Hugo Docking

To have delighted in wickedness

(An excerpt from Dustbeard – A radio play I started writing about a lone presenter stuck in an old radio tower on a post-apocalyptic island, with only old archived tapes from the past to keep him company. He uses the tower to broadcast a weekly radio show to the unfortunate inhabitants of the island. This piece is one of the tapes he plays from our world, or as he calls it, “the land before”.)

If the devil is in the detail ladies and gentlemen, then the food here in Southern Vietnam is positively SATANIC. For the equivalent of one of your finest English pounds, you have access to a cornucopia of delicious offerings. I’ve escaped the tantalising chaos of HồChí Mihn city for a brief respite in the smaller city of Cần Thơ , located amongst the sprawling web of distributors at the end of the Mekong Delta. If you are lucky enough to find yourself here, ignore the tourist-trap ‘floating market’ – (which just consists of a couple of boats selling pineapples) and head straight for the bustling night market in the centre. What awaits is a sensory bombardment of LIFE and FOOD. A sizzling plethora of regional delicacies lye ahead, daring you to taste them all. The scents from all the different stalls almost overpower the fumes of the idling motorbikes, queuing in drones for their favourite snacks. Bodies and bikes, primitive gas grills and coal-fire BBQ’s turn the area to a burning, bubbling cauldron of untamed HEAT on this already muggy summer’s evening. Noise and sweat and colour rule divine. I dive straight into the rabid action like a fiend to hell.

The first stall I come to features rack upon rack of multi-coloured meat and other mysterious food-stuff, neatly arranged on long skewers. I point at five. The obliging seller nods and thrusts all five into a billowing grill before presenting them to me with the occult flare of a practised sorceress. I play Russian roulette with these uniform-looking balls and cubes, not knowing what taste explosion will befall me next. The strangely fishy-tasting, pale cream spheres, turn out to be the bullet in the loaded gun. The rest are delicious. I figure four out of five isn’t bad going,and release myself into the baking throng once more.

The next stand features a crooked temptress hunched over a hissing circular slab. She wields a strange device as a cooking utensil,which looks like it would be more at home in the hands of a warmongering general; moving military units around a map in a tent on a war-torn battlefield. She spins thin dough, infused with prawns and spices and vegetables, onto her scolding slab and, using this device, she spawns what looks like savoury crepes with unholy precision. Within no time at all I have one of these beauties nestled in my hands, and it does not disappoint. Crispy, yet moist, and packed full of intense flavours. I close my eyes as I slip into a state of bliss and hear, somewhere far away, the temptress muttering ‘Bánh Xèo’, which I will later find out to be the name of this gorgeous dish.

I leave that burning furnace full of food, spiritually drained and totally awe-struck. No more wasting away in a padded box playing mindless music and empty sound effects with “The Jam Man”. I have found life, here in hell, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Jerry’s Odyssey

Old Jerry screams out in pain. He begs me to stop. He’s not whining anymore, he’s howling.
I don’t let up, I can’t. I ram him into continuing but he’s caving with agony and
desperation. I recoil as I am hit with a thick waft of fear and melting plastic before he
splutters to a halt, throwing us both to the mercy of the rocky mudslide. Locked together
we tumble, as if eternally entangled in some filthy macabre dance that would no doubt be
our last. We skid several meters down the cliff-face before my heels finally grind us both to
a halt. We lie there a while in static embrace, too fearful to move. I breathe deeply, panic
slowly morphing into regret, denial, tears. Stranded in the Vietnamese wilderness. Dusk is
approaching. The first specks of rain hiss as they slap Jerry’s fuel tank with crescendoing
fury. They run off my face and hit the already slippery mud-fest of a mountain that Google
Maps had the cheek to call a road. A storm is coming. I close my eyes and I can feel it in my
gut. The vultures are circling, and they are starving.

