The Fall of Saigon, Revisited

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“Twenty years ago,” reckoned the far-left polemicist John Pilger in 1995, “Hanoi was a Trappist monk and Saigon was a whore with a hangover”.

Saigon, on 29 April 1975, was – as Pilger sketched it – a city of bar girls, street hustlers, opium-addicts, gamblers and black marketeers, but it was also a city of high-rise buildings, Western fashions and a comfortable middle class. Next day, it would fall.

The images of that day – forty-one years ago tomorrow – are among the most iconic of the late twentieth century: the overloaded helicopters struggling from the roof of the US Embassy, the desperate crowds outside, the tank busting through the fence of Independence Palace.

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The old embassy building, at 4 Lê Duẩn Boulevard, up past the colonial-era Notre Dame Cathedral and round the corner, was demolished in the late 1990s, after the Clinton administration restored diplomatic relations and the site was given back to the United States. The planters which used to surround it are still there.

After the years, the months, the weeks of anticipation, and the days of frantic withdrawal, the fall, when it came, was an anti-climax. No shots were fired, no resistance was offered. The demoralised soldiers of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, stripped off their equipment and went home. Rows of helmets and boots lay along the side of the road.

The cameras were not even rolling when the tank burst through the fence around Independence Palace. It had to reverse out and do it again so the photographers could capture it for posterity.

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Independence Palace was a disingenuous name. South Vietnam only came into being as an attempt by the French to regain control of a colony over which Ho Chi Minh had asserted independence. The original palace was what had once been the colonial governor’s residence, but that was bombed in 1962 by dissident pilots in the South Vietnamese air force, sympathetic to Hanoi, who ironically destroyed its left wing.

President Diệm, who had come to power in a free and fair election in which he secured 150,000 more votes than people entitled to cast them (despite advice to keep the result around 60%), commissioned a new building, but was assassinated before it was finished in one of the coups which punctuated South Vietnam’s short history.

From the outside, it could be a municipal swimming pool in a little-known provincial town; on the inside, it might be the headquarters of SPECTRE in one of the early Bond movies. It is open to the public and preserved much as it was on that morning in April 1975 when tanks bust down the fence. All that has really changed is the name. It is Reunification Palace now. That day, forty-one years ago tomorrow, is known here as Reunification Day. They refer to it as the Liberation, not the Fall. Since then, the city has officially been Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, but it is still, informally, Sài Gòn.

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The Fall did not lead to mass-executions, as the Saigonese had feared, although many were forcibly relocated to the countryside. ARVN soldiers and others associated with the old regime, over a million according to some accounts, were sent to re-education camps where most were ill-treated – some abominably – and over a hundred thousand died.

The old men you see peddling cyclos – tricycle rickshaws – around modern Saigon are likely as not to be ARVN veterans. I asked one and he confirmed it, but he did not want to talk about the war or re-education camps: he just wanted to talk about ‘girly bars’.

Vietnam is still nominally communist, but it is a long way from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Saigon is the economic capital and still feels dramatically different from Hanoi. There are familiar names on the plaques outside the most impressive office blocks, names like Citibank, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, Allen & Overy, Mayer Brown, CBRE, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. There are Porsches and Ferraris parked nearby. There are men in sharp-tailored Armani and women in sharp-heeled Louboutins, and sharper than both is the contrast between the rich and the rest: sharper than I saw anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

It is hard now to think of Saigon as having fallen, or if you prefer, being liberated.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating up Vietnam #4: Huế

 

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Mr Cu is an excellent photographer. The walls of his restaurant, the Mandarin Café, are crammed with his shots of the people and places of Vietnam. He is a sociable chap, speaks good English, and makes a point of chatting to his customers. He gives them all a postcard of one of his photographs.

I stayed next door, in the cheekily-named Google Hotel, and stumbled into the Mandarin Café each morning for coffee and a bowl of the city’s famous noodle soup, bún bò Huế.  It is made with beef shank and pigs’ trotters simmered with lemongrass, onion and shrimp paste, then flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and a wallop of chilli powder, poured over round noodles and sprinkled with herbs.

