Saturday, 30 April 2011

Day 11: Two Breakfasts and No Luggage (08/02/2011)

The Maori Arch at Auckland Airport

Fighting For a Seat on the Narita Airport Express!

The First of Two Breakfasts.

We had a ten hour overnight Qantas flight from Tokyo to Sydney, en route to Auckland, but arrived two hours and twenty minutes late due to volcanic activity over southern Japan. The in flight breakfast was good but that left less than ten minutes to make the Sydney to Auckland transfer, after we landed.

'Last call for passengers for LAN flight QF101 Syndey to Auckland' blared the women over the tannoy, the minute we had disembarked from the Tokyo flight.

'Yes, Clare and Tim, that does mean you..... AND WE ARE WAITING!' it might have said but I couldn't hear for the sound of yelps and curses in my wake as I trampled over fellow passengers.

Her voice was replaced by the Mission Impossible theme as, following the directions of someone who purported to know what they were talking about, we ran headlong through the terminal. Caught in our own Hollywood bomb plot countdown movie, we dodged panes of glass, hurdled luggage trollies and sent hapless bystanders sprawling to the concourse floor as we hurtled toward the departure gate.

In the wrong direction.

Discovering that we were 500m further away from the correct gate than before we started, with the clock counting remorselessly down to zero, we turned around and desperately retraced our steps.

Our antics attracted the attention of the gate staff and one beetled across and trotted alongside us.

'Is it the red wire or the green wire; we don't know which?' she said,  as she handed us the wire cutters. 'And don't forget to de-activate the mercury switch'.


Detonation avoided, we made the flight. It turns out LAN is a South American Airline. To prove the point, our second breakfast in under an hour was Emphadinhas de Palmito and came with a pleasant Chilean Merlot.

It was 8am for Christ's Sake!!

We caught the bus from the airport to Auckland city centre, walked around the harbour and had a beer on the water front.

After a long detour we walked to The Lantuna Hostel, voted New Zealand's 3rd best in 2009. Beyond the commercial district, it was in a picturesque part of town populated equally by plantation style weather-board houses with corrugated iron roofs, and post modern boxes with expansive double glazing and infinity pools.

I took a shower with a sliver of soap, under a water cannon at the hostel and dried off with the zip off bottoms of my trousers, as the wash kit, towel and all our possessions were still on another continent, having failed to make the transfer, despite the assurances of everyone we asked.

Late arrival on a hot night guaranteed us the top bunks but the beds were comfy and we slept well.

We feared that we had seen our luggage for the last time, without the chance to say proper goodbyes. Two days, and several calls to the Qantas lost luggage line later, it appeared.

At least we got two breakfasts.

Day 12: Black Magic in Auckland (09/02/2011)

Auckland from the Sky Tower

'Black Magic'

Auckland City Museum

Waiting for lost luggage isn't all that bad when you have a year off work and can sit in the sun, drinking beer on the Auckland waterfront.

We wandered around the self styled 'City of Sails' and marvelled at New Zealand's winning America's Cup yacht, 'Black Magic' that towers over the dock side hard standing. Built with the proceeds of a whip round at the local shopping centre by a band of plucky Kiwi shop assistants, using only tooth-picks and super glue, it saw off the mighty Americans and sent them home with their keel between their legs.

At the Auckland museum, we saw the Maori prototype of 'Black Magic', carved from a 30m log and learned about the sensitive colonisation of the place during the 18th century Musket Wars. We walked through the City Botanical Park where they grow in the open air, all the delicate succulents that die within a week of arriving from the garden centre, at home.

I made the arduous 328m climb up the the Sky Tower. The stairs were malfunctioning at the time so I caught the lift instead. Weighing as much as 6000 elephants and as high as 37 double decker buses, it gave spectacular views of the city, or would have done had the view not been obscured by people throwing themselves off the top at 3 minute intervals. There is an unseemly squabble between Kuala Lumpur, Wellington, Melbourne and Auckland as to who has the tallest man made structure in the Southern Hemisphere.

I think the prize should go to the one with the fully operational staircase.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Day 9: Tokyo (06/02/2011)

A trillion Yen of central Tokyo real estate

Shibuya Junction; safer than mopeds in Saigon

Mega City One; Tokyo at night.

Tokyo needs no introduction.

Anyone who has been will have a clear impression, whether they love it or hate it. Anyone else will have seen enough movies and news reports to have a feel for the endless stereotypes it generates.

From the Anne Hostel in the Asakushabasi district, we walked past the caged Fugu fish at the restaurant on the corner. You need a licence to fillet it as its toxins kill many each year, such is the draw of this dangerous delicacy.

