Visiting the Taj Mahal

•July 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment
Classic Taj view at sunrise

Cliche but classic shot of the Taj at sunrise

Although I missed out on quite a few of Delhi’s “musts” I was off to see India’s number one must – the Taj Mahal! Contrary to what I believed before coming to India, the Taj is not in fact in Delhi but in Agra, a city 3-4 hours away by train in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh. If Delhi was less than pleasant, Agra was downright awful. It was such a surprise to find a seedy, dirty, unpleasant little town surrounding one of the most impressive and beautiful buildings in the world, but I can assure you, it’s there. Uttar Pradesh is sadly well-known for its corruption, and is also one of the poorest states in India, all of which contributes to Agra’s status as a bit of a craphole. From exiting the station and getting twice as much of a hustle as normal by tuk-tuk drivers and taxis it was clear that Agra was going to be a bit trying on the nerves. It is impossible to walk Agra without constant bombardment by anyone over the age of 5 trying to sell you something or offer you a ride, a room, or a meal and not in a friendly way. There is something about the general attitude, the more aggressive and desperate tone, the word choice, that made it far more wearisome and grating than the usual street commentary. On the flip side, Agra’s one redeeming factor is pretty spectacular.

Touching the TajThe Taj is at once awe-inspiring and disappointing. It is as if you finally get to your childhood fantasy world and it’s just like you imagined it, the only caveat: you’re seeing it through your adult eyes. Time eroded the dream; it lost some of its sparkle somehow in the intervening years. That is not to say I’ve been dreaming about visiting the Taj all my life, in fact I’d never really thought much about it nor was it particularly high on my list of things to see in this world. But it has such a grandiose image, it is so built up that no matter how much you underestimate its impact, it could never possibly live up to the hype. Don’t get me wrong, like I said, it is absolutely beautiful, an architectural marvel, a stunning mausoleum that boggles the mind with its magnificence, but the spell of the fantasy is nevertheless broken when it becomes a reality. The structure is impressive, the design of the complex gorgeous, the precision of the marble carvings is incredible, the grounds are meticulously maintained – it is near impossible to find flaw in the Taj Mahal. The management is lacking – there is so little information about the building itself, and though ostensibly the weightIntricate detailing and writingy price tag of the entry ticket includes a free guide, they are touts, competing for your tip money and are more of a headache than they seem to be worth (it’s a general judgment based on the experiences I had with other Agra residents, it is probable that there are a least a couple of guides who are knowledgeable, intelligent, honest, and well worth the stress of searching them out). However aside from this people roam freely without direction, without much education and without much purpose – probably due to the fact that the Taj is so overwhelming it almost drowns you. Everything demands exploration, each perfectly carved flower warrants a photo, every tiny detail is worthy of examination, and yet there is the whole to take in as well; it’s very hard not to get lost in all that there is to see at the Taj. So my advice – don’t worry about missing things, you would never see it all, just be satisfied with the Taj that you see.

Sunset kite flying near the TajAside from the Taj, I have to admit to finding one other enjoyable thing about Agra. From around 5pm until sunset the rooftops of town are covered with young boys and men flying, and fighting kites. The evening of our Taj visit we sat on our rooftop, with the mausoleum as the backdrop watching one of the young boys from the hotel cut kites and get cut. It seems a simple pastime but it was very easy to get caught up in the excitement of the kite flyers, cheering and “awing” at the appropriate moments as victories and losses were meted out. It was a rather enjoyable evening all in all and a nice way to say goodbye to the Taj.

However in general, Agra itself made me sad, because it a towering example of how India continues to simply fall short: something that could be done so well and it just isn’t. The governance of the Taj could be set up in a way that would benefit the community, welcome tourists, and become a long-term stop on any Indian itinerary.Shadows and light Instead, they rely on the name “Taj Mahal” to draw the tourists and ignore any responsibility for improving or enhancing the experience, encouraging a quick day-trip or one night stay style of tourism, which in and of itself is a missed source of income for the town. The 750 rupee ($17 US) price tag for the entry fee is an astronomical figure for India and instead of paying for the upkeep of the town, adding signage and information throughout the site, redevelopment of the roads and buildings, it lines the pockets of corrupt officials, it pays for one man to mow the lawn, and another employee to walk next to him and point where to go with a stick. Rather than banning touts in the old town, and especially in the Taj itself, they are part and parcel of a system that makes tourists and locals alike feel uncomfortable and feeds into the corruption.

Mounted policeWhy are there two barricades at each of the four gate roads, 100 meters apart, each employing 15 guards lounging in chairs reading newspapers and wagging large rifles, which serve the same function of not letting motorized vehicles within a certain distance of the Taj? Why are there mounted police officers prancing around the streets doing nothing more than looking fancy? How much money is being spent on redundancies? On unnecessary frivolities? Employees with the exact same job? Why are the streets leading to the entry gates allowed to literally overflow with touts offering 1 rupee postcards, useless Taj key chains, and “marble” tchotchkes? That is not to say that the tacky-gift selling society which feeds on the tourist industry can or even should ever be completely done away with, but for it to be encouraged and even supported by the sight itself seems to me to be a pointless waste of resources, especially at the expense of local culture and infrastructure.

From the park in front of the TajI’m not claiming to have the perfect solution, and I don’t think it would be easy, not just a simple matter of reallocating funds. It would take a lot of hard work and a mentality that I have encountered in far too few Indians for the necessary changes to take place. But it seems to me that with the right education, the right (non-financial) incentives for the community members, and a lot of elbow grease, Agra could cease to be a stereo-typical example of the Indian contradiction which is India’s greatest and I think, most debilitating fault. I think that for any visitor to India, it is an obvious fact that it is one of the culturally richest places in the world, but unfortunately it lacks the infrastructure, the social mentality, and (for now) the financial ability to live up to its full potential.


