Sunday, 19 April 2009

LETTER FROM VIETNAM Chapter 5

A ROOM WITH A VIEW Thursday 5th March 2009
Red Hanoi
The guidebook we used for Vietnam is called Footprint, and it is a damn good one, giving you a lot of information not only about where to eat, sleep, and go, but also a lot of history, geography, demographics, and culture. A damn good one, but then I repeat myself.
It said about our hotel, the Hong Ngoc, that it was a real find, and it was...found , I mean. By the taxi driver, not us. We arrived at about 5:30 the previous evening, in a steady drizzle. The Hong Ngoc is a family run hotel with spartan rooms with the aforementioned old marble, old fixtures, and poor lighting. Bela Lugosi stuff. The service was impeccable, even outstanding (see people of Hanoi, why I like it.) Our room was at the top of the entrance stairway, ten yards from the entry onto the street. Hang Manh street (I am willing to bet Hang means street) is a sergeant in the hierarchy of Hanoi roads, grand boulevards being the generals, proper two lanes colonels and majors, small two lanes captains and lieutenants, and 1 1/2 lanes like Hang Manh, the sergeants. Then there are the little back alleys and detours, the corporals and privates of this hierachy.
In the old quarter, where we spent most of out time, each facade facing the street was very narrow, even though the building behind it might be a good deal wider. This is because (according to the guidebook, anyway) the landowners were taxed based on the actual footage of their entranceways by the colonial French. Being wily, they merely reduced the entranceways. Nice one.
The room we had had a small window facing the back. When Steens asked me to open the curtain to see what the day might bring us in the way of weather after our dismal start to the holiday (we had not seen the sun since the UK) we were faced with a wall two feet away, and absolutely no way of telling (other than a grey sheen on the pipes, but that could have been leaking) what the weather was like. Steens then commented sardonically:
"Ah, a room with a view."
A quick trip downstairs confirmed that indeed it was NOT the pipes leaking, it was misting, if not drizzling, as it had been ever since we arrived.
We decided over a serviceable breakfast to go to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, the National Army Museum, and then shop. The breakfast was a step up from the Cosmopolitan nonsense, enlivened by the smallest spoons on the planet, which made eating a tiny pot of yoghurt a morning's activity. I asked the waiter: "Are there bigger spoons?" He said: "No." The next day however, there were.
We booked a taxi from the hotel. The Dong is Vietnam's currency, and there are lots of them. One dollar is worth Dong 17,500, which makes pretty everyone a millionaire. The UK should try this. Oops, maybe they already are.
So a typical taxi driver negotiation goes something like this. How much? Ten dollars. No, in Dong. 100,000 dong (already, if you do the math, the numbers don't add up, but you see where I am heading...stick to nice round numbers.) No , I only paid 25,000 to come here (maybe true, maybe not, but all is fair in love and haggling). 50,000? 30. OK,OK. End negotiation.
The hotel people warned us. Only take HANOI TAXIS (an aptly named company, no doubt on some sort of commission). The two that we took from the hotel only charged 25,000, so that was reasonable. However, in the street, we never seemed to see one. We thus were charged from 30-50 thousand. Whatever. 50k is only $3, so it is not like it is going to kill you.
Our nice Mr. HANOI taxi man dumped us, literally, across the street from the impressive (in a Stalinesque kind of way), Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. As streets go, this was a major or a colonel, so crossing it involved a bit of this and a bit of that. There was a massive lawn of really thick gauge grass laid out in squares with a grid of concrete walkways, or what we assumed were walkways. Everywhere there were signs in English and Vietnamese: DON'T WALK ON THE GRASS. Okay, we thought, we'll take the walkways, and set out towards the Mausoleum, which didn't have too many people in front of it.
Now this seemingly innocent action brought on a definite Korea moment. If you have ever lived in a totalitarian state (Korea was under martial law when we moved there in 1982) you will know what I mean. You transgress some obscure rule which is obvious to all except foreigners, and it will provoke a response not unlike poking a stick into a hornet's nest just to see what will happen.
We had not gone but a few steps when all of a sudden we hear a commotion off to our right, and see a guard (unimpressive uniform or not) waving madly and yelling at us. He is about 50 yards away from us, but makes it abundantly clear that:
a) we are NOT supposed to be there; and b) making a grand circular motion that we MUST GO AROUND OVER TO OUR LEFT.
Our LEFT. We look over way over to the left of the Mausoleum. Oh you, mean over to our LEFT where there is a massive great QUEUE.
Ah! Habbiamo capito.
We retreat and avoid a minor diplomatic incident. Situation resolved. No shots fired.
By the time we circled around to the left, going around a block the size of Detroit (okay so I am exaggerating) we arrive at the real entrance to the Mausoleum, a fact conveniently forgotten by Mr. Nice HANOI taximan who has taken about, let me guess, 1,000 foreigners to the biggest tourist attraction in town. Oh well, nevermind. He did charge us only 25,000 dong.
There are a number of steps to fulfill before going into the Mausoleum. These include buying a ticket (easy peasy), turning in your camera (a real act of faith) but NOT as the sign said (see opposite) any cash, gold, GERMSTONES, FLAMABLE (to be fair, always a tough one to spell) or POISIONOUS substances. We then join one of the long queues, the one obviously for foreigners. There was another queue wending its way over from our left, full of Vietnamese, including a whole passle of young Montagnard girls, all dressed in their native dress of black skirt, white shirts, and emerald green waist band. Ahead of us is a whole gaggle of Koreans (I am guessing from North Korea) in white caps.

