Friday, 24 October 2008

Flight to Laos...Squeaky Bum Time

Old Fergie couldn't have put it better. We booked Laos Airlines, despite the guidebook telling us not to. They don't publish their safety record, apparently. Probably don't understand the term or, if the Vietnamese are anything to go by, couldn't give a flying fuck.

An electrical storm hit Hanoi as we departed, and my horror was compounded by the sight of this plane on the tarmac "Fucking propellers??!!" I exclaimed involuntarily. The elderly pilot worried me a little, too (experienced, or senile and myopic?). he looked like Mr Miyage from The Karate Kid...a nice friendly face. So that settled me for a while. Until he gave his pre-flight speech....which included "...and I hope you have a successful flight with us". Successful? I should bloody hope so for 80 quid. Easyjet is cheaper, and I wouldn't need rubber undercrackers. Just you be successful flying this outdated fucker, please. Thankyou.

Needless to say, it was OK in the end...if a little bumpy. I'm still here. Luang Prabang awaits...

Goodbye, Vietnam...a summary

Well...I wouldn't rush back, Hanoi and Sa Pa aside. North good, South bad. Everyone wants your money. Everyone coughs and gobs up phlegm in the street, even old ladies. Beeps their horns incessantly. Everyone tries to rip you off. Run you over. Sell you shit. Friendly people have an agenda. I'm pleased to be heading for the peace and quiet of Laos, to be honest.

We got back on the overnight train again. Spent a day bumming around Hanoi, and sat by the lake. We had two lovely girls doing a survey for their tourism course talk to us (we taught them the English expressions "You 'orrible git" and "Do one, mate"...they loved it), and a nice chap called Huin who came over to talk. Initially sceptical at his approach, telling us United had beat Celtic ("What's this cunt want?" The Jock murmered out of the side of the mouth as he sat down), Huin turned out to be a great fella. An Economics mature student, he just wanted to chat and practice his English, which was very good. Spent a good 40 minutes with him, in fact. Not all Vietnamese are out to get your cash, but it certainly feels like it 90% of the time.

It's been interesting. But do yourself a favour...just visit Hanoi.

The H'mongs

Sa Pa's majority tribe is the H'mong (pronounced Mong). Some of them look very smart in their traditional dress, others are a little more pikey. One old lady was asking Scott about his marital status and, him being unmarried, his virility. He was backing away, not due to the personal nature of her questioning...more to do with the breath we estimated could stop a water buffalo dead at 50 yards. maybe she'd been kissing one earlier? A kiss for granny? Deary me...poor kids.

I'd heard of the H'mong in Hanoi. An overzealous bookseller, who'd also pestered me the night before, told me all I needed to know (for my own amusement, naturally).

"Hey, how are you...can I help you please?"
"Ah yes, it's you from last night..."
"Where you from, friend?"
"You obviously don't remember trying to ponce books on me last night, then?"
"Where a you from...Engrand?"
"Yep..." (trying to walk away)
"You stay Hanoi?"
"Yes, but off to Sa Pa tomorrow"
"Ah, me from Sa Pa...I am H'mong" (sounds like "Mong" to my ears)
"Erm...pardon?"
"I am a H'mong"
"A mong?"
"Yes, a H'mong from Sa Pa...all my family are H'mongs..."
"Yes, well...that would explain a lot. Now I have to go, old chap...goodbye"
"You no wan' book?"
Yyyyyep...gotta go.

Sa Pa

Sa Pa is a tiny little town in the Loa Cai disrtict of Northern Vietnam, 1600m above sea level...sitting below 'Nam's tallest mountain, Fan Si Pan...which is 3142m. Enough geography. It's a quiet little place, populated by the Hmong tribe in surrounding villages. They come into town to sell you anything from woven goods and bracelets, to opium and hash. Obviously, it was the woven shut and bracelets which caught my eye. One old lady took a shine to me, and followed me round town all day long, sniggering and going "Hash? Hash? Good hash, yes?" I was tempted to purchase from the toothless hag, but you hear horror stories about being turned in as soon as you've bought...so I'll save all that for Laos.

As it was, we spent a pleasant day treking through the hills on a tour. We'd gathered at a shop on the hill in...myself and The Jock, two Korean girls and an Italian lass. About ten minutes later, around another 20-odd people showed up. Including a Canadian (large yawn) who one shall herein refer to as Gobshite. He wouldn't shut up. You could hear him above everyone else. Yanks are mouthy fools. Canadians are mouthy fools, too. Boring ones. Our guide, Mimi, asked us if we wanted the harder route, or the easy road? I said "Which way is that fool going? We'll head the other way." She laughed. They took the easy road, which I was pleased about...and we set off over some ridges with some seriously big drops below...maybe 250m. "It is best to be careful" Mimi said. No shit. The Koreans fell over a few times on the slippery path, but we came though unscathed. And nobody died.

The villages were interesting, we walked through a couple. After lunch the people were clamouring to sell us their tat. One little girl, who I'd taken a pic of earlier up the hill, had said "You buy from me later?" I'd said "Maybe". They have long memories when it comes to squeezing cash out of you. I bought some friendship bands and a bag for my niece, and was just coughing up when I heard a wailing "You buy from her, you buy from meeeeee....you buy from her, you buy from meeeeee..." In fact, if you drop the spaces out of that sentence, it would sound about right. "Youbuyfromheryoubuyfrommeeeeeeeee...."

I turned around, expecting to see another cute kid. And jumped back, unintentionally, as Basil Fawlty did on encountering the black doctor in Fawlty Towers . This girl was about 12, and had the eyes of a dead fish, cloudy and grey. I got quite a fright, especially when I tried to move away and she followed me (can't be that blind, I thought?) down a track. I headed for The Jock.

