Having A Camel Ball!

Source: Having A Camel Ball!

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The Last Word From A Lost World!

A Final Blog!

We leave Hanoi, the frenetic Vietnamese capital, with heavy hearts and even weightier rucksacks due to the ridiculous oriental trinketry I have unwisely failed to resist! imageThe shopping is amazing here, each twisting lane presenting a cornucopia of merchandise to lighten one’s purse and darken one’s load. I envisage some lively conversations between Mr Kennedy and I as we hit the open road with a few extra bronze Buddhas as travelling companions. Not to mention the deceptively heavy, lacquered ‘Tintin In Vietnam’ picture, which I’ve managed to secrete into a secret section of one of the backpacks. I don’t think he’s noticed it yet !!!

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imageAt the moment we are enjoying a brief honeymoon period, after having spent a week many miles apart. Reunification in North Vietnam has been a marvellous exercise. Absence doesn’t just make the heart grow fonder!

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But enough of that, the Vietnamese frown on open displays of affection, even though they are an extremely tolerant society. And why not? It certainly shows more decorum. There are some things that should stay well and truly behind the iron curtain that undoubtedly still exists here.

I do not, however, believe this includes the pastime of blogging. This literary hobby surely constitutes a freedom of speech, a privilege, we in The West, take absolutely for granted. To have one’s voice silenced through the actions of Vietnam’s communist government is insidious, and, if I may say, a little rude! Now we are safely out of range of the ruling party’s heavy-handed iron fist I am able, without fear of recrimination, to say what I truly feel.

This is a great nation. It’s people are resilient, hard-working and proud. They possess a sharp intelligence and a sometimes ferocious wit. They are entrepreneurial and yet keenly socially conscious as well. The family and it’s inherently decent values are paramount to them. They can be deadly serious and then collapse into fits of genuine laughter at the drop of a chopstick. Their national character, contrary to much of what I have read on the internet, is imbued with an incandescent array of colour. It is nothing short of tragic that these fine and decent people have been saddled with a colourless and humourless ‘parliament’, with all the attraction of Ho Chi Minh’s lifeless, embalmed corpse.

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It is true that many still revere their mummified former leader. But going by most of the lively conversations in which I have engaged with the local population, this deference seems mainly due to the miracle he performed by kicking out the French colonialists, and not in any part an admiration of his Soviet style policies. Plus, a little whitewashing of historical fact and a lot of brainwashing, a despicable act, that is compulsorily carried out in schools nationwide ! It seems the government doesn’t think this bright and erudite country has the brains to think for itself. Or have a say in how it is governed.

A leadership which governs in this arbitrary and undemocratic manner certainly doesn’t get my vote !

The manipulation of the country’s media, which is entirely run by the state, is a parlous state of affairs. These so-called Socialists should be red-faced with embarrassment and shame. It is a credit to the population that this wonderful land is awash with smiling optimism despite not having the right to put a cross in a box. Those brave souls who have the courage to speak out against such political tyranny and end up with enforced room service at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ get my endorsement. These are the real politicians. The genuine heroes. Not the tin-pot generals and ‘yes men’ who are unelected to such elevated seats of power. Who are so paranoid about maintaining absolute control that they think it necessary to block a silly Western cabaret artiste from making a few wry comments online. They make me gag!

I believe the situation is calm here now as the economic conditions within Vietnam are equally as placid. But there is a definite underlying political tension here, and not a definite underlying pension! If the currency of the ‘Dong’ starts going for a song, the populace may start to sing an altogether different tune. A revolutionary ditty which will have those ruling generals running for cover to the Viet Cong’s many wartime tunnels, holding on to their tin pot hats as they go. I, for one, will be cheering from the sidelines, if this beautiful nation takes hold of her own reigns, and canters gracefully towards the winning post. After spending an utterly incredible month getting to know the good folk of Vietnam, I believe the odds are more than even, and the going, exceptionally good. I can’t wait for the starting pistol to begin the grand nation.

And so we say farewell to this exotic part of the world, happy in the knowledge that this country has won our hearts and leaving her makes us sad, so it is good mourning Vietnam.

We have now pushed on even further from home.

Our plan was to visit China, but the thought of being gagged and monitored for another extended period, by another paranoid and ultra bureaucratic totalitarian regime, seems little more than a voluntary prison sentence, rather than an exotic adventure. So we have decided to avoid the risk of getting caught in the censorious jaws of the giant red dragon and have instead headed south for our first ever visit to Indonesia.

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We have arrived in Bali for ‘Nyepi’ – the fantastic Balinese festival of spirits, where titanic, garish monsters are paraded through the streets in order to scare off any real demons who may be contemplating a Vietnamese style takeover.

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It was a vibrant and noisy start to our exploration of the south seas. The tribal drumming and rhythmic chants have certainly helped us to shake of the constraints of any residual authoritarianism.

Although, ironically, we have been silenced once again on this trip, but by an altogether different authority. Today is known here as ‘The Day Of Silence.’ Not a human being on this exotic isle is allowed to stir or take to the streets. This is to fool the angry gods into thinking the place is uninhabited, so that they go on their demonic ways and leave Bali in peace.

We have been forbidden to leave our home stay by the charming family with whom we share it. We can eat only what we are provided with and must keep noise to a minimum. Andrew is thrilled as he doesn’t have to contend with my constant chatter for at least a day. Surprisingly, being such a keen exponent of the art of conversation, I am not finding this a hardship, especially as we are currently residing in a true paradise, south of the equator.

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Home

And so to comply with local tradition, I have decided to remain silent for the rest of the day, in fact, for the rest of this trip, which means it is time to bring this blog to a close.

Our trip so far has been everything we could have wished for and more. Asia continues to enthrall and fascinate. The sophistication and sheer beauty of Thailand, with it’s arcane rituals and brilliant cuisine. Stunning Cambodia, where the people are as warm as the land they inhabit. And, of course, unforgettable Vietnam. A country of such unique culture and timelessness, that has resisted all attempts to be reshaped by the aggressive chiselling of foreign and domestic sculptors. Defiantly and proudly retaining her ancient form, fecund with spirituality and mysticism. We have been most fortunate and are more than grateful to have been welcomed into these gerontogeous climes with so much sincere hospitality.

We now plan to venture into deepest, darkest Indonesia. Traversing that evocatively invisible borderline we call the world’s equator.

And for once, I’m not gonna shoot my mouth off !

What happens south of the border – stays south of the border!

That is, until I release my first book of our adventures ….

The Lola Boys Out East !

Unavailable in all good bookstores.

But it should be ready for the dodgy ones early next year!

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The Solo Adventures Of A Forty-Something Teenage Detective!

Dong Hoi

imageI set out from my ‘bijoux’ guest house in the small, provincial, untouristic town of Dong Hoi and headed for the incongruously psychedelic bridge which crossed the Nhat Li river.

There was not a lot to see here, the town once being the main staging post for the Viet Cong during the war, it’s environs had been completely razed to the ground. image

The main sights being the bombed out church, preserved as yet another reminder of yet another U.S. war crime, and the bridge, an excellent example of a Vietnamese architect’s draw crime!

The only other vaguely historical point of interest was the remains of an ancient gate which had once been the entrance to an impressive citadel.

Sadly this was unmaintained and littered with rubbish, including a few used syringes.

Apparently this unassuming little conurbation lies on the main heroin smuggling route. The locals say the brown stuff arrives on boats and is then transported overland into Laos, just twenty miles west of here. This would explain the small underbelly of the populace which I have noticed on my meanderings – wandering aimlessly, dazed and confused. I mean them, as well as me. I had assumed there was a small underfunded, psychiatric unit nearby, I now knew better.

imageI crossed the funky bridge, grey and wan in it’s daytime attire and headed for the sandy spit which I’d espied from attic room days earlier. From there it had appeared close by – just a cough and a spit on a bicylce. However, as it transpired, the journey was more akin to. A case of full blown pnuemonia!

