A Travellerspoint blog

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)

Wat Rong Khun

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On our way between Chiangs Mai and Khong we stopped for lunch outside Chiang Rai - which is, incidentally, in the Golden Triangle. Over the road was Wat Rong Khun, a modern wat, designed and built by an artist by the name of Chalermchai Kositpipat. Construction began in 1998 and is nearly complete.


It is a modern take on an old theme, and unique in Thailand in being all white; it looks as if it was carved from sugar candy.


The bot is one of the less rectilinear buildings I have seen.


The finials look like winged elephants. Species mixes are common in Buddhism, as in Greek and Rowlingian mythology.


To get into the bot, you have to walk over a bridge guarded by a couple of spirits. Demonic hands stretch out from below.



The walls of the bot contain a representation of “an escape from the defilements of temptation”. It’s uncannily like a Last Judgment, which Buddha in the place where Jesus would be. The style is sci-fi art. Darth Vader appears. There is a plane crashing into the Twin Towers (its position in the picture implies opprobrium, not glorification).

Posted by Wardsan 20:48 Archived in Thailand 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)


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Did I mention taking an elephant ride in Chiang Mai a couple of weeks ago? I don’t think I did. We got to Chiang Mai early in the morning and while some of the group went off to a cookery class, Rae and I took a minibus to an elephant reserve outside Chiang Mai. We spent about an hour perched on top of a balding forty-something elephant as it strolled around the nearby landscape.


It’s not a comfortable way to travel, and it was unbelievably hot. We had both pointlessly brought rucksacks with us, as well as cameras. We had bought bunches of bananas too, to feed the elephant. I ended up covered in banana as the bunches disintegrated in my lap. Elephant power consumption must run well into the kilowatts, so they can eat an endless number of bananas. They also get through 40 or 50 kg of feed a day.

Elephants are a bit of a problem in Thailand. They used to carry loads, provide power, and function as tanks in battles; now all that is done mechanically. You see small elephants sometimes in the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai. This is, obviously, not their natural environment. Their keepers ask for money for the elephants, but then abandon the elephants when they get too big. Inevitably, these abandoned elephants cause problems. So the advice is not to give to these people.

Quite often our elephant would stop and lift its trunk, demanding bananas. So long as we had any, Rae would oblige. It was a long reach forward.


Occasionally the elephant would stop altogether and trumpet.

There are all sorts of words for elephant in Thai, for immature female, mature female, mature male and so on. The only one I can remember, other than Chang (which is a brand of beer with a picture of an elephant on the front) is Phan, an immature female. This is Phan Dii, an 8-year old female.


Posted by Wardsan 21:22 Archived in Thailand Tagged animal Comments (0)

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