Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Christmas, and looking forward to 2007

Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

Don't worry, I'm not about to assault you with another monster posting. This is just a quick note to wish you all a very Happy Christmas, and best wishes for the New Year.

I've spent the former in the bosom of my family (although enlivened somewhat by a friend of the family over visiting from the Czech Republic, which has kept me rather more on my best behaviour than I might have been otherwise), and, in a display of disorganisation quite exemplary even for me, I have no idea what I'm going to do for the latter. All I can tell you is that 2007 will have to go some to be as incident-packed and interesting as 2006 was (and, indeed, 2005 before that). Some of you were involved in making those years so memorable, and for that I thank each of you.

For 2007, my immediate goals are to do all the remaining catching up I planned (somewhat over-optimistically) for December, to give myself a month off the booze to start undoing the excesses I've visited on my poor constitution, and to find a job. Yes, it always keeps coming back to that.

In the meantime, I hope all is well wherever you are, that Santa (if you believe in him...) brought you some nice pressies, and that you have some nice things planned for the New Year. Take care and have fun,



Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Home, Sweet, Quiet, Somnolent Home

Wow. I actually made it back. So, Doug and any of the rest of you who were betting on this being the time I didn't come home, tough luck! The call of home has brought me back once more to England's Green and Pleasant Land (freezing though it is at the moment).

My last few days in Hanoi were spent split between a comfortable, alcoholic haze and occasional bursts of tourist acitivity. I went down for a daytrip to the Perfume Pagoda complex south of town (which was okay, with quite a cool cable-car ride up the mountain but not worth the time or the money it took to get there, let alone my having been sensible the previous night and hence missed out on possibly the biggest drinking night of my time in Hanoi *sighs*). I went to see Ho Chi Minh (aka "Uncle Ho")'s mausoleum. Which is a big-arse pile of granite (or some other deep grey rock) surrounding a marble chamber containing a hard-wood-and-glass coffin-type-thingy containing either a) the embalmed body of Viet Nam's independence leader or b) a wax-work, depending on which version of affairs you believe. And it's impressive enough, more for the guards than anything else, if a bit spooky. I went to the Jade Mountain Pagoda out on an island in the Returned Sword Lake (home to Viet Nam's equivalent of the Excalibur myth, only it features a bloody great turtle) in the middle of Hanoi. And, between all this, I socialised, largely on Halida beer.

So, it's all over red rover. 1 month in Viet Nam, 3.5 months in SE Asia, 5 months back living out of my pack, and 18 months away from home. I'm back in Caldecote, which is probably about as different from Hanoi as I'm likely to get. After a few days back, I've sort of got my perspective on things, so here's the results of my thoughts.

Things I will miss about Viet Nam:

- The smiles. There's something about the Vietnamese grin (admittedly more common down south than up north) which just lights up the person's face and makes the day seem happier than it was.
- Bia hoi. Yes, Vietnam's very own uber-fresh micro-brewed beer, available for the comedy price of around 10p a glass. Light on the taste-buds, light on the alcohol front, but a very nice way to get the evening going.
- Pho. As a certain well-known guidebook series put it, "the dish that built a nation". Slight hyperbole there, but it is one of the few ever-present things from where I travelled in Viet Nam (and one of the fewer good ones). And seeing how much it was in a Vietnamese restaurant in Cambridge nearly gave me heart failure.
- Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel. Yes, it's expensive for a dorm set-up in Viet Nam. Yes, it's run by Westerners (well, Aussies, but we can give them that much). But the atmosphere is fantastic, and the crowd there were some of the better friends I made in my time in SE Asia.
- Crossing the road. I was faintly terrified of this on arrival, but a month in country convinced me it's entirely natural that you should not worry about avoiding the traffic, just let it avoid you. The feeling of invincibility this imbues is intoxicating (and probably bad for your health), and it all just seems to make more sense. Of course, if I tried it in London I'd probably be dead in 2 minutes flat.

