Horsing around in Kyrgyzstan

Published in The Australian March 2006

TWO words I must learn to say to the horse are chu, which means go, and drrrrrr, which means stop. Thanks to my guide, Almaz, those are the simplest Kyrgyz words I will learn in the next few days’ ride. I will also learn that small, sturdy Kyrgyz horses know a few things about travellers from a very different horse-powered world.

We head out from Karakol, the frontier town cum administrative capital of Issyk-Kul province in eastern Kyrgyzstan. Our plan is to follow the Karakol River south, then cross the mountains and follow the Arashan River towards Karakol, with side journeys depending on the weather and time. Much of the areas we will travel through will be national park or nature reserve.Along with Almaz (whose name means diamond), we have an assistant guide and, at the edge of town, another of his friends joins the ride for a day; the three Kyrgyz cowboys sit easy in their saddles, laughing with each other as we head out.

My co-trekkers, Leyla and Peter, are newlyweds from Los Angeles who have previously camped and backpacked their way across China. Almaz has picked them up outside one of Karakol’s many bars. They say his business pitch was a bit like Kyrgyzstan: offbeat and irresistible.

Twenty minutes on the road and the Karakol Valley panorama opens out: hills that roll up into the summer pastures and down into the gushing Karakol River and up into the snow-creamed mountains of the Tien Shan or Celestial Mountains. These mountains bordering China and Kazakhstan are part of a spectacular chain arcing around the southern flank of Central Asia, western China and the northern reaches of the Indian subcontinent.

Our horses carry food, tents and swags. My horse, Brown, barely acknowledges my chu command but he knows how to chew and is a sharp off-road snacker: a deft swipe at the high thistle and a quick droop of the head grabs a thatch of grass. He quickly establishes himself as a follower of the pack, never a leader. Brown is the kind of horse that effortlessly showcases riders, such as me, who lack authority. That I once rode cattle horses in NSW counts for little.

We are quickly immersed in the rhythms of nomadic life as two seasons cross over. It’s autumn harvest time for apples, pears, grapes, berries and the best tomatoes I’ve tasted in years.

Near the river a family is cutting lucerne, winter fodder for their animals. It’s also the tail of summer and wildflowers are in retreat from the hills. So are the shepherds, and during the next few days we pass many of them (and their dogs) whistling and herding sheep, goats, cows and horses, fattened up on the jailoos, upland summer pastures, down towards what will be their winter shelter.

We take a late lunch near the river, pale green from the mineralised snowmelt. Almaz boils the Kyrgyz billy, spreads a picnic lunch of tomatoes and cucumbers, naan bread, local cheese and pressed meat, apples, biscuits and chocolate. Two horsemen burst on to our idyll like a sudden mountain storm, shout a few words to Almaz and our three amigos leap up and rush to the horses that are foot-tethered to pegs 10m away.

Within seconds we can see why, as about 20 horses swarm down the hill and in among our own.

The three amigos are hanging on to our excited animals by whatever they can grab and there is a scramble of equine sniffing, snorting, rearing and kicking before the intruders are pushed across the river.

Having disturbed our lunch, the wild bunch’s owner joins us to eat. He wears a black-and-white kulpak, the Kyrgyz high felt hat that looks like a starched version of Peter Pan’s cap. A few minutes later an American backpacker dawdles in. In the Kyrgyz tradition of hospitality, our table — or campfire — is open to many guests during the next few days.

The days are shirtsleeve warm. We are climbing but not fast or high enough to worry about altitude sickness. However, an hour from camp at Ai Too I am yawning for air as we crest 2300m above sea level. The camp-following American backpacker makes our camp at nightfall.

The mercury slips below freezing some time in the early morning when I wake and, outside my tent, I see a star-blazed sky with the familiar constellations of Orion and the Big Dipper. Next morning the full glory of Ai Too unveils as the sun slogs its way up and over the ranges. Chiselled mountains circle the valley floor and the Karakol River loops through in a slow crawl.

As we break camp, a dozen hikers with walking sticks stroll towards the river. Germans, I surmise. Days later in Karakol, I meet some of them: members of the Narrabri Walking Group from northwest NSW who have just finished a three-week hike.

The Kyrgyz and other Central Asian nomads force me to rethink the modern idea of trekking. Our three days would be a blip in the movement of many Kyrgyz, a Turkmen people with a long history of being pushed by other nomads, such as the Mongols, into empires and countries farther west, finally into Anatolia. Those who stayed on the steppes had to evade or escape the dreaded Mongols, and Almaz’s people probably started migrating south from the Yenisey Basin in Siberia to the Tien Shan more than 1000 years ago.

