Thursday, 18 December 2014

Hanoi - je ne sais quoi

I am becoming accustomed to being 'outblogged' by my oldest child. At the moment, she is writing three to my one. Anyway this is the last of her travel blogs for now as she is relaxing in Phuket for a month - I wish! 

Climbing to the Northern buttes of Vietnam, I have wondered whether weighing Hanoi against Saigon would be of a similar outcome to my reflections of Barcelona and Madrid. However, Alex and I have visited both cities of Spain separately and reached entirely different conclusions.


Not at all culture vultures in real life (i.e. when we are not travelling), Alex and I seem to reach a similar conclusion about cities - judging their merits on ambience, authenticity and adventure. So why he thought Madrid was a better spot than Barcelona, I have absolutely no idea.

For me, a city needs to be steeped in history - you should be able to walk the walls and simultaneously turn back the clock to a different age. Be graced by architecture which celebrates that passage of time. Enjoy the promise of hidden walkways where unexpected local pleasures can capture the eye. Eclectic cafes are a must - where one can watch the world go by at one's feet and lastly, there has to be a sleepy buzz about the place but with a compelling lilting hum rising above it. Hanoi scored full marks on all fronts, from both of us.

Hanoi means the 'city inside rivers', however its historic and formal name Thang Long, has a more bad-ass meaning 'ascending dragon'. One sees the two come together in the beautiful surroundings of Hoam Kiem Lake, striking in the centre of ancient Hanoi and where the Turtle Temple almost rises out of the lake in splendour.

Unlike Saigon, Hanoi is more of a phrontistery - a thinking place, though it is slightly harder to ponder when wading through its hazardous traffic, where bikes run amok. The Temple of Literature, built in honour of Confucius, celebrates this with a series of courtyards hosting porticos and pavilions with the usual dog and dragon statues standing at each entrance. The botanical gardens are splendid - serene beauty with water fountains; it was a bemusing contrast seeing soldiers practising their parade march through the middle.


The 'Hanoi Hilton' - as known by American soldiers or the Hoa Lo Prison (Hoa Lo roughly translates to 'Hell hole' - so you should appreciate the sarcasm here) was another highlight, in my opinion, saturated in the history of both the Indochina and Vietnam Wars. A French guillotine stared down on us in one room, the sewer drains that were the means of two successful escapes in another. A moving tribute stood in the walled gardens, with emaciated prisoners carved out of rock extending three metres high. On the upper levels, away from the doom and gloom, was an cockamamie exhibition displaying photos and placards detailing the excellent treatment of American POWs whilst away from home. Beautifully ironed pyjamas hung and a bed with a soft mattress, duvet and pillow - (nicer than some of the beds we have slept in) helped hammer the point home. Interestingly, the senator John McCain was a POW here.



The Old Quarter, where we stayed, remains true to the architecture of Hanoi from the early 20th century. Storekeepers in the Old Quarter were taxed according to the width of their shopfronts, the long and narrow buildings often called 'tube houses'. Typical measurements are 3 metres wide by 60 metres long. The Old Quarter is made up of 36 streets, each dedicated to a different skill or trade, and so we wandered down Hang Giay (stationary), Hang Quat (coffins), Hang Ma (decorations), Hang Be (bamboo), Hang Ga (chicken) and Gia Ngu Street (underwear). We also renamed these, for our own entertainment - Jotter Junction, Dead Man's Drive, Tinsel Town, Bamboo Boulevard, Chicken Run and the Bra Bazaar. I think we might have done better. I claim all proprietary rights to the 'Bra Bazaar'.


Every alley, path and street corner has cafes where one can pull up a plastic chair and dine on whatever the daily special is. Particular lautitious feasts were enjoyed at the Tasty Restaurant, where we ate Bun Cha Ha Noi - a dish of grilled pork burgers and noodles, served with greens and a bowl of light dipping sauce. Nem (spring rolls) are also served with it, and the meal should be savoured alongside a large Tiger beer. At the Green Lizard, we got barbecued spare ribs, fried rice and greens served in a plastic tray all for 40,000 dong (£1). Pho fans out there, nothing is better than sitting out in the open with locals, any place will do, served alongside the cheapest beer in the world - Bia Hoi (25p per litre).



