Hong Kong

Let sleeping dogs lie

Saturday 22nd December. Cat ba island. Off Vietnam. A cafe. Someplace. Just me 

We came on bicycles. 7 of us. The tour guide. Me and Martin. The family from Virginia. Peggy and Jim and Erin and Will (?).  We cycled with me lagging behind as usual. Little legs going round as fast as theirs but always behind. And having to get off to walk the bike up the hill. 

We came from the port on our bicycles to here.  A long time since I was on a bicycle. St Ives with hills and cobbles, and me (who prefers horizontal in water to vertical on land), and bicycles are not a combo I’ve yet figured out. Or even had any desire to. Which is a shame for Mr P whose family were bicycle makers. Although his family were also sweet shop owners and sweets don’t figure hugely these days either. (Though just in case you are thinking of buying me sweets, I can always be tempted with a good chocolate lime. The ones with really limey outsides and nice chocolate inside. Not pale sugary poor imitations. or give me Turkish delight. Oh yes that would be nice with my Vietnamese coffee. Ah, no, sadly I’m not in the right country for either. I’m in Vietnam with an American family and a French family eating beside me.  In A country that is literally a Phoenix arising from the ashes.  I wonder if the smiley Vietnamese restaurant owner is as forgiving as she looks. I heard that this village was made because the Americans were bombing the fishermen in the bay. (God knows why?!) The fishermen and their families fled in land. The smiley woman looks old enough to have been around when that happened.  Did she flee bombs as a child whilst I was feasting on chocolate limes and riding my bicycle.

This morning we made a very early start from Hanoi to Hai Phong.  All the reviews and my daughter Lucy’s account, say the Halong Bay cruising is a must, a highlight of any visit to Vietnam.  And whilst Mr P and I are both well past full moon raves, we decided we should. Took a ferry that should have been decommissioned years ago. A mini bus ride. A boat ride. Had a sumptuous lunch aboard the dark wooden boat and I sieved the chance for a post lunch swim from the boat. Sea was not the 23 degrees billed, so a bit of a shock when I hit the water after jumping off the boat. But refreshing and a lot warmer than swimming back home in the sea on the last Saturday before Christmas would be.  Cycling and trekking to follow swim . So much activity in one day.

The last Saturday before Christmas.  Normally I’d be doing something. Food or present related.  Or decorating a tree or munching on mince pies. But most definitely doing, tho’ unlikely cycling or trekking.

Anx then I see the sleeping dog.

I make an executive decision to leave everyone to it. To stop. Stay put. Just be.  Rare on the last Saturday …..

And so I’m here alone with my Vietnamese drip drip drip coffee. The French and Americans have long since departed. So has Mr P.

There’s just me and a few dogs. The sleeping one.  Taking a rest.  Time out. The others chasing their tails.  But let the sleeping dog lie.  No need to run with his/her tribe today.

I love the idea of just sitting here.  Having time to daydream. Look at all the detail around d me. Fascinating to see the prep area for this restaurant. The shapes and the patterns. Man made and natural. The bikes we came on all lined up facing same way except mine. 

I look at the map. I have no real idea where I am on Cat Ba island. I’m not hiking to the top of the mountain for a phenomenal view,  but from where I’m sat the view is just perfect. And the sense of peace and coming home to myself very divine.  The sun has just come out. There’s a simple hammock. And I’ve even found baby Jesus’s Mum and a couple of the three wise men. 

Hong Kong

Mango, Ha and Agnes from Amsterdam

Two of the best women in Hanoi, Mango and Ha

Remember a few weeks back when I was um ing and ah ing about whether to come to Vietnam at all, and Agnes from Amsterdam popped up in my dorm in Hong Kong. Thank you Agnes. As well as persuading me I had to come to Vietnam, Agnes also gave me the business card of Hanoi Motorbike Street Foods – a tour company who invite you to ‘see and eat like a Hanoian’.

Street food, as you know, if you’ve been reading my blog, I can do with the best of them. Mr P less so. But Motorbikes he does do, so in the spirit of coupledom, we head to the tour office and book ourselves on a 4 hour private scooter tour, ending with lunch. And if you’ve been following the blog, you’ll also know that 2 days ago I was wondering if I’d ever cross the road here let alone get on the back of a scooter,.

They say actions speak louder than words. Mango and Ha, as well as being excellent tour guides, effortlessly glide their scooters in and out of the traffic so that you feel quite safe, despite the appalling road death statistics Martin reads to me, quite sensibly AFTER our four hour foray. And feeling safe is some achievement for there are no insurance documents, or disclaimers, or anything to sign, just the ceremonious donning of two cute helmets with rabbits and bears on them, that I know for sure wouldn’t stay on if we were to collide. But we don’t die and there are no near misses, and after half an hour I’m a ‘look no hands’ passenger, taking video footage of Mr P as we speed along. I never thought I’d be saying this, but it really is the only way of taking in the culture, history and sights of native Hanoi.

