Link to Travel Diary (Melbourne, Bangkok).

Hanoi After Tet - 2007

12th February - To Hanoi

I'm back in Hanoi. Thankfully it's cooler than Bangkok but it is humid. A very fine mist seems to be covering the whole city, I hear that's common for this time of year. Either Hanoi has become busier and noisier or maybe it's just that last time I was here I had come from 4 weeks in SE Asia and I was more used to the chaos. Motorbikes everywhere, obeying the road rules in theory but not really in practice. The horn makes a good substitute for breaks, indicators or stopping at red lights.

The drive from the airport threw me in at the deep end and I sat in the front to get the maximum excitement from the ride. Who needs to pay £50 for some adrenalin activity in New Zealand when you can have this for free. The road from the airport seems to have been turned into a garden centre. Everywhere people are selling small orange trees laden with oranges and branches of pink blossom. Guys on their little mopeds are driving along carrying trees, very strange. More on this later.

13th February - Hanoi

The hotel is great, central location but with a room at the back on the 3rd floor it is quiet. Air-co, cable TV and internet hook up in the room and I have a haven away from the chaos outside. The main reason for me being in Hanoi is that I'm doing the CELTA course at Language Link next month so I thought I'd hunt out the college and see where it is in relation to other bits of the city I already know. It's actually near the Temple of Literature not far from where I stayed back in November so I soon get my bearings. Modern building on a main road near the Horison Hotel so the area must be OK. Big bonus is that the ground floor is a supermarket and it sells some western brands, obviously catering for the students. I have found somewhere to buy Kellog's Cornflakes and Kettle Chips. If I could only find some Jaffa Cakes somewhere then I'd be sorted ;-)

After a couple of hours walked around I decide to pop into the Temple of Literature for a bit of sanctuary. You have to walk mainly on the roads because what pavements there are are blocked with shops and make shift cafes spilling out or motorbikes parked up. So you walk as close as possible to the edge watching out for the open drains and potholes, whilst also avoiding the motorbikes that are zipping around you. In many ways I feel safer in the middle of the road when crossing than at the side. At least in the middle of the road you can be seen and they try to avoid you. The Temple of Literature is a Confucian Temple founded in 1070 and the site of Vietnam's first University in 1076. In 1484 emperor Lê Thánh Tông started the tradition of carving the names of the laureates of the university on stone steles, which were placed on top of stone turtles. Of the 116 steles corresponding to the examinations held between 1142 and 1778, only 82 remain. The picture shows some of these steles. I really like the TofL and I can see myself spending a lot of time here over the next few months. It's only 5,000d (20p) to get into a very cheap prices for a bit of tranquillity.

14th February - Hanoi

After a couple of days walking around the Old Quarter I decided to check out the French Quarter. This is where the flashier hotels are, the Embassies and Government offices. The streets are bigger and laid out in a grid pattern, the colonial influence is pretty obvious here. There are still some Bia Hoi and street food stalls but generally the whole area has a more Western feel. The big downside is that there are more guys hassling you for moto rides, cyclo rides, to buy (photocopied) books or CDs.

I walk past the Municipal Theatre (Opera House) opened in 1911, based on the neo-Baroque Paris Opera it is impressive and considered the Jewel in the crown of French Hanoi. Next the History Museum which I visited back in November. The Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution is where I am headed. It's in a classical colonial building which wad originally a customs house. The museum catalogues the 'Vietnamese people's patriotic and revolutionary struggle' from the first anti-French movements of the late 18th century to the post 1975 reconstruction. The museum is mainly a huge collection of photographs all captioned in Viet, English and French. Showing the starving people, French oppressors, the beginnings of Vietnamese Communism, uprisings, bombings and war. It's quite a story and I'm sure its one-sided nature stirs the patriotic bones of every Viet person who visits.

Conclusive proof that Vietnam is a 'backwards' country!

The caption on the photo to the left says 'Thai Bihn's local army men left for the battle ground to fight the enemy and save the country.' other photos had captions like 'The patriotic soldier stands up to the oppressive colonialist.' and 'Revolutionary fighters jailed by the French Colonialists at Lao Bao prison.' Others emphasize that despite oppression the Viet people remained good hearted buoyed by the knowledge that they have a just cause and will ultimately triumph over the French Colonialist oppressor.

