Hoi An again – Suitin’ the breeze

It looks like I lucked out at the Internet cafe today – my keyboard as barely-functioning space bar and shift keys, so apologies if mistakes slip through that I can’t be bothered correcting.

Today, Friday, pretty much followed the same pattern as yesterday, and for that matter the day before.

  • awake between 8 and 9
  • eat breakfast
  • laze by or in pool
  • shower
  • wander around town until sweatier than John Candy (when he was alive)
  • get back to hotel pool ASAP
  • forget how hot it is
  • repeat from “wander” until legs lose motor function

Today’s wandering initially involved checking out the famed Japanese Bridge, which must be famous for non-architectural reasons because it just looked like a bit of footpath that happened to extend over some water.

After raising an eyebrow and turning on our heels, Janelle and I headed through the market (As I may have previously mentioned, its pungency is comparable to a barrel full of Irishmen’s feet). I took Janelle to a tailor who had been recommended to me by another Australian, and got her advice on colours and materials for a rather spiffy suit (“Don’t get double-breasted, Dan, it’s out” – I would have had no idea).

After spending quite some time being measured and bargained with, we left satisfied but somewhat poorer. I ordered a dark-grey suit and waistcoat plus a deep burgundy-red shirt to match, US$58. We’ll see if it’s worth it tomorrow. Janelle’s had considerable trouble with a tailer near the hotel; twice they have failed to get the back right on her Chinese-style dress.

After the tailoring, Janelle and I were convinced by a nearby shop to get a massage. What I didn’t realise at the time was that, while women had the dubious privilege of being massaged semi-nude in the fairly public shop window, men had the even more worrisome task of riding a motorbike to the family shack on the other side of the river and being massaged by a rather enthusiastic and muscly chap (Is it racist to nickname him Ming the Merciless? Probably) who pounded me like a side of mince, and cracked my fingers for good measure. I left poorer and wiser than I had entered, but probably no more relaxed. A motorcycle ride in Vietnam alone is enough give some people a nervous breakdown, and I had two.

We grabbed some lunch. I got Spaghetti Amatriciana, which was Amatriciana in the same way as I’m the Prince Albert Hall. I.e. Not at all. I was a weird mix of undercooked tomato and onion, but at least it was edible. I thrust it down my gob and tried to forget about Ming.

Recipe for Spaghetti Prince Albert Hall.

  • isolate oneself, from birth, from all sources of information that might give you an understanding of italian food
  • one day, have a sideways glance through a kaleidoscope at a sketch of a faded polaroid shot of an actual Spaghetti Amatriciana
  • three years later, recreate Spaghetti Amatriciana from memory

It’s understandible that they don’t always get it right. Particularly considering that in this town, as with the clothing designs, everyone photocopies copies everyone else’s menus. Most cafes and restaurants have the chalkboard slogan “Same Same But Better”, or “Same Same But Different” (if they’re worse). I have actually found myself using “Same Same” and other pidgeon english phrases with other Australians, which is a little embarassing.

Later on we headed back to the pool, and I had a great bit of pool-volleyball with Joanne, another Australian staying at the hotel. She and her partner Peter are touring with a group, and tonight they took us along with them for a Vietnamese cooking lesson. We paid about $7.50, and were taught how to cook a delicious salad, some fish smoked in banana leaves, and spring rolls. Then we sat down on the balcony overlooking the river and waited for our food to be cooked.

Amongst the food we cooked were several other delicious morsels, like barbequed chicken skewers that must have been the most succulent I’ve ever tasted. In all, probably four courses passed over the table, and at the end, they gave us printed recipes to take with us.

That’s all for today – tomorrow we head out to the ancient Cham ruins of My Son, and check out our suits.

Hoi An

It’s 11:48am on Thursday, and I finally feel almost relaxed. We checked into Vinh Hung 2 Hotel last night at around 4pm (I think).

Now with fewer prices! Thanks to Hannah’s whitenening, brightening powder o’ perspective. I have no problem with changing the content of my posts retrospectively; I’ve been reading Nineteen Eighty Four. This is what I like to call doubleholiday.