For those in favour of adventure, walking down the train tracks, you will come to Ray Quan - a restaurant where the trains pass so close, you can almost chink your beer against its metal carriages. One of our favourite images of Vietnam which was given to us by the lovely Deb Bakker, who supports Deaf Craft - an organisation run by deaf orphans in Hanoi and who we met on the train up to Sapa. Deb also brought us to meet the people who work at Deaf Craft and we spent a wonderful afternoon seeing them work and attempting rudimentary sign language with them.

A special place found down one back alley was the Shot Cafe, one of the most comfortable and architecturally pleasing buildings I have ever been in. Spread over two floors and made nearly entirely out of wood, with an entresol level garden, a piano to play and beanbags and rocking chairs to lounge in under the high ceilings. If you come in the early evening, musicians come to borrow the guitars and piano, taking it in turns to perform local Vietnamese songs. As a pastime, for simple enjoyment - not for performance. It's difficult to describe it to justice. Alex spent hours drawing townhouses that could reflect the design of it.

Vietnam, in its beauty and meandering pace, has enchanted us for a month. A month into our year of travelling and we are refreshed,  feeling creative in abundance, able to absorb and appreciate the smaller things in life in the midst of looking at the bigger picture. The frugality of our budget means we have cherished every penny spent. One could go on, endlessly soaking, Vietnam up - the vitality of Saigon, the charm of Hoi An, the ancient Citadel in Hue, the coruscating hills of Sapa, the soaring karsts of Lan Ha Bay and the seductive bustle of the streets of Hanoi. A special adventure to be remembered, as we go on to places new.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

"It's Christmas, Jim, but not as we know it..."

There's one for the Trekkies, with a few liberties taken! And it perfectly sums up the random nature of Christmas here this year. It will be happening... after a fashion ... mostly through the means of internet shopping, shipping and the kindness of family and friends.

I wrote my Christmas cards a few weeks ago, working on the theory that I felt reasonably ok and I wasn't sure when I would feel as well again. Then, final chemo over, I posted and delivered them by hand and paw (involving some perilous dives across cattle grids for the dog who has something of an aversion to them). Piles of gifts are hidden under a rug in my office ready to be wrapped but, for the first time, number 1 child will not be with us - rightly staying in Thailand where she is currently gapping with her lovely partner.

Lots of bits of Christmas will be as they have always been. No school carol service this year, listening to the boy play the trumpet in Ripon Cathedral but there will be a carol service somewhere to attend (if I can avoid the sniffy, snotty tinies who carry a myriad of germs and few handkerchiefs). On Christmas Eve we will read together A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas. This tradition started as a special treat read in bed to the elder two when they were little. Now we all sit round the fire and read a few pages each about Jim and the cats, Mrs Prothero and the fireman and the skating postman. It's a perfect respite from the television, the Christmas songs and the clanking of pans and pots. A special few moments of peace.

And then my favourite part... on Christmas morning when the children unwrap their stockings (when they were little, all four clambering on our bed) exclaiming at Santa's extraordinary talent for knowing exactly what they wanted - even when they didn't know themselves! And my beloved and I joining in their surprise and delighting that Santa even remembers to give them thank you cards. Some things in the stockings never change - chocolate mice and medals from Bettys and most important of all, a Christmas decoration which goes on the tree for each child, giving me a treasured memory of Christmases past when I put the tree up each December. I can trace the origin of nearly every decoration.

Talking of which, this year's Christmas tree erection proved particularly hazardous. The trees (one with roots, one without) were purchased on Saturday and carefully positioned. Solo for the first time in the decoration process, I trimmed two trees, cleared up the mess and admired. The following morning, the big tree fell down (yes, this happened last year and yes, I meant to buy a new stand...). The tree is now back in place and secured to the ceiling at a jaunty - or drunk, whichever - angle. With regard to the roots aspect, our garden has many Christmas trees - some now taller than the house - from Christmases past. Not exactly landscaping but rather marvellous none the less.

Which brings me to Christmases past. It's funny how the bitter and the sweet memories get muddled up together. The year the postmistress came for Christmas dinner and drove back across the field, rather befuddled, and got stuck in the mud. She returned twenty minutes after she left - minus her car and one shoe - we found both, eventually. The year my beloved welcomed his mother and stepfather into the house and whilst trying to break some ice in the kitchen sink for their drinks, broke the sink completely meaning we had to wash up in a bucket for a couple of weeks until we could get a new one. And the year we made sprout jelly. Charades and games and folks that aren't with us anymore - all mashed together like bubble and squeak.

