rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-04-23 04:21

Nha Trang

Vietnam's beach resort par excellence. Spent two days here; the first recovering from the overnight bus from Hoi An, then yesterday we hired a speedboat for fishing and snorkelling.

Fishing was a waste of time; nothing bigger than your hand, and only about six of the little bastards for three hours work. Apparently the fish bite first thing in the morning, before heading out to deeper water in the heat of the day, but it was all I could do to motivate the rest of these lot to come out at 0900, leat alone 0600. Snorkelling was grand, but would have been better if the damn fins had been big enough, or if the mask would just stop filling with water. Nha Trang is hotter even than Hoi An, and it's practically impossible to do anything outside from about 1000-1500.

Our bus to Da Lat just artrived, I have to go.


2006-04-19 03:39

Hoi An

Went to the Cham ruins at My Son yesterday with Thuan and the gang, but it was far too hot to actually do anything and we all got fearsomely sunburnt. The ruins were used by both VC and American forces during the war, and consequently were bombed into oblivion - there's not a whole lot left to see. Ticket price includes a ride from the road to the start of the ruins in a real live United States Marine Core jeep left over from the war.

It was a strange parting - as soon as it came to talking about money, Thuan got very quiet and seemed a bit sad. I'm unsure whether he felt we weren't giving him enough, or if he justfound talking about money distasteful - it's certainly weird for me, since we've become quite good mates over the past few days, but that's where it comes to the crunch - this is his living.

Hoi An is Tailor Town, and everyone gets clothes made to measure here, at stupidly cheap prices. Consequently, we're spending more time here than I want to waiting for next-day clothing service.

Today we're going to wander about the old town, once the sun cools a bit, and probably get on a bus tomorrow for Nha Trang, Vietnam's premier beach resort.


2006-04-17 18:30

Redemption by motorcycle

We did finally get a good meal in Hue, at the Tropical Garden Restaurant. We ordered two disshes each, and had a pretty wide variety of traditional Hue cuisine, and it was all good. Afterwards we went to the DMZ bar, your garden variety of asia-tourist bar, playing Santana, and with graffiti on the walls; after the stroke of midnight it was Ossie's birthday, and in his honour I attempted to make a round of Irish Carbombs. An Irish Carbomb is a cocktail which is quite simply a pint of stout with a shotglass filled with 50/50 irish whiskey and bailey's dropped into it; however the DMZ bar had no stout (only local lager); no irish whiskey (johnny walker it is, then) and no shotglasses, so I just poured the whiskey and cream in. The resultant mixture curdled and was appalling. The Vietnamese Carbomb comes with my lowest recommendation.

Following my tirade the other day, I'd decided a change of plan was in order. When surrounded by snakes and rats and idiots, I've found it's best to seek out someone who's not, and stick to them. In this case, that someone is Thuan, who does motorbike tours out of Hue. Deb and Ossie and I hired him and two bikes, of which I drove one, for a trip around the old Nguyen tombs south of Hue city. The tombs themselves were pretty good - the tomb of Emperor Tu Duc, who had 104 wives and untold numbers of concubines but died childless, is more like a garden than a tomb; and fair enough, since you'd want your spirit to be at home, as an emperor. But the main attraction of all of this was riding about, seeing what there was to see and more or less pleasing ourselves. Another tomb was a wide circular stone wall surrounded by a moat in which old men caught fish. Inside the wall is very dense, lush jungle. The doors are permanently locked; Thuan says because there are many poisonour snakes in there. Whether to guard the tomb, or simply as a consequence of being left alone for long enough I'm not sure, but it is very much a forbidden jungle city.

After the tombs and so on, we went to a local restaurant - if restaurant isn't too strong a word for plastic chairs and tables under a tarpaulin. The food was the most simple - raw peanuts (soft and creamy, not hard and nutty); grilled pork and bitter leaves to wrap it in; garlic and lemongrass and chillies and salt and lime and fresh green peppercorns to flavour it with. Back into town and a few more beers (an Irishman's birthday never passes without much beer being drunk), followed by vietnamese hot-pot, much like the chinese/mongolian kind. I talked a lot with Thuan - like most asians, he's clearly worried that we've been married for five years already, but have no kids. He told us a bit about Vietnamese family planning, how Vietnamese hate using medical birth control or fertility treatments, but how women manage families by knowing when they're fertile. He also claimed to be able to choose the gender of a child at conception - if you go deep, he says, it'll be a boy - shallow, and it'll be a girl. He chose a girl for his first child, because he remembers how much trouble he and his older brother got into, and he wants his family to have a calmer life. He'd also bet 10,000d on Blackburn Rovers to beat Liverpool. If they win 2-1, he gets 200,000d; 3-2 he gets 300,000d; 2-0 he gets 600,000d; 1-1 draw, 60,000d. I'm not sure how they work those odds out. As it happens, Blackburn lost 0-1, so he lost his 10,000d.

While sitting there, we were joined by three incredibly drunk but very convivial Frenchmen in their 40s - Christophe, Phillipe and Pascal. Christophe was a roofing salesman, and Phillipe and Pascal his two top clients in the construction business - both had bought over a million euros in rooves in the past year, and were being treated to a couple weeks in L'Indochine on Christophe's company. The poor owners of the hot-pot place were up well past their bedtime. Christophe tried to pay the bill with a 20 euro note, which the old woman wouldn't take because she didn't recognise it; Thuan recognised it, and changed it on the spot for her for the remainder of the bill, about 200,000d. 20 euro is worth about 400,000d, but Thuan was the only one who seemed to realise this, and in the end everyone went away happy. So it was back to the DMZ for us - the only place open late is a foreigner bar. Much silliness ensued; a beer fight of mammoth proportions, and an arm-wrestling competition in which I beat Ben and Phillipe by the narrowest of margins before the owner threw us all out for being too noisy, and throwing beer everywhere.

A little before the beer fight, about 2am, Deb had said she'd go down the road to the ATM, but on instinct I told her to stay, and went instead; being hassled all the while by siclo drivers - "you want ride? you want massage? my sister give good massage, only fie dollah..." etc. I told them all to piss off, but when I came out of the ATM box, three had set their siclos up like a corral, and were right up close: "you get money? we go now..." I told them (truthfully, since the ATM didn't work) that I didn't have any money and went to the other ATM across the road, which was also out of order - normal in Asia. When I came out this time, FIVE of them had set up, and they made a circle around me, right in my face, close enough to smell their stale-smoke breath. I'm quite certain if I'd got money out of the ATM I'd have had a fight on my hands, but as it was they'd seen the machine didn't work, so I just pushed them out of the way and went back to the bar, happy that it was me and not Deb who'd come out. When I mentioned it in the bar, Ben and Os, both normally very peaceable chaps, were all for going outside and having them there and then, but I talked them out of it. I do think the Frenchmen would have been on our side too. Phillipe used to play flanker for one of the Top 14 clubs - Toulouse or Lyon, maybe. Yet more proof that the taxi mafia are the scum of the earth. Thuan and Nam were horrified when I told them about this, and about the incident at the Hue - Da Nang turnoff a few nights earlier; they hate the mafia as much as we do for spoiling their reputation as honest workers.

