With just a little over a week left before we were due to leave China, I looked for recommendations from our fellow teachers at Omeida and local Chinese people as to where we should absolutely not miss visiting before leaving this beautiful part of the world. A resounding response was “you have got to visit the Rice Fields in the Longsheng county of the Guangxi province ”, a four hour trek from Yangshuo, via Guilin, by train and bus. The reason? Not only to see these rice fields from the different viewing platforms, one of which is called “the Dragons Backbone”, but for me, a much more interesting reason; to visit the Ethnic Minority Tribes who inhabit the mountains in Longji, and have worked tirelessly in these fields for hundreds of years. The rice fields are a central part of the daily life and identity of these exotic people. With such riveting stories of their customs, traditions and beliefs, I just had to go and see this for myself. And so, with the help of a local Chinese businessman “Mickey”, who had become our dear friend during our time in Yangshuo, we arranged to travel and stay for two days at the rice fields, hoping that we would get to meet some of these minority people.
The journey from Guilin to the Rice Fields is a small bit piecemeal and complicated when not having any Chinese. However, as we have experienced on every trip throughout China, the local people are always more than willing to help. Albeit it might take some time to communicate with them through body language or google translate, which isn’t always translated accurately. Google translate has led us into funny situations when locals give us totally different information than we thought we’d asked for! Or the Chinese will read the message from our Google translate app and snigger and look at us strangely and walk away. On many an occasion we were left none the wiser as to how exactly the translation was being interpreted! 😱 God only knows what reputation we left behind in many of the places we visited using google translate, but we haven’t been arrested yet, and that’s a plus 😂.
A two hour journey in an ancient van (converted to a minibus with seats crammed into the back), brought us to another pick-up point at the foot of this mountainous region of southern China. There, we boarded yet another bus, packed full of wonderfully unique looking locals, including an elderly woman who was certainly in her late 70s at least, who wore the most intricately embroidered outfit with what looked like a pink tea-towel wrapped around her head. I took a seat beside her and thought “she’s clearly one of the women from the minority tribes”. Giving me the most beautiful welcoming smile that I’m sure is reserved for westerners, and with only about 3 teeth in her head, her dark wrinkled skin reflected the years of hard work that she obviously endured working outdoors in the mountainous rice terraces. As we made our way, higher and higher into the mountains, we passed villages of three-storey wooden houses built on stilts. They would not have been out of place in an old western movie. The first floor held the family livestock, the second was their living quarters and the third floor was storage. With no fire regulations, needless to say the villages are serious fire hazards, which we were soon to learn more about, sadly.
By way of background, throughout China there are about 56 different ethnic minority groups in total officially recognized by the Chinese Government. In this particular region of Longsheng there are just four. The Yao, Zhuang, Miao and Dong tribes. There are three main villages dotted around the rice terraces of Longsheng where they reside. The Ping’an, Dazhai and Longji villages are home to over 100 peasant households. Ping’an, is the smallest of the villages with just one cobbled street where the local traders sell their wares. This was the village we opted to visit. The Yao and Zhuang people make up the majority of the minority groups in Ping’an. They had originally lived throughout the low lying lands of China until rebellions between them and the Ming Dynasty forced them to retreat into the mountains. There are almost 2.5 million ethnic minority people living in the wider area of south-east China.
Living in relative poverty, they are a dignified and proud race of people, with their unique customs and practices and are only too happy to show them off to western visitors. In particular, the women of the community are the most unique group of women of any community I’ve ever come across. Every woman, young and old, sports a huge head of hair, sometimes up to 2 meters long, piled on top of their heads. They never cut their hair throughout their lifetime (with the exception of a few, who cut a small amount off only just, when they reach adulthood, only to weave it back into the pile of wrapped hair for the rest of their lives). They wash their hair in the rivers with extracts from the rice plants growing on the mountain. We took a trip to one of their villages on the first morning we arrived, encountering the most wonderful sights of their daily lives. Firstly, we were treated to a performance of their traditional dance where a group of women unwrapped their hair as part of the dance and proceeded with the seemingly simple task of wrapping it up again into various knotted piles, each knot representing the differing status of the women, i.e. single, married, widowed etc.
We spent the day wandering aimlessly around the village, stopping to chat with the local women, who had a small amount of English, having clearly picked up from the huge number of tourists passing through. I was totally taken with how warm and friendly they were, happily posing for photos with me. I was like a giant standing beside them, with their tiny frames. Even with a lifetime of hair piled onto their heads, I still towered over them. The clothes worn by these minority groups are fantastically vibrant! Handmade with beautiful textiles, and embroidered with the most glorious colours. Their clothing has been listed as a “national intangible cultural heritage of China”. A prestigious and well deserved status indeed. And did you know…Yoga Pants originate from these people? 😱. Nope..Me neither 😁.
The Yao tribe has its own language which differs from region to region, with the different dialects often creating communication difficulties within their own community. There is no written “Yao” language. However, a fascinating piece of information I learned about was that the Yao women, and only the women, have had a written language created just for them! It is called Nushu (meaning “women’s script”! It bears a resemblance to Chinese characters, however it is a “secret” language that only the Yao women are taught and can read. No man is allowed to learn the written language. It was created specifically for the women who were often isolated both before and after marriage. The women who become close friends would often not be able to meet up and so would write to each other in this Nushu language. They could share secrets and problems, complain about their men, or their lives etc. amongst each other, and the men in the community would be none the wiser. It was their secret way of supporting each other in difficult times. The practice of these writings ceased for many years during the Japanese invasion of China because they feared it would be used as a secret code, however in the 1980s it was briefly revived. However the last original writers of the script died in the 1990s and it is slowly dying out with only a small number of women now learning it. Such a shame!
They are a vulnerable group of people who live a simple, uncomplicated lifestyle. Farming (tending to the rice fields mainly) and trading of handmade crafts and jewellery are the main source of income. The crafts they create hold special meanings, particularly the batiks, sculptures and paintings. Outside of the hotels catering for the visiting tourists, the people themselves have no computers or TVs and in fact have no real access to the outside world other than meeting those who visit the terraces. Many have never been outside of their villages, however the younger generation are beginning to venture out into the world in small numbers. Those who do take that step, usually end up returning to care for their elderly parents, as is legislated for under Chinese laws. The elders in the community are revered and respected and at every meal are seated at the head of the table in the “seat of honour”. In addition to adoring their elders, they have huge respect for “totem poles”. Their main religion is Taoism/Daoism, a recognized religion in China, based on the three principles of compassion, moderation and humility. Interestingly, many of the Yao people also believe in witchcraft and wizardry. They believe in evil spirits and ghosts and shaman priests often preside over exorcisms with chicken bones and bamboo sticks. Yes, real life Harry Potter stuff, with potions and spells too for healing. They believe that when someone is ill, that their souls are stolen by spirits (not the alcohol ones 🤪). They perform rituals, often calling on the shaman priests, who will try to “convince” the spirits to leave by offering blood sacrifices or writing the name of the spirits they believe are causing the illness on pieces of paper and burning the paper to rid the victim of the illness. Should this not work and the person dies, they are cremated and buried in caves in the mountains. Separately, marriages are often determined by parents who make sure that the match for their offspring is compatible and in line with the bride and groom’s horoscopes! What a task, and while divorce is permitted, I’m not sure how many of them are blamed on the star signs not aligning 🙏🙏🙏
Our hotel was situated at the very top of the mountains and the view from our window was the first sighting we had of the vast expanse of green rice terraces. I had never before really given much thought as to how we got our rice into plastic bags and onto the shelves of our supermarkets. I had no idea of the work that went into growing, picking and preparing rice for the world market before. The whole community is involved in the process here, from planting to picking, and each and every part of it is done manually. The very nature of the rice terraces terrain means that no machinery can access the steep terraces to help with the heavy work involved in bringing the rice from the terraces to the wider market. Instead, elderly women carry baskets on their backs, filled with the rice they have picked, to donkeys with huge baskets balanced on their backs. The donkeys bring the rice picked on the mountain shelves back down into the villages before it’s prepared for selling on. Needless to say, our first meal was all rice dishes and the most delicious rice I have ever ever tasted. You don’t get any better rice than farm to table rice here.
I was eager to climb the rice terraces to get a glimpse of the famous “Dragons Back” and so this was the agenda for our last day. In scorching heat we climbed high into the mountain along a narrow pathway for about 3 kms. I struggled, panicking at one point when my heart rate had reached an uncomfortable level. After a few “stops and starts” we eventually made it to the very top viewing point. The view from the top was totally breathtaking, in every respect! And if you look at the picture I’ve included here, you will see that it does actually look like the spine of a dragon! I have no idea how elderly women do this day in and day out! I climbed it once and was panned out after it. They do return trips up and down daily. I take my hat off to them! (If I had a hat 🎩 )
We returned to Yangshuo, thrilled with the decision to make this trip our final one while in China and even more so to have met and learned so much about these fantastic people. Two weeks later, shortly after arriving to our next destination, Vientiane in Laos, we received a short video clip from a friend of ours in China bringing with it awful news. The video was devastating and had been recorded live only an hour beforehand. It was the village of Dazhai, (the next village to Ping’an) with a fire raging out of control, and with inevitable tragic consequences. We still have no idea how many deaths there were, but I understand there were many and a whole community destroyed. I’ve no doubt these strong-willed hard-working resilient people will rebuild their village, as they have done in the past from scratch apparently following such disasters. Their strong belief system and sense of community that has stood the test of thousands of years will carry them through!
Next stop….the colourful city of Vientiane in Laos…. An unexpected hidden jewel of South East Asia!
Such was my desire to see the beautiful Panda Bears at the Giant Panda Research Centre, (based in the city of Chengdu, in south western China’s Sichuan Province), that we travelled for 12 hours on a bullet train from Guilin to Chengdu city. These cute bears are now a highly protected species under the State’s laws. Pandas that you see in zoos throughout the world are now “loaned” to these zoos by the Chinese Government for a king’s ransom! The reason for such strict laws surrounding the protection of the bears are tenfold. But one such reason is that historically, famous socialites and celebrities would pay huge money to buy these bears to bring them from China to the Western world as fashion accessories.
One such case was that of a very famous socialite, Ruth Harkness back in 1936. The story goes that the day before Christmas Eve, a giant panda appeared in New York City. Its name was Su Lin. Two months earlier, the animal had been taken from its jungle home, fretful and in distress, and transported halfway around the world on airplanes and ships, wrapped inside blankets and baskets. * “No panda had ever survived a trip outside of East Asia. In the weeks before Su Lin’s arrival, American newspapers reported each detail about his trip across the Pacific.From the first moment Su Lin was carried out into Grand Central Station and reporters instantly trumpeted the news of America’s first panda, the celebrity clung to his coat. He clung too: to Ruth Harkness, the widowed socialite-turned-explorer, who went to China without any wilderness experience, vowed to complete her late husband’s hunt for a panda, and returned triumphant, nursing Su Lin from a baby bottle filled with instant milk. Harkness’s journey sparked a “happy furore” across the USA. A photo taken of this Panda with Ruth Harkness was the first of a live panda ever published in a newspaper, The New York Times. The world became hooked – a Panda Bear frenzy ensued and in the 1930’s became a cultural phenomenon. Many explorers flocked to China to try and capture this much sought after bear”. A Panda was worth its weight and more in gold! (*Link to this article below)
Because of the bears’ timid and gentle nature, they could easily be kept in the celebrities’ and socialites’ homes and were frequently paraded at public events as status symbols. It beggars belief that such cruelty to such a beautiful animal was tolerated!
The Pandas are the symbol of China and once you step off the train in Chengdu you are left in no doubt how much the Chinese love and take pride in their Panda Bears. Huge advertising boards and towering statues of Pandas are sprawled in every corner of the city. Even our accommodation had cuddly toy Pandas sprawled across the bed. Pictures and photos of them hung in every available wall space in our room.
I have to admit that I was quite cynical about whether this Research Centre was ethical in the context of confining bears at the base for experimental and research purposes, away from their natural habitat. My thinking was that even if these bears were multiplying in the artificial environment of the Research Centre, what purpose would this serve in protecting these beautiful animals. If they have become dependent on humans for their very existence and cannot fend for themselves when released into the wild, is it right to be increasing their numbers and keeping them captive in Chengdu, or any of the other 26 Research Centres in China? The question being, should we continue to reproduce them or risk leaving them to nature to fend for themselves in trying to survive in their natural habitat? I had read stories about the failed attempts to release Pandas back into their natural habitat. Two bears in particular, named Xue Xue and Xiang Xiang, had been released and sadly were found dead within months of them being released. And so, the purpose of my visit was to find out more about the Centre and educate myself about the plight of these adorable creatures.
The Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu was set up in 1987, for the protection of this cute and cuddly endangered species. The base is a non-profit research and breeding facility for giant pandas and other rare animals. It started with 6 giant pandas that were rescued from the wild. To date, it has reared over 300 pandas. Its aim is to be a world-class research facility, conservation education center, and international educational tourism destination, raising awareness about the plight of these spectacularly cute creatures. To multiply their numbers and experiment with releasing them gradually back into the wild in Chengdu.
So what did I learn? Well I learned how little I actually knew about these creatures, other than the visual cuteness of them.
