Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Where Has The Writing Gone?

...It's moved! As part of my postgraduate journalism course I had to move to the dark side - Wordpress! So, if you would like to read more musical musings please go check it out... Beat The Static, or if you're interested in the effect the internet has had on journalism I've got a bit of a techno blog going on too at World Wide What?

This isn't necessarily the end of DR Watchword...I might come back to it later...when I've learned how to be a much better writer.

Peace out x

Monday, 4 October 2010

Tubelord at Buffalo Bar, Cardiff. 3rd October 2010.

See that word in the title there? The 'Cardiff' one? Yes, I've moved to the Welsh-land! And it was only after moving all the way to Cardiff that I finally managed to see a band I've been getting more and more into, who hail from my hometown of Kingston, go figure!

Set in the very edgy photo-plastered upstairs room in Buffalo Bar (which does a good pie in the downstairs restaurant), a great line-up of past and present Big Scary Monsters bands gave us a highly entertaining show, starting with Muscle Club, Tall Ships, and finally headliners, Tubelord.

Muscle Club gave a really strong performance to start the night off, some really punchy tunes and strong vocals that had a maturity exceeding the guys' boyish good looks! Since I hadn't really heard much of their material before, they definitely warrant some more research.

I've been fortunate enough to see Tall Ships some 3 times now, and they're incredible every time. It's not often you get to see a band who are so talented that they regularly swap instruments, create such a rich and varied sound, whilst having a great time on stage as they cheekily grin their way through the set. These guys have quite a following now, with most of the audience singing along to tracks like 'Vessels'. As part of their new EP release on 25th October (go buy it!), they also played new song, 'Plate Tectonics', "dedicated to anyone that likes rocks", and I can honestly say that after the massive build of tension that carried the whole audience along with it, everyone just stood there gobsmacked once they'd finished. They're bloody good.

Last but not least, Tubelord. Sporting a slightly different formation than usual, with borrowed vocals from Alan Welsh from Tangled Hair, as usual frontman Joe Prendergast had reportedly mislaid his voice. Or lost it, whatever. While Alan put in a damn good effort - after all, it can't be easy singing someone else's songs, especially when he's bashing away on the guitar behind you, probably itching to be able to do the job himself - it wasn't quite the same as Joe has a set of pretty distinctive vocal chords that do really lend themselves to the songs. Despite this, it was a better choice than cancelling, and the performance was really enjoyable.

I may just have to go and see them again once Joe is fully recovered. Maybe just for research purposes...Maybe because they're achingly good...Maybe to see if they play 'Synthesize' next time, please...

Thursday, 26 August 2010

So Who's This Scott Pilgrim Fella?

Posters are plastered about the place, the ads are on TV, even though it only came out at the cinema yesterday, chances are that you've already heard of 'Scott Pilgrim vs The World'. I had when I went to see it, but nothing could have prepared me for the visual onslaught that ensued. I won't give it all away, and it would be an impossibly long post if I did, so fear not.

Directed by Edgar Wright, who brought us the likes of 'Hot Fuzz' and 'Shaun of the Dead', some laughs were definitely expected - especially since I only have to look at main man Michael Cera (the geeky anti-hero of 'Juno' and 'Superbad') to crack a smile. And there are some fantastic comedy moments, but that's not the main basis that makes this film so great. Wright brings something completely new and exciting to cinema that his former movies do not even hint at. This is strongly linked to the fact that the film is based on the 'Scott Pilgrim' comic book series by Bryan Lee O'Malley, like in 'Sin City', Wright has used the comic book medium; every time a phone rings, a brash, stylised 'RING RING' flashes on screen. But there is more. There are video games too, oh yes!

I'm going to be totally honest here - I think I  had a bit of a video game deprived childhood, because I don't know many. I at least managed to get the Super Mario references. But, even without knowing the specific games, the references still work, and allow you to really enjoy leaving reality behind as Scott Pilgrim battles a succession of evil exes in order to get the girl of his dreams, multicoloured quirky beauty, Ramona Flowers.

As geeky chic bassist with an unnatural sensitivity to his haircut, Michael Cera is perfect for the part - he is the quietly determined underdog that everyone loves, and packs some impressive punches despite his skinny limbs. Despite one rather cringey musical moment involving the duel with boyfriend number 1, Matthew Patel, the movie is compulsive viewing from start to finish. At times, the pace is so fast, slickly switching between dream, reality, time and place, with witty captions flashing up every now and again, that I think it would take several viewings to take it all in.

I, for one, am quite eager to go back to the cinema and watch it again.

Double points score!

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Kings of Leon, Hyde Park, 30/6/10

There's nothing better than booking some exciting gig tickets, looking forward to it for months, waiting for the date to slowly tick round. But managing to scavenge a ticket just a couple of days before the gig and having the excitement thrust upon you all at once ain't half bad either. With doors at 2.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon, it also provides a major plus to being currently out of work (though just don't mention the matter of trying to pay for the pricey ticket).

To be fair, there was a lot of music for your money, as KoL were supported by The Features, The Whigs, The Drums and The Black Keys (my friend had mistakenly thought it was the Black Eyed Peas...not sure if 'I Gotta Feelin' ' would've gone down so well in this crowd). The Features are signed to the Kings of Leon's partly owned label 'Imprint', and The Whigs previously supported the guys on the 'Only By The Night' tour, so it's a pretty friendly outfit. Hotly tipped band, The Drums, gave a solid performance of their laid back quirky rock, big hit 'Let's Go Surfing' was a particular high point. Finally, The Black Keys, whose latest album 'Brothers' has caused a bit of a stir, also got the crowd going, but seemed to leave behind the material from the six (six!) previous albums which any die hard fans may have found a little disappointing.

On to the headliners, I'd had a niggling worry in the back of my mind all day before these guys came on stage after hearing somewhat underwhelming things about their headlining performance at Reading last year. Luckily, it seems Hyde Park agrees with them. Frontman Caleb Followill was pretty chatty, clearly humbled by the size of the concert they'd managed to sell out. He even went as far to say that the gig was one of the best experiences of his life. Bless. There were definite advantages to seeing them in between album promotions as the guys played a fairly even mix between all four of their albums - releases and album tracks - as well as a handful of new songs that still have working titles 'Immortals', 'Radioactive' and 'Southbound', which made the forthcoming album seem pretty tempting. Adding to this the fact that they played a cheeky cover of The Pixies' 'Where Is My Mind', which went down very well, a good time was had by all. The one let down, due to no fault of the band, was their performance of 'Sex On Fire' - the song that catapulted them to mainstream international stardom has now been so overplayed, taken over by radio stations like Heart FM, and found it's way into even my mother's musical consciousness...it just doesn't have the same effect it once did when it was released a couple of years ago. But I can't go getting into the problems of bands becoming 'too successful' right now...

