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Bill's Vietnam diary

Downtown Da Lat, apparently the Paris of the central highlands.

Tam Dao, March 8, 2001

An Englishman complains about the weather.

Birding, as I keep on saying, will take you the strangest places, but Tam Dao might be the all-time winner at the back-ass-of-beyond awards. Not that I mean that in a bad way - it's just a little quiet here, and the current weather could not be described as clement. Perhaps we should have expected this. As we flew into Hanoi yesterday, we noticed something odd: we couldn't see anything. After six months with only two rainy days, the porridge grey skies of northern Vietnam came as a bit of a surprise (although it did feel pleasantly like home). In fairness, we knew this wasn't the best time of year to visit the north, although the constant drizzle described by the Vietnamese as "rain dust" did sound quite exotic. Maybe the Vietnamese for torrential rain is a little less poetic - "torrential rain", perhaps.

Without having much time to acclimate to Hanoi, we hopped in a car and headed off for Tam Dao, a former French colonial hill station. (We seem to be spending a lot of time in former colonial hill stations these days. It might have something to do with the fact that it's a lot easier to exterminate your birdlife at lower elevations). As we wended our way up the mountain road, the mists hugging the peak presented a very picturesque vista. We discovered it was a bit less picturesque when you're actually in the mists, being mugged by the wind and rain - although it certainly made us glad that we've persisted in lugging warm clothes through various tropical climes. So, while it was nice to get away from Bangkok's heat (for about five minutes), we're now gazing wistfully through our hotel window, wondering if the weather will let up enough for us to actually see any birds. All we need now is for the TV to show Woman in a Dressing-gown and the Sunday afternoon ambiance will be complete. (If might actually be watchable if dubbed into an incomprehensible language).

The hotel itself is pretty interesting. Just as well, as I have a feeling we're going to see a lot of it over the next few days. It's totally deserted, of course, bringing back memories of Uludag - except this time it's more of a Soviet Shining. The people who work here are very nice, although the lack of a Vietnamese phrasebook at Bangkok airport has resulted in a few communication problems. Luckily, I did have the foresight to bring a French phrasebook, so we should be alright if we run into anyone over the age of seventy.

Not that we have any cause for complaint. At this moment, New York is supposed to be under six feet of snow, and in England they're reporting their worst winter since 1166. We feel very lucky to have skipped out on the worst weather in years. But perhaps that's balanced out by the fact that we will now be starting from scratch in a recession. Oh well.

Ho Chi Minh City, March 29, 2001

Les chapeaux de Vietnam.

As our car sped past the miles of paddy fields between Hanoi and Hanoi airport, my first impression of this lovely country was wow, people really do wear those amazing conical straw hats. Not too deep, but there you go. In a world where almost everyone you see is wearing designer knock-offs, this attachment to traditional dress came as something as a surprise. (And let's all pause for a moment to give thanks for the fact that at least they're knock-offs and all those tedious designers are denied their royalties).

Of course, everyone in Vietnam wears designer clothes too, and the straw hat is probably on its way out along with everything else not American in this world. But by virtue of being practical for this climate, it persists yet. Another valiant outpost of resistance against the iron jackboot of American cultural tyranny. Hmmm. I must have had one carbonated beverage too many; it certainly can't be the revolutionary fervor of Vietnam that's infected me. Such a thing no longer exists.

But the conical straw hats lives on. Even better, I soon noticed that many other people were wearing pith helmets, or solar topees if you like. When attired in full bird-watching uniform (eerily reminiscent to the one occasionally sported by Miss Hathaway) I often feel that the only thing needed to complete the look of an intrepid explorer (or "dickhead", as we are now known) is the pith helmet. And here they are in abundance. Quite why such a nineteenth century article of imperialist aggression has survived, coelacanth like, in Vietnam, I have no idea. But like the straw hat, it survives, though apparently only in the north. I didn't buy one, of course, (not that sad? too chicken? a moment of sanity?) but it's nice to know that the spirit of the idiot with the butterfly net lives on in the helmets of northern Vietnam. Meanwhile, I work to keep alive his spirit elsewhere. 

