International Meal in Vietnam

Well, so Zach and I took Thanh up on her challenge and cooked dinner… with a bit of help! We had a delicious feast of English-Vietnamese-Kenyan-Latin American-Canadian food! Our offerings were as follows:

Ali – green bananas fried like plantain and sukuma wiki (Swahili for a way of cooking sukuma greens/cabbage so it “lasts the week” a vegetable dish that’s designed to be used all week long) – I learnt to make these from a friend from Kenya who stayed with us for a while.

Zach – Patacón a Latin American plantain dish, here made with green bananas too

Nghia – delicious fried fish and fried tofu with tomatoes, spring onion and fish sauce (he made the oil catch light while he was tossing this in the pan in a most impressive manner!)

Thao – green bean and cabbage dish with pork stock, rice and fruit for pudding (people rarely eat pudding here but they do have fruit every day)

The ingredients all sourced locally – vegetables and fruit from the market, fish from the river, green bananas from who knows where but there are loads of them here, as well as sweeter small fat yellow bananas.

Over dinner we spoke of many things, including a lot about politics, communism, wars around the world, migration and the situation with many refugees displaced around the world.

Also Thanh talked about how lucky we were to have passports that mean we can travel virtually anywhere in the world. She is right, of course. It was good to hear her be so honest. She’s a very quiet, thoughtful person. In conclusion, she said she was happy with her life, and with being in her country. Because there is no war, and every year since the Vietnam War things have been getting better, so the sisters agreed they have some good leaders at the moment politically. And of course, they’ve had people from over twenty different countries come and stay with them even just in the last few months! So perhaps there is no need to travel. If they ever are able to though, I reckon they will have friends in all sorts of places. I will say that to them before I leave.

Dragon fruit, which turns out to be really good when it’s actually sweet and ripe (not like the terrible disappointment I had the only time I tasted it in England… the colour and look of it is so promising, but it tasted of over boiled potatoes it was so bland!) and green oranges. 😋

Ah, and I asked about the early morning radio broadcast thing. The sisters giggled and said it was their village’s way of welcoming us! I said, “What?? At 4:45 in the morning?!???” Apparently when the voice is speaking it’s the news about the country, agricultural news etc. They said they no longer notice it because they’ve heard it every day since childhood.

Bich Dong Pagoda & Temple

This afternoon I donned my Vietnamese hat and mounted my faithful steed to head off to Bich Dong Pagoda, just under 9km away. Eeee I could feel my calve muscles after yesterday’s exertions with all those stone steps! Also, sitting again on a bike made ultimately for someone of smaller stature. The seat was pretty much the right height for me actually, as I could only just touch the ground with the tips of my toes, but the pedals were too high up, so I ended up feeling like my legs were folded up awkwardly. Anyway, the bike still went at quite a lick… I managed to overtake quite a few people – I wanted the breeze of a quicker pace, which I managed just fine.

The hat really was almost levitating off my head as I whizzed along, only held on by the ribbon under my chin. Otherwise it wasn’t barely ever touching my head!

I had to stop and get off as a parade came by – maybe a funeral I think, though I didn’t find out what it was about. An entire village looked like they’d come out for it though, and were parading a couple of mini Pagoda type things on biers through the street while everyone else very smartly dressed followed on. Little piles of burning incense sticks marked the path. A man was playing what looked and sounded like a traditional type of oboe, and lots of cymbals were being clashed repeatedly at the front of the parade. I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but managed to get a tiny bit of footage:

The Pagoda and temple are kind of built on several levels inside a mountain and in a grotto/cave:

This chapel looked more like a Buddhist one than the usual to the kings/political leaders sort of thing, perhaps?

Then, horror… more steps! This time inside the grotto/cave. Was this fixation with steps upwards in a mountainside a metaphor for reaching enlightenment or heaven or something, I wonder?

An ancient bell and a half!

Huge stalactites

I loved the way the light fell on the figures in this temple area:

Yep, more steps. Some nearly as deep as my knee!

