Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rain, rain go away!

And here we are again. Six months later. Well almost seven actually... and nary a blog post in between. I shan't even try to make excuses as really there just aren't any to be made, I've just been hopelessly lazy, so there. So, what's up in Shanghai? Well, summer seems to have arrived with a vengeance after a few weeks of the usual plum rains that were unusual in the fact that this year there was hardly any sun in between the torrential downpours, just grayness and gloom. Though I shouldn't complain as despite the occasional few inches of water on the streets in some minor flash flooding we escaped the flooding in Zhejiang, which really is just down the road.

We did have one close encounter with the very wet weather in the countryside last month when we headed to Moganshan for Flo to indulge in his new favorite hobby. Triathlons. It was Dragon Boat Festival weekend (for more about that look here) and no longer content with just running  or biking insanely long distances, he's now thrown swimming into the mix (and doing pretty well consdiering he's never really swum seriously before.) Anyway, the Moganshan triathlon was an unoffcial affair organized by a lovely English gal called Tory who lives in that neck of the woods (Moganshan is about three hours' drive from Shanghai and is pretty much the first serious set of hills and greenery in any direction from this vast concrete jungle we call home.) 

It's all bamboo forests and farmers, though like everywhere the quaint villages with their lovely timber, whitewashed walls and slate tiles are gradually being eaten up by boxy buildings with swimming pool-tiled walls, blue-tinted windows and more stainless steel than should be legal anywhere. Anyway, it's a slow process but it is starting and you can't really blame them for it... when you do get a peek into one of those quaint old building it's often a bit like stepping back to the dark ages, except there might be a bare electric bulb hanging overhead, just enough to illuminate the gloomy rooms, sparse furniture (often repaired in the most inventive ways), maybe a chicken or two hopping around the kitchen counter which itself is little more that a bare slab of granite, a bucket and a greasy gas burner. With a bit of elbow work and a lot of cash these places can be cleaned up and restored and made quite charming. Or, you can let the crumble around you or knock em down and start again, (which is sadly the much cheaper and quicker option) with easy-build breeze block rooms and a bit of plaster, easy-sweep tiled floors and nice shiny tiles on the walls outside that look brand spanking new for, oh, about 6 months before getting stained with dirty rain water and slime. Nice big windows let some actual sunlight in and fluorescent bulbs to really brighten up the nights... I will never understand the preference for that sterile white lighting here, it makes everything feel like a hospital... though maybe that's just it, it's the absolute opposite of the dark and gloomy past.

View from our balcony at Mr Long's
Anyway, I was telling you about Moganshan, where we headed on a Friday night after work, bound for the little village of Biwucun where there is a great little place we discovered a few months ago through one of my colleagues and the pace of change is marginally slower despite every other house being a guest house. We stay at one of them owned by a Mr. Long, a smiling chap with a huge mustache a la Tom Selleck who has built four little cabins, each with two double rooms and shared terrace overlooking the bamboo clad hills opposite. A large courtyard in front of his home is set up with tables and chairs and if you arrive and order lunch you'll likely get a chicken that just minutes before was scratching around in the yard and bamboo shoots foraged from the forest. Unfortunately on this trip it was late and dark by the time we got there and so it was sandwiches in the car and followed by cold pasta on arrival... when your'e running/swimming/biking a total of about 60 km the next day you need some slow-burning fuel to keep you going!

We woke in the morning to the rain absolutely hammering down. It barely stopped all day but with a good poncho and a positive attitude as a spectator it was actually a lot of fun. There were about 40 people taking part (less than were registered but a number of people dropped out of the biking as it was slippery and wet, particularly for road bikes. Flo had his mountain bike which was a blessing in disguise. Our friend Kennon who was there had decided not to bike for that very same reason... a blessing in disguise for me as he'd driven down in his company car, which came complete with mini screens and a DVD player in the back so we stayed out of the rain for an hour while Flo was pumping his way through 40 or so  kilometers' worth of blinding rain while we watched Apocalypse Now). The start point and transition area was three tents made out of arched bamboo poles and tarpaulins in a very wet field that quickly had about 3 inches of water flowing around it, as mud sucked at my flip-flops and splashed up my legs. I have to say I was the envy of the rest of the crew with my poncho... it may not have been very stylish but it sure as hell kept everything from mid thigh up totally dry (though the rest of me was drenched.)

