Somewhat Of A Travel Guide - Part 2
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Chao for now.

Food, Art, and Fashion
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There is something about Hanoi, and Vietnam in general, that emanates, for want of a better phrase, a romantic and artsy aura about it. The mélange of the cafes, the lakes, the pagodas, the cathedral, the history, the old quarter, the narrow streets of crowded shops, the boulevards, the old colonial structures, and the chaotic traffic create a ‘je ne sais quoi’ about the place for those of us who live here for any period of time. The food, the art, and the fashion are but three of the multitude of expressions that dance together to make up what is Hanoi. Such integral parts they are to society here and anywhere, it surprises me that I have not thought to write on them in any of my previous entries. So it is, with but a few months remaining before we leave this town, that I attempt to tackle three topics upon which we all no doubt have our own very strong opinions.

But before I delve any further into this entry, let me first set the correct expectations here. I am neither food critic, fashionista, nor art expert. I am not the type to wax lyrical over some dish I ate at a restaurant; one would certainly not look to me for advice on what to wear next summer; and while I enjoy art very much do not expect me to turn all Zen and go 'hmmmm' when I look at a painting. I am a simple man, with simple needs (though I do want to own a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft one day, and I guess that counts as a farely complex need), and on these topics, I possess a simple understanding. There are far more qualified persons to talk on these topics than I, so all I have to offer is my simple interpretation.


Food

With all due respect to my many friends in the food industry, might I just say that it does seem to be one full of overused, and thus rendered meaningless, marketing phrases. Since hyperbole such as 'sumptuous feast', 'mouthwatering delicacies', and 'gastronomical delights' I detest with a vengeance, that is the last that you will see of such references in these humble paragraphs. Furthermore, with a significant percentage of you, the audience, being from Singapore, on the topic of food I do need to tread carefully. Singapore is a nation of food critics. Being a Kiwi, with a very antipodean and functional approach to food, I have fallen asleep during many a discussion amongst my dear Singaporean family and friends as they go on for hours about the relative quality of the meal we’ve just enjoyed. When I had thought a simple ‘yeah, that was nice’ would have sufficed, the conversation around the dinner table does seem to quickly skirt around more trivial topics (such as current affairs, art, culture, and politics) and plough right into the real meat of the day – what we just had for dinner. So it is with the same fear and intrepidation that is experienced by a professional presenting to his or her peers that I tackle this topic on the various culinary manifestations of the dietary peculiarities of the peoples of the Red River delta and beyond.

It pains me to say this, but I would not rank Vietnamese food up there with Thai food. There is much great stuff around though, all of which are worth trying. One thing that seems to typify Vietnamese food is it’s delicacy. Even their heavier foods are relatively light and refreshing. Take their ‘nem’ (what us New Zealanders would call a ‘spring roll’) for instance. Compared to the Thai version which has quite a hard deep fried skin, the Vietnamese version has a very light rice paper that is only lightly fried, making it very light and delicate to eat. Many of the dishes here come with copious amounts of leafy greens, so the food in general is pretty healthy. At first I used to finish off the main part of the dish then perhaps nibble on a couple of pieces of lettuces. But since recently reading about the anti-oxidants in leafy greens and their anti-aging properties I have been finishing off my veges just like my mum always told me (apparently though, at least according to me lady, I am the only person who did not know that leafy greens will make your wrinkles go away ☺)

Perhaps the most famous dish in all of Vietnam is the ‘phở bò’ (if you can say ‘fur ball’, without the ‘ll’s then you will not be to far off the pronunciation for this one). If anyone knows one Vietnamese dish, then this is the one. While the dish derives itself from days well before the French arrived on the scene (it was introduced by the Mongols), it’s current name and form owes much to the frogs. The French called the dish ‘pot au feu annamite’ (hence, ‘phở’; ‘bò’ = beef), beefed up the stock, added some herbs and spring onions to it, asked for the beef slices to come rare, and – voila!!! A tasty meal for a cold morning. Many have written about this dish as though it contains some magical powers, but to be honest I have often wondered why. Look, it is a nice dish, but I wouldn’t fly to Hanoi just for the phở. It’s more often than not a breakfast food and I find it just a little on the light side to have too often - it probably explains the differences in average pack weights of the All Black scrum versus the Vietnamese national rugby team.

There are many dishes that I would personally recommend over phở bò. For example, bún riêu cua, nem, chả lá lốt, and (my all time favourite) bún chả. Most of these dishes are available on the street, or in the many restaurants (low end and high end) around town. But, please, do try the phở by all means – it’s still one of the must do Vietnamese experiences.

Then of course there are the foods that I would not recommend. Dog, snake, and so forth. Yes, they eat dog and much fanfare is made of it – mostly by visitors. The fear of dog meat is more psychological than anything, for me anyway. The first time I came across dog being sold in a market I saw what I thought was a whole row of roasted pigs on skewers. Hmmmm, yummy I thought. Then I saw the snarling teeth, and thought ‘that ain’t pig’. Within seconds the air had become overpowering and I had begun dry reaching as I ran out of the market. Much gusto and bravado is made among foreigners and Vietnamese alike about dog, but do not be fooled. In reality, many many many many Vietnamese do not eat dog meat and never will. It is certainly not mainstream food. And for those who do eat it, it tends to be a once a month kind of treat – maybe it’s too high in something (hmmmm, I recall while reading ‘Mawson’s Will’ decades ago, about some early explorers in Antarctica who had to turn on their dogs in order to survive, that their main problem was the high dangerously Vitamin A content in dog liver – so just remember that, it might come in useful if you get lost with your dog one day). I will give many things a go once, and twice if I like. The first time I tried dog I almost vomited. It was disgusting. I threw it back down and washed what was in my mouth down with a whole mug of beer. I learnt later though that what I had been repulsed by was not the dog meat itself but the very sauce that I had dunked it in with the hope of drowning out the flavour of the dog. Mắm tôm is a fermented prawn paste sauce that is rather popular in these parts. To me, it smells and tastes like vomit and I am never going near the stuff again. Out of respect to the dogs of the world, I did try a small sampling again some months later, once I had recovered from the first traumatic experience – this time without the sauce. Ok, it was not bad. It was edible. But, it may very well have been be my last. As in, I am not going out of my way to try it again.

Snake on the other hand I will probably never try. Well actually, I would probably try the meat if the opportunity presented itself one day. But why, oh why, do people insist on serving such dishes with things like their tiny beating heart, and some rice wine mixed with some snake’s blood. It seems to be the way that it comes in the snake restaurant on the outskirts of Hanoi. No! Not needed!

Which reminds me one of my other gripes about the food industry. Actually, probably more about the reality TV industry than the food industry really. There are so many boring chef shows on TV at the moment, following around chefs with million pound egos to the edges of the earth. You women and your love of food and hunky (and even fat) chefs are the main cause of all this! It’s like Oprah in the kitchen. What ever happened to good quality TV (hmmmm, am I starting to sound old already)? Anyway, there’s one show called something (you can tell I do not watch it and do not care to) where this guy goes around the world sampling all the weird foods of the world. I am sure that if he has not been here already, that he will be soon – to sample some of dog or snake or that wine with scorpions soaking in it. Sigh. Get a life. They look disgusting. They taste disgusting. And there’s a reason why those foods are not eaten by the mainstream population. And as for those claims of virility that all the connoisseurs of these exotic foods claim – well, how many woman do you know trying to force feed their husbands the stuff ;)

One of the more memorable aspects of Vietnamese food for me will be the story of the seasons as played out by the fruit on the streets of Hanoi. In this day and age of air-flown produce we’ve become so used to all produce available all-year round that we’ve almost lost our sense of seasonal fruits. In most modern cities, if you want fresh apples then your local supermarket will have them winter, spring, summer, autumn – either from local orchards or flown in overnight from Uzbekistan. Like a seasonal calendar, the fruits sold by the ladies on the streets and in the markets of Hanoi are a reminder of a time when they only came when their time was due, and not according to the dictates of humankind’s modern desire for ‘immediacy’. It’s been such a joy to watch the year roll by in terms of lychees, chiku, longan, rambutan, persimmon, dragonfruit, oranges, durian, mango, mangosteen, strawberries, grapes, peaches and apples. Which raises the point that, given it’s location near the Tropic of Cancer, Hanoi really does have access to an enviable selection of fresh fruit. From not to far south come it’s tropical fruits, while from not to far north come the more temperate zone stone and pip fruits and more.

On the restaurant front, one of the joys we first encountered on our arrival in this town was the impressive selection of affordable, good dining. It is one of the things that makes this a wee gem of a city. Whether it’s a street side café you are after, a patisserie, a coffee while you look over a small lake, Vietnamese cuisine, French, Italian, Russian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Australian, Belgium, German, Spanish, International (whatever that is) or fusion, then I am sure that there is something here to whet your appetite. Many of the restaurants are inside old houses so, aside from the food, the ambience in most cases is great as well. In general, the pricing is pretty good and affordable, and if you want to pay top dollar just head to the flash hotels and they will point you to their restaurants for more international pricing options - and they have some top class food too. And then of course there are the street side vendors selling very cheap traditional fare to the Vietnamese themselves and the occasional foreigners. The doctors at the international clinics here advise against street side stalls, but … go on, give it a go ;).

The French have left a very real and obvious legacy in many areas of life throughout Hanoi and Vietnam, and as one would expect of the French, this includes some nice touches to the cuisine. One touch that comes to mind in particular is the numerous bakeries around town serving up lovely fresh breads, cakes, and coffees everyday. It’s quite a treat to be able to trundle down in the early morning to a little bakery and grab some fresh bread and pastries for breakfast or lunch. Might I offer two words of advice from a Kiwi to the French though (which of course would have translated through to the bakeries of Vietnam if they had got these pearls of wisdom right in the first place)? First, fresh cream is much nicer than custard in a chocolate éclair; and second, your cakes portions are way too small. No wonder you can’t play rugby.

As alluded to many times in my entries to date, the purpose of these writings is not a travel guide, so I will save myself the hassle of providing you with a restaurant-by-restaurant or dish-by-dish recommendation – that’s the job of Lonely Planet. Everyone in this town has their favourite spots, and if you are headed this way then drop me a note and I’d be happy to give you my two cents worth. Having said this, please grant me this one recommendation within this entry. If you are here for only one meal, then you must check out Quan An Ngon on Phan Boi Chau Street – it’s a great introduction to Vietnamese cuisine at a very cheap price, in a wonderful lively ambience. It’s a must try for anyone visiting Hanoi.

Anyway, enough about food. I like eating food, but do not get much of a kick out of writing or reading about it. Go read this book for a whole 184-pages on the topic of Vietnamese food: Noodle Pillows, by Peta Mathias. It’s a great introduction to Vietnamese food and culture.


Fashion

I have always found it somewhat refreshing when I see a culture embracing it’s own fashion and arts industry. On visits to The Philippines over the years, I have often been impressed with the airtime that the local musicians receive on local radio and TV and the patronage the Filipinos demonstrate toward their own fashion brands. My impression is that it is much the same here in Vietnam. There are a myriad of homegrown clothing labels on both high street and back street around the country. In one respect, one might be able to explain the strong presence of local brands as appealing to the Vietnamese whose lower incomes would make the lower pricing more attractive than the familiar international labels. It is the high end though that I do find most interesting. One of my favourite stores on Dong Khoi Street in Ho Chi Minh City has some great bohemian style clothing from a Vietnamese designer, but with shirts going for up to USD200 a piece I am somewhat intrigued that there is actually a market for it. I recall pulling one shirt I liked off the rack then, looking at the price tag, putting it back saying ‘ah, no’! Not I, but someone in Vietnam is obviously paying top dollar for shirts as this store seems to be doing pretty well.

Flowery, frilly, embroidered patterns seems to be par for the course for many Vietnamese designers. It’s a design that not too many westerners have an attraction to, but too be honest I reckon some of the less flamboyant ones look pretty good. Alas, I have a few such items in my wardrobe as we speak. In fact, I have quite a number of Vietnamese designed and made articles of clothing now. Though I somehow have my doubts that my fashion sense is going to drive your wardrobe decisions, so I guess that is quite irrelevant.

As in any culture, menswear is mostly relegated to the single rack at the back of a shop overcrowded with women’s clothing. Ladies, it’s not that us guys do not want to improve our fashion sense – it’s just that we can’t find anything. It’s like we need to revert to our innate hunting instincts to search out clothing – and since clothing in general does not omit an odour the hunt is made that much more difficult. Over the years however, I have learnt to head on down to the back of the shop to find that lone rack. As for ladies wear, there are quite a number of interesting shops here in Hanoi. And it’s not just the local Vietnamese women with whom these brands are popular. Many a female family member or friend of mine has purchased dresses from such shops as Marie Linh and Le Vent. Sometimes the smaller Vietnamese sizes have frustrated purchases for some western buyers, but in general we’re all pretty happy with the options available here in Vietnam.

