Crouching tigre, sitting duck

The reading figures for the blog have dropped dramatically to an all time low. I only have myself to blame. It’s a struggle writing about things that happened two months ago. I’m more comfortable in the recent past, and so this post is another deviation from writing about SE Asia.
Last weekend saw a massive rise in temperature, and in the last few days the ubiquity of puddle has finally ceased. Yay! It also saw the return of the mosquito – my main reason for hesitation when deciding whether I prefer ‘too hot’ or ‘too cold’. ‘Tigre’ is not a typo but a reference to the stripy brand of mosquito that I had to contend with during my year in Bologna. I received my first mosquito bite of 2012 in China in a hostel in GZ. The bastard got me square on the forehead while I slept.
I was in a hostel last Friday night after celebrating Amy’s birthday. A group of eight ate of us at a Turkish restaurant in GZ. The food was great and entirely authentic. The almost exclusively Turkish clientele that filled the tables to capacity was a testament to the quality of the restaurant. But we had to get there first. Amy, Simon and I left school at 3 and we did not sat down in the restaurant until 8. This did include an hour or so settling into the hostel, but it is still dispiriting losing a large chunk of the day to travel. Once we finally got round to it, we did have a great night, although there was still a significant amount of time spent in taxis. What’s frustrating with getting taxis in GZ is that you can never be sure that they understand what you are trying to say. They’d rather just guess and take the fair. It doesn’t matter if they say they know where they’re going. We had among us a French guy called Damien who could speak Mandarin pretty well, and still we struggled to communicate what we wanted. Even getting the taxi back to the hostel, which we had walked to once in daylight, we were entirely reliant on the name of the main road and my sketchy memory of what the place looked like. The rest of the night was spent pubbing and clubbing in true western style. Not really my cup of tea, but I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it.
The week since has contained little out of the ordinary. We’ve been teaching in the day and going out to eat dinner in the evening as we do most days. At ‘English day’ on Tuesday the entire school sang happy birthday to Amy. You should check out the video I posted on Facebook of one of Simon’s classes dancing to Jackson 5 and singing happy birthday. I’ll try and get it up on Youtube so that everyone can watch it. Hopefully there’ll be more videos to come.
I’m not sure I’ve mentioned Tick’s yet. It’s actually called Kaya and it’s ‘the only bar in the village’. We call it Tick’s after its owner. We’ve spent a huge amount of time there playing cards and liar’s dice so it’s only right that it should be mentioned in this blog. On Wednesday they were showing the CBA (Chinese basketball association) playoff final between GZ and Beijing. Beijing were comfortable winners but GZ are still in with a shout as it’s the best of 7 just like in the NBA. GZ are nicknamed the Tigers and Beijing are nicknamed the Ducks. Beijing’s name is already comical, but even more so when you consider that a Cantonese speaker reading the team’s name at the end of the court would read it as ‘The Peking ducks’. Sounds like a good Sunday buffet, not the best basketball team in China!

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Everything is puddle!

I’m taking a brief interlude from writing about our trip to describe to you the weather situation of recent weeks. As you can imagine, it was always going to feel cold coming back from Thailand. The cold here is greatly exacerbated by the humidity and the complete lack of heat or insulation in any buildings. Almost every day, the children have been wrapped up in thick coats during lessons. In the school building and the canteen, windows and doors are open all the time, which can be completely exasperating. Even in our flats, where we do have the sense to close windows, it wouldn’t be more than a day before the temperature inside matches a drop in temperature outside.

But this is nothing we haven’t dealt with before. Was has been different lately is that the humidity is even higher than before. This means much more rain. Rain that refuses to evaporate no matter how much time you give it. The outside basketball courts have been harbouring standing water for about three weeks straight. Some clothes have had to hang for over a week before we give up and just wear them slightly damp. Outside the school, there have been extensive road works adding a lane to the dual carriageway. This has a huge inconvenience to us. Seemingly the only people who walk anywhere from our school, we have been forced to take this hazardous route into town. We are confronted with an unappealing choice each time we leave school: tiptoe over bricks and paving stones along the extremely narrow bit of road barriered off for pedestrians, or walk along the side of the road facing the traffic. On the way back we usually catch a moto taxi. The humidity and rain have prevented any progress with the roadworks, which means that this has been the status quo as long as the basketball courts have been out of action.

