Tuesday, 29 January 2013

An extra post- an amusing email I have just received from Mai Chau Lodge, following my stay and the "Lizard incident"

An extra post- an amusing email I have just received from Mai Chau Lodge, following my stay and the "Lizard incident"

I hope you laugh as much as I did!!!

Dear Ms. Moses,

Thank you so much for sharing your feedback and for having chosen our hotel whilst recently in Mai Chau.
It was a pleasure to read about your impressions, we are delighted that your stay met with your entire approval! Please be assured that it has been my pleasure to share your warm comment with all the teams. 

I would like to apologize that you were inconvenienced because the gigantic lizard in your room yesterday night. I fully understand how it can be scary, even if you are not especially scared of reptiles. Moreover, it is true that at first sight, the creamy pink color is quite disconcerting ("is this lizard sick?" "what happened to it?"). 
I have been also confused the first time I saw one of them, though very small, so I can imagine that bafflement could be proportional to the size! I am really sorry about the fact you could not sleep because of that and I hope that you could have had a nice nap in the car this morning.
We would be honored if you would share your opinion on the Trip Advisor website. Indeed, your feedback is indeed extremely important as it helps us to provide a memorable experience to our valued guests.
I hope you will have an excellent continuation of your trip and that your broken feet will not put a curb on your fun and I look forward to the pleasure of welcoming you again in our beautiful valley.
Warmest Regards
Brilliant. Gigantic Lizard. Seeeeeeee, I wasn't being silly!!!!

Vietnam adventure- Day 8- Just one more...

Vietnam adventure- Day 8- just one more...

I hate myself a little bit right now. I am sat back in The Hanoi Backpacker Hotel (wi-fi password- "I love Hanoi"), having just ordered a lasagna. I came out for pizza, 8 days of Vietnamese food is a (love you) long time- but the only one I fancied was called 'Napalm' and I just couldn't bring myself to order it. What the hell is WRONG with the Western world?????

Ok, so I got a bit emotional last night, it was a long, eye-opener of a day.

In fact, I didn't even blog about my dinner, most unusual for me! So please see above for a shot of it. Vung and Kin took me to a local restaurant where they serve 'hotpot', a boiling hot broth that cooks on your table on a hotplate and then you order whatever you want to cook in it- we had chicken, beef, mushrooms, green vegetables, a side order of sticky rice (rice balls made with a different type if rice) and fried corn. We sat on the floor, as we did today for lunch, so it hasn't been the best 24 hours for my foot. I'm in a lot of pain and have had to go back onto higher doses of painkiller. Don't tell Stevie.

An early night and despite a yapping dog outside my window that kept me up until 2am, at which point I called reception and told them that if they didn't stop it from barking or send it away, I was going to kill it and they could serve it for breakfast, I got about 5 hours sleep. Good-o.

This morning I was picked up by the Actionaid girls, after Vung and I had gone to the local market where I spent £12 on 10 kilos of rice, 3 kilos of sticky rice and some noodles to take to Hoang's family later, when I was to say my goodbyes.

First stop was another school supported by Actionaid- they have installed toilets here too- and a kitchen- which is essentially just a mud hut where a fire can be lit and a few kitchen utensils- not exactly home but better than what WAS there. I sat in on a lesson for a bit, with some lovely, polite children who stood up as I hobbled in and out of the room- but had very mischievous faces the whole time I was in there. Actionaid have also helped to cultivate a very small vegetable patch- it's not exactly River Cottage, but it's a portion of free vegetables, and therefore nutrients, for the children- they can each get about a serving per week. Yes, per WEEK.

Actionaid have also introduced a system whereby the Fathers of the students can attend reading and writing classes in the afternoons- this stops them from being jealous of the kids and preventing them from attending school- yet another hurdle that needs to be overcome.

There are 130 children here, and on top of the 13 subjects that they are taught at Primary school level, they have time set aside for Physical Education- skipping and football mainly- not that they need it, I haven't seen an overweight child yet, many, in fact most, of them walk several miles to and from school each day- as well as working on their parents land when they aren't learning.

I listened in on a music lesson- just singing, there is no money for instruments here, and even if there was, there is no one to teach them. Cue light bulb moment....watch this space... 

After spending some time with the children, we moved on to see another project that Actionaid are working on. Once they have identified an area in need, Actionaid tend to stick around for between 10-15 years- depending on the level of need. Da Bac, Hoang's home community has had an Actionaid office for 6 years so far. 

This project is focusing on just one family- a couple with two children, one of 5 years and one of four months. They have shown them how to make their own fertiliser to help to increase the productivity of their crops, and how to look after their pigs better so that they reach the age of culling. In doing this, the family has become pretty much self sufficient and even has some produce left to sell at the market.

The average wage in this area 0f Vietnam is £300 per year. Families who are benefiting from Actionaid's help earn on average £400 per year- a 33% increase is nothing to be sniffed at. To put this into context, the average wage in Vietnam as a whole is around £650 per annum- obviously this varies wildly on profession and area.