15th February - Hanoi

Today I trekked down to the French Quarter again and to The Hoa Loa Prison (Vietnamese: Hỏa Lò, meaning "fiery furnace"). This is better known as the Hanoi Hilton the name it was given by the American Prisoners of war here during the American War. It was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The prison was built in Hanoi by the French in 1904, when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners agitating for independence who were often subject to torture and execution. The French called the prison Maison Centrale - a usual term to denote prisons in France.

Only part of the prison still exists and it is set up as a museum. Most of it was demolished during the construction of high rise Hanoi Towers. What remains is a very sanitised version of what was once here and the story told by the pictures the usual 'Viet Version' of history.

One of the plaques reads 'During the war, the national economy was difficult but Vietnamese Government had created the best living conditions to US pilots for they had a stable living during the temporary detention.' There are pictures of the POWs 'going to church', 'receiving presents from the guards' and 'cooking with fresh chickens'. This is in stark contradiction to the many claims of former prisoners that the room was the site of numerous acts of torture.

The most famous American POW held at the Hanoi Hilton was John McCain now the US Senator in the running for the Presidency. His picture and equipment are on prominent display in the museum.

16th February - To Hang's Village (Tinh Loc)

Whilst I was travelling around Australia and New Zealand I had stayed in touch with Hang the tour guide that took me to Mai Chau back in November. When I said I was coming back to Vietnam I must go with her to her village to see how the 'real' Vietnamese celebrate Tết. The idea of going off into rural Vietnam to a place with no Westerners and no one speaks English was a bit scary but what the hell, it was sure to be an experience so at about 5pm we set off for the hour or so drive north.

Motorway, A-road, country lane, pot-holed dirt road. And we arrive at what looks like the newest and most solid house in the area. Deep breath and it's time to meet the family. Mum and Dad, Grandma, older Brother with Wife and Daughter and younger Brother. I do a lot of smiling and they do a lot of chatting amongst themselves. The house looks good. One big room with 2 double beds, solid coffee (tea in this case) table which 4 solid chairs, quite a big open area and the sideboard / alter dominating the room. There's another smaller room with a double bed off to the side. A separate building is split in two, a kitchen and shower room / toilet.

This is the house where her older Brother and family live along with her Gran and it was new last year. Tonight is Tết Eve. Tết is the name for Chinese (Lunar) New Year in Vietnam, for them it's our Christmas and New Year rolled into one. Add the ancestors thing and loads of superstition and it's a big thing. But first things first. Time for some tea. Whenever you arrive at someone's house in Vietnam you're offered tea. The teapot and teeny tiny cups are always out and the thermos always full. I think it's usually lotus tea, whatever it is it's served strong and of course black with no sugar. Only the men drink the tea, the women sit back on the beds in the background.

Tonight's a big family meal to see out the year and I guess the food is a bit more special than the average meal and with me being there extra special. Spring rolls, boiled chicken, beef with vegetables and ginger, liver which broccoli, sticky rice (more on that later) boiled turnip, pickled veg, Gio Lua, some sort of pate / luncheon meat type thing made from pork a bit like the inside of a lean pork pie and boiled rice. (I get quite used to these dishes as we seem to have the same ones for all 7 meals I have in the village.) This is all eaten from bowls on mat laid out on the floor and us all sat crossed legs around the mat. Well everyone except me with their legs folded up me with my legs to the side, I can't sit like they do and then lean forward and pick up the food, in fact my one attempt caused great amusement!

17th February - Tết in Tinh Loc

I didn't get much sleep at all last night. I was on one of the beds in the main room. Hang and her Gran on the other brother and her younger brother on the floor. We stayed up until mid-night to watch the fireworks from Hanoi, then her brothers friends came over and they drank outside for most of the night. Coming in and out, making noise, turning on the lights. Then at 5am the dogs start barking and 6am the cockerel crowing. At 7 everyone is up and about.

The first meal of the New Year is the most important and a number of Hang's uncles and families come over. It's a full meal accompanied by beer and rice wine and it's only 8am! Of course everyone wants to have a rice wine with me so I have to knock back quite a few shots. According to Buddhist tradition, only after the ancestors have had their share of food can the living family members eat. So a selection of the food is laid out on a table in front of the family altar, Hang's Gran kneels down and says silent prayers, and lights sticks of incense. The smoke from the incense carries the food to the spirit world. In my non-spiritual and un-pc mind I'm just thinking that our food is getting cold.

Sitting down for the meal are me, Grandma, the children and the men. The women eat in the kitchen. But of course they get to play their part bring food and drinks and clearing up after us ;-) In the picture the brown looking plastic can at the front is the rice wine. Rice wine as far as I can tell is basically home made moonshine and about 25%. It's not too bad at all as a shot, I've drunk a lot worse.

