Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Restaurant Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl

After a period working in kitchens in California and then being the restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Ms Reichl is feeling a bit jaded. The thought of New York to become the New York Times' food critic initially strikes her as preposterous, but after a considerable period of humming and hawing, she takes up the challenge. Her husband must have known her better than she knew herself: as soon as the invitation to talk had been made, he made arrangements to move his own employment to the East Coast.

Such is the prominence of the food critic of the Times that all the "name" restaurants in New York are aware of her well before she shows up and are on the look out for her. As she tells us a couple of times, once a restaurant knows she is in the house, they might not be able to do much about the cooking, but the most succulent ingredients can be used, the most attentive service can be deployed and stooges can be established in neighbouring tables to demonstrate their extreme enjoyment of the dining experience.

And so she goes underground, using a variety of disguises to conceal her identity. These disguises form a vital part of the book: by donning different disguises, she learns an enormous amount about herself and the power that appearance has to dictate one's place in the world. As redheaded Brenda in a fabulous sounding antique Chinese silk coat and funky accessories, she meets the doorman to her apartment building, a fellow who must have seen her pretty much every day for years:
I waited for his great, friendly laugh.

It didn't come. he just stood staring, open-mouthed, looking at me so frankly that I tugged at my wig, thinking I must look ridiculous. Then I saw that his expression was goofy, unlike any I had ever seen him wear. He was acting as if I were a gift, a surprise package that had been unexpectedly delivered to his door.
Wearing this outfit, her entire persona changed, into a much more approachable, generous person. As Miriam, wearing her mother's clothes, she finds the likeness too uncanny to be comfortable. As Betty, inspired by a woman she saw on a bus so tired and ragged as to be invisible, people (a taxi driver, the restaurant people, one of her dining companions who has been left in the dark as to her identity, even her doorman) are just rude to her: she simply does not matter. Then, as Emily, she herself is horrible. This was the beginning of the end for her: she did not like what she was finding when she wore these disguises and she could only do her job by wearing disguises.

Although billed as a memoir, the book is also a homage: to her family; to the New York of her childhood; to a workmate and friend who died of cancer towards the end of her stint as critic; and, above all, to food. Two meals in particular stood out for me: one was to a sushi bar, very purist in tone (the waitress warns Reichl when she enters "Only sushi. No tempura. No noodles. Only sushi."), where every step of the meal is given in loving detail. The other was to a now closed restaurant called Union Pacific, where even someone like Reichl, with all the restaurants she must have visited, found the food so good and surprising that it left her unable to speak.

But I think my favourite scene in the book was in a restaurant she hated: the place had the reputation of being the most romantic restaurant in New York, the Box Tree. She is there as the horrible Emily (inspired by the receptionist she had encountered there). After her friend has pointed out just how horrible she is, there is a truly heartwarming scene: they have noticed a young couple, evidently there for a very special occasion and yet they're being given shabby treatment and worse food. Reichl and her friend intervene:
"You don't look like you're enjoying it."
"We are!" said the young woman. "We're enjoying it very much. Aren't we, Richie?" Her eyes entreated her date to support her position.
But he gave her an apologetic shrug and truned to Marion. "No," he admitted, "we are not enjoying this."
They pick up the couple's tab (only made possible when Reichl reveals her identity) and suggest somewhere they might enjoy themselves, a good restaurant. That was something that happened back in the late 1990's: let's hope the place has changed in the meantime.



I had wondered what I would do with the photos I took while away. Sure, they can be uploaded individually to Blogger, but it is something of a cumbersome process and doesn't exactly lead to a very elegant presentation. And yes, I have a flickr account (when did they become part of yahoo??) but the web-based uploader also requires you to select and upload each photo individually.

But I had downloaded Picasa in order to make my former camera communicate with my computer when the software supplied with it refused to perform that task. I used it to chuck all 230 or so photos onto the computer, and then noticed that there is a web-based Picasa. Uploading is as simple as clicking a single button. So, it is done: all photos from my recent trip are here.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Ho Chi Minh

As I was travelling about, starting in Laos, I became increasingly impressed by the story of Ho Chi Minh and his impact upon Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - where, of course, an entire city has been named after him. There is a Vietnamese saying to the effect that "when drinking water, remember its source" which has provoked me into devoting a post to him.

