A New Approach is Needed

I am having to revise my approach to living in Hanoi, and quickly too. It’s a long story but I am going to tell you anyway, so settle in. It begins in Cape Town. In South Africa we white people are often hassled and harangued. Not necessarily threatened but everybody has their hand out. White, black, or anything in between. Give me something for nothing. Sometimes with a please, sometimes with a whimpering and pathetic plead. Especially if you look like a tourist. And I don’t like that. I will always give something to somebody who is actually doing something. Guarding the cars, waiting the tables, selling the Big Issue, sweeping the pool. Whatever it is, even if it is leftover pizza (everybody asks for a doggy bag in Cape Town) I will always give somebody something, if they are making an effort for themselves.

However, in South Africa, I can pass as a local white man. I at least look similar even if my London accent is a bit of a give away. So, if anybody approaches me in the street, dressed in trouble and who looks as if they are going to ask me for something, money, cigarettes, cell phone, then I can adopt the Johannesburg Stare. It’s the one I use that looks straight at a person, with a lazy eye, one eyebrow cocked and a slight turn of the head that says ‘don’t even think about it Boet.’ (which literally translates as ‘brother’ but really means ‘mate’.) And then, realizing I am not a tourist after all and instead assuming that I am from Johannesburg, or a veteran of the border wars, they go away. And quickly too.

This doesn’t work in Hanoi. I’ve tried it. And I now realize why that is. It is because they know I am not local. They know I am not from these parts. For some reason I stand out and I think it must be my African shirts. So I thought of a solution. The thing is (and I told you this was a long story) when I travel I tend to travel lightly. My reasoning is that as long as I have my passport and bank card then anything else I may forget I can sort out on arrival. Obviously I want my books, laptop, phone etc but I do not fret for hours making lists of what I might or might not need or worry that I may have forgotten something important. Because the only important things are bank card and passport. Everything else can be bought on arrival, if necessary.

And that is where I made a schoolboy error when travelling to Vietnam. I had read somewhere that in Hanoi you can buy shirts for $3, footwear for $4, bedding for $20 and so on. You know where I am going with this. So I used up my weight allowance on books and equipment knowing I can buy clothes, shampoo, shaving stuff and all the rest of it for a fraction of what it would cost me to buy first and then cart half the way around the world. This means my clothing inventory amounted to about four shirts, two pairs of trousers, three pairs of shorts, whatever I was wearing when I got on the plane and, well that’s about it.

Now, here is the problem. An extra large shirt in Vietnam would probably fit a twelve year old boy in South Africa, or an eighteen year old girl in England (or a four year old American) but they just don’t sell clothes for 6’2″ and 94kg westerners like me with size ten feet. Apparently they do not cater for orangutans here. However, resourceful as I am, I thought I could find a way of blending in a little better and have some of those eastern shirts made for me. You know the ones with the communist collar, pockets around the waist and with some sort of Eastern pattern. Kill two birds and all that. Find some new clothes to fit and then blend in and stop being recognized as a westerner in the street.

Well, obviously that didn’t work and the hassling continued. ‘Buy this from me Mr, I do you a special deal.’ I still had some empathy for these people, who are at least trying to eke out a living of some sort. That is until I needed lighter fuel for my Zippo and some new flints so bought them at the Zippo shop on Hang Thung Street for 60,000 Dong ($3). Then, the following day, a young street lad with a tray of fake Zippos and tins of fuel approached me, having seen my lighter on the table and said ‘I give you good deal on fuel and flints, the best in town.’ Ok, I know I already had them but I am going to need more, sooner or later, so I said, ‘Yes, I will buy some from you.’ He didn’t have any flints so scurried off down the road. Ten minutes later he returned, with a beaming smile, handed them over and said ‘special price for you, only 280,000 Dong ($15)

He obviously didn’t know what I already knew (that his special price was four and a half times more special than in the shop around the corner) and so I told him he was a con artist and to piss off. He was shocked, hurt, almost in tears. So was I. He wouldn’t leave me alone and followed me a good half a mile along the street, ‘how much will you pay then, give me anything’ he said. I released he had probably spent his dinner money in the same shop as I had been in to buy these flints for me but I am losing my empathy for this sort of thing.

Then, yesterday, a very old man walked up to my table on the pavement with a toothless smile, said something I didn’t understand and actually made to pick up my cigarettes off the table. He wanted a fag. (That’s a smoke for those of you in America) I grabbed them and told him to piss off too. And, after I had thought about it, I decided I don’t like that about myself. What I am becoming? Am I losing my empathy for those who have next to nothing to survive on. Has the constant pestering in the hot and narrow streets of Hanoi finally revealed the limit of my patience or did Cape Town do this to me long ago, and i’ve only just noticed?