The next morning, at about midday, Deb and Os and I got on bikes with the three amigos: Thuan and his mates Nam and Hoa, and off we went to Hoi An. Thuan is 26, married a year and has a daughter almost two months old; he's smart and funny and chatty and always complains about how much everything costs, but is a very careful driver. Nam is older; 29 he says, but he looks about 35; handsome, quiet and serious; speaks fluent English and I get the feeling he's the leader of the pack, the wise one the others look up to. He drives fast and loose, like he's been doing it for years, which I suppose he probably has. Hoa is much younger; shy and quiet, smiles a lot and tries to keep up with Nam. Packs and all, on a 110cc scooter. These things are effectively a nifty fifty with gears; not the sort of vehicle anyone in NZ would consider taking on the open road. In Vietnam, however, it's perfectly sensible to do so, since the bulk of the other traffic on the roads is precisely these same bikes. Mostly Hondas, between 50 and 125cc, these things are used to transport everything from one person to a whole family (I've seen dad, mum, and three kids on the one bike), livestock (one farmer and four pigs; two in crates, two tied on their backs across the seat - alive), furniture (refrigerator; coke machine; bed - no problem!), firewood and vegetables and bolts of silk and, really, anything else you care to think of. These bikes are Vietnam's all-purpose transportation system. They cruise at about 50km/h, which gives you plenty of time to see and smell and hear the country. I am convinced they are the ideal means of getting around.

We stopped off at Elephant Spring, so named because water runs from the trunk of a rock carved in the shape of an elephant. It was green and clear, and the pool is four metres deep; deep enough to dive from the rock three metres above, which I did. Next stop was for lunch on the northern side of Hai Van mountain - the bus goes through the tunnel the French (?) made through the mountain, missing the spectacular views from the pass. As it turns out, we missed the views too, since we were well up in the clouds by the 800 metre pass. Coming into Hoi An, as we had seen leaving Hue, there were dozens of young women in ao dai - traditional Vietnamese costume; tight-fitting pants and tunic which buttons to the neck, with long gloves, hats and silk scarves. The front and back panels of the tunic reach down to the knees, like a dress with split sides; all in a colour somewhere between white and lilac, silk, all riding bicycles with baskets on the front. Every inch of skin is covered, to prevent it from browning in the sun, and they look like princesses on bicycles as a consequence. I asked Nam what the story was, and it turns out that ao dai is the uniform for girls' high schools and universities. The whole trip of 130-some kilometres took about five hours, with two hours of messing about. As a contrast, the bus takes four hours, with no stoppage.

The hotel here in Hoi An is brand new, and very well turned out, despite its $10 cheapness. So new that the restaurant upstairs doesn't yet serve food (just chairs and tables), and the internet in the rooms (from which I write this) doesn't work properly; but still, at 6000d per hour, you can't really complain too much. The water filling the bath is also an unsettling brown colour - like the water is tainted with the red dirt of the central coast, like it's been pumped from a newly-dug bore, which it probably has. Tomorrow we're probably off to see the ruins of My Son, the old capital of Champa, a nation which was absorbed by Vietnam in the 16th century, before the boys head back to Hue.

It's good to ride a motorbike again - it's been bloody years since I did, but it's easy enough to pick up again. I convinced Thuan to let Ossie have a ride on one of the automatic (gearless) bikes, and he almost crashed it into a tree - poor bastard never learned to ride a bike on account of getting hit by a car while learning when he was six, so a motorbike might be a bit tricky. That's another job for tomorrow - Ossie riding a bike.


2006-04-15 10:04

Friends and Enemies

As so often happens in Asia, when one thinks things are going smoothly, something is just waiting in the wings to fuck you up. I'd left a bond of 140,000d (about US$9) for the chilly bin, and ought to have been more skeptical about doing so. In places where there is no real rule of law, no consumer guarantees act, nobody who cares if you get ripped off, once you hand over money you've effectively lost it; so it was no surprise when the people who'd been so friendly the day before refused to give back my bond for the chilly bin. I hassled them about it, and the whole family was eventually brought in - husband, brothers, little sister about ten years old. After about ten minutes of arguing the toss, they got around to making an actual claim to the money, instead of just "It's ours, you can't have it, so there." The claim consisted of the fact that I'd not brought the empty beer bottles back to them for recycling - I'd given them to an old woman up the road so as not to have to carry them. Ok, fair enough - they want some compensation for not being able to reuse bottles - but they wanted 5,000d (US$0.30) per bottle, by 14 bottles, meaning they were prepared to give back only half the money. This is bloody stupid given that a FULL beer costs 6,000d, but no amount of good-natured banter, mathematics, argument, logic, swearing, taking additional beers as collateral, threatening to take the chilly bin back, etc, would make them budge from it. There were five men and three women, only one of me, and I was in their house so there was only so far I could push it. After half an hour chasing after five bucks, I decided to give up, and as a parting gesture (or as a sign of victory, or compensation) they gave me a big glass of rot-gut moonshine out of a yellow jerry can, which I had to down in one to preserve what little self-respect I had left. I was hot and tired and pissed off and hadn't eaten; the stuff made me feel ill, then drunk, then sleepy. We had lunch in town and got a room, where I slept most of the day.

By the time I awoke it was night-time, and had been raining for a few hours, and had cooled down from high 30s to mid-20s. We went to a restaurant recommended by one of the cafe owners, and they were utterly unable to serve us. They had food, but showed no willingness to make any, to bring us a menu, to make use of our phrasebooks to tell us what was available, or basically to do anything other than stand and stare. This is a problem We encountered never in Korea and rarely in China, but seems to be quite common in rural Vietnam - people just don't have any clue what to do with you, so they do nothing. The Vietnamese are generally outgoing, tend to share a laugh and do have a very strong can-do attitude, but occasionally you just run up against people who are unable to grasp the fact that you need help, or are just too fucking stupid to actually help in any way. Where there is a will, there really is a way, and there's nothing more frustrating than walking into a restaurant (ticket office, shop, hotel, post office, taxi, etc) and having to deal with someone who just won't help you, even though it's their job, and in their financial interests to do so. So we decided to go to the Sao Mai Floating Restaurant, moored on the river, where we encountered a slightly different variant of the abovementioned attitude, consisting of two parts: 1. Not Having A Fucking Clue What's Going On and 2. Being Cynically Literal. The first part manifested itself in trying to take an order by committee, and simply not being able to tell us what was on the menu and what not. Roast Salt Crab was on, then off, then on again, then finally off. Sweet and Sour Prawns were on twice, then off twice, then finally on again. Grilled Fish and Fish With Vegetables were different dishes, but when they came out, they were identical. The second part, and most egregious of all, Ben and Ossie pointed to prawns and held up one finger, the universally recognised symbol for 'one dish of these' and got ONE prawn each, for US$3. Big prawns, but still beyond a joke. These are not issues with translation; it took us half a fucking hour to order the fucking food with phrasebooks. These are issues arising directly by people being fucking idiots, or arseholes trying to rip us off, or both.