An interesting factoid. Did you know that there are over 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam, among which are the Hmong, the Muong, and the Mnong (try keeping those apart!). Okay another important fact. Guess how many people live in Vietnam? If you said 20 million you would be off by 65 million. Yep, do the math. 85 million. That is 19 million more than live in the UK. So the next time the words "small countries like Vietnam" start to roll off your tongue, stop them dead in their tracks. The coastline is also 3000 km long.
Another fact. There are three distinct regions: the North (Tonkin), the middle (Annam) and the South (Cochin). Or in Vietnamese Bac Bo, Trung Bo, and Nam Bo. And that in spite of unification the South and the North have been (and no doubt always will be), poles apart. Sound familiar? See Alabama vs. New York or Surrey vs. Tyneside. But I digress.
We joined the queue, standing in front of another group of short people. Oh. One other fact...
If you say a little country like Vietnam and you mean the people, you would be right. They must have a hell of a time fielding a basketball team.Toby (6'6") would have no chance in this country for beds, shoes, chairs etc.. Even I, at 6', have no problem seeing over everybody. But I digress again.
This particular group of litttle people were French, retirees from Champagne. We chatted along in french, mostly about world economic affairs. When they found out I was a banker; worse, a banker in derivatives; even worse, a banker in derivatives with a Spanish bank in London; there were a lot of tut tuts. Good natured mostly. We amused ourselves by watching the other queue with the Montagnards. Neither queue was moving. Eventually a guard/guide came up and started talking to us. He was a student in Economics and did this guard thing part-time. He was amiable enough, though for some reason I wouldn't have him over for dinner, if you know what I mean. After all, how many guards come up to chat to people in queues? Steens disagrees.
He explained the reason the queues weren't moving was because a minister from Sri Lanka was visiting. Sure enough, after a few minutes up whizzed a motorcade of Mercs and disgorged a group of Sri Lankan looking folk who were whisked off to the Mauso. Some of the guards who did this had splendid white uniforms, but there was I, sans camera, having already turned it in without its germstones.
After they went in, all of a sudden our guard signalled for us to proceed. We shuffled along to the Mauso, where there were signs with rules. No talking. No hand gestures. No culturedless manner(ie. no Millwall fans). No permet to people in unserious costume, whatever that was.
After ticking all of the above and passing muster, we went up some stairs and turned right into the chamber where Ho's body lies. A digression here about Ho and recent Vietnamese history (the last 50 years or so) is worthwhile.
First of all he is a legend. When I say that I mean that he is a giant of the 20th century, living proof that one man with intelligence, dedication, balls, ruthlessness, and stubbornness can achieve almost anything. He is also a legend in that most of his life is shrouded in mystery, although one thing is clear. This was one well-travelled dude. He was born in 1890. He died on 2nd September, 1969. That, coincidentally, is Vietnamese National Day, the day he read out the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in Ba Dinh Square to 500,000 people. The square is across the street from where his body now lies. For almost 30 years, 1911-1940, he lived outside, mostly in France, but also in Moscow, London, and Peking. He also travelled to the States to New York, where apparently he was awed and disgusted by skyscrapers. He had a variety of jobs, ship steward (don't get any ideas, John Prescott), pastry chef under Escoffier, journalist, spy. He also had a variety of pseudonyms. Ho Chi Minh, meaning He Who Enlightens, was his last. According to the guidebook, there was an apocryphal story about how Mae West (yes, that Mae West, she of the is-that-a-banana-in-your-pocket-or-are-you-glad-to-see-me fame) may have shared a fruit salad or two at the Carlton Hotel in London with a Vietnamese guy with slinky eyes (her words, not mine) named Ho something or another. In any case, this is what she intimated in an interview much later, though her grasp of world affairs was no doubt sketchy by then. True? Qui sait? Anyway, needless to say Ho was quite the operator and a charming man, and a vrai citoyen du monde....and ruthless to boot.
My French friend Thierry in Hong Kong disagreed violently, calling him une pourriture and un arriviste.
He arrived at Communism as a ideology after living in France, but basically he was a national liberator. The Declaration of Independence he read out had the following words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Sound familiar? He also read from the French declaration of the rights of man, and pointed out that the Vietnamese were being denied these most basic rights by the French administration. (For a lot more information, read John MacAlister's Vietnam, the Origins of a Revolution).
Ho in fact entreated Truman for direct help against fighting the Chinese after WWII. The who? A quick time line of Vietnamese history is instructive, because as they say in the courtroom, these facts are relevant to the case.
The most pertinent history was post-1945 because that was when he was in power. He had helped found the Viet Minh (the rebels who defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954), and who as a fighting force in the South were renamed the Viet Cong by the Americans.
Ho cultivated a persona to lead his people in what was a very perilous task (many of his predecessors had been summarily executed by the French), and he himself had been sentenced to death in absentia in 1930. To his people, he became Bac Ho, Uncle Ho. There were two posters we saw of him in the Mauso shop talking with young children. In both, he had a fag hanging out of his mouth. So not really a paternal type, in spite of the hype. Then again, those were the times.
Apparently there was some suggestion that he was married (in stark contrast to the party line of celibacy for the revolution) but the journalist who raised this possibility was summarily dismissed from her post.
When Bac Ho was turned down by Truman for support against the Chinese at the end of the war (rather dismissively, I seem to recall), he reluctantly acquiesced to having the French back in power (they had continued to administer Vietnam on behalf of the Japanese throughout the war, a Vichy relationship). He did this to lessen the chance that China would pursue its border incursion any further. Ho is reported to have said of this temporary rapprochement with his hated archenemy and erstwhile host: "Better to sniff French shit for a few years than eat China's for a lifetime." As I said: what a legend.
Anyway, he died in 1969 on 2nd September, and asked to be cremated. As this was at the height of US involvement, the new apparatchiks decided that a deity was required to rally the war weary people and so did not accede to his request. Instead, they prevailed upon the top Russian embalmer to come, equipped with a special refrigerated plane, and do his business. Apparently Bac Ho was one of this embalmer's master works, unlike Mao's corpse, for whom the Chinese refused Russian help, and whose body unfortunately began to rot.
They also constructed this massive great tomb, which we were about to enter.
We filed around silently, having more or less caught up with the Koreans in their white hats. The Mauso was chilled perfectly, in keeping with the (you guessed it) cold marble. Up the stairs we went into the room where his body lies in state, encased in glass. At each corner of the glass is a guard, visor down, ramrod straight, thousand yard stare. There are also guards shepherding the queue along. His body looks waxen (after 40 years, who wouldn't?) and about 1.5 times lifesize. Unnaturally so, but as I told Steens, this was probably due to the thick glass. You are allotted almost no time to examine things too closely however, and of couse there is no pointing (oh look! see how big he is!) or talking aloud. As we exit Steens starts to whisper something and we are quickly shusssssshed.
You come out the back of the Mauso, where you go down a path to the Governor's House, a beautiful ochre coloured building which was deemed too grand by Ho. On the way I picked up my camera , which was retrieved immediately.
HO lived in a small house on stilts next to a pond, guarded by another ramrod detachment, this time in the sparkling white uniform. When we reached the house, across the pond some Korean woman, a tourist, had squatted down to dip her hands in the water (who knows why?) and quickly receives an ass-blasting from the guards.
There is a sign for Ho's Used Cars. I make an offhand remark about how most politicians are like used-car salesman, and I am met by very disapproving glances by the tourists ahead of me, nationality unknown. After this I keep schtum. Once you exit the pond/house area, there are a series of gift shops, where some woman in a white cap (but not Korean) uses me to size up some minging T-shirts without saying a word. I misunderstand, thinking she is trying to sell me one, and sort of shoo her away, while pointing to one which is slightly less tacky. In the end, I buy a hat, useful for shielding the sun (if it ever comes) and in the meantime, against the drizzle which continues unabated. I throw in one for Tobes as well.
After the Mauso, our plan is to walk to the National Army Museum, supposedly with bits and bobs of destroyed US hardware. There is also a B-52 museum which is dedicated to showing off chunks of these invisible marauders (the bombs hit without ever seeing the planes, 17,000 feet up) which caused havoc during Operation Rolling Thunder, as the Bomb the North Campaign was called. This was not included, however, in our self made itinerary.

