Vietnam – Heart and Soul

Spirituality

Although the government prohibits the practice of religions that may affect the stability of the communist party, there is a deep sense of ritual that continues regardless of the restraints. The majority of people are Buddhist, but in most cases a local hero, the female goddess, a past king, have supplanted the Buddha Iconography.  Most towns and villages have a Pagoda, where one of the above is worshiped. On one particular visit, four elderly locals who maintained the building invited us in for green tea and oranges. Of burning interest to them was how old we were and if we were married, this is a very important issue, which I will fill you in on later. The Vietnamese are extremely warm and curious people and will smile generously to compensate the barriers of verbal communication. There is also a strong catholic community in the south and central area emanating from the period when Vietnam was colonised by the French. On our journey to Dalat (in the central region), Virgin Mary’s were prominently located on the balconies and crosses dotted the mountainous terrain.

Catholic mass in Saigon, men wait outside while their women do the worshiping

The Funeral

During my stay in Hanoi, I witnessed the procession of a Christian funeral. Walking in front of the hearse/bus was a woman holding a cross, who was closely followed by a man holding a black and white picture of the deceased. A jubilant brass band in white uniforms was followed by the bus/hearse, which contained the large casket, with the family seated inside around the coffin. Mourners followed behind with white bands around their heads, dressed in the universal expression of grief. Another bus followed closely behind with extra space for the primary mourners. On witnessing this familiar ritual, I considered the human response to grief is both universal and all-consuming.

What is Tet?

Our journey to Vietnam coincided with the most significant celebration of the Vietnamese year -Tet. This marks the beginning of the lunar New Year and celebrates the beginning of spring. Decorations vary from north to south depending on the climate, but the spirit and meaning is consistent throughout. Similar to the Chinese New Year and our Christmas celebrations, this is the time for returning home to the family and enjoying the fruits of the land and gambling with lucky money.

Tet

What makes this celebration different is that the ancestors are at the heart of the festivities. Every house and business has a shrine honouring and remembering them, with their pictures hanging, incense burning and offerings of fruits and special gifts. Worshipping the ancestors occur every day, but for Tet, their graves are visited and cleaned and their invited to celebrate Tet with the family. Curiously, these tombs are located in the rice fields of farms, so as you pass through the landscape these tombs pop up through the horizontal watery plains of like mystical coffin boats.

Tet is differs from our Christmas celebrations, as people can enjoy extended time with their families, having picnics and bountiful fruits and the flowers of spring. They don’t experience the bare and sparse winters that we do, with the focus on the fire and the warmth of the hearth. Flowers lined the main streets of Saigon and citizens take hundreds of photos posing in a variety of practiced ways. The Vietnamese are not camera shy.

Offerings made to the ancestors a week before the Tet celebrations

Preparations for Tet

Clearing your debt and cleaning the home are key elements in the preparation, with the street sellers offering dusters made from chicken and rooster feathers in the run up; those with little means waste nothing. Unfortunately, we were also warned that there is also an increase in crime leading up to the event, people I guess desperate to provide the best for their families, but we personally didn’t experience any incidents and felt extremely safe. Homes in the North and central region are decorated with kumquat trees, and those of the South with yellow blossom trees.  Measuring four-foot these trees are mostly transported on the back of motorbikes, along with anything else that will fit; the wife, kids, granny, a computer and even a full carcass of a dead pig, certainly a variation of the Christmas tree sticking out the back of the car. The rice harvest in the north finishes a month or so before Tet, giving people time to enjoy the fruits of the field and doing the preparation for next years crop.

First Days of the New Year

Food plays a central role in the event and a special cake is prepared called ‘Bang Chung’, which is tightly packed sticky rice with meat or bean fillings wrapped in dong or banana leaves. According to folklore, the square-shaped cake represents the earth and the circular one the sun. The preparation can take several days and the stories of its meaning are told to the next generation as its cooked overnight.

The first day is devoted to the immediate family, with great significance placed on the first person to enter the home. This person will determine the family’s prosperity for the forthcoming year. In most cases the father fills this role. Visiting a temple is also required, incense is burned and offerings are made

One of the temples during Tet where offerings were made to the female goddess

Tet is a time for extended social exuberance, playing cards, gambling and relax in the warm days and nights. Even before the beginning of the Tet holidays, I witnessed the everyday social scene of street corners covered with people sitting down on stools, drinking tea and eating seeds. The air was filled buzz and chatter, this is the social life that the students can afford and relish.

During Tet, we tried to relax in a café in Dalat- known as the Paris of Vietnam. We wondered as we sat in a crowded café, adjacent to a busy road with horns beeping and music blaring, overlooking a manmade lake filled with swan shaped peddle boats, if the Vietnamese relish in the proximity and intimacy of being all together? In this chaotic atmosphere, we desired a quiet café with some gentle jazz in the background, maybe overlooking the diminishing light on a natural water of body.  The culture of community is certainly different to ours of individual serenity.

Not everyone is able to celebrate Tet to its fullest, everyone that served us during the festivities had drawn the short straw and were obliged to share the occasion with us – the outsiders. By far the hardest workers at this time are the Vietnamese women, with complicated meals to prepare and serve, relatives to be satisfied and all this after any day job that she might have. Although Communism liberates women by giving them seemingly equal opportunities, they are still required to fulfil the traditional role expected of Woman.

Not everyone relaxes during Tet, some work still has to be done – Woman in the Mekong Delta in the South of Vietnam cleaning clothes

Role of Women

In all my travels, by far the most tenacious group of people I have encountered are the Vietnamese Woman. Unfortunately, the male counter-parts eclipse their force. Women are prepared early in life for what will be expected of them. They help their mothers with the cooking and cleaning and serve their brother’s and father’s their meals. Sons are also more revered, with a man only achieving respect and place at the village top table once he has had a son. Having a son also means that there will be someone to look after you in your old age, as daughters are required to live with the husband’s family once married.

The pig was killed five hours before the photo was taken at 1am, it’s a long day for the market sellers

Marriage is extremely important and finding the right partner who will be approved by the family. It is best if the daughter finds a husband 5km from her home, but as she gets older (over 25) the radius increases, and if she gets to the age of 30, she can choose a man from anywhere, as long as she get’s married!

If the parents of a bride and groom are influential people, it’s extremely important that you accept an invitation to their wedding and give generously (cash only) in gifts. This information is all recorded and kept for consideration by the father for future reference.

During the war, woman played strategic roles, while posing as simple farming peasants during the day; by night they delivered ammunition, messages and supplies. Present day women are highly educated in the cities, well dressed, but still cling on as passengers on the back of their male driven mopeds, this image for me symbolizes their lack of control and obedience to the tradition.

It’s expected for women to start raising children in their late twenties as it is widely considered dangerous to do so after thirty. Another challenge for woman starting families so young, some are at the beginning of a burgeoning careers, is that paid childcare is mostly untrusted, with women expected to step back and prioritize their families, resulting in the slim possibility ever progressing to roles of seniority. Although communism allows equal rights to work, women are also expected to look good, get married in early, start a family before they’re thirty, look after they’re relatives and still have time to have a career!

Portraits of Women I Encountered

Even within these constraints, I encountered an extraordinary diverse range of women with the common ground of pride and hard work ethic.  The following are a few portraits.

1.     The Tea Grower

We drove down the small lane to her house; she curiously came to the gate, not recognizing our Vietnamese friend initially. When she realized the purpose of our visit, she linked our arms and led us into her home to sample the tea; she even gave me a pat on the bum to reinforce her appreciation of our visit. Tan Cuong is a small family run tea grower and seller north of Hanoi in the province of Thai Nguyen. Although we could not exchange words, she tried with her eyes and smile to express her warmth. When I asked could I take our photo, she proudly removed her headscarf, so as to look her best.

