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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 24, August 17, 2002
Brummies, Scousers, More Swiss, Drug dealing Grannies, Police
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Brummie Muppets and Water Puppets

After several weeks of the Laotian downpour -during which time we visited many beautiful and fabulous things in the rain - we decided it might be interesting to see another nation in the rain. So, having impoverished ourselves with an embarrassment of air travel, we decided to keep it real and take the bus.

Aha, you might think - another tedious and predictable tale of how awful the roads are. But you'd be wrong: this is in fact, a tedious and predictable tale of how awful our fellow passengers were. As we cleared the Vientiane suburbs (which takes all of five minutes) I became aware of a whiney nasal noise towards the back of the bus. It took me a few minutes to work out this was - it was a disagreeable assonance whose like I had not heard for many months - but suddenly the penny dropped. It was a Brummie! Of course, I am at pains to point out here that I have nothing beyond the obvious against England's self styled second city. But even the biggest Brumophile would have to concede that when it comes to discord the accent has no equal.

Not that any of this would have really mattered if he'd been speaking at a normal volume, but this fellow had taken it upon himself to entertain the whole coach. He was, you see, what is commonly referred to as a 'cheeky chappie'.
As far as I can see being a CC has a few basic requirements, though sadly being genuinely entertaining is not one of them. Most important is an unassailable self confidence coupled with a desire to be the centre of attention. Then you need a catchphrase -it doesn't have to be particularly funny or clever - any old rubbish will do as long as you repeat it often enough. And finally you need an coterie of obliging sycophants who will laugh whenever you repeat your crappy catchphrase.

Luckily for him (malheureusment les autres) this fellow had all these in spades, with the audience role filled by his girlfriend (runner up in an Emma Bunton lookalike comp) and a trio of attractive Australian girls who really were too young to know any better. He also had the hide (if not the brains) of a rhino and his inability to take hints such as 'Everyone on this f--king bus is trying to sleep'was nothing short of remarkable. And he happily prattled on until 4 am when Aveef, an Anglo-Iranian girl from west London earned a small round of applause for telling him in language even someone that stupid could understand that, while one person was enjoying his monologue, 37 weren't. I guess I've never experienced that much unadulterated cheekiness before, because I now know that 'cheeky chappie' is a euphemism for insufferable prick. No, he was even worse than that: he would have made the perfect 'Big Brother' contestant.

The next day we woke up to a sky of an impossibly azure blue and a blazing tropical sun. But we didn't really - it was pissing with rain as usual. Still, at least Hanoi is a capital city and has plenty of cultural attractions. So we kicked off with the Women's Museum, which I entered feeling quite the modern man. Now, every guidebook will tell you that the Women's Museum is excellent, terrific, fascinating and so on. But they are lying. I have to assume that they lie because in these correct times it doesn't do to say that a Women's museum is crap. Lest you want your server crashed by a barrage of outraged emails.

But the simple fact is that the women's museum is a largely celebration of women doing really dull stuff that everyone does. How we marvelled at the exhibit celebrating women canning pineapples; how we thrilled at the picture of an agricultural woman hosing down pigs - my personal favourite though, was a ball point pen which had been used by a woman of some note to write a note. To be fair, the fourth floor, which is devoted to the costumes worn by the women of Vietnam is quite nice. But that's about it. And before anyone accuses me of belittling the pineapple canning, pig hosing, note writing women of Vietnam, I would like to point out that I did visit it with Jane and Laura (a student who was studying speech therapy at UCL). They both thought it was poo,too.

Disappointed, we tried the altogether more manly Army museum. This was a bit more like it. Mainly because, after years of watching soul searching American films about their losing - sorry 'tactical withdrawal from' - the Vietnam War it's refreshing to hear the other side's view. Which is essentially 'Ha ha
you lost.Particularly splendid in this sense were the vast outdoor sculptures made of the wreckage of crashed B-52s and blown But the museum isn't just about cocking a snoot at the Yanks; the Vietnamese give their old colonial oppressors the finger too. Particularly cute was a soldier's helmet with around six bullet holes; the caption read: 'This exhibit demonstrates the failure of the French.'I'll say.

Feeling suitably invigorated from viewing all this military hardware, we went (in the rain, natch) to see Hanoi's famous water puppets. The Lonely Planet refers to these as 'Punch and Judy in a swimming pool'and, for once, it's not a bad description. This peculiar thousand year old art form is thought to have started in the rice paddies. Essentially it's just like normal puppetry, except the stage is a waist-deep pool with a screen at the back, to conceal the puppeteers; and all the action takes place in the water, which conceals the puppetry mechanisms. Don't get me wrong - the water puppets are not without their charm and being a water puppeteer clearly requires a great deal of skill. But it's a bit like Dr Johnson's dog, the wonder being not that it's done well, but that it's done at all.

Still, if ever the puppets failed to fully engage my attention, there was a pretty good sideshow going on. Half the audience had their video cameras out and were busily ensuring they didn't enjoy the performance to produce a video that no-one else would ever enjoy either.