We find the museum after asking a series of soldiers/policemen in their bright green getup and talking to a Colombian woman who is equally lost. It turns out the Museum isn't very far at all, on Dien Bien Phu street (the generals are named after battles). Alas, the museum is closed for lunch (11:30-1:30) and all I can do is fire off a couple of snaps of a T-62 tank and the statues of Lenin across the street. It must be said that this whole miltaro-nationalistic thing all looks a bit out of puff, as if noone is really interested. Certainly not the youth (60% of the population was born after 1975). A group of teenagers are kicking a fooball around under Lenin's gaze,one of them sporting a ManU shirt with AIG on it. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Thwarted by the turn of events and in spite of the steady drizzle we decide to walk back to the hotel and then catch a cab to a restaurant named in Footprint on the other side of town.
A quick word about the streets (besides their size). They are mostly called Hang Something. They also can change names at intersections (eg. Hang Bong suddenly became Hang Dai, a popular street near our hotel.) It takes a while to get the Hang of it...yuk yuk. Yeah I know, crappy pun.
It is thus easy, especially in the Old Quarter, to get yourself turned around, especially when there is no sun to orient yourself. Thus, if you are learning pigeon Vietnamese, you should throw in the phrase: Where is my hotel? Shopkeepers are happy to help, if not all that accurate or helpful, if you catch my drift.
Suffice it to say that we took a few wrong turns, doubled back on ourselves, and came back to Hang Manh Street from the opposite side that I thought we would.
But we survived. No shots fired.
The restaurant we had chosen was in a hotel in the French Quarter (generals and colonels for roads) called the De Syloia. The resto is called Cay Cau. The hotel is a step up from ours, but Perhaps not as conveniently located. Something to save for next time.
The food was delectable. The obligatory spring rolls (nem or cha gio) with dipping sauce of lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, garlic and chili, wrapped in lettuce and basil and mint (and some random herbs I could not identify). These were thoughtfully presented with each roll skewered on a toothpick and stick into a small pineapple. Then fried soft shell crab and a hotpot of fish, clams, shrimp and whatnot. Mmmmmmmm. All this with an ice cold Hanoi beer. Need I say more.
We then made our way back to the hotel, and decamped after a slight zizz (you must remember if you fly out this way, you can count on spending at least two hours in the middle of the night contemplating your navel or ruminating about global warming or the world economic system or why there are no boxes of tissues in Vietnam and do we really need them anyway when bog rolls will do quite nicely thank you very much). Or otherwise put, jet lag. So quick zizzes are unavoidable.
We emerged into more drizzle (a fine mist really) to walk out on Hang Gai and do some shopping. Our friends Eve and Adrian in Hong Kong had come back with very few puchases from the South. In Hanoi this was certainly not the case. We found silk shops, lacquer ware, art shops, clthing (sport and otherwise), knapsacks (though the snap did break before leaving the country). We went into many art galleries (most utter shlock, it must be sai) but happened into one where we saw a oil painting covered with lacquer which I like and bought. The painting was commissioned by the owner who instructed the artist to paint something about Buddhism and the material world (according to his wife, who was minding the store). I saw it leaning up against a wall where, judging by the fine patina of dust, it not attracted much interest, or at least anyone willing to wipe off the dust. No matter. I happened along and was curious enough to ask what it meant. Steens didn't particularly like it, but for me somehow it resonated. The painting has a buddhist monk (dressed in red, colours of strength and warmth.) There are six parts to it. The monk is trapped by two vertical lines at either end, to which have been affixed old coins. These represents how we are all slaves of the material world, whether we like it or not. Next to the monk is a shattered group of fragments of what she said was the tortured soul, which is being called up to heaven by a kite. Another soul is making a journey, its fragments, gradually being pieced together into a whole. There is a drum and a baton, used by the monk to summon the soul, and a moon with a constellation.
I put down a deposit, not really sure if I was going to buy it, and asked for a hook to be put on the back and to have it cleaned. I also said I would like to see it before it was packed to be shipped.
That night I dreamed of the painting, and that sealed it for me. The next day when we went back, the woman was not there. Her niece was, and there the painting sat, wrapped and tied and gagged. Oops, I apologized, saying I had wanted to see it before it was packed. No problem, said the girl. Thus ensued an elaborate 30 minute interlude of unwrapping, checking (it was fine), and then lovingly repacking it up again. Everytime I said that is OK, she put on another layer of paper and tape, taking exquisite care with each step.
While this was happening, Steens was looking aroud the second floor, and came down saying she had spotted a painting she liked. This one was equally abstract, 3 round heads, one at an angle beneath a sun, all in earthy tones. After checking the price (minimal dickering) we agreed to buy this as well.
At this point, the owner's wife returned along with her husband. She asked if the painting was alright, and I told her that somehow it had resonated with me and pointed to my heart. She asked a little bit about ourselvs (where we were from, how long we had been married etc.) and when she saw the paintingSteens had chosen, she said: You know, they are both by the same artist (two of only a few in the store). This is why you have been together for so long.
What is art, if not touching each person's own heart for whatever inexplicable reason, and bringing people together? Who cares what it costs or where it came from?
We also walked around Hoan Kiem Lake, which is a central feature of Hanoi life. To the south of the lake is the French Quarter, which is the high rent district. To the Northwest is the Old Quarter, with its vocational streets and shopping and narrow streets. Then we went to a propoganda shop, where we bought a portrait of Ho made out of stamps (an incredible piece of work), and some silk screen prints of war posters for Tobes.
We had dinner in a small resto near the hotel. Acceptable, but not grand. We made the schoolboy error of ordering the uncooked rice paper spring rolls which we did not know already came with the set meal Steens had ordered. Nine huge spring rolls arrived, putting paid to any appetite. A real Texas eyes-bigger-than-stomach move, but our fault really.
An unfitting end to a supremely interesting day in the drizzle.
Go to Chapter 6

