Saturday, 16 March 2013

Hanoi Tannoy



All over Vietnam we keep seeing loudspeakers rigged to the tops of telegraph poles and wondering what they're for. Well today we found out, as we wandered around Hanoi to the sound of government announcements chattering from every street corner, echoing off buildings and making for a surreal atmosphere. The speakers are a legacy from the war era when they would warn people of impending air strikes and provide news from the front lines. But more than forty years on they continue to fire up at least twice a day, including a pleasant wake up call at around 5:30 in the morning, to tell citizens about the wonderful things the Communist Party has been up to! Sometimes the announcements are interspersed with rousing anthems to help everyone really appreciate how great things are. It seems that, to most locals, these speakers are an outdated nuisance, though few would dare say so, but to the Party officials they are an essential means of disseminating information to the people of Vietnam. The sound of a disembodied voice crackling out from these old speakers certainly makes the place feel Orwellian and though we found it fascinating to experience, we'd be the first to cut the wires if they put some up outside our bedroom window!

In other places we've heard loudspeakers put to an entirely different use, though we completely failed to notice until a guide pointed it out to us. "Can you hear the birds?" we were asked. We could. "They're not real" we were told and were directed to look up at the flat roof of a nearby building, on top of which a big box with rectangular slotted windows had been constructed. And from this box, the recording of bird song was being played. This attracts real birds into the box where they are trapped and presumably put in cages and sold (we've seen lots of birds in cages here).

We've also heard recorded messages blaring from bicycles, as women wearing bamboo conical hats and the obligatory face mask ride up and down the streets selling bananas or sticky rice from their impossibly large panniers. Kind of like ice cream vans, though I haven't heard the Match Of The Day theme blaring out anywhere here.

All this, on top of the noise of a thousand motorcycles and horns and people chattering away to each other while sitting on the street takes some getting used to, but as one translated announcement confirms, at least we're safe in the knowledge that "Reconstruction and reorganization of the Party has been done seriously and frankly, which has created more positive changes"...Which is nice.

Good Morning Vietnam



If you wander over to the the big lake in the middle of Hanoi, just after sunrise you'll be greeted by the sight of hundreds, if not thousands, of people preparing for the day ahead. Preparing, not with a Starbucks double-lattechino and choc-chip muffin, but by performing the ancient Chinese martial art of t'ai chi.

All around the lake the wide pavement is lined with trees and little garden areas where individuals, or more commonly, small groups of people slowly and gracefully twist their bodies in precise movements. Some of the groups of ladies are holding fans which they flick open in sync with certain movements, and many of these people must be in their 70s or beyond. There's clearly a real social aspect to it all as groups of friends meet each morning to perform these very calm but also highly technical manoeuvres.



In some areas badminton court markings have been painted on the pavement and nets are strung across so that locals can flick the odd shuttlecock backwards and forwards before breakfast. And in another corner a mini version of Los Angeles' Muscle Beach sees men doing push ups and lifting weights.

And by the looks of it, it all pays off. Everyone looks in good shape (especially the older folks) and we were struggling to remember having seen an overweight resident in our time here. Then again, when the local cuisine consists of fermented pork, deep fried tarantulas and soup eaten using chopsticks, maybe it's not surprising people are lean!

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Where The Eats Have No Name



So far on this trip we've played things pretty safe food-wise. We've eaten Thai, Cambodian and Laotian dishes, but we've done it in nice looking restaurants some of which I assume tailor the food to the tastes of tourists like ourselves. Tonight though, we're throwing ourselves into the street food experience, which in Hanoi (and most other places in this part of the world) is how the locals dine out. But rather than just nip down the first alleyway we find, point at something dead and unidentifiable and ask for it to be barbecued for our enjoyment by a craggy-faced local who hasn't washed his hands in...well...ever, we're engaging the services of Thanh, a young tour guide who lives and eats in this city.

