Sunday, 17 May 2009



Friday 17th March 2009 

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Mui Ne, the beach where we stayed, is one of the kite surfing meccas of the world. Perhaps I should have said one of the meccas of the Russian kitesurfing world.

Attracted by a brisk wind which comes out of the northeast every afternoon, the deserted beach that the Coco Beach people ventured onto in 1995 is now overrun with hotels catering mostly to kite surfers and package tours from rodina, the Motherland. Check out for those who read Cyrillic.

  These kitesurfers, either the small muscular Vietnamese instructors or their big Russki counterparts, are phenomenal athletes, their shenanigans skipping over the waves a constant source of wonder and amazement every afternoon.

I could never quite figure out how the hell they managed to make the things work, an intricate ballet of jumps, twists, flips, complete reversals of direction, straight speed runs in thirty knot mini-gales, and recoveries.

 One of the interesting things about wipeouts was that unlike with normal surfers, where the board (unless attached) gets washed to shore, with kitesurfing in most cases, the kite keeps on flying like an obedient dog above its fallen master.

In order to get back up, the kite surfer has to make the kite dip down close to the surface in order to generate the leverage to pull him back up, like a water-skier behind a speedboat.

You have to see it to believe it.

I watched in fascination, but their antics were about as close to my capabilities (or indeed comprehension) as Pavarotti is to a shower singer.

But I could dream, and it was fun watching.

 Steens and I love to stroll on the beach, and Mui Ne is tailor-made for this. Every morning I got up before sunrise, took my camera, and hurried out.

 There is a different crowd in action at that hour.

This is true in cities, where dawn is the domain of the deliverer, the newsagent, and the coffee purveyor.

On the beach, there are the rakers (smoothing the sand for the hotel), the fishermen (each day yielding me a different catch for snapping sunrises-different boats, different light, same sun), the clammers (old women who burrowed along painstakingly for meager rewards, squatting down in their conical hats, scraping a trail like a mole up the beach), and then folk like me (not many of us , it must be said), an odd assortment of photo snappers, tai chi practitioners, or before breakfast strollers.

 The quiet, the anticipation of the sunrise as the flat light gradually deepened in colour and hue, and the indescribable feeling of well being that somehow you are ahead of the crowd; all make up for those first few moments of doubt when you pass from slumber to semi-consciousness.

Eminently worth it, for me in any case.

 Mui Ne has an entirely different (and perhaps much more unsavoury) body count of creatures on the beach.

To wit: a huge rat, a dead dog, a chicken and random unidentifiable sea creatures.

The first, perhaps a bit shocking, made it clear that this was not your average antiseptic worked-over tourist destination (in spite of our hotel's sand rakers, who were, it must be said, the only ones on a 6km long beach.) This beach was a slice of real life, a source of income for various types of people, The detritus was just an inevitable accompaniment to life in a hot, poor country, the rodents included.

Amazingly, it did not detract from the beauty or our enjoyment. You can easily dodge a dead rat. It is less easy, if not impossible, to dodge the Russkis, however.

 They were everywhere. Of course one should not generalise, but just as you can rightly extrapolate from going to Disneyworld or having a supersize meal at Mickey D's that there are too many fat Americans, there are two words which can pretty much sum up Russkis on a beach: peroxide and paunch.

The former describes the majority of the women, who do not mind the obvious contrast between the roots and the hay on their heads; and the men, who use their protruding bellies as shade for their members which are prominently displayed in too-much-detail speedos.

Lovely. I asked Steens to come up with words starting with S to describe this assemblage, and this is what (under duress, it must be said) together we came up with on one of our strolls. Sullen, Sour, Stolid, Soviet, Stolichnaya.

 I studied Russian at university for one year, and Steens studied it in more detail at uni and indeed spent some time in Kiev, but perhaps I should stick my hand up and come clean on some prejudices.

My grandmother was Anglo-Russian from St, Petersburg and they stole all the family money.

And Steens is Polish, the the Russkis imprisoned her family in Archangel during the short-lived Molotov-Ribbentrop love fest.

So we have prior. However, I still stand by the five Ss.

We also had some interesting encounters.

One night Dung approached me at dinner and said: "You speak Russian, don't you?"

Having heard me speak French and Spanish and take more than a passing interest in Vietnamese, I suppose she though anything was possible.

 "Well, I studied it in college."

This was good enough for her.

 "These people won't speak English," she said dismissively.

"They are rude to me," she added.

 I went over and there was a young couple (20 somethings). He had a teapot which he had taken the lid off and which had 3-4 teabags hanging out of it. Пожалуйста простите. Я изучал русский в университете. Я говорю немного русский. Что вы хотите?

 No shit. This is really what I said.

Please excuse me. I studied Russian at university. I speak a little Russian. What do you want?

The husband/boyfriend stared at me with the look that one reserves for discovering dogpoop on your shoes, and launched into a tirade in rapid fire Russian.

The finer details were beyond my elementary Russian, but I caught the gist.

Мы приказал чая без Пакети. We ordered tea without the bags. Byez pakety.

 This was clearly some sort of major transgression, and the bags offended them both.

What a trumped-up asshole, I thought to myself. I nodded and said: я понимаю. I understand, and whisked away the teapot.

 I walked over to the waitresses' station where Dung stood.

 "The guy doesn't like teabags," I said, making a signal to take them out of the pot and return the pot to him. I winked, and repeated my thought out loud for her benefit.

 "What an asshole."

 Byez Pakety, indeed.

I also rented a bike for ($2 for two days) and pedalled 6km up the coast to the village of Mui Ne at the end of the Mui Ne beach (kind of putting the cart before the to Mui Ne.....not yet.)

On the way I saw the famous red dunes, which looked dunes.

I then stood on the promontory overlooking the village and the fleet at anchor in the harbour.

My solitude was enlivened by a minibus of Russians who descended, fired off a few volleys (snapshots, not guns), and then departed.

One of the photos was of a peroxided middle aged women posed seductively in front of a palm tree.

They were friendly enough (at least she was....she offered to take a pic of me in front of said tree).

 I thought to myself how similar the Russkis were to the American tourists, only more arrogant towards the local people.

That attitude always pisses me off.

It is so unnecessary.

On the way back I passed by a village on the outskirts of Mui Ne and caught an overwhelming whiff of the pungent fish sauce, which no doubt would peel paint.

I got off my bike in front of a small factory (by small I mean mini, larger than a corner store) which manufactures the stuff.

I asked the owner (hand gestures) if I could snap some photos of the process, to which he agreed, so I did.

This was a cottage industry not unlike winemaking, only subsituting rotten shrimp for the grapes.

