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Arrival

After a long but not so tedious plane journey (the numerous empty seats meant I could stretch out and sleep) I touched down in Hanoi. Visa in hand, I made my way through the not very long but incredibly slow immigration process and headed down to collect my luggage. ‘Little Viet’, the local Project’s Abroad representative greeted me as I came out the other side and although I should have been expecting it, the heat hit my pale British skin very hard. As Viet called a taxi from outside, I took shelter in the air-conditioned arrivals hall.

A ‘ten minute’ journey to the volunteer house swiftly became 45 minutes as it was clear that in fact the airport was not close to the city centre despite Viet’s proclamations. The concept of time in Hanoi seems to be a grey area – later on in the week my boss was also ‘only ten minutes away’ and strolled in an hour later as if clocks just work differently in Hanoi… Although I have never seen such a congested city as Hanoi (and I come from London!), I have also never seen so many motorbikes and cars manipulate their way so easily through the traffic. As I looked out the window of the cab I saw some fascinating sites. Mopeds rushed past with tiny children on them (some four or five to a bike) with no helmets and some stacked high with cages of living fish or birds. At this point I thought: ‘I am definitely not in Europe any more’.

We finally arrived at the house and to my utter relief Viet informed me that he would return to collect me for induction at around 2pm, meaning I could sleep for the next few hours. Or so I thought…

About an hour after I arrived at the house, I found myself locked in one of the bathrooms. A broken handle on the door meant there was no way out and having left my phone in my room I began to realise I might be stuck in there for the next four hours. Fortunately a housemate had decided to take a day of work and she heard my loud banging on the door from the floor above. After having told me I was ‘too large’ to climb through the window, as she herself had done when she came to my aid, she called on Viet to come and help. Viet then also climbed through the window and attempted to do what I had been trying to do for the last hour: simply ‘unlock the door’. Unsurprisingly, it did not work and finally it was agreed I should just climb through the window – something that I could have done an hour ago.

After a long nap, Viet returned again to the house to take me out around the local area. The cityscape of Hanoi is a mismatch of buildings both old-fashioned and modern. Everywhere you go looks difference and it is this that sets the city apart from others I have visited. I was able to get an even better view as I drove to the Project’s Abroad office with another coordinator, Riyaad, to start my induction.

The induction, as you’d imagine, consisted of the rules of the house and the project, safety and emergency details and an overview of the activities and trips to do in Hanoi. This was followed by a brief meeting about a water sanitation presentation that all the volunteers were to give local children as part of a REACH community program. As I had just arrived, I was not expected to attend which was a bit of a shame because events such as these are always interesting to write about.

The evening’s activity consisted of a meal out in the city of Hanoi and an open-mic night. I had hoped that my first meal would be traditionally Vietnamese but unfortunately I was outvoted and it turned out to be traditionally American (Burgers and chips), although still delicious. The open-mic night was unexpected, particularly as it had been portrayed as karaoke. It took place in a small library room that was hidden away down an alleyway. We were served homemade iced tea made from kumquat and we sat on the floor and watched as Vietnamese performers took the microphone and created some amazing sounds.

 

 

 

 

The Final Day

The end of a trip is always blue but as I look back at my wonderful adventure in Hanoi my heart is feels warm. I am lucky enough to have travelled a fair bit but there is nothing quite like living in a city so different and so far from home.

I decided to stay in Hanoi for my final day and take in as much as the city as I could. Determined to make my day last as long as possible I set an alarm early so that I could visit the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum. It is only open from 8:30am until 11:30am and there is always the risk of a long queue, so I set off at around 9am. Even so early in the morning it was blisteringly hot and I feared the long queue ahead of me. However, it was more of a moving line than a queue and in fact it only took about 15 minutes to get into the mausoleum. Inside the mausoleum you cannot stop to look, you must keep walking. There are no photographs allowed and you must wear clothes that cover your ankles and your shoulders out of respect. It was among the strangest things I have seen. In a transparent glass box in the middle of a small room is the body of Hồ Chí Minh. He is entirely white with the outline of his beard still visible. His body is small, illuminated and peaceful. A visit to Uncle Hồ is a very meaningful experience for the Vietnamese people. I had expected the mausoleum to be full of tourists but I was in fact the only tourist there. Floods of Vietnamese people line up to see Mr Hồ every day. Dead or alive, he is their leader, their saviour and their inspiration.

