Saturday, 5 November 2011

Two Weeks with Uncle Ho, Brother No. 1 and Ming the Merciless


A trip to Vietnam and Cambodia

Unlike the UK, the Japanese school year ends and then starts again at the end of the unlikely month of March, and so us teachers find ourselves with a holiday of a little under two weeks, the ideal opportunity for heading overseas when flights are (relatively) cheap. Thus, sometime around January, myself and two female friends, Jen and Catherine, decided to embark on a fortnight's sojourn to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Catherine booked the flights, I bought the Lonely Planet and we were all set to go.

By a stroke of good fortune, around the same time, thirty-odd Vietnamese people turned up in my small town of Osawano in order to help boost Japan’s production of plastics. Being the town's Number One International Ambassador (?), I got an invite to the Welcome Party and through stealth and cunning, managed to befriend four lovely young ladies, Thao, Truc, Anh and Huong. Knowing these four certainly was an excellent move for two reasons. Firstly, we got ourselves lots of contacts in Ho Chi Minh City; Huong's young brother, Dung; Truc’s boyfriend Niagh and Thao’s mother, Hue. And secondly, they gave us advance warning that despite using the Roman alphabet, the rendition of Vietnamese names bears absolutely no relationship to their spelling:-

Thao                                 Tao
Truc                                   Chook
Huong                               Hoon
Anh                                   Ann
Niagh                                Nya
Dung                                 Young

Vietnam is (so far as I am aware), one of the only four remaining communist countries left on Earth, (the others being North Korea, China and Cuba). A system which once covered well over a third of the world's population, now only rules over a third of the world's population. Ok, so in those terms it’s still alive and kicking, but I’d never been to a functioning Communist country before, only ever experiencing it second-hand (Eastern Europe). So, what's it really like? I was fascinated. The only thing that I’d ever read about post-war Vietnam was in the magazine ‘NAM’ which described it as a dull and cheerless place, with miserable, oppressed, poverty-stricken people.But there again, ‘NAM’ was a Cold-War American magazine that chronicled their less than impressive defeat by a peasant army. The words ‘sour grapes’ sprung to mind; it may have been a little biased....

Our flight took us from Kansai (Osaka), to Seoul and then onto Ho Chi Minh City. We flew with the unimpressive (yet cheap) Korean Airlines. Catherine and Jen were miserable. Must be the early morning I thought, but it turned out that they just don't like airports.

We had two hours to kill at Seoul so I left the ladies and went through Customs. I then stood outside the airport for a minute or two, reflected upon being in Korea and then went back to Customs. The man on the passport-stamping desk looked at my passport and then asked, “Did you arrive in Korea this morning?”
“No,” I cheerily replied, “I actually arrived in Korea about ten minutes ago!”

He looked at me as if I was strange.

Catherine and Jen perked up immensely, the moment that we left the airport. We found a taxi and ordered it to take us to Hotel 211, where Huong had booked us in. Passing through night-time Ho Chi Minh City certainly was an experience after orderly Japan. Mopeds and bikes filled the streets and upon many were sat some of the most beautiful young ladies in Asia. I could tell that I would be happy here.

Ho Chi Minh City traffic

The unexpected sights, sounds and smells of a new country never cease to excite me. Unfortunately, when we got to Hotel 211 there was something else unexpected; it was shut, and what's more did not look like it would be opening in the foreseeable future. Unsurprisingly, the taxi-driver had a friend with a hotel, and so we arrived at the unpronounceable, yet surprisingly pleasant, Hai Duong Hotel.

We awoke late on our first day in Ho Chi Minh City and sauntered off for breakfast at a place named ‘CafĂ© 333’, smack in the middle of the Pham Ngu Lao District, the area the Vietnamese have christened ‘Foreigner Town’. I ordered a beef and onion roll, and you cannot understand the delight that I encountered in eating not only edible, but actually delicious bread. Japan is the land of the six slice and slightly sweet loaf. Good bread is a remote fantasy these days!

Afterwards we did the tourist thing. We took cyclos - bicycle cum rickshaw affairs - and set out to view the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum.

The Reunification Palace, Ho Chi Minh City

The war museum was interesting. It was undoubtedly biased and perhaps some Americans or Australians might feel offended by some of the captions regarding the “Evil Imperialist US Aggressors”, but overall it was far more restrained than I expected it to be. The Vietnamese are, in my mind, entitled to air their views. After all it is their country that was occupied and whilst it is tragic that around 50,000 GIs died, that is very little compared to the Viet Cong losses of around three million. The Vietnamese waited a long time and paid a heavy human cost for their freedom.

After taking numerous photos of tanks and planes we checked out the Notre Dame Cathedral, (which was shut but I did manage to look inside about a week later). Catherine however got accosted by kids who could spot a sucker a mile off and talked into buying coconuts, which prompted more than one joke regarding her remarkable resemblance to Danielle from the J-Pop group ‘Coconuts Musume’.

We then headed back to the hotel where I received a visit from Nghia, Truc’s portly boyfriend. Nghia, it soon turned out, was not short of a dong or two; he took me to his favourite hang-out, a VIP Karaoke lounge which operated a strict Members Only policy, had drinks priced at a mere 50,000 dong a-piece, (around 2.50, a fortune in Vietnam where most drinks cost about 10p), and (best of all) waitresses in tight pink shorts and skimpy tops who sang English songs rather well. I always appreciate a good singer you see.