After breakfast the morning passed quite quickly motorbike after motorbike brought family after family to see Hang's Gran, her parents and the Big English man that has come to visit. I say, 'Xin chào' (Hello) and 'Chúc mừng tết vui!' (Happy Lunar New Year) and my Vietnamese is exhausted so from then on I sit and smile and try to guess what they are saying about me. Some see me as a freak show, others hardly notice that I'm there at all. One guy is like 'Mr Shaky Hands Man' we shake hands for about a minute with him just saying 'Tank-you, Tank-you' over and over again.

For the whole morning Hang's younger brother was lying around on the bed nursing a hangover, good to see that some things are the same whatever country you are!

In the early afternoon Hang, her two brothers and me head off on 2 motorbikes out into surrounding area to see some more relatives. Along the dirt roads running between the rice paddies. Past wooden shacks, elegant Pagodas, battered looking farms and a modern solidly built, freshly painted school with the Vietnamese flag flying proudly over it. Being Tết no one is out working in the fields but there are cows and buffalo, pigs in ramshackle pig sties and chickens running around. We come to the first house. Another Uncle. They are obviously poorer. The house is tidy but looks weathered, as does the furniture and the alter. More as I would expect rural Vietnam. I'm welcomed and ushered in to sit down for tea. Out come the sweets and candies and of course the rice wine. 'Việt nam Anh' they shout. Vietnam, England.

Soon we are off to another house, same routine, then another. This one is bigger and nicer and is a farm, a cow, some pigs, a big pond stocked with fish. The out buildings look very like some of the older (more run down) farms back in Devon. The buildings are brick but my Dad would despair at the brickwork.

By now it's 3pm and lunchtime. Although I'm not hungry at all. Arriving at every house is like arriving at my Gran's back home. Out comes the food and sweets. I feel obliged to have something at every stop. Most of the sweets are like the really cheap sweets I remember from when I was young, very synthetic. We're also offered fruit (orange, tiny apples with a stone?), watermelon seeds (which are red and you crack them open and eat the inside) and what Hang calls Che Lam, although I can't find it on the internet. It's sticky, it's sweet. It's very elastic. It is made in a huge round 'loaf'. I think it is made from sticky rice flour and sugar. It has pieces of nut and candy mixed into it. It's chopped up into strips 2"x1"x1/2" and sometimes dusted in icing sugar. It's good, but very chewy and very, very filling.

Where did everybody go? I was about to take a photo with everyone sitting down but as I was taking the photo someone else arrived and everyone jumped to their feet leaving just one. In the picture you can see the big hot water pot, a lot of food and a lot of beer.

Lunch is at Hang's other Gran's house. Another lovely new house with the usual sort of layout. Double bed, tea table and chairs, alter, huge cabinet with the TV. This is a huge meal. The usual things plus a big electric pot of boiling water. In this noodles, veg and meat are quickly cooked next to the mat where we're eating. Again only the men sit at the mat. The amazing thing is that during the time I'm there, family after family arrived. All of them more cousins! Another motorbikes rolls up, I can imagine them saying 'Sit down, grab a bowl'. The house is full of men and children. The women are running forward and back to the outside kitchen. On this trip to rural Vietnam 2 things above all have made me more popular and in truth kept me sane. My camera and my laptop. Taking photos of everyone then showing them the picture on the camera or uploading it and showing it full size on the laptop. The photos always cause great amusement and it's something I can do with needing any Vietnamese at all. So whilst the waves of new families are arriving, I go back and sit down and take photos of the kids. I'm about to take a photo of one little boy and he runs off. Why? Soon he's back carrying his new trousers and shirt. He wants a photo with them on. He's obviously so proud of his new clothes and everyone finds it very funny.

Notice how the clothes of all the children look a bit too big. It's because they are all wearing their new clothes for Tết.

An uncle and his family. 5 of them on one bike. I think they may need to invest in a second bike before long.

After a couple of hours of this we head back. The evening is quite quiet now and again a friend, a neighbour or another Uncle arrives but it's a lot less full on. Time to have a chat with Hang and find out a few things. Firstly, are all these men really Uncles? It turns out they are. There are 6 on one side, 7 on the other and another 6 adopted Uncles. 20 Uncles most of them with families, that's a lot of relatives. Next, what are the little red envelops that everyone seems to be giving each other, especially to the children? This is 'lucky money' a Tết tradition. Then I ask whether her family are rich as their houses all seem really nice. It turns out a lot of this is down to Hang.