This year I won't be the ringmaster, the cracker of the whip (though there will be crackers if we ever get round to buying any). I will be a spectator, probably trying to curb my frustration at not being able to do all the things which make up our Christmas and hoping, please, to have got my taste buds back (though I will still not be eating sprouts - the vegetable of the devil).

And my Christmas wish list? Firstly and essentially, to be well. I'd take that above everything. For my children, husband and family to be happy (and healthy, because, as it turns out, everything else is bosh). And because I freely admit that I am vain, I'd like my hair to grow back, but that comes a very poor third.

Happy Christmas!

Genevieve being a bridesmaid with Annabel

Antonia and her lovely fiance Jonathan

Robbie and Sabrina

Thursday, 11 December 2014

My Last Day at 28

My oldest daughter is out-blogging me by some distance now but this is particularly moving (for me 
anyway) so I hope you enjoy this. Happy Christmas! 
"When I was one, I was just begun.
When I was two, I was nearly new.
When I was three, I was hardly me.
When I was four, I was not much more.
When I was five, I was just alive.
But now I'm six, I'm as clever as clever,
So I think I'll be six now forever and ever."
By A.A Milne, 'Now We Are Six'

As age always seems to go up and never stays still, it was with a little irony that I recalled A.A Milne's poem which 
was at the back of the hardback poetry book about Winnie the Pooh that I had been given for winning the Maths 
Prize in Primary School. (Not so good at maths now.)

Tomorrow I turn 29 and, if you read the earlier blog, you will know that I get nostalgic, melancholic, (even 
tenebrific - what a great word) around my birthdays. A little bit disquieted. Part of this is the fear of growing old 
or wanting to stay young forever. Peter Pan was for a long time my hero, at least before I studied the darker 
meanings behind J.M. Barrie's words at university, the boy who never grew up. 

It is a bit of a nuisance that your birthdays creep up on you so quietly. As Dickens said "Old Time, that greatest 
and longest established spinner of all!...his factory is a secrety place, his work is noiseless, and his hands are 
mutes." What a con artist.

Suddenly you're scratching your head, having no idea of what you have been doing for the past year. Pondering. 

To be realistic, my memory is still remarkably intact and I am young enough still to get away with an immature 
sense of humour. I am still tickled by this old Pashtun song I came across last week - 

"There is a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach,
  But, alas, I cannot swim!"

This blog is starting to sound very melodramatic.

But, 28 years old holds some precious memories - some concrete, others stirring repetitions of daily life - the 
renovations of Alex's new house; seeing the new skylights in the loft, sanding wooden stairs so they brighten 
anew, sloshing acres of white paint over the hated magnolia, black slates on the bathroom floors. Bacon 
sandwiches with Annabel, every week, in cafes around Holborn, Covent Garden, Crouch End or beers in local 
pubs that brew Yorkshire Ale - sitting on sunny steps on an empty afternoon. Parties after the rugby, every 
Saturday, at the Big Brother House that some of the boys rented living in Great Gatsby style. Watching a young 
blind man play the piano in Nottingham, in his own solitude, at the end of a course I ran for students with 
disabilities. Similarly, the captivation in a single moment when a young African man stood up and read a poem 
thanking us for sponsoring another programme in London. 

Sitting with Sophie, in the humidity of Mumbai, at a bar devoid of people with the exception of a group of 
Indians celebrating their drivers' birthday - the driver aforementioned, eating a sandwich in the car and waiting 
for them outside. At home with the family, watching Mrs Doubtfire, after Robin Williams passed away. Walking 
down the aisle as a bridesmaid, behind my beautiful Vicky - behaving immaculately then climbing trees with 
Annabel behind the marquee. The accomplishment of doing a single chin-up unaided, after months of punishing 
gym workouts with my personal trainer and friend, Matt. Skyping my sister in Turkey, to only see her hand pop 
up with a sapphire engagement ring, blinking at when she had become a grown up. Packing up to travel, then 
delayed by a wonderful part in 'Call the Midwife' - a tremulous moment after months of no acting work. Dinner 
with my girlfriends, at Broadway Market, then sitting in a heap on the bed with red wine and overcome with 
laughter. Going on this adventure with Alex, seeing Vietnam - so many memories with this boy to mention. 