But alas I had other engagements, and couldn’t stay long, for that evening we were scheduled to meet the second of our new Vietnamese friends, Dung, Huong’s young brother. Dung arrived together with two of his friends who spoke English, an accountant whose name sounded something like ‘Poof’ and the delectable Tam. They took us for a brilliant moto ride around Uncle Ho’s city before finishing it all off with a fine meal of rice paper, meat, soup, fish and salad. Smashing!

Before we had come, several friends whom had visited Vietnam themselves had strongly recommended taking a trip to the Mekong Delta which is only a short distance from Ho Chi Minh City and is allegedly one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Normally, I am not one for organised tours I must admit, but we were pushed for time so upon our arrival we had promptly booked ourselves on a one-day trip to the Delta for the following day. Of course our Lonely Planet had some scathing things to say about such trips and the people who take them, since you don’t really get to see the Delta in all its glory. However, we cared little for this view. Unlike Lonely Planet writers we do not have a company chequebook to pay for our trip with, and unlike the majority of their readers we do not have unlimited time and daddy’s bank account to play around with. We, sadly, have to work, so inadequate as it may be, the one-day trip would have to suffice.

There were two buses that morning to the Mekong Delta, one with Japanese commentary and one with English. Although sorely tempted with the opportunity to listen to sumimasens, sushitaras, and gomen nasais all day long, (as if), in the end we plumped for the coach with commentary in our native tongue. Not that this meant that the coach wasn’t half full of the Japanese tourists who couldn’t fit onto their own coach of course. I sat next to two stunningly beautiful girls from Yokohama, whom I soon learnt were JAL Air Hostesses and spoke not a word of English. Catherine and Jen were quite scathing about the attire of the taller one; a skimpy see-through top and high-heels they seemed to consider impractical for traipsing around river deltas. Personally, I couldn’t see the problem.

JAL air hostesses, interesting

However, whilst our two Japanese comrades may have been looking fairly delectable, us three intrepid travellers did our images no favours whatsoever when we promptly purchased a coolie hat each from the first tourist trap that we were shown to. Despite how stupid we looked with them on, (that is very stupid), we seemed to have started a trend. By the end of the day, half the coach had donned a plate-like hat, which made us feel like fashion trend-setters if nothing else.

Mekong Delta in plate hats

The trip around the delta was interesting. The area is certainly beautiful, and we got to hold a big snake which can't be bad. However, overall I got a rude reminder of why I don’t usually do tours; one tourist trap after another. Perhaps the highlight however, was meeting a party of fat Vietnam Vets, all drinking beer, bossing the locals around and wearing identical baseball caps with the touching message ‘VIETNAM - we've come back! Mission for Healing’ emblazoned across the front. Quite who or what they were healing somehow escaped me. Still, at least they were helping the Vietnamese economy this time.

People admiring my big snake

Actually, it must be strange to be a Vet coming back to ‘Nam. Well, perhaps not those particular Vets who seemed to be ‘here for the beer’ and not a lot else, but for those Vets who fought genuinely because they thought that Communism was wrong and that they were helping the locals.

Communism in Vietnam is a strange affair. There is none of the feeling of being watched by Big Brother such as one gets in Cold War spy novels, nor the grey uniformity of East European cities. In fact, if it wasn't for the posters and banners proclaiming the fact that Vietnam is Communist, I don’t think that you’d ever realise it is. Our Vietnamese friends in Japan regularly complain about how ordered and controlled life is in [capitalist] Japan and I can see their point. Apart from the fact that they’re not allowed to vote for opposition parties, the Vietnamese seem to have as much freedom, (if not more), than the people of any other second or third world country. Indeed, considering that between the end of World War Two and 1975 the country was constantly at war, one may even go so far as to say that the Communists have done a rather good job. True there are problems and inequalities, but less it seems than in many other similar countries and the Communists have bought stability and united the populace. What's more, considering their starting point, (a country completely destroyed by decades of fighting), the fact that there's any infrastructure here at all is a miracle. A Japanese friend of mine reckons that Vietnam will be the next Asian success story and after visiting, I have no reason to doubt him. Perhaps when Marx and Engels formulated their ideas, this is what they envisaged. Not the terror of Stalin or the Killing Fields of Pol Pot, but a responsible, socialist government which is helping its country advance technologically and socially. Who knows?

I always think that it’s a great shame that many people in this day and age do not appreciate the full enjoyment of actually travelling. They’re too busy rushing from A to B to actually enjoy the bit in between. Never was this more evident than on our return journey from the delta. As soon as we got on the coach, virtually everyone closed the blinds and windows and either tried to sleep or stared blankly into space. It seems stupid to me, that whilst they spend the whole day enraptured at the fake Vietnam laid on for their benefit, they actually miss the real thing as it passes by their window. For me however, the greatest joy has always been gained from gazing out of that window and so, much to the annoyance of the Japanese lady next to me, I left our blind up and watched the world go by; a Catholic church, tombs in rice fields, workers pouring out of a plastics factory, a gaudy Caodai temple, village men basking in the sun outside the local bar, high school girls clad in beautiful white ao dais, a Chinese pagoda, primary school children trooping home, all in their identical white and blue uniforms, a petrol station where a Russian lorry sits filling up. That is what travel is all about, the everyday hustle and bustle of people living their lives.

