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More miscellaneous

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I'm typing this (with a chocolate brownie in front of me) in the Hanoi Press Club, where the cafe has a free wifi service that is fast enough to access this website. Other wifis are not so fast. It's forecast to reach 37 degrees today and 38 tomorrow, which makes wandering around town a moist experience.

I haven't taken to Hanoi at all, or more specifically to the Old Quarter, said to be one of the densest collocations of humanity on the planet. It's certainly one of the densest collections of scooters, cars and bicycles. My hotel is in the Old Quarter. It's sucked up all my energy.

I was in a foul mood for my first couple of days back in Hanoi. I was woken up before six by an Orwellian amplified voice, and then by the constant lament of a band; someone opposite the hotel had died at the age of 90. An oboeist accompanied by a single-string zither and a drummer played a strange melody: tonic, third, seventh (at a guess) followed by a few trills, repeated about every twenty seconds or so. He started before 6 am; he was still going at 11 when I left the hotel; he was still going, parked right opposite the hotel, when I returned at 7 pm. I thought that six floors and 102 steps up I was above the noise, but at any altitude I wouldn’t have been above that oboe. He started again before 6 the following day, but then mercifully disappeared.

Right outside my bedroom door they are building something. It looks like an oven but has electrical sockets. Today they are painting the ceiling in my room...

My mood is not improved by the insane traffic, making a walk of a block an adventure (you can’t walk on the pavements because they’re blocked by motorbikes, or by tables, or by people digging up the pavement, so you have to walk where the moving motorbikes are); and the constant pestering by mototaxis “Hello motobai?” "Where you going?" and by other hawkers, 100 times or more a day.

Not to mention ending up with mud all over your trousers any time you take a walk.

There are some decent spots: on Hoàn Kiếm Lake, for example, or here at the Press Club, or in the commercial district. Fortunate, as I may be stuck here for a while. I need to renew my visa, and you can't stay anywhere in Vietnam without a passport.

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The World Bank is next door to this cafe. The people having lunch next to me seem to be from that august institution. I feel like going over and talking about credit crunches.

Not really.

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Premiership football is not as obsessively watched here as it is in Thailand, but it is still followed: say 'England' and people respond 'Chelsea, Liverpool, Man U'.

I watched the last 30 mins of Arsenal-Liverpool at Red Beer on Pho Ma May, and the game finished 1-1 although Arsenal were vastly superior. It looked like a classic Premiership match: very fast; both sides trying to win; psycho tackling. The expression on Wenger’s face said ‘season over’, although his subsequent statement did not.

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Spring is the time when many Vietnamese visit the Perfume Pagoda, one of the most important Buddhist sites in Vietnam (actually it is a collection of temples). They go during a festival that begins on the sixth day of the first month of the VN lunar calendar, and ends at the end of the third month.

Lots of them go. I have already been warned off going to the Perfume Pagoda because of the crowds. The worse days to visit the Perfume Pagoda, are even days. The less crowded days to visit are the odd days of the lunar month. But which are the odd days of the lunar month? I could just ask someone, I suppose, but that would spoil the fun.

The Vietnamese lunar calendar has months of 30 days. As in the pre-Julian Roman calendar, there are intercalary months so that the lunar year stays in track with the solar year (the calendar is therefore lunisolar). It is based on the timing of

    - the new moon and

    - the principal points of the year, which include the solstices and equinoxes, and correspond roughly to zodiacal transits (they divide the ecliptic into equal areas).

Intercalary is an excellent and underused word, which the French have co-opted to mean “divider”.

The Vietnamese lunar calendar is similar to, but not the same as the Chinese. VN New Year (Tết) and Chinese New Year do not always coincide, because it depends on the timing of solstice, and that depends on local time. So the most famous Tết in recent history - 1968 - did not coincide with Chinese New Year, for example.

It took me a long time to find the dates in the Vietnamese calendar for 2008 – the UK Vietnamese Embassy site has the dates for 2002, for example - but here they are.

Today, 8 April, is the third day of the third month of the lunisolar calendar. The odd days are therefore the even days of April. That includes this Thurs and next Monday, Weds and Friday. (Weekends are bad days anyway. That rules out 12 April.)

So I’ll try Thursday. I hope this works. You could say I’m agoraphobic in what I imagine to be the original sense, of hating crowds.

