Monday, 29 October 2012

Beautiful Sapa

This morning saw a sudden change in our plans. Jessica and I were eating breakfast at our hotel in Sapa. We were hurried, having only arrived an hour earlier and expecting our tour group to pick us up any minute to take us to the base of Mount Phan Xi Pang to begin our three-day trek. I didn’t feel hungry but had filled my plate with sausages, eggs, toast, tomatoes and potatoes from the buffet in preparation of the hard day ahead. Jessica had instructed me to finish my plate in five minutes, which I had a good crack at. On my last few mouthfuls, Jessica discovered, through contacting our tour guide, that a mistake had been made by the travel agency; the guide was not expecting us until tomorrow. We both felt thrown by this news, but being unable to change the situation, we changed the night we had booked at the hotel from Wednesday night to tonight, and tried to get used to the idea that we were no longer climbing the mountain today, and would be having a relaxed day instead.

Early yesterday evening I met Jessica at Hanoi airport, where it was dark and stormy because of a typhoon that had hit north and central Vietnam the night before. We travelled to the old quarter by taxi in an attempt to book a hotel for me for my three nights in Hanoi at the end of my trip, from the fourth to the seventh of November. I hopped out of the taxi and rushed across the road, fighting back the rain, to inquire about prices. I was lucky enough to find a hotel that seemed very nice and was within my budget on only the second inquiry. I provisionally booked a room and didn’t even have to leave a deposit. The staff were very helpful considering I had not yet parted with any money- I was shown around a room and then given advice about nearby restaurants. They looked after our bags while we went out to eat and called a taxi for us when we returned. I feel confident it will be a good place to stay.

Travelling in style
We ate at the nearest café, which was almost deserted, played rubbish American R&B and was decorated more like a nightclub than a restaurant, with cream sofas, sequined cushions, chandeliers and dark patterned wallpaper. Because of the rain we weren’t fussy about where we ate, and luckily the food was decent. We took a taxi to the train station to take the night train to Lao Cai, en route to the mountains of Sapa in the far north of Vietnam, close to the Chinese border. A porter showed us to the train. I was delighted to find it was a luxury sleeper provided by the best hotel in Sapa, although traveling with Jessica, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The cabin was beautiful, with polished wooden bed frames and table, and dark-red and black patterned fabrics in the regional style. There were even slippers provided. We shared our cabin with a Vietnamese woman and her Sri Lankan- American boyfriend, who kindly shared a bottle of red wine with us. It felt like a very classy way to travel.

We arrived in Lao Cai at 6.30 in the morning. It was a quiet town with a dotting of motels and a crowd of tour guides and taxis around the railway station. Here, we picked up a shuttle bus for an hour’s drive up through the foggy mountains. Shortly before entering the town of Sapa we passed slowly around a steep bend in the road along a cliff edge. A crowd had gathered and when we passed, we could see that a truck had rolled down the cliff and spilt its contents down the rocks and into the river. We arrived in Sapa, a very pretty little mountain town that could be Alpine with its pine trees, small lake and tall, colourful hotels. Of course, a distinguishing feature is the number of Hmong women dressed in black outfits with colourful patterns, wearing dangly silver earrings and with black bandages around their calves to keep them slim. There are seventeen different ethnic minority groups in this town with a population of 50,000, one of the factors that brings tourists to Sapa in increasing numbers every year, as well as the beautiful scenery and the trekking.

Now, with a day to spare before we could start our mountain climb, we took advantage of the free half-day walking tour provided by the hotel. At 10am we were met by Lan, our tour guide, who wore a traditional dress of the Black Hmong, a tribal group of whom there are only fifty-three in Sapa. She spoke English very well and had a good sense of humour. She frequently sang and told jokes throughout our 6km walk to a village in the valley. For much of the way we were joined by three Hmong women, including one with a baby, and a girl of fourteen who looked as though she were eight or nine. They told us that older Hmong women mostly married at thirteen or fourteen to a man of eighteen or nineteen, but nowadays girls marry later. The girl we walked with was not married, I was pleased to learn; her friend said that she would probably not marry until eighteen or so. At twenty-two, Lan was a very old single girl, they said. Nonetheless, even today there are stories of Vietnamese men trafficking Hmong girls to sell into sex slavery over the Chinese border, and even of Hmong families selling their daughters to the same fate.

The walk was stunning and I felt overwhelmed and thrilled to have suddenly found myself here. Jessica and I endlessly photographed the beautiful mountain scenery and the tiered rice paddy fields. The Hmong women all spoke English and were really fun to walk with, although predictably when they reached their village they wanted us to buy some of the intricate hand-woven products they carried in baskets on their backs, in return for their company. As we approached the village the path became busier as we joined other tourist groups walking this well-trodden route. At one point we saw a small girl walking alone in out of the village towards us. Lan recognised her from the village- she told me that the girl was about three-and-a-half years old, and was walking the couple of kilometres from her school to her home, by herself. I couldn’t believe it. She must be safe to do so as no vehicles could go down this path and she often passed villagers who knew her. Even so, she seemed so small and alone in front of the vast mountainous background.

We reached the village in the valley where Lan lives. She told that of the 3,000 inhabitants, half follow Catholicism, left over from French colonialism, and in fact many of the older generation speak Latin! The Hmong tribe arrived in Vietnam from China around 400 years ago. This area was once forested, and the Hmong first survived on opium plantation. Jessica and I were very hungry by now. We met the car to take us back to Sapa, and I quickly fell asleep for the twenty minute journey. We had lunch and spent the afternoon relaxing. It is an early start tomorrow and I’m feeling very nervous about the mountain climb! If all goes as planned, we will reach the peak on Wednesday and come down from the mountain on Thursday. That night, we will take the night train back to Hanoi, and on Friday we will head to our next destination, the national park of Ninh Binh just outside Hanoi. This will be the first opportunity I will have to post my report of the mountain climb.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Vientiane to Sapa

Yesterday I made it to the Buddha Park. I hired a bike after breakfast and cycled to the bus station in central Vientiane, from where it was an hour-and-a-half’s journey on two buses. Immediately after the bus set off I started to feel nervous about leaving my bike in the bus station, with a lock through the back wheel but not secured to anything. The first bus dropped us off at the Friendship Bridge on the Thai border and I was directed to a small local bus to take me along a rutted dirt path through the countryside for another twenty minutes until we reached Buddha Park. It was a gloriously sunny day and I sat in a shaded part of the park and ate my delightful picnic lunch of spinach and salmon quiche and a petite tarte au fraise that I had bought earlier from a French bakery.

