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Forgotten Post: Hanoi here we come . . . .

3 Jan

Another of those posts that didn’t quite make it first time round….

First of all, an apology to my readers – firstly, for the gap in epistles from Asia: it’s been a bit crazy here, and I haven’t been feeling too good (only a cold but still knocked me off song for a couple of days) – and I have been busy busy busy getting China sorted… and on a boat.. but enough of that in a couple of instalments.  And an apology for the paucity of photos from this episode.. photos from the bus are always a bit crap . . . so you’ll have to rely on my descriptions…

So…off on the bus. But wait! We’re stopped. Something’s wrong with the tyre – so we wait until a little shop by the side of the road replaces it. I’m a bit nervous of the aircon too – there’s a very dodgy electrical smell and I swear I saw a flash of a spark.

Charging off up AH1 (the main road between HCMC and Hanoi) and we go past a huge toilet factory (we can tell, the porcelain is outside), with the mountains creating a beautiful backdrop to the industrial town. I scribble notes as I go, which can be a bit illegible on the bus. So it took me several days to work out that ‘total farting’ actually meant ‘toilet factory’.

We go through a tunnel,which opens out to stunning scenery below before  dropping down the other side, round hairpin bends onto an island below before resuming AH1. Suddenly I can’t work out if I am in a Bond movie or a remake of The Italian Job. Hmm…. that didn’t end well for the bus…

I notice there are a lot fewer road signs in Vietnam.. probably a good thing as everyone ignores them.

A brief stop. There’s English football on the TV with a Vietnamese commentary… everyone has their favourite team, and it’s now become a guessing game to see if I can match my answer to ‘where you from…’ to their chosen team. (I never say ‘Northants’ because no-one has ever heard of it. Apart from the occasional German who spent summer in my home town – that co-incidence happens far more often than you might think for a boy brought up in Kettering!) But who on earth CHOOSES to spend summer in Kettering?

We roar past cafes on the side walk, street stalls, hotels that are lit up like Christmas. There are picnic tables in the square, where everyone is eating and drinking. We pass sweepingly beautiful bays…and then the sun sets, and the sky is orange from horizon to horizon, lit up like napalm fire.

And, finally, into Hanoi. We drive round the park, which is already a hive of activity, and people are doing all the things that they usually do at 6:30 on a Sunday morning. There’s a badminton session going on, we have the usual joggers and the slightly less usual ‘walking backward’ brigade. We have the expected tai chi group, and various people who seem to have made their exercise routine up themselves… although if they could get it on the internet they could make a fortune – it’s so bizarre it must work. And then there’s the social dancing. By the lake. On a Sunday morning. And they’re actually very good, and very polite – apart from the setting, it could be a jive venue.

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The cafes are buzzing, and there are, I swear, more bikes than there are people. I think Hanoi might be fun!

It’s a load of old junk….

16 May

Now, in my last post, there was a gap. A two day gap. You may not even have noticed it.. but to keep the pacy narrative flowing and succinct, I decided to leave out my trip to Halong Bay. This was one of the trips I had really wanted to do, as it’s a real Vietnamese highlight, and truly beautiful – or so they say.

Anyway, Halong Bay is around 200km from Hanoi, so it’s onto a bus for the 3 hour journey. Which was terminally dull, travelling through Vietnam’s combination of rural life and micro industry, where paddyfields jostle with mom and pop mechanical engineering. Rice farming is hugely dependent on water, and the Vietnamese have corralled and maintained their water supply, bending it to their will to feed the fields as well as support their fishing and duck farming.

Things start to get interesting as we rock up in Halong City.. another industrial town with little to recommend it, but outside there are stilt houses built on the mud flats, people eking out an existence on the fish farming they can achieve in the estuary.

And then.. onto the junk. They all look romantic in the photos with those classic sails catching the wind – but with the sails down – it’s just a boat. But that’s not really why I am here – although the romance of a boat trip never fails to get my islander’s heart excited. As we pull out of harbour, the glory that is Halong Bay immediately leaps out to mesmerise my eyes with dramatic beauty. In the bay are around 3000 islands formed from limestone karst left behind… those islands form jagged and wild shards of impossible mountains in the bay. (Locals say there are only 1969 – but that’s the year of Ho Chi Minh’s death….) Every moment the scenery shifts and changes as another island is revealed. After a while, I realise that my camera is capturing ever more shots of similar looking islands – but it’s such an incredible sight that I’m riveted to the view, trying to capture every moment somewhere in my memory.

