Archive for January, 2002
My last day in Hanoi…it’s 5pm and I’m about to have a meal before getting ready for another night train excursion – this time heading south (to the warmth- hooray!) to a town called Hue. Speaking of food by the way, the Hanoi cuisine is quite good – a French/Vietnamese infusion – lots of tasty things to est (The French, in case you didn’t know, ruled in Vietnam for almost 100 years back in the day when it used to be part of the IndoChine Empire).
So today I went to see Uncle Ho – in the flesh (albeit embalmed). The Ho Chi Minh Musoleum is a big tourist attraction for Vietnamese and Westerners alike. They really, really liked their former President. So much so that they embalmed him when he died (against his wishes I believe – he wanted to be cremated) and now he’s on public display for everyone to see. You can only see him in the morning though from 8-11am – I guess they put him back in the freezer for the afternoons. Eight armed guards were surrounding the body as we walked through (in complete silence of course and with hands to the sides – no hands in pockets, too disrespectful)…a site to see indeed.
After that I went next door to the Ho Chi Minh Museum which is dedicated to Uncle Ho’s life. What I found most interesting was the exhibit of his poetry which he wrote while imprisoned in China. I think the book is called The Prison Dairy. Anyway, I managed to copy down a few:
Hard is the Road of Life
I, having Travelled over Steep Mountains and Deep Ravines,
How could I expect in the Plain to meet even greater danger?
In the Mountain I suffered no harm from the Tiger,
In the Plain I met with man and was thrown in Jail.
Listening to the Sound
Of Rice Pounding,
Under the Pestle how terrible the rice suffers!
But it comes out of the pound as white as Cotton.
In this World the same process happens to Humans,
Hard trials turn them into Diamond bright.
Advice to Myself
Without the Cold and Bleakness of Winter,
The Warmth and Splendor of Spring could never be.
Misfortunes have steeled and tempered me,
And even more strengthened my Resolve.
After Prison Practicing Mountain Climbing
The mountains embrace the clouds, the clouds hug the mountains,
The river below shines like a spotless mirror.
On the slopes of the Western Range, my heart beats as I wander,
Looking towards the southern skies and thinking of old friends.
An American soldiers jacket from the Wartime Museum
Statue of Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho
View of the lake in the center of Hanoi, Vietnam
January 31st, 2002
Back in the tropics of Hanoi…well not really, but it seems quite tropical after being in the artice cold of the north. The bus ride down the mountains from Sapa was a bit hairy yesterday – after a few landslides the day before the road had been closed overnight but luckily we squeezed through. I was fortunate on the train again to get 3 girls in my sleeping cabin – not much sleep was had though because it was a loud train and did not make for a restful night. Arrived back here at 4:30am (ugghh) and went straight to the 24-hour internet cafe where I caught up on emails waiting for the sun to rise. After breakfast I will hopefully have a hotel room where I can shower and go back to bed!
So I could have spent yesterday doing tourist stuff in Sapa – visiting the waterfall, walking around town, drinking coffee to stay warm, etc…Istead I wound up working all day with Alan being his assistant of sorts while he tended to various Hmong patients coming in for treatment. After hearing more of his stories the night before about all the work he’s done for the Hmong people with his own money and how he’s desperately low on funds, I went back to my room to figure out exactly how much money I needed to get back to Hanoi and then I decided to give Alan what I had left which amounted to $50 USD. (It might not sound like a lot but that’s a week worth of travelling in Asia or the equivalent of a cataract surgery for one eye).
I stopped by his room to give him the money and he was busy tending to a burn patient – a Hmong man who had been packing a gun early that morning and it exploded in his face. Before I knew it Alan was asking me to give him bandages and cut tape and the day just went on from there. I helped him with a baby who had been badly burned on the neck and face (Alan’s been treating him for over a month), a boy with a bad cut on his knee, a woman with pink eye, and a few more as well. Then later I helped Alan send out some emails to family and friends because he doesn’t type so always has problems with email. He is an amazing man. I am lucky to have even met him and share his experience with him. Mind you, Alan is retired and has a home on the Gold Coast of Australia and could be living a very easy and comfortable life in the warm weather year-round. But for the last 6 years he has chosen to spend half of his time in the cold, wet mountains of Sapa helping the Hmong people using his own savings todo so. (I continue to say’Hmong’ people because the Hmong are not considered Vietnamese – they are a tribal people and are not recognised by the government as people at all. They might as well be animals for all the Vietnamese care. They get no assistance or medical treatment at all which is why there is such a need to help them. Anyway just so you understand, dig?)
I am quite sure that I came exactly at the right time to help him too because he was telling me that he had become pretty depressed lately because none of the tourists were helping him (in the past no one came to Sapa and when they did they all knew each other and many spent weeks staying to help Alan.) He had even had 2 incidents of tourists (Australians if you must know) getting injured and coming to him for treatment, using his supplies meant for the Hmong people, and then not so much as even OFFERING a donation. So he was just feeling pretty low about the whole operation, then he met me and I gave him money AND I helped him with his patients AND I took him out to lunch AND I spent an hour with him at the computer typing his emails. He was thrilled! I spent some time telling him a little about the Appalachian Trail and the trail magic and how so many people helped me during my thru-hike. I explained that it was my turn to help someone else and be his trail angel and bring some trail magic to him! Not only did I make him feel much better but I think I also have him wanting to hike the Appalachian Trail!! I hope to visit him when I get down to Australia eventually. If only there were more people like Alan in this world imagine what a different place it would be.
