Vietnam – Day 3.

Leonardo de Caprio has researched, written up, copied and distributed a “suggested walk” round the narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Town, so K and I give it a whirl. It’s a revelation – especially the street markets, which are so easy to miss otherwise. Everywhere you go, families are sitting on the pavement on those dinky little kindergarten chairs, tucking into the freshest looking, most exotic, most delicious food you’ve ever seen. It’s a nation of food lovers. It’s our kind of place.

Before the holiday, I read an article about Hanoi titled A Day in the Life of Hang Bo Street, which perfectly sums up the experience of walking through the Old Town. In particular, I am struck by the way that entire streets are given over to shops which all sell the same merchandise: paper lanterns, Chinese medicinal herbs, cooking implements, motorcycle seats. It must have been the same in medieval England.

For although the country now appears to be largely Communist in name only (they have had their own glasnost/perestroika), and although the spirit of free enterprise clearly prevails, there is still a strongly overriding spirit of co-operation to be found. No-one seems to have thought of opening a paper lantern shop on a different street, to corner the market in a new part of town. It just wouldn’t be fair play. What’s more: if a storekeeper has run out of a certain stock item, it is more than likely that a neighbouring storekeeper will lend him some of his own stock to sell, until the next delivery. How strange and wonderful is that to a Western sensibility?

Vietnam is also a country of artists. There are art galleries everywhere we go. To our surprise, most of the paintings are heavily influenced by the old French school – Gauguin, Chagall, the Impressionists. The period of French colonial rule has clearly left an impact – and of course, a French street scene must seem as exotic to a Vietnamese sensibility as the Far East does to the likes of us. However, these influences are generally a little too heavy-handed for our liking (although we do eventually start to “get our eye in”).

Therefore, we seize upon the works of Le Thiet Cuong (hanging in a chic little galley on To Tich street) with particular delight. He is part of a new generation of Vietnamese artists, who are at last finding their own visual voice (if you, er, see what I’m saying). True, there is a marked Paul Klee influence, but there is also something identifiably Vietnamese about Cuong’s work (this becomes more apparent as the trip progresses). We buy a canvas, which is taken off its frame and stretcher, and securely rolled up for us, as well as his monograph.

In the afternoon, a long coach drive up to Halong Bay, and our first real experience of Vietnamese road etiquette. Of which more later, but suffice it to say for now that, if you have ever been in a car in Malawi, then nothing that Vietnamese traffic can throw at you can make you so much as flinch. While the rest of our group gasp and cover their eyes at each fresh potential “incident”, we sit there stoically, keeping faith.

I am going to have to learn how to eat fresh crab better than this. Meat is flying everywhere, except into my mouth. My fingers are stinging with the juices, and from repeated jabs from stray fragments of claw. I am getting stressed out with the effort, while next to me, K is doing a superbly professional job. Smug bastard!

I also appear to be back on the cigs. Oh well, it’s a holiday. Over here, Marlboro Lights are anything but light. In fact, they’re delicious. Long, stong and pure, with none of that horrible rancid chemical aftertaste. Could this have anything to do with the multinational tobacco firms seeking to penetrate new markets by first getting them all hooked on the decent stuff, before downgrading it to the shit that the rest of the world smokes? I really couldn’t say.

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Vietnam – Day 2.

Conceptually, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is very much like the Lenin mausoleum in Red Square. You stand in line for ages, and eventually you’ll get to file reverentially past a recumbent waxwork, in 30 seconds flat. Except that the Lenin mausoleum looks like a mere Portakabin compared to Uncle Ho’s vast edifice. I guess this means that – when it comes – Fidel Castro’s will be the size of a football stadium. Gotta keep up, boys!

Actually, I shouldn’t be too sneery. Filing past the body of the spiritual father of modern day Vietnam was a surprisingly moving experience. I definitely felt some sort of ocular pricking sensation, as I thought to myself, “Well, Ho old boy – you did it, didn’t you? You saw off Uncle Sam! Respect!”

