Random Play by Graham Reid


Traveller Tales

Russell’s post from Vietnam has prompted me to recall my visits to that beautiful, friendly and fascinating country. Allow me to indulge myself. My first encounter was in late ‘69. Think about that.

It was Christmas Day when I flew in to Saigon -- PanAm 001 if I recall -- and there was a Christmas truce. The VietCong however, being no respecter of Christian matters, blew up the end of the runway. There was smoke and panic.

On the way in as the plane dropped down I had been initially baffled by the large circular indentations all across the landscape, right up to the edge of the runway. For a few moments I thought them wells or some gravity-feed water system. They were, of course, pockmarks from shells and bombs.

The previous year the VietCong and the North Vietnamese Army had equally ignored their own holiday of Tet and mounted the Tet Offensive which had seen them fighting on the grounds of the American embassy in central Saigon. I thought at the time that surely now the Johnson administration would see that this was a no-win war and bail. They didn’t.

On the ground at Saigon airport that Christmas Day we taxied past row upon row of B52 bombers and other aircraft, all in concrete bunkers. I am told that when the Americans got out in ’75 they left behind the third largest airforce in the world. I have no idea whether that is true -- but on the evidence of what I saw in just Saigon alone I have no reason to disbelieve it.

What I do know was that it was damn all use to the victorious VietCong and NVA in ‘75, they didn’t have pilots to fly the things.

I assumed that at Christmas time the flight out of Saigon would be full of American boys returning home for the holidays, but that wasn’t the case. The flight to Frankfurt then London was packed with wealthy Vietnamese heading to Paris for the holiday season.

In ’95 I went to Vietnam and travelled around for a month. The country had only recently opened itself up to tourists but there were few of us around. Saigon seemed to have reverted to type after the takeover by the administration based in Hanoi, and after the terrible re-education programmes.

The south was always known to be more entrepreneurial than the more conservative north, and so Saigon had Western-style bars -- like Russell I went to the Majestic and sat on that roof garden where at the time they had godawful plastic and plaster sculptures of two-metre tall elephants and so forth, and fairy lights everywhere.

There was a club called Apocalypse Now. Someone had a grim sense of humour.

I travelled around the country by minibus for the most part: the train to Nha Trang took about half a day and people walking along the track passed us so I avoided trains after that.

The roads were mostly woeful and even now I still have to stop and think which side of the road you drive on in Vietnam. It seemed to me that drivers just stuck to the centre to avoid the chickens and children and old men on bicycles.

I had a wonderful time, met exceptionally friendly people, heard stories of the American War and the re-education camps, and ate the best-ever food in cheap roadside cafes. (And the worst, a meal of horse gruel in a Hanoi marketplace.)

But within a half day of leaving Saigon I realised that Saigon was not Vietnam: it would be like mistaking LA for the USA. The capitalist spirit and sometimes conspicuous wealth wasn’t evident in many other places. The north was very different: quiet and staid, more reserved.

It was the 20th anniversary of the Fall/Liberation of Saigon in ‘95 and there were a couple of military parades in Saigon. There was nothing in Hanoi because, as I was told, they didn’t need them. They had won and the show parades were for the benefit of the southerners to remind them, and the world, just who was in charge.

One day a tank rolled into the street in Saigon and a whole pile of videos were taken from a local store and ceremonially crushed. They were corrupt western-influenced things and the much televised event was to also send a message to the southerners and the wider world. A shopkeeper told me later that the videos weren’t western ones at all, just what the soldiers had grabbed off the shelves.

But these were isolated and much staged incidents, mostly people went about their business and I couldn’t believe how achingly poor rural Vietnam -- in fact anywhere outside Saigon -- was. Everything was manual labour. Roads were built by hand. A bulldozer was a rare sight.

There were also very few cars (someone told me the previous year only 20 or so cars had been bought by private individuals) and only in Saigon did I see many motorcycles. Hanoi had even fewer. It was a beautiful city, and so quiet because of the absence of cars and motorbikes.

I saw some memorably odd sights: in a street a little boy played with a toy gun. That stuck with me. But half the population of the country was under 20 and so the American War hadn’t affected them directly. Of course the re-education programmes had.

Two years later I was back and again travelled around for a month. Same thing: lovely people, wonderful food, lousy roads and so on. But even in two years some things had changed.

When I had previously been in Hoi An there were only two places where tourists were allowed to stay. Now you had a choice of about 23, if I recall.

(A word on Hoi An: back then this tiny, riverside and beach village saw very few tourists, and local people would stare. There were no vehicles allowed in its narrow streets and I took some black’’n’white pix: it looked like something out of the 16th century. Today you pay to go into the town, there is electricity -- and a guy I met managing a swanky hotel in Thailand now runs a luxury hotel with an infinity pool right on the beach near Hoi An. He said to me not to go back to Hoi An, I would only weep for what has been lost.)

