NaPoWriMo 2018 – #23 – Subterranean Battambang Blues


Poetry is not coming to me, but writing up experiences of the past 10 months is. I’ve appended a token few lines to the end of this prose, in an attempt to make it look slightly poetic.

Subterranean Battambang Blues

In Cambodia he feels the absence of Vietnam, a hard ball in his gut. Siem Reap is tourism on steroids. It’s selfie-sticks and climbing over sacred sites for the picture that will get the most likes. He avoids the throng, finds a small restaurant on the wrong side of the river. The wrong side if you’re a young, party going, good time guy looking for action; the wrong side if you want to hear a Led Zeppelin tribute band (admittedly they sound quite good), the right side if you want a quiet, friendly place to eat in unpretentious surroundings. He orders a vegan Amok – a Khmer curry. It’s warming and flavourful. The drinks menu has a simple pricing system – every drink is a dollar. He could work his way through the whole menu – four types of beer, eight types of soft drink, four types of juice and fifteen types of cocktail for $31. He decides against it. After three beers he orders a Margarita.

The next day he gets a small bus to Battambang. His hotel has arranged a tuk-tuk driver to meet him at the bus station. When he arrives, three or four men hold up cards with the name of his hotel. Some have several cards, one for each hotel in Battambang it seems. They are flashing them like Bob Dylan’s in his video of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.  He’s almost inside one of the tuk-tuks when he realises their game, and spots the right driver holding a card with his name on it.

That evening he gets a ride into town and eats at a place where you leave your shoes in the doorway. He nudges his expensive trainers into the shadows. By 9:30 p.m. the town seems almost deserted. Cafes and bars are open, but the only people in them are staff, their faces illuminated by the glow of phones. He finds a pub with a group of expats sitting outside on couches and armchairs around a low table. The owner, a tall Canadian guy, welcomes him. “Come over and sit with these guys and talk. They’re all interesting”, he says. “I don’t want to intrude”. “No, no, sit with them, I’ll introduce you. That’s my shtick.”  He walks over to the group with the owner. “That’s Jack, he’s an Aussie, and that’s Jasmine, his ladyboyfriend….”. He continues with the introductions: a Swiss guy who runs a NGO, three German tourists, an American guy who used to run a school in Saigon. The Aussie, Jack, is an ex-marine. He’s leathery and totally pissed, but in a benign way. He clearly adores his ladyboyfriend and she/he him. The Swiss guy talks to her in fluent Khmer. Most of the talk around the table is about Cambodia, how Sihanoukville has been ruined by the Chinese as has most of the country, they say. “There’s raw sewage running in the streets. They’ve built so many hotels, but no basic infrastructure”. The American guy says “Battambang is the last redoubt”.

He has a few more beers, swaps stories about Da Nang, Hanoi, Saigon, Phnom Penh. Tells them about the silent retreat he’s going on about twenty kilometres away the next day. They tell him to report back in ten days’ time. He says he will. By now it’s gone 11, too late in this town to find a tuk-tuk. He walks back to his hotel. The night is warm, humid. The sky is clear, unpolluted. He follows the Google map directions which, thirty minutes later, lead him down a pitch-black alley where dogs bark from every small house. He’s waking up the whole neighbourhood. He is near the hotel, but at the back of it, which is high-walled with no way in. He turns on the torch on his phone. A figure appears behind him, a young man, he thinks, who says something in Khmer. He can’t tell if it’s friendly or threatening. He keeps the light pointed towards the guy, whilst walking in the opposite direction. The guy keeps his distance but tracks him down the alley. The dogs are in a barking frenzy. He decides he needs to turn around, return to the main road. He walks towards the young guy, hoping that his phone battery doesn’t give out. The guy steps aside, the barking subsides, he finds the right lane to his hotel. The hotel gate is locked. He rings the bell, waking a shirtless security guard who opens up, giving him an accusing glare.

