Thursday, 29 November 2012

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace

I've adopted the name of the book I just read as the title of this post to make it eye-catching and intriguing. In fact, I didn't dream of anything last night and all I would like to say is that I now have a new book review completed! It can be read here. Last Night I Dreamed Of Peace is the translated diary of Dang Thuy Tram, an idealistic young doctor who served in clinics in the central highlands of Vietnam during the American War. Her diary was discovered by chance in 1970 and returned to her family 35 years later; it is now a best-seller in Vietnam.

Tomorrow I am very much looking forward to taking part in Sophie's Art Tour of Ho Chi Minh City, a half-day tour that explores recent Vietnamese history through the artwork and artists that can be found in the city. Sophie Hughes has lived and worked in the arts in Ho Chi Minh City for three years, primarily as the Manager of the contemporary art gallery Galerie Quynh. Her art tour began as a personal 30-day research project to discover more about Vietnamese art history, through books, the internet and the city's museums and galleries. This developed into an arts tour when she decided to open her project to members of the public who couldn't find the information they wanted from the museums they visited, such as the Fine Arts Museum. Sophie describes her tour as a 'living project' that adapts as she learns more.

I am more hesitant about our evening plans. Jessica's good friend Yvonne has invited us to a Zumba party. This Latin-style dance-fitness workout that has boomed in popularity across the world in recent years is particular passion of hers. I have been tempted before to try it out but I am shy and a rubbish dancer so I worry this may be a hideous experience for me. I will report back.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A sweep of Vietnamese history

Today I went to the History museum of Ho Chi Minh City, which offers a broad span of Vietnamese history from the palaeolithic period circa 500,000 years ago until the early 20th century. The museum focuses on the political and cultural development of Vietnam and the influence neighbouring nations have had, from Chinese and Mongolian invasions to cultural and religious influences that arrived through commerce with India. I was impressed with the museum and put it as the second museum I have seen in the city that I would recommend, after the War Remnants Museum. In fact, it was a welcome relief for me to learn about something other than the war.

I ended up walking the museum in reverse order because, when I arrived, a large group of schoolchildren were occupying the floor of the prehistoric room and I didn't fancy climbing over them. I started from the last room and worked my way back in time, although I didn't manage to escape the plague of schoolchildren wearing green sweatpants and red neck-ties, who noisily flooded almost every room. They say that if you look at picture upside down it forces you to study it more closely. I wondered whether learning Vietnam's history in reverse order would have the same effect. I can't be sure, but I certainly had to concentrate.

When seen in the correct order, the museum opens with an introduction to the pre-historic land now known as Vietnam. Vietnam is one the few countries in the world where evidence of palaeolithic man, in the form of stone tools, has been discovered. Next arrives the metal age of 4,000-2,000 years ago, when Vietnam consisted of three civilizations, a civilization around the Hong river in the north, the Sa Huynh culture in the centre and the Dong Nai culture in the south-east. The first dynasty of Vietnam is believed to have begun in 2879 BC, when a tribal leader from an area around the Hong river defeated fourteen other tribes and declared himself king with the title of Hung Vuong, beginning what is now known as the Hong Bang dynasty.

The first thousand years of Vietnamese history anno domini can be defined by struggle against Chinese imperialism, and were condensed in the museum to a small side-room with relatively few exhibits. In 111 BC, Vietnam was invaded by armies of the Chinese Han Dynasty. It was not until 939 AD that the Chinese were finally expelled by Ngo Quyen, who then established the Ngo Dynasty, although in 40-43 AD two aristocratic wives of lords, the Trung sisters, famously raised a 30,000 strong army to briefly take back sixty-five citadels from the Chinese. The two sisters are highly revered in Vietnamese societies, and a district in Hanoi and main street in Saigon are named Hai Ba Trung (the two Trung ladies) in honour of the national heroines. Throughout the centuries of Chinese imperialist domination, the Viet people fought to maintain their cultural identity. This fierce nationalism seems to have pervaded throughout the turbulent history of Vietnam, a country forever fighting off imperialist advances and colonial occupation.

The museum covers the following thousand years as dynasties change and further Chinese and Mongolian invasion attempts are repelled, aside for a brief period of Chinese domination from 1407 to 1427. This period sees the development of agriculture, industry, commerce, education and the arts as well as the organisation of the Dai Viet (Vietnam) army. In 1427 the Chinese Ming Dynasty was driven from Dai Viet by Le Loi, the emperor who is now a national hero. In 1527 the Le Dynasty was usurped by the Mac Dynasty, the beginning of six years of struggle, after which the restored Ly Dynasty's power was greatly diminished, with Dai Viet effectively being controlled by the Nguyen Lords in the South and the Trinh Lords in the North. In 1788 the two feudal families were defeated by a peasant uprising led by three brothers from Tay Son village in Binh Dinh province. In turn, the weakened Tay Son dynasty came to an end in 1802 when Nguyen Anh took over control of the country. The Nguyen dynasty was the last to rule in Vietnam, ending when the Emperor Bao Dinh abdicated in 1945 in the face of Japanese surrender and Ho Chi Minh's declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The highlight of the museum was the collection of Champa and South Vietnamese sculpture. These two rooms must have been newly built as they looked like a modern gallery, in contrast to the old rooms of the rest of the building. One room contained a collection of archaeological finds discovered at the ancient city of Oc Eo in the Mekong Delta. This included three wooden sculptures dating from the 7th-8th centuries, which are the most ancient to be discovered in South East Asia, preserved by the unique climate of the Mekong Delta. It was fascinating to see these, although the eroded faces made them look a bit zombie-like. Next door was a room dedicated to the ancient Champa Kingdom in Vietnam from the 2nd to 17th centuries. This culture originated from Indian influence on coastal parts of Central and South Vietnam that began through commerce. The stone sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist deities is a testament to the religious and cultural influence that India has had on Vietnam.

A final exhibit worth mentioning, and one I was slightly taken aback to discover, was a mummified body on display in a cold, dark side-room. The body was discovered in the Chinatown area of Ho Chi Minh City in 1994 in a mortar compound. It is believed to be that of an aristocratic woman called Xom Cai (it's a pity she wasn't called Xom Bai, I joked to myself), who died at around the age of 60 in 1869. Her body was very well-preserved and was indeed quite startling to see. She was a tiny lady with now blackened hands and feet, a tiny pair of slippers at the end of her casket. The pattern of fabric of the raggedy clothing that hung to her skeletal frame could still be seen; she had a small skull with fused-over eyes and ears and her mouth hung open hideously. A few of the schoolchildren who continuously swirled around me got a bit of a fright when they saw her!