On The Road, Indian Style

•July 11, 2011 • 1 Comment
Hello India

Sitting with the Babas who insisted I join them for a photo at Udaipurs maian temple

It’s been, as I mentioned a bit of a whirlwind tour of India, and will continue to be so for another week and a half or so until we reach Kathmandu in Nepal. We have spent no more than one night in any city (save Mumbai), and in some cases not even that, arriving in the morning and leaving the same night. It is not the way I enjoy to travel most of the time and I find it is not conducive to getting to know and understand a culture or a people. However given Adam and Emily’s flight and the fact that some cities were only stops to see one or two things it has been a lot of fun nonetheless. Passing camelsIn just a week and a half, I have traveled over 2000 km of railway tracks and roads, seen 7 cities in five different states, and watched rocky cliff-like hills dotted with marble quarries turn to monkey-inhabited fertile green forest turn to dry arid farmlands where few crops deign to grow to flat deserts that stretch for uninterrupted miles of scrub, shrub and stunted trees, and passed every mode of transport imaginable from horn-blaring trunk to trains of camels.

The highlights of the journey so far range from simply looking out the window of the train to drinking chai on a street corner with a random stranger discussing Obama’s politics (a favorite topic of discussion for any Indian who gets out more than 4 questions). The first thing you will be asked by any Indian, before even your name is, “Which country you are from?” Usually followed with some sort of “America!? I see, good country, sir!” and then “Your name friend?”, “How long you are in India?”, and “What you like about India?” The curiosity of most Indians about foreigners is never-ending and some, like the sari shop-owning Muslim whose excitement to talk with us with palpable, will bribe you with chai, or some fresh out of the frier samosa in order to keep you around for longer just to learn more about you.

The library in Kahn's IIMIn addition to friendly chai drinkers, Ahdmedabad is also home to some of India’s most interesting architecture. The old town is a beautiful mixture of Jain, Moghul, Gujarati and even European designs, and over the course of the tour we took we were guided through a stunning temple, a wide variety of architectural styles and a beautiful and unusually decorated mosque. Ahdmedabad is in fact such a “happening place” architects such as Louis Khan, Le Corbusier, and Buckminster Fuller have dotted the cityscape with their creations. The Indian Institute of Management (the 11th ranked BMA program in the world apparently) is a fascinating campus of bricks designed by Khan, which thanks to Jess and Adam’s status as students of architecture, we were permitted to visit and photograph. It was a beautiful example of geometry and in many ways it looked like a giant model built using those wooden block toys you have as a child, albeit a very sophisticated set of blocks.

A Colorful Rajasthani WeddingRajasthan is one of the more well-known Indian states, and is famous for its colors, especially in its handicrafts, clothing, and art. Our trip up to Delhi included stops in both Udaipur (the “city of lakes” home to the palace in which the James Bond “Octopussy” film was filmed) and Jodhpur (the “blue city” home to an absolutely awe-inspiring fort Meherangarh, the ancestral home of the maharajah of Jodhpur).  Udaipur was a lovely town where the highlight was simply wandering the narrow, winding, and hilly roads, seeing huge wedding parties, watching children splashing in the river, and enjoying samosas and chais on the street sides, Jodhpur on the other hand, also a small, windy road filled town is dominated by the massive fort on top of the hill – a feat of engineering and architectural genius that it was never taken by a hostile force in its over 500 years of history and required very little restoration work to return it to its former beauty. The tour was a bit expensive (for India) costing around 9 dollars US with a camera pass or 7 without, both including a fantastic audio guide tour – probably the best such tour I’ve ever heard. In addition to the overwhelming impressiveness of the fort, there were stunningly beautiful rooms, fascinating armories, and very interesting galleries, among the more intriguing of which were the palanquins, elephant saddles, and miniature paintings.

Jodhpur Fort

It was another night train from Jodhpur up to Delhi, India’s bustling capital, which I have to admit did not impress me overly much. It was the first time in India where I felt uncomfortable, and it is hard to identify exactly why it was so. It is certainly not the friendliest city to which we’ve been, nor is it the prettiest. What I believe it boils down to is simply that the people who we met in Delhi were just overall, not as happy or open as the rest of India. To be fair we saw only a very small slice of the Indian capital – staying in Pahar Ganj – the budget hotel strewn road filled with tourists, touts, and the usual array of useless shops which high concentrations of tourists always attract. We did get to Connaught place, an atrocity of English urban planning, a massive roundabout with three concentric roads to which all the major Delhi streets connect.Qutb Minar The concentric circles between the radians also form blocks of buildings which form an upper class shopping complex, a stark contrast to the underground bazar below it, home to knock off cheap electronics, poor imitation clothing, and more useless bad quality handicrafts. And the ruins complex of qutub minar a massively tall, slightly leaning, brick tower which is another testament of early maharajahan engineering. Begun in the 12th century and reaching its final height a couple of centuries later, it is a beautiful monument and the complex has a strange history, being largely Islamic mosques and mausoleums, but the wall carvings of some of the ruins testify to a time when Hinduism became the ruling religion at qutub minar.

SpicesI wish that we had had more time in Delhi – I feel that with the time to explore, to get out of Pahar Ganj, it would have been a far more rewarding and positive stop. There were however some shining moments, which includes what was possibly the best meal we’ve had in India. Just off the Main Bazar street where it ends in front of the train station there is a collection of bustling and popular South Indian dabahs (hole-in-the-wall restaurants open to the street usually with a tandoor [Indian clay oven]). I cannot tell you the name of the one to which we went, but it’s just after the lassi/curd stall on the left, directly opposite the internet shop, just in case you end up in Delhi and want some fantastic food. The meal consisted of perfectly spiced curries (dahl fry – lentils, paneer shahi – unpasteurized cheese grilled in a unique masala, rajma – beans and aloo palak – potatoes and spinach) and the most perfectly textured tandoori roti (basically naan) I’ve had in India, magically melding crispy bottom, fluffy insides, and a perfect chewing consistency. It is one of the tastiest memories I have, period.

Next stop on the never-ending (exaggeration) Indian road trip: Agra.

Worlds Apart

•July 3, 2011 • Leave a Comment
A sari-filled sunset

A sari-filled sunset

My introduction to India was Mumbai, a city that epitomizes India’s characterization as “a bundle of contradictions”*, highlighting the stark contrasts between the have and the have-nots, the modern and the historic, the spicy and the mild. I arrived not quite knowing what to expect and was greeted by a sea of blue and grey that ended right at the very edge of the airstrip – the tarp covered, corrugated metal roofs of the slums surrounding Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. It was not quite a shock, knowing of course that Mumbai is renowned for its slums, nonetheless it was the beginning of my understanding of the crazy place that is India.

