Floating market?? What floating market?

20180916_154550Our last destination before crossing into Cambodia is the Mekong Delta.  Leaving the luxury of our backpackers hotel in Saigon, we have decided to get better acquainted with the real Vietnam and booked a homestay with Mr Tan on the island of Thoi Son, just a taxi ride away from the city of My Tho.   Rather than staying in a hotel, we are guests of the house and share accommodation, bathrooms, food..

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Delicious dinner cooked by Mr Tan’s sister.  We do not eat with the family, as they have their evening meal much earlier than we do.

By now accustomed to travelling as the locals do, we take a taxi (maybe not quite what the local do..) to the bus station on the outskirts of Saigon.  Buying the ticket is child’s play…finding the bus is not.  As not many people speak English and my Vietnamese is still at rock bottom after one year, it takes us a while to figure out that our bus simply is not yet at the depot and the numbers scribbled on the slip of paper (our ticket) is the number plate of the bus… In the meantime, we have been told in no uncertain terms that we should be sitting down, rather than inspecting every bus and asking every single driver if his is the bus we are looking for.  We wait patiently, buy much needed sustenance for the journey – we live on bread and water mostly – until  a big commotion from the woman behind the counter signals our bus is finally there and ready for boarding…

In My Tho we are picked up by our taxi and then travel onwards to the island of Thoi Son.  Mr Tan is a very amiable man, ready to please and ensure his guests have a great experience.  Even before we move our luggage into our rooms, Mr Tan has already contacted his friend, also called Mr Tan, who is a local guide and will be showing us around the neighbouring islands and the Mekong Delta.  Without so much as a discussion with us, it seems that Mr Tan, the tour guide, already has a pretty good idea about what we may be interested in, so we set off to get a flavour of the Mekong Delta, tour-guide-style..  Exotic fruit tasting, boat trip in the canals of the Delta, boat trip on the mighty river, wandering around orchards, the orchid garden all packed into three hours of sightseeing.  It’s not quite what we were expecting of a homestay adventure, but we go with the flow that afternoon, with the promise of a visit to the floating market in the morning…

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Still, the advantages of having a guide means being able to ask questions that a bicycle trip on our own would have left unanswered.  Although agriculture in the delta mainly focuses on rice cultivation and fishing, on the smaller islands farmers grow fruits such as pomelos, bananas, coconuts and loganberries.  To make the most of the fertile alluvium of the delta, farmers dig trenches and use the soil to build dams on which they can plant trees.   This ensures plenty of irrigation as well as protection from the saline waters that encroach the delta during the drier months.

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After a sumptuous dinner, courtesy of Mr Tan’s sister, and Liz succumbing to an all-night acute attack of deli belly courtesy of a dubious lunch in My Tho, we are off to the floating market the next day.  We have seen the photographs on the internet and have high expectations.  The floating markets in the Mekong Delta are definitely supposed to be one of the highlights of our visit to the region.

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The floating market – image courtesy of  https://cruisemekongriver.com/mekong-delta-destination-vietnamese-river-culture-floating-markets/

A short ferry crossing and a one-hour drive on the back of a motorbike later, we are transferred to a small boat to take us along the Mekong River.  There is plenty to be seen along the river banks.  Ramshackle dwellings of people barely emerging above the poverty line; wooden boats weighted down with rambutan and rice; a lone woman paddling her boat across a deserted river;  a solitary boat attracting tourists with offerings of exotic fruit.

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‘Where is the floating market?’ we ask… Our guide looks on sheepishly.  ‘This is it,’ he admits. ‘It’s raining and no one comes to the floating market on a rainy day..’  Rain has never been far away during our Vietnam trip and has indeed followed us to the Mekong Delta..   Although Mr Tan, our guide, could have been forgiven for not being in control of the weather, his next remark that the better and bigger market was further away did not go down very well with Liz and me.  Surely it was his job to tell us about the options and to leave the choice up to us…  We would gladly have sat on the back of a motorbike for another 100 km to be paddled through a melee of small boats packed with colourful produce bobbing on the river.  Surely, they could not all shy away from a bit of drizzle..

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Our mood lifted though once we arrived at our next stop where local artisan foods were produced and sold.  Although the set-up was clearly aimed at tourists, it was hard not to be impressed by the ‘popping rice’ spectacle.  The result may not be that different from pop-corn really, but the preparation method definitely is.  Black sand is heated to a very high temperature in a large skillet before the rice is added and then it doesn’t take long for the rice explosion to start.  The result was very yummy..

