Wednesday, July 07, 2004

London, UK


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We’ve been back in our little flat since Sunday evening, and have been keeping busy settling in again and catching up with much missed friends. By now, I am actually beginning to feel like I’ve never been away. It’s amazing how quickly you can change and adapt to new situations. After spending the last weeks of travel looking forward to going home, I have quickly developed a healthy feeling of loss for all the amazing experiences we’ve had together over the past six months. I have no doubt that this blog along with our huge photo collection will help keep my vivid memories alive in the years to come though.

Using our diary, I calculated that in the past six months we have actually slept in 85 different beds – a considerable 27 of which were on a plane, a bus, a train or a boat! That figure fascinates me for some reason – it sort of drives home the massive distances we've covered.

Everyone inevitably asks what our favourite country was – which is a pretty tricky question to answer! If I have to choose, I’d say Chile. Simply for its beauty and environmental diversity along with an efficiency combined with a certain South American magic. It’s not so much having a favourite country as a list of favourite individual pleasures. The best things were sometimes the most simple. Like winning bingo in Spanish on a bus in Peru, swimming with dolphins, sliding down the side of an active volcano on my bum, seeing a desert for the first time, or observing national stereotypes – and finding them to be true!

Perversely, I’ve noticed that many of the things I will remember most fondly are things that scared me, or that I didn’t enjoy so much at the time. For example I was terrified sliding down the volcano, and the bus through the Atacama Desert was a long, hot and tiring journey. Travelling has definitely taught me the importance of pushing yourself – reaching beyond your grasp as they say!

Other than that, I’m not sure how to define what I have or haven’t learnt from the travelling experience, other than hardened taxi fare negotiation skills! We saw so much and did so much, but if anything, the experience has made me appreciate how much more there is to learn and see. I think that one of the most valuable things about travelling is not what you actually see and do while you’re away, but how it will open you up to the possibilities of learning about, or visiting places in the future. It is like building connections with different parts of the globe – widening your sphere of awareness.

As for how it feels to be back home in wealthy, healthy, comfortable, temperate, clean, creepy crawly-free Northern Europe? Well I certainly appreciate home comforts!!

TS Eliot put it more succinctly than I ever could:
“The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time�.


Monday, July 05, 2004

London, UK

We're home! After two hot and shopping-intensive days in Bangkok we flew out just after midnight on Friday night and got into London twelve hours later at 6am London-time. Our first impressions on walking out of Heathrow’s terminal 4 were of the light and the early-morning warmth of the sun. The pleasant warm summer light in the UK and Ireland doesn't get enough good press as far as I'm concerned. It was actually a delight after being under the almost oppressive intensity of the sun in the tropics for the past few months. In fact, I don't think we've been anywhere as temperate since we left New Zealand back in April. And my record of six weeks without wearing shoes has not been breached yet despite this being our third day back in the country. Long live sandals!

Our first weekend back was taken up with catching up on the preparations for Dave & Trudy's wedding in August and corresponding stag and hen nights in the coming weeks, catching up with other friends and, since yesterday, taking our flat back from our tenants. The tenants took great care of the flat and the only hiccups so far have been a broken vase and a series of phonecalls with the gas company about some unpaid bills.

Bangkok was a great place to finish our travels. It’s a big city full of contrasts: you see tremendous wealth and expensive shops side-by-side with poverty and cheap roadside stalls roasting such strong chilis for their menus that you it catches you in the throat when you walk past. The city has lots of traffic and pollution flying past peaceful and ornate wats (Thai Buddhist temples) and its first underground line was about to start the day after we left. Other than the degree of wealth, what is different about Bangkok versus the cities in Vietnam and Cambodia is that Bangkok’s wealth does not sit with foreigners but with the local population. Thailand did very well in the 90’s and has now paid back most of the IMF loans it received in 1999 when the Asian Tiger bubble burst. And the country is doing well by the looks of things, despite what seems like a strong hold on the organs of power held by the military, some political violence and a fair deal of cronyism and corruption in the government.