Here's the Kings of Leon set list:
'Taper Jean Girl'
'My Party'
'Be Somebody'
'Molly's Chambers'
'4 Kicks'
'The Bucket'
'Where Is My Mind?'
'Sex On Fire'
'On Call'

'Knocked Up'
'Use Somebody'
'Black Thumbnail'

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Yeasayer - Odd Blood

Before I begin, can I just say...I can't stop listening to this album! To the point where, from once being enjoyable, it has now become some kind of compulsion. So I'll issue this as a public health warning, some of these tracks are as catchy as...I don't know, some kind of itchy S.T.I. Just be careful, ok?!

So, warning over, I briefly mentioned these guys way back, after I saw them supporting for Bat For Lashes at The Roundhouse. Comprised of three main members, Chris Keating, Anand Wilder and Ira Wolf Tuton - the latter I believe must have the coolest name in the music business. Despite the artists' sounds being so different, they definitely got the crowd hyped up before Natasha Khan's appearance, and it was only fair that they tag along on the tour seeing as the Yeasayer boys part-produced Khan's album 'Two Suns'. Clearly they have many talents. I thought they rocked back then, and their album hasn't disappointed. Well, I say 'rock', instead they kind of 'roll-up-their-blazer-sleeves-and-point-in-time-with-the-music', but rock is a bit quicker to say.

The guys describe their sound as "Middle Eastern psych-snap-gospel", I don't really know what that means, and I'm guessing it's probably just something they made up, because really there is no definitive answer - they are experimental, and as such cannot stick to any one kind of 'sound'. This much is clear from comparing their two albums, 2007's 'All Hour Cymbals' is worlds away from this year's 'Odd Blood'. The songs that instantly caught my, er, ears, were those from 2 to 5, particularly 'Ambling Alp' and 'O.N.E', because they are just awesome dance-filled slices of 80s cake, with a little layer of modern synth and craziness that bring them up to date. There is also a sense of tenderness in 'I Remember', which laments lost love, in a psychadelic kind of way. For those who may have liked the first album, the popularity of this latest offering may be a turn off for fear that the band has sold out and gone mainstream , well, maybe they have a little. There is a lot on the latest album that will definitely be more accessible to more people, but there is no way they have lost their experimental edge - there is a lot of weirdness too! Just a quick listen to opening track 'Children' illustrates that, with a strange robotic voice throughout that sounds a little bit like a remix version of the guy in 'Saw'. No danger of that one ending up being played on Heartfm!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

TeenagersInTokyo - Sacrifice

It's not often I manage to get my mitts on shiny new music so soon after it's release date, but this time I managed it, 'Sacrifice' was released on Monday and has already wormed its way into my musical consciousness.

I had already heard a fair bit about TeenagersInTokyo as they have recently appeared at Brighton's Great Escape Festival, as well as supporting the likes of The Gossip and CSS on tour, and subsequently have been appearing in many a music-review magazine and blog. My interest was only really ignited after stumbling across the video for their single 'Peter Pan', which had a dark, sinister edge that really lent itself to the song - which is incredibly catchy in it's own right.

Comprised of Samantha Lim on vocals, whose voice really ties the whole album together and manages to bring a great sense of chaos whilst remaining sultry and vulnerable, Miska Mandic on keyboard, Linda Marigliano on bass, Sophie McGinn on guitar, and Rudy Udovich on drums, it's a predominantly girlie affair that brings a whole new meaning to the term 'girl power'. No, they don't have their own 'peace' finger signs, in fact from the sounds of it their finger signs would bring a somewhat different meaning, because the band have a really great dark, menacing thing going on that separates them from all of the other 80s revival bands, and female-fronted artists that have flooded the music scene recently.

I love the final track '3046' precisely for this sinister edge, it is quiet, slow, and acts as a perfect ending to the album. The rest of the tracks have a similar beat - which it might have done some good to vary a little - but when you've got the likes of 'Peter Pan' and 'End It Tonight' with an addictive beat that has already invited remixes from We Have Band and The Horrors, you're still going to enjoy having a listen. Generally a really promising album, but I reckon they're better live...

'Peter Pan' The Horrors Remix here

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Just a Quiet One In a Brighton Pub...

...Or perhaps a very loud one instead. The pub? The Pav Tav, Brighton. The loudness? An Alcopop! and BSM records free showcase as part of Brighton's immense Great Escape festival. This was my first face to face introduction to some of the great Big Scary Monster's family, which began with a brief meeting with 'The Daddy' of the family, Kevin Douche. This was down to the fact that my great journalisty friend had managed to secure an interview with him, and was kind enough to invite me to go and have a listen and a chat. What I learned was a brief history of BSM, which began with a 17 year old Kevin Douche deciding that saying 'Hey, I've got a record label' sounded pretty cool, so he started saying it, and only worked out what was involved when people believed him. Good job they did really, as now he has signed several fast rising bands from around the country, and is even spreading stateside with BSM USA - the label really is becoming a big, scary monster. It is important to note, though, that it is still very much a DIY, one man show - CD sleeves are printed and glued by hand, hundreds of emails are slogged through for hours - it isn't always a glamorous job. For the bands too, they have to juggle practice and touring with jobs, and sometimes university. After the showcase I witnessed, I think it should be said - thanks for the effort guys!

First on, around 4 in the afternoon, the first of the Alcopop! bands took to the 'stage', which was basically a cornered off bit of pub floor. Elephants gave a really confident opener taking a shine to one particular member of the audience, when front man Owen mused how 'there aren't enough Simons...' Perhaps not the next big philosophical brain, but we'll forgive him that much as the band continued to rock through their very catchy song collection. Stagecoach followed, they didn't have the easiest set as the pub's fire alarm tried to steal the limelight, but despite that they seem to be the band everyone's talking about since, with Radio 1's Huw Stephens tweeting 'Stagecoach was ace' - pretty good praise from someone who knows his music! I tend to agree, and especially liked the end-of-set-madness when various band members decided to ditch the stage in favour of climbing around on the bar - rock 'n' roll!

After a break for a couple of hours, it was BSM's turn, churning out the musical delights, getting progressively louder, with the sensitive acoustic set from Shoes&Socks Off, a beardy display from Men, crazy-guitar-weilding-with-some-unsuccessful-crowd-surfing from Hold Your Horse Is, an ear-drum testing set from Grown Ups, finally finishing off the evening with young Talons. After seeing the great set from the latter band, I couldn't help but wonder if, when sending their sons off to violin music lessons, their parents ever envisaged their sons would end up using their skills to produce killer post rock tunes?

