Thursday, 9 September 2010

From Hanoi to Oslo

I have not written for a while. There have been many changes, too many perhaps, too fast. There was little time to reflect and think, let alone write. Please accept my apologies for not writing. From now on, I do intend to be a fairly prolific blogger again, and post stories and pictures regularly. There are many things to write about, after all, and many images that deserve to be shared.

Our summer was wonderful. Unusually hectic, but filled with great experiences. As you know, we travelled to Yunnan, all the way up to the Tibetan border, then back south, to Laos. I have told you about China. I have not told you about Laos yet, but I will do so soon, for the story of that beautiful country demands to be told.

After spending a week in Laos, we returned to Hanoi to get our luggage. Too many bags, way too many actually, as we had not succeeded very well in selling or throwing away our things. Everything is alive, after all; everything has memories attached to it. Hence, leaving things behind and packing light is not our greatest strength, to put it mildly.

After a last day in Hanoi, we went to Hoi An, the pretty old port town that has given us so many wonderful memories. Fortunately, we went by train in stead of airplane; and fortunately, two of our friends, Dung and Steven, came with us and helped us carry our bags. More importantly, however, a long train journey is much more fun if you can share a compartment with nice friends in stead of strangers, and can play games together.

Thus, we went back to Hoi An. Sadly, the town is rapidly transforming into a Vietnamese Mont Saint Michel or Ubud, more touristy and less appealing every time you visit. The disneylandification continues incessantly. Nevertheless, it was good to be with family and friends, relax at the beautiful beach, pray to Quan Am, enjoy the delicious seafood, and get drunk from that typical Hoi An fragrance that fills the air - a sweet-salty mix of tropical flowers, rice paddies and sea air.

Most of the time, however, I spent packing. And re-packing. And re-packing again, as the suitcases were still too heavy. We ended up sending some boxes by mail. When I was finished, we drove around the rice paddies and river delta one last time. Finally, we kissed the motorbike, our family, her town goodbye, not knowing when we would come back. We fought our tears, not very successfully.

I may have complained about Vietnam, I may have detested her at times - but I will miss her, undoubtedly. Especially Hoi An. No matter how many tourists populate her streets, no matter how fast she changes, there is still something irresistibly charming about her.

The journey from Hoi An to Den Horn would take several days. We had booked cheap Emirates Airlines tickets, as they allowed us thirty kilograms of check-in luggage each. The only minor drawback was that we had to fly from Singapore, but it was not a very big problem - we got budget airline tickets from Saigon to Singapore, upgraded to thirty kilos, and bought train tickets from Danang to Saigon.

Now I could tell some horror stories about train travel in Vietnam. I could tell about cockroaches walking on my head, about women who start screaming at 5am and do not stop until noon, about train staff verbally harassing young women, about drunks and smokers and gamblers and rude tourists. On the other hand, I could also tell you about great encounters and beautiful views. Actually, if you are a bit flexible, travelling by train in Vietnam can be a great experience. But by all means, do bring earplugs.

We made it to Saigon, cockroaches and screaming fellow passengers notwithstanding. We spent one last day in this booming metropolis, and bought something we will cherish in months to come: Northface wintercoats, as good as real and very affordable.

Next, we flew to Singapore, where we also spent one day. We decided to visit Underwaterworld, as Nhung had never been to such a place. We enjoyed the underwatertunnel, we saw sharks and octopuses and dolphins, and we discovered beautiful fairytale creatures called sea angels and sea dragons. I did not even know such creatures existed.

Singapore is a lovely country to visit - it is clean, the food is great, most people are friendly and service is excellent almost everywhere. It comes at a price, no doubt - consumerism and capitalism always do - but Singapore is definitely worth a visit, not only for the cheap multicultural food courts and excellent zoos, but also for the great museums. On the other hand, Sentosa - the artificial entertainment island off the coast where Underwaterworld is located, as well as a dozen or so amusement parks and casinos - most certainly is not. It is an island made of shiny plastic that attracts Asian tourists as a sweaty body attracts mosquitoes, but its beaches must be the ugliest in Southeast Asia.

Emirates Airlines brought us to Amsterdam, via Dubai. Aboard, we had our own small private screens on which we could see any movie we liked, so we hardly slept. My parents came to pick us up from the airport. We drove through the polders, flat, green and vast, living testimony to the fact that those who say the Netherlands are 'full' are liars. We discussed the country's dire political situation. We bought chips in Lelystad, of all places. We felt happy but tired, and somewhat alienated.

The alienation did not disappear overnight. Travelling across the globe always makes me feel strangely out of place, at least during the first couple of days. I always experience these first days as very surreal. When I go somewhere exotic, this feeling is welcome, as it adds to experiences of wonder and otherness. When I go back to my own country, however, it is confusing, as it is a violation of the moral imperative to feel at home. But I guess I have little choice but to accept it.

The days were nice, though. Surreal, but nice. A friend came to Groningen to visit us. We went to the zoo in Emmen - which I had already promised Nhung last year. I finally started working on the article about Japanese Christians and identity construction I had been asked to write months before. We visited the Van Gogh Museum, and we did my standard Amsterdam-The Hague-Leiden round - in a mere three days, this time, as we had to go back to Groningen to prepare our second wedding party.

