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Vietnam: Top five experiences

Ta Hien Beer Street in Hanoi

Vietnam is uniquely South East Asian with all the good parts – great food, polite service, plenty of old culture and sights to devour, yet with subtle differentiating touches of its own. I mean, the sight of scores of locals and tourists sitting on low stools, red and blue, chugging fresh beer (Bia hơi, 20 cents, I kid you not) out of large decanters, throwing peanut shells and questionable animal leftovers onto the floor, and creating a party cacophony into the receptive night… was really uniquely Vietnamese 

My memorable experiences were many, but I’ve tried to list the top five, which despite being hyped and touristy, were totally worth it.

Cruising along Halong Bay
By the Halong Bay

Totally worth the hype and the money paid. Cruising along the bay, watching the sunset amidst the gently lapping sea, looking over as the towering hills pop out of the sea and loom around as I sip an unidentified cocktail on the ship’s deck, was quite something else. Hạ Long Bay, in northeast Vietnam, is known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rain forests.

A Hạ Long bay cruise costs between USD 170 to USD 220. Paradise, Indochina and Dragon junk are among the better rated cruise companies. We took the Huong Hai Sealife cruise which was very good too. It visits the Bai Tu Long bay, more remote than the others, else we hear the night docking area looks like a parking lot. As part of the cruise, we also visit some fishing villages, learn how to cook local fare, watch movies of the French rule or American war and attempt Tai Chi. Cheesy, but picturesque fun.

Boating on Trang An
Trang An Grottoes

Situated at the south of the Red River Delta in Vietnam, the Trang An Landscape Complex is a spectacular landscape of limestone peaks permeated with valleys, many of them partly submerged and surrounded by steep, almost vertical cliffs. This is less crowded than the more popular Tam Coc, just minutes away, but equally mind blowing. Rowboats, driven by hardy women, take you through the limestone caves and the hills, and over a period of three hours you get a taste of darkness and light…green hills and greener waters…slow lapping of the paddle…gentle lulling of the sun on your face…silence of the tall hills around…bees buzzing in your ears… you get the picture.

The bike ride from Hue to Hoi An
Riding along
Riding along lagoons from Hue to Hoi An

This is a must do activity. We were lucky to have good weather and a fantastic tour group organizing this for us and we had the best 8 hours of our Vietnamese sojourn. we tried all modes of transport in this trip – we flew (JetStar – good enough), took the SE19 (basic and clean), cruised, took a local bus to Ninh Binh (decent but avoidable in bad weather) and this rounded the portfolio.

It drizzled on our faces. The wind blew our hair. The roads were wide and smooth, the sights beautiful. Specially when we moved over from Hue to Da Nang.

I looked it up online. The Hải Vân Pass (or “ocean cloud pass”), is a ~21 km long mountain pass on National Route 1A in Vietnam.

The first view of Da Nang

“Historically, the pass was a physical division between the kingdoms of Champa and Đại Việt. The pass is renowned for its scenic beauty. Presenter Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC motoring programme Top Gear, featured the pass during the show’s 2008 Vietnam Special, calling the road “a deserted ribbon of perfection—one of the best coast roads in the world.” Wikipedia

 

Hoi An
Hoi An streets

What a great, great little place!

The little town is called the Venice of Vietnam and you’ll see why as soon as you’ve stepped foot on it. Beautiful night markets, lanterns in the sky, a fancy Japanese bridge, perplexing art work, old houses, crafts and coffee…I didn’t want to leave. Umm… did I mention lanterns in the sky?

Buy a ticket for 120k Dong to enter the old quarters and just walk and walk. I could never tire of it and wanted to stay on forever. And there is a lot more to do.

Night life
View from Chill Sky bar at Saigaon

Backpacker’s street in Saigon and Ta Hien street in Hanoi – party the night away with cheap beer and pop mixes which seem to run on a loop. The locals love a good party too and the weekends are throbbing with activity.

Did I convince you enough? Pack your bags for Vietnam now. It is pocket friendly, and offers experiences you will scarce find elsewhere.

Freeloaders – Part 1

“It was a good thing they decided to stop by the police station.”

“…a good thing they’re giving us a ride.”

“We hardly left them any choice.”

“Even so, lucky us.”

There were four of them sitting at the backseat of the car. Squeezed together like playing a game of poke-a-rib.

Two of them were boys, similarly dark and lanky. The grumpier one was called Ganesh. Long haired, angular nosed, arched heroine-like eyebrows, a mole on his upper lip that bobbed when he spoke. Hands that stayed clasped on his laps. A stiff body. Stiff movements. Very angry. His friend was Vinod. More genial. Gaunt cheeks but huge bags under his eyes and chin. Bruises on his forehead. Welts under his eyes. Nervous movements. Constantly scratching his head. As if checking for lice. Or blood.

