2012

An impromptu visit to Malaysia and Master Wong, the Fortune Teller.

I am ferried into a cab with a Swedish couple coming to the end of their travels. I have no idea what's going on (fairly standard for me) but I had thought i'd bought a bus ticket to travel across the border from Siem Reap down to Bangkok. 

“Oh no I think it was overbooked that's why we are in a cab” 

I'm always the last to know! We get over the border and I realise its the first time i haven't looked up the visa requirements in advance. Big. Mistake. 

After an interminable wait at customs we shuffle through and I look at my stamp. Turns out you don't even get a month coming in overland to Thailand and my passport has only been stamped for 15 days. I have a big New Year's eve planned at the Full Moon party with friends from England on Koh Phangan and have then already paid up for a month's yoga course in January. 

I check the date stamp again to see when I have to get out of the country by: 

December 31st

Bollocks. 

My brilliant planning skills strike again. 

I head on down to Bangkok anyway and after some of the best street food known to man – bbq pork with lemon grass, rice and papaya salad (outside my hostel Lub d off Silom Road) I realise the only thing for it is to leave the bloody country again, apply for a 3 month tourist visa and then head back to Koh Phangan. After stocking up on the kind of essentials its been hard to find in the rest of Asia – namely a proper sports bra– I decide to head down to Penang in Malaysia for the visa run. 
 


Somehow it all works out, and after treating myself to a glorious breakfast of waffles with maple syrup and walnuts at the trendy American cafe next door i'm standing at Bangkok train station buying a ticket for Butterworth – the strangely American fort -esque moniker for the train station you need to go to for Pengang. 

The temperature of the cabin is cool, belying the humidity of the afternoon. To my left the sun sets rose tinting the clouds . I watch the palm trees that darken the landscape begin to whizz past and settle in for a long ride. 

 

 


I love train rides – so i'm not too bothered about the roadtrip continuing. Its a sleeper and my top bunk (which is very slender) gets unfolded by the crew towards the evening. They have an a la carte buffet service which is good and the next day I get breakfast delivered to my bed with a hot coffee. Eventually I clamber down in time for us to traipse through customs into Malaysia, bleary eyed. Thank goodness for the Malays who have none of this visa nonense and just stamp your passport for 90 days. 

I navigate my way out of Butterworth train station with The Bastard on my back and go in search of the ferry to Georgetown (in Penang) I filter through to some seats take The Bastard off and wait. I keep looking out ot sea and wonder when the ferry is gong to arrive. After about 20 miutes I turn around and realise I am surrounded by water – I've been on the ferry the whole time. Oh dear – another clue that I often remain completely oblivious to the world around me. 

Finally I arrive into George Town and end up staying on

 

Muntri street just off one of the main roads. 

After handing over 140RM (about 30 quid) to a guest house to sort out my Thai visa I decide to visit Master Wong the fortune teller. In the front of his room is an intricate multi layered shrine in red with incense burning. A woman is performing an animist ritual, lighting up silver curls of paper that smoke and then fall smouldering into a brass cauldron. She is remembering her ancestors who have passed away. 

Master Wong heralds me in and starts with his patter – when he realises i'm 37 it starts to go awry. He clutches my palm a bit tighter and after much deliberation and some consideration says: 

“No, No, is ok, you get married at …...43! – and you can have.... three kids!” 



Assuming of course, that this what every gal wishes for...and then he adds a hasty warning.... 

“BUT!!! 

...YOU GOTTA BE QUICK!!!”




Angkor Watt and Sunrise Strategy 101 for beginners, Siem Reap, Cambodia (part one)

Its time for Awesome Angkor Wat. I'm beyond excited. We've parted ways with the Aussie girls I met scrubbing down elephants and i've stayed on travelling to Siem Reap with Rich, the laconic, blonde ad man from London. 

Rich and I have time to spare and really don't like the idea of cramming in all of the sites into one hot, touristy day – (1 day pass -$20) so we are opting for the 3 day pass ($40) . 

After much deliberation we have a plan – its Sunrise Strategy 101...for beginners... 

We want to do our own route and (steel yourself) we've opted to do sunrise at a different temple on each of the three days. That means a sprightly 4.30am start. Luckily the three day pass can be used on any day over a given week so we plan our selves a day off in between to recuperate by the pool. Which (as I am not quite as young as I used to be) allows time for the greying skin and bags under the eyes to retreat as well, and if you are not time starved I highly recommend. 

The logic is this: although there will be plenty of people hauling themselves out of bed at that ungodly hour to see Angkor Wat, the main tour buses don't arrive into the site until 9 am. We've been tipped off by the Aussies that if we catch sunrise at the other temples – Ta Prohm (the jungly temple where Tomb Raider was shot) and Bayon, the temple of enigmatically smiling Buddha heads, we may just get them to ourselves. 

The site is too large and spread out to do on foot; enthusiastic and very fit cyclists can show themselves around by bike, but otherwise if you are not part of a tour group - hiring a tuk tuk and/or a guide is your best bet. Rich leaves me with the job of sourcing our transport for the next day. As I leave the hotel i'm met by a bank of the fellows – who have a rather strange habit of raising their arm in a salute to command your attention whilst lying supine in the shade of their tuk tuk. 

“I wouldn't mind” says Rich later – “but its the fact that most of them can't even be bothered to stand up for the business that gets me!” 

The consesus amongst them seems to be $20 and $25 per day (the same quotes as the hotel) and they really don't like the idea of us going “off piste” as it were with our own route. 

Slowly they fall away. One driver comes out of the shadow of his tuk tuk and smiles hesitantly. 

“I do for $10” he says shyly. 

“Really?!!” I say 

So we agree $10 a day and for the one where we want to go further out – we agree $20 and the next day Mun (pronounced Moon) meets us bang on 4.30 am. Its wise to take along long sleeves and also something to cover legs, not just because its chilly at this unholy hour but because its required out of respect in some of the smaller temples (and within part of Angkor Wat itself.) 

I'm also sporting my new Cambodian Army baseball cap that April persuaded me to buy. 

“Good God you are not actually going to wear that are you?” says Rich looking aghast... 

“Yes why not?!” 

“Well it could go either way couldn't it?...I'm not sure 

how much sense of humour they have about their army... 

“The Khmer Rouge might see you and kill you!” he adds a tad dramatically. 

They don't, you'll be pleased to know. Actually the opposite is true –they laugh and shake my hand -Cambodians that is, not the Khmer Rouge...that would just be scary. 

