1 January 2002
Surprised I’m capable of writing, after the crazy high-jinks of last night. Or perhaps not. Even though this isn’t really New Year for Vietnamese people (that’s in February), things were looking hopeful when Bill and I drifted into the town centre at 7pm; the place was packed. At the top of the steps to the cinema was a massive banner proclaiming: “Happy New Year!”, and beneath that a band was playing Vietnamese pop. Everyone – almost all of them locals, we seemed to be the only foreigners around – was getting on down, dancing and revelling in very high spirits.
Then, at 9.30pm sharp, the band said (as far as we could tell) “Thank you and goodnight,” and everyone vanished into the night. From party central to ghost town in 10 minutes! After quite a bit of traipsing through deserted streets we happened up on Saigon Nite Bar, which was surprisingly lively and, thankfully, stayed that way until past midnight.
It’s in a way ironic that I saw in the New Year in the Saigon Nite Bar, as I’d been expecting to see it in in Saigon itself. Only it didn’t happen that way. The journey from Nha Trang to Saigon went ok, even if the train was the grottiest I had been on and it arrived in Saigon at 3.55am rather than the 5.45am on the timetable. That said, it’s possibly the first time ever in my life that I’ve been able to grouse about a train arriving early!
[In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that this wasn’t my first time in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. I’d been there a couple of years earlier, when it was the starting point for an organised tour to Cambodia. Then, I had had to get myself to Saigon but the travel company had arranged everything from there – a couple of days in the city, overland travel to Phnom Penh and a flight from there to Siem Reap to see the famous Angkor Wat. It had been OK but it had convinced me that independent travel suited me better than having someone make the arrangements for me.]
I would have headed for the backpacker area around Phạm Ngũ Lão Street but Bill wanted to stay somewhere a bit classier. After a fair bit of searching (hefty backpack, anyone?) I settled on the Victory Hotel, which was within walking distance of many tourist sites, including the backpacker area.
The hotel was a bit ‘tired’ but it was comfortable enough, and as the rooms had a bit of a 70s vibe I could pretend I was a correspondent during the Vietnam War (sad but true). And best of all it had a swimming pool. On the roof! It was awesome. The hotel’s not the highest building in Saigon by any means but it was one of the tallest in that part of the city, and from the roof I could see so far and so much: modern, tall commercial buildings; two-storey Colonial-era shop-houses in all states of repair (and disrepair); people hawking on the street; planes arriving at or leaving the airport, all things. Yet here I was above, detached from it all. There might have been all kinds of chaos going on in the streets below, but on the roof it was so peaceful, and even more so with me being the only person there.
“Life really does not get better than this,” I told myself as I swam up and down in the hazy yellow light of late afternoon. Even though I suspect I was scammed by a hotel employee who materialised as I was leaving the pool and insisted there was a $1 fee for using the pool, even for people staying at the hotel, I still felt chilled.
Bill arrived the following morning and I walked to the airport to collect him. (The airport was only about four miles from the hotel.)
Bill’s approach to packing is that it is that if you don’t travel as a cliché don’t travel at all. So his luggage consists almost entirely of the most garish Hawaiian shirts he could find. He’s like 50s/60s California in human form.
I’d always joked that, with his curly hair and Rayban-type specs, Bill looked like a young Henry Kissinger. That was before I learned what a git Kissinger actually was – he’s regarded as a war criminal in Cambodia, for a start – and, on reflection, Vietnam probably isn’t the best place to be with someone who looks like Kissinger. Although I suppose it’s probably safer in the south of Vietnam than in the north.
Mind you, I don’t think we’ve encountered any hostility so far. Or rather we have, but less because of Bill looking like Kissinger and more because Bill is probably the most obvious tourist on the block. We started our Saigon tourist trail with a visit to the Reunification Palace. It was built in the 1960s as the official home of the President of South Vietnam, and it became the building that probably best symbolises the North’s victory over the South: when the North’s army’s tanks ploughed through the gates and settled on the lawns on 30 April 1975, the South was finished. Which is why, I suppose, it became known as the Reunification Palace.
On the way back to the hotel some kids tried to pick Bill’s bag while pretending to sell him a cigarette lighter. The ‘trick’ involves holding a tray of lighters, or any item, really, very close to the ‘mark’s’ body, or over their bag or whatever, so the mark can’t see the ‘seller’s’ other hand – or someone else’s hand – dipping into their pocket or bag. Bill realised what was happening and stopped the kids, but he was still upset and cross. (As am I when someone tries to rob or cheat me; I’ve come to your country in good faith, not to hurt, rob, exploit or denigrate you, so why are you treating me with disrespect, that kind of thing.) Anyway, that’s how we came to be on (almost) the first bus out of HCMC the following morning.
