Toby in Hue

First a computer digression. We have beenhaving “interesting” times with internet access. I realize I have come to find net access to be partof my life, an assumed presence, a resource like running water. Like running water, I can live just fine without while camping or away, but it is part of the quality of life. Need a definition, remember a snippet of song lyric, bingo it’s there in an instant.

First, internet access has penetrated deeply into unexpected places. Any town with 1000 people or more has an internet room. These are usually the main room of a house, converted to hold 10 to 30 or more computers. Kids play games, girls (mostly) chat, foreigners access the internet, though only here in Hue have we had other westerners in the place at the same time as us. Often we have 2 or 3 kids looking over our shoulder unabashedly watching what we type. Usually access is ADSL, though in some remoter towns it has been dialup. There have been power problems, the whole town goes black, kids groan and giggle, and everyone pays up and leaves; we curse for our lost, partially written emails.
The computers can be an intersting problem. The age of the computer isn’t a problem, it’s the age of the keyboard. Sometimes one or more keys require repeatedpounding to react, or like this computer, thespace key is nearly dead. Access to US web sites is tenuous, so sometimes email refuses to be sent for several tries. Before we learned this, we would lose emails we had written when they were not sent, but were no longer present either. We learned to copy the email with a Control-C before sending. The tragic and worst, for me, was just a couple days ago. I had a nice chatty and, I think, entertaining little message all written, ready to go. I hit control-C tocopy it into memory, only to find out that the control key on the keyboard was not working. This means I replaces my entire message with the letter c, which left me SOL. Trying to recreate the moment was futile, and frankly I was pissy for quite a while following.

But hey, ithas had an amazing effect on our travels. International phone calls are a pain, expensive and wierd to schedule. Postal service is good only for postcards that arrive that arrive home after we do. We feel much more at ease being able to hear if something is up with family, or at work.


Xin Chao,

Jellyfish. A subject you probably never think about. Certainly I have never given them much thought.

We headed into Bai Tu Long bay and arrived at a little island. We left Khanh and headed out on our own walking for a couple of hours and wound up on a pristine beach. (not an easy task since good sand is mined for making glass) This was a beach that was part of a place where there were bungalows to stay in that had exactly 4guests. Lots of forest and then this long, long strip of beach.

That was when we noticed the first jellyfishes. Big ones, like what I might have called Portuguese Man o’ War but i really don’t know much about the differences between these odd creatures. But some were the size of laundry baskets. They were dead, washed up on the beach. What was notable was that they were there and I commented that they must be the only thing the Vietnamese don’t eat.

Later on, we rode our bikes with Khanh to the other end of the island to wait for our boat to go to the next island. There was a cement area at this pier and lots of activity. According to Khanh, the Chinese eat jellyfish. Now I am not really sure they eat them, they might use them for medicine or shampoo or hand lotion, I don’t think Khanh really knows either. BUT there were wooden boats with their holds filled with jellyfish. And little row boat style boats filled with jellyfish. And the most efficient processing system we have seen here in Vietnam yet.

The bay was filled with boats, just wandering around with people standing on the bows with big nets. They scoop these things up and dump them in their boats. When they are full, they come to about 15′ from shore. If they are really efficient, they have a small rowboat. Women in tall waders push the little boat to the bigger boat and hold it steady and people with rubber gloves on pick up these huge jellyfish and heave them over the side into the little boat. When it is so full, its sides are level with the water, the woman drags it to the shore. Two more women with waders take plastic laundry baskets and fill them. Each has a rope on it and when it is full, they slip a bamboo pole through the rope and put the pole over a shoulder and 2 women carry it to the cement area. This process happens over and over and there are always 5 or 6 women with waders on and laundry baskets waiting but the boats for more. If the big boat is not affluent enough to own a small boat, the women just take their laundry basket and hold it while the people on the boat heave the jellyfish in it. I bet each jellyfish weighs 20# from the way they were working and a laundry basket is a good tool because when they pick it up out of the water, it drains, giving you only the jelly fish to carry. Each basket holds maybe 6-10 depending on their size. It takes hours to unload a big boat, maybe half an hour to unload a rowboat.

There is a man there with a notebook keeping track of how many jellyfish get unloaded from each boat and he pays the boats as they unload. And he pays the women in the processing area according to how many they process.