We start our half hour journey to the temples and gradually shapes come out of the darkness. Villagers live within the temple grounds and as we pass little straw huts balanced on building bricks; we see the faces of children lit up by the smoke and glow of early morning fires as they crouch outside with their parents. One small boy is curled up across the thigh of a huge supine water buffalo. 

I'm accosted by a little girl and her mum selling “hot coffeeee!” as I stumble out of the tuk tuk which should please other night owls and caffeine freaks but is too early for me to drink anything or be polite. We watch the sun rise over The Royal Bathing Pools with only a scattering of other people for company. The palm trees across the lake create an inky silhouette mirrored back perfectly in the flat undisturbed glass of the water. Gradually the light at the corners of the sky shifts from indigo to turquoise and a warm peach glows lights the horizon. Its a tranquil, magical start to the day. 

At 6 o clock Ta Prohm opens so we walk over and through the ornate archway into our first Angkor Temple. 

 



We are the only people here aside from one other French couple. The first rays of early morning light filter through the leaves onto ancient stones grey and mottled with a pale moss, giving an unearthly feel to our first ruin. We stand and admire the entrance – a crazy paving of broken up slabs and archways speared by the bone white trunks of two large trees that leer out of the top of the temple. 

Ta Prohm was built in the 12th to 13th century by Jarvarmun V11 as a Buddhist monastery. It looks like the jungle has been trying to reclaim it ever since. Enormous tree trunks thrust their way through the open rooves and branches drape their way around windows. Its an extraordinary monument – nature at its wildest trying to swallow whole the offering man made to her. When the French couple leave we have the place to ourselves and we can explore the place in silence; its awe inspiring and just a little eerie. The pale rays of the sun send slivers of light through archways; touch with gold the curling tendrils of the vines; and light up the giant grey roots that lurch over doorways. My scream shatters the silence. A millipede as long as my hand winds past me and drapes itself over a stone step. The heat of the morning sun brings more tourists with her. So we leave, pleased to have shared our first Angkor temple with nothing but birdsong and the creatures of the jungle. 

As we leave Mun greets us where we left him and takes us to a restaurant he knows for breakfast. Usually tuk tuk drivers will have a deal set up with cafes but Mun says he doesn't get free anything and sure enough we watch him pay at the end. 

“ I don't know how you did it but I think you managed to find the only honest and cheapest tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap! “ says Rich appreciatively. 



Breakfast is thick Cambodian coffee with sweet condensed milk and a delicious Ban Xeo – a frilly edged, freshly fried pancake stuffed with bean sprouts and pork with sweet dipping sauce and aromatic herbs and crushed peanuts for garnish. 

Our next main temple is Banteay Srei – this temple is set a way out of the main tour circuit of temples so you will need to pay extra for a visit. In my opinion it is worth it. 

Built around 967 its name means Citadel of Women and it is strikingly distinct for its intricately delicate reliefs that are carved out of red standstone. It has an intriguing Pink Panther-esque history as well as its the victim of a theft by the French writer and artist Malreaux who tried to remove and take home two of the bas reliefs. Ironically he was arrested by French colonial authorities who much later in his career made him Minister for Cultural affairs! 

On our way back we visit the Landmine Museum. It was created by a boy soldier who fought under the Khmer Rouge and afterwards dedicated his life to removing landmines -using his technical knowledge and his bare hands. The museum is a little ramshackle in its set up but you can see all kinds of ammunitions and landmines that have been used both by Cambodia and the USA. Cambodia has the worst landmine problem with Unexploded ordinance still peppering the rural landscape, and its well worth visiting and supporting this cause. 

We finish our first day with a visit to a smaller temple - Thomanen. A woman in straw pointed hat offers me some incense and I say no. You have to pay to make an offering at the Buddha shrines within the temples and I'm feeling hustled but as she shuffles away she removes her hat to reveal a shaved head, she is a Buddhist nun. 

 



Thomamen is a series of curling arches set back amongst pine trees and away from the hustle and dirt of the road and its tuk tuks. It feels special here somehow, the air feels thick with energy. 

I go back and find the nun and give her some money for a donation. She smiles a gappy toothless sile and ties a red cotton bracelet around my right wrist. Its a Buddha bracelet -for good luck.
When I meet with Rich he says: 

“that place had something really …..magical about it. But maybe its because it was set away from the others...in the trees.” 

I nod silently. Its strange we've both thought the same thing. 

By midday we are ready to call it a day. Well we have been going 8 hours and the sun has burnt off the early morning coolness; the sky is a pristine navy blue. I like our Sunrise Strategy as it allows us to get in early and avoid the thrust and bustle of the packed tourists who are now scurrying over the remains like ants, and then leave when the heat is at its peak. We head back to the hotel to build up our energy reserves for another 4.30am start to morrow, and the biggy – Angkor Wat itself.

A river of perfume and "get a room" in Vietnamese

I transfer back to Hanoi and then its another nightbus to Hue. I arrive into a town soft and grey with drizzle at 6am in the morning - having been sardined into a slot the size of a baked bean can all night. Because of absolutely no preparation on my part i'm easy prey for a persistent man on a motorbike. Mr Thien gradually persuades me to part with 180,000 (just under a fiver) to take me around the sights of Hue for the day. As he also manages to find me a guesthouse for under 6 dollars a night I don't begrudge it him too much...but on checking in I suddenly realise that although I am now in Central Vietnam - my underwear is still holidaying in North Vietnam. I've managed to leave my laundry at the Little Hanoi Hostel. Bugger. 

I wanted to visit some of the DMZ (Demilitarised zone) to see a part of Vietnam's war history. As there is still UXO – Unexploded ordinance in this part of the country i'm a little relieved when Mr Thien and I get our wires crossed and he ends up taking me to Chin Ham or 9 Tunnels instead. 

This is a memorial and series of nine trenches around 6km oustide of Hue that used to play prison to Vietnamese under the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dien Dinmh and garnered the moniker “hell on earth.” The tunnels and cages are complete with grotesque mannequins again, one forced to lie face down to drink with a rat scrabbling its paws beside his head, another clutches the bars to his ceiling - his emaciated ribs poking through his rags. The surrouning countryside is eerily calm and provides a cool canopy of fragrant cedars in the heat of midday – belying the horror that its seen. 



The royal tombs of various Emperors and Empress line the Perfume River that runs through Hue. I visit two of them. The tomb of Khai Dinh is located away from the centre of town and up a steep hill in the Chau Chau mountains. Khia Dinh reigned in the early 20th century and was not by all accounts a particularly popular chap – as he kow towed to the French imperialist overlords and raised taxes by some 20% in order to pay for the kitting out of his lavish mausoleum! It does however have the largest stone dragons up its staircase in all of Vietnam. Minh Mang's tomb is in a shaded and calmer area away from the others. I don't think he was particularly well liked either but that didn't stop him from investing in his dying space.

