The Quiet Englishman

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I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam. That everything is so intense? The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived. The smell: that’s the first thing that hits you, promising everything in exchange for your soul. And the heat. Your shirt is straightaway a rag. You can hardly remember your name, or what you came to escape from. But at night, there’s a breeze. The river is beautiful. You could be forgiven for thinking there was no war; that the gunshots were fireworks; that only pleasure matters. And then, something happens, as you knew it would. And nothing can ever be the same again.

I listened as Michael Caine read that opening monologue to the Quiet American on a sleeper coach to Hue, and knew even halfway through our Vietnam adventure; that it was written from both experience and the heart.

Rewind to the start of this journey and we entered Vietnam via a coach from Phnom Penh. Border control there was simple, our bags were X-rayed but no-one was actually looking at the other end. Just like the visa office, this country operates a strange undisciplined system.

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Once inside my first communist country I was pleasantly surprised to find people were helpful and happy to see us. At Check-in, the old lady on the counter told us exactly where to go around town, where the best Pho is, and referred to the City as Saigon (even though officially – it’s Ho Chi Minh City).

Exploring is best with some guidance but also some serendipity. So we headed to the night market and stopped at a square to watch a group practicing kung foo. Like synchronised swimming with kicks, punches and grunts. This provided a few Vietnamese students (Steve and Karl) an opportunity to start talking to Kelly while I took photos. One called Mike then approached me and asked if he could practice his English by talking to me. It became a long and interesting conversation about my job, football (involving a lengthy session on how to pronounce ‘Premier League’), the Brexit and how communism works in Vietnam. They were all fascinating and fascinated by the Western world but before long we had to depart for shopping, then dinner.

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After shopping for shoes at the night market – we got some dinner. Enough dinner for a family. We’re laughing about the quantity being too much when a whole red snapper turns up. Oh no, this is embarrassing, but costed less than £20 including drinks, all told.

I’d read that the Vietnamese love football but was still surprised when our tour guide; Hai, chatted for ages about Leicester City the next day. He was taking a large group of mainly Vietnamese tourists (and us) to the Mekong Delta. After inviting himself to London to watch football, and knocking back my refusal to help him buy Arsenal tickets, we arrived at the river.

For lunch we had Elephant ear, which after some surprise turned out to be the name of an unappetising looking fish – not Dumbo’s listening gear. This meat scraped off the bone was then placed into fresh spring rolls. It was alright. The meal was kind of awkward as we were sat with two older Vietnamese couples who didn’t say a word to us or each other. Whilst contemplating this I ate some snake. Which I didn’t realise was snake. I thought I was eating some hearty fish-like meat. Then as I started pulling tiny bones out of my mouth I remembered Hai had mentioned we could try some snake, and truthfully I enjoyed it. The next five minutes I conducted a campaign of subtly, then overtly convincing Kelly to try the new meat. She didn’t, predictably.

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After a night exploring Can Tho, a city that I imagine accounts for 50% of Vietnam’s electricity bill, we got back on the river and pootled along to a floating market. Before we hit the main body of bobbing boats, a little one pulled up alongside ours, and not a foot away from me they started selling their fruits and drinks loudly. Service to your door, or starboard door, or something.

The market was crammed full of boats, big ones with families that rarely set foot ashore, their decks piled high with different vegetables or fruits, each one hoisting a flag to indicate their goods. Small boats then ferried between the large ones and across to the tourist and customer boats, plying said goods, before exhausting their opportunities and moving on.

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Back in Saigon after watching a disappointing North London Derby in the Universal bar, we headed to the Sinh Tourist office for our day out at the Chu Chi tunnels. A network of tunnels built when the Vietnamese were fighting the French, but served them well during the American conflict too. We saw the tiny manholes used to escape, too small for a portly man as I, and realistically too small for anyone who isn’t starved and Vietnamese.

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The tunnel itself was about 3 feet tall, and required a very difficult method of squat-walking to manoeuvre along. In the end I had to crawl on my knees, in tropical, stifling heat, with no light and not much air to breathe. We emerged panting and wet through, 5 minutes of crawling equaling litres of sweat. The tunnel, we were told, had been extended 30% to accommodate tourists. No surprise then, under extreme conditions that the Viet Cong’s resolve was never broken.

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At a cafe area we were offered the chance to fire guns. At £1 a bullet we only opted for the bare minimum and I chose an AK47 and a M30 mounted machine gun. I began by blasting the first bullets, one-by-one into the target, then sprayed the last few in an uncontrollable burst. With the guns reloaded, bolted down and pointing only one way for safety – Kelly stepped up and fired off her rounds.

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An old propaganda video showing Chu Chi was interesting. It identified Vietcong troops with high kill counts as celebrities and generally tried to humanise the fight.

Our afternoon section of the tour took us around Ho Chi Minh City. First up was Notre Dame Cathedral, built in 1860 by the French colonials and then opposite this to the 1861 Post Office building. The city itself is very colourful, covered in red and yellow propaganda posters, red star flags, and some motor bikes. Oh and some more. And some more bikes. Well more bikes than I will ever see again in one place. Crossing the road was daunting at first, but became an exercise in death defying obstinance. I’m walking here – all of you stop or go around me, seemed to be the only solution. Mainly as sidewalks and pavements are unsurpassably littered with parked mopeds. Every business’ income topped up by providing road parking. Lots of fun, having that feeling of being in the thick of an organic city.