I’ve no idea what this big stone is. It looked like a gravestone, but was inside the second level part of the temple. On closer inspection it looks a bit like someone was practising writing characters over and again on it maybe?

I stopped and had an ice cream when I reached the exit, and the lady who sold me it pulled up a chair for me to enjoy contemplating the view while eating it. I asked her how to say “thank you” – shame on me it took me this long. It’s “cam on”, apparently.

Then it was back on the faithful steed all the way home in time to have a shower and cook dinner. I passed some beautiful beginnings of the sunset type views on the way, looking over rice paddies to the distinctively shaped limestone mountains that are so prevalent here.

I passed what might be a graveyard?

Another great day in wonderland!

Wildlife you see when you’re still

Continuing my thoughts about stillness and wildlife, here are some of the extraordinary beasts I’ve seen in Vietnam when I’ve been still enough for long enough. None of these are my own photos, as I am abysmal at getting photos of small flying things, or things that whizz past while I’m cycling.

This first one shot across the river right in front of me while I was sitting relaxing, in a flash of bright sapphire. I can’t believe it’s actually quite common here! In England our kingfishers are very rare, and not so completely brightly strikingly blue all over, though they are beautiful.

Blue eared kingfisher (very common here)
Red dragonfly (there were loads at Hàng Mua)

Blue damselfly
Water Buffalo

And butterflies – there have been loads, and of different types. These pictures are all borrowed from the same website (credit at the bottom of most):

Twinkle toes

Do you like my be-pearled twinkle toes? Such a lovely gift for a blogger looking for fine pearls, thanks Jo D!

Next to them are some insect repellent (v necessary) and a green orange. Because, well that’s how it is here. The other one, which I ate earlier today tasted good but a bit more like grapefruit than orange.

Anyway, off to do the cooking now! Hoping dinner works out well…

Recharging

As I have been travelling, it has been really important to keep my mobile phone charged up. And for all you naysayers who hate people using phones all the time – yes so do I, but there’s a time and a place, as with most things.

At the advice of travelling friends I downloaded the Maps Me app before I came away, and frankly, without it I’d be really stuck. It shows your location and you can use it to plan journeys on foot or bike or car or whatever. It tells you a route and estimates how long distance wise and time wise it will take you. It’s like Google maps, but it only uses GPS, so you don’t need WiFi or to be online to use it at all. As I only have WiFi internet access, whenever I’m out of range of the place I’m staying or a café with WiFi I can’t use the internet. (Well I could, maybe, but it would cost a fortune.) Travellers avoid this by getting a new SIM card in each country they go to (most of the airports offer them to you on arrival out here). But I’m here to be here, so I’m happy to not have WiFi except when I land up somewhere.

The only drawback with Maps Me is that it doesn’t have such comprehensive information about public transport, and sometimes locations might be missing or misnamed, so I have needed to double check with Google Maps while I have WiFi and then drop a pin into the Maps Me map so I can see where I’m going when I’m offline. But sometimes (perhaps because travellers use it more), it’s easier to find home stays on Maps Me than on Google Maps.

Just while I’m on this topic, even in really out of the way places here there is WiFi in the cafés and homestays. And my top tip for travelling in Vietnam is if in doubt re WiFi codes, try 123456789. I don’t know if it’s because the communist thing has imparted a strong sense of community, or whether it’s not understanding what a password is for (it is probably very perplexing if you’re not from a western individualistic culture after all), or maybe it’s because it’s just too hot? Too hot to worry about having to remember/find out/for café staff to be asked about different passwords? Or because people don’t have access to the sort of technology where it remembers your password for you? But all the WiFi passwords so far in Vietnam seem to be 123456789. Except my hotel in Hanoi, which actually had the 6 missing (a typo? Do the staff end up apologetically explaining that as their mistake, I wonder?!).

