Monday, March 24, 2003

Jo's last update:

hi guys

Well its been a while since i last wrote, and i dont know where to
start. So much happens in such a short space of time. I have written
45 pages in my diary since i last wrote so i will try not to repeat
it all here!!

We are now in Cambodia, and have travelled right the way down the
coast of vietnam - for 30 pounds! After Hanoi City, we went to Hue
and took a trip up the perfume River to see the Royal tombs. Then
we moved onto gorgeous Hoi An. A really cute little chinesey town
with great food and really friendly people. Only trouble was, in this
tiny town of 65000 people, there were 200 tailors, all with a copy
of the Next Catalogue copying absolutely everything, shoes you name
it. So we went a bit mad, in fact very mad (18 kilos) and in the end
it was a case of get me out of here before i spend any more money.
Then we took a very bumpy 14hr bus ride down to the beach resort of
Nha Trang. Not my favourite place i have to say. A bit like benidorm
only dirtier, so we just spent a day at the mineral baths and got
the hell outta there. Then we went on to Dalat in the mountains
where we hired an old russian army jeep and driver for the day. That
was really cool (literally i havent been so cold since we were in
New Zealand). Dalat is really kitsch - its where all the vietnamese
go on thier honeymoons and there is a mini Eiffel Tower and swan
boats on the lake. You get the picture.

After Dalat, we got the bus down to Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh
City). After all the scare mongering in Lonely Planet, Saigon wasnt
nearly as bad as we expected. In fact it was quite nice. The city
is twice as big as Hanoi with 7 million people, although Hanoi is
the capital. We went to the 'War Remnants Museum'. (If you are
faint hearted move to the next paragraph). This has to be the most
shocking museum I have ever visited, even worse than the
concentration camp in Germany. There was the usual display of tanks
and bombs. But then there were pictures of US soldiers dragging
people along behind thier tanks til thier death; carrying out
chinese water torture; dropping people out of helicopters after
they'd refused to cooperate. Then there were pictures showing the
devastating affects of Agent Orange. (The americans sprayed 70
million tonnes on Vietnam and this defoliant contains a highly
carcenogenic and mutagenic chemical which is still found in the
food chain today). Picture after picture of mutilated children and
adults. Some just looked like aliens. Two jars containing deformed
babies, and pictures of maternity wards with shelves full of jars
of deformed babies. What wasnt bombed or poisoned was bulldozed -
cemetaries, villages, rice paddies. There were also pictures of the
My Lai Massacre. Here, the US decided to 'teach the villagers a
lesson' for cooperating with the Viet Cong (communist forces).
There were severe consequences for not doing so. In one day, 3
companies of american infantry massacred 500 fleeing and unarmed
civilians. They met no resistance at any time. The only american
injured, shot himself in the foot to get himself let off.
Villagers were herded into a ditch and mowed down by machine guns.
Women were gang raped and pregnant women, newborn babies and old
people were not spared. There were also pictures illustrating how
the war ahd sent some people over the edge: GIs smiling to have
thier photo taken while holding dead heads in thier hands; another
GI looking satisfied carrying the tattered remains of a head and
shoulders in one hand. It showed the four US students that got shot
while protesting against the war in the 1960s. And also 4 people
(3 US, 1 Japanese) who burnt themselves to death in front of the US

In Saigon, among other things, we visited the Reunification Palace,
where the communist tanks crashed through the palace gates in 1975
to show that North Vietnam had finally won control of southern
Vietnam to form a new independent and unified country. Before the
war, southern vietnam was a puppet government run by the US. The
palace is now beautifully preserved as on that day when they ousted
the US elected president and dictator. One heroic pilot who bombed
the palace prior to its invasion, is now a pilot for Vietnam
Airlines!The previous president was so hated that his own army
bombed the palace, and so he ordered that a new palace be built with
a bomb shelter underneath (which we visited). As a anti-communist
and catholic, he was repressive about religous practices and as a
result, a monk famously set off the trend of self immolations by
burning himself to death here at the end of the sixties. (We also
saw a picture of this in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum - spoilt my
tea!). We also took a day trip where we visited a Cao Dai temple
midday meditation. Caodaism is a new religion which combines
Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, native vietnamese spirtualism,
chirstianity and islam! Then we visited the Cu Chi tunnels - a
250km network of underground tunnels built under the jungle used by
the Viet Cong communist forces during the war. It was amazing, we
were walking through the forest and suddenly this guy would pull up
a tiny trap door in the floor and jump down it and expect us to
follow!! The tunnels had been made bigger for foreigners, but i was
still bent over double and then squatting down shuffeling along on
my feet in some parts. It was really hot and dark and there were
bats down there too! The tunnels were amazing, what looked like
termite mounds above the ground disguised air holes for breathing.
They were three storeys deep in some places and even had a hospital
and a weapons factory.

After the Cu Chi tunnels, we made our way to Cambodia via a three
tour of the Mekong Delta. This is the southernmost region of Vietnam
and one of the biggest rivers/deltas in the world. Most of the
live on floating villages on the river, or beside it. We spent most
of our three days hopping from one boat to another. Everyone was
really friendly and i felt like royalty because we had to wave to
kids everywhere we looked, doing backflips to impress us and having
thier evening baths in the river with thier clothes on. Then we
caught the boat as far as we could to Phnom Penh - capital of
Cambodia. We have found a really lovely guesthouse right on the
edge of a lake where we can sit in hammocks and watch the sunset.
But today we took a trip to the Killing Fields and the S21 Prison
used by the Khmer Rouge... The killing fields were just horrific. We
were walking along and there were bits of bone and clothing sticking
out of the path underneath us, where the executioners had hardly
bothered to cover over the graves. There were 126 mass graves, and
they only uncovered 86. In the middle was a big memorial stupa -
8000 skulls piled high behind a glass wall as high as a four storey
house. Then we went to the S21 Prison, which used to be a high
school but Pol Pot and his regime turned it into a prison where
victims were tortured and later taken to the Killing Fields. Just

Well on that happy note, I dont really have much other news. I will
be home a month from today and I am looking forward to coming home
but i know this time is just going to fly by.

