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.

Raffles Amid the Protests

On Jan 4th the ruling party here banned all form of street protests and gatherings. But yesterday protesters took to the streets to protest the turning down of a licence for a non government radio and TV station.

The locals like in Vietnam take their lunch around 11a.m. so the protest came past Raffles at about 10 a.m. on it’s way to the Ministry of Information almost next door.

We were on the breakfast veranda overlooking the street breakfast Veranda Raffles Phnom Penh

As you would expect the breakfast is huge with table after table of different choices and the customary profusion of waiters and waitresses.

As we sat enjoying the meal an hail of gunfire broke out and the protesters started to run back past us. The military police had opened fire on the crowd using rubber bullets, smoke bombs and some tear gas. They then baton charged them to disperse the protest.Several people were injured and many bloodied

It reminded me of  that part of the book Doctor Zhivargo as the elite danced at a ball while the cossacks charged the protesters. Here are the clips

and

We were part of the elite this morning tucking in to hearty breakfasts while just 200 metres away peaceful protesters were being beaten with sticks and riot shields. I don’t know enough yet about the politics of the country to start to understand it but maybe I won’t moan about the BBC Today programme quite as much when back in the UK or the simplistic Italian TV fare dished up over non state controlled airwaves. Mind you James Naughtie ….no don’t get me started.

The baton charge coincided with a report published by the US Freedom House which ranked Cambodia as “not free” one of 48 countries in that category. The report cites that here ” basic political rights are absent” and ” basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied “. It talks also of the ban on the right to assemble and a suppression of human rights since the disputed general election last year.

But enough of politics let’s take our usual wander around this holel the way we have the others.

The Raffles boasts two pools. This is what they call the play pool

Playpool Raffles Phnom Penh

That side of the play pool in the picture is always in the shade and the other side in the sun. Now that is service !!

This is the main pool

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oh and the view from the bed chair

Bedchair Raffles Phnom Penh

Our bedroom overlooks the play pool and has a pleasant balcony almost at pool level.

You have already seen the view from the breakfast table up the top of this blog .

One thing I must show you is the turndown service that happens every night. Now I am old enough to remember when even in European hotels this service was the normal part of staying in an hotel. These days few even in the Far East offer the service at all but it is a Raffles tradition

Turn down Raffles Phnom Penh

Not only is the bed turned down and the towels used for your evening shower replaced but slippers are laid out by the bed, a bottle of water and a glass placed on your bedside table, the room cleaned again, the bathroom completely wiped down, any clothes you left lying around hung up or folded neatly, the desk rearranged tidily and of course your PJs folded and laid on the bed. The bedside lights only are left on to make it really cosy when you stagger in from a night on the huge cocktails in the Elephant Bar.

Ahh the Elephant Bar so called because of the wall and ceiling paintings of elephants

Elephant motive

and home to a long list of celebrities including Jackie O and Somerset Maugham .

The place is now crawling with NGO personnel who seem the mainstay of the economy as almost every charity seems to be present here in Cambodia. Not only do they drink here but many apparently live in this hotel as well.

I was in Sri Lanka just after the tsunami  and was also amazed there to find the Hilton Club floors in Colombo full of NGOs living the high life . I asked one why he wasn’t at “the front line” as it were where all the trouble was down on the south of the island. “Have you been there?” he asked, “no where decent to stay and no good bars either.”

This seems very similar . It is big business now the charity game with lots of various national government monies flowing into them making them political as well as charitable schemes.

My trusty Luxe Travel Guide to Cambodia tells me of the Elephant Bar is ” more NGO than Jackie O ” which is rather clever and also very true. Her glass still with her lipstick, does adorn a glass cabinet just outside the bar. ,

In my youth I drank in various great hotel bars like the Long Bar in the old Raffles in Singapore where the Singapore Sling was born, the Long Bar at the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi which was already truncated from it’s original and now sadly gone and the rooftop bar at The Acropole Palace in Athens . I loved the feel of those places. Most great hotel bars are now priced way above what I am prepared to pay for a drink I can get outside for well under half the price. So it is nice to be back at one that certainly in happy hour is very affordable with beers at US$3, house cocktails at US$4 and special cocktails at US$ 6 and they come with three different snacks as well.  That said I’m not sure I’d be too happy funding such prices from my own charity donation nor have my tax money paid by my government  to a charity  that was happy to have its people expense it for entertaining or worse still stay at the hotel and charge it to the charity.

