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Virtual meanderings

Hanging around Hanoi | round 2

More snapshots from the streets of Hanoi. If you did not see the first batch, you can do so here.

A street in Hanoi

Courtesy: www.snowless.com

An excellent photo (made by someone else, not me) of a major Hanoi street outside peak hour (I am totally baffled what time of the day the photo was shot, as peak hour never seems to end in Hanoi). Note the red banners on top, I will get back to those in one of my other photos…

A Japanese bonsai exhibition, Hanoi city center

A bonsai exhibition, Hanoi city center

An open-air bonsai exhibition near Hanoi city center. I came across it by accident on my way to a tourist agency to buy a bus ticket to Nanning (China). At the time I passed by it was closed – hence you see no people. The exhibition banners were only in Vietnamese, and the only information I could understand was a date. The date was two days from now. I suspect that it might have been the official exhibition opening day. On a side note – I am not an expert and I just assumed it is a bonsai exhibition coming from Japan. But one has to be careful with assumptions. While I was preparing this post, in Wikipedia I came across the statement that the art of bonsai originates from a Chinese predecessor called penjing. Either way, it was nice.

The Vietnamese answer to the Japanese bonsai? Hoan Kiem Lake park, Hanoi

Hoan Kiem Lake park, Hanoi

What is that? A Native Vietnamese bonsai to counter the Chinese original? Read more of this post

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Hanoi: Young women on scooters

I’ll devote this post to something one notices a lot on the streets of Hanoi yet I did not include it in the previous post, saving it for a separate blog entry. Here it is:

Woman on a scooter, Hanoi

Courtesy: wanderingscotsman.com

Woman on Scooter, Hanoi

Courtesy: www.informatik.uni-bremen.de/~net/photos/vietnam/hanoi/

Woman on scooter in Hanoi 2

Courtesy: whitemonkeynewsbureau.wordpress.com

Women on scooters, Hanoi

Courtesy: whitemonkeynewsbureau.wordpress.com

These fotos aren’t mine but I too could confirm the massive numbers of dressed-up young women riding scooters in Hanoi. So much so that at one point I too gave in and immortalized this phenomenon: Read more of this post

Ha Nging A-Round Ha Noi :P

I am neither the first nor will be the last to point out that the Vietnamese people are able to do just about any activity on the street sidewalks. Here are some random photos I took while walking around town.

The street barber of Hanoi

Need a haircut? Your friendly street barber who sets his office in the morning and packs it in the evening will fix you promptly.

Hat street vendor, Hanoi

Whether to hide the haristyle you just got or to simply relieve your brain from the heat – you could get a hat and look like a true Vietnamese.

A cup of tea on the street, Hanoi

Well, if you did not buy that hat you’ll be sorry by now because the heat is just killing you. But a cup of green tea with a piece of ice will bring you back to life – a refreshing ice-tea Vietnamese style. Vendors have a kettle with tea and a thermos flask with pieces of ice (such as the old woman on the photo). The ice melts in seconds and cools the tea. You can sit right on the sidewalk (or on a minute plastic chair if no-one else is sitting on the two or three usually available) and watch the traffic go buy. Tea costs 2000 dong (10 cents) and is delicious. Once you are done, you return your glass which is dipped in a bucket of water for sanitizing and ready to be used by the next customer.

Hanoi, Sweets street vendor

     And if the tea got you hungry, walk some more down the road get some dessert.

    Hanoi, Badminton on the sidewalks

Another activity to take up on the side walks is, of course, badminton- what else. Badminton fields are clearly marked with white paint. I am not sure who takes care of the net, but you can research it further. Read more of this post

Hanoi | Master(s) of Puppets

Now that I started writing about my stay in Vietnam, I’ll begin with a quote from the book “Old Path White Clouds” by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh.