As the essential early morning Vietnamese coffee kicked in violently, I found myself pedalling furiously through the narrow lanes. The bike had ten gears apparently, although the other nine I had tried were refusing to co-operate. The bike and I were most definitely not in tandem.

After what seemed like a very short time, I found myself alongside an extremely quiet stretch of beach. Sand dunes rolled out for as far as the eye could see, and all I could hear was the noisy roar of the implacid South China Sea, crashing ferociously sounding like an oriental timpani section as it met the beach.

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The sea itself was unswimmable, the current quite unmanageable, even for a cross channel veteran such as David Walliams. I had been warned to venture in by Vanh, my lovely guest house owner. Had she not been so forthcoming with her coastguardly advice, I would still not have been remotely tempted. Though impressive, majestic even, this remote stretch of ocean is terribly uninviting. The South China Sea can be incredibly agressive at times. Perhaps this great part of the Western Pacific is rebelling in response to China’s recent agression in this maritime region. That great nation seems intent on claiming most of these waters for herself, even those far from it’s shores, much to the chagrin of Vietnam and the other numerous countries who share the it’s coastline. It seems the sea is not the only part of this region with a disturbingl and dangerous undercurrent!

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Greedy,greedy!

I was interrupted from my high-brow geo-political reverie by four young lads, who were visiting the beautiful, if deadly beach on a day trip. Do, Hi, Cok and Wi, who on mass sounded suspiciously like Donald Duck’s nephews, were having a quacking time. (Apologies!) despite the weather. And of course they went quackers when the chance of having a snap with an odd looking westerner materialised. They wanted nothing more than to beach bond with the bleach blonde who had washed up on their tumultuous shoreline. I was more than happy to oblige, they were such sweet and gentle guys, as they always seem to be in this country.

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If the youth are anything to go by, surely only good things can happen here in the future.
I left the beach and cycled onto a road that was under construction. I went for some time at considerable speed, now having re-discovered the art of changing gears on a bicycle. The wind in my hair, the sun attempting to light up my face, it felt great. I was out alone, rucksacked and rebellious, ignoring the boringly dry guidebook and heading for adventure. I’d found at least half of my inner TinTin for which I’d been searching. Now for the remainder.

Then, from what seemed like no-where, two angry hounds from hell, sprung up from the side of the deserted highway and gave chase. I stood on the pedals in an attempt to accelerate away, but neither the bike nor my quadriceps responded quite as quickly as they had once done. image

One of the vicious looking curs, a mean yellow thing, who looked as if he’d swallowed a box of washing powder, made bold!

It went directly for my right ankle. For a moment he caught the bottom of my jeans between his sizeable jaws and I wobbled unsteadily. Physically and mentally! I kicked out hard, there was a yelp, I did not look back as the bike suddenly kicked itself into gear and I was free. My heart was pounding, my thoughts racing faster than the guy in the yellow jersey on the Tour De France. ‘What ifs’ abounded. Not least, what if I’d been bitten?!

Especially as Andrew and I had declined the offer of a series of Rabies shots prior to setting off for eastern climes. The jabs were so expensive and the risks seemingly so distant then, as we sat comfortably ensconced in the tropical nurse’s spotless, Gibraltar surgery.

She had kindly warned us of a recent outbreak in Saigon, but we’d not been swayed. I was now busy wondering if we’d been barking mad to make such a decision when I heard loud voices coming from behind. My initial thought was that I’d raised the heckles of the mean, yellow dog’s owner and he was chastising me, even giving chase! I didn’t wait to find out, but moved up through the gears as fast as I could and turned down a sandy path just beyond some camouflaging scrub, hoping I would lose any possible pursuants.

I could hear more angry shouts, now growing more urgent, I turned to look over my shoulder. To my surprise, instead of an oriental peasant with a shovel and a pissed off mutt, there stood behind me two very serious looking men in army green uniform, with two very serious looking guns by their sides. There was not a dog or serf in sight! I slammed on the brakes, and shot them an apologetic and confused touristy look. I knew I’d obviously made a transgression somehow, perhaps they’d read the blog! I was not in such adventurous mood as to try and outride two Viet army personel who appeared highly concerned and highly armed! I did want to trigger a Viet wrong!

I turned the bike around and made my way towards them.
“No! No!” They were shrieking. Holding up their arms, and thankfully not their arms, in a crossed position in the air.
“No! No! Not allow!”
As I reached the two guys there urgency did not diminish. The taller of the two was making strange noises and waving his arms in an expansive gesture. For a moment he looked as though he was doing the dance that accompanied the Y.M.C.A., I could have giggled with nerves, I was scared enough, instead I maintained composure. He continued on with his Village People  routine and with the noises, which I could now discern as ‘Boom’, ‘Bersh’, ‘Boc Boc’, etc.
It was then I twigged!

There was obviously unexploded ordinance here. I nad been warned by Vanh, and am usually very sensible under such circumstances, but ‘The Hounds Of The Baskervilles’ had put me off my pace and I’d obviously gone further off road than I had realised.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” I apologised, smiling manically. Teeth usually make a difference here.
“Thankyou, thankyou. Cam Un. Cam un.” A little bit of the local lingo goes a long way too.

At once their stern attitude changed. They were not angry with me, only concerned for my physical welfare. They smiled broadly and laughed hard. The three of us shared a moment of nervous hilarity as we shook hands and giggled energetically at the thought of me being blown to smithereens!

They were so nice, they even directed me on an alternative route, avoiding the brutish canines and the U.X.B. I was most grateful.

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After another ten minutes of riding, my crotch and I needed a break. I stopped on the deserted road and took some water.

I marvelled at the construction of all the infrastructure surrounding me, and wondered at the lack of people.

Just who exactly were they putting all this structure ‘infra’!

There was nobody here!

Other than a guy on a black moped who nad been putting along very slowly ahead of me for the last ten minutes or so. Every now and then he would come to a halt, and glance, rather too conspicuously, in his rear view mirrors, seemingly to check my position.

I passed him a couple of times as he remained inexplicably stationary at the side of the deserted highway, giving him a wide berth and attempting to look confident and butch, as my late father had always dispondantly encouraged. Each time, the shrouded rider would start up again and accelerate further down the road, stopping a couple of hundred yards in front of me, looking once more to his mirrors. After about quarter of an hour of this strange duel, I began to grow a little apprehensive. What with the the mad dogs, the leftover bombs and now this mysterious biker, everything was becoming a little too ‘Herge’ – even for my liking!

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My ‘Tin’ was definitely rattled.

I was alone, at least five miles from anywhere, and it felt like five hundred. There was nothing for it but too stand my ground. Dig deep and mine the other half of my Tintin spirit – discover my true metal.

I took out the mobile phone I’d had the foresight to pocket prior to venturing out and held it very obviously in my hand. I then pretended to make a phone call, shouting ridiculously loudly to ensure the masked motorcyclist could hear me. I then clicked the phone into camera mode, stood tall on the bike, and pedalled directly towards the suspected highwayman. I stopped abruptly, about twenty feet from him, lifted the camera high into the air, and took a photograph. I then put the phone back into my pocket and continued to ride past the guy, smiling confidently as I did so. As he was masked I could not tell if he reciprocated, although I had my doubts!

I cycled on, I did not look back for fear of appearing insecure. I kept my pace slow and measured – for once dad would have been proud.

