A Travellerspoint blog

The price of everything

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Last night I ate at Le Rabelais, the restaurant at the Ðàlạt Palace Hotel. White tablecloths, a tinkling pianist, candles, high ceiling, chandeliers, and fake Empire chairs: a wonderful place, marred only by hopelessly incompetent service.

I had a set dinner: amuse-bouche (we are not amused); young rabbit in aspic and apples; wild boar and a venison skewer with redcurrant sauce; a plate of cheese; a baked banana pudding. While the rabbit in aspic was nice enough, the highlight of the meal – of the week – was the cheese plate. Four tiny morsels of the echt Roquefort, Camembert, Pont l’Evêque (maybe) and parmesan. The Camembert and Roquefort (my favourite cheese) were exquisite; the pleasure they brought was unbelievably intense, quite impossible to recapture unless you’ve been without something, and the prospect of something, for three months. It alone was worth the price of the meal - $64 including two glasses of Australian wine. (Without it, the meal would have been poor value.) On the other hand, it did briefly make me thinking about going back to Europe and the cheeseful life.

There have been two other moments of oral bliss that in themselves lit up the whole day: a cold Snickers in the DMZ; a chilled slice of Mars Bar in Hoi An.

Why on earth did the French – so justly proud of their cheese – not leave a legacy of caseification in Vietnam? At least in cooler Ðàlạt? The country is so much the poorer for it. I feel that particularly at the moment, in the aftermath of the latest enteric, as, like Wallace, I want to eat nothing but cheese. I am subsisting solely on vache-qui-rit baguettes.

Anyway the question for today and for many a day is: what is a dollar worth? I don’t mean in pounds or dong, but what is it worth to me? What is the minimum pleasure I am willing to accept in return for choosing to pay a dollar? At the moment I haven’t a clue.

At the moment I’m spending about $30 a day in Vietnam outside the big cities; a little more in Thailand. I’m on course to spend much less than £10,000 if I travel for a year. I’m not travelling obsessively cheaply but I do stint on the hotels. I don’t stint on the food, as is clear, since it would violate my axioms.

But I have got used to a completely different set of prices, and it affects what I consume. For example, this morning I didn’t buy dried kiwi fruits during the bus ride, because they cost $3, a steep price. But I was hungry; so that was stupid. I take xe oms instead of taxis – even with all my bags. I have also turned down the chance to do some things because I thought the cost too high.

Let me be clear: I don’t think there’s anything morally superior about travelling cheaply as an end in itself. That’s juvenile. There is a level of comfort at which you never leave your hotel or your taxi, where I imagine you are partially insulated from your surroundings all the time. But I am not talking about that level. In any case, once you’ve eaten noodle soup at one Vietnamese street café, with your arse on a plastic seat one foot from the pavement, you’ve eaten at them all. Doing it every day doesn’t make you cool, it just makes your diet boring.

Yet over time minimising can easily become a game, an intellectual pursuit. I am falling into the trap.

If I were to start spending freely – without staying in five star hotels, but taking taxis and any tour I feel like – I might manage to spend £15,000-£17,000 in a year. So the question is really: what difference does £7,000 make? Out here, spending a few extra dollars makes a huge difference to the quality of what you buy and to the range of goods and services available. At home, much less so. So this is the place to spend the money, if at all.

It all depends on my permanent income. That is, roughly, what do I expect to earn over the rest of my working life? More relevantly, when am I going to start working again? And how much am I going to earn when I do? I don’t know when I am going back to the UK; I don’t know how long it will take to find a job when I do (the OECD has forecast UK GDP growth at 1.4% in 2009 (stop press, March 2009: IMF is forecasting UK growth of -3.8% this year!)); and I don’t even know the field in which I’m going to look for work.

So I don’t know whether £7,000 is a lot of money or a little. On the whole, unless I get a job with a salary that is a calculated insult – that is, return to academia or work at a junior level in the civil service – it’s not likely to make a huge difference to life when I return. Yet it would make a big difference out here: the difference between having and foregoing experiences out here that I will never have the opportunity to repeat.

In light of that, it seems clear me that I should spend and enjoy. Yet without a job to return to it’s difficult to do.