Mango has a fabulous sense of humour, ‘you can eat me if you get hungry’ is tri lingual (French/English/Vietnamese) and trained as a teacher. She’s able to answer any question about history, culture, politics we throw at her and weaves in stories from her own life, making the whole experience feel personal and not at all like a package. Ha and I have a philosophical conversation about the best age to marry, the stigma of divorce in Vietnam, the challenges faced by women, as she seamlessly changes lanes to the ‘wrong’ side of the Long Bien Bridge. She’s is in her final year of her law degree and is going to specialise in family law.

But there are points of the trip when I can’t smile. The senselessness and sadness of a country devastated by two wars hits hard when we visit Ha Lo Prison. But Mango’s pragmatic forward looking approach fills me with hope when she chooses to focus on her people’s strength, cunning, resilience and forgiveness both during and after the wars. Indeed, it’s as if she herself, much smaller (and smarter!) than me, is a direct descendant of David, in the David & Goliath Vietnam War.

There is so much more I want to write. About the role of women in Vietnam, our visit to The Temple of Literature and what I’ve learnt from Mango today about Confucius, wisdom, turtles and cranes working together as a team. But it’s late, and tomorrow we are leaving Hanoi at 06.00am.

I hope one day I may come back. When I first arrived, the lyric from Miss Saigon, ‘why does nothing here make sense?’ was running in a loop around my head. Funny to think that after a few hours with these two amazing women, it’s beginning to make a lot more sense. So much so, that I hope if I come back one day, that not too much will have changed.

Hong Kong

Ups and Downs

Hong Kong

Tufty would not like it here

I coveted a Tufty Club badge in the 1960s.  I didn’t get one but I had a board game and Tufty flanelette pyjamas.  STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN, the road was a dangerous place and Ron the Weasel who did not abide by the Tufty mantra got run over several times as I remember.  

So it is really hard to just walk out into a busy road, to not stop and look and listen.  It goes against all my childhood training and self preservation instinct.  But in Hanoi, unless you’re going to spend the whole of your stay holed up in your hotel bedroom, or walking around on the same bit of pavement, you have to break with Tufty traditions and simply step out, into the tide of scooters and motorcycles and cars and buses.  

It take a lot of persuading.  But I do it. In the spirit of adventure and to alleviate the boredom of walking up and down outside my hotel.  And I do it again and again, thinking each time it will get easier, less scary.  It doesn’t. For me, it’s a bit like skiing.  I have been going for many years, but never really get any better because I won’t point my skis directly downhill to get the necessary speed up to make turning easy.  My self preservation instinct is there for a reason.  I am not exagerating about my incompetence.   For reasons of political correctness I cannot repeat what Mr P once said to me about my skiing in exasperation at having to wait for me yet again.  But it went something along the lines of ‘You’ve been skiing for years Laura, how come you still ski like a ………?’

Our first day in Hanoi, and if I were alone I would probably just have risked a couple of roads to get to the lake and walked around it in relative safety feeling calm if not a little unadventurous.  We do this, and then as I’m with Mr P, it’s off for a mega hike across the city to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  As with skiing, the energy consumed by not going with the flow, quickly leaves me feeling tired and a little agitated.  But we do stop for a lovely lunch along the way though, and I plump for my usual tofu and rice, avoiding the various versions of frog on offer.  Though blogging about froggin’ has a tempting ring to it.

Mr P is neither a fan of frog, tofu or rice, so there’s leftover rice.  I am sad to think how my Mother was being given rice handouts to survive when I was born, so I fashion the leftover sticky rice into a little gift for her.

After another hour of exploring, Mr P accuses me of being chippy, and he’s exactly right in his assessment. I am tired and a little emotional and not a big fan of museums, mausoleums and being told off by a very snarky but smart soldier for walking on a piece of concrete that looks no different from anywhere else.

So instead of walking home we plump for a rickshaw.  And entrust our lives to a man on a bicycle who could be pissed or stupid or both, and take our seats in a dodgy metal affair that looks and feels as though a 14 year old school boy made it for his resistant materials GCSE, without any assistance from his welding teacher.  Buckle up and enjoy the ride.  I do, I really do, not.  But see how I put on a very brave face.

I’ve just reread this blog.  Mountains and molehills spring to mind.  Time to put Tufty to bed methinks.  

Hong Kong

A little cowardice in Hanoi

Imagine my son Tom said to his wife, “I know, let’s go out into Birmingham City Centre for the day.  We’ll take baby Phoebe on a scooter between us.  We’ll wear Bob the builder hats, she can just wear her little woolly hat, and Oh, why don’t we strap a wheelie bin on, and a Christmas tree for good measure.  We’ll put everything on sideways to make the scooter three times the width and very unstable.  It’ll be dark on the way back, but we won’t bother with lights.  We can just weave in and out with all the traffic on the Aston Expressway, maybe cross the lanes without any signals.”

I kid you not, this is exactly how it feels to be here.  I am now holed up in my large and spacious bedroom, having consumed a huge bag of cheap bright orange Whotsits and Mr P is drinking Hanoi canned beer after a 45 minute ‘initiation to Hanoi’ cab ride from the airport.  

