Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Jessica's tales

I started yesterday with a trip into town to have my final Hepatitis B vaccination and to book my Mekong Delta trip. At the time I didn't have enough money with me to pay for the trip but I returned today and now everything is booked. I will be leaving early tomorrow morning for a three-day tour along the Mekong River, arriving in Phnom Penh on Saturday evening. I will then spend some days seeing the capital before getting a bus back to Saigon, probably on Wednesday. I hope to be able to keep up with the blog during the trip, but I may have trouble for the two days while we are in the Mekong Delta as I may not have a good WiFi connection at the hotels we are staying in, or else may be too tired to write. I plan to take it easy in Phnom Penh as the schedule for the Mekong Delta tour looks to be quite busy.

Yesterday lunchtime I sat and chatted to Jessica about another trip we are considering for late October/early November, northbound to Hanoi, then Sa Pa and into northern Laos. Sa Pa is a hillside town in the Lao Cai province in the far northwest, near the Chinese border. It is visited by tourists for the beautiful mountain scenery and to see the lives of the minority ethnic groups that live there, including the Hmong, Dao and Giay people. Jessica told me of a time she had visited Sa Pa with a tour group and stayed in the house of the chief of the village she had visited. At night she needed to visit the toilet, which was outside of the main farm building. She very carefully manoeuvred down a step ladder in the dark from her top-floor sleeping area, careful not to wake anyone else in the house. Outside she struggled to find her bearings in the dark. Suddenly, she saw something long and thin, stood up in the air and writhing. A snake! She dived onto the closest thing off the ground, something that appeared to be a rock, but which turned out to be a sleeping cow. The beast stood up in fright and threw her to the ground. The 'snake' had been its tail. Jessica lay on the ground in a daze as the entire village had suddenly appeared to have a look at her. I still laugh now, re-telling this story, and I imagine when I visit Sa Pa myself I will meet people who still remember the strange woman who fell off a cow in the night.

After lunch Jessica was visited by a Vietnamese exercise therapist to help her with her bad neck and knees. Annie had recommended his work to Jessica and came over with him in the afternoon. Annie and I sat and watched as Jessica was 'tortured' with his firm hands and difficult stretches. At the end of an hour's session she was worn out and looked like a battered rag doll.

After enjoying the spectacle I decided to treat myself to a hair cut. My hair has been getting very long and scraggly which is a nuisance to me in this climate. Thuy came with me to a local salon to help with translation. We had a nice walk across the neighbourhood, and I tried to make small-talk with, asking her if she remembered my parents, and telling her how bossy Jessica is to her, to which she chuckled shyly. We arrived at the salon, where the staff were all too keen to get me into a chair and a pair of scissors to my hair. I didn't have time to have it washed, so it was just a quick trim. I felt a little anxious by the hairdresser's rough style, and cringed to see large chunks of my hair come away in his hand. But in ten minutes he had finished, and I was charged 70,000 dong (approx £2) for his handiwork. It may not be the best haircut I have ever had- in fact it looks as messy as before but at least now has a reduced total mass- but it was worth it for the price and speed! On the way back Thuy asked if it was cheap or expensive for me. I told that back home I pay one million dong for a haircut, and the cheapest you can have it done for is about 500,000. She pulled a face in horror at this gross excessiveness. On the walk back she had chirped up a bit and talked happily to me. She pointed out the chopped trees on the roadside, which had been cut down to stop them falling onto the houses in bad weather. Last week the tree in front of Jessica's house was savagely pruned by an over-enthusiastic gardener. The local authorities had ordered it to be chopped down, but Jessica had negotiated that it should be allowed to stay if she paid for it to be trimmed. "She was very angry at me", Thuy said, of Jessica discovering that too much had been taken away of this tree. "Yes, but imagine if you hadn't had it cut and it fell on the house", I said. "Then she'd be even more angry at you!". She liked that one a lot.

In the evening we went out for dinner. Trung, a man from Jessica's book club who I had met on Saturday, had arranged for Jessica to have a date with a woman he knows called Binh. He suggested that the two women would get along as they are of similar age, live in the same area and have lots of similarities, such as being successful in their careers but without having children, and that they both study Zen and Buddhism. They appeared to be a hit, and Trung and I sat and listened as they talked about themselves, sharing their spiritual experiences and comparing birthdays and horoscopes as a way of measuring their compatibility. They certainly seemed to have a lot in common, both saying that they feel they don't belong to the countries they were born in, both being interested in Latin American culture, and, strangely, both having had an interest in becoming nuns at some point in their lives. We were eating at a German/Austrian restaurant called One More in the centre of Phu My Hung. Binh knew the proprieter and came there often. I liked the decoration- red walls, low-hung lampshades and on every wall, black-and-white framed photographs of filmstars, musicians and leaders of freedom movements. I also relished the opportunity to eat some chips.

Today, as I have already said, I went into the city to book my ticket for tomorrow's trip. I also trekked around Ben Thanh market trying to get a good price for some flip-flops and trainers, as I needed some more appropriate footwear for my trip. I've spent the afternoon packing and getting myself ready. It feels a bit lonely now Jessica has gone away for a week so I'm very glad to be doing something exciting myself. I'm looking forward to the trip, although it will be a challenge for me. I've had to organise everything myself and make sure I have everything I need. Jessica won't make things easy for me, so I've had to work out an estimate budget myself which she has provided, and I hope will prove to be accurate! I imagine the next three days will be very interesting but very busy, and I'll have to look after myself to make sure I don't get affected by the heat as I did on my trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. I'm especially looking forward to checking into a hotel in Phnom Penh and spending a relaxing three or four days exploring the city by myself. I'll keep the blog updated as best as possible throughout my trip.

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