Category Archives: Malaysia & Vietnam 2013

Kuala Lumpur: the Muddy Confluence

Fri 12th July 2013

We awake late with the KL sun streaming into our room.  Andy has dedicated today to be with his family so Phil, Sue and I go into KL to browse around the city and the shops.  My it is hot – about 40C and hotter in the sun.  We walk from Andy’s parents’ flat into the centre of KL.  Kuala Lumpur means “muddy confluence” named in 1857 by Chinese Tin prospectors at the meeting of the Kelang and Gombak rivers. This towering city manages to hold on to much of its historic appeal.  The green square of the Padang (the old cricket ground) is overlooked by the mock Tudor of the Royal Selangor Club, just across the road from KL’s bustling China town. The grand art deco railway station and the Petronis towers, two tall buildings linked by a bridge at the half way height, are now as much a symbol of this city as the Eiffel tower is of Paris.

We are forced to seek shade and air conditioning in a shopping mall and stop for an iced drink. We window shop idly as does, it seems, everyone else. There is floor after floor of it. Hugo Boss, Dolce & Gabana, Louis Vuiton, Parksons, Versace, Gucci, Miu Miu, YSL, Chanel, Michael Kors to name but a few.  The trouble is that they are all empty of customers, just bored-looking sales assistants sit or stand, waiting to pounce.  Perhaps the margins are so high that one sale a day pays for everything – wages, rents, stocks.  I think not and wonder how all these shops make a living.  The amazing thing is KL boasts at least 6 of these giant malls and they are remarkably similar. Dubai is a similar oasis of plenty in a desert of desire. Our one purchase is from the Royal Selangore pewter shop, a gift for someone.  We take the metro back to Andy’s parents’ house and return home for a shower (for we are hot).  A family gathering is called and we are whisked to a European style restaurant for a somewhat hilarious meal with Mum, Dad and a brace of niece. We are decanted into bed very late.

David stays up to write this diary while Sue is in the arms of Morpheus.  Tomorrow we shall regroup, tidy up, pack our bags and prepare for another (ugh!) very early departure for the airport and home.  I shall muse about all this on the 12 hour flight back and write a valedictory paragraph on our return as well as add some photos.  Cheap bandwidth. Yes!

Saigon 3: Political re-education

Thu 11thJuly, 2013

Today we leave Vietnam, by an afternoon flight back to KL.  We have a morning left to see sights.

We breakfast and check out and are picked up by our smiling tour guide.  Today is to be another chapter in our political re-education.  Although our guide book is determined that Vietnam is a country, not a war, there is a fair bit of the latter.  As we drive through the city, we amuse ourselves watching the over-laden scooters and rickshaws with huge bales of goods.  Now we know where they have come from (but not where they are going).  We also see rather gloomy cargoes: cages of song birds which, having been trapped in the countryside are destined to be sold, one at a time, for release from temples by guilt ridden? prayerful? aviophiles. Poor little creatures.  How many of them will survive being stuffed into a cage with a score of so of their companions, let alone the journey home after a day or so of looking pathetic?  We also see a cage of dogs (alive) literally squashed together.  There must be ten it or more in a cage about 50cm cubed.  These chaps are not so lucky being destined, we are told, for cheap meat for the artisans who work as builders and road menders. They cannot afford fillet steak for dinner. So puppy a la lemon grass it is.  They look very sad dogs.  Wouldn’t you?  Scooters are also over-laden with humans.  We commonly see Dad driving, smaller child (a) seated between him and the handle bars, larger child (b) behind him and Mum at the back.  Interestingly the adults wear crash helmets and the children do not.  There must be some logic to that but we cannot fathom it.


We are taken to the Museum  of War.  It is a three storey building dedicated to recording the history of the century of wars in Vietnam and it pulls no punches.  There is a little about the French but it is mainly about the Americans. Outside is a collection of aircraft and military vehicles.  No mystery there. The world is littered with the abandoned hulks of war machines, for they are usually too heavy and grimy to take home afterwards.  I note that the US and Brits are even now cuddling up to the rulers in Kazakhstan who have the only workable railway line out of Afghanistan. Our dear friends and cricket playing allies in Pakistan have seemingly quoted for safe passage of kit out of the theatre of war and rather over-egged the price.  Isn’t it amazing how the value tag of friendship is so flexible?


The museum is a series of collections of war photographs, loaned by their copyright owners – mainly Time and Life Magazines who were voracious consumers of material and which, given the slant of the whole display, is quite generous of them. The overall objective of the museum is supposed to be reconciliation, but it is heavily propagandised and leaves the visitor in no doubt that the innocent party was the Vietcong and the mighty military aggressors and war criminals were the Europeans and the Americans.

It is very well curated – though annoyingly each room has a collection of (now defused or inactivated) American ordnance to provide a constant reminder that the execution of warfare is achieved largely by making holes in people from a long way away.  Speaking of executions, there is a mock-up of a lock-up also outside the museum with barbed wire cages, dreary concrete cells etc. one of which contains a full size (and fully functioning) Guillotine brought out by the French, who didn’t mess about when it came to dispensing swift justice. I had never examined one so closely before.  The sand tray underneath was a sombre reminder of its messy purpose.

There is some brilliant war photography around and in some ways the exhibition is a memorial to the hundred-ish photographers who were killed in action.  Most of it is monochrome – being the most forgiving photographic medium to handle (and process) in either unpredictable lighting conditions (or in the field). You know the press photographer’s mantra “f/8 and be there”.  You will recognise some of the images as being particularly striking – Huynh Cong’s picture of the burning Napalmed girl running down the road towards the photographer screaming “too hot, too hot”, of Eddie Adams famous image of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngok Loan executing, by a pistol to the head, a captured combatant and lots of others.  Many of the images are very moving.  Some are thought provoking. Others are harrowing. For me, however, a question mark always hangs over the veracity of these very dramatic images. When I studied for my A level photography a couple of years ago, (yes I got an A), I formed the view that most images are carefully posed.  The odds of the photographer just happening to be there at some critical moment are vanishingly small and the thought of asking an executioner to “hang on a minute while I focus” fills me with horror.  I would be too tempted to say “Please don’t do that”.

