Miss Saigon

4 May

Monday

So, rolling on from Chau Doc across the Mekong Delta. It genuinely IS green here, rice growing in a patchwork of emerald paddy fields. The delta is criss-crossed by a thousand creeks and rivers, where every back yard seems to have a boat in it.

Half way through, the heavens open up, sending a multitude of motorcyclists scurrying to buy ponchos at the little stalls by the road. You can buy all your motorcycle parts here, with roadside stalls with hundreds of wing mirrors, and a selection of helmets that I’d defy you to find anywhere else.

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And then we rock up in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City. Ho Chi Minh was, of course, the communist liberator of Vietnam from the French. His picture adorns shops, hotels and businesses across the country. But of course, everyone calls it Saigon.

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My moto driver takes me down into backpacker Saigon, assuring me that he knows a good cheap hotel for $5 a night. Riding a moto in Saigon is a different game, though.. I decide that if I look over my driver’s right shoulder, then I can’t see all the traffic approaching from the left, which helps to calm the panic. Slightly. Cars from every direction, motorcyclists that believe that red means ‘go but slightly slower’. It turns out that he doesn’t know a hotel at all, but that the fare will be $5. He has no change for $20 in dollars or dong… so suddenly it’s a $10 ride. My mistake.

Anyway, I am hailed by a cute Vietnamese who has a room for rent above her art gallery. It;s comfortable enough, and inexpensive, so that’s easy (I’ve got so used to being accosted at bus stations by people offering guest houses that I have no idea what to do when it doesn’t happen. Which isn’t strictly true – just find the hotel area and someone will offer you a home.)

Tuesday

A walk round Saigon… not all that much to report, really. There are a thousand small shops, a river, a stylish tree lined main drag, French Colonial buildings all around. The Vietnamese (and Cambodian) way of building streets is peculiar, though. All building seem to come in one standard width. You can have a building built on two plots, but most of them are on one. And then you decide what you want – how high, what sort of shop front… everything looks like it’s been put together by a ‘build a street’ version of Lego.  If you see a house on its own in the middle of nowhere, it will still be the same width. Images of helicopters flying over South East Asia dropping buildings into place spring to mind. I’m sure, too, that shops are magically appearing and disappearing like something out of Harry Potter… a Crumpler store I found on Monday disappeared and then magically reappeared on Wednesday.

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I did get a chance to be a coconut seller for a few minutes though….DSCF3867

and discover these gorgeously kitsch revolution postersDSCF3864

(still not sure if these are retro or just ‘how it’s done’ – didn’t manage to get a photo of the one with the computer though)

A park full of sculptures (this one’s Beethoven)

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And the Saigon Notre Dame

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I’ve rediscovered street food, too. And street coffee and street beer. Basically, you can sit outside on a garden chair and eat your breakfast/ lunch/ dinner. And it’s really good. (I did think the best coffee on the trip was the Coffee Glacier at Black Mountain in Chiang Mai and in Phnom Penh. But then I had the iced coffee at Sozo in Saigon… and then the street coffee outside my hotel.. and I just don’t know any more). Still not sure what to make of Bubble Tea – fruit flavoured iced tea served with chunks of jelly made from tapioca in the bottom… slurp it up through a wide straw. And I will be avoiding the gourmet ‘weasel coffee’ – cà phê Chồn which is made from coffee beans after they have passed through the weasel’s digestive tract.

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(middle row, right hand side)

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I’m still trying to organise how to catch my schedule up – the passport incident has eaten into funds, and I have cancelled my Tibet tour… now negotiating with a couple of Chinese companies who do something similar for half the price. But do I rush to get to Beijing, so I can join an early (and leisurely) tour…. or do I take it easy, but then have to rush through Nepal and India on the way out. Much might depend on my Chinese visa…and THAT they are threatening might take 12 days in Hanoi. Terrific.

Anyway, rather than a 48 hour bus trip I elected to break my journey in Hue… but still I have a bus journey of over 24 hours to look forward to. Better charge the MP3 player…the Kindle…sharpen my pencils…

Wednesday

One reason the Americans had to butt out of Vietnam was that the Vietnamese were just too bloody minded to give up. The Viet Cong guerrilla movement is of course fabled.. and so we went to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, about two hours outside Saigon. This amazing network of tunnels (over 200km of them, all dug by hand) foiled the American forces’ attempts to defeat them. The tunnels were too well camouflaged, and the use of chilli and captured American uniforms defeated the sniffer dogs. Bombing the hell out of the area didn’t work either, as the tunnels were too deep and too well built. And the American tunnel rat teams were… well, too fat. They have special tunnels widened for Westerners, and even those are a bit tight (I’m still pleased I overcame my occasional claustrophobia to go down) but the originals, out of which guards pop like jack-in-the-boxes around the site, are too tiny for some of the more solidly built amongst us to get down, although one or two of us managed it. (Yours truly, although more svelte than last year, didn’t get chance to try. That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it).

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But I did get chance to scurry round the wider westernised version…

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and lift a tank barrel.

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I decided I wasn’t going to take them up on the offer of firing an M16 or M60 machine gun though – not at $1 a bullet (unlike Phnom Penh, the option of shooting a chicken or blowing up a cow with a bazooka is not available, thank God)

The Vietnamese built some pretty nasty boobytraps too. Forget landmines, they used sawn up bomb casings and bamboo to create a whole range of unpleasant fates for anyone foolish enough to step on one.DSCF3918

Tomorrow… the bus. Friday.. Hue. I hope.

Vietnamese names

Just cause it’s interesting. And because worrying about people’s names for email used to be part of my job (did you know that many Indians have no family name and have to make one up?) The Vietnamese have three parts to their name – Family name, Middle Name, and Given Name.

The family name is one of 100 or so in use today, of which 40% of the population are called ‘Nguyen’. Contrast that with the UK where only about 1% are called Smith.

The middle name is often used to distinguish a generation within a family – so brothers and sisters have the same middle name.

The given name is used to distinguish people – but as is common in Asia, it’s the one used in formal situations (which is why I am ‘Mr Tim’ out here (and it’s easier than ‘Hodgson’). (The Japanese, of course, rarely use the given name, why I was ‘Hodgson-San’ out there, and why karate students always use surnames (it’s very bad formal etiquette, even for children, to use given names in the dojo))

Of course, what they really want to call me is ‘Mr No-Hair’ – so they do, when they think they can get away with it. Monks, of course, have shaved heads (No 2 razor at a guess) but not bald – and most Vietnamese (and Asian) men keep their hair and don’t seem to go as grey, either. I was sitting in the bus the other day when the kid in the seat behind me couldn’t resist stroking it… which was actually quite relaxing.

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