Pho Chi Minh (Kim)

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Asia » Vietnam » Southeast » Ho Chi Minh City
June 16th 2011
Published: June 16th 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

When we landed in Saigon (the official unofficial name for Ho Chi Minh City) the surroundings were more like a rusting military base than an international civilian airport. Disused helicopters lined the runways, lurking in the shadows of their hangars whilst antique military jeeps stood unused between them on the grassy dividers. Two things had compelled us to this place. The first was, as always, the guiding hand of JFK; our triumph at the Battle of Bangkok had secured us prestige amongst our peers at the UN and our first diplomatic mission would be a pilgrimage to Vietnam - a country whose history was inextricably intertwined with that of our patron saint. The second was more personal; a small group of SOGOnians (citizens of SOGO*) had made the same pilgrimage to Saigon a few days earlier and had since dropped off the map. In any case we were required by our Constitution (written up by Vice Chancellor Larry in the long hours of the night) to enact our NCLB* policy should any citizen of SOGO go missing in a foreign country. However, this was no ordinary mission – those displaced were high-ranking officials in the SOGO government; the remaining members of the esteemed Orton clan.

The crafty Vietcong had sabotaged Facebook communications in preparation for our arrival, fearing that Jamie’s 1800 friends would be a threat to the stability of the government (what they didn’t realise was that he’d managed to smuggle in his Friend Book with him, containing literally dozens of people noted down as ‘actual friends’). Whilst this only served as a minor inconvenience to the four of us – Matt did have a small cry in the airport toilets – it did have the unfortunate effect that we had absolutely no idea what we were doing when we got outside. We were not totally unprepared though; each of us was highly trained in the arts of charm and persuasion and Matt had packed enough Baseless Certainty™ to power a train from London to Edinburgh in less than 15 minutes.

Our training served us well. As soon as we hit the perimeter of the airport a small Vietnamese man emerged from the shadows holding a battered sign with the name ‘OGTON’ scrawled across it. He quickly ushered us into a taxi, and set off in a straight line headed directly into central Saigon. Sitting there watching the traffic was something similar to how I imagine trying to count a swarm of bees inside a washing machine would feel (the driver warned us that staring for too long could be dangerous, unfortunately not in time to save Larry ‘Bug-Eyes’ Mills).You see despite common misconceptions, Saigon isn’t actually constructed on a fixed geographical point but is instead constantly moving up and down the country on the back of a leviathan fleet of scooters. Entire generations of Vietnamese live on each one, tessellated on top of each other in nauseatingly high structures. If you close your eyes the orchestra of bike horns both feels and sounds like a flock of sexually frustrated gannets trying to pleasure your inner ear with sandpaper.

Noting our discomfort and the imminent danger of having a gap year cliché decorating the back of his car our driver quickly decided to drop us off on the side of the road. Luckily for us he had laid us down near the hotel we were heading towards, unluckily for us it was on the opposite side of the road. It took us ten minutes and three pile-ups to get across. It was only by virtue of Matt’s plan to use the mopeds that had slipped up on Larry’s fear-induced vomit as a protective barrier that we made it through alive. At the hotel we were allowed to drop our bags off, and then immediately whisked off in the direction of a local restaurant.

When we arrived we learned that the Ogtons had already made a reservation and were sat at a spacious table in the middle of the restaurant. It was much grander than anything we were used to. There was cutlery for one, and everybody was given their own individual plate rather than a communal trough from which to eat. Its sophistication made us nervous – we began to think that perhaps we had stolen the Ogtons’ reservation, and that any moment we would find ourselves at the bottom of a doggy-pile consisting of an entire family of turnip farmers from the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. Just as the beading on Laurence’s hairy palms reached its zenith a firm hand clasped Matt’s shoulder, and a voice behind him said in a musical baritone: “It’s good to see you again...son.” Spinning around Matt was greeted with the grinning face of Chris Orton, the beaming smile of Diana and the child-like laughter of his two younger brothers, Will and Tim.

With great relief and a sense of eu-pho-ria we found ourselves reunited with our friends and fellow kinsmen, and to celebrate a great feast was laid out in our honour. Not only was this magnificent meal gifted to us, but we discovered that the Ortons had generously organised our accommodation for the night and provided us with a comfortable room that for the first time in months would only reek of piss and sweat after we checked out. Once again, we found ourselves indebted to the kindness of those around us.

