Saturday, April 24, 2010


It’s only my fourth day in Hanoi and already I feel quite at home. I’m staying in a small, dingy room with a bed, a fridge, a telly and an ensuite bathroom (so not much different from London, then). I’m spending the day watching DVDs of films I would have seen on the big screen in England if I‘d had the chance. And it rained heavily yesterday afternoon, forcing me to dig an anorak out of the bottom of my bag (it’s like a second skin to me).

I’m staying in the capital’s Old Quarter, a distinctive maze of shopping streets dating back to the 15th century. Because of inheritance issues and taxes on frontages, most of the shops are narrow and stretch a long way back, hence the name tube-houses. You also find that retailers specialising in particular items are clustered together so that if, for example, you want to buy a pushchair, then you can shop around without wandering very far.

Yesterday I stumbled upon the shops that sell CDs and DVDs and learnt that movies cost 15,000 dong each. That’s about 75 cents or, in proper money, 50p. They’re about as legit as my Lacoste T-shirt and yet there are shops in Hanoi that stock thousands of them.

Of the four discs I bought, two actually work.

You can also buy box sets with numerous episodes of your favourite TV series crammed on to each disc. These are slightly more expensive at 25,000 dong/$1.25/80p a disc. I was sceptical about how the manufacturers managed this so I tentatively bought season one of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse on two discs. Here’s the good news: there must be a good eight hours’ viewing on each one. The bad? They’re off-air recordings from America's Fox network.

I guess that means I won’t be buying the Doctor Who series 1-4 set, “starring:David Thennant & Freema Agyeman”. Not even for a lark.

I haven’t done that much of note in Hanoi, not least because my first day was spent recovering from a 14-hour overnight bus journey. After that I had a morning of getting contentedly lost in the Old Quarter, with all of the candid photo-ops that implies, and an afternoon walking round the edges of nearby Hoan Kiem Lake, which my guidebook informs me is the soul of the city.

Yesterday was for mooching around some more, buying DVDs, sheltering from the rain and taking photos of the lake at night.

Today, as I say, I’m spending some time indoors. Visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, where he lies in a glass coffin, can wait till Monday as I was reading that at weekends it’s open only in the mornings and attracts huge crowds of Vietnamese.

And then? Well, apart from a couple of tours of the far north I plan to do, I really haven‘t a clue. Nearly every teaching job I see advertised here requires at least one year’s experience. The job applications I have made have produced practically no response. I worry that as a 41-year-old newbie, I’m at a distinct disadvantage in an industry that tends to favour twentysomethings. I’ve also read that the immigration authorities are cracking down heavily and from July will deport long-term expats who haven’t got a work permit.

My three-month tourist visa has nearly two months left to run. On arrival in Hanoi, I asked about extending it for another three months and was told it would cost an outrageous $260 (about £175). In truth I can’t blame Vietnam for not wanting to become another Thailand, with the scum of the earth living here like kings for years on end. But if it succeeds in driving away EFL teachers, I don’t think it’ll be doing its people many favours.

The upshot of all this is that I will stay a bit longer and try to find a job with a respectable employer that can get me a work permit. I don’t hold out much hope, but there you go. If that doesn’t happen I’ll fly to Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok and take things from there. If I’m to use my return flight ticket, I’ll have to be in Bangkok in early July anyway (when with any luck it won’t be like “the last days of Saigon” - although, since this is a Daily Mail story we‘re talking about, I‘m willing to bet there‘s some exaggeration involved).

It’s occurred to me that if I could fill July and August with subbing shifts in London then I could save enough to pay for this six-month trip I’m doing. Then I could maybe get a year’s teaching experience in China, where they’re still desperate for English teachers and don’t give a stuff about your age. I’m not short of savings, so I have plenty of leeway.

Until now the main thing putting me off was internet censorship - the ‘Great Firewall of China’ - but from what I’ve been reading, most Chinese people under 30 are expert in getting around it with a virtual private network (VPN). That’s immensely reassuring to me. There are many things I can live without but YouTube isn’t one of them.

Then again, there’s always Korea…

ADDENDUM: Up in the Air froze after five minutes. That just left The Hurt Locker, which to my mind was two tedious hours of: "The bastard towelheads keep planting bombs and shooting at us."

