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On Books

15 Jun

Back in Udomxay, the construction town in northern Laos where our two-day odyssey from Vietnam reached a natural close, we met a crazy Canadian chap with an Irish accent and a Beer Lao can seemingly stapled twixt thumb and forefinger. Not so much met as, perhaps, attracted.

Charming chap. Pushing 70. Thoroughly pickled 24-7. And found in me, yikes, a kindred spirit.

Having travelled extensively with his own nipper, when the boy (now my age) was eight (roughly junior’s age), he had uncharitable things to say about my backpack. Particularly, the size thereof.

Now, to a degree, I second that emotion. Although, in our defense, I will say that I have only one pack, which goes on my back, rather than the “pregnant” two-pack look (one front, one back) so popular among our Nordic friends. Continue reading

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A Rainy Season Odyssey

14 Jun

clouds descend over mountain gorge with waterfall visible in distance. Sapa, Vietnam.

View from a bus window #1. Mist, mountains and waterfalls, near Sapa, Vietnam.

The start of the monsoon season in Vietnam’s northern highlands is a beautiful thing.

The rivers turn turbid and golden, rapids smearing the surface like toffee coming to the boil; young rice seedlings and their older siblings stipple paddy terraces in varying greens; waterfalls appear everywhere you look.

Old women from the hill tribes carry leaves for making hats, sporting bright wellies over their leggings. Fireflies switch on their mating lights at night. Dramatic storms with sheet lightning pass over, sky darkening like a giant’s hand cast over the sun and after the rain, the earth has a rich, deep scent of settled soil and teeming life.

The nine-year-old was looking forward to our first proper rainy season journey. As he put it, “We might as well stay up all night. I’ve always wanted to stay up all night, and I’ve never done it. The bus the next day leaves so early we might as well… Plus, we’ll save sooo much money on the hotel room…” Continue reading

Babysitting, Hmong Style

12 Jun

Close-up of Hmong little girl carrying her baby brother on her back.

Babysitting, Hmong style.

It’s not easy being a woman in the Hmong tribal minority of northern Vietnam. Or a girl, for that matter.

This little girl is six, and had been carrying her eighteen-month old little brother in a sling on her back for most of the day.

The forlorn look? Continue reading

Global Time = Quality Time

10 Jun Z holding wildflowers. Sapa, Vietnam.

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]My son and I set out to travel the world together in January. I’d imagined many wonderful things about the journey. What I hadn’t imagined is the sheer quality and quantity of time together.

Terraced hillside and paddy fields, Sapa, Vietnam.

This morning's walk. Sapa, Vietnam.

Or, for that matter, the absolute, unalloyed luxury of starting every single day with a complete free rein.

Where shall we go today? What shall we do? What shall we see?

All, as it happens, for less than the rent or mortgage on a one-bedroom London flat. Continue reading

Putting the Graphic into Ethnographic

9 Jun

As you can probably tell from the picture the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnography in Hanoi offers infinitely more fun than the rather cumbersome title would suggest. (It’s slightly shorter in Vietnamese. But not much.)

sexual wood carving of man and woman on tribal tomb, Museum of Ethnography, Hanoi, Vietnam.

'Your wife, you say? No, no, sir, that is definitely not your wife.'

This depicts, believe it or not, a traditional tribal tomb.

Can you imagine what the funeral was like?! I mean, seriously. Continue reading

Making Incense, Vietnam

8 Jun

Joss sticks (incense sticks) ageing in a factory, North Vietnam.

Incense sticks drying in the factory outside Hanoi.


[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]
Incense is part of daily life in Vietnam. Joss sticks are offered at the altars which grace every business and almost every home, sold by the kilo in little stores and even (in some parts) burnt against mosquitos.

Now, there are not many places on this planet where a passing nine-year-old boy would be welcomed into a factory, given the tour, and then provided with his own workstation to get to grips with incense manufacture. But Vietnam is one. And the sheer kindness of all the craftspeople we met yesterday, with nary a hard sell or tour group in sight, was truly wonderful. Continue reading

Shopping Mission — Hanoi

7 Jun

Bicycle covered in flowers parked in side street, Hanoi, Vietnam

Flowers by bike: Hanoi, Vietnam

It was S’s (the nine-year-old’s father’s) last day with us today. And we spent it in Hanoi. The bulk of it, in fact… drum roll… shopping for a… cymbal clash… pencil sharpener.