Students sketching outside the museum on a sunny day

The mummified body of Xom Cai

Cham stone sculpture

Ancient wood sculpture of Oc Eo, circa 7-8C

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ho Chi Minh City outrunning cancer

Jessica and I went out to a jazz bar on Saturday night where we spent a few hours listening to live music and sipping cocktails. I'd been doing my Christmas shopping all day and Jessica had been at a book club meeting, so we met up in the evening in the city centre. It would have been a very unremarkable day if it weren't for what happened when we asked to settle our bill at the end of the evening. We could see that the bar staff were muddling over the bill for a while, and when they brought it over we'd been charged for an extra drink. I can tell you now that Jessica had three peach schnapps and I had a watermelon cocktail and one peach schnapps, but the bar staff were adamant we were wrong and did not hold back in telling us so.

Someone brought over the tabs from the bar, which said that we'd ordered one more peach schnapps than we had done. I explained that I'd had to ask twice for one of my drinks, so perhaps this was why they had an extra one on the tab, although I never received it. But they wouldn't have any of it. The angriest was a pretty waitress wearing a flowery ao dai. She claimed to be the manager and, when it became obvious that Jessica would not pay for the extra drink, began screaming and accusing us of lying. Jessica screamed back that she would never come to this bar again if they charged her for an extra drink. Of course, it wasn't the cost of the drink that mattered, it was the terrible customer service that could only be excused if the staff were dealing with incredibly drunk and aggressive customers (I promise we were very well-behaved). After ten minutes or so of "You listen to me!", "No, you listen to me!", it was finally resolved when  the fuming girl snapped "Ok, you are very poor, I will pay for this for you".

A Polish-American couple were sat on the next table watching this incident. "Welcome to Vietnam", the man said, leaning over. It turned out they had only been in the country about as long as I had so were probably not qualified to say this to Jessica, who has been here for fifteen years, but talking to them was interesting: the man told me his overwhelming impression of Vietnam was that everybody was trying to rob you in some way or another. At least, that's the polite interpretation of what he said. It was sad that he'd had this experience; Jessica told me she never usually had any trouble of this kind, and I'd certainly never seen anything like it before, in this country or any other. What struck me the most was that in the face of a threat of losing at least two customers forever, the waitress would not back down over a drink that cost about £3; evidently, she was far too proud. But this has not been my impression at all of customer service in Vietnam. Certainly, I have experienced shopkeepers becoming rude and angry when you spend time looking at their wares and don't buy anything, but I had just spent the whole day shopping and had been treated respectfully and helpfully. It's true to say that the notion of 'customer service' is not really recognised, but as often as you will experience poor treatment in shops and restaurants in Vietnam, you will experience friendliness and people going out of their way to help you.

We weren't too affected by the ugly incident; we both found it very entertaining and joked about the waitress during our taxi ride home. We weren't staying out late because we had an early start the next morning to take part in the annual Terry Fox charity 5km fun run. This run takes place over the world and is the biggest one-day fundraising event for cancer research, with around $500 million having been raised since the first run in 1981. The event is a commemoration to the Canadian cancer activist Terry Fox who began an epic cross-country run with one artificial leg after being diagnosed with the disease. He died in 1981, at the age of 21.

Jessica at the start line
It was a sunny morning with a strong turn-out of three or four thousand. Jessica and I joined our friends Yvonne, Jessie and Jasmine in the Puma team. There were people running with dogs and children on roller-skates, skateboards and bicycles. Naturally, it was a bit messy at the start, before 'proper' runners such as myself could weave out of the tangle. It wasn't a competitive event so racers weren't timed, but I was sure to check the time when I crossed the start and finish lines to see how much I'd improved since my last organised 5km run, at Mui Ne in September. I was thrilled to learn I had completed the run in 26 minutes, and didn't even feel too over-exerted. This was one or two minutes quicker than my personal best, and a whole seven minutes faster than my Mui Ne time.

We came home to the unfortunate news that the water was not working, in the worst timing imaginable for us. Jessica went off to the spa she is a member of, to have a shower and hair wash, and I had to make do with having a bath with three litres of bottled water. When I met Jessica later on at a buffet restaurant in Phu My Hung centre where she was having a book club meeting with her Taiwanese friends, she commented that I didn't smell bad. I explained how I had had a bath with two bottles of La Vie. "La Vie!?", she exclaimed as though I'd just told her I'd bathed in champagne. "We have a water tank in the kitchen!" I said I was sorry and blamed my indulgent behaviour on coming from a country were the value of water is not appreciated. It was about this time that I got some bad news: it had been discovered that the race course was only 3.6km, not five as it was advertised as! Somebody on the race had used a device to measure the distance and word had spread. So much for my new best time! It was a pity that the organisers falsely advertised the distance, whether purposefully or not. Nobody was running competitively, but it seemed that lots of people were disappointed that their surprisingly fast times weren't as impressive as they seemed.

I had lazily chosen to take the bus into Phu My Hung instead of cycling, leaving me with a long walk home after I'd had my lunch. I didn't mind though, because it was an unusually bright day with a clear blue sky. I enjoyed the gentle warmth as I walked along half-shaded paths and along the river. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy walking. Here, I only ever cycle or take the bus. Jessica and I take advantage of her company taxi card for the shortest journeys across the city centre; walking is a form of exercise rather than a means of transportation, reserved for power-marching around the  local area or climbing Mount Fansipan. The hour-long walk home gave me the chance to take in the scenery and mull things over in my mind that faster transport methods don't allow.

Jessica left for Singapore this morning and will be away until Wednesday. I have one week to go before Chris arrives, the start of several months of activity as we go travelling and my parents and best friend come to visit me. I have been looking forward to this time for months! Before she left, Jessica told me to make the most of my last week alone, because I won't have any time to myself for a while afterwards. Lots of long bubble baths and painting my nails? Possibly... But I will try to get some work done this week as well!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Musings on a national hero

I went for a nice swim around midday at the Phu My Hung outdoor pool, and consequently have a pinkish glow to my face. After lunch I took the bus into town to visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum, not to be confused with the Ho Chi Minh Military Museum or the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City. This one is devoted to the life of the revolutionary leader, North Vietnamese president and national hero and was once known as Uncle Ho's Museum for Mementos. The exhibits are displayed in a salmon-pink colonial building nicknamed the Dragon House, a customs house built by the French in 1863. The (thin) link between Ho Chi Minh and this building is that in 1911, the 21-year-old left Vietnam through this port to begin thirty years living abroad in the US, the UK, France, the Soviet Union and China.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyen Sinh Cung in 1890; at the age of ten, following Confucian tradition, he was renamed by his father as Nguyen Tat Thanh (Nguyen the Accomplished). He used the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot) while living in France and campaigning for the recognition of Vietnamese civil rights. By 1940, had adapted a Sino-Vietnamese name of Ho Chi Minh, meaning "he who enlightens". During his years overseas he undertook several menial jobs and began to establish his political ideas through involvement with the Socialist Party of France. He became one of the founding members of the Parti Communiste Francais and later spent much time working for the Moscow Comintern as a consultant on Asia.

