Friday, 8 December 2017

Part IV - Vietnam

We tackled the Vietnam border, crossing without incident. Apparently spending too much time filling in the very detailed medical form, it was snatched away from us prematurely by a charming Vietnamese border guard, who barked something incomprehensible and demanded four more dollars. Safe in the knowledge that our health was the state's highest priority, we got onto a bus and headed for Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) AKA Saigon. 

In HCMC we used a dodgy looking backstreet travel agent to change some money. Behind and above the woman serving me was a curious sight. Three CCTV cameras, all angled the same way, recording her every move. Clearly you can't be too careful here. However, what I really enjoyed was the fourth camera. Positioned just 50cm to the left, it was pointed at the other three. Ok so the manager is worried that three individual cameras might collude with each other, and the clerk? Brilliant. 

One of the most popular attractions in HCMC is the War Remnants Museum, which until recently was the Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes. Crikey. So as you can imagine, they don't pull many punches therein. And fair enough, the USA's involvement was without doubt the worst military intervention of the second half of the 20th Century, in terms of material destruction, casualties, war crimes, illegality, chemical weapons usage and unexploded weapons legacy. So in all 'terms' then.

The last four presidents, as well as the beady-eyed, toupe-topped incumbent have all visited Vietnam during their time in office as a mark of respect for the atrocities wrought on this land by their predecessors. This is the official line. What they probably wouldn't admit is that, since the war, the USA has used its global dominance to first ruin Vietnam's economy, then offer it a capitalist olive branch. In the last few decades, they have molded Vietnam into a sycophantic export market and, more importantly, a key military ally / lapdog neighbouring their mighty nemesis China. 

If anyone reading this is interested in how awful the USA was during the Cold War, I implore you to read this illuminating and shocking article:

Thought of the Day: 
Little old Oliver Brown is above average height in Vietnam. This is huge news. Literally. 
How does this make me feel? Good question Oliver. Boring answer though I'm afraid - indifferent. Surely I should feel more confident, more important, more able to reach things, more able to answer the question 'how's the weather up there?' 

On our first morning in HCMC we bagged up several kilograms of laundry and were told we could pick them up the next afternoon. Only later did I realise that this left me with just two clean tops for tomorrow's trip to the War Remnants Museum, where the two main exhibitions are the 1940s / 1950s armed struggle against French colonial rule and of course the Vietnam War, or as its known here, the American War of Aggression. This would have been fine had the two tops in question not been my 'PARIS' stenciled on the back t-shirt and Woody's* Stars & Stripes flag vest. Awkward. 
Luckily our newly clean clothes were actually ready by the morning. Bullet dodged. 

*sorry pal, I've had it for years I know. 

Sadly the Vietnamese love Donald Trump. Our Chu Chi Tunnels tour guide, realising some yanks were aboard the coach, took the opportunity to praise the unlikely leader of the free world. This gesture received a pretty luke warm to ice cold response. Later on when he proclaimed that Vietnam is now 'a peaceful country with no hate' I felt compelled to shout out 'Trump hates' which I did... to yet more luke warmth. Fickle crowd, tough crowd. 

I imagine most of what they hear via state media is that he stands up to China (which they love). I wonder if they hear much about his retweeting far right propaganda, sexually assaulting women, etc etc. 

So far in Vietnam we have heard Westlife's Greatest Hits played in three separate restaurants. I've noticed this previously when abroad; western pop music travels very slowly around the globe. I wonder if they even know that Westlife split up in 2012. I should really say something. 

I love this example in particular because the album in question was the soundtrack to a rather homoerotic holiday in Majorca with my, at the time, newly single pal Nick Fishbourne. For five nights during the summer of love (August 2014) we drank our way through the all inclusive bar and cheered each other up by serenading one another with back to back Irish pop classics on our grotty hotel balcony. Ahh those were the days. 
Update: three separates restaurants and a coffee shop. 

