Wednesday, 31 December 2008

swelter in the delta

This is the last posting of 2008.

a very happy New Year to all my loyal readers.

It is too hot to write (pity us!)

Tonight we sleep on a hotel-ship at the border, and tomorrow sail on up to Phnom Penh.

love to all

Sunday, 28 December 2008

miss saigon? i certainly will

tonight, our last in saigon, we have been on a cocktail crawl

long island iced tea (lethal) on the 32 floor of the trade centre as evening fell and the lights came on all over the city

saigon iced tea ( lethal) on the roof terrace of the rex hotel a gorgeous deco cruise ship of a building by the hô chi minh hôtel de ville as was

vietnam plays and wins a seminal football match against thailand and the city goes ballistic

at dawn we laeve for the delta

fowler unmasked

Dear Jane,

Thanks for letting me know that there is indeed a film of 'The Quiet American' which you have recently enjoyed.
But why, oh why, so swift in your response to what was after all the vaguest of enquiries? Don't you have better things to do than email, with a vast family to feed at Christmastide?
Now when I read of Fowler and 50's Saigon, all I see is Michael Caine in a backlot at Elstree!

David's dengue(?) fever is on the mend; tomorrow we leave Saigon for the Mekong delta, and a few days later we sail upstream to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

pseud's corner

Endre Friedmann, who became Robert Capa, died when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam on May 25, 1954. The film in his camera was printed, and that's what you see in the museum. His most famous picture is from Spain, of a dying Loyalist soldier falling from the impact of a bullet. There are those who say its a fake.

What is certainly a fake is the 'iconic' shot of a communist tank breaking through into the Presidential Palace in Saigon in 1975, which marked the end of the conflict. There was no photographer present at the time, and it had to be restaged a few weeks later. Apparently, too, the famous shot of American marines raising the flag on a Pacific island to mark the end of that conflict is a staged recreation, as is the shot of Russian soldiers raising the Red Flag over the ruined Reichstag in Berlin.

My Penguin copy of 'The Quiet American' is a bootlegged fake bought outside Hô Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi. It is badly photocopied on cheap and insubstantial paper, and I have to use my Swiss army penknife to cut the pages. I love it all the more for its fakery.
Incidentally the Continental Hotel does still exist, and I've seen it without realising. It stands by the French Opera House, and now sports a row of luxury boutiques (Calvin Klein and the like) where once the terrasses thronged with expat journalists, wheeler-dealers and girls in flowing silk pants.

My unfake Knirps umbrella, bought in Zurich earlier this year, gave up the ghost in yesterday's tropical downpour. RIP.

Friday, 26 December 2008

war remnants museum

I drag myself around town in the sweltering heat like a reluctant snail.

I seek refuge in an icy air-conditioned cafe for a premature lunch.

Reluctant ever to leave I get stuck into Graham Greene's 'A Quiet American', which is set in a Saigon of almost 60 years ago. All the street names are French, and the Americans are only just beginning to become deviously involved. A city of terrorist attacks, bombs, assassinations. Marvellously evocative, like a 'film noir.' Did they ever make a film of it? I must track down the Hotel Continental where the expats and journalists mingled on the terrasses, and killed time in drink. Does it still exist?

I crawl across the road to the War Museum, and stay there for hours, rapt.

The 'Quiet American' of the story was killed early on, before even the French had left, but many hundreds of thousands came here to replace him in subsequent years, and the museum traces the ensuing conflict, mainly in photographs.

Many photographers of all nations died here.

Larry Burrows, a Londoner, worked for Life magazine and pioneered the use of colour photography in his photo-journalism, which was still rare. An unprecedented and highly influential 14-page colour spread was published in Life. He was killed in a helicopter crash in Laos in 1971, with several colleagues.

Dickey Chapelle from Wisconsin, christened Georgette Louise, died in 1965 of wounds.

Sean Flynn (son of Erroll), went missing with his companion Dana Stone on Cambodian Route J. They are pictured, young and dashing on their motorbikes, the day they left towards a Vietcong roadblock.

Kyoishi Sawada, a Japanese, died in Cambodia 1970. His Pulitzer prize winning photo of escaping villagers crossing a river is on show, as is a later picture of him and the same villagers in safety.

Many others are remembered.

Perhaps the most famous was Robert Capa, who had already covered Spain, and many terrains in the Second World War. He was at the Normandy landings in 1944, and followed on to Paris. He was a Jew from Budapest, glamorous and brave it's said, and had a romance with Ingrid Bergmann, which was apparently the subtext and inspiration of Hitchcock's Rear Window! He also found time to set up Magnum Agency in 1947.

David Halberstam wrote in his book 'Requiem ' :

"We who were print people, and who dealt only with words and not images, always knew that the photographers were the brave ones, and they held in that war - which began in an era of still photography and ended with colour film and videotape, beamed by satellite to TV stations all over the world - a special place in our esteem. We deferred to them, reporter to photographer, as we did in few other venues"

While I look at the deeply moving photos the air seems to congeal, I sweat profusely, and the heavens open with a massive and prolonged hammering on the tin roof of the Museum. The tanks and airplanes in the yard disappear behind sheets of rain. Catharsis? How would it have been to fight in conditions like this? Unimaginable. I spend another couple of hours wandering, and wondering at all this madness. More terrible images of the aftermath of War. Too much to bear really, but I need to see it all. To witness and honour.

blues continued....

a computer blip......

.......with calf eyes, who mysteriously failed to reappear after a summer break; indiscretions in the changing room it was conjectured. We giggled heartlessly in prurient clusters.

'Boggy' Marsh was a lovely gentle man, who usually taught Latin and Maths; he was doomed, on Wednesday afternoons when it rained, to lead Religious Studies in a tiered chemistry lab to a horde of frustrated athletes, and sports skyvers ( a volatile mix). One very rainy season we ploughed chaotically through the Book of Job. What a pain that was!

Young Mr.Dixon, fresh from some brilliant university, who never stayed long enough to acquire a nickname, inculcated in me a love of English literature, although I could never see the point of scanning a sonnet; hero-worship glosses easily over the unpalatable and incomprehensible.

There was the old guard who had fought in the War - one in Korea - and the new generation who had just missed National Service. They floated and glided around in the same black togas, but were poles apart, from different planets it seemed.