Another reason for it being a good place to finish up, besides the multiple daily direct flights to Heathrow, was the wall-to-wall commercialism and the ability to buy ripoff versions of anything from Sony MP3 players to Diesel jeans, Nike trainers, CDs and DVDs, all the way to student cards and driving licences. But if you wanted to, you can buy the real thing as the shops in the more expensive shopping centres sell them too. I guess enough Thais must not want to buy the fakes and are willing to pay ten times more for the real thing.

We spent most of Friday escaping from the heat by walking through various air-conditioned shopping malls, one of which, MBK or Mah-Boon-Krong, is seven-stories of capitalism at its most extreme. A cross between a shopping centre from Minority Report (it has a massive LCD flat screen at one end blaring out the latest movie trailers) and Dublin’s Northside shopping centre (not exactly the classiest place to shop in Dublin). MBK’s third floor, which itself must have going on 10,000 square feet of retail space, seems to be totally made up of mobile phone shops. And like elsewhere in Thailand, very few goods have any prices on them, signalling that the price is up for negotiation. However when we reached the 200% of budget mark we decided to call it a day and adjourn to watch Spiderman 2 in the cinema. Bangkok cinemas are pretty cool; there are typically a few classes of luxury available with the more expensive tickets giving you a private home-cinema-style viewing room, and in the main theatres there is a mandatory national anthem paid replete with glossy animated images of the king for which all members of the audience must stand. It reminded me of the way Irish discos used to play the national anthem at the end of the night except this was far more respectful. (I think it’s actually a crime to do anything in Thailand which shows disrespect the royalty.)

And so back to life as normal. I’ve got a call from work already offering me a role on a project (I think a friend’s email organising a few drinks tonight let the cat out of the bag to the partners) but before I start back to work there’s no shortage of stuff to be done. Putting your life on hold for six months means a lot of work in restarting it too. Even once the boxes and half-unpacked bags which are littered around me are tidied up there’s no end of subscriptions and contracts to be renewed and restarted. But it was a good adventure while it lasted!


Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Pai, Thailand

After a quick bus ride we've returned to Pai today, the town from which we started our two-day rafting trip on Saturday morning. We spent last night at Sappong, a small town an hour from here which seemed little more than a strip development along the side of the highway, albeit one with more than its fair share of army checkpoints. (The highway that the town is built on is apparently an artery for Burmese people- and drugs-smuggling.) Like most places in Thailand, perhaps with the exceptions of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it was evident that we had arrived in Sappong very much off-season. There wasn't much going on other than the local market and our guesthouse was near empty. Our main reason for stopping there at all was to try some caving with the people at Cave Lodge but in the end we settled for a two-hour kayaking trip ten minutes of which was spent paddling through the local Tham Lod cave. This was all very enjoyable apart from one hair-raising moment when I almost got sucked out of the main cavern in Tham Lod into a fast-flowing torrent heading God knows where which left Muireann shaken but me (perhaps due to an insufficient understanding of how dangerous it was or wasn't) pretty wet but still smiling! This coupled with a half-hour trip each way from the village to Cave Lodge on a rented 125cc scooter which I loved (and Muireann hated) has given me my fill of adrenaline for the week I think!

Interestingly, internet access was still cheap and plentiful even in out-of-the-way Sappong. You could even hear the gibbons hooting in the distance in the forest when the keyboard keys stopped tapping. Internet access has actually been plentiful and cheap everywhere we've been over the past six months with the exception, somewhat ironically, of when we were in the USA. Our best guess as to why this should be so is that PC ownership must be so high there that there isn't really the need to provide internet cafes for locals. In most other countries kids are just lining up to play online shoot-em-ups in the net cafes.

