Vietnam – Day 14.

Our last full day in Vietnam commences with yet another early start. Hey, what’s new? This time, we’re being packed off on a boat tour through the Mekong Delta, some distance South of Saigon.

Starting off on a fairly substantial vessel, we cruise for a while down the wide (and aptly named) Red River, before transferring to a succession of ever smaller sampans, which take us through a succession of ever narrower waterways through the jungle.

The jungle! Wow, this is great. Huge coconut fern leaves tower above our heads. Everything feels humid and swamp-like. There are snakes wrapped around tree trunks. It’s the Real Deal. It also feels like a different country all over again.

Coconut factoryFor lunch, we eat honey straight off the cone, before being shown around a small coconut candy factory. The whole group is in a buoyant mood, with plenty to distract us from the thought of the long flight home tomorrow, with the long stopover in Kuala Lumpur en route.

The early evening sees us all togged up, mingling with the Tiger Economy Set at the top of the flashiest hotel in Saigon, sipping overpriced cocktails and gazing out at the cityscape below, before heading off for another rather disappointing meal in another rather overdone restaurant. At the end of the meal, Brenda Blethyn hosts a daft “awards ceremony”, doling out “certificates” to everyone in the group. My award is for reducing the Vietnamese medical profession to fits of giggles with that oh-so-witty little boil on my bottom (I knew I could milk this episode for laughs). K gets something for surviving Scorpion’s Revenge. There are final beers and photos on the hotel roof before bedtime. And that’s it. It’s a wrap.

Downtown Saigon by night

The less said about our ghastly stopover and so-called “city tour” round Kuala Lumpur the following day (useless, indifferent “guide” – torrential rain – massive and unwelcome culture shock), the better. So let’s leave everybody in Saigon instead, pissed and merry on the hotel roof, talking about what an excellent time we’ve had, and what a fantastic country we’ve visited.

Vietnam is our new favourite country, then. You should go. Before all the main attractions get turned into theme parks for the massed ranks of gawping coach parties. But if you do, take a couple of tips from me. Pack a nice soft cushion, and a sheet sleeping bag for the overnight train. You’ll be glad you did.

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Flaming Lips, Nottingham Rock City, 21 January 2003.

1. If I’d known that British Sea Power were the support act, I would have got to the venue a whole lot earlier. As it was, we arrived just in time for their final number. It was…noisy. And that is all I can meaningfully say about them. Most frustrating.

2. No doubt as part of their whole “deconstructing the mystique of performance” schtick, the Flaming Lips helped their own road crew build their set, with the lighting turned right up on the stage. Well, most of the band helped out, at any rate. Singer Wayne Coyne mainly confined himself to rather self-consciously wandering on and off stage, occasionally throwing cheery little waves towards the audience. However, he never actually seemed to do much. He killed quite a bit of time by making tiny little adjustments to his mike stand, and seemingly by checking the stage for uneven floorboards (an all too often overlooked duty, I’m sure). But really, he was just making a great show of looking busy, to cover up for the fact that he wasn’t actually contributing a great deal. As a seasoned practitioner of this strategy myself, who has come to rely upon it to get him through most of his daily life, I can suss out a fellow traveller in an instant.

3. While this procedure was taking place, I was slightly surprised to spot someone standing right in the middle of the crowd on the main floor, dressed in a full rabbit costume: thick grey fur, floppy ears, whiskers, the lot. Not the most practical of outfits for a sweaty venue like Rock City. I came up with four possible reasons for this:

i) My lemonade had been spiked, possibly by someone who had grown tired of my incessant paeans to the glories of an alcohol-free lifestyle. After all, there’s nothing quite like the evangelical zeal of the newly converted. Who could blame them?

ii) One of the Moldy Peaches was in the audience.

iii) Jolly undergraduate jape, possibly for chari-dee.

iv) Man in rabbit suit deliberately planted in audience by Flaming Lips in order to freak people out, in a further act of radical post-modernist deconstruction etc. etc.

So iii) then, obviously.

Turning around a few minutes later to survey the crowd, I then noticed that the guy behind the mixing desk was dressed as a tiger.