A bit of background info to start off with, Jess and I are traveling the first leg of our India excursion with our friend Adam and his partner Emily. Both Adam and Jess know India rather well, having both lived and worked in the country for periods of time in the last few years, so it’s wonderful for Emily and I to have our introduction to India be guided by some knowledgeable travelers. We have planned a whirlwind tour from Mumbai up to Kathmandu, Nepal over 2.5 weeks, from where Adam and Emily fly to the UK on the 15th of April. Jess and I will then continue through Nepal and back into India over the subsequent 3-4 weeks – these remain utterly unplanned. This blog post I will structure slightly differently than the last few posts as I think it will be more coherent than a chronological recounting of my experiences.

The Food

mmmm chai time First things first, the most important aspect of any new country: its gastronomy. I remember a sad, uneducated, and miserable unexciting time in my life when I truly did not enjoy Indian food. Despite the pleas of my sisters and mother who would often wish to go out to Indian, I would always find an excuse to get them to give in to my ignorant palate. Thankfully, since then I have found the joy in curries, rotis, dosas, tandooris, samosas, and a whole host of delectable delights which I had been missing. I cannot tell you the number of delicious morsels I have consumed since being in India – but think about your favorite India restaurant, the most flavorful, delicious, authentic place you go to for India food, and then imagine a whole country where that’s the worst restaurant, and that’s India. There are some things I’ve tried I’d never had outside of India before which I found delightful. One of the tastiest of the new delectables is Wadapaw which is a mini sandwich of sorts – deep fried goodies in a simple white bread roll with mint/cilantro/onion chutney and sweet mango pickle. The best of the bunch is aloo chup – a potato masala mix with onions and spices in ball then deep fried – fantastic! Other sandwich stuffer options include deep fried potatoes, samosas, and onion bhaji, which are also tasty. Borah almost what you would call and Indian version of Falafel, made of grain or cornmeal mixed with spices, chilies, and herbs, is deep fried deliciousness and served as a snack. Tikka roll is basically what you think it is…instead of getting chicken tikka masala or paneer butter masala with parotha on the side, you get your curry wrapped up in your bread! A simple thing, yet not one I’d seen before arriving in India, the chicken tikka masala wrapped in chapatti was so splendidly delicious I’m almost drooling thinking about it now! These three probably top the list, although there are many more to try!

The Sights

Gateway to IndiaAlthough Mumbai has many fascinating things to see, we really only saw a small handful of them in the 2 and a half days we were there: a short trip to the National Art Gallery – which housed the most interesting, varied and visually pleasing (to my tastes) modern art of almost any museum I’ve visited in the last year and a half; a couple of pictures of the “Gateway to India” – a perfectly interesting although not particularly inspiring monument; a purposefully grounded container ship on Juhu Beach – an amusing and very temporary sight that the government of Mumbai was likely not pleased about; and most fascinating, a tour of Dharavi slum. The slum tour was one of the highlights of the experiences in Mumbai – a 2.5 hour walk through one of the most densely populated “cities” in the world being a mere 1.75 km2 in which lives 1 million people, officially and nearly twice that unofficially. It also has over 10,000 industries, is one of the foremost recycling centers in the world, and has an annual turnover of more than $665 million USD. Of course there is poverty in the slums, there is dirt, a lack of infrastructure, limited to no plumbing, unavoidable health problems, gross overcrowding, and a myriad of other problems. But Dharavi is definitely a “5 star slum”.

The container ship which was groundedOf course, we got a true taste of slum life, as we are currently visiting Northern India during its Monsoon season, which of course meant that the daily downpour just happened to occur for most of the length of our tour. So we tramped through flooded streets, hopped overflowing gutters, and got soaked in I-don’t-even-want-to-begin-to-think-about-what as we stopped by plastic recycling plants, rubber industries, mountains of goat skins waiting to be tanned and turned to leather, massive communal kilns, firing clay pots, teacups and prayer candle holders 24/7, temples and even bakeries! The slum was not a crazy, drug ridden, crime infested rats warren as the movies might lead you to believe, but a fully functioning, money-making (although impoverished residents), tight-knit community that is filled with warm, friendly, and resourceful people who are simply living their lives. That is not to say that of Mumbai’s 2000 slums there does not exist poorer, seedier, and dangerous slums, it is just to address the misconceptions that I had held prior to my visit that I believe most readers would have as well.

The Transport

Evening commuter trainThe trains are India’s arteries – moving goods, people and all manner of things from the remotest parts of India to the remotester parts of India 4,000 kms away. They are also cheaper than anything – we booked nearly all of our train tickets for the next two weeks, 7 tickets in all (each: i.e. 28 tickets, 7 journeys), including about 4 night/sleeper trains for a total cost of 32 USD per person! They are not the most comfortable things in the world to be honest, and the bathrooms are horrendous, but there are toilets and when you travel by night, the sleeping palates perfectly comfortable and sanitary, providing you supply your own bedding. Unfortunately the seats are always benches, which although cushioned are ramrod straight which can get highly uncomfortable after a few hours of sitting. Thankfully all journeys over 4 hours will be sleeping trips. Of course this is traveling second class, first class includes air conditioning and perhaps, bedding and more comfortable beds, but there is no such thing as first class sitting cars, and the sleepers for 1st class are quadruple the price at least. Another downside is the crowd. To be expected, Indian trains are crowded and personal space is mostly non-existent.

However all the downsides of train travel are made up for by the wallahs. Coming down the trains calling “chai”, “samosa”, “borah”, “yummyyummydeliciousfoodthatcosts25cents” (I made up the last one), are the wallahs, plying their wares on the trains of India for next to nothing, they bring you the best of Indian street fare – including aloo chup and a deep fried chilli, which is similar to a jalapeno popper without the cheese. And of course, masala chai – black tea with milk, sugar and spices that costs about 10 cents a cup (tiny though it is) and is a constant refresher to bolster your spirits on the long haul rides.

Shoe shine while waiting for the trainWe did suffer a few annoying experiences with India Railways including losing my shoe under the train due to a shovey Indian man who followed so close behind me as we boarded the train that he stepped on my flip flop as I was entering and it fell onto the track beneath the train. Sadly for me, I had to buy a new pair of flip flops when we arrived at our destination.  More frustrating however was the cancellation of our train due to Monsoon season. Not a monsoon in and of itself, but a cancellation of the whole train for the rest of the season, ie no way to get to our destination. Of course that happens, however when you purchase a ticket for 3 days in advance, you assume that it will be going and not that the entire train route will be closed for months, since it is something that happens every year! There should have at least been a warning that around this time of year they do cancel the trains! It was relatively easy to solve, we got a refund with no problem and a bus was easy, but it was just getting over the shock that they had sold us tickets for a train route that was cancelled three days later without being told in advance about such a possibility. Ah well – welcome to India!

