Link to Travel Diary (Hanoi Tet).

English Language Teacher Traing in Hanoi - 2007

12th - 18th March - CELTA course Week 1

My first entry in over a month. So what have I been up to? Much more of the same, more gym, more Premiership football on TV, more moaning about the dampness of the air. Everything goes mouldy so quickly. I hung my coat up on a coat rack in the living room. A week later I went to put it on and it was covered. The weather in general is quite cool, there's a constant mist in the air and the odd light shower. This kind of weather has basically hung over Hanoi for the whole of the last month. Next the power cuts. A week last Saturday there was no power at all across a large area of the city from about 5pm till 10pm. It's the third power cut in a month. In the past week on my course we've had one morning with no power and today no power at all all day. Welcome to life in the Hanoi.

I started my CELTA course last Monday and so far it's going great. There are nine of us on the course although one guy's not been doing very well I'm not sure if he'll turn up next week so maybe we'll be down to eight. We've got two American guys both called Michael and both work for the same company Wall Street English in China but are here independently. One is working in Shanghai and one in Beijing. Both have been teaching English for a couple of years and are here to get a formal qualification to further their careers, so I guess they have a head start on the rest of us. Another experienced teacher is Che, she's Vietnamese and lectures in one of Hanoi's universities. She's the only female on the course, she's getting married in 2 weeks time, during the course! We've a South African (Jyx) I think he's been in the army and is looking for a career change and work outside of SA. Andrew (Andrey actually) is in his late 20s and Russian. Nice guy, his English is good for a non-native speaker and his knowledge of grammar is better than us native speakers! Tui is a 25 year old American who's done graphic design stuff in the past. He flew in Sunday and this is his first time outside the States. He is looking to make a break from the whole corporate thing, experience life, find himself etc. Normally that sort of person would wind me up, but he's actually a really great guy. Graham is an Aussie Guy who has been living in Vietnam for 30 years. The last guy, who I said before might drop out, in Toby. An English guy around 30, he comes across as a real back-packer. Laid back, a well-worn backpacker look, not sure if he can fit in to the academic part of the course. I like them all, I hope I can still say that at the end of the course. We're all in this together and the better we get on and the more we can help each other the easier the course will be.

We've got two tutors. Barry who is from Language Link (the language centre that we're studying at) and Fiona, a freelancer brought in especially for this course. They're alright and the contrast between them will work well. Barry is maybe 50 and seems to be a 'gentle' sort of character but I mean that in a good way. He's quite quiet and it you'd think that he wouldn't say boo to a goose, but obviously he knows his stuff and I think he gets the points across well. Fiona is younger and Irish. She has a lot more life about her and is good for a bit of banter. Her lectures are more upbeat and fun. She also seems more approachable and isn't afraid to give an opinion, which I like. I think being a freelancer who has moved around a lot, she is more on my wavelength. Everyone that talked to before I signed up for the CELTA told me that it was hard, very hard. At least 8 hours per day in the Language Centre and 4 of 5 hours a night, plus weekends. They also said that it is really intensive and most people at some stage through the course have a mini break down. I just thought 'Yeah, right' it may be stressful for the namby-pamby Guardian reader teacher types but I can't see it worrying me. Well one week in and I haven't changed my opinion. There is quite a lot of work to do outside of the classroom, but it's not hard, and the classroom hours themselves are to be honest pretty damn easy. I've enjoyed being back at 'work'. It's good to have some purpose and routine back in my life for a while. At Language Link from 9 to 5. A bit of dinner and a couple of hours working on lesson plans and assignments in the evening. Over the 4 weeks of the course we will be doing lectures every morning and then teaching in the afternoons. We each teach twice a week. In total we each teach 6 hours of lessons. Add in 4 assignments and that's about the total of the work we have to do. The morning lectures this week have covered: CELTA Orientation, Classroom Management, Text Type Lessons, Vocabulary Lessons, Teaching and Learning Styles, Writing Lesson Plans, Situational Type Lessons, Language Analysis, Phonology and we received an hour lesson in Hungarian to show us how students feel learning a foreign language. A lot of it is common sense and a lot of it was covered in the course I did last summer.

Above, a Phonology Chart and a list of words grouped by sound. A 'joke' amongst phonologists is: How do you pronounce GHOTI? The answer is the same as FISH. Pronounce the GH as in enough, O as in women and the TI as in action. F-I-SH! All words can be written using the 44 symbols (sounds) in the left-hand chart. In the afternoon we teach. We're split into 2 groups and from within our group 2 people teach per day. The teacher gives an analysis of the lesson they gave and the rest of us who watched also give 'constructive' feedback on the lesson. All of this is written up and goes into our File. In the first week we're given quite a bit of guidance on what to teach and how to teach it. We are being taught to teach in the CELTA TEFL way. This involves going through the stages defined for the lesson type. Making the lesson student centred, keeping Teacher Talk Time (TTT) low and Student Talk Time (STT) high, giving clear instructions, drilling pronunciation in the correct manner, grading your language, etc, etc. My feedback in the first week is hardly surprising. I've a confident and enthusiastic classroom manner, a good rapport with the students, on the down side I talk too much and give a running commentary during my lesson! Assignment 1 involves choosing a student, interviewing them and getting a piece of their writing. We then write a report on them. Their English background, their motivations for studying English, and how this effects their English ability. We then define some of their weaknesses and provide some practice exercises that they can do to help them in these areas. So a pretty standard report really. Student Analysis, not exactly hard for a Business Analyst! The assignments are just a thing you have to pass. As I see it, if you hit all their requirements in the assignment spec then no problem. If you miss something out you can resubmit so it's hardly pressured.

