This was the last long Xmas letter that I wrote. In 2007 I began the tradition of sending a Xmas email to my overseas friends, but I decided to stop. I haven't sent one since 2018. One reason is that my life is less full than it used to be - the result of retiring from full-time teaching - and I am not travelling as much so have fewer adventures to relate.
I have published all my Xmas letters since 2007 because they encapsulate the main events of my life and often remind me of things I had forgotten. There is nothing in them which is so private it should not be read by all and sundry - although, of course, there are many personal private matters which I have deemed unfit for public consumption.
Anyway, this is my last long Xmas letter - describing the events of a crucial and highly successful year in my life:
117 Hai Ba Trung Street
Ben Nghe Ward
Ho Chi Minh City
Dear Overseas Friend(s)
I began penning Xmas letters in 2007, when I was teaching in Ghana. Apart from my obvious desire to communicate with friends, my Xmas letter is written for myself – as a sort of diary. Looking back at all the letters I have written reminds me of many things I would otherwise have forgotten.
I’ve been in frequent touch with some of you this year, and you’ve heard about my life, so skim the bits you already know. Here goes: a synopsis of my year.
Having savoured the joys of semi-retirement, I do not wish to return to full-time teaching (unless some lucrative sinecure magically appears in HCMC). I’m very happy in the apartment I bought here in HCMC and have no desire to leave it and go gadding round the world again. I’ve travelled to most of the places I’ve wanted to visit (Barcelona and Antarctica are possible exceptions). Supply teaching (filling in for sick or absent teachers) and private tutoring keep me going financially and allow me plenty of free time to drink malt whisky, play chess, read books, eat Indian food and durian, listen to music and write long Xmas letters.
Our apartment is on the 6th floor of a nice block in a nice area. Last Xmas we’d only just moved in. Now it is complete: photos and pictures on the walls, objets d’art and potted plants scattered around, easy chairs on the balcony, book shelves in situ. My somewhat nomadic life in HCMC, moving from apartment to apartment since 2001, is over; I can imagine living here for the rest of my days.
HCMC is still a very interesting and comfortable place to live, although I do worry about the AQI. The city is growing rapidly – especially upwards. When I arrived in 2001 there were few high-rise buildings; now there are lots. From my balcony I can see the two most iconic: Bitexco and Landmark 81 (81 storeys), the 14th tallest building on earth. The former is an interesting piece of architecture, whereas the latter is ghastly or magical depending on your taste, especially at night when it glows psychedelically, changing colours every few minutes. I miss the old Saigon; so many little shops and houses have been knocked down to make room for bland shopping centres, apartment blocks and offices.
This year – the year of Trump and Brexit - I’ve travelled to Cambodia three times (Phnom Penh and Siem Reap). The purpose of the Siem Reap trip was to meet, and drink whisky with, my old friend, Angelo, who was working in the local hospital. For once I did not visit the temples, which have become commercialized and are no longer the pristine ruins of yesteryear.
The best holiday, however, was to Hoi An on the Vietnamese coast. The town – a World Heritage site – was as charming as ever, and Thuy set a new world record for buying dresses. The big surprise was the sea. Unlike the sea at Mui Ne (where we went in May) it was plastic-free. The water was pure, the weather dry and sunny, and we spent two delectable days on the beach, exploring the town in the evenings. Another surprise was Sunworld Ba Na, a giant entertainment complex in the hills near Danang, not far from Hoi An. I had expected it to be monumentally tacky, and it was, but for some reason I revelled in the tackiness, while my wife was genuinely awe-struck. A medieval French village, complete with cathedral, is the centrepiece of Sunworld. It is six years old.
I treated my wife’s family to a holiday in Dalat, the hill station once beloved of the French. 32 of us piled into a coach and stayed in Dalat for four nights. The Vietnamese love Dalat for its cool temperature, waterfalls, scenery and local produce. At the end of our trip my wife and her family bought vast quantities of avocados for a fraction of the price they would have cost in Saigon.
Another good trip was to my wife’s home town of Tan Chau. Her restaurant has now metamorphosed into a coffee shop with billiard tables. She says that selling beer is troublesome because of drunken customers. The billiard tables are of the pocketless Vietnamese variety. The locals spend hours playing carom, a boring game which consists solely of making cannons.
