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Published: October 10th 2008
Posture Perfect in HueToo Good to be True vs Never Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth?
Full marks to the lad who ruined a dull photo for excellent posture. There are Chiropractors everywhere clammering to get a copy of this photo for their text books and to cover their jotters with.
The lady with the black bags could be a drug dealer. No wait a minute, she's not got a cigarette in her mouth - she's clean. It's probably just the body of a tourist who haggled too hard.
The people running the ‘public’ bus from Attapeu in Laos to Kon Tum in Vietnam didn’t inspire great confidence. The ticket office doubled as the Vietnamese trading hub of Attapeu - a slightly seedy, shades of black market restaurant called the Thi Thi, a place where everything on the menu seemed to come with sheep intestines or snake. As I enquired about the bus service, lifeless snakes bobbed in jars on the counter next to me, pale dead eyes trained on nothing in particular.
I’d read a couple of blogs by people who had passed by this way a few months or years ago and so I had expectations about the price. I had expected the price to have gone up but when the wheeler dealer bloke behind the counter grinned and turned the calculator round for me to see, the number displayed was about 25%!h(MISSING)igher than anticipated. Hmmm, thought I, before beginning that backing away bumbling-mumbling thing that non-English speakers are supposed to interpret as ‘sounds reasonable to me but I’ll just walk away and have a think about it’ but is probably
Mr Wue's Annual Shirt Wash, Hanoi
On the day of his big interview, Mr Wue got to his wardrobe only to find that all 365 of his shirts were in the wash.
We walked away, watched with interest by most people in the busy main street - they don’t seem to get too many foreigners visiting Attapeu (with the exception of the Vietnamese who would appear to run the place and don’t really count as foreign) and it was clear that our visit to the bus counter had been like publishing our planned itinerary in the local newspaper because, as I stepped into the reception of our guesthouse the following morning, the owner sprang to his feet with uncharacteristic enthusiasm and said ‘You want go to Vietnam tomorrow?’
Up to this point our host had demonstrated no grasp whatsoever of the English language and little interest in running a guesthouse. He’d been what might just pass as efficient in Laos, but to use terms like helpful or friendly would have been overstepping the mark. But now, here he was in front of me with a big toothless grin looking like he might hug me or fetch me some slippers. The conversation was quick and ran something like this:
ME: Yes we’re planning on going on Sunday.
HIM: I have VIP van go on Sunday. (He pointed to
Hello. How are you, I'm fine? Where you from?
Ok kids it's very impressive and a million times better than our Vietnamese, but its time to stop repeating page 1 of your text books and move on to the section about helping tourists who are concerned that drug dealers are attempting to steal their belongings and leave them for dead.
the smart looking, mini-van with tinted windows parked outside). Go everyday.
ME: From here to Kon Tum?
HIM: Yes, yes.
ME: How much is it?
HIM: (After looking at the ceiling and holding his chin for a while) Cheap, cheap.
ME: How cheap, cheap?
He produced the ubiquitous calculator from nowhere (calculators are always on hand in Asia - Casio’s marketing campaign here has been a triumph) and tapped in a figure that was about 25% less than the public bus.
ME: (Playing it cool) Hmmm.
HIM: Where you go after Kon Tum?
And it’s at this point that alarm bells should have started ringing…
HIM: Driver will take you to Hue.
ME: What about Kon Tum?
HIM: No go to Kon Tum.
So his original trip to Kon Tum which is about 2 hours drive south from the border has turned into a trip to Hue which is about 4-5 hours north from the border. That’s quite a dramatic change of itinerary. But if the alarm bells were ringing, I didn’t hear them. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.
The decision we were left with was: do we get the public bus which is
War Museum, Hue
A fine collection of weaponry captured from the "losing side". Lots of American tanks basically.
more expensive, slower and requires us to stay the night in Kon Tum before finding transportation to Hue the next day or, do we opt for the VIP van ride which would take us all the way to Hue for peanuts and, according to my new best friend, get us there before 6pm?