The mountains and valleys are crammed with fir trees standing like silent sentinels; now and then there’s a burst of autumnal yellow poplar and bronze maple. W e scale a steep mountain where the horses plod along a trail lightly etched into the side. Vertigo is a glance away. It doesn’t pay to look down into the riverine valley below. Our horses’ hearts are pounding following the climb. We lunch amid long yellow grass, the last of the summer buttercups, edelweiss and pink peas. Leyla collects lavender as we all gaze at the distant waters of Issyk-Kul, the deepest alpine lake in the world and the second largest after Titicaca in South America.

Night camp is at Kok Tor on a jailoo where — now land can be bought — Almaz has picked up a few hectares. Shepherds from a yurt up the hill come to eat with us. One brings a very handsome piece of antler, no doubt from a fine deer.

“He needs a few dollars and wants to know if you would like to buy this,” Almaz says. “You could make a beautiful knife out of it.”

Many of these shepherds subsist in Central Asia’s poorest country without th e resources wealth of their neighbours, and now an early winter threatens. We drink coffee and I agree the antler is beautiful and explain the quarantine laws of a distant country.

Almaz translates and puts me at my ease: “Yes, of course your country won’t allow you to have this.”

Next morning, I am up early and watching a remarkable sight on the distant hill. In the brilliant morning light hundreds of goats, sheep, horses and cows file out of their night pens and, like ants on ephedrine, race to the the rolling plain below, sometimes herded this way by fast-moving dogs, sometimes diverted by a horseman.

Almaz tells me he studied tourism management at Karakol University at about the time the Russians withdrew from Central Asia after nearly a century, taking money, resources and skills with them. Things were hard and there were no tourism management jobs, he tells me. “But I had to feed my family, so I became a guide.” I t seems the perfect solution; I have seen Almaz behind a desk and he begins moving and twitching on his chair after about five minutes.

On our final day we aim to camp at the famous Altyn Arashan (Golden Spa). It rains lightly, snow clouds roll over the mountains. I am dreaming of the hot spa. I hike through a park with Almaz pulling a reluctant Brown behind him. My horse has stopped snacking on the run, in favour of stopping dead. People are piling haystacks and women are drying stone fruit for winter.

We follow the Arashan River, losing it as we climb, finally making the steep road descent into the valley well before nightfall. Tamara, a Russian-Kyrgyz from the guesthouse, comes out to greet Almaz, speaking in Russian.

Within an hour I am in a concrete slab-and-wood hut where river water has been diverted, warmed and is dribbling into a small pool. An up-market spa it is not, merely heated heaven, and my limbs are loosened and mind relax ed before our last supper.

The following morning I hike to Almaz’s village on the outskirts of Karakol. There are more villages and people than we’ve seen in three days.

Could it be only three days? Transported somewhere as gorgeous as this, with its natural rhythms, time expands. Almaz is welcomed back into the extended family like a long-lost son, and he nurses his own son with palpable delight. He promised us kaymak (fresh cream) and his mother has just made some, which we pile on bread with lashings of jam and eat it with tea.

As Almaz shepherds us on to the minibus to Karakol, I notice the horses are still saddled in the yard. They’re knee deep in hay and they’re chewing.

Kyrgyzstan has tourist agencies specialising in soft to extreme alpine trekking and sports. July to early September is the best time to travel. In May and June, spring weather is pleasant but mountainous areas will still b e snowed in.

Community Based Tourism offers homestays with local families at very reasonable costs. Its website also includes links to other reputable agencies providing trekking, social and cultural tour support. More: www.cbtkyrgyzstan.kg.

Australian passport holders can pick up a visa on arrival at Bishkek airport: $48 for 30-day single entry. If you are trekking in other Central Asian countries, explore multiple-entry visas.


Gulf crossing in Persia

Published Sun Herald, June 2006

‘YOU like Eminem?’ “No. Something local maybe?”

The 16-year-old shuffles her MP3 playlist. Snow is falling lightly on Jamshidiyeh Park in well-heeled north Tehran. I’ve just returned from a walk up the Alborz Mountains and am sitting under a gazebo with a group of women who have invited me to share afternoon tea. A Persian pop song bursts from the teenager’s MP3 player and we are all up dancing.

Minutes later the young woman calls out a warning and kills the music as a couple of men wander by, waving and shouting greetings. Dancing in public is taboo in Iran. The women laugh like schoolgirls who’ve got away with breaking the rules.

