I love Hanoi! But why?

 

I feel like I’m in Casablanca and it’s not even on the right continent. It’s the buildings, and the dark coffee shops, and the the dark men on the street corners drinking tea. The motorbikes and tourist tack are just a blur and can’t really rip me out of this romantic fantasy that I’m in. And I’m not working, just travelling, and everything has a different glow about it when you are not going to drudgery of your job the next day. I’m on the balcony of a 3rd story coffee shop in the Old Quarter, overlooking the  Hoan Kim lake. The traffic is noisy and so are the people – the sound scape is whirring, honking, tannoy and laughter. I think it’s hard here – I’m sure subsisting is a slog but there’s something so 1930’s about it.

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As my budget is getting really stretched now, I can’t afford anything on attractions and am doing more walking than ever.  And as always, my first day involved trying to find gluten free food. There’s plenty here, and really I don’t need to worry about it as it’s a rice based diet. So there is an immediate sense of security for me. It wasn’t until I reached here that I realised how difficult I had found China, and how I was still affected by it, as if coming out of some kind of mild trauma – which does China a disservice, because my experience there was exhilarating and  wholly momentous.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29ddTrying to extract the essence of this city is difficult. Where did I go in my 9 days? A lot of coffee shops, but mainly Highlands because it’s the cheapest  not because it’s Western. So we can start this exploration of my mysterious affinity with the premise that the Vietnamese welcome tourists, are friendly and global in their outlook.

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The Old Quarter is just manic – having alter egos of day and night. In the day, it is street vendors, restaurants, and souvenirs, with some quite aggressive selling approaches, but intermingled with local everyday stuff. You can see many local people just sitting on little plastic stools or beer crates eating Pho on the street corner – you know this food is good because of this. Next door to my hostel, they are queueing for 45mins to buy a ‘swan’ dish. At night the same area is just a drinking and eating orgy like no other I’ve seen. One street, you cannot get up at night if you didn’t get there early. I don’t like this – but on the back street where my hostel, the BC Family Homestay is located, the street food stall and fruit and veg vendors are just sweeping up at about at about 9pm. eCEfQ2+8QOGGouj1wVd4oQ_thumb_292fA few streets away, Hoan Kim Lake is lit up, and pedestrianised, with buskers and entertainers of various quality every 20 yards. But you love it – for a while. In the daytime, the lake area is still busy, and great thrills can be had crossing the road. My skills have been quickly honed over the week – and after all I have been to Beijing and Guangzhou. to warm. For me, I have that perfect blend of city anonymity and solitude in a crowd here, and socialising if I want. (My hosts are very amiable).

JymSSxu%RYCxJCvzAcZHLQ_thumb_29ffWest Lake was worth a visit. It’s distinctly ex-pat – so it felt a bit weird. Is it that obvious I’m a tourist? You’ll find many of the comforts of home there, and the housing looks a bit Benidorm. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live there because I might as well be at home, but I’m sure I would frequent it quite a bit. The West Lake is very big and I like that section   where you walk through the middle of it, and you could be in Canada, and there’s the beautiful wind- beaten tall, slender Pagoda on it’s little promontory.

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And I kove ask the ‘fixer-uppers’. The buildings are so beautiful, yellow,haunted, brimming with clambering weeds, discoloured by smog, – and delightful. They bustle, higgledy piggledy,  teetering over the shops and restaurants underneath, or shyly recede behind years of neglect and rambling overgrowth.

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The Long Bien bridge, overarching the milky, brown, slow slurp of the Red River is just a glorious and timeless, rusty gem. When I walk over the crumbling concrete walkway, looking through the gaps at the water lapping,  thinking ‘how is this upholding me’, to the banana plantations, and the sleepy boats, it’s like I am in a David Niven movie, and feel l have been for ever.  I can’t believe it when  a train rattles through.

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And the temples here, of which there are many – are not central attractions like they are in some other Asian Countries. But they are no less splendid. You walk along the dirty bustling street, shuffling past the motorbikes parked everywhere, and you see a hole in the wall through which you can spy some statues or curves or glints of yellow and blue. And you just walk in – it’s like Indiana Jones – you expect a trapdoor, a snake, a sand burial. I love it. Have I answered my own question?

 

 

A Week in Busan – Colour and Chaos

tGjx02fkR3eDpyUWFEhK5A_thumb_1dc5I thought I’d share my week’s activity in Busan, a place which, after initially overwhelming me, totally captivated and charmed me. I was lucky enough to stay in the Hyu Plus guesthouse, a 7th storey bijou establishment more like an apartment than a hostel, and it being low season and all, I oftentimes had the place to myself. I thought it was a great location next to Nampo Dong subway station. This city is the most generously served with public transport that I have seen yet. All the things I wanted to see were all within an hour or so.

l4Q5HyzuSiiKu3nynKu76w_thumb_1d21I got a weird vibe from this place when I arrived but I soon warmed to it. I have covered the Lotte Mall and Gamcheon in previous blogs. So here are some of my other experiences/impressions/adventures. A really good days hiking was to be had at Amnang Park to the South of Busan, past Songdo Beach. I couldn’t call it leisurely exactly because there is a lot of stair climbing and steep undulation as it follows the coastal headland round. Being stupidly self challenging, I thought the orange loop back went pretty close to the route out, so I decided to take the green route and ended up at the International Fisheries Administration, where I had to be given a lift back to the park from an official. (So grateful!) It was then possible to walk all the way to Songdo Beach via the 1km walkway which winds along the cliff (with another load of stairs).