We’ve learned through experience that VIP mini-van transport means being packed into a tiny space (in Asia an 8-seater van should seat at least 13 people and a selection of livestock) and driven to the restaurants and tourist-tat shops/factories of every relative the driver has. And believe me - most of them have big families. But the time saved would be considerable and in terms of cost it was a no brainer. I mean it’s only one day - what’s the worst that could happen? Ignorance is Bliss
The van pulled up outside the reception area just after 7:30am and out leapt the driver: a gangly, sharp-faced fellow wearing the standard uniform of all Vietnamese businessmen: a broad collared, light brown and white striped shirt tucked into the high waistband of tight fitting, slightly flared trousers that aren’t long enough to hide pale coloured
The Mobile Hat Co., Hue
Head shrunk after recent run in with South American head shrinking tribe? No worries - at The Mobile Hat Co. we got you covered.
socks and that flap around the ankles an inch or so above spit polished slip-on quasi-leather shoes.
With a mobile pressed to one side of his head he briefly broke from his conversation (though it’s often difficult to tell whether it’s a conversation or an argument), gestured towards the back of the vehicle and shouted something at us in Vietnamese that could only have translated as either ‘Quick! Quick!’ or ‘Jet Wash and Wax’.
Having deposited our bags in the back of the empty van we took the seats offering the most leg room - those immediately behind the driver - and braced ourselves for the inevitable squash.
But by the time we left Attapeu we’d picked up only five more passengers. The first two were like slightly more dishevelled versions of the driver, with shirts hanging out of the waistband of their trousers and the kind of teeth and gums you see as warnings in anti-smoking campaigns. They seemed to be acquaintances of the driver and slouched in the seats upfront with him, losing their sandals and getting reprimanded by the driver for putting their bare feet on the dashboard.
The other three passengers sat
Spear-fishing in a Moat, Hue
From two metres up with a pointy stick this bloke was hoping to catch fish hidden under thick weed. I hope he's not hungry.
immediately behind us and said very little. They didn’t speak to each other and spoke only when spoken to. When cigarettes were lit and I made choking noises, turned up the air-con and gestured to the window, the guys in the back couldn’t move fast enough to get the rear windows open. But they were only travelling in the van for a short time, being let out at some very odd locations along the route before we reached the border. Two got out at a point that seemed to be miles from anywhere high up in the mountains perhaps 40 or 50km from the border. I looked back and watched as they stood at the side of the road scratching their heads and looking out across the miles of beautifully haunting jungle covered, mist shrouded hills. The two guys wore the kind of look of loss you might get if you went in search of your childhood home only to find they’d torn it down and built a Wal*Mart.
Cigarettes were a feature of our journey. I should state at this point that we are both incredibly anti-smoking and were probably first to vote in Scotland’s poll on whether
You've got something on your lens...
I call this one, "River Boats and head". Its a comment on the way the poor river dwellers of Vietnam are being outcast by society of getting in the way of progress. Get out the way river dwellers! You're ruining my shot of this girls head!
to ban on smoking in public places - which was unfortunate because on the way to the border at 10 minute intervals the two upfront and the one who had moved to the now vacant seats behind us, lit up industrial strength cigarettes. It was only later that it occurred to me that the second part of our journey - from the border to Hue - saw significantly less lung damage inflicted. Intake was reduced to one cigarette every 20 minutes, and while I was tempted to believe that this reduction may have been due to them reading about the estimated 83 million Chinese who will die of smoking related diseases over the next 30 years, the reality was that the journey to and across the border was perhaps going to be a little more stressful for them than either of us realised.
