Chuc Mung Nam Moi. That’s what they say in Vietnam for New Year, as we entered the Year of the Dog. I was born in the Year of the Snake, I didn’t know he could see from there but apparently it’s good for the personality too, though no one seemed to keen to explain why as they sidled away quickly, looking back occasionally to see if I was following. Curious….
Before arriving in Hanoi, the capital city, on a bus with, I suspect, at least 12 too many people, I visited the DMZ and more tunnels. Less extensive than the southern tunnels and the smell down there was like Godzilla had had a crap. No internet either. Only later, when we emerged from the tunnels, did I realise that ‘that smell’ was in fact the special needs guy who insisted on following us with his torch. He was indeed special.
The moment I unwillingly made $3 on a taxi ride from an American woman (I guess when Bill Gates is worth 35% of the country’s GDP who cares?) who didn’t seen to know anything about the currency before running off into her hotel (where no doubt, people would try to rip her off time and time again, an unfortunate habit in Vietnam), the city grew on me. Grand French yellow and white-bricked governmental buildings huddled along wide boulevards, well maintained temples nestled in between and on lake while pavements were cramped with baguette makers and book sellers (who would be known as bloody booksellers by the end). The fabled Old Quarter turned out to be just rundown streets with moto drivers on every corner, men who refused to understand the words “no, no, go away”, a bit like Newcastle United‘s season actually.
I bounced around the city with an English guy called Troy (I checked his passport and that really was his name) and read and relaxed next to the many lakes in Hanoi. A fairly pretty, almost charming city with more than its fair share of pretty girls but being a traditional. conservative, family-orientated place (where have I heard that before), it was look, no touch. Later I met Lee, a young lost Korean guy who, while being pursued by moto drivers, grabbed me in the street and asked “Do you know anywhere to stay?” I took him to my gaff and then off to my prior engagement.
This was not to be missed. I’d learnt of a concert being given in front of the Opera House from a moto driver who just wanted to practice his English while I was reading in the park. Sometimes that’s cool. I saw some things I was not prepared for. When Lee asked me where these performers were from, my only answer was the 1980s. Don Johnson-suited crooners serenaded the crowd, green spandex-ed female vocalists, with less dance moves than Dan, rocking up the stage, if not the crowd who seemed only to managed a golf-clap. I fully expected Magnum at any moment. The songs were interspersed between dances and traditional music, all competently done, though often I had a gaping mouth, unsure whether to laugh, smile or cry. Cirque de Soliel it wasn’t but I never knew you could do so much with a Casio 500. Sheer entertainment.
New Years’ Eve pulled into town along with Benjamin and Eloide and 2 French Canadians, we found ourselves with two bottles of vodka, one of whiskey, champagne and 24 beers. The streets were teeming people, couples on motos, teenagers and 6 20-somethings foreigners on alcohol. After watching another concert with the same acts (golf-clap again though apparently Dan was whooping it up), we settled down for an impressive fireworks show and the night slowly faded out at around 3am. A great night.
With Lee, I went to the much-vaunted Halong Bay, a World Heritage Site of 200 limestone islands, spread over such an area that it makes them inaccessible. In reality it was a rabid tourist trap and along the similarities with Southern Thailand, it seems clear that someplaces have the pre-fix Great for a reason, son and don’t forget it. I also catch a glimpse of Ho Chi Minh incased (or incarcerated) in his Mausoleum, an impressive building though Ho looked a bit plaster-cast to me (though I couldn’t get close enough to give him a tickle). His museum was novelly-done affair for a communist country, very art-deco with bright colours and good exhibits including bananas. A Ho with class, that’s Ho I could go with. His poetry was exalted by a Korean exhibition, but while saluting his leadership and freedom fighting, anyone who used tired old nationalistic slogans and fear as a method to repress the populace and maintain his position is hardly Gandhi or Mandela. The deity caused a confused moment another day too. When asked by a Christian survey, what was God’s greatest achievement; I mulled and replied Delta Force. They didn’t get it. (Do you?)
Lee left and with seven days in until my flight and the city quiet after New Year, I had to leave. I’d seen a lot, Liked most, been disappointed, frustrated occasionally, and needed a drink. Vietnam just isn’t a drinking country and I’m not going to sit down with 20 foreigners in the street wearing slogans of repression, marvelling at how cheap the beers is and how great it is to sit in a Vietnamese street doing this. Yah, except, the only Vietnamese around are serving you or riding past, getting on with their lives. So, unable to change my flight, I took the long road and marginally uncomfortable 17 hours bus journey to Laos and the 13 hour train to Bangkok in 3rd class. I got back in time for a swim to ease my back, and the 6 Nations rugby where England stuffed the Welsh, proving yet again, anything the Welsh have ever done is firmly in the past. Go to stick it, sheep shaggers.
Now I sit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and tomorrow I will be in another country again. Much has been learnt these past few days, I have a classic picture of a monkey drinking from a can of Coke and have got very drunk with two 20 year old Norwegian girls. Much more to learn and tell. Congratulations to Yoon and Sera on the baby and after the recent change in the law in Britain congratulations too to Duncan and James, my old housemates who are getting married. The new alcohol laws allowed them to get drunk enough to propose to their respectives. Nice one lads.
See you in a few weeks.
Songs of the weeks have been;
Richard III by Supergrass
Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler (I don’t know why)