So take care, and I'll see you soon - Jo x
Once again, I've had a mail slippage. It's been 3 weeks since I sent a big update on what I've been up to. So you won’t know for instance that I have now seen the oddest thing to date being transported on the back of a mortorbike: a coffin (I presume it was empty). Now, as I write this I feel pretty rough. Not really sure what's wrong with me- feel a bit tired out with a cough, runny nose, and it's really hot here which can be unpleasant at times. I'm sure it's nothing though.
I left my story in Hue, shortly after Maggie Thatcher and myself had disenbarked from the train. We visit the Kinh Thanh moated citadel and its forbidden purple city, which was almost entirely destroyed during the Tet Offensive in the war. The following day we take a boat trip down the purfume river to see some of the Royal Tombs; 1. Thein Mu Pagoda, a famous 21 metre octagonal tower, 2. Take a scary motorbike ride down a dirt path to the Tomb of tu Duc, an amazing complex which was never even used as a tomb, 3. Tomb of Minh Mang – up and own lots of steps in this serene complex.
Pop fact: I read about a lady who had hired a driver for the day. She said to him “Ok, I’m going for lunch now, so you can take a break now, but be back at 1pm to take me to the Tomb of Tu Duc.” He looks back at her, not understanding, so she clarifies: ‘1pm. Tu Duc”. She goes to have lunch, then at 1pm, her driver comes back, presenting her with 2 live ducks.
We continue on minibus to Hue, up the scary Hai Van pass, where the sheer cliffs don’t deter the drivers from continuing to overtake around blind corners. Driving here can really be a hair raising experience. We are sucked into staying in lovely Hoi An for several days. It is a clothes shopping mecca – over 200 tailors who can nock you up a suit within a few hours for 20 – 30 dollars. Jo goes shopping mad, and I get in the mood as well, getting a couple of nice tailored suits (and the rest). The tailors all have Next catalogs for you to browse thru and look for styles that you like the look of. The town in some ways is like some bizzare tailored next shop- the catalogues themselves are traded for almost $100! When we leave we post back a massive box of clothes back – the postage cost is a lot, but worth it.
We do some half harted ‘tourism’ in Hoi An, in between shopping bouts – we check out the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, Quan Cong’s temple and pretty Phuc Kien Fujian assembly hall. We also visit the ruined temples of Myson, but I think “ruins fatigue” has already begun to set in. It is “women’s day” in vietnam on this day, so lots of hatted women are wandering about, looking at the ruins, while the men do all the work.
Getting to Nha Trang involves a long 14 hour bus journey. The city itself isn’t much – a bit like a dirty version of Surfers Paradise. It’s dirty, with lots of beggars and touts on the beach. We see on guy with no arms or legs hobbling along the beach begging. One place that we ate at had rats running freely around the place. Jo comments to me that maybe that’s why my pizza had such an interesting flavour. Lovely.
The colder climate in the mountainous Dalat makes a pleasant change. We take in a packed day tour of the town, taking in the Truc Lam meditation Centre, Prenn Waterfalls (with infamous “Dalat Cowboys” – vietnamese dressed up as cowboys, who give tourists rides on their horses), Linh Phoc Pagoda (wth a giant dragon made out of beer bottles, a funny monk in a wooly hat that followed us, and a buddah statue with a crayzy neon halo), Dalat Flower Garden, the peculiarly kitch “Valley of Love” , the countercultural “Cray Guest House” with rooms in very bizzar shapes”, and Emperor Bao Dai’s summer palace. The very sad thing about Dalt, however, is that almost all of these attractions had their own mini- zoos with a motley collection of wild animals in pathetically small bare cages. Particularly sad was a malayan sun bear that we saw. He had a bare concret enclosure, with metal bars reaching up to the roof. He did the most amazing thig, climbing up the walls, across the wire mesh roof, and then sliding down the pole in the middle, fireman style. Jo was particularly taken with him, and as the poor thing rwached out to us in despiration through the bars, Jo stroked its paw.
We continued our bus trek on to Ho Chi Minh city, the centre of which is still called Saigon by most. I didn’t know what to expect here, hearing stories of a really hectic city, with pickpockets etc – but at no time did I feel unsafe. Though in some parts of the city, the amount of motorcyle traffic is to be seen to be believed. There’s 3 million bikes, I believe, with road accidents claiming many lives a week.
We take a cyclo to the War Remnants Museum (formely American & Chinese war crimes museum), which is not for the faint hearted. I was surprised by the (relative) lack of anti-american bias considering. More than anything the museum showed the surrering that can result from war. However, some of the specifics of the war; the My Lai Massacre ( , the use of Agent orange biological weapons, daisy cutter bombs etc was just terrible. The worst thing was probably seeing the mutated babies that were in jars.
The Reunification palace is famous as the place where NVA tanks crashed through the gates in 1975, before raining their flag, showing finally that Saigon had fallen. The brilliantly preserved buildig is, with bomb shelters etc is fascinating. Our guide wears an Ao Dai, which is the national vietnamese dress for women, and are very popular amongst school students & non-agricultuaral workers & they really are the most graceful piece of clothing. We also visit the hectic Chinese “cholon” district of the city to see the Thien Hau Pagoda, which was very active and we almost chocked on the massive amounts of incense being burnt.
We have a day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels, a quite unique structure: a series of tunnels built in the hard earth of the district, from where the VC fought an intense guerrila campaign – and was the scene of some of the most intense fighting/bombing/poisoning in the war, as the stategic position was just a little ouside Saigon. As a claustophopbic, I was a little anxious about venturing down theunderground tunnels, but I was able to go through some. I backed out of going through one tunnel that stretches for 120 metres, and you have to crawl through, but managed the rest.
On the same day, we visit the Cao Dai Holy See, the centre of a peculiar religion with 3 million Vietnamese followers. It is based on incorporating most of the main religions, with its own “crossing over” style twist, where seances are regularly held, the result of which means that French Writer is one of their main figureheads. We see the midday service, with lots of bowing and chanting.
The next day we are woken early to the big band sound of a funeral procession outside our hotel, but we needed an early start for our 3 day trip to the Meknog Delta anyway. Our tour starts with a tour of some of the islands in the Mekong rinver – we stop at Mekong river where we see coconut tofees being made, taste local fruits and hear traditional song. We take a rowing boat thru the jungle, alongside lots of mudskippers. Fortunately seeing no snakes, but we do see a dead dogfloating buy us at one stage. We see a bee keeping villageand have honey hea. Our boat arrives at Can Tho as the sun sets, passing the most amazing scenery, with lots of local villagers waving at us, often as they bathe in the river.
The following morning we cruise to Cai Rang floating market, the biggest in the lower river. They sell their produce onlarge boats, with a bamboo pole with the fruit dangling down signaling what they are selling. Vendors in smaller boats try and sell us drinks, one of which is a bootleg verision of Redbull called “Cow Butt”. I kid not. We see rice noodles being made and stop to climb a mokey bridge ( a precarious bamboo bridge made by locals to cross the river – these are dying out as they are being replaced by concrete bridges). We go for a walk to see the Thot Not Sork Sanctuary, and are followed by lots of local children, that grab our hands, and make jewelry out of leaves, in the hope that we will buy them a coke. We finish the day at Chau Doc and climb Sam Mountain in time to see the sunset across the landscape of the Cavern Pagoda, over the paddy fields to the Cambodian border.
After another early start we see a floating village and fish farm and Cham village, where encounter some more kiddies begging “one pen! One pen!. Weleave the tour and begin our boat journey to Cambodia. We get stamped out of Vietnam, and continue on to the Camboadian border post, where we get stmped in (13 stamps). It was suprisingly stress free. I feared a frontier style outpost with greasy guards with droopy moustaches who would try their damdest to extort money out of us.
We’re now stying in a nice place overlooking the lake in Phnom Penh, where we’ve been able to catch up on the news via satelite TV. Yesterday was a hectic day, and not an easy one to take in. We Visited the Killing Fields of Choeung Uk, where 17,000 of the prisoners of s-21 were sent to be executed between 1975-78. There are about 130 mass graves, ony 80 of which have been dug up. In the middle is a glass memorial stupa that is filled bith skulls, bones and clothing. Walking round you can see rags of clothing and bones sticking up through the ground. It was a deeply upsetting place to be, even more so because of the many children begging – a continual drone of “some monee , wateer…” . I felt it was too soon for the site to be turned into some sort of grim tourist attraction, and deeply uncomfortable bing there. The day continued with a trip to The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide (formerly prison s-21) which documents the role of the prison in the killing of 3 million Cambodian during the rule of the Khmer Rouge. On the drive back, we pass a man who is probably the most disfiguerd that I have ever seen. I can’t even look. To top off the day, we watch the film “The Killing Fields”. We had both read the book, and were a little dissapointed by the film, which was limited, I believe, by it’s length. At present I’m still reading “Decent Interval”, a history of the fall of Saigon, written by Cia’s Chief Stategy analyst in Vietnam Frank Snepp, a book that is banned in the West.
Well, that’s about it. Off to Snookyville (spelt differently) on the coast for a couple of days R&R. Hope all is well. Write to me & I’ll try my best to reply.
Back to the studio,
Mark Seddon, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Jo but together this history of Vietnam which i thought i'd share:

