Twenty Four Hours of Seascapes.

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I don’t know what I love most…  The mighty call of the mountains wrapped in the mystique and mystery of a nebular mist draped over the valleys.  Or the ever-changing moods and caprices of the sea, bowing to the will of whimsical winds chasing wispy or thunderous clouds…

Depends upon my frame of mind, I suppose…  Do I crave testing how long I can hold out traipsing up and down the slopes, or do I fancy something a little gentler such as a peaceful stroll along the beach, adding to my year-round tan and maybe dipping in a toe..  Just not too far, just in case Jaws lies in wait in nearby waters.  How can a seventies movie nightmare still have me in its unyielding grip… but I admit I only feel save when I can touch the seabed and spy my toes through a glass-bottomed surface..  And definitely not too many waves or ripples to obscure what may lurk beneath.  I am a coward at heart, I know…

After nine months of feeling like  a virtual prisoner in Quang Ngai, I finally managed to persuade the powers that be to change my day off.  It used to be Fridays but with only one day out of the shackles each week, the Friday sentence was like having eternal doom cast on you…  Death row, with Saturdays and Sundays hard labour: seven and a half hours of face-to-face teaching, starting at 8.00am and persevering until 8.45 pm with, granted, a generous break for lunch and a short break around 5.00 pm.  Exhausting!  Being allocated Friday as my day off certainly limited my travel opportunities, as I could never venture anywhere that would involve an overnight stay… Maybe if I had been braver and got on a motorbike I might have seen more than my weekly glimpse of My Khe beach…  The sights of Quang Ngai – enthralling as they may have appeared in week one – have long since lost their luster.  Still, on the upside, things have changed for the better since the June break and with Monday being my new day of freedom, and my classes on Tuesday starting in the evening, I can finally explore and go a bit further afield…

I heard about the Sa Huynh Beach Resort from fellow expats: an American couple who work in Duc Pho with victims of Agent Orange (watch later posts in a couple of weeks…).  The perfect place for a bit of relaxation and replenishing sapped energy after a long week at work.  As a bonus for me, Sa Huynh is also easily accessible by local bus, just over an hour to the South of Quang Ngai.  And Vietnamese public transport is quite affordable, maybe not as cheap as in China, but still a good option for those who’d rather not be in charge of motorized two-wheelers…

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I arrive in Sa Huynh just before lunchtime and, through the pine trees, a pristine beach is beckoning.  Behind a generous stretch of golden sand, a cerulean sea expands into a rivaling azure sky, fleetingly brushed with white wispy clouds.  The beach is deserted, only the soothing whispers of the tranquil waves my company.  At midday, when beach-loving Westerners chase the sun and a tan, Vietnamese locals shy away from the heat, instead staying indoors for lunch and a siesta.  The beach resort is not yet on the touristy agenda and most of the visitors I encounter at the resort are Vietnamese holidaymakers.

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After lunch, I venture back to the great outdoors, the sea still blue.  But behind me, over the hills, a storm is brewing, the searing heat over the water boosting the moisture in a leaden sky.  A Vietnamese summer is hot, and often very wet with heavy afternoon showers. Thankfully those violent bursts of pelting rain are usually rather short-lived, a mere reminder that we shouldn’t take the sunny weather for granted and should set about our business and the world armed with the ubiquitous umbrella.  A handy gadget come rain or shine.   Of course, my umbrella has long since been windswept into the bin and I now live in hope that I can survive, if not entirely avoid, the odd shower.  Compared to England, this is warm rain, a heavenly blessing sent from above.  It’s only water after all, another baptism will surely not do any harm.

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I stay on the beach as long as seems sensible, but retreat to safer and drier ground when the big drops make their entrance.  Not to my hotel room though, I think I have plenty of time… I make a detour to the hotel reception to find out tomorrow’s bus times, a good pastime on a rainy afternoon.  Within minutes the heavens are in full fury.  Bright lightning flashes clash swords across the blackened sky, explosive booms echo through the endless hollow over the waves.  A loud crack knocks out the power, and the resort descends into darkness, if only briefly.  An hour later, the storm dissipates to leave the air refreshed and I once again make it to the beach…

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The deluge of water has drawn new patterns in the sand and raging rivulets of water have chiselled new channels across the beach.  On the horizon, a watery rainbow slowly creeps up. Hardly noticeable at first, but slowly gaining in prominence and brightness, and eventually, however briefly, stretching to a full arch.  But by then, I have taken my phone back to my room, so I can join the locals and swim in the sea and enjoy the last couple of hours of daylight.

