Vietnam – Day 5.

The bloody awful Vietpop music starts blaring through the carriage at 6am, an hour and twenty minutes before we reach our destination. The music is so loud that it’s distorting through the speakers. There are very few things which I dislike about this country, but the local pop music is one of them (along with the humidity, and the lack of soft cushions). Actually, most of it isn’t even “local” – it’s all made by ex-pats living in L.A., and re-imported via the likes of MTV Asia. Without this set-up, and with the bootleg CD trade as big as it is, none of the artists would ever get paid.

K and J-Lo are in foul moods. J-Lo mentions that she hasn’t slept all night. I make a tactical error and confess to having had a few hours’ kip. J-Lo snaps back: “Oh, stop bragging about it, would you?” Brenda Blethyn pops a cheery head round the door: “Good morning!”. K glares back at her.“F**k off!” Strange as it may sound, these two exchanges actually seal our respective friendships for the rest of the trip.

We all feel like we’ve been slowly basting ourselves in our own chip fat. We all feel disgusting. The washing facilities on the train are, naturally, rudimentary in the extreme. We cannot wait to get to the hotel in Hué.

It turns out that there’s a great little pavement café next door to the hotel, which becomes our regular hang-out for the next couple of days. Excuse me while I plug it: Hoài Café, 35 Hai Bà Trung, Tel: 054.830860. The perpetually cheerful and solicitous owner, Mr. Hoài, becomes everybody’s new friend. Once showered and changed, we congregate around a long table and breakfast on rice noodle soup.

It’s only Day 5, but I have already become completely addicted to rice noodle soup at breakfast time. Up until now, I have always found it difficult to face food for the first hour of every day – but rice noodle soup has got through to me where all other breakfast foodstuffs have failed. I could feast on it every day. Here is a golden business opportunity just waiting to happen back home: a chain of Vietnamese breakfast bars, all doing rice noodle soup. Someone should do it. With the right marketing, it could catch on, big time.

We take off on a cyclo tour of Hué, which is our tour leader’s favourite city in Vietnam. Cyclos are like rickshaws: you recline comfortably in front, shaded by a canopy, while your driver pedals you along the streets on a three wheeler. It’s the best way to see the city when you’re still feeling weary, and it’s wonderful to be part of the mad flow of traffic, down at street level. There are almost no cars here: just two-wheelers and cyclos. Hué is a gentler, simpler, more relaxed place than Hanoi; it still bears the more conservative, traditional feel of the North.

Squeezed into one cyclo, a young family group passes by in the other direction: father, mother and baby. They have the same quiet serenity which I have observed time and again over the past few days. They make such a lovely family that I find I cannot help but beam as they go by. The mother spots this, and catches my eye, and beams straight back at me. For a second or so, there is a complete communion between us, as our respective states of contentment become momentarily enmeshed. A few seconds later, in the midst of the traffic, an elaborately decorated coffin passes by, sitting on a cycle cart, on its way to be delivered somewhere. Birth and death, both gone in a flash.

There’s an afternoon boat trip down the “Perfumed River”. The boat is staffed by a young married couple, with a cheeky toddler in tow. Between the ages of around three and five, most Vietnamese children have the most delightfully strong characters: playfully bold and impish, you can’t help but love them. This kid is a prime example; everyone is taking his photo, and he’s loving the attention. As the boat sets sail, his older sister waves him goodbye from the shore. He doesn’t want to leave her. He starts crying, as toddlers tend to do. It doesn’t last long. However, his parents’ reaction is interesting, brief as it is (and easily missed): they look visibly embarrassed. Overt public displays of emotion do not take place in Vietnamese society, as they are seen as “losing face” – and this even applies to toddlers, it would seem. This isn’t self-repression; it’s self-control; a subtle but important difference. Thus by the age of around six, the vast majority of Vietnamese children are calm, well-behaved creatures, with sensible heads on their shoulders, busily making themselves useful. There is no sentimentality attached to childhood here. Nor are children afforded any special protection; they are streetwise from the moment they can walk (which is OK, because the streets here are safe and crime-free). This particular kid is happily running round all parts of the boat, with no fear on his part or on his parents’ part. He is trusted from the outset.

As we pass under one of the main bridges, teeming with traffic in both directions, I notice that only two people are crossing it on foot. A European or American couple, they look every inch the “independent travellers”. No cyclos for them at “tourist rip-off” rates (around 60p or 70p a journey, in fact); they look doggedly determined to trudge the streets of Hué by foot alone, through the heat and humidity. The man is half a dozen paces in front of the woman. They both look thoroughly miserable. They both notice our colourfully painted vessel passing below, and visibly frown at the “false”, “touristy” frivolity on display.

The Thien Mu pagoda, and its accompanying Buddhist monastery, and its surrounding formal gardens, are all exquisitely beautiful, in a naturally harmonious and un-showy way. K and I are both utterly captivated by the atmosphere of calm. K has one of his periodic “I want to be a monk!” moments, and our usual well-rehearsed comic banter ensues. Back in London, The Hempel hotel had boasted of a “Zen garden”. Compared to the real thing in front of us now, its clueless pretentiousness now lies completely exposed. We also make amused comparisons with the suburban “Zen garden” makeovers which are so beloved of British television programmes. However, this still does not stop us from snapping loads of detailed “inspiration shots”, ready for when we get back to Nottingham (our long neglected yards are in need some drastic re-planning).

In the evening, a celebratory meal in honour of Gabriel Byrne’s birthday (and his honeymoon with Demi Moore). The best squid I have ever tasted, anywhere. We all get totally hammered on tiny amounts of the local rice wine, and stay up way past our bedtimes at the Hoài Café. This has been the best day yet, despite its inauspicious and painful start. I bloody love this country.

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Vietnam – Day 4.

It’s a long drive from Hanoi to Halong Bay and back, but the boat trip proves to be well worth it. We slowly weave our way round countless rocky islands; they are tall and steep, lush and verdant, dramatic and other-worldly. Sizeable portions of the film Indochine were shot out here, particularly on Dau Go (“Dragon Island”).

The heavy rain has stopped just in time, and the sun makes one of its very rare showings (the two weeks are mostly spent underneath a cloudy sky, for which I am most grateful; I’m hot enough as it is, and have no wish to slather myself in protective gunk). We sit on the top deck and zone out, gazing into the middle distance with dippy smiles on our faces.

The two caves on Dau Go are cavernous and spectacular, with stalactites and stalagmites a-go-go. The first cave is illuminated with cheesy coloured lighting (which only I seem to like), and is packed with gawping boat trippers. The second cave is naturally lit, much emptier, every bit as dramatic, and much more atmospheric. Inside the second cave, K snaps away for all he’s worth; meanwhile, I have decided to leave my digicam in the suitcase until the last night. He creates “visual essays” on top quality slide film – I do cheerful point ‘n snap people shots, when we’ve all had a drink or two. I call this “complementary skills”.

The overnight sleeper train from Hanoi to Hué starts off as a giggle, and ends up as an ordeal. It’s a giggle while we’re drinking beer and playing cards; it’s an ordeal when we realise that the air conditioning in our compartment is malfunctioning. Through the night, the compartment grows progressively hotter and stickier. On the top bunks, where it’s marginally cooler, Brad Pitt and I manage to doze fitfully, after a fashion. On the lower bunks, where it’s roasting, K and Jennifer Lopez get no sleep whatsoever.