Well, I couldn’t leave China on a sad note.  It’s Saturday and we’re at work.  While everyone talks about a ‘week’ national holiday for Chinese New Year, in fact officially everyone has to work the Saturday at the start of the week and the Sunday at the end of the week, so you actually only get 3 bank holidays sandwiched between two 6-day working weeks.  But most people have already left town: only me, Jess, Simon and Cathy made it into the office.  At lunchtime we went to babysit Simon’s little boy and then hit the ice rink at the base of his apartment building, which was as deserted as the surrounding city.

Leaving the office, my scarf had picked up so much static electricity that it became a woolly van der graaf generator.  It’s got a life of it’s own and grabs my finger like a sea urchin.

It may be -6 but the sky is blue and the sun is shining (I think I actually heard the government smog-clearing sky rockets being fired last night).  Happy new year!

It’s the end of the Year of the Rabbit and almost the start of the Dragon.  Beijing is emptying out for the holidays, my friends have already left town, it’s cold, it’s polluted… it’s time to come home.  Coincidentally (and extremely behind schedule) my building received planning permission today – so the first phase is finally finished.

I bought a belated birthday cake for my colleagues today.  As we sat around eating cake, listening to the official Chinese New Year 2012 pop song (chorus: ‘may your China Year be sweet and your grandparents live long’), I felt the Chinafran era drawing to a close.  I arrived last year just after the Spring Festival and now I’m leaving just before.

 Rabbit year: it’s been a blast.  But dragon years are supposed to be the best and I’m glad I’ll be spending it at home.

A New Year tree

This week Beijing has been unfriendly in many ways:

• The temperature is plummeting. High of -2. Low of brrrrrr…..

• The pollution is disgusting. Below 50 is healthy, over 100 is unhealthy, over 300 is hazardous and last night it was 558: off the scale.  The government fired chemical rockets into the sky last night to disperse the clouds and it’s a bit clearer today.

• Next week is ‘Chunjie’, the spring festival to celebrate the lunar new year. This is the time when everyone travels back to their hometown and lets off a zillion fire crackers. Eva and Tanja left early to escape the travel chaos. My teacher did too. Jet is back home having her Big Fat Chinese Wedding. So I’ve come back from Vietnam to a Beijing empty of friends. I only have Massage Master to hang out with (what a hardship). We’re both leaving on Sunday – along with millions of our fellow migrant workers. That should be fun at the airport.

But watching pirate DVDs and working with sweet Qianqian has kept a smile on my face.

New Year decorations in an empty Beijing

I arrived back in Beijing on a perfect sunny winter’s day.  It was -5 degrees and blue sky.  After moist, misty Vietnam, it felt like someone had suddenly turned on the lights and focussed my eyes.  A few electric shocks and some spitting on the street welcomed me back.

I nipped out to buy some washing powder but the nearby supermarket didn’t have the type I bought before and all the packets were in Chinese and utterly indecipherable.  I tried somewhere else, but they were also all in Chinese.  Some packages said ‘bleach’ or ‘fabric conditioner’ in English so I didn’t want to attempt a lucky dip.  Then I tried the Import Supermarket which had an English box of Persil for the equivalent of £7.20 – although it has ‘Special offer £2.99!’ printed on the box.  How annoying.  But I was out of options and out of clean pants.  I’ve just done my most expensive washing ever.

Vietnam didn’t steal our hearts, like Cambodia or Yunnan, because the western world never felt very far away, what with all that Abba, Wi-fi and touts shouting ‘Lovely Jubbly’.   Like China, it’s still a single-party Communist state but it feels somehow more free and cheerful – and you can get on Facebook and Youtube.  Maybe that’s what’s cheering everyone up. 

Compared to the bits of China I’ve seen, Vietnam feels denser and busier, with everyone busily ‘getting on’.  The streets are much narrower, buildings are smaller and there are motorbikes everywhere.  Yet it’s somehow quieter than China – more motorbike horns but much less shouting and NO SPITTING!!!

The French colonials decided to scrap Vietnamese characters and change them over to an alphabet system (albeit one with lots of accents, dots and dashes).  That makes it a lot easier to ‘have a go’ – read street signs and a map and try pronouncing dishes on the menu, compared to being helpless in China.  There doesn’t seem to be much remnant of French except that Vietnamese people answer the phone with “Allo” and eat mini-baguettes.