I left the pub in a happy daze, which I'm sure wasn't just down to vodka, safe in the knowledge that I had just tapped a great new source of music, and excited to get my ears on some more. Every band played to such a high standard, and when they had finished they got right back to the front row to cheer on and heckle their musical peers. I have a feeling that in a short while, getting to the front at these guys' gigs won't be such an easy feat.

To read the full interview, and tonnes more reviews, take a look: http://snapshotsandsnippets.com/
To check out Big Scary Monsters; blog, music, merch: http://www.bsmrocks.com/
For some Alcopop! love go here: http://www.ilovealcopop.co.uk/

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Mekong Delta

This part of the trip was the great unknown, and the part that I had been most anxious about. No more easy tour buses, no more catering for tourists wherever you go, no more assurance that most people you need to speak to will know English...We were going to 'Old School' Vietnam. And in my imagination I had convinced myself that this would consist of staying in some kind of mud hut and that I would intensely dislike the experience. I was wrong on both counts, and looking back, probably wouldn't have minded staying in a mud hut, might be fun! It turned out that the two weeks we spent travelling across the Mekong created more challenges, more stories, and more bizarre, funny, and breathtaking memories than what we found down the usual tourist route. So I'm glad I was (sort of) forced into it.

The initial challenge was how to get from HCMC to the delta - it's not far away, but it seems to be that the only way to get there is either by booking on an (expensive) organised tour, or by braving the local buses. Again, against my over-active imagination's judgement (which told me we would get lost and robbed and left in the middle of nowhere) we went for the local buses. This was pretty hilarious. Bar a couple of other stragglers, we were often the only westerners to be seen, looking very obviously lost, lugging our big rucksacks around, not knowing where to go or what bus we should be on. Most of the time we got laughed at by the locals, and after ineffectually trying to pronounce where we wanted to go, got bundled into a bus - tightly squeezed in amongst locals, bags of melons, building materials, and at one point a live goose - and usually found ourselves in vaguely the right place. If this wasn't quite the case, the only way to get a bit closer to the right town was by motorbike - I neglected to tell my mum this until I got back as she'd have a fit - but it was fantastic, though a bit difficult to balance when you're still wearing the rucksack!

Our route across the delta went from east to west, keeping in the northern half. From My Tho on the edge of the delta, we carried on to Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, Vinh Long, Can Tho, Chau Doc, Ha Tien, and finally we got a ferry across to Phu Quoc Island, back to tourist-land. I think, without a doubt, my highlights of this time were the boat tours we went on. The first was in My Tho, and could have been very hit-or-miss - we were approached by a guy whilst having a look around the small town. A lot of people try to speak to you, often trying to sell something, and more often than not we would just say no thank you and carry on walking. This guy was different, he was very laid back and firstly just offered to show us to a nearby cafe that was open as we were a bit desperate to find some food. He stayed to chat for a while and mentioned that he takes people on tours on his friend's boat, away from the tourist crowds, and early in the morning before it gets too hot. He said if we wanted to go we could meet him at the cafe at 5.30 the next morning and didn't have to pay until we had been on the tour - for someone to be so confident, and without putting any pressure on payment, was out of the ordinary, so we thought we'd give it a go. I'm so glad we did.

We left the hotel at 5am, with the poor guy at reception snoozing on a make-shift bed behind the desk, and walked to the cafe. It was still dark out, but already the streets were stirring; people opening up their shops, out on runs, on their way to work, we even saw a small group of women in the middle of an aerobics class. Our guy was waiting for us with a pot of Vietnamese coffee ready to wake us up - I'm not a huge coffee fan, but this was delicious, about the size of an espresso shot, but smooth and mixed with some form of chocolate, it definitely did the trick. We then followed on down to a rickety little wooden boat, with the driver already waiting, and set off into the morning darkness on the river. It didn't stay dark for long, just as we reached the middle of the large expanse of water, we stopped and watched the sun rise over the horizon. I'm not really eloquent enough to describe it, but I think at this point, more than any other, I sat thinking how lucky I was to be there, and how glad I was that I had said 'Sod it, why not' and left the cosy cushion of employment to go on the trip.

The advantages of going on an independent trip, rather than a tour by a large company - even though it may not be fully legal (I didn't ask!), is that your tour guide is likely to know people at the places you visit, knows where to get the best deals for any food and drink you might like during the day, can answer any questions you happen to think of as there isn't a large group to look after, and means you can totally go at your own pace. We saw the larger boats with big groups of tourists trudging around and I just don't think they got the same experience - a one to one tour is so much more personal. And I got made some jewellery weaved from a banana tree leaf, which I'm sure the others didn't get - and it was definitely a highlight!

The other great thing about the Mekong Delta region was how friendly the people were - although English was not as widely spoken, you are always greeted with a smile - and by the children, this is elevated into genuine excitement. Any children we walked past waved and shouted hello, and giggled when we replied. We were briefly shown a school by one of the locals, and all of the children came rushing to the window saying hello and trying to shake my hand - it completely disrupted the lesson, but was lovely and made me feel like a film star!

It struck me on leaving this amazing country, that although people didn't tend to have the luxuries that are considered common-place here, and they had to work so hard and such long hours just to scrape a living, life seemed simpler and they were happy. When you don't have to worry about getting the latest gadget, or this season's must-have item of clothing because it's not even an option, you can get on with, well, life.

I guess in future if someone asks me what the point of going to Vietnam was, and if I benefitted from it at all, I should just point them to this blog, because it seems there's quite a lot.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Ho Chi Minh City

It had been a long journey south, but we made it to the end of our open tour bus journey, arriving in the much-famed, huge, chaotic city, once known as Saigon. I thought it was a total faux-pas to still refer to it as such, but most people - including locals - still refer to the city as Saigon, maybe out of habit, maybe because it's less of a mouthful, I don't know. What was also instantly clear about this city was that it seemed so much more like a capital than Hanoi - it's size, the Reunification Palace, the wealth of high-end shops, everything. Hanoi has some catching up to do, there just aren't the hints of decadence in the north. HCMC has a great little 'tourist pocket', if you will, full of budget hotels, bars, souvenir shops, and a LOT of people roaming the streets trying to sell photocopied books, sunglasses and other cheap trinkets. It gets a little frustrating when you have several people approach you whilst you're trying to eat your dinner, but they are always friendly and I instantly felt bad watching them wander off in search of anyone who might pay a few pence for their wares.

