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.

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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.

More Snake Sir?

Popped down to the night market to have a look see at the place. it is at the end of the strip almost in the old fishing village. Now night markets to me conjure up stalls ladened with cheap clothes etc a la Thailand  but this one is in fact made up of an endless line of small restaurants and guess what they sell. Yup BBQ squid, prawns and Kingfish. One after the other all doing pretty much what every other restaurant is doing on Phu Quoc.

At the bottom of the street there are 2 or 3 stalls selling clothes but that is it. Not really worth the 100,000 dong cab ride but there are a couple of very local bars with yet more infant school seats and beer in cold boxes so all was not wasted.

It seems you can get some interesting food served at the night market

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Never mind the heering salad or hot pod. Hows about what you get to go with your fresh seafood. That will bring you back for seconds without a doubt.

There is one other thing they catch off the beaches here and a few people have been bitten by them. These also go on the BBQ but at least you can keep them fresh and alive before cooking them

Night Market Snakes

 

Yes, sea snakes and very tasty they are too, just like eating chicken.

The hotel we have moved to is the newest on the strip having opened last November . I had looked at it with some envy as it is right next door to the Paris Resort but had presumed it was much more expensive. But when we declined to move rooms my friendly tour operator in Saigon got me a room here for US$30 more a night. It is to say the least chalk and cheese . The Famiana Resort has fully trained staff who go to school to learn their jobs and attend English lessons for 3 hours a week. it is professionally  managed by an hotel General Manager and is not amateur hour like the Paris. So a couple of shots as always. The view from the breakfast table :

Famiana Gardens

 

and from the bed chair and please note it has it’s very own sea based assault course.

Famiana Play Ground

 

all very It’s a Knockout from the 1970’s on BBC TV with the now imprisoned Stuart Hall and Eddie Warring the rugby league commentator . Boy the BBC could make some rubbish and we watched it .

We also have our own 18 hole gold course in the grounds and so you can play a few rounds before the sun gets too hot. Tee times are easy to book and to be fair you don’t need too much gear to carry though I’m sure this hotel would give you a caddy !!!

Famiana Golf courseW

We’ll okay I accept it’s not St. Andrews or Pebble Beach but with a cut down putter for a six year old it is quite a challenge !

So this hotel is  the newest on the strip but 5 hotels down towards town is the oldest built in the 1980’s when there was nothing on Long Beach but a few run down old French Colonial houses . In those days there were no roads on the island so you had to come by boat from the mainland and so did building materials . So you needed a pier that would survive monsoonal seas .

Pier Thousand Stars

 

and so The Thousand Stars Resort as it is called boasts the only pier on the whole strip.

It is a weird hotel built by an eccentric with his own idea of what things to put around the place. The gardens and the beach are dotted with oddities

Sculptures Thousand Stars

 

The place has certainly seen better days , much better days and is still open but up for sale and awaiting some developer to come and do it a favour and put it out of it’s misery by knocking it down.

If you go onto Tripadvisor and look it up there is not one review that doesn’t start with the first line in massive capitals. DO NOt STAY HERE. and then the poor person goes on to list a litany of problems they have encountered. One poor couple who stumbled on it one evening when the taxi dropped them at the wrong hotel had to pay to get their passports back once they had checked in and realised they were in the wrong hotel. We’ll phone the police they told the manager. Great he said they don’t speak English and you signed a booking form for 7 nights accommodation. Pay up to be able to leave. Now there’s customer service for you.

Wouldn’t happen at the Famiana ……. Would it????

 

 

Expat Bars

Apologies for no posts but the internet at the Paris is down and looks likely to remain so. We have moved hotels now and I am on line again

It was a good time to leave the Paris Hotel as groups were beginning to arrive. Two days ago a group of Germans arrived some 20 in all . 18 of them were Chinese/Germans and were clearly here to have a good time.

In the early 1970’s Monty Python did  a sketch on the then new phenomenon of package holidays and what they were like. One of the lines from it was ” and swimming pools full of huge Germans building pyramids.”

