Sunday 06 January 2013
Votes & Views #30
The flight to Hanoi from Laos was short, but geographically interesting. We flew over hundreds of kilometres of densely forested hilly terrain, quite surprising when one considers that it had been ‘bombed back into the stone-age’ by the Americans and then defoliated with liberal doses of Agent Orange. The jungle had obviously managed to re-grow in the intervening couple of decades, and only a handful of houses could be seen along a few small alluvial patches. Quite the opposite of what I had expected from one of the most densely populated countries on earth. However, judging from what I could see from 16000 feet, it would be difficult to make a living from anything but hunting in such a landscape. Now it became clear why it has still been possible to discover new species of major ungulates in the past twenty years, such as the saola, a two hundred pound antelope that scrambled about the Vietnamese forests along with a tribe of lesser muntjaks (all of whom I was dead keen to see in the flesh) and who knows what else.
Then the land leveled out; suddenly there were rivers in sight. More and more gleaming ribbons bisected the green hills, coalescing to form larger ones, with flood plains in between, then being joined by more until huge masses of water dotted with ships of all sizes slid majestically across the now almost levelled landscape. Every square metre was cultivated wherever possible, but dense clumps of human settlement were dotted all over. There were relatively few roads – who needs them when you have rivers as highways?
The Hanoi airport had no pretensions - middling size, lots of grey concrete, short on charm. By some mysterious alchemy we got through to immigration at the head of the queue, flashed our e-visa letter of confirmation, paid our fifty dollars and we're almost smiled into the country. I ask the grim official ushering us along in mime, ‘is that it’ and he nods and waves us towards the baggage line where our bags arrive almost simultaneously. Within five minutes of stepping on Viet soil, we were at the tender mercies of our taciturn driver, en route to the hotel. We did not realise that this part of the trip was as going to nearly double the travelling time from Luang Prabang, but it was quite a distance by road. The first aesthetic impression of Viet Nam was not great; agro/urban/industrial sprawl everywhere. One had ricefields in between tiny multi-storeyed villages, or between hectares of manufacturing plants. Grey concrete everywhere, a nation on the rise – high-rise. Also utterly lacking in charm.
Once we hit the city proper, the traffic flow really increased. Roads narrowed dramatically, and you could often find a street that we would restrict to a one-way in South Africa, carrying two-way traffic of cars, several lines of bikes abreast, jinking and weaving from left to right, squeezing through on the principle of, if you got your nose in first, you had right of way. There was a sort of manic ferocity in this utter disregard for our notion of road rules, sense or courtesy. Obviously no driver would purposefully kill a pedestrian, but anything on lighter, narrower, smaller or fewer wheels had best give way, brake or take evasive action. Our driver tends to turn into oncoming traffic, almost as if to dare them into collision. A backed-up queue means nothing; he crosses over to the wrong side of the road, forces oncoming traffic aside, gets to the front of the line of cars and then barges his way into prime position. Traffic lights at large intersections have this endearing feature that they have a countdown light next to the colour-change. This way the waiting drivers know to the second when the light will turn to green, and the most eager set off a few seconds early for good measure, while those hurried souls who are seeing the lights changing to red, can carry on blithely through the red for another five seconds or so. All this causes a lot of excitement at interchanges, for one must not forget those intrepids who wish to turn in all directions of the compass simultaneously with the linear traffic; no waiting, it's go, go, go. A scene of utter chaos every thirty seconds! Again, motorbikes are the transport for the masses. Many of these are informal taxis, named xe oms (literally, vehicle-hugs) as the passenger had better cling onto the driver for dear life. Everything can be transported with these little willing workhorses. We saw one, obviously a breakdown-recovery vehicle, with the pillion rider holding another motorbike at right angles across his lap; whole roof-trusses were tied to the pillion seat, and the other end equipped with a pair of ‘dolly’ wheels, some ten metres further back. The sight that took the prize for unconscious humour, was probably a threesome on one bike, with the man in the middle still in his hospital gown, while the rear-medic, so to speak, held the drip bottle aloft as they sped along.
Apparently it all had to do with a person’s stature in society in the past, and the fact that commoners could not be elevated above their betters. The Democratic People’s Republic hasn’t been able to solve that one yet, especially as the nation is ultra-densely populated at some 90 million, and growing. The only solution at present is to build into the sky. That goes for the villages as well, and houses can be five storeys high – since ricefields are productive. Just as well it’s not earthquake country.
We finally get into the thick of the city, the old quarter. The houses are all narrow, three to five storeys high, often with a balcony upstairs, but invariably, a business at street level. There are sidewalks of sorts, about three feet wide, but these are angle-parked solid with a mass of mopeds. So you, the pedestrian, walk in the roadway, which can comfortably accommodate the width of a car, but must needs take two-way traffic of cars, fleets of bikes, cyclos and vendors, all competing for living space .Electricity is distributed via poles and an aerial jungle of cables winds and coils above as if waiting to snare passers-by. The upper storeys of the narrow houses often have quite ornate verandas and porticoes, but one tends to overlook them because of the narrow and dark streets. We hastily book in at our guest house with the aid of three charming young ladies, Huyen, Phuong and Linh, all delightful and eager to please. Occasionally a little something goes missing in the translation, but with a little effort by both parties, understanding is soon restored. We congratulate ourselves on the choice of accommodation.
Later we risk our lives to cross the street to be hustled into a busy eatery by a pusher in the street. There is a menu to help you with your choice, and if we three have language problems, a visit to the kitchen is in order. The food – well, it is adequate, though the much-praised Vietnamese cuisine unfortunately does not live up to our expectations – at least not at the level we're dining. As TV chef, Luke Nguyen, mentions in passing, ‘we like out meat chewy’ – which is an understatement. Prawns are generally cooked to a dry death, we ate fishcakes that would have bounced better than tennisballs, beef which could have shod the nation, pork so dry you could use it as blotting paper and chicken that, once masticated, settled in between your teeth as if it had rented space there. Summer may not have been good for veg, so we had water-spinach, onions, leeks, bits of carrots, a form of baby bok choy and the much advertised morning glory. The latter consisted of several yards of creeper stem with a few mingy leaves, and possibly flowers attached, coiled decoratively on your plate, brazenly defying you to chop it into more manageable portions. So one took a mouthful and chewed, and chewed and chewed until the fibrous mass softened enough to swallow. The stuff should at least carry a health or discomfort warning.
Our first full day in Hanoi, I am keen to do some serious book-prospecting in the old city. The first disappointment looms. One of the charming girls up front tells me that they made a mistake with the price of cyclos, it isn’t $5 for the day, as was quoted previously, that’s actually the price for per hour. I argue that this is crazy, considering that the double hotel room is only costing us about $30 a day. What higher qualification did my motive power attain that warrants such largesse, and would the cyclo itself be upholstered in silks? I smell a Mafiosi conspiracy, but at this stage I can’t be too choosy, and so I rent me a superannuated cyclist who seems to be able to follow the street names on the map, for a trial hour. Just for good measure I let him take me round the little lake Hoan Kiem first, and very pretty it was too, with a picturesque temple on a tiny island at one end.
Then he is dispatched to a street mentioned in my guidebook as containing antique shops, and sure enough, within a block or two I spy what looks like a heap of junk behind a window. My man decants me onto the kerb and I enter in search of Chu Nom – an ideographic vernacular script that died out in the early 20th century, but which is now being revived as part of the cultural heritage of the nation. The lady does not speak English, but I manage to communicate that I want books. She pulls out a couple of photograph albums, and a tatty paperbound treatise on abominable paper, which is already falling apart. She mentions an unmentionable price for it. Though naturally I can’t read it, it is no older than about fifty years. I sneer at it and depart hastily; on with the search. Although I haven’t got a watch of any description on me, I can feel the minutes ticking by and the meter ticking over in my cycloman’s mind. Desperately I scan the lane – but nothing looks like it could contain anything of interest – until suddenly there is a sign proclaiming ‘antiques’, on a dilapidated awning, about a metre wide. I hop out and command my charioteer to wait. Underneath the awning stands a glass case, full of tourist junk and bits and pieces that look very little like the real thing to me. Next to it is a deep, dark passage, tunneling into the bowels of the block, so to speak. I call out, but there is no answer. Better to explore a little deeper, so I start off into the gloom, and I notice that the walls are festooned with hangings, trinkets and other unidentifiable objects. Someone hails me from the street. A man beckons me to come back. When I emerge, he in turn calls to someone else to summon the person I must be looking for. A few minutes later, a middle-aged woman emerges from the tunnel, blinking into the sunlight. She understands a little of what I ask of her and beckons me to follow her into the cave once again. Some fifty or more metres down, in pitch darkness, she finds a light switch and a staircase is revealed. It is narrow, steep and has no handrails, just innumerable corners and landings, each equipped with an open, reeking latrine. About three floors up we see dim light through an open door. It is her living room, and one wall is taken up with a glass-fronted case containing antiques.
She does have a tatty palm leaf book without covers, but the writing is the same as the one I got in Luang Prabang. She knows about Chu Nom, but has never seen anything written in it. Finally she pulls out a small suitcase and among a number of official-looking documents, there is the textblock of something written in, what I can only suppose are Chinese ideographs. It’s a little fragile and elderly, but otherwise quite nice, probably less than a century old, but a start. We agree on a price commensurate with its value to me – about as much as a tatty secondhand paperback would cost me at home. Casually I ask her for a sweetener, explaining that I also collect coins, and she agrees to throw in a brass coin with a square hole in the centre into the bargain. We part amicably. My ‘cyclone’ is getting edgy as his internal clock is telling him that his hour is nearly up. So I describe a short detour that I wish to explore and we arrive near where the waterpuppet theatre is located. This is touted as one of the really worthwhile cultural events, so I promptly stop and lash out on two tickets for that evening’s performance. We get back to the hotel safe and sound, with my legs intact and only my wallet damaged.