Once they get these baskets up to the cement work area, it is dumped into one of the three work areas, each containing about 5 women. One woman cuts out the clear top and bottom, a chunk about as big as a dinner plate. Those go in a basket. When it is full, all that clear stuff goes in a huge heap in one area of the cement floor. Then the legs and other stuff goes into another basket. This gets dumped into cement bathtubs, that are continuously agitated but a motorized stirrer. I have NO idea which part they use or if they use it all. The legs are sandy and the sand is scooped out of these bathtubs periodically. Everyone entering the area walks through water to rinse their feet to minimize the sand entering the area. The glistening clear stuff never appeared to go anywhere, or get processed again. I kind of felt like maybe the legs were what they were after, but I am not sure and Khanh did not know nor was he willing to ask anyone I guess. He believes they eat the jellyfish in China.

I suspect that there are days when the winds wash them in towards shore and that this process doesn’t happen everyday but I really don’t know. We took lots of photos to the utter astonishment of the workers.

The Vietnamese are an industrious people and hard, hard workers. They don’t earn a lot, a teacher in a rural school earns $100 a month. The free enterprise system probably means that people who don’t work for the goverment earn more, but it is hard to say. It costs $25.00 to hire a car and driver for 8 hours and if you need him overnight, it is an additional $5.00 per day. With that $5.00, he will feed himself and find his own accommodations. So really it cost $30.00 per 24 hours for a car and driver.

Internet services are all over the map in terms of cost but ranging from 3000 to 36,000 dong per hour. That is the equivalent of 18 cents to $2.10 per hour. Mostly it costs 3,000-4,000 dong per hour. Only once did we see 36,000 and that was at a hotel.

Other costs: 1.5 liters of water costs 20 cents. A meal at a Vietnamese shop costs $1.00-$2.00 at the most. Even last night, we ate at a French restaurant (salad, sandwish, 3 glasses of wine and 2 desserts) costs $20.00.

Well, more another time.

Love to everyone,

Bac Po

Here we are in Cao Bang, and for the next 3 days. This is the last gasp before we head towards Bai Tu Long Bay (similar to Ha Long but less polluted and touristed). Today, Khanh took us to Bac Po, which is where Ho Chi Minh entered Vietnam and stayed in a cave, safe from the French. It was interesting but not necessarily worth the drive. But interesting nonetheless. What I found more interesting was the terrain.

In 1979, the Chinese invaded Vietnam, in the hopes of taking some land in the north while the Vietnamese were busy subdueing Pol Pot in Cambodia. They came across the border in several places, one was Lao Cai, where there is a river crossing. We were there a few days ago. Another was here, in Cao Bang or actually at Bac Po. The mountains are very, very steep and I have trouble imagining the Chinese pouring across the border in this mountainous region. They only stayed 3 months before being pushed back by the Vietnamese but all the people here are very impacted by the invasion and talk about it more than they do the American War! Which is kind of nice for a change.

The Vietnamese are distinctly cautious with respect to China and well they should be. They watch carefully the Taiwan/mainland issues, and are nervous. Vietnam is a small country and could lose if the Chinese decided they wanted this territory. Unlikely because the world opinion would sanction them, I think. Anyway, it is rather interesting.

Tomorrow we go to a beautiful waterful on the border, few tourists go there and we are looking forward to it.

Best to you all,

Another Update from Toby

We had a nice reminder of just how sweet we have it at home. Barb & I were on two different computers writing up a storm when the power went out. We have been getting in the practice of copying what we write as we go so an undependent connection doesnt fail and leave us with an unsent message. Power failure on a public computer, though, means everything just evaporates, thoughts considered and committed to a post just leave the ether, and trying to write the same impression twice is really difficult. I can just imagine how diminished computer usage and internet usage is with unstable power and connections.

Random impressions:
Bathing freak out: Went to shampoo my hair this morning with the handy shampoo packet supplied in the room. I was really shocked when the shampoo came out of the packet black as tar; looking like black ink. Had a thought that my hair might be black when I got out of the shower. Was a fun perspective check when I thought about it. I am in a nation where EVERYONE has black hair. What could be more natural than having shampoo black.