A singular lowlight in my life this year, was my mum getting cancer. When I woke up this morning, on this pre-
birthday, it took me a while to lift all good memories out of the box when there is this dull haze of pain 
around six months of seeing my mum so sick and fragile, feeling so helpless. The 25th of June will stand alone 
as a marked shift in my life forever - a thumping sense of how precious my family is. Skyping my mum from 
Thailand last week, she bravely announced "I am now as bald as a coot. Just like Yul Brynner," sharing how she 
had asked my father to shave the rest of her head and how he practised on his own armpits before fulfilling her 
wish. It's a grin with the shaking of a head - right there - as I write this recent memory, but one that requires 
me to blink back tears too. 

Moving past that, it has given me some of the most precious memories of my family this year, because of the 
weight of their meaning. Pain mingles in a cocktail with Joy - the chemathon episode with the hedgehog, the 
Freda wig - "Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match", making Hugh Grant lorgnettes to read over your 
cold cap, performing 'When Harry met Sally' - the infamous episode which I was to reproduce with Channel 4, 
cooing over pictures in the bridal magazines (even though Mum would say even now, "I never coo"), Antonia 
saying no to every single one of them. As the hundreds of well-wishers that Mum is fortunate to call friends 
rally around us, we too as a family have weaved a tighter knot together with Mum standing, sitting or lying 
in the middle. 

So 29, what beckons for me? The great adventure, backpacking around Asia - Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, India, 
Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Phillippines and New Zealand all waiting for us alongside many others. I will 
be strong as the cancer treatment goes on, so far away. That book, that has been waiting beyond my grasp for 
so many years, I now will write. A film job or two, throwing myself into the rigours of transformation and 
emotional turmoil that is required. Coming home to see my beautiful red-headed sibling walk down the aisle. 
Figuring and facing destiny, or the future, hand in hand, with Alex. Come what may.

As I grow one year older, much more yet to come, I will remind myself of this saying, which I came across 
whilst bemoaning growing old.

"It's important to have a twinkle in your wrinkle" 

A wry grin that makes of me now, as I go on to face a new day.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The Right Way to Halong Bay

Guest blog from daughter Genevieve who has just 'experienced' Halong Bay.

As the sun rises, we are finishing our breakfast on Cat Ba island - omelettes 
served with a fresh baguette on the side and strong black filtered coffee. Our 
hotel on the harbour front grants us views of the limestone karsts emerging in 
the horizon. Fishing boats are just sailing out - round coracles with flat bottoms 
made of bamboo and the carvel style junk boats which are usually used to ferry 
around tourists making a short trip of Halong Bay.

We opted to do something different with the famed Halong Bay - which was to 
linger longer than the standard dash-in-and-out tours arranged in Hanoi but 
the cost of cruising around on a boat for more than 24 hours was 
substantially higher than our £30 a day budget. Like most backpackers and 
tourists, we conferred to the same old cliche -  wanting to find ourselves 'off 
the beaten path'. We also grappled with the mixed reviews of Halong Bay - 
the scams, constant traffic of likeminded others and the environmental 
problems - pollution of the waters from the rubbish thrown out at sea. And so 
we faced the other direction - towards the smaller and lesser frequented 
sibling - Lan Ha Bay. We stayed for four days, under budget, on the largest of 
366 islands in the archipelago - Cat Ba island.

Cat Ba means 'Sandy Women' - and the tale goes that three women of the 
Tran Dynasty were killed with each of the bodies washing up on three different 
beaches. Fishermen built temples on each beach in honour of them and so is 
how the island thus became named. It is preserved by UNESCO, largely for the 
national park that protects one of the most endangered primate species in the 
world - the langur monkeys. There are only 68 left in the world and all of them 
reside here with us on Cat Ba.

The town itself is not pretty, captivating, bustling but its lack of pretence holds 
a charm in itself. The locals do not overexert themselves in plying for trade, the 
buildings are hacked and modern. There is a plentitude of beauty to be 
admired about the island but it is not thrown in your face. A quiet place, to come 
and go as one pleases, enjoy what one will - just what we needed and glorious 
warm weather after the constant chill of Sapa.

We hired a motorbike (that I am alive and kicking, Mum, should reassure you 
that Alex can handle one pretty well) and explored every road on the island. 
Butterflies float everywhere and in all colours, goats with bells round their 
necks skirt nervously past, a rocky path takes us between mangrove trees 
hovering just above the sea level. A smell of pine as we dip beneath trees, 
a bend of awesome valleys and limestone cliffs around every corner. Holding 
on to the man I love as the wind rushes through and everywhere.