Huế was Vietnam’s imperial capital, until the last emperor abdicated at the end of the Second World War, and there are restaurants across town offering elaborate, expensive, banquets of dishes which they claim were traditionally served to the imperial family, all arranged into the shape of peacocks, elephants and such like. It is impressive enough, but not really what I was there for. The street food interested me a whole lot more.

On the banks of the Perfume River, in the shadow of Eiffel’s Trường Tiền Bridge, there is a bustling night market with food carts and picnic tables crowding the pavements. The grills smoke, the prawns sizzle, the vendors shout, the customers jostle, and the aromas fill the air. I ate banh khoai – happy pancakes – as I nosed round the stalls.

The batter is made with rice flour, a good pinch of turmeric, which turns it yellow, and sugar and carbonated water which help it to crisp up on the hotplate. It is stuffed, then, with prawns, pork belly, beansprouts, spring onion and shredded carrot and folded like an omelette.

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I happened upon a restaurant, the next day, a few blocks from the river, which looked run-down enough to be good and ordered nem lui, ground pork and pork skin mixed with garlic, sugar and fish sauce, shaped into sausages, skewered with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal.

It came with a pile of rice papers, lettuce leaves, herbs and cucumber slices and a deceptively complex dipping sauce made with hoisin and fish sauces, chopped pork liver, toasted peanuts and peanut butter. The idea is to force the meat off the skewer with your chopsticks, roll it and some of the leaves and vegetables in the rice paper, then dip it in the sauce.

I got so engrossed in poking about in the ruins of the imperial citadel that I forgot all about having lunch, but bánh bèo from a roadside stall kept me going until evening. These delicate steamed rice cakes are topped with a mixture of chopped prawns and crumbled dried shrimp, pork crackling and sliced spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam sauce, made with rice vinegar, fish sauce and sliced chillies.

Dinner, then, was cơm hến: a bowl of rice topped with tiny clams, sliced spring onion, julienned apple, crispy pillows of fried pig skin and a handful of herbs, served with a jug of clam broth to add to taste.

I had eaten well in Huế but could not help thinking, as I continued north, that I had only tried a small sample of its regional dishes. Never mind. There was Hanoi still to come.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating Up Vietnam #3: Hội An

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We went first to the market to pick up ingredients. Women in silk trousers and conical hats sat surrounded by baskets piled high with limes, spring onions, garlic bulbs, leafy herbs and turmeric roots. Shoppers weaved between stalls on their scooters.

Back at the cooking school, Hanh gave us each a booklet of recipes and a job to do. I started shredding the unripe papaya, Scott did the same with the carrots and Melissa assembled a dressing sauce with the familiar blend of lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic and chilli.

Every country in Indochina has a take on green papaya salad. The Thai version, som tam, is well-known in the West: the others, not. Vietnam’s món gòi đu đu, is similar but simpler and lacks the conflagration of chillies. Just coat shrimps with paprika and pan-fry fleetingly, then toss with shredded papaya and carrot, mint and sesame seeds in the dressing and garnish with peanuts and onion flakes.

Once the salad was prepped, we started on gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls. It was just an assembly job after we had shredded a cucumber and carrot and squeezed the liquid from each. Soften the rice papers briefly in water, dry them off, and roll them up with the shredded vegetables, shrimps, chopped mint and onion flakes, then serve with a dipping sauce.

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Richard, did you say goodbye water,” said Hanh, “because the rice paper still look wet”. I stopped, patted it dry some more, and continued.

We cooked aubergines, then, with a technique more commonly used for fish. Peel, quarter and briefly deep-fry the aubergines, then roast them in a clay pot with spring onions, paprika, sugar and soy sauce until it caramelises. Garnish it with chopped coriander and serve with rice on the side.

The phở was just about ready by the time the aubergines were on the heat. We made a simplified version of this well-known noodle soup with the stock extracted from beef bones furiously boiled for twenty minutes – it is better simmered for an hour or more – with sugar, ginger, coriander, star anise and shallots. We coated a beef fillet with chilli paste and sugar and left it to marinate while the stock was cooking, then sliced it and served it with beansprouts, mint and peanuts and the stock poured over the top.

Hội An has a noodle dish of its own which I like even better than phở. Cao lầu is made with pork shoulder marinated and roasted in the Cantonese way, flat noodles, a generous handful of leafy herbs and pillows of deep fried pork rind. They will tell you in Hội An that it can only be made with water from an ancient well in the town, which is obviously not true, but I never saw it on menus elsewhere.