We left the family, who wouldn't let us go without plying us with fresh grapefruit from their garden, and insisting I take a small peach blossom tree (traditionally placed in Vietnamese houses during Tet), which obviously I had no use for, I can imagine the look on the faces of the UK customs department- "it's a WHAT Madam?", but I accepted on behalf of Hoang's family thinking that it would make a nice gesture alongside the food that we were going to deliver.

The next stop was at a community vegetable patch. Well, I say patch, it was about 20 times the size of my garden , and 100 times more productive. A group of village women run this patch, under tuition of Actionaid, which has increased the yield to the point where all the families involved have fresh vegetables available on a regular basis.

This is when the police arrived. They wanted to meet me, check me over and make sure that I wasn't saying anything negative about their scummy, controlling, poverty-encouraging, immoral government, which of course, I wasn't.

Our final stop today was Hoang's house again, where we delivered the food and peach blossom tree. I was concerned about how this would look, I was very aware that walking into a poverty-stricken families' life, dishing out a load of food to them and buggering off was just a plaster on a life-threatening gash- and I didn't want to come across as some rich bitch Westerner who thinks they can buy a moments happiness for someone worse off than themselves. But I still wanted to help.

The girls from Actionaid asked how I would like my gift to be explained, I said that I wanted them to have the opportunity to celebrate Tet, and as much I would like to celebrate with them, I had a wedding to go to, and so the peach blossom tree was my way of being there in spirit. That seemed to translate well. Hoang's mum cried, shook my hand and wouldn't allow me to leave until I had come  into her house and had tea. A round of hugs, and I was put back in the car- we were running an hour behind and Vung had been on The phone having Kittens about where I was. Hoang's house below. Crap picture, sorry!

Leaving Hoang and his family cut me up inside like I can't begin to describe. The unfairness of the inequality in this world is astounding- and I know that some of you have said to me that they "know no better", and I understand that, but it doesn't mean it's right- a junkie's kid born inside a prison in the UK doesn't "know any better"- does that make it right? Like fuck it does. And I'm not talking about a family who can't afford to put petrol in their car- I'm talking about a family who can't put food in their kids- and that shit stinks to high heaven. 
Arriving back at my Hotel, Vung was getting mardy with the Actionaid girls. No more Miss Nice Katy. I firmly explained that I had come to Asia for two reasons- a friends' wedding and to spend time with Hoang and his family. Vung got a strop on and didn't speak to me most of the way to our next stop- apparently the Actionaid girls were rude to him. My exact words were, I believe "get over it".

By the time we stopped, sweetness and light Vung had returned (perhaps remembering his tip?!). And so had non-bitch Katy, so all was good.

Next stop was Vung's uncle's house. I seriously need to wise up- earlier in the week, Vung had mentioned that his uncles farm was on the drive back to Hanoi. I said that I would love to see it, and he arranged for us to have lunch there. In my mind, I had, yet again, romanticised this. If there are any if the Williams/Beake/Gillespie/Kozminski family reading, I had The Farm in my head.

What I actually hopped up to was a two room concrete building- one room for sleeping/eating and cooking, and a toilet. Vungs uncle runs a bee farm. And his aunt had laid on a massive spread. Some things I didn't recognise. And some I did, but wished that I didn't. Chicken feet for example.

After brief introductions and the undignified act of taking a pee in their toilet with no roof and only a 6 foot wall in between my squatting body and my hosts, the Wally Boot was removed for the first time for me to sit on the mat specially laid out for lunch. We proceeded to eat, and drink copious amounts of rice wine over the next 3 hours- I even managed to FaceTime Stevie and introduce him to my motley drunken Vietnamese crew. The running joke, for any him!mers out there (Helen???) was my ability to say "ok, just one more!" And then sink 3 more shots. Conversation was stilted due to Vung having to translate- but we laughed and had fun like old friends on the piss. Vung's uncle tried, at one point to convince me to stay at his house rather than go to my hotel In Hanoi. Never gonna happen.

Vung was pissed. In fact, Vung was shitfaced. I looked at Kin for help. "Don't worry Katy, I will get you back to your hotel safely, Vung is just having fun with his family, I have said to him that he can stay here if he wants and I will escort you back". What. The. F....?. Kin speaks English? Day 8, and I discover that his English is this good. I feel cheated and tell him so. "I'm shy" comes the reply.

We left in a flurry of hugs, just one more shot, promises to visit again, and being told I am their "number one friend". 

Vung and I slept on and off all the way back to Hanoi, whilst Kin chuckled to himself in that irritating way that sober people laugh at drunk people. He had just one drink all day. We finished a bottle of 45% proof rice wine between the rest of us.

I check into my hotel, and am immediately hit with Hanoi belly.  