There was a palpable tension in the air on the way to the border. Nobody smiled. Laughter was nervous. Chatter was restricted to asking for a light or to be let out for a pee (Asian men have tiny bladders - you can’t travel on a major road without noticing vehicles parked roadside with their male
Mobile Hat Co. Sales Booming
Marketing reports for the Mobile Hat Co.'s targeted demographic (very old Vietnamese people who are in better health and are physially stronger than your average 20 year old American) report a sharp spike in sales in this particular street where 90% of old people have a conical hat. World recession? What world recession?
occupants dispersed across the immediate vicinity with their backs to the road, hips thrust forward, one hand occupied, the other on a hip, cigarette still in mouth). At no stage did they seem directly threatening, but there was something about their manner with us that was slightly intimidating. They were blunt, dismissive and loud - all traits of our previous interactions with the Vietnamese, but this was different - perhaps it was due to the confined, smoke filled space and I’m sure the language barrier didn’t help, but I was left with the distinct impression that, had we understood what they were saying when they did speak, we wouldn’t have liked it. Ignorance is bliss. No Place For a Lady
The border point we were crossing is relatively new - apparently only opened to foreigners a few years ago. It doesn’t really look like its been open to the Vietnamese and Laotians for much longer - in an official capacity anyway.
On the Laos side, the border point springs up on you suddenly as you wind along the well surfaced road that’s cut deep into the once densely forested red earth hills. Sadly, with the road came
Water Flower Under Attack from Man with Spike
These are the flowers under which the fish hide from the man with the silly pointy stick. He leaves the flowers alone though because he's afraid stabbing something so beautiful will kill the fairies. And only the fairies that blessed his pointy stick can help him catch the fish.
the loggers - or was it the other way around - and a common sight on the border is the huge number of logging trucks making their way out of Laos and into Vietnam. This sad end to Laos’ naturally beautiful countryside was something that was hugely evident in our trip to the north last year (see blog Ghost Nation
A collection of small wooden huts manned by uniformed guards and a wooden pole stretching across the road marked the end of Laotian territory. We were unceremoniously turfed out of the van by our now apparently anxious driver and pointed in the direction of the nearest hut where we were met (much to our drivers dismay - I think he was in a hurry) by border guards who saw very few foreign passports and debated among themselves whether we were from GB, UK or Ireland. Telling them we were from Edinburgh in Scotland put a spanner in the works and in the end they wouldn’t let us go until we admitted we were from London. Core blimey guv’ an’ all that.
The driver wouldn’t let us back in the van and shoed us up the hill beyond the lifted
Who Ordered the Extra-Large Paper Cups?
When he was told he would just be delivering a few stacks of paper cups, Mr Wue decided he'd just take the cyclo and leave the van at home. Big mistake Mr Wue!
wooden pole at which point we were free to jump back in; which was fortunate because the no-mans-land between the two countries is a few kilometres of red muddy quagmire created by the huge logging trucks that have churned up this unsurfaced section of road.
The Vietnamese side is typical Chinese inspired Socialist pomp - a huge modern building that looks at odds with everything around it. The arrivals hall is enormous and empty with multiple passport control counters, naturally of which only one of which is manned, by a guy with a stamp and a few papers that he shuffles when he’s not testing the stamp on his arms, shouting ‘echo’ into his massive empty office or trying to communicate with the geckos that you can just make out on the ceiling miles above him.
With the stamping formalities slowly savoured by the guy at the counter we finally trundled over to the bag scanning machine. And here’s where I began to wonder if something was up. It was as our bags passed through the machine that our fellow passengers - lets call them Colgate and Aquafresh - made their way over to the ‘security’ guard, sat
She's come from the future to change the past so that in the present my pictures of Hanoi's streets will look daft. What's "I'll be back" in Vietnamese anyway?
with him and scrutinised the X-rayed contents of our bags. I didn’t like this one bit - now they knew the location of our cameras, our laptop and the only underwear I have that don’t have holes in them. To play along with them - though I’m not quite sure what I thought this would achieve - I joined them behind the security counter and acted a little wacky and like this whole X-ray thing was entirely new to me. I think they were all suitably freaked out by my antics.
The driver meantime was doing some freaking out of his own, standing outside the immigration building in front of his van. He looked like he’d been through a whole box of cigarettes since we last saw him and was clambering to get going. Colgate and Aquafresh had leapt to attention when he’d given them a scolding for dilly-dallying and they now sat patiently in the van, hanging out the windows and open sliding door like mangy dogs about to enjoy having their ears flapping in the warm breeze.