Monday, April 19, 2010

Talkin' about a revolution

I’m still in Hue. Mainly for the internet, if I’m honest. The hotel I’m staying in doesn’t have wifi but does have a mildly antiquated computer in each room, enabling me to plug a broadband connection directly into my laptop. Oh, it’s glorious. I’m also enjoying the weather, which since I arrived has been refreshingly dreary and sometimes even cold and drizzly.

What I don’t like about this city are the strangely selective power cuts, which happen most days and tend to last a specified number of hours. They don’t affect my room’s main light and overhead fan but they do shut down less essential stuff like the bathroom light and the sockets. So from breakfast time till 2pm today I couldn’t use my laptop (the horror!) or watch TV (which I hardly ever do anyway, except occasionally for the news). Goddamn it, I had to sit down and read a book about teaching!

That aside, I've been on two separate day trips since my wonderfully flattering encounter with the college girls in central Hue last week. The first took me down the Perfume River on a dragon boat

to see various temples and emperor’s mausoleums, a couple of which are accessible only by water. (Not this one, I should add.)

Quite early on I suspected I’d picked the cheap and nasty tour with the young, half-intelligible guide and the spurious visits to places of no interest where people try to sell you stuff. But it was diverting enough, and I did enjoy meeting a friendly contingent from the Vietnamese Army at one of the mausoleums. Despite their lack of English, one woman beckoned me over and invited me to take a photo of her with an older lady, presumably her mother. I thought of offering to email it to her but didn’t know if that was wise.

Speaking of armed forces, the other day I took a 12-hour tour, starting at 6am, to the former demilitarised zone or DMZ - a strip of land 5km either side of the North-South border, designated as such in 1954. I call it the DM-Zee as I’ve only ever heard it mentioned in American films. (I now understand what Robin Williams means when he bellows in Good Morning Vietnam: “Time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ.”) On the other hand our guide referred to the DM-Zed, which sounds all wrong to me, no matter how much I approve of British English.

Naturally enough, some of the most interesting events of the Vietnam War happened just outside of the DMZ. At Vinh Moc for instance, 8km north of the border, the communists set up a series of underground tunnels where villagers could shelter from US bombers in small burrowed-out alcoves for up to five days at a time.

Unlike the tunnels at Cu Chi in the south, which were built by Vietcong guerillas, these ones were constructed by the authorities and were therefore much larger. To my relief, I could walk through them fairly easily just by stooping.

Apart from Vinh Moc, though, there wasn’t much to look at. We tourists mostly sat on the bus, having things pointed out to us. We stretched our legs at a bridge that used to be part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail (the route used to ship supplies from the north to the Vietcong). We briefly took photos of a statue on the site of the Doc Mieu Firebase, which, like all US bases in the mid-1970s, was plundered for scrap and torn down by the war-weary Vietnamese.

We also visited the US base at Khe Sanh, overrun by the North Vietnamese Army in 1968 after a nine-week battle. It’s a museum now, with a couple of old helicopters and a gutted tank standing outside. I looked in the visitors’ book. A guy from the US had been there a day or two earlier to pay his respects to his best friend from university who had died in the fighting.

Now, much as I love Vietnam - and I really have fallen in love with the country - I have to say that the ubiquitous symbols of communism do take a bit of getting used to. Each to his own and all that, but it seems like every street corner in Hue has a big poster featuring a smattering of the late Ho Chi Minh’s words of wisdom. Here’s a small one I saw last week near Hoi An.

I could go out and photograph some big red ones if I wanted to, but they’d remind me of the British general election and I don’t care to think about that too much. The same goes for the volcanic ash, which hopefully will have dispersed by the time I want to fly back.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Basically, I rule

I’ve splashed out on a fake Lacoste T-shirt, available from most shops and market stalls in Hoi An for about £2, with haggling. I’ll probably dump the plain white T-shirt I brought from England; the dirt’s so ground in, I don’t think I’ll ever get it clean.

I’ve also come to the historic city of Hue (‘Hwey’), which the Vietnamese emperor made his capital in 1802. The walled citadel containing his Imperial City must have been a stunner in its day but was largely destroyed in the Vietnam War and the 1940s conflict with France. Of its original 148 towers, only 20 remain.

When I turned up there this morning, so had a party of students. Their tutor told us they were doing a four-year course in tourism.