The People

Just another friendly faceI have never met a smilier, friendlier, more generous and welcoming people than the Indians. The constant “Hellos” are accompanied by shy smiles and happy grins as if to say “Teehee I talked to the Whitey!” What a huge difference from Asia, where “Hellos” in the street are accompanied by predatory wolfish grins as if to say “Hmmm let’s see how much money I can get out of you Whitey!” (This is an exaggeration of course, but nonetheless it is applicable in a broad sense.) The people of India, while there are many who want something from you, especially “Auto Rickshaw” (i.e. Tuk Tuks), but even the market vendors will often simply smile, say hello and wave happily solely for the sake of saying hello without any motive of selling you anything. We have been given numerous cups of chai simply so that we would sit down and converse in English for 10 minutes with someone. I have shaken far more hands than I can count, and the number of names I have forgotten outnumbers those I do by about 100:1. The way most Indians treat the greeting of a stranger is as if it were truly a “privilege to make their acquaintance” – a mere antiquated saying in the West, it is a philosophy adhered to in the subcontinent.

Thanks to Adam, we were able to meet some very kind hearted and generous souls who were very happy and excited to meet us and take the time out of their days and lives to simply sit and chat with us about life. Both Jess and Adam are students of architecture, and so in Mumbai and Pune we met with three different practicing and influential architects in India. Abba – a wonderfully sweet woman whose very successful restoration architecture practice is doing wonderful things for the old buildings in Mumbai, invited us to her office, where we met with her, she shared lunch with us and spoke to us at length about a variety of interesting things from her work to her travels. In Pune, a town 4 hours east of Mumbai, we met with two architects: Anand Uplekar, an Indian architect working on a variety of interesting and sustainable projects including a butterfly farm and a butterfly garden, was a very generous host for an evening. And Christopher Charles Benninger is an American architect whose Indian partner Ram was one of the most welcoming and endearing men I’ve met. It would not only be next to unheard of in a Western culture for people to treat four young travelers, most if not all of whom are strangers, in the welcoming manner that the Indians treated us, it would almost be considered inappropriate.

Abba took the time out of a very busy day to discuss with us the fascinating projects she was working on. Then she brought out lunch and would not hear of us not sharing her office’s meal. Anand was a jolly man who seemed quite offended that we had checked into a hotel instead of imposing on his hospitality, despite the fact that only Adam knew him from a connection 3 years previous. He insisted on taking us back to his house where he plied us with food cooked lovingly by a cook in his employ, and made sure our glasses were never empty for a moment. He also invited his daughter and grandson to visit who turned out to be a wonderfully interesting woman and an excitable and energetic 5 year old whose antics were almost as entertaining as the conversation. The experience of meeting Anand and his family was a privilege and one I will not soon forget.

Colorful IndiaOne of the more fascinating conversations of the trip was with Ram, the partner of and jack of all trades in the office of American architect Christopher Charles Benninger. Adam arranged for us to meet with Christopher, having been inspired by him during a talk he gave a few years prior, and we were greeted by his partner Ram who was also quite disappointed to have not been informed earlier that we would be in Pune for a day and therefore unable to offer his hospitality. We were welcomed into the fascinating, beautiful and innovative home and office, where tea was immediately proffered and we were settled comfortably into his office. During the course of the very stimulating conversation, Ram found out we were leaving a few hours later on a train and though disappointed to not be able to send us on a tour of Pune’s architecture, he stated that we would meet with Christopher for a short while, sit down to a home cooked lunch with them, tour the house and office and be driven by car to the train station – we were given no choice in the matter.

The Culture

Our experiences with Abba, Anand and Ram show just how welcoming and open the Indian culture is; how revered the guest is; how important it is to simply treat other human beings, and even strangers as though they were family. The simple way all three of them expected to wine and/or dine us is proof of a generosity of spirit that is not the rarity it is in the West but rather the norm in India. To be fair to them, they are all, to varying degrees. rather well off and affluent Indians with more than enough to share and certainly more than I have. However old baba who shared a chai and a laugh with us certainly lives a day to day existence and had no requirement to gift us with mangoes when we left. Nor did the stranger at the bus station need to go out of his way to make sure we got a refund when he helped discover the rip off price we had paid for our tickets.

Again and again, I have found in this country a willingness to do things for others that is lacking in other places. This is the first time in my travels where I feel that the culture of an entire country breathes generosity. This is not to say that there are not annoying aspects of Indian culture: time again is a far more fluid concept here than I’m used to – your 5 hour bus ride at 5:30 might not depart until 7:30 and arrive at 2pm it’s just part of life here; there will always be an Indian and a local price – cost of Taj Mahal visit, Indian Tourist/Foreign Tourist: Rps20/Rps750; and as friendly as they are, no one can say they haven’t been slightly irked by an overly persistent tuk-tuk driver who refuses to let go of your elbow. But despite the trials, the frustrations, the situations in which I would be perfectly valid losing my temper, there is a calmness about the Indian spirit which pervades the country, and to which I have fallen victim. I may argue, I may kick up a fuss, or I may haggle ‘til the cows come home, but I’ve not (yet) lost my smile, my temper, or argued out of anger. I cannot really explain how or why but I believe I must attribute it to the culture in which I find myself: the generosity is infectious, the kindness is unavoidable, and the smiles beg to be returned.

There are another half dozen headings I could discuss about India – the smells, the colors, the lifestyles, the contradictions, the costs, the general insanity of it all, but I’ve rambled for nearly 3,000 word already and if you’re still reading this you certainly deserve a chai break!

*Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister

From North to South

•June 29, 2011 • Leave a Comment
Day at the Beach in Hoi An

The one and only beach I visited in Vietnam - and it looked like this! Yay for weather!

