Saturday, 30 March 2013

Leading an ELT organisation in an international environment

Damon Anderson
This was the title of a seminar, led by Damon Anderson, which took place as part of the Leadership Forum at the recent CamTESOL conference in Phnom Pehn.  The context for Damon's talk was the idea of the ASEAN Integrated Community which is due to come into effect by December 2015.  You can read about it here.

As a result of the formation of this community, there will be more need for English as the workforce becomes more mobile.  English is the working language of ASEAN.  Fortunately, there is the political will to facilitate this.  More mobility means more students moving around the region and, as they move into the workforce, there will be more and more need for ESP.  For example, Cambodians will be competing against other nationalities for jobs, even if they stay in Cambodia.

All of this will lead to the provision of more and more English programmes and the need for closer attention to standards.  There are factors which are important for any organisation to succeed and these apply just as much to English language teaching institutions as to any other kind of business. 

The key components for success:
  • Know who the stakeholders are and what they expect.  These will include the owners of the business, any investors and affiliate institutions, as well as the faculty and the student cohort.
  • Establish the working language of the organisation.  If you are running an ELT institution in a non-English speaking country, it is important that there is a common language between all the stakeholders in order for them to communicate effectively.  The working language needs to be agreed at the setting up of the organisation and all meetings need to be held in that language and all documentation needs to be published in that language.  Effective translation services must then be employed to ensure that all concerned parties understand what is going on.
  • Have a mission statement.  A mission statement is different to goals, which are achievable day-to-day aims, in that it sets the overall tone for the organisation.  What is the best ever mission statement? explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
(Star Trek)
  • A good team who have the knowledge, skills and commitment.  Too many language schools hire people just because they are native speakers.  We need to hire people because they have these three key qualities.  Quality assurance starts with this.
  • Good organisation of responsibilities.  Make it clear who is leading and managing and who is responsible for the various aspects of the organisation or particular project within the organisation. 
  • Time.  There needs to be a clear timeframe for every project within the organisation.  Planning is key.
  • Communication.  Modes and procedures need to be clearly stated and adhered to and known to everyone.
  • Meetings.  Regular, purposeful, concise meetings are vital to keep all interested parties in the loop.
    A 236-year old lesson in leadership from George Washington
  1. Creating a context. Leaders must paint a broad and complete picture for their team, providing the perspective that enables them to understand the meaning, repercussions and influences of their decision-making.
  2. Framing the problem. Leaders tackling complex challenges need to make certain that their team fully understands the dimensions of those challenges. No mincing words; no sugar-coating the problem.
  3. Seeking advice. To encourage discussion and contributions from the team, leaders must be clear that they are looking for solutions – without prejudicing the process by offering their own proposal at the start. Everyone who can contribute should be included.
  4. Reaching a consensus. While it’s important to encourage and maintain an open exchange of ideas, leaders must ensure that the group moves toward a consensus solution. Endless discussion is almost never a solution.
  • Budget.  There should be an adequate budget with laid down procedures and regulations.  There needs to be agreed reporting forms and formats which are clear and known to everyone.  How do people have to account for expenses?, for example.
  • Branding and promotion.  Put the name of your organisation on everything!
  • Client base.  Who are your students?  Where are they coming from?
  • Location.
  • Acknowledgement.  It's really important to acknowledge people's contribution in order to get their commitment to you and to the institution.
  • Cultural etiquette.  It is vital to be aware of and make allowance for local cultural differences and sensitivities.  Watch this advert for HSBC as an illustration of how important this is!

When it comes to cultural awareness, as well as the normal considerations, the most important thing to bear in mind is - location, location, location!!  Location affects so many things.  For example, in some cultures the number 4 is unlucky and if you put your language school on the 4th floor of an office building, you may find yourself short of students!  Location also affects:
  • rules and regulations regarding employees and budgets (taxes)
  • currencies and banking
  • possible time differences
  • import/export regulations (could significantly increase the costs of books and equipment, for example)
  • visas
  • national/international holidays (could have implications for academic holidays)
  • branding/promotion (acronyms may not mean the same in different countries)
To conclude,
If you consider all of these factors, your ELT organisation has a much greater chance of success.