When he returned to Vietnam in 1941, Ho had become a celebrated anti-colonial campaigner and led the Viet Minh guerilla movement in seeking independence from the French and Japanese. When Japan surrendered and left Vietnam in 1945, a general uprising in North Vietnamese towns and cities led to the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, read by Ho Chi Minh in Ba Dinh Square, Hanoi on 2nd September, proclaiming the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). After eight years of fighting the French attempt to re-claim power, the 1954 Geneva Accords partitioned the country at the 17th parallel into North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh re-grouped in the North, where a communist government was established under the presidency of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Ho led the country throughout most of the American War, hoping to re-unite the two factions of the country under a single, socialist leadership. Ho died at the age of 79 from heart failure before he could see through the end of the war and the capture of Saigon. He died on the 24th anniversary of the establishment of the DRV, on the 2nd September 1969.

When Saigon was taken by the North Vietnam Army and National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) forces in 1975, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Ho's body rests in a mausoleum in Hanoi, an imposing grey block of a building in socialist realist style. He remains a celebrated national hero from North to South. The Ho Chi Minh Museum was an extended shrine to the man, with a room dedicated to proving Uncle Ho's love for the South, and the Southern people's love for Uncle Ho. There were abundant photographs of Ho Chi Minh embracing children and in one photo, a baby deer. There was even an altar with his statue. For those who are deeply concerned with Ho Chi Minh's personal life, there were photographs of many of his homes throughout his life, as well as the first meeting places of the Communist Party of Indochina and other groups. Much of the information was only in Vietnamese and few of the photographs were dated. For me, it was a dreary and boring experience.

Of course, it was no surprise to me that the museum was so celebratory. After all, this is a state living out the legacy of Ho Chi Minh. The extent to which Ho Chi Minh is revered by the Vietnamese population is impossible to measure, but from all accounts I've heard, "everybody genuinely loves Uncle Ho", the man who brought two halves of a broken country back together, shaking off decades of colonial rule. Considering the immense national sense of suffering and grieving that stills weighs upon Vietnamese society, it is important to remember the strength of emotion that is attached to Ho Chi Minh. However, it is hard to ignore that it is only the American atrocities that are documented in Vietnamese history museums. I doubt that the missing page of the history book will be written for a long time in Vietnam. Two-thirds or more of the present-day Vietnamese population were born after 1975, and this proportion will only continue to grow, leaving those who lost family members to the short-lived North Vietnamese regime as a small voice.  I'm sure Ho Chi Minh's untainted legacy will continue to thrive. For now at least, perhaps it is better to let old wounds heal.

Ho Chi Minh enjoys watching a children's performance

A child's portrait of Uncle Ho

The Dragon House

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Have a Heart, Give a Heart

I went out today hoping to visit the Ho Chi Minh museum to brush-up my knowledge of the revolutionary leader and national hero. In the end, Jessica and I became so caught up with other tasks that we ran out of time for the museum, which will have to be shelved for another day.

We took the bus into town around lunchtime and went to eat at a newly-opened rooftop restaurant called SH Garden, accessible by a very old-fashioned lift shaft in a bare, dark entrance hall. Despite being hot because of the sunshine spilling through the large windows, the restaurant had a nice, relaxed atmosphere. The menu went on for pages and pages and could really do with being cut down to make it easier to order. They used a thumbs-up system indicating the most highly recommended dishes, which were plentiful enough to make a complete menu on their own. We followed this guideline and ended up with some fairly good dishes.

Downstairs was a home design shop called PS, or Products Simplified. They sold candle dishes, napkin rings, notebooks, clothing, teddy bears and more, all with simple designs with an emphasis on colour. All the products in the shop were available in four shades, and four shades only. Referred to as 'flavours', these were a nutty brown 'chocolate chic', a deep pink 'sexy strawberry', a khaki green 'cucumber cool' and a provincial yellow 'crazy bananas'. The four complimented each other nicely and the overall effect was very stylish. Jessica loved it so much she handed over sixty dollars there.

The highlight of my day came, unexpectedly, in a visit to the Vina Capital Foundation (VCF) office, where our friend Annie works. VCF is a US non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation that operates numerous charitable programmes in Vietnam in the field of children's health. The first of these was Heartbeat Vietnam, a grassroots campaign to provide life-saving heart surgery to impoverished children at a cost of $1,000 per operation. Since 2006, it has provided surgery to over 2,600 children. I spoke to Mimi, the director of development, about the possibility of me doing some voluntary work for them. I told her I wanted to do some 'hands-on' work so that I could meet Vietnamese people and come to better understand the poverty and social problems in the country. She suggested I might want to help out at some of their rural outreach clinics that take place throughout the year, but also said that she would pass on my details to other NGOs that they work with which may be more appropriate for me, such as a shelter for vulnerable children, a hospitality training school for street kids or a women's refuge for unmarried mothers. Mimi also mentioned the possibility of me working in other parts of Vietnam. I feel really excited about having these opportunities, although I think it will be a few months before I can fully commit to voluntary work because I will be hosting guests over Christmas and into the new year.

Following this meeting, I asked Jessica to help me re-write my CV when we got home as Mimi had asked me to send it to her. I last updated my so-called 'CV' about a year ago when I last applied for a job (amazingly, I got it). I cringed to re-read this pitiful attempt, even more so at the thought that other people may have read it too. At that time I'd never had a paid job and was too embarrassed to mention my paper-round, so I tried hard to spin a few hundred words out to give the impression that I had some real work experience. Reading it brought back many depressing and frustrating memories of trying to cut-through into the job market for the first time. A year later, I have more to say for myself and luckily had the assistance of a professional at hand. In her training work, Jessica charges $500 for a two-hour session of CV-improvement so I was sure to make use of her advice! She taught me not to be shy about putting down 'small' achievements, to show pride in the things I've done and to show that I'm a fun and interesting person. After all, I can't compare myself to somebody with a ten-year-long career; I am a recent high-school graduate but I've still done a lot of things in my little life that are worth telling people about.

