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Location: United Kingdom

Monday, October 31, 2005

Vietnamese oddities

I've been in Vietnam for about a week now, and it's probably a good time to reflect on those things that have seemed uniquely Vietnamese, as opposed to, say, general South East Asian:

1. Hats. The Vietnamese are a uniquely hat wearing nation. The conical hat seen in films appears to be a woman's hat, which is a pity, because I did want to go around wearing one. Men tend to make do with dark green pith helmets, or baseball caps. Outdoors, about 70% of the population seems to wear one sort of hat or another.

2. Small chairs. Street food is usually the best way to eat in South East Asia; you look for a place with lots of locals sitting eating, see if it smells nice, and, if so, it's probably the best food around. We've had many nice dishes this way - mostly variations of noodle soup or fried rice. But in Vietnam, the street vendors make do with chairs that are ridiculously too small. We have sat many times and ate soup perched on seats no larger than a small pile of paperback novels.

3. Street shops. There seems to be no law designating certain places as licensed for trade, and banning it in others. People who have shops have certain advantages, such as being out of the rain, and being able to lock up, but all over Vietnam entrepreneurs are opening shops in whatever space presents itself. A walk down the pavement and you can come across a man cooking bacon on a wire mesh over a small burner, a woman in a chair with a crate of beer, and a scooter repair shop. These are my favorite, as they are obviously semi-permanent places, only without walls or roof. There can be several scooters parked up, people waiting, and three or four mechanics covered in oil, with engine parts spread over the pavement.

4. Drive-up. As befits a nation of scooter drivers, a large amount of shopping seems to be done from the comfort of the vehicle. Want some shampoo? Well pull onto the pavement, drive along to a shop you fancy, and call across for them to bring it out to you.

5. The Lambada. For some reason, this tune is everwhere. Radios, horns, entrance bells. I have no idea why.

6. Censorship. As far as I can tell, the Vietnamese government has taken the attitude of "blogs, no thanks". So I can post to my blog, edit the pages, but not view it, or any other blog. Anything with a blogspot in it gets the infamous server not found error. Looking on the web, it appears that China also takes this approach.

7. Football. The universal language. We were in a family restaurant the other day, with fine chinese food, but all around us people were glued to the Vietnam vs Japan match. No matter how little english people speak they all seem to have heard of Manchester United, and Wayne Rooney (pronounced Wayn-e Wooney). But then the second thing they say (and I've had this several times now) is that they, themselves are an Arsenal fan!

8. Driving. There are very few cars or lorries on the roads, but scooters everywhere. Some of the more major intersections are controlled by police, or traffic lights, though these seem to be optional, as those in a hurry simply transfer to the pavement. In general, though, intersections are completely unregulated, and traffic seems to advance much the same way that people cross the road - keep to a regular speed, and let everyone else flow around you. It seems to work, though I have noticed cars causing difficulties here, because they are much less manouverable compared to the width of the road.

9. Overloaded Scooters. As the major transport vehicle is the scooter, there is a tendency to load them up for each journey. You can often see two parents and a young (4 year old?) child all on one scooter, and sometimes a family of 4 can be seen driving along. They are also used to carry burdens, including baskets of chickens, planks of wood, boxes, flowers, and bottles of water, which I have seen strapped to the back, sides, and placed between the feet. The most impressive two things I have ever seen carried on a scooter, though, was a pig in one case, and a young cow in another.

10. Soft yellow walls. Mainly due to the colonial architecture brought in by the French, and the slow decay of these buildings in the years since independence, the predominant colour of the walls and buildings in Vietnam is a flaking, old, mustard yellow. This makes the whole city of Hanoi, for example, seem golden and aged, and adds a lot of charm.

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?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Sorted out the next leg

Easy day yesterday - strolled down South of Hoan Kiem, to the Loa embassy. We only intended to see if we could get a visa on arrival, but it turned out he could do one in 2 hours, so we booked in for it. Round the corner, we talked to the girls from Lao aviation, who were able to sort us out with a ticket to Vientiane for a week's time. They seemed really gentle and friendly, so I'm very much looking forward to visiting Laos. The plan so far is to have a look round the middle of the country (Hue, Ho-an and Da Nang), before coming back to Ha Noi to fly to Vientiane.