  • **

When they say hello or smile for a photo, the Vietnamese will very often flash a V for Victory sign. More often than not, an Italian, say, will get it the wrong way round - with the fingers in front of the thumb - producing the insulting gesture allegedly invented by the victorious archers at Crécy in 1346. In Vietnam, it is almost always employed in the Churchillian orientation. I wonder why they get it right; I guess some old commie used to flash victory signs?

  • **

This blog has received more than 10,000 visits. I have given the address to a few people, but more people are reading it, probably because some of the entries have been featured on the Travellerspoint website.

This raises the question of how to write for this unexpected readership. The blog has a lot of parochial English references; am I supposed to alter my style in order to be understood by people from different cultural backgrounds? Should I stick to a certain frequency? Should I try to maximise readership?

No: this is a blog, not a newspaper. I don’t want to write in the lowest-common-denominator straitened-vocabulary transnational newspeak favoured by international organisations; I’ve done that before. And I want to be able to refer to the Wombles or Test Match Special if I feel like it. The blog is supposed to be a record of my travels for me, my friends and family. If others find it interesting, they are very welcome. And since I’m on holiday, I’ll write when it’s convenient.

(Viagra penis extension porn Paris Hilton - that should keep the search engines interested.)

  • **

In eight hours you can probably fly from Vancouver to London. Or you can bus 300km from Ðàlạt to Saigon. Behind me, a well-heeled Vietnamese couple spoke English to their tiny baby and Vietnamese to each other.

Saigon: an evocative, bygone name, like Mandalay, Formosa, or Cathay. I've only been here a couple of hours but it doesn't seem very evocative, etc.

Posted by Wardsan 22:29 Archived in Vietnam Comments (2)

Toujours Ðàlạt

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I wrote a couple of days ago that Ðàlạt does not feel particularly French. Feeling slightly better this afternoon, I went for a walk and saw a part of town that does look rather more so. It is the higher part of town. There is a wide main road, which you could call a boulevard if you wanted, and some larger detached buildings, which you could call colonial villas (although most of them are newer). There are some genuine-looking villas on Tran Hung Dao, although some of them have as much Neasden as Nantes.

There is a ‘cathedral’, built in the 1930s. I like this cathedral, perhaps because I have never seen anything quite like it, especially the porch.

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Farther along the main road there is the Ðàlạt Palace, now occupied by Sofitel. It looks the sort of place where an Agatha Christie thriller would be set, or perhaps a high-class nursing home. But it’s fairly grand, the grounds are nice, the view over the lake is good, and if I ever come here again this is where I’ll stay: the double rooms are £80-90. I intend to eat there tonight, in fact.

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Although it’s a mile up the landscape is not mountainous like Sapa, dominated by Fansipan; it’s more like Skipton. That's no criticism.

Before seeing any of this I visited the Crazy House, a set of buildings designed and built since 1990 by Ðặng Việt Nga. She got a degree and a doctorate in Moscow between 1959 and 1972, in the days when the Russian empire was important. Later she worked at the Building Ministry in Hanoi and then in the Building Design Institute in Ðàlạt. Her father was the president of the Socialist Republic after Uncle Ho died.

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Her style, though, is the antithesis of the efficiency and brutalism of Soviet architecture. There is not a line or a plane in the whole place, but an infinite complexity that no plan or elevation could capture. Symmetry is rejected. The style is Gaudí meets Art Nouveau, Mervyn Peake and Terry Gilliam, with a bit of Dalí melting.

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Like Art Nouveau, the inspiration is organic. Everything sprouts. A column of creepers turns into a giraffe. Two of the buildings are styled like tree trunks. The stairs wind around the outside. The rooms have windows on all sides. You might be in an elf’s house (is it elves that sit on top of toadstools?).

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Each room is different. This is the interior of the Bear Room.

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This is the Tiger Room.

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It’s a hotel, by the way, as well as a popular tourist attraction; one room is on two levels, with a brilliant root-like banister. Or maybe it is just a root.

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It is, obviously, completely tasteless –it makes Gaudí look like Wren - but when you do something so extreme and so confident, it goes beyond taste. It’s brilliant – one of the few really original buildings to have been built in the country in the last hundred years. I would love to see something like this in Britain, but for one thing the health and safety laws would not allow it: for example I walked along a high walkway, with walls at knee height, which led to a sudden nothing.