Monday, 13 April 2009

LETTER FROM VIETNAM Chapter 4

XIN CHAO VIETNAM Wednesday 4th March 2009 Click to return to Table of Contents We are poor planners. No, I would as far as to say we are not even planners. If we do have a sort of plan, it is more of a sketch, a few scratchings on a blank canvas that we will colour later. This is a great way to travel in the aesthetic sense but probably not all that great in the practical sense. Due to the extreme last minute-itis of our flight planning, we could not get the morning flight to Hanoi, and as such had some time to kill in HK and effectively lost a day. We meandered around the mall at Admiralty and then went to the airport to loiter with intent. After a series of culinary tossaways we opted for a safe tonkatsu at a ramen place, which was a good choice. After Steens left to wander around, I wrote, my thoughts interrupted by some Olympic slurping going on at the next table. I looked over at a hefty Chinese guy attacking his ramen. Slurp. Slurp. Smack. Smack. I briefly made eye contact and then averted my gaze. He looked at his girlfriend, said something, and I swear he upped the tempo and the volume for my benefit. You sir, gweilo, are playing away from home. Get used to it. Fair enough. At this vast airport, there are relatively few gweilos around. Could be credit crunch, I don't know, but I doubt it. I think it is more a matter of the sheer scale of the region. There are not only less gweilos, there are more Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Indonesians. The joint is still jumping. If in Western minds Asia used to be a backwater, the water is now flowing back....in goods, money, and activity. The source of the fire hose is now in the East, methinks. And amongst Asians, there is no reverence or even respect for the former top dogs, the Japanese. I think the Olympics may have been the catalyst, but the real water turbine now seems to be China. However, everyone in the region is in on the act. Our plane, Vietnam Airlines, is the only small sized (Airbus A320) in sight. Everything else is on a bigger scale. And of course no Boeings for this airline. This is after all, Vietnam we are going to. We arrive in Hanoi after a two hour flight, and if truth be known, I find myself back in Korea circa 1982. There is no kimchi smell, but under grey leaden skies everything is in the bit drab department. You know, flourescent lights, dirty marble floors, aluminium fixtures, bathrooms that don't quite work as advertised. There is none of the animosity or officiousness that for some reason I expected. The police/army (I could never figure out which was which) wear bright green uniforms that look more in place in some school play. Nothing quite fits. If it is tailored, it is tailoring by the blind. The hats are those Soviet style with the peak just ever so slightly too large. However, instead of being worn down over the face, which would give them an imposing authoritarian look, they are worn back, at a jaunty angle, which rob them of the intimidation factor. I have to keep reminding myself that we are in a communist country and a former arch enemy. However, increasingly as I meet more and more people and find out more about the country, I wonder to myself what the hell the US was playing at and what a monumental amount of lives, time, money and goodwill were squandered. I am reminded of Muhammed Ali's comment when he went to jail for refusing to serve: "I ain't got nothing against them little yellow people." Ditto that remark. In fact, when you see what they had to work with, the hardships people suffered ( and still suffer) and how after 80 years of struggle against the French, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Americans, the Cambodians (who haven't they fought?), they retain a very friendly manner. And this in the face of a life which is very difficult, make no mistake about it.