Things I won't miss about Viet Nam:

- The vendors/hawkers/touts. "You buy something?" is possibly the most irritating thing I have heard on my trip. I don't mind so much getting touted at if at least the person has something specific they're flogging, but having stall-/shop-owners decide that just because I happen to walk past their premises I'm going to become a customer is really annoying. Work out what I want and try and sell me something specific!! Or else just leave me alone. Grrrr.
- The motorbike-taxi riders along all streets where a tourist might be found (NB this also applies to Cambodia). "Moto-bike you?" does not count as a good sales pitch. Even if you do accompany it with the "hands on handle-bars" symbol that appears to have taken root in international sign-language to mean "Excuse me, good sir, but could I perhaps interest you in a ride upon a motorbike taxi to wherever you are going?". Just because I am white and I am walking somewhere, it does NOT mean I automatically want a moto.
- "Why not?". This is the ultimate irritating answer to the most commonly-used phrase in Viet Nam, "No thankyou!". Why do I not want to buy a motorbike ride/T-shirt/set of postcards/bottle of water/bag of marijuana/assistance in getting "boom-boom"? Could it possibly because I don't need said items? Or even just don't want them? As has been pointed out enough times, albeit in different circumstances, "No means NO!".

Things I will miss about South-East Asia:

- Cheap, cheap food. Wandering through Cambridge today I saw a hot-dog barrow selling its product for 1.65GBP. This is not so ridiculous in the UK, but that equals 50,000 Vietnamese Dong or 120 Thai Baht or something similar. I could get, in either case, a decent meal for that and still have change left over.
- Cheap transport. Again, I looked at transport to maybe go down to my old Uni town of Bristol and back. Cheapest fare would be around 35-40GBP return. This for a trip lasting around 3.5-4 hours. By contrast, a bus-journey of similar length in Viet Nam would cost maybe 4USD, or around 2 GBP. An overnight sleeper train from Hue to Hanoi, going nearly half the length of the country, cost me around 14 GBP. A sleeper from near Melaka up to Kota Bharu in Malaysia cost me about 6 quid. And all of those services had a good chance of being on time.
- Polite, enthusiastic small children grinning their heads off when you respond to a wave and a cry of "Hello!".

Things I won't miss about South-East Asia:

- Being unable to understand the vast majority of what's going on around me.
- Being totally unable to fit in in a crowd.
- Spending most of my time on alert for who is trying to rip me off at the moment (honourable exemptions from this to Malaysia and SIngapore).
- The incessant smell and noise of millions of motorbikes, especially the damned tendency to use the horn every 5 seconds or so.
- Nearly concussing myself on the door-frames of bathroom doors in the morning when I'm not paying attention.
- Minibuses. 'Nuff said on this one.
- The "walking ATM" syndrome. Just because I'm a Westerner, does not mean I have cash to throw around the whole damned time.
- Sweating my arse off the whole time.

Things I will miss about backpacking:

- The sheer pace and intensity of life. I have more experiences in two days on the road than I often did in 2 months at work at home.
- The camaraderie. Especially in Asia, where we all stand out a mile off, the sense of community amongst backpackers is very handy. And the recollections of people who've recently travelled to a place are generally a far-preferable way of getting info on there than reading the Lonely Planet.
- The freedom to go do what I want, when I want.
- The endless stream of new friends. If anything, this is generally my favourite thing about travelling.

Things I won't miss about backpacking:

- Living out of the same clothes week in, week out, for weeks and months on end. It's been such a shock to come back and find that I do actually have a wardrobe (both literally and metaphorically) again.
- The less-pleasant aspects of communal living (at least when in dorms). Snorers, early risers, people who feel the need seemingly to stuff their packs with plastic bags to rustle, people who seriously contaminate the air of a communal bathroom (and don't even have the decency to look sheepish), people who, shall we say, reach levels of intimacy not entirely appropriate to a dorm...
- Early morning departures.
- Traveller-snobs. You know the kind, the ones who think that unless you travel with less than 10kg of stuff, sleep in the cheapest flop-houses, avoid any concentration of more than 2 Westerners and are capable of surviving on instant noodles for weeks at a time, then you aren't a PROPER backpacker.
- Keeping track of an endless succession of exchange rates.

I think that about sums things up.