Bicycles: There are (what we would consider) no men’s bike in the country. All bikes are (what we would consider) womens bikes. The main reason I have found so far is this: There is no such thing as a kid’s bike here, either. Small kids ride a bike either sitting on the frame between the pedals and reaching up to the handle bars, or standing up in front of the seat.

Bikes carry everything. 3 full sized pigs. A refrigerator balanced and held with one hand while steering with the other one. 4 people.
There are bike conversions that just eliminate the possibility of riding the bike. A handle is extended from one handlebar, another protrudes up from the seat, and a platform is rigged on both sides, which can hold 4 or 6 sacks of rice, 20 or more cement blocks, bundles that would fill the bed of a standard pickup truck. The frames must be good for more than 500 pounds, and with solid rubber, or rope tires the wheels are good for it as well.

All riding bikes have a good solid rack on the rear, and usually a basket in the front. The rack in the back is most often used as a passenger seat. Two school kids commuting to school both pedal when riding together.

Not good.
Visibility under a mile most always. Smoke from agricultural burning, cook fires, brick making, charcoal making.
Constant reminder that clean air, water, are luxuries. No room for nicities when there are no resources to spare.

I think I will cut it short. another power failure would really test my patience.

BaBe National Park

BaBe National Park is a large tract of land that surrounds the largest natural lake in Vietnam. It is not a huge lake, nor does it have much wildlife, but we did enjoy our time there.

The Vietnamese eat everything that moves and much that doesn’t. As a result, there are no longer shorebirds, ducks, gibbons, monkeys, squirrels, snakes, or most small mammals. But there is an effort to teach local populations how to live in ways that affect the environment less.

The Tay, Dzao, and Hmong people all live in BaBe. There are actually 3000 people living in villages on park land. We stayed at the guest house at the headquarters and on the first day, took a boat across the lake and then hiked about 15km. The best and most interesting people experience happened to us that day. We stopped at a village school and visited the teacher’s quarters with books and pencils, etc. I met a woman teacher and we connected pretty much instantly. She had no English but it didn’t matter a bit. She is 44 years and teaches 25 students. She lives (as do the other 7 teachers) apart from her husband in order to teach there. She was assigned to this village but everyone who is assigned to these places says they volunteered to serve there. I am not sure what they mean. (Remember when Khanh said there was no conscription in Ho’s army? Well later on he said that everyone had to volunteer their children, except for the last boy. Not conscription? sounds like it to me)

Anyway, she has taught there for 7 years and sees her husband once a month. There were 8 teachers altogether and they live in a plank building, one room each. Dirt floors. They grow a garden and raise chickens. She wanted us to stay for lunch and we accepted. In the end, we spent 3 hours there, and learned a tremendous amount about each other. She had only ever had contact with one westerner before. It was in Hanoi. First she taught for a few years, but when her children were small, it was too hard to be away from them. So instead she returned to Hanoi and sold stuff from a pushcart. Her only contact with a foreigner was when a Spanish woman followed her all day long once. She presumes the woman wanted to learn how she earned a living but since neither could speak to one another, she wasn’t sure. Having Khanh to translate was a wonderful thing for her and us and the rest of the teachers. The men teachers took Toby off to drink rice liquor and the women and I cooked or rather I watched her cook. She sang to me in a lovely voice.

Many times, I will hear a beautiful voice singing. A woman or a man will sing to themselves as they work on the rice paddy, it is captivating.

She served rice, a sausage her father had made her during the TET celebrations, some greens and a sauteed fruit from the forest that tasted like a cross between an olive and a mushroom. It was heavenly. The camera came out and everyone in the village had their photos taken, they had never had any photos of anyone taken before and when they get them in the mail, they will be thrilled, I am sure. One girl got her wedding dress on for the photo, a traditional Dzao outfit of reds and greens that was stunning.

The photo sessions took an hour and eventually we had to leave. All of the teachers walked with us for an hour and a half so that they could go visit another group of teachers for the afternoon. Their school only had morning sessions so the kids could work in the fields in the afternoon. On the way, we talked and talked and she sang and taught me the refrain for the Vietnamese national anthem.