In Hanoi, there is a museum in his honour. There is quite a complex devoted to him, a garden and park, a stilt house he lived in at one stage (I couldn't get
to it because it was closed), some other residence he once occupied and a rather large mausoleum, also closed but at least it was visible from the road. An Australian couple I met on the boat trip from Cat Ba to Ha Long did go inside: they tell me his body is there, on display, for anyone to see. Apparently it has to go to Russia every so often in order to be re-embalmed or something. I didn't see it, but saw the bronze cast of his body which greets people as they enter his museum:One fascinating section of the museum was a collection of archived materials, showing North Vietnam's call to arms, directed at the Southern Revolutionaries, and the various documents and other artefacts of actual soldiers who answered the call. Seeing this also helped to provide a little more context for the movie I saw, Living in Fear.

Of course, he wasn't always Ho Chi Minh - his birth name was Nguyen Al Quoc, which he seems to have abandoned towards the end of the 1950's. The upstairs of the museum told the story of his life, again through extensive use of archived materials - this story is almost inseperable from the story of a united, independent, communist Vietnam.

As far as I could make out, he had his political awakening (ironically enough) in France, where he had numerous labouring jobs, as well as a stint working
(perhaps training) in London (on the site now occupied by New Zealand house) under Escoffier - these experiences led to his belief in the need for communism and in revolution as a legitimate activity.

This made me think back to something I read in Conrad's Under Western Eyes - revolution throws up the occasional good man who leads things forward. Ho Chi Minh seems to exemplify this idea, in that Vietnam simply could not be what it is today without him, or someone like him, to catalyse the nation and mobilise its people into some sort of coherence. This line of thinking led me to wonder if, say, Iraq, might produce such a figure or, indeed, whether Saddam Hussein might even have been that figure - after all, the West regarded him in much the same way as it regarded Ho Chi Minh.

Anyway, Vietnam has done him proud, even if I did wonder what he would have made of it all. Looking at the photos of him in the museum and the various articles he is said to have used, it does not seem that Ho Chi Minh was a man who had much time for fancy displays, but was very much a man of the people, popularly known as Uncle Ho.

He died in 1969, a few years before the end of the war in 1975 and reunification. Things have changed a lot in Vietnam since then: the day before I left, it formally became a member of the World Trade Organisation, with its communist government pledging a commitment to economic development and internationalising of its economy.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

Dead Clever by Scarlett Thomas

I am pretty sure I had never heard of Scarlett Thomas until a week or so ago, when I read a review of her latest novel The End of Mr Y, which has a cursed book as its central motif. That wasn't available in Dunedin when I went looking (it has subsequently turned up in my library and is presently sitting on my desk), so I spent a little time checking out its author. She is actually up to seven published novels now, with quite a range - her first, Dead Clever, is an academic murder mystery while PopCo is about viral marketing and Bright Young Things is billed as a contemporary Lord of the Flies. Going Out is about a young fellow who is allergic to the sun so never leaves his house. On her website she mentions an idea I love: that an author is a machine for turning coffee into novels.

I wouldn't say that Dead Calm is in any sense the most serious book I have read (the epigraph from Kafka "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us" created expectations that weren't really met) but I liked it as an entertaining read.
Lily Pascoe has recently completed a MA (detective fiction) and has no further reason for staying in London: all she does is spend money she doesn't have and go for jobs she doesn't want (or get). When she realises that her man is not the one for her, is in fact cheating on her, that is the last straw: she retreats to Devon. Unlike any academic hiring process I have ever experienced, she immediately lands a job at the local university teaching crime and horror fiction and creative writing - all it takes is a phone call! There's quite a bit about her encounter with her new class, her encounter with the very charming and handsome colleague and with her less than endearing boss, Professor Valentine. Lily comes across as the kind of person it would be fun to know, even if some of her class preparation is unbelievably scanty.