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I am not a fan of very early mornings, although these days I seem to be awake around 6 am every day…  But I want to catch the sunrise and set my alarm for 5.00 am..  Yesterday’s dense clouds linger and obscure where the sun slowly edges itself above the horizon, but the resulting sunrise is no less spectacular as a palette of pastel clouds and a faint sun mirror themselves in the still waters below.  And I am not the only one making the most of the cooler hours.  Whereas the beaches look pretty much abandoned later on when the sun climbs to its zenith, in the early hours Vietnamese people are out in droves on the beach enjoying vigorous exercise, brisk walks and playful swimming.

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Work forces me back to reality, I have classes on Tuesday evening.  But before leaving, I spend more time on the beach.  Almost solitary, bar one small Vietnamese family not afraid of the sun, but it’s only 9.00am.  The early clouds have all but vanished leaving the sky and sea yet again an enviable blue, as if the last 24 hours never happened.

Picture perfect.

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Keeping (my) cool in the gym …

 

It is hot, seriously hot.  It is early July and the onset of the real Vietnamese summer, the most punishing months.  This morning, the outside temperature has already breached 37 degrees Celsius..  It is barely 10 am and I have made it to the local gym.

The building is airless, suffocating as the inside temperature matches the outside heat.  No A.C.  At the far end of the room, a handful of fitness enthusiasts are tormenting weightlifting and body-enhancing (???) machines.  I am the only foreigner, and not even the ceiling fans have been turned on…

I sigh as I prepare myself for battle with the gym attendant.  We have already had a few encounters in the past couple of weeks.  With the preparation for my Base Camp Everest trek in October getting off to a slow start, I need to hit the treadmill, at least a couple of times each week.  Cardio, endurance, stamina, general fitness, with some upper body strength exercises thrown in for good measure. The Quang Ngai hills in the distance beckon but are just too far to get to on my own and as there appears to be a lack of local hiking fanatics to guide me through the wilderness, my best bet to reach my optimum fitness (not that great these days, but I hope it will do the job in October…) is to batter the treadmill in the gym…

I managed before without A.C. in a gym, in India, when preparing for my hike in the Annapurna range. But, compared to my current planned venture, that trek was pretty tame and at least each treadmill there had its own fan blowing cooling air as I was getting hot and sweaty, plus the powerful overhead fans – as long as there was electricity – did a wonderful job.  Once I had established that as a foreign female in an Indian gym in rural Kerala, I could get away with wearing shorts as well as negotiate extra time on the running machine, Annapurna was in my grasp.  Kerala may have been closer to the equator than Quang Ngai, but the monsoon cloud cover ensured that summer temperatures rarely exceeded 30 degrees Celsius…  An afternoon gym session in 100% humidity was not quite the ordeal that 30 minutes tackling steep gradients on a Vietnamese treadmill is proving to be…

As always, I head for the treadmill and go through the customary ritual…  I locate the attendant.  He is extremely busy today, assisting someone with abdominal crunches and holding her feet firmly on the floor.  Of course, the one and only portable fan in the gym is happily whirring in his direction.

Since my Vietnamese lexicon has remained at zilch since my arrival, our conversation mainly relies on gestures.   As usual, the whirling motion of my hands pointing to the ceiling is easily translated as ‘Please turn on the fans over the treadmills’…

As last time, he shrugs and holds up his hands in defeat…  Meaning:  ‘They are not working, they still have not been fixed…’   They have not been working for some weeks now, possibly ever since the summer heat made its uncomfortable approach. In actual fact, I cannot even recall them ever being able to shift from their very stationary position…

I point to the large upright fan behind him and then to where I would like it to be placed…  He shakes his head, clearly unhappy… ‘Many people in this area,’ he manages in English, ‘maybe later..’  The ceiling fans in that section are in perfectly good working order, and I cannot spy anyone who is particularly working up a sweat..  Has anyone ever succumbed to overheating after lifting a pair of dumbbells?

I am insistent.  Later will not do, I am at the gym now… Reluctantly, the attendant leaves the abdominal crunching lady to put the fan near the treadmills and for some time the contented whir keeps heat exhausting at bay.  After about half an hour I feel the temperature rising, my core temperature that is…  My t-shirt sodden from the sweat pouring down…  Suddenly, my senses are alerted to the absence of the cooling breeze, and as I glance back, I notice the fan has found its way back to the other side of the gym..  A momentary lapse of my vigilance!!

