Sunday, 27 July 2008

Week 13 - As the heat continues...

Well hello there everybody!
As the heat and humidity just seems to increase, my activity rapidly decreases! I have now spent the last two weekends just sitting at home, reading/watching films, or at the beach either first thing in the morning or late in the early evening, when the sun doesn't bake me! In fact this morning i had arranged to meet my lovely neighbours, from 'Laugh Cafe' at 0530.... I managed to get up, and joined many local people for their morning exercise at the beach, though my neighbours were still sleeping... this is quite funny as they regularly make fun of me for sleeping in! The beach itself was just beautiful and the water was so warm, after some nice chat with the locals in the water, I took a stroll down the beach to dry off, where more locals where keen to practice their English, including a 65 year old guy who told me that he gets up every morning at 0430, heads to the beach and does yoga!

There will hopefully be some disco adventures next weekend in Da Nang. So given that the only major social event of the week has been my (now weekly) tennis game with my colleague John, at 8pm each Thursday, I think it's more appropriate to talk about some of my work related activities this week. A little boy came into the clinic at CHIA this week with his mother, he was about 8/9 years old. After speaking with the mother through an interpreter, we found out that the little boy had been for some tests in Saigon, and the doctors believed he might have the Duchenne's muscular dystrophy. This is a degenerative muscle disease, that reduces a person's life expectancy. The family had just been given a piece of paper with the results of some medical tests, which simply had the word 'Duchenne' on it. No doctor had told the family what this disease is, and how it is going to affect the boy's life, he probably will be unable to walk in a couple of years, and eventually the muscles that help him breathe will start to waste. The family were unaware of what a major impact this was going to have on the boy. This leaves us at CHIA with a very difficult choice to make, about if and how we should discuss this with the family, and how will they cope with hearing such news that the little boy will become more disabled with time, and live a shortened life. This is not an uncommon situation here, as Doctor's do not talk with the families of children like this, and the family go on for years sometimes thinking that maybe one day the child will get better. There are other issues to consider here about the social and cultural beliefs held by some people in this country. Here in Hoi An, which is a small countryside town, the people who live in the areas around the town are not necessarily exposed to issues about health and disability. This isn't taught at school, and certainly many poorer families who have worked all their lives would have had no or little understanding of what disability is. I have been told that there remains some beliefs that having a disabled child is a result of some kind of karma or punishment on the family for a past bad act. I have also recently been told that some people in this area worry that exposure to disabled children can even lead to them having a disabled child themselves. It's such a different world here, and I still find myself getting constantly surprised by these kind of thoughts and feelings, that I have never been exposed to before.

On a more social and friendly note, I must share with all, a nice story of neighbourly kindness. My lovely neighbours (again from the cafe next door) noticed my bag that I take my computer to work in was starting to break. They insisted on trying to fix it for me, and when they couldn't they went and bought me a new bag. This act in itself may seem nothing other than a little kindness, but when you consider the fact that the cook, (Hung) next door, is working 7 days a week, to support herself, and three of her younger sisters, (one of which is currently at University), getting me a new bag, really shouldn't be something that they should do.

Anyone wanting to leave comments on this blog, please do.. and not just so I know you are actually reading it!!!
Hope all is well where ever you are!
Regards from Vietnam

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Week 12 - 'Full Moon' celebrations, sunrise swimming & a traveller's tale!

Another wide array of experiences to choose from this week, including the visit of the Hanoi street children (accompanied by my friend Phuong) from the 'Blue Dragon' organisation, the monthly 'full moon' celebration, visits from more travelling buddies from Ha Long Bay (Dorina & Sebastian) and a few other eventful, if not disturbing moments from the last seven days...
I guess the full moon celebration was definitely the highlight, but I'll get on to that shortly. As last week's blog ended with the 15 hour bus journey with the Hanoi kids, I'll start with them this week. After they finished their camp in Da Nang, they came to stay with their Hoi An counterparts, and I soon found myself regretting having agreed to help them go swimming, as the kids, yeah the kids, decided they wanted to go at 0530 in the morning!!! No joke!!! So having promised, I went to the beach for an hour and it was so beautiful, and not too quiet either, the water was warm and we all had fun, especially trying to teach some of the kids to float and swim! I also joined the kids for a karaoke session on the Wednesday, which was entirely in Vietnamese, and some of the kids even thought I spoke Vietnamese after I sang a Vietnamese songs with one of them! Not sure what that says about my singing! The kids and my friend returned to Hanoi (up north) on Thursday and I have to say I miss them, despite only having to got to know them last week.