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It’s odd, by the way, the I referred to Alexandre Yersin last time, since there is a Ðàlạt connection of which I was unaware. It was he who raved about the location in a report to the colonial government, which therefore developed it on his recommendation. It became the most luxurious hill station in southeast Asia, known (perhaps only to estate agents) as Le Petit Paris. It is not easy now, if it ever was, to see why. Even though it was never bombed, the luxury has vanished.

I forgot to mention the Ðàlạt Flower Gardens, by the lake. The plan of the site when you enter makes the place look like Kew Gardens. But the plan oversells it. Many of the areas seem to be closed or under construction; I saw no orchid in the orchid section. But, although it doesn’t match Sapa’s Ham Rong, it’s a nice place to spend an hour anyway.

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I am ashamed to say I haven’t a clue about flowers. Can someone help me out?

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[I know know that this is a hibiscus. It is the national flower of Malaysia.]

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There I also took this photo. Many people wear helmets everywhere, now that the law on motorbike helmets is in force and enforced. You have to wonder whether they have not become carapaces.

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Tomorrow, all being well – an important caveat – I’ll head to Ho Chi Minh City. It will take all day.

Posted by Wardsan 19:20 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

Those brown trousers moments

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An animal that eats a food that has been been poisoned will tend to avoid the food or the flavour in the future. This conditioned taste aversion is very strong: it often operates after only one event, especially for novel flavours. You can even condition wolves not to eat sheep. Generally, though, such a strong susceptibility to taste aversion is likely to be adaptive, for obvious reasons.

There need be no causal connection between the aversive flavour and the nausea. Rats given harmless saccharine water as the conditioned stimulus, and subsequently given something to make them nauseous, will not consume the saccharine water when later presented with it. And chemotherapy can induce conditioned aversion responses to foods eaten just before the therapy that induces the nausea.

Similarly, take a rat already instrumentally conditioned to press a lever for sugar pellets. If you then make it sick after eating sugar pellets, it will quickly develop an aversion to the pellets and a reluctance to press the lever.

I seem to recall reading at university – although I can’t find any reference on the web just now - that, if you combine several stimuli with the nausea: say, sugar water, flashing light and bells; it’s the taste that dominates the other senses; and a fortiori, it dominates the reason. This, too, is likely to be adaptive: nausea is usually caused by eating or drinking poisons. (But not always, of course: you can get salmonellosis by handling reptiles, and there is always Clayderman).

I have been thinking about this because I’ve been confined to barracks for most of the last four days with gastric flu. I have no idea what caused it, but I am certain that it was not the last things I ate before hurrying back to the hotel. Almost the last thing was a durian ice cream. Once again, it tasted of chicken rubbed with garlic and then left outside for a few days; I’m still searching for Wallace’s "custard and cream".

Now this was a dish that I would not have enjoyed at the best of times, but now even the thought of it makes me retch as I write. It’s the end of the durian experiment, and I won’t be able to eat ice cream for a while. The point is that my stomach has jumped to its own conclusions – and they are incorrect. And no such aversion has resulted from my last dish, which I can’t even recall.

Avoiding ice cream is sensible in any case. Refreezing partially defrosted ice cream and then eating the result causes a lot of food poisoning back home. So it’s not sensible to eat it anywhere where there are power cuts – which, so far, means anywhere outside Hanoi. And this is the only place where I've broken the rule.

(Alcohol applied topically kills salmonella – and given where the bugs are, there is only one way to apply the medicine (well, two if you’re French, but let’s not go there). I have no reason to blame salmonella rather than, say, campylobacter, but it's better to be on the safe side. Incidentally, I always thought salmonella was named after a fish. Turns out it carries the name of the American scientist who discovered it; a bacterium his epitaph. Cf Alexandre Yersin, one of the very few Frenchmen still to have streets named after him in Vietnam. He ran the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang, and he also isolated the plague virus, now called Yersinia pestis.)