To find out more about my old school, and a boy's growth to manhood, read a semi-fictional account of it in Julian Barnes' first novel 'Metroland'.
He was a year above me in the Sixth Form. I breathed the same air, but would never have dared speak to him, august as he already seemed. I note with sadness that his wife Pat Kavanagh, a literary agent, died in October.

Back to the present, David is languishing in his room with a temperature and a sore throat, and watching movies. He went to hospital yesterday, and dengue fever (from mosquito bites) is a possible diagnosis. He seems to be on the mend, and has eaten a fried egg for breakfast, with gusto.

I am off to visit air-conditioned museums.

boxing days blues

I note with sadness that Eartha Kitt has died.

And Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate for literature; born to Jewish immigrants in the East End, he was brought up and educated in Hackney as the family prospered, and died in a beautiful Georgian square in Notting Hill, married to that scion of the Longfords, my heroine Lady Antonia Fraser. A fine actor himself, he wrote some of the most iconic plays of the twentieth century. Rags and schmattes (he was born in Fashion Street) to literary riches.

Last night I dreamt of Mecca. No muezzin sounded , only cries of schoolboys, 'See you outside Mecca at one.' This was Mecca by-the-Thames. Mecca the caterers did our school lunches half a century ago by the water at Blackfriars.

The dream was no doubt prompted by sight of drying cassava roots on our biking odyssey. Cassava roots? Miraculously, and unbeknownst to me, that bane of English school dinners, tapioca, is extracted from the root! The tapioca was always cold by the time I got to the sweetie counter - I was a shy and unpushy child. I never knew it otherwise. 'Toad spawn' we'd cry in unsimulated disgust, and pass on to the wobbly pink blancmange. Sometimes the damp glutinous globules became ammunition when the teachers backs were turned, and flew through the air.

Where are those teachers now?

'Boggy' Marsh, and 'Bonso' ? Monsieur Le Mansois -Field (Froggy) who gave up trying to teach us French before Christmas, to enchant us with his reading of ghost stories? 'Narbo' - the slave driver - we called our Latin teacher, the mildest of men. 'Jock' (Dr.Law-Robertson) , was a refined Scotsman who taught me Goethe and Schiller; his discreet use of peppery cologne ( I can smell it still) excited ribald gossip in the locker-room, in an age when real men wore only Old Spice and, that, never on a weekday. What a long way mens' cosmetics have come since those ante-diluvian times! Now we boys are awash in potions and lotions, and splash on fragrances, from vile to intoxicating, as though there were no tomorrow. What a marketing triumph!

What has become of the softly-spoken and rather unathletic gym teacher with calf eyes

Thursday, 25 December 2008


Whoops! For yesterday's AGM please read ATM. Tropical heat plays havoc with my brain cells.

I have received the most wonderful Christmas present from David and Joanna, last Saturday's Guardian! I'll savour it for weeks.

Happy Christmas Day to all.

Back to the streets................

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

christmas greetings from hô chi minh city (saigon)

Hours of walking in my new crocs (made in China - does that make them fakes?)
The flipflops I bought way back in Ekaterinburg to negotiate the toilets (often awash) of the Trans-Siberian railway finally fell apart last night. RIP.

Saigon is replete with the most wonderful deco buildings. I stand amazed and open-mouthed at street corners, as I haven't since we left Russia.

The old hôtel de ville, a glorious nineteenth century extravaganza, is now the Hô Chi Minh Museum; the man himself, 'oncle' as the population fondly called him, sits in the front garden fondling a young girl, in innocent allegory no doubt. He is surrounded by confections of nylon lotuses in many shades!

Its very, very hot so I head for the Botanical Gardens and linger a while amongst the lush vegetation and shady glades, admiring painted storks in lovely greys and whites, and muted pinks, who rattle their long yellow beaks like castanets; I wish I could join the Siamese crocodiles who wallow in glorious cooling mud but opt instead for iced tea.

Hard by is the History Museum, another glorious building from the 20's, an amalgam of Deco and Chinese hard to describe. Inside too its lovely, in the cool halls where the last ten thousand years of Vietnamese history are quaintly displayed.

At the heart of the museum is a small open courtyard, set with tables and chairs, around a tinkling and splattering fountain. I order another iced tea in this enchanted spot where people come and go. The boy - or is it a faun? - who serves me tea, takes up a bamboo flute and plays an ancient air. A troupe of young nymphs arrive in shimmering white silks beneath transparent lime-green shifts which flutter and billow, though there is no breeze. I talk to my young neighbour, a girl from Amsterdam who has been studying town planning in Hong Kong, and is in little hurry to go home and put her clogs up.

I fall into a reverie. Gratitude wells up for all the AGM's which, over a vast landmass dispensed zlotys, roubles, touregs, yuan and now dong without a hiccup. A deeper gratitude too to my parents, who came to England as penniless refugees and worked unceasingly to improve their lot, and give me the best education they could conceive of. If the AGMs have anything to disgorge its largely due to their efforts.

Returning home slowly I stop at the twin-towered, red brick French cathedral. By its side is a grandiose old colonial post office which I mistake at first for a handsome belle époque railway station. Sitting at the base of a tall column which bears a three metre high Madonna simpering odiously at all the Christmas festivity around her, I reflect with sadness on Christmases past, gone with the dinosaurs and the Oriental Emperors.

Seasonal greetings to you all.

extinct now 37...........

..........this is where I had to publish and be damned, as the computer started playing up.

As I was saying : Tigers and crocodiles and oriental emperors, all extinct now. This Emperor, a confirmed francophile, scarpered in 1954 to the Champs Elysees, married a French lass called Madeleine, who as Empress of Vietnam perhaps found it easier to book a restaurant table, and gloried in her factitious elevation. The old palace above the lake fell apart amongst the frangipani trees and giant creepers, before being snapped up by a hotel chain and rebuilt.

We pass rice fields both wet and dry, and visit an illegal granite quarry which continues to operate thanks to backhanders to the local police supremo. A massive chunk of granite has been undercut by youths with hammer and chisel, and nothing more than flipflops for protection, and starts to groan and creak and expel little whirlwinds of dust. 10 minutes till it breaks away, the boys calculate. Fascinated, I want to stay and watch but my prudent and fearful companions hurry me along. We pass elephants which once worked the logging trade, and now labour beneath tourists. We see canoes on the lake carved from single massive tree trunks by folk from the many 'minority' villages.

