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

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Frog in my throat

Monday 27

Just had sweet and sour frog – not bad actually – tastes a bit like chicken. But then again you always hear that about strange types of meat don’t you?

Another busy Sunday


Under Ho Chi Minh's House. This is where Ho spent most of his days in meetings with the Politbureau - it's completely open to the elements.

Sunday 26th
‘He’s brought that down brilliantly, the keeper is moving off his line and it’s there! Top left corner that must be from all of thirty (reality: three) yards!’

Scored my third goal in three games today (watch out Paul Furlong!).

After the football I toddled off home to meet Felicity for lunch – we decided to go to the local patisserie – which wasn’t great unfortunately – then walked down a beautiful street with huge houses on it which we think belong to the generals of the Vietnamese army to Ho Chi Minh’s house in the grounds of the presidential palace.

I’ve read a bit about Ho’s house prior to our visit. It is based on a traditional stilt house which is favoured by some of Vietnam’s minorities. However, nothing could prepare us for what it actually looks like. I thought it would be a pretty rustic affair but was amazed to find a beautiful dark wood building beside a lake teeming with carp. The interiors are immaculate and look like they’ve been designed by Conran. In the design there is a classic simplicity, and you can see why Ho preferred it to the slightly vulgar presidential palace (he never lived there). The house is also pretty small with only two upstairs rooms – a bedroom and a study. Below the house, the politbureau met in the shade.

To finish off a packed Sunday I again braved the journey out to the national stadium this time cadging a lift with Tuan. We just caught the end of the Santa Cruz v Thai select XI – Santa Cruz winning by 5 goals to 0. However the big event of the night was Vietnam against Porto B. I hate Porto, ever since Celtic were cheated in the Uefa cup final a couple of years ago I’ve developed a real loathing for them. They are a pretty nasty cynical uber-professional team which when they can be bothered can actually play football. No. I still don’t like them. And the referee was bloody awful. Vietnam deservedly took the lead in the first half, with a dynamic attacking display which really got the crowd going. Unfortunately, it seems that playing three games in six days proved a second half too far for the Vietnamese and despite some excellent defending from their two centre backs and an aggressive and attacking game from their right wing back they went down to two gaols in quick succession, never managing to create anything of note. Yep, I still hate Porto.


Open House

Friday 24th

Tonight we had a house warming and invited everyone from my work plus their partners. It coincided with one of Vietnam’s games in the football tournament that I had gone to on Wednesday, so obviously we had to watch the game and wait for more people to arrive before it really began. Hoan (who I’ve managed to call Wang throughout the blog so far – wake up cloth ears!) brought his wife and a bottle of Vietnamese vodka – which was nice! Anh gave us three CDs of Vietnamese music which was specific to Hanoi and soon the living room was completely full. Everyone seemed to have an enjoyable time and all decided to leave at 10.30pm. Having got a crate of beer under instruction has worked to our advantage as the fridge is now chocka with beer!

You Redsssssssssssssssss!!!

Wednesday 23nd

Managed to get tickets via the black market to see the Vietnamese national team take on a Thailand select XI. Interesting experience travelling to the new national stadium, it took about half an hour to get to the ground and just like the journey into Hanoi, the journey out of it is just as abrupt. One minute you’re travelling through a busy suburb – the next paddy fields open up to either side with the modernist football stadium lit up like a Christmas tree in the distance.

Vietnam played pretty exciting football and won convincingly in the end – apparently Thailand are their main South East Asian rivals so even though it was only a select XI it still cheered up the 40,000 crowd. And what a crowd – one minute drums are beating, the place is engulfed in a huge Vietnamese flag and the chant ‘Vietnam’ reverberates around you, the next the crowd decide they’re a little bored and decide to indulge in multiple rounds of the Mexican wave. I thought Vietnam’s two centre backs and their number nine were the pick of the bunch. One final thought - forty thousand people travelling home simultaneously on scooter is not to be recommended!

Dose of propaganda

Tuesday 21

Felicity introduced me to Kate and Mark – two Australians who have spent time living in South Korea before returning to Vietnam after having visited it as backpackers. They’ve been here about two months so have a slightly better grip on geography of Hanoi than we do. It also proved to be our best drinking night so far as after eating at Bar 69 we ended up in a pretty good bar and eventually got home around 2am

Propaganda shop

We’ve also just discovered the most funky shop so far in Hanoi. Propaganda is a shop that sells all sorts of communist related material from the usual t-shirts to the far more practical (!) shot glasses with pictures of downed B52 bombers or women guerrilla members from Co Che (the massive underground tunnel system built by the Vietnamese to withstand US bombardments). We instantly fell in love with a limited edition print of two women guerrillas which cost £7. It now has pride of place in our living room.

