One Small Step for Mankind…

Much has been made in the past about the Apollo Moon Landings made by Astronauts between 1969 and 1972. Conspiracy theories have circulated ever since Neil Armstrong, Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin and Michael Collins first landed their Saturn 5 craft. I also have my doubts just by looking at the famous photo of the Lunar Module, Astronaut and apparently fluttering US flag. For a start we know there is no atmosphere, so where does the wind come from. Also the light, shadows and lack of visible stars are suspicious and we can see the moon’s surface clearly and it certainly doesn’t look like cheese to me. Some people insist the whole thing was staged in a studio under the Nevada Desert but if that were true, why have space observers all over the world, including Russia who were certainly watching with interest, not revealed the hoax – if it was one. So, in fact, we just do not know. We do know that no Moon Landings have taken place since 1972, by America, Russia or anybody else, which begs the question – why not?

And what we also know is the Neil Armstrong, who was given the now famous scripted speech to make from the moon surface, fluffed his lines. What Armstrong was given to recite was ‘That is one small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind’ although what he actually said is ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’. This has had English language buffs and space nuts going for over thirty years. On the one hand the use of the word ‘man without a letter ‘a’ in front of it sees it used in the plural tense making ‘man’ mean the same thing as ‘mankind.’ This suggests Armstrong effectively said ‘One small step for mankind and one giant leap for mankind. Space nuts, on the other hand claim radio interference simply lead to the ‘a’ not being heard properly. And who can be bothered to argue with them? Quite simply, moon landing or not, fluffed lines or not, it is quite probably the most famous sentence ever spoken and there is no argument over who said it. It was Neil Armstrong.

There is another story claiming Armstrong also said the cryptic line ‘Good luck Mr Gorsky’ as he re-entered the Lunar Module. Many believed at the time Armstrong was making a reference to a Russian who was involved in their own Space Programme. However, extensive research failed to reveal the name Gorsky involved in any such programme and, when asked about it, Armstrong refused to answer.

It was then claimed that on July 5th 1995, whilst answering questions following a speech made in Tampa, Florida, that the question was put to Armstrong again. ‘Who is Mr Gorsky?’ This time, it is said, Armstrong announced that as the Gorsky’s had now passed away he could reveal the meaning of his cryptic message without embarrassing anybody.  He then went on to tell the story of when he was a young boy playing baseball with his brother and had hit the ball into his neighbour’s house, a Mr and Mrs Gorsky. As he went to retrieve it he heard, through an open window, Mrs Gorsky yelling at her husband ‘oral sex, you want oral sex. You can have that the day the kid next door walks on the moon.’ Now that story, I can believe!

Extract from The President’s Brain is Missing (And Other Urban Legends)

Albert Jack books available for download here

Sapa, Northern Vietnam, Somewhere Near China.

The market in Sapa is supposed to be a tourist attraction but it is hard to see why. Abattoir more like. Mortuary perhaps, but market? Unless they use the word in the same sense as the market in Syria a few weeks ago, just after that suicide bomber had blasted his way towards his virgins and eternal honey, or whatever it is those psychopaths believe, leaving freshly severed body parts all over the square. In that case, it is a market. But not one I would recommend you go anywhere down wind of in Sapa. I quickly left there and retired to a bar with a balcony that is low enough to the ground to enjoy the atmosphere and yet just out of arm’s reach, meaning there are none of the local tribal folk trying to sell me a home made handbag, weaved out of matted goat hair. Or a hat. I am, quite literally, out of arm’s way.

A chap walked up to my table earlier and said, ‘mind if I sit down?’ I looked around and every other table was empty. But I had no choice really, as he was already sitting down. ‘Sure,’ I said, ‘as long as you don’t talk to me,’ I thought. He was in his mid twenties and had grazes on his forehead and cheek. I had to ask didn’t I? ‘Been in a fight?’ I said. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘fell of my scooter.’ That’s why I don’t ride scooters, because everybody falls off a some point. It’s part of the right of passage. He was half Russian and half Canadian and spoke perfect English so he began to tell me his story. He had only just arrived in town and had to tell someone, obviously.