No, I haven’t been chasing women

although I admit to several alcoholic drinks

and the presence of a ladyboy





Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)


NaPoWriMo 2018 – #22 – Vietnam is…


Marble Mountain – Near Da Nang

Vietnam is… (draft #1)

Vietnam is a building site on a beauty spot in a village in a teeming city by a rubbish dump in a million-motorbike traffic jam on a white beach by a blue sea, swimming in plastic bags by a sewage outlet in a capitalist boomtown under communist control.  Vietnam is a ride on the back of an Uber bike racing a Grab bike in a cauldron of steaming Phở with a side dish of French fries drowned in a tower of beer washed down with ultra-sweet coffee sprinkled with chilli nibbled by cat sized rats and mouse sized cockroaches where everything somehow works and then doesn’t and then does. Vietnam is underpaid waiters giving five-star service, mostly, or sometimes, where things break and are miraculously fixed within the hour even on Sunday afternoon for next to nothing, where pavements are motorbike highways and every row of shops has a coffee shop, a spa, a street food stall , where destruction is creative and creativity is improvised, where coffee and beer cost thousands and there are twenty thousand to a dollar, where smiles outnumber snarls 10 to 1, where the roads are filled with raging traffic but no road rage, where nothing is what it seems and everything is an open book, but written in an incomprehensible script where a word can land in one ear and exit the other with no meaning or a multitude of meanings depending on the angle of approach.  Vietnam is an iPhone plucked from your hand by a thief on wheels and a taxi driver saying that what you’ve got is enough when you haven’t got enough. Vietnam is all go, on the go, round the clock, bad karaoke and face masks and tropical storms flooding the streets and stalling your motorbike.  Vietnam is rain capes and motorbikes stacked with chickens and pigs, washing machines and planks, four-up families, balloons and gutter pipes, plate-glass windows and funeral wreaths. Vietnam is Bánh mì and green tea, fairly lights and misting pipes, piles of bricks and daily rubbish tips and wi-fi in every café and cable tv in every apartment. Vietnam is old women cycling slowly through hair-raising roundabouts of chaos where an intricate interweave of vehicles negotiate unscathed (mostly), where every pavement slopes to the road so that every motorbike can drive on the pavement, and every motorcyclist has a phone in one hand and each day is dramatically better or dramatically worse than the previous day and every hour holds a challenge or a thrill or a delight but rarely boredom.  Vietnam is where nobody is to be trusted and everybody looks after you, where there are no public displays of affection, no discussion of sex or politics or religion, but men piss openly in the street and married couples seek solace in one-hour hotels.  Vietnam is dumpling sellers on motorbikes blasting out pre-recorded slogans up and down, up and down all hours, expats living the dream living the nightmare living in one hell of a paradise (until they get kicked out for not having a work permit).





Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)


NaPoWriMo 2018 – #21 – “Have you seen Mickey Finn?”


The disused Jam Factory / railway station at Newbliss

I did a fair bit of writing today, but nothing interesting would come. So I borrowed the house bicycle and cycled into the nearest town, Newbliss, for a pint of Guinness. I came back with a story.


Have you seen Mickey Finn?

Somebody has dropped a cigarette into the tub, next to the bench where I’m sipping a Guinness outside the pub in Newbliss. The shrub is emitting smoke, threatening to turn into a burning bush. A man in the doorway says “For fuck’s sake” and tells one of the smokers to go in and get a pint of water. After several pints of water, the fire is extinguished. A man recites a list of names which includes “Jimmy the Dog” and “Mickey Finn”. There must be hundreds if not thousands of Mickey Finns around the world, but how did Jimmy get to be called “the dog” I wonder? A white van pulls up, the driver shouts, have you seen Mickey Finn?”. The doorway man says “No”. It drives off. Being close to the border, I’m wary of why someone might be listing names, or enquiring the whereabouts of another. I’ve nearly finished my Guinness when a red Ford Focus pulls up. A man about my age, but much heavier, gets out, comes straight up to me, says “Hello, where are you from, you’re welcome, would you like a pint?”. I accept his offer. He disappears inside and re-appears some time later with two pints of Guinness. He wants my life story and when I mention the Tyrone Guthrie Centre he says “Great man, great man, he paid for my first pair of shoes”. I confess to knowing little about Guthrie and he fills in some of the gaps. Guthrie was a Protestant and had no children. He left his huge estate mostly to the Irish Government to be used to promote the creative arts but also a significant part to his Catholic neighbours. “Where is he buried?” I ask. “Hop in and I’ll show ye” he says. We’re in the red Focus driving to Aghabog Church of Ireland cemetery, where Guthrie and his wife and his ancestors are buried. It’s a large, but not enormous headstone. We then drive back towards the town but he veers off, up a country road. “Do you want some fun?” he says. I’m a bit concerned by the question, but before I have time to answer, he has swerved a hard right into a field and is speeding around it, wheels spinning. He comes to a halt next to hedge with a hole in it. “Come in” he says “Have a cup of tea”. “Is your wife home?” I ask and am relieved when he replies that she is. We duck through the hole in the hedge to a bungalow, with a new Jaguar parked outside. That’s mine” he says “The wee Ford is Sarah’s”.  Inside, his wife Sarah seems unsurprised to see a total stranger following in her husband’s wake. “Will you have a steak sandwich?”. “No thank you, just a cup of tea”. I sit and am presented with a mug of tea, a plate piled high with steak sandwiches and another plate of Swiss Roll. “Ah, Just have one, at least”, she says. I daren’t tell them I’m vegetarian, knowing the disbelief it would cause. I force down a steak sandwich and a piece of Swiss Roll, wash it down with the tea. “Well now, let’s get you back” he says. We jump into the Jaguar this time and speed off. He stops at a bridge over a disused railway line. “That was the railway station”, he says. “Joe Martin and Mr. Guthrie bought it and started a jam factory. Irish Farmhouse Preserves it was called. Mr. Guthrie put a lot of money into it. I’ll say no more. But we used to pick strawberries and blackberries for the jam making. That was my first job. That’s how I got my first pair of shoes.”




Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image : Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo



NaPoWriMo 2018 – #20 – Realising Perfection




Realising Perfection

at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig

From this bay window

the black lough,

the banks of bulrushes,

the silhouetted swans


are perfect and yet:

a longtail boat

churning a wake

across the surface


or a boat woman

hawking soft drinks,

and one plastic bottle

floating in the shallows?


Below this bay window

the perfect lawn

is disturbed only by

the shadow


of a beech tree

but maybe:

tyre tracks

gouging the turf,


fast food boxes

scattered around

and a stray dog



The perfect sky

could be tinged

with exhaust haze,

the perfect silence


pierced by jack hammers,

the perfect paths

pitted with pot holes

and broken pavers.


The scones and cream

could be served

from a street cart

by a Bánh mì lady,


the brewed Italian coffee

made piquant

with a blob of

condensed milk,


the vegetables coated

in cheap chilli sauce,

the spotless kitchen

could sport a cockroach,


the empty roads

might feel the pulse

of swarming motorbikes

that I might fully realise


this perfection.





Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image of Tyrone Guthrie Centre: Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)


NaPoWriMo 2018-#19 – Climbing the Ladder



Climbing the Ladder

My father went to work in a suit,

frayed-collar shirt,

shiny arse trousers,

mud caked shoes


Carried 94-pound bags

of cement on his shoulder,

climbed wooden ladders,

slippery with sleet


Drove a digger,

sometimes with me on his knee,

let me pull the levers of a JCB,

ate bacon sandwiches with mugs of tea


On Fridays after work

he went on the lash,

sank several pints

and then drove home.


I go to work in a suit,

clean ironed shirt,

matching tie,

soft leather shoes


I carry a laptop

to meetings, endless meetings

with managers slippery

with self-importance.


I dig into project plans,

pull apart spreadsheets,

build business cases,

climb the corporate ladder.


Sip cardboard cappuccino,

nibble salad sandwiches,

and on Friday evenings

maybe sink a cold chardonnay


though mostly I can’t wait

to get away.




Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: By Muybridge, Eadweard, 1830-1904 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018-#18 – It’s 2 p.m. and a Woman is Screaming at Me


Today I’ve been feeling a bit wiped out so didn’t start writing until about 4 p.m. I tried a few different exercises, none of which worked, and then decided to write about this incident in Vietnam. Very much first draft.

It’s 2 p.m. and a Woman is Screaming at Me

It’s 2 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

on the phone, I don’t know why

I put it down

and drink my tea.


It’s 2:30 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

under my balcony

like some demented Romeo

but I don’t think it’s love.


It’s 3 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

rattling my thankfully

padlocked gate

saying I’ve ruined her business.


It’s 3:30 p.m. and a woman is screaming at me

and the penny

drops: she’s from the restaurant

I left a 2-star review for on TripAdvisor.


It’s 4 p.m. and a woman is still screaming at me

out in the laneway

I call the restaurant, and a man says

“Yes, that’s my wife. I feel your pain”.


It’s 4:30 p.m. and a woman is not screaming at me

I’ve taken down the TripAdvisor review and see

that every rating for that restaurant

is 5 stars.



Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: Barry Schwartz

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #17 His Photoshopped Life

photoshopped life

Yesterday I started my two week stay at the wonderful Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. Now I have no excuses for not writing. This one is new today, but I’ve had more time to work on it. Hence it’s longer than most, which probably means it needs a good edit.