A tide of commuters, tens of millions strong, moves across the city at dawn and dusk. The high-rise stretches as far as the eye can see. Neon blares from hordings ten stories high. Mono-rails cruise silently above it all.

Walking around the city, we paused for a few contemplative moments at the Meiji Jingu shrine to the Emperor's parents in Shibuyaku and the Sansoji Temple in Asakusa where the air is thick with incense and the sound of prayer wheels turning.

For a more commercial feel we posed for pictures at the Park Hyatt famed for 'Lost in Translation' and drunk coffee overlooking the Shibuya junction where a surge of humanity crosses at every change of the lights.

Aiming for the Imperial Gardens, the only part of the palace generally open to the public, we took a long walk around Tokyo commercial sector. The city has a high rise district that ends abruptly at the Imperial Gardens like an oriental Central Park. The headquarters of a hundred world beating Japanese companies that you have never heard of stand in a phalanx 50 stories high and 30 blocks wide, nose to nose with the carefully topiaried evergreens of the palace.

In a clash of heritage and progress, stale mate would have been reached were it not for a single behemoth, currently under construction, that has breached the front line and found a place forward of the neutral zone. Whether this is a sign of things to come or an aberation permitted only by a quirk in the otherwise straight edge of the palace moat, only time will tell.

Back at the hostel, Barney and Cliff, two sea plane pilots from Jeaneau, Alaska told us about  life in a state capital of 30,000, where bears root in the trash and moose don't stop for the traffic lights. We made Udon with super hot ingrediants from the Seven Eleven and cooled the burn with Cliff's pink rice pudding.

The Tokyo interlude over, the Narita Rapid Express whisked us to check in for our flight to Auckland, via Sydney on a Qantas 747.

Apart from a 2 1/2 hour detour caused by a volcanic eruption in southern Japan we slept, only mildly aware that the connection time for our next flight was the same 2 1/2 hour window. Normally tight connections stress the journeyman air traveller.

Our mild amusement at the unfolding situation illustrated a dawning realisation that nothing could interupt the fun that lay ahead of us.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Day 7: Apres Ski (04/02/2011)

No chopsticks were harmed in the making of this picture.

All the common sense gets left at home when snow holidays start.

Any sensible person would tuck up early in bed after a hard day on the slopes.

You're tired and you want to sleep.You're injured and you want to heal.You want to be up early in the morning to get to the snow while its still fresh. And the cost of food and late night drinking is directly and painfullly proportional to the altitude at which it is served; and skiing happens very high up indeed.

So why do we break the bank to go skiiing and then kick it repeatedly in the ribs when it is down, for good measure.

They called it Apres Ski, regardless of whether you are in France. It is a euphemism for hedonism. You can ski cheaply but it requires discipline with the menu, planning with the budget and indifference to lumpy beds and the smell of wet socks.

We managed a bit of both.

Dirk and Victoria were generous to a fault and so while we had the Apres Ski, we also had the lumpy beds.

Japanese dark beer at the Hie resturant. The tenderest Sushimi. Shot-gunning Vodka Redbull at Club 902 with a nightclub friendly doberman. We had it all.

And of course, altitude makes you do funny things, like throw yourself down a break neck slope from a perfectly good peice of flat ground.

Or jam chop sticks up your nose.

I look a bit puffy. Its the altitude!

Day 6: Board, Board, Board (03/02/2011)

It is always steeper than it looks

After a while even great things seem a little less great. Too much of a good thing...

Apart from good snow.

Japan has bundles of the stuff, and even if there hasn't been any falling since we got here, there is more than enough to go around.

I am poor on a board. And scared. The front edge will drive your teeth into the piste; the back will pile drive your skull until your brains leak out of your ears. If you try to break your fall, you will just snap your hands off at the wrists before losing the teeth or grey matter anyway. That is if you don't fracture your coccyx and have to sit on a rubber ring for the rest of your life.

If you have ever learned to snow board you will smile in recognition at the pain you have to go through to get passed this phase. If not, try it.

Honestly, it's great!!

Day 86: The Great Train Robbery (24/04/2011)

Thai Railway Cartoon Theft Advice For Tourists

The final leg of this journey, before flying home, was the over night sleeper train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

I've said before that the hardest scams to avoid are the ones that you know are being perpetrated in front of your very eyes and today was a text book example (Day 50: Welcome to Cambodia 19/03/2011).

