Collateral Damage, (spiked piece from Vietnam)

It has been long time since I wrote anything on here. 

Sorry about that. 

I’ve copied and pasted an old piece I wrote. I always thought it was a decent story but, for various reasons, it never saw the light of day. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. It was commissioned by one editor, I travelled to Da Nang to get it and, by the time I returned, the commissioning editor was gone. Sometimes it just works out that way. I’ve knocked on just about every publisher’s door since but, as time goes by, the story grows less relevant. Hence it’s inclusion here. I’d like someone to read the Nguyen’s story. 

Collateral Damage

Vietnam and the lethal legacy of Agent Orange

By Simon Speakman Cordall in Da Nang

There’s nothing too remarkable about the house on the main street of Khue Trung Hamlet, just outside Da Nang, Vietnam.  From the outside, it looks little different than any of the houses in this down at heel commune. Like any number of Vietnamese houses, the gated front of the house opens onto the street. Outside sits a glass and aluminium handcart, the kind you can find on any street corner of any town in Vietnam. Today the door to the house is closed and the cart sits idle. It’s been sitting idle for a while. The glass is choked with dust and the few stray packets of cigarettes sit inside ignored.

Inside, thirty six year old Nguyen Duc Nghia sits in his wheelchair and stares at the back of the closed door. It’s not clear how long he’s been sitting there, or even if he’s aware of the door.  No one’s talked to Nguyen Duc Nghia for nearly twenty five years.

Hoang Thi The pictured with her son, Duc

Nguyen Duc Nghia and his Mother

Elsewhere within the dim half light of their home in Khue Trung Hamlet, Nghia’s sister, Nguyen Thi Tyna, younger by three years, struggles to make her way across the front room. Leaning heavily on an ancient walker, her legs are losing the ability to support her. She smiles, but most of what she was has gone. Soon she will join her brother, physically present but practically absent. She has known this for years.

Their Mother, Hoang Thi The, doesn’t know what to do. Her husband died in 2005. Now, alone and seventy six, she worries endlessly about the future. She struggles to lift Nghia in his chair and, as Tyna deteriorates, she isn’t sure how she’s going to cope. Already the air in their small house is rank with the smell of excrement and stale sweat.

Nguyen Thi Tyna, age 33, pictured with a certificate signed by the President marking her Father's war service. Her disabilities will soon be as severe as her brother's.

Nguyen Thi Tyna, age 33, pictured with a certificate signed by the President marking her Father’s war service. Her disabilities will soon be as severe as her brother’s.

Life hasn’t always been this way. Both children were born into a privileged life. Their father had been decorated for his service in the war against the Americans and, like many veterans of that conflict, had secured a good job and a prestigious position within his community.  Nghia and Tyna were both bright children and seemed to be doing well at school. It wasn’t until Nghia was ten that problems seemed to start. He seemed to slow down. His teachers became concerned. Day by day, Nghia seemed to disintegrate, falling apart both physically and mentally.  Eventually, his limbs withered to nothing, his legs and ankles twisting and contorting into grim parodies of what they should have been. Eventually, by the time he was twelve, Nghia and the world just parted company.

Agent Orange Victim, Ho Chi Minh City

Agent Orange Victim, HCMC

Their father’s health also began to fail. He seemed to be ill all the time. The Doctors diagnosed everything; his heart was failing, his lungs were giving out, his organs were simply losing the will to function.  Then Tyna began to show the same symptoms as her brother.

The house was sold to pay for the children’s treatment. They moved to the hollow shell of the home that now houses them, sold to The by a concerned relative for as little as they could and for as much as she could afford. Their possessions too, have been sold to pay for the children’s care. There’s nothing left to sell. Even the handcart lies empty.

Le Van O

Le Van O plays the keyboards at an awareness raising event, HCMC

Their story isn’t all that unusual in Vietnam. However, what marks this story out as particularly unique, is that The’s husband, Tran Dam, could remember the American plane that sprayed the Agent Orange upon him that led to his family’s later collapse.

It’s estimated that nineteen million gallons of the defoliant, Agent Orange were dropped on southern and central Vietnam between 1961 and 1971, (http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/resources/agentorange/) contaminating around 17% of Vietnam’s entire forested area and – according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – exposing around 4.8 million people to the effects of the chemical. Vietnam’s thick forests were reduced to moonscape and jungles to grey ashen wastelands, their horizons only interrupted by the skeletal remains of the trees that once flourished there. The intention was to deny the Viet Cong – and much of the Vietnamese citizenry – both shelter and sustenance. While its success as a military strategy remains open to debate, its human legacy is an inescapable fact for the American soldiers and airmen who handled their lethal cargo and, critically, for the generations of Vietnamese still being born with the horrific effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

Viewed from afar, the story of Agent Orange is rich in irony. However, perhaps none is crueller than its impact upon Vietnam’s rural poor.  The forested areas around the Viet Cong tunnel fortress of Cu Chi, as well as those bordering the supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh trail, were all doused with the defoliant. The legacy of this action remains to this day. Families, most amongst the poorest in Vietnam, are still bearing children carrying the horrific effects of the Agent Orange their family was exposed to during a war that ended before most were born. Unable to provide the intensive care many of these children will require, most parents find themselves with no option but to give up their children to the care of the state organisation, VAVA, (The Vietnam Association for the Victims of Agent Orange. Le Van O  lives at their An Phuc Centre in Ho Chi Minh City. O was born without eye sockets due to his  family’s exposure to the chemical. Nguyen Thinh Thang was born to farmers in Tay Ninh Province, bordering both Cu Chi and Cambodia, his legs have never grown since he was a baby, Now twenty eight, he hopes to qualify in IT. Government funds, limited as they are, only extend to veterans of the northern army and the Viet Cong. Those civilians and members of the US sponsored ARVN, (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) who are similarly affected have little to rely but the charity of others.

In Da Nang the problem is particularly acute. Much of the Agent Orange that was used during the conflict was stored here and its legacy has been all the more devastating for it. Environmental Scientist, Dr Wayne Dwernychuk, now retired but formerly of Canadian company, Hatfield and Associates who undertook one of the most extensive studies of Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam, (http://www.hatfieldgroup.com/services/contaminantagentorange.aspx) identified Da Nang, (population 887,069) as one of the most contaminated areas in all of Vietnam. In Da Nang, as in many of the US bases which were home to Agent Orange, dioxin – the source of Agent Orange’s toxicity –  has been seeping into the food chain and, consequently, the populace, since its manufacturers, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock and Dow Chemical, amongst others, shipped the first canister here. “If the contaminated areas in Vietnam are left untreated, dioxin may reside in soils for over one hundred years.” Dr Dwernychuk explained, “Dioxin is an extremely stable compound due to the very strong chlorine bond in its structure. Ostensibly, if unremediated, (made safe) contaminated areas could be the source of dioxin entering the human food chain for many years into the future.”

Van, (nearest) doesn't talk or mix with other children at the centre

Van, (nearest) doesn’t talk or mix with other children at the centre

Kien practicing letters

Kien practices writing letters

Such is the severity of the situation in Da Nang that VAVA have established their own subsidiary, DAVA, (the Da Nang Association for the Victims of Agent Orange) “We have around 5,000 victims that we know about in the Da Nang area” Phan Thanh Tien, Vice President of DAVA explained. “of those, around 1,000 are veterans. We don’t know how many there might be in the countryside” Outside of Da Nang, DAVA’s day centre provides care to many of the children bearing the cost of US’ war strategy. In their well-ventilated classroom, the inheritors of Agent Orange’s legacy, some as young as eight, some in their mid twenties, sit in well ordered rows, their school books placed in front of them in neat display. Today they’ve been practicing the letter ‘a’, repeating it on row after row upon page after page. For many, this is the limit of their abilities. Next door, some of the more able children are practicing needlework. They’re making the dolls and dust masks that will help fund their care.

While denying the connection between long term ill health and Agent Orange, seven of the companies responsible for the manufacture of Agent Orange settled out of Court with representatives of US veterans contaminated by the defoliant for $180 Million. In 1991, the US Congress recognised the link between certain conditions and exposure to Agent Orange, giving US veterans access to the same benefits and medical care as they would in treating any combat injury. A legal action brought by representatives of the Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, similar to that brought by the veterans, was dismissed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan in June 2007. It’s a response that’s angered many, not least some of the veterans themselves. Former marine, Chuck Palazzo of the Agent Orange Action Group and Veterans for Peace is amongst them. “It’s taken a long time… but at least my fellow veterans are getting something. The Vietnamese get nothing. Nixon promised them $3.25 billion in war reparations. Do you know how much they got? Not a single dime.”