As far as travel writing goes, this is far from the normal, motivational ‘time of your life’
type story about how great it was to jump into some hidden waterfall in Thailand. It’s
true what they say, while travelling you will probably have some of the best and the
worst experiences of your life. With that in mind, riding a motorbike up the length of
Vietnam is an undertaking you should erase from your bucket list now. Stop reading this
article immediately, take what you’ve already read as a warning and forget you ever
heard about it. It is a mission for only the severely reckless and misguided.

My companion on this inadvisable pilgrimage was Jerry. Jerry is a Yamaha Nouvo.
Nouvo comes from the French word Nouveau, which means new or fashionable. Jerry is
neither new nor fashionable. He is one of the oldest models I’ve seen in South East Asia,
breaks down constantly and is scuffed and bruised to buggery from various crashes.
Also he is an automatic. This is important. Automatics are terrible on hills.

Our nightmare begins at an oddly peaceful juncture. I had been staying in a home-stay
nestled in the incredibly tranquil and remote ‘Ba Bể’ national park. With quite a drive
ahead of me I set off early in search of the natural wonders that exist in Hà Giang
province, up on the Chinese border. I was on schedule, and stopped for a beer at a
beautiful little mom-and-pop shop overlooking a wide-open field with statuesque
turrets of rock darting out from the waist-high crops. It was blissful, serene. If I had died
that night at least I would have had that moment to return to as my eyes closed and my
muddy corpse rolled down to the dirt and the rocks in the valley below.

I paid for my beer and trooped on. The road got worse and worse, turning from tarmac
to dust track to rock and then to mud; slowly thinning until my two wheels barely fit the
breadth of the path. I figured it couldn’t get much worse than this and the road would
improve soon but as I trundled down a rocky cliff edge that a professional mountain
biker would have struggled with, I realised the gravity of my situation. I got to the
bottom and gazed back up the way I had come. My escape route was now sealed. I had
managed the perilous drive down but going back up would be impossible. I had no other
choice than to trudge forward.

Gradually, tentatively, I carved my way along the path, trying to keep it together.
Compartmentalising my journey: ‘just make it round the next bend Hugo, it’ll sort itself
out soon enough.’ It didn’t. Arms rigid, knuckles white, I cruised around a tight corner,
only having to brake suddenly as I nearly crashed into a gaggle of Vietnamese teenage
boys. These were the first humans I had seen for a fair few hours, but their prescience
did not come as a relief. A plume of smoke billowed out of one of their gaping jaws as
they silently regarded me with eyes filled with dull anger and menace. ‘Alright Lads’ I
muttered, as I squeezed my bike past them. We were about as far North as you can go in
Vietnam, and far, far away from civilisation. These were proper countryside kids. They’d
probably never seen a whitey before. Perhaps they’d only heard about us from an
elderly grandparent, who had told them horror stories about the war and the white
devils that invaded, killed maimed and pillaged. Jesus, I thought, maybe they don’t even
know the war has ended, maybe this remote community has been in hiding for
generations. As soon as I got past them they started to chatter. Then they started to
shout. Then I heard engines revving and they were on my tail, screaming like banshees,
hurtling towards me in the early dusk.

I gunned the engine. What a way to go, I panicked, hacked to death in a grisly valley by
blood-hungry Vietcong juniors. I’m not even a damn Yank; ‘I’m just a Brit!’ I wanted to
scream, but I knew that shouting at them in English would only antagonise them
further. They would never find the body. I would just be another backpacker gone
missing somewhere in Asia. Would they report it? A mystery never to be solved. My
mother wailing on BBC southwest news, pleading for information while my remains are
fed to the pigs? Perhaps I’d end up in a bowl of phở bò. The meat in that broth is
dubious at best. I flew over potholes and mud-clumps in an effort to escape, praying
Jerry, my trusty steed, would not let me down now. One of them bumped my back wheel
and we jolted forward, the bike swaying but not quite tipping. I heard mad cackling
behind me. They were tormenting me. I slammed the accelerator to full throttle and
shot through the wildness as fast as I could, my heart in my throat and brain intoxicated
on a cocktail of frenzied self-preservation and savage survival instinct. Eventually the
shouts and ghastly giggles faded. They had had their fun and given up the chase. Jerry
and I were alone once more. It was soon after this, with darkness looming, that we
trundled over to an ominous dirt track leading up a mountain. This was to be the final
obstacle. I could sense that this harsh slope would lead us back to civilisation, back to
safety and out of this cursed valley. But it wasn’t going to be easy.

