Tag Archives: Hanoi

The poor Vietnamese woman, the Gilded Balloon & the millionaire Iranian

Yesterday evening, American comedian Lewis Schaffer (who, like all other self-obsessed comedians, likes to be name-dropped at every opportunity and to get a link) sent me a text message about my blog:

It’s amazing you can keep on doing it every day.

Well, I can tell him and you it ain’t always easy.

Yesterday, I moved a friend’s sofa from Essex to Greenwich and was helping clean up a house. Not a good subject for blogging.

So, this morning, I looked through my e-diary for what had happened around this date in previous years. These extracts are the results:

1989

In Hanoi, my local guide tells me:

“This is still a Socialist country – like Russia, da.”

He keeps absent-mindedly saying “da” instead of “yes”.

A fat woman in a rickshaw in Hanoi, 1989

Fat woman of money in rickshaw in Hanoi, Vietnam, 1989

I think I now eventually have the economics worked out.

Beggars ask local people for money but they don’t ask me. They assume I am a Russian, because I am a white-skinned foreigner.

The Vietnamese have no time for Russians because they (a) don’t smile and (b) have no money. No-one wants roubles, only dollars and, even if they did want roubles, the Russians don’t have spare cash.

The problem with using travellers cheques here is the US economic embargo on Vietnam – US companies are banned from trading with the Vietnamese. (This does not stop the North Koreans accepting cheques, though – they deal with American Express via Moscow.) My Hanoi guide tells me credit cards here are “many many years” away because there are very few computers in Vietnam.

When we pass the very flash Hanoi Opera House, he tells me it was intended for the people, but only the very rich can afford it. This implies there is a group of very rich (as opposed to just very privileged) people.

At lunchtime, I took a walk and met Hanoi’s equivalent of a bag lady in ragged-sleeved jacket, the bottom half of her face entirely red. Her face was like a robin redbreast. Brown top half. Red bottom half. I think she must have been knocking-back some particularly brutal local equivalent of meths. She muttered (and probably cursed) at me a bit, then staggered away.

'Hanoi Hilton' no longer taking foreign guests in 1989

The ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison – not taking foreign ‘guests’ in 1989

My local guide asked me if he could use the shower in my hotel room. Perhaps it is a perk of the job – a glamorous Russian shower. He told me he lives on his own in a Tourist Office room with no cooking facilities – presumably he can always eat in hotels……I think he agreed when I asked about this last bit.

I was writing a postcard on the balcony of my hotel when bits of brick started falling on me: they are building a new storey above me. I had to go to two separate buildings to send the postcard. One to buy a stamp and another to hand it in for sending. There was a power cut halfway through this process.

I had dinner tonight with the two Hong Kong Brits I met in Da Nang – plus a couple of Canadians. When he was in Da Nang, the Canadian bloke told me he had had a T-shirt printed saying in Vietnamese I AM NOT A RUSSIAN.

He lives in an apartment in Calgary with a one-metre long iguana which, he says, craps in a sandbox behind the television set. He feeds it on cat food and says it can sense when he is about to go away because it pines and goes off its food. The iguana has its own dead tree – “well, it’s dead now,” the Canadian said – in the apartment, so it can climb occasionally. It normally sleeps on its own heated pad although once the Canadian found it curled inside his pillowcase. The only problem is it likes to climb up the Canadian’s leg and has sharp claws.

In the same apartment block, a neighbour keeps a pet boa constrictor.

I must remember to avoid Calgary.

2000

A taxi driver told me that lap dancers at Stringfellows nightclub in St Martin’s Lane pay £200 per night to work there, then make the money back by commission on drinks bought by punters and tips from punters. Competition among the girls is cut-throat… not surprisingly, given that they have to make £1,000 in a five-day week just to break even.

2001

I went round to an interesting Iranian woman’s home. She is thinking of writing her autobiography… but will probably not.