This is part of my student's writing that I used for my assignment. As you can see the Intermediate level students do have quite good English.

1 week down, 3 to go. Two lessons taught, one assignment ready to hand in tomorrow. I'm really enjoying it. The tutors are quite good fun, especially Fiona. It is a bit like being back at school, I'm enjoying 'playing' with the tutors, just the odd comment here and there, in fact the banter is good with everyone on the course. I'm learning some stuff and a lot of it will be useful whether I ever end up teaching or not. Just standing up in front of a class is good practice for giving business presentations, some of the classroom management and lesson (presentation) planning stuff is good too. And I guess anything that makes me talk less will be seen as a Godsend by some ;-)

19th - 25th March - CELTA course Week 2

Another week down. Half way through the course, and life is still good. Our teaching practice are split in two. The eight of us are split into two groups of four. I'm in a group with Tui, Andrew and one of the Michaels. Our group are teaching the Intermediate level group for the first two weeks and the Elementary group for the second two weeks. The Intermediate group have been fantastic. We get between 12 and 16 students each day, a lot of them are students from the university. For them it's a great deal. They are getting 4 weeks of free English lessons from native speakers. Intermediate level students have pretty good English they can converse fairly well, have quite a big vocabulary and their grammar is great. As I found out when doing my students profile in week 1, when they study English in school it is usually in large classes with a Vietnamese teacher. Their lessons are teacher centred and deal almost exclusively with grammar. The students get very little chance to do any speaking. As a result the students know a lot more English than they are able to express in conversation. They also have quite strong accents because they have only had their Vietnamese teacher to model pronunciation on. Right: Fiona and Barry (+Tui). This was taken on the final day of the course. The students had presented them with flowers to say thank-you.

Teaching them is fantastic. They are young, full of energy and they really want to learn. They are all there by choice and are so are really motivated to learn. When we try to elicit new words or grammar from them they all shout out answers, no danger of asking for a response and getting silence.

In general I've been pleased with the lessons that I've taught. I've definitely learnt from all of them, things that I tried which didn't go to plan that I wouldn't do again, things that went particularly well. The general teaching stuff, student rapport, monitoring them whilst they are working alone or in groups, error correction and my general personality and demeanour in class I do pretty well. I'm not so good at the English bits. This is a bit of a problem as this is an English teaching course. I think it's partly because I don't truly believe in teaching English. A lot of the stuff we have to do and the technical detail and jargon we have to use really doesn't do it for me at all. I know the stuff better than most of the others on the course which is shown up in our morning sessions when now and again I'm surprised how little some people know, but I find it difficult getting it across to students.

Anyway this weeks lectures covered Receptive Skills Lessons, Analysing Course Books, Test-Teach-Test Lessons, Phonology 2, Language Analysis (Tenses), Task-based Lessons and Concept Checking. I say lectures but I mean that in the loosest sense. Most of the morning session consist of Barry or Fiona giving us an example lesson and then breaking it down explaining the hows and whys of each stage. It's generally good fun and because it's fun the time passes quickly, we stay awake and we learn. All of our 'lectures' are very student centred (involve us a lot). CELTA is all about student centred lessons rather than having a teacher standing at the front and the students just listening (and falling asleep). With Fiona and Barry making every lecture student centred it keeps hammering the idea home to us. The idea of concept checking was illustrated by the handout of the left. Questions 4, 6 and 8 are useful. They do not use the target language and they check the understanding that he did play football regularly but he does not now. The other questions are either use the TL or are irrelevant.

At the end of the week we all have 1-to-1 tutorials, a sort of progress report. The usual bullshit. We fill in a self-evaluation, the tutors fill in one, we compare and discuss. Basically I get the all clear. Only one black mark for my feedback comments on the other guy's teaching practices. I couldn't be assed to argue but giving me a black mark for that is total crap. In our group we have 4 people who want to be told what we're doing wrong. We get praise and go 'Yeah, yeah' but we want to know what we have to improve. Barry especially doesn't really do that. So I have been doing the constructive criticism. The others ask me to do it and we all react well to it. Bloody namby-pamby Guardian reader, non-judgemental, everyone's a winner teacher types. Do you know 98% of people who do this course get a pass? Completely devalues the qualification in my view. When we do our evaluations and when we teach our lessons we're given a mark of below/to/above standard. But the trouble is the split is 10/80/10. So how do we know how we're really doing? Right: The Intermediate students on the last day of the 2nd week. (+Andrew!)

