Death of a Reptile

“How are your bowel movements?”

“Like the weather, changeable.”

I saw frantic movement in the bowl. My eating policy is intrepid but I would be surprised to see a vertebrate survive digestion. A lizard was drowning. It interpreted my firm rescuing grasp as now being eaten in addition to drowning. I emerged with a twitching tail. The creature swam in the only direction left, down. The tail twitched on the blue tiled floor, a little red spot of spinal cord showing wetly in the eye of yellow meat where it had separated.

I dreamt an execution, a young man with a bowl haircut, arms spread on a wooden bar top. The rifle leaves a bloodshot eye in the centre of his forehead. His mother tips his head forwards. “Now, close it.”

Bunches of smiling cyclists were taking their morning exercise clockwise around the lake. A taxi hurtled towards me head-on, driver contorted in a spasm of aggression. I squeezed to a stop as it barely swerved around me.

I wheeled my bicycle through the morning market. In the narrow lane, flies ascended from a dead cockroach.

 

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Ham Lon Hill

IMG_1507This was my third bicycle trip in the areas around Hanoi. Leaving the city to the north across Nhat Tan bridge is slightly less horrible than to the west along the tedious highway to Ba Vi. The newest of the Red River bridges, Cau Nhat Tan is wide enough to accommodate two wheeled and four wheeled traffic comfortably. The highway as far as the airport is also safe, with a physically segregated lane for two-wheeled traffic. The physical segregation, clear signage and immediate presence of a more than adequate six-lane highway for cars and trucks are not enough to prevent an annoying number of cars, coaches and enormous lorries thundering past the bicycles, motorbikes and electric scooters in the two-wheeler lane. I am left to speculate on the drivers’ infernal reasons – I can think of none in heaven or earth – for taking a slower, more difficult, illegal route when a fast clear highway runs right next to it. Perhaps Hanoi drivers feel nervous breaking their established habits by driving safely and legally on an intact road surface.

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Nhat Tan bridge, the most pleasant way to cross the river.

The highway from the airport towards Thai Nguyen, however, is a deadly two-lane road crammed with trucks and enormous cars performing their foolish and dangerous antics. I have previously witnessed trucks grimly overtaking trucks on a two lane road as motorbikes laden with bales, pig carcasses, gigantic bonsais and live poultry pass both trucks and each other in both directions on both sides of the road, but only from the relative safety of a coach. It is not something I ever wish to see again on a bicycle.

I turn off into the rice fields as soon as possible. I’m pleasantly surprised not to suffer for my recklessness in relying on GPS and online mapping for my navigation, not yet owning a paper map. Somehow the raised concrete tracks through the rice fields have been accurately mapped and I cross without getting lost once, memorising a few turns at a time. The villages on the outskirts of Hanoi are not as pleasant or well-kept as Duong Lam or Co Loa – the atmosphere is a mixture of village and suburb – but they’re still a relief after the highway.

With a little sinking of heart, I turn back onto the main road, but this one is beautiful, rising gently through what poor little Alex would call “luscious gorgeousness”.

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Dong Quan lake

I approach the turning onto what looks on the map like a road around my final destination, Ham Lon lake, which I vaguely expect from what I’ve read to lead onto a hill walking trail. I intend to leave my bike at the entrance, stomp up and down the hill and ride home.

What looks like a road on the map is actually a rough track. It looks rideable so I decide to try a little off-road riding, still expecting to arrive at a walking trail later on. I’m pleased to have the off-road tyres that have been creating so much on-road friction for me.

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The trail up Ham Lon hill

At first it’s strenuous but not too hair-raising. It’s fun sweating and panting up the climbs then rushing down with tall grass whipping my face. The further I go, though, the rougher it gets, and after bouncing downhill over ridges of rock knowing I couldn’t stop if I wanted to, I decide to walk some of the trickier downhill sections.

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Bike, you go on and I’ll wait here.

After crossing a rocky stream bed, seeing a steep, narrow, muddy trail in front of me, I decide the bike’s more trouble than it’s worth. I’ll walk on for a hour, then come back and ride down the way I came. Nobody could steal my bike without a helicopter, and I haven’t seen a soul since I turned onto the trail. I’m disappointed to give up, but I’ve seen plenty of lovely scenery on the way. However, after ten minutes or so the trail opens up again. My GPS says I’m well past halfway, so I imagine there will be reasonable riding back down to the road from here.

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Back on a rideable trail

I walk back to the bike and manhandle it up the most difficult section. The trail is easy going from then on.

I haven’t seen or heard another person the whole way. This is probably the first time in a year, waking or sleeping, that I have not been able to either see or hear a motorbike. As I come off the trail, suburban Vietnam greets me rudely in the form of an uninviting roadside cafe with booming music and a vicious barking dog. I do quite fancy a nuoc mia (fresh sugar cane juice), but certainly not here.