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“Acute diarrhoea” is hitting Hanoi. It may be a euphemism for cholera. From the Vietnam News website:

"…The number of known infections totals 279 and 85 have now proved positive to the [vibrio cholera] bacteria, including 44 in Ha Noi. A further 70 patients suffering acute diarrhoea were admitted to the National Contagious and Tropical Disease Institute on Wednesday; another 40 were received at Saint Paul’s Hospital.

"The epidemic follows two outbreaks last October and the Health Ministry has decided that all of the patients will be treated free. Ha Noi Health Department director Le Anh Tuan said the ministry had been asked to vaccinate all the city’s resident against cholera without charge.

"A National Hygiene and Epidemic Institute survey shows that the disease is prevalent where market gardeners use night soil for fertiliser. Most of the patients in the latest outbreak had eaten raw vegetable, said the National Contagious and Tropical Disease Institute’s Dr Nguyen Tuong Van. He urged people not to eat raw vegetables."

I always knew that vegetables were bad for you. I am more at risk from half-cooked nem; I had some last night and they were indeed poisonous.

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Lots of dives in Hanoi sell bia hơi, which is freshly-brewed beer. It’s a very light straw colour, with a good head. It’s light and, at worst, tastes of not much. I’ve had some bia hơi that isn’t bad at all: slight fresh-bready, good enough to enjoy. Whether or not it's the greatest beer experience, it is the cheapest: a glass costs VND 3-4,000, or 10-13p.

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There is a fashion for forty- and fifty-something western expats in Hanoi to wear their residual hair in a short pig-tail. De gustibus, of course, but it looks sleazy to me.

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More than half the population of Vietnam is called Nguyen. Almost every ruler, general, king or poet in its history was called Nguyen. There was a Nguyen era. So the name doesn't really fulfil its function of distinguishing its bearer from other objects. The other two names are needed to do that.

Posted by Wardsan 12:23 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Kin khao

Rice inflation

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I took a sleeper back to Hanoi the night before last. In the same compartment were two people who had escaped from Cambodia in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Only they had gone to southern Vietnam, which was not a region popular with the northern government after reunification in 1975. In 1980 they again fled as refugees - Vietnamese boat people - taking a boat to Thailand over three days and nights. They spent three years in a refugee camp. That’s a lot of bad luck.

But it ended at that point. They left the camp to go to Australia. He sells Asian-language CDs in Melbourne. I got the impression that there is a large enough Asian community in Melbourne that they don’t have to speak English too much, except to their son, who does not speak Vietnamese. This was their first trip back to Vietnam in 28 years.

Anyway, yesterday I saw that in the last year global rice prices have risen by 70%, and by 20% this year. The rise in price is not just due to increased demand as people get richer and eat more; indeed the Chinese are switching out of rice and into meat.

Whatever the reasons, this is an important event. Rice is traditionally the staple of most of India, of southeast Asia and of China up to at least the Yangtze. Rice has supported greater population densities than all other staples (with the possible exception of wheat – I can’t be bothered to check these off-the-top-of-the-head factoids because this is a blog, after all), which is largely why Asia has three-fifths of the world’s population. Indeed, rice supports three-fifths of the planet.


In Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, saying ‘eat rice’ means more than just ‘eat rice’. In Thailand it just means ‘eat’ (kin khao). Asking ‘have you eaten rice today?’ is a way of saying ‘how are you?’. In Vietnamese it is polite to say ‘please eat rice’ (mơi ăn cơm) before every meal – even if the meal is noodles.

You can even get rice-flavoured ice-cream here. It's not bad.


Vietnam is usually counted the second-largest rice exporter in the world (4.5m tonnes) behind Thailand (9.5m tonnes); India may have overtaken Vietnam last year, however. Thailand produces over twice as much rice as it consumes, and Vietnam nearly twice as much. So the rise in the price of rice improves their terms of trade, making imports cheaper relative to exports, and increases real per capita income.

Vietnam and China, and now India, have restricted exports in order to ensure domestic supplies. Since rice is storable, such price rises can also encourage speculative hoarding on the part of producers, leading to further price rises.