After a couple of minutes, I stopped. Climbed out of the saddle and kicked on my bike-stand in the manner I imagine John Wayne would have done in a similar showdown. As I did so I clumsily bashed my ankle bone into the bike frame in a style more akin to ‘Blazing Saddles’! I tried hard not to react, but it bloody hurt. I then opened my rucksack, took out my water, and nonchalantly took a swig, missing my mouth entirely, and throwing most of the H2O into my left eye! I glanced over, as surreptitiously as I could with the one that could still focus, in the biker’s direction. He had begun to move towards me again – I held my nerve. I could hear the soundtrack of ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’ reverberating around my head at great speed.

“Duddle Uddle Urr – Durr Durr Durr”!!!

And then, suddenly, as quickly as he had appeared, the ghost-rider made a broad u-turn and crossed to the opposite lane. He then rode directly away from me. Calm and deliberate, without so much as a nod of his helmet.

We had, at last, parted company.

Not before time!

I waited a good twenty minutes, or so it seemed. The battery in the phone was exhausted, I had know way of knowing for certain. The photograph I had snapped of my shady biker friend in order to expose him, had been it’s final exposure!

I made my way calmly back towards the town, feeling partially relieved, and, egocentrically, a little proud of myself that I had managed to deter a possible highway robbery, or perhaps something worse! Either that, or my paranoid western sensibilities had got the better of me, and I had scared a poor Vietnamese joyrider witless, with an intriguing game of cat and mouse!

My gut feeling, however, points towards the former.

This country feels, and is, incredibly safe, doubtless due in some part to the fear instilled into the local population by the Vietnamese state should they dare to commit a crime. The gaols here are notoriously unreformed – Elizabeth Fry would have had a field day!

But narcotics can take away one’s fear of reprisal, and with the underlying drugs issue here unresolved, I wonder if I’d just been unlucky enough to encounter one of the few desperate local junkies out on the empty highway.

As I neared the river, a motorcycle pulled up directly alongside me.
‘Blistering Barnacles!’ I nearly jumped out of my skin!
But immediately I was greeted with a benign, smiling hello. It was Linh, one of the student waitresses employed at the small cafe opposite my hotel. She just wanted to ride beside me and chat, practicing her English as we went. I was more than happy to have her with me as we rode back towards civilisation.

“What is you name?” She asked, beaming. Innocent and guileless and with innate charm.
“Tintin” I wanted to answer. But I knew this was unfair. Cruel even, and the joke would have been lost.
“Paul”, I said, returning the smile. “It’s Paul”.
But I knew, that deep down inside, it was Tintin again. If even just for a few exciting moments.

And as the sun broke through the haze for the first time in days, so did my teenage self. I was delighted to know that the boy detective deep inside of me, almost suffocated by the trials and tribulations of adulthood, was most definitely alive and kicking, and it felt utterly brilliant.

Although, I think that may be enough solo adventure for one comic’s trip !

Tomorrow I head for Hanoi to meet up with my old partner in ryhme.
The double act is to be reunited.

But I shall always be grateful for this week I spent alone. Thankful for the hounds, the unexploded ordinance and the angel from hell, which provided me with just enough danger to resuscitate my inner child.

Now he’s been given the kiss of life, I may invite him out to play more often.

“Come on Snowy. Walkies”!

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A Bright Light In A Grey Hue.

I arrived in Hue, the former imperial capital of Vietnam, in the dark, after an arduous bus journey which inevitably took much longer than the advertised four hours! I found a small, traveller’s cafe, where the food was hot even if the local climate was not. It was cold, wet and miserable. I huddled beneath my two duvets, wearing three t-shirts, and wondered if I had made the right decision to leave Andrew in the relative comfort of Hoi An.

In the morning, on entering the rooftop, Soviet style breakfast room, I was even less convinced. The dining area was as silent as the grave. I bade a pretentious ‘bonne matin’ to three French girls who were busily tearing at baguettes in the corner, but to no avail. They glanced up momentarily, glared, and then went back to their breadslaughter – expressionless! I normally love the French. Andrew and I spent a wonderful few days in Normandy only last summer. the locals were charming. But on our travels through Vietnam the only type of Gallic cousin we have come across has been obnoxious and stuck up. I fear for their poor necks in years to come, as their noses are invariably stuck so far in the air, they are doubtless causing severe trauma to the upper spine. The Vietnamese loathe them, which I’m sure is not all due to their country’s lamentable colonial history here. Quelle dommage!

I sat at a small table, looking out over the ‘Perfume River’ which today looked particularly unfragrant and colourless. Hue had a very grey hue!

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As did the breakfast.

I opted to ignore the blueish looking noodles and the dull eggs – more grey! And plumped instead for some fresh fruit and coffee, which is always reliable in this country. The mood did not lighten. It was reminiscent of The Last Supper, heavy and foreboding. I wondered if my fellow diners all knew something I didn’t.

imageTwo American ladies on the opposite side of the salon conversed in a manner that only Americans can, loudly, and without any consideration for their fellow breakfastees. One was telling the other in vivid detail how she had eventually mastered the art of potty training her husband.

“I felt like a Carebear” she whined!

I felt like a sick-bag!

Her pal then droned on and on about the benefits of emotional therapy. After twenty five minutes of this interminable shit, I felt I could do with some too! The French just shuddered.

I was more than pleased to get out into the damp daylight, if only to escape the dreariness of my lodgings. I made my way on foot to the old citadel on the opposite side of the river. I wasn’t expecting much, as I had read how the French had ransacked the place at the end of the nineteenth century. They violently stormed the imperial city, burning down it’s ancient library and looting everything of any value, from exquisite treasures to the last toothpick! Then, during that other infamous conflict which occurred more recently here, the U.S. flattened the place with bombs and even painted the historic quarter with Napalm. It is true that this was a counter-attack after the Viet Cong had assumed control, and bludgeoned a sizeable portion of the local population to death, but it was still an incredibly broad brush stroke! The main victims of all of this futile fighting were, of course, the civilians of Hue. Thousands of men, women and children were killed during these atrocious campaigns.

With all of this in mind, I entered through the magnificent Noon gate with a very realistic attitude about what I was to discover on the other side. However, as it transpired, I was remarkably and happily surprised. Although the battle scars were very evident, the emperor’s once resplendent abode now a pile of rubble, there was still much to admire. Many of the buildings had been brilliantly and sensitively restored, and there was a wonderful atmosphere about the place. The site still resonated with imperial echos of it’s grand past, especially in the quieter, overgrown corners where one could imagine the many concubines bathing in their lotus-covered pools, bickering over the attentions of their lord and master.

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As I stood in the centre of the ‘Forbidden Purple City’, once a place to which only eunuchs were allowed to enter, I felt lucky, not just to still posess my testicles, but to just be present in the presence of such regal ghosts.

It was a real trip – I’m glad a made it.

The following day, after another petit dejeuner from Hades, I made plans to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda. A veritable Vietnamese hotbed of political protest. The location which houses the old Austin in which the Venerable Monk Thich Quan Duc made his journey to Saigon to make his famous fiery protest against the treatment of Buddhists in the country, by burning himself into the next life!

Ignoring the pleading and incessant offers from at least sixty cyclo riders to jump into their baskets for the journey, I decided to walk. I had been informed by my hotel receptionist, Valerie,( at least, I think that’s what she said!), that it was a short two kilometre stroll out of town. After an hour of steady pounding, I was still promenading along the side of the river. I thought perhaps I had headed in the wrong direction, not for the first time. Before me on the wooded, mud-track I had foolishly chosen to take, was a group of men, nonchalantly grouped beside an incongrous W.C. on the verdant riverbank. I approached to ask them for directions. Almost immediately I realised the error of my ways. Let’s just say they were more than pleased to see me, and a little dissappointed when they realised I wanted a different sort of direction to the one on offer! It was all very pleasant. One of them looped his arm tightly around my lower waist, and used his free arm to finger my ‘Lonely Planet’, much to the amusement of the present company. I keenly followed his index finger as it ran suggestively along the length of my route-map, laughing along with them in a slightly petrified fashion. After he’d come to a conclusion, I thanked him very formally, and swiftly continued along the path, like a not so little but very red Miss Riding Hood. Feeling fortunate to have freed myself from the clutches of a pack of over-friendly wolves and leaving them to finish off their tasks in hand, which I had so very rudely interupted.

