Tay Ninh



Tay Ninh was a bit of a bore, truth be told.
One long street with not much happening, and the town centre itself miles from anywhere you'd actually want to go.
I felt stranded in a desert landscape, overheating because there was no electricity and so I didn't even have a fan to relieve the heat.

The Hoa Binh Hotel was fabulous, though. Built along Soviet modernist lines, the people who built the Hoa Binh must have had big dreams for Tay Ninh. Unfortunately none of those dreams came to fruition. And so there is a vast concrete hotel replete with conference rooms and hangar-like lobbies standing almost completely empty. My heavy footsteps echoed around the concrete caverns in an eerily lonely manner. There were more security guards than guests.
Walking around the streets was an exercise in futility - the extreme heat and the complete dearth of things to do make it a sorrowful undertaking.

I stumbled upon this man, a lonely street vendor selling a catholic collection of books, wallets and ear cleaners from a tray around his neck. We were the only people wandering Tay Ninh's streets at 1pm. Both of us were very hot, and on the edge of desperation. We both wanted to be out of Tay Ninh.

Quan Am Temple, Cholon






Cholon (The Big Market) is Saigon's Chinatown. The areas bordering District 6 and District 10 and most of District 5 mark the boundaries of what was once one of the worlds largest and wealthiest Chinese cities, a place where an antiquated style of Chinese living continued right up to 1975.

Anyone familiar with Graham Greene or Gontran de Poncins' fabulous (but obscure) book From a Chinese City will be aware of the romantic charms of Cholon, a city-within-a-city - indeed, a country-within-a-country - which was once filled with casinos, brothels and opium dens.

It's still a pretty fabulous place, though much cleaned up these days.

One of my favourite places in all of Vietnam is the Quan Am Temple in Cholon.

Though well within the regular tourist beat (with the obligatory heart-sinking entry in Lonely Planet), Chua Quan Am remains totally and unfazedly old-fashioned. Always busy and bustling, the great billowing clouds of carcinogenic incense smoke ensure that tourists only stay long enough to take a couple of photos. I spend the mornings there, breathing in the incense smoke in an effort to climatise myself. My dear friend Duong has been there for a long time, and I have known him for well over 10 years. He sneaks me into secret spots in the temple, and today I was in the incense coil dispensary, where people bring the long red paper banners that are to be attached to a long-burning incense coil and hung on the ceiling.




There have been some changes over the years. The place has been tidied up quite a lot. The shamans and fortune tellers who used to hang around have all been sent away. There is even a security guard at the door these days.




But it is still a wonderful part of old Cholon, hundreds of years old and filled with a delightful jumble of ritual instruments, statues and decorations that span centuries.


Hu Tieu


Noodles are ubiquitous in Ho Chi Minh City.
Skinny rice noodles, fat ones, egg noodles. Noodles boiled and fried.
Each morning the decision must be mad: what variety of noodle, in what type of soup and with which accompanying ingredients?
Pho is the standard nighttime snack. For mornings it tends to be hu tieu or bun.
We went and had hu tieu - thin rice noodles in a delicious broth. It is called hu tieu nam vang, or Phnom Penh Noodles. Me being an old fashioned country boy, I like to take mine as plain as possible - with a few slices of boiled pork. I add my own lime, mung bean sprouts and mint. But the people with me had a number of additions: prawns and offal, for the most part. I'm just not big on prawns and offal. Especially not in combination.
It is pouring with rain this morning, and I don't really want to go out onto Tan Binh's filthy and probably flooded streets to brave a breakfast, though the clock is ticking and my stomach is rumbling. I may content myself with the made-in-Indonesia Kit Kat I have been storing in my fridge for just such a rainy day. Tastes like mud, but it's sustenance.

Allamanda Flowers


Many may not know that the floral emblem of my home town is the allamanda.


Well, it was. The mania for native plants probably means that it has been replaced by a rhizome that occurs only in the Herbert River Valley and flowers once a decade.
Still, the allamanda holds a very precious place in my heart, and being a tropical flower one sees it in Vietnam everywhere.


The alleyway behind my house is filled with big, rich-people's houses and companies, and the front of most of them are idiosyncratic gardens filled with all kinds of unlikely flowers and bushes. Just the other day the front of one house was entirely covered in allamandas, so I stopped and took these pictures. The next day I walked past and the city electricity men were there cutting it all away - the plant had grown up over the power lines.
I remember once staying at a Khmer village in Tra Vinh province years ago, and feeling very homesick. I was taken to visit a farmer, and out in front of his little wooden hut was a profusion of allamanda flowers, and I felt like crying.
Thang and i once bought an allamanda plant at the plant stand in Cabramatta, but it died within days of getting it home. It just can't grow in Sydney.

