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Published: February 26th 2010
Welcome to Vietnam. 27 hours on a bus from Vietianne in Laos and a 5 hour wait at the border in order to get here but after Halong Bay it all seems worth while.
On route we are told about Vietnam's history and bits from our guide, Nam. As this is not a lesson I will outline only the most interesting sections and I won't even mention the war.
1. Corruption in Vietnam is so rife that ALL jobs in government, health, education, police force etc are offered only after a significant bride normally in the region of US$2000. Once you have made this up front payment you make this back ten fold in bribes from would-be students at your school, would-be patients at your hospital or motorists you pull over for no offense. On our trip to Halong Bay we were pulled over and our driver offered 200,000 Dong to the police officer to let us go. Needless to say there was no hold up. The police target tour groups as they know we are on a schedule and despite committing no offense he would have kept us there for 6 hours or more.
Everyone understands that
this is the way things work here and most accept it. Those who don't are simply imprisoned or disappear. And we thought Argentina's 'Dirty War' was bad. In some cases a bribe is not required as jobs tend to pass down through family. Judges, Ministers and policeman have often inherited their positions.
2. There's only one political party and the public are not allowed to criticise any decision or policy. If they do, they disappear or are put in prison. There are a few non-government owned media outlets but none criticise the ruling order for fear of the repercussions.
3. Marriages are almost always set up by families. A prospective couple are nearly always taken to a sooth-Sayer for a blessing based on their astrological readings. If they are deemed incompatible they will separate! Once a woman has been paid a significant dowry she, in effect, becomes the property of the groom's family. Should her husband die she is left with three options: 1) to marry one of the deceased's brothers; 2) to remain a widow and work in her family-in-law's house; 3) to repay the full dowry and marry outside the family. The latter never happens for
obvious financial reasons.
That's enough of that.
Halong Bay was amazing. We even saw a pair of connected dogs. Connected at the rear end. The poor things were howling a way and on closer inspection it appeared to be as a result of sexy business gone wrong.
We cycled round Cat Ba Island in heavy mist and saw nothing, except an old cave that was used as a hospital in the 'War with America'. It is appropriately called 'Hospital Cave'. Everything is appropriate in Vietnam. They are immune to inconvenience and aloof to aggression of any sort. In fact there is rarely a voice raised in anger. In a world of such little structure and seemingly with so few rules, things just work. If we tried to live this way in the west the rivers would run with blood. We just seem so angry compared to the Thai's, Lao's and Vietnamese.
We were aboard a junk for three days in the bay - famous for having nearly 2,000 karsts, limestone rocks emanating from the sea. Legend says that after the Mongols invaded some thousand years ago, the dragons were summoned by the Vietnamese to protect them
from attack. After the mongols reached the bay the dragons rose from the sea and scared them away, remaining in rock as a reminder to other would-be attackers.
We paddled kayaks through caves into hidden lakes and watched monkeys pay on the rocks above us. We also visited an army veteran of the war with America on a walk through the rainforest on Cat Ba Island. He invited us in for tea and bananas! He's lived there for 35 years on his own!
Back in Hanoi we watched the famous Vietnamese Water Puppets which was a strange affair. Puppets on sticks dance around in a small lake of water trying to catch frogs or fish and then running away from dragons and unicorns (the latter appears to be considered a dragon with a horn as opposed to a horse), turtles and phoenix.
Tomorrow we fly to Ho Chi Minh City and then work east through Cambodia. Kolkata on the 4th March will be an assault on the senses no doubt.
Love to everyone and remember if you see a phoenix sitting on a turtle you've done alright as it signifies everlasting beauty.
George and Linz
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