Tuesday, 30 April 2013

V for Vung Tau

What a bizarre day it has been. As I explained in yesterday's post, today is Victory Day in Vietnam and we are in the midst of a three-day national holiday. I have been in Vung Tau, a seaside town two hours from Saigon, with some friends. This was a chance for me to experience a day-trip Vietnamese style, as the group was all, besides me, Vietnamese. It did not begin well.

I had madly agreed to this trip knowing it would be a three o'clock start as Hien, the host, was keen to see the sunrise over the beach. In reality it was more like a 2.25am pick-up and I had not slept a wink. Therefore I was not best pleased to find myself climbing into a minivan full of giggling girls with a driver blasting out trance music at a time when I was already feeling quite grumpy and sleep-deprived. I lay out across the back seats with Jessica's blow-up neck pillow and my headphones, hoping to get some rest. The van's speakers were either side of me and stuffing my two bags against them did little to drown out the insulting din. Added to this the bumpiness of the road, and I was in a very upset state, wishing I'd stayed at home in bed instead of going on this stupid venture. Luckily the driver later switched the music to some Vietnamese songs and eventually I managed to sleep for most of the journey.

We arrived in Vung Tau at five in the morning, with light beginning to open up over the sea. It is fair to say that I felt pretty disorientated and apprehensive about what the day would hold. We piled out of the van and Hien bought some breakfast for us all from a food vendor by the road, surrounded by litter. My disorientation was not helped by the bizarreness of the surroundings- even at this early hour, the street was crowded with parked buses and motorbikes, people were laid out asleep on the grass and, walking down onto the beach, the sea was already full of swimmers in the half-light. We paid for some sun-loungers and ate breakfast, which was a pink-coloured sticky rice dyed with a kind of fruit, served with shredded coconut, salt and crushed peanut.

Early morning sea at Vung Tau

Our group consisted of Hien, Hien's younger sister Hoa, Nga, who is a friend from Zumba, myself and five of Hien's friends, who I did not hear speak any English. I stuck with Nga for the day, as she is a good friend and someone who I can talk to. Hien's friends wasted no time in getting into the sea after they had finished their food. I noticed that most people in the sea were fully dressed; Vietnamese people are modest about showing their bodies. We even saw a few boys walking around in soaking wet jeans. As we had both only brought bikinis and no spare clothes, Nga and I stayed away from the water. Nga is originally from Danang and reminded me frequently about how the mucky beach and grey sea at Vung Tau were not quite what she is used to (Danang is famous for its beautiful white beaches, probably the best in the country).

The first hour of our arrival was spent on the deckchairs on the beach. Then it began to spit with rain. Then it started to really rain. Well, this is crap, I thought as we huddled under the parasol deciding what to do next. Hien's friends were already wet from the sea so didn't mind very much, but Hien, Nga and I took off to look for shelter. We hopped into a taxi which took us around the headland to a cafe, where we sat outside under a roof. I enjoyed ca cao- hot chocolate- looking out at the miserable rain that clouded all of the scene in grey.

The rain subsided and we ventured to a market to buy some seafood. It became hot very suddenly, around seven o'clock- much earlier than it would do in the city. Hien and Nga picked out some live crabs and sea snails for our group. While they were being cooked we sat on some plastic seats and waited. A dog with a crooked leg hobbled past. Nga is a big animal lover, and started to tell me about a tragedy in her childhood when her parents cooked their dog to serve to guests one day. Hien had a similar story from her own upbringing. To many people, dogs and cats are not seen as pets.

Fresh seafood at the market

Selecting crabs

Hien (L) and Nga

Me with Hien

Our food was ready and Nga took the steaming hot bag as we made our way back to the beach. Already things had dried out after the downpour earlier and it was a hot day on the beach. I finally began to enjoy myself as we sat down to relax, drink beer and eat fresh seafood and fruit. Most of all I enjoyed the chance to sleep in my deckchair. At ten-thirty Hien announced 'ok, we go now'. We packed up our things and made our way back to the bus. Before we left there was time for an ice-cream and a chance for Hien's friends to buy some straw hats and tourist t-shirts- very typical of Vietnamese tourists, in my experience. And Vung Tau is very much a Vietnamese tourist destination; Nga and I could not spot any other foreigners besides me on the beach.

Colourful flags line the beach

The sun comes out

I was surprised that we left so early but was not altogether disappointed. We ended up at the Tavern in Phu My Hung, our regular haunt, where Nga, Hien, Hoa and I had lunch. I finished the day by going home and sleeping between 2.30 and 7.30pm. Overall it has been quite an experience.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Paradise of the Blind

Today we are in the middle of a five-day national holiday to mark Victory Day, which is tomorrow. Thirty-eight years ago on this day, NVA tanks entered Saigon and famously rolled over the gates of the presidential palace, reunifying the country under a communist government after decades of war. Many of my friends have gone away to pass their holiday on the coast in Nha Trang, in the highlands of Dalat or overseas, in Thailand. I myself have been invited on a daytrip to the seaside at Vung Tau tomorrow with some friends. We will depart at 3am, in order to see the sunrise... Well, at least we will make the most of the day.

