Nick Brown

Joined May 2016
  • Day23

    Saigon in 60 Seconds

    April 1 in Vietnam

    Hot in Saigon, can't be assed,
    Thought I'd churn out something fast,
    If read very, very quick,
    Without pause, breath or verbal tic,
    Within a minute, all will fit,
    Obviously don't include this bit,
    A whole entire second for every line,
    Easy done, you'll manage fine,
    Our time in Saigon, baking sauna,
    Here in no particular order:

    (1) Bakery breakfasts; pastries, juice
    (2) Lost my hat, got no excuse

    (3) Lonely Planet walking tour
    (4) 7am till half-past four

    (5) Dated parks wandered through
    (6) Mariammam temple, goddess Hindu

    (7) Tiger-beer & Avengers Towers
    (8) Roundabout Concrete Flowers

    (9) Bitexco views, massive city
    (10) Ho statue, Peoples' Committee

    (11) Taoist Jade Emporer Pagoda
    (12) Peddled street food, spiced aroma

    (13) Air-con mostly not a thing
    (14) Instead just fans, oscillating

    (15) Tank-gate Palace, more fine art
    (16) Quickie lunches, FamilyMart

    (17) Another Ho Chi Minh museum
    (18) Fried chicken, wedges, chips, Korean

    (19) Aching feet, Intense heat
    (20) Saigon Beer at six-hundred feet

    (21) Found my hat
    (22) Lucky fluke
    (23) Pistachio ice-creams
    (24) All except Luke

    (25) Notre Damn, no not that one
    (26) Champa statues, heads are gone

    (27) Wartime remnants, solemn time
    (28) Aftermath, atrocity and war-crime

    (29) Buddhist resolve, must admire
    (30) Memorial statue, monk-on-fire

    (31) Looked for snake to eat, no luck
    (32) Zoo enclosure, big yellow duck

    (33) Tigers, giraffes, crocs, apes and more
    (34) Hippo, bear, sheep, fake dinosaur

    (35) Those Crazy roads
    (36) Bikes just go
    (37) Red man or Green
    (38) Constant flow

    (39) Underground mall, Indian curry
    (40) Order failure, got back my money

    (41) Demolished market, pile of bricks
    (42) Worship chants, death-urns and sticks

    (43) Walked sixty-k, aching thighs
    (44) Incense smoke got in my eyes

    (45) Sunny days, getting tanned
    (46) Wet one too, brollies-in-hand
    (47) Mr Brown's iced coffee brand

    (48) As little left remains, time's sands
    (49) Trickles through, falls then lands
    (50) Packing bags
    (51) Won't all fit
    (52) Crap; I bought a lot of it
    (53) Last night here, final treat
    (54) Brewery down on Pasteur street
    (55) For crafty beers
    (56) And massive cheers
    (57) To times to remember
    (58) For years and years

    (59) Trip Vietnam, end of line
    (60) Now, it's going-home time

    Anon, 2018
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  • Day19

    Following our final night in Dalat we had booked to go on a cycling trip out of the city to visit a few attractions. Expecting to be once again part of a tour-group and Mark having self-administered his necessary Valium dosage, we were pleased to discover the tour would be just the three of us and a guide.

    We began by cycling through the busy Dalat streets at peak rush-hour then climbing a hill reminiscent of that which killed our Kia a couple of days back. I made it about a quarter of the way up before dismounting and pushing, Woody a little over halfway and Mark made it to the top, but injured himself in the process.

    Slightly mitigating my underperformance were issues I was having with the gears. Two-thirds of the theoretically-available gears were inoperable, but the range available weren't shifting as expected. The problem was one of communication; there were two triggers and the guide had advised that the upper trigger was 'down' and the lower trigger was 'up'. So when the terrain began sloping upwards I logically sought to move down to a lower gear so pressed the upper trigger, but this seemed to be moving the gear up, much as I'd do when going down, and which should have been linked to the lower trigger. Put simply, going up I flicked up but this moved up instead of down so I should have been pressing down to go down so I could efficiently go up. I later understood the guide had meant the upper trigger was for 'downhill' and the lower for 'uphill', and cycled far better from then onwards. The brakes were also crap.

    Our first stop was a coffee plantation, where we were shown the different varieties of plant, invited to sample the end-product and shown the cages where they keep the weasels that enable them to produce Vietnam Weasel Coffee, also known sometimes as Shit Coffee, albeit affectionately.

    Now I'm going to go on record here and say I'm not a fan of the weasel-coffee thing; keeping them in small cages and feeding them a coffee diet to produce product. It's treating them like machines; beans go in, shit comes out, harvest that shit for beans then sell. I don't care if they like the coffee - I think it was Jean-Paul Sartre that said, and I'm paraphrasing, "hell is being locked forever in a room with unlimited coffee". It's the veal argument - we already have perfectly good coffee so why do we need to produce an incrementally 'better' version by torturing animals. Woody said he'd happily waterboard a cow for a more succulent steak, so I guess people are different.

    Now, I want to make it absolutely clear, it was purely for these ethical concerns that I wasn't keen on ingesting something that had passed through a weasel's digestive tract. But the other coffee was delicious (bought some to bring home) and the view of the plantation from the balcony we drank on was incredible. Woody had a 7up.

    Incidentally, and not at all to help validate a convenient rhyme, a granule of coffee can be accurately described as 'grain'.

    After a further 30k ride we reached Elephant Falls, a large and beautiful waterfall that can be reached via a precarious scramble over slippery rock. There was also a cave, which got Mark wet. Our guide waited until the climb back up to tell us about the volume of fatalities that occur there; I'm not surprised.

    Also, in the world of wood-joints, 'waterfall' is a type of grain where the wood grain carries from one plane (horizontal) to the next plane (vertical).

    We next had lunch in the company of some friendly dogs, which I fed and they became even friendlier. We had rice, which is a cereal grain. This was the end of the line for our bikes, the half-broken contraptions taken from us so they could be live to be half-broken another day.

