Sunday, 21 January 2018

Part VI - Pai and Myanmar

Pai is a little hippy town in Thailand's northern highlands. Certainly one of my top five destinations so far. To get there, minibuses have to cross a mountain range and it's not for the faint hearted. Just as we were leaving, the driver handed everyone a small plastic bag. Always on the look out for a bargain, I grabbed a couple, 'Ooo free plastic bags, cool'. It was only later when the relentlessly windy mountain pass claimed its first vomit victim did I realise their true purpose. 
So I vomited in both immediately.

One of Pai's best features is the nightly street food market. Every imaginable nationality of food is available, making dinner decisions surprisingly stressful. I say 'imaginable', incredibly there is no English Pie & Mash stall. Even if you don't like or want to cook pies, surely it's worth setting up shop for the plentiful pun opportunities alone. Also the town is crawling with hungry Brits potentially seeking a taste of home after weeks of Pai Pad Thai. 
NB: Could this be my calling; the job opportunity / glutton opportunity I've been craving?

Suandoi Backpacker Resort is a fitting name for such an expansive complex of chilled out brilliantness. Free yoga session every morning? Yes please. 
Update: No thanks. I never actually made it to any sessions. Part illness, part late nights, mostly the discomfort caused by the basics: even the standard crossed leg sitting pose is troublesome. Anyway, I will cherish this place. We made some lovely American and English chums and had a lovely time. 

Finally, after months of sleepless nights, cold sweats and Grace having to explain to strangers why her companion is slapping his body, slapping the table, I got that sweet sweet hit I had craved since records began (October 2nd): approximately 5mins behind a drumkit at Mojo Bar's Wednesday night Jazz & Blues jam. Ooo mumma it felt good. Laying down a groove for some old timers to sax, strum and keys all over. I even got my own solo. What a treat. 

With something you're passionate about, once you pop you just can't stop. However on this occasion, once I popped I just had to stop / was stopped by the MC. Frustratingly several drummers had showed up and time was a factor. Like an alcoholic given one solitary shot before being sent back to The Priory, I left the stage fruslated (frustrated and elated, look it up). 

From Pai we made our way to back to Chiang Mai to fly on to our final Asian country, the much anticipated Myanmar. Every time I write 'Senior Researcher' in the 'occupation' box of each country's arrivals card, I get this worry that my former title is at best ambiguous and at worst conjuring up investigative journalism connotations. If questioned further at Immigration, I'm not sure how I would describe my previous job without mentioning the 'e' word - explosives. Not an ideal name-drop at any airport, let alone one in Myanmar, a recovering paranoid schizophrenic of a country. 

Thought of the Day: 
On entering each new country we Google the local currency exchange rate and the results so far have made for grim reading. In mid 2016 the once strong and proud pound collapsed like a disappointing souffl√©, bumping up the price of our trip considerably. Even Myanmar's never ending military controversies (most recently genocidal) do not appear to have dented its currency to the extent that we have sabotaged our own with Brexit. Thanks again 'Vote Leave'. 

With the Rohingya Muslim genocide making front page news in the west, we witnessed the impact on tourism immediately. Our plane, which to be fair was a small, propeller driven one, wasn't even half full. Excluding our two cabin crew, I counted 27 passengers. It felt more like a coach load of school kids on a field trip, albeit an ambitious one. A Parisian passenger later gave me Myanmar's recent tourism stats. In 2016 there were 7-8 million arrivals and last year's forecast for 2017 had been 10 million, however this has since been recalculated down to 2-3 million. International tourist boycott back on it seems. 

The most messed up aspect of the country is the fact that the government does not control the military. They are two separate entities who function together in a sort of deluded synergy. As long as the latter has the weapons, the former cannot tell it what to do. Imagine if Theresa had no authority over our armed forces, who for years had been raping, pillaging and murdering Scots and / or Welsh with impunity. Yes yes not that useful or accurate an analogy I know. Still, it's a scary thought. NB: Not for the first time on this trip I'm considering myself incredibly fortunate to have been born into middle class 21st Century Britain. 

I feel it necessary at this point to justify this part of our trip. After all, the $50 each visa fee goes straight into government coffers, funding a military with the worst human rights record on the planet. We had indeed met backpackers who had recently canceled their Myanmar trips on moral grounds. For us, after a bit of research into ethical ways to travel and spend money in Myanmar, we decided we should still go. We would be helping none of the millions living in abject poverty by not supporting their fledgling tourism industry.

Plus, on a more selfish note and from what we have heard this former demi North Korea provides a different traveller experience and so, the opportunity to get into such a fascinating country before the global tourism tsunami makes landfall was just too good to miss. Indeed, some might say we've already missed the boat. Although a boat isn't necessarily where you want to be when a tsunami hits so yeah, take that uber backpackers. 

Thought of the Day: Asians can't make pizza. 
Ok yes there has been several occasions in the last three months that we have succumb to the culinary comfort zone of our European cousins. Before traveling I was all, 'I can't get enough of rice and noodles. Bring it on'. Well, they brought it on and it turns out, what they brought (unrelenting rice and noddles) was a bit much. On more than one occasion we have visited a restaurant boasting 'the best pizza in town'. And each time we've left disappointed. 
To be fair I should probably stop ordering the 12 inch rice noodle deep pan.  

On our first evening we wandered the blacked out back streets of Mandalay, the country's second city. There were people washing themselves in the street with buckets and aside from that the place seemed deserted. Our hostel host tells me that with the one exception of Yangon, there is actually no such thing as night life in Myanmar. By 22:00 all is eerily quiet, save for the wolf like cries of a million stray dogs prowling the urban jungle.  

Although officially a democratically governed progress-making state, some old totalitarian paranoia persist. At each hostel 'Government Rule No.6'* requires foreigners to fill in a form with personal details and details regarding our previous and future plans. There is also a foreigner curfew law which means we all need to return to our registered accommodation by 11pm. 
*Rule 6? I like that this one seemingly insignificant rule relating to one specific industry within one of the least libertarian regimes ever has made it to the top 10 of Myanmar's rules. 

Lying in bed on our first night I read about how up until very recently the private lives of the whole population were spied on and scrutinized by the state. For a fleeting moment a thought pops into my head and I scan the walls and ceiling for hidden cameras and microphones. Hmm. Perhaps that investigative journalist pipe dream is getting a bit out of proportion in my mind. 

With little time left before our second chapter - South America - we headed straight to Bagan, the centre of the ancient Kingdom of Began, where modern Burma began. This relatively small area of desert is littered with about 2,500 temples and smaller terra-cotta brick pagodas. Myanmar hasn't yet let UNESCO gets its protective / destructive claws into Began so you only need to ride a few minutes off the main roads before you are completely alone, skidding through desert sand past the numerous smaller pagodas many of which are crumbling and overgrown with grasses and cacti. The magic of this place then really becomes apparent. 