Monday, 19 November 2012

A multicultural weekend

On Saturday night Jessica, her friend KP and I went to the Saigon St Andrew's Society's annual charity ball at the Park Hyatt hotel. It was a very formal affair and I immediately felt under-dressed in my $35 dress bought on Dong Khoi, the main street in district one. "Everyone will know, you see this dress everywhere!", I said to Jessica. She said "Don't worry, most people here never go down Dong Khoi, they just stay in their compounds". I thought about the girl who had offered me a lift with her family from one of the dance classes I went to in preparation for the ball. Just drop me on Dong Khoi, I'd said. "Oh, I don't know where that is, but I'm sure our driver will", she replied. "It's the Rue Catinat," her mother reminded her.

After a few glasses of complimentary champagne I relaxed and enjoyed the company of some of the people I'd met at the dance classes. The food was very good, even the haggis! Other Scottish traditions included a bagpipe performance by a group of Singaporeans wearing kilts, a malt whiskey tasting bar and a midnight snack of shortbread biscuits shaped like sheep, cows and cute Scottish terriers. The ballroom was beautiful, from the chandeliers and the flower arrangements to the photographs of Scottish scenery on the walls. I participated in plenty of the country dances and other dancers were very patient in helping me along when I frequently forgot the moves.

Jessica and I with wonderfully-dressed friends Kim and Alex

Left to right: KP, Constance, Jessica, me
On Sunday the three of us met in the afternoon, along with another friend, Constance, to have Chinese dim sum in the Renaissance Riverside hotel. This is a multi-course, all-you-can-eat event that Jessica compared to English high tea, not that I regularly partake in high tea myself. I decided to try everything that we ordered (until I became too full), so I found myself eating chickens' feet, which were glutinous and tasted okay, and thousand-year-old egg- peculiar jellied egg slices that looked beautiful, with greyish layers like a fossil. This was followed by an enjoyable afternoon shopping on the high street and in the newly-opened Vincom Centre with its beautiful façades and stained-glass windows.

With Nidi, Jessica's friend and hostess of the evening
In the evening Jessica and I went to the Diwali gala of the Indian business chamber of Vietnam, on the invitation of Jessica's friend. It was a hectic event- very overcrowded and with children running around everywhere. I fought my way through the crowd to reach the buffet and sat down with a plate of food to watch the entertainment with Jessica, which included Bollywood dance from a Vietnamese dance troupe and a performance from 'the king of Bollywood' Bappi Lahiri, whose hit 'Oo Lala' was so popular he sang it three times over the course of the evening. The event was not what I was expecting- I had hoped for some traditions of the Hindu festival of lights, but it was fun to wear a sari and there was a chance for dancing after the hall had cleared out a little later in the evening.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Reading days

I have been quiet again for the past few days as I have spent more time at home reading and writing, working on a second book review. I have been reading Ru, an autobiographical novel by a Vietnamese-Canadian writer who reflects on her experiences of becoming a refugee after fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. The English translation was published this year. Click here to read my review.

I have also added some more photographs to my gallery, from my recent trip to Laos, Hanoi and Sapa.

This weekend I am lucky to have two fancy social events to attend, so I should have some fun. Tonight Jessica, her friend KP and I are going to a St Andrews ball for whiskey and Scottish country dancing (although I don't really like either of those things). I have been to three dance classes already in preparation. Tomorrow we have been invited to a rather high-end Diwali party in celebration of the Hindu festival of light. I'm really, really looking forward to the buffet of Indian food and traditional sweets! On Thursday I went to Ben Thanh market to see if I could buy a sari or salwar kameez to wear to the event. Perhaps a little ambitious, but I'd heard it was possible. After showing a few women on the textile stalls my page of google images photos of such dresses and being told 'No way. This is Vietnam', I eventually found someone who would help me. I bought some turquoise and orange-gold silk fabrics and was taken to a tailors, who, in one day, did a fantastic job of creating an outfit for me. I just hope it will look appropriate on Sunday! Of course, I will upload photos from both events.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Quiet American

I've not posted in several days as I've not done much to write about. On Friday evening Jessica and I went to see Skyfall, the new Bond film, which I thought was fantastic. The next day I went swimming and in the evening, the two of us went to a party that was, oddly, a leaving party for friends who are moving to a new flat. They'll be having house-warming parties at the new places once they've settled in, but I think the leaving party was a way for them to clear their fridge before they left. Last night Jessica and I went downtown for drinks (as we are retired and unemployed respectively we can do such things on a Sunday night, even if there's not much going on in town, as we found). Today we went out for tea as Jessica's maid is unwell and god forbid we should try to cook something ourselves. I asked Jessica today if she has an oven in her kitchen and she said she had no idea.

Primarily, though, I have spent the past few days reading and writing in an attempt to catch up with the book reviews I am falling behind on. In this time I have completed one extended book review, of Graham Greene's the Quiet American. I found it challenging to write this review as I was daunted by the huge respect the book and author already command and the amount of writing that has already been dedicated to both. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed both reading the book and writing my own review and have at last got the job done. It was a hard one to start with, but now I am 'over the hump' I hope I can find my next book reviews easier and quicker to complete. My review can be read by following this link. I have also added a 'Reading' tab at the top bar, a page which will contain all of my book reviews as they are completed.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Little Prince by Dragonfly Theatre Co.

I returned to Saigon yesterday and today enjoyed a chance to relax after two weeks away. This evening Jessica and I went to the première performance of the Little Prince, as scripted and produced by the Dragonfly Theatre Company. I am ashamed to say I didn't actually know the story of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic children's book; of course I was familiar with the title and the artwork, but I had never actually read it. At least this gave me the privilege of experiencing the story for the first time. Their modern adaptation was very good, with great characters, strong actors and well-chosen music. The occasionally wonky lighting was probably due to the basic facilities at the venue. The role of the Little Prince was performed wonderfully by a Vietnamese actress who touchingly captured the Prince's love for beautiful things and intrigue into the world of 'adults'. Wearing a curly golden wig, she was an unlikely but convincing match for the original character. I found out afterwards that the leading lady, Nguyen Lan Phuong, is a television actor and dancer.