We'd decided, for the next day, to head out to the old DMZ at Vinh Moc, on the way to Hue (pron. Hwey), but that entailed catching the open tour bus again the next morning. The bus was due at about 0400, but since the bus we'd caught had arrived about 0600, we were skeptical of the need to be out and waiting so early. Nevertheless, we were indeed out there and waiting for two hours for the bus to arrive. We got into Ho Xa about 0730 and settled in for coffee and noodles at a roadside cafe. Not 30 seconds after leaving the bus, we'd been swarmed by the Motorbike Taxi Mafia, trying to gouge us 100,000 each to go 14km to and from the VC tunnels at Vinh Moc, on the DMZ. A reasonable price would have been about a third of that. Then there was the issue of what to do with our packs; a perennial problem when you travel with all your worldly goods in a bulky 20kg sack. My attitude towards this is that, no matter what you do, you have to put your trust in someone - whether a luggage room attendant or a hotel owner or a ticket officer, that person effectively holds your worldly goods at ransom, and there's nothing you can do about it except be polite, pay money for them to look after it well, and if they have a shop, patronise it in the name of goodwill. After some debate about other options, we decided to leave our gear in the care of the old lady who ran the cafe in the front room of her house. The Taxi Mafia weren't budging from 80,000d per person, so we decided to walk and see what transpired. It was cool and overcast, and only about 0900, and after all, 14km isn't THAT far for a nice walk in the countryside. The Motomafia thought we were insane, and they eventually offered 50,000d each, then finally 40,000d each, but by that time we'd decided they and their belligerence and their price-gouging and their hassling the old lady for letting us store our packs (for which they'd gleefully charge extra, and then charge a minder's fee for, and probably open anyway) could go and fuck themselves.

It was a nice walk, quiet and calm and cool, with kids on bikes and young adults on motorbikes and old men in old banger trucks and old women herding water buffalo very curious indeed as to what we were doing and where we were going. At about KM 3 (Vietnamese roads have markers every kilometre, for addressing purposes), an old guy in an ancient IFA truck offered us a lift. Three of us in his cab, and Ben and Ossie riding on top of the load of wood in the back, it was a crazy old ride on a bumpy dirt track. These are the sort of trucks which keep Vietnam running. I think they're French, though they might be Russian, and seem to be of 1950s vintage. They rattle and shake and look and feel as if they're going to fall apart at any moment, but all indications are that the engine was in fine form - oil pressure, battery charge, temperature gauge all squarely in the green, pulling a full load of wet timber. He dropped us off at KM 7 without accepting any payment, and a short while later a kid on a bike started riding alongside us, just looking and listening. Soon enough we came to his village, and decided to have a beer (though it was only 1000, we'd been up for nearly seven hours already). About a dozen local kids turned up for the spectacle, and our little dude on the bike was clearly the English Scholar amongst them. His name was Duong Minh Vuong, he was in class 6E at the Big School (not the Little School, he was sure to advise) and we chatted for ages about where we were from and where going, how far it was to Vinh Moc (either 2km or 2 hours, he wasn't sure), about Chelsea and Frank Lampard and Manchester United (though he'd never heard of David Beckham), swapped addresses so we could send him photos. In rural Vietnam on a Friday school doesn't start until 1130, so when we saw him later, he was in his school uniform and racing off on his bike. A few minutes after leaving the village, another old geezer waved us down, and beckoned us into his house - a dark building with a dirt floor, bare rafters made of tree branches, and a corrugated iron roof. He offered us something from a metal samovar, which we couldn't decide whether it was weak tea or just vegetal-tasting drinking water, but nevertheless it was what he had to offer, so we drank it. He lived there with his betel-chewing wife and two children in their 20s. He and his son are wood carvers and cabinetmakers cranking out ornately carven and lacquered liquor cabinets, coffee tables, bedsteads and dressers, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and shipping out to furniture shops the western world over from their dirt-floored cabin in central Vietnam.

Only about another hour later, we came to Vinh Moc itself, and had noodles outside the gate. A couple of Quebecois were there, having come on a tour on the back of motorbike from Hue, more than 100km away. Vietnam's biggest motorcycles are 125cc, and the trip from Hue takes about three hours, which meant they'd gotten on the bikes at about the same time as we'd started walking. I bet their arses hurt more than our feet, and I hate to think what a trip from Hue costs if 14km from Ho Xa is 20,000.

The Viet Cong tunnel complex at Vinh Moc is the largest still in existence in Vietnam, if you exclude those which the Vietnamese army has maintained in active use in case of another land war. These comprise almost 2km of tunnel on three levels, all dug by hand in 1966 and 1967, and are connected into central Vietnam's 2,000km covered-trench network. They differ from most of the other tunnels in that these were built and mainly used not for fighting, but for living in - there was space for 96 families, a meeting chamber which doubled as a schoolhouse and theatre, wells, even a maternity hospital. There are 13 exits, half out to the coast, where this complex formed the northern end of the Ho Chi Minh Sea Trail, and half up the hill near the river which formed the border between North and South Vietnam from 1954 to 1975. It all sounds very grand, and it is - a massive feat of labour and design and engineering - but the fact remains that these are tunnels carved from bed rock, and there's no comfort in them. The ceiling is about 1.5 metres high - low enough that you have to walk hunched over. A family living area is about two square metres; the maternity ward was about the same, perhaps a little larger. The most grandiose chamber of all, for councils of war and propaganda movie screenings and concerts is sixteen metres long, two metres wide, two metres high, and could supposedly accomodate about eighty people. There were ten of us in there and the heat was unbearable. The tunnels were in constant use from their construction in 1966 until 1972, when the Viet Cong had mostly taken back control of the DMZ. Seventeen children were born and lived their childhoods there, and nobody knows how many people died.

Getting away from Vinh Moc was a comedy of errors. The Mototaxi Mafia were still gouging, wanting 40,000d each for the one-way trip this time. There was one taxi driver there, who wanted 45,000d each. When I told him we'd pay 50,000d for the whole car, he told me to walk and refused to negotiate further. A young guy turned up with a family of fat Americans (ok, I have no way of knowing for sure they were Americans, but the LOOKED like Americans) and a guide in a rental car, the guide and family went off down the tunnels, and he agreed to take us back to Ho Xa for 100,000d, but took a wrong turn, and ended up driving about 25km and dropping us off back on Highway 1. He gave me 50,000d back, because he had to get back before his Americans finished their tour, and drove off before realising that I hadn't yet given him his 100,000d for the ride. Poor bastard. I had realised, but was so pissed off about being driven out of our way and dropped off in an unknown location, with no means of getting back to our packs, that I hadn't said anything. As it turned out, Ho Xa was only 6km North, and we crammed ourselves into a minivan. We flagged down a bus to Hue for 200,000, a trip which took three hours instead of two because the bus stopped for an hour for dinner, and got dropped off on the Hue-Da Nang turnoff in the dark and rain.