And although the ‘floating market’ can only be described as a disappointment, our little forays into the delta canals definitely made up for it.  They were great fun…

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A Brief History of The Vietnam War

 

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Being a child of the sixties, Vietnam has always been on my map.  It was catapulted into our living room through the television screen billowing grainy, black and white images of a harrowing war: the Vietnam war.

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We were not an affluent family and the luxury of the television in our household was mainly thanks to my grandmother, who lived with us.  I have vague recollections of the first landing on the moon, but more vividly, my early TV experiences focused on watching blond Swedish children, with interesting names such as Pelle and Tjorven, bring Astrid Lindgren’s stories to life.

Of course, my parents did not encourage us to feed on war images.  To the contrary, during The News, we were carefully shepherded into the kitchen to busy ourselves with more suitable activities, although I cannot now recall what they may have been.  Unfortunately, being rather wilful and wayward by nature and possessing a healthy dose of inquisitiveness, I often managed to sneak some glimpses of the world beyond the four walls of our living room and the small village that comprised my universe.  And the picture that has stayed with me was the execution in cold blood of an unarmed Vietnamese soldier or guerilla fighter on his knees pleading for his life…  He was shot in the head.  It wasn’t the most famous footage of that period and probably only one of many such images, but one that left a big impression on me at the time.   I can only surmise that my desire to teach in Vietnam stemmed from a certain curiosity to find out what had become of this far-away country I first learned about as a child.

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During our brief stay in Saigon, Liz and I visit two places linked to the Vietnam War: the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum.  The Cu Chi Tunnels focus mostly on how the Viet Cong managed to gain the upper hand in the war through employing ingenious guerrilla tactics from the depth of a warren of tunnels, deep underground with an escape route to the Mekong River.  A multitude of exhibits show how their methods and ways of deterring and fighting the enemy were often rather gruesome.  The tunnels were definitely not designed for Western bodies, and only the more slender built Vietnamese soldiers would have been able to move freely.  Out of our group of 15 or so, only Liz and I have the nerve – and the physique – to disappear into the darkness of the tunnel entrance, but I definitely need help getting out due to lack of upper-body strength…

If the Cu Chi Tunnels put the spotlight on the warfare strategies of the Viet Cong, the War Remnants Museum exposes the human cost of war, especially the long-lasting effects of Agent Orange  (a herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the American military forces) on the civilian population and war crimes and atrocities committed by the American troops, such as the My Lai Massacre.  This massacre of 504 mostly elderly men, women and children was a pivotal point in the Vietnam War and helped to shape public opinion in the USA and across the world.

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The Son My Memorial

Living in Quang Ngai, the My Lai story was already very familiar to me as the village of My Lai was but a mere 14 km from my place of work and each time I cycled to My Khe beach, I would pass the Son My Memorial.  This memorial to the victims of the My Lai Massacre is set in a peaceful garden reflecting the aftermath of that fateful day.  Burnt-out shells of homes stand in their original locations, each marked with a plaque listing the names and ages of the family members that once lived there.

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The killings were meticulously recorded by a US military photographer and these graphic images are the showcase of a powerful on-site museum.  The content is extremely harrowing; the rhetoric in the captions underneath hostile and testament to the still deep-felt anger towards the American ‘aggressors’.   A special section in the museum is devoted to a group of GIs who tried to intervene and shielded at least some of the villagers from certain death, as well as to those responsible for eventually bringing this atrocity to light.

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A little further south of Quang Ngai, in the town of Duc Pho, a statue has been erected and a clinic opened in memory of Dang Thuy Tram, a civilian doctor who worked as a battlefield surgeon for North Vietnam in makeshift hospitals and hidden clinics in and around Duc Pho during the escalation of the war.  Whilst on a mission to get supplies and food for her colleagues and patients, she was ambushed and killed by American soldiers.  Her story probably mirrors that of many other doctors and surgeons during the conflict, but her wartime diaries, which chronicle the last two years of her life, were published in 2005 and attracted international attention.

The war may have ended more than 40 years ago, its effects are still felt.  Agent Orange did not just immediately defoliate the vegetation and destroy the Viet Cong fighters’ cover and food supplies, it also killed soldiers directly affected and caused genetic mutations and multiple birth defects in the areas which were most heavily sprayed.  But chemical substances are indiscriminate, so it was not only the Vietnamese troops and civilians who suffered, many US soldiers were also affected.

On our way to the Cu Chi Tunnels, we inevitably stop at a ‘tourist shop’ where some second and third generation victims of Agent Orange (children and grandchildren of those directly in contact with Agent Orange) are gainfully employed making mementoes for tourists.  Here, the men and women use mother of pearl or egg shells to recreate images of Vietnam; in another such shop on the way to Halong Bay, disabled workers use embroidery to depict Vietnamese iconic scenes.

