Caption Competition: Vietnam

S: Alas, this is the final caption competition of the trip. No tears, please; just cheers. Good luck. Winners will be announced soon…

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As mentioned previously, the deadline for all caption competitions is now Friday 24th August. The winners, selected by an internationally renowned panel of caption experts, will each receive a mystery prize upon our return.

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Bibliography of a Backpacker: ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot

R: If I had written this a week ago you would have been reading a very different set of ramblings. You see, there are slow burners and there is Middlemarch. In fact, with seven hundred pages read and with only two hundred remaining, I would have put forward Slowplod as a more apposite title. But if I can return to my first metaphor: it is well worth following Eliot’s long fizzing fuse.

Set during the first half of the nineteenth-century in a fictitious town in middle England, Middlemarch charts the fortunes of several marriages – some firmly rooted, some in first bloom, and some yet to seed.

Without spoiling too much of the plot the young, beautiful and pious Dorothea marries the old, pale and procrastinating academic Causabon; her spurned admirer Sir James, a good-hearted but socially antiquated nobleman, weds Dorethea’s sister Celia, a comically infuriating sibling; Lydgate, a bold and ambitious doctor new to Middlemarch, ties his future to Rosamond, a girl whose stupidity is perhaps only matched by her beauty. And let us not forget the long-married Bulstrodes – Nicholas, the town’s wealthy banker and zealous philanthropist, and his wife Harriet, kind, loyal and always well-meaning. Nor Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, childhood sweethearts whose future marriage is a certainty only seen by them.

Into this matrimonial mix of long been, just becoming and soon to be, Eliot casts Will Laidislaw. A brilliant but hot-headed young man of uncertain origins, he is the naked spark that eventually sets Middlemarch alight.

And it is the word eventually that must be emphasised, for the bulk of the book I found rather dull, dry and uninvolving. Many of the characters seemed tiresome, egotistical and emotionally repressed, their relationships characterised by a profound inability to communicate feeling. It was only the quality of the writing, and the book’s reputation, that compelled me to read on.

But delayed gratification is always more powerfully felt than easy pleasure, and during the last two hundred pages the glowing fuse finds its way beneath the piled up, barrelled gunpowder of all those interconnecting lives; and the detonation of one keg sets off an explosion which both illuminates and terrifies, and ultimately rocks Middlemarch to its core.

Since its publication the book’s critical reception has changed with the times; and I won’t dwell on whether it is an anti-feminist or a pro-feminist work, a heroic or an anti-heroic masterpiece, a slice of romanticism or the highest form of Victorian realism. I will only say that its avoidance of cliché and its resistance to the easy charms of a mawkish climax more than justify the long and at times arduous journey.

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” This is the rhetorical question that the innocent Dorothea (if anyone, the hero of this tale) offers us as a self-evident truth. And it is in the depiction of small but heroic sacrifices – sacrifices that make shared lives possible – that lies the quiet glory of Middlemarch.

Days 314-322: Hoi An – The Perfect Cut

S: Nothing, we repeat, nothing surprises us now. Regular blog readers will understand when we mention the words ‘overnight bus journey’ – and we’ve had our fair share. In South America we were pleasantly surprised by the comfort and punctuality of the buses. In Australia standards began to slip, as the seats were almost upright and the departure time delayed. And as we hit Southeast Asia expectations were as bumpy as the roads.

As for Nha Trang to Hoi An, Richard and I had been sold a bogey. We had been allocated a bed each on the overnighter. Richard’s bed, however, was positioned directly on top of the toilet, around four feet in length and little more than 18 inches from the ceiling.

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Does that face look amused?

With all the other beds taken up, and the aisles filled with locals strewn on across the floor, it was clear that Richard was in for a sleepless night.

Five hours into the journey we decided to swap beds. Being shorter (5 ft 3, not 4ft), it was only fair that I shared the experience. I can confirm: it was not a comfortable experience, but eventually reach Hoi An we did.

Equidistant from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Hoi An is arguably Vietnam’s most beautiful ancient city. Bleary-eyed we arrived early in the morning, the sun had newly risen and was shining onto the still streets and rice paddies – a welcome change from the skyscraper sights of Nha Trang.

Hoi An is an UNESCO protected city and this is reflected in the architecture and design of its restaurants, cafes and numerous tailors. The town centre is a real joy to walk around; traffic is at a minimum and the locals go about their daily chores with easy feeling.

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A solitary motorbike: a most unusual sight in Vietnam.

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Here, even the boats are in reflective mood.

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Officials are never in a hurry in Hoi An.

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Riverside living Hoi An-style.

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Richard and I made use of the many tailor shops and each purchased a set of bespoke silk pyjamas.

Today we are heading to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. After 11 months on the road we embark upon what we expect to be our final overnight bus ride. Wishing to go out with a bang rather than a whimper, we have decided to go for the 19-hour option – how bad can it be…

Caption Competition: Thailand

S: We realise that we’ve not been in Thailand for some time, and that we will be returning there in a little less than two weeks (we fly home from Bangkok); but to give everyone plenty of time to cogitate and consternate, we thought we would post it up now.

Thailand was strangely bereft of caption competition opportunities, but hopefully this inspires some wit – perhaps even philosophy.

Note – Argentina and Laos caption comps are still looking for entries!

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As mentioned previously, the deadline for each caption competition is now Friday 24th August. The winners, selected by an internationally renowned panel of caption experts, will each receive a mystery prize upon our return.

