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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Camping in memory of Ho Chi Minh

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Sometimes you just know that you are flogging a dead horse…  No amount of cajoling, coaxing, threatening or inflicting sheer terror is going to breathe life into the corpse.

When a class of 15-16 year olds (grade 10…) looks and acts more lifeless than me (after a week of battling the worst bout of gastroenteritis I have succumbed to in just over three and a half years of exploring the great beyond divorce), something is seriously amiss.  Whilst the girls were at least minimally attentive and not shy of some input, the boys were basically overwhelmed by persistent inertia… M’s head immediately settled on the desk upon his late entrance into the classroom and no matter of gentle – or otherwise – prodding got more than a grunt out of him.  Normal behaviour for a teenager, you say… only Vietnamese teenagers buck the trend.  They are, on the whole, a very polite, well-behaved, eager-to-learn bunch and make teaching a pleasure…

In their defence, I admit that watching a Youtube video of daredevil Danny MacAskell enjoying an endorphin high whilst doing awe-inspiring stunts on his mountain bike, may not have exactly produced the same adrenaline rush in the classroom.  Especially as the video was merely a prelude to a reading exercise analyzing tenses such as past simple, present perfect and present perfect continuous…  Lesser things have been known to drive teenagers to distraction and into oblivion in an English classroom.  I should know, I once sat on the other side and I can assure you, we did not even have the likes of Youtube videos to liven up the monotony of conjugations and verb patterns…

‘It’s the ‘camping’,’ H assured me, hovering just above a comatose state.  ‘We’ve been busy getting everything ready at school…’  His eyes glazed over, the mere effort of one sentence sapped him.  We shelved the grammar, my capitulation inevitable.  I relented, ‘OK, tell me all about it…’

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Being a rather nosy specimen of the human race, I already had a pretty good inkling of what ‘camping Vietnamese-style’ entailed…  Only a day earlier, I had witnessed the transformation of the nearby city square and put out feelers about what exciting event was about to unfold.  Normally a quiet, peaceful area, occasionally frequented by teenage cyclists on their way home from school and early morning or late evening exercise fanatics making ample use of the street-gym-apparatus, that day every corner was beset by youngsters wielding massive bamboo poles and erecting intriguing structures…

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Of course, I enquired about the goings-on at the English Centre where I work.  Surely, someone would be able to give me the low-down and all the details…  ‘Well,’ B in the office started, ‘to be quite honest, I have no idea…  It’s the camping… Something to do with 26th March springs to mind.’  It was a start indeed… Like all good traditions in any country, Wikipedia and the internet probably could shed more light on folklore than the locals who live and breathe it.

Surprisingly, even cyber-space was particularly tight-lipped about this auspicious occasion, but as it transpires, the ‘camping’ is an annual event, celebrated nationwide on or around 26th March to commemorate the inauguration of the Youth division of the Communist Party, in 1931.  Founded and initially led by Ho Chi Minh himself, the Ho Chi Minh Youth Union is the largest social-political organisation of Vietnamese youth.

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Participating groups – either in the town square or in schools – pitch up against each other in exciting and fun-filled competitions, such as building the most spectacular and eye-catching entrance to their tent, hence the bamboo poles…  Cooking skills are also hotly contested and there are even prizes for organizing the most exciting game such as tug-of-war, or possibly even for piggy-backing the girls across the square after performing manly acrobatics on bamboo poles under the watchful eye of Ho Chi Minh himself peering out from the inside of every tent… It is camping after all, and after dark, swarms of teenagers circle campfires whilst singing suitable songs and daring a bit of flash mobbing, and at least some of the lucky  ones will be enjoying a sleepover…  Teenage adventure as it should be.

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Although the origin of the camping event may be largely lost on today’s Vietnamese teenagers, it is clearly one of the highlights on their calendar..  And who can begrudge them the fun, because just like their Chinese counterparts, the burden on Vietnamese students to do well, work hard and even harder, and build a successful future is immense.   More classes after more classes, a diet of relentless studying.