I dismount the treadmill and find the attendant, again busily attending to the abdominal crunches.  I shake my head, ‘No way, I am not yet finished.  Please bring back the fan…’  He does not immediately budge, pretending ignorance..  I buy time, time on the treadmill that is.  I gesture that I only want another 15 minutes, maybe 20…

There is a stand-off.  I glare, he glares… but eventually he relents and moves the fan…  I return to my regime of uphill and downhill trek, followed by a 2km jog..  After 20 minutes, I bow out.  Enough exercise for one session.

On my way out, I speak to the attendant…  ‘I am not impressed.  Don’t pull a fast one on me again!  If I die from heat exhaustion on the threadmill, it will cost the gym more than fixing a broken fan…’   I am sure he has not understood a word I said, but he clearly got the gestures…

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P.S.  I was at the gym again this morning.  It looks like the attendant and I have come to an understanding…  It only took three prods to get him to put down his phone and move the fan near the treadmills, albeit after doing several unnecessary visits to different parts of the gym first.  Then he settled down again at his desk resuming his messaging and texting and we both enjoyed keeping (our)  cool…

A simple life in the hills of Sapa.

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‘September,’ the local guide told me, ‘September is the time tourists flock to Sapa.’  At that time of year, the bright green rice terraces slowly lose their verdancy; the amber signs of the impending rice harvest blanketing the hills.  The slopes glow sun-kissed yellow as ripened rice ears burst with kernels.  I have seen the photographs on the internet and the view is indeed spectacular…

Time-starved I had opted for an organized trip; the only thing required from me was to turn up on time.   An early morning flight to Hanoi meant I had a few hours to kill before boarding the overnight sleeper train to Loa Cai, a town near the Chinese border and the nearest train station to Sapa town.  I did not exactly have high hopes for my train journey, having experienced late evening trains in Vietnam before and was filled with trepidation at the prospect of battling for space on the floor near my seat, or even on my allocated bed itself…

As it transpired, I arrived in Sapa in style, ‘Orient Express’ kind of style!!  It felt like stepping back in time: royal purple velvet curtains festooned the windows; a classy lamp backlit matching flowers on the bedside table; there were chocolates, water and wipes and, as it is the 21st century after all, even a few sockets to allow us to charge life’s essentials… mobile phones.  And the bed??  The softest bed I had touched for some time.  As silence enveloped the carriages, the slow chugging and jolting of the train easily sent me off to much needed sleep in time for our arrival at 5 am for a taxi ride to Sapa town.

With no choice given in when we took our one-week break from teaching, I visited Sapa in early June at the start of the rice planting season, just after the winter chill retired from the mountains.  Rice needs warmth and plenty of water to guarantee a good crop and in this mountainous area of Vietnam, winters are too cold.  Unlike Central and Southern Vietnam, where the temperature allows several harvests a year, in the cooler hills of Sapa, there is only opportunity for a single harvest each year.  Enough rice to feed the local population as families grow their own on family-sized plots, but scarcely enough to take to markets or wholesalers and sell on.

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I may not have seen Sapa in all its golden glory, but the sea of greenery made an equally riveting scene.  With warmer days ahead and plenty of heavy, revitalising summer downpours on the horizon, the rice terraces were brimming with activity at the beginning of a new rice season.  The day before my arrival, Sapa had been drenched by heavy showers making the hiking trails extremely slippery and treacherous.

Probably not ideal for the tourists and hikers in the area, but a definite boon for farmers and locals who depend on the rain to get the season off to a good start.  Add to this the arrival of the summer holidays for kids, plenty of hands about to put the seedlings carefully and meticulously, one by one, into the muddy and water-filled paddies.  And it was muddy!!  Having tried a bit of rice planting myself, almost knee-deep in the squelchy slush, it is back-breaking and monotonous work under a blazing sun.

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Whereas in the flatter low-lying areas of Vietnam, many facets of the rice growing cycle have become more mechanized, in Sapa age old traditions still survive.  As the rice in and around Sapa is grown on steeper hill flanks, only small machinery can be used to prepare the paddies and help with the harvest.  Most of the work is still done by hand, laboriously and intensively.  Farmers not only tend to the crops, they also need to look after the banks that separate the many rice terraces and keep the tender rice plants in their pools of water.  Crumbling or collapsed banks are easily strengthened and repaired using strong and flexible bamboo canes which are found in abundance in the area.