What makes a lesson great?

This was the subject of an interesting #eltchat, which I summarisedback in January.  During that chat, reference was made to a webinar with the same title given by Anthony Gaughan.  I knew I had attended the said webinar and just yesterday I came across my notes, so I've decided to write them up.  What follows is a summary of Anthony's presentation.

A lesson should be built around five characteristics or elements which are primary to a GREAT lesson:
  • Group dynamic
  • Relevance to learners' lives and needs
  • Emergent language and ideas focus
  • Attentiveness
  • Thoughtfulness
Group dynamic
Some questions to ask ourselves:
  • Can dynamic be generated?
  • How do we promote rapport?
  • Are we blocking rapport?
  • Can (and should) teachers manage the group dynamic?
  • How well-prepared are teachers in various educational settings to work sensitively with the group dynamic?
Students have to be convinced that they are working towards mastering the language.  Telling them that something is relevant is not enough.  The activity has to be seen to be relevant.
A needs analysis is usually only done at the beginning of a course.  Inevitably, needs change over time, so a course becomes decreasingly relevant.  You can overcome this by exploiting learner journals.  In this way, it is easier for the teacher to keep pace with student needs and students also become more conscious of their own needs.  You can read Adam Beale's blog for more on learner diaries.
The lesson content has to have a recognisable profile, but it has to adaptable. It has to change and it has to clearly relate to the students' needs and interests.
Emergent language and ideas focus
Language develops over time and relates to the point of need.  Instant and constructive feedback is required at the moment the language emerges. Teachers should be language 'snipers' - marksmen!  They should hear the emergent language and pick up on it immediately.
As a teacher, when you hear something new, capture it and do something with it.  Ask yourself:
  • Have I heard this from this learner and this class before?
  • Is this highly relevant to the conversation?
  • Have others asked the speaker to clarify the meaning?
  • Was there a pause for thought?  Was it hesitantly delivered?
  • Was it used to get around some lack of lexis or grammar?
Attention is limited to a relatively short period of time, so it is important to use the lesson dynamic.  Be aware of getting, and then holding onto, your learners' attention.  Try pausing for three seconds after every instruction or chunk of language.  It helps the students to focus their attention.  It really works!!  It gives them processing time.
Consider the flock of birds/buckshot analogy.  If you want to gather birds rather than scatter them, don't use a shotgun, use food.  How do you know what kind of 'food' to use for your learners?  What will get their attention?  Gather data. Take notes.  Eavesdrop on their conversations.  Snoop.  Listen for language students want clarification on.  Listen and note the topics they talk about.
Play loud music and force students to talk over it.  Not only does this get their attention, it helps with their confidence and their voice projection.
How thoughtful are you towards yourself and towards your students in class? How thoughtful are your students towards each other in class?
Use silence - thinking pauses.  See Scott Thornbury's blogpost on this.

How compatible are busy classroom environments with true thoughtfulness?  Ask yourself:
  • How often during a lesson am I thoughtful about:
  1. how I am feeling?
  2. how the learners are feeling?
  3. how appropriate to the moment is what I've planned?
  • How can I calm (but not subdue!) the environment to allow for more thoughtfulness?
Allow white space in your lesson plan.  In other words, leave some unplanned time.  Gain focus in your lesson through interest, not time pressure.  

Take a 15-second vacation:  go to the window and focus on a tree or a bird, for example, for a full 15 seconds.  You'll be energised and so will the class.

Here's to lots of great lessons!

