Jacmel, Haiti, – Carnival Time

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Jacmel is a small town, a fishing village, and situated south west of Port au Prince Haiti. While Port au Prince is electric and you need to have our wits about you, Jacmel is laid back, a place where you can walk the streets at any time in safety. It is welcoming, walk able, and atmospheric.

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Two great festivals that happen in Haiti every year are Fet Gede, in November and Carnival, in February. Fet Gede celebrates the Day of The Dead, a voodoo festival when, according to folklore, Baron Samedi takes people from their graves and welcomes them into the underworld. There is lots of voodoo, ritual dancing and drinking rum. Carnival, on the other hand, is a riot of colour, noise, and ordered chaos when the small town of Jacmel is transformed and welcomes people from all over Haiti to celebrate culture and freedom. It is about costumes made from papier mache, dancing music and celebration. Preparations by individuals and groups go on for many months before. It is unlike any other carnival that I have ever seen in that it celebrates uniquely Haitian things in a uniquely Haitian way.

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Papier mache, simply pieces of paper stuck together with water or paste is an art form in Haiti with some wonderfully beautiful pieces made in moulds, and it is the centrepiece of the costumes for carnival. Celebrate Haitian music, art, culture and their history particularly their rebellion as slaves, which resulted in an independent state in 1804 of which they are rightly proud.

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The carnival is special, it is fun, and it is energy and an unforgettable experience.

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Port Au Prince, Haiti.

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If you travel far and wide you think you have been to poor countries and have seen poverty and deprivation and met people living difficult lives, and then you go to Haiti. The capital, Port Au Prince is a shock to the system. From the moment you exit the airport you are surrounded by noise, offers, urgency and traffic that is uniquely chaotic. But some how it works and beneath the extremes Haitians are friendly, soulful, stoic and they know how to enjoy themselves with music and dance.

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I stayed at the Hotel Oloffson, famed for being written about in Graham Greene’s novel, The Comedians, and for rooms that are named after famous stars who have stayed there. It is in downtown Port Au Prince, not in the more Westernised suburb of Petionville, and more fun for that. The voodoo garden that surrounds it is filled with fascinating statues from the world of voodoo.

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Port Au Prince has not recovered from the devastating earthquake of 2010, which affected some 3m people and in which more than 230000 people were killed. Buildings are still wrecked and it is very slowly being rebuilt. Poverty is rife but Haitians never lose their positive outlook and pride in being who they are. It is a place where you should not take photos of people without asking first, a throw back to the old days of Papa Doc. Take a trip to the Iron market, a great introduction to the markets that dot Haiti filled with everything from trinkets, to food, to second hand clothes to voodoo icons and lotions. You don’t see a lot of people wearing helmets on motor bikes and scooters in Haiti but riding on the back of one of those is the cheap and easy way to get around. Take a trip up to Jalousie, a suburb up the hill, a place that is not recommended by tourist guides but once you get there, start talking, and overcome the initial suspicions  you start to experience what makes Haiti special. You will often be told not to go out alone, and it is a place to be careful, but don’t let that stop you enjoying the sheer feeling of energy and curiosity that Port Au Prince engenders

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Rural Vietnam

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Rural Vietnam offers stark contrasts to the energy, vigour excitement and craziness of Saigon or Hanoi. These communities bring you tradition, contrasts, and even a sense of isolation from the outside world.

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I was invited to spend the Vietnamese New Year with a family who lived in a very small town some 3 hours south east of Hanoi in Ninh Binh province on the main road south. The town’s small size is easy enough to digest, until you realise that people are following you as you walk down the street, because they have rarely if ever seen anyone like you in real life. That is a surprise. Coming across a small village one day I found a locked church, which interested me. Someone was able let me in. I wandered around the church and after a few minutes I realised I was not alone in the supposedly empty church; about 20 people had gathered by the door of the church and were simply staring at me, albeit in a very friendly way.

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That part of Vietnam is littered with relics of French colonial influence none more obvious that the strong presence of Catholicism. What was really interesting to me was seeing churches constructed in Neo Gothic style, which have been constructed within the last 10 years by the congregation. Catholicism is as influential here as Buddhism.

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The contradictions and conflicts between agriculture and industry are seen in peaceful rural scenes set against a backdrop of mountains which have had their whole sides simply ripped out by barely regulated mining.