The winding path eventually ended and I was forced to join a busy four lane carraigeway, juggernauts and coaches sped perilously past me. I would have turned back but was slighly concerned that the gentlemen at the ‘gentleman’s’ may think I had reconsidered and was popping back for a refreshment stop and a quick handshandy! So I continued onward.

Eventually I stumbled upon a photocopying shack in the middle of nowhere, as you do, and managed to make clear to the lady-copyist the location I was seeking. This involved a lot of mime, including a terrible Joan Of Arc at the stake impression, which actually proved to be the clincher.

“Ahh” she nodded, and gestured further along the highway, “five kilometre”!

It was at this point that the thought of self-immolation crossed my mind too. The idea of dousing myself in petrol and whipping out a box of Swan Vesta, seemed only marginally less appealing than continuing on foot along South East Asia’s equivalent to the M25!

Needless to say, I resisted the urge to strike up, and just under an hour later the sight of the evocative tower before me extinguished any further hot headedness!

I climbed the many steps in solemn fashion, aware of the turbulent history that had unfolded here. As I neared the top, I was surprised to hear peals of laughter rather than religious bells. The whole summit seemed alive with joy and hilarity. A large group of extremely jolly Vietnamese were finding something outrageously amusing. As I got a little nearer I could see them pointing and guffawing, I realised then what the big joke was.

It was me !

They found me utterly hilarious. They were practically splitting their sides with laughter.

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Andrew has always told me I have funny bones, but I hadn’t expected my skeleton to cause such uproar at such a seriously religious attraction. After countless photos, for which I happily posed, and a glut of hand-shaking, back-slapping and giggling, I said farewell to my new found friends and stepped inside the temple. The atmosphere was very different inside – much more sombre.

imageMonks were ambling gracefully around the grounds, and every so often one of the novices would bang a gigantic brass bowl with a Fred Flintstone club, resounding in a massive bong which would startle me every time. I marvelled at anyone’s ability to meditate with the incessant racket of the tourists and Wilma’s mighty dinner gong being regularly bashed, let alone find the extraordinary concentration to set oneself alight.

This was an amazing locale. Made even more so by the startling juxtaposition of the incredibly sacred together with the most mundane. On turning a corner and passing a beautifully ornate temple, I was confronted with a Royal Blue, 1960’s Austin automobile, seemingly parked out back. It was actually an exhibit.

imageIt was the car in which the famous monk had been driven to the centre of Saigon. On arriving in that great city, he alighted from the vehicle, assumed the lotus position, and set himself alight. He was later emulated by several other brave souls who burnt themselves alive to bring light to the suffering of their people.

imageI could not help but be truly moved. I even touched the car in admiration, hoping, perhaps, that some of the spiritual courage may rub off on me. We can all surely take something from such selflessness.

On hearing of this genuinely brave flame throwing, the then president’s infamous sister-in-law was reported to have said, in an ‘Antoinesque’ manner,

“Let them burn! I love a big barbecue party!”

This comment unsurprisingly inflamed an already furious public, setting the wheels in motion for Ho Chi Minh’s communist revolution. We all know the rest!

I was interested to learn, that in 1993, another man performed this same pyromanical trick just in front of the pagoda. No-one knows why, it remains a mystery. Perhaps he was given the same directions as I was!

I sat quietly for a while, and meditated on how any being can develop the clear sightedness to sit calmly and turn themselve’s into a human torch for the sake of illuminating society. I left, feeling nothing but a perplexing sense of admiration for them.

I was, however, unpuzzeld by the route I wished to take back to the city. I decided to avoid the turquoise cottage and took to the water.

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The Riverside Cottage!

Smugly pleased with myself that I had managed to barter the boatman down to just 100 dong for the return trip, I cast off in a vessel all of my own.

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I realised though, on disembarking, just why my skipper had been so ready to reduce the fare for my passage. The port of disembarkation was, I’m not sure how one pronounces it in Vietnamese, but in The Queen’s English I’m fairly certain it is known as, the back of beyond! As I was cast ashore so mischievously I felt the fire in my belly begin to ignite, but instead of blowing a gasket, I thought of those beautiful monks from whom I had just learnt so much, and instead let myself – decompress.
I payed the captain, smiled and bid him ‘Tam Biet’.
I then set out once again on the long march home, this time on the other side of the river. At least there was no danger of having to quell the desires of the five knuckle-shufflers across the water.

By the time I eventually reached my dreary abode, my plates of meat were smouldering, I must definitely have burnt off breakfast, if not the dreadful recollection of it. That unfortunately was branded onto my long-term memory.

Just like the story of the brave and brilliant monk. His fate had seared itself well and truly onto my hard drive. I shall never forget the story of his burning passion for freedom and justice, and how it must be to have a real fire in one’s soul.

Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, burns himself to death on a Saigon street June 11, 1963 to protest alleged persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. (AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

He surely was a true beacon of light in an often grey and murky world.

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Bless him x

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The Lola Boys Split Up!

I awoke at dawn’s crack, which to anyone who knows me well is quite unusual, whatever the connotation! I packed my trusty, happy-snappy Nikon into my rucksack and set off for the ancient city centre of Hoi An in central Vietnam. 

  
I knew that if I were to take anything even resembling a decent picture, I would need to beat the busloads of bustling day-trippers who descend on the place each day after breakfast, turning the quaint narrow lanes into a scene akin to The Hajj in Saudi Arabia.

 After all, Hoi An is a Mecca for historians, sightseers and shoppers alike, and once it’s population grows to literally a thousand times that of normal, it is most in-conducive to finding an atmospheric scene to capture. Unless that is, the photographer is after a multitude of shots featuring the multitude fencing each other with their ‘Selfie-Sticks’, parrying one another for the best angle of fisherman angling on the river. It’s a sight to behold.

Fortunately, when I reached the historic part of this beautiful town, and crossed the wonderfully restored Japanese, covered bridge, I found myself  almost alone. Just me, an incredibly placid road-sweeper, and some equally chilled out dogs who were just coming round from their dreams of Pedigree Chum, or whatever it is that constitutes a canine diet in Vietnam. If it’s at all similar to their human master’s, I shudder to think!

  
All at once I was transported to a world of ornate rickshaws and colourful robes, as incense and the faint sound of a classical symphony wafted toward me along the artisanal avenues. A bird perched daintily in a Fraginpani tree sang along and for a few moments it was more than sublime. It was truly magical.

   

   

I was lucky enough to spend at least an hour ambling around this little miracle of a city before the twenty-first century began to rear it’s ugly, industrial head. I was so fast, after the particularly potent coffee they brew here, I could have exposed every 60s model quicker than David Bailey, and taken their photographs at the same time! I felt what others describe as blessed. This has to be one of the prettiest urban settlements in the world. Even after the chattering masses arrive, her spirit and radiance cannot be completely obscured, she is too much of a classic beauty – the Sophia Loren of Unesco world heritage sights.   
  Simply stunning.

Of course, this town is so chocolate-box picturesque, that even the most myopic could pick up a ‘Box-Brownie’ and create a mini masterpiece. As photographers say of the camera-friendly Kate Moss, when she steps in front of the lens, half of the work is done for you. 

