Life with a River

We live next to the Saigon River and I mean literally – it is about 10m away and there are panoramic views along about a kilometer of a gradual meander bend (see, Cathie I learned something when I taught Geography for you). Our vista points directly North and hence to the left is West and right East. We don’t see the early morning sun, but the afternoon sun sets behind a row of high rise apartments and produces many a wonderful sunset, shining for only a short time directly on the patio from about 2pm give or take the time of year till about 6pm or so.
The patio is shaded by two palms on either side but otherwise the view of the river is unimpeded. To the West the river bends away a little North before curling back again on its journey to Saigon, to the North-East the river bends past a busy container shipping area, it is this subsequent path of the river we have not seen yet, the other we often see as we catch the boat into town.
The river is wide maybe 200m, I guess I could get exact measurements but exactness is not necessarily always a good measure of the significance of something, so I will try and paint a picture for you. It is a stable river, no waves unless a large boat passes, and flows left and right with the tide, but never at a fast pace, it is clearly powerful but on first glance this is not apparent, it is only so when one hears the motors of the boats straining when running in the opposite direction of the prevailing current. It is not muddy but also not clear, there is quite a bit of sediment but it is home to jumping fish and various other marine creatures, much prized it seems as there are, at low tide, men gathered and diving into the muddy shore line collecting little shell fish, we think.
Rivers in Vietnam have shaped the country, especially in the South around the Mekong Delta. Our stretch of water carries the cargo boats, these move gracefully up and down all day and night, never stopping so it seems. There are large green boats with tall sides and shorter sided boats, and boats that appear almost sunk, these latter boats typically laden with sand, I am told destined for export to places like Singapore. Whilst graceful there is a traditional masculinity about the boats: strong, sturdy, reliable, what you see is what you get, there is no subtly. Many of the boats are homes as well, the washing often prominently displayed, and plant pots and TV aerials can be seen – there are women and children going about the daily tasks, the men can be seen washing the boat will bucks dipped into the river and hauled up – and themselves at times. The captains nearly all have the same pose, it is relaxed, with feet used to steer and resting back – you get the impression sometimes they maybe sleeping.
There is little noise from these boats but the smaller wooden fishing boats can make a putt-putt noise and at night or early evening this can be a little loud. These are small boats about 4 metres long, narrow and fishing boats in the main, but from time you see them burdened down with all manner of cargo. The crowd favorite are the pugnacious tug boats, these are squat, and resemble cartoon depictions of tug boats the type captain Pugwash captained. Their main task is to push against the current and move huge barges about, often empty but often full of sand.
As the boats have a maleness in the traditional sense the river itself is certainly – Mother Nature. There is a dependency on the river it is the giver, not wanting anything in return except some respect and to be treated with fondness. Traditionally this was the case, the rivers were revered and still are but environmental issues are present and growing urbanisation and industrialisation, and farming are starting to cause problems – erosion and pollution being the two main ones, and of course there is the ever present Up Stream damming in other countries.
In the morning the river often welcomes me with a carpet of green and in the so called winter months the green clumps of water hyacinth carry abundant bird life, mainly white storks. The carpet of green drifts with the current up and down and it is not clear where it goes to or where it comes from. Women in small boats drift with the tide collecting bottles and other rubbish that can be sold, this tends to keep the river clean or at least more so that you might expect.
It is a privilege to live so close and to see the goings on, it is truly a life with a river.

Kazakhstan

Made famous by Borat, my Skype photo and just a place I wanted to see. We noticed in the local paper that there was daily direct flights from HCMC to Almaty.

So we booked, to go in February……I arranged visa’s via a complex process involving a battle with DHL and Singapore, but the passports eventually arrived back…..then we realised it would be winter and not just any old wintery place; I looked at the temperature charts, -10 to 0 being advised. Shit, I have never been anywhere like that, we looked for clothes in the local market, and you can imaging trying these on in 36c and high humidity in crowded markets….fits like a love sir!…F’me mate get it off I am going to pass out!! Cathie had a return ticket, which would have been forfeited as she was not returning having found a full time job, so Cathie returned to Australia and brought back our winter kit, such as it is.

We took off and landed at 7pm, snow everywhere but welcomed by Slavan who turned out to be our driver for the week – I had booked through a tour company, who now I realise rather ominously had said …we don’t get many tourist in Feb so your group tours – they were all group tours – will likely only have you and your wife on them…, and that is what happened. We were deposited at our hotel and ironically had to open windows as the place was so hot. The hotel was Soviet style, Kasakstan was part of the USSR, it was where the political prisoners, including Lennin when he pissed Starlin off, were sent…I only found this out when, which is my habit, I bought some books to find out about the place I was visiting, I tend not to do it before I go, don’t want to be put off, it is best to be in situe otherwise you would never go anywhere and just watch Discovery channel.

Breakfast was a strange mix of attempts to satisfy some western taste but the majority was distinctly local including horse meat etc. Horses are close the heart of Kazacks!

Cathie bought a lovely book “Apples are from Kazakstan”, it turns out that what we eat as apples all originate from a single apple tree that grows wild, it is the genetic forebear of all apples, and the Caspian sea was the first major oil area and the list of …bugger me is that so…. goes on.