I've called Dead Clever an academic murder mystery, but it is more Secret History than Inspector Morse, with maybe a touch of China Mieville. For a start, there is no conventional detective. Instead, it is Lily who more or less falls into the role. She finds that her class is a bit twitchy: one of their number has recently been murdered. When Jason tells her that he saw the murder and is then found dead, Lily doesn't buy the story that he had a drugs overdose. Perhaps because she's feeling guilty that she'd not really done anything for him when he obviously needed help, she starts exploring. It soon becomes clear that this is one very strange university (hence the abbreviated hiring process): all of her first year students seem to be drugged (rather than merely being on drugs), and they go off on mysterious field trips. Of course, she gets to the bottom of what is going on, with some suspense created (a) when she knows the purpose of the field trip and it turns out her brother's girlfriend is going on one and (b) she is caught by one of the conspirators.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Home Again

Well, it is actually a week or so since I arrived home to a grey, cold and wet Dunedin. People have been quite impressed in the effect that my holiday has had on me - saying it has taken ten years off me, that there is a new spring in my step and that I've lost weight (although there were those who thought I might return stick-thin as a result of some dread illness or other). And, yes, I have returned feeling relaxed and ready to embrace another year.


In all, I spent a week in and around Hanoi - sleeping till noon most days, and then exploring in a modest way. Most of my time was in and around the backpacker district, Hoan Kiem (a.k.a The Old Quarter) - a maze of narrow streets occupied by a bewildering assortment of traders, with masses of motorbikes and pedestrians fighting for space. It came as no surprise to read in the Vietnam News that there are a lot of vehicle on pedestrian accidents: what was surprising was that I neither saw nor suffered an accident. It was only on my last full day, when I was looking for a Singaporean restaurant I read about, that I found a part of Hanoi that I think I would have been far more comfortable staying in. It had wide streets, lots of very nice looking restaurants (aimed at middle-class Vietnamese) and was a lot more peaceful.

Never mind: at least by staying where I did, I had a date, of sorts. Once thing I had noticed was that all the people who come up and started talking were men or kids, no women. This changed as I was wandering along the lakeside, on my way to the Vietnamese movie I mentioned in the last post. This woman came up alongside me, and just started talking, saying it was her 29th birthday. As I wandered, she wandered with me, all the way to the cinema. Since I had time to kill, and couldn't really just wander off to the internet cafe, we had a beer. Somehow, my asking if she liked watching movies was translated into an invitation to watch the movie with me. There was still more time to kill, so my companion decided she'd eat. It was very cool to see her enjoy the movie as much as I did, although I think the Q & A with the director afterwards pretty much sent her off to sleep. As we returned to my hotel after the movie, I was beginning to get anxious, as to what might be in her mind, but luckily she just shook my hand and wandered off.

The other cool thing I did in Hanoi was to go watch the water puppets - a traditional form of theatre that has been a part of Vietnamese culture since around the 11th century. All sorts of scenes were played out, with fishermen catching fish, farmers tending their crops or herds, dragons (fireworks substituted for dragon breath) - I was having real trouble working out any sort of story line. When I looked at the programme afterwards, I saw why - the idea was basically to give a survey of life in Vietnam.

My last meal in Hanoi was in a French restaurant, a slightly posh place in an old colonial building opposite my hotel. I had actually made plans with myself to eat at the Sofitel Metropole, which was reputed to have the finest French restaurant in the country, but I felt weird about spending $30 on a main course for just me, which I think was itself a bit strange.

Since I had a lot of time to kill between having to check out of my hotel and check in time at the airport, I decided not to bother with taxis and just take a public bus. Despite being something like four hours early for check in, I still managed to be one of the last to board my plane, thanks to the shambolic way that Tiger Air check in was operating.


I had around 48 hours in Singapore on the way back, which was useful: it confirmed my initial impression that Singapore is a great place. In fact, while I was there, I did a bit of checking up on the National University of Singapore, to see if it might prove to be a suitable place to spend some sabbatical time.

This time round, I was staying in the Geylang area - reputed to be the redlight district, but it was pretty tame. I think I was only propositioned twice. The good thing about this part of town is that there are a lot of restaurants which stay open around the clock - although their food prices were a bit of a shock after the rest of SE Asia (and, indeed, the foodcourts). Since I was on the home stretch, I decided I'd do some serious shopping, not that I wanted anything in particular, so I spent my time in the various malls on Orchard Road. I have to make special mention of Carrefour: I had bought quite a few books and some clothes and it was getting to be a bit of a mare lugging it all around, so I bought a bag to make things easier. It had been knocked down to a mere $7, but when I got to the checkout, it rung up at a higher price. Here, they might well just hope you didn't notice and charge that, but in Carrefour they obviously take such errors seriously. They went beyond charging me the right price, by giving me a $5 gift voucher to apologise. Now that is good customer service.