Legal frustrations notwithstanding, in August 2012 the American government provided $41 million to help in the clean up of Da Nang airport, work that is anticipated to be completed by 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/08/09/us-vietnam-usa-agentorange- idUSBRE87803K20120809 However, for those families living daily with the effects of Agent Orange, eradicating the source of the contamination already present within their bloodstream is a case of too little too late.

Of course, all of this means very little within the house in Khue Trung Hamlet. Surrounded by the bare pea green walls, Nguyen Duc Nghia continues to stare blankly at the door. Tonight, his sister will wake screaming from the nightmares brought on by what she is becoming. They never fought in the war against the Americans and, even before they succumbed to the effects of Agent Orange, would have struggled to explain its cause. Still, irrespective of the actions of courts and governments, they bear its cost.

Agent Orange victims raise money at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City  (1)

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Are you experienced?

“Why don’t you like the UK?” I hadn’t expected the question and, to be honest, didn’t have much of an answer. I don’t dislike the UK, I don’t really think about it all that much. I just don’t want to live there. There then followed a recital of some of the more high brow UK pit stops of any respectable two week trip, combined with a mixture of incredulity and incomprehension as to why anyone from there wouldn’t want to live there. I didn’t acquit myself well. I wanted to talk about game shows, The Daily Mail and cul de sacs, but it was pretty clear that the fiction my interrogator had created for herself was too dear to her, so I shrugged my shoulders and mumbled something about just looking around the world a bit. It sounded cooler.

It was curious. She’d been on a brief trip to the land of my Father’s fathers, (it’s complicated) and had created such a firm impression of the place that anything I might say to the contrary would only undermine her conviction, which, really, just didn’t seem fair.

Traveller beware.

I cannot tell you what Tunisia is like. I can’t do that any more than I can tell you what Russia, Vietnam or the countless places in between, are like. I lived in some longer than I lived in others, but all I can really comment on is my experience of being on the outside and looking in. As experiences go, that’s in an entirely different time zone to someone born there, or emigrating there in the hope of a better life. Instead, I just pass through. All that I can really hope for is that what I say of a place is true to my experience of it, just as my Anglophile’s experience of her visit to that sceptred isle was, and continues to be, true for her.

I have travelled within Tunisia a little. I have managed to see something of the contrasts of my adopted Salt Flatshomeland, from the lush mountains of the North to the endless tracts of Sahara in the South. We spent Christmas Day underground, in one of the troglodyte dwellings the Berber’s hacked out of unforgiving rock and sand to protect themselves and their families from the desert elements and the nomadic marauders who hid within them. This particular dwelling was the same one as had been used in the Star Wars films. The set and props remained in place, their shine gradually giving way to rot and the neglect born of an absence of cross cultural understanding and appropriately focussed capitalistic zeal.

Christmas with the Skywalkers; it’s not as good as you think it is.

hotel and Skywalker Homestead, Matmata, Tunisia

Writing work is thin on the ground. I agreed some with a local news outlet, but downed tools after payment promises began to drift by with worrying regularity. It’s frustrating and depressing in equal measure. Not least, as finding an alternative to fill the Matmatavacuum is proving difficult. My drive to work borders on compulsion. It’s absence plagues me. Without it, I’m never entirely clear who I am. I get tongue tied when asked what I do. At times like now, when work is short, I say teacher. It’s a fine profession, but it stopped feeling like mine some time ago.

In the meantime, I wait for Libya. I tried to get there once before, only for my ambitions to find themselves dashed upon the rocks of an entirely fluid bureaucracy. Even identifying the process by which a UK journalist, (in Tunisia) can get a Visa for Libya is as close to putting your finger on mercury as anything I’ve experienced.

For now, there is Tunisia. In a country that so many people talk of getting out from, my experience runs counter. I like it here. Generally, I like the people I meet. I like running across the hills above our house and pausing to look across the city and its lakes. I like taking the train to La Goulette and eating fresh fish on the sea front. My experience is good.

Bottle Collector, Tunis

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Carthage Stalled

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“Delenda est Carthago”

                                                     Cato the Elder

Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession.

Not that I care a great deal for regular blog entries, of anyone’s forgiveness for that matter. I’m still making this up as I go along and I never really know how much to put into it. I got married, I travelled to – and had guns pointed at me in – Dagestan and have now moved, lock, stock and bride, to Tunis. It’s too much. It’s narrative overload.  It’s important, I get that. It gives the blog a solid arc; the office drone, the blindman and, now, jobbing global citizen, but it doesn’t feel right. It’s not an image I can associate with, or really want to. Maybe it just involves too many words. I’ve been writing professionally for a while now and I want to keep some of those words for myself. not everything is public. Not every act needs documenting.

How’s that for some 21st Century heresy?

Tunis is cold and damp. The white low French colonial buildings cling to sandy hillsides as Tunisthe small city sprawls from coast to desert. Cats are everywhere. They slink like rats through the rubbish that lies in plentiful mounds on pavements and roadsides. Backstreet coffee shops and takeaways jockey for position amidst the decaying white stucco of

Three Blind Micean empire long since retreated, providing shwarma and coffee to the pavement bound populace. Cabs are as plentiful as the cats and slightly less trustworthy. Two rides to the same location will rarely take the same route or come at the same price, the cost of the ride being calculated at whatever rate the driver ranks your gullibility against the current value of the Dinar.

The coffee shops whose presence seems to define every alleyway and ginnel of Tunis are near uniformly the preserve of the male. Men sit in large, sprawling groups, loudly debating the issues of the day while puffing hungrily on fruit flavoured water pipes, the occasional fez puncturing the thick, sweetly pungent fog with a brief glimpse of dull burgundy amidst the grey.

Outside of the deserted tourist areas of the coast, alcohol is served rarely and then, only in purely masculine demesnes. Alcohol comes with the distinct tang of aberration and those SSC_7116that drink seem to prefer doing so to oblivion. In a male culture comfortable in defining women in terms of virgins and whores, it seems impossible that any woman other the latter might enter these enclaves of male dominion. A perception heightened, from personal experience, when that woman happens to be western.

The suburbs, where we’ve established ourselves, stand in saccharine contrast to the unknown dangers of the centre. Here, the wide  streets divide the white stucco houses of Tunis’ middle class. The revolution never made it this far. I don’t suppose much does. Here, Monoprix and Carrefour bags pack the back seats of the ubiquitous black SUVs, as young families ferry the weekly shop to and from their hillside villas, a north African take on a global ritual.

Making its way from the out to the in, is Avenue Mohamed V, taking you past the pock marked remnants of deposed Ben Ali’s RCD party headquarters, whose ultra modern exterior stands in stark contradiction to the overgrown  pathways that surround it and the rudely shattered windows of the building itself. Scorch marks are still visible on the railing that separates this bygone seat of autocracy with democratic Tunisia outside.

SSC_7070On Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the city centre, bored policemen with machine guns stand half hearted vigil over chic urbanites, as they gather to drink coffee on the wide pavements that border the city’s main drag. This is first world Tunis. Designer shops and global brands line either side of the wide, leafy avenue, designating their territory in demarcations of aspiration and personal liquidity.

Politics are alive here. They are central to nearly every conversation as a country, fixated on events, tries to establish a new identity for itself in the sudden absence of an old one. After twenty-four years of oppression, the country seems to be undergoing a collective exhalation. It’s an old story and there’s little new in the SSC_6956factionalism that has erupted in Ben Ali’s wake. However, it’s fascinating to see the dynamism of the debate that’s erupted throughout the country. Protests are a fairly regular occurrence, with groups stemming from an apparently shared political axis clashing, sometimes physically, over the minutiae of their respective agendas. As here as everywhere, that factionalism can run to extremes. Through an entirely porous border, the Tunisian army plays cat and mouse with the Islamist fighters who have made the mountains their home. They’re on the streets of the capital too, demanding sharia law in a country that takes its religion in moderate measures and prides itself on its secularism. To many, the sudden emergence of hardline Islam makes no sense. Under Ben Ali these were the invisible people. Now they are here, amongst them and demanding their say in this nascent democracy. Maybe they have a right to. It’s not really for me to say.