So iv) then. My goodness!

4. When the Flaming Lips re-emerged on stage for the gig proper, all the band except Wayne Coyne had changed into animal costumes: giant heads, the lot. They were joined by a couple of extras standing at each side of the stage in rabbit costumes (aha!), jiggling around to the opening number (a soaring Race For The Prize) and shining flashlights directly into the crowd. The giant bunnies then steadfastly kept this up for the whole of the rest of the set.

Simultaneously, a vast quantity of giant (and I do mean giant) inflated balloons were released into the crowd, bearing messages such as “Happy Birthday!” and “Get Well Soon!” These were bounced around above people’s heads until they eventually burst. The last giant balloon didn’t burst until at least halfway through the set.

5. Standing more or less stock still in the back left hand corner of the stage, and – once again – remaining there all the way through the gig: none other than Santa Claus himself. The real Santa Claus, that is. Guess he’s got to do something to occupy himself during the January lull, right?

6. Wayne Coyne still does that thing with the glove puppet in the shape of a nun. And the blood on the head.

7. At this stage in their career, they really don’t need to keep playing She Don’t Use Jelly any longer. Its dopey college-boy wackiness now sounds completely at odds with the rest of the band’s material. In any case, it was never a hit in the UK, and most of the audience probably don’t even recognise it.

8. With Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots currently sitting at #18 in the UK singles charts (yes – it really is!), the Flaming Lips are doing Top Of The Pops this week. They told us that they wanted to use the opportunity to name someone from the audience on national television. They chose someone called Patrick. We shall discover on Friday whether they have kept their word. Remember: the name is Patrick.

9. Not being a particularly huge fan, I had always assumed that the Flaming Lips specialised in rather dry, oblique, conceptual pieces about mathematicians and robots and stuff. I was quite wrong. Loads of their stuff is charmingly, unpretentiously, joyously life-affirming. In this respect, Do You Realise? was particularly striking. Directly followed by Waitin’ For A Superman, this was the central highpoint of the night for me.

(9.5. The Polyphonic Spree really do owe these guys an immense creative debt, don’t they?)

10. As far as I was concerned, the band completely blew their encore with a tortuously drawn-out version of Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon – one of their more, um, minimal pieces. God, I thought it would never end. I like to think I have a healthy capacity for all things Prog – but this was simply too Prog by half. I was therefore fairly astonished when Stereoboard later told me it was his favourite tune of the night. This simply confirms what I already knew – namely that Stereoboard will always be more Prog than I could ever hope to be.

(For a different view of the same gig, take a look at this review on BBC Nottingham.)

Vietnam – Day 13.

It’s a long bus ride from the centre of Saigon out to the Cao Dai temple complex at Tay Ninh. As with most Explore Worldwide trips (and this is my only real criticism of their excellent operation), there have already been rather too many long bus rides over the last couple of weeks. This had better be worth it.

Still, there’s something mesmerising about gazing out of the window at the endless thick stream of two-wheelers coming into the city. The way that the traffic here somehow manages to flow efficiently and seemingly without incident is a constant marvel. Forget mirrors. Forget hand signals. Forget helmets. Forget lanes. They barely exist. Instead, the entire traffic system seems to get by on calmness, co-operation and consideration. There is no road rage here (something which would in any case have been unlikely in a culture which shuns public displays of emotion). Yes, everyone uses their hooters constantly – but not in frustration or anger, and only as a means of alerting other road users of their presence. Although the traffic here looks at first sight like a terrifyingly undisciplined free-for-all, I have come to the conclusion that most Vietnamese road users are actually exercising unusually high levels of due care and attention. Mind you, there’s really no other option open to them.

The Cao Dai temple complex is indeed a strange place. The garishly ornate temples, all of which look more or less brand new, have something of a Buddhist Disneyland quality to them. The intention of the Cao Dai faith (which only began in 1919) is to fuse a new synthesis of the world’s great religions, taking the best aspects of each. One aspect of this is a highly eclectic collection of saints and spiritual mediums, including Christ, the Buddha, Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, Louis Pasteur, Sun Yat Sen and Charlie Chaplin. (Who next, I wonder? Geri Halliwell?)

