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Saturday, October 29, 2005

After the storm, the calm


This morning we got up early and caught the train to Da Nang. This four hour journey has been described by several commentators as one of the greatest railway journeys in the world, and it certainly lived up to its billing. It began with the suburbs of Hue, slowly becoming countryside and paddy fields. Water buffalo grazed in the pools next to the tracks, and shanty town buildings led off to distant mountains. It was raining, as seemed usual in Hue, but the landscape slowly got more and more dramatic. There were hills, then mountains, tunnels and sharp bends with precipitous drops. A couple of times we had a cliff on one side and only a long drop to rocks and pounding surf on the other. For the narrowest bends, the train slowed to a crawl, and seemed to be leaning at an alarming angle as it went round.

On the other side of the mountains was a bay, containing different sizes of fishing boats, from large ships to coracles. Then small towns, and finally the suburbs of Da Nang.

If Hue typified all the ways in which Vietnam could go wrong with tourism (pushy guides, people asking for money, unable to stand still in the street without cyclo drivers trying to get you to take a ride), then DaNang is an example of the best of Vietnam. It is virtually ignored by all the guidebooks, which is almost certainly why it has been so nice to be here. Da Nang is just a city, going about its business. Perhaps the most thoroughly modern city in Vietnam, it is the fourth biggest, and is a major port in the middle of the country, on the Han river.

There have been many Vietnamese virtues I have noticed on this trip, most of which seem to be bound up with having a communist government. The people seem assertive, egalitarian, and generally happy. We have not noticed any drop in the status of women in Vietnam - either in the way they talk, drive, or carry out their work. Sara, for instance, has found it refreshing that if we ask a question, the answer is as likely to come back to her as me, and that her opinion is sought as often. Perhaps the greatest virtue for a traveller, though is honesty. Travelling makes it very difficult sometimes: the money is strange, the language incomprehensible, and the customs unexpected. It would be easy for those taking money to look to scam a foreigner, or pretend prices were other than what was initially agreed, but time and time again in Vietnam, we have found that the people will bargain hard to come to a price, but then be scrupulously honest about giving change.

All of this is particularly evident in Da Nang. It is that real rarity in the modern world - a place where Westerners can go and genuinely feel that they are breaking new ground. Many of the people speak surprisingly good english, and hotels and cafe's have english menus, but we have been stared at here more than anywhere else we have ever been. It is not an agressive stare, but friendly and smiling, but it is obvious that we are a rarity in Da Nang. I think that if all I had seen in Vietnam had been the major sights: the perfume pagoda, the old town of Hanoi, Hue's Imperial city, then I would have been disappointed. Instead, once again, we have learned that if we go off the beaten track that we have a much better time. I think that I have finally found that I am not partial to "sights", but rather to places and people. I like to enter a place and just "be" there, and so prefer cities where I can be anonymous, rather than attractions, where I am seen as a walking dollar sign.

Sara, though, has not been well today. She was bitten by an insect in Hue, and her arm has started to swell up and go red around the bite. We looked on the internet, and it seems that you can have 3 different reactions to an insect bite: a small swelling, which eventually goes away (normal), a violent allergic reaction, which is life-threatening (unusual, but worrying), and a medium allergic reaction, which is what this looks like. It hadn't gone away, and Sara was also suffering nausea and a bad stomach, so we found a hotel and asked for them to call us a taxi to take us to the hospital. The receptioninst took one look, and went and fetched a small bottle of very strong (but nice) smelling liquid, and daubed it onto Sara's arm. Those smells we could recognise included menthol and eucalyptus. It took away the itching better than the anti-histamine cream we'd been using for the past 24 hours.

The hospital was a model of how to treat a patient. Sara was asked to lie in a bed for a short while, then two doctors and three nurses came over at various times to ask her questions. It looks like they have a new ultrasound machine, as there were 3 other patients while we were there, and all (including Sara), got to have some part of their anatomy ultrasounded. All in all, the we were in and out within 3/4 of and hour, and the total cost was about 4 pounds, for medicine that included another brand of anti-histamine cream, antibiotic and stomach settling powder.

Just time for dinner by the Han river. Sweet and sour prawns and fish in pineapple sauce. The place seemed clean enough, and the staff very friendly, although I've never had a waiter in a restaurant comment with a chuckle about the size of the beetle (cockroach?) that just ambled slowly past before. Got me to thinking about what makes a weed. A flower in the wrong place? Well, if you were in a country that eats insects, would a stray cockroach be seen as a problem, or an opportunity?

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