The Zen Mid-Life Crisis

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Tibet to Wales by Motorbike

A Badly Organised Odyssey

Ace Cafe

 

“Inspirational”

“Fearless”

“Courageous”

“Moving”

“Dedicated”

 

 

 

Just a few of the adjectives that have not been used to describe this trip.

 

“Half-arsed”

“Delusional”

“It’ll all end in tears”

“Silly Men”

 

These are a few of the expressions that have. Others were less encouraging.

Departing 21st April 2012

Raising money for Motorcycle Outreach:

www.motorcycleoutreach.org

Three brothers
Two
bikes
One
half-baked plan

To Leigh Delamere and beyond!!

China, Nepal, Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Netherlands, England, Wales

Recent Blogs:

..…. a little philosophy …… very little wisdom ……
…… possibly a few too many nob gags ……

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Munnar

Munnar

 

Lying about 90 km East of Kochi, high up in the Ghat mountains is Munnar. A small, busy and somewhat shabby town in the Indian style. The town itself is pretty unremarkable, but it makes a wonderful base to explore the surrounding countryside. Our driver, Sanji and his little Tata car took us on a swerving; twisting; overtaking-tuk-tuks-on-blind-corners ride to explore the surrounding area. In the Ghats the temperature is much cooler than the stifling heat of Kochi, the air is fresher and the humidity has dropped to manageable levels. It's a climate perfect for tea. So much so that the steep hillsides are densely carpeted with a tight weave of emerald green. Every available space is given over to tea; precipitous slopes, craggy out crops and road side verges. Tea is king.

From a distance it looks dense enough and thick enough to walk on. Up closer, very narrow paths can be just about made out, these paths pass through the carpet like a badly made spiders web or the pattern made by mud cracking in the sun. Clouds sweep through this scene, caught up in the high peaks or rolling through the valleys below. The constantly changing light patterns created by the clouds create changes in the light quality, giving the tea a continuously shifting pattern of every imaginable green hue.

 

I try to photograph the scene, but it's proving elusive, the image that your brain assembles from the constant stream of data collected through your eyes easily out performs the single exposure from my camera. I step back and stare at the unfolding scene before me; I have never seen such a diversely beautiful monoculture of green. Every imaginable shade forms, then reforms somewhere else before me. A chromatic dance performed for my retina's conical receptors and it's utterly beguiling.

 

At times like this I really can forgive India anything; the litter strewn everywhere; the driving etiquette – that's best described as bizarre, and that endless head nodding! Here there is an entrancing beauty set in a unique landscape..

 

Sanji tells us that the best view is from Top Station, around twenty kilometres further on. This was the place where once the tea began its journey from the plantations to the docks on India's south west coast. An aerial rope way carried the tea down into the valley before the current road was built.

 

Top Station is busy. It's an Indian holiday on the day we arrives and the place is packed with, mostly, Indian tourists. Top station is a long narrow ridge offering spectacular views of the surrounding Ghats, or it would do if it weren't for the rows of shacks selling everything the modern tourist could wish for, bangles, soft drinks, roasted corn on the cob, ice cream, tee shirts and plastic reproductions of the holiest of Hindu Gods. Not for the pragmatic Indians the squeamishness of Islam, where a plastic Mohammed could cause a major diplomatic incident. One can't help but admire the idea of Indian Hinduism, not only a belief system but also a marketable resource.

I stuff my plastic Ganish into my bag as we walk to the end of the shacks. The end of the ridge is barred by a large green mesh screen and a ticket booth. To pass further we have to pay 50 rupees each plus and additional 10 rupees for my camera. It would have been cheaper had we not been foreigners. The steps leading down from the ticket booth takes you, via a sweeping arc over to your right, to the viewing point. It's a steep walk of about 400 metres. I'm wondering if this was going to be worth the £1 entrance fee that we paid, when we arrive at the end of the path. The view is nothing short of spectacular! Everything that the scenery provided on the drive here was now multiplied by a factor of ten. The panorama is vast, it dwarfs everything that we've seen so far.

 

My further attempts to photograph the scene are interrupted by an Indian family on holiday from Mysore who want us in their holiday photographs. We exchange pleasantries and email address, in the modern tradition, before it's time to move on. It's back to our hotel for the night, it's a little way outside Munnar and we're promised the drive is every bit as spectacular as the ride here.

