There are three kinds of intelligence: one kind understands things for itself, the other appreciates what others can understand, the third understands neither for itself nor through others. This first is excellent, the second good, and the third useless.

Friday, September 02, 2005

In Nam

I’m sorry but this just has to be done. My friend Ben who I went to Tibet with is currently travelling across China and Vietnam with his girlfriend. Every Sunday I get an email from him with an update and this week was simply hilarious. This is why I love travelling:

When we left you last week, we were waiting for our first sleeper bus
in Kunming, having taken the train, day buses and boats for the journey so far. We explored the city a bit, finding dyed green, pink and yellow chicks (of the avian variety) in the animal market and having significant difficulty changing money into Vietnamese currency. Almost unbelievably, not one of the eight or so bank staff we approached could identify Vietnam on a map, despite it being a neighbouring country. We wonder quite how insular their education system must be.

Anyway, to celebrate our departure from China, the local transport
company hauled its most dilapidated bus out of storage, removed a couple of vital parts from the engine and paid 20 or so filthy locals to enjoy a magical mystery tour. Throughout the night, the driver stopped at random intervals at random locations for random purposes. In brief, though, the reasons were (in order): engine difficulties, toilet, engine failure, landslide, issues with the engine, drinks break, communal toilet break (the 21 Chinese passengers watching the three non-Chinese trying to make use of the doorless toilet), engine failure and engine failure again.

Despite the driver's unwillingness to use brakes on windy roads, we
managed not to fall out of our 20-inch wide beds too many times and got to the border only two hours late. After an easy crossing, we became instant millionaires by changing 100 US dollars into 1,558,000 dong. We and another girl from the bus then hired a minibus to take us the 38km to our destination, Sapa, but after just a few minutes the rather greedy driver stopped at the roadside and sat on the pavement for half an hour before demanding extra money to go any further. Underestimating the wrath of two Australian females and their willingness to perform summary castration, he quickly changed his mind. Sapa itself was a nice place, a former French mountain town. We stayed in the most up market accommodation of the trip so far, although almost predictably we then experienced our first difficulties with cockroaches. In common with the minibus driver, the offending bugs underestimated the wrath of an Aussie chick (human variety), so died a nasty death by 1,000 blows of
a shaving cream can. Still, he had just walked on our toothbrushes, so
really should have known the likely outcome.

Other than generally admiring the town and views, we enjoyed a hike
through terraced rice fields visiting local villages and their people. In just the surrounding area, there are five different ethnic groups, each with their own language, traditions and clothes. The Black H'mongs are clearly the mad ones as we were held up for an hour or so at stick-point by an insane woman demanding money for the crime of looking at her rice field. Whilst we as tourists appeared to be safe, she repeatedly threatened to damage our guide. He was sufficiently worried to stay put until a compromise was reached (or so we thought - she then stalked us for a mile, ambushed us with her pointy stick again and demanded more money).

We're now in Hanoi, which is our prettiest city so far. We've spent a
day simply walking around the old quarter and then one seeing the sights, including our first embalmed former president of the trip. We missed Lenin in Moscow by a few minutes (he shuts at 11am) and his Mongolian counterpart (we didn't know who he was anyway) before deciding not to bother with Mao in Beijing. However, after enduring the longest queue either of us ever seen - over an hour; probably one mile - we saw Ho Chi Minh today. Ho didn't do much by way of party tricks, so it wasn't the most enthralling spectacle ever, but one week later and we'd have missed him as well - he gets sent to Moscow each September for his annual rinse and blow-dry. Culinary delight of the week has been water buffalo, although we didn't realise until later that the beef option on the menu wasn't cow. Apparently, the fact that the meat was nice and tender meant that the buffalo had been dead for some considerable time.

Scary insect of the week was a gigantic grasshopper at least 84 feet
long (or it was by the time that we'd told the story a few times). In
reality its body was probably seven inches, which was more than enough to be mildly worrying as it flew towards us. Next, we're off on a boat trip around a pretty set of islands on Vietnam's north-east coast over the next few days (Halong Bay, for anyone who's been there or wants to look it up) and will hopefully make our way to Hue in central Vietnam by next week.

As always, we hope that you're all doing well.

Well the funny stories and the passport stamps, passport stamps rock
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