Vietnam – Day 10.

After an extraordinary run in the first week of the tour, we are now in the middle of a comparative dip. For the second day running, most of our time is spent on the bus, where most of the group alternates between sleeping (Gabriel Byrne continues to astonish us in this area – but then, he is on his honeymoon), reading (will I ever finish White Teeth?) and gazing out of the window at endless lush plains of rice fields.

Presumably because they have all been planted at a slightly different time, each small field is coloured a slightly different shade of green. The landscape thus becomes a vast patchwork of differing shades of green – more greens than you ever thought possible – interspersed with water buffalos, workers in coolie hats, and the occasional herd of ducks. Sometimes, you will see several dozen ducks being herded across the road in a tight pack, as directed by their very own duck-herd. It is a vaguely comical sight.

We take lunch at a beach restaurant, watching the afternoon catch being dragged up the beach in huge nets, and observing the elegant wedding party who have stopped off for photos. The restaurant owner, a former social worker, gives us a couple of particularly finely made coolie hats and asks us to pass them on to anyone in Nha Trang (our destination) who we think looks particularly deserving of them.

In Nha Trang, at the bottom of the Cham Pongar temple complex (underwhelming, for by now we are all templed out), we spot the ideal recipients. The two aged, wizened, teeth-blackened beggar ladies are absolutely delighted with their smart new hats, trying them on and posing for each other with incongruously girlish, almost coquettish grins. The years roll back, as we catch brief glimpses of former lives.

We check in, and head off en masse for the mud spring baths. Here, we gleefully slosh about in communal pools of thick brown gloop, pouring it over ourselves with plastic pails and savouring the eucalyptus-like aroma, before washing it off under hot jets of salty spring water. This gives us a new toast (Here’s mud in your gusset!), which becomes our catchphrase for the rest of the trip.

There is dining and dancing at the yacht club (not quite as grand as it sounds), where we end up lurching about to insipid Euro-trance with a bunch of pissed-up backpackers and enthusiastic Vietnamese hookers, or else sitting out on the beach front with lethal pina coladas, gazing on with wry amusement at the young couple shamelessly writhing on a beach lounger in the semi-darkness, to an audience of entranced onlookers.

Oh, look! Over there! It isn’t! It is! Fraulein Dings-Bums and party are in town. Cordial greetings are exchanged. Perhaps next time, we should break the ice and make proper conversation.

We never see them again.

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Vietnam – Day 9.

As I’ve already explained, public expressions of strong emotion are generally not to be found in Vietnamese society; self-control is everything. This morning, however, when confronted with the durian that K has brought along for the journey, our coach driver’s face is a picture of horror, fear and disgust. There is no way that he’s going to allow that stinky fruit on board – not even in the suitcase hold down below. “But I thought we could all try some later on!”, wails K, as the rest of us sigh with relief and clamber on board.

It’s a tough day: twelve hours on the bus, with few stops along the way. Along with most of the group, I have finally learnt how to catnap (something which I have always loathed doing). In fact, Gabriel Byrne is practically never awake; the rest of us can only marvel at his seemingly infinite capacity for slumber.

Few tourists ever reach the site of the My Lai massacre; it’s too far away from anywhere else that might be of interest. Partly for this reason, there remains something raw, potent and real about the place, to which we are the morning’s only visitors. It has not been turned into a sanitised theme park, where slick guides recite the same old scripts, and your emotions are marshalled according to a pre-defined plan. There is a roughness, and there is a strange, unexpected beauty. At the front of the site, a traditional garden has been planted, with many plants and shrubs donated by US veterans’ associations. It helps to set the mood of contemplation and remembrance.

Our young guide is beautiful and elegant, standing there in the pelting rain in a full-length pale blue gown, with water pouring off her coolie hat. She is local, and lost many of her own extended family in the massacre which became the most notorious atrocity of the American War. She speaks quietly, eloquently (with perfect English), and with a controlled passion which occasionally seeps round the edges of her words, as she describes a particularly extreme horror. She probably doesn’t get to give this talk too often, and so her words remain entirely fresh and genuine.

Slowly, she leads us round the site where one of the villages used to stand. Here are the foundations of the houses, marked by plaques listing the names and ages of each of the murdered inhabitants – from the very youngest to the very oldest. Here is the long ditch, into which the US troops pushed dozens of villagers – men, women, children and babies – before opening their machine guns and slaughtering the whole lot of them in cold blood. Here is a large stone statue depicting the massacre, sculpted by the husband of one of the very few survivors. The area is deathly quiet, except for the sound of pelting rain and the soft voice of our guide, calmly and precisely detailing acts of barbaric savagery which still beggar the imagination. There is an earnestness and slight urgency to her strictly factual delivery; it still matters greatly that the simple, unadorned truth be told to all who come and visit. Let no-one try and deny what has taken place here.

