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Backpackers Delight 10 June 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Vietnam.
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You can spot them from miles away, with their brown, tanned skin glistening in the sun, their locks casually bleached from sun and lazy afternoons by pools and on beaches, slightly matting together, not quite dreads, not quite washed.

Their hippie style tattered rags that were probably picked up in Thailand, hanging off them, tired from too many washes – the sad fate of the one set of clothes packed for the journey.

Their feet are always in sandals, neatly covering tanlines from too much wear.

Reluctantly, I feel a slight moment of judgement – for perhaps no other reason than that I myself never trekked the world with only a backpack and a tiny budget. He’s sitting there, on the back of his xe om (motorbike taxi for the uninitiated), probably his first day in Hanoi. I roll my eyes a little.

But then, the youngen turns to his friend on the xe om behind him, to that girl who is clinging on to the rail on the motorbike for dear life. And I catch his expression.

It is one of pure exhilaration, pure joy of adventure. His perfect white teeth flash across his sunkissed face. And that one moment, I feel a strange mix of jealousy (ah, to relive that first moment on a motorbike) and pride (that joy is caused by this wonderful city I call home)!

That one moment made me smile at his youthful wonderment. How I wish I could feel that way again.

So, goodbye backpacker dude. May your travels always fill you with wonder and joy. And enjoy this city for what it is!

Thank you for starting my day off with a smile!

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After the rain 2 June 2010

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Hanoi is slowly gearing up to summer; the mercury is rising, the humidity is stifling, the sun is glaring.

This is my third summer in Hanoi, and I feel that I can cope better with the heat now than I ever have before. I feel sorry for the newcomers who are already claiming to be ‘dying’ from the heat. I choose not to tell them that summer will get warmer and muggier. I don’t want to discourage them just yet.

Yesterday, around 4:30 in the afternoon, the sun was out. It was 32 degrees, and humidity was at 78 per cent. Blue skies were slowly being overtaken by dark, almost purple rainclouds.

People on motorbikes were clumping together under the shade a couple of metres ahead of the traffic lights, trying to stay out of the sun.

“The ninjas have returned!” I proclaimed recently when the women started covering themselves head to toe; they will wear masks and sunglasses, hoodies, long gloves, and specially made ‘riding shirts’ with extra long sleeves that they wear over their clothes to avoid the sunshine.

Then, late last night, there was another storm. I love the storms of Hanoi in summer. There is nothing more welcome, nothing more refreshing.

When we arrived in Hanoi, we were put up in an 8th floor apartment, where you could see the storms rolling in, and where the lightning would be jumping from cloud to cloud all around you. And then, after shrill flashes and loud thunder, pounding rain:

Silence.

Muffled Hanoi, driving through the large amounts of puddles and minor floodings left behind.

And the morning after, when driving to work, it is easier to breathe. The air is cool, everything seems cleaner. The world seems different, somehow.

And beautiful, after the rain.

And you know that the tension will keep on rising over the next couple of days, until the next storm, the next relief.

How can you not but love summer in Hanoi?

Hanoi Reflections 19 February 2009

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Originally posted on 19 February 2009 (edited)

Lunch in Hanoi

City life in Vietnam is very different from city life that I am used to.  Still, people watching brings incredible pleasure, and this is the tale of my lunch break in Hanoi.  I had the pleasure of having an hour to kill while waiting for my motorbike to be fixed, and watching the world go by, I found inner peace in the midst of the crazy.

Sitting with my iced condense-milk Vietnamese coffee in front of me in an area slightly out of the centre of Hanoi, the first thing that struck me was the lack of foreigners.  Normally, foreigners can be seen either wandering around with maps in hand and backpack strapped on (read: tourists), or zipping past on motorbikes, helmets precariously perched on top of heads whose skulls are clearly a few sizes too big for the piece of plastic being passed off as a safety device (read: expat).  This little street, however, is not near any tourism hotspots, which made the time I spent there all the more interesting. Even so, the affluence of the area was clearly visible, with the trendy café I was sitting at testament number one.