Would these German living and speaking Chinese follow the same pattern set in the 1970’s I wondered. Well yes and no in fact as with the advancement of technology building human pyramids in the pool is clearly passé. Instead enter the underwater camera. So 20 people jump into the pool and one with the camera faces the other 19. the 19 then take a deep breath and down under they go . the photographer takes the photo and all 20 come to the surface. Loads of laughing and high fives and bellows follow as the water erupts around the pool . But wait the photograph missed out on his/her photo so let’s do it again. what fun, what a super game, isn’t everyone else enjoying the noise and the fun we are having. In fact lets do it 19 times and see if we can empty the pool of water and submerge a few bed chairs. No thy haven’t changed at all.

Oh yes expat bars. let me just say that I’m not on about the bars in major cities frequented by working expats gathering at a favourite watering hole at the end of the day.

i’m on about the ones in seaside towns where clearly an holidaymaker has at some stage sat on a beach and said to the partner “you know this place needs a decent pub let’s stay and open one “.

I remember in Goa in about 1990 venturing out of a Taj hotel one evening and finding such a place with a large “just opened” sign on it. A couple from Manchester had just rented it and were busy turning  it into an English pub replete with pint mugs and fish and chips on the freshly painted menu. ” Been a dream of ours “they said “just what the area needs ” said his wife. ” Been here in the monsoon” I enquired . ” no but we get a lot of rain in Manchester ” they chorused. Hmm I thought as i finished my beer and left them dreaming of crowds of Brits spilling out into the roadway night after night. Two years later on another trip there was an empty building and a for rent sign in Hindi outside.

Phu Quoc boasts a couple of these dream places.

Expat Bar 1

My cheap laundry place is alongside the Safari run by  a Brit. I popped in to check it out and it was er empty . My beer was more than I pay in the hotel and almost double what the two nice bars nearby charge. Small wonder I thought why no one is there.

The other is American, Down Home Alabama

Expat Bar 2

and had 10 or so guys gathered around the bar. Mine host was in the middle of them . To a man they were clearly on long term holidays here for the whole winter and staying at the various hostels around town. Everyone knew everyone else and ranks were closed as new comers entered. Mine host was as uninterested and I ordered drinks from the young Vietnamese waitress. They cost even more than The Safari indeed more than most of the hotels on the strip.

The bar was more a way for the owner to have a few mates around for a beer and get them to pay for them. Opposite was a local Vietnamese bar and there were a few more long stayers there who clearly had either fallen out with mine host or couldn’t pay the crazy prices. The bill took ages as mine host couldn’t drag himself away from his crowd.

Cross two more off the list.

In Cyprus when we lived there loads of people  followed that dream of running a pub in the sun. Few make a go of it and they pour their woes out on expat forums. New lifers I call them as they always talk about a “new life” and when it goes wrong they are always “gutted” that people who said they would support the pub by being there everyday didn’t. “We were gutted” ” We came here in good faith ” etc.

It is normally best left as a dream . Shouldn’t it be sweet home anyway ?

On The Beach

No, not the Neville Shute novel but a stroll further down Long Beach heading south from the Hotel Paris . That said while in Mui Ne I found tucked away in the shelves of the Villa Aria library a Neville Shute book. It was an old Penguin paperback book and this edition was published in 1968 and at that time sold for 3 shillings and 6 pence or 16P in new money. Clearly in an hotel built just 6 years ago it hadn’t been there since publication so someone recently had bought it from a secondhand bookstore or a charity shop in the UK and then carried all the way to Mui Ne and left it. What stories the book itself could tell and how far it had come before being abandoned. It was a book called the Pied Piper which I personally had never heard of but as it was in excellent condition I sat down to initially glance through it. The book turned out to be an excellent read and I didn’t put it down again till I had finished it. The story is quite a simple one set at the beginning of the Second World War and the characters in the book are of a generation that has now gone from the world with values so different to todays. As just a study of how people have changed it is interesting but the story is good too.

I thought I might download it from Kindle so that my whole family who all seem to be linked to my own personal Kindle account could read it too. I was surprised to read in the blurb on Kindle that is considered his finest book and quite a classic now. The book now sells on Kindle for £8 a copy so it’s not only peoples values that have changed over the years !

