A Travellerspoint blog

May 2008

Frog/man

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I’ve been hanging around in Nha Trang for about ten days now. I’ve enjoyed eating a variety of food here: French, Italian, Mexican and Japanese, a nice change after two months of rice and noodles. And while writing this I’ve been listening to an improbable England victory on Test Match Special on BBC Radio. It will be hard to garner the motivation to leave.

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In between vast stretches of lazing around, immobile as if in the Jovian gravitational field, I’ve been following the Live and Let Die training regime (qv) – minus the fags and most of the booze – and feel in better nick than I have for a few years. A downside: with newly-sunken cheeks (well, ish - a slight concavity) I'm looking every one of my years and more, and can't go around pretending to be 21.

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Most of the time it's just westerners and Asian tourists who bask during the day. The locals come out on to the beach around 5pm, and then it gets crowded (although the long lens distorts the perspective).

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While immobile I have read:

    Master and Commander Patrick O’Brian;
    The Black Dahlia James Ellroy;
    Desolation Island Patrick O’Brian;
    On Killing, Lt Col Dave Grossman;
    The Fortune of War Patrick O’Brian;
    Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser; and
    most of The Iliad, Homer.

I would like to reread the Master and Commander series in order but you take what you can get out here.

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I’ve also qualified as a PADI Open Water diver, or frogman as Ian Fleming would have put it. This doesn’t mean that I’m a competent diver – far from it - but I can rent gear and dive down to 18 metres with another person. I like wearing the wetsuit: it makes me feel like an action man. My diving buddy on the course was Michel, a French-speaking Switzer from Lausanne. Judging by the photos, we were indistinguishable underwater. I'm on the left of this picture, with a red snorkel.

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(Incidentally, Michel is vegan. He says he has no trouble in Vietnam. Cream and cheese play no part in indigenous cooking – more’s the pity - and with the exception of the Sinosoups, eggs are self contained, hard boiled or omelette. I'm almost entirely carnivorous. Yesterday lunchtime I had eel pate, with vermicelli, diced black mushrooms and onions, wrapped like a haggis - delicious and savoury - and DIY barbequed squid with salt and chilli. I ate half the squid raw before the barbeque arrived - also lovely, if almost too spicy to eat.)

The visibility is unusually poor for this time of year, because of the heavy rain in the last few weeks. But you can still see a lot of interesting creatures, including fluorescent fish. Among tens that I don’t know, I have seen:

• Several demon stingers (Inimicus didactylus). These have very poisonous dorsal spines; one sting and you’re in hospital for six months, if you’re lucky. They walk slowly across the bottom on their pectoral fins. They flash the fins as a defensive warning gesture. When they aren’t flashing, they look just like sand.

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• Puffer fish.

• Shrimp fish (I think). They swim in schools, vertically, head down, looking like ribbons.

• Egg cowries.

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• A grouper with a fish in its mouth.

• An oriental searobin, which looks a bit like a moth underwater.

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• Several moray eels (both white-eyed and giant morays).

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• Tiny yellow box fish.

There are also huge quantities of hard and soft coral – the coral is very healthy around here – anemones and sea urchins. The sea urchins are jet black, very large (many times the size of those in the Mediterranean), with bright blue bits on the body (actually the anal sac). Attractive, but dangerous: the spines embed themselves in flesh and break off as soon as they are touched. This is a good incentive to work on the buoyancy control.

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When you’re diving you concentrate on breathing slowly, moving slowly, keeping any movement to a minimum, keeping your pulse down. It doesn’t feel like exercise at all, yet it’s very tiring. One guy told me it’s because it’s harder work breathing denser air and moving through water under greater pressure. Another guy told me it’s because of the build-up of nitrogen in the body. (It’s the nitrogen released from solution upon ascent to the surface that gives divers the bends.)

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The pictures were taken during our dives by Khương, our instructor.

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  • **

I have undergone two massages while travelling, one in Bangkok and one here. Both have involved violence. In Bangkok, the masseuse tried to tie me in knots; you might as well try bending the QE2’s anchor. Here in Nha Trang, a skinny but extraordinarily strong young woman beat me up. First it felt as though she was trying to thrust a fist between my ribs in order to extract my beating heart in some kind of Mesoamerican sacrifice; then she tried to thrust her thumbs through my temples as if breaking open a roll.

If this is the experience at reputable establishments, it’s no wonder there are so many disreputable ones.

  • **

27 May: I wrote all the above yesterday. The ease of life in Nha Trang made me indolent. It was time to get out. So, seizing upon a temporary burst of energy, I've hauled my wind to Buôn Ma Thuột, the coffee capital of the country. As you can see on the map, I've gone on an ursa major meander over the last three weeks, ending up only 250 km south of Kon Tum. It's taken 16 hours by bus, at an average of 40 km/h.

Every intercity bus journey I've taken in VN, except the hop between Hanoi and Ninh Binh, has been pretty hideous. Today promised better. There were only 13 people in the bus and I had a whole seat to myself. But an hour into the trip a woman sitting right behind the driver vomited out of the window. The eggy bile hit the turbulent air behind the wing mirror and splashed upwards and back through the windows. All of us on the window side got splashed. After that I was close to hurling for most of the remaining four hours.

