Hue, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur 14-24 March 2016
The second week of the PVI project in Hue provided more work than the first. Enough progress had been made at the Hope Centre to allow a painting team to get started. It proved to be hard work. Many of the walls were newly rendered and the cement was still wet. The builder supplied some very cheap, thin white paint but no sealer so the paint simply soaked into the walls as fast as it was applied. Three and even four coats were still not enough to give a good finish. Still, we did the best we could and worked hard to try to complete as much as possible. Past projects have always been completed on time, or at worst, a few bits of painting remained for a skeleton crew to finish off after hand-over. This time, the time-line has been set by the local builder and the job will not be complete. Our contribution has been considerable but the main responsibility lies with the Vietnamese team, who would not be as concerned as us if the work is finished a few days late.
Members of the team came and went, some took a trip over the mountains to Hoi An to scope out some possible work for 2017 and others took overnight trips to various locations. The dreaded illness also seemed to strike some down, not the usual tummy wog experienced in these parts but more of a cold/virus thing. We seem to have avoided it so far.
It seems as though we have been in Hue for months rather than a bit more than a week. Negotiating the hustle and bustle of the city streets is second nature to us now. Food wise, we have explored most of the tastes and places on offer around our area and have even given in and had pizza and a few chips. It is amazing how good mundane western food tastes after a diet of noodles and rice. One thing we will miss when we get home is the coffee. Vietnamese coffee does not suit everyone’s taste but we love it, either cold or hot, along with a good dose of sweet condensed milk. It is strong with a heavy mocha flavour. Our attempts to replicate the taste back in Australia, using the same equipment and imported Vietnamese beans, never seem to work for some reason.
It will be a wrench tearing ourselves away from the amazing breakfasts every morning. We have had daily access to all kinds of yummy pastries and tiny sweets, as well as pancakes. The egg chef has been kept busy and the home made yoghurt is the best ever. Despite all the walking and hard work, there seems to be a kilo or so added to the frame so it will be cold porridge and thin gruel for the next few weeks.
Friday was the deadline day and when it finally arrived, it was surprising just how well everything had gone. The Hope Centre was ready for occupation, with the painting not finished to our standards but certainly good enough. The Lotus Centre looked terrific and the changes that have been made, with increased sheltered areas, are certainly appreciated by the group of disabled folk who rely on the centre for support.
The handover ceremony consisted of an inspection of the completed work and the usual speeches, along with a spread of food and drinks at the Lotus Centre. It was quite a large crowd by the time the clients of the centre, the local workers and the remaining PVI members all joined together. With a few beers down, it occurred to us that the whole job may have gone better if we had started out with a party to get to know each other. It was one of the better after work parties we have been to in Vietnam and it was satisfying to see just how pleased the users of the facility were with their new buildings.
We said our farewells to all the other PVI workers, most of who would have departed Hue by Sunday, and made our way back to the hotel to pack ready to move on.
We caught the Friday night train out of Hue at 9pm with a 15 hour trip to Hanoi ahead of us. Our four berth compartment was already occupied by a young British guy travelling on his own. By coincidence, he had just come from WA for a friend’s wedding in Yallingup. We chatted for a while and learnt that he was a vegetarian, which is definitely not a problem in Vietnam, but also allergic to nuts. I’m not sure how one would cope backpacking with a nut intolerance, especially in a country where people will answer “yes” to any question they don’t understand. Around 11:30pm, the train stopped in Dong Hoi and a local girl joined us to complete the set.
Dawn saw an overcast sky with a lot of mist and light drizzle, typical for this time of year. We have done quite a few train trips through the northern parts of Vietnam and enjoy them. The never ending rice paddies are broken up now and then with small villages and the occasional provincial town. Having worked in similar surroundings, the scenery is familiar. We relaxed, read and dozed until the train neared Hanoi. We had a moment of nostalgia when we stopped at Phu Ly station. Everything looked so familiar, even though it has been a couple of years since we were last there. The town looked much the same, with a few new buildings going up, although we heard from our friend Van later that the big market had burnt down, causing quite a few problems for those who relied on it for business.
As we left the station in Hanoi, the usual taxi tout rushed over and bullied us about taking a cab. Looking around, there did not seem to be a well organised rank like in Danang and Hue. He assured us that he had a metered taxi, and led us to an unmarked four wheel drive. We refused that and insisted on a meter so he took us to marked cab, which did sport a meter on the dash. There was no sign of the driver but the tout bundled our bags into the passenger seat, covering the meter up and shouted over the crowd for the driver. The driver eventually turned up, grabbed the offending bag and put it in the boot, but then moved another bag to cover up the meter again and we took off. When we got to the hotel, the final bill was 376,000dong, about $22 for what should have been a $4 trip. I was quick to get the bags out of the car before we refused to pay. He opted for 200,000d but we stood firm and gave him 100,000d, still generous but enough to shut him up without a brawl in the street. Gotta love Hanoi!