And so, dear reader, I find myself back in the land of the young and the tanned, with Dizzee Rascal on in the background, watching the traditional mating dance of the British and Aussie backpackers, bandannas round their heads, weaved friendship bracelets round their wrists, drinking Tiger Beers and Sex on the Beach (its Tuesday, and cocktails are two for one), having finished my lasagne, and I am left with one question. 

Are these people really our future?  

I fucking hope not. 

Monday, 28 January 2013

Vietnam adventure- Day 7- Hoang, his family and a day that will forever make me sad and happy in equal parts

Vietnam adventure- Day 7- Hoang, his family and a day that will forever make me sad and happy in equal parts

Guys, heads up, this is a long one. But it's been a long day. Pull up a chair and grab a beer- that's what I had to do to get through this blog...don't say I didn't warn you...oh, and these pictures are crap, one of the Actionaid staff were taking proper shots, which she will email to me tomorrow, which will be far better than these...

I was looking forward to my nights sleep last night with all the anticipation of a football fan on the first day of the season before he remembers how shit his team is. That is to say, having Skyped my Dad and cutie Charlie, I was sat on the toilet (sorry for the unattractive visual), when I saw something move. A gecko I thought, how sweet! Except this was the gecko's slightly less wanted in your bedroom, cousin, the lizard. He was obviously, as these things are, more scared of me than I was of it and went scuttling under the mini bar. I ran, I am ashamed to say, out into the corridor in my dressing gown, where I encountered a slightly inebriated German couple, who duly came in and helped search my room. Having not been able to find it, they said goodnight and left me the parting phrase "lets hope it doesn't get into your bed with you!". Still bitter about the war, I reckon. 

I took advice from you lot on Facebook as to what to do and I called reception. Two night guards were dispatched to deal with the situation. They didn't speak English, and so I found myself in a farcical sketch where I was miming being on the loo whilst a lizard ran past me, and then googling images of lizards to show them. Having pulled out the fridge and looked the room over, we agreed there was nothing more they could do, and they made to leave. Showing the guard the lizard picture once more, I asked, "could it be dangerous?" He shrugged in the non-committal way a Parisian does when you ask for directions, and left me to a fitful nights sleep.

After breakfast today, Kin drove us to Hoa Binh, a medium sized city about two hours from Mai Chau. During the drive we saw a lot of paddy fields- even more than I have grown used to. Until relatively recently, the Vietnamese MOUNTAIN countryside folk had avoided growing rice, fearing that the climate would not be right, but although in the Delta areas, they get 3 harvests per year, in this area, despite the cooler climate, they still average two harvests a year and are  currently in the process of preparing the land for the first round of planting.  Vietnam is a country with huge natural resources, and a population of around 90 million, and is second only to Thailand as the worlds largest rice exporter and also the number one exporter of coffee in the world. Yep, coffee- this was a surprise to me when I first heard, but then I don't drink the stuff

After a quick hours sleep, we went to pick up the ActionAid representatives from their nearby hotel. Kelly, Huang and JP are the Actionaid girls who I have been corresponding with to arrange today's meeting with Hoang and his family- they have been incredibly supportive and have really gone to a lot of effort to make sure that I am getting an in depth experience of what Actionaid do in this area of Vietnam.

We stop at a local shop at my request to buy gifts for Hoang- I gravitate towards a football- after all, what else would a 15 year old boy want- only to be told that actually, something practical like a coat might be a better idea. He doesn't have a coat. And he only has one pair of sandals, which, from what I understand, he shares with his mother. Yep, you did read that right. I buy him a warm coat (these parts of the mountains are cold, I have no idea how he has survived without a coat up until now), a pair of trainers and the football. It costs £25 in total- I think I got ripped off.

We drive up into the mountains, passing some stunning countryside which I am too nervous to take in. What if he doesn't like me? What if he hates the idea of being a "charity case"? What on earth do his parents think of all this?

Arriving at Hoang's family home is, in itself, like a kick in the gut. I don't really know what I was expecting, I guess one of the bamboo houses on stilts that Vung had shown me over the last few days. But this wasn't a picture postcard house. This was a mud hut. A one-roomed mud hut. You can see the walls and floor in the background of the photos above.

I was introduced to Hoang, wearing the brightest white shirt I have ever seen, and he shook my hand and after some ferocious prompting from his mother, he asked me in to his home. I was offered a chair to sit on because of my foot- a chair that had been borrowed from a neighbouring property. Yep, no chairs. The floor of Hoangs home was mud. The walls, packed into the bamboo structure, were mud. There was two hand built timber frames (no mattresses) which served as beds for the whole family. There was no other furniture in the room- the room itself was probably 15 ft square.

I was told that they washed and cooked in the hut next door- that is to say, that is where they light the fire and bring the bucket of water- they have no stove, no bathroom, no facilities.