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Life in the Sapa hills is simple and largely self-sustaining as households still make ample use of nature’s resources for food, clothing and shelter.  Many of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities live in the mountainous regions, their traditional clothing, lifestyle and culture attracting as much attention as the ever-changing hues of the rice terraces.

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Rice and corn are the main staples whilst buffalo, pigs and chickens provide additional protein.  Traditional dwellings are built using wood; clothes are fashioned using the fibres and dye from locally grown plants.

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On my first day in Sapa, we hiked down to the bottom of a steep valley to Cat Cat, a small village where the traditions of the Black Hmong tribe have been preserved to give tourists a glimpse of how life used to be, and maybe still is for many…  Most of the Black Hmong we encountered proudly wore their customary clothes, carefully hand-tailored to achieve a perfect fit.  The clothes are made locally using cloth woven from hemp plants which flourish in the valley.  To give the fabric its distinctive blue/black colour, it is dyed in huge vats using the sap from the indigo plant, not only colouring the fabric but also staining the hands of those involved in the process.  Lastly,  batik details and cross-stitch embroidery are added, making each garment unique as every family has their own design.

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But things are changing in the Sapa hills as tourism has become a major source of income for many.  Although the extra money lifts a lot of  families out of poverty, easy pickings from visitors are spoiling the authenticity of the experience and bargaining is a must for any purchase if you don’t want to pay extortionate prices (for Vietnam… ).  Tourists make easy prey for vendors plying them with embroidered anklets, hand-made silver bracelets or batik textiles.  Only, not all of these are made in Vietnam.  With the Chinese border only about 30 km to the North, cheap copies and imports are all the rage.  ‘Buy in the village,’ our guide urged us, ‘then you can be sure your purchase is genuine and helps the local community…’  Whereas it may be easier to ignore the adults, when children are used to tug at our heart strings, it can be difficult to resist.  Dressed in local fashion and traditional attire they badger tourists, older children carrying their younger siblings in slings on their back…

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Of course, I did my bit and bought the obligatory anklet and batik throw..  but only after three days trekking with one very nice and friendly local (the one in the left hand corner of the photograph above) who accompanied us the whole time…  How could I not reward her hard work helping me stay upright on the slippery, muddy paths with at least paying for a few trinkets??  Buying from the children may seem reprehensible and should be discouraged,  but they certainly learn English fast… How better to master a useful language for tourism and a skill for later life than through engaging with native speakers…  Our local guides were living proof of that!!

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Tales of incense and pagodas.

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I may have incensed the ancestors.  Very much unwittingly, I should add.

It happened quite some time ago, one early morning, when I crossed the court yard in the language centre where I work.  Captivated by the seductive waft of incense caught in a breeze, and being particularly nosy by nature, I could not resist taking a closer peek at a table laden with the telltale signs of offerings to the beyond.

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Of course, I was not totally oblivious to the piety of it all, but since we had not received any warning about dress code and various other observances during such rituals, I quite happily flaunted my short shorts and strappy t-shirt in front of the table.  Don’t worry, I have the legs and body to match!  And as there were no morning classes, surely my off-duty attire in a tropical climate should not have caused any offence.

Maybe not to the souls of the living, but on that day, they were of lesser importance than the souls of the departed hovering above and keeping a close eye on the scene below…  Still, without even a hint or explanation about the impending event, surely some blame for my lapse of etiquette should rest on the shoulders of those in the know.  A little heads-up anyone??  I would have walked behind the table shrouded in long pants and long-sleeved shirt, even covered my head if necessary, and left the ancestors to their ethereal musings and mumblings…  Less of a chance to incur their wrath and jinx the good fortunes and luck of the centre for the coming year.

In the office, my questions about the goings-on were met with stony silence, and hushed tones suggested that it was best to leave things unsaid.  You could never be sure who might be listening in.  Really?  Not being that hot on the ancestor philosophy, I definitely did not sense the presence of specters.  It could have been my lack of a certain susceptibility to non-matter.   And taking photographs??  A definite no-no, only by the time anyone had the courtesy to spell this out to me, I had long since taken the snapshots I wanted.