I like Buôn Ma Thuột so far. It's been just about cool enough to wander around without serious discomfort; we're at 450m here. I had a good coffee at a cafe that overlooked a little gully, filled with coconut palms and coffee plants. I tried what the men at the table next door were drinking: 'chanh rum', or lemon 'rum'. I don't know what this is but I don't think it's rum. The drink was red and fruity like strawberry or grenadine.

Then I wandered around a local market. I wanted to buy a belt. But the only belts on offer here are D&G, Versace and Armani, with huge buckles: way too bling. If you want a t-shirt, it's Polo or Lacoste. I bought a red Lacoste for £3. Is it real? I don't care, but I would think so. The big labels are unlikely to want to manufacture anywhere outside China or Vietnam. I got a lot of attention at the market naturally. I ended up unconsciously standing up straight and throwing a chest - I've got bigger tits than most VN women - which ends up exaggerating the height difference and attracting even more attention. But unlike Kon Tum, everybody at the market was friendly.

Also on sale at the market: miracle vacuum cleaners; large pink quartz sculptures; ginseng honey. Ginseng grows well on some of the hills in Dak Lak province, of which BMT is the capital. I was told in Kon Tum that the minority peoples (lots of Ede and M'nong around here) overcropped it. So the government took back control of the land and production.

Posted by Wardsan 23:57 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Vietprop

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Most of the museums here have some revolutionary content. Every city has its HCM Museum, and plenty have Army Museums. The presentation of 20th century history is exactly what one would expect in what remains a one-party state in which civil rights including freedom of speech are not protected.

My reaction to the propaganda has varied widely, perhaps just depending on mood. At the Army Museum I found it dull and objectionable. (The war with America was said to be “American aggression”. That's an arguable point, depending on what happened at the Bay of Tonkin. But argument in Vietnam is not allowed.) Tediously, the Americans are always imperialists and the French always colonialists. It induced the opposite affect to that intended, simply making me feel hostile towards north Vietnam. “The world supported Vietnam” said a caption, meaning no doubt that part not under the control of the American imperialists and their fascist traitor lackeys, which would include its allies Thailand, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the Philippines. There were indeed affirmations of solidarity and typically tasteless gifts from such then-luminary nations as Algeria, Venezuela, Hungary, Mongolia, the USSR and Cuba.

They exhibited photos of Americans protesting against the war, and quotes from LBJ’s diaries. They failed to note the evident irony that the protesters were exercising rights denied to the population of Vietnam, or that LBJ’s diaries are available because the US has freedom of information laws to limit the abuse of power by government.

Nor do I care to see pictures of identifiable prisoners of war. It is demeaning. Indeed publishing demeaning images of identifiable prisoners of war would seem to be contrary to Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention, which inter alia requires POWs to be protected from public curiosity. These images were exhibited at the time, in propaganda posters, and in broadcast ‘denunciations’ made under duress (recall similar images of RAF servicemen in the first Gulf war, and of sundry Al-Qaeda victims).

In saying this, I do not want to apologise for the French regime or the Diem regime in the south, let alone for the US presence. Just that, while they were justifiably fighting for independence, the government of North Vietnam imposed on the citizens under their control an antiaesthetic, boring, prolix totalitarianism modelled on Russia’s, inevitably immiserating the population further. They transported whole sections of the population to labour camps. They also fought war without limits, using assassination as a tool of terror and systematically torturing opposing prisoners. Ever-smiling Uncle Ho was not much less of an arsehole than Uncle Joe, but he has a much better press.

Fighting for independence can be justified in itself, without trying to portray France and the US as the source of all evil; but of course that would not be compatible with the raison d’être of the totalitarian state, which needs enemies to justify its arrogation of power and circumscription of liberty. (Of course, the same is true, to a lesser extent, of the US and UK administrations in their attempts to circumvent habeas corpus.)

This is an installation made from the remains of downed enemy aircraft. There were a lot of them. The Viet Minh destroyed 435 French aircraft and the NVA and Viet Cong destroyed 33,068 US and ARVN aircraft.

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This flag tower, within the grounds of the Army Museum, was built by Emperor Gia Long between 1805 and 1812. It is a symbol of Hanoi.

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This is the engine casing of a downed US aircraft.

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This is a canister of "riot control agent" - CS gas. There were also bomb casings, including cluster bombs. According to VN figures at the Army Museum, the US dropped six tonnes of bombs per square kilometre in North Vietnam, or 45kg per head of population.

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  • **

I felt similarly, although perhaps more ambivalently, at the Hỏa Lò Museum, known in the west as the Hanoi Hilton. Its famous residents include Senator John McCain and Douglas Peterson, who returned to Vietnam in 1995 as the US Ambassador. Four of the US prisoners in northern Vietnam went on to become Congressmen.

Most of the prison has been demolished to make way for the Hanoi Towers, but a small part remains. It is mostly concerned with those imprisoned there under the French regime.

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It was built by the French as a prison. They built over a village which had previously been known for its ceramics. I don’t set much store by that: cities swallow villages as they grow.

All of the VN imprisoned here were ‘patriots’ and ‘heroes’. Not a single criminal among them, apparently. The inmates were “confined and persecuted both the body and the mind of thousands of revolutionary patriotic soldiers.”