Hi guys

I don’t know if you are interested, but I have been reading a lot
about Vietnamese history lately and I thought I might write something
about it. Before I ever started reading about Vietnam, my main
thoughts concerning the country were of the Vietnam war and I really
didn’t know a lot about that either. So in case you were wanting to
know more read on..

Vietnam has had one long struggle for independence. They were
dominated first by the Chinese for 10 centuries. They regained their
independence, but today still has a strong influence in Vietnamese
politics, as the Vietnamese fear future subjugation and invasions
from this massive neighbour. In the 18th century the French took
over. They lived wealthy lives and kept the Vietnamese in poverty –
sending patriots and insurgents into their jail (later became the POW
camp in Hanoi). However just as the Chinese have introduced new
ideas, concepts & technology, the French brought with them new
architectural styles and cuisine. So in the country today it looks a
bit like china with French buildings in places. You can get freshly
baked baguettes everywhere, and French is as widely spoken as is

The Vietnamese wanted independence from the French, and at that time
Ho Chi Minh was inspired by the Russian Revolution. Ho went on to
form the Indochinese communist party in 1930. Then WWII broke out and
Japan invaded. The French accepted their occupation and so were
allowed to continue governing, but there were ousted by the Japanese
in 1945, when the allied victory in Europe was becoming a certainty.
The Japanese forced farmers to move out of rice farming and start
producing industrial crops, but this combined with floods and
breaches in the lands irrigation system, caused a famine which killed
2 million people in north Vietnam.

Once Japan was defeated, Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh, a group
formed by the Indochinese communist party for revolutions, started to
take control of as much territory as possible before the allies
arrived. But then they still had a decade long guerrilla war for
independence against the French. At the same time, the US became
concerned about the world-wide spread of communism and its ‘domino
affect’ through south east Asia. So the US supported the French by
giving them massive amounts of aid. The Vietnamese defeated the
French, but then broke into a civil war between north Vietnam, which
was mainly Buddhist and communist, and south Vietnam, which was
mainly catholic and anti-Communist. In the early 1960s the Viet Cong
(southern communist movement) joined forces with the Viet Minh (Ho
Chi Minh’s group from the north). They mounted several coup de etats
and overcame the southern Vietnamese government.

