Xi’an: Smog and Pottery for Overachievers

 

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I AND ABOUT a dozen other passengers watched as the security guard practised swings with his side-handled baton. He was standing behind the check-in desk for the 12:05 Sichuan Airlines flight from Lijang, Yunnan Province, to Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. As each person or family got called up to the desk, his baton swished through the air. Next person, please (swish swish). Did you pack this bag yourself sir? Swishswish. Just the one bag sir? Swishswish-SWISH. Can I break your kneecaps sir? What was that? Can I have your passport sir? Oh…..

It was March, earlier this year, just after the terrorist attack on Kunming station where 29 people were killed by Xingjiang separatists, and we were leaving Yunnan province to visit the tourist heartland of China: Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. We’d already seen police in fatigues with automatic weapons marching through the airport in lines and executing smart pivot turns at right angles. As I checked in I tried not to think about them executing me.

When I reached security and handed over my passport, the rather severe looking lady behind the desk gave me the stare of Chinese officialdom, the one that makes US immigration officials look like kittens. She examined my passport for some time, flicking between my visa and my personal details. She looked up at me, and then she called over someone else. There was a brief discussion, more glancing upwards, and then a third official was called over. Eventually, my passport was handed back, and I was waved on. There was no explanation. Right until I boarded the plane, I kept expecting to be lead into a little room with swishswish man.

The problem, I later discovered, was a hyphen. When we got married BK-C and I double barrelled our names: my name on my passport is Knight-Croft. Unfortunately, Chinese systems – for trains, planes, visas, or anything else official you might need to do – only allow your name to be composed of alphabetical characters. So while my passport said Knight-Croft, my visa and my boarding pass said Knightcroft. I read a newspaper article in a Beijing newspaper explaining that many foreigners with double-barrelled names had been forced to buy new train tickets by over zealous ticket inspectors because the name on their passport did not exactly match the name on their ticket. I was grateful that I hadn’t further complicated matters by changing my name to David Knight-Croft the 1st. How monarchs ever get through Chinese immigration is a mystery.

TOWARDS THE END of the flight to Xi’an, after the alarmingly sexual demonstration of how to inflate a life jacket, after the warm ham and cucumber rolls, after the stewardesses had collected our food wrappers and our drink cups, regardless of whether or not we’d finished them, they played a video of an older woman in an embroidered cardigan doing exercises. Cardigan lady stretched her arms out in front of her, and so did everyone on the flight; she rubbed her temples, and so did everyone else; she rubbed the bridge of her nose and all followed suit. It was like a giant game of Simon Says. I was the only person on our row not joining in and I felt pretty stupid. Such is the power of overbearing peer pressure, the fuel that seems to keep China going.

OUR INTRODUCTION TO the often bleak landscapes of northern China was on the bus into Xi’an from the airport. It was flat, with a dirty fog cutting off sight of the horizon. Giant tower blocks, half finished, all grey concrete and cranes, imposed themselves into the fog. Every so often there would be a towering brick chimney – the sort that you see everywhere in northern England, abandoned and dead – spewing smog into the dense air. I thought that it must have been what Lancashire and Yorkshire looked like in the 1800s. I saw a solitary man, sat hunched, fishing in a small pond by the side of the highway. The ground was scrubby around him, with little tufts of anaemic-looking grass, and the sun a pale disc of wan yellow above, struggling through the fog. He looked pretty lonely. But what do I know? He may have been having the time of his life. Further in towards the city, there were completed tower blocks in staggered rows, one after another after another, mute and identical. They disappeared off into the distance.

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Welcome to China. Would you mind waiting? We haven’t quite finished it yet…

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China as glimpsed from the train.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I may have embellished this dystopian vision of hell, but I promise you – this is what it looked like. Perhaps it was the wrong time of year, or the weather was bad, or it really was fog and not smog – but I’m not convinced. We caught the bullet train from Xi’an to Beijing and from Beijing to Shanghai, and all the way on both journeys it was like this – flat, bleak building sites flashing by before they were swallowed again by the smog.

On the plus side, though, pollution does make for wonderful sunsets.

On the plus side, though, pollution does make for wonderful sunsets.

Xi’an is a wonderful place, with lots of history, lots of culture and many interesting things to see and do. I know this because I read it in the guide book. We experienced none of it – we were there for one reason only, and that was to see the terracotta warriors, about an hour or so outside the city. We were in the city for two nights, but didn’t leave the hostel in the evenings except to go to the convenience store over the road to buy instant noodles. It was cold, and we had inadequate warm clothing, and the centre of Xi’an was busy and confusing; we had got lost for an hour (as usual) before finding the hostel, encumbered by our huge bags and the deadening of feeling in our outer extremities as the cold stole our heat. So we hid in our room, avoided other people and felt warm and safe and didn’t have a single regret about not seeing the rest of the city. And you know what? I’d do it again.

THE TERRACOTTA WARRIORS were worth travelling to Xi’an, and they were worth getting lost and cold in the city centre. There are three warriors that you can see up close, behind glass screens, and they still hold some of their colour – and these are interesting to get close to (if you can shoulder your way past the crowds), just to feel that you’re near to something so detailed, so fragile and so old (about 2,300 years old). But for me, the really impressive bit is Pit 1, where they have excavated and reassembled hundreds of the warriors, and you can look down at them, all lined up like an army. Then you really appreciate the scale of the achievement.

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Later, in Burma, we met another traveller who claimed that the warriors in Pit 1 were all fakes. He knew someone who worked there, he said, (or perhaps a friend of a friend, I forget exactly) who had told him that all the warriors were smashed beyond repair except for three – why else did they have only three behind glass for you to look at up close? There are conspiracy theories on the internet that the whole site is one huge fraud by the Chinese Government, done to encourage tourism and to increase nationalism. These theories are far from credible. I hadn’t heard the alternate theory that only three of the warriors were real. I don’t believe it (think of all the international archaeologists that must have visited the site) – but a little part of me also wishes that I hadn’t heard it.

Definitely real.

Definitely real.

I mean, when have you ever known the Chinese Government to be economical with the truth?

I mean, when have you ever known the Chinese Government to be economical with the truth?

We visited the Terracotta Warriors on a small tour, organised through the hostel, and on that tour we met Dermot and his partner Jodie. They’d travelled (mostly) overland from London to China on the Trans Siberian Railway, and were three weeks into their big round the world tour, working their way to Australia. Their trip had gone swimmingly for a couple of days, until Dermot started to feel sick and had a bad stomach ache. This continued for three days, until they were forced to get off the train in Siberia and seek a hospital. It turned out to be appendicitis. You can read his account of how he lost his appendix while travelling the Trans Siberian Railway – including his stay in the less than sanitary Siberian hospital – here.

Suddenly, getting lost and cold in Xi’an didn’t seem that much of a hardship to visit the Warriors. So we left Xi’an with a renewed sense of purpose, a detailed account of the symptoms of appendicitis, and a cavalier attitude towards our own failure to go out and buy any more warm clothes. We were ready, in other words, for whatever Beijing could throw at us.

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ON SATURDAY: Photoessay on Beijing and Shanghai.

This post was written and uploaded in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Hell is a Tropical Island: Or, Why I Am An Awful Backpacker

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IT’S BEEN A while since I last posted, I know. In Burma it was because access to the internet was patchy at best, and that was without the regular power cuts; but since then? It’s because I’ve been gripped by a terrible apathy: Tropicalislanditis.

Normally, I’m never without my little notebook – I write down things we see, what people say and how I feel. It’s all recorded for you, dear internet, so that I can reproduce it in what I tell myself is a witty, urbane manner. Ok, so it’s for me too, so that I can feel slightly smug about it all (although I’d probably feel a lot smugger if I was quicker at posting stuff on this blog). But since Burma, I’ve been without my notebook.

Let me explain: after leaving the 42 degrees heat and 80% humidity of Mandalay we travelled to Ko Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand. There we met both sets of parents, and spent a blissful ten days with our family in a resort with a private beach, smoked salmon for breakfast, and eye watering prices in the restaurant. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to stay in one place for so long. Needless to say, we did very little beyond reading, eating, drinking and playing pool.

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After that we parted with our parents and headed over to the west coast of Thailand to the little island of Ko Lanta, where we got a fantastic deal on a bungalow right on the beach, and I celebrated my 31st birthday. Then we took a very circuitous minivan, car, ferry, taxi route to travel south to the Malaysian island of Langkawi. And here we are now, sitting in Starbucks to use the wifi, whilst outside it rains.