Or get the cable car – but I’m on a budget remember.  Songdo is obviously very busy in the summer and has a lot of strange, gaudy attractions including some bright coloured concrete, the ‘Cloud Walk’ and the most unusual sea food I have ever seen. Typically, I waited for the sunset to see Hangan Bridge lit up but it was a bit anticlimactic. Although going up in the lift to walk on top of it was pretty thrilling actually.unadjustednonraw_thumb_1cbf.jpg

+TDcPQ5HTOmsSkkQsyQzag_thumb_1c92I caught the bus to Dongbaeksoem Park, one day and saw the APEC building where all the Asian dignitaries meet to discuss matters Asian. I walked all the way from there to Gwangali Beach, some 8 miles, and spend a few hours watching the sun change the character of  the the Gwangan Bridge, also named the Diamond Bridge.  Watching Gwangali come to life was a pleasant evening pastime and I got the subway back.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1c3e

Shattered from walking my average 9 miles, I decided to visit Haedong Yonggungsa Temple instead of hiking into the wilderness for the one which no-one can find. It is pretty breathtaking perched on the coast if a little busy. There were some quieter areas walking northwards from the temple along the rocks and it was the perfect day for photos – maybe a little bit of a haze.Gmv+MlA2Tbyl3jXZCGh76A_thumb_1da7

I visited a few markets either inadvertently or deliberately. The Jagalchi Fish Market is a spectacle – with many varieties of uncooked and cooked and dried delicacies – it’s a real working place not a tourist area – I mean, I suspect Busan is not a first stop for most traveling people. I went to the Busanjin Market, an indoor, multi-storey  melee near Beomil Station because my daughter wanted a Hangbok. I’m sure I was a little bit overcharged, but the experience wasn’t altogether unpleasant. Think Aladdin’s Cave. Something that is really quite remarkable is the extent of the underground market that links the Subway. It goes on forever with anything from antiques, iPhones, cosmetics and second hand clothes…anything you might think of. In addition there are very cheap restaurants where you can see that locals eat – I tried a hot stone bibimbap for 5500 – around £3.50. Nothing exciting but pretty good for gluten free me after a week of gimbap and weird rice crispy rolls.

9TA5JlmLSdOpCoY1L46Jiw_thumb_1dddAs a bridgephile, I can say that this country does its bridges proud and, like Japan, celebrates the aesthetic and architectural qualities of them. The Koreans particularly seem to like lighting them up – a veritable joy for me. But if you don’t fancy loitering under the archways after dark, you can go every day at 2pm to the Yeongdo Bascule and celebrate with everybody else, the lifting of the single leaf to let traffic through. And they do it in style.GqnRhHj1QSCSCe4PpCArlw_thumb_1de6

 

Like many places Busan surprised me and I would go back there  – I felt I hadn’t seen enough of the country. But I think Gamcheon Village sticks out for me as something I have not encountered and probably it might look like Cornwall or somewhere in the Mediterranean that I haven’t been.UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1c1e

It wasn’t Japan. People are nowhere near as polite. The spit and smoke everywhere, are louder and there is not the order, or the air of a prosperous, gentile society. But the colourful charm of this city certainly captivated me. There are quite a few English speaking bars such as the Beached Bar at Gwangali and the Basement near Pusan University, as there is large community of ex-pat teachers here. The transport, as I said already,  is the best I have ever encountered in a city. You can get anywhere on the subway or  bus – but not after 11.30pm – then you have to get a taxi. If you haven’t enough cash to pay for the taxi you could try singing 80’s songs such as The Power of Love and Take My Breath Away to the driver  – this worked for me.

 

 

 

Busan – slumbering beast

fullsizeoutput_713I have just arrived in Busan after an easy transport day from Kansai. Yes one of those days when everything goes to plan – my bag weighed in at 22.7kg – even the check-in staff were impressed. The plane was a new 737-800 – nice and with excellent service. At Gimhae Airport I headed straight for the KT roaming centre as recommended on some travel forums. I bought a 5 day SIM for 27 000 won – I had to fit it straight away for some reason but they even gave me a paper clip and it worked immediately! (In contrast to my Japan Experience B Mobile one which never worked.) Next to the KT centre was the Tourist Info – and the excellent staff member there rung my hostel and asked what was the best way to get there.  An airport limousine bus took me literally to the door for 6000 won (about £4) . I’m incredulous.

IMG_1135I enjoy traveling on a bus through cities as you are slightly above the traffic and can see many things. I have been a Japan a month and got used to its ways, and Korea definitely had a different feel. When I say slumbering beast of a city – its because it reminds me of something that spreads a bit like an oversize, uncomfortable amphibian. fullsizeoutput_73f.jpeg
Or the way bread dough spreads if you drop it down. With a little elasticity and heaviness, pulling it back from the sea – just. Very tall slender high rise clusters yawn out of the sloping, colourful traditional villages as you are looking into the distance. Closer – everything is gaudy – a bit dirty, and the graphemes look like potato printing. Traffic is bad and there is a very hurried vibe. Crossing the road to the hostel was a very dicey business.

The hostel is on the 7th storey of a high-rise with a view of Busan Harbour Bridge. I can’t complain. It’s kind of odd being sandwiched between an accountancy firm and an IT company or something. Next door is the monumental Lotte Mall – a phenomenon I have not come across before. Thirteen storeys high – it boasts a Sky Garden which is the size of an average UK city park, a 360 degree observation deck, aqua park, cinemas etc.  Hudson Bay meets Meadowhall squashed upwards. It was my first port of call as I needed some groceries. Not the right place. (£2 an apple) But the park and observation deck seem pretty  spectacular and distinctive to me.

After a brief exploration this morning – I am gratified immensely to find a plethora of proper espresso coffee shops after the complete dearth in Japan. No need to make do with  Asian Starbucks’ weird, creamy mix.

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