I was only to realise, later in the day, just why it had been so unusually peaceful on my anti-meridian stroll – it was a public holiday. And not just any celebration, it was the first full moon after ‘Tet’, the Vietnamese New Year.

The same evening, Andrew and I decided to cross the river to see what was on the other side. Absolutely no chance. On both banks the thousands of revellers swarmed like excited honey-bees, each bearing fiery, paper lanterns to place onto the river to assuage their queen, the great silver moon, who beamed down with an extra fullsomeness upon them.  The meandering water was alight with lighters and their crews taking in the romance and mysticism of this spectacular scene. The Thu Bon river itself awash with candlelight as the lamps made their way downstream. It was mesmeric.

  
We did not stay for long however, as Andrew is not the best when it comes to crowds, and after being carried involuntarily for about half a mile with the current of excited drones, desperate to launch their light craft offshore, I piloted him to the relative safety of a crowded back street, where at least we couldn’t be inadvertently drowned. I’m actually quite good rubbing shoulders and other parts with a vast number of humans, but even I had a slight panic to head for the lifeboats during this loony, lunar siege.

 Definitely a once in a lifetime experience, by that I mean, we won’t be doing it again!

The following day we hired bikes. Well, I say bikes, but really they were medieval torture instruments with saddles! We were forced to stop for coffee after only ten minutes, or we may both have lost the ability to jump into the saddle ever again!

   
   
Seated on the now empty riverbank, a few sad lanterns caught in the weeds for company, Andrew noticed an interesting Captain making good her vessel. He prompted me to take a snapshot, so I took my camera, surreptitiously pointed it in her direction, and made a subtle click. Then, from aft, all hell broke loose from it’s moorings. Amongst a group of chain-smoking skippers sharing a pre-cruise cupper, their came a mighty roar, and one of the men let rip. He screamed and squawked, gesturing in our direction, waving his sinewy arms, making a malicious semaphore that could only have meant one thing. We’d crossed the plimsole line. We had dared to snap a cheeky shot of his boatswain as she fiddled with her sheepshank. He was very displeased to say the least, I thought perhaps this could be the start of another naval conflict in his country. With us as the enemy!

I really didn’t understand what all the hoo hah was about. I couldn’t have been the first tourist, in a city where the main source of income was tourism, to take a picture of his wife.

Perhaps he didn’t want others to know how she made her living !

  
We swiftly paid up and left.

This hasn’t been the first time Andrew has nearly got me killed on this trip. 

 A few weeks ago, whilst in Cambodia, we both decided that the very thing to sort our tired limbs after a jungle trek, was a massage. We headed to the blind masseurs, who are famous across the country for their healing hands. After our talented, sensitive healers had done their bit, Andrew absconded for a detoxifying fag, and left me to pay. I handed a hundred dollar bill to the lovely lady who had been pummelling me for over an hour, apologising for the lack of change. She assured me there was no problem, and held the note an inch from her face, attempting to study it. There was silence. She then shouted to her neighbour, who was fortunate enough to have the gift of sight, and asked him to peruse the note I had just proffered. There was another awkward moment when together they took the bill to the shop next door to have it verified for the third time. She then returned to me, with the guidance of her grocer friend, and informed me in a brusque manner that the note was a fake. Of course not, I assured her, oh yes, she assured me, it most definitely was, as it had ‘COPY’ stamped across it in big red letters! I looked down and immediately saw the scarlet giveaway. I went the same colour. I apologised profusely, blaming the prescription in my glasses, telling them I would be having words with ‘Specsavers’ in Marbella on my return home. It was just a mistaken case of the blind bleeding the blind! Needless to say they did not see the funny side !

When Andrew told me later that he had earlier found the note on the pavement and put it into the wallet as I joke, I also failed to be completely amused. I could have beaten him black and blue with a white stick if I’d had one to hand. Imagine, they had thought I had played a cruel game of blindman’s bluff – I felt terrible – even though I had been completely shortsighted!

So now, having regained full sight, Mr Kennedy and I have decided to split for a while. He is to remain static, no doubt due to the static that has built up between us after nearly two months of sharing a ruck-sack and a toothbrush, and I am to move on. I need to rediscover my inner Tin Tin, the teenage explorer which still survives within my adult body, kicking and struggling to get free. It is almost too pleasant here, more a destination for an exotic ‘Thomson’s’ holiday rather than the esoteric ‘Thomson Twins’!

  
Must be the gypsy in me! As I young family we decamped quite often, making homes in Australia, Cornwall, Dorset and several parts of London, north and south. All of this before the age of fourteen. I think my darling mother must have required movement in order to distract her from my father’s distractions. Let’s just say my beautiful sister and I got very good at packing!

   

Mum

   

Sis

Andrew, on the other hand, comes from a family who were much more stable, geographically, if not mentally! He, therefore, sometimes has a strong desire to linger, much like the cigarette smoke he constantly produces.

So be it ! The time has arrived for me to go off piste, rather than off pissed!

I have always had itchy feet. My mum used to blame this condition on the regular bouts of Athelete’s Foot from which I suffered as a teenager. But I knew otherwise. My heroes were never Kevin Keegan or Pele – I only wanted to play ball with this great planet of ours. I wasn’t concerned with watching ‘The Harlem Globetrotters’, only visiting that famous district of New York City and trotting round the globe myself. I eschewed ‘The Beano’ and ‘The Dandy’ for ‘Herge’s Adventures Of Tin Tin. I could imagine nothing more adventurous or thrilling as a boy and his dog travelling the world together and meeting such colourful characters?

  
And so I am to become that boy once again. A little more frayed around the edges and without my trusty canine companion, I am casting off on a solo voyage of discovery.

I have bid adieu, or rather, au revoir to my own gorgeous Captain Haddock, leaving him to his own devices in his solitary hammock. We plan to meet again in a weeks’s time in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.

   
 Unless, of course, somewhere else takes my fancy ……..

Categories: The Lola Boys | 6 Comments

Why The Fuck Have You Brought Me Here?

Here in Da lat city, in the beautiful, south west highlands of Vietnam, we had planned to get behind one of the famous ‘Vietnameasy Riders’ and head for the hills. However, when our two bikers turned out to be what looked like an eight and a half year old boy, and a poor guy with the use of only one of his arms, I made the unilateral decision that I wasn’t comfortable putting my life in his hand !

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We are both quite adventurous when it comes down to it, but thought this was one trip we should keep at arm’s length. Besides, the kid should really have been at school.

Instead, we restricted our mode of travel to footwork, and and an old locomotive, a relic from the country’s ‘L’indochine’ past. To be honest, we’d probably have been safer on the back of ‘One Armed Luke’s’ mean machine.

The tiny wooden train rattled precariously along the decripit tracks, blowing it’s whistle continuously, warning any countryfolk not to step onto it’s path. On one of the many unguarded, almost imperceptable, crossings en route,  we almost took out two cyclists and nearly turned a youthful, daydreaming baguette seller into sliced bread.

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His mother would not have been proud.

When we reached our destination, which seemed to consist of two tyre shops, three naff cafes and four puzzled locals, Andrew turned to me and asked in his best Canvey Island accent,

‘Why the fuck have you brought me here?’

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I must admit, it was difficult to come up with an answer immediately. Especially as we had been promised an exciting ride aboard a romantic steam train and spectacular scenery. As it transpired, our route took us past a million plastic greenhouses, and the engine was a deisel, belching fumes into the open carriages, almost suffocating the poor Chinese family who had barged their way to the front of the train.

Serves them right for having no manners, I almost thought, but then my Buddha nature kick-started, and my sympathies were aroused. After all, being gassed to death by an Eastern Thomas The Tank Engine, is probably not the nicest way to go! Death on the Oriental Unexpress. Very Christie-esque!