Kerala, this part of it at least is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. A unique landscape of steep, perilously steep, precipitous mountains. Normally such mountains have a harsh, almost threatening feel to them, as though they are entirely indifferent to human life. Not here. The verdant carpet softens them, lending them a friendly, almost comforting feel. A romantic notion no doubt which is, at least partially, created by the knowledge that this natural beauty is the starting point for our national cup of daily comfort.

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Fusion Bay

Fusion Bay

Or How We Found The Greatest Restaurant on Earth

If I read a Trip Advisor comment that read ‘the greatest restaurant on Earth!’ Possibly followed by several exclamation marks, I’d be skeptical, dismissive even, and maybe suggest that anybody who wrote such stuff must be an idiot

However, let me begin, the Fusion Bay restaurant in Fort Kochi, Kerula, India, is The Greatest Restaurant on Earth! Now obviously, I’ve not been to every restaurant on Earth to confirm this claim, but based on the last two meals at the Fusion Bay, the odds of finding a better restaurant are vanishingly small

The restaurant has a rather unprepossessing exterior, it’s ok, but that’s about all. The interior is clean, tidy and modern. However, I’m no restaurant critic, so before I start writing things like ‘the three tomato slices contrasted well with the folded banana leaf presentation, but I felt that the slightly charred top leaf element was so 2013′, let me tell you about the meal I had.

The fish curry was an all out assault on the taste buds. It looked at me as if to say,

“Ok white boy, you’re a middle aged, middle class European! You’ve eaten in many restaurants? Many countries? Oh! And some if them Michelin starred? Well, you’ve not been here! Try some of this!”

The fish was rich and meaty, the sparse, dry sauce that it was cooked in was hot, spicy, salty from the sea and rich with coconut. It hit you and hit you hard. Every forkful delivering more reserves of flavour than the last. The dish never relented, there was no mid-dish complacency here, where, under normal circumstance, no matter how delicious the food is, by about half way through, you’re just eating. No, not this time! My taste buds were out flanked, out manoeuvred and out smarted at every mouthful. It was relentless. At the end of the meal, when I’d finally cleaned the banana leaf of every speck of sauce with my last remaining crumb of chapatti, I slumped backing into my seat, feeling, I’d imagine, like an elite athlete who’s just completed the King of the Mountains section of the Tour de France – physically and mentally spent, yet utterly elated.

To anyone readings this who’s not in Kerala, you might, justifiably, think that this has no relevance, trust me; the food is so delicious and the prices so reasonable, it’s worth the cost of the airfare alone.

 

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Kochi – Later That Same Afternoon

It took a good few hours sleep and a shower for Kochi to be revealed before us. Fort Kochi, the former Portuguese colony, fortified location and spice port is now a delightful old town. Still bustling, still vibrant and still defiantly not just a tourist destination. These are a few tourists but we’re out numbered, considerably so, by the locals who are going about their workaday lives. Shops, restaurants, cafés and, yes, travel agents, still pack into ramshackle old buildings that lines the narrow winding streets of Fort Kochi. There’s an air of business being carried out, of money being made and deals being struck. The shops are beautifully laid out, bright colourful and enticing. Fruit shops are bursting with neatly stacked fruit, erupting through the shop fronts and onto the street. Clothes shops bursting with colour, the wares which are hung on rails outside the shop, waft and dance in the breeze enticing you to buy. Everywhere there is noise and colour, the street is crowded with people, walking and riding bicycles, tuk tuks and small motorcycles also compete for space on these busy streets which they all share with goats, cars and the occasional cow.

 

We walk through this maze of buildings completely entranced, any residual negative feelings about Kochi from this morning’s taxi ride in, cannot survive this joyous onslaught. Within half an hour we are completely seduced by it’s charms. Eventually the maze delivers you to the waterfront. Kochi has a beach, but it’s a beach in the Asian style, a working place not a leisure place, as in Europe.

 

Most of the waterfront has been given over to the fisherman who operate the Chinese fishing nets, giant pivoting wooden structures which hold a horizontally stretched net between four huge curved wooden fingers spanning out radially from a central suspension point. This whole contraption is rotated, dipping the net into the water. Around an hour or so later it’s lifted again scooping out the fish. These fish are then sold on the seafront the moment they are landed. Should a particular fish take your eye, then any of the restaurants in the town will cook it for you.