The Old Quarter of Hanoi has undergone a few changes in the last few years but mostly for the better. On weekends, the Ma May area and surrounding streets are now closed to traffic from 7pm onwards. In practice, this means the traffic eases between 7 and 8pm before the streets become totally clear. Lights have been strung above all the streets and the atmosphere is fabulous, buoyed up by the presence of a few market stalls and some street performers. Fortunately, the el cheapo fresh beer (Bia Hoi) and the street food vendors remain. There were a few other PVI people in Hanoi so we enjoyed a wonderful BBQ together, cooking little strips of chicken and vegetables over hot plates with a beautifully spiced marinade. The weather warmed, we ate, we drank, we walked, all as one should do when in Hanoi.
Our main reason for coming north to Hanoi was to catch up with Van, the lovely young girl from the Rice Restaurant in Phu Ly. Although we had not seen her for nearly three years, we had kept in touch via email and Facebook. We brought her a wedding present of an Australia themed table cloth, about two years late, but better late than never, and spent a fabulous morning with her wandering the Old Quarter. Van did not know this part of Hanoi well so together we worked out where we were with a map and found our way to the markets. Having a local with you in the markets cuts out all the hard work of settling on a good price of being forced to buy things you don’t want. We had loads of fun wandering the markets and buying bits and pieces for the grandkids. Then we went to a restaurant and shared lunch before saying our farewells, with Van facing an hour’s drive home to Phu Ly. She is still studying and commutes to Hanoi on weekends for study. On weekdays, she teaches accounting at the University in Phu Ly. It was wonderful to catch up with her and see how she has grown into a very sophisticated young woman.
On our final night in Hanoi, we headed down to Bia Hoi corner to have a drink with Quyng (the shoeshine man). He is a very likeable guy who always greets us warmly and asks after other members of the PVI team. He lives in a village about 100km out of Hanoi and returns home for a few days every couple of weeks. The rest of the time is spent finding ways of earning a living on the streets of the Old Quarter. He could be so much more, with his obvious intelligence and good levels of English. We always enjoy catching up.
We have noticed that the various small eateries have really expanded around the Bia Hoi corner. Where once there was two or three kerbside beer kegs going, now most places run a Bia Hoi, selling draught fresh beer at prices as low as 16 cents a glass. It must be having an impact on the larger restaurants and bars because the security patrols now turn up at regular intervals and throw everyone off the streets. Quyng told us that they were not police but security, employed by the Government. They will stand around and do little for a while then suddenly order all stools and tables removed from the roadside areas. Sometimes, they will confiscate the stools and tables, later selling them back or selling to the larger establishments. While we were having a meal later on, they came through and we had to scamper for cover as the eateries rearranged the furniture, meals and all. The whole process is mystifying but fun to watch. I guess I can see the larger restaurant owners’ point of view but one feels for the little guys too.
An early morning flight out of Hanoi bound for Kuala Lumpur brought our Vietnam trip to an end, a welcome return after missing a few years. We will be back.
Kuala Lumpur was unchanged, not surprising considering we were here only two weeks ago. We made our way back to the Hotel 99 and checked in. This time, we had given ourselves an extra day in KL and needed an activity to fill in the time. Despite the fact that we have been to KL many times, we have never fully explored the city, tending to just wander the markets and eat wonderful food. We stopped in at the travel desk in the hotel lobby and booked a half day tour of the main sights of the city, then went out to wander the markets and eat wonderful food. After a plate of Bee Hoon, some excellent crispy squid and six pairs of sox, it was back to the hotel to watch a Jackie Chan movie (appalling).
The next morning, we had a rare sleep-in, followed by a lazy morning, before setting off in the afternoon for our city tour. There were only ten on the tour, yet they still took us around in a large tour coach, quite a feat of driving in the congested roads of Kuala Lumpur. The driver new all the short-cuts and work-arounds to avoid the many traffic jams. The tour was excellent and we certainly saw a lot of sights that we otherwise would never see. The National Museum was very well presented and we would have liked to have more time there, exploring the excellent exhibits portraying Malaysia’s colourful past. The chocolate factory was the usual selling stop but at least they gave plenty of tasting samples and we did end up buying some for family anyway. Batik is a craft form we both admire. The Batik Centre had some fine examples and we could watch people at work on some amazing creations. There were photo stops at the famous twin towers, a war memorial, the King’s Palace and other points of interest. It was after 7pm by the time we got back to the hotel, somehow managing to be the last drop-off.
Our last night in KL was spent having a beer (surprise) and searching out some Murtabak, our favourite straits food. We have sampled this delight in Singapore, Melacca, Langkawi and Penang and always try to experience it when in Malaysia. Unfortunately, the Murtabak we found in Jalan Pudu was acceptable but not up to our exacting standards. Christine can do better. The pancake was thin and the filling too thick. Oh well, we’ll just have to try again another time.
The 7am Star Shuttle Bus had us heading back to the airport the next morning on our way home again. It was great to catch up with old friends, make some new ones and touch base again with our beloved Vietnam.