Faces In Vietnam

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“What do you like most about the new park?”

“I like that the children have somewhere to play, I like seeing their smiles.”

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“I don’t care much about modernisation, as long as it keeps growing in a sustainable way.”

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“Can we take a picture of you?”

“Yes, but I want the beach in the background.”

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Tan, who runs his own sustainable bamboo shop, talking at the round table meeting –  “Step by step I’d like to encourage more people to live like this, that’s how I want to make an impact, that’s the path that I chose.”

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“Is it better for things to be easier?”

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Saying Goodbye to Hoi An

My time in Hoi An flew by faster than I realised, but it was very fulfilling.  A smaller city, where rural living is desired, yet reliance on tourism suggests otherwise.  Somehow both aspects mesh together.  Cows walk along the road, near the river bed, while tourists cycle past in search of the old city.  Riding down Cua Dai street, to get to the hustle and bustle of the old city is an adventure in itself, as one attempts to navigate the traffic.  Cars, motorbikes, and cyclists negotiate giving way.  I have observed however, that cyclists are more inclined to let speedier transport have priority – however this may  be a premature observation, as I am generalising myself – a tourist – to all cyclists.

What stands out in the old city, are the lanterns – perhaps Hoi An’s biggest selling point – hanging from shops, and across rope, throughout the city.  At night it is a sea of lights.  Another famous attribute includes the tailoring services.  Every time you walk by a shop, a person will call out, “You come and see”.  If you so much as hesitate, this will trigger excitement, and they will be more motivated to get out of their chair and chase you down, “You come and see, many dresses for you.”  All owners welcoming, and perhaps a little desperate.  Concern with one’s business is a common theme.  Our homestay remarked, that due to the increase in home stays, business for them over the last two years had gone down.  It would not surprise me if the smaller tailoring shops on the way to the old city struggled with business as well.  One of the people I spoke with – Dai, a restaurant owner – said, “Before people did business to earn enough for their family…now everyone thinks of money, our relationships have become more competitive”.

Something that used to attract people to Hoi An, were the beaches.  However due to lack of care from resorts, the beaches have shrunk dramatically over the space of ten years, and are now almost non existent.  We stopped to talk to a lady on the beach selling knick knacks and she said that many people used to come to this beach, but now it was almost gone, and now she makes little profit.  The government will not let her sell her things anywhere else.  Life for her, did not seem easy.

From my time in Hoi An, I learned that people are proud of their traditions, and want to carry them into the future.  Yet there is a sense of uncertainty – a sense of losing one’s identity – in the swarm of tourists Hoi An attracts.  The challenge will be stepping into the modern future, while maintaining what one values.  The question remains however, are values shifting?  Is economic gain outweighing a community focus?  Is the collective turning into the individualistic?  I can’t help but wonder all these things, after visiting such a colourful city, filled with diverse perspectives.

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The Local Bamboo Shop

Today I woke up in Hoi An, and cycled through the town to get to the local community centre where I’m doing my course work.  The weather is wet, and warm, and nothing like winter in Canberra.  I absolutely love it here.

We spent the morning doing quizzes and preparing some interview questions, before conducting an interview with a local NGO worker.  Then in the afternoon we cycled out to a shop, run by a man who believes that anything can be made from bamboo.  He reminded me of my dad.  Growing up I’ve watched my dad create an array of objects out of odd bits of wood he finds out in the bush, when he walks the dog.  The man – Tan – at the bamboo shop had a similar attitude, but I guess on a larger scale.  The shop was really his home, and pretty much everything inside his house, including the house itself was made out of bamboo.  Bikes, ipod holders, children’s toys, ornaments, phone case covers, furniture, cups, plates etc. etc. etc.  Outside of running his bamboo business, his home is also a home stay for tourists, and he told us a lot of them spent time at his shop learning to carve, and create things out of bamboo.

We were very lucky, as Tan showed us how to make bamboo cups, and then listened to us ask questions.  He also took us for a drive in his car – did I mention it was made out of – you guessed it – bamboo!  If you’re ever in Hoi An, stay at his house ‘Taboo’ – it will be an experience like nothing else.

