Sunday, 31 March 2013

Sunday morning in Haiphong

Our trip began with an early start this morning as my mum, Crystal and I set off by taxi at 5.30am for our flight to Haiphong, the major port town of the north and the gateway to Halong Bay. Ho Chi Minh City was beautiful at this time of the day with the sky still rosy and the streets freshly swept clean. In the suburbs women were preparing breakfasts of pho and banh mi to be sold on the streets, and in the city a lone cyclo cruised the empty boulevards with a family of early-bird tourists. We arrived at the domestic terminal and joined the ranks of Vietnamese travellers carrying babies and sacks of vegetables who were pushing and shoving onto the plane.

We arrived in Haiphong after a two hour flight to be greeted with a pleasantly cool temperature of 22 degrees. The runway of the small airport was flanked with paddy fields where disaffected farmers tended to the land with their backs turned to the incoming planes. This was our first indication that Haiphong is smaller than we had anticipated. Leaving the terminal we approached a flock of taxis where a young man dressed in denim invited us to a Mai Linh cab, arousing my suspicions to the point that I inspected the car for any signs that it was a bogus version of the reliable national company. My mum told me to relax so we climbed in, although it turned out that this man was, to my surprise, the driver (with quite a poor knowledge of his own city!). We followed a wide road lined with dragon-shaped hedges into the sleepy town. We were to take a hydrofoil from the harbour to Cat Ba island, our destination, in the afternoon and had some time to kill in the meanwhile. This was spent appreciating Haiphong's cafe culture and taking in the peaceful ambience of the place. Haiphong was largely developed as a transport hub by the French and retains many colonial-era buildings. As we enjoyed strong coffee we were observed with curiosity and granted occasional smiles by the regulars who don't often see tourists stopping in the city. Around lunchtime we headed to a recommended German-style restaurant and brewery for home-brewed beer, sausage-and-chips and seafood, the latter being something Haiphong is noted for.

A street barbers' shop in Haiphong

Mum loves Ca Phe Sua Da

Street life

In good time we took a taxi to Ben Binh harbour where we encountered the first tout of the day in the form of an excited woman who began yelling at us the moment we exited the taxi that the boat we were looking for was further down the street. Taking direction from the uniformed woman behind her we passed the tout and entered the ticket office for the hydrofoil. Our boat was filled predominantly with a lively bunch of stylish Vietnamese youth and a group of middle-aged French tourists. The journey, supposed to take forty-five minutes to the island, in fact took twice this long and dropped us off at a different harbour to the one I passed through on my last visit here. The bus that connects to the town and is included in the boat ticket did not materialise and soon after disembarkment most of our fellow passengers had dispersed away on motorbikes.  We could not take bikes as we were handicapped by Crystal's heavy suitcase which proved to be quite a burden over the day. Those who remained were the French group and a handful of other, equally confused, stragglers who stood in the street with us waiting for somebody to come and help us. My mum noted afterwards that throughout this unexpected experience we maintained every confidence that something would work out. And, as ever, it did. At first the French group were met by a minibus and I made an attempt to hitch a ride for the three of us with my rough French. The woman I spoke to delivered a reply that I couldn't quite follow, but her stony disinterest was very clear. We were rescued by a kind Australian-Vietnamese family who ordered a van for 250,000 dong and invited us to come with them. The luggage and bodies of around a dozen people were carefully packed in for a short, tight journey to the town. On arrival, the cause of the changed transportation schedule became obvious: there is a large festival on the island today that has drawn in crowds. We were later to find out from our hotel's manager that the cause of the celebration is the anniversary of Uncle Ho's two-day visit to the island in 1959. Remarkable.

Festivities in Cat Ba town

Three girls share a bicycle

Police officers join the audience of the show

Back street of Cat Ba town

As we entered our hotel the lobby TV was set to a national channel showing live footage of the festivities just outside our door. We went up to our rooms, from where we could see a dragon-boat race taking place in the bay to the cheers of the crowds. We spent the afternoon booking a tour of Halong Bay for tomorrow as well as our transport to Hanoi the same day. In the evening I had the idea of walking up to an old fort I had read about to see what is described by Lonely Planet as the best view in Vietnam. It didn't take long to escape the noise of the celebrations on the front strip and we soon found ourselves on an almost rural street where chickens clucked in vegetable patches beneath the beautiful purplish karst mountain that defines the unique geology of this area. As we ascended, stunning views of the bay came into vision on all sides and I felt overcome with a sense of peace. We had to pay a fairly dear entrance fee to pass the barrier up to Fort Cannon but at the top it was wonderfully deserted. The only other people up there were a pair of men doing their evening exercise in a sublime location, and the ticket inspector who chased after me with real urgency in order to fulfil his job duty (not that we could have got up there any way without purchasing a ticket; but this is communist Vietnam).