    Afterward we a pagoda, which our guide couldn't enter for religious reasons. There was a big, happy, fat Buddha statue that I'd doubt we'd permit in the UK lest it promote an unhealthy body-image aspiration that would further strain our under-pressure NHS. Mind, these are unlikely photo-realistic depictions and should be taken with a grain of salt.

    Next stop was a silk factory, where they produced silk from worm to cloth. We were offered a silk worm to eat and Mark and Woody both took-up the offer. Now, I want to make it absolutely clear, it was only because I was full from lunch and not the nasty wrigglesome look of the things why I didn't try one... Oh, also any woven fabric has a grain line, this being the longwise threads which are stretched on the loom, forming a warp, as opposed to the weft threads woven across it.

    Our final stop was a small farm where the owners kept a variety of animals; turkeys, crocodiles, pheasants, guinea pigs, regular pigs, porcupines but mostly, volumetrically speaking, crickets. They also made rice wine, from the already-established grain, which we were offered to try with a side of crickets. Now, I want to make it absolutely clear, that it was only my fondness for the film Pinocchio as a child and particularly my affection for the Jiminy Cricket character that I refused to partake. I had the wine though. Mark and Woody had the lot.

    We headed back for a rest, occasionally experiencing the cool breeze from our single oscillating fan. In fairness, Dalat has been broadly cooler than Nha Trang so the absence of a/c hadn't been as bothersome as I expected. We later returned to the same "best street ever" per Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and/or the people running the places on the street. Woody and I had a simply delectable coconut curry and Mark had mango chicken which was nice but not as nice as the coconut curry. Honestly the best coconut curry I've ever had. I spilled my beer and it was this whole thing.
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  • Day18

    I didn't sleep well in Dalat. I don't know if it was the hum of the fan, needed in lieu of air-con, or the bed-sheets being around seven-eighths the length of the bed therefore only six-eighths the length of my body, or the fact that the rest of the hotel was seemingly occupied by a single family perpetually walking between each other's open doors and engaging in a group activity similar to how we might get out the Monopoly board only the aim of this game was to shout loudly in the hallway with the winner being declared, equally loudly, the one who can piss-off the westerners upstairs the most. The game is called 'Let's be a Family of Selfish Pricks' and is being localised by Hasbro for the UK market with a more suburban theme under the working title 'Scallys in the Alley'.

    However it didn't take long for my mood to improve. Our hotel, 'Lavender Tim Bed & Breakfasts' didn't serve breakfast so on the way to our first sight we stopped off at a bakery. Woody had a meat sandwich, Mark went for a bun shaped like a cat and I picked-out a fat piece of sweet bread and what appeared to be an unexciting sort-of squashed croissant thing. The sweet bread was delicious, but then I bit into the croissant-thing and discovered a vein of chocolate, à la pain au chocolate, and was overjoyed. It was the most intense mood-swing instigated by a pastry in my entire life.

    Our first proper/planned stop of the day was the Crazy House. This is, ostensibly, a house that could only have been designed by somebody with wild imagination, intense perseverance and the resources and governmental connections that come with being the daughter of the former leader of the Vietnam Communist Party. With its sculpted cave-like corridors, fantasy-inspired detailing and twisting, tree-like walkways it felt like a Tim Burton fever-dream at Disneyworld. It also isn't actually a house, but a hotel, though with prices three times what we're paying for the peace and privacy of a zoo enclosure, we decided just to pay a brief visit.

    Next we walked the width of the city toward Da Lat railway station. We stopped briefly to take pictures of something that looked like a massive bagel, then went into the building beneath it and found it to be a shopping mall. We wandered it briefly, with Woody and I being captured on camera in our first co-starring roles as 'westerners stood behind actress getting fake-mugged, not offering assistance or giving chase to culprit'. I heard Matt Damon and Ben Affleck got their big break in much the same way.

    We eventually arrived at the station, an old but restored Art Deco style building, to find to our surprise that there were trains running. The line formerly served by the station had been decommissioned during the Vietnam war, but a short section was now open as a novelty tourist route. There weren't many trains a day and they didn't sync with our schedule, so we took some pictures and moved on.

    Following a maze-like trek through the narrow, winding backstreets of a nearby suburb we arrived at Lam Dong museum. There were exhibits on the local culture and history, ancient and moderately-recent artefacts and some disturbing taxidermy, most memorable of which were the wild-cats that looked far more threatening in their deceased/stuffed state than I'm sure they ever did when they could follow-up that threat with a sharp-clawed mauling.

    A short walk from the museum was the King's Palace, the former residence of Vietnam's last emporer. Within stunningly kept grounds were several modest-sized-for-a-king but still-bloody-massive houses. Since leaving the mall and here, whatever show Woody and I appeared in must have aired as we were mobbed by a flashmob of fans all wanting pictures taken with this mysterious new talent.

    In every city we've been to in Vietnam we have been invited to pose for photographs with local or travelling Vietnamese. As white westerners we are a novelty here and there appears to be some caché attached to having one's picture taken with such exotic visitors to their country. We eagerly partake, our novelty being something of a novelty to us also, and will of course be encouraging the uptake of this custom back home. I implore all, should you come across somebody with a different colour skin to you, maybe they believe in a different faith or perhaps just possess a physical deformity, do be sure to snap them in a selfie. It would be discriminatory not to.

    The clock struck Cornetto'clock so we had our daily packaged cone ice-cream then jumped in a taxi to take us back to the opposite side of town to the cable-car station for transport to Truc Lam pagoda. The cable-car crossed some standard gorgeous landscape and the pagoda was equally, standardly impressive. We had lunch at a cafe and had disagreements over the mechanics of the Nightmare Before Christmas Extended Universe, but agreed the soundtrack is catchy. There was a cool water feature; a water jet supporting a huge stone ball that was spinning erratically under the pressure; like a fountain with something blocking the pipe, but intentionally so.

    With time to spare we whizzed back across town and got back to the station again for the final scheduled train of the day. There were four class tiers to choose from, all cheap, so we opted for the VIP2 class, so as to not come across as the ostentatious, stuck-up toffs that went for the 50p more expensive VIP1.