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The peaks of the rocky outcrops resemble the spine of a long dead dinosaur, hidden in the sea, and indeed ‘Halong’ means ‘Standing Dragon’.

 

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We take half an hour on kayaks in the bay – some of our crew come dangerously close to being run down by the train of junks passing. There’s a lot of boats out here, but the islands hide them from each other. There’s also floating pineapple sellers – in fact, a kind of nautical 7-11 selling everything from beer to crisps from tiny rowboats.

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There’s a visit to the Tien Kung caves, too – although the problem with limestone is that it’s terminally dull grey, the sheer size of the caves makes me feel like I am on the movie set for ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ as we move from chamber to chamber. I’ve never been in such a huge cave system before, and it’s just like you might imagine a dwarvish meeting hall might be like.

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The night is spent on the boat… although the cabins are very nice, the promise of a warm night, a sky full of stars, and the gentle rocking of the boat lures me onto the top deck. The karaoke from the boat and the parties on some of the other boats eventually die away, leaving me with an incredible view, and a real sense of peace and connectedness to the universe. It’s a real moment of validation for me, as I feel, in that moment, that everything is alright in my universe… that I am safe, and loved, and that everything is going to be OK. And I get the sense, too, that the plans I have, the dreams that are in my heart are going to come to pass too.

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The guide has suggested that folk get up at 5:30 to watch the sunrise. Which is a bit silly, because sunrise is at 4:45. So it’s only me that sees it as dawn paints the sky with orange and purple. It may not be the most spectacular sky I’ve seen on this trip, but the setting is absolutely stunning.

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And after dropping some of our party off on one of the islands for their overnight stay, it’s back to the mainland for the bus back to Hanoi. Or, at least, that was the plan. For a while, we run aground on the sandbars in the bay, and need to be pushed off by the ship’s landing craft. Now that’s gotta be embarrassing.

Halong Bay- Sandbanks!

As we approach Hanoi, the sky darkens and the heavens open.  Lightning spatters shards of electric fire across the horizon. Boats in the river seem about to sink under the weight of water, while motorcyclists don ponchos if they have them, or huddle under bridges until the rain stops. The more determine soldier on, dripping wet. Others strip to their underwear to work in the roads. Some of them are keener to protect their cargo than themselves – it only takes a few moments for a cardboard box to turn into sludgy pulp and there’s at least one consignment of beer that isn’t going to make it past the roadway.

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Hanoi Rocks!

15 May

I’ve been waiting to use that title for days… and then my son went and used it for me. (Obscure music reference for those still guessing)

So, what can we say about Hanoi. Apart from the fact that it rocks.

Well, my moto driver has no idea about cheap hotels, so I turn down the first couple I get to and set off on my own. Someone hails me froma passing scooter – he has a room, it’s a reasonable price, it has air conditioning (which might actually be responsible for my sudden cold – the thermal shock caused by exposure to temperatures below 30 degrees centigrade may have been too much for my sweltering system). So I am in the middle of the Old Quarter, a bustling combination of cheap hotels, restaurants, little ‘hole in the wall shops’ selling pirated DVDs, and more travel agencies than can possibly be economically viable. Just round the corner you can buy Bia Hoi (draft beer) for around 30c a glass. There’s a doner kebab stall (chicken kebab, actually, served in a wedge of bread). The cyclo drivers want my business, and so do the doughnut and pineapple sellers (the ploy here is to get you to take their panniers for a photograph and then sell you pineapple. Or bananas. Or coconut). When it rains, these sellers morph into umbrella and poncho sellers. There’s a street selling luggage. And a street selling shoes. So many shoes it brings dread to the heart of the average male. (There’s a picture below, but it was impossible to capture the extent of the number of shops – and the number of shoes). A procession of cyclos go past, obviously doing the tour of the city..