A friendly warning as we ascended to Cannon Fort

The beautiful Lan Ha bay, part of Halong Bay

It felt like a real privilege to have this experience and we felt very grateful that we had not stayed in the town and missed out. It was dark as we descended back to the lights of the town and Crystal decided she didn't want to eat dinner, retiring to her hotel room instead. My mum and I went out and shared a tasty tea of fried spring rolls, chilli fish, stir-fried spinach and steamed rice, washed down with Hanoi beer and topped off with a sweet bun bought from the neighbouring family bakery, which we ate as we strolled along the front.

We have travelled a fair way today and have found ourselves in one of the world's most special and beautiful places. I can't wait to introduce the magic of Halong Bay to mum and Crystal tomorrow; I know they will love it.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Plenty of sun and coffee

Another lovely day spent with my mum. As she had enjoyed our trip to the pool yesterday so much, we went there again this morning and swam eighty-two lengths between us. Consequently we have both caught the sun- particularly so in my case, unfortunately. After coming home to shower and change we took the bus into town as the sun crept high into the sky. Mum was nodding off on the journey so our first port of call after arriving in the city was Highlands Coffee for a caffeine and sugar hit in the form of strong coffee and warm banana cake. This revived us significantly after our morning's exercise at the pool and sustained us for an afternoon spent walking around the Fine Arts Museum and shopping in the markets. We had a late lunch at a beautiful cafe called Au Parc near the Reunification Palace, where the first floor windows frame the treetops of the park outside. Afterwards we took a stroll down the main street to have a look in to the Continental Hotel, where Graham Greene famously wrote the Quiet American from his balcony, and the Caravelle, where delightful views are offered at the airy Saigon Saigon bar on the ninth floor. With some time to kill before the next bus home we paid a visit to a mint-green mosque tucked in on Dong Du and then to some of the nice silk and cotton shops on Dong Khoi.

Mum on the balcony at the Fine Arts Museum

Lunch at Au Parc

The mosque on Dong Du with the Caravelle Hotel in the background

Children's exercise books in the mosque

It was supposed to be my job to serve as a host and guide for my jet lagged mother but in fact by the end of our six-hour visit to the city I was totally worn out and useless. I had time for a little rest at home before we went out again for an event I had already planned. We went to visit the Little Rose Warm Shelter in district seven (which happens to be a few doors down from the Anh Linh school where I am doing my teaching) for their monthly volunteer movie, pizza and crafts night. The shelter currently houses fifteen girls aged between eleven and eighteen. Its primary role is to protect girls from sexual abuse and trafficking and provides them with a safe living environment, psychological and emotional support, education and vocational training and raised ambitions for the future.

Some of the girls were sat on the floor making friendship bracelets with a group of volunteers, but most were gripped by a bizarre-seeming Vietnamese TV programme featuring a long-haired, blue faced wizard man. Pizza was served in boxes from a small table, which the girls liked to load with fluorescent orange chilli sauce. Mum and I sat with the group watching the television for a little while and chatted with one of the girls. Then we returned to our neighbourhood for tea.

Tomorrow we will have a hideously early start at five o'clock in order to catch a 7.30 flight to Haiphong.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Mummy arrives

Yesterday evening I took a bunch of flowers and a sweet Vietnamese coffee to greet my mum at the airport. It is great to be with her again after three months apart and we stayed up for as long as she could manage to to catch up on our first evening. Today we have had a lovely relaxed day, the best parts of which have been spent doing nothing much more than talking. In between we went to the local salon where Mum treated us both to manicures and pedicures, then to the cafe for more coffee and later to the pool, where the water was as warm as a bath in the late afternoon sunshine. This evening we met up with Jessica and Crystal in town for a Vietnamese meal at our favourite rooftop restaurant, SH Garden, followed by sangria at a the Spanish bar Pacharan, where Jessica led a discussion on the perils of finding the perfect man.

