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Saigon, That Queen Of Sin – Renamed For Ho Chi Minh December 29, 2007

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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Well hello from Saigon. Needless to say, I’ve had nothing but tunes from Miss Saigon running around my head, especially as I wandered aimlessly around District 1 yesterday, getting myself ridiculously lost, sweaty and disgruntled. But where are my manners? In the words of everyone’s favourite Julie, I’ll start at the very beginning.

Thursday 20th December
Having bade farewell to Kuga Junior High School, I attended my last adult conversation class. Much to my surprise, I was presented with a handmade hat (came in very useful up the mountain), a homemade brooch, some cake and a 5000 yen note. We sat around and had tea, chatting in English and talking about traditional Christmases in England. Afterwards, I was handed a bouquet of flowers that are now probably rotting in my apartment, stinking the place out. But still, it was the thought that counted.
Following this, I made my way home, finished packing and tidying my abode and left for the station. Fast forward 3 hours and I arrived in Shimonoseki and, more specifically, Louise’s house. We sat around, played Scrabble (I still despise it with a passion) and MarioKart and generally acted excited about our impending trip.

Friday 21st December
Waking up under Daryl’s kotatsu (the Japanese heated table), I readied myself for the day of travel ahead. Having got ourselves all the way to Fukuoka with plenty of time to spare, it came as a major shock to find that my employers had neglected to pay me. I rang my supervisor but am still unsure as to whether or not he understood that I was majorly pissed at this oversight, especially as I would have no other chance to get at these funds once out of the country, Japanese accounts being only accessible inside the country. Phoebe came to the rescue and lent me a huge sum of money, despite the fact that it cleared out her account almost entirely. Needless to say, upon my return, I will be reimbursing her before I do anything else.
The flight to Bangkok was relatively inauspicious, but we were all delighted to be presented with a small corsage of flowers upon our exiting the plane. We all milled around Bangkok airport, having said goodbye to Monica who was off to work with Thai orphans for a few weeks, and eventually boarded our Hanoi-bound plane.
Once we arrived in Hanoi, we were picked up by a taxi driver who was more than happy to chatter away in English, telling us lots of things, many of which I doubted were true. We made our way through the shanty outskirts of the city until we arrived in the shanty interior of the city. Checking into our hotel, we decided to wander the streets of the Vietnamese capital, even though at one point Louise slipped and submerged her foot in a deep puddle of piss.

Saturday 22nd December
The four of us (Daryl, Phoebe, Louise and myself), spent the entire morning with our tour guide, Thuong, who organised everything for us – our trip up the mountain, our excursion to Ha Long Bay and my flights to Ho Chi Minh City. After this, we had a traditional Vietnamese lunch and set about exploring the city. Unfortunately, we missed the viewing times of Ho Chi Minh’s body, which was really the only thing I had wanted to do in Hanoi, but we still went and had a look at the museum about him, which, as may be expected, was all very one-sided. After this, we had dinner and made our way to the tour guide’s office, where we readied our things for the hike ahead of us. From there, we took a sleeper train to Lao Cai, arriving at 5:40am the next morning.

Sunday 23rd December
It was dark when we arrived. But there was so much life. People trying to bustle you into taxis, people trying to flog you stuff that no one would ever have need of and people trying to sell you drinks, food and other perishables. Making our way onto the already crowded minibus, the four of us were very much awake. No one else seemed too happy at that prospect, as we chatted away, excited and scared about the mountain that loomed before us.
Winding our way through the North Vietnamese Alps was a sight to behold, the sun rising over the hills, illuminating the terraced rice paddies below. It is the Asia of which people dream. We then arrived in the mountain village of Sapa; the epitome of a tourist trap. Tribes people try to tempt you with locally made produce and clothing and the children of these people just engage you in conversation, happy for the chance to practice their almost perfect English that they have only picked up on the streets. We strolled around the local market, looking with interest at the dog carcasses that were being prepared in front of us.
We were then introduced to our guide – Hais. He was to accompany us up and down the mountain and in return we taught him such useful phrases as “‘Ave it!” and “Get out of my face, bitch”.
Having made yet another journey in yet another minibus, we were finally at the point where we were to start hiking.
For four hours we walked, keeping our spirits high by stopping every now and then to take in the scenery or chow down on a much needed Snickers.
Eventually, in what didn’t seem like too much time, we made it to base camp, at an altitude of about 2000m. There we met two Dutch men called Marten and Gerard, one of whom had been unable to complete the climb, it being far to difficult, despite his apparent athleticism. Needless to say, it put the fear of God into us all. However, Phoebe and I, being the least competent of the group, made a pact that unless we were faced with unconquerable odds, we would do it. Fie in the face of the sporty Dutchman!

