We woke early and got picked up in a minibus. We were joined by a group of four French lads, one of whom did his best to ignore the attentions of a leggy Cambodian girl who he’d just walked out of the hotel with. She waved and fluttered her eyelashes at him in a Marilyn Monroeesque fashion before swaggering off to buy some breakfast from a street vendor, last night’s make-up shimmering in the morning sun. We were ferried to the main bus terminal in Phnom Penh where we boarded a bus bound for Ho Chi Minh City. We went with Giant Ibis again – Cambodian roads guarantee delays and if you’re going to be sat in traffic, you might as well do it in comfort.
We drove for about four hours over flat farmland before arriving at the Moc Bai – Ba Vet border crossing. After the nightmare of Poipet we were prepared for another dash through a gauntlet of wide-eyed children, lepers, crooks and casinos. We arrived into a more or less deserted bus terminal, at the end of which was a guardbox. We were stamped out of Cambodia at this box before being lead by our bus conductor to a huge warehouse. We put our bags on a conveyor belt where they were scanned and inspected by half-arsed security guards. A soldier stamped us in and we were in Vietnam – the whole process took about ten minutes.
The approach into Ho Chi Minh City was long and arduous. It’s easy to tell when you’re getting closer to the centre because the bus slows down to a guttural chug, and the familiar sound of a million scooter hooters add to the ambience. We were dropped off centrally and made the mistake of walking to our hostel in the baking heat. I told you in a previous entry about the traffic quirks of each city in South-East Asia – how each city has a different vehicular eccentricity. In Ho Chi Minh it is acceptable to drive on the pavement. If you’re on a scooter and you come to a red light at a junction, why not go up the kerb and continue yor journey on the sidewalk? This penchant for the pavement leads to inevitable confrontations with pedestrians, and about a dozen times between our drop-off and the hostel we had to hop out the way whilst some speed demon tooted and came caning it up the pavement behind us.
We walked through labyrinthine alleyways between high-rise buildings, where locals sat on their stoops and cooked all kind of delights, stirring at pots and fixing us with a bemused gaze as we passed by trying to make sense of the bizarre route that Google maps was leading us on.
When we got to the hostel, sweat dripping down our brows, we were told that there had been a mistake and all the rooms were booked. The Chinese owner apologised profusely and offered to pay for a taxi to take us to his brother’s hotel. Resisting the urge to cause a scene we hopped in a cab and relocated to a hostel a mile or so across town. Having booked a “luxury room with a window”, at the other hotel, we were keen to ensure we received the very best. The manager at our new hotel had teeth that resembled recently skittled bowling pins and a handshake about as reliable as a cowboy builder’s estimate. He told us that although he could not stretch to a window, we would recieve a room of the highest quality. Somewhat inevitably, we ended up banged up in some dingey cell at the back of the building. To add insult to injury, we would only be permitted this “luxury” for one night before we’d have to move to a smaller room, presumably so that he could rent out our room to some more important guests.
In spite of this inauspicious start we quickly came to like Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a bustling metropolis full of life, laughter and exhaust fumes. Old French colonial architecture ties in well with modern office buildings and communist tenaments. We were blown away at how open and friendly the people were. Official relations with the USA have only recently been reconciled, and we expected the Vietnamese to be accordingly frosty towards westerners. Without exception during the two days we were there, we were treated with courtesy and respect. Old Saigon was the last city to fall during the war, and I think it’s fair to say that there’s much less sympathy for the Communist cause down here than there is up north in Hanoi. We have no other Vietnamese cities to compare it with, but it isn’t controversial to say that Ho Chi Minh City is communist in name only. The shopping streets are lined with Gucci, Versace, Adidas and the Vietnamese equivalent of the Thai 7/11 supermarket chain. We’d expected a regulated, pro-Soviet kind of industrials city, but found the place to be more like a more unhinged, eastern version of Paris.
On our first night in Ho Chi Minh we went to bed at about eleven. I’d developed a pretty shocking case of traveller’s diarrhoea and couldn’t stray too far from a bog. Hollie was pretty knackered too – coming down with sinusitis after our time in dusty Cambodia. Imagine our delight when the neighbouring hotel decided to start a spot of DIY joinery at more or less the exact same time we turned the light off. Hammer and drill were in use until about four in the morning, despite my repeated shouts and banging on the wall. I mean, who starts their DIY at half eleven at night!? The next morning at about nine Hollie was in the shower when I recieved a call from a woman who worked on the front desk.
Abrupt Woman: “Excuse me sir, we are coming to move your things to your new room.”
Tommy: “We have the room until twelve?
Abrupt Woman: “No, we need to move you now…”
Tommy: “My girlfriend is in the shower…”
Abrupt Woman: “NOW NOW NOW!”
Tommy: “WELL THERE’S NO NEED FOR THAT! WE WILL BE OUT WHEN WE ARE READY!
(Slams phone down).
Still, at least our new room had the window that we’d previously been promised. Only opening it didn’t provide much relief, as it was a window onto the same pissing corridor which we had to walk down to get to our room.