The North is an industrial wasteland which was bombed to smithereens, if not into submission, by the Americans during the war (more tonnage than WWII, 700 times the kilotonnage of Hiroshima). The war ended in 1975, and Nixon's last act before signing the Paris Peace Accord in 1973 was to throw in 2-3 weeks of intensive bombing just for good measure. Improve the negotiating stance and all that. The industrial base in the traditional sense was thus more or less destroyed. To keep on going, production had to be decentralised. Thus the normal things you would expect to see (factories near the port in industrial zones, infrastructure geared towards commerce, heavy goods vehicles and roads purpose built for them) are not there in size. (I say this, but you could see massive factories for Canon, and more to the point, for Yamaha and Suzuki.)

This lack of infrastructure, along with the fact that after the Americans left in 1975 the Vietnamese embarked upon another ten year military adventure from 1979-1989 in Cambodia (you can see posters for the "brotherhood" between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea) took a lot out of the country. The good news is that the Vietnamese booted out the Khmer Rouge, #1 on the hit list of the world's most brutal and disastrous regimes ever.

After ten years of their own imperialist venture, the Vietnamese left. What was important, however, is that all of these distractions: wars, reunification with the South, being a pariah state with limited trade with the some of the West, reliance on the Soviet Union as a pal and mentor, the exodus of the boat people, the imposition of a communist overlay on the capitalist and corrupt South--all of these diverted investment away from development and meant that the Vietnamese gave themselves quite a mountain to climb when the rest of the region-Korea, China et al. were going nuts on development. Everyone, it seems, had a head start on Vietnam.

So there is a very good reason why Hanoi is like it is, a slightly behind the times city en voie du developpement. So was this any reason not to like the place? Hell no, is the answer I came up with after three days there. And why? Because of the people, and that's why. And I don't mean the people we met, although there were a few worth mentioning. I mean the general attitude of how they seemed to make the place work. Let us start with the traffic, which is mind blowing. We had one taxi driver (of only a few, since we walked most places) but really the only one who had enough of a command of English to answer questions. He said that there are about 7 million people in Hanoi, and that there are 4 million motorcycles. You read that right: 4 million. This helps explain the aforementioned Yamaha and Suzuki factories. What you can't probably imagine, however, is how that translates into reality. At certain times of the day, I am willing to be, all 4 million are on the road. And the streets are not that wide. Some wisacre should do a time and motion study of this daily choreography, because somehow there seemed to be relatively few traffic jams, and at least as far as we could see in the limited time there, not too many accidents given the circumstances. The first question upon witnessing this daily moving mob scene is How?