A Japanese contributor has a large display in colour prints which somehow seem much less dramatic, though they are more sympathetic images of the effects of Dioxin.  We learn that the poison developers of the American chemical industry tried to kill leaves with “agent green”, “agent red” and “agent blue” before lighting upon new and improved “agent orange”.  The Vietnamese are particularly cross about the consequences of this stuff on subsequent generations especially as they have sought and failed to sue Uncle Sam for some dosh to help the poor misshapen folk who are the living evidence of this horror.  There is, framed, a very moving open letter to President Obama from a child victim asking him to help them fulfil his (Obama’s) professed dream of a decent future for all children.  Surprise, surprise, it has not received a reply.

We leave the museum as it closes for lunch. Offered an hour, we have been here for two and a half hours and haven’t noticed the time.  To the airport my man and don’t spare the horse power.  Our driver drops us at the departures terminal. We thank and tip our guide, Mr Hoa, who apologises saying that he must say goodbye to us on the pavement as “being Vietnamese I am not allowed into the airport”.  Once again we catch but a glimpse of the autocratic regime that keeps its citizens captive, lest they desert this workers paradise. Never the less, they appear happy in their daily round, and laugh and joke about the same things we do (sex, beer and football – but not politics).  We check in for our one hour flight back to KL.  When we land, we have the impression of returning to freedom. It is just a feeling.  Home to bed.

Saigon 2: We join the Vietcong

Wed 10th July, 2013

Today is a day for history lessons. We become honorary members of the Vietcong.  We are met bright and early by our guide who greets us with a “comment allez-vous?” and boyish giggle and depart for a village some way to the North of Saigon which is a museum piece for the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese freedom fighters against the aggressions of the bourgeois, lackey, capitalist running dogs of imperialist, war criminal Americans (blah, blah, blah).  OK I made the last sentence up, but you get the picture.  Dave Spart would have been at home today.

En route to this display we stop at a factory which produces Lacquered goods – wooden plates with intricately inlaid designs of tigers, paddy fields and other bucolic Vietnamese scenes. We watch rows of young girls (some of whom are deformed by Dioxin poisoning) carving to the millimetre mother of pearl shapes to inlay into scored designs on pre-lacquered boards of thin wood.  It is a production line, but skilled at every station. The glued inlays are then washed and polished smooth for another fifty doses of lacquering and polishing until the finished product gleams.  Needless to say we are decanted into the shop at the end of all this display and a personal shopping assistant guides us.  With consummate skill she watches the movement of our eyeballs as they light casually on finished products (literally she catches our eye) and helpfully selects the size and shape of our purchase.  By God she is good at it.  By the time reach the door we have augmented the Vietnamese economy by a god few tens of dollars.  David is out of this.  Phil and Sue are the household designers and have the last say on selection. He photographs the process and pays the bill.

To Cu Chi.  Doubtless you have heard of “the tunnels” which the Vietcong fighters used to move around their fighters and hide from the sight of the American infantry and the bombs from the B52s in their sky.  Cu Chi is a large open air military museum dedicated to the field craft of the Vietcong.  Let’s do an orders briefing.

Ground:    This is tropical rain forest. Jungle as we might call it.  It is not a good place to be fighting an infantry war.  You can’t see where you are going – even in daylight for, it is dense. Air cover is next to useless as the helicopter pilots and gunners can’t see you or your enemy.

Your enemy is a bunch of guerrillas. They are not uniformed or distinguishable from non-combatants.  The non combatants are partisan supporters of your enemy and adept at playing dumb.  Your enemy are lightly armed and highly mobile.  Their resupply is animal/human-carried and impossible to interdict for it travels by track and by night.

Situation: You are fighting an ideological war against an idea, Communism.  You are doing it because your Government fears that all of Indo China (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Singapore) will tumble like dominoes into a totalitarian morass which resembles China or the Soviet Union.  The natural resources of Malaysia (Tin and Rubber) and the strategic port of Singapore are at risk. With the support of the losing side in Vietnam you decide to make a stand here and protect the “free” world from such domination.  The French pulled out a few years ago giving it up as a bad job.

Mission:   To prevent the Vietnamese Communists from over-running the whole of Vietnam.  (They already dominate the northern half of the country).

Enemy forces:   Fanatical guerrillas, organised in cells with a common purpose but no common command and control, ideologically and patriotically motivated; armed and trained by their northern compatriots and the Chinese military.  Supplied over several routes from China (via Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia who are friendly / neutral, skilled jungle fighters and ingenious sappers).

Allied forces:   US Army infantry supported by helicopter and US Air force bombers with seemingly infinite fire power.  Training and combat experience – middling to poor.

Command and Control:  The whole of the US war machine, Army, Navy and Air Force. You’d think it was a no brainer militarily, but the good guys lost and scarpered.