There is a lake filled with large lilly pads decorating its perimeter in front of green and wooded hills. There are more Bodhi trees, their long and curling roots branching through the concrete paving of the square and set in little nooks and crannies amongst the branches are incense sticks.

 

These are holy trees – where Budhha himself found enlightment and provide a lovely tranquil shade where I can contemplate life whilst eating a strawberry cornetto. I finish my little tour by visiting its most famous, oldest and prettiest sight – the Thien Mu Pagoda. Built in the 16th century on the banks of the Perfume river, the pagoda is a creation of dusty pinks and golds. Fearsome temple guardians with mad staring eyes and pointy beards guard the gates. Inside the temple there are monks in grey robes tending to the gardens whilst tourists surrepitiously take their photo. There is also another more shocking sight– an old rusty car responsible for taking monk Thich Quang Duc to the site of his self immolation in the 1960s. 



I part ways with Mr Vien and pay 100,000 for a 45 minute boat ride on the Perfume river. In the heat of midday its nice to have an old blue wooden boat to myself. We pass villagers at the river banks and on the little islets in stream inadvertently creating picture postcard scenes of Traditional Vietnam - fishermen in long blue overalls and triangular straw hats casting their nets. The boat drops me off at the local market where women line the street selling bananas and other tropical fruit along with live crabs and frogs. Then i take a walk to the old town – the Citadel. A rickshaw driver calls out to me: 

“Where are you going????” 

“I really don't know!” I say. Its true, I have no map or any idea what the sights are. Luckily he comes to my rescue and offers to take me around the old town for 100,000 dong. 

My driver is called Mr Hue (easy to remember) and he, like Mr Thien, has a little notebook of recommendations from tourists of different nationalities. He has a very warm open smile, bright eyes, deep brown skin and a gentle air. 


We go to a couple of temples –in one a monk in saffron robes is giving a sermon to nuns who crowd on the steps in their grey shifts, to listen. I ask Mr Hue if he is Buddhist and he concurs - showing me the dharma wheel he has tattooed on his heart. We visit some pretty gardens where fat fish swim and song birds sing from the trees ad then a Unesco building on the outskirts of another temple. We cross a moat to get to the building and watch a woman who is thigh deep in the thick green water pulling at lotus flowers. 

“I no like do this!” exclaims Mr Hue... “Snakes!” 

There is a tree heavy with goldenn coloured blooms on the banks with an incredible creamy rich honey suckle scent. On the waters edge opposite is an old and crumbling deserted house. It was occupied by families until recently when Unesco decided to list it as a world heritage site and protect it. 

“They very lucky!” says Mr Hue

“They get new house for free from Unesco!” 

I finish my day having a look around the Forbidden City. Emperor Gia Long took control of Vietnam in 1802 and set about building himself a palace and citadel protected by a moat with water taken from the Perfume River. The main building was the palace and throne room but many more courtyards, gardens and rooms were added. In 1968 Hue underwent 26 days of bombing inflicted by the VietCong and North Vietnamese army against the US and South Vietnam. Much of the beautiful ancient architecture of the city was destroyed. Out of 160 buildings of historical importance only 10 remain. The brick work of the city walls that ring the old town are pocked with bullet marks. Much of it is has been restored only recently . 3000 people were killed in what is referred to now as The Battle of Hue. 

“ I don't know my father.” Mr Hue tells me. 

“He die in war when I am born. My mother die of heart when i'm 14. Then I live with grandmother.” 

His grandmother at 93 is still alive and can't see very far or hear very well so now he looks after her. 

His eyes are filled with sadness as he watches me make my way down the staircase to the old wall. I guess the Vietnam war is so recent in our history its not suprising that i've already met one of its living victims. 



That evening – i've found a great little thriller at a book exchange and decide to take it with me to dinner at the local restaurant and have “a quiet night in.” I order a beer, some “white rose” (the local speciality – little flowers of shrimp dumpling ) and a Ban Xeo – a deep fried pancake stuffed with prawn, pork, bean sprouts and served with a peanut dipping sauce. I'm just settling in when I catch someone in my peripherhal vision sit down near me. I turn to look – and then (subtle as always) do an ENORMOUS double take as I realise its an incredibly gorgeous guy. I've been so obvious (absolutely no poker face remember) I can't really do anything now except say hello. He asks what i'm eating and explains his friend is back at the hotel. 

Martin is a 24 year old Argentinian from Patagonia (the same city as Nico – my taste in men has definitely become a little niche recently...!) He flew out to follow the Rugby world cup in New Zealand before staying on the working visa and is now travelling around Asia with his friend Juan - before heading home for xmas. He has thick black hair, caramel coloured eyes fringed with very long lashes, 5 days of stubble, a husky Argentinian/ Spanishy sounding accent and the ugliest flip flops i've ever seen in my life. It later transpires he's nicked the free ones you get in guest houses all over Asia because he likes them. Juan can only shake his head in despair. Nonetheless - horrendous footwear aside he looks exactly like like Enrique Inglesias' prettier, less manicured younger brother. I take an executive decision and immediately put my book away again. 

We carry on chatting - he's very easy to talk too, funny and outgoing with a sunny disposition and eventually Juan joins us and we move onto another bar and play Jenga. Its a clubby tourist trap called Brown Eyes whose idea of a some good tunes is the Grease Megamix and La Bamba and its filled with my countrymen. A sight that normally fills me with dread. Nevertheless the absolutely terrible music can't stop Juan and Martin from kicking off their flip flops and beginning to dance. That is definitely the difference between Latin American men and their Northern hemisphere counterparts. Most British men i've met would be resolutely clinging to their beer and probably be just about building up to a non commital head nod in time to the music about now rather than taking to the dance floor. So its fun to be with boys that know how to party. 

Eventually Juan ducks out early and Martin and I go grab a beer at a little street food cafe that's open late. When we start to kiss the locals start screaming, making puckering up noises and pushing our heads together. Then they start to take photos! We've been pretty chaste but I explain that in Laos public displays of affection are frowned upon and they have signs up on the do's and don'ts for Westerners. Maybe its the same here... 



“mmmm I don't see any signs up do you bonita?” he shrugs... 

Well when you put it like that... 

So we carry on until the Vietnamese owner – a woman in flipflops and a butchers apron – screeches 

“HOOOOOOTEL!!!!” which I think could be interpreted as “ For Christ sake - Get a room you two.” Her husband is already asleep – sprawled prostrate on a mattress just inside their house. 

