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
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
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
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
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
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.