Let's go back to the people. In stark contrast to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, or HCMC for short), there seemed to be very few hotrodders, and no hotheads. Everyone was willing to roll along at a modest speed to keep the whole thing turning over. Stoplights were only a general guide, not a steadfast rule. The same could be said for the little green men lights at pedestrian crossings. I don't know what the admonition is that Hanoi mothers give their children before crossing the road, but I am willing to bet it is NOT: Look Both Ways. Looking both ways while crossing the street in Hanoi will most likely get you run over, if not killed only because the motos are going 10mph. It is more likely to be: Look all around...Start...No hasty movements...Keep dodging. If the Spanish were to look outside their country for potential bullfighters, Hanoi is not a bad place to start. Your typical Hanoi resident is adept at the sidestep-before-disaster manoeuvre almost everytime he/she crosses the street. The only thing missing is the cape, the flourish, and the Ole! Steens cottoned on to the technique almost immediately, and I invariable saw her already on the other side of the road while I was still crabwalking across. It took me a while to be able to go with the flow, and not to tense up like a deer caught in the headlights. The motorcycle and the bicycle in Hanoi are the equivalent of a Wild West cowboy's trusty steed. In other words, they are indispensable. I saw innumerable examples of documentary proof, but unfortunately was not quick enough on the trigger to get them captured on film. One fellow had two very large bundles of plastic pipes (20 feet long) balanced on either side of his cycle. I thought of a knight in a jousting tournament, and what effect these poles might have on pedestrians (or cars or other motos) should things get out of hand. OSHA? You must be joking. I saw several examples of women riding side saddle, legs crossed and high heeled shoes protruding. No points for safety or originality, but plenty of points for style. A duo in Hanoi (two women) won the style points with both driver and passenger dressed to the nines amidst the mist and the mud. They were both smiling. A girl in Saigon behind her boyfriend (see picture) did not look too happy about the whole thing, but it was eight in the morning. In Ho Chi Minh City I also saw a gentleman taking his afternoon siesta, perched on his bike with his head hanging off the back against a wall. We also saw a girl doing her homework as her father ferried her to school. Riding double, triple, or even quadruple was not such a strange sight either. Whole families, with baby on the front, was also the norm. Why buy a pram when you can use your moto? Anyway, strolling along the sidewalks is not really any easier with broken pavements or people littered about. Ah the sidewalks (or pavements or trottoirs, if you wish). In the West, these are places for people to promenade, do a bit of window shopping, or more likely , just to get from A to B. In Hanoi, the pavement is a combination salon, workshop, parking lot, kitchen and dining room, and junkyard. Shops do not stop at their front door; they continue anon and spill out into the street. Walking along you constantly have to be on the lookout for bodies, objects, broken paving stones, mud, impromptu meals. The street food is prepared in front of your eyes. The vendor sets up a little mobile kitchen (I watched a woman preparing an omelette at the behest of a shopgirl). There are also little mini moving restaurants, with four or five people squatting on their haunches or perched , at Steens said, on Mrs. Gales's nursery chairs (Mrs. Gales was our son's nursery teacher.) Even if we felt like it, which given the fact that it was wet and muddy and generally did not smell too fragrant or look too hygenic, we would have a hell of a time eating at one of those portable restaurants. On a sunny day, perhaps, or if we knew where there was a good chiropractor. As street theatre, however, walking around the pavements of the Old Quarter is extremely interesting, if not relaxing. Xin Chao, Vietnam. Can't wait to get stuck in. Go to Chapter 5 Click to return to Table of Contents