In 1961 JFK was elected president, and brought the issue of
containment of communism to the forefront of US Foreign Policy. 3.4m
Americans served in the Vietnam war, expending 15 m tonnes of
ammunition. The war cost America US$165 bn. By comparison, twice as
many lives were lost as in the Korean War, which cost US$18bn. The
Vietnam war killed approximately 4m/10% of the Vietnamese
population. Incidentally, China and the USSR, who supplied all the
weapons to north Vietnam and the Viet Cong never suffered a single

The USA also engaged in deliberate destruction of the environment in
order to stifle the operations of the Viet Cong hiding in the
forests. Aeroplanes sprayed 72m litres of the herbicide ‘Agent
Orange’ on inland forests and mangrove swamps. The deforestation
caused, is enough to supply Vietnam’s timber harvesters for 30
years. The chemical used in Agent Orange is dioxin, which is highly
carcinogenic and mutagenic. Even today this chemical is still found
in the food chain and breast milk. It is not proven, but suspected
that there is a strong link between the level of exposure to dioxin
and the number of birth defects and still births. Many who were
exposed have developed cancer, and as a result, many US soldiers are
now filing lawsuits for compensation. Since the war, a lot of
animals have been blown up by landmines, or were shot by the
Vietnamese who found ammunition and over hunted.

In 1968 Ho Chi Minh died of a heart attack and the Americans started
bombing the part of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Cambodia. The American
people lost faith in president Nixon and the US withdrew with the
1973 Paris Peace Agreement (which the Vietnamese broke and raided
Saigon). The next year the country became the Socialist Republic of
Vietnam. Despite reunification, there was still tension between
north and south Vietnam, and the communist party packed many unwanted
southerners off to ‘re-education camps’ (little more than forced
labour camps), and stripped the southerners of their wealth. Although
unified there is still a strong divide today.

In 1978, they began fighting in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge
forces and Pol Pot’s genocidal regime. But then china supporting
Cambodia, decided to invade northern Vietnam. With china’s
encouragement Vietnam was ostracised internationally and the US
placed an embargo on Vietnam. Vietnam grew weak and its economic
support dried up as the USSR dissolved. It withdrew from Cambodia in

So the peace here is relatively new. Vietnam has had one long
struggle for independence. The Vietnam war was seen to change the
psyche of the Americans and the way they dealt with foreign affairs,
but to the Vietnamese it was just one more war in a long history of
wars. Hence the Vietnamese call it the ‘American War’. The
Vietnamese have a wonderful analogy about themselves: - They are like
a house with an open door located on each of its four walls. The wind
can blow from any direction, and when the wind is gone, the house
still stands but retains none of the wind. Invaders have come from
many directions, but through it all, Vietnam has retained its own
national characteristics. There is also an analogy about the
Americans based on the story of the good Samaritan from the bible. In
the original story there is someone in need of help and the good
Samaritan crosses the road to help. In the American version, the
Samaritan sees someone being bashed by a robber, so the American
Samaritan runs over to help, but by this time the robber has run away
and he ends up beating the victim. But seriously, in Vietnam today,
there is little open resentment towards foreigners, even Americans.
That is not to say, they haven’t suffered. But the people are really
friendly, helpful and willing to learn. We have had several chats
with people who have approached us because they want to practice
their English and are curious about us. As a closed communist
system, foreigners have only been allowed into the country since the
1980s, but they are now trying to incorporate laissez-faire ideas.
Most shops sell identical goods, but you can still haggle, and most
places operate freely. But as a foreigner you still get
charged ‘foreigner fares’ for train fares and entry to attractions
etc which are usually about 4 times the price a Vietnamese would pay.
Foreigners are also still prohibited to visit some areas of the
country and travel on some types of transport.

Well if you are still reading I hope it has been of some use. I hope
I didn’t offend anyone. I am certainly no historian, and I may well
have got my facts a bit muddled, but I tried!

Cheers, Jo.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

It really is a daunting task to sit down and write one of these mails. Trying to cram almost 3 weeks of news into a piece of writing that is interesting and keeps the right amount of conciseness (is that a word) to be relevant isn’t easy. As I look at my diary and all of the things we’ve seen and done, I know I’m going to be doing a fair old bit of typing.

My last major update was from Luang Prabang in Laos. It’s funny to see the French influence (as a result of the colonialism) in a place that is so different to France. Many people speak French (the post office is called “la poste”), the architecture is very French, people eat baguettes, and play boulle in the street. One other thing you notice in Laos is the distinct lack of the chains and logos that you get so used to – no MacDees here. Apart from cars, the only recognizable logos are Pepsi (who I presume have a deal with the govt), and Shell. And most of all, throughout Asia, you actually see children and old people everywhere. The extended family is most important, so every shop will have its own scampering kid, and grinning shrunken old granny (not hidden away in daycare or nursing homes). Everywhere you look seems like a postcard view. Almost all Lao men become monks/novices for at least a short time, so everywhere you see monks dressed in their brightly coloured orange robes (often chatting up western females). I only wish I had a better camera with which to capture it all.

Valentines day comes around whilst we’re in Laung Prabang and I tell Jo I’ll get her anything she wants. We saw in an Asian magazine the suggestion that you could buy your loved one a bag of maltesers as a present, but Jo didn’t go for this option. Jo decides to rent a motorbike for the afternoon, and convinces me to get on the back (something I’m not overly keen on). It’s better than I feared, and it’s quite fun pootling about the Laos countryside. Towards the end though, on a muddy stretch, Jo slips and we fall off. Not hurt, but Jo bruises her pride.

The next day we visit the gorgeous Kuang Si Waterfall. I’m not a waterfall fan. But this was pretty spectacular. I hike to the top & knacker myself out, while Jo relaxes in the pool at the base.

As nice and Peaceful as Laos is, it can be frustrating that nothing much is going on.
Jo: “I’m bored.”
Mark: “You should learn to appreciate the slower pace of life.”
Jo: “I have, and now I’m bored.”

We fly to Vientiane. We fly because the week before a group of bandits ambushed a convoy on the road, killing several people, and so we thought it best to go by road. How much safer we are in the Lao Air aircraft is dubious – they don’t publish a safety record & much navigation is done by sight. But anyhoo, it all worked out ok, so that’s fine. We also flew on to Hanoi afterwards, but that was more out of laziness than anything else. We felt vindicated afterwards though, when some people we met who did Vientiane-Hanoi by land said the 25 hour ride on bumpy Lao roads was horrible.