After booking the tickets, we took a walk round the south lake, while our visas were being prepared. The lake was surrounded by a large Soviet-style park, with another statue of Lenin. At first this was a bit offputting, as the communists seem to take their fun seriously, with set areas for different types of recreation. The whole thing had the feel of a seaside town out of season, with far too few people for the attractions, and faded, peeling paint.

Luckily, first impressions were wrong. As we went further in, we saw the more relaxed side of Hanoi life. A couple of people were fishing for sprats with a thread on the end of a stick, some kids were playing football, and there was an area devoted to old guys playing a board game with round tokens inscribed with chinese characters. Further round, there were more people doing tai-chi style exercises, and physical stretches. Overall, though, the mood was one of relaxed contemplation. Perhaps in Hanoi more than any other city, out of the main streets, the locals can just sit and be.

Today was a complete contrast. We took the sleeper train south to the old imperial capital of Hue. We travelled first class, taking the left hand 2 bunks of a 4-bunk compartment, which was nicely air-conditioned. It was obvious from the first that this was a state run railway, though, as they thoughtfully piped very loud music into the corridor outside our cabin, together with inspirational words in Vietnamese and English. After 2 hours this mercifully died down, and our ticket inspector came in. Up to then, we had only had our ticket checked by a guard at the entrance to the station, a guard at the entrance to the platform, and a guard on the door of the train. This new inspector took our ticket and gave us in return a small piece of laminated card, filled with words in Vietnamese, and ending with the English words "Good Luck".

We settled in to an intermittent night's sleep - the air conditioning seeming to go from far to hot to far too cold at random moments, and were woken to the sound of piped music once more. We were also treated to a short history of Hue's importance in the war against the Americans. Just before arrival the inspector came back and replaced the laminated card with our original tickets, and we disembarked.

Hue is a complete contrast to Hanoi. It is actually quite a recent capital, being the seat of the Nguyen dynasty, from about 1800 to 1945, when the king abdicated in favour of the communist government. It was a major part of the founding of Vietnam, though, as the king ruled over what was essentially the country borders we know today. Some of the kings were patriots, but others seem quite indifferent to the fate of their fellow countrymen. When the French suggested to one King that they should industrialise, in order to better the lot of the poor, he replied that he did not think that was a good thing, as he prefered them poor.

Having Hue as a major sight seems a bit unusual for a communist country, as it is essentially glorifiying status differences, but Vietnam has suffered a lot at the hands of so many different invaders that it presumably needs to keep hold of whatever history it has.

As a town, Hue is a tribute to capitalism, and particularly the great god, tourism. We chose to walk from the railway station, and everywhere we went with backpacks we were surrounded by touts looking to introduce us to our hotel. It got so bad at one point that I pretended I could only speak welsh, and mouthed gibberish at a couple till they went away. I think the only intelligible word I spoke was "Cymru" - that being more or less the only welsh word I know. Perhaps I should learn some more, as it seemed to do the trick.

The old imperial city was modelled on the Forbiden city of Beijing, and must have looked quite grand in its day, but after suffering 50 years of neglect, bombing, shooting and even a typhoon, there is probably only 30% still standing. These were a couple of the entrance gates, the first few large halls, and a reading pavillion. The rest is being rebuilt with the help of UNESCO, and more should come on line each year.

The cheesiest, but most fun, two tourist experiences I have had have definitely come in Hue, though. In one hall, a rack of clothes hung up, and we were able to pay (less than one pound) to dress up as the king and queen, and have our photo taken on the throne. At last, a country that recognises my true worth!

Later, Sara being quite tired, we took a cyclo to the restaurant. This was my first cyclo, and was a little like being in the basket of a large bike. The man behind pedalled at a sedate pace, and I lay back and watched the city slowly glide past. Now that's travelling!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

If I had a fiver for everyone who remarked on how red we were today ...

... I'd have one hundred and fifty five pounds.

That's because we visited the Perfume Pagoda today. It was very exhausting - a 2 hour bus ride, just to get to the jetty where the boats set off from. Hanoi seemed to go on forever. It also seemed to be a very flat city; most cities have large buildings in the centre, with smaller buildings on the periphery. Hanoi appears to go on with the same type of building for ages, then stop completely. It took probably an hour for us to leave Hanoi proper, and then we were suddenly into the countryside: paddy fields with girls plucking rice, dirt tracks, wild looking cows, and, in the centre of many of the fields, a grave where the ancestors are remembered every time the land is worked.