After the mausoleum there is the opportunity to visit Hồ Chí Minh’s house on stilts. The simplicity of his living quarters are there to reflect his communist ideology and his image as a ‘leader of the people’. However, his extensive collection of cars and the lavish presidential palace that stands next to his little house tell a slightly different tale. There were many school children visiting the area. I imagine the history of Hồ Chí Minh is a significant topic at school. Since I was one of the only tourists there, all the of the school children kept coming up to me asking for photos. Clearly my pale skin and curly hair was a great source of fascination for them!

In the late afternoon a group of us volunteers met up with Riyaad, a Project’s Abroad coordinator, who gave us a private food tour in the Old Quarter. We went to around 4 or 5 places and it only cost us 100,000 VND (about £4). We started with egg coffee; a slightly strange but tasty Vietnamese speciality. Riyaad took us to a small cafe that was at the back of a tourist shop invisible from view. It was full of locals – always a good sign! Re-energised, we continued our tour. Starting with a papaya and beef salad, we made our way through Bún chả, Bánh mì (A Vietnamese sandwich), dry chicken noodles and finished with an ice cream pudding. Riyaad was determined we all had the sticky rice dessert but having already been subjected to it at work, I decided I would pass…

It was the best way to end what has been a fabulous trip and once in a lifetime opportunity. I shall treasure the memories and the photos!

 

 

Hanoi Life

Like any city, on arrival Hanoi seems chaotic and impossible to navigate. However, you quickly find your way and realise that it is actually very easy to travel around. There is of course always the struggle of trying to navigate with the Grab driver while he speaks in fast Vietnamese, but with the words trái and phải (meaning left and right) my journey times have halved!

The most popular area in Hanoi – for tourists and locals alike – is the Old Quarter. It is here that the night markets take place and at the weekends, the area around the lake is closed off to traffic. It is great having an area you can go where you don’t fear for your life every time you cross the road! The night markets have your typical tourist stalls with ‘genuine fake’ branded clothing and garments with funky patterns. At the weekends there is also the opportunity to see street acts such as fire throwers and traditional dancers. Although there are the odd few people who call out trying to sell their merchandise, I have found that I have not been hassled in the way I have in other countries. The Vietnamese people are gentle and hospitable and I have felt at ease on the streets of Hanoi. There is often room to haggle but at such low prices it feels exploitative to take away from the seller’s livelihood.

The Old Quarter holds many bars and restaurants with fair prices for quality products. However, my favourite drinking destination is the Lotte tower. It is a hotel and therefore the prices are higher than they would be in other less touristy places but still significantly lower than London. Entrance to the observation deck on the 65th floor is free and the views are magnificent. At night you can see a 360 view of Hanoi lit up under thousands of lights.

At the volunteer house we are fortunate enough to have a cook who makes us lunch and dinner every day. This has given me the opportunity to try home cooked Vietnamese food. However, I hope to try some more street food later on!

 

Hỏa Lò Prison

Hỏa Lò Prison has a mixed history. It was set up by French colonialists in Vietnam in 1886. The name Hỏa Lò translates as ‘fiery furnace’ after the street phố Hỏa Lò that sold wood and fire stoves, however the name fits well the experience of those held in the prison.

The conditions of the prison were barbaric. For example, in cell D where male prisoners were held was packed full over capacity, which made it insufferable in the summer. When it was freezing cold in the winter, their captors would throw cold water over them as a form of torture. If prisoners broke any of the rules, they were put in the Cachot area (meaning dungeon) where they were put in stocks and forced to eat and relieve themselves on the spot. They all became ill with oedema, whilst their eyes were clouded over and their bodies covered in scabies due to the lack of light and air.

Despite its horrific history, Hỏa Lò prison is sacred to many Vietnamese generations because of what it represented. The prisoners, determined not to lose their cause, turned the prison into a revolutionary school. Papers and teachings were passed around secretly, via holes in the wall, inside chopsticks or using other imaginative methods. As a result, many of the Vietnamese soldiers detained at Hỏa Lò went on to become senior executives of the Communist party and the government in Vietnam. Figures include Do Muoi, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Nguyen Lam, Deputy Prime Minister.