Ho's and Scousers

Obviously the puppets were a tough act to follow. But determined tourists (sorry, travellers) that we are, we were up bright and early the next day to pay our respects to Ho Chi Min, who resides, Lenin-like in a glass case within a large and comically communist mausoleum. Actually (and probably inadvertently) the whole thing is a pretty authentically commie experience: the opening hours are ridiculous, the queue is about a kilometre long and you only get a fleeting glimpse of Ho.

That said, I rather enjoyed it. Perhaps because, being British, we didn't really mind queuing, especially here, where the Vietnamese didn't seem to mind queuing either. Though, some 20 minutes into our queue, amongst all this patience and mustn't grumbling, we met a British couple who were prepared to boldly defy the national stereotype of being terrific at waiting in line. They were from Liverpool and he was wearing the regulation Scouser uniform of Fila tracksuit bottoms, trainers in pub-fight
white and an improbably nasty Ralph Loren top. She was bright orange with fake tan - something that is especially impressive in a part of the world where it is relatively easy to get a real tan. And they were having none of this queuing business.

'Ican't believe they don't have a tourist queue',she said. I could. Entry is the same price for everyone
free and, unlike the Vietnamese, who largely remain touchingly fond of their Uncle Ho, most foreigners really don't care that much. He then chimed in 'We've been queuing for 50 minutes already.'What he actually meant was he'd been trying to jump the queue for half an hour then been sent to the back and queued for 20 minutes. He then inclined his head towards one of the soldiers and said: 'Just look at them - give them a uniform and they think they'ree the fing dog's bollocks.'The guards weren't doing anything, although I suspect earlier, they might have told him he had to queue like everyone else. Warming to this theme, he looked around: 'Idon't like Hanoi much - I couldn't live here you know.'Then, as he left to try his luck again at queue barging (proving that some people really don'tlearn) he announced apropos of I don't know what: 'I've seen Ho's body before you know - it's shit.'

Sewer Side Dining

Hanoi is one of those places which is much more than its headline attractions. Arguably the nicest major city in South east Asia, it's cutely Frenchified and utterly idiosyncratic. Everything from the language. In many Asian cities you could be anywhere (and often not anywhere nice) but Hanoi is inescapably, charmingly itself.

Like most people we were staying in the old quarter, near the lake. This is the easiest part of town to get lost in as it's a labyrinth, but at least you can read the street signs. Well, sort of. Vietnamese is unique amongst the SE Asian tonal languages in that it uses a Latin script. That this alphabet utterly ill suited to the language is abundantly clear as every single letter seems to have at least one and usually several accents on it. Still, this is what you get for being colonised by the French.

Historically the old quarter was made up of smaller sub quarters, usually comprising a couple of streets, each dedicated to a particular trade. So you have variously Roasted Fish street, Bamboo Flute Street, Votive Papers Street and so on. Of course, times have moved on and the demand for votive papers and bamboo flutes is not what it was. But pattern of trade remains the same, so now you have the electric street and the washing machine quarter, the fruit square and the booze boulevard. We were staying near a street whose only activity was noisily bashing sheet metal into boxes; and nearby was my favourite street of all: the entirely inexplicable and surreal shop window dummy quarter.

Then there's the food. Vietnam is famous for its food, though I suspect more in the south than the north. In northern Hanoi the cuisine is variable and ranges from the very good - eel with chilli and citronella for supper to the not so good - pigs trotter for breakfast. Indeed, off-piste porcine parts form a substantial part of the diet and some aren't bad. Pig's ear salad, for example, is surprisingly OK, as long as the ear has been adequately shaved. But thee oddest part of eating in Hanoi is not the food, it's the furniture. Almost all the roadside eateries use kiddy picnic furniture and whole restaurants sit on chairs designed for six year olds, their food and beer on Wendy house tables. This would be an amusing novelty but in the rainy season when the street side sewers are in full flow, the overall effect can be a little like dining midget-style in a public lavatory.

Sapa Capitalists, drug dealing grannies and the Swiss

After a few days in Hanoi we decided to head up to the hill resort of Sapa, where, naturally, we were hoping to experience a different kind of rain.. And, Sapa didn't disappoint - at around 1600m up in the Tonkin Alps it has a climate a bit like West Glamorgan. Moreover the food is terrible and it is overrun by French tourists. All of which makes it sound like a ghastly place, but it isn't at all - on the contrary it's really rather charming and has the finest dried fungus shops I have seen in my life (really, it does).

Above the town they've created a sort of Switzerland meets the Orient park and flower garden. Again, this sounds awful, but it's actually rather nice. The region is also the home to one of Vietnam's best known minorities - the H'mong. When you first rock up into town, you see all these little munchkins (they're tiny) walking around in traditional dress. How cute you think until they surround you, proffering jewelry, bracelets, clothes, bedspreads - they are without a doubt one of the most persistent and irksome idigenous people I have ever encountered. Getting out of a H'mong throng without buying some sort of ethnic nick-nack is nigh on impossible. Well, this is what the young people do anyway. Anyone over 60 tries to sell you drugs and they use similar tactics. It's a novel and quite frightening experience being chased down the street by a granny who's frantically trying to stuff a big bag of grass into your back pocket.