Cat Ba Island is also steeped in a little history, heavily influenced by both the 
French Indochina and Vietnam Wars. As a bombing hotspot, there are caves 
dug into hills that acted as hideouts for the locals and for the Viet Cong soldiers 
stationed here. We stopped by the Hospital Cave, used all the way up to 1975 - 
reaching it by climbing a steep ladder made of bamboo and welcomed by large 
cavernous spaces. Rooms have been carved into the rocks and I was 
entertained by its echoed recantation of my singing the Who, much to the 
puzzlement of a couple of German tourists who were also having a look around.


Cannon Fort - a strategic look out point with bunkers and yes, cannons, was 
where we watched the sunset. This granted us a panorama of the karsts 
around us and with use of binoculars, a giggle at a few fat nudists on beaches 
miles away.

The unmissable part of visiting this part of Vietnam is, of course, going out on the 
water and seeing the limestone karsts up close. With Asia Outdoors, for £16 each, 
we booked a day's kayaking trip. A pickup by minibus and a motley crew of tourists, 
mostly ignoring one another, climbed on the boat at the harbour and onto the 
upper deck to lounge on cushions as the boat weaved around hundreds of little 
islands dotting Lan Ha Bay.


Around one corner, we were greeted with the sight of floating fishing villages, 
one of which held the kayaks we were to use. Half of the group separated to go 
'deep water soloing' - the term describing one who rock climbs as high as they 
can go and then, being able to go no further, throwing themselves into the sea. 
This had looked like fun, but we were being frugal, happy to enjoy ourselves at 
lower levels.


Alex and I, being as competitive as we are and not at all sportsmanlike (with each 
other), did not make an agreeable coxless pair on the tandem kayak. This is 
especially as I, without my hearing aids, had opted to go up front at first and 
was unable to have any two-way conversation for all of three hours. Grumpy 
and inhospitable to his attempts to steer, we made way through tunnels, caves 
and explored lagoons in a dogged effort at a straight line weaving through the 
water. The American guide with the big beard laboriously showed us how to climb 
in and out of the kayaks safely in order to swim in the lagoon and Alex managed 
to capsize it. Twice. He takes the prize for being the only one to do it unaided, but 
as he says "if you aren't capsizing you aren't trying hard enough." It was slow 
working back to the boat, with a kayak mostly submerged in water.

After lunch, the groups reversed except for us, choosing to stay on the 
kayaks. This meant that I was granted with the company of tall, toned and 
topless men from Bulgaria, Australia, Canada, Italy. And one fat American. 
Oh, and Alex.


The kayaking was more successful this time around, with my black mood 
having dissipated and with our tandem now much more in sync with me at 
the back. We all stilled to watch monkeys chattering on a cliff, rattling trees 
to send down a scatter of leaves from hundreds of metres high. We climbed 
out of our kayaks to wade through 'Spider Forest' (thankfully we did not see 
any) and to climb through sea grass back around the other side to our 
kayaks. By the time the sun was getting mellow, we were diving off the boat 
and clunking beers with our newfound friends on the upper deck.

As the sun sets, and the boat sailed back to Cat Ba, conversation stilled as 
everyone sunk in the majestic sights under the glow of the horizon. We were 
gloriously stiff, with sore arms and limbs, cheeks red from the warmth, hugging 
our damp knees in the breeze with one hand clasped onto a beer. Following the 
same route we had taken that morning, the length of the day and the sights we 
had seen stretched before us and we sat contented, people from near every 
continent, knowing that the money spent had been worth every single penny and 
more for the unforgettable Lan Ha Bay.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Sapa's Hills Through the Eyes of Me

Another fabulous blog from globe-trotting number 1 child...light relief from
the cancer stuff from me!

As we fell asleep on the rocking train, Summer quickly moved to Winter, 
marching past Autumn in a huff. To fall asleep in a tangible, humming humidity 
and wake up in a blanket of heavy fog and swirling mists by the highest peak 
in Vietnam, was like setting ourselves as characters in a time-travelling 
fantastical adventure, and remaining perpetually dazed by the experiences 
before us.

The town, Sapa itself, is akin to a ski resort but without the snow. Hotels and 
Northface shops sit cosily on hills set in every direction, though one cannot see 
further than a few metres ahead to know that this is the case. Restaurants 
proclaim the promise of a woodburning fire, few actually delivering, and the 
Hmong tribespeople in their wellies shout 'Where you from' loudly as we pass 
by. Hot chocolate is the drink of choice, usually served with the sugary 
condensed tinned milk favoured by Vietnamese over that of the cow.