This serves me right for never researching stuff in advance (I like the thrill of surprises too much, you see – nothing to do with congenital intellectual laziness at all, honest). As I later found out, Uncle Ho actually popped his clogs in 1969 – well before the routing of Uncle Sam in the mid-1970s. So the ocular pricking was a tad misplaced after all. Ah well, plenty more chances for that sort of thing later in the trip.

As for Hanoi’s Ho Chi Minh museum: never before have I visited a museum that was quite so stark, staring bonkers, albeit in a wholly endearing way. They had clearly given some Vietnamese Stephen Bayley type complete conceptual and artistic freedom to do whatever he wanted, and the result was…bizarre. Instead of a boring old chronological biography of the great man’s life and times, various attempts had been made at “symbolic representations” of the preoccupations of his era. There was a lot of badly reproduced Dada/Surrealism – giant fish, that sort of thing – on account of Ho’s early years in Paris. Unfortunately, it all looked like a poorly executed GCSE art project. There was a giant bowl of artificial fruit, resting on a wonky table, to represent “the spirit of the youth of Vietnam”, or some such. No, me neither. Great fun, anyway.

In the evening, we sit on tiny plastic kindergarten chairs on the pavement (these are ubiquitous, throughout the entire country), and witness our only street brawl of the trip. Predictably, it involves a drunken Englishman watching the football on TV (English soccer is big in Vietnam). No police arrive, and the brawl soon sorts itself out. We never really see many police. The country is so peaceful, and so crime-free, that they don’t seem to be needed much.

Vietnam – Day 1.

Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which opened just 4 years ago, is quiet, spotlessly clean, and the most beautiful airport building I have ever been to. The architectural design is dramatic and harmonious, and I feel like I’m in a Wallpaper* magazine spread.

In Hanoi, the members of our tour group introduce themselves to each other. This is our fourth trip with Explore Worldwide, and it becomes immediately apparent that this is the best group yet. We gel almost instantly. If there is any animosity between any of the group members over the next two weeks – which I doubt – then it is kept very well hidden.

During the second week, we all cast ourselves in the film version of the holiday – a classic murder mystery, with group members disappearing one by one in grisly circumstances. The cast list reads as follows.

Leonardo De Caprio (tour leader). Best tour leader we’ve ever had, by miles and miles. Handsome (very), friendly, easy-going, personable, sensitive to the needs of the group, committed, organised, efficient, knowledgeable, and did I mention handsome?

Brad Pitt (pop music TV producer) and Jennifer Lopez (teacher). Pop music celebrity gossip ahoy! Actually, I was admirably (and uncharacteristically) restrained in this area (sorry, Chig). I did find out this much, though. More friendly, genuine and down to earth than you’d ever expect them to be: Victoria Beckham, Steps. Demanding prima donna bitch from hell: Suzanne from Hear’say. Worst case of acne you’ve ever seen in your life: Ricky Martin.

Steve McQueen (architect) and Nicole Kidman (teacher). We bonded over art and design type things.

Gabriel Byrne (cattle farmer) and Demi Moore (GP turned public health policy maker). From Western Ireland, and on their honeymoon with 11 complete strangers.

Brenda Blethyn (teacher) and her colleague Bette Davis (teacher). Living in North West London, Jewish, gregarious, hilarious and razor-sharp, Brenda reminded me so strongly of a certain London blogger that I actually had to drop the blogger’s name into the conversation, just to check whether they knew each other (they didn’t). Bette Davis came down with a nasty eye infection halfway through the trip, and had to spend the second week wearing dark glasses at all times; this gave her an appealing “woman of mystery” allure.

Terry-Thomas (army major). Took him a while to twig that K and I were a couple. Don’t think he’d spent much time in the company of gay blokes before. Didn’t make a scrap of difference in the long run – the three of us remained firm drinking buddies throughout the entire trip, usually the last to bed most evenings.

Jeanne Moreau (former Bolivian revolutionary, now a schoolmistress at a top girls’ boarding school). One of our most consistently fascinating and well-informed conversationalists.

Ralph Fiennes (systems developer) and Richard E. Grant (company director). Two drunken poofs who liked their food.