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There is a story, too, about bánh bao vac, or white rose as it is called on English menus. They say that the recipe is a secret, known only to one family which has handed it down the generations and supplies every restaurant in Hội An. It sounds to me like something they have made up for tourists. Surely any good chef could work out what was in it and try different quantities until it was right. But, again, I never saw it anywhere else but Hội An.

White rose is half a dozen rice flour dumplings, stuffed with shrimps, onions and seasoning, topped with deep-fried shallots and served with a sweet dipping sauce. They are much lighter than the Chinese-style dumplings you find all over Asia, and made me think more of tortellini. They are not exactly white and they look nothing like roses.

Cá kho tộ (fish in clay pot) is not a local dish. It is on menus throughout Vietnam. There are any number of variations but the basic idea is to roast snakehead fish, or similar, in a clay pot with a counter-intuitive caramel sauce. I ate it throughout Vietnam, but it was never quite as good as it was in the courtyard of a lovely restaurant overlooking the river in Hội An.

© Richard Senior 2015                     

Cao lầu image: By Dragfyre (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating Up Vietnam #2: Nha Trang

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In Nha Trang the hawkers were always there but I did not notice them anymore. They sold friendship bands, cigarettes, playing cards and everything else I could manage without.

But as I sat on the sand and gazed idly out at the South China Sea, I noticed a lady in a conical hat with a pot of cooked lobsters hanging from a yoke on her shoulder. I got up and followed her across the beach, caught up and asked her how much. “Hundred thousand Dong,” she said. Just under three pounds; four and a half dollars, US.

She segmented the lobster, so the meat was get-at-able with chopsticks, and halved a lime and squeezed the juice into a pot and stirred in pepper to make a simple dipping sauce. It was as much as the lobster needed.

I wandered over to the fruit vendor later in the afternoon, just as she was about to pack up, and I only wanted a pomelo, but she stuffed a bag with two of those, a dragon fruit, a couple of bananas half a dozen mandarins, and nearer a dozen rambutans. “No, no,” I said; “I can’t eat all this”.

Okay for tomorrow,” she insisted and forced the bag on me. I did my best with it that afternoon and finished the rest in the morning, sitting on the beach and peeling fruit with my Swiss Army knife.

Somewhere around midday, an old lady arrived and laid down her yoke and began to set out her stall. She lined up four pots, one filled with spiny lobster, a second with crabs, a third with tiger prawns and a fourth with sea snails, then shook ice onto platters and topped each with a little of the seafood and placed them on top of the pots. She lit the charcoal in a cast iron pan suspended from the yoke, laid a grill over it and let it burn until the charcoal glowed red and grey.

This time, I got a lobster, a crab, two tiger prawns and sea snails dotted with curry paste for my 10,000 Dong. For the same money in London, I would get a miserable sandwich from one of the corporate chains and the mayonnaise would splat on my shirt and ruin my mood. Even an old, small, cooked-from-frozen lobster would cost twice as much back home.

There are too many tourists in Nha Trang for the restaurants to be reliably good, but I found one on a quiet street a few blocks back from the beach, which was as dark and ramshackle as good restaurants tend to be in Southeast Asia, and had a menu of un-touristy dishes like stewed frogs with aubergine in turmeric broth. I ordered miến lươn trộn, which is sliced eel stir-fried in a hot wok and tossed with beansprouts, glass noodles, shredded mint and chilli then sprinkled with onion flakes.

I was done, then, with Nha Trang and went back to my hotel, collected my bag and got an overnight train heading north.

© Richard Senior 2015

Eating up Vietnam #1: Saigon

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There was a phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse with open sides and wobbly tables on the pavement outside. I sat at one and ordered phở tái, which the menu translated as “beef soup noodle with half-done beef,” and a Bia Saigon and watched the street vendors pushing carts and carrying yokes and the xe-om* riders hustling for business and a guy slowly pedalling around the block and shaking a rattle which sounded like a maraca. It puzzled me what he was trying to sell and I stopped him, later, and asked. “Lady massage,” he said, “you want?”

