Vietnam - set 4, with captions by Fish
Fish's photo collection index.
Dear FishHeads, Freaks, fans and the Company,
The cabin was simply luxurious and I couldn't help but hang a big goofy grin as I cracked a couple of shots on the Nikon of my reflection in the mirror of a bathroom that wouldn't have been out of place in a 5 star hotel. I was on board the Jasmine, a converted junk that sported 20 cabins on three decks. I was on the upper deck, one down from the bar and dining area which opened out to the seated area at the bow.
A large double bed and mini bar with a door that opened out to a small private seated area where I could have a smoke and watch the waves go by as we cruised towards the magnificent limestone outcrops and islands that made up the World Heritage site of Halong Bay.
There are over 3000 islands in the bay that rises out of the Gulf of Tonkin. As legend has it they were created by a dragon that flew out to sea and tore the mountains down with its flailing tail. Another says that the dragon still lives beneath the waters and is probably related to the Loch Ness monster! :-D
I was in heaven. It was just after midday and thankfully the sun had burned away the mists giving us breathtaking views of the mysterious and magical landscape that rose out of the azure sea. There were only around 25 people on board for the overnight cruise and we assembled in the bar area for an introduction and welcome from the crew who all wore traditional smiles. It appeared that I was the only single guy and took my place at a table for lunch. The other passengers seemed very distant and broaching conversations was hard work at first. It was obvious there was 'money' on board. Couples hiding behind menus and isolated in thoughts. I sat and read my book and nursed a Caipirinha and waited on my lunch, a 5 course Vietnamese fish extravaganza that went down with a chilled dry white to leave me wondering whether the afternoon's excursion to an island to climb a 1000 foot mountain was a particularly good idea.
It appeared there were others in the same frame of mind and we relaxed on the fore deck with our smokes, coffees and cognacs.
The island in question had a small beach that was already littered with tourists and vendors spilling out of small boats. The narrow stairway to the top of the limestone crag was a crawling snake of colour as the visitors trudged to the summit. An hour later the few adventurers from our junk returned red faced and disappointed. It appeared I'd made the correct decision missing only a magnificent view and a potential heart attack.
During the excursion I'd sampled some more wine and made acquaintance with a bunch of similarly minded people all loosening up thanks to a few cocktails and sunshine. I'd got into conversation with a couple of guys, one of whom turned out to be also on his own. 'Fai' was a French Algerian who lived in London and is involved in the music business providing packages for concerts and promoting DJs. It turned out he'd come via Cambodia and Thailand where he was on a romantic holiday with his girlfriend who was an "in demand" model. While he was in Thailand she had taken a call from her agent who had procured a lucrative assignment in Australia for her. Fai was now travelling solo and making the most of it. As we were both singles we asked the waiters to put us both on the same table for dinner that night. An hour later a member of the crew came up to us and asked for our keys. I was a bit confused and asked why he needed them. "So we can put your baggage together in the same cabin!" We burst out laughing and explained we were only having dinner together. He must have thought us decadent westerners! :-D
We passed the rest of the afternoon behind our Nikons racking up frame after frame of the bay as we cruised beneath the towering rocks and among the flotilla of junks and other watercraft meandering through the calm sea. The sun set quickly and spectacularly.
The landscape reminded me of prints that I had at home by an American artist called Jerry Schurr. I'd bought one called "Olympia" in New York in the '80s when I was there on the first Marillion tour. When I came back to Aylesbury I'd found another print called "Padres Bay" which had pride of place on the wall above my fireplace in my first house in Albert Street. It still hangs over my wood burning stove here at the farm and always reminds me of the night when I wrote the stream of consciousness piece which became the basis for the 'Misplaced Childhood' concept. I always wondered where he had found the inspiration and, as we sailed through Halong Bay with the sunlit rocks on one side and the graduated hazy blue and grey shaded islands on the other, I could have been looking at one of his works in 3D. It was truly wondrous.
Dinner was slightly less formal than lunch as everyone had chilled out and cross table banter was more forthcoming. Fai and I launched into the wine. After dinner a screen was dropped and we were treated to a showing of "Indochine", a movie about the French occupation of Vietnam in the period after the Second World War and starring the enigmatic Catherine Deneuve, still one of the most beautiful women in the world as far as I am concerned. Many of the scenes had been filmed in Halong Bay with the extremely rare permission given by the Vietnamese government who are notoriously "fussy" about foreign movie productions and insist on OK-ing all script content to make sure that it is politically acceptable. With the subject matter concerned with French colonialism and the rise of nationalism in the country it passed the censors and became a critically acclaimed and Oscar winning project. The cinema photography is sublime but as we moved up the numbers in the white wine bottles and the movie entered its third hour the audience dwindled and I knew that I would catch the end some other time.