On day two we were alarmed, by our alarm, at a terrifying 4:30am! This was the starting whistle for the famous Bagan sunrise experience. Grace and I joined a possy of fellow hostelers riding off into the night on silent electric scooters. Our guides' favoured vantage point (several stories up on top of a pagoda) commanded a 360 degree view of the numerous domes penetrating dawn's mist. Lucky for us there were some spectacular clouds reflecting the sun's rays. A beautiful morning indeed and reminiscent of our Angkor Wat experience. Ancient religious architecture and morning sun is clearly a winning combo. 

The only shame is that I managed a pitiful two hours sleep in preparation. Was I out partying with the gap years till silly o'clock? No, I had stomach cramps and a heat itch attack. The latter being so ferocious I ended up texting my, in her words, 'Facebook Messenger GP' for advice at 2am. Thank you again Laura Storm, you're a life saver. Literally. 

Thought of the Day:
Mobile reception antenna have been the bain of my purist brain on this trip. There's always at least one of the ugly bastards ruining each photogenic vista we come across. NB: you are technically traveling Oliver but don't forget you are also very much on the beaten track. If you want to go all Chris Columbus, hire a pedalo, head up the Amazon River and shut up. 

I read a Myanmar newspaper, state owned of course. That was a weird experience. In stark contrast to British print media, where each news exclusive is exclusively bad news, the New Myanmar Global Light is just a report on all the country's good news. Plus all its bad news reconstituted as good news. As Grace put it; 'progress progress progress'. I particularly endured, sorry enjoyed, the very last page; the sport section. It comprised one solitary full page article describing Myanmar beating Thailand in a college league football match. Nice one lads. Of course this does suggest that not one of Myanmar's adult professional sports teams won anything that week. 

Enjoy of the Day: Bagan's tourist map. 
Our hostel is located immediately opposite 'Shit Myathna Pagaoda'. 
If it's that bad, why advertise it?

Team Grolly is now so well versed in fellow backpacker small talk we finish each other's... 
(Grace just shouted 'sentences'). It's really great traveling as a pair because you can share the (at times) tiresome verbal workload. Traveller doctrine states that one must regale each and every new hostel pal with the same well drilled spiel. Today I was telling a French guy about our time in Vietnam, however I needed the loo. Without even looking at Grace, I entered the ensuite, closed the door mid-sentence and immediately heard my ying or yang complete the anecdote to the exact same script, as I mouthed it into the mirror. Magic. 

Fact of the Day: In 2008 a SIM card in Myanmar cost $30,000. By 2014 it was $1. This ridiculous tax was one of the ways the old military junta tried desperately to blinker the population and cling on to totalitarianism in the age of smart phones and the internet. 

We had heard a lot of good things about the Kalaow to Inle Lake trek and the trek itself plus the two nights staying in remote villages with Burmese families in their traditional farming huts was an amazing experience I will cherish. The crap pair of old trainers I thought were trek worthy, I will not cherish. 

The crisp mountain chill and rolling hills were actually reminiscent of my annual winter hols in the Lake District where, as a child, I was dragged around the beautiful countryside kicking and screaming until I finally began to appreciate the beauty of nature. The main difference here in eastern Myanmar is that the sky is consistently cloudless and we are currently walking through endless fields of little red crescent chilies. 

Its harvest season and as such, millions of these little sickle cell fruits are spread out on tarpaulins, left out to the elements for a whole month before they are dry enough to sell. The fact that this so called "food" can be left unattended for so long in the presence of myriad fauna who won't go near it with a barge pole left me feeling vindicated. If the rest of the animal kingdom, not to mention the notoriously un fussy diners of the bacteria kingdom, don't want to unnecessarily ruin their curries why do so many bonkers humans? 

We passed a few schools on our trek. Here's a strange comparison, the first grade kids were all wearing old colourful, patterned mismatching pjs and jumpers which reminded me instantly of East London. Wandering around Shoreditch, this same look adorns most twenty somethings. I believe it's called vintage. Seems to me that the less you apparently care (i.e really care) the better. The more ridiculously mismatching and old looking your outfit, the cooler you are? Which is why I will be pairing a caveman's loincloth with Henry VIII's pantaloons when I get back to London. 

On our trek I became wary of poverty porn. A sad phenomena most often propagated by celebrities wheeled out by charities to make painful TV adverts that at best completely miss the point and at worst cast African villagers as freaks to be gauped at. I witnessed another western tourist on a different trek with his phone on a selfie stick videoing an elderly lady just going about her business. He was stalking her like Attenborough witnessing a new species. Hmm. 

I was worried that staying in these villages would feel like we were at some sort of poverty theme park, like the favella tours you can go on in Rio. However, I'm pleased to say it wasn't like that. After all we felt pretty integrated; huddling round camp fires for warmth, outdoor bucket washes in the freezing cold, sleeping on the floor, toileting in an outhouse complete with earthen hole. 

Our first night was a chilly wake up call for two tourists used to 30 degree jungles and beaches. The situation was thus; a wooden shed peppered with holes on the side of a mountain. For bed Grace had gone with her whole nuclear winter collection; vest, t shirt, her woolen jumper, my hoody, leggings, trousers, sleeping bag, blanket No.1 and blanket No.2.

Quietly confirming that she was still cold, our host allowed us access to the auxiliary blankets cabinet. NB: cabinet doesn't do it justice as it actually occupied the entire wall of our living / dining / bedroom. This feature would have been the envy of any hotel's linen store. Once Blankets No.3 and No.4 were added and I had burrowed inside this weighty cocoon to lend additional body warmth she was finally stable enough to drift off. Quite a relief, I've never seen someone under so many layers, remain so stubbornly cold.

Critter Watch (returns): 
On our trek there were spider's webs everywhere and very big spiders to patrol them. Webs that spanned meters of space and some weaved so dense that they comprised more Gossamer than air. Basically, a terrifying time for a critter watcher-outer. Indeed I was careful to maneuver myself to the back of the group when single filling down some infested gauntlets. In a sinister break from what i'm used to, these exjotic species group their webs and hang out together, literally. I managed to squeeze 12 individual arachnids into one camera shot. Could they actually be hunting / trap laying as a team? Is there even a collective term for spiders? A pack, a herd, a shoal? I doubt it. Consequently I here by coin a new collective term: A Disaster of Spiders. 