And of course, the political prisoners were fighting for their country’s independence – a noble end. But there was a small exhibit, for example, on the seven who were executed in 1913 for throwing grenades into the Coq d’Or hotel. They killed a lot of people, including a senior Vietnamese administrator. This execution was presented as an act of colonial injustice, and the guillotine is preserved at the prison.

But mass murder - even, or especially, for political ends - is a grave crime. The culprits were executed after due process of law, in this case at Tonkin crown court. At that time France retained the death penalty for serious offences, as did the UK, for that matter. A Frenchman who had bombed people in Paris would undoubtedly have been executed, and I believe the method used in France would then have been the guillotine, which was after all invented as a “humane” (pain-free) device for executing people.

The VN prisoners undoubtedly suffered harsh conditions, inadequate nutrition and medical care. They were also subjected to torture. Or, as the exhibition puts it: “Living in the imperialistic prison under a severe punishment and maltreated life but revolutionary patriotic soldiers still kept steady their sense of purpose and uprightness, turned their prison into a school where propagated revolutionary argument.”

The American POWs on the other hand were “remanded in custody”, as if that were somehow different (technically it is, the difference rendering its use here inappropriate - but the reality is you're still in jail). The Americans were royally treated, as if in a hotel. “During the war the national economy was difficult but Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to US pilots for they had a stable life during the temporary detention period.” There are photos of them playing volleyball, and celebrating Christmas, always with a smile.

This part of the museum is a contemptible falsehood. Prisoners were kept in appalling conditions. Almost all prisoners were subjected to torture. USAF Maj Cherry was tortured for 93 days in a row, and kept in solitary confinement for 53 weeks on end. Tortures included the rope torture, in which the prisoner was bound and then suspended from the floor by the elbows, causing excruciating pain and restricting breathing. One in six US PoWs died in captivity. For others, the effects of torture endured. John McCain is still unable to tie his own (neck)tie.

Prisoners also featured in propaganda photographs and films. And they were forced to participate in a parade in Hanoi, during which they were abused, spat upon, and pelted with bottles and bricks. So much for Article 13: "Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."

  • **

On the other hand, the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi was a pleasant surprise. I only went there because the One-pillar Pagoda was a disappointment. It was built in 1049 under the Ly dynasty. It was destroyed in a Naziesque act of cultural vandalism by the retreating French. It was rebuilt in 1995, only smaller; and while the original pillar was stone, the new one is concrete. Not what you would call successful restoration.

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The HCM Museum is adequately although incompletely captioned in English and French; but in any case it is a highly visual presentation, put together with imagination. One area, for example, represented Coc Bo, the cave in which HCM lived (when not in prison) between 1941 and 1945; and at the same time a human brain.

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There is a well-known exhibit of a Ford Edsel bursting through a wall, representing the failures of American capitalism. (They had to pick their turkey carefully, since Ford has sold more cars than Vietnam has ever made and the US is twenty times richer than Vietnam; but on this occasion I forgave the artistic licence.)

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Before he adopted his final handle, his last of 50, HCM called himself Nguyễn Ái Quốc: Nguyen the patriot. He was away from Vietnam for 30 years. Nguyễn Ái Quốc was the name by which he wrote articles for the French newspapers and under which he attended Comintern meetings. He could certainly speak and write French, Chinese and English, and also, it appeared, Russian. He changed the Russian spelling of his name from Нуен-Ай-Квак (July 1924) to the improbable Нюэн-Ай-Квак (December 1924). Well, I found that interesting anyway.

I would have liked to spend longer with HCM, but they had to close for lunch, and then for the afternoon. When it comes to the museums, you have to pick your visiting times carefully.

  • **

One place where you would expect triumphalist propaganda would be at a site devoted to the last kings of Vietnam, the Nguyen dynasty. The Nguyens lived near Hue from 1744, when they were merely the Nguyen lords of southern Vietnam. Nguyen Anh retook the city from the Tây Sơn rebels in 1802 and then crowned himself Emperor Gia Long. The Citadel was built from 1804, and the Nguyen dynasty lived in splendour in the Imperial Enclosure within the Citadel. The Emperor himself lived in the Forbidden Purple City within the Imperial Enclosure - all very Chinese. In 1945, the last king abdicated from the balcony fronting the main gate of the Citadel.

There is little commentary of any sort around the site, but what there is merely presents facts, and does not see the need to add ‘imperial feudalists’ all the time.

  • **

Unfortunately the museum at Khe Sanh displayed the worse side. The photo captions were ridiculous. One claimed “the American soldiers’ panic shows on their faces at the Khe Sanh front in 1968”. Another purported to record US soldiers panicking as they abandoned Khe Sanh. Actually they abandoned it in an orderly manner and blew it up.

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Apparently the twisted commentary gets worse around Ho Chi Minh City. In the south, the people were fighting on the wrong side. So they have to receive more indoctrination in order to ensure their solidarity.

