North Vietnam

Crossing the border

And then we entered Vietnam. Oh that's good. To be able to start a new paragraph, a new page, no, a new country with the word 'And'. And, Mrs. Breslin, (oh there I go again. What a delicious word 'and' can be,) and Mrs. Breslin you are not going to stop me this time. This is my web site, this is my story. You can't pollute my pages with your red ink. You aren't going to give me a C-minus for these words. Not you or any other English teacher. I'm grown up now and I'll write how I want to write. And you know why it feels so good to start with an 'and' (oh again Mrs. B, just to rub it in). It feels so good because you degraded me; you cursed my first attempt at travel writing with your red pen. You said my essay on what we did over our summer holidays was not up to the grade. And in particular you criticized my use of 'and' to start sentences. Well Mrs. B, I used them to create a sense of urgency. Urgency to tell you about my trip around Turkey with my uncle. Urgency to tell you that I'd done something different. My summer holiday wasn't to Costa del Sol. It wasn't to Bognor. It was around Turkey, all the way east to the Iranian Border. I was thirteen Mrs. Breslin and I was telling you about the most surreal experience in a bus station in the middle of the Eastern Turkish nowhere. I was telling you of the Costas. Yeah, remember? That was what the essay was titled, the Costa's, and I wrote about two women with their Louis Vuitton suitcases, dragging them around the bus station, Gucci sunglasses, wide brimmed hats, flowing dresses, high heels, skimpy tops and expressions that could be read as 'what are you looking at?' Oh how incongruous they were. And everybody just stared at them. As if they were a couple of sheep that had just walked into the butchers shop and asked for something for the barbeque tonight (shit, that's a terrible analogy, but a better one escapes me right now. But I hope I've begun to paint the picture). Remember Mrs. B? Coz I'll never forget how badly, no, how unfairly you marked my essay on my holiday, my first attempt at travel writing. (Tell me Mrs. B. is this any better or do I still write crap?)

Now I'm digressing. I'm off plot by a mile. We are supposed to be in Vietnam. Not recollecting about being thirteen in a classroom in Wimbledon, or in Turkey with Uncle traveling George. Oh Mrs. Breslin, all is forgiven. I've exorcised the demon. Excuse the tangent. (And you can shut up Mr. Creswell you dictatorial math’s teacher, there'll be no trigonometry here, you can stick your sine, cosine and trigonometric tangent where the sun doesn't shine...)

And then we entered Vietnam. We crossed the bridge that separates Hekou in China from Lao Cai in Vietnam and strolled up to the immigration desk. Unlike on the other side of the bridge, where the immigration and customs officers pushed their papers in an air conditioned palace of officialdom, bathed in marble and formal signs, aisles, chrome barriers for crowd control, the Vietnamese immigration hall was run down with wooden partitions separating the different departments, 'Passport Control,' 'Vietnamese only' and 'Customs'. Officials sitting under fans, slicing through the musty air in the decrepit building that cried out for a lick of paint. And of those officials, most had their feet up, reading newspapers. 'Over there,' an official took the trouble to look over the paper and pointed to a colleague who already had a queue of people in front of him.

It took a good half hour for the procedures to be completed. Passports stamped we wandered out, into Vietnam. First things first, we need some cash. Now where are the banks around here?

Monopoly money

Wandering out of immigration and customs we are accosted by a youth.

"Wa you wan?" he asks, "you wan go Sapa?"

Yeah yeah here we go…. "We need the bank first".

"You go tha way for bang" He follows us as we wander down a dusty street lined with narrow yet tall buildings (the Vietnamese seem to build on log thin plots of land, often a frontage of no more than 15 feet. And just build up).

"There bank" our friend says. It's just like the banks used to be back home before the partitions were demolished to make way for the more personal bank 'shop'.

I change a hundred dollar bill. I am now a millionaire. One and a half million dong bulge in my money belt. Monopoly money. We leave the bank.

"You wan minibus to Sapa? thir-e thouan dong" our friend is back on the case.

"Eh?" I exclaim, "30,000 dong too much. Three thousand dong more like it". It is his turn now.

"Eh? thir-e thousan dong!"

"Too much" I reply.

"Nor too much, good price," And then a minibus appears with a card saying Sapa appears, a woman hanging out of the open sliding door shouting "Sapa, Sapa, Sapa..." I'm tired and I loose it a little with our friend,

"We'll take this minibus. You not good man. You try to rip us off. You want to charge too much!" We jump in and speed off on this public bus service. The woman is collecting the fares, ‘how much?' I ask, "thir-e thousan dong' she replies. Oh. My mental arithmetic was never very good. I churn the figures through my head. I consult with Lindsey. Aren't I the fool. And to think I called that man back there bad, he was just trying to help us. Thirty thousand dong is 2 US dollars. Doh! Monopoly money!