The beer came first, then a big plate of herbs, another of bean sprouts and a third with sliced chillies and quartered limes; then a tray of condiments: hoi sin and chilli sauces in squeezy bottles, dark soy sauce in a jug and thick chilli paste in a ramekin. Then came the phở: a great steaming bowl of broth extracted from beef bones, ox tail, flank steak, charred onions and ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, poured over flat rice noodles and strips of rare beef, and garnished with sliced spring onions.

I ate phở often as I travelled through Vietnam, elsewhere in Saigon, in Hoi An – where I learned how to make it – and finally in Hanoi; but it is different and better in the South and best at the phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse.

On every other street in Saigon, in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker area, to the north around the museums and to the east in amongst the modern corporate blocks, there are vendors selling bánh from carts. They are sandwiches, in essence, French in inspiration, Vietnamese in execution. Take a classic baguette, but made with rice flour and lighter than normal, slather it with mayonnaise and hot chilli sauce, then stuff it with shredded, pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumber, coriander leaf and some combination of pâte, roasted belly pork, fromage de tête and Vietnamese sausage. I had bánh again and again in Saigon and never got bored of it because each vendor does it differently.

If not bánh for lunch, then spring rolls. That can mean one of two things in Vietnam, and neither is much like the stodgy, finger-sized snacks served in Anglo-Chinese restaurants. There are gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls, with shredded carrot and cucumber, chopped mint, onion flakes and cooked prawns rolled in a moistened rice paper and served as it comes; and there are chả giò, or fried spring rolls, with minced pork, shitake mushrooms, diced carrot and cellophane noodles wrapped in a moistened rice paper and deep-fried to a texture like filo pastry. Both are served with a dipping sauce with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilli and garlic.

Noodles soups, rice papers, an abundance of herbs, sharp flavours used judiciously. The menu changes as you travel through Vietnam but the same themes recur: always the same freshness, always the same lightness.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Motorcycle taxi

Image: By Hiển Chu (flickr user “chuhien”) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Faded Huế

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The arches of the Trường Tiền Bridge soar and dip over the Perfume River, where barges which look two centuries old chug back and forth throughout the day, towards and away from the watercolour mountains far off to the west, and where, of an evening, traders spread their goods on blankets laid out on the bank, and street food vendors light their grills and the flames dance and the smoke coils up and the shrimps sizzle and scent the air, and big neon signs flash adverts from the opposite bank, and lights along the span of the bridge sweep from white to purple to yellow to blue to red to green and white again.

Huế was the capital for the Nguyển dynasty which ruled Vietnam from the start of the nineteenth century. A matryoshka of citadels, one inside the other, led through to the Forbidden Purple City, where the emperor lived with his concubines. There were moats and bastions and multi-tiered gateways; and palaces and temples, and gilded columns and carvings and fretwork, and cylindrical tiles surmounted by dragons. It was a place of exquisite beauty.

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But the city was bombed and shelled and shot at by three different armies in the French and American wars and much lay in ruins when the bell clanged on the final round of the Battle of Huế, which the US Marines won on points.  “Did we have to destroy the town in order to save it?” asked a Marine captain, echoing what another officer had said about Bến Tre further down south a month before.

There is not a lot left of the Forbidden Purple City beyond the stumps of shattered brick which poke from the grass where palaces used to stand, and a portentous flight of steps bookended with dragons which carries you up to an anti-climactic flower bed laid out in the broken foundations.

Elsewhere in the complex, the buildings have been carefully restored and rebuilt. The work is ongoing and, while I was there, men were tearing tin sheets from the roof of a ravaged temple. Enough has been done to evoke the majesty of the Imperial City that was; but there are still dozens of buildings blackened by napalm, pierced with shells, pitted by bullets, untouched and left to decay since 1968, when the battle staggered to its wearied close.

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I spent a good two days wandering the site and – away from the parts which have been freshly restored – I was often alone and there was at least a moat and a two-metre thick wall between me and the bustle of the modern town outside the citadel and the only sounds I could hear were the chirping of birds, the chatter of cicadas and leaves gently falling from the trees.

I strayed into courtyards which time had grassed over and poked inside buildings which looked long forgotten with roofs sagging inwards and rotten doors hanging off hinges. I was not at all sure I was supposed to be there, but there was nothing to keep me out. In one quiet corner, I happened upon an elephant, chained up like a guard dog and left unattended. It huffed and stamped its foot in warning.