“I am not rich,” she tells me. “If I get £100,000, I spend £25,000 here and £25,000 there. It soon goes.”

She has what appears to be a part-time Kosovar maid, pale, white skinned, hook nose, melancholic hang-dog expression, cavernous eyes with black lines in the skin underneath as if on drugs.

Also there was a Kosovar translator from Pristina.

The Iranian has a British and (as of two years ago) an Iranian passport. She is thinking of publishing her autobiography when her son is 21 because he will be “more able to take things” then. He is now 16. Her family is related to the former Prime Minister of Iran assassinated by Khomeini’s agents in  Paris. Her grandmother was a Mossadeq – as in the Mossadeq who was overthrown by the CIA to install the last two Shahs of Iran.

She lived in Dubai with first husband. She once had to go to China to buy a plane – she knew the Chinese general who was selling it.

If it gets around that she is writing about her life, she says, there will be panic calls from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Saudi offering her millions not to publish. She has lots of dirt on the Saudi royal family.

A former Swedish boyfriend found oil in Texas and she spent one year in LA after her son was born (by her second husband). She has stories of the Playboy Mansion and Hugh Hefner’s parties.

“I always went for the wrong men,” she told me.

Once, she says, she lost £5 million in a London casino.

She has a tiny and very amiable shih tzu dog which came from the US. She flew with it to Paris, then drove to the UK, hiding the dog under her armpit to avoid the six-month quarantine restrictions aimed at stopping rabies.

2002

I heard a radio report that a big fire in Cowgate, Edinburgh, had destroyed the Gilded Balloon venue last night. I phoned comedian Malcolm Hardee, who phoned his Edinburgh friend Maurice The Fireman. When Malcolm phoned him, Maurice was still fighting the fire.

The bestselling hardback version of Janey's book

The bestselling hardback version of Janey Godley’s autobiography

2003

Comedian Janey Godley is writing her autobiography. I have a terrible cold. My advice to her today was:

DON’T DON’T DO NOT GO BACK AND RE-WRITE THAT BIT. YOU CAN SORT IT OUT IN THE NEXT VERSION YOU WRITE. KEEP GOING EVER FORWARD LIKE THE SNOT DOWN MY NOSE. 

But just remember I am either a man living in New Zealand who has never seen the building you are writing about nor heard your life story… Or I am a housewife in Gloucester reading the book in bed at night before she goes to sleep. And, frankly, the way I feel I would prefer to be a housewife in Gloucester. Lead me to the sex-change shop. Bring on the Rabbi with the meat-cleaver.

I will read tonight’s (I’m sure excellent) piece tomorrow. If I live. Which seems unlikely. I don’t so much shiver as wobble around the waist and shoulders while an invisible Grimm giant takes an axe to my throat. Childbirth? Pah! NOTHING compared to the suffering of men with slight chills.

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Memories of Hanoi twenty two years ago – and the woman with the robin redbreast face

I received an e-mail today from a friend who is in Vietnam for business. She is staying at a 6 star resort near Hoi An, south of Da Nang.

“I did a double take in Hanoi,” she wrote, “when I saw the brand new, enormous and heavily branded Hanoi Hilton near the main square.”

Apparently the new Hanoi Hilton hotel is opposite the Opera House. I was in Hanoi in November 1989 and the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ I passed was the original one – the notorious Hoa Lo PrisonI recognised its crumbling colonial front from photos. I asked my guide: “What’s that building?”

“I don’t know,” he said, straight-faced, but with a twinkle in his eye which meant we both knew we were playing a game. I kept a diary when I was in Hanoi in 1989. This is an extract:

THURSDAY 30th NOVEMBER – HANOI

Out of my window, there’s the constant sounds of car and moped horns tooting intermingled with the sounds of cheap engines.

