Friday, August 16, 2013

City of a Thousand Pines

A warm welcome to the first readers from Romania.

Bun venit.

And now Taiwan and Domenica.

Many people seem to be enjoying this post.

Thanks everybody for reading;
there are 5 more Viet posts behind and another soon to come.

France or Vietnam? A Village in the Highlands around Dalat

Da Lat

Sex tourism is a subset of the sex industry, and refers specifically to the buying and selling of sexual services between a tourist and a sex worker.
It tends to draw on the structures and networks of the tourism industry, and the intent of this sub-sector, like that of the tourism sector in general, is to attract foreign currency. As such, sexual services are offered as ancillary services at tourist venues such as coffee shops, restaurants, bars, hotels and night clubs, massage parlours, escort services or karaoke clubs.

In an unusual place like Da Lat these services were on offer. In the Alexandre Yersin Park by the lake. The male agent on hand, the panderer, seemed to think I was a bit of a spoilsport for not indulging in his colleague's services. Subtlely offered in the rose garden. All very lighthearted I'm sure. Odd to go to a gardener's world and get the offer. Not a thing I saw anywhere else in Viet Nam.

The Vietnam flag in flowers at Da Lat Flower Park

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Called Little Paris Da Lat is closer to an upmarket Darjeeling and really nothing like Paris.
There is a mini Tour Eiffel but still. More like Richmond in London with different housing stock.

Romantic couples wander around being romantic like this young lady posing for photographs by the lake. Da Lat's chilly sense of itself suggests a level of separateness from the rest of Viet Nam.

It was unsurprising to me that Da Lat had a small involvement in the war against the US. Only during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Da Lat was held by Southern Viet forces.

The impact on civilians still horrible to recall.

One day in Ten Thousand

Some enlightened person played this on the pho stall I visited. Kinda gets you in the mood
... for something.

Drink Me:

Innocuous bushes by the lake on the Alexandre Yersin estate. A lady lurks behind them offering sexual services. So far I have been offered women in south-east Asia probably twenty times. A few more times in India.

There is no Cavalry

I liked this lady waiting outside a hillside temple on the edge of town.
Nothing to do with rose bushes and parks.

The Year of the Dragon

Fields of crops viewed from a cemetery

 Surprising to come up here, to the south part of the central highlands to find arable land laid out with cauliflowers, cabbages, flowers and strawberries. Strawberry jam appears for breakfast. The strawberries are steeped in a syrup rather than a suspension of sugar like English jam. But Viet baguettes, jam, Weetabix and marmite all appeared at breakfast time in my hotel. A great place on the edge of town. They provided very good mountain bikes as an inducement to stay the kilometre away from the centre. Thien An Hotel. The people here were on it. As good as any hotel I have stayed in. Mum, dad and two sons run this place. And quite close to the roads out to Lianbang Mountain.

Atoms for Peace

On one of the hotel bikes I cycled out towards the mountains. The road took me up still towards Langbian mountain. My legs pumped at the mountain bike. I went past glasshouse after glasshouse. Full of strawberries, scallions, flowers. Like England. Bit hotter. 1500 metres up.

As I looked back at the Da Lat plateau some nameless joy rose and fell in me. All in the same instant.

Langbian Mountain

In the other direction scooters passed laden with impossible cargoes. Copses of coriander, groves of scallions, donkey baskets of papaya. Visible provision. All heading for town. Nothing hidden in refrigerated trucks, Sainsburys lorries.

Ten miles out of town and eventually the cold frames and cloches gave way to the rule of the highlands. The conifers and clouds touched each other.

A group of Vietnamese were haggling with a woman around a cache of durian. Durian.
‘Like eating strawberry blancmange while on the toilet’ fruit.
Banned on public transport in Singapore. Everything banned there. Still best sold out of doors. The woman besieged, laughing at her moment's good fortune. Laughing in her conical coolie hat. At the clamour around her. Across the road a disinterested girl of ten. Flying a kite. On a short string. The thing only six feet from her face. Her free hand on her hip. Girl only eight summers old. Wanting away but disinclined to change her environment.
Maybe it was the Indochinese mountain air. Maybe there was something in it. But I found I was changing. I didn’t use to eat pineapples. Relax in parks. Live from moment to moment. Nor eat chicken feet or Chao Ga, Viet rice porridge. Now I did them all.

It became so steep I couldn’t ride anymore. The road petered out into a sloping surface of baked terracotta mud. Unfamiliar grasses sprouted up around me. Strange shrubs. There was a spot littered with burnt silver foil, beer cans, signs of a fire, Styrofoam takeaway trays. I left all that behind. I climbed up another 500 metres. There was only the clear blue skies, the twin peaks of Lianbang above me.

I found a spot and sat. On the way up I noticed how dry everything was. The dust, the grasses. There were cracks in the earth. Ferns. Some of the conifers had dried. At the point of death. Branches crunched underfoot. Dried by countless cloudless seasons of sun.