    The journey was nice, the carriages authentically old-looking and Mark got some good pictures precariously leaning out the window with his camera. It was our understanding that this brief, scenic trip to a small nearby town was the attraction and upon arrival in the bustling, slightly dingy-looking Trai Mat we considered our understanding . With half an hour till the return train we decided to wander into town on the off-chance we might find a Dalat specialty we'd seen some street-sellers peddling, Pizza Dalat.

    Expecting to fail and keeping check of our valuables we walked down the street then turned an unassuming corner and found something spectacular. We were all like:

    What's this? What's this?
    There's colour everywhere.
    What's this?
    There's incense in the air.
    What's this?
    There's temples, pagodas, statues, stalls and people selling bric-a-brac and knicks and knacks and Pizza Dalat to share...
    What's this!?

    Well, I was anyway.

    We'd stumbled upon a very pretty district with some of the most striking temples, pagodas and statues we've yet seen. They were far from the most ancient, fairly modern relatively speaking but, despite what the correct minority of Doctor Who Smith/Capaldi debaters might argue, older isn't always better. They also had the largest Buddha statue in the world constructed from flowers, guinness world record, which if that doesn't impress you nothing will. Dalat Pizza was a very poor-man's pizza; heated rice paper topped with spring onions and an egg cooked on top then wrapped-up like a crepe. Dominoes won't lose any sleep over this challenger-product.

    By evening we were tired so went for a proper normal pizza, with dough and tomato and cheese and everything, at the 24H place over the street. We had originally planned to go there for breakfast, but it had been closed.
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  • Day17

    Better Dalat than Never

    March 26 in Vietnam

    We had a few hours to kill on the day we travelled to Dalat, so we continued our deep cultural immersion by going to the beach, where I managed to exactly read the first 14% of a book I started the last time I went to the beach, and then returned to the Australian Japanese beer place and ordered English Breakfasts. Woody, a preacher of discriminatory views on eggs, ordered something listed as without egg called the 'Breakfast Potato', which arrived as a bowl full of chopped potato and bits of sausage swimming in molten cheese, with a fried egg on top.

    With an hour till pick-up we went to Vinny's Pub and ordered some beers. Mark had an odd green concoction, Woody had an iffy passion-fruit version and I had a simple and delicious standard lager. Downed, we headed back to the hotel to catch our car.

    We'd pre-booked our private transport the day before, in-person as the three quite-large men we are, advised we would have three big bags and that we needed driving through the mountain pass to Dalat. They sent us a Kia Picanto. A small Kia Picanto.

    Technically it was a 'Kia New Morning', an eastern, stripped-back edition of the Picanto, designed for people who maybe drive to their local shop once or twice a week and don't mind squashing the bread to get it all in the boot. At a squeeze I hold responsible for the disintegration of one of my few remaining Choco-Pies, our bags crammed into the boot and we crammed into the tiny seats and we were on our way. At least there was air-conditioning.

    As we approached the steep mountain pass, our driver switched the air-conditioning off. He turned it back on again briefly when we had to stop for twenty minutes whilst they exploded some of the hillside ahead of us, as you do, but as soon as we were moving again back off it went. Not knowing the Vietnamese for "Are you crazy, it's hotter than taking a sauna on the sun in a sweater out there!" we had to just accept it, but it soon became clear why. It was a classic Captain Kirk manoeuvre, divert power to the engines from all non-essential systems and, in doing so, nearly almost get us up the hill.

    After being passed on the incline by buses, heavy-goods vehicles and a little girl on rollerskates the car eventually spluttered to a stop at a picturesque little spot only spoiled by the broken-down car in the foreground. Whilst the driver tinkered under the bonnet and tried to recall if he'd renewed his breakdown insurance, we took some selfies and actually enjoyed the opportunity to briefly straighten our contorted legs.

    After about fifteen minutes we clambered back in and the car resumed climbing. Not how a twenty-first century car should a road, more like how a rheumatic tortoise might ascend a water-slide. After a while we reached the top and, with an assist from gravity, down the other side. I'm told they also filmed some of the Top Gear special on this road, but they took the turns a little faster.

    Around a half-a-mile from the hotel in Dalat, we briefly broke down again. We could have gotten out and walked, but that felt defeatist at this point and we felt we owed it to our driver to stick it out till the end. Or, rather, our end and his halfway point; I didn't much fancy his chances of getting back to Nha Trang.

    Once checked into our hotel, called for some unknown reason 'Lavender Tim', we chilled for a bit in the oscillating breeze from our room's fan (no air-conditioning here) then headed out for dinner. I'd found a place in the Lonely Planet book that apparently served local delicacies and I know, I know, fool me once etc. but we thought we'd give it a try. We went to the listed address but it was a guitar shop, but didn't fret as there were plenty other places to pick from.

    Of the four or five restaurants on the same short street proudly displaying 'Recommended by Lonely Planet" signs, though presumably due to a mistake at the printing-company omitted from both mine and Mark's editions, we selected the one with an empty table in it called 'Chocolate'. We had an awful, repulsive glass of wine each that tasted like ASDA-brand berry cordial diluted with vinegar. We course-corrected with some Saigon Beer (the red export variety, 0.5% stronger ABV) then ordered our standard spring rolls/wontons/rice-or-noodle-dishes medley. We don't know why the place was called 'Chocolate'; I'd have called it 'Vietnamese Food & Beverages' but then, as I've been told a million times, I have a tendency to be too literal.

    There was a bar over the street called 'Woody' that we didn't go in but took a picture outside because obviously.
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  • Day16

    The Gang do Nha Trang

    March 25 in Vietnam

    We arrived in Nha Trang tired, agitated, and an hour too early. Ordinarily the expediency of travel between locations is an achievement to be lauded, but rocking up at before 5am in any city, at least those whose citizens operate under the broad principle of sleeping till sunrise, poses certain logistical challenges.

    Attempting to pounce on the opportunistic circumstance of the city's bus drivers not yet even eating their morning slightly-warmed bread and us being in a brand new place and not knowing where we were, several taxi drivers immediately offered to take us to our hotel. I told them the name of the hotel and they nodded in a knowing 'we go there all the time' manner and quickly calculated that the price would be 100,000 Dong, each.