There were progressively smaller vats for crushing, fermenting, filtering, blending, bottling, capping, and packaging. Amazing that the whole thing was done on such a small scale. I thought of the contest between production here and say in a La Choy soy sauce factory. Everything destined for the Western markets is based on economies of scale. Here they are producing the same cheap goods but in relativley minor quantities and no doubt not making all that much. And did I say working their asses off to do it. It was fascinating to watch though.

The fish sauce example helps explain how a country of 85 million hardworking people has a relatively small GDP.

Capitalism is about large scale production, distribution, and consumption.

That is why Walmart sells Chinese goods to Americans. Big stores, big highways, big trucks, big people.

Transporting plastic pipes on motorbikes, or hand crafting basket fishing boats, or distilling a few hundred bottles of fish sauce at a time are not going to cut on the world stage.

A system where a seven year old has to work in a factory in order for the family to survive is harsh, and surely not right.

However, cheap labour is an advantage in attracting industry and tourists as well, and gradually development happens.

 You can't escape economics.

It is what drives us all, just like the painting of the Buddhist and the fractured soul trapped between the lines of the material world.

We may want to live in the world of the spirit, the heart, and the ties of love which bind us all, but we have to deal with the harsh realities of earning a crust.

 And you could do a lot worse by observing the people on or around the beach at Mui Ne to see a microcosm of economic life: the fishermen, the beach workers (clam diggers, trinket hawkers), the tourist workers (beach rakers, waitresses, pool boys, masseuses, chambermaids, kite surfing instructors) and the consumers (big fat Russians attracted by the South China Sea and sun instead of the Black Sea), backpackers attracted by cheap prices, and folk like me.

Beneath this moving theatre of people are two economic systems moving in uneasy tandem with each other, one reluctantly dependent upon the other.

On the one hand you have tourists thinking not in Dong, but in dollars or roubles, and remarking on how a massage seems impossibly cheap compared to the £45 pounds you would have to pay in London.

On the flip side are the Vietnamese, for whom the Dong is impossibly high and who have to work their butts off in order to maintain a subsistence level.

There is such a divide between the two systems that in the near term it is unbridgeable in economic terms.

 In human terms, there is much less of a divide.

As I was standing early in the morning in the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, having passed at dawn through already crowded streets, I chatted with the girl at the check out counter.

The modern airport ( in stark contrast to Hanoi's) was deserted.

 "So how do you get to work?" I asked her.

 "I come on my scooter."

 "Oh yeah? How long does that take?"

I was mindful of the five mile long rugger scrum of motorbikes we had just come through once we got anywhere near HCMC.

 "Oh, not that long," she said.

 "Really? What about the traffic jams?"

 She shrugged. "Oh, there are times when the traffic is not so bad."

 Her colleague next to her, eavesdropping on our exchange, started to snigger.

 "Oh yeah?" I asked. "When would that be?"

 She laughed. "At midnight......for about five minutes."

 Chuckles all around.

 So let me return to my original impression of Vietnam.

It is a land of the easy smile, a land where the people you meet will make you want to come back, and will replace the prejudices or confused images in your brain with pleasant memories and a smile of your own.

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Tuesday, 12 May 2009



Monday 11th March 2009 

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Unfortunately, for much of the Western world, Vietnam is not a country but a war.

The level of interest or knowledge of this country is appallingly poor, limited to impressions garnered from films such as the Deer Hunter or Apocalypse Now or even Rambo, from stereotypical visions of Vietcong crawling around in tunnels or a napalmed girl running naked beside a rice paddy, or peasants in conical hats or an execution at point blank range.

 Possibly one reason why these images persist is because they are allowed to persist on both sides.

You can tour the tunnels (we didn't), you can see the vestiges of war in museums, you can see water buffalo in the streets, and of course there are still conical hats.

You can meet, as we did, individuals who can dispel these stereotypes, but you can also approach this question from the other end of the spectrum...coldly, analytically, dispassionately, just by studying the statistics for the country (provided by The Economist in its 2009 Pocket World In Figures), and comparing them to the country with which you are most familiar (in this case the UK).

 Of course, there are, as Disraeli said, lies, damned lies, and statistics, but if you combine this top down view with what you have seen you can learn some surprising facts which can perhaps change your preconceptions and make sense of the place.

  First, start with the size, the physical size or geography of the country. Score one to Vietnam.

It has 331,114 sq. km, whereas the UK has 242,532 sq km.

Vietnam is 36% larger in land mass than the UK but has marginally less arable land (21% to 24%).

The UK is of course an island running 990km from Land's End to John O'Groats as the crow flies, whereas Vietnam is long and thin, a whip cracked by China to the South and wrapped around Laos and Cambodia and bounded on the East by the South China Sea.

You wonder why the US bombed Laos and Cambodia?

Well, they had to if they wanted to stop the flow of goods down the Ho Chi Minh trail from the North, because there was no way that the North Vietnamese could pass through the choke points of such a narrow country and were obliged to do an end run through neighbouring countries.

 Next, the people.

 As I mentioned, Vietnam has 85mln people to the UK's 60 (59.8 actually).

What is interesting is that this gap is growing. Population in Vietnam is growing at 1.2% per year, the UK only .41%.

Despite being crammed on an island, the population density in the UK is marginally less than Vietnam (246.6 per sq km in the UK to 257.7 in Vietnam).

Compare this with the two most populous countries in the world- India and China, with 340.6 and 138.4, respectively.

Though neither country figures in the top 60 in terms of size, they are the 12th largest (Vietnam), and the 21st largest (the UK) in terms of population.

 Vietnam has the 7th largest refugee population in the world (ie. people who have left and reside overseas). 374,000.

By the way, the two countries with the biggest number of refugees residing in their country are Pakistan and Iran (mostly Afghans) which explains a lot of things.

 In terms of the composition of the population, Vietnam is split down the middle: 100 men to 100 women.

The UK runs a men deficit of 96/100.

In both countries, women outlive men; in Vietnam 76.2 years to 72.3 years; in the UK 81.6 years to 77.2 years.

Not surprisingly due to the 30 years of war, there are very few old people in Vietnam (7.6% of the population over 60) as compared to the UK (21.2% over 60).

 Even more striking is how young Vietnam is, with 29.6% of the population under 15 (and they have no recollection of any war).

In the UK youth under 15 make up only 18% of the population.

 Japan is an even more demographically old country, with only 13% under 15 and 26.5% over 60.

 The preponderance of youth helps explain the dynamism of the country.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that where there are more young people, there is more energy.

 In the UK 89.1% of the population live in urban centres.

In Vietnam only 26.7%.

Farmers predominate.

In Vietnam, 58% of the population work in agriculture.

In the UK, the figure is 1%.

That's right. 1%.

 A breakdown of what the rest of the people do is instructive.

 Vietnam is still a place where people make stuff, or grow stuff.

After agriculture, 29% work in industry and only 17% in Services.