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We were eventually put in the picture about the relevance of the auspicious occasion, but only after the proceedings were completed and we were invited to the breakfast feast.  The ritual, part of the Vietnamese New Year celebrations, is carried out at each and every household or business on a secret day to be decided by the monks of a nearby pagoda.   Best to keep ancestors on your side by offering food, incense and prayers.  Whereas the owner of the centre was made aware of the date in advance, staff were alerted at the last minute and, only those Vietnamese staff in the know would have understood what was happening…

Although Vietnam is officially an atheist state, most people are affiliated to one or other religion, as well as – equally and firmly – adhering to the ancient traditions and customs of ancestor worship.  Not a religion or belief, it represents the gratitude of the descendants to the ancestors.  The tradition is rooted in the conviction that all human beings consist of two parts: body and mind.  Upon death, the body is buried but the spirit, who continues to live with the families, must be taken care of and placated to keep potential future mishaps at bay.  On the anniversary of a death, a feast is laid on for relatives, neighbours and friends to celebrate the passing of someone from the precarious life after birth to the eternal life after death.

To ensure the ancestors’ needs in the hereafter are fully met, the families build an ancestral altar, either inside their home or sometimes in a small shrine flanking the house.   Food, water and flowers are placed on the altar and, on auspicious days, paper versions of worldly essentials, such as shoes, hats, etc are presented, and subsequently set aflame…  Probably earthly media may be a tad more convenient to the ancestors in the guise of a vapour.

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Happy tidings call for generous offerings to the ancestors, whereas sad events are marked by prayers and the burning of incense sticks.   Equally, pleas for help from the forebears in troubled times may be more forthcoming when transported with the sweet perfume of burning incense.  And judging by the ubiquitousness of ash covered incense sticks in front of shrines, a fair few requests seem to be heading in their direction…

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The Vietnamese landscape is dotted with temples, pagodas and shrines and many have become famous landmarks and tourist attractions.  To the uninitiated, pagodas and temples with their unmistakable tiered structures and arched entrances, look very much alike.  Only a closer inspection of the items displayed inside the complex will shed light on which one it is.  Whereas pagodas are linked to Buddhism and are filled with huge, towering statues of various aspects of the Buddha, temples are built to pay respect to important people who are held in high regard.  But whichever one you visit, you can be sure to be greeted by the unmistakable waft of incense..

Thien An Pagoda, Quang Ngai

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Marble Mountain, DaNang

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Linh Ung Pagoda & Giant Lady Buddha, DaNang

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Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

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Inside a local pagoda, Tu Nghia near Quang Ngai

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The perils of booking ‘.com’ …

Once in a while, Vietnam has national or public holidays…  Cause for celebration at our language centre: no classes, we get a day (or days) off!  An opportunity to escape the drudgery of teaching English in a smallish provincial town.  Quang Ngai may well be the capital of Quang Ngai Province, but it has still a lot of catching up to do with the more well-known and touristy coastal towns of Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue.

With Reunification Day (04/30 marking the fall of Saigon in 1975) followed on the heel by Labour Day (05/01), a two day stretch lay ahead of us.  Definitely enough time to explore what Vietnam has to offer further afield than the local beach and Da Nang.  Still, since Vietnam does not yet have a fleet of high-speed bullet trains like China, even travel by rail has its limitations for such a short break, especially as the whole of Vietnam might be taking advantage of the holiday and be on the move as well.

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The imperial city of Hue beckoned and came highly recommended on travel sites.  Located just a little to the north of Da Nang, Hue was the national capital from 1802 until 1945.  As the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors, Hue is steeped in history and there are plenty of the emperors’ legacies left for visitors to admire.  Beyond a moat and thick walls, Hue’s 19th-century Dai Noi Citadel encompasses the palaces and shrines of the Imperial City, as well as the Forbidden Purple City which was once the emperors’ home, and a replica of the Royal Theatre.  And just out of town, dotted along the Perfume River, majestic mausoleums are nestled between lush green hills, ensuring the emperors a peaceful final resting place.   Definitely a city worth our attention…

Train tickets booked well in advance – although not early enough to snap up comfortable beds in a sleeper compartment – the only thing left to organize was accommodation.  Booking.com all the way!!  No need to pay anything online, just pay cash on arrival.  What is there not to like about such an arrangement??  We selected a guesthouse on the periphery of the busy centre, one with plenty of excellent reviews of course, and forewarned them of our very late arrival in the wee hours of Monday morning.  As we were teaching on Sunday until past 7:00 pm, our train options had been limited and the 8.20pm train would get us to Hue just after 1.30 am.  A well-laid plan.  What could go wrong?