I slept to a lullaby of humming engines and dreamt of Catherine Deneuve as we cruised through the night to our morning anchor point.
As part of my embracing of the new me I had decided to take part in the morning Tai Chi classes on the upper deck at 7am. I don't know how I managed it but I was there adopting crane positions after a couple of litres of water. I'd not been to bed that late as ever on the holiday and had racked up about 8 hours of Z's. The hangover wasn't too bad and I have to be honest after half an hour of slow controlled exertion I felt great. There was something very exhilarating following the synchronised moves in the early morning light of the bay, bare footed and wearing my camo trousers and 13th star vest. It all felt just so right! :-)
Fai was suitably impressed as he emerged with a mind numbing hangover to join me for my traditional bowl of Pho in the dining room.
We had an excursion to a huge cave complex that morning and we both needed some heavy duty caffeine input to fire us up for the climb up to the entrance after the bum boat dropped us off. It was pretty spectacular and the biggest caves I had ever been in. With the world heritage listing it had picked up in '94, the fishermen who had used the caves were moved out and on and were none too happy.
For me the most poignant moment came when I found graffiti on a large rock. One of the signatures was from a French person in 1954, the year they were hammered at Dien Ben Phu and thrown out the North after some pretty gruesome battles.
There are only so many stalactites and stalagmites a man can take in one viewing and despite the eye-popping effect of the size of the place and the dramatic lighting I was glad to be back on the junk and indulging in a last lunch before leaving the boat in Halong City.
I had a long journey back to Hanoi and the airport. 5 hours in a car with a driver and my guide. The trip was broken by a stop off at a small village to see a water puppet show. I'd heard about this but was unsure of what to expect. I found myself sitting alone in a square of the local community centre facing a large pond in which was a "stage". Basically the puppeteers are under water or behind a curtain moving the puppets around with sticks and pulleys on the surface. The puppets, about a foot high, made out of wood and garishly painted, reminded me of 1950s TV creations. Sort of Vietnamese Bill and Ben or Andy Pandy! They consisted of snakes, dragons, fishermen, water buffalo and of course heroes, damsels in distress and evil wrongdoers all taking part in ancient story lines with suitable happy endings. While the puppets are being splashed about chasing each other, spouting smoke and flames from fireworks let off underwater, a small orchestra consisting of a drummer who crashed very loud cymbals, a guitarist with a 3 string instrument and another with a zither-like arrangement plucked and twanged away furiously as three women took the voices of the puppets and shouted out in high pitched tones. It was hilarious and totally surreal. I just sat there on a tiny chair drinking green tea with the band off to one side and the show in front of me in the pond!
When it was finished I duly applauded as the locals emerged from the water wearing waders. Bizarre!
This was village entertainment for all ages and often acted out at the end of the rice harvest. It was so simple and innocent and to be honest I was really touched by the whole performance.
More tea and a smoke of the local tobacco from a bong type arrangement. It was quite heady for legal gear! :-D
After that I was asked to send up a good luck wish to the skies. I wrote a list of charms and messages in chalk on a slip of paper which was then attached to a closed top paper lantern. A flame was lit underneath and then as the lantern filled with hot air it took off and ascended hundreds of feet before disappearing in the distance. I stood and watched in silence as the red lantern vanished in the bright blue sky.
I had a little lump in my throat as I thought about the message I sent to the heavens and about where I was in the world.
The drive continued and I reached Hanoi with hours to spare before my flight to Hue.
I was really looking forward to this city. It had been captured by the North Vietnamese Army during the Tet offensive in '68 and been the scene of terrible fighting. The old Imperial capital sat on the Perfume River, so named because of all the blossom that would float down on its red waters from the luscious forests further upriver.
I landed late and was picked up and brought to my hotel by my next guide. I still had time to shower and launch into the streets on my own to get some food. It was a strange experience as I contemplated what had happened. The South bank where I was had been devastated during the war and most buildings had been rebuilt since then. During the weeks of occupation by the NVA over 3000 people had been assassinated as traitors, informers and for working with the Southern regime, some - as stories go - were buried alive. The Americans wreaked a terrible vengeance and hit the city with every weapon at their disposal killing more civilians in the process.
