Motorcycle emptiness

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


Another month passes. They definitely get shorter as the flight home gets nearer. We’ve made a brief stop in Bangkok – more for the convenience of flights than anything else; spent 2 weeks in Cambodia, and now a week in Vietnam.

Yesterday I got one of life’s rare privileges (for me anyway) to return to somewhere I know. Or rather thought I knew, since Saigon seems to have totally rebuilt itself in the last 9 years and I find I can recognise nearly nothing. But it’s a familiar sort of misplacement – the 2-cylinder thrum of the city is unchanged, and its lust for life is addictive. I like it here.

In an octopus’s garden

This region suffers strange geography. For the main part it’s so flat that, at this time of year, when the rains are coming to a close, it resembles nothing more than a big muddy puddle. The whole region – especially the Mekong River Delta is criss-crossed by waterways; it’s impossible to identify the rivers from the canals; and people live their lives along the banks, much as they do along the roadsides. They hang their washing to dry over the water, and lay out their rice and fish to dry on the roads.

We’ve taken a few boat trips – little reminders of things past on the Amazon. We crossed Tonle Sap, a hug lake in Cambodia that swells dramatically each year when the rising Mekong forces its outlet river to flow upstream for 6 months. There are floating villages on the lakeshore, and Chinese fishing nets everywhere.

The end of the rains merits a major festival – where all across these countries people make small boats from lotus flowers, light candles on them and float them out into the river at dusk. We caught the action in Battambang, a small town in northern Cambodia. The oldies floated their boats while the youngies made out to a very very load karaoke concert in the town square.

And the streets were inches deep in plastic wrappers from food, which all ended off, I’m sure, in the Mekong too.

Kung Fu Fighting

I remember the 1970s: the music, the flares. And my Dad’s team winning the tug of war at the street party on our estate to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (when the world was young and we celebrated such things). And I remember the stories the older generations tell, of the bread strike and the three day week. Look around you and you can still see the 1970s in constant reminders – the graceless architecture, or Camden Market.

Oh the 1970s.

In Cambodia you can still see the 1970s. Every small town seems to have a big metal cage full of skulls. And you can’t fail to hear the stories – every moto driver can tell you which of his relatives died, and how, at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and their Maoist Agrarian lunacy. It is chilling.

I’m no ghoulish tourist – I haven’t whipped out my camera to capture the jumbled remnants of other people’s lives, any more than I would visit the websites that show Middle East hostage murders. But in Cambodia you can’t really get that far away from it. And somehow it would be an act of bourgeois westernism to pretend I could buy the Cambodia tourist package ‘cleansed’ of its past.

It could make you very depressed – except Cambodian people are the more positive and friendly you could ever meet, and seem to be grasping the world with both hands and shaking it. I get the sense they are both the happiest people in the world, and some of the saddest. The horror of their history tempered by the fact that it’s finally over.

The smiling children on the roadsides revive hope you lost to the blank expressions of the missing (some of them only tiny children too) displayed in endless rows of photos at the torture museum in Phnom Penh. Humanity’s ability to recover is truly more remarkable even than our ability to inflict pain.

Orange crush

There are two major schools of Buddhism, ‘Theraveda’ Buddhism – the teaching of the elders, and Mahayana Buddhism ‘The Greater Vehicle’

Thailand follows Theraveda Buddhism, so everywhere you go in Thailand, you see monks, wrapped in their saffron robes. Especially in Bangkok, where buses and river ferries have seats with ‘reserved for monks’ written on them. Monk spotting is quite good fun.

Its even more amusing in Cambodia where the youthfulness of the entire monkly profession (Monk’s were not Pol Pot’s favourite people, which rather limited their life expectancy in the 1970s) means you get different visions. Monks on motorbikes, monks on mobile phones, monks smoking cigarettes.

And monks practising their English on foreigners – we had small talk with a few. What do you say to a monk?

There aren’t so many monks here in Vietnam, I suspect because their lifestyle of living off donations of food and money from other are a bit at odds with the Communist work ethic, and anyway, Vietnam is by tradition Mahayana, meaning people are expected to work things out a bit more for themselves. A few fellows in dark brown robes are to be found at the temples, and you see them on the occasional bus. But they keep a fairly low profile.

The only Om you are likely to find here is not the Beatific OM of India, but the ubiquitous Honda Om. ‘Om’ in Vietnamese means ‘hug’ and a ‘Honda Om’ is a simple form of taxi service involving you, a crazed cyclist, and a small motorbike.

You could say the motorbike is Vietnam’s Greater Vehicle – they are everywhere, in droves.

And crossing the street is, in itself, a form of transcendental meditation, as you focus only on the route ahead, stepping slowly but continuously forward and letting the bikes simply swarm round you – to stop would be fatal, you have to act predictably! Getting to the other side of the road is a small, but tangible, act of rebirth.

(Note to author – must read ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ – is this what its all about?)

Big In Japan

I am, to put it mildly, a bit taller than any of the people here. It is a fact they, with their endless lack of tact, like to point out to me – along with their observation that I have a big nose.

They seem to forget that we, with our strange hair colour and odd habits, are human, and thus decide we can be pushed, prodded, heckled, ridiculed etc. It can be, for a moment, rather annoying – until you realise that you are simply so foreign here that you can return the compliment, push, prod laugh back and we all end off, no offence taken, best of friends.

Marisa, (whose father is Thai) suffers a lot less than me. In fact, in Thailand and Cambodia they regularly ask her if she’s one of them (before going on to wonder, aloud, what on earth she’s doing hanging out with the gangly alien with the giant honk).

But no matter how big I might be here, I’m simply not a patch on David Beckham – who (we all know) is secretly God in shorts. When I tell people I’m English, they usually reply ‘Ah Beckham’, though since it often comes out ‘Ah Beg-haa’ it took me a while to work out what they were on about.

McDonalds, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut

They can rustle up a bowl of ‘pho’ noodle soup, or a plate of rice and vegetables here quicker than you can say ‘would you like fries with that’. And it is, every time, delicious. For those of us who’ve been in South America – the land of the endless chicken and rice dinner, where choice is expressed simply as ‘beef or chicken?’ this is rather exciting. We simply have to stop regularly for a bowl of something. It’s gastrotourist heaven.

And on that note, dinner awaits.

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