This hotel room costs not much more than my bunk in the 8 bed dorm in Hong Kong, but here there’s a huge bigger than king sized bed, a tele, tea and coffee making facilities, and a massive bath.  And all the enticing but bad for the planet little packets of toiletries and toothbrushes and shower caps and cotton buds.  In a flash I’ve put on the complimentary robe ad the slippers and it’s only 7.21pm.  I know I know. There’s a whole world out there waiting for me to explore.  But right now I’m not sure I dare set foot outside for fear of being run over.  I’m not very good at crossing the road at the best of times, and it will take some working up to.  Right now, a five quid room service pizza and a long hot bath has never seemed so appealing.  

Hong Kong

Inebriated blog musings

Blogging publicly is getting harder I realise.  It feels lumpy, the words are no longer flowing.  It seems the more people that are involved in the day you’re going to blog about the lumpier and bumpier it gets.  You might want to write about those you’ve spent the day with.  Should you run your blog by them first, what is the etiquette about blogging stuff about others?  When you’re only blogging about yourself it’s all a lot easier.  In my humble opinion, but i’ve only been doing this about 30 days, and I’ve had far too much wine and gin to be in charge of a blog right now.  But my general feeling is that a blog worth its salt needs to be genuine and transparent.  When you start tempering and tampering the blog loses that vital spark that makes it worth reading.  But maybe that’s just the gin talking.

When I started this blog, I was flying solo, soaring and looping the loop and sometimes crashing and burning.  And now I’m coupled up and spending time with friends.  Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful to have people to share all of this with but it’s changing the way I blog.  I have less time and definitely less insight.  I meditate less and eat and drink too much for my brain to be as sharp and observant as I’d like.  I gather too much stuff than is good for me, especially when I have to get on a flight to Vietnam tomorrow with only one piece of hand luggage.

But thankfully tonight all of this is forgotten when we head out for a last supper in Sai Kung.  To a restaurant called Padstow.  Padstow!  ‘Blimey, she’s really lost it’ I can hear you say.  But no, it’s true, and here’s a very blurry picture to prove it.  

Hong Kong

The challenges of blogging

M. “I need to go to sleep now”.

Me. “I need to write my blog now…….”

I need to sleep on this blog methinks.

Hong Kong

Let’s go fly a kite

Or camp, or pretend we’re back in Cornwall, burn our faces in the sunshine, eat the finest seafood.  Drink beer, bump into the odd cow or two. Visit the 400 year old temple, find the pirate tunnel.

Tap Mun, or Grass Island. Saturday 15th December 2018. Hard to believe we weren’t on the Cornish coastal path in the height of summer. (Apart from the temples and Hakka women in traditional dress, squatting at their chores).

In a quieter moment or two, I wondered if, before she hit hard times after her husband died, my Mother might have had a day on this island in the New Territories.  Tap Mun or Tap Muen.  A hop skip and a jump, bus and ferry ride from Sai Kung.  Would have taken her a lot longer to make her way here, back in 1945, but maybe she did.  Maybe she too felt the wonder and joy I experienced today on Grass Island.  I really hope so.

Hong Kong

You can take the girl out of the Dai Pai Dong, but you can’t take the Dai Pai Dong out of the girl

Me trying to persuade Mart in to eat noodle

You’ve probably heard the girl out of the trailer park version of this saying, sometimes used derogatorily (I’ve taken it to mean that even if you take someone out of their birthplace, usually to a “higher” social position certain qualities will always remain in them, not always good ones.  But  I prefer to think of it as a rootedness to culture and heritage.

Dai Pai Dongs.  Open air food stalls where you eat like a local, quintessential Hong Kong.  “What have you been eating for the last month?”, asks Mr P.  I take him down the back alley by our Sai Kung apartment, to a whole row of DPDs.  He doesn’t get it.  I can tell.  But I just love it.  Street food of all kinds.  At home, a baked potato from the street seller with beans and cheese, or cottage cheese and garlic butter and black pepper is an all time favorite.  In Israel I fell in love with Falafel King.  I love hot chestnuts from a paper bag.  Dumplings from a street seller.  Roasted corn on the cob, sardines sold off makeshift oil drum barbecues.  The pop up restaurants of Jemaa-el-fan square at the heart of Marrakech were a highlight of my Moroccan holiday.  And all of these could probably be closed down by Environmental Health in a heartbeat.

Everyone who knows me really well, will know how much joy I get from skip trawling – Christmas trees, items to salvage and reuse.  How sad I was to leave West Pier in St Ives, the flat I furnished with junk shop pieces, reclaimed items, charity shop finds.  How my favourite pieces in my wardrobe are from charity shops.  How, when I lived in Stratford upon Avon I knew which night the stores put out their cardboard waste, and would raid the bags for great visual display items that I could recycle into art projects for children.  

Yesterday, I had lunch in Stanley at a Dai Pai Dong.  Slurped my wanton and noodles with the locals and tourists in the know.  Sat opposite two happy giggling teenagers from mainland China.  And later that evening was lucky enough to dine at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, one of the oldest and famous sporting clubs of Hong Kong.  Both were fabulous, each in their own way but cam you guess which one made me smile the most?