Wednesday night was this month's full moon celebration here, and despite having been here for the 2 previous full moon celebrations, I had yet to go explore the old town during these nights. Basically, the entire old town, stops all traffic, including bicycles, making the area a pedestrian zone. All shops and buildings light coloured lanterns on their outside walls, and there is a boat with some monk-like chanting being broadcast by the river. Many local boats offer a cruise around the river, where there are even more flamed lanterns floating on the river. The scene is very quaint, beautiful, and gives the entire area a romantic setting. By pure chance, I was fortunate enough to have some female company too, in the form of Phuong (see picture). She was equally taken aback by the scene, being form a different part of Vietnam. For those of you planning a visit, this is one thing to definitely put on your itinerary, should you time your trip accordingly!

I have often alluded to the dangers of motorcycle driving here, and Friday night this week proved the dangers of simply crossing the road. Whilst a group of us sat having our regular Friday night drink at 'Treats' bar, we heard a rather nasty sounding collision, which sounded like two motorbikes colliding, however we soon realised that a young western child had been hit by a local on a motorcycle, the boy had been flung up in the air, and the driver had sped off. The reason for the driver speeding off, was rumored to be that it is fairly realistic threat of jail for a local Vietnamese person for colliding with a westerner. The child had been unaccompanied on the road, which was dangerous enough, yet fortunately after a hospital check-up the child was just shaken and had no lasting damage. The issue here is all about the justice system, as you often see many collisions where people just get up, and get away, as no one can afford to have their bikes impounded by police, if the police get there quick enough. As families of up to 5 regularly travel on bikes here, and many tourist simply don't understand how to cross the road here (don't ever hesitate and let traffic go around you), accidents are a daily occurrence.

One more thought for the week, an acquaintance of mine, (who shall remain nameless for this story) told me about his recent experience when trying to buy condoms here at a pharmacy. Sex is not something that is openly discussed here in the conservative town of Hoi An, and where public affection is never expressed by locals. So to buy condoms was always going to be interesting experience, especially as they do not have them on display! After the girl behind the counter had apparently tried to understand his rather basic explanation, he was given a yellow piece of paper, which had the question 'what is your illness/problem' on the top, and on the left hand side of the paper was the Vietnamese word, on the right was the English word. He searched in vain for the closest word, which was 'contraceptive pill' and tried to say "for men, for men", whilst the girl continued to look blankly at him... eventually her colleague joined her, who spoke a touch more English, looked at the paper, and pointed to the word contraceptive again with a confused look... he repeated "for men" and again tried in vain to demonstrate what he wanted, without being too provocative! When the second girl eventually responded with a "oh a pill... Viagra"... he was close to giving up, before a shake of the head, was greeted with a final gasp of understanding, and one of the girls ran off to the back room, and returned with a fair amount of condom packets! He bought them, with some giggling from the staff, and was quick to share his story with a few of us over a beer...a true travellers tale!

One final piece of information, it's been around 37-40 degrees here this week, and by 4pm each day I am ready to sleep, because working in this heat is unbearable, and I truly understand why the people here don't ever seem to rush around!
Regards from Vietnam

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Vietnam - week 11 - Holidays in Ha Long Bay & Hanoi

Life during the past 7 days has been full of new adventures, relaxation and transport chaos. After my two days in the mountain town of Sapa, we (myself & Anne) headed back to Hanoi, on the overnight sleeper train, before catching the bus just 2 hours later to begin a 3 day tour of the Ha Long Bay region off the north coast of Vietnam. Ha Long Bay. Ha Long Bay is famous for the Island caves, and sailing around the rock formations off the coast of Ha Long City. This is also a typical holiday 'resort' for the North Vietnamese. The 3-day tour included one night on a 'junk' boat, followed by one night on Cat Ba Island (National Park) with a mountain walk /scramble, swimming in the bay, and some kayaking through caves! All this with a continually varying number of passengers, which was completely in contrast to the description from the travel agent, as to why we should book the 'deluxe' cruise, instead of the standard one. I'm fairly sure that there was no mention of the actual 'on board wildlife' (rats on the ship) which led to some of the passengers sleeping on deck, as opposed to the in the room with the rats. There was also little mention of the ever changing guides, or the lack of any 'power' in the cabin rooms, whilst the ship's engine was on. Highlights of the tour included, reasonable sea food (open for debate), stunning scenery, and the visit to Monkey Island, where the monkeys only appeared as we headed away from the Islands... probably laughing at our attempts to scramble up the rocks to find them! The continually changing tour guides continually lied to us about the itinerary for each day, and the conditions of the walks/treks that we were going to do, telling us that flip flops ('thongs' for you Aussies) would be more than suitable to scramble up wet slippery mountain paths! The lies continued to the point where I was pleading with the tour guide to get me to a hotel so I could have my first shower in days.... Still, despite my verbal swipes at the Vietnamese tourist trade, (most of which would lie through their teeth to make some money), I had a great trip, meeting lots of interesting travellers of all descriptions, and enjoyed being a tourist, even with an organised itinerary! My tip for future travellers here in Vietnam, is don't expect to always get what you pay for, or is described to you by the travel agents - then you won't be disappointed.