We spend a little of the afternoon getting acquainted with our neighbourhood. Navigating, even with the aid of the sketch map the girls at the hotel have given us, is a mission. In addition to the streets named and depicted, there are numbers of smaller alleyway, little different from the thoroughfares in size, which the mapmakers have decided to ignore. We invest in some mysterious, dark brown, shiny spheroids, which a lady, sitting in the gutter, is peeling. From the look of the white, finished product, I deduce that they might be water chestnuts, which I have only eaten once before, in a tinned and almost tasteless state. To our delight, these fresh corms are absolutely delicious, with a creamy, but fresh, slightly sweet taste and a texture that is full of crunch like a coconut, but without the fibrous residue left after chewing. We pop in somewhere, en passant, grab a bite to eat and then we must get a move on to the performance.
The stage has a strange set-up. On the left is a podium with what looks like musical instruments. I wince mentally, since oriental music is not for everyone. Then there is a grand sort of balcony affair, decorated with dragons, below this a green shimmering curtain made of suspended slats of something. In front of this, what can only be described as a pond. The musicians take their seats and an introduction is given in Vietnamese and English. Then the music starts. The main instruments are Dan Bao’s – Vietnamese monochords – instruments I had never heard of before. Imagine a metre long slender coffin of wood, a thin post looking almost like a back to front question mark, with a small cup attached halfway up. Then a string from the middle of the cup to the other end of the box. The player has a bamboo plectrum, with which she strokes the string, or plucks it, at the same time altering the tension by manipulating the question mark post. That’s it. However, the range of sounds that she was able to draw from the instrument, though I believe in one chord only (I know nothing of the theory of music) are quite ethereal and evocative of joy, pain, disappointment, love and whatever other emotions you can ascribe to music. In duet, the music is equally sweet, and at times the drums, cymbals and possibly other percussion instruments joined in. It was only when the dear girl started singing, with the volume of the speakers turned up to full blast, that the music became a little painful at times. Except for the latter, definitely the highlight of the performance.
The puppets themselves were typical folk art, but very cleverly manipulated. With one exception, they were all moved by tenuous connections to the puppeteers behind the curtains, but under water. The tales told were mostly of the Punch and Judy variety, but included buffalo, people, birds and fishes. The dexterity with which they were manipulated, and the range of movements made were quite extraordinary. A very enjoyable experience, more especially so since we had been a bit bored by the shadow puppets in Cambodia.
Since my excursion with the cyclo had not been an unmitigated success, and as I was keen to find a number of different places, we decided to splash out on a car, complete with driver and English-speaking guide. It was a case of all or nothing, as our lovely hotel ladies explained, since the drivers they had on hand spoke no English and their guides would not drive. At the asking rate, this was turning out to be quite expensive, but still cheaper and more effective than the cycle bandit. We met Hoān, a young student with a halting, but generally fairly adequate command of the language, and Huy, our driver, who wasn’t even very good finding his way about the city. Nonetheless we set off in quest of things antique and literary once more. To cut a long story short, we were not particularly successful, but I did end up with a huge modern tome of doubtful value to me, since it was written in Vietnamese, but apparently it was the definitive work on Chu Nom, so it might offer up a few secrets of this arcane script with intensive study at a later stage. For the price paid, I might just have been able to buy a hamburger back home.
Since we only had short stays in each of the countries we visited, we made extensive use of guidebooks and read them quite thoroughly, while making lists of possible venues and experiences to search for. One of the most highly recommended, was the Museum of Ethnography and it did not disappoint. Not only did they have a splendid display of prehistoric relics as well as the tribal arts and crafts of the fifty-odd peoples that comprised the nation. Outside, in the grounds surrounding the museum, were built examples of the indigenous answers to house construction from natural materials. Suddenly I was accosted by a young man in uniform, who seemed to want something from me. At first I thought that he was an official, but since there was half a regiment of similarly clad youths about, I surmised that he must be a soldier. In any case, I had no idea what he wanted, but he and a few of his camera-toting mates were all gathered around, laughing, joking and tugging me in different directions, patting me on the shoulder as well as on my ample stomach. I found this sort of familiar treatment rather annoying, but managed to rein in my ire and disentangled myself from the bunch of lads, shaking my head all the while and protesting. It was only later that I found out from another guide that Asian people think it is lucky to rub the belly of portly man or even a pregnant woman – which I’d seen happen in Bali. When they do this, they often repeat the word ‘Buddha, Buddha’, obviously in reference to the common effigy of the Buddha with his bulging belly. It is completely good-natured and they love to be photographed with the subject of their attentions. Later during the trip, I let the young people have their fun with good grace, and if they wanted to be photographed polishing my rotundity – well, so be it.
Then we went in search of a seafood market which had been lauded in a guidebook. This was supposed to be among a number of seafood restaurants along the shores of a larger lake, Ho Tay, to the north of the Old City. Since Hoān had the map and was trying to steer our man towards the general direction, I had no control over matters and we were frankly sightseeing. It turned out that we just about circumnavigated the lake, without actually finding the market – but it was lunchtime, so it became more pressing to find a congenial restaurant. Hoān duly consulted a number of passers-by, got directions and in no time we were deposited at the imposing entrance gate of a place that didn’t exactly engender confidence as an eatery, since the porticoes were crammed with mopeds. He threaded his way through these and we followed and landed in a busy kitchen – which admittedly was full of seafood squirming and splashing about in tanks of seawater. We were hustled past, and up the stairs where a charming, but crowded, room with open sides was revealed. Place was found for us and the menu appeared, and with it a problem. It was all in Vietnamese, and Hoān did not know the English translations for the species of seafood on offer. Back to the kitchen. It now became really complicated, since we had no idea how the food was going to be prepared. Oysters were ordered – in their natural state, we hoped, then clams, cooked this time, and some mantis shrimps, looking like skinny langoustines. All went well and we received vaguely what we had expected, complete with utterly tasteless mounds of rice. The fact that we had to occupy one end of a long table which was already occupied by a party of local businessmen having a long, noisy and alcoholic get-together, added to making the experience not entirely pleasurable.
In the latter part of the afternoon Hoān finally managed to track down a fresh produce market within the city, something that had eluded enquiries so far, since those mentioned were way outside city limits, some dozens of kilometers distant. This one consisted of a number of long warehouses, and since it was already afternoon, most of the stalls had already closed. Still, we wandered about to look at some fruits on offer, sampled water apples and a fruit called sabodille, neither of which made a marked impression on the tastebuds. Obviously it would have been a hive of industry in the early morning, but somehow we never got round to it again. Our guide seemed a little disappointed that we did not want to see the Ho Chi Minh museum, but by that time neither of us felt strong enough to take in such an undiluted quantity of hero-worship.
An early start next day, as we had booked ourselves a cruise on our own private junk through the magical islands of Halong Bay. The minibus arrived to pick us up, and then went on to two other venues to get a few more travellers on board. Theoretically we left Hanoi at some stage, but the city just seemed to drag on, and on. Execrable potholed tar roads alternated with roads under construction, which in turn became chokingly dusty gravel roads. Then a few ricefields at the roadside. These were obviously well-liked tourist highlights where one could view the odd waterbuffalo or more likely, its one-lunged, spider-web wheeled mechanical plough/tractor combo, sloshing through the flooded plains. Our driver stopped, in case we wanted to take photographs, but our group declined. At no stage was there a landscape worth noting, not to mention any natural feature. As our average speed was probably in the region of thirty kilometers per hour, the drive seemed like endless jolting purgatory. Obviously our driver had the same opinion, as he drew off the highway into an oasis which promised refreshment, marble and curios.
This is a land of statuary. Dotted about the countryside are marble workshops (one hesitates to call them sculptors' studios) – knocking out tons of lions, fou-dogs, buddhas, angels, dragons, abstract shapes, horses and even Red Indian chiefs and Walt Disney characters by the metre and by the ton. For the less affluent, there are similar items, in grey or white concrete – also utility versions of the ubiquitous garden shrine, where offerings are made to ancestors’ spirits or deities – or so we are told. Lastly, in this land of limestone karst formations, small, medium, large and gigantic boulders are displayed in hectares of open yards as well as at the front entrances of houses. This is to do with the belief in the yin and yang powers of Feng Shui, which are supposed to bring or keep the five elements of metal, earth, fire, water, and wood in balance. Where this harmony does not exist, a strangely leached rock, resembling a dragon, might be judiciously placed to rearrange the proper orientation of physical objects in their environment.
This was one of these marble emporiums. The sculpture ranged from half a metre high, weighing in at about 10 kgs, to monsters several metres high and long, weighing in at a couple of tons each. Just the sort of thing we would want to cram into our bus in amongst seven people. The mind boggles at the incongruity of the place. However, there were lighter, cheaper and even edible items on offer. Silks, ivories, jades, paintings, jewellery – in short anything a tourist could be imagined to desire – at least from a local point of view. Insistent salespeople attached themselves like leeches if one hesitated for a second. We tired rapidly of saying ‘No, thank you’ and made our way through the curio mall as fast as possible to wander about outside on the other side. There, in the truckers’ eatery, we spied our man making a hearty meal, after which he had a leisurely smoke; but like all working men on a break, he was in no hurry. Finally with all passengers accounted for, we embarked on another couple of hours’ worth of discomfort.
We drove through the outskirts of Hai Phong city before entering an interminable conurbation which stretches along the coast in this region. To pass the time, I kept track of bars and eating houses, as well as specialities advertised. Every fity to hundred metres a sign, proclaiming the legend ‘Bia Hai’ announced the presence of a pub of sorts selling beer. Next in frequency were signs inviting the traveller to partake of the national dish of Pho bo, a sort of beef soup with noodles, though where they get the vast amounts of cattle from to feed their appetite, beats me, as we hardly ever saw a cow. The Vietnamese have not heard of the Western concept of ‘unique selling point’ by all appearances. Then, as we crept further north and east, I espied first one or two, then increasingly more frequent signs with the unmistakeable ‘Thit Cho’ often with a picture of Fido next to the legend to make sure that the sign would be understood. To my surprise this epicurean delight was joined by establishments which also offered ‘Thit Meo’ (cat meat) as a variation on the menu – and later even as the only advertised speciality of the house. The sheer number of these places belies the official stance that the eating of dogs, never mind cats, was on the decrease in the country, and was only practiced in isolated communities. I would say both species must be in serious danger of extermination all along the coast hereabouts.