"Get her away from me...she's doing my head in"
"What...?"
"Youbuyfromheryoubuyfrommeeeeeeeee...."
"HER!"
"Youbuyfromheryoubuyfrommeeeeeeeee...."
"Oh fuck..."

Poor girl. I can understand her predicament, but there's no need to go scaring the tourists into buying something. I can imagine her going home, and taking off the false eyes while saying "Tight bastards, didn't sell much today....these scary eyes are just a gimmick."

Night train to Sa Pa

Train travel is the way to do Vietnam, bar the trusty scooter. They're slow, but you get to see lots of beautiful scenery. IF you travel during daylight hours, that is. Night trains are a different story. Myself and The Jock booked one to Lao Cai in the North, near the border with China. We bade farewell to The Colonel, and he went off into the humid Hanoi evening, fag in mouth and beer in hand. He later got into trouble with a couple of cheeky young ladies, one of whom nicked his phone; I've been forbidden to give further details.

Now, back to the train. We got a 'hard sleeper', which is basically a cabin with 6 bunks...all of which have about as much leg/ headroom as a Messerschmidt bubble car. And are probably stuffier. We had the top bunks, which involve climbing into a cramped space whilst attempting to injure yourself with every protruding item on the way up. These Orientals certainly understand torture.

As for sleeping? Forget it. The Jock sleeps soundly enough. The twat. But for me, with the train rattling and rolling through the hills, bumping along over outdated points and rails...it's a living nightmare. Eyemask on, earplugs in...still no good. I'd liken it to being rolled around in a darkened barrel, while someone gleefully smashes a biscuit tin full of nails with a tambourine. Not the best, you can imagine.

So, morning breaks after the best sleep ever. Not. We are treated to the stretched-cassette caterwauling local music as the announcer welcomes us to Lao Cai. I wish I'd had my camera out as we looked out of the corridor windows. The rolling hills and streams. Lean-to houses with their inhabitants stoking the early morning fire. Peasants cajoling water buffalo along dusty roads with their sticks of willow. The best moment being the schoolkids careering down the rocky path alongside the train, shouting and waving "Hallo, halloooo!". It's good to be alive. And I've never felt more so.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Separation, and off to Sa Pa

After the trip, we had a chat about what we were going to do. I reckoned it best we go our separate ways until Thailand. It'll do The Colonel good to think for himself and learn a bit. He's lived in Leyland most of his life, and it's been an easy one. Time for some challenges. A 24 hour bus ride to Laos for starters for him, while myself and The Jock head to check out Sa Pa in the North. It'll do him good, and I reckon he'll be a bit more switched on the next time we meet. Or in prison/ an opium den full of hookers.

I'll miss witnessing the incidents. But won't miss mopping up. I've got enough on my plate thinking for myself. Besides, I'll be kept informed...and will make sure you get to read the stories, too. Oh, to be a fly on the wall.

So if you're reading, Mossy...Good Luck, mate. Be good, for christ's sake...I don't want to be bailing you out of a Laotian prison. See you on the beach...

Ha Long Bay...it gets worse, alright...

OK, so it could get worse. And did.

We set off on a bus for Ha Long Bay at 8am, The Colonel 2 beers in. And still feeling the effects of the previous night. And deciding to continue on.

The scenery on the way out was very interesting. The crumbling French-colonial majesty of Hanoi giving way to the suburbs prior to our journey down the highways to the sea. The thing that annoys me about coach travel is the shots you miss. I think to do a country justice photographically, you'd have to do it by scooter. That way you can stop and shoot as you wish. Maybe next time.

So there we were, on our merry way. I listened to tunes. The Jock read. The Colonel drank. The guide, a Vietnamese named Kenny (yeah right...do you work in a call centre, too?) was a nice enough chap. Looked and sounded a little like Bruce Lee.

We got off the bus after a 4 hour journey. It hadn't been that eventful. Apart from me flipping when The Colonel asked me where the toilets were when we stopped for a break. "I don't know, mate...it's been a while since I visited this shack in the middle of nowhere in Vietnam." Sheesh. So far, so good-ish. Then he piped up with "How long was that journey? Eh...4 hours?? I thought it took 3/4 of an hour. I thought at one point that I was playing pool with you and an old lady was trying to sell me food." The alarm bells started to trill...we were going to be on a boat with him for 24 hours. The Jock later informed me that the Colonel had been slumped in the corner of the bus at one point, attempting to line up a shot with an invisible cue. Oh no. Please...No?

We waited dockside for a break. I could see him looking around for us, two cans of beer in hand, fag in mouth. Bruce Lee came to collect our passports, and went to get The Colonel...who waved him away saying "No, no...I don't want to buy anything. No, no thanks..." I was watching through my fingers.

To cut a (Ha) long story short-ish...he offered me a Magic Sweetie. I didn't want one, so he did the lot. The rest of the trip was cringeworthy to say the least. The topic of conversation, even with a nice middle-aged couple...was non-prescription valium. He asked what other people had ordered, and how much he owed at dinner (it was all-inclusive). We'd all been swimming earlier, jumping off the boat from its highest point into the dark water at night. I begged him not to swim, but he did. After plunging into the water from 20' up, he spluttered to the surface and asked "Did I just jump off there?"

The question we kept getting asked was "Is that guy your friend?" Funny looking back, but not at the time. Karma was Instant, though...as he swam back to the boat he was stung by a jellyfish. I nearly cried laughing. Schadenfreude...I like a bit. Back on the boat, you don't have to guess who volunteered to piss on the stings. Someone said it may have been lice, which are the disintegrated remains of the tentacles when a jellyfish perishes. He asked "Lice? I though they were just the ones you get from sex...pubic lice." The girls he was sat with shot myself and The Jock a dark look from across the boat. We'd chosen other seats to hide from the embarrassment. The rest of the evening was just effing-and-blinding...we had to wait for him to tire and hit the hay. 13 beers that day, and 20 valium in 24 hours finally did him in...and normal service resumed.