Early in this article I alluded to the artsy aura around town. And it’s a fever that a number of foreigners seem to pick up relatively quickly as well. Thankfully, some of these out-of-towners have been successful in setting up top quality restaurants and, relevant to these paragraphs, fashion labels. Ipanema, a well-known ladies bag shop, was set up by a ‘trailing spouse’ and is now a successful international brand. Things of Substance and Contraband are the creation of an Australian, and are another well-known brand around town and are moving to the international export market. Actually, I think half my wardrobe now comes from the Things of Substance store. Alas, Ipanema bags are not my thing – the ladies love them though. Hmmm, maybe instead of sticking with IT I should have been more bold and branched out to a completely new field during my time here eh! ☺

What is lacking in ‘off the rack’ menswear clothing here is more than made up for in tailored suits. South East Asia is full of tailors able to make you a cheap suit overnight - many of which are not too bad for those briefly passing through town. And Hanoi is no different. Those of us lucky enough to be living here for any length of time however, have the option of being a little more patient and getting something tailored that we are truly happy with. It’s perhaps a little on the greedy side, but so far I’ve splashed out on four suits during my time here. At around USD140 a pop, it’s hard not to say ‘oh, I’ll just get one more in a slightly different shade of grey’. I’ve got a great tailor I go to each time in his shop house down a small alley very close to St Joseph’s Cathedral. Trained in East Germany, his English is not great, but with handshakes, smiles, my broken Vietnamese and his university student daughter helping with translation we manage to exchange the necessary information. The first suit I had made was a real education in the art. After an extensive measure up I expected him to say ‘come back in a few days time to pick it up’. I figured he must really know what he was doing when he advised me to turn up one week later for a fitting, and that the suit would be completed in about two weeks time. A week later I trundled back to his store for the fitting. My only previous experience in getting clothes tailored was at Kovalam Beach in India many years ago, and there a fitting meant trying on the garment and if it was slightly out, it was altered as necessary. With my friend in Hanoi however, it was very different. When I turned up for the fitting I was somewhat shocked when he threw over me what was not much more than a simple piece of cloth with arm holes in it, made some chalk marks on it, then said ‘come back next week’. ‘He really must know what he is doing’ I thought. And hoped! Then at the end of the second week I tried on a completed suit that I was very happy with.

With four new suits now in my wardrobe, I am probably pretty well catered for in that department. The only other item I intend to add before we leave Hanoi in a little under 2 months time is a tuxedo – I’ve not had a reason to wear one for more than 10 years now, and who knows if I ever will. But at USD140 a pop, who cares eh!! I just hope that the body shape holds ☺.

Which brings me to some philosophical musing. I’ve never really delved into the intricacies of suits before, so I will hold my judgment on whether a USD2,000 suit from Armani can really be that much better or distinguishable from a well-tailored USD140 suit from my friend in Hanoi. Is it the difference between a Honda and a Mercedes, or is it merely a label? In my naivety I will boldly suggest it might be the later. ‘Philistine’ I hear you say!


The Art Scene

Prior to moving to Hanoi I would not have normally gone out of my way to visit an art gallery. And prior to moving to Hanoi, my two favourite types of shop to visit would probably have been bookstores and music stores. Not that I did not appreciate art, just that it was not high on my agenda. Very shortly after arriving here though I caught the art bug, and now find myself quite regularly going out of my way to visit some of the myriad of art galleries around town.

As for food and fashion, I am not going to pretend to be someone who can speak intelligently, or is knowledgeable, on the topic of art. That, I am not. I know what I like, and if I like it enough, and me lady likes it enough, and we can afford it, we will buy it. Which is quite a few boxes to tick off before making a purchase, eh ☺. Anyway, in my ignorance, I am going to say that Hanoi has more than it’s fair share of artists. In fact, one article I read recently claimed there were 6,000 artists in this town, which sounds like a rather large number to me. There are more galleries, paintings, and painters than I’ve ever noticed before. As a city and a nation, they are very proud of their artists. Their poets, for example, ancient and new, are often immortalized and held up as heroes.

It was the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi and other similar schools originally set up by the French around the 1920’s that can probably account for much of the 20th Century and current renaissance and style of paintings coming out of Hanoi and being exported to the rest of the country. I say “exported to the rest of the country” as much of the leading art I have seen in places like Ho Chi Minh City and Hue seems to have been created by artists who at one time or other studied their craft in Hanoi. I suspect that, now the arts scene is allowed more freedom than it was some years back, more and more artists are coming from other locations.

In the early years of communist Vietnam, the arts scene took quite a ‘creative’ hit. As with many other new socialist states struggling to find their way, art was viewed as somewhat bourgeois, and artists and their creative expression became under the suspicion of the government. Artists were required to restrict their art primarily to propaganda-based paintings, often depicting carton-like poster images of such scenes as heroic peasants shooting down B52 bombers with bowls of rice. Since Vietnam’s reforms stemming from the Doi Moi from the late 1980’s, the arts scene has seen an exuberant renaissance. These ‘renovations’ have meant a greater opening up of Vietnam to the rest of the world, and for the artists of Vietnam this will have meant two important things. First of all, Vietnamese artists are now able to get access to what artists from other parts of the world are doing and to share ideas. Secondly, and more importantly, there has been a relaxing of the restrictions on their creative expression. Now, 20 years on, the art galleries of Hanoi and Vietnam are full of wonderful contemporary and interesting modern art.

You know, in what I see as somewhat of an irony that is often witnessed in the art and fashion worlds, some artists are now drawing upon those uninspiring paintings from those propaganda years to fuel their own new paintings. Oh, how often yesterday’s nemesis is today’s inspiration! (Recall how we joked about our parents flares in our youth – then how they came back in fashion a few years back, or how 80’s music came back with abandon in the late 90’s re-packaged as ‘retro’ ☺).

In as much as this blog is not a travelogue, it is also not an attempt at a political or economic treatise on the rights and wrongs of subjects upon which I have little knowledge. With this in mind, please bare with me as I allude to one observation that keeps coming up in conversations or articles about the Vietnamese art scene. That is, the recent heavy commercialization of it. Since finding out that tourists and overseas galleries are willing to pay good money for a painting, some of the more ‘successful’ artists are making a very healthy living churning out art as fast as an ox swipes a fly off it’s back. There’s even a few living in very large houses in prime locations driving BMWs around town. Hardly the image one normally associates from this industry. Before coming to Vietnam over three years ago, I had read an article suggesting that the Vietnamese are innately not communist (I would argue that no one is, but that’s another matter). They are even more entrepreneurial than the Chinese, the article purported, and that it is so not in their blood that true communism simply had no long-term prospects in this country. Where they can make a buck, they will. Well these artists are simply following that same mould. I do not know, but, can you blame them. I mean, if you found you had a craft from which you could make good money, would you not flog it for all it was worth. Yes, it’s all very wonderful those nostalgic, romantic images of struggling artists but, … oh I do not know ;). To a point, I can now appreciate many art critics dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. If one is really to be able to churn out art at prolific rate one is going to have to compromise one’s creativity – simply for the reason that creative juices and ideas take time to evolve and be transformed into a painting or sculpture or other artistic expression. What often happens though is that an artist will create hundreds of paintings that are really just variations of the same theme. Sure, they might be nice paintings, but you soon get the feeling that they might just as well be prints or copies (copies done by the ‘master’ themselves, though).

It took me a little while to understand where the critics were coming from. There are some paintings by an artist that me lady and I liked very much when we first arrived, but we kept putting off buying one. As we explored more and more galleries, and we saw more and more of his paintings on display it dawned on us that the sheer volume of paintings that he was producing was diminishing our interest in them to the point that we lost total interest in them. We simply felt that there was nothing unique about what he was producing.

Talking about copies. As is the case with DVDs, books, and a variety of other consumer items, if you cannot afford one of the original paintings that you want in the ‘high street’ galleries, then fear not. There are plenty of minor painting shops around the place that do copies at a far reduced priced. And in most of these cases you can actually sit there and watch the copy artists paint away. While it’s pretty obvious to tell the difference between these copies and the originals, it can make for a much easier purchase decision cycle and a nice little souvenir of Hanoi. Not that I would want to encourage the copy trade ;). Actually, another cool thing that these shops can do is to copy anything that you want copied – whether that be the Mona Lisa or a family portrait. Just take a photo down, bargain a price and voila!

To date we have purchased four paintings (all originals) that we are very happy with, including very recently our first nude (well, semi nude really). The semi nude created some embarrassment with our wee girls nanny. When she first saw it she asked ‘Is that me lady?’ The answer was and is a categorical ‘No!’ – me lady and I are neither in such an open relationship as to be comfortable with her posing in front of an artist. ;)

Before we leave this town, there are two more paintings that we would like to get. Me lady has a particular affinity for the lacquer technique of painting which is quite a popular art form here in Hanoi, and she would like to purchase one before we leave. It is not a style that does much for me, but many folks love them, and it would be a very relevant souvenir of Hanoi to have hanging on our wall. As for me, I have my eyes on a lovely portrait of an elderly, ethnic minority women. For those familiar with the New Zealand artist Goldie, it was some of his portraits that came to mind when I first saw this painting. In fact, the woman would not look too out of place with a moko chiseled on her chin. I first noticed this painting about 4 months ago, and the only thing I am stuck on at the moment is the price. It’s not cheap, and would be the most expensive art purchase that I or we have made ever. But I love it! So! What do you reckon eh? Let’s see how things go over the next few months. I dropped by the gallery for the first time in a few months just last week and it is still hanging on the wall. If it’s still on the wall in 6 weeks time, then maybe I’ll just have to give into temptation and go try a little haggling. ☺

So far I have really only talked about the paintings coming out of Hanoi, when in reality there is so much more coming out of this artistic town. Laquerware can be found everywhere. They’ve been doing it here for over 700 years apparently, so I guess they must be pretty good at it now. Whether it is functional dinnerware or ornamental sculptured pieces, there is some really lovely stuff around. Just more items we are going to have to stock up on prior to returning to Singapore. There’s some pretty good pottery around too. But I guess you can get pottery anywhere eh. Perhaps it might be a little cheaper here.

One artistic expression that has recently really got me lady and I excited is the local embroidery scene. I would never have looked at embroidery before, believing it something a bit old fashioned. But, wow, some of the stuff we have seen here is exquisite. On a recent trip to Hue, which has a tradition of embroidery, we encountered some simply stunning pieces. When I think of embroidery, I typically expect one side to have the image and the back to be a mess of loose pieces of string. Some of these items we viewed had the perfect image viewable on both sides of such a fine fabric that they look like a painting on glass. These ones are not hung on a wall, but hung on an elaborate stand that enables them to be viewed from both sides. Truly incredible! Look, I do not like to use flowery language too often, but these just blew me away. Oh, the work that must go into them. Oh, the respect I hold for the dedicated artisan – in whatever field they may be. We are going to buy one of these one day, but we will hold off for now and hopefully return to Hue in a few years time with a bit more loose change in our pocket and be very discerning in what we pick up. Plus we also need a larger house as some of the fabrics we like are massive.

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If someone were to ask me what I will miss the most about our time here in Hanoi, it would be a struggle to say exactly what that would be. Of course, there will be the leaving of good friends, the craziness of the traffic, the holidays, the images of villages surrounded by green fields and small lakes that we have cycled through and so forth. But perhaps what I would miss most would be the romance of the place. And for me, this romance is summed up in the food, fashion, and art of Hanoi. And, in so many ways, that food, fashion, and art represents all those other things I will remember Hanoi by - good friends, the craziness of the traffic, the holidays, the images of villages surrounded by green fields and small lakes that we have cycled through and so forth.

So, shall I go buy that one last painting?

Off the Beaten Track - Ha Giang Cycling Trip
eye_on_hanoi
Having lived in Vietnam for 3 years now I was beginning to think that I needed to get off the beaten track and try something a bit different. I had already done all the high profile sites – Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Mui Ne, Ho Chi Minh City and so forth. Interesting spots that they are, it was high time to get off the tourist highway. A chance encounter with Travis from Wide Eyed Tours one Sunday morning, and the seeds of an adventure began to sprout. The recommendation was a cycling trip in the province of Ha Giang - a part of the country not visited by many foreigners, partly due to the fact that it is one of the few areas in Vietnam that still requires a permit to visit, and partly due to the sheer ruggedness of the geography. Just what I wanted – something physical, rugged, remote, and quiet.

The team at Wide Eyed Tours put together an itinerary for a 5 day cycling trip. For three of the days the itinerary described the cycling as 'Very Difficult'. Furthermore, a number of times when speaking with Travis and his colleague Mike, I was warned of the physical difficulty involved. Look, I am not the lean mean athlete that I may have been many years ago, if I ever was, but I brushed these comments aside assuming they were aimed at couch potatoes suddenly inspired into super human feats after watching too much National Geographic. I had completed the Vietnam Triathlon last August and presumed that whatever residual fitness might be left over from that, plus the two 45 minutes runs I was doing each week would pull me through. How wrong I was to be proven in the coming days!

