A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

That's all folks!

Sorry I haven't had a chance before now (or rather I've been lazy) but I'm now back in England so this blog won't be updated anymore.

To see what I'm currently up to visit: www.flickr.com/photos/hanoidays instead - it does have additional photos from Viet Nam and Hanoi...plus stuff I've been up to since I've returned to London

Please feel free to carry on commenting, writing to me and reading what's up here so far, and hopefully some time in the future I'll be waking up to many more Hanoi Days...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Left Bank

Day one

This month has been a bit of a tight one financially, a product of two consecutive months of friends leaving Vietnam and having to party, and me perhaps *cough* not budgeting correctly...anyway to cut a long story short I ended up having to organise a money transfer from England. After initial scepticism from my mother, we managed to sort out a transfer.

So first I had to go to a branch of the Saigon Bank in Hang Ma street, but due to the vagueries of the time difference, it was going to be a tight schedule. British post offices open at 9am while the bank shuts at 4.30pm. This left us with a half an hour window to complete the transaction. The night before we agreed a list of codes or passwords we would use for security reasons...neither of us had done an electronic transfer before and we didn't know that they provided us with the number once the transaction was underway. So the next afternoon, I dragged myself off my sick bed (I've been down with the annual flu dose I seem to organise whenever British Summer Time comes to an end), and made the short way to the Saigon Bank.

Interesting looking place, the Saigon bank branch that I visited, an almost completely empty room with a cash machine and a counter with no protective glass, another sign that Vietnam isn't familiar with violent crime. I parked my bike up and hopped off. As I walked towards the bank's entrance a man shook his head and after a few abortive attempts managed to explain that I could only use the cash machine, and that if I wanted to do anything else I would have to visit the Vietcom bank just around the corner...at this point I was a bit perplexed as I had definitely been told that this was the branch that the transfer would take place at.

Thankfully for once I managed to bring my trusty pocket guide to Vietnamese with me. I rapidly flicked through the pages, dreading the thought that it wouldn't have any references to electronic transfers, but there it was! "Toi co the rut duoc tien chuyen tu ngan hang cua toi den day khong?". No, dear reader, I'm sorry to say that my spoken Vietnamese isn't that good, so I pointed desperately at the sentence, my eyes darking to the clock showing it was already 9.10 in England and my mother had already begun the transfer. The man relented, as smiled, opening the door for me as I darted into the spartan room.

Three Vietnamese peered up at me from behind the low desk. The man who had waved me in quickly explained my request, and they then asked me... "have you got your reference number?". Oh. No. They apologised and said it wouldn't be possible to let the request go through without the necessary number, so at this point – 9.15am in England, I raced out of the door and tore back to my house, hammering away on the keyboard to my mother's email address urgently asking for the number...seconds ticked away, as I continually refreshed the screen of my yahoo account waiting for the return message...9.20...9.22...9.25....Bing! The message turns up...I race out the door, slam on the bike and zoom back to the Saigon bank....I ramp up the pavement, and crash through the doors...hastily handing over the reference number scrawled on the back of a pizza delivery reciept...unscrewing the piece of paper, the woman who had seen me 10 minutes or so previously goes to check her files...comes back to the counter, and then points at the clock... "sorry, too late..." I peer up...4.35...damn.

The staff are most apologetic and give me the address of the head office of the bank where I can collect the money the following day, even being so kind to tell me that the bank opens at 7.30am (yeah, right! Like I'm going to be up at that time!)...I smile, thank them for their efforts and make my way home...

Day two

Right, so I haven't risen with dawn chorus, but at least it's still morning...as I make my way southwards to the headquarters of the Saigon Investment and Development Bank...there's something still kind of old skool about them...there's actually an army bank still (which apparently is very highly regarded), and the snappily named Vietcom bank which when I first arrived thought was called the even cooler VietCong bank but alas no.

Anyway, this time I go in the front entrance and it definitely has the feel of a bank, again a slightly relaxed security one at that. Behind the low plexiglass counter about a dozen people are working, a few have computers, but most rely on handwritten scraps of paper and crotchety dot matrix printer for statements and receipts.

Predominantly young women, dressed in casual clothing (no daft looking nylon corporate clothing here...yet) in the early twenties they look up at me blank faced. One kindly manages to explain that I need the other office just around the side of the building...I thank them and make my way around the outside of the building, finding another almost identikit looking room, with an even larger contingent of staff beavering away.