Hang is the first person in her family, the first person in the area to go to University. The fact that she went to Uni means her family had some money because a lot of families just wouldn't be able to afford sending a child to Uni. She studied English at the best University and now works as a tour guide. I think she still lives a pretty simple life and saves all her money. So she is paying for her younger brother to go to University, and she sends a lot of money home. She says she's lending it to her family. So she paid the $2000 for her Gran's house ($2000 for a house. I felt embarrassed when they asked me how much my laptop cost and I said $2000.), $2000 towards the $6000 for the farm house etc. Enquiring further I find that Hang gets about 300,000 (~$20) per day for tour guiding plus tips, which can be 50,000 if the group is a couple of Brits but up to 1,000,000 if it's a large group of Americans.

Then it's time for an early night. I started to drink rice wine at 8am this morning and now the tiredness and the hangover is starting to kick in. But what a day. Not many people get to see rural Vietnam close up like this.

18th February - Tết in Tinh Loc

Hang's Gran reminds me a lot of my Gran. Always on the go, always doing something. She is 77 and still very fit. She is also obviously the head of the household. I felt she was the one that treated me with the most scepticism at first but she warmed up as time went on. This morning she asked if I could take a photo of her. She put on her Pagoda Clothes (Sunday Best), beads and everything and posed in front of the alter. I think she was quite chuffed at the result.

The other thing about Hang's Gran is, she can't half drink. She knocks back the rice wine. She'll have 3 or 4 with the meal and then whilst clearing up if there's any left in anyone's glasses she'll knock that back to. You can only hazard a guess at the things that she has been through but she's sure enjoying life now.

I know this is the holiday season but life in general seems so relaxed. I guess it would've been very different last month when they were working dawn till dusk planting the rice paddy by hand.

Before heading off we have another meal. So Hang's Mum kills a chicken for us to eat. Once she's plucked and drawn it she chops it up, bones and all, and boils it. Hang also makes me some chips, it was nice to have something different. When we have the meal Hang's Dad tucks into the chicken head and then the chicken feet. It made me think back to eating with my Grandad who would eat the fatty grizzly pieces of meat and say he was eating the part.

As we're about to head off a group of family friends arrive. They are young guys and have worked abroad in China, India, Malaysia and Taiwan. And, they speak a little English. They are so proud to use the phrases they know and I'm just glad to actually be able to communicate with someone. A nice end to a great weekend.

19th February - Hanoi

After a weekend like that I needed a days rest. Mental exhaustion as much as anything. It must be how famous people feel when they go to a totally foreign country. The centre of attention but not really a part of what's going on. Trying to give everyone a good impression. The brain is working overtime trying to absorb what's going on yet on the outside all anyone sees is a permanent smile.

I did go out for a walk to explore a bit more of the city. The thing that struck me was how quiet the place is. 3/4 of the shops are closed and there's only a 1/10th of the traffic on the roads. During Tết everyone returns to their home village which leaves Hanoi quite empty and quiet (all things are relative, I mean it's still not quiet compared to Devon). I came across a Catholic Church which looked quite out of place in Hanoi. But considering the French were here I suppose it makes sense. Later I read up about it and find that it was funded by a state lottery, marvellous.

Whilst out I came across a Housing Agent, so I called in and she took me to see a flat. It was decent, but quite Vietnamese, not really aimed at an expat. But I'm only going to be here for another 10 weeks, the location was good and at $200 a month who was I to complain. I wanted somewhere ASAP and this fits the bill. I said I would come back tomorrow and pay the deposit. After 4 months travelling I'm going to have a flat of my own. I can unpack, it's amazing how such small things can make you happy when you're travelling.

20th February - Hanoi

Bugger, bugger, bugger. Went to see Madame Dong the estate agent and she told me the flat on the 5th floor, that I had said I would take and the flat I turned turned up with the deposit for, had gone. But I could still have the flat on the 2nd floor, but being on a lower floor and Vietnamese like lower floors, it would be more expensive. And, because the furniture has been put in the 5th floor they would have to buy new furniture for the 2nd floor, but they will only do that if I sign a 12 month contract. But that's OK, I can sign it then break the contract after 3 months. The Vietnamese are lovely hospitable people, but nothing in any of my dealings with them leads me to trust them one little bit. I try to buy some fruit from a girl in the street, she says 100,000, it should be about 20,000 to a Westerner, then she is surprised when I react angrily and walk away without haggling. She picked the wrong white guy to try to rip off. Same with Madame Dong, time to find a Western estate agent, their reputation rests on them being reasonably fair. If they're crooked word would soon spread amongst the expat community.

