Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back from Asia

So, I'm  back from two weeks or so in Asia which has hit my monthly painting progress fairly badly!  After two weeks I had completely adjusted to being eight (well, sometimes seven) hours time difference so have not been feeling brilliant since I returned, but did get a bit more done on my British levy askaris yesterday, although I didn't find it easy to concentrate for very long.  Never mind, got their rifles done yesterday.

I started by flying to Singapore, then Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and then back to Singapore again. So, seven flights in two weeks which is not brilliant for someone who is really frightened of flying!  Never mind, the lovely local stewardesses (as they still call them, none of this "flight attendant" politically correct rubbish out there) soon calmed me down with lots of Champagne.  Hard to say which airline had the prettiest girls, but I was  very impressed with the young ladies on Taiwan's EVA Air, an airline I hadn't flown on before.  Then again, the Malaysian airlines girls were nice.  And the Air Vietnam ones and the Singapore girls, of course...

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum Hanoi.  About the closest I got to a tourist attraction

It's that time of the month when the wargames magazines come out and this month they are the pre-Salute issues.  Miniature Wargames carries on with its articles about first Bull Run which is my big Achilles heel as regards ACW.  I would really like to get some regiments for this battle, especially as the Perries are promising some appropriate figures.  However, I have come to the conclusion that ACW is like Napoleonic in that it has to be your main, if not only, interest.  You just need too many figures!  I had some Perry Plastics but sold them on eBay.  Maybe one day...

I notice that Wargames Illustrated features, as its special subect this month, the Vietnam War.  Vietnam is where I spent the majority of my trip; in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.  I didn't go to any of the military sites in either.  The tunnels are too far north of Saigon (as most of the locals still seem to call it) and anyway, being quite claustrophobic and not exactly Vietnamese size I don't think it would be a great destination for me.

There is a military museum in Hanoi which I have visited before. It's treatment of the war is very even-handed, unlike the accounts of the colonial period: the older Vietnamese still don't like the French much!  However, the Vietnam War is far too recent for me to consider wargaming especially as I like the Vietnamese (and I don't necessarily get on with  some of the people from other Asian countries, not mentioning any names but lets say they are the bigger economies in the continent).

Metropole Hotel Hanoi

In Hanoi I stayed in the very colonial Metropole Hotel.  Now, I stay in a lot of five star hotels but this really was one of the very best I have stayed in anywhere.  I always prefer an older hotel rather than a modern one and this one has a lot of heritage (it was built in 1901) but has recently been renovated to quite extraordinarily fine standards (by the French!). 

Coq au Vin - controversially without mushrooms.  Still excellent, though!

Regular guests at the hotel in the past include Noel Coward (who was inordinately fond of the coq au vin in the restaurant -as was I- it was excellent!), Charlie Chaplin (who spent his honeymoon with Paulette Godard there), Roger Moore and Graham Greene, to name but a few. 

The hotel also had a very good local Asian restaurant and a quite superb Italian restaurant, Angelina, where I had the best Ossobuco I had ever had in my life and I set up an office in Milan once so was there a lot.  There were two bars, one outdoors, and another restaurant attached to the bar so despite being there at the weekend I didn't run out of places to eat.

The main restaurant, Le Beaulieu, is the oldest continuously operated restaurant in Vietnam and I had another tremendous dinner there.  It also did a very good breakfast indeed.  Outside, they have a very French pavement cafe where you can have escargots and grenouilles but it wasn't really the weather for that as it was only about 15 degrees.  Actually, I did have some grenouilles as part of my buffet lunch, when I first arrived, and they were very good, not chewy and stringy as they can be.

Hanoi has changed a lot since I last went there about eight years ago; more than any other city I have re-visited, in fact.  Then, everyone was riding bicycles or (a few) scooters and there were no cars unless they were government ones or foreigners'.  There were no tall buildings, except for the Melia Hotel, and no western shops.  All the girls wore the traditional áo dài and many wore the famous nón lá conical leaf hats too.  Today there are lots of cars (expensive ones too, I saw several Bentleys in Hanoi), the bikes have all but disappeared, there are lots of western shops and the girls all wear western clothes unless they are wearing áo dài as a uniform in hotels etc.  Ho Chi Minh City, which was always that little bit more western, is even more so now with lots of new tall buildings.  The girls in HCMC not only wear western clothes (the all white Southern  áo dài even seems to be dying out as school uniform) but are more likely to dress in denim hot pants or micro skirts.  Not that I'm complaining, but the traditional dress was so elegant.  Still, Vietnam is a country that is going places and is seeing huge foreign investment.  Chinese manufacturers are moving their factories to Vietnam as labour is cheaper. Before long I expect we will be seeing plastic model kits being made there!

Miss Vietnam.  She's n-n-n-n-n-nineteen!

I can't not put a pretty girl in for Matt and in Hanoi I met the completely luscious Nguyễn Ngọc Kiều Khanh who was Vietnam's entry for last year's Miss World competition.  Having met at lunch I took her to a performance at the splendid opera house in Hanoi before rounding out the evening with drinks and dinner with her equally lovely friend.