Swimmers ready!
Swim, done!
Biking, wet!
Running: Muddy!
Finished: Yay!
It may sound like a bit of a nightmare but it was actually a lot of fun and the other people involved were really cool, plus it's always good to be out in the open air, even if it's sopping wet! By the time we made our way back to Biwucun and Mr Long's it was dark and we had a post-celebratory barbecue date with a very stinky Camembert, a bottle of red wine and our little terrace. The terrace was covered so, heck, it didn't matter that it was still pissing down.

See the insect whirlwind?!
Sadly it was not to be. You know those days in England when the flying ants decide to hatch and head out en masse to find new homes? This was the Moganshan version. Probably triggered by the rain and the warm weather, this was the one day of the year that all the litte beasties set out on their adventures, and with no other lights around, they all congregated on our porch. It started out with just a few of them that we batted away without thinking, but after about ten minutes there was a seething mass circling the column of white light like a whirlwind and yet more coated the walls. We de-camp to the courtyard where we could sit in the dark away from the insects and watched with wonder as they massed around a single lamp that shone outside, several meters away, as all the neighborhood frogs and toads (of which there are many) came out to munch on the flying feast, their tongues flashing out and with a surprising loud "thhsp," whipping their prey in to their big, warty mouths.

Happy toad

Another happy toad... with yummy bamboo shoots and
bottle of red on Sunday.
After a bout of frog watching it was time for bed and when we woke, the rains had stopped and though the skies were still leaden and low we managed to get out for a run. We'd planned to stay another night but with the rain forecast to return again in the afternoon, we packed our bags and headed back to Shanghai where it was also raining, but at least we'd have the comforts of home.

Moganshan was actually the second triathlon experience, the first being the shorter (and rather sunnier) NanjingMan in--you guessed it--Nanjing the previous month. Less adventurous, this was based round the Sofitel sits on the on the side of the city that is basically a huge park and for some reason we got an upgrade to a room with a ridiculous terrace with a view over the golf course. It was great! (Apologies if anyone reading this are any of the 2-3 dedicated China Travel Blog readers, bits of this will have been familiar... if you aren't part of that esteemed and elite group and and you'd like, you can check out the more detailed versions in a Tale of two triathlons.)

Flo is actually off biking as I type... well actually he left at 6am this morning and now it almost 9am so he's probably well into his 100 km ride by now. This is the start of his "serious" training for a half Ironman in Taiwan in the autumn (something along the lines of 3km swim, 100km bike and 20 km run). As for me, I'm still capoeira-ing once or twice a week with the occasional run thrown in but city running is hot and polluted these days and our gym didn't think to put in A/C. Being in the basement with a swimming pool it gets pretty stuffy and full of hot sweaty men working out with their tops off, sweating all over machines that never get cleaned--not really appealing.

What else, what else? It was the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party here yesterday though I can't say I really noticed anything special going on around here. There were certainly billboards announcing the fact for the past few weeks and the blackboard in our lane was decorated with the hammer and sickle and the TV on the metro was broadcasting a "Red" concert of bellowing revolutionary songs. Now, if only they'd have staged the Red Olympics here that would have been something to see!

This is actually the ceiling I just can't make the picture
turn the right way round.
Our neighbors have been doing some home improvements, tag teaming to have the two floors below under construction for two months followed by the upstairs floor gutting the place within a few days of them finishing so it's pretty noisy and dusty here and we've ended up with a big hole in our ceiling (and also had one in the floor that has been messily filled with cement. The one in the ceiling is staying til they've done as much damage as possible and then they'll fix everything at once. Welcome to home improvements with Chinese characteristics). We were actually thinking about moving and trying to find a similar place with a bit more space and a terrace but have realized quite how much the property prices have increased in our area... when we tell the real estate agents what we are looking for and our budget they pretty much call us crazy and tell us to stay where we are. We have seen a few places that we've liked but for twice as much it's not really worth it so we'll stay put for now.

Speaking of staying put, or not actually, it feels like a lot of people are leaving at the moment and we've had three leaving dos in as many weeks... it's always sad to see people go. We'll actually be heading back ourselves for a few weeks (though only temporarily) in August--tickets still not bought, sorry mum, I know I'm not s'posed to leave these things to the last minute--but we hope to see as many of you as possible! For now though it's time to sign off and go and get a very cold drink to refresh my summer brain-melt as the rains have indeed gone away and the 38 degree sun is here. Pheeew, hand me the ice cubes!