Another travelling tip: bring a powerbank so you can recharge devices on the hoof. You don’t want to get stuck somewhere and not be able to find your way back or show your digital ticket. For the uninitiated (as even my Silicon Valley brother was – oops, correction; apparently he just had never heard the word “powerbank” that we use in the UK for this), this is what a no messing powerbank looks like. It’s pretty heavy, but worth its weight in gold. You can see it has two USB inputs so you can charge two devices at once (I also have a small tablet with me). So far it retains its charge really well (although the initial charge up took a long time.):

Anyway, all of this was to point out that my phone periodically needs a recharge and so do I. I find all this planning and checking of maps and so on quite tiring. So this morning I am recharging my phone and recharging myself with a slow morning at the homestay.

Awww! Just as I was cutting my fingernails (nails and hair seem to grow disturbingly fast in this humid climate, for some reason), I had a visitor who came in through the window. Just briefly, exploring the room and then she was gone. She’s like a tiny and wilder version of our household cat Xena (Warrior Princess, presumably still scared of the cat flap 😆):

I think animals are wise; they only show up when you are still enough for long enough to not be a threat. Here’s another poetic passage about that, and how it might relate to us as human beings that I love:

“The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.” (From Parker J Palmer https://books.google.com.vn/books/about/A_Hidden_Wholeness.html?id=oRrrRQ-6UdgC&redir_esc=y)

Maybe our soul, or whatever is most deeply essential to us, will only show up when we are still enough to welcome it? That resonates with my experience, anyway.

One of the things I learnt pretty fast on my cancer journey was how to stop. I had no choice really. Having stopped for long enough, gradually, I noticed things that were important to me made themselves known to me more clearly than before. Perhaps because I didn’t have the energy to hide from them or ignore them. My tentative suggestion is that it would surely be good to engage with this without getting seriously ill? I’m meeting some people on my travels who are engaging with it without being seriously ill, so it must be possible!

Hang Múa (the Dancing Mountain)

In the afternoon, I walked back to the homestay, asked if they could do some laundry for me and then borrowed a pedal bike to cycle down the road in the other direction to nearby Hang Múa.

My faithful steed for the day👇🏼 No back brakes but hey who needs brakes?!

I know this hat looks silly, but the locals really do know best. While you’re cycling, the updraft creates a really refreshing breeze, and pulls the hat off your head, while the ribbon holds it on securely, and the breeze cools your head. Also, what little contact it does have with your head is not sweat inducing because of the light natural stuff (bamboo? Or some kind of reeds?) it’s made of.

I parked the bike for the princely sum of 10000VND (about 34p), and went off to explore on foot. This whole area is really well laid out, with lots of places for you to sit and appreciate the stunning views across the rice paddies and lotus lake even before you climb the steps up the Dancing Mountain.

I enjoyed a contemplative walk around the lotus lake while hardly anyone else was around, then made my way up the steps.

Remembering the lesson from the Winchester Mystery House and the extra shallow steps Sarah Winchester had put in to help her get around, I was grateful when occasionally on the way up they’d done something similar:

View from the top of Dancing Mountain:

This👇🏼 is the lotus lake with the curving then heart shaped walkway that I’d walked on. If you look closely you might be able to see some people walking it:

There’s nothing quite like travel to help you grasp that it takes all sorts to make a world. Watching this guy (and several others) reminded me of that fact 😲:

With all the stone steps in the wall, sometimes this place is known locally as the “Vietnamese Great Wall”, like the Great Wall of China, I guess. (But much much shorter!)

The story about how this came to be called Dancing Mountain is about one of the ancient Kings, the Tran King, who visited Hoa Lu (the ancient capital city) to build Thai Vi Temple. In the story, he often visited a cave under a bell shaped mountain where he enjoyed the royal concubines dancing and singing. So he named the cave “Dancing Cave” (Hang Múa), but now locals use the name to talk about not only the cave but the whole area.