Finally we arrived at our port of embarkation. We were met by a smiling young guide, Ha by name, who relieved us of our passports and promised to get everything sorted promptly so that he could get us aboard. This proved to take longer than absolutely necessary, we thought, but after about forty minutes of popping in and out of offices with our passports in hand, Ha came back all smiles and said that we could leave. Although a bit puzzled by the delay, we didn’t bother with questioning him about it. From the air-conditioned reception area, a long walk to the embarkation point, but there awaiting us was a scow, bobbing in the choppy seas, complete with a seaman who was also our captain. Finally we were off on this dream cruise amongst the natural wonders of Halong Bay. For those readers who don’t know of this feature, a short description. In common with a few other countries of the region, the bay was part of a limestone-based plain in the distant past. Then the sea level rose to its present mark and large parts of the Karst landscape was eroded away, leaving thousands of islets scattered across the large bay, forming an unforgettable backdrop to a leisurely cruise among them.
Our good ship hove into sight – a purpose-built pleasure boat, roughly along the lines of a Chinese junk, but the furled sails were purely for decoration. Our entire crew of five plus our guide welcomed us aboard, and we were led on a tour of inspection. The saloon with its semicircular windows contained a well-stocked bar and the panelled walls and well-padded bench that ran round it looked most inviting. From there, a narrow passage led to the cabins, which looked (and proved to be) very comfortable, but it was the narrow staircase leading to the upper deck, which turned out to be the drawcard. This is where we spent most of our time for the next 24 hours; just lounging under the awning that had been put up for us, and taking in as much as possible of this enchanted bay and the rocky islands dotted about.
We were still having our welcome drink when it was a case of ‘anchors up’ and we motored out of Ha Long harbour – followed by a whole procession of similar boats. The stunningly beautiful scenery, consisting of sculpted ranks of rocky islets with green wigs of vegetation, slid past as an ever-changing backdrop to our flotilla of white ships. This was an extended occasion where all one wanted to do was to photograph every slight variation of scenery to capture the moment – but how futile. By the time one had switched on the camera, framed the shot, and pressed the button, chances were that you were past that unforgettable picture; and ships just don’t stop on command. After a few hours of futile endeavour, you realize that you might as well sit back, relax and enjoy the view, and have another cold beer. There was hardly a breath of air to stir the surface of the bay, and our fleet moored in the vicinity of an island with a rare bit of real estate for these parts – a beach. Our scow came along to take us to a cave, and then a spot of lounging on the beach and kayaking about the islands. For once we refused an opportunity. Scrambling about the rocks to see a cave was not high on our list of priorities, especially given Fay’s knee problems, neither was getting a sunburn on a beach an urgent necessity. So instead, we opted for a swim in the lukewarm waters, which brought its own share of challenges since the ladder at the rear was of a height that made it particularly difficult for even able-bodied people to get back into the ship’s rear deck. Once we were safely salvaged by the combined efforts of our crew, we felt entitled to have a snooze as befitted senior citizens.
Our guide Ha was an interesting young man; very helpful and solicitous about our welfare, but in the long conversations we had on the boat, we learnt that he, for one, was not ecstatic about the proliferation of American tourists, as other Vietnamese professed to be. His grandfather had died during an attack on his village, while his father had been so severely damaged that he also died before Ha was ten years old. In spite of these setbacks, Ha managed to study and become a teacher. Now it seemed that his own country was letting him down, in that they didn’t pay him a living wage to teach its future citizens. He had just recently got married, and was now forced to leave his wife at home to look after a diabetic mother, while he worked as a tour guide – often with people that he loathed – and on this increased income, he was able to take a thirteen-hour bus ride every couple of months to spend a day with his family. The other, bleaker side of existence in the People’s Republic.
Since our little fleet had to stay together, the ‘captains’ had a chance for a captains’ meeting on one of the ships during the afternoon, and much hilarity was heard echoing round the bay. Once all the beach-goers and kayakers were returned to the fleet, our man was dropped onboard again and we were off in a sedate procession. We weaved in and out of the dusk, with half-seen rocks towering over us until we came to rest in a little sheltered cove, where three islands would protect us from any stray breeze that sprang up. The night was lovely up on deck, with only the faint sound of voices from the other ships floating over the still water; the soft padding of bare feet up and down the companionway as our slaves dished up a sumptuous supper of blue crabs, fish, prawns, octopus – each dish accompanied by a carved centerpiece of butternut representing the seafood, until the culmination of a whole, carved dragon at the end. It was utterly beguiling sitting under high, bush-clad cliffs, with the odd squid-boat puttering past, casting a halo of lights to attract their catch, and once more I felt that this was truly another ‘Bucket List’ item to be crossed off.
During the night, most considerately, a little rain pattered down on us, but the morning dawned clear under a little light mist. An early walk through the ship revealed that our crew was dossed down all over the luxury boat, since there was no provision for crew cabins. Two were draped over the benches of the saloon, the captain slept curled up on the seat of his steering nook, while Ha had appropriated the only single cabin on board, which was the size of a linen cupboard. All our meals were prepared over little braziers of charcoal, with a gas burner for the more serious stuff, on the small stern deck by our stalwart cook, who was presently stretched out under the kitchen table on the bare boards, wrapped in a sheet. Presumably the passengers were not supposed to notice this, as I was promptly ushered back to bed by Ha to await coffee.
After breakfast we puttered off through the maze of islands, every now and then catching sight of the northern coastline of the bay, incongruously decorated by large ships and high-rise buildings, since civilization and economic activity extended from Hai Phong just about up to the Chinese border. Our next stop was one of two fishing villages, which the government had permitted to remain in the bay. Ha told us that every endeavour was being made to keep the bay clean, that the villagers were being paid to gather plastic rubbish, farm fish and to indulge in tourist-related pursuits – although their sewage still flushed directly into the sea. The latter fact made the netted enclosures with their live inhabitants considerably less attractive, as they were surrounded by houseboats, the school as well as a community hall-cum-tourist shop. The stuff on sale was pretty much the same as everywhere else, and there was no sign of any truly local enterprise. The people looked at us with faint hostility, when they weren’t pressing their services or goods on us. I, too, would be a touch antagonistic if I were kept in a small, floating facility; told what I couldn’t do with my life, and be gawked at by thousands of tourists.
A mercifully short time later, we were rowed back to our good vessel and we set our engine a-putting once more. The scenery was still the most delightful part of the whole trip. Every now and then an island with a hole right through it would pass. We strained to see if we could spot any monkeys, but Ha told us that these had mainly been poached – to have their brains eaten by those fortunates who could afford this rare treat. Seabirds there were none that I could find, to my surprise, but two hornbills played and fed in the cliffside bush above the ship at her mooring, and we heard the odd twitter of a swift and the cry of a kite. That was all the wildlife we saw during ten days in Vietnam.
Although the trip had been advertised as ‘two days and one night’ we were returned to terra firma less than 24 hours after our departure, after getting our valiant crew lined up and each thanked in person and in currency, since they really had gone to great lengths to make our voyage a pleasure. Theirs was the unenviable task of getting the linen changed, the ship had to be cleaned, revictualled and refuelled, so that the next boatload of tourists could depart in an hour’s time. And so on, for three weeks at a stretch, we were told. We faced the same, gruelling five-hour trip (including half-hour stop for the driver at the roadside emporium) to get back to the hotel in full rush-hour. I seem to recall we had room service dinner that night.
With so much sensory input, it is difficult to remember what we did on which day; neither is it very important. We had a day off somewhere along the line and made use of it to look through endless shops to see if anything really different and unique to the place would strike us. We were disappointed; everything screamed ‘made in China – Korea – Taiwan’ at us. It was the same rubbish you could buy in Buitenkant street in Cape Town. The distinct lack of secondhand goods, and most especially books, puzzled me greatly. Finally Hoān enlightened me. Apparently the Chinese and Vietnamese do not value antiquities. When a person dies, those of his personal goods, such as furniture, which fill the needs of his family, are retained and passed on; everything else is burned in a sort of funeral pyre, to accompany the spirit of the departed into the afterlife.
Our next excursion was to visit the ancient kingdom of Ninh Binh, where a branch of the Red River snaked through karst mountains (very much like Halong Bay, but on a slightly higher level, i.e. solid land). This time we had the car and driver to ourselves and a very pleasant young man, Tao, as an interpreter-guide. Once more the hundred-odd kilometres to our destination was a trial. There were an inordinate amount of roadworks going on, all between endless ricefields, with just the odd clump of weirdly shaped mountains sticking up out of the plain. We seemed to be circumnavigating these mountains in the same way the ships had threaded their way through the bay previously. Finally we entered a huddle of karst hillocks, and the roadside scenery became as beautiful as Halong Bay had been a couple of days ago. Tucked away, out of sight, was the ancient capital of one of the Vietnamese dynasties, Hoa Lu. Again it was a stifling, hot day, but we stopped at the Dinh Tien Hoang Temple, erected in honour of the first emperor, Dinh Bo Linh, to join large crowds of locals wandering about in this popular tourist destination. The architecture, fittings and decorations were quite interesting, but when Tao suggested walking down to the next temple, some few hundred metres down the road, Fay opted out and as expected, it proved to be very much more of the same. I did get myself photographed atop a patient water-buffalo that an enterprising villager had brought along, all decked out in her fancy Sunday-best. One needs a footstool be mount this beastie, and only then do you realize that this is an ‘udder’ sort of cow, more akin to a medium-sized rhino in girth and height.
