If you travel far and wide you think you have been to poor countries and have seen poverty and deprivation and met people living difficult lives, and then you go to Haiti. The capital, Port Au Prince is a shock to the system. From the moment you exit the airport you are surrounded by noise, offers, urgency and traffic that is uniquely chaotic. But some how it works and beneath the extremes Haitians are friendly, soulful, stoic and they know how to enjoy themselves with music and dance.
I stayed at the Hotel Oloffson, famed for being written about in Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians, and for rooms that are named after famous stars who have stayed there. It is in downtown Port Au Prince, not in the more Westernised suburb of Petionville, and more fun for that. The voodoo garden that surrounds it is filled with fascinating statues from the world of voodoo.
Port Au Prince has not recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2010, which affected some 3m people and in which more than 230000 people were killed. Buildings are still wrecked and it is very slowly being rebuilt. Poverty is rife but Haitians never lose their positive outlook and pride in being who they are. It is a place where you should not take photos of people without asking first, a throw back to the old days of Papa Doc. Take a trip to the Iron market, a great introduction to the markets that dot Haiti filled with everything from trinkets, to food, to second hand clothes to voodoo icons and lotions. You don’t see a lot of people wearing helmets on motor bikes and scooters in Haiti but riding on the back of one of those is the cheap and easy way to get around. Take a trip up to Jalousie, a suburb up the hill, a place that is not recommended by tourist guides but once you get there, start talking, and overcome the initial suspicions you start to experience what makes Haiti special. You will often be told not to go out alone, and it is a place to be careful, but don’t let that stop you enjoying the sheer feeling of energy and curiosity that Port Au Prince engenders
About 200 kms west from Havana, a two to three-hour drive lays the small town of Vinales, which lies in the Vinales Valley located in the Sierra de los Organos Mountains. It’s a small traditional town where most people work in the cigar industry. The valley is beautiful and a welcome respite from the heat of Havana.
The valley is wide and flat, which enhances the contrasts with the mountains. The town itself has woken to the tourist industry and has myriad casas letting out rooms to visitors. It is a place for cigars, hiking, and riding. It’s beautiful and its potential to entertain visitors is growing as new hotels are built there.
If you want a fun ride to Vinales you can hire an old car, one of the old taxis and drive down. Its good to take some advice as to which car to take since many are on offer, and a good way to choose if to ask the owner of the Casa if you are staying at one. The car that took me to Vinales had been in the same family since the 1950s, was now a family heirloom constantly maintained and used by one family member as a taxi. The old engine had its day and it now sported a Nissan engine and the loudest sound system I ever heard!
Find your way to a small cigar maker and learn how cigars are made, and they can sell them to you since the government permits part of their production to be sold privately. It is fascinating to learn and if you can handle it smoke one at the end. You learn everything from how to grown and dry and cure to the end product.
Another fascinating site is the Stone Age paintings on a small hill outside the town of Vinales. They are coloured and distinctive. Away from the hotels, there are some good local restaurants and if you have a good driver then he or she can point the way.
Vinales is beautiful relaxing and interesting before you head back to the energy of Havana.
Hoi An, the name means “Peaceful meeting place” sits on the east coast of Vietnam in the centre of the country. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site being a beautifully preserved trading town showing a whole variety of cultures, and it has been a trading town since the 15th century.
The town stretches along the river and is a beautiful evocation of past eras and has become a very popular tourist destination, allowing people to enjoy the beauty of the town, but at the same time explore the surrounding areas by bike motor bike or even by boat. The town sits on the estuary of the Thu Bon river so there are access to beaches also.
At night the town is lit with lanterns and the many restaurants and bars come alive. There is a huge variety of food from traditional Vietnamese street food to western food if you want it. For myself the street food in Vietnam is amazing, filled with flavour despite its seeming simplicity. You realise that many places are family run which use recipes that they protect to create their popularity which they guard assiduously.
The river is alive a real river giving a livelihood from fishing and from transport. In my wanderings I found on the bank of the estuary a place where small boats were built. The builder collecting planks of wood from wherever he could find them and turning them into beautiful small boats used for fishing or carrying people.
Vietnam likes tickets, so there are often places where you might expect to go freely but for which you have to buy a ticket, but they are not expensive and that is just part of the culture of the place. Hoi An is famous for clothes making so if you want some clothes made in silk or cotton they will get it done while you are there from the fabrics you like at a great price.
Hoi An is a beautiful place to go and a fun place too with a lot to see and to do and it’s a must see in Vietnam. The weather can be very hot and humid, so its an advantage to research that before you go.
Is it Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City? My experience is that people who live there call it Saigon and those who don’t Ho Chi Minh. Myself I will call it Saigon because that name is more redolent of its history. One tip, how to cross the road in Saigon as you watch the endless wave of scooters and motor bikes the like of which I have never seen before, bearing down on you. At first you are stuck at the side of the road wondering how you will ever cross, but watch the Vietnamese and then you realise that the secret is just to step off the pavement into the massive flow of bikes. Then walk steadily, don’t stop and don’t change your pace and you will arrive at the other side as the bikes go round you. Its intimidating but amazing how it actually works.
In central Saigon is the Jade Emperor Pagoda, or Phuoc Hai Temple. This active Temple was built by the Chinese, being finished in 1909. It is also known as the Lucky Sea Temple. The Jade Emperor is a Supreme Taoist deity and the person who, according to legend, decides who goes to heaven and who to hell, so a significant figure!
The Temple also houses a turtle sanctuary, the turtle being a symbol of longevity and a symbol of good fortune and good luck. The temple is very active so as you look at it people for whom it is part of life worship there. One of the things that is striking in Vietnam is the generosity of the offerings of food that are presented at temples.