Vietnam is the first country I've visited where the airport's immigration officer hides what he's doing to your passport behind a large contraption, somewhat reminiscent of a Punch and Judy setup. Only his head peeps out while his hands shuffle furiously, unseen. I was half expecting him to suddenly hold a white rabbit aloft. (Actually, I was expecting him to cut my passport into little bits and then laugh, but that's just the old paranoia and persecution complex again, nothing new there).

The reason I mention him here is that you can't talk about Vietnamese hats and not mention the Ruritanian magnificence of their military attire. Pretty much Soviet in style, they come in a variety of colors that would seem more plausible if worn by an anorexic simpleton on a cat walk. The Vietnamese army's uniform is a striking shade of neon avocado, perhaps to better set off those little red stars. And the traffic cops wear the same basic uniform, except in cream. Very peculiar. But it's the extravagant four-foot sweep of the hats that really catch your eye, sort of a zoot-suit for the head, from which you can imagine tiny skiers hurling themselves into oblivion.

I must apologize for the above. I've been reading Gravity's Rainbow for the past month, and I think it's warped my sense of reality.

Off on that green, green grass of home again.

There's an old story that, during the American-Vietnamese war, the fresh young mid-western GIs disembarking from their troop planes would be dazzled by the hundreds of different shades of green that met their eye. Well, it is indeed very green here. It's green because, Sherlock,  they get a lot of rain. I find myself wondering if those apocryphal GIs would have the same reaction if they had disembarked in Somerset, a land just as green and wet (if distinctly chillier). Of course, thousands of American soldiers did arrive in Somerset, during an entirely different war, and there's no story about their reaction to the shades of green there, so obviously I'm talking utter crap once again.

The point I'm trying to make is that, er, it's really green here, but no greener than anywhere else that's really green. Heavy, eh?

By the way, in Hanoi the shops seems to cluster together by trade, in Medieval fashion. You find a flag district, a watch district, a sunglasses district, and so on. Much to my delight, there's even a small mannequin district. Why didn't I take a picture? Shop windows filled with showroom dummies selling nothing but themselves. Wonderful.

The fourth Nam.

Another old saw about Vietnam is that, because they practice the form of Buddhism that arrived from the north, the people here aren't as pleasant as their neighbors that practice Theravadan Buddhism - the Thais ,Cambodians, and Laos. This is another myth. Virtually every person we've met here has been incredibly nice. (When a freelance tour operator was trying to drum-up our business by telling me how nice English people were - some pitch - I replied that Vietnamese people were also very nice. His response was "the sky is blue", to which I was about to reply "no, I think it looks a bit like rain" until I got what he meant).

Wherever you go in Asia, people ask you where you're from. Sometimes they're just interested in talking to someone different - most people here are still less jaded about foreigners than most westerners. Usually, though, they're trying to make a buck. A reasonable enough endeavor, considering how rich even the poorest traveler is compared to most Asians. It's just one of those traveling things that you run into when you travel. (One of the great things about Hanoi was how sweet the people hassling you for money were. The cyclo drivers would ask if you needed a ride, you'd smile and say no thanks, they'd smile back and sail on. A beautiful experience for anyone whose ever been pursued through the streets of Agra by a thousand auto-rickshaws).

So people ask me where I'm from and I say "England" and hopefully that's that. It gets complicated if we move on to the next question in the usual sequence and they ask where I live, because then we've suddenly moved from the land of David Beckham to the empire of Mickey Mouse. (Did I mention how mad they are for English football? It's a consuming passion, here and in Thailand. It's aggravating how much better their coverage is than mine). When people find out I'm English, they generally assume Doreen is as well, which suits us fine. Americans are the richest and juiciest prizes, the Blue-rumped Pittas of the hassler's world, so ixnay on the mericanay if you don't mind.

