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.