So Martin walks me back to my guest house and we swap details in case our paths happen to cross again. 

Tomorrow my adventure continues – via motorbike! Mr Hue is one of the so called “ Easy Riders” of Central Vietnam and has persuaded me to part with even more cash to take the scenic route on the back of his bike – from Hue to Hoi An. Its 3am and I need my beauty sleep as he'll be picking me up at 9am so i'm climbing the steep stone stairs to my room alone...! But hey ...I manage to drift off with a smile on my face

An Art Lesson in Hoi An Vietnam and the essence of Creative failure

Hoi An, Vietnam

When I was last on the road I had the bright idea of documenting my long term travels in a slightly more interesting medium than the upload of a gazillion facebook photos.

I'm tempted to buy an old note pad and some paints and have a very amateurish go and sketching my locations as an alternative. However coming upon artist materials travelling through south east asia is easier said than done, until that is i had an impromptu art lesson courtesy of Mr Wan...

There is nothing like being somewhere heart breakingly romantic to remind you how unutterably alone you are.

On one such evening in Central Vietnam I took a stroll into Hoi-Ann. A picture postcard of how I like to think Vietnam looked in the 18th century.

A little golden bridge arcs a milky green river strung with different coloured lanterns. In the water villagers offer rides from old wooden rowing boats, and crouching on the banks they sell paper lanterns with lit candles inside for people to float down the water for luck.

I sigh audibly. I can't remember when i've ever been somewhere so pretty, I can't remember the last time I missed being in a relationship so much and wished I had someone along side me holding my hand. The water is awash with the gentle amber glow of the floating paper lanterns. I go for a meal on the water's edge and have another speciality to Central Vietnam. Succulent (for a change) grilled pork with rice paper rolls and a sweet broth with peanut sauce, washed down with some beer

The old town is filled with tourist shops hawking Vietnamese cloth, little figurines and ink paintings on rice paper. I stop in one little shop that sells the latter and ask the man inside if he knows where I can buy any paint and paper. Instead he shepherds me inside. 

“I don't want to buy a painting just paints” I explain. 

"I understand" he says " Sit down." 

I sit down at his work table in a dimly lit backroom - the outline of his mother (?) is just visible lying horizontal on a mattress further in. He gets some scraps of rice paper out of his newspaper. I start to look around the shop – outside he has brightly coloured acrylic and oil canvases in sunsetty colours of traditional Vietnamese scenes - women in their elegant long flowing shifts and trousers, and conical hats wading through paddy fields. 



He dips his paint brush in the black ink and starts to paint on the scrap of paper. A sea, some bamboo in the foreground, a little rowing boat with the pointy hats of the men just discernible and a fishing line.

“Now you!” He says handing me the brush. 

“Oh no!” I protest. But as i've asked for artist materials and he seems to think i'm a painter – I can't really refuse. I take the brush and diligently start trying to paint a similar scene: sea, bamboo, boat, people. 

“Quicker!” he says. 

“No wrong...” he says taking a brush again and deftly pushing the fat body of the bristles down to make a bamboo stem in record time. 

Then he does a lady – with three or four simple quick strokes. 

“Easy. Do quicker. No wrong." 

He means there is no such thing as wrong. I try again, making just a few confident bold strokes and get a little better. Then he takes some more paper and shows me the symbol for LOVE in Chinese and Vietnamese – and then how to paint the characters – the numbers. 

At first i'm still holding the brush like a pencil but he encourages me to push it down flat and make big fat strokes. After a happy half an hour painting with him he gives me one of his sketches as a keepsake and I leave for some food. 

I used to love art – it was always one of my best subjects at school until the glacial Miss Sage put me off it for the next two decades. 

“Is this o.k?” 

I'd ask her – not sure if i'd got whatever technique we were learning, down correctly... 

“ well that's about all it is, isn't it” she'd say with about as much warmth and humanity as an arctic wolf. 

She had a penchant for stripey parisian style cardigans and culottes, one hazel eye and one blue (both able to pierce you to the spot along with the froideur of her ice cold sarcasm) along with a nasty case of short (wo)man syndrome. 

Don't choose your subjects because of your teachers -they tell you. Well I did – and subsequently left my art career behind at 15. 

If there is one thing i've learnt since about creativity and how to nurture it back to life – its this. Failure is essential. We don't get anything right first time and we don't learn anything by trying to be perfect. Contrary to everything Miss Sage might have thought – Wan my Vietnamese artist friend has it right – there is No WRONG. 

Now where did I put those brushes…

 

Hoi Chi Minh, War Museum

Today we are visiting the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. 



It's within walking distance from the hostel so with Martin leading, Juan dragging his malarial heels and me screaming everytime a motorbike whizzes past, we set off. I've just bumped into Christine (the French woman I travelled the North of the country with) back at the hostel. She says: 

“I'm relieved to see you've found someone else to protect you from the motorbikes!” 

If Hanoi was a maelstrom of whizzing, smoky scooters then I think Ho Chi Minh is a hundred times worse. I can feel my blood pressure begin to soar and my heart is palpitating. 

Incredibly; we get there in one piece - and yes i'm very grateful I have someone looking out for me,; outside they have a collection of American and Vietnamese tanks, helicopters and planes. 

There are two sections: the first is a recreation of the prisons that were used by the South Vietnamese and also the French to keep Northern Vietnamese revolutionaries in; the second houses exhibitions. 

Did you learn about the Vietnam War in school? Have I ranted recently about how useless and sporadic my own history knowledge is which seems to consist of what Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wore when his divorce came through (yellow) and the second world war. I never learnt beyond 1945 at school so was entirely ignorant of the lead up to and subsequent Vietnam war. In a nutshell -France colonised Vietnam from the late 19th Century until 1955 when North Vietnamese revolutionaries under their leader Ho Chi Minh fought and won their independence briefly before America joined forces with South Vietnam to try and prevent a communist takeover. There then ensued a twenty year war (the start date of the war is under debate with some arguing it should date from 1955 – others from 1959) between the mainly communist North Vietnamese army supported by their guerrila faction in the south – the Viet Cong (and the support of various other communist countries) and the South Vietnamese government supported primarily by the United States who were keen to stop a communist takeover as part of their policy of “containment.” Neutral Cambodia and Eastern Laos who have the misfortune to border Vietnam underwent heavy bombing and saw fighting as the Viet Cong took cover in these countries encouraging America to (for want of a better epression) bomb the shit out of them.