I don’t want to be taken advantage of, in a cynical fashion, in a country whose people think I am an easy mark but, by the same token, a pack of cigarettes cost as little as a single dollar here. ONE DOLLAR. Why didn’t I just give the old man the whole packet? I began to wish I had. As for the street kid? Well, he will learn, like the rest of us. I am sure he is learning all the time. He’ll be alright as a hustler. This town is full of European travelers who realize that 280,000 Dong for lighter fluid is about half what they would have to pay in Germany. The police are trying to stamp out that sort of behavior towards tourists but, as long as he doesn’t get caught, he’ll be fine. By the way, that old man walked past me again this morning. I called him over and gave him my packet of Marlboro. The look on his face was worth a hundred dollars to me. I might do it every time I see him.

And that brings me to another way I have to change my way of thinking here. Three times now I have been approached by beautiful, young (probably teenage) Vietnamese girls who have said, ‘Hello, can I speak to you for a while.’ Now, where I come from beautiful young girls just don’t do that to 34 year old men like me who are slightly graying at the temples. So I thought what you are thinking now. Prostitutes, and perhaps not even girls. ‘Leave me alone’ I said on each occasion, ‘go away.’ But, I was talking to an American this afternoon, who I met a few days ago in a bar along the street, who has traveled these parts before and has more experience than me, who said, ‘one of the things I like is all the young people who just want to talk to you, so they can practice their English.’

And he has a point, I have experienced this myself. The owner of the coffee shop opposite my hotel, that I now call ‘Nan’s Kitchen’ (see Hotel Blues) has a sixteen year old daughter who regularly asks if she can sit and talk with me as it is ‘good for my English.’ The young Vietnamese people are very aware that if they are going to get on in the modern world then they will have to speak fluent English. I suspect that within a single generation everybody will. So, I am changing my approach. I realize now the Vietnamese shirts will not prevent me from being hassled, so I need to get used to it and stay polite. I can’t help looking English after all.

And, from now onward, I will not tell poor street kids to piss off but will explain that I know they are trying to massively overcharge me and do some negotiating instead. (They need to know that not every westerner is an idiot) And I will hope the police don’t catch up with him. Also, I will give away my smokes to old men and, most importantly of all, the next time a beautiful young Vietnamese girl asks to talk to me then I will say yes, invite her back to my hotel, check she is actually a girl and then talk to her about whatever she wants to talk about. I might be 48, no wait, 34, but I can still keep it up all night. A conversation, I mean.

Albert Jack

Hanoi City – May 2013

Next – Hanoi Street Life

Albert Jack books available for download here

Important Travel Advice

Last week, in a piece I wrote called ‘Hotel Blues,’ I might have inadvertently suggested it may sometimes be a good idea to accidentally miscount the number of shirts you list on your hotel laundry inventory. After all, we all make mistakes and there is no harm in having a few shirts washed and ironed for free, in error. However, I feel it is my duty to point out that this should never, under any circumstances, ever be done in a South African hotel.

The simple reason is that even somebody with a half-inch brain can work out your clothes are worth considerably more than you are paying to have laundered. And that means if there are seven shirts, two pairs of shorts and three pairs of boxers on the inventory then that is exactly what returns. So if you then see the laundry van driver wearing your favorite Paul Smith design the next time you see him, or find yourself complaining to the reception that two pairs of your most comfortable old boxers have gone missing, then don’t blame me.

I am not one for giving out travel advice but whilst we are on the subject, your hotel safe is not as safe as you think it is either. I have lost count of the number of times I have booked into a room only to find the previous occupant has left the safe locked. And no-body knows their code. It’s easily solved though because after a quick call to reception somebody you have never seen before turns up with an override key, opens it up, shows you how to set a new code and then disappears. You might never see him again. But, did you notice the important part of that last sentence? Override key. If this stranger can by-pass the previous occupant’s password then he can by-pass yours too. And everybody else’s.

Now I am not suggesting, that in a half decent hotel, you are going to return to find your Rolex, or passport or toothbrush (that’s where I keep mine – see Hotel Blues) missing because if you do then there are ways to find out who has used his card to get into your room and at what time. Plus, it is an obvious theft and so the hotel will call the police, although you will have to prove you had a Rolex in there in the first place. And that’s not going to be easy. However, if you, like most travelers, also have a few thousand in ready cash tucked away then don’t be surprised if at least part of it has gone missing when you count it. Only you won’t count it will you, because it has been safely in the safe. You will never know that your $2000 became $1800 because you thought it was safe. Instead you will assume you spent more than you thought, if you even notice at all.

Before I came to Hanoi I read as much about the place as I had the time to and everything I saw recommended the food. ‘Street food, restaurant food, any type of Vietnamese food is just the best in Asia,’ everybody confidently advised me. Even the few friends I have who have actually been here warmly endorsed the food. One of those is a top class chef himself. And, by and large, this is all true, depending upon where and what you eat.

And this leads me to the problem of bloggers, or amateur writers, who try to become something of an authority on the Internet but, in actual fact, usually write like a retard. I will forgive them, to some extent, for getting carried away and over enthusiastic about their experiences. Enough to want to take the time to share them with strangers, but rarely, like proper writers should, do they get into the meat of the subject with any real objectivity. That’s if they even notice the heart and bones at all. But I will. I’ll tell you how it really is.