 I started chatting with a man named Ong who asked if he could sit with me. He knew a lot about British culture from working in Vang Vieng, Laos’ party town three hours away from Vientiane.  He told me that he liked fish and chips and curry pasty with gravy and that his favourite band was the Arctic Monkeys. He asked me a lot of questions about British music festivals and asked if Oasis were still together. I told him that Noel and Liam couldn’t get along and have each started their own bands, which he found very funny. Vang Vieng is a rural town in the mountains where backpackers flock to go ‘tubing’- floating down the Nam Song river in inner-tubes, stopping off at wooden bars along the river-front for cheap Lao-Lao whiskey and to zip-wire into the water. When Ong worked there in 2008, eight tourists, mostly Birtish and Irish, died within the year from the combination of drinking, drugs, river currents and rocks. He once saw the swollen body of a drowned Irish man in the river, who had come to Vang Vieng shortly after getting married. Tourists deaths have only been increasing, it seems. Somebody at my hostel who had just come back from Vang Vieng had said she met a group of girls there, who were crying and panicking. They said they had lost their friend in the river and hadn’t seen her for an hour; there had been rumours of a dead body being found further downstream. The Laos government has been taking measures to close down the party town, under pressure from the Australian government after several Australians were killed. A lot of the people I met at my hostel were heading there from Vientiane, even if the party atmosphere is now dying down. Some had heard that the river-front bars have been burned down.

I went to walk around the park. The largest sculpture was a huge pumpkin-shaped monument with a spindly stone tree on the top and a demon’s open mouth as an entrance way. I walked inside and climbed up the stone steps over three levels, to the top of the sculpture from where there is a view across the park. Within the pumpkin there is an unlit central room on each level; representing hell, earth and heaven as you ascend from bottom to top. The ‘hell’ room was unnerving to stand inside- dark, dusty and lined with stone skeletons hanging from trees, impaled on stakes or being eaten by crocodiles. Across the length of the park was an enormous reclining Buddha, and at the opposite end was a stone stupa. Scattered between were a few hundred smaller sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu figures and gods, demons, crocodiles and, my least favourite, a giant cockroach held on a leash. Indeed, they were often very bizarre. The park was built in 1958 under the orders of the shaman-priest Luang Pu (Venerable Grandfather) Bunluea Sulilat, an eccentric character who combined Hindu and Buddhist philosophy in his teachings and had the park built as a monument to his beliefs. Originally a private garden, the park became a public museum after Bunluea Sulilat left Laos for Thailand and the government took ownership.

After looking at all the sculptures I approached the stupa at the end of the park and climbed very carefully up the steep stone steps with no sides to reach a small ledge. A little further up was a window looking inside the stupa. A monk was casually balanced on the high ledge watching me. I asked him if I could climb up to look through the window, and he said yes. I did so, very slowly and shakily, and had a little peek. “Nothing!” I said, looking down at him. “Yes,” he grinned. I climbed back down to the ledge and chatted to him. He told me to call him Bob, and was enthusiastic when I told him I was from England- his favourite country, he said, because he is learning English. I chatted to “Bob” the monk for a little while before clambering down to the safety of the ground. Then I waited for half an hour at the park entrance until I bus arrived for the return journey.

Back in Vientiane I was delighted to find that my bike had not been robbed. I hopped onto it on my way to my next destination, Sok Pa Luang temple, where monks lead an open meditation class on Saturday afternoons. As I had three-quarters of an hour, it didn’t matter too much that I initially headed off in the wrong direction after confusing which side of the bus station I was leaving from. Eventually I found my way to the temple, a large, leafy and peaceful complex within a small wood. There were several buildings including a temple, stupas, a monument under construction and several monks’ houses. With some direction I found the meditation class, which had already started. I quietly joined the thirty or so participants, mostly tourists, sat on the tiled floor outside a temple in front of a line of six meditating monks.

Without having had the introduction that everybody else had, I tried to remember the things I already knew about meditation- to concentrate on your breathing, to listen to your body as you breathe in and out, and to try to keep your mind clear of thoughts. I have only tried meditation once or twice before, always after a session of yoga, which I have found to be an easier way to relax the body and clear the mind. After the stress of cycling around trying to find the temple, my mind was very active, flickering with questions such as “When did the class start?” and “How long is this going to go on for?”  I found it hard to keep my eyes closed and quickly became bored. Afterwards, it was explained that meditation is an exercise for the mind in concentration and patience. It was very difficult for me as a beginner, and I could appreciate the amount of practise these monks must commit to in order to sit so still and serene for an extended period. It’s not even that I'm fidgety; it’s very hard to switch off your mind. I learnt that besides developing concentration and patience, a primary goal of meditation is to learn more about your body by taking time to appreciate how you feel (my back hurt), to observe the process of your breath going in and out and the effect it has on your body, and to listen carefully to the sounds around you and notice how your body responds to them.

We also tried fifteen minutes of walking meditation, which I found to be less boring and more relaxing than the seated meditation. The focus of the walking meditation was the movement of the feet. “Walk slowly, with your head down. When your foot is going up, know that it is going up. When it is going down, know that it is going down,” the translator told us. Although I initially felt self-conscious walking in super slow-motion, I soon relaxed and enjoyed experiencing the feeling of my bare foot against the ground, the slow crunch of dry leaves underfoot, and even the pain of crossing over a stone. I couldn't help looking up, though. It was certainly a curious sight to see the scattering of almost-motionless people facing various directions around me, all looking downwards with the leaves falling silently around them.

I got back on my bike feeling calmer, and enjoyed the slow cycle ride back to the hostel as the sun began to set, the most beautiful time of the day in Indochina.