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The action is all around the main lake Hoan Kiem, where the dancing, the tai chi, the exercise, the romantic walks in the evening all happen – where everyone who is anyone in Hanoi can be found. There’s a good few tourists – but not as many as I might expect, which means that I am plagued with people selling maps, shining shoes, offering water, books, and pineapple (those pineapple vendors get everywhere). One overenthusiastic shoe shine man has already applied the glue to fix my shoes before I can tell him that I have no money on me.

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So, perhaps a chance to explore the city. It’s motor cycle crazy here, and crossing the street is a whole new exercise in survival skills.

When I was studying neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), one of the techniques they taught was peripheral vision. The secret to peripheral vision is to relax the focus of your eyes, and allow your attention to spread out wider, so that you become more and more aware of the things going on in the periphery of your vision. And maybe, just maybe, you might become aware of things that you can’t possibly see, but can almost sense are there. In martial arts we use a similar approach to avoid getting clocked from behind by a black belt. (And, of course, as a black belt, I have also done my own fair share of ‘clocking’ on unexpecting lower grades who weren’t quite as aware as they should have been!)

Anyway, they say that while you’re in peripheral vision it’s impossible to feel fear, and that it’s an ideal state to be in to maximise learning, and for making presentations and public speaking. And we’ll be teaching more about that on the workshops I am currently planning (this is called a ‘teaser campaign’). And I swear it’s helped me stay alive on the streets of Hanoi. Waiting for a gap in traffic is pointless, so the only choice is to start walking and dodge the oncoming vehicles. Although on one occasion, a little old lady walked me across the road. Now that stings!

In the evening I take in the cultural extravaganza that is the Water Puppet show – puppets perform on the surface of the water to traditional accompaniment (although that’s definitely a bass guitar amongst the musicians)

It’s kind of cute, and kind of engaging, and refreshingly unpretentious and simple.

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And the next day.. well, time to pay my respects to Ho Chi Minh, the liberator of Vietnam and communist leader who lies embalmed in his mausoleum, much against his wishes. He must be fuming! Anyway, Minh spends winters in Russia being refurbished, although there are rumours that he’s been replaced by a waxwork.

The mausoleum is only open until 10:30 am, so I get there just in time to file past. No photos, but the honour guard are very well drilled, and keep the faithful moving past to make sure we get through in time. I’ve been warned that I will not be able to get my bag back after 10:30 so I am really conscious of the time!)

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb (2)

On the way back, there’s chance to stop in at one of the Vietnamese seats of learning, the Confucian Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu – the original Vietnamese university, and home to dozens of long suffering and overburdened stone tortoises each carrying the lists of students on their back. It seems like it’s school outing time, too – school kids in white shirts and blouses with the obligatory red communist scarf scurry around the temple buying tacky souvenirs.

Temple of Literature (12)Temple of Literature (8)Temple of Literature (5)Temple of Literature (16)

One of the reasons I am here is to get my Chinese visa. Now, it should be simple enough to get a Chinese visa organised.. but I am annoyed on two counts. Firstly, it looks like my guest house has seriously overcharged me for getting the visa by around $50, and secondly, the embassy have screwed up and given me a single entry visa! Now that means I can get to Hong Kong, but I can’t get back. I hope I can fix that, or it might be an early end to my trip!! And as far as the overcharging – well, perhaps time to let some simple forgiveness loose.. It’s not worth getting upset over.

On the up side, that means I am clear to start out on the last leg of my trip… and perhaps the one I am most excited about. China.. Hong Kong.. Tibet.. Nepal.. India..

More excitement….. coming to a screen near you soon . .

No, they don’t really do that, do they?

10 May

So, not long to see Hoi An on this schedule, and my moto driver whisks me off to My Son (pronounced ‘mee son’) to see the old Cham ruins. The ruins are cradled in the mountains in the lee of the massive Hon Quap (Cat’s Tooth Mountain). I’ve seen better kept ruins at Angkor Wat, but the setting is gorgeous. There’s a display of national dance and music, including the Water Carrying Dance, and then another 40km on moto to Marble Mountain.My Son (5)My Son (8)

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It’s harvest time, and the workers are bringing in the rice harvest.. some by machine but some still cut either by hand or by what we would call a brush cutter – or Strimmer, if you must. The harvest is spread out to dry anywhere that space exists.. in the driveway, on the side of the road, on the road itself – even, in one glorious example, in the middle of a road junction (sorry, no photo of that one… I was so shocked I nearly fell off the bike). The rice is joined by chilli peppers and corn, peanuts and fish – some have yards of harvest, while others just have a few basketfuls.