Enjoying wonderful green tea picked from just outside the door, the mother proudly removed her head scarf for the photo, her husband next to her had fought in the war with his certificates proudly placed on the wall

Drying the tea leaves requires a team effort, the dried leaves are placed into what could be considered a tumble dryer, but the heat is generated from burning in wood under a clay kiln, the tea leaves are placed in a metal drum and mother’s calibrated wise hand is placed in the drum monitoring the temperature and the speed, too hot and the leaves could burn and lose their flavour. This is the final stage drying; the tea has already gone through process of being handpicked, air-dried, crushed and kiln dried. It cost ten US dollars for half a kilo; it doesn’t seem much when you consider the amount of labour that’s required. This business does considerably better than other growers, as they have a good reputation and sell directly to the customer.

2.     The Street Seller

The street seller starts her day at 4 am, going to the market to buy the vegetables. She then walks the streets looking for willing buyers; a good day will finish at 4pm or 5pm but could go on till 7pm. In most cases, these women come from the countryside and share lodgings with ten other woman, earning maybe $20 in two weeks, some don’t pay much attention to who’s rich and poor, they are only focused on gathering enough money so that their children can have an education and a better life then them.

The street seller moves along the road oblivious to the chaos that surrounds her

3.     The Escort

The first day of the lunar New Year, I spent in the backpacker’s district across from ‘Alles Boo’ a club that was open throughout Tet. I woke at 4am to the loud lyrics of “find yourself, free yourself…boom boom” getting louder thinking I was in a middle of a rave. I went out to the balcony to see a mostly empty street, lone motorbikes taking wide circles on the corners. An old lady that was asking for money of the diners in the evening was still wandering the streets; her skinny frame suggesting she was without a family and home at this time of year. I remembered back to earlier in the evening and a woman who gave generously to her, she was possibly a professional companion, who was accompanied by middle-aged awkward looking client. She gave amply to all the lost souls looking for help, on this the first day of the lunar New Year. She vigorously ordered more beers and food much to her acquaintances disappointment, who was anxious to get on with the finale of the evenings arrangements. Her motives might have been that it wasn’t memorable at all, as she was without her family on this important first day of Tet.

When you stay in the same place for a longer duration, it reveals patterns of movements and the tragedy behind the insincere smiles. A few days later I saw the same woman nestled under the arm of another customer, drawing deeply into her cigarette, she smiled back at the large haggard unfamiliar face, with just her mouth.

4.     The Employee of the Year

The portrait on the wall, although looking like the first day of their marriage celebrated unbelievably twenty-fifth anniversary. It is a week before Tet and the couple had gone to the temple to pay off their debts, we had been invited by their daughter to share a nightcap. On meeting the couple in the flesh, the trials of life seemed more evident on their faces. We were the first westerners in their home, although they couldn’t communicate with us, they tightly shock our hands and offered to share with us their four-year old home fermented whiskey, made from corn and forest fruit. They robustly toasted us, encouraging us finish it in one gulp and wished us happiness and love and that we might have a successful marriage like them. The wife had recently won employee of the year and a bouquet of roses were proudly placed in the centre of the room. Her single daughter  (our host) had returned to Hanoi after seven years in Saigon, at the age of twenty-six, changes the subject of marriage, as her mother inquires at every opportunity on her progress.

Making these observations, I wondered were women any different on the other side of the world, in tropical heat, under different political systems, religions and histories? Do they still desire to be loved, admired and supported, worry about security, the dimpled skin on their thighs, the success of their children and the unspeakable, the condition of their teeth? Although we are in different contexts, the fundamentals for women don’t change very much.

Mekong Delta – The Home

On our trip to the Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, we choose to do a home stay, to get more insights into the rituals of daily life. We were picked up by moped travelled into the setting sun. When we stopped at the traffic lights with the sea of other bikes, people looked at me curiously, wondering what was my relationship to my rather elderly driver. As he increased speed on the less congested roads, the dust began flying into my face, requiring we to put on my sunglasses making the passenger ride in the darkness even more terrifying. I was not able to anticipate when the bumps were coming in the road, my driver laughing as I clutched tighter going over the bumps.

Daily life

We stayed in the little village of Thoung Thanh outside the city of Can Tho. After sunset, we wandered the intimate narrow bucolic streets, where everybody seemed to know everybody. The men were finishing their celebrations for Tet, rubbing their bellies, with a collection of crushed cans under their table. There was a shop full of old-fashioned video games, an Internet café and a room full of cartons of eggs, with a bare-chested man walking around them. The local philosopher was sitting on a bench and greeted us by saying ‘Bonjour’. The local market was just finishing it’s day, with the last remnants been sold at the edges. The local street chef was preparing tasty food on the corner while a pair of men gambled their winnings from Tet. Beating music rang from the men’s café and every household had a TV set flicking in the corner. We even heard the signature tune of ‘who wants to be a millionaire’, pretty easy in Vietnam, when you can buy a roll of bread for 5000. The women sat in groups and laughed and called out good morning to us, although it was pitch black outside.

Bustling market daily life

On a previous visit to another country farm, the Father of the house (who is a war veteran, now retired 10 years) says he’s bored and asks his nephew to get him a dartboard. His son is doing a PhD in South Korea and has sent him an electric blanket for the winter, but he doesn’t know how to use it, he finds it too cold to go outside, yet his wife of 70 was working the fields. They offered to kill a chicken and cook us dinner, we could have picked out the one we wanted to eat. Instead we fed them corn and grain; they preferred the corn and searched them out. Obviously, they don’t like to be picked up like pets, as they know the inevitable that follows.

 Picking out the best chicken for dinner

 

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Vietnam – Physical Attraction

When we got to know ‘Vietnam’, we encountered her long and elegant physique, but found her somewhat overworked and under resourced. She is fiercely individual and moves through the landscape in all means available to her – roads, trains, bikes, boats and mopeds. She speaks in a language that is a fusion of French and Chinese. Although she was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, following the reunification, she has never been fully accepted it, and continues to refer to herself as ‘Saigon’.

The Individual

Vietnam is an individual and uses every method available to express her uniqueness. From commencing the day with an individual coffee filter over her cup, every home expresses itself differently within the confines of the 4 metre wide plots. Curved balconies, bright colours, overhangs, different size windows within one façade, the expression is only limited by the amount of money you can inject and this can be done continually on a whim as there are little planning regulations. Given the prevalence of motorbikes, the accessories for these are highly customised, with helmets decorated in faux Burberry motif, pink with flowers and some mimicking a sun hat with a gap in the back for a ponytail. The face masks are equally as expressive, with patterns, faces and football team emblems (usually Manchester United). The moped seat also receives individual tagging, with shops offering every kind of fake leather fabric imaginable, tiger, crocodile and zebra skin. Although Vietnam has limited means, she finds every opportunity to express how she’s different and this in not just restricted to the women.

 Right: Individuality expressed in moped seats

What’s interesting about the streets in Vietnam is how they have been modified to accommodate the habits of the people. All the curbs are sloped out to the street to allow easy access to ramp the curbs on your motorbike to avoid traffic (because everyone is in a hurry) and park bikes. Management of parking is also organised, for a small fee they’re packed like sardines and fished out when required. Given the more recent introduction of the luxury car, infrastructure has not caught up yet to provide parking, so in the evening as drivers curb crawl looking for an elusive opening, men will offer spaces in illegal positions (on footpaths, in front of fire hydrants, on the corner of streets etc.), of course there is a another fee and it will be ‘minded’ for the evening. My Vietnamese friends informed me that it’s not only the tourists that get ripped off in these agreements.