Today I left Vientiane to fly to Hanoi. As I write I am waiting to meet Jessica at the airport, whose flight from Ho Chi Minh City has been delayed. Tonight we will travel to the beautiful North Vietnamese hill town of Sapa by overnight train, the beginning of a trek to the peak of Phan Xi Pang, the highest mountain in Indochina. My next post will be on Wednesday, after three days and two nights on the mountain.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Lao National Museum, Talat Sao market and yoga

Today is my third day in Vientiane and I took things slowly. I started in the late morning with a visit to the Lao National Museum, a fairly small place that offers a broad historical sweep from the dinosaurs to the development of modern Laos PDR. This included fossilised wood and dinosaur bones from pre-history, ancient bronze drums decorated with three-dimensional frogs, clothing and jewellery from some of Laos’ 49 ethnic groups and a Houda chair on which to ride elephants, the traditional mode of transport in the 17th century. In one room was an explanation of the creation of the first Laotian kingdom, Lane Xang, or the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. Fa Ngum was a Lao prince sent to exile in Angkor (the ancient Cambodian kingdom) in 1351, where he became the head of the Khmer army. He was sent to capture Luang Prabang in Northern Laos and declared himself Lord in 1353. Sending forces northwards, and southwards to Vientiane, he announced the formation of the Kingdom of Lane Xang. 

In a jump forward to the 19th century, the next room explained the origin of French colonialism from 1893, at a time that Vientiane was destroyed in the aftermath of Siamese rule. French interests in Laos were to exert power over neighbouring Siam, to exploit Laos’ natural resources, and to access the Mekong River, a valuable trade route. Although the French took interest in archaeological, religious and cultural documentation and restoration, rebuilding several of Vientiane’s razed temples, little improvement to education or infrastructure was realised and 90% of the population still relied on subsistence farming. Resentful of another foreign power dominating the country and the increasing involvement of the USA, nationalist sentiments grew. The museum displayed statues and busts of Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Kham Seng Sivilay, the first Lao communist figurehead. There was photographic evidence of Laotian people fleeing the war between the USA and the communist Pathet Lao to refugee camps, as well as caves used for communist’s offices, schools and venues for public meetings. Here, English information signs started to wear thin, where they had been present at the start of the museum.

Enormous dog in the market
I was feeling tired at this point and went back to the hostel for a lie-down. I later thought this was probably because I hadn’t had a cup of strong Lao coffee in the morning, as I have done every other morning so far. After a few hours I headed out for a late lunch and a coffee at a nearby French bakery. I had hoped to visit the Buddha Park in the afternoon. This is a park 20km out of the city filled with unusual Buddhist and Hindu sculpture, created in 1958 by a shaman who merged Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. I realised I didn’t have time for this as I had started the day so slowly, and instead have put it on tomorrow morning’s itinerary. Instead I walked to the Talet Sao market, supposedly the largest in Vientiane. This must exclude the night-market by the river-front, which is enormous. In fact it was quite difficult to find the market, which was tucked around the corner of a large shopping mall, and did not seem to be very extensive. It was quite empty of customers which made it pleasant to walk around. Mostly there were sarongs, household goods and temple offerings for sale, although there were also tourist souvenirs. I was particularly struck by a table of soft hand-sewn slippers decorated with elephants, available in sizes from baby feet to adult feet. They were so adorable that I had to buy some, and I racked my brains for who I could give a pair to. In the end I decided to buy three of the cute children’s’ pairs to give to my boyfriend’s younger siblings, but being indecisive, I didn’t commit to buying until the third time I wandered back to the table for another look- not the best way to get a good price!

Elephant slippers- so cute!
Feeling happy with my purchase, I walked back to the street my hostel is on to have a mango shake and consider what to do with the rest of the day. I ended up at an evening yoga class at Vientiane Yoga Studio at the edge of the city, run by a sweet American woman called Eleanor and, not unsurprisingly, attended exclusively by female ex-patriots and myself. It was a pretty good work-out but with the cost of the class and two expensive tuk-tuk journeys, it was a costly evening’s activity. Tomorrow is my last day in Vientiane before flying to Hanoi to meet Jessica and begin our trip to the mountains. After four days in Vientiane I feel confident I’ll have seen most of the sights of this small, laid-back city. I’ve come to like it here- the local people are friendly and very polite, the city feels safe and there are a fair few interesting things to see and do.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

A cycle tour and a suffocating sauna

Haw Pha Kaeo

I hired a bike today to see some more of Vientiane’s sights. Firstly I visited Haw Pha Kaeo. Like many in Vientiane, this temple was razed by the Siamese in 1827. The building that stands today is a replacement built by the French between 1936 and 1942, although the original temple dated from 1565. It was originally constructed to house the Emerald Buddha, a relic brought to Vientiane by the king when the capital city was moved from Luang Prabang. This treasured relic was taken by the Siamese in a war in 1779 and now resides in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. All that remains in memory of the Emerald Buddha in Haw Pha Kaeo today are luminous green statues sold as souvenirs. Within the temple are displays of ancient depictions of Buddha, and picturesque gardens fill the grounds outside.

I had a quick lunch in a restaurant offering Lao and international food. I chose a Lao dish of fish steamed in a coconut leaf, nostalgic for the delicious steamed fish curry, amok, that I ate in Cambodia. Sadly, this could not compare; dry and bland, it was edible but not enjoyable. Afterwards I took the bike on my way to Pha That Luang, the golden monument that has become a symbol of Laos. It was an easy 15 minute ride out of the city following a main road that took me around the Patuxai monument which I climbed up yesterday. Pha That Luang has a similar story to Haw Pha Kaeo; built in the 16th century when Vientiane became the capital of Laos, it was destroyed during the Siamese invasion and later reconstructed by the French. Painted entirely gold but now dirty and worn at the edges, the monument is a pyramid made of four square bases with stupas at each corner, and a large lotus bud shape at the very top. It certainly looked more impressive from further away, from where the griminess cannot be seen and it glows an untainted gold. But the afternoon sun breaking spectacularly through the clouds above made for an eye-catching sight. I scooted around on my bike on the other side of the walls of the monument, exploring the beautiful gardens and the two temples. I headed back to my hostel and enjoyed a refreshing banana milkshake in a nearby café.

In the evening I was curious to visit a Lao-style sauna on the next street. I cycled cautiously down a dirt-path alleyway following a sign for the Herbal Sauna, and was welcomed by the friendly woman working on the reception desk. Inside there was a quiet courtyard lined with potted plants and stone tables for drinking tea. Two large dogs lay licking themselves. I was given a sarong to wear and, after changing, was led to the men’s sauna, as the women’s sauna was not working at the time. Opening the wooden door and pushing back a heavy red curtain, I stepped into the empty steam-filled wooden room which smelt of a herb I recognised from Asian cooking. I stood for a few seconds and turned around for the door when I realised I couldn’t breathe. “It’s too hot!” I told the woman. As there was nobody in there already I wondered whether a human could physically cope with such heat. After a few ladles of water thrown over myself I tried again, and lasted for about five minutes. Watching the other people who went in and out after me, most managed about the same time as me. Even after such a brief stay in the sauna my skin felt very soft and with some hot tea, I felt very refreshed.