Towards the end of our time together, she asked me about the war. She said that she was born in 1961 and her mother dug holes in the dirt for her to hide in when the bombs came. She has a vivid memory of the bombing of the north and even mimiced the gun sounds and the noise of the planes as they approached. It was chilling. Most of our exposure so far has been with veterans who all come up and talk to Toby, recognising him as being roughly the right age. We had not spoken before (or at least it was never mentioned) to people who were children during the heavy bombing of 1971. She was not a fan of Richard Nixon and mentioned that but also was quick to say that neither she, nor any of the Vietnamese people hold individual Americans responsible–governments are different than people. And certainly here that is as true as it is at home. Moving a government in a different direction is like trying to climb Mount Everest. The government here is largely ignored, people are just trying to scratch out the best life they can.

Rather than risk another power outage, I am sending now.

Much love to you all,

Northeastern Region

Xin Chao,

It has been many days since anyone has had an update. We are alive and well, and now that I have largely recovered from food poisoning, we are a bit more active. The food thing was odd, as Toby and I ate the same things yet I was stricken and he was not. I haven’t a clue what it was, but now I eat mostly rice and am very careful. I might never eat another bowl of rice again once I return.

Toby eats freely, absolutely everything with no ill effects. He even ate cow stomach. Didn’t like it much but ate it nonetheless. No one expects me to try things out of politeness anymore, thank goodness. Cow stomach is very strange looking, Khanh and Cuong ate it like there was no tomorrow. You know those flappy things that they use in brushless car washes? They look like felt strips? Well the inside of a cow’s stomach looks kind of like that. Very white. Each one is covered with bumps. Tastes like very rubbery calamari. Yuck.

After SaPa, we headed southeast to Yen Binh, which is located on a huge reservoir. Vietnam has 10 hydroelectric plants and 10 coal burning plants and one nuke. This was a hydroelectric plant, the first one ever built here. It took 10 years to build, and was built with Russian assistance. In 1971, it was put into service. After only a little bit of time, weeks I think, we bombed it and 100 workers were killed. There is a big monument. They rebuilt it and it now supplies 3 provinces. We took a boat out to the plant, and walked around, and climbed to the top of a hill where there is a shrine. In my opinion, the destination was not worth the long, long drive, but it was all an effort to get to BaBe National Park.

Arriving at BaBe took 2 days and day 2 was very powerful. We drove and drove down windy, bumpy roads and finally arrived at Tan Treo. Tan Treo is an area of the northeast where Ho Chi Minh was safe and hidden securely by the Tay ethnic minority. We visited a valley in the middle of nowhere that had a museum and that Vietnamese dignataries all visit. Ho was taken from village to village during the French war, the Japanese occupation during WW2 and also during the American war. We had a lovely Tay guide who had little English but with Khanh’s translation, were able to gather information about this period. The Allies actually landed supplies there to assist Ho during WW2 in his fight against the Japanese and met with him to see what kind of a government he would form if he defeated the Japanese. I guess we didn’t like his answers, as we stopped helping once the war ended and the French resumed their occupation.

Please remember that much of what I get comes from Khanh, whose translation abilities are somewhat challenged and our ability to ask questions that he understands is rather limited. I take it all with a grain of salt, but it is a fact that the Allies helped him during WW2. American soldiers who landed there revisited in 1991 and there are many photos.

On to BaBe, in a second email as a few minutes ago, we lost power and that means I lost all I wrote.

Be well, Barb

all the colors of the rainbow

Once again, web mail bit me. I was just going to copy a lovely piece of mail I wrote when a glitch hit and I lost it all. I cannot write my mail in notepad and then paste it because all my Mac readers get gobbletygook!

Remember green? That lovely green that is on the color wheel but not seen in real life? It is identical to the color of a rice paddy that is 2 weeks old. The purest, most irridescent green I ever saw and it surrounds us.

And the Vietnamese are not afraid of color. Brilliant pinks and reds and blues. Wild flowing flowery fabrics. All mixed up and beautiful. Yes, they also wear black pajamas but that is not all they wear.

The ethnic minorities are especially colorful. Red Dzao women shave their heads and eyebrows when they get married and wear a collection of 6 or 7 scarves on their heads that form a large, elaborate headress. These are embroidered by hand and each layer has meaning. The various sub-groups of hill tribes are so named because of the clothing they wear: Flower Hmong, Red Dzao, White Thai, Black Hmong, Black Thai, White Hmong, etc. It is beautiful to see.

