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.

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.


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.

Vietnam – Day 11.

Our extended boat trip in and around Nha Trang bay has been billed as a “day of pampering” – much needed after the bus-bound rigours of the past couple of days. However, our simple wooden boat has no sundeck, the bench seating is hard (especially after several hours afloat, especially when you have a nasty weeping sore on your backside), the waters are choppy (several of the group succumb to seasickness, while I grimly concentrate on the horizon line, thinking calming thoughts), and the scenery isn’t a patch on Halong Bay (by now, we have become thoroughly spoilt).

Nevertheless, we have fun availing ourselves of the services on offer from the crew: manicure, pedicure and “traditional Vietnamese massage”. My massage – firmly applied, but much gentler than the brutal pummelling I received in Turkey two years ago – is excellent therapy, leaving me tingling and re-energised. Well, okay, only for a while; I’m not operating at full strength today, physically or mentally.

There is a late afternoon visit to the house and studios of Long Thanh, a photographer of international repute. He is a gently charismatic man, with the confident yet laid-back air of someone who is entirely at ease with his talent and reputation. After much deliberation, we eventually walk away with a study of two elderly Nha Trang beggar ladies, their faces creased up in a kind of girlish laughter. We are strongly reminded of the two beggar ladies from the previous afternoon, on receiving their new coolie hats. As a representative image of Vietnam to stick on the wall back home, this is as good as we will find.

We have all been dreading our second overnight sleeper train. This time round, the air conditioning is working fine – so we won’t roast. However, our bedding is in a decidedly questionable state of hygiene. Our sheet sleeping bags are covered in long hairs, and exude an aroma of lightly laundered vomit. What’s more, they are all covered in dried lumps of a greeny-grey residue which looks suspiciously like snot. We elect to sleep on top, fully clothed, as best as we can.

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.

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…

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: 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.