Apparently, inspired by Top Gear, he decided to buy a scooter in Hanoi and ride it all the way to Sapa. That’s a nine hour train journey on a scooter. I told him he was an idiot. He laughed and said it had been great fun all the way until he reached a small village just short of Sapa where a lady, on another scooter, did a u-turn in front of him and he smashed right into her. She wasn’t wearing a helmet and didn’t move. He thought he had killed her. There were no witnesses. When the police and an ambulance finally arrived they pointed out to him that his scooter had been stolen and the paperwork he had did not match the frame number.

So they took him to the police station, confiscated his Canadian passport and then put him in a hotel room next door where he was told to wait. Apparently the way things work in Vietnam, where nobody has insurance, is that in cases like this each pays for the other person’s medical bills. Simple as that. Only as she was unconscious, and nobody knew what her medical bills were likely to be, he could have been there for a long time. He actually planned to make a run for it and use his Russian passport as a way of fleeing the country. (He hadn’t told them about that)

Instead, he thought of a more sensible idea and phoned the Russian Embassy for help. He figured they would be more useful in these parts than the Canadians. He was right. They sent someone straight out who negotiated with the woman’s husband and brother, they agreed a fee ($100) and he was permitted to leave, after paying a small fine for having a stolen scooter, which was confiscated. Just after he had finished telling me all this there was a screech of brakes, a crash and a scream from just along the road. He jumped up, said he was a qualified medic, and raced off to see if he could help. I didn’t see him again, but was grateful of the double reminder that I don’t need to be riding scooters around here.

I have had a walk around though and haven’t really been surprised by what I have found. From now onward Sapa is to be known as the Rip Off Centre of Asia. (ROCA) Nothing has a price tag on it and when it comes to paying the price is calculated by the way you look. In my case it was around four times the price of anything in Hanoi. Meaning I look like an idiot. I had to go to four shops before I found one that would sell me a packet of smokes for Dong 25,000. It was a young girl. The next day her dad (I assume) tried to charge me Dong 45,000 for the same thing. I could go on but you get the idea. Although, if you are mad, you can hire scooters for a dollar a day and ride out to surrounding villages. Apparently they are quite picturesque but I didn’t go. I just walked around the town, avoiding the tribal folk, well avoiding everybody really, and returned to the bar.

The place is a dump, the poverty terrible. You would think that with all this money they are relieving western tourists of they could afford some shoes. I noticed, earlier, a car parked just along the road from me that looked as if it had last been employed as a car bomb. And then somebody got in it and drove away. Perhaps it is all one big con and once they are out of sight they switch to air conditioned 4×4’s and drive to their mountainside villas, leave their rags in the garage, put some clothes on and go in for dinner. Unless you like walking around in remote areas then there really is no reason to visit Sapa, except to escape the heat of Hanoi. I cannot find any other redeeming feature. It’s dreadful. Don’t come here.

You will be charged four times the right price for a bottle of something and when you try to negotiate they will wave you away in disgust and herd you out of their shop. They are a disgrace. All you are is a cash machine. And if you have been stupid enough to buy any of that home made alcohol they sell on the streets, in un-marked bottles, then don’t come running to me tomorrow morning, or on any morning for that matter. But somebody must be buying it. Those little old ladies wouldn’t be coming back everyday if there were no buyers. They would have starved to death by now in their mansions.

The church is worth a visit though. A two minute visit. The architecture is only average, for the French, but it is worth a minute or so to look around and reflect back towards the days when people actually used to go there. I imagined for a moment the 1880’s; Queen Victoria still had an Empire, the French, wishing they hadn’t cut the heads off their own kings and queens a century earlier were jealous and wanted an empire of their own, so came to Indochina, since the English already had everywhere in between sewn up for themselves. I expect they imagined gold, silver, diamonds, silk, spices and other exotic goods, but instead found rice fields, peasants and goat hair hand bags. What were they thinking?

I also imagined the church when it was full to bursting with the just and righteous of God’s own people who were freshly off the train, that had steamed out of steaming Hanoi City the evening before, so they could take some rest and recuperation in the mountains. It can be hard work guillotining dissidents all week in Hanoi. Believe me I know these things, I have thought about it many times. Right then the only people there (in the church) were me, (you realized that right?) and an American couple. He sat patiently on a front pew taking little interest in anything while she slowly killed time by stopping at every stained glass window and sometimes even taking photographs. I don’t know who she is going to show them to or if they are going to be remotely interested in them. Actually, I know the answer to one of those questions. I also don’t know why she is killing time. At her age those are precious minutes.