Kiều Khanh is 5' 10".  Most of it legs

More importantly, after we emerged from the opera, she helped me cross the street. If you have never crossed a busy road in a Vietnamese city it is rather like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where the Milennium Falcom has to go through the asteroid field.

On your marks!  You don't want to be half way across the crossing when this lot starts!

No-one actually stops for a pedestrian, even on a crossing. You have to proceed steadily and hope the hundreds of scooters and cars, will steer around you. While I was there an article in the Vietnam News in Hanoi said that they have 33 road deaths a day, there.  That's 12,000 a year or about eight times the UK rate.  85% of the deaths involve the dreaded scooters which go the wrong way down the road, the wrong way around roundabouts and, most alarmingly, on to the pavements if the roads are jammed.  I saw up to five people on one scooter as well as people carrying boxes of live ducks, fifteen foot bamboo poles, a standard lamp and, memorably, a live pig. 

I took this picture of the opera house from the far side of the road. After the performance we had to get back from the steps of the opera house to this point through the traffic, which is coming at you from about five different directions! Kiều Khanh firmly took my arm and guided me at a constant pace through about fifteen lanes of speeding traffic. I certainly needed a Martini after that!

The Legatus, Miss Vietnam and her equally lovely friend

Next it was down to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, as most of the locals still seem to call it.  I was staying at another historic hotel there, the Caravelle, but historic for a different reason.  Built in 1959 this was the headquarters, during the Vietnam War of the press corps with ABC, NBC and CBS all having their Saigon bureaux there.

Caravelle Hotel in May 1975 shortly after the fall of Saigon

It was from the Saigon, Saigon bar of the Caravelle (then the tallest building in the city) that the press corps watched the North Vietnamese army roll into the city.  The hotel is now owned by the Vietnamese Government but if you are imagining some sort of Soviet Intourist look forget it.  It is a quite splendid five star hotel that employs some of the prettiest girls I saw in Vietnam and that is saying something.

The Caravelle Hotel last week

They have now added a new 19 storey extension next door with shops and restaurants in.  I even managed to get a refill for my pen in the Mont Blanc shop.  You wouldn't have got one of those in Vietnam when I was last there!  The Saigon, Saigon bar, however, has barely changed since it opened.

Saigon, Saigon

The Saigon, Saigon bar is a great place to have lunch and a Bia Saigon overlooking all the manic traffic below.  In the evening it becomes one of the places to be in HCMC crowded with a mixture of locals, hotel guests and American Vietnam War veterans.   Served by waitresses in fetching off the shoulder red tops it is one of the most characterful bars I have ever visited and must be on any must-visit bars around the world list.  It's certainly more attractive than the nearby Rex rooftop bar which has equally strong Vietnam War credentials.  They also have a great Cuban band playing from 10.30 on most nights.  Their Vodka Martini was rubbish, however!

Finally, business over, I had a couple of days in one of my favourite hotels, the original Shang-ri La in Singapore.  Set in acres of tropical gardens it was a good place to decompress with my particular friend, Sophie from Vancouver, who was also touring the region.  I don't know what it is about this place but as soon as I walk through the door into the cavernous lobby I feel as if a weight has been lifted of my shoulders.  

Many things contribute to this feeling of well-being: the tree lined pool area (I temporarily abandoned my book about the Hawker Hurricane for Lost Horizon in a splendid hardback edition they sell in the hotel shop) is a great place to sit and read.  The lobby lounge where you can get proper tea served in a china tea pot with proper tea leaves and watch all the activity whilst waiting (yet again) for someone to return from buying even more shoes.  Beautiful girls serve you on their knees without in any way appearing to be servile (a neat trick). 

The best thing about the Shang-ri La, however, is the Blu bar and restaurant perched on the 24th floor of the hotel and offering a great view.  It is cool and dark (actually so dark they have to bring you a torch to read the menu) and you get served by lovely waitresses wearing black evening dresses who waft out of the gloom like benevolent sirens; "Would you rike nuvver Martini, Mr Harri?".  Oh, alright then.  Sophie thinks the latter phrase would be a most appropriate epitaph for me!

Needless to say, I had the best Martini of the trip there.  It was served in a properly cold glass with a fine layer of ice crystals spread across the surface, like diamonds around a beautiful girl's neck.

So, no trips for a bit (I hope) and looking forward to Salute.  I'm still progressing on my Darkest Africa figures but have been painting nothing else for three months now so am feeling the inevitable urge to do something different for a bit.  I've been following the planned releases for Mutineer Miniatures with interest so maybe it's time to finish that first unit of Indian Mutiny British before I start on the Zanzibari force.


  1. WOW! I have visited Singapore once in 1985 on my way to Australia. My visit as a spotty 19 year old was not half as refined as yours!

    The local attractions look fantastic. I do not know anyone else who can visit a country and bump into the national beauty queen!


  2. Mind you, I can confirm the girls are beautiful!

  3. We spend time painting figures. LH spends time hanging out with beautiful women....

  4. Legatus,
    what happened to your 1940 Norway project?

  5. Ah, well. You have to understand about me and projects...

    Actually, I have some British out on the workbench at present and once I finish my last eight figures for my Darkest Africa British force I am looking for something to do for a change and they could well be it!