During the Vietnam War with America, pilots that were shot down from 1964 onwards became Prisoners of War in Hỏa Lò prison. Hỏa Lò was christened ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by American soldiers and this is where the history becomes blurred. For obvious reasons, the information shown at the prison states that the American soldiers were given ‘the best living conditions’. Photos show the soldiers playing sports, bonding with their captors and celebrating christmas with lavish food and decorations. On the other hand, testimonies of released prisoners claimed there was widespread abuse such as rope bindings and beatings and inhumane living conditions. Therefore the name Hanoi Hilton has very different connotations for each nation, but as both nations also relied on heavy propaganda during the war it is difficult to determine which narrative holds the most truth.

My Journalism Project – VOV5

I knew that Vietnam was a communist country before arriving – it was the main reason I wanted to do an internship in Hanoi. However, when you walk around the city and talk to locals about their lives here it is difficult to see the role communism actually plays in Vietnam. Of all the communist countries, it is probably the most capitalist. For example, whilst in Cuba it is very difficult to come across branded products, in Hanoi you can see them in every store. Furthermore, when I asked one of my colleagues whether he was paid the same as everyone else in the office, his response was that you are paid depending on your position and your experience. He went on to explain that the country was going through a process that would finally result in achieving put communism. Therefore, for a while I assumed ‘communism’ was a euphemism for ‘one party state’. As I spent more time at Voice of Vietnam the restrictions on freedom of speech became more evident.

There are a variety of sections you can get involved in at VoV. News is obviously a large one but they also have culture, food, travel, economy and several others. The Lunch Show, which takes place every day between 12pm and 1pm, consists of light entertainment pieces such as society trends and cultural segments. I was asked to write the show every Friday, something I take great joy in doing, but I was told I could not talk about anything related to politics or social problems. As a result, I have tended to stick with topics that theme around the UK. The restrictions put on the content I can produce became even clearer when I asked my supervisor if I could do a piece on a hair salon that was set up by REACH, a non-governmental organisation that helps disadvantaged youth to find employment. Originally, the premise of the piece was dangerous chemicals that exists in hairdressers and how to protect yourself against them. However, after trying to clear the topic with my supervisor she informed me that I could not write anything negative about chemicals or problems as the radio station’s purpose is to serve as propaganda. We therefore agreed that I should focus on REACH and how the lives of these youth have changed as a result of training in the hair salon. It is still a very important topic to discuss, but the content became much more simplistic and avoided any speculation as to why these youth were disadvantaged in the first place.

I feared this might become a problem again when I set up an interview with Jennifer Vanderpool, an American artist who created an exhibition in Hanoi. As a social activist, her work questions social problems in both Vietnam and Los Angeles. I decided the safest thing to do was to ask a range of questions so that if there were any issues with what she was saying, it could be cut and replaced with a more banal question. The restrictions can be frustrating, especially when the person you’re interviewing has a lot of interesting and important things to say. Nevertheless, the process and the masking of these ‘controversial’ topics in the media is fascinating and something that I am not accustomed to in the UK. After being asked to edit a speech by the president of VOV, I also learnt that the biggest purpose of the station is to promote culture and the cultural identity of Vietnam. the Vietnamese are keen to protect and promote their traditions and customs as they have suffered years of foreign invasion and influence. VOV’s mission is to transmit and educate society on their culture.

Considering these rules surrounding freedom of speech, the Vietnamese people are rather blunt. Some of the things I have overheard in the office in conversations between the Vietnamese staff and the American man who works in my office include: ‘you look fat in T-shirts’, ’your outfit ruins you’ and ‘you’re so moody’. The office is also not the first place I have heard such remarks; at Ha Long Bay my friend was told that because she is tanned it means that she must be poor. That said, comments such as these are said without any malice and actually the people in my office are amongst some of the most hospitable I have ever met. I have been taken out for lunch twice by my colleagues, once for the classic Phở and once for Bún chả (at the restaurant Obama went to when he visited) and Chè Hạt sen. They are keen to share their culture with me and have also brought me numerous desserts at work, albeit some very questionable ones including tofu soup, young rice ice cream and even a cake with pork in it!

The level of productivity at Voice of Vietnam can be dubious at times. I see them asleep at their desks with a pillow and a blanket or even coming into work drunk…Nonetheless, the quality of content produced in the English department of VoV is truly outstanding considering they are working solely in their second language. It puts my level of French to shame!