Many of the locals around me in the café and on the street owned expensive motorbikes, wore clothes, haircuts and handbags of the latest fashions, and mobile phones had to be surgically removed from their hands.  I saw a (relatively) high proportion of heavy-set Vietnamese, often a good indication of level of income.  Many drove around without helmets, even though the law in Vietnam requires them.  Laughter from young Vietnamese from the local high school filled the air.  Yet the backdrop was French style buildings and street vendors and little old ladies in peasant clothing walking along the street contemplating the westerner at the café.  Modern Vietnam.

Across the street from me at the corner, sat an old grandmother behind a large vat for cooking.  Steam rose from it as she stirred the contents with cooking chopsticks.  She was chatting to a woman, possibly her daughter, who sat next to her with a toothpick hanging from of the corner of her mouth.  The younger one of the two was wearing an orange blouse and black trousers.  The older one was wearing sandals, black trousers and a purple button-up shirt.  She was greying from the forehead, causing silver streaks to infiltrate the mop of hair that was pulled back tightly into a knot at her neck.  Her face was full of wrinkles, her mouth collapsed inwards onto her toothless gums.  When not talking, she moved her lips, as if she was sucking on something, displaying the multitude of wrinkles around her mouth.

An ancient Honda cub pulled up next to the stall, and a lady with a girl of about 8 stepped off.  The elderly lady said something to the newcomer, who took her place, and crossed the street towards me and disappeared out of view into a side street.  I wish I had my camera with me at that moment, as the steaming stall with the two ladies and the girl left behind would have captured the street scene perfectly.

A little further along the street, and directly opposite to me was another stall, and another little old lady who was running it.  This stall had customers, three young people and an older man.  The old man was dressed in Vietnamese army gear, giving the impression of a veteran from one of the many wars Vietnam has fought over the past forty-odd years.  He had a small face with sharp features, displaying no expression, and his eyes were wandering over the scene in front of him, observing life go by just like me.  I would sometimes meet his eyes across the road, knowing full well that he was probably wondering about me sitting where I sat as much as I was wondering about him.  He sat there for a while, until he put on a military helmet, mounted his Honda, and drove off.

The other youths at the stall had been playing cards, and I am not sure why, but all of a sudden, one of them made a huge ruccus, stood up with the cards and flung them into the air. Jacks, Aces and fives rained down all over the street scene, and their game was clearly finished. They continued to be loud; laughing and hooting.  A sudden commotion down the street made the two boys jump up and run towards it.  I could not see what had happened, but the whole street turned to look.  Shopkeepers stepped out on the pavement, the workmen changing the sign on a building and the people peddling wares in the street were all gazing in one direction.  I wondered whether there had been an accident, but I had not heard anything.  A few minutes later, everything returned to normal, as if nothing had happened, and the boys returned to their seats.

Young children were all around me – little girls with two buns on their heads like Mickey Mouse, small school children with their red communist-era scarves and uniforms, even younger children in the arms of their grandparents or parents, being carried around or running up and down the pavement after balls.  The café next door had a television on, and it was showing a children’s programme, filling the air with kids singing.

An expensive car drove into the street, and recognising the diplomatic plates in an instant, I wondered which embassy it was from.  It stopped at the end of the street, and the only other westerner I was to see during lunch stepped out, wove to her driver, and walked into a side street.  I made the assumption that she was a spouse, as the flag indicating an ambassador was not displayed on the car.

All of a sudden, a surprising sound – a security guard hit a large drum, which was just in my line of sight inside a courtyard.  Instantly, I understood why when all the high school students around me paid their bills and ran back to school.  Why have a school bell when you can have a school drum, right?

A man in his thirties arrived and sat two metres away from me, holding a toddler in his arms.  The little girl was playing with a balloon, but stopped dead in her tracks when she spotted me.  Stiff with fear, the man and the lady at the food stall followed her gaze and realised it was the Tay – the Westerner.  They laughed and tried to make the girl smile back at me, but there were only two large, round eyes staring at me.  Her mother came along, and all of a sudden a gush of wind pulled the balloon out of her tiny hands, and it passed straight by my feet.  I managed to stop it, and picked it up.  The mother smiled at me when she retrieved the balloon, but there were no smiles to be had from the little girl, even though she smiled at everyone else.  It must be weird to see your first foreigner.