The increase in price will also transfer wealth from rice producers to rice consumers within Vietnam, that is, from urban to rural areas. Since 57% of the VN population work in agriculture, producing only 20% of GDP (both numbers falling), so the first-round effect could be geographically similar to that of a redistributive tax policy. (A second-round effect will be to encourage an increase in rice cultivation, if there is any land left uncultivated, or a switch out of less remunerative agricultural products. This will not happen immediately: rice production is forecast to rise by only 1.8% in 2008, and VN rice production is not forecast to increase at all (probably because of the pace of un=rbanisation). For the full glorious statistics on food production from the UN FAO, see this. International trade in rice is in any case forecast to fall because of the export restrictions.)

The price rise will significantly reduce real wages in rice-importing countries, especially in Bangladesh and Burma, both of which are terribly poor to begin with. Since it is a staple, consumers cannot easily substitute into other foods, and in any case food prices have been rising in general (wheat has more than doubled in the last year, for example, leading to a ‘pasta strike’ in Italy last year). North Korea would also be hit if China decides to change the price of its subsidised rice exports. The Philippines and Indonesia are the largest importers but, being less poor, they ought to have a more diversified food consumption pattern to begin with.

That’s enough cod economics. Any more would require research, and that’s out of the question.

Posted by Wardsan 18:40 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Dragon's Head

Hàm Rồng

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Thirty years ago Hàm Rồng, the hill above the town, was largely deforested. When Sapa began to develop as a tourist destination in the 1990s, the town turned it into a park. They replanted it, laid out paths everywhere, and even created an orchid garden; orchids grow very well around here.



In the park there is also a ‘European garden’ (with what I would guess to be pansies, violets and marigolds), a ‘cloud garden’, a ‘stone garden’, a medicinal plant garden, a spot that claimed to offer a view of Fansipan, a couple of cafes and a house on stilts where dances are performed by the ‘minorities’ daily.

A lot of thought and a hell of a lot of work have gone into it, and it is pleasant to get away from the hoots of traffic. It’s a pity it isn’t mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide.


On a foggy day I was almost the only person in the park. The stone steps were treacherous and I shuffled around like a nonagenarian. I bumped into a group of tourists from Saigon; we conversed in bad French. They thought I would be at home in the fog; I gave them a lecture on the Clean Air Act.

Anyway, when we were walking to Tả Van, Matt pointed out that there did not seem to be enough rain to generate the rivers. Yesterday the answer became clear: occult precipitation (and what a great phrase that is). Everything in the park was dripping.



Anyway, having had my fill of wandering around a town that looks this this, I'm off tonight back to Hanoi, where I plan to do much less blogging.


Posted by Wardsan 20:11 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)


Not the Coronation Street kind

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The H’mông arrived in waves between 1700 and 1900, pushed out of China by the Han. They were, and are, wet rice farmers cultivating flooded paddy fields. Their land in Vietnam is far from flat, so they had to construct terraces. They have terraced the entire landscape around here. The valley beneath Sapa is like a living contour map. It is an impressive achievement.


It’s tempting to take a lot of photographs of this orthogonal world. I took these photos during two walks with Matt, the first to Càt Càt, the second from Cầu Mây to Tả Van (I hope all the diacritical marks are appreciated).

Càt Càt, a H’mông village, is 3km below Sapa. A couple of H’mông girls walked along with us, one each, trying to sell us bracelets and mouth harps. They gave up after a mile or so. At Càt Càt we walked down a steep path to a bridge where we found the remains of a French hydroelectric power project, and a non-functioning waterwheel (it’s dry season). Then we climbed up beside a waterfall and looped back around. We saw: children, pigs, dogs, chickens, water buffalo, terraces.


The walk was just long enough for us to discover the inadequacy of the 1:75000 tourist map.


Undaunted and unintelligent, we planned to walk 17km up the valley back to Sapa the following day using just the map.

It didn’t work, of course. We took a motorcycle taxi each down the valley to Cầu Mây easily enough. I hadn’t been on a motorbike since I was about seven and didn’t enjoy the ride much, although the views over the digitised valley were lovely. The sensory package was not helped by the stinking helmet.

At Cầu Mây the river is crossed by an old rattan bridge and newer steel suspension bridge. The rattan bridge would not have been worth travelling to see, had it been the sole objective. As we left the main road to descend to Cầu Mây, we were again picked up by two H’mông girls. Mine was called Chu and was nine years old.