Here’s the thing though: we’re bored. Worse: we’re bored and WE CAN’T BE BOTHERED. It’s the worst combination. Yes, you’re right, that is the sound of tiny violins being played, or perhaps the drip drip of your heart bleeding for us. Tropical islands are wonderful places to relax, but they are not great places to do things. I mean, I could probably go and rent a jet ski and make some heroic charge towards the swimmers paddling close to the shore, but my chest isn’t quite chiselled enough, my skin not quite bronzed enough, nor my wrist not quite braceleted enough for that particular brand of hedonism.

YOU’VE FELT THIS before – those of you with children, cast your mind back, those of you who are retired, stop pretending that reading the paper in the morning is being busy – it’s Sunday early afternoon and the day stretches out before you, a wonderful expanse of Not Working, the morning behind you as a leisurely lounge on the sofa. You could do anything, absolutely anything, yet you can’t quite rouse yourself to leave the sofa. You feel vaguely anxious that you’re not making the most of this precious free time, yet you want to take the opportunity to relax; you’re bored, but the TV or the radio or that book is keeping you glued down; and you realise that you slightly despise yourself both for doing nothing and for thinking that you should do something other than relaxing. You only really start to unwind in the evening because by then you don’t have the anxiety of time pressing down on you, and you end up going to bed late, only to wake up completely unrefreshed on Monday morning but having achieved absolutely nothing – nothing – with your weekend.

That’s pretty much what it’s like being on a tropical island all the time. Although it’s possible that I may be missing the point.

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I haven’t even bothered to break out my big camera since we left Burma. That’s why I’m showing you a picture of a pineapple right now – I don’t have any decent photos, just what I’ve been snapping on my phone. Still, who knew pineapples grew on the ground like this? Not me.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

I like to find solace by tormenting the local wildlife.

YESTERDAY, THINGS REACHED a crisis point. We didn’t set an alarm, and when we did rouse ourselves, we just lounged about in our tiny, cramped, windowless yet air-conditioned room in the guesthouse we’re occupying, caught in a paroxysm of apathic homesickness, looking at facebook pictures of how friends at home are re-decorating their houses, building new garden sheds, or Having Fun Without Us. We didn’t want to go to the beach, because it was stiflingly hot; there was no one else in our guesthouse to socialise with, probably because the rooms are like prison cells; and we didn’t want to wander the streets of the town we’re in because this is tourist central and I don’t want to buy another pair of board shorts, thank you, or eat at your overpriced and yet underspiced restaurant. We had a long, soul searching discussion about why we’re travelling, what we’re getting out of it, and when did we become so bitter and ungrateful? (actually, I’ve always been bitter, but I’m generally better at hiding it). Then we realised it was time to take things in hand: so we went to buy some stationery.

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

After some initial horizon scanning, we identified the things that were important to us in life and travelling, tabulated the data to identify what we could/couldn’t achieve whilst travelling, and then set a colour coded schedule for the coming weeks with some overarching strategic objectives. What else would you do in this situation?

The problem is, we’re kind of inbetween most other people we meet who are travelling. There’s the early twenty-somethings who (with some notable exceptions amongst the people we’ve met) generally want to get drunk and wear as little clothing as possible; and then there’s the older travellers, generally in their 50s or 60s, who are either very well travelled and just Better At Life than us, or instead credulous and herding together for protection. There aren’t really many people in between. Apparently all the 30-somethings are at home having, well, homes and families and things. If you want to put a label on us, then I think that we fall into the flashpackers category, although it’s a bit of a loose term.

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Both BK-C and I are on career breaks. There are definite things that we want to achieve – apart from seeing the world, of course – whilst we travel. For me, it’s my writing. For BK-C, it’s to eat a lot of different foods and talk to a lot of different people. Maybe it’s because your thirties are the first time that you start to feel the grains of your life slipping past, but it’s hard to find the right balance between doing things and not doing things – too many experiences in too short a time and you quickly become tired and jaded, doing too little over too long a time and you soon become bored and apathetic. Right now, we’re in the latter; at the end of Burma, we were in the former. So now we’ve got colour coded goals, we’ve got plans about when to get up, when to lie in, and – of course – where we’re going to go. Yeah we’re probably massive losers, but tomorrow we’re heading to George Town, on Penang, the food capital of Malaysia, and honestly? I can’t wait to get up off the sofa.

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This post was written and uploaded on Pulau Langkawi, Malaysia.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed and I actually write something about the places we’ve been. I’ve got posts about Burma and my final China post stacked up, so expect something on them. I’m also dying to write about Malaysian food, but I’ll save that until after George Town. 

Burma: First Impressions

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IN A DEPARTURE from the norm, arriving in Burma has moved me to blog about it immediately – no two month wait for me to get round to writing up my notes this time. If you’ve been following my blog, then you’ll most recently have been reading about my time in China. Since then I’ve been to Taiwan and Japan, but don’t worry about that – save to note that the particular, efficient, tech-loving and rule abiding nature of Japan is a world away from Myanmar (yes, that’s right, I am using the country’s old and new names interchangeably – deal with it).

ON THE FLIGHT from Kuala Lumpur, where we’d just been for a 12 hour layover, there were many different faces – Indian sub-continent, East Asian, Thai, Burmese (the largest ethnic group in Burma), European. A reflection of the ethnic diversity of both Burma, and (no doubt) Malaysia, along with the increasing popularity of Burma as a tourist destination (I read that in 2013 300,000 tourists visited the country; this year it is estimated that 1 million will visit). There was also a group of Muslims returning to Yangon after having been on Hajj. One older lady sat staring out of the window, fondling a set of prayer beads, her lips soundlessly mouthing suras. Her prayers were interrupted every so often by epic belches that caused the few Europeans (all French except us) to turn round in their seats. She would go from silent prayer to holy burp back to silent prayer as if nothing had happened. Later, she swapped seats and ended up next to BK-C, who she showed pictures of her grand daughter. I passed in and out of sleep, glad that it was BK-C attempting to explain that we had no faith when the lady asked if we were Christians.

Arriving in Yangon airport was a lesson in how quickly Myanmar is changing. At the time of writing, the most current Lonely Planet guide was published in November 2011, and so much crucial information is out of date (another guide is due to be published in July 2014). The guide is very clear that getting a visa on arrival is impossible, though the first thing that we saw when we landed was a booth with a big sign above it saying VISA ON ARRIVAL, with a big queue in front. We’d got our visa in Bangkok, probably the best and quickest place to get it (if you’re planning on doing the same, then I recommend twotravelaholics comprehensive explanation of the process). I don’t know how the visa on arrival works, but solely on the strength of an advert on the front of the tourist map we were given, I think that you can arrange it through the website myanmarvisa.com. It looks to be about three times as expensive as getting one in Bangkok.

Similarly, the LP is adamant that it’s impossible to withdraw money from ATMs in the country, noting that you should bring enough US dollars to last your trip and that you should change them on the black market, where the rate is ten times better than the official one. At the airport there were huge billboards advertising that one particular bank now allows you to withdraw money at its ATMs using Mastercard; we’ve also heard that it’s possible to withdraw money on other cards (though have done neither ourselves yet). This morning, we asked at our hostel about changing US dollars into the local Kyat, and were pointed to an exchange booth on the opposite side of the street: it had a big digital sign saying that it exchanged US Dollars and Euros, and it gave a decent rate (i.e. nearly the rate that XE.com shows). I understand from the hostel that the rate is the same everywhere – so I presume that they’ve brought the official rate up to cut out the black market. Finally, there’s a decent internet connection, and wifi, in our (admittedly very new) hostel, when everything that we’d read said that what internet we’d find would be slow. So from just spending 24 hours in the country it’s obvious that the place is changing rapidly, in concrete everyday ways that should impact on people’s lives.

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BUT THESE CHANGES don’t make Burma any the less striking upon arrival. The taxi ride from the airport made me feel like I’d stepped into a Hunter S. Thompson book. It was dark, about 8pm, and the heat was still oppressive. Sweat beaded around my hairline, and the air felt hot in my lungs. “Hey brother,” said the taxi driver, as he lazily began tailgating the car in front at approximately 100mph, “you want the air conditioning on? It’s one dollar extra.” Looking at the circa 1985 standard issue fans that he had in the dashboard, we declined. No seatbelt, erratic driving, weaving in and out of traffic, plenty of horn honking – we weren’t in Japan anymore. The world whooshed by in series of typical SE Asian vignettes – people eating outside on plastic furniture, flashing neon lights above shabby shops, vehicles parked on the pavement. We passed the scene of an accident, where a woman lay on her side on the tarmac, unmoving. Two men in helmets stood above her, waving their arms. I told myself that she was just in the recovery position, and then she was out of sight.

Stopped in traffic, I saw the driver of the taxi next to us open his door and spit out a long red line of spittle. This was from chewing betel nut, a mild stimulant, which is apparently done in all of SE Asia but I’ve never actually seen myself. A young girl, carrying her baby brother in her arms, walked amongst the cars stopped at the lights. She stood next to my window, and looked in. I gently shook my head at her, heart wrenching inside, and she turned and walked off.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

A man washes leaves to wrap betel nuts in, for selling.

