Friday, February 25, 2005

Take Away Chicken

Take away chicken

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Over the rainbow

They eat Ga snacks and Choco-pie and at times seem like they are from another world.

It's a world of order and ranking, where younger is addressed as "em" or "chau" and older "chu" or "co". That is older than you but younger than your parents. Older than your parents is "bac" or "Ba" and "om" if they are very old. And there is more "Chau", "Em", "Anh", "Chi", "Chu", "Co", "Bac", "Om", "Ba" like the notes of a scale, fa, so, la, ti, ba, om ..... but then it changes all over again when you get married, because then it depends on the age of your husband, and in fact your name, if you are female, changes to "Em" meaning younger, even if you aren't younger but older. And teachers are "Thay" and "Co" not "Chi" or "Anh" or "ba" or "fa" or "la-ti-doe". It breeds complication in multiples and is all like science fiction to an outsider, like stumbling into an isolated colony in the pages of a book.

In the outer villages the children are named after something offensive until they are seven or nine or somewhat older, to ward off evil spirits that might bring disease or early death. Children might be called dirt, or pig or penis or worse and tradition in certain parts means newborns are insulted rather than complimented.

"Your baby is so ugly."

"What a pig!! Oh my god I feel like cutting my eyes out."

"How does such a scrawny neck hold up such a pumpkin of a head? If it was mine I would bury it under a tree."

The more vile the insult, the better. You're not interested in the baby. You think that it's inconceivably disgusting, a runt, and an animal. Your not going to come around when no-one is home and steal it or kill it out of jealousy.

And then when the children get older they get a new name. Something nice like flower, or sunspot. The new name is the one they start telling new people, and the old one is kept for family if they want to use it or discarded like a shell. A childhood name for your safekeeping, it's more science fiction.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Future supernova eruption flaring off the coast of Hoi an

Hoi An Sunset

Hoi An Old Town

HOI AN Old Town

Fishing Nets on the River In Hoi An

Fishing nets on the river

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Japanese Bridge- Hoi An


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Captain Pugwash


Hoi An

We rode the train back from Hoi An through sun cracked afternoon skylight along a horizon brimming with clouds. All of us in our own way, were quietly soaking up the last of our holiday while the train rocked back and forth in that semi drunken sway all trains have. Past the windows rushed rice fields and beaches and despite all the abundant spectacular scenery and mood of drifting sleepiness, nothing could have been more obvious to all of us than the fact that we were heading in the wrong direction, going backwards away from where we wanted to go. A morning work alarm clock was ringing somewhere and the clatter of the train tracks couldn't begin to drown it out.

The sun outside had been holding itself out against the clouds just as it had all week. For days on end it had shone without a hint of winter, whole and round in the sky belting out all day long, those clouds that now sheltered the mountains had closed in only at the end to send us off with a flurry of thin rain. The clouds now swept in to cover the distance behind us as though securing a door. Hanoi ahead would be as empty of light as it had been for the last two months, cloud driven and hopeless, and here above us still was the last breath of sun we could savour while it clove apart thunderheads in the far distance and steamed the air in shafts like steel.

It had been high sun that we lay under on the beach at Cao Dai and drank in like parched whalers. By day we had wandered the small trading towns streets and looked in at the wharf side buildings whose wide open fronts and gaping balconies had made us feel an openess that the dimensions of Hanoi lacked. The street signs and buildings said the city is old and was old and had been old for a long time, a port of call for the Chinese and Japanese merchants who brought goods in through the centuries and slowly intermingled with the locals setting up homes and families and bringing with them their architecture and their bridges and their food. They had widened the scope of Vietnam just as the priests from India before them and the French invaders after. They had all come and gone and what remained were the things they had brought with them.

In the train it wasn't difficult to configure the differences that were overtaking Vietnam even now. I read in my magazine that the minimum wage for public servants had been increased to 290,000 dong a month, roughly $20 USD or $26 AUD for the train staff in the corridor outside. Bribery and soft money go a long way towards making up this wage if you're in a position to receive it, but a brakeman on a railroad doesn't get a lot of opportunities for back handers and so makes do on what he can. On the road running parallel to the tracks a Korean bus, that would have been old if it was fifteen years ago, was keeping pace with us as we slotted through villages and fields. Just as it would draw in front of us another small cluster of low concrete buildings loosely clustered together would appear and we would catch back up as it slowed down to accommodate the town. These buildings, all single storey and small, most no more than one room, were ubiquitous everywhere we went. They allow little for cold weather, which is rare this far south, but they could hold out a decent typhoon, which is a much more likely outcome. Considering incomes mentioned above they represent a significant advance for the country and a satisfying improvement in living standards for most. Doubtless after the present stage has passed on it will be these buildings that will remain, and a way of thinking and memory of achievement. The newspapers reported Vietnam as being one of the few countries in the world whose general population anticipated future growth and improvement over the course of their lives.

