Special stop press post – Daisy and the water puppets – Ha Noi, Vietnam

I’ve been badgering Daisy to write more blogs, and here’s her fantastic thoughts on the water puppet show in Hanoi (and her soppy father). Note the fronted adverbial that Mummy has had to teach her this week, despite not knowing what one was until she dragged her way through the national curriculum. Homeschooling has its moments…

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We went to a water puppets show, and we saw fairies dancing in water. Before the fairies danced, the dragons were a total rush. They squirted fire and the peacocks squirted water. Puppets started to pick the rice slowly and plant it. Then the fishermen came and one put its basket on the other fisherman’s head.     Then we asked for a wooden fairy but daddy said “NO!” So I cried and cried most of the night.

The next morning (when I had hardly slept), we went to the airport and daddy had bought the fairies and said “they followed me back”. The fairies now live with grandma and granddad till I get back.

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Written by Daisy

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Vietnam III: Hue, Halong Bay and Hanoi (in which we continue to only visit places beginning with H)

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From Hoi An we took the ‘scenic’ coastal train journey to the Imperial City of Hue – as recommended by the marvellous Man in Seat 61 (an invaluable website if you ever want to travel by train almost anywhere there is a network).
At least, it would have been scenic if the train conductor had allowed us to open the curtains, but she was very clear that this would ‘let the sun in’. Even the Vietnamese customers looked baffled. In my more rebellious moments I peeked behind the curtains to view China Beach, where the American soldiers in Vietnam came for R&R and several other breathtaking coastal views.

The rest of the time we munched on our growing collection of not-very-tasty Vietnamese snacks. I admire Paul’s desire to sample all that is on offer at the Vietnamese convenience stores, but some has been much better than others. Notable failures include durian candy in pastry (durian is a fruit so smelly that most places have a sign up featuring a red circle and a durian fruit with a line through it), and a type of sweet that I can only conclude is made out of sesame seeds, sugar and PVA glue (keeps the children quiet for a while anyway).

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Our next stop, Hue, used to be the capital of Vietnam, and is based on the charmingly named Perfume River. It’s a pleasant place. We stay at the Jade Hotel – at a cost of £17 a night for four, where the most notable thing is the fact that the loo roll has to wear a little smoking jacket in red velvet with a tassel. We continue our favourite SE Asia quest – the search for tonic water. Mum and Dad bought two bottles of gin out with them, but the tonic to go with them is hard to come by. Found some in the end, which was pleasing.

Hue was Vietnam’s imperial capital, so when we’re not swigging gin in the Jade Hotel’s retro bedrooms (sadly not wearing our own smoking jackets) we venture out to see the imperial palace, city walls and ‘forbidden purple city’ (based on the one in China). I wish I could come up with a more cultural view on Hue than ‘nice dragons’ – but I’m afraid that really is the best conclusion I can give you – think I must be pagoda’d out. Nice ice cream too – always a bonus when it’s quite so swelteringly hot.

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We also took a boat trip on the Perfume River with Madeleine and Phil, which was interesting, but also hot. The river is studded with assorted mausoleums (great for hide and seek, it turns out), and we also had a very authentic chicken lunch (spot the head in the middle) on the boat itself. Madeleine and Phil were staying in a very nice hotel, with a pool, where Charlie Chaplin had been on his honeymoon. He had good taste, it was lovely (and we got to use the pool too for a fee).

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Not sure Hue was the girl’s favourite place, but they did enjoy seeing their Grandmere, plus a fantastic authentic dinner with Binh, who runs the charity Phil set up for students in Vietnam, which took place in such a downpour that the lights went out.

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From the river, to the sea. We took a cruise (get us) on Ha Long Bay, on a very plush boat called The Treasure Junk. Moving on from hotels where (toilet roll smoking jackets notwithstanding) the level of luxury was fairly ow, being upgraded to a suite was a bit of a shock. The girls got to grips with the somewhat over-fierce Jacuzzi, and soaked the floor, and we got to grips with gin and tonics on the private deck. It was proper posh.

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Ha Long Bay is a beautiful area full of limestone karsts, with nearly two thousand islands in a small area. We went kayaking and swimming, with our improbably-named guide, Kevin, and did early morning T’ai Chi on the deck (without laughing too much).

