Category Archives: Vietnam

Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu

In Hanoi I visited the St Joseph’s Cathedral. It was built by the French in 1886 on the site of  an 11th century pagoda. Who needs old pagoda’s? the French said, we bring progress, get away with it. When the French left in 1954, the cathedral was closed. as they couldn’t take it with them, and it didn’t open again until 1990. It had gathered a lot of dust by then.

The lofty interior brought a welcome escape from the frantic traffic outside and I took my time to admire the stained glass windows. They were beautiful. Especially John the Baptist who was dressed in rags, but looked proud and defiant at the visitors. In this case two Chinese women who were making selfies with Jesus.

During one of my last evenings in Hanoi I  sat at the lake again, with four or five disciples around me, ostensibly to practise their English, but in reality it was me lecturing on a wide range of topics. Tell us about…. And I told them. I told them about religion, about science, about history, about economy, about politics (treading carefully there) and about language.
In Germany they talk Dutch? One of them asked.
–  They try, I said, but they speak it badly, it’ s terrible Dutch. They call it German.


The Turtle Tower


The sleeper bus from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu was awful. A  motorcycle taxi took me to the bus station through traffic that would scare the shit out of Jason Bourne. The bus was very uncomfortable and they had stuffed as many people as they could in the contraption. It was a different model than I had experienced before and it had double seats which made for intimate relations with  your neighbour. Around 10 o’clock we stopped. Now we eat, my neighbour said. Sleeper bus protocol requires you to put your shoes in a plastic bag and during stops passengers are provided with flip flops. Since I was one of the last to leave the bus, I ended up with two, one size fits all, but still too small, flip flops. Two left ones…. We walked into the restaurant but it was very unclear where and how to order food. I didn’t see anyone sitting down and eating, so I bought some cookies. Just as I was doing so, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, come and eat! With the help of Google Translate, I was told that the meal was complimentary, so I sat down with my fellow travellers and food was placed on the tables. A young man took my bowl and filled it with rice and another handed me politely my chopsticks.  Then we ate.


Another 3 minute sketch

In Dien Bien Phu I found an okay hotel. It was actually extremely okay after a little bargaining and considering I then got cable tv, airco and marble floors. When I went out for a walk, I saw, quite unexpectedly, some colourfully dressed women at the market who belonged to minority groups, but they seemed even more surprised to see me. I smiled friendly to show them I was really harmless. Later I sat down at a small café where the waiter giggled and pointed at my arms. Then he pointed at his own arms. Hairy arms. Hi hi. And I thought this was the banana pancake trail….

In the evening I climbed the hill to  inspect the monument built there to commemorate the battle that was fought here in 1954 between the French and the Viet Minh. The French lost and it meant the end for their Indochina colony.

– Would you please surrender?
Non, of course not. We have many cannons, now go away.
– But we have more cannons than you.
– Don’t be silly…
– But it’s true.
– Yes…Oui…
When the Viet Minh started shelling the French positions, the French artillery commander committed suicide with a hand grenade. The Viet Minh closed in on their enemies.  Another French colonel was depressed and stayed in his bunker. More fighting ensued and in the end the French were overrun.
Then the guns stopped.
It was silent.

History used to be written by the victors, but these days it’s all Wikipedia.



The train that runs between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is known as the Reunification Express, but my train went simply under the more prosaic name SE20. Regrettably, I ignored the recommendations of the English website of Vietnam Railways, that advised: With the overnight train, you should take the soft berth to sleep and you will feel more comfortable tomorrow morning. Instead, I opted for the hard berth and bought my train ticket at a local travel agent as Hoi An didn’t have a train station. It saved me thirty dollars from the price quoted on the English language website, that promised to transfer my ticket with free ship to any place in Vietnam…


After boarding the train I found my hard berth and it was surprisingly hard as I had imagined the term to be obsolete, originating from a bygone era where there were actually differences in the hardness of the mattresses rather than the modern use of the term  merely reflecting the relative comfort of the respective classes. However, they were still luxurious compared to the days I cycled through Europe and slept many nights on my self-inflating mattress which, after several months, proved to be equally self deflating… The hard sleeper carriage  looked antique in a charming way with its wooden panels and narrow corridors. There was a cabinet with the words ‘tool box’ written on it, with which we could repair the train if it broke down or with which we could possibly defend ourselves against an attack of wild elephants. I have a romantic view of train travel. The toilets were clean, although using them was a bit of a steamy affair due to the lack of air conditioning. They were provided with a modern touch, so after finishing your business it sufficed to dismissively wave at it and it would automatically flush. Before we left there was a lengthy instruction on how to behave on board the train in both Vietnamese and quirky English. It was comprehensive and included what to do when suspecting a fellow traveller having rabies. The other upper berth was occupied by a young dentist who travelled to Hue and we had a bit of a conversation after which he bought a duck egg for me from a vendor. It tasted awful, but I thanked the dentist for his kind gesture. Unfortunately, that was the only food that was sold on the train and for the remainder of the journey I survived on peanuts and some cookies I had bought for occasions like these.