Toa was all for getting us onto one of a fleet of motor-boats puttering up the river at the nearby village, but I protested. Our tour had specified rowing boats, and we had no intention of having our peace shattered by the puttering of motors and the delightful scent of petrol. A short discussion by our guide with his HQ, and in no time at all he had a new set of instructions. On we went to the next village, where we found a bustling, stepped embankment, with dozens of small scows sculled by the local women circling around what looked like a large pond. Tao bought tickets and got us into the next vacant one that docked. This one was crewed by a mother/daughter combination, we found out, and we were off, up the river, part of a never-ending flotilla of similar craft. The rowers were artists at their work – no arguments with that. They would sit on a thin pad, with possibly a plank stuck vertically into the aft deck as a backrest, and they would expertly scull and steer the craft with their feet only. How those oars stuck to their soles, was completely beyond me, but I never saw anyone lose an oar.
The river snaked between towering hills and cliffs in the stifling 37-degree heat, and suddenly we were confronted by a dark aperture in the mountain straight ahead. We entered the cool gloom, and to our delight were treated to quite a stretch of subterranean river before emerging once more into the searing sunlight. In all we had three caves to traverse, then as we emerged from the last, there were signs of settlement along the banks and within seconds our craft was surrounded by a clamour of vendors, all in boats, bombarding us with all sorts of foodstuffs, curios and trinkets. In self-defence I bought a drink for each of my rowers (which was immediately returned to the sellers in exchange for a portion of the money I had just paid over) and commanded our crew to turn immediately and leave this bay of bothersome people. Once more we dove beneath the mountains, but as we emerged, our canny oarswoman handed over the work to her daughter, and proceeded to open a trunk at her feet. Now it was her turn to harangue us with more of the same junk. I took one look, then stared determinedly over the bows, but Fay made the mistake of actually taking an interest in the goods. Immediately the woman’s voice got higher, faster and shriller, sensing an easy sale. Then Fay changed her mind, but the relentless verbal battering just went ahead. After some twenty minutes I was ready to drown the woman to get some peace, and in mid-patter, I turned around with the most enraged visage I could muster; put my fingers over my lips and said, ‘Hey – sssshhhhh, NOW’. It worked, and we had a blissfully quiet trip until we got near the landing stage, when she started again, this time incessantly asking for a tip. I waited until Tao appeared, and then asked him to translate to the good ladies that I would have loved to have given them a tip for their efforts and skills, but I was damned if I was going to pay for being annoyed by their continuous sales pitch, and their refusal to understand the word ‘no’. Silence fell. Their animated faces became expressionless and suddenly they looked right through us. We didn’t exist anymore. The feeling was mutual.
Another quite lengthy drive followed to get to the Coc Phuong National Park, where we had been booked in to spend the night. The entry formalities were considerable, and we were then told to follow a person round what seemed to be the entire settlement of shabby apartment blocks, until we reached the one apportioned to us. This proved to be a large room, with two beds, two mosquito nets and nothing else, except a bathroom in one corner. After a short rest, we decided we’d better explore the facilities a bit, and made our way through the impressive gardens. At least here we heard some birdsong, though nothing was visible, except clouds of mosquitos. We found the restaurant, as well as a small kiosk, offering curios and interesting liquids in bottles of all shapes and sizes. There was no staff about, so we decided to wait. After a little time, judiciously spent in trying to slap away the bloodsucking flights ranging from tiny black jobs to the B52s of the mosquito world, Tao and the driver appeared, as well as a group of Vietnamese students. We got acquainted with a charming young lady who had a good command of English, so between her and Tao’s translations, we managed to get quite a good conversation going in between the scattered applause as we slapped mozzies. Tao kindly offered to go and buy some repellent at the nearby shops, and we dispatched him bearing notes of large denominations. After slathering ourselves with liberal amounts of this innominate but miraculous ointment, we could actually attend to getting some drinks and later, tackling our supper.
The service was pretty sketchy, the demeanour of the waitresses sullen to downright grim, but the food was actually very palatable, if not memorable. There was no such thing as a menu; you ate whatever course came in front of you, and when that was finished, the next one arrived, not before. On enquiring what some of the liquids in the kiosk were, one of the staff consented to unlock the place for us and both Tao and I invested in a bottle of the local apricot liqueur. He insisted on opening his and we started off with a shot each. It wasn’t bad, but after another tipple, I’d had enough and decided to get horizontal. The mosquito nets did their work reasonably well, and after a good night, we were up early to get to the endangered primate centre. Now Tao was nowhere to be found, though we’d made a date to meet for breakfast at seven. Almost an hour later, the driver pitched up, looking very sheepish. We had no language in common, but he mimicked that Tao had looked deep into the bottle. Finally I managed to dispatch him in search of our errant guide, who earned himself a few short, sharp words before we set off down a jungly road towards the centre.
A goodly walk later (the road was closed to motorcars – for no good reason) we entered the gates, only to be confronted by a young virago in jungle fatigues. She curtly snarled at us to send us packing; for starters, we did not have a local guide, secondly we were too early and her staff had to eat breakfast (despite the fact that we had not come to see her staff) and thirdly she saw no reason to accommodate us in any way, especially since we were paying visitors, who contributed to the upkeep of her hobby. Despite Tao’s pleas, she almost pushed us out of the gate and locked it behind us. 9 am – not a second sooner. Despondently we walked back a short distance and whiled away the hour looking at the work and products of an endangered turtle centre, which was a little more flexible about opening hours, but not particularly interesting. Then Tao pitched up with a ‘local guide’ in tow, whom he had to fetch from the park’s head office, and we were grudgingly let into the primate centre – the staff were still eating. There were three rows of cages, and visitors were only permitted on the brick path – about three metres from the netting of the enclosures. Our guide gabbled away in almost unintelligible English, rattling through self-evident facts and platitudes, all the while keeping us and a pair of German tourists tightly corralled in a huddle around him, as we were not permitted to wander off. Yes, there were a couple of gibbons and some exotic langurs, but as a spearhead of conservation efforts, the place just didn’t impress. Fifteen minutes later we were out again – still no staff in sight, and we agreed wholeheartedly with the Germans that whatever they were doing right, it wasn’t exactly apparent.
Possibly, if we had been able to go on one of the advertised treks through the jungle routes, it might have made the place more interesting. However, the heat was again oppressive, and neither of us felt up to even walking through the so-called botanic gardens around the camp. Instead we opted to return to the city, which was once more a long and uncomfortable ride. Our stay in Hanoi was coming to an end, so just before we embarked on a lengthy train journey to the ancient imperial capital, Hue, I opted for a visit to the zoo, where I was hoping to see that elusive antelope, the saola. The all-knowing internet had slated the institution; rightly so, as I found a badly littered park, with all manner of rides and kiddies’ amusements, blaring, thumping music and hordes of parents with their offspring. In between, dotted about were a dozen or so rusty mesh cages and tiny enclosures, holding a few monkeys and apes, three species of ungulates, an elephant, two hippos in a concrete tub exactly large enough to hold them side-by-side, as well as a number of species of cats, a binturong and a few dozen birds. It was everything a zoo should never be. While the animals didn’t look starved or neglected, they all looked desperately bored and unhappy in their cramped quarters. I did, however, see a clouded leopard in all its snarling beauty, a stunningly beautiful leopard card, and the said binturong, a fluffy bear-cat like animal, I’d only read about previously. The saola tribe can thank their lucky stars that they did not have a representative here. I was glad to get away from the noise – it would have driven me mad in no time.
Early morning, and we bade farewell to our lovely, smiling ladies at the hotel. We were decanted into our taxi, and five minutes later arrived at the station – which hardly justified the hefty charge we had just been debited by the hotel. Our train was found, positively identified and our booked seats occupied after the luggage had been packed in the overhead racks. This lengthy train journey, down almost the entire length of Vietnam, was supposedly one of the highlights of our trip. It didn’t quite turn out like that. The seats were not exactly uncomfortable; but they weren’t comfortable either – not for fourteen hours, they weren’t. The train stopped at every little settlement, the passing scenery had nothing to commend it, the carriage filled to overflowing, and a number of passengers brought large quantities of goods packed in large square cartons with them. These were jammed into the overhead racks, and when they overflowed, beneath seats, in the aisles – anywhere. To get out of your seat became problematical, but I sallied forth once or twice to sample the hole in the floor of the toilet cubicle, as well as two trips down the length of the train to the galley for cold refreshment. The latter rekindled a small spark of gratitude for small mercies, as I saw what second class and third class had to endure – even harder bench seats for the former, and slatted wooden backbreakers in third class. There were people lying in all sorts of poses on the floors and in the narrow aisles, fast asleep, while being bounced about by the movement of the carriages on the rickety tracks.
We arrive at dusk, utterly worn out and me with a newly irritated old injury to my back. After getting lost in the station, we finally find the way out after walking along the tracks for hundreds of metres, crossing over the tracks along with the bulk of the passengers, and then back on the other side to get to the exit. We locate our driver and shortly thereafter we are decanted into the tender care of our gorgeous receptionist, Vinh. She is most solicitous when she hears about our experience on the train, and finds it difficult to understand why we didn’t fly. Was it to save money? When I told her that we actually wanted to see the country, and anyway, the tickets weren’t that cheap – she asked to see them. I handed over the ticket, which had another slip stapled over the bottom half. This she picked apart and snorted. ‘Those thieves in Hanoi have added 25% onto the train fare for themselves,’ she said, ‘they’re a horrible lot, those northerners.’