 

Bắc Ninh

Bắc Ninh was by far my most authentic experience of Vietnam. It is about an hours drive east of Hanoi and is very calm and rural compared to hectic Hanoi. One of the volunteers I live with, Angela, is Vietnamese but she was brought up in the USA. She was adopted when she was two year’s old and taken to Indiana. The adoption was open and therefore Angela has been in contact with her birth family since she was a child. A couple of years ago, she came to visit them in Bắc Ninh and she is here now working in Hanoi and thus able to visit them every weekend. As the language barrier is still an issue (although she takes lessons each week), Angela asked me to accompany here on one of her visits. Touched that she had asked and keen to see real Vietnamese village life, I found myself in Bắc Ninh province.

Angela’s sister picked us up from Hanoi and when we got there we were taken to her mother house. As with most Vietnamese houses I have seen, there was a shrine in the middle of the main room – which was located at the side of a small court yard. There were a lot of people to meet and I was not entirely sure who was related to whom (neither was Angela!) I met her mum and her grandma and then a few uncles and cousins and a lot of small children. With everyone speaking in fast Vietnamese, I decided the best approach was to just keep smiling and saying ‘cảm ơn’ (thank you), ‘xin chào’ (hello) and ‘Anh’ (England).

The rest of the day consisted of us moving from house to house. First we went to Angela’s aunt’s house for lunch. They informed us it was a party and when we arrived there were lots of people sitting at tables outside. I was welcomed to the ‘party’ with a shot of very strong liquor – it was unclear as to which liquor as it came out of a water bottle. I sat next to a man who kept shaking my hand every few minutes and saying hello many times. He was very friendly and determined that I was well fed as he continuously filled my bowl with chicken. The lunch was made up of rice and various meats in various sauces. I also tried a local speciality dish that was wrapped in a large vine leaf. The inside was a long roll that looked like a spring roll but with a slightly strange texture and consistency. It was filled with beef and rice and not at all bad. However, as soon as I ate the whole thing I was then given all of the ones on the table which was a bit much for my belly!

We then made our way to another house. A motorbike was brought out and Angela and I slowly realised that we were both to get on the back of the bike in classic Vietnamese style…Fortunately the next house was only about a minutes drive from the previous one. We were quite unsure as to how the inhabitant of this house related to everyone else but, as we had done most of the day, we just went along with it. The lady who lived there was a teacher and in fact her house was quite modern and smart. We were given some ice cream and then led to an upstairs room by Angela’s sister. This is when we went from a little confused to absolutely baffled. The curtains were drawn and the lights turned off and we were told to lie down on the three person bed as it was nap time…

We therefore spent most of the afternoon in a dark room with Angela’s sister and her friend. It was slightly bizarre but we were able to chat by using a translator application which was not bad at all. At around 3pm, the school teacher came back up to the room armed with an alphabet book. It became clear we were going to have a lesson in Vietnamese. As a tonal language, I was the subject of a lot of ridicule but this gave me greater pride when I finally got one right (even though they all sounded the same to me).

Just as the storm was hitting, we made our way back to Hanoi.

 

Bảo tàng Phụ nữ – The Women’s Museum

Around the corner from my work is the Vietnam Women’s Museum, Bảo tàng phụ nữ. Vietnam is a patriarchal society but this museum honours the work of Vietnamese women throughout history. It is made up of four floors, the first dedicated to family and marriage, the second to farming and agriculture, the third (and most interesting) to women in war and the final to fashion throughout the ages.

In Vietnam there are lots of different ethnicities, each with their own marital traditions. For some, it is tradition for both the man and the woman to have engagement rings, others must have their teeth filed before marriage (nasty!) and there are even societies where polygamy was acceptable until only recently – presumably only for men…Much of this floor emphasised the patriarchal society of Vietnam, it was the floor above that really highlighted the power of women in this country.

The display showed on the impact of women during the wars with France and America. It talked about hero mothers who were vital in supplying intelligence, medical aid and in some cases manpower to the war efforts. There was one woman who stood out for me. Her name was Ngo Ba Thanh and she became known as the rose in the barbed wire. She wrote documents, acucsations and anti-authoritarian letters criticising the American war in Vietnam. This in turn mobilised many levels of society and created a movement, which grew through meetings and demonstrations. She attracted public attention in Vietnam and around the world. Not only was she Chairman of the Law Committee of the National Assembly of the VI, VII, VIII and X she was also Vice Chairman ofVietnam Lawyers Association and vice president of Vietnam Women’s Union.

The museum holds all sorts of facts about these incredible women that are masked in Vietnam’s daily patriarchal society. It is definitely worth a visit, but remember to bring your own headphones or no audio guide for you!

