Saturday, 16 February 2013

Visiting Uncle Ho and other matters



Whenever I got to a new place by plane or train "someone" would be there to greet me with a sign This one was on my very first day  when I arrived at the Hanoi Airport. It was good to see!

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Early on the morning of 3rd February my train lurched into Hanoi’s main station after the return journey from Lao Cai.

 I ran the gauntlet of taxi drivers (cars or motor bikes) and ignored them as I’d been given clear instructions and directions about the three minute walk to the hotel where I would rest, get a shower and eat breakfast.

It was 5:00 a.m. and already the streets were busy. Outside the Hotel door a man was squatting and sharpening knives.

It was not the finest hotel, but I got a rest and had an “o.k.” breakfast.

Mr Ruby showed up with the driver, and off we went to the Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  It is at the spot that Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnamese “Declaration of Independence” on Sep 2nd 1945.

Whatever we in the west think or thought of Ho Chi Minh is revered by Vietnamese people as the “father of the nation”, in much the same way as American’s revere George Washington.

Minh’s vision was to free his country from feudalism and colonialism, and he believed that communism would be the best route to freedom.

His body is embalmed “Lenin style”, and I filed passed it with many others.  We were not allowed to talk, stop walking, or take photographs.  It was distinctly odd to see the body of this man who had been feared, hated, and reviled in the west.

The Mausoleum is set in a beautiful park alongside the botanical garden. We also saw Ho’s two houses in which he led an un-ostentatious life.  He never sought wealth or possessions. It was only at the insistence of party members that a second house was built -  a place to be more secure during the air raids.

We moved on to visit the Temple of Literature which dates to the 12th Century (A.D.).  It was created to teach the tenets of Confucius to the King and Royal Family, and is thought of as Vietnam’s first University.

(Incidentally, Confucianism is NOT a religion.  It is a “teaching” on how to live an orderly and balanced life. In the Temple of Literature there is eastern traditional religious symbolism, but it was a place of learning, not of worship.)

After lunch Mr Ruby took me to the History Museum.  It was not over exciting - once you’ve seen Stone Age tools, whether in Bristol, London or New York City it’s hard to be impressed with them in Vietnam.

On this final day in Hanoi I had one more “site” – the incredible Water Puppet show.  It was remarkable and beautiful. The puppets flew, danced, swam and engaged in battles”

I could not for the life of me figure out how they were operated.  Then at the end of the show the puppeteers emerged.  They had been behind a curtain, waist deep in water, and had manipulated the puppets by wires which were attached to long underwater poles. Remarkable!.

“Modern water puppetry is performed in a pool of water 4 meters square with the water surface being the stage. stage has been constructed.

Up to 8 puppeteers stand behind a split-bamboo screen, decorated to resemble a temple facade, and control the puppets using long bamboo rods and string mechanism hidden beneath the water surface. The puppets are carved out of wood and often weigh up to 15 kg.

A traditional Vietnamese orchestra provides background music accompaniment. The instrumentation includes vocals, drums, wooden bells, cymbals, horns, Đàn bầu (monochord), gongs, and bamboo flutes. The bamboo flute's clear, simple notes may accompany royalty while the drums and cymbals may loudly announce a fire-breathing dragon's entrance.

Singers of chèo (a form of opera originating in north Vietnam) sing songs which tell the story being acted out by the puppets. The musicians and the puppets interact during performance; the musicians may yell a word of warning to a puppet in danger or a word of encouragement to a puppet in need.

The puppets enter from either side of the stage, or emerge from the murky depths of the water.
Spotlights and colorful flags adorn the stage and create a festive atmosphere.” ( Quotation from Wikipedia)

It was Sunday, so I chose to go to the airport early so that Mr. Ruby and my driver could spend time with their families. ‘Twas a fine sentiment, except that my flight to Da Nang was delayed two hours, this I was “hanging around” for five hours in the terminal, and my lap top had a flat battery. Not good!

Fountain at entrance to Mausoleum complex


President Ho Chi Minh lives for ever in  our cause (rough translation)





The Socialist Republic of Vietnam (rough translation).  I am under the "E" blue shirt/white hat.

Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) Mausoleum modeled after Lenin's in Red Square. Moscow.