Meanwhile, I stepped up to the pulpit to address the throng. Before I could open my mouth a native appeared from nowhere with a broom and started wagging her finger in my face. Or rather my groin as she was only three foot eight. I tried to gently point out that if she believed in all that bollocks then she also had to believe that I was one of God’s children too. In which case I was allowed in the pulpit, or on it. In it, on it, up it, who knows? Freedom of Speech, I told her. It’s in the constitution isn’t it? Is that religion, or America? I can’t remember. For reasons I still don’t fully grasp, she didn’t seem to understand me and started waving her broom.

The American laughed. I gave in and as I turned to my left to leave I started laughing too. For on the wall, unseen by the faithful, was a 72″ Sony HD flat screen, obviously paid for by God and his children. I couldn’t shake the image of Father Jean-Paul, George & Ringo, reading from the Gospel, with one eye on the rugby. Still, it is worth a visit, even if it was designed and built by someone who didn’t design and build churches for a living. Outside, and in front, they are currently turning the old town square into a huge amphitheater. And it really does have some spectacular scenery around Sapa with its mountains, vistas and lakes. It’s only the people that are a problem. A bit like France itself.

So to sit in that amphitheater one day and see a Shakespeare performance, or Agatha Christie, or anything really, would be something to remember forever. I would even watch U2 there if somebody gave me ear plugs and a blindfold. But when that amphitheater is finished then I have finally found something to recommend you travel to Sapa for, as long as something is being performed, of course. But you won’t see me there. I’m not coming here again unless The Jam reform and hold their opening show in the new amphitheater. But there is about as much chance of that happening as there is of walking on the surface of the sun, in a pair of flip flops, without burning your toes. So that’s it for me and ROCA, I’m off to the station.

Albert Jack

Sapa, Northern Vietnam. June 2013

Next – Evacuating Hanoi

Albert Jack books available for download here

All Aboard the Overnight Train to Sapa

When somebody first told me about Sapa (yesterday) I felt a chill in my marrowbone. I immediately thought of the South African Police Authority (I don’t know why as they are called SAPS – ‘service’, but it was close enough) and you do not want to be spending any time in their company. Believe me, I have been there, walked passed the cells crammed with the unfortunate, wailing, crying and screaming souls who all probably deserve to be there. OK, I was only registering a car document and the traffic office was located on the other side of the cell block. God knows why, probably some sort of a warning. Anyway, do you know what they do to pretty young boys like me in places like that? You do? No you don’t, and you don’t want know to either. Nor do I.

When I decided to escape the Hanoi heat for a few days I looked for flights to Sapa, a village in the northern mountains of Vietnam near the Chinese border, but I learned that the only real option was to take one of the overnight trains. There are several available. The Orient Express, The Victoria Train, The Green Line and about 6 others, all ranging in price and therefore, I assumed, standard. I also noticed that they all left Hanoi Central Station at the same time, which was odd. It conjured up images of a race but, being twelve, I quite liked that idea. I selected the one that offered a private cabin but, as usual, things were not as easy as they at first appear, or should be. After more nodding, pointing and charades it became obvious to me that I couldn’t have a private cabin. ‘Why not?’

I turns out that the private cabins were for couples and I would have to share with someone. Now, obviously, this could turn out to be a Swedish backpacker in hiking boots and shorts who turned into a whisky dispensing nymphet ten minutes out of Hanoi Station. But I am too experienced for that these days. I know how my luck runs. I get the snoring middle aged German. That’s how it runs and I was having none of that. ‘I am a couple, there are two of me,’ I argued. I sensed that she already thought that. ‘Ok Mr Jack,’ she said with a sigh, ‘and the name and age of your traveling companion is?’ I had to think fast. ‘Jameson’ I said. ‘Ms. She is eighteen years old and has been going everywhere with me for twenty five years.’ After all, it’s not entirely untrue.