Co Loa citadel

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The sense of peace around Co Loa is not a mere absence of noise and stress. It is a positive presence accessible to the spirit, rich with subtle traces of the heart of Vietnam. The psychological impact of such an environment after a year in Hanoi’s petrol-fuelled dragon roar of seven million motorbikes provides an expansive pleasure that can hardly be described. How much longer will this aromatic and refined spiritual atmosphere, an intangible masterwork millennia in the making, survive the brash onslaught of giant smartphones, management PhDs and a second-hand posture of brattish selfishness mistaken for individuality?

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Incense hangs heavily in the narrow space between the walls of the temple and the large wooden shrine. In chambers behind chambers, through the narrow red wooden doors, the images on the altars are strange: a long-necked bronze turtle; a throned, classically bearded figure in dim red light, behind a window that seems like a mirror.

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Note: permission was given for photography within the temple.

Sunday Morning: a Hanoi street scene

The temperatures inside and outside the house in the morning can differ by a good ten degrees either way in the changeable spring climate. The house is still cool from yesterday’s moderate temperatures; going outside is like stepping into a sauna. My landlady’s cleaner is parking her bicycle, leaving her conical bamboo hat in the bike’s shopping basket. We exchange the brief hellos that my embarrassingly feeble progress in the Vietnamese language allows.

The alley between the houses on my block is just wide enough for one motorbike, so I wait as one of my neighbours wheels her bike out of her front door, painstakingly turns it into the alley, and pushes it out onto the street.

It’s 7am. The shop to the left of my front gate hasn’t opened yet, but the street vendors are set up. In front of the closed shop, a woman displays an array of indeterminate pieces of pork on a shallow, dark brown basket. We exchange greetings. In front of her, by the kerb, another woman has small baskets of more or less live prawns and soft-shelled crabs. Some of the larger crabs scuttle around the basket with tragic optimism. To my right and in front of me, a vendor has small fruit something like cherry-plums while, to my immediate right, a vendor and customer are engaged in the tricky business of weighing live frogs. The frogs are trussed but require some coaxing to remain still enough for them to agree the weight.

A little further down the street, large wire baskets of sweet potatoes stand attached to a parked bicycle. On the road, a motorbike weaves past laden with full water-cooler bottles fitted into a metal rack. The water here being contaminated with heavy metals, Hanoians who can afford it buy purified water in reusable 20l bottles.

Beeps drift on the hot breeze. The raw petrol fumes are mixed with the pleasant scent of herbal decoctions brewing at the National Institute of Traditional Medicine just around the corner and the smaller private herbalists’ shops dotted around.

I fancy some fruit for breakfast. It’s notoriously difficult for foreigners to buy fruit and vegetables, and many just give up and eat out all the time. I’ve often been quoted prices higher than I would pay in England. Unlike some other countries, there’s no standard haggling system. Some vendors will haggle, some will just insist on a ridiculous price, take it or leave it. Confusingly, some products seem to have standard prices on the street and others must be bargained for. A ready cut pineapple will cost you a no-nonsense 10,000 dong (30p) anywhere outside the rip-off tourist district; buy a whole pineapple and you’ll be lucky to get it for 30,000 if you’re foreign.

A couple on the corner have some ripe mangoes. They offer me 4 for tam muoi nginh – 80,000. I read this as an opening bid and say 20, talking in thousands, aiming for 40. They will not budge. These are Vietnamese mangoes. Playing along, I ask khong Trung Quoc? – not Chinese? Chinese produce is regarded as poor quality and said to be contaminated with chemicals. They are proudly insistent that the mangoes are not only Vietnamese but also ngon – delicious. I explain as best I can that I work here and get paid in Vietnamese dong. They stick to their price. I’m still not quite sure whether they’re hard bargaining or this is the Vietnamese price. I shrug, stand up and walk off to get some other bits of shopping. On the way back, the woman offers me 70. I give in.

The mangoes are rather average, not very ngon at all.

Beeping Hell: A Field Guide to Hanoi Traffic Phenomena, Part 1

Cycling through the madness of Hanoi’s choked streets every day, I have begun to involuntarily compile a mental inventory of the terrifying traffic behaviours emerging from the absolute absence of organising principles.

1. Beeps

This is an extensive category, and one of the dominant features of Hanoi’s environment. I have created a system of subcategories. The top level categories are (1.1) Warning Beeps and (1.2) Arsehole Beeps.