In case you didn’t know, Vietnam is a very long country! In total over the past week going from Halong Bay in the North, down to Ho Chi Minh City in the South, Jess and I have spent over 45 hour in buses, boats, or either in a terminal waiting for a bus transfer or on the side of the road waiting for the broken down bus to be repaired and/or replaced. Of course we broke it up with a few stops along the way, but there were a couple of very long, and slightly less than pleasant bus rides! That being said, the transport in Vietnam, especially going from North to South with stops in major cities of touristic interest, in prolific, easy, and relatively cheap. It probably cost a total of around $50-60 dollars for four, five or more hour long trips!

Despite the epic journeying, the trip was a lot of fun – Hue was a historically interesting city; Hoi An was beautiful architecturally and amazing culturally; Dalat was…well cold and rainy, but green and verdant; and Ho Chi Minh was a bustling, crazy, fascinating, educating, and yet still somehow relaxing metropolis.

After leaving Cat Ba on an overnight bus to Hue, we arrived early in the morning ready to explore the historically important former capital of the Nguyen emperors. Setting up in a nice hotel, as we would find out along the rest of our trip, was easy as pie – it’s hard to spit in any city in Vietnam without hitting a hotel, guesthouse or tailor shop with a room to rent upstairs. The staff was friendly and helpful – a refreshingly nice change from the first 3 hotels we stayed in on Cat Ba, and pointed the way to the citadel – the walled town, hemmed by 10 km of 5 meter high walls and a moat, which houses the former palace, now largely ruins, but interesting nonetheless.

Market in HueIt was a much bigger and more modern city than I was expecting for something which is supposedly so historically charged, but it was a nice stop over anyway. Unfortunately for exploratory purposes, the heat of the day drove us indoors, but as providence would have it, we found a very tasty café – Mandarin Café, whose owner, Mr. Cu was a very friendly man who also happens to be a fantastic photographer ( He not only fed us fantastic food, gave us advice on what to do and see in Hue, he shared his art with us and when we left gifted us with a few examples of his work! Despite how nice he was, he and his tasty food weren’t quite enough to keep us in Hue any longer, so after only the one night in Hue, we left to go a few hours South to another historical town – in fact a UNESCO world heritage site, and the South East Asian bespoke tailor capital, Hoi An.


Hoi An is definitely one of my favorite places in Vietnam. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did, however, it has a very relaxed atmosphere, the people are friendly, it’s a beautiful old town, and the food is the tastiest we had had up until that point (the highlights of which include small rice flour cups with a fried quail egg on top of a green mango salad, and the tastiest eggs benedict breakfast set including, fruit juice, coffee, bread basket and jams, fresh fruit and a chocolate croissant for $4 USD). The Old Town is fascinating, with strict regulations on building to preserve the heritage, it is a couple square kms of buildings 100-250 years old exemplifying Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture melding in a unique fashion. It is also rife with tailor shops, turning out custom made clothing and shoes in as little as 24 hours for incredibly cheap prices (something I regret not taking advantage of). It’s also just a short 20 min bike ride away from Cua Dia, a beautiful beach, which is supposedly very Mediterranean, a fact to which I cannot attest given that the weather we experienced on our visit was certainly not conducive to aquamarine waters, clear blue skies and white sand reflecting the sun (see picture above). However the pedal to the beach along the river was lovely and despite the doomtastic clouds and the sheets of rain racing imminently towards us, we managed to actually avoid getting rained on, and instead got to play in the warm waters and large waves the winds whipped up! Sadly, it was a short lived beach holiday, since we had to return after an hour or so to catch our next night time bus all 18 hours of it down to the cool mountain town of Dalat.


The Tiger Room in "Crazy House" in DalatDalat, Dalat, Dalat! From the outset, it was a bit of a misadventure really. The night bus down to Nha Trang was crowded and cramped despite the bed itself being relatively comfortable (sidenote: sleeper buses in Vietnam have actual beds in them that are nearly flat) and as all things Vietnamese, loud. That was the first 13 hours. In Nha Trang, we were hustled and bustled onto am older, airconditioningless  sleeper bus that sounded as if a Brontosaurus was being strangled by Godzilla every time the driver attempted to change gears. Of course inevitably the bus broke down – 30 minutes into the rounds of picking up passengers from hotels, tour agents and stations, the bus decided that starting was going to be too much of an effort. So 7:30 am, stuck on a random street side, whilst the mechanic is called, drives up, gets covered in oil for an hour whilst tinkering, and then sits down to have a nice cup of ice tea, having successfully fixed, well…nothing. To his credit they did manage to start the bus a few times, and even once piled the passengers back on for a very exciting 7 second, 2 meter journey down the road!! 2 hours after the start of the ordeal, another bus pulled up and we all got on to the equally old, equally airconditioningless transport, with a bit more trepidation, and despite the driver’s speed, arrived nonetheworse for wear in Dalat after 21 hours of fun adventures…to wet! Dalat. Is. Wet.


It was to be expected, a slight mountain mist was definitely anticipated, even some rain, but the constant clouds, mist, and on and off downpours, made the two and a half days in Dalat a bit dreary. We were hoping to do a bit of rock climbing, some trekking, take a motorbike around to the surrounding tea plantations, coffee farms, and yes folks, even vineyards, but sadly the weather gods decided it would be better for us to go from café to restaurant to bar whiling away our time consuming the products from the surrounding fertile farms. On our second day we did brave the weather, rent a bike, buy a couple ponchos, and drive out to a couple of the sights, including the “Crazy House” – a residence built by a Moscow-trained, Vietnamese “architect” whose eccentricity is only exceeded by her…hmmm, I can’t actually think of anything that exceeds is. The rooms are all named according to the décor (see the “tiger room” above) and the whole complex is connected through a series of indescribable bridges, tunnels, warrens, and pathways equally adorned with “nature”. Sadly, no picture, no words can do justice to the eyesore that is the Crazy House, but it was definitely a laugh and a half, and worth the visit, if only to tax your incredulousness.


After the insanity, we sheltered from the rain in a restaurant called Tu Ahn’s Peace Café, a veritable institution on Dalat’s tourist circuit – it was the first of many visits, which is to say the majority of the rest of our meals in town. To be honest, it’s not for the food that one goes, it’s for the company. Tu Ahn is a very young 47, and manages to infect her guests with her vibrant and welcoming personality. She will brag about all her food, and there are written testimonials to her cooking – a menu which includes a huge variety of Western dishes including the usual suspects, pizzas, pastas, burgers, chips, etc and many unusual suspects, including Hungarian Goulash, Boeuf Bourgingnon, Jambalaya and Cottage Pie! I have to say, having tried a wide variety of the food my favorites, and really the only ones I can actually recommend, are the Guacamole (surprisingly), more like an Avocado Salsa but nonetheless tasty, the fried Spring Rolls, and the Pork claypot, which was very different but just as tasty as all the other Vietnamese claypot dishes we’d had! Still despite the rather stodgy Western food, Tu Ahn’s rambunctious nature and friendly conversations kept us coming back.