Kazakhstan was home to Genghis Khan, it is a mix of Tibet, Mongolia, China, Northern Slavic peoples, and is home to the Russian steppes, which I remembered from school. It is simply and amazing place and like Vietnam has had its Dynasties, revolutions, conflicts, occupations and through all this a rich cultural tradition – we even made it to the ballet to Anna Karenina. Almaty is not the capital anymore but is the hub of trade and culture, is surrounded by soaring mountains which are part of the Himalayas, and to the East, which we went to, lay the large mountains that separate the country from China. The Silk route traversed the country and thus we found a connection to Jordan…trekking over those mountains thousands of years ago must have been some effort, let alone making it to Jordan and then Africa.

We saw the sights of Almaty, parks, Christian Orthodox churches, which our young guide for one day had never been inside of as he is Muslim, as is the whole country except for a small group of Christians, but both get on, it is hard for us to understand the discrimination and down right brutality that Muslim groups have been victims of all over Europe, down through Russia, India and modern day Myanmar, which whilst not paralleling the WWII treatment of the Jews, both groups have suffered over 2000 years, and Kazakhstan’s Muslims are no different, the treatment during the USSR occupation, for example, was just appalling. The middle east conflicts are part of a much larger picture which I am only starting to understand, it seems to me that this mutual mistreatment by others may hold a small starting point to reconciliation – one thing for sure without the bigger historic picture being understood and accepted nothing will be resolved.

Almaty has many Soviet style monolithic style buildings – they are big, ugly and massive; the parks have many statues to the fallen heroes particularly related to WWI and WWII – we forget that the USSR lost over 20m people during WWII, is it any wonder that Stalin setup a buffer – but the treatment dealt out to these countries post WWII was horrendous.

Ironically in some ways Almaty is home to one of the worlds top Ski resorts which sits high above the city, but you can’t see it because of the smog layer, as you drive up and then catch the ski lift the snowy wonderland reveals itself – it is wondrous and so unexpected, and was packed. Apparently the slopes are so steep and fast that many find the first decent so frightening they are hesitant to go again. It is also home to many of the winter and European snow sports, in fact in the middle of Almaty is this odd looking structure, which turns out to be the ski jump used in competition.

We really need not have worried about the weather as it was perfect, clear skies with a temperature range of -10c to 5c but importantly with no wind. As we drove around the country side we saw the poverty (Borat did portray this accurately, and I will cut him some slack that he was doing so honesty to bring this to our attention), small houses some drab and decorated, Mosques – austere in design but in each town, many road side stalls and bakeries, we sampled the wonderful flat bread. There was one instance where we passed a lot of men and women standing on the roadside in the middle of nowhere – they were selling fish. Protein is important, obviously, and there a many fish farms, we even visited one and caught trout – Cathie catching the biggest!

To conclude we ventured out East wards towards the mountains and the border with China to see the gorges – well we didn’t make it and the van got bogged in the snow as we venturing across the start of the Steppes, a vast flat white with snow covered stretch of geography that goes on for thousands of miles North…it was a pity, but gave rise to much laughter and digging by Slavan with me standing around watching and Cathie marveling at the Geography of it all and taking a few snaps.

I could rattle on, if you get a change to go, do it. How you enjoy the pics.

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Da Nang, Hue, Hoi An, My Son…..

On the way back from Angkor Watt we toured through several of the mid Vietnam coastal areas – Cathy was keen to meet up with her friend she had meet in an earlier visit to Hue.

We fly from Siem Reap to Da Nang, I had booked a cheapie hotel, $29 per night, for one night….well we just could not stay there and ended up at the most amazing Hyatt resort about 15minutes north – opulence, it is amazing and putting aside the obvious reservations between haves and have nots, we ended up staying and extra night.

The visit to Hue was highlighted by a dinner with Cathie’s friend, her husband an engineer with little English, but we shared a passion for beer and got along like the proverbial house on fire; a friend of Cathie’s friend came as well who taught in the main school in Hue which resembled Wesley College, she was married to the Professor of Chemistry who had taught the husband and was somewhat of a big wig, so to turn a phrase. There was a cultural performance with beautiful singing and stringed instruments, percussion was by way of castanet type hand held clackers, the singer was just fantastic with who she played these.

My Son is a small area south of the Hoi An and I was keen to see these Charm ruins, and they did not disappoint, the area was in the DMZ and copped its far share of bombs.

Vietnam’s post BC history is as rich and varied as any other country: dynasties, invasions, rebellions, a very uneasy relationship with China and colonization and  the eventual expulsion of first the French and then uniting of the country after the civil war known here as the American war. The war, reasons for it, the impact on both sides, the psychological damage to all who were involved is one of the blights on the Western psyche, particularly on the conscripted soldiers. How anyone thought that the Chinese were going to somehow expand down through Vietnam, in hindsight, just had no idea the strength of feeling against the Chinese in Vietnam- all current books that have reference to the South China Sea, even on the map in the plane, have had the word China erased, often simply using a black texta. One thing I have noticed is there does not seem to be any continuing animosity towards the US, at least in the under 40s age group.

Enjoy the show.

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Angkor Wat

What a fabulous place, Siem Reap was like a small country town, friendly people and the trips out the temples amazing. We set off each morning in a Tuc Tuc with a guide and driver, I was at first hesitant (my risk analysis brain told me this was risky), but it was the best way to get around, the open air keep you cool. We also hired the young taxi driver who had picked us up at the airport and he took us high into the mountains.

I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

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Han Noi visit

Went with the school swim team. It was cool and I could get out and look around. A different city to Saigon, the lakes in the middle have long history, and I began to appreciate the significance that water has played in how Vietnam evolved. Many of the myths and legends revolve around water, the big rivers and Mekong delta have shaped the southern parts.

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