It is interesting that in the run-up to this huge national celebration, I have been reading a book that is banned in Vietnam for its political message that criticizes the Communist Party. Paradise of the Blind (Duong Thu Huong, 1993) is the story of a Vietnamese family that is torn apart by the Viet Minh party's land reform programme in the 1950s. The novel acts as a commentary on the devastating impact of political upheaval on the lives of ordinary Vietnamese. Considering this, I will have plenty to think about tomorrow as the country celebrates Victory Day. Please click here to read my full review of this book.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Full moon- full hearts- full stomachs

I had a great time on Saturday night for my Zumba teacher Kate's hen night. As Kate was once a flight attendant and is marrying a pilot, the dress code for the night was air hostesses. Fifteen of us dressed up in a shamble of different types of blue dresses and were issued with uniform blue caps and hideous patterned neck ties. It was all a good laugh. Kate has gone home to Hungary for the wedding now and won't return until after I've gone. She gave me a box of chocolates with pictures of her country on the front as a parting gift. The following few days have been very quiet, very boring. On both Sunday and Tuesday we have had downpours, complete with thunder and lightening. The rainy season is rearing its head again and I have been warned that, contrary to my expectations, it won't make the temperature any cooler; it will get more humid. To add to my homesick, certain factors have been making me feel as though I will be driven out of this country by insanity. Besides the heat, my biggest problem is insects. I hate insects. The other day, the enormous cockroach that sometimes frequents our house (Thuy's 'friend') returned to my bathroom after many months of courteous absence, scaring the life out of me as it scuttled into a hiding place at lightening pace, its horrible long antennae twitching. There are ants everywhere, no matter how clean the house, and a swarm of mosquitoes has recently taken to inhabiting my running trainers.

But just as I have been starting to go out of my mind, I have had, today, a wonderful day that has made me feel overjoyed to be here. Last week I wrote about helping my friend Huyen to prepare spring rolls to give to the poor; today I helped her friend to distribute them. Huyen gave my number to Hang, who told me to come to her house in district three, due north-west of the city centre, between seven or eight in the morning. She told me that she would be up at five or six o'clock, but that I didn't have to get up so early. My taxi driver was very efficient and after only one glance at the address I had written down, took me to exactly the right house number down a small shaded alley. I was welcomed by Hang, who was standing beside a group of friends and neighbours assembled outside the house, either sat on an outdoor bed or on little metal stools. They were working on a production line, filling white polystyrene takeaway boxes with vermicelli, shredded vegetables, slices of tofu and the deep-fried spring rolls prepared by Huyen with help from me and other friends. Each box was a meal in itself, and it was not going to be a bland one. No box was complete without a spoonful of diced red chilli and a portion of sauce served in a ballooned-up little plastic bag. I loved the fact that care was taken to ensure that the free meal was not just nutritious but flavourful, a far sight better than the average school dinner in the UK.

The ingredients were placed in huge plastic buckets on the floor. The scale of the operation was unbelievable; Hang said that her family had been up until 2am preparing the ingredients. They caught a few hours of sleep before beginning the assembly of the boxes at 4am. Friends and neighbours have all chipped in with money, resources or labour. You couldn't tell that many of them had been working for three hours by the time I arrived; everybody was merry, smiling and laughing. I joined the production line at the end- initially, my job was to wrap elastic bands around the boxes and slip a pair of disposable chopsticks under the band; then I went on to tightly packing the bags with twenty boxes. It was fast work and the result at times was drips of oil and chilli burning my bare legs. But the suffering was worth it for the cause. At 9.30 we took a break and all the workers could pick up a box. It was very tasty and kept me going for the morning ahead. Next, we hopped onto motorbikes in pairs to deliver, in turns, the seven hundred meals. I rode on the back of Hang's bike, holding two bags of twenty boxes between my knees. We visited two hospitals; the first was Benh Vien An Binh in district five; the second, Benh Vien Binh Dan in district three. Only yesterday I had come across a Vietnamese proverb quoted in the foreword to the book I am reading- the startling phrase, 'a morsel of food is like a morsel of shame'- an indicator of the complicated hierarchical associations with giving and receiving food. Reading this had made me feel a bit apprehensive, but there was no need. The recipients of our food parcels, the sick and their relatives and some staff at the two hospitals, were patient and courteous.

At the first, we arrived in a courtyard where the buildings had mint coloured outer walls and offered the packages to those who approached us. I took a look into the wards on the ground floor- each small room had three occupied beds as well as an assortment of visitors. At the second hospital there was a little more urgency to get the food, a bit more desperation. We had only arrived near at the waiting area next to the pharmacist before we were closed in by hungry people hoping to be given a meal. Within minutes the last of many hours of labour had been dispersed; 700 mouths fed in a city of over ten million- a drop in the ocean.

Hang astounded me when she told me that she does this every month on the full moon. It costs around ten million dong (£330) for all of the ingredients. Her brother is a monk and they began to do this charity work on the request of his pagoda. She told me that she had done this "many times" already. Hang took me to the city centre on her motorbike so I could catch a bus home. She told me she was so thankful for my help, but in fact I was more thankful to her for allowing me to be a part of this incredibly rewarding activity. Next month they will go to Vung Tau on the coast, and perhaps I will join them if the timing is right. Today has been an eye-opening experience for me- into the depths of hunger and poverty in this city, and into the kindness of ordinary members of society such as Hang and her family.