After returning to the thriving city of Hanoi, myself and Anne checked into 'Prince 79' hotel, in the old quarter of Hanoi. This is a busy lively modern city that offers great food and entertainment, and provides near death experiences at every street crossing due to the sheer number and unpredictability of the motorcycles, whizzing through the streets! A short walk away was the city centre lake, where Hanoi comes to life throughout the day with people getting up from the early hours to walk, run or exercise in a number of ways around the lake. It remains busy all day with tourists and people just sitting around the lake reading, talking or simply relaxing. There is a water puppet theatre by this lake and each of the close by streets are themed into selling particular goods, some streets selling shoes, some clothes etc etc... it's almost like a game working out what type of goods each section of streets are selling. My time in Hanoi had a dual purpose, both relaxing with Anne, and my friend Phuong (who I met 8 weeks previously in Hoi An at work), and visiting the Blue Dragon organisation (working with 'street kids' - kids who either live or work selling things on the street). There is a branch of the Blue Dragon organisation in my town of Hoi An. My visit to this organisation involved a wonderful day of swimming with a group of disabled children, joining in an art session, at the drop-in centre, and then attending the 'monthly' birthday party celebrating the birthdays of any of the kids that month, and also showcasing some of the seriously talented kids, including some dancing (hip-hop style). This centre certainly had some impressive workings, and I had to admit I was certainly envious for the amount of local resources that were available in the Hanoi area, as opposed to a complete lack of any specialist health resources in Hoi An. There was also hugely noticeable regional difference between the people Hanoi and my town of Hoi An. Hanoi is a city with far greater exposure to the Western culture and this is evident not only in the variety of worldly food available, prices of food, clothes, but also in the far more 'open' dress code of the local people. Here the women dress with less restriction, as opposed to the seriously conservative style in Hoi An, where a females shoulders and chest are almost never exposed.

Friday's main adventure apart from another 'interesting' massage, where the women again joined me on the massage table hmm.... was taking the bus back from Hanoi to Hoi An, total journey time was from 18-30 Friday to 1400 Saturday, via a change of Bus in Hue. The reason for me doing this journey was to accompany my friend (Phuong) and some of the kids from Blue Dragon, on an overnight sleeper bus to a camp they were heading to this weekend. I was soon questioning the validity of this journey ten minutes in, as my sleeper seat did not fully recline and I had the very back seat which was shorter than all other seats. When you consider these are seats made for the Vietnamese public, you can imagine what I must have looked like trying to curl up like shrek one of the seven dwarf's beds.... still the rather funny kids we travelled with kept me entertained until I finally managed to sleep for a while. I left the kids as they they got off before me, and headed home for a much needed shower and shave!

Completely by chance a Dutch couple I met during some of the Ha Long Bay trip, saw me here last night back in Hoi An, and left me a note with my neighbour, so we have just spent the evening together at the local beach, a nice end to a truly breathtaking week!

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Vietnam week 10 - Sickness, Sapa, & planes, trains and automobiles!