As the Imperial city it was seen as a major triumph for the NVA to capture it and as Ho Chi Minh had raised the Vietnamese flag after the abdication of the last emperor in the '50s it was also a huge statement when the flag was raised again over the citadel in '68.
I read the relevant chapters in "Bright Shining Lie" as I ate my late dinner. The walk back was creepy and as I hadn't quite got my bearings I got lost for a while in the backstreets and ended up nearly having a face off with a cyclo guy who took exception when I told him to F off after he had been following me for a while offering me some "boom boom" with young boys. He got the picture very fast. I was tired, half pissed and dangerous and that dark side of Vietnam I loathed. The cyclos in Hue that I met were particularly shady and I was very alert when walking on my own in the badly lit streets.
Next morning fresh and fed with my regular Pho intake I was picked up by my guide and we headed to the river for a boat ride. It was just me, my guide and the couple who owned the boat - a 30 footer with smoky engine - on which they also lived.
We headed upstream past a similar enclosed vessel that was anchored midstream. We pulled alongside and I was asked to remain inside the boat rather than sit on the bow. I sat on the small plastic seat and stared out the windows as the two policemen who occupied the other boat examined our "tourist license" and were given a "gift". Every boat that went upstream had their "papers checked" and it was obvious that our boatman was both pissed off and very nervous and respectful when the examination took place. I had become very aware of how powerful the police were and had been warned not to get involved with them. Tourists were relatively ignored and seen as cash cows. The locals however were not so lucky and any involvement with the tourist trade meant dollar signs. It was pointless getting wound up about it and you just came to accept that wheels were greased and that was how everything kept working.
We headed up river, the gears of the engine grinding and groaning. I sat on the bow and stared at the tree lines on both sides. I was Captain Willard and I swear I could imagine tracers and rounds arcing from the banks towards the boat. I was in heaven!
We eventually stopped off at the Thien Mu Pagoda. A beautiful structure built on the bend of the river and a major Buddhist centre where Thich Quang Duc had studied. He was the monk who publicly burned himself in Saigon in '63 when the Buddhists protested at their treatment from the Diem government. His powder blue Austin car which he drove from Hue to Saigon is on display in the grounds behind the pagoda. Strange to see this relic from the UK in such a setting.
The place was so peaceful and I felt a great calmness come over me. It wasn't an ancient building as I first thought but was built at the beginning of last century after the emperor had a dream of a visitation by an incredibly beautiful woman. He built the temple as homage to this mysterious imaginary female with whom he fell in love. I've never gone that far but appreciated the statement :-)
Back in the boat and we continued upriver with our now seriously clanking and smoking engine. It didn't take much longer for it to give up and we drifted in the river with a disconsolate boatman and his wife who stared at the deck in dismay. I felt so sorry for them.
They hailed another boat and my guide and I boarded the craft to find an Argentinean family. They were headed to the next destination, the tomb of Minh Mang, another half an hour away upstream. They were really friendly and we swapped stories as we cruised along the muddy waterway, not a flower petal in sight, between banks stacked with vibrant green foliage that every now and again revealed an eye-catching structure that demanded a Nikon moment.
The tomb was monumental. Again not that old but with an ancient air. We walked from the river and through the huge gates and into one of the beautifully landscaped areas I have ever seen. The scope of the project all contained within walls and taking up a site that seemed about the size of East Lothian was breathtaking. We wandered in the gardens that revealed themselves as we moved through the various buildings, aligned so they were dripping with Feng Shui and auspicious to the max. Swathes of lakes and lawns decked with frangipani and pine trees. Just the idea of the planning had me in awe, never mind the execution and the man power required for such a project.
Again it was such a peaceful environment I couldn't help but totally chill out and relax. The inner smile was on full beam.
My driver picked us up and we drove back to Hue. The afternoon would be spent in the citadel.
I had lunch on my own in a small restaurant with outdoor dining set on different levels around a small pool. There was a comical moment when a rat wandered into the dining area and meandered across the floor. No one freaked or jumped on chairs as you would have expected in any European restaurant. It just seemed so natural and was accepted. I just laughed together with the other diners.
The citadel was imposing. The outer walls are magnificent and the first set of buildings renovated and repaired since the '70s. Inside I felt sick.
