Our Asian Adventure: Part 2
Huge apologies for taking so long to post this second part to my first blog. As usual, life has been too busy.
As I post this, Japan has just suffered the effects of a devastating earthquake and tsunami. One thing I can tell you, now having been there, if there is one country in the world that can rebuild in record time, it is Japan. The Japanese people are so disciplined, devoted to their country, and technologically advanced that they will overcome this heartbreaking disaster.
After leaving the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, we landed in what felt like another time. Kyoto is a graceful, beautiful place full of temples, gardens and tales of the shoguns and warlords.
We stayed at Hiiragiya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese tatami-style hotel. Michel had been there years before and insisted we do this. Barry and I were skeptical, to say the least. Debra was cautiously optimistic. We checked in, through an ancient doorway where you remove your shoes and are asked to choose slippers from many well-worn pairs before entering a dark, creaky lobby. “Yuck,” I thought. Not a good beginning.
We went for a walk in search of lunch while our rooms were being prepared and our baggage unpacked. We walked into the Kyoto Osaka Hotel, looked around at the western-style grand lobby, and Barry said, “These people have real beds with legs!” He had read my mind. I wanted to check in, right then and there.
But Michel would have none of it, and he was so right. We ended up loving our ryokan and agreed that Kyoto would not have been the gracious experience it was without the fun of kimono-clad hostesses dressing us for our traditional Japanese meals, held in exquisite rooms while our beds were being unrolled and made up and our baths drawn. The second day, we discovered the new wing, hidden from view, cleverly designed to expand the space seamlessly in a dramatic contemporary style.
Barry does not like fish. So, being served raw or barely cooked fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner was not his fantasy vacation. But he was a good sport. The meals in the hotel were an interesting experience that I’m glad I had, but don’t need to repeat.
Two more things: a tatami mat is more than just a decorative floor covering. It’s also a unit of measurement in Japan. The size of a room is typically measured by the number of tatami mats. In the Kyoto area, tatami generally means 3 x 6 feet. Another thing I learned is to request that your bed be set up in the early afternoon. You’ll be glad for a nap after a day of temple tours.
I won’t go into detail about our tours, other than that my favourite was Nijo Castle. There are too many to talk about and each one had something wonderful about it. Just get a great guide and the most comfortable shoes, no matter how ugly.
Ho Chi Minh City
Next stop was Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam or, as the locals still call it, Saigon. This is the country that I know I will return to. I think everyone felt the same way, as Vietnam is such a compelling and fascinating place. We are all history buffs, and Vietnam is like a living documentary on the war that shaped our generation.
Not to be missed are the war museums in both Saigon and Hanoi, the famous Cu Chi tunnels where the Viet Cong lived underground for years in an elaborate maze of hidden corridors. In places, the tunnels open up into rooms where parts of fallen aircraft were made into weapons and trap apparatuses. You have to see it to believe it!
We discovered true Vietnamese food in Saigon and we all fell in love. My favourite meal was the famous pho at Pho Hoa on Pasteur Street, a restaurant widely regarded by locals as serving the best pho in town. We were the only tourists that day and we liked that.
One day, we asked our guide to take us to Café Nang, a 1956 landmark whose 75-year-old owner, Mrs. Thai, brews nearly every cup herself, served with condensed milk. Our guide could not believe we wanted to go to this tiny hole in the wall, but we insisted. They served an intense rich brew that gives new meaning to the words “caffeine high”. No matter the neighbourhood, we were after the real experience.
Sometimes that got us into a little trouble. Like the evening we took a taxi to our dinner reservation at Cuc Gach Quan for a gourmet meal. The taxi pulled up in front of an old house. Not deterred by the lack of lights, signage or greeters at the door — and no indication that this was, in fact, a restaurant — we carried on anyway. “This must be what really authentic Vietnamese restaurants are like,” I thought.
Through the front door and up two flights of stairs to a living room where there were two girls eating soup and whispering, we sat down on the sofas and waited. A man came in who didn’t speak English. “Dinner?” we asked. He shook his head. “Eat,” we said. He shook his head again. “Food,” we said; he frowned. I pulled the address and phone number of the restaurant out of my purse. It was written up as an out-of-the-way place where chef Thai Tu-Tho and her architect husband, Tran Binh, had just renovated an old house to create a chic new restaurant where the food and presentation were great — a rare combo, it said.
I showed him the address in the article. He picked up his cellphone, dialed, spoke to someone in Vietnamese (probably said, “I have four nutcakes here who think this is your restaurant”) and handed us the phone.
“Don’t worry,” a reassuring voice told us, in beautiful English with a soft Parisian accent, “he will put you in a cab and you will be here soon.”
Here is the restaurant we finally arrived at — worth all the confusion!
To this day, we don’t know where we were. A home? Maybe, but something else was going on there — some kind of private club, maybe?? I suppose we should have been worried, but we weren’t.
Sad to leave Saigon so quickly, we flew to Da Nang for a quick trip to the beach at Dien Duong Village. For us, this detour was an expensive waste of time. It was the rainy season and, as beautiful as the Nam Hai Hotel was, spending time at a western-style beach resort — that, frankly, we could have found in many places closer to home — was not worth the trouble.