Nancy was at least 65 and a railway employee. We were booked in a second class upper level sleeper berth. The lower levels are always and inexplicably fully booked, even if they are largely empty when you board the train. Nancy clocked us boarding and was attentive from the start, with  just the right level of English to make a deal, but not enough to iron out any ambiguities in the process that might work to her advantage at a later time.

Did we want dinner? Well, yes indeed , unless it was to be crisps and chocolate from the Seven Eleven for the next 18 hours. A menu appeared from the folds of her clothing. 160 baht for dinner or 400 baht for dinner for two with some fruit for afters.

Did we want some beer? Yep! A sharpener at 6pm to whet the appetite sounded excellent. And Coke? Maybe with our meal. Misunderstanding or sharp sales practice, but a steady supply of opened beer arrived, despite our best efforts to call time.

Then the bill!!!

Five times as much as yesterday's meal. It was in Thai and when we asked why so much, her English failed her and the cat got my tongue. Oh, the acute embarrassment and the softening of our resolve after several more bottles of beer than we intended to drink.

The food was great and the beer went down a treat.

And we didn't get robbed, like the Thai Railway Police warned. At least  if you exclude being outwitted by a wily old bird.

After a few raised eyebrows, Clare rationalised my mild annoyance with an oft heard response to cash related concerns.

'Will you miss it when you're seventy?'


Enough Food For Four People!

The Cause of The problem?

The Culprit Caught On Camera

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Day 85: Taken For A Ride (23/04/2011)

Lana was our Mahout; a dying Thai profession of elephant rider, driver and carer.

Until mechanised logging took over, elephants were the muscle that pulled down trees and carried logs to the river for transport. An estimated 12,000 worked in the forests of Thailand alone but that number has dropped to below a hundred. This lead to an unhappy period for the native Indian Elephant, with owners seeking a return from ever more exploitative practices.

Thankfully the national sentiment is changing and elephants are now seen as an important cultural asset. Many charities care for them, as with donkeys in the UK. Tourists pay to ride them to raise money for their care.

We rode with Lana on Mob, a twenty-something female, for a hour, to the river and around some dry, muddy ravines. Mob washed in the water and threw mud and pebbles across her flanks to dislodge parasites. She reached high into the trees for the choicest shoots and lumbered slowly but sure footedly up and down slopes that car drivers would have reconsidered.

She paused to scratch her belly on a boulder as she walked over it and flapped her ears constantly to keep cool, the thick cartiledge in her ear flaps banging hard against my feet that rested on her neck.

We mounted and dismounted from an elevated set of steps and processed in a Howda chair mounted on her back.

Her skin was leathery and covered in bristles, her ears and forehead speckled with pink.

We fed her bananas which she took from our hands with her trunk, its end forming three dextrous fingers. She blew hot air in our faces and tried to snatch my camera until I finally tugged it back, to wipe off the produce of her runny nose which is actually an extension of her top lip. She chewed whole conconuts and bone crunching sounds emanated from her mouth.

People say it is cruel to keep them in captivity.

Mob was well fed and placid. She received excercise every day and was not roughly treated. While she was tethered by a small cord around a hind leg, there was tenderness in the way Lana worked with her. There was intelligence in her eyes and she seemed untroubled by her daily routine, mixing with other elephants in pleasant surroundings.

She can lift a log the size of a car.

It wasn't Lana and his small stick that made her do anything.

Day 85: Captain Jack (23/04/2011)

Some people call it white water rafting.

I call it sitting in a leaky inflatable boat and deliberately ramming specially sharpened rocks in a swollen river.

Jack was our guide. In a Thai way he had assumed the persona of Captain Jack Sparrow and he was slightly insane; in the good way that wears a spinning bow tie or does animal impressions with a potato; not in a bad way that rams novice paddlers into rocks.....

Oh, now hang on a minute. Isn't that just what happened?

The floating madhouse that was Jack's Black Pearl bucked and heaved over the rapids, filled with water and threatened to flip at any given moment. 'Paddle faster' he yelled. 'And where's all the rum gone'.

We bounced off rocks, both exposed and submerged; dived to the left and right of the boat to lift the trailing edges over obstacles or shake ourselves loose. Jack cackled Thai pirate speak and something akin to 'Shiver me timbers' preceded every bout of hysterical laughter. He bounced around the tiny craft and splashed gallons of water at anything that came near.

Children playing in the water fought back with gusto.

Buddhist monks floating on inflatable inner tubes, orange robes hanging in the riverside trees, took a more enlightened approach and paddled to the shore to avoid Jack's onslaught.

When the boat ahead capsized, he was the model of efficiency, retrieving paddles and bedraggled rafters and setting them on their way.