So what about the stroll ? Well I wanted to look at the development that continues apace here on Phu Quoc and once past a couple of very large bungalow style hotels full of very large Russians ( it is by the way a fallacy that they don’t come here in numbers) I came across my first new multi floored hotel under construction

New Hotel 1 Phu Quoc
Quite quickly there followed another one

New Hotel 2 Phu Quoc
These two that finish off the Long Beach development and are under the flight path of the new international airport I talked about in a previous post. There are only 5 flights a day at the moment so no real issues with them

Small aircraft lands
But as it grows that will increase and wannabe holiday makers coming here in a few years will need to be careful where they pick to stay as night flights thunder over their rooms in the wee small hours of the morning. Cue a song think

Now regular readers will know that I make great personal sacrifices to bring you news of things about the places I visit and Phu Quoc is no different. To find out more about the tourism industry here I positioned myself on a bar stool at Rory’s Bar on the beach and asked the friendly owner over a beer or several what is it like to be in tourism.

The owner is Chinese Australian and speaks with a very broad Aussie accent . it is quite strange looking a this small very Chinese person who says to you ” good day mate ” . Though vey much a part of the development of the Island she seemed somewhat sad that the small fishing villages that were 6 years ago pretty much all that was here have gone and hotels are busy taking their places. That said she was enthused that on Feb 3rd the Island would finally be connected to the main grid by an underwater cable that has been laid. Electricity prices are four times what they are on the mainland of Vietnam and this she says is the cause of the high prices. Electricity is by far an hotel’s biggest cost here as it is for the bars. Got keep the beers ice cold she said ” if the tinny doesn’t stick to your hand when it come out of the fridge it is Pommy beer she said too bloody warm”. Hang on a Chinese girl calling me a Pom what is the world coming to.

Will prices come down ? I asked, absolutely she said . Well personally I think pigs might fly long before that happens but we shall see.

The other exciting development she told me about after another beer had arrived in front of me ( you see how I sacrifice my poor liver for this blog) is that the Party ( central government ) is thinking of making Phu Quoc visa less . Holidaymakers arriving on the island would not require a visa ( US$45 a pop) as long as they just came here and returned to their country. Checks would be made at the port and the airport for trips to the mainland that the visitor had a visa but otherwise no cost and no hassle with getting one from an Embassy or on arrival.

It was at that point that I was grateful we had come this year to see the developing island. With no visa in place this joint will take off and now I could understand ( though after so many beers I couldn’t get off my bar stool ) why they are planning these two huge developments further south on the island. Villas, hotels, shopping malls, time shares all make sense now.

This by the way is where the first monster is going to be built stretching from here for about 6 miles down the coast and a mile or so inland.

New Town Phu Quoc
Pretty isn’t it and all along this bit of coast are small fishing villages and lots of dense jungle. Soon English footballers and Russian oligarchs will be owning it all instead.

Hong Kong

I am sitting in an Italian deli that is just across the road from my daughter’s flat drinking a cappuccino . It is considerably more than I pay back in Puglia for the same product however my South China Morning News costs much less than any of the Italian papers at home.

The weekend has been an hectic social whirl but everyone has now returned to work and the apartment is quiet. The expat life here is not for the feint hearted with almost every street seemingly crammed with bars and restaurants teeming with party goers. Meals out are de-rigour and drinks before and after the norm. It is not something i could manage every weekend but I’m sure my parents said the same thing years ago when they visited us in various places around the world.

Two things catch my eye in the paper. One is an article bemoaning the fact that children are becoming less well behaved. It is they feel because both parents in this highly competitive and expensive place to live are working and employing nannies. These nannies keen to keep their jobs allow the kids total freedom and the parents equally looking for a quiet life at weekends do likewise. The result is screaming kids having tantrums all over the place. I would better describe it as Italian male syndrome . These guys have seen nothing on some of the youngsters i see everyday in Puglia screaming their hearts out while their parents not any nanny cover them in kisses.

The other more serious item is the destruction of the old Hong Kong by an organisation called The Urban Renewal Authority which is a quasi-governmental, profit-making body, formed in 2001 to promote and undertake urban regeneration in Hong Kong. On Saurday we spent an hour wandering about a street market called the Graham Street market .