Overall, the food here in Hanoi is excellent. The street food especially. My sister emailed me yesterday to say she had seen a documentary on Hanoi street food and ‘they go through restaurant dustbins and put a load of left overs in those pots,’ she warned me. She then said ‘mind you, you grew up on Mum’s cooking so you have a stomach like the inside of 19th century steam train boiler.’ She didn’t say that, I made it up. She said ‘stomach of iron.’ She doesn’t know anything about trains. However, I doubt it is true and I wonder about the motives of such documentary makers. The street food I have seen is usually all neatly out on display, clean looking and fly free before being cooked to order, in front of you. In many ways I prefer this to the restaurants where I dread to think what might be going on back there in hidden kitchens. Have you seen Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares? Well, you don’t get any of that nonsense with street food.

So, whilst my experience of Hanoi street food has been largely very good, this is not an exact science. Only yesterday I went into a new place because I liked the look of the seafood rice they confidently displayed on a menu outside. What I received was a small plate of plain rice and a bowl of luke warm dishwater with a few spring onions, tomatoes and a lump of fish that was so bony and tasteless that it reminded me of Victoria Beckham. So, pushing it to one side, I asked for some of the spare ribs they had on the buffet instead. She gave me a plate of something clearly past its best that had been lingering around far too long, (let’s call them David) so I didn’t eat that either. Instead I drank the beer, left Posh and Becks on the table behind me and the old lady still had the nerve to charge me one-hundred and twenty thousand dong for the experience. Which is £3.50.

Still, that’s money well spent on finding out where not to eat. Instead I moved across the road to another option and saw something that looked fabulous being eaten by two local gentlemen on a pavement table. I had no idea what it was but pointed to it when the waiter arrived. One of the men saw this and with a big grin, that revealed something green hanging from his lip, also pointed to it and gave me a thumbs up. Now, I know a cultured restaurant critic when I see one so took that as a firm recommendation. I nodded to the waiter and pointed to the big fridge with the cold beer in it. There is a lot of pointing and nodding in Hanoi. Well, where I am concerned there is. It works though. Within one minute I had a cold beer and two minutes later I had a few plates of what used to be on the table next to me. It was gone and so were the men.

They do a lot of that in Hanoi. I can sit down in a restaurant or pavement table and am still waiting for the food to cool down enough to become edible and a dozen people could have come in, eaten and left. I might then spend half an hour with a cold beer. They don’t. I have seen guys finish their food and walk out. Sometimes leaving behind half a glass of whatever they were drinking. In, eat, out. Gone. I don’t know why they are in such of a hurry because no-body seems to actually do anything around here. The traffic is hectic so they are all either going to, or coming from, somewhere. But where..? Perhaps they just drive around in circles all day.

After I had finished eating, I still don’t know what it was but it looked like a beef and spinach combination, I sat watching the Friday night go by as I nursed my beer. As I did so a young and well-dressed couple pulled up on a scooter, sat down on the low stools outside, said nothing to anyone, including each other, were handed a plate of what looked like bird seed to me, she had an ice cream and he had a green tea. He sat with his back to me, she so that I could see up her skirt. (it wasn’t my fault, I was there first) It looked like a date but you call that a Friday night out do you? I had a few more beers and they had some more bird seed and an hour later I still hadn’t seen anyone talk to anyone. So that’s a Friday night out in Hanoi is it? Ok, I admit, by 8.30pm I was back at my hotel with cocoa and brandy and tucked in for the night with a good book but back in the day, when I were their age, Coco and Brandy were the strippers. And when I wasn’t feeling very well I sent for Honey and Ginger.

Hanoi – May 2013

Next – A New Approach is Needed

Albert Jack books available for download here

Bootlegs and Piracy, Vietnam Style.

Something strange is going on here. Since I bought new leads with local plugs and charged everything back up I have noticed that every time I walk back into my hotel room the iPad beeps and as I approach my laptop, which is always left on, it goes into screensaver mode. I have been out for ten minutes and for three hours, so it cannot possibly be a timed screen saver setting. Are they fitted with movement sensors? I have never noticed this before but that is possibly because I lived in a big house in Cape Town and perhaps didn’t hear it, or see it. Or are the communist Vietnam government watching, or listening to me? Have they been into my room and done something too technical for me to understand? That wouldn’t be difficult. After all, a ten year old could do something too technical for me to understand. What’s happening here, am I going mad?

Something else technical baffled me recently too. I treated myself to a new laptop a few months ago which came equipped with Windows 8. I am not going to get into the Windows XP, 7 or 8 debate because it doesn’t interest me. And I don’t understand it either. But, having now got used to Windows 8, I have to say that it is very good. And that, coming from me, means it is easy to use. And you won’t hear me say that very often. I even managed to link it to my printer, wirelessly. I have had that printer for 4 years and never been able to figure that out before, but windows 8 detected it and asked me if I wanted to connect them together. Selecting ‘yes’ then immediately solved that particular four year old problem for me.