During my time studying in Denmark, I took a course by Jan Gehl on ‘Life between buildings’. It attempted to give us a tool kit to understand how people interact in public space, but more importantly with each other. After experiencing these ‘un-designed’ spaces in Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities, with the alley way been the butcher shop, the market, the cobblers and romantic outdoor restaurant, I wondered could streets really be designed for the life that will occupy them or is the life created by society, political and economic factors?

There is also so much that design of public spaces can do to uplift its citizens and I wondered as I passed through congested Saigon, when the authorities would have the means and foresight to invest in these projects. During Tet, one of the main streets in Saigon is closed to traffic and is beautifully decorated with flower arrangements, creating a tranquil space to enjoy the commencement of the spring festival. This main street leads down to the river, which I expected to make a big gesture to address the water and history of boats and trade. But unfortunately there is a barrier of a four lane road to the river, which when you do manage to cross, with your heart in your mouth, is designated for car parking, a couple of pavilions and a broken and uneven footpath. Shanghai had a similar challenge along the famous waterfront ‘Bund’ but overcame this with good urban design that addresses the individual’s desire for relaxation beside water.

Learning to cross the road in Vietnam can be quite the challenge

The Landscape

It needs also to be mentioned that owing to the length of the country at approx. 1600km, we experienced distinctly different climates, landscapes and people with over fifty-four different ethnic minority groups. With so much diversity, the climate has a huge bearing on the traditions and customs. After leaving the relatively cold temperatures of the north, where the earth is not as fruitful, we arrived into the port town of Hoi An. It’s streets were painted a crimson yellow that have a fusion of influences from both their Chinese and French history. A 5km bike ride from the town, we encountered the most beautiful sandy beaches, with golden sand, lined with palm trees for shade. With the hot sunshine, cool breeze and humidity, we really felt we had arrived somewhere special. I took the cue from the poet Prufrock and rolled the bottoms of my trousers and dared to eat a peach (a mango in my case) and felt the refreshing ocean and the golden sand between my toes, the temperature not too much of a shock either. The beach Prufrock place of pleasure for the tourists only; you will rarely ever see Vietnamese sunbathing. To have tanned skin suggests that you of lower status in society and all attempts are made to keep the sunlight away. With so much time spent outdoors, women will wear long white gloves, toed socks with their flip-flops, hats, scarfs and glasses. This was an extraordinary sight to see as I was catching my breath and wiping my brow in 33 degrees humid heat.

The sun setting on majestic Halong Bay

On our journey through Vietnam, we have managed to experience almost every type of transportation, from trains, rip-off taxi’s, bikes, mopeds, buses, cruise boats, kayak, tuk tuk’s, cars, plane and one of the most dangerous of all, on foot.

The Road

The symbol of the road for me is represented by the overloaded telegraph poles with hundreds of cable, leaning to support the strain in the capital Hanoi. On arrival, our first challenge came with crossing the road, a simple task you would think, but with no requirements to stop at the pedestrian crossings or traffic lights, I felt I was embarking on a game of chicken. I had read in the guide-book not to make any sudden movements, as the moped drivers have trained themselves to swerve past pedestrians, so I learned to cross slowly, with purpose and determination and copied the locals with a hand gesture to slow them down. By the third day, I had built up a trust with the chaos of the road, to remain calm, as a river of noise beeps; engines, passengers, chickens and baskets passed me by.

Traveling along the roads in Vietnam, you will see an intoxicating mix of life been played out like a film real. In the south, roadside cafes have rows of hammocks like Starbucks has sofas, to get out of the scorching afternoon heat.

Kilns for baking bricks line the road, like ancient tombs, smouldering smoke for some sacred rite. A few moments later I saw a little boy peeing through a fence, just because he can. After the New Year’s celebrations have come and gone, fallen yellow petals of the Tet tree lie nostalgically like pine needles on the ground.

Everything gets transported on the moped, even the ‘Tet’ cumquat tree

At another moment, an unnaturally blonde haired boy is drinking a can like a king on a bare construction site, while next to him, the women are braced in un-lady like postures getting on with the heavy work of carrying loads of bricks on their backs. Cockerels are kept as pets and stand under circular bamboo cages, while another man is pets his prize-fighter affectionately. Shops are emblazoned with colour with glitzy yellow and pink gowns in the middle of a dishevelled street, people always need hope I guess for that special occasion. Women in the south tend to wear matching patterned trousers and tops that look like silk pyjamas to stay cool and covered. A man clutches a machete and slams down chopping coconut from the squatting position. Along the Mekong Delta, where the legs of the houses stand in the water, a shoal of eels are being fed at doorstep, they’re frenetic like piranhas. Two young men wrestle bare-chested at the heat of the day beside cartoon like propaganda on how to be a better citizen.

Street chef with her loyal customers

The roadside kitchens have all kinds of food laid out drying on the ground, while the cook chats on the phone with a bunch of noodles in the other hand. A toddler girl gives a hand in the street restaurant, sweeping the floor like her granny has shown her. The grandparents rare the children, like their parents reared their own. An outdoor church is created with public benches, adorned by ‘Mary the virgin, next to it, the secondary school has hundreds of bikes outside, waiting for the bell to toil. The barber is located on the street next to the coffee terrace, easy access for people to pull up on their mopeds without delay. Such a variety of shops along the road: electric fans, motorcycles and all their accessories, building materials, tiles pipes, recycled gates, toilets, cars driven into the tiled floors of reception lobby’s, bike repairs, large karaoke signs, while a coffin passes by on the back of a three-wheeled bicycle.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am in a tiny corner of the world, 14,000km from home. I can’t imagine how long that would take after experiencing an eight-hour trip by bus that only covered 300km. In the USA we were able to cover an enormous distance of 10,500km, owing to the excellent roads, navigation and the ease of stopping anywhere along route, with motels and diners of sorts.

Planes

The experience of flying- leaving Danang in the central Vietnam and within three minutes we were looking town at Hoi An, the small town that we had left, looking back at the little bridge and imagining all the women speeding over it with their food for Tet, trees been transported, hawkers, the pile of rubbish at the edge of the market, the cages of chickens who would meet their end within hours, their legs strapped to the back of the moped and there wings giving one last attempt to break free, all these images come to mind as we fly over in the context less sky.

Motorbikes

With almost everyone riding motorbikes it’s extraordinary to see people’s lives whizzing by. Observing what their wearing, how many children they have, if the lady decides to sit side saddle, the intimacy of the relationship between the driver and the passenger, does the girl hold on tightly or passively watch the world go by. These are all details that a car conceals behind fastened seat belts and makes other cities blander and more generic.

The slower pace of the Mekong Delta where life is connected by water ways and flooded forests

Bicycles

Nobody cycles for pleasure in Vietnam. All the more evident by the fact that after our 10km up and down hill cycle to the Langbian Mountain, ours were the only two bicycles in a sea of mopeds in the parking lot. We decided to make this journey as our friend’s father had kindly drawn a map to this destination and recommended bikes would be a nice way to experience the countryside. In my mind without asking too many questions, I thought I was going to Lac village, home to the ethnic minorities of the mountains. For me this sounded rather mystical and romantic, to observe another way of life, but sometimes it’s only a matter of opening your eyes a little wider to observe the differences and feel how different you are in this strange place.

The journey would have been more pleasant if the rented bikes were up to it, but as we really struggled up the hills, people smiled at us with both amusement and surprise. So many people calling out the ubiquitous ‘Hello! Where are you from?’ People’s friendliness is welcoming and warm, travelling through this landscape, I feel extremely special and honoured to be a visitor.