We drench ourselves below monumental waterfalls, and stand by concrete monuments to ferocious tank battles. Both Mr.Wing and Mr.Yang are war veterans - they fought for the South; we hear tales from the horse's mouth.
We eat fruits I've never heard of, and learn the arts of rubber production in shady woods smelling of ammonia as the latex oxidises, where once workers died in droves from malaria and dengue fever. Have you ever seen a cashew tree, or drunk eau de vie from pomelo trees that grow outside your window, at a sweltering brickworks owned by a host who on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin, won the National Lottery? We drink to his good fortune, and admire his many grandchildren.

We take siestas in roadsides hammocks shaded by bamboo, sipping milk from coconuts, discover how rice noodles are produced in wooden shacks where whole families live, and marvel at the profusion and baroque invention of roadside Christmas cribs which line our route south on the Ho Chi Minh Road. Everywhere there are handsome new churches built since 2000, when restrictions on religious freedom were rescinded; the Virgin Mary has moved in with a vengeance, pouting and smirking at her good fortune from domestic doorways and ecclesiastical precincts.

We survive the entry into mad, mad Saigon without a graze or contusion.

Many thanks to Mr. Yang and Mr. Wing and Mr. Nam for wonderful insights into their country, and for two-wheeled adventures without a tumble.

Previous fear of motor-bikes, fed by my internal mother, has quite evaporated. Many times I wanted to wrest the controls from Mr.Yang, leave him a while under a palm-tree, and scoot off alone into the sunset. What bliss. So who out there wants to be Charlie Boorman to my Ewan McGregor for trips of the future?

Talking about Charlie, long before he knew Ewan he came to me for Alexander lessons as a sallow and ill-postured youth. I'm sure you have admired his grace and uprightness in the saddle these days.
While I am name-dropping here is another one. A nautical-sounding Mrs Sail phones to make an appointment for her husband. How pathetic, I think - can't he make his own arrangements? What's his name I enquire politely. Alexei. How pretentious; I have already taken against him. Alexei Sail.
Alexei SAYLE! Ohmygod! Not the vituperative, iconoclastic, foul-mouthed, hyperactive, deeply scarey, Jewish Liverpudlian comic? He'll surely have my guts for garters, make mince meat of me!
My friend Alexei turned out to be a softly-spoken pussycat, touched by melancholy.

Christmas Eve in Saigon. I have just had breakfast, and will step out now into the torrid streets.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

pillion epiphanies

We are safe and sound in Saigon, three days later!

We have had a fantastic trip, and a whole education.

Hardly out of Dalat, we stopped at a wayside temple with an incredible giant dragon of many colours, snaking its way around the shrine gardens, amongst other mythical creatures, reminding me of the fantastical sculptures of Nikki de Ste.Phalle - and there's a name to conjure with!- she who married Jean Tinguely of the crazily complicated installations.

The dragon perhaps blessed us for the remainder of the trip.

We visited a flower farm where today roses grow for the markets of Hanoi and Saigon, and gerberas for export to Europe. Until quite recently flowers as a marketable crop were discouraged by the authorities, as frivolous and decadent capitalist furbelows perhaps. A Dutchman - who else?- persuaded them otherwise. Today its a thriving and growing industry supporting many families. The whole area around Dalat is an Eden that grows every kind of vegetable and greenery in the sunny valleys.

Next stop a silk workshop, where we follow the whole process from cocoons incubating in giant dish- shaped baskets, to the same being dunked in hot water to kill the larvae before they have a chance to break out and damage the silk; the silk is then unravelled in complicated Heath-Robinsonish machines manned (?) by girls, and in great clattering looms is woven in predetermined patterns into the finished product. All this goes on in big corrugated sheds, airy and light, but the noise cannot be much different from the satanic cotton mills of Lancashire. Most of the workers are young girls, who manage a smile for the tourists who roll in on motorbikes. In case you are concerned about the dead larvae, nothing goes to waste here. The drowned creatures are an excellent source of calcium, and prized as delicacies. I defer when offered one, but David, who has already eaten scorpions at the night market in Beijing, savours them.

We visit coffee plantations. Vietnam, to my great surprise is the world's second exporter of coffee after Brazil. We learn to distinguish robusta, mocha and arabica. The most prized coffee is however 'weasel'. Weasels, discriminating creatures that they are, chew and half-digest only the very finest beans, and then excrete them semi-processed as it were. Their droppings are collected by very patient farmers and cleaned, and then marketed at exorbitant prices. Beware counterfeit 'weasel' however, as it abounds.

We visit dark-skinned montagnard tribes in their villages of shacks and long houses on stilts, who have been persuaded down from the higher reaches, for education and medical care, and to work the coffee plantations. It is a Saturday, and most of the menfolk are piteously drunk, while the women work on. Everywhere, and we will see this for three days, coffee beans are drying on giant tarpaulins on every flat expanse of ground.

We learn how to set up a rice wine distillery, and feed the fermented and finished rice to the pigs; and how brothers fought brothers in the war, and uncles fought nephews.

After a copious lunch overlooking a valley once napalmed and bombed to flush out Communists, we ride on, jolting and jolloping through the rain forest, and I struggle with a fatal desire to have a siesta on the back seat - suicide!

On the second day we visit the rebuilt Summer Palace of the last Emperor of Vietnam (1913-1997), a beautiful place on a hill above a lake where once crocodiles roamed and tigers came to drink. Extinct now 34

Friday, 19 December 2008

les delices de dalat

I walk all day in perfect anticyclone weather around this lovely town. A French doctor, Alexandre Yersin, proposed it as a site for a sanatorium in 1893, and this week it celebrates its 115th birthday!
I am at first confused by the plethora of furniture stores spilling their sofas and fauteuils, and tables, out onto the pavements, until I see that some at least are cafes still waiting for their morning custom. I pass a coffin shop with its ornate, rococo wares piled high, and wrapped in cellophane.

