2005 South-East Asia revisited.
This is an abridged travel and photo-blog of a trip taken in 2005. It will be published in several weekly posts, covering Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Click to enlarge images. Further explanation in a previous post.
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1. Hello Vietnam
|Descent into Vietnam|
Everything grew brown during the descent through Vietnam: bare, charred fields with strips of sun-hurt yellow either side of the dwarfing thick brown rivers. The city eventually grew up, blocks of faltering, vulnerable grey. Unlike in Hong Kong two hours before, there were no sparkling skyscrapers, no stylish shimmering sea. Instead the sluggish, fat brown river and a clutch of averagely sized grey tower buildings marking what must be the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
Scared and excited to be stepping off the last aircraft of my journey, to be somewhere so incredibly alien, I trailed my fellow passengers into the amusingly unorganised immigration area.
Haphazard queues led presumably somewhere, it was impossible to tell exactly where or if you were in the right one. Britishly, I joined one and hoped.
Other western people were in my queue, as there were in queues either side of me. A pretty young eastern girl in the queue next to me selected Robbie Williams from her silver mini iPod. To my right a toddler bumped into the back of a short, sweaty young man who looked vaguely eastern European, and with whom I exchanged a weak smile. He was actually Australian and would become my best friend on the continent in the space of a week (I would shave hard-to-reach parts of his hairy neck – a duty usually reserved for his girlfriend); then we would never hear from each other again. We wouldn’t meet for a couple of days yet.
Selecting Ian Brown’s F.E.A.R on my own ageing iPod, I was proud to see the battery still hanging in there. An American couple in front of me were gently reprimanded by the immigration official when they went up to his desk together. He ordered her back. She said something to me which I didn’t hear over my music, but I smiled anyway and supportively shrugged at the maddening beaurocracy of it all. When my turn came, the stern immigration examined my gawky passport photo while I examined his frighteningly long hair sprouting from a facial mole.
At a currency exchange counter I swapped forty pounds I’d taken out at Heathrow. Musty, mainly pink currency was given in return. Then came the searing blast of heat and heaving swarm of Arrivals outside the main door. Unquantifiable numbers of eager eastern eyes stared at anyone who walked out.
“Hey, taxi?!” a uniformed man emerged from the dense pack and shouted. I looked up from studiously examining the floor, avoiding all the eyes. Yes, he had been shouting at me. What other choice did I have? I didn’t know anything.
“Mm, ok,” I muttered, offering the first example of my Vietnamese language. I’d half-heartedly tried learning token phrases for each country I would visit and now relied on a pocket phrasebook, knowing it was unlikely I would to develop the confidence to say anything more than hello, goodbye and thank-you. I was already uncertain of the approaching character as he weaved through the crowd towards me, knowing he’d be out to fleece the stupid westerner who knew nothing, who would need two hours and a calculator to do any currency conversion. He appeared to be an agent of some sort and led me across the forecourt, away from the incomprehensible throng of people, to a taxi which already had a driver. He quoted a price I knew to be way over the odds. I’d heard that the centre was only about twenty minutes away. He said thirty-five. I conceded anyway; the taxi company seemed to have a monopoly. I forked out one of my largest notes to him, still ignorant of exactly how much I was being fleeced for. Better not to think about it.
He unceremoniously threw my backpack into the boot and slammed the rear passenger door behind me. My driver was a young man with few English skills. We spoke anyway, without understanding much each other said, both nodding and smiling a lot, picking up and dropping our own tangents between long periods of silence.
The view from the window of my taxi was my first mindbendingly rich flavour of Vietnam. When you go somewhere new, anywhere you haven’t been before, you’re naturally sensitive to obvious differences. Here, it was more natural trying to look for things that were the same. Sameness in such an alien, distant place was novel and cute – Coke signs, aha! A few dominant global, capitalist names – this was still a capital city, after all. There was modern trade and industry. But still, difference itself remained king.
Traffic apparently wasn’t in need of order or rules here; anarchy reigned, everybody had the innate ability to thread their bike, scooter or vehicle through the eye of a needle. Even where squeezing through a gap didn’t seem possible, where a fatality seemed so inevitable you daren’t look. These drivers needed only a millimetre of space around them and any more was a luxury. They appeared concentrated and serious, never stressed or hurried. Cars were few and motorbikes ruled the road, packed tightly together, riders never with a helmet – a smog mask the most protection they had, chatting across the road with each other as they travelled, smoking, occasionally on mobile phones – despite the constant engine drones to which they’d grown immune, or learned to speak over. Most had motorbikes: scooters and Vespas, as well as laughably tatty machines which appeared barely capable of making a sound or staying intact if you were to sit on them; less so of actual movement. No Harley Davidsons here. Pedal bikes came a close second to their motorised siblings although few looked what we would call modern. The more people on a motorbike the better. Young and old, friends, lovers, whole families nonchalantly crammed on, babies looking out glazed over the handlebars of speeding, precariously weaving cycles.
Beeping wasn’t an aggressive act and road rage was almost non-existent. Buildings varied wildly from the ramshackle corrugated iron hut, just about upright, to the recognisably regular, sturdy modern bulk. Little glitz, no neon, but an intensity of frantic bustling life that in my experience had no comparison. I sat in the back of the taxi staring out, petrified, hypnotised. Sometimes a passing biker would see the pasty westerner in the taxi window and stoop to take a second look.
I sensed we were approaching the centre by the increase of western looking people. Still not many: the odd couple or single young person. Shortly before the taxi swung into the forecourt of my hotel, we passed a war museum, outside which an obvious clutch of tourists waited, adorned by cameras, sunhats and shades. I would soon become one of them.
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