 

 

A few months ago, I met up with Esther and Paul, a retired American couple who have come to Vietnam to support the work at the Duc Pho Rehabilitation Centre for child victims of Agent Orange.  Esther is an occupational therapist and her role focuses on teaching the children strategies to become more independent, as well as mentoring and guiding the local staff.  Whilst the children attend the centre, mothers, who are normally the primary carers, have the opportunity to go out to work and earn money.  As these children are third generations victims, the families no longer receive financial support from the government and the burden falls entirely on the family.

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Interestingly though, the range of physical, mental and cognitive disabilities of the children in the centre pretty much reflects the normal spectrum of disabilities in the wider society, Downs’ Syndrome, autism…  Although there appears to be a higher incidence of children with disabilities in the areas affected by Agent Orange, the link with this herbicide is becoming more tenuous.  But being able to blame Agent Orange absolve the family from the stigma attached to having a disabled child.  Even in this modern era, a disabled child is seen as a punishment for some failure to please the ancestors…

A glimpse of Saigon.

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After Dalat, we head for Saigon.  Officially the city has long since been renamed as Ho Chi Minh City, after Uncle Ho, the founding father of the new Vietnam, but colloquially everyone sticks to using its old name: Saigon..  Having experienced the comfort and ease of Futa bus travel, we book ourselves on a day bus this time as it’s a shorter journey.  This way we can enjoy watching the passing scenery whilst stretching out leisurely in the reclining seats, although we have now added another Vietnamese travel essential – the obligatory face masks – just in case some cigarette smoke wafts our way…  Smoking is not allowed on the buses, but what can one do when it is the ‘conductor’ on the bus who is transgressing the rules..?

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Saigon is buzzing with energy and noise.  Motorbikes, cars, buses, trucks race across the town.  Pavements are often cluttered with stalls, parked motorbikes, open-air restaurants and the only way to get anywhere on foot is just to walk in the road…  It doesn’t strike us as particularly safe, but there is little alternative.  Crossing the road takes some guts as traffic spills from all sides, but the trick is not to waver and walk purposefully across without the slightest hesitation.

Our hotel – budget variety of course – is in the bustling backpacker area of Saigon.  Narrow streets crammed with hostels and cheaper-end-hotels mean that privacy takes on a different level.  From our room window, we peer straight into a room on the opposite side of the street… Not much to be seen though, apart from the builders who noisily start their work at 7 in the morning.  How do we always pick the hotels next to the building sites??

But what the hotel lacks in comfort and grandeur, is made up by the reception staff who go out of their way to accommodate our needs…  When the breakfast tea runs out at 6.00 am in the morning (I know, most of us would have checked our stores the night before…), one of the staff is immediately dispatched to buy some more.  It only takes 45 minutes to materialize. When Liz wants to send an urgent email with signed attachment to her son, someone offers to take her on a hair-raising jaunt across town on his motorbike after he has finished his shift.  And when the heavens yet again open, a pair of rice hats is conjured up from behind the desk to save us getting drenched…. I wonder whether staff in the Western world would always be so willing to go the extra mile with a smile…

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Unfortunately, the damp weather stays with us for a little longer.  An impending typhoon hitting Northern Vietnam and brushing Southern China mid-September causes more rain in the South…  It doesn’t exactly enamour us of Saigon and we hardly see any of the city, apart from the immediate surroundings of our hotel, and of course the must-see destinations of the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum.

However, we make time for the finer things in life and where better to taste exotic flavours than in a cosmopolitan city such as HCMC…  Hibiscus Tea anyone?

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Or eclectic gin cocktails at The Gin House …

as a prelude to exquisite contemporary Vietnamese cuisine in Hoa Tuc, a restaurant set in an old opium refinery, built by the French during the colonial period.

HCMC definitely deserves more than a fleeting visit, but with my visa for Vietnam running out swiftly, we can only spend a couple of days here.  Maybe one day in the not-so-rainy season, it may be worth to explore what else this city has to offer…

Dalat Dousings.

