Vietnam

Out of sync, but since I finished it first, it gets posted. Because no-one has posted anything since the last fucking ice age finished.


Uncle Ho walked in the door.
“Uncle?” I said. “Don’t you have a war to fight?”
“No, my son, the war is over. Haven’t you heard? We won.”
“Who’s we?”
“Never mind that. I have not come to make small talk. I have a mission for you.”
“Uncle, I’m not well, I need help.”
“You will get all the help you need later, but first, your country needs you.”
“My country?”
“Vietnam is calling you, son. The time has come to do your patriotic duty.”
“But I’m not…”
“Hush, your fever has made you delirious. Soldier, we may have won the war but the fight continues. The people have lost their way. I need you to run a reconnaissance mission.”
“Yes, Uncle. I can do that.”
“Good. You were not given a choice, you know. I have men ready to detain you even as we speak if you were to hesitate.”
“That worries me. You are just a hallucination, right?”
“Go now, there is no time to waste.” And then he left.
What could be wrong with the country so badly that I was chosen to investigate? What skills did I possess that might make me the man for the job? My keen people skills? My ability to search out the truth in all corners?
“No, my son, it’s your delirious fever induced illness.”
Who the fuck said that?
Anyway, I knew then it was all of the above. So I set out immediately to get to the bottom of it all. But first, I had to pass out on the bed.

The morning tour would have been better if I hadn’t been in mind-shearing pain. Like most big delta towns, Chau Doc lives and breathes by the grace of the river. A great deal of the people live along or near it, make their living from it, get their food from it, and do their commerce on it. The canals make as good a transport system as anything else and goods come from all directions to from the floating market. We got on a boat and did a few laps around it. Then to a floating house – entire neighbourhoods exist floating on the river, water real estate. They have power, TV, satellite reception, addresses, everything. This one had a fish farm under it. The guide threw handfuls of fish food into the water, turning the fish into a turbulent storm of scales in the feeding frenzy. This was the highlight of the day. The next stop was a Cham neighbourhood and little more than the commission shopping spot. Then a ride up and down the canal to see more of what we already had seen. All I wanted to do was die, or get out and tear my head off. Things were bad.

It all ended and I wish I’d been better off, in no way was I to appreciate it at all. Win some, lose some. I ate some food and took whatever meds I had, and lay down. Roman went off to get bus tickets. I had thought I might take in a few more towns on the way to HCMC but I had made the executive decision to get to a hospital. The best thing was to get to Ho Chi Minh City, and so it was settled.

“Ah, my son, you are doing well. I need you to report.”
Roman had disappeared, and Uncle Ho was sitting next to me instead. I told him what I had seen.
“Why do the people fear the sun so much?”
“They cover their faces with those masks not to hide from the sun but so the brilliance of their white skin will not dazzle passers by.”
“I don’t know, I saw this one lady on the bus, and when she took her mask off she looked as dark as anyone working in the field in Cambodia.”
“Heresy!” Uncle Ho was screaming. “How dare you vile foreigner claim to be able to discern between the lustrous pallor of a Vietnamese maiden and the cretin us black skin of the Khmer! You cannot possibly have the optical sensory needed to see the delicate balance!” He was red in the face now. “The horrendous dark skin of the lowly peasant is a mark of dishonour no Vietnamese will tolerate!”
He paused to regain himself.
“What else have you to report?”
“Nothing, Uncle.” I lied, fearing another outburst in my weakened state would be my undoing.
“Very well.” He was back to his normal, genial and composed self. “This city will tell us much. Do not waste a second!”
Then he was gone, and we had arrived.
A brief conflict with the taxi guys and we ended up in a metre taxi – and I thought these things didn’t exist in Asia. We got a fair deal, considering how the driver could have gone the scenic route, and I stayed glued to the window the whole way. Ho Chi Minh City. Everyone who actually lives there still calls it Saigon. I like the sound of Saigon too, the only thing the alternative name has going for it is my own respect for ol’ Uncle Ho, so form here on it we call it Saigon.