 

Ninh Bình

As it is only about an hour and a half’s drive from Hanoi, we were able to fit in a day trip to Ninh Bình on Saturday. We opted for the luxury tour given it was only about £5 more expensive than the standard one and it meant that we could have our lunch in the home of a Vietnamese family. Ninh Bình is described by the locals as ‘Hạ Long Bay on land’. In my opinion, it is ten times more stunning.

Upon arrival, we had tea in the local home where we were shown several ornaments and wall-hangings and their significance. On the wall in the downstairs room hang three red posters – certificates of education in Vietnam. In the upstairs room is a shrine to the hosts’ ancestors where they leave offerings of tea, water, cakes and vodka! I think this is a tradition that should be brought back to England. I am sure my ancestors would be very grateful for a litre of Smirnoff from beyond the grave.

After our tea we could choose between taking bicycles or motorbikes through the paddy fields. Considering the temperature was reaching about 35°C, Cassie and I chose the motorbikes while the rest of our group braved the heat on bicycle. As we drove through the miles of paddy fields it became clear to me why Ninh Bình had been named Ha Long Bay on land. Dotted around the fields are mountains made of limestone karst, just as they are in Hạ Long Bay. However, unlike Hạ Long, the natural beauty of Ninh Binh has not yet been damaged by large numbers of tourists. Unfortunately, our tour guide informed us that within the next few years, the number of visitors is expected to rise significantly. I feel fortunate that I was able to see this gorgeous site before it becomes overwhelmed by tourists.

We stopped at a clearing next to a small river. Here, our guide explained a bit about the rice farming industry and the processes behind it. Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice and therefore this area is very important for the Vietnamese economy. The seeds are spaced out and planted by hand to increase the yield. The seeds must reproduce and ripen and then they are ready for harvest. Rice farming is very labour intensive and although some new machinery has been produced to aid with its farming, most of the work is still done by manual labour. With the sun penetrating our feeble western bodies, it was time to head back for lunch.

With full bellies, we were taken to the river where we were to board small row boats. I was very pleased to learn that I could finally wear one of their traditional conical hats, and in the middle of the river I was also very grateful for it. The more able-limbed Vietnamese rowers row with their feet – obviously! – in order that they can hold an umbrella up to protect themselves from the sun. Our little love boat glided smoothly along the river and under several caves. We reached a floating market at the end, from which we had been warned not to buy anything by our tour guide. The views from the boat were magnificent and although Ninh Bình was already winning in the competition against Hạ Long, the river boat trip put the province about hundred points ahead. I truly felt as though I had reached paradise.

The final stop of our tour was a temple about 20 minutes away from the river. Hoa Lư is the ancient capital of of Vietnam from the 10th century. It holds the temple of King Đinh, which is built in the style of the Chinese. Dinh founded the first imperial dynasty of Vietnam in 968. Inside the temple you can see rooms full of offerings to Dinh’s parents, whom the locals worship as a sign of respect. The temple was peaceful and as we looked around our tour guide explained the numerous Chinese symbols on the walls. The temple as a river to the front and a mountain at the back, created in the Chinese feng shui style. A dive into this mixed culture was the perfect way to end our round tour of Ninh Bình.

Hạ Long Bay

When I told people I would be spending a month in Hanoi, it always invited the same response: ‘You must go to Hạ Long Bay!’ Determined that I would not leave Vietnam without having visited Hạ Long, I jumped at the chance to spend the night on a boat at the famous bay. There are, of course, a vast number of tour boats and overnight trips that are organised by various cruise companies from either Hanoi or other nearby provinces. We opted for the overnight tour, as had been advised by many of my colleagues, with Golden Star Cruise. As students, this budget tour seemed the most reasonable and although the reviews for it weren’t five stars, we could at least find it on TripAdvisor!

The coach that arrived to pick us up had lots of legroom – for a Vietnamese person! My larger and longer limbs struggled a bit more as I stuffed my bag between my legs and settled down for the 4-hour journey that awaited me. Unsurprisingly, we arrived alongside many busloads of tourists all eager to discover the wonder of Hạ Long Bay. Our own group was made up of mainly local tourists with the only other foreigners being a couple from Germany.

