- 01. To The Rescue
- 02. Last Minute Minutia
- 03. Spiritual Me
- 04. A New Approach
- 05. Cruising Cambodia
- 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
- 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
- 08. A Day on the River Limbo
- 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
- 10. Saigon Reunification
- 11. The Way to Huế
- 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
- 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
- 14. Southeast Asian Rescue
We debarked the Mekong Prestige II for the last time, having recovered our passports and paid the bill. Good-byes would come a little later, as we had a morning’s excursion to enjoy first. We passengers were divided once again by language, the Aussies on one bus, the French on the other, both headed for an hour’s drive into Ho Chi Minh City.
The language division that divided the passengers throughout the cruise struck me as an unfortunate but inevitable feature of the cruise. One obviously wants a tour given in a language one understands, and during the tours people will bond, later enjoying dinner and drinks and what-not together.
Speaking for myself, I would have liked to have met and attempted to converse with a more diverse group.
There was more interchange towards the end of the cruise, but the connections between the language groups were not as strong as those made within. It was “only natural”. Of course, I have no one to blame but myself.
Having said that, I count myself lucky to have toured with such a decent group of Aussies. The four Sydneysiders, two Queenslanders, and we two Victorians made for a pleasant mix of the urbane with the suburban. All were reasonably well-travelled, yet the conversation never devolved into one of those irritating “can you top this” contests. Well, it did once, and, no, I couldn’t. Regardless, I’m pretty sure we had eight different Myers Briggs personality types represented, providing a wide array of perspectives from an otherwise pretty narrow demographic.
The cruise gets high marks in general, and I recommend it, words that rarely come off my fingertips. The quality was, I am reasonably certain, about as reliably luxuriant as one could possibly provide in this place and time. Which is also to say that such an experience is not for everybody. While the on-board experience is world-class luxury, the onshore excursions would be confronting for many, and the heat can be oppressive.
As we approached Saigon (central Ho Chi Minh City), the number of motor scooters swarming about the bus grew to epic proportions. Our guide Thang explained a few things. “To drive in Ho Chi Minh, you need three things: good brakes, good horn, and good luck.” Further he advised that many die after traffic accidents in Vietnam when nobody is there to agree to pay the hospital bill — service will be denied. He further clarified that this circumstance was not limited to trauma treatment; treatment for, say, pneumonia, would be denied if payment was not guaranteed. A lasting American influence, perhaps.
I should mention that thirteen years earlier, in 2002, Frank Lee and I visited Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC, as metropolitan Saigon has been called since Vietnam’s reunification in 1975. Similar to our first visit to Bangkok, that trip was a two-night final stop-over of a three-week round-the-world dash that left us both exhausted and prone to using hyphenated phrases. Then, we dutifully ticked off some must-do’s: Reunification Palace (the former centre of South Vietnam’s government filled with colourful things old people remember seeing on TV in black and white in the 1960’s), the central Ben Thanh market, the post office, a sadly misplaced Notre Dame Cathedral, some house that had something to do with Ho Chi Minh.
It is all a bit of blur, because mostly we drank a lot of very very cheap, very very bad wine. I do recall I made my Vietnamese debut on the piano in the lobby of the very chic Renaissance Riverside Hotel. It was generally well received. I even got a round of applause or two, and most importantly, no government official asked me to stop playing. It is possible the man who encouraged me to sample his “fine lady” prostitutes did so in a misguided attempt to divert my attention at the behest of the General Manager.
This time around, Thang started us off with a visit to HCMC’s Chinese Bihn Tay Market. This was on my “this time” list, being well away from any part of the city we’d visited before, so I was pleased: done. Once again the foods on display for sale were fascinating, but un-buyable for obvious reasons (e.g., I am not nuts). The clothing area had some interesting offerings. A hat caught my fancy, but Thang explained that we were in the wholesale part of the market, so unless I wanted two gross or more of the same hat, I was talking through my hat.
Our very last cruise-related excursion took us to a lacquer factory, the velvet-Elvis of Asian art. Okay, I take that back. Some of it was very nice, but I had a tooth to be worked on and a crown to be fashioned, today. I had no interest whatsoever in lacquered anything, yet my personal belongings were held captive until such time as every one of us had had our fill, got back on the bus to be delivered the 800 meters to the cruise package’s end at a hotel where none of us were staying. To be fair, this was the only time the cruise package made such a visit compulsory. It boggles my commercial mind why they would do it last, leaving a bad aftertaste for such a wonderful meal.
Not soon enough, Frank and I were on our own again, in a taxi headed for our hotel, the Pullman. Much as I had enjoyed the cruise, it felt great to be excused from a controlled environment.
I had business to attend to. Across the street from the Pullman was Vietnam’s oldest and finest dental teaching hospital. A friend had had significant work done there, saving himself tens of thousands of dollars compared to what the same job would have cost in Australia. I was hoping to achieve the same thing on a smaller scale, a single crown placed atop a recent implant saving mere thousands.
With remarkably little difficulty- not so much as a form filled out – I was discussing my needs and reviewing the x-ray I had brought along with the administrative minions of the recommended surgeon, Dr. Troung. Within minutes I was in the chair of an associate, who prodded around my mouth a bit. After reviewing the implant specification provided by my dentist, she said, eyebrows raised, “I need to consult with Dr. Troung”, and left the room.
Five minutes later she returned. ”I’m sorry, but we cannot help you. The implant you have is not sold here, so we do not have the system to unlock the temporary cap, or fit the crown properly.” I was not surprised, having suspected the Australian dental cartel would not make it so easy to escape their gnawing clench. I thanked her, and left — no cost, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I must admit I was both a little relieved, but disappointed I would spend until January, when my dental coverage kicked in again, chewing on the right side of my mouth.
