Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Reflections on our Trip

We packed a lot of activity into four and a half weeks, and I expect that we will have many thoughts come to us as over the coming weeks and months as we digest all that we have seen and done. The thing that had the greatest impact on me was getting just a small taste of what it is like to be in a communist country. While I found it annoying to be unable to access my blog, I was surprised to realize that most of the citizens are restricted to information that we take for granted. I am not a big Facebook fan, but I do love YouTube and use it for all kinds of things, from learning how to knit and do Zumba to posting our birthday bungee jumping. I also enjoy reading other people’s blogs and have learned a great deal from them. It makes me quite angry to think that government has the right to block the individual’s access to information. The ramifications of this are quite staggering when you really think about it; control the information and you control or shape the civilization! I also started to get a little paranoid thinking about all the government agents who are paid to screen other people’s email, and wrote my blog entries with the feeling that someone was looking over my shoulder. 

The privilege of being able to have as many children as we want was another significant difference in both China and Vietnam. It was touching to see the devotion that parents in these countries have for their children. Being limited to only one child, it was common to see mom and dad, grandpa and grandma doting over a single child. We only saw one example of a child being ignored in the market; I commented on how the young mother was walking in front of the child and the child appeared to be a bit panicky trying to keep up. Bryce pointed out how young the “mother” was, and suggested that perhaps she was an older cousin or someone taking care of the child. Every other family was very child centered, and the adults seemed to take an “isn’t he/she precious” attitude. The children seemed to be very aware of this attitude, often posing and putting on airs for all who would pay attention. The children were also very adult oriented, and we saw few examples of children interacting with other children. Although I understand the need for family planning in these overcrowded countries, it is hard to imagine having our freedom curtailed in this very personal and private area of our lives. On the other hand, seeing how much children are appreciated and well cared for was admirable. Yet again, I read the book “Silent Tears” by Kay Bratt on the trip about an American woman who spent four years in a city outside of Beijing, volunteering in an orphanage. It was a heartbreaking book, because the children that were abandoned to the orphanage were often physically or mentally challenged. The parents had abandoned their children so that they could have a chance to have another child who would not have these “defects”. A young mother might want to keep her child, but the pressure put on her by the rest of her clan is often insurmountable, as she might be shunned by the others in her community, or be beaten or abandoned by her in-laws and her husband if she resists giving up the child. I can’t imagine the heartbreak that would come from feeling forced to make such a terrible decision. 

Mao Tse Tung is revered throughout China, and most big cities have a gigantic statue of him somewhere in a central location. It is hard to understand how he is so highly regarded when his system of communism destroyed so many lives. However, most of the people that we encountered see him as the saviour who freed them from Imperialism. I guess that the lesser of two evils makes him the good guy for the Chinese people. Ho Chi Minh is seen in the same way in Vietnam; both of these leaders have their bodies on display in a mausoleum, and people come from all over the country to view them; I can’t even imagine this happening in Canada! In Cambodia, although they have what is called a democracy, the last time they had an election, the Khmer Rouge didn’t care for the outcome, and they ousted the democratically elected person and put their own leader into power. Our tour guide said that yes, they have a monarchy and a democratic vote for the government, but only if the people agree with the terribly corrupt upper class! 

While there are many shortcomings to our system of government, I appreciate the freedom that we have in Canada more than ever after coming face to face with just a few examples of government interference in the private life of the individual. Many, many times during our trip, Bryce and I commented to each other how fortunate we feel to have been born in Canada. Being back home we will never again take for granted the ability to drink clean water right out of the tap, look up anything we want on Google, and read uncensored news.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Days 30 and 31 Beijing: Hello and Good-bye

Days 30 and 31: Beijing: Hello and Good-bye

The view from our hotel room
Coming back to Beijing was like coming home. After the madness of Vietnam, Beijing felt calm, orderly and safe. We came back to the Swissotel, such a beautiful place in a great spot right on the subway, with several terrific restaurants and our favourite massage joint right across the street! 