Diary entry for yesterday morning:

Our last day in Saigon, and we’re in the cab on the way to the airport. To our left, a six year old girl takes her four year old sister by the hand and they nonchalantly stride into the sea of darting motorcycles. We pass yet another David Fucking Beckham billboard, with the familiar steely-eyed gaze telling us to buy Caltex motor oil. Last time it was Pepsi (carbonated motor oil, so I suppose there’s a link), before that probably a motorbike.
“When I’m going for goal, my legs never sieze up, thanks to Caltex motor oil.”
“When I’m bending over for advertising executives, my anus never chafes or blisters, thanks to Caltex motor oil.”

The flight from Saigon to DaNang was uneventful. We went up, a completely un-Vietnamese snack (ham and cheese roll, orange juice) was served, and then we went down. Any horizontal flying couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, given that the flight was less than an hour.

Apparently, Da Nang was once quite charming and historic, with a history of trade extending back 1200 years. Today, it’s difficult to tell whether it’s half-built or half-demolished, and the motorcycles seem even more suicidal here than in Saigon, if that’s possible. The roads are dug-up and pitted, so driving is slow. The weather is absolutely amazing, however, so we resolve to try one of the China Beach resorts.

China Beach is a major disappointment. A vast and glorious beach with no one on it, large and formerly glorious hotels now empty and run-down. It would make a great setting for a Stephen King novel. It’s quite expensive and the rooms are a mess. We decide to skip it and pay our taxi drivers to take us straight to Hoi An, one hour’s drive away. In their haste to turn Da Nang into another Saigon, the Vietnamese have made it repugnant to foreigners.

On the way to Hoi An we pass several incredibly unlikely looking “trucks” going in the opposite direction. They appeared to have been cobbled together from old war parts, and the result is vicious and organic, as if H.R. Giger designed a Hummer. The engined are huge and exposed, and the cabins are a giant flapping mess of steel and canvas.

Our taxi drivers clearly have very little desire to continue living, and repeatedly demonstrate this fact by driving straight into oncoming traffic. There does seem to be some order to the chaos. If you’re a bicycle, you give way to everyone (even if that means darting off into a ditch). If you’re a motorbike, you give way to everyone except bicycles. Cars only give way to trucks, unless the truck looks a little rusty. Trucks give way to no-one, nor do they even slow down. They just lean on the horn at every opportunity and barrel flatulantly through what would otherwise be peaceful and beautiful countryside.

We made it to Hoi An in one piece. It’s is a very different town from Da Nang, small and charming, with plenty of shade, and we quickly found our chosen Hotel, Vinh Hung 2. It has a pool in the central courtyard, so the first order of business after checking in is having a swim – fantastic.

I went for a walk by myself down to a bridge near the town’s marketplace, and got some great photos of the sunset. On the way back I was cajoled into entering a woman’s clothing factory.

Hoi An is famous for its fabrics and clothing, so I got measured for a long-sleeved shirt, as a test. Manufacture takes less than a day – if they measure you in the morning, it’s done by the afternoon; if at night, then by 10am the next morning. The fabric was top-quality cotton, and when I collected it this morning (Thursday), it fit perfectly.

Suits are between AU$30 and $50, for the best quality fabrics, and that includes lining. All the clothes are hand-made to your requirements. It’s going to be hard not to spend serious cash here. I met one Australian family at stall 7 who had come back to the same seamstress three times in six years. I shall be heading back to her later on. So, if any other Australian readers have their measurements on hand and would like something, let me know!

They also make shoes to your measurements here too, so I’ll be investing in at least two pairs.

Many of the buildings here are very old, a mixture of French and Chinese architecture. It’s great to walk around and explore the narrow tree-lined streets, and even down the most obscure and hidden alleyways you’ll find a pool hall, bar or cafe.

Now I’m going to head back out into the sun, with my new Vietnam hat.

Day 4

The following text is transcribed directly from my diary. For those that rightly pointed out that Janelle and myself have not engaged in many uniquely Vietnamese experiences, I would point out that we’re in the middle of the most westernised and commercial city in Vietnam – all there is to do is shop, eat, drink, and gawk at the occasional architectural marvel. Today, however, we left Saigon and hit the countryside. Read on!