Monday, September 20, 2004

A Dogged day


Hoa Lo Prison

Sunday 19

Woke up for the football at 6.50am – I must be mad! Wang collected me, which was good of him (I will eventually manage to get the correct spelling of his name on here very soon I promise!). Having missed playing football last Wednesday because people were too busy, this Sunday proved to be pretty gruelling. I felt completely exhausted after about 20 minutes. We played a team of 18 year olds and I got my second goal. The last defender in front of me panicked as I trundled after him and I tackled the goalkeeper, rounded him and placed the ball into the net. There’s a theme beginning to develop here. Basically everyone we’ve played so far has bottled their challenges on me because they think I’m too big and they’ll get hurt! Ah well, a scoring record of two of two is pretty good…you can only beat what’s put in front of you…I’m over the moon Brian…the lad did well etc etc…..

After the football we headed down to the French quarter south of Hoan Kiem lake and decided to visit Hoa Lo Prison. On the way to the prison – it’s a museum now – we caught site of 19-12 market, which is basically a tiny alley with stalls selling fruit and veg, we meandered along looking at the various produce, tempted by the dark green skinned oranges (orange oranges are rare), bright red watermelon, and vivid green herbs only to reach the end of the stalls to see three long counters pilled up with DOG. DEAD DOG. DEAD DOG SEVERED IN TWO. BALD DEAD DOG. GRIMACING DEAD DOG. FANGS BEARED DEAD DOG. OH MY GOD DEAD DOGS. We left.

Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison is one wing of what was once a major jail for revolutionaries during the French colonial period. Prisoners in the jail had to live in cells that were originally designed for 500 people, by the mid 1950s the French had crammed over 2000 people into it. No less than five former general secretaries of the communist party spent time inside it’s walls. Later it became famous as the Hanoi Hilton that held American service men who had been shot down over Vietnam. Under the French, prisoners were shackled to stocks all day, and those sentenced to death were executed by guillotine, which still remains in the remaining wing. The rest of the land that used to hold Hoa Lo Prison is now an apartment block and shopping centre – times change eh?


Catch ya at the Cha Ca

Saturday 18

Felicity met some Australians at her language school a couple of days ago and they mentioned that they always go to DVD shop on Hang Trien street. We sauntered down there at lunchtime and entered the shop. The place seemed reasonably good, so we picked a few films and went up to the counter. The shop worker said that he thought the quality of our films wouldn’t be too good because they were Vietnamese editions so called a friend over and indicated that we should follow the man. As the man ducked into a side road I began to have second thoughts about the idea, but before we knew it we were in a tiny unmarked shop crammed full of the latest releases. We bought five for about £4.50!

Cha Ca

Later that night we tried to find something to eat. After walking around pretty aimlessly we remembered there was a famous restaurant nearby. Cha Ca La Vong has been run by the same family since 1891 and I think it may be the oldest restaurant in Hanoi. The guidebooks we read describe it as something of an Hanoi institution. We entered the doors to find a rather grubby looking dining room, packed with people, the heat instantly hit us as we were gestured upstairs and then rapidly sent downstairs again as there was no room. After finding a perch on the end of somebody else’s table, we ordered two beers and waited – no menu is offered. Ten minutes later a flaming, seething breezeblock with flames not unlike seen in a blast furnace appeared topped with a sizzling frying pan. In the pan, cooked cubes of white fish – already yellowed (turmeric maybe?), a friendly neighbour told us to add a huge mound of dill to the pan and let it cook down for a minute. We then added peanuts to our bowls full of rice noodles some minty herbs and fresh chilli. A fantastic combination, and all those who intend to visit will have to try it yourselves!

Two possum and chips please!

Thursday 17

We’ve just got back from eating in a state run restaurant that has a menu with Possum, armadillo, hedgehog, cat, and lizard on it!

Peasants and commandos

Sunday 13

After my football – scored my first goal today by the way, almost decapitating the poor 15 year old in goal – we headed off to the Museum of the Vietnamese revolution which is hosted by a beautiful French colonial building.