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As we got further into the centre of Yangon, the usual SE Asia scenes took on a different, older cast, as they were all conducted in front of run down buildings that looked like they hadn’t seen any maintenance since the British left in 1948. I’ve seen plenty in Central America that fits the term “faded colonial splendour”, but this was the first time in Asia.

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Unlike the rest of SE Asia, western clothing hasn’t taken over, and so most people – men and women – still wear longyis, sarong-type wraparound skirts. They probably make it easier to get back up again when you trip over the holes in the pavement.

Breakfast the next morning was mohinga (a kind of curry noodle soup), served by a laughing Burmese lady, eaten sitting on plastic chairs on the side of the street, and washed down with endless refills of green tea. We walked around, looking at the old buildings, avoiding the holes in the pavement, speaking to the locals – feeling happy to be in Burma.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

Breakfast: it was 62 pence, for both of us. And it was delicious.

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China Goes Wild, Nearly: Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

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ABOUT A QUARTER of the way through his account of travelling through China by train in the late 1980s, Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux writes: “so far, China seemed a place without wilderness. The country had been made over and deranged by peasant farmers.” He wasn’t wrong. Even in Guilin, a place of ethereal beauty, concerted efforts had been made to make it the Authorised River Tour of the Place On the Back of the Twenty Yuan Note With Visits To Ancient And Totally Authentic Farming Villages. In Yangshuo, a town amongst the limestone karsts that are the area’s trademark, farmland extended right up and indeed onto the stone towers. So when we told people that we were going to Yunnan and they said that it was a beautiful wilderness, I was sceptical.

Coming into land at Kunming airport, we’d seen acres and acres of poly tunnels stretching off into the glinting, plastic distance. Somewhere in the haze there were also mountains, but they seemed very far away. We decided to try and get closer to them by travelling to Dali City, about four hours drive west of Kunming. After similar experiences in South East Asia travelling through mountainous country, I was expecting a very windy journey on the bus. But I’d forgotten that Chinese roads are all straight. I presume that if they encounter any mountains on the way, they just blow them up. At least it meant I didn’t get travel sick.

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Dali is a pretty little walled town that sits on the edge of a lake and under the shadow of some fairly imposing mountain scenery. We were there mainly on the recommendation of an American girl that we’d been on a cookery class with in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After we’d started talking again following the customary where-is-the-hostel-my-bag-is-heavy-I-told-you-it-was-this-way argument, we were able to appreciate why she’d recommended the place. This was the view that evening from the terrace in our hostel:

Trav10-3 The next day we wandered into the town itself, which was full of quiet streets lined with waterways and peach blossom trees.

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We came across an antique market, where traders laid out their goods on groundsheets at the side of the road. A combination of Chinese tourists and what appeared to be some serious buyers browsed through the goods, the buyers holding up pieces of jade and amber to examine them with their eyeglasses. In addition to these semi-precious stones there was a whole assortment of old Chinese wares from coins, teapots, and opium pipes to knives, chairs, and books. We didn’t know it at the time, but – with the exception of the Terracotta Warriors – these were the only genuinely old things that we’d see in Mainland China. Most “antiques” in China are just new things made to look old, and usually not very well. Most were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and those remaining are cossetted away behind closed doors, reserved only for the serious collectors. Later, in Beijing, we visited a big antiques market and were bitterly disappointed because it was all “handicrafts” and things that had been made to look old by reversing the vacuum cleaner. So we were glad that we took the chance in Dali to buy something genuinely old, purchasing a well used Chinese seal set made of solid copper (and, less good for my luggage, weighing about a kilogram). We haggled with the seller – fairly ineffectually – through a Taiwanese-American lady who happened to be there. She didn’t think that we got a very good deal, but we didn’t care because we loved it.

I’ve been carrying this around in my bag ever since, waiting until we meet up with our parents in Thailand so that I can offload it to them. Haggling in China is different to what we’d experienced previously. In SE Asia it’s a fairly good-natured affair, and you usually start off at about half the asking price and work upwards. In China, you start off at quarter the price and try your very hardest to stick to that price. Every Chinese trader we dealt with drove a hard bargain and gave nothing away. Which explains why I ended up paying £7 for a pair of gloves when I visited the Great Wall. £7 may not sound like a lot, but, trust me, when you’re buying gloves made in China, in China, it is. There’s a well known Chinese phrase: “It’s always easy to fool a foreigner.”

After the antique market we continued down quiet lanes until we reached a street that contained approximately 30% of the population of China. This is the other side of Dali – the one that’s been discovered by the Chinese tourist market. We blended into the crowd in our usual way by posing for pictures.

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The Chinese like to go to popular places and do popular things. If it’s not popular then, well, it’s not popular. This means that it can be surprisingly easy to escape the crowds in China. The Yunnan Provincial Museum, for example.

WE DISCOVERED THE other 70% of the Chinese population at our next stop in Yunnan Province: Lijang. It’s supposed to be a beautiful old Chinese town, with distinctive architecture. In fact, it’s a new Chinese town built to look old, with Disneyland architecture. It has spectacular views of mountains and many, many shops, most of which sell dried Yak meat for you to take home to remind you of that time you went to Yunnan province with everyone you know.

Trav10-10 Trav10-11  Fascinating though the people watching was in Lijang, we were there only as a stepping stone onto Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one thing in China that I Definitely Wanted To Do.

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So early one morning we said goodbye to our backpacks and boarded a minibus to Shangri-La (no joke, this is actually a place in Yunnan – formerly called Zhongdian until it was renamed in 2001 to attract tourists, supposedly because it’s the place that British author James Hilton based Shangri-La on in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon), which passed by the small village of Qiaotou, where the trail for Tiger Leaping Gorge begins.

 

Looking back from the start of the trail.

Looking back from the start of the trail.

We arrived at the trailhead having made three new friends – from Germany, Israel and France. We set out at a brisk pace, hoping to escape the expected hordes of other tourists. After all, the Lonely Planet lavishes praise on TLG, calling it the must do hike in China, and Chinese tourists are ubiquitous in the rest of Yunnan. But, in fact, we were alone as we made our way up a twisty paved road that soon gave way to a gravel path. It was a clear, sunny day and we looked out over a steep sided valley patched with rice terraces. We paused to look out over the view and adopted a more leisurely pace. After about half an hour, though, our Israeli and German friends said goodbye and marched off at speed – they were intending to hike the entire gorge in a day, whereas we had the leisure of two days. It was just myself, BK-C and Lorette, our new French friend. For most of the rest of the day we didn’t see a single other person and had the most spectacular views in all of China just to ourselves.

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If you’re a francophone then you can read Lorette’s account of our TLG hike here. If you’re not a French speaker, then you can enjoy her pictures and, if you venture further into her blog, you’ll see her wonderful, wonderful drawings, some of which she shared with us that evening (packing your sketch book and a set of watercolours at the expense of an extra coat definitely makes you a proper artist). Lorette was one of those chilled, inspiring and life affirming people that you seem to meet when travelling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She’d been working in Cambodia for the past eight months, teaching physiotherapy, and was on her circuitous way back there now, before finally heading back to France. Losing ourselves in conversation helped us to conquer the 28 gruelling switchbacks to the top of the gorge.

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We lunched on big, cheap bowls of noodles at Tea Horse Guesthouse, about half way, and then stayed the night at the confusingly named Half Way Guesthouse, about three quarters of the way along. Perhaps an hour before we reached Half Way Guesthouse, we caught up with the group of Chinese hikers who we’d shared the minibus with and who had overtaken us whilst we lunched at Tea Horse. At one point we all paused to appreciate a particularly breath taking piece of scenery. One of the Chinese hikers spread his arms as if to try and encompass the view, evidently overtaken by the beauty of the moment. Then he took a deep breath, gave an almighty shout, lobbed an empty plastic bottle deep into the gorge – where it will presumably join the ever increasing pile at the bottom – and stomped off. The Leave No Trace philosophy still has some way to go before it reaches China.

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THE NEXT DAY, we rose early and hiked onto the end of the trail for most, Tina’s Guesthouse. Leaving BK-C at the guesthouse to read her book, Lorette, a Korean guy we met called De-Ha, and I all tramped down a steep, steep path to the ferocious river below. On the way down there were the usual stalls manned by locals selling drinks and snacks. We’d seen perhaps three of these the previous day on our journey along the trail, their owners lazing in the sun on what must have been a very slow day indeed. They sold water, soft drinks, beer and wild walnuts, a speciality of Yunnan. On the way down into the gorge, one of them also sold big bags of surprisingly authentic looking green stuff labelled Cannabis. We pointed this out to each other and raised our eyebrows at the owner, and she just laughed. The gorge was steep and I can’t imagine that the Chinese police make a habit of patrolling the place, though the owner was risking a bullet in the neck by selling drugs. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want to buy booze or drugs half way up a mountain, but this is what amounts to the wilderness in China – a place where someone else hasn’t set up a shop yet. Go to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and go now. Don’t delay – soon it will be full of plastic bottles and, maybe, stoned westerners.