Update: Trek over and I'm back on WIFI, fact checking. I was too quick to assume. There is a collective term. A group spiders is a cluster or a clutter. 

I would now like to take the opportunity to give a shout out to my brilliant girlfriend who completed this trek whilst riddled with ailments. Blisters engulfed toes on both feet, a nasty knee graze made leg bending painful and last but least least, she endured a four day parasite which meant she hardly ate. And all this during three days of 30 degree heat, below freezing cold and very primitive living conditions. She uttered no complaints, just quietly pushed on with a grace only Grace could muster. 

By the end of the trip our clever little iPhones told us that we had each taken >100,000 steps. It's a funny thing. Had you told me before we left that I would have to put one foot in front of the other that many times, I may have taken the bus instead. Joking. 
Or am I? 

Our final Myanmar destination was the miniature sea that is Inle Lake, where several traditional fishing communities live in villages suspended on stilts. The amphibious population relies entirely on boats to get everywhere. We stayed for five days and this, our final proper destination in Asia, didn't disappoint. 

On Christmas eve the hostel put on a several course festive dinner for the 40 of so guests. After a few less traditional starters we were served what I assume was baby turkey (possibly chicken), gravy and all the trimmings (three potatoes). But the highlight of the night was a surprise visit from a local orphanage choir who had been secretly booked to come and sing us Christmas carols. Most of these children didn't appear to speak English so it was particularly touching that they had learnt all of Jesus' biggest birthday belters in a foreign language. Needless to say every one opened their hearts and there purses. There were even some tears amongst the backpackers. 

Like everyone else I was moved, however I also had mixed feelings.  We had read some awful things about orphanages in the region. For example, >70% of the kids have parents who are still alive. Unwanted children are sometimes sold to orphanages and exploited; forced into manual labour and worse. It's not uncommon for orphanages to pocket generous donations, whilst the children see little benefit. 

Like many people, I love being on the water. In another life, one without a moral compass, I would have joined the Royal Navy. So our hostel's 'Full Day No Bulls**t Boat Tour' was a must. That's right, they used a naughty word to advertise a boat trip. Brillo. #hosteliving. #hashtagsactuallymakemecringe. 

Christmas day. We woke early with excitement that morning (Christmassy). We all wrapped ourselves up in blankets because it was cold (Christmassy). We donned Christmas hats because it was Christmas day (Christmassy) and then we got into two boats in the pitch black with a couple of Buddhists to go and watch traditional Burmese fisherman on a lake in Asia (not so Christmassy). 

I was sitting right behind Grace for the duration. Her blanket covered shoulders and little Christmas hat with a backdrop of morning mist, still lake water and mountains was quite a picture. A picture that I took several pictures of. This was the strangest Christmas morning of my life and I've had my fair share of strange Christmas mornings let me tell you; 
Hertfordshire 1996, Hertfordshire 1997. The list goes on.
Hertfordshire 1998 for example. 

Seriously though I've never felt such magic. Gliding through the stillness of this massive lake in a little boat at 6am with endless mist and lilies floating past. Visibility was down to maybe 10m at times and then out of the gloom the famous balancing fisherman of Inle would appear, seemingly defying gravity with their ancient skills. The sky evolved beautifully from pitch black until the sun finally crested the nearby peaks and hit us in the face like a welcome wall of warmth. Quite an experience. 

These aforementioned stilt villages make Venice look like the Atacama Desert on a particularly arid day. Cruising through the aquatic streets is reminiscent of the 1990s blockbuster Waterworld, where the star of the show, Kevin Costner (me), goes on a nice festive boat trip. The end. 
Something like that. 

Just kidding guys. The film portrays a time when global warming has caused the flooding of entire continents and the survivors compete for limited resources. That boat trip did indeed feel like a glimpse into a possible future for some low lying parts of the world. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. 

Riding in the back of an Asian Tuk Tuk it's easy to feel like a bumbling Boris Johnson type, a massive whitey Brit sticking out like a sore thumb, chronically out of depth in some foreign land. Perched on a cushioned throne, protected by a fancy canopy and raised above the millions of local moped riders. On the Inle Lake narrow boats, you also feel very on show. Each vessel contains a column of five wooden deck chairs that wouldn't look out of place in a Chelsea garden. It's comical witnessing a line of awkward looking caucasians flying past on their garden furniture at 30mph. 

No one gets a hair cut on holiday so you know you're really traveling when you visit the local barbers. What I took away from the experience is that SE Asians can't get enough of massaging. They love it. Urban centers throughout the region do massage parlors like Harringey does betting shops. I've even seen what must have been pop-up massage stations (garden chairs under gazebos) where weary travelers can pull over to be groped at.

My haircut included before and after hair washes and surprise surprise, on both occasions each girl chucked in a free head massage. The cheek! Give them the opportunity and Asian people will massage you. One evening, around a campfire in a rural village I witnessed a young lad with his hand between a buffalo calf's legs, massaging its balls. These people just can't help themselves. I scanned the faces of his family members, trying to make eye contact with someone equally as incredulous, however to no avail. So as it happens our guide later explained that this is how you domesticate a young buffalo. Showing it who's boss essentially. 

Oh and if you're wondering how much my hair cut, two hair washes / massages, hair dry and product was...
A budget busting £2.70! 

Our last activity in Asia was a trip to Shan State's very own hilltop winery, where we treated ourselves to a wine tasting and continental cheese board against a beautiful backdrop of rolling vineyards. Our first proper taste of England (i.e France) for months. This most European of experiences provided a confusing finale to our three months on a continent worlds away from Europe. 

So what will I miss about this continent I hear you ask. This sounds bad, but maybe I won't miss temples...
There are a ridiculous number of temples in SE Asia and I feel like I've seen several people's fair share. Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against people spending their leisure time worshipping a man who, during his time on earth said do not worship me. It's just that they are all quite samey. Or as they say in Asia 'same same but different'. Everywhere you go the big fancy temple is heralded as the region's No.1 tourist attraction. Like it's the only one on the continent.

Plus, many of them have excruciatingly tacky interiors. The gold painted seated Buddha statues are often lit by cheap LED lighting in ghastly colour combinations. It's weird. 'Yeah that's definitely how he would have wanted to be immortalised, as an androgynous, golden, podgy couch potato with a halo of sex shop lighting'. In Cambodia one of our hostels even offered the 'No Temples on this Tour Tour'. That's how much of a problem temples are within the backpacker community. 

Facetiousness aside, I will miss the people the most. In every country we felt so very welcome and there was a gentleness that seemed to posses everyone we interacted with. Ok, nearly everyone. 

Oh and of course the crazy low prices for almost everything. I will miss them until the day I die. I will miss the people for a few more years perhaps. 