Preparing the ingredients

Four hundred lunches ready to go

Hang's brother, the monk, drains the vermicelli

The alleyway where Hang's family lives

A garbage-collecting woman takes a rest

A free lunch at the An Binh hospital

Women enjoy their meals

Interior of the An Binh hospital

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Romancing Vietnam

Finally I have come to the end of the book I have been reading, and have completed my first book review in almost a month. In part this delay has been due to my recent travelling; in part it is due to the fact that I really struggled to get through this book, for reasons I have explained in my review of it. Romancing Vietnam is a journal written by Justin Wintle, English writer and journalist, of his travels in Vietnam in late 1989 and early 1990. This is a period of recent Vietnamese history that I knew little about before, and have not covered in my book reviews before now. Please click here to read my review.

It has been an insufferably hot day today- I have known this without having to leave the house, as I was sweating at lunchtime even with a fan blowing into my face. I would have liked to have gone to the outdoor swimming pool but I didn't think it was a good idea, as I have to cycle there and face a good chance of getting sunburn, even after applying suncream. That is the last thing I need, as I am going out this evening and my fair hair doesn't suit a red face. The heat has forced me to stay inside and do work on a Saturday. But at least I can enjoy myself tonight.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Hero Day

Today has been a national holiday here in Vietnam. Lisa told me that this is in remembrance of the nation's heroes, although I haven't found anything on the internet to confirm this. I spent my morning at my friend Huyen's apartment. She has been something of a heroine herself in spending all of last night preparing three saucepan-fulls of grated vegetables to fill eight hundred spring rolls, to be given to the poor next full moon. As everybody had the day off work a group of us assembled at her apartment to help out- namely by doing the rolling. Huyen taught us how to do so, with her 'twenty years' rolling experience'. As well as being a charitable thing to spend my morning on, I now know how to make spring rolls and am pretty pleased with that. For lunch Huyen prepared some of the fruits of our labour deep fried and served with noodles, salad and peanuts in a big bowl. A great example of lovely fresh, simple, tasty and (mostly) healthy Vietnamese home cooking. The rest of the spring rolls were bagged up uncooked to be delivered to Huyen's friend, who will fry them and then distribute them in poor areas with her family.

I had taken the things I needed for the rest of the day with me to Huyen's so I decided to stay in Phu My Hung until my Zumba class in the evening rather than cycle the fifteen minutes' home in the unforgiving heat. I went to my favourite cafe/lounge and enjoyed a fresh coconut while reading my book. What I love about this place is that I can order one drink and nurse it for three or four hours and none of the waiting staff will even slightly pressure me to buy a second. In fact they refill my complimentary glass of iced tea any time it is less than two-thirds full, and change it if the ice has melted too much.

After idling my day away as thus I hopped over the road to the Tavern for Zumba. Our teacher, Kate, is going home to Hungary for her wedding at the start of next week and won't return until I have already left the country. So today was my last class with her. I will see her again, however, tomorrow, for her hen party, which I am really looking forward to but which I am sworn not to divulge any information about until after the event. I will report back.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Dinner with Lisa

Today has been the second day of my new beginning- six weeks by myself in the house- since Jessica departed for Taipei, and then the United States, yesterday morning. I have resolved to begin a new work schedule, in which I will concentrate most of my work into the morning and have a more relaxed afternoon. I aim to write one thousand words towards my book before lunchtime every weekday, and after lunchtime send emails, read my book and do other tasks towards my project. Yesterday I wrote zero words; today I wrote 350, which is an improvement if not yet quite on target.

After lunch I went for a little walk around the neighbourhood, a daring venture to undertake at midday in April, even with one of Jessica's massive hats on for shade. Recently we have been having sporadic rain which has cooled the air to a reasonable temperature most days. Today was not one of those days. I took a rest in the shade by one of the ponds in the neighbourhood parks and enjoyed the serenity.

The afternoon was spent sending out some email interview questions, and god knows whatever else I idle my time away on. In the early evening I took the bus into town. Five-thirty is a really interesting time of day to see the city, with the setting sun casting a beautiful golden light, the streets bustling with people finishing work and school, and everywhere full of life. It is something that can be appreciated from the comfort of a bus, when you don't have to negotiate through these streets yourself. I had made plans with Lisa, who taught some Vietnamese classes to me when I first arrived in the country, to meet up for dinner. I hadn't seen Lisa in a long time and remembered that she had bought me a Vietnamese language textbook once, and I had yet to return the generosity. I went to the Artbook bookstore on Dong Khoi and picked up a brilliant photo book called Welcome to Britain, something I believed would be a great introduction to British culture for somebody learning English, with its illustrations of fish n chips, caravans, derelict buildings, humorous sign boards, the English seaside and fat people. I wondered whether she would 'get it' or not, but I liked this book myself so much that I felt compelled to buy it.