Our Cu Chin tour starts with a briefing in a low thatched hut.  There is a short grainy black and white  film setting out the Vietcong point of view and showing how they hid themselves from view. We are shown how trap doors (all wood and undetectable) are set into the ground and which link to the tunnels enabling combatants to disappear and reappear like deadly moles. Oh, and they made “easy to spot” ones too as decoys that led nowhere and were booby trapped. We are then treated to a grisly display of the various simple man traps which would be dug into tracks and which would “embugger” any infantry advance.  All had nasty metal spikes coated with fermenting s**t  to dirty any inflicted wound.  Tree-born ones, like heavy spiked coconuts on strings would swing down and pierce faces when tripped. All of these spikes and weapons were made from the Americans’ re-cycled bomb shrapnel.  The whole array was medieval in its simplicity and barbarity and designed to slow down an infantry advance to the speed of a tortoise with a probing stick. High explosive anti-personnel mines were an additional too,l with small charges and shrapnel to remove a foot or a lower limb from any unfortunate soldier.  This needed casualty evacuation, more resources and so on. Brilliant really.

The tunnels contained whole villages – catering, medical, meeting rooms  Elaborate “friend or foe” procedures were in order to prevent anyone individual knowing (& potentially betraying) too much.  We were allowed to traverse a few hundred metres of these tunnels, about 5m below ground level, running along in the crouch position round bends and up and down steps until we came out into a large dug out.  Our tourist tunnel was lit, but operationally it was all done in the dark.  It was terrifyingly claustrophobic. Some of the passages had a Vietnamese person sized chicane that no US squaddie (or David) could squeeze through  The idea of a combat confrontation in these circumstances fills one with the screaming hab-dabs.  Small wonder then that the US Soldiers were reluctant to enter them.

Pattern bombing from the sky made a lot of holes in the ground (into which our doughty sappers tipped their spoil) but proved ineffective in inflicting significant casualties on the communists or destroying their tunnels.  Frustration led to soldiers inflicting ever more revolting atrocities on Vietnamese combatants and civilians alike until US public opinion – highly informed by war correspondents and TV coverage – and too many body bags, tipped the political balance away from continuing a war.  An ignominious retreat from Saigon – the last men by helicopter from the embassy roof – allowed a communist victory, which style of government has ruled ever since.  Interestingly all the dominoes are still in place.  Our tour guide does a very well informed and quite passionate commentary.  We are pretty sure where his political sympathies lie.  We were undergraduates in London and we were at the Grosvenor Square riot in 1968.  I can recall the unpopularity of this war, but have little personal knowledge of the detail of its history.  I am minded to go back now and read about it.

This was a heady experience and after another gentle lunch and some heated political discussions we head back to the city.

Our afternoon is a trip to the theatre.  There is a delightful theatrical tradition of water puppetry, in which the stage is a shallow lake (about waist deep as it turns out, 6m wide and 3m from front to back) and the backdrop is a curtain beneath a large pagoda.  On either side of the stage is half of a 6 piece orchestra with twangy and plucky instruments + percussion stuff and a bowed single-string viol.  They provide entre-act music and spoken commentary of the story + songs. They are dressed in some traditional costume and cute head-wear.  The action is a series of scenarios about the farmer’s year – rice planting with water buffalo, catching ducks and frogs, fishing, passing exams and a triumphal return, boat racing and a contest between Dragon, Phoenix, Unicorn and Tortoise.

The actors are puppets and puppet combinations, all about 50cm high, which appear to float on, or move in the water and perform actions, dances or combat which are stylised and quite convincing.  They come to front of stage (about 3m) and then disappear behind the curtain.  All is controlled by 6 quite burly puppeteers (they are hidden but come out and bow at the end) whose creatures are on underwater poles with ducking, diving, dancing and fighting movements enabled.  It really is most clever and we are transfixed like the children in the audience as by a Punch and Judy show.  When the puppeteers appear we applaud them loudly.  It is quite charming and very entertaining. We have not seen the like before.

Dinner that night is taken on a moored river boat. Well you just have to do these things don’t you? Jubilate! We are let of the leash and released into the night market to buy souvenirs. It is 38C and 90% humid so we “glow” a little. Sue is in full purchase mode and David is allowed to barter for things.  We buy our grandson T shirts, ourselves: table cloths, his and hers knock-off Rolex watches ($10), and some sweeties.  At last we are in bed asleep.  It has been a most stimulating day.

Saigon 1: Mekong and markets

Tues Jul 9, 2013, 2013th

Our Hotel breakfast offers all that we need to stock up with energy for the day and by 0830 we are off to see the sights of the Mekong River.  We drive in our conditioned minibus the thirty minutes or so to this wide, muddy brown, fast flowing river which is navigable all the way to China (for Vietnam is fairly flat and there are no waterfalls).  As we travel we enjoy trying to decode the street signs and advertising hoardings.  When the French controlled Vietnam they introduced the Roman alphabet to it so, uniquely in South East Asian countries, we can read the words, though not understand them.  All words appear to be monosyllables except for multiple vowels adorned with a range of diacritic marks all as alien to us as the words.

Such squiggles probably indicate all sort of curious pronunciations.  We try to get our guide, Mr Hoa, to explain them to us but we don’t get very far.  What we do discover is a mild affinity to speaking odd phrases of French.  I hear the occasional “comment allez-vous?” spoken by the young men accompanied by a mischievous smile. I note also slight emphasis on the last syllable. There is a then a coy giggle from the young lady to whom it is addressed.  Well I wonder if you might recall the words of an old Flanders and Swan number:  “Now that Mum’s out, let’s talk dirty / Pee, Poo, Belly, Bum Bra”.  Well I discover from Mr. Hoa who can barely stop laughing, that the “vous” sound in Vietnamese means tits.   Furthermore utterances of “merci beaucoup” uttered by the girls with a similar emphasis on the last syllable offer a child-like delight in saying “coup,” meaning penis.  It is bowdlerised by the men to “merci beauchim” (meaningless) when addressed to the girls.  I leave you to guess what the ”chim” word means.