But Vik, who had turned down the opportunity earlier to get out and pee with the guys by the
Big Brother, Vietnam Style
Mr and Mrs Wue are in the kitchen. Big Brother couldn't afford cameras or even a house so contestants are hypnotised to believe they are living in a normal apartment when really they're living on a main road in Hanoi. The bike is parked in "the garage".
side of the road, was about to put the driver through another lung busting cigarette session as she looked for a toilet. Having no grasp of English, the Vietnamese border guards relied on my charades style ‘she’s dying for a pee’ to get the jist of what it was that Vik was after. With lots of ‘ahh’s’ of understanding the guards pointed back through security to the other side of immigration. This wasn’t a problem for Vik who would quite happily have got a new Visa to go to the bathroom. As it turns out it wasn’t a problem for security either. So Vik went back through immigration to no-mans-land and went to the loo before popping back through immigration with a wave and a spring in her step. Techically, I guess Vik entered Vietnam twice having visited no-man’s land for a pee. I could have made a witty comment there about the ladies toilets being a no-man’s land anyway, but oddly, this no-man’s land only had a men’s toilet so really it was a no-woman’s land… I’ll just shut up. The Worst that Could Happen
Our driver hadn’t been quite so humoured by Vik’s visit to the
Is this a Road?
Do they drive on the left or right in Vietnam? Both. And the middle. And the kerb.
men’s loos in no-man’s land. He had the proverbial ants in his pants and kept hopping from one foot to the other as if the vibrations in the ground would somehow make Vik pee faster. I’d taken up a froggy squatted position on the kerb outside the van, in true casual Asian style and was becoming aware of how the role of frustrated clock watching Westerner and overly casual Asian bus driver were being reversed. Every so often he’d fire me a ‘where the hell is she?’ look and I’d casually gesture over my shoulder towards the office. I tell you, all I needed was a cigarette hanging limply from my jaw and some old suit trousers and you’d have been sure I was Vietnamese. It’s the most Asian I’ve ever felt - and let me tell you - it felt damn good.
But this is where our story takes a turn for the worst. This is where all the little clues we’d been given along the way add up to what we possibly should have seen coming. I’ll be honest - I’m not very observant. When I see two and two I rarely put them together to make four because I’ve been distracted by something like a TV or an ant. Both these things captivate me. I can’t speak to ants and in Asia I rarely understand what’s being said on the TV but I can’t help but watch. (They’re just examples by the way - I do get distracted by other things, but TV’s and ants spring to mind first). Vik on the other hand is razor sharp when it comes to spotting bad things and bad situations; that’s why she knew the truth well before I did. And I must have been really entertained by something because even as the guy got into the back of the van next to our rucksacks to cut up and weigh the narcotics into separate black bags, I was oblivious to what was going on.
‘Robbie - he’s gone into the back to cut up the drugs they had hidden under the front seat.’ That was the first clue Vik provided me with when I stopped whistling, tapping and watching ants. ‘They’re going to murder us’, she continued with genuine fear in her eyes and voice. That was my second clue - provided to explain Vik’s current thinking. I should explain that we’re not one of those couples who just know instinctively what the other is thinking. I mean, Vik usually knows that I’m thinking about banana pancakes and/or boobs, but I need clues and prompts occasionally - ‘they’re going to murder us’ is a new one on me - not heard that before - but it had the desired effect.
We were driving deeper into the Vietnamese Highlands at this point. There was little traffic. There was the odd shack here and there, but if you wanted to do away with someone, if you had bodies to hide, the density of the jungle was ideal. The road twisted up and down, the driver speeding like a maniac into each corner, cigarette held between the fingers that gripped the wheel. But for the first time in the journey it wasn’t his mental driving or excessive smoking I was afraid would kill us. Why would they need us now? Hadn’t we been the ideal cover: two idiots who wouldn’t have a clue what was going on because they didn’t speak the language being passengers on a legitimate bus service? And I kicked myself as I thought back to the border and the driver handing over papers and pointing to us, his paying passengers. ‘Yup - we can’t be drug smugglers because we’ve got passengers - look, there they are - they’re from London don’t you know.’