    This was pre-daylight robbery. We'd taken taxis before and, whilst just over £3 a head would be a borderline bargain in the UK, here it was extortion. In unison so synchronised it seemed rehearsed we balked "fuck off", turned and walked off down the street. Better we walk some indeterminate distance in a direction that transpired to be opposite that we wanted to go than part with a tenner for a taxi; so sayeth our creed.

    They then gave mild chase and offered us the same deal for half the quoted price, which was still expensive but just within the upper boundary of our creed's excess limit. We loaded up, climbed into the taxi and set off. At the first junction it became clear that the driver had no clue where we were going, shrouding their charging structure into even further mystery. I turned-on my Google Maps and directed us to the red pin.

    There was no hotel apparent by the name we were looking for, Alibaba, but investigation once again of a nearby dark alley proved fruitful. The hotel was, much like the alley, the city and Anakin Skywalker's force alignment from halfway through III till the last ten minutes of VI, dark. We dropped our bags outside and generally loitered about for a bit. After about half an hour we decided to try the door and found it was open but that there was somebody asleep behind the desk, so I quickly dropped my bag inside and we left him to sleep. At around 5:50am there was activity which, I realised in retrospect, was likely because the alarm in my bag that was supposed to make sure we were awake for the time the sleeper bus was supposed to arrive was going off, as it was supposed to, and whilst I suppose I should have turned it off I hadn't supposed it really mattered.

    We couldn't formally check-in till 2pm so we secured our bags against the vague side-wall of the hotel lobby and walked across town as the sun rose. We stopped for breakfast and they brought us each a glass of strange green liquid that tasted fowl. They'd go on to bring us this, without ordering, at nearly every establishment in Nha Trang. Must be some local specialty; never did find out what it was. It would pair nicely with Hué Royal Rice Cakes.

    Still hungry and in need of a sugar-boost to counteract the onset exhaustion consequent from our sleep-free night, Woody and I popped into a bakery. Woody had a 'Monster Cake', a massive piece of colourful cake that tasted like cake with artificial colouring. I had a doughnut and an egg-custard, something they've managed to improve upon massively from the UK version by simply not putting cinnamon on it. Seriously, less can be more. Also no fruit-slices in coke. Or cherries on bakewells. Or onions in anything.

    First stop on today's tour-by-Mark was Christ the King Cathedral, a cathedral. Unfortunately it was Sunday morning so full of worshippers and the sign outside advised sightseeing was forbidden on Sundays. But cathedrals are big, far bigger than the sign, so despite its best efforts we were still able to get pictures from afar.

    We then visited a pagoda/temple. I usually jot down the names of these places when we're there but I was tired so I didn't and, unsurprisingly, googling "[ANY VIETNAMESE CITY] pagoda" reaps rather inconclusive results. There was a giant Buddha statue on a hill, which also doesn't do much to narrow things down, but there was a fantastic view of the city. There was also a giant sleeping Buddha statue, whom I was deeply envious of.

    We next visited a place far simpler to identify on a Google image-search, Po Nagar; a series of Cham temple towers built between 8th and 11th centuries and looking similar to the Mỹ Sơn ruins only less bombed-by-the-Americans, so less ruined. I guess this comparison conveys little as I didn't really describe Mỹ Sơn that much, opting to butcher an iconic British poem that day instead, but there'll be a picture below. Or above, or to the side, I don't know how this publishes. Or on Google.

    Our next stop was a cluster of rocks on a jutting outcrop next to a small portion of beach that somebody had had the enterprising idea to put a ticket-booth next to. It was a fair enough place to take coastal pictures, and we did, but if there was any significance beyond that I missed it. With the gentle sound of the lapping ocean and beautiful surroundings I attempted some meditatory mindfulness, but it was difficult to clear my mind amongst hordes of yammering foreign tourists, presumably also wondering and loudly debating what exactly they'd bought a ticket for.

    And so came midday, the hottest part of the day in the hottest city we'd yet visited. To celebrate we decided to walk five kilometers down the coast with rapidly diminishing water supplies and no shade. I think it likely at least one of us died of dehydration and remains with us now only as a spectral apparition. Possibly me.

    En route we stopped-off for a brief lunch, finding comfort in ordering the least Vietnamese meal of our holiday yet; a beefburger between two slices of white bread with chips and milkshakes. At the precise strike of 2pm we checked into our room, which transpired to be rooms as they'd messed-up our booking, and shuffled off for afternoon naps.

    After lying on our beds for a few hours, re-energizing, we decided to go and lie on some tables for an hour. At a nearby spa we each had a traditional massage employing ancient Vietnamese techniques. I'm not sure how ancient, but ceetainly post the invention of the cup as a primary component of the experience was the application of heated cups to our backs followed by their swift removal, so as to stimulate blood flow, relieve tension and incur nasty bruising by the following morning. At one point the small Vietnamese ladies conducting the treatment climbed entirely onto our backs, applying pressure with their full body weight for presumably therapeutic reasons. Or we misinterpreted their requests for piggy-back rides.

    In the evening we went out for craft-beers at an Australian brewery specialising in Japanese food. Cultural.
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  • Day15

    If you can keep your head when all about you,

    Tour agents, selling trips, sound the same,

    To Mỹ Sơn ruins, Champa temples, 4th to 14th century,

    And for which you're mispronouncing the name,

    If you can bear to hear the way you’ve spoken,

    And be told it's 'Mee-Soon', oh, the ridicules,

    Then book, with boat back, and trust,

    It be not some twisted tourist-trap for fools,

    But on coach, prepare, collect from ten or fifteen other hotels, others,

    And watch for things not included in quotes,

    Like the entrance fee, for example...

    And stoop and pay ’em up with worn-out, utterly pointless, 500 Dong notes.

    /

    If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, be smart,

    Mark, remember, those standing in frame of your shots,

    Are a tour-group, of which you're now part,

    If you can trust your tour-guide when all men doubt him,

    Because he's wearing a wild purple suit, a weird green helmet and shouting in a crazy screechy twang,

    Like if like they cast, as The Joker, Ken Jeong,

    That guy in the car boot in The Hangover,

    Also Community's Chang.