That evening we were once again engaged to out with the locals. Unfortunately, we had a problem, a triple booking. Not only had we agreed to go out with Dung again, and Nghia, but also Thao’s mother, Hue, had contacted us and informed us that she too would be meeting us tonight. The people in the hotel were amazed. Never before had they had guests with a Vietnamese friend, let alone the masses of locals who kept flocking to our doors. After some frantic phoning we sorted the whole thing out. We would meet Hue first for ice cream, then we would head straight back to the hotel for a rendezvous with Dung. Nghia, who was busy until late would phone Dung and meet us in the karaoke bar at a later hour.

First up then was Hue, Thao’s mother who turned out to be a very spritely and energetic lady of forty-seven. We all fell in love with her immediately, and she had us in fits when she went into a shop and started rubbing the stomach of a fat Buddha statue. However we were busy people so at nine we left her, (though promised to stay at her house upon our return from Cambodia), and met up with Dung and Poof for the far more serious business of karaoke. Like Japan, karaoke is the Number One leisure activity in Vietnam and by now we were seasoned professionals at the art. Many beers later, Nghia and his friend Minh, (pronounced ‘Ming’), turned up and announced that if we so desired, they would take us to a nightclub.

Meal with Hue and Tu

We live in Toyama. Toyama is a city of a third of a million people. Not only that, but a third of a million people with a lot of money to spend. Consequently, Toyama’s clubbing situation is something of a mystery to me. Within the city there are only two nightclubs. One evening we decided to check the larger, and more popular of these out. We went on a Friday. Our party of six doubled the attendance of the establishment for the night. We didn't go again.

So, as you can see, clubbing wise, Toyama sure ain’t Ibiza. “Would we like to go to a club in Ho Chi Minh City?”
Is the Pope Catholic?

It soon became apparent that Nghia had connections in more places than just the VIP karaoke lounge. About to join the queue outside ‘Club Metropolis’, Saigon's hottest nightspot, Nghia merely shook his head and said “No.” We walked straight past the queue, past the ticket desk, past the bouncers and then were shown to the VIP area. Next, bottles of whisky appeared from nowhere and a smartly-dressed man came and poured my drink. “That’s the manager,” said Nghia. The drink-pourer presented me with his business card. Nghia was an honest man.

I must admit here and now that I am no expert when it comes to nightclubs, but as far as I could tell, Club Metropolis was as good as anything back home. It was big, classy, played good music, had huge blocks of ice in the urinals (don’t ask me why), was filled with some of the most beautiful people that I’d ever set eyes upon, and for us, the unlimited drinks were free. Jen and Catherine too were happy, particularly since Minh had started making eyes at Catherine. Dung and Poof however, were obviously way out of their league. Determined to make the most of it, they drank and drank and drank. And then Poof threw it all back up.

Drinks with Nghia

And the rest of the night was a blur. I remember vaguely taking a taxi back to the hotel, though there was no Catherine in sight. Maybe she preferred the company of Minh the Merciless....

At Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport, I found out that my earliest fears had indeed been correct, that is, airports do not agree with Jen and Catherine. As happy as Larry beforehand, as soon as they step into the terminal they turn into the two most miserable people in Asia. I thought perhaps that other forms of transport might be better for the future, bus or perhaps train, but they both assured me that this was not the case, (and the journey back by bus from Cambodia confirmed this). As for me though, I was decidedly happy. Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. After cars, planes are my least favourite form of transport, (I always feel like I’m missing out on what’s down below you see), but I was off to visit a new country; how could I not be over the moon? Unfortunately, far from inspiring Jen and Catherine to enjoy the airport experience, this seemed to cast them further into the depths of eternal airport torment. Can’t think why.

Everything that I possessed in Vietnam had fitted nicely into my trusty backpack, except for the big, round plate-like hat that I’d purchased in the Mekong Delta. Undeterred, (Catherine and Jen had given their’s away, silly girls), I decided that the best way to store it was in its natural place, that is, on my head. Afterwards it also served as a basket for my passport, money, etc, when passing through the metal-detecting machine. Despite the obvious practicality of it all, for some reason the Vietnamese Customs Officials, (and even Catherine and Jen), found me wearing my hat highly amusing. Th officials laughed and joked in a manner quite different from the average Western stereotype of a stern Communist official.

Cambodia was undoubtedly different from Vietnam. For a start it was even hotter, but it also differed in many other respects too. Instead of signs everywhere proclaiming the virtues of Communism, there were signs everywhere telling the populace that being a kingdom is actually quite cool. And unlike Vietnam, where dollars or dong are acceptable, here the local currency, the Cambodian Riyal, was virtually no use whatsoever. Prices were in dollars and I only ever saw Riyal in the change. George W. Bush would have been proud.