“Contemplate the nature of dependent co-arising during every moment. When you look at a leaf or a raindrop, meditate on all the conditions, near and distant, that have contributed to the presence of that leaf or raindrop. Know that the world is woven of interconnected threads. This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This is born, because that is born. This dies, because that dies. [..] The one contains the many and the many contains the one. […] A chief cause is the first condition necessary to give rise to a phenomenon. For example, a grain of rice is the chief cause necessary to give rise to a rice plant. Contributory causes are supportive conditions. In the case of grain of rice, these include sun, rain, and earth which enable the seed to grow into a rice plant”.

The book attributes the quote to Buddha (from a lecture to his disciples on the nature of “co-arising”). I thought it was a good start for this blog entry, but I also like to check my sources (a habit from my university days). Thus I tried to find the particular sutra from where the text originated and use it directly. Despite all my efforts searching online I could not. The concept of “co-arising” is discussed in a number of sutras, but nowhere is any mentioning of raindrops or rice. In fact, the style of the quote is so different than the usual exposition in any Buddhist sutra that it led me to the conclusion that Thich Nhat Hanh extended the original sutra with his own additions (very much in the Eastern tradition which to this day considers the concepts of intellectual property and plagiarism somewhat exotic). Read more of this post

Vientiane – Ha Noi

Vientiane, Laos

Gotta love Laos…

Unfortunately I did not see much of Vientiane. Vientiane airport is conveniently located on the highway from Vang Vieng and it was where the van dropped me off.

Vientiane airport, Laos

Vientiane airport, Laos

The airport was new and a note said that it was built with help from (if I am not mistaken) Japan. A small note here: in the seventies and eighties Lao’s main economic partners were the USSR and Vietnam. Relations with China at the time were cool. Vietnam still has a significant (political) weight in Lao, but – unsurprisingly – a lot of new construction in the country is being done by China. Being a member of ASEAN, Laos has opened up for new partnerships to perhaps lessen the weight of its immediate neighbors – and hence one possible explanation about the Japanese help in that airport construction. If that story was too short for you, there is plenty of information on Lao economic achievements online. Read more of this post

Laos | The Growing Divide

My Lao breakfast

I’ll begin this post with a short story that I witnessed, and then add some comments.

One thing is undisputed – the influx of tourists (and money) has transformed the lifestyle of Vang Vieng residents radically. Prior to the town becoming a tourist attraction (10 years ago?) the town residents and the villagers in the countryside had a similar lifestyle. Nowadays every job in town revolves around tourists – tubing, bars, restaurants, guest houses, cafes, internet rooms, tourist agencies, hostels, massage parlors, peddlers, pancake makers, bike and scooter rentals, shake stalls. One side effect of the many is that the “goodies” originally enjoyed by the tourists have made their way into the lifestyle of this newly created Lao “middle-class” – mobile phones, A/C, motorized scooters, plasma TVs, etc. When I biked around the Vang Vieng vicinity I could confirm that the villagers had a lot of catch-up to play – people lived simple and off the land. (Luckily, they have power lines and electricity – courtesy of the Lao socialist government, I guess).

Vang Vieng biking

Now, the story. I was having my breakfast in an open café near the guesthouse – I was the only customer inside the café. The price for a fresh French bread, a cup of tasty Lao coffee and two hard-boiled eggs was 15,000 kip ($2).

An elderly woman showed up – she wore simple blue cotton clothing. She carried a covered basket on her back and – I could guess from her actions – offered her produce to the young woman from the café – who, I presume, was the wife or daughter of the owner. The elderly woman took out some of what was inside the basket. It was corn. The young lady exchanged some phrases with the old woman. The tone of her voice and the look on her face seemed to me somewhat arrogant and pejorative. She eventually made up her mind, picked up some corn ears – and paid the old lady.

Village woman - town woman

Courtesy: Author

   I did not see well how much she paid, but it was certainly not a big denomination banknote. Very likely it was one under 1000. The old lady politely thanked, smiled – as is customary in Laos, put her corn basket back on her back and went further.