 

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A new year family gathering involved sitting for a long time on the floor eating good food and consuming large amounts of local rice wine that progressively numbs you in an atmosphere of great harmony as we all struggle to be understood with a mixture of Vietnamese, French English and sign language. People are welcoming friendly and inquisitive. Whilst Vietnamese are proud of their history as victors against foreign influence, resentment and recrimination are very rare. And yes men in one place women in another.

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Communism, Buddhism and Catholicism sit side by side in apparent harmony ,the focus of modern life being material wellbeing, which is the common aim, and they work hard, although millions are still dependent on agriculture.. The families are large and and the bonds tight and are the root from which rural life grows. In amongst rice paddies are the graves of family members giving insight into the long connections of families and towns. The young head for the cities to earn a living if they can but always come back on the frequent busses that thunder down the road as the new world passes by the old.

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Bohol Island, Philippines

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Bohol is justifiably famous for beaches and resorts and boats, but if you suffer from beach ennui, or like to take a more quizzical and enquiring approach to discovering places, there are lots of goodies on Bohol.

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It’s fun to cruise down the Loboc river very slowly, have some lunch relax from the slow lazy movement of the water and absorb river life. For me one of the joys of rivers is when they are firmly bounded by nature, the jungle the vegetation so you are se firmly in the middle of nature with only the odd incursion of the world. There is a satisfying relationship between river and vegetation, they know each other and they enclose you. Occasionally humans insert themselves into this timeless relationship and swim or fish or even live on the banks but you are always conscious that humans are welcomes visitors

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The Philippine Tarsier is the smallest primate on earth, they fit into the palm of your hand and the species can be traced back 45 million years. Visit the sanctuary where they are protected and encouraged to thrive and view them with great gentleness and respect. They are beautiful creatures with enormous eyes, which are the size of their brain, and those eyes are fixed and never move such that they rotate their heads to view laterally. They are a fascinating discovery

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There are some interesting churches on Bohol many of which are now being renovated, which reflect the sometimes-turbulent course of Philippine history and reflect the early Spanish Catholic tradition. The Church of St Nino De Anda is one such containing as it does a great museum tracing its history.

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The Chocolate Hills, so named because in summer the grass the covers them turns a chocolate brown, are a particular feature of the island. They are formed of coral that lifted out of the ocean millions of years ago and the erosion of rain and wind has created their conical shape. There are more than 1200 hills. Apart from the geological explanation for their existence, there are local legends: Two just had a fight that went on for days as they hurled rocks boulders and sand at each other. In the end, exhausted, they left the fight became friends and left the area but forgot to clean up and left behind the mess they had made. Or if you prefer a powerful giant Arogo fell in love with a human called Aloya. Aloya died causing Arogo so much grief that he could not stop crying and when his tears dried the chocolate hills were formed. Take your pick

 

 

Davao City and Samal Island, Philippines

 

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Davao City, the main city on the Philippines island of Mindanao is the largest city in the Philippines by land area and the most populous city after Metro Manila. It’s not the most visited by any means which is partly due to its distance from Manila and because it is on the island of Mindanao, which has suffered from Islamic terrorist uprisings in recent years. But it is well worth a visit.

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For me it is undoubtedly the safest of all the cities that I have visited in the Philippines. Talking to Filipinos the law is respected there and undoubtedly enforced. An army presence securing the city against terrorism is part of that but there is an inherent respect for the law that is striking. Anti-smoking laws are strictly enforced as I experienced having sopped for a quick cigarette in the street before entering a restaurant only to be accosted by two serious looking cops who told me that no smoking is really no smoking and you can be arrested for even smoking in the street! Look at Mount Apo, and if you are lucky to see the Philippines Eagle the largest I the world and now protected.

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Off the coast is the intriguing island of Samal. The easiest way to get there is to go to the ferry port and simply jump on the ferry that runs across from Davao to Samal all the time. It costs just a few pesos and the other end do a deal with a tuk tuk driver to take you round the good places on the island. Not only is it a fun way to travel but the drivers are great travel guides.

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Samal has lots of great beaches and resorts to go with them but there are some gems on the island itself. The Hagimat Falls cost is a series of small waterfalls and pools where you can swim. The water is extraordinarily clean and it is set in the jungle, a small hike from the road. Very beautiful particularly given its quite remote setting.

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The Montfort Bat Sanctuary contains 2.4 million Philippine fruit bats that live in caves set into the hill, a series of holes that you can peer into and see the massed ranks of bats hanging together on the walls. The story of the bats are fascinating, their lives and the order of their lives ending in a cave reserved for “retired “ bats to end their days.