26th March - 1st April - CELTA course Week 3

More of the same really. This weeks lectures were Phonology 3, Using Authentic Materials, Error Correction, Developing Writing Skills and Language Analysis (Modals). As you can see the lecture work load is easing off. All the stuff they want us to use in our teaching practices during the course has already been taught to us we're now getting the more in depth stuff which might be useful in the future. We even get spare sessions when we can get on with our lesson planning giving us more free time in the evenings. A couple of evenings though our not our own because we have to spend 6 hours observing experienced teachers as a part of our course. Our teaching practice groups have swapped over, we're now teaching the Elementary group. They are a lot quieter and because they are less responsive the lessons seem to be less fun. We also have to be more careful to grade our language lower. The lessons we're teaching are fairly basic things. Past Simple, Polite Request, Comparative and Superlatives. They aren't beginners, they can communicate but in general they are less confident and outgoing. In a way I find them easier to teach, they are less likely to ask difficult questions that can knock you off course. It is much easier to plan a lesson and then stick to the plan. It is hard though trying to teach things that to us seem so basic.

This is an example of the writing from an Elementary student. As you can see they are not beginners but the grammar especially is quite basic.

Over the last two weeks we've been given the other 3 assignments. The first was a grammar type thing. Analyse sentences, break them down into their component parts and that sort of thing. I had to resubmit although the 'correction' only took 30 seconds. For the form of a couple of the sentences I had written Past Perfect, they wanted 'had' + past participle. Picky, picky, picky. They're the same bloody thing! Anyway the next was to write a lesson plan for a one hour text based lesson and describe the rational behind each stage of the lesson. The last assignment was to analyse our own teaching skills and those of one of the experienced teacher we observed. Two strong points, two weaknesses and how you will try to improve these areas. Again not exactly hard if as long as you you follow the requirements step by step.

Three weeks down and still no real pressure. I'm dong a couple of hours work an evening and maybe 8 or 10 over the weekend but it's not hard. As long as you manage your time efficiently and don't have too many other distractions then it's all pretty easy really. But saying that quite a few of the others always seem to be still finishing their assignments 5 minutes before the deadline. Or in some cases not finishing at all and handing it in unfinished knowing that it'll fail but they'll have another 24 hours to resubmit. Our final assignment has to be in Wednesday at 6. I'll hand mine in on Monday I bet half of the others will not hand it in until 5:59pm Weds!

2nd - 6th April - CELTA course Week 4

It's all over. The four weeks flew by and it was good fun. None of the stress and strain that I was told to expect. This week was particularly easy. I'd already finished the final assignment so just a one hour lesson to teach on Monday and one on Wednesday and that's it. I wrote those over the weekend too so I hadn't got a lot to do at all. We had a few lectures, Vocabulary 2, Language Analysis (Future Tense), Fillers and Games, Teaching Literacy Skills and Teaching Young Learners. A bit of paperwork and that's it. We don't actually get told if we passed or failed or what grade we got until next Monday but I think we can all safely assume we passed.

On Friday afternoon, we had our final session with our students. It was great fun. They had all chipped in and brought in loads of fruit and cakes for us so we had a bit of a party. They have made the teaching practices easy for us. They are so much fun and very forgiving of our mistakes. Today they gave us all flowers and a card thanking us and then out come the cameras. Photos, photos, photos. It's amazing how much these four weeks seem to mean to them. But I suppose this is a rare opportunity to be taught by native speaker teachers which to them is invaluable. Also I guess our teaching style of so different to what their used to and must be a breath of fresh air. Learning and fun, totally unheard of. Anyway we gave them our emails and hopefully some of them will stay in touch. We get to hear about life in Vietnam and thy get much needed writing practice. Right: Some of the students from both groups and some of the teachers at the final day party.

On Thursday night seven out of the eight of us on the course went out for a few Bia Hois and a curry. Che got married on Wednesday and in Vietnam things are still very traditional and properly they had not lived together before the marriage. So I guess she had a better offer ;-) The seven of us drank for about an hour and then fought over who would pay the bill. I'll pay, no I will, no me. Twenty odd beers for less than £2. Then on to the Tandoor. A real English style Indian. A very full menu and all the dishes taste right. For $10 each we order more food than we can finish and have a couple of beers. Everyone has a real good night out. Over the four weeks we've got to know each other really well but this is the first time we've been out. It was a great way to round off the course.

9th April - After the CELTA course

My first weekend off in a while and I spent it lazing around watching sport. All the Premiership games live. Chelsea winning, Man U losing and most importantly Arsenal battering West Ham and not scoring whilst West Ham had one shot on goal and did. Marvellous. Malaysian Grand Prix live, some Aussie Rules, some Rugby League, some Rugby Union and staying up all night watching all my bets on the Masters Golf go sour. Lovely. I fly back to the UK on the 8th of May so I've got a month more before returning to reality and I'm no planning to waste it. On the 24th I head out of Hanoi and back to Bangkok. 12 days overland through Laos. Fill in the bit of the area that I've not yet seen. Travelling with Intrepid again so the minimum amount of planning on my part for the maximum amount of ground covered and sights seen. It'll be a great way to round off the whole trip. Finish it off the way I started it, on the road.