I went for dinner at Le Vendome, sold to me by Lonely Planet as ‘probably the cheapest French food just about anywhere in the world’. This was necessary as I was counting my last Kip; I had run out and in the evening the currency exchange booths in town were closed. Counting my last few notes out carefully, I chose a tasty and inexpensive macaroni, ham and mushroom gratin. Afterwards I studied the dessert menu to see what I could afford. I was a measly 1,000 kip short of what I really wanted, Poire Belle Helene- poached pears with ice cream and chocolate sauce. So instead I chose a chocolate soufflé which was marginally cheaper to satisfy the chocolate craving I’ve had running for a few days. I don’t think I really knew what a chocolate soufflé was when I ordered, and was horrified by the swollen monster presented to me in a tin I would use to make a loaf cake. I barely made a dent on the soufflé before accepting defeat. The final blow came when I saw on the bill that I could have paid in dollars, of which I had plenty, and so my dessert scrimping was unnecessary. As I walked back to my hostel I told myself that I will have to find a way to overcome the huge sense of remorse that I feel when I order the wrong dessert.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Vientiane's oldest temple, and learning to COPE

I chose a French café at the bottom of Rue Francois Ngin for my breakfast today, where I enjoyed coffee and scrambled eggs amidst French people reading Le Monde and sipping espresso. Without any real plan for the day, I firstly headed for Wat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest surviving temple, built between 1819 and 1824 on the orders of the last king of Vientiane, Chao Anou. A Siamese invasion in 1827 saw all of the other temples of the city razed within a year, but this one was left standing, although all the Buddhist texts in the library were looted and taken back to Bangkok. The central building is the sim (sanctuary), with an altar and the oldest murals in Vientiane on the walls, telling Buddhist folk tales. The wooden ceiling is decorated with metal lotus flowers. Surrounding the sim is a cloister lined with Buddha statues, each one dressed with a metallic orange scarf. Within the walls are thousands of miniature statues, and behind a gate is a huge pile of broken Buddha statues found underground after the war. A guide told me that there are over 10,000 models of Buddha within the temple grounds. Outside of the cloister is a monastery courtyard filled with stupas of varying sizes and decoration. Traditionally intended as monuments to hold relics of Buddha, these angular structures are nowadays used to house the cremation urns of deceased family members. Most had photographs on the outside of the person or couple whose ashes were held within.

A cat sleeps in the hollow of a stupa

Buddha statues large and small line the cloister

The eerie sight of hundreds of headless Buddha

Beautiful flowers and a sunny day

Monks rest in the shade of this lavish tree

I left Wat Sisaket and walked to the Patuxai, a victory monument erected in commemoration of those who died fighting for independence from the French. It is modelled on the Arc de Triomphe but in Laotian style and with four archways in a symmetrical box shape. I paid 3,000 kip to climb the stairs to the top to see the view. On each floor on the way up t-shirts and souvenirs could be bought. These huge, windowless rooms inside the monument were a bit strange and unpleasant.

Patuxai from the ground...

...and from the air

At a Laotian road-side café I ordered a papaya salad for lunch. It was spicy and quite tasty but I was a bit put off after noticing a caterpillar wiggling out of a green bean shortly after I started eating. It could have been much worse than a caterpillar though; I will have to get over my squeamishness, particularly as I’m now living in Vietnam!

In the late afternoon I took a tuk-tuk to the fascinating COPE visitor centre. The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) produce artificial limbs, wheelchairs and walking aids. The free visitor centre explains the circumstances that bring forward 50% of its patients; Laos is littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from the USA’s ‘secret war’ against the Pathet Lao in an attempt to ‘contain’ the spread of communism during the Vietnam War. This involved the heaviest bombing campaign in world history; it is estimated that between 1964 and 1972, there was a bombing mission in Laos every eight minutes. The ordnance used were cluster bombs, cases from which up to 680 tennis-ball shaped bombs, known in Laos as bombies, are released. Each is packed with explosives and metal ball bearings. Cluster bombs have a killing radius of 15-30km. The problem that remains today is that many of these bombies failed to explode when first released; test conditions have found that 30% do not explode, leading to estimates that 80 million unexploded ordnances were left over after the bombing campaign came to an end. It is thought that 25% of Laotian villages are contaminated with UXOs and more than 50,000 people were killed or injured between 1964 and 2011 as a result of accidents when they are discovered. Discovery of UXOs can be unintentional or intentional, mostly occurring in rural areas through farming, gathering food and materials for domestic uses, lighting fires, or hunting for scrap metal. The latter is a tragic problem in Laos today. The scrap metal market is very lucrative and for those living in poverty it is an inviting opportunity to earn twice, or sometimes four times, the average daily salary. Despite knowledge that scrap metal collection is both illegal and incredibly dangerous due to the presence of UXOs, for some it is a risk that has to be taken as the metal used to make American bombs is very valuable. For this reason, many household items in rural homes are made out of metals from UXOS. Sometimes bombs are kept as souvenirs. This level of familiarity is particularly dangerous for children who may find unexploded bombs while out playing and be unaware of the danger.

Around 1,000 people are employed by UXO Lao, the largest bomb clearance agency in Lao, which is supported by international humanitarian organisations and, since 1993, the US government. But with an average rate of one hectare of land cleared over ten days, it is very slow work and insufficient to prevent the injuries that continue every year. 

The second part of the visitor centre displays the work of COPE. There is a striking display of prosthetic legs suspended from the ceiling; across the room is another display of hundreds of model cluster bombs, also suspended from the ceiling. Artificial hands and wheelchairs are available for visitors to look at and even try out. There were photographs and accounts from patients, many of them children, who had lost limbs from UXO accidents and had replacement limbs fitted for them by COPE. In the middle was a piece of rehabilitation exercise equipment; a set of steps and a bridge facing a mirror for patients to use to become accustomed to walking with, and seeing themselves with, a new leg. Visitors were invited to try walking up the steps and over the bridge using a ‘pretend’ artificial leg that can be strapped on to a bent knee. A sign reminded us that we often think as disabilities as only happening to other people and that looking in the mirror while using the artificial leg gives us a sense of the change of perception of body image that must come to somebody who has had a life-changing injury.

