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.

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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.


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.

Posted in Sight loss, Travel, Uncategorized, Uzbekistan | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Whole Wide Worlds

I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.

Marx, (Groucho)

Forget Moscow, forget the UK, forget Saigon for a second, you see, I want to talk about sight for a bit. Don’t worry, I’m going to bring it all back to Vietnam and travel later, but firstly I want to talk about sight. The thing is, more than living in any one country, I live in two worlds. There’s the world my lens gives me and there’s the world nature and ill luck left me.

Both are entirely separate.

By the way, I should say that if this isn’t making any sense to you, go here

Don’t get me wrong, the lens is an awesome piece of kit, but make no mistake, sticking a lump of plastic that size into your eye twice a day is no joke. There’s also the fact that the

A reminder what my lens looks like, (big, isn't it?)

instant I put it in, two things immediately have an arrival point; taking it out, (my eye needs exposure to oxygen) and the discomfort of reinserting it. I suppose, in my own way, I’m simultaneously deferring both pain and pleasure. Maybe you’ll understand, maybe you won’t, but sometimes that’s all a bit too much to deal with in the morning. So, here I am, living in two worlds. I don’t have a great deal of useful sight without the lens. Imagine swimming in a fairly murky pool, at sunset with your eyes half closed and you’re probably about there. Faces are utterly indistinct, simply blurs. Similarly, simple things , like shaving or cutting my toe nails, have to be accomplished through a strained combination of feel and patience. So far, so tragic. I know; poor, poor me. But there are other aspects to this, really cool ones. However, before I talk about those, I want to dispel a myth;

Your other senses do not get sharper when one goes. They’re as sharp now as they’re ever going to be, so if you’re worried about your hearing, don’t go rushing to poke yourself in the eye.

However, something else does happen. Ratios shift. That’s to say, the emphasis you place on the source of one set of information is subtly overtaken by the emphasis placed on information from sources elsewhere. I’m not making this very clear. Basically, you start paying a lot more attention to what you’re hearing than what you’re seeing. Thoughts, in equal measure, also become greatly amplified. Much to my girlfriend’s frustration, life without the lens is very much one of the head. I once had a *fictional character observe that hell was the inside of your own head with the volume turned up. I put that in then – and repeat it now – mainly for no reason other that it’s a cool line. However, whatever the motivation, I/he couldn’t have been further off the mark. The inside of your head is a great place. I’d thoroughly recommend a visit. Without the distractions of a physical world, thoughts almost become tangible. Trust me on this, if you’re ever struggling to make sense of the world, just turn the lights down.

… And don’t get me started on music.

Of course, a life lived inside your head isn’t much of a life, so maybe, like Belgium, your head’s a nice place to visit but you probably wouldn’t want to live there, (can I just say that I picked Belgium entirely at random. I’ve only been to Belgium once, briefly, and then because I found work loading and unloading articulated trucks. I have no strong feelings

Xe om drivers

about Belgium, one way or the other). A life lived in your head is a life lived in a world ruled over by your own, utterly enlightened, despotism. That’s to say, no challenge can exist that hasn’t already been sanctioned by you. That’s a pretty comfortable place to be, but not necessarily a healthy one. One of the best spurs to growth is always conflict and conflict can only be found outside; with the lights turned on. Full beam. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not talking about conflict of the kind that now has me contemplating sticking great lumps of plastic in my eye, I’m talking about challenge. I’m talking about encountering something that is alien to you, that rubs up uncomfortably against your own world view, then grabs you by the face and dares you to rationalise it. Now, there’s growth. It’s not always comfortable. It’s not even always nice, but there it is and there’s 80% of the reason for heading out into the world and taking a look at it, (the other 20% is that it’s just fun).