Trekking is big business in Sapa. The usual guff - these are kind of treks that promise 'fascinating cultural exchanges with tradional tribal peoples.'As far as I can ascertain such exchanges involve you exchanging dollars for some identikit tribal souvenir-u-like. Later on, another fascinating cultural exchange will take place when the 'traditional tribal peoples
exchange these dollars for a satellite dish that picks up MTV. Fun though this sounds, it was raining. So we went motorbiking instead. Sadly with farty little Hondas and not the stylish Russian built Minsk motorbikes that are so popular in the Highlands. But even I can see that sodden mountain roads are no place to learn how to ride Russian bikes.

Hiring a motorbike is also a fun education in how new the Vietnamese are to capitalism. First you are surrounded by people, all with bikes. You ask how much: they say $10 in unison; you say $5. They all say $10. Then, they all drop to $8. You say $7; they all say OK and no-one will go any further so you pick one more or less at random. He says: actually it's $3. Great you say. But then suddenly itit's $7 again. Oh - and $4 for the helmet. You repeat this with a few other people and the result is the same. Then you go back to the first guy and it's $7, helmet included. When you take the bike back, you wind up paying $4, although someone who brings it back 10 minutes later pays $6.

We also went for a nice little walk around Sapa, this time in the damp, with the occasional ray of watery sunshine. It really is very pretty and, in good weather must be quite delightful. Coming back, we met a chap with a Germanic sounding accent who said, 'Excuse me - you know this region?
We replied that we'd been around for a few days. 'You you want to share a trek with me - to save money?'he asked. We replied that while we'dlove to, we were leaving this evening. 'What should I do?' he asked. I suggested he checked into a hotel, dumped his stuff, hung around for a few hours and found a few trekking buddies. 'But I want to organise it now!'There was an edge to his voice. Honestly, Jane said, just find a hotel, you'll pick up a few people in no time.

'Maybe I'll leave tonight,
he said (he'd just got there) 'Where can I buy train tickets.'Over there, Jane said - there's a 7000 Dong surcharge. [this is because the station is in Lao Cai, some 40 kilometres away]. 'What??he asked, You mean I have to pay - maybe I can do it myself. Certainly I replied, you can get a taxi to Lao Cai - an 80km round trip - or you can pay half a Euro and have someone issue you a ticket here. He muttered something about like 'This would not happen where I come from.And he came from....yes, Switzerland. He was only the third Swiss we'd met, but so far we've got a three for three strike rate on comedy tight-fistedness. The Swiss are the richest nation in Europe and I am starting to understand why.

Hanoi Jane

Just off the horrendously surcharged train to Hanoi Jane was a victim of crime, burgled senseless, bag snatched. For the benefit of our insurance company we tried to find a police station to file the obligatory report. No joy at our hotel or the train station; no-one knew where it was. So we went to the British Embassy, a place which looks like a hospital waiting room. They obligingly told us where the police station was and helpfully translated a letter into Vietnamese. We were thoroughly impressed until they rather spoilt it all by telling us they charge for this service (and what, exactly is a British Embassy there for, if not to help her Majesty's citizens after they've been robbed by foreign types). But then they decided they weren't going to charge us after all. Clearly they too had been touched by the Vietnamese model of capitalism.

Jane went off to the police station (she is better at eliciting sympathy from corrupt police officers unaccompanied) while I went to our usual cafe where the gay waiter made a pass at me. When she arrived the police laughed and told her to come back in an hour. She went back and was told it was the wrong police station: there are, you see, two - one for crimes committed at one train station and another one for crimes committed at the train station next door; the two are as close as Kings' Cross and St. Pancras. So the chief of Police (wrong station) gave her a lift on the back of his moped to the right station.

There she was led to an interview room with people (bag thieves perhaps?) shackled to a rail. A translator arrived who promptly told her that the right chief of police 'can be bought you know.'But in these matters, Jane is a woman of strong principle: she pretended not to understand. So the right chief of plain clothes police was bought in and he interviewed Jane for one and a half hours. He was generally pretty helpful, though he did give her the odd lecture on what the average peasant in Vietnam earned. Meanwhile, the translator happily filled in the silences by telling Jane that the Vietnamese Police Force was all about nepotism and jobs for the boys and that although policeman earned around $60 a month they all drove around on flashy motorbikes worth $2000 - how about that?

But, in spite of all the palaver, this tale has a happy ending. Jane got her police report, a detailed map of the crime scene and the promise of a speedy investigation, all free of charge. Meanwhile, over at my cafe the gay waiter didn't take it too badly when I told him I was married. And the chief of plain clothes police - having probably never met a foreigner before who didn't just give up and bribe him - concluded Jane'sinterview by saying (via the translator) 'Tell the student I salute her!'