I met Lisa at the bottom of the Sunwah tower, where she works. This used to be Jessica's headquarters when she worked for Towers Watson, and I remember her telling me that when she first arrived in Vietnam fifteen years ago, the Sunwah tower was the tallest building in Ho Chi Minh City. Looking at the skyline today, it is difficult to conceive this. Sunwah is now totally dwarfed by the magnificent Bitexco building that stands next door. We ate at Central Cafe outside the entrance to Sunwah, with Bitexco and other giants looming over us. Or rather I ate, as Lisa had eaten earlier. It was essentially a fast-food restaurant, and I ordered deep fried fish in a fluorescent orange sweet-and-sour sauce with rice, which I unashamedly enjoyed. Lisa promised to take me out again before I leave for some real Vietnamese food, something I look forward to. I presented my gift, and it was quite clear that she really didn't 'get it', despite my feeble attempts to explain the British sense of humour to her. Lisa invited me to practise my Vietnamese with her, but I was far too shy to do so and was also ashamed at how very, very little I know. She showed me up with her confidence in speaking English, and in fact led the conversation. We mostly talked about her preferred topic, marriage. One of her first questions to me after we sat down was 'So, when will you get married?'. I told her that I won't be thinking about that for a long time yet. Lisa is thirty-three and considers herself to be getting on a bit. Her problem, it seems, is not in meeting men but in developing any interest in them. Our conversation became more interesting when she told me about how she doesn't like Vietnam and wants to move away. Salaries for graduates are too low, she said, to match the cost of living. It is almost impossible to buy a house. Even more, it is hard to get away as it is very difficult to apply for visas to travel overseas. The government is inefficient at solving problems, the traffic is dreadful, the men are useless and, most disturbingly, she thinks that life is given little value here. There are so many traffic accidents, and the compensation offered for those who die is meagre.

Life is not all doom-and-gloom for Lisa though. At the end of the month she will be making use of the national holiday (to mark Victory day on 30th April), to travel to Taiwan with some friends on holiday. In October she hopes to go to Hong Kong, and after telling her about my recent trip to Laos, she has added that to her list too.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Goodbye for now, Jessica

Jessica and I had a nice meal out this evening with our friends Hoa An and Annie as a farewell do for Jessica, who is leaving for the United States tomorrow morning. She will not return until the 25th of May, the day before I fly back to the UK. I am apprehensive about how I will find the coming six weeks, being by myself in the house, but I also feel conscious of how much I want to have a lot of work to show for myself when she returns. I am entering a new period of my time here and moreover am approaching the end of my time in Vietnam, although it still feels a long time yet.

Friday, 12 April 2013

An ordinary day turned to something special

It has been such an interesting day for me today. In the morning I accompanied Jessica's friend Yennifer on a visit to a factory in Binh Duong province on the outskirts of the city. Here, bamboo and rattan products are produced by the Ba Nhat Rattan Bamboo Ceramic High Grade Cooperative, established in 1976 to offer employment to poor and disadvantaged workers. Madam Cuc is the President of the cooperative and is a friend of Yennifer's. She is apparently quite allusive and it is difficult to secure an interview with her, so I was very grateful to Yennifer for organising this for me.

I was quite short on time as I had to be at my class at the Anh Linh school at 2pm, and I spend most of the morning worrying about this. Before 10am, Yennifer, her friend Hong and I were collected from near my house by Viet, Madam Cuc's friendly PA and the factory's supervisor. It was an hour and a half's drive to the factory, where we were first shown around the showroom to see the products produced here. The Ba Nhat cooperative has supplied Ikea and Wal-Mart and the products were often very beautiful. Then I saw the empty workshops and the full canteen, where the workers were having their lunch. Next, Viet took us through the seven hectare village that houses the five hundred workers and their families. There is a nursery here for the workers' children and a canal has just been completed. Madam Cuc wants the village to be self-sufficient, Yennifer told me. Yennifer's bags were dropped in a room where she will be staying for the following days and then we took a walk around the complex where Madam Cuc stays. The garden was beautiful, with the canal running through, a little pond for fishing, a well, ducks, dogs and beautiful flowers. There was also the less pleasant sight of an enormous caged python that had been caught nearby and kept locked up. I felt chilled all over the see the six or seven metre-long snake, its head only a foot away from me through the wire mesh. It had just consumed something quite large and the middle part of its body was thicker than my thigh.

Bamboo products in the showroom

Part of the garden below Madam Cuc's quarters

We returned to the house for lunch. By now it was 12.30pm, we were a long way from Ho Chi Minh City, I had not yet met Madam Cuc and I was starting to feel very worried about making it back to my class in time. Viet took Hong and I back to the city. We were to pick up Madam Cuc in Binh Thanh district and talk to her in the car on the way back to our drop-off point in district seven. This all went as plan and we picked up Madam Cuc, a lady in her eighties, and her silent husband. Madam Cuc immediately began talking to Hong in Vietnamese, who had to stop her to translate the information to me: she had been talking about the house where she lives now and how she had to sell her previous house to support her business after the fall of the Soviet Union meant she could not trade any more. I was given some newspaper articles about her life and even a copy of the letter she handed Hilary Clinton from a crowd during the President's visit to Vietnam in 2000, which resulted in Hilary Clinton arranging a meeting with Madam Cuc and facilitating a trade agreement for the cooperative with Wal-Mart. Yennifer had explained to me earlier: 'She is willing to work with the Americans now, despite what they did to her country [Madam Cuc's brother and sister were both killed by American soldiers]. That's the thing about the Vietnamese, they're forgiving, they move on'.

It was approaching the point at which I would part and I hadn't yet been able to ask Madam Cuc the questions I had prepared. Taking me by surprise, she turned to me for the first time and told me in perfect English that I should come again to the factory over the weekend, stay overnight, and have plenty of time to talk to her. I was taken aback by this kind offer, especially as I had heard that she is a very private person. I hope that this will be realised and arrangements will be made soon as nothing was formally decided upon.