 

In the prison they have replicated tiger cages – the horrible 2m x 3m bamboo cages covered in barb wire formerly used to trap wild beasts that the prisons used to torture their captives in. There are also small stone cells and shackles that were used to incarcerate their vicitims. Food for the prisoners would be maggoty and minimal and showers even rarer. Women as well as men were imprisoned here with up to 40 women confined to a cell at one time. Showers would be withheld when they were menstruating just to increase their degradation and sordid living conditions. 
 


This exhibition is not for the faint hearted.There are graphic photographs and detailed text that describes in no uncertain terms the various torture methods used on prisoners: amputation of limbs, removal of fingernails, electrocution of genitals, burning, cutting and beating with a pestle – even letting loose snakes down trousers. 

There is also information on the infamous prison camp on Phu Quoc island – that garnered the misleadingly chirpy moniker – Camp Coconut. It was used by both the French and then the United States of America to house Vietnamese revolutionaries in the 50s and 60s, and was overseen by 20 US oficials during The Vietnam war. Here, according to the exhibition, the same extreme and barbaric methods of torture were used against the prisoners. Men were crouched into tiny tiger cages made of barbed wire, and tortured with long rusty nails. It is claimed that three prisoners were boiled alive. 

I'm naively shocked that the United States both knew and oversaw the camp. When I was a little girl I aways remember my mother taking about "the cruelty of the Asians." I suppose it was a fear of the exotic unknown - the “them and us” mentality bred in the baby boomer – post war generation after Pearl Harbour, kamikaze pilots, horror stories from Japanese POW camps and Allied propaganda had had its way. 

I suppose we want to cling to the fact that we are different – because what? we live in a democracy? our Christian morality? Maybe it's human nature or just the fear of the unknown fuelled to racisim through propaganda that means we try and reassure ourselves that “Our people could never do what they were capable of – those people on the other side of the world with their dark skin, their strange gods.” 

But of course nowadays we know exactly what American and British troops are capable of thanks to stories from Guantanamo Bay and the like and that dark flame can be fanned within all of us, to grow, consume and destroy. 



There is a photographic exhibition commemorating the photo journalists that risked their lives to prevent coverage of the Vietnam war and then upsetting details on the notorious My Lai Massacre. 

The My Lai massacre refers to the village of unarmed civilians that American soldiers invaded in 1968 in an attempt to kill members of the Viet Cong. This was not just the extermination of around 400 unarmed civilians (the majority of whom were women and children.) This was the torture and mutilation pre death of those children, the vicious gang rape of women in front often their children, and according to some reports the sodomisation of young girls and use of babies as target practice before slaughter. One U.S Senator later confessed to his part in murdering a pregnant women and killing a five year old boy by disembowelling him. This event typified the culture of conspiracy and cover up that went hand in hand with the way that the US communicated the details of its war back home. For years the facts surrounding the My Lai Massacre were concealed. Initial reports stated that there was bloody fighting with up to 118 Viet Cong killed on the first day, it was later revealed that only 3 or 4 Viet Cong were killed in total and that the soldiers were met with unarmed civilains and no open fire. It highlighted the capacity to commit the unthinkable that must reside in all of us. 

Another sinister method to try and achieve victory by the U.S was to spray acres of the country with Agent Orange, an insiduous and highly carcinogenic toxin. The aim was to poison the countryside to force the Viet Cong out into the open and the peasants that provided their food – out of rural areas and into the cities thereby leaving the North Vietnamese armies without support. For just under ten years America sprayed 20 million gallons of Agent Orange across the country which is predicted to have led to the deaths of 400,000 people, giving birth defects to around half a million people and leaving a legacy of a further one million people who are disabled, crippled or have serious health defects as a result. What this exhibition makes clear is that the random and indiscriminate spraying of this poison didn't just wipe out one generation of Vietnamese, it created defects and health problems in the subsequent second and third generation of children to be born as well. There is a further photographic exhibiton of black and white shots of children that have been affected by Agent Orange. It is heart breaking, i realise i've been walking around with what feels like a rock stuck in my throat. This is very difficult viewing, looking over at the Argentinians i can see that they are teary eyed too. 

The War museum has come under question as being heavily biased against the U.S – and in instances written off by some quarters as pure propaganda. Certainly some of the wording of the exhibitions focuses heavily on gentle Vietnamese forces requesting peace against the evil American Imperialist overlords. But some of the most disturbing and upsetting details about the war showcased here – the My Lai Massacre and indeed the use of Agent Orange are now widely known and accepted as fact along with the culture of coverup and lack of transparency that dominated the US governments communication of the war effort. This gradually led to massive wide scale protests for peace from citizens around the world including America. It is this global outcry that the exhibition finishes on as well as a plea to Barack Obama to acknowledge the damage done to subsequent generations of Vietnamese children through the use of Agent Orange and to provide some form of compensation – a process that has already started for U.S veterans affected by the chemical.

Karst Climbing and French Kissing - Halong Bay, North Vietnam

The Magnificent Karsts of Catba Island, North Vietnam, Halong Bay

Travelling with Christine has been an interesting experience although one that has led me to the conclusion that as I probably wouldn't go on holiday for 10 days with many of my closest friends suddenly joining someone you've known for less than 3 is a fairly high risk strategy. 

Christine is an eager, French, forty something, Management Accountant from the home counties with a line in sensible travel skirts. She briskly guides us through the streets of Hanoi and organise our excursions. I am terrible at lazily taking a back seat in situations like this if someone else shows a modicum of interest in planning. As a haphazard marketer have a feeling she finds my total lack of logic and practical forethought immensely frustrating. She watches bewildered as I roll up notes and stuff them in my purse until the day I buy a wallet that can hold them flat ….only to keep rolling them up and stuffing them in! She is animated and sociable and always eagerly looking for the next person to talk to - whereas I, on the other hand, can retreat into my own little world even surrounded by crowds of people. Its a hard lessonbeing told by her that she thinks i'm "cold and aloof" but its not the first time someone's rallied that criticism in my direction and I know that i really need to work harder to make an effort with people when I have activley made a chosen to put myself in their company. 

She has the strange habit of stopping at every photograph I take to get the same angle and a tendency to order the same dish as me in restaurants - until we decide to budget better by sharing everything - which I find baffling. I can't help feel she is more than a little "glass half empty" - constantly voicing her negative opinion if she is less than satisfied. 

However we do have one big thing in common - we are both the daughters of oppressive Turkish fathers and western mothers. "They fuck you up your mum and dad" as Larkin said. But it is peculiarly specialist form of fuck wittery to grow up as the only daughter of an Arabic and very lapsed Muslim father. A relief when you meet someone who has been there too. 