Sapa is an old French colonial hill station, nestled in the hills amongst indigenous tribal villages. Not that there is much left of the French colonial legacy, unlike the British hill stations in India which are awash with colonial architecture and trappings of the Raj, all that is here is an old church and a few colonial buildings in various states of disrepair. We check into an excellent hotel that is set aside a steep slope and affords excellent views across the valley. Unlike the border where we have come from, it is much cooler up here, much more pleasant. A good place to chill out and relax for a few days. Well, it should be. Alas we spend much of our time in conflict.

Not many couples spend every waking hour in the presence of each other. 24/7 Lindsey and I are together, sharing every moment. Such intimacy is usually reserved for the third age, for retirement when the couple have spent most of their years together. One or both of them go out to work and they spend weekends, evenings and mornings together. Nine to five they are apart. Not us. We are full time partners. We are also like the proverbial chalk and cheese; it is remarkable that we get along like we do, but it is inevitable that we will sometimes have differences of opinion. Rarely do they result in conflict. In Sapa they do.

Too many air-conditioned rooms and I've got a steaming cold. Too much fried food and Lindsey's got the runs. Too much Asian heat, humidity and 'on the go' and we are both irritable. But we don't row. You will not see us having a barney, shouting at each other. Instead we wind each other up. Both stubborn and intransigent. Until.....

I want to go trekking for two days in the hills, visiting the hill tribes. Lindsey doesn't want to do any trekking. We bicker at each other.

"Why not?" I ask.

"I just don't want to".

"Yeah, but why not?"

"I don't have to give you a reason" and so on.

"Why do you have to have an answer to everything?"

"I suppose it is the nine odd years in academia. Something to do with me having an inquisitive scientific mind. And a doctorate..."

"Don't get smart with me". Etc etc. Things take a significant turn for the worse with the hair cut.

Pierced and shaved: the full moon and the row

So I don't have to go to work. No client meetings to stand up in, no one looking at me, no clients to impress. My looks are unimportant. Time to remember what it was like to be a student when I could look like whatever I wanted. So I start with the ear ring. It's been a while. I had my left ear pierced in Titograd in the former Yugoslavia, way back when there was a Yugoslavia. Why? S'pose I was young and it was a form of self expression and definitely something the middle class youth didn't do. Hey, this was before body piercing became de rigueur. Far from being shocked as the script was supposed to be written, my mother quite liked it. Why don't you borrow some of my earrings she said. Still, the hole remained open, but with time an earring became a more unusual item that I would wear. And when I entered corporate consultancy it was banished to my past. And now, much to my surprise the hole has not closed up, a tiny silver loop pops through the hole and I am young again.

Head shavingEarring is one thing, hair is another. As a student my barnet went through all sorts of iterations. From dreadlocks to the 'full moon.' In India I had my head shaved. With hair too short to dread, I set my heart on another full moon. Lindsey objected. My mind was set. Get the clippers my man! All off! The barber on the street sets to work, number naught all over. All too much for Lindsey. She walks off, deeply upset. Bollocks! No time to have the full moon- cut throat shave on the bonce. Gotta leave the stubble. Hmmm, better wear a hat, tis a bit white up there, in contrast to the redness below on the face. Hmmm.

"Lindsey? Lindsey! I'm sorry, but I had too. Got to re-live the student days".

"I'm not interested." Oh dear.

"So about this trekking...."

"Marc, I said we are not going trekking. Definitely not now. You look such an idiot".

"An idiot? I think I look kinda cool actually."

"Where's your hair gone man?" A Vietnamese woman shouts at me. "D'you want some of mine?" she adds suggestively. Not now. Lindsey gets madder. A bunch of children point at me and laugh.

"Idiot" says Lindsey. "Not cool". And so on. Until we get a little space from each other, (I sit on the toilet for an hour, nothing like the temple of thought to get away from it all). And then we make up. We are friends. We compromise. We'll do a one day trek.

"Sure you don't want to do two?"

"No. One day is enough". The team is on form again!


And as usual, Lindsey's judgment was right. To do any more than one day would have been a tad too much. It may have been cooler in the hills, but it was still hot. Too hot. The walk when the sun emerged from behind the rain clouds (that had helped make many of the paths muddy and slippery) became hot, sticky and unpleasant.

old ladies, sapaIt was interesting walking into different villages inhabited by different hill tribes. Different clothing and different trinkets being sold. Tourism is now firmly on the economic agenda here. "You buy from me." "You buy pillow case from me." Beautiful textiles, deep indigo, dyed using locally harvested and processed indigo leaves. But look at the women’s hands, all dyed royal blue. And rub the cloth and the dye comes out.

We had a guide who walked with us. A young girl of sixteen, Zi pointed out to us who were the Dao people, who were the H'mong and who were the Muong. It was a long day's walk. Any more than a day would’ve been too much.

