FOMO and Ninh Binh: lessons learnt.

cave, Trang An, river tour, Ninh Binh province, Vietnam

Travelling off the beaten track has really taught me a lot about the modern phenomena of FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out. This is when you are consciously bothered by the idea that somewhere else, or someone else, has something better than where you are at present, be it the physical environment, lifestyle, or even the company that they keep.

In recent times, social media has amplified this type of anxiety, as we all post our edited highlights onto timelines and publicly accessible accounts. We’re all sharing more about our lives than ever, but we’re also deliberately doing so in a way that can be harmful, if we let it. I’m also a part of this process, after all, I promote this blog on Instagram and Twitter, not with photos of myself at my laptop, or in my 9-5 office job, but with stunning photos of Vietnamese landscapes. Wouldn’t you rather be here?

Trang An mountain scenery, Ninh Binh province, Vietnam

This is part of the reason that I’ve started avoiding some of the most popular tourist sites in Vietnam. I wouldn’t be silly enough to avoid all places that other people visit, because they’re interesting, and hence attract a lot of visitors, but I’ve started choosing alternatives, e.g, Cat Ba instead of Halong, staying in Trang An in Ninh Binh instead of Tam Coc, seeing Ha Giang (Meo Vac and Dong Van), not Sapa. This was the right decision for me because I need to learn to be comfortable with my decisions, which reflect who I am as a person (although a person is always much more than the sum of their actions, of course). I know that I like being in places where I can feel in touch with the landscape and local community without a lot of other tourists, and that I prefer less crowded places in general, and I use these values as the basis for my travel decisions.

An example of where I deviated from my own preferences and regretted it is as follows; I was staying at a hostel in the middle of a picturesque landscape in Ninh Binh. All of the other guests were renting bicycles and motorbikes. I don’t usually drive a motorbike, and didn’t want to hire one, but everyone else convinced me that I just had to hire a bike. After all, it was the best way to see all of the scenery, and wasn’t the scenery stunning? Did I really want to miss out on that experience? Plus, the social media shots of everyone posing with their bikes were going viral. I don’t usually enjoy cycling, but hey, when in Rome (or Trang An)…

Trang An river scenery, Ninh Binh province, Vietnam

Against my better judgement, I hired a bike, and set out. It was far hotter than was forecast, and I hadn’t cycled in a while, nor was my bicycle the most road-worthy of vehicles. Within half an hour I was stranded in the middle of the Vietnamese countryside, my water bottle lost after I’d steered into a pothole at the edge of a busy carriageway. I was aching and dehydrated. The effort of pushing or cycling was too much. Thankfully, a passer-by (in the form of an Australian man with an Alsatian at the helm of his motorbike) stopped, re-directed me, and gave me some water. The lesson? I could have still seen the same views had I walked, and appreciated them all the more because I was less tired. This was what I did the next day, and instead of spending energy trying to cycle in the sun, I brought an umbrella to provide shade, and took my sweet time strolling through villages, away from the traffic.

In addition, learning how to be truly present in the present is probably one of the best lessons I’ve taken from travel. If you appreciate the scenery, the space, the here and now, you feel as though you are capable of anything, regardless of what has happened in the past, or what might occur in the future. I say might, because I often become too focused on the idea of “this will happen” or “what if this happens?”. This are terrible anxiety traps. Much better to think about the future as a place where endless things can happen, but the vast majority are either beyond your control, or not your concern. Especially if you’re truly living in the present.

Gateway, Hoa Lu, Ninh Binh, Vietnam
The reason this kind of mindfulness links to travel is because living in the present seems easier to achieve when we’re in a new environment, or physically removed from our homes and places of work. When we live in the present, we take stock of all that we can be, unrestrained by the past or the future, and we realise that although we’re not perfect (and neither is the place we’re in, not matter how idyllic it looks), we’re enough.

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Secret places and lost time, Cát Bà Island

Cát Bà Island divides opinion among international tourists. Meanwhile, domestic, Vietnamese tourists seem to almost universally enjoy their time there. The problem? People don’t realise that Cát Bà is actually several spaces, located in the same time and place.

What can I possibly mean by that?!