Again I am faced with a minor language hurdle which thankfully is overcome by a staff member speaking English. I'm told to wait ten minutes while they process the transaction. At last my passport is requested and I hand it over, feeling as though the process is actually getting somewhere...I'm not so keen that my passport then leaves my sight and my only piece of official documentation in the entire world is no longer in my possession...ten minutes starts merging into a quarter of an hour, when the woman returns with my form and passport and shunts me onto another member of staff, who fills in another form, which I have to sign - without any idea whatsoever I'm agreeing to – Is Ho Chi Minh cool? Yep! Where do I sign!? Am I a fat westerner? Yeah! That's me!...well that's just some of the guesses, I think it was just a receipt actually.

Finally, I was told to go back to the front office where I could collect my hard won shekels. Again my passport makes a break for freedom as I forlornly watch it disappear again behind closed doors. I return to the front office again, now over flowing with security guards tucking into huge plates of food at what is now 11.30, and pretty much the beginning of lunch time. Counter-intuitively going to the bank around lunchtime (well before they actually SHUT for lunch at 12 is pretty much the best time to visit a bank in Vietnam), means that I'm the only customer left.

My passport and it's courier enter the room from behind the counter, the women who had previously been busy now have plenty of time on their hands...and so begin passing my passport around between themselves...each one in turn looking at the photo of me from 1997, then squinting at the older, heavier more grey haired version now standing at the counter...after the discussion about where I am from and how decrepit I look has finished, a detailed examination of my visas begins, with the odd laugh and giggle as they analyse my adventures abroad...these women shouldn't be working in a bank, they could be top officers in customs or immigration!

Eventually the matriarch of the group has a look, and solemnly announces something to the giggling hordes...and I am put out of my misery as they do a final, and at this point, semi-serious attempt to compare the photo in my passport with my current apparence...then the notes are totalled and finally I escape the Vietnamese inquisition with my loot...quite fun actually, I might do it again someday just for the entertainment value!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Hanging on

As I meandered into work on Monday I stopped at the juction I stop at everyday. Nothing of interest ever happens here, and on the surface of it, nothing interesting was going to happen on the Monday either. Negotiating junctions can sometimes be a little hard work - and no, this isn't a Vietnamese bad driving story or one of those 'oh! How difficult it is to the cross the road' stories we've been plagued with in expat magazines for the last few months - we live here! Get over it!.
No this incident was just a funny and unfortunate combination of innocuous events. As I pondered life, the universe and everything waiting for a sufficient gap to open up to nose my bike into the torrent, I caught sight of a young Vietnamese with a carrying pole and baskets, an everyday sight, which you become immune to how interesting you found it all when you first arrived. Mind now focused on the real life Frogger game I was part of, I pulled into the middle of the junction - quite acceptable behaviour I hasten to add - and sat there waiting for the other lane to clear sufficiently. For some reason I felt the bike was acting slightly sluggishly and began wondering whether it was time for a checkup. I began to pull away again, when for some reason in the noise around me I picked up a tiny voice "hello?", don't know what that was, so I paddled my bike a yard further forward. Again the diminutive: "hello?" this time in a slightly more urgent tone. Now at this point the road had cleared to my right and I was just about to put my foot down and zoom off, when I decided to look around, and saw the poor young woman, peering up from fiddling around with my bike her conical hat tipped back, her yoke and baskets all asunder, as she'd managed to slip the strings supporting the rear basket through the back of my bike! I'd been physically dragging her across the road, and she was now slap bang in the middle of the junction! After first not realising what she'd been up to, fiddling with my bike I exclaimed: "Oi!", which thankfully just means "hey!" or "oh!" in a polite way, I then couldn't help but start laughing as I realised what had happened and it could have so much worse! I also looked around the junction and realised that everyone was cracking up with laughter, and for once my driving wasn't the butt of the humour! Thankfully the woman wasn't carrying a lit charcoal brick, oranges or anything like crockery and so she soon wended on her way, none the worse for the experience. Me? I had a grin on my face for the rest of the day. Ah Hanoi, I love you!

From Hanoi/Thang Long to Ha Long in one night

The Sunday before last was the 995th anniversary of the foundation of Hanoi. According to legend Hanoi or Thang Long as it was then named, was chosen as the site of the nation's capital when a Vietnamese King saw a dragon ascending to heaven, the name Thang Long literally meaning Ascending Dragon, just as Ha Long means Descending Dragon. How the particular day this event took place on x many hundreds of years ago was remembered is anyone's guess.

As part of the festivities a whole series of events was organised, including a huge dragon dance meet which took place outside of the Opera House at August Revolution Square. Hundreds of truckloads of dragon dancers from the districts of Hanoi converged to produce a dragon that measured almost a kilometre long. The dragons shook their stuff and put a performance on at the Ly Thai To statue garden on Hoan Kiem lake. How this event went is anyone's guess as I've yet to meet anyone who isn't Vietnamese who knew the time it was taking place!