Posted by Wardsan 17:22 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Nha Trang

Back on the South China Sea

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12-14 May: Escaped from Alcatraz, I headed to Quy Nhơn. The journey was no fun. The driver tried to charge me twice the right amount because I was foreign. This is commonplace, but stupid because I told him that I knew the right price ($5 for a five-hour ride). Since he persisted, I walked 50 metres, bought a ticket at the ticket office and waved it in the driver’s face. This kind of bullshit happens several times a day and sometimes I feel I am close to snapping under the accumulated frustration. As it is I call them obscene names. The public minibuses are fitted out to take 16 small people, but they cram 22 in. Then they turn on the music, at maximum volume, and then they smoke. At least there’s no livestock.

I liked Quy Nhơn immediately. I’m not stared at or hassled very much, and there is a palm-lined corniche like Nice.

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There are large numbers of fishing boats and fish traps in the bay, and the odd guy wiggling his oar in a coracle.

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I had a cocktail on the eighth floor of a posh hotel just after sunset, and things were good again. (The hotel is called the Saigon Quy Nhơn and the cheapest room costs $35 a night. This is great value because there is a pool, gym, free wifi, obsequious service etc. But my place cost $11 a night and for that I got a big room with a balcony.)

The cocktail would have been a perfect moment but for the Kenny G/Michael Bolton soundtrack and the waiter hitting on me. Nice chap actually, I met him the following day with a friend of his, both very camp. It's refreshing to see people being quite so openly camp in VN, where I've hitherto got the impression that homosexuality is strongly disapproved of (Thailand, by contrast, is the most relaxed place on earth). But I don't enjoy being chatted up, particularly when trapped, and the unwanted attention did end up placing the nicest place in town pretty much off limits.

There's a pair of 800-year old Cham towers near the edge of town, bang in the middle of a block. On the way there I saw a guy riding a bicycle with three sofas on it. You see a lot of overloaded bikes here, but three sofas is something.

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The sea is said to be too polluted to swim in. This was no constraint: in the 40 hours I was in Quy Nhơn it rained every minute. I walked along the beach in the drizzle. Over the water, a flock of white birds – cranes perhaps. On the sand, hundreds of crabs; as soon as they see me they scuttle sideways into the water at an amazing speed – 10-12 km/h I would guess.

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A further gold star for the town: the seafood is very good. I had my first taste of nautilus: like strong whelk. And because there are very few westerners, prices are reasonable: I had a rice & veg meal including beer for 19,000 dong (60p).

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The museum took up about half an hour. Some of the best stuff is piled up unlabelled and unguarded at the back. This is all 800-year-old Cham sculpture.

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There is a pagoda, Long Khanh, with a 17-metre-high statue of Buddha in front of it. As often, he has a swastika on his chest. The twentieth-century appropriation and abuse of the ancient symbol by the Nazis has not tainted or prevented its continued use in this part of the world. But if you’re a westerner you can't help but stare.

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On 13-17 May it’s the tenth UN Day of Vesak – a UN day because in 1999 the UN acknowledged the Buddha’s birthday as an international day of culture. They celebrate the Buddha’s birth, enlightment and passage to Nirvana. This year it is being celebrated at a convention centre in Hanoi and there are posters all over Vietnam commemorating the event.

So it’s the first day when I visit Long Khanh pagoda, and lots of people are visiting to leave gifts. A monk attaches himself to me. He’s called Tu and speaks enthusiastic but execrable English as he shows me around the pagoda. He is off to Saigon to study more Buddhism and English.

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I would happily have stayed in Quy Nhơn for a while if it had ever stopped raining. A tropical storm for an hour every afternoon is no problem. But when bracketed by 23 hours of rain it saps the spirit and sogs the sandals, and there isn’t much to do.

So I headed south to Nha Trang where I immediately saw my first western faces in five or six days, spoke English and wolfed a plate of pasta. It’s like a somewhat squalid Khao San Road (qv): tour shop, dive shop, souvenir shop, restaurant, bar, hotel. It’s welcome light relief after some slightly challenging travelling. It's squalid both because of the dirt in the streets, and because after dark all the xe om drivers turn into pimps and drug dealers.

On 14 May it still rained. The locals are saying it was because of the earthquake in Sichuan. Can this be true?

15 May: Today, though, there was thin cloud cover for most of the day and sunshine for parts. I spent a lovely day on a lounger at the beach. It slopes steeply into the sea and so big waves crash and hiss even without much of a swell on the sea. They knock you flying if you are not careful.

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Vendors come along about every few minutes. Sometimes they even have things you might want, like grilled rice paper. The tropical sun is not to be trifled with, and I did so trifle, so now I look just like an Englishman abroad.

Vietnamese beachwear is different. The men wear what they like. The women generally swim in whatever they are wearing, although I did see some big one-piece swimsuits-n-skirts today. I suspect this pattern holds true all the way round the coast to South Africa.

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This woman is dressed as if prepared for a gas attack, and this is not unusual. A high proportion of women wear face masks. (Men only do so if they are working in the streets.) Even in the middle of a national park. It seems disproportionate to the threat of dust; in fact I haven’t had to reach for the Ventolin since Bangkok. It’s as if they’ve taken the veil.

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  • ****

Randy, of Randy’s Book Exchange in Hoi An, was kind enough to bus me the notebook that I’d left in his shop a week ago. Even more kudos to him.

There are a lot of Russians here it seems. Several of the places have Russian menus, and two have Russian names. For the first time since I got to Vietnam, I’ve heard Russian being spoken.