The theatre company describe themselves on their website as "a newly formed group of professional Western and Vietnamese actors and directors with a vision to create professional English language theatre in Ho Chi Minh City and to make it accessible to the Vietnamese community". Despite some last-minute trouble with finding venues, they had sold out all of their four upcoming shows and tonight announced that they will be adding an extra date on Tuesday evening. I was pleased to be able to see the première performance and would recommend it to anybody in Ho Chi Minh City who can manage to grab a ticket.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

History in Hanoi

I had a later start today for my second day of sightseeing in Hanoi, as yesterday I had tired myself out by setting off early and walking around all day. From my hotel I walked to the Temple of Literature, once the first university of the country, named Quoc Tu Giam (Imperial Academy). The university was built in 1070 at the time of King Ly Nhan Tong and is dedicated to Confucius. Students would study here for three to seven years, with a particular focus on discussing literature. The literature studied were the Confucian authoritative readings of the Five Classics and the Four Books, the former being five ancient Chinese books edited by Confucius and the latter being four books selected by his disciples as principle teachings of Confucianism. To enrol in the university, it was necessary to pass a regional exam. Successful students would go on to take a national exam. Those who passed this were entered into the Dinh (royal) exam, which was written, marked and graded by the king himself. In the third of five courtyards within the grounds are eighty-two stone stelae slabs set upon turtle’s backs, engraved with the names and birthplaces of 1,307 graduates of eighty-two royal exams, taken between 1442 and 1779.

The first two courtyards contain gardens and in the third is a lake; there are several gates to pass through to reach the central buildings, a sign of importance in Chinese architecture. In the fourth courtyard is a sanctuary where Confucius and his four closest disciples are worshipped; in the fifth courtyard are the buildings where studying took place. Here, I listened to a performance of traditional Vietnamese music and looked around the exhibits, which included a display of the humble black robes worn by students, the decorated blue silk robes worn by directors and vice-directors of the university and photographs of visits by Ho Chi Minh to the temple in the early 1960s.

Throughout the grounds young Vietnamese people were being photographed or photographing each other. There was a party of boys in suits and girls in ao dai, the long, tight-fitting silk tunics worn over silk pantaloons that is the traditional costume of Vietnamese women. I guessed that they were a school class that had assembled for graduation photos with a professional photographer. Besides this, young couples and friends would pose under trees or beside walls and take pictures of each other with their phones or digital cameras. These weren’t tourist photos; the setting of the temple was just an attractive backdrop for their photo-shoots. I have seen this sort of thing a lot while I've been in Hanoi. Later in the day I was to visit the Museum of Ethnology and here, of all places, I kept bumping into two dressed-up women in heels who used the backdrop of model village houses for posed photographs. Very bizarre.

In the afternoon I wanted to see some of the city’s museums. In hindsight I think it is better to do museums in the morning- my concentration was waning today. Firstly I went to the military museum. I’m  not sure why I did this- I feel like I have seen so much military history in my recent museum visits in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia and no matter how interesting the Vietnamese wars are, I had no interest today. I went in because I happened to be passing, but I didn’t think much of the museum as there was very little information in English; it wasn’t a scratch on the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. After a while, the defiant, nationalist tone of the museum started to wear me down and I felt sick looking at photographs of scared-looking captured enemy soldiers and the battered steel helmet that was on display with the title ‘Evidence of the failure of the French’. Upstairs was an exhibition of ‘heroic Vietnamese mothers’ with walls of unsmiling portraits of haggard old women adorned with medals because they had lost so many family members to the French and American resistance. In the grounds was a sculpture made from the wreckage of shot-down enemy planes. I hate war, I thought.

I went to the Museum of Ethnology for something lighter. After watching the water puppet performance yesterday I had been wondering how important ethnicity is in contemporary Vietnamese society, and I hoped that the museum would provide me with some insight. Of a population of 86 million (2009), there are 54 recognised ethnic groups in Vietnam. By far the largest is the Viet, making up 86% of the population; the other fifty three are smaller minority ethnic groups. The museum is mostly made up of exhibits showing the agrarian lifestyles of some of Vietnam’s ethnic groups such as the Hmong, Tho, Muong and Yao, including clothing, tools, weaponry, toys, puppets and musical instruments. Vietnamese ethnic minority groups maintain very traditional lifestyles, as I saw in Sapa last week, but in the past twenty years there have been developments in agricultural production, due to mechanisation and the influence of scientific technology, and also in education and healthcare. Market economies are developing in these traditional communities and standards of living are improving. Some families are even becoming rich. No doubt tourism is involved in this, particularly in Sapa.      

Tomorrow I will fly back Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve been away for two weeks and some of it has been quite wearing, notably climbing Mount Fansipan and feeling ill for several days afterwards! It was great to see Sapa, and I have now been to two more cities- Vientiane and Hanoi, as well as visiting some important historical and natural sites in the Cuc Phuong national park. It’s been a funny trip; I’ve stayed in youth hostels, campsites and five-star hotels along the way and have experienced both luxury and hardship. It will be good to be back to my own bed!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Hanoi walking tour

Who needs a tour group when you have a map and two feet? It amazes me the things that people will pay for unnecessarily. I have a tour leaflet which offers a three-hour ‘special evening’ in Hanoi; compromising of a water puppet show, a Vietnamese meal and coffee in the old quarter. It sounds like a nice way to spend an evening, but what is the need of paying the extra money to do it as a ‘tour’? Thanks for the suggestion, but I can do that quite easily by myself.

Overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake
Today I took my map and my two feet and planned my own walking tour of Hanoi, albeit I got lost at one point. After breakfast I headed for Hoan Kiem lake. The name translates to ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’, relating to the legend of the turtle that snatched the magic sword of the 15th century emperor Le Loi while he was boating on the lake. The sword was never seen again but many Vietnamese believe that it rests at the bottom of the lake. Certainly there are turtles in the water, although they are endangered and sightings are rare, it seems. I felt very lucky to briefly glimpse one as I walked around the lake. In the centre of the lake is a stone pagoda on a small island, called Turtle Tower. This is very symbolic of Hanoi and it was a very nice morning's walk.

The Turtle Tower

I spent the rest of the morning walking around Hanoi’s beautiful old quarter. I was surprised at how peaceful and free of traffic the streets seemed to be. The dusty streets, old narrow buildings and women in conical hats selling fruit made it the closest to the romanticised image of the ‘old Vietnam’ that I have witnessed; it was lovely. Each street seemed to specialise in a different product- one was full of colourful children's plastic toys, another was for shoes, one for flowers and my favourite, a flamboyant haberdashery street lined with feather boas, glittery fabrics, zips and buttons. It seemed you could buy anything you wanted on the streets of the old quarter.