It’s a dizzying environment in which to find yourself, but, I’ll admit, one I’m struggling to connect with. I’m always anticipating the rush of adrenalin and confusion that accompanied my arrival in Vietnam, or the overwhelming sense of awe that came with the initial relocation to Russia. Instead, all I can see are a series of tasks that have to be accomplished before progress can be made. I’ve no idea why this might be. Tunisia – Christ, Africa – are as alien as anywhere. However, I find myself struggling to engage with it and that’s to squander a huge privilege. I’m, quite literally, dislocated and that’s something I’m having difficulty reconciling myself with.  I don’t know why, I can’t work it out. Sometimes I blame Makhachkala. I was there recently and the experience quite intense. Now I’m left with the feeling of another destination being little more than another flight, or a new home, little more than a search of the classifieds, when it should be the other way round. This has to be more than a mechanical process. This has to continue to mean something. The alternative is to concede that the world’s capacity to awe is finite and that’s not only a pretty repugnant thought, but an illogical one too. I don’t accept it.

Onwards!

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Back in the USSR

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Stalin shouted over to me. He’d seen my pipe and wanted to compare. I wandered over. Stalin liked mine. He asked me what make it was. I told him it was from Ireland and asked if he wanted some tobacco. I had some good stuff. Lenin laughed and told Stalin he was cheeky. Stalin didn’t care. He stuffed tobacco in his pipe like a starving man would bread. He asked me for a light, but my lighter wouldn’t work. I said I was sorry and left him there, with a pipe full of fresh tobacco and nothing to light it with. 

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I should apologise. I’ve probably been reading too much Hemingway. It’s shameful, but I find myself inadvertently lapsing into the voice of whoever I’m reading at the moment. Either way, it seemed as good a way as any of reigniting a long neglected blog.

Needless to say, I am back in Moscow. Only now ‘I’ has become ‘we’ with a union soon to be blessed by the British Consulate and whatever God that looks over Montenegro. In many ways, this will render permanent the voluntary estrangement I have from the UK. Make no mistake, the Daily Mail has already won the debate on immigration. There is no welfare welcome wagon waiting for my Russian, soon to be, wife in the UK, only endless waits and needless bureaucracy with no guarantee at the end of it. I’m OK with that.  If anything, it reinforces my resolve to make the separation from my country permanent. The Little Englanders have won. They can keep Jerusalem.

One day I’ll buy a horn.

As it is, Moscow has become a kind of home. Returning here from Vietnam was as natural as stepping back into an old and familiar room.  Moscow still takes no prisoners, it never did, but the city’s familiarity now blunts its teeth. I met Irina here and, despite all the crap of old; the blindness, the uncertainty and the operations, a second new life has emerged, as unexpected as it was unsought. As it was, all lives – whether they be new ones or old ones – need their own specific magnetic North. Ours turned out to be here.

There are worse places.

I walked today. It’s August, but already Autumn seems to have arrived. The suffocating heat of the early summer is gone, and a chill now fills the air and rain is rarely far away. I didn’t really have a plan, but, drawn as much by the love of a book as anything else, I ended up at Patriarch Ponds. The leaves were beginning to turn and the air was fresh and cold. Children, wrapped up in coats and scarves span around their parents legs, while the drunks pulled themselves further into their coats and passed another bottle around. Again, it’s hard to say why, but it’s hard not to love this city. I stayed a while, reading my book, before drifting towards the centre and a refuge from the drizzle.

I ended up in a church. Irrespective of belief, (I don’t have any) Orthodox churches have to be amongst the most peaceful places on this or any world. They exist in a perpetual evening of childhood Christmases. It’s hard to imagine a mood that couldn’t be softened by the low lights, the choir and the sense of endless history that works like resin through the wood of these places. Don’t misunderstand me. I’ve experienced the fury and intolerance of the Russian Orthodox Church first hand. I covered the abortive 2013 Moscow Gay Pride rally. Still, inside, it’s hard to reconcile the vivid memories of those brutal images with the tranquillity of the interior.

Maybe peace, happiness, whatever, is always best experienced at a distance. The minutiae of the everyday distracts from enjoying the immediate. Maybe that’s why childhood memories are always so pleasant. Because we have distance. Alternatively, maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m finally just giving way to age. Maybe the soul’s little more than a spiritual liver. We start of clean. A blank slate for own histories to be written upon, before polluting it through the highs and terrible lows of nothing more sinister than our lives. We become clogged and emotionally snarled up and, gradually, our ability to experience pleasure dissipates.

Or maybe I’m just in a bad mood.

I’ll change tack. I’m not working, so any structure I impose on this narrative is my own. Moscow has been kind. Work was easy to come by. We both quickly found teaching work with our old school and I was soon contracted to The Moscow News as a kind of formal freelancer, (Russia is strange this way). I’m incredibly proud of having worked for the Moscow News. Primarily, I’ve always been a historian and working for a newspaper that, to the English speaking world, documented much of the Soviet Union’s history was always a little humbling. That, and the Editor, Natalia Antonova, was little short of awesome. Not least, as she supported me in writing stories like this. As you can imagine, finding out the paper was being reduced to an insert in Mosckovskii Novostii wasn’t good news.

That didn’t help my mood.

I need to cheer myself up. I need to come back to Moscow. I don’t know if it’s because I’m adopted, I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always been a shiftless bastard, but, right now, this feels like home and I like that. It’s true that we’re also preparing to leave again and, maybe, that accentuates the bond with a place, or at least forces the ties to the surface, I don’t really know. I only know that, though I know we’re leaving, I’m equally certain that we’re coming back.

It seems impossible and I never lose sight of that. So much in this city does. I wandered into a bar a couple of days ago and met a man, my age, with his left eye missing. We sat there with two eyes between us and toasted each others’ sockets. Moscow does that. Moscow is riddled with the impossible and the amazing and it never ceases to surprise.

So, there I was, trying to put all of this in order, putting this blog together in fact, as I walked out of Red Square smoking my pipe, when the guy who dresses up as Stalin for the tourists yelled over to me. He’d seen my pipe and wanted a look.

And I was home.

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Schroedinger’s Cat

“They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over. And as Presuming Ed here has so consistently pointed out, we have failed to paint it black.”

Dealer, D. 1987.

That the act of observing automatically changes that which is being observed is a pretty well worn cliche. However, like the cliche about cliches ultimately just being often told truths, it’s also true. Similarly, by this rationale, I wonder if Vietnam might be in danger of having been oggled a tad too much.

Maybe it’s that my time here is drawing to a close. I think endings automatically force on you a subconscious desire to summarise, but I still can’t shake the sense that things are changing. Maybe it’s just that I saw two separate drunken tourist today, each wearing the wooden conical hats of a thousand tourist brochures and each thinking it hilarious, but it’s on my mind, which means, by default, it’s in this blog.

Tourism has a long and established history of reinventing the best parts of the best parts of the world in its own image then resenting them for being too much like home. It’s a gradual shift; initially it’s the insistence that western standards of hygiene be met. From that follows the insistence on western standards of customer service and from that, inevitably, flow the endless orders of egg, chips and lager.

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Floating vendor at Halong bay

This is hardly new. Southeast Asia has been reinventing itself in the reflection of tourists’ expectations for a long time now. Similarly, tourists project a reality onto Southeast Asia – and Vietnam specifically –  that has never really existed. This is where they come to lose themselves, get their hair braided, buy long baggy clothes, discuss the natural simplicity of the people and lay the groundwork for the hundred anecdotes they’ll tell over a hundred  dinner parties. It’s a pervasive myth, and one that those naturally simple people work very hard to reinforce; their tourist industry is based upon it. All the way through Vietnam, from Sapa to Hanoi, from Hanoi to Hue and Hoi An and from there to Danang to here, (Saigon) that reality is hard at work, reflecting Western notions of Vietnam back to Westerners. All of these destinations are superb – if you’re ever here you should visit them – but they’re as removed from Vietnam as the moon is from Milton Keynes.