Ok, time to get some rest…
Alan helping one of his patients – a burn victim
Alan saved this boy from an infection in his knee
Alan and I talking about his work over a few beers…
January 30th, 2002
Central heating has not made it’s way to Sapa. I am huddled by the fireplace in my room again, sucking the warmth from the cinders before I make the break for the bed…even though it’s only a few feet from the fireplace the temperature difference is like night and day. I don’t think I can really explain how cold it is here especially with the freezing rain and no heat. I have filled 3 water bottles with hot water for my bed and I’ll sleep with 2 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of pants, 2 shirts, 1 fleece, and a hat in a sleeping bag with 2 duvets on top. And I will STILL be cold in the morning.
Anyway today the Swedish girls (Anna and Jessica) and I walked down to 2 Hmong villages from Sapa. We were able to arrange a local Hmong girl (Dom) as our guide and she took us to her family’s home for lunch before coming back to Sapa. It was a great experience to walk through the fields and villages and to witness life in the Hmong tribe. The weather was complete crap though – mist, rain, cold all day, and the trail was a muddy, wet, slippery, disgusting mess. If only we had some better weather and views of the mountains we would have been thrilled! Oh well, we got our northern Vietnamese hill tribe cultural lesson of the trip. They really were very kind, friendly, and generous so it was good to see and enjoy.
So we had dinner with Alan again and this time he told us the story of how he got started giving medical treatment to the Hmong people 6 years ago. See, Alan isn’t a doctor at all – he’s a retired plumber! But he came to Sapa on the recommendation of a friend and at that time it was an extremely remote place in the world so all of his doctor friends at home loaded up his bag with medical kits and supplies in case something happened to him. So off he went into a village one day and one of the families invited him to stay for the night. When he entered the house there were about 20 or so Hmong people inside and the first thing he noticed was that over half of them had pink eye. ‘Bloody Hell’, he thought,’What’s going on here?’ (You have to imagine Alan saying’Bloody Hell’ every few sentences actually – it’s quite funny the way he tells a story.) So he opened his bag and found some eye drops and gave them to all of the people infected 3 times a day for 3 days and by the time he left they were all fine. On his way back to Sapa he walked up the road and suddenly the Hmong were coming out of the woodwork – he literally had a trail of people coming up to him showing him cuts and burns and scabies and asking for help. And that’s how it all started for him. The rest as they say is history.
So after another good evening of chatting with Alan, Anna, Jessica and I went up to my room and attempted to de-thaw with a nice fire. They are heading back to Hanoi on the day train tomorrow and I will probably sleep in, walk around a bit during the day, and then head out myself on the night train. If the weather was good I’d stay longer for sure but it’s really miserable so I think it’s time to move on.
Irrigation for the rice fields in Sapa, Vietnam
I call this…Timide
A futile attempt to clean the mud off my shoes!
January 28th, 2002
Life is strange. I can’t believe I am huddling here by the fireplace in my room in Sapa struggling to get warm…and only last week I was laying in my hammock of the beach of Ko Mak. Hmmm. The fire feels wonderfully warm though.
Arrived here this morning after a very good night’s sleep on the train. From Lao Cai it was a 30 km bus ride into the mountains of Sapa. Even at 6am it was a beautiful ride – winding through the green, lush river valley and following the terraced rice fields up the mountain. As we got higher though we drove into the clouds and fog and midst and rain until we arrived at Sapa. I am told that the temperature today was 2 degrees C (that’s about 34F) and with the rain it was brutally cold – chilling to the BONE. There is no heat anywhere in town so you basically either have to keep moving by walking around or cover yourself with blankets wearing every item of clothing you own. The fire is a luxury since I am on the top floor I am lucky enough to have a fireplace and I’m paying an extra $1 on the $3 room for the wood but I think it’s WELL worth it.
The Swedish girls from the train ride (Jessica and Anne) are also staying here so I had breakfast with them this morning and then we walked over to the Sapa market. They had an afternoon walk booked through a tour so I was happy to let them brave the cold and rain while I stayed in my room and read. We met again for dinner though along with some other British and Aussie backpackers and another guy Alan (from Australia) who is living here in Sapa giving medical treatment to the hill tribe people here.
Alan shared some amazing stories and insight on the local culture and traditions which we would have never learned otherwise. He’s been coming here every winter for 6 years helping the Hmong people. Good man. He was telling us about the affects that Western medicine has had on their traditional medicine…for example, he treated a five-year old girl whose father had tried to cure her of a simple case of pink eye. Apparently there is a plant here that heals wounds very well and when the father saw the infection in his daughter’s eyes he thought surely he could cure it with this plant. So he boiled some of the leaves in water and with an eye dropper he put a few drops in each eye (having seen Western doctors use eye drops in the past). The girl is now blind for life.
Alan also told us about the history of the Hmong people – that they are thought to have travelled here overland from Mongolia…about their religion which is based on nature…about their theory on death which essentially involves the 3 souls that they believe they have – at death one goes to the grave, one stays with the family, and one goes to be reincarnated to the next life…about their burial ceremony in which the family leaves the body in the home for 4 days so that everyone can visit and pay their respects, then the family puts food in the mouth of the body before burial so the spirit is well fed when entering the grave. Really interesting stuff. Makes you look twice at the people when you see them on the street – that’s for sure.
I am so happy that I did not book a tour here from Hanoi because tomorrow morning I am meeting Alan for breakfast and he’s going to try to hook me up with a local Hmong girl who speaks excellent English (just learning from tourists) and can take me to her village for the day. Hopefully it will work out – I’m looking forward to it.
Alan’s classis quote of the evening -’You need a GOOD spirit to pickle snake for several years.’ Yes, that’s right folks. They ACTUALLY pickle snakes in alcohol and make snake wine in these parts – I have seen the jars with my own eyes. I am not in Kansas anymore!
Fresh fruit and veggies at the market in Sapa
One of the Hmong hill tribe girls
Buying a hat, scarf and gloves!
January 27th, 2002