We couldn’t get into Vietnam until the date given on our visa, so we kicked our heels in Vientiane for a few days. One magazine I read said to give the place 2 days, and that includes plenty of time to recover from hangovers, so we didn’t have a whole bunch to do, but discovered some nice restaurants. Which was nice.

One excursion was to the propaganda filled Lao National History Museum (formerly Revolutionary Museum) which documents the glorious peoples struggle to become one of the poorest countries on earth. Naturally we visit some more Buddhist temples; Haw Pha Kaew (which originally housed the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, was burnt and rebuilt in the 1930s), and Pha That Luang, a giant golden stupa and most important national monument in Laos.

One day we go to Xieng Khaun Buddha Park, which is definitely worth a trip. It’s a bizarre collection of cement Buddhist/Hindu sculpture. This includes a weird giant sculpture that symbolizes heaven & hell, which you can climb to the top of. A monk guides us, and he thoughtfully allows Jo (who is wearing a skirt) to go in front of him as we climb up the steep steps.

On the Twenty First of February it is my birthday and I am now TWENTY FIVE. Wow. However, I get news from England that my Gran has died. She was ill for quite some time, but still it was hard to receive the news when I was so far home, and on the last leg of my trip. I’m not expected home for the funeral, and I don’t think I could have got home in time even if I tried. As you might imagine, I wasn’t exactly in a celebrating mood.

We get the plane to Hanoi, Vietnam and enter a whole new world. Vietnam was opened up to capitalist ventures and tourism is now pretty well established. People speak English, and there are plenty of good cheap hotels. The Vietnamese are friendly, even to Americans. It’s on the streets where the real culture shock occurs. There are lots of beggars & postcard sellers (who also sell photocopied lonely planet guides), shoe shine boys, motorbike taxi drivers, cyclo drivers (a bit like a rickshaw) and shop keepers all vying for your attention. And then there’s the traffic. The roads are filled with so many motorbikes, all beeping incessantly. Crossing the roads is an interesting experience – you just go for it, walking at a steady pace, letting the bikes weave their way around you. The noise and the intensity of it all really gets to you, and we regularly have to try and find a quiet cafĂ© or something to hydrate, and get out of the noise.

List time – Interesting things being transported on ikkle motorbikes: 4 people at a time, a pane of glass, live pigs in a crate, plumbing pipes 3 times the length of the bike, a massive television set, huge bags carrying any manner of things, live chickens dangling off the handlebars.

Actually, our first experience of Hanoi was a scam. We asked our taxi at the airport to take us to a hotel, and he knows where we mean. On the drive there he’s on the mobile phone to a few people – which we don’t really think about. We get to a hotel, the hoteliers grab our bags and take them inside, meanwhile Jo is distracted by the Taxi driver demanding double the fare we agreed on, and I get a little boy beggar in my face (I never see him again). By the time we realise it isn’t the hotel we asked for, it’s a little late. In any case the hotel has decent, cheap rooms, so we’re not too fussed & stay there. Good scam they’ve got going though.

We stay in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (which is supposedly over 1000 yrs old) and explore it a lot. It is famous for it’s 36 streets that each specialize in certain things – gravestones, herbs, shoes and so on. There are a lot of lovely things being sold here, and it’s all so tempting. We try and limit ourselves, as we can’t go lugging masses on our backs & post is pretty expensive. We do however, buy some lovely “Gucci” glasses for a steal and stock up on plenty of CDs and DVDs (including a lot of very recent ones like Chicago).

We visit Hoa Lo Prison, which was affectionately known by the American prisoners of war as “the Hanoi Hilton”, and stop at the Temple of Literature. In the evening we see the water puppet show (basically punch and judy in a pool). It’s Hanoi’s most famous cultural item, and is very cool, these puppets perform on top of a pool of water, with the puppeteers working behind a screen, waist deep in water. The way the puppets come to life is amazing.

Ho Chi Minh is the theme of one day’s touring – we go to the Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where he is kept, embalmed, for people to see. It’s closed (it being a Friday), and so we miss out on that, but I wasn’t too keen on seeing that morbid spectacle anyway. We have a look at Uncle Ho’s Stilt House and the nearby One Pillar Pagoda. It was built in 1049, and destroyed as a last spiteful act by the departing French in 1954 (it has since been rebuilt). Most museums etc have a long 2 hour lunch break, and we get to the Ho Chi Minh museum as it is about to close. Our poor guide gives us a high speed tour. He really has to work to fit it all in, and the pace, and his difficulty with English leaves him a sweaty stressed out wreck at the end. It was good value though, and give him a 2$ donation “to the museum”.

They also eat some weird stuff here. This includes; snakes wine (there is a whole village north of Hanoi that specializes in it), dragonflies, dog (it is auspicious to eat the dog at certain times of the month, and is very popular – in one part of Hanoi there is a long stretch of road devoted to dog restaurants), cats (now illegal, but this has driven up the price, meaning that many farmers sell their cats for the money and then have to catch the rats in their fields themselves), rats (see previous), tortoise, pigeon.

Halong bay is an UNESCO world heritage site, and meant to be one of the most spectacular sights in Vietnam, so we go on a 2 day tour in a small group. Our ride out there is an experience in itself, seeing the amazingly green rice paddies, the workers in their conical hats (yes they DO wear them), the waterbuffalos etc. We see the Amazing/Surprising cave, with lovely limestone formations, beautifully lit up. The most surprising thing about the cave for me was the jarring sight of rubbish bins shaped like penguins that were placed at 10 meter intervals. I mean, it’s nice they want to keep it tidy – but just how much rubbish can you accumulate in an isolated limestone cave? It boat cruise is lovely and relaxing after Hectic Hanoi (the ceaseless noise can be really Hanoying). We see lots of beautiful fishing boats, Junks and Kamikaze kids in tiny boats that career into the touring boats, and then try and sell their goods. We pass the biggest floating village that has 700 people in 90 houses, and even has a floating school. Peculiarly, many of these floating houses have TVs and dogs (maybe for a snack?)