Janelle and I are in a car, entering Mekong City. On the dashboard sits a particularly gruesome nodding dog, the scalp of his head ravaged by the sun and dripping down his nose. Still, he’s in better shape than many of the tumble-down lean-to’s we’ve driven past on this two hour journey, let alone their poor occupants. Surprisingly, these dwellings are interpersed with an alarming number of statuesque mansions, though their frequency dwindled the further we drove from Saigon. I can’t wait to leap out of the car and violently purge myself of this morning’s breakfast, as I have every meal for the last 24 hours.

A boat tour on the Mekong costs us 675,000 Dong. We should have talked them down. I’m the world’s worst bargainer. The taxi is setting us back a further 500,000 Dong.

We’re sitting in a beautiful garden/restaurant in the Mekong Delta, stuffing ourselves with fried fish, noodles, vegetables and battered shrimp. This morning’s food is still going through me like a Mekong river speedboat. Or, more correctly, hundreds of tiny Mekong river speedboats. I’m sure you needed to hear that.

Lunch, however, is very delicious (“ruk nong”). Janelle repeatedly insists that our guide, Giang (her name means “river”) eat some of the food. Giang earns US$20 a month, which is mind blowing. She works hard (seven days a week), her English is great, and she’s, ahem, extremely well-presented.

Earlier, we stopped at Mekong Island to sample fresh honey, honey tea, rice wine with honey, banana wine, and several other combinations of honey and booze. By the time we left I was somewhat tipsy.

Then we headed to coconut island, and the coconut candy factory. We were immediately greeted by a plate of fresh, unset coconut candy, still warm and sticky from the oven. Not one part of the coconut tree is wasted in the manufacture of candy. The milk makes the candy, the leaves add colour and flavour, the husks burned to heat the milk/sugar mixture, and the trunks hold the roof up. We bought some coconut candy, and soursop candy. Soursop is softer and slightly sour, like a gummi bear.

The last stop, the one after lunch, was to sample freshly picked fruit. As well as fruits that I could identify (pineapple and banana), there was Dragon Fruit (which is the flower of a cactus), Ramatam (a kind of lychee), and others that I can no longer remember the names of.

While we were eating, two musicians assembled beside us and began playing; one on a single-string upright violin-type thing, the other on a two-string guitarlike number. A young girl, about 8 or 9 years old and dressed in an immaculate white silk gown, stood between the tables in front of them and began singing. Giang explained that it was a folk song about some happenings on the Mekong Delta. After a few verses, she was replaces by an older woman (her mother?), who sang the next part while her other children mouthed the words. Then, a stunningly beautiful girl of about 16 took the “stage”, clad in a gorgeous embroidered red and yellow silk gown, and sang her piece. The three were joined by another girl for the rousing final chorus, which was followed by a brief instrumental version of Auld Lang Syne (as if we needed further reminding that we were tourists). The singing was raw but ornate. We didn’t take any photos, not wanting to make these poor people feel more like circus performers than they already did, laying out there cultural heritage for the consumption of obscenely wealthy foreigners.

Now we’re driving back to Saigon. Smoke blankets the rice fields, which are dotted with ornate gravestones and mausolea. Along the roadside, the pattern is roughly: hovel, hovel, empty cafe, hovel, enormous mansion, rice paddy, hovel.

Today we spent:
Taxi: 500,000 Dong, $50
Boat Ride (3 hours): 675,000 Dong, $67
Lunch: 306,000 Dong, $30 (for both)
Tip for Giang: 200,000, $20

About $100 each for an amazing day out. We probably got ripped off in some areas, but really, I can’t complain about that. The people here are so incredibly friendly and hard-working that to bargain them down seems unfair.

Note to Dad: many companies here proudly proclaim ISO 9001:2000 and ISO 9002 certification. Woo!

Day 3

Lazily copied from my group letter:

Warning: Gratuitous group letter follows.

Hello, I’m sorry it took a couple of days to write – it’s been a pain finding an Internet cafe and a pain getting into any of my sites. My camera doesn’t work with the computers here, something to do with them being incompatible because they’re powered by steam. The screens on both my terminal and Janelle’s are flickering like crazy, which has the peculiar effect of making me want to devote my entire life to the Party.

