Thursday, 27 March 2014

Eating and Trekking and Eating - Vietnam

Grounded in Malaysia until the northeast monsoon comes in and in need of a new visa for Malaysia, we took a short flying trip to some colder climes – Hanoi in northern Vietnam. But first we went to Kuala Lumpur for two days to visit friends and, as it happened, choke on the dangerously high air pollution the area was suffering. While we were not in Port Klang, we were not far away and the API was 353 there that day (which as defined by the US EPA is hazardous to anyone and can trigger serious health effects) check out some shots of the pollution herehere and here.

The pollution was triggered by burning off forest and rubbish in Malaysia and there had not been rain, in fact there had been serious water rationing such as two days on, two days off due to the severe drought. While the government was undertaking cloud seeding to trigger rain, the planes were diverted to partake in the MH370 search mission.  The government was caught lurching from one crisis to the next. We caught up with our friend Abe and flew out to Hanoi two days later.


Hanoi, a busy, noisy city with everyone (including pedestrians) jostling for space on the road (as the footpath is full of parked motorbikes or shops wares). It was so refreshing to enjoy the cooler weather and with 18C on the forecast, we could not have been happier. We wasted no time getting into the street food, pho bo (beef noodle soup), congee (rice porridge with bread sticks), bun cha (sweetened brothy soup with grilled pork chunks), rice paper rolls…so much goodness! The street food comes hand-in-hand with the miniature seats about 3 inches off the ground and small tables (this doesn't come gracefully to westerners who are not used to the squat position). 

The Banh me (crispy bread roll with pork, salad and pate) had me reminiscing about my days working at Ashfield where your day was measured on whether it was a one or a two roll day. 

With full stomachs we hit up the Womens Museum where it was obvious we were in a very different ideological part of Asia. Women were not only publicly empowered and respected in the community in almost any role, but they made a museum to celebrate it! There was no doubt that women had a hard life and equality was far from being achieved, but it was definitely a refreshing contrast to Malaysia and Indonesia. Intrigue into the critical role of women in the various wars of the 20th Century sent us to the Hanoi Prison and the Army Museum. It was really interesting to see the north Vietnamese tell the story of pushing out the French in the 1946-1954 First Indo-China War, then defending against the Americans in the Vietnam War of 1956-1975, to finally maintaining their own rule (democratic-socialist) for the last 39 years. Political analysts hotly debate the true democracy of the rule, but there is no war and the people derive income from their own capitalist style businesses (if not employed by the government). The socialist system provides health care and education for all and the people are forgiving enough to let the former enemies visit.

Photo of the excellent electricity infrastructure and the
shop houses with narrow frontages
Hanoi city is set out in an interesting way, the French liked order and created little economies of scale by defining shoe street, hardware street, silk street, clothes street, funeral street, church street…on and on. We found shoe street and finally found a pair of ‘western size’ shoes  (nice looking North Face knockoffs) for Hugh to go trekking in (after his shoes died on the volcano in Banda Neira we had been scouring shoe stores everywhere through Asia). We did enjoy the order of the shopping chaos and also the design of the shop houses which had narrow street frontage, long depth and multiple stories, generally up to 6. This was a result of the taxation system up until 1955 where property owners were taxed based on their street frontage. This later gave way to the socialist system where walls between adjoining shops were demolished for more communal living.


After all this eating and history education, we got out of the city and headed northwest on a 9 hour overnight train not far from the Chinese border, to Sapa – a mountainside town. We had loosely organised to stay with a local H’mong woman named Xiang over the phone, but seeing is believing! We arrived to the throng of local women selling their wares, embroidered cushion covers, bracelets, earrings and bags. Its amazing that all the women have the same items, yet you are supposed to buy from all of them…the town has a confusing economic structure.

We found 27 year old Xiang and agreed on the price and that we would be with her for 3 days/ 2 nights and stay at her house in a small village called Hau Thao. What was most striking about the women was their dress, they had elaborate clothing on, with many layers and colours or symbols identifying their tribe and village. They also wore large silver earrings and heavy silver necklaces. They also walked in flimsy plastic slippers…yet we needed high tech hiking boots. I think they have been at this game longer than we have!