Thank you so much for tuning in everyone. Today's offering has taken a bit longer to publish, which I'm attributing to massive American culture shock. Today marks the beginning of South American leg Week 4. Yikes time is flying by. 
Adios. 
xxx

P.s look out for one of my anecdotes soon to be published on: www.southeastasiabackpacker.com


Saturday, 30 December 2017

Part V - Vietnam 2, Laos and Chiang Mai

Our next stop was Ninh Bin; gateway to another UNESCO site of outstanding natural ruddy gorgeousness. Massive towers of rock with sheer faces rise out of mangrove for miles around; Limestone Karst formations if you're asking (you weren't). The best way to experience this landscape is a three hour rowing boat trip with one of the many local women waiting on the river bank. Our tiny engine looked well into her 60s which is incredible considering how far she propelled five adults. 

We spent the afternoon gliding quietly through shallow, crystal clear waters in the shadow of (and beneath) these monstrously magnificent rock formations. One reason why you aren't allowed to row your own boat is the many grottos you pass through. The knowledge and skill required to navigate them is impressive. It's amazing approaching the narrow slivers of black, separating the water from the spiky limestone above. You can't quite believe you're going to fit in and sure enough we spend most of the time with our heads flattened to the boat dodging stalactites and grazing the damp walls as our elderly companion shrieks useless Vietnamese instructions, all the while with an hysterical grin on her face. 

Thought of the Day: 
I thought I was polite in England. Out here my politeness is off the scale. It's ridiculous. I'm often falling over myself desperate to ingratiate myself to the locals. 'Thank you thank you thank you', with a smile so wide my ears grimace. I imagine it's that I just want to be a good ambassador for the UK. What worries me is that, here in former French Indochina, I don't even need to be an imperialist apologist. So what will I be like in Myanmar, a former British colony...? The inherited guilt factor might result in a go-nuclear smile that could rip my face in half, much like it did in the 80s for Zippy of Rainbow fame. It doesn't Bungle the bear thinking about. 

Anyway, some of these tunnels are >250m long and the few lights strung up along their length cast the interior in a spooky hue, made more magical by the rhythmic echoes of her oars gently pressing through the oily black water; the only audible sound. We were then treated to breathtaking juxtapositions at each tunnel exit. The gloomy claustrophobia of these subterranean rivers, where the weight of ten thousand tons just inches above is palpable makes the squinting brightness and neck straining landscape of the mountainous lagoons even more impressive. 

Translation of the day:
'Please do not flush toilet paper or sanitary napkins in the toilet bowl'. Personally I would follow this up with 'Hey Vietnam, if you are going to recycle paper towel products, please use them as napkins first, sanitary towels second, not vice versa. 
Yours sanitarily, 
Department of Sanitation & Napkins'. 

Update: Grace has just informed me that many older signs in England also use the term 'sanitary napkins'. It still sounds odd to me. I'm leaving it in. 

We also scootered the 50km from Ninh Binh to the oldest National Park in Vietnam. A hilly climb through dense jungle brought us to a 1,000 year old tree which really was impressively girthy. I reckon approximately 1,000 rings in cross section. It made me look so small, can you believe? 

I've actually become a bit obsessed with Asian trees. They are so much bigger than their temperate European cousins and come in some really interesting shapes. Forget uniform simple cylinders, my favourites have trunks like 5m diameter Starfruits in cross section. They are also usually decorated in helical vines, which snake up the trunks and through the forest like massive unbiblical cords connecting something with I don't know what. Come to think of it, what is vine? What does vine connect to and what is vine's purpose? I've never witnessed vine's end. Perhaps there reside a crock 'o' gold. I guess we'll never know. 

As with National Parks the world over, base camp really gets your hopes up with massive posters exhibiting all the parks' sexiest beasts. The country's most awesome mammals, reptiles and birds which you will definitely never ever see no matter how long you spend there. I wager even this park's guides have never witnessed its Leopards, Civets or Pangolins. What's the point in protecting them if no one ever sees them? Here's an idea, why not round them all up, put them in small cages and bring them to the city so we can all see. No Oliver! That's what they want you to think.  

The highlight of the park was the Primate Rescue Centre and the Tortoise Rescue Centre. Unsurprisingly these magnificent animals are hunted to near extinction in SE Asia. Their various body parts selling for thousands of dollars a piece. For instance, we met six of the last remaining 65 Golden Headed Langurs in the entire world. According to our guide, one particularly cruel and gruesome ritual still practiced in parts of China and Vietnam involves a sedated monkey and a round table with a small hole in the middle. The animal is placed under said table, it's cranium partially exposed through the hole. It is then scalped and the brains are spooned directly from the head. This beyond fresh, beyond belief culinary experience is supposed to make the diner more intelligent. Or, exacerbate their psychosis perhaps? 

The park was also home to a Prehistoric Man Cave. Unfortunately this ancient den did not, as suggested, contain an 8,000 year old plasma screen and Sony PlayStation. It was in fact empty, except for a family of Vitamin D deficient crickets. At first I was confused when studying the map. There was no prehistoric womans' cave plotted. However, I then remembered that women hadn't been invented till a few hundreds years later, when a British chap called Adam ate a rack of ribs which caused him to excrete, amongst other things, a different type of man called Eva, from Germany. 
I think. 
Something like that. 

Traveling through north Vietnam by bus, the booming economy is clearly evident, most impressively,  the massive investment in infrastructure. It made me think about the big cities we've passed through recently and how their economies are predominantly manufacturing based. The millions of tons of plastic tat sold in thousands of Asian markets annually. And where this crap will all inevitably end up, in the ground or in the oceans. Just one of the numerous ways in which homoerectus is leaving its filthy size 7 billion carbon boot print on nearly every landscape this Earth has offered us. As Agent Smith so eloquently put it in 1999's blockbuster The Matrix, 'You move to another area, and you multiply, and you multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet'. 
Mic drop? No? Ok. 

Did you know, as a result of the widespread agriculturalisation (not a word) and industrialisation (a word) of the planet, our natural environment has been so irrevocably affected by humans that Earth has left the post-glacial Holocene epoch (most recent geological time period) and we are now living in the recently coined 'Anthropocene' time period. An alien geologist landing on Earth in the distant future will find the fossilised underground infrastructure (tunnels and foundations) of our drowned cities and all sorts of weird and wonderful rock types, infected with man-made pollutants; the melted down and resolidifed residue of mankind's relatively short lived tenure. 