Vietnam has joined the WTO and so restrictions on foreign investment and ownership of companies have been (in theory) eased. If there really is free trade, which I doubt, then the Vietnamese are in for a shock. They need to shake the 'everyone for themselves' Communist attitudes. If they continue to treat Westerners as people to take as much money off as possible, Westerners will just trade with other Westerners and the whole of Vietnam will lose out. The trouble with Communism is it breeds short-termism, with no ownership and no responsibility there's nothing to gain from building long term relationships. Then again I suppose you can't expect much better from a country which learnt a lot of what it knows from the French! The picture shows the bridge over to the island at the top end of the Hoan Kiem Lake. The balloons are tethered in the lake and I assume are something to do with Tết but I don't know what exactly.

21st February - Hanoi

Today I felt sick. Really sick. Upset stomach. Many trips to the toilet, stomach cramps doubling me up. It could be a build up from the last few days, when I was in Tinh Loc who knows what bugs I was exposed to, everything washed in the local water etc. Thinking about it I was probably quite dehydrated as well, in Tinh Loc all I drank was small thimbles of tea and alcohol. But really I think it must've been the sate sticks I bought from a street vendor yesterday. I can't really complain though, I've been away for 4 months and this is the first time I've been ill. And if you're going to be ill on holiday it might as well be on a day when you have nothing planned and you're in an air-conditioned hotel room with cable TV and internet.

My one 'activity' of the day was searching the internet to find some reliable housing agents. So I hit all the Hanoi expat sites that I could find. One guy called me back within 30 minutes of emailing him. Karl, a German, he said his secretary was still on holiday for Tết but she'd be back tomorrow and he'd call me back then and we could look at some flats.

22nd February - Hanoi

Up early, still not feeling great, but well enough to go to look at some flats. Karl meets me with his motorbike and off we go. He says he'd hoped to show me 2 flats but now could only show me one. But it didn't matter. The flat he showed me was nice, It's one of a couple of flats above a German Restaurant. The owners are Vietnamese but had lived in Germany for some time. The flat certainly has a Western touch. Proper leather sofa you can laze around on rather than a Vietnamese wooden one. The big bonus is the kitchen, an oven, rings, toaster, kettle, fridge and washing machine.

I didn't want to mess around any more, it's costing me $22 a night in the hotel, so I took it on the spot. In the afternoon I took over the money and got the keys. No deposit, no references, no inventory (and none of the associated costs), if only things could be so easy in England. $450 / month which from what I can gather is an average sort of price for a small expat flat in Hanoi.

23rd February - Hanoi

It's a persistent little bugger this tummy bug, it's still hanging around at least the new flat has a decent toilet ;-) Anyway I spent one extra night in the hotel and today I packed up and moved everything over to Pho Ba Trieu, the street name a little too French for my likely but I'll get over it. I spent the rest of the day checking out a few gyms. Not been to the gym for 4 months and I miss it. I've been active about it'll be nice to really hit the gym hard, not that I'm really feeling up to it at the moment. It seems obvious that the Vietnamese don't go to gyms. The only gyms I find are in hotels and top end ones at that.

Signed up to the gym at the Melia Hotel. A very posh 5* hotel. I'm sure if I'd been Vietnamese and looking as rough as I was looking I would never had made it past the first security guard. The hotel has a stunning traditionally dressed women on the front door to meet and greet and then a huge entrance hall. The fitness centre is on the 3rd floor and looks pretty new. The spa and sauna are new, only opened at the beginning of the month. There's also an outdoor swimming pool and sun deck. Very flash and no one using it. Perfect, although very pricey, a little more expensive than my gym in London but to have an oasis of tranquillity to retreat to will be bliss. The last 2 days I've chosen to spend a bit more than I've needed to, but it's still not a lot in UK terms. I figure after 4 months on the road I need a couple of home comforts. A nice flat and a nice gym will keep me going until I get back to the UK in May. Travelling is great but you do get a bit travel weary after a while, especially when you've been on the move as much as I have. It's going to be really strange when doing the course and I have to get back into a routine.