    /

    But make allowances for doubting too,

    Like whether he was actually a qualified archaeological preservation specialist, as he suggested, 

    And if you pretend every omitted fact is a mystery,

    It will certainly keep people interested,

    If you wish to tour-guide, for anywhere, heed words,

    Respond to each question with 'nobody knows'

    Saves time on researching, learning, doing any training for your job at all essentially,

    But do wear more sensible clothes,

    /

    If you can make one heap of all your boiled rice and vegetables,

    And risk having flavour on one shake of a sauce,

    And not lose your appetite, and start eating at the beginning

    And never breathe a word about how piss-poor an effort it is for an included lunch course;

    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to accept food served from a bucket,

    To serve you seconds long after firsts are gone,   

    And then hold on when you climb on top of the boat,

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Eh, it's not going that fast, fuck it!’

    /

    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    When the bus pick-up doesn't arrive when they told us.

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

    Like when you said we'd be picked up at 5pm and had to wait till 5:45,

    It was only a few hundred yards to the sleeper bus,

    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    Except for sleeper buses, which demand and deserve your hate.

    They get a low TripAdvisor rating,

    /

    If you can dream—somehow without actually sleeping—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think (for instance I think they should re-name them the Lie-Uncomfortably-All-Night bus) and not make thoughts your aim;   

    And treat sleep impostors, like the lights and horns and bumps and cramped sleeping bunk...

    ...the persistent stops for no reason and the crappy films playing in the background and the general bodily noises of strangers around you, just the same;   

    If you can fill an unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of actual kip,

    You'll have done a darn sight better than I did,

    At giving insomnia the slip,

    /

    And now, to conclude, this passage,

    In entirety, it's form, all for a pun,

    So, then, ours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—we’ve been Hôi An, Mỹ Sơn!
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  • Day14

    Got to do a bit of catch-up. What with taking a day-off (during my holiday, no less) and then generously doing two entries for a single day, I've fallen a bit behind...

    So then, having been told tales, overhead candid comments and Mark having read in the book how nice the drive from Hué to Hôi An is, we had arranged a private car to take us on the journey to our next destination.

    An then the car arrived at the time we'd scheduled so we got in. It was a nice car, but I don't do car-brands so that's as much as I can tell you. We set-off through the busy morning Hué traffic, the roads entering the city packed with travelling culinary connoisseurs hoping to taste these Royal Rice Cakes they'd heard so many good things about.

    An then, a bit later, we arrived at the first stop on our drive. It was a drive with stops; forgot to mention that. First stop was a beach; I'll ask Mark what it was called later before I post this, unless I don't. There was a thin strip of sand to walk on out into the water, which was either the sea or a lake depending on where we were. We took a selfie as you do, or we do...or I do and they smile politely when caught in in the snap-radius. There was a theoretically nice view, but it was shrouded in mist.

    Now then, the weather. Aside from the one mention of rain I've been rather coy as to the weather we've been experiencing. Our pictures might tell a thousand words, a pitiful benchmark I smash daily, but there's truly just one word needed: overcast. Like, all the time. There's been a few isolated moments of cloud-break, and the sun made a brief cameo appearance to ensure we were toasty and warm climbing that mountain in Phong Nha-ke Bang, but that's been it. Travelling south, we held hope this might change.

    An then we reached Hai Van Pass; the highest pass in Vietnam, made famous by Top Gear back when it was great; when the trio felt like a begrudging partnership fuelled by cut-throat one-upmanship as opposed to the warm friendship they share now, which I guess is what happens when you hire the friendly guy from Friends. There was a ruined French fort at the peak crawling with tourists, so we joined them. You could climb around, in and on it, but for some reason at no point did any one of us stand on top, fart in a general direction then issue command in accent to boil bottoms and compare the aroma of mothers to elderberries. Must be the humidity...

    An then we reached the Marble Mountains, a cluster of five hills (so not mountains then...) just south of Da Nang, made primarily of marble and everybody's favourite sedimentary composite, limestone. There's only one hill you can go up and, despite strong 4/5 odds against, by lucky chance our driver took us to that one. There were tens of street stalls at the base selling marble figurines, but Mark advised this was imported marble, not marble from the Marble Mountains as if they were to use marble from the Marble Mountains there'd be no Marble Mountains where they could sell their imported marble. There was a neat-looking lift that took visitors to the top.

    An then we took the steps. We found a fantastic dragon sculpture,a temple, a giant buddha and a pagoda. Not entirely surprising, but a far more satisfying peak experience than the fabled temple-in-a-cave fiasco.

    An then we found a temple in a cave! It was genuinely impressive, making the previous broken promise sting all the more in retrospect. Within this temple we found a bank of rocks you definitely were It supposed to go up, so we scrambled up and did some free-hand rock climbing that none of us are insured for. It didn't go anywhere special, so we came back, but got to briefly feel like Indiana Jones. He never used to take lifts either.

    An then there was light! Not merely a trick of the eyes on our exit from the cave, the sun finally made it's overdue entrance in a sustained capacity, finally justifying the sun-cream we'd been applying daily, the volume of ice-cream we'd been consuming I'd somehow managed not yet to lose.

    An then, later that day, I lost my sunglasses.

    An then we thought we were done, but instead of turning toward the exit we tried the other direction, for a giggle, and found the place was even bigger than it looked. We found another pagoda, another cave...

    An then another. An another.

    An another.

    We climbed up a steep set of steps leading to what Mark told us was the highest point on the mountain.

    An then another, when the first turned out to be only the second highest peak. An then another cave/temple/combo. An another an another an we were running out of time, the amount of time we'd self-determined would be likely too long to expect our driver to wait, so had to rush through the final twenty-to-thirty attractions and get back to the car.

    An then, after checking-in to our Hôi An hotel, we went for a wander to the old town. The streets lined with tailors, on a whim we decided to spend a few hundred quid on suits.