The museum is a far cry from the modernism of the Ho Chi Minh museum, and it has some good exhibits, but it's the photos of peasants being given their first pieces of land by the revolutionary government that really does move you. A family of peasants stand in a field with home-made placards praising Ho, another holds aloft a photograph of Ho Chi Minh, other trinkets are hanging from walking sticks and poles as they grin with their eyes creased.

Another photograph shows a village where the Communist Party is redistributing oxen to the peasants, jubilant villagers are eagerly waiting their turn.

The final photograph that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up was that of a Vietnamese woman crouching on the front of a tank as it advances into Saigon. The caption says that she is a member of the southern women’s commando unit and that she is leading the way for the national liberation forces to move into Saigon during the final offensive. The picture shows how the whole of the Vietnamese people, from the old and infirm in the countryside, to men like Mr Chuong, then a young man from the north just out of university, to a woman leading a commando unit combined to liberate their country.

That afternoon we again met Hang to go to West Lake. Hang introduced us to some of her work colleagues, a 36 year old woman called Huong (who could have been in her mid twenties for all we knew) and Ha a woman in her 50s (who looks like she might just be over 40). Hang unfortunately couldn’t stay with us because of some urgent business, so Huong and Ha showed us around a tiny part of West Lake. West Lake is the largest of Hanoi’s lakes. Apparently it had previously been part of the Red River, but the course of the river had shifted leaving West Lake behind. We visited a very beautiful pagoda which sits off the shore of the lake, reachable only by causeway. The whole area around West Lake was very peaceful and it was so open that it felt that you were at a seaside town rather than in the middle of bustling Hanoi.

Lakeside

Saturday 12

We've managed to actually find what must be the best view of Hoan Kiem Lake. Highlands Coffee have a branch on top of a low rise block just overlooking the south west corner of the lake. The height means that you can see right across Hanoi. It strikes you that it’s all pretty low rise, with the not very tall cathedral dominating the skyline just to the north.

Later that evening we met up with Thuy (which is pronounced twee by the way) and her husband Ngan (which is pronounced nen or nyun sort of). We thought we’d take them to Puku but Ngan suggested trying somewhere different so we ended up at the Hanoi jazz club. The musicians were all Vietnamese and played some good stuff – I like jazz but can’t remember many of the names of the tracks. Girl from Ipenema was memorable because it was at night and we were sitting in a bar that looked out onto a raging street thronged with scooters, women with poles, traders, kids running across the road playing games… a far cry from the sentiment of the song! Unfortunately it also appears that jazz is still an acquired taste in Vietnam with most of the patrons being westerners.

Friday, September 17, 2004


Here's the spare room waiting for you! I'll take the underwear off the bannister when you arrive. Plus I'm sure we can find a mattress ;-)


Our bedroom.


Our living room with acess to the balcony. It's all a little bit on the spartan side at the moment!


Our kitchen just about captured in the bottom right of the photo with our diner to the left.


Our house from the alleyway leading to it. You can just about see the fourth floor and our washing hanging up!


The Puku cafe. We will often have lunch here. I usually have a ham and cheese toasty with tomatoes and chutney that does a good impression of worcester sauce. Felicity's meal of choice is a salmon bagel with capers.

Thursday, September 16, 2004


The ubiquitous woman with a carrying pole. I think she's carrying discarded wood in her baskets on this occasion


Me relaxing after lunch overlooking Hoan Kiem lake. The building in the background is the post office. Posted by Hello


Don't confuse the two! Posted by Hello


Hang and her daughter Mai. Hang invited us around to her collective for Sunday dinner, and we've seen quite a lot of her since we've been here. We've decided that we both need help with our language skills! Note the huge colour tv in the background. Posted by Hello


Felicity on the balcony of our hotel on September 2nd. This is Vietnam's national day and marks the anniversary of Ho Chi Minh's declaration of independence from the French and Japanese in 1945 Posted by Hello

Playtime in Hanoi


Kids on school break outside of the cathedral Posted by Hello

Come midday and the square outside of the Catholic cathedral is swarming with kids

Bird bathtime


Birds waiting for their bath Posted by Hello

I couldn't resist taking this picture - it seemed to sum up alot about Hanoi. A man from the Karoake bar opposite our hotel balcony was rinsing the birds with a plant sprayer as it was such a hot day.

