July 12, 2008


Iím sitting in a hotel room in Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. Weíre approaching half way through our journey to Europe. Itís 12.30am and a massive half-hour fireworks display, part of the annual Nadaam celebrations, has just finished. Mongoliaís a real gem - itís great to see thereís more to Asia than smog, stressed out people and monetary obsession.

This month is the payoff for fifteen months in South Korea, by the end of which I was getting back pains from tiny chairs, unfit and flabby from unfresh food and smog-induced lack of exercise, and still had an ear infection from swimming at Haeundae Beach last September that the doctors had done little to cure. I also gouged open my right heel in the last weekend, slipping on the wet stairs moving bags out of the apartment to an impatient taxi driver. Itís healing OK now but Iím probably in for a scar.

So it was a great pleasure to get to Vietnam. There was a stopover in Hong Kong airport Ė out the windows I could see glass apartment towers, hillsides eroded from deforestation and a polluted green harbour. Then on to Vietnam, a fertile countryside of rice paddies and fruit trees with sudden rock formations rising out of the plains. Everywhere hundreds of Vietnamese in cone-shaped coolie hats were at work in the fields from dawn to duskÖ itís definitely the land of the cone heads. The hats are an elegantly simple design that protect from the sun and rain.

Although poorer, the Vietnamese people overall seemed healthier, happier, and more stylish, industrious, humorous and better looking than the average Korean. I enjoyed the fusion of old and new on display, whereas Koreans keep their traditional things quite separate from their modern life. There was also a refreshing absence of the usual celebrity stoogesí faces everywhere, and no McDonalds restaurants to be found. Instead they had communist-style posters of good workers and Ho Chi Minh. The atmosphere was never dreary or oppressive though Ė itís a vibrant, colourful country.

Hanoi, the capital, was full of motorbikes, their horns a constant soundtrack. The traffic is busy but not especially fast Ė to cross a road you just walk out at a steady pace and the traffic all somehow avoids you. Itís a much better system than in Thailand where you wait for a gap and then sprint across. Catching a motorbike ride with Vietnamese locals is a good way to get around and definitely part of the experience.

The slightly unsatisfying aspect was being on a time limit and being on the tourist trail for some of it. Prices were cheap but not that cheap and there were always locals around trying to sell something, and many small-time scams to get extra money. Itís hard to begrudge them though Ė theyíre doing a great job rebuilding from the American war (one-legged mine victims the most visible reminder) and finding their place in the world. The newspaper headlines were mostly government propaganda (itís a one-party state) and one that stood out was their goal to become an average income nation by 2020. That contrasts with Koreaís frantic industrial development (at the expense of their own culture and environment) and their new presidentís unattainable election promise of 7% growth every year.

Highlights included Cuc Phuong national park where we explored a bat-filled cave where stone-age people had lived 7500 years ago; the national water puppet theatre, a great Vietnamese art-form with live music, carving, action and splashes; a night drinking on a boat on Halong Bay with kiwis and aussies; and the sights and general ambience Ė there was an overall sense of optimism in the country.

In all, Iíd love to go back to Southeast Asia another time with an open itinerary and no time limit, and see Cambodia and Laos as well.

Tonight it's time to get on the train to Siberia, so I'll write about Mongolia when I get a chance...

Posted by fiffdimension at July 12, 2008 05:10 PM | TrackBack
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