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The bike ride, by the way, is as eventful as ever, with lorries backing up unexpectedly and cycles shooting out of side roads – as well as a number of ‘driving on the pavement’ moments that would have a blue flashing light on your tail in a instant if you tried it in the UK. An additional hazard is caused by my helmet, which, if I raise my head too much gets caught by the wind, flips off my head and attempts to garrotte me.

Marble Mountain is a series of temples in caves scattered round rocky peaks.. you can climb through one cave to find another – a child’s dream.. if only the adults would let them. There are both Buddhist and Hindu temples here, reflecting the joint heritage of much of South East Asia. It’s fascinating stuff with beautiful views over the surrounding peaks and to the sea beyond, although I am somewhat frustrated by the attentions of two unwanted guides, the second of which has to be shown how much money I have and how much I need to pay my driver before she will cease her demands for a tip.

And then back to the hotel… a brief discussion about how much the day was supposed to cost leaves me out of pocket but not prepared to break my peace for a few dollars.

And time for a walk round Hoi An itself. This is a truly beautiful town – one of the few that actually charges an admission fee (around $5 a day). But each of the shops and restaurants is a gem, a beautiful example of French, Japanese and Chinese architecture.

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Many of the houses are open to the public, but it’s worth just wandering the streets. Hunger eventually gets the better of me and I pull up a stool at a street vendors by the river. I fall off the stool, so he brings two. I’m not sure how to take that, but the cao lau noodles (only available in Hoi An, as the water for these noodles has to come from the Hoi An well) are good. The vendor’s daughter and I practice writing and drawing together (hers is better than mine) as the sun sets and the river comes to life, with huge illuminated Chinese animals floating on the water. An old lady sets off floating lanterns that drift down the river while couples wander arm in arm over the Japanese bridge. Hoi An is a beautiful place to visit, and it’s a shame that I have less than 24 hours here.. but the bus calls again…

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Motorbiking . . .

10 May

A nice short trip from Hoi An to Hue this morning..well, that makes a change!

A few years back, when I was running a conference in France, we finished a bit early – so I decided to find out how much of Paris you can see in four hours. Quite a lot, as it happens.. leaving enough time over to realise that Charles de Gaulle station is not at Charles de Gaulle airport.

So, when I rocked up in Hue, the same challenge was on. How much can you see between the bus arriving at 11:30 and it departure at 5pm? Well, if you have the services of a cheerful but slightly bonkers moto driver… quite a lot.

So, first stop is the Citadel. Hue is a walled town, and right in the middle is the Citadel, Kinh Tahn, built in 1805 or so, for the Emperor Gila Long.

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Although a lot of the buildings were destroyed in 1947, it seems that the ones that remain have a grave serenity to them. Chinese design palace buildings and theatres vie for my attention with dragons and guardians. The moat adds an extra dimension, and ceramic roof decoration, red painted wood and pottery decoration are everywhere. I wonder what it would have been like when it was in its heyday – perhaps a bustling palace – a hive of activity, with oases of calm amongst the frantic activity. It’s full of details.. beautiful bonsai trees, fercious dragons, inexplicable topiary turtles…

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You can see how complex it all was from the reconstruction.

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On to the bike and off to the iconic Thien Mu pagoda. Set in a beautiful garden on top of a hill overlooking the Song Huong river, the peace is disturbed, but only very slightly, when every few minutes a monk strikes the singing bowl. The outbuildings hide their own secrets – a bell in one, an inscribed tablet in another, a turtle carrying a slate in another.