What we had actually heard about - although the time was suitably vague - was the evening event that was to take place at Truc Bach lake, the little brother of neighbouring West Lake.

Feeling exhausted from three nights worth of partying at the Toilet bar, the Ilubar and a rather snazzy new place below the Business Club on West Lake, I was almost tempted to give it a miss. After some persuasion - and having given up responsibility for finding the perfect spot - I rendevouzed at a cafe Mark and Kate had previously visited before.

The omens for the night were good, huge searchlights swept the skyline, while two stages sat crouched at either end of the Youth Causeway (unfortunately facing away from our position), their lights bathing Truc Bach in a yellow glow. Dragon headed boats prowled across the lake depositing floating candles across the water, while the humid air seemed to grow thicker as the lights gave it form. Now and again a giant multi-coloured air balloon would gently ease itself into the sky, it's interior glowing like a low wattage lightbulb.

Beyond the buildings opposite to us, three large balloons could be seen peeping from behind, now and again they would bring their lumbering load into view - a giant dragon.

Alongside the lake the cafe's began to fill, an excited multi-generational gathering of Vietnamese, with a few ex-pats thrown in for good measure, and at 8pm the festivities began with a bang. Quite literally just around the corner from us, a huge barrage of fireworks was let off, some of them seeming to streak just above our very heads.

Music echoed across the watery expanse separating us from the stages, and for a while we took in the ambiance as little could be seen from where we were sitting. Then at last the moment of truth was at hand. The three giant balloons slowly wafted up on their wires revealing a huge golden and red dragon, squiggled as though in upward movement, it's tongue sticking out.

As the pageant unfolding on the stage came to a climax, almost a thousand rainbow hued balloons were released, picked up in the searchlight beams. As this stream of balloons wafted upwards, small flickering bluish lights could be seen attached to some, producing a sparkling trail into the night sky. At this point the dragon's balloons were liberated and the majestic beast (albeit attached to the equivalent of waterwings) meandered it's way skywards. Mark and me agreed that so far it had been one of the most impressive events we'd yet seen in Hanoi as we took in the scene. We joked at what a small central highlands village would make of the dragon when it eventually lost buoyancy and sunk to the ground, or whether we'd be lucky enough to snag a balloon with a blue flickering light.

Then the fireworks began. Just like the ones that kicked off the event, these weren't just a symbolic few zipping into the darkened sky, oh no, more a blossoming boom of flame, just that little bit too low for comfort. This time the fireworks were positioned to the front and left of us, again across the lake. The rushing white lights careered across the sky, amusingly enough now and again hitting a couple of the balloons in the still upwardly moving column, veering off in new directions and causing a frisson of excitement. The crowd was enjoying the spectacle as it entered it's final stages, when an errant firework was deflected off course by the trail of balloons and scored a direct hit on the dragons head! Boooom!! The dragon's head took the full force of the missile, the firework sending out silver sparks as the head spitooned away from it's body. The now decapitated dragon began to float up at a faster pace with some of it's ballast now gone...all was not lost, the dragon representing Thang Long/Hanoi was still floating majestically into the night sky...until....a second firework scores a direct hit on one of it's supportive balloons, which blossoms into flame in a quite impressive piece of pyrotechnics in it's own right! Now, with it's middle balloon gone, there's nothing to save the once proud creature from disaster.

After initial shouts of dismay, the surreally bizarre nature of the event begins to tickle the collective funny bone of the crowd. Laughter ripples along the lake side as the doomed dragon dives headless into the ground behind the buildings to our left. We discussed the issues later as we finished off our beers and waited for the traffic to clear. My view was that they had put a former army veteran in charge of the fireworks, and that he'd experienced some kind of war flash back, what with all the searchlights and everything my belief was that he'd remembered his anti-aircraft training and had deliberately taken out the lumbering low flying B52/dragon. Mark had a more realistic view of the event and put it down to poor health and safety in putting the fireworks too close to the balloons. Bah! I know which explanation I prefer. So from Thang Long - Ascending Dragon to Ha Long - Descending Dragon in one night!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Hannnnnnoiiiiii oi boyeeeeeeeeee!

Well, what would you expect to make up the programme for a South African cultural week? In the past it must have been a fascinating list; how to construct a laagar using three wagons or less, how to dry meat to the point where it takes you half an hour to chew a piece, 1001 uses for an electrical flex and a unwilling companion, or staircase safety lessons for police stations...but that is soooo passe. Come to think about it, I don't think South Africa even had an embassy in Vietnam prior to majority rule, and certainly wouldn't have put on a night like I have just experienced.