We’re now in Hue. Hue to go – I’m almost at the end of my mail! We got the overnight train, sleeping in a cabin with 6 people. We were on the lower bunks and the poor Vietnamese in our cabin had to clamber up to the heavens to get into their bunks above us. We were worried that the “hard sleeper” train experience would be a nightmare, but it was ok. We even had a guy touting his hotel to us, and offering a free minibus service there. The hotel was in the Bible (lonely planet) so we thought it sounded ok. He wanted a name, so he could have it written on a board when we got to Hue & Jo thoughtfully said that her name was “Maggie Thatcher”. When our train rolled into Hue and we got out to the exit, there were hoards of taxi drivers trying to get our attention & a policeman was beating them back with a truncheon. Sure enough, in the crowd was a sign saying “Maggie Thatcher”. Our hotel still hasn’t asked for any id from us, so if we were to leave without paying, I wonder if a certain Iron Lady would be welcome in Hue.

Next stop: Hoi An. Can’t think of any puns now. I’ll hoi an think of one for next time.

All the best, Mark
Jo's written some lovely mails about the last couple of weeks, so I'll post them here as well:

I have a feeling this is going to be a long one, so you might want to
save it for a rainy day...

Well the last time I wrote we were in Bangkok and had just been to Ko
Chang. Since then we caught the overnight train to Chiang Mai in
Northern Thailand. The train was really cool we had bunk beds and
around bedtime a little man came around and made up our beds with
clean sheets and a blanket. 15 hrs later we arrived in Chiang Mai -
the second largest city in Thailand. Chiang Mai was a lot smaller
than Bangkok and way cheaper which was a relief because Bangkok was
starting to get very noisy – and generally a bit ‘in ya face!’. While
in Chiang Mai we had a walk around all the main temples and got
chatting to some teenage monks. They were sitting outside their
university near the temple and asked us if we would like to join in
Monk-chat!! They got us to help us with their homework and wouldn’t
stop staring at my boobs, which was a bit embarrassing! They were
novices – all monks are novices until they are 20yrs old. Most men
spend some time as a monk at some point in their lives. A bit like
military service in other countries, Buddhist people have to do some
religious service! They are homeless and have no belongings. So they
go round doing their alms every morning where the local people give
them food. While we were in Chiang Mai we also took some time out for
a Thai massage. It was quite relaxing if only for the fact that we
were laid on a soft mattress under a fan and we had been sleeping on
mattresses like rocks for the past week or so! But the next day we
had a couple of bruises where they had overdone it! We also visited
the Night markets, which were absolutely amazing – you could come to
Thailand for the shopping alone! We also visited a local market that
was part of a big festival in Chiang Mai where they were selling
fried cockroaches, beetles and maggots – hmm nice!

We also went on a one-day hill tribe trek from Chiang Mai. I already
had my reservations about going because this area is very over-
trekked and has become more like a human zoo. So we decided to go on
a one-day trek as opposed to the 2 and 7-day treks offered.
Nevertheless when we finally trekked through the mountain to visit
our first hill tribe, (Hmong people) I was horrified to see a little
market, houses selling coke and a guy who had given up his house &
turned it into a museum labeling everything in English, all for the
benefit of the tourists. I felt like an intruder. The Hmong people
are from china and are semi-nomadic because they move from
mountaintop to mountaintop slashing and burning the foliage staying
wherever the conditions are best for growing opium. After the Hmong
Village we bought tiny bananas from them to feed to the elephants we
were about to ride. It feels a bit like feeding a wet vacuum nozzle!
And a particularly intimidating elephant chased me. We had a bumpy
ride up and down through the forest and through a river and then had
lunch at a local eatery. After that we visited a village of White
Karen people. There are four types of Karen tribe, and the more
familiar long- necked tribe lives in a different area. The white
Karen people live in lowlands and practice crop rotation, so they do
not need to live on the top of mountains. The Karen village was a
lot less touristy, and there were piglets, chicks and puppies running
round everywhere. They build their houses on stilts and for hygiene
they keep all their animals underneath. This means that if
mosquitoes come and bite the animals in the night, they get itchy and
scratch themselves on the stilts supporting the houses and this lets
the people know that there are mozzies about! After the Karen Village
we went to an ice- cold waterfall and I was the only person to jump
in apart from the tour leader who was busy having a shower and
shampooing his hair! After the waterfall we went bamboo rafting down
the river, which was fun. We got a bit wet going through the rapids,
and our driver told me that he could see by my eyes and smile that I
have a good heart – which was nice!

After Chiang Mai we took the bus to Chiang Khong on the border of
Thailand and took a little ferry over the river/border to Laos. Laos
was already amazingly different to Thailand. Totally unspoilt and way
less developed. The only traffic tends to be pushbikes and the odd
scooter. Its a bit like an Asian version of new Zealand – with only
5 million people in Laos compared to 60m in Thailand and 78m in
Laos has not had an easy time. It is basically a massive area of
hundreds of different tribes that have been unified into one country.
When the Thais and Vietnamese were not ruling or fighting over it, it
was colonized by the French. Then after they finally gained
independence in 1953, the US began bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in
Eastern Laos as part of the Vietnam War in 1964. By the time a
ceasefire came in ’73 Laos was the most bombed country in the history
of warfare. To be here and see how gentle these people really are it
is truly saddening. In 1975 a guy called Pathet Lao took over and
created a communist state - the People’s Democratic? Republic. He
exiled the king and his family to a cave somewhere in Northern Lao
never to be seen or heard from again, and 10% of the population left
the country. They turned his palace into a museum. We visited it
yesterday and it was very spooky. Strangely though, Laotians are not
used to living in an anti-monarchist society and so they have started
giving portraits of the Thai king pride of place in their homes. (In
Thailand there are pictures of the King everywhere, down the streets,
businesses – you even have to stand in the cinema before the film
starts while they play the national anthem and images of the King).
Fearing Thailand breathing down its neck the Lao government is not
very happy about this, so even though it is communist and anti-
monarchist it has started paying tribute to a notoriously bloody
Khmer-trained 14th century king. It has erected a statue of him in
the capital Vientiane and created a national holiday, all by way of
redirecting its people’s affections! Very strange... Currently Lao
citizens do no have the right to change their government. By the
early ‘90s the economy had reached a new low with 500% depreciation
in the Kip so they decided to open up the country to tourism. Its
unbelievable, you need a brick sized wad of cash to get through the

