Random thoughts, comments, observations and general fluff from a random bint who left London at the end of September 2004 to embark on a new life and new adventures in Tokyo, land of the cute.... and is leaving mid-June 2010 - and counting!

Monday, December 26, 2005

Vietnam: Day Two and Three

Early yesterday morning I got picked up from the hotel to go on a two day Halong Bay tour with Sinh Travel. We had two very sweet Vietnamese guides. Unfortunately, nobody could understand them when they spoke. Well, every eighth word maybe. They had a tendency to clip the final consonant off of every word which, by the end of the first day we all found pretty amusing, eg 'the boat' was 'the bo', 'the bus' was 'the bu', etc. We were cruel. But not to their faces!

Halong City is about 3.5 hours from Hanoi, with a 20 minute stop in a big warehouse/shop/cafe place on the way. There were only 13 people on the bus so it was quite nice and I spent most of the bus ride nattering with a Canadian girl (an English teacher here on her school holiday from Japan). We got to the bo, I mean boat, and they fed us almost straight away - rice, fish, octopus, spring rolls, veggies, etc. Very nice. And we got chatting with a Hungarian guy (another English teacher from Japan) and a Japanese guy who was actually travelling without a group. He was doing about 4 countries in 3 weeks though!

After eating we went up to the top of the boat and relaxed. It was a bit overcast but still very nice floating around glimpsing the islands and the rocks (anyone know the difference between what constitutes a rock and what an island? I don't) and the other boats - both the tourist ones and the working ones. We stopped off at a floating village which was a bit odd. I mean this basically was a floating house where people lived and fished, and boats of tourists stopped off there so people could wander around the house and then get back on the boat.

We stopped along the way to look at two massive caves. I've never seen caves that size and they had a very strange lighting thing going on using green, red, blue lights to show you were to look to see dragons, lions, etc.

Back on the boat, before we pulled away, I spotted one of the school receptionists from Tokyo. I knew she was going to be in Vietnam now, but it was still quite funny to see her there. We shouted to each other for a bit from our respective boats before pulling away.

At around 5ish we got to Cat Ba Island. Was it worth going to Cat Ba? Hmmm. In five years time it could be a very interesting place but now it's somewhere you can really live without seeing, in my opinion. My boat friends were only on a one day tour so I made new friends with a lovely French family. The daughter, a few years younger than me, has been working in Cambodia for the last few years and we shared a room at the hotel.

When we asked at reception what there was to do on Cat Ba we were given the hotels business card. We asked again and the receptionist showed us the other side of the card where there was a map of Cat Ba. We had a choice! Go right at the end of the road to see the market, or go left to see the beach. We went to the market and had a mooch around there for a while. We didn't want to spoil ourselves by doing it all at once, so we had a beer instead before going back to the hotel for dinner: fish, rice, octupus, veggies, spring rolls, etc.

Then we decided to go right. There was an amazing amount of Christmas lights decorating the street. I mean this is an island with 10,000 inhabitants and a handful of passing through tourists, so it was quite something. The roads were dead, but even so every scooter that passed still beeped it's horn for the hell of it.

As everywhere, people tried to sell us things at we kept saying no. Then, after realising if we went any further in the direction we were going we'd end up on a main road or something we turned back and heard a kids song (in English) being blasted from a bar. We started singing it and decided the next person to come up to us we'd sing this song to them. We did. And they, and us, found it hilarious (especially us). Some of them joined in as well. The point is though that they stopped trying to get us to buy pearls, postcards, etc. And that we laughed our heads off. (If anyone knows it the song was: Hello, hello, hello. Hello how do you do? Hello, hello, hello. It's nice to be with you [we waved our hands from side to side during this bit.] Then was a la la la bit when we rolled our hands.) - Never mind. You had to be there. Or not.

After a few drinks in a bar that looked like it was run by an Englishman, we went back to the hotel, nattered for ages, and crashed out.

This morning we got up early again and had breakfast in the hotel. The sky was much clearer and the boat took us much closer to the islands and the rocks. Lots and lots of them. It was lovely. We'd been joined by some other people though and one of the girls did a five-minute monologue to her friend about her favourite leg waxer, or something. It was lovely when she went downstairs! We went through more floating villages, mainly consisting of just 3 or 4 houses and sitting upstairs on the top deck was so nice - although a little cold!