The unusual bicycle journey to Langbian Mountain

When we finally arrived at our destination, we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do next. There were buses, Vietnamese signs, and cowboys walking by with horse painted as zebras, markets and the roar of jeeps tearing down the hill. We recalled from our conversation the previous night that one could get a jeep to the top. Crowds huddle around a ticket booth. I looked up lost at the Vietnamese signs, my situation must have been written all over my face, as it got redder in the sunshine, after our exerting cycle. Straight away people tried to help me buy tickets and listen for our number to be called, as it would obviously be announced in Vietnamese.

We hoped into the back seat of the jeep as it charged up the mountain, the air blew in mixed with exhaust fumes and for a few minutes it felt very calming to be whisked up the hill. The journey ended at the top along with all the other local tourists and we were told we had one hour to take in the view and possible sample the BBQ that served ostrich, snake, crocodile, beef and chicken wings.

Most people were not dressed to be at the top of a mountain, sporting high heels flip flops and dinner jackets. As the majority of Vietnamese cower from the sun, we lashed on the sun cream and hoped that our skin would take on a golden brown colour. People associate darker skin with the life of the peasant farmer working outside. White skin is desired which indicates your all-important status in society.

The journey back to Dalat was just as difficult as the outward one, having to dismount from the bikes and pull the hunk of metal up the hill, this is the reason why people were looking at us so amused. With our exposed skin and our peasant’s form of transport, onlookers must have wondered why someone would make that journey for pleasure?

Ditching the bike for something faster
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Vietnam – Experience and Memories

The remnants of ‘The American War’ celebrated in a museum to war

Although not evident immediately when we met ‘Vietnam’ for the first time, you know the ‘War’ has deep seethed memories and you’re unsure how to find out more. You delicately tip toe around the subject until she’s ready to reveal some of the memories. As we probed further, we realized that the ‘Vietnam War’ was preceded by successful battles against the Chinese, the French and finally by the ‘Free world forces’. The Vietnamese are extremely proud of their country and how they managed to win it back.

Dynasties

Vietnam has suffered under the control of dynasties, China and colonial occupiers. Similar to China, the rise in communism coincided with the repulsion against the extravagant lives of the monarchy. In Hue, the original capital in the centre of Vietnam, the remnants of opulent tombs, palaces and a  ‘Forbidden City’ remain and remind to this day.

Posing in front of the remains of the Vietnamese fallen dynasty, it now belongs to the people

In Dalat, we walked though the last King’s summer palace set on the hillside amongst beautiful gardens and pine forests. I experienced the same energy here from the Vietnamese people, as I did walking through the Forbidden City of China. Both dynasties had fallen and the grounds had been returned to the people with the understanding that ‘this is yours, now enjoy it!’ My previous experience of visiting this type of cultural relic is that there are attendants asking you not to touch and keep back. There is usually a sense a reverence or respect, like as if you were a guest in someone’s home. But not in this situation, people posed in front of the mantelpiece, beyond the security lines, sat on the chairs and beds, as if they were imagining it as their own. I even saw a young man walk past the attendants with a lit cigarette is his hands, wander through the rooms, then stub the butt out on the floor, reminding me that Vietnam has a complicated history of governance and occupation.

 The Imperial City (a walled fortress for the Emperor) in Hue, the Former capital of Vietnam

The War

To really understand the war is beyond my scope at the moment without additional reading and analysis of the issues and the ideological conflicts. I have drawn together a bundle of fragments that give some snippets of the story. The

‘Vietnam War’ was the first to be televised with the reporting influencing the understanding of the issues and the mass protests that followed around the world. With the long duration of the war, I wonder was it fought over pride and identity, losing face is of tremendous importance in the Asian culture, but after the success of World War II, the Americans could not be seen as a lesser force either. The terrain of Vietnam was also extremely difficult for the American’s to strategize in – mountainous, swamps, monsoon and stifling heat. The Vietnamese were able to apply their traditional hunting skills and knowledge to an application of gorilla warfare. I also wondered was this a training ground for future wars undertaken by the US.

One of the main battlegrounds is 70km north of Saigon, in a jungle environment. The Viet Cong retreated underground and built secret tunnels with living quarters, kitchens and even schools. Ventilation stacks were disguised as termite mounds and the smell of stolen US army soap was spread around them to confuse the sniffer dogs. Today, it is possible to visit these tunnels and a type of war tourism has replaced an ideological battlefield. One can crawl through the stifling hot and claustrophobic spaces, view the booby traps used and be amazed at the inventive use of materials for weapons. I even considered if there was a relationship between the inventive food creations and how they dismantled and recycled unexploded bombs to use against their enemies.

To stretch out the tourist experience, given that you had travelled two hours to get there, for fifteen US dollars, it was possible to fire some AK47’s or whatever gun you’ve fantasized about. During the tour, there were continual gunshots in the distant; I suppose adding to the atmosphere of the battleground. The jungle has been completely replanted as the orange agent used to expose the battlefield destroyed all plant life.

The benign battleground of Britain and America (1777) in Saratoga, upstate New York

On my journey around the world, I have seen other battlefields, some now benign, hiding a repository of violence, noise and desperation. One of these was close to Saratoga in upstate New York, where a significant battle was fought against the British; one can drive through these tranquil battlefields and stop of at numbered locations, hearing re-enactments of the significant stages of the battle. In Hiroshima- Japan, where the first atomic bomb was dropped, I had the expectation of experiencing a desolate scared landscape, but instead is a vibrant, young city, whose mission has become to champion the diplomatic resolutions to conflicts. The De-militarized zone between North and South Korea has become another tourist curiosity, where visitors can take the proverbial ‘photos’ behind the tinted windows of the bus, protected by US soldiers for the added feeling of risk and adventure.

The demilitarized zone (DMZ) of North and South Korea where tourists can get a peak into the ‘unknown North’ and cross the border under military supervision

I wondered as I passed through these significant places of history, where will the future tourists sites be, that are now ravaged with destruction and hatred? The war veterans in Vietnam hold significant honour in society helping to create a free nation for their people. This is in stark contrast to the somewhat tainted view of US veterans hold. Looking at the abandoned war bunkers along China Beach in Danang on the east coast, there are now billboards advertising the developer’s visions of the luxurious life with a view, with the majority of investors being non-Vietnamese. One wonders if the war against capitalism was worth fighting? Although every town has built a memorial, least they forget the victory.

 War tourism, tourists get to experience the terror of the Cu Chi tunnels


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Vietnam – Her Mind

Hoi Chi Minh (The first President) lying in repose in his Mausoleum in the capital Hanoi

As we had got to know Vietnam through her appetite, individuality and spirituality, it was now necessary to get deeper into her thoughts and understand the control mechanisms that govern her daily life and decisions.

Politics

It’s difficult to label Vietnam simply ‘Communist’, without understanding how it came to this decision and political positioning. Having experienced oppression from their Chinese neighbours for a thousand years, Vietnamese dynasties, the French and briefly the Japanese, there was a vacuum of leadership like many of the Japanese occupied countries after World War II. The country was divided north and south similar to Korea, along a latitude line.  The North been influenced by communist Russia and South the democratic USA. Hoh Chi Minh, the first leader of the North, had spent decade’s abroad, learning the philosophies of Karl Marx and joining the debates in Paris in 1911. He returned to Vietnam enthused and determined to create an independent communist country, free of tyranny and apparent evils of capitalism.

Determined to unite the country, the Viet Cong, led by Hoh Chi Minh organized forces and launched a war on the South. After twenty years of fighting, hundreds of thousands dead, the landscape and heritage destroyed, the South reluctantly joined the North, while the Americans made a brisk exit. Hoh Chi Minh died during the war, but his efforts are seen as fundamental to creating this independent country. Although he wished to be cremated, his body lies now in repose, similar to Mao and Lenin as a constant reminder of the foundation of the country and more cynically I believe as a controlling symbol to maintain the power of the Communist Party.