We were a little apprehensive about what was in store as we'd heard plenty of tales from local people we'd met so far about some of the food they had eaten - worms, crickets, spiders, snake (and snake blood wine) etc. And given Justine's arachnophobia, her worst nightmare would be to come face to face with something she had so far only seen in a recipe book in Phnom Penh - deep fried tarantulas. The recipe went something like "first take 12 tarantulas, hit them with a frying pan to kill them" (I'm not making this up) "then remove the fangs, marinate in herbs and spices, deep fry, serve on skewers" (perhaps with a peppery side salad?) I'm trying to visualise the flirtatious Nigella Lawson smouldering her way through this, and I just don't see it. Then again it seems relatively quick (once you've found your tarantulas) so maybe it could find a place on Jamie Oliver's 15 minute meals. "Pahkker, laaahvley, look at these bad boys, whack em in the pan, bosh... deep fried tarantulas - great idea for school dinners too". Anyway, we're hoping spiders aren't on the menu.

First stop is a little stall serving tofu. We sit on the pavement on the standard street food furniture which consists of plastic chairs and a little plastic table, the sort of size that primary school kids would use. Now I'm not the tallest person I know by a long shot, but sitting down to eat with my knees touching my chin isn't something I'm used to. The tofu arrives but its not what I expected. I assumed it would be cubes of stuff, but this was liquid and looked a bit like a glass of milk which had been left out in the sun for a few days. Lumps of slime floated to the top, it didn't taste of much, but the texture of it was enough to make Justine's face contort into an expression that suggested she wasn't a huge fan. Not a great start. I ate most of mine (I'm English and don't like to seem rude to strangers, even if they have just given me a cup of sick to eat), and we moved on for the next course.

Here's where having a local guide pays off. If we'd have gone past the next place we'd have seen the insects climbing the walls and the old broken furniture and the cats rummaging through the bins in the kitchen area and kept going, but no, here's where we're going to eat Pho. Pho is a broth made from chicken or pork or beef or shrimp or "other things" with noodles and some meaty bits and lots of herbs like lemongrass and coriander and basil and its extremely popular. In fact it's what locals have for breakfast, sitting out on the pavement on their tiny chairs before going to work. We'd been pronouncing it "foe", but it turns out that in Hanoi it should be pronounced as if you're from Hull - "fur". We subsequently will learn that in Saigon it's pronounced differently again, and we are ridiculed for our Northern (Vietnamese) accents by the more sophisticated metropolitan Southerners - just like at home then! The Pho was delicious although eating noodle soup with chopsticks takes some doing - Thanh showed me the proper way to hold them (not how I'd been doing it) and it was marginally better, but we still had to resort to spoons near the end. So a glass of vomit and soup cooked in a kitchen that would probably get closed down by the council at home - what's next?

Well next is right up my street. Thanh asks if I like beer! Is the new Pope a Catholic? (He is, I've checked). So we're going to a place where they brew their own in steel barrels and serve it right on the street. We sit down on tiny plastic chairs again, but we're getting quite used to it by now and they kind of make sense - everyone huddles round a little table and watches the scooters whizz past just millimetres away and there's a real buzz about the place, it's very sociable. The beer is served and I'm hoping for something to contrast the endless stream of local lager which has been served everywhere we've been. There's been nothing particularly wrong with it but it has all been a bit "same same" (as they say round these parts). So perhaps a pint of something dark and brooding, a double chocolate stout perhaps, or a malty ale with bits of old barrel and hop husks floating in it? Unfortunately it just looked and tasted like everything had so far...same same. Didn't stop me accepting a refill mind. The food at this place sounded interesting - fermented pork skewers. I would never have considered fermenting pork (that just sounds like leaving it out for a long time until it goes off...really off) but they love it here. It was a bit like the middles of sausage rolls, uncooked and on a stick. It was OK but I'm not sure I'd order it again.