Lots of love from Shanghers and see y'all soon xxx

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crimble and capoeira

So. I was going to write a big fat post but after having farted about with the last one that I never posted, the internet being painfully slow, the VPN not playing nice and me being far too easily distracted, that doesn't seem to be happening too quickly.

Anyway, since last writing, the Expo is finally over and the pavilions being ripped to pieces and carted off to god-knows-where, and there's a whole army of Haibaos with no place to go. Money well spent to be sure. The day after it finished, pollution shot up. There was a strange haze in the air and it seems someone somewhere flipped a switch and sent out the call for all construction to begin again with haste, and make up for the last 6 months' worth of sitting idle.

Flo did the Shanghai marathon last weekend and despite an injured foot managed to do it in a very reasonable 4.20. It was almost as difficult trying to go and watch it as it was running it! No strike that. It's obviously a lie but it was a pain in the butt... a terrible map, my shocking orientation skills and absolute anarchy at the finish line meant I didn't manage to see him until the 41st kilometer which wasn't very supportive though I had spent the last three hours trying to get to where he'd be, only to miss him by a matter of minutes each time! I did pretend that I was going to do the half for a while but while Flo was out of action after (yet another) kitesurfing injury I wasn't feeling very motivated and I rediscovered caopeira instead. It's been a mighty long time since I ginga'ed and I'm ashamed to say I have forgotten almost everything I knew and am back to beginners classes again. After 6 or so weeks it is starting to come back but I'm also 5 years older and even less flexible than ever. It's a great group though and there are still familiar faces from the original capoeira crew from way back when and the early days in Shanghai when I used to occasionally rock up and roll around on the grass in Luxun Park with the motley crew of wannabe capoeristas, all in thrall to Simon of the dreads, the most advanced among us. These days Simon's moved on, had a haircut and wears a suit somewhere else in the world and it's a far more organized affair, conveniently on my way home from work and, well, I just don't go out much anymore so I have a lot more time to have a hobby.

Work is fine is work is work. Not much to say really, go have a nose round if you feel like like seeing what it's all about. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat, and I can't wait to be home now. As soon as it gets to the point when there's less than ten days to go, it gets a whole lot harder to concentrate on what's at hand over here. Christmas shopping is (mostly) done, Flo has gone back west already and I'll be joining him on the 20th December. We'll be having a Gallic Christmas and best of British Boxing Day and New Year and I cannee wait to see the lot of yez (and maybe even some snow)!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Oops - four months in a nutshell, July-October

It seems that the first paragraph here is far too true and lackadaisical is the word... so much so in fact that I appear to have neglected to actually post this when I write back in October. Ooops! Anyway, in the interest of being lazy and not wishing to re-write everything, I'll post it retrospectively as is, and needless to say, Flo is not still on the train from Shenzhen!

In keeping with my general lackadaisical approach to blogging here, this is my first post in months.

That's not to say I've been lazy on the blogging front, in fact quite the contrary. I've been busy blogging to earn my daily bread, about all sorts of fun stuff related to travel and China and China and travel in varying combinations for China Travel. Of late, I've interviewed big-wave surfing guru Jamie Sterling, been to Taiwan's tiny Jinmen Island, battled windmills in Liu'ao and there's plenty more to come. There's a bit of a backlog to be honest as the summer came and went without much time to catch my breath. The end of July and most of August was a blur with visits from Flo's friend Olive who stopped in Shanghai not once but twice, doing the China rounds with both parents and girlfriend. Christiane and Hubert came to stay and an active three weeks was had all round. Talk about not catching your breath, no sooner had they set foot in the PRC, we whisked them off down south for a whirlwind stop in Zhuhai where we had a friends wedding to attend, a stroll across the water to Macau and a few days in Hong Kong.

With the in-laws dispatched to the bright lights of Macau for the night, we made merry at our friends wedding. A French/Chinese affair it was an entertaining afternoon ceremony complete with an MC, many changes of bridal wear, toasts and the pre-requisite Chinese banquet (suckling pigs - with freaky flashing red eyes and all), Champagne tower and cutting of a cake that was 90% cream, 10% sponge and 100% horrible... by their own admission more for show than for eating!