I left Andrew sitting in one of the better establishments, with one of the ferocious Vietnamese coffees which seem compulsory here, and a packet of hideous ‘Craving A’!

imageI then headed off up the one street to find something to see. It seemed we were in, what one calls, the arse end of nowhere! The end of the bloody line. Everything looked lost and so I turned to head back towards Puffin’ Bill, when suddenly my path was blocked by a very stern woman with a vicious crew cut, with whom we had shared our carriage on the way.

“Where do you go?” She demanded.

“Back to my friend for coffee”, I fearfully replied.

“You don’t want to see Pagoda?” She shouted.

“There’s a pagoda?” I stuttered.

“Yes! Of course!”, she shrieked, “why do you think everybody is heading in this direction? For fun? Come now, or you have no time.”

I was a little frightened of this nanny-like  European.

Earlier, when still at the station, she had forced me into going onto the crowded platform, and coralling passengers to make their way to the ticket office. The lacklustre lady behind the counter had informed us, that unless we had at least twenty people to ride the train, this choo- choo wouldn’t be a’chugging. Not even to the arse end of nowhere!

imageMy strident tour guide woman, who had a distinct look of Eva Braun, was in no mood to be left motionless on the platform. So, she organised a flash mob in the waiting room, to make it clear to la femme de billettes, that unless we departed, she may end up as the departed one!

Sweating on the track, after we had reached the arse end of nowhere, I assured Ms Braun, that we would definitely make the effort to visit the temple, she had worked so hard for us to get to.

I returned to my partner and told him, in no uncertain terms, we were to climb the hill to the pagoda. I could see in his ‘seen one temple, you’ve seen ’em all’ expression, that he wasn’t keen.

To be honest, neither was I. We were both sunburnt and exhausted from our 15km midday hike the previous day, after refusing the services of the ‘Vietnameasy Riders’.

More than satisfied with the hard ride we had just undertaken, I could have been swayed by Andrew’s lack of enthusiasm, and joined him for a steaming glass of tar in the relative cool of the fanned shack he had found. But the Neo-Nazi like voice of our travelling companion was still bellowing in my ears, and the thought of the teutonic ear-bashing we would receive on the return leg of our journey, persuaded me to persuade him to undertake the sweaty pilgrimage.

And we were so glad we did.

As we turned off of the ‘high street’ onto a lane of charming wooden shuttered homes, we were astounded to see a pagoda of such ethereal unearthliness, curving and winding it’s way skyward, just feet in front of us. This majestic place had been hidden from us, that is, until we left the road most ridden. Down this small, dusty, unpreposessing track lay a secreted wonder. Andrew stood agog! I was only partly surprised, as I have always been party to the virtues of magnificent secretions in back alleys.

Still, this was a wondrous affair.

image   image

All at once, we were as alight and colourful as the buildings before us. The joy and exuberance that emanated from these, almost miraculous structures, was quite tangible. The happiness and religious fervour which came from some of the faithful visitors was also quite obvious too. It was an enchanting site and an entrancing sight.

“This is why we came !” exclaimed Andrew, at his most blue-green eyed and innocent.

I could only nod.

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We were indeed, very fortunate.

Back on board our non-puffing engine, I thanked Eva for her friendly coercion.

“Of course” she replied, now in an utterly charming manner, “we have been here before. You really had to see it.”

She sat back contentedly, as we rattled back along the tracks to Da Lat; a touristic Mary Poppins, her job done.

Da Lat City herself, is very pretty. If somewhat over manicured. She reminds me of one of those other infamous easy riders, the Essex Girl. Her flowerbeds primped and pruned to within an inch of their horticultural lives. Her perfect aquamarine lake expertly shaped like a Saturday night eyebrow. The collars and cuffs definitely match here.

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Gazing at the giant, fibre glass, swan-shaped pedalloes, propelled along the surface by the immaculate footwear of the party dressed peddlers, I had to smile.

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It was like an episode of T.O.W.I.D. The Only Way Is Dalat!

imageAlthough, I fear that had the rather ample Gemma Collins, that well known Essex bird, taken one of these birds onto the water, the outcome may have been somewhat less graceful. Being a little less diminutive than the usual Vietnamese honeymooner, it would probably have been her swansong!

 

 

Today, we bid adieu to the land of the bikers and hikers and head for the sophistication of Hoi An. An affluent town in central Vietnam. But we shall never forget the heavenly, other worldly pagoda or the easy ride we have had of it in lovely Dalat.

We loved her make-up.

As they’d say on Canvey Island ….
I’m not being funny darling, but she was reem.

 

Categories: The Lola Boys | 2 Comments

Two Go To Devil’s Island!

Con Son, also known as Indochina’s Devil’s Island, is the main isle of the remote archipelago of Con Dao, lurking quietly,  far out in the turquoise South China Sea, just off the coast of southern Vietnam. Today, it is mainly visited by northern Vietnamese war veterans, who had once been incarcerated here during the infamous American campaign last century. They come to pay respects to their fallen colleagues and, I imagine, in an attempt to reconcile themselves with the brutality they were forced to endure here.

It was The French who built most of the prisons in this beautiful place, during their colonisation of the country. The lock-ups were used to keep those natives who had the audacity to rebel against France’s colonial ambitions. Almost twenty years after The French were kicked out, the United States put the jails to bad use once more, when they transferred Viet Cong fighters here to be imprisoned in the infamous ‘Tiger Cages’.

This is a ‘Tiger Cage’ !

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A pit with a barred grill as a ceiling, so that the guards, like demented circus trainers, could stab at the inmates below with thick bamboo poles. These torturers also threw lime onto their captives to blind them and scorch their skin.

imageFor those ‘lucky’ enough to avoid these hellish holes, an altogether different abode awaited. Known as solariums, these were stone cells, completely open to the fierce sunlight. Made to share these compounds with hundreds of others, naked and without room to even lay down, these men and women literally baked alive under the punishing, equatorial sun.

The Americans denied the existence of these killing rooms, much like the waterboading which took place at Guantanamo Bay. But, in 1970, they were forced to admit their cruelty. A journalist, on a controlled congressional visit to the gaol, had in his posession a secret map, drawn by an ex-con, and detailing the whereabouts of the rumoured ‘Tiger Cages’. He managed to break off from the main group, and following a path leading behind a vegetable plot, used as camouflage, he discovered these brutal cells. ‘Life’ magazine then published his photos for the world to see.

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America was shamed and forced to apologise.  Just another example that none of the participants in that fatal conflict conducted themselves with anything near flying colours.  The Geneva Convention was torn up and fed to the big cats.

It was a very eerie visit.  To walk through a gate, leaving paradise feet behind, and to be confronted by a genuine house of horror.  The atmosphere was a heavy as the iron manacles which still lay on the hard stone floors.  It was difficult to remember we were in an exotic heaven when surrounded by such barbaric history.  The imaginative evil to which Man is able to stoop during war is beyond imagination.

We were pleased to leave !

Not before giving one of the guards a disrespectful hand to lighten our mood. A shameful act for a shameful place!

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Thankfully, the rest of the island is a delight. Cobalt blue waters, emerald mountains, abundant wildlife, and best of all, no Starbucks in sight !  It would be very interesting to return in ten years time, to see if Ronald Macdonald has kept his grubby hands of the place.  Perhaps the heavy red glove of the communist government will hold back any of his commercial clowning.  Although, having just spent six days in Saigon, I very much doubt it.  Change maybe at a glacial pace here, but at some point the floodwaters of commerce will surely overrun the islet’s innocent defences.  Paradise, after all, never endures !