Sunday lunchtime: a quick glance at my phone alerted me of missed calls from a Vietnam number, and a text message….  ‘Sorry, we cannot accept your booking’.  It transpired the guesthouse had seen it entirely within their rights to give our room to other guests.  As Booking.com does not ask for payment in advance or a deposit, the guesthouse probably felt safer to fill their rooms with guests who just turned up on the day rather than risking a no-show in the middle of the night.   Of course, a little panic ensued: this two-day break was not just for us teachers, but the whole of Vietnam would be on the move…  How to find a place to sleep on our arrival in the dead of night?   Luckily, just a call to Booking.com in the UK was all that was needed to find another hotel.  Saved by the skin of our teeth, or so we thought…

Our train left late, no reason to fret: this is Vietnam.. It will happen when it happens.  Instead of our scheduled arrival in Hue at 01.30 am, the train finally pulled in closer to 02.30 am.  Not to worry, I had again indicated on the booking form that we would reach the hotel sometime after 2:00 am and the internet blurb suggested a 24-hour manned reception desk.   At least we’d been able to fit in a little bit of a kip, just like other passengers who opted to try the comfort of the train floor instead of the reclining ‘soft’ seats.

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As we left the station, rain pelted down…  Umbrella?  Rain coat?  Quang Ngai had been basking in glorious sunshine that afternoon; practicalities such as taking waterproofs had completely slipped our mind.  Our plan to walk to our hotel, a mere 1.5 kms away, washed down the drains…  Although there were plenty of taxis on the station forecourt, sleepy taxi drivers shook their heads on reading our intended destination.  Clearly the distance was not worth waking up for.  We almost resigned ourselves to a soggy midnight jaunt through town, when an eager motorbike taxi pulled up.  After some haggling, we wheedled the fare down to a realistic figure and squeezed on the back seat.  A tight fit indeed… one driver, two adult passengers and bulging backpacks…

I cannot discount the possibility of an error on my behalf.  Vietnamese addresses with multiple numbers at the front flummox me… and I may inadvertently have ignored a vital digit or two.  To cut a long story short, sometime between 2.30 and 3:00 am, we were dropped off at the end of the longest road in the middle of nowhere in Hue, nowhere near our hotel…  The rain continued unabated and we resorted to the help of Google Maps…  If phoning the hotel had seemed a sensible move, we duly tried it but the ringing at the other end fell on very deaf ears..  So much for a 24 hour reception desk!  We walked on guided by the blue dot on Google Maps, but even the satellite directions failed to pinpoint the exact location of the guesthouse…   We spotted a man on the pavement, busily washing pots and pans – a mystery to me why anyone would need to attend to washing dishes at 3.00 am at night – whose vision immediately deteriorated at the sight of the address of my phone.  Even enlarging the address did not improve his reading ability…  Eventually,  we bumped into some tourists, foreigners, who kindly pointed us in the right direction.  Finally, just after 3:00 am, we made it to the hotel… and found the door unlocked!!  We were in!!

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We never made it beyond the lobby. We snatched the receptionist from the arms of Morpheus, only to be told… ‘No rooms, go find other hotel.’  What about our reservation from Booking.com? It happened to be the middle of the night and raining relentlessly??  Obviously booking ‘.com’ did not guarantee us a bed; with no deposit paid, the room had again been given to other guests…  The receptionist was unperturbed, rolled over and immediately returned to his slumber.  Leaving the hotel well after the witching hour was not an option, so we camped on the cold lobby floor.  When ‘numb bum’ syndrome finally got the better of us and daybreak heralded the prospect of an early coffee, we sneaked out into the drizzle.  Luckily, it did not take us too long to locate another hotel, in a much more exciting part of town…  We only had to stay upright until midday to check in…

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That first morning passed in a haze…  We trailed the perfume River and, along with a sea of other tourists, visited the much-praised Imperial City.  It may have been the lack of sleep, but somehow the Imperial City did not impress and the only thing that kept us going was the thought of a soft bed around midday and the abundance of exotic food… pizza, bruschetta, granola as well as local Hue cuisine…  It would be a culinary experience to savour!!!

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Of course, the next day our sentiments regarding Hue greatly improved.  A long rest, a great breakfast and we felt fit to explore the outskirt of Hue by bicycle.  We set our sights on one of the famous tombs, the Tomb of Dong Khanh, about 9 km from our hotel.  Hardly worth breaking a sweat over…  only, following the walking route recommended by Google Maps may have been a tad over-optimistic.  City bikes were hardly a match for the dirt tracks we encountered.  On the upside, we rattled over luscious green hills, were mesmerized by the impressive looking statues of a military figure and a giant buddha, passed the entrance to a hidden pagoda and definitely found someone’s tomb tucked away in the depths of nowhere ..  but it sure wasn’t the one we were looking for.