I thanked Viet and Madam Cuc and left the car, running to the nearest taxi as it was past two o'clock and I had no way to contact the school. My head ached from the hot day followed by the blast of air-con in the car. I turned up twenty-five minutes late to my class and felt horribly guilty. It was my last class with the children today and I had decided to teach them a skill that I should have taught them at the beginning: to mix paints to create new colours. I realised at Tuesday's class that the children don't know how to do this and felt that I must teach them this simple skill before I left them, particularly for the sake of Bao, who aspires to be an artist. I dished out red, blue, yellow and white paint to the kids and told them that they were to make rainbows out of these colours. To help them, I wrote the simple equations on the board:

Red + Yellow = Orange
Red + Blue = Purple
Blue + Yellow = Green
Red + White = Pink

And then I offered the English words 'light' and 'dark' and explained how adding white to a colour would make it lighter. We had previously painted with boxes of twelve colours of paint so the kids had never needed to work this out before. I thought about how it must feel to discover this for the first time. They took to the task really well and they are all very good at naming the colours now (I remember one week when Ms. Kim Ngoc helped one of the younger boys to name the colour 'brown'. It turned out he didn't know the name for this colour in Vietnamese either).

It was a relaxed class and the kids were all well-behaved. When they had tired of rainbows they kept themselves entertained by drawing other things for a while. Then we began to clear up the paint things ready to go outside to play for the last half hour. At this point I was presented with a bunch of drawings the children had done for me this morning, with messages that had been translated by a teacher. They read, 'Dear Amy, thank you for teaching me to draw with water-colours, pencil and to draw comic story. Wishing you happiness' and 'I wish you would have safe return and be happy with your family' and 'Wish you'll come back to Vietnam soon!' and 'Thank you so much for teaching me English. Love you!'. It was very touching and I felt pained to say goodbye to these lovely children. There is a particular little girl in my class called Linh who always wears a necklace with a tear-drop shaped plastic pendant. She runs up to me whenever I arrive at the school, and today she gave me a matching pendant like hers. I worry it may have been a large gesture from a little girl who may not have very much of her own.

As my own parting gesture I produced the pass-the-parcel I had made yesterday. Kim Ngoc explained the rules to the kids. As the playground was noisy and a teacher was playing the guitar and singing with some children nearby, I didn't use music but instead covered my eyes and shouted 'stop' when the parcel should be stopped. The children were meticulous in making sure I remembered to cover my eyes each round. I don't know whether they saw that I was peeking all the way through to make sure everybody got a prize. When I knew it was the final layer I closed my eyes properly and let the winner fall to chance. I was pleased it went to Nam, a really sweet-natured older boy who is always gentle, well-behaved and helps me to tidy up the classroom. The prize was a box of dominoes and when he didn't react to unwrapping it I was worried he was thinking 'well, that's a crap prize'. In fact, he didn't know how to play with dominoes! But Kim Ngoc assured me that she will teach him how to.

Teaching at the school has been a wonderful experience for me and I have really fallen for the children. The Anh Linh school is great, with wonderful, caring staff, and I hope the kids will all be able to achieve their dreams. I will certainly miss them! I feel incredibly happy to have had this unique insight, something that has been so rewarding for me.

Nhu Y


Bao being Bao

Nam, who won the dominoes

Passing the parcel

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Back to old ways

It has felt a little strange today to be on my own again for the first time in two weeks. Mum had given me specific orders to have a lie-in today as we had been up early every day during her visit. So although I had gone to bed early and woken up naturally at 6.30am, I made myself go back to sleep again for another two and a half hours. In hindsight I think I overslept last night and have had a numb headache all day as a result. In the morning I did a little bit of organising of my things, thinking ahead to when I will need to pack my stuff to leave in six weeks. Most of this was throwing away old leaflets and other scraps of paper that I have hoarded. Later I cycled into Phu My Hung; tomorrow I will be going to the Anh Linh school for the last time so I've made a pass-the-parcel for the kids as a treat. I bought a box of dominoes from a stationary shop as the main prize, with the smaller prizes between the layers of newspaper being sweets, balloons, colourful erasers, a funny pencil and a bookmark. I used the copy of the Times that my mum had brought with her as the wrapping paper. The date of the paper was Thursday 28th March, the day she arrived.

Nguyet's lilies
I also had a nice message from Nguyet to follow up our meeting in Hanoi. She sent me some photos of the lilies my mum had bought for her, which had opened up beautifully. "Our feeling is as pure as these white flowers," she wrote.

I have begun to make some plans to keep myself occupied over the following days. Tomorrow morning I may be going to the countryside to meet a businesswoman who has done a lot to help poor people in Vietnam over the past three decades, to interview her. I was helped in making this arrangement by Jessica's friend Yeannifer, who is staying at the house with us at the moment.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Last day with Mum

Of course it was very sad to say goodbye to my mum today after spending two such lovely weeks with her. We had a happy last day though, starting with a morning run and then spent in town doing some souvenir shopping and coffee drinking. A notable experience of the day was taking a stroll through the wet market at Cho Ben Tanh, where we witnessed the grisly spectacle of live frogs being decapitated with a sharp pair of scissors, operated by a woman in wellies who was lightly splattered with blood.