In typical Vietnamese fashion, the father, thinking it must be time for a toilet break, pulled down the pants of the little girl, and held her naked bottom above the gutter, while he hisses in her ear to simulate the sound of running water, in the hope that it would make her pee.  It seemed to have no effect on the little girl, though, who was clearly not ready to relieve herself.  Pants came back up, and no extra water was flowing in the gutter.  I paid for my coffee and walked away in the sunshine, thinking that this is a scene I would gladly revisit the next time my motorbike is in the shop.

Hanoi Craft Villages 4 December 2008

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Originally posted on 4 December 2008 (edited)

We have had the opportunity to see a little bit more of Vietnam over the past couple of weeks.  In early November we went with Friends of Vietnamese Heritage to two craft villages south of Hanoi.

Silk Village

The first village we went to was the silk village, where we saw the silk threads being extracted from the cocoon.  Basically, silk is a thread woven by the silk worm into a cocoon, so that it can develop into a butterfly.  When the cocoon is formed, it is transported from where they raise silkworms to the village where they make the silk. Within 10 days of arrival, the silk must be extracted, or the cocoons will hatch.

(Photo from the interweb)

The cocoons are dumped in boiling water, to kill the worm inside, and to roll the silk off the cocoon.  Silkworms create two layers of silk when spinning its cocoon, the outer one being of the highest quality.  The lesser quality layer is not used in the village we visited, but they sell their left-overs to China, where they use the lesser quality threads for lesser quality silk.  The dead silkworms are often used for food.  When extracted, the large bundles of fine silk thread (think bundle of yarn before it is wound into a ball) are hung out to dry.

When dry, the thin strings of silk are carefully strung onto very long contraptions, and matted with rice flour paste.  This makes the threads sticky, and about two or three threads are stuck together to create a single, stronger thread.  Each process of the silk is done by different workshop, with entire families specialising in each specific trade.

When the threads have been made, the silk is wound onto spools, and taken to weaving huts.  Basically, these are houses with one or several looms that weave the thread into cloth.  This is mostly done mechanically now, with modified machines from the Soviet Union, Japan and France.  Some of the looms are still made of wood, but because wood gives, the weave will be looser, and will cause the finished silk cloth to be less valuable.

Silk, by the way, is white in its natural form.  But don’t think cotton or wool white, think snow or icing sugar white.  It is pristine in colour, absolutely amazing.  Once woven, the cloth goes on to the next workshop where they first wash, then dye, the silk.  And finally, the finished product is either sold as metres and metres of cloth or made into silk products, like scarves, ties, shirts, traditional Vietnamese dresses or whatever you desire it to be.

(Photo from the inteweb)

Drum Making Village

After spending quite a bit of time walking around the silk village, (and spending money in the silk shop) we went on to the drum making village.  Many drums are sold in Vietnam for religious purposes, however, this village was actually established by royal decree.  When one of the many historic Vietnamese kings was going to visit this particular village, a couple of brothers decided to make a drum in his honour.  It was said that the sound from the drum was like thunder, and the king was so impressed that he wanted the whole village to make drums from then on.  The drum making skills used to be handed down from father to sons, and never went outside the family, but now this is no longer the case.

They make drums in all sizes, but it takes several strong men to make the biggest ones, because the buffalo hides used for the drums need to be very taught.  For the frame, they do not bend the wood, but cut the wood in circular shapes.  Subsequently, they bind the carved planks together with iron, like a barrel.  Once the wood is sanded down and nice and smooth, the hide is pulled over it, first on one side, then the other.  It is pulled extremely tight by ropes, and when it is tight enough, it is secured onto the wooden frame by nailing small wooden pegs through the hide into the wood.  Once the pegs have secured the hide, the left over hide is cut off.  Some drums are painted (mostly red), but the ones we purchased were just natural wood.

(From the interweb)

It was a great day, we had a wonderful time.