Artisan fishermen and oil rigs, Vung tau

Artisan fishermen and oil rigs, Vung Tau

Vietnam is a highly industrial nation and, like any industrial nation, people work hard. They work from very early in the morning to often quite late at night. Moreover, they do so in conditions that would, as often as not, make the average western worker blanche. Right now, about three kilometres from my flat, women sort through the refuse of the city

Sorting through refuse, Ho Chi Minh City

Sorting through refuse, Ho Chi Minh City

dump, with their scarred and always partially infected, bare hands, for anything that can be salvaged. This, for about $2 a day. On Bui Vien, the backpacker mecca of Southern Vietnam, women push children at tourists in the hope of selling a few more trinkets. The odds are that the children aren’t even their own, as often as not they’ll have been shipped in from the Mekong by families so poor and desperate that they’d part with their own children for a few more dollars a month. Similarly, the trinkets themselves – crude wooden bracelets and bead work necklaces – bear little relation to anything Vietnamese as much as they do to Western ideas of Vietnam. I suppose it’s always been that way and, I’m guessing, it always will be. It’s like Pi, it just goes on.

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A bamboo house with neither power or running water, Mekong Delta

Trust me, I don’t mean to sound down or cynical. It’s hard to blame anyone for forming whatever opinion they like of Vietnam when Vietnam itself gives them so little to go on. As I said, there’s a tourist trail that runs from North to South and, within that trail, visitors are allowed almost total freedom of movement and, in ways that can’t be imagined elsewhere, near limitless freedom of action. Straying outside of that trail, however, isn’t so straightforward a proposition.  Until recently, to work in any of the more remote areas of Vietnam, I would first have to submit my passport and Visa to the local security authorities with a request for permission to visit. I say, until recently, as, after a less than flattering piece I wrote about the economy here, those permissions started drying up. Again, it’s a long way from the nouveau hippie trail fancied by most of Vietnam’s much monied international visitors.

I’m aware that I’m erring towards vitriol and, at the risk of repeating myself, that’s not my intention. The thing is that my time here has been stunning. I’ve loved it. Vietnam has repaid every second I invested into it and done so with immense generosity. Quite simply, I love it. But I love all of it; from the endemic prostitution, through the white sand beaches and far away hamlets, to the sons and daughters of the Politburo getting rich off the country’s back. To miss Vietnam’s failings is to miss Vietnam and that would be a real shame, because it’s amazing. It really is.

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Thrills, spills and chills

“Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last–only at the very last. But the wilderness found him out early, and had taken vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude–and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Life has changed. Life has changed dramatically.

I started my time in Vietnam by commenting that life here could never be normal. However, experience soon gives the lie to expectation and, eventually, everything becomes normal. A climate that never drops below 30c simply becomes the everyday. The sweat, the noise, the traffic simply get absorbed by the mundane. By wondering when the electricity bill is due. By wondering if that rattle on the motorbike is just something coming loose, or something more serious. It’s like they say, no matter where you go, you take yourself with you.

There’s nothing wrong in that. Expecting anything otherwise would be wrong, self deluding too. No, life, in all its banality, will always take precedence.

On the one hand, that’s fine. Like I said, it’s as it should be. However, I have this worrying streak; one that’s still searching for extremes and, in that, working for the newspaper has found a home. Occasionally I wonder how much of this is me and how much is having previously lost, (and mostly regained) my sight. Certainly, the three years I lost after the accident still grate. However – if I’m really honest – the kamikaze has always run pretty strong within me.

I’ll give you a for instance, I had an itch to write a story on the My Lai Massacre. The idea was pretty grand. Somehow, interviewing and recording the victims would in some way prove historically significant.

Son My Village, the irrigation ditch where US Soldiers killed 107 unarmed civilians

More than that – and this is a little cynical – I was sure this would be part of the living history of the 20th Century I’d be recording. I wanted to reach out and touch that, even if it meant laying my hands on the scars.

My Lai, (it’s actually called Son My Village) is around five hundred miles from Saigon, meaning a flight to Danang, where I could hire a motorbike to get me to Hoi An, where I could get a hotel, and from there to Son My Village, (about one hundred and thirty five miles). This being Vietnam, my plan to get a decent motorbike for the trip consisted of arranging to meet Some Guy in A Bar, (capitals intended). With grinding predictability, the guy appeared, but the motorbike didn’t. I ended up making the trip on an ancient Honda Wave.

I’m not going to go into any detail on Son My, or interviewing the survivors. Not because those things are somehow sacred or too precious. They’re not. They’re just really big and anything like that is going to overshadow anything else I put in here. I’ll simply say that I left there numb.

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I have one eye and that one eye sports a contact lens the size of a fruit bowl. I’ll just throw that in here for the newbies. In any event, the Vietnam heat dries it out, which, as you’d imagine, is quite painful.  That process is

Road back from Son My Village

obviously amplified on a motorbike, but I can usually get round it by wearing sunglasses, or pulling my visor down. Leaving Son My, it was sundown and I was wearing someone else’s helmet. One without a visor.

I could never have prepared myself for how dark the highway was at night. There is simply nothing. Fields and rice paddies cast no light and that is all there is for what seems like an eternity. The headlights of cars, trucks and buses can be seen for miles, before barreling up to you on full beam, scorching a hole right through to the back of your skull. You ride in a perfect cocoon of black, its only interruption being the dim yellow pool cast by the Wave’s headlight about two metres in front of the bike. The pain was pretty intense when riding, worse when I stopped. Every mile or so, a farmer or a young couple would suddenly come screaming into view, either stopped on the highway, walking or cycling; all without lights.

I got back without injury and, while I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, there it is. It’s never going to go away.

This isn’t going to be an inventory of the stories I’ve covered, even I’d be bored by that. Rather, I’m trying to pick selected highlights to give you an idea of where I’m going with this. Here’s one, I was on a beach in Quang Tri province, again, in the centre of Vietnam. It was incredibly hot. The kind of heat that causes the sand on the beach we were stood on to burn your skin. Anyway, there I was, staring at a rusted piece of American Ordinance, while the bomb expert was explaining its blast capability, (one hundred and fifty metres)

Unexploded bomb, Quang Tri Province

and how, due to its age, how incredibly unstable it was. I took pictures.

The list goes on. I interviewed kids born with the effects of Agent Orange, their arms and legs little more than stumps, or their heads formed without eye sockets. I spent time with the street kids trying to escape lives of theft and prostitution, or women who can’t get their kids into school because they were born HIV Positive. Last week I was in the Mekong Delta. There, I interviewed a family living in one of those bamboo houses the tourists

Child born with the ongoing effects of the Agent Orange dropped here by US Forces

are fond of taking pictures of. There were three generations in there, doing what they could without running water or electricity. The house was pretty much on an island, its only connection to land being the logs supported over filthy snake infested water by bamboo forks. Poverty on that level always comes like a punch to the gut. You expect it to. What you don’t expect is the smell.

Straight after this, I traveled back to Saigon, washed, slept a bit, then put on a clean shirt and went in to teach. The mosquito bites were still fresh.

Kid in a bamboo house

I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m somehow traumatized by any of this, I’m not. Obviously, you shield yourself from it at the time, but the true nature of what you’ve seen tends to work its way in over the following few days and that’s never nice. However, the reality is that I find myself getting increasingly hooked on it. There is something about seeking the extremes in others people’s lives that casts a reflection, not upon your life, but upon you. That’s not always a pleasant experience, but it’s never boring. However, to claim any kind of lofty philosophical motive, (though it’s definitely present) is disingenuous at best, dishonest at worse. It’s actually a lot simpler. It’s exciting. If you think there’s something dark in that, you’re probably right, and my enthusiasm for it scares me. But these are newspaper stories. Stories we all read so, in that, I suppose, it’s a darkness shared.

… and it’s not wondering when the electricity bill is due.

Posted in Ho Chi Minh, Saigon, Sight loss, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Light in a Dark Place

I’ve copied and pasted a piece I wrote for the Saigon Times below. It’s a tough one, as I really pulled my punches with it. For instance, you can’t really go describing the vomit, the rats or the stench of a state owned hospital when you’re writing for a state owned newspaper.

However, that said, I met a kid called Giang, (pictured) whose memory I can’t quite shake. Not least when I think about the 75%.

Light in a Dark Place

It’s 5.30pm on Wednesday and the Children’s Cancer Ward at  Cancer Hospital is busy. Families make temporary camps down the hallways, taking turns to rest on the mats they have brought with them. Rooms designed for four, strain to accommodate numbers of up to forty, as everyone makes themselves as comfortable as they can to best get through another day in the ward.