We went on a walking tour of the city, which was rather challenging in the intense humidity, but definitely worth it. Having a look around the Fine Art Museum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City was interesting, as the war with America is such a huge focus, but also highlights how far Vietnam has come since then, being able to build up such a beautiful, clean city that is increasingly growing in popularity. This line of thought was compounded after a day trip to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels.

We had yet another amazing tour guide, 'Slim Jim', and he knew more cockney-rhyming slang than me! He alone had quite a fascinating story; he was an English teacher for twenty years in a small town in the Mekong Delta region, and had backed the South in the war. Later, he became a tour guide and has greatly improved his English, and wants to go back and teach again in another few years. No hint at retiring; the hard-work ethic is in the Vietnamese blood.

Slim Jim showed us this massive tunnel site, a couple of hours drive away from the city. The tunnels were barely big enough for the tiny-framed Vietnamese soldiers, and the ones that we got to go in had been made twice the size, 'for all the fat Westerners'. It was only a 100 metre stretch, and I'm annoyed at myself that I was only 5m from the end was claustrophobia made me escape from one of the early exits - if I'd realised how close I was, I think I could have made it! It goes to show how tough conditions were though. I found it a little odd how Slim Jim had chosen a job to tell everyone about the amazing feats of the VietCong when he had been opposed to them during the war, but there was no bitterness that his wishes hadn't been realised. In fact, no matter what 'side' anyone we spoke to had been on, there seemed to be no ill-feeling amongst the Vietnamese - any ill feeling was reserved for the Americans. I'm not saying I agree with Communism, but, for now, it seems to be working for the Vietnamese.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Da Lat

One word to sum up Da Lat - weird. I wasn't really sure what to make of it, not in a completely bad way, but more of a bemused way. The travel guides didn't paint an altogether exciting picture, but our bus ticket meant that we had to go there - at least for a night - so we made the best of it and went on a bit of an exploration. Attraction-wise, one place stood out for me (perhaps because there aren't many to choose from), 'The Crazy House'. The name kind of says it all. The construction is the brain-child of architect Ms Dang Viet Nga, and it's just bizarre; steps made to look like tree-stumps, and several themed hotel rooms including 'The Termite Room', 'The Bear Room', 'The Tiger Room', and a slightly terrifying 'Kangaroo Room' with glowing red eyes. I can't say I would want to stay in any of them, but it was fun to indulge in the eccentricity for a couple of hours.

We found on the map a massive lake just outside the main town area, and thought it would be a nice place to have a walk around on the way to some flower gardens (God, I sound like my mum), only to find that - just as in Hanoi - it had been filled in! Couldn't believe it, especially as the scenic lake-side restaurant was still open for business!

Unlike most other places we'd been to, Da Lat was set apart due to the fact that it is particularly hilly, making a five minute walk a bit of a workout, but in general - it is just a 'normal' town. The one event that injected a bit of excitement to our short visit came just as we were waiting to leave. Around 7.30 in the morning, waiting in the doorway of the hotel, peering bleary-eyed down the road, I almost failed to notice the fact that a Vietnamese man was walking down towards me. Oh, did I mention that he was totally naked, apart from sandals and some kind of walking stick? No? Well, he was, flopping around and everything. No one seemed overly phased, or did anything, so I thought maybe it was a normal occurrence, and he wandered further down the street until he was out of sight. But then there was a lot of beeping, and traffic started to back up down the road. The last I saw of Mr Naked Man, was him being bundled into a police van, having had his arms and legs tied together. It was pretty brutal. So, advice - when in Vietnam, don't go for any naked walks. You can probably apply that to most countries, in fact.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Nha Trang

I was so excited to get here - firstly because we had to endure another night bus journey, and secondly because it was hot and had a BEACH! And what a beach it is - six miles of gorgeous fine sand and glittering sea, most of which we walked across - surprisingly hard work! The main part of Nha Trang town itself doesn't have all that much to shout about, it is just a normal town. The Western hub of Nha Trang is concentrated just outside, where there are cheap hotels and guesthouses galore, restaurants, and bars...lots of bars...with cocktail buckets! There are also a lot of diving centres - you can probably get a dirt cheap deal, but you have to question what you're paying for as quite often, just because 'PADI' is advertised, it doesn't mean that's what you'll get.

As a non-diver myself I didn't really know what to look for, but luckily my travelling pal is very up on that sort of thing, so we went for a chat at the Rainbow Diver bar - the longest established diving company in Vietnam that is British-run. They don't have the cheapest prices in town, but they are safe, and - from what I experienced - very professional. To start off with, I went for a 'Try Dive', just to see what it was like. This involved getting to the bar for 7am, ready for a minibus to take everyone to the boat, which then took us to a dive site. All morning I was so scared, convinced that I would manage to drown, that I barely spoke, which was enjoyed a little too much for my liking. Luckily, though, I didn't drown, and I actually quite enjoyed the experience. For a Try Dive, basically all you have to do is breathe and have a look around, as an instructor does everything for you, and even holds you and swims you around underwater. So I decided, to hell with it, I'll do my Open Water PADI - where a bit more is involved! I can't recommend it enough though, it's the most amazing feeling floating around on your own, like flying. And Nha Trang offers some great dive sites, full of coral, clownfish, baby barracudas, and tiny little nudibranches that the instructors somehow manage to spot.

Learning to dive took up the majority of the time spent in Nha Trang, meaning we unfortunately missed out a visit to the Thap Ba Hot Springs, which offer a range of spa treatments, including a mud bath that I have been told is very good, and cheap! Maybe next time...

Hoi An

To continue harking back to Top Gear, this is the place where the trio of presenters bought their crazy tailored suits, and that is because this town is the tailoring capital of Vietnam. It is very much geared towards tourists; there are streets full of tailors, cafes, restaurants, and markets, with a noticeably high ratio of Westerners wandering around. It's a wonderful place though. What first struck me was the brightly coloured lanterns strung across the streets, which when coupled with the vibrant clothes stalls, the hustle and bustle of the market, and the scenic estuary of the Thu Bon river makes the place quaint and pretty.

I was all up for buying a whole rucksack full of new clothes, but due to the guaranteed tourist market, and the fierce competition, prices aren't dirt cheap - don't get me wrong, cheaper and better quality than what you would get here, but not cheap enough when you're on a shoestring budget! So, I settled for a pair of linen trousers. I have never had anything made to measure in my life, so was a little taken aback by the process - before the words 'I'd like that style please' had managed to escape my mouth, one of the women had whipped my T-shirt up into a knot, and started measuring my waist, hips and legs, while another woman was trying to sell me a deal so that I might buy another pair. I resisted! So, I left the little shop, and merely three hours later I was back to pick up my new trousers. They're a really good fit, and, well, they haven't come apart yet!