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And then off to the final stop – after the obligatory stop for me to buy souvenirs and dinner, and the driver to get his finder’s fee – it’s all OK and just part of the game. Here I am at the tomb of Tu Doc. It’s a huge complex, where the emperor used to relax on a lake created by diverting a small stream (very Capability Green) with fir trees and frangipani softening the landscape. The emperor, the empress and their son are buried here, with each of the tombs seeming to whisper secrets, somehow. It’s a wonderfully peaceful place, and I could have spent several hours just watching people come and go, and soaking up what feels like a wonderful deep and soulful peace.

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Chay has found something to protect my paintings, and we’re off again after a couple of beers (should I really be buying alcohol for my driver?). By going direct to the bus depot I get a good seat on the bus (quite a good plan, as the bus is overbooked – and you can’t add more seats to a sleeping bus by simply putting chairs on the floor).

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I devour the crazy sweet sesame treats I bought at the tomb.. like sesame seeds wrapped round chewy Turkish Delight. This is a much better bus, probably only a few months old, with seats that work – and a toilet that works too, even if I do wish I was a little bit further away from it. 12 hours overnight to Hanoi… and time for more adventures at the embassy.

Hurtling to Hanoi….

6 May

So, escape from Saigon to try and get to Hanoi for embassy opening time on Monday. Around 48 hours of bus journey in the middle of that…

Thursday

Finally I have to wake my hostess to get out of the barricaded hotel. Fully laden with my rucksacks, I walk to the end of the road to get a pastry and coffee, then walk 100 metres in the other direction to the travel agents. Sure enough, a motorbike turns up to take me back to exactly where I bought coffee.  Sometimes they should just tell me where to turn up (on the other hand, other days the bus is 5km out of town)

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Onto the bus. The sleeper bus system is widespread in Vietnam, and you can buy a hop on hop off ticket all the way from Saigon to Hanoi. As is usual in Asia, lots of companies do it, but they all basically use the same system. On the face of it, it’s quite a good plan. Take one ordinary size bus, convert it to two levels, but have everyone reclining. It’s 3 rows single file, so you don’t end up crammed close to someone you don’t know (which can be a blessing or disaster, depending on who you get…..)

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So far so good. Unfortunately, the seats aren’t built to accommodate a normal sized European, and bizarrely the place where your feet go is curved, which means you can’t get your feet to the end. There’s no space for luggage, so my rucksack is lashed to the rudimentary parcel tray.

And then again, it’s only around $36 to get from one end of the country to another…

So we hurtle down the uneven roads of Vietnam… some are OK and some are a suspension designer’s nightmare. We thread our way past the blue and gold fishing boats, tidy gardens and orange dunes of Mui Ne. We race through seaside towns, caught between the sea and the mountains, brightly painted coral for sale outside the houses (naughty, naughty). In Nha Trang the light fades to sights of fishing lakes, endless beaches and the most gorgeous central reservation in the world – all frangipani and shrubbery. The soundtrack has morphed into a playlist of everyone’s nightmare tracks, including the Macarena and a reggae version of Jingle Bells, which is rendered even stranger  by being played in 40 degree heat in May.

Past scores of workers on the paddy fields nestling in the shadow of the mountains that loom over Ninh Truan and finally into Hoi An as sun rises.

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It’s actually a challenge finding an inexpensive hotel here, for reasons that might become obvious in my next post – but my moto driver knows one that’s reasonable, and it is… the clock is ticking and I need to see Hoi An and its multifarious charms. . .

Miss Saigon

4 May

Monday

So, rolling on from Chau Doc across the Mekong Delta. It genuinely IS green here, rice growing in a patchwork of emerald paddy fields. The delta is criss-crossed by a thousand creeks and rivers, where every back yard seems to have a boat in it.

Half way through, the heavens open up, sending a multitude of motorcyclists scurrying to buy ponchos at the little stalls by the road. You can buy all your motorcycle parts here, with roadside stalls with hundreds of wing mirrors, and a selection of helmets that I’d defy you to find anywhere else.

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And then we rock up in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh was, of course, the communist liberator of Vietnam from the French. His picture adorns shops, hotels and businesses across the country. But of course, everyone calls it Saigon.