Propaganda posters urging citizens to live better lives in-line with communist ideals

Hoh Chi Minh is knit into every fabric and molecule of living Vietnam, his face is on the currency and his picture even hangs over the ancestors on the family alters. He is affectionately known as uncle Ho Chi, and even appears on cartoon billboards requesting its citizens to be better communists. So while the original founders of communism in the Soviet Union have given up on the social experiment and China risks imploding with any major changes to the governance, the Vietnam Communist party still clings tightly to this archaic method of control. The Vietnamese people are fiercely proud of their country and what they have achieved with the national flag hanging proudly on every building, street corner and home, but this is also a requirement by the communist party, suggesting a sense of insecurity underlying the appearance of unification.

It’s difficult to ignore the control the Party has, with morning announcements in every town (at 6-7am), broadcasting through loudspeakers on the streets asking people to ‘work hard for the party and the party will work for you’, it’s disguised as a sort of public radio, but still acts as an instrument of propaganda. One morning, as we cycled through the countryside we heard the propaganda speakers preaching to an empty road with pictures and messages strapped to telephone poles on the best way to life and to how best to support the party. I wondered, after experiencing the dearly earned democracy of South Korea, is change inevitable? And what will be the catalyst that will initiate this? In South Korea, as citizens income increased, so did their desire to be governed in a fair and democratic way.

Corruption

One party governance has many flaws, lack of accountability and susceptibility to corruption been the main ones. The most recent scandal to be revealed, involved a government official accepting a bribe from a Japanese company. They were bidding for the high-speed railway that Japan was investing a billion US dollars in. This revelation resulted in Japan withdrawing it’s funding and leaving a vacuum in the already strained infrastructure.  Although the majority of business is done in the south in Saigon, the ‘old money’ is in Hanoi (the Capital), where officials accept other means to up lift their civil servant salary.

The post office built by the French in Saigon, with the ubiquitous picture of Hoi Chi Minh that presides over all public spaces.

It’s also worth considering if Saigon would have taken a different development path if the Americans had managed to help defeat the communists. Before the war, Saigon was a more thriving city then Singapore, with the latter now earning $56,000 GDP per capita and Vietnam a paltry $2000. Understandable there is growing concern in the communist party over Bloc ‘8406’, a pro-democracy dissident group formed from young educated professionals formed on the 8th of April ’06. From some of the conversations we had in Vietnam, there is a growing discontent with single party governance, but to express publicly this dissatisfaction could position you behind bars.

The waterfront of Singapore thriving with life and business in March 2012
So, what has communism achieved for Vietnam? In the early 80’s after the government had less than ten years to carry out it’s social experiment, Vietnam was impoverished and on the way to starvation and collapse. It had lost its ally after the collapse of USSR and was forced to mend fences with the long resented neighbour of China. In ’92 with three people required to do one job in the civil service, the country changed from a subsidized economy, open to foreign investment. Since this modification of communism, the country has made great strides to ‘modernize’ in our understanding of the definition. The Year 2000 was significant, after the embargo by the US was lifted and an attempt to normalize relationships, the first visit by a US president was made by Bill Clinton.

Economically, it’s considered the Asian Century, with an increased interest in the summits of Asean (the group of South East Asian States). Although not as organized as the EU (this could be seen as an advantage), everyone wants to sit in on the proceedings to see what’s going on.

Military

The relationship with the US is very good now and they’re willing to support Vietnam against the aggressive moves of China, but they also cannot appear to be too close to this previous enemy, for fear of aggravating the communist big brother. The people of Vietnam do not know what the government spends on the military, but I’m sure it’s too much.

 

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Vietnam – The Colour of Money

So, having fallen for Vietnam’s physical attractions, her ability to cook delicious meals, her spirit, her stories and her intellect, the final thing to consider is how does she measure up financially and what is her relationship to the crumpled notes.

Amusingly, when we visited one of the village temples, where we were shared green tea with the four elderly caretakers, we took a picture of the gathering and one of the women said she needed her glasses to see the picture on the screen, her friend joked with her teasing that she didn’t need glasses to see the colour of money.

 Sharing green tea with the locals and chatting about the ‘colour of money’

Ideas of wealth diverge vastly amongst the various living positions in society, in the rural farmlands, a man is considered rich if he has a gas hob rather than burning sticks to boil water. Whereas in sophisticated Saigon, a modest courtyard café (that we were trying to locate as per a recommendation) has recently been replaced with a bling shopping centre, with a stylish Armani Café, with exorbitant prices to match. The new up and coming Hanoi elite enjoys rooftop cocktails and valet service at the ‘Paris Deli’.

Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, however there is massive inflation and the global financial crisis has introduced uncertainty with banks quelling their appetite for risk following the rampant investment and speculation in property. Vietnam has abandoned the state socialism and is embracing free market capitalism. The major investors have ironically been the US, along with Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the EU with global investments of $3.3 billion in 2008 down form $9 billion in 2007. But the country is still mostly agriculture with 25% of the population living in urban areas and 75% rural in 2004.

Tourism

The majority of tour operators that proliferate street frontage do not realize the value of brand, trust, reputation, relationships and customer focus. Although they wave at you ecstatically to entice you of the street, most fail to follow through on their promises. Although, we did experience some tourist focused businesses that had managed to scale their service and offer consistently good quality, a fair price and transparency. One of these was the ‘Sinh Café’ that has recently re-branded itself as ‘Sinh Tourist’. The other success was the cooking school and restaurants that I mentioned earlier in Hoi An. But there are always opportunities to be ripped off, so one must always be on guard remembering there is absolutely nothing for free and ‘bargains’ have to be worked hard for and sought out with effort.

Street Sellers

The street sellers are savvy businesswoman, although they are earning very little, they know the right things to sell at the right time, balloons on a Saturday for the children before Tet, night snacks for the party revellers and street breakfast for the workers. As a designer, there is so much to learn from how the design and construct their moving restaurants. From the use of materials, ease of transportation, gadgets and adaptability, some contain a charcoal grill, a cooler box, stools and a fruit stall, all slung over their shoulder on a bamboo stick.

Street sellers take the same position on the curb everyday

Tailor-Made (Epic)

Going to Hoi An for the perfectly tailored suit is one the main attractions for tourists, with five hundred tailors with streets lined with these emporiums. So, what can one expect from a custom designed suit? Is the transaction tailor-made for the vendor or the buyer? Having gone through this personalized service, I thought it similar to what the expectations of a holiday romance might be. One has so much hope at beginning, yet the success of the outcome depends entirely on what you want from the transaction and what the seller does.

The experience of tailor-made clothes, sometimes ideas get lost in translation

I wondered should the tailor be honest that they probably won’t be able to fulfil your high expectations, so you both know what you going to get out of the relationship. When you first enter the shop, there is an illusion that you are actually speaking to the tailor. These shops merely function as seduction room with the real work been done in a sweatshop outside of town.

At the beginning you hope to get that perfectly tailored suit, that you’ve always imagined, the tailor on the other hand, sees an opportunity to knock out something quickly before they close for Tet. They sit you down and you look at a Giorgio Armani website, where you see the perfectly fitted black suit (bearing in mind that you have completely ignored that the model is six-foot tall and skinny as a rake with no bosoms). The tailor makes a few scribblely notes and say it’s no problem, it’s possible, you’re excited at the prospect of my new suits and manage to give her an image on a memory stick because, guessing they have a big screen in the tailor shop, where they can see all the details up close.