We have another day together in the city to look forward to tomorrow before Sunday's early start to fly to Haiphong- for Halong Bay- after which we will travel to Hanoi and Luang Prabang. It already seems soon to be flying off away on a trip, but as long as I have enough time to spend making the most of my mum's company then I will be content. She has been spoiling me by bringing me my favourite kind of Fox's biscuits as well as with lots of love and attention. For her part, she is loving the break from the snow in Yorkshire- which is in some parts up to ten feet deep- and the chance to enjoy the sunshine and Thuy's delicious cooking.

Happily reunited with my mum

Fresh juices at SH Garden

Jessica (l) and Crystal

One of our favourite dishes, shrimp paste on sugar cane

Monday, 25 March 2013

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

I have had a quiet few days and am currently home alone as Jessica and Crystal have gone away for a holiday on the beach at Con Dao island until tomorrow afternoon. However, in only two days my mum will be arriving to stay with me for a fortnight. This seems to have come around so quickly and I am really looking forward to having her here.

At the weekend I had a chance to spend some time exclusively with Jessica for the first time in a while, and, it seems, for the last time in a while as she will be going on a trip to the USA shortly after my mum leaves and will not return until a few days before my flight home at the end of May. We spent Saturday going around Phu My Hung to organise some things for an informal presentation evening I will be hosting as a leaving do and as preparation for my 'big' presentation in Leeds in the summer. We spent a lot of time in a Fujifilm shop looking into the costs of having some of my photographs developed and framed for exhibition, as well as looking for a venue. Then she took me out for lunch at a Korean barbecue restaurant, a new experience for me.

The rainy season seems to be hesitantly and prematurely asserting itself here in the form of early morning downpours that are usually all over by the time I wake up. This is not doing much to help the heat that escalates day by day. There are mosquitoes all over the house now and it's starting to drive me crazy.

I have completed a book review this morning, of Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and the Collision of Two Cultures. The study follows the case of Lia Lee, a young Hmong child diagnosed with epilepsy in Merced, California in the late 1980s and the cultural gulf between the beliefs of her doctors and her parents. On a wider scale, the book looks at the roots and nature of cross-cultural divides in the US medical system and the dangers they pose. Please click here to read my review.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Easter crafts

Yesterday was my eighth art class taught at the Anh Linh free school. I will complete two more after a break of two weeks. Next week, the whole school will be occupied by a project run by a group of students from Singapore and I will not be able to do my class; the following week I will be travelling in Hanoi and Luang Prabang with my mum, Jessica and Crystal. I will return to the school on the ninth of April.

I decided to make yesterday's lesson Easter-themed as I will not be at the school over the actual Easter period. Cautious not to seem like some kind of white missionary (although the school is funded by a Catholic church), I diverted around the religious origins of this festival and told the kids: "Easter is the celebration of spring; it is all about bunny rabbits, lambs, eggs and flowers". This surely resonates with the Vietnamese Tet celebrations that occur in January/February to mark the lunar new year and the coming of springtime, and the kids picked up on the idea straight away. One girl even unconsciously, but neatly, confused the two celebrations by writing 'Happy Eastet'. This made me smile.

Usually I would give the students a specific task to do in these lessons but considering the wide breadth of Easter craft ideas available on the world wide web, I printed off a page with several ideas (cardboard Easter eggs, paper daffodils, greetings cards featuring sheep and bunnies made with cotton wool balls) to give to the kids for inspiration and dumped a mound of cardboard, coloured and white card, tape, string, ribbons, glitter glue, paints, coloured pencils, cotton wool and wooden sticks on the floor for them to make use of. They seemed initially hesitant about what they were supposed to do but soon the more assertive students put their hands into the air and eventually all of them were getting stuck in.

Kim Ngoc, the school's headteacher who was acting as a translator for me, told me that the children love drawing but they always forget how much they do until they come to this class. Although the school has an adequate supply of art materials, the children are not taught art as part of the curriculum and, Kim Ngoc told me, do not have the opportunity to use these materials in their free time, such as playtimes and after school. After I finish my classes at the school they will probably not have the opportunity to do any more arts and crafts until another volunteer comes along willing to organise something. I feel torn between a desire to do more to help the school and the need to prioritise my own work in the time I have remaining in the country. I had only planned to do twenty hours' charity work and will have filled this quota after another two classes; nonetheless it will be sad to say goodbye to the kids and I will feel guilty in necessitating an end to their opportunity to do arts and crafts for the immediate future. One boy told me on Tuesday that he wants to be a painter, but, as a child from a poor background as all of these children are, I don't know how he will have the opportunity to develop his artistic skills if not through school.