You see, and this is really where I’m going here; taking a look at the world can be tough. It’s hard to make yourself an alien. We’re human beings. We’re herd animals and, without a herd of your own, life can feel pretty vulnerable. I think it’s this that sort of underpins both my understanding, mistrust and occasional revulsion at any Ex Pat Community. You see – and this is the key thing – I get it. Sometimes, it’s just nice to speak your own language, to eat your own food and to be with your own people. There’s safety in that and I’ll hold my hand up now and plead guilty of seeking that sanctuary. However, I’ve also to accept that that’s an easy out. It’s like traveling halfway round the world to get a better lie in.

There’s a street near here, Bui Vien, one that’s viewed alongside Sodom and Gomorrah by most of the Saigon locals. It’s here that the Backpackers congregate in their near thousands to drink and smoke themselves into varying degrees of stupor. I’m deliberately trying to avoid any type of moral censure here, as, God knows, I’ve hardly been shy of either in my time. However, the point I’m trying to make is that it’s exclusively white faces – and RP accents – that line the sides of Bui Vien. Though I don’t want to single out backpackers for any particular criticism here, there’s the well heeled enclaves of the business community who pride themselves on just how homely they can make somewhere else. Similarly, there’s the beery world of the English Teacher here that, while perhaps trying the hardest to assimilate, still exists within a club of their own making. Really, what I’m trying to say is that it’s not one or the other. It’s not one nationality, class or ethic group; it’s all of them.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t about me criticizing them as much as it’s about me reproaching myself. I’ve drifted into this world. Worse, I think I’ve done so while not even admitting it to myself. I’m growing increasingly aware that I’m getting gradually further away from my initial purpose. I set out to see and experience the world, not to cosy up to one exclusive little ethnic club after another.

I never wanted to be an Ex Pat.

A couple of weeks ago, we set off on a road trip. We didn’t really have much of a destination in mind. The plan was really to just head towards the Southern Highlands and see what


happened. A typhoon hit, roads flooded, it rained solidly for three of the four days we spent on the motorbike. Whole days went by without the feel of one dry piece of cloth next to your skin. However, through the rain, we saw a floating village, giant

Giant volcanic boulders.

volcanic boulders that had been spat out into any number of unlikely formations. We passed through obscure mountain villages, where just the sight of us seemed to draw open mouthed astonishment. We stopped at cafes, where teams of kids would come whooping out on our arrival. It was brilliant.

Floating village

Life does not need a safety net. In fact, a safety net only reduces what life can be. life has to be challenging. It has to push you and, at times, make you uncomfortable. This is what is important. This is how you grow and how your understanding of the world and all the people in it grows. You have to live.

Basically, I think it’s time I put the lens back in.

*From the aborted – and bloody awful – novel, ‘15% Miserable’

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

All the little animals

H = S + C + V

I’ll repeat; H=S+C+V, which, according to four very noteworthy psychologists is the actual formula for happiness.  Amazing, isn’t it?

I’m not entirely sure of all the details, but I’ll try and explain it as best I can. ‘H’ is clearly happiness, which, we’re told, is made up, or equal to, S, C and V. ‘S’, as I read it, is our mental/genetic/whatever happiness default setting. It’s kind of like our emotional neutral, or core weight. That is, when not troubled by major events, S is our normal happiness quota. C refers to our circumstances. I don’t think it’s supposed to mean that rich people are any happier than poor ones, (though they might be) but rather that people rotting away from cancer are probably a lot less happy than those who are not. Lastly, and this is the interesting bit, is ‘V’. ‘V’ refers to the voluntary things we do, or don’t do, to make ourselves happy/ier. The way I understand it, (and I may be wrong)  V is essentially the margin of your happiness wriggle room. I mention it as, other than travel, happiness seems to be the one theme that undercuts this blog, so I thought it a decent enough way of starting a post. That, and because I’m going to come back to it later. But first I need to talk about people electrocuting dogs. This too will become relevant.