I was offered, as seems to be the way throughout the Vietnamese minority culture, a cup of green tea, which I accepted- grateful to have something to do with my hands. By now, a crowd of around 20 people, including 4 local government officials had gathered at the entrance to Hoang's family home. The Government officials, I am told were there to make sure that we weren't corrupting the villagers with any anti-communist talk. It seems I was causing quite a stir. Now, usually I LOVE a bit of attention- but this was making me cringe- I was being treated like a celebrity- Kelly made a joke about me feeling like Angelina Jolie- but I didn't, I just felt embarrassed. Embarrassed that I was being treated like a star simply for coming to visit someone worse off than myself. And then I had a few moments where I questioned my motives. Was I doing this to make myself feel better, why had I come here? I'm not sure. There isn't really any such thing as a true altruistic gesture- is there? All I know is that I want to help- and I am in a position to. So i should.

Hoang and I, through the translation of Vung and Kelly, talked about his school, his family, my family (the first thing he did was ask after my "sons"- ie, Frank and Ted, my stepsons- I have mentioned them in previous letters and sent pictures), my job and his love of football. We talked about my broken foot and how I did it and his Dad marvelled at the effort I had gone to to get to them.

I then asked his Mum whether Hoang was good and if he helped her around the home. She explained through Kelly that he was a very good boy, who looked after his sister well and collected firewood every day after school. It is this firewood that the family use to cook with and to sell at the market for income to supplement the food that they can get from their land.

A great show was then made of Hoang putting on his ceremonial clothes. These are handmade by his mother and given to children at around 15 as a "coming of age" gift. It will be what he wears on his wedding day. His parents had wanted him to wear them for my visit- unheard of as these garments are not meant to be worn until marriage, but they were the smartest thing he has. As is the case with teenagers, there was an argument and Hoang won, hence the crisp white shirt.

Having heard  so much about Tet, The Vietnamese New Year that starts later this week, I asked about preparations for this- what were the family doing? There was much shifting around and Vung explained that this family was too poor- they wouldn't be able to do anything out of the ordinary. Later on Vung explained that Hoang's family were amongst the poorest he has seen- and that they were certainly the poorest in their minority tribe in that area.

Having been in Hoangs home for about 45 minutes, we were then all taken outside for photos. Not something his family are used to- as you can see by the expressions! There are some better ones to come- and even Grandma joined in.

Note the red flower that Hoang's Mum is wearing- she had saved this for today- and I was told that all of the village had put on their best clothes in anticipation of my visit.

Next I was asked whether I would like to meet the village elders and attend the festival. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought and we all went together (Myself, the Actionaid girls, Vung and Kin, The government officials, Hoang and his family, and by now about 25 people from the village) up to the village hall (read- hut) where the monthly village meeting was taking place. This is hosted and controlled by the elders of the tribe and this month's is particularly important as it is used as an annual review and to look forward to the New Year.

I was greeted outside by yet more villagers- all of whom wanted to shake my hand. Or stroke me. One young guy (late teens I would guess- but aging here is hard, so it's not easy to tell) was determined to practice his English on me-"How are you" What is your name" "how old are you" and the like. A bit like me trying to use my GCSE French.

Lau, one of the Actionaid officials, who had been following us with a camera took charge. Now, Lau is a comedy character- if the situation hadn't been so serious, I would have thought I was being set up. Have you seen "Father of the Bride"??? You know "Frank", the camp wedding planner? Well, he isn't dead, he grew 2 foot (first tall Vietnamese person I have seen), learnt another language and moved to Vietnam. He was all jazz hands, spotlight smiles and overblown gestures. He requested that I sit in on the elders' meeting. The dude in charge (the one with the least teeth) said yes...and so, I found myself with another cup of green tea, sat on a bench in another mud hut being stared at by ANOTHER group of minority tribesmen. Except this was different- the atmosphere wasn't right. It had an edge to it... and the smell of the hut, well, enough rice wine had been drunk in there that morning that if I had lit a match, the entire thing would have gone up.

One of the "council", at a guess about 60 years old asked Lau where I was from- when he told him England, the old dude stared in wonderment at me. He said that he had heard of the place as he had once seen it on the TV but he never thought he would meet anyone from there as he wasn't sure it was real. He had never seen a white person before. Never. I think this goes some way to explaining how remote these people's lives are.

Suddenly a very cross man comes into the hut, shouting and gesturing wildly towards me. Sensing danger, Vung has me out of there before I can even say thank you to our hosts. I was mildly surprised that he didn't haul me out over his shoulder in an Officer and a Gentleman style. He was NOT happy about me being there. It turns out that although the eldest of the elders (or however it bloody works) had given his blessing but some of the others hadn't. The village is run quite democratically, you see. Ironic seeing as we are in a communist country.