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Travel in Vietnam is proving to be a doddle…  For transport to our next destination, Dalat, we choose an overnight Futa bus.  Not that there are many options really.  Being a little off the beaten track, there is no train service to that part of the country and a taxi is definitely out of the question on our budget.  The staff at the reception of our guesthouse are extremely helpful.  Not only do they book our tickets, they accompany us to the bus when the time arrives.  Just as well, as the pick-up is somewhere in the middle of town, nowhere near what we recognize as an official bus stop…  And the blue scrap of paper with some seat numbers as tickets does not immediately inspire us with confidence…

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But the bus turns up punctually and we are shown are seats…  Great seats, soft and reclining; the only downside: nowhere to stow my backpack.  I happily put my suitcase in the hold underneath the bus, but insist on holding on to my backpack crammed with life’s essentials and flashpacker gadgets: laptop, an assortment of chargers and leads, smart phone and extra battery and my most important paperwork such as diplomas etc…  In the end I settle my legs comfortably in the foothold, lay down on the reclining seat and perch my backpack on my lap where it remains for the full 11 hours of the journey whilst I sleep peacefully, totally oblivious of the up and downs and hairpin bends along the hills, all the way to Dalat…

It is still pitch dark when we arrive.  It is 5.00am and neither of us is prepared for the sudden dip in temperature.  A twenty degree drop according to my phone, from 35 degrees in Kontum to a mere 16 degrees in Dalat.   Thank goodness, my fleece has not yet vanished into the bottom of my suitcase – we were warned about Dalat being colder than the rest of Vietnam… but 16 degrees comes as a shock to the system.   I had definitely not anticipated needing my ‘cold weather gear’ until I arrive back in the UK, end November…  Fashion out of the window, socks and sandals for comfort a must!!

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Nevertheless, Dalat – situated on a plateau 1,500 metres above sea level – thanks its popularity as a summertime retreat to the French colonials who took to the hills to escape the oppressive heat and humidity in other areas of Vietnam. The town, even featuring a mini-replica Eiffel Tower, is sometimes referred to as ‘Le Petit Paris’.  Because of its unique climate, Dalat is famous for its wide variety of flowers, vegetables and fruit from its surrounding farmlands.  The scenery is equally breath taking and attracts many local and foreign tourists.

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We have quite a bit of time to kill in Dalat before we can check into our Airbnb accommodation, but have been told we can leave our luggage in a coffee shop downtown, but even that one does not open until three hours after we make it to Dalat…  We spend the morning meandering around the Dalat streets, visiting a pagoda and waiting to get into our flat to catch up on some sleep…  No matter the comfort of a night bus, it cannot compete with the soporific effect of a soft mattress and white cotton sheets…

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Whereas Kontum put us in touch with local culture, Dalat would satisfy our hunger for adventure, so with no time to waste, the next day we book ourselves on an ‘Easyrider’ motorbike tour to visit the surrounding hills, waterfalls, silk production, coffee plantation and coffee tasting…  You name it, it is on the list.  However, as we have left it a little late to get going, we are on a tight schedule.  Fitted and kitted out with protective gear, tyres checked by Liz who is none too happy to detect ‘a bald one’, we set off full speed in the sunshine…  Pillion riders, rather than being in charge of the motorbikes ourselves…  After a stop at a massive mural portraying the life of ethnic minorities and a cable car on Robin Hill later, we arrive at the Truc Lam Monastery.  An oasis of peace with a colourful garden brimming with exotic flowers, a paradise for flora loving people such as Liz…  We linger, and our drivers come looking for us, worried we may not be able to finish the whole tour if we do not start hurrying up a little…

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Clouds have gathered, ominously…  We make it to the Pongour Waterfall as the sun makes a last half-hearted effort to jolly things up, but it soon peters out and the inevitable happens.

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Drizzle at first as we mount the bikes again onto our next port of call.  Having visited plenty of pagodas before in Vietnam, we opt to visit the silk production plant and coffee plantation…  We leave the nicely tarmacked roads and join the more bumpy, mud tracks as the heavens open..  The downpour of all downpour drenches us in minutes and my waterproof (?) jacket is woefully inadequate.  I am soaked to the bone and worry about keeping my phone dry… I am literally sitting in a puddle on the back of the motorbike. The road turns into a brown, brackish pool obscuring the potholes.  Liz is not happy, and keeps muttering on about ‘bald tyres’… With no houses or shelter either side of the dirt track, we carry on for a while until Liz insists on turning back and heading for home..  We part ways, as I think we may be better off finding shelter and waiting out the storm…

My driver, ‘Cow’ (his English name, as it is one people remember, he explains..) drives on, slowly, until we reach the silk factory and coffee tasting shop…   I shiver through the silk production explanation and warm up with a generous shot of 54% rice wine before tasting the most delectable coffee ever … made from weasel poo…  Not as disgusting as it sounds as the weasels are fed a diet of coffee beans, which are never digested but expelled unaffected via the usual canals.  A thorough cleansing and roasting takes care of the hygiene, without affecting the additional aroma the beans acquire during their travels through the weasels’ digestive system..   As for the more intriguing drinks on offer, I decline…  Somehow wine made from reptiles does not seem as appealing as the weasel coffee…

