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.
Saturday, 17th June.
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.
Hanoi is a city of life,
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.
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.
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.
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 - ...got 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.
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.