The reason that these incredibly interesting creatures have become endangered is basically down to us, i.e. humans, and our disregard for the natural habitat of the vulnerable animal kingdom. With the population of China increasing rapidly over the years, more and more land was needed to meet the demand of a growing population, both for domestic and business ventures. The Panda Bears’ natural home became smaller and smaller with the expanse of the surrounding cities. They were pushed into smaller compounds where their natural (and only) food resource, bamboo, was almost diminished to the point that it could not sustain the number of Pandas depending on it. You see Pandas, unlike other bears, don’t hibernate and are not carnivores. They only eat bamboo, and lots of it! 99% of the bears’ diet consists of bamboo. They eat for at least 12 hours a day and can shift up to 12kgs of bamboo daily. Their natural life expectancy in the wild is approximately 20 years. You can imagine then, how much bamboo is needed to ensure that they can survive a lifetime! There are currently just under 2,000 Panda Bears still remaining in the world. 70% of these are living in China.
To add to the complication of the scarcity of bamboo, the bears are extremely fussy about what bamboo they will eat. I learned that there are truckloads of bamboo delivered to the Panda Base each day and it is not unusual for Panda Bears to refuse to eat much of what’s on offer, wanting a different batch to taste before settling on one.
They are also extremely difficult to breed. Pandas are by their very nature are solitary and unsociable animals. The male bears much prefer to laze about and eat bamboo than to copulate with their female mates. Despite numerous attempts at the base to encourage the males to engage with the females, including games to strengthen their back legs so they can mount the female easier, the males don’t get any further than a few lame attempts at mating before they lose interest and go back to snacking on their bamboo. The scientists at the Centre have resorted to anaesethising both male and female Pandas to perform basic artificial insemination of the females, in the hope that a female Panda will become pregnant and therefore add to their numbers in captivity. A risky process, but without this intervention, the number of bears would most certainly reduce further. The female Panda is also only fertile for about 2 days each year, so timing is of the essence for artificial insemination. Even when the Panda bear becomes pregnant, the pregnancy cannot be confirmed until literally minutes before a birth. A pregnancy can last from 11 weeks up to 5 and a half months, and there is no way of knowing how long any individual pregnancy will last. Most Pandas also give birth to twins! So, once the female Panda is inseminated, she must be treated as though she is pregnant, whether she is or is not. In many instances she is not, and the whole process begins again. Frustrating for the researchers and scientists at the base for sure, but they keep on trying, unwavered, regardless.
Then, when the optimum result happens and the baby Pandas are born, sometimes unexpectedly, it is here that you will see the dedication and love and care that the researchers, scientists and keepers at Chengdu have for these bears. One such scientist is quoted as saying that she sees the Pandas more than her own family because of the amount of time she must dedicate to the rearing of these tiny babies. The mother Panda will only have the capacity to care for one of the twin bears, for a maximum period of 18 months. The second bear is removed from the mother by the team of carers at the base and placed in the equivalent of a baby incubation unit at a maternity hospital. The baby bear is nursed in the very same way that a premature baby is, fed and changed, kept snuggled up in a little blanket and monitored continuously. It is pink and almost rat-like at birth, until the soft downy black and white fur begins to cover its tiny body within a matter of weeks. The scientists have experimented recently with one set of twin panda babies by alternating the bears with the mother. The mother Panda in this experiment was totally unaware that the researchers were alternating the twin Pandas in order to give them both time with their mother. Both pandas survived and thrived and are one of the many success stories at the base. In time, the healthy baby bears are placed in a “play pen” with each other for company. It is definitely the highlight of the tour of the base, to see these beautiful tiny cute bears trying to walk and play with one another. Little balls of black and white fur rolling around playfully with each other, and others not yet old enough to participate in the activity around them.
As we made our way around, we came across young Panda Bears, playing happily with their “friends” in relatively small enclosures fitted with glass panels so tourists could enjoy watching and taking photos of them from a distance. Some of the bears clearly were not amused at being on show and sat with their backs to the glass frontage. Others who were a bit more mischievous were quite happy to “show off” for the tourists by playing tug of war with each other and rolling around, much to the squeals of delight from us tourists. The preservation of the bears, I also learned, takes precedence over anything else, including the tourist industry that the centre attracts. Money made from this industry is re-invested into the Centre for the continuation of the work that’s carried out here.
In the main, however, the majority of the bears on display on the day of our visit, were doing what Pandas do best. Eating and sleeping! They get very little energy from the bamboo shoots so they spend a lot of their time sleeping between meals. Having been surrounded by so many wonderful Buddhists here in China, I think if their belief system is true about Karma, and given how much I love my sleep, I want to come back in my next life as a Panda Bear! 😱…. (be careful what you ask the Universe for I’m thinking 🙏🙏😁)
And so, the question of whether this was an ethical way of reproducing the bears remained with me. Well, the answer was obvious once I learned a little bit more about this base. So, what’s the alternative? How do we protect an endangered species if we don’t take risks of rearing them in a somewhat artificial environment (abeit the staff at the base go to great lengths to ensure that the environment is as close to their natural habitat that they can provide. But, it’s just not!) and risk releasing them back into the wild? The researchers have a target of breeding over 300 bears before they begin the process of releasing more bears, and they have now reached this number. The next stage of the project will be to gradually release them under strict supervision to the surrounding hills in Chengdu where they have secured hundreds of acres of land for this purpose. I understand that this will happen very soon. And then the next question is, how do we measure the success of this venture? It is inevitable that there will be casualties, but if it increases the number of Panda bears in the wild in the longer term and they don’t become extinct it’s most certainly worth the years and years of painstaking work on the part of the Chengdu Centre.
Suffice to say that I too have caught “Panda Fever” that no inoculations I received before leaving Ireland will protect me from 🐼🐼🐼🐼
Another lesson that I learned during my time here. We need to take stock, as human beings on this delicate planet, of the impact of deforestation on our wildlife. Chengdu is just one Centre trying to undo the damage that we have already done to these beautiful bears! Just one species out of god knows how many that man is driving to endangerment and extinction!
And the question of ethical or unethical? Only time will tell!
(Note: To travel around China on public transport/bullet trains, as we did, costs very little, relative to the cost of public transport anywhere else in the world. For the return train journey from Guilin to Chengdu (almost 2,500 kms) it cost less than €70 each, and an entrance fee of c. €8 each which includes a transfer bus from the train station to the Panda Research Centre. Accommodation costs are little or nothing, so for a two day trip to Chengdu it cost less than €200, all in for both of us – not bad for such a fantastic experience)
THE GIANT BUDDHA STATUE – LESHAN, CHINA
Before leaving for our return journey back to Guilin (Yangshuo), we decided to take a quick day trip to see the world’s largest and tallest pre-modern stone statue of the Giant Buddha, based nearby in Leshan, in the Sichuan Province, only an hour’s train ride away. The Buddha statue is carved out of a cliff face that lies where two rivers meet (The Min and Dadu River). Work began on the statue as far back as 713 AD by a Chinese Buddhist Monk named Hai Tong. He hoped that by carving out a Buddha in the rock that it would calm the rough waters that caused havoc with ships travelling down the river. In fact the amount of stone removed during the construction which fell into the rivers altered the currents resulting in a safer passage for the ships passing by. Following his death, the Monks continued the work on the sculpture, completing it in 803 AD. A total of 90 years to create this spectacular piece of work!
We began our trip by taking a boat out along the river so we could get a complete view of the Buddha, before returning to climb 71 meters down the giant rock from the head, to the feet of this giant monument. It took us almost two hours to reach the bottom where Buddhist Monks were gathered in prayer. The large toenail on one foot could easily seat a few people. It is a sight to behold and was certainly a bit overwhelming trying to take in the sheer enormity of it and the wonder of how on earth these Monks persisted with this project for 90 years and succeeded in achieving such a perfect end result. Proof that the power of a belief system knows no boundaries and can achieve anything!
Climbing back up the steps to the head of the Buddha in seriously high temperatures left me struggling. Gasping for breath as I climbed, I glanced up briefly, only to see three smiling Tibetan Buddhist Monks seated at a resting place along a gap in the mountain. Seeing me in difficulty they kindly moved and offered me a seat beside them so I could catch my breath before going any further. After spending a bit of time trying to communicate with them, one of them whipped out a mobile phone and asked if they could take a photo with us. I was gobsmacked! Here was me, in total awe of these guys, and the tables turned quicker than I had time to blink, with us smiling away getting selfies with them. Selfies with Tibetan Monks at the worlds largest Buddha – ya just couldn’t make it up 😂😂😂.
And so, we returned to our “Panda” accommodation in Chengdu to get ready for our return journey to Guilin, and onwards to Yangshuo. Yet another part of China ticked off our list of places to see, Pandas and Buddhas – Check ✅. With just over one more week left in China, our next place to visit; the famous Rice Fields in Ping’an, just outside Guilin where we plan to try out the local delicious rice dishes and also meet the “Minority People” who live in the mountains and valleys of the area.
(Note: A day trip from Chengdu to Leshan (return) cost less than €20 each, which included return train fare and entrance fee into the Buddha Statue climbing area).
(Photo: 5 years ago on the Yulong River, Yangshuo, China)
My blog, on this occasion, is digressing a small bit from my usual updates on where I am on my travels as “Irish Granny on the Run”. Today, I am so excited to be afforded an opportunity of entering a competition where I am hoping to win a Safari Trip to Tanzania.
The competition asks that I write about the best holiday that I have ever been on. Well, there’s no prizes for guessing where that is folks! .. China!
The reason I’m entering is firstly, the obvious one, that it is beyond my wildest dreams to even ponder on the idea of visiting such a beautiful part of our planet, to see nature at its rawest and to witness so many wild animals in their natural habitat on a safari trip to Tanzania. On my journey around the world right now, I am loving every bit of learning and knowledge I am gaining by visiting different countries around the world and learning about the many diverse and colourful cultures and traditions in meeting so many beautiful people as I travel. I am also really enjoying sharing this with you all in my blog! I remember I used to follow news articles and social media stories about world travel at a time in my life, as a lone parent, when it was impossible for me to even consider holidaying in Ireland, let alone the world, and how I yearned to be able to travel to all the different countries I read about. Reading those articles brought many destinations alive for me, and I would get lost in daydreaming about the places I would visit “some day”. These articles most certainly contributed to and inspired me to do what I am doing today in my fifties as a Grandmother, i.e. taking time out of my career and life at home to travel the world for two years. If I won this trip to the safari, I could, through my writing and pictures on my blog and on social media, bring this safari experience in Tanzania alive for you all to consider as a place to visit. And for those who, like me a few years ago, may not be in a position right now to do such a trip, well you might just put it on your bucket list to do in the future, as I did with many places I read about over the years.
And so, to the competition itself, and the story of my favorite holiday destination. Well, for me, it has got to be one of the most magical places on earth and it’s most definitely China, and in particular Yangshuo in Southern China!
Now the first question is, how on earth did I find this magical place? Out of all of the places to visit in the world for a holiday, how did Yangshuo, China enter the equation for a holiday destination for me in the first place?
Let me give you a bit of background! You see, five years ago, in the run up to my birthday, my only daughter Alison (who was living in Beijing at the time), was sitting in her apartment, wracking her brains trying to think about the ideal gift to give me for my birthday that year. Receiving birthday gifts is wonderful as we all know. But of all the gifts we receive, there is always that “one” that we love most. From someone who knew and loved us so much that they just nailed it and gifted us just what was needed. A gift that you may not have even realized that you needed so badly. Well, Alison’s birthday present to me that year was just that and, little did I know, it would change the path of my life forever! My present was a trip to Yangshuo in China, for just the two of us! We hadn’t seen each other for a long long time as she was living and working in Beijing, and so this was just the right time for me to pack my bags and join her on a “Mammy and Daughter adventure”
I arrived in Beijing from Ireland on a balmy August morning, after an 11 hour flight, to be greeted by Alison, with two bicycles in tow! Our first adventure, she told me, was a cycle around Beijing, (to make sure that I didn’t sleep until the evening time and therefore avoid the serious jet lag that I could already feel creeping up on me) and of course to feed the mosquitos with some new foreign blood. They feasted on me from the time I arrived, until I realized that wearing strawberry flavor lipgloss probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had 😱. Mosquitoes are inclined to have a sweet tooth. My lips paid the price. Free Botox basically 💋. That cycle lasted 9 full hours! I kid you not!
(Photo: Alison and me cycling around Beijing on my first day in China, before the Mosquitos got me) 😂
This is the only way to see Beijing by the way! With the culture shock hitting me and the absolute uniqueness of this city, the jet-lag faded as we cycled around visiting spectacular sites. We took in the most colourful Buddhist Temples, the Forbidden City, the little Chinese “hutong” side streets with the essence of Chinese culture around every corner. I was hooked! I wanted to know every little piece of history about every place we visited! I was like a child in a candy shop! The excitement was indescribable as we went from place to place. Some of its Temples go back to the 1300s, with fabulous tales of Emperors and their Empresses and concubines no less! The media coverage in the western world is not often very complimentary to China and there are many reasons why, however there is an abundance of beauty and wonder about the place that just must be seen to be believed. In a nutshell, you experience what can only be described as “a whole new world” and very different to any other country in the world in terms of its customs and practice. It’s spectacular to experience and nothing like you might imagine it might be, before you arrive.
Having spent a couple of wonderful days in Beijing, she informed me that she was taking me next to another part of China called “Yangshuo”. I knew nothing of this place, but happily went along with her plan and boarded a flight to Guilin to visit, what I discovered, was a wonderful hidden Utopia nestled between lush green karst mountains, some 70 kms from Guilin City in Southern China and the nearest to paradise I had ever been.