Basically – and bear in mind that this is entirely received wisdom – the thrust of the idea behind electrocuting dogs is proving that helplessness can be/is learnt. A psychologist, (Martin Seligman from New York, if you’d like to send him any fan mail) took some dogs and slung some in a high walled pen whereupon he electrocuted them. Initially, and pretty understandably, the dogs would try and jump out of the pen. However, after a while, finding the walls too high, they would give up and simply endure their pretty nasty lot. Once this scientific breakthrough had been achieved, the dogs would be transplanted to a similar pen , but with lower walls, whereupon they were electrocuted again. However, this time, despite the fact they were now physically able to jump out, they would no longer try. Basically, that they had learnt helplessness.

I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on any of this. If you want more, you could do worse than go to the article I cribbed most of the foregoing from:

I know, this is a crap post. I’m 412 words in and I haven’t mentioned anything about Vietnam yet. However, I wanted to include this, as I was thinking about life before September 14th 2007, (sight loss day) and, ultimately, because this is my blog and I get to write about whatever I like. Those are the rules. However, I was also wondering how high my own walls were before Sight Loss Day, (capitals intended). The truth is, I’m not entirely sure they were all that high. I was doing pretty well, so maybe it’s better to think of Corporate life as indentured slavery, rather than as a dog in a pen. Either way, going back to September 14th 2007, I was delivered a shock big enough to put me into orbit.

The point is, I’m happy. It catches you off guard and, when the full realization of it hits you, the enormity of it can be dizzying. Let’s go back to For Instances, (again with the capitals – see previous posts). I was doing something as simple as walking up the stairs only yesterday and, as is the case with most Vietnamese building – they exist as much on the outside as they do the in – emerged briefly in to the morning’s full unabridged and unedited 36 C of sunshine and there it was, wallop, I was happy.

I think you have to grab those moments.


However, let’s not get too carried away. Saigon and Shangri-la are hardly synonymous. Not least because Saigon exists and has rarely been the name of a retirement bungalow. Theft is rife here. It’s endemic. One minute you can be walking down a busy road in full daylight, the next, a pair of quick hands dart out from the back of a passing scooter and your bag’s gone. That’s it. We live on a fairly quiet street. One on which, a couple of weeks ago, my girlfriend was practicing riding her scooter when two guys on a passing bike reached out and grabbed the necklace of her neck. I can’t imagine what that was like and, for no other reason than my gender, am fairly unlikely to. All I can do is guess how such an intrusive, unthinking and unexpected act must have made her feel. All I really know for sure is that it reduced the confident, funny and beautiful person I live with to a sobbing wreck.

The rage, (and I’m using that word very deliberately) acts such as this fills you with is as intense as it is impotent. It’s all encompassing and useless in equal measure. The act’s long over and Elvis has long left the building by the time of arrival and, perhaps, that’s no bad thing. Currently, stories abound about a teacher, at the school where I work, who gave chase after such an incident and, on cornering the thieves, found their motorbike being used on him. He’s still in hospital now.

Don’t get me wrong. Acts like this are never going to be OK, but let’s provide a little context before forming any too damning conclusions. The Vietnamese government has made amazing strides in reducing the extent of poverty here, but it still exists and it’s scent is ever present. Poverty is never photogenic, it’s dirty and ugly and it’s filthy. It dehumanizes those that live in its shadow. The average yearly income here, (for the Middle Class) is around $1,168 PA. Now, compare that to your salary, or the salary of the average Westerner over here and you can begin to provide a context for these actions.  I’m not saying that those who robbed my girlfriend, or robbed that teacher of most of his face, were living below the poverty line and somehow that makes it OK. That’s not where I’m at. I’m simply trying to shade in the grey.

Neither do I want to give the impression that Saigon’s some kind of crime riddled hell hole. It’s not. In truth, I’d feel more at risk on any Saturday night in any market town you can think of anywhere in England than I do here. People are nice. That’s the real truth of the matter. They smile at you in the street and wave at you from passing cars when you’re out on the highway. Kids get a real kick out of shouting ‘Hello!’ at you wherever you go and, I keep coming back to it, people are just nice.