The worst by-product of this combination of moisture in the air and cold is the condensation. On several days we have woken to find that the tiled floor outside our flats have been covered in sheets of water, the tiled walls all covered in beads of water. If we had left any windows open, it would be no different in our flats. The situation, if anything, has been worse in the school building. The children have rarely played outside their classrooms in weeks. And there has been no morning exercise for all this time. At its height, the moisture was even enough to put the lifts temporarily out of action. This can’t be an unusual occurrence, as it has barely been commented upon by the teachers at all. But you would have thought that some precaution could be made to ensure that this condensation isn’t so disruptive. A perfect demonstration of the non-cautious approach here was made when I asked what had happened to the music that we had become accustomed to in morning tea. I was told that the CD-player had been broken by rain. I guess you’ve just got to laugh!

The weather has improved in the past few days, but there is still rain to come if BBC weather can be believed.

There are now photos up for the previous post. Take a look if you haven’t already. The post on Sapa and Halong bay is underway!

Hanoi: Hoa Lu and Tam Coc

The next stop of our trip was Hanoi. I’m going to have to turn this part into two posts because there’s simply too much material to fit in. The next part will cover Sapa and Halong Bay.

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and has been for most of the last thousand years (the 1000-year anniversary of its foundation was just over a year ago; Vietnam’s only other capital). France’s 50-year occupation of the country has a profound effect upon the main cities in Vietnam, not least in Hanoi, which served as the capital of French Indochina (The French-occupied territory that comprised Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). To us this effect manifested itself particularly in the appearance of the buildings in and around Hanoi and also in the cuisine. But most memorable of Hanoi’s traits, though not necessarily the most endearing is the swarms of motorcycles that descend on the city every day. I’ve heard various statistics about their number compared to the total population. The one that’s stuck is the one told to us by our guide on the bus to Halong Bay. He said there were 5.8 million people and 3.8 million bikes. True or not, it’s like nothing else in the world.

The sheer number of motorcycles is what first struck us as we shared a taxi with Mike, whom we had met on the bus, from the bus station to our hostel in the old quarter. The relatively short journey took a long time, edging our way precariously across each junction. The bikes, like wasps, buzzed around us. Though wasps don’t have horns, which the drivers in Vietnam use at every opportunity no matter how empty the streets are. You’ve just got to hope you don’t get stung! It later transpired, when we met Mike by chance, that our taxi driver had an ulterior motive for elongating the journey. Despite having determined an already high price for the three of us, the driver had the cheek to charge Mike the ridiculous price he had managed to rack up on his dodgy meter. Mike stood his ground and refused to pay more than the agreed price, and after a good few minutes of litigation the driver drove off with one of Mike’s bags still in the back of the car. Luckily, a travel agents Mike knew from a previous visit had the presence of mind to take down his number. Remarkably, the driver later sheepishly brought back the bag, leaving his number and insisting that Mike call it and pay up at a later stage. From then on we probably became over suspicious of the taxi drivers who would tussle for your custom at the destination of any intercity coach or train, especially after our experience in Yangshuo too.

I have to admit my heart sunk a little when we first stepped foot into our hostel in Hanoi, ‘Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel’. It was everything I feared it might be despite positive reviews and high ratings on Hostelworld. We might as well have walked into a bar in Newcastle for all the bronzed partygoers and the loud obnoxious music that drowned the communal area on the ground floor. To me it was a feeling at once familiar and alienating. As it turned out the hostel itself figured little in our experience of Hanoi and the rooms and facilities were actually excellent for the price. Also, through them we booked one of the highlights of the whole trip – our two-day outing to Sapa valley.

Out of fear from not being able to get to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) because of the Tet (Vietnamese name for the lunar new year) holiday, we were harried into rash and expensive decisions. Though, given the chance again, I couldn’t confidently say that I would have done any of it differently. All at the same time, we booked a trip for the next day to Tam Coc, our trip to Sapa valley, and our 35-hour train to Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it would have been better to fly, as most people did, but it would have taken away from the trip had we booked a flight. You can catch a flight to anywhere you like and the experience would be much the same, but the train would be unique.

