About three days ago we got a message from Angie and Ian, the couple we’d first met on Koh Samet and then bumped into later in Saigon. They said they were heading to Hoi An for a couple of days, so we said we’d stay here for a couple more days. Actually we’re sort of stuck here, we’ve been here a week already and we really should be moving on but it’s good to be somewhere you like and not feel as though you should be planning where next, and anyway we’ve got that much sussed. Hue next, pronounced whoway, only about 150km and five dollars bus trip away. Hue is a destination in itself, all full of historical and about twice the size of Hoi An. It was very close to the North/South divide during the American war. An area of more animosity and bad feeling during those years than even the Watford Gap back home is today. From there you can take a trip up to the tunnels that the North Vietnamese hid in and sprung ambush from, and you can also go to Khe Sanh, where one of the biggest battles of the war was fought. At the moment we’re in territory that was south Vietnam during the conflict, although the Vietcong had a stronghold at the Marble Mountains where we went for a trip the other day, so the communists were active here. For those who don’t know – and I didn’t understand much at all until I’d read up while I was here – the communist North wanted to unite North and South Vietnam in communism under Ho Chi Minh and the Americans stuck their boot in out of fear that the whole of SE Asia would become communist. The VietCong were Southern communist supporters who fought a guerilla war from inside the Southern territory. In all those films of terrified GI’s the Americans often didn’t know which villages were Vietcong, and encounters with villages who’s allegiance was suspect would often end badly for the side who didn’t possess the big guns and the predisposition to megakill. It wasn’t a good war for anyone really. They often aren’t, wars. So I find myself looking at old men and women and wondering where their sympathies were. I can’t help it, and I was thinking similar things in Cambodia. I don’t know if the Vietnamese give any thought to such things now, and without getting to know some English speaking people who’d be willing to talk about it I never will. And I imagine that would be a tricky subject to broach. I may well completely off track even thinking about these things. When Top Gear did their Vietnam trip, the incentive to complete the journey and fix the bike by any means was the prospect of having to ride the Honda Chally painted with the stars and stripes and blasting out Born In The USA that was the stand in bike should any of the others fail. In the south, I don’t think this would raise an eyebrow and I can’t imagine that feeling over the old border would suddenly change to one of animosity towards westerners, or even towards Americans specifically. Here there are many old American jeeps being driven about, and you can buy motorcycle helmets made to look like GI hats. I get the feeling – and I might be really really wrong – that, in common with what we’ve seen of the rest of SE Asia, the past, even the relatively recent past is not something they dwell upon much. It’s often said in the west that we should learn from history, and I would always endorse this, but I wonder if perhaps it’s best to forget. Even to the present day in the UK we keep our age old rivalry with the French and the Germans alive with stereotypes and jokes, and they do the same. I’m not trying to present the Vietnamese as more enlightened in some Confucian way cos we saw a man a couple of nights ago who was obviously mentally impaired trying to make a break over the bridge into the other part of town. He was grabbed and sent back by a couple of security men in uniforms to the grinning amusement of the locals and the discomfort of the tourists.
We sat and watched an ancient bent old lady walking twenty steps at a time, so bent over that she had to keep stopping to look up and push her hat back where it slid down over her face. People walked past her like we do back home with old folks, somehow not noticing them even as we walk around them. We wondered if she’d appreciate a smile from someone. When we passed her she was sat on a low wall and so we both smiled and said xing chou and she gave us a huge and toothless smile back, and said hello in English. She had a brilliantly creased old face, almost Keith Richards standard quilting that I would have loved to have photographed, but it feels too intrusive, too voyeuristic and disrespectful, a bit like saying I’d really like to have a picture of your wrinkly old gummy face before you die, old lady. If that’s ok? So Angie and Ian came and we went to meet them at their hotel closer to the middle of town. Angie’s still having to walk about on crutches since she broke her toes at Christmas in Thailand. The doctors apparently gave her bad advice and I reckon they should have set her toe, which is properly broken and pointing out at forty five degrees – half of it is anyway, Ian showed us the x ray on his phone. Brilliant phone that is, it takes x rays! Happily their hotel was right by the curry house. Ian had caught the same malaria as I’d had but he’d got it worse. Like a proper Scouse though he still managed a few beers and he was much better for it the next day. Good man!