Once their group shot was done, four or five of the young ladies made a beeline for me and insisted I have my photo taken with each one. Why? Because I was “handsome handsome”.

What an ego-booster! Yes, I know they're young enough to be my daughters. Doesn't mean I can't enjoy the compliment, or spend the whole day struggling to wipe the grin off my face.

Oh, and the Imperial City was good as well.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Phew, what a scorcher

Gad, it’s hot. That’s a phrase I remember Spike Milligan using in some satire on the British Empire I read as a child. I used to love Milligan’s nonsensical poems and stories, back in the day. I’m a great deal less keen on days such as this one, when it’s 37 Celsius and I feel like an out-of-place colonial.

So this is what Vietnam’s hot season feels like: ferociously, oppressively hot. Too darn hot. I should have guessed, I suppose, seeing as the cool season is hot to begin with. But I don’t think I’ve timed my trip too badly. In a little over a week, or thereabouts, I’ll have finished the active part of my travels and settled down to look for a summer job.

My final destinations are the three aitches: Hoi An (I'm here now), Hue (pronounced ‘Hweh’ or ‘Hwey‘ - I‘m still not sure) and Hanoi. For some reason I’m fascinated by the fact that two of these places are not just anagrams but soundagrams, to use a word I’ve just made up. Both begin with a ‘h’, and then have an ‘oi’ and an ‘an’. I can‘t help wondering why that is, just like I couldn‘t help wondering why so many place names in Laos started with V. With any luck this sudden interest in linguistics will carry me far.

In the meantime I’ve been taking photos of Hoi An, which very conveniently has a compact historic core consisting of three longish parallel shopping streets, one of which overlooks a river. The town boasts Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese and European influences dating back to the 16th century, although what’s most noticeable about it are the quaint, chocolate-boxy shop-houses.

It’s also renowned for its tailoring and if I had the slightest interest in my appearance, I’d probably stay here a few days and have some high-quality clothes made up at bargain prices.

At first I wasn’t that taken with Hoi An, so to occupy myself I took loads of candid photographs of people walking by in the late afternoon, when the day was cooling down and the light was taking on a golden glow. I went out in the evening too, clutching a tripod and vowing to get some decent night shots before the shops closed at 9pm.

Downloading the pictures, I was mightily impressed. This has to be one of the most photogenic towns I’ve ever been in.

For completeness’ sake I followed this up with a trip today to the ancient temples of My Son, about 50km away, even though I’d guessed they were going to be a poor man’s Angkor. Still, at least the history was interesting: I’d no idea that Indonesian Hindus called the Chams had colonised parts of Vietnam over 1,000 years ago, nor that their descendents are now Muslims living in the Mekong Delta.

Our guide informed us that they had curly hair and darker skin than the majority population, then made a hugely un-PC crack about the Vietnamese being much better looking. Apart from that, he was very good.

All in all I’ve enjoyed my couple of days in Hoi An, the only major disappointment being the fairly grotty hotel I’m staying in. There’s no internet, for a start! I should have looked around for a better one but it was 7.30am, I was shattered and the bus I’d been on all night had stopped right outside.

Following today’s trip to My Son I stopped at the relevant travel agents to get my bus ticket to Hue confirmed for tomorrow (I’m using an open ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi). When I told the assistant where I wanted to be picked up, she looked at me wide-eyed and asked: “What are you staying there for?” And this from someone who must deal with backpackers all the time.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Island games

I’m writing this in a rush as very shortly I’ll have to get packed and get on a night bus to somewhere more interesting than Nha Trang, which is where I am now.

There’s nothing actually wrong with the place - in fact the beach is quite beautiful, as beaches go - but 48 hours here has been enough for me.

I stayed in Da Lat a week, literally chilling out, before I came to this resort. There were days when I didn’t leave my lovely cool hotel room and my wonderful wifi-connected laptop, except to visit a restaurant round the corner where I could eat marvellous Asian vegetarian food for a pittance.

But like I say, Nha Trang’s nice enough. I’ve been out this afternoon to look at its one historic monument: a set of four stone towers from Hindu times. Shame they were rubbish.

Yesterday I went on a boat trip around the islands just offshore. It was a mixed bag, really, and I got a bit grumpy when the first activity turned out to be snorkelling from a large wooden platform (I hadn’t brought my trunks so I just sat on the boat, sulking). I wish I'd done something like this now.

