Christmas 2003... continued

Our flight Vietnam Airlines VN740 to Ho Chi Minh (formally Saigon) is called and we head for the departure gate. A pleasant enough flight, the aircraft was a little ancient (no in flight entertainment ) but it was only 2 hours before we landed. No fly bridge here, you walk down the stairs and get bused to the terminal building which has that third world feel about it. Lots of duty free for sale but we are more interested in getting through customs and immigration. The queue is not too long and apart form the stern faces on the officials, all goes well. Looking at these uniforms with the large red star on them makes you realise you are in a communist country and that 30 years ago this country was in a bitter struggle with the west. The officials look like they haven't forgotten it I hope this is not an ominous sign. We are to be picked up at the airport by the hotel, but from past experience I'm always a little apprehensive as I walk into the airport arrival area. No need to panic there is a man holding up a sign with Cindy's name on it. She was quite impressed when a large new black Mercedes pulled up and we were bundled in. The driver spoke passable English and welcomed us to Vietnam, and gave a running commentary on the way to the hotel. The first thing that strikes you is the number of motor bikes, not the Harley Davidson type, more a cross between a scooter and a moped with an engine size around 75 - 125 cc. They are everywhere they out number cars 20 to 1.

Cindy had found the hotel on the internet and after much negotiation had secured us a Signature Delux room at the hotel Caravelle. This was one of Saigon's landmark hotels during the Vietnam war years and has been renovated recently. Being in a Signature Suite gave us VIP treatment with a special lounge that served as breakfast room, afternoon tea room and before dinner drinks all free. We don't usually go for this type of opulence but it was such a good price why miss out, we came to see the country not the inside of a hotel. We dropped our bags and are out on the street, the guide book says that crossing the road is difficult at first but soon learned. The traffic never stops, it comes at you from all directions, traffic lights mean little or nothing and pedestrian crossings are just road art. The trick is to wait till you see a slight decrease in traffic then step off the curb and walk out into it. No sudden movements and don't stop, just walk slowly they will weave around you, keep your eyes in both directions and before you know it you're at the other side. The thing you notice about the drivers is their age, very young, all both male and female usually two to each motor bike and often mum dad and the two kids all on one bike all smiling and having a great time.
I like the city already. They celebrate Christmas and there a decorations everywhere, one street has the best display of tree lights I've ever seen, thousands of tiny colored lights cascade down from high up and the trunks are just covered with lights. Many shop windows are filled with Santa's and tiny Santa outfits are for sale on every street corner. We are not going to find eating easy here as Cindy and I don't eat red meat and most times prefer vegetarian food. Here they eat everything even dogs & cats are not safe, so the thought of what is in the food will make meal times a challenge. We find a small restaurant round the back of the hotel and settle for a fish dish which is very nice and cheap. The wine is $40 per bottle so we wash it down with some of the local beer instead.
We are up early and off exploring. We have bought our gym gear and promised we would go to the gym every morning but we have been walking up to 15 miles a day and need all the energy for sight seeing. First stop is the Ben Thanh Market I can see we are going to spend some time here, I've never seen so many shoes in one place. Cindy has a shoe fetish, she can't walk past a shoe shop without an over whelming desire to rush in an try on every pair. She doesn't necessarily buy any, just turns the shop upside down then leaves, I can't imaging what the assistants mutter under their breath as she sails out the door. We visit the meat and fish market at the far end and our worst fears are realised, there is stuff for sale here that I don't care to ask about. Chickens jammed in cages, tiny little birds, live eels, crabs walking all over the floor, sea creatures that are new to me and all overpowered by the constant chatter and laughter of the sellers. The smells in these markets can live with you for years, I remember the Casbah in Esphahan in Iran there was one section that sold nothing but spice and that smell lives with me even now some 30 years later. Every now and again I catch a smell of that spice and the vision of the market floods back just like seeing a favorite old movie.
We walk back towards the hotel going via parks, little ally ways, crumbling villas left behind by the French and polishing up on our road crossing skills at every intersection. We pass by the Notre Dame cathedral not a patch on its name sake. The church isn't open so we walk around the building, a mistake, the sides and rear are used as an open toilet and smell is very pungent. We arrive back about lunch time and decide to have lunch at the "Saigon Saigon Bar" on the roof of the hotel. This bar was famous during the Vietnam war and has a great view out over the city. We order a meal each they cost $5 each and when they arrive we realise one between us would have been enough.