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Hoi An, Taboo – Entrance to the shop

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Hoi An, Taboo – Tan, the bamboo man

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Hoi An, Taboo – Tan’s workshop

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Hoi An, Taboo – One of the bikes Tan has made

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Hoi An, Taboo – Back of Tan’s workshop

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Hoi An, Taboo – Sitting and working on the cups, Tan showed us how to make

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Hoi An, Taboo – The cups, some made by Tan, some made by us (guess which)

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Hoi An, Taboo – Proud moment!

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Hoi An, Taboo – Tan’s car

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Hoi An – Lunch on the side of the road, from a local villager

New Years Eve In Halong Bay

On the first day of 2017, I thought I was going to die.  After traveling around Vietnam for about a week, I’ve quickly discovered safety checks and procedures are non existent here.  There is a casual nonchalance amongst the tour guides, where being paid is the main priority – after that – anything goes.  So I began the 1st of January climbing up (or should I say pulling myself up) a massive, jagged cliff.  It was a group of us, some people were still hung over from partying the night before, some people were still drinking and smoking, most of us were in flip flops.  The tour guide said, “I take you on the money walk, and then we go to monkey beach”.  It all seemed innocent enough.  The tour guide led us behind the hotel, up a steep pathway, where trees blocked the view.  This was fine.  We walked up like this for about 10 minutes, and then things got interesting.  The tour guide moved quickly, so we had to hurry to keep up.  The path started getting steeper, and the guide started to rock climb up the cliff.  Some of us looked at each other thinking, this seems sketchy, but okay, let’s keep going.  It just got worse and worse, as we got higher.  There was less flat ground, and eventually we all had to rock climb up the mountain, no equipment, starring down at our imminent death.  I don’t think I’ve done anything this crazy in my life.  At one point going down I felt my whole body freeze up, and I almost lost my footing.  The lesson I’ve learned?  If it seems unsafe – don’t keep doing it.  Maybe this seems obvious, but if there’s one thing social psychology and this trip has made evident, is that in an unfamiliar situation we’re more likely to follow the crowd.  And stupidly, that’s what I did.  I’m still deciding if the view was worth it.

Besides life and death situations, I’m still really enjoying my time in Hanoi.  These last few days have flown by so quickly.  We spent another day in Hanoi after Mai Chau Valley, visiting some tourist sites in the morning, then doing our own thing in the afternoon.  When I enter a new city, if I don’t have a lot of time, I love to just wander around the streets.  I was able to do a lot of filming and sit in cafés people watching.  The next day we caught a bus, then a boat, then a bus, then another boat into Halong Bay.  Jiji was so excited.  She kept giggling and jumping up and down with joy.  When we arrived at the island resort, we hung out on the beach for a bit, before going on a tour of the fishing village.  Then we spent the rest of the afternoon kayaking around the bay, and jumping off the boat into the water.  It was so much fun.  For new years eve, the locals set up a huge bonfire, and we played games, drank beer, and sat around talking.  At one point I fell asleep in the sand, but Ji woke me up in time for the fireworks.  It was a really magical night.

Sadly though, Jiji and I parted ways this morning.  We had dinner in Hanoi last night with our friend Sue, then at dawn caught a taxi to the airport.  We’ve just said our goodbyes – Jiji heading down to Ho Chi Minh City, and myself heading over to Danang, then catching a bus out to Hoi An for my studies.  It feels pretty surreal.  Everything flew by so quickly, and now I’m not sure if I feel ready to get into the study zone.  It will be exciting to learn more about this country though.  From the research I’ve been doing, it seems Vietnam has endured a lot, yet as the country continues to modernise, traditions and ancient practices are still honoured.  This was evident in Hanoi, the capital, so I’m eager to compare this insight with the other great cities.

Happy New Year everyone!  May 2017 bring everything you need.