Our first full day in Vietnam was spent on the day trip we had booked to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc. Day trips are easy to come by in Vietnam, since a lot of what Vietnam has to offer lies outside the cities. The hostel books you a place with a travel agency; the agency sends a minibus complete with guide and driver to pick up the happy travellers from their respective hostels all over the city before heading to its destination. Our first destination that day was Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ‘ancient capital’. It was a seat of power for only 41 years before moving 90km north in 1009AD to where Hanoi now stands. It was nice, after months of living in China, to see something of genuine historical significance. But Hoa Lu offered little beyond that. There were a couple of temples, which were certainly not 1000 years old, and very similar to the Buddhist temples we had seen in China. The guide’s English wasn’t really good enough to provide an insight into the remains. Instead, it was the surrounding scenery that stole the show. And it was for the scenery that we hopped back in the minivan and went to Tam Coc.

After a buffet lunch, the two of us were rowed along a stretch of water that snaked through karst ‘towers’ much like those in Yangshuo, though perhaps not as tall. Our oarsmen, like most of the others that plied their trade there, used his feet rather than his hands. An ingenious way to reduce the effort of a long row, but requiring a fair amount of dexterity of foot! He took great pride in the speed at which he propelled us, repeatedly indicating to us that our boat was ‘number one’. Tam Coc, meaning three caves, is so named because of the natural caves that you pass through along this route. Our winding path was lined with rice paddies, but you wouldn’t have known, as it was a long way off harvest time. This hour and a half boat was at least as spectacular as anything we had seen in Yangshuo – almost too much to take in all at once.

After the boat ride there was just enough time to fit in a short cycle ride through more rice paddies before heading back – probably too short for it to have been worthwhile. But the whole day trip was worth it for the three caves of Tam Coc alone. Back in Hanoi we had plenty of time to find somewhere nice to eat. So we followed the advice of our guidebook to a place a fair distance. On the way and completely by coincidence, we bumped into our Californian coach companion, Mike. It was then we learnt of his altercation with our taxi driver. Mike joined us for dinner and we discussed our future plans in Vietnam. It turned out to be great choice of restaurant. It was a big place and the rows of full tables (mostly outside) were a testament to its deserved popularity. We ordered a Vietnamese pancake on the recommendation of the waitress. This turned out to be a sort of make-your-own spring roll. When a waiter saw that we were obviously struggling to eat it he demonstrated, with incredible finesse, how to construct the spring roll with the rice paper greenery and seafood. I tried with my hands to replicate what he had managed with chopsticks. Needless to say I failed completely! Still, that and my Pho (noodle soup) made for one of the best meals of the trip.

The next day was our Hanoi day – the day we had set aside to explore the city itself. It was actually (with the exception of our minibus ride to Halong Bay) the last time we saw Hanoi in daylight, despite the fact our departure of Hanoi was still three days away. It will become clear why later on. We started our day having endured another terrible night’s sleep. There was nothing wrong with our dormitory, but rather one of its occupants. For two nights running this guy had woken us both up in the middle of the night. The tragic irony is that, as he had woken us up, he was enjoying blissful sleep. He managed this with his truly monumental snore! I have never heard anything like it, and I’m sure Amy would say the same. Once I had given up on sleep, his snoring even distracted me from reading. That very morning, I discovered that we had met the snorer on our first evening in Hanoi – a perfectly pleasant Australian traveller. We hadn’t worked out that we were in the same dorm before because we went to sleep and woke up before him. I actually found it difficult to converse with him, knowing the suffering he had inadvertently caused!

Another less redeeming feature of our stay in this hostel was the free breakfast. It was clearly deliberately bad to encourage us to go for the cooked breakfast.  It consisted of going stale rolls, butter and choices between a bizarre relish and a sorry excuse for marmalade, and between pre-mixed coffee sachets and Lipton’s yellow label tea, which is ubiquitous in all places that don’t ‘get’ tea.  They underestimated my thriftiness. If they offer a free breakfast, then a free breakfast I’ll get! Besides, the breakfast was made up for in two significant ways. Firstly, the big screens showing live Australian open games (I particularly remember a gripping encounter between Lleyton Hewitt and Cedrik-Marcel Stebe); secondly, another of France’s more positive legacies in Vietnam is the coffee. Anywhere you go in Vietnam you’re likely to find quality coffee. It is often drunk with sweetened condensed milk (perhaps that’s the USA’s input into Vietnam’s unique brand of coffee). For those that like it, it makes for an excellent iced coffee.

