While looking around the Muong Thanh Hotel in Dien Bien, in northwest Vietnam, we came across the cruel practice of bear bile farming.
Behind a wall next to the swimming pool were half a dozen cramped cages, each containing a sad looking black bear. The bears had catheters sticking out from their stomachs so presumably they were being kept for the purpose of extracting bear bile which is supposed to be beneficial in treating various ailments including impotence. Why, in this age of Viagra, it is still necessary to torture poor bears in this way, I’ll never understand. Piles of foul smelling kitchen slops had been poured onto the floors of the cages. The more disgusting the food, the better the bile production perhaps?
My friend reported this matter to the Hanoi office of the World Wildlife Fund. Perhaps the operation has since been closed down but I am not optimistic the bears would ever be released. Vietnam has few places where bears could be allowed to roam free without endangering the public. They would either be killed by frightened villagers or slaughtered for their skins and body parts or recaptured by greedy bile merchants. All very sad.
When we were planning our trip to Sapa and Mt. Fanxipan we hit upon the idea of extending our tour by taking in Dien Bien, scene of the decisive defeat of French forces by the Vietnamese in 1954. This epic battle brought about the end of France’s colonization of Vietnam and triggered America’s involvement in the region, which culminated in the Vietnam War.
Dien Bien is located very close to the border with Laos and although it looked close to Sapa on the map, the journey by car took 11 hours through stunningly beautiful rural landscapes.
Dien Bien seemed a quiet town. Dogs lay scratching themselves in the middle of the road, untroubled by the occasional motorbike or commercial vehicle.
The architecture was rather odd. Narrow three or four storey houses with lots of fancy embellishments.
The hotel was comfortable enough.
A number of the battlefield positions have been preserved.
Apart from the historic battle relics there is little to attract the foreign tourist but I did manage to pick up a couple of T-shirts at bargain prices.
It was time to depart for Sapa which is a hill town in northern Vietnam and the jumping off point for people who are mad enough to want to ascend Mt. Fanxipan. We took the overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, close to the border with China, a journey of about 8 hours. To travel on a Vietnamese sleeper train sounds exciting and adventurous but it is probably an experience that I will not be looking to repeat in a hurry. The train carriage looked comfortable enough. Clean bedding and soft mattresses were provided in our 4 berth, first class compartment. But the whole journey was in the dark so there was nothing to see and the carriage jerked and juddered and was very noisy so sleep was next to impossible for me. Nearly all the other passengers were foreigner tourists – Vietnamese probably know better and take the plane! Arriving at Lao Cai station at 6am, feeling pretty tired, we took a van to Sapa, dropped off some bags and a couple of hours later were transported to Tram Ton or Heaven’s Gate, the starting point of the Fanxipan climb.
Mt. Fanxipan (sometimes spelt as Phan Si Pan) at 3,143 metres, is the highest mountain in Vietnam, or, even more impressive sounding, the highest in Indochina. Since the starting point was already over 2,000 metres I was thinking how hard can this be? The answer was very hard!
A guide and porter were provided. The porter carried everything we would eat for the next 2 days in his basket.
After a gruelling afternoon’s hike we arrived at our luxurious base camp accommodation to rest up for the night.
We had to spend two miserable nights in this shack (one night on the way up and one on the way down). The hut could accommodate up to 16 people sleeping sardine-like. My grubby sleeping bag was located underneath the leak in the roof meaning I was cold and wet as I lay awake on the uncomfortable bamboo slatted floor. The sleeping bag – what vile instrument of torment. The guy who invented the sleeping bag must be the same person who invented the straight jacket, and for the same reason – to drive the poor occupant nuts. Not enough room to curl up, when I rolled over the top half twisted but the bottom half stayed put. It started off cold and clammy and then became hot and clammy without ever being just right on the way.
At least the food was good, amazingly so given the primitive conditions in the ‘kitchen’.
The porters and guides managed to knock up an impressive meal which was washed down with generous slugs of rice wine.
The worst aspect of base camp had to be the toilet facilities which consisted of a wooden platform built over a pit containing a large pig who would eat the ‘droppings’. Eco-friendly, I suppose, but I won’t be eating pork again.
After an early breakfast we began the final ascent to the summit of Fanxipan. It was one of the most exhausting things I had ever done. Mud, mud everywhere, oozing over the tops of boots. Muddy trousers, caked boots, shirt soaked with sweat, glasses steamed up, visibility zero. Lungs wheezing, heartbeat audible, leg muscles aching, hour after hour.
What were the feelings on reaching the top? Not really exhilaration. Relief to get a rest but tinged with anxiety about having to go all the way back down again. It was not the best view in the world due to poor visibility but when the clouds parted there were some impressive vistas. On the way down my knees were buckling and I had to be careful not to slip and injure myself. At least my breathing was easier going down.