We didn’t buy a fish, that’s a treat that will have to wait for another day. We did walk past the Vasco de Gamma cafe however, not that it was a cafe when Vasco de Gamma lived here, it was his house. He’s buried in a church near by. Or more accurately he was. His body was removed by his son sixteen years after he died and returned to his native Portugal where he is still, I presume, currently interred. His grave is still marked, given pride of place even, in the church of his former internment.

The people of Kochi seem completely at ease with the their former colonial past and speak about it very matter of factly. Kochi has had many colonial masters over the years, the last being the British, this is just accepted as ‘that’s just the way things were’. And in a way they are quite right, we seem to have more trouble coming to terms with it than they do, admittedly we were the conquering power so perhaps that’s only right and proper.

 

The Voyages of Discovery, or exploitation, call them what you will, were the precursor to colonialism and ultimately to our Global market – they had to happen. Our current viable global civilisation is a direct result of these voyages, they needed to have taken place as the Earth’s resources are not evenly and fairly distributed. Maybe it didn’t have to happen in the way it did, but happen, it had to.

 

I wanted to call in to Vasco’s cafe on our walk back, but my navigational skills appear to be a long way short of Vasco’s and we failed to find it again. What we did find however, was The Greatest Restaurant on Earth…………

 

 

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Kochi – The Arrival

Kochi

The Arrival

 

Arriving in Kochi, was traumatic. Ok, it was far from traumatic. That's a bit of an exaggeration but it was fraught. My sleep deprived, jet lagged brain failed to process the assault of incoming information. Heat; noise; dust; a Visa card that refused to work in any of the ATMs that we tried, and we tried every one we could find; a taxi ride in a Tata oven, actually it was a Tata car, but as far as my brain was concerned it was unable to detect any discernible difference.

We crashed, banged and swerved our way through the cacophony of horn blaring rush hour traffic as we made our way from the airport. At least we did for some of the time, for most of the time we were stationary while the two wheeled section of the traffic swarmed around us in a noisy, terrifying berserker of a dance. All the while the Tata thermostat was set to roast as my brain froze from the information overload – it locked up as tightly and immutably as a website offering free FA Cup Final tickets would if plugged into a dial up connection.

 

My first impressions of Kochi, as you may have gathered, were not favourable. Things marginally improved when we arrive at our guesthouse, although most of this improvement came about simply because we were able to get out. And that was about all we could do.

 

The guesthouse was locked and there was nobody to be seen anywhere. Knocking on the door produced little result apart from bruised knuckles. Luckily, the proprietors mobile number was on the sign outside, not that this stroke of luck was of any us to us at the present as it couldn't be reached from our UK mobiles, as my brain was still refusing to cooperate and provide me with the international dialling code for India.

The taxi driver, who was still hanging around in the hope of a tip and, I'd like to think, beginning to feels a bit sorry for these brain addled idiots that it was his misfortune to pick up at the airport, didn't know the code either. By now a few people had began to assemble to view this strange spectacle of a small group standing in a circle around a couple of suitcases all looking at each other and all scratching their heads. All this as the tropical midday sun beat down on us at the height of the dry season.

At this point out luck took a turn for the better, a passing tuk tuk driver, always on the alert for a fare, spotted this small gathering and came over to see what's going on. Our taxi driver said something to him and although I don't speak a word of the local language I'm willing to bet that it was “I've been landed with two idiots, they booked into a guesthouse that's closed, they've mobile phones that don't work and they're gibbering incoherently in the heat”. Fortunately, Peter the tuk tuk driver, for that was his name as we were later to discover, took out his phone and rang the number on the sign. From this point onward things took a considerable turn for the better. The owner turned up, he lent us the money to tip the taxi driver and the crowd dispersed after many heart felt thanks, shaking of hands and general agreement that this was almost certainly the best possible outcome.

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Backpackers

Backpackers

 

I have no way of knowing this but I suspect that Hoi An's laid back feel makes it an inevitable destination for backpackers. I have no way of knowing this but judging from the numbers of backpackers that I saw in Hoi An, I'd say that that was very much the case.

