Where are we now?

Where are we now?

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Hong Kong

Our final stop -because we had to at some point- was Hong Kong.  Once in possession of the British Empire, most of the Hong Kong streets have very British names. They also drive on the correct side of the road and they use our plug socket configuration.  Even though the taxi drivers drive like fiends, everything seems slow and orderly compared to the last couple of months.  They even stop at the red lights, an act the likes of which had faded into distant memory.

The weather was gloomy and damp, which I was quite happy to accept at this point.  I'm sure the novelty will wear off within 48 hours of getting home, but it’s nice to walk outside without feeling like you’re breathing through a damp cloth.  It’s also the lack of the smell of burning.  It occurred to me that there has been something burning nearby everyday since Bhutan, be it cooking flames, garbage disposal or forest fire.  This was the more familiar, civilised exhaust fumes of the developed world, and it’s more like home.

Somewhat like home too are the pubs that one finds on Lockhart Road with names like Churchill's or The Queen Victoria: bars with an exaggerated British theme that attract pretty much anyone from Europe or the Anglosphere.  They all have Premiership footy on massive TVs and pissy European beer on tap, just like home.  There was no-one throwing up or arguing with the door staff, so it lacked a little something in authenticity.  It’s all in the details, guys.

Visited before stayed one night in Kowloon (huge storm)

The extravagance on this leg was brunch at the Upper House,  49 floors up and peering down at downtown, which is a perpetual building site.  Such is the premium of the real estate there that many operating buildings were having floors added to their roofs.  The waiter, in repeating my order back to me, corrected my pronunciation of 'steak tartare' to the American manner ('steak tar-tar'), and almost sustained a frenzied butter knife stabbing for his efforts.

Our night on the razz found us at Ori-Gin – a gin-based cocktail bar.  It cost a fortune but Chan did get a cocktail served in a miniature bathtub, complete with earl-grey ‘bubble bath’.  She got to keep the tiny rubber duck.

One of the scenic things to do in HK is take the cable car up to The Peak.  Last time we were in town, several years ago, we were too ill to go up (courtesy of a local Italian restaurant - that'll teach us for not eating local) and this time it was misty as hell, with what looked like an hour wait.  Sack that; it's not going anywhere. Maybe third time lucky.

But the real focus, and our final stop, was to go to Disneyland Hong Kong.  We do quite like Disney and have been to 4 of the 5 (soon to be 6) parks (I’d go to Tokyo, but I need some convincing about Shanghai, when it opens).  We stayed at one of the Disney hotels and got a couple of days in the park.

Apparently the park was designed in accordance with Feng Shui principles, which must’ve been a happy coincidence, because it looks just like the other parks.

It feels a bit less Disney-ey than the other parks.  You don’t get the terrifying enthusiasm of the American ‘cast members’ and they cancel parades at the merest glimpse of rain. But it was fun enough, and I could see over everyone’s head for the parade.

Also, I've found that if you compile several bad pictures of the fireworks, it looks like someone's called in a drone strike on Sleeping Beauty:

One of the janitors did have a knack for drawing characters with water and his broom, which was a bit out of left field:

This park is aimed at the mainland Chinese, and as such is more focussed on shopping and photo opportunities.  There are literally hundreds of reminders about the park-wide selfie stick ban. Also there is no ghost stuff, due to the Chinese being a bit sensitive on the whole departed spirits and references to death, so we get Mystic Manor rather than the Haunted Mansion.

The hotel was OK, and you could walk to the park inside of half an hour, if so inclined. The food both in the hotels and the parks was a bit disappointing.  Somehow Walt's Cafe managed to add cheese to my ice cream.

Chan got a chance to coo over the multitude of Chinese babies, for which she has a particular weakness.  Even the ones throwing white-hot tantrums looked adorable. They were equally transfixed with us when queuing up, so everyone was happy.

The trip advisor reviews for Disneyland are a mixed bag. Most of the negatives are from people who visited in August, in the middle of the Chinese school holidays, when it is consistently boiling hot and packed. No, ta. There has been quite a lot of hostility towards the mainland Chinese tourists from everyone in SE Asia, which made our lives easier because everyone's we're always easier by comparison. The Chinese government is a bit concerned about their behaviour too, and has set up a no-fly register for overt offenders against foreign sensibilities.

Here's Mickey riding a Whale's spout. Because: Disney
One thing we noticed was that, when flying everywhere between Australia and here, the routine air safety briefing has been amended to include warnings about stealing life jackets,  as apparently a number of Chinese passengers thought they were take-home souvenirs on account of not being nailed down. This lady from Singapore has some compelling hypotheses as to why the PRC tourists can be such a pain.  I didn’t get too much trouble with the queue-jumping or pushing, but I am about 30% taller and 100% heavier than most of them.  Chan, uncharacteristically gave one lady a kick for being a twat.  Disney, where dreams come true.