When we won the rapids race, Jack screamed good natured abuse at our vanquished competitors.

Later on the bamboo rafts, he sunk us, capsized us and saved us in a few hundred metres.

Captain Jack, I salute you!

Friday, 22 April 2011

Day 84: Downhill All The Way (22/04/2011)

1 truck up the mountain.

5,400 feet down.

25 kilometres of roots, rocks and holes.

4 hours.

35 degrees.

1 guide.

1 plumber from Nottingham.

1 ferry boat captain from Kwajalein Athol in the Marshall Islands.

1 teacher from Manley Beach.

1 mute German with a camera obsession worse than mine.

8 spills.

312 thrills.

17 litres of water.

1 puncture.

7 near misses.

1 coffee.

1 lunch.

1 swim in a gorgeous lake.

1 truck ride home.

3 bruises.

2 scratches.

2 good night's sleep.

2 very big smiles.

Day 81: Mega Wat or Megawatt? (19/04/2011)


Laos has a dilemma.

How do you develop from an agrarian economy without killing the Golden Goose of tourism?

Tourists like the picturesque sight of terraced paddy fields and the Golden Wats (Temples) that dot the land like parish churches.

You could sell your abundant timber to the Chinese. Laos is still 85% forested, providing a home to many rare and endangered species. The problem is that China's demand is so insatiable that this policy has accounted for a 10% reduction in forestation in five years. Worse still, the gaps in the forest caused by logging have allowed farmers to begin agriculture in areas, until recently untouched. The sky is full of smoke plumes as fire clears the trees for pasture and crops and the integrity of the forest is no longer being eaten away only at the edges, but also destroyed from within. It is not sustainable and the government knows it.

Hydro electric development seems a sustainable way foward. The Mekong has provided the Lao people with sustainence and its countless mountains have encircled and protected them, for ten thousand generations. In the meeting of the two, Laos has an almost immeasurable quantity of sustainable power generation, both to export and to improve the domestic economy.

But it means damming the mighty Mekong and at this point toes started being trodden on.

Damming reduces supply for neighbouring countries. Pumping water through turbines, kills fish and degrades bio-diversity; but has Laos got the muscle to fend off water hungry neighbours downstream? With annual growth approaching 10%, attributable in large part to recent hydro-electric plants coming on line, when the rest of the world is languishing at 2%, a collision of these competing interests is likely to occur soon.

Does Laos' lie in the Mega Wat or the megawatt?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Day 82: Blame it on the Chinese (20/04/2011)

Here's a choice for your mode of transport for getting from Luang Prabang in central Laos to Chang Mai in northern Thailand.

(a) One hour on a plane; or
(b) Three days on bus and river boat?

Extreme cash shortages aside, it's obvious, isn't it?

Until you learn that Lao Airlines is reputed to have a dubious safety record.

'Crashed in Mountain Fog' screams the web headline.

'Cartwheeled Off Runway in High Winds' reads the International Air Safety report.

'Death, death, death' says the little voice in the back of your head as your cursor hovers over the booking confirmation button. It was with some trepidation therefore, that we boarded the twin prop at Luang Prabang Airport.

My seat wouldn't stay upright, squashing the knees of the Swiss lady in the row behind. Definitely not a good sign.

The window was a bit scratched. 'Has this plane done any cartwheels recently?', I tried to ask the stewardess.

Turbulance shortly after take off. 'THIS PLANE IS GOING DOWN!!!' I screamed to the bemused passengers as I clawed desperately at the door release handle.

A nice coffee and a tasty muffin later and I was asking Clare why BA couldn't provide such a quality service.

Eight crashes in eleven years say the statistics; but dig a little deeper and you find that they're all the Chinese made Y-12 aircraft operated by Lao Airlines for internal domestic flights. The French built ATR-72 used for international flights has a perfect safety record; better than the Qantas gold standard.

The moral of the story?

Fly Lao Airlines and if it goes wrong, blame the Chinese.

Day 83: Great Expectations (21/04/2011)

The Lonely Planet calls Luang Prabang 'achingly timeless', and its gushing prose is peppered with adjectives like 'fabled' and 'nirvana-inducing'.

I was ready to be cynical.

It was the capital of the Lao empire until the 15th century, after which administrative power was moved to Vientiane, which is still 12 hours by bus to the south.

Its supremely defensive position, surrounded by jagged mountains and only accessible, even now, by a single, hair raising mountain road, was both the reason for its pre-eminence in feudal times, and the ultimate cause of its demise. However, it remained a seat of culture and learning with royal patronage, until the revolution in 1975 and was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996, since which time it has enjoyed a meteoric rennaisance in popularity.