Details of my Laos trip - Intrepid Travel: Tap into Laos

Today I took the bus down to Language Link for the last time. Had to pop in to pick up my provisional certificate. Surprise, surprise I passed! I'm not a part of the 2% who fail, so I'm a qualified English as a Foreign Language teacher (provisionally). Isn't that a scary thought. I could be let loose on some poor unsuspecting souls and within no time I'd have them talking bollocks in no time. Teaching Asian businessmen and making them sound like the Wurzels. Marvellous.

10th April - Hanoi

Hanoi is a great place to live. It's also a cheap place to live. If you're happy to live a basic life, eat local food, drink local drinks and use counterfeit goods then life doesn't need to cost much at all. Andrew is staying in a hotel which charges $2 a night for a room. The room is only just big enough to house a double bed and has no home comforts at all, but it is $2 a night. For 3000d you can get a bowl of noodle soup, 1500d for a baguette, 1000d for a doughnut. Beer 2000d a glass, can of diet coke for 4000d also 4000d for a 1.5l bottle of water. Remember it's 30,000 dong to the pound. Entrance to most museums is 3000d, 3000d for a bus journey, taxis 30000d will get you all the way across town, 10000d a couple of miles on the back of a moped. An ice lolly from 3000, a 'local' cornetto 6500, but that's from the hatch around the side (left picture) if you buy from the front with the tourist friendly counter (right picture) you pay 15000! A nice meal in a Westerner friendly restaurant from 25000, and a bottle of Tiger about 12000. A full day city tour with English speaking guide about $10.

It's easy to see how some guys come over here and stay for years. Teach a few hours of English each day, hang out in bars drinking 2000d beers, eat 10000d kebabs and smoke dope which I'm sure is cheap too. Life outside of the rat race. Guys who are nobodies at home an live the life of a King over here as long as they don't have a taste for all the royal trappings. BUT, I'm reading a book called 'Off the rails in Phnom Penh' it makes an expat life in Hanoi seem positively main stream. The book is written about life in 1997 in Phnom Penh from a regular visitors point of view. It talks about life amongst the expats who are there teaching English. The by-line for the book is 'Into the dark heart of guns, girls and ganja'. Slowly but surely real life, western morals and attitudes fade and a new way of living takes over. In the book all the guys are visiting $2 prostitutes, smoking dope all day long and telling stories of their exploits to each other, stories that they couldn't tell in impolite company in the west let alone polite company! Life in Hanoi isn't so far off the rails because the government keep such a tight control on anything they deem immoral but is still easy to see that the expats have slotted into a different way of living and you wonder whether they could ever go back to their old lives. Because of my course I've deliberately avoided the expat bars and not got involved in the expat way of life. When I do come across them what I see makes me more determined not to become one of them. They all act like they're somebody parading around like Lord Muck. It's the way that they treat the Vietnamese that makes me mad. Today one guy in a restaurant was ordering a tart and wanted some cream with it. He starts off with 'Oi, over here kid'. 'I know you won't understand this but I'll give it a go anyway, do you have any cream to have with my tart?' But he says this really quickly and in an Aussie accent, I can barely understand him. He then jumps to the other extreme. 'Have you got any cream? Cream. CREAM. Like milk from a cow. Mooooo.' Of course by this stage the waiter isn't even listening. The bloke turns to his mate, 'Bloody locals, work in these places and can't even speak English.' Firstly, he's living in Vietnam and he can't even speak Vietnamese. But secondly and more importantly the waiter can speak English as long as you speak slowly and clearly and grade your language you can get anything you want. Hanoi is a great place to live, it's just wasted on a lot of the westerners who live here.

11th April - Hanoi

I'll begin today's entry with a little mystery. On Monday I said that I had stayed up all night watching my bets on the Masters go sour. I honestly thought they had. I had Mark O'Meara who had won the previous week but didn't make the cut. I had Casey, Donald and Scott who all came close. Only small bets, £1 e/w something to give me a bit of extra interest when staying up all night. But when I logged in today to put a bet on the Champions League games I found that I had a lot more money in my account than I thought I had. I checked and I had put a £1 each way bet on none other than Zak Johnson at 175/1. I watched the final round with money on the eventual winner and I didn't even know it! But the mystery is why did I put money on him? He WAS over priced but I had barely heard of him. I must have seen a tip somewhere or read that he was in good form or something. Anyway I'm £210 up so I'm not complaining ;-) Not much more to add. I've booked up a few trips for the next week or so the updates from tomorrow will start to become a lot more interesting ;-)