Artificial limbs in construction

Display of 'bombies' in visitor centre

Illustration by Lao villager in refugee camp, early 1970s, depicting American bombing

Display of artificial legs

My artificial leg was a bit longer than the other one

A touching moment

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Arrival in Vientiane

I have arrived in Laos for the first time today and checked into a hostel in Vientiane. I said goodbye to Jessica and Thuy back in Saigon this morning; they stood by the gate of the house and waved like anxious parents as I left by taxi for the airport. It was a two-hour flight to Hanoi, where I transferred planes. After a bit of confusion I found my way through all of the airport structures. I’m not very good at airports; today was not the first time I’ve tried to go through departures without checking in first. I passed the two-and-a-half hour wait in the departure lounge chewing on my new favourite treat- peanut coconut candies made in the Mekong Delta. By the time I boarded the lounge was emptying out; the sun was low and red as we walked across the concourse to the very small plane. There were only around eighty passengers on this flight, which runs once a day.

It was dark when we touched down in Vientiane an hour and a half later and I felt very alone. After buying a visa and exchanging some US dollars for Lao Kip, I went to take a taxi to the city centre, 4km away. I had read that only official taxis are allowed inside the airport and strangely, are required by law to run a flat fare of $7 from the airport to the city. I could have tried walking out of the airport and negotiating the price for a tuk-tuk, but at night, alone, with a big backpack and in an unfamiliar city, I settled with convenience.

The hostel is fair enough; it is adequately clean and all of the staff and guests I have met so far have been friendly. But my one (very significant) complaint is that there is no lock on the door of the shared bathroom. So far I have been too nervous to use it, but this is hardly sustainable for a five-night stay! I was also disappointed, but not hugely surprised, to find that breakfast is not included in the price, as is stated on the booking website I used. I showed this to the manager and he was very apologetic, but when I suggested he could give me free breakfast as I had been falsely informed, it was a short ‘no’. There happens to be another woman from Leeds staying in my dorm and I had a good chat with her. She too had been fooled by the ‘free breakfast’ clause, and we shared our grievances.

As it was still early when I arrived, I went out to see the night market down the road. I walked around the vast market which was thumping with the bass from a set of muffled speakers, and lit up by the lights of ferris wheels, dodgems and children’s flashing plastic toys. When I had had enough I found a nice-looking Belgian bar where I went for a rooftop beer overlooking the market. Instead of a Leffe or Duvel, I opted for the national BeerLao, which is apparently a national pride as one of the country’s few exports. I liked it, but then I’m no beer expert.

Tomorrow morning I will have to grudgingly pay for breakfast, over which I will set about deciding what to do with myself on my first day in Vientiane. 

A girl tries to pop balloons with a dart

Traditional Lao dresses for children

Smiley-face doughnuts on sale in the night market

Monday, 22 October 2012

Meeting Mr Taiwan man

Jessica and I went along to the Taipei school down the road yesterday to see an unusual stunt. Ed Wu is a young Taiwanese man who has begun a project of travelling the world wearing a huge Taiwanese festival costume. His aim is simple: to make people across the globe aware that Taiwan is a country on the world map. It doesn't seem to be a political campaign in light of the fact that many of the world's governments do not recognise Taiwan's existence; Wu said himself that he just wants people to know that Taiwan is a different place from Thailand. Everywhere he goes he draws a crowd, particularly where there is a local Taiwanese population, to take photographs, to watch him dance and for a Q&A session; his Facebook page has over 41,000 followers, with entertaining photographs of all the places he has visited. Vietnam is the 15th of the countries Wu has visited, and he hopes to reach one hundred. In the question and answer session he explained that he often meets trouble along the way- being asked for bribes by the local police, understandably having trouble getting through customs with his enormous costume, and occasionally meeting hostility from members of the public. His worst experience was being arrested on his way to see the presidential palace in India, and having to spend eight hours in a cell. But he said it was pretty cool nonetheless.

About fifty people had gathered at the Taipei school to see Wu, most of who were friends with Jessica. There were also plenty of people around to watch a game of baseball going on in the sun-filled school playing fields. Wu arrived and there was excited joking and heckling in Chinese. He was helped into the heavy costume for photographs, and everybody was given a Taiwanese flag to wave. Next there was the question and answer session, after which somebody turned up with a similar Vietnamese festival costume. This led to a dance-off between Wu in the Taiwanese costume and one of the baseball players in the Vietnamese costume, to the blaring sounds of LMFAO. If only Vietnam-Taiwan relations were so good in real life.

Jessica with Ed Wu

Vietnam-Taiwan dance-off

Today I went into the city to buy some essentials for my trip away; I leave for Laos tomorrow. I bought a knock-off Lonely Planet guide and had some photographs taken for my landing visa. This was done at a roadside laundrette on Pham Ngu Lao that also offers passport photos. A blue cloth was slung over the whirring washing machines as a background for my picture; my photo was taken on a digital camera and printed five minutes later. Walking back towards the bus stop, I stopped for a rest in a park and was soon approached by a Vietnamese student who asked if he could talk to me for a while to practise his English. This happens to me almost every time I sit down in a park or stop in a museum, but this conversation was far more interesting than any other I have had so far because the boy I was talking to had very good English. It also turned out he was very clever; he told me he had come third in a national competition for gifted and talented students and was given a scholarship for a geography degree, although he decided to take international business studies instead. We talked for a while about education, geography, politics and culture. He seemed to know a lot about the differences between Vietnamese and British education, for example that Vietnamese schooling is focused around the rigorous rehearsal of facts rather than the British style of explanation and debates. This explains how he was able to effortlessly reel off statistics during our conversation. It also explains why another boy who had joined our conversation said “You must have a good memory”, when I told him that I like history.