H'mong lady carrying her baby, she walked all day 
Rice paddy terrace, flooded ahead of planting
We started walking and we were also accompanied by three other H’mong ladies, one of them carrying a 5 month old infant. We huffed and puffed our way up the steep goat tracks that led to the top of the hills behind Sapa and took a moment to enjoy the view of the bright green rice paddy field terraces and the smattering of houses. The scenery was quite spectacular and it was nice to breath the mountain air away from the city pollution. Along the way we spoke to the ladies and they told us stories (in very good english that they had only picked up from talking to tourists) about their lives and what life is like in the villages. The three other women who had joined us were Xiang’s mother (50 years old), sister-in-law (with baby) and friend. They started to impress upon us the communal family nature of the village life.

After about 6 hours and 15kms of walking, at 4pm we arrived at Xiangs house and she started to prepare a late lunch of fried tofu and stewed tomatoes with spinach. The food was sourced from the market in Sapa, the mountainside on the way home and the rice from her very own field (full marks for low food miles!)

Lunch feast with Xiang's family (Xiang in the pink top)
Everyone was eating with us, and the husbands of the ladies that had walked with us joined in the feast too. The food was delicious and as they started to ply us with rice wine, we realised that something was afoot…the sales pitch, of course. The three ladies who had walked with us all day laid out their wares and it began. We didn’t want to buy much because we had small bags and would have to carry it all around with us. We ended up with two nicely embroidered cushion covers and some earrings. After that, the three other ladies left and we were with Xiangs husband Cha, 2 year old daughter and 8 year old son.

Cha is 2 years into the construction project of their new house, timber walls, tiled roofing and mud floor. There are no internal walls and a communal squat toilet is out the back. There is an area where the bowls and cups are kept, but the cooking is done on the floor with timber as fuel and the water is from a tap at the door (from the hillside waterfall). The cooking makes for a very smoky house and set me crying with smoke stingers on more than one occasion. But for us nothing says hospitality like finishing the construction of the wall you will be sleeping next to while dinner is cooking…as Xiang worked on dinner preparations, her husband noisily and with lots of sawdust was planing planks of timber for the external wall of the house which would be next to our bed.  After dinner we settled into our bed on timber boards and fell asleep.

It's up all the way! Xiang taking the
The next day we gobbled up the egg rice paper rolls for breakfast and we asked to go on a challenging hike and Xiang reluctantly agreed to take us up the 900m high mountain (total elevation of 1900m) next to her house and over the other side to visit her father. She probably didn’t really want to do the walk because she does it regularly to bring things to her father or to go up into the hills to collect wood for the fire. We had to use both hands to get up some parts of the hill, the track was well worn but was smooth, so it was hard to get purchase on the ground without slipping. While we were struggling with the climb, Xiang made a constant pace and used both her hands to twine some hemp together. She told us about how her clothing was made from woven hemp and her mother died the fabric with home made indigo at their house over the hill.

Arriving at Xiang’s fathers house we had to make our way through the hens and chickens, ducks and ducklings and past the rooster to come into the small wooden hut with tarpaulin roof and mud floor. The house was not more than 4m x 4m, but was adequate for its two occupants.  While Xiang made lunch on the fire in the middle of the house, her mother started to burn off large areas of the property which had been stripped almost bare for firewood and by the passing winters’ snow. They were preparing the field for planting corn. We could see that all the labour here was done by human power and no animals or machinery were used to prepare paddocks or pull in crops. Whether it was due to the cost of such options or the difficult terrain, either way it made for a physically tough existence.

We arrived back at Xiang’s house and I went off to the waterfall for a ‘shower’ while Xiang did the family’s washing. We returned back and after she had told us about her son’s desire to learn English, we sat him down, with 4 other kids from the extended family and practiced the alphabet, animal names and teaching them to write their own names. It was really fun, but the wheels started to fall off at about the 90 minute mark when the infants came into the room and started stealing exercise books. That was when we called it quits, but the kids didn’t and we saw later that they had been writing and re-writing the things we had shown them, they were so motivated and enthusiastic. Clever kids! But for Tsu, the 8 year old girl with the most pluck, it would be only 9 years until she would be married and within 2 years have one or two kids of her own. The tradition of marriage was strong in the village and we learnt that the bride price was currently at US$1500 and rising, which placed a huge economic burden on families that had numerous sons.