We have decided to visit the Cu Chi tunnels about 75 km north of Ho Chi Minh and set off to book a seat on a tour the next day. The currency in Vietnam is the Dong which is about 15,600 to the US$. However you can pay just about anywhere with US$'s. Its kind of ironic, here we are in the middle of communist Vietnam surrounded by American accents being offered American beef and able to pay for it in US$ when only a few years ago the Vietcong were hell bent on getting America out. What a difference a few years can make. I change a US$100 bill and walk out with over 1.5 million Dong, now that is the first and most likely last time I will have that kind of money in my wallet.
Dinner is in a little place frequented by Ex Pats (Ex Patriots i.e. Westerners) the food is ordinary and the service poor. Add to that the air is thick with cigarette smoke and its rated a do not return. The bus arrives to pick us up at 8.00am they tell us there are 8 more on the trip and set off to pick them up. 40 minutes later we are still going around the city and we have just passed our hotel for the 2nd time. Then we find out if you want to pay by credit card they have to go via the office which means we pass our hotel once more. We consoled ourselves with the fact that we got a 1/2 day city sight tour thrown in for free. The trip up was slow until we reached the outskirts of the city then the speed picked up to at least 30 miles per hour. The Cu Chi tunnels were famous during the Vietnam war as the Viet Cong could fight then disappear only to re-appear and inflicted great physical and moral injury to the American forces. The network included some 200kms of underground tunnels and when the Americans built a new air base nearby, they were unaware that it was right on top of the tunnel system. The Viet Cong could enter and steal anything they wanted and it was a long time before the American realised what was happening. They tried to flood the tunnels, bomb them, even chase the Viet Cong down them with little success. On arrival at the tunnel complex we were shown a propaganda film that was reminiscent of the cold war, it seemed very dated these days and sang the praises of the glorious comrades. In true cold war style the Cu Chi area has been bestowed with the honorific title of "The Steel Land" and "The Bronze Citadel".
Having said all that it was a very interesting place, the ingenuity of the Viet Cong was as amazing as it was brutal. They devised some of the most horrible ways to die, like a leaf cover over a pit of sharpened bamboo spikes. Anyone falling in would be pierced by several spikes, or two rollers with big nail sticking out. If you fell between them, your body weight would force them deeper into your flesh. The tunnels themselves were frightening, the ones we were shown had been enlarged so that us Westerners could fit through. The original tunnels were much smaller requiring even the small Vietnamese to lay flat to squeeze through. If you suffer from claustrophobia, then this was the stuff of nightmares. Some tunnels were 5kms long, how American GI's with full equipment were supposed to chase skinny Viet Cong down there is anyone's guess.
We were fed green tea and offered cassarver to taste which was very nice. It tastes like a cross between ordinary potatoes and sweet potato, dipped in sesame, peanut and salt mixture (my kind of food). At the next break we could fire guns anything from an AK47 to some contraption that went through bullets at about 200 per minute. The cost was US$1 per bullet. Needless to say the boys all wanted to fire the rambo gun and US$20 went that quick. if you blinked it was over. I talked Cindy into a few rounds with an AK47, she's not too bad with a gun having lived in the country and had to dispatch the odd snake that would insist on calling the front door mat home. The first couple of rounds missed the target but once she got the feel of it she did well considering the target was 200 mtr away. The trip back was the usual affair, most people were asleep before we had gone 10 miles I looked back at one point and all the heads were bobbing around like balloons on a stick. Late afternoon we walked down to the jetties along the Saigon river to check on boat trips and decided to go to Vung Tau by hydrofoil the next day.
Vung Tau is at the mouth of the Saigon river about 75 minutes by high speed hydrofoil at US$10 each way its expensive. The boat is made up of two cabins both with tinted windows and curtains making it hard to see where you are going, it also has TV which booms out Vietnamese versions of Soaps and is chilled to a freezing 21c. Just between the cabins is a small area big enough for about 4 people which is open to the air and gives a good view. We took turns to watch the river go by and it does at high speed, this thing is really moving. When you stick your head out its like being on a motor bike. Whilst standing there I noticed a sign explaining the condition of carriage which was in English. Clause 2 was interesting, apparently I'm not allowed to bring on board a. Animals or pets. (OK) b. Hazardous or prohibited thing such as Weapons, opium, bad smelling thing, dead bodies, remains. (I'm pleased to hear that) Then I read on into the conditions of travel and number 5 goes - The transportation of passengers is abiding by laws and regulations from the P & 1 Luxembourg item 2 - Article 11 stipulating obligations to passengers and thus considered as travel obligations vis-a-vis passengers (a copy of this regulation is available if necessary) I think I'll give it a miss.