One lot there aren’t any of in VN is Italians. In the book exchanges you see a lot of English books, plenty of German, Dutch, Nordic and Finnish, French, Russian, some Hebrew and Japanese. No Italian. I met one Italian couple in Hoi An. We chatted in Italian, which pleased me immensely. Where are the Italians? I asked. In Italy, they said. And it’s true: the Italians take domestic vacations while the Germans, Dutch and English head abroad.

16, 17, 18 May: In one of the earlier novels – Live and Let Die, at a guess – James Bond prepares for a daredevil amphibious mission by living in a beach house and swimming and running for a week. That it takes him only a week to get into shape is improbable, because Bond smokes upwards of 70 cigarettes and drinks half a bottle of vodka a day - much less than Fleming himself drank while running a publisher. (Bond has his own cigarettes made by Morland’s, with three gold bands at the filter, from his own blend of Balkan and Turkish tobacco. His prissy obsession with having the right clothes/car/café/cocktail is probably not unrelated to his sadistic/psychopathic tendencies. Indeed, he shares his brandmania with the narrator of American Psycho.) Anyway, I’ve done the same thing today and after two months of travelling in hot weather it feels great to get some exercise. If it takes high-tar Bond a week, I thought I’d try to maintain the regime for three days. But the big sand, great lumps of silica, blisters the soles of the feet; I can’t run on it a second time.

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The prices at the two beach restaurants are very high, particularly at the Sailing Club. 80,000 (nearly $5) for a plate of fried rice; 25,000 dong for a can of coke or a bottle of water - outrageous. Yet there is a good restaurant down the road, the Khanh Kat, selling food at normal prices: a mojito, a bottle of beer, seafood soup, fish-and-bacon kebabs and some fruit for 105,000 dong ($6.50). That the two beach restaurants can behave like local monopolists is testimony to the inertia of the average consumer, which creates the low price elasticity of demand that supports high profit margins.

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Posted by Wardsan 18:43 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

A Ho Chi Minh Trail

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I spent the two VE days – Russia celebrates a day later, I think – on a motorbike. Cương picked me up at eight and we headed north towards Ðànãng. We stopped at the Marble Mountains, next to China Beach slightly south of Ðànãng. The five outcrops have long provided marble for the local sculptors; now they ship the marble in from China because the output is large. They sculpt the lot, from life-size lions and eagles and huge fat Buddhas down to candleholders. A lot of people buy from abroad. It must cost a fortune to ship a life-sized marble lion, but then if you are doing that you probably have a tastelessly decorated ranch. On the largest outcrop there is a temple complex and some caves, one of which was used as a field hospital by the VC.

We head west from Ðànãng. In the late morning it is not easy to tell the direction because the sun is overhead. We are about 16 degrees north of the equator, and the sun is vertical at noon for two short periods during the summer as it passes to and from its midsummer date at the Tropic of Cancer. One of those times must be about now.

They are in the middle of a rice harvest at the moment and the land is smoking as if at war. They harvest the rice, then burn the stubble, then turn the heavy soil.

They dry the rice for several days in the sun, forking it constantly.

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They spread the grains on plastic sheets in front of the houses, and often in the road. Sometimes they pour the rice directly on to the road. I suppose the road is as convenient place as any; also, perhaps, the dark road is hot. Rice blankets stretch out, mile upon mile, interrupted by the occasional bright orange maize blanket. On small lanes the rice is poured in the middle, like a grass verge in an English country lane. Vehicles drive over it, especially when the SUVs barge them towards the ditch.

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We stopped at a village where they make the province’s rice paper. The first step is to steep the rice in water. Then it is churned into a paste. Cheroot stub in mouth, an old woman used a small stick to spread perfect rice paper circles on to a hotplate, looking for all the world like a Belgian crêpe-maker. Ignoring the camera-toting tourist, she slung the soggy circles on to a horizontal wheel, where a younger, masked relative placed them on to racks to dry – a true cottage industry.

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The racks and contents dry in the sun, if there is any; otherwise they are smoked indoors.

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Heading west, our next stop was at a waterfall: Suối Mơ. There was a café at the entrance to the park. Tacked on to a wall was a wallchart of the 2008 European Championships, which we all discussed in depth. Every match will be televised and widely watched in Vietnam, most at 1.45 am. Output will suffer.

Cương and I dived in and swam in the pool below the waterfall. This is Cương. (The topless photo of me is not for publication.) Like most Vietnamese men, he chain-smokes.

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Then back on to the road – now Highway 14B - and I’m into the standard posture: sitting upright, hands braced on knees, looking around. I don’t hold on, because I figure that if something goes wrong, I want to be where the bike is not. At 50km/h the wind is in our faces, but it is Saharan and provides no relief.

In any case, a hand must be free and ready to wave at all times. Many children shout ‘hello’ and wave as soon as they see a westerner; very few adults do so. They are taught to say ‘hello’ as soon as they can speak; you see parents saying ‘hello’ to tiny toddlers in their laps. You wave back to the children and their faces light up, so there’s immediate positive reinforcement - ideal conditions for operant conditioning. The Vietnamese also answer the phone by shouting hello, so I have waved at several bemused people holding mobiles.