Monday, 18 March 2013

Visiting Ban Pho, a Flower Hmong village in northern Vietnam

On the afternoon of our visit to Can Cau market, we left the car in Bac Ha town centre and walked the few kilometres to the village of Ban Pho.  This is a Flower Hmong village which is richer than most, having benefitted from tourist income generated from visitors such as ourselves.  Whilst our visit and others like it have undoubtedly affected the village, I'd like to think that the changes are for the better and that the traditional way of life and culture of the minority people remain strong.  Fanciful perhaps, but this seemed to be the opinion of villagers we spoke to.  They are glad of the new school building and the teaching resources which enable all of the children in the village to attend school to the age of 16, but they are also happy to plough their fields with water buffalo and transport their produce to market by horse and cart.
Lady making herb bundles

We visited the home of an elderly couple who had lived in the village all their lives.  He was tending some young vegetable plants in the garden and she was preparing bundles of herbs to take to market the next day.  Their home was very basic with an earth floor and a straw roof and a sleeping area curtained off from the rest of the living space.  Both of them were smoking water pipes as they worked!

In another house, we were shown the corn spirit distillation process which happens in most village homes.  Corn cobs are stacked up and dried for several months before being cooked in a giant wok for a few hours with sugar.  The cooking liquid is then poured off into large plastic barrels which are covered with plastic bags and left in the sun to ferment.  Later, this liquor is distilled into a clear spirit which comes in at a hefty 70 - 90% proof!  We witnessed several of the village men who had clearly had one or two too many shots at lunchtime!!

You can see more of my photos of the village here.

The Connected Classroom

This was the title of a recent webinar I attended.  It was presented by Russell Stannard of fame.

Russell Stannard
What is 'the connected classroom'?

It's about connecting what we do in class with what we do outside of the classroom.  Russell is particularly interested in using technology outside of the class and is always looking for ways of getting students to do more speaking practice.  It's so easy nowadays for students to record themselves and send the recording to the teacher.  This webinar focused on three ways to do this.

How do we 'connect' our classrooms through speaking activities?

  • Prepare the speaking activities in the class, but get students to do the recordings at home.
  • The key is motivation - this requires thorough preparation and practising the speaking activity in class.  Vocabulary, grammar, structures, etc. should all be practised.
  • Start by sharing a recording of your own with the class.
  • The more you connect the class part of the activity with the homework part, the better the students tend to do with the recordings.
  • Plan the whole lesson, including the homework, as one.
Examples of 'connected' speaking activities
  • Providing personal information
  • Talking about a best friend
  • Talking about your daily routine
  • Making a 'shopping channel' recording, e.g. selling your telephone
  • Describing an object which is important to you
  • Talking about a picture
  • Sharing a timeline of your life (or the life of a famous person)

Benefits of 'connected' speaking activities
  • Students can work on their recordings at their own pace and repeat the activity as often as they need to.
  • Students get to speak English outside of the classroom.
  • They are useful for students to build up a portfolio of their work (particularly good for showing improvements in speaking ability over time).
  • They are great for encouraging students to be more autonomous and to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • They are useful for assessments.
  • They are a great way to practise for external exams.
  • They can be used for individual students, pairs or, even, small groups.
This is a very easy-to-use tool whereby students can make recordings and, when they are happy with the results, they can e-mail them to their teacher.  There is also the facility to embed the recordings (in a wiki or blog, for example) or to download them (as an Mp3 or WAV file), which is useful for students to build up a portfolio of their work.
With vocaroo, recordings can be up to five minutes in length.  The simplicity of the tool means that it's very good for use with low-level students.
This tool allows students to record video as well as audio, so is great for recording adverts, for example.  Recordings can be up to ten minutes long and can be e-mailed to the teacher.  It is a more sophisticated tool than vocaroo and is better for higher-level students.  Unfortunately, mailvu does not allow you to download the recordings, but they are kept online for 365 days before being deleted.
This tool allows you to upload video, powerpoint, pictures, word documents, etc. and then add your voice to it before sharing on the internet.  It is a great way for students to practise presentation techniques.  It is free for recordings of up to 15 minutes.
Potential problems with 'connected' speaking activities
  • Have students got access to the internet?
  • Have they been given enough guidance to make the recordings?
  • Do they have an appropriate framework to work with?
  • What are you going to do about giving feedback?  You could give general feedback to the whole class and then play the best examples in class (with the students' permission) or you could try using peer evaluation.
Don't let these potential problems stop you, though - the connected classroom is the way forward!

