A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Here's a close-up of the cathedral with a rather interesting nativity scene that's been grafted onto the front.

Christmas Eve sunset in Hanoi. Here's the Catholic cathedral preparing for midnight mass. As Christian and non-Christian alike prepare for Christmas, the US State department has issued a 90 day warning to Vietnam about the supposed infringement of the right of people to practice their religions.

Even in Hanoi you can't escape the Father Christmas hats!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A jogged shot of Mark with his urine sample - no actually it's beer in a bag! These can become deadly weapons in the wrong hands as they can be used as very efficent water bombs!

inside the stadium - quite impressive looking place, shame about Vietnam's football though. Lost 3-0 to Indonesia in the Tiger Cup.

Mark outside of the Hanoi football stadium

Monday, December 06, 2004

A very young looking Flower H'muong mother. Note the majority Kinh (Vietnamese) woman wearing the conical hat.

Yep, it's raining again!

Flower H'muong woman with umbrella - good idea considering it pours down all the time!

Flower H'muong women at Coc Ly market

First class sleeper carriage with Mark and Kate on our way to Lao Cai - can't you just feel the luxury?

Busy street scene on Hanoi Liberation Day

Hanoi traffic, as seen from the balcony of Highland's Coffee house just north of Hoan Kiem Lake

Bobby Chin’s – surprisingly ‘affordable’ my arse!

At last we thought we’d treat ourselves to a good meal. Bobby Chin’s has a very good reputation among the ex pat community here in Hanoi. All the reviews had raved about its interior design, excellent staff, wide selection of drinks and tasty meals. We couldn’t resist it any longer. What was particularly appealing was that all the reviews mentioned how reasonable the prices were. So without further a do we paid it a visit. Without a doubt, it looks pretty impressive, drapes, candles and chrome all dazzle the eye, despite the ultra low lighting – so low in fact you can’t see what you’re eating. We now think this was a cunning plan so you couldn’t see the prices! And what prices! Having had a very nice meal we were presented with the bill – over 2 million Dong! 2 million!! Yes TWO MILLION! I think our largest error was probably in ordering the wine – that alone cost 38 US dollars! We’ve decided to have a few nights in this month!

The temperature has dipped to the unfeasibly low of 19 degrees – brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

November round up and a visit to Sapa

Two of Felicity’s friends arrived in Hanoi and thankfully neither Nicky or Stewart her partner conform to any Vietnamese ideas of backpackers, being sophisticated urban types who just liked hanging out in some of Hanoi’s cafes and bars. They even managed to squeeze in a bit of sight-seeing. Their only problem was Stewart’s scouse accent being understood by the Vietnamese. On one occasion Stewart asked for a Sprite and received rice instead! They have been awarded with the ‘I can’t believe you remembered’ prize for having lugged a bottle of HP sauce all the way from Britain – cheers!

Felicity’s birthday was celebrated in traditional style (Holloway Road traditional style), with an Indian curry and beer. Unfortunately this took it’s toll the day after as I came down with a truly terrible dose of food poisoning which seemed to go on for at least a week. Important formula kids: spicy Indian food + dried squid (age uncertain) cooked over a charcoal burner in the street + draught beer from a street bar (with free floaty bits) = food poisoning.

We at last managed to leave Hanoi! We visited Sapa, a former French colonial outpost over 2,000 metres in the mountains just south of the Chinese border. We left Hanoi on Sunday evening so that our Australian friends Mark and Kate could come with us - they both work all day at weekends teaching English.

We boarded our sleeper at about 9pm after some confusion as towhat platform our train was on. We travelled firstclass which was not really that comfortable, but makes you wonder what 'hard' sleeper and 'soft seats' letalone 'hard seats' were like!

After a few hours sleep we were woken by an announcement in Vietnamese which we thought meant thatwe had arrived at Lao Cai - our destination. It turned out that it was an announcement that we would be an hour late - it wasn't all doom and gloom however as it meant that we could watch the dawn break over the river valley we were travelling up.

Lao Cai is a one horse town on the border with China -you could see China over the bridge. Entertainment in Lao Cai consists of travelling around the town on converted golf buggies so we gave that a miss and boarded the local tourist bus that would take us toSapa. The route twisted it's way around steep slopes and as the height increased the vegetation began to change from the bright green tropical variety we are familiarwith to a more alpine looking kind.

Along the route we saw small houses with children walking along the road to school, some of them carrying small plastic chairs to use when they got there. We often passed groups of buffalo grazing and meandering across the road, 'chinese' looking dogs lolling on verandas, and some pack donkeys looking on as our tourist bus went past.