Lottery ticket seller

Every day continues to be an adventure. Saigon never bores. Each street is a testament to both present and past. The relics of french Colonialism rub shoulders with the brutalism of the modern communist apartment blocks. Similarly, in the countryside, by Cu Chi and out by the Mekong Delta the natural serenity of Vietnam – of walkways bordered by fruit trees whose harvest is just there for the picking – rubs shoulders with a far more brutal past. A past whose legacy is still defined in terms of craters, stillborn babies, deformed children and the lame; sights that cut across this country like a leper’s scar across the face of a model. But maybe that particular aspect of history is best left for another time and another post.

But no, life is here, life is now, life is Saigon. Here the nighttime streets are dressed in the brilliant colours of headlight and neon. Old men and women push food carts through the sweltering traffic and all the time Saigon just keeps on moving, breathing and living. That initial sense of alien has never faltered, not for a minute. If anything it’s grown even stronger.

The alien cuts through all. In terms of diet, we continue t0 break new ground. In the short time we’ve been here, everything from Duck’s feet, (last night) to squirrel has been feasted upon. We drank coffee, whose very existence owed itself to having passed through the digestive system of a Civet, (now known as ‘Weasel Shit Coffee’). Eel, Cuttlefish and frog have become dietary staples and nothing, (apart from the one time I ate Chickens’ feet) has disappointed. All of this from street-side cafes, whose patrons feast on small plastic kerbside tables, as the motorbikes roar past and the rats and cockroaches fight audibly and hungrily for the scant remains tossed onto the pavement.

However, of all, it was perhaps the snake that was the most spectacular. With a rough idea of what lay ahead of me, and a few vague recollections of having seen snakes gutted and flailed alive on television, I’ll admit to being a little nervous at the prospect of eating snake myself. However, I’ve always eaten meat and just can’t accept that separating beefburger from cow as anything other than rank hypocrisy.  If you eat meat, something has died so you can do so. It can be emotionally convenient to pretend otherwise; that your pie was never once the adoring object of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ as it first stumbled around its wide eyed way around its pen but it was and it is.  However, that’s a long way from signing up to witness the wholesale torture of a living animal and I’ll admit that the idea of doing so made me nervous.

Still, on the advice of a colleague, we approached the open fronted Vietnamese Hoi with little idea of what to expect.  I can only describe the place as a strange sort of meeting place, one where petting zoo and menu make an uncomfortable acquaintance. Animals lined all three walls, from the expected mix of fish and lobsters to the more unusual tanks of tortoises, lizards and, of course, snakes.  Snakes seem to play an important role in the Vietnamese psyche. In local shops, it’s not entirely unusual to find bottles of home made medicinal wine with a cobra thrown in for good measure. I’ve tried some, it’s not bad. However, pickled snake is a long way from live, writhing snake and, again, I was caught up with the idea of being responsible


for its torture. In the end, there was nothing much to worry about. There was simply one quick cut from a fairly sturdy pair of scissors and, an inch shorter, the snake was dead. True, going back to the title of this piece, it’s H probably shrunk quite quickly and likely in direct proportion to its S, but I can’t say it suffered much. Really, on reflection, there’s not much your average mutton chop wouldn’t give to have met such a swift end.

After that, came the matter of draining its blood – like wringing out a damp towel – into a bottle of Hanoi Vodka and the removal of its still beating heart and gall bladder for separate consumption. I knew I was going to do this as soon as I heard about it, but still, holding the beating heart of a recently living animal is quite another thing. However, like so much in life, there comes a time to silence the voices, close your mind and take a step forward.

In this case, a swallow forward.

I don’t know how to describe it, really. It’s not like I chewed. Someone told me you could still feel its heart beat in your stomach. However, delighted as I am to report this, that proved not be the case. That notwithstanding,  I’ve got to say that I was acutely conscious of it being there and it still beating. It was almost, in a perverse way, as if I wanted to feel it, that part of me wanted to be more revolted by what I had just done.

