It’s been a couple of days since I’ve written, and already I can feel some details tumbling from my brain – erosion due to the natural effects of sunshine, chlorine and alcohol.
On Saturday we awoke shortly after 7, in anticipation of our 8am bus to the ancient temples My Son. They got a little more ancient before we saw them, as the bus was 45 minutes late. While we were waiting, we said goodbye to JP’s tour group, with whom we had socialised for the last two days. Peter, the Aussie-As monorail operator from Sydney; Terry, the cockney building-site manager (and _true_ cockney, as he is fond of pointing out), with whom we had an hilarious midnight swim while quoting scenes from Life of Brian; Tina, Terry’s wife, quieter but with a sharp wit. There were others, but I’m afraid this keyboard might run out of semi-colons.
The one hour bus ride to My Son passed quickly. There was a great deal of interesting scenery: rice paddies, mountains, giant half-built bridges and freeways, and sprawling family farmhouses surrounded by dense foliage. Janelle thought she saw some marijuana plants not just growing by the roadside, but actually being harvested. Mental note: next bus ride in Vietnam, take a sickle and a hessian bag.
Oh, and Vietnam has the best-dressed scarecrows I’ve ever seen. Bright ski jackets, fashionable hats, and long gloves. Someone should tell Australia’s scarecrows that grunge is out.
On our arrival at My Son (pronounced “Mi Sun”), the sun was making a fair fist of melting the very earth under our feet. Janelle and I bought the biggest bottles of water available and braced ourselves. We paid the $5 entry fee to the park and traversed the bridge to the minibuses. I feared that this trip may turn into some kind of ancient Greek riddle-made-literal, in which we’re repeatedly piled into buses half the size and carried half the remaining distance, therefore never actually reaching our goal. I secretly wished this paradoxical limbo was not so hot, but at least the scenery was nice.
Curiously, Vietnam has gum trees. Well, almost anyway. They look just like gum trees, only skinnier. The leaves, crushed, smell like Eucalyptus but sweeter and softer. In other words, our gum trees could kick their ass. Pansy-ass trees.
The minibuses dropped us off after a five minute journey (no refrigerator-sized buses – yay!) and we walked for about ten minutes to the My Son site. On all sides were smallish Australian-scale mountains, covered in sparse Australian-type trees. It could have been the Snowy mountains in summer.
The temples at My Son were built by the Kingdom of Champa, dating back to the 4th century AD. By all accounts, the Cham were under frequent attack from several quarters, and so never grew to the size and strength of the Khmer (whose religious monument of Angkor Wat is well worth visiting, I’m told), Indonesians or Chinese, some of their contemporaries. The latest temple at the My Son site dates to around the 13th century. The ruins were unconvered by French archaeologists in the late 19th century, and unfortunately the greatest of the temples were bombed to pieces by the Americans during the Vietnam war, as the North Vietnamese army were reputedly using them as a hide-out.
My Son itself consists of eight specific sites, in three clusters. The first cluster was also the most intact, consisting of B, C and D sites (from memory). From there we visited site A (so named because it was the first that they found, and the most impressive), which is now a crater with a few bricks on one side, and sites E, F and G, which consist of two craters and a truncated traffic-cone of brick held up by unevenly spaced metal rods, a crash-landed flying saucer.
The temples which are intact are mostly red-brick. Science has not yet discovered how the bricks lasted for so long; sections of temples that have been rebuilt in the 80’s and 90’s crumbled after just a decade, yet these temples have been standing for one and a half millenia.
The Cham were influenced by many of the cultures with whom they competed. At various periods there are influxes of Buddhist, Hindu and Chinese influences, and others. As well as Uroja, the mythical mother of the Cham kings (represented by a big round breast and nipple on top – there are boobs everywhere), they worshipped Shiva (destruction and rebirth), Brahma (creation), and Vishnu (protection).
Our guide spoke better French than English (and in fact sometimes seemed to confuse the two languages). He spoke to us for a while on the way back to the hotel, and it turns out that his dream is to see snow. He had his chance, as he was studying French and his scholarship provided a trip to France at the end of the three-year course. However, he changed to Economics after three semesters.
In the afternoon, we swam and swam and swam in the hotel pool, meeting some more Aussies (Annabel and Steven, from Geelong). They had caught our flight to Vietnam (sitting across from us in the center section), and more coincidentally, are travelling to Tokyo on the same day and at the same time as me, from Hanoi rather than Saigon. We’ve been hanging out with them frequently ever since, and we’re doing another cooking class with them tonight (Monday).