Our adventure began out of Hanoi. On board for the journey was Glyn, a mate from Hanoi; our support vehicle driver, Mr An; our cycling guide, Nam; and Hang, a sales agent from the Wide Eyed Tours office in Hanoi coming along for the ride to get a taste of the tour that she was inflicting upon unsuspecting cyclists. The first day began as a drive, with the bikes in the back, heading north from Hanoi, following the meandering Lo River for most of the way. About 60km out from Ha Giang city we jumped on our bikes for the first time. It was a flat riverside ride on the main road, though there must have been a small incline as we were heading upstream - I may not be a geologist, but I do know that rivers only flow down. Our first day of riding was nothing spectacular, though it did include the odd crazy bus crossing lanes and playing chicken with poor motorcyclists coming the other way – a disturbingly regular sight in Vietnam. It was an important day though to ensure the bikes worked and, perhaps more importantly, to remind me that, after so many months since that triathlon last year, my legs still worked too. We had been advised that today was to be the only easy day of the trip, and it proved to be so. I just hoped that the scenery improved.

We arrived in the metropolis (not) of Ha Giang just before night fall. It was very quickly apparent that one does not visit Ha Giang for it's night life! In fact, one does not visit any town in this part of the country for their night life. That is not such a bad thing when you are journeying under your own steam and want to be a relatively good shape to head off on the road again each morning. So after a meal and a beer at a local restaurant it was back to our modest but comfortable hotel for a few glasses of cabernet sauvignon which we'd smuggled along for the ride – oh the joys of having a support vehicle to throw excess luggage into.

As we downed a bowl of pho for breakfast on Day 2 Glyn and myself commented that, tasty though it was, a bowl of watery soup with noodles, a few strands of beef, and some lettuce was not really the food of 'giants' about to toil on their bikes for the entire day. Alas, we knew the support vehicle was full of oreos, dried fruit, energy gels and, perhaps most importantly, seats to take us to lunch should we fall behind schedule.

At 8am we were on our way. Ahead of us lay a 95km trip to the town of Yen Minh. The first 30km of our journey began as a lovely meander alongside the Miem River, a tributary off the Lo River, until the road split from that and followed the Nam Dieng stream. While riding along this section it was interesting to consider that pretty much all the rivers in this part of the world ultimately feed into the Red River, flowing down past Hanoi where we had begun our journey, before they empty themselves into the Gulf of Bac Bo (or Gulf of Tonkin as many may know it). The traffic was quiet by now and the scenery was beginning to become more picturesque as we rode up the valley through lush green rice paddy fields with limestone mountains towering above us on either side. Like the ride into Ha Giang, this first part of the day was easy. Up ahead though we could see the faint outline of a road making it's way up the large mountain that was to be our destiny for the remainder of the morning and early afternoon. We took our first break of the day at the base of the climb and surveyed our impending ascent. The road literally zigzagged up the hill in front of us until it was out of sight. In a few hours time we were to discover that 'out of sight' did not mean the end of the climb!

Still fresh, we jumped back on the bikes and began our mission to the top of the hill. Known locally as Heaven's Gate (not to be confused with numerous other passes throughout Vietnam going by the same name), the pass we were heading for lay around 3,000 feet above us and 13km ahead of us. Whatever the meaning to the Vietnamese of Heaven's Gate, we figured the descent on the other side was certainly going to be heaven to us! Slowly we edged our way up the mountain road, and very soon it became apparent that the folks at Wide Eyed Tours had been quite serious when they had talked up the difficulty of this journey.

One of the great rewards of doing a journey like this under your own steam is that the scenery leaves a whole new impression on you. Just like having a cold beer at the end of a long days work as compared to just grabbing a beer after slouching at home all day, viewing scenery that you've arrived at under your own physical exertion is so much more satisfying and refreshing than if you'd just jumped off a tourist bus (or motorbike). With the valley floor slowly dropping below us we were just beginning to get a taste of this feeling as the views back down the valley from which we had risen became more and more grand. And as the climb went on that morning, and the legs were tested more and more we found plenty of excuses to get off the bikes and take camera breaks. Ah the beauty of a camera stop - technically, it is not a rest stop. ;)

Alas, the number of camera stops we were taking, added to our slow pace due to our lack of fitness, was beginning to put us behind schedule somewhat. Soon after noon, thinking we only had a kilometer or so to go, I asked our guide Nam “I presume the road slips around the bend there before it drops down in to the town of Tam Son for lunch?” My question was one of hope really as, apart from that route, I saw no saddle in the wall of the mountain ahead of that might get us to lunch anytime within the next hour. Pointing to the right of where I had been alluding to, Nam said “nope, that is Heaven's Gate there”. It was a saddle between the two highest points that lay ahead of us. Sadly, I now had a better appreciation of the concern Nam had expressed earlier about out progress. “Ok”, I said, “I think we'll call in the bus from here”. It would have been nice to have climbed the whole mountain on our own steam, but there was at least another 5 km of steep climbing ahead of us, and there is only so far a man can ride on no training, a bowl of pho, and some oreos. Moments later Mr An and Hang arrived to our rescue, and we all jumped on board with our bikes.

The climb up the hill continued in the vehicle, and we slotted through the pass at Heaven's Gate some 20 minutes later. And what a magnificent sight that greeted us on the other side - Heaven's Gate is an appropriate name. Down below us, stretching to the north and south was a valley of fertile land, and set in amongst it all was a myriad of small hills dotted around. As though the creator had poured mounds of dirt, each up to two to three hundred feet, randomly over the valley and planted luxurious forest over them. Two such hills right next to each other had a reputation amongst the locals as representing a pair of womens breasts. It did not take much imagination to pick out which two they were referring to. And I am sure that local folklore would explain how they were created, and how they no doubt keep the land fertile ;). The whole valley was a surreal, magical sight.



Ten minutes later we were in the town of Tam Son, located elegantly amongst this picturesque valley. Minutes after lunch, much to our delight, we were to discover that we were not yet at the bottom of the valley. As any cyclists know, what goes up, must come down, and moments after leaving our restaurant we were to be rewarded for our morning climb. For the next 20 minutes, the road just went down down down down. Ten kilometers of it, and it would have been at least a 2,000 foot drop to rejoin the Miem River valley that we had left about 10km out of Ha Giang this morning – it had gone around this range of mountains while we had gone over! We took no photos during this 10km descent – nothing to do with the quality of the scenery, magnificent as it was, but all to do with the exhilaration of such a rapid and winding descent down the zigzag road cut into the mountain side.

Once alongside the river again, we continued upstream at a good pace. The valley at this point was fairly narrow and either side of the river the mountains towered above us. It was almost like we were riding through a corridor with tall walls on either side of us. We truly were in a part of Vietnam where every turn produced spectacular views. We continued on riding up the valley, then up another tributary until about 20km out from the town of Yen Minh which was to play host to us for the second night of our journey. Unlike our premature calling in of the bus just before lunch, this was a scheduled rendezvous to throw the bikes into the bus and to have a well deserved rest for the final stretch into town.

Yen Minh made Ha Giang look big. Like many of the towns we passed through on our journey, it essentially just straddles the main road and goes no deeper than that. So after dinner and a beer again, we walked up and down the main street, confirmed there was nothing to see nor any bars of note to visit, then headed back to our rest house for some another cab sav night cap and an early sleep in preparation for day three.

Apart from the horror climb of day two, day three was going to make the previous day seem somewhat ordinary. The scenery was to be even more spectacular. The ride began down a valley through lush fertile farmland, where farmers guided their water buffalo as they ploughed the land in preparation for the next crops. As we rode down one short descent I stopped my bike three times in sheer amazement. The first stop was to get as close as I could to confirm that my eyes were not deceiving me – sure enough, a stream with no visible source was flowing out of a mountain, and joined the main river. About 500 meters further down the road the river we were following suddenly disappeared into the earth. It had cut it's way into the rock and had left flat, fertile, arable land above it. Given that the valley remained the same shape for a few kilometers ahead of us, Glyn and I had a pretty strong hunch that the river might reappear somewhere further down. And sure enough, about a kilometer downstream it came out of the rock again. What was even more fascinating was that the water had gone in muddy and was coming out the other end clear. You can bet that I'll be checking the reason for that out on Wikipedia or somewhere else very soon.

I am no geologist, and I will not try to pretend to be one. But the incredible scenery that we were witnessing, had witnessed over the last 2 days, and would witness for the remainder of the trip were essentially all erosional landforms created by slightly acidic water (in the form of rain, or streams and rivers) wearing away the limestones mountains over millennia. This was limestone karst country – big time. Throughout the trip we came across a number of entrances to caves, and heaven knows what expanse of cave networks lay inside the hills around us. I am sure those crazy caving type people would love to have a chance to explore the hills in this part of Vietnam.

We had witnessed them on a less grand scale every day of our trip so far, but later on in day three we would see and cycle up even more impressive karst peaks. Are you familiar with those old Chinese paintings of steep mountainsides, with forest struggling to hold on, and wisps of cloud rising up through them? Well, that is what we began to cycle through as our morning proceeded up into the mountains. And the similarity to the Chinese paintings is not as uncanny as it may sound – one of the provinces from which many of these paintings were created is Guangxi. Guangxi straddles Vietnam's north eastern border and at times we were only kilometers away from it and could see it's mountain peaks in the distance. So, one might surmise that many of those paintings may have in fact been taken from the same mountain ranges.



Even more striking scenery was to avail itself to us during our afternoon ride from the town of Meo Vac to our night stop at Dong Van. About half way up this climb we rounded a bend and below us the mountainside plummeted to a gorge that must have been at least 2000 feet from the top of the ridges either side of the valley down to the Ngo Que river below. At one point, a kilometer or so downstream from our position, the river passed through a point with sheer cliff on either side of around 500 feet in height. Oh, to be in a kayak or a raft passing through that gap and peering up at the cliffs rising straight from the riverside. This bend in the road provided perhaps the most impressive sight of our whole journey – now that's a big call.

Day 3 ended with a welcome downhill plummet into Dong Van. And what a surprising little town it turned out to be. It was certainly the most attractive we visited during out entire trip. It even had it's own 'old quarter' which, although small, was very quaint. By day 3 we were feeling somewhat more fit and managed to walk around the town for an hour after washing up at the rest house. Wandering through the 'old quarter', we passed a funeral party and had the honour of being invited to share in a quick swig of the local brew – actually, it was kind of forced upon us, and who were we to refuse such an invitation on such an occasion. It was a pretty strong brew, and certainly left a very reluctant Hang coughing as we continued down the street. Later on in the evening we almost suffered the same fate at the hands of some local party committee officials who had come along to quite a groovy wee bar that Hang had brought us to. They had obviously started drinking well before they had arrived at our location (if they were in fact ever sober – they do drink a lot in these parts), and before we knew it we were being invited to join them at their 'table' for some serious drinking of the local wine. Any other time, it would have been a delight to while the evening away in a haze of the local brew, but our rides were painful enough and we did not need the addition of a hangover in the morning to add to the punishment. It is perhaps my only regret of the trip – it could have been quite a fun way to get to learn more about the local people from these gentlemen. But alas, I am not 20-something anymore!

Right, I've dressed up the scenery enough for you now. Days 4 and 5 were equally impressive and I do not intend to spoil your own discovery of the region. I would now like to move on to another important part of this unique part of Vietnam. The people.

One of the most delightful things about this part of Vietnam is the relatively low population density. It was such a joy to be able to ride without actually seeing people or other vehicles for some kilometers. Right, this country is similar in size to New Zealand with twenty times the population (87 million versus 4.3 million) so if your need is to escape people completely then you've simply come to the wrong country! That's just not going to happen. But after the crowds and the noise of Hanoi, it is a delight. Another very appealing aspect of the people here is that, unlike the more popular tourist spots like Sa Pa, they really could not care too much about us. Of course, we were looked at and waved at regularly, but more in the 'I haven't seen one of those before' (that is, crazy foreigner on bicycle) kind of way. At the colourful Sunday market in Dong Van, no one could have cared less about our presence. Compare this to Sa Pa and many other popular tourist spots around Vietnam where young children and women will follow you on a trek for kilometers hawking stuff. It was such a joy to see life as it really is for these people.

The children were a delightful sight throughout the journey. Their young, innocent and unwashed faces, and their smiles and waves as we would ride by. “Hello” they would cry. “Hello” we would yell back. I doubt we were ever going fast enough for any local school teachers to be provided with an opportunity to explain to their students the Doppler effect on our cries. Several times a day we would find ourselves jumping off the bikes to take some photos of children playing or working. The reward to them in return for the photo was simple – the chance for them to have look at photos of themselves. I am sure it would have been a first for many of them. They never asked for anything more. One afternoon we were cruising along a flat section and we passed a young boy of maybe 5 or 6 years old in a field. We waved and yelled “hello” as we cruised by. He said nothing but waved crazily. I looked back a few seconds down the road, and he was now running after us (I mentioned before that we were unfit, but we're not so unfit that there was any chance that this young lad might catch us). In situations like this, you just had to stop. He got his photo taken, and the joy in his eyes and the smile on his face at seeing himself in the camera was just brilliant.