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We also visited a pearl farm where we learned how oysters have bits of pearldust inserted into their ovaries in the hope that they’ll create pearls around them. Ouch. I can’t claim this level of oyster abuse made me want to buy any pearls (though the girls were predictably keen) but it was really interesting.

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Then came a whirlwind trip to Hanoi, staying at the fantastically-named Boss Legend Hotel – the girls will remember it only for a swimming pool full of coloured balls but we also enjoyed (and endured) Hanoi’s crazy motorcycles and buzzing street life. Not really enough time to do Vietnam’s capital, but just enough time to whet the appetite for more. Vietnam, we’ll be back.

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Vietnam II: Dancing dragons – and I’m not talking about my mother-in-law

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I tried to get Paul to write this edition of the blog – but he informs me “you won’t like it – I’ll just talk about what I’ve eaten, and the weather”. If his teenage diaries are anything to go by this is certainly the case, so I’d better do it instead.

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When I last wrote, we were heading on a Vietnamese night train from Saigon to Da Nang – which didn’t prove quite the relaxing experience we’d hoped for. Let’s be clear. We love night trains and we’re not picky. Second class AC on the Indian trains was scarcely private and comfortable, and the Thai trains had their moments too (not least the guard who positively revelled in shouting “you wake up NOW at 5am). So what was wrong with the Vietnamese trains? First problem – they don’t appear to change the sheets. This is disgusting. Thai and Indian trains launder everything to pristine whiteness, so it was a bit of a shock. And we were too dazed to realise at first, otherwise our handy silk sleeping bags would have come into play. Problem two, although everyone is supposed to have a bunk or a seat, there also appeared to be a large contingent of people who have paid to sit on a small plastic stool anywhere they can find a place. This turned out, in one case, to be our small compartment, where a lady spent some quality time alternatively trying to stroke the children, admire our laptops and set up camp on the narrow strip of floor between the bunks.

Personal space is a constant issue when we’re travelling. Not Paul and mine particularly, but the girls’. While it is fair enough that many countries are not quite so ‘touch me not’ with other people’s children as the British, how much leeway should we allow? How can we make sure the girls are still comfortable?

In India, we allowed old ladies to poke and prod them a little – but drew the line at the man who pulled Daisy onto his knee and started rocking her like a baby. I wasn’t too keen on this Vietnamese lady, either? Paranoid, perhaps? But I don’t want the girls to feel that we didn’t protect them from being pushed around. It’s a fine line to tread.

Vietnamese lady ejected from our compartment – and only feeling slightly guilty – we slumbered grubbily on the way to Da Nang. At around 6am a revolutionary song began blaring out of a speaker that we’d not noticed. Fortunately we were rescued by Clover who nonchalantly mentioned she’d turn it down and then promptly did so, somehow. The train got in just past noon, giving us, and Mum and Dad plenty of time to hang around reading books until it arrived. We were grateful for the pick up arranged by Jolie, the eponymous owner of Jolie Homestay, to take us to our next destination, Hoi An.

What can I say about Hoi An? Pretty – and pretty much on everyone’s tourist itinerary, it has lanterns, old buildings, tailors and the beach. After the bustle of Ho Chi Minh city it is a seriously good place for R&R. We’d rushed to get down there to meet Paul’s Mum, who is staying in Hoi An with her friend Phil, partly on holiday and partly visiting students from the educational charity he runs.

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What we hadn’t realised is that we’d arrived just in time for full moon, and the annual dragon festival. The town was packed in the evening with dancing ‘dragons and unicorns’ such as you might expect to see at Chinese new year. This made it a little tricky to get around, but very entertaining.

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We were grateful to be staying a little way out, where the only dragons we saw were of the very junior variety – young children practising their dancing in return for a few coins – a little like carolsinging at home.

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What else did we do in Hoi An? Well I’m afraid to admit we didn’t go to a single historic building. We had some clothes made – great fun – and I now have the first pair of black trousers to ever fit me perfectly. We went to the beach – once at Madeleine and Phil’s very chichi five-star resort, and once at the slightly more shabby (but very charming) An Bang beach – where we hung out until the full moon rose and ate very fine fish.