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Looking to Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge Yourself? I recommend these blogs as a good resource.

http://easyhiker.co.uk/hiking-tiger-leaping-gorge/

http://withoutbaggage.com/essays/china-tiger-leaping-gorge/

The second one allows you to download the GPS track for your smartphone in GPX or KML format. I used the GPX track in MotionGPS [CHECK] on my iPhone, though discovered that I didn’t really need it as the path is well marked.

NEXT TIME: I finish up my travels in China by visiting Xi’An, Beijing and Shanghai.

This post was written on the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, and finally uploaded in Kuala Lumpur airport.

On Becoming a Celebrity in Yunnan Province

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I’VE BEEN READING Paul Theroux’s account of travelling through China by rail in the late 80s, Riding the Iron Rooster. Although Theroux is one of the world’s great curmudgeons, you can’t fault his perceptive eye for a place, and as we travelled through China ourselves I found my self nodding furiously at his insights into Chinese culture. “I’ve noticed that too,” I thought to myself, “so that makes me just like Paul Theroux!” I imagined myself incognito in the background, the great travel correspondent watching, observing and taking notes. Then I went to Yunnan province, and realised that it was impossible for a foreigner to be incognito in China.

We flew from Guilin to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. I was all for taking the train, but then I discovered that it would take 24 hours so we flew instead and it took 1 hour 30 minutes, costing the same as we would have spent on the train. Every time I looked at travelling from one place to another in China, I found myself surprised anew at just how big the country is.

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China – it’s big. (Map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin).

And it’s all one time zone: the whole country runs on Beijing time. When we were in Guilin, in south eastern China, it was getting light at about 6.30 in the morning – in Kunming, in the south west, it wasn’t light until about 7.30. In Xinjiang, the country’s westernmost province (bordering Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) the sun doesn’t rise until 9.40am in the winter, over two hours after the sun rises in Beijing. This is bonkers.

We arrived in Kunming early evening. It was a pleasant 20 degrees centigrade, the setting sun making the picturesque park at the centre of town – with its little bridges, weeping willows and peach blossom – seem particularly lovely as we stumbled past it with all our bags, lost in the usual daze before we found our hostel. Kunming is known as the “Spring City,” because its weather is always nice – not cold in winter, and not too hot in summer. It has pretty tree-lined streets and boulevards lined with trendy shops, all kept clean and tidy by officious looking men with walkie-talkies who order the street cleaners around and move on homeless people. We’d read in the Lonely Planet that the city was very popular with international students and that a lot of people came there to learn Mandarin – but we hardly saw any Westerners whilst we were there; perhaps a handful, at most (and they were grizzled and unfriendly, the sort of traveller who would be rude to you because you had the same colour skin as them).

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The next day, we wandered through the park in the centre of town. It was sunny and teeming with tourists. Stalls sold snacks, drinks and tourist tack. A man on a stage whipped a crowd into a frenzy as he auctioned off mysterious looking cardboard boxes. We ate fried potatoes covered in salt, pepper, chilli and possibly crack cocaine they were so addictively delicious. And we had our own crowd. Yes, we too were a tourist attraction. In a garden full of peach blossom trees people were posing for photographs beneath the peach blossom, until they saw me and BK-C and then they stalked us amongst the blossom for a quick snap of the funny looking foreigners. One woman just came up and asked for a photo with BK-C. BK-C demanded one in return, with her whole family:

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What cracks me up most about this picture is how deeply unimpressed the older lady on the far right looks. At this point I was holding my two fingers up in the V for victory sign that is such a popular photo pose in this part of the world. She was having none of it.

Have yourself a bite. The first one's free...

Have yourself a bite. The first one’s free…

Trav9-2 One man followed us around for about 20 minutes until, when I was teapotting in front a giant teapot (why wouldn’t you?), he plucked up the courage to ask for a photo with me. It must have been my uncanny teapot impression.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

Winners.

Winners.

This was our first encounter with our new found celebrity status. It’s carried on throughout East Asia. Some people pretend to take pictures of whatever’s behind us when they’re really taking pictures of us:

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Other people just come right out and ask (which actually I prefer, as it feels less like you’re an animal in a zoo). If there’s a group of people sometimes we’ll rotate through the whole group doing photos with them. It’s given me a new appreciation for famous people – it must be very tiresome your face not being your own. Our new favourite thing to do is to either randomly pose for people who are secretly taking pictures of us – one couple literally fell over themselves with excitement when we did this – or to photobomb other people’s photos (people go mental – in a good way (I think) – when we do this). This must be what it’s like to be Bill Murray.

WE WEREN’T THE only people in the zoo. Chinese people come to Yunnan province not just for the spectacular scenery, but also to see the many different ethnic minorities who make the province their home. All over the province, there are groups of Chinese tourists having their pictures taken with members of these ethnic minorities in their traditional dress. The ethnic Han Chinese (who make up 92% of the population of Mainland China) seem to view these people as a form of walking entertainment – a bit like the Disney characters who walk around Disneyland, posing for photos. They’re an oddity to be ogled.

 In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

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WE VISITED THE Provincial Museum of Yunnan, where there was an exhibition on about the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Yunnan’s Peoples.” Given the interest that Chinese tourists had in different ethnic groups, we thought that it might have been popular. But it wasn’t.

The museum was a grand looking building with marble colonnades and a huge sign with golden lettering. It sits just off a main road and outside it was busy, hot and noisy. Inside the cavernous foyer it was cool, dark and silent. Two security guards were fossilised at a table just inside the doorway, next to a knife arch and a sign saying that all bags would be searched. They wore green uniforms with epaulettes and big, peaked caps. As we walked though the arch and it screamed that we had metal on us, one of them slowly rose and sighed. I offered him my bag to search but he just waved it away and led me over to a bank of lockers – all empty – and locked it up there, using a 1 Yuan coin from his own pocket to pay for the locker. Upon first inspection, the information desk in the centre of the foyer appeared to be unmanned, but actually the man sat behind it had died with his mobile phone glued to his forehead, his cheek resting on the desk. A worried looking woman eyed us from her hiding place behind the cash register in the gift store. On the other 4 floors we saw many men in uniforms guarding the dust gathered in the corners, along with the occasional, presumably lost, Chinese tourist. We left having learnt little about Yunnan, but plenty about the resource profile of Chinese state run institutions.

THERE IS A postscript to our experiences of difference in Kunming. The day after we left the city, there was a horrific terrorist attack at the train station – 29 people were killed and many more injured when a group of people ran through the station with knives, stabbing and slashing indiscriminately. Those responsible for this attack were Xinjiang separatists. Xinjiang province, in the North West, is mostly populated by Uighurs, a people who are ethnically and culturally very distinct from the Han Chinese: they look like Afghans or Tajiks, have their own language, and follow Islam. After our experience of seeing and being ethnic minorities in China, it might be tempting to draw conclusions about the motivations and causes for this act of terrorism that elide what is, in fact, a complex situation. I’m not seeking to do that. This terrorist attack was a despicable and deplorable act that can never be justified. But I also can’t help thinking that China’s approach to its ethnic minorities does little to win hearts and minds.

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NEXT TIME: I discover that China isn’t all cities and farms.

This post was written on the bus from Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan, to Taipei, and posted in Kyoto, Japan.

 

Conversationless in China (From Hong Kong to Guilin)

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THE SINGLE MOST stressful part of travelling is arriving somewhere new. You step into the airport, or the bus station, or the train station, and you’re either mobbed by people trying to sell you a taxi, a hotel, a ripoff scam; or everyone ignores you, the signs are incomprehensible and you have no idea how to get where you need to go. Arriving in Hong Kong was none of these things – our bags were on the carousel when we arrived, I was able to pick up a map of the city for free, and there was helpful signage telling me exactly how to get where I wanted to go (American airports please take note).

Stepping off the bus at 10 o’ clock at night onto busy, bright Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui we were all smiles. No one tried to sell us a tuc tuc ride, no one gave us a second look. “It’s so nice,” we said to each other as we wandered towards the hostel. “It’s like London,” meaning, of course, not that Hong Kong is anything like London (because it’s not), but that the people here were wealthier, the place was more cosmopolitan and we were just another face in the crowd, rather than The Clueless Tourists With Matching Backpacks. Yes our hostel was on the ninth floor of a building, just above a brothel catering (it seemed) exclusively to drunk Indian men, and yes our room was only the size of a postage stamp whilst costing considerably more than anywhere else we’d stayed, but we were happy to be in Hong Kong.