On our first night in Ho Chi Minh we took the decision to book a flight home to be with our family. As I’ve said before, there’s no point trying to carry on when your head’s 5000 miles away from where it needs to be. As a result of this, we had only one full day in Ho Chi Minh before we would be leaving for England. The two activities that we got up to on our final full day away actually happened the other way round to the way I’m about to describe them, but I’m the one writing this and I’m going to flip them round, for dramatic effect.
We visited the “War Remnants Museum” first of all. It was a short walk from the hotel, through a lovely open park full of yoga practitioners. Up until the nineties the museum was known as the very objectively titled “Museum of American and Chinese War Crimes”. As expected, the museum was an onslaught of accusations against the recent tormentors of Vietnam. There were eyewitness accounts of American war crimes, including the execution of civilians. There were all kinds of unimaginably cruel weapons on display, along with some pretty graphic photography. By far and away the most moving gallery featured pictures of the deformities that had occurred in children born during and after the war, as a result of the US policy of dropping napalm and agent orange on huge areas of the countryside. Biased as the museum was, it’s very difficult to make a case for the American involvement in Vietnam. The tactics and weaponry used (and sanctioned by the Whitehouse) were horrific. How key members of the government at the time – such as President Nixon – weren’t tried for war crimes, is anybody’s guess. In war there are always atrocities on both sides, but you have to say that the resources that the USA poured into devastating vast swathes of this stunning country is pretty unforgiveable. The USA was fighting an ideological war in Vietnam to stop the spread of communism. Though the Vietnamese won the battle, the advertising boards, western shops and skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City suggest that they didn’t win the war.
Before we came to Vietnam I read a book called The Quiet American by Graham Greene. It’s an absolute gem of a novel written during the fifties, at a time when the French were still trying desperately to cling on to Vietnam as a colony of their empire. I became a bit obsessed with the book, which was based mainly in Saigon. Maybe I neglected to mention before that Saigon is the original name for Ho Chi Minh City. When the communist north finally took control of the city in 1975, they named it Ho Chi Minh in honour of the revolutionary who had lead the Viet Cong in their struggle for independence. Aaaanyway, one of the key locations in The Quiet American is a luxurious art deco hotel called the Majestic. It overlooks the Saigon river and provides great views over the whole of the city. We walked to the hotel and asked an immaculately dressed bellboy if we’d be allowed in dressed in sweaty, skimpy clothes. He welcomed us up and we took the elevator up to the cocktail bar and viewing area, trying all the time to look dignified and not like a couple of bums. We had the place to ourselves and picked a balcony table which affored spectacular views over the city.
Across a main road saturated with rush hour traffic the Saigon river whizzed along at a rate of knots. The water was blue – the way that water should be, as opposed to the muddy brown of the Mekong. All sorts of jungle foliage had dropped in the water and was being whisked along in the current, like tiny little islands. Huge container ships were moored against the bank and the spark from a lone welder could be seen even at a distance of two miles away. On the horizon, an eclectic mix of skyscrapers pushed their way out of the smog and into the air, like trees in the rainforest competing to break the canopy. a dozen or so cranes were at work, putting the flesh on the skeletons of new tower blocks. Like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh is a city on the move and it’s hard to see that slowing down anytime soon.
We sat sipping gin and tonics that had cost about the same as a night’s accomodation here, but they were really good. Though in some ways we were sorry to be going home, we were content in the knowledge that we’d made the very best of the time we’d had, which is what life is all about. We’ll be back of course, but for now our adventure was over. As we walked back to the hotel to pack, we followed an impeccably suited and booted old white man. He smelled of cologne and looked perfectly at ease with himself in this craziest of cities – he could have been the ghost of Graham Greene himself, nonchalantly wandering the streets in search of inspiration. It’s no surprise that he found it here.
The next day we flew from Ho Chi Minh to Doha, arriving in the dead of night over the flickering naked flames of oil towers. We transferred to a flight back to Manchester, and those two flights were the longest of my life. The traveller’s diarrhoea of the previous day had gone from bad to worse, and I visited the bog no less than twelve times over two eight hour flights. As we began our approach I inevitably had the urge to go again, and the descent into Manchester was a nervous affair as a result of this. As we touched down on the tarmac I attempted to ease the tension in my bowels by letting off a subtle fart. This in itself was a risky operation but I was able to perform this task successfully and undetected. Or so I thought, until the aroma entered the nostrils of an air hostess who was sat facing us, still buckled into her seat and unable to escape. She grimaced as I buried my face in my hands, and Hollie smiled apologetically at her as if to say “You can’t take him anywhere”.
Going from Vietnam to Manchester in less than 24 hours is the equivalent of stepping out of a Salvador Dali painting and straight into a Lowry. There was snow on the hills of the Peak District and we could see our breath in the air. Of course, we had no warm clothes of which to speak, and our teeth were chattering as soon as we left the aircraft.
We took the train from Manchester to Derby, costing us thirty quid each – our entire daily budget in South East Asia. My Mum picked us up and took us back home to Belper, and we’d gone full circle.
I’ll get round to polishing this website a bit over the coming weeks, and maybe writing a bit of a summary of our trip. In the meantime all that remains is to thank each and every one of you for reading my blog – it means a lot. I plan to keep writing as regularly as possible so stay tuned for more posts, and an announcement regarding my next trip away.
Peace and love always,
Tommy and Hollie x