And that was to Dalat. It’s one of the main, if not the main, population centres in the Central Highlands. I think it started to grow in Colonial times, when it was popular with foreign administrators looking for a cool escape from the heat of lowland areas. Now it is, apparently, Vietnam’s honeymoon capital, which probably explains the tasteful swan-shaped boats on the local lake (Xuan Huong Lake), and the naming of a local beauty spot as “The Valley of Love”.
At Bill’s request we’re staying in the “Crazy House”, a mini hotel built by Mrs Hang Nga, the daughter of Truong Chinh, a former president of Vietnam. She’s (supposedly) a trained architect, but the hotel looks less like architecture and more like art: Gaudi, Dali, that kind of thing.
We’re staying in the “Tiger Room”, so called, I assume, because of the papier mâché tiger with red fairy-light eyes that’s slinking down the wall in one corner. It is actually pretty cool, even if the bathroom would give a British health and safety inspector palpitations: a power point two inches from a shower head? What a great idea! And lighting a fire in the picturesque hearth causes choking smoke to seep into the bathroom behind it.
Yesterday we took a jeep tour of some of sights on the outskirts of the city. The highlight for me was Datanla Falls. It was a boiling hot day and we were at the falls for a couple of hours. Our guide, Lon, stripped to his shorts and went for a swim. I coped for about an hour but then I just had to get in the water. Without a cossie! Fortunately, I was wearing a dark, long-sleeved, long top and I managed to maintain my dignity by wearing that and my knickers, and going right to the edge of the water before removing my trousers, but I still must have looked a right sight, particularly when I was trying to get out and kept slipping on this mud and stuff everywhere. A bloke nearby had a video camera, so I expect to see the whole sorry episode on the internet soon. Probably on some comedy website, though, rather than a porno one, because it certainly was not pretty. Indignity aside it was an incredible experience – I got so close to one of the waterfalls that the water was bouncing off my head, and in places the current was so strong it took my breath away. I may be a bit old for such behaviour but I’m happy that I did it anyway!
Less exciting was a stop in the “Chicken Village”. It’s home to members of the Koho ethnic group and its ‘real’ name is Lang Dinh An, only it’s better known as the “Chicken Village” because of the humungous statue of a chicken that dominates it. Lon told us the chicken commemorates a local folk tale, a love story in which the chicken plays a part (in a sweet way not a pervy one), but I did wonder exactly how old that story was, given that the (concrete) chicken looked old enough to date back only about as far as the time when Dalat started opening up to gullible Western tourists with money to spend on Chicken-related souvenirs during stopovers on Jeep trips.
After lunch we called in on the “Crazy Monk”, who lives in Lam Ty Ni Pagoda. He’s basically a recluse who produces several works of ‘art’ every day, many of them just hippy-type slogans in fancy fonts. He’s one of Dalat’s celebrities, but for some reason I couldn’t stop thinking of the episode of Father Ted where the fair comes to town and one of the attractions is a cat sitting on a turntable. The Crazy Monk was nice enough but I got the feeling he was getting a bit fed up of having tourists traipsing through his pagoda, even if they do buy his artworks as souvenirs.
Then we went from a present celeb to a former one – Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam – and his 1930’s-built Art Deco palace. The outside veers scarily close towards British municipal architecture but the inside is lovely – stylish and chic but comfortable enough to live in. The gardens are quite restful too.
Highlight of our independent explorations has to be a jaunt today on the Dalat Crémaillère. The only ‘proper’ railway in Vietnam is the one that runs down the coast, but in Dalat there’s what’s left of a crémaillère, a cog railway, built in the 1930s to run 60 miles or so between Dalat and the city of Phan Rang-Thap Cham. The railway was closed in the 1960s because it was bombed so often by the VC, but a stretch of it has been restored, and it’s now possible to take a 7 or 8km journey along it to the village of Trai Mat.
The station (again Art Deco) is really cool, and the train carriages – authentic 1930s ones – are the epitome of elegance. Just as stunning, although in a different way, was the scenery: mountain after mountain cut into many-stepped terraces, to maximise growing space – which probably explains why Dalat is so famous for its fresh produce and flowers.