In the morning I woke up and looked out of the window. Rice fields to the left and rice fields to the right. I noticed that many people working in the fields wore the typical conical hats and I conducted a small survey which taught me that two out of three rural Vietnamese still wear the popular hat. Despite the fact that this model is about 2500 to 3000 years old, according to Wikipedia,  it is evidently very practical and protects against both the glaring sun and the rain.
Later we passed Ninh Minh and surrounding countryside which offered some fine views of the karst scenery of the region.


Fierce lion in the Temple of Literature

In Hanoi I visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh to finally complete my hat trick of famous dead bodies of communist leaders. Years ago I had seen the embalmed remains of Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing, but when I arrived in Hanoi, later that year, Ho Chi Minh’s body was moved to Moscow for maintenance.  Now I had the chance to right this, but before I could enter I was stopped at the security check. The woman showed me the x-ray monitor and I had to admit that my watercolour tubes, stacked neatly in a row, indeed closely resembled a cartridge of bullets. After we had established that I was not going to fire a round of ammunition through the dead body of Uncle Ho, I was allowed inside where, together with many others, I shuffled past the dead helmsman.

From the mausoleum I walked to the Temple of Literature through a narrow street of hardware stores where men were hammering and welding on the pavement. The Temple is dedicated to Confucius..
Confucius wrote: I hear and I forget. I see and I believe. I do and I understand.
The temple garden was beautiful and I sat for a while contemplating the words of Confucius, but I could make head nor tail of it.

Egg coffee tasted much like coffee with an egg thrown in, but the texture was a surprise: the viscosity of the egg with the hot coffee coming through like a gulp of lava was a weird sensation.
Bitter water tea, no surprises here either, tasted very bitter. I decided against trying facial water wu, though,  I thought I wouldn’t like it.

Not far from my hotel in the Old Quarter lies a small lake. The Vietnamese name of the lake means something like Lake of the Restored Sword and derives from a legend of Arthurian appeal, involving  a golden tortoise and, obviously, a sword. The park is one of the favourite haunts of students who want to practise their English.
So zealy wook.  The girl said.
Wook? I asked.
– Yes, wook.
I obviously showed a lack of understanding. Wook! She repeated.
– Ah, wook….
I said, still in the dark. And how do you feel about er…  wook?





Hoi An studies

From Dalat to Danang I took an overnight bus, which was convenient enough. The berths were rather cramped for my 1 m 95, but it was miles ahead of many of the nightmare journeys I’ve undertaken in the past… During one of the stops I saw two pigs scurrying past the bus in the dark on their way to Highway 1.
From Danang it was a short hop on a local bus to Hoi An where I arrived in the early morning. Hoi An itself is a UNESCO theme park. There are ticket booths where they sell tickets for the old city, but I found it best to simply ignore them. The local market seemed remarkably resilient to the flood of tourists and still had an authentic feel. Markets in this part of the world are invariably the best place for cheap food and a nice place for a coffee. If you can stand the smell of fish in the morning…

One of my days in the city coincided with a full moon festival during which people let little cardboard lanterns float on the river. After noticing the marked increase of tourist numbers in the past, the People’s Committee of the province has decided to now organise this colourful spectacle every two weeks (during full moon and new moon). Obviously, it now can no longer be called the Full Moon Festival and will likely be promoted as the Hoi An Lantern festival. This opens the possibility of even keeping the event every week and rake in still more tourist dollars… For now, I saw that the people still take it serious enough and they were very busy with their lanterns. Buddhist priests partake in the offerings and many people burn fake money on the pavements or at the riverbanks.


One of the benefits of sketching and painting is that you see details that most people don’t see. On this painting of the east entrance of the Japanese bridge, for example, you can see that its architecture fooled me with the extra angle which seems to appear at the roof, but is not there at ground level. From up close I saw that the angle was really ninety degrees, but the eaves suggest differently..
The perspective is skewed as I don’t make preliminary drawings, but the overall effect is pleasing and I was quite happy with the colours.

I attempted a watercolour from the other side of the river, but it wasn’t very satisfying.


But is it art?

The painting is overworked, the foliage on the left is poorly executed and rippling water obviously needs my attention.The quay is not straight, I have to work on my straight lines. And last but not least: zero composition…. but this is partly due to the fact that I’m often limited in places where I can sit in relative peace and without the sun  reducing me to a puddle of human misery.

On my way to the old town I bought a baguette from a mother and her daughter. When I had finished it, I noticed it was wrapped in the daughter’s homework: a fictitious English letter in neat handwriting. The next day I bought another baguette. This time the wrapping was a maths exercise. It was satisfying to notice that she had correctly solved the equation: 5x = 30.

In the late afternoon I often cycled to the beach. It was not spectacular, but it was nice to cool off a little bit and do some swimming. The Vietnamese call this the East Sea which  makes a lot of sense if you think about it.