We are here to attend the big noonday service in the main temple, which visitors are allowed to observe from the long first floor balconies. Although visually impressive, it turns out to be an entirely static affair, which fails to hold the attention of most of the massed ranks of gawking, immodestly dressed non-believers. For my part, I find the service rather mesmerising. But, it has to be said, maybe not quite mesmerising enough to warrant such a long return journey.

It’s a good job we packed plenty of Immodium. K’s digestive system is playing up something rotten today. Everybody else in the group is fine, though. Hang on. What was it that K ate last night, that nobody else touched? Scorpion, wasn’t it? His condition becomes known to all as Scorpio’s Revenge (and later, as Scorpio Rising – oh dear).

Over lunch at a roadside restaurant, we are joined by an elderly Vietnamese gentleman who is an old family friend of Kim Phuc – the girl shown running naked down the street in the wake of a Napalm attack, in the famous press photo which has become one of the iconic images of the “American War”. He shows us his photos and, although we have been instructed not to bully him with too many pressing questions about the war, is keen to talk to us of forgiveness, reconciliation and laying the past to rest.

The afternoon is spent at the Cu Chi tunnels, which seem to have been turned into some sort of Vietcong theme park. Our guide, in pseudo-combat fatigues, leads us past various vicious looking man-traps. While we wince in horror, a large Spanish tour party behind us seems to find them all hugely comical, pointing and laughing as they move along. This is a coping strategy like any other, of course. Maybe if we hadn’t been to Mai Lai, we too would be reacting differently.

While the rest of the group dutifully clamber through some of the original underground tunnels used by the Vietcong, K and I opt out of the experience. When everybody else re-emerges only a couple of minutes later, matted in sweat and grime, we are deeply glad to have wimped out.

Our evening meal is a rare disappointment. We’re not striking it very lucky for food in Saigon. The restaurants are considerably foofier in appearance, but the food and service are noticeably lacking, when compared to the delights we have been enjoying up until now.

Just one more day to go, then. And yet another bloody early start in the morning. Holiday my arse!

Vietnam – Day 12.

The night train from Nha Trang rolls into Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) at 4:00 a.m. Our four hour walking tour of the city is scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m. Although we have grown used to a fairly punishing schedule by now, this is one appointment that we won’t be keeping. K and I check in, crash out, and eventually emerge for a late breakfast.

All the way through the trip, I have been suffering from weeping sores, which have been popping up randomly all over my body. I am now developing new sores at the rate of one a day, and currently have about five on the go. The sore on my backside is particularly large and painful – especially given the utter lack of soft cushions in this country. It is time to take some action. A doctor and nurse are called to examine me in our hotel room. They take particular interest in the sore on my backside.

After examining me, the young doctor remains silent for a few moments.

“These lesions are…very…strange.”

Oh dear. Not good.

“You must come with us to the hospital. A specialist will see you there.”

Oh goody. A new adventure!

“We have an ambulance outside.”

Even better! I’ve never taken a ride in an ambulance before. The attention-seeking hypochondriac inside me is exultant.

At the hospital, which is full of people who look like they have been waiting around for an awfully long time, I am efficiently fast-tracked through the system. Oh, the joys of being a pampered Westerner who can afford to pay full whack!

My consultant dermatologist is a brusque man, who crossly barks orders at me from behind his desk. Unbidden and unexpected, the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter flashes through my consciousness.

Show me! Turn round! Stop! Drop trousers!

At the sight of my bare bottom, the consultant says something to the assembled cluster of underlings who are standing behind him, in rather lighter tones than he has been using towards me up till now. Everybody in the room chuckles – except me. I have no idea what is being said. Nobody has ever laughed at my bottom before. The humiliation is considerable. However, it is also tempered by the knowledge that this will make a good story for the rest of the group. Minting entertainment from embarrassment has always been one of my coping strategies.