This linguistic research occupies us until after a brief coffee stop we reach the Mekong’s banks.

We board a little boat and are transported to one of a group of four islands nestling in this wide muddy fast flowing river.  They are named for the saintly family of Vietnamese animals – the Dragon who symbolises power, the Phoenix which symbolises prosperity, the Tortoise who represents strength and longevity and the Unicorn who stands for happiness and wealth.  Note to self, must catch a unicorn or two.

Dragon island is low–lying heap of reclaimed Mekong ooze being now stabilised and covered in lush tropical jungle populated by a few thousand folk who harvest its lush tropical produce (Jack fruit, Limes, Bananas, Okra, Dragon fruits (of course), Papaya and Cashew nuts and lots of rubber trees).  In between this fairly low key activity the said island folk find time to offer tourist demos of bee keeping, sell honey tea, crystallised fruits and other produce or its derivatives plus the inevitable collections of woven things (bags, shirts, hammocks, table-ware) which might raise a few dollars.  The whole island is criss-crossed with shallow waterways linking its households’ lands to the few paths and the preferred means of transport is the sampan, a shallow flat bottomed boat which holds about four people (us) or a pile of farm produce and is propelled by skinny little rice maidens dressed in pyjamas and wearing the  Vietnamese female worker’s standard head dress of a conical straw hat. A bare-footed pair of them perch front and back. These beings are so slight that they can be folded up in any number of human configurations.  For us they sit cross legged, slightly off centre, like tiny gondoliers and paddle their craft at incredible speed. They also smile permanently. I guess that is de-riguer when you are fleecing tourists. Collisions between sampans going in opposite directions are an accepted risk in this means of travel and we are warned to keep our hands inside the boat.

After spending our way through the bazaars we are eventually allowed back to the bank (I wonder if, had we not spent enough, we would still now be there?)  We lunch rather splendidly at a pit stop that (of course) sells hand produced artefacts, statues, pictures.  As we wander through the ranks of seated girls hand sewing pictures of  Tigers, Rice fields etc. our guide points out that many of them are deformed – thalidomide like – with missing hand or foot parts or whole limbs.  These are the victims of Dioxin poisoning in consequence of its use in “Agent Orange” defoliant  by the Americans during the Vietnam War of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  The genetic damage inflicted on those Vietnamese who inhaled or ingested it was probably not understood at the time but is now wished upon these poor creatures of the next generation or two.  This emporium is part of a Government programme to find them meaningful sedentary or semi-skilled work in this land of zero social security.  Much of their produce is beautifully crafted – and quite expensive.  We don’t buy and we feel guilty. Why?

Our late lunch is a gentle delight.  We are not able to grab a quick bite. Each occasion is a set piece Vietnamese style banquet with table napkins, bowls and chopsticks, iced drinks and at least five speciality dishes served in style that we would loosely style “Chinese”.  It is very delicious and we are treated to exquisite table service by a sequence of elegantly clad, willowy serving ladies who smile so sweetly.

Pigged out (again) we board our personal minibus and are taken on a short tour of Saigon. We visit a Buddhist temple where Andy makes his obeisance to a lady Buddhist deity who presides over personal success.  As we wander the ornate interior we are reminded that the rising smoke from the burning of one’s stick of incense carries the prayers of the supplicant mortal upwards, presumably towards heaven.  For those who want a longer commune, but who can’t spare the time to stand there, slow burning spiral coils of incense can be purchased and left to smoulder for up to several days, presumably providing an extended session.  For those in even more of a hurry, a few bank notes will purchase a loud bong on a huge bell from a man who does these things.  This is guaranteed to prod any somnolent deity into instant attention to one’s prayer – a kind of ecclesiastical equivalent to the Fast Track immigration service you get with a business class air ticket.  I am reminded of  the Catholic church’s shameless scam of selling indulgences or a few days off Purgatory for an agreed sum. Martin Luther remains one of my heros. It is all very bizarre but, I suppose, harmless fun.

Every city – even European ones – seems to have its Chinatown, the ultimate point of distribution for the endless variety of manufactured consumer goods (and brand knock-offs) of China.  We discover that Saigon seems to be the wholesale headquarters of the whole industry.  We are taken to what appears to be the usual market format building. A dreary concrete, open plan, three storey place where one might expect to find open stalls selling a variety of wares. Oh no! In this building every stall (and there are hundreds) is piled high with goods, but in quantities of 50 or 100, bound up with raffia or rip-stop plastic tape and stuffed (yes stuffed) into little caves, arranged in rows separated by alleys about one (thin) person wide. In each cave, atop their bundles of wares, sits a tiny Chinese girl who hefts bundles out to a waiting fellow as he literally screams his requirements at her. A female of more (very) advanced years assembles them into huge sacks, about 50cm square and 2m deep, closes the sacks and ties them securely with tape (ibid) and writes, in felt pen, several Chinese characters on the exterior.  Burly younger men manhandle the bundles to the ground floor entrance where an endless supply of motor scooters, or jerry-built motor rickshaws are summoned individually and whose riders load the bundles perhaps three high, rope them on and wobble precariously off into the Saigon traffic. They are destined for who know where.  Perhaps elsewhere in Vietnam, perhaps to the docks in a container and thence to Europe. The whole business is recorded by market scrutinisers in Chinese in simple exercise books.  There are no printed dockets, no apparent audit trails and money changes hands at the point of exchange in huge wads of notes which are counted by hand at incredible speed. The noise level is deafening and it becomes apparent that tourists with cameras are definitely in the way.  If ever one was about to get a knife in the ribs, it would be here, among the bundles of rucksacks. One’s corpse would be swiftly bundled sealed and removed and no-one would ever see, know or tell.  We watch the process amazed. This is trade at its most raw.  Anyone who has ever bought a pair of “designer” jeans should visit this place to see how they are traded.   It is by now dusk and we retire to our hotel for a wash and a brush up for we are out to a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner to tonight.

