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 Just you be successful flying this outdated fucker, please.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.

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.

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

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.

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

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?