I listen to my breath. In, out, in, out. It’s slowing. That’s good. I’m still alive. That’s also
good. If I want that to continue I have to think logically. First step, is Jerry still alive. I free
myself from under him, steady my feet on the slope and try to get him upright. No, I can’t,
too heavy. He skids down another few meters. My bag is on Jerry’s luggage rack, all my
worldly possessions; they’re weighing him down. Take it off. I inch back down to the bike,
kneel behind it and slowly unhook the bungees. I heave the bag off and place it to one side.
Right, try again. I get him upright. The engine starts. Good. I don’t need my bag, I can get
more clothes; maybe he’ll be all right with some of the weight gone? No. He struggles up a
few inches, wheezing and gasping for breath, then the stench of burning plastic comes
back tenfold. Dammit. Okay Hugo what are your options. You walk up with just your bag;
abandon Jerry. No, you don’t know what’s up there. It could be miles until you reach the
nearest town. Go all the way back the way you came? No. You went down that massive hill
remember? That’s going to be just as bad as this one. Besides you don’t have enough petrol
and there’s nowhere to fill up. Petrol. I hadn’t thought of that. Shit. I’m done for. Keep
breathing. Think. If you can’t go up you have to go down. I think I saw a couple of farm
shacks somewhere along the way. God knows how far. Maybe they have a tool kit or
something? Someone who can help? Bollocks to it, it’s all I’ve got. I push Jerry down to the
bottom. Then march back up for my bag. The rain is starting to pick up. I don’t have long
before the mud-slope becomes a waterfall.

I got to the bottom, pushed the bike a while, but there wasn’t a house in sight. I
collapsed on the ground. Filthy, drained, exhausted. I curled into a ball, eyes wide, hair
matted with dirt, cheek pressed against the soggy ground. I was there for many
moments before the ground started faintly to vibrate… then I heard an engine. I rose
slowly from the ground like a man stranded for years on a desert island, unsure if the
foghorn of a nearby ship is a dream or a mirage. Waving madly regardless, with the
final, desperate hope of a poor, pathetic creature: half-mad, half-dead, and wholly
broken.

Apocalypse 9 – The Downright Inadequacy of the Platoon

‘Oh come on! …Oh fuck this. No. No, we’re not doing it again. YOU GODDAM CHINKY BASTARDS I’LL KILL YOU I’M FUCKING OUT OF HERE.’ – And with that the lieutenant was gone. His platoon looked over to see him elegantly thrashing his way back through the Vietnamese jungle. Stopping only once to viciously tug at his clothes, removing everything aside from his vest and tighty-whiteys, in a flurry of crazed embittered energy that seemed to glow and pulsate from his crooked sunburnt form. The man had gone feral. Rabid. He would join, as one, with the forest now. He would have to adapt to survive. Would he become a lone tyrant? The king of all creatures, wreaking havoc on his new kingdom? Or would he take to crawling through the dirt, naked and shivering. Cowering beneath the lowest rung on the ladder of jungle hierarchy, and let the chimps and baboons have their perverted way with him? We discussed this at length over the following few hours, and predicted the latter.

‘I told yoo bru, he was tweakin’ ‘ja bru I knou. His eyes were all over the place. He woz tweakin like a mad fokker’. The Saffer brothers were right. There had been something undeniably ‘off’ about the Lieutenant. As the oldest of our ranks he had held court at the beginning of the day with the frantic confidence of a man with more coke running through his veins than white blood cells. Then, as we left Hanoi, in a minibus headed to the countryside mountain town of Ba Vì, his sharp decline in temperament had been shockingly quick. So, our ranks were down by one. But, the show must go on! So we readied ourselves for another take.