12th April - Hoa lu and Tam Coc

Up early and off on my first trip, 2 days in Ninh Binh Province. But before we even leave Hanoi we get a taste of tourism Vietnamese style. I get picked up at 7:45, we buzz around Hanoi and have a full bus inside 30 minutes and head off. 10 minutes later the tour guide gets a phone call then asks to check someone's ticket and we turn around and head back. When we get back to their hotel they're told they are on the wrong bus and two other people are meant to be on the bus. This results in about half an hour of arguing. I stay well out of it. As always the Vietnamese guys do a lot of posturing and none of them will admit that it's their problem because that may mean that they'll end up out of pocket. Anyway we eventually sort it out by fitting the extra two people on to the already full bus squeezing the smaller people together into seats. We don't actually know what happened but most likely their hotel sold tickets that they didn't have, just took the money and to hell with the consequences. After two hours we get to Ninh Binh town. Four people on the bus are just going to Ninh Binh and not doing the day tour. We pass a sign saying 6km to Ninh Binh and the bus stops and the Ninh Binh people are told to get out here. 'They always drop Ninh Binh people here!' More arguing but they eventually get off and we carry on. Who knows if dropping them there was right or wrong but the four of them were pissed off.

Apart from this being quite amusing and wasting nearly one and half hours all of this didn't effect me and the rest of the day was good. First stop Hoa Lu which was the capital city of Vietnam under the Dinh Dynasty between 968 and 980 AD. We visited the sites of the Dinh and Le kings' palaces. The palaces themselves are archaeological digs but the 17th C copies of the 11th C original dynastic temples are quite neat.

One of the Hoa Lu dynastic temples

Guy who just happens to be riding a buffalo in an area where there are tourists. Well fancy that. Take a photo and he wants you to give him money!

After decent Vietnamese style meal we head off for my highlight of the day. Tam Coc is described as the 'dry Haling Bay' with limestone peaks and fertile green valleys. We get to see them from the Boi River. Along with a few coach loads of other tourists we jump on little rowing boats and little old ladies row us out and back for a couple of hours through stunning scenery. Our lady said she's 44 and only 39kg, but she sure can row. The Tam Coc 'three caves' region was 'put on the map' when it featured in the film IndoChine, which is good because the government is pouring lots of money in and doing it in a sympathetic way, bad because there are a lot of tours running from Hanoi. But it scenery is stunning and the boat ride made all the better because all motor boats are banned. Why 'three caves'? Because on route down river we pass through three caves (tunnels) that have been carved though the limestone pillars.

Yes, in the picture on the right below she is rowing with her feet. They switch between using the arms and legs so that they don't get too tired.

Video of woman rowing with her feet

13th April - Cuc Phuong National Park

This trip has been great value. The bus from and to Hanoi, all the site seeing yesterday, lunch yesterday and a night's bed and breakfast in the hotel all for $40. I stayed overnight at a new hotel and it was great, far better than I had expected considering that I was on a budget trip. Everything in the hotel was brand new, the rooms, the fittings the TV and fridge, fantastic. Another great thing was that the staff were eager to impress. I had dinner with an English couple who were also staying there and they brought the food to us on the balcony which had great views out over the river and the limestone hills. When the main guy brought it up to us he was so proud that the food was freshly cooked, still hot and he'd used the 'best beef'. In the morning after breakfast he was keen that I signed the guestbook. Mine was the third entry.

Through the main man at reception I'd organised for someone to take me on moto ride around the countryside and over to Cuc Phuong National Park. I was assured 'He speak some English'. Obviously it was one of his friends who could earn far more driving me around for the day than doing whatever he normally does. My driver Nam was great. He does speak quite good English and him and me and his Honda 125 moped set of for the day.

The National park is about 50km from Tam Coc but we took the scenic route. We went through little villages, through the paddies, up dirt tracks, along the river, I certainly saw rural life. The area was dominated by the river which was quite low as we're at the end of the dry season. Running alongside the river is a massive causeway which seemed to go on for ever. Rice paddies as far as you can see on both sides. Nam explained that on the left-hand side where all the villages were they have two rice crops a year. On the right they have only one, from June onwards the whole valley is completely flooded almost to the top of the dyke. In the river there were lots of little old ladies (as always in Vietnam it seems that it is only the little old ladies that ever do any work) wading in the river picking the water spinach. I guess the end of the dry season is spinach season. All the guys seem to do is sit around on their little boats all day fishing. On the road we'd see the occasional motorbike but the main 'traffic' were bicycles, buffalo drawn carts and buffalo, cows and goats being herded along usually by children who could've been no more than ten years old.

After about an hour and a half we get to Cuc Phuong National Park. The main reason for coming here is the Primate Rescue Centre. Here they look after, rehabilitate and breed primates that have been found all over Vietnam. Usually they have either been seized from poachers or been found injured. There are 24 different types of primate in Vietnam and here they have 15 of these, the endangered ones. Although it's open to tourists, it's not a tourist attraction, it is firstly and fore mostly a rescue centre. It was great to see the monkeys, langurs and most of all the gibbons. They are all so human! The way the sit, the way they eat, the way they were watching me as I walked around, but most of all the way they interact with each other. The young ones seeking attention and irritating their parents, the mother looking after the baby, it was great to watch. Oh and the gibbons really are funky!