Later I had to return to the city to meet Jessica, to buy a pair of walking boots for the trip. She took me to Saigon Square, the market to go to for designer brands, low prices and questionable ethics. I spent a long time trotting up and down between the stalls in walking boots and a skirt, looking like Tubs from the League of Gentlemen. When I felt (fairly) confident that I had found a pair that fit properly, we bought them for little more than £40 and went for dinner. We dined at Le Bouchon du Saigon, a French restaurant that was busy even on a Monday night. I loved the red-and-white gingham provincial-style tablecloths with matching napkins, and the art posters on the walls. Despite having changed management only ten days earlier, the service was excellent and the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. I had steak with garlic-parsley butter and perfect homemade chips. Jessica ate duck leg, which was delicious. And for dessert we shared a blissful, wonderful, divine chocolate mousse. It would highly recommend this restaurant; it’s certainly one of the best I’ve been to in Ho Chi Minh City so far. The best part was the free glass of champagne after being seated, a lovely surprise considering it was not a hugely expensive meal. We happened to run into Frances and Dominique, the French couple we dined with at Lucca café several weeks ago. They were with a group of friends who donated a few glasses of Californian chardonnay our way, meaning Jessica and I got nicely tipsy on free alcohol all evening. We also chatted with the two men sat opposite us who work in the oil extraction business in Kuala Lumpur. They were each eating a kilo of mussels.

Back home I am preparing everything for my two-week trip to Vientiane, Hanoi, Sapa and Ninh Binh. I will firstly spend four days in the Laotian capital by myself, staying in a youth hostel and seeing the sights of the city, before meeting Jessica in Hanoi on the 28th to travel to Sapa and climb the highest mountain in Indochina. I will keep up with the blog as best as possible during the trip; the next time I write will be from Laos!

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Bed-knobs and chopsticks

Today I have been getting my head around a proposal from Jessica that I go to Laos early next week. We already have a trip planned in North Vietnam, and I would have been flying to Hanoi with Jessica on the 26th or 27th of this month. But as Jessica will be busy working next week, she suggested that I spend some time in Laos beforehand and meet her in Hanoi on the 28th. I am looking to fly to Vientiane, the Laotian capital, On Tuesday. This does not give me much time to prepare myself for what has suddenly become a two-week trip! But if living with Jessica over the past seven weeks has taught me anything, it's to be adaptable and prepared for anything!

I spent a while today finding the cheapest flights available online, which I will book tomorrow morning. In the process of researching Vietnamese budget airlines, I chanced to discover that VietJet, the airline I will be booking some of my flights with, was fined $1,000 this summer for staging an unauthorised dance performance by bikini-clad beauty pageant contestants during a flight. It could be an interesting journey!

This evening Jessica and I dined at her favourite downtown Vietnamese restaurant, Cuc Gach Quan, or Architect's House. Jessica told me that the restaurant came into being through the joining of a Vietnamese man and woman who had both fled the country by boat during the American War and later met, and fell in love, in France. After the war the woman wanted to return to her home country, and her partner, an architect, built several houses in Saigon where they settled together. Jessica told me that the woman longed for her grandmother's home cooking that she remembered from before the war, and searched the city to find the flavours of the Vietnam she remembered. When she couldn't find them, she set up her own restaurant with her partner, using her grandmother's recipes and basing it in the building that her partner had originally designed as an office for himself. Sadly, the couple split up and the architect took over the business.

The interior was very intriguing, divided into private spaces over two floors. We had to eat outside as we hadn't reserved a table, but venturing inside to look around I crossed a wooden floor over a fish pond and climbed up a nauseatingly steep step-ladder to the second floor. From here there were several rooms accessible over steps and under low doorways. It was not a huge restaurant but space was used effectively to give the impression of each room being a secret cavern, giving a lovely sense of privacy and uniqueness. Particularly unique was a table for four beneath the canopy of a four-poster bed, complete with a headboard and cushions along the wooden benches. But the nicest spot to my eye was the lone table on a terrace on the second floor, a little corner between the outside wall and the sloping tiled roof of the adjoining part of the building, open to the vast starry sky. It looked very romantic.

Unusual but intimate, the 'bed table'

The food wasn’t bad either. I particularly liked the fruit juices that seemingly everybody was drinking. A wide range of fresh juices were available, served in tall bottles corked with a rolled-up banana leaf, and drunk from a glass with ice and honey, through a straw made from a hollowed-out stem of morning glory (a vegetable with spinach-like leaves). I chose Vietnamese cherry juice, simply because I hadn’t seen it on a menu before. It was actually a green juice and tasted exactly like apple juice, but I was assured that this was the flavour of Vietnamese cherry. Either way, it was delicious and I finished it quickly. Unfortunately, after one more juice and more than my fair share of the honey, I felt very sick and we had to cut the evening short in case I barfed in the jazz bar we were planning on going to next. Luckily I managed to hold myself together and I now feel fully recovered.

Tomorrow will be the start of two days of preparation for the trip, a wide-ranging venture that will include city sight-seeing, a spa break in Cuc Phuong national park and climbing the highest mountain in Indochina. Considering I have very little experience of camping, don’t currently own a pair of walking boots and have only recently been on a trip by myself for the first time, it will be a bit of an adventure. I'm feeling nervous!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Project plans

I have added a new feature to my blog, a gallery of my photographs. This can be viewed from the top bar of the page. It took an incredible amount of work to create this page, due to one or both of the facts that I am quite computer-illiterate and that the templates on this site are not very adaptable. I wanted to have a page where my photos could be viewed side-by-side rather than in a standard blog format, and I have had to create a new blog with a different layout rather than a new page in order to do this. All this means is that when the link to 'Gallery' is clicked on, it will open a new web page as I couldn't find a way to link it back to this blog. So it is best to open it in a new window.

I had decided today to try to get my head around a few aspects of my project that I have so far been neglecting. As a part of Jessica's project plan that I have agreed to, I will be writing twenty book reviews and participating in at least twenty hours of charity work. I am falling behind on the book reviews, as I have been here six weeks already and haven't written any, when I need to be averaging two a month. I will have to catch up quickly, but there's no reason to despair. It's great that reading is considered to be work for me. Jessica has a lovely egg-shaped hanging seat on the small terrace at the top of the house. It's very nice to curl up inside it and read on a sunny afternoon. I have also emailed some local charitable organisations in the hope that I will have the chance to do some volunteering. As well as being a rewarding thing to do, I hope that through charity work I can get a better understanding of the social problems in Vietnam. I have to admit that I've only seen the affluent side of Saigon so far, which is not going to give me any insight into what life is like for the average Vietnamese person, something that is so crucial to my project.