The Mekong has idled by for a hundred thousand years. The bamboo bridge is a recent but wildly picturesque addition under which tourists tube and all river life passes.

The streets are largely dominated by 18th century villas, many sensitively converted to guest houses and shops selling local crafts. The main street is given over to a night market as dusk falls. The produce is made by artisans in local mountain villages and sold by hundreds of individual traders who keep the takings. The Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese equivalents are largely outlets for Chinese corporate trinket mega-business from which local people see little benefit.

It may even out do Hoi An in the beautiful lantern lit evening street stakes (Day 69: When the Lights Go Down).

Food, and particularly pastry making, has a strong tradition and mouth watering trays of cakes and sticky buns tempted us at every turn. We ate sticky rice and delicious river fish straight from the road side barbeque, huffing and puffing as we struggled to cool it sufficiently to swallow, too impatient to wait.

Temples play an important role, as with everywhere else in the peninsula, and the place is full of steeply pitched rooves and sumptious golden paintwork. Monks are more prolific here and the early morning alms ceremony is a visual feast as shaven headed, orange clad priests file down the narrow streets receiving symbolic donations of sticky rice and fruit from alms givers as a mark of respect.

North of the town is the Kuang Sui Water Fall that descends spectacularly down a 150 foot drop followed by a dozen picture post card cascades to the valley floor. The water is tourquoise and sweet to the taste. The banks are over grown with succulent ferns and banana trees. In the nearby Nadeuay falls we frolicked without another European in sight, with 10 over excited Lao children between the ages of 3 and 16, and their father who fished with a throwing net in the plunge pool while keeping a discrete eye on proceedings.

I approach most things on the basis that high expectations often lead to disappointment.

Whilst Lonely Planet's promises of enlightenment escaped me, I sigh with contentment as I type this description.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Day 78: Vientiane (16/04/2011)

Laos has 6.6 million people in a land mass marginally larger than the known universe.

Only 300,000 live in the capital, Vientiane but, free of the curse of the high rise Commercial Business District, it feels larger as it spreads in a charming sprawl of Indo-French architecture.

Peppered with beautiful temples and slighty down at heel Maisons Des France, it has the feel of a place caught in a time warp. The French have long since left but the ghost of their presence lingers on.

In 1973 the nation received a donation of 77,000 tonnes of concrete to enable the Lao capital to build a modern runway and airport complex.

Around about the same time, the city built what was intended to be an asiatic replica of the Arc De Triomphe, complete with a chaotic traffic roundabout and a tree lined boulevard suspiciously like the Champs Elyses.

Weighing how much, I hear you ask?

About 77,000 tonnes.

Day 76: Pursuit of the Marmoy (14/04/2011)

Nice folk, the Marmoys.

They have a strange gift though.

We had a nice chat leaving Siagon, a city of 7.7 million. It was a pleasant coincidence to see them again, a thousand kilometres away, in beautiful Hoi An. A third time in the old capital, Hue. A fourth in Hanoi, a city of 2 million. A fifth somewhere else, where they saw us and we passed on by oblivious to the cosmic significance of it all. A sixth on one of five hundred junks in the Halong Bay.

We shared squid and tales of Swindon, Bristol and Perth; of office furniture, midwivery and factory fit outs.

Call it coincidence or call it fate.

I am sure we will meet again.

Day 78: The Lao Water Festival (15/04/2011)

New Year.

A time of renewal and celebration around the world.

Some people drink too much and stay up late to let of fireworks in the living room. Others wear tartan dresses and skip round a community hall after eating a sheep's stomach.

The Lao spend three days soaking each other with water.

We arrived in the capital, Vientiane, after a gruelling 24 hour bus ride through the switch backs and mountain passes on the Laos/Vietnam border. Tired, hungry and just a little grumpy, the bus dumped us 5km out of town, midst a pleasantly relaxed bunch of Lao tuk tuk drivers.

A nice Lao lady herded half a dozen confused and disorientated travellers toward her ride, like a mother hen. 'It is The Water Festival' she said. We had all read about it but nothing can prepare you. The 20 minute drive was like a ride on an out of control log flume.

The streets are patrolled by pick up trucks, the backs loaded with children and teenagers; and of course the compulsary 60 gallon drum of water, buckets and every type of water propelling armament that Chinese factories can get out of the door in time for the festival. A multi-coloured assault rifle hangs from every shoulder. Water bombs of every colour are primed and ready for launch at a second's notice. Plastic bags of talcum powder and flour, in a rainbow array, bulge from over stuffed pockets.