First up, apologies if http://www.goldsounds.com isn’t updated as much as I would like (if at all while in ‘nam). I can’t seem to get through to it. [Barp! Can now – Ed]

The last couple of days has been thrilling, tiring and terrifying. We touched down on an airstrip enroached upon by countless shacks, presumably inhabited by the most tolerant people in the world. Customs was fairly painless, with the exception of me giving the wrong form to the wrong Official Looking Guy with a Machine Gun (there are quite a few of those here). The mistake was quickly corrected – by and large, everyone here is astonishingly patient and friendly.

We met an Aussie couple at the airport while changing our money. They were about to leave, and had followed roughly the same itinerary as Janelle and myself. They were full of helpful advice, and had the most amazing tans ever to fly back into Canberra. Then only slightly disturbing thing was their constant referral to the Vietnamese as “those little bastards”. Apart from that they were full of nothing but praise.

The cab ride into town was amazing – no seatbelts, and careening head-on into swarms of motorbikes, cyclos, and other cars. Some of the motorbikes were ridden by entire families, sometimes three generations on one bike. There are few road rules, and even fewer traffic lights. There’s nothing like the sight of a giant intersection with motorcycles pouring into it from all directions, and miraculously missing each other. It’s as if France went to war with Germany and mysteriously found itself in Poland. “What? We missed it?”.

Oh, and some of the traffic lights have a count-down. Yes, just like in Formula 1.

Day 1 involved eating and collapsing into bed at 7:30.

Day 2 we got up at 8:00 (on a Sunday!) and went straight to the War Remnants museum, about which nothing can be said that isn’t deeply disturbing. Cells, torture instruments, incredible photos, documentation, weapons, deformed foetuses. Heavy going, but well worth it.

Then we headed for Ben Than market, one of the largest in Saigon, and swarming with activity like a giant bee-hive. Live birds and sea life of every description, countless shoes and sandals (none of which fit me, with the exception of ghastly plastic-molded “Nikes”), jewellery, and of course fabric, hats, and clothes. I bought a very nice shirt and pair of pants, with some very useful fashion advice from Janelle.

Speaking of Janelle, without her help and guidance I’d probably have cholera, dysintery, AIDS, and an empty wallet by now. She’s a knowledgable and patient travel companion, of which I am reminded whenever I smash yet another lamp or stall with my gangly frame.

Oh yes, and the shirt/pants combo? $28. You’d pay over a hundred in Melbourne.

Next we caught a cab to a bar called I-Box, which far from making you want to lick it (http://apple.com), made you want to nestle into its cozy lounges and sip Vietnamese black coffee until they have to scrape you off the ceiling and close up. It reminded me of bars in Fitzroy like Yelza or Polly, but bigger and with local artwork all over the walls. Coffee there was $2.50, which in Vietnam is daylight robbery.

After I-Box, we walked back to the hotel to recuperate from the heat. On the way back, I spotted a men’s hairdressing salon that looked pretty swanky, so I booked an appointment for an hour hence and continued to the hotel.

I came back at 5pm for the haircut. Oh, the haircut. Ooooooh, the haircut. Well, not so much the haircut, which lasted about ten minutes; then the hairdresser asked if I’d like a shampoo (included) and a shave (an extra US$5.00). I decided to treat myself, so I said yes, and for the next hour and twenty minutes two perfectly lovely assistants shampooed me in ways that would make Burt Reynolds cough uncomfortably. Totally non-sexual (in that it only involved my scalp, chin and arms), but lordy, I’ve never been pampered like that.

After recovering the powers of speech and walking, I paid and headed back to the hotel, where Janelle had spent the intervening time spacing out. We headed out to find a Karaoke bar, a task at which we utterly failed. We did, however, find an Irish bar which contained actual Irishmen, and never to waste an opportunity to shelter ourselves from the countless rich and exotic experiences that awaited in the rest of Saigon, we settled in and got blisteringly drunk. Janelle wisely stuck to Gin and Tonics ($4.50), while I “graduated” from these to pints of Carlsberg ($3.50), and paid a heavy, heavy price for that this morning. It’s 3:30 pm, and I can walk again, and that’s what counts. The Irishmen in the bar were mostly engineers for Siemens, and produced from their otherwise perfectly intelligent and reasonable brains some of the most obscene chants I have ever heard. Bloody good fun.