Days 310-314: Trangtastic

S: As we travelled up and over the Central Highlands from Dalat to Nha Trang we covered a distance of 140km. We made stops at the Zen Buddhist Meditation Centre – Vietnams premier meditation retreat – and a fish farm – breeding fish for Russian export in its one-of-a-kind ‘jungle waters’.

We also…

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Visited Dalat’s artichoke tea factory

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Took in the patchwork views at 1800 metres above sea level

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Crossed a wobbly bridge

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Travelled through some stunning scenery

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Took a break roadside

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Hung on tightly

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And joined the road traffic madness

With windswept faces and numb posteriors our thirst for motorbike travel had been quenched. Huge thanks go to Star and Thien for their invaluable insights into the lives of the Vietnamese people and Vietnam. From what we have seen of the country so far, and in particular Dalat, we have been suitability impressed. Relatively prosperous and hard working Vietnam has oodles of hidden delights.

And now it’s over to Nha Trang, our first beach destination in over two and a half months. How have we coped?!

As mentioned in our previous blog entry, Nha Trang is southern Vietnam’s premier beach destination. Determined not to be disappointed we kept our expectations low and were pleasantly surprised.

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As we walked across the beach the one thing which stuck out to us was the diversity. Not only were there backpackers and holiday makes on the beach, their was also a steady mix of families, couples and locals too. Looking back at our Thai beach encounters such diversity was nowhere to be seen.

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We made valuable use of such a charming location and relaxed beach side each afternoon. Richard was fortunate enough to catch some windsurfing waves. The equipment was a bit ropey, the wind a bit patchy, but it just about did the job.

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Look at him go!

With our time fast approaching its end in Vietnam, tonight we travel by bus further north on the east coast to Hoi An. Much like Nha Trang we hear it is another of Vietnam’s picture postcard beach towns. Mindful that we are to return to a Scottish autumn, we think it’s only best to take in the rays while we can…

Days 306-310: Dalat – Born To Be Mild

R: Our blog updates might not be quite equalling those golden moments you are being showered with in the land of Team GB – a Murray gold, no less! – but we hope you’re still enjoying our tales from the trail.

It’s with genuine regret that we’re not back home just now savouring what is clearly an incredible Olympics; but we shoudn’t be greedy, I guess. We’re trying to follow it here in Vietnam but the coverage is patchy: our TV mainstay is Star Sports Live, which as an Asian channel naturally focuses on this region’s athletes – so we’ve been watching a lot of table tennis, badminton and archery!

So although not back home just yet, we’re there in spirit: Go GB!

Anyway, back to the trail…

S: Eager to leave behind the mayhem, madness and heat of Ho Chi Minh City, we caught an early morning bus out of town. A stiffening eight-hour bus journey took us northeast to Dalat, a cool town perched 1,500 metres above sea level in Vietnam’s central highlands.

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As we stepped off the bus we were welcomed by a crisp breeze and the scent of a fresh spring day. Dalat’s temperature tends to remain within 20-25C during the day. A welcome change from the humid 30-plus we have been used to over the past five months.

It wasn’t just the climate we were pleased with; we were warmly welcomed by two local Vietnamese men who offered to take us to our hotel – free of charge. After having been scammed by our taxi driver in HCMC (he charged us treble the fair), we had our wits about us. We exchanged pleasantries with the two men as they showed us to their motorbikes.

It turned out these guys were part of Dalat’s ‘Easy Riders’, local tour guides who know the areas in and around Dalat like the back of their hands. Richard and I climbed onto the back of their motorbikes and were whizzed off to our hotel. Peter, the original Easy Rider with 35 years experience, showed us his comments book. It was filled with commentary from individuals and groups who had taken a sightseeing tours with Peter. Packed with praise and recommendation, we signed ourselves up to a day’s tour of Dalat on the back of two motorbikes.

After a day of rest and relaxation it was an early morning start at 8:30am. We met our guides Star and Thien, who clipped on our helmets and asked us to jump on the back. With the snapping wind blasting on our faces and the great open road ahead of us we were off.

It was an action packed day where we…

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Took in the views

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Discovered Dalat’s passion for bloom

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Spun a silk yarn

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Witnessed a waterfall

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Rubbed the belly of a giant laughing Buddha

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Got dark and damp with some mushrooms

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Visited an ethnic minority village

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Went mad in the ‘Crazy House’

For $25 each this was a fantastic way to get off the beaten track and into the countryside. Having seen the diversity of Dalat and its people we can’t help but give this town our praise. Dalat is a hotbed of agricultural innovation, made more tangable by our ‘Easy Riders’ – Star and Thien.

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Star and Richard

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Thien and me

Since we enjoyed the ‘Easy Rider’ experience so much, we have decided to extend it by travelling to our next destination, Nha Trang, by motorbike. Located on the east coast of Vietnam, Nha Trang is southern Vietnam’s premier beach destination. With our helmets firmly clipped on, we head off today on the great open road…

Days 302-306: Ho Chi Minh City in Pictures

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There are reputed to be more than five million motorbikes in HCMC. Here are just a few of them.

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Outside the War Remnants Museum: A rare chance to hear Vietnam’s side of the story.

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Cu Chi Tunnels: Hanging with the Viet Cong.

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Cu Chi Tunnels: Why America’s love affair with the burger lost them the war.

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Helicopter: probably the best way to get around HCMC.

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The stamp of French colonial architecture: HCMC’s Post Office.

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Sophia with the Vietnamese branch of The Ant Hill Mob.

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HCMC’s Notredame Carhedral.

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HCMC Museum: keeping the communist flag flying.