‘There are scales in the back next to our rucksacks’, said Vik. I was in a trance. Why the hell hadn’t I spotted them. Who the hell other than fishermen, Atkins Diet fanatics and drug dealers keep scales in the back of their car? This guy didn’t look patient enough to be a fisherman and if there was one person in the car that didn’t need Atkins it was old skin ‘n’ bones behind the wheel.
Thanks to ‘security’ at the border they also knew the location of our valuable belongings (not that we have many - but that wasn’t the point). And where were the other passengers? Doesn’t he know about the global recession and increasing fuel prices? How was this guy going to be making any money from this trip unless he had some sort of lucrative sideline - like say, DRUG SMUGGLING!! As two and two came together; as the picture began to develop in the darkroom of my mind; I realised the position I’d put us in. If you have ever before been overwhelmed by the realisation that you have created a situation that potentially endangers not just your life but more importantly the life of your loved one then you’ll know that there are no words to describe that empty feeling. It’s not fear. It’s not hatred. It’s a feeling of total failure. If Only Mr T. Had Been More Specific
From Tufty the Squirrel and Charlie the Cat I learned how to cross the road and avoid stranger danger. From Snow White and the Seven Dwarves I learned how to fight plaque and keep tartar under control. From Banana Man I learned how kissing girls could lead to years of paying Child Support and from Mr T I learned that ‘bad guys do drugs’. Well, to be honest I thought Mr T was being a bit judgemental. People do drugs for all kinds of socio-economic reasons that I don’t need to go into - but I wished he’d been a little more specific about what bad guys actually look like. For example, if he’d told me that bad guys are usually scrawny, smoke excessively and get frustrated by toilet stops on borders, we might have had a better chance of avoiding this whole debacle.
As it was, I was left to consider our options without the help of Mr T. (or Tufty and Charlie, for that matter);
Option one: leap from the moving/exploding vehicle Bruce Willis - Die Hard style, spinning in mid air so that the beautiful girl I’m gripping is cushioned from the smack of the concrete by my strong muscular physique which is used to taking this kind of hero-pain anyway? But I bruise easily, so maybe not.
Option two: announce the requirement for a pee stop and then run like hell. Good but, it’s unlikely our travelling companions would miss the opportunity to get out and stretch their legs by squatting at the side of the road.
Option three: strangle the driver and throw the guy behind me through the windscreen. Nice. Very action hero. But realistically, even if I could strangle the driver, wouldn’t the car just run off a cliff and burst into flames. Hmm.
As you can probably tell, I rarely face decisions like this and watch excessive amounts of Hollywood drivel. I tend to like my decisions to be a little less violently orientated - like, what colour Post-it notes I should use or whether to buy half fat or trim milk. Formulating a plan to protect my wife from potentially violent drug smugglers, escape from the back of a moving vehicle and finding safety in the remote, thick, highland jungle on the Laos-Vietnam border; that’s all fairly new to me.
Option four was the default: just stay in the van, sweating, panicking, close to tears and hoping to buggery that when they found our bodies there’d be enough of us left to pack into a decent size capsule and fire into space where an alien race with advanced technology could resurrect us. Salvation from Within
Vietnam is a slim country and we had crossed the border at the slimmest point with the idea that we were heading north to Hue, which is on the coast. Although I didn’t have the faintest idea where we were or even if we were heading in the direction of Hue, the hope that I clung to is that eventually we would see the sea. The sea would be our salvation - it would be a sign that we were on a legitimate course and would signal the end of the ideal body dumping zone that is the hills and mountains of the highlands. What I didn’t realise was that the hills and mountains run fairly much up to the coast and that I never would see the sea because by the time we reached it, it would be dark.
The agony of turning every corner to find that another mountain stood at the end of the valley or another hill blocking our route seemed endless. ‘Right, I’m pretty sure we’ll see the coast when we get round this corner…’ I’d tell Vik with absolute certainty and authority, only to find ten minutes later that we faced another corner and another hill. ‘Ok, maybe this one - I’m sure I saw the ocean in that gap between those two hills.’ And so our journey went - hopes raised, hopes dashed; hopelessly uncertain of where we were or where we were going.