Suddenly the extortionate charges for trains, taxis, drivers, cyclos and guides became a little easier to understand, as also the ridiculously low room charge at the hotel. Our darling girls had been ripping us off with great skill. That’s how they made their money. How could I not trust Vinh, now that she had exposed this venal trickery? She was only too happy to find us an English-speaking driver for the next day, to have a scout around Hue’s ancient glories. As we couldn’t face continuing our journey to Saigon with another 20 hours of the same torture as we had just experienced, she offered to get refunds for the train tickets and buy us flight tickets instead. We did understand that this cancellation was going to cost a little, didn’t we? We were in no state to argue and gave her the go-ahead.
Early next morning, on what promised to be a stiflingly hot day, we were ushered into our taxi by the solicitous Vinh, with a sheet of paper in hand extolling the sights of the city, and I immediately tried to convey to our driver where we would like to go first. We then discovered that his command of English fell considerably short of perfect, and that actually he had a fixed itinerary, which had nothing in common with our wishes. Willy-nilly we were off to the tomb of Tu Duc, the last emperor of Vietnam, who had been supplanted by the French colonisers. The drive through the suburbs of the city was quite pleasant; the houses were generally neat and fairly well-spaced, but on the other hand, there was nothing that stood out either. We were deposited in between a scattering of hawkers’ stalls and our man pointed down the road, past an impressive perimeter wall, where he obviously expected us to walk. It wasn’t quite apparent why we couldn’t have driven a bit closer, especially seeing that both Fay and I were ‘walking wounded’ to a degree – she with her knee, and I with my damaged back, but we limped along for a few hundred metres until we came to an imposing gate, guarded by a number of jealous custodians. I proffered a handful of the local currency, but was brusquely referred even further down the road to where a ticket booth was located. Duly looted, we were permitted entry to the holy of holies. A long meandering path led past an ornamental lake, with a pier topped by a gabled summer house, and then on through tiers of parklands, until we reached a walled, or fortified hillock. Up steps, terrace followed terrace, with the odd statuary, triumphal gateways and memorial plaques. Several kilos of perspiration lighter, we reached the actual tomb, which proved to be a sadly neglected piece of concrete architecture, in urgent need of some care and a coat of paint. It looked like a neglected bit of Victorian extravagance and failed to charm.
Once we found our transport again (not the easiest quest among hundreds of taxis, buses and hordes of tourists), a battle of wills ensued. No, we did not want to see the other shabby mausoleum of Minh Mang, another emperor or suchlike person, which he had on his list. We wanted to see the citadel instead. Although he grumbled about this departure from his programme, our driver finally gave in and within a short time we arrived at the imposing entrance, guarded by just the most enormous five cannons I have ever seen. Apparently these were cast from conquered artillery, in a manner of thumbing your nose at the defeated enemy, and they were not to be fired in anger. Again our man pointed us to an entrance some hundreds of metres away, but we jibbed at another sweat parade to take in the sights of some four square kilometers of palaces, of which apparently only ten out of a hundred and sixty buildings were spared during an artillery bombardment by the Yanks. No ordinary mortals’ vehicles were allowed inside the walls, so I opted for having a drive round instead. This drive, while quite pleasant, revealed very little, so on we went to the Thien Mu Pagoda. An impressive seven-stage edifice this, dating back some four hundred years, with a commanding view of the Pearl River on which fleets of tourist-laden boats were plying up and down. One of these boat tours to a silk factory was on the cards, but we just didn’t feel up to it. A quick visit to the Dong Ba market proved to be ill-timed, since most of the day’s activity was past by then, and the stallholders were already clearing up the dregs. In all Hue was a little disappointing. Yes, there were certainly examples of beautiful architecture and historic monuments, but over everything a veil of gentle neglect hung gloomily – even under the incandescent sun.
Our last stop in Vietnam was Saigon. We flew the last leg, as we didn’t feel up to 20-odd hours in a train compartment, possibly in the company of half a dozen strangers; most of it overnight, so we would miss out on the scenery anyway. The Hotel Savuon was in all likelihood the most upmarket establishment we had occupied until then. For us it was merely a name picked off the computer screen, with an address in the central city. The receptionists were helpful, their English was reasonable, and as far as we could tell, they thought themselves a cut above the northerners, which included the Hue crowd. Strange how the Vietnamese don’t have anything good to say about their own countrymen up and down this long, thin country.
Through watching documentaries, we had been given the impression that the traffic mayhem was truly intimidating in Saigon; I found the converse to be the case. Since we were in the centre of the city, we decided to go walkabout. The volume of cars and motorbikes was stupendous, but one could step off the pavement with confidence, as long as one allowed enough time for the first, nearest motorist to take avoidance measures, after that, the traffic wove its merry way about you like a spider cocooning its prey in a web. In deference to timid tourists, there were brightly uniformed ‘helpers’ on hand at major intersections, who would corral clumps of quaking foreigners together and shepherd them through the potential carnage on the roads. One of the few endearing concessions that I found from the Vietnamese to tourists.
As usual, I had browsed through the guidebook for likely locations that would be of interest, and with my latest passion for the printed oriental word, a little street name Le Cong Trieu, half a dozen blocks from the hotel, seemed to be the answer to my prayers. As expected, there were numerous shops selling antiques, crafts and artifacts, but the one shop mentioned in particular as having fine, genuine items for sale had suddenly disappeared, and in its place a spanking new emporium was rising behind the builder’s shuttering. Mr Long was no more, as we found out from neighbouring shops. Further along, we found two elderly ladies sitting in the street, with their narrow alley of a shop, crammed with furniture, bric-a-brac, statuary etc, barely accessible to prospective clients. I was invited to enter, and after kicking off my shoes (as is done in most older places of business in Vietnam) just about managed to squeeze in. A brief moment of hope as I spied a heap of printed matter among what looked like an earthquake zone filled with furniture. With great difficulty I managed to snare a few of the pieces, which proved to be lavishly illustrated booklets of popular reading matter from the days of yore. Naturally I couldn’t understand a word, but they looked charming nonetheless. I beckoned the proprietress over and we engaged in battle. This was one of those classic bargaining sessions, where the customer had the upper hand, since the stuff was patently unsaleable to anyone except a complete madman; yet the seller wanted an astronomical price to start with. With a bit of to and fro argument in mutually unintelligible languages, the adding of items to the pile; the subtracting of zeroes from the price, we finally came to an agreement and I walked out a happy man, leaving behind a relieved antiquarian.
A taxi was hired for forays further afield and a modern bookstore was also visited, in case we should stumble across something of interest, but we drew a blank. With the aid of the very handy photocopied maps that hotels hand out, I managed to convey to the driver that we wished to visit a mosque. This he found, and I boldly walked in and asked for the Imam. A shifty-eyed, edgy, man in long robes appeared. I took slight liberties with the absolute truth and borrowed my companion’s daughter, who was married to a Moslem, and asked the Imam if he could tell me where I would find a Koran, written in Vietnamese – if possible with Arabic script in parallel – which I would present to my putative son-in-law. While his English was poor, and his understanding why I would make such a request, even poorer, I managed to convince him of my honest interest in his Holy Scripture, and promised that I would accord it due respect. Within a few minutes I had what I wanted, and after a cordial and prolonged handshake, I left him to scuttle nervously down the steps to the madrassah, looking over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. His behaviour was a little puzzling until I remembered reading that the regime in power, although not discriminating against different religions, was deeply suspicious of any sect or belief that welded their citizens together into any group that might be critical to the ideals of the communist regime. Islam has had a presence in Vietnam for hundreds of years, since it was introduced to the fishing folk on the south-central coast by their Malaysian and Indonesian counterparts.
Saigon also has an interesting museum of history, right next door to the botanic gardens and zoo; so a visit was in order – with the intention of having a look at the other two venues as well. However, the museum proved to be so interesting, that we spent too long there to still have enough energy for another lengthy footslog in the gardens. I had neglected to bring the camera, since I did not suspect anything of interest would be found – so naturally, there were three stelae dating back to the 5th and 7th centuries, with markedly different scripts on them, that I would have given my eyeteeth for. Since we had a couple of hours to spare the next day before embarking back to Singapore, I rushed back, camera in hand and came away triumphantly, pics in the can, so to speak. It transpired later that the memory card had given up its ghost on that very same day – and some forty or fifty shots taken in Saigon, had disappeared into the electronic ether, as the card was no longer accessible. So much for my quest for arcane alphabets.
We also popped into two different covered markets fairly close to the hotel, but these were mostly devoted to hundreds of stalls selling distinctly made-to-order curios, or alternatively, cheap plastic consumer goods from their neighbours’ factories. Since I hadn’t been to the zoo, I collared one of the receptionists at the Savuon Hotel and asked her to do me a favour. She phoned the place on my behalf and finally managed to get through to a managerial or zoological type. He spoke no English, so the poor girl was tasked to enquire about the fate of the 13 specimens of the newly discovered antelope, the saola, which I knew had been captured over the past dozen years. Finally we had a reply, and I saw great relief on her face. She replaced the phone and told me that the person she had been talking to knew exactly what I was asking about, and that as eleven of the poor beasts had died in captivity, the authorities had decided to release the final two survivors back to the forests. Not quite the result I would have wished for, on the other hand, the right result for a very scarce animal – a triumph of conservationist attitude.
It was still dark on the last morning of our stay in Saigon, when an earsplitting racket shot me out of bed. It sounded like a demented brass-band had exploded just outside our window on the 7th floor, if I remember correctly. I looked out, but because of the buildings I could only make out a pulsing glow between them. The racket seemed interminable, so I rose, got dressed and went down to the foyer. On enquiry, I was told that there was a funeral under way in the back alley. Sure enough, parked outside in the street was a resplendent three-ton truck, embellished and decorated as a dragon, and people in festive attire lined the entrance to the narrow alley. I asked whether I might have a look inside – not wanting to barge into a private ceremony, and the bystanders waved me in. It was quite surreal. The whole alley at the rear of the hotel was crowded with mourners, rubberneckers and the ordinary people who lived in the neighbourhood. Firstly there were a few tables and chairs, all occupied with clients having their slurp of breakfast noodles and coffee. Housewives leant on their mops, and children ran around playing games. Inside the building which opened its double doors right onto the street, the mortal remains of one Cao Phao lay in state on a raised bier, draped in red and gilt cloth, surrounded by candles and in the full glare of spotlights. A flock of women dressed in white robes and headdresses accompanied the bier, wailing piteously, while two saffron-robed monks officiated.