Read more of this post

Laos | La Countryside

    OK, not la Countryside, but Lao countryside. Remember the gorgeous scenery that I saw while tubing down the Nam Song river? Back in Siem Reap in Cambodia one of the most enjoyable things was my bicycle ride around the vicinity. There were bicycle rental shops at Vang Vieng too. I went to the Spicy hostel, got a map of biking routs around town, went to the town center and rented a bike.

A View from Vang Vieng

 That heavily urbanized environment of Vang Vieng just forces you to get out, right?

     There were several routes on that map, and I opted for the longest that promised to take me to a beautiful cave and something called the “Blue Lagoon” – seven or eight kilometers outside town. First, I crossed a bridge over Nam Song that was free for locals, but paid for the foreigners. What I really liked about it was that you only paid in one direction – the way back was ‘free’ :P.

     Then the road turned to dirt and started going through rice fields and simple Lao villages where Lao people still lived off the land (although the first signs of the inevitable transition – guest houses and some shops had already begun to pop up). Along the road there was the occasional cow munching grass and it was really hot – perhaps this was one reason there were very few people around.

Vang Vieng Vicinity

Look, Ma, no people!

Around Vang Vieng Vicinity, Laos

  By the way, now that I am looking back at my photos, I realize that I did not take any of the Lao village houses – which are very simple, yet in  harmony with the environment that surrounds them. Judging by what I shot at, I’d fallen – again – for the more peculiar sights that popped up before my eyes. Oh, well there is always Google Images for the inquisitive mind. Read more of this post

Riding the tube, Vang Vieng style

    Tubing is the attraction of Vang Vieng. Remember the old saying “When in Rome do what the Romans do”?  So, when in Vang Vieng you simply have to try the tubing! (Note: how come that no local Lao person ever goes tubing then? Shouldn’t this ring some bells in one’s head? “Interesting River Tube”, huh? Lessee…)

Tubing, Vang Vieng Laos

Tubing, Vang Vieng Laos

Courtesy: http://www.loupiote.com

      The tubing experience is, hm…. perhaps a bit inflated. I don’t mean to say it is just hot air, but simply that it is somewhat overblown. OK, enough stupid puns. “Tubing” is basically going down the Nam Song river in an inflated tractor inner tire (and buying a T-shirt telling the world what you did afterwards… if you survived it, that is). Just type “vang vieng tubing” in Google and enjoy…

Google Search - Tubing Deaths

I do not think I will get tired any time soon of praising the beauty of Lao scenery. And Vang Vieng is a rare beauty – even by the Lao standards (did I say yet that Laos is the most beautiful country in South Eash Asia and possibly the whole world? I guess I did.)

In the tubing, Vang Vieng

In the tubing, Vang Vieng

Courtesy: author

     So, enjoying this unsurpassed beauty from the unique perspective of a tractor tube  going downstream is the main reason why tubing has become such a tourist magnet in Vang Vieng. Right? Right?? Riight… the fact that the tubing crowd is made of Brits, Australians and Dutch people in their late teens or early twenties should make you think twice about that. What you do not see on the picture are the multitude of open air bars on both banks of the river where the tuber (tubist? tubitian? teletubby? tuborg? ) can stop to have a drink, dance, and do all kinds of “fun” things (mud pits with the buddies, anyone?). Then jump back on the tube (if some other evil tuborg did not steal it while one was not watching) and proceed further downstream. Read more of this post

Laos | Vang Vieng

          Back in Thailand I often saw foreigners wearing T-shirts “I did the tubing in Vang Vieng” or, the braver kind – “I survived tubing in Vang Vieng”. Which makes one wonder… no, not at all what on Earth tubing was, who gives a damn about that… but you cannot help asking yourself, where on Earth is Vang Vieng. Well, in Laos.

