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

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.

Yep, it was going to be a good one.

Now we're talking.


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 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.