 After lunch I went to see the famous Hanoi water puppet performance. Clacking wooden puppets dance upon a pond on a stage in the theatre, the puppeteers waist-high in water and hidden behind screens. This very traditional form of entertainment originated in villages along the Red River Delta, with puppet shows held on the water of rice paddies. The performance told a folk story about the origins of the Vietnamese people. A dragon and a phoenix (both important creatures in Buddhism) find an egg (‘sac’), out of which 100 sons are born, representing the origin of the Vietnamese people. The puppets jumped from the water and began to dance and splash. There were dances to demonstrate agricultural life, courtship and to represent ethnic minority groups such as the Cham. The show featured light and water effects and was accompanied by traditional Vietnamese music and narration. I suppose there must have been around 150 puppets used in the fifty-minute performance.

Later I walked further to see some of the city’s main sights. As soon as I had crossed under the Long Bien Bridge and left the old quarter, the walk was much less enjoyable and I got lost. I walked a long way to find the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which happened to be closed. Soldiers in crisp white uniform guarded the entrance to the imposing grey block of a building. There was a yellow line a hundred metres from the building and if anyone crossed it they would by faced with a sharp whistle blow from a guard. It was all very ridiculous. I was even less impressed with the one-pillar pagoda next door, which I was told I should visit. To me it was a small and unexciting wooden structure on a very ugly, thick concrete pillar. I didn’t see the point of it and I saw no beauty in it. Even so, I stopped to take photos, just because I had walked to see it and felt that I should! I wondered if the crowd of people around me were taking photographs for the same reason, or because they really thought it was interesting.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Tran Quoc Pagoda
I continued to walk away from the centre, to West Lake, which is by far the largest lake in the city. By now, I was right at the edge of my tourist map. I went to see the Tran Quoc Pagoda at the edge of the lake. This was much nicer to look at- a dark red tiered tower with white Buddha statues in windows all the way up and around. By now it was 5pm, so I took a motorbike back to my hotel. In the evening I went out for tea at an outdoor restaurant recommended by my hotel but which I found to be nothing special. Then I went out the night market. I was disappointed that the road was not pedestrianized and motorbikes rushed passed endlessly; it was not pleasant, and the markets themselves seemed soulless. It’s a shame that my good first impressions of Hanoi were tainted after spending more time there, but I cannot judge so soon. I have another full day in Hanoi tomorrow to get a better idea of the city.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

From ancient to modern Vietnamese capital

The three of us, Jessica, Jasmine and I, ventured out of our resort in Ninh Binh today and went to do some sightseeing in the region. We were transported by a Mailinh taxi driver whose distinguishing feature was a disgustingly long fingernail on his right thumb. It was grown out to about an inch and a half long, yellowy-brown and beginning to curl.  Many Vietnamese men grow out their fingernails, but I have never seen anything like this claw of his. Throughout the journey I couldn’t keep my eyes off his hand on the steering wheel.

Firstly we visited Hoa Lu, once the ancient capital of a Vietnamese kingdom called Dai Co Viet. The site served as a capital for only forty-one years between 968 and 1009, after King Dinh Tien Hoang defeated twelve other autonomous provinces within the country. The site was chosen for its safe location, guarded by the limestone mountains which today provide a beautiful backdrop to the remains of the capital, used today as a temple. We walked around the two almost-identical temples within the citadel. Both were crumbling and very Chinese in style; it was a picturesque spot.

Next, we did what most visitors to Hoa Lu did and we went for a boat ride at nearby Tan Coc (Three Caves), a place where limestone peaks dashed with black and pink tower over rice paddies. It was a similar setting to the Van Long reserve we were at yesterday, but here there was much more tourism, and we didn’t have yesterday’s privilege of solitude. From the riverside in the small town, tin boats laden with tourists were setting off every minute to file along the river, passing through three caves under the huge rocks. When we set off a wedding was in full swing in one of the buildings on the bank; hideous dance music blared out and I could see silhouetted heads bobbing in the party inside. It was just after one o’clock in the afternoon, but then, this is Vietnam.
Most of the returning boats that were passing us on the other side were filled with Vietnamese school children, who always waved and shouted ‘hello’ at us. Jessica said that this was just because we were foreigners; but as her and Jasmine are Asian and so could have be Vietnamese, it was me that made us stand out. This certainly made me feel self-conscious! Luckily as we went further along it quietened down and became more peaceful. The boat rowers seemed relaxed; they used their feet to control the oars.

In the evening we took a taxi back to Hanoi. My two friends are flying back to Saigon tonight but I will be spending three nights in Hanoi by myself as I don’t have work commitments like them, and to give me a chance to see the capital city properly for the first time. By Wednesday, after two weeks away, I will be fully ready to go back to Saigon myself.

We went to the airport first of all as Jessica and Jasmine didn’t have much time to spare, although this meant a longer journey for me. After saying goodbye I headed to arrivals to take a minibus downtown. Jasmine had told me it would cost 40,000 dong, significantly cheaper than an hour’s taxi journey. When I found a departing minibus I was told it would be 100,000, but that they could take me directly to the hotel. I climbed on board amongst foreigners with backpacks reading their Kindles (and by foreigners I mean people who look like me). We were packed in with luggage piled in every space.

 After a long journey mostly heading the way I had just come from, we arrived in the busy old quarter. Most of the other passengers had been dropped off already when I was told we had arrived at my hotel. I looked around. As I had booked the hotel in person when I had been in Hanoi last week, I knew what I was looking for, and it was not here. The bus guide insisted that this was the right place and made some vague comments about ‘around the corner’. A man with a clipboard sheet with the correct name and address of the hotel climbed onto the bus from the pavement. I wasn’t certain but was too embarrassed to argue in front of the other passengers, who were waiting to be taken to their own hotels. Sure enough, I was taken to a shoddy hostel pretending to be my hotel, I was very angry. I went into the street and waited for a Mailinh taxi, which took me to the real hotel. The driver was even kind enough to let me off the 10,000 dong fare without complaint when I didn’t have small enough change.