Outside, it looked like a carnival was on the go. The originators of the unholy racket, a band consisting of some dozen trompeteros and two drummers, were blasting away at their instruments which ranged from a simple bugle to one of those monstrous brass things that encircle the entire body. There was no suggestion of a tune, just discordant phrases at maximum volume – possibly to scare away evil spirits. Then there was the young entertainer going through his routine: he holds a short sword between his teeth, balancing an orange on the edge. Then swallows the sword, all the while juggling half a dozen empty bottles. As a finale, he takes a slug from another bottle and spraying this as far as possible, he sets it alight with a taper -everybody screams and scatters to get away from the whoosh of flame. A crackle of firecrackers, thrown onto the kerbside, fire burning gifts to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. I politely ask permission to use my camera and flash, and the general consensus is favourable. The more noise, light, activity, the merrier, it would seem.
Through all this activity, people wander off to work, the odd motorcycle putters through the kneeling mourners, some older citizens are sitting at a table having their beers, while the kids are munching breakfast and the Buddhist monk intones a long, loud, monotonous oration into an amplifier, so that people within the surrounding square kilometre will know all about it. I am joined by an elderly gent who kindly explains everything to me in hoarse, alcoholically tainted, asides. I grunt, nod, and reply in Afrikaans for a change. We are in perfect agreement and part with mutual expressions of esteem.
A few hours later we are at the airport, ready to embark. Our first real immigration hassle. Seems like the dozy lads at Hanoi forgot to add an extra stamp after putting in our visa on entry. Ergo, we could not be in Vietnam as we had not arrived in official terms! We were illegal immigrants (which explained the puzzling delay at Halong Bay, which had never been explained). This proved a major headache to the minions of the people's party – or at least, they enjoyed seeing us wriggle in consternation. My defence was that, hey, they gave us a visa at the airport, we paid for it and then their compatriots had ushered us out – so they were aware of our presence. They let us sweat for half an hour, then we were called before a triumphantly stern commissar type, who told us we were in trouble – deep trouble. He hinted darkly at us having to extend our visa so as to be sent back to Hanoi for said missing stamp, which would prove that we had entered Vietnam, before he relented and graciously permitted us to go on our way. We boarded our plane with some relief.
Vietnam turned out to be the one disappointment on the trip. We had seen a number of documentaries about the sights, cuisine and history of the country, which had given us a mental picture of what we could expect. With the exception of Halong Bay, nothing met those expectations. We found the people were only friendly if there was a possibility they would benefit somehow financially from the stranger. For the rest, they looked right through you; they were sullen and unhelpful. The food, with very few exceptions, was not fantastic. I have no doubt that there are any number of upmarket eateries catering to Western tastes, but the ordinary, off the street and small bistro food, was just not up to much. The historical places we visited (which was not a wide selection) were shabby and threadbare in the extreme, giving an impression of overall neglect, while the landscapes, especially on the coastal plains in the north, were downright depressing. Still – it had its moments, but in my popularity scale, it was right down at the bottom end.
Sunday 25 November 2012
Votes & Views #29
Laos is not a well-known tourist destination. It is difficult to get information, both recent and accurate, and the People's Democratic Republic is neither particularly welcoming nor cheap for the tourist. We'd already gotten our visas in Singapore at a cost of abou R 1000 for the pair. There was nothing particular on our wish-list, but I'd read that Luang Prabang was a charming little mediaeval city. What more incentive did we need?
As we waited at Siem Reap airport for boarding orders, we suddenly became aware of the fact that there were only two planes on the apron; one an Air Malaysia A320 and a little blue job with two menacingly curved sets of propellers - our transport. With no messing about, some score passengers were hustled aboard, the doors shut and we were on the move. Five minutes from boarding to aloft is pretty snappy in anyone's parlance.
The flight was comfortable and particularly quiet compared to a jet, as we flew at comparatively low altitude over first the endless paddy fields, and then the ever more hilly country that was our target. Soon a mighty river twisted below us and we dropped down between the mountains to a verdant valley.
Our pilot may have only just woken up - he might only just have obtained his license - or there could have been a violent crosswind on this beautiful and calm day. Whatever, skyboy made a complete hash of putting us down. Touchdown wasn't bad, but he almost lost it when he tried to apply brakes, the plane yawed wildly one way, and when he overcorrected it, veered the other way. From my vantage point the wingtips looked only about a metre off the ground before pointing up at the big blue. It took an age - probably about ten seconds - to bring the plane under control and we could relax again.
A new airport building is under construction, so we had to be bussed off the bare landing strip to the old facility. Not many smiles here as the immigration collected your biometric data, but no hassles either. We were in. The pickup driver had no English, so we did not get a commentary. Town looked pretty bog-standard Third World South East Asian Economy, not as charming a Siem Reap, but uncrowded, with lot of building work going on as the nation is trying to recover from the unenviable epithet of the ‘most-bombed country on earth’. Many of the houses are half-timbered, that is to say the first storey is masonry, the second wood – which gives a curiously Alpine look to parts of the town.
Our guest house was not an iota less beautiful than its photo and website description. Their language skills were a little more precarious. The poor receptionist lad, Joy by name, was really keen to please - but he was giving me street directions to places I wouldn't recognize because I can’t read the Lao script, along roads with no names - on a map that lacked the full quota of streets, including the one we were located in. Their calling card, which gave their location among nameless streets, further confused matters in that the little map printed on the reverse, was entirely imaginary as even the river was the wrong one, which was actually on the other side of town. This was what they'd meant with 'Tourist Information' as advertised. In our preparations, we had also omitted to factor in the time of week, since we were under the misapprehension that in a Communist country, with strong Buddhist beliefs, the concept of 'weekend' would not apply - wrong. We would only be able to tap the local tourist bureau on Monday, the day we were leaving!
A balcony ran round the first storey, all timber, with massive beams, railings and posts. We had a good view of the neighbourhood, yet no landmarks were in sight except the spire of a small temple or large stupa, seemingly fifty metres distant. Our tuktuk man arrives. Kao Yang is his name, and he has a beaten-up little Chinese truck with a pipe-canopy and excruciatingly narrow bench seats, but at least a step at the rear to assist with getting up over the tailgate - and a little English. A very little English as soon becomes apparent, but beggars can't be choosers and we are forced into paying a fairly steep tariff for very little benefit. Still, we tell our charioteer to fire up his wagon and to take us on a ride through town.
There is a notable difference to Cambodia. The traffic, though still a matter of opinion as far as traffic rules are concerned (by our standards), seem much calmer; motorbikes are parked neatly, as are cars - the streets are cleaner, more buildings are better maintained. If I knew what a French country town with a large Asiatic population would look like - this could be it. All along the drive on the bank of the mighty river, the shaded lanes are lined with gracious colonial mansions, or copies of that theme. All seem to be hotels, restaurants and bars, for well-heeled tourists, mainly European. Kao drops us at an imposing restaurant. I recognise the name as an eatery of note, lauded in guidebooks. Their spring rolls are different and delicately spiced; the nori-like sheets of what is euphmistically called river moss, have an interesting flavour and are dressed with a very piquant sauce. I can disremember that I'm actually eating green algal slime scraped off the rocks on the banks of the muddy Mekong, which drains thousands of kilometers of Asia. The tempura prawns are just that, but the Mekong fish salad is a fiery concoction, indeed, so much so that I am forced to dilute it by generous addition of the local speciality - sticky rice. No misnomer that - try chipping off a mouthful with a spoon - like cutting glued-together rubber chips. Doesn't taste of much. either.
We let Kao know that this is not really what we're looking for and made plans to take a drive into the country, upriver to the shrine called Elephant Cave, or Tham Ting.. His vehicle is a far cry from what we were used to with Naga. The benches are excruciating, while the canopy curves down just enough to make you have to get a crick in the neck if you want to see the roadside scenery. Besides which, it was an ancient rattletrap, with a few necessary parts of the gearbox missing, a dicky engine, sans several doorhandles and it produced startling bangs, screeches and grinding noises from time to time, which didn't exactly engender confidence.
Still, the Model-T Chana truck deposited us in a vestigial village (for which pleasure we had to pay a trifle) on the banks of the Mekong. A crossing was negotiated by Koa for a further fee with an ancient in a low-slung scow, who had a young deaf-mute as a first mate, All went well though and we raced across the river in a few minutes. The steps into the cave we a tad more trying, and Fay had some bother with the varying heights and widths on the climb. Halfway up another dunner lurked to relieve you of a couple more thousand kip, as the local scrip is called. This piecemeal looting of tourists’ wallets is the common practice in Laos. Then upwards to a little platform ringed by chairs for the exhausted, like us. From there you could pick your view on the opposite river bank or some 2500 statues of Buddha in all stages of magnitude and decay, which extended far upwards into the dim cave. Apparently one could hack a further ten minutes up the cliff to another cave - but I've seen a lot of caves in my life and my desire to climb more steps was not strong on the sultry day. This was obviously a prime tourist destination, and boatloads of people arrived and departed continuously.
Our ill-matched boatmen brought us back in good shape, and after slogging back to our transport, we found our driver had evaporated. I made an effort to track him down by roaming through the ramshackle huts, but as it's considered the height of bad manners in Laos to shout, I desisted from roaring in wrathful terms, even when he did reappear half an hour later, Instead we had a civilised lesson in economics; ie, he was being paid to wait for me - he was not paying me to wait for him. Capiche?
