|Thien Cung Grotto, Ha Long Bay|
My first sight of Vietnam was while passing through immigration at Pingxiang. This was unlike any other border town I had ever seen, surrounded by beautiful mountains and swathed in forest. It had a serenity not usually associated with these places, which are usually buzzing with touts and over-charging taxi drivers ferrying travellers over the border. Once the formalities were over we still had another couple of hours before arriving in Hanoi. My iPod battery had run out so a fellow passenger and I played "smell that person's hair" (1 point if they didn't notice; 2 points for a bald person) - admittedly it's a bit rapey, but it passed the time. If you are going to play this, the opportunities are greatest on Chinese train platforms just as the scrum begins.
|St Joseph's Cathedral|
I ambled around West Lake and visited Saint Joseph's cathedral, which sits conspicuously in the middle of the Old Quarter. Vietnam has a sizeable Catholic minority - as a proportion of the population only behind Philippines and East Timor in the region.
The Museum of Ethnography was a fair trek from the centre of town but was well worth the visit. In addition to interesting pieces on Vietnam's ethnic minorities (or Montagnards, as the French use to call them) but the best exhibit by far was on the impact of HIV/AIDS within Vietnamese communities. There were many moving tributes to those Vietnamese not only dealing with virus but also carrying the burden of stigma and social upheaval brought about by lack of education within some communities. Many in Vietnam associate the virus with social wrongs e.g. drug abuse, promiscuity etc. and the afflicted are subsequently forced from their communities, becoming outcasts on the fringe of society and scraping a living in the most difficult of circumstances. There were many case studies which showed the lack of knowledge and/or compassion: one young man died of HIV and after his funeral his family wheeled out his mattress on their neighbour's bike to be burned, who then cleaned the bike with boiling water and left in the sun to dry for a month before he would use it. Other sufferers got off pretty lightly and only had to use different cutlery or bring along disposable cups when visiting friends for dinner.
The Vietnamese government are doing more to educate and, since 2006, have laws in place to force people to seek treatment if infection is known and to make their partner aware before marriage. Treatment is not cheap but with the help of the international community coverage is improving. The education drive by the government, getting into smaller communities and particularly among the ethnic minorities - many of whom still place faith in fortune tellers and shaman - is one that is slowly bearing fruit.
I decided to join a weekend tour to Halong Bay, with one night on nearby Cat Ba island and one night on a boat in the bay. The tour itself was a total shambles and overbooked, which left people (including me) without rooms on the island. The organisers eventually found us some accommodation but it was a bit Spartan. I slept on a wooden bed with no aircon in an unfinished hostel with a guy from Colombo (Sri Lanka, not the Peter Falk detective series) and was mentally preparing myself to being 'big spoon'... fortunately the need didn't arise. We were supposed to go trekking on the island the following morning but 5 of us rebelled and went to the beach instead. All in all the trip was fantastic, but only due to the scenery and the fellow tourists. A particular highlight was drinking brandy from a 7up bottle in order to avoid the punitive service charges imposed by our tw@t of a captain. Aside from this alcoholic subterfuge the views from the boat were spectacular, and even better while swimming in the bay with the sunrise on our final morning. Well worth the effort.