I didn’t know how I was going to react to all of this. I thought I might completely lose it, and break down in tears. This does not happen, and I am thankful for it. Instead, our reaction, though no less powerful, is more considered. As we walk through the exhibition rooms (stark, haunting photos, taken while the massacre was actually happening), I ruminate on what circumstances could have led a bunch of ordinary kids (young, uneducated, bewildered, terrified, brutalised, brainwashed, drugged up, hopelessly lost) to commit such terrible crimes. In the whole platoon, there was only one dissenter, who shot himself in the foot rather than participate in the slaughter. In the same situation, would I have been the lone dissenter, or would I have been one of the killers? Do we all have this capacity for savagery buried deep within ourselves? These are awful questions to contemplate, and this is not the place for finding answers to them. This is a place for bearing witness, and for ensuring that some events are never forgotten about. Ultimately, and unexpectedly, it feels like a privilege to be here.

Vietnam – Day 8.

K rolls in late (around 4am) from the Tam Tam Bar, where he has been getting royally plastered with Leonardo De Caprio and Terry-Thomas. Something about his demeanour tells me to be vigilant for the next few hours. Sure enough: between 4am and 7am, he makes no less than four separate attempts to leave our room. Still asleep, you understand. It’s the old, familiar equation: large amounts of alcohol + unfamiliar surroundings = sleepwalking, out of the room and away into the night. This wouldn’t be so bad if he owned a pair of pyjamas, or slept in his boxers. Thankfully, I am able on each occasion to steer him away from the main door, thus saving him from the harsh glare of full public exposure.

Today is a quiet day in Hoi An; a chance for the group to recharge their batteries prior to the long days of travel to come. K and some of the others are booked in for a cookery lesson at the Hong Phuc restaurant; after an idle morning, I roll up around lunchtime and help them polish off the fruits of their labours. They have all been attentive and enthusiastic students, meaning that today’s lunch tastes almost as good as last night’s dinner in the same restaurant.

Hoi An is drenched in heavy rain today, but this has something of a beneficial effect, driving many of the tourists from the streets and allowing more of the natural charm of the old fishing port to emerge. You can get an idea of it on the pictures found on ReelChase about this fish market. Down at the waterfront, the covered market is looking particularly wonderful, especially the fish market. There don’t appear to be many insects in this country (we are even on the point of ditching the malaria tablets), which means that the raw cuts of meat and fish can sit out on open slabs, without getting covered in flies. Everything looks fresh and wholesome and succulent and delicious.

There are Internet cafés everywhere you go in this country. They are all full, with nearly all the screens seemingly opened to Hotmail. The Vietnamese love their Hotmail. Finally, and despite my best intentions, my will cracks. A few e-mails are sent home, and a quick message posted onto the Tag Board at Naked Blog. Blogger remains resolutely unopened, though – for that way madness lies.

Spotting a particularly facially hirsute backpacker, earnestly plodding down the rain-soaked streets in a hopeless quest for unspoilt authenticity, I mutter seditiously to K.

– See that? The ostentatious beard of the independent traveller. A classic example.
– That’s not a nice way to talk about Fraulein Dings-Bums’ lady friend, is it?

We collapse in giggles. Fraulein Dings-Bums and his partner are accompanied everywhere by a rather smart, well-groomed female companion, who never seems to say anything. Dear me; we can be nasty little madams at times. Especially when K has an almighty hangover, and I am coming down with some sort of mild stomach bug. In times of trial, it’s being nasty little madams that keeps us going…

In the evening, with the group left to its own devices for once, we have our first disappointing meal, consisting mainly of flavourless stodge floating in vast amounts of grease. As we have already become accustomed to tip-top cuisine at all times, this comes as a considerable disappointment. Luckily, my incipient stomach bug has already destroyed most of my appetite, which makes it easier for me to leave my food floating on its plate.

Hang on: who has just walked into the restaurant? Not…not…Fraulein Dings-Bums, transmitting the Secret Gay Signal with a significantly lesser degree of secrecy? Very well, then. K and I finally permit ourselves watery smiles and slightly raised hands, as Fraulein Dings-Bums, the partner and the “ostentatious beard” all swish upstairs. If things carry on like this, we may actually be talking to them by the time we reach Saigon…

Mudhoney / The Alchemysts / The Catheters, Nottingham Boat Club.

1. The Catheters. As they come from the same town (Seattle) and record for the same label (Sub Pop) as the headliners, The Catheters should be an ideal support act. We duly wander into the venue (and yes, it really is a boat club) to be confronted by some very intense shouty young men thrashing about the stage with copious amounts of gusto (and, indeed, brio). It’s all very Punk Rock. Ooh, this looks good, we think.