Our home for the week was a traditional Chinese hostel, in the midst of the karst mountains! Alison had our activities planned for our stay, and on day one, after a hearty breakfast at “the Giggling Tree” we took a bamboo raft along the Yulong River with our very own Chinese rower steering the boat with one huge bamboo stick, and his tanned face smiling under his large Coolie hat. He would plunge the stick into the riverbed and push the bamboo raft down the river and over the weirs, listening to our excited screams as we approached each weir waiting for the raft to drop down yet another level into the water below. Large colourful umbrellas attached to the rafts, sheltering the passengers from the sun as they floated along, with the lush green karst mountains reflecting on the glassy water, created the most picturesque views of this beautiful corner of the world.
Exploring this part of China is like opening a beautiful Pandora’s Box of nature. It is a backpackers’ paradise on earth! It is so spectacularly beautiful that it appears on the back of the 20 rmb Chinese banknote. Yangshuo town is bordered by the Li River and Yulong River and surrounded by lush, soaring karst mountains. It is in these mountains that the locals bring their deceased loved ones to bury after the most colourful ceremony that goes on for twenty-four hours after their passing right up to the moment of burial. Family members go out into the mountains during this time to carefully chose the “perfect” burial place nestled in the mountains. The “wake” can be heard for miles around, with Chinese musicians commissioned by the family to play Chinese dirges and requiems on wind instruments. Fireworks can be seen and heard going off right through the night in honor of the deceased. The bereaved families dress in white to resemble the white clothes worn by the corpse, and carry the coffin of their loved one covered in flowers, respectfully and in silence through the town to their place of rest. They scatter yellow square pieces of paper and red rose petals along the route as they go. Having witnessed such a funeral during our time in Yangshuo, I can only describe it as almost tribal, and such a celebration of the deceased’s life. It is extremely moving to witness, even for a stranger in its path.
The scenery in the area is breathtaking for miles and miles around! For me, it is most definitely the “Shangri La” of Southern China. In 1998 President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary visited Guilin and Yangshuo. President Clinton said after his visit that “nowhere is like Guilin, it has the best scenery under the heavens, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful”. Throughout Yangshuo you will find small farms and rice fields scattered everywhere. But you won’t find any farm machinery! Everything is done by hand, the ancient way, and elderly women and men in their bamboo hats can be seen crouching in the fields tilling the land by hand, and carrying the fruits of their labor in two large baskets hanging from a long bamboo stick balanced across their shoulders. The main mode of transport is bicycle and getting lost down dirt tracks, along riverbanks, is all part of the huge adventure when cycling around. It almost feels like you’re a child again, setting out on a scavenger hunt each day, not knowing what you will find along the way. At the end of every road is yet another soaring mountain, and around every corner you will find jaw-dropping scenery and colors of nature that is every photographer’s dream. But even photographs of this wondrous place do not do it justice. I often had to blink twice to be sure that my eyes weren’t tricking me into seeing such beauty around me.
(Photo: Yulong River, Yangshuo, China)
Day two of our stay, and the best was yet to come. Alison had mentioned she was taking me to see “The Fisherman’s Light Show”, a nightly event that takes place in Yangshuo on the Li River. With tickets prebooked and a taxi ready to collect us to bring us the short distance to this magnificent venue in the centre of Yangshuo, I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of seeing this performance. Now trying to explain the enormity of this event is difficult. Suffice to say that the guy who choreographed the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympic Games is responsible for the production of this magnificent musical performance which takes place once darkness falls, outdoors, on the river, with the mountains lit up as the backdrop/stage. The orchestra begins and suddenly, out of nowhere, hundreds of Chinese fishermen make their way out onto the river, with lanterns lit, on their bamboo rafts. They line up along the river and perform a synchronized movement with fishing nets illuminated with red light to the Chinese music echoing from every corner of the venue. It is spectacular to watch. We were absolutely stunned! On and on it went, with lines of performers (600 in total) with illuminated costumes performing various synchronized dances on the river. A large half moon then sailed out, representing an old Chinese romantic legend of a beautiful woman dancing naked on the moon, with her Chinese lover transfixed with her beauty looking on from the ground below. We were informed by the local people that the performance once had a real naked Chinese woman dancing on the yellow lit moon, however, following objections over the years to her performing on a live show naked, she now sports a full neutral color body stocking to appease those complainers. I can’t help wondering what the gender breakdown of the complainants were? Ha ha. The show takes place twice every night, and from then to now people who know me back home have heard me raving about this show for the past 5 years, and I kid you not, if you ever travel to these parts, make sure not to miss it! The Fisherman’s Light Show…you heard it here, you’ve been warned! 🤪
(Photo: Sunset over the Yulong River)
A huge plus to being a female tourist in China is that crime is practically non-existent. The fear of punishment is much too great and so we had the luxury of absolute freedom to explore and venture around both Beijing, Yangshuo and later Shanghai with the comfort and security of knowing we were totally safe. The Chinese people themselves are kind and caring in the extreme. They are excited to meet with “foreigners” and couldn’t do enough to welcome us to their country. It is not unusual to be accosted by an excited Chinese person as you walk along the street, pleading to allow them take a photo with you. We could all take a leaf from their book!
After another few days of exploring this beautiful part of the world, with girly nights of face masks, wine and meeting the most fascinating people, we travelled on to Shanghai where we visited the famous “Bund”. While it was a spectacular part of China too, part of me remained in Yangshuo! I fell in love with the place to the point that I vowed that some day I would come back to visit again, and stay a little longer.
Five years later, those day-dreams that I used to have of travelling the world have at last come true! Having been in the lucky position of being able to take a sabbatical from my work in Ireland, and with my new husband of two years, (and becoming a first-time grandmother to Alison and her husband’s two year old son Harry), I decided I wanted to travel the world and return to the beautiful town of Yangshuo in China. It was a bit like the scene with Gene Kelly at the end of the movie “Brigadoon”! I had to return to see if it was still there and still as beautiful as it had been five years ago. In the summer of 2018, two teaching jobs came up in the Omeida Language School in Yangshuo. My husband and I applied and were successful. We began working at the school from July through to September and spent the most memorable and fantastic summer teaching English to Chinese children. Part of our job description..”taking students out to explore the beauty of Yangshuo”! Living proof that “dreams do come true”..if you want them badly enough. A holiday that changed my life’s path for the better, made me want to explore this beautiful part of the world further. Since coming back to China, I have climbed the Great Wall of China, I have visited the Giant Panda Research Centre in Chengdu to learn about the near extinction of these beautiful animals and the efforts that are being made to reverse this. I’ve met Tibetan monks at the worlds largest Buddha statue, carved into a mountain in Leshen (Western China) over 1200 years ago which took the Buddhist Monks over 90 years to complete. I am still here in Asia, in Vietnam. Learning more, making more memories and living my life now as a Grandmother to the absolute maximum, documenting every moment of it on my blog “Irish Granny on the Run”.
Now you don’t get any better holiday experience than that! A holiday that changed the path of my life forever!
As the famous poet William Blake wrote in his poem “Auguries of Innocence”
“To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour”
I am fortunate enough and soo happy to say that this is exactly what I am doing now. Taking in a trip to Tanzania on my travels, and learning, writing and sharing it with my readers would be another dream come true!
(Photo: Back in Yangshuo after 5 years, teaching English with my husband Colm)
We arrived in Yangshuo after a 5 hour journey by plane, train and automobile from Vietnam to Guilin China, full of enthusiasm and passion and the usual pangs of anxiety that go with starting any new job. Getting to the school headquarters a little earlier than expected, we climbed the steps to the outdoor seating area, where a large poster of the Principal Teacher greeted students and teachers alike, with encouraging words for their English Language learning. We took a seat at one of the benches and began chatting to two wonderfully pleasant Chinese men who were seated close by. One was clearly a student, with his head buried in his English textbook preparing for his day’s lessons. He was clear bait for any new English Language Teacher, and so I asked him how he was finding the English lessons, whether he felt that he was progressing in his learning of the language and what he thought of the school? He said that he was enjoying his studies and that his English was improving day by day. The other gentleman joined our conversation and I asked him about the area, and did he know much about the school etc. From his knowledge of the area and an identity badge hanging from his neck, it was clear to me that he may have been one of the local taxi drivers trying to grab a fare from the students and teachers on the first day of the new term. To pass the time we chatted away to him, explaining that we were from Ireland, on a trip around the world and were in Yangshuo to teach English to the students at Omeida for the Summer. We tried to get as much info from him also about his dealings with the school and what he thought of it. Once we heard the school chimes for the start of the day, we politely excused ourselves and made our way into the school to meet Jake, the Education Director at the school. After various introductions, instructions and induction, we came across the “taxi driver” guy still hanging around outside as we were leaving. Smiling at him again, we bid him farewell, before we were stopped in our tracks by another member of the Omeida Team for a brief introduction that went something like….”Martine and Colm, please meet Odar, the Principal Teacher”…and then my chin dropped! Throughout our conversation earlier he never once mentioned he was the Principal of the school! My mind did a frantic video rewind of what we had chatted about, for damage limitation purposes of course! And Odar, the Principal, sporting a wide cheeky grin across his entire face, had me in the palm of his hand from that day on. A genuinely, down-to-earth guy..who no doubt thought that morning “what sort of eejits am I employing who didn’t recognize me, even with a huge poster of me hanging right in front of them?”.
And so began our eight-week teaching experience at Omeida, under the governance of this funny, inspiring, unassuming and kind Chinese man. Odar is a shrewd business man as well as the Principal Teacher of this world-class school. One evening over dinner he told us the story of how he had grown up in a nearby rural Chinese village. I had shared with him how shocked I was to see the poverty of the children in Vietnam and seeing rats running alongside where they were playing. He explained that he grew up in very similar circumstances. He always had a love of English from the time he was a young boy and during his time at school he would sit with an English book hidden under his desk and read and read. He is the “Rags to Riches” real life story, and because of this, he is respected and loved by not only the students and teachers and staff at Omeida, but by everyone for miles around. Even the mention of his name to the poorer people of the community who line the streets of Yangshuo trying to earn a crust, brings a smile to their faces and yet another wonderful funny story about him. As the new “foreign” teachers at the school, Odar and his team made sure we had everything we needed, including a warm welcome, top-class accommodation at a small family run hotel nearby, and the local mode of transport in Yangshuo, bicycles, to help us get around and settle in. We couldn’t have asked for more, and over the next eight weeks we happily went about teaching at the Summer Camp, just a few minutes bike ride from our base. The hours were long, which is pretty standard for the people of China. They think nothing of working 15 hour days or more without flinching. We worked seven days a week, sometimes from 8.30 a.m. until 10 p.m. at night with the most beautiful Chinese children ranging between 5 and 23 years old. And while we taught classes indoors most days, we also had the fabulous task of taking these students around Yangshuo on outdoor activities visiting some of the most scenic places in China, and indeed the world. It most certainly didn’t feel like work a lot of the time, but an equally fantastic journey of learning for us.
Teaching at Omeida was certainly a life-changing and whole new learning experience for me as a new English Language Teacher in China. One Monday afternoon, it was time for me to carry out my usual assessment interviews with the new students who had just arrived at the school campus. A tiny young boy of about 6 years old with beautiful ebony innocent eyes, tottered up to my desk for his assessment. And so I began the usual conversation with him, asking him very basic questions about his favorite things and his family. Each time I asked him a question he froze in fear and just stared into my face, watching my every expression. A few minutes into our chat, I realized that he was just too terrified to utter a word in his own language let alone be able to have a little conversation with me in English. I called his Chinese language teacher aside to see if he was ok. Her response was that I was the very first “foreign” person he had ever seen and so my face and eyes etc. were comparable to him seeing an alien for the first time. The poor little mite was so fearful that the interview had to end immediately until he got to know me better and felt secure and safe. And this became a regular occurrence each week with the younger children. After this, I placed my little “Irish Granny on the Run” fluffy teddy on my desk and chatted to the children for a bit about Teddy before engaging them in any English language questions…lesson learned for me on that one for sure!
Our week consisted of teaching English to Chinese children through fun activities and classes to help them to gain confidence in speaking with “foreigners”, i.e. English speaking tourists. A new group of children would arrive on a Monday and stay on the school campus until the following Sunday morning when we would host a “closing ceremony” for them before they left. These “closing ceremonies” would inevitably end up with the students in tears having to leave, and often the teachers, including me, quietly sniffling in a corner as the children watched videos on a big screen of the week they had spent with us. We hosted Barbeque parties where English speaking tourists were invited to join the children at the school to chat to them and to help them learn about other cultures. Hosting Talent Shows at the end of every week before the children left for home, where there were jaw-dropping moments watching the children sing and act out their own cultural performances with such confidence. It was often hard to believe that these were the same shy, nervous children we had interviewed at the beginning of the week.
One of the tasks assigned to me at the start of the Summer was to come up with a “Camp Song” for the students of the Summer Camp. And so, the most obvious one for me was one that I’m sure, like me, many of you will be familiar with from those school tour days back home in Ireland where we would sing at the top of our voices on the school tour bus “Every where we gooo, (every where we goooo), people always ask us (people always ask us), who we are (who we are) where do we come from. And we always tell them (and we always tell them)…we’re from Dublin”…and so on. I just converted the “we’re from Dublin” to “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida” and bang, that was it. Every group activity began and ended with this song, and the Chinese children would chant it loudly at the top of their voices “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”. They totally loved the excitement of it and every opportunity that arose they would burst into the song, much to the amusement of everyone around at all of the tourist sites we took them to visit.