Meanwhile, Frank had sourced through the hotel bellman a nearby laundry to address our growing pile of soiled apparel, an issue more pressing due to the shrinking pile of clothing that was yet to walk on its own. The laundry man spoke little English, but had done business with enough backpackers to start the conversation with “Not by kilogram!” Gaining our ascent, he did an itemised inventory, dollar signs ca-chinging in his eyes as he racked up our bill: US$10.40. Back at the hotel, I calculated that to have the exact same laundry done there would have cost US$104.00, exactly ten times as much.
Leery of Saigon’s frenzy from our previous brief visit, we booked a room on the Pullman’s executive level. This enabled us to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, with drinks included, without ever leaving the thirtieth floor, which might as well have been in Baltimore. The first night in, we did just that, happy to use the mediocre internet connection – a significant improvement from that on the cruise – to make arrangements to attend my mother’s funeral in Boston. This required drinking much imported French Sauvignon Blanc, one of Baltimore’s best features.
In the morning we strode out to re-visit a couple of the basic attractions we had seen on our first visit. As we left the hotel room, I asked Frank “Is the building swaying a bit?”
This worried him. “Are you alright?”
“I think so. Sea legs, maybe.”
The Pullman is in a very different part of town than our hotel on the previous visit, so the start of our walk was all new. More generally, though, much had changed about Saigon, and much is very much the same.
In the “had changed” category, the most obvious were the numerous new skyscrapers. Beyond that, musclemen and metrosexuals, previously unknown in HCMC, had come out, with men of all ages sporting buffnitudes in spiffy if not wild hair styles and attire. Also, the city has a new eagerness to cater to tourists. A swath of central Saigon has been razed to create a pedestrian shopping promenade culminating at the People’s Committee Building (the beautiful French colonial Old City Hall). Already many high-end shops are represented along it: Versace, Mount Blanc, Dior, Brooks Brothers, Prada, Louis Vuitton. The capitalists may have lost the war, but the rich people most certainly did not.
In “the same” category, Saigon continues to surge as only Saigon can, arguably the most frenetic city on the planet. Cars, trucks, buses, but mostly motor scooters never cease threatening from all directions, regardless of traffic lights, or road rules more generally. Initially, it appears that crossing a street require nerves of steel, when in fact what is needed is faith in your fellow men and women. As with marine navigation, the key is for all involved to make their intentions known, preferably with high visibility clothing, day or night. Then, there’s a good chance all can progress in bloodless chaos. It was good practice for my impending visit to Boston.
Even Saigon’s sidewalks present challenges. They are invariably packed with parked motor scooters, every storefront looking like a motorcycle dealership. To park there, they must be driven there. Scooters constantly weave through the retailers’ wares and café tables that spill onto the irregularly paved footpaths.
Electricity wires dangle from power poles to ground level, often in massive tangles with innumerable open circuits, presumably not live, but it is inadvisable to test. Occasional open manholes offer the unwary pedestrian ample opportunity to come to a damp and shocking demise. “Watch your step” is a thought that should be omnipresent, programed into one’s head with every move.
Having complained all that, HCMC remains a better walking city than, say, Kuala Lumpur. Sidewalks generally exist, for example, with few construction sites adjacent to speeding automotive traffic requiring pedestrians to teeter atop Jersey barriers where any misstep is likely prove fatal. In contrast to China, Vietnam doesn’t block Google, so Google Maps street view is available, making it easier to find places. Unusually for much of Asia, the streets have names and are well-signed.
As we entered the labyrinth that is the Ben Thanh market, we were immediately surrounded by a half-dozen hard-selling hawkers. One man rubbed Franks arm (“Ooh, you hairy!”) pulling him in one direction by his very arm hairs, while another tugged at his shirt. A woman grabbed my right hand, dragging me towards her stall (“You come! You see!”), while another refused to yield control of my left pinky, nearly yanking it out of its socket.
“I NEED that!” I screamed at the pinky yanker, pulling away while my brain went on high alert. “OVERLOAD! OVERLOAD! OVERLOAD!” It was the weirdest thing, but suddenly the room began to spin and I realised I was about to faint. “We have got to get out of here!” I told Frank, not waiting for a response, moving as quickly as I could towards daylight.
Outside I collected myself by drinking a gallon of water. Frank followed as soon as he had regained control of his bodice. “I think that’s enough of that…” he suggested.
Feeling better, we proceeded carefully, avoiding confined places. I lit a candle for my recently dead Mom at Notre Dame Cathedral – unlike Cambodia, they have wax in Vietnam. I imagined my mother as one bewildered angel on receiving the news that somebody had lit a candle for her in Saigon.
A police officer stopped me from photographing the Old City Hall, but I think that was just because I ventured unknowingly into a construction site to do so. Then we visited the Saigon Post Office again, a big tourist attraction for reasons that bewilder me — perhaps because war correspondents called in their stories from there? I don’t know. A mystery. Frank bought postage for his postcards; very quaint.
While waiting, I recalled that dizziness and sensitivity to sunlight were both possible side effects my doctor warned me about when she prescribed doxycycline to ward off malaria. Frank agreed with my idea that it would be best for me to discontinue the doxycycline. To be on the safe side, we headed back to the hotel for some rest. We tried to wend our way back via quiet back streets, but Saigon had no such animal.
I enjoyed an early end to the day, never had air conditioning felt so good.