Unlike what Tiger Air provided. They're a non-allocated seat airline, so as soon as the gate was announced, there was a free-for-all to be first in line. What Tiger didn't say was their schedule meant that the plane we would fly on wouldn't actually arrive until after we were supposed to depart. And so, we all rushed to get in line, and then we stood there in line for more than an hour. Ah well, that's the cost of flying on a budget airline.


When I was in Darwin in November, it was still the dry season, so Darwin was a bit dusty and drab looking. By the time I returned, however, the wet season was in full swing, and the place was looking fantastic. It is a city with a LOT of trees - flying in and then driving around in various buses, it was at times hard to detect the buildings, as the trees had taken over. I'd say it is not just the rain but also the heat which contributes to this, making it like a greenhouse.

Thanks to this heat and the plane being late, I found that the hostel room I had booked was pretty much unnecessary - there was no way I could sleep. So, instead, I lined up at the cafe in the bus station as soon as it opened at 5:30 and had an enormous breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon, while I chattered away to a fellow I met there, a retired Chemistry Professor from Wisconson - he and I crossed paths several times during the day.

I actually had a mission to undertake while in Darwin - I wanted to check out portable DVD players, and so had to take a bus trip to Harveys, several miles south of town. Sitting on the bus stop to come back, I got talking to a local fellow; of course, the weather came up for discussion. He thought it was a particularly long time since it had rained - all of four days! He was right, however, in saying it was due to rain again. I was waiting for another bus when it started - luckily I was under a verandah, but the rain came down so heavily that even traversing the small space between the edge of the verandah and the bus was enough to see me soaked. It made it a fantastic trip up to the shopping mall - there was already so much water puddled that it was splashing right over the top of the bus.

I spent my last hours in Darwin first in going to the Northern Territory library and hanging out there for a couple of hours, then having a good pub meal with a couple of beers and then watching The Holiday. Cool movie - I'd seen lots of shorts for it, so had picked up the story line about the Cameron Diaz character trying to escape men for a while by going to Cate Winslett's little village in Devon, but finding a fellow there anyway (who has two unbelievably cute daughters). But there was a whole other storyline involving Cate Winslett in LA: she befriends her neighbour, who is a prominent screenwriter: he hooks her up with a host of movies from the golden age of cinema. I think that those who made this movie are taking a shot at recreating that age. Winslett also meets Jack Black: they're both in really crappy relationships with people who're just using them (this was laid on a bit thick) but, of course, by movie's end the scales have dropped.


I managed a couple of days in Brisbane while I waited for my flight back to Dunedin: my fourth visit, and I think that every time I've been, I've liked it more. Sydney and Melbourne vie with each other to be the best city, but in some ways Brisbane has the best of each. Having the river run through it makes it very special, and then using that river as a central feature of its public transport network is inspired.

My first day was a bit of a write off - I arrived at 7 in the morning, my second night of no sleep, but couldn't check in to the hostel until after lunch. To fill in time, I randomly picked a destination on the train line and found myself in Shorncliff - a very tidy beachside suburb, where the houses were predominantly older but immaculately maintained.
The only commercial activity I spotted was a takeaway bar, and an Italian cafe. Apparently, way back in the day, they used to run train excursions here from Ipswich.

Once in the hostel, I slept until 8, then went for a wander around the New Farm/Newstead area, the sort of place I'd live if I was a Brisbanite - lots of apartments (including some magnificent conversions of the old woolstores), bars, cafes and at least one coffee roaster (Caffeine - I came her for breakfast the next day, and it was good). Around the river, in the West End, I found a heap more cafes, two decent bookstores, an alternative movie rental place and, most interesting, a shop that had more than 120 different beers in stock.