Unfortunately, The Catheters turn out to be playing their last number. A shame, but we’ve still got two more bands to watch. In any case, two bands are plenty; more than that, and one might start to suffer from cultural indigestion.

2. The Alchemysts. I am full of initial goodwill for The Alchemysts (tonight’s token English band). “Psychedelic garage pop”, the reviews had said, and I could do with some of that tonight.

Nope, sorry. What follows is stolid, stodgy and dull. Various classic rock licks are unimaginatively re-hashed and served up cold, like yesterday’s lumpy porridge. The chord changes are teeth-grindingly predictable. The fake New York / mid-70s / CBGB’s singing voices quickly start to grate. Influences remain resolutely un-transcended. The crowd’s reaction dips from encouraging through to polite. Along with a large chunk of the audience, we eventually drift back to the bar.

3. Mudhoney. The original godfathers of Seattle Grunge are back in the UK for just four nights (this being the first of them), with their first proper new album in four years to promote; accordingly, their initial reception is thunderous.

The band start fantastically well: the whole room is going barmy, the mosh pit’s a-moshing, the head-nodders at the back are a-nodding, and the whole vibe is “return of the conquering heroes”. I am almost entirely unfamiliar with their work (which is one of the reasons I’ve come along to investigate), and I find myself wishing I could join in with the air-punching “OhmygodtheyreplayingTHISone” reaction of ecstatic recognition which greets some of the tunes.

The front man (Mark Arm) has the face of someone who has been to Hell and back, and come up smiling – the sort of face you’ll only find in rock and roll bands. He’s in a good mood, and the whole atmosphere is all very celebratory, very “up”. There is precious little of the expected tortured angst on display. It’s not very Grunge at all. At least, not for the first twenty minutes or so…

None of the above, then, has prepared me for the long slow slide which follows, as Mudhoney grind inexorably on, and on, and on. They are skull-crushingly heavy. The songs are getting slower, more angst-ridden, and decidedly Grunge-like. I am soon reminded of why I let the movement largely pass me by in the early 90s. The mosh pit is no longer moshing (much). It has all become something of an endurance test.

Which makes the final encore (two songs) even more of a surprise. Whaddya know? Mudhoney are suddenly completely FANTASTIC all over again – right “out there” – going at it full throttle – blisteringly, intoxicatingly raw and riveting. The crowd are going apeshit, with even some of the head-nodders attempting some last minute mini-moshing of their own. The final tune is something which the band had recorded for a John Peel session the previous night. Apparently, it’s a cover of a song by an British band, which we are all supposed to recognise. The best guess we can come with is latter-day Primal Scream. Anyway, who cares, it’s FANTASTIC.

Our final consensus (all five of us): short sets can be GOOD things. Most of us are still nursing fond memories of The Libertines earlier in the year, who played for not much more than half an hour, and yet delivered a perfect performance. Keep it short, keep it snappy, keep it Punk Rock, and ditch that bloated mid-set sag!

Vietnam – Day 7.

It’s a long drive in the minibus from Hué to Hoi An. Luckily, the scenery is spectacular, as we trundle through the mountains, catching glimpses of the ocean. I’m still trying to plough through White Teeth, but there are too many competing distractions going on outside the window.

There are also plenty of stops along the way. At Danang, a museum full of mad Hindu stone sculptures: rampant dragons, elephant deities, multi-bosomed goddesses, and more phallic symbols than you could shake a stick at. At lunchtime, a quiet, vast, unspoilt beach (unfortunately, K and I are not Beach People, so we bury ourselves under a parasol and try not to snarl too obviously). Mid-afternoon, the Marble Mountains: a spectacular network of mist-laden caves, Buddhist temples and slippery tunnels.

The Marble Mountains are also home to the most aggressively persistent sellers of marble goods on the planet. As soon as we get off the bus, we are engulfed by a swarm of young women, one for each member of the group. “What’s your name?” “Marble, you want to buy?” “OK, maybe later! Maybe later!”

All the street sellers say this in Vietnam. Maybe later! Maybe later! Then, when they see you again (and they always see you again), the words are thrown back in your face. You said later! You promised! It’s all very playful, though – very good-natured, always with a smile on the face, and people will take No for an answer. Compared to the seriously irksome street hassles we endured in Egypt, it’s a breeze.

However, the Marble Ladies are a breed apart. As we exit the Marble Mountain complex, which is a good 20 minutes’ walk from the entrance, there they all are, waiting for us. Each one of them has remembered the name of their prey. Mike! Mike! Over here! You buy! You buy! You said Maybe Later! You promised! Again, we are surrounded. The Marble Ladies are grabbing and pulling at us, or slapping our arms (hard) for added emphasis. Keep smiling. Don’t get riled. It’s all a game.