Enough about clothes, Hoi An has a lot more to offer besides miles of material. The town sells an ingenious tourist ticket, and for 90, 000 VND (about £4) you can choose five attractions to see - museums, temples, pagodas...it's a great deal! One thing on the list caught our attention; 'The Museum of Trading Ceramics', I joked that it was a definite yes, but then curiosity to see if it could really be as boring as it sounds got the better of us, so we went and had a look. The bits of broken pots in the museum confirmed that it actually is as boring as it sounds! Oh well.

As well as everything within Hoi An, there are some interesting places to visit nearby. We went on a trip to the ancient Cham temple ruins of 'My Son'. Again, a lot of these have been bombed and destroyed, and - oddly - none of the statues have heads because the French cut them off to take back to their museums, but there is still a lot to see, and there is a lot of reconstruction under way too. So, what's the big deal about My Son? I wondered the same thing, but our enthusiastic tour guide definitely swayed me into believing that the answer is 'A lot!' Not only are the ruins believed to be even older than Cambodia's Angkor Wat, but they are also surrounded by a bit of mystery. Looking at the construction of the temples, no cement has been used to secure the bricks together, instead they are also fused, and completely unaffected by weathering. In fact, we were shown walls that were reconstructed about twenty years ago, and they were covered in moss and looking in a sorry state, whereas the original walls that had been there for thousands of years looked almost new. No one, not international experts, not those whose ancestors helped build the temples, knows how it was done. Pretty cool, huh?


After walking the empty streets of Hanoi in the aftermath of Tet, we eventually moved south to the small town of Hue via an overnight tour bus, with an estimated journey time of 12 hours. We tried to make this seem less horrific, convincing ourselves that we would sleep through most of it and be there before we knew it. This was not the case. The night bus consisted of 3 rows of 'bunkbeds', which didn't even have enough leg-room for me - and I don't even have a problem with leg-room on EasyJet flights! This was combined with the fact that it is impossible for the bus drivers to avoid the numerous potholes in the dodgy roads, and I had an extra special uncomfy factor... When you initially get aboard the bus, you are given a plastic bag to put your shoes into. Fine. I had watched several other people use the tiny toilet on the bus, I don't recall them putting their shoes back on, or any horrified faces when they re-emerged, so I thought it was safe. My soaked socks when I came out of the toilet suggested otherwise - and it wasn't even my wee they were covered in. Oh, and there was still another ten hours of the fun-filled journey to go. This was definitely a low point!

Urine-soaked socks aside, we arrived in Hue at 7am, determined to battle through the day despite a total sleep fail. Avoiding the crowd of taxi and motorbike drivers that surrounded the bus as soon as it stopped, we wandered to a hotel mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide - a cute little place at $5 each per night, sold! Then it was time for some culture, so we walked to The Citadel, a place famous for it's history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for being ravaged by bombs in the war. It was quite a walk from the backpacker area, but a really great place to wander around for the afternoon. As everywhere else in Vietnam, it was grand, spotless, and beautifully decorated, right down to the immaculate flower displays everywhere, apart from a few buildings which had been damaged beyond repair - one had pretty much been flattened by B52 bombs, which is a shame. When it was in use, the heavily guarded Citadel held the Forbidden City, home to the most important members of society; emperors and concubines, where any trespassers were sentenced to death.

Unfortunately, Hue's weather left a little to be desired - it was a little bit too much like England; chilly with a side of constant drizzly rain (the annoying fine stuff that isn't even proper rain), which unfortunately made us less than enthusiastic about renting bikes to go visit some pagodas a few kilometers from the town. So we were lazy and hung about in the backpacker area - it wasn't a total loss, we found some very cool places; Cafe On Thu Wheels, which was covered ceiling to floor in messages and doodles from former travellers that had passed through. And it did an amazing hot chocolate. Then there was Missy Roo cafe, where we went for breakfast (we were only there for three mornings, but that warranted a place becoming our 'usual'), which had an added entertainment factor of westerners having booked a cooking experience, and watching them attempt to cook with chopsticks was always fun! Lastly, we came across The DMZ Bar, we were only going to go in there for a beer on the way back to the hotel, but ended up staying for long enough that getting up for the bus the next morning was a real struggle! This was due to the reasoning "We'll just see what the next song is, and if it's rubbish then we'll go", but it just didn't happen - the place was full of amazing rock and hip hop tunes from my teens, and the cheap Hanoi beers just kept coming. Awesome.

Hue; it's not the most exciting place on the usual tourist travel-plan, but it is a real town where you can see how 'normal' people live, there are some great places to check out, and it is an important part of Vietnamese culture. If you're only there for a couple of days, it's definitely worth a look.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Halong Bay

This was the place that the Top Gear Vietnam Special really sold to me - if you haven't seen it, Clarkson & Co. had to ride motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City up the length of the country, finishing in Halong Bay (after turning their motorbikes into boats, of course). The shots of this place were just amazing; a maze of huge limestone rocks jutting out of a turquoise sea, it looked magical, and so was instantly placed on the 'to-do' list.

We were persuaded by a lady in our hotel to book a tour through them so that we could leave the bulk of our luggage in our room, which was definitely worth doing. To her disappointment, we declined the luxury tour, and went for the standard three day option - I really can't imagine the luxury option could have been much better as our tour was fantastic!

Halong City is roughly three hours drive from Hanoi, and there really isn't much there to see other than the huge tourist-infested harbour that houses about 600 junk boats and lots of Vietnamese tour guides trying to herd their groups around. It's much better once you're on the boat! As we were there mid February, we didn't see the place at high season, and therefore our boat was only half full, with ten of us in total. It was a mixed bag - we shared with a Danish family with two young children, a young French couple, a middle aged German guy and a young Swedish girl (both travelling alone). Despite being with a scattering of Europeans, we all sat and spoke in English - good for us, but also a little embarrassing that we couldn't even attempt to speak to anyone else in their native tongue. The English education system really should sort that one out.

It takes about an hour to get to the Halong Bay you might have seen; dramatic chunks of jagged rock randomly jutting out of a serene sea, making a maze for the junk boats and fishermen. They slowly appear out of the sea mist and are just mesmerizing, and kind of eery. It's not a great description, but it's the best I can muster.

The first stop of the tour was at 'Surprise Cave' (pictured), which was amazing, the sheer size and elaborate shapes and patterns that have been ingrained into the rock. Our guide showed us several animal shapes in the rock - some were more lifelike than others! Outside the cave was a small floating village, I think it has probably only been there for as long as the tourists have been visiting, where we had the chance to do some kayaking, making sure to avoid the boats and massive rocks of course! It would have gone smoothly had my kayaking partner not been paddling against me any time I tried to steer us anywhere. Hilarious, I'm sure.

