Farewell Vietnam

Well after nine weeks we are heading off to Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur for a few nights to catch up with an old friend who winters there now.

The Tet New Year looks as if it is finally running down and things are getting back to normal. Last night as we wended our way back to the Continental they were busy taking away all the flower displays on the main drag and this morning it is a very busy road again. The benefit for the Continental is that all the traffic that was flowing past the hotel has gone back to using the big road again.

Like The Grand the Continental is owned by a State Organised Enterprise ( SOE) but unlike most hotels these two have no foreign ownership and it shows. Faded glory and somewhat surely staff. The hotels slogan is “Continental since 1880″ and we spent what passes for the breakfast service dreaming up more realistic slogans for them. ” Continental Uncleaned Since 1880″ or ” Continental Original Plumbing since 1880″ or ” Continental Unchanged Since 1880″ the list went on and on. I think a new Graham Greene would be hot footing it across the main road to The Rex Hotel today.

We were thinking of heading off to try The Rex Hotel roof bar. It was voted one of the top 20 bars by the New York Times last year. Luckily we sent a scout ahead to check it out and try a beer. He returned clasping the bill for his draught Tiger beer and looking somewhat shocked. 289,000 dong ( $14 or £8 ) . We adjourned to The Caravelle rooftop bar instead. They do a buy one get one free tiger beer offer from 4-8 p.m. each night and the glass size is half a litre. It works out with the free one at 60,000 dong each ( $3 or £1.70) so much better value. The view isn’t great these days as they have built and continue to build skyscrapers all around

Skyline From Caravelle Roof Bar

 

It is said that during the American War the savvy war correspondents could sit up on this roof bar and watch the fighting taking place outside of the city and as they chug a lugged down their expenses paid for scotch write gripping but fictitious stories of them in action at the front with the boys. It was certainly true during the Tet offence of 1968 as the Vietcong were in the city for 3 days.

I am now reading Vietnam- Rising Dragon by Bill Haydon which tells the story of Vietnam from the fall of Saigon to the present day. It is a fascinating read of how the Party has, to keep power, had to move ever more to a market led economy but how they have managed to keep not only control through the SOEs that they have allowed to have joint ventures with foreign companies but have also made themselves and their families incredibly rich . It is amazing having been to Cuba how here in a communist country there is no health service unless you pay, no education unless you pay and no help if you are unemployed.

The crunch says Haydon is fast coming when to introduce these measures the Party must tax its high ranking members and their thousands of relatives to pay for it.

Still we must say farewell now. Personally I think Vietnam is a place to visit and “do” in say 2 or 3 weeks from top to bottom and then move on. It is not a long stay place as there is no variety in the food and little else to see . A two week jaunt through might leave you wanting more but it is best to leave the beaches to the Russians and the towns to some rather sad expat retirees sitting in English or irish theme pubs telling you how wonderful it is to live here, how great the local food is as they order an hamburger egg and chips with lashings of HP sauce and how lovely the people are as they snuggle up to their 18 year old Vietnamese  “wife” .

Still we had some fun saw lots of places and drank plenty of beer. Last night is was time to say goodbye.

On The Caravelle Roof Saigon

 

Farewell Vietnam .

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French Rules

We moved today from The Renaissance Hotel with it’s all American feel to it. The bathroom and all the bedroom fittings are imported from the USA to The Continental Hotel one of the grand dames of old Saigon. It was here that Graham Greene came each year in the early 50’s to write novels during the winter months. He occupied room 201 at the end of this corridor. We are five rooms down from his much larger suite.

I’m not sure how much has changed about the old girl since he was here during the last days of the French colonial war.