By the time we arrived by the jetty, we were needing a break and drink, but unfortunately here began the theme of the day - people with their hand out for money. Prices here were two to three times the prices in Hanoi, and drink was even dearer than our hotel minibar! The Perfume Pagoda is apparently a highly venerated site for buddhists throughout Vietnam, and there is a three month lunar festival from January to March each year, where the Pagoda is flooded with Vietnamese pilgrims.

This means there is a highly developed Vietnamese tourist industry, and even though the guide books were all in Vietnamese, it didn't stop the people manning the various way stations from realising there was money to be made from a weary foreigner out of cans of drink and honey cakes.

From the town, we took a shallow metal boat down the Yen river. The boats were not large, and they put four of us into each one, with someone at the back rowing, so they were very close to the water line, and we could not afford to move fast or allow the boat to rock at all.

The journey down the river, both going there and coming home, was by far the most magical part of the trip. We passed people fishing, trading, and farming by the banks. Some were wading in the shallows, gathering plants up into baskets, while others were in long boats, apparently spearing something. On the way back, we were followed by a couple of older women, also in a long red boat like ours, with one doing her washing at the front, and the other singing a soft, quite haunting song in Vietnamese.

We spent about an hour on the river, in each direction and our driver rowed non-stop, with one oar in each hand for the whole time. In fact, this was another theme for the day - how the slightest Vietnamese person seemed capable of feats of endurance that were beyond us.

After landing the boat, we were taken on the most exhausting 2 hour walk I've ever had. This was a trek rated as "easy" by our hotel, but although a number of old ladies passed us, carrying their baskets strung over one shoulder on a piece of bamboo, we were panting and wheezing, and had to rest very frequently. Well, it was 3km up a mountain in tropical heat!

Our destination, the "Perfume Pagoda", was a bit disappointing. It was (obviously very holy and venerated) buddhist shrine in the heart of a cave full of stalacmites, but quite small, and, because of the cave surroundings, impossible to feel whether it was ancient or had just been planted there. It was fragrant with incense, though, as well as flowers, and it is this "perfume" which led to its name.

The cave was cool, and a nice place to recover our breath before heading back down the mountain. There we were introduced to the other Pagoda - one we didn't find out the name of. This was very chinese-influenced, and much more ancient-feeling. It also made a nice end to the day - strolling around the pagodas and cool, green ponds outside, before moving inside to the dark, ornate temples within.

We were, though, completely exhausted, and the day was completed with a beer on a balcony overlooking the Hoan Kiem lake, and a couple of spring rolls. Tomorrow, we shall look round the city, before catching the sleeper train for Hue, the old imperial capital.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The temple of literature

Day 2 in Hanoi, had a bit of a lazy time, but at least the jet lag seems over. We woke up a bit late, and had Pho Bo for breakfast - a mild, aromatic beef and noodle stew, before going for a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake. This is where people do Tai Chi every morning, and you can see why - it's a little oasis of green in the middle of the city. All around it are roads, with people roaring past on motor scooters, but by the lake it's tranaquility itself. Hanoians(?) stretch out and relax, read, or stroll slowly by. In the centre of the lake, a red bridge leads to a religious complex, which has a Buddhist pagoda, a Taoist shrine, and a Confucianist one. The lake itself is called the "lake of the lost sword", as legend has it that a famous Vietnamese king was on the lake one day, after having won a battle, and a turtle came up from underneath, and asked him for his magic sword. He passed it over, and the turtle sank beneath the water once more, ready to pass the sword onto someone else, should Vietnam need it again.

After the lake, we had a cup of bubble tea. This is a tea based drink that comes in all sort of flavours. You choose the one you like (I had red bean, Sara sweet cherry), and they mix the flavouring powder with tea, drop in some sago beans and ice, and put the whole thing in a cocktail shaker for a minute. It's very refreshing, sipped through a large straw - and intermittently lumpy, as a sago bean comes up with the liquid.