Ha Long to Saigon

Mon Jul 8, 2013th

We arise and break our fasts. The hotel is a grand Art Deco style thing with lovely views of the bay from the bedrooms, lofty ceilings to its public areas and dozens of pretty fawning waiting staff who smile but do little else.  Our dining room is the size of a skating rink and the buffet breakfast’s components (for they are always in components) are set out around the periphery of this vast area.  Step 1 is a recce.  We walk once around the rink to identify fruit juice station, tea and coffee station, cereals and pastry station, egg wallah (who cooks what you ask for with panache), toast making machine and breads, the various ready-made cooked things in silver domed covered bain-maries (bains-marie?) and so on. By this time we have walked a good few hundred metres. Step 2 is to select and transport components to our table – one bit at a time (a series of radii equally distant). We eat and inevitably return for omitted items or refreshes. Some several hundreds of metres later we have broken our fasts and worn out our shoes.  There must be an easier way!

Back to our minibus and we wave farewell to Ha Long bay, UNESCO selected world heritage site of 1994, and set off for the 4 hours back to Ha Noi (which you will now discern is also named from a dragon – this time a rising dragon. Cute huh?) The road is still as bumpy and pot holey, but it is now Monday and the numerous road works, yesterday silent, are now in full swing.  We are treated to a steady parade of diggers and their lorry-borne accoutrements slowing progress down even more.  Our guide requests another tutorial of “Pu the Maj Dra’n” with which we oblige.  God knows what her next party will have to endure by way of additions to her commentary.  We are late back in Ha Noi and we pay a quick visit in the heat of the day to the Confucian University (called the temple of literature) founded in 1070 by King Ly Thanh Tong.  It is very Chinese, like a miniature Forbidden City, arranged with grand pagodas in a system of 5 courtyards.  Undergraduates were required to wear plain black simple gowns. Once a degree was awarded fancier robes and coloured hats were permitted. (Anyone recall this stuff from their own  yester-years?  Well it all started out here.) The place has a tranquil and contemplative air – surely conducive to study.

To the airport and fond farewells to our tour guide with promises to swop photos.  Now for the 2 hour domestic flight to Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City as it should now be called, though I will refer to is as Saigon, as does much of its signage, some of its hotel names and many of its older population).  David’s storm clouds have dispersed and our flight is smooth today.  As we land it is raining hard.  The temperature is a benign 25C and we emerge into the chaos of vehicles that characterises this city.  Saigon is much larger and wealthier than Ha Noi. Its population is 9 million people and 7 million motor scooters all of whom seem to be on the streets to accompany our short trip into the city.  This place has pavements and shop fronts – quite European in many ways, still with Vietnam’s charming habit of building thin and high (for long ago, these chaps adopted the Dutch custom of property taxes on frontage, so bits of it resemble Amsterdam.  We are to be here for three days and there is much to see and do (and eat!)

Check in and early to bed for we are tired.  Not even a beer!

Ha Noi & Ha Long Bay

Sun Jul 7th

Breakfast is suitably western. We have yet to develop a taste for noodles and spicy chicken instead of Weetabix.  We are abroad by 0800 and by heck it is hot.  The temperature barely drops below 40C and it is so humid.  It is what David calls a “three shirts per day” environment.

Out tour guide and her minibus carry us to Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum – a hideous Soviet Union inspired granite block outside of which queues of hundreds of folk stand for the dubious privilege of a brief glimpse of Uncle Ho’s corpse.  Like Mao Tse Tung in China, Ho is venerated in modern Vietnamese folklore.  His abode is also open for inspection.  He is renowned as a scholarly, Ghandi-like ascetic, unmarried and childless.  (Our guide hints in an unguarded moment that his grandchildren agree!).  Ho’s face, like Mao’s in China, adorns all bank notes and many streets, highways and other grand projects are named for him.  Indeed Saigon in the south (of which more later) is now called Ho Chi Min City – or HCM city to the cognoscenti. The one redeeming feature of this otherwise hideous area of town is the presidential palace and adjacent ministerial buildings which are charming French Palladian Chateaux painted in a garish bright yellow (Dulux yellow peril?).

Hanoi, though the political capital of Vietnam, is a small-ish and rather impoverished looking place.  The dominant mode of transport is the motor scooter – of which there are thousands, the municipal wiring is strung along the streets at first floor level, as in India, giving it a jerry-built appearance.  There are road works a-plenty but it is in serious need of a brush up to look half respectable.

We leave for Ha Long bay, 100 miles east of Hanoi, facing into the South China Sea.  It is a 4 hour drive along the most pot hole ridden road I can recall riding along. The journey is worth it. Ha Long means falling dragon.  Legend has it that a celestial dragon who plunged into the sea here creating thousands of limestone outcrops in the bay by lashing its tail.  Well it would, wouldn’t it?  In fact there are about 3,000 limestone stacks in the bay formed as a result of tectonic activity, sea level change and marine and rain erosion.  The effect is stunning.  (A similar set of outcrops is to be found in southern Thailand, but these are better.)  Being limestone, they are riddled with caves.

We take a junk boat and for 4 hours we potter around these wonders, land on a couple and explore the stalactites and stalagmites.  It is quite amazing!