Day one in Iran. With limited time and a rich cultural menu from which to choose, I decide to travel through the desert heartland of old Persia where, in the seventh century, Islam replaced Zoroastrianism as the dominant religion.

Outside Tehran I will travel solo. Friends assure me I’ll be comfortable travelling alone as Iranians are very hospitable.

In Shiraz, a cultured garden city famous for the wine it no longer produces, I think that my friends have got it wrong. At the King of the Lamp Mausoleum I am quizzed in perfect English about my religion by the keeper of the boots. The inquisition starts after I ask permission to enter, park my boots and am down to my socks, ready to enter. “Are you a Muslim, madam?” I shake my head. “Are you a Catholic, madam?” I laugh and splutter. “What!” “Madam if you are not a Muslim you cannot go in.” Not what staff at the Hotel Eram had told me, but who’s to argue in their socks? Banished, I zip up my boots when a gust of wind almost unravels the chador I am wearing in these holy grounds. A mischievous genie is out to get me.

On my way back to the hotel a young man in uniform cruises up beside me and tries to chat. Convinced that he is part of a street gang a guide book tells me operates here, purporting to be police while ripping passports off tourists, I ask him to leave me alone. He persists. “Excuse me, madam, I am officer, may I walk with you?” He turns out to be a Turcoman Army officer from Tabriz in northern Iran who wants to practise his English. For the next 20 minutes we shout at each other in broken English above the traffic while he describes how difficult it is to find a Turcoman wife in Shiraz. At my hotel, exhausted by conversation, he wishes me good day and disappears into the afternoon.

I climb into a road-worn Mercedes bus travelling from Shiraz over the Zagros Mountains to Yazd. The driver’s sidekick separates the sexes, women down the front, men at the back. Mohsen sits with the women.  He is heading home to Yazd for a few days’ leave. He tells me his computer studies have been interrupted by two years of national service. “All young Iranian men must do this because, you know, the Americans . . .”

Antique Yazd is straight from one of Scheherezade’s stories, one she never got round to telling. Poised on the edge of two deserts that stretch to the Afghan border, its low skyline is dominated by slender minarets sprouting from blue-tiled mosques, dun-coloured domes and soaring badgirs, box-like wind towers that have for centuries caught the hot desert winds and transformed them to cool interior ventilation.

Mohsen naturally assumes he will help me find my hotel, the Malek-O-Tojar, once a merchant’s house, in the belly of the Panjeh-Ali Bazaar. Next day in a hire car Mohsen and I speed through the snow-dusted Desert of Emptiness to a caravanserai, a shelter for travellers. Once part of the old trade routes into Central Asia, the crumbling buildings are undergoing a makeover. He shows me a qanat, or water channel, running underneath us and surfacing in the courtyard. “We have had this system for 2000 years. The water comes underground, down from the mountains, the channels were all dug by Yazd men.”

Next stop is Esfahan – the jewel of Islamic Persia. Modern Esfahan retains its medieval legacy of tree-lined avenues, palaces in pleasure gardens, gorgeous tiled mosques and a labyrinthine bazaar. I float along the main boulevard, Chahar Bagh or Four Gardens, south to the 17th-century footbridges arching the Zayandeh River. Across the Si-o-seh, or 33 arches bridge with its outdoor teashop, lies the Armenian quarter of Jolfa and its churches.

More than 400 years ago Shah Abbas the Great moved his capital from the country’s north near the troublesome Turks to this strategically more secure oasis surrounded by desert. He made Esfahan the embodiment of high Persian culture, a city of feminine richness. The cultural heart of Esfahan is Imam Khomeini Square, but many locals still call it by its old name, Naghsh-e Jahan, Map of the World. It is a huge but intimate courtyard flanked by two of Islamic architecture’s beauties – the Imam and Sheikh Lotfollah mosques. The square is essentially an enclosed Persian garden. The old Persian term for an enclosed space is par deiza, from which Christians derived paradise, the Garden of Eden. Iranian tourists take a leisurely afternoon stroll along the colonnaded shops and underemployed touts bump into each other while marking a group of Norwegian skiers heading for nearby snowfields.

The tile artisans in Esfahan understood the interplay of colour, light, design and glaze. In a teashop above the bazaar at the northern end of the square I drink chai with a young carpet merchant and a Norwegian traveller as we chat and watch the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque’s dome change colour from cream to pink as light alters. Inside, the sanctuary ceiling of this mosque is a tiled galaxy of blue mosaics with diminishing yellow motifs drawing one’s eyes to its exquisite star centre and out again to the rim of a perfect circle. Latticed upper windows play light and shade on the mosaics to shimmering effect.