Picture the scene. A balmy night in Hanoi, a big fat orange half moon leering over the city, insects flickering like sparks in the headlights, the streets teeming with motorbikes on the roads leading to the Giang Vo exhibition centre. An excited air of anticipation could be felt as we pulled up at the entrance, driving through to the motorbike parking lot via a gigantic red and yellow star shaped gate. Having received complimentary tickets (I put it down to my heartfelt commitment to South African culture...or maybe it's payback for attending those ground-hog day Anti-Aparthied rallies in Trafalgar Square), we skipped the 50,000 VND fee, and entered the hall.

BOOOOM!!
Yep, it was going to be a good one.

BOOOOM!!
Now we're talking.

BOOOOM!!

My ribcage for the first time in Vietnam is feeling that familiar tickle of the subwoofer.

South African Hip-Hop is definately in the house - along with 2,000 Vietnamese and a smattering of ex-pats getting on down. On the stage, DJ Rudeboy Paul was just starting his set, dueting with an old geezer in traditional dress who is hammering his percussion kit like there's no tomorrow, but that's just part of what's going on.

A single South African woman is dancing centre stage, while Vietnamese comperes stalk the stage whipping up the crowd - that to be honest, needs no encouragement whatsoever. One of the compares leans next to the dancer, and exclaims to the crowd 'Oi gioi oi!!!!' (Oh my God!!!!) as she starts rotating her hips in a provocative manner.

Hanoi B-boys and home girls roar encouragement, a female Vietnamese MC steps to front of the stage and begins her interplay with the crowd. 'HAAAAANNNNNOOOIIII OI!!!!' she screams - literally 'Hey, Hanoi!', but in this case a call for more noise. The sound of the crowd increases, as the nodding heads are joined by thousand of hands in the air, lit up by streaks of gold and green as the lighting rig spews colours across the masses.

As the stage is cleared of superfluous MCs, comperes and hangers-on, the real business of the night begins. The South Africans have brought a break dancing crew and a proper old skool battle is just about to begin. The SA boys do their stuff for a bit, the crowd delighted by their skills, and then the Vietnamese crew step up to the challenge, and despite a few indiscretions (like interrupting the SA boys doing their thing) kill the visitors, their muscle to fat ratios meaning they leap like salmons, at some points seeming to press the gravity defying pause button while supporting their entire body weights on one hand. Seconds later one of the Vietnamese calls for a re-examination of the laws of physics as he slides five feet on the palm of one hand. Having got the opposition beat, the Vietnamese whip the crowd to a frenzy with a lilting 'Vietnam' football chant...and then it's all over. Mutual respect is given after a few humourous hip thrusts, and the boys leave the stage...

While the main stage is the centre of people's attention, at the back the younger Vietnamese have their own entertainment going on, as a circle is formed and they chuck themselves around like spinning tops attempting to ape the moves they've just seen on stage, reputations are being won and lost in the blink of an eye, but every participant be they successful or not are well received.

Finally we twig that our complimentary tickets allow us entry to the VIP area where apparently beer is available (no alcohol is being sold in the main hall), so as the night draws to a close we end up on the balcony looking down on the activities below, while tucking into spiced meat balls and 7UP (the beer was off by the time we got there).

It's the sort of night that puts a smile on your face, and you can't help but think that the enthusiasm of the crowd for the performers - who in truth were competant but not amazing - would be something else if they ever got to see any of the bands or DJs we take for granted in Britain.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Getting there


Here's a quick picture of me on the way to Bar 69 on Independence Day...bit busy. I'm the one circled in white...somewhere...