It is a warzone and you have to run the gauntlet of the long exposed boulevards where the ambush lies in wait.

But to be fair, it is a pretty rubbish ambush that spoils the element of surprise by pumping pop music into the streets while its fighters dance and revel in enormous puddles and beneath the deluge from the hoses that recharge their munitions prior to each assault. Despite this, the effect is devastating and the first attack came completely by surprise.

Past their position we came and out to meet us they charged. A wall of water surged from a dozen recepticles. Water bombs followed. In the hand to hand struggle that followed, flour streamed in clouds through the air and in the seconds before it was over we learnt the rules of engagement.

There are none.

There is no mercy. There are no prisoners. No quarter will be offered and no expensive electrical equipment will be spared.

We made it to the hostel, dodging and ducking a dozen gangs on our street alone. The only strategy that even remotely worked was the decoy. Clare walked 20m ahead and lured the attack while I slipped by in the melee. She sacrificed herself time and again and before long, she and all her possessions were sodden. But the computer and the camera survived and we took up a vantage point on the balcony to watch the battle rage below.

The next day one purpose of The Water Festival became clear. At the height of the hot season, the heat and humidity was over powering. We cycled round the city becoming increasingly uncomfortable. At first we evaded a road side soaking, by weaving in an increasingly desperate fashion into the oncoming traffic. But gradually it dawned on us that the festival was not to be feared, but embraced.

The electrics were treble bagged and the ruck sack was zipped tight as we plunged toward the nearest machine gun nest, spraying our precious bottled water in every direction. The challenge was accepted and we were drowned in the answering salvo.

Cool and refreshed, we laughed and danced with our Lao assailants.

We now understood just a small part of the meaning of The Water Festival to the Lao people.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Day 76: Crossing the Border from Vietnam to Laos (14/04/2011)

As 24 hour bus journies go, it wasn't bad.

Arriving back from Halong Bay at 4.30pm, we expected a departure at 7.30pm, leaving a leisurely time for getting money for Laos visas, food and generally sorted.

The transit van from hell pitched up at 5.00pm, administrated by a homicidal banshee with no time for delay. At the first stop for pick ups on the way to the bus station, the van was full of hot bodies, with luggage piled high. A Frenchman was lost in an avalanche shortly before stop two. A Spaniard was blown to his death from the North Face bag he was clinging to.

Three stops later and the Black Hole of Calcutta was taking urgent bookings from the desperate cargo as the over crowding reached biblical proportions.

Finally disgorged at the bus station with no money, no food and a rising sense of panic that we would be stranded at the Lao\Vietnamese border for the rest of our short lives, Banshee came to the rescue - for a price. Climb on the back of my moped, he said (note he didn't even try to get in the van). I will take you to the ATM.

I broke my Single Golden Rule; never do anything with a more than 50% chance of a painful death.

Resignedly, I climbed on the back and hugged myself to him like a frightened child. It was only mildly terrifying to zoom with the flow of traffic as the dusk fell.

Coming back in darkness, against the flow of traffic was the most frightening experience of my life. I died a dozen times, only to open my eyes to terrors anew. Dodging between lorries. Zipping in front of careering buses, ears bleeding to the roar of the close proximity air horns. The darkness intensified as the angel of death stalked us in the traffic.

And then we were back, me with a million dong and Banshee with two broken ribs.

As I said, 24 hours on a bus didn't seem so bad.

Day 75: Halong Bay (13/04/2011)

Vietnam is a staggering 2,500km long and in places, only 150km wide. It is squeezed between Laos, Cambodia and the South China Sea. So far we have taken nearly 56 hours of constant traveling by bus and train to get from Saigon in the south to Halong Bay in the north.

Ha Long means 'The dragon came down' and the Vietnamese believe that the amazing topography was carved by the lashing of the dragon's tail.

More fadish views hold that five million years ago the area was volcanic. Lava tubes surfaced with alarming frequency, creating thousands of hard basalt columns known as karsts, which have been left standing after the erosion of the softer surrounding sediments. They tower hundreds of feet into the air, some bald and scarified, others densely forested.

As we approached, the plain occasionally produced a small rocky outcrop sticking incongruously from the flat land on either side. Gradually, these became more frequent until, by the time we reached the sea, the horizon was lined with a labyrinth of jagged peaks, silhouetted against the hazy sky

Sea eagles swoop to pluck fish from the water, between the passing boats. Countless arches have been hollowed out in softer parts by the endless action of the sea. Some have collapsed. Others perch precariously on insubstantial supports, looking for all the world as if they could go at any minute, or maybe last another hundred thousand years.