I wander up to the French Cathedral on a hill, and watch a Vietnamese boy giving a face-lift to a statue of the Virgin Mary, in white gloss paint. Nearby is a convincing simulacrum of the Eiffel Tower, now hung with all manner of device for modern telecommunication. At its foot is the old Post Office - now the Cafe de la Poste - once linked by leagues of telegraph wire to the Quai D'Orsay in Paris, and to cities and settlements all over French Indochina. An imposing gubernatorial hulk of a building is now Novotel, Dalat.

By the big lake I see some kind of fair going on. Its part of the anniversary celebrations; trade stalls of drinks and eatables ; children everywhere arriving by the bus load. They besiege me with hellos and goodbyes, and giggles and handshakes. I'm an involuntary star. Somewhere I carry an irrational guilt for the Vietnam War. Why are they all so friendly to me?
I enter a cavernous concrete hall where there is a marvellous exhibition of the history of the town. Photographs of bemused, half-naked citizens of the original mountain village soon to disappear in imperial improvements. Pictures of empty streets and splendid villas. There is the station, built in the 20's - I resolve to search that out later. A whole display of Alexandre Yersin, a handsome fellow with a good beard, and an imposing-looking lycee named after him. The market building constructed just after the Second World war. How splendid it all looked, and how little the French could enjoy it, before being booted out. They never got to see the trees they planted in such abundance, around the lake, and in the new parks and spanking golf-courses, come to maturity.

I walk to the outskirts of town to find the station. There it is at last, surrounded by bougainvillea and a lovely garden of potted trees. Now alas only toy trains run from it, for the tourists. Nevertheless it is a haunting place. I imagine the comings and goings. The administrators coming up from the cities to visit their dutiful wives, who have escaped the heat and turmoil below for the season. Honeymoon couples arriving to boat on the lake, and have croissants in the cafes, and do whatever else it is that honeymoon couples do. I am reluctant to leave, I have such a strong sense of the place, and its whispers.

I walk to the grand Lycee Yersin, built to educate future colonial administrators for a thousand years. The French have gone, and the Americans have gone and the country begins to sing its own song.

Back in the hotel I wonder who this Yersin was. Some cool colonial administrator? Adventurer? Exploitative scoundrel? I Google him. What a surprise! Amongst many other things, he was co-discoverer of the bacillus which causes bubonic plague, and is named after him, Yersinia pestis. He set up Pasteur Institutes in Saigon, and in Nha Trang. I passed by the latter yesterday! He set up Hanoi's first medical school. On his tomb is written : "Benefactor and humanist, venerated by the Vietnamese people." His name remains, where many other colonial names have been execrated and erased.

peter fonda, dennis hopper, here we come

At the breakfast table I regale my Dutch and Estonian companions with tales of our upcoming motor-bike safari. They ooh and aah, to my great satisfaction, I who was too lily-livered to contemplate motorbikes a couple of days ago.

We met up last night with Mr.Nguyen - 'call me Wing'- , Nam and Khan, who constitute 'Easy Riders Inc, Dalat', and around a hotel table we plot our route, and discuss terms. We peruse their book of hand-written testimonials from happy customers (one from Pat of LLandudno, whom we met in Hoi An, who turns out to have been 70!) and clinch the deal. Tomorrow we set off at dawn for a four day trip which will take us further into the Central Highlands, and then all the way to Saigon for Christmas. I can hardly believe how heroic I am about to be.

Back in about 1967 I acquired a Honda scooter. That year I was a medical student in town, but living, still marooned, in a South London suburb, which seemed ever more remote from modern life as the 60's fizzed and buzzed out of its epicentre in Chelsea. A scooter I hoped would put me in touch with the pulse of the city, and its flower-themed Zeitgeist . It was my first ever private means of motor locomotion, and the world perhaps would be my oyster.

I soon learnt to hate the Honda. It had a meagre 49cc engine, and had been previously owned by a gargantuan baker who had flattened its suspension. It never achieved a running speed above 15mph, and in a headwind you might as well have been going backwards. I bought it in October, at the beginning of a harsh and endless winter, came perilously close to frostbite, and sold it in the spring to the next sucker down the line.

Later that year I bought my first Mini, second-hand, KMX 201B (the only registration number of all the cars I have driven that I have been able to remember, and still remember after 40 years), grey exterior with tan upholstery. It was love at first sight, at the seedy car-merchant's on Brixton Hill, in the shadow of the Prison.
The Mini had the original sliding windows, and a pull-cord to open the doors, and in the middle of what you could not call a dashboard, so devoid was it of any features, stared the Cyclop's eye of the speedometer. It was a joy to drive, and of course was the epitome of 60's cool. I had arrived.

Today I explore Dalat, a hill station built by the French. We are far above the damp and fog, and cloying humidity, of the coast, and the air sparkles at 1500 metres.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

the rain it raineth every day

The last evening in Hoi An I pay a farewell visit to the small square dominated by a large bust on a podium. Karl Marx's younger brother I thought when first I saw it, with its bushy stone beard but more contemporary hairdo. Turns out to be Kazimierz Kwiatkowski 1944-97. A Polish ethnographer from Warsaw who helped Hoi An to be listed as a World Cultural Heritage site, and revived its dwindling fortunes. Now it thrives as once it did in mediaeval times as trading post and fishery. But for how long? How many trinket shops and tailors can it sustain?

We taxi far to the nearest station in a neighbouring town, down broad dual carriageways in the middle of wildernesses, slowly being parcelled up into building sites for more hotels and tourist facilities. I tremble not for Raffles and Novotel, and all the other fat-jowled hotelier clans, but for the local economy. Tourism is already badly hit by recession.

It begins to rain and we board our train for the 8 hour journey South. The landscape dissolves into greys and greens, and the horizon disappears. We pass ghastly malarial pools; buildings stained in mildew and damp, and lichens of every hue; tidemarks like Abstract Expressionist paintings. Outside and in, its dank, saturated, drear. We cross tumescent streams and engorged rivers. We pass doughty folk in pac-a -macks, plain and polka-dotted, in plastics of all colours, cycling, scootering, splashing in paddy fields.
Perhaps the bananas rejoice, the white ibis stalk more sprightly, and the water-buffalo plash with a gayer tread.