The twin peaks stared back at me. I pulled a banh mi out of my pack. Sipped at warm water. Wrote a note or two. Fell asleep. Woke up forty five minutes later. I noticed I was surrounded by golden dragonflies. Maybe there were around forty of them. They circled me. Swayed to and fro in the wind. Like they were drawn to certain atoms coming off me.

The Beauty of the Southern Highlands

Every now and again a cool wind howled over the ridge. I fell asleep again even though the grass stuck into my back. The occasional red ant bit me.

Listening on Langbian:

'Before my very eyes' by Atoms for Peace

I woke again. Now the sun had gone in. The blue sky had been swamped with fat cumulus cloud. I had been away from the motherland for seven months.

This image captures Vietnam very well; Socialist edifice plastered in free market colour.

The King of Vietnam's reception room.

Bao Dai abdicated in 1955.

The Throne Room

Da Lat in the background; 7 inch stick insect in the middle ground

Here he is again

One of several beautiful pagodas on the outskirts of Da Lat

Red Mist

Pine Trees

Da Lat Sculpture Garden: England won't be the same place.
Riviere sans retour. Heraclitus once said

'You cannot step in the same river twice'

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Coming soon: Varkala, Pariah Dogs and Me

Monday, August 5, 2013

Loveletter to Sai Gon

A warm welcome to the first Australian, Polish, Ukrainian, Estonian, Malaysian and Singaporean readers of GuerillaZ.


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Loveletter to Sai Gon

By Tom Odell

Emperor Jade Temple close to the Sai Gon River

At the Emperor Jade Pagoda

Sai Gon is a city of romance and possibility. The city of surprises. All grown-up in District 1; if you like western food franchises, the discotheque and European prices. Comfortable in tree-lined, energetic District 3. Somewhere someone says 'go out in District 1, eat in District 5 but sleep in District 3.

Le Van Tam Park

I have been in Sai Gon for some weeks now. I haven't really made it to District 5 that I'm aware of. I've been to the Binh Chanh district, the Tan Binh district, Phu Nuhuan and the Sai Gon Pearl zone. Speaking Vietnamese becomes critical outside of the central zones.
One night I went almost up to the airport with a Sai Gon friend. After they went inside their house and despite their directions. I got utterly lost. It is then you discover the size and nature of Ho Chi Minh City. Feel the eight or nine million people. Feel some of the lumpy road under you. I happened upon a swish hotel and the bar manager took me back to the centre of Sai Gon himself. Half an hour on a straight road. I had been miles out. Going nowhere.


Travelling alone for eight months can be a lonely business at times. On one such day I wandered out into the centre of Ho Chi Minh city. After two weeks in a place you fall into the crack between tourist and ex-pat worker. You are neither. The consolation of escape to another location isn't available. Well it is but you don't get to know the place. The structured activity of waking early for work working all day then going home or chewing the fat with a friend and a beverage isn't available either. You've seen all the sights (not a favoured activity of mine at the best of times) too by now. So you walk aimlessly out into the broiling sun and northeast to Le Van Tam park.

A smallish rectangle of tropical trees and benches Le Van Tam is a pleasant haven from the streets and the ubiquitous scooter. Aimless and going along with that state of mind I sat on a concrete bench. With tall tropical trees creating a distant canopy I noticed a lizard on the side of a tree. An odd creature I could swear it was changing colour. It was mainly deep green but with tinge of red and blue I thought. It paid, I paid, no attention to strollers and other park users; teenagers, rollerbladers, resting xe-om riders, businessmen on cell phones.

Maybe the lizard wasn't blue. But she invited a good deal of watching. A man stepped across my line of vision. I smiled. He stopped and spoke in English. This was Giao. He flew fighter jets for South Vietnam during the war. An interesting man he told me that it was extremely unwise to let political opinion out into the public realm. It was not the first time resentment over the Communist takeover arose as a subject in Vietnam. Giao also regaled me with advice on both Japanese and Vietnamese women, different Viet dishes; banh xeo, bun bo and Vietnamese congee, the savoury rice porridge. He also invited me to take coffee with him in future weeks. If I return to Sai Gon, which I surely will, I'll look him up. We spent an hour talking. Sai Gon.

1.     What people listen to in Sai Gon:

'Diem Xua'  by Nhac hoa tau Tring Con Song

Church on Hai Ba Trung

2.     What people listen to in Sai Gon:

'Phut Coi' by Hong Ngoc

Thuy is a social worker here in Ho Chi Minh City. Kindhearted she has a particular interest in the plight of disadvantaged women in the city.

Vietnam has a low GDP per capita. Barely any higher than India. The devastation, the beggars and the rubble of smashed streets found in poor old India are absent (easily found in Cambodia). One or two Sai Gon districts have the forbidding 1960s concrete appearance of Stonebridge Park in London mixed with the ramshackle aspect of tenemented Spanish Harlem in Manhattan, New York. Not yet is this newly globalised economy riding on the wave of economic success. Not yet although District 1 and 3 give a distinctly western impression. It is this modern dynamic impression mixed with the more interesting outlying districts that give Sai Gon its peculiar challenge. She beckons with a long finger. She says 'try me.'