In the UK, most people just do stuff. 77% of them, in fact.

What kind of stuff? I don't know, just stuff. Services, you know.

Mostly without the service.

 You get paid a lot more for just doing stuff than you do for making stuff.

Does it improve the world?

I don't know, but I suppose if the UK is what a post-industrial economy looks like, then sooner or later most countries will head in that direction.

At least that is what they aspire to.

 Do stuff, and then pay others to do the real work.

As for feeding the people who do stuff, there are not a lot of people working as farmers in the UK.

It is one of life's great ironies that in a post-industrial economy less people are now required to feed the gobs of the people who sit down and do stuff and make them fatter and fatter.

Yet another proof of the law of unintended consequences.

 There are not currently a lot of fat Vietnamese (see low incomes, diet, and having to work hard) but there will be, if modern post-industrial service economies are anything to go by.

 There are slightly less number of households in Vietnam than in the UK (25.6mln to 26.2mln). In these households, however, there is more likely to be an intact family in Vietnam than in the UK.

The average household has 3.3 people; in the UK 2.3 people (6th lowest in the world).

This corroborates the higher birth rate in Vietnam and the fact that there are more marriages (12.1 per 100....3rd highest in the world) and more marriages that last longer (.5 divorces per 1000).

The figures for the UK are 5.2 and 2.9 respectively.

The divorce rate puts the UK at 17th in the world.

As one might expect the UK is streets ahead in technology within these households: 99.5 Colour TVs, 56 telephones, 116.6 mobile phones, and 75.8 computers per 100 people.

Vietnam doesn't even come close: 70.8 TVs, 32.2 phones, 18.2 mobile phones, and only 1.4 computers per 100 population.

As far as the internet is concerned, there are only 1.4 internet hosts per 1000 people in Vietnam, as opposed to129.2 in the UK.

 Vietnam is among the world leaders in pirated software, with over 88% of computers running purloined goods (5th in the world).

This was borne out by my experience. All the computers I used had license error messages from Microsoft.

In economic terms, (and as these figures are published by The Economist, most of them had to do with economics) Vietnam is dwarfed by the UK.

Let's start with GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the measure of the output of an economy.

 In $ terms, Vietnam has a GDP of $61bln. The UK has a GDP of $2,377bln (ie.$ 2.4 trillion).

This works out to a comparative GDP per head of $720 in Vietnam vs. $39,750 in the UK.

If you adjust this for purchasing power parity (with the US as 100) the UK only has 75.3, but Vietnam has 5.4.

This means that on average , a UK person can buy 15 times what the average Vietnamese can.

The average Yank can buy 20 times, and probably does.

 How is this income generated?

One might assume that in a state which is avowedly Communist that much of the economic growth would be from the public sector.

Nothing of the kind. In Vietnam, 63.5% is from private consumption vs. roughly the same in the UK (63.2%).

Only 6.2% comes from Public consumption, whereas in the People's Republic of Gordon Brown the figure is a whopping 21.7%.

Much of the demand in Vietnam comes from direct investment (ie. foreign capital) 32%.

In the UK this is only 18.2%.

 The economy of Vietnam is export driven, with 69.4% of the GDP derived from exports.

In order, the major exports are crude oil, textiles, footwear, and forestry products.

The US, Japan, and Australia are the top destinations (purchasers of goods have very short memories if the price is right).

The UK has only 3.8% of the total.

The UK exports manufactured and semi-manufactured goods, fuels, foods, and drinks, importing more or less the same categories, only just more of them.

Both countries run current account deficits (ie. they import more than they export).

 Neither country have reserves to cover imports at the same rate, though the UK can only cover two weeks and Vietnam 3.3 months.

Compare this with Japan (15months), China (14 months), and Korea (7months).

 Both countries are important exporters of agricultural goods, with the UK ranked 21st in the world, and Vietnam 29th.

However, whereas for Vietnam these exports are crucial to the economy, in the UK they represent 0.9% of GDP or the 8th least economically dependent on agriculture in the world.

Vietnam is the 8th most dependent on trade with 69% of the economy relying on it, slightly behind Belgium with 71% (Aruba is tops with 172%!!!!

I guess that means you import everything, and pay for it with drugs, daiquiris, and banking fees).

 The UK has the 3rd largest trade deficit in the world, after the US and Spain.

Vietnam is nowhere in the top 24.

 Vietnam also has the 17th largest worker's remittances in the world. This jibes with the overseas refugee population, who send money back to the folks they left behind, and who are starting to return with skills learned in the West.

 As far as borrowing goes, Vietnam ranks 39th in the world for foreign debt with $20bln, though as a percentage of GDP it doesn't make the top 50. UK debt held by foreigners is over a trillion.

 Vietnam also ranks 8th in the world as a recipient of bilateral and multilateral aid with $1.85bln. Nigeria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the largest.

 Vietnam ranks 10th in GDP growth with 11.2% p.a. from 1996-2006.

There are a few surprise statistics. Vietnam is the world's 2nd largest producer of coffee at 1.1 metric tonnes, behind Brazil but slightly ahead of Colombia, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.

They don't however, drink much of the stuff.

 They are 5th in Rice, and 7th in Tea.

 In energy, though they do have oil reserves, they don't rank in the top 30 producers (the UK is 14th).

 Vietnam has the HIGHEST growth in market capitalisation in the period 2002-2007 in the world, at 12590%.

That bears repeating. Say it out loud, and then prefix it with: "As a communist country......."

 It also has the largest increase in value at 78,544% over the same period.

Go figure.

 The cost of living in Vietnam doesn't figure in the world map, whereas the UK is 3rd, after Norway and France. (This was at the end of 2007, before sterling took a tumble).

 In terms of entertainment (cinema), music, internet, Nobel Prize Winners, daily newspapers, or Oscars, Vietnam is nowhere.

Its press is the 8th least free in the world, well behind China.

The UK is surprisingly 24th. Vietnam doesn't rank in beer or wine consumption.

The UK is amazingly not in the top 20 beer and is 14th is wine. (Do I believe this? Not hardly. Try going down any high street at 11PM on a Saturday evening.)

 Neither figures in smoking, murders, or people on death row.

They are closely ranked (12th and 13th) in the number of prisoners, however, with 98k Vietnamese and 91k Brits. The US is by far the greatest, with 2.3mln prisoners.

 Defense spending as a % of GDP puts Vietnam at 8th in the world at 5.6%.

In absolute terms, the UK spends almost as much a year on defense ($55bln) as the entire GDP of Vietnam.

However, Vietnam has the 10th largest standing army at 455 thousand (with 5mln reservists)....Message: DON'T PICK A FIGHT WITH THEM, but they are hardly spending enough to be a world power.

Russia, by the way has 20mln reservists according the Economist.