Back to the tunnels. Grace led the charge of 20 odd tourists along a 140m stretch of a very narrow and claustrophobic Vietcong tunnel. We emerged pouring with sweat and with grazed shoulders. I hate to think what it would have been like living and fighting down there year after year. 

Thought of the Day: Brash obnoxious Americans*. They can hardly contain themselves can they. Even when confronted with an iconically tragic and poignant location such as Chu Chi, the area of south Vietnam that came to opitimise the brutal close quarters combat of this conflict. For me it was a somber place. Why is it that some people can't just shut up for an afternoon and demonstrate some quiet reverence for the hundreds of their countrymen who perished, right here, in the most horrific ways imaginable. 

*a generalisation sure, of course many yanks are more measured. Maybe it's just a coincidence that those that I've interacted with in the last two months are very much the 'WE'RE HERE AND EVERYONE NEEDS TO KNOW THAT' type of insufferable American. 

Thought of the Day: 
I would like to take this opportunity to say how brilliant a travel companion my travel companion is. Grace the backpacker is logical, pragmatic, adventurous, relentlessly positive and most importantly, fun. I'm absolutely over the sun and the moon that she has entrusted me with the position of co-pilot, activity assistant, entertainer and all round adventure partner on this trip of a lifetime. 

Chu Chi was also home to a shooting range, operated by the Army. You could argue that firing a gun for 'sport' is in bad taste considering the range occupies a former battlefield. 

Having read about the pure hell that is modern warfare I wanted to at least experience one realistic aspect of what millions of poor souls have experienced before me. After all, had I been born in the 1890s there's a scary high chance I would have died in the trenches of northern Europe as a volunteer or conscripted soldier. I also put forward indulging my primitive caveman hunting instinct to Grace as further justification. To be honest, a bit of a weak argument. 

Earlier in the day a big group of male tourists had clambered onto a relic US tank, immobilised by a Vietcong mine in 1967. With the same gun-ho grin spread across all their faces they cheered and posed for endless cameras, glorifying a spot where someone likely died. We both found this weird. So I shot them...
a disdainful stare. 

For me there was a difference between that behavior and my first ever gun experience. Mine had been sobering. It left me feeling reflective, not cheerful. 

In the event there was nothing that remarkable about the experience. It's almost disconcertingly familiar; blame childhood computer games. 
Having said that, one thing you're not prepared for is the volume. If you pay to shoot you are provided with ear protection, however when queuing 10m away, the unexpected reports of several rifles are both ear splitting and unnerving. 

Hot countries are bad news for the humble foot, with flips flops offering as much protection as a particularly adept conscientious objector. My pair currently look like they've been dragged through a bush backwards, briefly chewed by a ravenous otter and then pushed back through a bush, forwards. Several of my little mozzy bites from the early days have joined up  to form a conurbation occupying acres of ground; a scabby moonscape born out of the frustratingly inevitable itch then scratch to broken skin combo. 

In addition, recently whilst in flip flops, I strolled through some cleverly hidden barbed wire on the way to a cave. That was a sore point, Olly quipped. Furthermore, my left sandal has rubbed-to-raw nearly every point of contact with that foot, to the amusement of my right foot which has since poked plenty of fun at its unfortunate neighbour. Thankfully, a timely dose of karma played out whence one of my right foot's toe nails inexplicably went black and subsequently fell off. 'Who's the Scabby Scarlet now?!' screeched Lefty with gleeful vengeance.  

The Independence Palace in HCMC was a surprising highlight. This Vietnamese former equivalent to the White House, felt like being in a 1960s pilot episode of MTV's Cribs, with our audio tour narrator describing how pimped out the president's former gaff was. Games room, cinema, heli-pad, torture room, hidden staircase to the underground bunker, etc. Ok there was no torture room. We've heard a lot about torture during our various museum trips. 

I can also now say I've been in a presidents' bedroom. Is that something worth saying? Only time will tell. Useful small talk for meeting a president I imagine. 