Viet Cinema I
One of the joys of Sai Gon is the cinema. While I have only been to the centrally located cinema just south of Tan Dao Park, there are others around although the leaving of the movie theatre--all your fantasies smouldering--is almost the best part.

The Galaxy Cinema, District 1

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The fusillade of headlights of Sai Gon at dusk and nightfall is truly energising. A loveletter in light. From a hundred thousand travellers.

Stand inside a doorway in the evening, with an mp3 player, for five minutes and watch.

Noble atoms on the thermals.

Sai Gon at night:      

Turn the tube down and watch to these sounds:

'Motherboard' by Daft Punk

Inside the music the plaintive, generous cry of the flute, the weeping bird cry. Sai Gon.

Revolving, returning, opening and open. Always thus. Inside the music is the show-stopping generosity of its people.
Sai Gon

Viet Cinema II
The actress Linh Dan Pham the French actress of Vietnamese descent was born in Sai Gon. She starred in the 1992 film Indochine alongside Catherine Deneuve. More recently she performed in her first Vietnamese production when she appeared as Cam in the 2009 film Adrift or Chơi vơi by director Bui Thac Chuyen. It won awards at the 66th Venice Film Festival. Critically for me the film deals with social and personal issues in modern day Vietnam, which are not often portrayed in Vietnamese cinema, such as homosexuality, and loneliness. It's a fabulous introduction to Vietnam life and its tensions. If you want to delve into deeper Viet Nam.

A still from the film

Linh Pham Dam

Poster for the Film released in 2009

With Mike fluent Vietnamese speaker. Mike from Queens, has lived in Viet Nam for 38 years.

Praying inside the Jade Emperor Pagoda

Nguyen Hue, Sai Gon 1966

Nguyen Hue, 2013

This part of town was old Sai Gon. Now called Dong Khoi. Europeans with money hang around this area. I found it underwhelming. You can buy steak, fudge brownie, ice cream. Just like anywhere else on the planet. I looked for some whiff of interest, some tendril leading me into the bug infested, baguette laden pieces of assimilationist colonial history but came up short. Instead Deloitte and Touche and Hotpot restaurants abounded. I got skinned in one of those in Da Lat. But GorillaZ isn't editorial on groaning about prices and standard of living. During my time in the East I have found that the Number 1 preoccupation of travelling types. Poor things. Is making their money stretch for rooms and travel whilst keeping enough back for booze and blow, abominable shorts, even more hideous cloth sandals, and wigger dreadlock maintenance.

Talking of fashion and youth culture. The music scene has very far to go here. Western bands don't come here yet. Vietnamese music itself hasn't taken off. It is unlikely to appeal to western tastes but why should it? The Vietnamese are an incredible group of people (as long as you don't mind women being second class citizens). I do mind. The Viet are creative and resourceful but infrastructure does not exist, to even begin the pop scene here. There is an example of Viet pop above by Hong Ngoc.

Music I listen to in Sai Gon

Tony's Theme:

By Giorgio Moroder from the movie Scarface.

This music tells a little of Sai Gon. It's scale. It colossal effort. Dignity. Its romance. The jungle waiting to invade from the river.

The Reunification Palace Helipad

The Helipad at The Bitexco Tower

The Helipad
Where you have your helipad is of critical importance. On top of a palace has a certain chutzpah. The ostentatious land on the one at the top of the Bitexco Tower. Or do you fancy a colonial villa just outside the centre? Do you have a low hedge around the helipad perimeter? Remember with a helicopter you can only fly in the daytime. Ask yourself is the helipad for you? It is rumoured that each flight costs $75000. Chances are that you risk alienation from most of your fellow mankind. The sum of the microphysics of power suggest that the rarified world of helipad ownership means you will not be liked. You may even be a villain or at least of extremely flexible morals. How else can you afford to have helicopter land where you live?

View from the balcony, Reunification Palace onto Le Duan, Edge of District 3.

Friends from Hanoi

Handsome Communist building

3. What people listen to in Sai Gon:

'Bien Pho' by Nhac hoa tau Tring Con Song

Devotion to Duty: Linh at Emperor Jade Pagoda

Ambient temp. 33C plus the heat from a roaring brazier


It ain't all sunshine and roses in Sai Gon.

Every silver lining has a cloud.

Try the traffic cops pulling you over for nothing reasons. The best of them.

Having your headlights on during the day.



The Vinicom Shopping Mall

OR mebbe the

Issue of Trust between Natives and Ex-patriates.


The Pollution

A friendly Taoist effigy
In possession of the Three Treasures; compassion, moderation, and humility

A beautiful city ...

A mile downriver the jungle awaits

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