Most of the children produced either greetings cards or cardboard Easter eggs and they looked very nice. I was pleased to see them using their own creative instincts with the supplies I had made available for them. Some strung their Easter eggs up with ribbon whilst others attached them to a wooden stick, just as we had done when we made masks.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

What I would like to be

I taught another of my classes at the Anh Linh school today. I have three more scheduled and it will be sad to say goodbye to the children, whom I have become fond of and who are fond of me too. One little girl always takes my arm when I arrive on my bicycle at the school and strokes my skin curiously to feel the sweat that has accumulated from cycling in the hot sun.

I only had seven kids today, although more showed up about an hour and a half through. These children had been attending revision classes and came to my class afterwards for the last half an hour. I asked the kids to produce a drawing to show me what they would like to be when they are older. This idea was inspired from a story that Ms Kim Ngoc, the headteacher of the school, told me about one of the boys who regularly attends my class. "When he came here, he thought he could do nothing", she told me. "His family are all street cleaners and he thought he would end up doing the same work as them. We are beginning to change his mind. Now he wants to be a furniture designer". Sure enough, this boy drew a very neat picture of himself designing a sofa (amusingly, this scene was set in a child's bedroom and he appeared to be wearing his school uniform). A shy little boy named Dat told us he wants to be a policeman, because he "wants to catch criminals". It took some encouragement to get him to start his work but after some prompting and suggestions he drew a cute picture of a stout police officer in a green uniform and hat patrolling a city street. Bao, one of the most talented students, was uncharacteristically shy about his drawing at first, hiding it with the palm of his hand as he worked. Eventually he showed me that he had drawn himself as a painter. I was so proud! As for the girls, they all drew pictures of the clothes shops they would like to own. In fact, when I asked the class what their ambitions for the future were, a lovely girl named Trang was the first to shoot her hand in the air and said she wanted to be a teacher. Even so, she ended up drawing a fashion store as well, perhaps as this is more interesting to draw than a school classroom.

Just as most of the students were finishing, a bunch more showed up from their after-school revision class. These children wanted to do some drawings but I was concerned the others would become restless. We decided to to take all the kids outside, where the new arrivals could do some drawings at a bench and the rest could play ball games for half an hour. When the headteacher came to check up on us as 4pm arrived, she chatted to two of my students and then translated to me that they had got confused and told her we had been out playing for two hours because not enough students had turned up for the art class. I had to reassure her we had, in fact, been doing some work earlier.

Bao's depiction of himself as an artist (with a long ponytail- traditionally symbolic for an artist or other highly respected folk. I can't explain why his hair is red)

Dat's drawing- the friendliest-looking policeman I've ever seen

Monday, 18 March 2013

Adventures in Cat Tien national park

Jessica, Crystal and I began our weekend with an early start on Saturday morning, ready for a 7.30am pick-up for the Cat Tien national park in the central highlands. Jessica had booked a two-day tour for us with an eco-resort called Forest Floor Lodge, where we would be staying in 'luxury tents' at the edge of the jungle and doing activities during the daytime. Seven-thirty came and went and Jessica became irritable; calling up the company, it transpired that she had booked the stay for the wrong weekend! Luckily, they were still able to collect us for the tour at this short notice as it is low season at the moment and they weren't busy. A jeep arrived for us a few hours later and we were at the national park by the early afternoon. We checked in and were shown to our accommodation. The tents were simple but stylish and set besides a roaring river rapid.

We had lunch and at 3pm set off on a 30km bike ride to a nearby village with our guide for the weekend, Mr. Hai, a friendly guy who spent much of his time with his head in the treetops looking for wildlife, and became more excited than any of us if anything was spotted. The later start than had been scheduled afforded us a more pleasant temperature and I enjoyed the ride along the long, straight dirt path through farmland and open countryside. We arrived in a village occupied by two minority groups, forcibly relocated to here from the jungles by the Vietnamese government in 1992. We passed a Catholic church, so full that women squatted on the doorstep outside to listen to the very animated-sounding preacher within. As we passed through the village children waved and yelled 'Allo! Allo!'.