24th February - Hanoi

There are a surprising amount of things in Hanoi that make life in a developing world busy, hassled city more bearable. The main one is the TV. We get most the sport you'd want to see either live or some time during the following week, often repeated many times. For instance I've seen all the 6 Nations games, the FA Cup games from last weekend. A few of the Champions League games from during the week and on a Saturday 3 live Premiership games, the 12:45, 3:00 and 5:15 games which when you're 7 hours ahead are at perfect times. I'm writing this on Saturday night and I'm watching the Charlton v West Ham game live, something I couldn't do in England. Trouble is we're 3-0 down and wish it wasn't on! Also food wise a lot of cafe / restaurants are aimed at the expat and backpacker market. They offer Vietnamese (which is generally an Asian hybrid menu) and Western dishes of varying quality. Tonight I went to a restaurant (which I found out after was owned by a Frenchman) and had the best Calzone I've every had, although that may have been tainted by the fact that I've hardly eaten for 4 days and I was starving! Oops 4-0.

Now and again I get surprised by an item that I find in the supermarket. You can get Kellogg's cereals, Pringles, Snickers (but not Mars), today I found HP Sauce. Apart from those things there are very few other Western brands which is what makes those few things more strange when you see them.

25th February - Hanoi

Hanoi runs at 2 speeds, comatose and hectic. You walk around the old town and everyone seems to be sitting around generally passing the time of day. Empty shops with 5 or 6 sales staff, pavements full of people sitting around drinking tea. Hundreds of guys on motorbikes, 'Moto Mister?', 'Where are you going?'. I found this and thought it summed up the other side of the coin. "Now, the considerable contrast to the sleepwalking is the mad, adrenalized city driving. Drivers disregard the concept of lanes, a massive bus will bully its way right into traffic, cabs drive at night without headlamps and motorcyclists snake in and out of the mass at high speed. I suppose one wants to get to their destination quickly so they waste no time in resuming their normal relaxed pace."

I the picture a brave PC has set up a temporary roundabout. The majority of drivers go the right side of him, but many don't. In fact he seems to cause more trouble than he solves, I'm not sure that a lot of the guys on motorbikes know that they are supposed to be on the right.

26th February - Hanoi

This is where the travel diary starts to get boring. That's assuming you haven't found it boring all along, but I guess if you're still reading then it must've had its moments. Anyway, I now have my flat, my gym membership and I'm just trying to have a quiet and as normal as possible life for a while. So no bungy jumps, no great scenery just the odd observation on life in Hanoi. So today it's up, have a wander around the local area, lunch, gym. I now have 3 places close by where I can go for wi-fi. All real nice western style places although they are mainly frequented by 'rich' Vietnamese. One is juice bar. Comfy chairs and great blended fresh fruit drinks. It also does OK pizza and great pasta. The 2nd a stylish sort of after work hangout. It does Viet food and alcohol as well as some fruit juices and smoothies. The 3rd is an Italian place. The food looks good and it seems to be the destination of choice for ice cream. Tried the After-8 ice cream last night. It's good.

1st March - Hanoi

Yesterday I headed out to the Language Link school where I thought I was going to do my course, but I found out they'd recently opened a second school and my course would be held there instead. It's lucky that I didn't get the first flat I saw which was close to the first school but would've been a pain to get to the actual school. So today, I headed down to the Language Link where my course will be held to meet Barry who will be the main tutor for the CELTA course. The building is right down the end of my street, about 20 minutes walk away or maybe 5 mins on the bus. On the way I found Viacom Towers, a department store with a food court, nice find. Full of western goods, clothes, electronics, expensive stereo equipment, huge fridge freezers. Not that I actually want to buy anything, but it's good to know that I could.

So what did I find out at the school? Barry is as I guessed from the phone interview English and about 50. There'll be him and 1 other tutor. The mornings will be theory and the afternoons teaching practice. We teach every other day for at least 6 hours over the 4 weeks. He said again that the course is hard, 3 or 4 hours homework a day etc. We'll see. There'll be about 9 of us on the course from all over the place but unusually and unfortunately it's mainly blokes. I got the pre-course reading and optional study stuff and that's about it. I'll be back a week on Monday.

Down near the school is a big park with a big lake. 2,000 to get in which is nothing but it meant that it was lovely and quiet inside. Like most things in Hanoi the park had seen better days. I guess it was built by the French 100 years ago and now the tiles are cracked the paintwork looking dirty. The one thing that looked great was the flowerbeds. They're the one thing throughout Hanoi that look great. From the picture you can see why. Legions of women in their conical hats constantly weeding and tending them.