I’ll explain.

Cát Bà has never been what most western tourists imagine it to be, and that is the heart of the problem. Well, Cát Bà may have been a deserted idyll at some point in its existence (only the fading number of white-headed langurs can know, for they as a species have never seen the mainland), but not for many centuries now.

Cát Bà island

Many (predominantly western) tourists come to Cát Bà expecting a jungle paradise, somehow untouched by the ravages of time. This is the romantic popular image of much of south-east Asia. Yet Cát Bà has seen conflict, several wars, and ultimately, is now in the grip of its most serious crisis yet, modern development. It’s limestone cliffs are drilled into, and its earth must be pummelled, to make way for the foundations of a new luxury resort or set of restaurants. It’s the 21st century after all.

Though the sustainability of this development is questionable (and it is being questioned, both by expats and locals), I actually think the issue with the way in which most people experience Cát Bà as a place actually has a lot to do with different expectations. For domestic tourists, Cát Bà is basically seen as the equivalent of a booming seaside town, complete with seafood restaurants on the harbour, plenty of small vehicles for children to charge around in, and cheap markets full of bright sun hats and scarfs.  

As mentioned, westerners come with a fundamentally opposed view. They want Cát Bà to be like the jungle-beaches found in Thailand and Cambodia, in which only classy bars and well-constructed wooden ocean swings (perfect for selfies and so Instagram-able) interrupt picturesque scenes of pristine white sand. So, is Cát Bà truly a paradise lost?

Lan Ha bay

I’ve noticed, since being in Hanoi, how much quicker fruit ripens in this humid, tropical atmosphere. After just a few days, bananas become inedible, their smell unbearable. However, back in the UK, I can keep them for almost a week before any sign of mould. Why? Because the conditions are fundamentally different in different geographical places. It’s the same with Cát Bà. Except in this case, one geographical place is actually home to many competing spaces. The two almost have a physical dividing line (walk along the seafront, by the harbour, and note that after the roundabout across from the fenced-in pond, the cafes and restaurants serve almost solely Vietnamese food, all traces of English gone from their menus).

In short, the problem is partly one of appearances vs. reality, that is, Cát Bà is often marketed as a place to “get back to nature” via activities such as hiking and stand-up paddle boarding, and so international tourists are taken aback by the massive scale of development (often clumsily designed, or at least, unattractive) on the seafront, which resembles the Costa Brava on a bad day. The other “problem” is actually just a cultural difference, ask any Vietnamese person about Cát Bà, and they won’t mention the concrete high-rise, the neon lights. Either they don’t notice it as much, or, more likely, they don’t see it as a problem.

So what should those who are truly in search of lost time do? There are ways. Much of the island does remain preserved as part of a larger biosphere or nature reserve, and there is a great deal of natural beauty to be found. Kayaking into a lagoon on Lan Ha bay is as heart-stopping as you could hope for, lost amongst the emerald islets. Wandering alone in the early morning up to the hilltop cannon fort is a humbling experience, in which Einstein’s theory of relativity might well be proved; time seems to slow, and the landscape appears impossibly vast, and absolutely spectacular.

Cát Bà jungle landscape

For my part though, I prefer to keep a foot on both sides of the timezone. Watch Vietnamese families nibble sea snails and ice lollies whilst western tourists gather in exclusive French restaurants (both are good). Savour milkshakes and fondants, but take the time to sit back and sip traditional Vietnamese drip-coffee in the mornings (both are great). Don’t lose sight of the fact that we all have the ability to walk between worlds, and Cát Bà reminds us of that.  

Notes from the North; the final frontier.

Ma Pi Leng pass, Vietnam, Ha Giang,

International borders are strange places. Scale mountains, cross rivers, and then you arrive at an apparently arbitrary line drawn in the sand which announces the beginning of a new territory, completely incongruous with the identical geographical landscape on both sides of this invisible division.

Ma Pi Leng pass, Ha Giang, Vietnam
Mã Pí Lèng Pass, 馬鼻梁/ mǎbíliáng (5000 ft above sea level). The name means “bridge of a horse’s nose” in Mandarin, referring to its narrowness, and the collapse of many horses en-route the treacherous road. 

