Saturday, September 26, 2015

Bang Lang

Since Vietnam spans the same latitudes as my country I expected similar prevalence of the avian species but it’s eerily hard to spot birds here. I would have expected flocks of waders and pelagic species in the lush green Ha Long bay but apart from a few hornbills and the odd heron it was slim pickings. There are well-maintained water bodies and lung spaces in Hanoi and Cần Thơ, but once again, you hardly see the flock of pigeons or mynas that are a hallmark of our green zones. While traveling the countryside I kept my eyes glued to that favorite perching spots of many passerines, the electric wire. But the wires, in their fabulous messiness, play no host.

I’ve wondered about the reason for the absence of birds there. Clearly there don’t seem to be taboos on what to eat and not. Maybe the birds fell victim to the all-encompassing carnivorousness. The single biggest group of birds I had seen so far was in a marination tray in one of the eateries in Cần Thơ. There was at least one article on the net supporting that view but the conclusion seemed a tad bigoted. Poaching and illegal wildlife trading could be potential reasons. I had spotted a bird that looked like a species I’m used to and googled “White-rumped Shama in Vietnam” to verify if that species exists here too. The first two results of that search were posts on a classified site dealing with the commerce of exotic birds.(The same search for India leads you to information sites). I’ve also read about the devastation delivered by the Americans through their use of Napalm and Agent Orange. Maybe the ecosystem hasn’t recovered since. Or maybe my expectation is misplaced; the proliferation of birds back in India could be the aberration instead of the rule. Whatever the reason, the angst in me was building up as I kept looking and kept not finding. Until, we reached Bang Lang!

Bang Lang is a short distance from Cần Thơ city and plays host to a mind-boggling number of birds. The first indication is the leaves of the trees that have all turned white due to the droppings from above, from Cattle Egrets, Little Egrets, Openbills, Cormorants, Herons and lots of other waders. There’s a 3-m high watch tower from where you can watch the birds going about their business - preening, feeding, breeding, fighting, and learning to fly - all with a raucousness that’s hard to describe. After having spent days wondering where the birds are, this cacophony was sweet music.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Ninh Binh

One of the defining features of Viet Nam is that every mass transit vehicle is equipped with high speed WiFi. And because of that evil, the journey to Ninh Binh from Hạ Long bay felt like a short one since each of us had buried our heads into our smartphones (at the cost, as the missus repeatedly pointed out, of experiencing the actual real world we had paid so much to explore). When we arrived at Ninh Binh we looked up and realized it looked nothing like the pictures of this place that we had seen on the travel brochures. However, as we left the city of Ninh Binh behnd and towards our destination the scenery began to change. The urban landscape gave way to rice paddies and then to a countryside dominated by karsts. It looked a little bit like Ha Long bay with all its water suctioned out.

Our hotel was adjoining the Mua caves, a moderately popular tourist destination. Right within the property was a hillock that gave us a great view of the karsts that surrounded us on one side and the rice fields on the other. We also saw the Ngo Dong river weaving its way around, and sometimes under, the hills. The travel brochures hadn’t lied.

Early the next day we rented bikes and headed out towards the Tam Cốc caves. My son, who had so far mostly been treating this trip as a minor inconvenience finally found a reason to smile. This was the travel equivalent of the Buy-him-a-toy-and-he-plays-with-the-box moment. After traveling on an A320, sailing on a cruise and riding on a luxury bus what eventually gave him kicks was being saddled on the back seat of a bicycle on a hot sunny morning while we rode through bumpy country roads. I wish we got our kicks that cheap too.

We hired a couple of boats at the Ngo Dong river to take us to the Tam Cốc caves. Most of the boats are run by women who have perfected the art of using only their feet to operate the oars. Our omnidextrous wonder boat-woman was deftly maneuvering her boat through the 2m high grottos while alternately knitting and texting with her hands.