I have a mixture of respect and wonderment for backpackers; respect for the fact that at such a tender age they set off to explore the world. Lets remember that these are not the hippy backpackers of the sixties and seventies that set out with such high ideals and optimism for the future of mankind. Those brought up during the era of 'Peace and Love', a time when the world was considered a much more benign, beautiful and wondrous place than it is today.

 

Of course the world is still this wonderful, beautiful and mostly benign place that it ever was. We just don't think it is. And that's the point, today's backpackers have been raised on a diet of wall-to-wall media coverage of all the dangers present in the world; terrorism, Islamism, shootings, bombings and generally overly played out coverage of every bit of gratuitous violence the world has to offer. Yet still they go.

 

Now of course the world is still no more and no less dangerous than it was in the seventies and sixties. I appreciate that of course some countries have got more dangerous, but many more have become safer – much safer. The backpackers of today, set off with the medias' dire pronouncements about the state of the world ringing in their ears. They may not have been the pioneers but they set off with equal, if not greater, confidence in their beliefs that the media is not an accurate reflection of the world, but a view of the world that our ruling elite likes to project.

 

As for the wonderment; seeing small young women teetering under enormous rucksacks which tower above them. Young men, with packs at least as large as their girlfriend, that's their Girlfriend not their girlfriend's packs and with a smaller rucksacks strapped to their fronts. What on earth can they be carting in there?

 

Respect and wonderment. Did I mention jealousy? Yes of course jealously! Who wouldn't want to be young enough and free enough to be doing it with them?

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Wat Thmey

Wat Thmey

A Reminder of Monumental Stupidity.

 

The tuk tuk ride back from Angor Wat is pretty much like any other tuk tuk ride in Siem Reap, it's a little noisy; somewhat hot; dust blown; and as always, hugely, entertaining. Around half distance you pass a fairly modest Buddhist temple called Wat Thmey. Normally such temples are ten-a-penny in Cambodia, and are hardly given a second glance. However this one is different, it's well worth stopping at. The interior of the temple is light, airy and spacious, nowhere near as stiflingly claustrophobic as some of the Buddhist temples that you'll find in Tibet, and certainly far less gaudy. They're still gaudy of course, certainly to the western eye, just less so than those in Tibet.

 

However it's not the temple that holds your interest here. As you walk up to the temple steps, you pass a monument – a large concrete and glass cuboid with a Khmer style roof. The full grizzly horror of the monument is revealed as you walk up to it. On one of its four glass sides it contains human skulls. Human skulls stacked one on top of the other, row upon row of them. One of the other glass sides contains femurs, the other two contain other human bones, matched together by anatomical type and packed in so tightly as to leave barely a space between any of them. This was Siem Reap's killing field. The site of the executions during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror from 1975 to 1979. It's here where tens of thousands were murdered. It may have lacked the notoriety of Tuol Sleng or S21 prison but it's no less hard to comprehend.

 

For most of us violence on this scale is unimaginable, it certainly is to me, it may, quite possibly, be beyond human comprehension. Fortunately, the effort is spared you. For just a little further on there's an arrow painted onto a wall suggesting that you walk 50 metres to your left.

The first sight that you then see is a row of rather pleasant looking monks' houses, but that's not what we've been urged here to gaze upon. For in front of the monks' houses is a small concrete building without windows. Its single door is reached by climbing two steps. A sign on the door requests that you remove your shoes before entering.

Here the story of the Khmer Rouge is told through the eyes of one man, a survivor, in a series of acrylic paintings. Around thirty of these paintings line the walls of the building. The bright, colourful and slightly stylised paintings are numbered chronologically, with a short paragraph of explanation under each. Every painting captures a scene from the man's struggle for survival under the Khmer Rouge. And survive he did, although after studying the paintings and reading the captions you can scarcely credit it.

 

Reduced to the suffering of one man You can possibly begin to get a sense, just an inkling, of the extent of the genocide. Although extrapolating up from just one man's suffering, to a nation's was, mercifully, beyond me.

There are various charity boxes and stalls selling tourist tat on the one side of the temple which collect funds for educational establishments in Cambodia. In front of such a graphic reminder of monumental stupidity it's hard to think of any reasons why one shouldn't contribute.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat

It's not about understanding.