Let the people sing

Thursday 09/09/04

Spent the evening at an event entitled Spring Melody at the Association of Vietnamese Performing Artists Club with Cuoung and his girlfriend Dung (pronounced Zoung I hasten to add). We arrived when some traditional musicians were playing – apparently a type of music called Ca Tru a form that has been kept going since the 17th century single-handedly but one family through the generations. It is a form of music that was popular in the courts of the Vietnamese kings. The rest of the evening was more upbeat with singers belting out numbers such as ‘Spring in the military base’, ‘Lenin’s stream’ with the kick arse lyric ‘Ho Chi Minh sat by Lenin’s stream thinking of plans of how to defeat the enemy’, and another song with the following chorus: ‘aim straight at the enemy to kill them’, and a good few others talking about the Ho Chi Minh trail. All in all a rather enjoyable evening.

Home soon

Wednesday 08/08/04

Home soon

I arrived at the office today only for me to immediately be taken off to see Mr Nhgiem he said that I must see the house they have got in mind for us to live in. It’s about a kilometre from my workplace so either I’ll have to get motorcycle taxis or get a bike to cycle to work – a rather scary thought considering that red lights don’t really mean much here. Apparently though scooter drivers are often very nice to cyclists so you are generally quite safe. The numbers of scooters in Vietnam has exploded in recent years. I think there was something like 80,000 in the mid-1990s, there are now over 12 million! Because of the huge amounts of traffic, the local government (People’s Committee of Hanoi – slightly more interesting name than the Greater London Authority I’m sure you’ll agree!) is looking into plans to build a tube network. They are also considering the introduction of a monorail! Hanoi will be unrecognisable in ten years time.

We pulled up outside a narrow alleyway with a small gated courtyard on a road just outside of the restricted military zone. The street the house is on is famous because it is home to not only the army newspaper, but also most of the Vietnam’s generals. The house itself is set on four floors. The ground floor has a small space with tables and chairs plus a small kitchen area. The first floor hosts a living room with shower-room, the second floor is the main bedroom with bathroom and the top floor is the spare room. Each of the floors has a balcony, with the top floor boasting the largest of all, with a nice view out on to the rooftops around.

After some consideration we’ve decided to accept the house – just as well as it turned out they’d already signed the lease!

A history lesson

Tuesday 07/08/04

Mr Chuong told me today that Nhan Dan’s offices are built on what used to be the French governor of Hanoi’s residence. He says he remembers coming here in the 1950s to watch cowboy films at the children’s film theatre.

‘I’ve been here since 1954!’

Wednesday 01/09/04

Felicity has just got back from work to tell me about a man at Vietnam News Agency who when the war against the French finished, came down from his army unit in the jungle and started work at VNA and has been there ever since. And I thought I had been at my old workplace for long enough!

Let's rock!

Tuesday 31/08/04

National Day is fast approaching and as we look out of the window of our hotel we find the small street we are living in bedecked with Vietnamese national flags. Work today is very relaxed. So relaxed that Mr Thinh had decided that we can all go for a long lunch which Nhan Dan has paid for and an afternoon in the Karaoke bar! Mr Thinh gave us a couple of Beatles numbers and a few Russian folk songs with Vietnamese lyrics, while Thuy and Thinh sang their hearts out to Vietnamese torch songs. Cuong did a few patriotic numbers about the war and Hanoi. Us? We sat there playing the traditional role of Brits being uptight and embarassed about people having fun.

That evening we met up with Thuy and Ngan. Ngan had studied in Leeds so he could talk to Felicity about Yorkshire and other fascinating minor provincial cities. More interestingly we told us about his work. He is a journalist who works for Radio Voice of Vietnam, he’s often out and about on location or writing features. His programme is specifically for ex-pats so we really should make the effort to listen in.

Greasy spoon

Sunday 29

After getting back from the football this morning and partaking in a Pho tasting at about 9am I got back to the hotel and roused Felicity. We decided that today was the day to try out one of Hanoi’s fry-ups. The omens looked good as we visited an Australian run café called the Kangeroo (obviously). I’ve normally got a real aversion to anything backpacker-ish but as it’s one of the few places we could get a western style breakfast I thought it was worth the risk.
The breakfast consisted of two nicely done fried eggs, toast, chips and bacon. And baked beans. Well they said they were baked beans but I remain to be convinced. Looks wise they do a good imitation but close inspection will reveal these beans are slightly larger and the taste is so disappointing as the sauce is all wrong. Way below standard. Also now I think about it the bacon wasn’t to great either – never really been a fan of streaky myself.

