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Asian Tour 2000


BangkokHanoi | Xian | Qingdao | Seoul

Friday, June 16th 2000 

It's now (time of writing) just after 8:00pm in a travellers lodge, The Queen Cafe, on Hang Bac in Hanoi. I got here a couple of hours ago after flying 2:30 this afternoon. Had a slight panic when in the airport as I'd forgotten to leave enough Thai Baht for my airport tax. Managed to scrape it together with US$4 and changing 5000 Korean Won. The flight was okay but a little scarey on a smaller plane than I'm used to as we were taking off into thick clouds. Just a bit bumpy for a while. After landing I was amazed how easy it was to get into Viet Nam. From all I'ved heard on the internet and the guide books,it's a real hassle getting in. Apparently that all changed just a couple of months ago - luckilyfor me. Met up with an Israeli couple and a Kiwi and Australian (Paul and Peter). Peter's been working in Viet Nam on and off for six years. Paul is meeting up with a friend, Michael, and cycling around Viet nam. The five of us and a couple of Viet Namese passengers took a bus into Hanoi. The driver wanted to take us to see another hotel but we plumbed with the Lonely Planet on the Queen Cafe and it looks fine. Paul and Michael just returned from showering and stuff so in a mo I'll join them for dinner.

Sunday, June 18th 2000 

Wow! What a couple of days it's been. It's now Sunday and since I last wrote I hired a bike and just went out to see as much of Hanoi in as short a space of time as possible.
To recap:On Friday,when I got here, I ate dinner at the Queen II with Paul and Michael and during dinner met two Australians Nathan and Jackie. Funnily enough keeping true with the old formula Rob + Australians = alcohol + 1 late night. Yours truly with Nathan (left) and Jackie checking out the tiger. We set out to find a 'local' bar and after we achieved this we hit expat hell (or heaven) in the form of 'Apocolypse now', which we all agreed was a pretty tastless name for a bar, complete which the hull of an American forces helicopter fronting the DJ box, and a US gunship chopper painted on the roof above where the ceiling fan rotates. This is definitely where the young ladies of 'ill-repute' hang out. Evident enough from the repartee overheard. This was indeed a late, late night. The two guys took a ride on a motorcycle back to the Hostel and I decided to take a stroll and take some photos. One thing about Hanoi is the constant flow of taxi drivers and cyclos (cycle taxis) who are insistent you'll not find a cheaper ride. I did feel a little apprehensive at first but the feeling of the city is quite easy-going. Not a big problem. Anyway, the buildings are mostly European in appearance. This and the fact that there are very few street lights gives a feeling of pre-war France (apart from all the cyclos and lots of Asian people.) It's an incredible feeling, just as if you can step back in time.

Saturday, 17th June.
One of the first things I did (once I'd gotten up in the afternoon) was to hire a bike to get me around. Advice - If you're even the tiniest bit uneasy on a bicycle at home then don't do it in Hanoi. Hanoi is a city of sprawling and unceasing life and movement. Even when it's not rush hour - it's busy. There's a total rhythm of movement on the roads - someone's always go to be somewhere else. When riding a bike (or, it seems, any other mode of transport here) it's necessary to have a horn, a loud horn. Even at the most inconvenient time of night you'll hear the horns a-going. Next, it doesn't really matter which side of the road you should be on, there are plenty of people who are on the other side (going in what appears to be the wrong direction - but then if they get to where they're going, how can they be  wrong?) Sometimes, even it's safer to be on the 'wrong' side of the road, going in the 'wrong' direction. At least you can see what's coming your way. The next major thing is about crossing intersections without crossing lights or police. Just ride and weave. Be courteous to your fellow cyclists, scooters etc... and that courtesy will be shown back to you. Seeing the system at work here in Hanoi is just incredible. I can never imagine anything so disorganised working in the west. We westerners are just not as considerate when it comes to driving. I imagine a total newbie to Asia being plonked on a bike and being told to cross the city. This would give a whole new meaning to road-rage.