But I wasn’t and I’m still not. Instead, I’m filled with a sense of wonder that, when I think about it, still leaves me short of breath. It makes no sense. Five years ago I was an office drone. I worked in industrial suburbia, existing only between those allotted stretches of time between 9am and Whatever PM. I was my job, I was my company, which, at the end of the day, means I wasn’t very much at all. This, before becoming the cautionary tale that everyone was rushing to tell each other about. The cripple that had to be pitied, or the brave soul who carried on. Life beyond these two existences seemed, to me at least, a fairy tale.

A real time interruption for you, (it’s very relevant). Just now, around ten minutes before typing this, my girlfriend and I climbed to the top of this building, watched Saigon stretching out into the horizon in all its dazzling beauty and seediness and we kissed. Christ, I could end this whole blog right there.

But I won’t.

I think this is what I’m driving at. None of us are dogs trying to jump walls. We just don’t have those barriers. Apologies to Mr/Dr/I don’t-really-care Seligman but I don’t accept that the walls are too high. Rather, I prefer to believe that there are no walls at all. Think about it. Think about your life. Are you really such an idiot that you would have consciously denied yourself happiness? Humour me, just for a minute, accept my idea of there being no walls and imagine living your whole life over again. A whole new lifetime of limitless freedom to make limitless choices and, I’ll bet you, you’d make exactly the same ones over again. Because this is who you are and who you want to be and, what’s more, that’s brilliant. Happiness is in the now, not in the maybe. Odds are that the grass isn’t going to be greener on the other side of the fence. You’re not going to be any happier if you’re famous, if you wear the right designer label or you drive the right car. Happiness is mundane. It’s waking up every day with someone you love to live the life you built. That’s it.

My advice? Accept the ‘S’ know that you can always change the ‘C’ and maximise the ‘V’. Then enjoy the ‘H’.

Posted in Ho Chi Minh, Saigon, Sight loss, Travel, Uncategorized, Vietnam | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Motorcycle Diaries

If you want to view paradise; Simply look around and view it; Anything you want to, do it; Want to change the world? There’s nothing; To it

Wonka, W.

I’ll begin by going backwards. If you can remember back, way back, before a drunken Friday night cost me my sight and three years of my life, I had a job, a real job. It was here I learnt a lesson that’s served me well, it was that expectation can be the enemy of experience.

My company was sending me on a four week trip. I was to spend two weeks in Los Angeles and a further two weeks in Toronto. Needless to say, it was an exciting prospect. I spent endless evenings surrounded by skylines of imaginary palm trees and days walking the phantom sun soaked streets of the beautiful people. To be fair, Los Angeles could never have lived up to such levels of expectation and, looking back, it’s no surprise that its endless rows of low rise smog stained housing schemes and permanent traffic jams failed to so singularly do so. Toronto however, a city I had given practically no thought to, blew me away. Its vertiginous skyscrapers and wide city streets created an impression upon me that few places have matched since.

Don’t worry, I’m going somewhere with this.

A few days ago I was on my motorbike, way out beyond the city limits, as paddy fields, mangrove swamps and fishing ponds sped past and the sun started to set over the perfectly flat horizon as the world transformed itself into a costume of orange, red and ocher. Below me the bike hummed and I was alone with Vietnam, the only sound my own engine as I rode through a strange and silent landscape. It then occurred to me, quite suddenly, that unknown to myself, I had betrayed my own rule and imagined exactly this scene; exactly that landscape and exactly that motorbike and here it was, rendered tangible in perfect, high definition reality. I grinned so wide my face nearly cracked in two.