Cambodia is also considerably poorer than Vietnam. This was not immediately apparent since the airport is fairly new, and the road from it to the capital, Phnom Penh, is probably the best in the kingdom, (in the respect that it actually has a road surface that is drivable). However, a look down any side street told the true story; dirt roads with shanty-town housing, and once we hit the city itself, the reality could be disguised no longer. The place looked like a bombsite, with broken-down concrete apartment blocks next to corrugated iron shacks. There was hardly a paved road in site. The only nice buildings were the banks of which there were many. “Many bank but no money!” chuckled our taxi-driver.

We stayed at the ‘Royal Hiness Hotel’ near the Royal Palace for under $10 a night. Spelling mistakes aside, it was undoubtedly a fine hotel, with a lobby complete with thrones and a fish pond. I got a clean room with double-bed and en-suite bathroom, TV and fridge; can't be bad. For some inexplicable reason, Catherine and Jen were less impressed, perhaps they were still suffering from airport syndrome?

That afternoon I took a walk by myself around Phnom Penh. The sights, sounds and smells attacked the senses at every turn. A dilapidated monastery full of young monks doing their washing, piles of clothes by the side of the road guarded by an old woman trying to eek out a living, small birds (sparrows?) being roasted on spits at street-side stalls, bombed out apartments, schoolchildren in their white and blue uniforms, a Red Cross Aid Centre with no windows or furniture, and the New Market.

Actually, the New Market is not altogether that new at all. It was built by the French in 1933 and occupies a square in the centre of Phnom Penh. A huge domed affair, it reminds one of an Arabian souq. Jewellry stalls, fresh fish, second-rate children's toys, clothes, “Hey Mister! You want to buy [photocopied] book?” Such places are why one travels.

I walked up to the railway station, a glorious French colonial building which stands at the end of Phnom Penh’s answer to the Champs Elysees. It was here that Pol Pot had planned his revolution and later on set up his headquarters. Now, like Pol Pot, it seemed the station’s hour had passed away into history. There were no trains or people in sight. I wandered down the tracks and found myself in a railway yard with workmen loading goods onto trucks. They smiled happily and shouted “Hello!” I waved back and continued. I now found myself in shanty-town land. A sea of wooden shacks on stilts punctuated by a stupa and sliced in two by the railway tracks. Ragged, barefoot children mobbed me shouting “Hello!” and demanding that I take their photos.

In sharp contrast with all of this was the Royal Palace which stands near the banks of the Mekong River. Scrupulously maintained, these beautiful classic Cambodian buildings are surrounded by peaceful, well-ordered gardens. The big surprise is that it was all built in the twentieth century!

It seems that the Cambodians have quite a love affair with their king, Norodom Sihanouk. Even in the poorest shacks you will often see his portrait. Whatever you may think of him, it must be said that the guy is something of a survivor. He has reigned for approximately the same time as Queen Elizabeth, yet unlike Ma’am who has had no evil dictatorships, (well, unless you count Thatcher), to put up with, Cambodia’s politics have been in constant turmoil. What’s more, His Royal Highness has made little effort to stay out of the political arena himself, quite the opposite in fact. In the sixties he was a firm anti-Communist whom Pol Pot once cited as his ‘Number One Enemy’. Yet when the Khymer Rouge took power in 1974, emptied Phnom Penh of its entire population, and seemed intent on killing most of the people in Cambodia, King Sihanouk not only kept his head, but also got to stay in the Royal Palace. He also emerged unscathed from the Vietnamese controlled Communist government which had defeated Pol Pot and in 1993 managed to win back his throne. He has now, it seems, retired from the political scene. His son Norodom Ranariddh however is following in his father’s footsteps. He heads the opposition party, FUNCINPEC.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh

The boat which was to take us to Siem Reap looked pretty swish on the little picture on the ticket. The reality however, was somewhat different, the thing looked hardly able to stay afloat. However, adventurers such as we are not deterred by such dangers, and we climbed up onto the roof, (where most people sat), and settled down.

Firstly, the most noticeable thing was that we were, (barring the Cambodians who ran the thing of course), the only people aboard not wearing linen. What’s more, upon examination we found that we were also the only ones without public school accents (well, barring French speakers whose accents I could not determine), the only ones without sandals and the only ones without ethnically inspired scarves. At a guess, I would imagine that we were the only ones who had also not succumbed to the disease known as vegetarianism, though this cannot be confirmed. “Bloody hippies!” exclaimed Catherine. “Hope we don't see many more of them!” Oh, how wrong she was!

The boat was noisy; too loud for you to hear yourself speak, but it was fast and relatively comfortable. What’s more, it provided an excellent opportunity for viewing Cambodia as it passed by. Small stilt houses, half-naked children and every few kilometres, a temple. Near Phnom Penh I spied two mosques, (I never realised that Islam had reached Cambodia), but most surprising of all was that there was no jungle. Ask most people what they imagine Cambodia to be like and nine out of ten will conjure up an image of bloodthirsty Khymer Rouge guerrillas hidden deep in the jungle. Maybe Cambodia has jungle, I don’t know, but alongside the river it was just a flat expanse of rice paddies punctuated by stilt houses and stupas for as far as the eye could see.