During our shopping trip Mum occasionally expressed her feelings of guilt ("we should be probably going round a museum or something"), but I told her to relax and enjoy herself. And it was a very nice day. It began to spit with rain as we made our way home and rolls of thunder followed. Like the weather, my mood turned bleak as the time for Mum to leave drew closer. We took a stroll around the neighbourhood in the minutes we had left before a taxi arrived to take her to the airport. We chatted about little things and Mum told me not to be sad as it won't be long before I'm coming home too. I'm not sure how I feel. With six and a half weeks ahead- most of which will be on my own as Jessica will be in America- it is not a huge amount of time but feels long enough yet to be a bit daunting to me. I know that there is a lot of work for me to be keeping myself occupied with and that the more I get done, the more rewarding it will feel when it's time to go home at the end of May. I'll just have to keep my spirits up and make the most of the last of my time in Vietnam and all the positive things that come with being here.

Second breakfast at Highlands Coffee

Lunch stop

Final coffee stop in the afternoon

A parting photo with Thuy
...And with Jessica

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

A day of bicycling

Another lovely day with my mum. We went out early on bicycles so that Mum could see more of Phu My Hung, my local area. We went for coffees and then walked around the streets doing some window-shopping and some chatting. After lunch we headed to the Anh Linh school for me to teach my art class for the first time in two weeks. I'd missed the kids and it was doubly nice to introduce Mum to them. She sat in a corner next to a little boy called Dat, who is sweet-natured and slow-working. She encouraged him with his work while I led the class. Mum and I had decided that morning that the class would be to make little comic books. The kids took to this idea well and had some good ideas. It's lovely to see how the children who regularly attend my class have become competent at thinking for themselves and using their imaginations since the earlier classes. Several of the children, all girls, based their stories on a story that I was told by the school's English teacher is a Vietnamese folk story similar to Cinderella. Two peasant girls are told by their stepmother that the one of the pair who catches the most fish for her will receive new clothes to attend a festival. The heroine collects the most fish but her cruel sister steals them from her and becomes the recipient of a beautiful dress. The girl is so sad and cries, and a fairy appears by her side. On hearing the girl's predicament, the fairy tells her to check her bag again. Inside is a small fish. The girl feeds the fish every day and it grows bigger. But the wicked stepmother finds the fish and cooks it. So the fairy godmother makes the girl a new dress made from the bones of the fish and she goes to the festival and meets a prince and they marry... And then the girl returns to her village and climbs a tree to pick some fruit but her stepmother cuts the tree down and she falls... But she comes back as a bird and flies to the prince's castle and... "Well, it's a long story," the teacher told me.

Others came up with their own ideas. The most interesting came from one of the girls, who was the first to start her work and went at it with great enthusiasm. Her story told of a market trader bargaining with customers and battling with the dreaded tax man. I asked her, through the English teacher, to tell me why she wrote this story. She explained that her story was based on her own experiences of selling toys on the street with her sister (which she has ceased to do since one month ago). She also related this joke: A mathematics teacher asks his students- if an item at a market costs ten thousand dong, how much do ten of these items cost? The students reply- ninety thousand dong. The teacher is flabbergasted- but how? Because if you buy more you get a discount, say his students.

Mum had a soft spot for Dat

Tuyet at work

Meanwhile little Dat began a story about a chicken and a cat, which Mum followed with interest as she watched over his shoulder, until he became bored and began playing with the pencils with her. As I was Co Giao- teacher, I assigned Mum the task of drawing a colour wheel for me so that I could give a brief explanation of the primary colours and the results of mixing them to the class. I was quite satisfied with her work. After class we went for a rewarding iced coffee with sweet milk, followed by an even bigger treat of a massage at Jessica's fancy spa.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable day from start to end. It's so sad that I will have to say goodbye to Mum tomorrow after such a lovely two weeks.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Trek to the Kuang Si waterfall

Our weekend trek to the Kuang Si waterfall was both a good challenge and a good experience. The first day was a steady seven-hour trek through jungle to reach a village belonging to the Khmu ethnic group, where we stayed overnight in a 'homestay' bamboo hut. The walk was quite difficult due to the heat and the dry soil that slipped underfoot on ascents and descents, but the scenery was beautiful and, best of all, we never saw another foreigner nor any litter on the trail. Along the route we saw the results of the slash-and-burn agriculture that local farmers practise, leaving trails of smoking black land.

Our guide for the trek was Kia, a short man who was very professional. He is Hmong and comes from a family of eleven children, of whom not all had the opportunity to go to school. We were also accompanied by Ped, a porter and 'assistant guide'. Ped is a nice young lad who supports Liverpool FC- striking a chord with me- who was able to help me up hills over the loose earth, having a stronger foothold with his flat-soled,  worn-out sneakers than I had with my running trainers. The two also cooked all our meals for us during the trip. Our first meal, lunch on Saturday, was produced from Ped's backpack about two and a half hours into the trek (on Jessica's announcement that she was hungry). Ped climbed up a slope to pick some large palm leaves and onto these several plastics bags containing pork, omelette, smoked aubergine, vegetables and chips were emptied. We were each handed a block of sticky rice (a Lao speciality) wrapped in banana leaf, to be eaten with our fingers with the food. It was great.