3rd March - Hanoi

Whilst out wandering around today I made a great find. A couple of blocks down my road is a store called Western Canned Food. It was a bit like walking into Arkwright's in Open All Hours. A few aisles stacked brim full with tins and packets. No attempt had been made at presentation or even organisation it was just a case of getting as much as possible on to the shelves. But I found some great stuff whilst looking around. Loads of sauces, some chutneys, tinned soups and the number one find, Ambrosia custard. I also found Pepsi Max and Sprite Zero, until now the only diet drinks I'd found were Diet Coke / Diet Pepsi. Still not found anything bigger than a can though.

Tonight I went out to a bar to see Liverpool v Man Utd. Reminded me of the 1996 FA Cup Final, rubbish game won by a scrappy goal. It's the first time I'd been out in Hanoi since I came back here. To be honest it didn't enthuse me to go out again. I love stereo-typing people because invariably the stereotypes hold true. Last night we had the 21 year old backpackers. Never lived in the real world, never worked for a living. And the sort you get in places like Hanoi are invariably the idealistic, Guardian reader lefties. Great fun to wind up but their blinkered view on life soon becomes boring. The other type of person in Hanoi is the expat. I'm not talking about those with big jobs who've been transferred here but those who came here to get away from the UK. They can come here and afford to live a life well above that they'd have back home. They can have a boozy night out for £5, a really good meal for £3. Fine to point but they've not really got a very full life. They all complain about how little there is to do in Hanoi, and just end up eating and drinking.

The other type of expat is the 40-something bloke, been through a couple of divorces over here usually with a late-20s (in Hanoi terms old maid) Vietnamese woman. The blokes are usually Brits, French or German and never look happy. It's as if the idea of coming over and getting a nice young Asian girl to look after them seemed great in theory but in practice it's not all it's cracked up to be. Yesterday when I was in the juice bar I had to stop myself laughing out loud. A French guy with his woman were ordering something and he was getting more and more frustrated that the waitress couldn't understand his 'Allo 'Allo Policeman English, and he shouts at her 'CAN YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?' No respect at all for Vietnam or the Vietnamese. I just feel grateful that they speak English at all and if you speak slowly and clearly you can always communicate on some level. Actually most Vietnamese in the service industry actually speak surprisingly good English considering it's still hardly taught here.

4th March - Hanoi

What a wonderful thing SKYPE is. To call the UK from Hanoi by convention telephone is very expensive about 50p/min even with a calling card and the delay on the line is nearly 2 seconds. So it's prohibitively expensive and the delay so annoying that it's barely usable.

But with SKYPE I can call for 1p/min with a barely noticeable delay. I'm not sure how it works but as the cost seems to be based on where you're calling regardless of where you're calling from then I assume the call goes over the internet to some central point in Europe and the actual call is made from there. However it works it's great. In fact if you're calling someone using SKYPE too, it's free.

So I hunted around Hanoi for days and finally found a headset so that I could use my laptop to make calls. The next problem is finding somewhere with a quick enough internet connection. So far only the hotel I originally stayed in is fast enough. Luckily they don't mind me coming back when I want to make calls. The thing that gets me is why aren't there internet cafes or dedicated SKYPE cafes in Hanoi. Surely there would be a demand for it. I guess it's more evidence that Vietnam is no where near an open free market. In fact talking to people here they reckon it takes about 18 months to open any new business, who's going to hang around that long to open an Internet Cafe? No wonder the only place you can get a connection is at cafes with 'unofficial' wi-fi hook-up.

6th March - Hanoi

It's turned cold in Hanoi. Not sure how cold but it must be below 20, probably down around 16! Still wearing a short sleeve short on principle but if it gets any colder I'll have to put on a jumper. I went to the gym and the receptionist remarked on how bad the weather was, I'm loving it. Today is the first day that I could walk around for an hour and not feel that I should change my shirt. Today I headed over to the Military History Museum. It basically covers the People's Army since it was founded in 1944 which pretty much means the French and American Wars. It doesn't mention China or Cambodia which is typical of everything in Vietnam, history is written to suit to Communist Party official line. The museum is all about the valiant struggle of the patriotic Vietnamese people against the Western Imperialists. Opposite the Museum is a park dedicated to Lenin which is dominated by a huge statue of the man himself. Not many places in the world you'll see that these days.