Jessica is very busy with work at the moment, and for the next few weeks I will have to keep myself busy, finding my own things to do and pushing ahead with my project work. At the end of the month we have a trip planned, which I am excited about. We will be heading north to the capital, Hanoi, and then joining a tour group with which we will see Sapa, a mountainous hill town, and continue to climb Phan Xi Pang, the highest mountain in Indochina. This will involve two nights camping on the mountain. After the hard work, we will reward ourselves with the two-day hotel and spa package in Ninh Binh that, fantastically, Jessica was given for free at a corporate event in September. Jessica, who is technically retired but working most days at the moment, is keen to have a long holiday, and I will try to get as much work done as I can until then, to get ahead of things before December, when my family and Jessica's friends will be occupying all our time.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Fine Arts of Vietnam

I visited the Fine Arts Museum of Ho Chi Minh City yesterday, a collection that has been open to the public since 1991 and is housed in a beautiful pale-yellow French mansion, featuring tiled floors, stained glass windows and blue wrought-iron banisters and window bars. I started from the top of the building, where there is a collection of ceramics and sculpture. In the centre of the this floor are examples of Hindu, Buddhist and Cham temple statues in stone, and in adjoining rooms there are collections of ceramics, bronze castings and wood carvings.

Bien Hoa pottery
There are three principle schools of ceramic style that originate in South Vietnam. Cay Mai ceramics from the old city of Saigon are plain in style, in earthy brown and black shades. The exhibits in the museum were mostly household objects dating across a millennium, from the 1st-3rd, 11th-12th and 16th centuries. There were also some high-grade ceramics on display from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. As urbanisation took hold of Saigon in the early twentieth century, ceramics production areas were pushed to the outskirts. As a consequence of this, the town of Lai Thieu in Binh Duong province became another significant centre of ceramics. Lai Thieu ceramics incorporate art into household items. Much of this was very garish, particularly the ugly fish-headed dragon vases. The most beautiful were the ceramics from Bien Hoa, where there is an important school of arts. The vases here combined Vietnamese and Chinese styles, in blue and turquoise colours, with attractive patterns or textures.

Unexpected sight from a window
A room contained bronze pieces from the 18th-20th centuries. A sign explained that religion and worship encouraged the development of many handicrafts, including bronze, which is used to create statues for worship and incense bowls and burners. Some of the incense burners were very bizarre- decorated with spiky dragon embellishments. Wood carvings from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries also featured in the museum, including folk sculptures for worship in homes or temples, decorative pieces and precious items such as jewellery boxes. Some were painted gold, others coated with black lacquer and embellished with mother-of-pearl. In this room were very distinctive-looking Khmer statues of Buddha, all gold, elaborately decorated with pointed-up corners at ears, shoulders and knees, and featuring the trademark ‘Khmer smile’.

The second and first floors contain collections of modern art, divided into pre- and post-1975, a year of ultimate significance, of course, as it marks the end of the war and the beginning of communist rule. I read that this art museum contains the country’s best collection, but it is hardly a world-class gallery. Highlights were the small room of Chinese ink paintings and some of the pre-1975 oil portraits and sceneries, which had unambiguous names such as ‘Sad Scene’ and ‘Naked Lady’. In other rooms were dramatic but mostly unaffecting scenes of war and even cartoonish propaganda posters portraying American soldiers as big oafs. Certainly, the photographs in the War Remnants Museum were more emotive and persuasive than the paintings on display here. I also saw ink and watercolour portraits, some amateur and others very good, some abstract art, which doesn’t interest me much, and plenty of lacquer engravings. There was also a collection of interesting sculptures, some of which reminded me of Otto Dix’s disturbing scenes from the First World War, distorted bodies with expressions of horror and pain.

Later in the day I met Jessica in the city as we had arranged to go out for tea. But firstly, she wanted to do some shopping. Next month she is taking me to a Scottish ball and told me that I will need an appropriate dress for dancing (I have to take classes in Scottish dancing in preparation for this ball, the first of which shall be tonight…). I was lucky to quickly find a lovely long black and grey dress, which swoops low at the sides and has a Middle Eastern-style look. Jessica bargained the shopkeeper down to her knees and bought it for a brutally cheap $35.

Today had been a gorgeously sunny day so far; happily the rainy season is slowly and reluctantly coming to an end. In the morning I have been swimming and in a few hours will be meeting Jessica in the city for another meal out, and to learn some Scottish dancing. I don’t know what to expect but I hope it will be fun!

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Scandal and Reiki

This morning I went to the cinema by myself. This is probably quite a strange thing to do at 10am on a Sunday morning, but if I looked like a wierdo I'm not too concerned. There were only two other people there to judge me. I went to see Scandal, a Vietnamese film that I had seen advertised on the little screens in taxis around the city, and was interested in. The film, directed by Vincent Vu, followed the escalating conflict between two beautiful model-actresses, both in the centre of the Saigon celebrity world. They compete firstly for a man, and secondly for the lead role in an upcoming blockbuster, using the media as a way of undermining each other in a series of revenges. The plot was dark, incorporating black magic, frightening hallucinations and violence. As the plot develops, it is revealed that the rivalry between the two has been manipulated by the producer of the upcoming film, in order to promote the film through a public scandal. But as the plan spirals out of the control of the plotters, it is too late to save the lives of the vengeful women. The film was set in Ho Chi Minh City, and the final, bloody episode was actually filmed a little bridge in our neighbourhood, something I found quite exciting. I cycled over this bridge on my way home and found myself looking expectantly down into the water below…

Jessica is healed
In the afternoon Jessica was visited by a mentee, a young Japanese man called Yoshi. He had lunch with us and updated Jessica on how things are going in his life; he is currently studying yoga and zen at a school in India. His particular interest is reiki, a Japanese healing practice, and is looking to develop his own client base while he develops his skills. He practiced on Jessica and I, although reiki is really intended for those who are unwell, as a way of restoring the damaged ‘energy flow’ in their bodies. Yoshi claimed that he can feel a disrupted energy flow by holding his hands above a sick person; sometimes, a form of electricity is felt, he said. In turns, Jessica and I lay on the sofa as Yoshi moved his hands in circular motions over our bodies, and held his palms flat against our backs for long periods. Apparently, it is possible to ‘sense’ his hands moving over and above your body with your eyes closed, through a heat that is omitted. I fell asleep. Yoshi said that this shows I am healthy. The unhealthiest of the bunch is Happy the dog, who is becoming deaf and has problems with her liver. Yoshi was ready to perform reiki on Happy in an attempt to cure her, but she clearly thought this was ridiculous and struggled out of Jessica’s arms to run away downstairs.