We're heading on to Chiang Mai tomorrow and then catching a sleeper train back down to Bangkok to do a bit of last-minute sightseeing and shopping before our flight home on Friday night. This particular sleeper train, while certainly comfortable, is now only marginally cheaper than the Chiang Mai-Bangkok flights on offer from the new Thai low cost airlines. These airlines have been springing up of late thanks to favourable Thai government policies due, some cynics might say, to billionaire prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's own company's stake in one such airline.


Monday, June 28, 2004

Mae Hong Son, Thailand

We have less than a week to go now, and I have to say the temtation to just sit and do nothing is pretty strong! However, that's a big waste of time when there’s so much to see and do here, so we've been going out of our way to organise some activities that will motivate us to make the most of our last few days of freedom!

Once we finished up our respective cookery and jewelry courses in Chiang Mai, we took a minibus up to a small town called Pai in the highlands of northwest Thailand, towards the border with Myanmar. We’ve endured some pretty dodgy bus journeys over the last 6 months, but I have to say this was one of the worst! In general the rules and condition of the roads in Thailand are far better than in Vietnam and Cambodia, but unfortunatey our driver (who looked about 17!) had some serious Michael Schumacher ambitions. The road was extremely curvy and steep, which allowed the driver the crazy pleasure of taking all the bends wide – Formula 1 style. Paul and I were probably the oldest people in the minibus, and we actually ended up shouting "SLOW DOWN!!" from the backseat of the minibus like two old fogeys. It was worth it to try to stay alive, but I was a bit embarassed afterwards, especially as the little brat only slowed down until the next straight downhill stretch, and then picked up speed as if to make up for lost time!

Pai itself is a nice trekking town, but is amazingly touristy for its small size. As with elsewhere the tourist dollars have changed what must once have been a rustic village into a town of guesthouses, bars, massage parlours (these ones probably don't offer the special services on offer in bigger towns), and coffee shops.

Anyway, from Pai we headed off on a 2 day/1 night rafting trip down the Pai river. We really enjoyed the rafting we’d done in New Zealand, and were eager to have another go before heading home. Our group was made up of four French people, who were great fun – but in the other boat, and in our boat an American dad with his precocious 11- and 14- year-old boys. The dad was divorced and we had to witness a cringeworthy amount of “male bonding� and “quality time� fun and frolics for the entire trip. At times I felt like I was in some sort of nightmare manifestation of Groundhog Day crossed with National Lampoon's Summer Vacation!

Other than that though, the 60km trip was great fun and worthwhile – even if the water levels were so low that at times it was more like punting than rafting! We camped out in the jungle (mostly made up of beautiful teak trees and date trees) over night, and fell asleep (or tried to!) to the sounds of monkeys calling to each other in the distance. Apparently there are tigers out there too, but we didn’t see any and I’m guessing they have been hunted close to extinction by now. We were in such a remote spot that civilisation was a 3 day walk away, with no roads or other “escape routes�. Pretty scary when you have to put all your faith in a rubber dingy…

The trip finished in Mae Hong Son, where we’ve just spent the night. It’s a really beautiful and peaceful town built around a lake and surrounded by vegetation-covered mountains in every direction. Think of Switzerland, but switch the pine trees for palm trees and you’ll get the picture. We’re now only about 30km from Myanmar, and the Burmese influences can be seen everywhere, from the architecture (lots of A-frame roofs stacked on top of each other in descending size like wedding cakes), food and the population’s ethnic origins. In fact, I think the pleasure of seeing one country morph into another when approaching land borders has been one of the most interesting things about travelling. I suppose my fascination with this probably comes from having lived on islands all my life!

We’re heading back down towards Chiang Mai today, with a two night stop in Soppong en route, where we’ll hopefully do some caving tomorrow. Then it’s an overnight train to Bangkok on Wednesday night, where we’ll have two days to do some last minute shopping and to enjoy the nightlife, before heading back to London on Friday night, arriving Saturday morning. I can hardly believe that this trip of a lifetime is coming to an end and that we’re almost back to reality. I have to confess that I'm really looking forward to sleeping in my own bed though – we must have sampled at least 90 different beds over the past 6 months - most of them less than comfortable!


