Karsts and killing time

It’s six days since I got to Hanoi, six days since the rain-soaked morning when I walked through the old streets thinking ‘wowwowwow’ and nearly getting run over about every 20 seconds.

Tet is coming up on the 19th. ‘Tet’ is just Vietnamese for festival and its full name actually translates as New Year Festival but really, Lunar New Year is THE festival in Vietnam. Lots of businesses close for a whole week, including the Museum of Women as a couple of French people and I found out to our disappointment at the ticket office yesterday! But the week before Tet is in some ways a really awesome time to be in Hanoi, particularly the old town, because where else can you discover what it’s like to be part of a traffic jam, surrounded by lanterns and flowers? When I say Tet is THE festival I mean it; many people here work 6 or 7 day weeks, often very long days. Christams, as far as I know, isn’t a holiday and lots of people don’t celebrate birthdays. Tet is the time for giving presents and money to friends, for buying new clothes and toys for kids, for drinking a skinful of beer hoi or rice wine (and then totalling your motorbike on the way home….), for decorating your house, throwing parties, remembering ancestors. So picture the Westfield Centre, or Oxford circus in London the week before Christmas, but the shops have all extended their territory onto the pavement and the road is full of motorbikes and people. You can buy every kind of food, kitchenware, flowers; both fake and real, clothes, shoes, watches, decorations and lanterns, red and gold envelopes to put money gifts in…and paper versions of all the above and more, to burn for dead loved ones. It’s pretty cool, just wandering the streets at the moment. Slowly, I’m getting my bearings here. I make a wrong turn and there’s that panic in your stomach like when you’re a kid and you lose your mum in the shopping centre (it takes centuries to get anywhere in the jam of people and bikes, let alone if you have to retrace your steps!) but more and more quickly I’m finding my way back to streets I know. It’s quite nice to take a break from the regular kind of sightseeing after two months of it, but I do wish I had a camera!

The other thing I’ve been doing a lot of is reading, on my Kindle. Most physical books in Vietnam are fakes, at various standards of convincing-ness, and I have refrained from buying any, out of solidarity to my fellow writers of course… Just kidding, I don’t think Yann Martel or Sophie Kinsella are going to starve any time soon! I’ve bought Peter Sansom’s ‘Writing Poems: 2’, a brilliant book which tells you everything you need to know in order to be a poet. (Could have saved myself a few thousand pounds if I’d known that before I went to university, but where would have been the fun in that?! And of course I wouldn’t have met some of you, my lovely readers 🙂 But I do reccoment that book for anyone who’s interested in writing poetry) and I’ve also re-started ‘Les Miserables’. If that sounds pretentious, I have to tell you that it was the prospect of a 14-hour bus journey which prompted me to restart this 900-odd page epic! Now I’m hooked. If it had been written today, it would be about 2/3rds shorter, but I love a good intensely descriptive Victorian novel, me. The only problem is, like Tolstoy does in ‘War and Peace’, Victor Hugo keeps breaking off to talk about politics and war. Blah-di-blah, Hugo, just tell me what happened to Jean Valjean and Cosette. I’m dying here.

The disadvantage of this of course is that I stumble out onto Bat Su, and in my head I’m half in Arras or Paris. I nearly said ‘francs’ instead of ‘dong’ yesterday. It doesn’t help that croissants, coffee and crepes are readily available here!

One place you would have absolutely no trouble identifying as Vietnam, is Halong Bay. Google it if you don’t know where I mean, but you will have seen pictures! Limestone karsts rise out of the turquoise water like so many blunt mountains. Well, they are mountains, eroded into unique shapes and surrounded by water over the past however many centuries. Except, now, there’s as many cruise ships as karsts on any given horizon and the turquoise water, on closer inspection, has a film of oily patches over it. Despite my inner environmentalist weeping I tried to look on the bright side, which wasn’t hard at times — namely when we were taken to a more remote (but still polluted…) part of the bay to go kayaking. You could get much closer to the karsts like this, see the vegetation dripping off their crags, hear the different types of birdsong. In shallower waters, you could see coral beneath you, too. I would definitely say go to Halong Bay as it fills you with awe for this wonderful world we live in, but if you can find a way to do it that doesn’t involve a cruise ship with a Butlins-style timetable, do that! As well as Kayaking, we visited a pearl farm, which I would happily have missed! It was interesting, but it pretty much put me off buying pearls for life…The Halong Bay trip was included in my Bamba Pass, so it would be interesting to see if it’s possible to take a more personalised or even a more environmentally conscious trip.

I can’t believe that in 48 hours (probably spent hanging around Hanoi being poet-y and drinking coffee) I will be at the airport, awaiting my flight to Kuala Lumpur. Exciting times 😀

Take care, all



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