 A young woman I recognised from the desk really bounded up to me and took my bags when I arrived. She said “You must be Amy, a single room for three nights?” and started asking me about where I was from, and talking about English football. Still smiling, she then said “So, I’m sorry but we don’t have a room for you”. What?! After some hassle the manager explained to me that they had made a mistake and double-booked my room, and suggested that they would put me up in their sister hotel across the road instead, for just one night, or the full three nights, if I preferred. So, here I am. I’m glad to have a room for the night after the slight scare. It seems that I’m staying in the last room available in this hotel, so really I'm lucky to have a room at all. I would like to have a nice rest now, and tomorrow I will go out to explore Hanoi.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Peaceful sampan through Van Long

Jessica, Jasmine and I had a relaxed day at the resort in Ninh Binh. In the late afternoon we took a boat ride through the Van Long nature reserve, only half a kilometre away. Walking along a dusty road where children were playing and dogs and chickens ran about, I was reminded that beyond the compound walls of the resort we are really in a remote location. Further up the road piles of dry grass were being burnt and the horrible smoky smell took me straight back to Fansipan; my clothes are still enveloped with the smoke of the mountain campsite. Ahead were the limestone peaks of Van Long, similar to those of the famous Ha Long Bay, but as of yet untouched by mass tourism. Not for the first time since I have been in Indochina I had the feeling of being at the edge of the Earth. The scenery was magnificent, but without tourists there to seemingly 'affirm' this, the nature reserve blended into the background as though it were the community back garden. 

The huge rocks sit in a shallow river, navigable by rickety wooden sampan boat. Tall reeds swayed peacefully and flocks of birds wavered across the skyline, black against the sky and then white against the rock. The three of us sat in one boat. At this pink and dusty time of day there were no other boats ahead of us and no noises disturbed us besides the creak of the oars. We were slowly taken along the river through the vast rocks and into the lip of a cave. “This is very romantic,” Jessica began, “but what it needs is better boats, with comfortable seats, a glass of champagne and beautiful music”. But I thought it was a perfect moment- a special opportunity for me to experience a natural beauty spot that has not yet been branded for t-shirts and postcards. The extent of tourism here was a sampan ride offered by a local man for a reasonable price and a few stalls down the road offering tablecloths as ‘souvenirs’ to the passing foreigners.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Battling Mount Fansipan

It has been two days since I came down from Mount Fansipan and I now feel just about rested and recovered enough to recount the gruelling experience. On Tuesday morning we were collected from our hotel in Sapa by our guide, Chinsu, to begin our three-day trek up and down Indochina’s highest mountain. We were joined by a German man whose name I’m not sure of (I think he was called Andy). Jessica called him Adam, so I shall refer to him as Adam here. Our group of three was accompanied by two porters, both small and slender men, aged eighteen and twenty-five.

We arrived at the station at the base of the mountain and studied a map on a board. The peak of Fansipan is 3,143 metres high, and there are two camps at 2,200 and 2,800 metres. We were standing at 1,900m and were to climb up to the first camp, an ‘easy’ route, in time for lunch. In the afternoon we would climb the ‘hard’ route to the second camp, where we would spend the night. On the second day we would ascend to the peak in the morning and then descend back to the first camp, where we would spend the second night. On Thursday, the third day, we would walk down the mountain and continue down to a village to be picked up, making it a full day’s walk. Adam was doing the trek in two days, so he was to join us for the first day and then go ahead of us at a faster pace on the second.

It was just after ten o’clock on a cool, overcast morning. We set off at a solid pace to begin with. Chinsu made walking canes for the three of us out of bamboo growing in the forest- they proved invaluable over the next three days. While we were wearing walking boots, Chinsu wore wellies and the porters wore sandals! Chinsu was an interesting man. He was only twenty-two and had worked as a porter from the age of sixteen, until his English was good enough for him to become a tour guide. For six years he has ascended Fansipan about twice a week; he estimates that he has been to the peak 150 times. Like most Hmong people, he married young, when he and his wife were sixteen. They now have two children. He proved to be a fantastic guide for us- he was always patient, accurate with his time predictions and had a sense of humour. He even became our personal photographer towards the end of the trek. We quickly came to understand Chinsu’s unique vocabulary, whereby a ‘flat’ route meant ‘you don’t need to use your hands’. Most of the morning’s walk was this kind of ‘flat’. It was a pleasant walk through the forest and along a river, with occasions of clambering up steep slopes knotted with tree roots and rocks.

Tent at Camp 1
We reached the first camp in two and a half hours, feeling high-spirited. I was naïvely expecting to sleep in portable canvas tents, so I was very happy to see that our bed for the second night would be under a large tarpaulin tent with a wooden floor inside. Besides this building, there was a kitchen and the wreckage of a campfire, where two blonde puppies were playing amongst the litter. We were to find that Fansipan was lined with litter from the base to the summit (strangely, the national park guidelines did not mention littering.) At one point at this camp, I climbed onto a small knoll to get phone signal, and could see through the bushes that the other side of the knoll was used as a rubbish dump; a huge pile of festering garbage had accumulated on a ledge part-way down the steep slope. Chinsu told us that tourists have no interest in climbing the other mountains in the area, most only a little smaller than Fansipan, the ‘roof of Indochina’, so the environmental damage is concentrated on this mountain. This was confirmed by the large patches we saw where all the trees were burnt down to bare trunks due to forest fires started by campfires. 

First lunch
We enjoyed a lunch of bread, eggs, cheese, sausage, vegetables and fruit. After a rest it was time to get going again. The first hour of the afternoon’s walk passed without trouble and we were at a height to be able to see some of the mountain around us through the fog. However, at around three o’clock the fog set in heavily and it started to spit with rain, causing us to stop and get our rain coats on. I didn’t know then that this would be the start of twenty-four hours of misery...

The rain became heavier, and we became cold. We had two hours to go until the second camp and the route was unforgiving. We spent more time clambering up steep rocks than walking along paths. Our fingers hurt from the cold and from grabbing onto bare rock and branches to heave ourselves up. Often there were metal step ladders propped up against inclines that were too challenging to climb without. The worst moment was having to climb for several minutes up a steep rocky incline, only to have to climb down a perilous descend on the other side, and then begin up again. I felt thoroughly miserable. My clothes were soaked and I was in dread of not having dry clothes and a dry bed for the night. I didn’t know when I would feel warm again. By now Jessica was very tired and we had to go slowly and stop frequently for her to rest. By the time we reached the camp I was completely drained of energy and felt no relief for having arrived. The camp was shrouded in fog and I felt very deserted.