Thanks to Tu for the pic

Sunday, September 04, 2005

It's a beautiful day

September 2nd was the 60th anniversary of the 1945 August Revolution, that threw off the shackles of French colonialism and opened a new period in Vietnam's history.
The big issue about this year was the fact that there was a giant parade in Hanoi (normally Ho Chi Minh City seems to get all the best ones).
Managing to surface at 6am was a sign of my dedication in catching this rare event, and I wasn't dissappointed...amazingly enough I managed to persuade Jon, Hemma, Nicola, Sarah, Jo and Shev all to forsake the pleasures of a relaxing national holiday spent in bed and we met at the corner of Dien Bien Phu.
The first indications weren't too hopeful, until luckily we found out that the parade would actually be running down the street only a couple of minutes away...as the temperature rose, the anticipation began to build and there was a fair number of people lining the street. Around 7am cannon fire could be heard and two helicopters swept over us carrying the national flag...and then the parade began.
Despite the fact there were over 10,000 participants in Ba Dinh Square taking part in the celebrations, the parade itself was a stripped down version, which was just as well as we were all beginning to melt by the end. By 8 we all trapsed over to a cafe which used to be frequented by Katherine Deneurve, and then home to bed...
Later that day I had a phone call from work calling me in, so I nipped in and prepared myself for the evening meal ahead. For some reason I decided that I'd eat dog again, so at 6pm Mark and Tu popped over on the way to the dyke road stretch of dog restaurants. Tu managed to order six dishes, and while I didn't really fancy the sausages(dog offal and blood...nah sorry), I tried pretty much everything else. The most gruesome looking dish actually turned out to be the nicest of all - the dog legs. Once you stripped away the rather dark, tough looking skin and yellow fatty part, the meat was suprisingly tender. As I've previously mentioned, dog pretty much tastes like lamb, but the legs were more muttony I think, although I am far from an expert...Read more about the experience here
Having finished up at the dog restuarant we zipped back into town to meet up with Kate and Mark just as the streets began to fill with eager firework goers...At one point it became complete gridlock, it taking about ten minutes to get across one junction. At Bar 69 we met Mark, Kate, Bin and Connor, two friends of Mark and Kate's from Australia. By the time the fireworks had finished the streets had pretty much emptied out and it was easy enough to finish up at the Maquis for a nightcap.
Good day all round!


I think this cool looking lot might be the honour guard at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum


Yep, Vietnamese soldiers all right...come and have a go if you think you're hard enough is the message I think...


After the obvious, and slightly drab colours of the official parts of Vietnam's armed forces...came this. They look as though they've stepped out of a 1968 propaganda poster, guns over their shoulders, wearing the costumes of every Vietnamese national group, and some rather snazzy white gloves...


A riot of colour with the ethnic minority women's unit


Vietnam trade union federation float


Up the workers!


Cu Chi district women


Ho Chi Minh Youth Union with slightly suspect hippie deviation?


Technicoloured Ao Dai's on show


So wave your hats in the air, and wave them like you just don't care! Say yeah!


Vietnamese army veterans


Yay! Nuns and monks with Communist Party flags! Stay strong sisters!

Three of a kind

Well, we arrived back in Hanoi from our month long trip on a Sunday, and Jayne and Bharti had already landed and settled into their hotel in Hanoi...no rest for the wicked then!
After a couple of days of dislocated timings (none of us seemed capable of eating or drinking at the same time!), Cath arrived...having made a reservation for a non-existant room at the Taramind Cafe...to add to the fun, Bharti, Jayne and Cath's mobile phones seemed to work on an intermitant basis, allowing all sorts of cock-ups and missed rendevous to take (or rather not to take)place...
After being given a whirlwind tour of Hanoi (and Bharti getting a liking for motorbike rides) the dynamic threesome headed up to Sapa for a few days, and like everyone before who has visited the place, came back with amusing tales of being bargined with to within an inch of their lives...then there was the H'mong baby which we'll leave for another time.

Cath come home...London's Calling!
After a brief trip to Ha Long bay, Hoi An was next on the list with Cath deciding to stay for a couple of days extra in Hanoi before joining Jayne and Bharti in Hoi An, during which period she revealed her love for all things London related, and could be heard singing along to London's Calling at 3am in Half Man Half Noodle - Good on yer Cath - nothing better than a scouser falling in love with the big smoke, eh?

After copious amounts of shopping the visit seemed to be over before it started.


A bit of a blurry one, taken in the I-Box next to Hoan Kiem lake. Felicity, me, Jayne and Bharti taking it easy...

Hoi An and Hanoi bound

We didn't get up to much in the few days we had in Hoi An before we returned to Hanoi...the only thing of interest we managed to squeeze in was a cookery course at the Red Bridge restuarant, down the river from Hoi An town.
The tour started at 8am and it was a bit of a struggle getting to the designated meeting point of the Scout Cafe on time...after everyone had arrived we trapsed down to Hoi An market and were shown around the gigantic piles of fresh ingredients - plus a heads-up on the over-whelming quantities of MSG that are regularly sold in Vietnam!

We then boarded a boat down the river to the restaurant, bizarrely enough, we ended it up sharing the boat with my work colleague Pho and his wife and child, who quite by chance happened to have been in Hoi An for a long weekend, I actually did a double take thinking it just couldn't be him...so that's the second time I've had a weird 'are they really that person or am I going mad, as there's 82 million people in Vietnam, it surely couldn't be them, could it' moments...

The cookery class was pretty easy going and I think Felicity was very relieved to find that cooking isn't all that stressful. If anything she discovered a latent talent in food decoration, as I'm sure the pictures show!