She gave up on me at that point, issued two tickets, charged me two prices, looked at me as if I were an idiot (also not entirely untrue) and off I went to the station. Hanoi Central is an amazing experience and would have been fun if it hadn’t been about 1600 degrees. I sat outside for a few minutes with a cold beer just to absorbed the scene. It was just like one of those Michael Palin documentaries, ‘Around the World’ or something like that. Teeming with people, excitement, anticipation, back packers, locals, the good, the bad and the ugly. And me watching the whole mad event with my traveling companion zipped up in a suitcase. I fully expected to see the great man himself emerge from the crowd, remove his panama hat, wipe the sweat from his brow and ask for a slug of my 18-year old. I would have shared.

Before too much longer my head began to melt and so I made my way through the departure hall and hurried passed the ticket inspectors. ‘And Ms Jameson’? one of them called after me. ‘It’s alright, she is in my bag’ I shouted back, and left them wondering. ‘The Orient Express?’ I asked someone on the platform. He pointed to the single train standing there which read, The Green Line. ‘Where is the Orient Express?’ I asked again and he pointed further down the platform. As I walked I noticed the names on the side of the carriages changed and it then dawned on me. There is only one train, just different carriage classes with varying names. And they all left at the same time, obviously. So there was to be no race after all.

I found our cabin, spent a few moments enjoying the air conditioning, put the second bedding on the floor as a carpet, made myself comfortable, switched on the internet radio (TalkSport), read the UK newspapers, turned lovingly to my 18 year old and drank myself to sleep. It is a shame that it is an overnight train as, apparently, it chugs through some of the most glorious scenery in the whole of Asia. I was awakened at 5.30am by a guard pulling on my leg. I didn’t like that. I had locked the door from the inside and he clearly had an override key. That means they are able to slip into your cabin at any point during the night and into your valuables, or worse. I made a mental note for the return journey. Actually, to be honest, I wrote it down because mental notes are no longer as reliable as they used to be.

The journey from Lao Cai Station to Sapa village, as the sun rises, is one of the most pleasurable experiences I have ever had. And it had nothing to do with the Swedish back packer, wearing shorts and hiking boots, sitting immediately on my left who had been on the same train. The scenery in Northern Vietnam is stunning and definitely equal to anything I have seen in South Africa. And with less chance of your coach being held up at gun point by people from the Cape Flats wearing Man United shirts and with their balaclavas on back to front. As usual, I was on the side of the coach that faced the mountain wall for the whole journey (see, I told you that is how my luck runs) and had to duck and stretch to see anything at all, apart from down her T Shirt. I could do that easily enough by barely moving. If you are making this journey then the left hand side of the coach/mini bus is the side to aim for. And, make sure your hotel in Sapa has booked a seat for you. That way a; there will be someone on the platform holding up a sheet of A4 with your name on it and b; it will cost $3 which the hotel will pay. If you haven’t done this you may find yourself negotiating with a thieving bus driver at 6am in a far away place for a $50 seat.

An hour later and I was the only one being dropped off at the hotel I was booked into. I think I was the only one in the hotel at all. It didn’t seem to be very popular and, I suppose, at $12 a night that is hardly surprising. The Royal Grand it is called, or The Grand Royal, something like that. It looks, and feels, like the sort of place you would find on the Bognor Promenade in 1864. It certainly hasn’t been upgraded in the last century but, once I had seen the views, none of it really mattered. The view from my bedroom is one of the finest I have ever seen. So much so that I took only my second photograph since I have been in the country. I prefer not to take photographs because nobody wants to see them and besides, I am supposed to be a writer. If I can’t explain it without a picture then…… Well, you know.

Incidentally, the first and only other photograph I have taken is of a crashed American B52 bomber that was shot down and landed in a tiny lake in a heavily populated area of Hanoi. It is testament to the fine aviation skills of the pilot, or the timing of the anti-aircraft gunner, that it managed to miss every single building. What it must have been like to see a B52 crash twenty yards in front of your window I can only imagine. They have left it there and declared the area a Monument of National Importance Recognizing the Struggle against American Imperialism, or so the plaque on the wall says. And I quite like that, hence the photograph. I do wonder about myself sometimes, I really do.

The Lake is called Ho Hun Tiep in the Ba Dinh District. Tell the taxi driver you can only reach it from Hoang Hoa Tham Street. On Google maps it is called Ho B52 (Lake B52) Anyway, the view. Miles and miles of mountain side with neat steps cut into it and something green growing on them. I don’t know what it is but I imagine it is edible, or drinkable. Apparently, a few years ago, it used to be smoke-able but they put a stop to all that. They don’t look like vines from here so it is probably rice. What I could also see were the trek-trails snaking their way through the vista as though somebody has laid thin silver threads upon my photograph.