We walked down to the market after dark to collect our suits (pausing on the way to collect six (!) shirts that I had ordered, and a silk top for Janelle), but the shop had already closed, so we wandered back and ate, and then e-mailed ’til the Internet Cafe closed at 10:30.
Oh yes, I had almost forgotten to mention one significant occurrence. At some point in the afternoon, I went for a wander to the Japanese bridge, which it turns out is not the plain concrete footbridge I thought it was, but rather a large and ornate covered wooden bridge over a small tributary nearby. I walked across and found myself in a less-touristy part of town. After a cluster of art galleries, the street was quiet and shady. As I was walking along I heard an Aussie accent to my right, old, broad and male:
“Mate! Hey mate, how would you like to stick your dick in one of these birds?”
“Don’t worry mate, they can’t understand a word we’re sayin’!”
A white man of around 60 years was sitting on the porch of a family-home-cum-drinks-stand. The Vietnamese residents were hovering around, some of whom were young, female and admittedly attractive. Feeling rather uncomfortable, I mumbled some vague acknowledgement and moved on.
Eventually I realised I would have to go back the way I came, and for some reason I can’t quite grasp, I resolved to sit and chat to the old bastard. I got a drink of 7-Up, and took note of the ten or so empty beer cans on the table between us. Words tumbled from his mouth.
“Check this one out, I haven’t seen her before, she’s gorgeous. Don’t be afraid to look mate. They can’t understand what we’re sayin’. Hey, gorgeous, giveusalookatya!”. The girl was somewhere between 16 and 19, I’d say. She grinned and went back inside. I racked my brains, wondering if I stumbled on a brothel and this man was the pimp.
I felt I had to respond. “Uh, yeah, well, I’ve got a girlfriend back in Australia, plus I’m travelling with a friend of hers, so no acting up for me, heh heh.”
“Ah, mate, she’ll never know! Ya just buy them a meal and a bit of jewellery, they fuck like rattlesnacks ya know.”
Feeling I’d established a fairly coherent picture of his attitude towards women, I felt compelled to change the subject. I asked him about himself. It turns out he’s retired, and lives with his wife on the New South Wales coast. He comes to Vietnam about 3 times a year, a month each time, and three weeks of that in Hoi An. He is well known at his regular hotel, and they relax the usual rules about taking local girls back to his room. His wife has no idea that his “treks” are really sex-tours, and he bragged loudly about having two girls a day. I’m sure at some point he has taken home a venereal gift for his unwitting spouse.
Thankfully before long a female backpacker came along, and after she joined us for a drink (the talk suddenly turning to much less lusty topics), she and I left together. Thally was her name, middle-aged and Dutch. She has a boyfriend back home, but chooses to travel alone. We walked around that backroads, past rice paddies and small rivers. I played soccer for a few minutes with some local boys, and managed not to completely embarrass myself. “David Beckham!” they shouted, as a way of connecting through the world of International Football. “Oman!” I shouted back, recalling the worst team you could play in a C64 game called Microprose International Soccer.
Eventually we were approached by a woman in her thirties, very friendly (a little too keen, but this made sense later). She invited us to see her house, and told us about her family. She dragged out photos, too, of her children in the scouts, wedding parties, at school. Then, she told us about how expensive school is, how her son sells trinkets on the street, and perhaps we should buy some for good luck. We tried to say no, but being so much on the spot, we eventually capitulated. I bought some postcards. These people are emotional puppet-masters. It’s karma, in a way, for everything being so cheap.
I woke early and hit the pool. Janelle has been sleeping longer than me, so I’ve been reading a books while eating breakfast. The sense of distraction bit me today, as I overfilled by clever-Vietnamese-fresh-coffee-gizmo and it poured all over the table. I tried to soak it up with paper serviettes, creating in the process a coffee-scented paper-mache cast of the table.
My current book is the penguin edition of A Clockwork Orange, having just finished the penguin edition of Nineteen Eighty Four. The theme of this trip seems to be “Thin classics with weird pseudo-English languages in them”.
This morning, after a swim, we visited the market to pick up our clothes. My grey suit was almost perfect, but needs a little taking in at the back. The vest and shirt didn’t need any changes. I think I may be getting a little clothes-crazy, because I proceeded to order a white suit (!), a long black double-breasted coat with silver buttons, and a couple of rather camp shirts. Janelle, of course, is the inspiration for these pieces. By the time I return, I’ll resemble a straight Peter Allen. Straight, you hear me? Straight!
In the afternoon, we met up with Steven and Annabel again, and enjoyed an Indian dinner and repeated thrashing at pool (the type with a table and balls) with them. Games of pool are free here – I guess they made their money off me in the $3.60 Long Island Ice Tea I bought. Crikey it was strong.
And that brings us to Monday.