Sunday, August 07, 2005

Goodbye Big Brother, Hello Bigger Brother

Today's post is going to be a bit of a mish-mash as I'm in Sapa, right on the Chinese border, and I'm going to take the opportunity to give a bit of a round up of my travels in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in general, before embarking upon the beast of a country that is China. I'll start small and gradually work my way up, in which case I shall start with Sapa and its environs.

Sapa is another French-era hill station chosen for its mild climate (this is the only place in Vietnam where you have the, albeit slim, possibility of seeing snow in Winter) and stunning scenery. And stunning it certainly is. The mountains of northern Vietnam (and northern Laos for that matter) are the easternmost crinkles caused by the formation of the Himalayas, and, as such, they are very new (geologically speaking) and very sheer. The latter fact makes agriculture here extremely difficult, and yet the Montagnards (the collective name given to the hill-tribes by the French) manage to do just that, building staircases of rice terraces well over 100m in height (though sometimes barely 20m wide) that form mirrors to the sky. The whole effect would be even more sublime if it actually stopped raining, but then you can't have everything. But it is the Montagnards themselves (mainly H'mong around Sapa) that give the place its charm. Many of them walk around in their traditional costumes regardless of tourists. A lovely vignette sitting just across from me in the internet cafe is two H'mong girls sat in front of their computers, one playing an online game whilst the other is chatting on Yahoo.

Travelling in Vietnam has proved, at times, a rather exasperating experience. The country has natural and cultural marvels in abundance, but, unless you have your own set of wheels, visiting them independently is nigh on impossible. On the one hand Big Brother likes to keep tabs on you so that you don't spread any heretical ideas amongst the locals (Vietnamese and foreign nationals are not allowed to share hotel rooms; locals must inform the police several days in advance if they wish to entertain foreign guests; and, as I have mentioned earlier, hotels keep the police informed of all your movements); and on the other hand, off of the well-trodden "tourist trail", the public transport system is patchy and prejudicial against foreigners (you either pay several times what the locals do or they don't let you on at all). So if you want to see the sights you're forced to book a tour with one of the many tour agencies and just hope that you don't get taken for the wrong kind of ride, as the people that work in the tourism industry can be rather rapacious. That said I have also found the ordinary Vietnamese to be amongst the friendliest and kindest I have ever met. I have been the recipient of numerous acts of generosity where nothing was expected in return. For me, therefore, Vietnam has been a country with a serious bipolar disorder: at times frustratingly grating while at others disarmingly open and inviting.

As for Southeast Asia, the past 4 months have been a fascinating ride through many different sights, sounds, colours, tastes and cultures, with innumerable contrasts both between and within the countries. From the carefree insouciance of southern Laos to the manic bustle of Bangkok; from the temples of Angkor to the skyscrapers (modern-day temples to Mamon, some may say) in Singapore; from the crystal-clear air of the Cameron Highlands to the choking smog of KL. And although I'm leaving the region now, I'm certain I'll be back some day (Borneo, Indonesia and Myanmar still remain unchecked on my List). As well as a multitude of experiences, I have also learnt many useful things as well. I can now count in Thai/Lao and Vietnamese, I have a far better grasp of history and geography than before, and I can now do long multiplication and division in my head much faster than before (1USD = 40 Thai baht = 4100 Cambodian riels = 10600 Lao kip = 15900 Vietnamese dong).

And tomorrow on to China. Throughout Southeast Asia China looms large and is an ever present influence, whether it be in the mundane (noodle soup and chopsticks), the spiritual or political (past as well as present). I have no real itinerary planned as yet (I still need to procure a guidebook) but I am certain that I won't be able to see it all and will have to leave out large swathes of the country.

1 comment:

Yann said...

I've always believed that mathematics lessons of M. Lagarde weren't unuseless so that you can now send him a postcard in order to thank him. Yes, Erik, you've learnt to count in France...
I would also suggest you a new method to count (US Dollars and Vietnamese money aren't so common) :
Dwa pivĂ  = jedno utopenec = 1/2 pizza...


Yann (answer on hotmail)