What's really disconcerting, though, is the total absence of bitterness towards the American people. As you walk down the streets it's hard not to think that every person you see must have had a close relative killed or maimed in order that American arms manufacturers could make a few more dollars. And yet, war museums aside, the Vietnamese really do seem to have moved on, getting on with the business at hand (forgetting communism) and letting go of what's past. This comes as a great shock to me, coming as I do from a country where there is still an enormous amount of resentment directed at our ancient former adversaries, the Germans. (Makes you wonder who won the bloody war. See? There it is again. Actually it's probably football at the root of it all. Justifiably so, when you consider how unfairly they keep on winning when, after all, we invented the game).

So the Vietnamese just aren't very good at being bitter. Perhaps they'll learn. Meanwhile, I'll keep working on the guilt. India was a good place to contemplate British colonialism, and this is a good place to think about the real effects of American foreign policy. When the person begging for money almost certainly lost her foot by stepping on an American-made mine, it makes you wish there was a different way for the masters of the universe to make their piles of gold.

In fact, there is. I'm probably wrong, but aren't the two biggest businesses in America arms and entertainment? A pertinent combination here, because where bullets failed, culture apparently won. All over the world, people devour movies about such uniquely American phenomena as baseball and Thanksgiving, and little kids now go trick-or-treating the wilds of Norfolk. CNN girdles the globe, and the most common things you see in Vietnam are the Pepsi and Coca-Cola logos. Once again, the issue of who actually won the war is a little murky.

Guns before Butthead

A couple of days ago, after stumbling comically through the jungle for some hours searching in vain for a couple of endemic laughingthrushes, we gave up and sat down on the shores of Ho Tuyen Lam to wait for our boat back. As my backpack is customarily loaded down with The Precious Things Of The Trip - bits and pieces I won't leave in the hotel room in case Light-fingered Larry pays a visit in our absence - I was able to whip out our trusty short-wave radio. Why not while away the wait by checking in with our chocolate-voiced friends at the BBC? The news was on, and in the middle of the broadcast we had a "this just in" moment. What could it be? Had Macedonia escalated? Had President Shrub finally decided on where his war was going to be? No, it was bigger than that. London informed us that Gladiator had at that very moment been awarded the best picture Oscar.

It was around noon, so let's see, that's five a.m. in London, midnight in New York. Yup, that sounds about right. Staying up late on a Sunday night, transfixed by the fabulously rich patting each other on the back, thinking about Monday morning and work. Quite strange to be sitting by a lake in Vietnam at that precise moment. Makes you realize, you're never that far away with Auntie Beeb by your side. And that a bad day's birding is better than a good day at the office, to forge a well-used phrase.

The next night, (last night), the entire extravaganza was re-run on the Star network, right there in our hotel room, and we were able to wallow in the whole thing ourselves. Wow, talk about experiencing strange and exotic new cultures! Are we traveling, or what? My god, maybe it's us that are carrying the vanguard of American hegemony around the world. But I'm a victim of it too. When I was growing up, Bugs Bunny meant a hell of a lot more in my house than Queen Elizabeth, the world's shortest German. (See? There I go again).

Sadly, Princess Little-feather did not accept any awards on behalf of anyone else, and the whole thing seemed a bit flat. It was strange to be hearing about the nomination of films we had no idea even existed - how weird to be that divorced from water-cooler conversation. And strange to be in Asia while Hollywood's latest obsession is a nominally Asian film we're completely ignorant of. As we've traveled, we've been shadowed by Mel Gibson in funny sideburns. In Turkey the theaters were all showing The Patriot, and in Thailand it was in all the video stores. A film of some note, in that, instead of just having the bad guys played by English actors, the bad guys are the English themselves! Brilliant! Can't wait to see that one as well.


Doreen's Vietnam diary
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