Now it’s back to Tehran riding in a Volvo, considered by locals to be the most luxurious coach. We are offered tea and biscuits as well as the usual TV video soapie.

The young woman next to me tries to teach me how to drink chai Iranian style – two sugar cubes between the teeth while delicately sucking in the tea.

This far into the journey I can’t quite get my teeth into it. There’s too much else to chew over.

Australia: Between a rock and a gastropod

There is nothing like watching a bunch of adults trawling rock pools with the curiosity and unalloyed pleasure of children. We are on Putty Beach in Bouddi National Park on the Central Coast of New South Wales, north of Sydney and south of Gosford. At our backs and further up the rock platform are the sun-fired honey swirls and rust-red striations of weathered sandstone that winds around the coastal cliffs. Directly in front, drifting in and out of a salty mist, is the hammerhead shape of Barrenjoey Headland on Sydney’s northern tip. Around the coast to our right is the mouth of the Hawkesbury River.

A group of us are here for the weekend and have pitched our tents at the 18-site camping area. It’s early Friday evening and it’s rush hour: campers arrive, picnickers unpack and fitness fanatics race along the coastal track to Maitland Bay. Twenty locals are having a candle-lit dinner in the picnic area, while above us, in the Central Coast suburb of Killcare, homes sit on the escarpment like a row of expensive teeth.

At twilight, a group of us take a walk along the sandstone platform at the eastern end of the beach. Even in fading light we are captivated by the textures of sandstone laterite, weathered over millions of years into waves, swirls, blocks and honeycomb-like states – it looks like an oven full of sunken pies or what geologists call a tessellated pavement. The sandstone formations have a gastronomic effect on our group: in the shapes we see, and almost taste, is forbidden, fattening food.

Early next morning, a man stands on the edge of the same sandstone platform gazing south to the fog-filled mouth of the Hawkesbury River, rocking slightly like a wavering statue. Higher on the platform, a woman has found a natural sandstone seat and is meditating.

At low tide, Newcastle ecologist John Simpson leads us across the sand, describing the 35 or so organisms that provide the food maintaining Putty Beach’s ecology. He tells us many beaches have lost these multi-level food creators through what he calls “beach grooming” by local councils to get rid of cigarette butts and syringes. Ironically, years ago, Putty Beach lost quite a bit of its facade through sand mining to make lime.

We slide into the knee-deep ends of rock pools, filled as they are with gastropods grazing on algae and predators moving in on the grazers. Who would have believed a quiet rock pool could be such an evolutionary hotbed? Spurred on by this enthusiastic ecologist, we are nursing an elephant slug, one of the many gastropods that live at the base of the marine food chain. It’s an oval shell-shaped grazer with soft horns, whose black, gel-like surrounding mantle secretes a new shell.

I discover the rock-hugging limpet is a single-shell mollusc (a gastropod and hermaphrodite to boot) that opens its mouth and collects the nutrients that flood over in every wave. What a life; no wonder it doesn’t move outside its square-metre territorial boundary. Nearby is a rock covered in barnacles and a predatory snail, the black-striped mulberry whelk, feasting unobtrusively on top.

Back at camp, we lunch on organisms further up the food chain and then bus to Maitland Bay for some high-tide snorkelling. Rain threatens and the waters are murky. A wobbegong shark is the main attraction – we spot it floating above a large patch of brilliant green sea grasses just off the beach.

Maitland Bay is the centrepiece of the 300-hectare marine extension to Bouddi National Park, one of the first in NSW where all marine life is protected. Although the diehard fishermen we saw on the beach haven’t quite accepted this.

Four of us walk back to Putty Beach; two are Aboriginal women who point out the local flowers – native fuschia, flannel flowers and the delicate pink Philotheca salsolifolia. It’s an ambling coastal walk through woodland, heath and more sandstone sculpture.

The track includes a boardwalk between Gerrin Point and Putty Beach. The views of Broken Bay are astonishing.

The northern foreshore below us is the graveyard of several ships from the earliest days of the Port Jackson colony.

For this small slice of heaven we can thank Sydney solicitor Marie Byles who, back in the 1920s, saw the natural park values of this place and got the Federation Of Bushwalking Clubs behind her to lobby state authorities for a public recreation area.