 

There's actually very little I can say about Angkor Wat. Just one sentence springs to mind; Angkor Wat is one of the most remarkable Human constructions on Earth. Which is the most accurate and truthful description that I can think of. I could describe the architecture (it's magnificent), I could give a list of dimensional statistics (it's enormous) or I could describe it's religious and cultural importance (it's very important). However there's no point in doing this as there's plenty of very scholarly information on both the internet and in just about every single guide book on Cambodia, rehashing it here would serve no purpose.

 

I've wanted to visit Angkor Wat for a very long time now, and in a way, this longing and desire to visit a site, any site, be it the great pyramids at Cheops, the Great Wall of China or, as in this case Angkor Wat, is also a cause of great confusion. These sites that we've all known about from childhood have passed into our psyche – almost osmotically, they've become so much a part of us. That we don't know how to feel about them when we actually get there. It's a bit like visiting a childhood hero, you have to align the fantasy, with the physical reality.

 

As I walked around Angkor Wat my first impression was just the scale of the place, it is simply vast. It's far too big to be taken in at one visit or even two visits. I wandered around the monument almost trance like, the sheer scale of the place was intimidating. There was far more here than you could ever see or indeed understand in a lifetime. So I stopped walking and just examined one piece of the bas relief, just one figure. I admired the craftsmanship, the skill and the endless patience to create just one beautiful figure, then you need to multiple that by ten thousand.

 

These figures are on every facade that you looked at, around every corner that you turned, everywhere your gaze fell. And it's not just the figures, there's also exquisite carvings on every structural item. On the beams, on the lintels, on corbels, on the columns, everywhere you looked there was extraordinary beauty. To step back a little from the minutiae of the detailing, I was then overwhelmed by a second wave of wonderment as I considered the engineering excellence that went into creating this structure, men without any mechanical assistance whatsoever created this in the twelfth century, by their muscles, their skill, their knowledge and of course their intelligence.

 

It was now early evening, the sun was starting to set but the temperature was still high, maybe high thirties, maybe low forties and my brain began to pound, not just from the exertion of walking around but from the mental effort of trying to comprehend what I was seeing. The five kilometre tuk tuk ride back to the hotel and a few cold beers helped restore brain function.

 

We had arranged our second visit to Angkor Wat for sunrise the next day. I had doubted the wisdom of five o'clock starts, but this possibly seemed justified, possibly.

 

Seeing Angkor Wat in the dark and to watch as the sky lightens revealing Angkor Wat in the pale pink light of dawn was, well I would certainly hesitate to use the word spiritual, especially in a 'religious' place, but there was a special connection. I no longer felt that I had to try to comprehend the monument, I simply felt that all I had to do was just stroll around the building in the cooler morning air and let the place wash over me. We walked further that morning than we did on the previous day. We walked further and I thought less. Angkor Wat is not a intellectual exercise, it can be of course, but for the few hours Angkor Wat gives to a tourist, it can never be that, nor should you try to make it that. Just walk around and let Angkor Wat make that emotional connection with you.

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Hoi An

Hoi An

Where to begin with Hoi An? Well it's about 800 km south of Hanoi but it feels a world away. Smaller, much smaller, than Hanoi and I have to say, that after a few days in Hanoi, all the better for that. Hoi An's main street carries far less traffic than any street in Hanoi, but still enough to allow it to be a busy, bustling place. Despite its bustle. Hoi An has a relaxed, rather laid-back air. The same air that it must have once had before it grew into a far from 'touristy', tourist destination.

 

The hotels, shops, spas, restaurants and a thousand other small business that have grown up to feed it's new tourist industry are still locally owned. The money generated by these small businesses stays within Hoi An. And very efficient they are too. Despite it's tourism, Hoi An still has it's 'real place' feel. People still farm rice in and around the town. Water buffalo still provide the muscle for this work and appear to enjoy their right to roam amongst the traffic and tourists of Hoi An.

I'm feeling decidedly chilled. Hoi An is to be enjoyed for its own sake, enjoyed without the trappings of 'touristy' things to do. We rent a bike, that marvellous workhorse of South East Asia, the Honda 50 step-through. Not for something to do, but to provide assistance in doing very little; drinking coffee on the pavement, a light lunch on a side-of-the-road restaurant and calling in to do a little shopping, are all so much better when you've got a bike. I had of course brought my licence with me, not only that I also brought my international driving licence as well, as I had somehow thought that these may be needed when I was planning this trip back in Wales.