Last night we listened while a few NGO types moaned into their cocktails about the unfairness of their lot when diplomats got more leave per annum than them and more flights home each year as well. I guess join the elite few who pass the Civil Service Exams in the UK and change jobs would be my advice !!

Chau Doc

Spent the day half way up Sam mound today. I could have gone to the Chau Doc floating market and seen the floating houses ( houseboats I guess)  but decided against it. Leisurely breakfast I thought looking out over the paddy fields. Well up we went at 9.10 and it had all been cleared away. The staff most of whom are training as this hotel is also home to the Victoria Hotels Training Academy looked somewhat aghast . It was clear we had been forgotten. All the other groups had upped and gone en route to Cambodia and we fell through the net. They recovered well and produced the a la Carte menu and dragged the poor egg chef back upstairs. But leisurely it was not . We appear to be the only guests here today and have had the pool to ourselves once again. It has become a feature of our stays in out of the way places.

Pool Victoria Nui Sam

To be fair the trainee’s are lovely and so eager to please just quite disorganised which seems to be so much a part of hotels in Vietnam unless they have a foreign General Manager.

Being built on the side of the hill the hotel sets some challenges even to the fairly fit. There are stairs everywhere and not an elevator  nor any form of mobile transportation in sight. This is the staircase from our room

stairs at Victoria Nui Sam

There are sixty of them, trust me I counted them. Then you have to get down and up to what was our private pool today

Stairs to Pool

43 of those little beauties and another 36 to get up to the dining area and reception. Housekeeping carry everything up and down the stairs as there are no trollies and so it is not surprising that the staff look unbelievably fit but with bulging leg muscles .

We stayed one time in an hotel in Kyrenia in Northern Cyprus and that had a quite a few steps but nothing like these. It was there I first heard about the complaint bungalow knees which is a condition most bungalow dwellers get when after a year in the bungalow they are faced with climbing stairs again on a regular basis.

Chau Doc has been part of Vietnam for 300 years and before that it was part of Cambodia. more map drawing by the Europeans I would imagine. The hill the hotel stands on is very famous place of pilgrimage for the Vietnamese people. They come to worship the Lady of Sam at a temple further up the hill from us  and some 2 million arrive each year.

Chau Doc is a trading town being so close to Cambodia and is also famous for it’s fish paste and catfish . But like floating markets I think everywhere on the Mekong and on the coast  seem to be famous for the same things. Looking out from the poolmore Paddy Fields Nui Sam

surely rice must be the big thing here as all you can see are paddy fields

Tomorrow we leave here at 5.30 a.m. ( fire the tour operator someone) and take the early boat “up the Mekong” into Cambodia.

When I went to sea with P&O in 1967 my second voyage was to bring what was then a huge tour group organised by the Australian Women’s Weekly magazine. They booked the entire ship and the average age of the participants most of who were women was 64years. The difference was amazing for a young purser cadet whose first and subsequent voyages had at least 500 girls between the age of 16 and 22 on board. We were required to entertain the passengers on deck at night but on this trip by 9 pm almost all were tucked up in bed fast asleep. I therefore spent a lot of time in the ship’s cinema watching the latest films and one of those was Khartoum which given the boredom factor of being on deck I think I saw about 10 times. One line in it stuck with me. When Gladstone played by Ralph Richardson says to General Gordon improbably played by Charlton Heston ” It’s up the Nile for you Gordon , up the Nile”. What a line, oh the romance. It was then I decided I wanted to spend much of my life living around the world. There were so many “up the Niles” I wanted to see and work in.

and now I am up the Mekong.

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 !!!