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Chiang Mai, Thailand

We're into the final countdown now - only a week and a half left before our flight home. We rebooked our flight yesterday and are already envisaging a 7am trip on the London Underground to our friends' flat in Putney (long enough to read most of the Guardian!) after we land in Heathrow on July 3rd. The novelty of being home may wear off quickly but for now anyway we're quite looking foward to it.

We returned to Thailand last Thursday, spent two nights in Bangkok, and then travelled up here to northern Thailand on a comfortable overnight sleeper train. Being back in Bangkok was a different experience to when we'd last been there a month previously. After the all the hassling and scamming of Vietnam we were well-prepared for the less agressive tactics in Bangkok and laid in to more than one taxi driver who tried to take advange of us. The weather was also far more tolerable now that the rainy season has well and truly set in, the only problem being the unpredictable and sudden torrential downpours which strike a few times a day. The signs of this are easy to spot once you've been soaked once or twice: the skies will cloud over, gusts of wind will whip up very quickly, and then as heavier drops start to fall you'll realise that you can't see the end of street because of the rapidly approaching sheeting rain. This last sign is your 5-second warning, the prompt to dive for the nearest awning or doorway to wait out the 5-10 minute deluge.

Our trip into Bangkok was a dawn-til-dusk affair, even though the distances involved meant that the ground could have been covered in a one hour flight. The road on the Cambodian side, an arterial route between major Cambodian cities and the Thai border crossing, was unsealed and very rough, the border crossing process tedious and slow, and then once on the Thai side of the border we had to hang around for several hours while mechanics tinkered with the bus that was meant to bring us the 4-hour trip to Bangkok. What topped all this off for Muireann was that I accidentally dropped her rucksack in a gutter of foul-smelling matter when we were getting off the bus in Bangkok, the foul smell following her around for the next few days!

The border crossing at Poipet, like the one from Vietnam into Cambodia at Chau Doc, is plagued with beggars, many of them badly mutilated and others with horrific birth deformities I'd never seen before, presumably ones which are treated quickly and early in the West. The percentage of people in the general population in southern Vietnam and Cambodia with visible mutilations is shocking too, a reminder of the effect of so many decades of war in this region.

Our first full day here in Chiang Mai was taken up with a cookery course, cookery classes being one of the tourist industries for which Chiang Mai is best-known for and one which has plenty of competition here in town. We cooked five dishes including pad thai and green curry, which Muireann has promised to serve up nightly when I'm back at work and she's job hunting!

We were going to look into doing some courses today (jewelry for Muireann, and photography for me) but our plans came unstuck after we stayed up til 4am watching the England v Croatia Euro 2004 match. The late night, coupled with a hellish hangover, put paid to those plans but we'll probably look into trying them tomorrow instead.

Even though last night's match was primarily watched by British tourists, we have been taken aback at how big European soccer is here. Even down in Koh Tao bars were full of Thais watching live premiership matches, and throughout Vietnam local shops had the Euro 2004 schedule of matches hanging on the wall. And as also happens in the UK, premiership soccer players are megastars here too. Throughout the past six months Muireann and I have played a game in each new country we arrived in to see how many minutes it takes to see our first David Beckham poster. It usually doesn't take more than 30 minutes. In addition to the ubiquitous Pepsi adverts, he also appears on boxes of almonds in Hong Kong and Castrol oil posters in Vietnam. What is more, the first reaction of many Thais and Vietnamese to finding out that we are Irish (everybody, but everybody in South-East Asia knows enough English to say "wherre u phrrom?") is to say "ah! Damien Duff!".


Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Latest pictures:

Ronan, Hilary, Muireann and myself at Banteay Srei, one of the northern temples in Angkor:

A smiling face looks down from the entrace gate to Ta Prohm, another of the Angkor temples:

Muireann gets rowed through the Mekong Delta:

More to be seen in the "Vietnam & Cambodia" folder on

Siam Reap, Cambodia

The temples of Angkor, about 6km from Siam Reap were built between the 9th and 14th centuries AD, and the group is one of the great architectural wonders of the modern world. The site covers an area of 170 square miles and is usually generically referred to as Angkor Wat - but that is actually just the name of the most famous of the temples.

When London was not much more than a ramshackle town of around 50,000 inhabitants, the region around the magnificent temples of Angkor is said to have supported over one million citizens of the mighty Khmer empire. Throughout the centuries the temples were hidden by the lush jungle growth that surrounds them, and were reportedly "discovered" by the Frenchman Henri Mahout in 1860.

Approaching the area from a distance the temples are majestic and elegant, close up they are incredibly intricate, with every available surface delicately carved to portray a myriad of religious meaning and symbolism. As with Machu Picchu in Peru and the Egyptian pyramids, visitors wander around in awe, not quite able to conceive how such a project might have been completed without the aid of modern machinery. Incidentally, it took only 38 years to complete Angkor Wat - compare that to a similarly ambitious and beautiful project: Gaudi's cathedral in Barcelona. Construction began on the cathedral in 1882 and it's still not expected to be finished for another 80 years. It's amazing what a bit of old-fashioned elbow grease can do!

The Khmer empire's extraordinary era begin with the reign of King Jayavarman II (who built Angkor Wat) and peaked during the later reign of King Jayavarman VII, who undertook a huge number of temple projects and an ambitious public-works programme. However, the empire went into decline after the death of Jayavarman VII in around 1219, as his over-zealous building projects had actually seriously weakened the local population.

Our stay here in Siam Reap has luckily overlapped with with Ronan and Hilary's visit (friends from home who are also travelling), and the four of us chipped in to hire a guide to take us around the temples for two days. Normally I'm pretty skeptical about guides, but this gentleman was really worth hiring (his name is Nok Kachhel, so if anyone heading to Siam Reap would like his email address just let me know!). Apart from his incredible knowledge of the temples, Kachhel also had fascinating and moving stories about his experiences during the 1975-79 campaign of terror. We would have appreciated the temples visually if we had just wandered around by ourselves, but seeing them through Kachhel's eyes also helped us to understand so much more about the meaning and history behind them.

One quirk I particularly enjoyed learning about was the alteration of many of the carvings on the temples, to keep them in line with the different religions of each new King. Up until Jayavarman VII, the temples were built in honour of Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu. However, Jayavarman VII adopted Mahayana Buddhism - a move thought by many historians to have been a purely populist decision, as Buddhism already enjoyed popular support amongst his subjects! After his death the state religion reverted to Hinduism for another century or so, and many of the Buddhist sculptures adorning Jayavarman VII's temples were destroyed or converted into Hindu iconography. It is pretty amazing to examine how former stone Buddahs can still be identified beneath their metamorphosis into Shiva.

Practically every visitor to Cambodia visits Angkor Wat, and the tourism resulting from the area's increase in popularity could easily be described as the greatest hope for rebuilding this financially and emotionally broken country.

After so many years living amongst complete destruction and evil it is unbelievable how hospitable, kind and gentle the Cambodian people are. During the day in Siam Reap, having lunch in the trendy cafes, it is easy to forget how corrupt and broken the country remains. It is easier to see the problems after dark however. Around Siam Reap and Phonm Penh there are a tragic number of signs offering what are locally referred to "Boom-boom massages" - to the extent that each time Paul walks anywhere without me he gets propositioned! It is even more disturbing to learn that the World Health Organisation estimates that up to 33.2% of Cambodian sex workers have HIV/AIDS - a fact which is no doubt contributing to the horribly high figures of child prostitution here. Thankfully however, a number of western countries (including the US, UK, Australia, France Germany) have introduced leglistation whereby child-abuse offenders caught in Cambodia will be prosecuted in their own countries. There are even billboards on the streets advertising this law in Phnom Penh.