A temple at MySon
We went a trip out with them to see Mý Sòn, not my son , My Son pronounced me son rhymes with gone, the capital of the old Champa kingdom where there are Hindu ruins from the tenth century like a very tiny Angkor, but which was apparently a much bigger site. Most of the ruins have been completely wrecked by American bombs! Perhaps they were trying to help. We took a bus there and a boat back, and ate delicious tofu and vegetables on the boat before stopping at a carpentry village where we were led to a shop. Actually it was pretty interesting, watching the craftsmen and women making stuff out of wood, and inlaying mother of pearl, all done free hand, even cutting out the beautifully intricate shapes of shell with a tiny tiny jigsaw. Really impressive, though not as impressive as the spider I saw, a big black and white lad about three or four inches across. Sadly we were being led back to the boat so I didn’t get the chance to get a close up picture of it to scare everyone with. There’s nothing there that remotely resembles Ikea furniture, it’s all made out of solid heavy hardwood. I don’t know what it is but even in the cheapest hotels and restaurants the furniture is the kind of stuff you only see in National Trust properties back home. It was actually a pretty good day with a guide who spoke a very strange type of English, probably learned from somebody with Tourette syndrome I imagine, or maybe from watching Dr Strangelove’s accidental Nazi outbursts in the film. His delivery was measured and even, but for the odd insertion of a word such as ‘tower’ which he’d screech out, his face contorting alarmingly before composing himself an instant after. Very disconcerting and also very funny. We did our best to remain impassive during his explosions, like the guards in the Life of Brian who’re trying not to laugh at Pontius Pilate’s accent.
A big thing made from wood, don’t know what it is but it’s impressive.
We think these are sticks for incense
We were taken back to Hoi An where we stopped the first place we could for hot tea. While we were drinking tea Angie and Ian were trying to organise transport to Phenom Penh. They’d done everything the wrong way for reasons that I still don’t understand properly but they’d been with a friend who was pushed for time and so had flown down from Hanoi to Saigon with him. He’d carried on to Phenom Penh but they’d decided they wanted to see some of Vietnam after flying from the top to the bottom, so they’d been to Dalat, and then up to Hoi An. Now they were heading back down to Saigon because you can’t get across to Cambodia from half way up Vietnam which was annoying because they wanted to get to Siem Reap which wouldn’t be nearly so far from here as it is going all the way down to Phenom Penh first. Last night, their last before they left, we went to see the old town by the river all lit by lanterns. The bridge, the riverside, the shops and restaurants down on the riverfront, everything is lit by lanterns, and sometimes the electric lights are all turned off to enhance the loveliness of the lanterns. Down on the waterfront are many many people who want to sell you little floating lanterns of good luck with a candle in. Some of these are tiny people, beautiful little girls of six or seven, dressed in silk and looking soooo sweet that it’s difficult to not give them your money.
A young girl selling lanterns. Happy hour for good luck, BOGOF
Nel was mobbed by Vietnamese girls on the bridge who wanted her to pose for pictures with them. She’s so blond from the sun that she gets asked to pose quite a lot by young girls. We both did in My Son, though I have to admit it’s mostly Nel. I spose I get asked because I’m tall and handsome like a Nordic god. At My Son there were many school kids on field trip, and while we were sat sweating a bit of a commotion broke out around a tree where a bunch of boys had spotted something in a tree. Being of a naturally curious bent I went across to see what it was they were looking at and it was a lizard with a blue head, or a small dragon, one of the boys told me. A small dragon? I suppose it is. And it had a blue head! In the little back street restaurant we were in tonight, the lady who owns the place with her husband came to tell Nel ‘madam looks very beautiful tonight’ And me? I asked. ‘Oh no, she said, quickly walking away. Thanks.