A city that can be described as Inbetween. Capitalist behemoths – shopping malls and spending plazas – presented so clearly, so sharply, so impressively that the disintegrating pavements, lingering stenches and crumbled alleys seem the inexplicable remnants of another time. Yet they represent the still beating heart of a town yet to succumb irreversibly to the pulse of western edifices. Describes many a city, it is true, but as it nestles in the green and plush exotica of jungle, KUALA LUMPUR is such as disarmingly eclectic array of everything that its scope for overwhelming is unavoidable. Quite the place for embarking on the 21st Century’s Grand Tour – not quite a Gap Year, but a trip designed to surprise, shock and confuse. Towering Bank Blocks, it can feel like an endless Canary Wharf, the old and seemingly derelict period building that turns out to serve chilled fruit juices and all the varieties of rice one could possibly imagine. As with any urban rush, it is tempting to imagine peoples’ lives as they idle, run, honk and barge around. The suited and booted, just come from his Americana bachelor’s pad and heading to the Malay Kopitam which, weekly, brings him back to the world of his birth. The Hawker, who spends every daylight hour flipping, frying and boiling, whose dream it is to feature in Lonely Planet – not just to attract the white ‘n’ wealthy but to rub in his best friend’s face, manager of an Irish pub, whose insidious snobbery towards street sellers is a gripe only tolerable for the most forgiving souls. The owner of a successful and sought after hostel, whose father lectures the Imman on his son’s poor life choices. He could have been a doctor, apparently. The Saturday mall-girl, whose perfect skin and deeply beautiful hair only serve to foreground two dead eyes. Living in a dark apartment, miles away, this job has gone from useful to dead-end and each spray of perfume into a customer’s face is a quotidian yet fleeting distraction from incresingly distant dreams.
HANOI is an outstandingly beautiful and atmospheric city. It is still developing in the truest sense – modernising in action but the streets still crammed with the poverty that looks quite romantic in the vintage ‘Instagram-Filter’ sense but ultimately demands a hardship that can be seen in the lines on faces and the strains of body. People everywhere, doing everything. Huge clumps of chaotic cabling creates a jungle of ceiling as they snake through trees and up the ramshackle housing. It feels medieval yet the mayhem is a mask. A calmness can be found within madness – sitting with Bia Hoi in hand, on the street side, a tranquility that is bound to the religious temperances of locals and uncomplicated life they lead, of trade and family, looking after the innumerable shophouses of the Old Quarter. Offices and complexity do exist, but not by the lakes, or in the temples, or the street vendor stalls lining every single road and lane.