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.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Dreaming about wargaming..

Flying Eva Air today: they have model stewardesses!

I had a rather vivid dream about wargaming last night, which is a first.  Given that I have spent the last week flying about in Asian airliners it would have been more agreeable to have had a dream about Asian stewardesses, but there you are.

It was dream set in a parallel world Guildford (many people think that Guildford is a parallel world anyway and in fact the club meets in Burpham not Guildford) where everyone was playing a strange fantasy wargame using a bizarre mixture of historical and fantasy figures in different scales.  Everyone was having a brilliant time except me as I had no idea how the rules worked.  In fact that sounds like most of my experiences at Guildford in real life.  All the other Guildford players were fictitious except for Keith who was the only one I recognised (we must do that WW1 game soon, Keith).

Now I have had other wargaming themed dreams before but these always involve the discovery of hitherto unknown figures in the back of a dusty shop somewhere.  The sort of shop that you get in films where you meet a strange and mysterious shopkeeper who sells you something remarkable but when you go back there it doesn't exist.  The former Fun, Fact and Fantasy shop in Ryde, Isle of White was just such a shop.  It was certainly the dustiest shop I had ever been in.  Anyway, the best version of this dream was discovering a whole Copplestone sculpted Arabian Nights range.  If only...

Talking of figure ranges, I note with interest the Foundry "sell off and never replace" sale at present.  Looking through the ranges that they claim they are terminating it doesn't surprise me as they are almost all ranges that are being done better and cheaper by others and, probably in plastic too (ACW, Napoleonic, Wars of the Roses).  There are a few odd packs of figures from other ranges thrown in almost randomly.  For example why cut one of the Thracian cavalry packs? I ordered a pack of these as I actually do have some painted Thracians I keep meaning to add to.  Then annoyingly, two days later they cut the other one!  I needed some more Darkest Africa figures so could swallow the £8.00 postage.  I have never been a Foundry basher but the current price of £14.00 for six figures does make me think.  I intend to search harder on eBay if I want any more, I think.

Talking of eBay, I got my TWA Lockheed Constellation from there.  Luckily it finished in the middle of the night which happened to be morning here in Taiwan.

Quite missing painting at the moment but still have another week to go in Asia.  Off to Hanoi now.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Planes, Swedes, Portuguese, Africans and Mercedes Benz

More for Darkest Africa

Well it's been rather a lot of weeks since I posted on this blog although, to be fair, I have managed a few posts on my Darkest Africa blog.  Amazingly, I have managed to keep to one army for two months now, which must be the first time I have been so focussed since my Cynoscephalae force back in 2007.  I am now working on the last combat unit for my British colonial force; levy askaris (although I still need to do the baggage unit).  Rather than move on to the first Arab unit I may take a brief break to finish half a dozen Mexicans which are very nearly finished and have been lurking on the workbench for far too long. 

Mexicans under way


Since my last post, I succumbed to a box of the Warlord Games Swedish infantry although, having opened the box, I rather wish I hadn't: that is a lot of bits!  Never mind it looks like I will have to go back to Stockholm in May so that means another chance to look around the army museum (not to mention dinners with my particular friend Anna, as she tries to, yet again, persuade me that herring is food fit for human consumption as opposed to consumption by seals; which is all it is really good for).

John Jenkins tempting Portuguese


Talking of distracting figures, I was very taken with the new John Jenkins Portuguese conquistadors.  I bought a box load of the Foundry conquistadors a few years ago but just couldn't work up any enthusiasm for Incas or Aztecs despite doing a prize winning project on them at school (the only time I ever won a prize for anything but art).  However, I am more enthused by the thought of skirmishes with Brazilian indians and, indeed, West Africans, for which the Portuguese would be ideal.   Maybe if anyone stocks them at Salute, which is bearing down on us like the irresistible juggernaut it is, I will pick some up.

My only painted Foundry Conquistador

It was my little boy's birthday yesterday (actually he isn't little any more; he is fourteen and suddenly 5'7" tall) and having totally failed to procure the requested Blackberry (out of stock everywhere, it seems) I decided he needed something to open on the day so took myself over to Modelzone in Kingston yesterday afternoon.  That was, of course, a mistake. 

Mercedes Benz World


I got him two Scalextric cars including a McLaren Mercedes; one of his favourites, although Scalextric are promising a Bugatti Veyron later in the year.  I actually saw a Bugatti  on the road, in Guildford last year.  So far my sightings of these had been limited to two at Top Gear Live and one outside the Beverly Hilton.  McLaren Mercedes are far more common around here!  Now, I always always had this view, from many trips to Eastern Europe, that Mercedes are really only suitable for use as taxis in places like Bratislava.  However, I live fifteen minutes drive from something called Mercedes Benz World, which now takes up much of the old Brooklands motor circuit and Hawker airfield site. 

Inside MBW

Guy loves this place but I hadn't been there until recently when he spent some of his Christmas money on an off road driving experience there.  It is a huge place, with floors of shiny new Mercedes which you can climb all over and, more interestingly, some old cars too.  It has a shop, a cafe, a restaurant, several driving tracks and a disturbing number of very pretty girls in black Mercedes jumpsuits.  It is free to enter and is quite the most impressive example of brand loyalty-building marketing I have ever seen. 