At present only 500 junks ply the bay, carrying tourists on over night trips. When they are gathered together in the bay, sails raised, it is the very picture of a Chinese War Armada preparing to set sail; but when they disperse in the massive bay, you can be alone in the eeriness, the rocks and channels hiding everything from view.

Road safety is the same on the water as on the tarmac. Tenders shipping people and provisions to the junks collide with wood splintering force. Junks collide with even more alarming noise. Like the road, no one gets angry. The damage is inspected briefly before everyone carries on. The tourists look on, ashen faced. The look says:

" Yes - we did read about the sinking and tourist drownings in February but it can't happen again".

Just for the record, it can. Some of the boats list badly and bear battles scars from earlier collisions.

After two hours sail you are amongst the wonder. It is the most spectacular thing I have ever seen.

We stood in silence, drinking in the filmic beauty of the place.

Then we jumped, whooping and screaming, from the 8m top deck into the emerald water. We kayaked through unspeakable rock formations into enclosed lagoons. We hiked to a spectacular three chamber cave, high above the water with heart stopping views of the junks maneuvering in the bay far below. We stopped at floating villages, complete with floating school rooms, lessons underway, and floating concrete boats. We bought a live squid that the junk chef steamed for our lunch.

All the while, the permanent haze clung to the karsts and as darkness fell, the on-board lights came on, attracting more squid. We slept in wood panelled cabins with crisp white linen and woke refreshed to the rising sun, its futile efforts to burn of the mists creating wonderful shadows in the air and reflections in the water.

Too soon, we were jostling for access to the water front, clunking and clonking off other boats, coughing in the diesel fumes and covering our ears from the machine gun rattle of engines working years beyond their respectable life span.

And then we were on dry land again, aching for more time amongst the silent and enigmatic sentinels of Halong Bay.

Day 74: Hanoi (12/04/2011)

Hanoi is the second city of Vietnam - with a fraction of Saigon's population but far more panache.

It is so French.

Vietnam charges 100 percent car import tax, so surprisingly no one buys a car. Except for people in Hanoi. And some of them even buy Rollers and Maseratis. I told you they had panache.

We walked around the lake in town and mooched  through the Quarters. French rubs shoulders with Old. Commercial lays alongside the river. It all fits together perfectly in an easy going and easy to navigate mess of back streets.

The French are responsible for this, like they are for many things, good and bad, in this region. They arrived and imposed a cruel and arbitrary system of government and exploited the people and the land's resources ruthlessly. But they also brought Gallic architecture, coffee and and a laissez-faire atitude to life that perhaps contributes to the Vitenamese charm. At first I thought they were austere. Now I realise you have to try just a little harder than with the Khmer but the rewards are equally tangible. The laugh, the smile and the whispered comment to a friend as you mangle their language.

The French Quarter is grid of boulevards lined with villas, large and small. The larger ones are Ministries. The smaller ones are diplomatic residences and embassies. Period Citroen line the streets. There are clubs for gentlemen in the colonial style with suited bell hops and potted palms at each shuttered window. The French tourists speak the Lingua Franca to the locals and thankfully it is not English. Baguette and croissant are sold in the streets. It is little Paris.

The Old Quarter is madness. The roads aren't straight. The pavements are non existant, not because of any poor planning laws, but because they are lost beneath the wares placed on them by the shops on every street. You must walk in the gutter if you want to make any progress. Dirty moped repair shops co-exist with Gucci and Rolex flagship stores. Five star hotels stand shoulder to shoulder with crashpads for whom the only stars are the ones visible through the hole in the roof. It also has a French feel but in a much more Vietnamese way. The buildings are narrow and tall, making the most of the limited plot sizes. But the floors are tiled with beautiful patterns, and the balconies are styled with Fin de Siecle motif.

Hanoi is bound together in an Indo-Franco embrace.

It is a Communist country but the beer is as egalitarian as it comes. Bia Hoi (draft beer) is reputed to be the cheapest in the world. Served at premises on the corners of most streets, it works out at 30 pence a glass. The glass is likely to be pitted and full of imperfections like a medevil artefact but it doesn't leak.

The bar is likely to be a cheaply tiled, strip lit unit, more like a vacant shop than a local pub, but it will be crowded and you will struggle for a seat; a seat mind you, apparently bought in a job lot with the ubiquituosly tiny blue plastic tables, from the local bankrupt kindergarten. The beer will be expertly ferried in glasses by the dozen, through the busy four way traffic on large trays. It is a feat to behold and not a drop is spilled.