But I cheered up enormously when the crew laid out a delicious buffet meal - I’m getting a taste for Asian food now - and then staged a ‘boyband’ concert so that anyone who felt like a swim could let their lunch digest first.

I could photograph these fellas all day. Those faces!

The same goes for the fish, sharks, eels and turtles at our last stop of the day, Nha Trang’s aquarium.

I hope this bus I’m catching is better than the one from Da Lat, by the way. That one broke down twice on the mountain passes of the Central Highlands, forcing the driver and the conductor to get their box of tools out and fix the engine en route!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

High society

Coming to the town of Da Lat has convinced me that I’m a bit like one of those old Doctor Who monsters, the Ice Warriors. I’m not green or scaly or from Mars, but when the temperature gets too high I do start staggering around and moaning.

I’ve had three months of feeling hot and sticky and now I’m in a place where I don’t have to switch the fan on. I find it absurdly refreshing, having to wear shoes in the evening to stop my feet getting cold. So thank you, 19th-century French colonialists, for building this hill station 1,500 metres above sea level. I can totally relate.

I left Ho Chi Minh City three days ago. There’s a travel firm that sells ‘open’ bus tickets from there to Hanoi, dropping passengers off at five other towns and cities along the way. When you want to continue on the next stage of the journey, you just confirm the day before. For some of the longer rides they even have sleeper buses which, unlike those in Laos, have single berths. Remember me saying you can’t wear a seatbelt in bed? Boy, was I wrong.

The morning trip from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne was on just such a bus and I was in an upper berth just behind the driver. With my large trolley case stowed safely away, I set about finding somewhere to store my daypack/rucksack (containing my laptop, camera and other heavy items). I didn’t realise that the empty berth just across from me was going to remain that way and that I could simply leave it there. Instead I used my bicycle lock to lash it to a shelf jutting out of the front of my berth, directly above the driver’s head.

Yeah, I know. Clearly I haven’t been eating enough brain food.

Not long into the journey, it slipped off, snapping one of the shoulder straps and nearly braining the driver as he drove through city traffic. I guess he managed to duck his head out of the way just in time. In any event, I was intensely relieved that I hadn’t caused a pile-up.

When we got to Mui Ne - a row of shops, restaurants, hotels and travel agents on a road set back from a beach - I knew in an instant that I wouldn‘t like it. To me, a beach resort is a brief stopover on the way to somewhere more interesting, so after checking into a guest house and taking a token stroll along the sand for ten minutes I dropped in on the travel agents and confirmed my journey to Da Lat for 7am the next day.

At 6.45am, in rode a member of staff on his motorbike. “Oh my god,” he said ominously as he spotted me waiting outside. Apparently they’d cancelled the service because I was the only person who’d booked. However, it turned out that there was a midday bus I hadn‘t been told about. A midday bus with cracked windows and a tiny amount of legroom, which turned up at 1pm.

During a rest stop, I got chatting with a young couple from Wales. “We tried to book the 7am bus yesterday,” said the woman. “They told us it was full.”

Still, after all that hassle, I’m happy now. Happy to be in Da Lat, because it’s so cool. In every sense.

I may well stay here a week, in my big posh hotel room that costs £6 a night. Why? Because the cold has woken my brain up. All of a sudden I want to revise my TEFL course and look for work. And this is a wonderful place in which to do that, while simultaneously downloading Doctor Who and Ashes to Ashes on the excellent wifi they have.

On what felt like a warm summer’s day in England, I spent yesterday sightseeing. I bought a replacement bag in the market

and. on an impulse, a stupid spivvy hat at the city's flower gardens,

stroked some tethered horses,

then carried on to the art deco railway station, built in 1938,

where I caught the tourist train to a place called Trai Mat.

It stopped for about 40 minutes, allowing passengers to visit the fantastically garish Linh Phuoc Pagoda before returning to Da Lat.

Lulled into a false sense of security by the mild weather, I thought I’d skip the smothering-myself-in-sunscreen routine and fly in the face of Baz Lurhmann's sound advice. As a result my hands, neck and face are burnt, providing me with one more excuse to stay indoors.

It's crossed my mind that I could live in this city, actually. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.