After about three more hours on the boat we got back to Halong City (city - yeah right!) and had lunch in a restaurant there (all of this was part of the deal we paid for) of veggie things, soup, rice, etc. There were some people in the restaurant, also on a tour but not with us, who whinged. We didn't understand why though. The food was lovely and we'd only paid peanuts for the whole tour anyway.

The road conditions on the way back were interesting. If there was any speed limit in play it wasn't evident. We saw one truck on its side that had come off the road and there was a lot of beeping of horns all over. There were also lots of oxen and cattle along the way including one with a plough. It's so easy to forget how people still have to make a living this way when closeted in a Western way of life, isn't it?

Oh, and when I got back to Hanoi I saw it had been raining all day. And I'd missed it!

In the evening I went to the Funky Monkey pub for a quick drink with a guy from Thorntree but he then had other arrangements so I toddled off to Cha Ca Street and ate at Cha Ca La Vong, which was lovely! It's a one dish restaurant (so no ordering problems there) and they bring a little frying pan on a stone fire thing to your table with chunks of fish cooking in it. You then add various green vegetables to it. By various, I mean I have no idea what they were. There was also a bowl of cold noodles, a bowl with roasted peanuts, another with parsley and some chilli sauce. And all washed down with a beer. Very very nice!

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Ouch My Feet: AKA - Day One in Vietnam

I've walked 12,000kms today. Well, if feels like it! I WILL try a motorbike taxi at some stage but, to be honest, I'm a bit nervous.

Hanoi though: it's warm. I walked around in a long sleeve t-shirt all day. This is such an important piece of information I'm putting it first. After freezing in Tokyo, this is wonderful! It's a bit sweaty and dusty, but not unbearably so.

I'm staying in the Old Quarter, at the Little Hanoi Hostel. It's a pretty hectic and lively area, although it's a long time since I've seen so many white tourists in one place at the same time.

I love the roads here. As anyone who knows me knows, I never look when I cross the road and it's only a miracle I've survived 34 and a half years without being hit by a car, bus, granny on a scooter, etc. In Hanoi, the roads are packed with mad motorbike and scooter drivers and the ONLY way to get from one side of the road to the other is to just walk. They weave around you. It's great!

On the drive from the airport to the hotel last night, I got my first glimpse of the houses here. There are many houses that wouldn't look out of place in a Tim Burton movie: very tall, narrow and long. Almost spooky looking.. Apparantly it's to do with taxes from a long time back..(ie I have a vague recollection of having read something)

The other thing that amused me on the way here was the motorbikes laden with half a farms worth of fruit or vegetables on their way to markets or shops or wherever. I wouldn't have imagined so much could be balanced on one. It was quite something to observe. I tried to engage my driver in a conversation, but he didn't seem too interested. Oh well.

One little annoyance was the difficulty in getting out a map or guidebook without getting pounced on. I mean when you're walking and people hassle you it's not so bad. You smile, say no thank you, and toddle on. But when you stand still... you're a bit more of a target, aren't you? And I don't know if it's that people just don't walk around here or something but there was a hell of a lot of taxi bikes sitting around.

A lot of people in the streets just wanted to chat (apart from those hawking things) and I was accompanied by a couple of random students for about 15 minutes when wandering around the lake. I didn't really mind, though I did wonder if I'd ever get rid of them! The problem was though that I like wandering and observing and being lost in my own thoughts and talking at the same time but that considerably harder to do.

Still, it does make a bit of a refreshing change from Tokyo. It all feels much more real.

On the subject of hawking: I was surprised by the street kids. I'd expected to see lots of children but didn't in fact see any. The first woman to try and get me to buy cards I got rid of by telling her I'd buy some later. Her friend was a motorbike taxi guy and I kept telling him (kept as in he rode alongside me when I walked) I was happy walking. Incredibly, about 90 minutes later he found me again - quite a distance from where we'd been before and reminded me I'd said I'd buy cards. I couldn't really argue with that. Anyone want a card from Vietnam?!