We drip in the carriage, diverted for a while from the sodden spectacle outside, by a Tarzan movie. Not the flabby Weissmuller of yore, with drooping loincloth - what a disappointment he was - but a wasp-waisted, simian-featured, Hollywood Adonis with pert bum, perfect pecs and priceless dentition. Eye candy.

We pass snowy landscapes where the earth has been bombed with phosphates, and then a slight clearing of the cloud layer reveals a congealed sunset in aubergines and mauves.

For a more literary description of what happens, externally and psychologically, when it rains for years on end read 'A Hundred years of Solitude' by Marquez.

We are in Na Trang about to head up into the Central Highlands by bus.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

memory lane

The Hillman Minx, jade-green and bulbous, is hauled aloft by a huge crane and swung across to the Channel ferry. Harwich 1950. An old photo. Its my parents' first trip back to continental Europe, in the aftermath of the war. I'm a three year old toddler, and my romance with travel starts here.

We head for Cologne. Around the cathedral its still a bombsite. I remember none of this, but the ruins must have made an impression. I'm still haunted by images of wrecked cities, the everyday turned inside-out. My childhood playground, in a south London suburb, is a bombsite. Once a big mansion surrounded by gardens, now its a jungle and a pile of bricks. Its set apart from the High Street by giant hoardings advertising Bovril and Guinness. Behind these our fantasy runs riot. Cops and robbers amongst the ramblers. Cowboys and Indians on the ruins of a pueblo. Perhaps the savvier boys and girls played doctors and nurses behind the bushes. I'm still the innocent, but not for long. We cultivated little plots of land, like pioneers, with nasturtiums and runner beans.
I turn ten and what we called the 'Garden' is bulldozed away. Where the mansion once stood becomes a petrol station forecourt, and the old garden sprouts a nondescript office block.

Opposite my bedroom window, beyond the tram stop, stands the ruined hulk of a warehouse, one of several along the High Street. For years I observed its vacancy and its rotting. It became eventually a pioneering supermarket, at around the time the tram-lines were torn up and traffic given free rein on Streatham High Street. These days that dozy old suburban street, once a hamlet on the crest of a rural hill outside London, has become a perpetual snarl-up stretching from Brixton to Thornton Heath.

We travelled on to Austria. It was too soon for my mother to want to go back to Vienna (that didn't happen till well into the 60's) but we went to Berchtesgaden to make sure, perhaps, that Hitler's Eagles' Nest, his mountain retreat near Salzburg, was well and truly bombed to smithereens, and unlikely ever to rise, phoenix-like, again.
Denied the fabulous spa towns of their youth, inaccessible beyond the Iron Curtain, my parents headed for Bad Gastein, where old Hapsburgs had frolicked, and we continued to go there many times, well into my teens.

Every year we packed the car in August and drove to the 'continent' for a month. The Minx was replaced by a Ford Anglia ( a downgrade in difficult years for my parents) , then a Zephyr, a wonderful duo-toned Zodiac with white-walled tyres in renewed prosperity, a Farina-styled Austin Cambridge which meant we had the first tail-fins in Streatham, a series of Cortinas alas when they were already dull and pedestrian, and then a Honda I didn't want to be seen in ( that was years after my father had died).

England remained the foreign country till well into my twenties, when I began forays of my own into the country-side, and felt shy and tongue-tied in the Cotswolds, bashful in Brighton, reticent in Rye.

Fast-forwarding to yesterday, David and I fought with giant breakers in the South China Sea and collapsed, exhilarated in defeat, under a palm-tree. We cycled along the beach, past condominiums and hotel complexes, building sites where foundations may never rise more than a foot above the ground as the recession hits Vietnam.
In the evening we are hit by the shopping bug. Joanna buys silk lanterns galore, and soon I am infected, acquring bedspreads and throws I didn't know I wanted.

The water-front is still flooded; something to do with the fullest of moon of the year, and perhaps not global warming. Nevertheless bad for trade.

Soon I'm off into the streets again, where Father Christmas beckons from every hotel foyer and shop doorway. No escape.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

dolce far niente

My first sortie this morning is premature. Torrential rain. When I can I rush back for umbrella and waterproofs, and set off again. Feel initially self conscious in shorts and flipflops, for the first time this trip. My legs seem so green until they tan, and I worry that they are not as shapely as once they were, and how will they be in another ten years? Les neiges d'autan.
After a while these ruminations fade, and I begin to rue the day I have to wear trousers and socks again.

I want to do little today. Assimilate the cascade of impressions of the last few weeks.
I sit a long time in a café reading an Amy Tan novel, set partly in the Guilin area of China where we were recently. Have not read her before , and enjoying it. I watch tourists pass by in pac-a-macs. Two dogs sniff each other enthusiastically, and I wonder what awaits me in the romance department at my age. More Sturm und Drang? I hope not.

The heat is sapping. I stumble over to a restaurant and have a delicious lunch overlooking the little harbour. The beer perhaps is a mistake - I can hardly make it back to the hotel for a long siesta.

In the evening we have dinner with some ladies from Llanddudno and Dublin, that David and Joanna met earlier in the day overhearing them talking about their adventures on motorbikes.
D and J are clearly softening me up for a trip on motorbikes which up until now I have eschewed as being suicidally dangerous. The eldest lady was possibly older than me, and sat pillion for 6 days and had a whale of a time. Where elderly ladies go perhaps I can dare to tread.

I go down to the harbour. The river has flooded the whole street where I had lunch. I think of global warming and consequent flooding.
They are switching off the computers.

hanoi to hoi an : anagram alert

We shuffled and shunted across the streets and lanes of Hanoi aboard the evening train, heading South.

Half a day later, soon after dawn, we disembarked at Dong Ha, a town close by the 17th parallel, the line of latitude decreed by Geneva protocol to divide Vietnam into North and South in 1954. This followed the catastrophic and humiliating French military defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and their departure from the colonial scene in Indo-china. Free and fair elections were promised for 1956, but these never happened. The US became more and more embroiled in the South, and then the war began......

We tour the area in an air-conditioned Mercedes mini-bus with a voluble young woman as our guide. Our trip conjures up old television news images. Rockpile, the fortress within a mountain, where American troops were flown in for diversion, deep in the rocks. The Hô Chi Minh Trail. Tet offensive. Route 9. Napalm. Phosphorus. Defoliant. Deep tunnel systems where whole villages lived for years. A million Vietnamese dead. 60,000 American soldiers killed.