I settled down and read ‘Brother Number One’, David Chandler’s excellent biography of Pol Pot. Certainly, Pol Pot, (or to use his real name Sarong Sahr), and despite the abject failure of his regime, the Khymer Rouge has remained strong until after his death. Much about him and his regime remains a mystery to this day, though the book certainly explained one thing that had puzzled me for some time. I had always been perplexed as to why an ideologically driven Communist, upon seizing power, had emptied Phnom Penh and all other cities of their entire population and set everyone to work in the fields. No Marxist text, (and Sarong Sar was well-read and educated), advocates this, and indeed instead Communism idealises the urban proletariat as the makers of revolution. The reason, however it seems, was simple. Pol Pot’s revolutionaries were based in the countryside, whilst their enemies surrounded the US-backed government in Phnom Penh. Pol Pot was not stupid and what's more, when it came to enemies he was extremely careful, to the point of paranoia. To destroy his foes, he had to destroy Phnom Penh and the other towns. So he did.

The boat docked amidst a collection of shanty town shacks raised above the water on stilts. The poverty was overpowering, yet interestingly enough, most of the shacks had TV aerials. Our taxi driver later explained that this is where the Vietnamese lived, having moved there around six years ago. Quite why any Vietnamese people would leave their own country for Cambodia I couldn't quite understand. It’s hardly a Land of Milk and Honey after all. Perhaps the explanation was that when he was referring to ‘Vietnamese’ people, he meant people of Vietnamese ethnicity rather than people from Vietnam itself? I don’t know.

An interesting feature of any drive through Cambodia is that every other house has a huge sign outside proclaiming the political persuasions of the occupants. Democracy is still a new concept to the Cambodians and it seems that most seek comfort in the former Vietnamese-controlled Communist regime, now renamed 'The Cambodian People's Party'. The Monarchist FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy Party seem to be the other major forces in Cambodian politics. I asked our driver about it all and he confirmed that the Cambodian Peoples Party led by the charismatic Hun Sen did in fact hold power, though (in a lowered voice) he explained that this had a smuch to do with illegal electoral practices than their immense popularity. He himself was a Sam Rainsy man, since he saw the ex-Finance Minister as the best hope for democracy and economic progress in Cambodia. Interestingly enough, my motorbike driver in Phnom Penh said exactly the same thing.

Confirming my worst expectations, Siem Reap was definitely Hippieville, and as tourists, we were smack in the middle of it all. That said, credit should go to Jen for finding us an excellent guesthouse named ‘Mahogony’. I’m not saying that there were no hippies there, but the owners were friendly and the place homely.

But of course, the main reason why anyone travels to Siem Reap is to visit Angkor Wat, the impressive ruins of the once mighty Khymer Empire. Due to time pressure we were only able to spend a day looking around the ruins. Most people spend three or four days and there certainly is plenty to see. However, given the intense heat and the fact that (to me at least), after the first five or six temples, they all start to look the same, in my opinion one day is enough.

Enjoying the ruins of Angkor Wat

Undoubtedly, the best of the ruins is Angkor Wat itself, the mighty monument whose three towers grace the Cambodian flag. This surely is a wonder of the modern world and in my mind is every bit as impressive as the famous Egyptian temples at Luxor, (though to be fair, they are several thousand years older). Built in the eleventh century as a grand Hindu temple complex, Angkor Wat is still largely complete and functions even today as a shrine, (ableit a Buddhist one). Roughly one square kilometre in size, it takes several hours merely to skim through it. If one spends time examining the fantastic wall carvings which depict ancient Hindu texts, then far longer is required.

Yet Angkor Wat is but one of the ruins. Within the nearby ruined imperial city of Angkor Thom there are many more, and in the surrounding forest, more still; monasteries, temples, halls for the celestial dancing girls, statues, palaces....

We enjoyed looking around but there were several serious discomforts. Firstly was the heat which coupled with the painful sunburn we'd acquired on the boat, made any activity in the open fairly miserable. Then there were the ubiquitous guides and assorted vendors who followed and pestered you whether you were remotely interested in their services or not, and lastly there were the hippies who were everywhere, getting spiritual. But such is life and despite it all, I at least would recommend Angkor to anyone.

That evening we returned to our guest house to find the place teeming with people, most of them locals. The reason soon became apparent. It was the owner’s son’s first birthday and they were about to throw one hell of a party. As guests of the establishment, we were of course invited and so after a shower and change we headed downstairs and shown to a table partially occupied by three middle-aged Cambodian gents, our dining companions for the evening.

Well the beer flowed freely, the fare was excellent, ‘Happy Birthday’ was played on loop until all were heartily sick of it and it turned out that our three dining companions not only spoke English, but were also extremely amicable and in fact more than just three average Cambodian blokes. The first was the Chief of Police for Siem Reap, the second the Prison Chief and the third was Head of Customs and Immigration at Siem Reap airport. We all agreed that these would be eminently useful people to know in case of emergency. Luckily, it never came to that, though as Jen pointed out, it was becoming “a very random holiday!”