We entered the tent, where two Frenchmen sat silently in the near-dark. Jessica and Adam started changing out of their wet clothes but I could only sit shivering, shaking and clapping my hands in an attempt to get some feeling back into them. One of the French men kindly lent me his gloves. Slowly I changed into dry clothes. I was sure to put on all of my dry clothes- two pairs of trousers, three tops, a jumper, two pairs of socks, a hat and scarf. I was given two sleeping bags, but with all of this I still felt no warmth- there were gaps around the door of the tent, so the temperature inside was similar to that outside, at 2,800m altitude. We were offered the opportunity to sit by the fire in the kitchen, but at this time the idea of leaving the tent to venture into the rain outside seemed ludicrous. We were brought a hot meal, which was a real comfort. Jessica, Adam and I sat around a metal tray with plates of chicken, pork, vegetables, potato and tofu, with a candle in the middle, the only source of light in the room besides our torches. We bent low over the food in so we could see what we were eating. After we had eaten it had gone dark, and with no light there was nothing else to do but to try to sleep, even though it was only 6pm. I didn’t feel tired, even from the walking, but I had at least twelve hours to get through until the morning. In reversal to usual life, bedtime was the most uncomfortable time of the day. It was a long, cold night. Luckily, I managed to get some sleep; Jessica claims not to have slept a wink. 

Typical climbing conditions
Adam and the Frenchmen had left the camp by 6am but Jessica and I had a few hours longer before we began the day’s climb. I was woken to a hot bowl of noodles, which I ate even though I wasn’t hungry. It was a misery to climb out of the sleeping bags and to put on yesterday’s wet boots. We had hung up our wet clothes on the rafters the night before but they were all still dripping wet and cold. With the choice of two ways of freezing, I chose to wear fewer clothes than to put on wet clothes. Luckily, I had a disposable yellow rain mac to replace the rain coat I wore the day before and was now too wet to wear. We could leave our luggage at the camp for the time being as we would return there for lunch after we had been to the peak. Chinsu, Jessica and I set off for the final 343 metres to the peak. Today it was Jessica who was fighting fit and I who was trailing miserably behind. As soon as we began to walk my stomach started hurting, probably because we had eaten breakfast so soon before setting off. It was very cold and everywhere around us was grey-white. The route was as it had been the day before- all climbing up steep, cold rocks and wading through black mud. Along the way we passed Adam and the Frenchmen who already had been to the peak and back, and some people who were doing the whole climb in one day. One man had reached the summit in 3 hours and 20 minutes from setting off from the base of the mountain, with no guide or porter. 

A chilly morning on the mountain

Eventually we made it. The summit was a strange place. In a clearing in the bushes was a pile of rocks, with a metal pyramid marking 3,143 metres height. The area was littered with sweet wrappers, cigarette packets, an empty wine bottle and a used celebration banner hanging from a bush. This was all we could see as everywhere was enveloped in fog. There was no way to know we were towering above all of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; it felt as though we were nowhere. I slowly climbed onto one of the rocks to sit with Jessica for a picture in this strange white world, but I didn’t feel much elation. The wind whipped through us so we quickly left to begin the descent. The way down was dreadful. My stomach hurt horribly, especially when we climbed up rocks. I took every movement slowly because every movement hurt me. I really didn’t know how I could carry on- if there had been a road suitable for vehicles I would have asked to be taken home. As it was, I didn’t think my illness was urgent enough to justify mountain rescue by helicopter; I had no choice but to keep going. When we arrived back at the camp for lunch I didn’t want to eat anything, I only wanted to lie down and sleep, but I couldn’t. The first hour and a half of the walk after lunch was much the same, although now I had to carry my bag as well. Eventually I decided I would have to think positively if I were to get through another day of walking and another night of camping. I’m glad my feet aren’t hurting, I thought, and I’m glad we’re on the way down- we’re getting nearer to the end with every step. This started to work, my stomach started to feel better, and finally the fog lifted, giving us beautiful views for the first time. I started to feel that we had earned something.

At the peak!

On the way down

From here on we reached the end of the hardest part of the route, and spent the final two hours walking along a path rather than climbing rocks. It felt wonderful to be able to walk instead of climb. When we reached the first camp we knew we were nearly at the end. It had been an incredibly hard day, but we had reached the peak and come most of the way down the mountain. Jessica asked to change our plans so that we would be met at the bottom of the mountain the next day, rather than doing the walk to the village. This meant that it would only be about two hours of walking the next day. I still had no appetite so I went to bed without dinner, but luckily it was a better night’s sleep as it was not so cold, and we now had three sleeping bags each.

I packed my things together in the morning to begin the descent of the mountain. My body ached with every step, particularly my poor legs and knees. Although I moved wonkily and slowly I was keen to get down in good time. It was a warm day and I felt much happier. Just over two hours later, we were back at the car park. We climbed into the van to be taken back to the hotel. On the way out, we passed under a sign that read ‘See you again!’ I didn’t think so. I was glad to have completed the hardest pursuit I have ever attempted, but I have no desire to do it again. I’m still unsure whether it was a good experience or not. Even so, I feel proud of myself. Although I have climbed (small) mountains before, I had never actually climbed a mountain. I had no idea that most of the route would be climbing with hands and feet; if I had known, I probably would not have thought I could do it. It’s amazing what we are capable of when we push ourselves, and have no other choice but to keep going.

Back on the ground

We were taken back to the hotel, but as we had already checked out we did not have a room until the night train to Hanoi in the evening. I had a shower and brushed my hair for the first time in three days, and then Jessica and I went into Sapa with six hours to kill. We spent this time having lunch and foot massages in town. I still felt unwell but luckily was able to eat something. In the evening we took the train to Hanoi. It was blissful to sleep in a real bed, without having to feel my hipbone against the ground all night long.

 We arrived at 5.30am in Hanoi. As we came into the city it was still dark, but the morning markets were bustling. We left the train and walked through the dusty station, it was just starting to become light. Jessica had arranged for us to meet her friend Nguyet and her husband who live in Hanoi. As it was still early and not too cold, we sat outside their apartment watching the people of Hanoi doing their morning exercise until it was a reasonable time to call. They invited us into their lovely apartment, then took us out for the best pho ga (chicken noodle soup) in Hanoi. Unfortunately, I was feeling dreadful. My stomach and back hurt and I felt lightheaded when I stood up and walked around. I tried to be stoic for as long as possible but after a full morning I was flailing. Nguyet and her husband are lovely people and took good care of me.

Later Jessica and I took a taxi to Ninh Binh, where we are spending the next few days in a resort in the national park. I spent the rest of the day in bed while Jessica went out to see the resort, but was able to enjoy an evening meal by the pool with her. This morning I am feeling better. Our friend Jasmine has arrived to spend some time with us here, and shortly we will be going out to do some sightseeing.  It has been a surreal week. I have seen several different sceneries, I have climbed a mountain and I suddenly find myself in a luxury resort in another new setting. Travelling has made the past few days seem to pass very quickly and now is my first real chance to rest and recover from the toil of Fansipan.