Christine and I say our farewells this morning and I give her a copy of “Awakening the Buddha Heart” a book that I picked up in Nong Kiaw. Sometimes my Buddha Heart just doesn't want to awaken, it sits there angrily stamping its feet and shouting “fuck off” to the world instead. She gives me her copy of One Day and a stinking head cold. Splendid. 

Today I have decided to get up close and personal with the fantastic landscape of Halong Bay and climb up the thing! I'm very very excited – i've never done rock climbing before but scaling 20m up the grey and white jagged karsts of Halong Bay that sit in a pearly blue sea overlooking golden sands sure as hell beats the indoor climbing wall in Mile End, East London. 

I'm going with a company called Slo Pony / Asia Outdoors who are recommended by Lonely Planet as the best for beginners. We take a van and then hop aboard another big sailing junk where I while a happy couple of hours jumping from the boat into the deep green sea joined by a couple from Aberdeen who delight in telling me that its snowing back home. 

We get a little speed boat over to a secluded bay that sits in the shade and the two experts we have with us -Chris and Meeka from Germany set to work fixing the anchors and the cable and setting up the first three runs. 

We 've already been kitted out for climbing shoes which are incredibly painful as they should be too small and scrunch up your toes with their hard plastic. 

Chris is a small wiry boy in his early twenties with a strangely highlighted mullet - German...remember ;) -  who suddenly shimmies up the cliff face in nothing more than his flip flops. 

 



I'm a little thrown by the sight of two Australian women in their 60's - Jean and Mel get off the boat with us. Clad in elasticated slacks with steamed up specs and heavy duty blow dries, they start shaking out a rug and settle down. 

“Ummmm are you doing the rock climbing??” I ask tentatively. 

“aaaah no daaaarl we'll just watch.” 

Jean leans in and says: “ – I think we've been a little missold actually – our travel agent didn't say there'd be any of this stuff in it!” 

"Oh no" I think! Poor things – they've inadvertently found themselves on a 2 day kayaking, boat jumping, rock climbing adventure holiday..... 

“Come on!” shouts Meeka – our other expert – with short blonde bob, perfectly straight teeth and hockey player calves. She fixes me with her bright blue eyes: 

“Dominique!...You can go first!” 

Great. 



They have set up two routes – the easiest one for beginners has lots of craggy rocks and crevices which apparently makes it easier and you have to touch the two anchors that hold the cable at the top of the climb to show that you've made it.( I do not admit to anyone later that for ages i'm looking for ships anchors...not the hooks that hold the cables. I can imagine Christine rolling her eyes ...! ) 

I start scrambling up and immediately get stuck. 

“where do I go from now!???!!' 

Meeka hangs on to the other end and I need to shout “slack” for her to make it

to the left, to the right, and where I need to put my feet. 

Its harder than I thought (although why I thought scaling 20m up a cliff face should be a walk in the park I have no idea.)

 

Like most things I don't bother to think about the detail until i'm already half way into doing them. Now the thought of falling off the side even though i'm attached by a harnass – is ridculously scary, I can feel my hands begin to shake. 

 



Gradually Meeka coaches me up the last bit of the climb until i'm balanced precariously on a little soil ledge. But then I have to come down. .. 

"Right stretch one leg out and rest it on the cliff face opposite you, then swing out and let the other leg join it.” says Meeka calmly. 

“and then enjoy the view!!!” says Meeka optimistically as if this stepping out and suspending myself into thin air 20metres above the ground would be the most natural thing in the world. 

After much hesitation I realise there really is no other choice and swing myself out so that Meeka can begin to pull me down. But just for a moment -I clumsily rotate myself round so that I can take in the view. Halong Bay is stunning – the bay is lit up silver from the afternoon light. 

The thought of taking this up back home in the cold and gloom of London doesn' do much to motivate me but nonetheless I can add it to my list of "Sports that I don't ABJECTLY HATE with every fibre of my being" - and therefore might try and do again for the sake of ...you know...exercise. 

When my feet touch solid ground again I think – “I've done it once and that's enough.” 

I can feel the adrenaline pulsing and my knees are wobbling. But then gradually I think – "No i've paid $63 dollars I should definitely give it another go" – so I do the same run again: 

“You will be surprised how much easier it is” says Meeka encouragingly. And she is right – I crawl up it in half the time and don't feel nearly as scared. 

Then she takes it a step further – pointing at the sheer grey cliff face where the second more intermediate run has been set up: 

“You should give that one a go – she has just done it and she never did any climbing before...” 

“But I couldn't do it “ I say... 

and as I hear myself say it I know that means i'm now going to have to give it a go. 

Might as well get my money's worth... I suppose... 

This one is a lot harder – hell I can't even get up onto the cliff face as the first little ledges and crevices are quite a way up – but after Chris and Meeka have come and manually shoved my arse up – I manage to get a hold. And then it really isn't too difficult. I seem to find my way right until the very very top. I'm more than 20m up and the drop is sheer. But the end of the cables are anchored at the top of a large slit in the rock. I have no option but to wedge myself into the crack. There is absolutely nothing to put my feet into and I'm worried about sticking out and then falling away from the rock. But its tantalisingly close – so after thinking: “Oh well you almost got there thats not bad” The little Seargeant Major voice in my head that was so often present at Chinese bootcamp chips up and says: 

"There is NO way you are giving up right at the last hurdle. You are stronger than that.” 

So with sheer bloodyminded will power and the decision to once again sacrifice the skin on my knees for the greater good I haul myself up with what little upper body strength I have left, scraping a series of colourful bruises on my poor legs once more. But hey I get to touch the anchors and I make it. This time i'm quite fearless in swinging round and enjoying the glorious view and even quite enjoy being pulled down as I kick my way back down the mountain. 

Chris high fives me at the bottom and I feel great. So correction - I LOVE doing things I didn't think I could do. Once again I am reminded that the mind leads and the body follows. 

Back on the boat I go up onto the top deck to take some more photos of the sun setting behind the rocks. Everyone else has had the same idea so there is literally no where to sit unless I want to share the comfy cushion of an incredibly good looking Frenchman who seems to be on his own... Oh hang on a minute....of course I do! 

 



I politely join him and he starts to chat to me whilst I just generally drink in his beauty. He has that deep rich tan that only French men who have spent half their life lying prostrate on beaches at Le Croisette in Cannes seem to have, with dark navy eyes, and a smile that reminds me of Jude Law. All in all not a bad combination...As luck would have it he also turns out to be very sweet and very funny. 