I asked several people for help today. That’s a lesson I’m gradually learning. The French guy to hold the row boat still so I could get in and out more easily, the homestay lady if she could do some laundry for me, and when I was at the very top of Hang Múa, I asked a guy if he could get my phone out of my bag pocket for me as I couldn’t reach it reliably with my bag on my back and I was balanced pretty precariously. Then I asked a lady if she could put it back for me once I’d taken this photo of the dragon at the very top, whose claw I touched:

At lunchtime I asked the French couple who came and sat with me what other places they’d been to and where they were going next. They recommended Hang Múa, which decided my plans for this afternoon, and I was able to recommend Trang An boat trip, which they were going on to after lunch.

Oh and I also asked a Vietnamese photographer/tour guide about the immaculate Asian woman who I saw at the top of all those steps, dressed like a bride in a long flowing white dress, with lots of beautiful lace on it and high heels. He said your wedding is important it is something you hope to only do once. I asked him whether this lady had actually just got married (the guy dressed like a groom seemed to have very little to do with her), or whether perhaps she was modelling the dress for a fashion magazine or clothing company. I said I thought it looked very difficult for her to climb all 500 steps dressed like this (in fact I saw oodles of Asian women dressed beautifully at sights like this, somehow managing to reach the top still looking immaculate, posing for endless photos taken by their boyfriends or friends or maybe other photographers). He tutted and said the people I should feel sorry for are not the brides or models but the photographers, having to climb all 500 steps all the time to take the photos! That’s when I found out he was a photographer (now retired from taking wedding pictures though, which I think he was thankful for!). He showed me a beautiful picture of the rice paddy we were sitting in front of, which he took just as the evening sun threw a shard of warm golden glow across it. He definitely has a gift!

Tonight, Canadian Zach has arrived at the homestay. We all had dinner together, in the course of which both he and I said we were kind of missing cooking, with all our travels. Our hostess instantly said, “You can cook here if you like – tomorrow?” We established the elements of a dish we reckon we could make between us… so, tomorrow night we’re on duty!

I also had a lesson in how to use chopsticks. I need more practice. But it looks like I’ll get plenty. Maybe by the time I leave Asia, I’ll be a pro? I thought I was doing well, but my technique, while ok with noodles, does not really work with rice.

Trang An boat trip

Wow. What a day! After a rather restless night trying to work out how to stay inside my mosquito net while also turning the air con on and off, I was woken at 4:45am – yes you read correctly – by what sounded like an hour long radio broadcast, including rousing patriotic sounding music followed by quite a bit of talk (maybe from an esteemed Party Secretary or something?). If I get the courage, I’ll ask about it at dinner soon.

I got up early (well I was already awake wasn’t I?!) and walked to the start point for the boat trip. This homestay is so great location wise! A couple I met on my first day recommended this trip and said to get there early to avoid the crowds. The pictures don’t do it justice but here they are anyway…

The lovely French lady in my boat, who a guy gave some food to so she could drop it in for the fish:

The temples here are all devoted to esteemed political/historical Kings and leaders. I only discovered afterwards that you’re not supposed to take photos!! There were a lot of sweet things being offered at these altars. I find the whole seemingly uncritical veneration of leaders here really strange. After all, I come from the nation that brought you Brexit. And a gazillion other shameful political moves. I guess this is a very British thing (well, to correct that, a very middle class left leaning British thing at least), but I feel uncritical acceptance of any human leader is probably not a good idea. Hey, I’m even up for criticising God, and I’m a vicar! (I reckon if God is God, God can take my criticism, anyway, and I increasingly subscribe to the Rabbinic notion that the asking of questions is probably more important than answers, and the word of God is there to be haggled over, rather than simplistically swallowed hook line and sinker.)

I felt quite at odds with the temples, but then I turned around and faced this awesome greenery, and felt drawn to prayer myself. Not worship of human beings, but of the One who made all this, and also to reverence for the creation itself.

I think this might have been an area for some kind of tea ceremony? I’m not sure whether that is a thing here, but it looked like the right sort of set up, maybe?

The trip was three hours long and took in 9 caves (which we were rowed through, including quite a few ancient stalactites, the occasional glitter of some mineral deposits or crystals or something) and three temples to esteemed leaders from the past. By the end, the humidity was really starting to get to my phone, producing some interesting special effects on those last few photos!