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Because we needed a visa for the mainland, our first day was sacrificed to Chinese bureaucracy, including what seemed like an inordinate amount of time asking people if they had change because the photocopying machine in the visa office only accepted $1 coins. It was maddening, but at least it was warm in there, whilst outside it was 8 degrees – downright freezing after the heat of Bangkok.

The rest of our time in the city we spent walking. Hong Kong was clean and bright and full of people walking with a purpose. Actually, that’s a lie. Hong Kong was full of people strolling with a purpose. The people of Hong Kong, even the ones in suits, had an unhurried air about them. Yes, they were going for a business meeting, but what was the rush?  I don’t know Hong Kong, maybe the fact that it’s cold in your city and I’ve packed a wardrobe that, in hindsight, might be considered a little optimistic, consisting almost entirely of shorts and T-shirts? But the people of Hong Kong were deaf to my inappropriate clothing predicament, and instead we bobbed around behind people, trying to squeeze past, trying to walk fast, but mainly shivering in our matching his and hers long sleeved thermal tops (purchased during a similar clothing crisis just before going backpacking in Yosemite, California. I really don’t when BK-C and I started buying the same clothes, but it has to stop).

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There we are, together, wearing all of our clothes that we brought with us, with our Special Hiking Gear and our Nearly Matching Buffs wrapped around our heads to keep us warm, BK-C with her Special Reflective Coat on so that she’ll be Safer Crossing the Road. For some reason, the Chinese people with us at the time of the photograph found us to be extraordinarily funny.

We visited Hong Kong Park, a very orderly place with asphalt paths, an aviary cleaned four times a day and a botanical house with lots of different plants from around the world and free wifi (as all Government buildings have in Hong Kong); we went on a Feng Shui course and a tea appreciation course provided for free by the Hong Kong tourism board; and we failed to get up to go for the free Tai Chi classes at 8am. All in all, we were very much in favour of the city.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

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It’s not the size of your lens that counts, it’s what you do with it.

The wonderful thing about travelling, though, is that you can be completely anonymous. It doesn’t matter if you have matching clothes which are probably a bit smelly. Nor does it matter if, after spending 24/7 together for 2 months, you start finishing each other’s sentences or, worse, just stopping half way through a sentence because you don’t need to finish it:

“Have you got the…?”
“Of course.”
“Ah. I was looking…”
“Yes, but I’ve put it in the other one now.”
“How did you…?”
“I moved the bag with the things.”
“So where are the things?”
“In the other bag.”

All of our conversations are now thus. Or, more recently (after we’ve fought over the seat with the better view of the restaurant so we can stare at other people whilst pretending to listen to what the other is saying), because we’ve exhausted all our other topics, we’ve taken to comparing things, people, places, foods (“if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” or “what’s the worst place we’ve stayed in?” or “where do you stand on croissants versus pain au chocolat?*”)

So when we met up with my old friend from university, Jenni, who’s now teaching in Hong Kong (“Honkers”), we were relieved that she was too polite to comment on the fact that we were wearing the same clothes, or that there was a faint edge of desperation in our desire to talk to Other People. It was nice not to be anonymous for a night, to have a common history and a shared future.

With our mind on the next stage of our trip, we talked about the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China. Jenni told us that Hong Kongers consider themselves to be quite different from “mainlanders.” “They don’t like the mainlanders,” she said. “Hong Kongers consider them to lack decorum, like their spitting all the time and doing a poo in the street.” (For the record I have never seen anyone taking a shit in the street in mainland China, though the unique nature of Chinese toilets does mean that I’ve shared that intimate moment a little more closely with some than I would like). “When we set critical writing for the students [at school],” Jenni said, “they always complain about mainlanders.” Since the handover in 1997 Hong Kong has been part of China but has operated under a different economic and political system, which by the terms of the handover must continue until 2047. “One country, two systems,” is the Chinese mantra when it comes to this former British colony. But Hong Kong is quite different to mainland China – there’s no censorship, internet sites aren’t blocked, and capitalism has a freer reign.

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I was thinking about these differences as we took the Hong Kong metro as far north it would go, so that we could cross over into the city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. The border crossing was easy; the other side, though, was dirtier and more bewildering than Hong Kong. At the exit to the metro station (which, mercifully, was also the train station) we were met by a man in an old, moth eaten uniform. “Train ticket,” he said to me as I passed. I stopped to talk to him, momentarily duped by his uniform. “Railway?” He said to me uncertainly, then more enthusiastically when I stopped. “Railway, railway!” At that point, I realised that he had none of the confident, bored authority of an official; he was just a tout, trying to scam unwary tourists into handing over their train tickets, probably so he could charge them an extortionate fee for showing them where to get their train from. In China, if someone looks like they’d rather be somewhere else, then they’re probably the person you need to speak to. If they offer to help, then they’re almost certainly not (although I must add that when we’ve asked someone for help, we’ve always found them to be unfailingly polite, if someone bemused by our attempts to mime what we’re after).

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FROM SHENZHEN WE caught a sleeper train to Guilin. We shared the carriage with three generations – grandmother, daughter, and toddler. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Mandarin, so we did the soon-to-be familiar routine of hellos, smiles and blank looks of incomprehension. Every time I looked at the little boy he hid his face behind his grandmother, and refused to return my smile. His mother tried the usual routine which all parents seem to do in China when they see us, of man-handling their child into a wave and repeating, “hello! Hello! HELLO!” I have never seen a child do this independently.

We disembarked from the train at 5.45am on a Sunday to find Guilin dark and wet. We were faced by the usual barrage of taxi drivers and touts, firmly telling them that no, thank you, we did not want a taxi, despite our body language desperately screaming that there’s nothing we’d like more than to climb into their warm, dry car. Instead we walked 45 minutes from the train station to the hostel, through dark, deserted streets, arguing all the time about whether it was the right way, searching endlessly for a toilet, and being startled occasionally by an electric scooter appearing out of nowhere from behind us (they’re all over China: swift, silent, and – as with the scooters in Vietnam – deadly because they’re ridden as frequently on the pavement as on the road).

It rained for the entire time that we were in Guilin. We sat in the hostel common room, bundled up against the cold, and read our books and surfed the internet. Occasionally we wandered out to get some noodles at a local place where you ordered from a grumpy woman at a cash register by the front entrance, before going inside to present your receipt to two angry ladies who either shouted at the chef or threw together your noodles themselves. We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless a kind lady we met at the hostel had written down for us what we should order. Each time we went there, I pointed at the Chinese characters she’d written in my notebook and held up two fingers. One time, we sat next to a Swiss-Chinese man who wrote down a different dish for us to try. But we preferred the first one, because it cost only 3 yuan (30p).

And, yes, we also went for a ride down the River Li and took lots of pictures of the limestone Karsts which the area is famous for, all eerie looking in the rain and the mist which clung to their peaks.

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“Some people they say to me, will we see anything because it is raining?” our guide said to us on the bus on the way to the river. “I say to them: yes! You are actually very lucky. Because when it is not raining, there is no mist, and it is not beautiful. So congratulations for choosing to come today, when it is raining!” At the end of the trip down the river, we all trooped up to a vantage point and were ordered by our guide to take photos of the view. She held up a 20 Yuan note to show that this landscape was on the back, but the Chinese tourists didn’t need any telling and were already pushing each other out of the way to get the photograph. So we stood in the rain, and watched them, and felt very lucky. And that was Guilin.

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*This last conversational topic was suggested by our good friend Benny Chastney, after hearing of our conversational dearth. Personally, my head says croissant, but my heart says pain au chocolat. If you’d like to send us new conversational topics just fill out the comments box below. Write now, don’t delay – we need your help.

This post was written on the train from Beijing to Shanghai. It was uploaded in Taipei, Taiwan.

NEXT TIME: I visit Yunnan Province in South West China, and discover that there really are parts of China that aren’t cities or farms.

The Dangers of Peach Blossom (And Other Tales of Vietnam)

DEAR INTERNET, I’M sorry that I haven’t written in a while. I’ve been busy, you see, in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Also, the Chinese Government has been trying to suppress my writing. Yes, WordPress is blocked in China, along with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a number of other dangerous sites. I’m joining you now only through internet sorcery, via a server based somewhere in Japan.