Funky Gibbon video Grey Shanked Douc Langur video

The White Cheeked Gibbon family were the most fun to watch. They had just been given breakfast and were swinging around the cage with such dexterity. They don't use tails for balance they almost exclusively used their arms and fly throw the air so gracefully as if defying gravity. How they know which branch they are swinging to next I've no idea. As you can see from the pictures below the male and female look very different. Males and females are all born yellow, after one year the males turn black and the females remain yellow.

Male White Cheeked Gibbon, Female White Cheeked Gibbon with baby, Delacour's Langur

Primate Center Web-site

From here we headed into the National Park proper. Nam dropped me off and did the Vietnamese thing, he went for for 40 winks. I went for a 7km walk up, over, through the rain forest. It was a reasonable path but pretty hilly. The forest was immaculate, it had obviously been spared during the American War. Huge tress, huge ferns, vines as wide as my arm hanging down from the trees.

The main purpose of my walk was to see the 1000 year old tree, but really the highlight was the walk itself. When I got to the tree there were a couple of coach loads of school children there having class photos taken. Obviously a big day out for them. The tree itself was big and old but looked like it was on its way out. There were far more impressive trees in the forest.

What kind of plants is this on the left? I was surprised when I was told! I'll give you the answer tomorrow.

We took a different slightly more direct route back to the hotel, we had to get back by 3pm for the bus back to Hanoi. It was a great ride through a more hilly landscape, no rice paddies but lots of the plant shown above. The last 20kms was on the main highway which was an experience in itself. A two-way highway on a little moped. Often we'd have a car overtaking a bus, overtaking a lorry coming straight towards us, we'd have to verge onto the verge to avoid them! Just after we got back it started to rain, we were lucky. Two hours and we're back in Hanoi and we get the Vietnamese crap again. 'I drop you here, your hotel very close'. I know it's not so close but they can't be bothered to go around the one-way system. The driver gets involved with the usual posturing. I stand my ground, tell them that I live in Hanoi and I know where we are and I know where my flat is. Eventually they drive me home. When I get off I get a real evil look from the driver. The Vietnamese are a pain sometimes. A lot of them are cheats, if they think they can get away with something they'll try it on. Then when they're found out they will not admit that they were in the wrong and go into a real strop. It's such a big problem that the new 'middle class' go out of their way to show that they can be trusted, to them it's a way to show that they are better than the 'peasants'.

14th and 15th April - Hanoi

A lazy weekend in Hanoi. By the way the plant above. Pineapple.

16th April - To Cat Ba

Off again on another trip, this time I'm going back to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. A real bargain this time. Bus to Halong City, boat through Halong Bay to Cat Ba, two nights in a hotel and the boat and bus back all for $25. I think I got it at the cost price because Hang booked it for me. But I think the normal tourist price is only $35 so still very cheap. Trip started with no dramas! We went around Hanoi picking up the passengers and we were out of Hanoi inside half an hour. The ride to Halong City is about 3 hours including a quick toilet stop at a craft centre. We're at the dock in Halong City by about 11am. Then we board the boat. Halong dock is a mess of boats, hundreds of them parked up 3 deep back. Our boat is in the middle of this so we climb onto one boat walk to the back then we have to climb over the side and on to the next boat. Health and safety would have kittens. We had to climb around the side of the boat holding on the to roof above with our backpacks. Anyway we all make it on OK. We then sit around on the boat at the dock for nearly an hour waiting for other passengers to arrive on different buses. This would be OK except for the diesel fumes.

We finally head off and after about 10 minutes we park up for lunch. Lunch is on the boat and included. It was decent Vietnamese fare, a whole fish, some fried pork, water spinach, spring rolls, rice etc. Then it's off again. Next stop a set of caves which I'd seen when we came here in November so I stayed on the boat whilst most people walked through the caves. We then cruise through Halong Bay and arrive at the pier on the North Side of Cat Ba Island. This is where the fun started.

I had booked a 'package' so I had no problems, the bus from the North pier to the town was all included. But quite a few people had just booked the boat to Cat Ba assuming that that meant to Cat Ba City. Oh no! Cue the usual pantomime. Tour guide saying this is what you booked . Get off the boat. The passengers getting pissed off and showing their frustrations true to national stereotypes. The Brits complain for about 5 minutes then sit back and let the others get on with it. The Aussies play the racial card, 'What can you expect from these people, they always rip you off.' The French try to start a revolution. The stage a sit in on the boat. The Germans they look for the most efficient solution. In the end the Germans arrange to pay a little and travel on the bus with us, the Brits and Aussies join us too, anything for an easy life. The French, for all I know they're still on the boat blockading the pier!