The next day we crossed the border to Macau and spent the day wandering the streets of the old town before hopping on a ferry to Hong Kong. It was sightseeing a-go-go and Tim and Jan will well remember the aching legs that follow. Not content with exhausting ourselves around town, we also managed a fun-size portion (about 10km) of the famous Lantau Trail, a hike of 75km total that takes you around and about Hong Kong's largest island... that's the one with Disney Land, the airport and the big buddha. We saw the airport from a distance, the buddha from it's base and Disneyland not at all. Instead, it was mostly sweeping vistas of green hills, blue seas and sandy beaches with the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island just visible in the hazy distance, and not a soul around.

Our stop in Hong Kong also heralded phase two of Flo's business project and the creation of Asiadis (as in Asia distribution - geddit?) as an official entity, hurrah! He's been beavering away building his website which should be online soon. He is, at this very moment enduring a 20-hour train journey from Shenzhen back to Shanghai with neither bed nor seat for comfort in a bid to save over RMB 1000 (about 100 pounds). Now that's what I call dedication.

We also did lots of other fun stuff with his parents; biking in the bamboo hills of Moganshan, a few days in Nanjing and lots of good times in Shanghai. Then they left and we continued to potter along at a somewhat slower pace for a while. Work-wise I'm happy, I have enough time to tinker about on some freelance projects and have most recently been bigging up Syrian olive oil and a soon-to-open super luxury serviced apartment complex in the French Concession... it's due to be the most expensive property per square meter in the city and it's just round the corner from my house, if my landlady puts up the rent, I shall bloomin' well charge it back to them. Either that or demand she at least buys us a new sofa. And shower door. And kitchen sink... the old place is starting a crumble around the edges a bit after four years but it's just about holding together.

End of September and beginning of October got busy again with a national holiday fest and despite the crazy work/holiday scheduling (over here you have to work weekends to make up most of the days off) but I managed to wangle a couple of paid out of office days to go down to Hangzhou and investigate the Qiantang tidal bore, a giant wave that washes up the river with a vengeance and gets extra large each year over the Mid-Autumn festival, with four pro-surfers shipped in to rip it up on the water as it flowed through downtown Hangzhou. There's a whole lot more on that here.

The following week was China's birthday and everyone gets a week off so we decided to celebrate by heading to Xiamen for a week of kitesurfing and adventure and finally, finally, I can say I can kitesurf! It was an amazing trip and the first installment is here (and seeing as it's nearly two months later, you can now also read part II and part III if you're interested!). There'll be more to come over the next few weeks but for now, its almost time for bed.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Plum diddly-dum

Greetings from a very wet and soggy Shanghai. It's "plum rain" season again and rainy it has been. I narrowly avoided a proper soaking this afternoon when returning from a quick shopping run on my bike. Sunshine on departure then the heavens opened and a dumped a ocean of water in a matter of minutes, just as I pulled back into my lane. As much as they're incredibly inconvenient, I do kind of like these freak storms that appear out of nowhere, though they have caught me out in the past - never advisable to wear a white dress at this time of year.

Anyway, all is well. I started my new job at the beginning of June and so I'm now one month in. It's a six month contract as a web editor for and Ctrip is the behemoth of the travel scene in China and with some 7000 employees in Shanghai alone, they are the biggest travel agent around. I work mainly on editing the activities and tours out of Chinglish and into English and a few other bits and bobs. Chinatravel is a smaller but more fun fish and basically covers all corners with anything and everything related to travel in China apart from selling stuff. We send you to Ctrip for all that.

Flo is working hard getting things in order to get his business up and running and has a few potential projects on the boil (anyone looking import/export or start doing business with this part of the world, feel free to get in touch!). Ona completely unrelated note, he's been up in Inner Mongolia for the last five days getting involved in a bike comp called the Ghenghis Khan Mountain Bike Challenge - 250km by bike over 3 days, topped off by a half marathon on Day 4. Sounds like he survived to tell the tale and he'll be back bearing photos and a tan some time tomorrow afternoon.