The French had burned about a quarter of the structures in the '50s and the Americans in dislodging the NVA had devastated the place. Howitzer shells, heavy bombing and rocketing had practically erased the Forbidden City. UNESCO is funding restoration but the blackened walls that remained were testimony to the bitter fire fights that had occurred. To see the models of the original layout amplified the sense of loss and anger. I couldn't but help be reminded of what has happened to historical sites in Iraq. A terrible waste!
Back at the hotel I met an Irish girl who was working with VSO and teaching catering to the Vietnamese as their tourist trade was exploding and they need experienced staff to deal with the hotels springing up all over the country.
She introduced me to her friend Ari who worked on coastal projects and we all decided to go out that night. Natalie was great company and in the restaurant we gathered momentum as we met others based around Hue. I ended up in deep discussion with two guys, one American, the other British, who were dealing with unexploded munitions left over from the American War in Quang Tri province, one of the most heavily bombed areas in Vietnam. There are cluster weapons still killing civilians after all these years and funding rather than being increased is being drastically cut. The programme is under threat and understandably the guys were incandescent at the possibility of having to shut it down. I was given a book about the effect of cluster munitions worldwide and - to be honest - I found it deeply shocking. It's produced by Handicap International and was written in 2007. It is sobering reading.
Anyone interested in further information on this can visit www.handicapinternational.be
The night dwindled away and conversations eased to farewells. Natalie gave me a lift back on her motorbike to the hotel, Ari following on his. It was an exhilarating ride and my laughter was carried in the wind as we zipped through the streets of Hue.
Next day I was heading to Hoi An by road. Natalie and Ari had to get down there to pick up some stuff so I offered them a ride in my car.
The driver was cool so at 9 we set off on our road trip that would take us over the Hai Van pass, a winding road that had stunning views of the coastline. We stopped en route on the beach at Lang Co and sat and watched the breakers for a while. Recharged on strong Vietnamese coffee we continued on through Danang where the Americans had set up a huge base and airstrip in the '60s. Danang is where troops went for Rest and Relaxation (R and R) on the famous China Beach and is now becoming a major tourist resort with the old airport now catering for civilian rather than military traffic. Ironically the new hotels bursting around the coastline are now favourite destinations for former soldiers and their families and China Beach is now coming back to life in a different guise. It has a strange vibe.
We had another break and visited the Cham Museum and then on to Marble Mountain just on the outside of the city. It's just as it says and the number of stores selling marble sculptures defies logic. More lions and eagles fighting cobras and I came across a marble self-contained fountain that must have weighed about 10 tonnes and was exquisitely carved with flowers and animals and delicate trees. The offer to ship it back to Scotland was met with a huge guffaw and I didn't even consider asking the buying price!
The mountain has a number of pagodas and caves which contain statues of Buddha carved direct from the surrounding rock. The smell of burning incense is everywhere. We climbed up ranks of stairways cut in the stone and into a huge cave which had a ceiling over a hundred feet above us with holes through which you could see the sky. It turned out there had been a VC company working from this area and who had hidden in this cave. Toward the end of the war the Americans had tried to blow them out using strafing helicopters and in doing so had opened the ceiling. During the assault the Vietnamese commander had used remote electronically fired rockets and had shot down 19 choppers! The VC survived and became heroes. It was a fascinating mountain and every turn you discovered another small shrine or pagoda. The fresh milk we sucked through straws from macheted coconuts was welcome as the temperature rose and the climb took its toll on us.
We got into Hoi An late afternoon. Natalie and Ari went off to find a hotel and we agreed to meet up later. I was down in the old part of town and first on my agenda was to find a tailor. I was there for a couple of days and as it was famous for inexpensive made to measure clothes I had decided to get myself a Chinese suit with round collar. Yatta had found one in Rio last time we were there after I discovered they didn't have my size and then found the one I tried on fitted him perfectly. This was my chance! I wandered around until I found a recommended shop called Sun tailoring run by a young guy called Moon! Too much! :-)
And there it was on the mannequin in the shop front! And then the mist descended! I ended up ordering 2 Chinese suits and 2 three button Italian copies, a bundle of silk shirts and 3 pairs of trousers copied from the ones I was wearing! It was ridiculously cheap and I would never find them on the peg in shops back home. And the dollar rate! And it was Vietnam! And......
Ok I went nuts! :-D
I was measured up and told to come back that evening for a first fit.