That’s a nice ending to a nice anecdote, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Motorbikes are an every day fact of every life here. The city buzzes to the soundtrack of Honda and Yamaha. Government policy is firmly against the car, so families, young Mothers, pensioners and immaculate office workers in immaculate suits all take to the streets on two wheels and still, the traffic can hit gridlock. Whole families of four – and sometimes upwards – sit in rows upon the same scooter, with babies nestled between them for protection. The unhelmeted heads of toddlers peer sleepily over the handlebars of countless mopeds, safe in the knowledge that an adult is in charge. Anything that needs to be carried, from propane tanks to trees, is carried by scooter. It’s stunning. No one ever looks behind them, they just go. Here, the responsibility for not colliding with another bike has shifted from those maneuvering, to those riding. This is not a system where liability counts for much. Rather, this is a system where not hitting anyone counts for everything.

Crossing the road is in itself a leap of faith. Nothing stops the traffic. Pedestrians have no option but to step blindly into the thick five deep lanes of honking and competing motorbikes and make their slow way across the road in the fervent hope that the motorbikes will avoid them, which – universally – they do. Through this jungle of scooters and motorbikes, xe oms, (pronounced, ‘zayoms’) the motorbike taxis that seem to switch business models between transportation, drug dealing and low level pimping hustle and push as they force their way through the over heated and sweltering mass. I’m making it sound dreadful, I know, but it isn’t. It’s amazing and breath taking in equal measure.

I’m going to go off on a tangent for a little bit, so bear with me. I’ll start by creating entirely the wrong impression and tell you that I owned my first car when I was twelve years old. However, while this was certainly an amazing privilege it didn’t stem from a life of one. Rather, my best friend and I scrimped and saved, doing every odd job imaginable until we had the £25 needed to buy a broken down 1.6L cream Hilman Avenger, (we painted a Starsky and Hutch stripe on the side in red oxide paint – it looked brilliant) which we would then sit in, taking it in turns to tear around the fields of my friend’s Father’s farm.  What I’m trying to say is that, if it was fairly normal to have a car at twelve, having access to a motorbike was, for me and my brothers, (back when that was still plural. I might write more about that at some point, but not now) was pretty much par for the course. The point is that, even with that level of experience, I would still look out into the Saigon traffic and wonder how it was even possible to take part in the shambolic carnival that crashed and bounced its way around the streets.

Of course, there was another reason too, one whose mere mention is always enough to bring out the worst in me.  It was true I’d ridden quite a few motorbikes. However, that was with two eyes, rather than just the one that bad luck and bad tempers had left me with; and that peering out at the world through a thick layer of moulded plastic. I’ll be honest, I was hovering somewhere over the grim borderland between nervous and scared. However, some facts are never to be admitted, not even to ourselves. To acknowledge them is to give them shape. Soon shape becomes form and form becomes tangible. Forget what the cod psychologists tell you. Sometimes it really is best to just push the fear down and take a step forward. The alternative is no kind of option.

Either way, I got on the bike.

I think, if it had been left to me, I’d have sat staring at the traffic for an age, taking my time on strategy and denying the nerves that were keeping me pedestrianized. However, after a loose agreement with a friend to rent a pair of bikes turned suddenly to hard reality I had little choice.  The scale of freedom having a bike has lent life here is hard to convey.

Spotted from the bike; transporting live bees

Suddenly nothing was out of reach and southern Vietnam was suddenly lain at my doorstep. However, following my girlfriend’s arrival from Moscow, the limits of the rented scooter became pretty apparent and a more solid solution was required, which was when I saw the Bonus. The first thing I noticed was that it was big. More to the point, it was big, black and dirty. It sounded more like a tractor than a motorbike and I fell absolutely in love with it.

… and it was on the Bonus, grinning from ear to ear as the sun went down, miles out of Saigon, when the float in the carburetor seized and I was left at the side of the road with what was now little more than a scrap metal anchor, which – if you remember – is just after where we came in.