Vietnam doesn't figure in the environmental performance index, either good or bad. Neither of its main cities appear in the world's most polluted (Cairo and Delhi are the top two), and China has 23 of the top 38 on the planet.

India has 4 of the top 10. The UK is the 8th largest emitter of CO2, though Vietnam is in the top 50 at 38. Per person, the UK is 19th on the list, Vietnam doesn't figure.

However, Vietnam has the 5th largest increase in CO2 emissions at 11.9% per year (which coincides almost exactly with its growth rate economically).

Neither country figures in clean energy (Sweden is #1). So that is the view from the top on Vietnam and the UK, at least according to the Economist.

 What are we to make of all this?

The first conclusion I would say is what I said to Christina, and I don't mean this in anyway to be disparaging or belittling (literally) in any way.

After 10 days in Vietnam, I said: "Never underestimate a lot of little people."

 Vietnam, though an old country in terms of history, is a young country literally (few old people) and in economic terms (growth and development is only recent).

By almost any measurement of development, it is way behind the UK, but it is galloping to catch up. It still has a long way to go in terms of infrastructure and technology.

It remains an export-led producer of raw materials but its industrial base is growing. It has a population of hard-working, family-oriented people composed of varied ethnic groups and divided (still) by the three regions and the dialects. Money is pouring in, however, and if you had closed your eyes and bought the stock of almost Vietnamese company, you would have been a chart topper.

 Can this continue?

Of course not, but it still remains (I say it again) a young and dynamic country, still emerging from its troubled colonial, post-colonial, and war-weary past.

Still, for the 12th largest population in the world, it is punching far below its weight. How will an avowedly Communist party machine manage the process of rapid development and the iniquity of stock markets dominated by foreign investors? How will they manage the process of letting the genie of development out of the bottle? How do they move from a nation of motorcycles and mini-industries to one where a supermarket is not an object of wonder but an every day occurence?

 I don't know, and in trying to relate this mass of statistics to the people I met and saw is difficult.

There was a young boy (3 years old), the son of an upscale lacquerware store in Hanoi, who was

 a) tending towards chubby and;
b) playing with not one but two mobile phones.

The shopgirl said dismissively that he was spoiled and rich. The tons of kids I saw flirting were doing what kids do; a team of waiters and waitresses yukking it up; shop boys and girls in the Adidas sport shop on a Friday night; the sparkled 16 year old on the bus in Phan Tiet; Dung's little 2 year old; all those youth on the beach.

 These youth are the future of Vietnam, not the Vietcong.

 Only time will tell, I suppose. Whatever the statistics, Vietnam is a country which deserves not to be ignored, and one where the old images or misconceptions deserve to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

  Go to Chapter 9 

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Monday, 4 May 2009



Saturday 8th March 2009 

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As tourists, you have a limited universe of people with whom you can talk to find out about a country.

First there is the language issue, which means you can only talk to those people who happen to speak the language or languages you speak.

Secondly, as far as natives are concerned, you are likely to meet only a limited cross section of the population, either people who serve you, who are ferrying you around, or are trying to sell you something or conversely from whom you are trying to buy something .

Then, if you are so inclined, there are tour guides. Since we never take tours, we have to rely on the former types.

There are, of course, fellow travellers who can give you help as to where to go, what to see, where to stay or eat and how to get there, but rarely give you any insight into the people themselves, the rhythm of life, the heartbeat of the country.

 I have always believed that the first door to open in any country is the language, and as humans, there are always the same factors you must display, which can help you prise it open a crack.

These include first and foremost, the willingness to try.

The second is consideration and manners.

And the third is curiosity and application, which is to say that you ask, and remember what you are told. The latter necessarily involves writing down, practice, and study.

 Each word you learn is a lever which will incrementally open the door wider to understanding a country.

 And the first word you should learn in any language is Thank You.

Gracias. Danke. Merci. Grazie. Kamsahamnida. Arigato. Mgoi. Efkeristo. Spacebo. Tak. Obrigado. Shukran. Teshekyur.

 Or in Vietnamese. Cam on. (Kahm Uhn).

 Before we left, I went to Ngo Anh Twan, a Vietnamese fellow in our office, and got him to write
down (and pronounce) a basic lexicon. (We speak French).

I have left out the accents, which are crucial in Vietnamese but (not surprisingly) not crucial on an English language keyboard and thus practically impossible to reproduce.

 Bonjour => Xin Chao
Merci => Cam On
Excusez-moi => Xin loi
Au revoir => Tam biet
Combien => Bao nhieu
Trop cher => Dat qua
Tres bon => Ngon qua

And how to count:

 1 mot
2 hai
3 ba
4 bon
5 nam
6 sau
7 bay
8 tam
9 chin
10 muoi
100 tram
1000 nghin

Armed with these few words, off I went aided by the fortuitous fact that Vietnamese, unlike Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, or Chinese, is written in a Roman alphabet created by a French jesuit based on Portugese to replace the Chinese characters previously used.

In other words, you can read it. It is a tonal language, so by utilising my ass-backwards method of learning how to say things and then learning the alphabet (which I have not really done) I almost always got the pronunciation wrong.

But a lot of times I was close enough, and anyway, most people repeat what you say, no matter how cack-handedly, as is should be said. So if you pay attention, you gradually can figure out and make mental notes for the next time.

My modest improvement in the language was entirely due to three waitresses, the first we met in Hanoi, in a fairly posh restaurant our first night called Club Opera.

Using my extremely limited vocabulary, I still ordered in Viet, reading out the items.

Instead of laughing, our waitress asked how long I had been in Vietnam.

"Five minutes...okay two hours," I said.

 Then she laughed, and after throwing in a compliment (learning Vietnamese would take you a month) she began talking.

Her English was good (she said she had studied for 10 years). She came from a village 60km away from Hanoi, one of four children.

She had come to Hanoi for university, and this was her first job out in the real world. She wanted to work in the hotel/tourist industry and English was the first ticket. I was impressed by her poise. I took a photo of her with Steens and promised to send it to her. Her name was Thuy.

 By her reaction, Thuy gave me a crumb of encouragement to keep on trying to speak.

We then went South. We went to a beach resort at Mui Ne (between Phan Thiet and Mui Ne actually) called Coco Beach.

It is run by a Franco-German couple (though he was never there) who blazed a trail on the beach in 1995. They have had 14 years to perfect their craft, and they have done a superb job.

There are only 35 huts on stilts (huts being a word which doesn't really do them justice, as they are all polished woods, nice new bathrooms etc.).

Everything is top class despite a very reasonable price ($105 a day). In the Caribbean, those numbers would be reversed, and Coco Beach would still win by a fair piece. Steens and I gave it 9.5 out of 10, with no valid reason for the .5 deduction.

The beach, by the way, is also superb, wide and hard at low tide, which it was the next day.