I bought a ticket for the water puppet theatre, and managed to lose it. (Doh!) Putting it down to carelessness, I bought another one. It was fun! Lots of puppets dancing around on murky looking water, playing, fighting, acting out mythical tales, etc with pretty funky music. Bit of a shame about all the heads in the way, but you can't have it all, eh?

The area around the lake was pretty lovely. Very pretty, but a little less hassle would have made the whole experience a lot more chilled out. Finally, I found some space in the temple on the lake to get out my guide book, in peace, and figure out what I was doing. Funnily enough, a lot of other people had the same idea...

I think I may be getting a little bit templed out after Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong. But don't tell anyone that!

I love the atmosphere here. It's so lively. It's fun. And I DID try to find KOTO today but had the wrong address. I also tried to find another streets kid place: Hoa Sua - but couldn't find that either. It's road numbering ended quite a few before it should have! Anyway, Tuesday I WILL go and attempt to find KOTO again. I was disappointed to not find it today.

I found a random Pho restaurant near the train station and ordered a beef pho. There wasn't anyone in the restaurant but I was hungry and it was worth it. It was absolutely lovely. When I asked them what the dish was called - well, they didn't speak any English, I don't speak any Vietnamese, but I managed (I'm an English teacher, remember!) - they told me and got me to repeat it about 1000 times. They thought it was hilarious. And no, I can't remember what it was called!

I also made it to the Women's museum which I found very interesting. It included information about women's involvement in wars here, including spying and fighting, and also about regional dress, etc. I thought it was very much worth going to.

I came back after the water puppet theatre planning to have a bath and collapse. Twenty minutes later I changed my mind and wandered back out to a couple of markets. Like I could ever not go to a market... It was rather hectic. There were loads of kids that had been dressed in cute little Santa outfits and lots of Christmas decorations for sale: a bit odd for Xmas eve, but still... (especially baring in mind Xmas in Vietnam is celebrated today - the 24th - and not on the 25th).

Tomorrow and Monday I'm doing a two day one night trip to Halong Bay and then I'm back in Hanoi on Tuesday. I'll update then.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Oh things.

So, Vietnam is kind of all planned. Well, as planned as it's likely to get until I arrive there and I cannot wait. No, really, I can't. If only to get away from the coldness of Tokyo for two weeks. And boy is it ever getting colder here. Although the days are still bright and sunny and midly warm some days.

And I don't know if it's the weather, or being knackered ALL the time, or the constant stream of falling ill, getting better, falling ill again that's been going on the last couple of months (colds, bugs, that kind of thing) or the fact I've had my period for two weeks now - something that has never happened to me before - and something that's been zapping my already totally zapped energy levels and although it hasn't been painful as such, has been rather uncomfortable.

I need a break.

I love what I do, most of the time, but I just need a break. Thankfully, I get 2.5 weeks and have already done so much Vietnam planning that I'll have a pretty relaxing time hopefully. Actually, I have never planned a trip for myself to the extent I've planned Vietnam. The only thing left unplanned are booking the internal flights and trains, which I'll do when I get there.

All my hotel rooms are uber budget. But I've booked private rooms with a bath. A bath. A real bath hopefully. A long bath. Since I became an adult, I've always been a shower person. It's rare I'm in the mood for a bath but this is a case of you always want want you haven't got. And in this case it's a bath that is longer than 2/3 length. One I can stretch my legs out in or even - gasp - lie down in.

The rooms look nice enough, but we'll see. I'm pretty easy to please. Just as long as they are quiet.

There is now one teaching day left until I fly.

At some stage I have to pack as well!

Not a great deal else has been going on. There's been a few parties recently, but I didn't go to all of the ones I should have gone to. I did manage to get my last karaoke of the year in on Sunday night though, so I'm happy about that.


I'm going to keep a written journal when I'm away, and most of the places I'm staying in appear to have free internet access, so I may update as I go. In case I don't though:

happy and peaceful holidays to everyone, and good wishes for a successful and healthy new year!