When we returned, it was time to check out of the hotel and leave the karstic landscapes for the plains and deltas of the south. There was something intimate about the Mua Cave Eco Lodge (our hotel) that made me wish we had had a few more days of stay there. The staff exuded a sweetness (except when they were talking about the chinese) that didn’t just stem from a sense of professional duty. The bonsai trees lining the walkways made me feel like a brobdingnagian.
The lodge itself seemed removed from civilization; the nights had that therapeutic quiet about them. The food was simple, yet delicious, and a welcome change from the excesses of the cruise. And there was Wifi.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Hạ Long Bay

Legend has it that when Vietnam was just getting created it was under constant threat from its enemies. Heaven-dwelling dragons came to its timely rescue and spat out jade and other stones at the enemy which landed in the sea forming the archipelago called Hạ Long bay, now recognized as a Unesco heritage site. Of course, the real story involving a lot of geological drama - erosion, swelling of the seas, tectonic activity pushing up the karst over the sea level - and stretching hundreds of millions of years is even more fascinating. It has left behind a spectacle the likes I haven't seen before. Thousands of tiny green islands in a still emerald green sea.

We spent 24 hrs cruising around the bay, stepping out every now and then to visit some of the islands and the limestone caves in them, to explore the waters on a kayak, or to see an oyster farm. Otherwise we were on a nice little boat taking in the extraordinary sights all around us, which included one of the most ravishing sunsets I've seen.

I was torn between deciding whether I wanted to spend more days on the cruise or not. While my senses were clearly not satiated from the sheer natural beauty on display, sitting on a cruise gives you no experience of Viet Nam. Admittedly no form of tourism or short term travel can really acquaint you with all the naked truths of a region you are visiting, but the sanitised bubble that is a cruise can denude even more of the context of the place. I was now eager to see the rest of Viet Nam. Besides I couldn't afford another night on the cruise, so on we went to our next destination, Ninh Binh.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Crossing a busy street in Hanoi

The traffic in Hanoi, or in any other big city in Vietnam for that matter, resembles what you’d see in most Indian cities. Endless streams of vehicles -largely two-wheelers- that ignore lane markings and occupy every little inch of road available. If they are not at a zebra crossing, pedestrians don’t have an easy rule book to follow to cross such streets. In India you typically use one of two approaches. If you are brazen enough, you take on the traffic, start walking towards the other end brushing off the raucous honking or the gentle abuses that come your way. In the second approach, you rely on your fitness, finding the windows of opportunity and bolting across.

In Vietnam they have settled on a third approach that works beautifully even on 6-lane streets where the Indian strategies would fall apart. Here’s how it works. Your common sense might beg you against it but you walk straight into the flow of traffic towards your destination on the other side of the road. Provided you keep a slow constant pace, traffic - without slowing or stopping - will go around you at a reasonably safe distance like you see in those wind tunnel flow visualizations. This boggles the mind because the approach requires a tacit contract between the drivers (who need to judge whether to go in front of you or behind you depending on your speed) and the pedestrians (who need to stick to predictable speed and direction). Best of all, you'll not hear a single beep of the horn. If you take the leap of faith the first couple of times you’ll eventually feel like a modern day, freshwater version of Moses as the river of traffic splits and rejoins around you while you travel to the bank in an invisible bubble.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


My next set of posts will be about our recent trip to Vietnam that took us from the capital city of Hanoi, over to the archipelago in Ha Long bay, to the largest city, Saigon, and then to Cần Thơ in the Mekong delta, and finally to Cát Tiên national park in the south of the country.

Monday, September 14, 2015


These are impressions from 4 short days in Burma we spent in the end of Aug.

Street food: I’m a sucker for cultures that spend their evenings sitting around in street cafes, eating and drinking. Yangon, at least the chinatown part where we stayed in, seems to fit the bill. Even with the inflated prices they quote to foreigners the street food is fairly inexpensive. Here’s a lady preparing papaya salad and noodles in the middle of Yangon market.

Pagodas are everywhere in this country. This one below is called the Botataung pagoda that claims to house a sacred hair of Gautama Buddha. I can neither confirm nor refute that claim.

Circular train
There’s a metre gauge rail track that circumscribes the city of Yangon. A full circle ride on the train takes 3.5 hrs and is a great way to let the sights and sounds of this city sink in. Here’s a market spilling over into the tracks in one of the stations on that route.

A cheek paint, called Thanaka, made out of ground bark is a common feature on every cheek in Myanmar. After a short while you’ll stop finding it odd.