It was tough to celebrate Christmas this year. For the first time in many years, I failed to give even my closest friends and ninong and ninangs presents because of my very hectic litigation calendar. Literally, I left Olongapo on the 23rd of December to ensure that I was in the loop in the latest order of the judge hearing the Laude murder case. Of course, as it is in the nature of ironies, I left a few hours before the judge issued her last orders for the year granting Joseph Scott Pemberton a stay of two months while his petition for review with the Department of Justice was pending, and two others which denied our motions to transfer the marine to a local jail and to allow media coverage. Given the nature of this Order, I was answering calls form journalists until about 8 pm of Christmas Eve!
It was great, hence, that the Mrs. had long scheduled a private time with the family after Christmas in nearby Hanoi.
It was not my first time to Hanoi. On my first, I delivered a lecture before Vietnamese government lawyers on the International Criminal Court. On that occasion, my friend, Le Dinh, also a human rights defender, had just been imprisoned and charged with violation of national security laws. In the presence of the Vietnamese Secretary of Justice, I then warned the Vietnamese that membership in the ICC entails a domestic legal system that would protect and promote fundamental rights, such as freedom of expression. This piqued the Justice secretary who in turn, lectured me about the nature of the grave offenses committed by Le Dinh.
What shocked the audience was after the Minister’s outburst, I took back the microphone to debunk his statements one by one. In essence, what I said was that “threats to national security” has long been used by despotic regimes to infringe on freedom of expression, and that the real reason for the suppression was simply that they want to suppress the truth from their people.
I did not return to Vietnam for at least three years since immediately after my lecture, the German Mission (I was invited by the European Union), had to ensure that I board my flight back to Manila. So it was a pleasant surprise that despite this incident, my visit to Hanoi with my family was absolutely hassle- free.
Like any other Southeast Asian country, Vietnam also has what we have an abundance of. The attraction in Hanoi is Ha Log Bay, which literally, is a copy of Coron bay in Palawan. But the difference is like the Thais; the Vietnamese know how to extract every single centavo from visiting tourists. And in fairness to them, the tourists would spend with a sense that the visit was worth the money.
What they have in Ha Long that we do not have in Palawan are at least a hundred cruise liners sailing through the bay and bringing the cruisers to a cave and an hour of kayaking, The cruises included all meals and had sleeping quarters which I have not seen on board any ship in the Philippines.
Yes, the vacation was not perfect. My wife, who booked the cruise, was shocked when she was informed by our guide that the ship looked differently from the promotional pictures because the latter was photo shopped. My wife also was shocked that she paid for a certain quality of rooms, which differed substantially from what we got. And yes, there too were the fumes that kept us awake until the wee hours of the morning. This in addition to the guide’s bad joke that the Vietnamese are thankful to us because we would be devastated first by typhoons that head later for Vietnam.
But by and large, Hanoi remains one of the most charming destinations in Southeast Asia. The city is colorful and vibrant, with lakes scattered all over the city. The old quarters of the city stand in stark contrast to its colonial parts . Certainly, Ha Long Bay deserves to be in the company of our underground river as one of the new seven wonders of the world. But to reiterate, the comparative advantage of our Vietnamese neighbors is that despite their communist background, they appear to have a better developed tourism infrastructure intended to maximize their earnings from any arriving tourist. This can be irritating to some tourists, but definitely good policy for government. When will our Department of Tourism aim to be at par even with Vietnam? We know of course that it is now impossible to be at par with Thailand and Malaysia in this regard!
In addition to our three-night stay in Hanoi, I motored to Baguio for an overnight stay. The Mrs. does not like the long drive to the North and hence, I drove up all by my lonesome self. My mission was to see how much of a difference the newly constructed TPLEX in the trip to Baguio made. And yes, I was very pleased to find out that the new expressway constructed by corporate genius Ramon Ang had cut short the travel by at least half. For while it took us about seven hours to get to Baguio before, the highway had cut travel time to only three and a half hours. Now I only have to persuade the Mrs. that the travel time to the mountain city is abbot the same as any plane ride to any Southeast Asia destination.
Because of the Hanoi and Baguio trips, I feel absolutely refreshed and ready to face the task at hand. Yesterday, we filed our opposition to Pembertons’s Petition for Review at the Department of Justice. Today, we have our first trial date for the Maguindanao massacre. Fortunately, in just about eight days, the Pope has given us another five days of holiday.
Maybe then I can persuade the wife to go up to Baguio? Sana!