So on to our final stop where, having sat down on the obligatory plastic primary school chairs we receive a little hob with a griddle pan on top and we get to fry up our own food. Beef, pork, mushrooms, okra and various other bits were brought out to our prime position, right on the edge of the pavement on the corner of a busy crossroads.



Now this course was actually delicious and as we sat cooking and eating we completely forgot where we were. Over the course of the evening we'd become completely at home eating from places we'd never had tried, sitting in places we'd never have dared. The old part of Hanoi really started to make sense - even the traffic became a fascinating piece of dinner entertainment rather than a barrier to crossing the street. Thanh said that he loved eating in the old town because it was never dull, there's always something going on and I'd agree - you've never people watched until you've people watched from a vantage point 6 inches from the ground in the middle of a pavement. I doubt very much it will catch on at home though, can't imagine it working on Fox Corner in Shipley!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Halong Way From Home

A "mere" four hours drive west of Hanoi takes us to Halong Bay where the South China Sea is dotted with almost two thousand steeply banked rocky islands and cliffs. We were here to spend a night on a boat out in the bay and to cruise around some of the stunning scenery of (yet another) UNESCO World Heritage Site. The harbour area is a bit of a worry.  It's a not particularly attractive mish mash of high-rise buildings, tourist buses and the noise and smells of a place whose purpose is to handle the large number of boats moored here. We're taken onto a little motorboat with 5 other passengers and given life jackets to wear as we head out to our boat "Prince IV" (which sounds to me like the project management methodology that you turn to when 1, 2 and 3 have failed*, or an album by the purple-pantalooned pop pixie - maybe it's just me, but I can't stop humming "When Doves Cry" for the rest of the trip).

Anyway, we set sail on Prince IV, I'm humming away happily, and as we leave the noise of the harbour behind, the view improves dramatically. We bob along through little bays and channels which cut through spectacular pillars of rock and craggy outcrops piercing the sea. Trees and vegetation cling to the walls, tropical rain forests grow on top and sea eagles circle and swoop for fish.



Some bits look like excellent hiding places for Bond villains, unsurprising really as both The Man With The Golden Gun and Tomorrow Never Dies feature scenes shot here. It's  good to hear that after navigating a few more rocks we are going to drop anchor and visit a cave on the next island and then go swimming and kayaking, so I'll be able to pretend I'm Bond. The cave we go to has stalagmites and stalactites which are formed, our guide informed us, by water dripping through the quacks in the cave ceiling. There were a lot of quacks and we did very well not to laugh every time he pointed out another quack. To be fair my pronunciation of the two Vietnamese words I've learned probably had him in stitches too.

After the cave with all the "quacks" we took a kayak around one of the big rocky outcrops and then bravely went for a swim in the freezing sea. Later we sailed off to another bay to watch the sunset (though the sun disappears behind a particularly big group of cliffs long before sunset time, in future the captain may wish to bear that in mind as I can't believe these rocks move and I'm pretty sure he knows where the sun is going to be).

Then we sat down to eat. We're accompanied on our boat by three French people who, quite understandably, speak French, mainly to each other and a bloke who retired from the US Navy and now lives in the Philippines with his very quiet Filipino girlfriend and regularly travels round Vietnam, visiting places for the first time since he was stationed there in the war. All perfectly nice people but without much in common and as a result the boat is a bit quiet. I feel sorry for the local tour guide who would have liked to have a big party after dinner with singing and dancing. Instead he found himself on the quietest trip he's done for years and after allowing him to indulge us with a few card tricks we all make our excuses at around 9pm and retire to our respective sleeping quarters.