 At breakfast the next morning, we were served by a bright and friendly young Vietnamese woman.

Her name was Dung (pronounced Yung).

 I started to ask her questions about how to say this or that, and found that my enthusiasm to learn was met by her enthusiasm to teach. Over the next five days, she became our window on Vietnam, and she showed herself to be a remarkable, courageous, open, and gracious person.

 She also displayed a forthrightness that was refreshing.

With Dung, you get what you see.

She doesn't mince words.

On the second day, I asked her her name again and was quickly reproached:

"I already told you yesterday.", she said.

Okay, so pay attention in class.

I got her to write down the answers.

Mostly I asked her about restaurant Vietnamese , how to order, ask for the bill, and the names of certains kinds of food.

After three days she asked us if we would like to come with her to the market the next day, when she would be working in the beach bar, and would finish at three.

Sure, we said. She suggested we order a taxi, and meet her outside the hotel.

 We figured this was as to not attract attention, we guessed.

The next morning, she mentioned that at first we would go to her house to meet her parents and her daughter, and then to dinner with her husband.

 At five to three we were waiting by the reception when Dung and all the other waitresses shuffled by in their yellow uniforms. She signalled that she would change, and we then moved out in front of the hotel by the taxi we had ordered.

 I tried to get some money out of the ATM which unfortunately was broken. Since the Dong is 17,500 to the $, I had a random collection of big ticket bills with no real concept of what that translated into purchasing power and had no idea if I had enough cash.

This could potentially be embarassing.

 After five minutes or so Dung emerged in white jeans and a yellow top.

In the taxi she told us that her father was a fisherman, but had been injured badly (his arm) when she was seven years old, and from that time onward she had been forced to work to help support her family. For the first five or six years she worked in a factory (didn't say what kind) when she figured out that this was not a long term solution, being very poorly paid. Her next job was in the kitchen of a hotel at which point she decided that to get anywhere, she would have to learn English. Without formal schooling, this involved going back to study at nights. She then worked in the restaurant of the hotel as a waitress, and after several years, she interviewed with and got a job with Francois, the owner of Coco Beach, where she had worked for seven years.

In describing her life, she repeatedly refered to herself as being unlucky, not to excuse herself or to complain or to elicit sympathy, but just because that was the best way of describing what she had had to do to get to where she was.

This extended to her daughter, who she warned in advance was "very small" and slow to learn, with part of her head which had not closed properly (the fontanelle, we assumed).

Her mother and father watched over her daughter, when she was not at her husband's house, who as a farmer lived out in the country.

She stayed in her parent's house, along with one of her two brothers, and went out to her husband's when she didn't have to work. We thus expected the worst.

We went into Phan Thiet, a medium sized city (40,000, I guessed...205,000 actually, so what do I know?) which is one of Vietnam's most important fishing ports, evidenced by the large number of boats anchored in the river.

After winding around the town, we went down some narrow street which ran down to the water (the South China Sea) which we could see in the distance across a derelict tract of land.

In the street were a bunch of craftsman building one of the little round boats which could hold max three people (in my mind I christened them the rub-a-dubs, after rub a dub dub three know the rest). These boat have a round bottom, no keel or rudder, and (I assume) are used only close to shore. I had seen one the first morning at sunrise (see sunrise picture above).

We then walked around a corner and there was Dung's parents home, a three or four room (we couldn't tell from the street) house with blue shutters which opened onto a porch.

The house was simple, with a concrete floor. There were only two pieces of furniture in the front two rooms, two chairs that Christina and I were given as honoured guests.

Dung's mother brought us each a glass of water. We made small talk through Dung as the interpreter. Noting that the house had no step down onto the dirt street, I asked if the house flooded.

Only during the rainy season...(6 months of the year), Dung said by way of her father.

Oh. I tried to digest this fact.

Dung's daughter, though perhaps small for her age (who can tell?...everyone was pretty small) showed absolutely no signs of being slow, or in fact being any different to any small child, running back and forth from grandmother to grandfather as they doted proudly on her. Dung explained the structure of her family, including two brothers, one of whom worked in a restaurant and the other who (right around the corner) was looking for a job.

She then took us on a little tour of the street around the corner.

 Her brother was squatting eating a bowl of noodles at a roadside restaurant.

Next to them were the boat builders. After getting their permission , I snapped some photos. There were two main craftsmen and a bunch of hangers on. The leader, a very friendly and fit fellow, demonstrated how he sliced the thick bamboo poles into malleable strips while I videoed him. The other main protaganist peeled and worked the bamboo where it could be woven to cover the frame, bending it with his feet. A finished product lay drying in the sun.

I asked Dung how a woven boat could keep the water out (the boat was kind of like a glorified basket).

She mentioned that the weaving was very tight, and that the boat was caulked (she didn't use that word) with a mixture of soil and resin and oil, which dried in the sun, shrinking and sealing the holes.

 Hmm. I thought.

Which is why I believe this must be a close to the shore vessel.

After this Dung said she would takes us to the market, but first we would go to a park and a beach. Are we going to take a taxi? I asked. No, said Dung. My brother and I will take you on our motorbikes. I looked at Christina and thought, Now this could be interesting.

Sure enough he brother showed up with two helmets and another moto.

Dung attached a little seat in front for her daughter, and off we went, me behind her brother, and Steens perched tentatitively behind Dung and her daughter.

I pulled out my camera as we weaved in an out of traffic which was admittedly light. Steens did not look convinced. Basically the rule for riding behind is the same as Hanoi streets: No sudden movements.

We came to a park by the beach where we did for the first tme what is a very important cog in the system of a country with perhaps 40 million motorbikes: hatchecks for motos.

 Helmets were doffed and attached to the bikes and a parking ticket was taken, akin to checking your coat at the theatre.

This routine proved important later, not at this park, but later at the market where the same system was employed.

The beach was peopled with an after school throng of students.

There were no swimsuits in sight. In fact, the students went into the water in their school uniforms.

No bikinis, that is for sure.

We sat on a wall and chatted. Dung filled us in more on her life. Occasionally there was a bit of miscommunication, but overall her English was more than comprehensible.

She used the words "same same" as a conjunction or perhaps a pause.

She spoke of the wealthy as being "rit".

She talked of her brothers and her father, mostly of hardship. I wondered what she must feel like, looking at a generation of young schoolkids doing what schoolkids do: laugh, flirt, chase each other, kick balls, roll around in mock fights like two young stags...all of these things denied her by fate, by her father's accident.

She grew up way too early, and at 27 already had 20 years of hard graft under her belt.

She had no real resentment but I thought of her as an outsider, pressing her face to the glass in life to peer at what others more fortunate than her had without trying.

She told us how much money she made: Dong 1.15mln per month, with tips at about 300,000.
That is less than $100 a month.