All in all, an unforgettable weekend...

Thrills, Pills And Bellyaches...

Well, it didn't take long. With a feeling of dread, I caught the back end of a conversation between The Colonel and Steve, the Irish fella. My ears pricked up at the excited exclamation of "Valium??" from The Colonel. "Yeah, you can get it over the counter here, it's non-prsecription." Oh fuck, here we go...whatever next?

Now most people I know have tried downers and mixed them with a night on the booze. Sure, it feels good. But it tends to make you act like a twat and behave as if the Law doesn't exist. One notable result being the arrest of myself, Goof and Moody McDermott a few years ago in Preston. After eating them like sweets, smoking weed and sinking several pints, we'd decided it a good idea to obstruct the main street coming out of Preston one night...with wheelie bins, traffic cones, lumps of masonry etc. When the police pulled up, Goof was trying to push a stationary car into the street while two others were pulling a crumbling wall apart to use. Old Bill wasn't amused. Neither were Preston's taxi-driving fraternity. Or the Magistrates, come to think of it. Cue a 120 quid bill for Unlawfully Obstructing The Public Highway and Drunk And Disorderly Behaviour.

That was at 22 years old. The Colonel being 39, I could only guess at what would happen when I received a text saying "These valium are alright...they've taken the edge right off. I'm having a couple more in a minute." Taken the edge off what? Seeing the world? We tried to contact him, and couldn't...I had visions of him in some mangled state and being led up a dark alleyway to be robbed. Or bummed into next Christmas by some Sex Tourist.

We finally found him staggering around the Old Quarter, sweating and crimson-faced...garbling questions at strangers and shoving a map in their faces. 30 yards from the hotel. You couldn't make it up. Off to our Local, where he continued on. In between abusing his favourite booksellers, naturally..."What rhymes with book...?" etc etc ad infinitum. Oh, what a night. Surely it can't get any worse...?

Monday, 20 October 2008

Hanoi Rocks

We flew from Hue to Hanoi with an Irish couple we'd met in the city. Steve's only 24, but a very switched-on fella. We'd had a good chat about the Vietnam War, S-21 and Cambodia's conflict. I like well-read people.

The Colonel, the Jock and myself were apprehensive about Hanoi. We'd heard some bad stories. A few girls told us the maids at their hotel were stealing from them. The guidebooks warn of aggressive touts and physical violence. Indeed, a rather large Scouser called Charlie (his first name was Kenneth...can't blame him for using his middle one) told us about his experience:

Apparently, a taxi driver had taken him and his Indian wife to a different hotel from the one he'd asked for. The staff had laid on food, and tried to get them to stay. Chas wanted to pay no more than $18, and the manager wanted $40. So he tried to leave, saying it was too expensive. The manager tried to grab his rucksack, and a struggle ensued. A chef joined the fray, and Charlie said he just wanted the fuck out of there. He pushed the manager over, and the next thing he knows...he's pulling out a meat cleaver from under the counter as the chef produces a knife. So Charlie's having a less than good time by now, and his wife ran into the street to grab a policeman as Charlie brandished a chair to fend off the screaming fellows. He looked her up and down and turned away. Fellow travellers adopted the "it's not happening to me" attitude and moved on. Eventually a Vietnamese calmed things down and smoothed it over. As Charlie went to leave, apparently the manager sai "Ok, Ok, OK...18 dollars." Not likely.

So, you can understand we were a little on edge. But we arrived by taxi with no hassle. The Northerners are curt and businesslike. A little on the brusque side, but it beats the false friendliness of the South. Although I did have one simpleton of a scooter driver who would not stop following me around one afternoon offering me a tour. Waited two hours outside the Army Museum for me and almost cried when I told him I was still not getting on his fucking sccoter. Don't give me those puppy dog eyes, mate. If you're not a puppy...you're on a hiding to nothing.

Besides the usual touting, Hanoi's my favourite place so far. The diversity of the old quarter is amazing. I think it'd take a year to get sick of photographing it...it's incredible. Each street has a speciality, whether it's hardware, flowers or tombstones. Unreal. I got some great shots, but saw another 50 a day I missed in a split-second. Especially the variety of things these people carry on the back of scooters. The best two being a naked mannequin of a child (the guy had it stood on one pedal, his hand holding it steady on top of it's head), and a guy in Nha Trang with a huge 5' tuna on the back of his. You could sit on one corner all day and have a portfolio by the end of it. I could live here for a year or two...it feels very European. The French did some good here.

The Colonel's getting tired of the constant sales pitches. We were sat at the junction of Ha Tien and Hang Bac, where the beer hoi stalls do beers for 10p (you don't get that in Hackney), and one guy wouldn't give up...the usual plethora of (badly) photocopied books. Now, The Colonel is still struggling to make himself understood to the locals...he doesn't try to reduce the Lancashire twang in order to make himself clearer. So a puzzling exchange began.

"Ere, mate...I don't want any books" (looks at me) "Fucking hell fire..."
"Ignore him, Mossy...he'll go away..."
"Mister, you wan' buy book? I have good book"

The Colonel points at the books, sweat dripping off his nose onto one of them. "What rhymes with 'book', and then 'off' on the end of that?" He recived a puzzled look in return and "I have Mister Nice, Vietnam phrasebook...yeah?" "No, no, no...what word rhymes with 'book' and then 'off'?"