In the late afternoon, I left the citadel and made my way across the bridge and back to the hotel with the closing scene of Full Metal Jacket screening in my head:

“We hump down to the Perfume River to set in for the night… I’m so happy that I am alive….”

© Richard Senior 2015

“It is the Journey that Matters in the End…” as Hemingway DIDN’T Say

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It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end,” wrote Ursula K Le Guin in her novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, although the internet tends to credit it to Hemingway.

The idea is baffling to regular fortnight a year vacationers, for whom journeys mean getting up early, battling across town, standing in line, getting half undressed, being scanned and frisked, having bits of their hand luggage confiscated, being bullied by cabin staff, sitting for hours between an old lady who thinks out loud and a fat man who snores very loudly, and watching the drinks trolley creep up the aisle to the row before theirs, then shoot back up the other end of the plane and behind the curtain for the rest of the flight, then bowing to pressure from the crowd to stand up the second the plane has come to a stop, even though they know that the doors will not open for ages; then standing in line again and again and again until they have stamps in their passports, cases in their hands and taxis to take them to hotels.

If this is what matters, might as well stay at home.

But on a longer trip, when you are dotting about from place to place, by train, by bus, by car by bike, what you see as you travel between the big sights will lodge in your mind as firmly as the sights themselves. You can get as much from the journey as you can from the end.

When I think of Cambodia, I think of the bus ride to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, through rural villages of wooden houses balanced on stilts, of hayricks, pitchforks and ox carts, of broods of chicks jogging after hens. In the bank of memories from Vietnam are the journeys on overnight trains, waking and looking out of the window at villagers kneeling in conical hats to harvest the rice in the half-light of the early morning. I remember long road trips in South America through epic landscapes of mountains and plains which stretched for ever, and the occasional Andean herdsman tending llamas an hour from the smallest town.

In New Zealand it was the journeys I enjoyed the most. There is not much to Picton and little more to Nelson but the Inter City bus took a glorious route between them, through the Marlborough wine region where the vines had turned and flooded the fields with an ocean of yellow on either side of the single track road, where the mountains were stacked three deep: green then grey then blue. The Tranz Alpine Express train threaded its way from coast to coast, from the ruins of Christchurch to the thrift stores of Greymouth with me gazing up at endless mountains, and into the depths of a gorge at a fast-flowing river, and out across the expanse of a pine forest with splashes of yellow and brown among the deep dark green.

I rarely plan a trip in detail, sometimes hardly at all. But I always know where I am going to end up. I need that to give it some kind of structure, and to focus on when things go wrong and half of me wants to jack it all in and go home. There is always an end, and it is always a destination; but there is always a whole lot more to the trip. There are all the intermediate ends, the UNESCO sites, the bucket list staples, the Must Sees, the Wonders of the World and – more mundanely – the towns where the ferries dock, the cities where the buses stop; the stations at the ends of the lines. And there are the landscapes and townships and villages I pass through as I travel between them.

It is good to have an end to journey towards; but, yes, it is the journey that matters in the end.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

A Morning in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

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Scooters wail through the tangle of alleys, weaving round ladies in conical hats with yokes balanced over their shoulders and old pushbikes half-buried under baskets of fruit and slowly perambulating cyclos. The sound reverberates off the walls of the decaying colonial buildings with their sagging awnings and missing windows and roofs bodged up with corrugated iron.

Traders spill out of their shops and fill the pavements with mannequins, fridges, anvils and circular saws. Women sit cross-legged, shaving pigs’ trotters and scaling fish with cleavers; men kneel over sheets of stainless steel, hammering, grinding, welding, drilling, and fashion them into boxes and bins. Street food vendors arrange tight circles of miniature stools on any available corner. There is nowhere to walk but in the road with the scooters.