Not much of great interest to report from the last month unfortunately, apart from job and work, things are going well. We've made it out to the Expo a couple of times and frankly it's a bizarre experience that I still haven't quite made my mind up about. Impressive in scale certainly, impressive in the number of people, yes. Impressive in that anyone in their right mind would queue for 8 hours to get in to the Saudi pavilion and watch a few videos with special effects? Astounding. It's incredible, queues for most of the European nations range from 1 hour (Romania anyone?) to 6 (Germany and Switzerland). The UK ranks around 2-3 hours on average but as we discovered on our last jaunt over there, there are some benefits to being a British citizen and a flash of my drivers license got us in the back door. It worked likewise for France though they were a bit more organized and actually had it printed on the special entry sign, just below the disabled, pregnant women. In fact a French passport worked better than either of the above as it gets your two mates in as well! Both pavilions were nice, though neither felt like home for either of us (maybe I'm just too tarnished with living overseas that a waxwork of Becks and some seeds from Kew Gardens just don't quite do it for me) but I have to admit the UK one is really cool to look at.

Moving on from all that pseudo-culture, I spent this afternoon shopping which is not something I often indulge in but I was spurred into action by my shoes literally falling off my feet last week. Bought in Hong Kong last year for a pittance, they were on their last legs and the rain simply finished them off. So off I went with a friend to Qipu Lu, somewhere in the vague north of Shanghai. Famous for its cheap, fast fashion, my only other experience there was in my first year here and I've never been back since. It was winter, hideously busy, hideously hot inside but bitingly cold out and the people were horrible. Probably because at the time I didn't understand the Chinese for "you can't bargain here and no, you can't try it on and no, you can't return it" that they kept shouting at me. This time I was more well prepared and with a veteran shopper. Under her expert guidance, we avoided the crowds, focused on shoes, bags and accessories and made it out with 6 pairs of shoes, two handbags and a belt for 300 RMB (about 30 quid). Ladies, you would love it. They have piles of shoes for 20 RMB a pair (which I think completely justified my purchase of two pairs of almost exactly the same blue satin flats... oops). The quality is not bad either as it's basically all stuff that is designed for export but the factories do a few extra runs at night and flog it themselves in China at considerably lower cost.

On the subject of re-discovering the benefits of living in China, I've also recently become a convert to this website called which is a Chinese version of ebay that sells literally everything and, god bless google translate and my friend Jasmine, I'm now the proud owner of a pasta machine and a yogurt maker. The latter is getting considerably more use as, though homemade pasta is to die for, its kind of a pain in the ass to make (Flo will attest to this, having been assigned my sous chef and chief pasta machine handle turner - he did appreciate the results though!). The yogurt maker has already earned back its 4 pound price tag and is cooking me up a nice batch of creamy fresh yogurt as I type. Mmmm, mmmm.

Coming up we have Flo's friend Olive and his gal visiting end of next week, Flo's parent heading over end of July and for much of August and I suspect time will probably fly by till I write again. I hope anyone reading this and particularly those I know and love of course, are well and happy. Random strangers who may have come across this page and somehow kept reading to this point, well, I hope your world is rocking too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

New Beginnings

That last post was the final segment of my jaunt down memory lane, back tracking to Vietnam from where we returned at the beginning of March. That leaves almost two months to be accounted for. If you have been re-directed from, apologies for any repetition here.

The month of March was mostly more non-eventful waiting. Then April came, as did the long awaited contract and we gleefully set about planning our move. Before it was a signed, sealed and done deal however, internal politicking got involved and the job, along with our future plans evaporated in a puff of smoke. We could, of course, have kept searching for alternative positions over there but after waiting for so long, we'd lost our motivation for the move and with the first few sunny days in Shanghai, it was easier to think about the possibility of staying here and that is exactly what we've decided to do.

A timely phone call from a friend about the Canton Fair spurred Flo into action, a catalyst for the idea he’s been nurturing to set up a business of his own. The Canton Fair is a huge, and I mean HUGE, gathering of Chinese suppliers, offering everything imaginable under the sun for trade and export and so off he went, looking to develop the plan that was beginning to come together in his head. He came back with a suitcase full of brochures and a brain brimming with ideas and it was decided. I would look for a job and where possible continue to freelance and he would launch his business empire.

