Sunday, September 30, 2012

Mid-Autumn Festival

Hải Phòng has been buzzing this week as the Lion Dance teams hit the streets, celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival.  People keep telling me it's for the children, but everywhere I looked there were plenty of adults enjoying the spectacle. Spectacular costumes, very athletic dancers and enthusiactic drummers... it's noisy and a lot of fun.  This year, I was taken to see lion dancers four nights in a row!!
Actually, as Xuân pointed out, they aren't 'lions', but 'unicorns' - mythological beasts with a tradition dating back 3,000 years.  I thought it was very interesting that when I enquired inclass about the festival, I was informed by my students that Uncle Ho introduced this festival for the children.  Hmmmm.
Anyway, on Thursday, Ba picked me up after my class finished and we went into town. He took me to a cafe that has a reputation for the best bánh mì cay in Hải Phòng.

This random guy came over for a photo when he saw my camera out... only in Việt Nam!

This little girl (her family obviously lives here) kept running up to me calling me Bà Tây (Western Grandmother). She was very cute, but turned away every time I tried to take her photo. After the snack, we rode through the city centre, stopping at traffic jams to watch dance teams. It's really something... wherever a dance team sets up and starts performing, people stop to watch and before long there is a complete traffic jam of motorbikes spread right across the road from people having a sticky beak.

Then on Friday night I had the night off work to go with Gene and Becky to watch their neighbourhood festivities. Xuân came too. A stage had been set up on a vacant block and a crowd of happy neighbours gathered to watch some little girls dance and sing, and a lion dance team came roaring in on motorbikes. They danced and gyrated to the delight of the crowd.

Then my camera battery went flat so I don't have pics of the girls in their gorgeous costumes, or the tiny little kids running around with lion heads on....  pity.

On Saturday night Sáng picked me up after I finished work and we met his sister, Mung and his mate  at the fountain in town.
The square was packed and loud with the rhythms of the drummers from the various teams performing all around us. We pressed into the crowd surrounding one team and I tried to take photos but they aren't very good...
Check out the crowd!!

The drummers stand on a wagon and really raise up a sweat as they dance to the rhythm and the guy on the big kettle drum works the hardest of all... there is usually a back-up or two ready to take over without breaking the rhythm when he needs a breather.  They are pretty amazing... they play for hours. 

This team also did some fire-breathing. You can see the guy's mouth on fire in this photo...

...and can see the spots of petrol on my camera lens in this photo taken shortly after.

Again, I didn't manage to get any really good photos, but it was all fun. One thing that really impressed me was the behaviour of the huge crowds. Nobody seemed to be impatient or bad tempered, nobody was drunk, everyone was happy and it was such a joyful family event.  Radically different from community events down at the Jetty in Coffs late at night!

On Sunday morning, Hoàng dropped by with this special moon cake that his mother had made.... talk about delicious!

This is Hoàng.
Sunday was the actual night of the full moon, so it was the last day of the festival. Beautiful Thái picked me up that evening and once again I got to experience the excitement of the crowds, the traffic jams and admire the athleticism of the lion dancers. She took me to Big Man Restaurant, where a team of 8 or 9 lions were performing.

All night there had been a guy up on the balcony waving money at the end of a long pole... just out of reach of the lions. So for the finale, the dancers formed a three tier pyramid and the red lion grabbed the money, much to the delight of the crowd.
Shame the photo's not the best, but you get the idea... he's a long way up and at full stretch grabbing at a moving target with no safety net, just concrete to land on if he lost his balance. These dancers are very fit and strong!

And so ended the week!   Fabulous.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A couple of 'normal' weeks

It's two weeks since I was in Laos and it seems like that was ages ago... probably because there's so much to do here, even in a 'normal' week. Here's how the last few days have panned out:

Friday, 14th September  -  I woke up early and went for a walk and by the time I got back the workmen who were resurfacing the alley next to my house were already deafening the neighbourhood with their jack hammers (at 6.30am!) ...

Since the short-cut was blocked off, I had to walk around the long way to go to ISALCO to teach the Seamen for two hours from 9am. When I returned home Xuân was here. We went around the corner and had phở xao for lunch and did a short English lesson, after which I had a nap, did some blogging and talked to Katie on skype and went to work at VAIE for the evening.  One of the Nam Phat students, Thái, came around with some nem chua that her mother had made...

They are like spicy little sausages of finely ground pork mince, tightly wrapped in plastic, then copious layers of banana leaves then steamed. Great with fresh crusty bread and sweet chilli sauce, but I must admit when she told us they were called nem chua I thought she said nem chó (pronounced choa - which is dog meat) and I freaked out a little bit.... But she laughed and assured us it wasn't!
Thai has been taking Toni shopping, teaching her Vietnamese and Toni helps her with her English... something different to try for supper tonight.