The other girl was extremely shy and we never found out her name. Chu was unshy; indeed, she would not shut up. Unfortunately, the conversation was limited.

“You buy from me?”
“No thanks”
“Why not?”
“You buy music from me?”
“No thanks”
“You buy bracelet from me?”
“No thanks”
“You buy only one”
“I have one”
“You buy two!”

Repeat 100 times (no exaggeration).

The children around here are equally proficient in English and French. It is easy for them to learn, of course. Some of them are quite good.

In between (although usually before) the incessant “You buy from me?” requests, there are also genuine questions: “What your name?”; “Where you from?”; “How old are you?”; “You got wife?”. Always with a smile. These are probably both preludes to a sale – establish contact, then try to close – and genuine questions. Everyone in SE Asia asks the same questions (also, sometimes, “How much you earn?”). There are a couple of H’mông girl-women around town who always say hello: Xo and Dzao (no idea about spelling).


Chu and her friends gave up shortly after we crossed the river. We headed left for half a mile to Giàng Tả Chải (pronunciation: no idea). It is supposed to be a Dao village. But when we got there, it seemed to be deserted. There turned out to be one old lady sitting in the sun, who offered to sell us stuff when we approached. Everyone else was at Sapa.

Then we retraced our steps and walked up a very slippery and difficult clay path beside a waterfall. The idea was to walk along a path next to the river to Tả Van, about 3 km away. But we must have missed that path because we just ended climbing up and up, and up, on a very slippery path. It was hard work, and felt like this:


Even when we thought we had eventually reached the top, we hadn’t.


Eventually, we faced a choice: carry on up, possibly even up to Fansipan, or down a path to a couple of farmhouses.


We plumped for down. After scrambling down between paddy terraces we reached a couple of huts. We asked for directions for Sapa and the lady pointed up. Then she pointed down. Hmmm. We tried to carry on down, but our way was blocked by some territorial dogs (even a scratch here and it would be back to Hanoi for some rabies injections). So we picked our way around an amphitheatre of terraces on a path next to a wall. When that petered out we resorted to walking along and up the paddy walls themselves, not designed to take people of my mass.


We had lunch at a local maximum next to a bamboo grove and then faced the fact that we had made the wrong choice, so we headed straight up another 200m or so, and finally reached a wide track, which wound down over a couple of miles or so to Tả Van.


Tả Van is supposed to be a Dáy village, but it was difficult to tell. Tả Van was nothing special; everyone was selling tat. There was a substantial school and some other civic buildings, so the village is doing well.


At this point Matt estimated we had climbed 800m or so, on very difficult terrain. We were tired and mistrustful of the fictions on our map, so we called it a day and took motorbikes back to town.

All this, of course, is just a transparent excuse to insert some pictures of terraces.


Posted by Wardsan 21:15 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)


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I’m on my own. Matt headed off to Ha Long Bay the day before yesterday. He had a chest infection and didn’t feel up to climbing Fansipan.

I was temporarily bereft: I hadn’t had to think for myself for two and a half weeks. I avoided the need for autonomous action by staying in Sapa. The decision was made even easier by the fact that I have eaten very well here. I found a hotel that costs $10 a night. The room is up under the roof, and I like it. It is at least 100m above town, so even walking to and from the hotel works the legs. The hotel has a little garden with a swing bench overlooking the Sapa valley; this is where I hope to reduce my book surplus.

Unfortunately, a wet fog has rolled in today, so the swing bench has no view, and the temperature has dropped.

Main street, Sapa:

There is nothing to do but read, blog and eat.

Or try to learn Vietnamese. I thought Thai was difficult, because it’s a tonal language, but Vietnamese seems much harder. I have got nowhere. Vietnamese has six tones compared to five in Thai. Unlike Thai, many of the vowels and consonants are extremely difficult to pronounce. I was talking to two Vietnamese yesterday at dinner called Vượng and Nguyêt); hard as I tried, I couldn’t get near to pronouncing Vượng’s name correctly.

Then there is the spelling. Vietnam was under the control of China for a thousand years until 939 AD. Two-thirds of its words derive from Chinese. Vietnamese was written in Han Chinese or in an adapted Chinese script called chư nôm. In 1910 the French imposed roman script using a system called quôc ngư. This system was invented in the seventeenth century by Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary. Unfortunately, he must have invented it one Friday evening after he’d been at the Benedictine, because the letters bear little relation to the sounds.