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Hoang A Tuong Palace, Bac Ha

We called at this little known palace (so little-known that it didn't even feature in our guide book!) on our way back to Bac Ha after visiting the colourful market at Can Cau.  It was well worth the stop!!

Designed by two architects - one French and one Chinese - and built between 1914 and 1921, this building is a magnificent folly which really stands out amongst the local buildings and rice paddies.  Hoang A Tuong, after whom the palace is named, and his father, Hoang Yen Chao, were members of the ethnic Tay group.  The latter reigned over the local people from 1905 to 1953 under the protection of the French colonists, and built the palace to represent his wealth and power.  He owned most of the fertile land in the area and forced everyone to pay tax on everything they grew or made.  He also had a monopoly on the sale of salt, drugs, food and other consumer goods.

The palace is large, covering an area of 4,000 square metres.  Interestingly, for the want of a more suitable material, the mortar was mixed with sugar molasses and this was used to reinforce the walls and battlements.

The palace was built according to the rules of Feng Shui in order to bring good fortune to its owner and occupants.  Unfortunately, it didn't work as the family was forced out of the palace in the 1950s and it was then left to fall into disrepair.  It is currently being restored to its former glory, the aim being to make it a well-known tourist attraction.

You can see more of my photos of the palace here.

Can Cau Market, northern Vietnam

Shoppers on their way back from the market
One of the main attractions of visiting Sapa and the surrounding area was to go to one or more of the markets held weekly by and for the minority people of the region.  Once in Sapa, we were advised by the local tourist office to visit the Saturday market at Can Cau, rather than the more touristy Sunday market at Bac Ha.  So, we did as we were told and booked a car and driver to take us there!

We were up very early on the morning in question and were downstairs in the hotel lobby by 7am to meet our guide.  He turned up 15 minutes late to tell us that the driver was stuck in traffic and wouldn't get to us until 8.  It didn't bode well!!  However, the driver did turn up eventually and we retraced the road we had taken on arrival in Sapa.  On that occasion, we couldn't see anything because it was dark and now we couldn't see anything because it was thick fog!  Back in Lao Cai, we stopped for tea and a toilet break.  We told our guide that we didn't need either so early into our day's excursion, but he explained that we needed to change car because our driver's grandfather had just died and he had to go home!  After a further delay, a different car and driver arrived and we were able, at last, to begin the 90km drive to Can Cau.  By this time, we were very worried about missing the market because a guy at our hotel (who we had chosen not to book the tour with!) had told us that it would all be over by 10am.  It was already 9.15!!

Water buffalo for sale
As we progressed on our journey, the weather improved and soon we were enjoying the warmth of the sun through the car windows and the spectacular scenery on both sides of the road.  We were delayed again due to a crashed lorry which blocked our path, but eventually we reached Bac Ha.  Beyond the town, the road conditions deteriorated to the point that there was no road in some places!  It made for quite a hair-raising end to our journey.

As we neared our destination, we passed lots of local people in national dress, both going to and returning from the market, so we were reassured that we were not too late and so it proved.  Having parked the car, we walked up a stony track to the market and lost ourselves for the next couple of hours in a riot of colour, noise and commerce!

Flower Hmong ladies
Can Cau is definitely a local market with livestock, foodstuffs and masses of colourful fabrics and clothes for the Flower Hmong women to enhance their already elaborate outfits.  People cross the border from China to trade at Can Cau, something which is difficult to police in this hilly border region.  It makes for an ethnically diverse experience for the few tourists who make it there and I would certainly recommend it in preference to the more well-known Bac Ha market.