So what if the past simple and present perfect continuous send my students to sleep?? They probably earned and needed the rest….  At the end of the day, grammar or camping?? No contest at all!!

No escaping China’s clutches…

I may well have finished with China last summer, but it appears China has far from finished with me…  Am I famous, or is it more a case of infamy???

Only just about two weeks ago, a friend in Hangzhou sent me a copy of a newspaper article…

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‘Look,’ my friend L. exclaimed, ‘your name is in the newspapers in China!!’

‘Hmmm,’ I replied.  ‘It may well be my name… but it’s clearly your mugshot and your husband’s….’

‘Don’t you fret…  Your mugshot is there!! On that wall…  We’re looking at it.  Just check it out in the left-hand corner..,’ she carried on.  Or did she mean right-hand corner?  The photographs are far too small and far too grainy for me to recognise my own self in them…

Not exactly thinking rationally at the time, and being in the grip of a definite black period in my life, panic ensued at seeing my name – LIEVE LEE – plastered in several places across the paper.  And did I  spot the unmistakable word ‘FAMILY’ in capital letters?  Somehow the only logical connection I could see was to my rather unorthodox exit from China.  I certainly could not recall any grand achievements that would have warranted the attention of the media.  Maybe my agent was pursuing me after all!!  Or maybe the Chinese mafia were trying to get at me via my family in the UK…  What had I been thinking in the summer?  That escaping the past unscathed would just be a plane ride away?  Although granted, a wanted poster usually features the ‘wanted’ person, and not a handful of  nosy loawai staring at some photographs pinned up on a wall…

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‘On the upside,’ a colleague in Vietnam remarked after studying the photograph, ‘there is no mention of a telephone number to get in touch with the police if anyone was to know your whereabouts and decided to report it.’  But was I really sure??  Do the Chinese use the Arabic numerals or do they have their own unintelligible (to the uninitiated…) characters??  I rued my careless decision not to at least acquire a rudimentary grasp of the Chinese language.  Isn’t counting to ten one of the most basic things we learn in any new language???

The problem was that neither my friend L., nor I, learned a single iota of Mandarin during our stay in China.  So how to get a translation and from whom?  A real Catch-22…  Who to trust?  Would they be friend or foe if indeed the article was less than complementary about my exploits on Chinese soil?  Until I could ascertain the content of the article, it was tricky to decide who would be the most appropriate person to approach to translate it…

After a day or two of some head scratching and digging deep into my list of loyal expats in China, I remembered J from the UK…  A man with a bone to pick with his own agent and well aware of the reasons of my sudden departure from China AND with sound contacts whose command of the Chinese language was undisputed.  I sent him the photograph of the newspaper article and was keeping my fingers crossed.

As expected, a man of his word, he put out some feelers and got the gist of the article to me in no time.  Far from me being added to a blacklist or wanted list, it was all a whole lot more innocent.  The article merely related how J, a Taiwanese friend in Hangzhou, came to the rescue when I needed a lift back home from the hospital after my knee surgery…  Funnily enough, whereas my guardian angel at the time was only referred to as an Australian (???) Chinese member of the ‘family’ – the community where I lived – the journalist clearly deemed it entirely appropriate to add my name in full, just to make sure there was no misunderstanding…  Still, it felt good to have the mystery solved.  I could breathe a sigh of relief; I was not ‘wanted’ after all…

No sooner was the issue laid to rest, than more evidence came to light of my lasting impact on China.  A photograph featuring yours truly is being used by a small Hangzhou-based travel company to promote exciting and adventure packed day and weekend trips in and around the area… Although I am of course flattered, I cannot shift the feeling that, as I was on most trips organized by them between last March and last August, they may have struggled to find any suitable photographs that did not star me…

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Personally??  I would have gone for the photograph below.  I much prefer the incognito look. Wanted.  Dead or Alive.

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Vietnam from the sea to the table.