This leads me on to a new, yet completely irrelevant feature: Donald's Trump of The Week. 
That's right, completely unrelated to our trip. 
Olly shrugs, 'bite me'.
So this week's mouth fart sees Donald turn his attention to the natural environment, not for the first time of course. He's gone and reduced the size of two National Parks by 84% and 50% in a massively controversial move he labeled 'uncontroversial'. Classic Trump. Effectively he's eradicated millions of hectares of Native American land. Yet another almost unprecedented presidential policy the like of which hasn't been seen for 50 years. 

Moving on to Cat Ba Island we found a wonderful backpacker haven. We assumed Halong Bay's world famous UNESCO protected landscape would be the highlight of the region but we hardly bothered leaving our hostel. A reliable source had recommended Woodstock Beach Camp and they were spot on. Essentially a huge wooden hut with a private beach where the many pets and hammocks roam free. Our days and nights quickly filled up; camp fires, games, family dinners and a kitten petting zoo. We made some Dutch friends and really settled into island life. 

I've never felt so British as the first day at Woodstock when Grace and I were getting ready for dinner.  Timon, our Dutch dorm mate, had just reeled off the symptoms of his dicky tummy before returning to the en suite for the umpteenth time. There was an awkward 20 second silence before Grace had the genius idea of playing some music on her phone to drown out the sounds a mortified Timon would inevitably begin emitting at any moment. Incredibly, just 30 seconds into the tune 'who is this?' echoed out from the toilet. At first I just ignored it, assuming he was on the phone. However, the question was then repeated, personalised and followed up with 'it's awesome'. And so it dawned on me. I was about to have a conversation with a freak, a truly continental European. A man who knows nothing of the phrase 'I just wanted the earth to open and swallow me up'. As both Timon and the conversation continued to flow we had to stifle our giggles. 

One evening a bunch of local men showed up at the our very western hostel bar. For the next hour a faux fun / uneasy atmosphere held the venue hostage as the inebriated group flirted with the female staff, who forced painted on smiles. They stayed for one round then headed off. It was then that barman Temo gave us the low down. Every so often these off duty cops show up and drink for free. They play the expat staff by offering massive tips, then taking them back, then offering them again. On the surface and from a distance it could be misconstrued as harmless fun but it's actually a darker power game forced upon the hosts by a bent police force wielding little actual power. Woodstock's owner is a well connected Vietnamese land owner known to the local authorities as a guy who brings in a lot of foreign money via his lucrative hostel. The frustrated local police don't like Woodstock's multicultural, uber chilled ethos so they do what they can; steal a few drinks. 

SE Asian Fruit Watch:
a) The Dragonfruit's stunningly exotic appearance is writing cheques its bland mush interior can't cash. 
b) The Duran looks like a coconut that has had a horrific allergic reaction and smells like a tupaware of perishable packed lunch left out in the sun for a few days. 
c) The apparently innocent banana is nothing short of a pandemic in SE Asia. It has permeated every corner of society and arrives on pretty much every breakfast plate with an air of misplaced arrogance. How can a fruit which, more than any other is so frequently rotten under the skin, be so popular!? 
d) Starfruit. Star of the show by name. Third fruit from the left by every other measure. 

For posterity mainly I feel it necessary to mention that we did of course take a boat trip through Halong Bay; the single reason why tourists visit this region. In the event, the overcast, almost cold conditions did sour the experience somewhat. That said, the landscape was indeed stunning, the floating village was romantic and the steep spikey rock climb to Monkey Island's summit in flip flops* was an unexpected achievement we were both genuinely proud of, receiving verbal back pats from several fellow climbers. 
*did no read the small print. 

Thought of the Day: In each country so far, non wedding day wedding photos have been a frequent sight. At every landmark we visit, there's a photo shoot going on, complete with professional lighting. In Cambodia there was even a guy burning kindling upwind to create a pop star smoke effect in shot downwind. On our Ninh Binh boat trip we rounded a corner and found a bride and groom struggling to remain standing on a very narrow and wobbly rowing boat whilst the photographer and his entourage tried to remain afloat on another equally unsteady boat. So I've just woken up from an accidental nap on Woodstock's beach and surprise surprise there's a pair at it again. It's become quite comical how these situations keep cropping up in unexpected places. Today's bride and groom are wearing a floor length dress and suit respectively, no surprises there. But why are they posing in knee deep water? For that classic Vietnamese amphibious legs vibe that symbolises a long and happy marriage? 

We crossed into a misty  mountainous Laos without incident and headed for Luang Prabang, finally reaching this beautiful town a fun filled 27hrs after leaving Hanoi. Disembarking for the final time, the sense of relief was off the chart. I even found myself sincerely thanking the coach crew, the very men who had presided over my torture.

It's hard not to be enamored with Luang Prabang. It's beautiful French architecture houses numerous tastefully decorated cafes and restaurants and the intricately painted golden temples are standardly stunning. The issue is, in recent years LP has been diagnosed with a chronic case of UNESCO syndrome. Ironically, by bringing the town under its protective umbrella, UNESCO classification has seen tourism explode and as per usual, not in a good way. The now exorbitant property prices have left ordinary Prabangers out in the cold. The reason why every eatery looks so inviting is because it has been taken over by a wealthy western expat who knows exactly what the middle class tourists want to see. In the words of one journalist, 'Luang Prabang has lost its soul'. 

Translation of the Day:
More toilet signage I'm afraid. 
'Please do not throw tissues', (fine) 'sanitary towels', (fine) 'stockings', (bit weird) 'or any other debris in toilet'. 
Ok so this particular toilet has had such a problem in the past with people flushing their unwanted socks down it, that the authorities have considered 'other debris' too vague a category and have instead specifically named socks as a top three blockage item. Given the time of year, it could alternatively be a festive themed sign. Which begs the question, do the handful of Christians that live in Laos traditionally open their Christmas stockings in public toilets? 
Find out next time on InternationalRescue1718.  

In Prabang we hired our poshest ride yet, a Honda Scoopy. Up to this point I had always regarded Scoopy owners with envy, from behind the handlebars of our several Honda Waves; the poor man's Scoopy. I was pleased to find our upgrade didn't disappoint. She sported beautiful plus size model curves and purred like hostel kittens past. 

This gorgeous ride delivered us to the most incredible waterfalls I have ever seen. And I've seen upwards of four.
I've seen five. 
For hundreds of horizontal meters, water cascades over rounded terraces of beige limestone. This rock type is particularly soluble, giving the water an invitingly milky opaque turquoise appearance. Even stubbing my toe on a submerged boulder couldn't dent my enjoyment of that most heavenly of swims. Needless to say we got a bit snap happy with the cameras. 