During our visit, we were blessed with the best weather we had in our two-week Christmas holiday.  We didn't buy anything, but we did take loads of photos - you can see more of them here.


Sunday, 3 March 2013

My first presentation at an international TESOL conference!

Several months ago, a member of my wonderful PLN (personal learning network) on Twitter, Lesley Cioccarelli (@cioccas), sent me a DM (direct message) suggesting that we could perhaps present together at CamTESOL 2013 which would be held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in February.  I thought it was a great idea, especially as her proposed topic was 'How teachers can connect via the internet'.  We had an initial 'discussion' on Twitter and agreed that we would submit an abstract before the deadline, which was months away.

Then, as often happens with these things, we were both busy with work and life in general and CamTESOL was put on the back burner - until, that is, I happened to mention our idea in a Tweet to another of our PLN, prompting Lesley to check the date for abstracts and discover that it was the very next day!!  Talk about leaving things to the eleventh hour!!

We hastily put our abstract together and completed the necessary paperwork by sending the forms back and forth via e-mail.  Breathing a joint sigh of relief, we then sat back and waited for confirmation that we had been accepted.  When this arrived a few weeks later, it suddenly became real - it was no longer simply an idea in our heads - we were really going to do this!!  It was so exciting!

In the months leading up to the conference, Lesley and I exchanged a few e-mails expressing our thoughts on our workshop, but, in the end, we decided to leave the main planning to a couple of days before, when Lesley would be staying with me in Binh Duong

So it was that on the Tuesday before the conference, we said goodbye to my Mum at the airport (she had been staying with us for a month) and met up with Lesley.  Although we'd never met before, we recognised each other straight away and it felt like we'd been friends for years!  We talked non-stop during the hour-long taxi journey home and continued all the next day when Lesley came to work with me so we could plan our workshop. 

Lesley had had much more experience than I had of presenting at TESOL conferences, so I was happy to take her advice and 'pinch' slides she'd used in previous presentations when putting ours together.  In truth, though, we worked very well together and agreed that the basis of our workshop should be the story of how we 'met' online and how we came to be collaborating on this project at CamTESOL.  After all, we were living proof of the power of the internet, and social media in particular, to bring colleagues from different parts of the world together.  We decided not to script our presentation, relying instead on anecdotes and our enthusiasm for our subject to carry us through.

These were the details we submiited to the CamTESOL organisers before the event:

Session Title:  Connect with teachers around the world
Subtitle:   How to use the internet to develop a personal learning network (PLN)
Take charge of your own professional development.  By using the internet, you can decide when, where and how to keep up-to-date with all the latest developments in Teaching English as a Foreign Language.  This workshop will show you how to use Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other online forums to learn from, and share ideas with, a huge network of colleagues from all over the world.
We will demonstrate the advantages of building your own PLN and the ease with which it can be done, at no cost to yourselves.  We will share the story of how we came to collaborate on this project through ‘meeting’ online.  You will leave the workshop with the beginnings of your own PLN and the means to develop it further.
This is the PowerPoint we put together:

On the day, we were very ably-assisted by another member of our PLN who we met for the first time at the conference, Mike Griffin (@michaelegriffin).  He moved the slides on for us because neither Lesley nor I had thought about bringing one of those natty remote gadgets that you can use to make the job easier!

In the end, the workshop went extremely well.  Initially, we had planned to have a live link-up to show the power of Twitter.  However, on arrival at the conference, we were told that we would not have an internet connection in our room.  So, in the hour before our presentation, we put out a plea to our PLN to Tweet about their reasons for using Twitter, in the hope that we could at least read out their replies.  As it turned out, a technician did manage to hook us up to the internet just before the workshop started so we were able to show the #CamTESOL feed on TweetChat live.  As is always the case with the amazing people in our PLN, they came up trumps and we were able to demonstrate so effectively why we love Twitter and what it can do in terms of PD and networking.  Thanks to @sandymillin, @SophiaKhan4, @vickyloras, @pterolaur, @gotanda, @leoselivan, @TheSecretDoS. @trylingual, @AnneHendler, @damon_tokyo, @oyajimbo, @forstersensai, and @iTDIpro for their great replies and for the RTs.  Many apologies if I have missed anyone out!!