Each week we would also have a “Bamboo Minority Dancing” night, where all of the “foreign” teachers learned how to do the local “Minority Bamboo Dance”. We dressed up in the local costumes and jumped and danced between Bamboo Sticks being shuffled on the ground by six Chinese Teaching Assistants to the beat of the local Chinese traditional songs. The dance was difficult, made even more difficult by our fits of hysterical laughter as we tried to avoid tripping over the constantly moving sticks. The children put us to shame when it was their turn to do it and were totally amused at these “aliens” in funny costumes struggling to stay upright throughout the dancing. During these eight weeks, we became children ourselves and every single day brought with it the most wonderful experiences with some of the most colourful characters I have ever encountered. And this was what our working days were like… adventure after adventure, each day better than the next. Exhausting for sure, but this was living life to the full and worth every single minute of it! Our fellow teachers and the staff at Omeida became like family to us, and in particular the young college students who became our teaching assistants while we taught. These teaching assistants were trojan workers and nothing was too big a task for them. They cared for the young students with patience, love and commitment from sun up to sun down until the young children were tucked up safely in their beds at night. They took care of the children “in loco parentis”, the same, if not better, than any parent would. With all of these people we shared absolutely everything …the highs and the lows of our time in Yangshuo. If one of us expressed a longing for western food or an item that we needed, all hands went on deck to find it. I had fresh French bread delivered to my door by one of the foreign teachers (who has now become one of my close friends) because I was having serious withdrawals from the lack of western food. The ex-pat community in Yangshuo really do become like family, as I’m sure most people living away from home in other countries have experienced. However I believe Yangshuo has the X-Factor on this having lived here for these three months.
Yet another lesson for me happened when we were assigned a group of 83 University Students on our last week at the school. They were young adults who were majoring in English and in addition to the usual classes, we had the task of accompanying these students on a cycling tour of about 20Kms round trip to visit some of the most beautiful sights in Yangshuo, one of which was to climb a nearby mountain called “Moon Hill Mountain”. Now climbing the mountain was via 800 steep steps in sweltering temperatures. The struggle was real! When we arrived at the foot of the mountain after cycling along the most beautiful scenic route, myself and Colm held back to the rear of the group so we could see and supervise all of the students ahead of us as they climbed. Naturally, being used to the high temperatures and at almost half our age, they climbed up at a much quicker pace than we did. Desperately struggling up at the half-way mark, we came across a group of young Chinese students lazing in the sunshine at a stone bench. The natural teacher in me questioned them as to why they hadn’t continued up with the rest of the students. I got the usual teenage response “oh it’s too hot” and “we can’t go any higher, we just can’t”. Well, I kindly but firmly told them to get up off their “behinds” and continue the climb to the top, reprimanding them that they would regret not doing the climb like their fellow students who would have the most beautiful photos and memories of the sights from the top of the mountain over Yangshuo. They reluctantly agreed to continue, but still complained and moaned, saying “our friends will be coming down soon and we’ll be late reaching the top now, and the teachers won’t be happy with us”. I was naturally becoming impatient with them at this point and told them that I was twice their age and was prepared to continue the climb and that they were to get their a**es in gear and do it and not worry about “teachers not being happy with them”, as we would explain to the other teacher that was with us that they got delayed. I assured them that it was “mind over matter” and that we would all do the climb together singing the “Camp Song” and that would keep their minds occupied as we climbed. And so we did, belting out the song all the way up, with me singing the lines of the song and them repeating “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”! Sure enough, their Chinese student friends passed by us on the return journey down, greeting them with laughter and jeering in Chinese as they passed, despite my disapproving glares. With continuous words of encouragement to them as they continued the climb I thought…”I’ll have them sorted, they’ll be at the top in no time and will be delighted with themselves”. And so, we reached the top some forty minutes later, only for them to do a swift turn around, in a state of panic wanting to go back down. I was gob-smacked! What on earth was wrong with these students? I asked them what their hurry was going back down and one young girl said “our bus will be leaving soon”! Now I was at the end of my tether with them trying to lie to me to get out of enjoying the views from the mountain top. So, I told them to go enjoy the views and stop the nonsense, sure weren’t they on their bikes with us? It was then the penny dropped…. They were students from a different college, with a different tour group! Another video rewind in my head for damage limitation…and bang… that I had them chanting all the way up the mountain “we’re from Omeida, great great Omeida”! Oh nooooo! No wonder their friends were laughing and teasing them… and no wonder they wanted to get away quickly… in their eyes they had met this mad western woman who was making them sing songs they had never heard of all the way up the mountain. As soon as they saw my face, and the realization dawning on me, they ran. No time for me to apologize or explain that with 83 Chinese students it was difficult for me to differentiate between them! The lesson? Know who your students are. We went out with 83 students and could have come back with 90! How would I explain that one to the school authorities? 😂😂😂
Exploring this part of China is like opening a beautiful Pandora’s Box of nature. It is a backpackers’ paradise on earth! It is so spectacularly beautiful that it appears on the back of the 20 rmb Chinese banknote. Yangshuo town is bordered by the Li River and Yulong River and surrounded by lush, soaring karst mountains. It is in these mountains that the locals bring their deceased loved ones to bury after the most colourful ceremony that goes on for twenty-four hours after their passing right up to the moment of burial. Family members go out into the mountains during this time to carefully chose the “perfect” burial place nestled in the mountains. The “wake” can be heard for miles around, with Chinese musicians commissioned by the family to play Chinese dirges and requiems on wind instruments. Fireworks can be seen and heard going off right through the night in honor of the deceased. The bereaved families dress in white to resemble the white clothes worn by the corpse, and carry the coffin of their loved one covered in flowers, respectfully and in silence through the town to their place of rest. They scatter yellow square pieces of paper and red rose petals along the route as they go. Having witnessed such a funeral during our time in Yangshuo, I can only describe it as almost tribal, and such a celebration of the deceased’s life. It is extremely moving to witness, even for a stranger in its path.
The scenery in the area is breathtaking for miles and miles around! For me, it is most definitely the “Shangri La” of Southern China. In 1998 President Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary visited Guilin and Yangshuo. President Clinton said after his visit that “nowhere is like Guilin, it has the best scenery under the heavens, but Yangshuo is even more beautiful”. Throughout Yangshuo you will find small farms and rice fields scattered everywhere. But you won’t find any farm machinery! Everything is done by hand, the ancient way, and elderly women and men in large coolie hats can be seen crouching in the fields tilling the land by hand, and carrying the fruits of their labor in two large baskets hanging from a long bamboo stick balanced across their shoulders. The main mode of transport is bicycle and getting lost down dirt tracks, along riverbanks, is all part of the huge adventure when cycling around. It almost feels like you’re a child again, setting out on a scavenger hunt each day, not knowing what you will find along the way. At the end of every road is yet another soaring mountain, and around every corner you will find jaw-dropping scenery and colors of nature that is every photographer’s dream. But even photographs of this wondrous place do not do it justice. I often had to blink twice to be sure that my eyes weren’t tricking me into seeing such beauty around me. Each Sunday we had our afternoons free, and so we sometimes de-stressed by taking a bamboo raft along the Yulong River with our very own Chinese rower steering the boat with one huge bamboo stick under his large Coolie hat. He would plunge the stick into the riverbed and push the bamboo raft down the river and over the weirs, listening to our excited screams as we approached each weir waiting for the raft to drop down yet another level into the water below. Large colourful umbrellas attached to the rafts, sheltering the passengers from the sun as they float along, and the lush green karst mountains reflecting on the glassy water, creates the most picturesque views of this beautiful corner of the world.
Along Yangshuo’s Main Street (West Street) it has bustling markets, with local street food. The dumplings and Guilin Noodles are totally scrumptious, and even the mere mention of them makes my mouth water. West Street on any day is filled with tourists enjoying the many restaurants and bars with local Chinese women shouting out their wares through microphone head-sets. Each bar has its music blaring in competition with the next one and it can be gritting on the nerves sometimes, but an experience to be had all the same. It was an ideal venue for our Chinese students to meet and speak with foreigners and they absolutely loved the buzz and activity of the town. It was also the meeting place for all of the “foreign” teachers to enjoy a rare night out if we had the energy at the end of a day with the students. I could write another ten pages on this piece, but, “what goes on in West Street, stays in West Street” 😂. Let’s just say, at the early stage of our stay (and before we all began work in earnest), the hotel where most of the “foreign” teachers were lodging put up a sign on the door to say there was a curfew, and that anyone arriving back at the hotel after 2 a.m. would not have access to their room as the doors would be locked. To explain that the World Cup was on and due to the time difference we had to stay out at the bar to watch it just didn’t cut the mustard 😜. There was no offer of a key to the door, so lucky for us, we arrived home (only on the one occasion mind, and only because our 25 minute walk home ended up being almost 2 hours, until we realized we were heading into the mountains instead of the town where our hotel was and had got lost!), at 6.10 a.m.! Luckily, the hotel re-opened the doors at 6 a.m. and we casually strolled in and up to our rooms as though it was the most natural thing in the world. I was quite amused that a curfew had been imposed on me, in my 50’s! It was quite nice to feel like a teenager again 🤪
And so our time of teaching came to an end, but we still had three weeks left in China before we had to leave for Vientiane in Laos. Yet again, the school went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that we could stay in our accommodation, free of charge, until we left. To say that we felt respected and valued being part of this organization is an understatement. Even after our contracts ended, they still took care of us, to the point that when I needed a doctor for a horrendous tummy bug that I had picked up, the school organized a lovely young Chinese student to accompany me to the hospital to be my interpreter. The hospital experience was another interesting one. I arrived at the hospital at 9.00 a.m. I had seen a doctor, who referred me to the area of the hospital that dealt with gastric problems by 9.30 a.m. I had tests completed in the hospital, results in my file going back to the doctors office, a diagnosis, prescription and medication in my paws, ready to leave by 10.30 a.m. And all for the sum of c.240 rmb, which equates to just over €30. With a population of 1.4 billion people, the healthcare system in China far exceeds the demand that we are dealing with in Ireland and yet there are no trolleys in corridors, or lengthy queues of very sick patients waiting to be seen. Albeit, when visiting the doctor initially you discuss your symptoms with the doctor while other patients in the line look over your shoulder. Luckily the people behind me were Chinese and most likely had no English and vice-versa.
With my health problem sorted, the teaching finished, and a comfy base to return to in Yangshuo, we had a full three weeks to explore some more amazing places in Southern and Western China. The public transport system, in particular the bullet train, allowed us such freedom to begin yet another adventure and at very little cost. Our first port of call…to take a bullet train to Chengdu in Western China to visit the Panda Bear Reserve and Research Centre!
Yet another “learning curve”, and one that will certainly stay with me in the context of how important it is for us, as humans, to protect and preserve the most beautiful and vulnerable species on our planet.
We left Saigon to travel northwards, along the eastern seaboard of Vietnam to a place called Nha Trang. Our plan was to spend two weeks here by the breathtaking South China Sea, and then travel further north to the city of Hanoi, (some 1300kms north which would take us 2 hours of a flight from Nha Trang), to learn some more about this country and its people. We travelled on the quaintest old train that wound its way through the little streets of Saigon where people’s front doors opened onto the tracks and children played happily until the next scheduled train was due to arrive. Little faces looked out from their tiny homes, waving in delight at the train as it passed by. The train itself was like something out of a Sherlock Holmes movie! The interior of the carriages were covered with wallpaper, with oil style lamps dotted along the inside walls. The chairs were old but so comfortable, and our fellow passengers, the local Vietnamese people, had literally everything but the kitchen sinks packed in with them (if they had kitchens!). The trains in Vietnam are a far cry from the high speed bullet train we had travelled on in Japan, but this train had such character that it was, on every level, the most enjoyable 9 hour train journey I had since leaving Ireland.
At each stop along the way, elderly Vietnamese women jumped onto the train with boxes of fruit, trying to sell their wares to passengers, in an absolute frenzy, so they could jump off the train with their pockets full of Vietnamese Dong before it took off again for the next stop. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them didn’t make the deadline and had to continue on for miles before being able to get off again. And how did they find their way back home? Taxis and cars are practically non-existent outside of the cities, so they’d basically have to walk for miles with their boxes of fruit in tow. Or wait for hours for the next train back! We opted out of food on offer from the trolleys of large soup pots passing us in the trains aisle. Nobody spoke enough English to tell us what the pots held, and we weren’t brave enough to try out the local cuisine. What did happen though was the the people around us, noticed that we weren’t eating and generously took out fruit that they had bought from the women who had been on the train earlier, and offered some to us. I was particularly moved by the generosity of a woman who clearly was quite poor, travelling with her young son and husband, taking out all sorts of food and fruit from her bag and offering it to us. This was a regular occurrence that we experienced during our time in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have so little, yet they are happy to share with us, foreigners in their country, what little they had. We could all take a leaf from that book!
Now one piece of advice I’d give anyone travelling by train in Vietnam; Know how to ask for the stop you’re getting off at in the Vietnamese language! Don’t assume that someone on the train will speak English, not even the staff on board. They don’t! And the trains can be delayed along the way, so banking on a time of arrival to know what station is the right one just doesn’t work. We learned this the hard way, albeit it could have been worse. After about 8 hours into our journey, we asked one of the train assistants if the next stop was Nha Trang, but in the same breath, asked him what time it was due to stop there. His response answered a very different question (we think). He said “yes” (but if you ask any other question apparently, (because of the lack of English), the answer will always be the same…”yes” 😁). And so we grabbed our cases and bags and began making our way towards the exit doors. No other passengers seemed to be moving, which we thought was quite strange. In fact, I’m sure I saw a few smirks and giggles from the locals who I guess had seen eejits like us travelling on their trains before. One hour later, we’re still at the exit door. The station was nowhere near, and we weren’t even sure when the train did eventually stop whether it was Nha Trang. We had to take the risk, jump off and suck it and see. Luckily it was!
