Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 25, August 23, 2002
Cyclosis, Vietnam Vets, South Africans, Escaping Pigs
Photos: Nice Jars! Click Here to enter the Big Jars Gallery!



Fungus and pants

When I was about 14 I remember reading a science fiction story. It was one of those relatively literary pieces of sci-fi - one that actually had people in rather than just their evil robot twins in shiny spaceships. Anyway, the poor (but well developed) characters in the particular tale had crash -landed on a planet whose topography meant that it rained 95% of the time and they never got a chance to dry out. They went around naked as mildew had rotted all their clothes; and they were permanently bad-tempered as the perennial damp meant they were prey to endless fungal infections. I had completely forgotten this story - after all, it was 17 years ago. But, after a couple of days in Hue (about a third of the way down the Vietnamese coast) I found myself recalling it almost word for word and praising the author's verisimilitude. All my clothes had that lovely Parmesan odour that weeks of dampness produce, my sun hat had black mildew spotted like acne across the brim and the local fungus harvesters were showing a keen, proprietary interest in the spaces between my toes.

In fact, even by the standards of the rainy season the weather was bad - off the coast there was not one but two typhoons. So, for much of our stay in Hue, we played fun games in the rain. Jane liked betting on how many metres the river rose overnight, while my favourite pastime was seeing how far I could walk (with a poncho on) before the rain bouncing up off the pavement soaked my underwear. My personal best: 100 metres.


Actually we had a brief respite on the day we arrived: for a while it stopped raining and even became a little warm. I mean, it wasn't sunny or anything - the sky was its usual depthless grey and all was moist. But for a couple of hours there was a notable lack of water in the air. So we decided to look around Hue taking a 'cyclo' or a tricycle rickshaw. Now these may look tempting - well, they certainly did to Jane anyway - but don't take one. If you ever want to feel like an absolute prong - a fat, stupid western tourist, this is the easiest way to do it. What's more the best thing about cyclos is that there isn't even any point in taking them: as it isn't really that easy for a little Vietnamese man to pedal lardy westerners around, you can almost always walk faster.

Still, Jane was adamant and choking back my shame, like a excruciatingly self aware version of one of those plaid panted twenty stone tourists who throng Buckingham Palace, I hunkered down in my cyclo for an hour of ignominy. Was it as bad as I thought it would be? No, it was far worse. Especially after Jane's driver buggered off because a Japanese tourist cyclo-jacked him (by paying him more) and my cyclo driver insisted on pedalling both of us around.

Hue is Vietnam's cultural capital, which is why there are hardly any British tourists. It enjoys this distinction largely because there are some astonishingly swish tombs to the south, the best of which was built by a chap called Tu Duc who sounds a bit like a gangsta rapper. He certainly lived like one: he had a bad-ass crib and, despite being sterile, enjoyed pleasuring his 114 wives. If he were alive today he would almost likely be signed to Death Row Records, have an impressive collection of firearms and move in the same social circles as Sean 'Puffy' Combes.

Anyway, central Hue was probably something quite astounding once, but it isn't any more. That said, it's still a pleasant park-like place: the French gave it this aspect by planting a lot of trees and then the Americans made it yet more park-like by blowing up all the buildings. Thus, you can now take a cyclo (if you have to) around this rather sleepy, leafy place and look at a lot of foundations. So we visited a former pagoda - now a cement hexagon, a former temple, now a rectangular area of cement and a former citadel, now a load of rice paddies and some walls.

My personal highlight of our cyclo tour was watching a man fishing for frogs in the moat of some once ex-temple or other. He did this by spearing them with a little trident with tiny tines which was fixed on the end of a bamboo pole. Frogs are clearly quite robust creatures as, post spearing, he was depositing them in a bag where they were hopping around as if they'd never been speared. I enjoyed this part of our cyclo tour particularly as a) as we were not in the cyclo at this point and b) the frog spearing made Jane shriek. And it was her who made me get in the cyclo in the first place.

Novelty Vegetables, Mutes and Drug Dealing Dwarfs

Its city centre may be mostly cement polyhedrons, but Hue still has a reputation for great Vietnamese food. And up until now I'd been a little disappointed by the grub. I mean, it was OK and everything, but really not that different to the sort of stir-fries I used to prepare for myself when there was just me in the flat. So we went to Hue's best restaurant - which meant paying $10 a head rather than $1. I wouldn't actually say the food tasted that much better but we did get nice surroundings and dishes featuring fruit and vegetables carved variously as a peacock, a rooster and a pineapple jack-o-lantern. Sadly no comedy vegetable genitalia, but a dragon made of carrots and cucumbers is worth $9 of anyone's money.

Sticking with our novelty theme, we decided to check out another well-known restaurant, this one run by deaf-mutes. A friend told me that the last time he had been there, not only had he enjoyed speechless staff, but there had also had a dwarf selling marijuana; the whole place, he said, was distinctly Felliniesque. Sadly when we went there it was full of extremely un-mute Australians and the dope-dealing dwarf was nowhere to be found. This was a real shame as, having been virtually assaulted by a drug-dealing granny a week earlier, I was keen to see how the dwarf's sales technique differed.

