Tag Archives: trip

Making Incense, Vietnam

8 Jun

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

Incense sticks drying in the factory outside Hanoi.


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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

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The Reunification Express

26 May

Balloons and the iconic pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoan Kiem lake: the calm heart of Hanoi, Vietnam.

We flew from Manila into Saigon last week, the day after Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, and rode the Reunification Express 1600km or so upcountry to Hanoi to pick up our journey through mainland South-East Asia from the north.

Vietnam is one of Z’s favourite countries. And not just for the pho (we had our first bowl outside Saigon railway station at 3am after our midnight flight…). He likes the combination of very traditional, slow-paced rural life with big, modern, turbocharged cities.

Me? I loved Saigon, and the everyday people we met. But I found the aggressively entrepreneurial spirit, not to say constant scams and ripoffs, on the tourist trail oppressive. So I got on the plane with slightly mixed feelings.

Last time round, our plan still was to cover three continents and sixteen countries in a single year. This left us, as you might imagine, rather short on time. So we only made it as far north as the nineteenth-century capital, Hue, before cutting west cross-country and into Laos. And we took the bus, not the train.

A big mistake… Because the poignantly-named Reunification Express, which runs from Saigon to Hanoi, is a wonderful way to travel. Continue reading

I Heart Cambodia – Part 3

23 Feb

A fraction of the moat at Angkor Wat

A fraction of the moat at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat. The icon of a nation. One of the wonders of the world. Tens of kilometres of bas-relief. Acres of lawns. Sacred pools which drained a thousand reservoirs.

I am grubby, gobsmacked and tired just from looking at it.

Z is incensed. “Just think how many houses they could have built on this land,” he says. “And that stupid king just goes and builds a temple to say, ‘I’m bigger than you.’ Religion is rubbish.” Continue reading

I Heart Cambodia – Part 2

22 Feb
Children in Jungle Vines, Ta Prohm

Z and a child hawker take time out, Ta Prohm, Cambodia

It’s still uncomfortably early when we debike and hit some blessed calm at Kbal Spean, the River of a Thousand Lingas.

The mile-long path to the top of the hill has been swept clean as a village yard, and cheeutal roots form an elegant latticework, almost like natural stairs.

Ascents of grey, slabby rocks feel almost landscaped, and looping vines create natural swings and hammocks.

Z is in his element. I am in the throes of wondering at the marvels of travel and the joy of life — more specifically, I am pointing out a promising Tarzan vine — when my flip-flopped foot meets a rock and it all goes a bit Keystone Kops. Continue reading

S-21: Genocide for Beginners

13 Feb

Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia“Kneel down, mum,” Z says. “Close your eyes.”

He fumbles with my hair. We are in the courtyard of Tuol Sleng prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, AKA S-21, where teenage true believers tortured and killed over 16,000 people, from babies to geriatrics.

On a concrete bench under a papaya tree a crimson-clad monk sits contemplating, Nokia in hand. The place is very still. Continue reading

Does My Mum Look Big in This?

5 Feb
Boys With Their Toys

Z and friends outside the Kampot Caves

“I think you should wear something a little more slimming tomorrow, mum,” was tactfully meant.

“God, mum, your tummy sticks out almost as far as your bum and your bum is MASSIVE. Where’s your phone? I’ll take a picture and show you,” came straight out of the Viz Spoilt Bastard handbook.

I think, on balance, the kinder version was crueller, although the beauty of utter rudeness is that one can respond with high dudgeon/childish insults/patronising therapy-lite explanations about how “It doesn’t make Mummy feel very good when you say those sorts of things” (no shit, Sherlock). Continue reading

Mains Electricity: a Good Thing, Clearly…

25 Jan

So the theoretical immediacy of this medium has been slightly kiboshed by the near-total absence of electricity and mobile reception in our first tropical idyll, Long Beach, Koh Chang, which is, on balance, a beautiful thing, and surprisingly rare.

It will be a shame when the change comes, although I guess, as with so much stuff, we will wonder how we ever did without it rather than mourning the loss of a perhaps already artificial solitude. Continue reading

On Binbags and Plastic Crap

18 Jan

Just under 48 hours to go to takeoff, and I am ploughing through the leisurely accumulations of two lives.

Endless bits of plastic to be sorted into cherished, to-be-inherited, and junk. It’s a form of fine archaeology sifting the Bionicles from the Lego Technics, the cracker crap from the Kinder goodies, the Beano bits from the Playmobil pieces. Six big binbags to the rubbish; six more to Oxfam; and still they come. Continue reading