And it’s big. And lively. It was love at first sight. Saigon is alive, flowing, breathing, making it work. The streets are wide and easily accommodating the madness of the traffic, jams and gridlock feel like an impossibility even in the face of all those vehicles. The footpaths are wide and inviting, the lights bright and welcoming. The neon calls you in and the fluorescent lamps guide your eyes. The stream of people doesn’t stop, ever, and through it all the taxi glided effortlessly to Pham Nga Lao, the backpacker ghetto of Saigon. We were instantly picked out by a little old lady who took us around to every guest house that might have accommodated our needs, and finding most of them full, never gave up until we were satisfied. The back alleys are a charmed place, the kind of alleyway life that’s a world away from the noise of the streets. Real family life goes on back here, as it always might have, the guest houses merely utilising the extra rooms that were there as the neighbourhood blossoms into a budget accommodation area. Locals outnumber tourists and people still stare. This is as good as it gets in a big city, in the biggest city, and absolutely delicious.

Not so tasty are the legions of moto drivers and cyclo guys who shout, hoot, whistle and holler at every single tourist passing their range of vision. The neighbourhood has its charm but before long you are spending too much energy on asshole patrol, and wondering what you might possibly do to ward them off. At least they only hang out on the main streets.

I shared a room with Gemma while Roman decided to pay extra for some solace. Gemma went into the toilet while I lay down. She didn’t come out, instead Uncle Ho opened the door.
“Have you new information, my son?”
“The cyclo drivers and motorbike guys are incredibly rude to me, don’t they have any respect?”
“They are being incredibly respectful and restrained, I would think. They are nothing but the dregs of the imperialist and capitalist southern regime the true warriors of the north obliterated. I commend them for not dragging you by your legs around the city tied to the back of their motorbikes.”
“They are that bad? I heard they are often displaced or spent lots of time in ‘re-education’ camps.”
“Careful, my son, I can tell when you put quote marks around the word ‘re-education’. They were vital tools in integrating the south back into the folds of family.”
“Not state run torture centres.”
“How dare you suggest such a thing!” Uncle Ho was rising with venom, spitting like a cut snake. “The lackeys of the southern regime needed nothing less than the kind tolerance of the hands of their betters to show them the way, lest they be lost forever to the lies of their former masters!”
I wanted to ask if using them as human mine detectors was tolerant, but caught myself.
“The cyclo and moto drivers are unable to perform any services to the benefit of the state. We are grateful for their obedience and continuing service to our visitors.” Calm now, he smiled as he said the last words. “The rudeness is only in your mind, my son.” Then he was gone again.

Stepping outside to get some dinner, as soon as I stepped out of the alleyway I was whistled at like a dog by a guy in a taxi and followed all the way down the block by two cyclos shouting, ‘Where you go? Where you go?’ All the while dodging touts at the front of restaurants trying to manhandle me physically into their places. Restraint, I thought. Who is showing it now?

The hospital proved to be a scene of chaos. I was directed to a building to the side where I gained access to a doctor and medication. I have no idea what the pills she gave me were, but the fever left and so did Uncle Ho. I was free to wander around Saigon and visit the tourist attractions. The reunification palace, the war museum. I arranged a ticket out of there and woke up early on my last day there to catch the bus. Sitting in the travel agency office, the man who sold me the ticket the night before wasn’t there. Calling out for someone to come, it was Uncle Ho who emerged.
“Uncle, where have you been?”
“Waiting for your medication to start working. It does wonderful things, does it not?”
“I don’t get it.”
“Don’t worry, son. You’ve had some time to relax, now back to work. You will have much to report on soon. But enough for now, the bus is here.”

The first place was Mui Ne. And what a low point it was. Not really a town, more a strip of highway lined with guest houses, hotels, restaurants, travel agents, and other beach related crap. It’s a beach destination but not a terribly inspiring one. The buildings have encroached on the sand so there’s not a very wide strip of beach there anymore, and the rainy season runoff from the river turns the water a brown colour.