Sometime around four o'clock we arrived at the village where we would spend the night before continuing to the waterfall the next day. It was a comfortable place and seemed to be doing well- the kids who gathered around us looked healthy and the villagers were at home, not out in the fields, during the evening before sunset. On our arrival they were in the midst of celebrating a new house being built, a party that went on well into the night. The four of us stayed in a hut with beds laid out under mosquito nets. Down a little path was a clean squatting toilet and a tank of water for bathing, something that we appreciated after a long, hot, dusty trek. We were all happy with this accommodation except, perhaps, for Crystal, who was dismayed to find that we had not been provided with soaps and little bottles of shampoo.

The next morning we set off for what was to be a very beautiful three hour walk to the waterfall, stopping off to see a spring and a cave which was used for villagers to hide in when American bombs rained overhead during their secret bombing campaign on Laos during the Vietnam War.

We reached the waterfall feeling very tired and hungry. The view was spectacular and it felt like a just reward for the day and a half's walk. The place was packed with tourists who had arrived by tuk tuk to swim in the pools. We had time for a quick dip and a visit to a neighbouring bear rescue sanctuary at feeding time before it was feeding time for us as at a nearby restaurant. Then back to Luang Prabang by truck. Along the road children were preparing for the upcoming new year celebrations by tossing buckets of water over passing vehicles. This was simultaneously funny, a bit annoying and a great way to refresh ourselves.

Today Mum and I have had a lovely relaxing last day in Luang Prabang. We hired bicycles and did a couple of loops of the town, taking in the former royal palace and national museum, the UXO Lao visitor centre, Wat Aran and a couple of rest stops. It has been a long journey back to Saigon this evening, an end to a great trip that has taken us to many different sceneries. I think we have both enjoyed it very much.


A boy with his baby rats at the village

Village life

Blowing kisses and bowing to us, so cute

Leaving the village on Sunday morning

We made it! Kuang Si waterfall

Friday, 5 April 2013

Up a hill and across the Mekong

Luang Prabang is so hot. Mum and I took off by ourselves today to see the town at a leisurely pace, but had to return to the hotel for naps and showers more than once.

At six o'clock we watched the town's monks proceed silently up the street in front of our hotel in their daily alms procession. Three women kneeled on mats by the side of the road delivering little balls of sticky rice into the bowls of the monks, their only meal of the day. The whole experience, a solemn religious ceremony, was totally marred by the gang of amateur paparazzi chatting at the roadside and conspicuously photographing the monks, sometimes leaning right into their faces. My mum in particular is becoming increasingly irritated at insensitive or incessant photography on the part of others that we have encountered.

After breakfast we walked along the road labelled on our map as 'Tourist Street' to reach Phousi hill, on top of which is a golden stupa and views across the town, out to the Mekong river and the Nam Khan river on either side of the peninsula, everything hazy in the morning heat. We descended and wandered further, arriving at L'Etranger Books and Tea for refreshing ginger tea (the first of several today) and a big shared bowl of fruit, yoghurt and muesli. Next we went to the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, a nice little museum that provides an introduction to the country's diverse ethnic make up, with over one hundred ethnic minority groups. The most interesting exhibits were the traditional clothing of different ethnic groups, each with significant distinctions in terms of decoration and embellishment. We also watched a short video about courting rituals and games amongst one particular group. The lasting impression I took away was the disproportionate responsibility that seemed to be placed on women, who are expected to do most of the housework as well as to weave, dye, sew and decorate their own intricate costumes to demonstrate their creativity, patience and diligence to promote themselves as potential wives.

This was enough activity for the morning and we returned to the hotel for a nap, possibly the highlight of the day for me. Then we had lunch at the banks of the Mekong before crossing the river on a passenger ferry, a cheap alternative to a chartered boat as spotted by my thrifty mother, to have a look at the island on the other side. The village here is called Chompet and along a red dirt path through it a series of wats (temples) can be reached. We walked to the first one before making our way back through the delightful little village and hopping back onto the ferry.

Back in the town we had just enough time for a refreshing iced coffee with milk before making our way to Tamnak Lao restaurant for an evening cooking class we had booked in advance. Mr Leng Lee demonstrated four Lao dishes for us- a spicy fish soup, a chicken and pork curry, a pork salad and blanched vegetables with a spicy tomato chilli jam. Jessica was sure to question every action he took and to stick her face into all the bowls of ingredients in her typical style. Besides Jessica, Mum, Crystal and myself were two young American women and we were all asked to work in pairs, choosing two of the four dishes to prepare between ourselves. I was paired with Crystal as Mum and Jessica are both vegetarian and we agreed to make the fish and vegetable dishes. This pairing arrangement was perhaps not the most efficient as Mum and Jessica are both experienced cooks whereas Crystal and I are less so. I could sense an element of competition between Mum and Jessica, who disagreed on the salt level of their fish soup but nonetheless finished well before me and Crystal. I took the lead in my pair and I'm convinced our fish soup was better!

Our food was served outside with sticky rice prepared by the teacher. After waiting for the obligatory photos of everything to be taken by Crystal we got stuck in. I enjoyed it a lot, and enjoyed the class because we were given lots of freedom to make our own mistakes, in contrast to the class I took in Phnom Penh in which almost everything was done for us. I'm ashamed to say I haven't cooked in a very long time but I was pleased to find I still enjoy it and am not too bad either.