Presidential Palace (still in use)

Peugot Car.  Gift to Ho Chi Minh from the people of French New Caledonia
Uncle Ho's House

Nearby Pagoda

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Phoenix at Temple of Literature

In Temple of Literature

This young man insisted that I take his photo', even though he will never see it.

Traditional Music at Temple of Literature
?? in Temple of Literature

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Water Puppets 1

Water Puppets 2


Water Puppets 3


Puppeteers 1
Puppeteers 2



Friday, 15 February 2013

Village life for a day



My itinerary said that I would be trekking to Ta Phin Village to stay with a Dao host family, there to enjoy and ethnic style dinner, and to share in family life by: (e.g.) feeding the animals, cleaning the house or gardening.  Mr Ruby in Hanoi had  suggested that I take some school supplies to present to the village school.

It did not turn out that way.  Of course you know that I failed in the trek, and had an “interesting” ride on a motor bike.  The driver took me to a large village, and talked me into paying him an extra five dollars so that he would go back to give Sinh (my guide) a ride

In the large village I was immediately surrounded by five or six women from the Black Hmong tribe, each one being intent to sell me handicrafts, and one offering to find me a local woman to be my wife.

I had been warned to ignore such hawkers in the villages and cities, but boy were they persistent.  It was only when I stopped answering questions and gave them the silent treatment that they “ceased and desisted”.  (I felt very rude and impolite!).

I was in some kind of shed/cafe and was able to buy a glass of very good green tea as I awaited Sinh.

When he arrived he said that (of course) the motor-cyclist had NOT given him a ride (gullible me – I had been suckered out of five bucks!).

But Sinh had covered the 8 to 10 km of rugged terrain in about 45 minutes, well used as he is to walking and running).

Sinh and I then walked about another mile of dirt road alongside a swift flowing stream to my destination village.  It is called SUOI THALI and consists of about 90 houses spread over many miles, i.e. not a compact little village like we might see in Europe.

I was billeted in a house which was also a trekker’s hostel, hence my bed was on the floor.  And there was no programme, no welcome, nothing to do. Sinh had brought the food for my lunch which the woman of the house cooked, and which I ate in solitary splendour.

As soon as I “got the picture” I relaxed on a large balcony, and did no more or less than watch village life (and got into bed at about 4:00 p.m.  simply to warm up -  it was darn chilly).

The house was opposite a small “store” to and from which were a constant stream of villagers who were bring their bags of rice to be husked.  The store also sold fruit and vegetables, and meat (probably pork) which was on display in the open air.

The store was also a source of sweets/candies – and had a steady clientele of village children on their way home from school (or work in the fields); and of adults who purchased sugar cane – and then sucked all the sweetness before spitting out the pulp.

Just up the road there was another stream in which people washed their clothes, their selves, and their vegetables.  (My house had running water!).

A bit later Sinh and I wandered around the village and inspected the local fish farm.

In due course the man of the house arrived. His name is Luong Van Dat, and he is quite the entrepreneur.  He and  his wife built their home.  He earns his living by building, by hand carving furniture, by cooking, and by tour guiding.  His English is excellent, and he is totally aware of the modern world.

I’d asked Sinh if I might eat dinner with the family. That happened and we had a jolly meal, all the while watching T.V. on a huge flat-screen.    I had brought some photo’s of my family, and of myself as a child: - they were fascinating for the two young children of the family.

I gave my school supplies to the children, and also to Sinh who has two nephews in elementary school.

Next morning Luong Van Dat cooked me the most delicious crepes with honey and mango for breakfast.

Then Sinh and I walked 4km to catch the mini-bus back to Sa Pa.

It had turned out to be a well worth while village stay.


Black Hmong woman, where I had green tea.



Walking up to the village named SUOI THALI




Village store and rice husking business across the track from the house in 
SUOI THALI

Another view from the house.  Note the environmental degradation as a result of clear  cutting on the hills.

My bed on the floor (and mosquito net). I slept very well.

Another view from the house

Sadly enough (for me) there is trash  "everywhere" in Vietnam.

School girl carrying her younger sibling (at the store)

Children carrying rice. 

Where my lunch and dinner were cooked

The house/home in Shoi Thali where I stayed

My wonderful breakfast of crepes, mango and honey cooked by Luong Van Dat

The host family. L-R -   Cousin,  Wife and son, Husband and daughter -  GREAT FOLKS!