Don't confuse the guy, mate...just tell him to Fuck Off?

Saigon Green...you know the score by OldBoy London.

I get the feeling I'm being followed...

It's quite funny being on the tourist trail. You keep bumping into people. I dived with a Saffa couple called Clive and Odette in Nha Trang. We'd been out a few times with them, Clive's a top lad. Likes a drink alright. We'd arrived in Hue and been sat at Thu's having a pint, when who should walk past? Missed them in Hoi An. But then we were at Ha Long Bay on a boat amongst at least 20 others (I know, I know...but there's no other way to do it). The Colonel was spotted at and shouted at by Clive, his head popping out of a window two boats away. I gave him the "Ring me" sign and mouthed "Hanoi" after he'd held up two fingers (the polite way around) to my question of how many night was he in the Bay.

Back in Hanoi, we chatted to three people in a cafe and laughed about it. One bar down the road we were playing pool in our (by now) local. And who should walk past? Unreal.

Stop stalking me, Clive. See you for a bit of diving in Southern Thailand, mate.

The Ancient Capital...Hue

Another day, another coach driver trying to kill us. What is wrong with these people? Would it be too much to have a few more traffic lights, roundabouts which are more than a lump of concrete in the middle of the road, and to lay off the horn a little? honestly.

This particular fool was trying to overtake coaches of equally terrified fellow travellers, faces blanched in fear at the windows, on uphill roads and blind bends. One a few occasions, there were near head-on collisions with other coaches barrelling down the hill. I was sat near the back on the driver's (left) side. It was with black humour that I laughed as the people further forward scuttled to the other side of the bus with each imminent death scenario. One missed us by barely a foot. The Jock said I needed to relax and not watch the road ahead. I simply replied that if I was going to die, I at least wanted to see it coming and have a few happier moments flicker across my mind beforehand. Grandad acting the fool. My Yorkshire Terrier Callie, now croaked, trying to run up a wall in the house. Mum's macaroni cheese. Getting Dad stoned. Andy Saville's second goal at Leyton Orient when North End won promotion. Things like that.

But no, we survived. For now. Arrived in hue to the usual melee of touts "You see my hotel? Is real nice." Get fucked. We're hardened to it now. It's like the rudeness you develop in London after 6 months. Very useful. So we found a nice place opposite Thu's traveller's cafe. She's the woman to ask questions in Hue...a mental local with a variety of party tricks. Some painful (like the one I suffered...a cocktail stick inserted into my cranium and lit like a candle) and some not. Just humiliating. Beer's cheap as in there...25p a bottle. So we were there quite a lot. Her and the family do tours around the area, usually on scooters...but we did a car as it was lashing down.

The downpour made the place seem more atmospheric. We saw singing and praying monks in beautiful pagodas...all saffron robes, drums and fingerbells. Beautiful. The dedication thses people have to Buddhism is absolute. I'm not religious, but I still admire it...and it's a very peaceful religion, after all. This monastery was the home of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who self-immolated in protest at President Diem's treatment of Buddhists in the 60s. His car he used to drive to Saigon that day is still preserved here. He never flinched or moved a muscle as the petrol he'd doused himself in burned, and the flames consumed him. A brave man, indeed.
David Halberstam wrote of the scene: "I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think... As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him." The horror...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Goodbye To Rainy Hoi An

Hoi An is a lovely, French-Colonial town of tailors midway up the coast in the Central provinces. Really friendly place, if a little touristy and full of noisy young Australian girls who wanted to sleep with us. Had they been less stupid, and more attractive, I would have lied about my age when they said they were 20. The Jock said "24" when they asked (he's 32). I pointedly said "I'm 38, and he's 39", scuppering The Colonel's chances. Without even asking him. How very rude. Needless to say, their interest in us waned.

We saw them in a bar a little later. Leathered. I was chatting to a young lad at the pool table. He asked where I was from, and said he was from Rome. I'd hardly had the chance to say "I've been there" before one of the Antipodean Floozies just walked straight up to hiom and stuck her tongue down his throat. God Help Him, I thought as I walked off.

Nothing much to report, really. Bumped into some girls we met in Nha Trang, and had a nice little dinner down by the rising river. Great little scruffy place with the best Vietnamese Spring Rolls yet. Would make a fortune if they transplanted it to Hoxton.

Right...off to Hue on a bus this afternoon. Probably more rain to come, but all sun would be boring. And at least it's nice and cool today.

Toodle pip.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Colonel Flustered Snaps

Well...I've seen him get shirty a few times and nearly come undone. Deciding he didn't want his own scooter, and trying to get it back on it's kickstand...lathered in sweat and red in the face. Dancing round a hotel bar with a cockroach stuck on his back as I howled with laughter. But nothing compares to last night. I think the trains, hassle from vendors and Travis Bickle's driving finally tipped him over the edge.

He retired to his hotel room, while me and The Jock hit the town for a few games of pool and refreshing Saigon Greens. The Jock received two texts we didn't read til next morning. And a call complaining of a mouse/ rat in his abode. He put a towel under the door to keep it out.

Text 1: "This place is in the Rough Guide? What a joke.Today for me has been bad vibes from the start. Taxi drivers who should not be behind the wheel of a car, never mind a taxi. I'm tired and need to sleep, but am paranoid about these rats."

Text 2: " Don't know about you two, but I'm checking out of this rat-infested shithole tomorrow. I could hear the little twats on the landing. It's not good. in fact it's bad. Rats fighting on the landing? It's time to leave."

He came in this morning and we chuckled at his story of shrieks from rodents in the night. Probably cats killing them? He told us he'd been out for fags this morning, and had asked the vendor if it always rains so much in Hoi An. He was met with a puzzled look and a shrug "Yeah, mate" he said "thanks for your help. Thanks for your fucking help. Thanks a lot, cheers."

