Author Archives: Alison Bate

General Giap goes home

By Alison Bate

Crowds pressed in to try and see the funeral procession of General Vo Nguyen Giap in Hanoi on Oct.12, 2013.

Crowds press in to try and see the funeral procession in Hanoi Sunday.

The body of General Giap was escorted from Hanoi to his home town in Quang Binh province for burial.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

A woman tries to hand over chrysanthemum flowers to an officer for placing with other wreaths in Hanoi Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

An officer holds a poster commemorating General Giap on Hoang Dieu, Hanoi on Sunday.

From Darfur to Salt Lake City

I had just boarded the ferry at Horseshoe Bay in Canada when my cellphone rang.

The line crackled and it took a while to realize who it was.

“Is that you, Mohammed*?

“Yes! I am here! I am so happy – everyone is so kind.”

“Where are you?”

I learned he was finally in Salt Lake City in the western U.S. It was the end of five long years in limbo in Turkey, desperately waiting to find a country that would take him in.

I first met Mohammed in the dusty desert capital of Khartoum in Sudan. It was 2007, and I was teaching English there. He was one of my more advanced students, always working hard to improve his English.

I left Sudan and the school later that year but kept in touch with Mohammed by email and Facebook. He completed his studies at Sudan University of Science & Technology, but had a difficult time in Khartoum and his time in Darfur before that is his story to tell, not mine.

The next thing I knew, it was 2008 and he’d fled to Turkey as an asylum seeker. Two years later, he received formal recognition as a refugee. However, Turkey only gives temporary asylum to refugees from non-European Union countries. So, like many others, Mohammed was stuck waiting for another country to take him in.

I tried to get him accepted by Canada, but had no luck with the United Nations refugee agency in Vancouver. In the end, it was the U.S. that accepted him.

Last week, five long years after he fled Sudan, Mohammed arrived in the United States to begin his new life.

Welcome to North America, Mohammed, and may your future be bright.

*NOTE: Mohammed is not his real name

[Posted by Alison Bate on Sept. 29, 2013]

Writing in Hanoi

Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson asked me to write a guest blog about my experience writing a novel while living overseas. Here’s the article in full:

Pix Alison Bate

Alison Bate in Hanoi, 2013

Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.

The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes that stimulates creativity.

It’s a total contrast to my home on Bowen Island in western Canada, where deer roam the yard and only the whining of chainsaws breaks the peace.

Writing in two very different settings, I’ve realised that wherever I live there are other writers around to help during the long, lonely journey of working on a first draft.

My roommate Tom introduced me to the Hanoi Writers Collective in April 2012, and throughout the next 12 months, the expat group became the lifeline that kept my novel moving along.

We were a mixed bunch, coming from different countries and writing in very different genres. Andy Engelson was writing an epic novel based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; Diederik Prakke, about Buddhists in love; Mary Croy and Liz Burgess, sci-fi for young adults; Charlotte Adams, poetry; and Linda Mazur, a nonfiction study of the early Vietnamese architects in Hanoi. Continue reading

Gabriola Pass without an engine

Pix yacht

Sailing Pelegrin in the Gulf Islands (Pix: Alison Bate)

“You won’t get any thanks for this, you realize?”

My brother-in-law John is talking to Mickey, a Gabriola Island buddy with a 35-foot sailboat and the willingness to tow us home.

“Not the damsels-in-distress routine, you mean?”

“God, no, that’s not going to work. Won’t go over at all well.”

Sailing in Pelegrin in the Gulf Islands

Sailing in Pelegrin in the Gulf Islands, B.C., Canada (Pix: Alison Bate)

Gill and I are on her veteran Martin 29 sailboat, with a dead engine and limping in light to zero winds back to Degnen Bay after four nights in the Gulf Islands in Canada.

The rusty but usually reliable Volvo engine, circa 1974, had a couple of starting hiccups before we set sail. But nothing that Gill – my twin sister – didn’t think a good engine run wouldn’t solve.

The first day, we beat south on “Pelegrin” from Gabriola to Prevost, a quiet island opposite Saltspring.  A steady five-knot SE kept us sailing and happy all day, before dropping anchor in Glenthorne Passage around 7pm. The biggest decision of the day? How much carrot cake to eat.