In the courtyard outside the temple is an incinerator in which people burn paper, often fake money on the basis that the smoke will reach to the ancestors and the deceased in heaven, the ancestors playing an important part of the spiritual life.
Some of the small sculptures that adorn the fringes of the building, round the roof, are beautiful depictions of religious scenes and life, done in a lifelike way and with amazing intricacy and a sense of reality. The Jade Emperor himself wears a large moustache typical of Cantonese culture, and reside in the room known as the Room of the 10 Hells.
The air in the Temple is rich with the smell of incense, the smoke of candles with its soft light illuminating the various statues which signify everything that the Temple celebrates, and it is alive with not just visitors but ordinary people doing their devotions. A beautiful place.
The Cu Chi tunnel system is about 75 kms south west of Ho Chi Minh City, 1 – 2 hours driving, depending on the notorious Saigon traffic. There are 2 main access points, at Ben Duoc and Ben Binh. Ben Duoc is the better known in that it has been adapted to suit tourism with slightly widened tunnels and other attractions, while Ben Binh is where most Vietnamese go and is probably more authentic. I visited Ben Binh on a very wet day, when the experience of being in the jungle was very real. There are some 200 kms of tunnels at varying levels covering a huge area. The area is pock marked with bomb craters since the area became the most bombed in the whole Vietnam war, with bombs napalm and agent orange being used.
The thought that has gone into disguising the tunnels their entrances and exits and facilities is extraordinary. You approach the tunnels down a path and despite being invited to search for an entrance in a small indicated area its is almost impossible to find. Enter the tunnels hatch, drop down and pull the hatch behind you into the ground and it is immediately invisible. Ventilation shafts come to the surface in cracks in rocks, lookout openings are also like that and almost completely invisible.
Underground are passages, rooms, where the smoke from cooking was disbursed above ground far from the kitchen itself to protect the area. It is extraordinary to be inside and feel that people lived there for years surfacing fighting returning throughout the war. Some 420 square kms of land was hammered by bombing in an effort to dislodge the fighters in the tunnels, but without success leaving the area a wasteland although now the vegetation has largely been restored. The tunnels were so well hidden that at one stage an American base was established on top of them.
The site at Ben Binh includes a magnificent Pagoda and memorial to those who fought and died in the war and particularly in the tunnels. Some 50000 names are inscribed on the walls of the memorial and one thing that strikes you very hard is how young many of the men and women who died there were. The building includes a large statue of Ho Chi Minh and is an important memorial in Vietnam.
Many of us read about the war every day, and were aware of the tunnels, but seeing them and experiencing them adds a dimension to understanding the war and its outcome. It is a very moving memorial all the more so because it is set in the countryside and not in a city, and simply to experience the tunnels for a sort time gives an idea about how hard life must have been for its occupants, living there, fighting there and being bombed incessantly.Vietnam
This little gem of a greeting was sent to me today by a good friend on the eve of my departure for another journey. Those I know who don’t share my obsession with “going on a journey” as I call travelling, have got used to these regular disappearances. They have seen the familiar signs of introspection as I decide where to go and what to do. They have seen the minimal research I do in order to create as much of an adventure as possible when I arrive, and they know that the space they have made for me in their lives, will be empty for a while until I return refreshed and reinvigorated by my experience,, at which time they wont ask me how it was but where I will go next. I will disappear from their lives for a while and they from mine and normality will resume when I have had my journeying fix.
For me the nervous anticipation of pastures new, the preparation, the familiar routines of preparing to go, the nervousness that will turn to exileration as the wheels leave the runway tomorrow, and that wonderful sense of the unknown starts to fill me. What will I see, who will I meet, what challenges lie in store because of my vague itinerary, what special moments, what will go wrong as something surely will, it’s the anticipation of the journey. You start to cut away the routines and events that bind you to daily life, try to make sure that nothing will happen when you are away and turn your face to the unknown. You start to feel a different person, the flavour of life is richer because you will undoubtedly learn many things new and you wont be the same when you return.
I am excited and yes, I will take my time!
I have been to many beaches in many countries, but the one that stands out most, my favourite of all, is Noordhoek Beach In Cape Town. The word Noorhoek means literally North Corner. It sits on the edge of the city, a 20 minute beautiful drive from the centre along the cliff road called Chapman’s Peak. The beach is 8 kms long bounded at one end by the cliffs of Chapman’s Peak and at the other end by the Hamlet of Kommetjie with its famous lighthouse. It faces the Atlantic Ocean, being on the west side of the Peninsular and the back of the beach is made up of protected wetlands so that this is not a beach with bars and clubs and crowds, it is just the beach.
It is a beach for surfers and kite surfers and swimmers, but best of all it’s a beach that is so big, that no matter how many people come you can enjoy the feeling of a beach to yourself. You want to escape the pressures of city life then there is nothing like walking in the early morning sun here, to commune with nature, be on a white sanded blue watered beach surrounded by nothing but nature itself, perfect to take you out of yourself and get some perspective on life. The water is not warm since the beach is brushed by the Benguela current that rises on that side of the peninsula, which includes sub Antarctic water that surfaces there due to prevailing winds, but in summer its warm enough. The beach has its very own shipwreck at one end, a ship than sank when driven aground by storms, a reminder of how this tranquil place can erupt when huge storms come
It’s a perfect place to relax, swim, think, walk, take time, have a picnic, and generally escape. The evenings bring sunsets that on a clear day are intense and can be watched until the last edge of the sun disappears below the horizon. In October the Southern Right whale coms to this part of the world with its young and the sunset can be made even more special by the sight of these beautiful creatures in the water, not far off shore, with their young learning to breach.