Our tour guide is a charming Vietnamese lass whose English needs a polish up.  We realise that there is no freedom to travel out of Vietnam. She has studied English only from tapes and lacks pronunciation skills.  She typifies Vietnamese spoken English by failing to pronounce the ends of words. I guess their language is a bit short of digraphs and trigraphs.  It comes out, most entertainingly as:

e-fri-rie       meaning egg fried rice

i-p-t             meaning iced peach tea

my how      meaning my house

Fre people meaning French people

And so on.   David, who is in a waspish mood, asks her about Dragons, their eggs, habitats etc. and amid much mirth teaches her to sing “Puff the Magic Dragon” which she does in halting Vietnamese English. He has adapted the style to describe his telephoto lens as a ”qui-chay-len” or quick change lens.

We are knackered after today and after a “sumptuous sea food dinner” (for that is what the tour itinerary said) we retire to our hotel and sleep well.

Ha Noi & Little fluffy clouds?

Sat Jul 6, 2013th

A leisurely start today as our flight leaves at 1430 this afternoon.  What to pack?  We know that Vietnam will be hot around Ha Noi – 40C – and humid as it is low lying river territory dominated by rice plantations. We settle for the minimum of light clothing plus wash kit and cameras.  We don’t bother with local currency. The Vietnamese Dong (yes really) is in a similar state to the Weimar Mark. Twenty thousand Dong = One US dollar.  I guess you can’t buy much for 10 Dong.  We are advised that the local economy functions predominantly on dollars, so we carry a (small) wad of those.

To KL centre again where we find we can check in our bags at the station before we board the train to the airport. So much more convenient than humping luggage. I recall that one used to be able to do that in London at BEA/ BOAC terminal in Gloucester Road wherefrom it was whisked to Heathrow in a trailer attached to the airport bus.  I fear the Provisional IRA did for that service as one is not allowed to be separated from ones bags any more. Aren’t terrorists such dull people?

We board our Boeing 737 800 to Hanoi International Airport and settle in for the 2½ hour flight.

Jubilate! David gets the window seat in row 12 with the extra leg room. Now I wonder if you recall a musical offering by (I think) The Orb, called Little Fluffy Clouds?  It was a narrative in breathless tones about big skies and said clouds laid over a compelling, pulse speed rhythm. Quite pleasant.  Well, It is sometimes amusing to look out the aircraft window at Little Fluffy Clouds as we soar through them.  Not today!   The clouds over the Gulf of Thailand are fearsome beasts.  They are neither little nor fluffy, but great big cumulo nimbus things that soar in vertical stacks in a vicious boiling maelstrom of airborne energy.  They tower well above our aircraft and the vertical winds in these clouds can reach 60 mph – quite capable of overturning a modern jet aircraft if it gets one wing in and one wing out.

Our driver seems to know this and we steer a gentle zig zag around these monsters like a lofty pin ball.  Even so, the turbulence is considerable and there are endless disquieting thuds as we bounce through clumps of rapidly moving air.  The driver requires the crew to strap in too and I slink down into my seat and try to think of all the nice things in my life – just in case.  I really don’t like flying round here.  At last we are flying over land – all the way up Vietnam to Hanoi.  The land mass is one thousand miles long and quite narrow – a sort of string bean of a country.  Things steady down a bit until we are over the sea in the Gulf of  Tonkin (Vietnam is curved) when it all starts up again.

At last we are down.  Lots of green paddy fields lie below for Vietnam is a farming and agricultural economy, still poor compared to the Tiger economies of other Asian countries.  The terminal is Spartan and a little care-worn and the air temperature is 38C and more, for we are bathed in sweat immediately.  The Immigration people are elaborately uniformed, short men with large official looking caps.  Like their kind the world over they are curt and unsmiling, but they relieve us quite efficiently of photographs, letters of admittance and, most importantly, $45 each.

To quote from our Berlitz pocket guide: Vietnam is culturally very close to China.  Its name is Chinese for “people of the south” and has for 2000 years spent much effort and many lives in fighting off Chinese domination. It has a very distinct identity and has adopted a modern slogan, Vietnam is a country not a war. That said, the late part of the twentieth century is synonymous with the French and then the American attempts to keep the northern communists at bay. Vestiges of war remain in the bomb craters (now fish ponds), the abandoned military hardware (now museum pieces) and the sappers’ tunnels (now tourist attractions) for Vietnam is keen to shed its recent past and open up its economy to tourism which earns it hard currency.  It has yet to acquire the more sophisticated trappings of an open society (free press, political opposition, open debate etc.)

We are met (for this is a purchased tour for we four) and whisked to our hotel for a shower. From here there is no respite and we are to be on parade for meals ( too many and too big), trips around the city and so on.


Home again and to Melaka

Wed July 3, 2013rd

Today our short trip to Singapore must end. We fly back to KL this afternoon, but we have a morning to squander which Phil and Andy dedicate to shopping along Orchard Road (read Oxford Street squared) and Sue and David dedicate to the Singapore National Museum.  I am more and more impressed by the cunning / stunning presentation techniques that museums use these days.  Long gone are glass cases filled with dusty and meticulously labelled artefacts associated with a place or event.  Audio guides, personalised tours, Ipads on neckstaps are de-riguer for the visitor. Movie, Computer generated graphics, audio, tableaux are the minimum necessary descriptors for the exhibits.  The sum of it all is usually quite amazing and this museum fits the bill very well.  The history of Singapore is depicted from ancient man through European conquest, to Raffles deal, through the growth of trade to the foundation of the city.  The war years are brilliantly done – not through the eyes of the Generals, the politicians or the historians, but through the experiences of individuals, their personal records and testimonies.

It was a brilliant experience.

We regroup and after a leisurely lunch take the metro back to Changi Airport and home to KL,  By the time we tumble into bed it is late and we sleep the travellers’ sleep.