A few hours after they’d taken my order, I have the first fitting of the top and trousers, the trousers are extremely tight but can be let out, the tops on the other hand are an amoeba flop of material. They say “similar, but not the same, same not possible”, all I could say after several protests “can you just fix it, so it at least flatters me?”

Then came the jackets, only the colour and the neckline were as per the image, everything else was improvised. At this stage I’m feeling exasperated and compromised and I’m regretting getting into this situation, but like all optimistic women, I want a ‘happy ending’ to the story.

We go for dinner, still not fully at ease and on the way back to the hotel, I pop back into the shop, in case there is anything else to try on. The pants fit fine but they’ve run out of the red linen fabric for the jacket and show me a shoddy ‘similar’ material. I say “With five hundred tailor shops and a fabric market in the town, can you not get anything to match?” They say they will look for a matching material and ask us call in at 11am tomorrow morning.

The next day, I call in. The tops have not been changed and they try to pass them off as finished. They say the tailor is very busy, but they will fix it themselves. They still have no fabric for the jacket and a stand-off follows. They eventually give me the option of finding the fabric myself in another shop. I’d say I checked up to twenty shops to find a match, so many ‘similar’ ones that were all claiming to be ‘real’ linens.

I felt like I was at a gambling table now and had wasted so much time, time I could spent working for a ‘real’ Armani suit. The last shop I tried, had a material that looked good, although different. I took a sample and brought it back to my tailor. They inform me that it’s not possible for them to go to that shop to buy material, as they have a bad relationship with the owner, so they send me back and say I should pay no more than $10 a metre. Returning to the other tailor shop, they don’t even acknowledge me, as I only want to buy fabric. They know I need it, so they say $20 a metre for fabric and walk away, they commiserate with me and say that you can buy the cheaper one for $13. I eventually get them down to $16.50, they wish me a happy New Year and intonate that they are sorry for ripping me off. They know when it’s not necessary to negotiate.

It’s 1:30pm now, I bring back the fabric to my tailor and they seem disappointed that they actually need to make the jacket. Their panic is growing, as this is the second last day the shop is open before they close for Tet. At this stage, I have all my chips on the table and I know the odds are against me of them pulling off the designer ‘like’ jacket that I first set out for.

It occurs to me when I eventually sit down for lunch that they said they would bring me to the button shop to pick out special buttons for the jackets. As I am ever the perfectionist, I make sure that this is also considered. They bring me there by moped, so I hop on the back of a sixteen year olds moped that is half my size. As the journey gets longer and longer, I think am I going back to Hanoi to get these buttons. Again, my expectations are that I will arrive at a beautiful emporium for buttons, but we arrive at a corner shop with nothing but plastic buttons behind an inconvenient glass counter. Nobody wants to help, and my sixteen year-old tailor urges me to make a decision straight away. So, I reluctantly pick something. The moped then pulls up outside the ‘sweat shop’ where my jacket has been constructed, bits of fabric are flying everywhere with ten men cramped into a shop front, fervently running through the last of the orders. I initially conceived that there would be big screen projecting pictures of the designs, after seeing the real ‘tailor shop’, I begin to realize how instructions and scribbles could get lost in translation.

My ‘Armani’ imitation jacket was then bundled into a plastic bag and we head back to the shop for what I hoped was the final fitting. They understandably want to rush me through it, keeping me a distance from the mirror, but on closer examination the fabric is puckered at the seams and one sleeve is still longer than the other, measuring revealed the inaccuracy. I felt I was back on a construction site, with sub-contractors trying to distract you from away from their dodgy workmanship.

My ‘tailor made’ suit

On the final day before closure of the shop for ‘Tet’, I return hesitantly with bated breath to put an end to this tailoring epic. Once I had entered the pin for my credit card into the machine, the assistant has disappeared without even a goodbye, leaving the young helper to give me the receipt. Transaction Complete, leaving the shop I barely got a good-bye. I wondered, are these good businesswomen, are they trying to build a brand and reputation and do they understand their customer needs?

As I walked back to the hotel with my suits and amoeba tops in hand, I reflected and wondered what I have learned from the experience. There are so many things to consider when you choose to get a bespoke item made, rather than buying an item of the shelf that has gone through the experience curve and rigorous testing. Consideration of the material is required, what are its properties? How much information do they have on the design? What are the edge finishes, stitching and seams? Does the design flatter your figure and not just the model in the picture? What is the relationship between the person taking the order and the tailor? And items that are out of your control, what kind of day is the tailor having? Is his wife putting him under pressure? Does he have a headache from sitting in a hot sweaty room? And how many other items does he have to finish in the same time frame? Considering all this, if your determined to get that tailor-made experience, it’s probably best to get something copied that already fits you well, rather than reinvent from scratch, remembering that the style and colour may not flatter your figure in the same way as svelte models in the pictures.

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Vietnam – New Year’s Resolutions and Conclusion

The child called out ‘Happy Hour’ to the tourists, selling hope in the form of paper lanterns, that perilously have to survive the choppy journey down the river

The blossom leaves have all fallen from the Tet trees and the New Year begins not so differently as the last. The patriarchal society will still be ever present, women will continue to do the lion’s share of the work and one party will continue to control the hopes and dreams of the nation.

Vietnam reflects on the year that’s past and thinks about new opportunities for the future

Exploring Vietnam in all her contexts reveals a vibrant, vivacious personality, who is spiritual, savvy, family orientated and individual. Her rich history and physicality only make her more attractive to outsiders. Yet, with the New Year in site, there are many challenges that await her. Regardless, she steadfastly has aspirations for a better life for her and the family.

Vietnam has to endure many human rights issues with suppression of any dissent, but most enjoy more freedom than their forefathers in Vietnam’s long history ever did. Her health is also continually challenged with unmonitored pollution, without much enforcement. There is very little presence of police on the streets, with continual offers of drugs in the backpacker’s area. Her international reputation has been tainted by a piracy and copycat culture, with the mantra of ‘Same, Same but Different’ emblazoned on tourist t-shirts.

By writing this story of falling for ‘Vietnam’, with all her beauty and warts. I wanted to express the experience of getting to know her as a fusion of millions of people, stories, ideas, traditions, all wrapped in the beautiful, complex and the deeply engaging entity of ‘Vietnam’.

‘Vietnam’ keeps the show on the road
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Descending into Nepal

It’s 9am and I’m waking up in Hong Kong on Christmas morning, looking out the window on the 27th floor of our rented apartment. I see a blue hazy sky with a grey layer of pollution, towers clustered at different levels, the harbour with speed boats zipping across the window in all directions, a collection of working trawlers that turn direction with the tide, but everything looks pretty much the same as it did yesterday. So what makes this Christmas Day different?

Is it about the journey home, decorations that twinkle and sparkle, Christmas music that resonates and drifts you into childhood memories, the smell of turkey, the touch and embrace of a family members, the clinking of the glasses or general chorus of voices and laughter? I thought I wouldn’t miss Christmas, being on the adventure of a lifetime with the man I dearly love, but I do miss the lights, the smells and the touch, something that Skype and a keyboard hasn’t managed to successfully replicate yet.

Picking up where I left off the last time I wrote, we continued our journey into the greener pastures of Nepal following a steep decent from the Tibetan Plateau. Instantly the Nepali Hindi people looked different from the Tibetans, draped in pinks, purples, greens and blues. There was a frenetic social liveliness that was verging on chaos as we crossed the boarder and entered Nepal. We boarded a taxi and hoped our bags would remain tied to the roof, as our jeep accelerated through the villages and meandering roads, overhanging the river valleys. Amidst the chaos, the jeep missed a small child by a sliver as he darted across the road. This is a normal days driving in Nepal.