And for this she had to ride the bus to work (taking the moto is too expensive) and live at home while her husband worked the fields (never found out what crop he grew).

Next to no possessions, but a fighting spirit and a ready smile of crooked teeth. And given the long haul which is life, a hell of an attitude.

While we sat on the wall, we were constantly approached by little urchins, no more than five, trying to sell peanuts or candy. Thus her situation was by no means unique, and from the wizened skin and general dirtiness of these kids, not bad off. At least Dung always had a house.

I asked here how she met her husband, and she said rather a strange thing. She told me she liked her husband because he didn't drink too much coffee and only smoked a little, and thus did not spend too much of the money she gave him.

Her daughter didn't cling to her particularly, but to her brother, who proved to be a perfect uncle, patiently playing with her. The little girl was very well behaved, if very quiet, but who wouldn't be with a bunch of strange foreigners who suddenly turf up.

After we left the beach, Dung said we would go to the market, which she said was brand new. New? I wondered. I had in mind a vibrant maze of stalls with fresh fish, vegetables stacked neatly, little noodle stands and people yelling as they haggled over price. You know, your basic tourist image of "how we shopped in Vietnam" and of how I managed to barter for some obscure fruit.

Nothing of the kind.

When she said brand new, she meant brand spanking new.

The market turned out to be a four story department store with escalators, electronic goods, restaurants (a cafeteria, a snack bar, and a bakery) and a proper full-on supermarket. It would not have been out of place in the UK, in Italy, or in South Carolina. Of course, the ingredients were vastly different, a huge array of fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, and insects (yes insects!) which looked unfamiliar.

I immediately saw why Dung had suggested it in the first place.

The whole idea came about when I had asked her in the restaurant how to say mango and papaya and she wrote down the words on a piece of paper: xoai (pronounced soy) for mango and dua du (pronounced doh-doh roughly) for papaya. She then showed me how to cut and carve a mango so that it popped out in a checkboard pattern, turning the skin inside out to leave neat little squares. She had brought several from her garden.

This supermarket was like a huge study card exhibit for learning Vietnamese, with every item marked with a card and a magic marker.

I took lots of pictures. There were some splendid and unique foods, such as silkworms and fish stomachs.

We didn't buy anything, but instead went up to the kiosks on another floor, where we bought Dung's daughter a custard tart (which she devoured). I was still having trouble discerning anything wrong with her at all. Certainly not her appetite. We ordered mango shakes.

Dung's brother sat quietly, unable to join in the conversation and reduced to playing with his niece which he didn't seem to mind.

All the time I was trying to reconcile Dung's salary with the price of everything I had seen, and how this cornucopia of goods gibed with the fact that this was supposedly a communist country, and a poor one at that.

Something just didn't add up, and I felt very uneasy.

 Not because of Dung, but really because of myself and the obvious iniquity of life on the planet.

We all have to make do with what hand we are dealt, but in this day and age we are at once liberated by travel, mobility, opportunity, and technology while at the same time being trapped in a web not of our own creation.

My entirely wrong image of the Vietnamese market we were going to see, the third world showplace of daily life, was supplanted by a carbon copy of the West, large scale capitalism waving buy me! buy me! in front of people who were striving to make ends meet.

At the end of the day, you can knock a few zeros off a banknote, but it all boils down to money, money, no matter where you are.

Of course I didn't say any of this to Dung, but calculated that each mango shake was a not inconsiderable portion of her monthly wage.

She also had a mobile phone which she used to call her husband, who arranged to meet us at a restaurant by the river. This too must chew up the Dong.

We then decamped to the parking garage at the bottom of the building, where Dung found to her horror that she had mislaid her parking ticket. No big deal, I thought, we can just pay the full penalty. No, she said, it's not the money, and entered into a rapid discussion with her brother, whom she dispatched up to where we had been to see if he could find it. He returned empty-handed. She then said to me, you go with my brother to meet my husband, and I will catch you up with Christina.
On went the helmet, and off we went into the dark, a night had fallen (at this latitude, it is as though you turn off a light switch).

There was quite a bit more traffic as we darted in and out. Turning across oncoming lanes was like crossing a street in Hanoi. There is never a good moment to do it, so you just go and hope for the best. It is a wonder that the streets are not littered with bodies or broken motos.

We eventually arrived at the river, where Dung's husband stood waiting. His last name is Nguyen (the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith) but I never got his first name. Neither he nor Dung's brother spoke a word of English, or at least they were willing to admit or use. My nascent Vietnamese was worse than useless.

Dung's husband looked like a miniature Asian version of Brad Pitt, a resemblance both Christina and I remarked on later.

He followed us past a whole line of restaurants along the river, all constructed in the same manner with tables spilling onto the pavement, a ground floor completely open to the elements, and a stairway upstairs with more tables both indoors and on a balcony above. It is a design for the tropics, unthinkable in northern Europe. The tables were all low slung with tiny blue plastic chairs, ill-suited for anyone 6 feet or above (ie. me, as I was the only person in the restaurant in this category).

We were directed to a table inside, where Nguyen and I sat down while Dung's brother said something and then dashed off.

There ensued a half-hour interlude of hand gestures, three bottles of beer each, and I am afraid to say little else.

Language is everything. I managed to extract the fact that Nguyen liked Arsenal and beer and that despite what Dung said, he smoked like a chimney.

Most of my attempts at small talk without the talk failed miserably. The table next to us had four men downing beers along with some kind of liquor in a clear bottle with a long thin neck. Thinking this might be a way of breaking the communication logjam, I signalled to the liquor and asked (by shrugging shoulders) what it might be called.

Nguyen immediately thought I wanted a bottle....No, no with a tippling motion and crossed arms, I clarified that that was NOT my intention. It became clear that matters were not going to progress, so we lapsed into an amiable silence, sipping our beers.

The waitress, a relatively tall girl in a Tiger Beer blue outfit, could speak English but I didn't have it in me to ask her to be a go-between...anyway where would I start?

So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

After the second beer, I began to get a little worried. Where the hell were Steens, Dung, daughter and brother? The market had not been that far away. I had visions of an accident, a night in a hospital making useless hand gestures.

I pointed to Nguyen's phone and said Dung's name, turning my palms up in the classic what? sign. He dialled his wife. The conversation was very short.

 I then pointed to my watch. He held his hands far apart and then brought one in 2/3s of the way. He then pointed to his watch and held up 10 fingers.

Okay. A third of the way to go and 10 minutes. Still, what speed have they been going? Crawling? I tried to indicate slowness by walking my fingers across the table at a snail's pace and pointing to my watch.

Nguyen smiled. Women! He didn't need to say it.

Eventually, the whole entourage arrive on masse....safely, about a half-hour since we had left them.