And so, the very last night of my holiday was spent in Brisbane: a friend has recently moved here from Dunedin; he and I had a very pleasant dinner at the Himalayan cafe, he dropped me off at the far end of the CityCat run so I could have a final blat up the river.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Hanoi Cinematheque

I was starting to get withdrawal symptoms - the last movie I had seen in a real movie theatre was Borat way back in Darwin. While there are cinemas in most towns of any size here (although their numbers have been knocked back dramatically by easy access to DVDs (Da Nang has gone from something like 9 cinemas to 2)), they naturally play movies without any English sub-titles, or dub English films into the local language. I did think that seeing one might be an interesting cultural experience, as apparently they're dubbed really badly (there are rumours of a single person simply reading from a prepared script for all voices), but the movies on show aren't ones I'd want to see even in English.

Of course, travelling by myself through places with limited nightlife and having little interest in extended periods in bars, I have seen quite a few movies on TV (even the cheapest of hotels has cable TV here). In among the various family and criminal dramas, I have seen two films which really impressed me, both French as it happens. I have also found that I have retained enough French to actually follow French subtitles, although they tend to speak too fast for me to keep up with speech (don't ask why a French movie has French sub-titles!). This, and listening in to conversations in cafes in Vietnam and eating French food has aroused a great desire to see France again, and soon.

Anyway, the two movies are Gigi and Capone. Gigi is a recently made movie of Colette's novel of the same name: she seems to be a French Jane Austen. Gigi's grandmother and aunt see her as the answer to the family's poor fortunes and have big plans to marry her off (thinking that if she can first have a disastrous affair with a young fop who claims to have fallen madly in love with her, that will soften her up). Her mum doesn't have much to say about any of this, but Gigi herself is totally opposed: she wants to marry for love. It just so happens that she has fallen for a childhood friend, who is much wealthier than any man the aunt might secure - so much so that the family think he is way beyond Gigi. There is a great scene towards the end, when he makes an offer to Gigi - basically to be a kept woman, without any mention of the feelings we know he has for her or, of course, of marriage. Her answer "on those terms, I must refuse you". That's not quite the end of the story.

The other, Capone is a mad road movie. I missed the very beginning, but my understanding is that Reno is a bit of a crook, and has some significant debts because he's not a very good crook. He sees this horse, Capone, and thinks it will be the answer to his problems if he races him - ripping off its owners in the process. Now his immediate problem is that he has a horse in a horsefloat in France, but has no vehicle and no money: the race (the "midnight sun" race) is in Lapland, to the north of Finland. So - he calls a cab! Alex is his driver - he takes some persuading (the promise of a large sum of money), but he does it. They're quite different people - Alex is responsible, clean and organised (Reno is not), so theirs is a relationship which takes a while to kindle. Of course, to add interest, the owners of the horse are on their trail, and they keep encountering a gypsey horse owner, who wants to buy Capone. But the fantastic thing about the movie for me was the journey itself.

Anyway, as I was travelling, I started to hear of the possibility of a cinema in Hanoi, which not only showed English films, but the more pretentious arthouse movies that I like to watch. My informant was very vague on details but, wandering around Hanoi, with an address gleaned from the net, I stumbled upon it, the Hanoi Cinematheque - it is part of an arts precinct funded by the Vietnamese Government, which includes a hotel (des artistes), several art galleries, a bar all set around a wonderful little courtyard where you can get away from the noise of Hanoi.

Sure enough, they had an interesting programe of films, which changed every day. You pay a $10 membership, and can then watch as many movies as you want (although a koha is appreciated). I was only able to watch three movies - the first two were classics of the black and white era. Big Heat was directed by Fritz Lang (of Metropolis fame) : Sergeant Bannion is suspicious as to why one of his colleagues committed suicide and starts to investigate: pressures on him to stop start immediately. Of course, the entire police department and the political structure turn out to be corrupt, so the forces against him are immense, but he struggles on. Lee Marvin performed his first role here, as crime gang tough guy Vince Stone: it is only when he throws coffee into his girlfriend's face that Bannion finally gets the critical support he needs to unravel the whole corrupt structure (as we know he must). The other, Night of the Hunter, I had seen before, but it was great to see it again. Robert Mitchum was such a creepy presence in this movie - playing the sanctimonious "preacher" Harry Powell (the reality, as we see in the opening scenes, is that he has tricked 6, maybe 12 (actually 25) widows out of their money, and is on the trail of another. He knows that his cellmate Ben Harper stole $10,000 which was not found before Harper was hanged. Of course, Wilma is encahnted by Powell, but Harper knew she had no commonsense, so never told her of the money: he did tell his kids, Pearl and John. Mitchum's performance is the outstanding feature in this movie: particularly the way he would switch from a charming man of god to threatening predator in an instant. When the kids run away and he is forced to chase after them, he seems to really think he has divine right on his side. The way he would just sit outside their hideaway and sing (Leaning, leaning on the arms of the almighty) made me so angry I wanted to shoot him! At the same time, the movie provided an intersting perspective on the book I was reading at the time: Faulkner's Light in August which is set nearby and at a simlar time, with its own cadre of scarey mad people.