Guy's favourite car

My favourite car

Of course, siting it in the Weybridge/Cobham/Oxshott "capital of bling" triangle doesn't hurt, where a Mercedes is what you buy your au pair girl to run around in.  There was an advert from one of the parents in Guy's school's parents association newsletter last February advertising a six month old Mercedes convertible.  "Would make an ideal Valentines gift" it said.  Quite.  Personally, I got my wife a heart shaped cucumber this year and she was lucky to get that.

Guy at the wheel

After a Mercedes lovely whisked Guy off to join his instructor and we had trekked out in the rain to the off-road circuit my wife informed me that she hadn't bothered to buy the optional £15 insurance for the session.  So I had a tense hour whilst Guy drove £58,000 worth of Mercedes around the course with me knowing that if he bashed it I'd have to pay the £1,500 excess.  Fortunately he didn't.

The ultimate car kit

I think the exhibit I liked best was the exploded Formula 1 car reduced to 2,500 components and hung on wires by a Dutch artist. Perhaps even more impressive, however, was the finish on the cappucino in the cafe; now that is branding!

Good grief!


Anyway, back to Modelzone.  As usual I ended up buying something I didn't need; in this case the new Airfix 1/48th DeHavilland Sea Vixen.  I'd been thinking about it since the big article about building it in Airfix Model World magazine a couple of months back.  Added to this, we saw one doing aerobatics over our house in Cowes a couple of years ago. 

Sea Vixen over Cowes

Airfix Model World really is a deadly little magazine.  Beautifully put together and full of unbelievably gorgeous painted models, there is usually something in it that makes me want to go and buy something or, perhaps, dig something out of the loft.  This month's issue has an article on the Airfix Vostok kit and I know I have one of those in the loft somewhere.  I also bought a model F-86 Sabre just on the basis of the picture on the cover of the magazine (and the kit).  Not since the days of Roy Cross have I been so easily influenced!

Now, I really don't need any more model aircraft (or ships or 1/35th tanks).  I never build them (or rather I never complete them) and the group model build I tried to do last year for the Britmodel site was an utter failure as well.  Except now I have decided to finish my Westland Whirlwind from that aborted project as a change of pace from painting Darkest Africa figures.  In particular I can contemplate doing a little in the evenings when the light is too bad for figure painting.  I also have a 1/48th Mark 1 Spitfire under way and I'm reading a book about the Hawker Hurricane which has a strong local association.

It's nice to go trav'lin...on a Lockheed Constellation


I have also been contemplating a Lockheed Super Constellation, largely, it has to be said, because I have recently been listening to Frank Sinatra's 1957 album, Come Fly with Me which features Constellations on the cover.  The problem is that I really want a TWA one but the current Airfix (which is the old Heller 1/72nd model) one only has Qantas and Aer Lingus markings.  I just managed to get an old Heller one on eBay with TWA markings! However, it is a bit of a problem kit to build, it seems.   I recently watched the film The Aviator which had a scene where Howard Hughes (a surprisingly good Leonardo DiCaprio) inspects his fleet of grounded Constellations following a crash.  Except I am enough of a nerd to have noticed that they were Super Constellations (as on the Sinatra cover) rather than the original Constellations they would have been at the time (it's all about the windows).

Increasingly, however my view on model kits is rather akin to that on figures.  I am tending to the view that 1/48th is the one true scale just as 28mm is for figures.  I find both 1/72nd and 15mm too small these days.  I also find it hard to get a convincing paint job on a 1/72nd kit.  I may have to bite the bullet and invest in an airbrush although the thought of all that cleaning isn't very exciting.  That said, I was also looking at the old Airfix B25 Mitchell in Modelzone but 1/72 for bombers seems more reasonable.  Although, apparently, there was a 1/48th kit of the B-25 revealed at the recent Nuremburg toy fair!  Maybe I need to actually finish a model first before I get any more.  No doubt all aircraft modellers have the equivalent of the lead pile. 

Talking of big boxes of Airfix, and prompted by a recent visit to the Imperial War Museum, Guy spent some of his birthday money on the World War 1 battle set.  This has trenches, figures and a couple of Mark 1 tanks.  The bizarre thing about it is, of course, is that it is totally historically inaccurate, as the figures are 1914 period whereas the tanks are from 1916.  It's rather like the old assault set they did with the Patton and Centurion tank attacking the German strongpoint.

Most of my time, lately, has been spent trying to sort out my book shelves.  There is no way I can display all my books, given the limited shelf space I have, so I have been going through them and packing some of them into crates to go up in the loft.  So it's goodbye all those "making of..." film books, American car books and many of my art books for a while, for example. 

Some of my early nineties planes in Guy's room

I certainly have no shelf space to display models so I may have to go for the Modelzone method and hang them from the ceiling!  I feel that I am now old enough that I don't care about this anymore!  I made quite a few model aircraft in the early nineties before I started painting soldiers again and now many of these are hanging up on Guy's ceiling.  For some reason I decided to only do US Navy carrier based planes.  I still have a half dozen or so unbuilt USN kits in the loft and an unfinished 1/32 F-14.  At least if you build them for flying mode you don't have to worry about the undercarriage!

Oh well, it's off to see the Iraqi finance minister now and then this weekend I start a two week trip to Asia so that will put paid to any painting or, indeed, Airfix kit building!