June 2015: Vietnamese Superstars

SAM_3602Vietnam then. Home of Pho, too many zeroes on currency denominations and British people seeking a little cultural adventure.

As random nights out go, playing guitar on stage in a Vietnamese bar with the runner up in Vietnam’s inaugural Pop Idol competition – Ngọc Ánh – accompanying me on percussion takes some beating.

The back-story to this: as part of our desire to enjoy Vietnam both culturally and gastronomically, we’d booked the experience of seeing an authentic Vietnamese meal being prepared before eating the meal with the chef’s family.  A task that could have been performed in an entirely perfunctory manner by our host, Tiffany, without complaint from us instead turned into one of my all-time holiday highlights.

Tiffany (her adopted English name), a local entrepreneur, may well become a millionaire in a few years (in Western terms, since 1 million dong is equivalent to around £33 at the time of writing). She without doubt possesses the creative, passionate and risk-adverse mindset to succeed.  At a young age she’d already owned and sold a coffee bar, now instead focussing on importing and selling Japanese crockery & tableware as well as hosting the occasional curious foreign traveller.

After we’d finished devouring the meal, Tiffany and her Pop Idol husband invited us to join them at their old coffee bar to watch an open-microphone evening of local singers; all with impressive voices, but all eclipsed by the power and passion of Ngọc Ánh’s vocals.

11051845_10205628575787587_5240343502089491436_oI’d always claim to be distinctly average guitar player – definitely more rhythm than lead – but it’s the love of playing that spurs me on, not the need to improve my technical capabilities.  So following Ngọc Ánh’s rousing 4-song set, he invited me to come up to the stage to play.  I did so unprepared and without the comfort of hiding behind a boisterous lead singer.  My four songs – two from the Chinese Moganshangrila set (“Until Sex” and “CNY U”) sandwiched between two of my own untitled numbers, hastily chosen as the four that were sufficiently varied to carry a tune without backing.  Ngọc Ánh’s friend improvised on the Cajon box drum throughout, with the superstar himself joining on percussion on the first song.

We ended the night with our hosts in the Apocalypse Now nightclub, ensuring our musical evening went from acoustic to electronic. One hell of an evening, as they say.  Following previous holidays with Rachel, our expectations were high in terms of finding something different; something random and completely unforgettable to do. The bar is set even higher now for future holidays.

With one of Ben’s cousins resident in HCMC, we had an expert guide to take us around a few tourist attractions and to a few excellent restaurants (cheers Paul). The food has been phenomenal.

IMAG1438After three nights in Ho Chi Minh (and an interesting massage), we took a 3.5 journey north to the coastal town of Phan Thiet near the popular tourist destination of Mui Ne.


Having experienced a noisy, sleepless night onboard an overnight train in Malaysia last year, I had a few concerns over taking a similarly “local” train in Vietnam. Fortunately, for the equivalent of about £5, we had a fairly comfortable, uneventful meandering journey though Vietnamese countryside and coastline.

At relatively posh coastal resorts, like ours in Phan Thiet, the temptation is to accept what’s presented without question. However if you never ask “Could you please cook us a bespoke meal for Rachel’s birthday?” along with “Do you mind if we take over the music in your restaurant?” and “Would you mind keeping the restaurant open beyond your normal 10pm closing time” then you’ll never experience an incredibly tasty meal whilst listening to your hastily cobbled-together playlist blasting out though the resort’s unsuspecting sound system until the early hours.

Admittedly the resort was quiet enough to accommodate our celebratory requests. And I’m pretty sure I managed to reset their sound system at the end of the evening.

We thought our resort in Phan Thiet was pretty luxurious; that is until we took our next train journey to our final destination, a beautiful resort just north of Nha Trang.

We’d been deliberately ramping up the “poshness” of each place we stayed in, but our five nights in Nha Trang were probably the most pampered I’ve ever felt on holiday.
When we checked in, the manager asked us what room we’d booked for the four of us. When we told her, with a look of mock disgust she simply stated “Well I won’t see you then!”
She was pretty much correct. Our own two-bedroom villa had a private pool bigger than some hotel swimming pools. It featured room service so accommodating we could repeatedly order buckets of ice to be sent to us.
And it was easily big enough to accommodate the one night with five of us present, as we swapped out Ben for Andrea. So to speak.

mmexport1433046259570After a couple of days of bobbing about and working our way through the extended (by us) room service menu, we ventured into Nha Trang itself to discover a city dominated by Russian language. We’d been told this was a major tourist destination for Russians but hadn’t been quite prepared for this.