Finally steeled for a full day in Hanoi, we set off first to Hoan Kiem Lake. This lake is a defining feature of central Hanoi, evidenced by the several happy couples that had chosen it as the venue for their ‘western-style’ wedding photo shoot. A large lake right in the very centre of activity in the city, its serenity offers a welcome reprieve from the surrounding roads that are beset with unrelenting chaos. The extremely rare species of turtle that dwells within has given rise to a legend in which the Emperor, Le Loi, returns a sword to the golden turtle god, Kim Qui. We saw one of these turtles on display on one of the two islands in the lake, which is easily accessed via a bridge. The other island is very small and has just enough space for ‘Turtle tower’, which is lit up at night.

After that, we visited Hanoi’s neo-gothic, catholic cathedral, St. Joseph’s. Unmistakably an allusion to the Notre Dame with its circular stained glass, it was little bit of Paris hidden away in the back streets of Hanoi. We helped ourselves to a croque monsieur and an omelette for lunch. Once replete, our next stop was to be the temple of literature. The temple is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars, and functioned as a university from 1076-1779, meaning that it predated any university in Europe. The temple grounds are made up of five successive courtyards that contain, among other things, turtle stele with the names of successful graduates and fish-filled ponds. At the end there was a performance of traditional music. I had not heard such instruments being played since I went to Shanghai around ten years ago with the Haringey Young Musicians’ Big Band. It was delightful. I listened and reflected on what a shame it is that so few people learn these instruments nowadays. After we left the temple, I got a shave on the street. I had deliberately left without any shaving equipment, with the intention of allowing a chin of hair to grow. But it was irritating me so I gave up on the idea.

The temple is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars, and functioned as a university from 1076-1779, meaning that it predated any university in Europe. The temple grounds are made up of five successive courtyards that contain, among other things, turtle stele with the names of successful graduates and fish-filled ponds. At the end there was a performance of traditional music. I had not heard such instruments being played since I went to Shanghai around ten years ago with the Haringey Young Musicians’ Big Band. It was delightful. I listened and reflected on what a shame it is that so few people learn these instruments nowadays. After we left the temple, I got a shave on the street. I had deliberately left without any shaving equipment, with the intention of allowing a chin of hair to grow. But it was irritating me so I gave up on the idea.

Next on the day’s agenda after seeing the temple of literature was to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh, largely responsible for reuniting Vietnam and repelling the French and the Americans, is practically worshipped.  His visage is plastered all over Vietnam, not least on every bank note whether it be worth 500 Dong (roughly 1.5p) or 500,0000 (£15). You can go inside and see the embalmed body of ‘uncle Ho’. It’s curious that a nation that adores him so would deny him his dying wish to be cremated. We didn’t go inside because it happened to be closed to the public when we got there. Instead we just rested while listening to the ridiculously jolly patriotic songs that blared out all around. So severe was the guard stationed outside the mausoleum that one of the guards blasted his whistle furiously at a small girl when she strayed slightly too close.

The walk back to the old quarter was fraught with danger.  It coincided with rush hour in Hanoi. Traffic lights were largely irrelevant at that or any time. In fact, so were pavements! There isn’t a time of day where the roads aren’t swarming with motorcycles. It’s pretty simple, though scary, to negotiate the roads when there are only motorcycles because the onus is on them to avoid you. The problem with rush hour is you can hardly cross the road the same way when there are cars involved. Having made it back unscathed, we used our remaining time that day preparing for our two-day trip to Sapa – the night train was to leave at 9 that evening. After a hearty western dinner, I picked up the laundry I dropped off that morning and we retrieved our bags from storage. I was to regret not purchasing a smaller bag and leaving the bigger one in Hanoi for the trekking up hills.

So ended our experience of Hanoi city three days before catching the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Still to come before then was Sapa and Halong Bay.

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