Finally back down to the bottom feeling strangely invigorated for several hours afterwards, perhaps due to the after-effects of prolonged heart pumping exercise and the intake of super fresh air.
Back in civilisation, we were able to explore some of the charms of Sapa while recovering for the next stage of our travels.
This region of Vietnam is home to a number of ethnic minorities such as the Hmong people who are happy to pose for tourists in their traditional dress and sell examples of their skilful handicrafts.
The plan was simple enough. A couple of days in Hanoi , then take the overnight train to the hill resort of Sapa, then 3 days to climb Mt.Fanxipan and get back down again, then drive to Dien Bien Phu for 2 nights before flying back to Hanoi.
First stop in Hanoi, the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
This notorious prison held American pilots who were shot down over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese call it). The POW’s nicknamed this prison the Hanoi Hilton. One of the more famous inmates was John McCain (recent US Presidential contender) whose flying suit was on prominent display.
During the French colonial era the prison housed Vietnamese political prisoners and criminals in harsh conditions.
I’d never seen a real guillotine before. Efficient no doubt
There are plenty of famous attractions to see in Hanoi.
The streets in the Old Hanoi Quarter are full of character, colour and energy. There was talk about Old Hanoi being recognised by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage site but it seems there are no plans to proceed with that proposal. Let us hope that this district can escape the developers’ wrecking ball for many years to come.
On beautiful Jeju Island, off the southern coast of Korea, I was lucky enough to visit The Bunjae Artpia, an exquisite garden specialising in Bunjae trees. Bunjae is the Korean name for Bonsai. Creating and nurturing the garden has been the life’s work of Mr. B.Y.Sung, who explained that the art of Bunjae originated in China, then spread to Korea before being adopted by Japan. Please enjoy these photos:
The 3 Rules Of Bunjae Etiquette
1. Don’t Touch
2.Don’t Ask How Much
I could visit Bunjae Artpia every day of the year and never get bored,
If you know any Koreans, chances are their family names are Kim, Lee or Park which are some of the most common surnames in Korea. When I was last in Seoul, I wanted to know if it was true that Koreans could not marry someone with the same surname. Bearing in mind that there are nearly 10 million Koreans with the surname Kim this surely causes problems? My guide Heea, herself a Kim, explained that it is not so straightforward. There are five branches of Kims. Her clan, the biggest, is Kim Hae Kim with over 2 million members. “It used to be illegal for clan members to marry each other but no longer. But we would not consider doing so since we regard them as relatives, albeit distant ones.” I was surprised to find out that all Korean families maintain detailed family records going back centuries. Heea can trace her ancestry back to the 14th century. Some families might even have records going back 3,000 years. Given the many invasions, wars and upheavals that Korea has suffered over the centuries this is truly amazing and reflects the importance which Korean culture places on respecting their elders and ancestors. I wanted to see one of these family record books and managed to track one down in an antiquarian bookstore in Seoul’s Insadong market.
The elderly shop owner produced the book from a stack of musty volumes. It was actually printed in 1960 but recorded the ancestry of the Gyeongju city Lee clan all the way back over 44 generations ( male ancestors only) to the 14th century. Having spent considerable time and effort trying to trace my own European roots and only succeeding in going back 250 years, I was impressed at the degree of detail of Korean genealogical records.
Korea is a conservative society. Couples rarely live together outside of marriage and the divorce rate has been low, although increasing fast. Professional marriage matchmakers are still sometimes used in Korea. My travel guide, Miss Im, revealed that she is approaching her mid 30s which in Korea is considered late for a girl to get married. “My mother is worried about me and she arranged for the matchmaker to introduce potential husbands. So far I have met twenty of them but none have worked out. As a tour guide I am too independent, I have to travel away from home often and I pick up un-Korean ideas from foreign visitors. These are not the qualities that traditional Korean men look for in a wife.” What about Korean women, what do they look for in a husband? Miss Im replied “ The usual things – good looking, tall, sense of humour and a good job. But we prefer to avoid the eldest son. In Korea the eldest son has the responsibility of looking after his parents in old age. Any girl who marries an eldest son will end up serving her parents-in-law.”
This post is an extract from an article I wrote for Good Living magazine.
When it comes to good health, Koreans have a head start thanks to three secret weapons. What are their secrets to robust health?