Max is a 26 year old Parisian who does the retail marketing for Tour de France. As I was doing the retail marketing for Arsenal we have a bit in common. He seems to work 7 months of the year (such is the nature of the event) and has the other 5 months off but still gets paid... (gotta love the French government.) When he asks if I would like to join him for dinner I think to myself rather smugly “well this day just gets better and better....” 

We meet and have a little walk around Cat Ba's seafront which is a string of touristy restaurants and then opt for a little street food place behind the main road where noodles and beef are just under a couple of quid. The Slo Pony crowd are eating there and as they are long term locals I take it as a good sign. 

We leave and go for a final beer on the seafront - wherever you walk on the island there is often a Vietnamese woman trying to sell you a beer or a coconut. 

“That is my hotel” Max jokes pointing at a building site as we pass .. “they are just building my room.” 

At 11pm at night it is still in full swing – sand shovelling and concrete mixing. They work very strange hours - the Vietnamese – you can bet at 9am tomorrow moring it will be deserted. 

Then we do get to his hotel and I go up to ….. “look at some of his travel photos”....(I think this must be the modern day travelller equivalent of “would you like to come up and see some etchings..”) 

At sometime around 12.30am  he disappears to find some water to make tea and comes back with a sheepish look on his face: 

“I am really sorry Dominique...It looks like they have closed the hotel, it is locked and there is no one downstairs... think you will have to stay the night.” 

I summon all my strength and draw on all my previous acting skills to try and muster what I hope is a look of genuine sincere concern on my face an then say" “Oh well I guess that will have to be o.k...” 

That's the thing about Laos and now Vietnam -they do tend to have curfews so it is best to always check with the owner first about what time you need to be back by. I have already done this and am fully aware I needed to be back at least 2 hours ago to get into my guest house (ahem) although Mr Cahn did give me his mobile number in case of emergencies... 

I''m pretty sure “I was with a gorgeous Frenchman and he took ages to kiss me,” qualifies for said emergency. 

Even though I feel absolutely terrible; the head cold Christine gave me is coming out full swing; I do manage to gather up enough energy to sit up and watch him as he undresses . 

He has spent the past month doing Thai boxing in Thailand and its what he does back home. So his body is...well ….incredible. 

The next day and it is my final day on this lovely island. It has been a perfect place to recuperate from my illness and have a little holiday. I get my guesthouse owner Mr Cahn to give me a motorbike ride to the Cannon Fort at the top of the hills. It is a 177m at the peak of the island and has, according to Max, some of the best views in Vietnam. I think he may be right.


The views from the top of Catba island

It was used as a fortress, bunker and ammunitions depot in the French and American wars but it also looks out over the most beautiful views across Lan Ha Bay and the rising green peaks of the hills in Cat Ba National Park. From this perspective you can look down on the entire bay bathed apricot in the light of the setting sun and see the deep lavender of the rock islands that rise out of the water. I'm lucky – a gay German couple stop to offer me a lift back down the hill on their motorbike and I finish my time on the island with a delicous meal of fresh stuffed squid and banana flower salad. 

Sadly i've already said 'Bon Voyage' to Max as we are moving in opposite directions and today he is making his way up to the North of Vietnam to bike around Sapa. So there we are – a perfect evening together but as is often the way when travelling – nothing more than mere bateaux that pass in the night...

 

Mongolian Vodka swilling, Monkey bottle swigging, Halong Bay - Vietnam

Halong Bay

As we know by now me and boats are not a marriage made in heaven so i'm somewhat relieved that our little tour of Halong Bay gets cancelled two days in a row thanks to an ENORMOUS TYPHOON. I'm happy to wait it out i'd much rather do kayaking and sunbathing in er sunshine! than be dragged round a grey swilling bay on a rocky boat with a bunch of green faced tourists. Finally on the tuesday the storm has passed and we take our bus transfer down to Halong City harbour and then our boat. Our guide on the bus takes care of formalities and asks who amongst us are “monks” 

“Yeeees!“ says a wiry 32 year old Thinh – our tour guide … 

“not eating the pork or the chicken..” 

Oh he means vegetarian! ...I quite like the term “monks” though! 

“My name is Thin but I say it short for “DestTINhy - because a snake bit me once but I survived." He explains. I wonder how many times he's made that comment to his groups... 

When we arrive at the harbour we are divided into groups and some stay with Thinh but we are given Binh a chubby faced chap with dimples and short spiky hair. 

He leans forward conspiratorially and raises his hands - pausing for dramatic effect. We crowd in, in anticipation– then he says: 

“We are getting boat, we are checking , we are lunching, we kayaking.” 

Oh. 

“I would have rather a tour guide that can speak English!" says Christine. 

All the brochures show off the Halong Bay cruise ships as great mahogany varnished sailing junks with bright yellow sails traversing the emerald seas. Someone has taken the unilateral decision to paint them all white. They don't look nearly as pretty. Never mind - they have been “decked” out (sorry) with pot plants and the rooms are lovely. The beds are close together but the walls inside are a deep rich varnished wood with pristine cream sheets and maroon silk throw overs. There are loungers on the top deck and a restaurant and bar area below. 

We have a welcome lunch of king prawns, squid in spicy sauce, deep fried pork, and various vegetable platters. The group consist of two tanned very good looking Italian boys from the Dolomites, a couple of English girls who speak in hushed and giggly northern accents and a Mongolian family - a husband and wife in their early thirties who have a 2 year old son who is very very cute and a great ice breaker.

Halong Bay
Floating Market Stalls, Halong Bay

 

No one has touched the plate of prawns – and although i've generally given seafood a miss on my travels I say i'll have one. Everyone watches me expectantly... 

“they are prawns I think” says the Mongolian - “but I don't know how you undo them...” 

Oh I see. Its funny the thinks you take for granted coming from a comfortable middle class background in London. Why should they know how to peel a prawn ?– surrounded by all those mountains in the middle of a desert. So it is left to me to demonstrate -ripping the head and the tail off then peeling back the shell that covers its body.

“I can't believe you are English Dominique” says Christine “You know how to peel a prawn...!” 

Well I think food, ingredients and awareness of both has come a long way in Britain since the 1980s but the French never miss an opportunity to berate us on our terrible cooking. Having said that I did actually learn how to peel a prawn sitting on my nan's lap at my parents' flat in the South of France! 

We are kayaking first – which fills me a little bit with dread. I sympathise with Helen from Doncaster – who is also nervous and wants to try and avoid doing it. 

“Oh don't worry” I say, “ you'll probably just see me paddling around in a great big circle!” 

We go in twos - so Christine and I share a boat – which is just as well because even though I and several of the others are complete beginniners we have been given absolutely no instruction on how to row the bloody thing. 