Here are more Chinafran/Vietfran comparisons:

  • In Vietnam there is always loo roll.  In China there usually isn’t.
  • Taxis in Vietnam have seatbelts in the back – not in China.
  • In Vietnam nearly everyone wears a face mask – hardly anyone in China does.  In Vietnam the exhaust fumes seem worse, probably because the roads are much smaller and fuller than in China. 
  • Vietnam is much more touristy and there are lots more Westerners and nearly everyone speaks English.
  • There are 32,000 Vietnamese Dong to the pound.  That’s hard maths.  In China you just divide by 10.
  • Green tea in Vietnam tastes weird.  It’s much nicer in China.
  • Trains in Vietnam are skeggy.  Chinese trains are much nicer.
  • There is the same cultural north/south split in both countries: the northerners believe they are the cultured, philosophical, romantic ones and the southerners are the money-grabbing commercial ones.  The southerners think the northerners are poncy.
  • Vietnamese people are tiny!  The Chinese look big and chunky in comparison.  Andrew and I felt like freaky giants with mini Dat and Din.

 

Driving back into Hanoi

Four years ago a Vietnamese girl called Duong came to work on The Cube briefly.  I dropped her a line to see if she was in Hanoi but she wasn’t, so she suggested we meet up with her brother Dat instead.  He brought his lovely girlfriend Din who is studying medicine and wants to be a paediatrician but Dat says ‘when she graduates, she will cook my dinner and have my baby’.  I remember Duong telling me that her first child was a daughter and if her second baby wasn’t a boy it would be perfectly acceptable for her husband to leave her.  Dat came across as well educated and charming, but still pretty traditional.  Good luck Din.

Going to the restaurant, our taxi driver was pulled over by the police but when the policeman saw there were foreigners in the taxi, he let him off.  Our taxi driver was really happy and gave us a discounted fare.

At dinner Dat ordered four different types of spring rolls, each with its own distinct dipping sauce:

  • Freshly rolled spring rolls
  • Fresh roll-your-own spring rolls
  • Soft-rice-wrapping spring rolls
  • Crispy spring rolls

With fish noodle soup and a dessert of different coloured jelly pieces in ice and milk.  Yum.

We had spent the previous ten days trying too hard to relax and not succeeding: there was always wifi, or tailor appointments, or sightseeing, or the challenge of crossing the road, or worrying about not being relaxed enough.  Then we sailed out into Halong Bay and felt suddenly zen.

The tour group was less than half full and no-one else had signed up for our extra day of kayaking so we basically had the bay to ourselves.  It was chilly and rainy but beautiful in the mist.  Andrew swam and ate a mussel that our guide chipped off the rock.  We kayaked through a cave into a secret lagoon in the middle of a ring of mountains.  Then we came back to our own private boat for our own private lunch and it was totally wonderful.

Back in Hanoi, we stayed at the grande dame hotel, The Metropole. It’s THE glamorous place in Hanoi, with a queue of newlyweds outside waiting to have their photo taken with the posh adverts.

The room had a ‘pillow menu’ so we got housekeeping to bring us a selection to try out but in the end we just slept on the standard ones.

 

 

Coming back to our room after a Charlie Chaplin Martini (he had his honeymoon here) and a Graeme Greene Margarita in the bar, we passed someone’s left-over room service in the corridor. The pudding only had a tiny bite taken out and Andrew decided he was hungry, so he swiped it, ate it and put back the empty tray before housekeeping came to collect it.

The food in Vietnam is great.  This is what I think I should be eating all the time: piles of fruit, piles of vegetables, piles of herbs, fish straight out of the sea, steaming noodle soups, all seasoned with lime juice and chilli.  And maybe the odd apple doughnut to get some essential oils. 

Just don’t order a white coffee.  Or if you do, don’t stir it: there is a thick layer of condensed milk lurking at the bottom which, if disturbed, will make it so sweet it’s undrinkable.

Of course we picked the oldest and slowest cyclo pedallers in the city and got overtaken by all the other cyclos. At the end of the hour, each guy got down from the bike and did a little ‘tired and sore dance’ to show us how achy and exhausted they were: a very well choreographed method of ensuring a bigger tip.