However, when I tried to load on all my old software programs I found that none of them worked. I must have spent three days trying to get (Ok, I am not going to name names here) them installed but found that none of them are compatible with Windows 8. And that’s American Corporations for you. If you upgrade your hardware, then you have to spend another couple of thousand dollars upgrading all the software too. And that annoys me. Luckily, I couldn’t get the new versions of what I need in Cape Town because it is still 1998 down there. But when I asked the manager of the hotel I am currently staying in he directed me to Software Street, Hanoi City and assured me somebody down there would have what I needed.

Armed with a map I made my way through the alleyways and narrow streets and amazed myself by actually finding it. Mind you all I had to do was keep the little blue dot (my position) on my navigator on the blue line that threaded its way between my hotel and the row of shops under the railway arches and I couldn’t really go wrong, could I. I was then further amazed that the first person I asked understood what I wanted, gave me two disks, a page of password key codes and asked me for 40,000 Dong. I had to sit down. ‘Let me get this right’ I stammered. ‘You are giving me software that will work on Windows 8, that would cost me a couple of thousand US Dollars online, for under $2 in your shop. She smiled, laughed, looked at me as if I were an idiot, didn’t have a clue what I had just said and held out her hand. Even as I passed over a 50,000 Dong note (roughly $2) I was sure she would shake her head and add another zero, or two, but instead she gave me change.

Outside, in what can only be described as a dirty little back street on the wrong side of the tracks, folk were sitting around with brand new looking laptops loading on software they had obviously bought from either the same shop or one of the others along the way. It’s just a different way of life to the one I have been used to. In South Africa I wouldn’t be in that street in the first place, let alone openly displaying a brand new laptop. You would be relieved of it in 2 minutes by somebody with a sharp object, or worse. Not here though, that sort of thing simply doesn’t seem to happen. In Cape Town I wouldn’t even be wandering the streets following the map on my smart phone because some little bastard, who can run faster than me, would grab it from my hand and be around the corner and down the road in no time.

Another example of this was when I was sitting on a little plastic seat, (the kind of which I last encountered at a parent/teacher evening when my son was 3 years old,) eating a bowl of Bun Cha when I realised I had left my iPad and phone on the seat next to me, which was actually behind me as I was looking the other way. I span around so quickly to grab for them that some of my vital organs took a while to catch up and I felt faint.The lady serving the Bun Cha started laughing. She then pointed to my valuables, pointed to her eyes and gave a thumbs up.

I read this in sign language that she had been keeping an eye on them for me. Not that she needed to. I’m not in Cape Town anymore. I am in a country where they hunt thieves down and send them to jail forever, not simply give you a reference number and tell you to call your insurance company. The last time I left my phone and iPad unattended in Cape Town the owner of the restaurant told me not to come running to him after someone has made off down the road with them. And he is one of my closest friends. I really do need to find some new friends.

Anyway, back to the software. I waited until I reached the safety of my hotel room before installing it and was, once again, staggered that it actually all loaded. I confidently tapped in one of the six serial codes that came with the disks and.. well, of course it didn’t work. Neither did the other five. What can you expect for $2, blood? But, I am learning how Hanoi moves and shakes and so, undeterred, I took the laptop and disks back to the little shop this morning to show them the problem. It wasn’t a problem. Some gangly schoolboy appeared from nowhere, uninstalled everything, changed the date on my laptop back to 2010, re-installed it all again, re-set the date and it all now works, perfectly.

And another thing, they wouldn’t charge me any more money. I tried insisting but they were having none of it. Nobody tips in restaurants either. It’s all so different to what I am used to and I have found out why. It’s because Vietnamese people have so much respect for money, and those who work hard for it, that when they see a person simply giving it away then that person loses all credibility. They don’t think, ‘what a nice guy for giving me extra money for simply doing what I am already paid to do’ instead they think, ‘what a tosser.’ I quite like that.

What I don’t like are bootlegs and rip offs. And even with my limited understanding of all things technical it still seemed to me that something along those lines was going on with this $2 software. It’s morally wrong kids, ok. It’s piracy and it is all wrong so don’t do it. I’ll tell you something else that is morally wrong and should be a criminal offence too. And that is selling me a new $1500 laptop with Windows 8 that will not recognize any of the software I have legally obtained, at great expense, over the last ten years and instead expects me to pay for it all over again. So, Captain America, I am doing things in the Vietnamese fashion whilst I am here and if you don’t like it then come and insist they change their ways. I would love to see you try. But, just remember what happened the last time. I am starting to really like this place.

By the way, it has now been two weeks since I plugged all my appliances into the sockets of the hotel room and that weird stuff started happening that I told you about earlier. For an entire fortnight it has puzzled me and I even asked the hotel manager this morning. He was just as baffled as me but did explain they were making some electrical upgrades in the area and some of the hotels were without power, although this one has its own generator. ‘That has nothing to do with it’ I told him. His next best suggestion was that it must have something to do with my equipment, but had no other clues on offer. Although he did reassure me that the authorities had not been asking about me or been allowed into my room. (Yes, I really did ask him)

But, whilst writing this I have finally worked it out and you can be the first to know. Just now the electricity in my room went off, completely. I assume the main power to the street has come back on and the generator turned off but, for a brief three seconds, I sat here in darkness. Then, when it all came on again my iPad gave a little bleep and the screen saver closed my page down, just as the pair of them have been tormenting me by doing every time I walk into the room. So now I have realised what it is. Each time I go out I take the key card out of the slot on the wall, put it in my pocket and close the door. Then, when I come back I open the door, put it back into the slot which, and this is the important part, turns the power to the room back on and puts both laptop and iPad into charging mode, which accounts for the bleep and screen saver each time I come in.