I pick up my various prescriptions from the hospital dispensary, and grab a taxi back to the hotel. It’s lunchtime, so we head off to a relatively posh looking place a couple of streets away. The large table next to us is full of braying, super-confident US yuppies in “business casual” attire – a new sight for us in Vietnam, but a sight with which we will become familiar during the next couple of days. These people all have the easy swagger which suggests that they own this city. As Saigon is a rapidly and visibly developing hotspot for the new Tiger Economy, it is reasonable to suppose that they probably do.

Indeed, it is the comparative Westernisation of Saigon which dominates our initial impressions of the city. Bigger buildings, wider streets, posher shops, hotels and restaurants – and, although they are still firmly in the minority when compared to the teeming thousands of bikes and mopeds, many more cars on the roads. We wonder apprehensively about what will happen to the traffic as the economy expands, and ever more people switch from two wheels to four. Is Saigon another Bangkok in the making, with the same nightmarish 24 hour traffic jams and attendant pollution just waiting to happen?

K and I stroll up to the famous old Post Office building: a glorious example of French colonial architecture, still with its original fixtures and fittings. As the old Post Office doesn’t have an international parcel post, we continue round the corner to a rather more modest modern building. Directly opposite is a shop which assembles precisely measured, neatly constructed little cardboard boxes for your parcels, while you wait on the pavement. Just what we need.

We spend most of the rest of the afternoon at the War Relics Museum, wandering round mock-ups of prison cells, inspecting instruments of torture, and slowly working our way round the comprehensive photographic displays. Harrowing but compelling stuff, which comes across all the more vividly in the light of our experiences to date.

The whole group is reunited for dinner, in a colossal hangar of a restaurant: open to the street, with the diners seated at long rows of simple trestle tables, under a high corrugated iron roof. No yuppies here – in fact, hardly any foreigners at all. Ooh, you can just feel the authenticity!

And taste it, too. This is hardcore stuff. Small barbecues are placed along our table, and live shrimps brought out for us to cook. To protect our delicate Western sensibilities, the waiters obligingly pith the shrimps for us at the table, so that we don’t actually cook them alive. Nevertheless, the ensuing rigor mortis means that they are still writhing around as they fry. It is all too much for Jennifer Lopez, one of the vegetarians, who excuses herself rapidly and dashes outside for a cigarette.

In stark contrast, K – a committed and adventurous carnivore if ever there was one – is delighted to find scorpion on the menu. We are duly taken down to inspect the tank of live scorpions at the back of the restaurant, near the kitchens. One of the kitchen staff extracts a scorpion, briefly placing it underneath his T-shirt for a laugh. Oo-er.

The cooked scorpion is served up whole, still in its shell, unceremoniously plonked on a plate with no sauce or garnish to detract from the purity of the experience. To eat it, you simply lift the blackened creature to your mouth, and start chomping. The shell is fairly soft by now, and can be easily spat out. The rest of the group oohs and aahs as K boldly takes his first bite. What does it taste like? Rather nutty, apparently. Quite dry, but perfectly pleasant. K offers the scorpion round to everybody, but I am the only one who takes up his offer. A quick little nibble suffices, and I pass it back to K, who devours the rest with relish.

scorpb

It is said that after eating scorpion, you may experience a mild form of euphoria. K confirms this later on, when he uncharacteristically refuses a beer on the grounds that it would “spoil the effect of the scorpion.” Good grief – the man really must be as high as a kite.

Most of us round off the evening in a decidedly dodgy bar, with a Wild West saloon theme…and hostesses. In this part of town, there isn’t an awful lot of choice, apparently. We note with curiosity the row of toothbrushes in the corridor outside the loos, with a ladder leading to a mysterious darkened loft above. It’s a quiet night, and our arrival easily doubles the clientele. It probably also dampens the atmosphere. (Jeanne Moreau, cheerfully and with a certain amount of relish: “I bet they hate the fact that there are women in here now. We’re like cold water, aren’t we!”) After five minutes or so, the management actually turn the lights up on us. Half an hour or so later, presumably having written the night off as a dead loss at this stage, they shut the bar early. Or maybe that was just a tactic to get rid of us…who knows?

My lesions already in abeyance, I sleep like a baby.