The orderly modest homesteads that we saw in Tibet were now replaced with attempts at palatial dilapidated concrete ‘mansions’. The closer we got to Kathmandu, the more expressive the buildings became, featuring colonial hangover motifs with arches, paneled windows and all painted fantastically bright colours, of green and pinks similar to their dress. There are few international companies advertising along the route, but a noticeable one is Berger paint, they say life can be uplifted with a bit of colour.

As we travelled through the landscape we noticed that people seemed to have very little materially, but they did have abundant water  (not drinkable for you or I), warm sunshine and fertile soil, luxuries in comparison to the hardship of Tibet. Also, most people seemed to have a mobile phone. Although the transportation infrastructure is woefully underdeveloped, their mobile communication is less so, with most of the tourist restaurants and hotels offering free Wi-Fi. I thought to myself, how might they use these communication ‘tools’ to improve people’s lives, could it assist in the understanding of building technology, to control the environment in which they live, to improve energy conservation or to improve foreign investment into the country that was only $1 million in 2008 and climbed to still an insignificant $39 mil in 2009.

On the outset of this journey around the world, we thought the trip would take eight to nine months, that’s always been the endpoint in our minds. So, when we reached the arbitrary halfway mark of the trip, I felt really exhausted for the first time. My throat ached and my body shivered feeling the approach of some kind of flu. I also felt that I was lacking the enthusiasm to look forward to the next big thing, when you hit such highs, it’s difficult to keep repeating the exhilarating feeling of being completely in the moment of travel. I lay down for almost two day, slept mostly and just let my body and mind catch up.

After a couple of days we set of into the hinterland to hike in the renowned Annapurna region. I didn’t know what to expect, although it had been recommended by friends as one the highlights of their trip. We decided to get a guide, who also served as a porter. As we settled into our seats for the long bus journey, we were amazed that several men had to push start it for quite a distance, less amusing though were the site of locals throwing rubbish out the window to an already littered street. What makes people think it’s ok to throw rubbish out a window? Is it that people become accustomed to a dirty environment, expecting someone always to clean it? Driving out of Kathmandu, the pollution was astonishing, the banks of the rivers that should have been formed with rocks were compacted with plastic bottles, bags of rubbish piled up with children playing along side, this over-crowded generation is so new, but what makes the situation more damning is that what’s discarded does not disintegrate.

As we passed though the many bustling streets, I noticed that life is mostly lived in the open air. From grooming, washing clothes, breast feeding, playing cards, cooking food to settling up small shops on their front steps. Life is a social interaction with few barriers, where as in the suburban life that we are all familiar with, conceals all the ‘private activities’ within the comfort of our homes. I wondered as we passed a young girl looking back at our bus, how and why does someone fall in love in Nepal? What does a young woman desire, when she has to contend with traffic, dusty roads, cold water and over crowding?

It’s interesting to see how advertising communicates to different markets. On our journey, we noticed the repetitive ad for coca cola with a beautiful man and woman drinking from the bottle, coke also one of the cheapest drinks at any restaurant, even cheaper than water. A brand of whiskey projected a meticulously toned topless man being caressed by a beautiful woman, all his because he was able to choose luxury. This approach to advertising I believe would not pass in a developed country, but the innocence of the market leave them open to obvious persuasion. Much of the advertising is hand painted on the sides of houses, becoming a semi-permanent fixture. One home could be sporting two different brands of beer and become inadvertently a drinking establishment as a result. A huge amount of the signage and advertising is also in English, the aspirational language of the prosperous.

It’s never acceptable or mannerly to talk about bouts of diarrhea, but in Nepal because it’s so prevalent to get sick, even for the locals, everyone has empathy and understanding if you get struck down. On the first day of the hike I got that worrying cramp that only leads to misery and lethargy. I can normally cope well in the comfort of my own home, but in this ‘wilderness’ with only an outside ‘squat’ toilet, this really stretched my coping mechanisms. What’s amazing though is that the body is able to mend itself and it will tell you subconsciously what it can and can’t do, so after one day of rest and I was back walking.

Our walking route was the Annapurna Sanctuary, a route that ascends into the mountains up stone manmade steps and terraces. To my surprise, people are living and working along this ancient route, mostly farming the mountain terraces that have been shaped by many generations. The fields are a hive of activity, cutting hay by hand, drying it horizontally on the manmade ledges. One of the mornings involved hiking in the darkness in order to see the sunrise on Poon hill. This involved waking up at the ungodly hour of 4:30am and walking into the darkness, with only my flashlight illuminating my feet and flagstones in front of me. When we did arrive at the summit, an orange glow blazoned behind the thick horizontal band of the earth, turning around we could just make out the silhouette’s of the surrounding range of mountains and we knew we would be in for a spectacular treat.

Astonishingly, education still happens in the mountains, there are no four-wheel drives on the school run though. Children walk with their siblings and friends one hour down the mountain and one and half hours back. It was very cute to see a five year old hold the hand of a three year old, as if she was the older and wiser sister. All the children are neatly dressed in their school uniforms, perhaps a hangover from the British Empire. The private schools in the cities are taught through English, recognizing the path to opportunities.

I have a friend that volunteered in a Nepal school for several months and he asked the children where would they most like to go on holiday, an overwhelming majority thought their ideal holiday would be to go down to the river in the valley to wash their clothes and themselves and maybe swim and play with friends for an hour or two. Holidays in our sense are definite luxuries.

We met an abundance of travellers on our hike, in the evenings we exchanged stories of our journey and shared the common difficulties and good experiences. On one evening the guesthouse dining room resembled a gathering of the UN, with one side of the room occupied by China, South Korea and Nepal and the other Switzerland, Australia and Ireland.  It was particularly cold and damp that evening and the young Swiss gentleman took it upon himself to represent us and request from the manager heating for the room. To set the scene, the walls were constructed of plywood and stone and the single glazed windows had numerous gaps at the junctions. There was no fireplace in sight and my feet were placed on a cold concrete floor, so I guessed the owner was not going to flick the switch for the under floor heating! Our Swiss representative returned with what was on offer from the owner, a kerosene heater for two euro per person in the room, the rent for the night was costing us six euro, so we considered this highly overpriced, also our Chinese colleagues were not interested in joining in on the deal, leaving more expense on us. Considering what we were bargaining was very little compared to our ability to earn. Sometimes it was easy to lose sight at how difficult it must be for the owner to make money with only two tourist seasons per year sandwiched between monsoon and winter. Also the main transportation to this location is by mules or Sherpa’s, many of the latter wearing little more than flip flops, carrying three times their weight tied from their forehead to their back.

To set Nepal’s economic situation in context, the county has been blighted by political instability.  The monarchy were dethroned in 2008, leaving a vacuum of leadership, with the new Government occupying itself with the maintenance of truces between Maoists and other political parties, with little time left for consideration basic services and infrastructure. Meanwhile, raw sewerage flows into the rivers and rubbish piles up with nowhere to go. There is only a 50% employment rate, with the majority of those involved in agriculture (and this is seasonal due to monsoon). Tourism although effected by the uprisings is the panacea to their ills, but the majority of small businesses operating in the tourist areas have an almost identical offering with little differentiation, pashminas, crafts, knock-off outdoor clothing, guides, currency exchange, laundry, massage, café and book shops. Any kind of need that a tourist could possibly have will be satisfied for a price. There is even a pharmacist doctor who will take a stool sample given the prevalence of stomach sickness. Previously, as we entered Nepal across the Chinese border, lines and lines of dilapidated trucks cued up to bring cheap goods for re-sale across the boarder and on our departure from Kathmandu airport, tourists had amply filled knock-off ‘North Face’ bags full with cheap goodies. On viewing this cycle, I wondered was there something perverse about the benefits of global economics.