Eventually we started seeing people from the ethnic minorities who live inthe Sapa region. We saw children and women of the Red Zao people, wearing black/indigo tunics and leggings with black aprons. Their heads were covered withintricate red scarves, with lots of silver jewellery toward off evil spirits. Eventually, at 2,000 metres above sea level we reached Sapa.

Sapa has the feel of an alpine resort (minus the snow). The architecture is a mix between French colonial, traditional Vietnamese (often painted in abright ochre or mustard), Soviet style concrete and some ethnically derived styles.

we arrived at our hotel at about 7am and the whole of the valley wasbathed in brilliant sunshine. As our rooms wouldn't be available for another two hours we took a wander around the town.

There in the streets we met some teenagers from the Black H'mong people - they spoke amazingly good English and were very tactile, tugging your sleeve and asking where you were from. Their clothing was also dyed with indigo, but had lots of brocade and batik work on it too. It was really strange the contrast between their costumes, their clinking silver jewelleryand their fantastic English. They also had amazing hairstyles with it swept up in what almost could be described as a cross between a quif and a beehivetopped off with a headscarf. At this point we began to flag - so we returned to ourhotel rooms for a short nap.

Our views were excellentand only due to my stupidity we failed to take anypictures of the incredible heights of the mountain opposite. We woke up to find the clouds had returnedand had brought along with it the rain. We never didsee the mountains again.

The temperature had dropped dramatically, and the rain, alternating between a thin mist and full blooded downpours, drove us indoors where we ate a traditionalVietnamese meal - interestingly there was a greater use of herbs and in particular pepper in the food -reflecting the colder weather I assume.

Later we looked at a few shops selling traditional craftware and then took a walk further up the hill that Sapa rests on to the 5 star Victoria hotel, which was extremely pleasant. The Victoria hotel has abeautiful bar with raging wood fires and cosy decor (though it does possess some of the most appallingly ugly artwork we've seen in Vietnam!).

As the weather was so filthy we spent the evening in the local bars and restaurants, including the Red Dragon, an English theme pub - which actually felt quite authentic. Here we drank a few rounds of Baileys and then toddled off to bed.

The next day we left the hotel at 7am and took a daylong tour. Our guide met us at the hotel and we got into a jeep for the journey down the mountain. We stopped off again in Lao Cai and deposited our luggage for our train journey later that day. Then we pulled out of Lao Cai and made for the hills.

Our destination was a small market called Cocly about 60km away up in the mountains. While initially we thought the jeep might be a bit excessive it turned out to be the perfect mode of transport as we passed motorcyclists smothered in mud, cars skidding about, and on one occasion a two wheel drive jeep moving sideways.

Eventually we reached our destination - even though we had to get out and walk the last half amile. Cocly market appeared crammed along a thin strip of mud, compacted into a small ravine. The market wasa riot of colour and activity. There we saw members ofthe Flower H'mong people who unlike their more soberly dressed Black H'mong cousins in Sapa, wore brilliantly coloured costumes in red, magenta and had stitching and embrodiery of all shades and colours.

The place was fascinating, everywhere people would be shouting for your attention, shoving you aside, peering under canvas shelter as the rain began to come down again. At the top of the ravine, men traded tobacco and livestock - we saw donkeys, mules and goats all being sold.
And, just beyond the market, a suspension bridge swung across another ravine beyond which lay theFlower H'mong village.

We travelled back down the market and boarded a boat that took us through landscapes that looked like they'd been stolen from a Wild West film and eventually stopped at a Thai ethnic community village- again smothered in mud.

Everyone in the village had very sensibly decided to stay indoors as it was bucketing it down. We did however learn something about the way these villages work, with their fields of produce, paddy fields, fish ponds and most interesting of all their stilt houses made of a type of wood that was immune to insects and rot. The stilthouses had become popular when there used to be man-eating animals such as tigers around but now hadbecome a tradition.

After the village we had a picnic on the boat, and eventually got the jeep back to Lao Cai. Thankfullythe place that was looking after our luggage turned out to be the best place we could have chosen to eat -almost all the other places we saw had FOOD POISONING HERE written all over them.

So there in the square outside of the railway station we ate our last meal on the Chinese border and made our way home on the 9pmtrain back to Hanoi...arriving without waking once all night in Hanoi at 5.30am Wednesday morning.