Monday 24th December
Daryl woke us all up by telling us that he had had food poisoning and had been up all night, vomiting and generally being ill. That said, the Canadian took it all in his stride and was determined to do it and beat the Dutchman who did make it. We all set out, determined to give it our best and take it as slow as we needed, much to the dismay of Hais who just wanted to get it over and done with, apparently.
It took us about 7 hours, all in all, to make it to the top. We did it though! We scaled Fansipan and the outer-lying mountains to an altitude of 3143m; the highest mountain in Indochina. Louise, a veteran mountain climber, told us that it was the hardest climb she’d ever done as it wasn’t a simple case of climbing up. It consisted of climbing up, then down, then up, then across, then down, then up, then down, then up. Pretty much a case of two steps forward, one step back. Surprisingly it was Daryl who made it to the top first, with Phoebe and me, rather predictably, bringing up the rear. When we got to the summit, we were greeted with a huge collection of Vietnamese people, celebrating, shouting, photographing, littering, cheering, stripping, eating and generally ruining any ambiance that we could have felt, having forced ourselves up a bloody great big mountain. Eventually they left and we all huddled around the fire, shivering in the gale force winds that pounded the top of Fansipan.
Following lunch, we started our descent. What made Fansipan ridiculously hard was the fact that towards the top, a lot of it was just rock. Sheer rock that we had to scale. Funnily enough, going up was easier, as it only involved grabbing onto where you could and hauling yourself up. Coming down left us much more vulnerable and if we had slipped, there was quite often an immeasurable drop below us. As we made our way down, Louise also succumbed to illness, which made the journey back more arduous and much slower. As darkness fell on the mountains, Hais suggested that we sleep in the open and finish the climb the next day. None of the three of us (Daryl having made off at an unbelievable pace yet again) even contemplated that idea and we all soldiered on, sighing with relief when we were greeted with a form of mountain rescue that had been sent out to collect us!
Getting back to the camp, we all just collapsed, refusing any food that was offered to us, favouring falling into deep and uncomfortable sleep.

Tuesday 25th December
Waking up as stiff as the boards we had slept upon, none of us relished the journey back down, least of all Louise who was still feeling the effects of her illness. But make it down we did, trekking, once again, through the Vietnamese rainforest. Weary, sweaty and horribly gross, we all made it in one piece back to where we had started the day before, keeping our morale high by singing songs from The Sound of Music and a rather infectious ditty called Charlie Had A Pigeon:

Charlie had a pigeon, a pigeon, a pigeon
Charlie had a pigeon, a pigeon he had
It flew in the day and it flew in the night
And when it got back it was covered in
Charlie had a pigeon…etc

Back in Sapa, we relaxed in the hotel, enjoying the shower that was, in all honesty, the worst shower in the world. I’m pretty certain that everyone of us had a post-Fansipan nap and we spent most of Christmas milling about the town in a daze. That evening we met up with the Dutchmen, rubbed it in Gerard’s face that two fatties had made it up and he had failed, and had a few drinks.

Wednesday 26th December
Not much happened on Boxing Day, other than the fact that we left Sapa and made our way back to Lao Cai for the sleeper train which would return us to Hanoi. On the way down, I started to feel bad and spent most of the night expelling my internal organs into the train sink.