Here is where it became clear again that the Motorcycle Taxi Mafia are the lowest scum in Southeast Asia, except perhaps for German sex tourists. Hue City is 20km away, they said - we'd seen a sign which said 6km. We had to pay 100,000 per person, and we were lucky, because the packs should cost extra. Bear in mind that we'd just paid 200,000d for all five of us AND our packs to come more than 100km from Ho Xa, and even THAT had been the Special Foreign Millionaire Price. We told him we'd call a taxi and get a bit of healthy competition going. There are no taxis here, they said - I'd seen one from the bus not five minutes earlier and we had the phone numbers of no less than FOUR taxi companies in Hue. I went across the road to call a taxi at a house with a smart little kid who spoke good English, asked for a dollar for the service - which I gave him, just to spite the Taxi Motherfuckers, who'd come into the house to bully the kid's mother into not helping me, and, failing that, to get her to jack the price up withe the taxi company. The 30 minutes we then spent waiting for the taxi was very tense. The Scum knew they'd lost the fight, but they hung around anyway, to intimidate us, and the hapless taxi driver, when he eventually turned up. All pretense of jocularity and goodwill had gone by now. One guy of about nineteen sat his bike in front of Jen, not a metre away, and revved it, looking at her with a 'You'd better move or I'll run you over' smirk. Jen, wearing a pack bigger than the kid's 50cc honda, stared him down and he buggered off. It was a situation which could very easily have gotten ugly, and although we outweighed and outmuscled them, there were about 10 bikes worth. There hasn't been real, impartial rule of law in Vietnam since before the French - well over a century. Perhaps there never has been, and nobody bothers to go to the police. Disagreements are settled by the wronged party being paid money by the other party, and disputes as to who is the wronged party are resolved by fighting. What this means is that, regardless of right or wrong, the locals are always the winners of any dispute. This goes double for foreigners. So, nothing to do but wait for the taxi driver. He looked at a hotel card Ben had gotten from one of the drivers in Vinh Moc and agreed to take us for US$10 - 150,000d. After we piled in, we saw him outside talking with the Evil Motherfuckers, and we saw him give them some money - protection money. Clearly they considered him to be taking their business, even though we'd chosen his company at random. We made him turn the meter on, and he got us there for 130,000d. Sure enough, he then asked 20,000d extra - what he'd had to pay the motorbike fuckers.

After all this, the hotel was a breeze. The simple pleasures of people saying a room will be $7, and it actually being $7; saying there'll be a double bed and there actually being a double bed; saying the aircon works and it actually working. It didn't last long, though - we went to a restaurant attached to another guesthouse a couple doors own; they took half an hour to get us a beer, ran out of local beer, so we had to drink tiger which is both shit and expensive; most of the food didn't arrive, and they ran out of rice. A restaurant in Asia running out of rice! Koreans would die of shame if such a thing happened - you're supposed to always have rice and tea on hand, and traditionally anyone who turns up at your house is entitled to ask for and be given rice and tea, as a common courtesy. I flew off the handle at this, went and tore strips off the hapless owner, and we came back to our own hotel for a beer (which they had, as well as rice).

A very long sleep followed.

The next day we set off in the rain for lunch, stopping at a fairly swank place with fishtanks and cane chairs in a covered courtyard. It had a good menu of mostly Vietnamese food, so we thought here might be a chance to actually get a good meal in. Not so. Bread and chips never arrived, noodle soup with crab came in a thimble-sized bowl, and grilled pork chop and pork in banana leaf were identical - except one was twice the price of the other.

At this point, after ten days in Vietnam, several things occur to me:

1. There are two kinds of people in Vietnam: those who are in or stand to make money from the tourist business, and those who aren't. 90% of the former are crooked as a barrel of fucking snakes, will take you for everything you have, will take you for a fool, and will smile and be very polite to your face while laughing behind your back. 90% of the latter are decent and reasonable, and are prepared to treat you like a normal human being who expects a good or service in exchange for money, and doesn't appreciate being treated like a fucking idiot.
2. Vietnam is a country sorely lacking in thinkers. Of schemers it has plenty, but people who can plan, organise, test and implement systems for improving their country are few and far between. This is unsurprising, since for the last couple of centuries those people have been systematically killed off by local despots, the French, the Viet Minh, the Americans, the Viet Cong and the Communists.
3. Vietnam, after abovementioned centuries of strife and misery, now knows nothing but war, and approaches tourism as war, and tourists as an enemy to be fought and vanquished. Weapons have changed, and the prize is no longer independence as a nation: it's getting as many foreign dollars as possible while expending as little effort as possible.

I'm being simplistic, and cynical, but it is the cynicism of the Vietnamese which inspires it in me. I can literally count on one hand the Vietnamese I've had any meaningful interaction with who haven't either tried to screw us over or promised something they were never able to deliver. Virtually everyone I've met in this country treats us like enemies to be plundered - they practice their techniques and take pride in their exploits; they laugh when you lose, but they do not laugh when you don't lose. In most, there seems to be no spirit of goodwill, no inclination to treat foreigners as people, no hospitality or respect. I think (it's certainly true for me) that this encourages cynicism and meanness on the foreign side, as well. I've come to treat all Vietnamese with suspicion and eventually hostility. Bargaining here is a matter of winning, not a matter of coming to an agreement over the value of something. Let's be clear about something: I'm not wanting special prices or special treatment. I'm not stupid enough to think that I can get (or deserve) to pay local prices for food or services or anything. All I want and expect is for things to be reasonable. It appears that not even the laws of economics hold sway here - we sometimes can't get a good or service for even double the price the locals would get it for. Because we're foreigners, the seller wants triple, even when it becomes clear we won't buy the fucking thing for triple. The seller misses an opportunity and I get nothing; nobody wins.


2006-04-13 04:09


Hiring a jeep without a driver in Ha Noi seems to cost about US$50 per day, plus all expenses. A driver is an extra $15 per day, and then you have to pay for all his food and accompodation and so on. These prices are particularly reasonable when split amongst five people, but amidst doubts about the sanity of driving 2,500km in Vietnam's famously dangerous roads and the inability to settle down for more than a couple days, we decided on the standard means of travel: Vietnam's equally famous Open Tour - a $21 bus ticket from Ha Noi to HCMC, allowing you to get off and back on at any major stop. This is a stupidly cheap ticket, and it apparently runs on the back of kickbacks and scams perpetrated on unwary tourists. The bus itself left Ha Noi on the 11th at about 2000, and to our great amusement, was formerly a Seoul City bus - stickers showing its route were still there, and there was a decal saying "Seoul Station -> Gwanghwamun" in Korean on the window. As we left, we were pumping to Vietnamese heartache rock, but it was mercifully killed in the name of sleep. The bus itself was full of foreign tourists - only two or three Vietnamese.