That night it’s a downpour – a wet end to a great day. Rain doesn’t stop the kids in the camping ground entertaining themselves. It’s that kind of place – easy to camp, walk, snorkel, swim, surf or just hang about and dream. The marine extension of the park is a special feature of this small gem, a remnant area of the original natural landscape. Long may the gastropods graze.

Australia : Meandering in Tasmania’s Tarkine

Six days in a North West Tasmanian rainforest, on wild beaches, motoring down the Pieman River (named after famous pastry chef, Marcus Clark, otherwise known as a long-term jail bird), walking through burnt out country, was an introduction to the state’s latest environment stoush, but mostly to wonderment at wild places. Mind you, I’ve heard of people who go home after a day because they can’t stand the silence, the lack of urban drama. Thanks to Tarkine Trails who have eco-sustainability writ all over their eco-business. More thoughts coming.

Afghanistan : the Buddhas of Bamyan – maybe there is another one

Thursday, December 31, 2009

There is possibly no other valley in West Asia that is so loaded with expectation as Bamiyan. And it carries the load so deceptively well. After the highly staged-managed dynamiting of the two 1500-year old buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 they seem to have gained a new life – and then slipped back into obscurity. And, there may be another buddha. Afghans are excavating for what they hope is a reclining buddha. Read more in my article ….


Vietnam: Rice and warm in the north

Published in The Australian 11 July 2009

NOTHING can disturb an urban traveller more than silence.

Real silence. This is my early morning thought on the balcony of a stone cabin perched atop a peak in north Vietnam.

On a nearby mountain, hand-carved rice terraces spill down into the valley and farther away there are chiselled ranges that will change colour and texture as the sun moves across a giant sky. Then I hear the distant chatter of women passing the cabin on their way to breakfast, the first sounds I’ve heard since dinner last night. Television and telephones are forbidden around here. The manager tells me there’s no wild night life either, apart from frogs.

Most people come to Topas Ecolodge in a shuttle bus from nearby Sapa, but I hire a local motorbike taxi for a slow ride through intermittent heavy mist along 23km of a runnelled dirt road that is regularly washed by clear-water run-off from the mountains.

We pass through the Muong Hoa Valley, strewn with mysterious, ancient carved stones; the origin and meaning of their inscribed patterns of couples in sexual embrace, the sun and parallel lines still baffle scientists.

This region is home to about 30 Vietnamese minority groups, some of whom moved here from China during the past 200 years. A carved stone, metres long, is fenced off opposite the small local museum. Somewhere around here a French scientist is taking stone impressions the old-fashioned way, with carbon paper and ink, while assigning locations to each one via GPS.

The road snakes through the Hoang Lien Mountains, now recognised as one of the most biologically rich in Vietnam. There’s a race to preserve what is left: years ago, poor Vietnamese used to kill, stuff and sell birds and animals to tourists in the local markets. That seems to have stopped, but the Indochinese tiger has become a prized stock for pharmacies across the border in China and there are fewer than 2000 left here.

Every now and again a human form takes shape out of the mist and is swallowed again. Then the curtain rises and a series of fairytale valleys is revealed. I glance down on earthen terraces of rice stubble and turbid water. Once or twice we dismount the bike to ford a gushing stream: my taxi driver, Hahn, walks through and I jump across rocks.

I want to ride forever but we run out of road and into the Ecolodge. Brilliantly clothed Red Dzao women are sitting and sewing at the entrance. They look so much more relaxed than the Hmong and Red Dzao women in Sapa, trapped in their created cultural villages.

The lodge features 25 white granite and hardwood cabins clustered on one side of the mountain top, all with solar panels. The surprise centrepiece is a huge, reconstructed Tay (minority) meeting house that now houses the bar, upstairs restaurant and office. On the restaurant’s doorstep is a rice field and down the path is the lodge’s organic garden, which supplies ingredients for contemporary Vietnamese dishes: lime and chilli-splashed salads and spiced seasonal vegetables served with tender beef and chicken on silver platters.

The bar is fire-warmed and there is a menu of local rice wines, crystal clear or tinged pink, which slide delicately down the throat like the best malt whisky.

So much of life in rural Vietnam revolves around rice-growing and to every thing there is a season. In July the Red Dzao harvest the rice around the lodge; months later they will plant young rice shoots again. In just two days, the average stay here, you can slip easily into this seasonal rhythm. Or get active. A group of Danes straggle in from a morning walk to nearby villages: the difference between a walk and trek is that the latter, apart from being longer, comes with a swarm of porters drawn from local villages.

