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
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
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
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
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
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
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 f楊ing
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
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
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
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.
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