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On the 30th April 1975, a tank crashed through the gates of Norodom Palace used by the President of South Vietnam as his base of operations. Since then known as Independence Palace, it provided us with a view of what the South Vietnamese government looked like. It’s a beautiful building, yet with very modern architecture. I wandered around taking photos and almost got left behind from the group.

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Finally we visited the Vietnamese War Museum which is both moving and horrifying. The top floor is filled with photos by photographers who lost their lives like Larry Burrows and Dickey Chapelle. Their strikingly insightful photography made even more poignant knowing they were the last photos they took. We didn’t have long, and after half an hour had skipped by I rushed down to the war crimes room. Which is shocking as I read about how a US senator killed a village of innocent people and I get the feeling that the war was lost when hearts and minds were lost. This argument supported when I read about carpet bombing in the northern parts of South Vietnam, where people the US were trying to protect were devastated (when we visited these regions we were told firsthand that 1 in 5 were directly affected).

The museum is clearly biased, and although it doesn’t directly criticise the US, it does so via it’s content. There are no real examples of North Vietnamese wrong doing during the war either. That said and going in with that skeptical frame of mind the Agent Orange room still angered. It was very hard to read about those directly poisoned by tree foliage destroying chemicals. Even more difficult was seeing evidence of the countless generations born and to be born in villages unaware that children would be mutated and disabled by the land they lived on.

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That tour complete having learned a lot, we headed to Bui Vien to reflect over drinks. This then turned into a major argument, probably derived from spending a lot of time in each other’s pockets. The nature of travelling and marriage, it seems is that you will discover things that annoy you about the other person (me in this case), but like a good marriage you should talk it out and learn to work through these things.

For our last day in Saigon we had to go up the Bitexco tower for a view of Saigon from the Skydeck. Then after a hot and sunny walk Kelly discovered another Escape Room. We chose a tenuously themed Sherlock Homes murder mystery “Murder in Saigon”. Unlike the first one we did in Sinhanoukville, it was really hard and some of the clues, crazy difficult. For example we had to connect some numbers mentioned in diary entries, then do a maths calculation with them and convert those outcomes to 12 hour clock times, which made a 4 digit code that we could use to unlock a padlock. Yup. Sherlock Holmes might have got that in under an hour but we basically asked for a clue every step of the way, otherwise they would’ve been stuck with us. We ‘escape’ in 1 hour 23 minutes.

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I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a sleeper bus in Vietnam, but it’s surprisingly comfortable. I thought it was going to be normal coach seats with added space. Actually they are fully reclining seats. The upholstery is worn, cracked and hardened leather but I managed to sleep even though our driver woke us up every 4 hours, and we arrived at Da Lat at 5:30AM.

After an additional 2 hours sleep in the hotel we were picked up by our motorbikes guides.

Once again our lead guide’s name was Hai, who had the unenviable task of carrying me on the back of his Honda Motorbike through the Vietnamese countryside. Which was initially a bit unnerving, given I’ve never ridden a motorbike before, and Vietnam has a reputation of flaunting safety, and road rules. After a short while it’s thrilling and not so difficult to hold on, while riding pillion.

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Our first stop was at the Crazy house, a building created to be a living maze, that lived up to it’s name. Following this we visited a Buddhist pagoda and a chicken village called so because the parents of a boy demanded an impossibly big chicken as dowry for their daughter even though they were in love. The village now rears chickens, which is interesting as it turned out in true communist style that each village is run as a commune and therefore each has a very specific task to perform. So when we visited a mushroom village, it was clear that each house had a part to play in the growing, drying, crushing and exporting of mushrooms.

A short break from countryside communes produced an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction. We visited the Elephant Waterfall where legend has it Elephants turned to stone after a man was betrothed but died before he could be married. His fiancé then sat for days and days, crying, which created a waterfall. It’s a quick climb down to the base but it involved raising my feet above my hips as the steps were so high. This proved too much for my khakis which ripped completely at the crotch. Not a good view for anybody unfortunate enough to be below me.

So our next stop at a silk factory, provided me with the opportunity to purchase needed, if very feminine silk shorts. The whole production process is fascinating, how they grow them on sheets, then once they have cocooned themselves they are boiled and their silk shells unspun. The remaining grubs are then sold as tasty snacks, which I tried. They taste nutty, dusty and seemed very more-ish.

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Kelly didn’t partake in the grub guzzling as I didn’t partake in the next tasting. Our stop at a coffee growing commune. Here she ordered a cup of Weasel Coffee, that made by using coffee beans eaten by the many caged weasels we saw, then cleaned and crushed for a very expensive but smooth tasting blend. It’s apparently the enzymes in the weasels digestive system that do the trick. I asked who discovered that, knowing I wouldn’t get an answer, but raising the important question, would you be the first person to drink coffee from a weasel’s bum?

Riding through the mountains outside Da Lat was one of the best experiences of the trip to date. Such a beautiful country, and on such that beautiful day both Kelly and I were dazzled by Vietnam. The motorcycle trip was awesome, even though my driver played fast and loose with safety, overtaking and speed – sometimes meaning I had to lean against the turn to counter balance our bike. But that’s part of the fun right?

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Our adventure in Vietnam didn’t end here, but these first few days sealed it for me. He was right: Nothing can ever be the same again.

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