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imageWe took a motorbike to see the rest of the island.  It was glorious, the ride, however, was not.  I hadn’t ridden for several years, and saddled with a hungover hunk, by the name of Andrew Kennedy, riding pillion, we must have looked like ‘George And Mildred’ as we wobbled precariously along the precipitous roads.

imageWe stopped for lunch at a local village, or rather, the only other village!  Our hosts were so polite and engaging, that we thought it churlish to refuse their fishy offering.  The ‘head chef’ sat with us and prepared the frightful feast.  He seemed to take a shine to me, and I was therefore offered all the best bits of this marine meal.  First, he fed me a fish eye, which glared at me angrily before he chopsticked it into my gob.  Then, I sampled some gill and something quite unrecognisable that came from the fish’s midrift.  Finally, with a flourish, I was presented with a type of organ, which flapped between the sticks before it slithered down my gullet.  It was most unappealing.

Andrew looked on, with barely suppressed hilarity, as he escaped most of this fishy torture.  He was, however, offered the head of the creature to munch on, as a digestif.  Our cook was taking no prisoners when it came to his selection of menu!

A day later, and I can still taste the overdose of iron in my mouth.  It is like I have had a flagon of fish liver force fed.  A faceful !  I doubt I shall ever be able to contemplate a plate of cod and chips again !

In the evening, still with bass breath, we joined the local game of Bingo.  A manic affair, run by two terribly stern looking drag queens, resembling camp guards from the tv show ‘Tenko’!

imageimageimage

imageThe numbers were sung, at lightning speed, by a flat singer in sequins.  Without the help of the charming ‘Miss Hassan’ lookalike, we would have been lost.  She kindly handed Andrew a white piece of chalk with which to cross off his numbers.  He misunderstood, and much to everyones amusement, he put the chalk into his mouth and began to chew, thinking it was a sweet.  He spat it out once he eventually realised his inedible error, but at least it had got rid of the flavour of fish bonce that was still lingering on his palate.

Needless to say, we didn’t win!

I think something fishy may have been going on here too, as the same man won three cases of Tiger beer in a row.

We had to buy ours!

It was a fun night, and the bottled Tiger and the Bingo cage, helped to erase the memory of our visit to the other ‘Tiger Cages’ the previous day, which was most definitely the pits !

Tomorrow we head for the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

But we shall not forget Con Dao, with it’s beauty and bestiality.  It is a place where nature still roars at her most magnificent.

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Categories: The Lola Boy's Blog, The Lola Boys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

I Miss Saigon.

Her crown may be glitzier, her gown may have more sparkle, yet her face is almost unrecognizable. Lifted, filled and bulldozed to make up an entirely different visage to the one I met here, almost twenty years ago.

Lucky enough to be sailing and performing on The Q.E.2., we docked here, on the Saigon River,  on two magnificent occasions.  I recall such a colourful connurbation, full of oriental mystery, not to mention some mysterious orientals.

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My great friend, Becky and I, had a thrilling time, being pedalled around the ancient, incensed streets, by Ting, our trusty rickshaw pedlar. At once engulfed in narrow, smoky, lanes of boiling, mammoth pots containing unthinkable cuisine. Animals pulling carts of exotic produce, and children and chickens and dogs, and what seemed like a million other vibrant and virulent actors all adding to the richly foreign pantomime.  We fell in love, there and then, with Miss Saigon.

It was the Saigon I had imagined a few years before, when I saw Andrew at his brilliant best, starring in the show of the same name, at Drury Lane.

imageimage

Exhilarating, unnerving, dissarming.  And like Mr Kennedy, utterly enchanting.

And now, I have returned. I have searched in vain for this former enchantress.  The bygone Saigon.  But she just doesn’t want to show her hauntingly, nuanced face.

Sometimes, all cosmetic surgery seems to do,  is mask the true beauty, however uncompromising, that was once plain for all to see.  Seeing the change in Ho Chi Minh City today, does little to make my face lift!

image

 

imageThere are still some character lines to be discovered here, if one looks hard enough.  Alleys of exuberant decadance, where a plethora of temptation and illicit goods, are available for the bad.  All at a haggled fee, of course.  Canals and rivulets of artful iniquity, flow like subtarreanean waterways ‘neath the town’s old boat race.  But these tributaries of tribulation are few and  far between.  The old laughter lines I remember, have been cunningly erased.  The warts expertedly excised.

Or just blasted into submission !

image

And if you are lucky enough to spot one of the broken veins that reveal this city’s former bones, Lady Chi Minh turns, all too swiftly, to give you her good side once again.  Seemingly underconfident in her once, magnificent bone structure.

imageThe odd pocket of grand, French, colonialism can still be found, as one stumbles across a faded parade of shophouses, or a wan pastel mansion on a shady, tree lined avenue.  But there are less of these dinosaurs now,  crumbling discreetly, like antique, Gallic, gout-ridden, dukes.

Once splendid.

Now revolutionised.

Like the rest of the place!

image

Despite the rampant, and sometimes, irritating commercialism that is ever present here, the city still feels like she’s had a rosy, red, facelift!

Her brash, near-perfect, Hollywood smile disguising some of her less palateble home-truths.

The Vietnamese government control every news outlet in this country. image Every television channel. All of the press is state managed too,  and the government imprisons anyone who dares to sling mud in it’s face.  Including bloggers !  At least a hundred writers were banged up last year for simply having a point of view.  Not such a pretty face now eh?

There are always several facets to every major world city.  So it is not surprising the reigning Miss Saigon is ever so slightly two faced.

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But I prefer the old, fading, beauty queen of a town, when I was a gentleman caller in my prime. She definitely wore too much slap, and was less, well, red!  But she had a surfeit of eastern promise and allowed her resident scribes much more expression.

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A Miss Saigon played by Norma Desmond.  Always ready for her close up – however revealing!

As much of my acquaintance will know, I am the first in line for a spot of Nivea and a touch of peroxide.  After all,  everybody can sometimes do with a little tarting up in some districts.  A little gentrification can do wonders for a tired surburban face.  But major surgery?

Is almost every, up and coming, oriental starlet of a city, destined to metamorphosize into every, ordinary, aging, L.A. Socialite ?

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Ageless. Devoid of character. Lifeless.

Yet it seems another urban, oriental, grand-dame is to slip disgracefully into old age.

Out with the ancestors. In with the new !

What a load of old botox!

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I miss Saigon!

Categories: Rebecca Knight, Operababes, The Lola Boys | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I Miss Saigon.

 

Her crown maybe glitzier, her gown may have more sparkle. Yet her face is almost unrecognizable. Lifted, filled and bulldozed to make up an entirely different visage to the one I met here, almost twenty years ago.

Lucky enough to be sailing and performing on The Q.E.2., we docked here, on the Saigon River,  on two magnificent occasions.  I recall such a colourful connurbation, full of oriental mystery, not to mention some mysterious orientals.

image

My great friend, Becky and I, had a thrilling time, being pedalled around the ancient, incensed streets, by Ting, our trusty rickshaw pedlar. At once engulfed in narrow, smoky, lanes of boiling, mammoth pots containing unthinkable cuisine. Animals pulling carts of exotic produce, and children and chickens and dogs, and what seemed like a million other vibrant and virulent actors all adding to the richly foreign pantomime.  We fell in love, there and then, with Miss Saigon.

It was the Saigon I had imagined a few years before, when I saw Andrew at his brilliant best, starring in the show of the same name, at Drury Lane.

imageimage

Exhilarating, unnerving, dissarming.  And like Mr Kennedy, utterly enchanting.

And now, I have returned. I have searched in vain for this former enchantress.  The bygone Saigon.  But she just doesn’t want to show her hauntingly, nuanced face.