Sunday, 12 April 2009

LETTER FROM VIETNAM Chapter 3

MAULED IN HONG KONG Tuesday 3rd March 2009 Click to return to Table of Contents We move east, wandering to Central after a spectacularly mediocre breakfast at the hotel. The old Hong Kong catered to gwei lo tastes, as far as hotels were concerned, or at least that is my recollection. I used to get coffee and croissants at the Excelsior, for instance, which would rival any hotel in Europe (though perhaps not Paris). This hotel, missnamed the Cosmopolitan, is in the old Xin Hua news agency building and is located near the old AIU building which had coffin shaped windows and thus horrible feng shui and no Chinese wanted to work in it. Perhaps some of the bad feng shui rubbed off. The Cosmopolitan caters to the less discerning Asian clientele, and was no doubt designed by a chef who must have a vague recollection of what he ate elsewhere, (a bedsit in Doncaster, I am thinking) and not necessarily for breakfast. The buffet is some Hunter Thompson on acid or perhaps an impoverished student-who-just-can't be-arsed spread. Chef Boyardee (ie. tinned) spaghetti, baked beans, three type of ersatz bread, congee, boiled ham, tinned Delmonte cocktail fruit, fake orange juice, bologna in various shades of faded glory. A healthy and nutritious breakfast? I don't think so. Only the mealy watermelon added as an afterthought seemed fresh, which is a relative word. In my mind I tried to dream up a three line haiku for what was on offer. The best I could come up was: Easy Greasy Queasy. Oh! Comprende? Thus began a day of indifferent culinary experiences. We did go for lunch with an old friend from London who is now in HK at a spectacularly modern cool (and expensive) Japanese fusion restaurant called Zuma in the Landmark Centre. The interior, all beige stone (granite perhaps?) and wood, was ubercool, in Eurospeak. You could live in the bathroom with minimal fuss. I had a starter of crispy spiced tofu with miniscule bits of avocado and a spectacular mix of shiso leaves, baby watercress, and lettuce with a mighty tasty sesame/lime dressing. Everything else was less spectactular (considering the price) but at least banished the memory of the breakfast. After wandering through Central, where we perused through some stores (look, don't buy...thought I would never say that about Hong Kong) and amused ourselves with some products. For instance, when we used to live there there was a Chinese toothpaste called Darkie. Deservedly, it attracted the unfavourable attention of the world's media. The old tube had a picture of a black minstrel. Got a problem with that? said the Chinese. We will change a letter. The result is to the side. Same church, different pew, but as people who were exploited by the West in the Opium trade and who got jilted out of a long lease, I guess their attitudes about people's sensibilities are different. Or is it just the money? Anyway, while I was snapping a picture of this, I was approached by a guard who said: No pictures. I can assure you, this would NEVER have happened in pre-1997 Hong Kong. We then went up to the Peak on the tram, which used to involve (oddly enough) buying a ticket, getting on the tram, and then getting off at the Peak. The train used to be what it was designed by its Swiss constructors to be, a spectacular engineering effort to transport the wealthy mandarins and their servants up to mid-levels and the Peak. Now it is a way of fleecing tourists to relieve them of what money they have left over from paying exorbitant prices in Central for high quality goods by transporting up to the Mall formerly known as the Peak to pay exorbitant prices for assorted tourist crap. To wit. On the way into the tram you stand in a queue (in case you don't understand what a queue is, there have been barriers erected to help you figure that out). At one point in the winding journey they snap your photo. Before buying your tram ticket, for after all it IS a tram, they try to sell you a ticket to Madame Tussaud's. Standing off to the side to help you make up your mind is a lifelike (of course) statue of Jackie Chan. All of the other pictures of stars were completely unknown to me, should for some reason I have had the inclination to go. Eventually as you emerge from this gauntlet of hucksterism, you are again accosted to buy the photo you have just NOT requested to have taken, or perhaps requested NOT to have taken. Either way. Doesn't matter. They still have their hand halfway in your pocket. The ride itself is very impressive, ascending at an angle which makes one marvel at the sheer ingenuity of the constructors (Swiss, as I said, but I will repeat it just to make you feel safe on your next trip there). On the way you pass various apartment buildings built into the steep slope, again proof of man's ability to overcome any obstacle, or perhaps sheer folly. Like most engineering feats, you can only gawp. The passengers, mostly young Chinese, are not gawping. They are snapping. One of the adjuncts of the digital age is the sea of miniature screens one sees seemly suspended in air as everyone uses phones, cameras, or video to record events for posterity. At the top, everything is shrouded in mist. There is basically nothing to snap, unless you count the dragons, actors in costume, and hawkers, who are most happy to oblige...for a price. The Peak, which in colonial days was the preferred residence of the hongs and high ranking expats or government officials, has now gone Disney on us. The world, I guess, has become a theme park. Our theme was to return to the hotel, which we did forthwith. That evening we went to visit Sophie Labarre in Stanley Bay. He husband Thierry, in shipping, was away on business in China. They are old Asia hands and have lived in Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan (like us) with a prolonged stint in Casablanca, where we visited them. Sophie lives in one of those aforementioned banks of 1000 apartments. High end, but just plain massive. On the site used to be the Repulse Bay Hotel (I believe in any case...it was dark and my memory could have slipped). The old Hotel was one of the bastions of the colonial past, unceremoniously ripped down to build this upscale anthill. Gone. Gone. Gone. In its place is this teeming concrete monstrosity, a monument to excess. Excess people. Excess money. Even the excess of excess. There is a big round building next door, emblazoned with Hong Kong's latest wheeze, multicoloured exterior lights. In Wanchai, there is even a building which changes colours every few seconds, sort of an industrialised neighbour-from-hell Christmas light show that is at best, noticeable. At worst, it is very annoying. (See above) The Repulse Bay building was built by this very eccentric billionaire lady whose favourite colour was pink (luckily not included in the light show). She died amidst "complications," leaving behind a tangled estate. The big building lies empty, but the light show goes on. Upon exiting the apartment complex, there is a Maybach showroom, with a single car in it. The $8mln car. There were, amazingly enough, no arms and legs stacked up like cordwood in the foyer, but you get the idea. It screams out MONEY. I wondered who, if any of the thousand people in this "exclusive" luxury development would splash out for this bejewelled lump of metal. Why not just move to someplace nice in the country? Any country. We take Sophie to the Red Pepper on Lam Fong Road, which used to be one of my favourite restaurants. It has survived the mauling (malling) of Hong Kong. Its food, sadly, has not. Two clues should have alerted me to going back there after such a spell. The first was the surprised reaction of both Sophie and Eve and Adrian when we said we were going there, along with Sophie's assertion that "ça fait longtemps depuis qu'on est allé là". The second was the pictures of dishes in plastic outside the restaurant. Okay, so it used to be an expat hangout, but at least it was a good expat hangout. Now it is some watered down Szechuan style food undistinguishable from any second rate Chinese wannabe anywhere in the West. Oh well, so much for tacking against Thomas Wolfe's dictum. You really can't go home again, even if it was only a home on borrowed time, like Hong Kong under the British. Go to Chapter 4