The boat arrived at what some might call a jetty it looked like some stray B52 had just emptied its cargo of bombs on it . There were blocks of broken concrete everywhere, we strolled ashore like two engineers inspecting the aftermath of a terrorist bombing. When we got to the roadway they were waiting for us, all the taxies and the rickshaw wallas. For US$1 they would take us anywhere. We declined at least 100 times in the next 1/2 mile but still they trailed along. One by one they dropped off, but as the numbers got less the ones that remained felt they were on a sure thing and it would only be a matter of time before we weakened. We saw an entrance to a market and disappeared in, much the same as the one in Saigon but the smell was different, this one was built over a thousand year old sewer, at least that how it smelt. Even the spice section was struggling to drown it out, the locals probably don't even notice, its only us Westerners with noses that have been raised on Channel & Dior that find it offensive. We stopped for a Vietnamese coffee which is strong and black and not to my taste, Cindy settled for a fizzy lemon thing. When we thought we had seen it all we headed back to the boat. On arrival we found one just about to depart, but we were booked on the 4pm and it was only 2pm. They could change it but it would take a while and they couldn't hold the boat. So we are now due to leave at 3pm and we set off in the other direction and found a restaurant where we had a light lunch with a cool beer looking out over the South China Sea. We arrived back at the jetty at 2.45pm as instructed and were told the 3pm boat was cancelled and to come back for the 4pm. What can you do, just take a deep breath and make the most of it. Just over the road was a row of small restaurants with plastic chairs all facing towards the sea under the shade of large outstretched trees. They put me in mind of Greece , just the out look over the jetty was less than ideal. We sat down ordered another round of drinks and proceeded to fight off the hawkers. The first wanted to sell us bananas and we bought some which was a mistake. She was followed by the Lychee seller, the lottery lady, the book seller and finally the fortune teller. At last our boat is here and we set off back to Saigon.

Today is Christmas Eve and we were told this is the big night for celebration. When we get back to the hotel we find all the restaurants even the bar has a cover charge tonight and are already doing a roaring trade. There are kids and Santa's everywhere, funny hats, streamers... its bedlam!. We check the bar, but they want US$25 to get in then you can pay for your drinks. I don't appreciate this "cash in at Christmas" mentality having to fight your way in for what I've already paid for. We decide to order room service and it turns out really well. Our meal and bottle of wine arrive on a nice table with flowers and an ice bucket, its set up next to the huge window in our room that looks out over Saigon. I put on a favorite CD, we have a player in our room and sit down to a very enjoyable meal. After dinner we venture outside, pass the frantic scenes downstairs and out onto the streets. They said it would be busy and it was. If we thought we had seen motor bikes before this was unbelievable!. They are nearly all young teenagers just drifting by slowly enjoying the sights and having a mobile social scene chatting, laughing and waving to everyone. We have only gone 50 meters and already been asked twice to have our photo taken with groups of young girls. I can't remember the last time young girls insisted on having their photo taken with me. If I'm truly honest I don't think ever, and they were so excited I don't think they could have been more so if I'd been Michael Jackson. The next thing we notice was confetti not the type you have at weddings, this was all glitter, like cut up plastic and paper. There were selling little bags every where and throwing it in the air, down your back, over you hair. In no time Cindy's hair was full of it, they took particular delight in showering Westerners, not that we saw many. We felt like a complete novelty, many Vietnemese must have come in from out of town because they looked at us as though they had never seen a westerner before. After about 1 hour we decided to go back to the hotel , the tinsel was a novelty at first but after a while it started to stick in a bit, the plastic was quite sharp. We had a good shake before going into the lobby and got off as much as we could, then undressed standing in the bath. The stuff was everywhere and even a shower was not enough to shift it all, we were still finding it the next day.

Breakfast was in the Signature Lounge which put on a really good spread, you could choose from hot, cold, pastries, Japanese and lots of fresh fruit. We both went for the raspberries, every morning there was an endless supply of the biggest raspberries I've ever seen, eaten to excess we both had the guilts about how many we'd devoured. Raspberries are always so expensive at home and when you do buy them they seem to go mouldy so quick, to see them looking so fresh was too much of a temptation.