Today the hillsides are green again. We visit war graves, a military museum surrounded by giant poinsettias and shot-down carcasses of US planes. Where once there was a huge American airbase, there grows a coffee plantation. Old bomb craters have become fishponds. Weapons to ploughshares.

We travel down here to Hoi An on two public buses, knowing we have been ripped off and fearful for our luggage, such a to and fro-ing is there, as the buses stop at every street-corner sniffing for custom.

We arrive here in this charming little resort on a river, 500 miles south of Hanoi, a couple of kilometres from the nearest beach. This morning we awake to torrential downpours, like in a Somerset Maugham short story - its the rainy season! - but its already cleared up and the sun beckons.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

great danes

Time of morning here when the public tannoys are broadcasting health announcements to the populace, all agog to hear about HIV and innoculations as the city gears itself for action, interspersed with jaunty tunes and singing.

No chance of a lie-in after our lovely meal with the two Danes. We went last night to a beautiful restaurant in what had been a large private mansion built by a Frenchman in the thirties. We are led up to a splendid verandah on the first floor, where amongst tropical foliage and stuccoed Corinthian columns we peruse the menu. Perhaps we blanch visibly at the prices, and certainly barely-suppressed gasps escape one of us (we are budget travellers! will we ever get to Bangkok airport let alone have a dollar left for a flight home?), but Frederik evermindful invites us as his guests. Many many thanks!! It was a superb meal, a seemingly never-ending suite of dishes, and excellent company.

Frederick suffered a life-threatening, and life-changing, cerebro-vascular incident a couple of years ago. From being a corporate executive he is now a trainee psychotherapist, specialising in body-centred work. He has even heard of, and practised, the Alexander Technique, and meditates. He plans to move to London next year, so the next meal is on me!
Rolf has abandoned the chilly shores of the North Sea for the Australian Gold Coast where he lives now, but they are old and loving friends and travel often together.
We learn amongst many other things that Danes call those eponymous canines "les grands danois", in French! They are apparently a French breed, but like fake Calvins breed everywhere these days. Its amazing what you learn on the road.
Fortified with espresso (I have a blog to write) I am accompanied home by Rolf who helps me cross the crazy road, crazier than usual tonight as flotillas of scooters brandishing the national flag are endlessly circling the town lake, hooters ablare. Perhaps a football victory, or plain tropical joie de vivre!

Sitting at my keyboard later in vest and underpants, barefoot, window open to the nocturnal sounds of the city, I feel like Hunter S. Thompson tapping away with an older technology, his typewriter paper limp with tropical damp, as he reports on human folly, and fear and loathing in Puerto Rico, Cuba or Las Vegas, and his own drink habit. Only the rum at my elbow is missing. I sip at green tea.

This evening we head south on the night train, to visit a huge system of underground shelters and caves, where people took refuge for months on end to avoid the bombs of only three/four decades ago.
Every country we have passed through since crossing the Channel has seen unparalleled horror and devastation in the last century.
A litany of human suffering : Belgium, Germany, Poland, Russia, Mongolia and China. One could weep. We still have the killing fields of Cambodia ahead.

ps Abrazos to Mauricio, and calusy to Nityabandhu for your messages and encouragement. They are much appreciated.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

karstaways ahoy!

We are picked up from our hotel by a mini-bus and whisked 3 hours east to Halong Bay. The mainland hereabouts had more bombs dropped on it in the Vietnam war than were dropped in the whole of World War II. (David has been reading John Pilger who reported extensively on the conflict.)

We transfer smoothly to a small vessel, which takes us out to a splendid wooden barque, rising out of the water like a Spanish galleon, rich in mahagony and potted palms. We are surrounded by flotillas of similar craft, tall masts swaying in the swell, and sea-eagles circling about and dipping into the brine for their lunch. We clamber aboard and are taken to the most splendid dining room amidships, large windows all around and the crispest of linen and place settings. More gleaming mahogany, followed by a succession of the most delicious dishes, beautifully presented and charmingly served.

We are 25 people, a flotsam and jetsam of Europeans and Antipodeans, and a few Chinese. I am allocated a cabin with a young Chinese girl- 'call me Flora'- from Xi'an, who is studying banking in Singapore. Lunch cleared away and cabins allocated, we hoist anchor, or at least the crew do, us landlubbers just watching and trying not to get in the way. We sail off into the bay, and what a wonder that is.
There are two thousand (David says three) karst islands studding the horizon far and near, in every direction. The weather is perfect, and the sea benign. We sail awhile, mouths hanging open with the beauty of the scene. We put into a small harbour, and are soon clambering up a hillside and entering a marvellous sequence of limestone caves delving deep into the massif, discovered by the French a hundred years ago. ( The only time I have done real speleology was in France a quarter of a century ago. No spotlit stalagmites then, or stalactites with whimsical names, no metal litter bins in the shape of penguins, or signs not to deviate from the path. Then it was pitchblack beyond the feeble light cast by the Cyclopean torch at my forehead, and very scarey indeed squeezing through tight clefts, wet and slippery, wondering just how much mountain there was above my head, and whether the mad spélélogue I was following knew the way out. Crawling bruised and battered into the daylight after hours underground, and distinctly depressed by light deprivation, I could have wept, and promptly consumed half a bottle of whisky to reorientate myself- which of course did not work, but seemed necessary.)

Then I am adrift with 'Flora' in a kayak, trying to keep up with the others - 'Flora' does not know her starboard from her port, and cannot swim, which makes her, and me, rather nervous - as we paddle about into the most beautiful cove. As we return to our vessel the sun is setting amongst the karst in a blaze of colours. We are soon having a complimentary glass of wine and titbits. As dusk falls the braver amongst us - (David has asked me to write that these are shark-infested waters, which is true, but the sharks are tame as tiddlers and only a metre long) - jump into the sea from the poop deck. Sublime - and I'm hoping my fake Calvins will protect me from unwelcome piscine attention.
Another lovely meal, making friends with two great Danes, Frederik and Rolf. In the waters all around as we prepare for sleep are an armada of anchored craft, twinkling benignly. And then to bed.