When we wake the boat is already moving on through some more spectacular scenery on its way to one of the floating villages that have been constructed by fishing communities out here. The people who live in these villages spend their whole lives floating on the sea, the children attend a small school and the adults catch fish mend boats and nets and are do other fishermen stuff. We are transported around the village in little round bamboo coracles rowed by ladies in long gowns, conical hats and, inexplicably, the same kind of face masks we've seen everyone wearing when riding scooters round the cities. There's certainly no issue with dust or traffic pollution out here in Ha Long Bay, so what are they playing at? Well it turns out that the masks do have some dust and fume prevention role, but possibly the main reason they're worn both in the city and here is to protect the wearer from the sun. There is the attitude that very fair skin is more beautiful and the ladies in particular go to great lengths to cover themselves up. Very sensible in many ways what with all that dangerous UV stuff bombarding you, but it's very disconcerting when you see someone tearing towards you on a scooter and they're wearing a pack-a-mack with the hood up, sunglasses and a face mask - it always makes me think they're wearing a biohazard suit and that we're walking towards whatever it is that they're running away from.

After the village tour we returned to the boat for lunch (the food on board has been surprisingly good) and then it's back to the harbour, back on a minibus and the (Ha)long journey back to Hanoi.



Footnote:
* Don't get me started on a rant about project management methodologies, unless you've a few hours and a pair of earplugs to spare.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Uncle Ho


Ho Chi Minh, for those who don't know (and I knew almost nothing before coming here to be honest) led the Vietnamese through turbulent periods of French and Japanese rule and continually worked towards independence for his country. After World War II, Vietnam was divided into the communist north, with Ho Chi Minh in charge, and the not-communist south run by a relatively weak regime with the United States pulling the strings behind the scenes. "Uncle Ho" (they really did call him that) was determined to re-unite his country into a single independent communist state. I'm sure that I'll waffle on lots more about the subsequent civil and then international wars which broke out - our trip to Saigon will focus heavily on The Vietnam War. For now though, think of Ho Chi Minh as president, king, deity, and revolutionary hero, all rolled into one package.

I've been told by an ex-pat that a characteristic of some Vietnamese people is that whatever you ask for, they know better. He told the story of a friend who ordered a dining table with some intricate design carved on the surface, but eventually took delivery of a low level coffee table (because it looks better that way), and with a smooth polished surface (because what you asked for would be very difficult to keep clean). Nowhere is this characteristic more visibly demonstrated than at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. Before his death in 1969, Ho left express instructions that he should be cremated, as any burial space was a waste of productive land that could be used by the people. However, the remaining leaders of the country did the exact opposite - they decided that what he really would have wanted was a huge, imposing mausoleum in which his embalmed body could be put on display so that the good folk of Vietnam could come and pay their respects, forever.




The mausoleum is set high up on a plinth of marble steps and overlooks Ba Dinh Square, a huge open space of checkerboard lawns and a strip of tarmac wide and empty enough to land a 747 on. The building is a replica of the one that contains Lenin's embalmed body and the Vietnamese employed (and still employ) the services of the same Russian embalmers that worked on the Lenin job. It seems if you want some top notch embalming work, these guys are the ones to use - the Chinese might do it a little cheaper, but by all accounts, Chairman Mao is not looking as good as he should these days - as with many things, you get what you pay for.

Before we can get anywhere near Uncle Ho's mausoleum our bag is subjected to airport-style security measures. We then proceed onto the huge wide road and are directed by a white-uniformed soldier to a spot around 50 yards further up where another white-uniformed soldier indicates that we should wait. It's drizzling steadily and there are very few tourists around, but still... we have to wait. After a short while the guard beckons us to walk further up the runway where another guard indicates we need to wait once more... in the drizzle. To some extent we're lucky - we've read accounts of huge queues standing in the baking sun for hours waiting to be allowed into the mausoleum (and having to remove sun hats to show respect) so a bit of drizzle for a few minutes shouldn't harm us.

Soon a few eager Vietnamese tourists join our queue and it is time to be taken to see Uncle Ho. We are beckoned onto the red rubber carpeted steps and walk solemnly up through the huge doors into the mausoleum, watched closely by armed guards. Because we are standing side by side at the head of our procession we feel as if we are a pair of visiting dignitaries here to pay our respects. They really clamp down on people being disrespectful, (talking, smiling etc) but there's no question of that on our account - I feel as if I'm representing Great Britain at some state occasion, and apart from my scruffy appearance (I look like I've been dragged through Indochina, backwards), I reckon I'm doing a better job than Dave Cameron would ever do.