When travelling through Vietnam also, you really cannot rely on ATM machines being readily available. So cash, cash, cash all the way. The currency, the Vietnamese Dong, takes a bit of getting used to. €1 is equivalent to 27,000 Dong. When you’re trying to convert this back to Euro from millions of Dong, it becomes quite confusing. But everything from food to drink to accommodation is unbelievably cheap. A two course meal with drinks, for two people, would set you back no more than €15-€20. You actually feel like a millionaire when you look at all the notes of Dong in your purse…I’d always hoped to be one someday. I guess I just got the wrong country 😂😂😂.
We had been forewarned before we arrived, that when travelling by taxi in Vietnam, make sure it is a metered taxi! This is the downfall of travelling through Vietnam, or in fact many countries throughout the world. There are serious scams going on in relation to taxis, so if you fall foul of riding in a taxi that isn’t metered you could end up having to pay a serious amount of money for them to take you to where you want to go, not to mention the other dangers that I don’t dare to think about. There are hair raising stories of how tourists have been caught out and robbed by travelling in cars that appear to be taxis but aren’t. We had been given good advice, to download an app called Grab. It basically works the same as Uber and is regulated and monitored, and extremely cheap. So, stay with the metered ones, no matter how desperate you might be to get somewhere!
So onwards we went by taxi, to our beautiful Airbnb accommodation in Nha Trang. We have had nothing but fantastic hosts and accommodation in every place we have stayed throughout our travels. That was, until now! When booking we noticed that there were no reviews on the accommodation, which is quite unusual. We ticked it off as probably being the fact that it looked so new and pristine clean. Bad move! The accommodation itself, to be fair, was spanking new, to the point that it still hadn’t been fully equipped with kitchenware. But having a pristine clean apartment with two bedrooms and directly across from a beautiful beach…sure what more could we have asked for? That was, until about 7 a.m. the following morning when we heard the noise of Cango hammers and drills all around us. We were in a brand new building to be sure. Our apartment was one of the few that had been finished and the remainder of the building was basically a construction site. We had been told that breakfast was included with our accommodation! So we thought this would involve an “opt in” or “opt out” and that we could make our way to wherever it was served and voila. Happy Days! Not so! At 8.00 a.m. each morning after we had been woken by the major construction going on around us, a Vietnamese lady would arrive with a plate with slices of melon and a couple of cold fried eggs on top. Fair enough, we thought we could take in the breakfast and have it at our leisure. Again, not so! As soon as the breakfast lady had delivered our food, a team of cleaners would arrive. Five cleaning ladies, ready to attack the apartment with gusto. And this was every morning! If we didn’t answer the door when they knocked, they had their own key and just opened the door to let themselves in!
Day two of the stay I had decided, nope, not having this! Not an ounce of privacy…ah no! I thought if I advised our “Host” that we would only be requiring cleaning twice a week and that we would be out some mornings doing outdoor activities (seeing as the indoor ones were out…unless we wanted an audience 😜) so he could cut back on the breakfast deliveries also; Sure wouldn’t that sort it? Not so! He replied to my messages saying “yes”. (Probably similar to the train attendants). And the knocking on the door every morning continued, with the team of smiling Vietnamese ladies greeting us each time we opened the door to our gobsmacked faces looking back at them! How many days do you have to open the door and tell them “Go Away please”? Nope, they returned with even more gusto the following day. At a different time each day then…which meant absolutely no privacy at all! I started imagining hearing the door knock at 2 and 3 a.m. in the morning! It was getting to me I guess 😤. So back onto our Host, who at this point was totally ignoring my 2,000 word rants! Even on the last day of our stay when I notified him that I was leaving the key at reception, I opened the door to another group of smiling Vietnamese women who had arrived, yet again, to clean, but also to collect our key. Moral of the story? Do not everrr book accommodation on Airbnb unless there are a number of reviews to refer to. I notice following my review on the site, that his accommodation is available for the next year. Funny that!
To avoid the stress of our streams of visitors to our apartment each morning, we decided to make our way to the beach early, and relax on the sun loungers by the most beautiful sea I have ever seen. The South China Sea is warm and spotless clean, and swimming in it is definitely everything that you expect and more. Clear blue skies, golden sand and palm trees every day! This is the beauty of the place! It’s the stuff that holiday magazines display for that dream holiday. The issues with the apartment faded away into insignificance in light of the rest of our surroundings. Nha Trang itself is a huge city with bustling side streets of markets and bars and restaurants. It is the total opposite end of the spectrum to Saigon. It is called “the Riviera of Vietnam” for good reason, and that is the wealth that is apparent everywhere you walk. However, that is in the “tourist” sections of the city only. Venture into the back streets and again you will find the inner layer of the same onion, the poverty hidden away from the naked eye, albeit not to the same extent as we had already seen in Saigon.
We booked a boat trip one morning out to some islands off the east coast of Vietnam through a local tour company and were provided with the most attentive tour guide called Hung, who brought cold beer in a cooler box for us (I guess knowing we were Irish he knew this was a good move 🙏). The Funky Monkey Boat had a crew of hilarious Vietnamese and Cambodian entertainers who knew all of the familiar songs from their passengers home countries. One guy on the boat who called himself “Monkey Boy” (a native of Cambodia), burst into song with “The Fields of Athenry”, when he discovered that he had two Irish passengers on board. He was the most endearing character we met in Vietnam and we have remained in contact with him, and Hung since.
The Funky Monkey boat was taking us for a scuba diving and snorkeling experience, out into the seas alongside the islands. Now anywhere else in the world (I found out later), ensures that you complete a training course before embarking on a scuba dive. Not here! Being a strong swimmer with a passion for swimming in the ocean, I was only too happy to give this a try…not even considering the possible dangers of doing so without having any experience of scuba diving before this. My rationale was that this was the purpose of my journey; to experience new adventures and do things that I had never done before in my life. This was, for me, the perfect opportunity to do just that. And after all, I was to be accompanied by an experienced scuba diving instructor. Sure how much safer could I be? So, on went the wet-suit and the oxygen tank. A five to ten minute lesson on how to breath with the somewhat complex apparatus, and off I went. Off the boat, out into the ocean, with my diving instructor. As he gently pushed me down further and further towards the bottom of the sea bed, any fear that I had was replaced with absolute wonder and amazement at what I was seeing in front of my mask! The most beautifully colored fish, swimming past my face, eel like creatures slithering along the sea floor. And then, the instructor took my hand and placed it on the coral that was swaying on the sea bed. I never knew that coral was soft, having only seen it out of the ocean. And as I combed my hands through the mounds of coral, more fish darted out in front of me. Trying to concentrate on breathing through the mouthpiece was difficult with the distraction of taking everything in that I was seeing, and I struggled at one point and had to be brought to the surface very quickly for another quick re-run of using the mouthpiece and oxygen correctly. I wasn’t deterred, not a chance was I gonna stop at this point, and down I went again; with such an enthusiastic diving instructor who had explained to me how to signal to him when we were down at the bottom of the sea, if I was in difficulty, I certainly felt like I was in safe hands. The sense of achievement I felt, despite the initial fear, was overwhelming. It was certainly, for me, the highlight of my trip to Vietnam, and an experience I will make sure happens more and more as I travel further around Asia. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet, feel the fear and do it anyway, as the saying goes.
We had a fabulous lunch on the board the boat where we had the option of selecting live fish from fish-tanks submerged in the ocean at one of the fishing villages we stopped at en-route before docking for lunch.
In terms of food in Nha Trang, the local cuisine is most famous for fresh seafood and barbecued pork rolled in rice paper. The area’s “bird’s nest soup” is also deemed one of the best in Vietnam. Bird’s nests are collected in the wild, on bird farms on the islands off the coast and even in some houses in the inner city and used for cooking. The birds nest is not made from leaves or twigs that we are all too familiar with. It is taken from a bird called a swiftlet, indigenous to certain parts of Asia and Australia. Swiftlets, unlike most birds, make their nests by expelling saliva. The saliva dries and hardens upon contact with air to form the nest which is, of course, edible. So, in other words, what you’re ingesting is…bird spit. It is widely believed that eating these nests in a soup-like mixture can cure heart disease and even cancer, although proper research to support this theory is still being explored. It’s also expensive however, and so we decided to stick to the other local cuisine on offer, more because the thoughts of eating birds spit just didn’t appeal to my western and unadventurous palette. 😝 At that point, a sausage, rasher and fried egg was all my western palate longed for ….. it’s the simple things in life really 😂
And so, after spending two weeks lounging around the beautiful beaches of Nha Trang it was time for us to move on to Hanoi, where we had booked our next Airbnb accommodation at crazily cheap cost in the Old Quarter of the city. The influence of the historical French occupancy of this city is the first thing that strikes you as you arrive into this particular part of Hanoi. From the architecture of the buildings you could be forgiven for thinking you had landed in an old old city in France. Our accommodation was just one such building that was draped in French history, and belonged to a Vietnamese elderly woman whose family history went back generations to France. Our large bedroom in the old building had one of those wonderful old high ceilings with a three-bladed fan hanging from the centre ceiling that would not have been out of place in one of those old movies with hospital rooms where romance bloomed between the nurses and patients, during the Second World War.
Another great tip for anyone travelling to the cities of Saigon or Hanoi in Vietnam (or indeed anywhere around Asia) is that there are fantastic enthusiastic young students who want to improve their conversational English skills who advertise to accompany western tourists, free of charge, offering to be your tour guide for a day. Eager to learn about the history of the city, we took advantage of this in Hanoi and booked a tour only to be accompanied by two wonderfully enthusiastic and educated guides Ann and Quinn, who brought us around the old quarter. We visited an old heritage house, visited the markets and cobbled streets of the city. The crafts and trades of the local merchants were used to name the streets of the old quarter of Hanoi, e.g. Bamboo Wares Street, or Copper Wares Street. Again, along these streets, we saw examples of poverty where tiny, narrow alleyways between shops housed families in tiny dark spaces with no light, just one tiny room at the end of the alleyway. It was during this particular trip that we stumbled across stalls with full bodies of dogs, cooked and ready to be eaten, on sale. This is a delicacy in Hanoi, and while it is easy to judge this practice, I think it’s important to mention that these dogs are not stray or pet dogs as is often speculated on, but specifically bred for the food market. It is difficult to comprehend and while I may not agree with such a practice, I’m conscious of the fact that there are practices that our culture engages in that are just as offensive to people from other cultures. I’m sure the Indian culture are horrified that we butcher and eat cows for example, whereas they venerate these animals. The debate goes on, however, again, we cannot judge other cultures by holding our own up as a paragon!
And so, our three week stay in Vietnam came to an end, shortened due to the fact that we had been offered the most wonderful opportunity of teaching English in China. We excitedly prepared to go back again to one of the most beautiful places on this planet, Yangshuo in Southern China, to begin our teaching of English at the Omeida Language Academy.
(Photo: An elderly lady mixing cement in Saigon – June 2018)
There is a notable time lapse between this blog and my last one. The reason for this is that I just could not bring myself to write any more on the Saigon/Ho Chi Minh experience (I’ll refer to the city as Saigon in this blog as the local people don’t particularly like the new name of Ho Chi Minh following the Vietnam war). I needed some time to process what I was seeing before being able to write about it again, and frankly, even re-visiting it in my mind was distressing, as i think is evident from my previous blog.
In hindsight, (aside from the War Museum), I’m not sure why it had such a profound impact on me. I’m very much aware that there is poverty everywhere in the world. I do believe however, that even the poorest of us in the western world live a very privileged lifestyle by comparison to how people live in many countries outside of this. Our TV screens show us this every day, yet to see it first hand I think is very different. News reports and images of babies being injured by bombs in Syria etc. seem to have very little impact on us anymore. While I’ve been horrified to see these images on my TV, I’m ashamed to say that it’s become such a regular occurrence that I have almost become immune to it, and I believe that this is the same for all of us.
While walking through the streets on the outskirts of the city of Saigon, and Hanoi (to a lesser extent), I witnessed for the first time in my life, people living in what can only be described (by our standards back home), as minimal at best, and totally poverty stricken at worse. It’s a very different level of poverty than I have ever seen in the Western World. It kicks you right in the gut, and it has made me reflect on many things, not least, about being a parent, rearing children in a society very different from here.
From the time our children take their first breath, as parents, we are constantly worrying about whether we are giving them “enough”?! And I refer here to material things! In first world countries, most parents, (including myself), frantically shop at Christmas and birthdays and every other occasion that demands it, filling rooms with toys, computers and whatever material gadgets might be in fashion, fooling ourselves that this will bring so much happiness to our children and make us better parents. We buy them everything from designer clothes, shoes, to expensive sugary cereals where inviting tokens and toys are displayed on boxes and targeting parents to buy them to ensure our children have “the best product”. Sucked in like idiots. I have been that soldier! Parents are pressurized into purchasing the best designer products for the same reason. I’ve known parents who have got into serious debt in order to “keep up with the Jones’s kids” in the belief that they were being better parents as a result! We are all guilty of overindulging our children at some point, as we are ourselves. It’s almost impossible to avoid! Our children will remind us about “Johnny’s mother or father buying him the latest x-box/computer/computer game” and we are challenged constantly as parents to say No! In a nutshell, we don’t say “NO”! It’s much more difficult of course, but in the end, by doing so is teaching our children a very important life lesson. “No, you can’t have everything you want”! I would love if every teenager living in the western world was encouraged to spend a minimum of two weeks of their school holidays out here doing voluntary work. Teaching them some valuable life lessons about helping people less fortunate than themselves.