The Continenental Hotel Saigon

Like the Americans 10 years later, the French were fighting a war they couldn’t win because the mass of the people were against them . Almost nobody had wanted them back when they returned after the Japanese had tossed them aside in 1941. Certainly the doors and windows in this suite at the Continental look original

Room 206 Continental Hotel Saigon

That’s ours between the two trees that you can see clearly and we might as well sleep on the street for all the sound proofing that they offer. Luckily I’m not too worried about noise and hopefully most will stop around midnight . Graham Greene’s old place has been given new windows

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but that I suppose is because the cognoscenti who want to stay in it are happy to pay more. The rest can make do with what was there. Mind you many of Greene fans would probably want it as it was. He of course when the French left also decamped and headed like so many other writers to the Caribbean .

French rule was like that too. They did little if anything for the people in any of the countries they occupied. In Life Of Brian the Python team ask what the Romans have done for them and then slowly come up with a long list of benefits must to the annoyance of the rebel leader. No such list would exist for the former French colonies I fear.

In Kamm’s book Cambodia he describes their colonisation as ” of the most condescending and patronising kind.” Hardly any Cambodians were trained to perform any functions of authority. What was even worse was that they invested nothing in local education fearing that it would bring about ferment in the local populous. When the Japanese threw them out in 1941 there was just one High School educating just 537 students and only 22,280 attended just 192 state run primary schools.

Mind you the reverse is now happening as the Vietnamese busy themselves knocking down most of the old buildings  and throwing up new stuff full of glass and steel. This hotel is full of lovely old photos of Saigon in the 50’s and 60’s and the comparison is heart breaking.

I don’t often agree with Prince Charles but his views on architecture have a certain resonance with me. It always disappointed me that Germany managed to rebuild their city centres as they were before the Allied bombing but British councils chose to plough a different furrow and  ruined their own centres. One only has to go to Plymouth to see how badly wrong they got it.

Saigon is fast going that way and really all that is left are the grand dames hotels to remember the past and they are busy ruining those as well. The Grand now has a bloody great tower in the middle of it and the Majestic is about to go the same way.

At leaf this one whilst losing it’s rooftop still has it’s very French street terrace where one can sit and watch the world go by.

Outdoor Terrace Continental Siagon

The opera house is right across the road and alongside it is a delightful little park

Opera Hse Park by Continental

One can imagine one’s self sitting quietly in the shade reading a book while nearby through open doors the sound of opera practice floats out on the breeze.

Dream on. The gates are now locked and the only entrance and the pathway into it is now a motor bike park

Moto Parking Nr Continental

Ah the march of progress . Come see it before old Saigon disappears altogether. What would Graham Greene make of it all .

In his time during the French war the brave drank on the street where Vietcong could throw grenades from the back of cycle taxis and the cowards sat up on the roof. Now where would I have sat . answers on a postcard please.

Horsing Around

Well happy year of the horse. It arrived at midnight last night here in Vietnam and we had a front row seat.

Quite by chance we are staying at The Renaissance Hotel right on the river. only let me say  because they were doing great rates over the Tet holiday as normally this is a business hotel. It also boasts a rooftop swimming pool and river views.

Little did we know that in the field on the other side of the river from the hotel was where the fireworks to celebrate New year are launched.. It was almost in the room. The show lasted for 15 minutes but the build up in terms of the thousands upon thousands of motor bike riders pilling into the area to watch the fireworks started around 8 p.m. Roads were blocked as were pavements/motor bike parking areas. Walking became almost impossible and we retreated back into the hotel clutching a few supermarket beers.

At midnight all the ships on the river started to sound their hooters, fog horns and whistles and the field opposite erupted.

Fireworks Tet Saigon

The show had begun. This was right outside the room window.. The huge crowd in the streets around the hotel started to clap and shout

NEW Year Tet Siagon

and we started to oh and ah as well.

Great Firworks Tet Saigon

The moment the show was over everyone started the mad scrabble to get back to their bikes and head home to family and friends. I had constantly been told that most people leave Saigon for Tet but it looked last night that an equal number arrive into Saigon for the festival. They actually travel with their crash helmets on the train ready to either hop on the back of a friends bike when they arrive or take over a family bike from someone who has gone to the family home elsewhere.