Sat there sweating in the hotel, I could sense him unravelling. The heat plays with his mind, and he says he can't think straight. Says he wanted to get a plane to Thailand asap and chill out there. But I've told him he can't miss Laos. And he can't expect sunshine every day, and a rat and cockroach-free environment. We're not in Leyland now. But I think between myself and The Jock, we can hold him together.

For now, at least.

The World's Worst Taxi Driver

I've had a few hair-raising moments in Vietnam. Scooter taxis skimming through traffic narrowly avoiding trucks and buses. Tuco and his gang trying it on. But this young taxi driver was something else. In his tiny little car, he looked about 15. It's 20km to Hoi An from Da Nang, and off we went.

He drove slowly, constantly on his horn, even when the upcoming scooters were at least 40 yards away. I developed a headache, and Tourettes. The Jock was asking for music to drown it out. The Colonel just sweated and developed a mantra of "Fuck's sake.." with every head-on collision we managed to avoid. The highway was two lanes wide in each direction. He insisted on driving right down the centre of it...with no lights on as the sun was rapidly dropping behind the horizon. I eventually got him to pull over and put the headlights on.

He had to keep asking directions to Hoi An, and was even reversing down the highway with no lights at one point. "This nob's not done The Knowledge, has he?" the Colonel quipped. Once into Hoin An proper, he nearly killed us another half-dozen times (I'd lost count) before we arrived at the hotel. I felt like doing The Pope, and kissing the filthy ground as I got out.

Diving Nha Trang

I can hardly be bothered to write this bit. Wasn't good. If that, as they claim, is the best Vietnam has to offer....I'd rather dive in Wales.

My Lai

Well, we had a pain in the arse on the way to see My Lai the other day. We got to Quang Ngai station, and had four hours to visit the site of the massacre before the next train. They were literally fighting over us at the station. We got underway, and the taxi driver was going slowly, pointing at hotels on the way, despite us telling the fucker that we had to get back for a train. Three times he phoned his female controller, who was put on to The Jock, as he was riding shotgun, to find out where we were going after My Lai. He explained we were leaving, and passed the phone back. She called back again and again. And exasperated Colonel fidgeted alongside me in the back. "Tell her to just fuck off". He's bound to get a job in the Diplomatic service on reture to Blighty. "I'm fucking sick of it."

On arrival at the Massacre Theme Park they've tastelessly turned My Lai into, we were told we had to pay for him to wait. Fair enough. Then a woman demanded 30000 VND to park the cab. Just trying to make some money out of the only visitors there, it seemed. We just said No. I wouldn't recommend the site. The exhibition is nothing I hadn't already seen, bar some grisly photos. And the site itself is mainly fenced off, with nothing to see. You don't get a feel for what happened here from a few concrete foundations they've just reconstructed. Although The Colonel did come away complaing of "bad vibes". God help him when we get to The Killing Fields and S-21.

On the way back to the station, the phone went again. The driver tried to pass it to a by now angry Jock, who just said "No. Station." The driver actually passed the hotel again, slowed down and looked pleadingly at us. Unbelievable.

Constant Haranguing

It's non-stop here. "Taxi? Motorcyle? Lady boom-boom? How I can help you? Sunglass? Me good guy." Give me strength...

The worst are the ones who try and sell you sunglasses when you already have a pair on. If I had eyes in the back of my head, maybe I'd consider a second pair. But then, if I DID have eyes in the rear of said cranium, I'd see these little fuckers coming...and hide. Their English is limited when you want change for anything here, but they can all manage to say "I come back later...you change your mind?" Unreal.

As I've said previously, the formula is: the friendlier they are, the more they're going to want something off you. Sad, but true. I've met maybe three genuine ones so far who are just interested in where you are from, your life in England, and where you are going.

On to Nha Trang

An eventful bus journey saw us reach Nha Trang from Mui Ne after 6 hours. Three changes of wheels, and a near-fatal collison with a cow who had somewhat unwisely decided that a good place to chew the cud was the centre of Highway 1. I nearly shit myself, I don't know about the cow. I don't think we'd have stopped had we hit it...the drivers are maniacs. Constantly tooting the horn to bully scooters, cars and other buses to let them pass. There's no way this clown without make-up would have got work on the Brighton-London run for National Express.

The scenery wasn't as nice as it was Saigon-Mui Ne, either. You can't have it all. Got chatting to some nice Germans. A contradiction in terms, eh? Especially according to a beach-seller trying to hawk us some paintings The Colonel could have created better with a paintbrush up his arse in a darkened room. This chap said he liked the English because they always said Sorry when they didn't want to buy a painting. The Germans are rude, and the Isrealis arrogant. With that, he showed us his wares. "Sorry" said The Colonel "...I don't want to buy a painting."

Aside from this, nothing much happens in Nha Trang. We played pool, drank...and I got 100 km/h out of a sccoter down the beachfront street. No, not after drinking, Mum.

We did ride out to where the highway disintegrated into rubble one afternoon. It was a very poor area, but a few passing farmers let me take their photos with their ox-drawn carts. I saw a great photo opportunity as an old lady walked up towards me, mountains in the background, wearing a conical hat and carrying fruit. I asked if I could take her picture, using sign-language. She coughed and gobbed in the street as she walked on.

I took that as a No...

Sunday, 5 October 2008

The Sultan Of Brunei: An Official Apology

The travel guides advise you always to have a toilet roll handy. Caught short away from the apartment, I'd headed over to the cafe on the beach we're frequenting. My relief was short-lived, as had no sooner had I sat down, that I realised that there was no loo roll there, either. Arse.