Today has been something of a write-off so far, though we did book our domestic flights for the remainder of the journey – Da Nang/Hoi An (four days), Nha Trang (four days), and back to Ho Chi Minh city.

I will put photos up as soon as I have time.

The 80’s has a lot to answer for, dude!

In a move that can only be likened to raising the dead and then forcing them to wear bum-bags, my friend Eleanor and I recently recorded a cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart, by Joy Division. Click here and then run, RUN!

[warning: file is about 3.15 Meg, I wanted to capture every synthesised nuance]

Kitten Kaboodle Review!

Last Tuesday was my last Kitten Kaboodle show for at least a month. Janelle’s friend Michael is sitting in on keys, and he is just amazing. He played piano on Tuesday, and I did the normal impro thing with the rest of the crew (Janelle, Justin, Jamie, Rob and Adam V MC’d). We got great feedback from the audience for having a strong sense of teamwork, which is always nice to hear.

The show started with a normal singing die, in which we attempt to sing a shared story while the MC points at random cast members, who then have to continue singing where the last person left off. Some people (i.e. Rob 😉 are way too good at this, and occasionally have to, er, not try so hard, which he did beautifully when he suicided.

The games were great fun all night. I loved Emotional Alphabet with Rob. We had to begin each sentence with the next letter of the alphabet, starting with Q, and during the scene the MC called out various emotions which we used to influence the scene. The topic was Badminton, but I don’t think we played a single shot as we gradually got around to 69’ing on the floor. Hil-a-rious.

Another fun game in the first half was Serenade, in which Justin and I serenaded Janelle, a Finance officer who liked to knit. I didn’t realise I knew so many financial terms until the awful finance-specific puns stared pouring out of my mouth. “You’re a General Ledger(nd)” being one of the worse ones. You almost could hear the “Voom!” as it flew over people’s heads. Me Nerd. The audience loved it anyway. I don’t know whether to be happy or terrified when I’m reminded on stage just how humans love to see others humiliated.

We kicked off the second half of show with the new Singing Die format, in which we sing a The Doo Ron Ron having to rhyme every line with a single syllable name until someone gives up, e.g. (person number indicated with numeral)

1: I found an old dog and I called him Bill
all: (The Doo Ron Ron Ron The Doo Ron Ron)
2: I took him to the park, it was such a thrill,
all: (The Doo Ron Ron Ron The Doo Ron Ron)
all: (Yeah)
3: He ran down the hill
all: (Yeah)
3: And he took a spill
all: (Yeah)
3: I had a view to a kill
all: (The Doo Ron Ron Ron The Doo Ron Ron)
4: He went up to heaven and looked like a dill
all: (The Doo Ron Ron Ron The Doo Ron Ron)
5: Because he kept on licking his cock
(BAAAARP! 5, You’re out)

Another new game we played was Motown (or something like that), essentially creating a motown song with a group of people who each step up and sing about a job, e.g. Tram Conducting. It started to get really good in rehearsals, but didn’t quite come off on stage because we weren’t quite comfy with the music. I’m sure next time, after another rehearsal, it will be much better.

In the end, it was a great night, and recent shows have been all the better for the incredible support we’re getting from the Kitten Club. They bring us drinks at half-time, they talk about big things in the future. It’s fantastic. You definately don’t get that kind of treatment everywhere.

Venezuela – Land of Carboard Cut-out Dreams

They’ve got serious problems in Venezuela. A shortage of food and water has left their otherwise energetic civilian populace looking like cardboard cutouts. Check it!

Gleeful, yet strangely forced

Looks like some kind of shooting gallery for disgruntled former East-European royalty.

I would love to get my hands on the original photo of those two joyful peasants. You know, the one where they’re in a bare concrete cell with guns pointed at their heads and their children crying in a corner.