We had read pretty damning reviews of Nah Trang, however our favoured next stop - Hoi An - was too long a bus ride. We arrived in Nah Trang with the sun rising over the sea which was nice. The niceties ended there. Vieing to become Russia's Costa Del Sol, the beach strip is a mass of concrete and steel reaching up to a wasted sun. Due to bus timings we had to spend two days on the beach, which of course is not the end of the world, however our time is precious and Nah Trang has about as much culture as the Howard Centre multistory car park in Welwyn Garden City. 

Grace ordered a Banh Mi, the Vietnamese / French classic, from a street food vendor. Watching the man prepare it on the back of his miniaturized motorised mobile kitchen, he first added chicken, then egg to an oiled pan. I was about to shout 'which came first' but thankfully managed to bite my tongue. He had already misunderstood the English for 'one', having begun preparing two baguettes so it was unlikely I would get a chuckle out of him. 

We swooped into Hoi An like a couple of starving culture vultures, excited to be visiting Nha Trang's polar opposite. The Old Town is a very pretty UNESCO World Heritage site. Vietnam's best kept example of a pre-colonial fishing port, with plentiful Japanese and Chinese architectural influence. By night, numerous strings of colorful Chinese lanterns light up every street. A rich man's bunting. 

We spent the day visiting museums, pagodas, markets, bridges and an 18th Century Phung House. Having no idea what a Phung House was, I assumed it must be the Vietnamese equivalent to Pat Sharp's Fun House. To Grace's joy (souring hastily to irritation) I spent the rest of the day singing the theme tune; 'Phung House, all that phung, prizes to be wung'. In the event, the house wasn't even that phun. 

I just deleted a whole section on the adverse weather conditions we experienced in Hoi An. a) it was too Negative Nigel, b) it was all rain based material, too British, c) you have all experienced a seriously heavy deluge before so you get it and d) having felt very sorry for my and Grace's selves I then did some homework and realised central Vietnam has a three month monsoon season and just two weeks ago Hoi An was flooded to over my head height. So I should count ourselves lucky we didn't have to swim around the Phung House. Actually that does sound quite phun. 

Ironically, the chunk of rainy rambling I retired to the trash can came in at a similar word count to the paragraph above. Hmm. Which means they cancel each other out and I should exclude then both right? Wrong. Quantity not quality. That's my mantra. 

All I'll say is that the rain was so bad and the forecast so equally dire that we modified our plans and took the very unusual step of paying for the most luxurious of backpacker luxury items - plane tickets. Goodbye soggy Hoi An, hello cold Hanoi. 

Critter Watch: 
None this week. I don't like to critisise but one criticism of our Vietnam experience would be that our frequency of interactions with critters has plunged to critical levels. Maybe critters are critically endangered here, leaving me little critterial to write about. Instead, all I can do is write this critique and hope for a critterfull future. 

Thought of the Day: when I'm down in the dumps about something and looking for someone, something (can I blame inanimate objects?) to blame for our misfortunes, Grace is usually positive in face of it. Yesterday she told me about a Buddhist parable called The Second Arrow. NB: I think my Buddhist in training pal Woody may have already explained this to me years ago, in a previous life; a reincarnated Goldfish perhaps? Famously forgetful fish. 

In summary, one can't control the suffering inflicted upon them (the first arrow) but they can the second arrow; the additional suffering we all naturally inflict upon ourselves by choosing anger, frustration, sadness, etc. Learn to accept that what's done is done and move on asap. Woody is the embodiment of this mind trick*. I've seen him brush off some mega material losses in the past. 

*come to think of it, this is probably a sentence best reserved for the big guy in the Nirvana sky himself, Mr Buddha. 

Grace has drawn my attention to the modern day digital era embarrassment that is the Instagram Boyfriend. These photoshoots can go on indefinitely as the submissive male struggles to nail the perfect shot that will presumably elevate the female to celebrity status (amongst her friends). After each cheesy catalogue pose, the dominant female will retrieve her phone, likely berate her not so professional photographer for his lack of professional photographer skills, before the process is repeated. We've witnessed these extraordinary (courting?) rituals on a number of occasions and it never ceases to bemuse. 