We criss- crossed through the paddy fields, cutting down through the lush terraced hills to the valley below. In parts the path was barely a foot wide, little more than thin packed mud walls of the terraces. Lindsey was particularly careful as she walked. The last time she walked between paddy fields was in China, on a trip to the toilet on an unscheduled bus stop in the countryside. She had lost her footing and slipped, planting her right foot into the water logged paddy field. She returned to the bus with a soaked foot and a shoe that was coated with thick, black muck. The passengers on the bus sniggered, assuming she had fallen into the cess pit (something we had seen many years previously in India. A suited gentleman had dashed off the bus and in his quest for the toilet did not see the ditch that ran adjacent to it. He landed knee high in the ditch, an open sewer that ran from the latrine. He suffered the indignity of a twelve hour bus journey with cold and wet trousers stinking of cess).

marc, shaved head, SapaAfter six hours of walking through tribal villages and lush vegetation we neared the road again. We stopped in a wooden hut that served as a cafe. A couple of ancient, bearded toothless women; with leathery, furrowed skin that was as contoured as the hills they were from, pulled up plastic chairs beside us and proceeded to show us their wares. Indigo table clothes, indigo pillowcases, "tres jolie" they harked, "tres jolie." Well if they were going to speak French, we'd join them, "non merci." And still they hassled and hassled and I tried to distract them with a magic trick, the disappearing handkerchief. But it was as though they saw handkerchiefs disappear as a daily routine. (Now I know my magic is not up to much, but at least in most places where I've performed I'll get a hint of interest, a twinkle of surprise, a dropped jaw of wonder, a scowl of 'how-de-do-dat" or an enthusiastic 'do that again".) But in Vietnam every trick is greeted with a blank face, regardless of who sees it. Ho hum, perhaps these two old dears have seen it all before. Indeed the trick makes them totally lose interest in us; the mantra of 'tres jolie' has been silenced and from beneath the folds of their indigo dresses they have pulled out their bamboo water pipes. And small bags of... what is that? We've passed many plants on the trek; indeed we wandered through what I'd describe as a plantation. Zi explains to us how hemp is an important crop for making clothing, rope and the likes. And also for smoking. And here are the two old grannies puffing away on their bongs getting stoned on the local weed! And they deserved it. Between the two of them they'd given birth to twenty one children and still had time to tend to the rice fields and hassle tourists with their 'tres jolie' indigo pillow cases.

Same same but different

We are in a cafe by the station waiting for the train to Hanoi. I look at the menu. For each item there are two prices. Two columns, "good" and "better". I ask the waitress what the difference is, say for the fried chicken.

"Same same but different". This seems to be the catchphrase of South East Asia. Everything is 'same same but different,' hotel rooms, bus tickets, gifts, clothing.

"Same same but what is different?" I ask

"Same same but better has no bones" she says of the fried chicken.

"OK" I look down the menu. How about Marlboro cigarettes. "What’s the difference between good and better?"

"We only have better. You want some,"

"No thanks. But if you did have good how would they be different from better?" "Same same but different." "But what is the difference?" We don't have good, only better." "But if you did have good, why are they 2000 dong cheaper than better?"

"You want better?"

"No, I don't smoke". Maybe Marlboro lights are good and the red packet, better. "Are good Marlboro lights?"

"You Want Marlboro lights?" "You have them?"

"Yes, good or better?"

What's the difference?

"We only have better. You want some?" This is a conversation I am not going to resolve. So alas I am unable to let you know the difference between good Marlboro and better Marlboro.


The train to Hanoi was the worst of the journey to date. We were traveling 'soft' class, which meant only four berths in the cabin; in effect first class. But there was no air conditioning, only an inefficient fan that struggled to cut through the thick humid funky air and did little to cool us. Sleep totally eluded me. The spring rolls were to blame. The spring rolls we ate before boarding the train must have been laced with amphetamines. Or maybe it was MSG, mono-sodium glucomate that is so popular in cooking here. Whatever, my mind was wired, racing, thoughts rushing in and out. Sleep was out of the question. I lay on my back. Too hot, too much thinking. A quarter turn. On my side. Too hot, too much thinking. A quarter turn. On my front. Too hot, too much thinking. A quarter turn. On my side. Peep peep. The hourly chime on my watch. Another hourly chime. Eight turns to the hour. I'm roasting, basting in juices of a drugged mind. I JUST WANT TO SLEEP!! Lindsey, can you sleep? She is also wide awake, sleep hides from her too; she is imprisoned by the active mind. We share the berth with an Australian girl; she too ate the spring rolls. Sleep eludes her too. So if you are coming from Sapa to Hanoi and find yourself in the cafe opposite the Lao Cai railway station, avoid the speedy spring rolls. Unless you want your brain to buzz.