We said our goodbyes to Hoang and his family, and drove up to Hoang's school where I was given a guided tour. This school is state funded, but Actionaid have been doing their bit to better the facilities available to the children- and staff. Up until they got involved, there were no toilets- the children relieved themselves in the woods before lessons. Now there are two toilets- one for boys, one for girls. Actionaid have introduced a children's charter, which they are implementing in this area- it lays down ten basic rights for children- the right to schooling, the right to fresh water etc- their aim is that it is stuck to- they have to work very hard at the moment to convince the elders in minority tribes to allow village children even to be educated. Actionaid have also installed a new water system- it isn't quite running, but it IS a well, and it IS safe. The money that I give Actionaid every month has also helped to buy Hoang and his classmates books, pencils and paper. And last year they kitted out the 230 pupils with uniform jackets. Is uniform really that important? I asked- "No, but jackets are", came the reply- most of these children didn't have one before.

My trip had come to an end- I had met pretty much the entire village, caused a drunken altercation, joined in a lesson at the school, drank so much green tea that I will be up all night, given Hoang a hug, met his family and learnt his way of life. I was shattered.

There is a phrase I have heard back in Blighty "Charity begins at home". Bullshit. All I can say after today is that it shouldn't. I'm not going to get too political here, but I am also not going to apologise for this summing up. 

The things that our children take for granted, even the very poor ones- including clean, running water, 4 walls that aren't made of mud for us to go home to, a bed, 3 meals a day (Hoang has just rice for breakfast and lunch each day as there isn't an alternative) the opportunity to gain an education, a pair of goddamn SHOES, a toilet- I could go on- are not a 'given' out here in the mountainous countryside of Vietnam. Not only are they not a given- they are a fucking privilege- and they shouldn't be.

Hoang is a brave, clever, engaging, polite, kind young man- if you can tell me that he deserves less than a British child does, and you can keep a straight face whilst you tell me that, then you should stop reading this blog right now.

Charity does not begin at home- charity should be available to anyone who needs it to get to a basic standard of living. Thank god for charities like Actionaid, because without them, kids like Hoang wouldn't stand a chance. Please call 0800 blah blah blah to donate now. Every penny counts.

In all seriousness, today has affected me in ways I never thought it would- the emotional highs of meeting Hoang and his family, and then the lows of realising what an uphill struggle he has to get out of that hut. Hoang wants to be a doctor. I hope he achieves his dreams.

I am returning to the village tomorrow to see some of the projects, including a vegetable growing initiative, that Actionaid have set up in Da Bac, Hoang's village. Vung and I are going to market first thing to but some food for Hoang's family. This year, they WILL celebrate Tet.

For the record, Hoang and his family don't have a mobile phone...

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Vietnam adventure- Day 6- Laters, Baby!

Vietnam adventure- Day 6- Laters, Baby!

I slept. I slept a full 7 hours. I felt like an overexcited child on Christmas Day this morning. Vung twice asked me if I'm OK and tried to touch my forehead to check I didn't have a fever.

Today I was supposed to have been trekking and biking, but as it stands, after yesterday's bamboo bridge incident, even stairs are proving troubling, and my travel agent had changed my itinerary anyway. So this morning, after 7 hours non stop sleep (did I mention that I slept for 7 hours?) I hopped into the car with Mrs Chau, the hotel chef and Vung to visit the local market to buy the ingredients for the 5 course lunch (which I will then eat) that I will be taught to cook this morning. 

On the way, Vung asks me to teach him some English slang. He explains that an Australian once taught him to say "titty for now" instead of goodbye. "Um, Vung, he may have been joking with you... A titty is a breast. You are saying 'breast for now!'... I think you mean 'ta-ta for now'", I explained. Vung translated this to Kin, who made breast motions as though he were describing Katie Price in a game of charades. Vung went bright red as I wiped away the tears of laughter in the backseat. I wonder how many people he has said THAT to in the last 10 years! I spent the next ten minutes teaching him some slang to pass on to fellow guides, so hopefully, if any if you end up with a Vietnamese guide if you are over this way, he will tell you to "jog on" or "on yer bike" if he doesn't like what you are saying, call you "divvy" if he thinks you are being stupid and tell you that "you look HOT" if he thinks you're pretty. My parting slang phrase was "Laters, Baby"...to the women that are reading this, I doubt i need to explain- to the men, one thing- Fifty Shades of Grey...

I couldn't think of any others, if you can, please let me know, we still have about 10 hours driving to do together!

Mrs Chau doesn't speak great English, but food and cooking are a universal language. She knows everyone in the market and took me right into the depths rather than buy from the hawkers in the edge if the road- their produce is fresher apparently.

Having taken you through so many markets already, I won't bore you with the detail, except a few unusual sights- including a full sized pig, freshly killed, strapped to the back of a moped with the blood still dripping out of it's mouth. It made eating the pork ribs later on a bit challenging...

When the Vietnamese expelled the French in 1954, they chose to keep a couple of things- it's bread being one of them. As odd as it sounds, alongside all this Vietnamese culture (and even in the tribes), exists mini "boulangeries"- French bread and croissants are available everywhere, and often served alongside traditional dishes such as Pho.