One afternoon, a Mancunian and a Scouser sat at a sofa, blowing hot air into 
their hands and shrugging off the fierce cold.

One imagines the sharing of backgrounds could mean a shaky start, for the 
famed rivalry between the two cities is second to none. Both would also insist 
that this history of animosity runs deeper than the Battle of the Reds. When 
away from home, however, whether in London, Sapa or Timbuktu, Northerners 
are a tight clan, who put local grievances aside and claim one other as brethren, 
bantering ruthlessly against the South. Such solidarity is only tossed off in a pub 
on Saturday afternoon.

Northerners being a rare breed amongst the Hmong tribe village of Sapa, we 
agreed to catch up that evening with Phil and Hoa, the Mancunian-Vietnamese 
couple who run Ethos Travel, somehow finding ourselves in an Egyptian Shisha 
Bar decorated as a Bedouin tent with a full-on decor of Valentine's Day. The 
world around us was pink and red, with rose petals scattered everywhere 
including in the toilet bowl.

The main attraction of Sapa is the trekking and for that reason, the very 
next day I found myself in a brand new hot pink Northface jacket and some 
snug fleece-lined black leggings ready to strut up a mountainside or two. On
 a serious note, this was one of the best experiences I have had and the 
highlight of our trip to Vietnam.

My (pronounced "Me") was our guide for the trek, a thirty year old woman with 
a gold front tooth dressed in the distinctive colours that the Black Hmong wear. 
Black baggy velvet shorts that reach to the knees, black linen cloths are wrapped 
around the calves with colourful ribbons strapping them on followed by sturdy 
walking boots. T-shirts and hoodies are covered by a dark blue overgarment with 
hand-stitched fluorescent strips of swirling shapes and flowers adorn the arms, 
shoulders and collar. A similarly decorated sash wraps the coat and a blue, green, 
pink and purple checked scarf is wrapped bandana style around the head. My has 
black hair reaching close to the floor which she has not cut for over 20 years. She 
wraps this round her head like a halo and affixes it with a comb at the front. The 
Hmong wear massive chains round their necks and two or three dangly earrings 
to a lobe, the more you wear - I'm told, the more beautiful you are supposed to be.

When I was seventeen, I cut a knee length checked skirt into a minuscule skirt 
and a boob tube. I also once tried to go clubbing with a pashmina wrapped around 
me instead of a dress. My sister would tell me now that with such similar fashion 
sense, I must have been a Hmong orphan cast away from the tribe.

A trip into the local market, where buffalo legs, chicken feet, pig oesophagus 
and dried squid are delicacies hotly contested over, found us laden with meat 
(normal), rice paper, coriander, carrots, spring onions, eggs and bananas. My 
holds my hand on a regular basis already and laughs loudly and jostles us 
along, much to the amusement of the numerous family members we pass.

An hour's climb up hill and we can still see no more than our breath 
evaporating in front of us and hemp and indigo growing beside our feet. 
The fog is never ending. We hear a bell and some kettle drums and a 
school comes into sight. Young children are dancing in rows, synchronised 
claps above and below whilst old women watch, wrapping hemp around 
their hands, fingers stained blue and green.

My's house is humble, walls of bamboo and a corrugated iron roof.  There 
is no electricity, nor light. The home is split into three rooms, and the eaves 
hold corn to feed the animals, rice to feed the family. Traditional marriages 
mean that the wife will live with the husband's family - so before long, mother
-in-law, sisters-in-law, cousins and children flock into the house to eat with 
us. For with the exception of when trekkers come to visit, they all eat plain 
boiled rice three times a day, every day. It is a celebration, a feast when we 
come and I am so glad that we provide the opportunity to feed so much of 
the family a hearty meal.


The fire sits in one of the rooms, smoke blowing everywhere and low 
wobbly stools sit close to the floor. The food is prepared on the mud 
floor or in metal bowls. Nothing is spared and the fat of the meat is melted 
down to use as oil. Everybody sits close by as the fire is the only source 
of heating and it is effing cold. We are served stir-fried chicken with carrot 
and onions, pork and greens with rice. Rice wine is poured out into shot 
glasses out of a plastic water bottle. This was to be consumed in large 
quantities over the next three days. No English is spoken, but the 
constant chatter of the females around us is captivating.