I took a jeep tour of the area. The details annoy me, so I’ll just say it was a blow out. Finished way too early, earlier than promised, and nothing I couldn’t have done on a motorbike (or on a moto tour) and not even close to worth the money. So annoying. The dunes were kind of cool, if you’ve never seen real dunes before (I suspect a lot of people out there have not) but nothing against the ones at Levy’s Point, near my parent’s house. The fishing village on the beach smelled like fish and the stream that flowed down into the water from the hills had a band of annoying would-be guide children. I smiled and ignored them. Later, the guide asked me if I spoke English – apparently the kids had just figured I couldn’t. I was right to ignore them, because I saw them following anyone else who went and actually paid them any mind, wailing to give them money. All in all, colossal let down and over before ten in the morning.

Which actually worked, since I had time to get a bus out of there before I committed to the room. I did exactly that, got some food and some sleep and was out of that crass little stretch before I even realised I was there.

Asleep on the bus, Uncle Ho came to talk. I asked him a question to start.
“Why did those people lie to me, Uncle?”
“They did not tell you a single lie. The fault is with you, for you should have been more discerning.”
“How can I be? All these tourist places looked the same and sold the same thing, and I don’t understand Vietnamese.”
“You should have known from the beginning, my son, what it would be like in the end.”
Then he was gone. Had I forgot to take the medicine that morning?
Dalat was founded by the French colonialists in 1919 as a hill station, somewhere to escape the heat and toil of lording over the natives. It is just that now, an escape from the heat with a distinctly European climate. Nights are genuinely cold, which means you can buy warm soy milk and cakes and stuff. Not a bad trade off, and good thing I still had my jeans. I took a walk around town as it got dark and it is still Vietnam, still with the traffic and the yelling and the honking, but the streets don’t go in straight lines. Later on I would find myself reminded more and more of European towns I’d been to two years previous, especially the vistas looking over lakes to rows of pine trees, in particular, times when you couldn’t see the locals. And as I found out later, locals love the place. It’s big with couples in particular, honeymooning and so on.

I took a tour the next day and spent it all in the company of Vietnamese people. Not a huge drawcard for foreign visitors, apparently, and I had found myself on a Vietnamese tour group. The guide spoke English enough to explain the places we went but the other four tourists didn’t. I don’t think I saw another white person the whole day, which was somewhat refreshing and a glimpse into how Vietnamese travel.

It was an exercise in noise, concrete kitsch and commission stops masquerading as attractions. It’s not unpleasant, but when seeing it becomes an exercise in being taken advantage of because you happened to pay for the privilege of taking a tour and happen to be stuck at the whims of a driver and incarcerated in his car – well, it grates after a while. And concrete is no substitute for stone in construction, if there is going to be any kind of artistic merit to your work.

I had some bad noodles for dinner. Apparently waiting for the meat to cook would have delayed them overcharging me. When I was on the toilet, between stomach cramps and liquid shit, Uncle Ho drifted in and out of my vision.
“Are you real, or just a symptom of eating undercooked beef?”
“You will grow strong eating real Vietnamese food.”
“That’s not how it works.”
“You will learn to love painted concrete.”
“But it looks low-budget and tacky.”
“You will love the opportunity to make some extra money for your travel agent by gaining him some commission.”
“But I can get the same stuff much cheaper at the market.”
“And you will learn to shout like the rest of the crowd. Did I see you attempting to line up in a civil manner? You must cease this pointless activity!”
“Are you even looking at me?”
Uncle Ho gestured silently for a while, as if addressing a large crowd, his voice somehow muted. And then faded away. Then I vomited into the sink.

The morning brought no further gastro-intestinal distress. The bus took me to Nha Trang, where I was assaulted by the development and destruction masquerading as progress. That night, I was robbed by a gang of prostitutes. I left as soon as I could get out of there.
I saw Uncle Ho again, but he didn’t say anything. He was shuffling around the streets, in the dark, his clothes torn and shabby, with suspicious yellow stain over the crotch. I tried to ask what had happened, and how I thought there were no homeless people in Vietnam. He just kept walking.
These costal resorts have given way to massive development, which increases pressure on the environment, and in turn, land prices. This forces buildings closer and closer to the water and eventually there’s nothing but a concrete barrier, a small strip of sand, and water that hasn’t been blue in years. The ironic thing about this is, it seems not to deter people from coming, but increases tourism. More people come to see the polluted wasteland it’s become and in turn, the worse it gets. There’s no sense in this, and it’s the foreign visitors who bring it the worst.