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My moto driver takes me down into backpacker Saigon, assuring me that he knows a good cheap hotel for $5 a night. Riding a moto in Saigon is a different game, though.. I decide that if I look over my driver’s right shoulder, then I can’t see all the traffic approaching from the left, which helps to calm the panic. Slightly. Cars from every direction, motorcyclists that believe that red means ‘go but slightly slower’. It turns out that he doesn’t know a hotel at all, but that the fare will be $5. He has no change for $20 in dollars or dong… so suddenly it’s a $10 ride. My mistake.

Anyway, I am hailed by a cute Vietnamese who has a room for rent above her art gallery. It;s comfortable enough, and inexpensive, so that’s easy (I’ve got so used to being accosted at bus stations by people offering guest houses that I have no idea what to do when it doesn’t happen. Which isn’t strictly true – just find the hotel area and someone will offer you a home.)

Tuesday

A walk round Saigon… not all that much to report, really. There are a thousand small shops, a river, a stylish tree lined main drag, French Colonial buildings all around. The Vietnamese (and Cambodian) way of building streets is peculiar, though. All building seem to come in one standard width. You can have a building built on two plots, but most of them are on one. And then you decide what you want – how high, what sort of shop front… everything looks like it’s been put together by a ‘build a street’ version of Lego.  If you see a house on its own in the middle of nowhere, it will still be the same width. Images of helicopters flying over South East Asia dropping buildings into place spring to mind. I’m sure, too, that shops are magically appearing and disappearing like something out of Harry Potter… a Crumpler store I found on Monday disappeared and then magically reappeared on Wednesday.

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I did get a chance to be a coconut seller for a few minutes though….DSCF3867

and discover these gorgeously kitsch revolution postersDSCF3864

(still not sure if these are retro or just ‘how it’s done’ – didn’t manage to get a photo of the one with the computer though)

A park full of sculptures (this one’s Beethoven)

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And the Saigon Notre Dame

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I’ve rediscovered street food, too. And street coffee and street beer. Basically, you can sit outside on a garden chair and eat your breakfast/ lunch/ dinner. And it’s really good. (I did think the best coffee on the trip was the Coffee Glacier at Black Mountain in Chiang Mai and in Phnom Penh. But then I had the iced coffee at Sozo in Saigon… and then the street coffee outside my hotel.. and I just don’t know any more). Still not sure what to make of Bubble Tea – fruit flavoured iced tea served with chunks of jelly made from tapioca in the bottom… slurp it up through a wide straw. And I will be avoiding the gourmet ‘weasel coffee’ – cà phê Chồn which is made from coffee beans after they have passed through the weasel’s digestive tract.

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(middle row, right hand side)

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I’m still trying to organise how to catch my schedule up – the passport incident has eaten into funds, and I have cancelled my Tibet tour… now negotiating with a couple of Chinese companies who do something similar for half the price. But do I rush to get to Beijing, so I can join an early (and leisurely) tour…. or do I take it easy, but then have to rush through Nepal and India on the way out. Much might depend on my Chinese visa…and THAT they are threatening might take 12 days in Hanoi. Terrific.

Anyway, rather than a 48 hour bus trip I elected to break my journey in Hue… but still I have a bus journey of over 24 hours to look forward to. Better charge the MP3 player…the Kindle…sharpen my pencils…

Wednesday

One reason the Americans had to butt out of Vietnam was that the Vietnamese were just too bloody minded to give up. The Viet Cong guerrilla movement is of course fabled.. and so we went to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, about two hours outside Saigon. This amazing network of tunnels (over 200km of them, all dug by hand) foiled the American forces’ attempts to defeat them. The tunnels were too well camouflaged, and the use of chilli and captured American uniforms defeated the sniffer dogs. Bombing the hell out of the area didn’t work either, as the tunnels were too deep and too well built. And the American tunnel rat teams were… well, too fat. They have special tunnels widened for Westerners, and even those are a bit tight (I’m still pleased I overcame my occasional claustrophobia to go down) but the originals, out of which guards pop like jack-in-the-boxes around the site, are too tiny for some of the more solidly built amongst us to get down, although one or two of us managed it. (Yours truly, although more svelte than last year, didn’t get chance to try. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it).

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But I did get chance to scurry round the wider westernised version…

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and lift a tank barrel.