Drinks with the Siem Reap Chief of Police, the Siem Reap Prison Chief and the Head of Customs and Immigration at Siem Reap airport

We were all three sat on a terrace in Phnom Penh feeling decidedly miserable. The journey back had been ok, little to report really except that we escaped getting sunburnt this time by sitting inside the boat. The problems had started however as soon as we reached Phnom Penh. As I mentioned earlier, Jen and Catherine had not liked the previous hotel, so they decided we should stay somewhere different. Eventually they picked out a place named ‘Narin House’ which was highly recommended by Lonely Planet. Unfortunately, it seemed that we had stumbled upon Cambodia’s Number One Hippy Hangout. Girls with dreadlocks, blokes in skirts, the smell of marijuana and a scary aura of vegetarianism pervaded throughout. On top of that, the receptionist had seriously got out of bed on the wrong side that morning, the food that we’d ordered over an hour ago had still not arrived and to top it all, the most irritating man in the entire world was sat on the table next to ours.

The irritating bloke happened to be American but to be fair he could have been from anywhere as, (he kept stressing this himself), he had ‘travelled’ so much that he felt at home in many cultures, (presumably only annoying ones). He was about 35, fat with long hair, and we guessed what a treat we were in for when he started a conversation about his deep appreciation of the “Booooda statues” in the National Museum. He then moved onto the fascinating subject of his deep understanding Japanese language and culture, (I’m no expert but it didn’t strike me as that deep), and then onto his extensive travels in Indiaaah, (which mostly seem to have consisted of him sitting in places akin to Narin House, drinking beer and boring people to death). His next topic was how, in the UK, due to colonial attitudes, people could not figure out that people with dark skin may have been born in the West and might speak English naturally, and thus terrible racism pervades there, (whereas in the good old US of A there’s no racism whatsoever). Luckily our food arrived before he could explore that particular subject any further.

That afternoon we went to see the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, 15km outside Phnom Penh. There is not a lot there, just an uneven field with a huge stupa in the centre. Nothing remarkable, except that the three-storey high stupa is crammed full of human skulls....

After that I went onto the former Tuol Sleng Prison, now the Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng had been built in the 1960s and the original purpose is still obvious. It would be easy to imagine children playing in the grassy space between the buildings and taking lessons in what were later to become torture chambers. Nowhere was cordoned off, it was as if the Khymer Rouge had just left. Just classroom after classroom, empty barring an iron bedframe with shackles attached. Some classrooms were divided into crude brick cells and one had photos of victims inside. What struck me was how young many of the ‘dangerous anti-revolutionary criminals’ were. It is highly likely that some of the school’s pupils later died in their former classrooms.

Over the years, I have been to several genocide/ holocaust museums. This one probably affected me the most. At Yad Vashem in Israel, there seemed to be the implication that the whole world should stand up and say sorry, whether they were involved or not. In Hiroshima we were told that A-bombs are evil, that people suffered unnecessarily and that peace must reign forevermore. Yet here there was no message. Just some empty classrooms and a few amateurish drawings of torture methods. The Khymer Rouge killed two million. No reason, it just happened. No need for the world to apologise. No need for the world to feel sorry. Life’s moved on now.

I woke at six in the morning and put all my stuff together. I went outside but everywhere was deserted; no Jen, no Catherine, no taxi, nobody whatsoever in fact. What’s more, there was no daylight either. Mystified I glanced at the clock on the wall, twenty past four. Catherine's alarm clock was still on Toyama time. Sadly, Cambodia wasn't.

The bus for Ho Chi Minh left at seven. Unfortunately, at approximately half past six I discovered that I had at long last come down with the inevitable food poisoning that generally affects people like me who don't care about standards of culinary hygiene when visiting third world countries. The last restaurant that we’d eaten at had been crawling with cockroaches and mice which might have had something to do with my illness. The food however, had been excellent.

A ten hour bus journey is, in my experience, not really a fun idea at the best of times. Ten hours on a bus with sickness and diahorrea is even less so. Ten hours on Cambodian roads is little short of hell. The roads of Cambodia are definitely the worst that I’ve ever travelled upon. When they do have a road surface, (which is rarely), it is littered with huge potholes, (approximately one every metre), which makes any sort of sleep impossible. The countryside that we passed through was interesting however; the Cambodian Mekong Delta, villages of stilt houses, crowded market places in provincial towns, and a road shared with oxen, troops of ducks, mopeds and bicycles. Unfortunately, I was in no state to appreciate it.

Throughout the journey I was sat on the front seat, sandwiched between the driver who spoke no English and laughed whenever someone fell off their bike or he saw a car crash, and a Korean missionary. The Korean was a nice chap despite sub-Japanese levels of English. He kept me entertained by murmuring gospel tunes for hours on end. After one particularly uplifting rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ in Korean I decided to pray to God that I would not throw up all over the bus and His servant. And true to that, I didn't, which is more than enough proof of divine existence than I need.

It may seem strange to you, o’reader, but when we crossed the border and I saw the huge gateway, topped by a star, proclaiming ‘VIETNAM’ I felt genuinely uplifted. Civilisation had returned! Roads without holes, buildings with walls, restaurants without cockroaches and women worth looking at. “Thanks be to God!” I exclaimed to my Korean friend. He agreed wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, my illness had not abated, in fact quite the opposite. By the time I had reached Room 402 in the Hai Duong Hotel I was a chattering, gibbering wreck who could hardly stand up. I showered and fell into a restless sleep. Fourteen hours later I awoke, ready once more to face the world.