We spent our first day back at the Old Pearl Market picking up last minute purchases and our second day accomplishing another one of our lifelong dreams, walking on the Great Wall. We hired Yung, a man from Beijing, to drive us there and back so that we could have the flexibility of going and coming home when we wanted. It was a lovely drive into the mountains, just over an hour outside of the city. We had gotten up bright and early so that we could be there at 8:00 am when they opened in order to beat the crowds. We took the gondola up, which was perfect, because it was well below freezing with a light layer of snow on the ground so we felt like we were going skiing! Bryce just kept saying that he sure is glad he isn’t a brass monkey! 

The Great Wall is another testament to the grit and determination of the Chinese people. It is built in rough, mountainous country, and it is estimated to stretch between 5500 and 6200 miles. It dates back over 2000 years in some sections, and is every bit as amazing as the pictures that we have all seen over the years. We kept looking at each other and saying, “We are actually walking on the Great Wall!” By the time the crowds started to appear, we were chilled right through and were ready to start making our way back to the cable car for our trip back down the mountain. 

Bryce in front of the mauseleam
We had Yung drop us off at Tiananmen Square, another amazing sight. We had a look around, then a stroll past all the monuments. Bryce wanted to see The Chairman, who lies in state and I was willing to go along even though I am no fan of Mao, and really have no desire to see a dead person of any sort.  However, they wouldn't let me in because I had a backpack and they just looked at me and said, “No bags!” I’ve never been called a bag before, at least to my face, but being the good sport that I am, I stayed outside in the freezing cold and let Bryce to take a gander at the corpse.  Here’s what he had to say about it:

“What a show!  I received better treatment than in Disneyland, because of my round eyes and the cane.  Special row, special aisle!  There were hundreds of Chinese people on the other side of Chairman Mao, and little ole me all by myself on the VIP side.  So I paid my respects to a guy that let 35 million of his country folk starve to death so that he could put all the country’s resources into trying to defeat the Americans in the Korean War!  Nice going, Tse Tung!  He looks a bit like Elvis, if you ask me!”

We spent the afternoon packing, which turned out to be quite a big job since we needed to match up all our receipts with our merchandise. We never thought when we were doing all our shopping that the receipts are in Chinese, so we had to make our best guess as to what went with what! Even though he really wanted one, there just wasn’t room in our luggage for Bryce to get the Starbuck’s mug!

We are tired but happy, so completely satisfied with all that we have seen and done. We are looking forward to coming home and seeing our friends and family and our little dog Ricky. After that, the thing that I am most looking forward to is eating a hot dog, Bryce is looking forward to sleeping in our nice soft bed. 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Day 29: Hanoi Highlights

Day 29: Hanoi Highlights

fruit lady
Our two nights in Hanoi bookended our trip to Halong Bay, so we missed out on exploring the city the way we wished. Both nights were spent exploring the old quarter, which reminded me of New Orleans with the second floor balconies looking over the street. The only difference is that there is some semblance of order to New Orleans unless it’s Mardi Gras, and Hanoi is utter chaos. 

sidewalk restaurant
Trying to figure our way around the city was a nightmare because just about everything except walking is taking place on the sidewalk, from motorcycle parking to clothing vendors, small time restaurants and people having small barbecues right in the middle of the sidewalk! It seems that if you live in the city and have no yard or balcony, you just set up your barbecue on the sidewalk and cook away! As in Ho Chi Minh City, this meant that we had to walk in the street, which made it hard to enjoy ourselves because we were continually dodging motorcycles, bicycles and cars. Not knowing if we might be wiped out any moment interfered with our ability to relax and appreciate the city! 
flower lady

hat lady

bread lady
Yet, there is a charm to Hanoi that is all its own! As in other parts of the country, we found the people to be delightful, and by the time we left our hotel, we felt like we were leaving old friends. As we headed off to Beijing and the last leg of our trip, three staff members came out to say good-bye and help us load all our stuff into our taxi. With such gracious treatment, it is easy to see why so many expats that we met love Hanoi and never want to leave!