Life in these remote frontier regions of Vietnam is tough. And the more remote you get, and the higher up the mountains you get the tougher it gets. It is a very poor area. Everyone looks pretty well fed, but it's just a hard physical life, in most cases living and working the fields in a very subsistence existence. Right up in the higher mountains, the farmers plant their crops in soil which is full of solid limestone rocks. Tilling the soil with the water-buffalo looked an extremely arduous job. Certainly not the straight line ploughing possible in the fertile valleys. This also highlights how a living is eked out of almost every accessible piece of land. It is almost as if the only land not farmed are the cliffs. We saw many sights of farmers terracing mountainside that were so near vertical. The journey was full of images of boys pulling carts of soil by hand, men and woman breaking rocks into smaller pieces with hammers then placing the gravel onto a road under construction using hand held pans. It is a darn hard life up here which really does put ones own life challenges into perspective. If you think your life is tough, then get up here!



The time of year that we went was a very nice time to go – in between the extreme heat of summer and the cold of winter. On Day 4 we had a few hours of some rather cold rain right up in the hill tops. It made the wind chill from some of the descents that day bitterly cold. In fact, it was the only time that we preferred the climbs over the descents because on the climbs there was no wind chill and our bodies could warm up again as we worked our way up the hill. This one cold morning though did leave one wondering how harsh an environment it must be for them in the middle of winter. Some of the kids had no shoes or socks in the cold rain. Many of the mud houses had cracks in their walls. But I guess they have lived here for sometime and will have adapted their lifestyles, home and clothing to their environment. You would need a wiser person than I to provide a truly accurate picture of how tough life really is. I am aware that some of the aid NGOs based in Hanoi are working up in this region helping such people out.

We encountered a number of ethnic minorities / hill tribes all along our journey, which added to the colour of our experience. The Hmong and the Tay. All dressed up with their head gear and traditional clothes. Isn't it such a delight to find a people dressing the way that they always have? Though, like many places all throughout the world, it is not uncommon to find youth mixing and matching their traditional garments with that ubiquitous cultural statement - a nice pair of blue denim jeans. But it is not quite Sa Pa where, for many of the youth, the traditional clothing is pretty much a uniform that they put on before they head off to harass tourists, and which they replace with jeans and t-shirt when hanging out with their mates.

The cycling portion of our journey ended up with us completing a loop back to Ha Giang at the end of day 4. Wide Eyed Tours normally run this as an 8 day trip and for the three extra days the cycling continues on to Sa Pa from Ha Giang. Alas, I could only get a 5 day leave pass from my dear wife so we did the section to Sa Pa on the bus. Had time permitted it would have been rewarding to do the remainder of the trip under our own steam, but we had certainly seen the best scenery from the bikes. Having said that, the 32km climb from Lao Cai up to Sa Pa would certainly have made the most challenging of days work – apparently only a few attempt it!

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, I've already visited a number of locations around Vietnam. Each of these places have their own merits, but it will be this cycling trip around the Ha Giang province that I will remember the most. Being a New Zealander, and thus someone who has grown up surrounded by magnificent scenery, a new location has to be pretty special to make me go 'wow'. Beaches are beaches, Ha Long Bay is impressive, the tombs around Hue are fascinating, but until this trip, nothing had quite made me go 'wow'. While the going was tough, it was a magical experience.

There are a number of ways in which you can do this journey. Those not so keen on the physical exertion might choose to do it by motorcycle or even car or bus. Be warned, at times the vehicular approach can be quite daunting – it's one of these places where the wheels of the vehicle are at times within a feet or two of a sheer drop. There were many moments when we were sitting in our support bus wishing that we were on the bikes instead. Looking out the window down a drop of hundreds of feet is pretty scary and we would have felt much safer on our bikes on the inside portion of the road. And then of course, is the 'on the edge of your seat' experience going around corners on these narrow roads hoping like hell that there is nothing coming the other way. All credit to Mr An our driver – unlike many drivers we saw he was very cool and calm, and most importantly sensible and safe in his driving. Especially in one section of road works that was essentially 5 kilometers of mud which we were pretty much slipping down a gentle slope on. Motorcycle would be a fun way to go, but you've still got the noise and the helmet which places a barrier between you and the surroundings. If you have the energy – cycling is the way to do this trip.

Could you do this trip without vehicular support? Well, first up you would want to be extremely fit, and add at least half the time again to the journey. And you would not want to underestimate this trip as we did. The distances between our night stops range from between 68km to 136km and the climbs on these rides are monstrous. Travis, Mike and the team at Wide Eyed Tours were not fooling when they repeatedly warned us of the difficulty of the trip. If you were to do it without support, you would probably want to be overnighting in the locations where we were lunching. And remember, you'll be needing to carry everything with you in your own pannier bags, so that's going to slow you down too. With the vehicular support we were able to enjoy a magical region in only 5 days. And bring along a few luxuries to enjoy along the way. :)

After a few hours enjoying the civilisation of Sa Pa where we were able to enjoy our first cappuccinos and chocolate cake for 5 days, we headed back down to Lao Cai by bus for the overnight train journey back to Hanoi. Not being a great sleeper in planes, trains or automobiles I spent much of our last night awake staring into the dark from the train window. We were in the valleys now following the Red River back to where our journey had begun. With no moon out, there was not much to see bar the lights of towns and villages we passed through and vehicles and motorcycles on the roads. My mind wandered back over the last 5 days and I flicked through the photos I'd taken on the camera. If only I had managed to get an 8 day leave pass - I'd still be out there, I thought :).

Kudos to Em Hang, Em Nam, and Mr. An from the Wide Eyed Tours team. Awesome trip guys.

Keeping Fit in Hanoi
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One of the more entertaining activities one must partake in while staying in Hanoi is to get up at 6am and head on down for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake. Take your camera. You will be rewarded. The Vietnamese, particularly the older ones, are great early morning exercisers and Hoan Kiem Lake is one of the myriad of locales around the city (or, for that matter, the country) in which they start their days. You will see runners, joggers, power walkers, casual walkers, people doing tai chi, sword dances, aerobics (in their hundreds), fan dances and more. One group of men even brings down their bar bells and weights and sets up an outdoor gym. The place is a grand sight. If you are feeling a little more adventurous (though not really that adventurous as it's not really that far from the centre of town) then Lenin Park will provide you with all the above activities plus ball room dancing – yes indeed, music blaring, and couples paired up doing a waltz!

One of the more curious forms of exercise I have encountered around the lake is performed by one gentleman whom I wave to as we pass each other on the occasional times that I get down there for a run myself. He runs backwards! Glancing over his shoulder, he eagerly beavers away around the lake. Go figure that out. I should not mock him too much – he may be the world's fastest backwards-walking athlete. And who am I compared to that.

The dress of choice of many folks walking around the lakes or partaking in the aerobics drills, particularly in the evenings, is their pyjamas Yes, their bed clothes. When I first encountered this sportswear I always thought that it looked like they were wearing PJ's, but not wanting to appear uncultured I allowed for the possibility that it was some special Vietnamese dress. But on asking around those more knowledgeable than I, it was in fact revealed that it IS their PJ's. So, the final hours of the evening seems to be - have dinner, get changed into your bed clothes, go for a walk around the lake, then pop into bed! On a similar note, I heard recently on the news that over the border, in China, the authorities are trying to encourage their citizens to discard their PJs before they leave the house for their exercise so as to leave a better impression for the foreign visitors – well, I am not sure the world is quite ready for elderly naked men and women walking around the parks in the mornings and evenings. Or perhaps the idea was to entice the young more nubile set to do so, and thus to attract visitors to the country. Or was it simply to replace their PJs with more becoming sportswear.

There are a number of sports that the Vietnamese are passionate about. Most obvious, as you walk the streets in the morning and the evenings, is badminton. In the early hours before work and in the hours after work, many of Hanoi's streets are taken over by badminton players. One of the things I have always admired about badminton is that it really is one of those games that can be enjoyed by people of all shapes and sizes, and well into your older years. And that is evident on the streets of Hanoi. It is quite a delight to watch a group of very elderly men and women enjoying themselves on the court.

As is the case with many countries in South East Asia, the Vietnamese men are crazy about football (or soccer as some of us call it). You will have no problems finding a noisy street side bia hoi, cafe, or bar that is showing the English Premier League matches live in this country. And of course there is a fierce following of the local and national competitions as well. As an example, one of my first memories of Hanoi is the massive cavalcade of motorcycles that would cruise the city after Vietnam had beaten some visiting team in the national stadium. It would be a regular quiet (well, 'quiet' in the Hanoi sense of the word) evening when suddenly the roar of motor cycles would be heard coming down Hai Ba Trung street, accompanied by the spectacular view of thousands of motorcycles whizzing by at crazy speeds. Alas, in line with some with the introduction of a raft of new road safety laws, this was outlawed just over a year ago – not a bad thing given that these events did result in fatal accidents with some regularity – so new visitors will not experience this anymore.

The only time I have ever attended a football match in my whole life has in fact been here in Hanoi. For some reason, New Zealand had flown over a youth development team to take on the Vietnamese national team, and out of some feeling of duty I headed over to support my team. We lost that match, and I was kind of glad that we did – I think I was perhaps one of 10 kiwis inside a stadium of around 10,000 wildly enthusiastic Vietnamese fans and I got the feeling that I would be safer surrounded by 10,000 happy Vietnamese as opposed to 10,000 angry Vietnamese!

If your sport of choice requires you to run or cycle for long periods of time, then, ah, I hope you like treadmills. The traffic and pavement quality around the city are not fantastically conducive to running here in Hanoi. Personally, I hate treadmills. If I had the will power of me lady who can run 10km on a treadmill, then I would be a fitter man here. Alas, I can barely survive 10 minutes on a treadmill. Horridly boring things. So I need had to go out and seek cardio exercise on the pavements of Hanoi. Naturally, this comes with it problems. One of which is, to avoid the pollution and traffic, you've got to get on the road by 6am. Many runners head to Hoan Kiem Lake and run around that a million times (it is a mere 1.7km loop), but you risk running into the walkers, tai chi proponents with swords or fans (not quite sure which of those would be more lethal), ball room dancers, and the people running backwards that I mentioned earlier. It is a little like running down Orchard Road in terms of the way you have to weave yourself through people. Only recently did I discover a route that, for the large part, has no one else sharing a very wide pavement with me. It even provides me with a 7km loop, which is quite respectable. Still, one has to be out there by 6am to enjoy it in such a state. The reward is great – a loss of a mere few hours sleep for a rare period of solitude on the streets of Hanoi.

There are a few groups of runners who do leave the security of the city and venture out to the countryside for runs. If one does enjoy running off road then a good bunch of folks to link up with are the Hanoi Hash House Harriers. With the catch phrase that I have always loved, that is 'drinkers with a running problem', one has to be prepared for the reality that their runs are not all about running. But, even if one does not drink, they are a fun bunch and do head out to some very interesting locales and do cover some serious distances at times. For the more serious runners, then the Red River Runners are the folks to link up with – they even organise horrid things like half-marathon's.

A bunch of us competed in the Vietnam Triathlon in August last year. Once again, the boredom of a cycling machine in the gym was enough to send us out to play cat and mouse with the Hanoi traffic. Each Saturday we would meet at 6am at the Long Bien Bridge for a ride that would take us across the Red River on a 60km journey. About 15km of this trip was spent fighting traffic and praying we did not become statistics, but the rewards we got once off the main road were worth the effort. Hanoi is embraced by around 100km of dikes, keeping the waters of the Red River out of the city and it's suburbs. On the city side of the river, a major arterial road runs along the eastern and northern edges of the city itself on top of the river's right dike. On one side of this dike road is the city centre, and on the other is an unfortunate population who has to carry their bikes and furniture upstairs whenever the river floods. Known to many living in Hanoi as 'the dike road', it is busy, polluted, somewhat scary, and kind of ugly. Cross the river to a suburb of Gia Lam, turn left, bike for 5km, cross another bridge over the Song Duong river, turn left again, bike another 2 km, the turn left again (lost yet?), you reach a very different and pleasing scene – a section of the dike road on the left side of the river that is quiet and winds it's way through rice fields, farms and villages for 20 kilometers. So rural this section of road is, one of our cycling team went rolling down the grassy banks of the dike after avoiding a cow that suddenly appeared in the road in front of him – keep you heads up cyclists! For the cycling enthusiasts of Hanoi, this is probably the longest stretch of easily accessible safe and pleasant riding that Hanoi has to offer. I have some friends who brave the highways on their road bikes – alas, this is not for me.