I finally got there. I wondered why, when I went out the other day and left my phone on charge, I returned to find the battery completely drained. See, I told you i’m not very technically minded. And that’s now another thing you can add to my list of reasons I don’t like living in hotels (see Hotel Blues) You can’t go out and leave anything to charge up. Instead the batteries drain down.

Albert Jack in Hanoi 

May 2013

Next – Important Travel Advice

Albert Jack books available for download here

Guitars on Liquor Lane.

I don’t know why I keep walking around The Old Quarter in Hanoi. It’s a bee hive and I always get lost in it. That’s probably because it was designed by the French and everything looks the same. Mind you, not that this is a big problem because I know how to get to my hotel from Hoan Kiem Lake. And The Old Quarter is on the north bank of the lake. So, thanks to the compass on my smart phone, I can always head south and from there find my way home. That and the central road through the area, Ma May Street, which leads to the liquor stores, has become familiar to me. So whenever I see Ma May, I also know the way home. But anywhere else in town and it is time for the compass.

Thank you Steve Jobs. And this time I don’t mean for putting a camera on your phones which led to a generation of stupid girls taking naked photographs of themselves, in the bathroom mirror, and sending them to their boyfriends without realizing that as soon as she cheats on him, he will post it on the internet for the rest of us to laugh at. So I am told. Go and google ‘stupid girls with iPhones’ and see for yourself. Seriously, thank you Steve Jobs, wherever you are, for your vision. Without you I wouldn’t have a compass or a Vietnam to English (and vice versa) translator on my iPad and phone which has made life so much easier. Up to a point.

Since I arrived here I have been curious about the public broadcast that seems to bellow out of speakers all over the place sometime between 4-6pm every day. I asked a Scotsman, who said he had been here for years, what it was all about and he said that he had been told it was only public information, the weather, traffic and other everyday detail. ‘That’s communism for you,’ I told him. He looked confused. So I explained that it might only be news but it is their entirely one-sided version of the news and you don’t have a choice but to hear it. A bit like CNN in America but at least you can turn that off. Anyway, he didn’t seem too curious about anything really and would probably believe everything they (the locals) told him after a few beers.

I don’t work like that. Instead I downloaded a voice translator for my iPad, set it to Vietnamese-English translation, sat down in a nearby bar and hit the button. Thanks to the traffic noise it didn’t pick much up but one of the sentences it did translate was, ‘when I grow up I want to be a pineapple in the military so I can do some security of our national.’ Ok, so it doesn’t work very well but I understand the words military, national and security. It is government propaganda being broadcast all over Vietnam every day, throughout every town, city and street. Or perhaps it was some sort of fruit farming or recruitment broadcast.

I am glad I don’t understand it otherwise I would have the wire cutters out. And apparently you can be deported for that. I have been told of an American who had one of these speakers outside his bedroom window who leaned out and snipped the wires. They were repaired once, then twice and on the third time he did it they took him to the airport and put him on a plane, to where I have no idea. I have just noticed a speaker set into the ceiling of my hotel room that is disguised as a light. What’s that doing there? I suppose I will find out sooner or later.

By the way, as you have already jumped to conclusions about my intimate knowledge of Ma May Street, that leads to Alcohol Ally, I shall now explain how you’ve got that all wrong. Although I can’t really blame you. During the final flight to Hanoi I passed the time making a list of things I knew I would need, or want, soon after I arrived.

1. New leads for my phone, laptop and iPad. (I didn’t expect there to be any South Africa to Vietnam adapters for the plugs. I was right.)
2. A local bank account. (I have nearly lost my dollars once too often already.)
3. A new guitar. (I didn’t bring any of mine and as I play virtually everyday these days I thought I would pick one up when I got here.)
4. Bottle of whisky (that’s just on every list I make)

So, after I had secured new leads and plugged everything in I did a search of music or instrument shops in Hanoi. I found three and took a walk down to the area but only to find they were all of the sort of quality you would see being smashed over somebody’s head in a slapstick comedy. Now, I am no guitar snob, (well, I am a bit) but I don’t want a balsa wood guitar, I want a real one. On the way back I started dropping into hotels to compare prices with the one I am already in and was amazed to find that in the reception of one of them, on Ma May Street, was a selection of about fifty acoustic guitars of all makes, shapes, sounds and sizes. How’s that for coincidence? Or it could be… No, I don’t believe in that sort of thing, it was coincidence, that’s all.