Looking across at my rucksack, I had a frantic rustle for serviettes. To no avail. On spying my Rough Guide, however...it's fine, silky, thin pages soon became appealing. Flicking through, I found the section on (reputedly) the most broing, least-visited part of Southeast Asia: Brunei. Rrrrrrrrrrripp!!!!

So I hereby apologise to the Sultan and his people. Not for calling it boring. It is. Merely for having the temerity to wipe my bum on your country. Metaphorically-speaking. Incidentally, I can't praise The Rough Guides enough. Never leave home without one.

(The pic is the Sultan with a printout of this blog)

Mui Ne

I forgot to mention. They had TV screens on the train, and were showing some Vietnamese slapstick comedy. You could just about get the gist of it from the expressions, obviously. But I was just laughing at the passengers laughing, it was quite infectious. I'll upload a pic when I empty the camera. I think people here enjoy life, despite not having a lot of money.

Mui Ne is a 21km beach. Not much to report about the place, except that it was red-hot and we spent a lot of time swimming and generally taking it easy. It was pretty touristy (I'm a backpack snob already) and not cheap. But I had some amazing fish dishes here, and it was still only a few quid.

Anyway, on to Nha Trang by bus...and wait for The Jock to catch us up from Saigon.

Vietnam Rip-offs Pt 2




Ah yes, here we go again. Just when you think you've turned a corner in Vietnam, one of them tries to kick you in the Family Jewels. We disembarked the train, jumping down to the ground off the steps...just like in the films! This station was in the middle of nowhere, and we organised Honda Om's to take us into Phan Thiet, a sleepy fishing village on the coast (where else?). The drivers were trying to confuse us with figures, and our pleasant streak through the countryside, narrowly avoiding running over snakes and small children, was tempered somewhat by the maths running round my head. HOW much? Needless to say, a 12km ride here should not be relieving myself and The Colonel of 17 of your English Pounds. The cheek. As the sea came into view, and that lusty salty smell bit my nostrils...I formulated a plan. The bandits dropped us at a luxurious hotel. Now, I had no intention of staying here, but knew there would be a good English speaker (if you can call catering for Americans, Seth Effrickens and Aussies as requiring English?) on reception. I grabbed my back and gestured that the men should follow me in. The Colonel proceeded to wrestle with his driver, who was clinging onto his rucksack as insurance of payment. I garnered from the receptionist that the ride should have cost us 400 VND at most, not 1,000,000. So Isaid the men should call the police if they wanted more than 600 VND as meeting them halfway over the misunderstanding (misleading, more like). One of them squatted in the street, holding his head in his hands. I thought "I've just not let you rip me off as much, mate...not gunned down your entire family". Unbelievable. After they'd gone, the girl shrugged and said "Welcome to Vietnam". Indeed, love. Indeed.

Slow boat to China? Slow train to M'uonng Man, more like...

We left Saigon, slightly disappointed that Kim's wouldn't do us the shrimp curry we fell in love with for breakfast. If you're ever in Saigon, try it...nothing tastier has passed my lips this trip. It was a relief to escape the madeness, as we boarded a 50s Soviet-looking train. I was biting my lip trying not to laugh at the music being piped through...it was obviously on a very old tape, which had been stretched beyond limits over the years. I wish I'd have been able to record it...it was hilarious.

The train moves slowly...it's a 70km trip to the second stop out of Saigon, and it takes an unbelievable 4hrs. We picked up speed as we exited the city limits, the crawl understandable as the huts and lean-to dwellings were literally feet from the track in places. I waved at a gap-toothed old man in a tin bath as we picked up speed eventually, and he raised his scrubbing brush in salute and grinned.

The scenery past the city limits seared my retinas. Verdant banks of lush vegetation flashed past my eyes in the foreground, mountains and hills in various tones of grey moving more sedately beyond. This was just how I imagined Vietnam. The Colonel beamed, face glued to window like a child as we snaked through valley after valley...each vista more incredible than the next. Hills shrouded in tendrils of mist, the sun streaming through trees which stroked the carriages as they passed by. Tuco was becoming more pantomime villian (he's behind me?) and less thriller spectre by the moment. Although I was half expecting him to appear above the rim of the train window, hunting knife clentched between bad teeth, at any moment.

It's amusing watching The Colonel's reactions. I mean, I'm no Phileas Fogg, but he's only been to Amsterdam, Dublin and France as a child. So it's actually quite rewarding to see him over-excited about things. He managed to refrain from jumping up and down on the seats on the train, though. Which was nice.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

The Good, The Bad...And The Very Ugly

The afternoon had to take a wrong turn somewhere. On walking back from the ferry, we were accosted by an over-friendly (ie Not To Be Fucking Trusted) "Tuco", so named as he had all the sneaky personality of the villain of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. You could almost smell the evil emanating from his pores, although the blue Hawaiian-style shirt covered in guitars lent him a comic egde.

"I am good guy, I have many western friends. I take you tour. I show you snake farm. You need ATM? I ride you to ATM" He proceeded to show us snaps of him with his Western "friends"...all of whom, The Colonel quipped later, were probably now dead.

We decided to ignore him after a while, as out polite declines were obviously water off a crispy duck's back. So Tuco got on the phone, wandered off 50 yards, and "Sharkeyes" turned up. This guy didn't look very nice. Middle-aged, thick-set...he came and leaned on the wall and watched us while Tuco disappeared on his bike, only to return with a couple of other unfriendly-looking types. One acne-riddled youth we named "Pockface", and a guy on a scooter with an aluminium helmet we gave the moniker of "Bullethead".