Other than that, all we saw of Dalat was the market and the view provided by a 20 minute gondola/suspended cable car ride over a pine forest to a manmade lake, which we missed because the cable car was closing too early to allow us to explore. We also admittedly saw the interior of a delicious coffee shop – Café Tung, whose espresso like coffees were fantastic, a cute little bakery, where the cream puffs were freshly stuffed, and the outside of the most delicious Banh Mi (Vietnamese sandwich with pork) I’ve ever had. Thank you rain! Still it was fun, there were laughs, some surprisingly good food, and as desired, a refreshing, if overly wet, relief from the sun and heat of most of Vietnam.


Our final bus trip took us from Dalat to Ho Chi Minh city (HCMC), a harrowing night ride which was supposed to last 7-8 hours down windy mountain roads, but which took a mere 5 thanks to the speed demoning performed by our driver. Once again the rather comfortable seats this time as opposed to beds, were made uncomfortable by the neon lights left on all night, the sometimes discotheque music playing, and “best” of all, the all-night-long-concerto performed by our fellow passengers as they involuntarily regurgitated their recent meals into the plastic bags provided on all Asian bus routes that make a bend more than 5 degrees. Bus ride aside, our arrival into HCMC was easy – we found a hotel, one of those above a tailor shop type guesthouses, run by two cute middle aged sisters who came up to my nipples when on tiptoes, and then proceeded to steal back a couple of the hours of sleep we never managed to capture on the ride down. Then it was tourism time – seeing the sights, the War Remnants Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Reunification Palace, and enjoying our last bowls of noodle soup (not pho this time but cau lau or lau cau – a Hoi An specialty which is DEEEELICIOUS!).


Of all the tourist sights I visited in Vietnam, I think that the Reunification Palace was my favorite. It had a wonderfully open feeling to it, architecturally speaking, which seemed to me a very unusual design for a seat of political power. The overtly 60’s aesthetic is punctured with traditional Asian furniture and art, adorning the walls and floors, and the bomb proof basement command centers and communication rooms only added to the incredibly “James Bond”ian look of the building. I felt almost like I’d taken a step back in time, and literally onto the set of an Albert R. Broccoli production, which was rather surreal, especially since it was anything but film fakery, it was the actual site of bombings and coups, revolts and surrenders! So, definitely goes down as being more than worth a visit if you happen to be in Vietnam!


The next day was leaving day, and we decided to spend it in style…! We contemplated more sight-seeing, as we saw not nearly one-tenth of what HCMC has to offer, but then thought, “Here we are in a very inexpensive South East Asian country. It’s 9am and hotter than hell already! We could go and see a couple more “must-sees”, OR we could instead, relax, have an easy, coffee filled morning, go get a massage and then go to the movies and enjoy some of the finer things in life, all for under 10 dollars (including popcorn and drinks at the movies!!).” I’m sure you can guess which one we chose…but if not, here’s a hint: X-Men First Class, is worse than X-Men, but infinitely better than “Wolverine” and well worth the watching…especially if your ticket costs 2.50! So we finished our trip in South East Asia in style, and ended our day of spoiling with refreshingly cold fresh tap beer and hot pork buns (again for cheaper than cheap – less than $1 USD) and then caught our taxi to head to the airport!


All in all, despite the many qualms I have with Vietnam and the Vietnamese, it was an amazing trip. There were many disappointments and a good number of unfulfilled expectations. There were also a fair few surprises (good ones) and some incredibly fantastic experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. When you could find good examples of it (hard), the food was fantastic, and when you could find good examples of it (harder), the people were wonderfully welcoming and jovial! I also am sad about what I didn’t get to do – all the places I missed because of the whirlwind nature of our trip. However it ranks above Laos on the Revisit list, but perhaps just below Cambodia – I think if I do another S.E. Asia trip I’d combine the two and give myself at least a couple months, and perhaps a bigger budget!


So now it’s off to India…about which I am so excited I cannot express in words the feeling! First though is a rather unpleasant stopover in KL. Unpleasant only because the 9 hours we will have there will be spent entirely in the airport, including an attempt to sleep somewhere…on chairs, the floor, our bags….we’ll just have to see! Still, for the price of the tickets, and the fact that I’m going to INDIA – it’s well worth the sleepless night!! More to come soon!


SIDENOTE: Although I wrote this post 4 days ago, I was unable to upload it and add more pictures. I’m now 2 days into Mumbai and it’s amazing, but internet is not nearly as prolific as elsewhere, nor are power outlets in hotel rooms. So posts frequency may decrease – I apologize, but I will TRY to keep up with my travels! Please forgive me if I can’t manage! Thanks!

Fare Thee Well Limestone Karsts

•June 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment
Butterfly Valley - this is the view from the belaying point at Upper Mantle wall

Butterfly Valley - this is the view from the belaying point at Upper Mantle wall

So that’s the climbing done for a while. As I mentioned in the last post, when Jess and I returned to Hanoi, we met up with our friend Nicole who we had met in Tonsai. We had planned to head over to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay off the Northeast coast of Vietnam where there is a beautiful climbing spot still in its infancy. Climbing in Vietnam is really only just getting started with Cat Ba as its focal point, having around 40-50 bolted routes on the island itself and another 3-4 dozen scattered on small islands around the bay.  Most of those out in the bay are deep water soloing climbs, which means you’re just climbing up a route without a rope or harness and finishing the climb by jumping into the water below! Outside of Cat Ba there are maybe 2 or 3 other destinations with perhaps a half-dozen or so bolted routes. So with climbing in mind, the three of us headed out to Cat Ba to spend a week seeing how it compares to our favorite climbing spot in Thailand!

