that I usually do, since I am a morning person, but I was working until midnight with some documentation for a customer, and then I had to pack my bags before I went to bed, so I ended up with only 5 hours sleep (which also seem to be quite common these days).

I am flying back to Singapore already on Wednesday, so I don’t have much time to look around in Hanoi. However, I have been here for work once before, and then I had the chance to stay over the weekend and take a daytrip to beautiful Halong Bay, which is located about 3.5 hours drive from Hanoi and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The local guys I was working with here booked the trip for me, and I ended up paying about 50% of what the travel agency wanted to charge me. Knowing the locals has its obvious advantages, and I had a great day in one of the more scenic areas of Vietnam, cruising on the ocean between impressive limestone monolithic islands and walking in huge caves lit up by lights in different colors. I would definitely recommend it for anyone who are visiting Hanoi.

Actually, I find Hanoi to be quite a strange city. The buildings have a strong European influence after years of French colonization that ended as late as 1954. However, after the French decided to leave (or were kicked out) most of the buildings have not been maintained properly, and today the city looks a bit shabby. The typical terrace houses are discolored and the paint is falling off the walls, but if you look closely you can see a glimpse of the golden days when ornaments and luxury were a common sight in these streets. If these houses had been restored and located in for instance Sydney they would have been worth an absolute fortune.

Halong Bay

Halong Bay

The traffic in Hanoi is an interesting experience. There are traffic lights in the more central areas of the city, but most places you just have to cross the streets while hoping you will avoid being hit by the cars and the many motor bikes. There don’t seem to be any detailed traffic rules, and as long as you drive on the right side of the road the Vietnamese don’t seem to care much about lanes and using indicators etc. They simply drive where there is room, which naturally makes it difficult when you as a pedestrian are trying to cross the street.

Last time I was here I stayed at one of the hotels in the outskirts of Hanoi, and just across the road from my hotel there was a food store where I wanted to buy some drinks. I was standing at the sidewalk trying to wait for an opening to cross the road, but the cars and bikes just kept coming and nobody stopped to give me way. All of a sudden an angry looking man in uniform came up to me and yelled something at me in Vietnamese before he grabbed my arm and dragged me out in the street right in front of a huge bus. For a split second I thought I was going to end my days as a traffic victim in a dodgy Vietnamese neighborhood, but strangely enough the bus slowed down and the bikes just drove around us as we crossed. When we reached the other side the man let go of my arm and yelled something again before he walked away. He was probably fed up with tourists who are unable to understand the chaotic traffic. Thankfully, after watching other people crossing the roads I have started to learn the tricks, and now I am OK when I am walking around on my own.

Hoan Kiem Lake

Hoan Kiem Lake

Today I have been taking a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake just to get out of the hotel room and look at the city life. It normally takes around 30 minutes to walk around the lake if you don’t stop for an ice cream or for taking photos, but it is quite nice to find a bench and just sit and watch people walking past end enjoy the scenery. There are also a few nice objects to photograph by the lake. On a tiny island within the lake there is a charming little shrine called Thap Rua, or Turtle Pagoda, and in the northern end of the lake you can find the characteristic red Huc Bridge leading to the Ngoc Son Temple and which is immortalized in many Hanoi tourist photographs.

The most challenging part of working in Vietnam is the language barriers. I was actually quite surprised when I discovered that most people can’t speak English, and I have had a few frustrating moments here when trying to communicate with the locals, both in work situations and as a tourist. But luckily the Vietnamese people are friendly, and they will try their best to help despite the language issues. Nevertheless, I know that the next few days are going to be challenging.

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