Beyond the older quarter of Hoi An these self same buildings had been built in lots of the villages surrounding the town. JC and I had ridden out of town onto a dubious island the day after Tet began and, after rejoining the mainland unexpectedly, we found enough of these to shelter for doomsday inside of. We rode on through green, green rice fields, empty of people thanks to the national holiday, yet still staffed by so many long necked white cranes that we had stopped to take photographs of the scene. So much green in the fields that it looked, if anything, insincere or indulgent particularly with these white birds who strode about in lab coats moving through the shifting stalks, sticking their heads out before themselves when they walked in gawky hiccuping strides. As a scene it was incomparably photogenic, big sky, big fields and colour straining at the seams, however it was all being mocked by five six years olds in a roadside shack three hundred metres away blasting out tinny mickey mouse karaoke with a set of "Way Loud" speakers and twin duelling microphones. They were flexing their squeaky vocal chords around some pretty atrocious pop songs at a volume set to shatter stone and could have cared less about the same old boring field they saw every day of their lives. "Way Loud" by the way was the brand name of the speakers.

If the kids' distractions gave a little indication of how low the field was on the top sites for the village, then it was soon after fortified by an old lady who came tottering up the side road to correct us. She walked the five hundred metres from her house to where we stood, to purposely instruct us about what was really worth taking note of. JC who had been taking photographs of a sluice gate had his sleeve tugged and his attention diverted to the dirt track and the houses beyond from which she had just emerged. He said hello in his best Vietnamese and then through a struggled conversation of points, mimes and misunderstood questions, figured out that she wanted us to follow her and that it was the best possible thing we could do and that if we thought the sluice gate was something and the drainage ditch we had been inspecting was spectacular, we were about to be in for a real treat. We of course duly climbed back on the bike and rolled along behind her.

For the duration of our slow trip down the track towards the village we talked about the concrete houses, and the small decorated pagoda that stood near the begining. The woman moved incredibly slowly which made it difficult to follow her on a motorbike without actually overtaking her. In our minds it occurred to both of us that maybe she was taking us into her house for something, or had some Coke to sell, which would have been fantastic at about that time. JC considered the likelihood of her showing us the MIA US marine she had been keeping locked under her floor for the last thirty years. She led us on though, past the little stall with warm Coke bottles in a house front, and past the other houses along the dusty track. We rolled along chatting and wondering, pondering what could possibly be here when, with no further fanfare or announcement of any sort, she pointed off to the right of the track at a smallish, thin and not particularly spectacular cow, who stood there looking over his rump back at us. Right then. So no Coke, we concluded.

She had wandered off at the same explosive speed she had been going and without any further interruption disappeared into a house. Village life is of course slow and it's no surprise then that expectations of a better life here are higher than in countries who have already seen so much change occur that they can't imagine any more. The new cow was probably, for her, something spectacular. On the train, the majority of passengers in the sleepers travelled six to a cabin and smoked and drank to pass the time. Food came around in sealed plastic containers but was largely ignored or toyed with while everyone waited for the trip to go by till they were home again and they could eat a real meal. In the cities the pace of change was coming faster than out here and most could see a future where they were flying home for Tet rather than cramming into the train. Beyond the padlocked doors of the soft berth sleeper and soft seat carraiges people on the hard seats were looking forward to moving up the train themselves, and so it was, all over the country. People seem to be genuinely looking forward to new cows and better times all round.

A train ticket can represent quite a large outlay of money for some people. Tet is perhaps such a spectacularly well loved time of year because so much money is suddenly flying about. A lot of wage earners recieve an extra month's cash now and most others receive some sort of bonus amount. Giving money away is also as big a part of it as recieving money. The small red envelopes of lucky money shoot out quicker than the hands offering them and everyone seems happy and smiling. Children get the most, with a new born being worth their weight in cash. Quite a lot of children give the money to their parents and amounts over $10 USD are rare, but still the amount of extra money flying around is evident everywhere.

After inspecting the cow in the village we moved on to find a dice game in full flow, surrounded by a scrum of children throwing down 1,000 Dong on the results. The two dice were made of paper and hidden under a bowl and plate and a selection of animals and figures were coloured onto them. The children were frantic and having a great time, every face eager and excited. I bet twice and lost 6,000 Dong on the damm fish before getting a good enough look at the irregular shape of the dice to move on, vowing to come back next year and take the little punks for every cent they had. Gambling and its pal drinking were blowing around everywhere. The idea that drinking in the morning isn't on has no taker in Vietnam. More than obvious is that Tet is one of those rare times when everyone has a holiday, everyone has money and everybody wants to drink. Tent Karaoke was rampant out of the town, as was being drunk in a tent yelling into a microphone. The sound of this would travel for miles around and no matter how bad the singer was nobody seemed to care.