Nap time!To begin with, Cat Ba is a big island, 60+% of which is protected National Forest housing endangered species and offering beautiful jungle treks (not that I found out from personal experience, just the local gossip). Cat Ba Town however is as ugly as Sapa, and very similar – 90% of the buildings are hotels, garishly colored and decorated, incredibly poorly constructed and in fact intentionally designed to last for only about 5 years. Apparently rather than building using sustainable and time-lasting materials, it is cheaper to use shoddy building techniques such as mixing the concrete with local sand, which has not been desalinated, creating buildings which need to be torn down and rebuilt within about half a dozen years. The populace of the town is just as anxious as the inhabitants of Hanoi and Sapa to rid you of the money in your wallet, and it’s impossible to walk more than 100 meters without having someone offer you something you could not possibly need or want while walking with a 18 kilo bag on your back and a 12 kilo bag on your front! Still the bay itself onto which the town looks is quite beautiful and the hills behind the town frame the sadly ugly town in a very picturesque way.

Nicole's "favorite" climb - "Very Tot" - 6bWhen we arrived in Cat Ba, our first stop was SloPony Adventures – the only reliable outfit for rock climbing and deep water soloing on Cat Ba, and the one that is actually responsible for the climbing, having bolted all of the sport climbing routes in the region. After getting some recommendations for a place to stay and some info on the climbing we settled into our hotel and went off in search of local beer and dinner! Unfortunately for us, our hotel was booked for the weekend so after only 1 night we had to check out and into another hotel – this began what would become a rather ridiculous search for a decent hotel for a reasonable price that would mean spending the 7 nights we stayed on Cat Ba in 4 different hotels! Thankfully the last one we found was amazing – not for the hotel itself, but because the woman who ran it was the friendliest and most helpful Vietnamese person we’ve met the whole trip, and her English was very good! It took a lot of searching and a lot of trial and error but after a week in Cat Ba we found the places to go and where to stay and what to eat! I can recommend the Khánh Huyển Hotel on the main street of Cat Ba town running along the waterfront, the best Vietnamese food is at Bamboo restaurant, and if you bargain, you can easily get the drink stalls next to the pier to sell you an ice-cold beer for only 10,000 Dong ($0.50) where you can sit, drink and play cards with the locals til the am hours!

Enjoying a "Pier Beer" after a hard day of climbingNow of all of the myriad things to do in Cat Ba – explore the island, trek the national park, kayak the bay, while away the day at the beach, spend the night on a Chinese junk style boat out on the bay exploring the beaches and caves on the small islands of the bay, deep water soloing, etc. the one and only thing that we did in our week there, was climb in the valley. Lien Minh, or Butterfly Valley, is where SloPony has bolted around 50 routes on one crag and it’s a beautiful and peaceful small valley inland on the island about 20-30 minutes from Cat Ba town by motorbike. True to its name, the valley is home to thousands of butterflies that flit around and land on the rope while you’re climbing. It’s also home to a very kind Vietnamese family who generously welcome climbers hanging out in their backyard all day long and whose bee farm produces delicious honey and even deliciouser honey rice wine! Their home is called the Hive and it’s where you leave your bikes, pay a small token entry fee to use their home to climb – half of which goes back into the maintenance of the climbs, buying new bolts, glue, equipment, gear, etc., and where you can order a fantastically tasty Vietnamese lunch including the best veggie spring rolls I’ve had here! Even if you don’t climb it’s worth the drive out just to see the place and have a yummy lunch!

The Hive - our home away from homeEvery day, we would wake up, slug down a cà phê sữ đá (iced Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk), head to SloPony, rent our gear, rent a couple motorbikes and head out to the crag to climb. The climbing in Lien Minh is amazing – with routes for almost all levels, from 5.8/4+ to 5.13s/8a+. It’s much more technical climbing than in Tonsai, requiring more balance and with far more crimps than jugs. There are places where the rock is still sharp but on the other side of that coin, there is almost nowhere where the rock is polished, unlike Tonsai. It’s also another naturally beautiful location, where the beautiful valley makes climbing there very special. Unfortunately, like Tonsai, mosquitoes are everywhere, and it can be disgustingly hot but at the moment, I’m used to those conditions, so it’s not too much of a bother. I would also say that the grading is more accurate here than in Tonsai, and I can immodestly and proudly say that I onsighted my first 6c (11.c)!! I think you have to be a climber or understand climbing speak to understand how exciting that is for me, but trust me, it’s a feat I’m proud of for my current climbing level.

"Clipping" - climbing is sweaty work!It was sad to leave Cat Ba – especially because it did take us a bit of time to find our rhythm there, and when we finally did it became 100 times more enjoyable. Another reason to be sad, we also parted ways with Nicole who is now off to China to climb for a few weeks! It also marks the end of my climbing here in South East Asia since in just over a week Jess and I will be off to India! So I’ve said goodbye to limestone karsts for a while and now I’m back on the bus heading to Hue, the former capital of Vietnam under the Nguyen emperors, where we get to see all sorts of fun historical and cultural things! And who knows maybe there’s a monument or a bridge or something no one will mind if I climb!

Working the Fields

•June 15, 2011 • Leave a Comment
ChoCho and Song

ChoCho and Song happy we bought some of their wares, agreed to pose for a picture!

Hello again. Sorry for the radio silence for the last week and a half…there hasn’t been as much internet access as I would have liked for blogging purposes, and I’ve been climbing for the last week! Ha. So since last we met Jess and I went to Sapa – a town in Northern Vietnam nestled in the mountains where trekking to minority villages is the thing to do. As a city, it’s nothing special, in fact it’s kind of ugly, think garish colors, gaudy Asian architecture, and a every other person offering you a motorbike for rent, a guided tour or some other thing you just “NEED” to experience in Sapa. But the surrounding mountains and terraced rice paddies are stunning and the minority people who are wandering around the town trying to sell you hand-woven bags, traditional jewelry and beautiful homemade goods are actually rather sweet and endearing – much less annoying than the in your face Vietnamese tour sellers.