The next few days I spent alone in Ho Chi Minh City. Alone that is in the sense that Catherine and Jen had disappeared, though one can never truly be alone in Saigon at the best of times and with friends like Hue and Tu it is a distinct impossibility. Catherine had cheered up considerably following the bus ride from Hell, this change resulting in no small part from renewed contact with Minh the Merciless rather than a deep appreciation of the joys of Saigon. It transpired that whilst I had been engaged in my long and troublesome sleep, she had again been out on the town, (the VIP karaoke place), before retiring to Minh's apartment.

The two ladies were now also beginning to wonder where Nghia got his mountains of money from. Apparently, whilst they had been at Nghia's apartment some ragged street urchin had come in with a bag from which he proceeded to extract stacks of American, Japanese and Vietnamese money, several centimetres thick, which Nghia then put through a money counting and bundling machine, (the sort which you see in gangster films and the sort which he just happened to have in his room). Unsurprisingly, this set my two colleagues wondering as to whether the source of all this money was not entirely legal, (since he never seemed to do any work either, barring the occasional call on his mobile phone).

Despite all these suspicions however, it took Catherine no time at all to agree to go to the beach resort of Nha Trang with Minh and a man who was most likely the Godfather of Saigon. I decided to decline the offer for several reasons. Firstly, I liked Ho Chi Minh City and anyway, I'm not really a beach person. What’s more, with Minh and Nghia involved it would not be cheap and besides, I'd already agreed to stay at Hue's house. And so I removed myself from the Hotel Hai Duong and moved to Maison Hue for the princely sum of zero dong a night. And over the following few days I had a good look at the city.

In Saigon, like anywhere in the developing world I suppose, nothing is real and everything is fake. The book that I’m reading, Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’, is photocopied. It’s supposed to be photocopied from a Penguin original mind, yet the front page is entirely in German. The CDs are copies with photocopied covers and badly typed playlists. ‘Brintney Spears’ and that old ABBA classic, ‘Take Al Chance On Me’. The video CD I was assured was an original, illegally imported from China. Yet even on this, the play list bears little resemblance to the actual content, and it cuts off halfway through an interview. And the Ralph Lauren Polo Shirts, at 3 for 2 quid I suspect that they too are fake.

Caodai is a native religion of Vietnam founded in 1926. It maintains a belief in One God and contains elements of the Taoist, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Confucian and Geniist faiths. Its symbol is an eye, the eye of God, with lines radiating from it and its temples are to be found all over the Ho Chi Minh City local where the majority of its seven to eight million followers worldwide live. The Caodaists have played major roles in Vietnamese history, forming their own private army during the Franco-Vietnamese. But now, having emerged from years of persecution by the People’s Government they are less militant, content to follow their faith in peace. I wanted to visit a Caodai temple, so Tu took me to a small one near his home.

The temple looked like a cross between a Buddhist pagoda and a church, a sort of diminutive, gaudy, oriental Notre Dame. Inside an elderly priest explained his faith to us in rapid Vietnamese, of the four divines; Sakyamuni (representing Buddhism), Khuong Thai Cong (Geniism), Confucious and Jesus Christ; and the three revered Saints, Trang Trinh (1492-1587): Vietnamese poet and prophet, Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925): leader of the 1911 Chinese Revolution, and the famous French writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885). Quite what made Victor Hugo so holy I didn’t quite catch. Afterwards I knelt down with him and prayed, a strange ritual involving clenched fists held together, various crossing movements, before finally prostrating oneself before the altar Muslim-fashion four times. Like the rest of the religion, this exercise seemed to have borrowed traditions from many faiths. We bid the priest goodbye and left the quiet sanctuary of his temple for the crowded streets of Ho Chi Minh.
Caodai Temple, Ho Chi Minh City

Undoubtedly, the most popular pastime in the evening in Saigon must be to visit a karaoke parlour. Living in Japan, I am of course more than familiar with this excellent form of entertainment, though in Vietnam it differs slightly to Toyama. Whereas in Japan the booths are spotless and clean yet perhaps a little sterile, in Ho Chi Minh City, they are more like proper rooms with luxurious settees that are a wee bit tatty around the edges. The decor reeks of sleaze; sparkly curtains and huge semi-pornographic murals on the walls. Something akin to a retirement home for pimps. Yet there is nothing sleazy about these places. Here families sit and enjoy their evening out. The backing tracks too, do not quite make it up to the Japanese standard. With some, only when the words appear on the screen can you tell what song its meant to be. And whilst in Japan, no matter how bad you are, the machine can somehow make you sound acceptable, in Vietnam the opposite is the case; Lucianno Pavorotti would sound more like the bloke you have the misfortune to sit next to on matchdays than a great opera singer. Yet, despite these differences, karaoke is karaoke, fun wherever it’s practised.

One evening, driving through crowded backstreets, we passed a small church from which the beautiful sound of a choir practicing rang out. I stopped to listen, but as soon as the children saw a foreigner they immediately forgot all about singing and instead started shouting ‘Hello’, ‘What’s you name?’, ‘My name is....’, ‘I like Manchester United!’, ‘David Beckham very good’, ‘My name is James Bond....’ I excused myself to the choirmaster and humbly departed.