To be fair, the journey from Hà Giang city to Mèo Vạc had given us a taste of what to expect. This was a local bus service, in which the vehicle was loaded up with produce to be sold at the market the next day. This produce included livestock comprising of no less than four crates of live ducklings, strapped to the roof, and chirping all the way. They were eventually delivered to a primary school in the middle of a foggy valley, some hours later.

When the bus began to slide around in the muddy slopes (which formed the main road) I was horrified when the busboys began motioning that half of the bus would have to get off and walk for a while. Well, at least I wasn’t expected to help push the bus…and the locals enjoyed the show of watching me (half-asleep with only my phone in my hand) trudge along embattled bus as it struggled onwards. It was 8am, and I hadn’t sleep properly the previous night (blame the sleeper bus from Hanoi with its non-stop karaoke and neon lights). After the shock wore off, and I woke up properly, I started to really appreciate what I was seeing, and realised I’m Not In Hanoi Anymore.

Dong Van market, Ha Giang, Vietnam

Modernity exists somewhat uneasily in Đồng Văn in my opinion.

I’ve already spoken about how strangely time seems to move in Hanoi, and even in Europe, when I was listing reasons to visit Latvia last year, I was struck by the juxtaposition of old and new (concerning transportation and beyond). This was truly something else though, women carried wicker baskets of goods, whilst men sat on their brick-like mobile phones. There were no clocks, no mechanical noises, but there was something strange about a lot of the ethnic minority clothes that were for sale…

Now it just so happens that I briefly worked for an online e-commerce business dealing with ethnic minority handicrafts (I know, I know, it’s been an odd sort of life so far). As a result, I do actually know my Black Hmong from Flower Hmong, Tay, Dzai etc. That’s when I realised. The shades of these garments were far too neon to have been produced by natural dyes. the fabric looked more like Lycra or something similarly synthetic.

Then I remember a post on a blog that I read about six months ago. It was about how ethnic minority peoples in Sapa had started to do business with factories in China in order to produce ready-made “ethnic minority style” garments. In her post, Pau mentions the Hmong children that she saw wearing these garments, which were originally made for Vietnamese and other tourists to “dress up” in for photo shoots (the idea of cultural appropriation isn’t widespread in Vietnam or China, from what I’ve seen).

Hence the uneasy relationship between modern tourism innovation, and cultural heritage preservation cross the border regions of northern Vietnam. We also came across “ethnic minority tourist villages”, under construction, in which properties are being built in ethnic minority styles, and then go into business as “traditional home-stays” for tourists (despite the fact that they are both new, and not actually “home” to any minority peoples).

Hmong King's palace, Ha Giang,
Palace of the Hmong Kings, 19th century. 

One things was clear, compared to the city, a life of hardship was what awaited many ethnic minority peoples. We saw children as young as five or six working in the fields, carrying loads on their backs, and many unaccompanied children wandering along the side of busy roads, collecting discarded plastic bottles and other waste. It was a national holiday (Labour Day) whilst we were in Ha Giang, but that meant little to the people who were working on the land.

Dong Van market

We met several extraordinary women (and an owl).

The woman in the photo above had caught this owl in the mountains, and trained it as something of a pet. Although I might disagree with the ethics of keeping a wild animal as a pet, she was clearly very affectionate towards it, and it slept by her side as she sold things on her stall. I couldn’t help but wondering if the owl was something of a symbol of the place where she’d come from, too, and that when she came into the city to make a living, perhaps it felt a bit less lonely to have something else beside yet which looked slightly incongruous in an urban environment.

Dong Van market pho seller

 This woman was a phở (noodle soup) seller, and she sold pork phở – unusual fare for the cities, but apparently the norm in Hà Giang. What was amazing about this woman was how she demonstrated the utter fragility of western notions of “intelligence”. For starters, she was illiterate, and secondly, was selling food so cheaply that she couldn’t be turning a very good profit.