1st craving

mmmm……….HP Sauce……………mmmmmmmmm………..now…………need it now……………………….HP Sauce…………………………..

Later that morning we went for a walk around Hoam Keim Lake near to where I work. Apart from some really irritating booksellers (who all seem to have exactly the same set of books for sale – criminal conspiracy to fix the book sales charts in Vietnam? – I think so!) the lake was really peaceful. I had better make the most of Sunday’s as it is my only day off!

We then met Hang in the afternoon. We’ve decided that we’ll do a language exchange as she needs practice in speaking English and we desperately need as much help as possible to learn Vietnamese.

Oooooooooh! I think it’s my groin!

Wednesday 25

Football again this afternoon – was told I had a very good first touch, but was far too slow! Christ, what do they expect I haven’t played football for about 15 years. Never realised there was so much interesting green stuff living in my lungs. I also pulled my groin which was pretty bad the first time I did it, the second time in the space of ten minutes finished me off completely.

Flora and fauna

Tuesday 24/08/04

Just found out that the banyan tree in the courtyard at work is 300 years old.

Hanoi wildlife

Take care where you tread as Hanoi is teeming with wildlife – so far we’ve seen the usual dogs and cats and the odd cockroach but nothing prepared us for the site of baby chickens walking around the gutters of one of the busiest roads in Hanoi. Oh yeah, Felicity also stepped on a frog.

Pleased to meet you - again

Monday 23/08/04

Today we were invited to a welcoming lunch. Due to work being so busy last week – ( didn’t mention earlier did I that on top of the twenty or so stories that I had to check for English corrections I also had to proofread a 250 page book that was going to be taken to French communist party’s fete d’humanitie) – we hadn’t had much of a chance for formal introductions.

In a deserted banqueting hall with a huge table and with almost as many waiters as there were diners, we had our formal introductions to the people working in the Nhan Dan online department. We found out lots of interesting things, including the fact that Mr Chuong looks so young because of his insistence that you should always eat more vegetables than meat.

Len Aldiss, the general secretary of the Britain – Vietnam Friendship Society is regarded as an absolute hero by all here. Len has been particularly successful in establishing an online petition in support of the victims of Agent Orange. It is currently the fastest growing online petition in the world.

Mr Thinh also talked about his visit to Cuba, and then slipped in the fact that he was translating for the Vietnamese Prime Minister in a meeting with Fidel Castro!

Hang about

Sunday 22/08/04

Hang about

After getting back from the football, Felicity and me ordered a taxi from the hotel to collect us to go and visit Adam and Ha’s friend Hang. Hang lives in a suburb of Hanoi and the drive took about 20 minutes. We looked at the card that Hang had left for us, and the address said that she lived in a collective which sounded intriguing. Romantic notions of a communist hippie commune came to mind as we drove south through the busy streets. It was a change travelling by car through Hanoi, you don’t get the rush that sitting on the backseat of a scooter gives you, but with the air conditioning blasting icy air it made up for the lack of excitement. This was our first taxi ride and we were a little concerned when we started to notice the metre clocking up tens of thousands of dong. We looked at each other as the numbers kept ticking, frantically trying to do mental arithmetic. Between us we only had 400,000 dong, and cold sweat started popping out on our foreheads as the metre went over our budget – only to find to our great relief that we’d got the decimal point in the wrong place and it had only cost 40,000 not 400,000!

Any romantic connotations associated with the word collective were soon replaced by that fact that collective merely refers to housing estate. In this particular case low rise council blocks. Hang and her husband Long live on the 5th floor of one of these buildings with their young daughter Mai. Mai is the largest child we’ve seen so far in Vietnam – chunky might be a more accurate description! She’s certainly got a very good appetite! She seems to like the most rich, sweet and greasy foods available.

We ate our first home cooked Vietnamese meal that afternoon consisting of pork wrapped in spinach leaves, beef with mushrooms and baby sweetcorn, prawn wontons and a couple of beers – very tiring work – considering I’d been up since 7am for the football.

Begging for porridge

Saturday 21/08/04

Can I have porridge?