In total, there are twelve nurses here, providing care to 180 sick and terminally ill children. It must be an impossible job. However, it’s not until you consider the scale of that job that the importance of the families’ presence becomes so apparent. Given their presence, they’re perfectly positioned to provide a blanket covering of care that would be hard to match elsewhere. Seen firsthand, their commitment to supporting their children is amazing. Ung Buou caters for the poorest families from across the South. They come here from afar as the Highlands to the Mekong Delta. Seven year old Giang, (pictured above) from Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta has been living here, accompanied by his family, for seven months now.  Like many from the Mekong Delta region, Giang’s family are farmers, and it has fallen to his Aunt’s family work their farm while the family wait it out in Saigon.

Unfortunately, with so many families crammed into such a small area, space is at a premium. Meals are often prepared within the ward, as often as not within the same room as a child receiving treatment. Bich, (5) her brother and her Mother have found a space on the stairs today. Bich has been here for four months now. Luckily, coming from a family of seven, the work on the farm can be spread around, meaning that, as often as not, Bich will have a parent and a brother with her at most times.

The toilets are at the furthest end of the ward; small, cramped and uni-sex, these have to cater not only to the sanitary requirements of the families resident here, but also to the endless parade of cooking equipment brought here after mealtimes. It would be a strained situation at the best of times. However, when you also consider that this small space must accommodate the frequently urgent needs of small children undergoing the rigours of chemotherapy, it’s a true testament to the family’s patience that the system holds together at all.

75% of the children currently staying in Ung Buou’s children’s cancer ward will not likely recover. It’s hard not to be carried away with the tragedy of that statistic. These things should not happen to children.  However, to dwell on that number alone is to miss the point. Children will always be children and, watching Bich pose for pictures with her family, or seeing Giang play with my camera and howl with delight on seeing his picture on the display panel, is to miss the joy that these children bring with them; no matter what the circumstances they’re in, or no matter how dark a place that might be.

Posted in Cancer, Ho Chi Minh, Saigon, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Read All About It

“Don’t believe it all; Find out for yourself; Check before you spread; News of the world”

The Jam

To be clear, I don’t include any of my own output in the following statement, but the right piece of writing, read at the right time, can change everything.

Baby takes a nap under traditional hat

I came to Vietnam shortly after Christmas 2011. By way of a present, both festive and leaving, some friends bought me the book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton. Bill Hayton was the BBC’s Correspondent here in 2006-2007, before the government declined to renew his Visa. I couldn’t tell you what came first, his criticism of the government, or his ejection from the country. I imagine that each fed the other.  Things are rarely as simple as A, following B. Inevitably, A is followed by B, C, D , E and  the inexplicable presence of the occasional T.

In any event, Hayton’s book offers a detailed, and critical, breakdown of life here; social, political and economic. I won’t lie to you, if you haven’t a vested interest in Vietnam, it’s probably not for you. It can be as hard going as it is thorough, which doesn’t exactly make for a light read. However, literary reviews aside, my overriding reaction was one of confusion and not a little hostility.  The thing was that, after some four months here, I didn’t really recognise most of the Vietnam Hayton’s book detailed. That’s to say, I didn’t have a  context in which to place his argument. Put simply, I didn’t get it.

English Teachers have a high standard of living here. For the majority, straight out of university, it’s a standard of living they’re not going to experience on returning home for some considerable time. For most, probably never. While their counterparts in the UK are counting the pennies ’till rent day, eking out a living in yet one more soul destroying call centre job after another, graduates here are swapping gossip about the best masseurs or planning their next trip to the islands.

If I sound curmudgeonly about this, it’s because I probably am. Unlike Moscow, teaching here is largely the preserve of the Middle and Upper Middle Class. Maybe it’s just my own petty minded sense of inverted snobbery, maybe it’s just a surfeit of home county vowels, I don’t know, but – en masse – teachers here are proving an unlovable breed.

Vegetable seller, Bui Vien

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but there’s a yawning gulf that exists between the Ex Pat community and the rest of the country. For me, this is none more noticeable than amongst those I mix with the most, teachers. Part of this is down to nothing more complicated or sinister than language. Vietnamese is a tonal language. A word can have an entirely different meaning depending upon what pitch you say it in. Similarly, Vietnamese spelling bears little relation to pronunciation. To be fair, viewed the other way round, English is just as intractable and it’s hard to blame either party for a lack of communication with the other. However, this limited ability to communicate, plus the still developing nature of the country, means that those wishing to explore Vietnam, generally find themselves doing so in the managed and controlled environment provided for them by the government owned Saigon Tourist company.

Sky Deck at Bitexco Tower, (the large phalic building in the header)

Another aspect of this lack of interaction is that the vast majority of Vietnamese encountered by the English speaking community here are usually – for simple economic reasons – in positions subservient to them. This is as true for the English Teacher as it is for the CEO of a foreign investment company. Irrespective of the individual dynamics, the reality’s still not pretty.

Motorbikes on Bui Vien

I’m told we always resent that which is closest to us, and that’s probably the fairest and most accurate explanation for my mistrust of the Ex pat community. I’m enjoying a standard of living here I’d never have considered possible before. I live in a fairly luxurious flat overlooking the city centre, one with a view that – coming home to each night – is like walking in halfway through an IMAX showing.  Relatively major purchases, digital cameras and the like, can be done without the prior need for budgeting or hardship. Short breaks are undertaken on a whim and, at the end of the day, sometimes it’s just easier to eat out every night. Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s just the vestigial tail of my Catholic upbringing, but this much, for this little, doesn’t sit right.

Which takes me back to Bill Hayton.

Woman meditating

You see, I’m struggling to reconcile the reality as set out in Rising Dragon with my own experience here. In his book, Hayton  outlines the working of a one party state which, while hardly omnipotent, makes sure to have at least one tendril in every aspect of everyday life. Rising Dragon describes in detail the systems of censorship and control the Communist Party use to ensure its place at the very centre of Vietnamese life. It’s a forbidding prospect and, reading it, one that

colours the way you come to see life here.

However – and this is key – it’s an outlook that jars with my own fairly gilded  experience of life here. Which means, I either have to dismiss Hayton or question my own experience. Given the forgoing then, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s the second option that’s looking the more likely. I’ve now lived here six months and I still feel like I’ve just got off the boat.

The point I’m trying to make is about experience. If yours won’t stand up to scrutiny, then it’s probably time you changed it. For that reason , and no other, I’ve started work as a stringer for one of the English language dailies here. I’m going to talk about expectations in a bit, but to avoid creating any false ones right now, let me state; I have no intention of holding Bill Hayton’s ideas up to scrutiny, neither do I want to expose or lift the lid on anything. Similarly, I have no ambition at all to be a working journalist. Instead, what I want, what this is all about, is getting access. By working as a writer, I can broaden and build upon my experience of life in Vietnam. I might never ‘get’ it, I probably won’t, but if I’m going to try, I think this is the way forward.

I’m not too sure how clear I’m being, but I’ll give you a for instance. In a couple of weeks I’m doing a piece on traditional fishing.  The idea is to head out with a  fisherman and follow him through his day. Frankly, I’d do that tomorrow and I’d do it for free. However, as you

The state meets tradition. Fishing boats and flags at Mui Nei

can imagine, most people are suspicious of approaches from total strangers asking to follow them around for the day. However, if you preface the same request by stating your credentials as a writer, automatically your reasons become clear, if, in this case, a little disingenuous.

It’s not about answering Hayton. It’s not about accepting or refuting his arguments, it’s about shading in the background of the frame in which he’s painting.

Living here; in this part of the world, with this lifestyle, I sometimes struggle to recognise myself. I spent thirty five years living one way. I now find myself living in daily contradiction of that and it’s not always easy to reconcile the then and the now.

For instance, I wonder if the ease with which I reached the conclusion that finding work with a newspaper would be the best way forward would have been the same in previous incarnations. I’m guessing probably not.

It’s tempting to define my life and character in terms of before and after the accident which cost my sight, but that’s to miss the real point. In terms of character, losing my sight changed nothing. What changed everything was the period immediately after losing my sight.  For nearly three years, the only pressure or expectation on me was that I recover. Suddenly, all those burdens we work so hard to saddle ourselves with; career, money,

Girl prays at Taoist Temple

security was gone. If my character was changed during this period – and I’m still not sure it was – it wasn’t the accident that changed it, it was the absolute absence of these pressures that led to me to reassess my priorities.