    An then we did. Mark made a beeline for the best fabric for his suit then issued a decree that nobody else could have it. Woody complied, but I waited until Mark had gone for his fitting before sneakily selecting the same one. For the fitting itself we had to strip-off, put 'special' underwear over our own then be scanned by a Terminator-style red laser so they could build us polystyrene doubles to dress. It's here I think I lost my sunglasses. Something something T1000, something something sunglasses, something something chill out dickwad.

    An then we went for a lovely meal where we feasted on local specialties that don't make you hurl. Hué take note. We had white rose dumplings (5/10), spring rolls (9/10), crispy wontons (7/10) and local dish Cao Lau, which is basically noodles, pork and veg in a broth but was delicious (10/10). They supposedly achieve this unique taste by using water from an undisclosed ancient Cham well outside of town for every dish.

    An then the next morning we visited the Ba Le well, claimed to be the source of this water. This location is both disclosed and is inside the town. A mislead perhaps? It wasn't much to look at. Mark called it under-well-ming, which I told him was good enough to get in the blog.

    An then we properly toured the old town. Once again there were temples. I'd say they were amongst some of the best temples we've seen yet, though I'd be hard-pushed to tell you why. Probably because it was sunny. One had conical ringed incense burning sticks hanging from the ceiling, confounding all those who'd claimed innovation in the incense field had peaked.

    An then we tried to view a heritage house but it was closed for three weeks because the owner was away. Like how they close Alton Towers every time Mr Towers has a dentist's appointment.

    But then we found another an then another etc. They each had their own 'special skill' they were keen to demonstrate to us with a view to selling us the product. Be it embroidery, silk, lucky coins, ceramics...we saw all and bought none. Well, we bought one, but I bought it for a gift so won't say what.

    An there were lots of these places and a Japanese bridge an they were all very interesting but to tell all would frustrate my 'catching up' intent.

    An then in the evening, after two suit follow-up fittings and a failed attempt to find a massage venue with availability and reasonable pricing, we had everything we'd had for dinner the previous night for dinner again that scored 7/10 or higher. Incidentally on our first night there'd been some sort of festival/celebration happening in the town with boats and lanterns aplenty and we felt lucky and fortunate to have coincidentally arrived in Hói An on such an occasion.

    An then they did the same thing on the second night.
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  • Day12

    We're in a new city. We want to experience the local culture. We've had a long day on the road touring the DMZ and we're hungry. We should sample the local cuisine.

    I consult the Lonely Planet book. Lonely Planet will know where to go. Lonely Planet won't steer us wrong. Lonely Planet is our friend.

    The book tells us the Hué delicacy is Royal Rice Cakes. Great, we think. We like rice, we enjoy cake and whilst I don't care for our Royal family, at least not to the extent I feel the media expects me to, perhaps the relevant royalty here had an exceptional palate and thusly their attributable fare, in keeping with the other Vietnamese specialties we've sampled, will be delicious.

    Also we have rice cakes at home and they're fine. These ones, the book informs, are a little different, but the difference seems to be the addition of shrimp; an addition that consistently heightens any experience. The picture looks promising and anything achieving the echelon of 'local delicacy' must possess certain merits.

    The recommended outlet isn't far. We walk the five minutes to it, turning up our noses at the similarly-named shop next-door attempting to coast on the coat-tails.

    We're brought a menu. There's six items on it. We don't know what to choose but the lady conveys to us in Mr Bean mannerisms that we can order and share all of them for about a tenner. We trust the lady. The lady won't steer us wrong. We like Mr Bean.

    We wait, salivating with anticipation. They're doing that Wagamamas thing where they bring things when they're ready so they don't need to properly manage their kitchen like every other restaurant does. It doesn't take long for the first plate to arrive.

    Dish one is actually a tray filled with twelve smaller dishes. Four apiece - bargain! Each is filled with a white, jellified substance topped with dried bits of bits and a fried morsel of pig skin; a proximate pork scratching. It isn't immediately clear how we eat them, but the lady kindly illustrates we're supposed to pry it from the sides of the dish with a spoon then contort it into a bitesize blob that we consume. We oblige.

    The pork scratching is nice.

    The shrimp bits might have been were they not now infused with the white goop, that presumably at some point in the manufacture involved rice. It doesn't taste of rice. It tastes of, and neatly mirrors the consistency of, what I imagine a cooled tub of cooking fat might taste like if I was dumb enough to eat it, with a hint of fish.

    Ah well, we figure. There was bound to be one we didn't like, just what rotten luck that it's the first one. Undeterred, the second plate arrives and we eagerly dig in for our hopes to be partially validated. The puffed rice cracker topped with savoury cream and a shrimp is fine. Not nice, but broadly recognisable as sustainance. Notably, this is the only dish pictured in the book.

    In quick succession the remaining plates appear. Overwhelmed, and with a degree of dread pertaining to what lies in the periphery, we employ tunnel-vision and take from the plate holding what looks like the sliced innards of pork pies, only less appetising. We don't think it's pork. Its possibly sausagised shrimp, but that we can't tell is of concern.

    Of the three other plates, one stands out as the preferred option. Like how the 'red one' looks the least repellant of the Aftershock liqueur range. Translucent, flat, gummy disks rolled like crepes and sprinkled with the same dried shrimp they must have buckets of in the back. They're easy to pick-up and hold with chopsticks, which is about all I'll say for them. Useful though, as it's less easy than usual to convince my lips to part and embrace this alien matter as nourishment.

    Nausea brewing, we cast our eyes upon the similar-looking though differently proportioned contents of the final two plates. Cursory examination only reveals that whatever we are to convince our gullet to permit passage is wrapped in banana leaves. Unless we're supposed to eat the banana leaves which, despite being indigestible by humans, following was has preceeded might be a step-up.

    We cautiously unwrap the leaves. It's a little like unpeeling a napkin from a slice of birthday cake that's been smushed into a kid's party-bag. Unfolding the final leaf-fold we find the contents don't fall free of their wrappings but cling to it, like the sticky, globby, snotty gunk it appears to be.

    I dry heave. Caught within this gelatinous web of putrified spewtum is some sort of protein, cooked so as perfectly resemble a chunk of congealed vomit. We're British and polite so we have to scrape this crap off the garden-cuttings and introduce it to our digestive system.