And then, just like that, we were done. 
I’m writing this and  the Macau post and editing Chan’s Hanoi post (she has a short attention span) on the flight home to Blighty.  So this is the last location post.  I do have some final post-trip naval-gazing stuff to write, so swallow down that lump in your throat for a bit longer.


After a brief stop in Hong Kong, we took the ferry across to Macau. If you don’t know: where Hong Kong was British until 1999; Macau was Portuguese.  Like Hong Kong, it was a great trading port which also enjoys ‘Special Administrative Area’ status. Which means it’s China but not really, as it has its own currency, laws and border controls.

It is actually a series of islands, linked by bridge or reclaimed land.  Cotai, the area we were staying in,  has been summoned back from Neptune at some point.

"I remember when this were nowt but industry-contaminated sea water" 
The biggest draw to Macau is gambling.  They take six times more money from gambling revenue than Vegas, which is rather a lot. The Chinese don’t have casinos, so they take weekend breaks here to get their fix.  Their game is baccarat – a game I don’t play because I wasn’t written by Ian Fleming.  We could find blackjack tables, but the lowest bet was HK$500 per hand – which is about £50 or US$75. Fuck that. We don’t mind allocating a couple of hundred dollars of written-off money to a night out in Laughlin or Vegas, but those stakes would make any normal budget vaporise in ten minutes.  The casinos here are owned and styled by the same companies  who run Vegas so,  accordingly,  there is a Venetian, a 1/3 scale Eiffel Tower, an  MGM, a Sands, etc.

The Venetian does have an M&S, however.
It becomes very obvious, very fast that the Chinese are not here for fun; they’re here as an investment. So the atmosphere is decidedly less jovial. Whatever. We save more money that way.  They do have the normal casino trappings of bars, clubs, restaurants and shows, so there is other entertainment to be had.

So, our normal source of decadence denied us, we took one of the free shuttles across to the mainland to look at the Portuguese old town.  This really does look air-dropped in from Europe, with plazas, churches and whatnot.  What breaks that illusion are the Hong Kong-style ultra-dense apartment blocks sprung up all over the horizon.

Popping into the museum, it was refreshing to walk through an actual museum, curated and designed by actual academics, rather than the Politburo.  They have a rather nice part at the beginning where they compare the religion, philosophy and technology of Europe and China on opposite but parallel walls, tracking like-with-like thorough the ages.

The Museum is set in the base of the old citadel and finishes on its ramparts.

Pictured: temptation
The local delicacy is the custard tart, by the way. Yes, the same ones they sell in Nando's. The Portuguese influence there runs deep, with tarts, biscuits and cakes of European origin being touted by competing Chinese-run bakeries all over town.

We stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel (pictured further above) which was part of the City of Dreams complex which also hosts the $250 million show 'The House of Dancing Water'.  We’ve seen several of the Cirque du Soleil shows in Vegas and elsewhere, and this was similar, albeit minus the annoying french clowns molesting each other with foam blocks.  It was closest to ‘O’ at the Bellagio in that it involved an incomprehensible plot, acrobatics and water.

For some reason the penultimate scene involved motorbike stunts, which was a bit odd given that the rest of the show had been set in some manner of contortionist watery Narnia   Anyway it was a good show, and what the mainland Chinese lack in ability to stand in a queue, they make up for as an enthusiastic audience.

Back to Hong Kong, to wrap this whole thing up.

Kurzfassung auf Deutsch: Macau ist der Ort, an dem Festland-Chinesen am Wochenende zu spielen fahren. Wir bevorzugen Las Vegas.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Hanoi-a hotchpotch of my feelings about Vietnam

This trip started out as "Vietnam or Chile". It then moved to "Vietnam and Chile" before we decided to fit as much as we can between UK and Chile and Vietnam.  So here we are at the end of a lovely month in one of the countries that got this ball rolling and with the actual end of this trip in sight (boo hiss).

Our last stop in Vietnam was the capital, Hanoi. A place with little connection to a Brit: we weren't involved in the Vietnam war after all and we weren't a colonial power here, but it’s a place with frequent mention in the various media we were exposed to, especially in our childhood (You will recall the crime the A-Team did not commit ).  It is therefore a place which remains associated with the "baddies" and I wonder if it it because of this it isn't as easy to accept the difficulties in the country as it is in, for example. Laos

Hanoi is heaving with mopeds and motorbikes, and although there are fewer instances of pavement driving than Saigon, in Saigon people will at least  drive around you, whereas in Hanoi they will beep their horn and keep on driving. One of the T-shirts being sold has traffic lights with the words "go" next to all colours, which is completely accurate. It's all quite amusing until you look at the statistics. Vietnam has one of the highest rates of road deaths in the world. 22,000 a year. In fact more children die in Vietnam then all road deaths in the UK.