The night bus was pain. Squeezed in the back, not enough room to stretch out fully, my feet were racked in pain by the time we arrived in the morning. Roman and I found a room and rested. Hoi An was somewhere I’d wanted to see for a while, so that offset the black mood a little. But not much. Hoi An is easily the most beautiful place in Vietnam. While that’s not the hardest thing to achieve, and can’t really be attributed entirely to the Vietnamese, you would have to admit that it still being that way is to their credit.

Founded as a trade town, with interests over the years from China, Japan and Europe, famed for the high quality of its silk products, Hoi An these days is a well preserved little town filled with Chinese temples and houses, European colonial vestiges and tailor shops. And I do mean a lot of them, some 500 of them, and the big draw is getting clothes tailor made on the cheap. And I do mean cheap – a men’s suit will go for as low as $20. That suit won’t make it as far as Hanoi, but you’ll still have yourself a new suit for a little while.
Strolling through the streets, if you can somehow block out the calls of the moto drivers, drink sellers, souvenir sellers and the touts working for the more enthusiastic tailor shops, Hoi An is not only visually arresting but incredibly agreeable. However, since you will be yelled at by some Vietnamese shithead every three steps, this ain’t gonna happen. So while you gander at the fine architecture and marvel at the high quality restoration and preservation, try to hold back the feelings of rage toward all guys on motorbikes. As you peek into a temple or house so Chinese the Chinese would pay to see it, resist the urge to overturn the drink stall that is home to the lady trying to gouge two dollars for a can of Coke. Be offended as the staff at the bicycle parking lot lie to your face and tell you the locals also pay three times the normal rate to park there, after they herd you in with whistles and batons. Watch as another potentially wonderful spot goes to hell because it happens to be in modern Vietnam.

“Uncle Ho, what went wrong here? Are you even out there?”
He was not. I didn’t see Uncle Ho for days. Arriving in Hue, I fought my way through one of the fiercest scrums of taxi guys and hotel touts the world has ever seen, I’m not even kidding. Violence was necessary to emerge intact, and I had gathered a very determined small crowd of persistent ones that followed me all through the car park. Do these guys think I just didn’t see them yet? Or hear them? Walking faster I managed to lose them, but not immediately. The stream of offers and enticements mixed with the usual outright rudeness gave way to an unusual, exasperated mouthful of insults and swearing in English and they dropped off.

Every corner held at least one guy lounging on a motorbike, rousing only to shout at me. Any charm that Hue might have held was obliterated by these assholes. Trying to make a living, sure, I have to respect that, but their total lack of honour in their approach did nothing but drag me down into their dirt. I don’t need their dirt, I don’t need their shit, I didn’t need to eat that crap but yet it was forced upon me over and over, shovel loads of it, it chased me down streets and alleyways, in places I thought I was alone, in corners I thought were quiet. Even the people selling food and drinks at the side of the road were over the top, desperate in their pitiful quest to overcharge me for a snack or bottle of water. Have some dignity, shut the fuck up, leave me alone.

The citadel was big, but there was almost no signs pointing to anything other than what was for sale. History, culture, discovery – get your photo taken in costume on stage with two strangers, also in costume. Finding anything in there was almost pure luck.

Another overnight bus took me to Ninh Binh. I was assaulted by the manager to take a tour while I was still eating breakfast. Damn, again with the bad decision. Tam Coc is a river running between rice paddies that goes through a few caves and is undeniably pretty. You enjoy the experience in a boat rowed by an old lady, and you pay pretty good money for the opportunity (remember that). It takes about two hours, and while the scenery was great, I can’t help but remember the rest of the bullshit that went along for the ride, like so many gremlins dragging the boat underwater. The day was overcast, making photography a chore rather than a pleasure, and the waterway was pretty crowded. After the third cave, you get besieged by other boats trying to sell you food and drinks. I had my earphones in well before this and pretended to not hear or see anything. I managed to overhear the lady trying to sell me stuff ask me to buy a drink for the lady paddling the boat – a trick I was hip to. If you give in, all that happens is the drink gets sold right back to the seller, for half the price. Yes, you just gave them a dollar each for nothing. Fuck that. Eventually, they all gave up trying to screw me and we headed away.