We decided to get off at Dong Hoi, a little-known place only just on the route, with a crazy scheme to buy a tarp and a grill and have us some beach campin'. After a cruel 10 hours, we rolled in a little after 0600 and got coffeed up on Ca Phe Phin, the amazingly strong Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk in. Ben and Ossie and I went off in search of a vehicle, without which we weren't sure how we'd find the beach or transport our gear. There are no cars available for rent in Dong Hoi, and I'm the only one who's ever ridden a motorbike, so we put the vehicle thing on hold for a while. Deb and Jen and I, while walking to the market, found that we were actually pretty close to a beach, and then at the market we found all the very things we needed to camp it up. We bought ten metres of tarp and a bunch of string, Ben had bought a cane knife with a hook on it in Ha Noi, some vegetables and fruit, a watermelon, a hunk of water buffalo which cost 52,000d, oil and chili sauce and five spice and limes and sugar which I thought was salt, a box of beer and some water, and off we went by taxi van to the beach.

By this time it was about 1100, and incredibly, painfully hot. We wandered along the coast a short way, and where the road turned inland, found a small pine forest out of sight on the road, sheltered, and right on a deserted white-sand beach. We boys set about turning tarp into tent while the womenfolk paddled in the water while pretending to chill the beer and water and keep the meat cool. The sun and heat was ferocious. Apparently this is an unseasonable heatwave; temperatures of 36 degrees in Ha Noi are strictly for the middle of summer. I'd also bought a couple blocks of ice, which we used to keep a few beers at a sensible temperature. After lunch and a swim, Ossie and I struck a deal with some locals a short way down the road, whereby we'd buy some beer and water off them, and get to borrow their chilly bin full of ice. The fire was hampered by lack of firewood (apparently not only whitey has this idea), and we made beef and vegetable kebabs, and grilled shrimp on a stick. After not sleeping on the bus and everything, Ben and Jen decided they wanted a hotel room, and Ossie slept out on the beach under a full moon, so Deb and I had the tent to ourselves - well, ourselves and 100,000,000 bugs.

It's now about 1000, and we're deciding whether to go next to the DMZ or carry on the whole way to Hue or Da Nang. The hotels and resorts across the road from us have been cranking the karaoke since about 0700, and it's already getting painfully hot again, but life on a beach is pretty good.


2006-04-07 07:40

Ha Noi

Yesterday morning in Lang Son, I went for a random wander up one of the main side streets; cement and rebar houses in a similar style to Korea alternate with French townhouses and square maansions painted yellow with mangy gardens out front. The townhouses are the most bizarre thing - the prototypes of a hundred years ago were clearly designed by French architects wanting to recreate their homeland in Indochine, but the builders and finishers, clearly Vietnamese, haven't quite understood that they're all supposed to sit side by side, in a row. Throughout Northern Vietnam, there are two-storey, narrow-frontage townhouses with a porch at bottom and a balcony on top, the front gaily painted and decorated, with no windows on either side, and with the sides left finished in plain cement.

We ate lunch at a dog restaurant, much to Jen's horror, and I was successful on flagging down a hiace van going to Ha Noi. Their starting fare: 50,000d per person; eventually they were happy to take all six and our packs for 200,000. There was some debate as to whether we'd all fit, but one should never misunderestimate the ability of Asian people to utilise space efficiently; not only did we and all our packs fit; also the driver and the three other passengers and two more we picked up along the way. The trip took two and a half hours; half the time quoted in Ronery Pranet, whose Vietnam edition appears to be approximately as useful as the China book.

Taxi drivers at the Northern bus station in Ha Noi tried their best to rip us off, with a complicated double-team involving misquoted meter rates, a broken meter in one cab, supposed confusion about the unit of currency we were dealing in, and blatant bullshit "We travel 50 kilometres! Rearry!" 20 minutes' drive through streets choked with bicycle and motorcycle traffic doesn't get you 5 kilometres, let alone 50. They wanted 120,000d per car; in the end I left 25,000 on the roof of one cab and we waked away. They must have been happy with it, since they drove away instead of trying to chase us down.

In the meantime, Ben and Jen had been collared by a hotel tout; despite me having told him to piss off earlier, and they agreed to go to his hotel. As a general rule, I never take offers from touts unless I have no other choice - no matter how nice they are and how good the deal seems, there's always some sting in the tail. The initial sting was that it was a bloody long walk from where we were, no rooms were ready for us, one room had no double bed and no aircon, etc. I'll keep you posted about the rest. The guy who runs it is suspiciously lax about money - he says we don't have to pay until we check out, and was fuzzy on a few details.

The Old Quarter of Ha Noi is more or less overrun by scruffy-looking, half-dressed types such as ourselves, and naturally enough the scamsters who make money, legitimately or otherwise, off them. The highlights appear to be tap beer (bia hoi) for 1500 - 3000d per glass, Good Morning Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh t-shirts, beadware, tours to Ha Long and Cat Ba, motorcycles for rent, etc. We wandered around and found a restaurant which suspiciously ran out of tap beer just before our food came, requiring us to either stop drinking or pay three to five times the price for bottled beer. I bought a bootleg copy of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places from a street vendor who claimed I was depriving him of food because I wouldn't pay his outrageous opening price. We found another bia hoi joint, and Ossie got a glass with a whole grain of rice blown into it - blown into the glass itself, sealed like a bug in amber. We tried to talk with an incomprehensibly wankered Frenchman and his Vietnamese minder who is the spitting image of Christopher Walken - the Deer Hunter. The likeness is frightening, and we had to use the old 'group photo' trick to get his picture. Lang Son closes down at about 2100; Ha Noi isn't much better and the only places open after 2330 were mood-lit pop-music-blaring yuppie-drink bars.

The hotel was shut and locked, and the staff were curled up alsleep on the floor when we got back. Someone (presumably staff) had been into our hotel room and turned down the bed covers, put a tropical lily on the pillow and taken (but not replaced) our wet towel. Very strange.


2006-04-06 05:12

The Friendship Pass

The Friendhip Pass connects China and Vietnam between Pingxiang and Dong Dang. It shouldn't be comfused with the Friendship Highway which connects the Tibetan Autonomous Region with Nepal, or the Friendhip Bridge which connects Laos and Vietnam with China, further West.

I must say, if all land borders are as straightforward as the Friendship Pass, we'll be in for an easy trip. We caught an overnight train from Guangzhou to Nanning, getting in at 0430; played cards with Ben and Jenny, an English couple on the same train, traveling from London to settle in Australia - tattooed, pierced, dreadlocked and all round decent folk. Got the 0758 to Pingxiang, arriving at 1140. Coming out of the station there were more than the usual hundreds of motorcycle and taxi touts - there's nothing much to do in Pingxiang other than cross the border, so they all want to take you right there. Besieged by six or ten of them was an asian dude with a backpack and an atlas: Taiji, a Japanese science teacher taking six months off from teaching before starting two years voluntary work in rural Mongolia. We split up, with Deb, Jenny and I settling down for a beer and the other three going to the Bank of China to change some kuai into dong. BoC couldn't change money, so it was off to the black marketeers - Ben ended up getting more than he bargained for - he traded enough kuai for about 1,100,000d and came out with about 1,400,000. Checking the notes at the bank, apparently they're all real.