1.1 Warning Beeps

This is an authentically useful application of the motorcycle horn and therefore occurs with such negligible frequency – an estimated 3% of all beeps – that it can be dealt with summarily. The warning beep is used to let a vehicle in front know that the beeper’s vehicle is about to pass, and so warn them against turning without looking.

1.2 Arsehole Beeps

These beeps form a subcultural phenomenon of such vast extent and with such profound implications that the following can give only an overview of this fascinating field (see Professor Nguyen’s 12-volume The Psychology and Sociology of Pointlessly Offensive Behaviour on the Road: Introductory Bibliography (trans. in prep.) for further reading). In an attempt to organise the overwhelming volume of material, I have subdivided category (1.2) into (1.2.1) Pure Arsehole Beeps and (1.2.2) Murderous Arsehole Beeps.

1.2.1 Pure Arsehole Beeps

The pure arsehole beep serves the sole purpose of letting everyone else know what an arsehole the beeper is. It is not associated with any particular manoeuvre or malmanoeuvre (see section 2). In the majority of cases the beep is redundant, as the beeper’s arseholeness would have been sufficiently evident to everyone from the obnoxiously aggressive behaviour leading up to the beep itself. The beep serves at most to provide final confirmation of the obvious. The pure arsehole beep accounts for an estimated 60% of Hanoi’s beeps.

1.2.2 Murderous Arsehole Beeps

These beeps, accounting for around 30% of Hanoi motorcycle honks, are emitted when the beeper is actively engaged in trying to kill him- or herself and as many other people as possible. For accuracy, it is important to note that the following meanings, for example, are not signalled by murderous arsehole beeps (the * symbol indicates an impossible meaning; see The Encyclopedia of Mechanically Mediated Non-Verbal Semantics, Volume 37: Light Vehicle Honks and Beeps of Southeast Asia):

*I am about to run a red light.

*I am about to turn left through a red light and a stream of oncoming traffic.

*I am about to suddenly turn or stop without looking behind me or giving any kind of signal.

*I am riding down the wrong side of the road because of a flaw in the one-way system or because I got a bit lost. Watch out!

The above meanings would serve a useful purpose and would thus fall somewhere between Warning Beeps and Murderous Arsehole Beeps. Such interpretations involve a serious misunderstanding of the Murderous Arsehole Beeper subculture. The function of a Murderous Arsehole Beep is not a warning but an accusation, threat, or statement of general ill-will towards humanity. More accurate meanings are as follows:

I’m running a red light. How dare you continue riding through your green light as if you had right of way? Get out of my way!

I’m in the process of turning left through a red light and a stream of oncoming traffic. Get out of my way!

I just suddenly turned or stopped without looking behind me or giving any kind of signal and your quick reactions just barely allowed you to avoid hitting me. Get out of my way!

I’m riding down the wrong side of the road because I’m a murderous arsehole. Get out of my way!

Along with the absence of usefulness, we may tentatively extract three basic semantic properties of the murderous arsehole beep, giving a reliable test to distinguish it from other beeps:

I’m a murderous arsehole.

Get out of my way.

I’ve just done something breathtakingly stupid and dangerous, and it’s your fault.

Hoi An and Hue Part 3: Hue city and environs

My landlady, a retired arts correspondent, has friends in Hue. She has arranged for me to meet them and they’ve booked me a half-price room in a luxurious hotel. Hue (pronounced Hway, with rising tone) is the old imperial capital of Vietnam, famous for its art, culture and elaborate cuisine.

Hue by night, from Hotel Asia

Hue by night, from Hotel Asia

I spend the first afternoon walking round the imperial citadel. The next day I take a motorbike tour with a driver to see the royal tombs dotted around the countryside.

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Royal tombs, near Hue

The tomb complexes provide a powerful impression of the elaborate grandeur of the Nguyen dynasty. The style is clearly influenced by China, but it’s not identical. The partly ruined condition of some of the sites makes them particularly atmospheric.

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Royal tombs, near Hue

river hue

The countryside is full of highly decorated cemeteries and tombs. I have a haunting glimpse of Vietnam as it was before French colonialism forced open the first chapter of its traumatic engagement with the world’s imperial powers.

Private family tomb, near Hue

Private family tomb, near Hue

Lagoon, near Hue

Lagoon with seafood fishers, near Hue (digital zoom)

My guide tells me people live permanently on these boats

My guide tells me people live permanently on these boats

I meet my landlady’s friends, Kien and Te, on the final morning. They take me for Bun Ca for breakfast (rice noodle soup with fish and crab balls). Miss Te has just retired as director of the Le Ba Dang museum, exhibiting the work of the Paris-based Vietnamese artist, who passed away recently. She treats me to a private tour of the museum, conducted in French by a pretty young Vietnamese woman, who is unflustered by talking me through pictures of flowers which are actually pictures of the female sexual organs. I manage somehow to bluff my way through a discussion of Vietnamese contemporary art in French.