We also met some New Zealand expats working for NGOs here who told us about the dreadful state of the public school system. Apparently the schools are so over-crowded that children attend in two shifts (morning and afternoon), and as the teachers only earn $30 a month, they will refuse to teach unless each child brings money every day to supplement their paltry salaries.

Tomorrow we're going to head over the Thai border to Bangkok, as we have decided to skip Laos for two main reasons. Firstly, we don't really have enough time to visit the country without spending 40% of our days there travelling, and secondly, the wet monsoon season has very much arrived. We had to wade through floods of knee-deep water one the day we arrived in Siam Reap, and the roads in Laos are said to be even worse!

Friday, June 11, 2004

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

We arrived yesterday into Phnom Penh after a rather long and hot journey up the Mekong from the Chau Doc border crossing and, after 24 hours here now, are finding Phnom Penh pleasantly less aggressive and frantic than almost everywhere in Vietnam. Pretty much every transaction is still up for negotiation but life seems to run a little bit slower here.

Last night was taken up with dinner and a fair few drinks with our group from the Mekong Delta trip. Most groups of randomly-thrown-together travellers will naturally have a certain international element to them - there are always plenty of Australian, British, Swedish and Canadians travellers - but for some reason there is a disproportionately high number of Irish here in South-East Asia. And as always happens when a few Irish people get together, they find out that they have half a dozen friends and aquaintances in common. One of the Irish girls in our group knew one of my best friends from college, a few of Muireann's friends from college and some guys who were the year before me in secondary school. As if that wasn't enough, we then actually met a friend of hers who she'd met in Nepal who was in the year behind me in secondary school and lived on the road beside my family's in Dublin and his friend who works for the same company as I did when I lived in Dublin.

Today has largely been spent touring the museums to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. I didn't know much about that period of Cambodian history, or world history rather, until a few weeks ago when I read First They Killed My Father, a five-year old's first hand account of what happened to her and her family during '75 to '79, but here's the short & sweet of it:

1. The Khmer Rouge wanted to bring Cambodia back to being a rural society, and so expelled everybody from the cities to make them work in rice fields and on the land;

2. They blamed foreign influences for introducing moral and financial corruption into Cambodia and expelled all foreigners from the country and sealed all borders;

3. Over the course of four years ('75 to '79) they reduced the population of Cambodia from 7 million to 5 million - many died from starvation during an unnecessary famine, others from disease and execution;

4. Everything mechanical was banned except for guns and trucks. Money was also abolished;

5. Total loyalty was required to the "Angkar" ("the organisation") and to Pol Pot, the leader of the Angkar in particular - the penalty for disobedience or suspicion of disobedience was typically execution;

6. Anybody who was associated to the previous regime of Lon Nol was executed, as was anybody who was educated - e.g. lawyers, doctors, teachers - as it was feared that the educated classes might rise up against the Khmer Rouge. Entire families of anyone suspected of potential opposition to the regime were executed in case surviving family members, no matter how young, could oppose the regime following the killing of a loved one. All people with glasses were also executed as glasses were considered a sign of education;

7. The Khmer Rouge came to power following a bloody civil war and gained support through the killing and displacement of hundreds of thousands of rural Cambodians following the fairly indiscriminate US bombing campaigns in 1970 and '73;

8. The regime was eventually ended by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979 when the Vietnamese tired of attacks by the Khmer Rouge on their borders, a symptom of the Cambodians' ardent xenophobia and paranoia.

The sights we visted today were the S21 interrogation (read: torture) centre in central Phnom Penh and the Choung Ek "killing fields" about 15km outside the city. The killing fields themselves are a hectare or two of a hundred or so small pits - mass graves - and are notable for the scraps of clothing, fragments of bone and scattered teeth which litter the area, sticking out of the ground here and there. 20,000 people were brought to Choung Ek during the four-year reign of terror, typically following three to six months of torture in S21 which had been a secondary school before 1975. Perhaps the most horrifying realisation of the day for me was that the interrogators/torturers in S21 were mainly 13- and 14-year olds.