Now here's a tricky one. Some like to rank chess as a sport. Along with darts, billiards (and golf to a degree) I struggle with this concept. Please tell me what athleticism is displayed in those sports? A couple of definitions of sport that I checked out on some web-based dictionaries implied that sport involves physical activity, which sounds a fair call to me. Only one that I read, on Wikipedia, suggested that chess and other board games, could be counted as sport – lefties! ;). Do not get me wrong, I have utter admiration for chess and do dabble in it myself from time to time – but I've never considered using it as a part of a training regime for running or triathlons. Anyway, I digress. Let us settle on the fact that chess is a game, so with some artistic license I can drag it into this discuss on exercise in Hanoi. With this in mind, chess also ranks as one of Vietnam's major games. Walk most streets of Hanoi and you'll find a group of men (generally it is the men only – well, from what I have seen) sitting on small stools with a cup of tea or beer, huddled around a chess or checkers board. What is perhaps more interesting about this pasttime is that they seem to play all day, which leads me to believe that it is the woman who keep the country going! I suspect that there is some truth in that, but that's a discussion for another day.

For myself, tennis is the sport for Hanoi. It requires no crossing of dangerous roads, twisting of ankles on potholed streets, or dodging of people walking backwards in their pyjamas. In my younger days I went through a long phase of despising the game, put off by the posh types who brought an arrogant attitude to it when I was growing up. But, with two courts outside the window of my apartment, it was too great a temptation to get back into it. And what a marvelous game it is, and I've come to love it again. And for not much more than one US dollar, one also has the luxury of a ball boy to retrieve those wild shots – one almost feels like a pro when one indicates to him that you'd like him to pass you a new ball. Nice :). Alas, in Vietnam, tennis is very much a rich persons game so not too many Vietnamese play it. As alluded to earlier, badminton is more the common man's court game here as it can be and is played on pavements for free (sidewalks) all over the country. Should you walk around Hanoi one day, you will find badminton courts painted all over town – in parks, on streets, in car parks, office building forecourts ... everywhere. And so many of them tucked in so tight with each other that one can only imagine the sight that would be created should a shuttle cock ever have the bounce of a tennis ball.

Like any country there are numerous other sports that one encounters here in Hanoi. Đá cầu (a hacky sack type game, played on a badminton court where teams kick the shuttlecock over the net, and known as chapteh in Singapore), yachting (though not very popular, I do have a mate who has taken a small catamaran out on Ho Tay – the largest lake in Hanoi), canoeing (of the 4 and 8 person variety), and golf. But it is to the expat community to which I believe the more obscure of sports are made available in Hanoi. The Aussies have an AFL club and the Irish have a Gaelic Football club – even in Wellington or Singapore I would have no idea where to go to find such clubs. Neither sports appear to have enough players to provide opposing teams every weekend and often join together to make up a full team with reserves for some of their regional expat competitions (I hazard a guess that the two sports are quite similar). But it's great to see them introducing a piece of their homes to a new land. Though I doubt any Vietnamese will be clamouring to join them anytime soon.

One of the men of the moment in Vietnam is Hoang Anh Tuan – a weight lifting gold medalist in the Beijing Olympics last year. Vietnam's only. Could it be that this young man started his days pushing iron alongside Hoan Kiem Lake, or some other similar location around Vietnam, with the folks who are there every morning at 6am? His medal was in the 56kg category, which to me seems tiny, but he clean and jerked a colossal 160kg. This morning I bench pressed 20kg!! He is about 70% of my weight, but can carry two of me – one on each end of his bar bell. It sounds like Asterix on the druid Getafix's magic potion.

And speaking of my weight. I very recently jumped on the scales myself and for the first time ever just tipped in at 80kg – needless to say, my new fitness regime is under way and I've been pounding the streets of Hanoi every day since that fateful weigh in. It's not the easiest of towns to exercise in, but at 80kg and a healthy double chin, I don't think I have much choice.

:)

And Then We Were Three!
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To date, in these blog entries, I have tried to steer away from a treatise on my personal experiences in Vietnam (as in a diary) and focus on my interpretations of life around us. This entry is going to be a little different, as it's focus is a topic which is, by it's nature, something deeply personal to me lady and I - namely, the arrival of our wee one into the world just over one year ago, and the experiences we've gained surrounding her.

It was with great joy we discovered that me lady was pregnant. After the initial physical clues that something was amiss, the first thing we did was to head down to local street side pharmacy for the tools to confirm it. Now at this stage, me lady had very recently completed 6 months of Vietnamese language training, but none of this of course had taught her the Vietnamese word for 'pregnancy test kit'. Alas, all the courses for most languages have section headings like 'At the dinner table', 'At the Airport', 'At the market', and so forth. But none of them seem to have an 'At the pharmacy' section. But we managed - mainly due to the pharmacists having perfect English. Isn't it embarrassing when you use your broken Vietnamese, French, Italian, German, Chinese, Yiddish, Uzbekistani or whatever to explain something and they respond in perfect English. Ones response in those situations is often 'ah, ….yes. Thank you'. So be it.

Anyway. The test came up with two lines. Pregnant! So, what next. Not having been exposed to the Vietnam medical system by this stage we decided the first visit would be to the SOS medical clinic down the road from us. I often love the early part of medical visits when the poor doctor's role is simply to tell you the bleedin' obvious. I mean, I am sure their skill at reading the two lines on the pregnancy test are just as good as ours. Nonetheless, there is always something reassuring about a qualified person confirming the conclusion that you had already come to by the exact same means the day before. Thankfully, it is the subsequent actions that enable doctors to prove their true value add.

One of the next steps for us was to decide where to seek the subsequent gynecological care. We were quite determined not to join the exodus of people to head to Singapore or Bangkok. I mean, with a population generated from 80 million successful births we were confident that the Vietnamese medical establishment had a petty good understanding of what they are doing. Having said this, we did not wish to go too deep into the Vietnamese public hospital birthing system – while effective, the idea of sharing beds (yes, beds, not rooms) and birthing theaters did not sound so grand.

So, we settled for Benh Vien Viet Phap - the French Hospital in Hanoi. Our diminutive Dr. Hop looked after me lady all the way through to, and including, delivery. While very professional, she was rather 'clinical' in her approach - questions and instructions were rather rapid fire. 'How do you feel?', 'How much do you weigh?', 'Whats your favourite colour?', 'What's the wing-to-weight ratio of an African swallow?', 'Ok, on the bench please'. One of our great delights was after about our 3rd or 4th meeting when we managed to elicit a smile from her . But we were very happy with her. And to her benefit, it was a French hospital in Vietnam, so after Vietnamese and French, English was a poor third in her linguistic repertoire – though, far better than our Vietnamese! And on occasion we did have a bit of fun trying to determine the English words for some of the medical terms that came up. All-in-all we, and especially me lady, were very happy with our experience there. In fact, my only complaint about the place was that it was very difficult for me to pronounce the name of the hospital well enough for the taxi drivers to understand me - many a trip started with the taxi driver giving me a confused look and me ending up by saying 'I'll point out the way'.

After 9 months of anticipation, our wee one arrived into the world. I shall not bore you with the intricate details, nor the 'oh, how our life has changed' musings. What will be of interest though is our subsequent observations of having a wee child in this country that are at times amusing and worth explaining further.

But just before I do, one quick word about pregnancy here in Vietnam. It is quite a coup for a Vietnamese woman to have become pregnant - the whole family breathes a sigh of relief. Their daughter is fertile! To help advertise the fact from day one, it is not uncommon for very very newly pregnant women to be donning long shapeless preggy dresses, holding their hand on the back of their hip as they walk, and walking with their feet pointing outwards - an image one might normally associate with a woman in the final days before delivery. It's like they want to shout to the world 'I am pregnant!!!'.

The Vietnamese love children. And the younger the better. They dote on them tremendously. They also have very major opinions on them as well! Ok, let's face it - everyone has an opinion on when a baby should be doing what, and some of these come down to cultural expectations (or is that just a phrase we use to avoid the point?). As soon as you take your baby out of the comfort of your own home and in to the public arena expect comments galore in this town.

Our first venture out with our wee one must have been around the grand old age of 10 days old. What a commotion this caused on the street. Little old ladies would come up to us waving their hands, cursing me lady. 'Too young too young', 'Too hot', 'Too cold'. Nothing we did was right. Someone always had a comment. Fashion for young babies is also quite rigid. From the comments we got it would seem that any baby should not leave home without a hat - regardless of the weather, or the fact that it was in a covered pram. Nevermind, we dealt with these glares and comments with a smile and responses like 'oh, she's a mixed baby so the rules are different'. But that is interesting in itself. In Hanoi, most people at first assume me lady is Vietnamese. And because of this, she gets the full brunt of the 'attack' as though she has broken 'the code'. And, some of these 'curses' can be pretty terse - especially, from the older folks. Couples in which both parents are foreigners are naturally given less harsh judgment, though they may get a scowl after they have walked by.

As I understand it, or as it was certainly made known to me in the first few weeks, a Vietnamese baby would never leave home in the first month. Something that I am sure harks back to the days when infant mortality rates were way above what they are today and it was wiser to keep infants at home until their immunities were stronger. Hence, come the end of the first month we looked forward to some reprieve on this subject. Alas, it did not end there. It turns out that this rule is open to some interpretation! Come the second month, we were still accosted. Now we became confused! When we advised people that the wee one was now 6 weeks and therefore quite alright to be out on the streets of Hanoi, we were then advised that Vietnamese babies will not go out until they are two months. The rule was changing. On one occasion, when the wee one was about three months old, we went into a shop in town and were surrounded by the usual flock of young shop assistants, so I decided to play a little game. When asked how old she was I advised them that she was five months old - after which I was told the age of 'coming out' was one year. We have even had one person suggest five years. Nevermind.

What is perhaps more interesting about the whole experience, and this was really highlighted after during the 'after one month' encounters, is that:
1.Everyone has an opinion on your child;
2.The parents will be made known of this opinion, whether you want it or not;
3.Your opinions are wrong;
4.In situations where more than one person is in a position to give you their opinion, there is a hierarchy of opinion - beginning with unmarried teenage boys with no children on the very bottom rung, and mothers with two or more children on the top rung. It is quite amusing to watch them argue whilst they all discuss the rights and wrongs of your child …. and the regality with which the most experienced mother places her closing comments on the matter.

Anyway. I say this in all fun. While a little trying at times, we survived with much patience. The Vietnamese love babies and this is just one of the more evocative way in which they express this.

There are some wonderful benefits that come from bringing a child up in a culture that is so demonstrably affectionate to children. One of the greatest has to be when you visit a restaurant. Not once did we ever have to worry about taking our wee one out to a restaurant. The staff in all such places are always very eager to take the child off you and let you enjoy your meal in peace. Those who are parents already will truly understand the value of this little treasure. A small number of our foreign friends here express concern at this 'service' but we have no problems at all. Vietnam is a safe place in this respect. Sure, we keep an eye on things from our table, but we have no concern about any ill coming to our wee one (except perhaps once when one teenage boy looked rather uncouth holding her and we thought he might drop her). You know, I can just picture David Bellamy's commentary on a documentary on human behaviour. For those of you familiar with Mr. Bellamy, please apply his usual low peaceful voice to these words: '…And notice the male. While completely relaxed and enjoying his meal, he cranes his neck every now and then to check on his child. Ah, yes, there he does it. And if we are lucky, the carer might move just out of sight. While not being overly concerned, after a few minutes the male species unfailingly rises from his eating place to glance his protective eye over his offspring. Making sure the carer does not stray too far'.

I find this such a contrast to back home in New Zealand. With her at about 8 months old I flew back home with just the wee one, leaving me lady back in Hanoi. When in transit at Christchurch International I had all my bags and a baby to handle, so my hands were somewhat full. At one stage I asked a ground attendant if she could hold the wee one while I got some things out of my bag. Thankfully, she kindly helped me, and I was most grateful to her. But it was her passing comment of 'We are not really supposed to do this' which took me by surprise. Sigh, the 'developed' world is becoming too serious, politically correct, morally dull and legislated I thought! Having said this, the gentleman from Ag and Fisheries was a delight as he held my wee one while I uncovered the hidden treasures of my bags for him.

There is much that I could continue writing about on this topic, but I shall leave that for subsequent musings. It has been a great joy bringing our wee one into the world and Hanoi is providing us with wonderful experiences that we are all sharing. And with the birth of her here, our memories of this town will be that much more special.

If I might just add one more comment before I end, it would be this. Before our wee one came along we used to spend our spare cash on paintings, music, art, food, drink and culture (or probably more like 'kulcha'). Now we spend it on nappies, milk, and botty cream. Oh how life has changed.

Somewhat Of A Travel Guide - Part 1
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This blog begins as I sit on the balcony of our bungalow at the Coco Beach Resort in Mui Ne, about 200km east of Ho Chi Minh City. In line with the location, and the holiday nature of my being here, the focus of this entry is going to be on places me lady and I have visited since our arrival in Vietnam, and my thoughts on them.