We soon reach the hills – the beginning of the central highlands. The rice paddies disappear and we see cows and pineapples. Next to a lorry loaded with pineapples I buy a pineapple. Sweet, delicious, 5,000 dong.

Cương says he works for the Easy Riders, a well-known outfit of motorbike riders offering trips into the hills. He is 37 and the father of two daughters aged 12 and 14 months. They live in Ðànãng. He has been doing this for 8 years; before that, cyclo in Ðànãng; before that, working in a tyre factory. Like many Vietnamese men, he tends to bark rather than speak (the women tend to shriek). He drives slowly and safely.

Shortly afterwards we stop at a bridge and have lunch – 20,000 dong each. The heavens opened as we stopped. In the afternoon, wearing a purple plastic cape, I fell asleep on the back of the bike. I didn’t fall off but it’s not an experiment to repeat.

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I took a walk by the river in the rain to wake up.

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The name of the road is the Ðương Ho Chi Minh – Ho Chi Minh road, or Ho Chi Minh Trail. It follows the route of one of the Ho Chi Minh Trails. There were quite a few: 16,000 km of them in all, in a country that is 1,600 km long, all supplying the VC from North Vietnam. One of them went down the coast from Vinh. The Americans, recognising the strategic imperative of cutting supply, bombed, defoliated and napalmed the whole road. And if that wasn’t enough, the VC nearly all got malaria.

As in Laos, the tree cover on many of the hills is sparse. This is partly because of the continued effect of Agent Orange, which is in the soil. The plants grow to a certain size, their roots reach the dioxins, and they die. So staggeringly toxic is the stuff that, generations on, children are still born with deformities. And as in Laos, there are still a lot of incidents with UXOs around the DMZ and in the hills – about 4,000 a year. Usually the maimed and killed are children, who find and play with the brightly-coloured cluster bombs - often with their brothers and sisters.

According to Vietnamese figures at the Army Museum in Hanoi, the US dropped 76 million litres of Agent Orange on to 607,500 hectares of forest and 89,500 hectares of cultivated land. According to the same figures (which should be approached with caution), the American War resulted in 2 million people disabled, 2 million people affected by dioxins, 500,000 children born deformed, and 300,000 MIA. Whatever the exact figures, the US has a lot to answer for. What I genuinely don’t know is whether the US government, accepting its moral responsibility, is doing anything official to mitigate the tragic effects of Agent Orange and UXOs. Perhaps the Embassy encourages or funds the charities that deal with landmines and their effects, for example. I bloody hope so.

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Another reason for the absence of trees is the illegal activities of the locals. In Laos there is a lot of illegal logging – the army got into it to fund itself – and no doubt there is in VN too. The local minority people also practise slash and burn agriculture. They burn a clearance and grow manioc or rice on the bare hillsides.

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Highway 14B is about five years old and – except where landslides have translated or buried the road – it is in good shape, entirely sealed and partially asphalted. Still, the speed limit is 40 km/h and I’m not complaining.

Heading south we are in the hills, next to a river, surrounded by rainforest. The countryside looks like nearby Laos – admittedly not an enlightening comparison for many. For the first time in Vietnam, the main hazards on the road are not other vehicles but cows, chickens and goats – unpredictable and stupid chickens above all.

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In the afternoon the clouds arrive and it gets very dark. At 4pm we reach Khâm Dức. The Khâm Dức Hotel, a government hotel, is threatened by a private hotel opposite and has revamped its facilities. There is even an item I have not seen in two months – a bath. It isn’t big enough for me, but the insects like it.

Children are playing foot-volleyball with a shuttlecock – a very common pastime in VN. Some other guests are playing a very competitive game of badminton on a marked court.

There are only one or two other foreigners in town – there is gold in the hills and the Filipinos are after it - and the children are very curious. They follow me to my room and would walk in if I didn’t shut the door on them.

Cương and I head for a drink. Cương says he has rice wine every day after driving – it helps him sleep. While hitting the rice wine, the Vietnamese always eat. We had a bowl of leaves with a bowl of brain, and some salt and lemon. Both cow and pig brain were available; Cương said he thought it was pig brain and I hope he was right (since the VN sensibly do not feed cows to cows, the danger of CJD should be minimal). The brain was huge – more than enough for two - entire, the cortex highly involuted, its texture that of lightly cooked scrambled egg. Only an hour later we were eating my xao bo – fried beef noodles. Fortunately I had finished by the time a cockroach joined us at the table.

The following morning the sun is shining again and it’s fun to watch the road passing by. We stop at a waterfall next to a minority village, where people are washing. Cương tells me about an Easy Rider who drowned at a waterfall a few days ago and suddenly I don’t feel like swimming.

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We climb through the hills. I take photos from the back of a bike. It’s difficult to avoid taking photos of electricity pylons. We head over the pass at 2,000 m; at the same altitude as Alpe d’Huez, it’s balmy.

We go to a minority village – Gie (Ge?) people. Chickens, pigs and children roam. Rice is drying next to a hut: dry rice, grown in the hills, a far poorer yield. Next to it, bark is drying. The villagers sell it to the government, who make detergent from it.

In the middle of the village is a communal house on stilts; tied to the lintel, a buffalo skull. A dedication to Thor?