And so far so good – I should be starting a new job in June (more to come on that when the contract is signed!) and Fordos enterprises is slowly beginning to take shape. My freelancing has also been going well (copy writing, editing and proofreading services) with some regular clients and a few one off gigs. Mostly reworking websites and so on for non-native speakers, I hope to keep it going, along with the full time job. So fingers crossed, things are on the up and up but now its time for lunch – ta ra x

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

H is for Hue, Hanoi and Halong

Next stop was Hue, a few hours north. Though one of the oldest centres of politics, culture and religion in Vietnam, its charms were a little lost on me. It was hot, I was sick, we’d spent the morning tramping round trying to find a hotel and, having ended up in one of the two backpacker areas, couldn't walk down the street without being accosted by cyclo and motorbike drivers. Every 10 metres they’d try to rip us off with their ridiculous prices, and then look indignant and outraged when we told them we preferred to walk. We did find a lovely chap later that day when all our go-go juice had been sapped strolling around the old walled city, who took us for an hour tour before going back to the hotel where we flaked out at 8pm.

From Hue, we went up to the Vinh Moc tunnels in the DMZ before going on to Hanoi. We didn't want to go on one of the painfully long bus tours that take you all over the DMZ looking at every single old bomb crater so just got a car to take us to a nearby town where we could leave our bags at a restaurant and later join up with the sleeper bus to Hanoi. The owner of the restaurant wanted to charge us $10 to hire a motorbike for the day – twice the price of any others we’d taken elsewhere but it seemed, being in the arse-end of nowhere, we had no choice. However, a kind spirited and entrepreneurial soul sitting at one of the tables nearby kindly stepped in and offered us the use of his own personal bike for $6. We took him up on his offer and set off to find the Ho Chi Minh trail (now rather more a highway than a trail, but still very beautiful) and made our way to the tunnels via the Truong Son National Cemetery, where tens of thousands of dead Vietnamese soldiers are laid to rest across the hillsides.

The Vinh Moc tunnels are seriously impressive. We’d been to the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon on our last trip but these are much smaller and adjusted for tourists. Vinh Moc is the real McCoy. They stand exactly as they were when the 40 or so North Vietnamese families built them, lived in them, ate and drank in them, and even gave birth in them – 17 kids were born down there in the murky darkness. Our guide, a

young, bandy-legged guy dressed from head to toe in white, looked like he was off to a disco rather than to show a couple of tourists round 2.8km of underground tunnels - it was quite useful though as we couldn't lose sight of him in the dimly lit tunnels even if he scurried ahead, shining like a beacon, and believe me, at 26m underground, it gets pretty darn dark. Somehow he came out still gleaming whereas Flo and I emerged into the light, blinking and covered in streaks of mud all over us.

We got back to the restaurant a bit earlier than planned. The bus was due in at 6.30pm so we had a bite to eat and waited. And waited, and waited. In typical South East Asian style, the bus schedule was a pretty fluid affair and at about 8pm it turned up, only to park and offload its passengers for another hour’s break. The driver was tired and cranky and majorly pissed when he saw our luggage, then refused to tell us which were our seats until he’d had his dinner. We discovered why when we eventually got on – he had sold them to a couple of local lads he’d picked up on the way and they were happily tucked up and snoozing away in our beds. It was packed, so when he booted them out, they set up camp on the floor, leaving us to guiltily avoid stepping on their heads anytime we wanted to go to the loo or stretch our legs. What followed was twelve hours of honking, swerving, bumpiness with regular forays into oncoming traffic. We were then unceremoniously dumped at a busy corner on the outskirts of Hanoi and herded into a taxi with a few other Western faces to go and see a hotel. The hotel in question was bang in the middle of the old town on a narrow streets lined with a lively wet market, which scored high points for its colourful, lively atmosphere but nil points for the terrible smell and animal offal in the gutters. We quickly decided that though it was very interesting to wander through, we didn't want to walk directly in to chicken slaughter and butchery first thing in the morning.

We found a cool little place a few bocks away that had a balcony overlooking the street, then spent the rest of the day just moving from café to café, snacking, drinking coffee and relaxing. Hanoi was nice though it somehow felt more like China than the rest of Vietnam had. Perhaps because we were both still a bit sick and tired, the continuous hawking was really beginning to grate - at one point I though I might smack the next girl who tried to force her basket of bananas on my shoulders to take a picture and then demand money from me. In the city we walked for a day, saw the very nice Temple of Literature, spent ages trying to find Uncle Ho’s stilt house which turned out to be closed, walked past his mausoleum where his embalmed corpse was on a maintenance trip to Russia, around the various lakes whose murky green waters were filled with belly-up dead fish and ended up on the rooftop bar of the Sofitel Plaza. Its thirteen stories make it one of the tallest buildings in the city and with a beer in hand, we watched the sun go down across the city.

