3rd March to 5th March 2016 – After a couple of years of missing the PVI Project in Vietnam, the stars have aligned for us again and we are off to complete another two week job. This time, the project has relocated to Hue, on the Central Coast. The job is a continuation of the one started last year, working with the Office of Genetic Counselling and Disabled Children, to upgrade and convert some old buildings into working facilities.
We left Perth for Kuala Lumpur, faced with two days of planes, busses, trains and seemingly endless hours of airport waiting. As every year progresses, the airports get classier, bigger and sometimes more efficient but somehow, the experience remains largely unchanged. In a way I suppose it has changed because when we were poor and untravelled, it was exciting and wonderful to walk around the duty free shops and have a poorly made and overly expensive coffee while filling out immigration forms. Now it is just a bloody awful time to endure.
Our previous entries into Malaysia have been quick and efficient. Things have changed. The areas between disembarkation and immigration are now heavily populated with people of Middle Eastern origins. There are masses of people just sitting in large groups, watched over by officials. I guess that a lot of immigration workers are tied up with refugees because the lines for tourist entry were very long. Getting through took an hour. Back in Australia, we think we have a boat people problem but we sometimes forget that we are relatively shielded compared to Indonesia and Malaysia, who are currently being swamped with refugees. Europe too gets a lot of publicity but perhaps we need to help our neighbours out a bit more and take the pressure off us that way.
We bussed from KL Airport to the Pudu Bus Station which left only a short walk to Hotel 99 in Jalan Pudu. We were thown for a bit until we realised that the bus station had relocated down the road a short distance since our last visit and we soon found our lodgings, not flash but good enough for a one night stand and cheap enough for us. After settling in and having a coffee, we headed off to wander around China Town and brave the cramped markets of Petaling Street. Asian markets are another thing that has lost their appeal, not only because we have been in so many but also because they seem to have popped up everywhere in Australia as well. The difference with the markets in Asia is now mostly down to clothes sizes. I just hate the thought of fitting into XXXL underpants.
We settled down in a grotty looking food area that sold cheap beer and excellent street food, knocking off some of the best crispy squid (Fried Squit on the menu) and some equally delicious Thai Fish Cakes. Later, we stopped for another snack at a much more glamorous looking place and the food wasn’t a patch on the first. It is so often the way in Asia. If you can overcome the aversion to somewhat less than clean conditions, the food outlets that cater to locals will beat the tourist haunts every time.
With full bellies and another early start ahead of us, we headed home to bed,.
Kuala Lumpur is definitely in the wrong time zone. We rose at 6am but there was not even a hint of daylight and the first cracks of dawn did not appear until we were on the 7am bus and headed out towards the airport. An hour of driving through heavy traffic brought us to KLIA2, Kuala Lumpur’s second airport terminal. This huge structure is so enormous you need to factor walking times into your travel plans. Being unsure of how long processing would take, we checked our bags, got through immigration and finally settled down to breakfast at a Toast Box. This is fast food that we love, two barely boiled eggs, soy sauce, kaya toast made with thick sliced butter and honey all washed down with ultra sweet strong kopi (coffee). Bring on Toast Box Oz!
The flight to Danang in Vietnam was only a couple of hours and went without a hitch. Amazingly, we left the airport at Danang and had to actually look for a taxi. There were no touts attacking us or trying to wrestle the luggage from our control. Everything was very orderly. Before we left, we organised a couple of local SIM cards for the phones. $12 bought us a card with unlimited 3G data for a month. I wish I had that in Australia. I could have bought 300Mb of Telstra roaming data for a mere $80.
With a five hour wait ahead of us in Danang, we settled in at a cafe opposite the railway station (Ga Da Nang) and watched the passing parade. It is impossible to tire of watching a busy intersection anywhere in Vietnam, with buses turning front of oncoming traffic, trucks travelling on the wrong side of the road and thousands of scooters acting like a school of bait fish. Unfortunately, you also don’t have to wait long to hear the wail of an ambulance siren as it heads towards the scene of yet another road accident, usually involving a motorbike.
We had a delicious bowl of a local delicacy called Cao Lau, a rich broth filled with thick and thin noodles, slices of roast pork and topped with crispy pork crackling. A couple of Ba Ba Bas (333 Beer) rounded the meal off. Who needs to get on a train?
This was our first train trip in Vietnam in anything other than a sleeper compartment. It will be our last time. The seat in our “soft seat” carriage was comfortable enough but lacked leg room for an average sized westerner. The biggest problem is that every seat was taken and there was little opportunity to get up and move around. Fortunately, the trip was only two and a half hours so we emerged at Hue stiff and sore but not too shaken. The good news is that we had not been so cheap that we had booked the “hard seat” carriage.
Hue is a small city by Asian standards with a population of only 340,000 but it is rather modern and organised, with a bustling tourism industry supporting eateries and even some nightlife. As the Imperial Capital from 1804 to 1945, it boasts a number of UNESCO World Heritage buildings, mostly within the fortified old city (Citadel) or inner Forbidden City. What remains today is what managed to survive the Vietnam War, with heavy destruction resulting from a big battle during the Tet Offensive.
Once again, we found things had changed since our last visit. Back in 2011, we got off the train to have our bags whisked away by a taxi tout, before being forced into a dirty little cab that tried very hard to take us to the hotel of their choice, saying ours was no good. This time, a group of uniformed taxi men showed us politely to a waiting metered cab and drove us straight to the Cherish Hotel. The Cherish is certainly a cut above our last PVI lodgings in Phu Ly, with restaurants, bars, a gym and swimming pool. We were soon settled in for the night, safely arrived at last.
Saturday was a lazy day, exploring the immediate surrounds of the hotel and identifying good eateries, a laundry and various other useful spots. Over the course of the day, more and more PVI team members arrived and we had a great time catching up with what looks like a great crew. This year, there are a few new comers, some even new to Vietnam itself. Thinking back to our first visits here, it is easy for us to forget just how much of a cultural shock there can be, although living in the middle of a city like Hue softens the blow somewhat. As always, traffic negotiation is difficult for beginners. The congestion in Hue is nothing like Hanoi or the pace of frenetic Saigon but one still needs to vigilant for the rogue scooter going the wrong way or cutting across footpaths. Wandering around, we did find that we missed the simple experiences of our annual returns to provincial Phu Ly in earlier years, where the sight of a westerner is a rarity and greetings are often shy but warm and genuine.
By Sunday, the crew was assembled and we had all had time to catch up with those we already knew and meet those we didn’t. We helped a few of the newcomers find their way around and work out the tricks behind managing day to day in a foreign environment. We rely a lot on the iPhone. We find that bringing up a picture of what you are looking for helps communication. We have tried phrase books and translator apps but difficulty with the actual pronunciation defeats us every time.
In the evening, we showed a group of newcomers the way to the Hanh Restaurant for a meal. It specialises in “Hue Breads” which seems to refer to a variety of dishes incorporating little packages of a glutinous rice starch with various flavourings. All are delicious and beautifully served in tiny ceramic bowls or wrapped in banana leaf and steamed. Another dish consisted of a crispy pancake creation filled with a paste, mushrooms and other unknown ingredients. We broke off pieces into a bowl, covered with fresh and pickled salad then spooned over a brown peanut sauce. It worked! After trying a lot of different dishes, including crème caramels, and drinking our share of cold beer, the bill came to 60,000 dong a head ($3.80). With full bellies, we headed for home to rest up for the start of work the next day.