Friday, 30 November 2012

Days 27 and 28: Heavenly Halong Bay (Bai Tu Long Bay)

Days 27 and 28: Heavenly Halong Bay (Bai Tu Long Bay)

How do you describe something that is so close to perfect that to put it into writing is to risk breaking the spell? When we decided to finish our time in Vietnam with a trip to Halong Bay, little did we know that it would defy description and that it would be as close to bliss as we could get.
hiking on island
A big part of this trip is choosing the right tour company, so since we saved so much money travelling on the train (HA! HA!), we decided to blow the budget and to go with one of the most expensive, but also the most highly rated companies, Red Dragon Cruises. They arranged for pickup at our hotel and the three hour trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay and back. From the moment that we stepped onto the ship until we were returned to the dock, we felt that we had stepped into the most romantic setting possible. Our cruiser was designed for a couple and no one else, with a beautiful honeymoon suite complete with a king sized bed, silk bathrobes and a shower built for two. We had a crew of five tending to our every need, from Mr. Truong our tour guide, our captain Mr. Khoa, who has the widest grin possible, our chef Mr. Tiu, the engineer Mr. Ha and our waiter/barman Mr. Trung.
As we savoured our lunch of fresh mango juice, seafood soup, salad, shellfish, crab, sole, prawns, snapper and fresh fruit served complete with white linen table cloth at the stern of the boat, we pondered the wonder of being in such a breathtaking place. The boat was a teak beauty, complete with everything needed for a fabulous trip, every minute of which was beyond our wildest dreams! Halong Bay was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in1994 after the movie Indochine with Catherine Deneuve was filmed there in 1993. Since then, it has steadily grown as a tourist destination. Even though it is low season, with the temperature in the low 70s with overcast skies, there were over thirty boats heading out to various locations in the bay. This area encompasses over 1530 square kilometers, and we were going to an area called Bai Tu Long Bay, which is still fairly pristine and not as busy as Halong Bay.
Each island was more impressive than the former, and after a few hours of cruising, we anchored in a lovely little bay and took the junk to a beautiful white sand beach. The island is home to two spectacular caves with phosphorescent stalactites and stalagmites. We emerged from the caves to be helped into our awaiting kayaks, which we paddled around a neighbouring island. The hiking and kayaking warmed us up so much that we decided that a swim in the bay would cool us off. Jumping off the bow of the boat, I’d like to say that our bodies sliced like knives through the tepid water, but it’s probably more honest to say that we hit the water like a few old boulders being plunged off a cliff. Nevertheless, we are young and graceful in our minds, and we frolicked about like a couple of kids reveling in this idyllic experience. We clambered onto the boat for warm showers and spent a couple of hours just talking and holding hands in our deeply padded deck chairs as we motored to our anchorage for the night.
We were wondering how the chef could possibly top lunch, as it was the best food that we had eaten on our trip so far, but we were in for a meal that was right off the charts. Not only did we enjoy another delicious salad, shrimp spring rolls, mussels, giant prawns, grouper and deep fried banana, but each dish was presented with a special hand carved sculpture created by the chef. The presentation of each dish as it was served was nothing less than spectacular, presented with such pride that it just begged to be appreciated. The entire meal took a full two hours, and by the time it was over, we were quite happy to retire to our private honeymoon suite to ponder the specialness of the day. Doing a second Honeymoon is one thing, but it seemed that we had an audience (of sorts) entourage, groupies, or plain old fashioned neighbors close by.  When we finally said “good night” to each other in the appropriate way for such a romantic time and place—they broke out in cheering and clapping!!!!  Their timing seemed rather coincidental; hopefully they were watching a game on T.V. and their favourite team scored!
pumpkin eagle sculpture, served with mussels
We awoke to misty skies, but put on our jackets and sat outside to drink in the scenery, as we wanted to savour ever single moment. As soon as we finished breakfast, which was served once again on our little table at the stern, we headed into a quaint little fishing village, where we were taken by a local sampan operator to visit the local primary school. These people have lived for generations on sampans or junks, as the islands are all steep cliffs and uninhabitable. Once UNESCO got involved, they were helped to build little float houses, and taught how to clean up the trash from the bay in order to keep it attractive for the tourists. The children all learn to swim as babies, and by the time that they go to school at six years old, they are able to row their small junks by themselves around to the other side of the island to go to school which is also a on a float.
They have also set up little fish farms and a pearl farm. We were given a demonstration of how the pearls are seeded before heading back to our boat for a few more hours of cruising. Before disembarking, we were treated to yet another delicious seafood lunch. We left our little honeymoon boat filled up to the brim with peaceful hearts and a renewed gratitude for the water colour magic that God gave us when we created Halong Bay!