I am in front (yes – clearly a mistake) and we are pushed out into the water. Christine instructs me in in school mistressy turns – paddle left, push forward, paddle right and eventually I begin to get the hang of it. 

“I should have gone in front “ says Christine

“Its ok you can be my Cox and should instructions from the back” I say over my shoulder. The bay is filled with hundreds of boats and as we veer towards one I am shrieked at again: 

“NO!" Says Christine exasperated. “Can you just stop paddling as its undoing the work i'm doing. Its easier if I just do it on my own..” 

“ Or you could just explain to me what i'm doing wrong and tell me what I need to do “ I say. 

 

Halong Bay



I think its fair to say the old Entente Cordiale is becoming less well...cordial... the more days we spend together. 

So she explains how I need to hold the oar near to the paddle and scoop under the water deep and pushing it out and eventurally we fall into some kind of rhthym. 

Once I can relax into a bit, I begin to realise that kayaking is a beautiful way to see the landscape. 

I'm so delighted we've waited for the sun to come out – there is nothing more dreary than a beach in the rain. And now that its shining its really gorgeous. The sea is heavy in salt and a deep milky green color. The strange lumpen shapes of the rocks that give Halong Bay its distinctive sky line rise up out of the water like so many jagged teeth and are bleached with white stripes from the limestone and chalk that typifies Karst formations. We follow our guide Binh who has jumped into a kayak along side us. One of the great karsts has eroded away leaving a little cave of light between its undercarriage and the water – so we can kayak through it into another secluded little bay. We come to a beach front where some boats have stopped and float silently up. Little brown monkeys with scrunched up red faces and bottoms sit tamely on the rocks, one nurses a baby. 



We go back to the boat for our next stop on an island. 

A walk around a cave followed by a swim and a climb. 

After the beautiful natural phenomenon of the jewel cave in Western Australia this is a tad of a let down. It looks like they've concreted over most of the ceiling - as it hangs down in great puttyish dollops. Nevermind. By the time we get to the shoreline again the its 5pm and the sun is setting. 

“Why are we going for a swim at night?” ask the Italians bemused. 

All of the other boats have stopped here and everyone is cramming themselves into the sea. I decide not to join them. 

Christine and the Mongolian vodka



Back on the boat and we have another good dinner and everyone makes for the top deck for a night cap. The big hazy moon is ringed with an amber halo and the Italian boys have bought a bottle of Vietnamese vodka for 140,000 dong ( around 4 quid) from a woman in a boat who has hauled it up to them in a fishing net. However the Mongolian has trumped that by bringing his own bottle of Mongolian vodka and insists that we all share it with him. He grabs a set of little green tea sized china cups and starts to pour a round. We are all given a shot each – Chingis (after Genghis) Khan vodka is an uber premium brand that uses wheat from the Mongolian steppes. I'm no vodka conoisser – I've always been slightly suspicious of clear liquids- but this one tastes like fire water , it punches the back of the throat and leaves me gasping. But it's also smooth and doesn't have that chemically after taste that cheaper spirits have. It is, shall we say, slightly better than the Vietnamese vodka that even when mixed with coke has a weird slightly malty sour aftertaste. The bottle goes around again for another shot and then we leave the couples to it. 



The next day we visit Monkey Island for a swim. Unlike the previous stops this one is blissfully free of any other tour groups and we have the pale gold sands to ourselves. We swim in shallow sea water that is deliciously warm until monkeys are spotted running onto the beach. One of the girls rushes out of the water to guard our bags – they've been known to thieve. 

They are incredibly tame. One strolls nonchalantly along beside me before stopping to sit on a rock, looking for all the world like a chav with an asbo. He picks up a plastic bottle, chews the top off and then spits it out fixing me with an insolent glare before sloping off no doubt to see if there are any handbags to snatch further down the beach. 

Next stop is Cat Ba Island where we will be staying overnight. Cat Ba is Unesco protected site and has a national park that plays home to a huge number of different species including the Golden Headed Langur which is native to the park. The island is flanked by wooded limestone hills and the harbour is filled with fishermen casting nets for pearls and for shrimp. They jostle side by side with the cruise ship sailing junks on 2 and 3 day excursions like the one i'm on and next to single women on floating market stalls selling travellers essentials such as bottled water and packets of oreos. 

The harbour shore line is built up - and the Vietnamese seem to be constantly building more of their stange and thin tall storeyed hotels. Seafood is popular here as a result - the squid and shrimp are fresh and a local speciality is the Sea Mantis -a rather sinister crab with a dark curved helmet shaped shell. 

We go for a trek into the National Park; climbing the 200m to the top of the hill for views over the wooded limestone hills that rise in regular trangular peaks . Its incredibly peaceful – amazing how a beautiful natural view has the power to silence a group of people. That is - until a group of girls behind me decide to strike upa conversation about Holly oaks. Ah well. 

Binh stops to explain some interesting details about the species we can see here: 

"This is called Happy garden where there are many trees...” 

“Did he say Cheese!!!???” exclaims a baffled woman from Croydon to my right. 

“er no I think he probalby meant “trees” ' I say. 

“Oh YES! Of course hahahahha!” 

Binh has already confided in us: 

“Please i'm sorry..but I would like to be a tour guide...you help me practise? I am still learning English...” 

Well he's very sweet but call me picky I quite like my tour guides to already speak good English when I pay for them. As a result not many details about the island are imparted and when they are the entire group turns to me for a translation as I seem to have the dubious talent of being the only one that can deciphher his thick Vietnamese accent. 

“You shecking, you come for luncshink, you schimming shoot” 

“we have to go and check into our room, then come back for lunch and then change into our swim suit” - I translate for the group. 

"ooooooh" says everyone. 

What kind of one or two night experience you get on a boat on Halong Bay very much depends on how much you pay and what company you go with even though on the surface - it seems as if everyone is offering the same thing. Here the Pan Asian expression "same! same! but - different!" really comes into its own. Our guide has a a tenuous grasp of the English language at best- and there have been a couple of annoying moments - such as being asked to go for a swim at 5pm and having another group come onto our boat and take all our sun loungers for the morning journey to Catba. However i have heard a lot worse from other travellers - including rooms filled with engine fuel, boats only making swim stops at 8pm at night or 5am in the morning and even a demented kitchen chef threatening travellers with a butcher's knife when they dared to complain. On the whole our boat and the food was excellent. So make sure you book with a reputable company or via a good hotel - like the one we did - Little Hanoi Hostel. 

Tomorrow the group head back to Hanoi but i remain on Catba island. I am getting up close and personal with this fantastic scenery and trying something i've never done before....rock climbing!