Two motocabs took us to the border. There's a good seal road in both directions - it clearly gets a lot of bus and truck traffic in the right season, but on this particular day we were almost the only people there. The pass is a cleft in a jagged range of karts hills, with thick jungle on both sides, and very little development. Not long ago (post American War) this was a semi-active warzone between China and Vietnam. If you ignore the earthmovers and the hollow steel and concrete and glass buildings, it's a beautiful place. It's sleepy, the guards are unarmed and slow to respond. Security is lax enough that we could, and did, walk right through Vietnamese passport control, customs and immigration without anyone saying boo; realising our mistake, we turned around and bothered people until they gave us forms and so on to sign.

There were two cars on the other side; i thought it strange that there were only two, but that's all we needed, and they settled on a fair price, so off we went. True to form, they dropped us off at the 'minibus station' where we were quoted 200,000d per person to Ha Noi - a realistic price is 30,000d. We weren't having this, and quoted 20,000d each back to him, then 200,000d for all of us. Furious bargaining ensued, during which we thought, fuck it, let's just walk the rest of the way into Lang Son and go to the real bus station. He walked along next to us dropping by 50,000d every few minutes; eventually he went back to the minibus, which drove slowly alongside, lowering the price even further. By the time he caved in and agreed to 200,000d, we'd decided by coin toss to stay in Lang Son and go to Ha Noi in the morning. He was very disappointed.

We stopped for a beer, served warm with ice in the glass, at a curious faux-French colonial building painted yellow; it's still not clear what the purpose of the establishment was, since they clearly didn't serve much beer; only bottles of Ha Noi Vodka and some other booze in white porcelain bottles. We theorised it may have been a whorehouse, but if it was, it was one of the most subtle I've ever seen; nothing lurid about it, no tarty girls or made-up madams. Eventually we found the My Son Hotel (My Son is in Vietnamese - there's a ~ over the y and a ' over the o - no idea what it means) - big rooms with aircon and cold showers, of which we quickly availed ourselves.

Next door to My Son, a cafe served beers on tap for 3,000d each - US$1 is about 15,000d - and we sat and nattered with the locals for some hours. There were repeated arguments over price - it appears the Vietnamese can't count, add or subtract. If they were trying to rip us off, I expect they could have done better than 4,000d. The whole of Lang Son shuts down at about 2100 - everything dark except an internet room and a roadside dairy; the hotel opened up their restaurant for us, woke the chef up and all. We're going to have to realign our daycycles.

Initial impressions of Vietnam are that the countryside is similar to Southern China, but the people and architecture and culture are very different. Perhaps it's a border-town thing, but rural Vietnamese seem savvier and a bit more tricky than rural Chinese, and overall Vietnamese seem a lot friendlier and more outgoing; more prepared to have a talk or share a beer or some food or something, even if neither speaks a word of the other's language.

Today is going to be all about Ca Phe Phin (Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk) and croissants wwhen we get to Ha Noi.


2006-04-03 10:50

City of Sales

Guangzhou appears to be the Known World's Source For Everything. You can buy anything here. I imagine there are various sites all over the huge city, but the bit we've seen most of is about a block from, and running parallel to, the Pearl River in the old city of Panyu (the city was called Panyu during the Han; now that section is all concession-era buildings). This area is now riddled with markets and shops, most notably a dry goods market. The market's set up along a rambling collection of streets and alleys and footpaths, and encompasses an utterly stupendous amount of stuff. Some of the specific things I've noted here:

This doesn't really begin to capture the extent of this one relatively small market; and doesn't even touch on the various manufactured goods on sale here; watches and clothing and bags and shoes and jewelry and cigarettes and electronics and decorations and toys. It's just too much.

Canton's food is similarly diverse. Last night we ate what is arguably Canton's most famous dish - whole roast suckling pig. It took some doing; the first place we went to said they had it, then after we'd ordered drinks, decided they didn't, then argued about it when we got up to leave after our drinks. The place we ended up at is a huge multi-level restaurant, and the lobby is full of tanks and cages filled with swimming and slithering creatures. Fish of every size from tadpoles to two-metre sturgeon from the Yangtze river - the kind which are supposed to become extinct when the Three Gorges Dam is completed and destroys the habitat they've inhabited since the pleistocene era. Live snakes separated according to species, presumably so they don't kill each other; big and small crabs and monster crayfish, water bugs, sea snakes and moray eels, sharks and shrimp, clams with eighteen-inch cock-like feet; think of a slimy yellowish elephant trunk and you'll get the idea; even a hacked up alligator (or crocodile, I'm never sure), teeth and all.

So the whole roasted pig was about the tamest and blandest thing we could order, but order it we did. I suppose it must be a subtlety thing; it comes out cold (barely warmed) with hoisin dipping sauce and a dish of sugar. Very strange, and for those of you who were wondering - yes, a baby pig is basically all fat and no meat, and it left us feeling vaguely ill.

There were (predictably) no train tickets to Nanning today, so we're heading off tomorrow and arriving at 0430; then on to Pingxiang at 0758, hopefully in time to cross the border into Vietnam after lunch.


2006-04-01 08:47


Apart from it being called Canton, and being the home of ridiculously good food, I don't know much about Guangzhou other than the stereotype that the Cantonese are bad-tempered. Beijingers are distant, aloof; Shanghainese are too friendly because they want your money, and Cantonese are just plain surly. I can't say one way or the other so far.

We arrived at about 7am on the morning of Friday March 31, and went to a Starbucks (the only other shop open at Guangzhou East Station was McDonalds) and sure enough, there was a PC room on the fourth floor of the building, but the building wasn't open yet. So we had a coffee and read the China Daily and eventually one of the Starbuckettes showed me around the back of the building into afilthy service lift, beyond which was the highest-tech and most chrome-ridden internet barn I'd ever seen. It looked like the whole place had been decked out by boy racers with shares in blonde wood, tinted glass and brushed metal; larger-than-life Asian CRPG decals were everywhere. It never closed, so we'd waited almost an hour and paid 70 kuai for coffee for no reason at all.

At the other end of the subway it was raining, and we had absolutely no instructions beyond 'Exit D'. We wandered aimlessly until, on a hunch, Deb headed into a cluster of old colonial buildings, and it turns out that the Guangzhou International Youth Hostel is on Shamian Island, a pluty former concession where the US Consulate is located. Ossie, it turns out, had been waiting at Exit D for us, and had just given up when we arrived.