Vung, who today, is wearing a "Galvin Klein" T-shirt (not a typo on my part), pointed out the fish stalls- catfish, shrimps and whitebait all gasping for their last breath- it seems to me that everything here is sold alive- alongside worms, maggots and rat. Only joking on the last bit, I didn't see it, but apparently it is available.

We passed a temple. Vung pointed out the high ledge that needs to be navigated to gain entrance- most temples have this in order to slow people down and make them think about the fact that they are entering a holy site, and slow their movements and thoughts. He says that maybe I should have one of these steps in all of the rooms I enter. I poke my tongue out at him and promptly trip over Mrs Chau who has stopped dead at a stall to buy herbs. I think Vung is getting to know me a little TOO well.

Having got all of our ingredients, Vung and Kin dropped us back at the hotel- the market is only a short walk away, but the three of them had conspired against me and are preventing me from walking, unless absolutely necessary, this morning due to yesterday's bamboo bridge incident. 

Mrs Chau and I head to the kitchen and begin to prepare the vegetables for the 5 course meal that I am to cook and then eat for my lunch. Within 5 minutes, the power goes down and we end up preparing and cooking out in the dining room as the kitchen has no windows- the rest of the staff, however, continue to get lunch ready for 32 guests and 11 staff by candlelight. Troopers!

I won't bore you with the full 4 hours worth of preparation, but just to say that we ended up with the following-

Herb and chicken salad
Casava Soup
Sticky baked chicken
Beef and vegetable spring rolls
Garlic fried water spinach

And if I do say so myself, it was bloody delicious- Claire and Jonny, I think this may be the menu for Friday 8th when you come to dinner!!

After lunch Vung and Kin pick me up and drive me 200 yards to Pom Coong and Lac Villages. Yes, 200 yards- I'm telling you, I have been taken prisoner. Send help. And chocolate.

The village is a tourist experiment- bear with me, it isn't exactly a Spanish "strip"! As I have explained, Vietnam retains much of it's charm BECAUSE it isn't very good at tourism- but here is one place where the government HAVE put money into the tourist trade, but are still managing to allow it to flourish under its own traditional culture. As you walk in, you see the bamboo houses on stilts- many of which house "Homestays"- which are essentially Vietnamese family houses with an extra room that is rented out at about £10 a night to travellers. Finally, for the first time in 4/5 days, I saw a few westerners- but not many, tourists here are mostly Vietnamese- the government provides a weeks PAID holiday for government workers (policemen etc) to go away to areas of historical importance- what a great idea.

With Buffalo working the paddy fields and mountains in the background, it is an idyllic village with the added bonus that there are handmade wares for sale- weaving being the main trade. Bags, scarfs, tablecloths, throws, rugs, bracelets, shoes, you name it, if it can be weaved, you can buy it here. The second option is anything carved out of wood- instruments, wind chimes, jewellery... I instantly wished that I had bought a bigger case, and told Vung this. He responded by shaking his head vigorously and miming an old man with a broken back- well, he had been heaving it around all week!

The colours and the quality of the items available is dumbfounding- I think I now have all of my souvenirs in one shopping trip- an exquisite pair of weaved ballet pumps (£5), scarves, hand whittled instruments, bags, bracelets and some beautiful paintings that I fell in love with- Stevie, we need to make room in the bedroom for them!

Everything is made on site, and I was mesmerised by the elderly tribeswomen at the looms, creating little masterpieces for the likes of me to take home and hang in our houses. Karon, if you are reading this, you were right- these people are amazingly talented and I have a little something for you!!

Vung bought a bow and arrow, hand carved- it was £6. Amazing.

It took us several hours to walk round and meet the locals, and the whole trip was a joy. There were a couple of little bars, if you can call them that- bamboo chairs and tables set up next to the paddy fields where you can buy a local beer for 35p and watch the local women weave and the men whittle wood into whatever you ask them to create.

Kin then drove us back the 200 yards to the hotel (um, when you send the rescue team, can you also bring wine?), and as I got out of the car, Vung turned, winked at me and said "Laters, baby". I have created a monster.

Once "home", I had another massage, and then an early dinner in the restaurant. Banana flower salad, tarro soup, sticky pork ribs, chicken and vegetables were on offer, but, still full from my delicious lunch, I picked a bit and hobbled back to my room with a glass of wine to write this blog.

The last 2 days have been delightful. A lovely hotel in a stunning setting- massages, great food, WINE, and being treated by the staff ("Good morning Miss Moss, how is your foot today?") like a princess. I have had chocolates with a poem delivered to my room each night, fresh fruit each morning and clean sheets and towels every day. I needed the rest, and I needed to feel safe, clean and happy. But, strangely enough, I am ready to leave. Tomorrow we leave for Ho Binh, where, after ditching my (obviously too heavy) bag, I will go to meet Huang. I have sponsored Huang through Action Aid for 6 years- and when I arranged this trip, I contacted them to ask whether I could visit him, his family and his village- where my (and other sponsors') money has ensured that he has been able to attend school past the government provided primary age, and also put a fresh and safe water well in his village.