And I did trek a bit -  some 4 km back to the minibus.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

To the mountains by train and mini-bus


So, after my great trip to Halong Bay I got back to Hanoi, had a brief respite at the Hotel, and then took the night train to Lao Cai.

Ruby, my “man in Hanoi” took me to the station, and made certain that I was on the right train, in the right compartments, and in the correct sleeping cabin.  Thank goodness!

I shared the cabin with a fifty-something couple from Paris, and their French speaking Vietnamese guide. The couple were jovial and affable and we chatted as much as we could in my bad French and their good English.  Then we all slept.  The berth was comfortable and the clunkety clunk rhythm of the slow train became a soothing lullaby.

At 5:00 a.m. in a cold and misty Lao Cai I was met by Sinh, a very kind 23 years old man who was to be my constant companion for the next 36 hours.  He expressed the traditional Vietnamese respect for older people in a way which made me feel deeply cared for.

From Lao Cai we drove for about an hour in the mist, climbing higher and higher until we reached the mountain town of Sa Pa. which is located in Lao Cai Province, north-west Vietnam, and 380 km north-west of Hanoi, close to the border with China. The Hoang Lien Son range of mountains dominates the district, which is at the eastern extremity of the Himalayas. This range includes Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan, at a height of 3143 m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an altitude of about 1650 m. The climate is moderate and rainy in summer (May—August), and foggy and cold with occasional snowfalls in winter.

Sinh and I arrived at the Cat Cat Hotel (named  for a nearby village) where a day room had been reserved for me (a place to sleep and get a shower).  The hotel was in utter darkness, with the front door locked.  Sinh made a phone call, and within a few minutes a very affable Vietnamese man of Chinese background emerged to let us in, and explained (in his flawless English) that he’d been at a party the night before and was still hung-over.

From Sa Pa I visited the ethnic village of Cat Cat. This was a bit of a bust as the performance of music and dance was cancelled for lack of a sizeable audience.  It was also from Sa Pa that I set on the proposed 10k trek to a village – a trek which I failed because of pretty severe hip pain.

More about that village stay tomorrow.

Sun rise in Sa Pa 

Dawn breaks in Sa Pa

View from Cat Cat Hotel Balcony 1

View from Cat Cat Hotel Balcony 2

Across the street from Cat Cat Hotel  (loved the Santa/Father Christmas!)

The mini-bus driver from Lao Cai knew which side his bread was buttered

Heading towards Cat Cat Village

Waterfall in Cat Cat Village  1

Waterfall in Cat Cat Village 2

Sinh, my guide and caregiver Lao Cai/ Sa Pa 

Trek for 10 k on this road -  no way!

Treking was impossible. The motor bike ride for which I paid $5 was "interesting"!

Looking across the Red River in Lao Cai at the Chinese border post


Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Vietnam. Motor Bike Mania


There is a huge amount of traffic in the larger cities in Vietnam such as Hanoi and Ho Ch Minh City, and in the roads that lead in and out of those places.  Traffic jams are frequent.

 The “rule of the road”  is like playing a game of chicken. “Might is right" (or "sheer nerve") works best.

 I was amazed to see my drivers "squeeze" between other vehicles with no more than two inches to spare on either side. They made Boston drivers look like clumsy amateurs!


Air pollution in the cities is something awful. Most cyclists, motor-cyclists and scooter riders wear face masks, as do many pedestrians.

The most popular car make is Toyota, closely followed by Hyundai/Kia.

There are many of the luxury cars such as BMW, Lexus, Ford SUV’s, and Mercedes.

 I also saw Daewoo and Suzuki cars (neither of which are sold in the USA these days).

My car for the final three days was a Chevy Cruze. Yeah for the Red, White and Blue!

Most of the buses and trucks are by Hyundai, with a fair smattering of huge Chinese made trucks and huge American made “International” trucks.

Suzuki leads the way for motor bikes. Honda, Lambretta, and Vespa scooters are popular for the better off, the less affluent drive Taiwanese scooters such as KYMCO or SYM.

There are hordes of motor bikes, scooters and mopeds.  As my HCMC guide said “welcome to HCMC where there are 9 million people and 6 million motor bikes”.

The bikers drive in packs, and come at you every which way. They frequently drive on the wrong side of the road (or on the side walk)  to save time. They often have huge cargoes and/or multiple passengers.

These picks will give you some idea of the motor bike/scooter chaos.