The Great Firewall of China is not that sophisticated, however, as it only blocks wordpress.com, not all wordpress sites. The upshot of this is that when I recently changed over to be elsewhereunderwritten.com rather than elsewhereunderwritten.wordpress.com I exposed myself to an extra ONE BILLION potential readers. Welcome, new Chinese readers! I’m still awaiting the spike in blog stats. I expect it’ll come soon, though. WordPress hosted sites can’t handle over a million hits in a day, so please remember to form an orderly queue… (yes I know, there’s no such thing in China, but please do try). I’d offer a few words of welcome, but I think that I’d struggle to put it better than the tourism board of Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, in this sign that we saw earlier in the week:

Trav7-1 IF THIS WERE an Indiana Jones movie (and frankly I’m sad it’s not), you’d be seeing a red line snaking over a map right now. Over the past seven weeks we’ve travelled from Bangkok, Thailand, through Cambodia, into southern Vietnam, up through Vietnam to Hanoi in the north, from Hanoi to Vientiane in Laos, through Laos, travelling up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang back into northern Thailand. Once there we hung out for a week in Chiang Mai, then went to a couple of other places in northern Thailand before getting a 16 hour overnight bus down to Bangkok, where we buzzed around a lot to try and fit in as much as possible before flying to Hong Kong. In Hong Kong we pretty much did the same thing, except with more clothes on (because it was cold, get your mind out of the gutter). From HK we crossed the border into mainland China and got an overnight train from Shenzhen to Guilin, where we are as I write this post (postscript – from Guilin we flew to Kunming, Yunnan Province and after a couple of days in Kunming we travelled by bus to Dali, also in Yunnan Province. We’ve had unreliable internet so it’s taken me a while to upload this post). All caught up? Good.

Last time I promised a round up of Vietnam, after having covered only the south. I’ve had to buy an external portable hard disk because I didn’t have enough room for all the photos I’ve been taking (with 1TB of extra storage, I should be ok now – thank you Pantip Plaza, Bangkok). Today I went through those photos and picked some of the highlights from Vietnam.

WE WERE IN Vietnam for close to three weeks, and very much on a well trodden tourist trail. From Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the Mekong Delta in the south we headed north to the beach resort of Nha Trang, arriving at 5.30am off the overnight train to be greeted by a rainy city and wild waves at the seafront. Later, we explored the city, the rain having stopped but the sky still overcast. Nha Trang did little to endear itself to us – the long beach was pretty, certainly, but just a few streets away from the seafront the town turned into an ugly scrawl of dirty streets, snarling mopeds and touristed-out locals. When we’re somewhere new we like to walk around to get a sense of the place, usually straying far away from the haunts recommended in the guidebook. In Nha Trang we were happy to return to the seafront.

There’s one direct flight from Nha Trang International airport, and that’s to Russia. It is the beach destination in Vietnam if you’re from Russia. Consequently the town is an odd mix of western backpackers and high spending Russian vacationers, glued together by Vietnamese touts, pimps and tuc tuc drivers (who are often the same person). But if the sun’s out, you’re drinking, and you ignore the touts and pimps, then Nha Trang is a fun place to be. Yes, I did have an awful sunburn and a Hollywood star hangover when we left.

An overnight bus to Hoi An sorted me right out. Rather than simply a reclining chair, each passenger had a sort of plastic sarcophagus which you inserted your legs in up to the waist, and then leaned back into what felt like one half of a sun lounger. The sarcophagus combined with the stacking of passengers bunkbed style created a cosy, I’ll-never-get-out-of-here-if-we-crash kind of a feeling, and (once I’d gotten over the series of RTA scenarios that paraded through my mind) I quickly fell into a deep sleep.

In Hoi An it was raining, but just off the bus and walking through the old town, it was already lovelier than Nha Trang, even in the wet. From the 16th through to the 18th centuries the city was the most important trading port in south east Asia, with merchants from China, Japan and Europe. Towards the end of the 18th century, the river leading from the port to the sea silted up and trade moved elsewhere. When commerce ebbed away from the city it remained largely unchanged in architecture, and mostly untouched by the modernisation that was sweeping the rest of Vietnam. The town remains a wonderful jumble of old Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese building styles, pretty even in the rain.

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Tourism and tailoring are the two chief enterprises of Hoi An. So after a shower and some breakfast we headed over to get some clothes made. For what else does one do in Hoi An? The city is awash with tailors, so many that without the advice of tour guide I would have struggled to have known which to use (if you’re going there yourself, we used Yaly – slightly more expensive than some others but they were extremely professional, knowledgeable, and produced clothes of excellent quality). You can get a tailored suit made in 24 hours, thanks – I was assured – not to a sweat shop but to an army of 300 tailors all paid a fair wage. I was measured for a suit on the morning of the first day, alterations were made in the afternoon of the second day and it was ready by that evening. It cost me £100. As I took my top off to try on the shirt that I’d also purchased, my tailor stared at my burnt red-raw chest. “Ah,” she said, “you go to Nha Trang.”

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

Banh bao vac, or White Rose, is a local speciality in Hoi An. Essentially, it’s a version of Chinese dumplings, brought to the city by Chinese traders. Delicious, but far from filling. In Vietnam, as in the rest of SE Asia, the price of a dish in a restaurant usually bears little or no connection with its size or complexity. You can order something for £4 – a lot in SE Asia – and end up with the tiniest amount, whilst your neighbour spends the same amount and gets a feast. These are menus priced by people who eat not at restaurant but on the street, where dishes are much, much cheaper. Wherever possible, eat on the street in SE Asia – the food is better, cheaper and more authentic.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

The riverside is beautiful by night, but – as with so much else in Vietnam – it is ruined by noise. On one side of the river bars compete for business with loud music, making a walk along the riverside an ear-splitting cacophonic experience where it’s better not to linger.

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After Hoi An, it was an 8 hour bus journey to Hue (pronounced “Hway”), former imperial capital of Vietnam. Along the way we stopped off at a place called Marble Mountain – a complex of pagodas, shrines and caves on top of a (very small, more cliff-like) mountain. Perhaps it was because the sun was out, perhaps it was because at the top of the mountain we were away from the sound of horns, but it felt like the prettiest place in Vietnam. We were there for an all-too short hour – and only at the end did we discover the vast cave with stairs carved down to its floor, a giant stone Buddha set against one wall, illuminated only by a single beam of sun from a hole in the roof. It was a serene interlude from the madness that is Vietnam.

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WE WERE IN Hue for less than 24 hours. We arrived in the evening and wandered down neon-lighted streets lined by budget clothes stores pulsing with young Vietnamese, getting bemused looks from most we passed. We tried some clothes on and didn’t buy them. We drank some Vietnamese wine, which was slightly less than awful. We ate some Western food and regretted it. We looked at some statues and tried to work out what they were commemorating. We looked at some art, intended to come back the next day and buy it, and then didn’t. Instead we went to a ruined tomb and got lost. In short, we had wonderful time doing all of the things that one does in a foreign city.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

We visited the tomb of a former Emperor, an hour and a half cruise down the Perfume River on a little boat that was also a family’s home. When we eventually moored up, the driver of the boat pointed us up a muddy track and offered a few words in Vietnamese that none of us understood. At some point, we took a wrong turn. We reached the Tomb an hour later, after tramping through muddy fields whilst bare footed farmers standing knee deep in rice paddies laughed at us.

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 During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

During the Vietnam-American War, Hue was captured briefly by the North during the infamous Tet Offensive. During the three and half weeks that the Vietcong held the city they massacred over 2,500 civilians as a ‘blood debt’ for fighting against the VC. The USA and the South Vietnamese responded by battering the city with bombs and artillery and dropping napalm on the Imperial Palace. Today, there is little left of it – just the outlines of where buildings used to be. By the end of the offensive, about 10,000 people had died in Hue, most of them civilians.

HALONG BAY IS a place that everyone raves about. Read any travel article about Vietnam, and it’s likely to get a glossy double page photo. I felt that I’d read the legend of how it was formed about a million times before I even went there. So I was thoroughly prepared for it to be overhyped. It wasn’t.

We sailed out in clear blue skies, the sun gently warming our bare feet even as we wore fleeces on top against the wind. Within half an hour we (and, it has to be said, about thirty other boats) were sailing inbetween looming limestone Karsts – giant fragments of islands, their sides sheer cliffs, their tops verdant green. They seemed to be endless, disappearing off into the horizon forever. If you are in Vietnam, then I urge you to go there, and to stay overnight on a boat in the bay. You won’t want to leave.

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AND THEN IT was Hanoi, capital of Vietnam and our last destination in the country. The old town is a mass of small streets and seething mopeds. It’s a fascinating place to walk around, each street dedicated to a particular trade so that there are streets of carpenters, streets of toy shops, even streets dedicated to packaging, cardboard boxes spilling out into the road.