Then it was all over, and Hanoi loomed again...


Chilling out while waiting for the ferry


Felicity's tomato rose with cucumber...errr...thing


Felicity showing great pride in her food sculpture skills


watching the cooking class from the mirror above


A quiet day in Hoi An


Shopping time down the Hoi An market


Fisherman throwing net on the river at Hoi An

Onto Laos

At last our time in Cambodia had come to an end. After the gritty experience of Phnom Penh and the idyllic character of Siem Riep and Angkor Wat, it was now time to move onto our third country on our Indochina tour - Laos...

Scratch all that...Laos decided to close the capital Vientiane a whole week before an ASEAN conference...of course they had gone ahead and sold us the flights already, so after a short conflab we decided to return to Vietnam and spend the last few days relaxing in Hoi An...

Dancing in Outer Space


Two facts about the Celestial Dancers. Firstly the Thais kidnapped loads of Celestial Dancers when they invaded in the middle ages, which is why their dances are so similar, and secondly the tradition was almost lost during the Khmer Rouge period, with only a few teachers escaping the genocide


Kneeling Celestial Dancers


Real life Celestial Dancers

Tonle Sap river and lake

For a change of scene we took a break from the temples and headed down to Tonle Sap to see a floating village. Everything you could imagine could be found in the floating village, pool bars, churches, and schools. A larger Vietnamese minority also lived there, their boats often featuring a red star on the prow.


Lads hanging out in the late afternoon


Crocodiles are seen as an important source of income and status


People can be found floating in the strangest of things...


A typical floating house


Travelling fruit and vegetable sellers ply the river, visiting boat houses.


Hair wash time


Young children are completely at home on the river


Even floating churches could be found

So that's Wat Cambodia's about...


Temple tower at East Mebon


Girl in doorway at the Lady Chapel


Three girls at Baphuon


Buddhist monk at Angkor Wat


Another Ta Prohm tree and wall pic...the buildings are likely to collapse if the trees are removed


Three Celestial Dancers at Angkor Wat


Tree and wall at Ta Prohm another King J7 production


Old bloke who's on the front of the Lonely Planet Cambodia book


The steep climb to the summit of Angkor Wat


Intricate carving of a Celestial Dancer at Angkor Wat


Bayon Temple with the faces of Buddha bearing a remarkable resemblence to King Jayavarman VII

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Arrival in Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh came into view as we eased around a bend in the river. It looked from the water front pretty well developed, with lots of building work taking place. On closer inspection it looked as though it was another luxury development rather than anything of immediate use to the Cambodians. In contrast to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, there appears to be little, if any home development or improvements under way. Cambodians live in large appartment blocks, but although crumbling on the outside they appear pretty sturdy, and many of them sport flower pots and creepers. The people are taller, darker, broader and generally more stocky than Vietnamese and wear predominately western style clothes. Country folk making a living in town wear distinctive red and white checked scarves either on their heads or as sarongs. Compared to Vietnam there's far fewer bicycles, with cars being so much more common. Tourists and locals alike seem to use tuk-tuks - three wheeled motorbikes with rudimentary covered back section. A suprising number of people speak English. The locals seemed to exceed the Vietnamese in their abilities to carry objects on their heads while walking, and facemasks are a rarity - although I've already noticed a lot of the city women possess lighter coloured skin. I'm also pretty sure there's some really rough parts to the city, as some of the streets within but a few minutes walk of the trendy waterfront remain unpaved.

Check the last line on the keyring for our hotel room

Another distinctive difference between Vietnam and Cambodia seems to be the type of tourist who visits the country. Along with the family friendly tour groups and young backpackers, there's a more seedy group of older western men and it wasn't that suprising, I suppose to find condoms on sale in our hotel lobby and a full page advert in the Phnom Penh tourist guide stating that having sex with children is a criminal offence. Another issue is the large numbers of beggars and child vendors, which dwarfs anything you're likely to see in Vietnam.
After spending a quiet afternoon in the On the Corner cafe looking out across the Mekong, we took in the sights and sounds of Phnom Penh eventually settling into the Foreign Correspondant's Club on the riverside. Set in an old colonial building over three floors it proved the perfect place to watch the sun set over the towering stupas of the nearby temples.
We returned to our hotel to try and catch up with our email. A minutes later, people began returning from their evenings out in Phnom Penh; and what a sordid and seedy bunch they were too. An old derelict of a man with a face Albert Steptoe would have been ashamed of was accompanied by a respectable looking Khmer woman who looked young enough to be his grand daughter; a spindly, bespectacled sunken jawed Frenchman with a barbie doll, and a most unpleasant mittel-european with sweat stained vest, bleached receeding hair, fumigating the lobby with the stench of stale beer, with teenage woman in tow. We retired to bed in a depressed state of mind.