My shuttle bus to Da Nang leaves at 12, so we meet for an early lunch. They take me to what they say is the best restaurant in Hue, and I believe them. Hue’s unique cuisine was developed for the royal family of the Nguyen dynasty. It’s subtle, fragrant and elaborate. I go to quite a good Hue-style restaurant in Ha Noi, but this is something altogether different. Each dish is a nuanced experience. It’s almost like appreciating a work of art or piece of music. I’ve had that sensation from very good tea before, but never from food. We taste the five savoury ‘cakes’ (the untranslatable word banh, meaning something like dough products, including bread and sweet cakes, but also many dishes which have no English equivalent) of Hue, each of which comes with a different dipping sauce. My guests appreciate my appreciation.

I arrive home to find bright green moss growing on my shoelaces. I imagine a little frog living in my shoe. Mouldy March is starting to grow on me.

Hoi An and Hue Part 2: Cham Island

A friend has recommended spending a night on Cham Island, off Hoi An. She says to take a taxi to the ferry terminal and catch the public ferry at 8am.

My taxi drops me at what looks very much like it could be the ferry terminal, with plenty of time to spare. A man of about 60 speaks a bit of English. He tells me to have a coffee and then go over to the quay to catch the boat. He translates between me and his friends as we chat over the sweet, thick, acrid Vietnamese black coffee. I don’t usually drink coffee and I’ve had no breakfast, so the effect on my mental state is noticeable. Some bloke on a motorbike comes over and offers me a speedboat to the island for 600,000 VND (£20). Why would I need a speedboat? I’m getting the public ferry, aren’t I? My coffee companion insists there’s no ferry at 8 o’clock. So what do Vietnamese people do? Oh, they get the ferry at 8 o’clock. I see.

Somehow I manage to establish that this isn’t the public ferry terminal. I have a couple of minutes to run there. The gate is closed. I run back to the main entrance and take the long way round.

During the hour crossing an almost perfectly smooth sea, there’s little to do but reflect on the Vietnamese buoyage system, though I can’t quite recall the European system well enough to compare it. Rocks seem to be marked, but what I don’t see is anything resembling lights, so I imagine night crossings are impossible or horrendously dangerous.

The main village and beach on Cham Island are rather unpleasant. The village displays the kind of vicious, ill-natured, hard-staring price-gouging that makes me never want to travel in Vietnam again. I’ve come here to relax, I know very well I’m not paying 90,000 VND (£3) for a small glass of nasty sugary tea anywhere in the world, I’m not prepared to stare someone out over it, and I look for a way out. I turn left out of the village towards the nearest beach, which turns out to be the Chinese tourist beach I’d heard about. It’s pretty, with fine white sand, but filling up with endless speedboat loads of visitors. I chat to a couple from Nanjing, which shocks me into perspective when I realise how close they seem to me culturally – Nanjing being an international city – compared to the islanders. They say they’ve walked quite a way down the road after the beach and not found anything much.

Pagoda, Cham Island, Hoi An

Pagoda, Cham Island, Hoi An

buffalo cham island

I walk back to the village, pass the pagoda, and look for a way up into the hills. After a half hour or so of hot climbing, I’m stopped by two young officers in a booth. Hands nervously on their assault rifles, they indicate by gesture that I’m not allowed any further. That makes me wonder where all the motorbikes have been coming from, but I’m not well enough armed or linguistically equipped to argue. We establish by gestures that my only permitted route is back down where I came from. I wish them a “Chuc mung nam moi” and they instantly transform from machine gun wielding officials to shy, cheerful teenagers.

Taking the road anticlockwise round the coast, I hope to attain a beach I could see from the village. On the way, a local fisherman who speaks a bit of English stops to chat and check I know where I’m going. He says I can visit the next beach and a couple of small villages if I keep going on this road. He hesitates, then invites me in for a drink with him and his friends. I don’t usually drink but I can hardly turn down this invitation. It’s Lunar New Year’s Day, or thereabouts, and I soon learn that polite refusal of another drink is part of the ritual of Vietnamese heavy drinking as one can of beer becomes three. He’s a skilled host and translates between me and his friends, me occasionally chipping in a hilariously mispronounced fragment of Vietnamese. He caught an eel early that morning and gives me lunch. It’s fresh and delicious. As I leave to continue my stroll, I ask if I should call in on the way home, but he’ll be out on his boat overnight.

I realise I’m a little drunk as I carry on up the road. Soon I find a track leading down to the beach, and here it is – my own private paradise beach.

beach cham island

goat cham island