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Living in the provincial town of Quang Ngai, it can be hard to forget that just a few miles beyond the confines of the city a totally different world unfolds.  As in any urban environment, people’s lives in the city seemingly revolve around providing services: coffee shops, restaurants, clothes shops, the wet market and the supermarket, the local hospital just around the corner.  At peak times, on crowded roads, hordes of motorbikes jostle for space with cyclists and cars, and even a few hapless pedestrians as cafes, food carts and street vendors spill out onto the pavements making them impassable.

The sea breeze, emanating from the South China Sea along the Vietnamese coastline, does not reach here to clear the stuffiness of stagnant, stifling air or ease the closeness of the oppressive summer swelter.  Verdant hillocks beckon in the distance, too far to get to by bicycle and, after my e-bike adventures in China, I am not too keen on braving the traffic on a motorized vehicle…  But the beach is only a bike ride away, one hour there and another on the way back.  Thirty-four kilometers of unbridled cycling freedom, whilst the rush of warm air keeps the worst of the heat at bay.   A treat in the cooler winter months, when cloud cover and occasional heavy downpours made for soggy but enjoyable ventures.  These days, bike rides are more likely to coincide with slathering on sun cream, sporting my wide-brimmed hiking hat and, lately, even a long-sleeved shirt.  Better to be safe than sorry; the wise words of my daughter!!!.  The sun can indeed be relentless.

But whilst MY trips to the beach focus on relaxing with a Vietnamese coffee, indulging in Ban Xeo (rice pancakes), dipping my toes in the gentle waves and building sand castles on a whim, the locals are busy making a living from what the sea has to offer.  With a coastline extending to the full length of the country, and plenty of deltas, waterways and lakes inland, it is no surprise that Vietnam’s fishing industry is buoyant.  Not only is the sea exploited to provide much needed protein – sumptuous seafood and fish – to supplement the diet of the local population, Vietnam is also a major exporter of shrimp and other seafood delicacies.   And as is still often the case in the developing world, the work involved is backbreaking and arduous.

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Beaches are littered with fishermen’s paraphernalia.  Of course, there are the usual fishing boats, elongated in their shape with a distinct bow and stern, but circular tub-shaped boats are equally common.  Many of them are equipped with battery-run lighting for nighttime trips out to sea as fishermen take to the deeper waters along the coast to cast their nets.

Later, taking advantage of the force of the incoming tide, two lines of men and women, patiently and laboriously, tiny step by tiny step, draw in the nets from both ends, hauling in the catch.  Groups of villagers, or tourists, flock out of nowhere to inspect or photograph a (hopefully) abundant yield, whilst the workers carefully sort the various species brought ashore ready to be dispatched to fish markets and stalls.  Local housewives or restaurant owners come along to have the first pick of what the tide turned in.

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On another occasion, we watch three people trawl the shallow waters edging the beach.  They plod on slowly and doggedly, dragging an unusual tool just below the sand.  Every now and again, one of them stops dipping a hand under the water as the metal bar at the bottom of their pitched wooden fork clangs.  They are collecting a type of shellfish, buried in the sand just below the sea surface…

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But spare a thought for the makeshift scuba divers, earning their keep by scouring the seabed for shrimp or baby lobster…  We never found out what they were really looking for; a mixture of the obscurity of my photograph and translation problems…  It just seemed a lot of risk for a handful of shrimp…

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Initially my curiosity was piqued by bobbing heads breaking through the waves in the shallower water and the humming of a battery perched on some slippery rocks near the water’s edge.  Attached to the battery was what very much looked like a garden hosepipe, supplying air to one of a team of snorkelers and scuba divers who were locating and collecting the precious seafood.  At least they were kitted out with wet suits and snorkeling masks but it is difficult to underestimate the damage the excessive air pressure must cause to the divers’ lungs…

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Maybe it is befitting to give thanks to the Vietnamese fishermen, as well as the Almighty, for ‘giving us our daily bread’ and seafood….