Thu July 4th

Today is a down day. Recovery, rest, washing of clothes are required so we slob about Andy’s house in the morning and read and research Vietnam.  In the late afternoon we visit a local night market and take the ritual cold drinks made from crushed iced and flavourings.  We meet yet another charming niece and are invited to her and her husband’s brand new house to inspect and admire it.  (You know what girlies and house furnishings are!).  The chaps set about a slab of Tiger beers and before long we are all bosom pals.  You cannot visit a Malaysian Chinese family without food being offered.  Even though we are pigged out on endless street nibbles (we thought that was it for the day), we are sandbagged to a nearby, very grand food court and required to participate in another Chinese meal + beers. We are becoming very adept with chopsticks and those little Chinese table shovels!

Fri July 5th, 2013

Our kind friends with the spanking new house are up for a day out and own a 6 seater car.  They offer to take us to Melaka, (NB modern spelling) on the west coast of Malaysia.  It is a 2 hour trip and we gather early in the day to assemble our party.  Malaysia is a prosperous country and its highways are grand and well maintained and, like most countries, in a seemingly endless programme of improvement.  (Did anyone ever fly to an airport that was completed?)   We pass the journey discussing jobs, children, ambitions, travel (recent and forthcoming) and get to know our hosts a little better.  Melaka is a charming bustling town – much given to feting tourists and has the usual array of shops selling tourist souvenirs.  How is it that tourist tat is the same miserable, gaudy, poor quality rubbish the world over?   We ignore it all and explore the streets and  harbour-side vistas.  The Portugese were the first to Europeans to settle this place and build a rather grand church on the highest hill which is a tourist must.  We climb hundreds of steps hewn from the volcanic stone of which this part of Malaysia is made (The rest – including the capital city – seems to rest on sand.)  At the top we are informed that the Dutch, when they invaded and drove out the Portugese enlarged said church and rededicated it to the protestant cause.  Then they build a new one lower down the hill and abandoned the grand one.  (why would they do that?) The Brits, when they arrived deconsecrated the whole thing (fearing a Dutch led insurrections) built a tower onto it with a lighthouse on the top of that and a grand flag pole for the Union flag.  Now that sounds much more practical.  Furthermore, a neat Governors’ residence (low-rise Palladian style. white painted balustrade, ornamental canons, etc) was built next door to it on the same high hill.  Very pukka, just the job.

We gaze out to sea towards Sumatra, the long Indonesian island that cuddles up to the western shores of Malaysia.  It is about 30 miles away but shrouded in a smoky haze from the deforestation fires that have been so much in the recent news.  (The smoke from these fires was reputed to have obliterated Singapore so we arrived bearing filtration masks as per FCO advice. What a waste of effort and money that was.  One rain shower and it was all washed away!)

We see ships, not the odd one, but dozens of ships all standing still, presumably at anchor and all pointing south.  They are bound for the port of Singapore to load up with containers full of who knows what to bring to bring to India and Europe.  I can’t help trotting out such lines as I can recall from Masefield’s poem “Cargoes”.  We amuse ourselves trying to complete the recollection but fail.  We have to make our way down for a cooling iced tea (it is very humid today) and then home. We fear that we shall (we do) hit the KL Friday night rush hour on our journey.

More talk of shopping.  David sleeps.  We say our thank yous and depart for Sze Towers at a late hour.  Tomorrow the second phase of our adventure begins and we fly to Vietnam.

Singapore: Arrows and Slings

Tue July 2, 2013nd

Today it is overcast and the sky is threatening.  We breakfast at a local diner – cornflakes, eggs, fruit, toast and tea, and make a plan.  We shall walk to the Singapore River which the city bestrides and take a boat tour from the harbour.  As we buy our tickets the heavens open and we are treated to a spectacular tropical storm: thunder and lightning and the largest heaviest raindrops that I can recall.  Within minutes the streets have changed from paved walking areas to individual rivers.  The drain gutters in this city are typically two feet deep (with slotted lids) to cope with torrents such as this. Clad as we are in light clothes and shirtsleeves, we take refuge in a waterside cafe and wait. I would guess that 50mm of rain fell in just a few minutes. Mercifully another characteristic of tropical rain is its brevity.  In a short while the clouds have emptied, the sun is out, the surface water is steaming off and all is back to normal.  We step aboard our boat and are treated to a canned commentary with the most florid description of the old waterside warehouses, the “down-town” cityscape, the Government buildings (always very grand) and so on.  After an hour we are much acquainted with how Sir Stamford Raffles laid out the city and why.

Having “done” China town last evening we visit the other ethnic hub called Little India.  It too is a collection of shops, offices, restaurants and markets but this time with a distinct curry flavour.  It would be hard to distinguish it from Delhi or Bombay. We lunch and decamp to the little island of Sentosa. This small island, formerly called Blackang Mati, sits at the southern tip of Singapore and was the last British fortification. It is now something of a theme park though it contains a very good museum of the war time history of  Singapore, including a delightful tableau called “The room of the two surrenders”. The Japanese invaded in 1942 by creeping south down the Malayan peninsula through its primeval jungle and conquered Singapore, much to irritation of the British whose guns were pointing south, out to sea. For three years the yellow peril gave everyone a hard time until President Truman gave a “new weapons technology” demo to the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at which point the invaders threw in the towel and surrendered Singapore back again. The British ruled it until in 1959 it was granted independence along with the creation of the Malaysian state.

Sated the while with Asian political history we repair to the Long Bar in Raffles hotel for a sundowner.  Raffles is a period piece rather like the gentlemen’s clubs of Pall Mall; all dark polished wood and an array of oscillating punka fans to cool one.  Ground nuts are laid out in bowls on the tables and drinkers, by local custom, drop the shells on the floor.  We crunch our way in and fortify ourselves with a Gin Sling, being the only drink to drink in this temple of colonial splendour. This cocktail is a serious blend of alcoholic components and has been known to cripple a fully grown adult liver within three sips.  A couple of these puts us all in a very good mood.  We dine across the road in the courtyard restaurant in the garden of a defrocked convent. The air temperature has dropped to 30C and it is comfortable and pleasant.