Coming back it from Mui Ne before Christmas it was a little disconcerting to find so many people in the railway carriage wearing their crash helmets. It looked like they knew something about the ride we were about to embark on that we didn’t . How bad was this train going to be we wondered with so many people sitting with helmets on. It seemed an age till most took them off.

This morning it was the turn of dragons at breakfast as a troop of entertainers arrived to dance

Dragons Phnom Penh

They seemed to scare the children more than entertain them but the guests certainly enjoyed the spectical.

Dragon Dance Phnom Penh

you could even feed them apples off the table.

It was not a morning for an hangover though

Dragon Band

This guy could bash that drum like crazy and being an atrium the sound echoed and was amplified. It was deafening.

To round off the morning we had to go to Flower Street. It is in fact normally the main street in Saigon and is usually a 4 lane road that dissects the city. However the authorities close it off and put huge flower displays on it for Tet.

Of course the start has to feature the horse

Year Of The Horse Tet Saigon

 

It is an amazing show, flowers as far as the eye can see. Crowds of locals flock to it and have their photos taken, thousands and thousands of photos. Like the Japanese before them the Chinese and the Vietnamese seem to do nothing but take endless photos of each other and themselves. They pose like professional models and pout and preen with the best of them. The latest idea seems to be to jump in the air as the shoot is taken so all up the street all you can see is see people leaping . All very odd.

Colourful Saigon Tet

 

Of course they dress beautifully and add so much colour to the flowers

Flowers in  Saigon

 

Certainly a very different New Year. It is rather nice the flower tradition and the idea of peach tree blossom coming out on New Year’s Eve is quite special.

Still we quickly went back to being western and went to the pub to watch the rugby.

Phnom Penh

To try to find out a bit more about Phnom Penh and Cambodia as a whole I downloaded on Kindle a book by Henry Kamm the one time New York Times correspondent for South East Asia called simply Cambodia. It is pretty depressing reading I have to say. Basically the people of Cambodia have been let down by the people they elected to govern them, by the people they didn’t but who seized power, by a royal Prince who got into bed with anyone that might keep him in power and by the United Nations who were so busy trying to appease everyone they forgot they were there to protect the people. One amazing statistic if you need to know the suffering of ordinary people is that in 1970 Phnom Penh had a population of 470,000 people and by 1978 it had a population of just 32,000 souls. Pol Pot had seen to that and oh yes the Prince was in bed with him too.

It now has a population of some 2.2 million people and we went out in a Tuk Tuk to have a look at the place. The real purpose was to go shopping ‘cos everyone says clothes are amazingly cheap here.

The lad who had driven us to our restaurant the night before seemed nice and he had fitted wire mesh to the sides of his tuk tuk, the first one to do this modification so we asked him to do the 3 hour trip.

Tuk Tuk Phnom Penh

Apart from snatching from pedestrians the easiest way for a pillion rider on a motor bike to grab an handbag or package is to ride up alongside a Tuk Tuk reach in and grab it. The wire mesh you see prevents that. Very clever isn’t it ?

The Phnom Penh Tuk Tuks are more chariot in design with the bike being the horse.

We set off at a very leisurely pace, these guys all seem to conserve fuel by going slowly.

Inside the Tuk Tuk Phnom Penh

We drove all along the Quay side by the river. This area is just packed with restaurants and bars and great in the evening. I found a French place selling draught Angkor beer for US$0.50 cents a pint now that’s a real bargain.

First stop The Royal Palace , no not a pub, keep up , the real thing.

In my youth I dated for a time Lady Patricia Pelham Clinton Hope the Duke of Newcastle’s daughter. When phoning her one time from a pay phone near school I realised I had left her number back at the house. I called the operator and asked for the number of The Duke of Newcastle in Warminster. After a few minutes she came back and said I’ve got a White Swan and The Kings Head but no Duke of Newcastle. Again I had to say not the pub the person !