Come late May, we will have officially have been in Hanoi for two years. When I look back at places we have visited during these two years, too be honest, I am a little disappointed with how little I have seen of the country so far. Ok, we are working people now so spending months visiting every nook and cranny of the country like backpackers are able to is not going to happen. Even still, there are many weekends that have passed that could have seen an extended short break incorporated - but we haven't. But, when I look into the wee cot beside my resort bed, I remember why this is so. Ah yes, the wee one. Me lady is normally an awesome traveler. One of these people who can sleep for hours on planes. Don't you hate these people? I must be bordering on insomniatic sometimes, and aircraft exacerbate this in me. I can spend the 10 hours of the Singapore to NZ flight staring at the seat in front of me. No matter how exhausted I am, I am unable to sleep in them. Even business class seats do not work for me. Anyway, I digress. Come me lady falling pregnant, she suddenly did not travel well at all. And so close to 4 months after arriving in Hanoi, jumping on planes, trains, and automobiles was not the inviting prospect it normally is for us. Then when the wee one did arrive, well, that really put the brakes on travel for a while. Well, actually, we've traveled a lot since she's been born - just not so much around Vietnam (family trips back home mainly).

As a result of this realization of a lack of Vietnamese escapades, we recently sat down and came up with a list of all the places we wanted to see before we leave Hanoi, and have planned out how we are to tackle these in the 12 months (or more?) left on our plate. We have some fun months ahead planned.

Before I go any further, may I briefly allude slightly to the backpacker version of traveling? Post university I spent my money and spare time on flying, so I never really did any serious backpacking. I met up with some backpacking friends of my younger sister in Hanoi last year. What an insight! Maybe you do not go backpacking to see the world - I got the impression from these guys that for a large number of backpackers, it's one massive pub-crawl with the world as a backdrop. Not much of it which you see as you recover from hangovers. On recounting this to some friends of mine who backpacked in their 'youth' they did recall they had to revisit places later in life to actually see what they were like outside of the drinking establishments. Nonetheless, it did seem like a fun way to travel the world - and I do feel I missed out on something there.

Interestingly, one of the Vietnamese words for backpacker translates to 'scruffy-person'.

Right, before this blog goes over one page, I had better drag myself back on to the topic at hand, lest I decide one day to submit this for some essay competition and I get marked down for not keeping to it.

Let's attack our holidays to date in chronological order. As in, the order in which we have visited them. Oh, and just one point before I continue. This is by no means a comprehensive essay on travel in Vietnam. You can refer to the Lonely Planet for that. This is simply a quick 'my impressions of' essay. And I have chosen to be honest in my opinions - I want to move beyond dressing up rubbish with flowers….that's me lady's job. I get a bit tired of this 'trying to make everything seem rosy'. And once again, no photos folks - there are a million photos on a million web sites that you can check out if you want.

So, let us begin. 


Halong Bay

If anyone visits Hanoi, then they very likely throw in a trip to Halong Bay. And it is lovely. We have been there twice now. Are you familiar with those images, in many a period movie set in Asia, of small limestone islands towering out of the sea with junks floating elegantly through them - well, this is it. It is perhaps Vietnam's most famous visitor site. And it is pretty impressive. The Vietnamese are very proud of Halong Bay. So much so that now there of adverts asking people to 'Vote Halong Bay one the Seven Wonders of the Natural World'. How bizarre I thought to myself when I first saw this. I always thought that the Seven Wonders of the World would be something greater than a verdict arrived at by some popular vote. Based on that vote, Halong Bay has got to be in good running - Vietnam can supply 80 million potential native voters alone! In fact, on checking out www.new7wonders.com it is currently sitting at number one! Poor old Franz Josef Glacier in sweet home New Zealand has a mere pool of 4 million potential native voters. On another note, I might add that I think New Zealand as a whole should be entered as one entity. Anyway, it really is trivia.

I am aware of two ways to see Halong Bay. By far the most common way is boat - most of which are designed like an old junk. And what a lovely way to see these islet jewels it is. Depending on how many other people you are sharing the boat with, it can be a peaceful serene journey through the islands. Some people do the visit as a one-day trip from Hanoi, but I always recommend the overnight option. For one, staying overnight amongst these geological wonders, and waking up to them in the morning is quite something. Perhaps more crucially, driving there and back from Hanoi means 3 hours of horror on the roads - you need a tranquil night on the junk with a few gin and tonics to prepare your self for the drive back to Hanoi.

There is a second, little known about way to Halong Bay from Hanoi. An option that not even many long-term expats in Hanoi know about. Across the Red River from Hanoi is the little known Gia Lam airport, out of which every Saturday morning flies a large, old, scary looking Russian helicopter. I had a look inside this beast in it's hangar recently and it ain't first class (actually, the airplane geek in me thought it was quite cool). But, if you have only a few hours available (I understand they do the non-stop round trip in 2 hours), and have about USD250 to spend on it, then this could be your option.

Personally, I would recommend the option that allows you to float past the island at sea level and look up at them (even if you do have to put up with that road journey to get there). There's something kind of magic about it. And if you are traveling in a large group, block a whole junk out with you and your mates and have the whole thing to yourself. Grand I say!

Would I do Halong Bay again. Yes I would. The road is a horror, and it really puts me off, but if the company is right it is a fun way to enjoy a gin and tonic, or wine, or beer, with some banter with friends as some impressive scenery quietly floats by you.

There are many operators running trips from Hanoi. Avoid the cheap ones - you'll be stuck on an overcrowded boat. Having said that, even the higher priced ones are not bad price wise. Check out the Lonely Planet for further info.

And one final point. The person who first gets through the bureaucracy of Vietnam, and launches a float plane service from West Lake in Hanoi to Halong Bay is going to make a killing. I'd put my hand up to fly that. :)


Nha Trang

Nha Trang is closer to HCMC than it is to Hanoi. It's about a 1 hour 40 minute flight from Hanoi. You land at this massive ex-Russian, ex-American airfield whose size belies the mere handful of flights that land there. The remains of bunkers and fortified fighter aircraft parking bays provide insight into this airfield's previous role.

Nha Trang's current claim to fame is that next month (July 14) it will host the Miss Universe, so you might hear more about it (if you follow such things).

To be honest, we were not so impressed with Nha Trang. The beach was very nice. The hotel we stayed in was very nice. The problem is the rest of the place. It has a very soviet look about it. Even many of the hotels along the main drag are concrete monoliths into which not much architectural thought has been invested. There is also the unfortunate park that must be crossed in order to get to the beach. It is extremely unattractive and even includes the odd grey concrete statue of Lenin or someone equally serious looking. Not so nice.

Once at the beach though, I will admit that it is very nice. And, certainly during the period that we were there, the sea was as flat as a pancake and wonderful for swimming in.

We did partake in some diving and the general verdict on this is, if you are living in Vietnam then give it a go just to satisfy a desire to get wet, but do not come here specifically to dive - it's not that great. Having said that, the group that we went with, Rainbow Divers, were the most professional and enjoyable outfit that I've ever done a dive trip with.

So, Nha Trang was enjoyable stay, but I do not feel the urge to return in any rush. We enjoyed Mui Ne, which I'll get to later, much more. Having said this with the potential of Miss World's gracing the beach next month, maybe I'll try to convince me lady that we need to give the place a second shot. ;)


HCMC/Saigon

I have addressed HCMC in a previous entry on this blog. Very briefly, you do have to give HCMC a go if you are in Vietnam. It is the country's biggest city, and does provide an interesting contrast to Hanoi. Hanoi, being the smaller more conservative town, with HCMC being bigger and more happening. Even during the hard-core communist years HCMC still retained much of its capitalist flair, and that is very evident today - it is quite definitely the business capital of the country.

Often referred to as what Bangkok was 20 years ago, it has good bars and restaurants, major hotel chains, and the traffic jams that go with cities that were not designed with all this activity in mind. As I read in some magazine once - 'it was designed in the same manner as many other badly designed French cities'.

It has far more high end shops than Hanoi so there's obviously a lot more money there, and I guess this is not surprising. This also means that for those of you for whom a 'meaningful' holiday means walking around shopping malls, then you will be more satisfied in HCMC than in Hanoi - if only for the reason that Hanoi has next to nothing on that front. There are some quite cool Vietnamese fashion labels available all over town, and these are worth checking out. What is interesting about some of these labels is the prices they are asking for - they are obviously aimed at a market willing to spend more money than I am on clothing.

As with many other Vietnamese locations, there are a number of options available for the war buff. A must see is the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were a major tool in the resistance against the French, then later the Americans.


Sapa

Sapa to be honest, for me anyway, was a bit of a disappointment. And this is probably for but one reason. Well, actually, two.

First up, for a visit to the great outdoors it is certainly not very 'get away from it all'. For the walks that we did we had the joy of being accompanied pretty much all the way by kids trying to sell us things. Ah, if they were not so cute, I am sure many of them would find themselves quietly nudged off the edge of one of the zigzag roads.

A second reason is to do with the scenery itself. I found it pretty scarred. As in, a land under development, with evidence of hills being carved out by bulldozers everywhere.

Aside from that, I do enjoy my long distance train rides, and the overnight trip from Hanoi to Lao Cai was fun. If you are feeling young and stupid, have some beer or wine available, are happy to stay up all night, and have no inhibitions about pissing off your fellow travelers by keeping them up all night with your joviality, then that is the way to do it.

At 1600m elevation, the Sapa town itself can get pretty cool, so would make a nice break from the Hanoi heat. It has even been known to snow there occasionally in winter. And aside from the endless accompaniment of under-aged peddlers, the walks through the villages, and rice paddies are lovely. Another attraction is to experience first hand some of the minority people's of Vietnam - specifically the Hmong, in this part of the country. Aside from their very impressive clothing, their other great traditional skill belongs to their young children and their impressive ability to walk with tourist for mile upon mile repeating the same religious chant the whole way: "you buy from me".

I shall return to Sapa again on this tour, but primarily for one reason - to climb Mt. Fansipan (Vietnamese spelling: Phang Xi Pang). At 3,143 meters it is the tallest mountain in Vietnam, and Indochina. It would be cool enough at that height at the best of times, but to further savour freezing weather I am looking at a winter climb - a chance to pull out the serious woolies that are smelling of mothballs. And please note, I suspect that this would be quite a doable climb for most reasonably fit people - mountains of this height in this part of the world (including Mt. Kinabalu in East Malaysia) are not covered in ice so in reality they are no more than a tough walk. Though of course, with the altitude you would want to spread it over a few days. 


Da Lat

Aside from Mui Ne, Da Lat is the only place in Vietnam I have visited so far that I really want to return to and explore further. Da Lat was set up by the French as a mountain retreat from the heat of Saigon (HCMC), so in many ways it is somewhat artificial. By artificial, I mean things like it's very quaint, but man-made, lakes.

The town itself is nothing special at all, although there are a couple of nice old hotels that we enjoyed staying in (the Novotel Hotel Da Lat and the Sofitel Da Lat Palace Hotel). There is apparently a very nice, old established golf course, but I am far too young and capable of running around to want to play such a game so I cannot comment on that. J

What I really like about Da Lat is the outdoors. I see the potential for this place to become the adventure capital of Vietnam - if it is not already. There seems to be plenty of opportunity for trekking, mountain biking, canyoning, kayaking, and I even saw parapenting advertised in a few places. It is nothing as hardcore as back home in NZ, but so what - it is a chance to get out and explore another, often forgotten about, side of Vietnam - the jungle and forest. The one time we went, we had the wee one in our Mountain Buggy, so only did a morning trek, but I was impressed - both in the scenery we saw and in the quality of the guides who came with us. So we intend to return for some more serious trekking. If you do visit, I would recommend checking these folks out: www.phattireventures.com

Another great thing about Da Lat is that it is devoid of the endless haggling and haranguing by kids to sell you stuff (see my comments on Sapa). Very nice.

Oh, and Da Lat wine comes from Da Lat - surprise surprise. Vietnam's only wine. This tipple can have good days and bad days, but if you are in the town (or Vietnam anywhere, for that matter) then you are kind of obliged to give it ago at least once - just so you can say you have!

With it's slightly more temperate climate, Da Lat has some agricultural importance for Vietnam, being a major region for growing vegetables, fruits, flowers, and (not surprisingly I guess with all that going on) honey as well. Though of course, you do not grow honey do you!

Do give Da Lat a go.


Dien Bien Phu

Any historian of Vietnam, French colonialism, and the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese refer to it) will be aware of the immense ramifications of the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The massive defeat of the US backed French forces effectively led to the end of French Indochina and the division of Vietnam into North and South. The significance of this battle and it's military results and lasting strengthening of the Vietnamese psyche cannot be underestimated. Anyone who is interested in war history would do well to read up on this battle.