I ventured outside to buy some provisions and to have a look around and it started almost immediately. ‘Buy this from me Mr, where you from, what your name? For a man of my genial and patient nature this became irritating inside ten seconds (a record, I think) but the indigenous local people of the Black Hmong are as persistent as I am grumpy. One of them even tried to tug on my sleeve to stop me from walking past her. She had no idea how dangerous that was since I became acutely trained in the western art of being pissed off in Old Hanoi Town. (I now have all the charm, and reflexes, of an Arsenal fan) I came here to escape all this for a few days. Then, a Vietnamese looking woman dressed in jeans and hiking boots approached me. I was immediately on my guard. ‘Excuse me’ she said in a thick American accent. When I say ‘thick’ I mean, oh never mind. ‘Do you know where the trek is leaving from, I seem to have missed my party and don’t want to go out there alone. Unless you would like to join me?’ I looked her up and down, thought for a moment and then said, ‘Sorry, but I don’t speak English,’ and walked off.

I had just seen the treks from my hotel window and they all look uphill to me. No I don’t want to go trekking thank you. I have only just stopped complaining that Fawlty Towers here doesn’t have a lift and I have to walk for two flights up the stairs. I would rather climb up the outside of the hotel than up that mountain. Instead, I will enjoy the views, enjoy the cool breeze, enjoy the local architecture, history and the market. Only the market is full of the meat of just about every animal you can think of. Some of them were still in cages outside, waiting for their turn. Inside there was about 1000 SqM of what looked to me like a hundred autopsies being performed. The living, the dead and the about to be dead all sharing a single roof. It was horrible. Market? Do me a favour. It looks more like Al Qaeda have just held their Christmas party in there. I think I need a beer.

Albert Jack

Sapa, Northern Vietnam. June 2013

Next – In the hills at Sapa

Albert Jack books available for download here

Hanoi Street Life

I was sitting outside a bar a few days ago. That was a waste of a line wasn’t it, as most of you would have assumed that already. Anyway, I was sitting there and something strange started happening. First of all the policeman, or traffic controller, or whatever it is they call that little old man who sits by the busy junction with a megaphone all day, folded up his chair and slowly walked across to the bar and placed it against the wall. He then disappeared. So far not so strange; it could be the end of his shift. But then I noticed shopkeepers opposite start bringing things inside and others scurrying around busy with something. I checked my watch. 3.30pm. No, not the end of the day then. Covers went up, plastic sheets came down. The bar staff started putting up umbrellas and I looked around to see all the other tourists in blissful ignorance.

I had no idea what was going on. Perhaps a Communist Military Parade was about to come by? As I was contemplating this the clean sunshine dimmed in the cloudless sky. I didn’t like it and moved inside the empty bar, a decision based entirely on the fact that I didn’t know what was going on, but something clearly was. The Japanese and the Germans remained unaware that something big was about to happen. Not unlike 1945. It began to get a little darker and I noticed flashes of light. Were the Japs taking photo’s? Then, the locals scurried around a lot faster, headlights were turned on and it gradually became darker. They are like wildlife these people, sensing what is going to happen way ahead of it actually happening.

Because then it happened. Much to the confusion of the Japanese tourists outside, the sky turned the colour of night, there was a huge explosion and bolts of lighting followed by the sort of rain,  last anticipated by Noah, came upon us. You are familiar with the expression ‘cats and dogs’ right? Well, it was nothing like that. Steel rods perhaps. I sat at the back wall of the bar watching all this. The Japs were trapped, standing under their umbrellas. They contemplated the 3 metre dash for the bar but the rain was so hard they would probably have ruined all their electrical equipment. Or drowned. They didn’t know what to do. I knew exactly what to do as I am trained in dealing with these situations. I was staying in the bar.

One of them made a break for it with his wife and came and sat next to me. They looked as if their boat had sank and they had swam to safety from the lake. I was four yards inside as the rain splashed off the terrace and onto my legs. The bar staff seemed untroubled and I later learned that these sorts of sudden, torrential downpours, that appear out of otherwise clear skies, are not at all uncommon. And as all good locals should, they know the signs, sense the change, feel what’s coming. I have since heard of huge traffic jams on the main roads where people I know have become trapped on their scooters in one of these downpours. The reason for these traffic jams?