Meantime I phoned Fai who was now in a hotel outside town and agreed to meet up with him Natalie and Ari later.
I wandered round town and took in the sights. It's a great place and steeped in history. The two floor buildings in the traffic free streets had clothes shops every 10 yards it appeared and I had to refrain from wandering in and getting caught in another shopping frenzy.
I bided my time and met up with the guys after my fitting in the Mango Bar on the dockside.
A night diddly bopping round bars with great company in a dazzling town that was humming with life.
I headed back to the hotel through a dark and empty market by the river, rats scampering round my feet. I was smiling, big time!
Next day we all met up at Fai's hotel which in all honesty was one of the most amazing resorts I have ever visited. At 450 US dollars a night it was well out of my range on this trip but if I ever get married (and that is a very, very big IF :-D) this is where I would suggest for a honeymoon!
Three huge infinity pools all descending toward the South China Sea, landscaped gardens, peppered with individual bungalows with sunken baths, wall to ceiling linen drapes around the huge bed that sits in the centre of an open plan room... I could go on and on. It is simply awesome!
It's called Number 52 (in Vietnamese) as that's the street number on the beach road! :-D
We had lunch there and polished off a vat of white wine. Fai was heading to Bangkok and then home, Ari was off to see his lady in Singapore, Natalie was back to Hue and I was heading to the Mekong Delta. It was all big hugs and sad farewells.
I had one more day on my own and spent it traipsing round town. I parked myself in the Mango for a couple of hours before heading to Sun and the final fittings. Moon had invited me for dinner with his family so I went along in my kilt! They were suitably impressed and Moon as ever a business man asked if I wanted it copied! :-D No chance. When he examined it more closely he freaked at the amount of material in the pleats!
I bounced back and packed ready for an early leave at 6am for the airport in Danang. It was strange arriving at the airport and seeing the old US hangers and the helicopter parking areas in the early morning light. I was moving South. The holiday was just about over.
I still had the Mekong Delta before Ho Chi Minh City and then the last 5 days on the beach.
The Delta was a place I was looking forward to but I only had a day and one night. I arrived in Saigon and headed straight there, a journey that brought me into the hotel at around 6 o'clock after a long car trip with my next guide and a ferry in rush hour. We stopped off on Binh Hoa Phuoc island to see some local crafts and had another boat trip. The Mekong is a stunning river and its power is overwhelming.
The hotel was right on it's banks and by the time I had arrived and had dinner the night was closing in. I didn't get a chance to look round the local town, Can Tho, and wished I had been there for another night. It was my favourite hotel out of all the places I stayed in. I've never had so many freebies in my life in a hotel! A jar of pineapple jam, a decorative bottle of rice wine, a coolie hat, a bunch of incense, a small sack of coffee, another of jasmine tea and sweets. The room was luxurious, actually a full suite with two balconies overlooking the Mekong!
The restaurant was incredible and the best meal I had in Vietnam. Too much! Coffee and cognac at the riverside on my own. I was going to miss this place.
Morning and breakfast on a junk that sailed up to the floating market at Cai Rang. I was on the river and heading up to the Cambodian border. It was Captain Willard again! I just soaked it all up, ate my Pho and drifted.
The market was a bustle of activity, craft scooting all round selling wares, examples of what they sold tied to the masts of the vessels. My Nikon whirred and clicked. It was am amazing place and a great experience. Next time I will spend longer down there.
The beach after Saigon was spent just chilling out. I didn't do anything. I lounged on the beach. I woke up at dawn and took in a sunrise. I sat on the balcony of my bungalow and drank wine in the darkness as the incense sticks glowed. I met with Natalie who was about to start a new job in a hotel down there and had dinner but the rest was spent on my own. Emails were flying in about the tour and the album promo and I knew it was all about to end.
I'd come down with a rucksack and a lot of baggage and left most of it down there in Sapa, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hoi An and Hue and down in the delta. I'd done a lot of thinking and a lot of healing after last year's traumatic upheaval. I felt good about myself and in all the self examination and introspection I was glad things had turned out like they did. I'm happy being me. I came to enjoy my own company, meeting people on a different level and outside "the business". I know exactly what I don't need and who I want around me. I think I grew down there. I think I did find a part of me that had gone missing in action. I went there with a heart of darkness and did the journey. It doesn't scare me any more. I know what I have to do now.
I've got to write the book. :-)
lots of love
Onkel Fish xx