The third movie was a Vietnamese movie, Living in Fear. The guy at the cinema explained it to me as being set just after the end of the war, when the main character Tai started clearing landmines, so that he could sell the metal pieces and farm the land cleared in order to support himself. Poverty was (is) of course such a motivating factor that this is what a lot of people were doing, with huge risks of being blown up or maimed in the process, so it didn't sound like a very cheerful movie, but my informant assured me it was.

It turned out the landmine clearing was just one thread of the movie. Another looked at the transience and accomodations forced by the war. Tai lived in the district pretty close to the front line of the war: instead of supporting the North Vietnamese or the revolutionaries in the south, he supported the South Vietnames/American interests. Living across the front line, despite having a wife and kids back in the north, he marries and has kids (natural, I guess, if you have no real expectation of surviving the war). This gets his brother-in-law (brother of his first wife, who has joined the southern revolutionists) really annoyed: he is a traitor to family and to country. After the war is over, Tai renews links with his first family while retaining links with his new family.

Here is where the really cool stuff about the movie comes in: both wives come to know about the other, and eventually accept each other's presence in Tai's life (he is forced for economic reasons to live in the south): they even look after each other's kids from time to time. Tai continues relations with both wives: in an obviously symbolic move, they both fall pregnant and end up giving birth virtually simultaneously, in adjoining beds. Meanwhile, he has also been working steadfastly at mine clearing (he is no longer selling the mines, just clearing) and by movie's end, has rather a large plot of land under cultivation and, because the work is so dangerous, gains the grudging respect of the brother-in-law who confesses "I could never do that" (and tries to get Tai's help to fix him up with the rather attractive female boss ofthis southern district).

I don't know how far this movie will be distributed (I know it showed at some film festivals, and in the Vietnamese film industry was won prizes for best film, best actor and the like) but hope it does come to the attention of a big audience: it is a real eye-opener about the day to day problems caused by landmines, a message which is not diluted at all by the other aspects of the movie.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Mission Accomplished

Insofar as my trip had any sort of destination, I have arrived at it - Hanoi. Technically, I arrived here on Friday, but that was at 4:30 in the morning, when I had no idea what to do with myself - I was at the railway station with no idea where the nearest suitable hotel was, or whether they'd even take in a lodger at such a time, which put me at the mercy of any driver or tout who might wander along. In search of a coffee, I sat at a sort of cafe and was presented with a bowl of pho - not ordered but very welcome. Wandering around the platform (the station itself was all locked up, dark and silent) I found a little booth selling tickets to, as it happens, Haiphong. Since one of my half made plans was to go there and catch a hydrofoil to Cat Ba Island, I was pleased to find there'd be a train out that way in an hour. I was on it, and two days later, was back in Hanoi to spend the last few days of the trip in one place for once.

Way back in Chiang Mai airport, I was talking with a Vietnamese couple who decided that I would like Vietnam: they were right. I have found the people very friendly, the towns interesting, the countryside gorgeous - all in all, mt week has generated a sense of complete well-being. Not to say that in other places, I haven't had the feeling of being really contented, but here it is for some reason more sustained.

I came in by bus from Phnom Penh: the border post was rather more elaborate than that at my entry point to Cambodia - a rather ornate concrete building, three lanes of traffic, a "duty free mega store" and several large hotels and casinos visible. It was all a bit much for the Japanese tourist on my bus - he wandered anxiously around for the entire 30 minutes or so it took to process us, clearly thinking he'd never see his luggage or passport again and not having much of an idea as to why either had been taken off him. He was at peace for maybe half a minute when I explained it was "customs, immigration" but after that was off again.