Saturday, 15th September  -  This was a full on day of teaching at VAIE... four classes, beginning at 7.30am and finishing at 7.30pm. As I was trudging home I ran into Trung and Nga having hotpot at a restaurant not far from home. They were celebrating a friend's birthday and kindly invited me to join them.

This is Hiền. He was saying his farewells, for in a few hours he was to leave for Hanoi to fly to Singapore where he will board ship for his first posting at sea. He expected to be away for about 12 months. Such a long time. Many of my students have to deal with that prospect of missing their families and friends for extensive periods.  Hmmmm... come to think of it, so to ESL teachers!
Sunday, 16th September    -  Another early start, but I was finished at 11.30 and had the unexpected pleasure of having lunch with Khánh!  He came home yesterday to check on the demolition of the front part of his house and was here for the weekend. We enjoyed Bún Chả and he got to put up with me regaling him with tales from my adventures in Laos... Then he went off to catch up with other friends and I had a snooze.

That evening Toni and I caught a cab into the city to go to a farewell dinner for four more of the teachers who are leaving. We all met at a popular restaurant called Big Man which boasts an extensive menu and brews its own beer and is very popular with this crowd.
Can you believe the size of that beer glass??  This lovely girl is Ida, from Denmark. She's a student doing work experience in Hanoi and was in HP for a day or two.

Monday to Friday 17th-21st September  -  The week passed so quickly... 5.30am start with a walk, morning classes at Nam Phap, ISALCO and the Kindergarten as well as filling in for a friend teaching at a local Primary School, so mornings were flat out. I usually managed to have a nap after lunch and most afternoons I had the pleasure of going for coffee with various friends. I took photos of some...
Ngan, Phương and Sáng
but didn't get around to taking photos of most of them ...  Tung and his mate, Khai, Tien and his friend....

On Friday afternoon Trung phoned me and I went out with him and Sáng and two of their friends (another Phương and Anh) and we had nem thính and sữa chua hoa qủa (fruit and yoghurt)
They dropped me home in time to be picked up to teach an evening class.... after which I went out with the students and enjoyed a mango smoothie. I was annoyed with myself for forgetting to take a photo, but it was late and I'd had a huge day...

In the midst of all this frantic activity, the roadworkers were busy on the alley next to our building. But they finally finished late on Saturday. There was so much noise from the crowd that had gathered (and the ancient old diesel cement mixer)   that Toni and I went outside for a look. They were all hot and sweaty, standing around to see the last bit of concrete poured so I pulled out my camera and took photos as we laughed and joked around... The women here do manual labouring right alongside the men and work extremely hard. 

You can see the concrete mixer that was making an infernal racket all day in the background.

Sometimes I'm sure the people wonder why I would want to photograph things they regard as mundane, but it's all fascinating to me ... and they never seem to mind. Toni is always right in there... (Don't Vietnamese people have beautiful teeth? !!)

Speaking of Toni, here she is on 'Doris' - the bike she bought from Ian before he left. It's an automatic scooter. Great for getting around, but not so comfortable for pillion passengers because of the position of the foot pegs.

After work on Saturday night I was on my way home after the late class and I saw Toni sitting at the restaurant on our corner, so I joined her for a very late dinner. This gorgeous little girl wandered over for a cuddle. Her mother works there... maybe her family owns the place... Either way, she is usually wandering around well after 10pm.

The butterfly head band actually belongs to the little girl, not Toni   LOL

On Sunday afternoon I finally got to catch up with Ba. His course is finished and he did extremely well. He came over for a while and we swapped stories. He picked up the guitar and played some songs (always a treat!), including a couple that he wrote. Of course the words were in Vietnamese, but the songs were just beautiful. I hope he records them as he plans, even if only for facebook. Then I can hear them again whenever I like. He took me to visit his mate, Duyên. He is also a navigator, on shore for six months while he improves his qualifications to return to his ship with a higher rank. 
An hour went by very quickly in such pleasant company. Ba dropped my home in time to turn around and go to another Pub Quiz at Phono Box with Toni. We got there early and grabbed a bite to eat from the very limited menu - either prawn toast (which they called 'shrimp sandwich') or beef stew. The rest of the crew from VAIE arrived - John and Melissa and Graham - and we formed an Aussie team. Didn't do any good, but it was fun.  
At about 10.30 I caught a cab and came home, well and truly ready for bed. I will be up at 5.30 as usual to go for a walk in the morning, so I don't stay out as late as the rest of that lot!