Here in Vietnam it is very very different! Many parents don’t have the luxury of saying “Yes” ever, to their children. Even to provide them with the most basic of toys is a challenge and the children are none the wiser. Parents struggle to feed and clothe their children and toys just cannot be a priority. Regardless, these children can be seen playing happily in the little alleyways and along the side of open railway tracks where their tiny houses open out onto. Their street outside their homes are train tracks. I walked down along these train tracks in Hanoi one afternoon with a local English speaking Vietnamese guide and spoke to some of the women who lived in what can only be described as little one-room shacks no bigger than 5m2. They rear their children in these rooms. They cook, sleep, and conduct their family lives in such conditions. The women dry their food on blankets across the tracks in between the times of trains speeding through their tiny street. Children were playing on the train tracks, playing with burst footballs, (probably dreaming of being the next Ronaldo). Little girls playing with worn ropes for skipping. I asked one of the mothers how she could be sure that her children were safe from the daily trains speeding through their “play areas”. She pointed to a train timetable that she had pinned to her door and explained that when the train is due to pass she calls them in off the tracks. I was gobsmacked! And yet, these men and women go about their daily lives happily. They don’t complain and claim they are very happy with their lot. The children are the happiest little children I have ever seen and remind me of the really old photos from my parents time when children played with a tin can or played skipping from sun up to sun down. To watch these children playing and with having so little is a sight to behold and lesson for any parent.
Children, from a very young age, must also help to bring in some money to the household. On one occasion when we were out taking a stroll on the outskirts of Saigon, near our luxurious accommodation (that came at a very low cost but troubled me with guilt returning to it each evening), we came across a group of children from about 4 years of age up to maybe 10 years old at the side of a main road with traffic speeding up and down. They appeared to be siblings and were rummaging through a pile of rubbish, gathering recyclables and bagging it to sell. They were happily and excitedly going through the pile only a few feet away from where we had seen the rats scurrying the previous day. This is a common enough occurrence and one that is very moving to witness as a parent. And the elderly people! We saw old women who were at least 75 years old, doing the very same as the young children had; sifting through rubbish and piling cardboard and plastic onto their bikes to sell on in the hope of making some money for their families. Another elderly couple who were well into their late 70’s or possibly 80’s in Saigon were mixing cement at the side of the road in seriously high temperatures and stacking bricks outside their little house that was situated down one of the alleyways. (There would be uproar back home if this happened!)
Away from the train tracks, people, in the main, live in tiny one or two roomed dwellings of about 15m2 with no windows, one main door at the front of the house, with iron gates that fold across the front exterior of their homes to act as their barriers at nighttime. In this small living area, motorbikes and scooters are also kept. The roofs are made from pieces of corrugated iron joined together. There is little point in putting a window into your house here as the neighbouring houses are packed so tightly around you. On another day we decided to take a stroll through the alleyways, only to discover a river with a little bridge right in the middle of the neighborhood. And as we got nearer to the river we were overwhelmed by this nauseating smell. The riverbank was filled with piles of rubbish running alongside peoples homes. Weekly garbage was literally just flung into the river and never cleared! This same river where fish was caught and eaten. The roadways where we walked along had rats, running alongside us, scurrying into yet another pile of rubbish that had been left on vacant ground. The smell was palpable in temperatures of 32 degrees celsius (and rising). Directly opposite the waste ground where the rats were happily discovering their next meal were alleyways where men and women sat on the pavements selling fruit, meat, chickens, vegetables and all sorts of foodstuffs. Women with buckets of live fish, gutting them and selling them from plastic buckets. You don’t get much fresher than that! (Apparently this is common practice and done to ensure that the customer sees that the fish is totally fresh – they would never sell fish that had been dead and gutted already!). Hygiene standards are also very very different from ours back in Ireland. I witnessed a beautiful young woman who was in the full throes of gutting a fish. Clearly hungry, she reached for a peach and ate it without even a thought to wash the fish guts from her hands! And continued gutting the fish once it was eaten. Another woman was bargaining with a customer on how much she would charge for a piece of the dead dog that lay sprawled across her stall.
There doesn’t appear to be any sort of organized rubbish collection by the state in Saigon. The opposite is true of Nha Trang and Hanoi.
The southern city of Saigon is almost seen as the “prodigal son” after the war. There is an underlying resentment by the people of Saigon towards the people of Hanoi and vice versa. It’s not an “in-your-face” resentment. But it’s very much there under the surface. The hangover from the war I guess. The people of Saigon believe that the Government in Hanoi holds the purse strings too tightly in the context of their slice of the pie. They believe that it distributes monies stingily to its city. They are also expected to contribute a lot more of their taxes to the Government in Hanoi than people and businesses in Hanoi. The people of Hanoi however, believe that the people in Saigon are irresponsible with money and only live in the moment! Interesting that! I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that the people of Saigon had the USA as allies during the war.
Regardless, there is a clear responsibility on the state in this country to provide proper facilities for disposing of rubbish for its people and not have them exposed to dangerous levels of filth piling up. And I’m thinking, where are the state run rubbish collectors? Where are the equivalent of their “county councils” in all of this? There is absolutely no visual evidence whatsoever of garbage collection, let alone regulations around the environment in Saigon.
What is evident is that the Vietnamese are a dignified and hard working race. There is virtually no-one classified as “unemployed” according to “Government statistics”. But how reliable are these statistics? Latest reports state that the average annual wage here is just over $1,700 per year, that’s only $145 per month!
Like many other tourists who have visited this part of the world, there is a sense of initial shock, which then becomes “what can I or anyone do to help”? Before we arrived here, and from what little we knew of this country we had decided that we would like to do some voluntary work in Vietnam. And having spent some time here, my thoughts have turned to “how bloody arrogant and ignorant were we to think, we, two Irish tourist who are very privileged to be here to begin with, might think we were better than these people, or that they needed our help to begin with”!. I was seeing the needs of these people through a “western” lens, ignorantly assuming that they are not happy because they are living with different conditions than we have back home. I am ashamed to realize that this is very far from what these people want! I’m sure they are sick of foreign tourists coming in and “judging” their standard of living and telling them that they need to change! The reality is that the people here are so happy with so little! They don’t see themselves in the way that I, or other people who come here from the western world do. They have nothing to compare to how they live their lives. This is what they do and they get on with it. This is their life and they are a proud race of people who take pride in how hard they work, regardless of what the work entails. They don’t need “foreigners” like us coming in and telling them that they should be aiming for riches and wealth, and giving their kids computer games and xboxes! The children running around are happy and loved and cared for, albeit by different standards than we are akin to. They are not kids that have their own bedrooms and computer games and can lock themselves away when they choose. They are like kids of times long gone by in Ireland, so happy to be playing outside with a burst football or skipping rope etc. And they are certainly the richer for it!
The orphanages on the other hand, well the same applies here. Western tourists, like ourselves, come over with the intention of doing good and spending a few weeks helping out. Until you get here and realize that these orphanages cannot allow tourists to spend a couple of weeks getting attached to young children that are here, and then disappear back to their normal comfortable lifestyle, happy with themselves that they’ve done their bit? Well, a bit of a reality check here for all of us! The heads of the orphanages are absolutely right in restricting such a practice! So, from our perspective on our plans to help out, we are committed to our teaching jobs now in southern China and once that’s through, we can look into spending more time on these issues.
From what we have researched, there are 1.5 million children (out of a population of 96 million) housed in orphanages here. The vast majority of these children are victims of the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnam wars. They are severely disabled and are rarely if ever adopted by western families due to their horrific disabilities. There are also another group of children who will remain in the orphanages, unadopted, due to them having the aids virus. These are the children that need help and assistance the most.
In total contrast, the centre of the city of Saigon itself it is a hive of activity, with shops and bars and restaurants everywhere. The city is filled with such welcome for foreigners and the markets in the centre of Saigon are an absolute must to visit, filled with local gifts and wares and foods and spices that are spectacular and the freshest you will ever find. There are vegetables and fruit for sale around every corner that i had never seen or heard of before. And one of the jaw-dropping moments on arrival to Saigon is the swarms of scooters on the roads. Scooters with whole families piled on weaving through the traffic. We saw scooter drivers carrying large glass windows, fridges, doors, and basically anything you can think of, piled onto the scooter. Rules of the road are practically non-existent we figured! 🙂 We took a wonderful trip along the Saigon River on a huge illuminated ship where we were entertained with local traditional dancers and enjoyed the beautiful variety of Vietnamese food on offer. There are cranes along the skyline throughout the city, which is a sure sign that the city is on the brink of huge development. However, I believe that it is merely the outer layer of the onion on display for all the world to see. Peel it away and that’s when you see the inner layers that I have written about above.
Having moved further north along the coast to Nha Trang, and then Hanoi, the poverty was there, but was nowhere near what I had witnessed in Saigon. In a nutshell, I was happy to physically leave the city and move further north along the coast, although what I experienced will remain with me forevermore.
Our visit to Nha Trang took 9 hours by train from Saigon. A train that also ran through the tiny streets of Saigon with wide-eyed children looking out and waving at us from their tiny homes along the tracks as we passed by.
Despite all of the above, Vietnam has many virtues and the warmth of it’s people and the rest of it’s beautiful country are but a few that i will talk about in my next blog, Nha Trang…a world away from what we had left behind in Saigon.
I can feel absolute anger and rage building up in my neck as I make my way from photograph to photograph displayed on the walls at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Photographs so graphic and horrific, of men, women and children killed and maimed in the Vietnam War, sprawled from wall to wall over two floors of the museum. I’m shocked beyond belief coming face to face with the reality of this war for the first time. While I had seen films about it back home, in the main, they were American or westernized productions, portraying the story from a very different perspective than that which was facing me here. It occurs to me now that these movies that I had seen had rarely, if ever, had Vietnamese actors starring in them. Looking at the photos on display, taken by photographers from many countries throughout the world who travelled to Vietnam to highlight the horrors of the war to the rest of the world and who in the main were killed or missing in action, I can only describe it as life changing. I had undertaken this trip wanting to learn about other cultures, to educate myself about the world outside of Ireland, and this is exactly what I got here, in bucketfuls! Many of the photos displayed are from photographers’ last rolls of films, taken before they were killed. They have been developed and preserved, and notes they had made about the photos they had taken are cited alongside the pictures. They are a “selective collection” at the same time, I’ve no doubt. I am seeing for the first time the story unfold from the side of the Vietnamese people. I’m trying desperately to rationalize in my mind what I am seeing as I walk around the museum. Trying not to scream out at people of all nationalities around me “what the f**k went on here? Do leaders of the world know about this too? And if so what the f**k has been learned from it?” I manage to take control of my anger and get through about two thirds of the museum before breaking down in tears and leaving, angry and distressed at witnessing the true reality of what human beings are capable of doing to each other. What they were “trained” to do to their fellow human beings! And I ask myself, Why? For what? (For the record, I say the same about any war happening today!)
I believe it’s important to explain in this blog, as graphic as it might seem, what I saw. Conscious of the fact that each side, the North Vietnamese people and the Southern Vietnamese (supported by the USA) have their own version of events. I know that as a visitor to this country that I have no real educated or in-depth knowledge of the events leading up to or after the war. I am merely stating what is on view at this museum, and my reaction to it. I know what is on display is a one-sided viewpoint supported by a now Socialist Government with a slightly Communist approach that portrays the USA military as the enemy and themselves as the outright “winners” of this war! Propaganda is a powerful tool, particularly if it’s presented in the form of a historic museum and where displays and public records documenting the past are not sugar coated, but lay the blame squarely at the feet of the USA. This is how the museum is presented. (To be fair, as we all know there are two sides to every story and there are no attempts to take one side or the other in my blog). There are no winners in this! I do however question the wisdom of the Americans in ever becoming involved to begin with given the horrors they had to endure also as a result of this war. I am sure I won’t be the first or the last to ask this question!
In a nutshell, as most people are aware, and from what I’ve learned from being in Vietnam, the war in the main was between North and South Vietnam. The North wanted a Communist regime governing the country whereas the Southern Vietnamese people, (supported by the USA), wanted a Democratic Government. (The country had previously been split following the French Colonial occupiers pulling out of Vietnam). The Northern Government referred to the Southern Government at that time as “The Puppet Government” (referring to the fact that they believed they were mere “puppets” of the USA and the French). The outcome of the war was that the Northern factions of the Vietnam military succeeded in defeating the Southerners and Americans in April 1975 and reclaimed the southern part as their own. The southern city, previously known as Saigon, then became known as Ho Chi Minh city, named after the leader of the North Vietnamese Communist party. Following the war, the country was governed by a single Government from Northern Vietnam, a Socialist Government, run by a Communist party that still exists to this day.
As I arrived at the Museum, on the face of it from the outside entrance, I expected it to be pretty much like any other museum that I had visited. Oh boy, how naïve I was! War tanks and USA military helicopters and aircraft that had been discarded after the US military fled in defeat, graced the foreground of the site in an almost boastful “we won” fashion . People were happily taking “smiley” selfies beside these tanks and aircraft, which from the small bit I knew about the atrocities of the war before ever entering the main museum, seemed a little distasteful. But in hindsight, I saw those same people inside the museum looking just as shocked and horrified as I was. I’ve no doubt they did not expect to see the horrors unfold before them either once they began the tour.