Today is Christmas day and we off to the Mekong Delta first by bus then out on the delta by boat. The Mekong river is over 4500kms in length and starts life on the Tibetan plateau, flows through China, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. The trip follows the usual start 3 circuits of the city then we are off. The bus heads south on a new road, well it will be new when they finish it, shops and houses line the road most of the way. We are soon in the country & fields can be seen behind the shops, but the road side is prime land and gives the owners an income from passing traffic. On arrival at the delta town of "My Tho" we board the small river craft for a trip out to some of the many islands that dot the Mekong river. First stop is a fruit farm to see the way farmers grow and process their fruit crop, we are treated to a tasting of such fruits as lychee, jack fruit, water coconut, papaya and some I didn't recognise. A visit to a sweet factory which consisted of a small hut with large cauldron introduced us to peanut toffee made with coconut milk. It was very nice & I bought some to bring home providing customs let it in. Honey tea is served whilst we are entertained by a group of local musicians, then we see them making rush matting and a puffed rice dish sweetened with honey. Next we're transferred to a small canoe sized boat for a ride up the little channels that crisscross the island, bringing us to our lunch spot where we were treated to Elephant ear fish with fried sticky rice balls and vegetable steam boat. They had a small zoo here with monkeys and snakes, one of which was a huge python that must have weighed in at 200kgs. Sadly it was kept in a small dark cage that looked like it had not been cleaned out for a long time. Its so sad to see such majestic animals treated this way, just an amusement for passing tourists.

Today is our last full day and its for shopping, so back to the market for (you guessed it) shoes. First stop a shop Cindy spotted on our earlier visit, they have highly varnished wooden soles and you can choose a strap which the lady nails on while you wait to complete your shoe. At only US$4 a pair we buy 3 pairs, that puts a smile on Cindy's face, till I remind her about quarantine, they may not let us take wooden products into Australia. Next Cindy wants a Vietnamese outfit, well its me that wants her to have one she's thin and the local girls look really cute in them. Long baggy trousers in white satin with an over dress split right up to the waist long black hair and one of those conical hats made from cane. I'd take one home tomorrow. I was going to get some shirts washed at the hotel but they charge US$5.80 and I can buy a fake Ralph Lauren shirt at the market for US$5.00, so I do buy 5 get one free. We buy so much stuff its time to get a another suitcase or we will never get it all home. New suitcase filled and we are off back to the hotel for lunch. In the afternoon its more shopping, presents for all at home, some belated Xmas gifts and a last wander round the streets. Dinner and drinks at the Saigon Saigon Bar and the barman informs me I've consumed all the Sambuca,so it must be time to go.

Our black Mercedes is waiting to take us to the airport. It's sad to leave as we have enjoyed our first visit to Vietnam and we promise to come back. The queue at security is slow and we can't find the yellow slip of paper we were given on arrival. Just when we think we've made it ,we find out about the departure tax, US$12 each my heart drops to the pit of my stomach. I had been getting rid of the US money as I didn't want to be left with it, How much have we got, Oh there is a God, I've got one $20 note and four $1.00 notes totalling $24, just enough to pay the tax. Good bye Vietnam we lift off and are soon passing over the Mekong Delta and out over the South China Sea enroute to Singapore. Arrival at Singapore is about 2pm and our flight doesn't leave until 9.10pm, so we've got a seven hour wait. Spending 7 hours in any other airport in the world would not be a pleasant experience, but not here. We head for the swimming pool, pay our S$13.50 (about US$8) get a large towel. a pack containing body wash, shampoo, body lotion plus a cold drink and a locker key. The locker has two coat hangers so I can hang my clothes. I take a shower, put on my costume and wander out. Woops, I'm in trouble. Just outside the locker room is a very disgruntled Australian woman wearing her "you stupid man look" and complaining that I have her costume. How is she supposed to get dressed when I've got the bag, Cindy's not very forgiving. We spend a couple of pleasant hours by the pool, have a light lunch, then have a wander round the airport & do some duty free shopping and it's soon time to board our flight Qantas QF 52 to Brisbane. Same seats as on the way up, service is good and right on time we touch down at Brisbane. We decided to declare anything that might be a problem so we head for the red channel and are directed to a quarantine officer. He looks at Cindy's wooden shoes and my peanut toffee. He also pays some attention to a shell hand bag, but is more interested in the shoes we had worn when visiting the Mekong Delta. Mine are OK but Cindy wore runners and they have to be cleaned, he's only away 2 minutes and we are OK to go. There was a big queue at the green channel so even with the inspection we are out really quick. Graham is there to meet us and we are soon on the highway and heading to the Gold Coast. Our holiday is over for another year, where to next year?
The holiday Page 1