Sometimes, all cosmetic surgery seems to do,  is mask the true beauty, however uncompromising, that was once plain for all to see.  Seeing the change in Ho Chi Minh City today, does little to make my face lift!

image

 

imageThere are still some character lines to be discovered here, if one looks hard enough.  Alleys of exuberant decadance, where a plethora of temptation and illicit goods, are available for the bad.  All at a haggled fee, of course.  Canals and rivulets of artful iniquity, flow like subtarreanean waterways across the town’s old boat race.  But these tributaries of tribulation are few and  far between.  The old laughter lines I remember, have been cunningly erased.  The warts expertly excised.

Or just blasted into submission !

image

And if you are lucky enough to spot one of the broken veins that reveal this city’s former bones, Lady Chi Minh turns, all too swiftly, to give you her good side once again.  Seemingly underconfident in her once, magnificent bone structure.

imageThe odd pocket of grand, French, colonialism can still be found, as one stumbles across a faded parade of shophouses, or a wan pastel mansion on a shady, tree lined avenue.  But there are less of these dinosaurs now,  crumbling discreetly, like antique, Gallic, gout-ridden, dukes.

Once splendid.

Now revolutionised.

Like the rest of the place!

image

Despite the rampant, and sometimes, irritating commercialism that is ever present here, the city still feels like she’s had a rosy, red, facelift!

Her brash, near-perfect, Hollywood smile disguising some of her less palateble home-truths.

The Vietnamese government control every news outlet in this country. image Every television channel. All of the press is state managed too,  and the government imprisons anyone who dares to sling mud in it’s face.  Including bloggers !  At least a hundred writers were banged up last year for simply having a point of view.  Not such a pretty face now eh?

There are always several facets to every major world city.  So it is not surprising the reigning Miss Saigon is ever so slightly two faced.

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But I prefer the old, fading, beauty queen of a town, when I was a gentleman caller in my prime. She definitely wore too much slap, and was less, well, red!  But she had a surfeit of eastern promise and allowed her resident scribes much more expression.

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A Miss Saigon played by Norma Desmond.  Always ready for her close up – however revealing!

As much of my acquaintance will know, I am the first in line for a spot of Nivea and a touch of peroxide.  After all,  everybody can sometimes do with a little tarting up in some districts.  A little gentrification can do wonders for a tired surburban face.  But major surgery?

Is almost every, up and coming, oriental starlet of a city, destined to metamorphosize into every, ordinary, aging, L.A. Socialite ?

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Ageless. Devoid of character. Lifeless.

Yet it seems another urban, oriental, grand-dame is to slip disgracefully into old age.

Out with the ancestors. In with the new !

What a load of old botox!

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I miss Saigon!

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Snakes Alive !

I would like to say it is the first time I have witnessed a subdued snake get a head bashing at 6.30.a.m. But that wouldn’t be true.

It is, however, the first occasion on which I have witnessed it being barbequed afterwards!

The Mekong Delta continues to dazzle. Both geographically and socially. The people that inhabit this strange, amphibious  land seem as mysterious as the misty waters which sustain them. Aloof and constantly perturbed, yet calm and eager to please at the drop of a chopstick. We are already falling in love with Vietnam.

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I had read, repeatedly on the internet, that the country had a disastrous visitor return rate, at only 5%. This, according to many incandscent bloggers, was no doubt due to the rudeness of the Vietnamese. Well, unless we are in a different country entirely, I have to disagree with those worldly whingers. Perhaps they come from that dated school of thought that believes all people of Eastern descent should descend into servitude, acting as dutiful and polite servants to any tourist visiting their country. What a load of Dim Sum.  Or bollocks to use the vernacular.  The people are great here. Keen witted and enthusiastic to make business, but also ready to laugh and tease! I have had my fair share already! I love it. Bun Pho and banter. It spices one’s life bowl.

We took a boat down the river from Phnomn Penh in Cambodia. The city dissipated into peppermint paddy fields, their verdancy almost fantastical. It was like the moment in ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ when Dorothy’s house lands and kills the wicked witch of the east, and we see Ms Garland for the first time in all her technicolour splendour – vibrant and garish.

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In booking our boat, I inadvertantly got us roped into a few tours, much to Andrew’s chagrin. We were forced to arise before six O’clock two days in a row and herded onto motorbikes or minibuses so see the local sites. Not the first thing one desires after an eight hour boat journey, including a break-down, and a change of vessel!

Much to our surprise the second day in Can Tho, the main city of this aquatic region, turned out to be a unique experience.

Andrew had turned on the alarm, but turned down the volume on the Ipad, so we were woke at an ungodly hour by our bossy Chinese receptionist and rushed into packing our rucksacks and scooting down to the lobby to join our fellow adventurers. I apologised profusely, blaming an isuue with my defacation. Andrew joined the group and was just a pain in the same region, Caffeine-less and humourless he muttered more than once, as we bobbed down the empty river,

‘We could have been in fucking bed! This is bloody stupid!’

I chastised him for being miserable, yet secretly agreed that it was a rather dull outing, not improved by the fact that it was New Year’s Day, and the main attraction, the sprawling, splashing, floating market, just wasn’t afloat. The fruit sellers and their bouyant buyers were all moored up at home preparing for the night’s celebrations. This did not stop our skipper from motoring up and down the river for a good fifteen minutes. Zig Zagging and following his normal route as if navigating through the three hundred vessels that were normally there! As he did so our guide described what we should be seeing. It was at this point I thought Andrew may choose to walk the plank rather than continue. I certainly wanted to Keelhole our tourguide!
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And then, suddenly, out of the empty water, a coffee seller came aside. Andrew leapt to port and and managed to score the strongest caffiene kick this side of cocaine!  We both went high and were soon singing Beatles songs on the stern, delighting the previously stern passengers.

It was when we arrived at a rural homestay, to be shown the traditional ways of the village, that the bucolic fantasy we were indulging in, shed it’s silky visage, and revealed the true nature of this beautiful, yet harsh enviroment.

 

On arrival at the barbeque, Andrew was invited to make friends with one of the serpents, bucketed to the side of the grill.  He very bravely caressed one of the slithering lengths of serpentitude, almost forging a relationship.

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Then all at once, the snake was taken from his gentle grip.  Spun expertly through the air a couple of times and then smashed against the hard metal edge of it’s eventual killing machine, the barbie!  We all watched in silent horror as the poor thing was then thrown onto the hotcoals and cooked, stunned, yet alive.  This reptilian murder didn’t take long, but it was quite clear that none of the spectators, including ourselves, had ever witnessed such snake slaughter before.  Two rats, three frogs and a couple of very suspicious looking quail (I quail to think!) later, and we left the alfresco feast hissing before us.  Needless to say without sampling any of the wares.  A crunchily cooked cricket is one thing – but a refried Roland Rat and a burnt breast of sparrow is quite another.  But you know what they say – 0ne man’s meat etc.

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Personally I’d rather opt for the cyanide.  It goes down much easier.

Much like the ‘happy water’ we were then offered by our hosts.  Probably in order to help us forget the brutal snake slaughter we had just witnessed.  None of us refused, not even the very stern Canadian who was travelling with his incredibly youthful oriental chum, everyone wanted to erase the memory of the snakeshead frivolity.

Suffice to say the boat trip back and the subsequent six hour bumpy bus journey to Saigon, slid by almost imperceptibly.  And we have now arrived in the scintillating capital for Tet, Vietnam’s new year, Christmas, and birthdays, all rolled into one.

The normal snakes of traffic have dissappeared for just this night and the city is fecund with anticipation of the fiesta to follow.

The fires have been lit, and Saigon is about to get cooking.

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Let’s just hope no more serpent is on the menu!

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