Terraced Rice FieldsSo after arriving in the early morning after a mostly comfortable night train, we found a decent hotel, mostly because it was cheap, not so much because it was beautiful or amazing, although it did have a beautiful view and comfortable beds and then ventured out into the town to explore. Within 2 seconds of stepping out of the door, two Black Hmong women attached themselves to us and followed us to the market and around town. However rather than simply shoving their goods in our faces or telling us “buy my stuff” they simply said hello, introduced themselves and started talking to us as if we were having a normal conversation. They were helpful when we bought some baguettes at the market – telling us they were charging us twice as much as they should be and encouraging us to get a fair price. They were informative about Sapa, their own villages (2 and 4 hours away on foot) and the culture and traditions of the Black Hmong people, so the occasional addition of “You buy this from me?” or “Ok tomorrow I take you on trekking tour to my village!” were definitely worth bearing. And in the end I have to admit that we did in fact hire Song to guide us to her village and take us through the surrounding country, simply because, even though, like everyone else talking to tourists in Sapa she was after our money, she was also a genuine human being and treated us with respect, not as though we were simply wallets with legs. Her good command of the English language also helped.

The following day, Jess and I met Song outside of our hotel room and started off to her village 2.5 hours away. We stopped at the market to buy food for lunch which Song would prepare for us in her own home, and then left the gaudy pink and yellow hotels behind as we traipsed off into the rich and fertile farms of Northern Vietnam. Over the course of the walk, Song told us about her life and being a Black Hmong in a modern world. She is 23 years old, has 2 children, 5 and 3.5, lives with her husband of 6 years in the house they built together in his village, where his family has rice fields, leads a simple and very rural life, where children are mostly barefoot, their clothes are as dirty as the plain concrete or hard dirt floors of their house and where their schedules revolve around the rice season. She also has a cell phone, a 35” TV, a DVD player, a satellite dish, a motorcycle and is very much a part of the modern world.

Knee deep in mud and water buffalo dung planting riceIt is a very interesting place, this meeting of modern and rural minority. Song speaks far more English than she does Vietnamese, she is Christian, she understands and uses modern technology, but she also builds houses like her grandparents did, plant’s rice alongside her sister-in-law when the season comes, hand sews traditional Hmong clothing and adorns herself with unique and beautiful Hmong jewelry. Although I’ve done trekking to minority villages in the past, this was a unique experience seeing a modern Hmong life – one which melds both tradition and progress in a seemingly simple way. It’s not as if it’s some beautiful harmonious life where the best of both worlds is preserved like some Hollywood film – it’s just…life. It’s normal, everyday, run of the mill life for someone who is a member of a small ethnic group living in farm country but who is as much a part of today’s world as you or I. But for me it was rather eye-opening and it made me glad that Song took us into her home for a short time and share her life with us. We even planted rice together!

So after a lovely day trekking through stunning farmland and learning about the Black Hmong in Sapa, Jess and I hopped on the night train back to Hanoi (this time a VERY painful ride) and arrived back in the Vietnamese capital in time to meet up with our friend Nicole from Tonsai, with whom we’ve spent the last week climbing on Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. I will write more on that later – but I will just say, while it ain’t Tonsai, the climbing is beautiful and I’m happy to be back chalking up rocks!

Vietnam Day 1 – Noodle Soup – Check! Bia Hoi – Check!

•June 5, 2011 • Leave a Comment
The nicest noodle soup lady ever

The nicest noodle soup lady ever

So first things first. Hanoi: Crazy. Insane. Worst. Traffic. Ever (I saw 4 accidents at 9:30 am on the 25 km ride from the Airport to the city and nearly got run over by half a dozen motorbikes exploring the Old Quarter today)! Colorful. Loud. Fun. Busy. Did I say Crazy? It’s a mishmosh of Colonialism, Communism, and a vibrant Asian street culture – an absolute contradiction of lives that somehow merge into Hanoi. From the 6 inch high pink plastic stool where I enjoyed my noodle soup lunch I could see an Aldo across the road from a stall on the street selling 3 dollar plastic sandals and knock off converse; I could see Calvin Klein next to Kenneth “Kole”*; and my street vendor lunch, which included full service (see 3rd paragraph) was the same price as my “French” style ice cream cone for desert.

The dichotomy of such amenities is also present in the Vietnamese culture. Last night, I went to see an amazing show – one which I never would have thought existed, much less envisioned myself attending: a water puppet show (see video below). Sure it’s gimmicky, touristy, and absolutely aimed at the rich foreigners, with up to 5, 45 minute long shows a day. It’s also a traditional art form, rarely performed (outside of this instance), uniquely Vietnamese, and can trace its roots back over 1000 years. And tonight for only about 2x as much (3 and 6 USD respectively) I went to a world-class performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony by the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra at the old Hanoi Opera House. Definitely see the water puppets if you’re ever in Hanoi, and if there happens to be something cheap on at the Opera, you should definitely take a gander.

It has been a fun couple days in Hanoi so far, wandering around the Old Quarter with its crazy and unique architecture (French colonial and Chinese influences in a place where land is very expensive so 90% of buildings are probably about 4 meters wide), enjoying  refreshing 40 cent draught beers on the street corners with the locals, and having delicious noodle soup on tiny plastic stools. In fact my first meal in Vietnam will probably be one of the cutest: Jess and I sat down at a small stall where a huge pot of soup was bubbling away. We were served two bowls of noodle soup by an old woman who later informed us she was 78 years old! Mmmm DIY cooking!Over the course of the meal she couldn’t do enough for us: after eating about 1/3 of the soup she just reached over and refilled our bowls to the brim; she kept topping up the veggies in the side plate and showing us which ones to add to the soup, how to eat it and which vinegars and chili sauces to add; when I selected some fried onions from my soup to eat, she immediately scooped a big handful into my bowl; she fanned us the whole time we sat there keeping us cool while we sweated out the hot soup; she smiled and laughed at our attempts to finish the constantly refilling bowl of soup; and she actually even picked a bit of noodle out of my beard! Now I can’t say it was the tastiest bowl of noodle soup I’ve had on this trip, it was certainly the most memorable one!

Tomorrow we’ll be doing all the tourist things – hitting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex, the One Pillar Pagoda, the Temple of Literature, etc. or at least that’s the plan! It’s dependant on early rising…which may or may not occur! Ha! Then it’s the night train to Sapa to see beautiful landscapes, do a bit of trekking and hopefully visit some local hill tribe villages! We’ll see though, I’m a bit worried. From here it all seems like it’s a bit of a show put on for tourists (in large part due to the way it’s presented in all 167,359 of the tourism agencies in Hanoi). Still – happy to be getting away from the hustle and bustle that is the crazy streets of Hanoi!

*Artistic license – there’s no such store as Kenneth Kole – it’s meant to represent once again the small booths and stalls which cheap reproductions of name brands.