 

“300 000 Dong! Here key!” said the lady renting bikes.

 

And the bike was mine for twenty four hours.

 

For all the apparent chaos, the people who run the myriad of local business are remarkably efficient and competent; the young lady who owned one of the many spas, typified the entrepreneurial spirit. Her spa, that's a 3 x 3 metre shop with some comfy chairs and a table for massages was set back off the main street on one of the side roads. The slight lack of passing trade was more than made up for by her utterly charming, polite and ruthlessly effective marketing approach. She was also extremely good at what she did.

 

“Hello! You want massage lady?” She said to Alison in her bright cheery

way.

 

“No thanks.” replied Alison.

 

“Ok, so maybe you want pedicure?”

 

This line was delivered in such a beguiling way that it was hard to refuse. The subtle little glance down at Alison's feet which implied that to walk even walk one more step without such a treatment would be unthinkable.

 

“30% off all price today!”

 

That was the clincher. We were lead into her shop, the full width glass doors were opened and we sat there on very comfortable chairs, with a cool, if somewhat noisy, breeze wafting in from the street. And here we sat while she, and a friend squatted down in front of Alison's feet to commence work. The two of them when hunched up and squatting in the Asian manner, appeared to occupy the smallest possible volume that two human beings can possibly occupy and here they remained for thirty minutes intense work. Ten beautifully pedicured and painted toe nails were the result. All for less than £3.

 

How long Hoi An can retain its charm is hard to say. How long before big business moves in with the explicit intention of shipping money out of a developing country? Building 'palace' hotels, those dreadful all-in, providers of the Standardised Holiday Experience, an experience so awful that parachuted into any one of them, you'd be hard pressed to tell if you were in Vietnam, Thailand or Timbuktu; employing a few local people at minimal wages whilst simultaneously removing any sense of ownership or control from the people who most need it.

 

That maybe is in the future, a long way in the future I hope, for now it feels that you're in Vietnam, vibrant, buzzing and utterly delightful Vietnam.

 

 

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Halong Bay

Halong Bay

 

“You have to see Halong Bay”.

I was told this when I mentioned that I was going to Vietnam. And I suppose that's true, you have to visit Halong Bay. There are, however numerous obstacles that you will need to overcome before you can get to visit Halong Bay. Firstly, there is the problem of being organised. Organised in the get yourself onto one of the many arranged trips. That in itself isn't of course a problem, from Hanoi, there's so many people trying to sell you a trip to just about everywhere else in Vietnam it's actually quite hard not to. The problem is that you have to be Organised. Organised in the rigidly arranged and microscopically scheduled kind of way – hardly ideal.

 

Our guide told us he was called Mr. T and that he was twenty six. I have no reason to doubt him, except he looked a lot younger than twenty six………

 

As a travel guide Mr. T was entertaining, very interesting and ruthless organised. The bus ride from Hanoi to Halong Bay passed uneventfully, apart from me loosing my iPhone that is, and we arrived at Halong Bay to the exact minute, no doubt.

 

The Halong Bay waterfront is now packed with tourist boats, largish wooden built boats around 30m long and very well equipped they are too. Our cabin was beautifully appointed and very comfortable it even had air conditioning. The boats that ply Halong Bay today still carry a slight resemblance to the fishing junks that once fished here. Their high bows, which look elegant and entirely practical on a working junk, looking a little out of proportion with the rather bulbous midships designed for a cargo of tourists, Some of these tourist boats even sported vestigial sails as if to claim a working heritage. Much as an Eton educated elite politician might slip a few working class expressions into speech to establish some 'working class' credibility – it also feels equally as phoney.

 

Halong Bay is extraordinarily beautiful. Our vessel slipped through the water and the stark shapes of the very steep sided islands, laden with vegetation slowly revealed themselves as they materialised out of the haze. Boats on benign calm waters are always delightful and here in the Asian heat, amongst these ethereal islands which float in an almost Tolkienesque haze it completely seduces you. With its gently understated haunting beauty. It's very easy to imagine yourself being carried over the waters to Lorthlorien, or somewhere similar.

 

It is just as well that you can imagine this so easily, because your boat is amongst a hundred others. A hundred other boats all heading for that same deserted magical anchorage for the night, where you will all be peacefully rocked to sleep by gentle waves caressing your ship, and all hoping that the karaoke on the other boats isn't too loud.