For example:

Me is pronounced ma
Phở is pronounced fer
Tôi is pronounced doy
Lúc is pronounced lup
Từ is pronounced duhr
Mười is pronounced muhr.ee
Trung is pronounced chum
Giấy is pronounced zay
Qua is pronounced gwa.

Then there are regional differences… That’s why I’m blogging today.

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I am a millionaire. I have just taken two million dong out of the ATM. Sadly, this is worth less than £70. The largest note I have seen is VND 200,000, worth about £6.60; the smallest VND 500, worth less than two pence. (A 500,000 note is said to exist.) The larger notes are made of plastic and the government intends to take the older cotton 50,000 and 100,000 notes out of circulation by September.

Dong means copper. In the north, the dong replaced the French Indochinese piastre at par in 1964. It was revalued in 1985, and Vietnam suffered high inflation immediately afterwards, lasting well into the 1990s.

I’ve been here before: Peru in the late 1980s and Russia in the early 1990s. But the zeros are still mind-boggling. The Vietnamese ignore the last three digits when quoting prices.

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I got the story of Sapa wrong the other day. When China invaded in 1979, the fabric of Sapa was not affected. The Viet had to get out of town for a month or so. That’s it.

The American war was different. The Americans flattened every building in Sapa.

Correction, 2 April:

I'm not cut out to be an historian. I now understand it was the French who flattened the town. In 1898 the first French missionaries arrived in Lau Cai, 30km down the road. In the same year Paul Doumer, the Governor General of French Indochina, asked his people to find a place to be used as a convalescence station for French soldiers. Lots of French troops were stationed in Lao Cai, as it was a strategically important border town. In 1903 a military station was established up the road in Sapa. In 1912 the Lao Cai-Sapa road was built, which kick started tourism. The first hotel was built the same year.

Fast forward to 1950, when the Viet Minh captured Sapa. The French destroyed all the villas before leaving. And in 1952 they sent bombers from Diên Biên to bomb the town.

Source: Sa Pa in the Midst of Clouds, by Pham Hoàng Hải.

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In my nul points review of the border town of Lak Sao I forgot to mention our school visit. After wandering through a market, and after a seven-hour minibus journey I was knackered and hardly up for it, but it turned out to be quite fun. There were a couple of schoolrooms next to a sign saying Anglo-Vietnamese Club, or some such.

Rae and I went into one room and Izzy, Marla and Matt into the other. Rae and I introduced ourselves and wrote on the board: name, country. Children of all ages. I got blanks looks when I said angkit (England) so I drew a map. Both the British Isles and Laos looked to me like phalluses, so I moved on quickly.

Then we split up and I ended up talking to four people, of whom one, a 12-year-old girl, was by far the most talkative. Her little sister talked quite a lot too, the older ones behind very little. They had been learning for five months and had almost no oral comprehension. I tried to concentrate on pronunciation: Laos learn English from other Laos, and the pronunciation of Englao bears no relation to my mother tongue.

Then we were asked to sing a song. My mind went completely blank, so I just sang a little bit of Jingle Bells and then the national anthem, operatically, fortissimo, together with made-up gestures. An improvement on the real thing.

Then I asked them to sign the Lao national anthem. Mistake. It went on for minutes with no discernible tune. Every child knew it by heart; they sing it at school every Monday. We don’t even know the second verse of God Save the Queen.

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On the muzak here at Baguette & Chocolat is “Oh my love" by Westlife. I couldn’t say whether it is the original, if it was an original; most tracks out here are covers. The only reason I recognise it is because we were treated to a solo rendition by one of our guides in Laos, Thuy. He also sang the Celine Dion song from Titanic. He had an acceptable voice but no taste in music.

This is not unusual: western music is played in a lot of cafes around SE Asia. It is almost invariably the most infantile, saccharine, emetic stuff. There is, for example, a song by Bryan Adams that gets played everywhere...

[Thuy means 'chubby', and he was. Thais and Laos all have nicknames. The spirits can’t get you if they don’t know your name, or something. I met quite a few people called Gung (prawn).]

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Not only is Fansipan the highest peak in Indochina, at 3143m or so, it is the easternmost peak of the Himalayas. I don’t think I’m going to get to climb it.

Posted by Wardsan 20:56 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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