Over night there was a huge thunderstorm with lightning show and it rained sheets. We were dry, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the tarpaulin was fairing at Xiang’s dads house. A delicious breakfast of sticky rice and pork and it was time to head back to town. The rain had left low cloud cover and we were denied any views on our walk to Sapa and it was quite nippy at 15C. We parted with Xiang and spent the afternoon relaxing before our night sleeper train back to Hanoi. A mountain holiday like no other!


Pho fest in Hanoi (sitting on miniature seats)
Back in Hanoi we wasted no time in reacquainting ourselves with the countless street food options. We also caught up with our friend Abe (a new country and a new city!) and enjoyed visiting the city’s bars. One last Pho Bo and we called it a trip, back on the plane to Kuala Lumpur, we were getting a bit itchy to see the boat and see that everything was alright back ‘home’. We must have had some sort of premonition, because what we found upon our return was an entirely deflating experience…next blog post to follow with details!


Friday, 7 March 2014

Malacca Malaise - Part II

After reading Alain De Botton's The Art of Travel, I was motivated to contemplate and emotionally explore the depth of some of the more mundane things that we were experiencing. I was thinking about writing a word sketch about the incredible heat and suffocating humidity that pounded down upon us every day from 10am-5:30pm, the melancholy that overwhelmed us during the slow sailing legs, the thick smoky air that we woke up breathing because of the continual burning* that goes on here, or the exceedingly uncomfortable anchorages that we were spending night after night in. But I re-thought that idea and have instead decided to go on to write about the wonders that were hiding beyond the murky waterway of the Malacca Straits and the new times that abound for the historical Straits settlements.
*the continual haze that sits over the land and waterway is due to a number of factors including the burning of jungle for palm plantations, burning rubbish including plastics and burning natural waste such as leaves. The smoke haze is compounded by the heat haze and other pollutants such as driving cars and industrial emissions.
We have been fortunate enough to venture inland, first to the cool climes of the Cameron Highlands where we were refreshed by the chill of the night air and our eyes filled with the lush greens of the tea plantations; next, to the town of Malacca, to have our senses filled with the historic port town and its nueveau scene.
Cameron Highlands
The Cameron Highlands was historically a place for horticulture and colonial holiday getaways. Located 200km north of Kuala Lumpur and centrally located in the Peninsula, it is a long way from the busy centres and indeed high, with its peak Guning Brinchang at 2031m above sea level.
Hugh pondering his future as a tea-picker
We ventured up to the Highlands via a 5-hour bus ride from Penang. The long distance bus system here is cheap, comfortable and the way most people get around, connecting the thousands of towns and cities that intensively cover the Peninsula. We were struck by the sheer density of the palm oil plantations that covered the land next to the highway heading south and inland from Penang, which gave way to granite mining (by blasting) as we passed Ipoh and then the greenhouse structures that dominated the hillsides for the horticulture the closer we came to Tanah Rata (the central town in the Highlands).
We made our way off the bus at about 7pm and indulged in western-style chinese for dinner. After marvelling at the chilly night air and covering the town in about 10 minutes we decided to go and enjoy sleeping in a hotel for the night. We awoke early and day 1 had us scaling (including some clambering) the highest peak - Guning Brinchang, thankfully with the forethought to start early to beat the 30C heat of the day paid off. While it was nice and cool in the evening, the day still brought some stinging heat. After admiring the view of the jungle covered rolling hills of the Highlands that disappeared off into the distance and the haze we walked the 7km down the mountain and popped into a strawberry farm. Tasting their produce and enjoying the sweet delights, we hadn't eaten Strawberries since September, when we were in Bali and these were fabulous! As we continued on our walk, we found ourselves in the middle of a tea plantation, up to our waists in the lush green tea shrubs. The array of the green of the tea leaves was amazing, with deep emerald colours through to the new bright and light green shoots. The tea fields were rebalancing our colour senses, after becoming accustomed to so much blue. We stopped in at the 'Boh' Tea plantation and sampled their Cameronian Gold, a lovely black tea, not too unlike english breakfast and walked away with our 100 pack for future consumption.
Fresh Strawberries! Yum!
Day 2 had us again out and about early, this time jungle bashing and slipping our way down the steep hill to the waterfall and dam that forms part of the busy irrigation network and hydro-electricity supply for the Tanah Rata area. The thick silt in the water made the waterfall unappealing for a swim and we would just have to keep on walking. Once at the dam, Hugh marvelled at the power of the turbines, while I thought unexcitedly about the climb that we had ahead of us back to the town. An afternoon trip to the incredibly dull bee farm where we wandered amongst timber hives and the somewhat depressing trip to the butterfly farm where we watched the attendant pull live butterflies out of a box to refresh the supply (sifting through hundreds of butterflies that had not survived the trip) wrapped up our stay in the Highlands. 