We’ve had a steady stream of visitors to HCMC and to our new apartment. Thuy’s family often stay with us. Michelle, daughter of my old next door neighbours in Stourbridge, passed through. So did former colleagues, Shawn Deleu and Nick Clerehan. During the summer, two overseas teacher friends, Tim Wagner and Chris Scoggins, popped in. In October my actor friends – Daniel, Will and Lisa – visited, and we had a memorable evening of banana wine and karaoke.
My books of the year were ‘Lolita’, ‘Passage to Juneau’ (a brilliant travelogue by Jonathan Raban), ‘H Is For Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald, ‘Never Fall Down’ (a memoir of the Pol Pot era in Cambodia) and Jim Murray’s ‘Whisky Bible’. He gives a score of 97.5/100 to Ardbeg Uigeadail, a malt whisky which I received as a present from a grateful parent. Another interesting read was my friend Chris Henry’s first novel, ‘The Plan Was’ – a racy tale of derring-do and espionage in S. E. Asia.
We have a lovely large-screen TV hooked up to the internet. Best things I’ve watched on it (courtesy of Youtube) are: ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘One-Eyed Jacks’, ‘The Shootist’ (John Wayne’s last western), ‘The Fastest Gun Alive’, ‘Open Range’, ‘This Sporting Life’, ‘If’, ‘Chasing Trane’ (the famous John Coltrane documentary), ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ (the Alan Bates BBC classic from 1978) and Ken Burns’s brilliant documentary series on the Vietnam War.
Most of the movies I watched at the cinema were crap. An exception was ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. Beautifully scripted and directed, it was a feel-good movie with a tough satirical core.
As you may know, I am a boxing fan. I watch all the big Saturday-evening American fights on Sunday morning here in HCMC in a sports bar. The latest one was Tyson Fury v Deontay Wilder. Boxing discovery of the year was Vasiliy Lomachenko, a sensational lightweight from Ukraine.
The massage parlour where I’d been kneaded (needed?) for years closed down, and I was distraught. Then I found a new place, where the girl who used to massage me now worked. However, she got pregnant and could no longer do massages, so she handed me over to another woman, who was very rough. The whole point of a massage is to feel relaxed; if a massage is really good, you fall asleep. But it was the opposite with this new woman – I was fighting for survival; she was beating me up! So now I’m looking around for yet another new place. Massage parlours are ubiquitous in HCMC, but the problem is finding a good masseuse, who are not so ubiquitous.
Reconnecting with old friends is always nice. Leafing through a 1984 diary salvaged from my house in Reading I came across the address of Julian Russell, a school pal I’d lost contact with. I wrote to him on the off chance he was still living in the same house and included my email address. He emailed me back, and now we are in frequent touch. I also connected with a man, Damon Cummings, whom I once taught English to in England. He was a leftie at the time, has continued in the same vein and is now my political sounding-board.
I spend far too long sitting in front of my computer writing and reading emails. I would like to think all those people who’ve been in regular and frequent touch with me this past year. You are a select bunch. Maurice (who doesn’t do email but has been writing me longhand letters since 1985), Steve (boxing pal), Joel (jazz, blues and Trump guru), Daniel (movie guru), Dave (poetry guru), Bill (cousin), Derek (bird guru), Anand (chess pal), Angelo (whisky and cricket pal), Wes (Sunday night drinking partner) and Ian (writer of long erudite epistles).
I wish all of you a very happy Xmas and New Year! May you be inundated with tidal waves of presents, whisky, wine, mince pies, jollity etc.
I've been teaching English for 48 years - in England, Egypt, Tanzania, Argentina, Venezuela, Ghana and now Vietnam. At 71, I'm still going strong and have no wish to retire. I enjoy my job, which gives me plenty of time to relax and travel. In toto, I've visited 68 countries. I'm married to a Vietnamese woman and have been living in Ho Chi Minh City since 2001.
Outside of work I am a chess fanatic (Tanzanian National Champion in 1991), devotee of blues and jazz music, imbiber of fine malt whiskies (especially from Islay), bibliophile (Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Brian Moore, Philip Larkin, Di... full info