“When we have a rush of visitors, we can always call on our neighbours to help us out at short notice,” says manager Walter Ariesen. “That’s one of the many benefits of having built a strong relationship with people in our community.” That philosophy, and the sublime location, is what makes Topas Ecolodge unique.

Topas Ecolodge, near Sapa, north Vietnam. Phone +84…; http://www.topasecolodge.com. Tariff: Depends on the season and package inclusions. In December, for example, double or twin is $US115 ($145), including all food and transport.
Getting there: Topas Ecolodge will transfer guests by bus from Sapa.
Checking in: International guests, mostly Germans, Australians, Danes, French, Canadians, Japanese and Taiwanese.
Wheelchair access: All cabins are accessible from a footpath, but there’s a lot of uphill. Suggest an advance request for wheelchair assistance.
Bedtime reading: The Light of the Capital, three short Vietnamese classics from the 1930s (Oxford), translated by Australians Greg and Monique Lockhart.
Stepping out: Breathtaking treks, biking, kayaking, walks to nearby minority villages. Climb Vietnam’s highest peak, Fansipan (3143m).
Brickbats: A torch and umbrella should be standard additions for each room, given the distance from the restaurant. Menu could do with more variety.
Bouquets: Staff are friendly and relaxed and the lodge has a community feel. Vietnamese-grown Arabica coffee is brewed here and served with the Western breakfast. In 2004, the lodge joined Australia’s GreenGlobe21, a worldwide benchmarking and certification program facilitating sustainable tourism.

Cathedral Christmas in Vietnam

Published by The Australian, Travel – 15/16 December, 2007
I AM blinded by the lights and trapped in a congregational crush waiting for midnight mass to begin on Christmas Eve in Phat Diem Cathedral.
It is Vietnam, 1993. Vietnamese work colleagues suggest we travel to the Catholic heart of north Vietnam in Ninh Binh province, a few hours south of Hanoi. It is a flat Red River delta landscape of rice paddies scattered with European-design churches. Intriguingly, an invitation to celebrate Christmas Eve has been issued to the foreign community by state authorities, a way of showing the country’s new open-door policy is extended to the temple and cathedral as well as the economy. I don’t see many foreigners in the cathedral. Is this a foreign boycott or botched Vietnamese communication? Both are possible. The local worshippers are dressed in their best: old men in white shirts, lumpy coats and trousers with fraying hems; women in scarfs, now and then a mantilla, over long, dark dresses. Only young girls sport a splash of colour.
My colleague, Tuan, tells me this is the first time he has been inside a church. And this is no ordinary church but an 80m-long Sino-Vietnamese architectural fantasy of granite, marble and wood set amid ponds, a lake, grottoes and chapels, and dominated by a bell tower with pagoda-like roof.
In The Quiet American Graham Greene’s journalistic alter ego, Thomas Fowler, watches a night battle between unseen Viet Minh and the French military from this bell tower.
Nearby in the administrative office the line of bishops’ portraits stops in 1954, when a half-million northern Christians moved south after what was supposed to be the temporary partition of Vietnam following the end of French rule.
A French student tells me he will sing with Vietnamese friends in the choir, at the back of the nave and up a set of rickety stairs.
I wonder if the organ will survive the service, as there are huge bits missing. The organ pumps up to announce the entrance of the clergy draped in old finery, and chattering dies as the mass begins.
My Vietnamese is basic and Tuan gives me brief updates while I look around at the rows of women (far more females than males), some teary eyed. A teenage girl reads from the Bible, a wall of gold lacquer shimmering behind her. Then the choir at the back of the cathedral breaks into Silent Night. In Vietnamese it is both strange and deeply familiar: a song of birth and peace in a country that has lost millions in war.
The French boy sings without a song sheet and voices fill this huge cavern held up by 48 ironwood pillars. The cathedral was hit by US bombs in 1972, though its wounds are now barely visible.
Tuan is transfixed as the priest delivers the sermon. After the mass I find out why. He holds his hand on his heart as he tells me: “It was about a poor, young married couple. At Christmas the woman sells her long hair, her great possession, to buy a watch-chain for her husband. She does not know he has sold his watch to buy her lovely hair combs.”
The priest has told the most famous story by American writer O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. “It is about what we are prepared to give up when we love,” Tuan says as we stream out of the warm cathedral into a chilled, ink-black Christmas morning, breathing in the moment and wishing chuc mung giang sinh to all around us.