Right about now you may be thinking, 'hmm Olly's blog posts usually wrap up right about now. He's covered geology, he's shoe-horned in some irrelevant trivia, he's written the odd joke, what more is there?' Well I'm afraid to say folks, it's a Christmas special, so today's yarn is a smidgen longer. Plus I haven't referred to a war yet: 

Of course, with my background, no discussion on Laos would be complete without mentioning the fact that this country holds the unfortunate accolade of most bombed country on the planet per capita. During the Vietnam War (final box ticked) the US attacked Vietnamese supply lines through Laos, on an unprecedented scale. The total tonnage of bombs dropped works out as one B-52 bomb load (30 ish tonnes!) every eight minutes for nine years straight...

Today, some 80 million items which failed to function as designed litter Laos's countryside. The vast majority are cluster munitions; fragile fist sized explosives that if mishandled can detonate with horrific consequences. Tragically, this deadly legacy has killed >20,000 Lao civilians since the end of the war. #criminalUSA. 

Thought of the Day:
One of my favourite deserts - cheesecake - is translated quite literally in SE Asia. On two occasions now we have been presented with a square of sponge √† la disappointment, simply topped with grated cheese. Weird. I don't know whether they are just pandering to what they consider to be strange western tastes or they have actually adopted this bipolar treat as their own, having not bothered to check the recipe first. I'm surprised they don't just serve up two slabs of cheddar sandwiching a layer of jam. 
Hang on, Mental Note: sandwich jam between cheddar when you get back to England. 
Yours sanitarily
Oliver. 

From LP we took the two day slow boat to one of Thailand's land border crossings. Essentially 18 hours of slaloming the epically wide Mekong River at speeds in excess of no miles an hour. The landscape remained hilly jungle throughout and the riverbed was unusually uneven, being littered with huge bus sized chunks of rock towering out of the water. Their oblique angled sedimentary bedding (geology grad for life) and shiny silvery surface suggested a passage of travel from the heavens, giving them an unworldly, meteoric appearance.

At the mid-point, the boat docked and we were then required to find accommodation for night. Not hard as the hotel salesmen and saleswomen are already waiting on the river bank, ready to swoop in for the accommodating kill. Our salesperson turned out to be a 
nine year old girl with a ring binder containing photos depicting suspiciously luxurious hotel rooms. Without a hint of sarcasm our Scottish friend Caid shouted to another friend, 'we're going to go with this lady'. That made me smile. I mean SE Asian women are generally quite small but come on. 

Having crossed the border and attached ourselves to three 20 somethings from our boat we were immediately stranded, with no taxis willing or big enough to drive us to Chiang Mai at that late hour. Eventually one local man (not even a taxi driver) agreed to take us. With four of us squeezed into the back three seats, we embarked on a terrifying roller coaster ride. Our retired F1 driver completed the trip in a face melting two hours, with Google Maps calculating the drive at nearly double that. 'Don't tell my parents guys' Olly cried. 

In Chiang Mai Grace and I ticked off a traveling biggy; a day in the life of a rescued Elephant. As in we spent the day with rescued elephants, not dressed up as them. Having done our homework we knew to pick an ethical rescue centre - Happy Elephants. Back in 2005 I had spent some time close to African elephants whilst working on a game reserve, however I had never popped on my swimming cozy and actually frolicked in a river with a group of these amazing creatures, including a baby. That was a real (surreal) highlight. 

Throughout the day we fed our group of four giants hundreds of bananas and sugar canes. There was a scary moment when the bright yellow banana sized float attached to my waterproof GoPro camera nearly got snatched out of my hands by an inquisitive and powerful trunk. 

Unbeknown to me, Elephant dung has a few applications. Happy Elephants actually sell dung in a number of gift forms; bookmarks, statuettes, etc. The rescue centre that is, not friendly entrepreneurial elephants. I can't say I wasn't tempted to make a purchase; 'Thanks for the present Olly, it's shit'.

Congratulations reader, you have endured the entire Christmas Special. As a token of my appreciation, please find attached a BUPA voucher for 36 Franks, to be redeemed at all participating branches of Woolworths. 
Good luck. 

Have a Christmas (belated) and a New Year. 
Lots of love,
Oliver

xxx

Friday, 8 December 2017

Part IV - Vietnam

We tackled the Vietnam border, crossing without incident. Apparently spending too much time filling in the very detailed medical form, it was snatched away from us prematurely by a charming Vietnamese border guard, who barked something incomprehensible and demanded four more dollars. Safe in the knowledge that our health was the state's highest priority, we got onto a bus and headed for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) AKA Saigon. 

In HCMC we used a dodgy looking backstreet travel agent to change some money. Behind and above the woman serving me was a curious sight. Three CCTV cameras, all angled the same way, recording her every move. Clearly you can't be too careful here. However, what I really enjoyed was the fourth camera. Positioned just 50cm to the left, it was pointed at the other three. Ok so the manager is worried that three individual cameras might collude with each other, and the clerk? Brilliant. 

One of the most popular attractions in HCMC is the War Remnants Museum, which until recently was the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. Crikey. So as you can imagine, they don't pull many punches therein. And fair enough, the USA's involvement was without doubt the worst military intervention of the second half of the 20th Century, in terms of material destruction, casualties, war crimes, illegality, chemical weapons usage and unexploded weapons legacy. So in all 'terms' then.

The last four presidents, as well as the beady-eyed, toupe-topped incumbent have all visited Vietnam during their time in office as a mark of respect for the atrocities wrought on this land by their predecessors. This is the official line. What they probably wouldn't admit is that, since the war, the USA has used its global dominance to first ruin Vietnam's economy, then offer it a capitalist olive branch. In the last few decades, they have molded Vietnam into a sycophantic export market and, more importantly, a key military ally / lapdog neighbouring their mighty nemesis China. 

If anyone reading this is interested in how awful the USA was during the Cold War, I implore you to read this illuminating and shocking article: 
https://amp.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/22/vietnam-40-years-on-how-communist-victory-gave-way-to-capitalist-corruption

Thought of the Day: 
Little old Oliver Brown is above average height in Vietnam. This is huge news. Literally. 
How does this make me feel? Good question Oliver. Boring answer though I'm afraid - indifferent. Surely I should feel more confident, more important, more able to reach things, more able to answer the question 'how's the weather up there?' 

On our first morning in HCMC we bagged up several kilograms of laundry and were told we could pick them up the next afternoon. Only later did I realise that this left me with just two clean tops for tomorrow's trip to the War Remnants Museum, where the two main exhibitions are the 1940s / 1950s armed struggle against French colonial rule and of course the Vietnam War, or as its known here, the American War of Aggression. This would have been fine had the two tops in question not been my 'PARIS' stenciled on the back t-shirt and Woody's* Stars & Stripes flag vest. Awkward. 
Luckily our newly clean clothes were actually ready by the morning. Bullet dodged. 