His Photoshopped Life

Now that he’d left Vietnam

he could Photoshop his memories,

rose tint them for public consumption,

make them suitable for family viewing,

crop the New Year’s Eve incident,

the altercation with the restaurant owner

and anything to do with women.


Now that he’d left

he could filter the green tinted anxiety

of daily dealing with surrounding strangeness,

the life-threatening traffic,

the challenge of just crossing the road,

the fear of being bribed by police.


Now that he’d left

he could tone down the times

when there was nobody to speak to

except waitresses and barmen

and his Vietnamese was too pathetic

to get beyond “Xin chào” and “Cảm ơn”.


Now that he’d left

he could sharpen those bits

where the kids were delightful,

where they chanted “Hello TEAcher”

and “Goodbye TEAcher”

and unpacked his bag for him

and repacked his bag for him

and hugged him at the end of class

and cried when he said he was leaving.


Now that he’d left

he could erase the smartarse teenagers

who wanted a young, square-jawed American teacher,

who completely ignored his only three rules:

  1. Turn off your phone 2. Speak English 3. Be nice.

He could cut out the time he shouted:

“Does anyone here actually want to learn English?”

and they all laughed and chanted “I do TEAcher”.


Now that he’d left

he could highlight the camaraderie,

the nights sitting on benches,

drinking beer, eating phở so cheap

that it was almost free,

of riding three up on a motorbike

down back lanes, dodging the rats and the dogs

and yes, even going to a karaoke bar.


Now that he’d left

he could get back to normality.



Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: originally Mike Essl  with minor modification by Mike Hopkins

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #16 Language App


Der Hund hat eine Ente – The dog has a duck

In recent years I’ve been using DuoLingo (without much success, I have to admit) to try to learn German and Vietnamese. DuoLingo is an app that runs on phones and computers. Part of its approach is to give you an English phrase and its translation, which you then have to speak into your phone or computer. The phrases are mostly mundane (e.g. where is the hotel?) but occasionally bizarre. Today’s piece uses some of those bizarre phrases. There are a number of web-pages discussing the origins of these phrases. There is a link to one at the bottom of this page.



Language App

In Berlin a woman recites

German phrases into a computer.


In Bangalore, a programmer loads her phrases

into the language app.


In Australia, a man downloads the app,

recites these new German expressions.


He loves her voice,

is enchanted by her eloquence.


He imagines a woman gazing at a Paul Klee painting.

asking “Who eats the clock?”


He thinks of her flipping through a Thomas Manne novel,

wondering “Where does the cat run to?”


He suspects she has watched a rerun of “The Blue Angel”

thinking “My husband wears a dress”.


He imagines her at Mass praying for absolution,

hearing a whispered “We know every egg”,


considers her strolling the Tiergarten,

a stranger shouting: “You need a duck”.


He searches for her on Facebook, on Instagram,

finds her on LinkedIn.


Professes his love for her,

for her phrases, for her life.


He tells her:

The clock asked to be eaten.

Cats have no conscience.

Your husband is confused.

Your body is your own.

Ducks are indispensable.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

How do weird duolingo sentences get generated?


Image: here

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #15 The Bardo


A few months ago I read George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”. Its premise is that when Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie, died, he was trapped in a place between life and death, the bardo. The bardo, in some schools of Buddhism, is  a liminal state between death and rebirth. Whilst in Vietnam I wrote a draft of this as a homework exercise with friends Gaby and Nick. I’ve updated it slightly in this version.

The Bardo

In the death flash,

his past flickers to life

on a parchment screen.


The saddest scenes,

his worst deeds,

his shame freeze framed.


Unedited lowlights

on endless repeat,

the happy parts made banal.


His next life

a pinhole of light

unwilling yet to show its hand.





Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: Zhi-Khro Bardo Thodol.jpg

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)

NaPoWriMo 2018 – #14 The Problem of Language




The impossibility of tone

“Sweet. Candy. The difference?”

What timidity prevents

“Adjective+Noun. But if I have two adjectives?”

If the noun is a feeling

If the adjective betrays

“Call. Speak, Say. Give examples”

What is not confessed

The meanings of silence

“Now, all speaking stops”

What can be misread

“Why a dog barking up a tree?”

“and where to find red herrings”



Copyright Mike Hopkins 2018

Image: Mxn at en.wikibooks

About NaPoWriMo

(Some / most of these could be rightly described as “chopped up text”. But that’s how first drafts often look.)