Another five kilometres we walked that afternoon which was all downhill. 
The mud was wet and there were few footholds to stop the ungraceful 
slithering and sliding act which was our only way to climb down the hill. A 
child ran down the hill past us in a pair of sandals, putting us to extreme 
shame. Terror creeps up on you slightly when you peer over the edge 
and see how far you could fall if the mud sent you flying in that direction. 
Mist everywhere meant that one would suddenly find themselves staring 
into the black beady eyes of a buffalo with no prior warning.


A night at My's sister's house led to much merriment and a few sore 
heads the next morning after several litres of rice wine was consumed. 
Much the same as lunch, we ended up eating with around 10 relative
-in-laws and children and watching some bizarre Korean vampire show 
on television under the single lightbulb that was in the house. We slept 
in the open, on a low bed under a mosquito net, with a thick blanket.

Twelve kilometres the next day, mainly by road, took us down the 
valley and as we climbed the mist slowly rose giving us the famed 
view of rice paddies that Sapa is known for.

My has never been to the city. Nor has she seen the sea. This is the case 
for the majority of people that surround us in the hill tribes. It's curious. 
How can one imagine a world, a life, having not seen a sprawling 
metropolis in glinting sunlight, the ferocious blaring of horns in deadlock 
traffic, the concerted faces as swarms of people walk to their offices, the 
gym, meetings, restaurants, cafes, shops? The observation of urban 
culture as it passes you by? Or the expanse of an ocean, where your eyes 
search the horizon for where the sky meets the sea? The vivid colours of 
the sunset - gold vermillion, shades of fuchsia, violet and periwinkle 
dancing with the clouds? The salt spray, the roar and ebb of a tide, grains 
of sand between your toes as you sink beneath the surface? The joy to see 
fish and coral beneath pellucid waters.

But My has seen the changing seasons over the hills of Sapa. The ornate 
finery in the rice paddies as they dip down the valley. They look like steps 
for God to ascend down from heaven. My has seen children chasing their 
father's bike with glee across a corrugated iron bridge, with no hesitation 
at the cracks that reveal the gushing river below. The breaking backs of 
men building the foundations of a house, together and with no payment 
except a hearty meal. A family of twenty sitting together round a fire with a 
simple spread. Buffalo, pigs, chickens, goats, dogs and cats roaming 
together and doing their bit.

Whilst we sit humbly, at times abhorrent at the poverty that many of them live 
with, respectful of the endless toil we see around us, sorrowful that most children 
may never see the sea, develop a love/hate relationship for the city and all of its 
meddlesome quirks, may never go to university and see a full education, will 
marry and stay in the village they grew up in, next door to the house they were 
born in. They will face most, if not all, of the hardships of the earlier generation 
for whilst the tourist trade in Sapa has reaped benefits, it is part of their culture to 
live exactly the way they are and always have been. It takes reminding that the 
lessons in life taught here are no better nor worse than the ones taught of the 
children who see the city and the sea. Like us. My does not miss what she has 
never known and we are not right to perceive the quality or the richness of life as 
poorer than what we have. She certainly doesn't think that way. And I have learnt 
to believe her.

My's biggest challenge at the moment is saving money for a chimney. Her 
children suffer from the cold, smoke inhalation. She worries for a bad harvest 
which will mean that there is not enough rice for the family. Sapa's rice paddies 
have been exhausted and there are few minerals left in the soil, which means 
that they can only harvest once a year. Her husband works in the summer in the 
fields, for no pay, simply for the food that they can bring to the family table. Any 
excess is traded in the village for other basic necessities. My does not have a 
bank account where she stashes her earnings from the treks. She has never 
learnt the concept of saving nor is quite bought into the long-term benefits of an 
expensive chimney. One day she came across a glimmering rainbow trout in the 
market, and in her delight - having never seen or eaten one before, spent a lot 
of her cash to be able to carry the rainbow trout proudly 5km uphill to her family 
to feed them for one night. That is My. She has the biggest heart.

Heavy breathing, slipping and sliding up and down muddy tracks, stopping 
to enjoy the views, staying in local villages with families suckling their babies, 
fetching water from bamboo poles that run down the mountain, poking the 
fire, preparing simple yet delicious food for the people who come to stay and 
themselves. Learning from the generosity of My and others who, in English 
oftentimes broken, share pictures of their rituals, routines and culture. All in 
a glorious landscape surrounding us, unbroken beauty and the never-ending 
horizons of green hills.