By nightfall, the train food had come around again. The light outside had left abruptly without much notice as those clouds swallowed up the sun before it could reach the horizon, robbing us of a sunset. Hanoi was drawing nearer with its seasonal fog and heavy chill, a thought best avoided while we settled into bed and played twenty questions to pass the time.

Our first hotel in Hoi An had been a make-do choice. The cheapest place in town you end up in when you're passing through, two beds pushed together to make one, with a single mosquito net stretched to cover a section of the middle barely half the bed wide. The noise on Tuseday night, Solar New Year's Eve, of motorcycles roaring up and down the town had been industrial, and with the shower allocating water like a rationing we sought out better digs as soon as we could.

Food had certainly been more of a pleasant diversion. With a country still fragmented by a slow and difficult transport network, and a history long enough to accentuate differences, most areas of the country have their specialities. In Hoi An they made white steamed dumplings and noodles with pork rinds. The restaurants around the town reflected the wealth that tourists had brought there and most of them were of excellent quality. Wealth though did not solely lay in these, bars were making a roaring trade and here another of regional Vietnams peculiarities was always evident. In Hoi An the beers available were Larue and Larger, and none of the Hanoi beers could be found anywhere. Larger lager featured a logo of the Japanese covered bridge in the centre of the town and was scarce amongst the tourist sites. being mainly the beer of choice for the locals. Drunken backpackers were heavily indulging in whatever beer they could find and the mood in some of the bars reflected just that. In our hotel there was a sign describing appropriate behaviour in the hotel and the town. Decorum in Vietnam is reserved and dress covered. The scenes in some of the bars were rioting through the regulations at a sprint. One of the rules for the hotel is that prostitutes or smelly things are not permitted in the rooms.

The centre of the town had been made a UNESCO world heritage site due to its ageing architecture and historical significance as a trading port. We drank coffee in one of the older houses from the French occupation, overlooking the river amidst croaking frogs and puttering river traffic, and it wasn't hard to imagine yourself being back in another time, amongst the fortune trading expatriates who had been coming here for centuries. On the other side of this river, where the architecture leaned towards concrete and bamboo, the locals continued in more modern times to sweat and work to get ahead. In search of Larger Lager JC and I sat in one of the locals restuarants watching corn fields and drinking while a fishing bird dove repeatedly into the shallow water to spear fish on its short sharp beak. On a later trip through the same area and further afield, Kate and I were invited to eat lunch with a family in their plywood house where a table laden like a brewery truck sweated to keep its legs underneath it. Important or beneficial guests are a necessary portent for the future year during Tet. Here, the pigs and the chickens strutted around as they always had and the Unesco listing had had little impact on the village life beyond the confines of the town, but a new year could bring anything.

The French have come and gone now in Vietnam, unlikely to ever strongly return. A long time prior to their arrival however an earlier civilization had been driven out of Vietnam. Taking a diversion up into the inland hills we had visited the temple complex of My Son ( Me Seoonn). A Champa temple site built from interlaced red bricks sat upon the most purple-red mud you could imagine. We spent a morning wandering around the decaying ruins of this Hindu influenced Cham civilization. Similar in style but the traditional enemy of the Angkor people, these temples sit in a classic jungle setting and are the spiritual home to a group of people who still exist in Vietnam, testament to the number of sub groups and minorities that the land is home to. Every year a large festival is held on the site to honour the ancestors as well as many armed or elephant headed gods that once commanded a land unknown to the west in its time, and a people who were driven from power, influence and importance by time as much as by their enemies.

As the train ran on through the night we continued up the land, progressing through the thin strip in the middle over which much of the American war had raged in oblivious darkness. It is the focus for many of the tourists who come from America in particular, but is largely empty of debris. To speak to most Vietnamese you get the impression that most of what they are interested in is in front of them. We spend so much time looking at ancient buildings and ruins, but these things are to the Vietnamese what remains in place after history has moved on. People seem more concerned with history in the making and seeking this out than searching through the wreckage of the past for satisfaction. History rolls onward and onward, for a brief concieved moment you are in front of it and for the rest you are behind it and for the briefest moment of all you are within it, with your chance to do something with it. Tet is the time of new beginnings, resolutions and determinations, a period of looking forward into that future and writing it.

We slept fitfully in our bunks as the train rolled on and were awoken as it entered the outskirts of Hanoi. At 5am the night was still dark and mist could be seen creeping in around the buildings. The station with its usual assortment of harrassing cab drivers almost broke us as we stumbled about sleep still clinging in rags to us, and when we collapsed into bed we drew tight to one another to warm up. We set the alarm clock and fell back into sleep.