We discussed the arrangements for the next few days, and with a tinge of sadness decided that Matt would leave active duty to spend time with his newly reunited family whilst the rest of SOGO held the fort in Saigon, but not before spending a day of sightseeing with them, starting bright and early the next morning.

Mama and Papa Orton informed us that we would be spending the first part of the day visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels. Initially excited but somewhat surprised at the prospect (I had seen a porno of the same name a few months back) I quickly realised my error – the Cu Chi Tunnels were a series of hellish passageways used by the Vietcong for cover during the Vietnam war rather than a group of Asian schoolgirls on a cultural exchange to an all-boys British boarding school.

Most of what we saw there was horrible – the Vietnamese soldiers had constructed all manner of traps that were impossible to discover and would leave soldiers impaled, garrotted or disembowelled. The tunnels themselves (where Vietcong soldiers would live for weeks or even months at a time) were so cramped that it was impossible to crawl along them without fully inserting your head into the anus of the person in front of you (the tunnels have consequently been banned by an order from the BBFC). Having been battling with severe colonic irritation the entire morning, Larry graciously jumped to the front of the queue as we were invited to crawl through the tunnels ourselves, and for 400m Jamie’s helpless face was constantly buffeted by random putrid bursts that emitted themselves from Laurence’s quivering rectum. Needless to say, even with ice packs and oxygen, it took over an hour for the facial paralysis to subside.

The rest of the day was filled with a visit to a pagoda, a stop to peek at the presidential palace and a tour of the War Remnants Museum (only just rechristened from its previous title of ‘The Museum of American War Crimes’).There’s not much that can be said other than that even for the SOGO Four it was a completely harrowing experience and that the Communists lived up to their reputation for disseminating complete, impartial and factually accurate information to its population. We left it emotionally drained, but not defeated, and resolved to lift our spirits the best way we knew how – by burdening the local bars and clubs with our rash, drunken behaviour and persistent claims of genital elephantiasis.

That night we went out with two of the most promising recruits to have recently entered the ranks of the SOGO Academy: 19 year old Will Orton and 16-going-on-21-year-old Tim Orton. The rules of cocksmanship dictate that I cannot relate exactly what happened that night, but I can tell you this – that by midnight I was dancing in the middle of a raised platform in an expensive club, completely surrounded by security personnel, wearing a pair of blue crocs and pretending that Will was my boyfriend from back home. Tim had been lost somewhere under the gaggle of Gap Year Rahs that had been seduced by his older, more mature charms. As had been expected, the Ortons did us proud.

Tearfully we said goodbye to Matt the next morning and watched his bus drive off into the distance with a heavy heart. We were unsure of what to do; we had been prepared for him leaving, but at that moment, with just the two of us and Larry, we felt like we had lost our third limb. But, as they say, JFK works in mysterious ways. As we walked back to our guesthouse, heads down, feet dragging along the ground, we were hit with a sudden pang of hunger, and looking around all we saw was a small, weathered old lady with pre-school plastic chairs and tables and a badly written sign that said ‘PHO’. Wearily we sat down and mumbled an order. The old woman hobbled back and with a trio of steaming chicken noodle broths and set them down with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Picking up our chopsticks we scooped the noodles into our mouths.

The feeling that permeated our bodies was pho-nomenal. The warmth and complexity of the broth pho-tified us, and the feeling of pho-boding that had plagued us since Matt’s exit was lifted. Suddenly our predicament didn’t seem as hopeless as it had done before, and in a second our pho-tunes had been turned. JFK had sent us the means through which to pho-get our worries: the Vietnamese manna of pho-lklore. Its simplicity is the source of its brilliance. Friend or pho, for generations it has brought the people of Vietnam together. It must be consumed with an excess of chilli, and one commits a pho-pas by finishing it any way other than by drinking deeply from the bowl and concluding with a loud belch in a pool of sweat. It had been the secret strength of Vietnam for generations, and now it had been handed down to Pho-GO.

With a new sense of purpose we attacked our time in Saigon. SOGO was back on top form and determined to honour our prodigal member with an exemplary performance in the former capital. We relaxed as only SOGOsmen can; with significant danger and inconvenience to those around them. The pho we were consuming three times a day was doing its job; we found ourselves emboldened to a degree unimaginable in days gone by. Often we would go to the local park, and taking up a disproportionate amount of space for ourselves, play piggy-in-the-middle with a small ball Laurence had found next to a dead rat in a gutter. For hours Jamie and I would pass the ball back and forth as Larry flailed around wildly trying to catch it, occasionally breaking down when hit by a particularly vivid memory of his time at school. Eventually we had to stop after a particularly bad incident where Larry thundered into a nearby kid’s birthday party mid-breakdown and started shovelling fistfuls of cake into his mouth, shouting loudly at the birthday girl and spraying crumbs into her tear-stained face.