Similarly, our closeness to our home and our friends also helps to mould our character. For instance, your friends think you’re funny. Every time you meet them, they come to the table with the expectation that you’re going to make them laugh and, of course, that’s what you do. Similarly, their own expectations of life, either negative or positive bleed into your own. Eventually, without conscious discussion, a mutual consensus is reached on the patterns life is expected to take.  That can be a great impetus for growth, both personal and artistic. It can be equally toxic. It is what it is. It’s an inevitable part of human relationships. To greater and lesser degrees, we each work to fulfill the expectations and prejudices of others.

Rush hour on Highway 1

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing the value of friendship. If anything, I firmly believe the opposite to be true. I’m simply working through my own thoughts on how our circumstances come to define us when, in reality, it should be us defining circumstances. To be realistic, I think answering that particular quandary’s going to be the work of a lifetime, rather than a single entry into a single blog. For now, I need to deal with what’s in front of me and that’s nothing more complicated than taking the next step forward.

Maybe I’m wrong. God knows it’s happened before. Maybe I really am lost at sea without an anchor to keep me rooted and within sight of the landmarks of home. Alternatively, perhaps I’m sailing into new waters. I may never answer Bill Hayton, but I think I want to get to a place where an answer’s possible. Not because Hayton’s book marked some kind of epiphany in my life, but because I think it’s important to get to that place.

Basically, I have an itch and, like all itches, it needs scratching.

Posted in Ho Chi Minh, Saigon, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Opposites Attract

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.

Henry Millar

It’s amazing. I’ve lived here for nearly six months now and, every day, I still feel like I’ve just got off the plane. Things have changed, of course they have, but I still just don’t get this place. To be honest, I envy the tourists who see Vietnam via the scheduled stops of their tourist coaches and are told where they are, what they’re looking at and why. At least, when they leave, they’ll have an answer to the question, what’s Vietnam like? I’m not even close to answering that one yet.

Don’t get me wrong, my thoughts on this aren’t all that muddled. In fact, I have a pretty definite grasp of some aspects of life here and of how they work. The problem is that each bit of information, each item of understanding, is contradicted by the next. I was talking about it to someone the other day and could only frame it in terms of contrast. To be honest, it’s as fair a a term as any. The contrast between a kid ploughing his Father’s field on the back of a water buffalo and the SUVs piling past him on the highway.

Contrast.

The whole of south Vietnam sits a few meters above sea level and this is as true of Saigon as it is anywhere else. Around a month ago, we moved from the guest house we’d been staying in to a fourteenth floor flat overlooking one of the many canals that flow into the Saigon River. It’s one of the many unique things about this city that so much of it – even parts just outside of the centre – lapse into water and mangrove swamp before returning to the concrete and tarmac of old. It’s a contradiction that extends to the water itself and one that’s both beautiful and devastating in equal measure. Beautiful, because to see an old conical hatted woman pass a freighter really is something to see, and devastating, because the passage and manufacture of those self same freighters are poisoning the Saigon River and the water ways beyond.

Contrast abounds. The window of this flat looks out onto the Bitexco Financial Tower. I’m going to post a photo in a bit, so you’ll get to see it for yourself. It’s pretty amazing. It stands, visible for all around, as a glass, steel and utterly phallic symbol of Vietnam’s progress and place amongst the financial elite of the 21st Century. That this symbol of economic mastery can also be seen from the paddy fields and rice ponds of the outlying districts is not insignificant. To be honest, when I try and imagine what the boy and his water buffalo must make of it I run out of air, never mind thoughts.

This is Vietnam. It’s the old running straight into the new and coexisting in apparent harmony.

I’ll stop for a second. I’m not entirely sure if I’m being as clear as I could be. I mean, small boys and water buffalo are OK, but I’m not sure if they really communicate the over arching sense of the alien at play here. That is, if you’ve never seen a paddy field, never mind a water buffalo, you’re not really left with much to conjure with. I suppose what’s needed is something concrete to hold on to and, to do that, I think I’m going to talk about commuting.

You see, I have this thing about commutes. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I think they’re important. That is, if you really want to capture a sense of something, of some other place, then asking someone how they get to work everyday seems a fairly apposite starting point.

For instance, if I think back; back to life before drunk turned to punch drunk turned to a permanent wink, mentally, I’m always sat, locked in unmoving traffic, in my car. Maybe that has some kind of metaphorical quality, I don’t really know. I’m not at all sure if I care either. The point is, that’s what comes to mind. Stasis and the thoroughly depressing backdrop of a rain drenched Warrington.

You see, talking about commutes does two things; it combines the strangeness of the foreign with the mundanity of the everyday. And that gives you an ‘in’. That is, it gives you a recognisable starting point to try and get a grip on something which is pretty unrecognisable. The other thing about commutes- other than how unremarkable they are – is that, by their nature, they involve travel. Consequentially, just by talking about commutes you’re immediately presented with a travelogue of wherever that commute takes place.

Look, let me go sideways for a second and I’ll give you a for instance. It’ll make sense, trust me. I grew up in a small/tiny village in Lancashire during the 1980’s. It was a fairly picturesque existence and one largely untroubled by the events of that period. To pay for this idyll, my Dad would get up every morning and drive out of our village, across the moors and hills, through demolished and dying mining towns, past the gaunt faces of the miners’ kids and into Blackburn. Not a mining town, true, but one riven by the habit of poverty and with unemployment as entrenched within communities as the hopelessness it bred.  This, a situation that found expression in the everyday acts of racial hatred that were a daily occurrence at the state school where my Dad taught.

That was his commute.

Mine’s different. As I leave this flat, I can ether go left onto the main road, or cut right through the improvised and pretty chaotic residential street that lies on the banks of the canal and take the short cut to work. Nine times out of ten, the chaotic and the residential wins over the new and the concrete. Vast numbers, perhaps even the majority, of Saigon urbanites are a generation, maybe less, out of the village and it’s in places like this that fact really becomes evident. Life is lived on the street. Babies are washed there, children play there and food is cooked there. While the powerful and the political look to shape their world into living images of modern day perfection, the people – at least huge swathes of them – choose to remain firmly unreconstructed. Life here, like in so much of what I’ve seen of Vietnam, continues as before, the road is pot holed, the houses are careworn and a little ragged and any demarcation between the public and the private lies purely in the eye of the beholder. On a weekend, I’ll ride through here at 7am and already it’s alive and well into its day. A few metres away, and in sharp contrast, in terms of age, structure and scope, to the rustic nature of the this very ad hoc street stands the bridge that will take me into the heart of the city centre and the white heat of Vietnam’s future, which, on a weekend, can be found still slumbering in the early morning mists that typify the rainy season. The absence of the artery clogging traffic that typifies the city seems surreal and dreamlike in equal measure, (though the latter of those may be down to the hour). Either way, it’s a rare pleasure to actually open the bike up and enjoy the wind on your face, rather than the fumes and exhaust gasses that typify the majority of journeys.

It’s a very individual kind of light that falls at this time of year and at that time of day. Maybe it’s the mist, maybe its just the time of year, I don’t know. I think the best way of describing it is as milky, but as you head out of the commercial district and into the Botanic Gardens, gifted by the French in grateful thanks for years of occupation and division, the effect couldn’t be more profound. Immediately, your transported to an entirely fresh environment. Gone are the wide city streets and freshly constructed office blocks. Instead, the road lies in front of you, long, thin, perfectly straight and lined on either side by giant trees, their trunks so straight they stand on ether side of the road like rows of deciduous sentries. It’s through the bodies of these softwood guardians, if you look, that you can spot that icon of sixties architecture, the Reunification Palace, formerly the Presidential Palace and formerly the supreme headquarters for the Southern Side of the Civil/American War. And there you have it. This, within a ride of not less than a few kilometres, from shanty town, to financial hub, to colonial backwater to the American Nightmare.

