In Vietnam: He recounts a (fairly) typical evening in a letter to his young friends

10th Feb 2018

Dear Nick and Gaby

You remember the ROM Casa bar, you know, the one opposite the hostel on An Thuong 4, the hostel where the rooms are shipping containers stacked one on top of the other. Well I was in there last night for a quiet beer. You help yourself to beer from the fridge and pay at the end of the night – that place. I grabbed a seat near the window looking out on the road, and expected a quiet evening. I’d had a very good curry at a new Indian place that’s sprung up on that corner where they gutted a place a few weeks ago. They don’t mess around here. It’s called Veda’s and is owned by the people who run the Veda’s that we never went to, over the far side from the Kangaroo Bar. Good curry and another good option within walking distance from my place.

The puppy had its winter coat on and barked at everyone who walked by. But it went running for cover when a large pig walked in the front door, did a lap of the pub, grabbed any stray peanuts it could find, including a few by my feet, and then was shooed out by a barmaid. You remember that pig that we used to see now and again outside Minsk, around the corner? I reckon it was that one, expanding its territory or more likely escaping the weed fumes.

Five minutes later, that expat bloke we saw on the losing end of the fight at Simple Man a while ago, walked in. Or rather he stood outside with a Vietnamese woman for a while, then walked up to the bar, asked the barmaid to get him a beer, then walked straight out without paying for it. He looked awful. Sores all over his face, thin as a rake, tatts up every limb. He scarpered down the road with his partner, stolen beer in hand. The poor bar staff looked totally shocked and didn’t know what to do. They’re all teenagers, and they weren’t going to chase after him. I suspect he pulls this trick on different pubs on a regular basis, and figured he hadn’t done it at this place yet, so he’d give it a try.

Another five minutes and there’s a huge explosion just a door or two away. I walked out to investigate and saw a plume of smoke wafting down the road and a lot of puzzled people looking up at it. Nobody seemed to know what it was. Seemed way too loud to be a car or motorbike backfiring. I wonder if it was some major electrical malfunction at the construction site on the corner. There was much discussion in Vietnamese, and a lot of those “I don’t know” hand gestures. Another unsolved Da Nang mystery.

Tonight at ROM Casa there’s a security guy sitting near the door. Not the type of no-neck you see in Australia or the States, but a guy who looks like your favourite Vietnamese uncle. I think he’s there to deter beer stealing expats, peanut stealing pigs and to look out for stray explosions. It’s less eventful tonight. The only excitement being a young bloke who walked in with the biggest crayfish I’ve ever seen, still alive of course. Not sure what he was up to, but can only conclude he wanted to show it off to some of his mates before taking it off to get it cooked somewhere. Boney M briefly came on the sound system, but maybe they saw the pained expression on my face because they took it off half way through and replaced it with some marginally better V-pop. I did a bit of writing, logged onto the wi-fi, (password= “thankyou”), saw your new pics of Bangkok on Facebook. Looks great.

Back at my place, an Italian bloke has appeared who I suspect might be the father of my mysterious landlady’s baby. I’m not sure. I had a brief chat with him. Middle aged, balding guy with a limp. His English is not great. Seems nice enough except that he kept telling me how back in Italy, Africans get free houses while Italians like him have to pay for theirs. This seems to be why he’s in Vietnam.At first, I thought he’d moved in with the landlady, but he seems to sleep in the apartment below mine, and spends his days with her and the baby. Who knows what the setup is?

Hope you’re settling back into life in the States. As you can see, it’s still all action in Da Nang. Victoria is coming up from Saigon for Tet. Will be good to have the company.

Mike

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018
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The Vietnam War – A Documentary by Ken Burns

Last year, I watched Ken Burns’ documentary series on the American Civil War. Burns does in-depth, lengthy documentaries which require watching over several weeks, but still manage to grip you with detail, objectivity and historical context. The Civil War series was gripping; a horrifying recount of the first time humans used machines to kill each other methodically.

“The Vietnam War” is equally horrifying. For me it has extra relevance, as I am living in a city, Da Nang, which was a major American base during the war, and have visited cities such as Hue, which were devastated by American bombing.

I thought I knew a little bit about the Vietnam War. I was in my teens in the 60s when the anti-war movement was at its height. I remember some of the famous photographs: the naked girl running after a napalm attack; the Vietnamese soldier being shot in the head by a Vietnamese office But clearly I knew little, because I was constantly shocked by revelations in this series.