While I suffered through 36 hours of food poisoning, Toby got to go 3 hours upcountry to a Sunday market where 9 different hilltribes shop. He was the only tourist there, he and Khanh and Mr. Cuong sat and watched. No one tried to sell them anything because this was THEIR market for gossipping and shopping. Everyone dresses in their finest and goes to town. Town, well, that is a stretch. The last 25km took an hour over the biggest bumps he ever saw.

Silence: you think you know but you don’t, not really. After 9/11, I thought I knew a little better because there were no planes in the sky and it was almost spooky. But here there are no long distance truckers. No people out late. No planes in the sky. Absolute, total silence when we wake at 2, 3 or 4AM. As dawn approaches, roosters wake, dogs and once in a blue moon, there is a cat fight. True silence, you can hear insects or a mouse, were there one around. It is very, very neat.

The opposite of silence: loudspeakers. The Communists have wired the country. At 5:45AM, noon and 7PM these loudspeakers blat the weather, news, and any other public information they feel is relevant. It lasts about an hour. It is very bad luck to live near one of these. I have noticed that in the hill tribe communities, I don’t hear them so maybe a few people have cut the wires. And maybe the officials haven’t noticed. And our hotels have generally not been near them, so has been a distant sound for us. But mostly the gov’t is intent on having these things used.

Weather is very vague. American weather forecasters have earned a new respect from me, who didn’t have a lot of interest in the weather before. The TV gives the weather every day, for the north is is 34-80 degrees. Period. No fronts, nothing more specific, sometimes they will have a cloud picture so you know it might be cloudy. But then again, it is cloudy every day. Plus the north is HUGE. From mountains to the sea. I really know how to dress here with such a huge temperature range!

We are about to enter Ba Be National Park for a few days and then go to the eastern part of the border with China–the Bac Po area in Cao Bang Province. I am sure there will be no internet.

Hope you are all well, we will be thinking of you!

Today we hit 60 kph!!

Toby here, Barb is sleeping.

For a brief moment today we hit 60kph! thats under 38mph for you metric deficients. Actually that was a brief spurt. we are usually under 50kph (32mph)all the time and often down to 30 or even 20. Despite haveing american tv shows, the Vietnamese lack any understanding of our road network. When we said our son lived around 45 miles (taking pity on you) away, Khanh said “So it takes you 2 or 3 hours to go see him?” The idea of visiting someone who lives 150 miles away on a day trip is inconceivable.

The road net is often on a 4 meter standard for a principal road. That’s around 17 feet wide which is no more than a lane on an interstate. That’s for passing on curves, and dodging by large lorries, and buses.

Some of the smaller roads are under 10 feet, and today for the first time, I saw a road that I would call normal. It’s in a demonstration industrial park on the Chinese border.

Falling rock zones are a bit different. Here that means that some time in the millenium a stone might fall. Here you read the statement as meaning the present tense. The rocks are falling. There WILL be rocks varying between tennis ball and water buffalo sized, and some of them may still be moving.

Road building: Labor is not the same part of the equation as it is here. In a road side where blasting took place there may be 20 people with picks and hammers breaking rocks to the correct size for laying roadbeds. These are loaded into dump trucks by carrying them over and throwing them up. The rocks being reduced start at the size of a truck and are just chipped away til they dissapear.

The construction zone spreading over maybe 50 miles of road must have had a crew of over 1000, maybe 3000 I wish I’d done some estimating.

Center line was painted maybe 6 inches off center around a curve of new road. Solution: have 4 workers with chisels and hammers chip off the offending pavement to remove the paint. Said workers are squatting in the middle of the road (+- 6 inches) spaced around a curve back to traffic, and apparently perfectly safe. When you drive all roads like you expect a water buffalo to lurch from the ditch at any moment it does tend to make looking for unanticipated suprises part of the plan.
Use of road is intrepid, water buffalo herds have absolute right of way (stupid and obstinate) followed by fuel trucks ( you die when you hit those) followed by the mass makes right rule. Motorbikes carry EVERYTHING! 12 piglets in trussed harnesses- 2 full grown pigs- 4 and even 5 people. We saw one today dragging a bundle of 30 foot long bamboo behind. Just held by the passanger on the back of the bike, and trailing along behind on a roadway 15 feet wide. On a curving mountain road with hairpin turns! the stuff was in the ditch on both sides as often as not. Finding a stretch of road to pass it was interesting, our driver just waited till the bamboo was on the outside of a sweeping curve and passed on the inside, in the blind other lane of course.