Pictures show the guys in the restaurant. The white bowl on the table is full of rice wine, just dip the glass in to fill it up. When I get to Cat Ba City I find we're staying in the same hotel that we stayed in back in November and Ngoc our guide back then is ready waiting for us. He's a lovely guy and it's good to see him. In the evening I head out for a quiet night in a little restaurant that doesn't get many tourists. In fact apart from me there is only one other group 7 Vietnamese guys from another island who are here for a short holiday which I find out means to get very drunk on rice wine. ;-) Even though they speak no English they invite me over and offer me rice wine. 1, 2, 3, 4, ... I take out my lap top and show them photos of my travels. More rice wine 5, 6, 7, 8, ... We end up gong on to a Karaoke Bar till it's very late and we're very drunk!

17th April - Cat Ba

An overcast day which is disappointing because I'd planned to spend today on the beach. Instead I spend most of the day lying in bed regretting all the rice wine that I drank last night! Apart from a quick trip to the Hospital Cave to take some photos to the General I didn't do very much at all. On the right is the view of the harbour taken from my room's balcony.

18th April - Back from Cat Ba

Typical a perfect sunny day why couldn't it have been like this yesterday? Anyway it made for a great trip back through Halong Bay to the port. It is such a great place when the air is clear and not shrouded in a haze. Once again the journey was far from speedy. About an hour and a half on the boat followed by an hour on dockside waiting for a bus to arrive. This takes us half a mile to a restaurant for another typical Vietnamese meal. From here a three hour or so journey back to Hanoi, where we drop off a few of the passengers at the travel agent so that they can complain about things on their trip not going to plan. I guess they'll complain for a while, the most persistent ones might even waste a day of their holiday complaining, writing letters etc. But what do they hope to gain? They only paid $30 for the 3 day trip. They got the trip, the lunches, the hotel. If the travel agent is very generous (and I bet he isn't) they might get $10 back. Not really worth wasting a whole day for.

On the way back from Halong City we stopped off at Dai Nghia Humanitarian Center. Where disabled and disadvantaged kids are trained to produce crafts. jewellery, clothing and silk hand stitched pictures. The pictures are amazing. On this trip so far I've not really bought anything but now my trip is coming to an end I can start buying stuff. I pick up a couple of pictures that'll look great when framed. I'd much rather spend $100 on something here where the money will do some good than on most of the stuff found in Hanoi which is produced in a sweat shop somewhere.

19th April - Hanoi

Back in Hanoi and only a couple of days to go. I move out of my flat tomorrow so today was a day of packing up and sorting out. Sent to packages of stuff back to the UK. It's amazing how much stuff you can accumulate in a couple of months and there's no way I want to carry it all the way through Laos. Today I had lunch at the City View Cafe. I've been in Hanoi for 10 weeks or so and I'd never been up there. I'm glad I did, the view over the lake and back over the city is great.

20th April - To Sa Pa

My time in Hanoi is coming to an end. Today I tidied up and moved out of my flat. My landlord has been great. When I moved in there were no hassles with references or deposits, I just moved in. Now I want to move out a month earlier than I had previously told him, no problem. He even let me leave my bags with him for the weekend whilst I'm away in Sa Pa. Nice to know there are still some nice, helpful trusting and trustworthy people left in the world.

In the evening I headed to the station for the overnight sleeper train to Lao Cai. Train left at 9pm and arrived in Lao Cai at 6am. Probably the bumpiest and loudest sleeper train I've been on, didn't get much sleep, but at least we got there with no delays. The train before and the train after were both delayed by 4 hours!

21st April - Sa Pa

Early morning is Lao Cai is busy. When the train gets in there are hundreds of taxi drivers, tour buses, moto riders all trying to get business or find their respective pre-arranged passengers. Not really what you want after a train ride with very little sleep. Anyway we had a driver booked so we were soon on our way to Sa Pa. It was a misty morning but the views were still stunning. The drive from Lao Cai to Sa Pa is about 35km up hill. We go from 232m to 1600m, snaking our way up the mountains. The road is sealed but rough. Some pot holes, some bits washed out completely, mostly with room for cars to pass if they both go off the edge a little. One good thing is that the only cars and mini-buses on the road are going in the same direction as us. Other than tourists there are a few motorbikes, a few buffalo and quite a few people walking. It's slow going though. 35km and it takes over a hour.

We are very close to the Chinese border up here and the scenery reminds me of my trip back in November. Very mountainous, with rice terraces cut into the hills where ever possible. The whole area is very green and the fields are full of people working away digging, weeding, planting.

It's new scenery and new peoples, but the same tour guide. Hang has come with me to show me around so hopefully I'll get to see as much as possible. We got to the hotel at about 7am, had some breakfast and headed out into the villages. For the two days we're up we've got our own driver so whenever and wherever we want to go we can.

We head off to a set of villages around Lao Chai about 10km away. The driver drops us at the top of the hill. He then drives down to the bottom of the valley to pick us up later. The whole area is covered in rice terraces, each terrace with a mud wall to keep in the water. It's early in the season so most of the terraces are completely flooded. There are men with buffalo ploughing, men shoring up the terrace walls. Women are planting and weeding.

As soon as we get out of the car we get some local children trying to sell us purses and blankets. They're to young to be shaken off by my usual tactics of totally ignoring them. It takes them about half an hour to finally give up.