Hanoi's Old Quarter, where we stayed, was one big market, divided into streets dominated by shops curiously selling the same items. For example, there was stationary street, food street, kitchen utensil street, safe street, and if you're in the market for something a bit more fancy, foreign embassy street. 

Our party hostel provided free walking tours. Stop No.3 was an imitation Notre Darm cathedral. Turns out, before the French colonised Indochina, there was a Buddhist temple in this very spot. When the French arrived they demolished it and replaced it with their Catholic version. Way to ingratiate yourself with the locals guys. They definitely won't rebel now. Also, if god does exit and He (She? It?) practices what He/She preaches in the Bible I imagine It wouldn't be happy with anyone destroying anything belonging to anyone else. Especially not a shrine to the Buddha, who by all accounts and I'm sure Jesus would agree, was a swell guy. I can't imagine a bigger blasfamus slap in the face for Vietnam's Buddhists. 
In summary, I don't understand religion. 

Thought of the Day: I also don't understand Nixon ordering the indiscriminate bombing of Hanoi in 1968. During WWII the US and UK flattened many German cities and towns. Did it win the war? No, it strengthened the resolve of the population and resulted in the needless deaths of thousands of innocents. How was this lesson not learnt!? Nixon was a right **** though. 

Ho Chi Minh, a venerable god in the eyes of the Vietnamese, lies in state in his very own massive Lenin style mausoleum in Hanoi. And what a state he must be in by now, at 127 years old. A morbid curiosity led me to research how we could join the thousands of pilgrims that shuffle past his glass sarcophagus on a daily basis. Unfortunately however every October and November he holidays in sunny Russia, where crucial 'maintenance' is carried out. Presumably some anti-aging cream for those voluptuous wrinkles, an industrial strength face mask, guyliner and some 'Communist Red' lippy.

We visited the 'Hanoi Hilton', a former French colonial prison (now museum). Like HCMC's War Remnants Museum, the exhibitions here were laced with Vietnamese propaganda. Essentially, the message here was; the French treated our Vietnamese revolutionary heroes terribly during the 50s, however in the early 70s we treated downed US Air Force pilots like royalty, despite their indiscriminate bombing of our city. This latter exhibition is named 'Special Guests'. Of course there is plenty of truth in all this, however these guys know how to lay it on thick. 

There is one brilliant example of the museum's content providers implicating themselves in this regard. Posters detailing the stories of several Americans imprisoned include 'direct quotes'. However these so called direct quotes, which depict prison life as some sort of heaven, are written in broken English, surely proving they've been translated from a foreign language right? Hmm. 

Our treat of the day was an exorbitant bottle of beer at Top of Hanoi bar, an outdoor drinkery perched on the roof of Lotte Tower, 272m up (somewhere in between 1 Canary Wharf and the Shard). Old romantic me timed our arrival for sunset and the 360 degree view of this mega city was breathtaking. Unfortunately the pollution from approximately six million mopeds obscures the horizon, creating a mystical fog which hangs in fact quite beautifully between the numerous blocks of flats below. 

Experiencing this perspective got me thinking, then reading online, about cities. Fact of the Day: Did you know, the abandoned derelict section of Detroit is actually the size of the entire city of San Francisco! Crazy. 

For three nights we stayed in a dorm room at THE Hanoi party hostel. This was a good and not so good experience. Having to wear clothes when I could be naked is always going to be an irritation, however it's something we must get used to. In our Autumn Budget, we've had to cut expenditure on housing in 2018; our more pricey South American journey leg. Looks like dormitories will become the norm-itories. 

The End

(American voiceover):

Next time on International Rescue:
  • Embarrassment as Olly fails to explain Limestone Karsts to Grace 
  • Despair as a weather app fails to forecast drizzle  
  • And jubilation as Olly fails to predict a sausage.

Wow! I know I'll be tuning in.

Thank you for reading. 
Donations welcome. 

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