Shamian Island is a very weird place. It's populated almost entirely by foreigners and the Chinese who cater to them. Every shop has a woman's name - Melissa's, Susan's, Jennifer's, etc; but they're not brothels. Even weirder, this is the place you see fat USian couples pushing prams (strollers, they call them) with cute little Chinese babies in. Yes indeed, this is the centre of China's Overseas Adoption industry, whereby unwanted Chinese babies (perhaps casualties, though not the worst casualties, of the One Child policy) are adopted by American couples unwilling or unable to have children of their own. The prospective adoptive parents are required to live in China for at least a month, and Shamian Island is where they stay. Waiting at the ATM this morning I overheard two fat USian couples discussing ther relative expensiveness of various pre- and post-adoption services as if it were the price of petrol at various stations. It's a bit scary, really.

The Vietnamese Consulate was doing a roaring trade, and we were given the choice of same-day or five day service; the latter of which gave Ossie a little over 24 hours to get to and across the border. Lunch at the standard Cantonese 'rice plus three' places is a superb deal. You get a bunch of hot steamed rice (they eat long-grain rice down here) and three things from a bain-marie for the princely sum of 5 kuai. A beer is another 5 kuai, and at last we're in a part of the world where they serve beer COLD. It seems about three quarters of Guangzhou eats this way, from flashly-dressed businessfolk to the bums on the street, when they can. The food is fresh; they sell so much of it it doesn't have time to go bad, there's a suitable variety, and because it's mostly rice and veges, it's not too wildly unhealthy. I'd eat like this all the time, if only there wasn't so much OTHER good food in Canton to choose from.

Wandering around the place, we tried unsuccessfully to buy doxyxcyline and deet and permethrin for the mosquitoes in Nam, but not even my little drawing of a mosquito with a cross through it was any use at all - we got offered remedies for motion sickness, sunscreen, tiger balm, sleeping tablets, laxatives and all manner of other stuff. Apparently there's no malaria in Guangzhou. Eventually we parked up on a table outside a small restaurant and watched Canton go about its business.

For dinner we decided to go for the muslim food we'd been unable to get in Quanzhou, and headed for a place across the road from the Central Mosque, famous for lamb and live entertainment. Going to a muslim restaurant on a Friday isn't necesarily the smartest of things to do - you certainly won't find any belly dancing, I can assure you of that. The kebabs were superb, but the rest of it was overpriced and of poor quality. They didn't have any of their specialty dishes on; the bread was tough; the tea was weak. I haven't been at all impressed with either of the Chinese muslim restaurants we've been to in Eastern China - the last was in Shanghai. I suppose it makes sense, given my ruminations of a few posts ago.


2006-04-01 08:15

Xiamen Redux

I recall seeing a documentary on TV in Korea about a town which was effectively designed by a single man - a bloke called Tan Kah-Kee who'd made a bunch of money in Singapore, and in his will, had endowed a stupid number of new buildings in his hometown of Jimei.

Jimei is indeed full of Tan's legacy, but it's not fair to say he's responsible for the town - mainly for the School Village in the town, which includes a bunch of schools from primary up to university level.

We arrived from Quanzhou on the first really hot day of the trip, and proceeded to wander about the place with packs on for about an hour looking for somewhere to stay, before being directed to the resort district of town, where the cheapest hotel room was roughly two and a half times what we were prepared to pay. We had a beer, and admired the architecture of the architecture - colonial stone and brick buildings with distinctive Chinese black-tile rooves, set in red-brick driveways and flat, square lawns. Perhaps it's more interesting if you're an architecture geek, but there's not a lot to see in Jimei, so we walked to the railway station and caught the #51 bus back to Gulang Yu for a swim.

But, alas, by the time we'd gotten set up and sorted out it was too late for swimming, and low tide to boot, so we wandered about in the dusk and headed into town for eats.

Finding good eats in Xiamen had been a bit tricky, but on this occasion nothing was simpler. Down a crowded alleyway, we stopped at the only place with a menu, and a lovely buxom Chinese woman patiently explained the menu to us, and sent her boys (younger brothers, cousins, who knows?) to cook and fetch beer from the shop across the street for us. We ended up with donkey meat hong shao (cooked in soy sauce - like mild venison; tough but flavoursome) and more dumplings than it was humanly possible to eat. Good people make good food better.

The next morning (March 30th) was V Day, and we collected our visas from the PSB with all ease and simplicity, bought tickets for Guangzhou, and got back to Gulang Yu with enough time for a swim in the cold spring sea, much to the amusement of the Chinese gathered there. Lunch at the same place as last night, but I had to find a computer to get the instructions for our accomodation in guangzhou, where we were to meet Ossie. 45 minutes of walking through alleyways - not strictly lost, just unable to leave the maze of markets and stalls and tea shops and whorehouses - sorry, I mean beauty salons. No internet anywhere. The sideeffect of China's internet rooms being massive warehouses filled with thousands of computers is that there are very few of them, and since they cater to a loal poptulation, they're never signposted or advertised, so it's fucking impossible to find one without at least an hour of dedicated searching. Somewhat like hotels.


2006-04-01 06:30

Gastronomic Experimentation of the Predictably Stupid Kind

When living in Asia, something which must be done from time to time, with the purpose of reminding oneself what a bloody stupid idea it is, is to eat foreign food. By 'foreign' I mean 'not local to the country you're currently in'. Occasionally this pays off - the pizzas at the Hidden Tree in Beijing are superb, and the steak and pies at the Three Alley Pub in Seoul are pretty good too; and we had decent lamb chops and NZ mussels in Bangkok. So it was with great reluctance that we decided to try our hand at Houcaller Beefsteak - a Chinese franchise specialising in steak, but basically just pretending to be a Western Style restaurant. Chinese yuppies come here, presumably to experience the bizarre sensation of ordering a plate of food and having it all to yourself. This is considered extremely strange all over Asia, and after three years it's even rather alien to me. Dishes which everyone can share is much more civilised. Nevertheless, we ordered a T-Bone Steak and an Australian Style Steak, two beers, and waited expectantly. Out came a little plastic card for the salad bar, and upon cashing it in for a little bowl, I found that it consisted of lots of poor-quality tropical fruit drenched in various mayonnaise-based dressings, dirty-tasting cherry tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, and sweet jellies. So far, not a winner. My steak arrived, covered, on a hot cast-iron platter, and with much pomp I was told to hold my napkin in front of me like a curtain as the waiter removed the lid; to protect my honourable clothing from being spattered with steak juice. Beneath was a skinny steak, drenched in gelatinous black pepper sauce, and upon the same hotplate a small blob of - spaghetti in tomato sauce, with cucumber in it. Yes indeed. That's apparently how they do in Australia. We tried to order chips, or potato of any kind, but the staff just stared at us in confusion and shook their heads. Deb's T-Bone came out about 20 minutes later (?), and the same silly ceremony with the napkin was performed with due seriousness. And it was exactly the same as mine, in every respect, except that it had part of a t-bone in it. Another part had been hacked out with a cleaver, leaving trademark Chinese slivers of bone in the steak, for which the steak would have been sent back in New Zealand, and the restaurant would be sued out of business in the USA. The Chinese method of butchery is as follows:

1. Take an animal.
2. Take a big, heavy, sharp cleaver.
3. Using cleaver, hack animal into bite-size pieces, without regard for structure.