    We're living-out the dinner scene from Temple of Doom, only the beheaded primate has sneezed-out it's chilled monkey brain then cleaned it's nose with the same leaf it just finished wiping it's arse with. A hygienic monkey to be sure, but not tantalising gourmet.

    The sole acceptable plate of almost-food has already been polished-off. We won't finish the rest. We sit back, contemplate the sheer ludicrousness of our unappetising, inedible banquet and laugh. And laugh and laugh. I'm almost in tears. This is a memory we'll hang onto always and will forever recontextualise any piffling complaint we have with a restaurant's output.

    After a rather morose day, despite in no way sating our hunger, this experience was somehow what we needed. Now if only we can find a cowboy bar and some cheap beer, we'll be all set.
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  • Day12

    DMZ Run : It's Tricky

    March 21 in Vietnam

    You know me. I like to keep these write-ups breezy. I shoot for an irreverent tone, keep any criticisms tongue-in-cheek, and maintain relative detachment from facts and detail whilst delivering accounts of interesting occurrences that reflect our personal experience with a brand of wit that has been reviewed as both 'trys too hard' and 'must try harder'. When we in the future leaf back through the hardback copy of this travel book I sincerely hope it will bring back memories, bring a smile and above all else be a concise record of our trip without any superfluous sentences or unnecessary pentasyllabic words or tiresome lists of exemplar alternatives inserted only out of pure self-indulgence on my part so as to satisfy my own personal penchant for meta-commentary.

    I mention as there may be a degree of tonal disparity with today's entry. We had booked, and took, a 10-hour day trip to the former DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) wherein we saw and learnt about a great many things that aren't at all funny. I'll be trying for a nuanced spirit, trying harder than usual without trying too hard, but will shy from making the heavy light.

    It will be tricky; I did go back and forth on the blog title but figured I was moderately safe with an obtuse pun that doesn't really work and references something that hasn't been relevant since the 90s. Well, I guess it's like that, and that's the way it is. Huh.

    We'd arranged to be picked up at 7:30am, giving us just enough time to grab breakfast first. Unfortunately for our driver the road outside our hotel, The Times, is currently a-changing; the resurfacing works blocking the through-road and meaning that although he could reach the front of our hotel we had to very very slowly reverse out of the narrow alley before we could get going.

    Our first stop was to pick-up our English-speaking tour-guide in a town on the way that was sufficiently unnotable to not make a note of. She was wearing a very loud top emblazoned with the massive words 'CHOOSE JUICY', designed by Juicy Couture. This, we felt, might jar slightly with the serious history she'd be imparting through the day. It did.

    We first travelled along the Highway of Horror. As a result of the Easter Offensive of 1972, the nearby Quang Tri province was lost to the North and people fled down this highway, the only escape route. Many, many people died, as is reinforced by the many gravestones in the one of many cemetaries we visited. We had to cross an active railway on foot to reach it and our driver was nearly hit by a train as it's nigh impossible to tell the horn of an oncoming train from the stupid amount of horns being honked by highway traffic. I saw a Caramac wrapper on the railway track and remarked I was surprised this particular snack had made it's way to Vietnam and wondered if they still made them in the UK as I've not seen them for ages. Woody told me they do.

    Next we visited Long Hung Church. This place was subject to 8 days of continuous attack and bombings during the same offensive, and it shows, being little more than ruins. It has been kept as it was, with its remaining walls strewn with bullet-holes. Tourists used to be able to pry bullets from the wall as souvenirs, but they're all gone now.

    We next passed by The Rockpile, which was a US Marine outpost atop an outcropping of rock in the shape of a gigantic pile, hence the imaginative name. It was smart positioning as the pile was unscaleable, with marine shifts being facilitated with helicopters. As such, we couldn't drive up it and could only see it from afar, illustrating a poor lack of aforethought on the part of the Americans who should really have predicted it's future pertinence as a tourist attraction. We took a selfie, as objectively this wasn't too depressing.

    During a walk through a small village we remarked on the ubiquity and versatility of bamboo, which the locals seemed to be employing for a dizzying myriad of purposes. In the west we're giving Nobel prizes to Graphene and the Vietnamese have been using the true wonder material for centuries.

    After viewing but not crossing the Dak Dong Bridge, a key junction of the Ho Chi Minh trail that was used by the North to transport troops and supplies during the Vietnam War (which incidentally the Vietnamese refer to as the American War, for obvious reasons), we visited a former combat base, now a coffee plantation. Mark and I had some coffee and Mark bought some coffee and Woody still doesn't like coffee and then we went for lunch.

    Following some average grub at a place packed with coach parties so you know it was overpriced but it's still Vietnam so it was embarrassingly cheap, we went north to the actual DMZ zone. The rocks and hills suddenly disappeared entirely and we were in a wide, flat space filled with paddy fields. We reached the Ben Hai River, the natural divisional boundary between the former North and South Vietnam, and walked over the Hien Luong Bridge that crosses it. In the middle there's a line representing the formal border. In addition there's something called the 17th parallel that was a proposed but unused border line but I don't know what that is and didn't want to ask because everyone else seemed to know already.

    On both sides of the river there were enormous loudspeakers that had once been used by each side to broadcast propaganda at incredible volumes at one another. Both sides also used to compete to make sure they had the highest flagpole, regularly destroying their opponent's and forcing repeated, hasty rebuilds. Such juvenile japes, reminiscent of prank-wars between rivalling summer camps in films I've never seen but have seen referenced sufficiently to know they must be a thing, sounded quite amusing and brought a temporary touch of levity to the day's mood. It was easy to imagine a Vietnamese Rowan-Atkinson-type uttering sardonic quips pertaining to such events in Blackadder Goes Pho.

    Our final stop was the Vinh Moc tunnels. These were subterrainian tunnel dug into the clay over thirteen months and occupied intermittently for five years by the local farming community of circa 100 people in a similar fashion to an air-raid shelter. We were able to go underground through the tunnels and view the pokey living and utility spaces.