We head down a muddy path through to fields towards the first village. The weather is closing in and it's touch a go whether we'll reach the village before the rain. Just as we enter the village it pisses down, a real heavy shower, we're told that this is a wet time of the year up here. We duck undercover at the school which like all schools I've seen in Vietnam is the newest looking and most solid looking building around. The shower passes and we move on.

The funniest thing we see is when three little kids herd some buffalo past us. The smallest one isn't looking where she's going and falls into the rice paddy. The poor little thing is drenched in muddy water. It was horrible for the kid but, very funny ;-)

The children are herding the buffalo but the small child in blue is watching where she's going! Then the child in blue falls in the paddy and the other children look on not knowing what to do. The poor thing is saturated and walks on up the hill crying her eyes out.

After walking through more paddy and through a few more villages, we come to the car. We head back into Sa Pa where we check out the market which is full of the locals in their ethnic clothes. It's fun to look around but I'll go into local markets in more detail tomorrow. After lunch we head out to more villages around the Ta Phin village.

This area has a single car parking area and one out and back route which was nice but it does mean that you get high jacked by the local sellers. Each group walking through the village gets it's own little party to accompany them. We got three ladies, but on the bright side they didn't hassle us at all as we walked around, they just kept their distance and followed. The village was obviously one of the richer ones, for a start the road was concrete. It had a few houses doing home-stays and had something resembling a corner store.

In the Sa Pa area there a number of minority groups living pretty much together, and all have their own distinctive costumes which most of them wear all the time not just for tourists. Groups include the Hmong, Dao, White Thai, Giay, Tay, Muong, Hao and Xa Pho. The costumes, especially the women's costumes are colourful and detailed. But what strikes me most is that they are wearing so many layers of heavy material. I know it gets cold up here in winter but now the sun's come out it's getting hot. I'm wearing a tee-shirt and shorts and sweating!

When we get nearly back to the car park I stop the ladies and buy one thing from each of them for 50,000 each (£1.60), they seem happy.

22nd April - Bac Ha Market

Up quite early and check-out of the hotel by 8am. Today we are heading over to Bac Ha Market. Every Sunday in Bac Ha the villagers and hill peoples from miles around descend on Bac Ha to buy and sell their wares. This is their one shop for the week. The drive from Sa Pa to Bac Ha is about 110km and takes nearly 3 hours. First we wind our way back down to Loa Cia and then we climb back up into the hills again. If anything this area is more spectacular than around Sa Pa. There are still rice terraces but also steep, bigger mountains that are completely unfarmed.

Along the road which climbs its way up around hair-pin bend after hair-pin bend are peoples from the various tribes carrying their wares on foot, by horse or by motorbike. It's makes you feel like a VIP being driven along the roads in a landcruiser type car. Today the sun is out in force making me even more glad that I'm in an air-conditioned car and not wrapped up in the amount of clothes these women are and not doing to bum numbing two hours on the back of a motorbike.

The market in Bac Ha is bigger, more diverse and less touristy than I had expected. This is a real living and breathing local market where the tourists are still only a side-line trade rather than the main focus. Everything that the local peoples need to live can be bought here. Fruit and veg, meats (pig, cow, chicken and dog) both live and dead, horses and buffalo for working, clothing, hardware, tobacco and rice wine. The majority of locals are in their ethnic costumes. The colours are fantastic. The women are buying new clothes (picture above) sorting through what's available, holding them up, 'does my bum look big in this'. Then men are horse trading, lots of posturing, walking around the animal, checking it out, everything bar kicking the tires!

A lot of the women have babies strapped to their backs, families are obviously big up here. It's obvious that there is a big division between the men's' and the women's' work. In fact the men an women hardly seem to interact at all. Hang tells me that the weekly trip to the market is the only chance the men get to have a drink together. Sometimes you see a man lying on the ground out cold and his wife standing over him holding an umbrella to shield him from the sun till he comes around. For the first time ever I can see a good reason for getting married.

After a few hours wandering around, we have lunch then head off back. On the way we stop off to look at some tea plants (and water them). We then stop at the Chinese border. A bridge across the Red River is the crossing point. The locals peoples can cross forwards and back easily and hand cart after hand cart cross forward and back carrying all kinds of stuff. Much of it I'm sure is sold to tourists as authentic village crafts. From here it's back to Lao Cai for the 8:15pm train back to Hanoi.

23rd April - Back to Hanoi

Arrived back in Hanoi at 5am! I actually managed to sleep quite well on the journey but still very tired. There were 6 in our 4 berth cabin. Me and Hang and two Vietnamese women with 6 or 7 year old children. Thankfully they were pretty quiet but the first hour was a bit painful!

When I got back I walked back into town and along the lake to the hotel that I'll stay in for the one night before starting the journey back. It was great to walk along the lake with all the locals out doing their exercises. I took a couple of videos which I've attached below. Other an uneventful day, tidying up, resting and getting ready for my next adventure. Laos.

Link to Travel Diary (Laos)