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Even when I head out I can’t go very far: I’m pretty feeble after a couple of days without eating, and the Brown Trousers Risk is too high. I’m really really fed up with fever and arse-pissing; it’s not even three weeks since the last episode. And lying in bed listening to them building next door is hard work. (They are building next to every hotel in Vietnam.) Listening to the proprietor's daughter play Clayderman on the piano downstairs is as trying, although the Chopin waltzes have been welcome.

Sorry, but every long-term traveller catches copromania eventually. What do you expect from an Asia blog?

Whatever the source of the bug, it’s upset both the stomach and the plans. I was hoping to head quickly through HCMC, fly back to Thailand and then head down quickly through Malaysia with a tour group in the middle of June. I still intend to do that at some stage, but will have to take it easy for a while – something that wouldn’t be possible on a fixed itinerary.

  • ****

I’m in Ðàlạt, incidentally; I got here just before falling ill. The journey was uneventful. This time I was struck only by the shocking alopecia of so many of the hills.

From what I can gather from my brief exercise breaks in the prison yard it’s a nicer place to be confined than Kon Tum. The place is packed with tourists – and almost none of them are westerners. The latter is a surprise, as Ðàlạt is firmly on the Lonely Planet and Open Tour routes.

It’s temperate here, as in Sapa. There are pines. They grow apples, pears, strawberries, apricots, sugar snap peas and artichokes, and they even seem to use greenhouses to grow flowers. The strawberry syrups, salted apricots, avocado milk shakes and artichoke tea are signature products of Ðàlạt. I’ve had the first three and they are pretty good (I had grilled eel stuffed with pork with apricot and chilli sauce today in my brief venture out, and the sauce was sensational).

Those of us from cold countries tend to head to warmer places to holiday. The Vietnamese do the opposite: they come here, a mile up. They walk around in jackets while I’m in a t-shirt.

An artificial lake, a sort of Serpentine, is next to the town.

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Naturally, people throng to the lakeside late in the day, some for the pedalo, some for the passegiata, some for the power walk (a popular pastime here).

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There is supposed to be more of a French feel here than elsewhere. The French, enjoying the climate, developed the place as a hill-station.

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My dad asked me recently about the extent of French influence in Vietnam. It’s much less than I expected, and much less than what I hear about British influence in Malaysia and Singapore (where, after all, the official language is English). I can only speculate that Vietnamese culture is robust enough and, above all, the population large enough that most foreign bodies could be absorbed and forced to adapt themselves, the exception being China. China is also the ultimate example, turning invaders into sophisticated Chinamen within a generation or two – even Genghis Khan’s family. There hasn’t been a successful invasion of England, on the other hand, that hasn’t profoundly changed it – unless you count 1688, and I’m not at all sure why it doesn't count. [Actually the answer must be: Whig history.]

(Roman Catholic) Christianity, of course, is another matter: the Portuguese may perhaps have started it in the sixteenth century but de Rhodes arrived here in 1620, only five years after the Jesuit mission was established in Hanoi; and the French colonial era encouraged it further.

I’ve identified very few words of Vietnamese that obviously derive from French. This is partly because the Vietnamese do not pronounce any of the consonants at the end of words – a bit like the French, come to think of it, only more so. Oh, and I don’t speak Vietnamese. But the ones I think are French are:

  • Ca rot, carrot

  • Bit thêt, steak

  • Pa tin, which I take to mean skating

  • Atisô, artichoke

  • Ô tô, car

  • Sà lách, salad

  • Sô kô la, chocolate

  • Vani vanilla

  • Kem, cream, ice cream

  • Flan, crème caramel

  • Bia (perhaps), beer

(OK, spot the truncated sample. But you won’t find much French in words relating to government or law, for example – they’re all Chinese. If you want useful phrases like bribe, corruption, show trial, censorship, discrimination or hypocrisy, your French won’t help.)

But even here in Ðàlạt the French influence is not overwhelming. There is the particular fruit and veg; there is the odd bloke in a beret (although more in Sapa); the waiter tried to be supercilious but soon gave it up. That’s about it as far as I can see.

Oh, and the post office tower is vaguely Eiffel. And since it’s one of the greatest buildings in the world, why not?

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Posted by Wardsan 18:28 Archived in Vietnam Comments (0)

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."

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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.

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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.

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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)

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