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The house is used, as you would expect, for important ceremonies such as weddings and the annual three-day feast, for which said buffalo is killed.

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The village is obviously poor, but as in Laos there is a satellite dish on almost every roof.

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And there is one fine big building in the village: a school. Cương says that even those who are good students will need to get jobs locally; they suffer discrimination in the cities. It’s mid-morning break; the children crowd around me and show off.

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As on the first day, in the late morning the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped and it began to rain. Driving through the painful rain we saw the aftermath of two accidents. The second was a bizarre sight: the road had turned right, but not sharply, and a bright pink bus had ploughed straight on up a steep bank. The passengers, if any, had disappeared, but the driver sat in his seat reading a newspaper.

By this stage it was getting ever more difficult to remount, and more difficult once on to think of anything but major league pain in the arse.

Next we stopped at a Chiên village with a Bahnar-style communal house (nhà rông): stilts; boat-shaped; a very steep, tall, thatched roof. Superb buildings. Underneath, a cart and chickens.

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We pass through a number of minority villages. The houses are made from woven bamboo and corrugated iron; or from brick with clay tiles; or from wattle and daub with tiles. Cương says their families are matrilineal; the man moves to live with his in-laws after marriage. The villagers do seem to look different from your average Kinh but I’m not sure entirely how. Perhaps their mouths are bigger and fuller – there are a lot of Steven Tyler mouths.

We have a chilly lunch 14 km from the Lao border: a hotpot, sometimes called a fondue around here. A bowl containing water, pineapple, onions, tomatoes, tamarind seeds, okra and bamboo is placed over a noisome naphtha candle. A bowl of aromatic leaves, including mint, is next to it, with bean sprouts; next to that, a bowl of white noodles; and then a plateful of animal: squid, prawns, fish, and assorted chicken organs: heart, liver, kidneys, gizzards. Into the soup it all goes.

Then through the hills (the distant ones, blue and russet, remind me of the Grampians at Aviemore) we head to Ðăk Tô, the scene of heavy fighting and an inevitable victory for the VC on 24 April 1972. There is a memorial there – to the winning side only, of course – together with a couple of Russian tanks. All the memorials are in the same socialist realist style familiar from Russian propaganda posters. As usual, though, there is nothing of the battle left to see.

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Heading downhill after leaving Ðăk Tô we are waved over by three CSGT traffic police. Looking frightened, Cương dismounts and hands over his documents. The policemen appear incapable of smiling. Cương has been caught driving at 50 km/h and they could impound the bike, his stock in trade. Instead he palms a 100,000 dong note and we are free to go. Still spooked, he is temporarily grave, but within five minutes he is laughing about it.

Fifteen minutes from Kon Tum the bike stalls. I have been wondering how far the bike would go on a single tank of petrol, and this is the answer. Cương calmly tips the bike over and we make it a couple of km to a petrol station, where he buys 30p worth of petrol to get to Kon Tum.

In the middle of another strangely dark afternoon we reach our destination. Cương offers to take me to one of the two orphanages here: ‘you will cry’ he says. I’ve had my fill of that, thanks, and I’m tired and sore, so we just drink more rice wine with some unappetising lumps of boiled duck. It comes with livid gelatinous cubes looking like chunks of raw beef – duck blood. It doesn’t taste of much – I so long for black pudding - but it goes well with the spirits.

Kon Tum is not much of a destination. The Lonely Planet guide describes it as the friendliest city in VN. It’s about as friendly as a Siberian mining town – the children, naturally, excepted. Even the dogs are unfriendly. It is as unlovely as Ninh Bình, with less of interest around it. In the evening, I wander around town completely lost. The only westerner in town, I am stared at at all times by ten unsmiling, unselfconscious locals. And quite openly sized up by some of the women, who don't manage to look me in the face when I am talking to them. I realise that I want to leave.

No English is spoken; my impoverished VN is strained beyond its limits. (It does not help that the accent here is completely different: ‘r’ is a Scottish /r/ here, but /z/ up north; ‘gi’ is pronounced /y/ here but /z/ up north. I don’t know how to pronounce words here.) On the few occasions when I can make myself understood, people assume that I’m fluent, which is no better. This is why I’ve given up trying to learn the language.

In the morning the noise begins at six. There are the usual cockerels of course – as everywhere – but people are decorating the ceiling two feet below me and breaking up the pavement right outside the hotel. I switch hotel and breakfast at Dakbla’s, where, briefly breaking off from kicking each other, they try to charge me even more than the tourist menu prices. I go to a hotel to inquire about bus times; they are actively unhelpful in a manner at which the Vietnamese excel. While walking, I am completely unable to get anyone to understand that I want a cold bottle of water; no-one even has the gumption to guess. So I am now in a vile mood, hating the town and the country. The orphanages are taken off the agenda.

The black mood slowly evaporates as I wander around the older sections of the town. There is a wooden church built by the French, serving the Bahnar community.

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In the grounds there is a Michelangelesque Pietà . As at St Peter’s, the Virgin is young and has a belt over her shoulders, but this Jesus is bigger, notably prognathous. With huge arms and skinny legs, he looks like a canoeist.