 

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weird tomb

‘Only three kilometers along the path,’ a helpful local had indicated. By then Google Maps’ guardian angel had completely lost interest in our plight and it seemed safer to withdraw to a nearby tarmacked road – at least we had spotted some signs of life there.  And lo and behold, just around the corner, a large tomb complex appeared and … masses of tourists.   A sure sign we had finally found the tomb we were looking for, much closer than the three kilometers away…

As it transpired, it was one of ‘the tombs’ alright, but not the one we had intended to visit, the one with the row upon row of military figures watching over the burial chamber.  In fact, this was the Tu Duc Tomb, more famous and touristy than the one we were heading to.  At least we did not miss out on the mandarins lining the Honour Courtyard; there just were not as many as we had expected and all rather diminutive, in keeping with the emperor’s actual stature of just 153 cm!

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The emperor himself designed the tomb complex and as it was completed well ahead of his demise, he took ample advantage of the amenities during his life time… A separate building to house his more than one hundred concubines, a pond for fishing, temples and pagodas…  Impressive quarters fit for a ruler!

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The Stele Pavilion, bearing an inscription about the Emperor’s life – composed by none other than the Emperor himself – was neatly covered for restoration work, but the sepulcher was accessible.

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Not that the Emperor was actually laid to rest there… Although his wife and adopted son are buried in far flung corners of the grounds, the whereabouts of the Emperor’s real grave are to this day unknown.  To keep the secret safe and make sure there would be no grave robberies, the 200 labourers involved in the burial were all beheaded by the mandarins after their return from the undisclosed route…

We spent the rest of the day lazing about on our bikes and, of course, making the most of the availability of Western food: another pizza feast.  It could be a while before we would have another opportunity to indulge in pizza…

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Rice, glorious rice: Vietnam’s staple

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Seasons take on a different meaning in Vietnam.  Whereas all the usual seasons songs in my ESL repertoire are firmly rooted in the northern hemisphere cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter, this does not match the reality of Central Vietnam.  Autumn – or fall as it now just as easily rolls of my tongue – does not come dressed in golden yellow or burnished red hues; neither are trees unceremoniously defrocked by blustery winds leaving branches bare and waiting to be robed with the sequined sparkle of snow.   Although Tet and the onset of spring in early February is marked with a flurry of yellow buds and flowers on the pavements, in Vietnam the only things that change colour as the seasons progress are the rice paddies….

 

My first view of the rice paddies in Vietnam was in late August, on a trip to Binh Ninh – an area not too far from Hanoi.  Against the backdrop of impressive karst scenery, lush green fields filled every available stretch of land either side of the waterway coursing through the valley.

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On arriving in Quang Ngai, central Vietnam, I did not take much notice of the rice paddies; I was too engrossed in the experiences of exploring a new country.  During my first trips to the beach and the nearby pagoda, I was focusing on memorizing roads, routes and landmarks.  Of course, the verdant fields attracted my attention, but cycling to keep up with others meant that taking photographs had to be postponed to a later time, when I could visit the area at my own leisurely pace.   Early November finally saw me on a solo trip to the beach, phone in hand to take snapshots of the green landscapes of the locality.   With the start of the rainy season and the promise of water galore in the paddy fields, water buffalo wallowed among the rice plants and noisy rafts of ducks splashed in their vastly extended ponds.

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I can only surmise I missed the early winter rice harvest, as only a couple of months later, the abundant greenery had suddenly vanished.  In the gloom of January and early February, brown, muddy fields, bearing the spikey remnants of rice stalks, were already being prepared for the next rice crop.  In central Vietnam, the rice cycle – from seedling to mature plant ripe and ready for harvesting – takes about three months, so farmers can produce at least two crops each year making the most of the wetter and cooler months.

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In mid April, I was alerted to the next harvest.  Bags bulging with rice appeared on the pavements  and  mounds of rice were spread out thinly on the roads near my place of work…  Just before the rice is harvested, the paddy fields are drained, leaving the threshed rice kernels damp.  Unless they are thoroughly dried, farmers risk their crop becoming mouldy and no longer fit for consumption.   No better place to dry the grains than on sun-soaked, tarmaced or concreted roads…

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So, it looked like the time had come to get back onto my bike and cycle the familiar route to the beach…  Alongside the road the once green and brown fields had turned the telltale yellow shade of grains ripened and ready for harvest.  Ears of rice drooping down, heavy with fat kernels.