We walk up some stairs inside the building, turn right, up some more stairs, constantly under the scrutiny of soldiers and then we're in a large, dimly-lit room and as I look to the left there's a glass case, inside of which lies an old man with a bald head and long whispy beard. He's illuminated in a way that gives him a strange glow. It's very odd - I'm looking at Ho Chi Minh, one of the major Communist icons and a man who looms large in 20th Century world history, who died a year after I was born, and yet I  half expect to see him open his eyes, yawn, sit up, and ask what the hell we're doing in his bedroom!

Our walking pace is dictated by the guards around 3 sides of the room and after what seems like only a few seconds, we exit down another flight of "red carpeted" steps and emerge back outside the building. The whole thing probably lasted 60 seconds (a Ho Chi Minh-ute?), but it was one of the most fascinating, surreal and strangely moving experiences I've ever had.


This Could Get Hanoi-ing


In our time we've tried many potentially dangerous activities. We've abseiled down a cliff, climbed up a wall of ice, been rescued by the Jordanian army after a flash-flood, driven a car in Italy, scuba dived inside a World War II supply ship 30 metres below sea level, gone down various scary ski slopes, Justine has jumped out of a plane (with a parachute) and I've been in the away end at Elland Road (which I maintain is probably top of our "risk list", given the demeanour of the primitive life forms prowling around outside).

However... nothing (and I cannot emphasise this strongly enough), NOTHING that we've experienced so far could have prepared us for the ultimate in dangerous activities... attempting to cross the road in Vietnam.

The minibus journey from Hanoi airport gave us sufficient warning - the traffic here seems to be completely uncontrolled and in the 45 minutes it took to get to our hotel I have no idea how we didn't kill at least a few hundred motorcyclists, cyclists or pedestrians. Roads that are single carriageways become occupied by at least two lanes of cars and buses, but then the "space" that's left is filled with mopeds weaving in and out of each other, sometimes travelling in the opposite direction, often carrying multiple passengers (including babies), or transporting large loads of fruit or trees, or even a massive bass speaker (with what was probably a bass guitarist hanging off the back of that). It is insane.



We had read about the technique for crossing the road before we arrived and it seemed to be along the lines of "don't wait for a break in the traffic, there won't be one - just step out into the road and walk confidently across at a steady pace and the fast moving mental drivers will simply flow around you. Just don't suddenly speed up or slow down, otherwise they'll probably run you over". We stood at the side of the road for a few minutes, desperately hoping for a chance to run across, but none came so eventually we held hands, took a deep breath and stepped out. It's like playing the 70s arcade classic "Frogger", but for real.

Some of the bigger junctions have traffic lights with little green men just like at home, but in some ways these are worse. They're not universally obeyed, so you get lulled into a false sense of security as the traffic stops at the red light, you get halfway across the road and then swarms of mopeds laden with bananas and cyclists with entire florist shops strapped to their bikes come rushing through from the back of the queue, catching you completely by surprise and causing you to commit the potentially life-ending act of dodging out of the way. We nearly had to have words with a bus which decided that it couldn't be bothered obeying the red light and carried on coming towards us as we crossed. Justine employed her "hard stare" (don't be on the pointy-end of one of those by the way) and the driver stopped just in time.

So we got across, still in one piece and gradually became more confident, which is good because there is a very limited range of sights we could have visited from our hotel without crossing a road or two and paying for a taxi to take us from one side of the road to the other would have been extremely costly!