Me lady and I recently attended a wedding in Dien Bien Phu. I had held an interest in checking it out for a while but it is a bit out of the way so had decided that it was of low priority. So, lucky our friend's wedding came along. The wedding was great. Awesome. As a tourist spot though, Dien Bien Phu was somewhat lacking. It's interest to tourists is primarily it's military history and it's a long way to go to check the sites out. Vietnamese museums can at times be somewhat disappointing, particularly so the war museums. And why not I guess. Most Vietnamese seem to have moved on from it's tumultuous past and are looking fiery eyed to the bright future of capitalism (yeah… not). It is we foreigners who seem more interested in the violent past.

Anyway, if you are a hard core war historian then my recommendation for Dien Bien Phu would be to take the morning flight up from Hanoi, do the sites is a few hours, and come back on the afternoon flight. There ain't much else to do. If you do decide to stay on a little longer, then I do understand that there is some impressive scenery in the surrounding hills so you could jump on a bike and go check those out.

Dien Bien Phu is often included as a part of a circuit that takes in the whole north western region of Vietnam (which includes Sapa), so including it as a part of a bigger journey is another way to do it.


Mui Ne

And now we come to our most recent destination. As I finish off this entry, we have long left Mui Ne. In fact, we left after about paragraph two! J

Aside from Da Lat, Mui Ne is the only other place that I really want to go back to. Perhaps a lot of this feeling is the resort that we stayed at - Coco Beach Resort, but whatever it was we had a lovely time there. It's just a simple chill place to veg on the beach, read a book, have a massage with the waves crashing on the shore, have dinner watching the sun go down. It's easy, affordable, has warm air and warm sea. I found it far superior to Nha Trang for a beach holiday. Ok, when we visited the winds were up a bit which roughed up the water in the afternoons, but I am sure it would be totally flat all day long during certain times of the year

If we were living in Saigon I think we'd be up very often. And please, if you go, take the train. It avoids the hassle of the horrendously scary Vietnamese 'highways'. It allows you to relax and watch the world go by or read a book. It takes in scenery that you cannot see from the road as the highway is like one main street with shops either side of the road all the way - serious, you will see no scenery between Saigon and Mui Ne taking the car. And the train costs VND95,000 each way - just under USD6. Not bad at all.

_______________

So that completes what we have managed to see of Vietnam so far. There is still much more for us to see in this land and it's surrounds. Later this year I hope to be able to write about Hoi An, Danang, Hue, Phu Quoc, Laos (Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and Angkor Wat.

And as mentioned, I am not trying to be a Lonely Planet here. These are my honest thoughts on places we've visited. Take 'em or leave 'em. And feel free to drop me a line for more info.

Xin chao.


Winter is upon us!
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Being a man with somewhat of an interest in aviation and it's related sciences, when I first heard of our impending posting to Hanoi I was naturally curious to find out exactly where it was. And I mean exactly. Like anyone with a 'sensible' knowledge of world geography, I could tell you the approximate location of many, but by certainly no means all, of the world's countries and major cities. So I could have told you roughly where Vietnam was, but I would certainly not have been able to tell you where Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City lay within those confines. Given that I was to be moving there, I now wanted to know exactly where it was in relation to where I was living then - that is, Singapore.

So once I got off the phone with me lady, after she had told me the news, I jumped on to the Singapore Airlines web site to do some initial investigations. Three and a half hours was the stated flight time from Singapore to Hanoi. 'Some distance' I thought to myself. 'So how far is HCMC from Singapore?' I questioned further. Only 2 hours, I discovered! So that meant HCMC and Hanoi were not as close together as I had always presumed. 'Time for a map', I thought.

And there it was, all laid in front of me on the screen. Vietnam, a bit like New Zealand, is long and skinny. Very long and skinny. In fact, for fellow world-geography-interested-persons, the most southern point of Vietnam is at a latitude of close to 8.5° North while the northern most point is at a latitude of almost 23.5° North. That makes a north south distance of around 900 nautical miles or 1620 kilometers. By comparison, New Zealand is very close in length to Vietnam – 1600 kilometers being the commonly rounded figure that people quote.

Now before I bore the majority of you with too much geographical trivia, there was a 'deeper meaning' in this that interested me. You see, with a country this long and running pretty much north-south, it seemed to me that while one end of it might be in the tropical regions (which HCMC is), the other end of the country could almost be in a more temperate zone. It could even have seasons. With this revelation it dawned on me that, come our posting to Hanoi, I might get my first winter in over 8 years (not counting of course those visits to New Zealand during summer that have felt like winter J). I mean, it is at a similar latitude to Hong Kong, and that can get cold at times.

In fact, the northern tip of Vietnam is barely miles south of the Tropic of Cancer – the line that defines where the tropics end and the northern temperate latitudes begin. So, while not technically in a temperate zone, Hanoi is pretty close.

While for 8 years I enjoyed perpetual summer in the tropics of Singapore, there were times when it was a bit of a bore and I relished the thought of putting on a jersey, coat, and perhaps even a scarf and gloves. Aside from the refreshing feeling of a cold winters day, I always thought that people living in more temperate climates were allowed another level of sophistication in their clothing merely due to the fact that they could wear more without their clothes acting as a sponge soaking up their sweat. Sure, a nice summers dress can look extremely elegant for women (raises the question of what nice summer gear a man can wear - most of it seems pretty boring to me). But come winter, there are the joys of being able to change the wardrobe, throw on some trousers, a long coat, scarf, and gloves. Very cool. 'Something that I could look forward to in Hanoi?' I questioned.

Having been in Hanoi now for around 20 months, I am now in the middle of my second winter. And believe me, it gets cold here. No snow. Nothing quite like that. Though apparently the northern highlands get a dousing every now and then. But still cold. Early in the new year I went for a run at 6am, and boy, stepping outside was like walking into a wall of ice - if I had known it was going to be that cold I would have stayed in my nice warm bed. But I ran into the icy morning telling myself it was good for me and was probably one of those character-building activities that they always told us to cherish at school. I do not know what the temperature was that morning but I would have guessed it as being around 10 degrees Celsius. Ok, not freezing, but close enough for me after 8 years in the tropics. So it gets cold here. From what I could find, the colder winter temperatures can drop to as low as 5 degrees Celsius. Two days ago it was 7 degrees C.

Since that cold morning run, the weather has been quite changeable, to say the least. In fact, 2 weeks after that icy morning, we were wearing shorts and t-shirts around town and had beads of sweat running off us during our tennis matches. Then 3 days later, we were back into jerseys and coats again. In fact, last week the word 'changeable' became the 'word of the day' for the English class I am volunteering for (well actually, we do more than one word a day, but you get my point). 'The weather in Hanoi is changeable', I said as I began the class, 'Who can tell me what changeable means?' You get the gist.

So, yes, Hanoi gets cold. Further north in the highlands it gets darn cold. Below zero. Friends say I'm a bit mad, but I am planning a winter climb of Mt. Fansipan up near Sapa - not a particularly difficult climb, but at just over 10,000 feet it's bound to test the winter woollies to the maximum. Any one keen to join in?

Many people find this time of year in Hanoi pretty hard going, weather wise, that is. Hanoi sits on the Red River in the Red River Delta. Not uncommon to this kind of geography is what's known as an inversion layer. No need to go into the meteorology of it, but one the results of such a phenomenon is fog. And we get a fair bit of it at this time of year in Hanoi (those who've lived in Christchurch will have experienced the same thing). The fog can last for days or even weeks at a time, and combined with the cold, it can leave you feeling a little drab. One really has to get out and keep active during this season in order to keep ones sanity. Actually, it's not that bad I reckon. Though, I've lived in Wellington for most of my life, so I guess I'm kind of used to drab weather - I actually enjoy it J

I'll talk about summer another day. For those after a quick idea on summer weather, you just need to know that it is hot. Very hot!

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It's been sometime since my last blog. Life has been somewhat busy and distracted since June with the arrival of our wee girl into the world. People always talked about how busy one is when children come along, but I was kind of hoping to prove them wrong. Some parents have the ability to multi-task. I recall my mother sitting at the dining table studying for her Classics exams at university with all us kids running around. A skill I have yet to perfect. I've tried having the wee one in the office when I am working … it does not work! She's too curious. J

Recently though I finished up working full-time, so that should free up some more time for this blog.

More later …

Tale of Two Cities
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I have often thought that many countries have what I refer to as contrasting city pairs. To explain what I mean, let me provide an example. Wellington is the arts capital of New Zealand. It is a beautiful city - hills around a lovely natural harbour, narrow windy streets, gorgeous views, great cafes and restaurants, museums and art galleries. The city has a real heart about it. The city that most visitors to New Zealand are more familiar with though is Auckland. A great city in it’s own right, though for quite different reasons. It also sits around a harbour but not one that I have ever looked at and thought was uniquely attractive. Auckland’s attraction for many people is it sheer size of population, and more so the opportunities generated by a larger population. It has a more active business scene, night life, and general hustle and bustle – and this is what attracts people to it (though some timid people get scared off by Wellington’s wild weather as well ;). In terms of having a heart and a sense of culture about it, I have never really felt that Auckland has got what it takes. It is cool, and has easy access to great beaches and the sea with reliable weather, but at the end of the day it is simply another large city. It does not have the arty, cultural, ethereal soul that Wellington has.

In my view, the world is full of other examples of contrasting city pairs - Melbourne and Sydney, San Francisco and Los Angeles…

Anyway, what has this got to do with Vietnam? Well, my recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City confirmed for me what I suspected - that Vietnam has it’s own contrasting city pair.

Having lived in Hanoi now for around 11 months, I have been very curious about Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC as it is often written. Those who know both cites have told of how different they are, and I had often wondered whether by being based in Hanoi I was missing out on something. My first trip to HCMC had been in January for work. It was an overnight trip, so hardly one from which I could get any impression of the city. So in late February, I took the opportunity to venture there for a holiday to learn more about the place. And also to satisfy for myself whether I was in fact missing out on something!

Geographically, politically, and economically these two cities are ages apart. Ho Chi Minh is a two-hour flight from Hanoi. Both Bangkok and Singapore are closer to Ho Chi Minh than Hanoi is. And of course, while very much a part of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, HCMC in many ways retained a more capitalist disposition than Hanoi since the reunification of the north and south of the country in 1975. From those two points alone, the two cities have great reason to be very different.

Hanoi is the Wellington of Vietnam. It is a smaller city, a pretty city. It is centered around Hoan Kiem Lake, but if you look at a map of the city, or venture a few blocks away from the city centre you will find a myriad of other lakes around which the greater city lives, works, and entertains itself. Over 30 of them in fact – of varying shapes and sizes. It is full of trees and small parks. The Old Quarter, arguably the centre and happening part of town, is a wonderfully chaotic collection of narrow streets, shop houses, food stalls, alleyway markets, motorbikes, and crowds. A truly magic place to walk around.

Ho Chi Minh City cannot claim to be the pretty city that Hanoi is. More like Auckland, it is a sprawling mass. The city centre is more modern. It has more of the high-rise buildings one finds in more developed cities (though not copious numbers of them). Ho Chi Minh City’s beauty is perhaps more due to it’s old colonial architecture. The roads in the centre of town are wider than those in Hanoi…you can almost imagine the days when they would have been made of shingle or stone, with tri-shaws, horse drawn carts, and some of the first cars traversing them. Some of the preserved old buildings of Ho Chi Minh City have been tastefully maintained – even the streets encircling such buildings have been preserved so as to enhance the grandness of them (take Notre Dame Cathedral or the Municipal Theatre for example). For those who really want to shop like they shop in any other large city, Ho Chi Minh does have the larger departmental stores, with the big international brands, that Hanoi does not have (or, I should say, is only just starting to get).

Hanoi is a city full of art. Small, open, shops on the street will sell you a painting of anything you want – a Mona Lisa copy or a portrait of yourself. Anything. You want it, they will copy it for you. Then there are the grander galleries carrying some of the many established, plus up and coming, painters of Vietnam. The art enthusiasts can easily keep themselves busy for a day wandering the many galleries on and around Hang Bong and Hang Gai Sts alone. Incidentally, the painters of Vietnam are growing in international stature – do a Google. Many foreigners are flocking here to buy it up as investment art.

I did not find this concentration of an art scene while walking the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. I am sure the artists and galleries exist somewhere as there must be a bigger market for such art in HCMC, but I did not see it. The high streets of HCMC were more focused on fashion houses, departmental stores, and high-end hotels.

Then there is a coffee scene. The penultimate judge of all things worth worrying about in a city. Having most recently lived in a city of franchised coffee, namely Singapore, it was a joy to discover that Hanoi has it’s own unique coffee culture. Being a Wellington boy, I have come to love the atmosphere of individually developed coffees and cafes. Hanoi is full of such places, so you can explore the city until you discover the one that answers your needs and plant your roots for future visits (with a book, laptop, or friends in tow).

HCMC on the other hand, is fast becoming a franchised coffee city. Sure there are the occasional long established ones around, but the future is obviously destined toward the monotony of franchise. Highlands Coffee, Gloria Jeans are but two brands that stood out for me. I am sure it will not be long before the horror of the likes of Starbucks come knocking on the door.