The next morning was my favourite part of the trip. It wasn't waking up at 6.30am, it wasn't the cold shower, it was opening up the cabin door to the scenery I had forgotten was outside; sunshine, miles of deep blue sea, and the imposing, grassy rockface that was stood staring at me. "Oh yeah, that's where I am. Cool." The second day of the tour involved disembarking on a couple of the larger islands in the bay. We had the joy of renting some very old bikes, without any gears and questionable brakes, which made the steep hills quite interesting! Once we got to the village in the middle of the island though, it was definitely worth it. There were very few people living there, all in simple houses and huts, where they grew rice and bred chickens and pigs, but yet they had mobile phones and one little boy I spotted was wearing a football T-shirt with a big bling necklace! The scenery was stunning, lush and green, with dramatic hills that looked like they were from the set of Jurassic Park. The second island, Cat Ba, was quite large and built up, and would be our home for the night. It looked as though it had been built for tourists - lots of multi storey hotels, restaurants and bars - one of which suddenly started blaring out the all-time classic Who Let The Dogs Out?, brilliant. As it wasn't high season, the place was almost like a ghost town, but I kind of liked it that way - there's nothing like being the only person on a beach.

It was a truly astounding place, and remained one of my favourite parts of the two month trip, despite being right at the beginning. We left the majestic calm to return to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Tet - Happy New Year!

It's the most important event in the Vietnamese calendar, on the same day as Chinese New Year, Tet is the celebration of a new Lunar year. We were pretty naive, turning up in Hanoi as the locals finalised their plans and preparations, as to how big a deal it was - in England you go out, get drunk, spend New Year's Day hungover, and then go back to work. In Vietnam, you go back home to be with your family, get drunk (but in a respectful and orderly manner), and spend time with your family for at least the next few days. As a foreigner this means that the buses and trains are fully booked and more expensive than usual, and many shops and restaurants are closed, and tours are off. So, while some things were made off limits, I think we managed to get some different added extras.

The best of these was the New Year celebrations themselves. A very friendly woman working in our hotel informed us that the best place to go in the city was Hoan Kiem Lake, so we headed there around 10pm to get a good spot to sit down. Of course, we then had two hours to wait until the excitement of midnight and fireworks, so we had to fill the time with naming an A to Z of bands and films, and people watching. The latter activity was particularly interesting, as the youth of Hanoi - which seems to hide somewhere during the day - was out in force, clutching at little bags of popcorn, and tottering on ridiculously high heels. Not so different from what you'd find at home, except that there was no swigging alcohol, no violent pushing, no shouting. Evidently, you don't get Vietnamese chavs.

The fireworks themselves were distinctly average compared to what you can see at New Year in London, but it was the reactions of everyone around us that made it special - genuine awe and excitement, with 'Oohs' and 'Aahs' and everything!

Walking back to the hotel, everyone seemed to be on a high, and - somewhat oddly - Abba's Happy New Year was blasting out from shops and restaurants as we walked back to the hotel. But there was still no escape, the damn song was on repeat in the hotel lobby, where we were obliged to stay for a little 'party' we had just walked in on. This consisted of the guys working in the hotel (who, by this point, were both rather drunk, which was funny) forcing cans of beer, glasses of whisky, and trays of fruit on a slightly uncomfortable group of their guests, and every so often going into long stories about what the Vietnamese do on New Year - which, in fairness, was quite interesting. I'm not sure whether many hotel workers in England would provide an array of food and drink for their guests on New Year just so that they can involve them in their celebrations. The whole evening was a great experience.

Monday, 12 April 2010


After a very long journey, we arrived tired and bewildered into Noi Bai airport and were instantly approached by a young Vietnamese guy who spoke very good English - he supported Chelsea (English football is huge out there), his favourite player was John Terry, he liked Cheryl Cole and Britney Spears, oh, and a friend of his had a taxi and could give us a lift to our hotel. It sounded like a great offer. We weren't to know then, having just arrived and in an inferior state of awareness, but all the signs of a con were there - it wasn't a metered taxi, and they kept telling me that I was 'very beautiful' - firstly, after so many hours of travelling, this was never going to be the case, but it is a very good indicator of when you are being ripped off! So, these 'helpful' guys dropped us off at an ATM and instructed how much we should take out - you cannot get Vietnamese Dong (VND) outside Vietnam, so unfortunately we weren't aware of what the exchange rate was. Basically, what should have been a $30 taxi ride cost us nearer $200. Not the best start to a budget trip, but you live and learn. Where some countries are known for violence, Vietnam's biggest problem is its' con artists, so chances are we were going to experience one at some point. It's not what you want as soon as you get there, though.

After an initial minor setback, we weren't put off by the city. It was actually pretty charming, if completely disorientating. The streets are manic, filled with people, stalls - food, souvenirs...anything!, but mostly mopeds and motorbikes. They're everywhere. They fill the roads - to try and cross you have to hold your breath, walk, and hope that you're avoided, and if the roads get too busy, well, people take to the pavements, honking at you for being in the way. In the middle of this chaos, is Hoan Kiem Lake, a centre of calm. There are pavements surrounding it where people quietly sit, or the more energetic exercise. The multicoloured lanterns and extravagant flower displays were added extras that had been put up in preparation for the Tet celebration (Vietnamese New Year) that was coming up that weekend.

We went on the city's walking tour, as outlined in the Lonely Planet guide, which gave a really interesting overview as it took us through a cross-section of the Old Quarter, the city's temples, and traditional markets. One market in particular sticks in my memory - it was busy, so you had to walk through it very slowly, which was fine when the stalls were selling fruit, vegetables, or household goods. But then there was the pretty extensive meat section, which tested my gag reflex. Piles and piles of raw meat surrounds you, that had presumably had been sat out until early that morning, as well as a big bag of live toads, chicken feet, goose head and necks, and probably a host of other delights that I missed as I covered my nose and mouth and focused on nothing more than getting away from the smell.

There is a wealth of cultural buildings, museums, temples and pagodas dotted in the centre of the city and all around it. I don't think we did a bad job of taking in the culture. Our first stop was the Temple of Literature, a complex dedicated to early Vietnamese scholars and their teachers, which had been celebrated with a collection of ornate shrines and large stone plaques with tortoises at the bottom.  Every shrine is looked after with such care, there is always burning incense, fresh flowers, food - usually fruit, and the whole temple is spotlessly clean. In fact, Vietnam in general is a very clean place, there is no litter, and it is not uncommon to see women sweeping the streets near their shop or stall just to clear the dust.

