Archives for posts with tag: Vietnam

While most of my journey has been of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along type, I occasionally end up signing for a one-day or half day tour to attractions that require a lot of hassle or a car to get to.

So here I was again at 8 am boarding a minibus to Halong bay. The day was off to a weird start: the driver could not locate me at the agreed meeting point (even though he had my Vietnamese phone number) and once he did find me he went ahead and vented out some of his frustration in Vietnamese. I don’t know how you say `you motherfucking idiot` in Vietnamese but if I listened more attentively I would probably do by now. After we dropped off a couple that had mistakenly been picked up by our company (angry remarks were given in English this time) we were briefed by our guide (Mr Mit 1) about the schedule for the day before introducing us to the other guide (Mr Mit 2) and the driver (Mr Mit 3). If stereotypes are anything to go by, the contrast between this tour and the one I took to My Son (see previous post) proved the stereotypes about Northern Vietnamese and Southern Vietnamese right. Compared to their freewheeling, smiling countrymen in the South, the Northern Vietnamese are less prone to smiling and can be abrupt (being yelled at by a senior Hanoi citizen in the street for not getting out of the way can feel like being shat on by a dinosaur, based on my experience). Compared to our army general turned Chinese opera actor with his salacious jokes about My Son’s phallic statues (see previous post), our guide to Halong acted like a strict Austrian nanny and spoke with the same enthusiasm of an accountant doing your tax audit. Just like for all stereotypes about people from the North and people from the South of many countries (Italy, the US, France etc.), numerous theories have been formulated about the N vs S Vietnam debate ranging from climatic (colder North) to geographic (north’s proximity with China) to historic (contact and or conflict with foreigners) to political (tighter and more entrenched grip of a certain party).

As I was pondering about these various meaningless theories, we stopped at a rest house for the inevitable pee stop with a drive-through souvenir shopping extension (never seen so much lacquerware in my entire life). Looking at the fellow tourists from our minibus and the six others in the parking lot (all Halong-bound), I also realised that the tourists were also a poorly dressed travelling circus of global stereotypes: the chainsmoking Frenchman, the Sandals&Socks Inc. Vikings, English ladies with skin complexions turned red like ham, hyper-accessorised Singaporian and Hong Kongese men with their handbags etc… Perhaps distancing myself from the stereotype of Italian tourist on the loose (or perhaps not), I was sporting an equally dubious garb of Jesus Christ leather sandals (from Jerusalem, circa 2007) and an electric blue wifebeater and jeans short from my Plastic Fantastic in Hong Kong 2011 summer collection.

After the cathartic rituals of the emptying of the bladder were concluded, off we went towards the promised land of Halong bay, our Vietnamese Shepherd and firm believer in the power of tough love guiding his ill-assorted herd of lost souls of the Lonely Planet towards landscapes of astonishing beauty.

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While in Hoi An I booked a half a day tour to the archaeological town of Mi Son.
So there I was, at 8.30 am on a lime green bus surrounded by equally sleepy tourists in shorts and sandals.
As soon as we left, our guide, Mr Dong, introduced himself with military-like demeanour and detailed the schedule for the day, before conducting a head count of us useless people. So that we would not lose people to other groups visiting the site, we will hencefort be referred to as the tiger group and he would be our self-appointed tiger king, Gen. Dong informed us. He proceeded to explain in a martial voice that Mi Son had been established as a trade empire by Javanese merchants well before Angor Wat was built (so much for all that Khmer swagger, Cambodia).
Once arrived at the site, Gen. Dong briefed us in front of the map, his body language a mix of military demeanour and moves from a Chinese Opera.
He informed us that the site, now a world heritage site, was first vandalised by French explorers that cut the heads off all the Hindu statues so that they could be exhibited at the Louvre and then by the Americans that thought that the proximity of My Son to the Saigon trail meant that the Viet Cong were using the ruins as a base (they weren’t). You can see the hole in the ground caused by one of the bombs in the picture below. Not trying to suggest any comparison, but the only other people that cut off head of statues in the region where the Khmer Rouge and Mao’s cultural revolutionaries. A proof that in terms of idiocy our (in)civilisation can be on par with any other.

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I accidentally booked a seat on the 6 sleeper part of the train, instead of the more tourist friendly 4 sleeper part. It would have not been so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that I am claustrophobic and once you lay on the top bed your nose is only 30 cm away from the cieling. As I was contemplating survival strategies for the 17 hour long journey, a boisterous Vietnamese family of 4 arrived.
They were better prepared for their 33 hour journey to Ha Noi, the kids playing on their I phone and portable Play Station, the father on his I Pad and the mother administering a seemingly endless supply of snacks and food.
They were cleary wondering what sort of scam I must have gotten into that sold me over priced second class tickets en lieu of first class. Nonetheless, they were as gracious as only the Vietnamese can be and while we chatted away in broken English, they made sure I partook in the food fest. All of a sudden I remembered long overnight train journeys as a child  with my family in Italy. A continuous supply of rice cakes, spicy dry meat, pickles, cured pork, pop corn, sandwiches, rice porridge, bananas and even wine was offered (I volunteered my cookies).
In the end the journey wasn’t as painful as it could have been, I got the opportunity to spend 17 hours with a boisterous and lovely upper middle class Vietnamese family, got my heart warmed to see their interaction and left with a great memory of the people that are projecting the country head-first into the 21st century.

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One of the reasons behind this trip to South East Asia was to got away from the Middle East for a little bit – As I am sitting in a frozen yogurt cafe in Ho Chi Minh City, I just realised that sometimes you just can’t escape very easily.

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I just came out of an exhibit on the history of Vietnam’s communist party. I went because I figured you don’t get to see propaganda by a ruling communist party a lot these days. In the midst of various memorabilia (silver plate from the Libyan Jamahiryya, Cuban stamps, plate from Turkmenistan etc.), posters of all the communist party congresses, photos of party officials being received by various dignitaries and/or at the ceremony for Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN or the WTO, one document from the 1945 liberation struggle from the French really caught my attention. The pamphlet calls for an end to French aggression in exchange for protection of France’s commercial interests in the country. The second last paragraphs is very militant ‘Français! Réfléchissez! Vous avez appris aux événements de Syrie-Liban`. It reminded me of a different Syrian revolution that once was.

The next stop on the tour was the War Remnants Museum. The museum is an impressive and harrowing tour of the impact of the Vietnam war. It has a bright orange room full of pictures of victims of Napalm and other biological weapons, US army tanks and helicopters parked outside and a ‘requiem’ photo exhibition. The ground floor hosts a collection about the various protests that took place all over the world, including in Aleppo, Syria.
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A lot of thoughts are now racing in my head on imperialism, military intervention, resistance and post-resistance propaganda (brought to you by the `historic truth` part of the museum). Perhaps the loudest one is a reflection on how humans take part in historic events, motivated in part by my non-heroic and passive experience with the Egyptian revolution. This quote has moved me more than anything else in the museum.

Someone may criticise me, a citizen of a third world country for self-burning in protest, but I strongly believe that those who long for the real peace in Vietnam and all over the world will not consider my death as being in vain

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