Our first journey in Laos was to take a two-day boat journey down the
Mekong River to the world heritage listed city of Luang Prabang. We
took a slow boat and chugged down past beautiful mountains and
villages. There were herds of buffalo in the water. The first day
took six hours. The toilet was right at the back of the boat and you
had to climb over people and bags and then tip toe over a plank past
the uncovered engine. The toilet was a hole in the floor in a little
cabin 2ft square and 3ft high! A bit of an awkward affair when you
have to crouch down and the door’s flapping open every time the boat
sways! At the end of the day we reached a tiny village of Pakbeng. As
the boat docked chaos ensued as herds of tiny 7yr old children rushed
onto the boat to drag off our rucksacks. Some of them had one on the
front and one on the back! We were met by a nice young lady who took
us to her family house that had guest rooms upstairs. It was probably
the most basic place I have ever stayed. But I just thought of it
like camping and I think its good to live like they do if only for
one night. In our room we had a bed made of bamboo, a corrugated iron
roof and a few scraps of lino on the floor. At 3.30am we got woken up
by cockerels and the cafe playing music at 6am to wake up the
westerners. The toilet was down a ladder into the muddy backyard
where there was a bamboo cubicle with no roof (I later discovered it
was viewable from upstairs!!). There were chickens running around
everywhere and they had lit a fire on the stove to cook breakfast.
Most bizarre. The boat left again at 8am and it was bloody freezing
because of the morning mist blocking out the sun. I don’t know how I
am going to cope with the cold when I get back to England! This
journey took about 12 hours and we stopped off on the way to service
local villages picking up rice, monks and old ladies etc. We also
stopped at a place called Pak Ou caves where the Laotians hid
thousands of Buddhist images to protect them during the Vietnam War.
We had a bit of a palava here because some American show off had been
up on the roof and the driver demanded that he paid US$100, which of
course he wouldn’t pay. So then the American asked everyone on the
boat to pay US$1 each for stopping at the caves. The driver got
commission for this and would have stopped anyway, but he was so
angry he was at bursting point and he wasn’t leaving until he had got
as much money as he could out of the situation. Then the boat driver
next door saw what was going on so he ordered that the American get
on his boat and ask all those passengers for money as well!!

Jo's next mail continues...

The last time I wrote we had just caught the boat to the sleepy
riverside town of Luang Prabang. We spent a very relaxing week there,
our routine mostly consisted of getting woken by noisy chickens,
having a mooch around the beautiful 15th century temples and French
colonial houses, having a massage at the red cross, eating out and
watching movies in the evenings while chilling in hammocks in a bar.
Originally the Kingdom of Laos was called ‘Lan Xang’ (Land of a
million elephants) and Luang Prabang was the capital of this kingdom
until 1545. Even after this time it was considered the main source of
monarchic power – until the king was booted out of his palace but the
current communist prime minister Pathet Lao in 1975. One day, we
visited his palace – now a museum – and it was quite eery as there
was no mention of where the king is now or what happened to him.

One evening we went to see a ballet performed by Lao ethnic minority
groups. It was very bizarre with Hmong people rolling around in the
mud doing roly-poly while playing some kind of flute. Another group
danced around while they lifted up a clay pot in their teeth that was
filled with 2 buckets of water – I couldn’t even lift the pot with my
hands! At the beginning of the ballet we were welcomed with a ‘Baci
Ceremony’. This is a ritual performed in phii (spirit) worship found
in Laos, which is now illegal, but is the dominant non-Buddhist
religion. In this ceremony the 32 guardian spirits of the body are
bound to the guest of honor by white strings tied around the wrist.
We didn’t think much of it as it was only string, but the next day a
tiny old hmong woman stopped dead in her path starring at us because
the wrist bands came from a pagan ritual. On the way home from dinner
that night we were also offered Opium on the street. (Don’t get me
wrong, its really not a dodgy place, I just thought it was strange
that we could buy it if we wanted to). Luang Prabang always seemed to
have a smokey air too, due to the Hmong people in the surrounding
hills practicing ‘slash & burn’ techniques – used to prepare the land
for opium crops. In the long term this is not good for the land
because it causes soil erosion and flash flooding.

On valentines day, Mark said I could have anything I wanted, so much
to his disappointment I decided we should hire a motorbike. I had
never ridden a motorbike with gears before and I was really pleased
that I managed to ride around the town and surrounding countryside
afternoon. (Luang Prabang is really quiet – rush hour is when the
kids come out of school on their bicycles). However we had had a
torrential downpour that morning and the place we had to return the
motorbike to was on an unsealed road and we had had a torrential
downpour that morning…. Yes, we ended up in the mud.. I was only
doing 5mph and we slipped. The only thing hurt was my pride, when
were covered in mud and got laughed at by the locals. Felt a bit
guilty too because I bent the wing mirror a bit, and the guy just got
his screw driver out and everything was fine. But its not like a big
multinational hire car company that can afford a few scratches. Laos
is still one of the poorest countries in the world with an average
annual income of US$260. 80% of the country lives of the land
working in agriculture, fishing and forestry. It really makes no
sense for Laos to be a communist economy, as it still just a lot of
tribal groups living off the land with no real need for a currency.
Most of the manufactured goods here, are imported from Thailand
untaxed and traded freely on the black market, as is foreign currency.