Located in the province of Quang Ninh, about three and a half hours from Hanoi by coach, Hạ Long Bay is made up of over 1,900 small islands surrounded by dazzling waters and covered in evergreen forests. Its spectacular panoramic views and impressive rock formations make it a popular travel destination for foreign and domestic tourists alike. The name Vịnh Hạ Long translates as “Bay of the Descending Dragon”. It was christened this as the result of local legend that when Vietnam became a country, it had to defend itself against outside invaders. Therefore, the gods sent dragons to descend over the bay and spit out pearls onto the invaders. Over time, these pearls are believed to have developed into the islets that cover the bay today.

When we arrived we were herded onto a little dingy boat that transferred us to the main boat. Once everyone had boarded our cruise boat, it was time for the official tour to begin. Lunch was made up of a variety of Vietnamese dishes – finally! It was not always clear exactly what they consisted of, but I felt it was better not to ask… Either way I thoroughly enjoyed it. After lunch we relaxed on the sun bed upstairs, making sure to cream up as it was blisteringly hot, and the junk took us further into the bay.

Hạ Long Bay has been named one of the new seven wonders of nature by New7wonders and is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the ancient world. To the naked eye, it is not difficult to see why it has gained this reputation. The vast docile waters and the dotted emerald islands are truly astonishing. However, it is the hidden wonders of the bay that make it stand out from other world heritage sights. Inside the hollow islands there are endless numbers of caves, some of which have lakes enclosed within them. Undoubtedly the best known and largest of these is Sung Sôt or ‘Surprise’ grotto on Bo Hòn Island. According to the locals, it was christened ‘Grotto des Surprises’ by the French who, when they came to visit, found that at every turn they found something exciting and surprising.

A visit to Sung Sôt cave was included in our tour. There are two chambers inside the cave. The first reaches a height of about 30 meters and is often likened to a theatre hall. The ceiling is lined with stalagmites and stalactites in a variety of shapes and sizes. A narrow pathway leads to a second chamber, the ‘serene castle’. The word ‘castle’ refers to the rock formations in the cave that resemble sentries and soldiers. In the centre of the chamber you can also see a larger rock that could depict an army general supervising his troops. As we were only given an hour, we hiked through Sung Sot rather swiftly. This was difficult at times as the pathways felt a bit like the streets of Hanoi – very congested! About half way up there is a viewing area that gives you a dazzling view of Hạ Long. After a photo-shoot at the viewpoint, we headed back down to join the rest of our group.

While for some people Hạ Long Bay is an unforgettable experience due to its immense natural beauty and stunning rock formation, others remember it simply as an overrun tourist trap; a bay full of polluted waters and huge numbers of junk boats. This was certainly the impression I got from Ti Top Island, the next stop on our tour. As it is one of the few designated swimming areas for tourists, the island is swarming. Overwhelmed by our excitement to bathe in the glistening waters we saw from the boat, we made our way down to the shore only to find a much less inviting sight. Plastic bags, bottles and many other pieces of rubbish float in the waters, while bobbing bodies take up the rest of the space. According to Tuan Chau Green Environment Company, eight tonnes of rubbish  are collected from Hạ Long Bay each day. Feeling a bit queasy at the sight, we retreated back to the beach.

Back on board, our tour guide gave us a mini cooking lesson. We made Vietnamese spring rolls with transparent rice paper. It is actually easier than it looks given the right ingredients. This was our starter for our dinner, coupled with a glass of wine on the house. After dinner four of us had a go at squid fishing. At first I thought this was just a just a story they told tourists to get them excited about all the squids they would allegedly catch. But wrong I was! After about 5 minutes of holding the rod, I felt it start to tug and as I pulled it up a large squid came flying into the air on the end of it. Black ink sprayed out everywhere which gave me a bit of a shock at first. Unfortunately there was no prize for catching a squid – even though I felt I thoroughly deserved one!

After a stormy night, we emerged from our cabins for some early morning kayaking. At a serene part of the bay there is a floating kayak clubhouse where you can rent them for the hour. We took them out in twos and drifted around the bay. It was remarkably quiet and the early morning air looked stunning across the bay. We even saw a flurry of flying fish gliding through the air. When we returned to the boat – a more reasonable hour – it was time for breakfast. This just consisted of eggs and toast, which was disappointing as I’d like to have tried traditional Vietnamese breakfast.