Leonardo De Caprio takes us outside, onto the busy street, and shows us how to cross the road. This is basically a triumph of faith over instinct. As there are never any gaps in the traffic, you simply have to step out into the road and keep walking at a steady pace. Miraculously, the traffic will somehow weave round you. It’s counter-intuitive, and initially fairly terrifying – but it works.

The Hempel, then.

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Well, let’s make it official: we have now completely had it with so-called “boutique hotels”. From now on, give me comfort and service over style, every time. For although The Hempel was undeniably stylish to look at – in the main lobby, jaw-droppingly so – there was very little of any substance behind any of this. The staff were good on smiles and sartorial smartness, but fairly hopeless at actually doing what was required of them. And at these prices, I feel fully entitled to be pernickity…

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Item: Part of the deal on our room meant that we would be greeted with a complementary glass of champagne in the so-called “Zen garden”. This was never offered. Eventually, after several requests and a long wait, we finally managed to secure a couple of glasses of indifferent fizz in the bar. Unfortunately, banging on about a couple of poxy free glasses of champagne in a “boutique hotel” is not a good look, and we should have been spared the humiliation.

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Item: After half an hour or so in our room, we received a courtesy phone call asking if everything was all right, and whether there was anything we needed. All very impressive, except we made the mistake of actually asking for something. Firstly, where were our free glasses of champagne? Oh, you’d have to ask reception about that. Secondly, could we have an iron and ironing board (our finery needed a good zhooshing)? Yes, of course. Half an hour later, still no iron. Another phone call to housekeeping – would it be much longer? Twenty minutes later, a very un-Zen like iron and ironing board are delivered – both battered to buggery, and coated in black gunk. We leave the iron and board outside in the corridor when we’re finished. The next morning, fourteen hours later, they’re still sitting there, completely destroying the whole minimalist design shtick.

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Item: The small hotel bar is one of the most uncomfortable places I have ever visited, and filled with the sort of shrill nincompoops that I would normally go to great lengths to avoid. It is almost impossible to get served. I ask for the hotel’s speciality cocktail: the Sakepolitan. The barman has never heard of it. Later, it is completely impossible to settle the bill, so K sorts it out at reception and we leave for dinner downstairs, already half an hour late. The barman catches up with us in the lobby, flustered and breathless with the exertion, to extract payment – even though we had already given him our room number when securing the glasses of cheap fizz earlier on.

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The hotel restaurant is Italian/Thai fusion, if you please. It’s dark, uncomfortable and quite loud, with an annoyingly harsh acoustic. The service is big on smiles, but low on polish – our initial order for mineral water is completely bungled. The food is imaginatively and immaculately presented, but so rich that I am unable to finish my main course, and end up suffering from indigestion during the night. Credit where it’s due, though: the wine turns out to be excellent, and surprisingly good value.

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And to be fair: the room itself is absolutely gorgeous (despite K’s initial plaintive wail: “I’m sure there are better rooms than this!”). In particular, the bed linen is a masterpiece of artful fabric folding, and the bed itself is one of the most comfortable I have ever slept in. However, the trouble with High Minimalism is this: it is also High Maintenance. If you’re not prepared to rigorously keep up that pristine appearance, then the ensuing scuff marks, chips and cracks are sadly all too obvious. Having said that, we actually quite liked the slightly faded, battered appearance. There was something a bit Raddled Seventies Glamourpuss about it, which seemed rather appropriate (all we needed was the suspended wicker basket chair). The bathroom was fairly grim, though. The shower was poky and claustrophobic, with one of those annoyingly over-friendly shower curtains which sticks to your skin, and the loo wouldn’t flush properly – at least, not without sustained and vigorous tugging.

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In one of the cupboards, there are oxygen canisters. For sale. At twenty quid a pop. Fine, if you’re Michael Jackson. You can also avail yourself of the Hempel’s special “treatments” – aromatherapy, reflexology and the like – for eighty-five quid an hour. We are not tempted.

In summary? Superficial, pretentious, over-priced, and very slightly past its peak. But having said all that, quite good fun. I’m glad we had the experience, but we won’t be back.