And Hanoi starts its children on the booze, young. The four year old at the next table displayed the antics of a whole evening of drink, in 30 minutes. She emptied a full Bia Hoi to her parents amusement, belched, peed in the street, bellowed was she was denied more hooch, was sick and later fell asleep on the low table, before being carried home.

Just like the French.

Day 63: Smuggling Fish, Rice and Noodles (01/04/2011)

It is a small, wealthy, mainly western elite who have an unlimited supply of beef and pork.

But fish, rice and noodles feed 3 billion hungry mouths on this side of the planet.

It didn't occur to me at the time, but on reflection, today's tour was more important than every pile of old rocks we have seen to date.

Dung was our guide. He was never without a cigarette which he waved more than he smoked.

First he took us to a fish farm. Chau Doc has 2,000 of them. It is a cottage industry on an industrial scale. Houses float in the river. Beneath the floor boards, nets are slung and into these, immature fish are piled through a hole in the floor. Up to 70,000 occupy a space 20' x 30' x 20'. At 3 weeks they are each 2cm. At 7 months they are 12 inches. It gets crowded.

The Vietnamese have more fish than they can eat. The rivers and rice paddies are full of them. The fish farms supply the export market.

Before we arrived at the rice warehouse, Dung talked fast. Chau Doc is close to the Cambodian border. Smuggling and unregulated movement of goods on the river is rife. The river police, he said, couldn't be bothered to patrol at night, so anyone with a boat had carte-blanche to move goods across the border without duty or the appropriate licence. Boats already seem to sail grossly over loaded and low in the water. At night, they add more than the legal limit. They sink regularly, for no other reason. Two last month on this stretch of the river, he said.

The police came up regularly in Dung's diatribes. Take fines for instance. He listed countless petty infractions that attracted the greedy and corrupt traffic police. Speeding, leaving the scene of an accident, not wearing a helmet, jumping the lights, running over pedestrians. He started to lose my sympathy at this point. And the list went on and on. The roads are mayhem, he agreed, but his solution was complete de-regulation. His friend was paying three years wages in compensation for killing a cyclist with the company bus, last year.

It just wasn't right.

He had become quite animated by now so I was glad to disembark at the rice warehouse where we saw the grading, de-husking and polishing of the staple food source of the Vietnamese people. Brown rice is regarded as fattening and avoided. White rice exports produce 3 billion dollars of revenue, placing Vietnam as the third largest exporter behind Myanmar and Thailand.

Across the road was the noodle factory where rice is ground to powder before being mixed with water to form a pancake syrup that is poured onto a circular stove top and cooked for 30 seconds. The pancake is lifted and left to cool for 2 hours in the sun before being fed through a cutting machine that produces the long strips that we know as the noodle. The 8 staff produce a ton of noodles per day in a relatively benign environment with the exception of the noodle cutter that consists of a rotating grooved spindle that draws the pancakes in to the cutting surface. There were no guards and the young operator’s fingers came perilously close to the cutting edge on each iteration.

It can only be a matter of time before a misjudgement gives one lucky noodle consumer some extra protein.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Day 71: The Economics of Street Food (09/04/2011)

Paying too much for donut sticks by the lake in Hanoi seemed innocent enough.

You pay a little more than the odds, so what harm can it do? Donut lady gets a little extra cash and you don't miss a few thousand dong because, once you escape the local currency\haggling bubble, it is only a very small amount.

3,000 dongs buys a donut on a wooden kebab stick. 10,000 buys you four. We paid 15,000 in an act of foolish generosity.

You wouldn't think it would cause a problem but it is a lesson in how inflation works.

Supply and demand usually dictate price and the market adjusts to reflect fluctuations in both. But something else happened today. Donut Lady One (DLO) was pleased at the mark up she obtained but Donut Lady Two (DLT) over heard and beetled across to investigate. There was a discussion in Vietnamese between them, the gist of which was that DLO was breaking trade practices\cartel arrangements. Then DLT questioned us closely on price and quantity offered by DLO. An international incident was brewing so we scurried off.

After a nice walk around the lake we returned to the spot.

Donut Lady Three made a bee line for us. 15,000 for three donuts, she said, without a hint of the usual try on that precedes the proper negotiations. DLT was close behind, monitoring the transaction. 12,000, we said. She held her line and walked away before we did.

From 10,000 for four to 15,000 for three in  less than two hours.

That is hyper inflation.