Seeing the monuments to such evil is harrowing and breath-taking. All you can take away from it is that evil begets more evil. And it makes me even more furious and sad at how my taxes are being spent funding an evil war in Iraq.

We plan to spend tomorrow seeing the less harrowing sights that Phnom Penh has to offer and then travel up to Siam Reap and Angkor Wat on Sunday, hopefully by boat.


Monday, June 07, 2004

Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam

Latest pictures:

Intricate Champa carvings at what remains of My Son:

Scooters fly past in Hanoi:

(There are of course a few more new pictures in the "HK & Vietnam" folder at

We arrived in HCMC (known to the world as Saigon before April 1975) the day before yesterday after a comfortable, hour-long poshpacker flight down from Danang, and have since been taking in the sights and sounds of Vietnam's biggest city. A city of 9 million people and 3 million scooters is a busy place, but the city centre of HCMC is quite walkable. All the sights are here including The Continental hotel, perhaps most famous for Graham Greene's quote about the (American) "noisy bastards at the Continental" who stayed there during the Franco-Viet Minh war. (In truth, over the past five months we have found that Americans - through no fault of their own - are indeed the loudest of all nationalities, the people you can be guaranteed whose conversation you will hear from 10 rows away in the bus!)

The city is also notable for some harrowing war museums where, as elsewhere in Vietnam, history has been written by the victor. One of the museums here however, the War Remnants museum, has perhaps been the least one-sided as it shows the world press's photos of what the Western troops had to endure as well as the torture and oppression of the Vietnamese civilians (often by Southern Vietnamese forces). The story of whatever evil-doings were perpetrated by the forces loyal to Ho Chi Minh, however, is not told anywhere here, and nor will it be under the current political climate.

Speaking of being noisy, we had a great time the night before we left Hoi An in a Vietnamese karaoke bar, which was really just someone's front room into which they'd inserted some sound-proof polystyrene partitions, a TV/stereo karaoke system and a cheesy rotating disco ball. But it was GREAT fun! We had hooked up with an Australian teacher, two Canadians teaching English in South Korea, an English doctor and a newly-graduated English engineer and spent the evening shouting our lungs out, or at least until 11.30pm when the bar shut down. Under "social evil" legislation in Vietnam, pubs and karaoke bars are not allowed to stay open til all hours, but that's probably no bad thing, especially when you consider the songs we sang included "Friends in Low Places" and "I'm Too Sexy".

Interestingly, although Vietnam has legislated and enforced laws on "social evils" either its legislation or, perhaps more likely, its enforcement of intellectual property and copyright is really poor. Across South-East Asia you will be able to buy photocopies of many bestselling books (everybody seems to be reading "Stupid White Men" for example) and blatantly pirated CDs and DVDs on open sale, but in Vietnam this problem is also attacking Vietnamese businesses. Across the country successful travel agencies with English names, notably those which have made it into the very powerful Lonely Planet guide, are having their name, logo and slogan pirated by other businesses in the same town in a brazen attempt to siphon off some business from the original company. The only way for a tourist to tell which is the real McCoy is to compare the name and street address against that given in the guidebook - crazy really.

Our Vietnamese adventure is coming to a close now anyway. We will be departing HCMC for a 2 day/1 night Mekong Delta tour tomorrow morning which will get us up the Mekong and across the Cambodian border into Phnom Penh by Thursday evening.

April 1975, only six months before I was born, was a big month for Cambodia as well as Vietnam. Not only was April 1975 the month of Vietnamese reunification, but it was also the month that the insane Khmer Rouge regime took power in Cambodia, the start of a 4-year nightmare for that country.