Our ride back was a little subdued, but we asked him to pick us a lunch venue where the locals ate. He halted at a tatty thatched platform suspended on high poles over the riverbank. There was no shortage of gleaming Japanese 4x4's in the parking lot, so I was suspicious that we'd been led into another tourist trap. My fears were soon allayed. A large party of Chinese was having a four-generation family celebration of sorts, and there was not even a menu. The large, sweating bossman informed us that there were three dishes on offer, fish soup, fish salad or shrimps - and Beer Lao. I chose the latter two and we had some very ordinary, tiny prawns, some of that famous sticky rice, and with much difficulty I managed to get a touch of soy sauce out of the boss to, at least add hint at some flavour to the rubbery semisphere of rice that seemed to be following us everywhere. The view and atmosphere made up for the other shortcomings though. We had one of the great Asian rivers flowing past; while sitting on a thatched platform over space, and being drawn into a local celebration, with a bunch of toddlers having to be shepherded away from the gap-toothed railings that wouldn't have prevented their tumbling down the slope into the water, to great-grandmother mumbling her bowl of rice and slurping her soup messily.
Almost as an apology to the many reputedly splendid temples, or Wats, that the town is reported to have, we dragged ourselves onto our creaking chariot once more in the later stifling afternoon at the urging of Kao .The revenuers awaited us at the gate of the Wat Xien Thong and we were duly looted. On entry it almost immediately became apparent that it was a good investment. The main, reputedly 16th century, building, 'perched’ like a broody bird protecting her offspring with half-spread wings as a centrepiece of the scene. To the right an imposing, much newer temple vied for attention. This had a fully gilt-encrusted, carved front of splendid proportions and imposing craftsmanship. On inspecting the inside, we found a many-headed, gilded dragon boat of monstrous dimensions taking up almost the entire space, with a central enclosed glass casket, which had a spire atop that seemed to pierce the roof of the structure. Totally over the top. We peered behind the contraption, but found only a few dusty Buddha statues and some building gear. Obviously work in progress. Only as we exited, did we notice some heavy-duty truck wheels coyly peeking out from underneath the skirts of this gigantic vessel. So it could move! We read up on it later and found out that the vehicle was actually the transport for the last king's mortal remains to the funeral pyre. Some wheels - some garage!
Back to the main temple. We entered through a beautifully fretted portico, with alternating gilt or red on black - not just endless repetitions of the same themes of the Buddhist scriptures, as I, in my ignorance expected - no here were hundreds of cameos, each telling a piece of a riveting story, of war, death, punishment, love, salvation, sin and rebirth. The main temple was no less splendid, with double rows of great wooden pillars, girdled .with decorations which disappeared into the gloom of the ceiling. Just one youthful monk of a dozen years or so, stood watching us as we marvelled at the restrained splendour of this grand edifice. I beckoned him closer to a black, gilt encrusted wall, wanting to use his saffron robes as contrast, and he assented to being photographed quite unselfconsciously. Photo session over, he was quick to point me sternly at an offertory-box; funds needed for temple restoration, said the legend. After I'd dutifully inserted some dirty paper wearing an inordinate number of noughts, he nodded approvingly, but never smiled.
Fay had seen temples aplenty in India, Nepal and Leh, but even she was totally overwhelmed by the sheer taste, restraint, yet splendour and artistic flamboyance - all harmoniously combined in a way that touched perfection. A number of smaller structures still dotted the complex, as well as half a dozen stupas.. We looked into every one, and all at once a strange throbbing whine, almost like atmospheric interference would sound from a radio on steroids, started almost imperceptibly and increased over about a minute until you felt the fillings aching in your teeth. A patter of feet, and a bunch of boys in robes clattered up the steps as they shed their slops. Suddenly a drumbeat so loud and unusual in tone and quality, as I have never heard before. Then a staccato rattle of smaller instruments and again that whine and several crashing concussions. We stood closer to the side entrance of the temple and peered in to discover that both came from a huge bronze gong that was being used as a singing bowl and a drum. Some chanted prayers from the youngsters, another wild burst of percussion and a final boom ended the lesson. An unexpectedly profound and extraordinary sensory experience.
Our day was not over yet, as we were introduced to the night market. Sprawled along a street which was closed to traffic, traders had erected their gazebos under which they displayed their wares in three lines, creating two narrow walkways so that. two people could still pass each other. The goods on display were mostly textiles and jewellery, with a sprinkling of souvenirs and a few genuine collectables. Silk scarves, wraps, shawls and their lookalikes predominated. While not exactly cheap, they would be good value if the real stuff. Some of the ethnic hill tribe clothing was stunning in colours and varied design, but with our limited luggage room, we decided to give it a miss in that department. The silverware looked most inviting, but after having seen what could be done with a lot of copper and a breath of silver over the top in the Bali workshop which I’d visited, this was too risky for me. On the other hand, a couple of people had an eclectic mixture that spoke of cleared-out attics, grandma's old cupboards and maybe even the odd excavation. Among tigers' teeth and claws, boar tusk bracelets, tortoise shells and a few ivory objects (all illegal, .and you'd be nabbed when you left the country) there was stuff that made my heart rate soar.
I spotted a few motheaten canvas bags mouldering on the pavement. On top lay the remnants of a wad of pages, holed by rats, soiled by ages of neglect, but still, putatively, books. I paged through what was on offer; all were hand written, it seemed, and were crudely bound with cord and a rough spine of leather on the right. One was on well-thumbed cotton-rag paper, and the script looked different from the others, but on the other hand the condition was by far the worst. I decided to go for a middling copy, and expressed suitable disinterest in the lady-vendor’s wares. I love a fierce bargaining session; you ask for a price, recoil in horror, make a ridiculous counter-offer, to which she mimes the general hardness of the times and the numbers of her starving children. You are visibly saddened and gently put down the item, sigh and turn away with a last ditch offer. She refuses and shares in your sadness, so you switch tack and ask the price of a single old French Indochina coin for your collection. She brightens up and spreads her fingers - $5. I have her! I throw the coin onto the rejected book I had previously offered $30 on, while she wanted $2 more. '$32 for both' I offer. She agrees, and I have my antique book and coin for roughly the price of yesterday’s blockbuster paperback. Delight all round.
We meet Kao, coming from the opposite end, and he leads us off into an alleyway, lined with foodstalls. It's bedlam. Over a width of about four metres, you have rough tables and rickety benches jutting out from the left wall, a very narrow walkway, then troughs with glowing coals, gas fires and of course, trestle tables loaded with mortal remains of fish, chicken and pork in various guises, mainly cunningly skewered on or clamped between split bamboo spits. There were heaps of glistening sausages too, and on having been assured that they contained nothing more exotic than buffalo, pork and beef, I ordered a selection, Fay went for spare ribs and I loaded up with a huge plate of vegetables - none of which I was familiar with. For good measure the vendor lady chucks them all in a pan, gives them a quick stir about and a flash-flaming over the gas, and I go off with my dollar's worth to find a table.
We squeeze in, sweating shoulder to shoulder with tourist and local alike, with a solid queue of people still moving past, while the fires roar half a metre behind them. It's indescribably hot and uncomfortable, and so noisy you can hardly hear yourself think. Nevertheless Fay makes acquaintance with a blonde Dutch kid sitting opposite her. They manage to swap a few tips and tales, but I don't even try to get an ear into that conversation. Supper had been most satisfactory. Spiced anywhere between subtly fragrant to the sledgehammer effect of a mouthful of chillies. We returned to our home well satisfied with our excursion.
A slow-boat ride up or down the great river had been on my wish list, so Kao was given orders to find us a Charon who would ferry us around. In a trice the fair Soley was found willing and idle and in possession of one of those long covered boats with a dozen or two pretty uncomfortable seats in them. His asking price was horrendous for an hour's ride downriver - and two hours back. But here Kao intervened, as it turned out the guidebook had misinformed us - the Kuang Si falls were not a few minutes ride from the river village, but a good 37km on. Kao made an excellent suggestion; we could do our cruising down the river, while he drove to the village to pick us up there, then on to the falls and back home. Very good in theory, but that still left the boat at the wrong end of the journey without a fare. Soley said it cost money for petrol even if we didn't want the ride back - which was fair enough. So I knocked a hundred thousand off his asking price and told him that as it was already late in the morning, he could either take us and make a small profit, or sit on his rear for the rest of the day. He concurred, but needed the money to buy petrol, as there were no filling stations along the way. After a long wait, watching ferries crossing, loaded with locals, produce and jalopies, rafts, fishing skiffs with tiny one-lung putt-putts, as well as river steamers carrying hundreds of tons of cargo, we were finally under way in the broiling sun down the broad, brown Mekong. Altogether an enjoyable trip, until we landed. Luckily Soley got in touch with Kao by cellphone before abandoning us on a foreign shore. The latter was almost at our destination, it seemed. Our next goal meant that we had to hike up a steep and slippery bank. We were already pretty exhausted when we reached the so-called village, where at least we could get cold water (wonderful how you can find working fridges and satellite dishes in jungle bars, far from the beaten track, even in these parts). The solicitous Soley had helped and accompanied us as far as civilization. A further call elicited the alarming fact that Kao was presently stuck in the mud with his vehicle - so ‘could we start walking please?’ Not overjoyed with the idea in the 35 degree heat, we nonetheless set off trudging through the village along twists and turns we'd never have found without Soley.
Once in open country – actually on the main track through the jungle – our boatman phoned Kao for progress reports every few minutes, but the news only got worse. Now the latter was 'stucked in water, car dead'. Soley reckoned we might as well walk towards the debacle, so we plodded on while he ran ahead to see if he could help. It was a long couple of kilometers in the blazing sun until we reached the river to find that our transport was just in the last throes of being extricated from the watery grave it had landed in. Kao was quite distraught at our plight and kept apologising and berating himself, but for once I couldn't be cross with him - such things happen. We bade our new-found friend, Soley, a fond farewell and thankfully climbed into the tuktuk for the ride to the falls.