This was a lovely, gentle and peaceful morning. The guy rowing us had a lot of work to do (he rowed a long way, surprisingly fast). His English wasn’t great, but that didn’t matter as he was silent for most of the trip, which seemed an appropriate way to greet such green splendour.

The couple in my boat with me turned out to be French, so we spoke a little in French and a little in English. And he helped me in and out of the boat, for which I was very grateful! They also told me that this area was used in the making of the second King Kong film apparently. Well, there you go.

Evening in Trang An

Rush hour:

Lotus lake (if you look carefully you might just see a Buddhist monk (or a guy dressed as one) rowing in these pictures. There was a film crew trying to film him. I also saw a couple who looked like they’d just got married posing for pictures, and some of their guests too.

All this is about 10 minutes’ walk from where I’m staying.

Ach! A cheeky little motorbike honk snuck into the end of that video, but it’s nothing like Hanoi. Aaaand breathe… 😌💕👌🏼

Ninh Binh/Trang An

I’ve arrived in my homestay near Ninh Binh. This is the view at the bottom of the garden and my room for the next few days. And my hostesses have cats 😊. And on the doorstep are more caves and lakes and cycling and walking trails than you can shake a stick at. Wow. Thanks Antonia! Good recommendation.

The taxi driver couldn’t find it, but between us, using both our phones for directions, we got most of the way, and then I decided to get out and walk the last little bit as he was looking nervous about such narrow roads. (Clearly he didn’t go to the Hanoi school of driving! 😂) It was lovely to wander into this little village on foot with just a backpack, actually.

Right. So I’m off to explore…

Afternoon in Hanoi

The rest of my day was spent mainly walking towards things but not managing to get to them until after they had closed or were fully booked. Doh! I was disappointed about the water puppet theatre which I would have loved to see. With all my money and banking issues, I somehow managed to miss exactly where it was. (When I realised it was just behind me, I understood how I’d missed it as there was a huge speaker blasting out dance music right next to it, which I had been steering well clear of for some time.) Anyway, the water puppet theatre is a traditional folk art thing and looks something like this, I gather:

I also missed out on the Ho Chi Minh complex and botanical gardens, though I did walk all the way there (just arrived too late), and also I gave up trying to get across the road to the Temple of Literature and surrounding gardens, the traffic was so terrible. Of all my near misses, that’s the one that I feel desolate about. Fancy not being able to enjoy one of the sights of a city because you literally cannot find a safe place to cross a road. I feel sad for Hanoi about that. And I am wondering how many road accidents there are here per year, and how many pedestrians are injured or even killed in them.

Starting them young 👇🏼🚗 🚙😢:

I just googled it. Apparently 14000 people (of a population of 95.5 million) die in road accidents in Vietnam per year, and it’s the leading cause of death for 15-29 year olds. In the UK in 2016, there were 1792 fatalities from road accidents (of a population of 66.5 million). I am not great at numbers, but I reckon that’s pretty telling.

Anyway some cheerier images to end with:

(Look at those wires! 👆🏼😳)

More communist pride 👆🏼

Here,👇🏼 you can just see a couple of families sitting down to eat on miniature plastic seats by the side of the road. At a certain time of the evening, many streets were lined with people cooking and eating outside, selling what they were cooking up in huge pans to customers, as well as eating it with friends and family. I wanted to get a better photo because it’s so distinctive, but it felt intrusive somehow, particularly after I saw a poster saying, “It’s a culture not a tourist attraction”.

Although I missed out on some things, I still had a great day, and I walked 9.7 miles (15.6km) if my phone is to be believed.

Tomorrow I’m up early as apparently a shuttle bus will come and pick me up from the hotel to take me to Nimh Binh, my next stopping point. How anything that could be described as a “bus” will be able to get anywhere near this hotel, I do not know. Well, I do, but I prefer not to think about it too much!

Time for sleep.