- 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
I cannot recall ever having bleu cheese on toast for breakfast before, but the Pullman chain is one of the Accor family of hotels, French to its core, the bread and cheese impeccable. Despite a full buffet offering anything I wanted, bleu cheese on toast it was, and it was wonderful.
We struck out for a walk along the Saigon River towards a green splotch on the map labelled as the Botanical Gardens. First we filled our backpacks with about two gallons of bottled water, having discovered that consuming less than a litre per hour each was tantamount to suicide. Off the Doxycycline, I covered myself from stem to stern in DEET in the hopes of avoiding mosquito-borne malaria. Then I bathed in sunblock. I dislike starting the day covered in such crud, but to do otherwise would be asking for trouble.
Outside the blast furnace of hyperactive overstimulation continued. I began the usual dodging through the torrent of scooters with deliberate, measured consistency of speed, direction and intent. I noticed that bicycle rickshaws, which had replaced tuk-tuks when we crossed out of Cambodia into Vietnam, had in turn been replaced by cyclos. Cyclos are three-wheel pedal-driven taxis with the passenger, or perhaps two small passengers, seated at the front, providing the driver, at least, some degree on insulation from collision. On every corner between one and a dozen cyclo drivers hawked their rides to us. So did many motorcyclists, while others slept quite soundly and comfortably teetering atop their motorcycles, demonstrating a sense of balance and confidence of a skyscraper riveter.
The Saigon River is less than picturesque, but walking along it minimises the amount of traffic one must wander through at intersections. It provided a glimpse of the city’s industrial port and a small, unwelcoming naval or coast guard base. Across the street some of the city’s finer hotels line the waterfront. Amongst these was the Renaissance Riverfront where I had made my Vietnamese debut on the lobby piano thirteen years earlier. Perhaps not coincidentally, they had since removed the lobby piano. Sheesh.
The green splotch presented itself across eight lanes of speeding traffic as a ten meter high stone wall with lush mature greenery promisingly peeking out above. We held our breath and wandered through the whizzing traffic, then searching for a way to breach the garden’s perimeter.
Eventually we found an entrance to what turned out to be the Botanical Garden and Zoo. We paid the small admission and entered the relatively sedate, cool and quiet park. I’m not a big fan of zoos, as the animals often seem bored and sad. Such was the case here, although it was a pretty good zoo.
The ten meter stone wall was there to keep the lions out of traffic, and pedestrians such as ourselves out of the lions’ digestive tracts. The tigers looked more angry than bored. The elephants took note of each who passed for failing to free them of their shackles, sure to remember, biding their time until the opportunity to stomp us to death arose. A moat full of crocodiles had lily pads the size of a pitcher’s mound, massive growths right out of Star Trek.
The zoo was crowded with military personnel, bivouacked there. Preparations were underway for the Reunification Day celebrations to occur on 30 April, five days hence. It was a big thing, the fortieth anniversary of the war’s end. No one referred to it as the “fall of Saigon”, that’s for sure. Uniformed soldiers toiled meticulously on elaborate patriotic parade floats, in position at the zoo’s entrance on the north end of the parade route, Le Duan.
Leaving the zoo we followed Le Duan, a grand boulevard, from end to end. We had crossed it yesterday, now finding the overnight transformation remarkable. Grandstands, toilets, video screens, flags, posters, superstructures and infrastructure of every description had miraculously appeared.
Giant billboards had materialised, everywhere painted across the exposed sides of multi-story buildings, dozens if not hundreds of them. I paused to appreciate the juxtaposition of hammer and sickle flags flying in the shadow of the Prudential Insurance Tower.
We realised we’d be spending the 30th, Reunification Day, and then 1st May, International Labour Day (aka “May Day”) not here in HCMC, but in the nation’s capital, Hanoi. That promised to be fun and interesting.
We finally had our first out-of-hotel meal, lunch at a hard-to-find but highly recommended restaurant named Cyclo. It was excellent. It seems hard to go wrong with the food here, so long as the water is clean. But even in the small, remote Vietnamese villages we visited on the cruise the locals purchased clean drinking and cooking water. The risk is what a restaurant may use for cleaning food and dishes. It appears almost any that has English menu will do the right thing by its customers, lest they kill them. Of course, the key word there is “almost”, so some discretion is required.
Returning to the hotel we happened upon some seedier parts of town, evoking visions of what the place may have been like in, say, 1968. War is seedy.
Sunday morning we caught a flight to Huế, Vietnam’s imperial capital, halfway up the coast towards Hanoi, just south of the former DMZ. The domestic terminal at Tan Son Nhut International Airport (formerly the Tan Son Nhut Air Base) may be the quietest place in HCMC. Our hotel in Huế sent a car to meet us at the airport, making our transfer from Saigon to Huế pleasantly flawless.
In Huế we’d discover just how cheap it is to tour Vietnam, especially outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Our perfectly decent three star hotel cost $31 a night, including breakfast. On arrival we headed out for lunch at a nearby restaurant, recommended by the hotel as authentic as one can get, where we feasted like kings for ten bucks, including beers.
Huế’s big attraction is its Citadel which houses the Imperial City, the innermost part of which is the “Purple Forbidden City”. The Citadel sat a forty-minute walk away from our hotel, across the Huong (aka, Perfume) River, traversed by crossing the Truong Tien bridge, a trestle structure designed by none other by Gustave Eiffel.
We set out after lunch. On arrival at the Imperial City, my dry mouth reminded me that I had failed to drink water for over five minutes, which I knew meant I could faint at any moment. Familiar with this sequence of events, we sat down at a shady spot to re-hydrate and cool off while what a southern belle might call “the vapours” passed. Immediately, two young ladies approached, and before I could utter “No thank you” to an expected sales pitch, one politely asked if they could practice their English on us. That was fine by us, not that we had much choice in the matter.
Thus we spent ten minutes in halting chatter with the students, one of dentistry, the other of public health. Dentistry is straightforward enough, but she had a harder time explaining, and we understanding, what the study of public health entailed. On parting I gave them my card, promising to mention them here: done! Darling, work on your elevator pitch – look it up! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elevator_pitch)
Inside the Imperial City, some of the English tourist information said it was “modelled after Beijing’s Forbidden City”. Its layout bears much resemblance, but I suspect many Vietnamese would take umbrage to that characterisation. Huế’s version was far more pleasant to tour, despite the heat – one can breathe the air in Huế!
We took a different route back towards the hotel, through the ancient city. At one point we cut across what appeared to be a grassy knoll. We should not have been surprised to find ourselves suddenly in a mosquito-infested swamp of muck of unknown provenance, a feature for which Vietnam is renowned. I made a note to myself: although they were new when I left, remember to burn your sneakers when you get home.
Huế is very much a tourist town full of backpackers, but it is also a university town, leaving no shortage of people out to party. Gentlemen of questionable repute urged us to purchase a “Nice lady massage!” to which I could think only to respond “You have got the wrong vampire”, leaving them a little puzzled.
Even so, Huế is a manageable town, a pleasant and interesting place to visit. We revelled in the respite from HCMC’s franticness at Ta∙Ke, a Japanese restaurant that also trains locals in hospitality. Everything was done to a stellar level: service, food, cleanliness – everything. That’s the Japanese! At forty dollars (mostly a bottle of wine) it cost more than the hotel. That, too, is the Japanese.
I’d retire here before Florida. Unfortunately, both are too damned hot!