Benedictine Monastery, Thu Duc

One of my favourite places in all Vietnam is the Benedictine Monastery in Thu Duc, a semi-rural satellite district of Ho Chi Minh City. Every time I visit the monastery has grown incredibly. This time there were over 100 brothers in residence, and having lunch in the refectory with them was an amazing experience. The sheer joy of communal life lived on such a large scale is something I think most of us in the West can no longer imagine.
The monastery itself is hard to find - the taxi driver from saigon invariably has to make half a dozen or so stops in order to find the right place. Once there, one is dropped off at the t op of a long and sandy road and wanders down through the jungle to the main monastery entrance. Such a perfectly isolated position for a community of contemplative monks.

The monastery is something of a destination venue for people seeking spiritual solace and healing. From early morning people arrive in droves for an audience with the monks, who hear their confessions and pray for them.
Life is tough for the monks - no air-con, the simplest meals, working hard all day, Gregorian chant several times a day - it's non-stop, actually. I came home absolutely exhauasted, and I was only watching them.


The monks are overwhelmingly young, and are amazed when I tell them how the Sydney community only has a half dozen or so elderly monks.

Eating in Ho Chi Minh City - 1



Now everyone knows that, come early evening, every second building in Saigon is transformed into a restaurant or coffee shop. What was a grimy motorcycle shop by day is by 6pm serving up steaming hot bowls of rice noodles, or mung bean sweet-soup, or steamed buns filled with fish mince. One need never go hungry in this city, though perhaps after the occasional bad choice one might wish one had.

A quick stroll down the street at dusk offers up any number of delicacies. We went to have banh cuon, but a regional variation that I'd never encountered before. The thick rice noodle is wreapped cold around some lettuce and a delicious slice of barbecued pork, dipped in hoisin sauce mixed with ginger, garlic and chilli. Absolutely delicious, though not enough - I had to top it off with a bowl of bun nem nuong - cold noodles served with a range of barbecued meats and, in this case, a cut up spring roll. Delicious too.

The restaurant is closed during the day, but at night it also serves as a venue for playing a chinese card game that I find impossible to understand, but which is much loved in this city.

Such ad-hoc restaurants employ legions of country cousins and poor farm boys from the North. These kids are payed poorly, but their good humour and cheer are an absolute lesson in strength and resolution in the face of often quite desperate circumstances. I wish them all the best, and I hope you do too. Keep the poor waiters of Vietnam in mind when next you pray.

Salon



Our hairdressing salon continues to do a roaring (ish) trade in the humble suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City.
The mornings are quiet, but it picks up by late afternoon, and by early evening it is filled, mostly with girls who work in the 'entertainment industry' getting themselves dolled up for the night. It is extraordinary to see what these girls can do while having their hair done. They conduct improbably loud telephone conversations, smoke and eat noodles, all while getting their hair straightened and a pedicure into the bargain.


The maestro of the salon is Kien, my nephew. He is the man to contact if you want the latest look.



Duy is a country cousin from Bentre. I remember Duy when he was a funny little boy working his family farm in nowheresville, Mekong Delta. Now he is the glamorous sidekick at a city salon - his dream position. Duy left for a while, but is back now - he thought the world of clothing manufacture might be more rewarding. Turns out it wasn't. And blood is thicker than water.

My room in Vietnam



I have a wonderful room at the top of a house in a Saigon suburb. I always stay here - it was purpose-built for us by my sister-in-law, and it is a wonderful museum of the various stages o f my life. Filled with a collection of books brought t ogether either by careful selection (only choosing the best books to weigh down my luggage) and desperate necessity (whatever was discovered in the few second hand bookstores in Vietnam).
There is also a cupboard full of clothes that no longer fit me, in a variety of styles - all kept in the hope that one day I will return miraculously svelte.
I haven't had much of a hand in decoration, though - as you can see.
v

The blue polyester curtains are quite the rage around here at the moment, and the rest of the furniture and fittings are a collection of things discarded from other rooms about the house.
And outside is the world's tiniest balcony. You used to be able to enter the room from there, but now it is isolated after various renovations, and now it only offers 'street glimpses' and, if you lean out and squint, the front rooms of the brothel next door.

Going Abroad


I'm leaving for Vietnam tomorrow morning, and will be away till early January.
I will attempt to keep this blog up though. I am taking my laptop, and my place in Vietnam has a Wi Fi Connection, so I should be fine.
The packing!
Lord, I have way too much. I am briefly consoled by the fact that most of it is gifts, but that still doesn't take away from the fact that my luggage will almost certainly be overweight.
Never fear! I will be invoking Kwan Yin's protection, and I would ask you all to remember me in my prayers. It's a big trip for me, and I have a lot I need to do in 10 short weeks.