Suitably refreshed, we walked to the temple of literature, about a kilometer to the west of the lake. This is the site of the oldest remains in Hanoi - a temple complex from about 1000ad. In fact, not many years after the founding of the temple, it was made a university, too, making it pre-date Oxford in England. Another very beautiful and tranquil place, made more poignant by the fact that many of the buildings these days are replicas, as the others were destroyed in one of the many wars fought in Vietnam this century.

The temple itself was interesting in being dedicated to Confucious, and hence scholarship. This was the way the ruling class used to be chosen: people would turn up here hoping to pass the official examinations and become a Mandarin. They would carry a bamboo bed, a small tent, tea making apparatus, food, ink and paper - and steel themselves for one of the hardest exams the world has known. In the 15th century, for example, out of 3000 entrants for one exam session, only 8 passed. On the other hand, being a mandarin was the passport, for a person of any background, to wealth and a privileged life. From the fourteenth century onwards, one of the kings asked for permanent records of those who passed the exams, so there are large stone stelae, carved with the names in the halls down the sides of the complex - each one mounted on the back of a stone turtle.

The two interesting things I take from this is how much like China Vietnam is. The tai chi, chinese medicine and Confucionism, as well as the temple style, are all very chinese. Also, it's an interesting contrast to our own time, where so many people have a university degree these days, and O-levels regularly have pass-rates above 90%. I suppose it's something like the mandarin experience I was expecting when I passed my degree, but as time goes on in England, the increasing numbers of people getting degrees devalues them, and makes it harder to prove your worth with scholarship. One comment that was made in the fourteenth century was that the foundation of a state was virtue and learning, and that the state fails to prosper when this is forgotten. I guess we'll have to see about that one.

On our way home, we passed through the park next door. It had a pagoda in the middle, and a long winding path through some fountains. This seemed to be the park of health, as many of the people were undergoing some sort of physical therapy - massage, stretching, walking backwards, or slapping themselves. They also seemed older than the people elsewhere, so perhaps they were more in need of better health.

And finally back to the hotel - but not before passing a reminder that Vietnam is a communist country: a statue of Lenin. As befits such a statue, it fronted a large square, but most of the people seemed more interested in playing games. In fact, badminton courts were marked on the pavement all around. We were particularly impresed by two men who were playing badminton without any raquets - just using football techniques to pass the shuttlecock over the net.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Arrived in Hanoi

Well, it took ages, but we've finally arrived in Hanoi. I'm typing this up in the lobby of the Prince Hotel, 34 Hang Tre Str, while waiting for it to be late enough to go to sleep. It's been more than 24 hours since we last got any sleep, so we've delayed making any plans till tomorrow morning, when we're both more clear-headed.

First impression of Hanoi is friendliness, openness, but incredible chaos. The scooter drivers have to be seen to be believed, as they head towards a crossroads from all directions without slowing down, the different streams of traffic interleaving perfectly. Finally, we got the hang of crossing the road: you walk at a uniform pace, and allow the traffic around you to make the decision as to how to avoid you. It actually becomes more dangerous to hesitate or change your mind!

Anyway, the first picture is of a very old tree to the east of Hoan Kiem lake, in the middle of Hanoi. To the right of it is a war memorial, while set into the tree itself seems to be a small shrine - with incense burning. The second is a street scene, which also illustrates just how many scooters there are.

Monday, October 10, 2005

In her shoes

We went to the Printworks, Manchester (cinema) tonight, to have a random film given to us. Every second monday they have a deal where you turn up at 7pm, get given a ticket (without knowing what you are going to see), and go and see a new film. Usually you get a couple of weeks advance viewing of something.

Last time was lord of war, which was excellent, so we had high hopes for this one too. Unfortunately it was not to be. It was "In her shoes", starring Cameron Diaz, and, let's face it, a chick flick. Basically the story of a wild girl and her more frumpy sister, and their transition to a more stable state, it seemed overlong and a little slow. Most of the action takes place in a retirement home, where Shirley Maclaine out-acted either of the two younger stars effortlessly.

Not a terrible film, and I suppose quite well made, but not my cup of tea.

I'd give it 5 out of 10.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Kuala Lumpur, October 2003

This is a picture of the right of Independance square in Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia.

Stokesay Castle, Feb 2002

This is a test image

It's Sara in Stokesay Castle, an old manor house near Worcester.

Hello world

The classic initial post, to see whether everything is working