We had barely crossed the border before greater HCM City started to make its presence felt; it took around an hour just to navigate the last few kilometres of narrow streets. This was a surreal experience, as it was dark and the only other traffic were the thousands of people on motorcycles. Because it was dark, I couldn't actually see the motorbikes - it looked like the thousands of people were simply sittiong down yet somehow moving. This effect was particularly spectacular at roundabouts. That was Friday evening - I was in HCM City until New Years and then headed north. Despite the Vietnamese New Year being in February, a lot was being made of New Year's Eve, at least in the more touristed area of HCM where I was - a stage had been set up in the park, with entertainment provided every night since before Christmas. The main street through the backpacker area was closed off, and another stage set up, along with lots of tables from the various restaurants. Spending time there was a nice way for me to acknowledge the change of year - I got chatting to a local, who seemed a bit bemused by some of the acts on stage. When the breakdancers came on, he threw up his hands and said "those people are crazy!"

Old Ho Chi Minh is still referred to as Saigon - on the Saigon waterfront, there is a very well defined city centre - a few commercial buildings, several parks and markets but the buildings which really dominate this area are the hotels - the tallest buildings I have seen since Bangkok, if not Singapore. It would be very easy to spend quite a lot of time just relaxing in the old school hotel bars and enjoying the view, either at ground level or from the elevation of a hotel balcony. It would also be very easy to have a lot of money soaked up in the process! It was a bit beyond my budget to stay in this area, and the backpacker hotels I had approached were all full, so I found a very nice hotel in the fringe area between the two districts, run by a very charming older couple and was happy. The only specific thing I went out of my way to see was the art gallery - a three storey building around a courtyard which had been privately occupied by a businessman (when I read this, I could not imagine what he would have done with all that space). Unlike most galleries in the west which try to get lots of old Masters which leads to many portraits, pictures on religious themes or bowls of fruit, this gallery had paintings which mainly depicted Vietnam's recent history - with a couple of rooms devoted solely to its armed struggle.

I left on New Year's Day - a hard seat (i.e. wooden slats) train to Nha Trang - a beutiful coastal town about 8 hours up from HCM. Of course, I didn't know this when booking my tickets, had only chosen it because it was the last place the train stopped before dark, so was only there overnight (if you can call leaving at 5:30 overnight!). I'd have loved to stay there longer. Same with Hoi An - this was a major trading town set up by the Chinese, and still intact: another UNESCO World Heritage site, set on a canal. Very picturesque, particularly at night - in addition to the lights from the various open fronted restaurants and shops, severl shops were selling brightly coloured lampshades, all of which were illuminated. The buildings appeared to be immaculate; very nice to see them still in daily use rather than being turned into some sort of stagnat museum pieces.

But I was staying in Da Nang, which is not very picturesque, and had bought my ticket on the sleeper for Hanoi before I saw Hoi An, so couldn't spend more than an afternoon an eveing there.

As mentioned, once in Hanoi, it was almost immediately off to Hai Phong (another hard seat), where I fell victim to a minor hustle. A fellow claiming to work for the station told me that the last fast boat for the island was leaving within half an hour, I needed to "hurry, hurry sir, hurry". An accomplice at the station sold me a ticket at an inflated price, then he had me on his moto before I'd even drawn breath and, after a freaky trip conducted in great haste to the boat, demanded an extortionate fee for his services - I did get him to come down a bit, but was in a poor position as he had my boat ticket in his pocket. I know now there were other, albeit slower, boats so no real hurry was needed.

Cat Ba Island is towards the south of the cluster of 3000 limestone rock islands in Ha Long Bay - it is the largest and, I think, the only inhabited one. Its main town is about 30 hotels facing the boat harbour, loads of restauants, some minimarts and peral sellers. It was near deserted when I was there - only two of the restaurants had any customers when I walked past, and there were very few hotel lights showing. But it was very peaceful - lots of lights from the boats tied up in the harbour, as well as a couple of floating restaurants and the festive streetlights put up for Christmas. To get back to the mainland, I came by junk to Ha Long Bay - this plots a path through many of the 3000 islands - it is possible to take day trips into the islands and sleep overnight, but I was finding it quite cold and the various activities put in as extras for the trips didn't really appeal. The trip I did do gave me a nice look at the islands, which is all I was really interested in.

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