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The Heart and the Heat of Hanoi

Cát Bà was barely a speck on the rear horizon when the farmland gave way to suburbia, the vivid green suddenly overwritten by shades of city. The frequency with which the bus driver narrowly avoided vehicular homicide increased tenfold and the low thrub of the engine became punctuated by the flatulent honking of horns, our vehicle’s harsh roar answered by the plaintive beeping of the bikes swarming around us. We were in Hanoi.

I will commend Vietnam on the consistency of its roads. No matter how great or small the local population may be, crossing the road here is a matter of confidence and bloody-mindedness; you must be aware of the drivers around you while positively daring them to hit you as you play chicken.

In that regard, the beehive that is Hanoi’s streets was surprisingly familiar: admittedly, the city capital has a greater chance of exciting intervehicle encounters than somewhere as quiet as Mūi Né, but Hanoi somehow feels less bananas than its southern counterpart Hô Chí Minh. The roads here are a warren of overhead cables and underfoot salesmen, with stalls lining the pavements selling everything from bugs to Burberry as bikes laden with products weave precariously past you.

Roam Hanoi’s Old Quarter and get lost in its seemingly random network of side alleys and spontaneous markets. The time-stained façades of the area clash with the brilliant colours of Vietnamese markets and their sellers; you’ll be taken off-guard every time you turn a corner and come up against a spectacular old building, even though they seem to occur on every other street.

One of the city’s most famed sights is its Train Street – a narrow, gravely alley lined with shops and eateries, which must all be swept away twice a day to barely make room for a huge locomotive to barge past. Typically, when I arrive at 2pm I was informed the train wouldn’t be passing until 8 that evening, so make sure to check the train times before going; it only passes a few times a day, and it pairs nicely with a local beer and a folding table at the side of the tracks.

Suitably deflated by the absence of train, I headed further out from the Old Quarter into Bà Dinh, the political hub of Hanoi. This being an important part of the city, every building seems to have its own regiment of stern olive/red-clad military protection, with the exception of a few younger soldiers who eagerly, if somewhat incongruously, gave me the K-Pop ‘v’ sign as I passed by.

My target on this particular walk was a lake (in actuality, barely a pond) concealed behind rows of claustrophic alleyways in the middle of Dôi Cân. Huu Tiep Lake is a grimly elegant memorial of the American War – consisting of the untouched wreckage of a B-52 Bomber that crash-landed in 1972 and left to rust. I’d heard of this place first from a friend living in Hanoi – had I not, it’s hard to imagine I would have stumbled across it by chance.

True to any city worth its salt, Hanoi transforms after dark. During the day I found myself periodically swamped by survey-wielding schoolchildren practicing their English, or narrowly avoiding concussion by selfie sticks along the banks of Hô Hoán Kiêm Lake; at night, the main risks are renegade groups of dancing septuagenarians and falling into said lake while trying to get a photo. Lights illuminate Jade Island and the Turtle Tower out in the water, and the air carries incense and steaming phô from every corner of the city.

Having successfully dipped a toe into the urban scene of northern Vietnam, it was time to make a break for the final destination in the country – the giddying heights of Sapa, in the mountainous Ha Giang province.

The travel office agent warns us sombrely that the weather up there is much colder than here in Hanoi, and that we need to wrap up warm. Trying not to show our enthusiasm for such a change of climate, we solemnly reassure her that we’ll do just that before hauling our bags onto the waiting bus.

The WiFi doesn’t work but the scenery’s alright.

Waiting & Wading Through A Cebu City Stopover

Our time on the western coast of Cebu Island had been one of sun, sea and slightly soggily sandy sandals, but it was time for a change – a decision we apparently shared with the ever-indecisive Pacific weather.

When we finally boarded the bus from Badian to Cebu City, the ground was scorched by midday sun. Twenty minutes into the journey, someone apparently annoyed the local gods and the entire sky dropped on our heads. Sheets of horizontal rain pounded the passengers’ faces while the conductor fought with rusted window latches; meanwhile, I endeavoured to take photos with rain filling my eyes, camera and undergarments.

After a few howling hours of misted mountains and tropical downpour, we emerged on the other side of the island into Talisay, a city area latched onto the outskirts of Cebu City itself. Our intention was to spend a few spare days with a base in the city to allow Meg the opportunity to get her rock-climbing fix before heading to our next destination, the climbing haven of Cantabaco – though the weather was already starting to raise concerns about the feasibility of doing so.

Talisay was something of an in-country culture shock for us. After a few weeks of roaming the brilliant beaches and dense jungles of the Philippine countryside, we were left reeling when the bus dropped us at the side of a screaming highway in a densely-packed urban landscape. Unfortunately, we were also left a few kilometres from our hotel with heavy bags and tired bodies – and a misread maps app led me to believe it was too close to bother getting a (presumably overpriced) taxi. Thirty minutes later we both agreed that 200 pesos was perfectly adequate for such a journey, but we’d already walked two-thirds of it and were too stubborn to give in.