I had responded to an add on a Facebook forum asking for pale-faced foreigners to take part as extras in a Vietnamese war film about Ho Chi Minh; the universally revered leader and founder of the communist revolution in Nam. One thing led to another, and now, this unlikely group of expat nomads, outlaws and ruffians (myself included) had bonded over a vague enthusiasm for amateur dramatics and weaponry. Donned in an eclectic wardrobe of one-size-fits-no-one military gear, we were embodying the villainous but cowardly French army being shot at and chased back through the Jungle. It was hot. Humid. The terrain was rugged and we clutched heavy antique weapons, which, we found out later, where the genuine article. They came from the war museum, and the government had generously lent them to the film crew.

At lunch I made small talk with the director in broken English. I found out the guy had made nine other films… all about the life of Ho Chi Minh. The fucker had made NINE essentially IDENTICAL films about the SAME bloke! Why? Simple economics. Vietnam is a poor country. A poor communist country at that. (Ironically EVERYONE here loves the concept of democracy. Even the damn director was banging on about the benefits of having ‘elections with multiple candidates’. I told him that what he was describing was called democracy. He blushed and changed the subject. The grass is always greener I guess.) Vietnam is poor, communist and corrupt. Very corrupt. Films cost a lot of money to make. No one has that kind of money. Except the government. The only films the government will fund are films SPECIFICALLY about their beloved uncle Ho. Vietnamese directors are therefore limited to a borderline inexistent level of creative expression, and, as if in purgatory, are forced to regurgitate the same film over and over again if they wish to continue their career.

After lunch I went back to running around the jungle like a headless chicken, carrying a gun that had probably seen enough bloodshed to make old Colonel Kurtz choke back a tear. My lunchtime chat had put me rather off-kilter and I continued the day with a growing sense of unease. By the end of the shoot I’d lost half my body weight in sweat, cleared a deck and a half of coarse Vietnamese smokes and fought alongside a squad of western nutters for 12 hours to please the whims and fancies of the communist regime. Exhausted, I pocketed my 25 quid earnings and headed for the minibus.

I looked back at the platoon for the last time before we parted. We were a strange and dysfunctional bunch of humans. From the casually but maliciously racist South Africans, who believed that ‘the black’s’, as a collective, were fit for no more than menial labouring jobs due to their inferior brain capacity. To the guy that owned a hostel in a national park, instigating backpacker piss-ups every night in the same bars; numbed to the natural beauty around him by a constant transient stream of strong liquor and intolerable douche-bags. Not forgetting the meth-riddled disgraced veteran who couldn’t hack a couple hours without a fix.

And then there was me. No better than the rest of this stinking shit-heap of fuck-ups and nut-jobs. The term expats did not do us justice, no. Perhaps ‘disturbed drifters’ would be a more apt term. All teetering on the knife-edge of insanity. All running from some twisted daemons. But the most brutal and destructive part of this story is that, although we may have been extras in some shitty Vietnamese war film today, for the rest of the year we are all English Teachers. Vietnam, pay attention! These are the fucked up, dead-eyed slobs that are TEACHING YOUR CHILDREN.

We’ll sell our souls for a few bucks, spend the money on your cheap ‘bia hơi’* that night, drug ourselves with bush-weed before a class; insult your people and joke casually about ‘white privilege’. Then, when we have taken all we can from your country, like flies to shit, we will drift to the next place and repeat the process. Hide your kids. The Tây’s** are in town.

 

* Bia Hơi – Vietnamese draft beer of the poorest quality. Probably considered carcinogenic by the rest of the world. Cheap as chips.
** Tây literally translates into ‘West’ in English. It is used to refer to a white foreigner, or more specifically a westerner.