          In my earlier post I could not help mentioning that hammer and sickle flags were everywhere in Luang Prabang. Not just in front of public buildings – private houses, private guesthouses, internet cafés, shops (as well as inside Utopia).

Some Government Building Some Government Building

            One evening I even saw two young guys at a newly-opened internet café (which was probably theirs), trying to fit the two flags (the national and the hammer&sickle) above the café entrance. One was standing on a ladder and would put the flags, say, a bit to the left – then the other watching from the street would examine the result and say something in Lao. Then the guy on the ladder would move them a bit to the right – and process would repeat. They were clearly enjoying the task

           Yet, at Vang Vieng, to my surprise, I did not see a single hammer & sickle flag. Let us call this observation “observation one”. Now, observation two: in Luang Prabang the majority of visitors were middle aged French and German couples on their summer holiday. Observation three (I am rushing a bit with this information, but here it is): in Vang Vieng the visitor crowd was 95% young British, American, Australian and Dutch boys and girls.

            Was there a connection between those observations? Hmmm, I’ll leave the answer to you.  What Vang Vieng had, however, was the most gorgeous scenery around I’d seen so far on my trip – even better than current favorite Luang Prabang.

Vang Vieng View

Vang Vieng View

            And now, let me go back a bit and start from the beginning – how we got from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. We left Luang Prabang at about 9am in a van. It was nine of us inside the vehicle and the ticket cost 105,000 kip per person ($13). The van, however, could fit eleven people. By Lao understanding leaving those empty and not monetizing them would be a mortal sin, and every time the driver had a chance, he would pick up Lao people from the side of the road and collect the money into his pocket.

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (Google Maps)

The long and winding road.... Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng (Google Maps)

          Read more of this post

Utopia Awaits!

        We wound be winding the evening down at Utopia. “We”, as in “the people I wrote about in one of my earlier posts and I”. But what about Utopia?

        As many a folk knows, Utopia was the name of a fictional island invented by Thomas More in 1516, and is commonly considered to come from the Greek words “ou” (not) and “topos” (place), hence – “Utopia =  a place that does not exist”. Eventually it acquired its modern meaning of “a perfect place” (a fact, strongly implying that no one actually read the book).

        But – and that was new to me – a third meaning should also be considered, according to Wikipedia (or rather Thomas More himself).

In English, Utopia is pronounced exactly as Eutopia (the latter word, in Greek Εὐτοπία [Eutopiā], meaning “good place,” contains the prefix εὐ- [eu-], “good”, with which the οὐ of Utopia has come to be confused in English pronunciation).This is something that More himself addresses in an addendum to his book Wherfore not Utopie, but rather rightely my name is Eutopie, a place of felicitie. (Quote: Wikipedia)

        But what about bar Utopia? Would it live up to its name? It was already dark and we only had a rough idea where to look for the place. We asked a couple of people and we soon found a street sign “Utopia – this way – 100 meters.” “Great,” we thought, “almost there.” We followed the sign, and 100 meters down, instead of a bar, there was another sign pointing away from the main road into a little side street – “Utopia – 50 meters.” We followed it – and to our increased amusement we arrived at another sign. This sign made no distance claims – it simply pointed into another side street.

        It took three more signs and us going deeper and deeper into a labyrinth of inner streets before we found the coveted spot. It was at such a location, that no bar seeker would bother going for if the original street sign told the truth – “Utopia – 500 meters.”

        Utopia, “a place that one begins to doubt whether it actually exists”- check!

        So when we crossed under the entrance arc and got ourselves in a hallway, we were thinking “it’d rather be worth the walking.” And it actually was. Part-open air, part covered area. Dimly lit. A relaxing music not too loud. Hammer and sickle flags. Two American or Japanese heavy motorbikes. Sand volleyball playground. Lao vegetation that would just make every place look great. Bamboo couches overlooking the Nam Khan river underneath (it was dark so the river could not be seen, but we could still hear it).

In earnest

In earnest

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