 So that's your guide for cycling - next the appearance of Hanoi. As I mentioned earlier, being a relic of French colonisation, Hanoi is a beautiful city with a European feel, right in the heart of Asia. Although it's a communist state - there's very little that suggests communism is present, save for big golden stars on red flags and the occasional propaganda billboard drawn in the style of many other communist countries and still to be seen in the former Czechoslovakia, China and East Berlin. (I'm sure there are many, many more but this is only from personal experience.) People are making money everywhere. Young guys walking the streets selling second-hand books, people - young and old - laden with lychee filled baskets suspended two at a time either side of a yoke, older people sitting by the side of the road with a bicycle foot-pump awaiting the many punctures that must befall Hanoi's cyclists, day in, day out. Even people with bathroom scales - though I can't imagine why - the Vietnamese diet is very low in fat and I've yet to see one person (okay - the second person) who we'd consider to be obese. All of this is a melee of movement. Standing pose Hanoi is a city of life,
a life unlike any other I've yet seen or experienced. It's a city that yearns, nay, cries out, to be photographed. Yet my photographic skills are as yet unable to do it justice. (Not only that but also I had the misfortune of losing a couple of rolls of film somewhere in Korea Doh!!)

 One of the first things for the average Johnny Foreigner to notice when coming to a city like Hanoi is the total difference in hygiene standards. Hanoi is the first city I've seen a grown woman walk just a few meters away from where she works to where she is relatively unnoticed, pull down her pants and just pee, not giving any consideration to the fact she's right underneath a bridge being crossed by a multitude of people on bikes. I couldn't believe it and according to Marit, from Holland, it's not an uncommon sight. Further to this, Christina, an anthropologist from California, tells me that she lives over from a park and early in the morning you can see people take their morning 'movements' (no, I'm not talking about tai chi.) According to Christina, the funniest part of that is watching the late afternoon lovers rolling in the grass. Eeeew!

 Waste of all kinds is, rather than binned, brushed from shop floors directly into the gutter, where lie open sewers. This must be so unsanitary where kids just play in the streets. Double eeeeww! Again, waste lines the rivers, and floats on the lake in Lenin Park. I went rowing on the lake on Sunday (today, time of writing) and saw no less than six dead fish, just floating on the surface. To combat this amount of uncleanliness I just take a daily 'Arret' wether I need it or not in this kind of environment. Don't know how 'good' that is for me but at least I haven't had any embarrassing incidents the last few trips.

 For once it's not me that they're looking at!
In these two photos you can see locals hanging around curiously while a tv show is being made in their street. Obviously I've no idea if the actors are well known or even famous, I'm just another bystander. It was quite funny because there were so many people that the director couldn't get the shot right and ended up yelling at the people. Well, what do you expect, filming in the middle of a busy street?

What's my motivation, lovie?

So, yesterday, Saturday, I cycled around and did a lot of observing (superficial) of city life here in Hanoi. This lasted a good few hours, after which I found a local beer-hof and restaurant and had some local Vietnamese food and local beer (Here, many will be happy to know, beer is almost as cheap as water. One bottle of local will cost about 40 - 50 pence.) Food in Vietnam is cheap, as long as you know the going rate and are not fooled by 'skin tax' - though even when you are it's still cheaper than home. Not only did I have dinner at this particular place (for around two pounds) I also got my first real lessons in Vietnamese from the staff. Unfortunately, as Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Cantonese numbers all have a similar root and sound, making them easier to learn. Vietnamese numbers however are totally different and I really haven't put in any real time to learning them. All I remember is that one is 'mot' and five is 'nam'.
Paying passage
 The following photos were taken at the Army Museum, which is where my cycling took me today. One thing to note is that the Vietnamese obviously don't call the war the Viet Nam war, but of course... the American war. One of the first things you'll see as you walk in the museum is the section dedicated to the mothers of the army - especially those with sons who lost their lives in the war. The notes under the photos of decorated old ladies are harrowing.'Lost husband and five sons' is not uncommon to see.

The museum has rooms full of pictures and personal belongings dedicated to the mothers who suffered horrors and multiple losses during the war.

A young teenager sits on a piece of  artillery outside the museum.


The Viet Namese Communist flag flies over the tower at the Army Museum


 I returned to the Queen cafe on Hang Be, met up with Jackie and Marit and had more dinner at the tandoori restaurant on Hang Be, owned by a man from Southern India. The food was really good and, again, turned out to be under five pounds each. Although I've tried calculating money here based on the US dollar I just can't get my head around working in 14's, (US$1 = 14,000 Dong) instead I've gone back to basics and worked out that 1,000 Dong is equal to approx. Five pence. For me this is great. Ten thousand Dong is 50p, VND20,000 = One pound.
To help you understand:

  • A beer in a cafe = VND8,000 = 40p
  • Today's Sweet and sour Chicken = VND19,000 = 95p
  • Coffee = VND3,000 = 15p
  • Ten minutes on the internet = VND3,000 = 15p
  • The hire of a bike for one day = VND8,000 = 40p

The only thing that throws is the US$5 per day for a room.
(All prices above are of my own experience. Should you know of cheaper then e-mail me, quick!)

