Monday, May 16, 2011

Nha Trang - Tourist city along the South China Sea

11 - 13 February, 2011.

Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa Province, Vietnam

Landscape enroute from Dalat. Lower Eastern slope of the country's South-Central Coast.

Reflections along the journey - curves in the road.

The road from Dalat was much more pleasant than to it, but less eventful, too. Without the breakdowns, and including the paved road - it made for a smooth, if not altogether quite a boring ride. The silver lining (though apparently standard anytime in this part of the world) was the magnificent scenery. The road takes us from the southern end of the Central Highlands down to the South-Central Coast in a journey of about 5 hours by bus, and this time we paid a premium for comfort and reliability. But alas.. our overland trek was nearing its end on the move for the party.

A welcome sign and holiday well-wishes from the local cadre to the touring public. Beachside.

As local as it gets in this region along the shores of the South China Sea - I think its Bai Mieu Fishing village.

Long-time friend, gracious host, & trusted fellow traveler; Tim in top form.

Lunchtime drink break, off the boat. Best sun I've got since moving out West.

In Nha Trang I found myself taken very easily by the structured pleasantries of this tourist, Mecca-like destination of the region. With a reputation for affording expatriates easy distractions and varied entertainments for a range of budgets, it was not hard to take a day cruise, dine at spots for which we were given coupons, and lounge languidly to read. However, the seedy dark side of all the world's cities is present here, too; and discord serves best to bring it out. Poignant reminders abound here, from the many honest local business owners to the hardy and pleasant travelers, of the need for a strong wary awareness - practical if not always unwanted advice.
Still, I had a good time and enjoyed the urbanism of this region. However, I think one visit to here is all that's needed for my own inclinations.. I prefer the less crowded, unfettered spots for exploring and discovery. Fortunately, it was off-season here and a major holiday - it made for an interesting mix of visible residents and visitors that I think took some of the edge off the kitsch of the tourist town. After two nights here, our group parted ways again, this time with aims to meet back in Beijing, China.

Here, and at this time of year, one never forgets its the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Gold star and all.

The photos laid out heretofore are taken with an Olympus Stylus 1050 SW 
 Creative Commons License
These works by Tim Paez are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License


Dalat - Foray into the Alps... of Vietnam.

9 - 11 February

Dalat, Vietnam.

Hardy traveling companions, on the shores of Tuyen Lam Lake; on the way to Datanla Falls.

After our extended stay in paradise, our crew opted for another get-away haven - the city of Dalat. It's described almost everywhere (books, brochures, travel sites, etc.) as the 'Alps of Vietnam', a spot for lovers and friends to escape to, where the climate is cool and mountainous, and the food is fresh and mostly local. Even while securing bus tickets to here, I was constantly met with the same quizzical grin and question: "Why do you want to go to Dalat? It's romantic there, and expensive; for couples!"

Wandering through the innards of the night market - an awesome fixture of urban life in much of Asia. We're so domesticated in the States, with our curfews, noise ordinances, and endless circus of regulations for small vendors - but its here where flows the life of the community.

Aside from the European vibe, here is another reason Dalat is known as le Petit Paris.

Finished by 1942, the Dalat Cathedral, whose spire reached 47-metres, sits in the heart of the city.

Frankly, I had heard a lot about the landscape and natural spots surrounding the city. Several people I'd spoken with had recommended it as a starting point for forays into mountainous rural parts of southern Vietnam. In the several hours over the 3 days we spent getting there, around, and away, I have come to agree. By this time in our journey we did not have so much time to explore the surrounding countryside as deeply as I would have preferred, but the group had maintained a solid sense of coherence after our down-time in Mui Ne, so I stuck with the party. Between the wild night market, the fresh food, and the great weather (not hot, but not cold either; much like San Francisco, I found that Dalat was a seriously pleasant city in which to spend a few days.

Situated below the Nam Ban Pagoda, and magnificent as it is rather dirty, the 30-meter high Thac Voi - Elephant Falls.

Two very different Buddha statues, well-situated across from each other, at Nam Ban Pagoda. Another favorite.

Nam Ban Pagoda, side entrance. Another favorite photo..

The main entrance to this hilltop monastery, sporting intricate Buddhist carvings, houses the massive sitting gold Buddha statue.

Giant sitting Buddha is the center piece of this monastery, and can be seen from almost everywhere in Dalat.

Detail of sand Mandala housed inside the same monastery.

The immediately surrounding land nursed a surprising variety of crops on a mountainous array of hillsides and valleys. For hours beyond the city, the landscape was covered in greenhouses, hundreds of acres of coffee farms, and innumerable farmed acres of everything else from onions to greens to livestock. On a 4-person Easy Rider trip (usually done one-on-one via bike, we were 4-to-2 in a jeep) we learned a lot about the local industries around Dalat, including a nascent dairy industry supported by Dutch foreign investment, a booming artichoke market, and a blossoming market in flowers year-round. In a lot of ways, I got the impression that this region of Vietnam was fairly self-sufficient and in fact an overall exporter of many domestically produced goods. Supposedly, here also is the bottling plant for the now-infamous (among our small traveling crew) and delicious Dalat Wine which can be found all over Vietnam for outrageously cheap - compared to the $USD anyway...

We requested of our Easy Rider guide a less-touristy route, where we could see more communities and natural spots around Dalat. Here, a small rural dam spillway doubles as a local swimming hole.

Awesome reservoir stretching far and away from Dalat - another example of Dalat's relative self-sufficiency. Our Easy Rider tour (for four, in a jeep not a bike) stopped us here for a while, granting us a less touristy side trip up a mountainside for this view.

Long shot of the downstream side of the same river, but here showing the unusual dam-like section. Shallow, but seemingly effective during the dry season.