The next step happened not long after that, and out came the box of shit to sell me. Again, the ignore card worked and she gave up pretty fast. The way back was a lot busier – the package tourists had arrived in their tour busses. The last attempt on my wallet and dignity came as I alighted – the squealing appeal for a tip. Two dollars, she asks for. I don’t even glance at her, let alone give her money. Hey, I paid for my ticket. She wants more money? Ask for a raise. Or something. Two dollars is not much money, except in Vietnam it is. You can eat for a day, more if you are a local, and most Vietnamese make half that in a day. She asks because Vietnamese either have no shame, or are willing to sell their dignity to whoever might buy, and because people pay. Leave no stone unturned, to tourist un-pumped.

The rest of the day wasn’t really worth it, or the money I paid the moto guy for driving me. I should have known better, but by then I was already past all of it. All of it.
On a bus to Hanoi the next morning, I took the only seat left and had to sit next to a decrepit old man. I tried not to touch him, and he smelled vaguely like armpits and a toilet. But he kept leaning on me, and grabbing at my pockets. Only then did I look at him properly. It was Uncle Ho.

“Uncle, what’s become of you?”
“Give… Money… Give me…”
And that’s all he could say, all the way to Hanoi.
Not the idyllic and quintessential Asian city promised, but more of the same, just in much more cramped style and with even less politeness than ever. If such a thing can be believed, Hanoi is the capital in so many ways, it takes the number one tag. The most annoying, the most lies, the dirtiest, the place we all want to be away from as soon as possible. Do you enjoy stepping out of your hotel to, only to have waiting taxi drivers not yell, shout or scream at you (all better alternatives than what actually happens) but whistle at you, like you were a dog? Then they smile and wave you over and when you stick a hand in their face and walk past, they let loose a few lines in Vietnamese that they don’t even bother to whisper or mumble, but say it out loud and I imagine that they don’t even care if you did happen to understand. Which you don’t, but there are some things you can get the flavour of without subtitles. And this happens every corner you walk past, and in the Old Quarter of the city, where all the tourist crap is, there are packs of at least three waiting on every corner. The narrow streets might make walking a genuinely dangerous notion, because the locals extend their total lack of giving a shit about anyone that’s not them (a friend of mine currently resident in China has this line about the Chinese that I think applies more than readily to the Vietnamese – “people I don’t know, don’t exist”) and probably wouldn’t even slow down if they ran you over, unless it was to swear at you for wasting their time – but it does mean than the phenomenon of being actively followed by these cocksuckers is reduced. I still found myself followed by more than one shouting driver one many occasions, but it was marginally less than elsewhere in the country.

To say there’s nothing worth seeing would be wrong. If you’ve never seen a Chinese style Confucian temple before (they tend to be sober affairs, devoid of too much clutter and flair), then the Temple of Literature is worth a look. The museum at the site of the old Hoa Lou prison is cool because it’s where they tortured maybe-next-US-president-not-black-guy-or-woman. Strolling around the lake is also nearly relaxing, if it weren’t for the constant grind of traffic and people pretending to be collecting money for the Red Cross (seriously, have these people no dignity at all?) and the military museum has a massive and very cool sculpture made of wreckage recovered from downed American aircraft. The displays are yet more propaganda, but I expected nothing less.

I had enough. I walked the streets on my last night, and saw Uncle Ho sitting in a restaurant. He didn’t seem to know who I was.
“Uncle, how could it all be so bad? What could have infected this country, so much like its neighbours, yet without the spirit and passion that makes them places you would actually want to visit? Where has the tradition gone, the hospitality, the culture? Have you thrown it all away in the desperate grab for American Dollars? Have you any idea what has been lost, or has the act of losing it caused you to forget even what it was in the first place? Uncle?”
Then he started shouting at me.
“Get the fuck out of here! I don’t know who you are, stupid foreigner! Get lost!”
Later, I realised he had stolen my wallet as I panicked before I fled. I had to sell all my things just to pay for a taxi to the airport.
On the way, I saw Uncle Ho for the last time. He was trying to hitch a ride to the airport – ostensibly to escape. The taxi hit him, splattering his brains all over the road. That was the last I saw of him. The driver didn’t even flinch.

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