A Distraction From The Conflict With More Eco-Travels In Vietnam

plastic-bags-vietnam-israel

(Plastic bags on the trees in Vietnam)

With the bombing and chaos in Israel and Gaza right now, it’s a little hard to focus on positive green news from the Middle East. My passion for it, is a little clouded by all the politics and news of violence. See my latest post on TreeHugger “When the Green Side of Israel Gets Tainted Black.”

So instead of looking for green news from the Middle East region, where many people from both sides of the Green Line are looking to survive, we take you from our regularly scheduled programming, and re-visit Tania Guenter, a friend I met in Tel Aviv from New Zealand, as she eco-tours it around Vietnam. You can read her previous post on Where Things Come From in Vietnam.

Now, what’s new with Tania:

First night in Laos, Luang Prabang, and the honking of Hanoi motorcycle horns are still ringing in my ears, I have a reflex reaction of mistrust of locals and I’m straining my ears for street noise. However the loudest sound is the fishtank in reception where I’m writing this email at the most expensive hotel I’ve stayed at so far (although not the flashest) – all the cheaper guesthouses in Luang Prabang are full and I suspect prices are inflated for New Years.

Since I last wrote I have immersed myself in therapeutic mud and mineral hot springs at Nha Trang and wandered on the white sand beach, taken a rockin-rollin-ridin’ overnight train to Hoi An for a couple of nights, then on to Hanoi and Halong Bay.

Hoi An’s old quarter felt like a total tourist town – every second shop seemed to be a tailors, or a souvenir shop or a restaurant. Granted it has that dilapidated old world flavour, but I think I chose the wrong place to spend Xmas… it just doesn’t feel right to have people persistently trying to sell you stuff on Xmas Day… and the hotels didn’t have communal space for meeting people.

And to top it off as soon as I hit Hoi An it became grey and drizzled all day… so felt a wee bit lonely and sorry for myself. I rented a bike and explored a bit in the rain and got soaked… saw an old woman making clay pots as a younger woman turned the wheel with her foot, checked out the beach which is probably quite attractive and relaxing in sunshine, ordered myself a pair of tailormade sandals and a sundress. Got a massage side by side in the dark with other foreigners treating themselves for Xmas, and ate a tasty meal at a riverside cafe… alone!

I did a small cooking course the night before, where we learned how to make squid salad, fish in banana leaf and deep-fried spring rolls… then the best part… ate the food!

The day after Xmas I took a tour to My Son, some ancient ruins from the reign of the Champa Kingdom in the 10th century – admittedly mostly because I hadn’t met any people for a few days and I needed some company! The tour itself was nothing to write home about… it was raining, they took us to souvenir shops as part of the tour, charged us extra for entrance to the site and gave us a most uninspiring meal on the boat ride back that almost nobody ate… but I had a good time gasbagging, and the tour guide was intensely dramatic, like a B grade kung fu movie actor.

I extravagantly flew to Hanoi – on the way to the airport we saw an enormous cat-sized rat crossing the road – and then booked into one of the cheapest places in the city – the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, which I believe is the only YHA backpackers in Vietnam and has dorm rooms.

From hardly having any company for a few days I spent the next few days in dorms with no time to myself at all! A free breakfast of baguettes, butter, jam and bananas brought everyone together in the morning to stuff their faces, so I met plenty of people to hang out with and see the sights.

I booked an overnight boat trip to Halong Bay with 10 others and stayed overnight in a wooden boat. They brought out several different dishes of food and I got a very comfortable double room all to myself. During the day we went kayaking for a couple of hours through the towering limestone karsts which are shaped by thousands of years of wind and sea.

It was great grey and misty and there weren’t many other tour groups around, so it felt quite special. Only a few plastic bags and flotsam and jetsam floating in the water, and I saw a boat with a fishing net scooping up rubbish which was reassuring.

In the middle of it all we heard a dog yelping in distress on one of the rocky outcrops. At first I thought it was stuck in between some rocks, but then I noticed a man standing beside it and two other people moving quickly towards the dog.

Meanwhile the dog is still letting out the most ear-piercing screams and our guide says – if you are squeamish don’t read this bit – ‘don’t look please – they are killing it.’

Turns out they were bleeding the dog to death slowly, they would then skin it and roast it. Not the most romantic picnic on the rocks I could imagine… and of course the question is where did the dog come from? We suspected they may have stolen it from one of the houseboats on the water. But of course this is Vietnam and life is different here… how can we judge? (although the sounds of the dog kept replaying in my mind.)

Back to safe tourist haven non-Vietnam land of the boat… we played a few good old-fashioned drinking games and danced around to a young Aussie guy’s iPod, which included a section of Disney tunes… as an older and more cynical New Yorker said, he and his friends were the most gay straight guys he’d ever met.

So yeah, a final few hours in Hanoi and then on to Luang Prabang. Before I left I got up to see Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which is heavily guarded, and you can only walk past him in single file, no stopping and no pictures. He looked very peaceful… although apparently he had asked to be cremated, not enbalmed.

I also saw the old Hoa Lo prison where the French kept Vietnamese ‘rebels’ and according to the museum, mistreated them terribly (testimony to this is a graphic photo of three recently guillotined heads of Vietnamese on display in baskets as an example to others). American prisoners of war were later kept there too, but very humanely treated if we can believe the propaganda photos… which make the whole experience look like some kind of holiday camp.

It’s now the day after my first night in Laos. I had to move hotels again as mine had been booked out in advance, so had to go on another agonising search to find a place to lay my head. I was even gearing myself up to accost a traveller on the street to ask if I could share their room, but managed to find a room of my own in the end.

Today I took a minivan to a fairytale-like waterfall called Kuang Si, walked to the top of the falls and down the other side and swam at the bottom in a cloudy turquoise pool.

This was all lovely until I realised on the way back that the bikini bottoms (which were quite an expensive pre-trip purchase) which were drying outside my pack had fallen off… gutted! I told my driver, who didn’t speak much English, in the vain hope that there’d be a lost and found of some description and I got the famous eye-twinkling Laos smile which I’m guessing was a Buddhist way of saying ‘c’est la vie’ or ‘you’re shit out of luck lady’ – in any case not another word was said about it.

So I’m now wondering what to wear for my next swimming experience, as swimsuits are not an item you see in the shops in this part of the world. 

Happy New Years

For more offbeat traveling articles on Green Prophet see:
Eco-Tourism in Jordan
Eco-tourism in Iran
Eco-Tourism Takes Root in Lebanon

(Image credit: StephanRidgway)

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