Our rooms belonged in a movie — so exotic and designed to the nines, but not comfortable. You risked breaking your neck just getting out of bed in the middle of the night, navigating your descent from the slippery ebony platform, getting tangled in the miles of gauze draped around your bed. The desk was hysterical — no way was Michel going to sit in the tiny “pod” and get stuck for life! The lights over the bed were for those who can read in the dark — all form, no function. Designers take note!
Oh well, on to Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam. Our stay was a memorable two days. Not enough. We stayed at the famous La Résidence, built in the 1930s. From the moment you walk into the red lacquered lobby bar, you can see that it has retained its Art Deco grandeur. Very Indochine!
Hue was two days of temples and the old imperial city. Again, too much to try to describe. Each one was so different, and all were beyond beautiful. I remember being in the temple of Bai Dau, the last emperor, and so grateful that the war did not destroy this magnificent building.
On the last day, we took a boat trip down the Perfume River, wearing our pink (disposable) plastic ponchos that Debra had so kindly provided, together with our umbrellas, rain hats and hoods, all of which did not keep us dry. We looked like drowned rats and Barry keeps reminding that he has a photo that I would pay good money to destroy. I can only imagine. When it came time to tip the lovely woman and her husband who worked so hard running their tourist boat, I pressed some bills into her hand. Later, I discovered I had given away all my Japenese yen — hundreds of dollars worth. It was a good way to spend it.
Our last stop in Vietnam was Hanoi. The 1,000th anniversary of the city was the following week, so things were ramping up and the crowds and parades were exciting to see.
We stayed at the Sofitel Legend Metropole — so grand and elegant. Ask for the Opera Wing. Vietnam is the place to go upmarket and book the best rooms in the best hotels. For about US $325, you will enjoy a stay that would cost three or four times as much here and even more in Europe.
I found our trip to the “Hanoi Hilton” fascinating. It’s the famous prison built by the French, and later used by the Vietnamese to imprison the American POWs. One side is devoted to the period of French rule where Vietnam’s prisoners were locked in chains in horrific dungeons. The other side shows the more humane conditions of American POWs, including Sen. John McCain — clearly their most famous prisoner — complete with posters, his uniforms in glass cases and a homemade movie of him and his fellow POWs playing ball in a grassy yard. This, like the other war museums, seemed like an attempt to be as objective as possible, for people who had suffered through war on their land for over 20 years. I wonder how objective we could be under those circumstances?
As we left Vietnam, I wished several things:
- That the whole world could see how commerce, including retail of luxury labels, seemed to be thriving in this Communist country. And that Communism does not necessarily mean suppression of beliefs. Many Vietnamese we met were either Catholic or Buddhist and had not given up their religion when Ho Chi Minh established a Communist regime.
- That we had hired guides who were history or political theory professors. Our guides were fine, but we had deeper questions and we knew we were getting the guidebook explanation of most things.
- And, most of all, that I would return.
On to Siem Reap in Cambodia for three nights in Angkor to see the famous temple of Angkor Wat and the jungle temple, Ta Prohm.
We stayed at the Amansara and I loved it. Michel, however, did not. He thought it was too programmed and far from authentic. Debra said what I knew to be true: this was the absolute best way to see Angkor. I loved our rooms, the shiny black rickshaws, the fabulous meals and the early 1960s vintage Mercedes that took us to the airport.
Angkor Wat is one of the most incredible structures made by man.
You just have to see Angkor Wat and also Ta Prohm (the jungle temple) (pictured above), where trees with massive roots have grown around and through the buildings. Rent Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and see for yourself.
I was the slug on our trip. Of the four of us, I was the one that, more than once, simply did not want to climb yet another ladder of steep steps, trudge through another temple when my feet were gone or walk under nets filled with bats and bat droppings just to see one more block of stone. By the time we left Siem Reap, I was ready to go home.
Unlike Vietnam, Cambodia was not a country where we felt we could talk about the history, like the unspeakable genocide of Pol Pot that led to the killing fields. It seems that everyone you meet is young.
Our trip was almost over. Michel and I flew to Bangkok, then home via one night at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. Barry and Debra went on for a quick trip to Beijing.
Michel surprised me with a real treat: Emirates air first class to Hong Kong. It’s everything you’ve heard it is. “Rooms” with private minibars, vanities with makeup mirrors, a desk, a bed, of course, and all the movies you could want on your own big-screen TV. The bathrooms are full size with real showers. Oh well, once in a lifetime!!
I returned home refreshed, inspired and filled with design ideas and, most of all, with a new perspective about parts of the world that I had read and heard about every day for most of my life. The Campbells were great travelling buddies in every way. Barry says that on a trip like that, everyone is allowed to be a total grump for one day. I didn’t see it, ever … but, then again, I don’t recall looking as bad as they claim I did. So the memory is selective.
All in all, a wonderful almost three weeks. Now we’re busy planning our 2012 adventure.