Tu, like virtually any teenager or young adult anywhere in the world, loves listening to Western Pop Music as well as that of his native culture. And of course, what better opportunity to show of your knowledge of all musical things Western than when the English guy comes to stay? To be fair, I'm used to this by now, though what always fascinates me is exactly WHICH Western music is popular in different countries, since experience has taught me that it is rarely the same as what is listened to back home. Now, I can appreciate that we tend to get all music first, so other countries may seem a little behind the times, but that is not the point that I’m trying to make. For example, when I was in Eastern Europe virtually every kid aged between 18 and 25 had an obsession with Depeche Mode. Now Depeche Mode are English (apparently), but as far as I can remember, they had a few hits in the late eighties and then disappeared pretty quickly. Never what you could call a super group at all, yet to this day they’re still rocking out of millions of apartments in Moscow, Bucharest, Warsaw, Sofia, Kiev and Minsk

So, what is hot in Ho Chi Minh? ‘Michael Learns to Rock’ it seems. Quite who ‘Michael Learns’ is I'm not sure. Tu says that he’s American, yet no American I've asked has ever heard of him. Anyway, he’s a kind of rocky Michael Bolton so don't worry, Britain hasn't missed much. In my search for common musical ground with Tu I tried the ever-present Britney Spears, but the reply was merely, “Hmm, who is she? Maybe she is popular in England but not Vietnam?” Eventually however, Sweden came to my rescue, those old popsters ‘Ace of Base’ are big in Nam.

One strange thing that struck me about the folk of Ho Chi Minh is the lack of physical contact between them. Not once did I see people hold hands or kiss in the street. One evening we went round to the house of Niue, a friend of Tu’s. Not once did they touch, kiss or fondle each other, even when she was on the moped with him where it's natural to grab hold of the person in front for safety's sake if nothing else. Nope, her arms were firmly by her sides. At the end of the evening I asked, “So Niue’s just a friend of yours then, not girlfriend?”
“Oh no,” came the reply. “She is my girlfriend for more than one year now! Maybe one day she is my wife.”
“But you never even kissed her goodbye!” I exclaimed.
“Oh no,” Tu explained. “In Asia nobody, even when they married touch or kiss when they are with other people. Only when they are alone together, but then they are very romantic!”

I go for a walk in the street one balmy evening. Children shout “Hello!” and blacksmiths shake my hand. Everywhere is alive with the hustle and bustle of the East. Some pretty young girls fly past on a moped and shout “I love you!” Can't be bad, this is a city that I definitely enjoy.

In the morning I go out to buy a baguette from one of the numerous street side stalls. I purchase a bottle of a strange green drink which I consume whilst sat next to a thin man in sunglasses who nods in acknowledgement. On the way back I'm mistaken for a Russian by a man in a street cafe. He invites me for a drink, delighted with the opportunity to practice his second tongue, (one imagines that there are few Russians in Ho Chi Minh City these days). At the end he congratulates me on my faltering ruskii and we shake hands, parting as friends.

On the final day I'm invited for lunch at the house of Dan, Thao's cousin. Dan is the Communist Party Chief of Ho Chi Minh City District 11 and his five-storey mansion, complete with indoor fish pond, spiral staircase, dance floor and servant truly reflects good old socialist values. Dan is a jolly rotund fellow, with an equally rotund wife who graciously helps me cut up pieces of fine grilled fish with my chopsticks. Dan speaks no English but nonetheless talks enthusiastically in Vietnamese about the relative strengths and weaknesses of Man Utd, Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham and Aston Villa. Football is of course an international language, though for some strange reason, he has never heard of either Gudjon Thordason or Stoke City....

After my luncheon with District 11's Number One Comrade, myself and Jen head off to the Dam Sen Water Park to cool down. Catherine is nowhere to be seen. It seems that this fling with Minh the Merciless is getting serious. "It was sick!" exclaims Jen when I asked her about their time together in Nha Trang. “They sat at the table and fed each other!”

The water park however is good fun, with a multitude of slides, wave pools and huge rubber rings. What's strange however is that most of the Vietnamese girls go on the rides fully clothed. "Perhaps they're really shy and modest?" I suggest. I later learn that the truth is somewhat different. They were trying to avoid getting a tan. In Vietnam you see, a pale lady is an attractive lady.

But all good things must come to an end, and our trip was no exception. That evening we said goodbye, to Hue, Tu, Nghia, and all the others and headed off back to the Japans and ALTdom. But was it all worthwhile? No doubt about that. Vietnam is a great country, and whilst we're at it, Cambodia's not bad too. We had a brilliant holiday and met some interesting new people if nothing else. And has it really ended yet. We may be back in Japan, but Catherine is forever on the phone to Tokyo where a Vietnamese guy called Minh works, there's an e-mail in my Inbox off Tu, the students of my Primary Schools are enjoying lessons about 'Bietunamu' (including wearing a coolie hat), and tonight I’ve got a dinner appointment with the young ladies who work at Kobayashi plastics....


Special thanks must go to:-
Catherine and Jen for putting up with me Hue for letting me stay at her house Nghia for spending loads of money on us Dung and Poof for showing us a good time Minh for cheering Catherine up after the airport Thao, Truc and Huong for having nice families

A big ‘Cam on!’ as they say in Vietnam.

Toyama, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Matthew E. Pointon

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