In the meantime, the rain has abated and we return to Dalat, trembling and shaking from the wet and cold…  By the time I get home, Liz has already vacated the shower and a hot cup of tea is waiting for me.  We spend the next day drying out and getting warm again, ready for another adventure : cycling and hiking to the summit of Lang Biang at an altitude of  2167m.  We know we are travelling during the rainy season, but surely, the weather cannot get any worse…

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The girl in the tourist office gives us a stern warning when we book the ‘hike and bike tour’, ‘There is no support vehicle with this tour.  If you cycle to the mountain, you will have to cycle back.’  We smile…  It is only 6 km there and another 6 km back.  Granted, there will be some hilly parts, but we are not deterred.  And the strenuous trek?  We are both keen walkers, so we should be able to manage rainforests and jungle paths.  Not entirely trusting the weather, we have come prepared this time and brought plastic ponchos as the locals wear, and most importantly, waterproof phone pouches.

Equipped with decent bikes complete with a bewildering assortment of gears we set off and are only defeated by one rather sharp and long incline..  We make it to the bottom of Lang Biang and clouds overhead look vaguely threatening, but we are optimistic and plan to stay ahead of any rain in the rainforest.  The path is muddy and treacherous at places, due to the recent wet weather, but the cool air and the shade from the jungle canopy make for perfect hiking conditions.

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It is indeed a hard slog to get to the top of Lang Biang, the path is steep and slippery and the steps have been fashioned for someone with much longer legs than mine…  About halfway up the hill, a light drizzle starts, nothing to worry about but it might interfere with our lunch plans:  Cow (again our guide) is carrying a picnic in his rucksack… Luckily, the morning rain is light and briefly vanishes as we reach the top of the mountain, just in time for Cow to prepare our food.  Sumptuous…   But whatever view we were expecting is shrouded in a thick cloud that has completely enveloped the hilltop, bar the fleeting appearance of a bright blue bit of sky.

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And it doesn’t take long for the rain to resume, only this time it comes down by the bucket load, collecting in deep puddles along the path and turning the steps on the way down into pools.  We no longer worry about leeches lurking on leaves ready to pounce..  Our only concern is to get back to the bottom of Lang Biang with all skin and bones intact…  Of course, we both slip and slide, it is inevitable, but at least the mud makes for soft landings..

And as for the bike ride back and no support?  Cow manages to convince his manager to organise a ride back home for us..  I don’t think our legs could have coped with any more exercise, they certainly felt as if they had had enough of a good thing already….

What did we expect in the rainy season???

The Rongs of Kontum.

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I heard about Kontum whilst browsing the net and scouring travel blogs to find some different, off-the-beaten track destinations in Vietnam.  This was months ago and we, M. (colleague) and I, even had plans to explore the area during one of the few breaks we were granted in the long teaching year… In the end, we ventured to Hue instead.  Closer and much easier to reach by train from Quang Ngai…  Plus Kontum sounded interesting enough to warrant more time than the two days we could spare, so I added it to the list of must-see stops on my autumn travel itinerary.

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Kontum is a mountainous area in the Western Highlands of Vietnam, close to the border with Laos and famed for its coffee growing and hill tribes.   Relatively sheltered from the impact of tourism, ethnic minorities still adhere to many of their traditions and customs and the slower pace of life.  Of course, they did not escape the attention from the various colonial powers that ruled Vietnam.  After being overpowered and subdued by the French, Catholicism was imposed on the hill tribes and it became the dominant religion alongside animism, or the belief in good and evil spirits and the power of nature.  The Kontum landscape is dotted with churches rather than Buddhist Pagodas.  During the Vietnam War, many battles were fought in and around Kontum and often American Vietnam War Veterans revisit the area in an effort to find closure.

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There are about 54 different ethnic minority groups in Vietnam, but unless they wear their traditional attire, to the untrained un-Vietnamese eye it is hard to see any differences between the different tribes..  This does not stop them from being discriminated against though.  Having slightly darker skin than the majority Viet (or Kien people) certainly puts them at a disadvantage and they have been largely excluded from the progress that can be seen elsewhere in Vietnam.