While the landscape of the tea plantations was a truly spectacular sight and the mountain hiking that we did was superb, the commercialisation of the area and dense agricultural development was taking its toll on the beauty and sustainability of the area. Cars, roads and buildings were covered in the white dust from the granite mining 40km down the hill which have no dust suppression requirements, silting and pollution of the waterway from unrestricted horticulture and a desperate tourism sector will negatively impact the areas capacity for future development and continue to detract from its natural beauty. 
Malacca (Melaka) Town
We had heard wonderful things about Malacca Town from Hugh's parents and other cruiser friends who had been there ahead of us and we were looking forward to another break from the boat. The town was built on the western side of the Malacca River in the 15th C as the main trading port on the Straits for boats coming west from China and Indonesia and boats coming east from India and Europe. It provided safe harbour while traders waited for the monsoon system to change as they could continue their sail. The dominance of this port was fiercely fought over by the Portuguese, Dutch and English, before finally diminishing in dominance by the mid 1800s.
Malacca River by Night
Today the old town has been protected and the UNESCO heritage town is a bustling delight, with the old shop houses repurposed as guest houses, art galleries, cafes, boutique clothing stores and hip bars. Thankfully we arrived on a Sunday, where the main street is closed to traffic and transformed into a meandering market with the roadway covered in stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs, food, drinks and nick-nackery. It was a 3 hour trip to Malacca from Port Dickson, made somewhat more challenging by the 81st anniversary of the Malay Defence Force as they celebrated the day with a big show and parade right next to the marina. The three-bus journey to Malacca was quite easy and once again, we were impressed with the bus system here, even though it took quite a long time to go the 100km to Malacca. But the travel was worth it, as this town looked like it had had a transformation to become a centre of art culture inspiring and fuelling new artists. 
We walked around town, indulged in some street fare and enjoyed the active streets. Off Jalan Hang Jebat (the main street) were Hindu, Taoist and Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques. At its height, Malacca was said to have over 80 languages spoken, due to the sheer number of travellers and traders that wandered the town. We delighted in some German pork knuckle, hamburgers and Nyonya (traditional Malay-Chinese) cuisine and some Malacca favourites - chicken rice balls. Malacca was a diverse and contemporary town in an old town's body. While the buildings gave the town its visual character, the lack of footpaths and hectic traffic made getting around a slightly risky project. A boardwalk had been built running along both sides of the river providing a 5km winding path away from the traffic where you could imagine the sounds, sights and smells of the trading port 300 years ago. 
After some evening drinks at the Geographer Cafe listening to a cover band, we settled into the room in the Wayfarer Guesthouse (our stay a generous gift from Hugh's parents) which backed onto the Malacca River and relaxed listening the low hum of live music emanating from the local bars.
Malacca Town, still adorned with Chinese New Year Lanterns
The next day we visited the Maritime & Naval Museum, housed inside a replica Portguese Caravel (timber cargo boat). The novelty of seeing the Captains quarters and the cargo hold was worth the trip (even if some of the faux-tifacts were a bit cheesy) and some interesting history was detailed about the delivery of the message of Islam to the area and the fighting that took place for ownership of the port town over the centuries. On our walk back to town, Hugh was excited to visit the Customs Museum, which detailed the history of the Port Customs over the centuries. While filling the walls with photos of the customs 'group' shots from over the years wasn't particularly interesting, the seized items such as some guitar playing frogs frozen in taxidermy and sexually explicit wooden carvings made it an entertaining visit. Hugh was quite chuffed with that museum visit, I was keen to get lunch.

Our land visits had been fun and made our southward journey along the Malacca Straits an enjoyable trip, I just had to peek beyond the toe rails and into the lively streets of the townships to see that the waterbourne history of the Straits is very different to the current drivers of culture and future development. While De Botton has some interesting points to make on travel and truly seeing a place, he does tend to focus on the negative. My mental shift from the Malacca malaise showed me that I just need to keep looking to find the other side of the story.