What’s going on here?

I think I have established why blogging has suddenly become more of a chore than it was before. Since returning from our SE Asia trip life here has ceased to be newsworthy to me and has become routine. I realise my new experiences here are hardly less newsworthy for you, but it’s difficult to see it that way. It’s a sign that I am more settled and content with our situation here. Good for me, but not so much the readers of this blog! Rather than letting it defeat me I’m going to (yet again!) make a concerted effort to write up a weekly post.

I have about 20 minutes until I need to leave for GZ before heading to a place called Dan Xia Shan tomorrow with Amy, Cari and Emma, so today won’t be the day that I get my act together. But when I get back, I’ll have a good subject for the post that is to get me back on track!

Sorry for such a non-post. I can assure you the next will be more substantial. I guess this post is to show you that, despite appearances, I haven’t forgotten my blogging responsibilities. Please bear with me!


Hanoi: Sapa

The trip to Sapa began with the night train from Hanoi. The train journey was 8 hours long – not long enough for a decent night’s sleep when you factor in settling into your bunk bed and being awoken at 5am by ear splitting Vietnamese opera! Half an hour before our train was due to leave we were hurried into a minivan with the one other person from our hostel on the trip, Maria from Argentina, a guide to help us onto the train, and the driver. It was just as well we had a guide because the train station was just about as chaotic as Hanoi’s streets. There were no mopeds, but hustling and bustling in all directions with their luggage trying to find the right platform in the dark. I say platform, but there really wasn’t anything of the sort. I merely refer to the stony ground from which you board your train. There was no designated area for crossing the tracks; people just stepped over them as they pleased. It was truly amazing that Vietnam’s train service could function at all, this being its capital.

After double and triple checking we had found our way on to the correct train and compartment we decamped in our compartment, which was shared with two quiet and unassuming Vietnamese women. As the train trundled on time out of Hanoi, we settled into our top bunks for the night. It was on this trip I realised the appeal of long distance. I was filled with a childish joy as I watched the barely lit towns and countryside pass by from under my blanket. I was to experience the worst of train travel before the rip was through, but at that moment I wouldn’t have wished to be anywhere else. Our sleep was rudely interrupted by the voices of wailing opera singers at around 5am. We drew up the station still almost an hour before dawn. We had to find our guide waiting for us at the station. Trust was a real issue because, just as with any station in SE Asia, we weren’t short of offers for taxi rides! It was obvious we had eventually found the right person because he was able to reel off our names. We yet again hopped into a mini van only vaguely aware of the tightly winding roads as we made the ascent towards Sapa. In between sleep I noticed the light of the new sun was reflecting off the barely visible hills below us. As it got lighter, it became clear that the light was reflecting off the rice paddies that striped the hills all the way up.

On our arrival at a hotel in Sapa, a French colonial town in the northwest reaches of Vietnam, we were allowed a shower in their rooms and a buffet breakfast that included coffee – utterly essential on this particular morning. The breakfast table was our first real opportunity to get to know the other people joining us on our ‘trek’ (I’m using inverted commas because it wasn’t all that demanding). There was Maria, whom we had briefly met already before getting on the train, and Jenny and her brother Robin from Sweden. Robin was visiting his sister who lived in Singapore and Maria was in the middle of three months in SE Asia having lived and worked in New Zealand for six months. During our breakfast we noticed that some members (all female) of the local H’mong tribe, armed with bags full of locally made merchandise, were well aware of our arrival and were spying us from the perimeter of the hotel’s property. We prepared ourselves for an onslaught of aggressive selling when we left the hotel, but it never came. What we didn’t realise was that they were playing the long game! Instead of taking the first opportunity to sell their goods they simply accompanied us on the walk. They were actually delightful company and earned the right to make a bit of money off us when we got to our lunchtime stop. They spoke remarkably good English – obviously having done this walk hundreds of times. We thought about how much the children at our school struggle when a girl, who couldn’t have been much older than 8 and had probably never been to school, was able to hold a conversation with us, They were eager to help if we reached any difficult terrain and they also made us toy animals out of the grass.

Also delightful company was our guide Muon (I’m only guessing at the spelling). He was also a member of a minority tribe but had ditched the traditional attire to be a guide. He seemed to always have a smile on his face and was always more than happy to answer questions. The real highlight, though, was the scenery. The terraced rice paddies that lined the valley all the way down were very pleasing to the eye, and further in the distance we could see the Fansipan, the highest peak in all of SE Asia. This was all complimented perfectly by the emergence of the sun during the morning. The sky was clear for the rest of our time in Sapa valley. We were told in no uncertain terms that we should be prepared for cold weather, as the average temperature there is significantly lower than that of Hanoi because of its altitude. It turned out that I needn’t have heeded this advice because, even without the sun shining for most of the day, the effort that went into lugging around everything I had with me on my back was easily enough to keep me far too warm.

The novelty of eating fresh bread hadn’t worn off by the time we had lunch that day after three months of living in China. Even more gratifying were the laughing cow cheese and the ham that came with this lunch. In normal circumstances I couldn’t imagine a less remarkable lunch, but that day it was a revelation! After lunch, a different group of women accompanied us for the shorter remaining stretch to our homestay location. These women were from the Red Dao tribe. They were far more obvious in their motives than their predecessors, which made them altogether less redeeming. Also, by that time the game had been given away. Each one of them had specifically chosen one of us as a ‘friend’ hoping that that friend would buy something from them at the end of the walk. It would have been easier to fold and buy something small from them but for the fact they just as the H’mong women did before, were charging real money for their, albeit high quality, textile bags and silver bracelets. All the same things were available in Hanoi for a lower price.