Having survived enthusiastic motorcyclists, bloody-minded jeepneys and a number of spontaneously non-existent pavements, we finally dropped our luggage at the hotel and gave in to the allure of a Korean restaurant in a nearby mall. We were dusty, bedraggled, missing the cerulean beauty of Badian and ready to fall over on the bed in preparation of Meg’s climbing expedition the following day. This was the plan.

As we left the mall, we came up against a wall of people looking out at some pretty nasty-looking rain. We were convinced in our stubborn Englishness that a little drizzle wasn’t going to keep us from getting back to our hotel just across the street, and strode into the road – into two solid feet of flowing water that hadn’t been there an hour before.

The road was a black river, knee-deep at points and full of standstill, vaguely bored traffic. Meanwhile, the two palest people on the street were overjoyed to find purpose in the pack-a-macs they’d brought with them and waded happily onto the scene, taking photos and giving ironic thumbs-up to slightly-amused jeepney passengers. We had a great time until something unidentifiable brushed past my leg, after which point we stuck to high ground.

One of the additional effects of this torrent, however, is that it almost certainly meant that the climbing trip wasn’t going to happen. Despite my occasionally simian behaviour, I’m not yet much of a climber – but the gecko-like Meg was mortified. As such, we allowed ourself a lie-in with the promise that we’d find an indoor climbing gym elsewhere in the city; when we woke up to glorious sunshine and a bone-dry city, it became apparent that we should never make assumptions about weather in the Philippines.

Before: Cebu under water, 10pm.

After: Cebu, the driest city I’ve ever seen, 10am.

The next few days were devoted to attacking the climbing wall (for Meg) or wandering vaguely around Cebu City trying to write this blog. The daily downchucks of torrential rain made any ambitious adventures unlikely, and we were whiling away the time before flying to our last destination in the country: the lauded beach paradise of Boracay.

Ceremonial Lights and Local Conflagrations

IMG_1911The hectic Korean lifestyle is an odd one to adjust to for a weygook. The sparing 10 days’ holiday offered by most hagwons seems a pittance to anyone from Europe (although I’m told it’s generous enough by American standards), and woe betide if you actually use any of your sick days – ie. you’d better be comatose or dead.IMG_1816

Domo-kun, just hanging out.

Domo-kun, just hanging out.

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That’s not to say that 10 days are your lot: as with all countries, there are National Holidays to lust after during the more arduous weeks, and Korea traditionally celebrates about 15 of them a year.

However, if the holiday happens to fall on either a Saturday or a Sunday, tough. It’s fairly common in the West for employers to throw in an extra day either side of the holiday for goodwill, but in Korea you have to hope that the weekend doesn’t eat up too much of your precious midday-wake-up-bacon-breakfast-back-to-bed days.IMG_1845

The most recent holiday, Buddha’s Birthday (seokga tansinil, 석가탄신일) luckily occupied a Monday, allowing us to get away with our previously-mentioned camping trip. While we were away, Gwangju dolled up for the occasion.

A popular form of cultural celebration in Korea is via the medium of lantern displays – illuminated, paper-framed models lining the city’s roads and rivers. This Buddha’s Birthday, historic and traditional figures hover above the rushing water, not to mention such antiquities as Pikachu (despite him/her/it being Japanese) and Korea’s favourite infant’s TV show Pororo. The riverside is especially spectacular towards midnight; while it’s not 100% that the lights will stay on (they indecisively flicked on and off as the hours went on for us), you’ll have the river to yourself.IMG_1920

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Festive soju with our newfound, coincidentally fellow Lancaster Uni alumni mate Si.

Festive soju with our newfound, coincidentally fellow Lancaster Uni alumni mate Si.

On this particularly scenic night, however, a less peaceful, slightly more alarming light display lit the sky; as we walked through the city, we were immediately walled off by a number of fire-engines and police cordons battling with a towering inferno of a building.IMG_1828

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Si, bravely striding past the barrier to have a look.

Si, bravely striding past the barrier to have a look.

The strangest part for me: in the West, social media-ites would be climbing over each other, eager to be the first heroic photographer to earn him/herself an award for capturing this dynamic event, tweeting and posting about the fire as it progressed (and losing interest when it went out). Try as I might, however, I can’t find a single mention of the fire online, despite a significant portion of downtown Gwangju being blocked off to fight it as smoke and embers drifted high above the tallest buildings.IMG_1867

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Maybe they’re just less dramatic here.

What To Do?

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So, Korea’s done and I’m once again home. I’ll admit that England still feels a tad foreign, but at least I can find and communicate with taxis without seppuku-inducing shame. I’ve been with the Coasts in Leeds, my Robins clan in Bath and am now at That Point where I know I’ve got literally no excuse not to elbow myself back up into usefulness.

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With that motivation in mind, I feel it’s time to re-use the blog. I’ve worked damn hard to get the bugger going, and by gum I’m going to keep using it. While in England, I’m going to stick up a few amateur attempts at basic photography tips (shutter speed, aperture, ISO etc. etc.), and perhaps a TINY amount of environmental observations for those who don’t actually live within a few miles of this sofa.

As ever, watch this oft-dusted-off space.IMG_4138