Up before dawn to witness the sunrise, the seen universe shimmering in shades of grey, slowly taking on colour. A lovely morning on the top deck, amidst the sun-loungers and the potted plants and a pergola for shade, as we cruise amongst the islands and talk to strangers. All beautifully organised. Memories of Yangste squalor and rodent terror quite exorcised.

Alas before we know it we are back in the bus, bound again for Hanoi and the drone and clatter and klaxons of 3 million scooters.

But we have a dinner date with Rolf and Frederik..................

Monday, 8 December 2008

hô-hô-hô hô chi minh hô-hô-hô hô chi minh

This is what I chanted one Sunday afternoon many years ago in central London, with tens of thousands of others appalled by the war in Vietnam. We linked arms, surged forward in an exuberant crescendo on the 'hô-hô-hô', and diminuendoed on the 'hô chi minh'. I don't remember knowing much about the man himself, but it made for a great chant.

Today I circumambulated his mausoleum, a modest affair compared to Lenin's and Mao's, and surrounded by lovely tropical gardens, attended to by a dozen gardeners in coolie hats, crouching and clipping and watering. Peace reigned and exotic birds sang. Hô himself was not in residence. Every year at this time he is taken to Moscow for a few weeks, where his remains are given over to the taxidermists' magic attention. (Rough Guide suggests wickedly it is Madame Tussauds, these days, who do the honours.) He is due back in a few days so I may well catch him to pay my respects. From what I know today he was no villain.

A mile away Lenin stands on a plinth in a park. Strange to see him again; stranger still to see him surrounded by palm-trees and, one hand on his lapel, striding out toward the boababs.

I got lost in the warren of the Old City trying to find North. My infallible nose for direction quite failed me The sun seemed to be in the wrong place. Had I unwittingly crossed the Equator to where, I dimly remembered, the sun goes from right to left and everything is topsey-turvey? I gave up trying to puzzle out the map, and gave myself up to the warren of narrow lanes, which serve as conduits for a never-ending stream of scooters, some laden with whole families, others piled to the rafters with all manner of merchandise, all ducking and diving, and weaving and winding.
I am more fearful than ever of crossing the road. I stand paralysed on the pavement. Catatonic. Should I accept one of the endless offers of motor-bike rides from strange and sometimes charming men, just in order to reach the other side? The hubbub is unrelenting, and the air heavy with fumes. Not here the Chinese electric scooters which, weirdly, are completely silent. I witness a scooter gridlock at a crossroads and, mesmerised, watch it untangle, and then lock again, and untangle........everyone seems even-tempered, unfussed, finessing the obstacles with elegance and élan.

Talking about 'élan', the city is studded with the architectural legacy of the French, from official to commercial to domestic. At times you'd think you were in Juan-les Pins, or Antibes.

I retire early from the fray to the air-conditioned cool of my room. I have changed hotels and, halleluia, have a legible keyboard! I notice that my last couple of blogs have misplaced commas and one 'innumerable' too many; so fraught was it writing 'blind', I had no heart for editing.

'Anonymous' of 7th December, please reveal yourself, but thanks anyway for the encouragement! By the way, Roman, how are things in Irkutsk? Are you still skipping your lectures? Greetings anyway.

Tomorrow early we leave town for a couple of days to sail around Halong Bay, another marvel apparently of ubiquitous karst, this time marine.

meetings and partings

The railway line into Hanoi enters the city not in tunnels, or up on viaducts, but at street level, slinking tightly between buildings, rattling a hair's breadth distance past ground floor dwellings where people eat their evening meal, rumbling across innumerable lanes and boulevards, where phalanxes of scooters with myriad lights wait and fidget impatiently, interrupted in their flight across the city. We shudder and groan past innumerable cafes and restaurants, brightly or shoddily lit. We are instantly embedded in the city.

Its a surreal entrance. A haunting, and indeed Surrealist painting, hangs in the Estorick Collection of C20th Italian art in London ; a steaming, lumbering and slightly menacing locomotive passes through an empty sunlit city street. The picture always touches a deep nerve in me, don't know why. So much so that I want to prise it off the wall and take it home. Its only 12 inches wide and less in height, and would fit easily under my coat.

Last night we crossed the tracks on foot, with our delightful dinner companions Baptiste and Yusuke. 24 and 22. Yusuke teaches us some Origami, and Baptiste is charmingly entertaining. I am moved by their youth and high spirits. We are about to take farewell snaps at a street corner when a tearful young woman with a backpack approaches us tentatively and asks if we know of a hotel. She has been looking for hours. She hides her trembling chin in her scarf. She is Japanese, as is Yusuke. Rapidly her tears transmute into smiles of relief as the boys assure her their hostel is close-by; they will take her there, provided she take our photograph. Amidst much mirth, a touch of sadness on my part, and bright flashes, we say our goodbyes and depart separately into the night. New friendships formed, perhaps.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

¿is this hanoi or havana?

Yesterday morning began with a nail-biting rush-hour taxi-dash through Kunming, trying to reach the right bus station, after misunderstandings with the driver. Was this to be the first calamity of our trip? Will someone be slain? By the skin of our teeth, with only minutes to spare, we pile onto the bus, where high-emergency adrenaline keeps me rigid and palpitating till beyond the outskirts.

Ten hours of trying to see something through misted windows, and watching half a dozen kung-fu movies on tortuous mountain roads, leaves me battered.

We spend our last night on Chinese soil in an archetypally seedy border town ( a lady of the night disturbs my slumbers with a giggling phone call to my room; as she seems to know no English she just continues to giggle until, like 'outraged of Tunbridge Wells', I slam the receiver down.)

Outside flows the Song Hong (Red River), and on the opposite bank is Vietnam.
We cross over on foot in the morning, and within yards everything changes - physiognomies, sights and smells, buildings.

For the first time we travel 'hard-class' (Colin Thubron always does of course), which means 11 and a half hours of plain, unadorned, wooden seats in a marvellously crowded carriage, a chariavari of peddlars and babies and shifting passengers providing constant entertainment.

Our companions are two charming young men from France and Japan, travelling singly, who were on our bus the day before. From Lille and Tokyo. We meet up with them tomorrow by the temple in the lake.