Royal Palace Phnom Penh

 

it isn’t actually the Royal Palace it is the gate into it, but the place closes for lunch for 3 hours and we couldn’t wait. Onwards ever onwards

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Now this is a statue of a professor who taught culture and was much revered by the people as he wrote many books about Cambodian culture. Instead of fleeing he stayed with his people and was murdered by Pol Pot.

On then to the Freedom Monument

Freedom Monument

 

Most things in Phnom Penh are very new. Pol Pot pretty well raised the place to the ground as he wanted a society of agricultural workers not city folk.. The rebuilding did keep most of the French big boulevards which is good and every roundabout seems to have a statue on it.They even have a kind of London Eye as well.

London Eye Phom Penh

 

Once in the old town though the wide roads disappear and the traffic turns ugly

Traffic Chaos Phnom Penh

 

We hit the Russian Market so called because after the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 to oust Pol Pot the market only stocked Russian goods. It took Gorbachev in 1985 who cut off aid to Vietnam to change all that and the Vietnamese quickly upped sticks and left.

To be honest whilst the guide books all say it is the best for bargains almost all of it was the same stuff and no one really wanted to haggle or if they did it was to knock a dollar off perhaps. Try for more and they just looked disinterested and withdrew the goods. No fun at all  as I love a good haggle.

After 2 hours driving around we hit the Central Market and whilst again not much haggling they did try to sell stuff and there was a load more choice and thousands of fake watches as well as clothes.

Central Market Penom Penh

 

It was built in 1930 by the French in an art deco style and is huge inside.

Phnom Penh is a lovely city and I would certainly come back to it again . Mind you the Raffles really does help you enjoy it.

Tuk Tuk driver

 

I gave our driver a big hug of thanks but he actually wanted US$15 as well. After 3 hours driving in that traffic he deserved it.

Now it’s back to Saigon and the Tet New Year festival .Flowers and fireworks are on the menu now.

Further Up The Mekong

Today we drive on from Can Tho to Chau Doc along the banks of the Mekong south channel.

The river rises some two thousand five hundred miles away in Tibet and flows down through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before entering the South China Sea in Vietnam. At the height of the annual flood it is moving thirty eight thousand cubic metres of soil every second so no wonder it is so brown. Vietnam, thanks to particles of soil from all those countries is growing at a rate of 200 feet per year.My thanks to Michael Palin for that rather useless piece of information. He was coming down the north channel of the Mekong when he penned that.

Up The Mekong

Can Tho was a fun place and we had another good night out last night though Vietnam food still rather leaves me cold. I still haven’t really discovered what it is about. The city is the 4th largest in Vietnam and in Vietnamese the name means River of Poems.

I have read the great reviews the Victoria hotel gets and am amazed. It is as I said yesterday a very noisy hotel ad to me the French owned place seems to typify what was wrong with French Colonial rule. Milk the locals dry ( in this case read hotel guests) and put little back in it’s  place. The hotel certainly adds to the debate on whether a five or four star hotel that is unable or unwilling to supply drinkable tap water should charge for bottled water. I’m firmly in the no camp but the Victoria takes it one further by charging eleven times what a bottle costs in a shop. Now that really is gilding the lily . A small bottle of beer there costs 125,000 dong ( US$6) which is far more than in Saigon’s best hotels.

The problem is they have a monopoly and get away with it though I quickly found a small local shop to get around it.

They also have a monopoly here in Chau Doc having for years had the only decent hotel in town and now having opened a second up on the hill over looking the town .

It is here we now rest our weary heads The Victoria Nui Sam Lodge.

Victoria Nui Sam

 

This is where to view the sunset as it goes down over Cambodia. As you can see they meant it when they said it is on an hill. Indeed it is built into the side of a very steep hill. All round us are paddy fields

Paddy Fields Victoria Nui Sam

 

The Mekong Delta produces over half of Vietnam’s rice crop each year. Rice exports are the third largest export after seafood ( mainly shrimp and pastes) and timber. China takes almost all the rice, and the U.S. A. takes almost all of the seafood and the timber.