*sorry pal, I've had it for years I know. 

Sadly the Vietnamese love Donald Trump. Our Chu Chi Tunnels tour guide, realising some yanks were aboard the coach, took the opportunity to praise the unlikely leader of the free world. This gesture received a pretty luke warm to ice cold response. Later on when he proclaimed that Vietnam is now 'a peaceful country with no hate' I felt compelled to shout out 'Trump hates' which I did... to yet more luke warmth. Fickle crowd, tough crowd. 

I imagine most of what they hear via state media is that he stands up to China (which they love). I wonder if they hear much about his retweeting far right propaganda, sexually assaulting women, etc etc. 

So far in Vietnam we have heard Westlife's Greatest Hits played in three separate restaurants. I've noticed this previously when abroad; western pop music travels very slowly around the globe. I wonder if they even know that Westlife split up in 2012. I should really say something. 

I love this example in particular because the album in question was the soundtrack to a rather homoerotic holiday in Majorca with my, at the time, newly single pal Nick Fishbourne. For five nights during the summer of love (August 2014) we drank our way through the all inclusive bar and cheered each other up by serenading one another with back to back Irish pop classics on our grotty hotel balcony. Ahh those were the days. 
Update: three separates restaurants and a coffee shop. 

Back to the tunnels. Grace led the charge of 20 odd tourists along a 140m stretch of a very narrow and claustrophobic Vietcong tunnel. We emerged pouring with sweat and with grazed shoulders. I hate to think what it would have been like living and fighting down there year after year. 

Thought of the Day: Brash obnoxious Americans*. They can hardly contain themselves can they. Even when confronted with an iconically tragic and poignant location such as Chu Chi, the area of south Vietnam that came to opitimise the brutal close quarters combat of this conflict. For me it was a somber place. Why is it that some people can't just shut up for an afternoon and demonstrate some quiet reverence for the hundreds of their countrymen who perished, right here, in the most horrific ways imaginable. 

*a generalisation sure, of course many yanks are more measured. Maybe it's just a coincidence that those that I've interacted with in the last two months are very much the 'WE'RE HERE AND EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW THAT' type of insufferable American. 

Thought of the Day: 
I would like to take this opportunity to say how brilliant a travel companion my travel companion is. Grace the backpacker is logical, pragmatic, adventurous, relentlessly positive and most importantly, fun. I'm absolutely over the sun and the moon that she has entrusted me with the position of co-pilot, activity assistant, entertainer and all round adventure partner on this trip of a lifetime. 

Chu Chi was also home to a shooting range, operated by the Army. You could argue that firing a gun for 'sport' is in bad taste considering the range occupies a former battlefield. 

Having read about the pure hell that is modern warfare I wanted to at least experience one realistic aspect of what millions of poor souls have experienced before me. After all, had I been born in the 1890s there's a scary high chance I would have died in the trenches of northern Europe as a volunteer or conscripted soldier. I also put forward indulging my primitive caveman hunting instinct to Grace as further justification. To be honest, a bit of a weak argument. 

Earlier in the day a big group of male tourists had clambered onto a relic US tank, immobilised by a Vietcong mine in 1967. With the same gun-ho grin spread across all their faces they cheered and posed for endless cameras, glorifying a spot where someone likely died. We both found this weird. So I shot them...
a disdainful stare. 

For me there was a difference between that behavior and my first ever gun experience. Mine had been sobering. It left me feeling reflective, not cheerful. 

In the event there was nothing that remarkable about the experience. It's almost disconcertingly familiar; blame childhood computer games. 
Having said that, one thing you're not prepared for is the volume. If you pay to shoot you are provided with ear protection, however when queuing 10m away, the unexpected reports of several rifles are both ear splitting and unnerving. 

Hot countries are bad news for the humble foot, with flips flops offering as much protection as a particularly adept conscientious objector. My pair currently look like they've been dragged through a bush backwards, briefly chewed by a ravenous otter and then pushed back through a bush, forwards. Several of my little mozzy bites from the early days have joined up  to form a conurbation occupying acres of ground; a scabby moonscape born out of the frustratingly inevitable itch then scratch to broken skin combo. 

In addition, recently whilst in flip flops, I strolled through some cleverly hidden barbed wire on the way to a cave. That was a sore point, Olly quipped. Furthermore, my left sandal has rubbed-to-raw nearly every point of contact with that foot, to the amusement of my right foot which has since poked plenty of fun at its unfortunate neighbour. Thankfully, a timely dose of karma played out whence one of my right foot's toe nails inexplicably went black and subsequently fell off. 'Who's the Scabby Scarlet now?!' screeched Lefty with gleeful vengeance.  

The Independence Palace in HCMC was a surprising highlight. This Vietnamese former equivalent to the White House, felt like being in a 1960s pilot episode of MTV's Cribs, with our audio tour narrator describing how pimped out the president's former gaff was. Games room, cinema, heli-pad, torture room, hidden staircase to the underground bunker, etc. Ok there was no torture room. We've heard a lot about torture during our various museum trips. 

I can also now say I've been in a presidents' bedroom. Is that something worth saying? Only time will tell. Useful small talk for meeting a president I imagine. 

We had read pretty damning reviews of Nah Trang, however our favoured next stop - Hoi An - was too long a bus ride. We arrived in Nah Trang with the sun rising over the sea which was nice. The niceties ended there. Vieing to become Russia's Costa Del Sol, the beach strip is a mass of concrete and steel reaching up to a wasted sun. Due to bus timings we had to spend two days on the beach, which of course is not the end of the world, however our time is precious and Nah Trang has about as much culture as the Howard Centre multistory car park in Welwyn Garden City. 

Grace ordered a Banh Mi, the Vietnamese / French classic, from a street food vendor. Watching the man prepare it on the back of his miniaturized motorised mobile kitchen, he first added chicken, then egg to an oiled pan. I was about to shout 'which came first' but thankfully managed to bite my tongue. He had already misunderstood the English for 'one', having begun preparing two baguettes so it was unlikely I would get a chuckle out of him. 

We swooped into Hoi An like a couple of starving culture vultures, excited to be visiting Nha Trang's polar opposite. The Old Town is a very pretty UNESCO World Heritage site. Vietnam's best kept example of a pre-colonial fishing port, with plentiful Japanese and Chinese architectural influence. By night, numerous strings of colorful Chinese lanterns light up every street. A rich man's bunting. 