Our replacement for PITM was a new game that the locals loved playing which involved kicking a rubber spring with a feather tail back and forth between each other in a circle until someone dropped it. We adapted this game and created a new variant, quickly dubbed ‘SOGO Spring’. The SOGO variant of the game involved joining an already underway round with some locals, and then when the spring came your way kicking as hard as you could, resulting in it careening off in a random direction and more often than not ending up entangled in a tree or being crushed multiple times on a busy road. The locals didn’t seem to warm to SOGO Spring, mostly because it only ever lasted one round and then a new spring had to be bought. Eventually we were the only people playing it in the park, presumably because the others were too embarrassed to play in the face of our vastly superior skill.

It was at this time that the Danger Cross was born. We discovered the Danger Cross during our attempts to solve the algorithm governing the movement of traffic in Saigon. Initially we were running with the idea that the scooters were following a version of Dijkstra’s graph search algorithm, but then, over a particularly deep pho discussion, Jamie had an epiphany. The solution to cracking the pattern involved stepping, one foot at a time, blindly into the traffic. This proved to be 100% effective and soon we were finding the largest stretches of road, with the most intersections and the least signage, and walking boldly in front of vehicles of all sizes. Jamie’s record was one hour spent crossing the main roundabout in the centre of Saigon, overturning three tourist buses and causing two house fires along the way.

Nights in Saigon managed to maintain the same format throughout our time there. After a hearty serving of roadside pho the three of us would stalk up and down the main strip of bars that were located conveniently right near our guesthouse. After much consideration we would unanimously decide to go to the same bar that we went to every night on the reasoning that the drinks were always stronger and less expensive there. I would spend five minutes flirting with the exceptionally camp bartender (who had been looking to get his softly perfumed claws into me since he had learned my boyfriend from back home had returned to England) who would then promise to make our drinks extra strong and give us a discount.

After the obligatory ‘Bad Idea Bucket Number Three’ we would decide that the night would be better off installing ourselves with a some larger group of people nearby and using a combination of considerable charms and a sprinkling of lies sit down at their already over-cramped table (in retrospect it’s easy to see that we were trying to fill the gap left by Matt’s significant absence). Once we had impressed the group with our tales of bravery and exaggerations of girth we would stumble with them into the nearby club and throw shapes the likes of which hadn’t been dreamed of by even the most inspired geometrists. In the early hours baguettes would be bought outside our guesthouse and matters of manhood and philosophy would be discussed on the steps.

On our last night out we donned our finest attire and headed to the bars one last time. Jamie strutted down the street flaunting his Hollywood-smile white jeans, Larry grinned foolishly behind a pair of bright pink Ray Bans and I swaggered from side to side in the Primark Finest™ plain gray I got for my 14th birthday. We struck an impressive figure. It was perhaps for this reason we were scouted to star in an up and coming movie. Seemingly out of nowhere a distinguished-looking Asian woman materialised and told us that she represented a man who was looking for people like us to act in a challenging, innovative new production. We quickly accepted and pondered why it had taken so long for the movie industry to move on our obvious talents. We were led to a bar (or rather a hovel with plastic mini-chairs and a beer tap) and introduced to the mastermind of this project.

Beauford Bumble-Chitterwell was an elderly Scotsman with a voice like a grizzly bear getting an enema. He quickly shook our hands and complimented us on our appearance, telling us he worked for BBC Casting and wanted us to act as American soldiers in a film about the Vietnam War, offering forty US dollars apiece. Larry immediately stepped forward excitedly to accept the offer (it had been his dream to be a soldier ever since an unfortunate incident involving a Disneyland parade, a life-size toy soldier and a missed high-five) but Jamie and I held him back and requested a moment to consider it. Looking around the room we began to suspect that something might be amiss. The biggest clue for us was the fact that we were surrounded by morons. A regiment of other night-goers had been plucked off the streets and offered the same job, most of whom were already pissed and one of whom, reeking of weed, told us with a massive grin that he ‘couldn’t wait to go and kill some Asians’. On top of that the woman who had plucked us off the street had now donned an apron and was preparing sandwiches for the newly recruited staff.