However, after some more customers arrived at her stand we noticed that they were speaking a language which was neither Mandarin nor Vietnamese. This happened several times, with more customers appearing. After a quick conversation (in Vietnamese) it transpired that this lady does indeed know how to speak five different languages, of which there are no printed dictionaries or direct translations of into English. Not only that, but she revealed that the common language between ethnic minority groups is actually Mandarin Chinese, meaning that the vast majority of ethnic minority people are at least bi- or tri-lingual from childhood.

Notice the faded black-and-white photograph of a man in the background, on the wall.

The bus from Hà Giang broke down on our return journey. Halfway in between village life and the roaring city bustle, this time I knew just what to do. With a glass of sugarcane juice, I sat by the side of the road, and waited for time to resume.

Hanoi, and the beauty in small things

Tran Quoc pagoda, Hanoi

It’s time to talk about Hanoi.

About a life lived in fragments, about the fragments of planes, and even of planes which left lives in fragments.

Hanoi might genuinely be one of the few cities I’ve lived in where the sum of the parts is truly greater than the whole. Generally, Hanoi gets quite a bad press from a lot of western tourists; it’s too polluted (comparable to Jinan and Beijing), the weather is temperamental and goes from one extreme to another, and most of all, the nightlife is incomparable to that of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City, but my supervisor says it’s not respectful to put Ho Chi Minh’s name in the same sentence as “nightlife”).

On the whole, those critics are right. The traffic is awful, the weather seems unstable, and there’s definitely a more conservative, traditional mindset here than there appears to be in HCMC, from what I’ve heard.

Hanoi street art

Yet there are scenes here which cannot be forgotten, and it is to these small details which I now draw your attention to.

  • Classical music streams from the partially-opened shuttered windows of an ochre-coloured mansion, its fading colonial grandeur illuminated by a pollution-red sun.
  • Elderly women sit and sip tea together, on stools which are just centimetres from the floor.
  • Men of a similar age gather around a traditional chessboard nearby and argue jovially about the legitimacy of different manoeuvres in a tense game of Chinese-chess.
Hanoi B52 Museum deities
Small deities reside in a plant pot in front of military wreckage. There’s an overwhelming sense of forgiveness, and generosity of spirit here. The small bonsai tree signifies eternal life, in a place of death.
  • Small deities grace a plant pot besides the burnt-out remains of a large, Soviet-made, American-deployed tank.
  • A woman and young child stare out into the middle of their neighbourhood lake, opposite a primary school, which happens to contain the wreckage of a downed B52 fighter plane.
A Vietnamese woman and child look out onto a lake with the wreckage of an American B52 plane.
A Vietnamese woman and child look out onto a lake with the wreckage of an American B52 plane.

It is these things and more which give Hanoi its charm. Something about the way in which the caged birds by the lake sing tells me that time has a way of moving more slowly here. To quote Bram Stoker’s Dracula; “the old centuries had, and have, powers mere modernity cannot kill“. There are few public clocks here. Time moves of its own accord.

Caged birds Hanoi
Caged birds which sing regardless.

Please don’t mistake my referencing of classic Victorian literature. This is not meant to be a colonial-esque romanticism of Vietnam’s capital, though it is often described as such. Hanoi to me suggests defiance in the face of a turbulent past, not a whimsical longing for a bygone era, but that’s just my impression. It’s hard not to be impressed by a place which is able to turn history to its own advantage, to triumph in such a way as to build a themed cafe based on the site of a plane crash, for example.

Huu Tiep lake, plane wreckage, Hanoi
Close-up of wreckage. Note the small tree growing out of the plane’s remains, seen by locals as a symbol of life’s resilience. 55 Hoàng Hoa Thám, Huu Tiep Lake.

I’ll leave you with this, and you can make up your own mind. Hanoi will continue to stand, as it always has done, regardless of the attempts of others to remake it in their image.

Rivers and mountains (are not the same thing). 山和水不一样的.

The following post may appeal to you if…

  • Your LinkedIn profile still reads “looking for opportunities” (well, at least you learned how to turn on that setting, that’s not a bad thing).
  • Your CV shows more ad hoc, overlapping work than most of your graduating class (you still keep the formal photo of your year group in your room, neither of these things are a weakness).
  • You’re still living at home, attempting to save money and re-evaluate your options (this too, is not failure, failing to plan is true failure).
  • You like Chinese philosophy and/or scenery.