Next to them was a very dishevelled woman in her thirties. Shilpa. She looked as if she had just gotten out of bed. Hair in clumps over her forehead and ears. Her well-tailored clothes crumpled. Necklace awry. Lipstick smudged, Kohl running down her cheeks. The corners of her mouth were pulled down in a permanent grimace. She looked like a disgruntled mannequin.

And last was an old man. Avinash. Generously built. Slightly bent. Slow, deliberate movements. In green kurta and white pyjama. Sports shoes on his feet as if he had just been out for a walk. He was the most pleasant looking of the lot. Smiley. Twinkling eyes.

“Why wouldn’t the damn constable release our vehicles?” Ganesh grumbled.

“He was totally ignoring us,” Shilpa said.

“Both the car and the bike were in pathetic states,” Avinash murmured.

“Do you think we’ll ever get them back?” Vinod asked. “Or get back in them?” Chuckled.

The four of them, save for Vinod and Ganesh who were childhood buddies, had grown friendly during their visits to the police station. The outpost was located ten kilometers from the first toll naka after hitting NH228. Usually they hitchhiked on police vehicles but today they’d gotten hold of a kind couple and had just started back when they stopped. It was ten PM and growing rapidly isolated. They did not say it but wished they’d get a move on.

“Do you think I should comfort her?” Shilpa whispered, jerking her chin at the woman weeping in the front-passenger seat.

“Fat lot that’s gonna help,” Vinod murmured. He was always doing that, discouraging and criticizing people. The worst ever pillion, Ganesh told him atleast once every day. An irritating, nagging extra. Why not just come to the front and do what you want me to do? Vinod never did that though. Too afraid. Too bored. He was the archetype backseat driver and played his role to perfection.

Then a voice piped in. Like a sage from the mountains. “You could try talking to her,” Avinash said, “but I doubt she’d hear you, the state she is in.”

The weeping woman was Arohi, in love and betrothed to the man standing outside, smoking. He was trying to calm himself down as was she. Usually cheerful, funny and level-headed, Arohi was right now sulking after a fight…a fight that had been recurring with her fiancé Veer for many months now. They loved each other with a crazy kind of zeal, but Veer loved something even more. Racing. Cars. Racing his fancy sports car on empty streets. Or even what only looked like sort of empty streets.

After a few minutes, Veer leaned to look inside. Exchanged glances with Arohi. Then tentatively smiled.

Shilpa sighed softly. “Ah, to be in love…”

“It’s not easy…and not all black and white,” Avinash muttered.

“I know.”

Read what happens next

Freeloaders – Part 2

Read what happened before

Shilpa couldn’t tell Avinash how well she knew. That was the reason she looked like she did. She knew he wanted to ask, ever since they’d bumped into each other, but had restrained himself. She was grateful but wanted to tell him all the same. To explain.

She had found her husband in the arms of another woman. A prostitute. In a hotel room. She had followed him when he’d left home. She’d known something shady was going on for some time now. The furtive phone calls, the two day trips outside town, money flowing out of their joint accounts but she’d kept quiet. She had two little children. No job. Her husband was rich. If he left her, where was she to go?

But when he went upstairs into the hotel room with the gorgeous blonde, Shilpa had lost it. Snatching the keys from the startled valet, she had driven out of the hotel’s lobby in a frenzy, careened the car through the busy roads and then to the highway in a matter of minutes. Uncaring of who was around. Her eyes blinded with tears.

It was six in the evening then. People were stepping out for their evening walks.

But she saw nothing…

A quarrel broke into her reverie. It was Ganesh and Vinod. They’d been at it ever since Shilpa and Avinash met them at the station three days ago, hanging around their impounded vehicles in the tow yard.

“You thought the truck was moving?” Vinod shouted.

“Why didn’t you stop me?” Ganesh growled. “I asked you, right?”

“We were both drunk,” Vinod said. “I told you to check yourself.”

“Why didn’t you…,” Ganesh shouted back. His eyes bulged in anger. Then simmered down when he noticed Arohi had turned, a questioning look on her face.

“Shhh…” Shilpa and Avinash warned together.

But Ganesh was fuming.

They had both been drunk. A little more…a little more…then some more. They had done it so many times before. Another time, what did it matter? Ganesh had felt light-headed the moment he’d started the bike but thought he’d look like a wimp if he said he was too drunk to drive. What was too drunk anyway? Then Vinod had started to chatter away and he was distracted.

The truck in front of them had looked like it was at a halt. And they’d jammed straight into it. The bike had swerved and they’d fallen. Skidded. Vinod was thrown off to the other side of the road and Ganesh hit the back of the truck and went under. Flopping like headless dolls. The truck driver had abandoned the vehicle and fled.

An empty road. No helmets. Grievous injuries. It was a while before help arrived.

The incident played out in both their heads. There was a brief moment of silence.