Now, when it comes to travel, I’m a great believer in the power of mooching. Sort of ambling around. Not doing very much. Gawping a little. Making friends with people you meet. Slowing way, way down. And seeing life around you as it is lived, not as it is composed for a tourist postcard.

But it’s good to have a mission. And a mundane mission, such as a quest for a pencil sharpener, a good kindergarten table spring roll joint, the perfect souvenir lighter for your pocket pyromaniac or all of the above, makes for a better walking tour of the city than any number of tour guides could provide. It brings you straight up against how alien life is, in its everyday mundanity, and takes you on a lazy tour of a great city’s back alleys and byways.

Because, believe you me, buying a pencil sharpener is a hell of a lot harder and infinitely more enlightening than scoring opium, silk dressing gowns or lacquer vases. And, yes, since you ask, I am regretting allowing Z his choice of lighter. Continue reading

Cornucopia (Dinner Friday)

5 Jun

View into fruit store in alleyway, Hanoi, with bananas, eggs, litchis in foreground.

The fruit stall on our alleyway, in Hanoi, Vietnam

This is the fruit stall in the alleyway next to our guesthouse, in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Friday evening. It’s just an ordinary store. Nothing fancy. No posher than the laundry, the menders, the barbers, the old lady who wheels her cart of lurid plastic sandals here every morning and home every night, or the five separate cottage industries selling street-fried spring rolls side by side in the cross-alley.

Yet these ladies don’t just sell the obvious — melons, watermelons, bananas, apples, oranges, limes, fresh mango, eggs. They’ve got rambutans, litchis so fresh they still have their leaves on, passion fruit the size of your fist (one dollar a kilo), those succulent sour plums you dip in salt and chilli, custard apples, great cannonballs of pomelos, bigger than a man’s head.

Oh, and mangosteens. The succulent, tough-shelled, very perishable fruit known as the Queen of Fruit. In the nineteenth century, Queen Victoria offered a reward to anyone who could manage to bring her a ripe mangosteen to try. Continue reading

Madam, Your Husband…

4 Jun motorbike cylinder with frangipani flower.

[tweetmeme source=”@mummy_t” only_single=false]motorbike cylinder with frangipani flower.“Madam,” said the chap on the scooter, eyeing the motorbike erratically parked some distance from the wrong hire shop (and, indeed, the pavement) with a sort of bemused, yet ineffably polite contempt, “Your husband has asked me to come and find you…”

Now, I guess this sort of “women drivers, pshaw!” shtick happens all the time to married women. And, much though it offends my feminist sensibilities to admit it, I am, sadly, pretty much your stereotypical woman driver, with absolutely zero sense of direction to boot.

However… Continue reading

Round Halong Bay by Junk

2 Jun

Junk moored on beach of Monkey Island, near Halong Bay, Vietnam

Our junk moored on the beach at Monkey Island, near Halong Bay, Vietnam.

Halong Bay, North Vietnam, is one of the most dramatic seascapes the planet has to offer. Five hundred million years in the making, twenty million in the shaping, and still evolving before your eyes, it’s a rare chance to see geology in action.

Pillars of limestone, once the supports of vast underground caves, spike surreally out of nowhere. Fissured cliffs slide vertiginously into the jade green sea. Magical vistas of pyramid hills appear fleetingly between rocky gateways, flawless beaches peek through low archways, dark, low, caves lead through to marine valleys carved by underground rivers over millions of years, while brand new islets, ominous overhangs and decaying rock bridges indicate the shape of landscapes yet to come.

Seen from the deck of a classic junk? Amazing. By night, with sheet lightning flashing between surrealist outcrops, fengkong karsts shedding pyramidal shadows over smooth, dark water, as you lie on the basketwork roof of a gently-swaying junk watching the storm through the rigging? Words begin to fail. Continue reading