Thursday 27th December
We all arrived back in Hanoi at a ridiculously obscene hour in the morning and made our way back to the hotel where we were allowed to sleep until our tour started. Fearing I would be unable to take part in our excursion, I bought some 7Up, let it go flat and slept, sipping at it at regular intervals. Waking up feeling a little better, we collected our luggage and got on another minibus to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Taking a boat tour around the bay, exploring the caves and enjoying (well, I hardly touched it, being still a little queasy from the night before) an extensive seafood feast, we whiled away our last day together as a group. We bade each other farewell at Hanoi airport and I was left alone.
Making my way into the airport, I checked my ticket and had to wait around for a couple of hours. When the check-in desk screens changed, I noted in horror that it seemed that they had missed my flight. It was then that it dawned on me – my ticket had been booked for the morning, not the evening. Our tour guide had got it wrong. I rushed over to the desks to see if anything could be done, but to no avail. I had to buy another ticket to Ho Chi Minh City. Luckily, it wasn’t all that expensive, but needless to say, it wasn’t really what I wanted to happen. It wasn’t all bad though, because once I got to HCMC, I was met by the taxi that I was promised would be there. He drove me to my hotel in the centre of Saigon and I passed out in the hotel, having just seen on the news that Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated.

Friday 28th December
As the title of this entry says, Saigon was renamed in honour of Ho Chi Minh, founder of modern Vietnam, after the fall of the South. Most people still refer to it as Saigon or District 1 and so I thought I would need to make a short aside to explain that all 3 refer to the same area that I explored.

I woke up late, following the news in Pakistan and getting myself ready for a day on the town. I left my hotel, had breakfast at a cafe called Allez Boo and got myself totally and thoroughly lost in the city. Eventually I had to call upon the services of a motorbike taxi to take me to the War Remnants Museum. Travelling like this is an experience as road rules are pretty much non-existent here. Bored of a red light? Just go! Don’t want to ride your motorbike on the road? Mount the pavement and ride there! This also goes for pedestrians as well. Why bother waiting for a green light when most drivers won’t obey it anyway? All you need to do is wander out into the road, making your way steadily into the path of oncoming traffic and you’ll be fine. Apparently Saigonese drivers are masters at avoiding objects. They must be – so far I’ve not been hit and I like to do as the natives do – it takes a bit of getting used to; launching oneself into the way of a huge bus, but you get used to it, I suppose.
The War Remnants Museum used to be called The Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes, but they changed it to make it a little more foreigner friendly. Now it serves as a reminder of what a dirty war the Vietnam War was. There are photos and models of torture methods and devices used by the French, American and Chinese forces. There are pictures and videos and interviews with survivors of Agent Orange which, although primarily used as a defoliant, marred and deformed children following the war. Indeed, there are many people on the streets of Saigon that seem to be the victims of this chemical warfare: as I walked here today, one man asked me for change, his face almost unrecognisable, looking more like the skin was melting off his skull.
After the war museum, I walked over to the Reunification Palace where the South Vietnamese President resided until the Northern Communists won the conflict. Having studied the war in History, it was amazing to see the tank that famously crashed through the gates and to be in the place where the South Vietnamese government that was only 42 hours old told a North Vietnamese soldier “We have been waiting to transfer power to you”, only to be told that there was no question of them transferring power as “You cannot give away what you never had to begin with”.

Saturday 29th December
Well, here I am now, sat in this Internet cafe, having written well over 2500 words on what I’ve been up to this festive period. This is pretty much all I’ve done, other than eat breakfast, say “no” to lots of people offering me things that I really don’t need (yesterday I got into the habit so much that when offered a motorbike taxi, I continually said no, despite the fact that I was very truly lost and much in need of someone to take me home!) and parted with some cash. I found an illegal DVD shop that stocked a lot of new films on DVD/VCD. However, having a download hub at my fingertips, I don’t need to fritter away my money on new movie releases. Instead, I managed to pick up all 7 seasons of the West Wing for about £16 and all 8 seasons of Will and Grace for about £10! Not too shabby!

Tonight I will make my way back to Tokyo via Bangkok, arriving tomorrow morning for a day in the Nihon capital. I will update you all once I get back to Kuga, I’m sure.

I hope that everyone had an amazing Christmas and has lots of exciting things planned for the New Year.