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One shop sells nothing but heaters. Next door sells nothing but fans. Three doors further on sells lightbulbs. Two doors beyond that sells adaptors and leads. You go to one side of the road when your scooter needs tyres, to the other when it needs a new seat. And if it needs a new mirror as well, then you nip across town to the French Quarter. There are two streets on which every shop sells metal boxes, one street reserved for flowers and one for bamboo poles. Padlocks and door handles have half a street each, as have cooking salt and caged birds. Shoes get a crossroads of their own, but trainers, flip-flops and football boots have to share with army surplus. Musical instruments are lumped together with antiques, on the hunch, perhaps, that people who play instruments are likely to collect antiques.

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Chả Cá Street is named for the single dish which the restaurants along it sell. The best known is Chả Cá La Vong, so well known that restaurants all over town have ripped off its name. It is a poky little place with a rickety staircase leading up to a room with the look and atmosphere of a rowdy works canteen. Though it is in all the guidebooks and on every food blog, most of the other customers are shirt and tie locals. There is no menu, because chả cá really is all they do. They don’t see the need – as a restaurant would at home – for novelty chả cás or alternatives for people who go to a chả cá restaurant but don’t really care for chả cá.

The waiters bring the chả cá in relays. First, a sizzling fondue pot filled with turmeric-stained fish. Then, as that hisses and crackles in the middle of your table, a bowl of rice noodles. Then a ramekin of dipping sauce, a plate of crushed peanuts and a handful of herbs, which the waiter dunks in with the fish to wilt, and leaves you to assemble it when the fish and the herbs are done.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Classic Travel Scams #3: Getting Unlucky

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I had just arrived in Budapest and broke my own rule by looking at the map in public. Two hard-faced girls approached me and one asked if she could look at my map. She said they were trying to find a bar. They were obviously locals but she claimed they had just arrived from Germany. Her father was Hungarian, she said, (and I am sure he was) and had told her about the best bar to try to the local fruit brandy, pάlinka. She invited me to join them.

The story was implausible and her acting was rubbish. I saw it for the scam that it obviously was and walked off. But plenty of guys apparently fall for it. They go to a bar, have a few drinks, and get a massive bill from an equally massive bouncer.

There is a similar scam in Hanoi, where a local girl engineers a date with a tourist and, when they meet up, her boyfriend arrives with a gun and takes the tourist on an ATM tour. (Young guys pull the same trick on gay men.)

It doesn’t necessarily follow that anyone who hits on you abroad is out to scam you, but you have to be more cautious than your hormones would like. If it never happens to you in Hobart or Halifax, you need to ask yourself why it is happening in Hanoi.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

The Washing Machine Delivery Man of Huế

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An old man wobbled across the Perfume River on a scooter held together with duct tape and rust. He had a washing machine strapped to his pillion seat and a toolbox balanced on his knee.

A month or so earlier, I had seen a family of three on one scooter – no helmets – on the motorway heading out of Bangkok. Then I saw a family of four, husband, wife and two kids; and I thought that was as many as could squeeze on a scooter, until I crossed into Cambodia and saw five.

The scooters in Phnom Penh scuttle in random directions, like a colony of evicted ants. They make crossing the road an adrenalin sport as they streak past you, too close, performing the horn concerto.

But Cambodia is Switzerland compared with Vietnam. “Seven million people in Saigon,” a guy told me, “and four million scooter”. They swarm like a nightmare of wasps, a cacophony of tiny horns beeping, enough two-stroke motors revving together to outroar a Hell’s Angels convention. They stop for no one, for nothing.

I stood at the lights and wanted to cross but could not see how. Red and green were all the same to the scooters. Then a little old lady in a conical hat with more than her body weight slung from a yoke on her shoulders stepped into the traffic and tottered across while the scooters flowed round her as a river flows round a rock. That is how.

Motorbike taxi drivers lined the side streets touting for business. “Motta bi’, motta bi’” one shouted to me as he jabbed excitedly at his motta bi’. “I know, mate,” I said “I’ve seen one before”. “Marry wanner?” he offered, but I declined that as well. “Lady massage?” That too.

As I made my way up Vietnam, through Laos and back into Thailand, I saw scooters half-buried under bouquets of flowers, and piled up with boxes or water cooler bottles, and a pillion passenger with his arms at full stretch to steady a car bonnet on his lap, and office girls sidesaddle on motorbike taxisapplying their lipstick as they threaded through traffic, and tiny kids blasting down dusty lanes, and the washing machine delivery man crossing the bridge in Huế. 

(c) Richard Senior 2014