October roundup

We kicked off October with a night out at Highlands Coffee, which has become a bit of a regular haunt of ours due to it’s location at the top end of Hoan Keim lake. We were able to hear a concert put on to commemorate the liberation of Hanoi in 1954 from French forces. The most interesting of the groups was a Vietnamese traditional orchestra. They played a variety of instruments, including a wooden box with one string and a modulating handle (which I’m sure has a snappier name), a cello of some kind that was played back to front, and a variety of xylophones made of either stone or metal (it was a bit too far away to see). The music was an interesting mix of slow oriental with what sounded like Erico Morricone – the composer who scored all the famous spaghetti westerns, with a bit of 70’s funk thrown in – all good stuff. Unfortunately the rest of the acts didn’t live up to their high standards. So we left – only to find out later that we’d missed a dragon dance! We seem to be the only people in Hanoi yet to have seen one!

Fun Bun Cha
We braved a street stall at the weekend to sample one of Hanoi’s most famous dishes - Bun Cha. Bun Cha is a delicious combination of rice noodles (white and wobbly), pork – both minced meatballs and pork belly coupled with a clear broth containing fish sauce and herbs and spices, served with a side order of fragrant herbs. Excellent stuff – but reliant, it has to be said, on good quality meat – not always guaranteed.

Karaoke night with Thuy
You’re probably getting the mistaken idea that we actually like karaoke, but to be honest it’s almost impossible to avoid it as it seems to be an extremely popular past time. Thuy – one of my work colleagues decided that we should go to her birthday at a karaoke bar. Thankfully for all concerned you get your own private room so you don’t need to offend all and sundry with you appalling singing. We arrived late having agreed to meet Thuy there at 9pm. Due to a mix up, the staff of the Karaoke bar thought that the two of us just wanted our own karaoke lounge to ourselves! We quickly disabused them of this, and eventually they worked out that we needed to be deposited in the room where Thuy was celebrating her birthday. Having found the safety of the birthday room we then had to wade through several gigantic folders of music selections, only to proclaim at the end that ‘we don’t know any of the songs’ cunningly escaping from the potentially horrific situation of us having to sing.

House of the flying daggers…sniggering, chatting and mobile phones
One of the fun things about working in a Vietnamese business is that sometimes, with no apparent justification, the management will decide that we should have a good day out.
So we found ourselves on a Saturday night outside of the National Film Centre, waiting for my colleagues to go and see a film that potentially could be in Chinese, with Vietnamese subtitles.
Thankfully the film had English subtitles and proved to be a film of the same type as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – it is well worth watching if you liked Crouching Tiger…with excellent effects and choreography. The costumes are also pretty stunning.
The most interesting thing about going to the cinema for the first time in Vietnam was the audience reaction. While most were completely silent, we had a small group of people behind us who thought it was fascinating for all of us to hear their mobile phone conversations. The other funny thing about them was their inability to keep quiet during any romantic parts of the film – as though they found it all too embarrassing and had to joke about it – what was strange was that they must have been in their late twenties or early thirties…not sniggering teenagers. Of course having left the cinema, we thought perhaps people might go for a drink or something – but no in the blink of an eye everyone had disappeared – I suppose we see each other at work six days a week as it is…

Attack of the Bun Cha men
Since we’ve moved to Ly Nam Dei and the weather has cooled, we’ve often taken to walking home after a night out. Just before we hit our road we often pass a late night street restaurant. This one, like all the others, has it’s own speciality. You can’t miss what each one specialises in because they have huge boards with large text exclaiming ‘Ga’ (chicken), Pho (beef noodle soup), or ‘Bun Cha’ (pork and rice noodles). As we pretty much go past it in the early hours at least twice a week the young blokes running it have jokingly shouted out to us to eat at their restaurant. In return we’d smile and rub our stomachs in a ‘no honestly, I couldn’t, I’m stuffed’, kind of way. On one particularly late occasion however, when we’d all had a little too much drink – the restaurant staff included -they decided that they wouldn’t take no for an answer, and began running after us down the street with a gigantic bun cha sign, shouting ‘bun cha!’, ‘bun cha!’. What added to the surreal nature of the episode was the fact that the man carrying the giant sign couldn’t be seen as he was on the small side, so it appeared we were being chased by a bun cha sign on legs. After about five yards of running all off us collapsed into fits of laughter, but I’ll never forget the bun cha sign on legs!

Felicity has just come back from her Vietnamese lesson today and she has learnt two new words. For some apparent reason the words for dirty and backpacker are neatly taught at the same time! Apparently backpackers have a very bad reputation in Vietnam. They are thought of as smelly, untidy, overly flesh showing untrustworthy types – and who are we to argue?!