We are two lucky people. This year may well be the most amazing, wonderful and exciting year of my life so far. In a sense, we got married three times. First, in February, we signed our marriage certificate in Tam Ky - unspectacularly ceremonyless, but a great relief after everything we had been through. Then, in April, we celebrated our wedding ceremony in a beautifully idiosyncratic mix of tradition and invention, followed by an official lunch party and a not-so-official but absolutely amazing beach party at night. And in August, we were given the opportunity to celebrate our wedding one more time, with many friends and relatives who could not attend the first time.

This day was almost as beautiful and special as the real wedding day. Many friends, some of whom I had not seen for several years, came all the way to the countryside of Groningen to celebrate our wedding with us. It was absolutely wonderful to see them again, and I can only say how grateful I am that so many people came to see us. Some came from as far away as London, Berlin and Vienna. Thank you all very much for coming. Your presence was the greatest gift of all.

Our family

Some others could not make it, but they sent us sweet messages, emails and postcards. Many thanks to you, too. If I have not replied to you yet, please forgive me. It has been a busy time.

The day was a dream. We came together in an old Groninger farm, the stable of which now serves as a location for concerts, meetings and parties. We had traditional Frisian cake, followed by Indian food for dinner. We got many beautiful presents, which we would all bring with us to Oslo. I enjoyed talking to old friends and relatives I had not seen for a very long time. Time went fast, too fast, and I had to say goodbye to some people without having had the chance to really talk with them. I can only say I am sorry for this. I wish we had had more time to talk. There were so many great people, so many beautiful words and gifts, I simply lost track of time.

After dinner, we came together to listen to stories. My aunt Greetje (who, incidentally, used to tell me and my brother stories about a boy and a girl named Poepie and Plassie, a long time ago) proved that she is still an excellent story-teller, as she gave her interpretation of the meaning of the names Nhung and Aike. She was followed by my uncle Fred, who gave a moving speech, followed by a hilarious ritual involving an apple.

Next, my friends Lars and Alena showed the great movie they had made about my alleged previous opinions regarding love and relationships, using footage from Hurlyburly. My brother, who had also done an absolutely amazing job organizing much of the party, showed a slideshow with pictures. My mom sung the songs she had made for us, and everybody joined. And finally, I sang two songs. Two songs for Nhung, my love, as brave and strong as she is caring and sweet.

For the English translation, click here.

The following days, I packed again. Fortunately, this time, we did not have a weight limit, as we did not travel by airplane. Nor did we go by train, as my parents were so kind as to postpone their summer holidays, and combine a visit to their friends in Sweden with bringing us to Oslo. We went by camping car, and brought a trailer full of books, clothes, Buddha statues and alcoholic beverages. We took our time, camping twice on the way, one night in Germany and one night in Denmark. I spent all the time writing my article. For an indication of the contents, have a look at the short article I wrote for the Newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies, last spring.

From Denmark, we went by ferry to Norway. The sky in the Oslofjord was dark, it was raining and it was cold. We went to the campsite, fearing that the weather might never get better. But we were lucky. As August gave way to September, it got colder, but the rainy weather was over and we would enjoy a series of beautiful sunny days.

On Sunday, we relaxed, and I finished my article. On Monday, I first went to my department, where I met my supervisor and some of my colleagues, and got some important practical information. On Tuesday, we received the key to our new apartment. It was better than I had dared hope for. Bright, warm and, to my standards at least, spacious. Newly furnished, equipped with a big sofa, a dining table, a nice kitchen with an oven and dishwasher, a washing machine, a balcony and, importantly, a very comfortable bed. And the rent is, believe it or not, affordable.

Food, on the other hand, is not. In Norway, most products are at least twice as expensive as in the Netherlands. Eating out is out of the question. When you go to the supermarket you have to carefully check the prices of everything you buy, in order not to get any unpleasant surprises when you have to pay. We have (re)discovered Euroshopper and First Price. And we are becoming creative, and learning how to make nice dinners with cheap ingredients.

Meanwhile, Nhung has taken up a great project: she is making her own little garden in the hall behind the front door, as this place gets a lot of a sunlight. She is reading a lot about European vegetables, and is busy planting and growing all kinds of herbs. She is even working on a weblog, in Vietnamese, on which she will write about her gardening experiences.

I have been at the university for about a week now, and am gradually getting used to my new position as a researcher. I feel kind of guilty that I get paid to do something I really like - reading books, studying, and writing about it - and I feel a sense of urgency to get the project running as soon as possible. I am very excited about my research project, and my plans are ambitious. But I will write more about the project some other time.

As for the city: we have not had much time to get to know her yet, but we undoubtedly will. I have twice had the opportunity to go to the city centre by bicycle as I had to do paperwork (a topic on which I, for a change, shall not elaborate now - suffice to say that things are not exactly easy here either) and I got the impression that it is a nice, quiet but interesting, green city. We actually live near a forest, but we have not been there yet. We also live near the national football stadium, as we discovered Tuesday night, when Norway played against Portugal (and won, surprisingly, by 1-0). We tried to get in, but, as expected, we did not succeed.

And so the new chapter has begun. Many new things will happen, and many new stories will have to be told. I will keep you informed.


  1. Norway sounds exciting! It's like grocery shopping in London but with your own affordable, private, well-decorated, blissful, spacious place!

    Thanks for your words of encouragement for my revamped blog! Great new profile yourself!

    How inspiring-but-creepy the speed with which people change when they travel.

  2. Dear Aike & Nhung,

    Thanks ever so much for this elaborate update. The best of luck for you both in your new town, i hope you will feel at home soon!
    If Nhungs garden will flourish, maybe you can cut on vegetable-costs?

    Greetings, Ike

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