After stuffing ourselves, or rather, after I stuffed myself with the dishes in front of me while Marit had already eaten, we returned to our hotels and Jackie and I headed back to the 'Apocolypse Now'. This was a return to the prices that we know. Beer = GBP2.50, doooh! We met Mina and Kaisa from Finland, here on holiday. They are really nice and I enjoyed re-aquainting myself with the Finnish sense of humour I'd gotten to know living in London.
Today, Sunday - As needs no explanation, I did get home late again, at about four in the morning. I'd arranged to see the city by bike with Jackie but seeing as I didn't awaken until about twelve thirty I figured that Jackie was long gone (I found out later that he got up 30 mins. later than I did.)
Again I took to the streets and rode around a long while, randomly. There was one point where I took a wrong turn and I guess many of the people had never seen a foreigner cycling in their neighbourhood before - judging by the look on their faces. Soon enough I chanced on Lenin Park. I hired a boat for one pound for an hour and rowed around the lake, taking photos and avoiding dead fish (as mentioned earlier.) I stayed on the lake until just before sunset (and just after snapping the right oar! - Do you know how difficult it is to row a row-boat with one oar?) then I sat and drank coconut milk from a fresh coconut and scraped out the flesh before doing a tour of the park on bike. Thus accomplished I headed for the streets and found a seafood restaurant and had sweet and sour chicken for 95p (Total bargain!) while sorting out the films I'd had developed yesterday. Then it was a long way back to to Hang Bac and Hang Be, mainly because it was dark and I couldn't easily make out street sign names. I've been in this cafe now for a couple of hours, updating this ( I do hope someone, somewhere reads it.) Tomorrow I head for the Chinese Embassy to apply for my visa for China. Now... and so to bed.

Friday June 23rd 2000 

Ay carumba! It's almost a full week since I wrote and to fill in what's happened in the last week would take about a week. Am now in Xi'an, China - got here after nearly three days of travelling (fairly constantly.) I'll try to recap.

Tuesday 20th - After taking my passport to the Chinese embassy for a rush visa, went cycling with Marit around the West lake in Hanoi. Beautiful day and sun shining - a little too much. Sunburn looks more severe than it is. Whatever you do - if you go cycling in Vietnam - stick to the main roads. You get onto a smaller road which leads to an even smaller road which leads to ... absolutely nowhere or at best someone's back garden. Sat and had lunch for a couple of hours with Marit, when she told me the 'fuller' story of why she's in Vietnam. Unfortunately for you all however she did hold me to secrecy - however should she ever go public with the story then I think I could have 'dibs' on writing it. Got back to North Central Hanoi quite late and rather than going to bed I decided to go hit Apocolypse Now just one last time. Really shouldn't have bothered however because...

Wednesday 21st - up pretty late and rushed to get to Chinese embassy before it closed. Thought that the poor old guy on the cyclo that I took was going to have a cardiac. Thanked him profusely after he dropped me at the station. Sat around for two hours in a cafe waiting for my train at 1400hrs, and started to read the Sorrow of War by a N.Vietnamese veteran. Really interesting, if ever there's a story to be turned into a film as the book reads then this is the one. Big comparisons to be drawn to the film Catch 22. Took the train from Hanoi at 14:00 to Dong Dang, near the VN-PRC border. Got there really late (about ten at night). The trip north is fantastic and the scenery is stunning. Layered paddy fields, looking like tiers on a cake, each one a different shade of green. Lush, tropical copses, interspersed with mile upon mile of fields. Small lakes and flooded paddies with different shadeds of brown or green water depending on the amount of clay in the ground. Conical shaped hats born by people pulling strange oxen aided ploughs through the fields, in places looking like a traffic cone convention. Jagged mountainous rocks pushing dramatically through the thick, fertile yet cultivated land. A real site for sore eyes and a photographers dream - however I was the only foreigner on the train and as you can imagine all attention was focused on YT. Because I didn't want to come across as the big, rich, white tourist I left my camera where it was. Damn it hurt to do that but I thought it would be better that way.
Got to Dong Dang really late and took a motorcycle to a 'hotel' which was fine but had only the emergency light in the room. After settling in, went to a local 'bar' and had a drop of the local 'Bia Hoi' and got talking (in sorts) to the locals.

Thursday 22nd - Awoke really early and started the long walk to the border (and yes, it is a long walk). To make a long story short, caught a lift to the station with a Japanese guy, took a Seven hour train trip to Nanning then almost immediately caught a night bus to Guilin. Got to Guilin at about five in the morning.

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