At the end of the session, we gave out this flyer:


The feedback we had from attendees was all positive - they admired our passion for our subject and had seen for themselves the benefits of developing a PLN.  We met lots of people and hope that we will continue to connect with at least some of them online!!

The whole experience was a really positive one for me and I hope to repeat it fairly soon!  I thank everyone involved, but especially my co-presenter, Lesley Cioccarelli, without whom none of this would have happened!!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Sapa - a reminder of the Alps in Vietnam!

Sapa's main street
We spent New Year 2012 in Sapa in northern Vietnam and loved every moment of it, despite the biting cold and the damp, both of which came as a huge shock to the system after a year and a half living in the constant warmth of Binh Duong in the south of the country.  Arriving as we did in the thick fog of early morning, our first impressions of Sapa were not that great!  The promised 'mountain view' from our hotel window was non-existent, but we were grateful for the opportunity to check-in so early after our overnight train journey from Hanoi.

The view from our hotel window
Once we had unpacked and freshened up, the sun had started to break through the fog and the cloud, and we set off to explore the town.  What we found were steep(ish!) streets, tall half-timbered buildings which wouldn't have looked out of place in a Swiss alpine town, and lots of ethnic minority women and girls dressed in their strikingly colourful costumes.  These girls all had something to sell (mainly hand made bags and jewellery) and engaged us in conversation as we wandered around the town.  One, Vy, even waited for us in the cold whilst we had lunch - we rewarded her persistence by buying a bag for one of our nieces!  These sellers were a constant throughout our time in Sapa, but we never felt really hassled by them.  They were just trying to make a living and were happy to answer my questions about their schooling and their home lives.

Black Hmong girls about town
Sapa is a great place if shopping is your thing!  As well as the roaming sellers and the women who set up impromptu stalls on the ground in the town's main square, there are more upmarket (and expensive!) shops and, best of all, a huge undercover market where you can bargain hard for local craftwork and cheap China imports or simply watch the locals buying their fresh produce each day.

Sapa is also a good place for eating out, with a plethora of restaurants offering every cuisine you could want.  The only downside was that, even in these places, the cold was insidious.  The locals seemed ill-prepared for it, even though the temperatures drop every winter and it can be known to snow!  None of the hotels or restaurants we visited had adequate (or sometimes, any!) heating, the staff compensating by wearing coats, scarves and gloves indoors!  Often, our food was cold by the time it reached our table!  The 'dressy' evening outfit I had taken with me for the New Year's Eve Gala Dinner provided no protection against the cold and damp in the hotel restaurant!

Red Dao lady at the market
Fortunately, we did find a couple of solutions to the cold problem - ginger tea and Hmong apple wine!!  The former provided a great way to warm up before 'the sun had gone over the yard arm' and the latter when it had!!  The apple wine tastes like a strongly alcoholic apple juice and is delicious.  It is on the drinks list of every bar and restaurant in Sapa, but we couldn't find it in any supermarket.  So, we asked in a restaurant if they could sell us a bottle - they duly obliged, filling an empty plastic water bottle from a large wooden cask and charging us just a couple of dollars for the service!

We spent a very pleasant few days in Sapa exploring the town and enjoying good, inexpensive food and drink.  We also took a full-day excursion to a minority market, but I'll write about that in a separate post.  We would love to visit the region again, but we would go when the weather was somewhat warmer!! 

You can see more of my photos of Sapa here.