When walking into bars or restaurants we were first greeted in Russian before our bemused look gave us away.   Even the German beer bar with dirndl-clad ladies and “holding a beer keg at arm’s length until your arm breaks” competitions had Russian as their first language.
I imagine this is what it’s like for British people venturing into certain Spanish beach resorts where British attitudes and palates and are very much at the forefront. I have no idea why you’d want that on your holiday (which is, ostensibly, a holiday to escape from your home country).

We had a final night in HCMC at a grandiose but somewhat grumpily-staffed hotel before flying back to Shanghai.

Rachel calls these trips “fabulous adventures”. We’re not back-packers any more, but we retain that curiosity; that need to explore; that desire to experience local culture wherever we visit. But by God do we demand a little luxury when doing so.

Rachel, Andrea and Ben – here’s to many more of these!

March 22nd: Moganshangrila

Here in Shanghai, the burgeoning music scene features bands of all ages, nationalities and styles. I’d like to think our temporary, but all-too-brief additional gave the lucky few present on Friday night something very exclusive.

The band

The band

Moganshangrila: a band name picked from Bronwen’s suggestion of using the location where Felix and I first met (Moganshan) mixed with the paradise lost of Shangri-la. Kind of fitting.

From November’s first musical meeting between me and Felix through to playing live for the first (and probably) last time on Friday 22nd March 2013, the last few months have been incredibly proficient from a song-writing perspective. Felix and I somehow managed to compose 12 songs from an equal number of rehearsals, and again somehow managed to play live with the full, five-member band despite having only rehearsed that way on three previous occasions. We have fairly different musical influences (we probably have more in common with what we both dislike than what we like), but when it comes to writing songs, Felix and I have an almost intuitive connection. Each time we meet for a rehearsal, a new song appears.

So on Friday night, Moganshangrila played live for the first and probably last time. Over in the OV Gallery in the Art District of Shanghai (co-incidentally, but not deliberately, on Moganshan Road), we played to a mixture of local friends, work colleagues and language teachers. A fantastic night, nerve-wracking but utterly rewarding. Shanghai has given so much to me and Bron over the last year; it continues to do so right up to the end.

So the band then:

On bass: Michi

On bass: Michi

Michi: A teacher colleague of Felix’s, proving to be an effervescent and enthusiastic bass player, joining the band at very late notice but picking up the songs incredibly quickly. Also very forgiving, since I decided to experiment a little with one of the songs whilst live on stage but forgot I had a bass player playing along with me.

On keyboard: Chong looking cool

On keyboard: Chong looking cool

Chong: A local friend we met whilst on a trip to Wuxi last year, currently learning the piano but joining the band under a little duress after repeated requests from me (we desperately needed a keyboard player). So brave to play live despite being relatively new to the piano, and very new to my Novation box of electronic tricks. Chong’s effortlessly calm, serene stage presence increased the cool factor of the band by a factor of 10.

On drums: James

On drums: James

James: A student from Singapore temporarily living in Shanghai who responded to Felix’s online advertisements for a drummer. And what a drummer – incredibly talented, intuitive and energetic. Thanks also to James for dramatically lowering the average age of the band (not quite by a factor of 10 but not far off).

On vocals: Felix giving it all...

On vocals: Felix giving it all…

Felix: In some cases, able to listen to a song for the first time and then add a melody to it on the second listen. An inspired lyricist, with biting, abstract wit. In some cases managing the rare feat of writing lyrics perfect for singing along whilst also carrying a hidden agenda/depth/message (study the lyrics at your peril if you’ve ever been drunk in Felix’s presence).

IMG_3708Me: A very happy guitar player, delighted to have some of my songs (a couple written when 16) finally given a leading melody and lyrics, and played to a larger audience than at a barbecue when in student days.

Thankyou so much for our supporting cast members too, particularly Bronwen for allowing us to rehearse on her birthday.