 

We're none of us nineteenth century travellers. We're not plying the waters of Halong Bay on a fisherman's junk and seeing the beauty through western eyes for the first time. Being born in the nineteenth century, very few of us would have had the means or the fortitude to have embarked on such a journey. Nor indeed the luck to survive the privations. We are all now twenty first century travellers – and there's many of us.

Halong Bay is a beautiful resource to be exploited, and that is indeed what's happening. The tourism is controlled – to a certain extent. The boats numbers are controlled, although you wouldn't immediately think so. The crowded anchorages are an inevitable consequence of restricting where tourist boats can go. Halong Bay is still beautiful, sitting on deck as the sun sets as the tropical darkness quickly envelopes the scene is wonderful. Even the other boats add to the magic as their lights reflect and twinkle across the black waters. Mercifully the karaoke held off.

 

Of course, Halong Bay is to be enjoyed and why not? It is a resource for a developing nation to use to generate foreign exchange and that should be done, but done wisely. Everywhere you look in Halong bay you will find floating plastic debris, a sight made worse by the apparent indifference to this pollution. In many places the iridescent mauves and cyans from a film of light oil can be seen glistening on the surface. There's not enough there to detract from the natural beauty of the place, not yet at any rate. It does, however leave an uneasy feeling, like you're contributing to the destruction of a beautiful place.

 

I have high hopes for Vietnam, I'm sure that this is a problem that will be tackled. Halong Bay is a magical place; Alison and I, kayaking between two islands as the sun was setting was sublime. For it to remain so in the future will require tighter controls, more stringent enforcing of the current ones and, let's be honest here, higher standards of organisation………

 

Halong Bay is still a special place, for now at least.

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Why Hanoi Does not Annoy

Why Hanoi does not Annoy

 

Let me think of all the ways that Hanoi should really annoy me. There's the traffic; it's constant, noisy and gives the impression of being completely un-disciplined. Then there's the pavements, or rather there's not. There's pavements alright, but not ones that you can actually walk down for more than thirty metres or so without having to step out into the road to avoid a parked motorcycle, a hastily set up cafe, a man repairing domestic fans or a motorcycle repair business that spread out of its three metre by three metre concrete shop and has flowed organically across the pavement and is starting to colonise the kerb and gutter.

 

Then theres the heat. And the dust. And the Asian high pressure system which traps and collects the fumes from the city, holding it all in, trapping it in the form of an almost tangible haze, exactly

at head night. The motorcycle exhaust fumes, the cooking smells, the welding fumes coming from the blacksmiths' sheds, which are also about to flow out their business premises and begin to colonise the pavement.

The thousand and one laundries, carpenters' shops, restaurants, all the wafts, smells and fumes from seven million people living and working in such close, if not to say, intimate, proximity to each other all contribute to Hanoi's ambience.

 

The French colonial architecture, which in the late 19th century, may have been a jewel in the crown of Indochina has fallen from grace. It's crumbling and decomposing almost to a point where in scarcely recognisable for what it once was, and all around it's being colonised, a form of reverse colonisation as the Asian temporary architectural style of galvanised iron sheeting, scaffolding poles and blue tarpaulin sheets replace the crumbling parts of the French buildings with a ramshackle urgency.

 

All this should give plenty of reasons to absolutely detest Hanoi. But of course I don't. A physical description goes little way to describe what Hanoi is like. Of course it's a bit tatty, a bit run down and a bit chaotic, but there's real vibrancy here. A real sense of a people hauling themselves up. It might not be ideal, but if you haven't got a premises to open an electric fan repair business then the pavement will just have to do.

The pavements are packed with cafés, all of them with people sitting outside eating, drinking coffee and chatting. Some of these pavement cafés have conventional indoor cafés attached, some do not. While some have just a few plastic tables chairs and a disposable barbecue on which corn on the cob is roasted to serve to their customers, that and small glasses of insanely strong and delicious Vietnamese coffee.

Women carrying improbably large pans of mangos and pineapples – peeled and cut into attractive spiral shapes, passion fruits and a thousand other instant snacks to sell to hungry workers. I love the Asian vibrancy, a million micro business occupying just a few square metres each. These are the clever, resourceful and hard working people that are propelling Vietnam's ferociously emerging economy.

 

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