The hotel is a simultaneous mountaineering and orienteering expedition… along endless corridors, up endless stairs, through a darkened room with a hidden comedy step to trip the unwary and finally through a half-darkened fire escape landing. The room is small but just about OK (no wardrobe or drawers) and the shower room looks like it’s seen better days at Auschwitz. But I call it home and it’s interesting to see what East Germans consider an international hotel. (There is a big East German group here.)

Nightlife in Hanoi is quite something. Bright white lightbulbs and shops are open everywhere in what I think is the main shopping street. It’s a bit like a cross between Earls Court Road on a Saturday night and a 1950s American Graffiti street with cruising. I did see three little old wrinkled ladies curling up inside blankets in a shop doorway. One cafe was doing a roaring trade because it was showing Thai rock videos. And children were playing everywhere. Children of all sizes. This was at about 8.45pm.

Teenagers listen to American rock music everywhere. It must be strange for their fathers and grandfathers.

They fought the French in the 1940s and 1950s and defeated them.

They fought the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s and defeated them.

But they lost the peace.

Now their children listen to US rock music.

FRIDAY 1st DECEMBER – HANOI

I now have a new hotel room with television (my first in Vietnam). This is probably a result of changing money with the driver and an excessively expensive $50 trip to Halong Bay. The guide is now paranoid about me telling anyone:

“This is still a Socialist country – like Russia, da?”

He keeps absent-mindedly saying “da” instead of “yes”.

People are mostly ignoring me in the street. I think I have now worked out the economics. Beggars ask locals for money but don’t ask me. They think I am a Russian. Everyone thinks I am a Russian. The Vietnamese have no time for Russians because (a) they don’t smile and (b) they have no money. No-one wants roubles only dollars and, even if they did want roubles, the Russians don’t have spare cash.

The problem with using travellers cheques is the US economic embargo on Vietnam – US companies can’t trade with the Vietnamese. My Hanoi guide tells me credit cards are “many many years” away because there are very few computers in Vietnam.

When we passed the very flash Opera House, he told me it was intended for the people, but only the very rich can afford it. This implies there is a group of very rich (as opposed to just very privileged) people.

At lunchtime, I took a walk and met Hanoi’s equivalent of a bag lady in ragged-sleeved jacket. The bottom half of her face was entirely red. Her face looked like a robin redbreast. Brown top half. Red bottom half. I think she must have been knocking-back some particularly brutal local equivalent of meths. She muttered (and probably cursed) at me, then staggered away.

I missed a photo opportunity this afternoon: two Russians buying blue jeans in the Hanoi equivalent of Oxford Street/Petticoat Lane. Further on, another Russian was toying with the idea of buying a Sony Walkman, insisting the shopkeeper put a cassette in it to test the sound quality.

I’m getting obsessed by the Russians. One TV channel at teatime had three particularly dreary Russian cartoons followed by their equivalent of Tomorrow’s World – Programme 2 – The Wonderful World of Computers. The Vietnamese channel carried a programme about a factory.

I had dinner tonight with the two Hong Kong Brits I met in Da Nang plus a couple of Canadians. When he was in Da Nang, one of the Canadians had a T-shirt printed saying in Vietnamese:

I AM NOT A RUSSIAN

He lives in an apartment in Calgary with a one-metre long iguana which, he says, craps in a sandbox behind the television set. He feeds it on cat food and says it can sense when he is about to go away because it pines and goes off its food. The iguana has its own dead tree in the apartment, so it can climb occasionally. It normally sleeps on its own heated pad although once the Canadian found it curled inside his pillowcase. The only problem is it likes to climb up the Canadian’s leg and has sharp claws. In the same apartment block, a neighbour keeps a pet boa constrictor.

I must remember to avoid Calgary.

The Hong Kong Brit told me he used to keep a pet monkey in Lagos; one of their neighbours in Hong Kong keeps a baboon which has a habit of flushing his toilet in the middle of the night.

I think I am beginning to hallucinate.

All I want is to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti on television for one minute.

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