The law says that adults wear helmets and children over 6 so I winced everytime I saw a cute little kid standing on the moped with no helmet. We saw a few road accidents in Vietnam ourselves. One of our guides told us of witnessing an accident with a parent holding a baby. He was clearly still traumatised by it. There are safety campaigns but no enforcement of anything. Police, when they are around, are in general self serving and we saw no evidence of them doing anything useful.

We did not meet a single Vietnamese person who had anything positive to say about the government or felt that they were supported in their lives by it. But you won't find many people saying it openly due to the harsh response of the government to criticism. The judiciary is not independent in Vietnam and those exercising freedom of expression to comment on issues (in the same vein as this) often find themselves incarcerated or under house arrest, their families harassed and suffering from abuse, torture or death.

Although it is a communist state, I found little evidence of any benefit to the people of this: no healthcare, no benefits for sick, no maternity pay, no subsidised nursery, and no food handouts. In effect nothing to help everyone to be equal. Despite the role of women in the wars (there were whole detachments of female commandos fighting the Americans and South Vietnamese) sexism is still rife: women do the cooking, cleaning etc. and they were absolutely amazed that I don't do the cooking. Women are often the ones doing the extra jobs to bring in the money on top of their caring responsibilities.

We visited the excellent Women's Museum in Hanoi which was nicely laid out, but just starkly brought home some the hard lot of your average Vietnamese woman, many of whom have sacrificed their home life or own ambitions in order to ensure their children have a better lot.

There was an interesting exhibit concerning marriage and birth which said that some ethnic groups give their child a temporary "ugly name" to stop the spirits coming to take him. In one naming ceremony, if the child cries when the name is announced this is deemed inauspicious so another name has to be selected. A couple of spoonful's of Calpol should sort that.

We went to the Hanoi Opera House where we watched their summer concert. One half was classical music; the other half was ballet.   The orchestra and choir of the first half was really good; but the ballet was a bit pedestrian. The Vietnamese also have different ideas about audience decorum:  the tourist half of the audience was hushing and shushing the local half.  We heard chatter behind us and, when we turned to glare, we saw a lady having a chat on her phone.  Gareth found a new trigger point for apoplexy and hissed at her in his very best ambassadorial English to “Turn that f**king thing off now!”.  She looked rather taken aback though still didn't immediately stop talking!

We visited the infamous Hỏa Lò prison, which was originally built by the French to deal with revolutionaries. They didn't have a great time there. It was also where the American P.O.Ws were kept. They didn't have a great time there either and as a result gave it the ironic nickname "the Hanoi Hilton". Of course the exhibition would have us believe that the nickname came about because their experience was almost as good as at a hotel.

One room is filled with propaganda detailing how well the American's were treated. Poor senator John McCain' picture is frequently trotted out to add credence to their claims (Though he has repeatedly talked about the abuse sustained there and still hasn't recovered full mobility in his arms).

The people in Vietnam have gone out of their way to be welcoming to us and are keen for us to enjoy their country, which itself has only really been open for business for two decades and tourism is a key source of revenue for the Vietnamese. However, there was a video being played in that room of the American P.O.Ws and a group of middle-aged Vietnamese visitors watching it made inappropriate gestures and words throughout, which made me question the face of tourism; what
is really going through the minds of a lot of the older population as we turn up in their country and trek around their cities. New friends? or just walking ATM's?

The Ho Chi Minh museum is an interesting place.  Ostensibly it details the life and times of the kindly-faced 'Uncle Ho' - which is does with surprisingly little embellishment- but it also features some rather abstract local and international art installations, representing the international socialist revolutionary struggle.  Apparently.

It was nicely presented, quite accessible and one or the more museum-like of the various excuses for propaganda we'd visited in the country.

We also visited the Museum of Fine Art. It was an interesting insight into the people. However, the art work displayed from the Vietnam war period was, not unexpectedly, only dealing with the bad experiences of those in the North and the atrocities of the Americans. 

We were continually told that Vietnam remains a divided country and we did witness the North/ South divide. But there was no art from those in the South who also suffered loss. We have read that when the North occupied Hué about 2000 people were killed within a few days, but there is no mention of anything like that anywhere in Vietnam. The missing part of the story within the art gallery brings home to me the ongoing wound of this country: the wrongs that were done by and to both sides but without acknowledgement and apology such that there can't possibly be any reconciliation or feeling of being one people. It is sufficient time since the war that the government could shift a little in it's stance, even if they did this by way of scapegoating a couple of people which might in itself allow the government to be more responsive to its people.

Many in the country earn less than $1000 per year. We spent way over that during our stay, and the majority was spent with locally-based companies. It is correct that the lot of your average Vietnamese citizen is better now than it was in the years following the revolution, but we still saw little evidence that state-raised money from tourism is being channelled into improving the welfare of citizens.

Vietnam is a vibrant and beautiful country, and Hanoi was an energetic city with lots to see and do, but I left Vietnam frustrated by the peoples' circumstances, but also with the hope that maybe the population will one day have the government or at least the way of life that they deserve.