Our afternoon walk was pretty flat and took us through a Red Dao village. We were able to see the machines and tools that they used to make their clothes and their food. Having escaped the relentless hassling of our companions we reached our homestay village, which seemed to be a sort of ‘no go’ area for the minorities who wanted to sell their goods. There were still a few hours of daylight left and we took this opportunity to relax on the large rocks that provided a river crossing at the bottom of our village. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so at peace as I did lying on that rock with a combination of sun and a cool breeze keeping me at just the right temperature. I could have stayed there for hours longer had the sun not dipped behind Vietnam’s tallest mountain range.

That evening our hosts treated us to a wonderful meal. The woman who prepared the meal for us had clearly been doing this sort of thing for a while and she was very adept at keeping us at ease. Her main tool in helping her achieve this was rice wine. I had only once before encountered this foul spirit that the Vietnamese call ‘happy water’ in China. I guess I couldn’t argue with this name given that the evening was certainly a happy one. After we had eaten and sat and talked for a while by the fire, our hosts took us do somewhere in the village where there was music and dancing. I call it dancing, but it was really just jumping over sticks. The people jumping over sticks were actually students from a Vietnamese international school. It wasn’t really as great as it sounds. The music came from a sound system and it was really only put on to keep the school teens entertained for an evening. Far more impressive was the dazzling night sky as we walked back to our homestay to go to sleep.

I woke up early the next day having slept beautifully. No one else was awake so I followed the sound of the rushing river and dipped my feet in the cool water and watched occasional villager slowly making their way across the river. Our breakfast consisted of pancakes, bananas, honey and coffee. We soon set off and made our way further down the valley. The walking on this day was a little more challenging, with steep climbs and descents and tiptoeing to avoid mud as we walked through bamboo forests. The walk brought us to the top of a waterfall with breathtaking views. In fact, the whole morning brought more views that a camera couldn’t really do justice.

Lunchtime and the end of our ‘trek’ came all too soon. It was a shame we didn’t really get a full two days of walking in the valley. But the time that we did get was very special. We had time in the afternoon to see the market in Sapa and to get a drink and a French-style meal. We were just killing time before we had to get the minivan back to the station. In the van we again met a Canadian couple that had been in the minivan on the way to Sapa. We chatted about our respective experiences in Sapa and it seemed utterly bizarre that it was only the day before we had been drowsily driving at dawn to the hotel in Sapa town, The chaos that ensued at the station was hardly any different from Hanoi two nights before, but it was a whole lot easier to take a second time around. The snorer we got in our compartment highlighted how lucky we had been with our first experience of travel by train in SE Asia.

We again alighted our train at around 5am. Hanoi at 5am is a million miles from Hanoi at 5pm. The streets and the pavements were empty – as you would expect. People were just beginning to emerge to set up their stalls for the day. This walk back to our hostel was a perfect illustration of how much Hanoi is defined by the chaos of its streets. Finally arriving at the hostel far too early for breakfast, we slumped into a vegetative state. And so our Sapa trip ended very much how it began: hanging around the communal area of our hostel waiting for a minivan to pick us up and take us on the next trip.

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Another show

Contrary to popular belief, today (April fools’ day) was Friday. We have the next three days off because it is the national ‘tomb cleaning’ holiday. In Chinese schools it is standard practice to make up for days lost to holiday at the weekend, therefore completely defeating the point of a holiday. Still, overall we’ve managed one day off. Had it not been for my depleted schedule, I would now be a wreck having completed seven school days on the trot.

I might have mentioned before that on Fridays the school puts on a show to keep the parents, who have come to pick up their children, amused. It just so happened that today’s show took an English theme. It was basically a compressed version of the school shows we did last term involving grades 1 to 5. It was also another opportunity for us to make complete fools out of ourselves (which was appropriate given the date!). It was presented by four grade 5 students who were presented with a script containing highly suspect English.

After a few dance routines from grades 1 to 3, we all had to take part in a ‘fashion show’ which involved many of the English teachers. I took this opportunity to debut the new tailor-made suit I had acquired in Thailand. I was paired with Beryl and we and the other two grade 3 teachers (Nicky and Francine) had to present a series of poses that we had hastily run through the day before. The next piece was a game that I had to play with grade 3 and Nicky’s assistance. The game was ‘Simon says’ but the words ‘Simon says were replaced with ‘uh-oh’. Don’t ask me why! My explanation of the rules in English fell on deaf ears. The children are brilliant at quickly picking up and sticking to a set of rules, so it was almost impossible to catch them out when they had been well drilled and were especially keen not to falter in front of an audience.

The next game was with grade 2, and involved us three. The game this time was ‘duck, duck, goose’. Again gifted the pointless task of explaining ourselves in English, I was happy to pass over the mike to one of the children to start off the game. She needed a little help when it got to the point where she wanted to say ‘goose’, but the game went smoothly enough. The only thing was that the stage wasn’t nearly deep enough for our purposes so the chase spilled onto the steps above.

I wasn’t able to witness Simon’s involvement in the final grade 1 piece, but I wish I had. In April the children were singing ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’. And you’ll never guess the part Simon had to play…! The grade 3 teachers wanted to get photos of us in our fashion show get-ups. I’m hoping there’ll be photos of the show on the website but, for now, I just have a selection of the photos we took just after the show. For some reason Beryl omitted the pictures omitted the pictures including herself. I have only uploaded 4 photos because our internet is spectacularly slow at the moment (it has been for at least a week). One picture takes about 5 minutes!

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