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In fact, we ate very well in general. Hoi An is truly relaxing (apart from in the evenings at a dragon dance festival). Got to hope those newly tailored clothes will still fit after some wonderful meals.

Vietnam I: (Don’t) Miss Saigon

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The heat is on in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s now called) when we arrive, over the border late at night on the five hour ‘Giant Ibis’ bus. It’s an inauspicious start involving bad food at a border café and almost being fleeced by a taxi driver. Once again I find myself grumpy about the whole changing countries thing – I love Cambodia, why on earth do I want to go to Vietnam? Though I’m not quite as grumpy as the lady below, who really didn’t like it when Paul took her picture. DSC03164DSC03208 DSC03209

HCM city is quite a contrast to Phnom Penh – the commercial hub of a commercial country, with high rises, fast motorbikes and luxury malls.

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Vietnam is still a communist country, of course, and it’s odd to see the hammer & sickle flag quite so close to the Burberry store, while the face of ‘Uncle Ho’ beams down at you from a thousand banners.

So we move from Pol Pot to the series of wars that have defined Vietnam’s recent history. We visit the War Remnants Museum, seeing the full might of American machinery that was pitted against the Vietnamese Communists in the 1960s. Huge tanks, Chinooks and jets are ranged around the edges of the museum. “How could they have lost, when they had all this?” Daisy asks. We’re about to find out.

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We take a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the Viet Cong fought the US, hiding in a series of tunnels, sometimes four stories deep. It’s a treat of a trip, by speedboat no less, but the site paid tribute to the fierce determination and ingenuity of the Viet Cong (mainly fighters from the North) and their Southern supporters. The tunnels contained everything from war rooms with long tables, to special kitchens which dispersed the smoke from cooking through a series of pipes, so that the Americans thought it was just mist on the mountains. Our guide showed a series of ingenious traps made of wood, spikes, and natural predators (scorpions and snakes) which took out unwary Americans. “It was best to injure them,” the guide explains. “Then the other soldiers had to look after them, and couldn’t fight”. Pragmatic lot, the Vietnamese.

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Unlike the War Museum, which has (rightly, I think) been criticised for being propaganda personified, our guide to the Cu Chi Tunnels took a more balanced view. “You’re only seeing the Vietnamese side,” she points out. I explain to the girls that where the victors tell the story, the other side doesn’t get a say. Clover is still bemused: “why did America fight in Vietnam in the first place?” she asks.

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You can see how the American lads must have been terrified. Despite defoliating the thick jungle with Agent Orange, the tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to appear practically from nowhere. What with unfriendly terrain, malaria and guerrilla warfare techniques, it was a bitter enough conflict for all concerned.

Squeezing ourselves into the tunnels (although specially widened for fat tourists like us) made us realise just how claustrophobic it must have been.

Here’s Daisy’s take on the experience…

We went to the Cu Chi tunnels and we saw loads of traps. first we saw a bamboo trap, which was a trap with sharp pieces of bamboo which had on top a thing where you walked on it and it fell down . We also saw a folding chair trap which is a kind of thing that you sit on … and get trapped. As well as that we saw a stick trap which had sharp sticks that stick out when you fall in it.

One of the tunnels was made bigger for tourists but I still had to duck down tiny. I wouldn’t have liked living there.  

We also tried a root called tapioca, it tasted better with peanut dip.  

(Written by Daisy)                          

Oh, and Dad and Paul got to shoot a machine gun – with real bullets….which made them very excited.

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After the tunnels, because we like to temper justice with mercy, and education with fun, we indulged in one of my favourite travelling-with-children pastimes, and paid £10 to go and swim in the five-star-hotel round the corner. Since we’d already checked out of our hotel, the poor staff had to cope with us six vagrants AND our luggage for an entire four hours. The girls played in the water– they are now swimming like (somewhat ungainly) fish after so much time in the pool – and Mum and Dad relaxed. They are learning that, with a trip like ours, there is always a come down after a luxury experience. In this case it was the Vietnamese night train from Saigon to Da Nang. But more of that another day.

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