We had agreed to meet up with the driver who had collected us from the quay the day previously. Doan would meet us at 10am. We headed down to reception to have breakfast, which was pretty good until the derelict European we had seen the night before sat at a table within earshot. He a grabbed a mobile phone from his pocket and began speaking loudly about how he wanted a young woman, demanding from the person at the end of the line 'how old is she?' At that point our breakfast took on a rather rancid taste and we quickly left to join our driver.

The Killing Fields


































































It proved to be an emotionally grinding morning as our first stop was the killing fields just outside of Phnom Penh. The journey was really strange as this site of national signficance was found at the bottom of a rutted and flooded road, a depressed looking village dotted with highly secure compounded houses and grazing cows, sitting in scrub and ill tended fields, the Killing Fields only companion.
The Killing Fields themselves are mind numbing in their brutality. You stare across a pocked landscape comprised of brush and water filled holes. A truly depressing scene, it's as if life struggles even now to gain a foothold.
A spired monument dominates the site, comprised of perspex boxes full of human skulls, teeth missing, crushed jawbones, splintered eyesockets, cracked craniums. The only labels are descriptions of gender and age.
You begin walking along paths between excavated mass graves, past a tree used to batter babies to death. Here even nature can be found guilty, as we are shown how the serrated edges of a palm leaf were used to cut people's throats and wrists. Bamboo poles, hammers and hoes were used to murder people, men, women, children, even babies with no discernable point. Beyond the flooded graves hie undisturbed patches of land, even now still waiting to reveal their bodies. Worse yet, as you walk along designated paths you start noticing coiled pieces of cloth, knotted scarves, wisps of a blindfold, strands of rope used to bind somebody's hands, then a shard of bone here and there, your eyes become accustomed and you realise the pebbles are human teeth, the roots, more bones, the entire area an open cemetry.
Our car journey back to Phnom Penh through the blighted landscape is a quiet one, as having returned from the Killing Fields now were to visit S-21.

S-21
S-21 was probably where most of the victims in the Killing Fields originated from. S-21 used to be a school until the Khmer Rouge took it over and turned it into an interrogation and torture centre. Just as with the Killing Fields, this complex - Tuol Sleng (whose name in Khmer can be translated as poisonous hill or place on a hill to keep those who bear or supply guilt) - can be found tucked away off the main roads, down a muddy track in the Phnom Penh suburbs. It was originally a primary school, but from 1976 it became Security Office 21, enclosed in two walls of corrugated iron sheets and electrified barbed wire. The Khmer Rouge used children aged between 10 and 15 to act as wardens who became increasingly vicious in their treatment of prisoners.
It is estimated that over 15,000 people died in S-21 alone, including an estimated 2,000 children. When the Vietnamese liberated the city in 1979 the prison was empty, the guards had fled and all that remained were 14 corpses who had been murdered in their cells.
The most emotionally powerful part of the complex was the rooms containing photographs of the prisoners powerfully counterposed by the pictures of their guards gazing back at them from across the same hall.
Finally we entered a room with the now bizarre images of the Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh on April 17th 1975 with trucks driving down Monivong Boulevard with cheering crowds greeting them. A week later and the KR were forcibly expelling the city's inhabitants to the countryside. Other pictures show Phnom Penh deserted with street after street of houses with their roofs ripped off. Another picture shows trees and grass growing on major roadways.
As we finished our tour, our guide talked about the Khmer Rouge escape from Phnom Penh on January 7th 1979, as the Vietnamese army swept them from power. Unfortunately this proved too late for her husband who died somewhere in the country on January 22nd 1979.
A truly harrowing morning.
Now we sit in a cafe on the riverfront and ponder why did it happen? What was the point? How was it possible to have been among those cheering crowds on Monivong Boulevard in 1975 and not have an inkling as to what was to come? A genocidal, secret leadership with an enigmatic leader in Pol Pot had already begun purging more moderate elements within the Khmer Rouge, a road that eventually would lead to the execution of ordinary Cambodians on the basis of 'Cambodians with Vietnamese minds'.
Perhaps this horrific history explains why Cambodia is the way it is today. The sleazy, murky sie of life in Phnom Penh, the paralysis of the state with two prime ministers, one pro-western, the other pro-Vietnamese, the digusting backing of the Khmer Rouge by the Chinese and US, a society trying to ignore the past, yet unable to see the future. This history runs deep in the Cambodian psyche, the Thais and the Vietnamese are still to this day resented by the Cambodians; the Thais for the invasion of Ankhor Wat, the Vietnamese for the Cham invasions of the 14th century and the later absorbtion of the Mekong Delta. Some still accuse the Vietnamese of having their own agenda when it comes to Cambodia, but while the west turned a blind eye to genocide, no other country in the world had the nerve to do something about it. When the Vietnamese troops withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, their tanks were covered in garlands of flowers by a greatful population.

