Saturday, May 29, 2010

Capital venture

Ohmigod, I’m back in the developed world again and the culture shock is reverberating right through me. I haven’t actually done very much since I flew into Kuala Lumpur this afternoon but I did go for a walk in the rain this evening and was reminded of what a thriving free economy looks like. A swish department store, its shelves piled high with books, glossy magazines and non-pirated CDs and DVDs. Modern conveniences on sale all around me. A McDonald’s restaurant! (Heart-attack food, admittedly, and foul compared to the unprocessed delights I’ve been eating lately, but I grinned on seeing this symbol of Western decadence for the first time in months.)

I’m not going to miss the big posters of Ho Chi Minh and his slogans. Or the songs about Ho Chi Minh. Or the TV programmes about the glory that was Ho Chi Minh. Or the way that BBC World News and CNN are broadcast with a 30-minute delay in case a report needs censoring. Or how, on some days, BBC World News was replaced with a “there is a fault”-type caption. Or having to jump through technical hoops when I wanted to use Facebook, which the Vietnamese government won’t even admit it has banned because that would go against its constitutional commitment to free speech.

And yet, and yet… for all its faults my affection for Vietnam is massive, prompting me to ponder uncomfortable questions about how much if its innocent, open, unspoilt nature is down to an authoritarian communist government shielding it from the worst excesses of capitalism. I can’t say, really (and if I ever start to sound like George Galloway bigging up Cuba then please, somebody shoot me). Besides, two-and-a-half months is nowhere near long enough to get the measure of a country, particularly when you don't speak the language.

Innocent? Unspoilt? I once heard two Americans agreeing with each other that on the contrary, the whole place was one enormous scam, full of chancers on a never-ending hustle for tourist dollars - and while it struck me as a sweeping, racist slur, I could see with some guilt what they were driving at. Oh well. Might as well admit my ignorance.

Before I left Hanoi I went on another day trip - to the Perfume Pagoda, a complex of temples nestled among hills about 60km away from the city - and had to concur with my guidebook that it wasn’t much cop.

I also had two consecutive nights out, which is almost unheard of for me whether I'm travelling or not. First I spent half an hour nursing a pint of beer at Minh’s Jazz Club, figuring that I might as well try listening to live jazz at least once in my life. Then the next evening - my last in Hanoi - I joined the tourist hordes (two of whom behind me would not SHUT UP), at the city’s theatre of water puppetry, which otherwise was good fun. Instead of paying extra to take my own photos and video, I thought I’d rely on YouTube for a change and sure enough, there’s footage aplenty.

I’ve been to Hoa Lo Prison too, known to former American PoWs as the Hanoi Hilton, though the museum there now prefers to dwell on the inhumane treatment meted out to “brave patriots” by French colonialists during the independence struggle. There are a couple of rooms devoted to the Americans, though, with wall displays maintaining that captives such as Senator John McCain were well treated. His flight suit is in a glass case and there’s a photo of him visiting the prison in 2000.

First impressions of Kuala Lumpur (or, to be more precise, the Chinatown area where I‘m staying)? Putting aside the architectural embellishments, the street food stalls and the ethnic mix of Malays, Indians and Chinese, it feels very British to me. The buildings, the road layouts, the buses, the three-pin plugs… Not so very surprising when you consider that Malaysia was a British colony until 1957.

I might add that this is the 50th foreign country I’ve set foot in… if you count Monaco and Vatican City (cheating?), Bulgaria and Romania (which I passed through on a bus, stopping only to eat and pee) and Belgium (half an hour in Ostend, in transit). I’d quite like to celebrate this achievement but I’m a tiny, bare hostel room with just a bed, a desk and a stool. No ensuite bathroom. No sheets, even. Just backpacker austerity measures.


Hang on, I’ve had second thoughts about thriving free economies. If this goes on much longer I might well apply for asylum in Vietnam, where I’ll happily sing the praises of Ho Chi Minh if it’ll secure me one of those posh $10 hotel rooms I‘ve grown accustomed to, comrades.

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