Being on the side of an hill the hotel has plenty of hiking trails and health walks . We stood in reception whilst the kindly lad rattled though his speech giving us the list of exceedingly healthy options. However then I found these to counter act it all

Hamocks Victoria Nui Sam

 

Looks like we are set anyway.

Mind you we got plenty of exercise getting the bags to the room. To beat the system I had the driver stop at a shop and bought 12 bottles of beer and a couple of sodas. Brilliant I though paying 25,000 dong for each beer, at usual Victoria prices that has saved me well over a million and a quarter dong. After staggering to the room under the weight of them I looked at the price list at this Victoria. Small bottle of beer 40,000 dong.

Damn damn damn !!!

It’s Up The Mekong

The drive yesterday from Saigon to Can Tho took 3 hours and was certainly much easier than the drive to Mui Ne last month even though it is further. The road was dual carriage way for the most part and the driver got his toe down .

You can stop at various temples on the way but we chose to get down to the hotel. After a couple of months in South East Asia you get templed out especially as it would have added some 2 hours to the journey.

The Mekong delta is large. Several times we thought we were crossing the Mekong, each time though it was one of the many offshoots that meander their way to the coast.

When we finally hit the real thing it was huge. An enormous bridge spans the river close to Can Tho and as you look down the massive brown river is full of ships and barges.

The Victoria Hotel sits on the River Hua a tributary to the Mekong but from the grounds you can see the big river

Mekong River Can Tho

You can barely see the other side off in the distance.

The Victoria is an old colonial hotel built by the French close to a town that is now a major port and industrial hub.

Victoria Can Tho

 

The hotel itself is surrounded by large restaurants catering to the local populous and so during the day the various acts that entertain the diners practice their songs and music at full volume whilst a night they then do the act for real. So quiet it is not. Nor is it a quiet hotel inside with marble corridors and teak floors accentuating the noise of people walking about.

But the setting is superb and they do a lot well.

There is a sunset cruise on an old rice barge that doubles as the happy hour drinks barge

Sunset Cocktails

Excitingly instead of the dreaded minivan shuttle into the town they do it by boat

Shuttle to Can Tho

 

the hotel prides itself on it’s green credentials hence the lawn growing on the top of the boat. It is certainly a great way to head into the large town and the pier in town is the central point for the local restaurants that cater for foreigners and therefore speak some English.

On The Shuttle

 

I was in this morning checking out places for tonight as in the dark last night we never really found the main area. The beer was cheap though and Can Tho produces it’s own local brew which you buy in various places for 9,000 dong (25P) a large glass. It is an acquired taste me thinks but at that price worth persevering with  .

The market is full of flowers as people decorate everywhere ready for the Tet New Year holiday on Jan 31st.

Tet Flowers Can Tho

 

there is yet another floating market here as well that opens at 6 a.m. and closes at 8 a.m. also selling flowers. Were we tempted to go see another floating market ? Er no.

The Tet is a 9 day holiday here in Vietnam for the first time under communist rule and the people seem determined to make the best of the new extended holiday.

The big thing to have is a peach tree that flowers on the 1st of Feb to mark the new lunar new year so market sellers try to make sure they have the trees ready for this.

It is quite strange to wander down the road seeing rows and rows of bare trees up for sale

Peach Tree Can Tho

 

these are being snapped up and carried away on the backs of motor bikes. Some poor market stall sellers though have got it wrong

Peach in Bloom Can Tho

 

not sure what they do with these now in bloom as nobody wants to buy them.

It is a bit like buying a Christmas tree hoping that yours is not going to drop most of it’s needles before Christmas Day.

In Canada I went out into nose bleed country north of Toronto to actually cut a tree myself. How fresh is that going to be I thought as I loaded it on the jeep.

