Travelling Companions / ‘The Road to Indochina’ – an original soundtrack…

9 05 2012

‘Old friends, old friends sat on a park bench like bookends…

Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats waiting for the sun

The sounds of the city sifting through the trees  

Settles like dust on the shoulders of the old friends…’

(‘Old Friends’ – Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Bookends’)

‘So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.

I can’t believe your song has gone so soon

I barely learned the tune

So soon

So soon

I’ll remember Frank Lloyd Wright.

All of the nights we’d harmonise till dawn

I never laughed so long,

So long

So long’

(‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’ – Simon & Garfunkel – ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’)

‘Standing by a parking meter,

When I caught a glimpse of Rita,

Filling in a ticket in a little white book.

In a cap she looked much older

And the bag across her shoulder

Made her look a little like a military man.

Lovely Rita, meter maid

May I enquire discreetly,

When are you free to take some tea with me?

 (‘Lovely Rita, meter maid’ – The Beatles – ‘Sgt Pepper’s…’) 

Chris and I much prefer independent travel but on this occasion hooked up with small group tour company Travel Indochina. I am pleased we did. There is no other way we could have covered the distances we did, and have seen and experienced as much in the fortnight available to us, at such a competitive price. I would highly recommend them. Sales pitch over.

For me the joy of travelling is as much about the people as the places. People you meet along the way, going about their daily lives, and also travelling companions. People, you have never met before and in most cases are unlikely to encounter again, with whom you are thrown together for a brief but concentrated period of time. 

Of course getting the right chemistry in a tour group can be very hit and miss. But we were lucky. It was a small, cohesive party, just five others, together with an outstanding tour leader (plus local guides in each country)  

Before reading on, beware, I have an unfortunate tendency to accompany my life experiences with an ongoing soundtrack, linking events, places and people to songs and films. I don’t think I’m alone in that, am I?

If our Indochina travelling companions should, by the remotest chance, ever happen upon this Blog I hope they will consider the following pen portraits in the same good humour with which they were written.    

Franck was our French guide, refreshingly deprecating about everything French, apart from wine and coffee. As for the latter he was something of a barista, his regular lament being, although Indochina is a major producer of coffee, they have no idea how to roast or serve it, and a decent cup is very difficult to come by. I would have to agree.

An eclectic CV included a spell in the French armed forces during the first Gulf War and as a part-time ‘chef’ in a London pub – he enjoys an English roast! But he has lived in ‘Saigon’ for some years now, with a Taiwanese girlfriend, and little or no inclination to return to his homeland.

Franck’s English, delivered with an attractive Gallic lilt, was fluent, and he was also pretty proficient in Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian. He displayed great empathy and respect for the local people, particularly the children, and the insight he provided with regard to history, culture, restaurants, and photo opportunities, all greatly enhanced our travel experience.

Franck was a keen photographer himself. In his own words, ‘The local guides don’t always appreciate what makes a good photograph’, so he went out of his way to help set me up with good shots, which was very much appreciated.

In Luang Prabang, we staked out the rickety old bamboo bridge together, for nearly an hour, in the hope of catching a Buddhist monk crossing, but sadly to no avail. Maybe next time!   

Movie: ‘Indochine’ – starring Catherine Deneuve (much of which is set around Halong Bay)

Song: ‘Non je ne regrette rien’ (No! I have no regrets) – Edith Piaf 

Our travelling companions:

John and Rita: a Merseyside couple, fervently proud of anything ‘Liverpool’, Beatles fanatics and fully paid up members of the dog lovers’ society – Vietnamese cuisine therefore, probably not at the top of their list!

John, at 60, a workaholic co-director of an accountancy firm, complied with the comedic scouse stereotype, a gag for every conceivable situation – it was like being on tour with ‘Tarby’! Lovely Rita was enjoying retirement. I didn’t like to ask if she’d ever been a meter maid!

John has a penchant for baseball caps, from around the World, whereas I collect pin badges (sad I know!) so we were both pleased with our purchases from the Hard Rock Cafe, Ho Chi Minh City.

John & ‘Reet’ also scoured Luang Prabang for, his and hers, Buddhas, which by now, will be radiating enlightenment from their mantel piece – Buddhas of suburbia! 

Movie: ‘Hard Day’s Night’ – starring The Beatles

Song:  ‘Lovely Rita, meter maid’ – The Beatles  

Dr Khan: born and spent his early life in Agra, just down the road from the Taj Mahal, so I suppose most other ‘sights’ have a tendency to pale by comparison. A practising Muslim, educated in the UK and now a Bradford GP, the Dr was a globe-trotter, with the hugest banana coloured suitcase I’ve ever seen, but travelling alone, as his wife, apparently, doesn’t enjoy walking!

A quite private person, he introduced himself as ‘Dr’ and we were never invited to use his given name – but of course, soon slipped into calling him ‘Doc’.

He will best be remembered for his mission to star in his own video footage – outside every place we visited, discover hidden Indian restaurants, regularly imbibe, fizzy drinks (with extra ice), and track down ‘art’ bargains in the local night market.

Movie: ‘The Millionairess’ – starring Peter Sellars & Sophia Loren

Song: ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ – Peter Sellars & Sophia Loren  

(Apologies – perhaps not altogether PC, I know!)

Bob and Shinji: affectionately known (that is, by me) as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were both absolute gentlemen, a joy to have met and known.

Bob, an 89-year-old, life-long inhabitant of French Lake, Wisconsin, partially deaf, with deteriorating eyesight, operated on the flat, at a stately pace, with the aid of Shinji, a semi-retired freelance editor, in his mid-60s, from Tokyo.

Shinji had met Bob, while studying English, in the States, ‘way back’. Theirs is an enduring and touching friendship – which has included world-wide annual vacations, of this type, ever since.

Bob, who had served in the Western Atlantic fleet, following Pearl Harbour, later worked in education and, amongst other things is a bit of an authority on the life and work of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and ice-fishing.

Movie: ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’ – starring Paul Newman & Robert Redford

Songs: ‘Old Friends’, ‘So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright’ – Simon & Garfunkel  

Heaven only knows what was made of Chris and me, but they were an engaging group, characters all, that we are never likely to forget. Such an unlikely combination, at times I felt as if I was in a travelling sit-com. Now there’s an idea…’The Road to Indochina’ – or has that already been done? 










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