What no one tells you about Hanoi, though, is that you haven’t got time to look into the shops or soak up the atmosphere because you’re TOO BUSY TRYING NOT TO DIE under the wheels of a moped. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, in SE Asia pavements are for parking, not walking, so you find yourself stumbling down the narrow roads spending all your time watching where the mopeds are and then – WHOOSH one speeds past you from behind and you are inches from death. It’s like when you’re on the London Underground at rush hour at the edge of the platform with the crowd five people deep behind you and then the train slams past you and you think, if someone just nudged me forward right now… In Hanoi, it’s like that all the time.

Rush hour is out of control: nowhere is safe, as mopeds mount the pavement (what little of it there is left to walk on) to get past. It was worse when we were there because it was just before Tet, Vietnamese New Year, when everyone gets a peach blossom tree for their home or business. Inevitably, these are transported strapped to the back of a moped. So if the vehicle itself doesn’t get you, you’re just as likely to get whipped by the branches of a tree as it whizzes by.

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A peach blossom tree outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

A peach blossom tree, for Tet, outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

An official looking man stands amidst the chaos, presumably after having given up trying to direct it.

But survive the gauntlet of motorised death then Hanoi is a wonderful city, best enjoyed from a tiny plastic chair on the side of the street (NOT at rush hour) drinking a Bia Hoi, or fresh beer – beer that is brewed freshly everyday and retails at about 12p (20c) a glass. At that price, what could possibly go wrong? Just don’t try walking home after a beer too many.

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And that, dear internet, was Vietnam for me.

Join me, next time, when I’ll write more words about some different things. There will also be pictures for those bored of the words.

This post was written in Guilin, Guangxi Province, and Kunming, Yunnan Province, China. It was finally uploaded in Dali, Yunnan Province, China, after a great deal of patience and numerous rounds of green tea.

Remnants of a War Fought in Vietnam

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THE LANGUAGE IS so loaded: Fall of Saigon, Liberation of Saigon. All or nothing descriptors that it’s hard to square. The Vietnam/American war is familiar to me, of course, from so many Hollywood films, so much cultural pastiche (the “/American” added on only, let’s be honest, since I’ve been to Vietnam – where of course it’s called only “the American war”). I thought of it when we first decided to go to Vietnam – but I wasn’t thinking of the war, I was thinking of its cultural imprint. With the exception of the two world wars, it’s hard to think of a war so fictionalised in the West.

So I was surprised, if it’s possible to be so, at my own surprise upon meeting people who had fought in the war – on both sides – and seeing the lasting impact on people living in Vietnam today (and Laos and Cambodia), even people who weren’t born when the war happened.

There are noticeably more amputees in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos (typically begging on the street) than in any other country I’ve visited. According to estimates by the Vietnam Government, unexploded ordinance from the war still contaminates one-fifth of the country’s total land area, with somewhere between in 350,000 and 600,000 tons of ordinance left to clear. When the Vietcong spilled into Cambodia and Laos to move south, explosive ordinance was also dropped there. In Cambodia, the US dropped more than a million tons of bombs, amounting to at least 26 million individual submunitions (i.e. parts of cluster bombs), of which it is estimated that between 1.9 million and 5.8 million still remain today. Laos suffered heavier bombing than either Cambodia or Vietnam, and is still the world’s most contaminated country from unexploded ordinance. Over two million tons were dropped on Laos, including over 270 million submunitions. There are no reliable estimates of how many unexploded bombs remain in the country today, but about 300 people a year die in Laos from leftover ordinance. There are no statistics on how many people lose limbs every year.

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“HAND GUNS, RIFLES, they don’t scare me,” Vien, who fought on the side of the south, told me. “Landmines do. You don’t know: just walking along and – boom!” The USA weren’t the only ones using explosive ordinance in the war – the Vietcongs did too (though, it must be noted, the vast majority of the remaining unexploded bombs were dropped by the USA; and, where the Vietcong did use explosives, it was often salvaged from unexploded American bombs). The favoured Vietcong tactic was to set traps in the jungle, surrounded by landmines. If a soldier was caught in the trap, any attempt at rescue would likely trigger one of the landmines, or else attract the attention of a sniper. When we were in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the Cu Chi Tunnels, where you can see recreations of the bamboo traps used by the Vietcong.

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The Cu Chi Tunnels were underground tunnels used by the Vietcong to evade detection and to move closer to Saigon. Today, they are a monumental tourist trap, where you can go and join hundreds of others watching mechanised models of Vietcong soldiers making traps, disarming bombs, and generally taking on the American imperialists. As with most war-related tourist attractions in Vietnam, the accompanying narrative was a little one sided (incidentally, if you’re reading this and considering going yourself, I wouldn’t bother – it’s a 3 hour trip to get there, including a compulsory stop at a ‘handicrafts’ workshop’, to go and see a bunch of tunnels). There’s also a shooting range, where you can buy ammunition and have a go at shooting an AK47 or an M16, pretending that you’re shooting soldiers of either side, depending on your preference. It’s all in good taste, I’m sure.

Our guide for the Cu Chi Tunnels, Hong, fought on the side of the North, and took great delight in showing us his scars from gunshot wounds on the bus on the way there, alongside telling us about his wife who was 20 years younger than him, at 45. She weighed 84kg, which is 14kg more than him. Such are the things that you must tell people, apparently, to fill up a three hour bus journey.

“I must decide, my father told me, who you fight for,” said Hong. “So I chose the VCs, and fought for the north.” He was in the army from 1967 – 1974, and was shot twice in that period, spending time in hospitals before returning to the front line both times. Hong enjoyed making (very realistic, it has to be said) impressions of the different guns used in the war. Although I would probably file his dramatic re-enactments of skirmishes under the same bad-taste category as the AK-47 shooting range.

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City was the former residence and seat of power of the South. Today, it is preserved exactly as it was on the day that the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates to the palace. It's all 60s architecture with a creepy sense throughout that someone just left.

The Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City was the former residence and seat of power of the South. Today, it is preserved exactly as it was on the day that the North Vietnamese tanks broke through the gates to the palace. It’s all 60s architecture with a creepy sense throughout that someone just left.

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LATER, WE SPOKE to Vien about what it was like fighting his countrymen. “It was a horrible war,” he told us. “Everyday, I lost two or three men. I don’t want to shoot people, and I don’t want to get shot. I have a family, they have a family. But if you don’t shoot in the field, then you die. You’ve got to shoot to survive.”
Earlier in the trip we’d seen Vien greeting one of his friends. “He used to be my enemy,” he’d told us, “but now he’s my friend.” So when I asked him how things were now between the North and the South, I was expecting a less hostile answer. “I still don’t like the north,” he said. “They come to the south, but they don’t own it, and they bring their families.”

Vien’s unforgiving answer is perhaps more understandable in his generation: he saw a vision of a different Vietnam, fought for it, and lost. When I’d asked him what the loudspeakers on so many telegraph posts in rural Vietnam were, he’d smiled at me and said: “They’re for propaganda. Bullshit.” Vietnam is a communist country (though anyone seeing the unrestrained capitalism of the country and the entrepreneurial spirit of so many Vietnamese would be forgiven for raising their eyebrows at this fact) with one party, one vision. But those who fought on the side of the south still live here. It’s a distinction which is becoming less relevant, but it still lives on.

The bunker in the Independence Palace is full of echoing hallways. It didn't provide much protection when the tanks rolled in.

The bunker in the Independence Palace is full of echoing hallways and cold war paranoia. It didn’t provide much protection when the tanks rolled in.

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THERE ARE ALSO more visible signs of the war, and not just amputees: I saw at least 4 people born after the war with profound disfigurements, caused by Agent Orange, the chemical used by the US during the war to clear large swathes of foliage. These disfigurements are profound and debilitating – people born with half a face, no arms, a head three times the size it should be. In the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there is a gallery devoted to the victims of this chemical, people still being born today because it accumulated and settled in the bodies of their parents. I toured that exhibition, wandering past portrait after portrait with my fellow visitors in something deeper than museum-silence. I also visited the exhibition of photographs from the war, taken by a collection of photo-journalists (mostly western), many of whom were killed during the war. After that, I couldn’t face the rest of the museum. Loitering in the lobby, gathering myself after the exhibitions, I saw two Americans (recognised by their accents), both old enough to have fought in the war. One wore a Canada top, the other an England football top, too tight and obviously borrowed. They hovered, awkward and sombre, and one wrote a message in the visitor’s book, before leaving.

WHEN IN HANOI, in the North, we visited the very cool Cong Caphe, and drank Vietnamese coffee. Cong Caphe was on three floors, decked out in military surplus and Vietnam-American war era antiques. It was Vietnam-war chic, the war more kitsch than profound – appealing to a younger crowd. Teenagers hung out on the 70s furniture, all glued to their smart phones. The place was war-influenced, but different – something re-purposed for today. It felt a long way away from Vien’s comments about the north/south relationship.