Hello everybody...(it's been one of those times where I just wrote the longest email of my trip yet, and just as I was about to finish, the computer crashed and I lost the lot!, so here is the shorter edited version!) phew what a few days it has been and what a few days to come! With a week of being sick, and being forced to watch all manner of hideous old films on the HBO channel and, dodgy DVD's on the laptop, I find myself writing this email here in the cloud filled mountains of Sapa, in North Vietnam. My good friend and house mate, Caoimhe passed on her 'lurgy' to me and Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday night I was tucked up in bed with take-out food from the neighbouring restaurants!
My week 'holiday' started on Friday as I waited for my taxi to Da Nang airport I was greeted by 2 of my neighbours offering me 1.5 litres of water to take on my trip, I tried to drink it out of politeness but it led to one hell of a bladder control exercise two hours later on the plane whilst touching down... you'll be glad to hear I didn't wet my pants... just! Especially difficult was controlling my face contortions as the pretty girl next to me on the plane was clearly wanting chance to practice her English... she must have thought I had a facial twitch by the end of the flight! I arrived at 1730 pm, got a minibus form the airport, where I was blatantly charged a third more than everyone else on board (all Vietnamese locals), I don't mind being ripped off a little here, you do get used to it, but not when it is so blatant! The minibus took me to 'downtown Hanoi' where the procession of motorcycles lit up the roads like a Christmas parade! A Chance conversation with another passenger led to him getting me a local price $1 motorcycle ride (with backpack on) to the travel agent, where Anne (from week 8 blog) was waiting, and where we picked up train tickets. Another taxi ride took us to the train station where we boarded the overnight sleeper train, but not before a street food meal and some supplies for the train journey were collected. The over night train was fantastic, and we had a four-bed share compartment, complete with 2 upper and 2 lower beds, a small table with a bottle of water. a sweet, and a tooth brush and toothpaste set, complete with comb! Our only other companion was a Vietnamese tourist guide for Spanish speakers, (Hi) who was very helpful with pointing out what to do in Sapa. So get your maps out and you'll find Sapa in the North of Vietnam, inland a fair bit, here lies the tallest mountain in Vietnam! We slept well on the train, despite an intrusion by two Vietnamese men, pointing at the spare bed, and were not woken until the guards knocked on the cabin door at 0500 in the morning to say we had arrived! A negotiating process, which we lost out in, took place to get us a minibus to Sapa itself, where we trekked around in the rain, to find a room with a view! That was not difficult here as most of hotel look out over the mountains. Our hotel cost just $15 for both of us and we were soon settled after a ridiculously hot shower! Day one included, a look around the crazy market place, where local women and kids in traditional dress try and sell their hand embroidery or anything else to be honest! We both ate at the local market place for just 30,000 dong (1 pound) and then set off on a trek to the Cat Cat village and waterfalls.... oh my lord, it was so stunningly beautiful, yet we only knew this for sure on the way back, as the walk there was completely covered by mountain cloud... once under the cloud cover you could see that almost every inch of land had been cultivated for sugar cane or rice fields....a truly amazing fete! Little, self made wood huts showed off more local produce, until you hit the water falls at the base of the valley! More stunning scenery surrounded our return climb, and a quick 'call of nature' led me to find some great nature shots of a red dragon fly on surrounding greenery. After this trek and an afternoon nap, we headed out to the Saturday night 'Love Market' (where traditionally, local teenagers met for courting rituals), as we could find no such thing, we headed to the nightly food market, where Anne was to find 'love' with one of our fellow diners. He asked my permission to have coffee with Anne, before Anne retorted with a quite funny description of her 'big, strong boyfriend at home' and then mimed what her boyfriend was likely to do to the poor guy... he soon got the message but remained happy enough to poor me three shots of what was either rice wine or local firewater... one each to drink with him and his two friends! My beer was enough to keep me merry, and as the heavens opened once more here, a group of younger Vietnamese people joined our table and offered some translation for everybody, as the original three guys could only speak Vietnamese and we could only speak English. Still as the alcohol flowed, we talked away for most of the night regardless!!! That was until the young lady next to me mistook my hitting her arm (because there was a mosquito on it) for a gesture for her to get up and let us leave.... a rather few confusing moments ensued until we worked out what each other actually thought was going on!
Today the rain continued, but as this was now a second day where I was not actually sweating, (unlike Hoi An) I was happy to be feeling cool for once! We had lovely pancakes for breakfast before checking out and heading for more nice sandwiches in a little local bakery, then up to the local mountain, where we enjoyed traditional ethnic dancing... hmmm me thinks this was purely for the tourists as I saw dancing, scenery and costumes that would not be amiss in one of my local pantomimes! Though the shout of 'he's behind you' were sadly lacking! One more feeding at the local markets was enough to prepare us for the minibus to the train, and then for tonight's return overnight journey, before we head straight to a 3 day tour of Ha Long bay, staying on a boat overnight the first night.... Highlights to come include the 3 days around Ha Long bay, before Anne leaves and I spend some time with a newly acquired Vietnamese friend Phuong, and visit an organisation working with street kids (Blue Dragon) in Hanoi.
Enough for this week...
Regards from Vietnam