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Travelling the world, hopefully with a cuppa in hand

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COPEing with UXO in Laos

The COPE center in Laos, helping victims of unexploded ordnance

While in Vientiane in Laos we took some time out off our usual plodding about the streets and sightseeing in order to check out the visitor centre at COPE, the Cooperative Prosthetic Rehabilitation Center. They work with the victims of UXO or Unexploded Ordnance, providing them with locally produced prosthetics and other rehabilitation services. Laos is the most bombed country per capita in the world, and the countryside is strewn with millions bombs, particularly close to the Vietnam border.  Just walking around the cities in Laos, it is quite common to see people with missing limbs and it is just a tragic fact of life to the people living here. We found the centre really eye opening.  One of the exhibits we enjoyed listening to was a BBC Radio 4 podcast about kids foraging for UXO for its scrap metal value – you can listen to it here. There has always been a problem with children mistaking the colourful tennis ball-sized cluster bombs for toys, but over recent years with the increasing price of scrap metal, kids are actively collecting these dangerous munitions for their scrap value.  With a larger munition they could possibly feed their families for a couple of months, fetching around a dollar per kilo for the high quality weapons-grade steel.  Villagers often put the remains of munitions to inventive uses, using cluster bomb casings as supports for houses, cooking stoves, or converting aluminum bands to scythes for example.

Pineapple and BLU submunitions, basically ball bearings encased explosive

Cluster munitions have been used in every major conflict since the second world war and leave behind a dangerous legacy for the local population after the armies have left. No doubt everyone can remember the pictures of Princess Diana walking through a field of landmines, and it is this publicity that has gradually produced the new Convention on Cluster Munitions which bans the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions. It also places an obligation on states to clear affected areas after their previous use and assist victims. It entered into force last August (2010), and us Brits can be proud that the UK has fully signed up to it. Unfortunately many of the other large states, including the USA, India, China, Russia and Israel have still not signed up, but hopefully the moral pressure now placed on these countries will help prevent their further use.  As for the laborious clearing of the rusting timebombs in countries such as Laos, perhaps the money being spent by the USA in attempting to detect Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDS) being used against them by the Taliban in Afghanistan, will have the side effect of improving the accuracy and speed of UXO detection and clearance.  In Laos, one of the obstacles is the shortage of trained personnel and we sat through a movie where locals were being trained to international bomb clearance standards and forming their own clearance teams.

A cluster bomb opening

If you want to see or learn more, you can visit the COPE website and also browse a collection of photos by Sean Sutton on the problem of UXO here.


Our photos from Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh is much loved in Vietnam

We’ve just uploaded a selection of our photos from our time in Vietnam. We hope you enjoy flicking through them. You can access them here, and let us know what you think!

More on Laos in our next post…

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Cruising Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay

We’ve been on the move since Hoi An, overnighting in Hue (calling in on the citadel and the forbidden city which was surprisingly pleasant, even in the rain), and then travelling an epic 15 hours overnight to Hanoi, the capital. We’ve based ourselves in the old quarter, bustling with people and mopeds where each of the streets has a specialty: food, shoes, wicker baskets, fruit juice or metalwork etc. We visited the Museum of Ethnology and enjoyed marvelling over the replica traditional houses and also spent two lovely evenings tangoing with the Hanoians. We really get a kick out of using tango to socialise in different countries.

Life-sized vegetable flowers

A highlight of our time in Vietnam has been our two-day Ha Long Bay tour. We organised this the day before we left. Our two days were a romantic get-away, serenely cruising past the islets. The weather was chilly and slightly grey but the stillness and mist created an otherworldly feel so we got to appreciate the beauty of the setting in a different way. On board, Jon rated our cabin as the ‘best place we’ve stayed’ and being catered for felt like a real luxury. The meals were more like banquets and our table was adorned with decorative carved fruit and flowers made from vegetables. The tour included a trip to Sung Sot (translation: the surprising cave) to see the rock formations and time for kayaking to get a little bit closer to the islets and incredible floating fishing villages, complete with floating pub!

Every hotel and travel agency offers tours and it can be difficult to know what you’re getting. We used online reviews to know the companies to avoid. Our trip was run by APT travel and we were very happy with the boat (Halong Dragon) and service.

Tonight, we’re catching the overnight bus for our journey to Laos and the capital Vientiane. It’s a long ride, about 20 hours, but we’ve heard that the scenery is beautiful. It should also be warmer so we’ll be able to go back to our summer wear and repack our thermals!


Vietnamese recipes

Shaun, our cookery course chef

While in Hoi An we went to a cookery course and learned to cook four dishes: fresh spring rolls with prawns and pork, noodle soup with beef (Pho Bo), fish cooked in a clay pot and sauteed water spinach with garlic. All amounts are to make enough for 6 people but otherwise, you’ll have to use your own judgement. The dishes were all simple to make and delicious. We’re looking forward to trying them out once we have access to a kitchen. If you try them out, let us know how it goes!

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Tailoring in Hoi An

My dapper new suit

We thought we’d share our experiences of getting clothes and shoes made while we were in Hoi An.  It’s a bit of a scary process, touts vie for your business at every corner, prices and quality vary wildly, and you can never be exactly sure how it might turn out.  We used three different tailoring shops and ended up with a suit, three shirts, a blazer and some trousers for Jon, and three cotton print dresses, one silk dress, a pair of trousers, cherry-red leather boots and slinky slingback shoes for Lou. We found the cost for made-to-measure to be roughly half to two-thirds of what you’d pay for off-the-peg in the UK.

Material is a key issue as unless you’re an expert, it’s really hard to know if that silk dress you’ve ordered is indeed silk and not a cheaper mix.  We’ve come across this throughout our travels.  The more expensive tailor shops in Hoi An provide details of the mix if you want to make sure you’re getting what you paid for.   One way is to take a lighter along and try to burn some threads – generally if they smell like burning hair then it’s natural, if not then it’s synthetic, or at least watch the tailor’s reaction and see if they flinch.

Design is the next thing to consider.  We think it’s best to have an idea of what you want before you get there.  Take a picture along (they all have access to internet) or even an item that you want to copy.  We saw quite a lot of people getting things made that didn’t really suit them. This applied to girls’ dresses in particular as guys were generally buying classic suits.  Alternatively choose a tailors displaying an example of the style you like.

Lou's new shoes

Detail – the devil is in the detail.  This is the point to do your research on the clothing details.  If you’re getting a suit tailored then you’ll need to understand the components of what makes a good suit and what sets a tailored suit apart from the pack.  Specify this at the start and then make sure its played out in the fitting sessions.  Carefully examine the suit on your first fitting to check for material or sowing defects, fit, length and consistency in the symmetry.  The tailors don’t seem to take written notes in our experience so perhaps keeping your own record of what you want changing is worthwhile.

For recommendations of a good tailors, check out the TripAdvisor website.  We were largely happy with Kimmy’s Tailors, although it required a lot of input on our part.  For example, on each jacket I ordered the sleeves were different lengths, something you’d hope would have been checked by the tailor. However this was fixed by the next fitting after we pointed it out.  Also A Dong Silk gets a good write up, but it’s more expensive. We had the shoes made at Everybody’s Fashion at 718 Hai Ba Trung Street.

Finally, it’s important to leave plenty of time so that you’re not rushed and can be entirely happy with the items you’ve ordered.  Of course this leaves new time to get even more things made once you’re happy with the first batch. We’d leave four or five days to get a suit made and fitted.  Leaving a shorter amount of time entails the risk that you can’t get the finer details sorted to your satisfaction.