I can't wait. I am prepared for how emotional this might be- I am with him for 2 days, during which I will see his school, his house and hopefully get involved in some community projects. I will be staying in a shitty hotel again, but I don't think that it will matter...

For now, I am going to finish my glass of wine, munch my complimentary chocolates and read my book in my crisp white sheets.

Goodnight all... or should I say, Laters Baby...

Katy xx

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Vietnam adventure- Day 5- Goose attack and luxury at last!

Vietnam adventure- Day 5- Goose attack and luxury at last!!

Vung is getting married. "How exciting!" I exclaimed in true girly style, (OK, so i don't want to get married myself, but I'm allowed to get excited about OTHER people tying the knot, right?) "when?", I asked. "I don't know" he replied. Turns out that in his culture, they only tell their friends and family a few weeks beforehand and the brides' family organises everything...literally all he has to do is turn up! I think the UK marriage rate would be a lot higher if this was OUR policy. City weddings last just a few hours, with a ceremony and then drinking and dancing. But country weddings are up to 3 days, with parties, one for friends, one for family and then a joint one...and they even kill some animals for it. And the friends bring all the food and drink and decorate the house. Sounds bloody perfect to me.
This conversation was expanded upon on our long drive today- we had another 4 hours in the car. We left the "hellhole hotel" as I had christened it early this morning- again, too early for my liking, but after a night sleeping fully clothed and with my pillow wrapped in a dress to avoid my face being on dirty linen, I was just happy to get out

First stop was Son La prison where the French had put the Vietnamese resistance fighters and revolutionaries. Again, as they were defeated, they had destroyed most of the original building, in which up to 300 prisoners were held at any one time, but so e of the buffing had survived and the rest, on this occasion, sympathetically rebuilt according to plans left behind.

I felt incredibly sad and at times close to tears this morning. The tiredness, the fact that this was day 5 on my own and the utterly depressing evening I had endured yesterday were conspiring against me. Add in the stories that Vung was telling me about the senseless incarceration and torture of people simply for their political beliefs and I found myself in tears on several occasions. Vung put this down to me "missing my boyfriend" and I decided not to correct him as this was partly the case. I love the adventures that I have whilst travelling alone, but it's always a little bittersweet when you don't have someone to share it with- be that a friend or partner- you can't nudge someone and point things out, you have no one to help you grin and bear it when you have a bad experience and no-one to laugh with when you have a good one. But Vung is a good second best- and we have had a lot of fun today...

After we had walked around Son La Museum- another government building that has as much propaganda as it does items of historical interest, we began our drive to Mai Chau, with the plan to stop in several villages for "sightseeing" on the way. First stop was a simply stunning traditional Vietnamese village- home to the White Thai tribe. The entrance to the village was across a VERY rickety bamboo bridge. Fine. Except under that bridge was a very wide, very deep river. One of my irrational fears (shortly behind spiders) is bridges over water. Add in that I am still on a crutch and my Wally Boot makes it rather difficult to grip, and you will understand why I was nervous. We walked slowly and steadily across, and I had to give Vung my crutch after it went trough the bamboo after a few steps- everything was fine, until the middle, when a bloody, sodding moped came speeding up behind us- we moved to the side, the whole bridge swing and I panicked, lifted my bad foot up and pulled it in the wrong direction. Ouch I said. Well, I didn't say that and there is no need to repeat what I said- my mother will read this blog, but suffice to say that Vung now has a few words added to his English vocabulary.

But it was worth it- a picture perfect White Thai tribe village- bamboo houses on stilts, Buffalo pulling along supplies and lovely Vietnamese children running up to say hello.  One thing I am very happy to report is that children here are allowed to be children- they aren't turned into beggars like in some other third world/developing countries- I remember in Tanzania, you couldn't make eye contact with the kids for fear of them putting their hand out. In Vietnam, they want to talk to you (in their own language, of course), to touch you and to show you things- and when you leave, they wave goodbye and smile at you- full of joy just to have met someone from out of town.

One of the bamboo houses had recently been built. Vung explained that once a family has saved and bought, bit by bit, all of the materials to build one- it only takes two weeks to get it finished- the whole village pitches in until the final tile is laid on the roof. Now that's good neighbours!

As we walked through, Vung was attacked. By a Goose. It flew at him and tried to peck him (do Geese peck??), he launched into several impressive martial arts moves, but simply looked ridiculous fighting this massive bird. Doubled up laughing, I could do nothing except offer him my crutch as defence. Finally a local farmer came and shooed him away, but the damage was done...we laughed all the way back to the car- and then showed the video, that I had helpfully been taken whilst he was defending himself, to Kin, who couldn't drive for 10 minutes afterwards as he was laughing so much. It was a great moment and I think it helped Vung to relax a little bit with me. 