That night we went to see the water puppet show – a bit like a wet version of Punch & Judy, this originated in the waters of the village rice fields where guys in waders would stand thigh deep in water behind a backdrop, operating various brightly coloured puppets who act out folk tales and dances, some funny, some serious and all quite entertaining. The waders make it a lot more and there are far fewer cases of foot rot and parasites these days

apparently. We were quite taken with the puppets themselves and spent much of the next day hunting down a couple of specimens that seemed in reasonable condition and had the right balance between old and worn and old and crappy. After some hardcore bargaining, we got two of the little fellas for just a few dollars each and they are now nicely installed in their new (dry) home in our living room.

The next day we were up early and off to Halong Bay. We had taken an executive decision not to go on one of the many organized tours and make our own way there. It didn't seem to tricky and we were off to a good start, finding a bus with spare seats that set off almost immediately for Hai Phong where we could take a boat to Cat Ba island and then find passage on a boat around the famous landscape of the bay.

The bus stopped every five minutes, picking up more and more people along the way until every available inch of floor was covered with small plastic stools with one and sometimes two people perched atop. What was amazing was how relaxed everyone was, leaning on strangers for support, and good humouredly contorting themselves to allow others to pass them. A couple of hours later we arrived at Hai Phong. 20 minutes too late for the boat that had just departed for Cat Ba and 2 hours too early for the next. There’s not a lot going on in Hai Phong, particularly down by the port but we found a little café where a nice lady whipped us up some noodles and made our way back to board the boat.

What we had not realized when planning our little jaunt was that all the fast hydrofoils depart early in the morning and the daytime boats were slow, lumbering beasts. This was fine for the first couple of hours on board but nearing the first of the islands, a huge swell appeared, rocking the boat from side to side and crashing angrily across the stern, and turning every stomach on board. We were glad to get to reach dry land, despite only a having a few hours of daylight left to enjoy. We were lucky enough to find someone still at his desk in a hotel tourist agency who suggested we head to the national park and make the 1 hour climb to the viewing point to get a feel for the island and lending us (once again) his personal motorbike for the trip.

The climb was not too bad. We hurried ourselves along, worried by the thought of being caught out on a muddy path in the middle of the jungle in the dark, and made it quickly to the top. There was not a soul around and the only sounds was an eerie metallic clink, clink, clink as the wind caught the loose roof edge of the iron viewing platform that towered above us. The view from its foot was fantastic but from the top, it was even more impressive, offering a 360 degree look at the surrounding park with layers of jagged green mountain tops disappearing in to the evening mist. Quite a sight combined with the adrenalin rush from the climb up the rickety scaffolding, and the realization that I may perhaps, be developing vertigo in my old age.

We spent a quiet night in a waterfront hotel, poorly chosen from the hundreds on offer, it had been recently painted and the fumes gave us both a funny head by morning but we set off into the brisk, grey morning to find our boat for the day.

Not quite what we were expecting, the boat was an old junk but had none of the elegance we’d seen in the brochure. Our companions for the day were a family of Romanians and an odd couple consisting of a French/Vietnamese guy and his Vietnamese girlfriend who later disappeared after a visit to a cave. We never found out what happened to them as we were switching boats to head back to the mainland, though I have my suspicions they had jumped ship and joined up with a much louder, karaoke-blaring behemoth that was docked a few boats down.

Though the weather was a bit dreary, the rain held off and the scenery was hauntingly wonderful. It just kept going, with craggy cliffs jutting from the water, eagles circling and small

fishing boats and villages scattered amongst them. We were really pleased to have taken our chosen route as when we later switched boats to complete our circular journey to Halong City and back to Hanoi, the islands thinned out as the boats multiplied and we realized we had succeeded in avoiding much of the tourist trap. This realization was quickly confirmed when we arrived in Halong City itself where hundreds upon hundreds of boats are moored, filled with camera toting sightseers and surrounded by a car park jam packed with coaches, horns blaring and whistles blowing. We definitely took the long way round with the bus that returned us to Hanoi dropping us an hour on the wrong side of the city. It was a very long day indeed, but tired and happy to have seen one of the wonders of the Asian world, we were back, and in our final hours of Vietnam.