The youth of today.

The youth of today.

The Vietnam war: now it's cool, like Che Guevara and Communist propaganda posters.

The Vietnam war: now it’s cool, like Che Guevara and Communist propaganda posters.

With great coffee too.

With great coffee too.

My time in Vietnam gave a brief, surface-deep experience of the war’s legacy, and I certainly don’t claim any expert knowledge in the field. The experience was enough, though, to see past the Hollywoodisation of the war; but it was also enough to grasp why this war has had such a long life in books, films and as the theme for trendy cafés. As Tim O’Brien writes in his novel of the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil […] But this too is true: stories can save us.” 

― Tim O’BrienThe Things They Carried

[Sources: Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor and UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office]

In this post I have changed the names of people to protect their anonymity.

This post was written in Chiang Mai, Pai and Mae Hong Song, Northern Thailand.

[Because I am so so far behind in writing about the places I’ve been…..
NEXT TIME: Vietnam Roundup]

Cycling in the Mekong Delta: Or The Long Reach of the Limerick Fire & Rescue Service

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OUR FIRST DAY in the Mekong Delta ended in what we would all have been afraid to do in HCMC – going for a bike ride. “My back brake doesn’t work,” I told the owner of the rickety city bike that I’d been handed. He took hold of both handlebars, grasped the brakes, and demonstrated to me that “yes, but the front brake works.” We both laughed over my stupidity, and with a slap on my back I was on my way. Our group pedalled sedately along the road towards the village, passing shacks and farms, people waving at us from the roadside, mopeds honking at us from the road. It was nearly peaceful.

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Yes the roads were a little narrow and yes the mopeds came a little close, but we Definitely Felt Safe All Of The Time.

At the entrance to the village proper, we stopped atop a bridge to take photos of the river. As I am prone to doing, I lingered a little longer to get a few more pictures. Then, packing away my gear, I rode off in pursuit of the rest of the group. I wasn’t the last to leave the bridge, but within  a few minutes of cycling into the village I was completely lost, without a single one of my fellow cyclists in sight. Perhaps I was distracted by the dog’s head on the barbeque that I saw, making me miss the hairpin turning just after the bridge that everyone had made. Perhaps I should just have been paying more attention. Either way, I was untroubled as I cycled through the market, dodging shoppers and moped drivers. Fortunately breaking the highway code in Vietnam didn’t mark me out as clueless, and I was keen to promote an image of confidence to anyone who may have been watching, so I cycled on – secure in the knowledge that I would eventually meet the rest of my group and that the final person on the bridge would soon catch up. The road curved round, I followed it, and soon I was out of the centre of the village and cycling along a dirt path bordered on one side by the river, and the other by people’s houses. I will admit to feeling some uncertainty at this point, but I cycled on – I really don’t know why. Then I saw a bridge crossing the river – a narrow, concrete affair with no sides – and I figured that I probably needed to go across to get back, as I’d already crossed the river once, right?

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So I dismounted, and walked across with the bike, and you will be surprised to hear that I didn’t fall in. No, instead I reached the other side and cycled on for a full two minutes along an uneven, partially flagstoned path, before finally stopping. I was outside somebody’s house, a low brick structure with a corrugated iron roof. A dog regarded me cooly from beside the entrance. My unease began to peak – I was alone, in Vietnam, without a single word of Vietnamese except “thank you.” I paused to take in the situation, gripping my ineffectual rear brake in thought. The dog came over and began sniffing me. I tried mentally to map which way I should have gone, where I went wrong. Perhaps triggered by the scent of its barbecued cousin, the dog began to growl. It bared its teeth at me. I may have uttered the words “nice dog.” Whatever I said, it was clearly ineffectual as the dog ran towards me and I pedalled pedalled pedalled back the way I came. I didn’t pause to see how long it chased me for, but as I pedalled I thought to myself how thankful I was that I’d paid for that rabies vaccination.

And then, miraculously, I saw two figures cycling towards me – Colum, a fellow traveller and a firefighter in the Limerick Fire and Rescue Service, closely followed by BK-C. “We’re the search party,” shouted Colum. “Great,” I replied, “what took you so long?” (or that’s the reply the wittier version of me would have given – in fact I was gushingly grateful and happy at seeing people I knew).

And that’s the time that I got rescued by an Irish firefighter in the Mekong Delta. After that, I felt ready for anything that Vietnam could throw at me.

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NEXT TIME: I learn about the war in Vietnam.

This post was written in Vang Vieng, Laos.

Ho Chi Minh City & The Mekong Delta

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HO CHI MINH City (also known as Saigon, its pre Vietnam-American war name, or simply abbreviated to HCMC) and the Mekong Delta: two very different places with a lot in common. HCMC is a sprawling, urban rush, whilst the Mekong Delta is a peaceful, rural area of farms and waterways. But both play an important part in Vietnam – Saigon drives the country’s economy and the Mekong Delta feeds the nation’s people. Both are some of the most densely populated areas in Vietnam, with the sky scrapers and streets of Saigon contrasting with the farms, fruit trees and rice paddies tightly packed into the Delta. And both share a common Southern Vietnamese heritage, a separation in attitude and history from the North that is still felt by many Vietnamese today. As people are fond of saying in Vietnam (of just about anything) – it’s same same, but different.

HCMC WAS OUR first stop in Vietnam. It topped the steadily rising crescendo of beeping horns that we’ve experienced as we’ve worked our way through Thailand and Cambodia. The streets are notoriously busy, thick with mopeds and the occasional car. Crossing the street in HCMC – or indeed anywhere in Vietnam – is one of those travelling rites of passage that is so often written about as to be cliché. There are ‘pedestrian crossings’, but no one stops at them; there are red lights, but these are optional; and there are pavements, but these are mostly for mopeds, so what the hell do you think you’re doing walking on them? In Hanoi, where I am as write this, we were at a busy intersection of a main road, waiting for a less-fatal opportunity to plunge across the road, when two distressed looking American ladies came up to us. “Have you crossed the road here?” they asked.
“We’ve never crossed the road here, specifically,” I replied, “but yes we’ve crossed the road in Hanoi.”
“Oh that’s great,” one of the women enthused, “we just got here. Can we cross with you guys?”
“Sure,” I said, gripping BK-C’s hand tightly whilst subtly attempting to position her as a human shield between myself and the oncoming traffic, “we’ll go over after this red bus… ready…and go.”
And we strode out into the road, in front of a battalion of buzzing mopeds which all beeped obligingly, either to tell us that they’d seen us and would drive around us, or that they were going to collide with us (I’m never sure which). We reached the other side in one piece, the American women deliriously happy that they’d survived their first road crossing. All such crossings are thus in Vietnam.

After you...

After you…

These are the drivers that had their lights on...

These are the drivers that had their lights on.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here - it's common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam's one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

School children practice badminton in a park in HCMC. Badminton is big out here – it’s common for courts to be marked on the streets. Perhaps the absence of mopeds driving across the court at the 2012 Olympics is why Vietnam’s one Olympian badminton player failed to advance past the elimination rounds.

AFTER THE CITY, Mekong Delta was wonderfully quiet and horn free. We visited a market with our guide, Vien, and marvelled at the diversity and plentitude of the produce, most of which we needed Vien to identify for us. Vegetables, fruits, fish, snakes, chickens, flowers – it was all there.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

The Vietnamese take their dried shrimp very seriously.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

A Vietnamese lady doing her daily produce shop. The marvel is that I saw ladies like this also crossing the road unscathed in HCMC.

I can't testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam - but at least they're not battery farmed.

I can’t testify to the animal welfare standards in Vietnam – but at least they’re not battery farmed.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

A member of our tour group is a hit with the local women.

I have no idea what the person in the top right hand corner of this photo is wearing.

A fruit seller watches a bag seller pass by.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

Banana flowers, delicious in salads.

In the Mekong Delta, intensively farmed and super self-sufficient, nothing is left to waste. The water hyacinth, Vien explained, typifies this approach. It is encouraged to grow by the side of the river, to prevent erosion; it is dried and then weaved into baskets; used as feed for animals; as a fertiliser; and finally its leaves are laid on the ground in the dry season to keep the moisture in the soil.

Over the course of a day and a half we also visited a fruit farm, a bonsai farm, a pottery, a floating market and a handicrafts market. Although there were a few tourists in some places, they where overwhelmingly thronging with locals. The impression that I was left with was of a highly efficient, complex and, above all, successful agricultural economy. Even the rolling pin in the handicrafts market used to make sesame snap was recycled – it was an old shell casing.

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NEXT TIME: I go cycling in the Mekong Delta. Hilarity ensues.

This post was written in Hanoi, Vietnam and Vang Vieng, Laos.