But the further into Vietnam we drove, the more noticeable the change in mood that was taking place within the van. The drugs had been cut, weighed, bagged and counted. The job was virtually at an end and all the tension that had been so apparent as we approached the border was beginning to lift. Our driver, who had been almost rigid in his seat when we first encountered him, had visibly relaxed and was throwing the vehicle into corners with much more reckless abandon than before. Colgate, who had been busy in the back with preparations, was reclined across the backseat, dozing between cigarettes and the guy in the passenger seat beside the driver, who had clearly spent most of the journey from the border sampling whatever it was they were transporting became a whole lot more spacey than he had been when he first got into the van. His original vacant gormless look had been replaced by a slightly more gormless and vacant look. By the time we eventually left them his heavy spacey eyes, slightly protruding tongue and greasy little moustache made him look like Droopy with a morphine habit.
Even our mood was changing (slightly). Vik still feared for her life - and that in turn made me edgy, but as we drove away from the highlands around the border I realised that we were slowly descending and sea level was where we wanted to be. We’d also started making those reassuring ‘it could be worse’ observations to each other that you do in a crisis situation: saying things like, ‘that bit over there would be a great place to hide a body and we’ve just driven right past it’ or ‘I haven’t noticed any weapons or sharp implements in the van’ or ‘actually, I’m getting quite used to the taste of that smoke’.
Final evidence of the extent to which Stockholm Syndrome had taken hold was provided when we eventually stopped at a roadside café for coffee. We’d both eagerly scoped out the tiny village as we drove through it - as we had the few towns that we’d passed through - but hadn’t seen anything that looked remotely like a hotel, guesthouse or a bus station; just the usual skinny half constructed homes, wooden shacks and plastic chair eateries lining the roadside. Our motley crew of three had positioned themselves in the centre of the café on a raised platform with throne-like wooden chairs that allowed them to look down on the other dinners in a Royal fashion. It was a fairly odd set-up that didn’t look entirely unfamiliar to our crew.
The driver was now on good form and enjoying being centre of attention to the few other diners who kept their heads down and tried to get on with enjoying their coffee. He seemed to command a bit of respect in this area and perhaps it was this status that had him waving us over to a table and ordering coffee for us. This was certainly an unexpected turn of events. Not only did our driver have a smile on his face, but he was now buying us coffee. Shouldn’t we be dead by now or something? This was a good sign. Unless he is hideously sadistic, it would seem odd to buy potential victims what turned out to be extremely tasty, fresh Vietnamese coffee. Things were looking up.
Our appreciation for the coffee and for not murdering us thus far was clearly apparent to the driver who seemed equally appreciative of the important part we’d played as clueless passengers in his little operation and he seemed extra buoyed by the kudos he’d get from having bought his new foreigner friends/accomplices a drink in front of so many people.
Thoughts of murder were beginning to ebb away as we continued on our merry way towards wherever it was we were heading. There was a palpable cheer about the van - it seemed to bounce along to the rhythm of the happy Vietnamese pop tunes that flowed from the vans speakers as drug smugglers and tourists alike happily exchanged thumbs ups, smiles and pleasantries in foreign languages.
The mountains gave way to the foothills and eventually the foothills gave way to the coast. It was dark by then, but our fears had been left behind at that coffee shop an hour or two earlier. However, as if to prove that Mr T was wrong about those involved in the drug trade, our driver made one more stop where upon he tried to buy us dinner. I refused to accept but was appreciative enough of the gesture that he seemed satisfied with my gratitude.
We finally parted ways in Hue only two and a half hours later than originally quoted. By then we were quite attached to our little cartel and as we parted ways we wished them a lenient prison sentence when they did finally get rumbled. But I guess in the drug smuggling game you learn to trust nobody because, by some weird reversal of suspicions, as we unloaded our bags from the back of the van they discreetly recounted their black bag collection and checked we hadn’t picked up something by mistake.
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