We spent the day visiting museums, pagodas, markets, bridges and an 18th Century Phung House. Having no idea what a Phung House was, I assumed it must be the Vietnamese equivalent to Pat Sharp's Fun House. To Grace's joy (souring hastily to irritation) I spent the rest of the day singing the theme tune; 'Phung House, all that phung, prizes to be wung'. In the event, the house wasn't even that phun. 

I just deleted a whole section on the adverse weather conditions we experienced in Hoi An. a) it was too Negative Nigel, b) it was all rain based material, too British, c) you have all experienced a seriously heavy deluge before so you get it and d) having felt very sorry for my and Grace's selves I then did some homework and realised central Vietnam has a three month monsoon season and just two weeks ago Hoi An was flooded to over my head height. So I should count ourselves lucky we didn't have to swim around the Phung House. Actually that does sound quite phun. 

Ironically, the chunk of rainy rambling I retired to the trash can came in at a similar word count to the paragraph above. Hmm. Which means they cancel each other out and I should exclude then both right? Wrong. Quantity not quality. That's my mantra. 

All I'll say is that the rain was so bad and the forecast so equally dire that we modified our plans and took the very unusual step of paying for the most luxurious of backpacker luxury items - plane tickets. Goodbye soggy Hoi An, hello cold Hanoi. 

Critter Watch: 
None this week. I don't like to critisise but one criticism of our Vietnam experience would be that our frequency of interactions with critters has plunged to critical levels. Maybe critters are critically endangered here, leaving me little critterial to write about. Instead, all I can do is write this critique and hope for a critterfull future. 

Thought of the Day: when I'm down in the dumps about something and looking for someone, something (can I blame inanimate objects?) to blame for our misfortunes, Grace is usually positive in face of it. Yesterday she told me about a Buddhist parable called The Second Arrow. NB: I think my Buddhist in training pal Woody may have already explained this to me years ago, in a previous life; a reincarnated Goldfish perhaps? Famously forgetful fish. 

In summary, one can't control the suffering inflicted upon them (the first arrow) but they can the second arrow; the additional suffering we all naturally inflict upon ourselves by choosing anger, frustration, sadness, etc. Learn to accept that what's done is done and move on asap. Woody is the embodiment of this mind trick*. I've seen him brush off some mega material losses in the past. 

*come to think of it, this is probably a sentence best reserved for the big guy in the Nirvana sky himself, Mr Buddha. 

Grace has drawn my attention to the modern day digital era embarrassment that is the Instagram Boyfriend. These photoshoots can go on indefinitely as the submissive male struggles to nail the perfect shot that will presumably elevate the female to celebrity status (amongst her friends). After each cheesy catalogue pose, the dominant female will retrieve her phone, likely berate her not so professional photographer for his lack of professional photographer skills, before the process is repeated. We've witnessed these extraordinary (courting?) rituals on a number of occasions and it never ceases to bemuse. 

Hanoi's Old Quarter, where we stayed, was one big market, divided into streets dominated by shops curiously selling the same items. For example, there was stationary street, food street, kitchen utensil street, safe street, and if you're in the market for something a bit more fancy, foreign embassy street. 

Our party hostel provided free walking tours. Stop No.3 was an imitation Notre Darm cathedral. Turns out, before the French colonised Indochina, there was a Buddhist temple in this very spot. When the French arrived they demolished it and replaced it with their Catholic version. Way to ingratiate yourself with the locals guys. They definitely won't rebel now. Also, if god does exit and He (She? It?) practices what He/She preaches in the Bible I imagine It wouldn't be happy with anyone destroying anything belonging to anyone else. Especially not a shrine to the Buddha, who by all accounts and I'm sure Jesus would agree, was a swell guy. I can't imagine a bigger blasfamus slap in the face for Vietnam's Buddhists. 
In summary, I don't understand religion. 

Thought of the Day: I also don't understand Nixon ordering the indiscriminate bombing of Hanoi in 1968. During WWII the US and UK flattened many German cities and towns. Did it win the war? No, it strengthened the resolve of the population and resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of innocents. How was this lesson not learnt!? Nixon was a right **** though. 

Ho Chi Minh, a venerable god in the eyes of the Vietnamese, lies in state in his very own massive Lenin style mausoleum in Hanoi. And what a state he must be in by now, at 127 years old. A morbid curiosity led me to research how we could join the thousands of pilgrims that shuffle past his glass sarcophagus on a daily basis. Unfortunately however every October and November he holidays in sunny Russia, where crucial 'maintenance' is carried out. Presumably some anti-aging cream for those voluptuous wrinkles, an industrial strength face mask, guyliner and some 'Communist Red' lippy.

We visited the 'Hanoi Hilton', a former French colonial prison (now museum). Like HCMC's War Remnants Museum, the exhibitions here were laced with Vietnamese propaganda. Essentially, the message here was; the French treated our Vietnamese revolutionary heroes terribly during the 50s, however in the early 70s we treated downed US Air Force pilots like royalty, despite their indiscriminate bombing of our city. This latter exhibition is named 'Special Guests'. Of course there is plenty of truth in all this, however these guys know how to lay it on thick. 

There is one brilliant example of the museum's content providers implicating themselves in this regard. Posters detailing the stories of several Americans imprisoned include 'direct quotes'. However these so called direct quotes, which depict prison life as some sort of heaven, are written in broken English, surely proving they've been translated from a foreign language right? Hmm. 

Our treat of the day was an exorbitant bottle of beer at Top of Hanoi bar, an outdoor drinkery perched on the roof of Lotte Tower, 272m up (somewhere in between 1 Canary Wharf and the Shard). Old romantic me timed our arrival for sunset and the 360 degree view of this mega city was breathtaking. Unfortunately the pollution from approximately six million mopeds obscures the horizon, creating a mystical fog which hangs in fact quite beautifully between the numerous blocks of flats below. 

Experiencing this perspective got me thinking, then reading online, about cities. Fact of the Day: Did you know, the abandoned derelict section of Detroit is actually the size of the entire city of San Francisco! Crazy. 

For three nights we stayed in a dorm room at THE Hanoi party hostel. This was a good and not so good experience. Having to wear clothes when I could be naked is always going to be an irritation, however it's something we must get used to. In our Autumn Budget, we've had to cut expenditure on housing in 2018; our more pricey South American journey leg. Looks like dormitories will become the norm-itories. 

The End

(American voiceover):

Next time on International Rescue:
  • Embarrassment as Olly fails to explain Limestone Karsts to Grace 
  • Despair as a weather app fails to forecast drizzle  
  • And jubilation as Olly fails to predict a sausage.

Wow! I know I'll be tuning in.

Thank you for reading. 
Donations welcome. 
Love. 
xxx