Now...I was facing these guys, The Colonel had his back to them. I nodded, and he turned to see Sharkeyes around five metres away, glaring at us (I had a brief vision of myself and The Colonel in a bamboo cage, up to our necks in water while Sharkeyes poked us with a stick...and Tuco gleefully threw hungry rats on us while attempting to guess our PIN numbers with one of those remote terminals you get in the shops these days). It was clearly time to leave. We moved inside the bar to the Tourist Information building, as Bullethead followed us on his Om. They showed us another exit, and we used this rapidly, as our hotel was only 200m away. A short run ensured we made it and, as we got upstairs, we could see Bullethead and Tuco circling outside...looking at our place and the one next door, obviously confused as to which one we'd scarpered to. Fools!

Our hotel staff didn't speaka da lingo, and the police are often corrupt round here. So I got a mate back home to get me the number of the Consulate in Vietnam (cheers, Neil). He said much the same as I was thinking...don't go out, ring the police as a last resort...and get out as soon as you can. What...no helicopter rescue? I'm a UK taxpayer. Send the SAS, my good man. Oh, OK...I'll get a taxi and risk death at the roadside, shall I?

So, as I awoke at 5.30...I moved quietly so as not to wake The Colonel until necessary. But he was already conscious and raring to go. Passports collected, and taxi ordered...we were on our way back to the relative safety of Saigon by 6.10am.

The Early Bird Catches The Worm, Tuco. Yer louse...

A pleasant afternoon in Ben Tre

Well, myself and The Colonel ventured further South this morning. We'd read that not many people go there, so the attitude was "Fuck it...we'll go, then". A 40-minute ferry ride took us across, and it was a hairy 20 minute Honda Om ride through the countryside from there.

Ben Tre is very poor, but the people inversely friendly, ready smiles and cheeky catcalls followed us up the street; laughing children ran up to touch our skin before running away screaming. Such a strange experience, but we were grinning from ear to ear.

We had a wander up the bank of the river and were accosted by a right bunch of characters selling fruit. Roughly five women of various ages, and a couple of roguish chaps. We sat down, and from then on in tried just about every fruit available in Vietnam, some tasty...some not so tasty. They were howling with laughter watching us try and peel and eat them.

We communicated via sign language and facial expression. They asked our ages, and how tall we were. Cue laughter when I wrote down that I was 17. They all shook their heads, and erupted when I added a 1/2 to it. One of the men flicked through our Rough Guide until he found the phrases section. He pointed at one of the women, and cackled as he pointed at me...then his finger jabbed at the Vietnamese for "hotel". Rum bugger. I was sorely tempted to point at the phrase "How much" a few rows down, but the woman might have been his sister. And he was chopping fruit for us with a chipped machete. I kept the joke to myself and grinned.

They wouldn't even take any money off us afterwards, and gave us some fruit to take home. They waved, smiling, until we were out of sight down the road. Utterly beautiful people, one of the most pleasant afternoons I've spent in a while.

After that, it was a Om ride back to the ferry...for our run-in with Tuco and Sharkeyes...

Friday, 3 October 2008

The Colonel's Etiquette Pt 1

He does make me laugh. His naivety can be as funny as it is annoying at times...Goof warned me I'd be babysitting him at times. Poor lad's only been to Amsterdam, Dublin and France in his teens before this. So some slack needs cutting. Besides, it's worth the exasperating moments to see the joy on his face when we see something amazing. As for the comedy value...

We were sat in a restaurant just the other night. The attentive waitress had placed the napkin in my lap. She moved to Mossy, unfolded his and went to place it. The struggle which ensued was a sight to behold. A red-faced Colonel holding the girl's hands away from him, thinking she was going for his groin. Her trying again, repeatedly (and patiently). She eventually placed said necessity in his lap. After looking around at other diners, he finally asked, frowning and holding up pink cotton:

"Have you got...er...one of these things???"
"It's a napkin, Mossy..."
"Eh?"
"In case you spill anything"
"Ah...OK...well, you know me...I'm just a shit-kicker from Leyland"

Priceless.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shot

Couldn't sleep, so I left a snoring pig of a Colonel at 6am and walked outside for a quiet read by the waterfront. Wrong. Half the town were out, doing their physical jerks to the accompaniment of the Soviet-style voice barking out of the tannoys strapped to the lamp-posts. I was biting my lip watching all these old people half-arsedly running around, stretching, hawking and spitting phlegm all over the place. You'd have to see it to believe it.

So i phoned Our Scott to describe it. People were staring at me, but looking away as I caught them. As I finished the call, I heard a rustle in the bushes behind me. I turned, half expecting a dog, only to be confronted by a middle-aged woman in pyjamas taking a picture of me on her mobile. She made good her escape as I chuckled to myself.

I'm rather beginning to enjoy this, I must say...

On to My Tho

So, we were dumped at a junction in the middle of nowhere...and two old duffers ferried us to My Tho. It's a fairly nondescript town, with a couple of ferry terminals to other dirtier, less salubrious areas. More of that later. It's off-season, so not many Westerners about. The Rough Guide let us down again, and left the Colonel fairly apoplectic (his words, not mine), with their recommendation. Two cockroaches, and open vents full of mosquitoes drove us to another hotel. Stuff dumped, we naturally went in search of beer. Nowhere was open for food, bar one place on the corner with no-one there. We ordered whatever she was making, as long as there was none of the fly-ridden meat she had on display anywhere near it. Turned out to be delicious, for only 25p (the soup, not the fly-ridden meat).

On leaving, we were passed by a portly chap on his scooter, who slowed to a crawl and just stared at us, mouth agape. No sooner had his engine sound died away, than it returned...he had doubled back for another look, and sailed around the next corner looking over his shoulder at us. This is how John Merrick felt popping out for a pint of milk, no doubt. I think the last time the old fella has had seen a white man with a crewcut, he was probably running through a jungle and shooting at him.