I made my first attempt at Vietnamese today and failed miserably. I attempted to say hello to my workmates using Xing Ciao (sin ciao) only to see them roll about laughing while I looked on bemused. It later turned out that I’d got the pronunciation wrong and asked for porridge! I know people say that Vietnamese is hard to learn but that’s an understatement.

The Fat One Cometh

Part two of my embarrassing moments also happened today. I was talking to some of my workmates and they recounted the phone conversation that Tuan (who had met us at the airport) had with them. Apparently he said: ‘at last they’ve sent a fat one to us!’. I immediately got a bit paranoid but apparently fat is used to mean big and healthy – well that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

So what's Hanoi really like?

18/08/04

So what’s Hanoi really like then?

What did I know about Hanoi before I got here? Not a lot, my only experience of travelling to another under-developed country previously was Cuba and that is obviously suffering from the effects of the US blockade. I really didn’t know what to expect. We’ve all seen films (and TV series – did anyone else stay up until two in the morning as a student watching the god-awful Tour of Duty?) set in Vietnam – from Apocalypse Now to The Quiet American (although the latter has a good stab at the colonial French period) but none of them prepare you for what it’s like now. Forget all the images of war torn streets and napalm ignited fields, Hanoi is rapidly becoming a modern industrialised city with the all the benefits and disadvantages this entails.

The first thing that strikes you about the place is the heat then the traffic and the architecture. You have to imagine a street in London or any large European city during rush hour, then replace every car you see with a scooter or motorbike and then times that amount by ten to even come close to approximating the amount of traffic.

There is also a very specific outfit that people seem to wear whilst rushing about on their mopeds. Men will wear the usual short sleeved shirt and slightly high-cut trousers, while women seem to generally fall into two categories: firstly well dressed, wearing short-sleeved blouses generally in white, with skirts that definitely are (just) below the knee, often kitted out in high heels and secondly women in blue or darker coloured shirts and grey trousers wearing sensible shoes. The third category of woman appears to wear silk two pieces for lounging around the streets often looking after children. Of course all these categories are interchangeable and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the same woman dressed in all three ‘outfits’ over the course of the week. The other thing that singles out men from women on the bikes is that the men all wear a green hat that looks like a cross between a colonial pith helmet and a Kangol. Apparently they started off as army issue, but with so many people being former veterans they quickly spread into civilian life and can even be bought in tourist shops – often with the Vietnamese national crest in red and gold on the front of them.

Women also have their own distinctive head gear. They wear cotton hats which look like the sort of floppy Kangol hat loved by Hip Hop artists but cut into a shape that looks more like something a duchess in the roaring twenties might have worn. There are whole streets of hat shops so it’s an important accessory! To complete that 20s aristocratic look a lot of women wear long silk gloves which reach all the way up to their upper arms, giving the appearance that they are just about to step off their scooter into a ball gown to attend some society function.

Hanoi has very broad roads in pretty much all of it excepting the old quarter which is made up on the whole of criss-crossing allyways. There is something instantly familiar about the streets – my initial impression of Hanoi was that of a slightly run-down suburb of Marseille – broad boulevards with lots of trees, but slightly worse for wear looking buildings. The French pretty much built most of modern Hanoi around the end of the 19th century, but there are later buildings including some from the art deco period. The other thing about Hanoi is that there are very few intrusive buildings of the skyline. One of perhaps the more disappointing aspects of Hanoi’s economic success is that the government seems to have allowed carte blanche for international hotels to be as tall as they like, which is in contrast with the rest of Hanoi which is generally made up of buildings averaging five or six stories.

The over-riding French theme though is broken up by interesting contrasts with Hanoi’s other common architectural style. You can be walking down a road that does a good impersonation of a street of a French provincial capital only to turn a corner and find yourself facing a Buddhist temple. These low-rise buildings sneak up at you at the strangest of places – walk down any street and if by chance you are looking down an alleyway you might catch a glimpse of a pagoda. Pagodas seem to always be painted in a mustard yellow colour with red moss-covered tiles sloped on a shallow incline. Inside the pagodas are often dark but strategically placed spotlights shine onto gigantic bronze (I assume) Buddas. They seem to take a very mix and match approach to religion here, often you’ll be in a religious building, that was once a ancestor or great man worshiping temple, which then became a Buddhist seminary only for a later generation to decide that they quite like the look of some secular statues of women which they would then add at a later date.

First day

17/08/04

BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP

BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP

7am

The alarm woke me up to be ready to be collected for work at 8am.