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Vietnam: post one

I have fifteen days in Vietnam coming up and my initial research has given me an impossible schedule I can't realise. I fly into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh. Travel between places will be a mixture of trains, buses and internal flights. On my list at the moment is:

Around the area (eg Perfume Pagoda, Museum of Ethnology, villages?)
Halong Bay and Cat Ba (probably as a trip from Hanoi)
Hue, the DMZ and Vinh Moc
Hoi An and My Son
Nha Trang
Ho Chi Minh
Around the area (eg Cu Chi Tunnels, Can Gio Mangrove Park, Can Gio market)
Mekong and Mytho (maybe with a homestay in Mekong)

Question: to make this doable, without killing myself, what would you scrap. It could be years, if ever before I have a second trip to Vietnam. Then again, I might like it so much I'll move there and teach, after Tokyo.

I do have a lot more research to do. But please let me know what you think. Cheers.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Is it tasteful?

Help! That ever-thinning line of what is (by my standards) nice and tasteful and what is utterly tasteless and tacky has been blurred.

I'm increasingly looking at things now and thinking, 'that's nice' or 'that's cute', and then thinking, 'would I have thought so if I'd seen it in the UK?' And my answer generally is, 'I don't know'.

I no longer know what is tasteful and okay and what isn't. This are increasingly just becoming 'cute' or 'pretty' now. This is so bad. I mean, really really bad.

Isn't it? I am now, officially, clueless.

To clarify things further, items I KNOW I would have disliked 15 months ago, now don't seem so bad.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Yes I do.

I was explaining to an intermediate level floating (ie not my regular) student about 'a week', 'the week', and that a week meant any seven day period. To illustrate my point I pulled out a random example I thought my student would relate to: "imagine you have tea lessons every Wednesday night" - her response was "I do!" Once I clarified she really did I laughed.

Maybe I understand my students too well, or maybe they are just too predictable. I could just as easily have said: 'imagine you go to your home town every Xmas', or 'imagine you went to Hawaii last summer', or 'your hobbies are sleeping and shopping, aren't they?'. There is a certain homogenity here that really bugs me sometimes.

SPOTTED: a man wearing earmuffs shaped like Mickey Mouse hands. WHYYYYYYY?

P.S. Kawaii alert: my little weather geisha now has a Xmas tree that has suddenly appeared. Isn't it cute?

Friday, December 09, 2005

Geographically Challenged Students

A lot of my students have never been outside of Japan. Many of those who have, have only been to Hawaii, Saipan and Guam.

One of my students today told me one of his dreams is to go to Australia and drive around. He particularly wants to see the Grand Canyon.

There was no way I could break it to him gently that his geography was just a little bit totally crap!


I was, of course, kind enough to show him WHERE the Grand Canyon is!

Oh, and I ate a lightly sugared little fish (about 2cm's long) today. It was in a bag of mixed Chinese crackers, nuts and stuff. The outside of the fish was sweet. The inside rather chewy. It wasn't the pleasantest of experiences, but I've had worse.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Great Debate..

Alcohol and snacks. I'm a firm believer that snacks to complement alcohol should be savoury and really don't like sweet things with most alcohol (eg - wine, beer, vodka).

So, baring this in mind in recent days I keep seeing Wine flavoured Kit Kat bars. I've tried the strawberry ones, the melon ones, the passionfruit ones, the green tea ones, the white chocolate ones, the azuki ones and probably several others, in the name of research, over the last 14 months.

But WINE FLAVOURED just seems so wrong and so totally and utterly ick to me. I really don't think I can bring myself to buying one to report on.


I'm also yet to try the mixed nut n little fish beer snacks. Nuts and chocolate - yes. Nuts and raisins - yes. Nuts and lots of other nuts - yes. Nuts and little fish - euw!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Been ill, again.

Maybe it was because I didn't take time off work to shake off the cold thingy a few weeks ago, but I've been poorly again. I thought it was food poisoning (diarrhoa, vomiting, dizzyness, fever, etc) but the pharmacist called it a cold.

Doesn't your nose have to run for it to be a cold? Anyway, it wasn't fun and I've spent the last couple of days in bed sleeping and watching too much Sex and the City (believe me, it IS possible to watch too much), trashy films and dogs painted pink skipping. I could feel my IQ slipping away by the second.