Le Petit Paris

Homesick French would call Dalat, Le Petit Paris. It is a charming hill station in Vietnams Central Highlands  and maybe it was more deserving of the title in colonial times, but these days it is the usual urban sprawl with mad traffic that you see everywhere throughout the developing world. There are some charming old colonial villas left and the lake is very scenic, but the main draw for me was the pleasant climate. After many months of hot tropical conditions, it felt nice to be in more temperate surroundings. I had almost forgotten the joy of a hot shower

The sleeper  bus was very pleasant and it was the first time that I’d seen one outside of China where they are very common on long distance journeys. It took about 8 to get from Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat. The hotel seemed another shabby dig with a family in the lobby watching a television on which Mark Wahlberg was screaming in rather high pitched Vietnamese, but the room was really nice and the next morning I was surprised with raucous sunlight streaming through my window. Loved it. Went out for a walk around the lake and there were many flowers.


The second day I went back to the park with my watercolours to have a go at the bonsai trees in the park, but to no avail: I have yet to learn how to do foliage… Soon it began to rain and I went back to my hotel to work on the painting of the wooden man that I had photographed in the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. The result is shown above.
It also appeared that the wooden man in fact was a man made of papier mâché.


When I came back from my breakfast down the street, I saw a woman sitting at the side of the road selling dragon fruit and I decided to buy one for a still life. The woman urged me to choose another one and it was difficult to explain to her that I bought it for its artistic qualities rather than for its taste….


The iconic conical hats and the typical yokes are remarkably common in the streets… The big spiky fruit in the front are durians.


Walking Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City is named after the communist revolutionary leader of Vietnam and its first president, Ho Chi Minh. The name means Bringer of Light. During his early life he travelled in England, America and France, doing odd jobs like working in a bakery (Ho Chi Biscuit), as a waiter (Ho Chi Whiskey) and stoker (Ho Chi Fire).

I found a room with a family for 9 dollars, which had a balcony of sorts, a bathroom and a television. It had been ages since I had watched television and after seeing two dumb movies, I decided I could live ages more without it. The family that lived downstairs seemed to boil shrimp all day long, so the smell in the hallway was less than appealing but, since it didn’t reached my room, I thought it a small price to pay for otherwise comfortable lodgings. In the bathroom was a sign that asked me not to throw my clothes in the toilet.

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City was intense but not as bad as I remembered. It was less of an anarchy than the mess in Phnom Penh. Still, when walking the streets one has to be careful at all times. Zebra crossings are much appreciated as a pretty decoration and many Vietnamese seem to feel it lends a certain respectability to their streets, but it would be foolish and dangerous to think any more of it.

In the park I had an unexpected encounter with a blue headed lizard. It was sheer luck that I had taken my camera with me because I was on my way to the War Remnants Museum and was hoping to shoot a few pictures for the blog.

When I was trying to identify the species, I found out that it was a newly discovered species, Calotes bachae, which was long thought to be identical to a similarly blue headed lizard in Thailand and Myanmar, but it wasn’t. You can read a National Geographic article about it here.

The War Remnants Museum was very impressive. It showed that besides baguettes and coffee, the French also brought a guillotine with them. Thanks France. But  most of the exhibition was about the Vietnam War, or more accurate, the Second Indochina War. Obviously, the museum was one-sided and propagandistic, but hey, vae victis, and all that. After all, the US government has the biggest propaganda machinery in the world, so it’s time to see the Vietnamese side of it. The day before, I had been reading about the My Lai massacre and the museum had a lot of material, mostly photographic, that provided more background. It is estimated that some 500 civilians, many of them mothers with their babies, infants and old men, were killed at short range. Women were raped and tortured. It took the better part of a day and the men of Charlie Company had a lunch break amid the carnage. That day not a single shot was fired at Charlie Company… The atrocities were nauseating, but what was astonishing was the aftermath in America. Many of the enlisted men that were involved in the war crimes went unpunished, just 26 were charged and only Lieutenant Calley, the commander of Charlie Company was convicted. He was sentenced to life. This was later appealed and consequently reduced to 20 years imprisonment. After three and a half years of house arrest, he walked free… Calley had maintained that he had followed orders, but of the higher ranking officers, only Colonel Henderson stood trial. He was acquitted.

Of course there’s tons more, but I don’t want to write more about it.
Maybe I write another wrap up later.

My second day in the city, I walked over to the Pagoda blum bluc something, and it was a lovely temple with intricate wood carvings. It was quiet with the smell of incense. Little kids running around trying to kick the shit out of the pigeons that were feeding on rice strewn by the pious, and of course, the faithful praying and tourists thumping their smartphones trying to find out where the heck they were.

After that I visited another museum, this one about the history of Vietnam. It was aptly called the History Museum. It showed some charred wooden stakes that allegedly were used by the Vietnamese to keep the ships of Genghis Khan at bay when they tried to invade the country in 1285. The painting that hung behind the stumps showed the ships of Genghis Khan that looked remarkably like Spanish galleons…. The museum also boasts the best collection of Champa art after Danang and included some artefacts that would look good in an Indiana Jones movie. It belongs in a museum….

On the way back it started to rain.