 

Your friends who are the same age as you are a bit like mountains. Stable, steady, constant. You can’t help but be in awe of them. They hit milestones (a house! A fiance! A master’s degree!) and reach new heights (a PhD! Getting married next year!).

Meanwhile, you’re the river, and it feels like you’re running down, away from the summit, an unpredictable course. It’s fair to say that the river isn’t always fast-flowing, it doesn’t always look majestic. Yet, it adapts to change remarkably well, and it is capable of existing in a variety of states. Most importantly, it sustains the lives of those that drink from it.

Mountains are admired, but best glimpsed from a distance, whereas rivers often meander out of sight. Remember this though; rivers are always sought after. You cannot compare the mountains to the river, and would we really want a landscape without either?

Image result for shan shui

The inspiration for this post actually came from a Chinese concept, the idea that a landscape is essentially composed of two unique (but united) elements, rivers and mountains. The Mandarin word for “landscape” is literally “mountain/water” (山水). Ever since studying Mandarin Chinese in Jinan, Shandong province, two years ago, I’ve endeavoured to keep learning and keep practicing my 普通话 !

The perception of things as different but equal is central to Chinese thought as a whole, as well as ancient painting and aesthetics. If you think about it, the two opposing features of any landscape work in harmony, as they “balance” each other. The sheer stability of a mountain is the opposite to the flowing, sometimes unpredictable course of the river. Rivers have their source at mountains, but they also shape them.

In my review of Bangladesh, flooded by change, I mentioned the book The Water KingdomA Secret History of China (2016) by Philip Ball. Well, I’ve been reading more of it, and learning a great deal. In an intriguing passage which I found incredibly relevant to this post, Philip Ball describes the contrast between shan and shui as “a particularly beautiful aspect of the yin/yang dialectic”. Following Ball’s interpretation, “the (male) mountains are permanent, symbolizing space; (female) water is changeable, a symbol of time” (pg. 75).

The idea of the shui and shan therefore, as representing the balance of the cosmos, fits fantastically with the idea that some people may seem to be going along one path in life, whilst others are running a seemingly incongruous course. After graduating from higher education, peoples’ lives often take divergent courses. None of them are wrong, and as far back as the time of Confucius’ Analects (c. 475 -221 BC), the merits of both approaches to life have been discussed using life’s great metaphor of rivers and mountains. Thus, once again on this blog, I find myself discussing how the smallest of phrases can open a window into an apparently “alien” culture.

山和水不一样的.

我们都是<山水相连>, 对吧?

Translation:

Mountains and rivers are not the same.

We are all “linked by common mountains and rivers” (Chinese idiom), right?

Book Review – Bangladesh, flooded by change (2016) Bosse Kramsjö

Bangladesh flooded by change book

Reading has always helped me get back into writing. I often leave pages bookmarked for months, meaning to get back to commenting on them, to write a post or even just copy a couple of notable quotes down. It rarely happens. Yet some of my most popular posts on here are book reviews, for example Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse or Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Now I’d like to discuss a lesser-known book.

This book will always have special significance for me as it was brought as a present by a Bangladeshi colleague as I was leaving Bangladesh. This colleague is an avid reader herself, and so I knew that I could trust her judgement on this being a really engaging read. I really enjoy reading books about some of the places that I’ve lived in abroad, and this was no exception.

At the moment I’m reading Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom, A Secret History of China, which is fascinating so far, but hasn’t yet reconnected me to my memories of studying in China, in the same way that this book did with Bangladesh. Perhaps it’s because Bangladesh was a more recent experience, but I actually think that the distinctly personal and at some points idiosyncratic narration style of Bangladesh, flooded by change has something to do with it.

It’s a book which makes no attempt at pure professionalism, or polished narration, but the bitter irony in some of the statements, and the startling juxtapositions that are brought to realisation within the text are pulled off with profound effect. Even as a bidēśhī/ foreigner (বিদেশী) it’s clear that the author, as my colleague reassured me, has successfully penetrated some of the most complicated nuances at the heart of Bangladeshi culture.