Tragedy and beauty rub shoulders throughout Vietnam. I was wandering around one of the islands in the Mekong Delta a few months ago. I can’t stress how beautiful it was. It was everything you could ever imagine a tropical paradise to be. Long, slow dusty paths made their way through an abundance of jack fruit, wild bananas and coconuts, all of which you could just reach up and pick. It was silent and, just being there, it was impossible not be awed by the sheer tranquility of the place. I was looking at one of the many ponds that abounded on the island, when I noticed they fell at regular intervals. This, before the old man with me explained, slowly, patiently and as if to a child,  that these weren’t ponds. These were the craters left after the Americans walked their artillery fire in.

There’s a place not too far away from here called Cu Chi. It’s awesome. If you’re ever around here, you really should go. People have been going to Cu Chi for ages. It’s within relatively east reach of Saigon and has always been a welcome harbour from the stresses and strains of city life. Cu Chi was also one the Viet Cong’s greatest strongholds against the Americans during the war. Unable or unwilling to take on the US in direct combat, it was at Cu Chi that they tunneled underground, establishing whole villages, towns even, beneath the American Infantry’s feet. The US response was to carpet bomb Cu Chi with both heavy explosive, Agent Orange and Napalm. Essentially, they transformed what had been lush and verdant forest into a moonscape. To this day, guides must accompany you throughout the area, making it very clear that you are not to stray from the path in case you come across any grotty little leftovers from the American’s war here.

Napalm is obviously nasty stuff, but its the legacy of Agent Orange that lives on. Children are still being born with half their insides on the outside. There’s a gallery of photographs of children born with the ill effects of Agent Orange here in Saigon. It’s grotesque. Children, with their bodies and faces warped into parodies of humanity. It’s like they’ve been lifted and twisted into obscene caricatures of the shapes they should have been and the lives that they should have had. Make no mistake. This is happening now. The soil is sodden with the stuff, so the plants grow with it in their veins, which, of course, infests the entire food chain and, there you are, staring at a picture of what should have been a child and you’re right back to where we started; contrasts. Because in all of these pictures, the children are smiling.

What happened here was essentially rape on a national scale. American impotence became American rage and, ultimately, American viciousness. You’d think the bitterness scars such as that would leave would all but define a national consciousness; would leave it as warped and embittered as its history effortlessly justifies, but you’d be wrong. There is no hostility here. Kids happily walk the streets wearing the US flag on their shirts. No one ever challenges Americans on their country’s war record. American films, like The Avengers, regularly storm the Vietnamese Box Office and the Vietnamese government goes hunting for US trade contracts with equal regularity.

Maybe this is a European reaction, maybe it’s just me, but I struggle to understand that. European War belongs to the annals of history, yet it still simmers restlessly beneath any Tap Room debate. Here, where the wounds have barely stopped bleeding, there is apparent forgiveness and acceptance, (not forgetfulness). I don’t know if this suggests something higher about the Vietnamese soul, or just demonstrates a sound grasp of real politic, but, again, there it is; contrast.

It’s this contrast, this apparent coexistence of that which should be diametrically opposed that I’m struggling with right now. It cuts through everything, from the ying to the yang to the Capitalist to the Communist and, here’s the thing, I get Dualism. I’ve read the books, but I still don’t get this. Maybe that’s the challenge Vietnam puts in front of European trained minds. It dares you to understand it. I don’t know, but I’m trying. I think it’s going to be a long journey, but then, the best commutes always are.

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Continuity Error

OK, I need to throw a Central Asian spanner in the works right now. This next bit is totally out of synch. You see, while I was in Russia, (cast your mind back) I traveled around Central Asia for a bit. I then wrote a piece about this for the very cool website Way Beyond Borders. You should give it a look.

The piece on the website is fine. I’m perfectly happy with it. However, I still want to get the initial draft out there. In the main, because it’s got some quite cool little bits in it. The thing was that, at the time of submitting the piece, I couldn’t really square those cool little bits with a piece intended for general travel. However, as this is my blog and has never been anything approaching a travel guide, I feel I can rightly insert them here.

And if you don’t agree, bad luck.

For the absolute completist, you can also find something from me on Georgia on there.

Magic Tricks.

Some years ago, another lifetime in fact, my Dad lent me a book, The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk. I’m not going to go into all the details, that’s not really what this is about, but if you haven’t read it, you probably should. It concerns that little bit of history when the Russian and British empires found themselves staring at each other across the vast and unknown steppe that separated their two frontiers.  To 19th Century minds what lay between; a vast, complicated tapestry of khanates, giant sandstone fortresses and intractable deserts may as well have been the surface of another planet.

Like I said, the history of Empire isn’t really what this is about. However, it’s important to stress the vividness of the images the book planted in my mind. There’s a real romance in the unknown and for some time my mind was full of pictures of strange and mysterious fortresses, endless deserts and ancient tiled minarets towering out of and above the limitless expanse of the Central Asian Steppe.

Given this, you can imagine my state of mind as, some years later, I lay on my bunk as the midnight train pulled its slow way out of Almaty and into the vast Kazakh wilderness of the steppe.  Managing expectations in such a climate can be tough. However, as is often the case at the beginning of any long trip, future omens are best discerned at the bottom of a glass.

Restaurant cars on the giant trains that still make their slow and formidable way across the former Soviet Union give firm precedence to the practical over any vague notion of luxury. Tables sit in uniform rows of Formica, bolted to the floor and flanked on either side by wooden kitchen chairs. It was in this dimly lit arena that my girlfriend and I first made contact with Oleg. I was never too clear what Oleg’s actual function was. There was a younger and perpetually harassed looking Uzbek woman who seemed to do the cooking and the serving, whilst Oleg appeared to oversee matters as some kind of benevolent, if perpetually pissed, dictator.

In any event, the night and a cheap bottle of cognac wore on, with Oleg raising chipped tea cup after tea cup in any number and variety of toasts as the dim outline of the steppe rumbled past outside. I remember trying to take stock of the situation, to step outside of my circumstances and somehow apply a context to it all. However, Oleg’s endless toasts and his firm pronouncements on the clear connection between a man’s alcohol intake and his ability to satisfy a woman – nods were made in the direction of the harassed Uzbek woman here – proved too great a distraction, and it was soon enough to sit back, relax and listen to Oleg’s cheerful boasts as the sun slowly climbed up over the steppe.

Trains haven’t changed much in Central Asia since Commissars stalked their broad, veneer lined corridors. In fact, for the most part, they’re the same trains and carriages as serviced the Soviet railroads of old. Often, these will have their own style and decorations and the train we now found ourselves on was, in part, little different. A short walk down part of the train was enough to confirm that this was a collection of different carriages, rather than a single unit. Some, such as the one we were in, were simply functional places in which to sleep and eat. Others, in what must have seemed to some distant designer as the very definition of opulence, now, with their faded nylon silks and deep burgundy acrylic carpets, seemed more reminiscent of a back street Yekaterinburg brothel than any vision of the great socialist future. In any event, it was a nice enough place to sit, relax and watch the steppe drift past.

Eventually, night and Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent came into view and with it the prospect of the short morning flight to Urgench and from there to Khiva.

Khiva had once been a pretty powerful khanate in its own right. However, time and its famous neighbours, Samarkand and Bukhara, had both worked to relegate Khiva to semi-obscurity. It’s also not the easiest place to get to, requiring either the hire of a private car and driver, or joining the packed coach bound throngs that make their infrequent and costly way along the silk road. In any event, the cost of sharing a private car, (around $50 a day) isn’t exactly the harshest of financial burdens and gives you a freedom of movement that anything else is going to struggle to match.

Despite my reading, despite the endless hours on Google, nothing had really prepared me for my first sight of Khiva’s old city walls. In one minute, our car was making its slow, staccato way through the crowded streets of what might be any Asian town and then, above it all, the imposing sandstone walls of Khiva came into view, taking their place amidst the town and the traffic like a giant sandstone traffic island. In fact, Khiva’s old town represents something of an enigma to me that I’ve never been able to explain or understand. In the area where our hotel was located, we would be inundated with grinning children sprinting up to us, screaming the one word of English they knew, “Hello!” before shrieking off laughing as if a great feat had been accomplished.

It’s hard to say what it’s like to wander through the sandstone lined walls of Khiva, other than to describe it as utterly alien. I mean, I want to give you an idea, better still, to help you feel like you were taking that walk yourself, but there’s just no simile available. No mechanism to help me do that. Nothing is familiar. The streets are narrow and on each side are dwarfed by the ancient fortress walls that tower above you. The old women you come across at random intervals, who brush away the desert sand with old wooden brooms, stand in traditional garb, the sun reflected in their gold teeth and lighting the olive skin on their lined and weathered faces.