9am

Still waiting in reception to be collected for work. The man behind the desk has took pity on me and brought me a cup of green tea

9.15am
Eventually a young man turns up on a moped to collect me for work. His name I later discover is Wang (spelling entirely wrong by the way). I looked at the scooter and then at him. I realised that there was no other option but to get on the back of the scooter and zip to work.

Introductions

Sorry I’m just going to terminate with extreme prejudice the dancing paper clip on my desktop….

Introductions

Here’s the gang I work with:
Mr Thinh – late 40s – early 50s likes wearing baseball caps and has a superb Bobby Charlton comb-over. He’s my direct boss, softly spoken has a passion for Beatles songs. Speaks good French.

Mr Chuong – 64 though looks like he’s in his mid 50s – likes Pierre Cardin shirts. Veteran of the American war. Walked for two months down the Ho Chi Minh trail to the south to fight. Loves Jane Austin. Slowly being converted from Man Utd to QPR. Loves Gareth Ainsworth. Works as an English translator on a freelance basis. I share an office with Mr Chuong.

Mr Nghiem – My main boss. Don’t really know very much about Mr Nghiem yet, but he seems very nice.

Cuoung – Really nice bloke 28, has a girlfriend but isn’t married yet – I think. Has good English and helps me get around Hanoi on the back of his scooter.

Anh – A bit older – I think he’s thirty and married with a new born child. His name has three different meanings which is confusing – Anh means older brother, Anh also means just a name, and Anh also means England! So if for example you had an older brother who is English and is called Anh, you’d say Anh anh Anh! Unsurprisingly, he uses his middle name – Ngoc – which unfortunately I can’t pronounce very well.

Thin – she’s 28 too and has a very young child. Thin can actually sing and loves going to the karaoke. She dresses in jeans and pink t-shirts and looks about 21.

Thuy – Thuy along with Cuong are the only two native Hanoians in the translation department. You can tell that by looking at the attention she pays to the way she looks. She always wears makeup and is the only woman I think I’ve seen at work who actually wears a skirt. She is married to Ngan who is a journalist on Radio Voice of Vietnam – check his show out it’s on the internet and is specifically for ex-pats.

Wang – wears glasses, is a very studious looking man in his late twenties who gives the impression that the whole place will fall apart without him. He seems to take his responsibilities very seriously, but can crack some very funny jokes because of his deadpan delivery. Oh yeah, he’s also married and has a child too.

Plus there’s a whole load of others who I see throughout the day and I need to fit names and faces to.


Arrivals

16/08/04

The arrival

Hanoi airport proved to be a pretty efficient place with an impressive luggage carousel which stopped and started depending on whether there was another bag blocking the ramp.

A foretaste perhaps of the efficient planned socialist economy beyond the doors of the arrival lounge?

A young man called Tuan was waiting at the exit with a sign for us. Nice touch – shame they think I’m called James Smith…(thinks: perhaps scratch that bit about efficient…).

Hanoi bound

We stepped into a Hyundi four wheel drive and relaxed as the air conditioning kicked in.
Our noses were glued to the windows as we sucked in our first sights and sounds of Vietnam.

Unlike Cuba where the journey from the airport to the city is a procession of revolutionary billboards, here they were of a more mundane character – extolling the virtues of beer and cigarettes.

Hanoi seems to slowly creep up on you. One minute you are driving through scrub land punctuated by paddy fields the next you enter a strange grey area – part of Hanoi yet still countryside. It reminded me of some old medieval maps of London where fields lay within the city walls. Farmers wearing conical hats lounged in the shade, while sharper dressed youth careered past us on their ubiquitous mopeds. The height of the buildings started to rise. Another throw back to the middle ages hit me as I looked at the buildings, as the land they sit on appear to conform to the old medieval strip development (very thin frontages but stretch back for miles). They seem to only be six or seven metres wide, yet stretched back for forty or fifty metres in some cases (apparently called tube houses).These thin buildings also rose steeply, some as high as five or six floors.

Nhan Dan

My workplace just zipped by…Nhan Dan (pronounced Nen Zun) is the People’s Daily.
The workplace looked pretty impressive, all white four storey buildings done out in a fair imitation of a French colonial mansion house.