What had happened was that since Dung couldn't find her ticket, they wouldn't give her back her moto. She had to wait for her brother to return, send him back to her parents to get her registration proving ownership, and then and only then would release the bike. In a country with 40mln motos they just don't take your word for it that the white one is mine.

We then got menus, more beer, and let Dung do the ordering. I had to ask her how much it would all cost, seeing as how I had to trawl through my ocean of Dong. She said no prob, she could lend me the money. As it happened, I had more than enough, but it was pretty poor form really, and I felt a schmuck.

She didn't seem to be bothered.

We had an extraordinary dish: scallops in their shells with peanuts, green peppercorns, oil, salt and some random spice. This was a truly outstanding dish, not out of place in a *** restaurant, certainly not expected from a sidewalk restaurant with plastic chairs and a concrete floor.

The classic fried noodles with seafood were also delicious, so much better than the hotel. Dung asked me if I would eat anything. Sure. Once. I said. Bring on the sea snails then. I had three, but quit when her husband started giving me his. He looked amused. Enough already, for my readiness to be game.

That was it then. All for less than $20 so I needn't have fretted, but who was to know?
Dung then asked us if we would take the bus back to the hotel, which she said would be much cheaper than the taxi. Sure why not?

She then escorted us in our little motorcade across the river to the busstop, where she instructed a little 16 year old girl returning from a night out (she had sparkles on her eyelids and cheeks) to keep an eye out for us and tell us when to get off. After many thanks, we got on the bus and returned back without incident, with a busload of Vietnamese and a couple of Aussie backpackers (well behaved this time).

We stepped back into the hotel, and the manicured grass and the palm trees and the aquamarine pool reflecting in the moonlight all seemed a bit surreal.

But what an experience!

The aftereffects are still with me, and I consider it a privilege to have been invited by Dung into her life.

The next morning was our last breakfast (we would have to leave at 3AM the next morning to catch a flight back to HK). Dung was on duty in the restaurant. After I had already had my juice, papaya, and croissant (ie. the usual) she brought me a bowl of steaming hot noodles with beef and said, you must have a Vietnamese breakfast. She said she had made it. Already full, I did not do it justice. I suppose my sea snail performance had convinced her I would assimilate anything.

Perhaps it showed that with all the best will in the world, I was still a foreigner a long way off from going native. Or maybe I was just imagining this. Anyway I tried my best, but could not drain the bowl.

Later that afternoon, after I sat foolishly with my legs dangling in the sun (thus frying the parts usually covered by socks in spite of Factor 30) I went to the beach bar to talk with the third waitress on our trip who had helped my with the language.

She was of Chinese extraction, and her full name was Phuong Nghia Quach, or Anhia for short. She had also been friendly and kind to us, and patient with my Vietnamese. I went to tell her that we would be leaving the next morning and that this was our last day. She said I know and then asked me to wait. She bent down under the counter and pulled out a packet wrapped in newspaper.
I got these for you and your wife, she said quietly.

She unwrapped the newspaper, and pulled out a bracelet made of round carved beads and a square mother of pearl necklace for Christina.

I was thunderstruck. This was entirely unexpected, and for want of a better word, just plain kind. After thanking her profusely, I went back to Steens and showed her our gifts. She was equally amazed. "Where did that come from?" All because of curiosity and politeness, I guess, expecting nothing but a few words to help communicate and receiving the warmth of a heart in return.
We later wore both gifts as we had drinks at sunset and talked with Anhia.

I went to the hotel shop and bought thank you cards for both Dung and Anhia
and spent the afternoon thinking up what to say and what to do. I ended up giving money along with our thanks, but it seemed insufficient for the gesture and kindness and welcome we had received.

When I gave Dung her card she said matter of factly: But you already bought dinner.

Classic Dung.

You could say that three waitresses do not a country make, that there are plenty of bad apples as well.

 No doubt, but a nation is made up of individuals, and individuals are part of families, and families are the threads which make up the tapestry of society.

You can tell a lot about a society by how people treat you, and not only how they act, but how they react to your gestures of friendship.

And my overriding memory of the people of Vietnam is somehow caught up in the stories of the three waitresses, these trois serveuses, who allowed me to peer briefly into the heart of their country, and who left me with an abiding bittersweet memory of a world at once very far away from mine and yet somehow close.

Friday, 1 May 2009


Friday 7th March 2009

We decided to take in two must see sights the next morning, the Hoa Lo prison (better know to the West as the Hanoi Hilton) and the Temple of Literature. Both, in their own way, are extremely key in understanding this ancient culture and the recent colonial history of the past 150 years.

We started with the Hoa Lo Prison (I refuse in retrospect to call it the Hanoi Hilton).

Prior to going, I had the misguided impression that this was going to be a see-I-told-you-so exercise in this-is-what-happens-if-you-try-to-bomb-our-country chest thumping.

Here is where we kept our captured US airmen.

This could not be further from the truth.

Americans (even famous ones like John McCain) are given very short shrift in this museum of oppression. In fact, this is not about foreign prisoners at all.

This prison is entirely about the yoke of French oppression during their colonial past. It is a sad place, and it is the French, not the Americans or anyone else, who come off rather badly.

Against protests by many groups, the whole prison no longer stands.

The site was sold to a Singaporean Chinese development company to turn into a mall and high rise flats.

Stipulated in the contract however was that at least part of the prison should be preserved, and then ochre coloured (what else) building stands in stark contrast to the modern high rise towering over it.

Deprived of light, a tree struggles to grow leaves (see picture) somehow appropriate for the courtyard of a horror house.

The machinery of repression usually starts with a dry memo written by a bureaucrat.

The genesis of this prison begins with a memo headed Protectorat de l'Annam et du Tonkin, Direction des Travaux Publics, Service des Batiments Civils. 

It is entitled: Construction d'une Prison Centrale a Hanoi et des voies projetées y accédant, and is followed by a table (Tableau Parcellaire), detailing how the land will be acquired and the occupants annamites indemnified for the expropriation of their land and houses.

 The date of this table is 30 June 1896, and it is signed by the governor and has the Chops of Le Huyen de Cho Xuong, the chef du quartier, and the chefs du village...all co-opted into acquiescence.

The amount seems to be 12,908, though it doesn't say what.

There are also parts of a steel beam (Marseillaise Acier) and bricks stamped Made in Hanoi.

So nothing more that a civil engineering project, duly stamped, signed and certified and providing work for both French exporters and local factories.

But what they built was very nasty indeed.

Further on in the prison are memos written by the cadres of the Vietnamese Communist Party. themselves prisoners, planning their future exploits.

From the text of these highly structured (and equally bureaucratic) documents obtained by the french agents of the Sureté, it is very clear that this was not a revolution planned by a bunch of hotheads.

This was a long term intellectual reaction against the exploitation of the land for its resources, both natural and human.

