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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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.

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.

History is Written by the Victors

So said Winston Churchill and of course it is true.

Yesterday Jan 21st 46 years ago the Viet Cong began a series of attacks close to the Cambodia border having travelled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos. The idea was to draw the American troops out of the cities to handle them. It was the start of the Tet offence that changed the way the U.S. public viewed the war and bought about it’s conclusion several years later.

For some time the American army had been telling the public at home and their own troops that the Viet Cong had taken such a beating they were no longer able to mount a large attack. General Westmoreland was fighting to a simple tactic . If he could kill more Viet Cong than they were able to recruit and train then he would win the war. The only two unknowns he had unfortunately were that he had little idea how many Viet Cong were being recruited nor how many were actually already in their Army.

The Tet offensive was yet again a massive defeat for the Viet Cong but the idea that they could put over 80,000 troops in the field and attack most major towns including seizing the consulate building in the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with ease put paid to the story the war was being won.

The U.S. public started to really believe they were in an unwinnable war and so too did many of the troops.

To mark the date I took a trip some 85 kms out of Saigon to visit the Cu Chi tunnels and see how the Viet Cong moved around areas underground .

The tunnels were started in the 1940’s by farmers wanting to store their crops but were first used militarily during the independence war against the French after the French retook Vietnam at the end of WWII .

The Viet Cong then really developed the tunnel system in the area and at their peak there were some 200 kms of tunnels on three depth levels.

On arrival you are led down into a large bunker and then sit through a film of the victors history of the war on a large screen. Afterwards a guy with one of those 5 foot long pointers that you see in WWII movies when the chap in charge says “gather around gentlemen ” and the points out on a large chart the objectives, did the same thing showing where the tunnels were and where the American troops were and how they were continually out fought and thought.

Then we started the tour. First the bobby traps built to maim but not kill the U.S. troops so demoralising them.

Boobytrap Cu Chi Tunnels

Leg Bobby trap Cu Chi Tunnels

Covered with leaves and twigs these did terrible damage to feet and legs.

The tunnels were incredibly small and today most Vietnamese wouldn’t be able to fit into them and move around the way their fathers, mothers and grandparents did . This is a typical entrance

Tunnel Enterance Cu Chi

My guide’s shoe almost covers the door .

The area was chosen because the soil is mainly clay giving the walls and more importantly the ceiling strength . By building three levels they were able to bobby trap tunnels and offer up dead end tunnels . The two lower levels could withstand heavy bombing and shelling as well as drain off monsoon rains into the Saigon River . There were cookhouses, dormitories, command rooms and weapon store rooms all underground and connected by tunnels. All very Great Eascape.

I crawled through 25 metres of tunnel almost on all fours just to see what it was like

Tunnel Cu Chi

That is my small Vietnamese guide in front just standing up to go up a tunnel to the next level. It was tight even though these had been expanded for westerners and a little claustrophobic in the darkened areas.

But I passed the test and was taken for a slap up meal  of ……….roots

IMG_0422

The root is in fact something most of us had at primary school for lunch and hated with a vengeance. Tapioca pudding . Here they just peel it and cut it into pieces and dip in peanut sauce. Quite nice really with a cup of tea.

Why didn’t my dinner lady do that .

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.

Thoughts while in Saigon

My daughter and son in law have arrived from Hong Kong and took us on a whistle stop trot around the sights of Saigon this morning. I’m not a great sightseer preferring to sit in places and watch the locals but it is good to get out and see parts of the city.

I managed the Cathedral, the Opera House on foot enjoying the hustle of the place and the challenge of getting across the roads while swarms of motorbikes, scouters and mopeds race around you. By the Post Office I was flagging but did manage to get the trusty old iPhone out and snap a picture

Post Office Saigon

Now I don’t know how many people on trips to cities take a picture of a post office, not many, but clearly for some reason the French must have had a thing about building monster ones in their colonies. This one is a rather pleasant ex British Public School boy pink shirt colour don’t you think ? It is huge inside but mainly made up now of stalls selling tourist knick knacks.

The youngsters went on to the Reunification Palace where you can crawl into the tunnels used during the war against the USA. I ducked out of this and returned to the hotel.

Obviously here understandably the American side of things is not to the fore but as I dozed this afternoon I  thought of a few people we have met on this trip .

In Mui Ne we met a charming American couple form just outside Anchorage, Alaska in a place called Palmer where they have a B&B. Greg had always wanted to visit Vietnam and this was his trip of a lifetime as he achieved that goal. He told me that his father flew B52s during the Vietnam war . He was based in Louisiana  and did tours of duty over here at the height of the bombing campaign. He said his father never ever talked about his experiences nor the war and that he Greg regretted never having made him to open up about a war that so many veterans decided to ignore as did most of the USA.  Hence his trip here .