Train travel to Sapa from Hanoi and back again

In my head, I love long rail journeys!  I have romantic notions of plush carriages, fine dining by candlelight and days spent watching spectacular scenery passing by the windows.  Indeed, we have been on one or two such journeys (I wrote about our train trip from Istanbul to Konya here).  In reality, though, more often than not, these excursions are more pain than pleasure with old, dirty and/or uncomfortable carriages, appalling food and surly service.

When we were planning our trip around northern Vietnam, Sapa was definitely on our list and the best way (some would say the only way) to get there, we read, was by train from Hanoi.  I read varying reports of the journey, some good and some not so good, but the consensus seemed to be that it was best to take the night train on the outward journey and the day train on the way back.  This is what we decided to do.

You should be able to buy tickets in advance online, but this facility was withdrawn a few months ago so we had no choice but to wait until we reached Hanoi to book our onward train travel.  We did this on our first day in the city, meaning that we were trying to buy tickets for a week hence.  We assumed that this would be no problem, but we were mistaken.  Tickets on the night train for our chosen date were all sold out, apart from a few that were in the hands of travel agents who wanted to sell them at more than their face value.  In the end, we had little choice.  The alternative was to go on the day train and pay for an extra night's accommodation, either in Hanoi or Sapa.  So, we paid an inflated price for two bunks in a four-bunk 'tourist carriage' and wondered about who our travelling companions might be.

On the day of travel, we were at Hanoi's rather grim-looking station early for our 9.10pm departure and had to wait on the platform until someone came along to unlock the carriage doors.  We found our cabin quickly enough and were the first passengers there.  First impressions were good, with fresh flowers and bottled water on the table, but closer inspection revealed extremely thin mattresses on the bunks, grubby looking blankets and curtains that came away in my hand when I tried to close them!  Our vain hope that the other two bunks might remain empty, was quashed when we were joined firstly by a lady and her crying toddler grandson and then by a middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman.  Signs were that we wouldn't be getting much sleep, and so it proved!!  Numerous trips to the bathroom by one or other of our fellow travellers, as well as the man's regular and noisy expulsion of mucus from his nose onto the floor, made for a restless night!!

I think we both finally nodded off in the early hours only to be rudely awoken, seemingly just minutes later, by a screeching railway employee informing us that we had arrived in Lao Cai and almost pushing us from the train!  We emerged from the train into the still pitch dark and decidedly chilly morning and were herded, bleary-eyed along the platform and out into the car park where we were met by hoards of taxi and minibus drivers vying for our attention.  It's about an hour's drive from Lao Cai to Sapa, which is the final destination of the vast majority of travellers alighting from the night train.  We had pre-booked the transfer through our hotel so just had to find the one driver amongst the hundreds with our name written on his piece of card!  Having done this, the drive to Sapa was uneventful, but not the scenic trip we had envisaged as it was dark when we set off and, as dawn broke, the whole area was shrouded in thick fog!

A few days later, we did the journey in reverse, setting off from our hotel in the early morning.  This time, we were able to see a little more of the scenery and were impressed by the dramatic looking mountains and cascading waterfalls.  Any hopes of enjoying lovely scenery from the windows of the day train, though, were soon dashed when we saw it.  We arrived at Lao Cai station just as they were opening the doors on to the platform to allow the amassed throngs to surge through and take their seats on the train.  We had allocated seats, so held back until the majority of the crowds had dispersed.  Before getting close to the train, we could see that it had bars on all the windows as well as close-weave mesh thus obstructing the view and preventing any opportunity to take pictures.

Once on the train, we quickly found our seats and were disappointed, though not surprised, to see what a poor condition they were in.  The whole carriage was dirty and the seats were draped in ill-fitting, torn, filthy covers.  They were also in an almost prone position and the mechanism to change this had broken off.  We were in for a long, uncomfortable day - and so it proved!  The situation was not eased by the constant bombardment of very loud 'musak' being broadcast through the carriages!  We finally arrived back in Hanoi 14 hours after leaving Lao Cai, with any ideas about the romance of train travel well and truly demolished!!