However, the scale, and just how breathtaking Khiva really is, can only be half guessed from the ground. To really grasp Khiva, you need to climb either a watchtower, or scale one of the two minarets that are open to the public. Again, you need to remember that you’re a long way off the tourist track here. There are no lights inside these minarets, apart from a couple of narrow slits, so the bulk of any ascent must be made in near perfect darkness. It’s not a journey for everyone, but the rewards far outweigh the investment. It’s only when viewed from above can you grasp just how magical Khiva really is, stretching away from you on all sides is the architecture of what previously could only be imagined, wrought and rendered real from the desert’s hard stone. It’s only from on high that you can grasp the scale of the medieval fortification which, along with their desert surroundings, kept the entire Russian army at bay ‘till 1873. Similarly, it’s only from the vantage point of the city walls that you grasp the extent of the poverty in which most of Khiva’s current inhabitants now live.

For me, and this is purely personal, the attraction of Khiva lay in its lack of shine. Some accommodation had been made for tourists. However, this was only in a small part of the city. Elsewhere, people simply lived their lives, working tooth and jowel within what I can only call a living history. For me, there’s something amazing in that. History is made real when it is worked. More tangible when it is allowed to age, instead of being constantly prettified, polished and sold as a commodity. To my mind, Khiva is the living embodiment of that notion. I don’t think any of us have forgotten our time there and my guess would be that we never really will.

From Khiva, the road leads East to the once holy city of Bukhara. In fact, the road itself is worth mentioning. Stretching through the desert, the drive from Khiva to Bukhara is not short of incident. At times, the road seems to fade to rubble and, as you’re bounced around the rattling car, it’s a wonder how the driver can distinguish desert from road. Four long hours in and you come across the only rest stop, a small low rise building to the right of the road. Here, giant carp swim in a shallow pool waiting on the arrival of the hungry traveller while two giant upturned pipes rise sharply out of the desert, marked for the separate use of men and women.

I’ve always associated night driving with a sense of security. I don’t know why, but somehow the warm and quiet interior of the car when contrasted with the dark and the cold outside provides a sense of warmth and security. This was pretty much the case as the car, now on a firmer footing, made its way along the final leg of its seven hour journey to Bukhara. It was safe and it was peaceful. I’ve been in more accidents that I want to think about and they never happen how you imagine. There is no slow rise in tension. No music kicks in to tip the viewer the wink to impending events. There’s just peace and quiet, followed by a crash, confusion, noise, a feeling of the air being sucked from the room, then silence and muffled and dazed conversation. This was how it was when we hit the industrial petrol tank a truck had left in the road to warn oncoming drivers of its presence, and this was the feeling as the force of the collision forced us into the opposite lane and into the way of a freakishly rare truck. This was the sound as we ground our way between the two and down the side of the parked truck. And then there was silence. Nothing moved. It was just us, the steppe and the darkness.

Look, before I get too carried away, let’s be clear. This wasn’t the worst crash in the world and no one was even hurt. But it had a way of making that car feel very, very small and the surrounding desert very, very big. Walking around the battered car afterwards, with no light and no traffic, it’s hard to describe how vulnerable we felt. How the security offered by the advances of science and technology was shown up to be nothing more than a mirage and there we were, alone and naked in the wilderness. It was a strange feeling.

In any event, the next day dawned as they inevitably do and we were able to get our first glimpse of Bukhara. The contrast with the raw and unvarnished reality of Khiva couldn’t have been more marked. Don’t get me wrong, Bukhara will take anyone’s breath away. It’s majestic and it’s beautiful, but it’s also quite clean and quite developed, which in hindsight, just seemed to add greater mystery to our time in Khiva. Though maybe this is to be too harsh on Bukhara. Bukhara has stood for millennia and for centuries has been the epicentre of the Central Asian Muslim world. Its streets are soaked in the history of the steppe and its people. In fact, such was the religious significance of Bukhara that, rather than tackling it head on, the Soviet Government preferred to simply ignore it and leave it to fall away to dust. It was a cruel punishment to befall such a magnificent city and soon these Bolshevik proto-sanctions were to take their toll. The Scottish adventurer and writer, Fitzroy Maclean, visiting Bukhara in secret during the 1930’s largely describes the place in terms of an archaeological ruin. Today, it’s the restoration work accomplished since that period which gives Bukhara its freshly polished hue, so it’s probably fair to say that I’m judging it a little harshly.

There are real wonders here, the great Kalyan Minaret, or ‘Tower of Death’ which rises out of the Mosque of the same name really is something to be seen. It was here that those found guilty of any number of crimes would find themselves tossed into the ninety metres of air that separated them from the ground.  It’s in Bukhara too that you can find the Emir’s Ark, or Citadel. To be fair, I could write whatever I like here, as nothing is really going to prepare you for the first time you see the Ark. It’s hard to conceive of something so ancient being so massive. It stands, almost intact from initial Bolshevik shelling and latterly Bolshevik neglect; an amazing and imposing testament to the sheer historical power that Bukhara once exuded over this region and its people.

There have been baths in Bukahara for eight centuries and over this period a unique system of washing and massaging visitors has evolved. It was here, underground, alone, naked and feeling very vulnerable that I came face to face with a much larger man intent on bending my body into previously unimaginable positions. It was also in this room where the critical difference between the Russian words for strong, ‘Siilno’ and medium ‘Stretsvo’ became overwhelmingly apparent. It’s not a mistake I’ll make again. The pain notwithstanding, I can’t claim this to be a negative experience. Even as I was rolled on my belly and ribs with my arms and legs pinned high behind my back and a nose full of soap, the feeling of relaxation and cleanliness that followed, one which seemed to engulf my whole body, was one I have never experienced before or since.

However, a fresh day and a new car saw us leave Bukhara behind and make our way to Samarkand. For many, and I include myself in this, even the name Samarkand is enough to cause the breath to quicken. Throughout the history of the East, Samarkand has been a place of wonder and mystery. I’m not exaggerating when I say that long before the advent of the modern age, the wonders of Samarkand were spoken of as only the mythical can be. It was here that Tamarlane built his capital and drew the finest craftsman and architects of the known world to him to complete his work. And it still doesn’t disappoint.

Up until around halfway through the 20th Century, only a handful of Europeans had even got so far as stepping foot in Samarkand and today, even when that foot is stepping out of a Daewoo, the city still retains a firm sense of The Other, (capitals intended). Samarkand’s blue tiled minarets tower out of the desert as history’s landlocked lighthouses, guiding travellers and caravans alike to its markets and its mosques. Within, everything is opulence and, even coming from the 21st Century, it’s hard not to be carried away with the scale and the magnificence of the city. What effect it must have had on the wild Turcoman horsemen and traders of antiquity who strayed this way can only be imagined.

There’s a tick list school of tourism that I’ve never really understood or subscribed to where it’s everything to seek out a sight, stare a while, then have your picture taken in front of it before moving on. I can see how Samarkand could be viewed that way. However, I think it’s enough to just allow yourself to simply drift. Everything you could imagine is here and you’ll find it eventually, so allow yourself the time and, critically, the wonder, to do so. Wonder is what Samarkand’s about. This is a city designed to inspire and it does so to this day. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, built by Timur, (Tamarlane) from the most precious stones of all India, or the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis, final home to the wives of Timur and his Court, plus the Cousin of Mohammed, (after whom the Necropolis is named) who first brought Islam to Central Asia. It doesn’t matter if it’s Registan Square, whose towering minarets and giant Mosques will simply leave the viewer breathless. It doesn’t matter. Your imagination and ability to grasp the near limitless vision underlying Samarkand’s creation that will run out a long time before Samarkand’s marvels do.

There is real magic in Central Asia. Magic that lives and whose breath courses throughout its cities and citadels. It gets inside you and propels you forward and it’s one you never really leave behind. Again, as I said earlier, it’s one I struggle to explain, but once its mystery and its beauty gets you, it’s not one you can readily forget. Maybe that’s because, to European eyes, there’s no experience by which it can be compared and, in doing so, quantified. Again, I don’t really know. All I can tell you for sure is that it’s haunted me. The slightest mention of the area is enough to catch my ear and excite my interest. It’s like I left, but I never really left, and that’s pretty magical in itself.

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