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Our visit to Kontum involved a 12 km hike, an independent bicycle tour and a car trip through local villages just outside the town, a region populated by the Bahnar, Sodra and Jolong people.  Each village has its own communal building, the ‘rong’, in the centre.  Although each ethnic minority’s rong may have a slightly different style, all are impressive tall structures built using bamboo and a tough grass for the roof, although recently corrugated iron has become more common.  In the past only men were allowed to enter the building to attend meetings and discussions and take decisions for their community. Young men between the ages of 17 and getting married would spend their nights in the communal house, so that in case of an attack on their village, they could be mobilized without delay to defend the village lands and territory.   These days, officials from the Vietnamese Government descend on the villages once a week to ‘help them run their affairs’; women are no longer excluded from meetings and young men can be seen resting and loitering in the cool shade of the rong during siesta time rather than at night.  As the hill tribes now live peacefully, the men are unlikely to be called upon to fight against intruding neighbours and instead of fighting each other with weapons, men and youths from different villages test each other’s skills and prowess on the volleyball court in front of the rong, or… pitch their voices against each other in a karaoke contest on rice-wine hazy Sunday afternoons…

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The rong is the focal point of the village, the place were people gather to celebrate festivals on auspicious days.  Buffalo and other animals are ritually slaughtered in front of the rong as an offering to the gods and to provide food for the feast.  Needless to say that at such events copious amounts of rice wine will be consumed…   Inside the rong, buffalo horns and other dried food bears testament to the animal sacrifices.

As our first night was spent in a homestay in one of the Bahnar villages we were privileged to be invited to take part in a celebration that was held for some Korean business men visiting Kontum.  We rubbed shoulders and shook hands with the Vice President of Kontum Province and as ‘honoured guests’ shared his rice wine… It is the one and only time we saw men, women, boys and girls dressed in their traditional clothes as they danced around a fire to mesmerizing music…

Life in the Kontum hills is still very simple, as we experienced in our homestay and saw during the trips in and around the town.

We slept on thin mattresses on the bamboo floor of the living quarters, which were built on stilts to keep out undesirable animals.  Across the landing was the dining room: a large wooden table and some wooden benches.  Two girls cooked us an amazing dinner on a wood fire, as the locals would, only we were given ‘Vietnamese’ food as the food eaten by the hill tribes would probably not be appealing to us…

Most families in and around Kontum live of the land and subsistence farming is the norm.  They cultivate rice on a small plot of land to provide enough food for the year, although some also grow other crops, such as casava, keeping the leafy tops for eating and selling the roots to local factories to be turned into noodles.

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For a long time the hill tribes lived a nomadic lifestyle and would move location every ten years or so, but lately they have settled and remained longer in the same area.  Nevertheless, they have been reluctant to move into to more modern housing provided by the Vietnamese Government and prefer to build their houses in the traditional style they are accustomed to, leaving the brick-built dwellings empty.

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To outsiders, the villagers’ lifestyle is spartan and austere and houses consist mainly of one room only with little or no furniture.  Rattan mats provide seating and sleeping areas; food is cooked on a wood fire in a kitchen area of the house.   On our second day, we were invited to take tea with the village chief of the Johong tribe, enjoying his hospitality and learning more about the tribe’s way of life, translated by our guide, Mr Manh.

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Modernisation and progress is slow in the villages and there is no running water, so water has to be collected from springs and rivers, which are also used for bathing and handwashing.  Our homestay was near a river and in the late afternoon, we heard the gleeful noises of children splashing and swimming in the river.  Not only was this their time for fun, they also bathed and washed their clothes at the same time.

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One thing that caught our attention was the large number of children in the villages, small children.  With Catholicism the main religion and the locals strictly adhering to the practice of no contraception, coupled with the lack of alternative entertainment, many families have lots of children…  But poverty often means they do not have the resources to feed and educate their children so ‘orphanages’ take in and look after the many abandoned children.  And when the Vietnamese government tried to improve the situation by handing out condoms, parents gave them to their children instead to blow up as balloons…  Maybe the younger generation will take more heed as their aspirations grow to be part of mainstream Vietnam.

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Lunch anyone?  This little boy had just caught a lizard… not a pet, but lunch indeed…  Not sure whether I really would have wanted to join him for lunch…

My Absolutely Fabulous Travels With ‘Joanna Lumley’.

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Two days into our travel, I tell Liz, ‘You remind me of Joanna Lumley.’  She smiles. ‘Funny you should say that, we used to know each other, you know’.  Liz and Joanna may not have been best buddies, but they certainly rubbed shoulders as they both worked for the same modelling agency, quite some time ago…   Glam chick, down to earth explorer of an abandoned island, and of course Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous…  Liz does not ask which guise of Joanna I refer to ..  Truth be told, as our travels unfold, she fits all of them, although it is the ‘Patsy moments’ of those first few days that are the most memorable…

Being an intrepid traveler by now, it is refreshing to travel with someone who is experiencing ‘adventure travel’ for the first time.  Not that I am that adventurous…. But I have become quite blasé about hopping on planes and this time, we are sampling budget travel.  Using trains and buses, negotiating border crossings rather than queuing at immigration at busy airports, and leaving quite a few of our arrangements to the last minute and to chance.  Travel flashpacker style. Minimalist, taking just the bare minimum.  Laptop and smartphone, what else can we need?  ‘Remember,’ I warn Liz, ‘We have to be able to carry everything’ as she lists the essentials she will be cramming in her suitcase.  Pop-up over-the-bed mosquito net.  Mosquito repellent impregnated jungle-ready trousers.  Mossie/bug/midge proof jacket, complete with zip up face covering.  Instant camera (do they still exist?) and the obligatory selfie-stick….