Another hour on the road and then we stopped at a roadside stall, where one of the Black Thai ladies was selling some very unusual looking fruits- they looked like giant lemons- I still haven't got to the bottom of what they were. She was also selling birds in cages- nightingales and others I didn't recognise. The people here live off the land in the real sense- and the government, well, say what you like about a Communist government, but this one not only protects the minority tribes, but encourages their way of life. For example, education is not free in Vietnam, but it is provided free to the tribal children for the first 5 years to ensure that they have some basic education before their parents set them to work on the farms or marry them off to another village tribes person.

Back in the car and we stopped at the Moc Chau general store, an hour down the road. For lunch. The store acts as a meeting point for the locals an a place to get supplies- we sat down up the top on a mezzanine floor and were served the best food I have had since being here. A melt in the mouth chili fried beef, the ever available cabbage with a boiled egg and soy sauce dip (better than it sounds!), light spring rolls, that, unlike the British version are more filling than wrapping, with a chilli and spring onion dipping sauce, a sweet potato and pork Pho, sticky rice, a sweet and sour pork knuckle dish and a plate of crisp, fresh green salad with coriander. All the produce was bought from the local market- our next stop. 

And then something odd happened- a local man came and sat next to me with a bottle of rice wine- his group of 15 friends (and his wife!) looked on whilst he asked me, through Vung whether he could share a drink with me as I was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in the flesh and the first western woman to pass through the area and stop for dinner in quite some time. And he was impressed with my chopstick control. Apparently. Embarrassing. But, flattered, I of course agreed- we clinked our shot glasses (after a lengthy speech which Vung DIDN'T translate, but made him blush), and then, just in case it wasn't weird enough, he asked to take some pictures of us together- his wife took the bloody picture!!! Kin commandeered my phone and took a few too- and then one by one, they all wanted one. Very odd, but great for the ego. I felt like Britney Spears... except without the massive drug problem and the cash.

Our final stop before Mai Chau Lodge was at another village market- all the usual produce was on display, plus a fish "stall"- with live cat fish being killed as needed and scaled and filleted for the customers at request. The meat stall was interesting- nose to tail eating is the norm here rather than something championed by fashionable TV chefs, and pigs ears, trotters, cows brain and other delicacies were being snapped up. It was a bit like being down Rye Lane in Peckham, but without the disgusting people. Women from the tribes came up to stroke me and Vung translated that they thought I was a movie star- I could get used to this- any more of this flattery and I won't be able to get my head THROUGH my hotel door! The fact is, they don't see westerners very often- I know this to be true as I haven't seen one in 3 days since I left Hanoi- and there it's just the standard backpackers, so they don't venture out of the cheap bars to see much of real Vietnam.

Next stop, my hotel. Before I left the UK, I had high hopes for this place, but after the last few days, I wasn't so sure. But thank God, and Allah and Buddha and Elvis.... it is PERFECT. There is no such thing as barefoot luxury in Vietnam- this isn't Thailand, it has not quite got it's tourist hat on yet- and that is what makes it beautiful and fascinating and real- but it also means that some of the hotels are anything but a pleasant, relaxing experience. But Mai Chau Lodge is different- it IS geared towards travellers, but in a sensitive manner. 90% of it's employees are from the local tribes, they are educated and trained to work there- but not to the extent that they have to leave their culture behind.

I was shown to my room, and promptly burst into tears in front of the receptionist, who had no idea what was going on, but gave me a hug and booked me a massage in the bamboo hut with one of the Black Thai women for an hour later. They were tears of relief- it's no wonder sleep deprivation is used as a method, a very successful method, of torture. I looked at the crisp, clean sheets, the clean wooden floor, the shower room where they had set up an oil burner, burning tea tree oil made by a local family, the bottle of water by the side of the bed and the complimentary bottle of rice wine on the stand by the fruit tray, and couldn't believe the difference from the last two nights. If I can just get a full nights sleep, maybe I will stop bawling like a hysterical woman with PMT every 5 minutes.

I had a full body massage (for £12), avoiding the poorly foot and then spent a couple of joyous hours reading in my room without having to keep my full body covered to avoid the mosquitoes and dirt that I have been surrounded by for the last 4 days. Moses, you need to man up.

Dinner was in the lodge restaurant- a beautiful bamboo hut (see a pattern here?) and consisted of a fresh herb and chicken salad, casava soup (sweet potato like vegetable), and then a selection of Vietnamese dishes- the best of which was the lightly fried fish with spicy peppers. And they had wine. Good wine. Not great, but good. First glass of good wine so far this trip. What a joy.

Tomorrow I was supposed to be trekking for 4 hours in the morning and cycling for several hours in the afternoon. As I am still unable to comfortably shower without fear of hurting myself, that is obviously out. However...I AM booked on a cookery course, so it's early to bed ready for the market tomorrow morning- I have to go with the chefs to buy the produce and plan a menu before I start to cook it!

Goodnight from Vietnam

Katy x