Our engine woes began the second day. Continue reading

Ten things I’ll miss about Hanoi

Pix Hanoi in the rain

Hanoi, always full of atmosphere (Pix: Alison Bate)

Liz, one of my colleagues at work, asked me last night what I’ll miss about living in Hanoi. It’s the people I’ll miss the most when I leave next month, of course.

Tall and thin houses in Hanoi – to beat the tax on the width frontage

Tall and thin– to beat the tax on the width frontage

But, in a strange sort of way, I’ve also grown to love the following:

* Motorbikes in the living room

* Jockey-cap motorbike helmets designed to fall apart at the slightest accident

* Tall thin houses

* Impossibly-thin motorbike cops

* Throwing the garbage in the alley for the recycle ladies to collect

* Cafe sua da – good iced coffee for under a dollar

* Fresh pineapple for sale with all the hard work taken care of – cut up and ready to eat

* Fresh fruit shakes made out of bananas and pineapple

* Students with the same name in one class: three Thao’s, three Hoa’s, two Nguyen’s, etc

* “When my grandpa was a boy, He was a lot like me…” and other Family and Friends gems

* And, of course, the rat in the photocopier

Preparing the Tet trees in Hanoi

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Au Co workers in Hanoi take a quick break from moving and hauling kumquat trees for Tet

Quite a balancing act

A tough balancing act, taking a kumquat tree home in Hanoi, Vietnam

Pix motorbikers and peach tree

Not so easy loading a heavy peach tree onto a motorbike

I live in Au Co, near the orchards and flower market, and the main road right now is a manic mess of motorbikes, flower sellers on bikes, and walking and moving trees.

It’s just days before Tet and everyone in Hanoi is buying a kumquat tree for good luck in the coming Lunar New Year. Kumquats look like really cute baby mandarin orange trees, and according to one of my Vietnamese colleagues, it’s very important the tree has “good posture”. Not standing up straight, but a pretty shape.These trees are typically carried to their new homes by stern-looking motorbike drivers, miraculously balancing them on the backs of their bikes.

The branches of pink-blossomed peach trees are also popular and I’ve even seen heavily-bonsai’d dragon fruit trees on the move.

More and more lilies and chrysanthemums are emerging for sale in little side lots, along the sides of roads and as a sideline. Even the juice bar near the school I work at has started selling small trees and flowers out front.

Continue reading

No. 132 passes the motorbike test in Hanoi

Pix Alison Bate on Yamaha

On my Yamaha Nouvo on Long Bien Bridge in Hanoi

By Alison Bate

I’m finally legal, after five months of zoom-zooming around Hanoi.

Yesterday, I went to pick up my Vietnamese motorbike license, after a tortuous but entertaining journey.

Like nearly everyone here in Hanoi, I’ve broken rules that I wouldn’t dream of flouting in Canada. Ridden my Yamaha Nouvo daily without a license and without insurance; carried passengers without a helmet; and occasionally even ridden the wrong way down main roads. That’s what Hanoians do, and it’s simply the best way to get around the city.

It’s nerve-wracking at first, driving on the crazy, noisy no-rules streets. But after a while, you get used the rhythm of the roads and learn to never look back – only ahead.

I’ve never been stopped by the police and if I had been, the advice was simple: pretend you don’t speak any Vietnamese. As most of the police don’t speak English, either, they are very reluctant to stop westerners or Tays, as we are called.

But now, after endless paperwork, getting a Vietnamese car license, a battery of photos, a medical and a figure-of-eight driving test, I’m finally legal.

Ten days ago, I joined four other colleagues at Language Link for the final big hurdle: the practical test.
Continue reading

On the Indigo Trail: with the Black H’mong in NW Vietnam

"The village of Ly Lao Chi"

The village of Ly Lao Chi, near Sapa in northwest Vietnam

By Alison Bate

The Latin name trips off his tongue easily.

“Have you seen any strobilanthes cusia – the indigo plant? Or know anyone who makes the indigo dye here,” a boisterous French guy called out as I wandered by a street café.

Bemused, I joined Jean-Louis Dulaar for some of the local bitter green tea, and gave him the number of my homestay owner, Mr. Hoa, who spoke good English.