After just three days in Vietnam and hauling her heavy suitcase along the full length of the platform at Quang Ngai train station, Liz decides that maybe she can dispense with some of the less important items in her suitcase.  To her defence, the platform in Quang Ngai is actually non-existent as all the pavement slabs have been removed and the area next to the rails looks as if a digger has been having a whale of a time mixing stones and sand and depositing it in huge, uneven clumps.  Whilst I spend my last night at the Language Centre teaching my last two lessons – a minor interruption of my holiday – Liz spends her evening repacking her suitcase and selecting items and souvenirs to be dispatched to a place of safekeeping in Hanoi, the last stop on her trip.

We finally start our real holiday the next day, with a six-hour bus journey to the mountainous inland area of Kontum.  A little of the beaten track, public transport and bus services to Kontum are still somewhat lacking in luxury.   Our bus turns out to be a 16-seater to be shared with about 20 people and doubles up as a parcels-and-packages delivery service.   Boxes on the roof, in the boot and under every seat and crevice in the vehicle.  Still quite comfortable compared with the sardine travel I experienced in India and it looks like my backpack will be perched on my lap for the duration of the trip.  Liz is not impressed and desperately tries to defend her personal space in the van… With all the seats taken and only a little bit of standing room near the sliding door in front of her, the van stops to pick up yet another passenger.  He squeezes into the narrow space between Liz’s anguished face and the window.  She explodes with British ‘Patsy’ indignity.  She furiously waves her fan – newly purchased in Hoi An – in the direction of the ‘bus conductor’ and implores, ‘Excuse me!!  Excuse me!!  You cannot be serious!! I cannot look at his butt for six hours…  Excuse me!!’  Her cries fall on deaf ears.  Luckily the man only needs a short lift and soon Liz can breathe a sigh of relief, until the next stop…  But by then she has accepted the inevitable… the constant ebb and flow of extra passengers on the bus.  And let’s face it, tiredness kicks in and sends everyone to sleep.

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Another issue that causes consternation is money, Vietnamese Dong in their millions and the ubiquitous US dollars Liz has been advised to bring on her travels.  Currency is not a problem for me, having worked in Quang Ngai for the last year means I have a Vietnamese bank account and do not yet have to worry about exchanging money.  And further afield I wield my currency card: topped up with small amounts at a time to be used at ATMs, in local shops and restaurants and even for online payments.  An essential travel companion: I carry very little cash and there is very little risk if the card got stolen or lost.

It isn’t until we reach Kontum that Liz needs to replenish her supply of Dong.  In cities such as Danang or Hoi An, which are on the regular tourist route, dollars are common currency, but Kontum has not yet reached this level of international interest and dollars are pretty much alien.  As dollars are not accepted in our hotel, we venture to a bank.  Surely, we should be able to exchange dollars in a bank.  It’s Saturday morning and the bank is quiet.   We are quickly motioned to sit down with one of the tellers.  Liz produces her notes.  She tries her luck with a wodge of Hong Kong dollars first, left-overs from a previous life.  ‘Can I have some Vietnamese Dong, please,’ Liz enunciates, slowly accentuating each and every syllable. . The bank employee looks terribly confused and studies the notes.  I point to the board behind her, ‘HKD… Hong Kong dollars… You clearly know about them, you are giving an exchange rate on the board.’  The girl shakes her head, uncertain about what to do.  Liz decides to leave the HKD for another time, and puts the big guns on the table: US dollars…  The girl counts the notes, studies them, checks the pictures, calls her supervisor.  The process is repeated, only this time both sides of the notes are under scrutiny..  The supervisor is at a loss and turns to her boss for advice.  No joy there as her boss angrily swats her away; she clearly has more important things on her mind than tending to the needs of customers, picking her nose for instance…  The girls revert to their task and sort the notes in piles of the same denomination, and discard any ‘unclean’ notes: the ones with writing on them, or other marks.  ‘Hello, the exchange rate is on the board behind you…’  Liz is beginning to see red and it does not take long for the situation to evolve into a Patsy moment…  Fed up with the lack of any progress and the inability of the bank staff to make sense of our language – both verbal and body – she snatches her crisp dollar notes.  ‘These are perfectly good bank notes, dispensed by a BRITISH bank!!  We are British and this is good British money!!  I will go somewhere else…’  Liz stomps out of the bank…  Luckily, the ATMs around the corner are more forgiving and willing to accept bank cards that have not been issued in Vietnam, albeit at a nice commission for them…  And when we reach the more popular tourist destination of Dalat, exchanging dollars becomes child’s play.