The locals sense what is about to happen and simply stop their scooters under the next bridge, thousands of them taking shelter and blocking the main road completely. Too bad if you don’t find a bridge yourself. My hotel was only 100 yards away but I knew I would never make it. Nobody knew how long it would last so I made myself comfortable and looked around. I had never been inside before, only outside on the terrace, and was delighted to see they had draft beer and, better still, Jamesons of all ranges. I decided to treat myself and called, ‘waiter, bring me the 18-year-old.’ Five minutes later he was back and it was clear there had been another misunderstanding. ‘No, not her you idiot, I mean the Jamesons.’

The traffic is a hoot in Hanoi. No, seriously, all they do is hoot their horns at each other morning, noon and night. I was prepared for this and thought it would annoy me. But, when you understand they are not hooting at you in the ‘get out of the road you idiot’ sort of way as they do in London, or New York. Nor are they hooting at you with that mad, staring face that looks like it has been twisted into a fist that the Cape Town housewives adopt when you have the temerity to occupy the same part of the planet as they have, at the same time. It’s not like that in Hanoi. Here they hoot at you in the ‘look out old chap, I’m coming past and don’t want you to get hurt if you haven’t seen me yet,’ sort of way. There is no malice or anger in it, just an everyday courtesy.

And knowing that seems to make it all right. In fact, I have been grateful once or twice already as car, scooter, man and beast all occupy the same narrow streets in Hanoi as each other. Left hand side of the road, right hand side, it doesn’t seem to matter. There are no pavements anyway. Well, there are but they are all occupied by the street food vendors, each steaming away their own particular specialty, day after day, week after week. Some of them look, and smell, as if they have been there since 1874 when the French first arrived and colonized the place. There’s something quite cathartic; sitting at one of these pavement cafes watching girls in summer tops drive by on scooters, along bumpy roads. I am not quite sure what it is yet, I haven’t quite put my finger on it. When I do I will let you know. And as for the ones on the back in short skirts who ride side-saddle…. I have stopped reading books in these pavement cafes as I am tired of reading the same page ten times.

But on the main roads thousands of scooters just weave in and out of each other like schools of sardines on the great run down the east coast of Africa. Moving this way and that but rarely even bumping each other and all, in unison, steering around an object in the road. Me, for example. At first glance these roads look uncross-able. There are just no gaps in this relentless parade of scooters, tooting their hooters. That was until I took a wrong turn on one of my first days in town and was trapped on a pavement, by a wall of scooters, on the wrong side of the road to the bar I had been aiming for. It was agony. I stood there for ten minutes looking for a way through (surely the red lights along the road somewhere would provide enough room for me to make a dash for it) Then, two little old ladies, laden with bags of something, walked past me, out into the road and wandered across.

They barely even looked. And the scooters, like the fish, all simply slowed down and made their around these ladies. Some went this way and others that, but none of them came close to the pair. I looked around for an old lady of my own and there was one handy. I quickly stepped up next to her and, making sure she was between me and the opposition, into the road teeming with traffic. The same thing happened, each and everyone of them slowed down and made their way around us, one way or another. It was extraordinary. Sometimes now I go that way on purpose just so I can cross the road (I can do it on my own now) and it’s great fun. I have even been known to cross back again, then again before I settle into the bar.

It’s getting very hot here in the city now. Something like 40 degrees yesterday and with no air flow. Today feels even worse. When the French were here in the late 1870’s they too suffered the heat, so they headed out north and up into the mountains near the Chinese border to build a holiday resort village called Sapa. Apparently it has some amazing views, great treks, cool mountain air (it even snows in winter) good restaurants, great architecture, nice lakes, interesting markets and a fascinating history. It takes about 12 hours to reach by rail and I hear there is an overnight train leaving Hanoi Central Station at 9pm tonight so I think I will leave this hot little bar now and head for the booking office. I might even take my 18 year old with me. Jamesons.

Albert Jack

Hanoi June 2013

Next – All Aboard the Overnight Train to Sapa

Albert Jack books available for download hereK