Those few of you coming up to Caldecote at the weekend, I'll look forward to seeing you then. Those down in London, I'm still hoping to get there next week, maybe on Wed or Thu night. Those in Bristol, it's not looking like I'll be there any time before January, as Xmas has people oh-so-busy. Those still on the road, I hope you're still having as good a time as I did. Even after a few days, it feels a little like a dream that's fading slightly from the memory, so I'm getting this down while I still remember it all.

It's been fun (well, mostly) passing on these tales, and I hope you've enjoyed reading them (I know some of you have). After this, I might drop out another e-mail once I have some more stuff updated properly onto my now-very-quiet blog, but otherwise that's it for another bout of travelling.

Take care, have fun, and happy travels, now and for the future.


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Monday, December 04, 2006

In sight of the finish line

G'day again. It's been a while.

You'll be variously relieved or disappointed that this is probably going to be one of the last of these mails. Including today, I have 5 days left on this odyssey, so soon your Inboxes will be molested no longer.

So, back to what I've been up to. The quick summary would be: socialising, shopping, sweating, soaking up the beer and sailing around on a boat.

The train journey up from Nha Trang to Da Nang was actually pretty good - I got chatting whilst on the platform with a group of fellow backpackers who, it turned out, were on a trip with Intrepid, the company that my big sister Zara toured SE Asia with a few years back. I was a few compartments down from them but ended up sitting chatting with them for quite a bit of the evening. Turns out that two of them were from Huntingdon, about 20 minutes' drive from where I grew up, and that another was from the same suburb of Canberra (Yaralumla) as my cousins out there, and knew them from school. When I bumped into them again a few days later, it also turned out that one of the couples had recently done a trip through Africa with Acacia, the same company I used last year, and had had both my driver and my guide from that trip as drivers on their trip. It is, as they say, a small world, particularly when you're backpacking. So, that accounted for the initial socialising (which was more lucid than sometimes given that I'd decided I really needed a night off the grog).

The shopping bit was at Hoi An. That was pretty much everything I was expecting it to be. The Old Town was really quite picturesque, the weather was hot and sticky, and the tailors' shops were omnipresent and ridiculously cheap. By omnipresent, I mean that literally every other shop through the centre of town was a tailor's, and many of those inbetween were cobblers' places. Well, that's not 100% accurate - the shopfronts would take your order, including selecting fabrics, and measure you up, but the actual cutting and sewing went on elsewhere in town. As a result of this, I was initially quite cautious and ordered one or two things each at 3 different shops, as well as getting some replacement sandals and some sneakers made at one of the shoe-shops.

One slightly surreal aspect of the Hoi An tailor experience is that, possibly due to the overwhelming presence of British travellers (or Aussies/Kiwis returning from living in the UK), nearly every tailor's has a few years' worth of back-copies of the Next catalogue, from which they will cheerfully copy anything, making it to your size. Another thing that takes a bit of getting used to is the fascination that the staff in the shops (mostly girls) have with Westerners and their pale skin. In contrast to the sun-worshippers of most Western countries, who would sell their granny for a good tan, many Southeast Asian peoples value pale skin. It seems to be a status thing, as darker skin is associated with performing manual labour outside in the fields whereas pale skin indicates a job indoors (probably better-paid). Whatever the reason, it means that one of the sights I will indelibly associate with Viet Nam (and to a lesser extent with Cambodia) is that of the local girls, riding their scooters, with wide-brimmed hats, masks to cover their faces, long-legged trousers and long glooves to cover their arms, all designed to keep them as white as possible.

At any rate, this means that one of the first questions many Western guys here, if apparently unaccompanied, get asked is "Where your wife?" or "You travel with girlfriend?". An answer in the negative tends to then result in much giggling and sometimes an offer to be introduced to a friend of hers. You also get a lot of comments on the line of "You so pale! You so handsome!". It would all be quite flattering were it not for the fact that most of it is blatantly part of the sales pitch - the girls in those shops are VERY well-practiced at persuading tourists to buy far more stuff than they originally planned to. I must admit that I ended up spending a little more than I had planned, though I didn't get overly carried away - my "No thankyou" routine got plenty more workout in response to the perpetual "You buy one more shirt?" entreaties.