Hmmm… if ever Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders are looking for inspiration for a new Absolutely Fabulous…  How about ‘Patsy and Edina go trekking in Vietnam’… we could provide them with plenty of original materials…  We haven’t laughed so much for a long time…

The pleasures of Hoi An.

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Hoi An is a picturesque little town, located in Vietnam’s Quang Nam Province, just to the South of Danang.  Originally an old trading port founded in the 16th century, Hoi An boasts architecture dating back as far as the 15th century and has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site since 1999.   Many of its original wooden buildings, showing both local and foreign architectural styles, have survived and these days house a plentitude of touristy souvenir shops and restaurants catering for the eclectic palette of local and foreign visitors.  Only the early bird gets a glimpse of the history hidden under the mass of local paintings, lanterns, bags and other keepsakes paraded in the shops.

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During the past year, Hoi An has been my favourite go-to-place to have a break from the monotony of life in Quang Ngai City.  Teach, sleep, eat, prepare lessons, teach, sleep, eat, prepare more lessons, mark essays…  A bland life-work balance diet lacking the spice and seasoning of frivolity, sheer fun, spontaneity, occasionally punctuated by solo cycling marathons to the nearby beach and equally solo trips to the gym.  Not a life, really…  I cannot say I wasn’t warned before arriving.  ‘Prepare to be bored,’ Jeremy warned me last summer, as I had just accepted the job in Quang Ngai.  His job offer for a position in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City came in a few days too late.

Hoi An never failed to impress.  The prospect of a sumptuous Western breakfast at Rosie’s Café would always lift the spirits and an awesome beach just a short cycling distance from the town centre was just the icing on the cake.  And when my four month break from teaching finally kicked off this week, it was the place where I chose to start from… So last Sunday, exactly one year to the day of my first visit to Hoi An, I met up in Danang with my travel companion Liz and we set off by taxi for Hoi An for a spot of relaxation, jet-lag therapy and ‘acclimatisation’ – Liz to the temperature and me to the slower pace of life.20180316_14535520180316_15361720180316_16394820170902_11004520170902_08380120180903_095223

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Our visit coincided with one of Vietnam’s national holidays.  The crowds I was expecting only materialized in the evening, so we had plenty of time to leisurely meander the streets around the Thu Bon River.  Last year’s Vietnamese flags seemed to have made room for even more lanterns dangling from electric wires overhead, or in shop front window enticing tourists to fill their suitcases with a colourful array of bulbous or air-balloon shaped light coverings.   Bridal couples posed for photographs and girls dressed in traditional áo dài wandered through the area.  A peaceful encounter, apt as the name Hoi An means ‘peaceful meeting place’.20180316_14483220180902_17402920180902_19292020180902_17412420180902_201615

Although I journeyed to Hoi An a few times throughout the year, I never stayed until the evening.  Day trips were more feasible with only one day off each week, but on this trip I had the opportunity to experience Hoi An by night.  Late afternoon, with dusk on the horizon, Hoi An transformed from a quiet, tranquil town into a bustling place, teeming with people.  They swarmed around the Japanese bridge and swamped the night market just at the other side of the river.  They jostled for space on the bridge across the river.  Hoi An at night is indeed a spectacle to behold when all the lanterns swinging in the daytime breeze suddenly dazzle the black and blue hues of the evening sky.

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Hoi An is definitely a must-see destination on the itinerary of any visitor to Vietnam, be it for the architecture, a whiff of history, a shopping splurge or just people watching.  This charming town will never disappoint.  Many tourists though descend on the town to take part in the famed lantern festival in Hoi An which happens each month at full moon.  The darkened streets are set ablaze by the light from small paper lanterns floating on the river. There is no full moon when we are there, but the custom of watching bobbing lanterns being swept along the gentle flow of the river is no longer preserved for sacred days or even the locals whose traditions have been hijacked by tourists wanting not just to watch this ritual, but be part of it as well…

We wander to the night market, buzzing with tourists inspecting trinkets and more lanterns on display.  And of course interesting foods…  We look, we ponder, we take pictures… frog in a frock anyone…. ? We decide to avoid street food for now and find sustenance in a more comfortable restaurant.  Wimpish?? Maybe… but who can say no to some good old fish and chips in Vietnam??

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