We asked Beauford some questions. What was the name of the movie? He would get back to us on that. Is it an American or a Vietnamese film? He wasn’t entirely sure at the time. Is he really from the BBC – the well known British Broadcasting Corporation? Well not exactly, he was self-employed and BBC stood for the initials of his name. We politely declined his offer and left the choking hemp cloud of the bar to continue our night as we had originally intended, with only the slightest backward glance from Larry as we walked off.

The rest of our night looked set to continue as the previous ones had; we were back in our regular bar, embarking on Bucket number three and Guang the bartender was softly stroking my earlobes. Worried that it was the caress of Guang’s manicured hands that was causing the sudden stirring in my trousers I looked around and with great relief spotted what had activated my spider senses: a lonely looking trio of Swedish girls had just sat down on a table near us.

Using some expert manoeuvring I managed to have myself practically sitting on their laps before they noticed me and was soon telling them stories of my time as a military hero and my upcoming status as Poet Laureate. Jamie strode over to join me after a few moments of discrete rubbing and, twirling his crotch proudly and thrusting with each syllable, introduced himself to the girls. Larry insisted he had left his shirt at home the whole time. At some point during the evening we let slip that we had been planning to go mountain-biking the next day and the girls jumped at the idea that they could come along too. Knowing that it would be dangerous for even the most mercenary of civilians we tried to say no, but looking at their puppy dog eyes our resolve soon melted and we agreed to meet them early the next morning.

What had initially been a well-planned and itinerated trip soon went the way most SOGO undertakings go: completely balls-up. The map we were promised on the phone turned out to be sponsored by the Vietnamese canned tuna industry and the only identifiable landmarks were smiling cartoon tuna fish and magically animated cans that appeared to be dancing. The ‘hardcore’ route we were promised turned out to tour the city’s numerous fisheries and processing plants that failed to get us within one mile of the city limits. Indignant we did what any self-respecting adventuresman would do when presented with such a situation: we improvised.

Dragging the girls with us we decided on an ‘as the crow flies’ policy to the day’s trip and headed on the biggest road we could find out of Saigon. The trip was perilous. When we weren’t being overtaken by mopeds trucks were trying to run us off the road, and every once in a while we were thrown a curveball and had to dodge a scooter that was travelling in the opposite direction. After two leisurely hours we arrived at an overpass and found ourselves being shooed by a police official off the highway and down a small dirt road passing over some rice paddies. Within ten minutes we were completely lost deep in rural Vietnam.

It was Samaipata all over again. The sun beat down on our backs and our water evaporated in the bottle before we could put it to our mouths. On the rare occasion we arrived at a small village the inhabitants would flee into their houses and stare at us with fear, shouting “White Devil!” and shaking pitchforks at us through boarded up windows. There wasn’t a pho stall for miles. We were in trouble.

In our desperation we adopted the SOGO contingency plan for finding your way home: Danger Orienteering. The way that Danger Orienteering works is that whenever you are presented with a split in the road, a random member of the group races ahead shouting either “Danger Left!” or “Danger Right!” and the rest of the group are forced to follow. To their great credit the girls coped well in the face of near-certain death and didn’t complain once about our new tactics, although that may have been because we were racing too far ahead rather than any confidence in our methods.

Despite our best efforts Danger Orienteering seemed to be ineffective against the Vietnamese countryside and we appeared to be even more lost than before. We were thirsty, tired and almost certainly going to have to marry the girls and start new lives as men of the land. Just as I was preparing my case as to which of the Swedes I was going to take as my bride Larry took a danger right and suddenly we found ourselves on tarmac, stretched across two lanes of traffic. We rejoiced as vehicles piled-up around us and I silently cursed our luck as we began our journey back to Saigon, singing songs to pass the time. In a paltry two hours we had returned our bikes to their vendor.

Leaving the bike shop before the girls had the chance to decide how furious they were we made a bee line back towards our guesthouse where we were set to be reunited with our beloved Mattamir. Whilst our break from Matt had been painful it had only served to strengthen the SOGO Four, and we were now more formidable than ever. In the morning we would be leaving for the beach town of Mui Ne, and its people would be the next to hear the word of SOGO.

*In response to requests from some of our readers to clear up some of the terminology used in our blogs, a small glossary had been included at the end of this one.

SOGO: Sun's Out Guns Out
NCLB: No Cunt Left Behind


16th June 2011

Too long

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