2011 is supposed to be official year of tourism for Nepal and officials are obliged to do everything they can to attract tourists. The beauty of Nepal lies in it’s majestic scenery and traditional way of life and the exuberance of the people. I would question the role of government to enhance these existing valuable assists. On exiting the country from what felt like a provincial airport, the last smell I got as I entered the gate was of urine, from the overflowing toilets adjacent. Although I was greeted warmly by the army with guns at the airport entrance, I was then frisked intimately three times at different points. At the last check, I was sent back to the check in as my hand luggage was missing a tag, the bureaucracy of the system insisted I had to, although the check in staff had no uniforms or what seemed any management in sight.

Flying back into ‘civilised’ China, we were amazed at it’s airport infrastructure, but we still experienced an exasperated bottleneck at the security transfer, with strict adherence to protocol. I wondered, comparing the two systems, were Nepal’s problems down to poor governance and thought what variations of communism actually work? Considering Hong Kong where I’m now sitting, the British handed it back 13 years ago, but has anything changed? There is no democracy, but it is governed independently from China. This lack of accountability is acceptable as long as people have plenty of money and the comforts of everyday life are unaffected.

I’m enjoying the ‘rest ‘in Hong Kong, looking out at the harbour of what I thought was the 27th floor, but is actually the 24th floor in reality.  There is actually a superstition in Chinese culture with the number 4, as it has an association with death, so the 4th, 14th and 24th floor have been omitted from the elevator! Finding myself now in this rather unfortunate numeric location, I have to say I’ve never felt more alive! And I’m trying to balance in my mind the desire to stay still with the perpetual need to move forward. I know in a few days I will be happy to pack my bags again and move to the southern tropics of Vietnam and celebrate their lunar new years festival -TET. We look forward to discovering this fiercely independent place and hopefully gain some understanding of how it maintains it’s communist zealous with a burgeoning capitalist economy.

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Japan at 300km per hour

At the moment, we’re hurtling though the landscape at 300km per hour on a bullet train travelling to Kagoshima on the southern tip of Japan. In this region there are more temples and shrines than churches in Ireland, with each competing to have a more sacred relic of Budda or taller Pagoda. Their main religion is Shintoism, which is indigenous to Japan, no God as such, just a set of beliefs that are based on superstition and help them keep safe from the vagaries of nature. Their located on the conversion of four tectonic plates, so there are tons of Volcano’s, hot springs and of course earth quakes, so they have good reason to be paranoid about nature. Christianity was banned in the 15th century, so the only places that have churches are where there was some trading with Europe.

We visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the atomic bombs were dropped, fascinating places and even more interesting to see them operating as lively hubs of activity today, rebuilt as if nothing had ever happened. Interesting to read about the history, their version of events of world war 2 and then to watch some documentaries on the US version of events, but the Japanese did commit atrocities to their Asian neighbors Korea, China etc. prior to the bombing. Hard to know who was right, but the tragedy is that so many innocent civilians were killed in the process.

It can also be a challenge to be walking into the unknown each day, not knowing what to expect, what you’re lodgings will be like. The language can get a bit isolating, but we try our best with signals, miming and point, some times we even speak Irish because they haven’t a clue what we’re saying anyway, but they still smile at us, nod and bow. The other thing is that everyone bows at you, the deeper the bow the more respect they have for you, sometimes it can get too much, but it’s only out of respect. It’s also an extremely hierarchal society where everyone has their rank in relation to each other, your status relates to age, wealth, what school you went to, where you’re from, nobody is equal, everyone is either higher or lower then you, which creates a continual pursuit for status and superiority.

The final thing is that they’re a very old fashioned society in terms of the role of woman (almost like 1950’s US). It’s expected that they will stop working when they get married, most woman take roles as ‘office ladies’ in big companies so that they can meet their husbands there and the better company they get into the greater their prospects of meeting a good rich man to keep them in pretty clothes and fine food and with all this pampering the birth rate is still only 1.3 children per family. It is incredibly expensive to educate you’re children, if you want them to get into a good school, so that they get into a good company, you will need to pay fees of $900,000 dollars from lower school to University and that’s just one child, needless to say they put enormous pressure on their children to succeed and do the family proud. But coupled with these pressures comes one of the highest suicide rates, accepted infidelity as the men are working every hour of the day to pay for their wives and expensive children and when the men have worked their whole life, married couples find they don’t have that much in common after all and there is a high rate of divorce at retirement age!

The more we’re here the more perplexing it gets, sometimes it feels like it asks more questions then answers, but it’s great to be here experiencing it first hand.

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Icons in the landscape

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While travelling across the US, I had the privilege to see the sun set on the Devil’s tower in Wyoming. This conical tower is located in a flat landscape, its stature creating a focal point and allusive challenge to 2,000 rock climbers each year. It captured the imagination of the native Americans before it’s present incarnation, they called it the bear’s tower, but somehow it’s meaning got lost in translation and the settlers misunderstood it to be the ‘bad god’s tower’.

Today, at the base of Mount Fuji, I contemplated another Icon, 8,000 miles from the former. This icon has inspired artists, pilgrims and writers through out history. In our ‘stressful’ times, people reflect upon it from their tranquil spas dotted around it’s base and the workers in Tokyo lust after it from their desks and imagine the escape and break from monotony it represents.

Why do people feel the need to make or take a pilgrimage? What’s worth the sacrifice of shutting down your every day life and setting of on a journey into the unknown? These paths are not always altruistic; the pilgrim may ask himself what do I want from this? Indulgences, elation or even respect?

Alain de Bottem talks in his book the Art of Travel “that our lives are dominated by the search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest-in all its ardour and paradoxes-than our travels”. When we are pursuing these electric moments on our journeys, we may only experience 10-minute intervals of uninterrupted bliss, where our minds think of nothing else, not the past, nor our anxieties of the future, but are completely in that moment of experience.

Is this what a pilgrimage and an icon offers, places to forget our mortal bodies, that need caring, feeding, cleaning and rest. Are these the moments that we most crave to exist in?but if we experienced them continuously, they would merge into the everyday and lose their iconic significance?

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What is the Point of Going to Japan?

Why would a person want to travel to a country that is so expensive, difficult to navigate and a potential radiation threat? The usual comforts of food are represented by symbols, people look at you strangely as if you’ve landed from outer space and you feel like a giant, although you’re average height at ‘home’.

What does it mean to have a home and to be from somewhere? Does this origin set out how you should behave, a palette for food, a physical appearance or a sense of purpose?

Japan is grueling and perplexing, a cacophony of neon lights and noise, young girls dressing up in school and the ‘salary men’ in their armor of white shirts and man bags descending into the underground when darkness falls and the work is done.

But Tokyo is not what you would expect from a major city. It has 12 million people, but it feels like the safest place I’ve ever been. How can a society create and control this, when one can visit a socialist city like Vancouver and venture to the wrong street and feel petrified.

I wonder is Japanese rigor and discipline admirable or frightening? If a society has this kind of control, what does it repress? Where is the outlet for human wickedness? Is it better to think of human misdemeanors secretly in ones own mind?

Why travel to Japan when you’re packed like sardines into a train carriage, but one also has the opportunity to travel to almost every unique corner and foothold of the country. Would an Americans except being lumped together or would the desire for independence and freedom trump the advantages of travelling as a group. But is this uniquely an American trait or a human desire to be master of one’s destiny?

My home is an island on the west coast of Europe, I can’t travel for a long distance without seeing the horizon, the context has shaped who I am, always pursing what’s beyond it. America is an expansive bountiful landscape for the pioneer and the ‘brave’.

So, why am I travelling in Japan, to understand its nuances, its cohesiveness, i’s obedience, its quietness and ponder if the individual’s desires will begin to emerge from the ‘group understanding’?

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