It isn’t russian style, but the bureaucracy is the king of the country. A town of 3000 people will have maybe 6 or even 8 impressive government buildings. All doing the functions a town hall takes care of. The staff is humongous, there are as many people administering education as teaching it. Schools while good are nowhere near as impressive as the admin buildings.

The industrial park the govt is setting up on the Chinese border is big enough to hold Boeing aircraft. Maybe 50 or more 10 to 25 acre sites flattened out of foothills with the widest roads in the country. Not a factory built yet at all, and the location is at the rear end of the transport system, but the master plan has been drawn up. I think they are trying to out compete the Chinese based on gigantism, ooch.

No libraries, anywhere! The idea strikes people as quaintly demented. Give someone a book and expect it back? Why?

Well this is a developing country, and things are developing, for the most part not so bad. Theres a hundred things where the ingenuity of solutions that are undertaken with resources that are severely limited is truely amazing. Just not as good a story.

Late here, I’m off to join Barb.

and on and on

Later on this afternoon, we went to a Dao or Dzao village, where they had really figured out the marketing thing. Young girls and middle aged women latched onto us and escorted us through the village, inviting us into their homes. They specifically avoided selling products to us until we got back to the jeep, so we didn’t have to carry their wares with us. But what was very interesting is that they are NOT taught English in their school, only Vietnamese but these girls have learned from tourists. They actually speak and understand better than most Vietnamese students. We could have lengthy conversations with them and 2 of the girls could read English. I know this because we left lots of books in their village and came away with lots of embroidered crafts, naturally. A little income redistribution took place today. Mostly we avoid markets and shopping but I do admire it when people have figured out good marketing.

Some visuals for your imagination: we are in the land of black teeth. Not bad decay, although certainly that is a problem, instead women over about 60 years old paint their teeth black with a concoction they make from ant eggs. I think it actually protects them from decay but it is also very decorative. Both Vietnamese women and the various minorities do this. One of the freedoms Ho Chi Minh wanted was “the freedom to paint our teeth black”. I don’t think men do it but I am not positive of that.

Hair: all people use a special bean pod type of thing sold in the market that they soak in hot water and pour over their heads. It keeps their hair shiny and very, very black. Khanh thought I should buy some (he was) but I had to point out that my hair was not black.

Water: I have recently learned that none of the tap water in Vietnam is safe to drink. Not in Hanoi, not anywhere. The country is working hard to bring ‘fresh water’ to the rural areas, but it still needs to be boiled. I wonder what it has in it that is bad. We do brush our teeth in it, but we never drink the water anywhere we go. Sometimes we don’t even brush our teeth in it, if you look outside your hotel window and see an open cistern where the water comes from–well then we don’t brush our teeth.

And speaking of hotels: We are well off the beaten track (except for SaPa) and never see tourists. Vietnamese have 2 kinds of hotels: Vietnamese hotels and Tourist hotels. We mostly stay in Vietnamese hotels and guesthouses because we are taking the road less travelled. This means that we never have sheets. Only a comforter (probably rarely or never washed) and a pillow. The pillow is like a sofa pillow and has no cover either. So we are very glad we brought sleeping bags. Mosquito nets are always provided because the Vietnamese government is on a campaign to eradicate malaria. We always have a bathroom with a toilet. The sink usually drains onto the floor and eventually runs downhill into a drain. Only twice has there been a bathtub, mostly we have a shower head on the wall with a basin that you dump on the floor so that it runs into that drain. Usually there is a water heater but not always.

A sad thing at the hotel in Than Uyen: they actually had wild creatures in cages. One was an eagle who cried everytime a person walked near him. It was so, so sad. The other two cages had what Khanh called ‘wild dogs’. Two in one and one in the other. These pitiful creatures were in an outdoor garden where food was served and they attracted lots of attention from the Vietnamese guests. The ‘wild dogs’ looked like a civet with a monkey tail and one was obviously miserable and had a piece of twine around his neck and tied to a tree in the middle of the cage. I am guessing he kept trying to climb the bamboo bars. The cages were about 4′ in diameter. The 2 ‘wild dogs’ that were together just huddled up and were silent and still. Since they had no water, I made a fuss and Khanh got someone to refill their empty water basin. Small victory.