Love Kat x

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Hanoi, Old Quarter – Lady selling flowers

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Hanoi, Old Quarter – Shops

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Hanoi, Old Quarter – Ladies selling fruit

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Hanoi, Old Quarter – Shops

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Hanoi, Old Quarter – Shops

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Halong Bay – Fishing Village

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Halong Bay

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Halong Bay – Fishing Village

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Halong Bay

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Halong Bay – Fishing Village

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Halong Bay, Monkey Island – Resort

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Halong Bay, Monkey Beach – Monkey eating fruit

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Halong Bay, Monkey Island – At the top of the cliff (Behind that smile is a feeling of absolute terror)

Cycling Around Mai Chau Valley

Today was one of the best days of my life.  We caught a bus out to Mai Chau Valley, and a  local guide from the village lent us bicycles and showed us around.  We followed him through the village, across rice paddies, and down long roads with enormous mountains in the background as the sun was setting.  It was so beautiful and so scary.  The bikes were really old and the brakes on mine weren’t very good.  But it was so much fun.  I have never laughed or screamed as much as I did this afternoon.

It also just felt really surreal.  There were dogs and cattle everywhere, wandering around the village.  A lot of the Vietnamese wore their traditional dress, and hats.  At one point our guide stopped to show us the inside of their houses, on stilts.  The floor was made of bamboo wood, and I felt like I was going to fall through at any moment.  He also showed us how underneath was where the cattle slept.

After the ride we came back to the village for dinner, and there met some more people.  One of the things I really appreciate about travelling, is getting to talk to people who’ve done really different things with their lives.  One guy told us how he was motor cycling across Vietnam, and another woman described how she’d spent her 20’s just moving from country to country.  She didn’t go to university until her early 30’s.  I really loved hearing their stories of getting lost, and living outside of their comfort zones.  Talking to people like this opens you up to all the possibilities in the world.

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Walking Around

The goal for today was to get to know the city more.  Jiji and I walked around the lake, the city and the old quarter.  I love moving in and out between the traffic.  I love the quiet space amongst all the mayhem – every street has a little temple.  I love the combination of modern and traditional.  I feel like I could move here one day.  Here’s a little taste of what we saw…

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Entering Hanoi

Ji and I were half dead when we stepped off the plane this morning, but it felt so good to arrive in Hanoi.  Every flight we’ve taken has extended our day by a couple of hours, and we haven’t had a full night sleep in a while.

The first thing that struck me about Hanoi – from the window of a taxi – were the buildings.  They were tall and grand, yet scattered and crumbling.  Piles of rubbish lay in the sides of the streets, and the traffic was worse then KL.  Amongst all this organised chaos, were rice paddies or vegetable gardens, and people wearing large straw hats, working the fields.  To get to our hostel (Central Backpackers Hostel) in the Old Quarter, the taxi had to dart between motorbikes, stopping suddenly here and there.  When the car finally stopped, he waved his hands frantically, to indicate that we’d arrived, and someone from the hostel helped us bring our luggage in.

Everything felt like smooth sailing from there.  The reception staff were so lovely.  They went over the checking in details, the tours we’d booked, and offered us a place to keep our luggage, as our room wasn’t ready yet.  They also suggested we join the daily (free) walking tour of the city, which sounded like a great place to start, so that we could gain our bearings.

I don’t know why I wanted to come to Vietnam, except that it just felt right.  A lot of people had told me how beautiful it was, and when I found out about the anthropology course, it seemed like a really good decision.  As I followed the walking tour, getting my first real taste of South East Asia, I felt so at home.  I realise I haven’t been here yet for a full 24 hours, and I always say I’ve fallen in love with a country when I enter it for the first time, but…I’ve fallen in love with Vietnam.  It’s so different to anything I’ve every experienced.  I love how busy the streets are.  I love how easy it feels to walk around.  I love how gentle everything seems under the surface.  I don’t understand the language, or know much about the culture, but I feel like I fit in here (although I probably stand out like a sore thumb).  This is quickly becoming one of my favourite places.

It’s normal to feel a little bit scared before stepping out of your comfort zone.  But I love how the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  The lessons I’ve learned from throwing myself in the deep, I’ve found to be the most valuable. I’ve noticed they always lead me to answers I never knew I needed, and helped me realise who I wanted to become.  Someone comfortable with the unknown.

With Love, Kat

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