As you enter the main exhibition area on the ground floor there are photos of Northern Vietnamese Soldiers (who are incidentally referred to as “Patriots”), held in captivity in small, low ‘tiger’ cages covered in barbed wire. There is no room for them to stand and the cages are no bigger than a tiger cage, and aptly named. Within these cages prisoners were tortured and maimed and the list of the various torturing methods are posted on the walls around the cages and near the tiny prison cells where prisoners of war were held. Tortures listed included severe beatings, locking prisoners in oil drums, removing prisoners teeth, finger and toe nails, using radiation type lights to blind them, making prisoners roll on spiked iron grills, burning mouths with acid so they couldn’t eat and eventually died of starvation, burning their genitalia, boiling them in water and burying of prisoners alive. This is just a small example from the lists posted. There are more, too horrifying and numerous to mention here.
And then as you enter the main indoor area of the museum, you are faced with the most horrific photos of men, women and children holding onto each other in fear. Orphaned sisters and brothers no older than about 5 or 6, holding their baby siblings and trying to care for them on their own in the middle of roadways, where parents had been captured or killed. Women and children with guns pointed at their heads, the dead bodies of mothers lying in the huts they called homes, having been raped and beaten, surrounded by their young children who had witnessed the events prior to her death. All photographed within moments of the events happening! Children, who themselves had been shot and wounded with limbs missing. A baby boy no older than a year old sitting screaming in terror on a roadside, abandoned because his family had been driven out in fear at gunpoint. There is no follow-up as to what might have happened to this little mite and I dread to think of it! A mother trying to hold her four children’s heads above water in a filthy river as she tried to get them to safety. An American Soldier, holding up the head and torn torso of a Vietnamese Man he had just butchered. Young men who had been captured being flung from aircrafts to their deaths below! There was nothing these soldiers didn’t do in their torturing of human beings to whoever they saw as their enemy.
One photo of a beautiful young woman holding her baby on her hip caught me right in the gut. She was surrounded by her not much older children, who were clinging to her in fear as they looked down the barrel of a gun pointed at them. The photographer records that he was passing by and saw the scene in front of him and quickly took the photo. He continues “by the time I had passed, I heard the rain of bullets and the thud of each of them falling to the ground”! Young American and Vietnamese soldiers (younger than my own sons) lying in mucky ditches with such fear in their eyes, injured and maimed. Every photo had the same theme. Fear in the eyes of every one of the subjects being photographed. I have often heard of the war in Vietnam being described as “Hell on Earth”, and that is the best description of what was unfolding before my eyes. And the horror was that these were real people, real events, captured live in a moment in time. Most photos were taken only moments before these people were killed.
And then, a wall dedicated to all of the photographers who had taken the photos and who inevitably had been killed or lost in action. Men and women who had come to Vietnam from across the world, to make a difference, to try to bring the attention of the rest of the world to the real atrocities happening here. They were not spared and were tortured and killed in the same fashion as those who they were filming.
Barely holding it together, I moved to the next area of the museum. Within minutes of seeing what was behind these doors I was feeling physically sick and crying uncontrollably and had to leave. I hadn’t ever read or known about the chemical warfare that had gone on during this war. The “Agent Orange” chemical that was used to spray the wooded areas to burn down the trees and shrubs in order to force the North Vietnamese soldiers out of their camouflaged camps worked, but what has been left behind in this beautiful country is an absolute shame on mankind. The effects of the chemicals some forty years later are still evident to this day and graphically displayed for all to see in this museum. Photos of fetuses severely deformed as a result of the side effects of “Agent Orange” have been preserved in jars to show to the world what this war has done. Photos of the deformed bodies of these babies looking out at you from jars as you pass by. Photos of children with deformities I’ve never seen before and are images that only nightmares are made of. Children, who made it through the birth and are suffering to this day from the illnesses caused by the after effects of these chemicals. Young babies, beautiful innocent children and teenagers still suffering as a result of these goddamn war tactics. And the saddest moment of all. When I left the exhibition to gather myself together, I went outside to sit down outside the children’s crèche that’s available on site for parents to leave their children as they visit the museum. A beautiful Vietnamese young boy caught my eye inside, laughing with the children (main photo above). He was sitting at a keyboard playing it for the young children. And as I looked closer at him I saw that he had no eyes. Not even eye sockets. He was laughing happily with his friends, and it was just then that I remembered seeing a photo of him on the wall inside. He was another victim of the war, working at the museum. A beautiful child with his whole life ahead of him. No older than 15. And I couldn’t help thinking what sort of a future might he have. He would probably never be able to marry and have children of his own, given that he too had clearly been effected by the “Agent Orange” chemical and most likely wouldn’t risk having any more children himself where there was such a high risk of possible horrific side effects. His work prospects would be severely limited, and here he was, laughing happily like he hadn’t a care in the world. And I thought, for a fleeting moment, I will never complain about insignificant things in my life again! No doubt that won’t last too long
(Photo: Beautiful Vietnamese boy I saw at the Museum)
Since visiting the museum, I understand that American Soldiers also suffered horrific side effects from this chemical. Many have been compensated by the American Government. The Vietnamese people however have not.
Separately, the Vietnamese people cannot use huge areas of rich farmland because of land mines left over from this war. Landmines that still threaten their safety to this day! A country that is struggling with poverty on all fronts, is confined to restricted areas of the country to provide for its people because to use these lands would risk more lives!
I had planned to visit other historical sites in the city, but cannot bring myself to see anymore. Days later, I am still seeing these victims of war every time I close my eyes. Not only have the people of Vietnam suffered as a result of what I can only describe as greed, or absolute lunacy of war no matter where it happens, but is it any wonder that the Vietnam Vets in the USA suffered severe mental illness on their return to the US after the war? These young army men on both sides were trained to injure and kill other human beings like this? When we were in the States, many of the older homeless men that we met were Vietnam Vets with mental illnesses because they clearly could never overcome what they witnessed here. I get it now! I’m sure there are many articles and blogs written about this long before I have ever touched a keyboard, but lads. We seriously need to get our shit together when it comes to this kind of stuff. The leaders of the world are seeing similar atrocities happening all over the world to this day, and still allowing it to happen!
Vietnam and the USA since 2013 have thankfully begun a process of negotiations and healing, which is great. But this won’t fix the young children that have been so badly effected by the chemical warfare that took place here. It won’t bring back the men, women and children that were lost, both on the Vietnamese and American side. But Jesus, the world needs to learn some hard and fast lessons from this country’s history! With wars still going on today that are just as horrific, where innocent children are victims of a fate similar to what has happened here, (and Syria in particular comes to mind, not to mention all of the other countries), and for what? At the end of the day…we ALL need to ask ourselves….FOR WHAT? FOR BLOODY WHAT?!!!!! In the words of one of our own historically revered Irish patriots, Daniel O’Connell, “no country is worth the spilling of one drop of blood while killing a man in duel”. Wise words indeed!
(Photo of one of the Buddhist statues at the Lama Temple, Beijing, China)
It was 5 years ago when I first visited China. My daughter lived in Beijing and that was as good an excuse as any for me to board a plane and come visit her. On the day I arrived in Beijing Allie, in her wisdom, took me cycling for 9 hours to help me “re-adjust” to the time difference and of course to feed the mosquitos with some new foreign blood. They feasted on me from the time I arrived, until I realized that wearing strawberry flavor lipgloss probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had 😱. Mosquitoes are inclined to have a sweet tooth. My lips paid the price. Free Botox basically! 😜
During my stay in 2013 Allie took me to one of the most beautiful parts China. A small rural village in southern China called Yangshuo, situated about 70 Kms from the city of Guilin and the closest thing to Paradise on earth I’d ever seen. If you want to experience the true Chinese culture, this is the place to visit! Back then, we travelled on to Shanghai from Yangshuo where I met her then new boyfriend, Jonny, who is now her husband. They had met on a Russian aircraft carrier ship that had docked in China shortly before my arrival. A party was in full swing on the ship and Jonny naturally spotted my glamorous daughter across the dance floor (biased much? 😂, but I speak the truth). They had never clapped eyes on each other until this particular night. And when he asked her to dance, lo and behold, they discovered that they both hailed from our hometown of Tullamore in Co. Offaly. How mad is that? In a country with over 1.4 billion people, that two Irish people who lived in different cities (Jonny lived in Shanghai and Alison in Beijing) would meet and fall in love and eventually marry and go on to have my beautiful grandson Harry. Now that’s Serendipity at its best!
Anyway, I digress! So, way back then when we travelled around China, I totally fell in love with this place. With its people, its unique culture (well parts of it), the beautiful landscapes, the Temples and Gardens and basically the history associated with it. It fascinates me! Some of its Temples go back to the 1300s, with fabulous tales of Emperors and their Empresses and concubines no less! It’s spectacular to experience and nothing like you might imagine it might be, before you arrive. The media coverage in the western world is not often very complimentary to China and there are many reasons why, however there is an abundance of beauty and wonder about the place that just must be seen to be believed. In a nutshell, you experience what can only be described as “a whole new world” and very different to any other country in the world in terms of its customs and practices. It’s a Communist country of course and one of only a handful of countries remaining to be governed in this way. Governments and people throughout the world have various opinions on Communism generally and I get that. There are ongoing concerns associated with Communism, particularly around human rights which I might touch on later, but for now I’ll reserve judgement on the political side of things. Democracy also has its own set of problems, including human rights issues, however in a very different form I guess.
And so, arriving back in Beijing had a huge level of excitement attached to it for me. Since my earlier trip, I have been constantly raving to Colm (and everyone else who’d listen) about its beauty. And so after a welcoming traditional Chinese meal with some friends in Jinsong, we ventured out the following morning for a walk in a nearby Chinese park to get some much needed rays of sunshine. As I mentioned earlier, there are some very significant differences between Chinese and European culture. Some good, some not so good. One of the differences I struggled with on our first day out, (and still do), was the constant “hocking up” of phlegm and spitting on the street, and indeed in restaurants while eating. It is an everyday occurrence here and possibly the reason for the tradition of taking shoes off at the door of every Chinese home I guess. “Hocking” is as normal here as sneezing back home. Not an eyelid is batted as girls and guys walking along hock up and spit phlegm in every direction. Heading out for breakfast in the mornings, I would be pretty hungry, only to get to the restaurant and having seen all of the hocking going on, decide that I could only handle a cup of boiled water or a coffee. Great for the diet, and it does take a bit of getting used to, particularly when it’s happening at the next table at a restaurant where you’re trying to enjoy a meal. Not for the faint hearted, but on the overall scale of things it’s a small inconvenience and trade off for the experience of seeing the sights of China.
On the day in question, as we strolled around the park, delighted with ourselves to be in Beijing at last, I decided to use the restrooms. Off I toddled into the ladies toilets, to the familiar sight of the toilet bowls positioned at ground level! Apparently this is a much healthier way for our body to rid itself of unwanted waste (ahem) by squatting over a bowl built into the ground. In fairness, it doesn’t present too many problems until you’ve had a few gin and tonics, and then it’s hilarious. You get the picture 😱And it’s also best to carry around your own toilet paper. Oh and that’s not to be flushed but rather placed neatly in a basket beside the toilet after use!! I’m just sayin’ ha ha. Interesting stuff indeed. Forewarned is forearmed 🧐
A very endearing thing happened to me on this day out and indeed on a few other occasions here. While I was at the sinks in the ladies toilet on this particular occasion an elderly woman had obviously spotted me going in to the cubicle and unbeknown to me, followed me and waited for me outside. When I came out, she produced her phone and kept touching my face and signalled that she wanted to have her photo taken with me. The same happened on another day out, when an older woman near the apartment where we were staying in Jinsong (on the outskirts of the city) ran up to me excitedly and asked that I allow her to take a photo of me with her. It occurred to me then that these elderly women, who had no access to social media or in fact any media or news from the outside world, had probably rarely, if ever, seen someone from outside of China. A foreigner, as we grew familiar with being referred to and that amused us no end. We were the only westerners for miles and the warmth and welcome we got from the elderly people living in the area was unbelievable. But also somewhat sad at the same time. Social media is blocked by the Government in China and so such restrictive practice means that the people living here literally exist on a planet of their own, isolated from the rest of the world (unless they are privileged enough to be able to afford to travel outside of the country of course). They have their own Facebook (Weibo) which is only available to those living in China. They have WeeChat, instead of Messenger or WhatsApp. Living with no access to outside media or news, only news that is strictly monitored and edited to reflect only postive news about their own Government, its governance and occurrences generally in China. There is no requirement on the Government for transparency on any level in the same way that there is back home, financial reporting included. Statistics and monetary reporting are sporadic, questionable and cosmetic at best!
On another day we went for a walk around a park after a trip to The Forbidden City in the Centre of Beijing. I was entranced with the sound of choirs singing, out of sight at various parts of the park where we walked. I couldn’t resist trying to find the source of this magnificent music amongst the huge trees and pathways. We made our way towards the chanting and singing to discover, to our amazement, crowds of people gathered together singing the most enchanting songs in harmony and in unison with such passion! It was like witnessing a world class operatic performance right there in the centre of the park. And on further enquiry I discovered that this singing, almost cult like, was a celebration of the love and admiration that the people of China have to this day for their deceased, most famous leader of the Communist party, Mao Tse Tung. It was magical, it was eerie and it was all-consuming. At every corner of the park, another choir had gathered, all singing patriotic songs about Mao, (and quite possibly commissioned by him in writings before his death). These events are apparently supported by the existing Communist Government, and it’s a very surreal experience to witness how the Chinese people revere and idolize this man, in an almost godlike fashion. And remember, the Chinese people in the main have only ever been exposed to positive stories about this man, Mao. Many outside of China would have varied opinions about his reign, some not as charitable as those within China itself, however given that I’m still in Asia and hoping to spend some more time in China, it’s best to avoid this subject for the moment! It’s also noteworthy that the vast majority of Chinese people are unaware of the horrific events of Tiananmen Square that occurred in 1989. Nationwide restrictions on reporting the events that occurred in Beijing on that day are still very much in place and westerners are forbidden to discuss anything associated with that day with the Chinese people. In fact, any discussion in public by Chinese people which might be interpreted as being disloyal to the Government brings with it severe penalties, imprisonment and worse. And yet, on the social media platform anyone can threaten to kill or maim an individual and that activity is not in breach of any law. Our laws thankfully forbid such activities and I’d like to think that if someone publicly threatened to murder another person that the full force of the law would come down on them.