Mr. Hai took us to see the local cultural centre, to a traditional-style long house built as accommodation for tourists, and to a newly-built suspension bridge over the river. Finally, we were invited to the beautiful old-fashioned teak house of a local family for fresh fruit and hot tea. At this point Jessica became agitated about setting off again before the sun set but Mr. Hai assured us we would have time and encouraged us to rest a little longer. As we set off for the long journey home, Crystal became tired and fell behind, accompanied by Mr. Hai and the other guide who was with us. The setting sun cast beautiful pink glows over the fields, where wild boars lumbered around, but brought a touch of concern for us about getting back on time. Jessica and I, leading the way, decided to push ahead in case we needed to send a motorbike or truck to pick up the others once we returned to the hotel. Neither of us had seen Crystal for a long time and the road through woods and countryside was completely unlit; neither did we have any lights on the bikes.

Crossing the suspension bridge

A traditional-style longhouse housing up to thirty people

A curious display of trinkets in the teak house

The sun sets lower...

And lower...

And darkness begins to fall

 Darkness fell on the last few kilometres back. Luckily the sky was clear and illuminated the road a little; besides this we could see nothing and I began to feel very concerned about our lost friend.The night was noisy with crickets and occasionally a bat would swoop overhead. In the darkness it seemed to take forever to reach the comforting lights of the hotel- when we finally did so we asked a member of staff to call our guide. We were very relieved to hear that, contrary to our expectations, they were not far behind us and indeed showed up not long after we did.

The next morning Crystal and I set off again with Mr. Hai for a mornings activity. In her second 'senior moment' of the weekend, Jessica had failed to bring any appropriate footwear for walking and so decided to sit this one out. We embarked on a 10km round walk to 'Crocodile Lake', a nice, easy route through the jungle to reach a beautiful lake inhabited by crocs. There was a house here for passing hikers and an elevated building from where we could observe the lake peacefully. We were given tea and a locally-made cake. Plus, we were able to spot the form of a crocodile in the water, albeit from a distance. On the way back we had a real surprise in the form of a long black snake lying in the leaves on the edge of the path. "King Cobra, King Cobra!" Mr. Hai shouted excitedly as the snake thrashed noisily away, giving me a good fright. The King Cobra is incredibly venomous and it is rare to spot them, we were told.

We rejoined Jessica at the lodge for a last lunch before our return to the city. It was a lovely weekend and I appreciated the chance to enjoy nature and to do some good exercise. It was a long four hours back to Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr. Hai- travelling by truck to the start of our walk

The giant Tung tree, 40 metres tall and 400 years old

Washing at the lodge at Crocodile Lake


Idyllic scenery at the lake

Croc spotted (the dark shape in the water)

Crystal (left) and Jessica as we left Cat Tien

Friday, 15 March 2013


I shouldn't have written about the approaching rainy season yesterday as I seem to have jinxed the weather. This afternoon we heard the unfamiliar noise of rain pattering against the ground and stared in disbelief as it hurried into a heavy downpour. I complained loudly as I was just about to set off to the Anh Linh school on my bike, until I realised I had an excuse to indulge in a taxi instead. There is something nice about the rain- if you don't have to be in it, that is. Not only does it cool the air but it brings an earthy scent into the atmosphere and reminds me of home.

I was lucky that it had not begun this morning when I was out and about in town. I had an appointment to meet Dana, a friend of Jessica's who works as a director for LIN, a Vietnamese NGO that supports not-for-profit organisations in Ho Chi Minh City and matches them to corporate and individual donors. We met in a lovely gourmet supermarket and coffee shop called Annam Gourmet, where we discussed LIN's work and larger philanthropic trends in Vietnam. Conducting an interview was a new experience for me today and I felt very nervous, but I was relieved that it all passed well as Dana kindly answered my questions thoroughly and at length, putting me at ease.

After my art class I also had the chance to interview Kim Ngoc, the headteacher of the Anh Linh school, as well as two former students, with the help of a translator. This allowed me to find out a little more about the school and the impact it has on the lives of the children who study here. All the new information I have collected through interviewing today will be very useful research for my book.

I had twelve students in my class today and we made masks out of oversized paper plates. The rain outside escalated into a storm; the corridor was dark and the kids jumped when smashes of thunder beat down onto the classroom. The students made good use of the paints and glitter glues to create some flamboyant designs. One little boy who had never attended the class before made a fantastic bear mask and then, after requesting another plate, began on a tiny butterfly mask for his one year-old sister. By four o'clock they were all over-excited and began fighting on the floor in the corridor until I ordered them to go home.

Giang, (left) and Nam- both lovely, well-behaved students