Where this book really triumphs is as a moving polemic against modern capitalism and globalisation. The effects of mass consumerism and embedded corruption are explored first as a microcosm (in a village, affecting a particular farmer’s family) and are only afterwards exposed as part of a societal evil, much like a landscape painting with an accompanying miniature.

There’s cynicism in every comment, and each comment is literally presented as such; a small commentary on a universal theme. The common thread here is simply Bangladesh, from a lament about the loss of fireflies “due to modern chemical agriculture” (pg. 55) to an impassioned account of a group of rural villagers who are outraged to discover that Sweden throws away almost 1/3rd of all food purchased (pg. 94)

Excerpts from the dialogue about food wastage read “It can’t be true! […] but weren’t people in your country supposed to be well-educated?”, “They do not understand” concludes the sarcastic narration for this segment, “and cannot accept, such behavior. But then they [the villagers] are not very well educated”.

There are many more passages like this; a rickshaw driver in Dhaka who jokes about how Bangladesh and Bill Gates are similar because “both earned the same amount of money last year” (pg. 116).

Then there’s the extract named “Knowing for a Better Life” concerning “an advert in a daily newspaper” which advises manual workers on how to avoid muscle strain. The joke here? The vast majority of this 40 million strong group of people are illiterate. Moreover, there is no way that they can even hope to follow the advice given in this advert, and avoid strenuous exercise (pg. 97). The absurdity is as obvious as the author’s sharp eye for the extraordinary details which ordain everyday life.

The smallest of comments in this book unlocked a world, a way of living in a developing country which is being literally and metaphorically “flooded by change”. The retreat of the fireflies, for example, brings to mind one particular Bangla lesson with our tutor in the apartment. She mentioned that she hadn’t seen fireflies since she was a child, and that the word for firefly, Jōnāki (জোনাকি) was once a popular name for village girls. Now the name has vanished with those small orbs of light. I remember noting down the name, and the idea, in my specially designated red Bangla notebook.

Our Bangla tutor is moving to Canada next month, and though I left Bangladesh some weeks ago now, I’m sure that my memories of the country (which harbours few remaining jōnāki) will not be as quick to fade.

 

A Letter to My Graduating Self (2015), based on Neil Gaiman’s Instructions (2010) and Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go (2003 edn.).

Watercolour mandala painting, Watercolour mandala, watercolours, painting, mandala, design, asian, artwork, art,

Most people write letters to their future selves. Perhaps I’m less optimistic, or more nostalgic than most. Usually people write their goals, but right now, I want to take stock.

Two and a half years might not seem like long, but to be honest, if you add up my undergraduate term time then two and a half years is actually around the equivalent amount of time to that which I spent physically at university.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between what we expect to happen, and what actually occurs, as well as the gulf between our expectations when we leave one stage of life (e.g, school, university etc.) and what we go on to do next.

—-

To you,

I’ve read your diaries. I know your dreams and fears. You want adventure, and you’ll get it. You don’t have a direction, and believe me, even now you’re still re-orientating yourself, a spinning astrolabe.

Some graduates chart their courses with the precision of cartographers, navigating obstacles. You use a Cross Staff, and trace the constellations overhead instead; a true historian.

Mandala basic pencil sketch

For you, life usually means taking the road “never heard of it”, rather than the famous “one less travelled by”.

It’s not all romantic Renaissance analogies though. You’re working temporary, part-time, zero-hours, with none of the trimmings. You’re bored at work  – but at least it’s quiet – and you’re able to write this!

Mandala basic watercolour painting

There’s no car, no house, or more realistically, there’s no rented flat. There’s no dog (not that you ever wanted one), or even a cat (yes, you’re still allergic).

 

There was an operation that went wrong. There were jobs you didn’t get. Opportunities missed. Whole continents you’ve yet to visit. New friends, and those that remain pretty much the same.

Half-completed watercolour mandala painting

You’ve left places (and contracts) and you’re living at home. None of these things heralded the end of the world, as you previously predicted.

You’re braver than you know, and better at “handling risk and change” than your school reports will ever show.

 

Watercolour mandala painting

Most of all though, you’re a still dreamer… and you’ve still got so far to go.