Home for now

We pulled up almost immediately outside our hotel – I didn’t realise until later that we were only five minutes walk away from my work – The four wheel drive jeep we had come in proved totally unsuitable for the tiny alley way that the hotel was in. A woman we later came to know as Dung (Definitely pronounced Zoung!!) insisted on carrying our year’s supply of luggage almost single handedly. We collapsed.

Bong Hong – phoeee

Hotel Bong Hong – or Rose Hotel, what can I say – it seems to have been last decorated in the early 1980s and I have to admit the idea of spending more than a few nights here, and living in one room was a bit of a depressing future. The room does have air conditioning, a balcony and there’s a TV. However the place does have a unique charm of it’s own. A bit like the slightly odd bed and breakfast places you come across in south Wales or Yorkshire.

The reception has a fair amount of chintz about the place, but sitting in pride of place is a fish tank with possibly the most ugly fish you can imagine. Picture a fish about a foot long with spindly bits hanging down from it. Now picture the fish lacking any form of colouring whatsoever, an albino fish. Any movement near the fish tank triggers its vicious instincts as it vainly lunges at the glass, it’s mouth gaping. Obviously every time I go past the tank I have to say hello to keep the killing machine in top fighting form.

Home from home?

After relaxing for a while hunger pangs set in and we decided to brave the streets for the first time. Being sad Brits abroad we immediately sought out the nearest expat type place for food – we had been warned to slowly break into the local cuisine to avoid any ‘stomach issues’.

We managed to stumble onto a small café up a tiny alleyway and a set of stairs.
Puku is its name and even though it really is a traveller/ex-pat hangout it doesn’t reek of backpacker-dom. The staff are genuinely friendly and contrary to reports they even had cheese and other dairy products available. My first meal on the sacred earth of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was cheese and ham on toast (with chutney which did a remarkably good impression of Worcester Sauce).
Then to bed (under a mosquito net – not that it stopped the little buggers oh no).

Poor Singapore

16/08/04

Singapore must be the most bizarre place I have ever visited.

Picture Stockholm dumped into the middle of South East Asia – got that image? – then add a dose of crypo-fascist nanny-statism and you’re getting close.

I think the attitude of its leaders was pretty much summed up on the boarding pass, which read: the smuggling of drugs is punishable by DEATH. This has become somewhat of a catch-phrase ever since. For example, crossing the road at a non-authorised point will be punishable by DEATH, not drinking a Singapore Sling in Raffles Hotel is punishable by DEATH etc, you get the idea…one nice thing about the place though was the airport where internet connections are free and there are lounges for plugging in your laptop to play Championship Manager to while away the time while waiting for your connecting flight to the hitherto unknown country that is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam…

Thursday, September 02, 2004

What's it like being a goldfish in a bowl?

Thursday 02/09/04

Today and yesterday are national holidays marking the declaration of independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945. Ho Chi Minh made a famous speech where he quoted the American declaration of independence and declared Vietnam independent from France.

No Ho Show-queue so slow

Today we also decided that it would be interesting to visit the Ho Chi Minh museum and mausoleum. This was a big mistake because of it being a national holiday the grounds of the museum and the mausoleum were completely swamped in people – thousands of them. The queue to get into the mausoleum was just over a third of a kilometre long. Apparently is it quite common on these big events to queue for up to 4 hours to see Ho Chi Minh. We gave up and vowed to visit the mausoleum some other time. National holidays also change the character of the place, with Hanoians escaping to the countryside or travelling to meet relatives while rural people come into the big city for a couple of days. Unlike our times before in Hanoi where you are regarded with complete tolerance or mild interest, at the museum we felt like the main attraction – wonderful new exhibits that walked and talked and did funny things like looking in guidebooks. At one point we had a crowd of fifteen Vietnamese around us curious as to what we were doing. Finally one asked us where we were from and we replied ‘England’ and that was that – I think they thought we might be American. This spectacle continued into the museum where you would find yourself looking at an exhibit while everyone else was looking at you! The museum was very enjoyable – except the numbers of people trawling through – and had some great exhibits. A couple caught my eye, Ho Chi Minh’s complete set of body building weights and a hand written letter Ho had sent to a French comrade apologising for not being able to attend a congress because of his work for the Communist International was taking up too much time. Ho also added that he had met Lenin but it had been hard because he felt like his fingers and nose might drop of from the cold.

The monster from the abyss

Got back to our room to find an insect at least fifteen feet long and ten feet high lying on the floor of the bathroom. Hotel staff terminated it with no mercy.