We wandered back to the hotel, and could hear music from the roof of the tower next door. Deciding on (another) nightcap, we got a lift up. As the doors opened, the two barman went "Wow!' We couldn't stop laughing. Anyway, The Colonel began to regale them with tales, and actual video, of life back home in Leyland, near Preston. They mentioned Manchester, and he was off on a rant about how Wigan had beaten City the previous evening. I sat, head in hands, as he spluttered "Izaki...80th minute penalty...we was all over them..." They looked nonplussed. And not because they didn't understand him, naturally. Wigan Pathetic.

Vietnam Rip-Off Pt 1

They're all at it. We got a bus from one bus station to another, only to be bundled off onto another unofficial bus full of locals. Our bags were taken to the back, and then we had 5 guys around us demanding various amounts of money to get us to My Tho on the Mekong Delta. We got away with $15 after bargaining them down, only to be told by a decent chap called Nguyen later on that the fare was $2. Twats! Ah well, it's to be expected. You learn quickly. I tell you what, it was the first time in 25 years I thought I was going to get duffed-up on the back of a bus...

Incidentally, they load allsorts on the buses. An antiquated typewriter, a spinning wheel, and at one point, several lengths of lead pipe and pieces of machinery. As The Colonel put it "they wouldn't allow this on a Fishwick's bus..."

We were a curiosity on the bus, as everywhere. Giggling girls, even old ladies...people trying to touch us. I said "They'd lock you up for this back home" to one group, who just laughed. I spent the journey above my rucksack, another and Nguyen's laptop in my lap, as we'd made room for a woman and her two cute little girls. Spent a pleasant hour talking about life in general. Nguyen imports Heineken, and was impressed/ grateful for the English tourist's capacity for drink. Jolly good show, old boy.

So on we trekked to My Tho, the Colonel lost in his music...I myself content by the hubub of locals chattering, the scream of traffic, and the constant chorus of horns which permeate any road journey in this region. The Delta awaits...

Saignon Sights Pt 2

One thing you should catch, if in Saigon, is the War Remnants Museum. If I was American, I'd be ashamed to be in that building. The My Lai Massacre is just the tip of a particularly grim iceberg. The jars of malformed foetuses, borne from mothers affected by the tonnes of Agent Orange dropped on the DMZ shocked The Colonel to his core.

In particular, comments which have an echo in current US Foreign Policy were the comments made by the US Chief Of Staff about bombing Vietnam "back into the Stone Age". Shocking. Doing pretty much the same in Iraq, I imagine.

Even more disgusting were the actions of US Senator Bob Kerrey during his tour of Vietnam. It belies belief.

Saigon Sights (Hardly...)

Not much to see in Saigon, truth be told. Although myself and The Colonel spent an amusing hour just sitting by the side of the road an witnessing the things these crazy people can cram on a scooter. My two favourites were the bloke with around ten 15' long metal poles sailing through a junction with flagrant disregard for the safety of anyone else on the planet...and the man with two fridges stacked on the back of his Honda Om. Awesome skills, mate.

So...what else did we see? Fuck all. The Reunification Palace was far and away the most dull tour I have ever witnessed. It was supposed to be a kitsch 1960/70s gaff, described in the Rough Guide as "Like the lair of a Bond villain'. My arse. And we were led by a guide personally brainwashed by Uncle Ho himself.

He started his spiel, and went on about how the Vietnamese gloriously defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. But the comment "when the French had never been beaten" got my goat.

"Erm...excuse me..." (hand held up)
"Yes?" (quizzical, interested look)
"I think you'll find the English beat them way before that...outnumbered at Agincourt?"
"Yes, thank you...and after the first Indochina War, the great..." (less interested look)
"And we beat them pretty soundly at Trafalgar..."
"...thank you, yes....and..." (even less interested, but corrected)
"In fact, all through the Hundred Years War..."

You get my drift. He certainly did. I wandered off to take photos, and an exasperated Colonel left the tour after the guide described a particularly shittily-decorated room in the building as "the best room in the Palace, in fact...in my opinion...the best room in the whole world"

This country...

Saigon Arrival

Well, talk about miserable. The people on the Immigration desks are made of stone. Bright green uniforms with the red epaulattes, complete with the Vietnamese star...and a distinct lack of a Vietnamese smile.

On exiting the airport, I saw what people were on about when they said that the Vietnamese just stare. Not in a rude way, just out of curiosity. Now I know how the first black man in Preston felt, bustin' his way down Fishergate in his flares and platforms. Goldfish bowl.

And they certainly have a penchant for two wheels. Saigon is a chaotic, mind-scrambling ballet of scooters. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. How there were no more collisions, I don't know. I saw one rather good-natured accident whilst there...caused by an old lady crossing at an inopportune moment? She smiled and bowed at my "You alright, love?"

If anything, you get pestered even more in Saigon than you do in Bangkok. God help you if you stop for a moment, or open your guidebook. "Taxi?" "Motorcycle?" "Sunglass....five dollar?" Jesus...even if you're wearing a pair. And I lost count of the number of people wanting to swap watches with me.

Anyway, we found a great room for a fiver...family place. And the best English speaker was a kid who reminded me of the kid from The Goonies, but with glasses. That kid will go far. Mindyou, we had a 'mare tying to wake the little bugger up to open the door so we could get out for a beer...

Toilet humour

One of the odder things I love about Southeast Asia is the fact that they have a hose by the side of the toilet, to spray down any unsightly mess the user has made. I know a certain Dutchman in Hackney who would benefit from one of these. Or at least, his new flatmate/ landlady would.

Are you reading, Mr Skids?