Just before the train yesterday pulled out from the station I went to take the photos and met a Vietnamese guy having a last cough and a drag before he was banned from smoking for 4 hours on the train. He told me he was from Dallas, Texas and had returned for the first time since leaving Vietnam 40 years ago. He clearly left with the Americans. He had originally  come from Mui Ne and so was visiting  his home town. how did you find it I asked. Full of Soviets he growled at me whilst drawing on his last cigarette . I didn’t like to tell him that that place is no more either and for a few more minutes he went on about how the soviets seem to have taken over the whole area.

My experience of the Vietnam war was secondhand apart from a brief frisson of excitement that Harold Wilson the British Prime minister might take Britain into the conflict. Being Royal Naval Reserve at my school we had visions of call up and off to the Far East. Reading Spycatcher by Peter Wright years later the book in which the head of the CIA counter intelligence unit told the ex MI5 author that Wilson was in fact a KGB agent, such a  policy decision was clearly unlikely.

A friend of mine working at Pan Am in New York was called up in 1969. Luckily he always said because his father was in the US Diplomat Corps he pulled strings to have him placed as liaison with the Australian troops on the ground in Vietnam. His father felt he had a better chance of survival as an officer than with his own American troops ( at least 230 American officers were killed by their own troops, and as many as 1,400 other officers’ deaths could not be explained). A few years later as we sat in his very nice family apartment on Central Park South he told me how he and the Aussies would sit in the jungle and firstly hear the Americans coming with transistor radios etc, then smell them with their cigarette smoke and aftershave and then see them as they walked inches away without seeing the fully camouflaged, odourless, jungle trained Aussies. Often sometime later they would find the bodies of the self same troops killed by the Vietcong.

He survived 2 years but again in the main he never talked about it.

I’m On The Train

For a long time the most used phrase on mobile phones and probably still is in the UK. We are sitting in First Class which seems to be against all the principles of an equalitarian state but then one thinks of the old adage all  men are equal but some are more equal than others.  Here’ the train station

IMG_0275

it was of course that great ex communist union boss John Prescott who brought us the M4 bus lane which was in fact a private lane for him and other Ministers in the UK to rush into London from LHR without being held up in traffic .

This is a ten carriage train with First Classs, soft seat economy Class and the rather ominousy named hard seat Economy Class.

As I write we are fairly rattling along after some rather slow stretches when I felt I could almost have walked along beside it. Maybe it is now downhill into Saigon..

The Train to Saigon

The main stops are to allow other trains to come down the single track route and pass heading south. Some of these are at stations stops on the way most are not.

Last night rather than taxi to the bar we walked some way to use the ATM . It led us past a restaurant that we had used about a week ago. It was recommended by a couple staying at the Villa Aria as being  ” not too bad” which for restaurants on the main strip is equivalentt to at least 2 Michilin stars as the rest are so poor.

We went in hope of real Vietnamese food and ate probably the worst meal we have had on this trip or any trip. Truly terrible food served in an offhand manner where clearly we were doing them a favour.

The restaurant has two girls standing outside and they entice customers in by saying endlessly Hello Madam come in for yummy food. How ever  once we had been in they studiously ignored us and they did so again last night. Clearly they knew we had been done and needed to be left alone. Plenty more fish in the sea.

I call it the Maltese Tourism theory. Malta is an island in the Mediterranean south of Italy and close to North Africa. Perhaps unkindly many call it the Alcatraz of the Mediterranean. It is a rock in the middle  the sea. It boasts just one beach and that is very small , plus a big dockyard and for years it was a place you could go abroad and eat British food because the Royal Navy were there .

I went years ago for a visit and after driving from one end to the other in a few minutes ran out of tings to do.

I was there with some Travel Agents and at a function thrown by the Tourist Office asked one of the guys there quite how they sold the place . ‘We work on the theory’ he confided in me ‘that as long as world tourism grows by 6% a year there will always be enough tourists traveling and a few of who will come to Malta. Any downturn from that and we are toast of course’.

The restaurant in Mui Ne knows that every week there is a massive turnover of tourists. Nobody who has eaten there once would ever come back but who cares. iI is also not worth even talking to the ones that have. Not so silly really.

Oh and the train only takes 4 hours not 5 hours as the internet sites say. We arrived at 5.10 p.m. so much faster then by road. All and all a very pleasant and easy experience. Amazingly sitting opposite me was a Vietnamese guy with his family. He smiled a few times and helped me fix the recline on my seat. He even offered me one of his beers. Surprisingly after about an hour he lent over and said in an Aussie drawl ‘ where you from mate’ . He is a miner in Western Australia and comes home for 3 months every couple of years to see his family. He is flying back to Perth on Sunday. He at least didn’t rib me about the Ashes Test Matches.