I hadn’t realised the length of the war – 20 years. Or the number of Vietnamese casualties: between 1 and 3 million depending on how you measure it. Vast numbers of casualties were innocent civilians. Or the fact that it became a civil war between North and South Vietnam, which might explain the lingering disconnect between people from Saigon and Hanoi. Or the extent to which the U.S.A. backed, South Vietnamese government was corrupt and repressive. Or the political machinations in the U.S.A. which extended the war and the casualties long after it was clear that the war was lost.

The interviews with retired soldiers on both sides are incredibly moving and insightful. The utter waste of lives on both sides, is shocking.

Today, young Vietnamese people show only superficial interest in the war. If you ask a student which historical person they most admire, most of them will reply with a rote answer: “Uncle Ho because he liberated our country”. But if you ask them which country they most admire, the U.S.A. is top of the list. They want to learn American English more than English English. There is certainly no inherited hatred towards the old enemy amongst the young, though the older generation may be more ambivalent.

There are several versions of the documentary available: abridged, expletives removed, and full length. It took me several weeks to get through the full length version: some 15+ hours of material over 10 episodes. Available to watch on the PBS website:

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: Where Boney M are cool

If ever you asked me which band I would like never to hear again, ever in my whole life, it would be Boney M. This isn’t a new thing; I’ve hated their music ever since they first appeared on Top of the Pops in the 70s. It struck me as representing all the worst aspects of pop music – manufactured, meaningless, nonsensical. They were a band that seemed to have been artificially created purely for the purpose of making money. This opinion is of course based on almost no research whatsoever. Perhaps the members of Boney M are lovely, talented people who trained as classical musicians but had to resort to commercial music in order to raise money for life-saving surgery for their younger siblings. Perhaps they gave all their money to third world countries. Perhaps not.

As evidence that they are the worst band in the history of pop, I present some lyrics from their hit single “Brown Girl in the Ring”:

Show me your motion
Tra la la la la
Come on show me your motion
Tra la la la la la
Show me your motion
Tra la la la la
She looks like a sugar in a plum
Plum plum

I can only assume the girl in the song is a night nurse doing bed pan rounds. Amazingly, according to Wikipedia: “With more than 150 million records sold, they are one of the best-selling artists of all time“.

Boney M’s music tends to generate “ear worms” – those annoying snippets of a song that you involuntarily hear in your head on an endless repeat loop when you are off-guard. My late father used to keep singing a line from “Brown Girl in the Ring”; I have a clear image of him in his later, stooped years, walking around the house, singing it to himself.

I was in an Indian restaurant recently in Đà Nẵng, and they played Boney M all night, on repeat. I finished my curry as fast as I could and now refuse to go back in there without checking what’s on their sound system first. I was telling my young American friends about Boney M recently. They had never heard of them. We met in a large beer hall type place which has an upstairs bar reputedly playing hard rock. The large-scale projector was playing videos of ….. Boney M, and the sound system was blasting out “Brown Girl in the Ring”. The band members were wearing bizarre, incongruous gold-glam outfits. My friends thought it was hilarious. I was in hell. Whenever I go to the Korean owned LotteMart to do my weekly shop, there’s a 50-50 chance that Boney M will be serenading me through the aisles.

Why then is the music of a bad pop band from the 1970s following me around in Vietnam? I have no idea. But maybe that mindless, meaningless pop of the 70s is the inspiration for Vietnamese V-Pop and Korean K-Pop.  Make your own mind up. Below are some examples of V-Pop and K-Pop. I don’t understand the lyrics, but I suspect they are probably on a level with “show me your motion”. The first, has over 300 million views on YouTube and has the inspiring title of “bống bống bang bang”. Google translate tells me this is “bubbly bang bang” in English. The K-Pop example, Blackpink’s “As if it’s your last”, also has over 300 million views. Poor old Boney M’s night nurse motion song has a paltry 9 million views.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Book Review: “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A deceptively simple story of an author finding her writing identity whilst suffering a serious illness. During the illness she reconnects with her mother. The family had suffered extreme poverty and her father had been traumatised by his war experience.

The setting is America in the late 90s / early 2ooos. AIDS is taking its toll, the twin towers are about to be destroyed. Lucy Barton is in hospital for an undisclosed, serious illness. She details her relationship with her husband, flashes back to her childhood, has lengthy, entertaining reminiscences with her mother, who sits at the end of the hospital bed, refusing to ever sleep.

The episodes in writing workshops appealed to me, depicting some of the difficult characters who may be encountered at such events

Although the subject matter is intense, the short chapters and captivating writing style make this an enjoyable read. Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” was serialised for TV and, for the most part, was captivating. This book will encourage you to read more of her work if you haven’t already.