As for the famous Ho Chi Minh complex, which contains the mausoleum, the museum, Ho Chi Minh's house and stilt house, and botanical gardens...our visit was a little unsuccessful. Granted, it was our own fault for not reading the guide properly, and failing to notice that it was closed between 12 and 2, so turning up at 1 wasn't great, but, it wasn't our fault that Ho Chi Minh was not in his mausoleum...apparently every so often he gets sent to Russia to be cleaned. It's kind of morbid, but it makes sense that a corpse needs cleaning once in a while. Eurgh. On a brighter note, if you go at the right time of day, when Ho Chi Minh is in town, the complex is beautifully maintained and well worth seeing. We did manage to have a nose around the stilt house, which was interesting, but the leafy grounds surrounding it are much more striking, not to mention the pond teaming with excitable carp!

Saturday, 10 April 2010


As I have mentioned, I have recently been away on a trip to Vietnam - an idea born on a dark, wintery British night when I imagine a lot of people are tempted to try and escape the cold and cloud. I received a text from a friend asking 'Have you ever thought about going travelling? Maybe to Asia?' Well, of course I have! I didn't think anything would actually come of this casual question, but pondering and planning began, and eventually a trip was born - albeit a very disorganised one...flights were only booked a couple of weeks before we wanted to leave, and we pretty much made up our route as we went along, but it's all part of the fun.

Initially the plan was to do a grand tour of the whole of South East Asia, something the majority of fellow travellers we met seemed to be doing, but with time and money constraints we realised we wouldn't be able to see any country 'properly', rather a skimmed snapshot version. It was then a toss-up between Thailand and Vietnam, as these two countries seemed to have a lot to offer, but are so different. A pros and cons list was needed to make the ultimate decision; Thailand was well suited to first time travellers, has a great party scene, amazing scenery, ladyboys to study...but then Vietnam has so much history and culture (which I knew virtually nothing about), and it looked amazing on the Top Gear Vietnam Special, and their currency is 'Dong', which is always funny..."I have a pocket full of Dong", "Get your hands off my Dong" etc etc. It eventually came down to a coin toss to choose where to go, and as I was about to reveal whether our fate was heads or tails, we both realised that we didn't want to look, as it might mean that we couldn't go to Vietnam...problem solved!

While I was away, I conscientiously kept a diary of everything we got up to - where we went, what we saw, what we ate - so that I could jog my own memory, and so that I could have something to write about when I got back. Since I've been home though, I have to admit that I've found even just talking to friends and family about the trip a little difficult...someone asks "So, how was Vietnam?", and I answer "It was amazing," but as for further elaboration, well, I just don't know where to start.

The Vietnamese have a saying, which unfortunately has been immortalized on to tourist T-shirts, 'Same Same, But Different', and that pretty much sums up their culture in relation to ours. I was fortunate enough to travel the length of the country, as well as across the Mekong Delta, where there was a lot of differences in both the landscape and the people, and I think the only way to try and describe this country and culture to someone is to take it in little steps. So I'll start at the beginning; the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Apollo 101

I first came across this Norwich based band a couple of months ago when I had the pleasure of reviewing their single One More Chance. Now the boys have a whole, brand spanking new EP, Here And Now, and I once again get to have a listen and impart my humble opinion! Not a bad swap...

For those who haven't yet heard of them, Apollo 101 are comprised of brothers Chris and Andy Walker and Josh Rayman, whose major influences come from the likes of Feeder, Muse, and a collection of gems from the '80s - all of which can be traced in their uber catchy songs packed full of synthesizers. On their newest EP are tracks Here And Now, One More Chance, and Push, as well as a couple of acoustic and remix versions chucked in for good measure.

Each song is quite different; Here And Now is infectious, the kind of song you could see in an '80s movie that has the 'crazy kid' jumping around their room, One More Chance laments a lost love to a catchy beat and a rocking bit of guitar, and Push has much stronger guitars, with an irresistible 'wo-oh-oh' you can't help but sing along to. The acoustic version of Push adds another level to the track as it is given a bit more heart. Fingers-crossed a studio album will follow next...keep cranking up the guitars guys!

Check out more from Apollo 101 here...

Every family has a weird Uncle...

...But an Uncle Ugs? They're not so common. It's okay, I'm not about to give you a breakdown of my family tree, Uncle Ugs is in fact stage name for Surrey boy Alex Martin, a rising artist on the local music scene. Armed with little else than his voice and an acoustic guitar, 'Ugs' manages to produce music that sounds like it has had a whole army of people tuning and tweaking the sounds to get them just right. From the 'Halfway EP', you can download (for free!) Halfway, Curse The Day, and I'd Do, really great songs that combine a chilled out sound with some haunting vocals and lyrics that seem to have genuine feeling behind them - unfortunately a rarity in the manufactured pop age we live in. The Uncle Ugs sound is hard to pin down, think of some main stream Thom Yorke, mixed with a bit of Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly!, and the rest is just something extra!

Hopefully you're intrigued, to find out more information and have a listen to these songs and other material for yourself, check out:

Explaining my absence

So, my last post is dated towards the end of January...and now it is April...to all who are hanging on my every word (!) I apologise, but I do have a pretty good excuse; I've been in Vietnam for the majority of this time. And I have lots of highly exciting posts backed up to feast your eyes on, so worry not!

Ok, ok, I'll get typing...

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Up In The Air

It was a series of mishaps that led to me seeing this film, I don't think I would have watched it otherwise. I had originally intended on seeing 'It's Complicated' with my Mum - she will only watch romcoms and feels 'cheated' if the story isn't neatly wrapped up in a happy ending, so a bit of Meryl Streep getting it on with her ex-husband seemed to fit the light-humoured bill. However, we arrived at the cinema a little late to find that a lot of other people had had the same idea and there weren't any seats left! Quickly scanning for any films that were starting soon I noticed 'Up In The Air' and vaguely remembered an advert featuring George Clooney on a plane. There isn't a mother-pleaser on Earth quite like George Clooney, so I figured he was a safe bet.