After our 12 song set, the audience demanded an encore, so we played “The Pool” once more due to its relevance to many of the audience members (unknowing/unwilling victims to Felix’s lyrical dissection of the pool party evening). And for a second encore: a song called “First Last”, so fitting as the first and last song of definitely our first and probably our last ever live appearance.

Here are a couple of video links to the performance:


Here, for posterity (mainly mine) is the set list:

  • First Last
  • The Girl
  • All The Tunes
  • Seen
  • Crowd Forty
  • All The Tunes


  • Treasure Lost
  • CNY U
  • Love Now
  • The Pool
  • Twenty One
  • Protest! Song!

And finally: thankyou to all our friends and colleagues who came along and supported us for the evening!

February 28th: Ending

And so it ends.

With somewhat of a shorter trip than planned, Bronwen and I will be returning home to the UK within the next couple of months (no, I’m not going to go into further detail on why within this blog).

Inevitably we have mixed feelings on this – psychologically not quite ready to return yet, but will obviously be happy to be home.  Particularly as the UK economy is now looking so rosy and none of the credit agencies are entertaining the idea of downgrading the UK’s credit rating.  Oh.

So following JB’s week of leaving events, Richard consoled a few of us on Monday night by agreeing to lose at pool to  the fearsome team of me and Bron (following a curry).  We will no doubt see Richard again when back in the UK, but it’s on nights like we realise we have little time left to spend with our Chinese friends and our other expat friends we’ve met locally.  We broke the news to Andrea and Grace on Tuesday night at yet another curry (with Rachel), and will no doubt have many more nights like this one over the coming weeks.

Felix came over tonight for a band session.  Yet another reason to be gutted about leaving Shanghai, since (recognising this is a somewhat biased opinion) we have a few cracking songs.  And some even better ones.  We’ll try and record them all before Bron and I leave and force them on the world a little later.

The blog will live on until we return.   I may kill it soon after.

Me, Tim, and the boys from IT

Me, Tim, and the boys from IT

December 2nd: Shanghai Islands

The eggtray decorations (with Isaac, Chong and Bron)

The eggtray decorations (with Isaac, Chong and Bron)

Why pay for expensive paintings or photographs with which to decorate your bar when you could instead affix empty eggshell cartons to the wall.  Or maybe a little polystyrene packaging.  This in keeping with the bar pump “just for show” and the world’s wonkiest darts.  But since this was the only bar available to us on the resort of Sun Island (“The only natural island in Shanghai”) we had little choice.  Until 10pm when they decided to close.

Mao Pagoda - acting as a lighthouse in the river

Mao Pagoda on Sun Island – acting as a lighthouse in the river

Isaac, Chong, me and Bron (thanks, auto-timer on camera)

Isaac, Chong, me and Bron by the Mao Pagoda (thanks, auto-timer on camera)

Sun Island is about an hour to the West of Shanghai, and lies in the middle of Huangpu River.  A retreat sort of place, with golf, go-karting, horse riding, spas, etc, at the visitors’ disposal.  We didn’t know we were going there until lunchtime on Saturday when Chong suggested it as a random thing to do on a Saturday in (near) Shanghai.  So yet more hot springs, a bit of swimming and an adventure challenge called “Find anywhere on the island to have a drink after 10pm”.   Another excellent, relaxing weekend away from central Shanghai (although hailing from Ireland, Isaac understandably took some cheering up after attending the Blarney Stone’s closing party the night before – one of Shanghai’s best “local” type bars is to be replaced with yet another Italian restaurant).

Today (Sunday) I’ve spent a few hours playing guitar whilst a German bloke sang.  One of these encounters that could have been horrendous, ending after a 5 minute creative nadir, but instead ended with a few songs taking shape*.  And since The Rolling Stones are (somehow) still going strong, this means I’m not too old to be in a band.  For the record – if a bloke called Felix suddenly starts releasing songs on iTunes and they sound like compositions I’ve been forcing Bronwen to listen to for the last few years, I hereby declare the songs (but not the lyrics) were composed by me.

Other than the weekend, a fairly quiet week for us.  Although somewhat unfair that Bronwen’s trip out of the office on Wednesday was to a building literally 2 minutes from where we live, whilst my trip on Thursday was to the Argos warehouse in the middle of nowhere until 11pm.  Nowt like a warehouse near midnight.

*Jude – this is what you avoided by escaping back to Canada!