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In Vietnam: The Rainbow in the Snow

Vietnam has been gripped with football (round ball version) fever for the last month. Not the World Cup, not the Asia Cup, not the full national team; no, the Under 23 Asia Football Cup, being played in China. As Vietnam progressed through the group stages, the quarter and semi-finals, beating Australia on the way, the country erupted in unison every time a goal was scored. After each victory, thousands of flag waving motorcyclists would process around the city, sounding their horns and cheering. It was like this all over the country.

Yesterday afternoon (Saturday 27/1/18), Vietnam, against all expectations, found itself in the AFC U-23 final, playing Uzbekistan in Changzhou. The whole country went on hold for the match. Đà Nẵng cafes and bars filled up with excited supporters. It seemed like everybody was dressed in red and yellow, and waving the national flag.

As I was walking past the Red Window bar near my place, they invited me into watch on their large screen. The bar was suitably decked out for the occasion:

The match was nearly postponed because of a blizzard. From what I saw on the T.V. the match should have been postponed. The conditions were horrendous. I’m pretty sure most, if not all of the Vietnam team would never have seen snow before, let alone played in several inches of it, in the middle of a blizzard. They were at a distinct disadvantage to the Uzbekistan team, who would be familiar with the freezing weather. Half-time was extended to about 30 minutes whilst a bevy of workmen cleared the snow that accumulated in the first half. Here they are:

 

Uzbekistan took the lead in the first half. They looked bigger, stronger and better able to cope with the treacherous pitch. But Vietnam kept coming at them, and scored from a beautifully curled free-kick. My Vietnamese friend told me that the commentator described the trajectory of the free-kick as like a rainbow in the snow. The bar erupted:

 

It stayed 1-1 until full-time and then almost to the end of extra time. It looked destined to go to a penalty shoot-out, at which Vietnam had proven themselves to be experts. But tragically, with almost the last kick of extra-time, Uzbekistan scored again. It was way too late for Vietnam to pull another goal back, and the match ended 2-1 to Uzbekistan.

What was then noticeable was the good-natured way in which defeat was accepted, and the achievement of just reaching the final was appreciated. The country was united behind their national team, regardless of victory or defeat. There wasn’t the outburst of nastiness and anger and recriminations that you might see from say losing British or Australian supporters. There were still significant motorbike flag waving processions around town, but I’m sure the place would have been much wilder had Vietnam won.

Here’s the “Rainbow in the Snow”:

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: Đà Nẵng – Booming, but will it bust?

When I was looking for somewhere to live in Đà Nẵng, a major requirement was to find a place out of earshot of the numerous construction projects going on, especially in the beach areas. I eventually found a nice place in a quiet back lane. Apart from the usual apartment noise issues (upstairs neighbours walking around noisily, water pipes banging every time someone uses the toilet etc.), and the usual Vietnam city noises (the “Bánh Bao Đây” men broadcasting their wares from motorbike mounted loudspeakers, barking dogs, motorbike engines) it’s been relatively quiet … until last month, when a house almost opposite was demolished in record time, and a new building commenced. This is now the view from my balcony:

I could write a book about the speed with which buildings come down and go up in this city, never mind the improvised building techniques, the health and safety practices (there are none), the living conditions of the workers (many of them live in makeshift tents on or next to the site), the endurance of these men and women (many of the labourers are women). Maybe another post.

I took a brief walk around my area yesterday, not straying more than about 300 metres from my place. These are just some of the building project going on within that radius, and I’ve not bothered with the numerous smaller scale improvements going on.

What is driving this building bonanza? I think it’s partly tourism and partly a response to the growing “expat” community. Korean tourists are everywhere in the city. Apparently Vietnam reminds them of Korea twenty years ago. They come for the beaches, the cheap food and drink and probably other reasons. There are numerous marts that cater specifically for Korean tourists. The largest supermarket near me, Lotte Mart, is Korean owned, and busloads of Korean tourists descend on it, frantically buying up nuts, dried fruit, chocolate, biscuits, coffee and tea. Some areas of the beach are crowded with selfie-taking Korean women.

The expat community (like me) tends to be resident for longer periods, and is willing to pay much higher rents than the local residents, though still a lot less than would be paid in Australia, U.K. and U.S.A. In response, numerous apartment blocks have sprung up, with the aim of being rented to expats.