I didn’t even ask their room rate, I just sat down and started playing a few. Within minutes I had a crowd around me and one of them was the manager, who owns them all. ‘What on earth are all these doing here?’ I asked him. Luckily his English is good and explained that they had bought an auction Lot of random furniture and the guitars were included in the sale. And now, he was selling them on, to me if I wanted them. So I spent the next three days going back to the hotel and playing my way through most of them. Not the silly Spanish Flamenco ones with the plastic strings but the proper ones. I settled on an old 1970’s Japanese Morris guitar, which were curiously very popular in America at that time, paid him about half of what it was worth (according to ebay) put it over my shoulder and strolled back down Ma May Street to where I am currently staying.

And that’s how me and Ma May became familiar with each other, ok? I bet that guitar has a few stories in her, don’t you? If only she could speak. So if you are in the market for decent guitar in Hanoi then the place is called Hanoi Style Hotel at the top of Ma May Street, just before you get to the bottle stores where, by the way, I have just found one that sells that decent local whisky I previously mentioned, Wall Street, for only 106,000 Dong, which is GBP3.20 or R45 instead of the 150,000 I have been paying next door to the hotel. Now that’s worth a five minute walk up Ma May every day. I mean, any day.

I have noticed something unusual this afternoon. Westerners, people who look like me. They are suddenly all over the place. That shouldn’t be too surprising as I am staying right in the heart of the city’s ancient tourist district. But, in the last three weeks or so, the only tourists I have seen are Chinese, Japanese and Indian. I am even the only westerner in my hotel so something of a curiosity to them. I wonder what they make of me. The quiet Englishman who doesn’t eat breakfast with us but sits on his own in the cafe opposite drinking coffee and tapping away on his iPad (which exactly what I am doing now). Then he goes back to his room for 5 hours (maybe he is sleeping – I am not, I am writing) and then he leaves, sits in the bar down the road for a few hours, comes back, goes to his room and no-body sees him again until he is spotted outside the cafe opposite the hotel sometime after 10.30am. There is nothing wrong with having a routine, all right.

I have become able to distinguish between the Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese and it is easier than you would think. The Japanese all have cameras around their necks, 1980’s style, the Chinese have the money so they hire those peddle rickshaws, called cyclo’s, to go everywhere in and the Vietnamese are the ones doing the peddling. And I can spot the Indians too because they…. Oh, just take my word for it. But today the Europeans seem to have arrived and, being one myself, I can also tell them apart. The Germans are generally well organized, polite and friendly. The French are the opposite and my fellow Englishmen are all, by and large, stupid. Trying to speak English, very slowly and with a Vietnamese accent, is pretty stupid if you ask me.

And, just now, as I write this sitting in, as far as I can make out, the only real pub in Hanoi (they even have an old Fuller’s sign on the window) an English lad has just sat at the table next to me with his fake blond girlfriend, or sister, and ordered sausage and mash. I despair, I really do. Ok, so I am sitting in the pub too but I have just eaten magnificent Singapore noodles, with seafood, at a place just around corner for 55,000 Dong, or GBP1.85 (Rand 26 for those of you still living on borrowed time) and Essex Boy here, next to me, pitches up in this beautiful, fascinating Asian city and goes straight to the nearest pub to order Bangers and Mash for 120,000 Dong. And the blonde is having chicken burger & chips for the same price. Serves them right, I’m going back to the hotel to sneak past the Chinese, un-noticed – hopefully.

Albert Jack

Albert Jack books available for download here

Next – Bootlegs and Pirates


Hotel Blues

Hotel Blues

I am not feeling at my best today. My ankle became swollen during the long flight to Hanoi, which is to be expected for a man of my age who drinks as much, in the free departure lounge, before flying as I do. It’s happened before and so I knew exactly what I needed to do. Find a chemist and get myself some anti-inflammatory tablets. Now, that’s easy enough in South Africa, America or London, but here in Hanoi it meant a combination of sign language, pointing and nodding. I pointed to the ankle and she nodded, gave me a pack of tablets and showed me two fingers. I assumed that meant two per day. After all, I did point out I am English and not American in case there were any lingering hard feelings.

The trouble is that was three days ago and my left ankle is now twice the size it was then, which was twice the size it should be. Perhaps the chemist thought that when I pointed to one ankle I wanted the other one to match. Or maybe, when she showed me two fingers, popped two imaginary pills into her mouth and then made the international hand gesture for swigging a drink, she meant water. Especially in the morning. How could she know that where I come from that particular hand gesture means only one thing. And is usually demonstrated in a pub. So, it’s a quiet night in the hotel on my own later with my feet up. And I shall try water with my whiskey. I plan on taking a week’s worth of tablets in one go tonight. That should deflate me, one way or another. Hopefully, tomorrow, I will be able to put my sandals back on again.

I don’t like living in hotels. They serve a purpose for a day or so here and there when you are on your way to somewhere else. But you try setting up home in one for a period of time. For a start, housekeeping gets on my nerves. The bin, for example, belongs under the television so can I lob my empties into it without standing up. It doesn’t belong under the desk behind me where I have to crawl on my hands and knees to move it from everyday. And, after you have cleaned the bathroom, please put the shower head back up to where I left it this morning. I am 6’2 and not four-years old. Also, unless it is winter time, I sleep on the bed, not in it. So stop turning the duvet down every afternoon. Leave everything how I left it.