Mum and I had a look around the night market and have settled in a cafe for another cup of ginger tea, where I am writing this post in the absence of reliable wifi at the hotel. Tomorrow we will be picked up early to begin a two-day trek to the Kuang Si waterfall outside of the city. As our group's appointed organiser I am a bit apprehensive about how this will go but I hope it will be a good experience for everyone. I will report back on our return on Sunday evening.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Lazy Luang Prabang

The day has taken us between two very different environments; it began in rainy and misty Hanoi with a morning walk around the beautiful Hoan Kiem lake, traffic swirling around and wet leaves sticking underfoot, and has concluded with me sat in a stylish cafe in the empty streets of Luang Prabang having a late night cup of my favourite, jasmine tea, as all other businesses begin to close up around.

It has felt funny to be travelling during the middle of the day. My mum, Crystal and I met Jessica at Hanoi airport, where she was sat by the window with her back to us. I felt glad to be with her again and realised I've missed her in the few days we've been apart.

It was a short flight on a small plane to reach Luang Prabang, Laos' chilled second town after the capital Vientiane. It took a while to go through the necessary bureaucratic procedures on arrival despite the tiny number of passengers who had arrived. When we were finally released we stepped out into 36 degree afternoon heat.

First impressions of the place have been that Luang Prabang is a very pretty, very quiet town with no shortage of beautiful guesthouses and hotels set in villas, as well as massage parlours, lanterns, fairy lights and tasteful boutique shops. The peacefulness of the town and the sudden heat sent me into sudden fatigue after several days of serious sightseeing in Hanoi. I am very ready to take it easy here.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Getting to know Hanoi

Another busy day in Hanoi. I have been gaining a better impression of the city and have become more fond of it. We woke up to rain this morning but by the time we had eaten breakfast it had died down and the air was cool and fresh, perfect for a walk through the leafy boulevards of the French Quarter. We visited the brilliant Vietnamese Women's Museum in which we watched an insightful film clip about women street vendors working in Hanoi. These women usually come from villages on the outskirts of cities and have to work in the city for weeks at a time, staying overnight in hostels, to support their children and husbands back home. We made a transaction with one of these women back in the Old Quarter; my mum purchased a bundle of lilies wrapped in newspaper to give to a friend, Nguyet, who we had a lunch date with.

Nguyet is a wonderful woman who looked after me when I was unwell on my last visit to Hanoi with Jessica. Moreover I had arranged to meet her to find out more about the student sponsorship programme she has been coordinating since 1996. Nguyet works at the University of Hanoi teaching English and Vietnamese; she began to notice the malnutrition of  some of her students who came from ethnic minority groups and shared this information with a Finish friend who worked for the UNICEF nutrition programme. With this woman's support and encouragement, Nguyet took on the role of a coordinator between her friend's contacts who wished to help impoverished Vietnamese students and the students of her class. At this time this was a politically risky thing to do, but the programme has snowballed and has helped over 1,000 students in almost two decades. The students she helps through her programme call Nguyet 'mummy'.

She invited us to a wonderful design shop called Tan My and encouraged us to spend some time looking at the products across three floors, before recommending we order the house's Bun Cha (barbecued pork, noodles and herbs) to eat. We chatted for a good deal of time. Nguyet opened her heart to us and her story was fascinating; I feel thrilled to be able to document it in my book.

After this wonderful encounter we crossed the Old Quarter and had a look around the military museum. Mum and I wanted to head up to the West Lake, by far the largest lake in Hanoi, but Crystal decided not to accompany us as her hair was in need of pampering at the salon. The two of us carried on and chanced upon a Bia Hoi place where freshly brewed weak beer is served with peanuts on little plastic tables by the roadside. We enjoyed this refreshment and watched with interest as a beautiful hen clucked around inside the shop and was picked up and carried away by an intoxicated gentleman.

We carried on, approaching the West Lake, and saw a barbecue on the road ahead. "Smells lovely", commented Mum, who is a vegetarian.
I looked closely. "Is that a dog?"
"No," mum said. But then she paused and looked longer. The body seemed quite slim for a pig's... and it did seem to have small ears... and fangs.
"Oh dear".

We moved on. Dog is a delicacy in north Vietnam reserved for wedding banquets. However, I had presumed this was not a widespread custom and would not be displayed publicly. This was quite eye-opening.

We enjoyed walking around the West Lake and did so until it became dark and our legs ached. Then we took a taxi back to the hotel before going for tea (Crystal did not join us). Afterwards my mum told me she fancied a walk around the Old Quarter and maybe a coffee. I agreed on the condition that we didn't walk too far as I was tired. We found a nice place to have a drink on a road corner. Here we watched a woman selling fruit trying to flog the rest of her goods before the end of the day. We had learnt earlier at the women's museum that most street vendors will finish by 5-7pm, after a day that begins with visiting the market at 2-4am. By now it was around 8.30pm and this poor woman must have had a long day. But she didn't show it behind the big smile she wore for potential customers.

Neither of us were sure of our location but Mum relied on my supposed "good sense of orientation" to get us back to the hotel. What she didn't know is that I am useless without a map, which I had left in our room. I offered such comforting suggestions as "Getting lost in the Old Quarter is an essential Hanoi experience according to Lonely Planet" as we rounded a corner to find ourselves back at the cafe we had started at, honking motorbikes whipping past. We eventually made it home but she is not best pleased with me now.

Vietnamese mothers in the women's museum

Tan My design shop on Hang Gia, Old Quarter

Mum at West Lake

Cafe culture is big in Hanoi

Tall and narrow Hanoi houses by West Lake

A drizzly morning fishing in the French Quarter