Once again hemiexplorers throw open their blog and enlist the mind of someone else to compose the prose, splurge the words, above all tell all of the past fortnight, introducing Mike’s dad… 266 days in.
We eventually met up with the intrepid hemiexplorers around the pool at the Lotte Legend Saigon on Christmas eve, a day later than planned due to our flight from Heathrow being delayed and hence missing our connection in Hong Kong; a tedious three and a half hour wait at the BA transfer station only to discover that they could not get us another flight that day! With that, they put us up in the Marriot just outside the airport, at least we can now claim to have been to Hong Kong! With us on stand-by for a flight the following morning (although they never told us it was stand-by) and only half an hour before it was due to take-off we found out we were on! I’m not sure what would have happened if we had not been able to get on this flight as all others seemed to be fully booked. We may have had to spend Christmas in the Hong Kong airport!
Ho Chi Minh City was hot, sticky and teaming with mopeds. They came from all directions. Just as well we had a taxi not a hire car; I would not have made it out of the car park! There must be some rules of the road… although I’m not sure what they are. After arriving at the hotel (some 18 hours later than planned) and unpacking we set up at the pool and waited for Helen and Michael to find us. Just in time for lunch (as always!?) they returned from a morning out and we could throw our arms around they for the first time in almost a year.
The hotel was hosting a Christmas eve party that night which none of us fancied so we decided to check out a local establishment for dinner. Now I know $30 for four people with a seemingly endless supply of beer is probably expensive in this part of the world, and Michael was at pains to point out that if I had local currency it would have worked out significantly cheaper, but to me it seemed extraordinary value for money.
I’ve touched on the traffic earlier, but from a pedestrian point of view it’s even worse. First impressions are that anyone trying to cross the road must have a death wish. But with our two guides at our sides we simply stepped out and walked slowly across with all the mopeds steering around us. Once across, we looked back amazed that we had managed to cross a road we would never have attempted back home.
Arriving back at the hotel we found the party to be winding down and eventually over by 11.00 pm (call that a party?), which was just as well as our rooms overlooked the festivities, so at least we managed to get some sleep. I’m not sure what we were expecting in the way of Christmas celebrations in Vietnam but I was surprised that just about every shop, store, hotel etc., no matter how small, had some form of decorations wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, although it must be said that some of the Christmas trees had seen better days.
On Christmas day, we set out to visit the Jade Emperor pagoda and botanic gardens. At the temple everyone was feeding the pigeons a la Trafalgar Square (bird flu anyone?) and inside was thick clag of smoke, incense and tourists. The botanic gardens were not at all what we expected. More of a zoo with a fun fair attached and some minimal planting, although the bonsai trees were impressive. By UK standards the zoo conditions looked pretty poor so we chose not to explore in any detail. With Christmas music blaring out all over we did not spend too long there.
Returning to the sanctuary of the hotel we had a swim before lunch, after which Helen and Michael continued the tradition of a British Christmas afternoon and took in a blockbuster movie (the latest Star Wars: Rogue One) although rather than slouched in front of the TV in a sprout induced coma, they went off to the cinema, whilst we just lazed by the pool.
On Boxing day we first took in the local HCM City museum before checking out the opera house and other places of architectural interest before the eventual return to the swimming pool leaving Helen and Michael to visit the War Remnants museum. The following day we had booked a day long trip to a floating market (among other things) on the Mekong. It was interesting driving through the Vietnamese countryside and made a pleasant change from the pollution of Ho Chi Minh City. However, it must be said that the floating market was really disappointing consisting of three boats selling onions. We passed it by rapidly! After lunch we took a bicycle ride along the river path. I say we, but as I have never ridden a push bike in my life I was not about to start now, so I left the other three to it while I sat in the relative comfort of the restaurant. Two minutes later Val returned having nearly come off the bike and almost knocking some poor fellow onto the Mekong; he had been too busy beheading a chicken to notice Val approaching!
The following day we left the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City and headed for the island of Phu Quoc for a week’s R&R.
We were met at the airport by the hotel’s driver. After loading our suitcases in the back of the pick-up he realised that he had locked the car keys inside so we had to get a taxi whilst the hotel sent him a spare key. Apparently this was not the first occasion he had done this. Arriving at the hotel we found they were overbooked and we were offered an upgrade to a pool villa. We reluctantly accepted! Our cases eventually arrived and we settled quickly into the slow pace of life here. The highlight of the first couple of days was when our kettle exploded.
I find the currency here a little difficult to get your head around. Apparently there is some 25,000 Dong to the US $. Most things are much cheaper than they seem. When you see something costing 100,000 Dong it is difficult to appreciate that this is only around $4, forget about living like a millionaire, you can actually be a millionaire!
We booked another day trip on New Year’s eve to visit various locations of interest on the south of the island. At first it seemed that we were only going to visit various hotels as we were the first on the bus and it spent over an hour picking everyone else up. We eventually got underway and visited such places as a pearl “factory”, pepper farm and fishing village before having lunch on Sao Beach, purportedly one of the best beaches on the island. What a disappointment. I cannot deny that it had the potential to be a beautiful beach, but someone needs to collect all the rubbish laying around first. It is truly amazing that the local restaurants fronting the beach appear to care nothing about the cleanliness of their main attraction. Luckily, the relatively small beach we have at our hotel is kept clean by the hotel staff, who even collect the seaweed growing just offshore; if it keeps the cost of the salad down…
After lunch we then visited a fish sauce factory and, yes, it did smell to high heaven, before ending our trip at the Coconut Prison, a prisoner of war camp where the southern Vietnamese and American forces held north Vietnamese prisoners. The life there as depicted by many mannequins and story boards was brutal and inhumane to say the least and it was a relief to leave. Man seems to have an unlimited capacity to devise more and more horrific ways of inflicting pain on their fellow man.
We eventually arrived back at our hotel in time for a quick swim before the start of the New Year celebration. The hotel had arranged a grand buffet with a local band who were foot stompingly good and had us all on our feet. The only hitch being when there was a large explosion and all the lights went out, Michael suggested that someone had switched on a kettle!
We had intended to take another trip, this time to snorkel off of one or two reefs in to vicinity, but after all the hanging around we previously experienced and speaking to others who had already been on the trip and felt it was not worthwhile, we decided against it and so spent the last few days recovering from our New Year’s eve exertions.
So eventually we leave Vietnam, saying farewell to Helen and Michael, wishing them well on the next phase of their grand tour of Asia: more of Vietnam before crossing into Laos and then…….? Tam Biet!