And if you really must watch your favorite Vietnamese soap opera on the television as you make your way around my room then tune it back to the sports channel when you leave. Or news channel. Whatever was on when you got there. You are just making work for me. I hope none of them read this or I am going to have to start hiding my toothbrush. I already make sure it is zipped up in a wash bag, put in a drawer all day and not left out on display. Do you do this? You might want to start. They don’t pay these housekeepers much and you don’t want to even think about what a resentful little maid might do with something you put in your mouth everyday. If I was American I would take mine out with me, or lock it in the safe. Maybe there is nothing to worry about. Not everybody thinks like me.

And then there is the food. The menu never changes, although that doesn’t matter in Hanoi where there is every kind of food you can imagine within two minutes of my front door. I am definitely going to try those snails I saw in the cafe up the road this morning. I have never eaten snails before. Well, I have once but I was only a kid and it wasn’t in a restaurant. However, in a place like Botswana, where I lived in a hotel for three months whilst writing Shaggy Dogs & Black Sheep, and the nearest alternative for lunch is a twenty-minute elephant ride away, then hotel menus can become very dull very soon.

Then there is the laundry service. On the afternoon that I had handed my first bag in, having told lies, as usual, on the inventory form in the wardrobe, I was called, when walking back through hotel reception, by a very pretty young thing.

‘Sir,’ she said, ‘your laundry, there is a problem.

‘Did I miscount?, I asked, innocently. ‘No, there are holes,’ she continued.

‘Everything has holes in it’ I told her, including my hopes and dreams. She then pulled out an old shirt that I never wear outside the house and pointed to a tiny hole.

‘Laundry don’t want you to think they do it,’ she explained. I told her not to worry about it but she then said the shorts had holes too.

‘There aren’t any shorts in there,’ I replied.

And this is where it became a problem because she then had to try and tell me, in an open hotel lobby, that it was my ‘under shorts’ she was referring to. Now, you try explaining to an eighteen-year old Vietnamese receptionist, again by using sign language, not to worry about that either.

‘Those Calvin Kleins are probably older than you are love. But they are not all like that I promise.’ Go on, try doing it in sign language and see if you can make the ‘you’ part of that not seem like you are blaming her. Or suggesting something else. I don’t know who was the more embarrassed me, or the receptionist. Actually, yes I do. It was her, because I couldn’t really care less. But this all meant one thing. If I am to avoid embarrassing another one then I needed to make my own laundry arrangements.

One of the strange things I noticed during my early days in Hanoi is that most laundry signs are located at the travel shops or tour centers. I suppose that is something to do with the back-packers again. I’m only guessing. The other strange thing is that they always seem to be closed. Again I am guessing but perhaps you have to actually go into the tour guide instead of banging on the locked door next to it. The one with the laundry sign overhead. Only I don’t want to be sold a trip to Hung Dong Bay or somewhere. I’ve come far enough already and I am not going on another airplane for a while. Not with these ankles.

Anyway, after three days of looking for a laundry I had one of those moments where the thing we are looking for had been staring us right in the face all along. And I mean it quite literally. The twenty-four hour laundry is directly in front of my hotel, no more than ten yards away. And after I had walked all the way around Hanoi three times, with what looks like a club foot, banging on locked doors. Still, I found it in the end. It’s probably where the hotel send theirs anyway before doubling the price and hanging it back up in my wardrobe. After putting holes in my Grundies. I can do my own laundry now thank you. Well, take it over the road myself.

Next door to it is my favorite coffee shop in the town. It’s the only one I have been to but the coffee is great and there is something about the place that just feels like home to me. I’ve worked out why that is. For a start they use condensed milk and so that reminds me of my grandmother, who died twenty-years ago. And that’s a great thing. Not that she died, you idiot, but the association. And then, right now as I am gazing around, I realize that this cafe also looks exactly like my nan’s kitchen did, in her Guildford council house in 1974. Complete with the flies, overflowing ashtrays, lino flooring, peeling Formica table tops and the grease stains. It’s a replica. I reckon those could be granddad’s socks over there on the floor. They will have holes in them too. (May 2013)

Your Man in the Orient – is coming soon.

Albert Jack books available for download here

Next – Important Travel Advice

The Bombing of Hanoi

I decided I would celebrate my first evening in Hanoi with style, by staying alone in my hotel room. I had been surrounded by millions of people on airplanes and in airports for two days and needed some peace. So I made a plan to procure and bottle of local whiskey, for research reasons, obviously, and a bottle of Jameson as a sort of safety net. Whisky drinkers will understand this. In the early afternoon I had ventured out to take a long walk around my new home town in search of lunch, which I found ten seconds later in the shape of a clean looking restaurant three doors along from my hotel. I was quite pleased with the outcome. Chicken and noodles with chilli sauce and a cold beer for 130,000 Dong, which is about 4 quid, or R50.