We cruised along to the pearl farm. A large number of oysters live in Ha Long Bay and they are farmed in special areas. As we walked around the farm, a local guide explained how they are processed and collected and what they are worth. All the pearls are cared for with specialised methods and the result is large and perfectly round pearls that can be sold on to visitors. At the farm, we were able to watch the farm workers clean and plant pearls, mixing them inside the oysters with special solutions to increase the quality. As beautiful as they were, I resisted the temptation to buy one at the end.

Hạ Long pearl farm was followed by lunch onboard, which included a squid dish. I am not sure if it was the squid I caught, but there is real chance it was! We headed back to the main land to wait for our coach home.

Despite the environmental pressures being placed on Hạ Long Bay, it remains exquisitely picturesque. Early morning kayaking is an eerily serene experience and the views from the top of the islands are postcard perfect. Although we must be environmentally conscious, you should not miss out on this extraordinary adventure.

 

 

The First Day of Work

An 11 o’clock start meant I had a mini lie-in. Anh, the Project’s Abroad supervisor for journalism, came to pick me up in the morning to travel with me on my first day. In Vietnam Uber has been bought by Grab and this, according to Project’s Abroad, is the best way to travel around. Little did I know that would mean hopping on the back of a motorbike every morning and evening whilst a Grab driver asked me for directions in Vietnamese! The first ride was, however, relatively smooth.

On arrival, Anh and I climbed up the steps of a large brown building with an Eiffel Tower-sized aerial on the top of it. Stomach slightly clenched, we made our way to the foyer where we were met by my placement supervisor, Ms Phuong, and the rest of the team. The station is huge with over 5000 employees and a number of different departments. I am working in VoV5, the English overseas department. The department is made up of Vietnamese women (mainly), with the odd man dotted around. After a preliminary meeting I was given the grand – and quite long – tour. VoV spreads between two buildings – the building with the office is relatively modern and the building with the broadcasting studios is more old-fashioned. It has production rooms ranging from those built in 1945, when it was first created, to the more modern ones of today.

First on the agenda was the Lunch Time Show which takes place every day between 12pm and 1pm. Today show was run by Ly and Ngan who brought me along to watch. We had to walk through many a corridor and a number of stairs to find the studio. The Lunch Time Show covers light entertainment and lifestyle news. The one thing I noticed straight away was that everything put on air is scripted. At the beginning I thought this was simply how they do things at VoV. I quickly learned that, of course, it must be scripted because of the restrictions on freedom of speech in Vietnam under the communist regime. I was thus informed that I could write about anything I like, just not politics.

In the afternoon I was invited to watch, and participate in, some of the pre-recorded segments that will later go on the live shows. The studio for pre-recordings works much like the talks studio at Nottingham university radio. There is a producer on one side of the glass and the presenters on the other. What I found most interesting was how they edited the content during recording. At home, we record everything and simply edit out the areas that we trip up. Here, however, they will record a segment and if you make a mistake, they will override it. They play you the last sentence you spoke and you will then pick up from where you left off. This will record over the part during which you made a mistake. Editing the content later on will therefore not be as time consuming.

I finished work at around 5pm and one of my colleagues ordered me a Grab bike home. I am still having problems with my Vietnamese sim and so whilst that is being sorted out I am reliant on the good will of others or of the wifi! My first Grab on my own was quite an experience. The volunteer house is only about 20 minutes away from my office but I arrived home around an hour later, and not just because of the traffic. For someone with not a lot of experience riding on the back of a motorbike, breaking down in the middle of the motorway was not an ideal situation. All credit to my driver, he spent a good ten minutes (still in the middle of the motorway) trying to restart his engine. But after numerous attempts it was time to give up. Casually, he walked the bike with me on it across the road – dodging lots of cars in the process – to the pavement. Realising I had no way of actually ordering another Grab and having no idea where I was I started to panic. Fortunately, another Grab driver who was passing by came to my rescue, but the ordeal was not over yet! GPS doesn’t seem to be a widely used device for taxi companies here. Instead, the technique he used was to pull over every five minutes and ask people on the side of the street for directions. After about half an hour of driving around, we finally made it back home. Bathed in sweat after my odyssey, I swiftly headed for the shower.

At the house we have a cook who comes in each day to make us dinner and lunches. My first proper Vietnamese meal consisted of beef pho. Rather embarrassingly, Cassie (another volunteer) and I hadn’t quite realised what the dinner was and therefore we started by dipping our noodles into the broth. Shortly after, we discovered it was pho and therefore supposed to be made into soup. Fortunately there was no one there to judge us for our shameful western blunder!