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A great way to complete the trip to Samal is to experience the Giant Clam Sanctuary. Take a boat out to a floating platform and then snorkel a view these extraordinary protected features of nature, which grow up to 1.5 meters in diameter. The pure clear water makes it an extraordinary experience that you can simply view or get very close to.

Independence Palace Saigon – The Prism of History

 

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What is commonly called The Independence Palace, or Reunification Palace was built in the centre of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1962. This followed an air raid by two renegade pilots of the then Vietnam Air Force on behalf of the Viet Cong, seeking to assassinate the then President Diem, which destroyed a wing of the then Norodam Palace. The President, who escaped the air raid, instructed that a new Palace to be built on the site, to the design of a Vietnamese architect who won one of the world’s foremost architectural prizes for his design.

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President Diem never saw the finished work since he and his family were assassinated, but it became the seat of power of the subsequent Presidents of South Vietnam, or the Republic of Vietnam as it was known. That era ended in 1975 when North Vietnamese forces took the Palace, a scene reflected in a famous photo of a North Vietnamese tank crashing through the Palace gates.

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For me this is not an inspiring building despite its Architectural awards, but looking at it, and inside it, lets us look at history through a prism and reflect on some of what it means historically. The Palace has subsequently been used for State occasions but it is essentially a destination for tourists exploring Vietnam. The balcony from which Presidents looked down on crowds, is not a convenient vantage point for people to take photos down a wide boulevard lined by a park, the play ground of the French Colonials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

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What strikes you first and foremost about the interior is how grandiose an pompous it is. Throne rooms, extravagant 800 seater meetings rooms ,where the great and the good of that tiny, no longer existing Republic and their visitors assembled to chart the course of the country and to play its important part in the Geopoliticis of the era of the “domino effect”. Today it all seems pointless and irrelevant, with the then famous people who occupied those rooms gone and largely forgotten. But then how many countries do we see in the world with poor people who have been ruled by people where display has far outweighed substance in importance.

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In the basement is a bunker to be used by the President in time of war or emergency. It has offices bedrooms and the then latest communication technology still in place. Despite the fact that it is only 41 years since that country’s demise, the equipment looks stone age. You realise that in the era in which we exist, history is defined not just by time, but also by technological progress, things and people become objects of history much earlier than they used to. History is foreshortened.

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And individuals see this building according to their lives at the time. A woman I met in Saigon who had been in her 30s when the tank crashed through the gates, told me that I should not take too much notice of the incident with the tank, “to be honest” she said, “don’t take too much notice of this drama about tanks smashing gates. In fact we just opened the gates and let them in”. Such is the joy of the prism effect on history.

 

Ha Long Bay – Vietnam

 

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Ha Long Bay is situated on the north east coast of Vietnam, a ride of about 160 kms from Hanoi. It is an area of about 1500 square kilometres comprising some 2000 islets and Karsts, which has been designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. Ha Long Bay means the bay of descending dragons. It has its own micro ecology and bio diversity and a huge variety of islets.

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You can access the bay from a number of places but the most obvious are Halong town and Bai Chai a small town about 15 minutes away. Travel around the islands is by boat, either old junks which cruise slowly around and on which you can stay overnight or by smaller boats on day trips. One of the delights of this trip is the Vietnamese food that is made locally especially the sea food. On the boats you can order food and have a great meal as you cruise around. The nice thing is that you can order so you get something special.

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There are lots of people selling tours to Ha Long in Hanoi and the local area, many acting only as agents and selling tickets and those tickets can have various prices for the same tour or trip, so it is important to look around. The price differences can be big. For myself I negotiated the various elements of the visit independently so got amazing deals on transport boats and food, but tat is easier if you are a solo traveller than if in a group. Also I stayed in the town of Bai Chai rather than Halong itself , although very close by and that town is very good value. It is being developed for the mass market, so as with many places in Vietnam it is going to change quickly.

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The islets Karsts and the seas around them are a visual delight, something quite unique, but 2000 islets is a lot so its good to be selective and visit the ones you want. Each has a name, the elephant, chicken, he and she, etc so you can be specific. There are many caves and grottos on the islets, some can only be visited at low tide and others any time so find out about those. Some, unfortunately in my view, have lighting that can give them a slightly Disneyworld feel, but they are amazing for all that.

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Halong is a joy, and an indispensible part of any tour of the variety and wonders of North East Vietnam.

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