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I decided I wasn’t going to take them up on the offer of firing an M16 or M60 machine gun though – not at $1 a bullet (unlike Phnom Penh, the option of shooting a chicken or blowing up a cow with a bazooka is not available, thank God)

The Vietnamese built some pretty nasty boobytraps too. Forget landmines, they used sawn up bomb casings and bamboo to create a whole range of unpleasant fates for anyone foolish enough to step on one.DSCF3918

Tomorrow… the bus. Friday.. Hue. I hope.

Vietnamese names

Just cause it’s interesting. And because worrying about people’s names for email used to be part of my job (did you know that many Indians have no family name and have to make one up?) The Vietnamese have three parts to their name – Family name, Middle Name, and Given Name.

The family name is one of 100 or so in use today, of which 40% of the population are called ‘Nguyen’. Contrast that with the UK where only about 1% are called Smith.

The middle name is often used to distinguish a generation within a family – so brothers and sisters have the same middle name.

The given name is used to distinguish people – but as is common in Asia, it’s the one used in formal situations (which is why I am ‘Mr Tim’ out here (and it’s easier than ‘Hodgson’). (The Japanese, of course, rarely use the given name, why I was ‘Hodgson-San’ out there, and why karate students always use surnames (it’s very bad formal etiquette, even for children, to use given names in the dojo))

Of course, what they really want to call me is ‘Mr No-Hair’ – so they do, when they think they can get away with it. Monks, of course, have shaved heads (No 2 razor at a guess) but not bald – and most Vietnamese (and Asian) men keep their hair and don’t seem to go as grey, either. I was sitting in the bus the other day when the kid in the seat behind me couldn’t resist stroking it… which was actually quite relaxing.

Waterworld

3 May

There’s lots of activity on the river – every few minutes a boat load of motorcycles crosses the river – there are two ferries, it’s so busy – while longtails and cargo vessels vie with the occasional tourist boat. It’s quite disconcerting when half the restaurant wheels away into the river – but I guess I should expect that from a floating restaurant.

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So, rather than turn left into town, I turn right… and suddenly a whole new world opens up. A lot of people arrive in Chau Doc and go straight off on a tour of the Mekong delta. And I am sure they have a great time. And I am equally sure that they miss out on everything that Chau Doc has to offer.

To start off with, no one is hassling me to buy anything. There’s a few cheerful moto and cyclo drivers who would like to whisk you off somewhere (where, I am not sure, there’s not that much to Chau Doc. I took a stroll through the park, which has some interesting sculptures and a man asleep in his cyclo.

DSCF3743DSCF3747DSCF3749DSCF3752I wandered through the market – a a market, I might add, that certain of my friends would cheerfully spend an entire weekend in…. even I wanted to buy a dress – without  anyone wanting to sell me anything. In fact, the presence of a ngoåi nhân like me seemed to be a complete surprise – and I only saw around half a dozen caucasian faces all day.

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But the river.. oh, the river. It’s like a Richard Scarry book (see box if you’re clueless). Everything is happening. There are big boats zooming around, while ferrymen try not to get mown down. The ferrymen are, in fact, mostly women, and the upright rowing position seems to be working wonders for their figure.

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imageNote for the clueless: Richard Scarry is an American author of children’s picture books. EVERY child has a Richard Scarry book somewhere. One of his most successful styles is to draw huge scenes with lots of detail, so that the poor unfortunate parent/grandparent/babysitter/innocent passerby has to name them all. And woebetide you if you miss one out. Sound familiar, David Hodgson? If you’ve never read one… you will.

People live on the river in tiny little boats with precious little protection against the elements.. there’s a fisherman mending his nets, while children swim in the river (littlest one has a very sensible life jacket on – and seems to be tied to a rope as well). There are big boats, little boats, long tails, cargo vessels that look as if they’re going to sink. Half the town seems to be built on the river. Patches of water hyacinth go floating down river  to clog propellers and get stuck on anchors.

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I can sit and watch this for hours… but sadly the sun sets over the harbour… and the town lights up with street stalls, at which I discover that it IS possible to make sweetcorn taste even better than just cooked with butter, and that the Cambodian blandness is left behind, a mere memory in a sizzle of Vietnamese spiciness..