Check this out... The classroom at Nam Phap church is often really hot and the wall fans don't reach the front where I stand most of the time, so each week one of the strong lads brings this whopping great heavy pedestal fan from Madame Tra's house so I can have cool air! Talk about well looked after!
This week English Hannah and her 15 month old baby, Sam, came to our class. Sam was a huge hit and it was lovely to see several of the young men keen to pick him up and play with him. He was more often on the lap of one of the guys than the girls! 

And so life goes on... Lots of classes all over the place, plenty of lovely friends wanting to drink coffee whenever I am free, all surrounded by this fascinating culture. This afternoon Tiên Viên picked me up and we went for a coffee before I had to teach. That was a first for me (coffee before a lesson) and I was quite surprised to realise that it gave me a buzz, which wasn't at all unpleasant. Then Sáng picked me up after my class. On the way home we joined at a great crowd of people blocking half of Lạch Tray who had all stopped to watch a team of five Lion dancers performing - quite a spectacle!

There are colourful teams of Lion Dancers all over the city preparing for the Mid Autumn Festival this weekend. Just tonight on the way home we passed 3 - including some little children having fun. People just stop and block the road if they want to watch.

We stopped for some fried rice for dinner and Tony rocked up. He's settled into his new post at VIMARU and enjoying life. Sáng and I finished the evening with a yoghurt drink at Paragon Cafe and now I'm ready for bed! Tomorrow morning one of the Nam Phap students wants to join me on my early morning walk and he rang to say he's invited a mate of his to join us. OK...  !

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Last Day in Luang Prabang

On Gene's advice, I got up at 6am to see monks from the various monasteries processing through the streets with food bowls while people knelt, gave them food, to receive a blessing.

Every morning hundreds of monks go out at dawn to collect alms.

After breakfast I went for a walk to go and see the Royal Palace Museum. Until the communist takeover in 1975, Luangprabang was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos, so they've converted the old palace into a museum. By the time I got there it was 11am and they were refusing entry (like most official places in this part of the world they close for several hours during the middle of the day), so I only got to check out the grounds...
         King Sisavang Vong    and        the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum

The Haw Pha Bang ( buddhist temple )

The city is well known for its numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries and one of the major landmarks in the city is a large steep hill on which sits Wat Chom Si. Apparently the sun setting over the Mekong is a memorable sight from that vantage point, but we always seemed to be doing something else at that time of day, so I'll have to climb the 300 steps to the top and check it out next time I come here. That's the hill in question at the end of this avenue leading away from the old palace.
I did, however take a walk around this temple and it's extensive grounds.

The gilded bass relief carvings on the front walls were very impressive, depicting many aspects of daily life from times gone by.
And inside the temple everything was clean and prosperous looking... all made of marble and beautifully carved timber with a plethora of golden statues.

These buildings are dormitories for this monastery.
This was by far the hottest day we'd had, so walking around ceased being fun by midday. I met Gene back at the hotel, then ducked across to road to Joma's (!) and bought us some lunch and we finished our packing and rested for a while before it was time to go.
Waiting for the car to take us to the airport...

We got to the airport with time to spare and Gene organised herself a wheelchair... Even though she trecked through the jungle with that broken foot, she cannot stand still for long (like in queues) so her doctor had ordered her to use wheelchairs in airports. Of course, that translates to preferential treatment, so we were escorted through whenever it was time to move (sweet!). Sadly it didn't include leniency when it was time to check my hand luggage. I didn't go over it thoroughly and had inadvertently packed two long silver hair pins in my hand luggage, not my check in luggage, so of course it had to be assumed I am a potential terrorist, and they were confiscated. I was spewing. They were my main present for Katie. Bloody jihad terrorists, ruining life for the rest of us.....

We were booked to fly with Lao Airlines, which is really nice, so this should have been our flight, but somehow we ended up on the Vietnam Airlines plane that departed a few minutes after this one...   odd!
So a final look at Luang Prabang

and we were back in Hanoi an hour later!  Again, Gene was given royal treatment in a wheelchair, and as we went to an immigration station with no queue (Diplomatic Passports) a young man came over and asked me if we were going back to Hai Phong.  Turns out he is one of my students from the seamen's class I teach at ISALCO shipping company each week! A company car was picking him up and he offered us a ride... How very kind!  We had already arranged transport, though. Gene has a Hai Phong taxi driver who she gets to transport her to and from the airport in Hanoi quite often, and he was already there, waiting to bring us home. It's a lot more expensive than taxi to Hanoi and then bus to Hai Phong, but infinitely easier, quicker and more comfortable!

We got back to Gene and Becki's at about 9pm and entertained Becki with tales of our travels over a beef sandwich Becki had bought on her way home from classes. Finally Becki brought me home on her scooter (bulging bags and all!) and I got to share the highlights of my trip with Toni.  Beaut holiday!