I thought this was great, until I wandered out again in the early evening and noticed many people sitting around tables on the street, ten yards further along the path, eating a big chicken, pork and shrimp broth, just dished out of a pot around two minutes after they ordered. So I thought I would give street food a go and it was fantastic. And a full meal too. All for 30,000 dong, or 92 of Her Majesty’s new pence and 13 of King Zuma’s Rand. I realized then that I had taken lunch in the most expensive place on the street, possibly in the the whole of The Old Quarter.

Street eating will take some getting used to though. The smartly dressed businessman on my left simply spat the gristle out on the floor at his feet and the truly beautiful, classy girl opposite me delicately extracted any with her chopsticks and then tossed it over her shoulder, most of it landing on the seat of a scooter parked behind that she hadn’t noticed. Or maybe she had… Maybe it was even her own…? My next and most important task of the evening was to find a bottle store for the whisky, which turns out to be next door to the hotel. I didn’t get too far on that day. I am happy to report that a decent local whisky, called Wall Street, costs around GBP4.50, or R65, and ten packets of smokes is about the same. I have just worked out that with the money I have already saved I can drink four bottles a day, smoke 6 packs and still live in this fashion until I am a 144 years old. I did the math….! (Trovato, what are you waiting for?)

Mind you, these city street stores are known locally for their…. let’s call it inventiveness. Apparently a little known method they have adopted, to stretch out their supplies, is to drill a minute hole in the bottom of a decent bottle of spirits and drain around 25% of it. They then inject water back in, super glue over the hole and sell the watered down version for the same price. The advice, I was reading, is to make sure the store owner knows you are buying it for yourself to drink that day, and not taking it back west as a gift. This will worry him that you may notice the difference and then have him sent to jail for the rest of his life, so he will make sure you get one of his undiluted bottles. I don’t know if this is true or not but I had already drunk half of mine when I decided to check the bottom for glue bumps. This was when I realized I had left the cap off, which accounted for the second half. I suppose, in the end, if it tastes the same and there is less alcohol going through your liver then it could be regarded as a good thing, by some people. Such as my doctor.

Later on and back in the hotel I was reading War of the Worlds when, at around 9pm, it became three dimensional as the Mother and Father of all thunderstorms rolled in. From my 11th floor balcony I was treated to something of a show. The flashing and the hammering and the cracking, vibrating and rattling was some experience. One of my fillings was shaken loose. Now I know, I thought, exactly what it must have been like to be in Hanoi during the infamous Operation Linebacker II, better known as the Christmas Bombings, in the December of 1972 during the American War (as it’s known in these parts). Even though they were only supposed to be defending the democratic South, the Americans sent B52 bombers to try and flatten strategic parts of the northern capital, although they missed most of the strategic parts, if there were any in the first place. They did hit the Bach Mai Hospital though, instead of a nearby airfield, killing 28 members of staff. (To be fair, the hospital was later re-built thanks to private donations funded by American citizens)

All in all 741 sorties dropped around 16,000 tons of high explosive in and around this little place between the 18th and 29th of December. It has been recorded that Jane Fonda (Hanoi Jane) was in town at the time and had to take shelter in a hotel cellar. But, during my research, which is something I don’t often bother with, I noticed she was actually here six months earlier and staying at the opulent French colonial hotel called The Metropole. I’ve been there, seen her picture on the wall and paid four quid for an iced coffee in their terrace bar, which is about ten times as much as the same coffee would cost anywhere else in town. I’m not going there again, and not because all the staff will only speak to you in French either. Which is bloody annoying.

Ahh, I have just realized why the head receptionist downstairs is taking French lessons three times a week, whilst her English is so poor. But don’t tell anyone. There is no harm in her aspiring to work in a classier place than I can afford to stay at. I could explain to her that the whole world will be speaking English as a first language by the time she is forty years old. Then again, probably not in hotels like The Metropole. By the way, did you know that there are now more people in China who speak fluent English than there are in America? I heard that on a radio program last year. Actually, I was on the same radio program and the other guest, who pointed that out, was a real English language expert, unlike myself who has a great editor, usually.

Back to the bombing of Hanoi. Joan Baez on the other hand, who is apparently another American activist from the same era as Jane Fonda, but whom I have never heard of, was staying at the Metropole at the time and did have to take shelter in the basement. So I now know exactly how she must have felt. Well, ok, I wasn’t hiding in the cellar. Nor was I shivering in the sewers like the many of the local folk. Oh, and there weren’t any B52 Bombers screaming overhead either, or anything exploding. And no shrapnel cutting people to ribbons, or any anti aircraft fire either. What else? Oh, of course, there weren’t over 2000 homes destroyed or 1624 bodies to bury the following morning. I didn’t feel any fear, see anything on fire or hear any screaming. Now that I think about it I haven’t got a clue what it was really like in 1972 have I? It was only a thunderstorm.

Albert Jack, Hanoi.

Next – Hotel Blues

Albert Jack books available for download here