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Normally bustling roads were fringed with rice-coated plastic sheets; most courtyards were covered too and offered easy pickings for a lone cockerel.  Even the gates to the military cemetery for soldiers and fighters of the Vietnam War were opened and the path leading up to the memorial was blanketed with more rice grains…

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If I was expecting to see farmers toiling with scythes and sharp knives to cut down the rice, I was in for a surprise.  With plenty of low-lying land on the coastal plains, small combine harvesters have made light of that side of the rice harvest.  New technology and mechanisation are slowly but surely transforming how rice gets from the paddies onto the table.

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Nevertheless, there still remains a lot of manual labour involved in the rice harvest and the fields are busy with people…often only too happy to pose for a picture..

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Tam Thanh: artists’ impressions of a fishing village.

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There is probably no better way to put an unknown place on the map than turning it into a tourist attraction… And tourism is big business, in Vietnam as much as in neighbouring countries in the region.  With a coastline of over 3000 km, that’s a lot of beaches to develop.  A lot of potential to attract tourists and inject foreign currency and investment.

Until two years ago, Tam Thanh was just another small fishing village.  An assortment of crumbling and dilapidated buildings crammed together on a strip of land edging the shoreline.  Most dwellings in dire need of a refreshing lick of paint.  Mould creeping up dank walls, weathered wooden shutters bleached by the unwavering sun.  An eternal battle lost to the unending cycle of nature’s forces.

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Inspired by the popularity of mural villages in South Korea, in June 2016 a group of Vietnamese artists and volunteers joined up with their Korean peers to transform Tam Thanh from an impoverished fishing village to an artists’ gallery.  Under the banner of ‘Art for a Better Community’ they wielded their paint brushes and fashioned tired walls, unseaworthy fishing vessels and enormous, stone water jars into blank canvases, in a bid to improve the economic fortunes of the villagers.  The first project of its kind in Vietnam.

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Strolling through the main street of Tam Thanh, on almost every corner and every wall images of village life unfold.  Locals going about their normal day to day business: a woman sitting on the side of the road selling vegetables and fruit;

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women displaying the catch of the day;

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the local hairdresser (?) posing next to his painted image;

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the weather-beaten face of a local fisherman, on the wall of his house;

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a local girl, averting her pensive gaze away from prying tourist eyes;

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the call of the sea through an open window;

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and fun, of course..

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Upturned boats, no longer suitable for use at sea, have been given a new lease of life and are scattered around the village, adding colour and vibrancy to deserted corners and empty, unused spaces.

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And when I arrive in the early morning, the whole street is lined with painting easels showing off ‘take-home’ versions of the murals, encouraging tourists to not just take their own photographs but buy paintings and put more money into the local economy.

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The village of Tam Thanh is a mere 40 km south of Hoi An – one of the most popular touristy towns in Vietnam – and can easily be reached by car or motorbike.   Just a morning is all it takes to explore what Tam Thanh has to offer.  Although a local newspaper boasts a daily influx of 500 tourists to Tam Thanh, when I walk through the village, it is still early and not too busy.  Coffee shops and restaurants are waiting for customers…  Everyone ready with a hopeful smile.

But what I enjoy most is the fact that Tam Thanh has not yet completely changed.  Just beyond the mural covered houses in some of the side streets and alleys, there are still plenty of remnants of what the village looked like before.  Picturesque in its simplicity and absence of added embellishments… and a place upholding age-old traditions.

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Unwittingly I stumble upon an annual praying ritual performed by local fishermen and village elders at a full moon in the early weeks of the Lunar New Year.   Enticed towards the beach by chanting and music, I watch a group of young men in colourful traditional garb pretend-rowing a longboat on the sand under the cover of a large tarpaulin.  At the front three tables are overflowing with the usual accoutrements of religious ceremonies: incense sticks and food offerings, alongside a model boat.  After the singing and prayers, offerings are made to appease the ‘god of the sea’ to ensure safe passage and return of all the fishermen who go out to sea.  Food is scattered on the sand, paper offerings burnt and a model boat is carried far into the waves…

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The ceremony and formalities finished, the group of fishermen – dressed to the nines –  are all too happy to pose for a picture with me…  How could I refuse???

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