First of all there is Kimchi. Korea boasts a unique and distinctive cuisine which is generally very healthy. The main accompaniment to any meal (including breakfast!) is kimchi, a pungent side dish made from fermented cabbage, radish, red hot pepper, garlic and various other ingredients. Koreans love their kimchi. There is even a kimchi museum in Seoul displaying over 40 varieties. Kimchi was originally developed as a way of preserving vegetables for year-round use. Its nutritional value is scientifically proven. Lactic acid produced in the fermentation process suppresses harmful bacteria and relieves digestive disorders. The salt and vegetable juices help clean the intestines. Kimchi combats hyperacidity resulting from too much meat and other acidic foods. It is said to strengthen the immune system, help cure scars, lower cholesterol, postpone the aging process and prevent cancer. It is indeed a wonder food, rich in minerals, vitamins, calcium, phosphorus and iron. It is credited with protecting Korea against the SARS and flu epidemics which swept through other parts of Asia in recent years.
If you like vegetarian food, a good place in Seoul to sample kimchi is Sanchon restaurant where Korean temple cooking is prepared by a former Buddhist monk. Seated on the heated wooden floor at low tables, you can sample a massive spread of tasty dishes in a beautiful traditional courtyard house setting. When I went with 6 other people we ended up with over 60 small bowls on the table. Pity the poor washer upper!In the evenings a cultural dancing and drumming show adds to the atmosphere.
Another healthy and unusual eating experience can be enjoyed at Dr. Sangsoo’s Herb Land at Cheongwan –Gun, a couple of hours south of Seoul. ‘HERB could be an acronym for Health, Eating, Refreshing and Beautiful’ explains the brochure and Dr. Sangsoo certainly tries to incorporate all these elements into his signature dish, Flower Bop. This is a surprisingly delicious combination of rice, hot chili paste, herbs, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sesame oil, topped with fresh flowers from herb plants grown in his extensive greenhouses.
On the scenic island of Jeju, an hour’s flight south of Seoul, seafood is the speciality, served with kimchi of course! Elderly women dive without the aid of scuba gear to collect abalone, sea snails, octopus, sea cucumbers and more from the ocean floor. I found one of these women selling her catch on the sandy beach in front of the Lotte hotel. She insisted I try some abalone. Sliced up alive and eaten raw, it was chewy with a bland seawater flavour. This seafood may not be to everyone’s taste but it seems to keep these women healthy. The oldest diver on the island is in her eighties and she can still hold her breath for minutes at a time to dive these often icy waters.
The second secret weapon is Ginseng or insam as it is known in Korea. This miracle herb root is grown in a number of countries but the Korean version is known to be the most potent and beneficial. The small town of Geumsan is at the heart of the ginseng growing area and boasts a ginseng shopping street with 1,300 stores and a raw ginseng wholesale market where 8,000 tons of the stuff are traded annually.
What are the benefits of ginseng? According to the Geumsan Insam Exhibition Hall, ‘it has been hailed as a natural Viagra among the elderly, it prevents Alzheimer’s disease, it gives youthfulness, it corrects high blood pressure and it has an efficient anti-cancer effect.’ Given these claimed benefits and the fact that a ginseng plant takes 4 to 6 years to mature, it is not surprising that it commands a high price. A 500g packet of prized red insam can cost between USD 100 – USD 300. Ginseng is sold in edible, drinkable or medicinal form. Koreans consume vast quantities and any convenience store or motorway service station will sell bottles of ginseng tonic to revive the weary. Highly nutritional ginseng chicken soup is a popular restaurant dish. Personally I find the taste of ginseng to be bitter and earthy. It needs to be taken with honey or some other powerful disguise to make it palatable. I persevere with it knowing that it is good for me.
Jjimjilbangs (Sweat Rooms)
Koreans have enjoyed hot springs and bathhouses for centuries, but the third secret weapon, the Jjimjilbang, has only been around since the late 1990s. Unique to Korea, Jjimjilbangs use thermo-therapy to sweat out waste and toxins, improve metabolism and encourage relaxation. They are extremely popular among stressed-out office employees, housewives and grandmas who enjoy relaxing and chatting while doing their bodies some good. Dating couples meet at these places and parents bring their kids. There are over 1,800 in the country and some sport a huge array of facilities. The curiously named Dong Bang Sak Leports in Daejeon city sprawls over seven floors and comprises various types of steam rooms and saunas, hot and cold dip pools, a swimming pool, gymnasium, rest area, barber, beauty and nail salons, kids play area, PC gaming room, a dance floor, cafeteria, snack bars and free movie screening. But it is the steam rooms themselves which make the jjimjilbang experience novel. In Dong Bang they are a series of large cabins with circular windows (like Fred Flintstone houses) and each has a different interior. There are yellow clay rooms, amethyst rooms with purple crystals encrusted into the ceiling, rooms with jade floors, ginseng steam rooms and so on. Temperatures vary from hot to scorching and each room is supposed to give different health benefits. Customers are given matching T-shirts and shorts to wear and both sexes can mingle in all facilities except the sauna and changing floors which are segregated.
This post is an extract from an article I wrote for Good Living magazine.