Chau Doc side

Our hotel in Chau Doc was excellent. A strangely modern block, styled in an art deco fashion perched on the corner of the street overlooking the main market place.
The next morning we surfaced at a respectfully late hour, missing breakfast, so set out to find a café to take in Chau Doc. After settling for orange juice and coffee we had enough time to get a feel for the place. Unlike the other parts of Vietnam we’d visited, Chau Doc doesn’t really seem to have embraced the tourist invasion, and we pottered around the town like strangers in a strange land. The truth is Chau Doc is primarily a working fishing town and provincial market place, the fact that it sits on the border with Cambodia is about the only reason that anybody would really choose to visit.

We eventually began to frequent a restaurant that looked out onto the Mekong (or a tributary), wide, alluvial, dotted with branches and whole trees sweeping past on the current. To pass the day we decided to go on a tour of the river and surrounding countryside. After being collected from our hotel, we caught a small boat, and began the tour by visiting the floating market, unfortunately it was pretty dead by the time we arrived as it was mid-afternoon. The boats themselves were large hulks, their masts decorated with the produce they sell. A whole village revealed itself on the water, bustling with activity, the river belied the town’s more sedate atmosphere with fishing nets being flung, engines being repaired, boats filled up with petrol, an old woman on all fours supplicating herself to an alter on her boat roof.

Another interesting feature was the presence of the Cham minority people on the river bank opposite Chau Doc. As we wended our way up river, the bamboo trees parted and the brilliant white onion dome of a mosque came into view. The Cham here are a split from their Cham relatives around My Son. There the Cham practice a type of Hinduism, while here in Chau Doc they are Muslims. The Cham are generally larger built than the Vietnamese, with more sallow, flatter faces of an almost middle eastern appearance, their clothes brightly coloured tunics, long skirts and scarves.

After the brief stop at the Cham village, we boarded the boat again and visited a floating fish farm, which luckily for us was in the process of emptying it’s stock, by sorting the fish into size and species for sale. Huge bamboo baskets carried by two men would be dumped onto a canvas sheet, then a succession of boats moored alongside would collect the sorted fish.


The journey finished with a short trip up a canal that seperates Vietnam from Cambodia. Strangely, the French decided that the canal wouldn't be the actual border between the two countries, and even now Vietnam stretches another 500 metres over the far bank...something the Khmer Rouge didn't appreciate particularly, as they spent most of their time shelling Chau Doc.








Having trailed the Intrepid tour groups for the entire length of Vietnam, it came as no suprise to find ourselves on the speedboat to Phnom Penh with another batch on our last morning. A short xe om ride and we found ourselves next to the Victoria Chau Doc hotel (a strange break in the space/time continuum must have been responsible for placing the Victoria hotel here - it was so ludicrously out of place in a working fishing port...), as we waited to board the boat we were able to grin to eachother that the tour we'd taken the day before cost an extra $20 for the priviledge of having it booked by the Victoria! The speed boat looked a bit smaller than the one we'd seen in the pictures in the hotel, but it was reassuringly firm underfoot, and the upholstered seats were actually very comfortable.

The Intrepid guide said that the first hour of the trip would be the most interesting for riverlife, so I happily snapped away until we hit the very relaxed immigration check. A perfunctory passport check and x ray and then back into the boat and up river again for a kilometre until we hit the Cambodian border check. It felt strange leaving Vietnam, no longer ex-pats, but tourists. No more entertaining moments where we could suprise people with a smattering of Vietnamese, instead a reversion to the wide eyed innocence and a massive sign over our head screaming 'SUCKER!'.
The Cambodian passport control did look that little bit more tidy, but the immigration officials proved to be the a stony faced bunch (the sought after look,I suppose).

After that the speedboat ramped up and we were off.

The most noticeable thing between Vietnam and Cambodia in relation to the Mekong was the lack of activity on the Cambodian side. Chau Doc was a swarming mass of junks, fishing boats, ferries, canoes, fish farms, trawlers, and floating houses, while in comparison the Cambodian water remained empty bar a few very small fishing canoes or a brand spanking new western tug or fuel vessel. It seems it's a relatively recent return to the water for the Cambodians.