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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Cuba Journal – Fouché in La Palma

foucheTuesday 14th June 2005 I don’t trust this town, perhaps because I am exhausted, and exhaustion makes me feel vulnerable. The people seem sly, unlike most Cubans I have met so far. They take less care of their dress than other Cubans. They know their town is a passing-through-place between Havana and Vinales. They mentally weigh the wallets of in-transit tourists, grieve the convertible pesos passing by on each bus, car, taxi and even bicycle. My bicycle leans against a wall under a verandah. I sit, propped against my bicycle, my stomach cramped, my legs weak. My exhaustion brought on by a 45 kms unintended detour on a rough and windy road. I am back in La Palma which I thought I had left behind me 3 hours ago. I flag down a taxi, a huge, ancient American limo. He says it will cost CUC$20 to Vinales. I don’t like him and I don’t like the fare. Despite my exhaustion, I say “no thanks”. Out of the resentful crowd a well dressed man appears: tweed jacket, tie, clean cut, mid-thirties.

He could be a Spanish teacher in an Adelaide high school. He sees my distress, offers to help me find a lift to Vinales, negotiates with a taxi driver to pick me up when he has finished his current fare. It will cost 10 CUC$.

We sit and talk for an hour. I notice that he scans the passers by every few minutes as if expecting an unwelcome visitor. He is a lecturer in Art at the university. This unattractive town has a university campus, part of the University of Pinar del Rio. His name is Tony. His English is excellent. He says Cuba is ‘morbid’. An Australian might say the place is ‘dead’ but he doesn’t mean it in the same way I don’t think. In his terms, I think he means that it is in the grip of a stultifying force. He tells me about Fouché . I have to ask him to explain. Fouché was Napoleon’s Minister of Police. It was Fouchés job to watch Napoleon’s opponents and rivals. But, Tony says, Napoleon did not trust Fouché , so he had people spy on Fouché , whilst Fouché  in turn was spying on everyone else. Cuba is the same, Tony says. We are probably being watched right now, and someone will be reporting to the authorities that on 14th June 2005, Tony Sarmiento spent an hour talking to a touring cyclist in La Palma and that they exchanged pieces of paper. The taxi arrives. Tony and the driver help squeeze my bicycle and panniers into the back of the small car, which already carries two other passengers, one from Norway, one from Germany,  and their luggage. We swap email addresses, shake hands. He walks off, looking over his shoulder.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014

Cuba Journal – The Casablanca Ferry

Saturday 11th June 2005

Queuing along a shadowy passageway leading down to the local ferry from Havana to Casablanca and Cojimar. My bike worth ten years wages to the Cubans pressed in around me. It’s claustrophobic. It’s humid. My paranoia is mounting. The queue shuffles forward. Even the locals are sweating.

One hand on my wallet. My thoughts of a stiletto knife and the ease with which one could be slipped between my ribs. My eyes drawn to the dark gap between ferry and quay, tailor made for a tourist’s body. My attention sought by a ragged man and his ragged wife in front of me. They are staring at my wallet and the Convertible Pesos * folded inside it. He gesticulates to me and then to his wife. She looks too old, surely, to be a prostitute, though she is probably younger than me.

I don’t understand his gap toothed Spanish. Can vaguely interprete “too much, too much”. Too much what? I have too much money for one person in a socialist country? I have too many possessions and those around me have too few?  I tighten my grip on my bike, push my wallet deeper into my pocket, keep edging forward towards the rough looking, swarthy Cuban collecting fares on the gangplank. The old man is getting more and more agitated, keeps pointing to his wife and to me. At last she reaches into her purse, pulls out 40 centavos, local currency, the ferry fare; gives it to me, to save me using a whole convertible peso, for which I would receive no change.

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* Cuba operates dual currencies: Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC$) are for tourist use, pegged to the US dollar and must be used to pay for accommodation and anywhere that tourists might shop – bars, restaurants, supermarkets,tourist buses. Local pesos are used day to day by Cubans, are only accepted in the local shops, street stalls, local transport etc. A CUC$ is worth about 25 times a local peso. Each peso is made up of 100 centavos. So the ferry fare of 40 centavos is about 1/60th of CUC$1

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2014