    It was set over three levels down to a depth of 23 metres. We were given some plastic, made-in-cheapest-part-of-China, 'Baby's First Flashlight'-standard torches to help light our way through. Mark and I had to duck for most of our time underground as the ceilings were constructed intentionally low so as to be burdensome should Americans ever infiltrate, again showing poor precognition as to the site's future commerciality. Exploring the tunnels was admittedly rather fun (at one point we found the coastline!), though it was harrowing to think how people lived there. There were many impact craters to be seen topside, showing just how under-attack this area had been and how clever an idea and well-constructed the tunnel network was.

    Overall it was a good day. Sombre in places but certainly very interesting; I learnt a lot and would recommend it to others. On the drive back we passed some fields where they were growing peanuts. Our tour-guide spoke excellent English, leaps and bounds ahead of my Vietnamese, but it transpired she couldn't quite pronounce 'peanuts', unintentionally omitting the 't' sound. We passed a lot of such fields, necessitating frequent repetition. It would have been more embarrassing to correct her.

    Dinner will be addressed separately.
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  • Day11

    A-Hué we Go!

    March 20 in Vietnam

    There were no seats available on our train from Dong Hoi so we had to book beds for the journey to Hué. It being late afternoon and only three-ish hours away, we didn't get much shut-eye, but the lie-down proved beneficial when we reached Hué and, after barging our way through a throng of Vietnamese offering us ludicrously inexpensive taxi deals, discovered it was a thirty-five minute walk to the hotel.

    But it was good to stretch our legs, see a bit of the city and having only walked about 12km so far that day, most of it up-hill to see a temple that turned out to be a cave, the prospect of an additional 3km with 15kg strapped to our backs was too tantalising to miss.

    First impressions of Hué are that it feels like a far more modern city than Hanoi. By which I don't mean Hanoi isn't modern, by definition everything that literally exists now is modern, but I mean Hué feels more modern than some other places. Except for the ancient ruins, which feel old but not really all that ancient. I mean it's not the future like Tokyo or the past like Amish Country but closer to the middle than you might expect. I don't know what I mean.

    The city economy is most definitely driven by tourism, with Hué being positioned as the perfect halfway destination for people travelling North-to-South or South-to-North and the only destination of note for those undertaking the very short and far less popular East-West route. There are an abundance of bars, restaurants, tour-operators, mini-marts and hotels, all of which we made use of in our first day (categorically, not literally). Our chosen hotel was down a narrow dark alley close to the wide, well-lit tourist streets.

    'Chosen' is a somewhat grandiose descriptor for the process of selecting amongst the tiny percentage of hotels offering rooms to accommodate three adult males without infringing our night-time intimacy boundaries. But our hotel, 'The Times', is a lovely place with great facilities that I'm assured is in no way affiliated with the Murdoch empire.

    After dropping off our laundry to be processed for the princely sum of a quid a kilo, we ventured out via a tour-operator, to book our following day's excursion, then on toward the former Imperial Citadel. En route, it began to rain so we popped into a shop to buy some umbrellas.

    The umbrellas were of equivalent build-quality to a primary school kid's art project. You would tell them 'well done' and possibly hang on the handle of the fridge door, but wouldn't use outside lest the rain dissolve the papier-mâché canopy and weaken the lollypop-stick spokes, condensing the apparatus to a PVA-soaked mound atop a resistant yoghurt-pot handle.

    But some form of portable sheltering was certainly required, most essentially for Mark so he could perform his visual documentation duties. In our tight role-based group structure it has evolved that Mark is our Planner, Co-ordinator and Photographer, I'm our Scribe and occasional Navigator and Woody is here too. Alas, the need to both hold his camera and umbrella in such a way that the umbrella also protected the camera proved difficult. This repeated reconfiguration of equipment, coupled with the frustration of idle tourists wandering into his perfectly framed shots at the very point of perfect shelter/shutter alignment, pushed our photographer to peak perturbation before we'd even entered the Imperial City gates.

    Mark. Was. Furious. The anger eminating from his being only intensified when he noticed an interloper blotching his viewfinder in the form of a tiny dust-mite. Much as the Southern Vietnam troops occupying the citadel must have felt in January 1968 when, as part of the Tet Offensive, a Division-sized force of the People's Army of Vietnam and Viet Cong soldiers invaded, Mark was incensed by the intrusion and found it troublesome to extract. However, a quick Google search clarified this to in fact be an intentional in-built system designed to keep the aperture dust-free, confirming the mite to be a feature, not a bug.

    The rain soon ceased and we wandered through the Citadel and Imperial City calm and dry. Outside the city walls we found two clusters of cannons. One set of five represented the different elements, smartly conserving bronze by eschewing the periodic table quantities for a more Captain Planet inspired approach. The remaining four cannons represented spring, summer, autumn and winter; whilst the capital city may have the Hanoi Hilton, Hué has the Four-Seasons Cannons (DID-YOU-SEE-WHAT-I-DID-THERE!?!)

    There was much to see in the Imperial City: the ornate Throne Room, the former Forbidden City (patch of grass), nine dynastic urns opposite ten shrines for eight out of the thirteen emperors, the Reading Room, the Long Corridor, the Flag Tower, the Pavilion, the other Pavilion, gates, gates, more gates and gates being restored to their former gateness, several gardens, numerous courtyards, we fed some fish, had some ice-cream and for reasons hummed the A-Team theme-tune in harmonious adagio tempo. It was a full day, and took up most of it.

    After walking over the river to the Dieu De National Pagoda it was surprisingly late in the day so we headed back toward the hotel. We stopped-off at the first supermarket we've seen to buy some interesting hot-dog pizza-breads for a late lunch which we followed with a round of not-sure-whats a lady was making on the street outside. They were like deep-fried sweet-bread doughnuts with sesame seeds and delicious. We also finally found some Dark Choco-Pies, which since I've not explained the ubiquity of the brand nor previously chronicled the quest to locate this particular variant will mean little to anybody except us.

    In the evening we went out for food, accompanied by several good-quality beers that cost 30 pence each. We like Vietnam.
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