Till next time!

Have Yourself A Merry Little クリスマス December 19, 2007

Posted by Mitch in Random.

Twas the night before Mitch left, when all through the town,
Not a person was upset, no face had a frown
The clothes in the suitcase were packed up with care
In the hopes that the time to leave soon would be there
The children were freezing in their classrooms so bare
While the staffroom was heated, it didn’t seem fair
And Julie in her scarf and I in my chair
Will soon say goodbye and bid farwell with a stare
When down in a classroom there arose such a row
I sprang from my seat and thought “I want to leave now!
Away to Vietnam I’ll fly like a flash
I’d love to stay and do nothing, but I really must dash!”
Out over Kuga I gaze with a smile
I like this place, but I need to leave for a while
I’ll climb on a sleigh, with a driver so quick
Screw ANA pilots, I’m off with St. Nick
With his selection of fauna, I’m sure I’ll be game
As he saddles them up and calls them by name:
“Now Kyoko! Now Yūma! Now Risa and Daiki!
On Bertram! On Phyllis! On Mary and Mikey!”
Force their way through the town; they don’t give a damn
“Move out of my way, for I’m off to ‘Nam!”
We fly over cities and factories so vast
Over ocean below us, we’re moving so fast
I wave goodbye to a country so dear
“I’m off to climb mountains, I’ll see you next year!”
For Christmas this year, up a mountain I’ll be
Will I survive it? Well just wait and see.
Then off to Tokyo, a metropolis so great
I’ll be there to see in the first major date
The first of the first, I’ll celebrate in style
To find somewhere to stay, I’ll use all of my guile.
Be it hotel or motel, ryokan or cafe
I don’t really care – I need somewhere to stay.
Then get in a car and away we will drive
To Kyoto then home; I hope we arrive
’08 will be spent under the red rising sun
For experiences new, scary, upsetting and fun.
So prick up your ears and give heed to my rhyme
For tomorrow’s the day; gosh, it’s almost the time.
But you’ll hear me exclaim as I fly out of here:
“Happy Christmas to all and to all a good year!”

Don’t Be Stingy, I’m A Growing Lad December 16, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General.
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Well, I’ve returned from my shopping trip in Shimonoseki to stock up on hiking gear. On Friday, after I finished at school, I nipped to the supermarket and picked up some meat and started the 3 hour journey to Shimonoseki (well, if we’re splitting hairs, I went to Ozuki which is the station nearest to Phoebe’s house, but it’s in the general region of Shimonoseki). Once there, I got a cab having an, albeit brief but no less successful, conversation with my cab driver, in Japanese! and got to Phoebe’s house first! Also, another first: I had remembered everything I needed. I used to be relatively organised in the fact I didn’t often forget to take things away with me. Now that I’m here, that seems to have disappeared and I’m constantly forgetting shower gel, or a towel and even, on one occasion, a jacket!

So I arrived in the wilds of Kikugawa (kiku is the Japanese word for chrysanthemum and gawa is a form of the word for river) and we set about trying to start a fire. See, the main reason that a group descended upon the sleepy idyll of Chrysanthemum River is because we were having a Korean BBQ Night. Phoebe had an authentic grill, we had the meat and some homemade fruit wine – it was all sorted. What we hadn’t counted on, was trying to light the fire. So Phoebe, Mark and I tried all sorts of ways. Phoebe had the great idea of using a piece of wood which, once she had broken it opened, revealed an ants’ nest inside, leaving us no option but squashing them all and burning their remains. Eventually we retired to the closest convenience store and purchased a good, old fashioned can of Zippo lighter fluid. Try and not burn now! Admittedly, I think I got a little too carried away with it all and some eyebrows may have been lost. But that’s not for here…

After a night of good food, good conversation and good company, Phoebe, Wakako and I headed over to Shin-Shimonoseki to a store lovingly called Scrum. There I was lucky enough to find a pair of hiking boots that fit me and are amazingly comfortable (so far – I’m not naive enough to think that they’ll remain comfortable when I’m hauling myself up the side of a Vietnamese mountain) and a nice new backpack, which will also come in handy for when I stay overnight at friends’ houses – at the moment I lug around a big black holdall that is painfully over-sized and bulky for such a short stay. I also picked up some hiking socks and some plasters for blisters.