Well, it is cooling off here and we are going to go and get warm. There is little but mostly no heat in any building in SaPa. We got the hotel to give us an electric space heater for our room but that is a rarity. This internet place at least has a door that is closed but I am still cold. At least it is not snowing.

Much love to all of you,

Slip sliding away

It is Saturday evening here in SaPa. And a lovely evening it is. The weather here changes SOOOOOO fast, my head spins.

Thank you, thank you, all of you for emailling. It is a real treat to find a computer and discover email from you. And Joseph: welcome to the land of technology. I am thrilled we can make contact from so far away and so instantly. Garret, you made my day. Steve, Donna, Orion, Deb, Vaughn, Jo Ann I love it that you write. I don’t always write back because of the connection I have, but nonetheless, I am so happy to have contact from home.

We have only been gone for 2 weeks. It seems longer to me, iin that our timelines are shifting, and our days are so full of new and curious events that if we were home, it would be a month or even a year’s worth of interesting events.

There are 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam. Most live in other countries in southeast Asia as well, like Thailand, Laos, China, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia. Many have migrated from China because of political problems and oppression. Here in Vietnam, these people are tolerated but not loved. Not hated but there is a real sense among the Vietnamese that they are better than any of the 54 ethnic minorities. Some helped both the French and the Americans during the wars, especially the Hmong. It seems to me that the Hmong might be at the bottom of the heap. We met a teacher today who was Nung and it was painfully obvious that he believed he was better than the Hmong students he taught. I am sure his students know exactly how he feels.

It is strange to listen to this and very painful. One of the reasons we brought books and pencils and crayons, etc was because the ethnic minorities do not receive the same level of education that the Vietnamese receive. This teacher was assigned/volunteered to the Hmong school and his tour of duty is 3 years. But the good news is that 5 little Hmong boys bravely came over to us as we stood talking to him and I was able to get out my books. We actually ‘read’ a story together with pictures and then afterwards we looked at a word book I had brought. They bravely repeated some English words, this after their teacher had told me they were too stupid to learn English. That they were lazy and could hardly learn Vietnamese. Anyway, it was lots of fun and the boys and I had some good moments.

We are in SaPa. SaPa was a French hilltown that was built as a resort so that the French could escape the heat of Vietnam. My guide book says that recently the town was ressurected by some of the ethnic minorities after it went to ruin. They wanted to capture some of the tourist dollars and did a pretty good job at marketing their wares and figuring this out. Khanh says that SaPa is operated by and for the Vietnamese and that the minorities come to sell their handcrafts but had no part of rebuilding the town. Who is to say what is true? But it is a fact that no minority owns hotel or restaurant space, this lucrative travel is all captured by the Vietnamese.

SaPa is at a high elevation and Fan Xi Pan mountain is outside. I believe that it is the highest mountain in southeast Asia, at 3143 meters. It was in the clouds as we came over the pass yesterday, and it snowed and hailed yesterday. It was cold, cold, cold and I bought a winter jacket from a vendor to keep warm. Also gloves. But this morning the sky was BLUE and the air was pretty warm. Life was good. We hiked through the hills, through a Hmong village, the one with the Nung teacher. We also came across many Hmong familes, but it is plain that they are not too crazy about Khanh and it is sometimes odd to be with him in the these situations. One family in particular was hoeing a small field at the side of the path and we had a conversation with them. Through Khanh, of course. The woman had 5 children, 3 of whom came running to see us. They were working very hard and lived on the other side of the valley–a long walk away. They pointed out their village, which we could see. Their 10 year old daughter (the oldest) and I sat down and ‘read’ 2 books together and she was thrilled. One book was about a family of mice. As soon as we opened that book, the children shrieked with delight and one of the boys dropped a dead mouse on the book’s pages! They had caught the mouse for their lunch and wanted to show us. We all giggled and had a great time. 5 pencils and 2 books later, we continued on our way.

Because of problems I have had on this particular computer, I am going to send and start a new message.