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Ricicle Works

As a couple of friends of mine (or "people I sit near, at work" as they would probably prefer to be called) will testify, I don't like the idea of getting muddy. Their constant attempts to get me to participate in the dubious activity of cyclocross racing have proved fruitless. For those unfamiliar with this so-called leisure pursuit, it essentially consists of running up, down and around a hilly park whilst carrying a bicycle, occasionally attempting to jump onto said bicycle, only to pedal into a muddy puddle, get stuck and fall off into the aforementioned puddle... for an hour... in the winter! Even though I own the necessary equipment for this (a cyclocross bike) and even though I will occasionally be willing to join them in riding 100 mile road events, I am not prepared to join the cyclocross gang and end up looking like a refugee from a lycra festival at Glastonbury. So this morning's activity in Laos is a little out of character for this mudophobe - we are going to a farm where we will learn how to plant, pick, and process rice - and we are likely to get very muddy.

The Living Land Farm is about 10 minutes drive from the centre of Luang Prabang and is a working farm which provides employment for people from the surrounding area. They grow rice in the paddy fields surrounded by spectacular mountainous scenery and have recently come up with the idea of obtaining free labour from workaholic holidaymakers like ourselves. We are welcomed warmly, given a brief introduction to the homemade tools used by the farmers and then we are straight into our rice experience.

Stage 1 - germinating the rice seeds. Some of the rice from the previous harvest is retained, still in its husk, and is planted and watered and begins to sprout. Once the sprouts have become little roots and long thin green leaves have appeared these little plants which now resemble tiny spring onions can be transferred to the paddy fields.

However, before we can do that, the waiting paddy (each of which is about the size of a tennis court, and separated by raised dams of clay soil) must be ploughed. This is where trousers get rolled up as far as possible, shoes and socks are removed and we prepare to step into the grey muddy water of our chosen paddy. After a quick introduction to Susan, a massive mud-encrusted water buffalo, Justine goes in,  knee deep in mud and assisted by one of the farmers, without whom she might easily fall headlong into the squelching clay. She is shown how to take hold of the plough, and told how to shout instructions at Susan who will be providing the tractor services for this particular job. Susan lurches forward, the plough carves a channel through the paddy and Jus attempts slurping footsteps along this channel, keeping the plough, and herself, mainly upright.


Then Susan stops. Why? The Lao word for "hey big cow-thing, please wait a moment" was never issued (at least not knowingly). It seems that Susan, having dragged Justine and the plough just a few paces through the mud bath has decided that a "comfort break" is required and we all have to wait as she (Susan, not Justine) answers nature's call. This is organic farming on the front-line, and I can tell by the expression on Justine's face that she's excited to be experiencing it at such close quarters. Meanwhile I make a mental note to always rinse rice before cooking it in future. Toilet stop complete, the ploughing resumes, Jus finishes her shift and  is helped out of the paddy looking as if she's wearing mud socks.

As there are only two of us on the trip we both get the opportunity to participate in each step, which I have to say I'm delighted about as I nervously step into the sloppy mud and assist Susan with some more ploughing. Thankfully I'm able to stay on my feet and complete my short but productive contribution to this paddy - another 2 hours and it would have been done but I don't want to deprive anyone of a job, especially as I'm not a member of the Laos Farmers Union.

So onto Stage 3, we climb knee deep into the next paddy (here's one they prepared earlier) and are shown how to plant the little rice shoots in the mud under the water. It seems amazing that these tiny plants will survive having their roots pushed into wet clay with just little green leaves poking out above the surface of the water. A process of regular draining, drying and refilling of the paddys by simply opening and re-sealing the surrounding clay dams encourages the rice plants to grow until eventually they are ready to harvest.