Friday, June 04, 2004

Hoi An, Vietscam

I will never again complain about the mini-cab touts who approach you at the entrance to Clapham Junction station! Hoi An, like the rest of Vietnam (or Vietscam, as is more appropriate) easily has its fair share of motorbike-taxi drivers begging for your business. Times are tough, and the low-earning Vietnamese are desperate to have your money. They are incredibly hard working people - even the post-office stays open until 10pm. All day long people shout at you from their stalls asking you to buy from them. Some even cross roads to talk to you - almost always shouting "Hey, where you from? How long you in Vietnam?" before plunging in for the hard sell. Every sort of entrepreneurial opportunity is exploited. We've even seen people walking around with electronic talking weighing machines - though I can hardly imagine how that could pay the bills in a land of skinny people!

In a country where even the poorest of the poor have to pay to attend primary school it is no surprise that many kids spend much of their time selling on the streets. Most of them are amazingly street-smart and even introduce a "happy hour" on their postcard sales! I've seen some be really persistent and invasive, but they always seem to take "no" for an answer from me. I reckon it must be the primary school teaching in my genes!
I have to confess, it will feel great to walk down Oxford Street without people running out of the shops to try to get you to buy!

In spite of what I've said above, Hoi An is actually a particularly prosperous town. Its UNESCO protected town center and its glut of cheap quality tailors has resulted in serious foreign investment and an above-average spend here by foreign tourists. There are lots of great cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels and a distinctively trendy ex-pat influence can be seen in many of these. For obvious reasons, interior design hasn't been high on the list of many Vietnamese businesses over the past few decades!

Not all the best businesses are run by ex-pats though. One of our best Vietnamese experiences was at the Red Bridge Cookery School, which is run by a local gentleman named Hai, who also runs the Hai Cafe in the centre of the town. The courses take place in the beautiful Red Bridge Restaurant, a short boat ride out of town. The setting is simple, contemporary and very trendy. From the moment you walk in you have no doubt that you're in for a quality experience. The class is half demonstration (it's like being on Ready Steady Cook!) and the other half is hands on. We got to make our own spring rolls and Hoi An pancakes, and also managed to make fools of ourselves trying to turn tomatoes into roses in the food decoration section. Of course the best bit was sitting down afterwards to eat the fantastic food that the real chefs had prepared. Unlike the other outings we've paid for in Vietnam, this one was worth every penny. Hai was professional, entertaining and talented - and we left feeling like we'd been given a lot more than we'd paid for. If Vietnam's entrepreneurs offered more experiences like this one which highlight the country's best points, and fewer where you feel scammed, our overall impression of the country would be so much better.

We were also lucky enough to be in town for the monthly "Hoi An Legendary Night" that takes place on the 14th day of every Lunar month. It was a really magical experience watching the processions and celebrations take place amongst the lantern-lit narrow streets and passageways. There was also a spectacular martial-arts demonstration by some of the local children. Seriously, anyone of them could have been an extra on Kill Bill!

Yesterday took us on a trip to My Son, which was a major holy city of the ancient Champa kingdom - similar to Ankor in Cambodia or Ayuthaya in Thailand. Unfortunately the 1000-year-old site was used as a base by the Viet Cong during the war and was consequently bombed into oblivion by the Americans. Only a few ruins remain amidst the bullet holes and overgrown 10m-wide bomb craters. My Son was clearly spectacular before the American War but is now mostly piles of bricks with intricate carvings here and there. Ironically, you travel around the site in refurbished US Marine Corp Jeeps!

So we're finally going to force ourselves to leave Hoi An on Sunday. It really is the loveliest place we've seen in Vietnam so far. We're going to take a flight down to Saigon, because the sleeper trains are all full-up for the next few days. I know many would accuse us of being "Posh-Packers" for not taking the ridiculously cheap bus (you can travel the length of the country for US$15) but we both find the roads here far too scary and treacherous to even consider a 17-hour overnight bus journey!


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