Monday, January 22, 2007


Though more cars are appearing on the streets every day, they are still an exception in Vietnam. The motor scooter is transportation of choice for families, businesses and young ladies looking for kindly foreign uncles to buy them a drink – though I guess that qualifies as a business. Financially a car is out of the reach of the average person. Mind you a good moto don’t come cheap either – Tung, our guide in Sapa, told us his family was going to sell two male water buffalo to help buy him a Japanese moto as a wedding present. And your average male water buffalo goes for a hefty sum.

And in true Vietnamese fashion – remember these are the people who lived right under the Americans, and I do mean under, at Chu Chi – ingenuity rules in carrying family, goods and animals. My friend Linda Smirle (Tunbridge) sent me these pictures and asked if I had seen anything like it during our trip. That and more! I’ve added a few pictures to the ones she sent.

I don’t have any photos of my own showing the incredible balancing acts – Cirque du Soleil could learn from the Vietnamese. I am still uncomfortable taking peoples pictures without their permission. It means I have missed some incredible photo-ops.

Monday, January 15, 2007

I See England, I See France....

According to a report in today's London Times, in 1956, then French Prime Miniter Guy Mollet proposed a union between Britain and France. Burdened with debt, Suez and Algeria he was willing to have France enter the Commonwealth with the Queen as acknowledge head of state.

Hmm... Elizabeth Queen of ... Grande Fratagne? Brance? Le Royaume United?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Keeping the Faith - Two of Several.

Vietnam is a strange mix – geographically and culturally. Geographically it is three distinct regions with – as I found out when packing – three different climate zones. Culturally it is dominated by the Viet but the influence of China, Cambodia, Thailand and France is strong – understandable given its history. Nowhere is that mix more apparent than in its spiritual life.

If asked most Vietnamese will say they are Buddhists but the majority only has a vague idea of Buddhist doctrines. When it comes to a moral, family or social code they tend to follow Confucianism but then turn to Taoism for an understanding of the universe. That includes the 10% of the population who are Catholics – the highest percentage in Asia outside of the Philippines. And when it comes to the Cao Dai (uniquely Vietnamese and 2 million strong) – well that’s another story.

Our day-trip destination in the Mekong Delta was My Tho – the capital of Tien Gang province – a rather sleepy city on one of the branchs of the Mekong that has not shared in the prosperity of its neighbour Ho Chi Minh. An enormous suspension bridge (right) is under construction and will change the way life is lived in that section of the Delta. And where industry is starting to move in – our nose confirmed that one of the largest manufacturers of Nuoc Mam (fish sauce) is located on the riverbank – it is ruining the waterfront and threatening the river itself. What recommends My Tho is that it is the starting point for river tours to the villages on one of the three islands, the glorious Vinh Trang Pagoda and a very colourful Cao Dai temple.

About 1 km from the city centre Vinh Trang (click to see the photos) is run as a home for orphans, disabled and needy children. The grounds are immaculate and the buildings well-maintained by the monks. We were fascinated by the intricate carvings around the various altars – it’s easy to miss them in the riot of statues, gilt and burning josh sticks.

We weren’t able to get to the Cao Dai Holy See in Tay Ninh – we really did need an extra week or two – but there is a smaller Temple (click to see the photos) on the outskirts of My Tho. Amongst the Saints in this strange conflux of believes are Joan of Arc, Shakespeare, Descartes and Winston Churchill. Victor Hugo and Sun Yat Sin are two of the signatories of the covenant between God and Humanity? During their four daily rituals the priests and nuns wear blue, pink and orange pastel robes – a very colourful sight. However they do not like to have their picture taken so we had to be satisfied with shots of the temple itself – a colourful place on its own.

Hack! Cough! Whoops!

Well I seem to have beaten the flu into submission – a combination of clean living and over the counter drugs I guess – but I am left with what the Chinese call “The 100 day cough.” Apparently it is related to Whooping Cough and is on the up swing in adults in North America – particularly those "entering their senior years." What ever that means! Well only 85 more days to go.

I have finally been able to get most of the photos from the trip uploaded and will start a series of notes/links later this afternoon. Big problem after almost a month is looking at something and trying to figure out where it is and why the hell you took a picture of it!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

It Snowed Today - So There Can't Be Global Warming!

My friend Frank Vaillant sent me these pictures and a quick Google search revealed that at least one of them (left) appears elsewhere on the Internet. But I still thought I would post them.

Apparently back in 1911 Niagara Falls froze and it was possible to walk from one side of the American Falls to the other. A few other things are apparent - the Falls was not as far back as it is now and there wasn't much around in those days - certainly no Casinos or SkyTower.

The photo at the left is so vivid that it is difficult to believe it was taken in 1911. It brought to mind a wonderful book I received as a gift many years ago called Photographs for the Tsar. It is filled with coloured photographs taken between 1909 and 1915 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as he travelled across Russia. The Library of Congress has an extensive collection of his work and has mounted several exhibitions of his work. Incredibly these photos were taken with primitive equipment using a 3 color glass plate system at the birth of photography.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Past Tense of Fly is Flu!