We left the next evening by sleeper train. The cabin was very comfortable and we had plenty of space. An overnight journey, there was no chance of sleeping through the night. Aside from the two border stops required, we also had to change cabins after a burning rubber smell turned out to be a small electrical fire. Fortunately the train was not too busy and there was space for all. We made it back to Nanning in China, through mountainous green countryside that echoed the lines of Halong Bay. The train schedule had, of course, been changed without notifying anyone and we were pleased to have gone for the afternoon flight, and eight hours later we were back in Shanghai.

Friday, April 16, 2010

From Rooftops to Ruins and Rice Fields to Rivers...

Nha Trang and Hoi An Rock!!

We stayed for one night and two days in Nha Trang and though the beach there was beautiful, we didn't actually spend too much time lazing about in the sun. We rocked up at about lunchtime and found ourselves a place to stay. Six bucks over budget but who’s going to quibble with a roof top terrace and sea view! We made the most of it too, enjoying the last of the evening light with a few Saigon beers and even waking up at dawn for the sunrise (not a great one but we felt we’d got our money’s worth at least).

Apart from that we went to check out Po Ngar, where an ancient Cham Temple sits atop a hill overlooking the port filled with brightly coloured blue and red fishing boats. There were some local girls doing traditional dancing while their friends stood to the sides, giggling at all the tourists taking their pictures. On my way into one of the shrines I got cornered by a lady who was gesticulating wildly at me. Turned out my dress wasn’t decent enough and I was revealing too much shoulder, so she directed me to a stand to take a smock style wraparound tunic before I could enter. Despite the people and music outside, inside it was absolutely quiet and offered cool respite from the heat. A teeny tiny room, the walls blackened from years of incense smoke there was a stone table with a phallic piece of marble set on top of it, shiny from years of touch. This is something called a linga,andyoni and together they represent the male/female genitalia so this is the place to come and pray for children and fertility.

The next day we got back on a motorbike to explore further north of the city and drove along some very nice coast roads, past beaches littered with fishing debris and hundreds of the Vietnamese-style, round fishing boats laying upside down, their recently tarred bottoms left to dry in the sun. They are funny these little boats. Perfectly circular and made from reeds you can’t imagine they are at all practical but when you see them on the water, the fisherman waggling the one big oar from side to side, they really can move.

About 12ish we came to a port just as all the boats were offloading their catch and spent an hour wandering around, slipping about in fish muck and generally getting in the way while watching the locals go about the daily business of selling, sorting and cleaning their catch. There was one entire room a foot deep in prawns with a family of four sorting them into sizes, a man with a giant hook doing brisk trade slinging enormous ice blocks into crushing machines to keep everything cool, other men on their boats fixing up rigging and lights, bells ringing, horns beeping, trucks trying to reverse but being blocked by baskets and baskets of slippery looking squid. It was fantastic. A bit further on we went to the Bo Ai waterfalls. Here there are three falls spread over about 2-3km and you have to clamber over rocks and through pools, to get to the top. We had a well-deserved swim in the top pool before making our way back down and returning to Nha Trang for the sleeper bus to Hoi An.

A super chilled out town, you could spend days wandering around the narrow roads of the old town of Hoi An, with its pretty yellow buildings that blend traditional and colonial architecture, its many cafes and boutiques and its many, many, many tailors. There is also a beautiful stretch of beach, rice fields filled with buffalo and ancient tombs and endless rivers and greenery. In short, it’s pretty awesome.

We also went out to My Son about 50km out of town. The Vietnamese answer to Angkor Watt (though on a much smaller scale), these are the ruins of an ancient Cham Hindu temple complex, dating from 4th to the 14th century. Some are just clusters of red brick poking out from the overgrown grass but many are almost intact though very weather worn and with several statues placed inside the buildings for conservation. Here there were more small dark chambers filled with linga and various other statuettes and carvings honoring Hindu deities in their different forms. We were there right at midday and it was blisteringly hot, which was exhausting but meant there was hardly anyone around and made for a much more reverential atmosphere.

On the way back we wanted to take in China Beach, the famous R&R spot for American GIs. A huge stretch of sandy white beach and rolling waves, the bit we went to by Danang was a construction site for several kilometers, evidence of as Vietnam’s entry into the luxury resorts and 5-star hotel rat race – if you build them, they will come! A stop at a riverside café for a beer and some nem was the perfect end to a lovely day.