Glad to say, the restaurant scene in both cities is pretty magic. Loads of good restaurants at great prices. And the beauty of both cities in this regard is that many of the best ones are in lovely old houses in less than obvious locations, which makes for a marvelous atmosphere.

Now, the night scene is one area where HCMC is streets ahead of Hanoi. Hanoi is a quiet town from that perspective. If you are type of person who likes to sit down and have a quiet beer with your friends all night long, then fine, there are plenty places to hang out in Hanoi. On the other hand, if you want to boogey on down to some house until the wee hours or whatever, then there are one or two places in Hanoi that might be able to fit your fancy, but they are pretty yuks … or they do not have a dancing permit. HCMC on the other hand, does have quite a humming club scene. Perhaps not quite up to the standards of the other major cities in the region – Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, but it ain’t bad….and it is better than Hanoi.

When I embarked on my weeklong trip to HCMC, I hoped to come away with a simple question answered – was I losing out by being based in the smaller and quieter capital of Hanoi? And to be honest, I have not been able to answer this question. Yes, HCMC is bigger, with more of everything – more bars, more restaurants, more Gucci shops, more book shops, more flights out of the country, more more more… in many ways, a totally different world. But I dunno. To me it does not have the heart that Hanoi has. So, my verdict at the moment is, I’d rather live in Hanoi, and visit HCMC (regularly!).

Hmmm, but, I may need more visits to HCMC to confirm this :)

Cam on anh chi em.

Piaggio
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Piaggio

We have a bike!

Wheels! ...

… And so does everyone else in this town!!!

Yes, wisely or not, we are shooting around Hanoi on an eight year old Piaggio Typhoon.

You know, I’ve never really been a biker fan. In fact, I’ve always been terrified of the beasts! I have never been on the back of a bike and got off thinking “man, I want to get back on!” I’ve always been very happy to get off them. My dear BMW biker friend in Singapore and Ducati biker friend in Hong Kong will castigate me for my fears, but alas, they scare the shit out of me!

Having said that, I am glad that I am writing this now and not 10 weeks ago when we first brought the bike. If I had written this then, it would have been a blog of fear. Now, though, having some riding hours under my belt, my whole attitude has turned around. I am loving it! Riding motorbikes rocks!

Ok, some would argue that what we have is not really a motorbike but a scooter. Come on folks, it’s got two wheels and a motor – making it a ‘motor’ ‘bicycle’!!! Enough pedantics.

There is something quite cool about being able to jump on a bike and cruise the streets. It is a feeling you do not get driving a car – except for maybe a convertible. It is a feeling you do not even get riding a normal bicycle. There is an exhilaration, a romance, a freedom to it all. Words I have often heard motorcyclists express.

The exhilaration is the shear excitement of moving with the road and weaving in amongst the rest of the chaotic traffic (to which I alluded in a previous entry). What once looked like an impossibility and craziness when viewed as a pedestrian, is replaced with a sense of oneness. When you are amongst the traffic, moving with it, the relativity of it all becomes apparent. It reminds one of those physics text books introducing the basic concepts of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Everything is about perspective. Now you are in the traffic, suddenly the weaving amongst other bikes does make sense. Your concern is no longer the other bikes because they are moving with you. Your concern is the stationary objects … and the pedestrians. Though of course, one should keep an eye out for bikes, cars, and buses heading toward you on the wrong side of the road.

The romance of it is exuded partly I guess from the romance of Hanoi itself. A certain lethargy of the place. A quiet friendliness. Riding around a city of trees, lakes and ponds. I speak not of the lovers’ romance, though I guess the feelings are somewhat similar, but the kind of romance one feels wandering alone in a strange town, free of any care in the world. When you hit the road, especially when it is just you on the bike, it’s you alone … and the rest of the world is gliding by.

The romance is also the fellow riders sharing your traffic stream. There is something extremely eye-catching about a woman riding a bike, and especially the many Vespa’s (old and new) that one sees in this town. The Vietnamese women certainly look very elegant on these machines….sitting erect, long straight hair flowing, sunglasses …. Ah, sublime. Of course, very few wear helmets here so, in a potentially tragic way, that adds a certain laiser-faire elegance to it all again. Like most foreigners here, me lady does wear a helmet. Which places her in to the elite category of women that dismounts the bike, takes her helmet off, and shakes her hair out (akin to a shampoo add). ‘Tis enough to make any man stop and turn his head.

Us guys on the other hand do not look quite so cool on these smaller bikes and scooters, dare I say. We need to be riding bigger machines before we start turning heads, and there are not too many big bikes around Hanoi – and those that there are look somewhat out of place amongst the scooters and Honda Waves.

The freedom of riding is the ability to just jump on it and go. To stop and start and go wherever and whenever you wish. Of course, one could take a taxi or a xe-om (a local motor-bike taxi), but it’s not you in control. Taxi’s are about destinations. Your own bike is about a journey. One of the favourite activities of me lady and I is to simply buzz off into town with no particular plan. To explore new alleys that the cars cannot go up. Or do U-Turn after U-Turn. To just drive around and stop whenever we want at one of the many groovy cafes. It is most cool just to pull up to café, jump off, click the stand down, and stroll into the café for a cappuccino, helmet in hand.

Riding around Hanoi is not the high speed, open road kind of stuff. It is more the cool, meander around the city streets. Almost akin the movie portrayals of Vespas cruising the cobbled streets of Italian towns (except for the shear volume of bikes here).

Without wanting to put a damper on my spirits, I would like to raise one issue that must not be overlooked. Vietnam has a shocking road death toll! The numbers, I do not know. But they are shocking. The first dead body that I have ever seen in life was a road accident victim on the highway from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. So when one does jump on a bike here, supreme respect for what you are embarking should be followed. The cities themselves are relatively safe. The speeds around town are slow. There are still only a few cars (though this is rising fast). And there is one very useful road rule in the favour of bikes – that the car is always in the wrong (if they hit a bike, that is). So the cars are quite cautious.

Of course, the fact that very few people wear helmets here is a very large contributing factor to the death toll I suspect. While a helmet might not do you much good at high speed, it does not take much of a knock to the head even at slow speed to do some serious damage. In fact, I recall hearing years ago that the number of head injuries incurred from people simply dismounting bicycles was excuse enough to be wearing helmets. Alas, I guess wearing helmets it just not cool enough here. Though the ones we use are rather groovy, so maybe we can start a trend.

There are other things to watch out for on the roads. Boys after school. Riders talking on the phone. Riders messaging (texting for NZers, SMS for SE Asians) – even more dangerous than talking on the phone. Two bikes riding side-by-side talking to each other (though it does look kinda fun). People simple ignoring their red light – very very common for, especially young, riders to just head straight on through a red light and weave amongst the traffic that is on the green. The list goes on. So while riding around the city is pretty safe, you can reduce a lot a stress by following the simple adage from the NZ Defensive Driving Course – “treat everyone else on the road as a bloody idiot, and expect the unexpected”.

Most people living here in Hanoi have seen an accident of some form or other happen. The tragedy I referred to above does not count since it happen before we drove past. I have only witnessed one in front of my own innocent eyes, and this came with it’s own sense of humour. A young lady was crossing the road and a bike hit her and knocked her down. My heart jumped as I witnessed it from the opposite side of the road. Much to my amusement though, she immediately got back up and started yelling at the young male rider, waving her finger, telling him off. “Good on’ya” I thought to myself!!!! ‘Let him have it’.

There is much more to write about life on the road here. What bikes the cool people ride; how people on USD200 monthly salaries can buy USD7,000 Piaggio Vespas; the chaotic unwritten rules of the road and how even within the chaos there are no rules; the various articles of clothing people wear on the road and so forth. But I suspect that my readers have a limited attention span, so I shall keep these entries as tight as possible ;) (I jest). And we still have a few more years here to provide us with plenty of time to elaborate on these untouched topics.

My only closing point might be this. When riding pillion on a bike, one can either hug the rider or hang onto the rear. To be honest, I find holding onto the rear an awkward feeling but it does avoid that more awkward ‘how well do I know this person, and can I really hug them’ issue. Me lady, who, surprisingly, is quite close to me, naturally assumes the ‘hug the rider’ approach and never fails to remind me that my gut is getting larger and larger! A sign perhaps that maybe we should be getting off the scooter and onto the pushbikes eh!

Chao Cac Anh Chi.

Movies and Menues
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It has been a while since I last wrote. Probably an indication of some lethargy on my behalf in terms of exploring this town and country! The plan had been to enjoy Hanoi by ourselves and visit the outer lying regions when we have guests. But there has been a dearth of visitors hasn’t there! And it looks like we may not get any until mid-next year eh (I’ll explain the cryptic nature of that comment in due course)......those in the know, quiet please ;)

Anyway. Welcome back. Two small topics for you. I was planning to talk on three minor topics today – Movies, menus, and our new Piaggio motor scooter. But as I started on the Piaggio section, I realized that this beautiful beast needed a dedicated chapter – so I shall fill you in on her some other time.

So, lets tell you about movies in Hanoi.

From what has been seen so far, you get all types of movie theatres here. The ones that look like fire traps, which I am sure will become a horror story reported around the world one day – avoid these ones. The big old ones, which look more like grand halls for communist party meetings. Large and expansive concrete monstrocities – but they work. And actually, they are not too unlike the large movie theatres of old. Then there are the “real” ones – a term that us foreigners use to jokingly refer to the modern multiplexs that one would find in your typical developed (and many non-developed) countries. And, as I discovered to my delight recently, there is one small art house style one with a lovely courtyard to enjoy a beer or coffee before and after the movie. Walking distance from our residence – ah the joys of city living.

But that is not the real point of today’s commentary. The theatres are merely shells that hold the excitement of escape inside.

Experiencing a movie here in Hanoi can be a truly, for want of a better word, interesting, experience. Me lady and I recently went to watch The Worlds Fastest Indian at one of the large old theatres here. NOTE: Before I go any further, if you like motorbikes (especially the old Indian bikes), New Zealand can do attitude, or Antony Hopkins, then this movie is a must! And I’m not just pushing Kiwi movies (I’d push The Motor Cycle Diaries and a million of other movies too)! Fantastic. True story too.

Well. Picture this. The movie starts, and you sink back into your seat to escape your real world for a few hours. The movie credits start to role. Seconds later, a recorded Vietnamese woman’s voice comes over loud and clear. You figure out, she’s reading out the credits. Even the actors’ names. Nevermind, it gets better, or worse depending on your perspective. Actually, I am sure the Vietnamese in the audience think it is rather silly too. As the start of the movie proper approaches, the English speakers in the audience are hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting for the first spoken word of Antony Hopkins. We are all thinking “will the voice over continue, or will they nicely place the Vietnamese translation at the bottom of the screen”.

Finally, the first spoken words of the movie. Antony speaks……damn it. The voice over continues!!! So here we are, listening to Antony and his fellow actors speaking in English, and our Vietnamese translator keeping pace with them. It’s like a shouting match – who can be the loudest.

The experience is just bearable. And where else will we catch this movie on the big screen in this town.

Ok, let’s take a step back, and look at this in all fairness to the movie house. We are in Vietnam. The movie theatre is one patronized mostly by Vietnamese. But even then, what is rather amusing about it all is the number of people employed to do the voice overs. A grand total of ONE! Yes, our 40-something year old Vietnamese female voice was speaking on behalf of Antony Hopkins’ character, his girl friend, the young boy from next door, the cross dresser at the hotel in L.A., and the background radio in the car. Everyone…..and thing. She was even gracious enough to tell us when the birds were chirping and the dogs were barking.

But it was an experience. People like myself were able to hear enough of the English being spoken to get the gist of the story – sort of like talking to someone in a crowded bar. Some teacher friends mentioned they were already skilled in shutting out classroom chatter, so found it not too bad. It was poor me lady who suffered the most. She understood both the English and the Vietnamese – sort of like having two voices in your head at the same time. Scary!

This style of voice over is common in the older theatres for any foreign movie – English, Japanese, Chinese, French, whatever. To avoid such experiences, go to the art house theatre or the ‘real’ modern multiplex ones. They provide subtitles for the Vietnamese audience if required.
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Just one other small topic to talk on.

Have you seen those emails going around that list English inaccuracies in non-english speaking countries? Where hotels, bars, public places, where-ever, in non-English speaking countries, have written a notice to us pathetic sods who only speak one tongue. Trouble is, their English is not perfect, and they’ve written the sentences in such a way that we find humourous.

Well, I can now say that me lady and I have witnessed this. And I can now formally advise you that one of the nice French cafes here in Hanoi does have Chicken Gordon Blue on the menu.

What is midly humorous about this, is that we used to joke about this as kids anyway. Maybe Weiner Jandel is out there on some unsuspecting menu. Waiting to be discovered.

Shall keep you posted.

Ciao for now.

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