Great Wall


Why am I looking so glum here? I hear you say....
This was taken in 2006 and well, in all honesty, I found the Great Wall of China a bit of a bore.
It was cold, my feet hurt, the restaurants were ghastly and the people insanely rude.
In truth, I'm not really a fan of big things.
Nor of decrepit structures that are allegedly amazing feats of human achievement.
Ruins are torture to me and the tallest towers leave me yawning. The very words "UNESCO world heritage site" send a shiver of horror down my spine.
I like people, you see. I would much rather while away an afternoon watching people on a city street. I do like religious sites, but active ones filled with people doing fascinating things and talking noisily. When I visited Angkor Wat I passed a disinterested eye over the majestic ancient ruins and spent all my time at the recently constructed Buddhist temples built on the sides, filled as they were with elderly ladies arguing and mopping and languid monks chain-smoking and asking me silly questions.
I realise that this is possibly a fault. It's just that crumbling old stone doesn't do it for me - I need some signs of life.

Howards End


I am rather distracted at the moment.
I have too much to do, all of it of great import, and far too little time in which to do it. I am driven to the point of distraction waiting for important people to take some notice of me, and I am reminded that all things in life don't necessarily run smoothly, or according to my plan.
Not that I'm complaining. Part of the problem is that all of the plans I've ever made for my life are coming to fruition at the exact same time, and I am being stretched and tested. I need to remain focused on the positive and on those things of which I am in control.
But reading is difficult when I am so distracted. I have picked up several things and tossed them aside again. I am too picky, and nothing seems diverting. Either too serious and dull or too silly and unworthy. In one of my anxious strolls through the house I pulled Howards End off the shelves, and now find myself utterly immersed. What a wonderful book it is - I've never read it before, though the Merchant Ivory film version is one of my all-time favourite movies. Forster seems to write so effortlessly, and one's interest starts at the very first page. He was a great craftsman, a word I use advisedly. His writing is so very well, and so very conventionally, pieced together. All of those horrible old modernists were scathing in their judgement of Forster, and even now he is viewed as a polite, middle-class novelist. But I'll take Forster over Lawrence or Joyce any old day, and I don't care how silly that makes me sound. I can guarantee that I wouldn't be able to get through even a page of dreary old Joyce in my present mood.
Sometimes I think a lot of the disparagement of Forster is based on homophobia. He was a repressed queen who took up with a married policeman and didn't dare publish anything queer till after he died. He was a figure of fun amongst the Bloomsbury set, who saw him as dreary and impossibly closeted.
As for the previously mentioned movie made of Howards End, it is an absolute delight, and I surprise myself by not owning it on DVD. I shall have to remedy that. Vanessa Redgrave is at her best as the enigmatic Mrs. Wilcox, and I love the scene where Emma Thompson holds up one of Madame Blavatsky's books when asked to show what she's reading.
So I am lost, for the time being, in Forsters delicately drawn Edwardian world in which little things carry a great deal of importance. And I am loving it!

Old Books


I'm a bibliophile. There's no sense in denying it. Books are just about the only material objects that can excite me, and are my largest expense every year (I know because I save my receipts, and my partner does some terrifying calculations at tax time).
I especially love old books, with substantial bindings, flyleaves, marbled end-papers and all the rest. Exquisite objects with their musty smells and mysterious copper-plate inscriptions. For some years I worked in the rare book trade, and spent every day surrounded with wonderful old books.
And I love those old plain-jacketed orange and white Penguins, the ones they have just re-released. Back in the 80s one could buy them second-hand for a few cents each, and it was thanks to them that I am the well-read soul I am today. As a young teenager in a country town I quickly realised that all the classics seemed to come in this format, so I would buy any one that I happened to find, even if I didn't recognise the author or title. This way I made some wonderful literary discoveries - Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rose Macauley, Norman Douglas....just to name a few who would otherwise be entirely unknown to me if it hadn't been for Penguin's distinctive design.
Once or twice a year I will indulge and order on-line some rare and expensive old tome I feel I simply must have - often it is updating a tacky old modern paperback version I may have, or at last acquiring someting I've seen referred to constantly, but have never owned. The internet has, of course, been the most terrific discovery for the bibliophile. Before that we were at the whim of rare book dealers with their printed catalogues and their mercurial approach to pricing. Ah, such romantic days. Now it is a simple matter of economics - sometimes I can buy in the US for $1 what I can source here for $60 odd.
Here is one of the jewels of my collection - the two volume collection of Queen Victoria's letters edited by A. C. Benson. I'm mad about the Bensons, but will blog about that another day.
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