It has been observed throughout the group that I consistently seem to be getting proportionally less street hassle than anyone else. People ask me to share the secret of my success. I pause to consider. Well – I never make prior eye contact with the vendor, and I never look at the goods for sale. If approached, I say “No thank you”, just once, politely but firmly. As I do so, I make direct eye contact with the vendor. At the same time, I give them my broadest, most open smile, while slowly shaking my head through about 90 degrees, and slowly raising my right hand in a kind of “stop the traffic” gesture. It seems to work, every time. I am asked to demonstrate my technique to the group. Maybe this will work for them – or maybe it’s just because the vendors all have excellent emotional intelligence, and have recognised me for the curmudgeonly, tight-fisted old git that I truly am.

Having said all this – of course I buy the occasional trinket, or set of postcards, along the way. You have to. People’s livelihoods depend on stuff like this. However, I’m a hopeless haggler. I just can’t play the game. People see through me in an instant. I resign myself to paying over the odds, and remind myself that this is still an outrageously low sum.

K and I have lucked out in Hoi An. While some of the group are consigned to cramped, noisy, airless basement cells, we languish in our very own mini-suite, with polished panelling and heavy traditional furniture, all in rich dark woods. Perhaps, in retrospect, we shouldn’t have mentioned this to the rest of the group…

Hoi An is the prettiest town in Vietnam, its well preserved 17th and 18th century buildings fairly dripping with old world charm. However, it is clearly changing fast. The main streets of the old town are largely given over to tourist shops and restaurants, and there are Australian backpackers everywhere. This hasn’t spoilt the intrinsic beauty of the town just yet – but I don’t have a particularly good feeling about the future.

In the evening, in a simple looking establishment on the waterfront, we enjoy our best meal of the entire trip. None of the meals we have eaten so far have been anything less than excellent, but this place scales new heights. Excuse me while I plug it: Hong Phuc, 86 Bach Dang St. Tel. 0510 862567. E-mail: hongphuc1990@yahoo.com.au. The tiny little scallops are particularly spectacular.

We round off the evening in Tam Tam, a wildly popular French-run backpacker bar which plays fabulous jazz-funk and French reggae. Oh look! Over there, in the corner! Fraulein Dings-Bums! Enchanté!

Vietnam – Day 6.

There’s a gay German couple in the hotel breakfast room. One of them clocks me and K, and immediately starts trying to transmit the Secret Gay Signal. At breakfast? I ask you. How wearing!

K and I have several comedy alter-egos. One of our favourites: the two jaded Northern queens.
– Just look at ‘er! Madam in the check shirt and glasses!
– She’s a one, int’ she? Radar Eyes, or what?
– She’s never off duty, is that one.
– Well, she’s not fookin gerrin’ any, that’s for sure.
– Too right she’s fookin not!
– Don’t look, you’ll only encourage her.

Around our group, the rice wine hangovers are kicking in, big time. None of us had factored in the sheer strength of the brew – although in retrospect, the fact that it was poured out from a plastic water bottle might have been some sort of clue.

As a result, we are not in the best condition for a lengthy morning tour of the Hué Citadel, with one of those earnest local guides who insist on giving you the precise facts and figures for everything. We are a shockingly reluctant and inattentive group, almost to the point of embarrassment (“Poor man! What must he think of us all!”).

Right in the middle of the Citadel complex, we come to the Forbidden City. Modelled on its Beijing equivalent, this sumptuous palace used to house the emperors of Vietnam. In what is known locally as “The American War”, 95% of the Forbidden City was destroyed by the US forces in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in 1968. It is a shocking discovery.

The Citadel complex has now been designated a UNESCO world heritage site, and there are plans to rebuild the Forbidden City in its entirety. In the meantime, rice and vegetables are being farmed on the waste ground. This sticks in my mind as one of the best metaphors for the character of the nation:
Tragedy. Beautiful, historic buildings are destroyed in a bloody conflict.
Stoicism. The Vietnamese shrug their shoulders, and set about rebuilding them from scratch.
Practicality. But in the meantime, as there’s no point in letting perfectly good land go to waste, they’ll grow rice and vegetables.

At the Tu Duc mausoleum, we spot the German couple again. The one in the glasses clocks us, and immediately recommences transmission.
– I’ve got a name for her now.
– What’s that then?
– It’s German for Miss Thing.
– What’s that then?
Fraulein Dings-Bums.
– Love it…

In the afternoon, my absolute highlight of the entire trip. Mr. Hoài has arranged a motorbike trip for the whole group, through the fields and villages surrounding Hué. I’ve never been on the back of a motorbike before, so there is an element of overcoming fear to be factored into the experience – this only serves to heighten the sense of exhilaration. Our drivers weave us in and out of the city traffic, and out into the villages, where kids line the roads, shouting Hello at us and high-fiving us as we scoot past. We are seeing Vietnamese life as it really is. I am ecstatic with delight.