The worry, I think, is that the current boom is bound to lead to an oversupply. Rents will decline. Apartments will remain empty. Hotel rooms will be vacant. A shock to the Korean economy could precipitate this (though maybe the situation in North Korea might encourage more Koreans to come here). A clampdown on expats working “unofficially” might cause the expat influx to cease. Any number of events might lead to a bust in the hotel and apartment market.

The Vietnamese are incredibly resilient people. Businesses here run on tiny margins, almost it seems on a marginal revenue basis i.e. any revenue is better than no revenue. Shop staff are often family members living on the premises and not being paid much. Restaurants are often someone’s front room. Wages of course are miniscule by western standards. Vietnam will survive, but it could be a bumpy ride for Đà Nẵng.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

In Vietnam: The Case of the Disappearing Beach

A few hundred metres from where I live is Mỹ Khê beach. Since I moved to Danang in August 2017, I’ve been running or walking on the beach most days. I head down a back lane, cross the busy main beach road, and down a short path to the beach. At the bottom of the path is a guard’s hut, which is primarily to prevent unwanted visitors entering the swanky resort just to the right of the path.

Just before APEC, last November 2017 (i.e.  2 months ago), I took this picture looking south. That part of the beach was roped off and guarded – many of the international delegates were staying at the resorts further down the beach. It was also just before Typhoon Damrey hit the Vietnam coast.

The second picture was taken a few weeks ago (late December), only about 6 weeks after the first picture. The erosion of the beach is dramatic. This doesn’t seem to be a seasonal event from what I can tell. Perhaps the damage caused by the typhoon has precipitated a sustained loss of sand, some sort of permanent lowering of the coastal shelf; or perhaps it’s a dramatic rise in sea level.

The third picture was taken a few days ago (mid January). The guard’s hut is now tottering, and previously buried sewage or water pipes are exposed to the waves.

 

To the south of the guard’s hut, large palm trees have been undermined and are falling into the sea:

I also used to be able to run north, up the beach from the hut, but now, even at low tide, the waves cover the beach, as shown in the photo below. A number of bars, restaurants and cafes along the beach are threatened with inundation, especially if another typhoon or wild storm hits this coast.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

 

Book Review: “We are Not Ourselves”, Matthew Thomas

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very moving, well-written story, especially considering this is his first novel. It tracks the life of a girl, Eileen Tumulty, growing up in an Irish family in New York and her subsequent adult married life. It is a story about early-onset Alzheimers. It is a story about the reactions of friends and family to the devastating diagnosis, of the challenges of continuing to try to live as normal a life as possible as the disease takes hold, of the struggles of negotiating the American health system, the difficulties of juggling job and carer responsibilities, the self-centredness of youth, the challenging relationship between parents and son. All of these things are woven into the timeline of the progressing illness.

The book is long: 101 chapters, though many of them are just a few pages long. However, I found it gripping from the start. The characters are well depicted, with empathy but without making them flawless. We see Eileen’s dedication and her tendency to be spendthrift. We see her husband Ed’s intelligence as well as his obsessive personality. We see their son’s slow realisation of how much his parents have done for him, after years of being an ingrate.

It is a terrific book about a difficult subject; a subject many of us worry about whenever we forget where we put the keys or can’t recall the name of a famous actor. Well worth reading.

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Book Review : “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was part of my English school curriculum back in the 60s. I re-read it whilst working in Vietnam this year (2018), and it still felt fresh and relevant. The central theme, of a love triangle between a beautiful, young Vietnamese woman, an older English reporter and a young American, takes place in French occupied Vietnam. The Viet Minh are fighting the French in the 50s, and the Americans are standing back, subtly interfering, and deciding if and when to make their move. The love triangle can be seen as a metaphor for the ongoing war.

Greene writes beautifully. His observation of wartime Vietnam, of political intrigue and of the relationship between the three lovers, is acute. Many of those observations can still be made today, in particular the phenomenon of beautiful, young Vietnamese women with much older Western men. Why does this happen? In Greene’s view, love is an illusion, a romantic notion. Relationships are more utilitarian. Fowler, the English reporter, has no illusion that Phuong loves him, except in a simple way dependent on him providing security for her. She provides emotional and physical comfort for him. Pyle, the young American, pretends a romantic love, but his version is one of saving her from Vietnam, and taking her back to become a conventional American wife – a bit like imposing American style “democracy” on Vietnam rather than allowing the Vietnamese to make their own choice.

“The Quiet American” is still a great read. Perhaps the conclusion is a bit too “pat”, a trifle contrived. This apart, it is a classic of 20th century English fiction.

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