Sunday, 5 April 2009

LETTER FROM VIETNAM Chapter 2

OLD HAUNTS Monday 2nd March 2009 Click to return to Table of Contents We decide the first thing we will do after breakfast is to go to our old flat on Tai Hang Road (Dai Hang Doh Yat bahk ng sahp sei ho- 154 in Cantonese). The taxi driver instructions I learned that first week so long ago still apply. Jihk heui-(straight ahead), jyun joh (turn left); jyun yau (turn right) and ni doh! (here!...stop is understood). We pass familiar sights and street names with their Cantonese equivalent (Stubbs Road=> Stubs see doh etc.). We head for Wong Nei Chung Gap Road which cuts through the mountains to the other side of the island and which abuts onto Tai Hang Road. Far above us are lots of new buildings. I notice two types: either needlelike very tall ones which could only have one flat per floor, or walls of flats in these behemoth developments which cover whole swathes of the hillside. Both evoke the same response: Who would want to live there? The former because frankly they look like one typhoon away from tipping over, and the latter because they look the modern day equivalent of an anthill. But this in Hong Kong and rule number one of Hong Kong is and has alway been: normal rules do not apply. Don't like the mountain? We'll move it. Feel like the harbour is too wide or we might need some more land? Dump the mountain in the water. Crudely put, this is exactly what they have done. We finally arrive at our old apartment block, which miraculously has survived intact. It is an old concrete and stucco 8 story featureless building. It sits between 152 and 156 overlooking the Hong Kong football stadium (where they hold the Rugby Sevens) far below. 152, which used to be Lincoln Court (or was it Peace Mansions?) has been razed and replaced by a 30 story Gulliver called (grandly enough) The Colonnade. The new building is all grey polished stone and steel and glass, in marked contrast to the rendered concrete of our old home. We snap a few photos (especially of the rear balcony, the site of a near attempt by me to clamber across the rear to our balcony, having been locked out of the apartment (on purpose) by Steens in my underwear whilst emptying the garbage. This was punishment for extreme sloth at one of our early dinner parties. Great moments in newlywed history. I would have been nuts to attempt it, but hey, what price common sense when you are 25 and pissed off. We have a good chuckle over it now. We then walk down the road (on one of the world's narrowest pavements) where Steen used to have to carry shopping back from Dairy Farm dodging mini and regular sized buses who took absolutely no notice of pedestrians. Dairy Farm no longer exists either, having been supplanted by a very upscale money drainer call The Marketplace, by Jason. No doubt the name was supplied by the same mind which dreamed up The Colonnade. This emporium has everything but at a price. Whoever Jason is (does he actually exist? je m'en doute), he is no doubt doing very well. We decide to take the minibus (or Light Bus, as they are called) down to Causeway Bay. We have three false starts. The first because we have no change and the driver doesn't take bills. This is rectified at an nearby petrol station. The second because we neglect to look at the front when we get into it, and realise only when it starts heading up the mountain that it was going to Jardine's Lookout, where we had to disembark (you yell yau lohk!) and walk back down to where we first were. Third time lucky took us down to Lam Fong Road, where we could make reservations at our destination for dinner the next evening at The Red Pepper. The whole area used to be a rabbit warren of small shops where I could buy a faux Lacoste tennis shirt for $1.5. Now there is Luis Vuitoon et al. Oh well. The same can be said for our attempt to see my old office across the street from the Excelsior Hotel. The World Trade Centre used to look over the Yacht Club and the Harbour and the junks and fishing boats in the Causeway Bay where if you were particularly adventurous you could have seafood taken directly from the harbour cooked on the boats (that seafood which had dodged the raw sewage and the plastic bags, that is). Now it overlooks a freeway. The harbour is 100 yards away. Having given up on reliving the past we were walking down the alley between the two buildings when a workman shooed us away and pointed up. There dangling from a crane about 20 stories up was a whole bundle of the everpresent bamboo scaffolding which the construction daredevils use to build these buildings, of course only loosely secured. One of those bamboo poles would make a pretty good human satay stick dropped from that height. We got his point and hurried past hugging the opposite wall. In any case everything was either built up, being built up, or in the process of being torn down to build something else up. I kept on wondering why. The original purpose of trying to cram so many people onto Hong Kong island, which let's face it is a rock with pretty steep sides, was because it was British and there was really nowhere else to go. Now the whole thing belongs to China, which though crowded still has an enormous emount of land. I don't get it. Maybe the contraction of the world economy will slow down this process, but I kind of doubt it. The Hong Kong Chinese version of the Yorkshireman's saw where there's muck there's brass has got to be where there's sky there's brass. And the sky seems to be the limit. The credit crunch has had one effect on a key point of Hong Kong life: shipping. The harbour used to be like a freeway of varied sized boats moving back and forth. Now the strait between Pokfulam and Lantau Island to the west is like a big ship parking lot, with empty container ships waiting forlornly like whores on a slow night in Wanchai. Steve Marzo said that the big problem was where to put all the empty containers, which normally would be out on the high seas full of Chinese goods heading to Europe or the States. One suggestion was to use Kai Tak , the old airport. Now THAT would be ironic. We continued our lazy perambulation through Wanchai, our languid pace becoming quite hurried when we realised we had to meet Eve Yang at the Hopewell Centre, a round building which used to stick out but now is lost in the shuffle of skyscrapers vying for space. She was going to show us some furniture shops on Queen's Road East. We arrived with no time to spare, and we sampled a few stores before finding exactly what we were looking for, some minimalist rosewood chairs. Most of the furniture they make in Hong Kong, especially the rosewood and other heavy woods, have, as a upscale Bostonian real estate man once told us, "good bones", if you get them to make them without all the Chinese googaws which look out of place in a Western context. Having made our choice, we adjourned for dim sum, which though delicious, had deletorious effects on Steens. This first day's activity confirmed two facts about Hong Kong. Firstly, due to sterling's newfound status as a toilet currency, there are precious little bargains to be had. Secondly, the little merchants where one could haggle have since given way to large multi-storey flash malls with homogenous prices (all of them high) and brought to mind three words. Overhead. Overhead. Overhead. So no bargains then. This is confirmed when we go to price up a video and find (shock! horror!) that it is 1.5x the price in the UK. Nevermind. One impulse well and truly buried. That night we go to a Chinese hotpot restaurant in Wanchai, conveniently near some whorehouses and in the same building as a sauna/massage (ie. whorehouse). The word for hotpot is Da Bin Lo. This is better remembered by the mnemoic DA (that's me, Toby's Da), BIN (as in we have BEEN to the Hotpot restaurant) and LO (as in LOW, which is what both Steens and Adrian felt the next day). Amongst the many variants of raw materials we dropped into the two broths (the same pot, separated in the the middle...see picture) was fish maw (when asked to explain, Adrian says fish guts) and some random shrimp stuff squeezed out of a makeshift tube (also in picture) into the boiling water which, when cooked, resembled (not to put too fine a point on it), a miniature but very long tiny whiteish turd. Enough about that dinner then. I actually enjoyed it, though perhaps the next time I will have no maw of the fish maw, if you catch my drift. Go to Chapter 3