A looong time later we reached the falls, and recoiled a little, as it was not only crawling with tourists and locals alike (being said Communist holiday, Sunday) but it also had a parking lot that was ringed by all manner of stalls selling wares ranging from comestibles, through local handicrafts, to dross from Korea and China. Kao parked and promised to sleep on it while we disported ourselves at the falls. We paid our dues and set off once more in the steamy heat, albeit in the shade of the forest. No great distance from the gate we came to a bear conservation centre, sporting half a dozen miserable black bears in open enclosures, with a raised walkway running alongside the fence. We'd seen bears before, so the pleas to aid conservation fell on deaf ears and we walked on.
There was no great rushing or thundering noise, so it came as no surprise that these falls were really only cascades in a stream, but very pretty ones with tufa curtains and lovely blue-green pools, criss-crossed with seemingly fossilized trees that had fallen into the river. We were really tempted to have a swim, in spite of the crowds splashing about and picnicking in the forest all about us, but on dabbling my toes in the shallows, I found the going lethally treacherous over dissolving limestone covered with algae or calcium mud. We cast around for a place where Fay could get in without breaking a leg, but ended up sitting on a tree root at the water's edge with our feet in six inches of water and warm mud. Quite soothing for a few minutes but with limited long-term possibilities.
We strolled back and gladdened the hearts of a few foodsellers. As we ate, a short sharp shower first cooled things down, then made it even more steamy. Along the route home we were supposed to drive through some scenic ethnic villages where I hoped to get some photos of thatched palm leaf mat houses - but the weather played dirty for once. In no time we were driving through a full-scale monsoon downpour. Though the tuktuk had a top canopy, there was a hefty gap between the cab and roof, so the rain blasted in our faces through this. The side blinds, though unfurled, also helped little and in no time at all, we looked like drowned rats. I made Fay sit up front with Kao as she had a bad chest infection which did not need aggravating, but I had no choice but to grin and bear it. Those thirty or so km were very long, very uncomfortable and at the end, very cold. Not even the sights of bedraggled villagers, livestock and nut-brown kids dancing naked by roadside puddles, waiting for passing vehicles to give them a power-shower of muddy water - were diverting after a while. A hot shower and dry clothes was all I craved, and surprisingly, after an hour's lie-down in a cosy bed, all was restored and we were ready to have another go at the market.
Fay wanted a silk shawl, so that was the first priority - but what a range to choose from. Buyers were obviously in short supply, so the competition for her favours was fierce. Purchase finally made, we wandered through an aisle we'd missed on our previous visit. Now there were palm-leaf books, every thickness and length, with antique covers or without, all over the place. The bookseller in me just wanted them all - but I did resist temptation. Overall, this had been the best market yet, with a wide variety of goods, nicely displayed over the whole width of the street; well lit, with fruit-drink stalls at one end. Now we wanted something to eat, but for once we were completely disorientated and had different memories of the alley's location. Language problems arose and even mimicked queries gave conflicting answers. Our luck held and we bumped into our Dutch tablemate from the night before. She laughingly pointed us to the right alley just a few metres distant. The breeze had been blowing from the wrong quarter, or we'd have been lured by the aromas of roasting meat. Once again we had an interesting selection; squeezed in next to a Brit couple, with me sitting opposite a large Chinese with a big appetite for spare ribs and Lao by the liter. We finished off with some delicious fruit smoothie mixes and decided to call it a day, as the evasive early morning market awaited us on our last day.
This was in a different location, a much shorter street, but oh, what culinary treasures. As we were leaving the same day, we couldn't actually buy anything - but looking and tasting a bit here and there was great. There were a lot of greens on sale. Some obviously leaf vegetables that were fried or stewed, some herbs, not all for cooking either as we found out from the taste - though Kao's English was not up to translating medicinal uses for them. The sheer variety of mushrooms was amazing - on one table seven species were on offer - white, long-stemmed, dark brown, straw mushrooms over four inches long, oyster mushrooms, tiny brown buttons and a floppy purplish sprig of tree mushroom, which I'd never seen before. There was brown single clove garlic, the size of a thumbnail, green beans several feet long, numerous cucurbits and aubergines from pea-sized to almost that of a melon, that I wouldn't know what to do with, and a dozen varieties of rice, white, yellow, red and black - to mention but a few.
Among the fruit and veg were stalls of dry foodstuffs, neatly packaged in cellophane or plastic wrappers, but most bearing only Lao names, so we couldn't even guess what they contained. One item predominated though - rawhide - in blocks, sticks, strips and slices, as well as dark chips of what we would call biltong. For the life of me I couldn't figure out what one would do with all this 6mm-thick shoeleather in the kitchen. Kao was consulted. No, you didn't stir-fry it, nor cooked it in deep fat to turn it into crackling. You didn't make jelly out of it, nor stew. Somehow you did prepare it in the kitchen - and then ate it while on a beer drinking binge - with much effort, as Kao mimed gnawing and tearing at a strip of hide. As I am fond of spoonerisms, I had great difficulty keeping a straight face when Kao said the source of this rawhide were ‘fluffablows’. Laotians have some difficulty with their ‘p’s and f’s – thus ‘people’ can easily become ‘feefle’ in that part of the world. We had a good laugh when I suggested feeding the hide to a dog instead (as we might in SA) and then eating the dog - as they sometimes still do in Laos, but more often so in Viet Nam.
There was also a large number of fish from the Mekong on offer. Tiddlers, dried and looking like the kitten treats you buy for your cats back home, but also mean eyed monsters with wrestlers' necks, weighing in at 20-40 kilos apiece. Not much by way of jungle produce, but Kao assured us that if we came in early, there was plenty of wild fowl, hog and deer to be found. Both of Luang Prabang’s markets are fascinating places, which reflect the food of the region, customs and handicrafts of a large part of central South East Asia, especially since the trade highway of the Mekong passes through town.
We thought we might as well have a look to see how the royals fared before the revolution, seeing this was our last day, as the king's palace was also open on Mondays (and Sundays, not Tuesdays or Saturdays, mind you) From the outside the palace looked like any administrative edifice on a generous scale, but you were immediately ushered off to a small room where you could shed your shoes and other impediments. The moment one stepped inside one is blasted by the opulence of an oriental potentate; everything is gilt or solid gold, the furniture, walls, fitments and drapes just dripped with the stuff. Our last monarch must have fancied himself as a military man of note, as there were rows of cases of swords used by him or presented by powers ranging from all the kingdoms in the region, to many European powers. The further west the origin of the gift, the less gold encrusted hilt and scabbard became - until you got to the bottom shelf where a standard-issue ordinary cavalry sabre rested - presented by the French, who obviously held the monarch in the esteem due to him. The inner sanctums were closed to the hoi polloi, but one could peer in through the doors to view the royal bed, chamberpot, and the dining table complete with its Royal Doulton service.
The outer rooms contained more royal stuff, and more display cases with presents from the high personages and great nations of the world. A glittering display in the main, except for the crowning glory – the present from the United States – a plastic model of the Apollo Moon Lander! There was little of real interest until we chanced on a bunch of stelae, with different inscriptions from periods varying from 15th to 18th centuries. One such was a real Rosetta stone, with all of three different forms of script on it I would have given my eye-teeth for a rubbing of that, but a stolen photo had to be a distant second prize, cameras not being permitted; but smuggled in nonetheless. On leaving I located a dour museum official, who proved to be unexpectedly helpful when I asked him about the different alphabets. His take on this was that the aristocracy, the bureaucracy and the Buddhist church all had their own versions of script, a sort of closely guarded guild or class system.
Kao introduced us to a platform restaurant overhanging the steep bank of the Mekong, a fitting place to end our brief stay in Laos. We shared lunch and a beer with our man and the tiniest, most pregnant little squint-eyed tabby cat I've ever seen. Good to get some catty loving, even if it was table-based.
We said our goodbyes to Kao and paid him off. He was not a patch on our friend Naga in Siem Reap, but still, as time passed and we got better acquainted, he became more of an aide and tried to please us, so we had warmed to this rather dour character with his paucity of language skills. The Rattanakone pack also, we were sorry to leave. The place was spotless, well-run and Madame and her brood and employees were always keen to help within their very limited English capabilities.
The airport departure lounge was about the most cheerless place of that ilk that I have encountered, but its one advantage was that the hard plastic banks of chairs were actually comfortable! Some minutes after seating ourselves I suddenly thought I heard my name mispronounced in a 'calling for...' announcement. I went back through security, who sent me to check-in, who in turn marched me off to a room which was littered with luggage and a busy bunch of customs officials and some red-faced tourists. My minder pointed to our smaller bag and asked if it was mine. To this I replied, yes, but there was another, bigger bag. He didn't care about the latter, it seemed, but wanted me to open this one. I told him I couldn't, because we'd used cable ties to secure the zips and I didn't have a knife. He duly obliged and I opened up. "Whiskey, whiskey ?" he asked, and then I remembered our supply we carried in two small plastic water bottles. I pulled them out, explained that, yes, it was whiskey, which we were in the habit of drinking, and for good measure, I pulled out the bottle of palm wine I’d bought in Cambodia as well. He was most intrigued by this one's label, but obviously couldn't make much sense of it. The bottle was still sealed, so he grudgingly let me stuff everything back in again. I did manage to elicit a friendly grin when I asked whether I could trust him with my luggage now it had been broached. The Laotians were thorough, but quite businesslike and neutrally friendly, to give them their due. Nearly all passengers boarding were called to open up and please explain something or other in their cases. To crown it all, I set off the beeper at security for some strange reason when I returned to the boarding lounge and had to submit to multiple scans and pat-downs before being permitted to pass. DON'T ever try to smuggle anything illegal out of the country - these people take themselves seriously.
When our call came and we were carted off by bus to our little plane, it was crammed full within minutes and since there was no reason to tarry, we left, ten minutes early - surely a miracle of modern aviation.