At last we rumble into Hanoi, and it is exactly how I imagine Havana to be: a tropical breeze ruffling the palm trees, beat-up cars, cavalcades of scooters and bikes, lovely faded buildings and crowds of graceful people shimmying through the streets. Tears well up at the thought of the appalling suffering this country has endured.

We go for a quick meal, and then I sit at this keyboard whose lettering is mostly vanished, trying to recall Qwerty, and Mavis Beacon's typing system, for you dear reader!

Thursday, 4 December 2008

dwindling aquifers

The water in our lovely local park, Green Water Park, dried up a number of years ago, a man told me. The natural spring which fed it for centuries was depleted, exhausted, defunct. Consternation. A whole season passed, while kids played football in the empty basins, and the community scratched their heads while discussing what to do. Turf it over? Fill it in? In the end water won, but now it has to be piped in industrially. Similar problems arise nationwide. A cautionary tale of modern China.

Loitering in the lovely grounds of an ancient temple, I passed through a non-descript door, and found myself in an Academy of Ghastly Painting. On display were pictures of white horses frolicking in improbably green forests, fey child-girls in traditional costume smiling winsomely, distinctly pubescent girls with hardly a stitch on dancing in gay abandon to some ancient tune, juvenile pandas chewing on bamboo shoots, and many variations of Van Gogh's sunflowers. Huddled in corners were students of this Art, perhaps absorbing ancient pictorial techniques, but more likely learning to fleece the tourist.
A typical juxtaposition of modern China.

You are walking down the street minding your own business, when behind you there is a ghastly sound of a throat clearing, and projectile matter hitting the pavement. Surely it must be a consumptive in their death throes, a tubercular trauma. You turn round. As likely as not it is an elegant lady in no particular distress, or a businessman glued to his mobile, or a trendy teenager jiggering to his I-pod. Try as I may I cannot get used to spitting and its associated sound effects. But there's modern China for you, and I've loved it.

SoB: a group of art students, the real thing, sit around the reclaimed lake in Green Water Park with their easels. They are painting in their various ways the tormented remnants of a thousand lotuses in the lake, as the sun goes down over China.

ciao ciao china

Our papers have come through, and tomorrow morning we take a ten hour bus ride to the Vietnamese border where we overnight, and then continue by train to Hanoi. At some stage we cross the Tropic of Cancer, which will be very welcome as it has turned a little parky here in Kunming.
Today David and I packed a large parcel of longjohns and thermal sweaters, fleecy gloves and woolly hats which have sustained us for the last two months and shipped them back to the UK. Joining then were a talking (in Chinese) calculator , so when I am next here I may at least be able to count in Mandarin. I regretted the gloves as soon as we were back on the street. Heigh-ho!

I have discovered that domestic Chinese dogs may be no taller than 12 inches. (True fact). This I assume is a canine parallel of the one-child policy, and explains the proliferation of petite pooches. It is also a handy size for the casserole when the going is tough.

Kunming is our last Chinese city of any size. Like all the others we have been through it is continuously reinventing itself. Tearing itself down and rebuilding. There is little that seems to predate the last three decades. Old people wander around in a daze, hardly knowing where they are, familar landmarks having vanished, or am I just imagining that?

I did however come across an old Muslim quarter in the centre of town, surrounded by the clamour of construction sites, which retained some kind of integrity. At the heart of it were two twinned Art Deco buildings, superb in their delapidation and very moving, boarded up as they were, awaiting the knacker's yard perhaps, or who knows about to be restored to their former glory.
I don't know why I find buildings from this era - the 20's and 30's - so moving. They arose in Central Europe in an age (in retrospect) of 'innocence', of a brave new world, soon to perish in World War II and the Holocaust.

Passing a restaurant last night, strains of 'Silent Night, Holy Night' , sucrose if not saccharine, emerge. I am horrified. Is there no escape from Christmas and its toe-curling horrors? Apparently not. Santas are beginning to appear in the stores and decorations are going up in the streets. National Geographic magazine informs me that there are 8 million Christians in China, as many as there are Buddhists.
Coming here on the train a group of young men pass us in the corridor muttering halleluias. I take it as ironical reference to us, and am ready to have a fight (in my in-Christian way). They return a few minutes later still chanting and, remembering my charity, we exchange greetings. We discover they are Christians. We explain we are Buddhists. Much mirth. They depart assuring us that Jesus died for us.

Going for dinner.

Monday, 1 December 2008

sunday in the park....and monday

Guilin. Sunday. Lovely parks.

Colin Thubron on Guilin: "A long-time Nationalist stronghold, it had been blitzed by Japanese aircraft in 1944, and had survived as one of the ugliest towns in China. Now tourism was shoddily recreating it." That was written in 1986.
What a lot can change in 20 years! Like all of China it seems, Guilin has lost no time in reinventing itself, but there is little shoddy here now. Shoddiness too has been swept away. Its a charming low - rise city, on the river Li, full of parks and waterways, and tree-lined avenues.
I spend all Sunday....and Monday, walking around the lakes, sheltering beneath Osmanthus trees in the heat of the day to read my latest Chinese novel, "To Live" by Yu Hua; very good book which was first banned in the 90's, until it started to win all kinds of award im Europe. Its the story of a Chinese Everyman who endures the vicissitudes and horrors of the last half century in China.

How deep the changes go in Chinese life, who knows? Perhaps they are as counterfeit and insubstantial as the fake Calvin Klein briefs I wear that cost me tuppence in Xi'an.

A child starts sobbing when it sees me at the next table at lunch. My beard I guess. The Chinese don't grow beards - you can't call the wispy Confucian strands you see on a handful of very old men beards. Mine you may remember went through an elegant Tsar Nicholas phase, then a wild Chinggis Khan look (co-incidentally in Mongolia), and now untamed and unpruned is coming into its Santa phase in time for Christmas.

For a new month a new feature for loyal readers - Sight of the Day ; SoD for short.

First SoD for December: two flat wooden trays of drying persimmons, deep apricot - coloured discs lying in tidy rows, in the sun by a bright blue metal shutter.

Another train to catch - only 17 hours to Kunming, west of here, where we will get our visas for Vietnam.