In the time I didn't spend wandering around soaking up the atmosphere or getting fitted for clothes, I hung around with a Dutch guy called Arjan. We had met briefly in Nha Trang but, given that this was in the aftermath of the drunken boat trip, I couldn't actually remember where I had met him until he reminded me. Anyway, he had also been on the train up to Da Nang (though in a seat rather than a sleeper) and we got chatting on the minibus down to Hoi An and then ended up staying at the same hotel there. Given that we were both travelling solo, we also ended up meeting up for some meals, and having a few beers in the evening while he repeatedly thrashed me at pool (at one point I was on a 10-game losing streak...). However, Hoi An being rather less of a party-mad place than Nha Trang, most evenings there were a bit more restrained (our last night in town, as per usual, turned into a bit more of a party thanks to an American, two Aussies and a trio of Swedes).

From Hoi An, we were both headed up to Hue (that should have an accent on the e, but I can't be arsed working out how to get Gmail to do that - it's pronouned "hooway" rather than "hoo" or "hyoo"), which entailed another of the ridiculously cheap "Open Tour" buses - $2 in this case. This is the old Imperial capital of Viet Nam from the 19th Century, but nowadays is a relatively quiet stop on the tourist trail. It's also one of the places that make you think "if only", as it contains what is left of the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City. What is still intact (and what they've restored) is beautiful, but much of it was destroyed during the fighting around the Tet offensive of the Vietnam War, so you have the slightly incongruous sight of the restored throne/reception room next to bombed-out ruins that are now home to vegetable gardens.

Hue was notable for me primarily for being crazily hot and sticky, which made walking over the bridge to see the Citadel and Imperial Enclosure into a seriously sweaty venture, and discouraged me from doing much more exploring beyond that. The only other sight I saw much of was the DMZ Cafe/Bar, where I ended up meeting up with the Intrepid crew again, as well as several of my drinking companions from Nha Trang, and spent a certain amount of time losing to Arjan at pool again.

From there, it was another overnight train up to Hanoi, this one a much longer affair (about 13 hours), and again in the company of the Intrepid lot. This gave me the opportunity to finally drink up some of the duty-free vodka I'd got when crossing the Cambodian border (and carried around pointlessly for the last few weeks), but again it wasn't too late a night given that we were arriving at the ungodly hour of 5:30am. Luckily, I had contacted the Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel (my intended destination) in advance and they sent a bloke down to the station to meet me off the train, saving me the hassle of arguing with moto and taxi drivers at that hour in the morning (they're infamous in Hanoi for taking you to places that pay commission rather than necessarily to where you asked to go).

Once settled in here in Hanoi (for that is where I am now), I got myself booked on to a 3-day trip to Ha Long Bay, and then got on with the important business of getting to know the other denizens of the hostel - it is SO nice to be back in a hostel/dorm-based system, as it makes it so much easier to meet new people. It's not ideal for my liver, given that the combination of me and a bunch of other backpackers tends to result in drinking, but I only realised when I got here how much I've missed having this kind of atmosphere around me. The Ha Long Bay trip itself was pretty good fun. I had a decent group, the food was pretty good (apart from the miserable excuses for breakfasts), it was just a pity the weather wasn't that great - overcast much of the time, and pretty chilly, with mist on the first day that was dramatic for a while (rocky islands rising out of the mist) and then just irritating as it stopped you getting much of a view. We saw various caves, as well as climbing a hill (felt more like a mountain to me, but then we all know I hate hills) to get some lovely views across Cat Ba island (the biggest one in the bay), and seeing a hospital from the war which was built in a cave to protect it from American bombing (which was in operation for 10 years, yet another tribute to Vietnamese stubbornness and ingenuity).

So I got back to Hanoi a couple of days ago, and have since just been having a laugh here. There's a really nice bunch in the hostel, and I'm enjoying not moving on and not having to pack/unpack my bags all the damned time. Having talked to people who recently came back from there and informed me the weather is shite right now (= little visibility), I've decided not to make the run up to Sapa in the mountains, and just enjoy myself here.

And that's enough e-mailing for now. I'll probably write one more before I leave on Friday, but for now I need to go try and get a ticket for the water-puppet show.

Hope all is well wherever you are. Take care and have fun,


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