To Singapore

Mon July 1, 2013

Arise at 0400 (Ugh! Aren’t airport journeys unfriendly) and take car and bus to KL’s smaller airport where we catch Air Asia (sort or Ryan Air with slit eyes) first flight of the day to Singapore.  Even though it is still inky black pre-dawn dark, the temperature hovers around 30C.  Today is cloudy and humid.  As we travel the hour journey from our house we see numerous lightning flashes illuminating the sky.  Cloud to cloud lightning is more or less a permanent feature of the tropical sky.

The usual marshalling and inspection process happens.  No one frets about how much toothpaste or aftershave I have.  My pocket knife (Victorinox, nail scissors, 3cm Samaurai blade, deadly only if swallowed) passes along unnoticed.  I don’t mind conforming to personal limitations in the name of safety, but I do wish airports would be consistent.  It seems that the further one gets from Europe and the USA, the lower the level of official paranoia. “Because they can” seems to be the only logical explanation for the ill treatment of passengers in Europe.  Perhaps something good will come of it.  Only now, thirty? years since Leila Khaled invented the sport of hijacking aircraft for the PLO,  can we be certain that our baggage is pretty certain to  arrive at the same destination and the same time as ourselves  Perhaps in a few years time some hitherto unforeseen benefit will accrue from all these liquid limit shenanigans? Perhaps a new toilet bag of goodies  presented on arrival?  In the mean time, I can only sympathise with the Cruise ship afficionados whose delight is to park the car, embark at Southampton docks and be blowed to all this indignity.

One hour of squashed tedium later we are at Changi Airport.  Singapore must be the world’s template for good organisation.  Why don’t we send some of our politicians here for a lesson or two.  The local metro goes right into the middle of the airport. All floors are linked by escalators that work. Signage is simple, accurate and designed to direct the ignorant traveller to where he needs to be. Tickets / travel cards are cheap.  Trains are frequent, clean, air-conditioned and comfortable etc. etc. Perhaps it is tiresome to live there, but we see no evidence of it and all works in favour of the visitor.

Singapore, formerly Tamasek (Sea Town) has been fought over for centuries. It was an unloved and unlovely mosquito-ridden swamp at the foot of the Malayan peninsula since forever. The Siamese and the Javans quarrelled over control of the Malay peninisula.  The sultan of Malacca (round the corner on the left) owned it until the Portugese whacked him in 1511.  They decolonised it and left it to rot. Malacca was the principle port for ships bound from the South China Sea to India and the west. Such ships had to pass this swamp on their way round Malaya and up the Malaccan Strait, passing Sumatra on the left.

A cute chap by the name of  Sir Stamford Raffles, of the East India company,  knowing that the Dutch had sewn up the spice islands to Europe maritime spice trade and controlled the sea lane from Malacca, looked at the map and decided to take a lease on this swampy bottom bit of Malaya in 1819.  He figured that if he created a free port there, then the natural laws of business would drive shipping companies to use its port facilities, buy timber for repairs, take on fresh water, and bring trade there rather than pay Dutch tariffs in Malacca.  He didn’t even ask his bosses for permission to go ahead. He used his initiative.  This tax free zone has been the foundation of  prosperity and the fortunes of this place ever since. Good idea that – low taxes.  Wonder why our lot haven’t tumbled that?  Anyway, Mr. Raffles was deemed a thoroughly good chap and most things of any significance in Singapore are named for him – districts, roads, a rather nice hotel and so on. Nowadays all stuff carried by ships is in containers.  Singapore is the largest container port in the world and queues of ships from east and west attend its round the clock box shifting cranes.

We check into the Carlton Hotel (next to Mr. Raffles’s hotel) and regroup. In developing Singapore, colonies of workers from China and India joined the Malays and the place is a fusion of three cultures – overlaid with a very British business class.  From the word go, the British administration established Indian, Malay and Chinese districts and encouraged their cultures and places of worship to comingle and interact.  Today they are a truly integrated community and celebrate their Singapore nationality as one nation. None of this multi-cultural twaddle.

Singapore city is a vast collection of Lego block towers inhabited by banks and insurance companies, but there are some charming oases of quietude and one of those is the Botanic Gardens.  Andy, the financial executive of his extended family, has banking obligations to discharge at some grand Singapore bank. Phil elects to accompany him so Sue and I take the Metro to Botanic Gardens and wander in. This place is the Singapore version of Kew Gardens and has beds filled with tropical flowers such as Heliconias (bright “cor blimey” red and orange flowers like Birds of Paradise) and unusual trees such as the Cauliflower tree from which new leaves dangle like lilac coloured tassles and whose brilliant orange flowers grow straight from its trunk like crazy cauliflowers.  The highlight of the gardens is the National Orchid Collection containing over 50,000 plants, dozens of species all growing in their natural habitats.  It is a feast for the eye.

We return by local bus, rest awhile and eat dinner in China Town, a vast sprawling, colourful collection of streets dedicated to the sale of all stuff Chinese – especially food. It is, of course, patronised totally by the local Chinese community as we Europeans stick out like spare parts. We are pounced on verbally by every vendor, offering wares, food, drink, foot massage, medical consultation, head massage and so on. The heady mixture of sights, smells, sounds and tastes is quite an assault on our senses. Andy chooses a restaurant and we dine well (don’t ask me what we ate) and drink Tiger beer.  We totter slowly back to base and sleep the sleep of the traveller.