Expecting a run of the mill romantic comedy I settled comfortably into my seat for a couple of hours of perfectly nice, if predictable, viewing. But I didn't get it. In fact, when the credits finally rolled I actually felt a little sad and confused. Directed by Jason Reitman, who created the much loved 'Juno', there are quite a few quirky touches, as well as some great scenic shots and some comedy moments that ring true to real life. So what is it about? Well, George Clooney plays the part of Ryan Bingham - high flying corporate businessman? Sort of. Sure, he's got a lot of airmiles, not to mention an impressive collection of loyalty and reward cards for hotels and car hire companies, but the job that has fuelled this collection isn't exactly glamorous. Ryan Bingham works for a company that bosses hire to fire their employees, they try to put a positive spin on redundancy and persuade whichever unlucky soul they are talking to that everything they need to carry on can be found in a handy information pack. As everyone knows, Clooney's good looks and velvety smooth voice make him a perfect calming influence, but it is not the job that he loves, Ryan himself says it is when he is in the airport and on the plane that he is 'home'.

While jumping the queues with a loyalty card and flying business class has a certain amount of prestige and comfort, it's true, but even Clooney can't sell recycled air, plane food and living out of a bag as being a great way to live. The real aspect of his lifestyle that Ryan loves is the fact that being on the move means he makes no ties - to people or places. When your closest relationship is to an automated welcome message voice, you are untouchable. What would cause a person to want to live like this? That's a little hazy; the snapshots of disjointed family life show how Ryan has distanced himself from his two sisters (the elder of which is a rather angry, masculine creature) and hints suggest that the family dynamic has gone pear-shaped since the death of their parents. This is a really sad aspect of Ryan's life, which, by the end outweighs the positives of his seemingly carefree, comfortable existence.

Ryan's solitary way of life is shaken up, first by meeting Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a travelling businesswoman who claims to be 'the female version' of him; she's pretty, sexy, and the only person Ryan seems willing to keep in touch with. The biggest bombshell, however, is when Ryan's only constant - his work - decides to save money and keep its employees grounded so they can fire people via webcam. The great thinker behind this move is a young, uptight, business-minded if naive young woman, Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), who may as well be Ryan's opposite. She looks for spending cuts, the use of technology, and believes in love, marriage and settling down; everything Ryan is against. Through an ill-matched business pairing, the two manage to learn a lot from each other. That, and the fact that Natalie's dreamy view of love is shattered when she gets dumped via text message. Well, at least it wasn't Facebook!

The film is full of genuine laughs and sentiment, and shows the different ways modern life - technology, putting your job first, lack of family values - has on the traditional idea of romance. All of these make it very different from your average romcom. So too does the bittersweet taste you're left with when you leave the cinema. But, at least my mum didn't feel totally cheated by it.

Up In The Air - 3.5/5

A Belated Happy 2010...

...Or an early Chinese New Year? Luckily blogging more wasn't my resolution or I would've already failed miserably. As for my actual New Year's resolution, well, okay I haven't done that either - my car is still a dusty mess littered with piles of car park tickets, leaves and CDs. Oh well. As I'm not intending to reach for a sponge or hoover any time soon, so here I am at my blog!

Over the Christmas break my dad, brother and I did our usual family bonding trip of sitting in a dark room not talking to each other; we went to the cinema. To see 'Avatar'. With 3D goggles and premier seats! (Dad was paying.) I would have had to have been living under a large rock for the past few months to have not heard about this mysterious film that was already being credited with 'forever changing cinema as we know it', featuring strange blue people with long hair. The trailers didn't give a lot away, and anyone I'd spoken to who had already seen it weren't really selling it to me. The truth is, telling someone about humans going to a different planet and then turning into blue aliens who can jump really high and have weird tentacles coming out of their hair doesn't make the majority of people rush to the cinema. But I do like a bit of sci-fi, and my brother claimed it had taken the number one spot of his all time favourite films, so was curious to give it a try. I took my brother's recommendation with a big pinch of salt though, as 'Borat' had previously been his epitome of cinematic brilliance.
James Cameron, who gave us the epic 'Titanic', which - love it or hate it - is always fun to re-enact whenever there's a cold day - 'Jack, Jack wake up! There's a boat!' Anyway, since making steamy car sex scenes, story has it he's been waiting for technology to catch up enough to do justice to this film. Now, they did the same thing for the first three 'Star Wars' films and I think everyone wished they hadn't bothered, but I don't think Cameron made the same mistake here. The special effects are incredible, the integration between what is real and what is CGI is practically seamless.

I sat in my marginally comfier-than-normal seat sporting the fetching 3D glasses (that I still think were way better when they were cardboard and you got one red eye and one green eye, but there you go!) and I have to agree that this movie gives you an experience quite unlike anything else. Making 3D viewing an option is in vogue right now, but this movie has really been made for that purpose - to immerse the audience in the enchanting world of planet Pandora. Us human scum have decided to invade this planet to mine and extricate precious minerals, waging a war against the indigenous people (Na'vi - they're the blue folks) for inconsiderately getting in the way. Very cleverly, a couple of these Na'vi have somehow been grown, as it were, as avatars for humans to psychologically link with them and live through them. Think along the lines of 'The Matrix' and you're on the right track.

Main man Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a wheelchair bound war veteran unexpectedly finds himself with his very own avatar, and a mission to be accepted by the Na'vi to learn from them and find a way to stop them being a nuisance so the humans can steal all the minerals. Sounds easy enough. That is, until Jake finds being a Na'vi is actually pretty fantastic - and this is where the film comes into it's own. The detail, the beauty, the sheer vivid imagination that has born such a place is impressive - despite a few strange, scary monsters, it makes Earth look like a shit heap. And therefore humans like the parasitic, dirty flies. The Na'vi are gentle, dignified, and at one with their natural environment - they physically bond with their fellow creatures through strands coming out of their hair. Humans stomp through, not bothering to understand the environment, or care about the effects their actions might have. Combine this with the fact that Jake is normally so trapped and frustrated by his ill-working body and military procedures, and a rather hot lady Na'vi might just be interested in him - who would ever choose being human?

Conflict ensues, and the audience ends up hating their own species even more. For the British and American viewers, it's not really a time to be proud of your heritage, as invading and destruction has so often been the business of the day and it's just not pretty. Colonel Miles Quaritch seems to be a butcher, louder version of George Bush - with one speech, 'fighting terror with terror' sitting uncomfortably close to reality.

There's a lot that is good about this movie - it's different and stretches cinematic boundaries, Sam Worthington gives a great performance and provides some much needed moments of comic relief, and Pandora's luminous flowers and floating mountains are beautiful and breathtaking. But, contrary to what some reviews might say, it's not all good. Sigourney Weaver is basically re-hashing her Ripley role from 'Alien' - being all grumpy and masculine, and the story line itself is a little slow in parts and pretty predictable - just don't tell my brother, he's been to see it another four times since!

I think the good outweighs the bad though, and it's worth a watch even just to see what all the fuss is about.

Avatar - 4/5