As with all museums in Hanoi the opening times are very restricted. 8-11:30 and 1-4:30 and it's closed on Mon and Fri. So I got there a bit before1 to give myself plenty of time if I wanted it. At 2 minutes to 1 the girls on the front desk arrive on the back of motorbikes and at 1pm on the dot the shutters go up. The forecourt is full of weaponry, a MiG fighter, a tank and a 105mm gun. But the Cot Co (Hanoi) Flag Tower stands above it all. It's a 30m flag tower which remains from the original 19th Citadel. The rest of the Citadel was pretty much destroyed by the French but the tower remained as it was useful to them as a look out. It is now toped by the Vietnamese Flag. The area is now the headquarters of the Vietnamese Army. The 15th Century Imperial City which once stood on this area is now being restored for the cities millennial celebrations in 2010.

Under the tower is a courtyard full of 'enemy' hardware the centre piece of which is a pile of wreckage from various US planes piled against a tree. The exhibition proper is split into a number of sections. The formation of the People's Army with busts of the founding members. Letters and manuals written by Ho Chi Minh. Photos of the original meetings and gatherings. Next the French War including The Battle of Dien Bien Phu when General Giap defeated the French, which led to the French withdrawal.

Next The American War. Loads of stuff on display all showing the heroic patriots and evil oppressors. There's one room showing the 'World's Support' for Vietnam. Pictures of anti-War marches around the world. There are videos which are shown 'when there is sufficient demand' unfortunately the museum was practically empty. A pity as the guide book says the footage is great and the one-eyed commentary comical!

8th March - Hanoi

It's still cold. So cold in fact that I put socks and shoes on today, stuck with the short sleeve shirt though. Making the most of the lovely cool weather I decided to head over the West Lake (Truc Bach Lake). I walked up through the Old Town and out to the area which is described as the most desirable address in Hanoi. Big hotels, some big houses over looking the massive lake. But also the usual poor areas too, no where in Hanoi are you very far from poverty. In a park area on the edge of the lake are loads of old men all wrapped up warm sat on the benches playing draughts and another game which involves moving around counters, but I don't know its name.

The lake is quite big stretching off into the distance. It is the traditional area for royal recreational and spiritual pursuits and around the lake are a number of palaces, temples and pagodas. Above are the Swan Boat things. They're on all the big lakes around Hanoi. I guess young couples don't get any privacy in Hanoi and public shows of emotion are frowned on so they paddle out the middle of the lake and can get up to what ever they want. Another messed up idea in Hanoi. If you can't see it happening then it doesn't happen. On the 'town' end of the land there's a causeway running across the corner of the lake. On the lake is the monument in the picture on the left below, it's dedicated to the anti-aircraft gunners stationed here during the American War and in particular to mark the shooting down of John McCain into the West Lake. They really do like to make the most of that.

Further along the causeway is the Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest religious foundation. It's on a small island linked to the main causeway. No one really knows when the Pagoda was built but it's thought to date from the 6th century. What is certain is that it was moved to it's present spot in the 17th century during a revival in Buddhism. The main courtyard contains the main Pagoda tower and a number of smaller towers. There were quite a few Vietnamese placing incense sticks in each of the smaller towers bowing their heads then moving on to the next tower. The thing that stuck me most was that the white tourists in general were walking around quietly and respecting the religious site. Asian tourists not giving the same respect, talking loudly and photographing people praying.

Beyond the main courtyard there was a second area which was full of people sat on the floor facing a large alter. I didn't want to enter the area so I couldn't see the alter but there was a man chanting and the crowd were chanting back. It was quite a surreal site. The last thing that caught the eye at the Pagoda were all the Buddha Statues. They all had necklaces with a large swastika on them. I know that the symbol is found in many different cultures but it's always surprising when you see it.

After I'd finished at the Pagoda I carried on along the causeway and then turned back through a poor area towards the Old Town. Outside of some houses are chickens under wicker domes obviously on sale. Further along are dogs under the same sort of of covers and on sale for the same reason. As usual all the way back every 10 seconds I hear Mr, Mr, Motobike. Hey, Hey, Mr. Or a cyclo ringing its bell. It becomes so annoying, I'm walking along, not looking like I'm lost not looking like I'm searching for a ride why can't they just leave me alone? Now whenever they raise their hand a shout at me I just raise my hand and shout back. It usually gets a smile. When they shout Mr, Mr Motobike I want to shout back 'Yes, it is' but I don't think they'll get it.

The area at the back of the Pagoda where some sort of religious ceremony was going on. The alter etc were around to the left.

Around the lake were a number of piers with permanently moored boats acting as restaurants and cafes. As with everything in Hanoi they all look tired. Not sure when they were new, or if they were every new, maybe this was all made recently and given a distressed look for authenticity.

Link to Travel Diary (CELTA Hanoi).