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I can't get over the brief sense of weirdness I feel every time I see a Christian church in Vietnam. Christ, of course, was no more European than he was Vietnamese, unless you believe, like Blake, that he visited England. But the main tradition of pictorial representation is European; the largest sect is based in Rome; and the European connections began at a very early stage, once St Paul had made his unpopular decision to preach to Gentiles. (Not to mention the role of the Roman army and procurator in the crucifixion.) So I feel I have an excuse. Anyway. There are several churches in town, and a seminary, and no pagodas as far as I can see. The seminary looks like a boarding school.

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Farther along there is a Bahnar village. As in the Gie village, children and pigs wander around. Many of the buildings are built in wood in the traditional stilt style. But in between the Baba Yaga huts, quite a few are concrete.

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This is the sort of house that many people aspire to live in: plastered brick, fenced and decorated without restraint.

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I stroll through another Bahnar area. There are several of those Asiatic cattle with fatty lumps in front of their shoulders.

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The village has a very impressive communal house. Made from wood, bamboo and thatch, and on stilts, it is in the shape of a boat, with a very steeply pitched roof. Underneath it children are playing, and women are stripping corn from cobs. This little Tiger Woods-alike was completely obsessed with my camera.

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Note the woven dossers on the backs of his older relatives.

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It begins to pour, so I head to Eva Coffee. This is by far the best thing to see in Kon Tum. There are several buildings in the compound, the peripheral ones built in a traditional Bahnar style, wood and thatch. I have lunch and coffee there and the owner, Ẩn comes over to talk and we chat for a couple of hours. He speaks good English and French, and he is an artist in his spare time. In the war he lost two uncles killed, and his father and father-in-law were MIA. No monuments for them; they were with the ARVN. He studied at the seminary in town, but like almost all of his colleagues he wanted children – only two of his cohort became priests. He studied English at university in HCMC, and his son is about to study TEFL in Sweden on a scholarship.

This is one of the pieces in the garden. It is made out of half a cluster bomb shell and drum casings. Ẩn says it represents the impossibility for the soldier of being a complete person.

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In the afternoon I am complimented by Ẩn and by a xe om driver on my Vietnamese. The sad irony: Ẩn has to do so in English, the xe om driver in French.

Trust my luck to get stuck in one of the few places on the trip I have really wanted to leave. Yesterday I was due to take a 6 am bus to Quy Nhơn but at the appointed hour I was evacuating violently at both ends. Probable cause: under-grilled chicken at Dakbla’s (I had to go back - it was raining hard and the place is next door). If so I have fallen foul of a fowl. A foul fowl. I remained prostrate with fever all day, assailed by the noise of hammering and of a powersaw outside the window. At five I shambled shivering to Indochine, a three-star hotel on the river, for a lemon juice and a change of scene. The bar was closed. There is a restaurant on the seventh floor with a bonzer view over the river, but it was like an empty lecture theatre.

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A tropical thunderstorm hit and for an hour I nursed a cold lemon juice under a tin roof next door, feeling cold. Then back to the hotel. A miserable and lonely end to a chapter.

Posted by Wardsan 21:30 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Pictures of Laos

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View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

I’ve realised that I barely covered Laos in my blog. It's not easy to upload photos and I don’t feel like writing. So here are some photos of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.

This and many other parts are on sale in the market in Luang Prabang.

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A miniature lottery ticket seller in Luang Prabang.

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Snake whisky. I have been told that it is good for old men because it relieves stiffness. I have also been told, in the alternative, that it induces stiffness.

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Protective spirit at the National Museum, Luang Prabang.

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Elegant scooterists in Luang Prabang.

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Wat Xieng Thong in Luang Prabang. Xieng Thong is the old name for LP.

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In Vang Vieng: the bridge posts are bomb casings.

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Vang Vieng is on a river. Most of the bridges are made of bamboo.

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Vang Vieng is a backpackers' hangout between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. You can float down the river in an inner tube or, as I did, sit in a hammock eating sticky rice with mango. People recline in cafes watching endless reruns of 'Friends', or in internet cafes, surfing. In either case they stare into space like opium addicts. For that reason I didn't take to it, but its location is picturesque. This is the street in which we stayed.

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From my hammock I watched some cattle ford the river to graze. One of the guys from the cafe shooed them off by flinging stones. It seemed unnecessary; I think he just enjoyed catapulting cattle.

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The shooter is southpaw. My sinistrality attracts a lot of attention here. Many people in this part of the world are prohibited by parents and teachers from writing with their left hands. Forcing people to write right-handed against their nature is extremely bad for people and can induce stuttering or dyslexia.

I took this photo from the moving minibus on the way to Vientiane.

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In Vientiane we ate by the river one night. (Actually the river, very low, was flowing on the Thai side several hundred yards away.) And the moon really was this red.

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At the same restaurant I took this bizarre photo of Izzy and Ed on a long exposure.

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Wat Mixayaram, Vientiane.

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A boat on the Nam Theun, allegedly made from the fuel tank of a B-52.

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PS The day before yesterday I went to the beach and took two long swims with my phone in my pocket. It seems to have drowned. I've spent two days on the back of a motorbike - my arse is history - and I'm posting from Kon Tum, which is in the epicentre of absolutely bloody nowhere.

Posted by Wardsan 08:44 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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