Happy is not convinced

Tea was really nice tonight. We ate hotpot, (Asian, not Lancashire), a broth cooked on a portable stove that was placed in the middle of the table, to which we added crab, squid, green leafy vegetables, corn on the cob and onions, and ate with noodles.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Not long in Long Hai

As I suspected, it was a quiet day today. Jessica and I didn't leave the hotel in Long Hai during the day, until, of course, it was time to go back home to Saigon. We ate breakfast, watching a Japanese company party that had just arrived for the weekend. We decided that the hotel was improved by the arrival of some other guests, but even so that the black interior was a grave mistake, adding to the sense of cold isolation. We went for a quick dip in the pool before checking out. It was a windy morning and the slate-grey sea was rolling far up the beach, ruling out any chance of a walk. After checking out of our room we took advantage of the half-price offer open to hotel guests at the adjoining spa. I chose a hot-stone massage, which was quite nice. The spa area was outdoors and it was very nice being able to watch the sea view while having your back, arms and legs rubbed with warmed oily rocks. Jessica had picked the short straw, unfortunately. Because of her injuries obtained on the poolside steps in Vung Tau yesterday, she didn't think she would be comfortable with a body, face or foot massage. She chose a sixty-minute hair care treatment, but this was abruptly cut to a two-minute hair care treatment when it was discovered that there was no hot water. We had lunch before a long taxi journey back home. As Jessica is working tomorrow, we stayed in and watched a film together tonight.

It was a shame we didn't have the time or opportunity to see the town of Long Hai. Our stay at the Tropicana hotel was a bit of a surreal experience as there were barely any other guests, the hotel was isolated in its location, and its dark interior made it seem unfriendly. I'm sure on a bright, busy summer day it could have been cool, relaxing and stylish. But for us, at this time, it wasn't right. Our time in Vung Tau, on the other hand, was very enjoyable. The Valley Mountain hotel was pretty and charming with good staff, and we had a lot of fun in our day-and-a-half spent in the town. Now it's back to life in the big city. Jessica has to return to work and I have to re-focus on my project and think about how next week will be spent.

Jessica at the spa

Friday, 12 October 2012

A day of Jesuses

It was an early start in Vung Tau this morning to walk up a nearby hill before breakfast. This hill could be seen from our hotel balcony. Midway up is a colossal shining white statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus us in one hand. The infant stands tall with his arms outstretched, already aware of his own influence.  At the top of the hill and just visible through the forest is a high crucifix. This was where we were heading.

Jessica and I walked along the main road to the church, where busloads of people were being delivered for a ceremony, perhaps travelling from the countryside, or a day-trip from a factory, Jessica suggested. Nobody else had come to do this walk, however. We started up the hillside path. The steps were high and steep, cut out of the rock face. As we ascended the story of Jesus’ crucifixion was told through sculpture. We wound through the forest crossing paths with monkeys as Jesus lugged his cross, was stripped, nailed, and finally laid to rest in a tomb. I suppose the walk is supposed to give you an appreciation of Jesus’ suffering; it was very hard work! After the conclusion of Jesus’ death, the rest of the route was without artistic accompaniment, besides the surprising dinosaur towards the top. Finally we reached the crucifix that marked the top of the hill, hallelujah! We hurried down to enjoy the reward of our breakfast.

It seemed there was a pattern emerging for the day, whereby I was forced to ‘earn’ every meal through labour. The hill on the other side to the Jesus hill has a statue of Buddha at the top; this was to be our next hike before lunchtime. We took a taxi to save doing yesterday’s long walk into town all over again. On the way we stopped to see a beautiful house that was once the residence of the French Governor of Cochinchina (a colonial term for South Vietnam.) The house inside had high ceilings and beautiful views out to sea, although the interior was quite plain. Downstairs was a collection of pottery that had been rescued from the shipwreck of a boat coming from Europe.

Jesus welcomes us to the top of the hill
We headed to the cable car station, to take a trip up to see the Buddha statue on the hill-top. It turned out to be an expensive ride though; it seemed that at the top of the cable car was a large amusement park, of which Buddha was the star attraction. We didn’t think this was for us, but Jessica had another plan. On the next hill was another Jesus, and so we would climb up to there instead, making it a monotheistic day of Jesuses, and no Buddhas. By now it was really hot, so we climbed very slowly. At the top Jessica was disappointed that we couldn’t go inside Jesus. She has done this before- climbing up a staircase inside the hollow body and appearing through an opening in the shoulder. A sign around the back of the monument read “Please do not climb into hands or other hollow areas”.  Jesus’ body was not open for visitors at this time but I wasn’t disappointed; I thought the Lord would prefer it if we left his innards alone.

We returned to David’s, the Italian restaurant we visited at teatime yesterday, to have a plate of pasta for lunch. After checking out of the hotel we took a taxi journey to Long Hai, where we are spending tonight and tomorrow. Long Hai is a quieter beach retreat a half hour’s drive from Vung Tau. Our hotel is a beach-front resort with bungalow rooms. There are almost no other people staying in this huge complex, and it is quite isolated in its location, making us feel a little stranded. We spent a few hours by the pool after we arrived. I drifted off to sleep on a sun lounger, feeling a bit chilly beneath the grey sky. 

A shrine on the rocks
When I woke up we went for a walk along the beach. We walked to a pile of earthy orange boulders, around which a river channel opened into the sea. On the other side of the beach from the rocks we could see a group of young people with a camera and tripod filming a performance. In the centre a man in a white shirt dropped to his knees in agony of his broken heart. The camera swirled around him and the four or five other friends chased the cameraman around the central figure in a swooping circle so as to avoid being in the shot. We walked a little further and watched speedy, spider-legged crabs whip across the beach. The darkness of the sky and sense of desolation was very atmospheric.

Theatre troop can be seen to the right of the rocks

At teatime we sat in the empty hotel restaurant together. We were at a loose end at what to do after feeding ourselves, and after checking every TV channel back in the room, Jessica has gone to bed at 8.30 as she could not find anything else to do. We had planned to spend tomorrow doing nothing, but I think that there really is so little to do here that we will have to do something. Hopefully we will find a cleaner beach where we can sunbathe and swim, or see what there is to find in the town.