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

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