I explain all of the above to give an indication as to the very different environment that exists here by comparison to back home. As a foreigner in this country however, it is probably the safest place to visit and travel around. Crime is practically non-existent as the fear of punishment is much too great and so we have had the luxury of absolute freedom to explore and venture around both Beijing and Shanghai with the comfort and security of knowing we are totally safe. And yet there is a whole “pang of conscience” bit going on for us, given that we are learning more day by day about the workings of the State, and yet we still chose to visit and holiday here. However, like I said earlier; we are here because of the beautiful country, the people, the learning experience and are trying to do so in a non-judgemental and respectful way, of a culture that is so very different from our own. The Chinese people themselves are kind and caring in the extreme. They are excited to be meeting with “foreigners” and cannot do enough to make us feel welcome in their country.
So, as we settled in, one of our first challenges on our “to do list” after our arrival was the “must do” climb of The Great Wall. We headed off early on the morning to tackle it, and took a cable car to the top of the wall to begin the challenge. The temperatures were nearing 32 degrees celsius. We mapped out our plan of where we would walk, a total of 2kms, which sounds like a simple task, but in such hot temperatures, loathe though I am to admit it, it was torturous for me at certain parts. In contrast, it didn’t knock a feather out of Colm. I blame the fact that I am an ex-smoker and I believe no matter how long ago it was that I gave up, the effects are very much still there. I tried to walk the same distance during my last visit to Beijing and failed miserably, and this time I was determined not to give in. It took the guts of two hours, (probably the longest two hours of my life) but I did it. The scenery is spectacular as you climb higher and higher, and as we walked we met so many people from all over the world who had also travelled to do the climb. The key to doing it is to bring lots of water to drink along the way. Dehydration can happen really quickly, so it’s essential that you keep hydrated no matter what the weather. The mango ice pop that I treated myself to at the top was so worth the wait!
(Climbing the Great Wall – the struggle was real!)
Another great outing that we did was to the world renowned Beijing Acrobatic Show in a quaint theater in the centre of Beijing. As a spectator it was both jaw-dropping and a “heart in your mouth” experience as the acrobats performed dangerous stunts to perfection. The standard of this acrobatic performance is world class and flawless and so worth a visit. When the Chinese do performance, they do it to perfection and this is just one example of this.
Being back in China also presented the perfect opportunity to take another trip back to Yangshuo where Colm could at last see the place that stole my heart all those years ago. We booked a flight to Guilin and headed for the most unique Retreat Centre on the outskirts of Yangshuo called “The Giggling Tree” where I had stayed with Allie all those years ago. A visit to this part of the world is so affordable, with our 5 day stay at the Giggling Tree (with its own pool and restaurant/bar) with food, drink, taxi-fares, entertainment and tickets for shows and bamboo rafting included for us both. It worked out at less than €700 in total. The Giggling Tree arranges all tickets for shows, all taxis to take you around the area, and everything you can ever need is provided.
When we arrived, a notice greeted us on the wall in the reception area to explain that we would probably not get a peaceful night’s sleep, as there had been a death in the neighbourhoood. A local man from one of the nearby houses had passed away earlier that morning. We could hear what I can only describe as bagpipes playing Chinese laments, very loudly! And the Chinese equivalent of Irish keeners soon joined the chorus of bagpipes. Sure we were nearly in tears ourselves at that stage and we didn’t even know the poor divil that had passed! The Chinese tradition in Yangshuo and in the southern part of China generally is to have a 24 hour lament from the time of death until the departed is removed for burial. Family members within this 24 hour period are set the task of travelling to the local range of karst mountains to pick a burial spot for the body. Once chosen, the family members prepare the burial ground. It’s a magnificent tradition, and as we travelled through the mountains in the following days, headstones with beautiful flowers and trees were visible throughout the mountains where all the local dead are buried. There is no undertaker, no planning permission, no religious involvement, only the age old tradition of families bringing their loved one on a float with a flower covered coffin through the town to the mountains beyond to be buried. And while it was wonderful to witness the goings on for this particular funeral, being woken at 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. to the sound of fireworks and bagpipes and wailers was a bit hair raising. Yet again, however, we had decided to travel here, to their village, and the culture of these people must be respected on every level. We took it all in our stride and were happy to learn of the local customs. And sure so what if we were a small bit inconvenienced with tiredness the following day. It was worth it!
(Photo: Bamboo rafting along the Yulong River, Yangshuo, Southern China)
Our next stop was to do some highly recommended bamboo boat rafting on the Yulong River. Oh man! What an absolute blast, and another “must do” when visiting this part of the world. Basically, the local Chinese men are employed to take tourists down the river on a bamboo raft that is steered by them with nothing but a huge bamboo stick. Two to a raft, and the trip is out of this world. As you travel down the river, you experience the surreal scenery of the karst mountains that flank the Yulong River and the peaceful calmness of the area as you gently make your way along. The only interruption is the sound of the birds and the excited squealing that’s unavoidable as the raft drops down the small weirs along the way. It’s a journey of about an hour and a half, and we did it early on a Saturday morning after a good hearty breakfast at the Giggling Tree. A quick stop back for lunch and a swim at the pool, and then it was about getting ready for the most spectacular event that this town has to offer. The Fisherman’s Light Show! With tickets prebooked and a taxi ready to collect us to bring us the short distance to this magnificent venue in the Centre of Yangshuo, I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of seeing this performance again, and even more so to see Colm’s reaction to it. Our tickets cost the equivalent of just over €60 and were situated in the VIP area of the auditorium for that price. Now trying to explain the enormity of this event is difficult. Suffice to say that the guy who produced the introductory performance for the Beijing Olympic Games is responsible for the production of this magnificent musical performance that literally takes place once darkness falls, outdoors, on the Yulong River, with the mountains lit up as the backdrop/stage. The orchestra begins and suddenly, out of nowhere, hundreds of Chinese fishermen make their way out onto the river, with lanterns lit, on their bamboo rafts. They line up along the river and perform a synchronized movement with fishing nets illuminated with red light to the Chinese music echoing from every corner of the venue. It is spectacular to watch. Colm’s reaction from the moment the mountains lit up and the fishermen sailed out from every corner of the river….”Holy F**K” 😱😂. Like me, (and everyone else who has been to this performance), he was blown away by it. And on it went, with lines of performers (600 in total) with illuminated costumes performing various synchronized dances on the river. A large half moon then sailed out, representing an old Chinese romantic legend of a beautiful woman dancing naked on the moon, with her Chinese lover transfixed with her beauty looking on from the ground below. The performance once had a real naked Chinese woman dancing on the yellow lit moon, however, following objections over the years to her performing on a live show naked, she now sports a full neutral color body stocking to appease those complainers. I can’t help wondering what the gender breakdown of the complainants were? Ha ha. The show takes place twice every night. People who know me back home have heard me raving about this show for the past 5 years, and I kid you not, if you ever travel to these parts, make sure not to miss it! The Fisherman’s Light Show…you heard it here, you’ve been warned! 🤪
A noticeable cultural difference in this part of the world, is the role of women in society. As we travelled around, elderly women were bent over in rice fields in sweltering heat, from the small hours of the morning until late at night, tending to the rice plants. I also witnessed women high up on buildings mixing cement in the same sweltering heat that I could barely walk in. Women are vulnerable here, and it is evident that they are the backbone of the community. Men work hard also, but I witnessed groups of men sitting around in the sweltering heat playing cards or board games while the women continued the arduous task of farming and on those construction sites. Women participate in the whole process of manual labour to a greater degree than I have ever seen anywhere else in the world, albeit I have yet to visit other countries along this journey. It was quite shocking if I’m honest, but again, that’s the way of life here and has been for centuries. Education is minimal apparently, and toil and strife is the order of the day for most families, who live in relative poverty by comparison to families in other parts of China and the western world. But happiness is also evident amongst the community. They are content with their lives here, and living in the most beautiful part of our planet in relative calm and simplicity I guess has a lot to do with it.
After a few more relaxing days in Yangshuo, we headed back to Beijing to see another bit of this beautiful city . And so, on our return; next on the list was a visit to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Lama Temples, and the beautiful surroundings of the Summer Palace. We took a boat out onto the Lake at the Palace and sailed along with not a care in the world other than the heat we were trying to contend with. It was so beautiful and brought back memories of the last time I took a boat out on this same lake with Alison. Our boat back then was a diesel powered engine one that we had all to ourselves. A bit bigger than a paddle boat really. Alison took to the role of “captain of the ship” admirably. Even after the bottle of wine that we brought on board, and drank; she didn’t create an unwanted ripple on the lake , until just on the horizon the sun began to set over the Great Wall and we were hypnotized into staying to watch it go down, come hell or high water! By the time it had gone out of view our time was well and truly up for returning the boat and the guards at the Summer Palace were closing up the gates for the night. Suddenly, the owner of the boat was whizzing towards us in his high speed boat, (well, higher speed than ours ) screaming at us in Chinese. Naturally he was upset that we were still on the lake in possession of his boat. I was all ready to offer an apology when next I heard Alison shouting back at him in Chinese! I thought, “what on earth is going on here?” In English, Alison told me to say nothing, but look like a damsel in distress. Now, I hadn’t a clue what was going on but this was just right up my street, and of course I did what she asked, probably a little bit exaggerated, but nonetheless, needs must as they say. (Apparently there were guards on the lake that could arrest us if this guy tried to make out that we were trying to steal his boat so my apology would probably fall on deaf ears anyway!). The guy on the speed boat, immediately calmed down and began tying a rope from his boat to ours to drag us back to shore. Once we got there Alison told me to get off the boat and run as fast as our legs could carry us. And we did, holding our stomachs laughing as we did. Apparently she had shouted in Chinese at the guy on the speedboat that our boat had run out of diesel in the middle of the lake, and that our lives had been put at risk due to his inability to ensure customer safety by making sure there was enough fuel in the boat to begin with. And that she was going to report him if he didn’t take us back to shore immediately! He hadn’t thought in his panic to check our boat for fuel when we were out there and by the time he would discover that there was probably enough diesel left in it for us to sail the Chinese sea and back again, sure we were well out of reach. 😂😂😂. Our trip to the Summer Palace on this occasion was a little less eventful, with no run ins with local law enforcement thankfully! 🙏
Our trips to the Forbidden City and the Lama Temple were jaw-dropping! Colm was loving every day that unfolded with something new as much as I was. Colourful Chinese Temples at every turn, with the world’s largest Buddhist statue situated in the grounds of the Lama Temples near the Dongchemen area of Beijing. Fabulous to see, but also difficult to cope with the temperatures that had risen to over 40 Celsius at this stage. I struggled badly when walking in the mid-day heat on some of these outings. But I got it done nonetheless, albeit looking like something the cat had dragged in on many an evening after walking for miles.
We took a 4 hour train journey to Shanghai early on a Thursday morning, and while it is in the same country as Beijing and Yangshuo , there is no comparison to seeing the sprawling metropolis of a prosperous city, with skyscrapers as far as the eye could see. It is certainly a beautiful city to visit and we ate out in some top class restaurants near the French Quarter of the city where we were staying and ate like royalty at very little cost. The cost of living generally in China is low. A four-course meal with drinks for two will set you back in some places for as little as €50. We often had to do a double take on the bill when it arrived, to make sure that a mistake hadn’t been made. Shanghai is a modern city with streets of designer shops and restaurants. To stand on one side of the Huangpu River where the old part of the city overlooks the newer and famous “Bund” is a spectacular vision. The lighting up of these buildings every night, in particular the well-known “Oriental Pearl Tower” is a must see when in Shanghai. It also has a diversity in its huge population that few cities in China have. It is up there with New York and Paris for sure, but for me, it doesn’t have the same quaintness and culture associated with it as Beijing and other Chinese cities have. If I landed in Shanghai and didn’t know I was in China, I would be hard pressed to figure out that I was actually in the heart of such a beautiful country. Given that historically it has been a port city and open to outside trade, it is very evident that Shanghai is one of the few wealthy cities in China.
(Photo: The Bund, Shanghai, China)
Reminiscing yet again about what a beautiful place Yangshuo was after we left, I found myself googling “English teaching jobs in Yangshuo”. To my delight, the private college in Yangshuo had job vacancies. And so we applied and waited with bated breath to see if we would qualify. And we did! We subsequently got called for interview, which we did over a Skype call with the head of the college. And folks, within a few days we both received job offers to work there during the Summer months! And so, we’re going back! I’m beside myself with excitement! We’ve signed our contracts and we start work after our next stop off in Vietnam. We spend the next three weeks in Vietnam and then return to Yangshuo where we’ll spend a glorious summer teaching young children how to speak English! We couldn’t be happier, and I can’t help feeling that all those trips to the Buddhist Temples have paid off 😂. It’s all happening for us and I’m feeling so grateful and blessed! It will mean having to cut short our trip to Vietnam by a couple of weeks, but we can return at some point as we go along. As my late mother used to say “Never look a gift horse in the mouth”!
Next stop Vietnam…I wonder what awaits us there? 😱😱😱