After all our efforts, the best food we found was in a shockingly dull-looking travellers' caf
Alongside all the usual banana pancakes and traveller-u-like rubbish they served fresh spring rolls - a sort of spring-roll-your-own and squid with pineapple, tomato, garlic, chilli and ginger. Not only is this a terrific flavour combination but squid was perfectly al dente. And anyone who can manage to take squid off the heat in the nanosecond between it being raw and it being fishy bicycle tyres deserves a Michelin star.

South Africans, Same Same Swiss and Vietnam Vets.

Just north of Hue are the DMZ (dee-emm-zee, the former demilitarised zone), the local VC tunnels and other sundry spoils of war. To see these was one of the few times we've actually taken a guided tour. Which was because wandering around areas littered with unexploded ordnance by yourself isn't really a good idea, no matter how much of a clever independent minded traveller you think you are. (Hey, you'll never guess what - I saved ten dollars and lost my right leg: it was an amyzzing experience...)

Our little tour group was everything we could have wished for, an extremely fine mix of individuals. A bumptious South African, a pair of very pleasant Danish intellectual property lawyers, a load of French, one Brit, a few Americans and...

...and just as the tour was starting and our charming guide was warming to her theme at the front of the bus, the driver parped his horn and I heard this: 'Sorry - vould you mind telling him not to do that.' It was one of those truly ghastly moments. For starters, telling a Vietnamese bus driver not to use his horn is like telling a Tory not to hate the EU - it's against the natural order of things. And besides it was incredibly rude to our guide and clearly her - who, we all wondered, could this boorish interloper be? Who indeed? It was none other than our tight-fisted Swiss chum from Sapa (who, incidentally, we had seen the day before whining about prices in an Internet caf
. Yes, it's a sad fact of life but in a 'skinny' country like Vietnam with just one main North-South route, if you meet a complete arse, you will meet him again and again until one of you leaves the country. I just pray to God he's not in Chile when we are.

We also kept bumping into a trio of Vietnam vets. They were all plump, had beards and wore teardrop shaped glasses with really weird tints (purplish red, yellow, etc). All of which is an interesting lesson in cinematic realism as it goes to show that the Cohen brothers were bang on the money with the appearance of their Vietnam Vet in 'The Big Lebowski.' The resemblance really was quite uncanny. They kept bombarding their guide with technical questions littered with 30 year old combat speak, even though the guide was probably about 26. Still, I felt quite sympathetic towards them until I spoke to someone who'd been to some tunnels with them down South. Apparently one of them had spent the whole tour (in the presence of numerous Vietnamese) bragging about how many 'goddamn VCs' he'd wasted. Nobody likes a sore loser.

Our tunnels were more residential than combat, so (in contrast to the tiny things down south) were impressively roomy and could accommodate even the plumpest tourist. Moreover, even after torrential rain, they were almost completely dry, a testament to the local's tunnelling skills. There were kitchens, a meeting-room cum cinema, residential quarters and so on; there was even a childbirth room. Over the five years of the tunnels' use, our guide told us, their 300 residents had produced 17 children.

'Only 17!' snorted the South African in disbelief, 'if they'd been in Africa, they'd have come out with 600 bloody kids!' When a couple of people rolled their eyes at this, he added indignantly: 'Well it's true you know' Then we reached the light at the end of the tunnel, coming out overlooking a rather pretty beach - all booming surf and pine trees. At this point the South African choose to redeem himself: 'Our first Vietnamese beach' he said, 'and it's f-king shit.'

Babe vs the Dude

After lunch at a hotel so strikingly communist it could have been part of a cold war theme park, we drove off to through one of the most heavily bombed areas in the world. There are a lot of these hereabouts, but what is shocking about this one is how effective a defoliant Agent Orange is. Thirty years after the Americans finally decided that the Vietnamese didn't really want them to stop communism, there are still vast areas where nothing much grows - just low, grotty scrub, manky grass and a few rather sick looking trees. It is a wretched and wasted place, with a sort of tropical Mad Max feel to it.

Finally we pitched up at the site of a former US airbase that looked much the same as everywhere else (that's the problem with battlefields: you either have to be very keen on war or have a very good imagination) although some of this one had been turned into a coffee plantation. A first glance this seemed like an excellent 'swords into ploughshares' (or, I suppose, percolators) scheme. But then I thought of all the Vietnamese coffee I'd drunk, the local history, and wondered how much residual Agent Orange was lurking in my cappuccino.

The following day, although the weather had improved a little, we decided to press on down to Hoi An. A wholly unremarkable journey enlivened only by our second lesson in cinematic realism. Stuck at a level crossing, behind a tall truck full of pigs, we watched as a porker on top of the truck strove to get his head through the bars. To our great surprise, he managed it. Then came his shoulders, then wiggling for all he was worth, he launched himself off the truck in a great sweeping arc...and fell like a sack of spuds on the tarmac ten feet below. Clearly dazed - and quite possibly rather hurt - he wandered around on some railroad tracks before collapsing, after which he was hauled into the back of the truck by his ears squealing like the proverbial. So, while 'The Big Lebowski' may be a realistic portrayal of Vietnam Veterans look like, 'Babe' is clearly not a realistic portrayal of what happens to pigs when they try to escape.