However, in a world peopled by motorbikes there is a solution to most problems and a xe om driver turned out to be mine. As I was crouched by my bike, furiously hitting the carburetor with a stick, I became aware of a figure sitting on a moped at the side of the road, watching me and laughing.  He had a proposition. After some fairly frantic hand signals and a few desperate phone calls to a Vietnamese friend, I came to understand what it was; he planned on pushing me back to the city. That is, he would ride his moped with his left leg pointed out at a right angle to his body and use this to push the rear of my bike back into the city. Whatever concerns I may have harboured over this plan didn’t really count for much. The sun was now down and I was no closer to getting either me or my motorbike back to Saigon. I had little choice but to agree.

I think the memory of that ride will linger for a while. Traffic makes no concessions to the broken or the impaired and in a continued Darwinian frenzy of noise and speed, the xe om driver and I pushed our way through. Similarly, pushing my much heavier bike did little to restrain the xe om driver’s bullish approach to road etiquette. Within what must have been ten minutes of entering the city, it soon became apparent that he was using my bike more as battering ram than paying cargo. Roundabouts, chaotic at the best of times, were approached with a speed and confidence I’ve never experienced as a xe om passenger. The Bonus and I would be pushed mercilessly into the midst of the whirling traffic, while his grinning face would take refuge against the deafening roar of the approaching motorbikes in my lee.

If this sounds ungrateful or churlish, I don’t mean it to be. He got me and the Bonus home without incident and for that, I’m grateful. More to the point, I had the whole carburetor replaced the following day. Of course, since that incident absolutely nothing has gone wrong with the bike and it has been a daily pleasure to ride. That would also be a nice ending to an anecdote. Sadly, however, it’s not a true one. The bike’s been back in the garage twice and started making a strange noise earlier today, but it’s not going anywhere just yet. Because, every now and then , it works perfectly and I head out to the fish ponds, the mangrove swamps and the paddy fields and think back to a cold Moscow afternoon when I sat in my room and tried to imagine what life would be like here. Then, I grin like an idiot.

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A Long Way From Kansas

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.

Michael Caine, (not Graham Greene) The Quiet American

South must lead Southwards, North must lead Northwards and, inevitably, East must lead Eastwards and, I suppose, that might lend a vague continuity in the move from Moscow to Saigon. In truth, it’s about the only continuity there is.

It’s January and already the heat is suffocating. To move is to sweat. It almost feels that you need to chew the air before swallowing. Everywhere, down every alley and along every road comes the roar of mopeds. I can’t think of a collective noun for mopeds, a stampede seems about right, but the noise and the energy is unremitting. Nothing stops, ever. Saigon just keeps on moving.

In truth, I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere that’s felt so alive. The whole city buzzes with the sheer energy of life. It’s there, in everything, from the hustlers selling you dope on Bui Vien to the crowds packed tight photographing one another in front of the New Year flower displays at Nguyen Hue.

It can be, it was, it is, overpowering. For a time, I wasn’t even sure if I could last and now, after just a week, I can’t imagine wanting to be anywhere else. This place could never, can never, be home, and I think I need that. Saigon will always belong to the other. I can no more belong here than roses could grow in the Antarctic. Obviously, part of this is physical, I’m unlikely to ever pass as Vietnamese. However, there’s a more significant difference than that, there’s a mental gulf here that I can’t imagine ever crossing. Everything here is alien. That cuts two ways; I am as alien to here as here is to me and that suits me perfectly. For now, I want to remain the visitor. I want to look from the out and see the in.

Let’s go back – way, way back – to windows and the magical. I wrote something about this in Poland. I think, I could check, but I’m too lazy, it was something about hearing swing music through a window and some children playing. Fast forward nearly two years; those sounds are now the sounds of an anonymous vietnamese crooner singing what to me sounds like a traditional song, whilst a group of Vietnamese chat amiably in a language that manages to be both guttural and musical at the same time. I have to remind myself that this is my life now. That now, at least for a year, this is my new reality. And this brings me back to The Amazing, (and back to capitalizing it). It’s alive here. Christ, this already feels like it’s home address. It lives here. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m a million miles away from right, but I can’t imagine this ever being home. Saigon, Vietnam, all of it, I can’t imagine this being anything other than amazing.

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