My new gear aside, I’m insanely nervous about this. It’s costing quite a bit of money so far and I’m determined to get to the top in order to have not wasted the money. However, I’m hardly in the best of shape and as much as people keep telling me I don’t look like it, I’ve definitely been piling on the pounds since it turned cold. I’m worried that I won’t be capable of reaching the summit. But then I also know that I’m stubborn as anything and so hopefully will defy my body’s failings in order to conquer this Indochinese peak.

Today, I have very little planned. Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve got to clean my apartment because when I come back from my jaunt away, I’ll have company in the form of Richy (who’s coming to Japan for New Year!) and at the moment, my flat is more of a mess than it’s ever been before. After that, I’m going to get into my new hiking boots and wear them around for the rest of the day in the futile hope that I’ll ‘wear them in’. I also want to go out on my bike to explore Kuga a bit more. Apparently there’s a rather spanking new gym and sports facility hidden away somewhere in town that I want to seek out and join.

This entry hasn’t been all that interesting, I’m sure, but nothing’s really happening at the moment. When I get back from my time away, I’m sure the entries will be flooding out.

Till next time!

I’d Be Surprisingly Genki For You December 10, 2007

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan.
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Wow – it’s been quite a while since I wrote. I think that this is mainly down to the fact that the weekend before the weekend just gone was relatively low-key. This weekend was that antithesis of that.

Saturday marked the Yamaguchi AJET Christmas Party in Tokuyama, so on Friday I went and stayed with Lucy down the road in Hikari. Steph was there too and raucous drinking took place. With the addition of a so-called genki drink, no serious hangovers were incurred. Genki is the Japanese word for enthusiastic, good or happy (indeed, to ask someone how they are, one says “Genki desu ka“). Drink one of those little drinks in between cocktails or whatever your particular poison is, and no hangover will blight the following day. Magic.

The party was OK, if a little overpriced, but a few of us retired back to Lucy’s abode where more drinking occurred. All in all, a quite drunken weekend, but without the feeling like crap in the morning.

I had a pretty shit week last week. I was at one of my elementary schools and none of the lessons really went to plan. I had kids telling me it was too hard and refusing to co-operate or take part in the lesson (despite the face that I’d done this lesson with both my kindergartens and they’d loved it and understood every bit of it). One kid even went so far as to get up and walk out of my class. I was not impressed.

This week has started much better though. I’m at my other elementary school and all of my lessons went to plan and the kids actually remembered what I had taught them last month. With my older ones, we made Christmas cards. I was trying to get them to write them to their parents or their grandparents (in English of course) but after one of my lessons today, a little girl stopped me in the corridor and gave me the card she had made in class. It was for me! Inside she had written:

Dear Mitch
Merry Crristmas

(Yes, she did spell Christmas like that, but seeing as they’ve not officially been taught the alphabet, I think she did pretty well)

Also, I understood more of what my kids said to me in Japanese today, so that’s good. I still don’t understand everything, but they really want to teach me! The younger ones, especially come up to me and tell me what colour my clothes are in Japanese and then repeat it in English to show that they know their colours. And before I left I was having a conversation in pidgin English/pidgin Japanese with one of the vice-principals, Helen and the school librarian, Martha. They were very impressed with how much I seem to have learnt in so little time and I was really happy that Helen conversed with me. She has a rather severe face and so I quite often thought that she was majorly annoyed with me. But after today, I’ve realised that that’s just her normal expression and that I shouldn’t read anything into it.

Tomorrow I’m off to Yamaguchi City for our mid-year seminar. Whilst the meeting will be boring as hell, the social side of it afterwards is always a laugh.

This coming weekend I’m off to Shimonoseki again to buy all of the stuff I’ll need to climb my Vietnamese mountain. The weekend after, I fly away from Japan for the first time!

I hope everyone’s good – keep commenting!

Till next time!