After Luang Prabang we flew to the capital Vientiane. On our way
through the top of Laos we discovered that an incident had occurred a
few days before on the road we were planning to travel on. Hmong
bandits came out onto the highway and shot everyone in the area and
stripped them of their belongings. They killed 10 people and at the
time we were about to go there the army were still looking for them.
So we flew. It really was 6 of one, and half a dozen of the other
because Lao Aviation doesn’t publish its safety record. Apparently
they fly by sight, so if they cant find a hole in the cloud, they go
back down and land and refuel, wait a while and then give it another
go! Needless to say there was no flashy safety demonstration before
take-off and my seatbelt kept undoing itself, but apart from that I
was fine! Unfortunately, flying meant that we were then stuck in
Vientiane for a week. We couldn’t go to Vietnam before our visa
started. Vientiane was pretty boring really, about two days really
would have been enough. We did go to Buddha park though, which was
great and made our stay in Vientiane worthwhile. Its basically a
meadow full of cement sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu figures. Some
were a bit spooky and there were lots of monks around again, winking
at me, touching my arm etc – they really are a funny bunch. One monk
took us inside this massive bowl shaped building, inside there were
different levels full of figures representing heaven or hell. There
were loads of cobwebs and it was pretty spooky, we climbed out
through a tiny hole in the top and could see over the whole park. Our
monk guide was getting a bit weird though, insisting that I climb up
before him ( I had a skirt on!). We left Vientiane and flew to Hanoi
in Vietnam with Lao Aviation. This flight was a little more shakey
than the last and I vowed to stick to land from then on! I will spare
you the details but when we got on the runway, where in normal
circumstances aeroplanes fire up the engines in reverse, this didn’t
happen and it felt like we were still doing 200 mph on the runway!
Luckily the runway was pretty long.

Hanoi was VERY different to sleepy Laos. Since the 2nd Century BC,
Vietnam was dominated by China for 10 centuries. The Chinese
influence is very apparent and Vietnam feels much more Chinese than
Asian. There are no more Buddhist monks wondering around everywhere,
lots of beautiful green rice paddies and people wearing conical
bamboo hats. The temple architecture appears to be very Chinese too -
as oppose to the Thai temples we have seen in Thailand and Laos.
(Temple fatigue has set in quite heavily). There were motorbikes
everywhere. 90% of the traffic is scooters and it never stops. You
just have to walk into the road and they all drive round you! Takes a
bit of getting used to. There are lots of very narrow tall buildings
everywhere because the government used to tax houses according to
their width on the street. So we had to go up and down 8 flights of
stairs to our hotel room. It is probably the best place we have been
so far. For once we have had communication problems, and have had to
resort to sign language and pointing at maps. The food is the best we
have had so far too, and I have finally had to get used to eating
with chopsticks. However, I should note that we have seen a few
strange additions to the menu, such as: - spicy pork ears, roast
pigeon, chickens’ feet salad, fried tortoise. Just outside of Hanoi
there are also 60 or so dog meat restaurants – apparently its
particularly auspicious to eat dog meat in the second half of the
lunar month. Although they only breed these Chinese looking dogs for
their meat. But you never see dogs roaming the streets – in Laos they
were everywhere. At the markets they also sell delicacies such as
fried dragonflies and boiled rats. Cat meat is now illegal but many
families sell their cats for the money ( poor kitty!), then they have
to go out into the rice paddies and catch the rats themselves (which
they also bring to market to sell). After working for WSPA (World
Society for the Protection of Animals) we both notice animal cruelty
much more. It is endless, I have seen ten pigs in a cage, squashed
and piled on top of each other snorting through the cage, while being
carried on the back of a moped. I saw another woman with twenty or
so live chickens tied to the handlebars of her bicycle by their feet.
Anyway moving on…

We stayed in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, which is 1000 years old. There
are 36 streets and each street sells one item. Of the more
interesting of the streets were Buddhist Statues & Alters street;
Herb Street – selling bags of dried seahorses, dried starfish,
lizards on sticks, fried caterpillars and snake wine containing dead
snakes; Ghost money street – used for burning at Buddhist ceremonies
& funerals. The shopping is amazing. Mark and I both had a new pair
of Gucci eyeglasses made for 20 GBP! And they were expensive, you can
get them for 8 pounds! They are really nice. They rip anything off
here! You can buy photocopied books, DVDs that are only just in the
cinemas, you name it they copy it!

While in Hanoi we also visited the famous Water Puppets (Punch & Judy
in a pool). They were really cool. 11 puppeteers stand in waist deep
water behind a bamboo screen and operate the puppets. The art form
is about 1000 years old and was started by rice farmers in flooded
fields. The puppets look like they are walking on water. There are
fire breathing dragons with fireworks, and a little fisherman sat on
his boat smoking an opium bong with real smoke! We also visited the
Hoa Lao Prison which was built by the French to house Vietnamese
patriots and insurgents during the colonial period. There were
guillotines and exhibits about French cruelty and repression. Then
after the Vietnamese communist resistance gained independence from
the French, it was used as an American POW camp during what they call
the ‘American War’ (not Vietnam war). The Americans used to call this
place the Hanoi Hilton and they were treated very well, given
adequate food, shelter and clothing and then returned to America
after the war despite the untold crimes committed against their
people. I think this has to do with Buddhism.

We also took a two day trip from Hanoi down to Halong Bay (another
World Heritage Site). Halong Bay is one of the natural wonders of
Vietnam and is famous for its 3000 limestone formations, caves and
grottos rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong
Bay covers an area of 1500 sq. km and is comparable to Milford sound
in NZ but on a larger scale. We went to an Amazing Cave, so called
because it is amazing and probably the most impressive cave I have
ever seen. Not that caves are anything to get excited about. We
cruised around the bay till it got dark – our headlight was a guy
sitting on the bow with a torch. And we had a nice cabin and slept on
the boat overnight. There are lots of floating villages, and we
visited the largest, where 700 people live in 90 houses (floating
beach huts). If they are rich that is, if they are poor they live on
their fishing boats. These people had a floating school, and dogs! (I
said they probably got fatter for eating through lack of exercise –
poor doggies!). The bay was stunning and sooo peaceful, a much needed
break after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

When we got back to Hanoi, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Luckily for us it was closed – I didn’t really want to see his
embalmed corpse anyway! We saw his house and rushed around his museum
in half an hour before they shut for their standard two hour lunch
break. We hired a guide and the poor boy was sweating under the time
pressure and language problems! Then last night we caught the
overnight train to Hue. So I am a bit tired… With that in mind I
think I’ll leave it there.

Take care, Jo x