Before we can harvest, we need scythes, so it's a quick blacksmithery course as we operate the clever bamboo bellows, learn the bamboo bellow dance, learn the bamboo bellow song which accompanies the bamboo bellow dance and finally, when the red hot coals have softened our steel, we whack it as hard as possible with a hammer until it's flat and vaguely scythe-shaped. I say "vaguely"... this is the first time either of us has tried forging garden implements from scratch and though I like to think that with a little more work our efforts would make perfectly passable harvesting tools, we are handed "ones they've prepared earlier" for Stage 4. This involves a kind of Generation Game challenge in which we are shown the correct way to cut a bunch of rice plant stems (point the scythe down and pull it away from you for safety reasons) and then a method of wrapping the stems into a little sheaf - then we have to try doing it, and are surprisingly successful considering our novice status.Then we use nunchucks to take a load of rice sheafs and smash them onto a bamboo mat so that the rice grains are blasted off.


Having threshed the rice we waft the grains with big fans to blow away the useless empty husks. We take the good grains and toss them in a big bamboo pan to separate the husks and blow away even more unwanted bits. Then we pedal a machine which looks like a giant pestle and mortar attached to a cross-trainer to smash some of the grains up. Having "cross-trained" it's on to a kind of rowing machine which turns a big millstone, grinding the crushed grains to make rice flour. Now sweating profusely we push a massive sideways mangle to squeeze juice from sugar cane (something that's usually Susan's job but our presence meant she had the morning off). We feel like we've just spent an hour down at the gym so it's nice to hear that we're finally able to try eating some of our hard work and after an aperitif of sweet sugar cane juice, we're treated to a meal of steamed sticky rice, rice waffles, rice cakes, rice biscuits, rice wine (and probably a few other rice-based items that now slip my mind) along with salad and herbs from the allotment.

The whole experience was fascinating and enjoyable from start to end. And so impressed were they by my cross trainer exploits (must be down to my elite cycling physique) that I was even offered a job... 3 dollars a day and all the rice I can eat. If I didn't get so muddy, I'd consider it!

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Monk-y Business

Although it doesn't have Angkor's thousand Wats, Luang Prabang does pretty much have a temple on every corner and in these temples live monks. Apparently most men in Laos become a monk (at least temporarily) at some point in their lives. Some stick at it and others will go back to their normal lives after a short time. The monks are highly respected by the rest of the community and every morning, just after sunrise, they emerge in neat orange-robed lines and walk around the town, whilst the local people place sticky rice and other tidbits of food into their "little urns" (resisting a Morecambe and Wise gag there).

This custom of "giving alms" to the monks is a way for the people to improve their karma, and tourists can join in too, though we felt that it wasn't really appropriate - the sight of a group of American pensioners kneeling outside our hotel in anticipation of the monk parade just didn't quite look right, especially when one old lady did that "stretching your eyes to make them look 'slitty' thing", presumably so they'd think she was a local - reminding me of our very own national treasure of tact, Prince Philip!

The monks themselves observe the Theravada strand of Buddhism which encourages its followers to reject capitalism and focus on the "seven stages of purification". I assumed therefore, that they would lead very simple lives with none of the trappings of the modern world that I am so obsessed with, and yet we were amazed by the number of monks we saw who were walking around whilst on their iPhones! We even saw an orange-robed monk at Luang Prabang airport with Luis Vuitton hand luggage - it might have been fake knock-off Luis Vuitton he'd got from a guy down at the market, but all the same, you take my point.

One of the main attractions in Luang Prabang is the huge hill, Mount Phou Si, in the middle of town which has a shiny golden pointy thing on the top and which provides spectacular panoramic views. We climbed over 300 steps up the mountain, pausing regularly to get our breath back and also to look at the many statues of Buddah sitting or reclining in the gardens. One area had a Monday Buddah, a Tuesday Buddah, a Wedn... you get the idea - literally a different golden Buddah for each day of the week. It's like a Buddah theme park, "Buddahland" if you like.

And flying around these gardens were brightly coloured "buddahflies" (as I, probably very annoyingly, kept calling them). They really do like their Buddahs here, and there was even a very lifelike statue hidden in a cave, which scared the Nirvana out of me when I looked up and saw it. I don't know for sure who it was meant to be but... I Can't Believe It's Not Buddah! [sorry, I've been trying to crowbar that in to the blog for ages].