Detail of dry river bank outside Dalat. Just some wildly shaped stone and clearly once a larger structure.

Great view of the northern limits of Dalat that looks over just a sliver of the local horticulture industry. Fields of flowering plants and rows of low-tech green houses dominate this unique urban landscape.

What was not so cheap - though arguably still relatively affordable when compared to costs in most North American urban areas - was the overnight stay at the Crazy House in Dalat. The Crazy House is a moderately-sized property within walking distance of the downtown area designed and still being built in accordance with the plan of artist & architect Dang Viet Nga . The whole place is a ridiculous dreamland of organic shapes and textures forming rooms and niches throughout an awesomely landscaped compound. I've never seen anything like this place anywhere in the world, and I'm real glad we got a chance to stay here for a night. And it was thanks to the extremely helpful staff here that we were able to catch one of the few daily buses to Nha Trang, and a ride to the station, on very short notice...

Here is the rear side of the Honeymoon suite at the Crazy House. ..

...with a very clear fairyland-like quality clearly evident from the Front side garden of the same suite. Just a single structure out of many existing and planned at the Crazy House.

From across the garden and up on a balcony, a view over the main courtyard of the Crazy House at one of the central buildings. Much of it is still under construction on the inside, however.

Closer details of the balcony entrance of this central building within the Crazy House.

Looking up towards the rooftop, a great example of the unique exterior passages of the Crazy House. This one reaches the top of the gabled roof of the central building.

A view from above the Crazy House - looking over Dalat in the distance. Look close to see labyrinthine side-building, where the passageways wrap around the exterior of the structure, and the rooms and suites form the core.

Still under construction, here clearly evident in real-time. A labor of love, it seems, for the workers who construct according to paintings and sketches instead of blueprints and designs.

Home security, a la DIY style. Outside wall of Crazy House, in a section still under construction. Just a cool shot..

More wacky passageways between buildings of the Crazy House.

One building is built to resemble a giraffe - in an excellent example of how the place is meant to look natural and organic, with very few straight lines or linear shapes. Here Natasja surveys the Crazy House compound from above, soon after we entered the place.

The photos laid out heretofore are taken with an Olympus Stylus 1050 SW 
 Creative Commons License
These works by Tim Paez are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License


Monday, April 11, 2011

Mui Ne Beach - Seaside amblings in a Socialist.. ..paradise?

5 - 8 Feb. 2011

Mui Ne, Vietnam.

This wanna-be sleepy beach town is split into two parts - tourist and local. The local side is a a neat sprawl of family homes, small temples, and few tall buildings, but with a breathtaking local fishing fleet. The touristy part is a narrow strip of low-lying hostels, hotels, bungalows, and resorts, among which are sprinkled some local homes and open-air, open-air restaurants - all lining the shoreline somewhere just above the littoral zone.

Dusk, over Phan Thiet Bay, across the street from our hostel.

Also in front of the hostel, my favorite reading spot in Vietnam.

Riding the white sand dunes. Intrepid travel partners, all in one frame; another favorite shot.

Chris K., clearing shoes of sand... in the desert.

Tim W. with sled gear, trekking upward to ride the dunes.

Chris, along a well managed lake-side evergreen path, approaching the white sand dunes.

White sand dunes, seen from across the lake.

It's a relaxing town, off the high-season; but development is encroaching on the whole region. Even off-road spots have been linked to the tourism trade - like huge local sand dunes, the one-time quiet fishing town, a freshwater spring that flowed from the sands in a greem & shady desert valley - and is staffed by local underemployed children & wives, catering to the increasing tide of tourist. Like many places that were once upon a time little-known and in development, Mui Ne is rapidly being connected to the modernizing world. I'm glad I got here when I did. And moreso before vehicular law enforcement has become a priority...

Learned early and lived everyday - camaraderie is here a real way of life.

Downstream of the Fairy Spring. I never reached the end to see the source..

Along the walls of the valley containing the Fairy Spring, the water table leaks freshwater. All this around the desert region of Mui Ne.

Fellow travelers, Nadya and Tim, posing with a gregarious posse of locals.  Nearby the Fairy Spring, Mui Ne, Vietnam.

Chris, with another verdant backdrop, at the rim of the valley from where flows the Fairy Spring.

From the crest of a dune, overlooking Mui Ne and Phan Thiet Bay. Not all deserts are bare..

Yup, a giant golf ball ready for tee-off in front of a new country club development for the regions elite. And Chris piloting a motor bike. Can you see where I crashed it? Ya, didn't think so. 1 Million dong fee...

More on the local side of town, Mui Ne's fishing fleet. Unfortunately, I did not awake in time to catch the morning fish market where those who own and operate the ships in this fleet make their living.

Local on the prow. Local on the prowl.

We arrived here from Saigon, initially planning an overnight stop to relax on the beach for a bit before tacking north up to Dalat. On the eve of our 4th night, we decided we should find bus tickets asap and plan to head out. Otherwise, chances were very high that the remaining week we would share in Vietnam would very likely find us along this same 10-km stretch of beach. Our hours would be whiled away reading and conversing over bottles of delicious Dalat wine, interspersed with $10USD day-long moto-bike rentals, lavish (but hella cheap in $USD) seafood feasts along the sand with traveling friends, with swims and walks (Tim & Natasja jog) in between. To maintain the figure. Not a bad way to spend mid-winter in Asia - relaxing in shorts and flip-flops in the sun - though also rather unexciting and not the best way to experience the most of the fantastic South of Vietnam, from food to culture. While its changing, much of Mui Ne seems to have remained the same.. And here, that seems to be a great thing.

The photos laid out heretofore are taken with an Olympus Stylus 1050 SW 
 Creative Commons License
These works by Tim Paez are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License