The young lady (Youshaw market fake-fur-lined white leather (?) coat, black synthetic knee highs with plastic brass chains and a new Nano) beside me on the flight from Beijing to Vancouver was snivelling as we taxied down the runway. At first I thought it was the emotion of leave-taking and as I was feeling a bit of wrench myself I was sympathetic. I was even going to pat her hand in a kindly-uncle fashion, then she began to cough like Mimi in Act 3 of La Boheme. Still sympathetic I felt bad for her - it's hell to travel when you're under the weather. Now I realize that she had the flu - which one of the 3000 strains God only know but it was obviously not included in this year's shot - and she passed it on to me.

Four days later and I am still have that steamroller-flatten feeling you get from flu/jet-lag/age and haven't had the energy to boil water let alone wade through the 1583 photos that we took on this vacation. When I started confusing the Cau Dai Temple in My Tho (glaring sunshine, bright colours) with the Dugong Temple in Beijing (gray snow, muted tones) I knew it was time to take another swig of Buckley's and head back to bed.

Once I have pulled myself up from my bed of suffering and woe I will get a few of the items on Vietnam, Hong Kong and Beijing posted. In the meantime I found this recipe for an old fashioned mustard poultice. I think I'll give it a try.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A Snow Day in Beijing

Actually we had two snow days – December 30 and 31. By the 1st it had finally stopped and the sun came out, though there was a fairly heavy pollution cover and it was still cold. Unfortunately, Laurent and I were housebound. It appears we both had a serious – though not life threatening – case of food poisoning – and no it wasn’t overindulgence at New Years. Anyway we laid low on the first day of the New Year and let Marie-Paul go out shopping on her own as we groaned softly on our beds of pain and suffering.

The first day of the first snowfall we headed out in our newly purchased winter togs to explore the Landau area – some shopping, some eating (Peking Duck) and some temple viewing. At first the snow was lovely and the continuing light fall gave the city a romantic aura. As with most snowfalls once people had tromped through and cars driven over it, things turned dirty, slushy, icy and treacherous. So much for the romance of a winter day.

Storeowners have a strange habit of putting pieces of cardboard on steps leading into their establishments in an attempt to aid traction. But it only seems to increase the hazard – we saw a giggling gaggle of pizza box-laden young ladies slipping and sliding out of Pizza Hut and expected to see them end up on the ground covered in tomato sauce and pepperoni. But never underestimate the average Beijingers desire for Pizza Hut thick crust – they made it.

While some were reveling in the snow – impromptu snowball fights, snowmen and at least one snow angel – others were trying to clean sidewalks and walkways with brooms. Vehicles – both motor and man powered – were having a difficult time of it. Marie-Paul took a few pictures of the cycle merchants making their way around town. And I got a few shots including a pair of very feisty pups who felt they had to defend their patch of snow from anyone else who may have wanted to pee on it!

Monday, January 01, 2007

Beijing - Plus ca change..... Part I

Arriving back in Beijing after more than a year I was struck by how much has changed and how much has stayed the same.

What’s the same – thank God:

• Our friend Jack’s great smile and shy charm – that’s him at the left with Marie-Paul and Laurent the other night at Ho Hai.

• The pork and shrimp dumplings at Din Tai Fun – where we saw Jackie Chan making his escape after dinner into a very large Rolls.

• The fruit and vegetable market in our area which just reopened – new stalls, lighting and Kenny G (ok not a good thing!)

• Our fruit lady at the front door recognizing us immediately – we got big smiles, Dragon Fruit, mangosteens and a few freebees.

•Taxis are still relatively cheap and the drivers amusingly unpredictable: after having Julie, Laurent’s barber, explain to one driver on the cell how to get to her new salon he handed the phone back and refused to take us. The next driver was more than happy to and accompanied the journey with a running commentary on – we assume – the weather, other drivers, the traffic and probably dumb foreigners.

• That very distinct Beijing accent – think the rolled Rs of a Scot speaking Mandarin through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.

• Laurent’s bargain skills.

• The delight people take in their dogs.

• The smile on the face of a People's Army Guard in front of an Embassy when you say “Hello. How are you?” They are so proud to be able to reply in English. In their great coats and fur hats they bear a strong resemblance to the Wicked Witch’s bodyguards in the Wizard of Oz. Yohetho... yeho!

What’s the same – Please God let it change!

• The irritatingly aggressive salespeople at Youshaw – grabbing, chasing, yelling Hello and still trying to get 1050 yuan for a 50 yuan item.

• The gentle sound of people horking on the street and in stores, and the resulting deposits on the sidewalks.

• The old hutongs and 70s apartments being torn down for developments, many of which seem to run out of money and stand half-completed. Ok the hutongs BOO! Those Soviet-style apartments - Yey!

• The aggressive beggars’ mafia that hangs around the foreign areas – you never see a local being approached and a Chinese colleague says that though there are, sadly, thousands of deserving poor in Beijing they aren’t it.

• The smell of charcoal and brown coal during the winter months – it’s the major source of heat and polution.

I’m just glad to see that the positive seems to outweigh the negative.