I think I’m going to like it here….

In fact, I was up at sunrise to get some cracking sunrise shots.. and some more pictures of the market in a better light… and more stuff happening here, there and everywhere…

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Good Morning Vietnam…..

2 May

So, how did YOU spend the Royal Wedding Day? me, I went to a really cool little cinema in Phnom Penh, with relaxing mattresses to lie on, and beer and stuff, all sorted by the effervescent Ramon. Mind you, at ten minutes to opening time there was nothing around – and the showing times were yesterdays… but a little patience and I am in.

And then a trip to the Irish bar, Paddy Rice, where I know they are showing the day’s big gig. Aww……it almost makes me go all romantic. Odd to see pictures of the UK though.. it’s been 6 months to the day since I left.

Saturday

And, finally, the day has arrived. I’m up before breakfast, and there’s no sign of my lift.. so eventually I make my own arrangements. Down to the harbour, onto the boat. Turns out it’s the WRONG boat, but who cares. Then the boat we’re on is too small. So we get on a new boat. The hotel have booked me on the slow boat, but if I change now I will miss the boat. Literally. So, I buy a new ticket and all is well.

And then we’re off. Down the Bassac river (go South on the Mekong and turn right) towards the border.  The river is wide, and lazy, but there’s still lots going on – fishermen dropping their nets, kids playing, ferries, dredgers… keeping the lifeblood of the country flowing.

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After around three hours we stop to change boats (they don’t tell us this is what’s happening, which causes some confusion when we get back) but we have a chance to walk through the local village, chat to some of the local kids (well, mostly say ‘Hello’) and take photographs of interesting things – drying corn in the sun, drying palm leaves, water buffalo, cows, kids, boys fishing in the river.

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And then on to what has to be one of the nicest immigration locations I have seen – a shady grove by the side of the river. I’m not alone in the ‘lost passport’ stakes – a couple of Norwegian girls have the same problem. It causes a certain amount of confusion, but what are they going to do… keep us in Cambodia? Too much paperwork!

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And then to the riverside immigration for Vietnam. And magically I am in another country. Hoorah! It takes another hour to navigate down to Chau Doc.. I could have travelled on, but I think that’s enough excitement for one day.

It’s strange to see signs written in Roman letters again – although it doesn’t help much – Vietnamese pronunciation is fiercely different from English, and it’s a tonal language too – to take an example, the word ‘ma’ can mean ‘phantom’, ‘but’, ‘mother’, rice seedling’, ‘tomb’ or ‘horse’ depending on the rise and fall of pitch on the word (signified by an accent over the ‘a’). Lots of room for error then…And it’s another hyper currency… 17,000 dong (you couldn’t make that one up) to the dollar.

And I have, of course, arrived right in the middle of the Vietnamese Independence day celebrations. I’m staying at a floating hotel, which means that every now and again my room bounces up and down.. the hotel is surrounded by water hyacinth which floats on the river (hiding disused watercraft) – but watching what looks like a solid surface ripple up and down is very disconcerting….

So, a new adventure beckons…

Sunday

The streets are full of flags – Vietnam is, of course, a communist country. The tuk tuks have disappeared, but the cyclos are out in force – a regular bicycle with a most uncomfortable trailer behind, made for squatting Asian style rather than sitting.

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I spend a happy hour or so drinking iced coffee and watching the world go by while regaled by Vietnamese music videos with enough complicated boy meets girl ghost story plots, histrionic whammy bar guitar solos, echoey drum fills and power chord piano to shame Meatloaf. I’ve got to think that some of it is actually quite danceable, if you’re in a bluesy frame of mind (think ‘Freebird’ or ‘Poison’ and you’re half way there).

And, I thought, that’s it for the day… tomorrow, Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, formally, but everyone calls it Saigon). (Apparently, Ho Chi Minh didn’t want a city named after him, and definitely didn’t want to be embalmed…. but that didn’t stop the Vietnamese. He gets sent to Russia once a year for a refurb, they tell me.)

Sorry, where was I? I think I’ve lost the plot again. Oh yes… the dull afternoon. Didn’t happen. But that’s another post entirely.

 
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