Back in town and worried that is might need water i put it in a bucket on the porch. The frost that night froze the water and within 2 days we had a bare tree rather like those peach ones. Kids weren’t happy let me say.

Something For The Weekend Sir?

The only problem with going away for a long time is that it becomes necessary to have things done that you normally have someone you trust to do. I refer , of course, to having your haircut.

After 3 months of hoping to get away with not having to do it my shaggy dog look finally began to embarass even me. So I had to do something about it and started to look on line about getting an haircut in Saigon.

I should explain we have now left Phu Quoc and yesterday we flew back up to Saigon. Phu Quoc was good but the lack of variety in the food gradually takes it’s toll on you and you begin to dread seeing another squid for the rest of your life. So it was back to the city and then on Wednesday we head off to the mighty Mekong River up to Cambodia and to the capital Phonm Pehn before returning here for their New Year.

There was plenty of info on getting an haircut in Saigon. That is of the cutting variety not being ripped off of which there was much more. Most of the hair cutting stuff was horror stories by visitors and expats about their experience of trying to get a vaguely decent cut at the hands of a Vietnamese who was used to cutting or hacking locals hair.

The locals and many expats use what is called a chop house which is sometimes a place with a roof over it but more often a chair and an awning set up on the pavement which in Saigon is rarely used for pedestrians who get in the way of all the other things going on on them. This is one chop house I saw yesterday

Chop House Barber

quite a salubrious  joint you might be thinking but let me just say the customer on the right had a fine head of hair before the guy got going on him !!

The thing going for them is they cost about 25,000 dong (70P) but you have no idea whether the guy has ever cut hair before and the trouble with hair cutting is when it is done it is done there is no sticking it back on.

My problem is that living in Italy it is almost impossible not to find a good barber. It is normally more a choice about how close to the house is he, can you park outside and how good is the coffee he offers you. The haircutting is a given, he will be brilliant at it and the whole thing is just a superb experience.

The internet consensus  was that Just Men was the place to go which suited me anyway as it was near the bar I wanted to watch football at that evening. Two birds with one stone I hoped.

In fact Just Men had already disappeared but had been replaced by this shop on the same site.

My Haidressing Shop

In I went and was immediately put in a chair. My hairdresser had the strangest hair style I have seen rather short at the sides and standing almost on end on the top as if he had seen a ghost. However once we had established such a style was not for me he proceeded sheepishly to cut. It was slow work and every 2 minutes he would ask if that was okay. Unfortunately I wear glasses so peering into the mirror I was unable to see what he was up to anyway. The blind leading the blind. Half an hour went by and nothing seemed to have changed up top other than an awful lot of water had been squirted on my hair. Still he snipped slowly and still I encouraged him to be a little bolder. After 45 mins I gave up and agreed it was superb, never seen my hair looking better. He beamed, I beamed and then he asked for 235,000 dong. Clearly I was paying by the minute not by the cuttings on the floor. However by then the game had started and my beer was going warm on the counter. I paid what must have been a kings ransom to him and fled.

Actually it isn’t that bad and by next week I should be able to take my hat off and show the world my cut. I am dreading going back to Italy and facing my barber Franco who is going to create merry hell about it.

I mentioned earlier about the uses the Vietnamese have for their pavements. The biggy is to park their motorbikes on . Not I hasten to add willy nilly style. Oh no these are organised lots. They have several attendants and you pay to park on a public pavement. They park them for you and when you come back you pay and the attendant rushes off and gets you bike and wheels it to you. It’s just that it is on the pavement

Bike Parking Lot

Almost every street pavement looks just like this. Long rows of parked bikes. The attendants who all wear uniform also use the space between the kerb and the back wheel to have all their meals on. They set up small chairs and charcoal grills and cook Hot Pot and noodles seemingly every hour or so. It never amazes me how much these guys seem to eat. If it rains they have cardboard to cover the saddles and likewise if the sun is on them.

I just keep thinking what is going to happen in Saigon when all these people graduate from a bike to a car.