“No, not Tavan, but in the next village, people make the dye,” Mr. Hoa told him.

We were in the village of Tavan, about seven kilometres down the mountain from Sapa, in northwest Vietnam. I had a few days off work so had caught an overnight train and minibus from Hanoi to Sapa. It was full of ethnic minority women relentlessly trying to sell their handicraft, and I couldn’t wait to get out of town.

“You rich, me poor. You buy my stuff. Why you not buy? You monkey,” they would chant.

After buying an exotic hanging from one of the few polite women, I escaped on a Xe-om taxi (hug a motorbike) to Tavan, a beautiful little village surrounded by rice fields at the bottom of a beautiful valley. I spent the night at Mr. Hoa’s homestay, nursing a cold and enjoying some healing shots of rice wine.

Jean-Louis Dulaar with one of the local villagers in Lao Chi

The next morning, I ran into Jean-Louis Dulaar, who turned out to be a French artist who goes around the world learning local methods of using natural plants to make dyes and then creates his own paintings.

“What are you doing today?” Jean Louis asked me.

“Not much.”

Zoom zoom. Two minutes later, I joined him on the back of his rented motorbike heading for the village of Lao Chai. There, we got off and stumbled around trying to find someone who understood what he wanted.

Continue reading

Containership in Tacoma, Washington State, US

Maritime clips

Here’s a short selection from the hundreds of shipping articles I’ve written while covering the west coast of North America, including California, Oregon, Washington State, B.C.(Canada) and Alaska:

* Kyle Washington: The Prince of Tides (BC Business)

* Escape from the 91st Floor (9/11)

* Armada Rescues Trapped New Yorkers (9/11)

* The Ship That Will Not Die (New Carissa)

* B.C. longshore casuals take a beating

* Fight over Arctic shipping routes

* Crossing the Columbia Bar

* Stranded for nine months in Vancouver Harbor (Globe and Mail)

* Sailing To Shanghai: How I crossed the Pacific on a containership

* What the Truckers’ Fight Is All About (The Tyee)

* Summaries of my articles on U.S.Transportation Research website (Search “Alison Bate”)

COLUMN WRITING

* Double Trouble: Exxon Mobil slow to build double hulls

* Death by Lifeboat: Safety drills may cost your life

* The Oil Detectives: What’s killing California birds?

MY SHIPPING BACKGROUND

I edited two maritime magazines (in Canada and the U.S.) and wrote a regular column on maritime safety for three years. My articles have appeared in The Globe and Mail, BCBusiness magazine, Marine Digest, The Journal of Commerce, Maritime Magazine, Shipping & Trade News, Containerisation International, among others.

Friday night in Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

Kids watching the flag-folding ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi

It’s Friday night in Hanoi and the Mausoleum is like a gigantic playground.

Barefoot toddlers and pre-schoolers run around in circles, dads hoist kids on their shoulders, and moms guard strollers, teddy bears and surplus clothes.

Shrieks of laughter fill the night air, a pleasant change from the impatient beep-beeps in the background from motorbikers on nearby Hung Vuong Street

The Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, which holds the embalmed remains of the former president, is lit up in pinkish red, like an empty opera stage just before a performance.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

Kids and parents playing at the Mausoleum on Friday night.

The field in front is also floodlit, adding to the dramatic air, and criss-crossed with paths full of young people walking in T-shirts, shorts and capris and the occasional older woman wearing loose pyjamas.

Suddenly a whistle blows and the crisply-pressed white uniformed guards move into action, gently clearing the square of toddlers and their parents and pushing the crowd back into the grassy area.

But they don’t leave. On a path parallel to the square, the kids sit down and their parents stand behind them, all in a row, all clearly waiting for something to happen.

Martial music begins to play, and the adults sing along. Then from the left, a troop of the white uniformed guards marches three-by-three across the square toward the giant flag in front o the mausoleum. The flag is slowly lowered to triumphal music and folded away by one of the guards.

The crowd slowly drifts over to the motorbike park, and dad and mom drive off with their little kids squashed between them on the back of the motorbike. The square empties quickly and Ho Chi Minh is left in peace again.

(Posted April 17, 2012 by Alison Bate)