Other things had changed too: ’95 had been a reasonable year for tourism -- although as I say I saw very few -- so local people had made a financial and emotional investment in tourism-related services. But ‘96 had seen a downturn and so by ‘97 people were desperate. There was hassle-factor which hadn’t been evident two years previous. Corruption was endemic.

But again, Vietnam struck me as a beautiful place full of wonderful and forgiving people.

I wrote about my two trips in my travel collection Postcards From Elsewhere

The piece was more like a series of telling snapshots, the first of which was this . . .

The young man who waits tables at this small, family-run hotel in Hanoi is 24, the same age as my eldest son.

He lives 10 kilometres away and cycles to work here every day at noon, returning to the room he rents at around 11pm. He sometimes eats here but otherwise can only afford one bowl of rice a day. He works every day.

I have been in this cheap backstreet hotel near Shoe Street for a week. One night when it is quiet, the young man says he will tell me a story.

In 1988, he says, his family tried to escape from Vietnam. They paid some sailors on a fishing boat at Haiphong Harbour and they, and other families, hid between the decks. They were heading for China, Hong Kong … Anywhere.

He tells of the killing on the boat and the pool of blood on the deck, of the sailors abandoning one family on the coast of China, and of how later the boat ran aground and they had to swim for the shore in the darkness. He tells of how he fainted from hunger and was helped by a Chinese woman, and of eventually being taken to Hong Kong where the family spent the next seven years in four different detention camps.

There were fights and killings in the camps, they couldn’t eat the food and a year ago they were forcibly repatriated.
When they landed in Vietnam, he says, they were thrown down the steps from the plane and beaten. His parents now live in the house of other family members in Haiphong. He tries to send them money because they cannot find, or are not allowed to, work.

When he arrived in Hanoi earlier this year he knew nobody, had no food or accommodation, and spent a fortnight asking for employment in the small hotels because he speaks fractured, but serviceable, English. He had some lessons in the Hong Kong camps, but mostly he has taught himself.
At this moment a beggar arrives at the door of the hotel. The young man has no money to give the broken man.

“I hesitate when I see people asking for money for food because I remember the kindness the Chinese lady gave me.”

He smiles with the same gentleness I have seen all week.
It is 8.30pm and I haven’t eaten since morning. Now I have no appetite at all.”

I have also posted some other snapshots of Vietnam here and here and here.

I envy Russell and, despite being warned that Hanoi is now just another noisy Asian city overrun with cheap motorbikes, I would dearly love to go back. I like a country that has a Temple of Literature.

It was cheap then (I paid an average of $US10 - 12 a night for a room with air-con) and not much has changed. Three years ago a businessman in Taiwan told me that for the salary of one Taiwanese they could employ 10 people in mainland China -- and 20 in Vietnam. I guess “cheap” from our perspective means “poor” from theirs.

Something about Fiji? A few years ago I was in a street in Lautoka (which struck me as being like Kaikohe with curry shops) and I was looking in the window of a store which was obviously Indian-owned. A large Fijian guy in his mid 20s loomed over me and said with genuine menace: “Don’t you buy from this place, you buy from a Fiji boy place.”

Five minutes later outside another Indian-owned shop a different guy approached me and said exactly the same thing. I haven’t been back to Fiji since and although I see cheap holidays advertised I don’t think I will. Not out of fear (God, I went to the Solomons, and New York before Giuliani!) but just because I have a bad feeling about such endemically race-divided places.

Yesterday I was talking with some people in the travel business and they were saying that many New Zealanders -- but not English or Australian tourists -- are feeling much the same and striking Fiji off their holiday wish-list.

Pity because it punishes the innocent. But . . .

Finally in this travel ramble: I am expecting to be off to Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak and Brunei some time in the next two months and so am openly soliciting for interesting diversions, digressions and places to go in those regions. Anyone got any tips that would take me away from the familiar? (Which I will be seeing anyway, as an architecture groupie I am certainly going up the Petronas Towers!)

Your help greatly appreciated.

And now apropos of nothing: there is a lot of diverse music posted at Music From Elsewhere which you might like to check out. (My Essential Elsewhere columns seem much appreciated, as do the One For Fun things).

But get in now -- you may like to subscribe, it’s free and you’ll get weekly newsletters and be in for the giveaways -- because at the end of the weekend I’m going to post a swag of new and old stuff, and also offer the first annual “Best of Elsewhere 2007: The Half Year Report”.

I’ll be singling out some of the best albums to come my way in the past six months -- and no, don’t come to Elsewhere if you are wondering about Arctic Monkeys, I’m more a Tinariwen kinda guy!

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