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It is crowded and you are hit by shopping bags and find lots of bottlenecks because of the crush of humanity trying to move around.

More Market Hong Kong

but boy do you get a feeling of being somewhere very foreign and very different with dried fish stalls, chinese vegetable stalls and spice stalls. The smells, the people, the atmosphere is fabulous and with the old buildings all around it is very Hong Kong as you would expect to find it.

But don’t delay getting here to see it ‘cos the URA are knocking it all down with all the buildings as well to make way for some huge tower blocks and an hotel. They were to have built a new market for the traders as part of the redevelopment but that has been quietly shelved and another huge tower block will go up in its place.

Hong Kong is rapidly going the way Singapore went years ago. Singapore are now regretting doing what they did and seem intent on rebuilding replicas of what used to be there.  Loads of resorts in Spain are doing likewise but the URA seem oblivious to the lessons that others have learnt the hard way. People even non tourist residents like a mix of old and new and heritage is important. The Kinks got it right

We flew in on Turkish airlines via Istanbul from Rome. I bought their economy plus product which they call comfort class and let me tell you they are not mocking. it is fantastic. Huge seats reminiscent of Business Class seats before the airlines introduced beds with loads of legroom. The 777 was configured 2/3/2 across and we got one of the two seaters. The service can only be described as outstanding . Attentive crew who really couldn’t do enough for you. The meals were all served with real napkins, glass glasses and china plates. The drinks were served from the bottle  as was the wine and they were all premium brands. Quite nicely from my point of view the crew were also heavy handed and so sleep came easily. However the seats were so comfortable that even without the generous whisky measures sleep would have been easy.

Istanbul airport as a stop over is good as they have loads of security staff so the queues to get into the transit lounge are minimal . The actual huge transit lounge is rather like being in a massive bazaar with more duty free areas than I have ever seen but prices were higher than our local Auchan supermarket so easily left for others. We did find the bar and had a pint of Efes beer for a price that literally made my eyes water. That was till we got here to Hong Kong and now it seemed that they were giving it away in Istanbul !!

For Puglia readers here is a tip. For some reason ( senility) I got fixated on Rome as a departure point. It was not until we took off from there to go to Istanbul that Geraldine leaned over and showed me the Turkish Airlines route map and guess what they also fly from  Naples !!

So my entire drive to Rome, the night stop there  and the food poisoning was for nought we could have driven to Naples in 3 hours and flown away.

Well you live an learn in this world don’t you.

Up and Running

For 7 months I have been writing a daily blog about life in Puglia at Here In Puglia whilst living in the heel of Italy. However I am now, with Geraldine, setting off on Wednesday to travel in South East Asia.

We plan to head from Hong Kong where we land to Thailand first and then over a five month period  work our way through Cambodia Laos and Vietnam to finish up in Hanoi before returning to Hong Kong to see the daughter again poor thing.

Planning is well in hand with a flight now booked to Hong Kong and some vague ideas about where we go after that beginning to take some kind of shape  which let me say before Geraldine says it is for me is the height of organisation. I have even ventured on to a few hotel booking sites and am already amazed at how full things are. Others clearly spend much longer getting their own trip off the ground than I do. Still I’m sure it is better to hang loose and see how things pan out. What is that saying about doing something in haste and repenting at leisure ?

I guess I’m having a very delayed gap year having missed out on one some 47 years ago. Mind you I went to sea straight from school and found myself sailing around the world on a P&O Orient line passenger ship which was probably as good if not better than many of todays actual gap year experiences.

I’ll be trying to post everyday and give you a flavour of the places we visit during this trip far away from the delights of Puglia. I shall miss my friends in Puglia my Italian food and more especially my Italian wine but probably won’t miss the cold and the rain and snow of a Puglian winter. Surprisingly it gets very chilly down here and neither the houses nor the bars and restaurants are made to cope with it.  Indeed a fair chunk of our spending money is made up from monies we are saving in gas, electricity and wood for the two log burning fires.

I hope many of you readers are gonna go my way too by just following me here on this blog