There were two positives amongst all this - firstly, the steaks were both actually rare, as requested - on account of being thin, not really having been cooked very much, and not on a very high heat; and COLD Tsingtao was only 7 kuai per large bottle.

The next night (the 28th) not having had enough punishment, we went to a Korean restaurant we'd spied East of Wenling Lu. The staff were terribly surprised when we spoke Korean, but the middle-aged woman who ran the show spoke it fluently, and asked us abunch of questions about how we came to learn it, how we liked Korea, and so on. I asked here where in Korea she was from, and she said she was Chinese. Go figure. We ordered mok sal (pork neck meat) and the usual stuff came out, but the meat was cut much thicker than Korean meat; the grill wasn't hot enough, and consequently it was very tough. The side dishes and kimchi were pretty good, but in Korea things are always just so, and this wasn't quite it. The rice wasn't sticky enough and the toenjangjiggae was mild and orange and odd-tasting. I'm starting to see why Koreans are so fussy - there's such tradition in Korean food, and so much attention paid to quality of ingredients, time-honoured processes, harmony and balance; if things aren't right, it just doesn't work.

Better than the steak, but.


2006-04-01 05:57

Quanzhou - three temples

We were in Quanzhou from about March 26-29, waiting for our visa extensions to come through in Xiamen. Quanzhou seems a bit like Xiamen's industrial ugly sister - not as rich, not as pretty, seven instead of one million people. Xiamen is (and effectively has been for centuries) a Special Economic Zone - a place with very liberal business and commercial legislation. Quanzhou lies just outside of Xiamen's SEZ, and is itself a fairly major port, with a lot of light and heavy industry and masses of factories belching smoke and effluent. In ancient times it was called Zaitun, and was China's (possibly Asia's) busiest port, the Eastern end of the Sino-Persian sea routes; the Silk Road of the sea.

Incidentally, the peacekeeping troops South Korea have stationed in Iraq are called 'Zaytun', presumably in this spirit of East Asian - Middle Eastern contact.

Most of the reason we'd decided to come to Quanzhou was to visit the Qingjing Mosque, built in 1009; the youngest (and only survivor) of the six ancient mosques of Zaitun. Where there are mosques, we figured, there are muslims; where there are muslims there's halal food; and in pork-dominated Southern China, where there's halal food there is lamb. The mosque itself is mostly a shell, and now not functional except for visiting dignitaries - of which it recieves many each year. It contains an Emperor's (I forget which) declaration to protect and preserve Islam in China; that being essentially the only reason Chinese muslims haven't been persecuted and displaced by Han Chinese over the last thousand years. It is in this respect a shrine to the long history of peaceful cooperation between China and Islam, and in a condescending way, a celebration of the fact that muslim Chinese and 'normal' Chinese can live happily side by side. A pat on the back for the Han for being so tolerant. I am reminded of what Paul Theroux said on this topic in Riding the Iron Rooster: that despite living alongside muslims for well over a thousand years, Han Chinese still find them perfectly inscrutable; puzzling and superstitious and altogether not Chinese.

Unfortunately, there was not a scrap of lamb to be found in the whole city. It didn't help that the Ronery Pranet map took as its Eastern border Wenling Lu, and that we were later to find that all the best eating places were to the East of Wenling Lu. The only sign of muslim food we found in this city with an apparently large muslim population were street vendors selling bread and seed cake near the bus terminal.

Wandering, we stumbled unintentionaally upon a functioning Three Ways Temple - at least, its architecture was buddhist, its motifs and carvings were daoist, and the bulk of the worship being made seemed to be to ancestors. It also held a small shrine to the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Most of the temple was being renovated while we were there, and it was clearly intended as an active place of worship rather than a tourist attraction, so it was hard to get any further idea without being intrusive. You know a place is sacred when the beggars don't follow you in.

Onwards to the far West of the city, where the shiny designer shops petered out into roadside stalls and teahouses, two-storey houses of diverse designs, obviously the cumulative work of centuries of wear and repair. Some had unintelligible latin (latin characters, anyway) inscriptions, european colonial-style colonnades and lintels, or arches and peaks of Islamic geometry; or the bottom floor would be made of blocky granite, while the top floor would be roughly built from pine board, balcony and all. We were making for two tall pagoodas in the distance, and upon reaching them found that we'd come to the main reason tourists come to Quanzhou - the 7th-century Kaiyuan Temple. In contrast to Buddhist temples further North and in Korea, it's a lush, parklike place with old trees over cobbled courtyards, and broad gardens with winding paths set through. The two pagodas are stupendous things - made of rough brown stone in huge blocks. Stone Lions guard the eight sides, and one had at some point had its top half cut off, in one clean stroke of a saw (or something else which can cut stone so cleanly) and had toppled off, breaking its ear - and then had later been replaced to the exact location, less broken ear and foreleg. Unless it was a huge sword wielded by a giant of superhuman strength, this had to be part of the Cultural Revolution. Such a clean cut can be no random act of vandalism, it would have required heavy machinery, great perseveance and the will to destroy relics which, throughout China's history, have been valuable regardless of religion.

The temple also holds the world's oldest mulberry tree - planted at the temple's foundation to feed silkworms, and now more than 1300 years old. It's quite hard to find, because you expect to see a wizened, leafless shrub; but this tree is enormous, spreading perhaps thirty metres from side to side, and is enclosed in a stone wall with its venerable branches supported by stone dragons. It appears to still be entirely healthy, and has a prodigious crop of vibrant green leaves. It probably still yields mulberries.

Under the leaves of this tree, we had one of the more curious meetings of our trip thus far - a moneychanger. The odd thing about this guy is that he wanted to change kuai into kuai, at a rate of 100 kuai to 810 kuai. Yes indeed; I was to give him 100 kuai, and heof them, and handed them to me. This had to be counterfeit, of course; I was just curious as to HOW counterfeit. Would it have a picture of Lenin instead of Mao, or would it have a missing digit on the serial number? I pulled out a 50 of my own to compare, and to my eye they looked perfectly real. Then again, I know nothing about Chinese money, and it's the 50s, not the 100s, which are most commonly counterfeit. Deb and I were just mystified. Who could think this was a good idea? Chinese store clerks check 50 kuai notes pretty carefully, and you get in deep shit for passing counterfeit renminbi. Perhaps if he'd offered a lower rate, or if he'd been wanting to change small notes for large, or something, but this was just blatant fraud and he made no attempt to hide it, giving me a "Eh .. eh, nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more" sort of routine when I figured started comparing notes. He was all very good-natured and jovial about it. We declined his generous offer, even though it seemed like a good deal, because the other possibility was that he was in cahoots with a local policeman or security goon, and that we'd get shaken down and searched when we left the temple, and then "fined" for possessing counterfeit money - even if it wasn't counterfeit, which it might not have been. It was tempting, though. I wonder who falls for it?