The tone is equally as dry as the arid memos of their french counterparts, but it is clear, cogent, well-thought out, and organised as only fonctionnaires can be.

The people incarcerated here were the intelligentsia, dangerous for the French precisely because of their ideas (attractive and obvious to all those under the yoke.)

They were the elite, who came out tops in the French established educational system but were not allowed power they felt was due to them, and they proposed to take it.

And the methods the French used were equally organised: separate stockades for men and women, subdivided into those with or without child.

There is a guillotine along with pictures of heads in baskets (horrific...Steens prevailed upon me not to include them, but I think they should be seen).

There are also sample rooms of communal cells where the prisoner were shackled together side by side, and a sample cell for solitary confinement and torture.

All these methods were later employed to good effect on other prisoners who ventured between these walls, as the mastered later became the masters.

There are also pictures of how the French literally yoked their charges, making them wear mini ladders around their necks to which their hands could be affixed if need be.

All pretty gruesome.

There is also a memo by Marechal Pétain issued from Vichy. Pétain negotiated with the Japanese in order to carry on administering its protectorate (ironic word, that) throughout WWII .

The French allowed garrisons of Japanese troops (or rather the Japanese allowed the French to allow them) and naval bases and refueling depots to attack Allied interests in Southeast Asia.

Somehow you don't see this emphasised in Sarkozy's grand pronouncements of the French role in world affairs.

As PJ O'Rourke once famously said: "The French come from the-dog-ate-my-homework school of foreign policy."

Then again, so do all great powers, if truth be known.

All of this puts Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese people's struggle in their proper context, and demonstrates why both sides (French and Vietnamese) were implacable.

It also explains how when the US blundered into Vietnam due to its fear of world communism spreading throughout the region, it had no real idea or understanding of the depth of feeling, the hatred and the shame that Vietnamese felt towards their colonial past.

Yes, there are baguettes and croissants and grand boulevards (in the French quarter), but all this came at a price, a price which is there for all to see in this prison.

The current powers that be, in spite of selling out to real estate developers, did well to preserve it, even though many people (like myself) are attracted to it for entirely the wrong reasons.

The references to the American war, as the Vietnamese call it, are pretty scant, confined to a few pictures of POWs coming back here post-war, and a picture of how the Vietnamese really won the war....not on the battlefield, but in the court of public opinion back in the US.

The US airman who were unlucky enough to spend time here continued to pay a price for a long and brutal history that was , in large part, not of their making.

Now of course, this prison is part propaganda and part history, but it is hard to argue with bricks and mortar, and one emerges from it with a better feeling for and an understanding of a people's long chapter of pain, misery, and defiance.

After this sobering "sight", we then went to the Temple of Literature in the west of the city.

This dates back to the year 1072, and is a park, for want of a better word, consisting of several sections honouring knowledge and the teachings of Confucious, whose philosophy dominated early Vietnamese history.

The most interesting part is a big section of big stone tablets called stelae, which are perched on the backs of stone tortoises, which along with the mythical bird the phoenix, and the fish and the dragon form the big four of Vietnamese mythical creatures.

Inscribed on these stelae are the names of those who passed the arduous examination to become mandarins in certain years.

By arduous, how about a pass rate of 8 in 3000, as was the case in 1742.

The examination took 35 days by which time those still left standing (intellectually, that is) became mandarins. Makes getting into Harvard or Oxbridge seem a stroll in the park. No wonder the successful are etched in stone.

For good luck in the exam of life one is supposed to rub the heads of the tortoises.

Following the basic lifetime rule of "it can't hurt", I duly complied then suggested to Steens that she do the same.

After that it was down to the Buddhist temple at the end, where in addition to enjoying a brief moment of solitude, you can engage in one of the most common events in any place of religion, namely giving a small donation.

Perhaps not for us tourists, but for the souls of the people who died in Hoa Lo.

After this, we adjourned to Little Hanoi, a foreigner haunt on Hang Gai for our first Western meal since leaving the UK, a croque monsieur.

Luckily we had just finished when Steens uttered those words which in the region of SARs, avian flu, and various random fevers (though not Ebola or swine flu) can make your blood run cold...the six most dangerous words while traveling:

"Look! The cook has a nosebleed!"

Sure enough, peering back over my shoulders into the tiny kitchen, said cook was doing the old look-I'm-a-walrus trick with rolled up sheets of bog roll.

No more food from there, then, though sitting in this restaurant is the perfect place to watch the street scenes as motos, lorries, rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians approach from all angles.

That night we decided to go to the Water Puppet Show, a so-called must see for foreign tourists. The theatre is right at the north end of the lake, and after dinner we strolled around the lake to catch the last show.

I would like to say that I really enjoyed the show, which consists of a fable involving the obligatory fish, dragons, tortoises, and phoenix, manipulated in the water by unseen puppeteers behind a curtain.

These figures cavort around the water accompanied by the discordant ping ping and wails of musicians located above.

I would like to say this, but I had trouble concentrating on this spectacle because I was distracted by three boorish Aussie dunderheads sitting in front of us.

Dunderhead #3 announced his presence to us, and indeed to the whole theatre two minutes before the show was due to start by walking across in front of the stage waving three cans of Foster's above his head and shouting "Score!" to his mates.

His other two friends, who also sported the Prison Break haircut (shaved head-five days and unshaven face-three days growth) were in the process of trying to score themselves with three dopey and slightly flabby American wenches directly in front of us.

This would have been mildly amusing as backpacker theatre had their banter ended when the show started. But no. Dunderhead #3 , who in addition to the close cropped hair sported no chin and buck teeth, kept on making asinine comments throughout the first 10 minutes of the show.

Dunderhead #1, when not laughing at #3's inane and puerile verbal effluence (mostly involving beer, small Vietnamese and other assorted ignorant and racist comments) was trying to put the moves on bovine AmLady#1, while the other two girls looked suitably embarrassed.

I got progressively hotter under the collar, while Steens kept shaking her head and telling me it wasn't worth it.

Eventually, Dunderhead#3 fell asleep for the remainder of the show, his head tilted back, and due to the aforementioned lack of chin, his mouth gaping way beyond fly-catching mode into small bird or rodent-catching mode. And wouldn't I have loved to jam one down his gullet.

If you have no respect or interest in another people's culture, you have no self respect. If the only barometer for visiting a country is how cheap the beer or food is, then just stay home on the cow station. Tossers.

Unfortunately, that was it for Hanoi, but this minor annoyance did not make a dent on the nice time we had there, or on the favourable impression of the people.

Friendly, industrious, and youthful. Impressions, of course, but good ones, and a good impression makes even grey skies and drizzle not only bearable, but irrelevant.

The day was a mixture of the horrors and the honours of the past mixed in a city trying to remember and maintain its history whilst changing for the future.

Go to Chapter 7