Then they spoke together.

“I’m sorry I shouldn’t have been talking so much,” Vinod said.

“I’m sorry I shouldn’t have drunk so much,” Ganesh said.

Awkwardly, they hugged. Watery eyes. Loose grins. Sad faces.

“And I’m sorry I hit you,” Shilpa said, turning to Avinash. Her lips turned down further. A tear escaped her eye. “I wasn’t looking. I was so angry and…,” she gulped, “I didn’t see you cross the road even though it was a zebra crossing.”

He shrugged and said lightly. “What’s done is done.”

Read what happens next

Freeloaders – Part 3

Read what happened before….

She opened her mouth to say something but just then the door on the driver side opened. Veer came in and sat down. Then turning to Arohi, and with a slow, conciliatory smile, said, “I’ll be careful, I promise. I know it’s dark and I should mind where I’m going.”

“This is not an F1 race,” Arohi prompted.

He nodded. His smile grew wider. “It’s not.”

Reaching out, she patted his cheek. Her misty eyes glittered in the dark.

“I want to be able to eat at Shamiana tonight,” she said softly. “Watch a movie at PVR tomorrow. Have your babies. Buy a house. Why not just be careful. What’s the hurry?”

He nodded again. Turned the key. Started the engine.

“I agree, honey bunch,” he murmured. “I lost myself there for a moment. With the roads so empty…one gets excited….We don’t get that in the city, right? But I won’t do it anymore. Promise.”

Collective sighs from the back. Sad. Remorseful. A couple of sniffs.

Arohi turned. Glanced around. Then turned back to face the front, a frown on her face.

“What?” Veer asked.

“It’s been weird,” she said.

“What has?”

“Ever since the police stopped you at the barricade…,” she bit her lip, “the insides of the car feels strange…heavy…stagnant…,” she turned again to stare at the empty darkness behind, “and it’s like I can hear whisperings.”

“What rubbish,” he snorted. Reached out and stroked her hair. “Imagining things again, are we?”

She shrugged. Turned on the radio.

No one heard them sigh again. Voices lost is the wind. Ghosts in the backseat….ghosts that were fading…as they slowly came to terms with their unexpected deaths.

“She’s a smart one, that girl,” Ganesh said. “She can hear us.”

“She would’ve seen us too if you’d kept us alive,” Vinod muttered.

“A moment of madness, that’s what it was,” Shilpa said.

“A moment…and a whole life’s gone,” Avinash said. Lowered his head. “And all our loved ones…left behind.”

Ends…

Why you should do a Berlin Christmas (Or well, Berlin anything)

Berlin
Alexanderplatz

Berlin. Why?

“She blamed the city. She imagined Berlin to be like her, wearing its chequered past like a throbbing muscle, camouflaged with dark overcoats and strong beer, newly sunken in its discoveries of graffiti and hip hop, glamour and grit, yet knowing full well it can never totally be happy. Berlin was a city of old people like young and young people like old. She’d often felt one among the brooding, mysterious, purposefully aimless inhabitants who flitted past her like shadows. Like the city, she enjoyed the discontentment that came with forever looking, never feeling complete, and not even aspiring for it. Because, it was a delicious feeling, that.”

– Excerpt from a yet to be published story by yours truly.

Berlin Wall
East Side Wall
Random Berlin witticism

And that’s Berlin for you. Beautiful, confusing, conflicted, simmering at the edges. In a moment of
indiscretion (or maybe not) I called it a new age Paris. Not as haughty, not looking down from its lofty heights, perhaps. Berlin is the grungy male to Paris’ chic female avatar. To be honest, I was more relaxed in Berlin; it seemed more accepting.
For those who want to visit, and want to see the highlights, this is what we did:

 

  • The basics: Sandeman’s free tour or the Alternative tour. We did both and though parts of them overlapped, the city and the entertaining guides made it worth our while
  • The Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain neighborhoods: Drink, party and shop till you drop
  • Alexanderplatz, Mitte and around. We went in Christmas, so yeah, Christmas markets. Especially, WeihnachtsZauber Gendarmenmarkt where my companion fell in love with a hunky bartender and insisted on going again the next day. This led to an audible enough argument in front of the Humboldt-Universität where she claimed he was an out of work actor in dire need of the support of her willing shoulders 
  • The TV tower offers a great view but try the Deutscher Bundestag for an equally amazing vantage point and orientation to the city. Doing this is free!
  • Mauerpark, Arkonplatz and Bearpit karaoke on a Sunday
  • Abandoned Berlin. Oh my! What an experience.

And then day trips to Dresden and Potsdam. We used Sandeman for the latter and we started the trip with warm cups of gluewein. Gotta love the Germans.

You can find a good list of Berlin tours at this site.

Also, Free Tours by Foot had some great self walk itinerary. Check them out.