“Oh that magic feeling; nowhere to go”. I don’t know whether the Beatles were singing about homelessness or just how it feels to be in a place you’ve never been before and having no idea of your next move. If the latter they had it right as far as I’m concerned. After fifteen hours of flying, and twenty of hanging around airports (Heathrow, Muscat, Bangkok), I arrived dead beat, in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday at 09:15 local time, 02:15 GMT. I thought one last flight – to the island of Phu Quoc, off South East Cambodia but belonging to Vietnam – would be easier than the rigours of HCMC or, as the locals still have it, Saigon. But when the lady at the airport office quoted 870,000 Vietnamese Dong for the short one way flight (I aim to bus and ferry my way back across the Mekong Delta) I got my sums wrong. Thinking she was asking £400 I decided to bus it in the morning. A currency you must divide by 30,000 to get the equivalent in sterling takes some getting used to. Later that night I dithered at an ATM for several minutes, checking and rechecking before deciding that, yes, I really did want two million dong.
That earlier mistake at the airport swung the balance. Like a true backpacker I pushed past hustling taxi men to board a public bus whose driver said would take me downtown Saigon. He charged 10000 dong, about 30p. Minutes later the girl in school uniform two seats in front passed back a scrap of paper saying in English that the driver had cheated me and should have charged 3000. I laughed and thanked her; she left her seat to sit next to me and say her name was Uien (“Oo-een”) and she supports Man United. It’s nice to tell people you live close to Manchester; instant recognition across the globe. Uien was so friendly, getting off the bus to flag a motorbike taxi and instruct him to take me to a backpacker district packed with cheap, clean hotels. She told me what to pay (50p) and refused the $5 I wanted to give her.
(Postscript, March 2011. I wouldn’t make such an offer now. The westerner’s reflex – superficially understandable but unable to bear close motivational scrutiny – to flash the cash in response to any kind act degrades simple human relations and subverts the pleasure of giving as its own reward. In the west, would we respond with cash to the neighbour who takes in our washing when it rains and we’re out, or the stranger in an unfamiliar city who not only gives directions but walks with us to see we don’t take a wrong turn?)
My hotel’s friendly; everyone seems to be, even to the French and Americans. People are more interested in bettering their standard of living than raking over the past except as a source, entirely valid IMHO, of national pride and as a way of bringing in dollars. The food’s incredible – as good as Thailand if last night’s crab in tamarind is anything to go on – and the Vietnamese coffee outstanding; thick and black and busting with flavour. (I hear the beans are roasted in butter to give that unique viscosity.) Saigon is warm but at this time of year only mildly humid. It’s badly polluted though, and the traffic is something else. Crossing Dien Bien Phu Avenue yesterday took nerves of steel but I’d studied how the locals do it and was determined not to be fazed by the swarms of motorcyclists that come at you from every direction. You must step out confidently – DBP Ave is as wide and busy as the big London highways – and walk slowly but consistently. The motorbikers, calculating your direction and speed, weave their way past, leaving you free to keep an eye out for the bigger traffic that won’t make allowances unless forced to – and who would want to play that game? I didn’t do so well this morning though. Halfway across, with rush hour in full flow, I lost my nerve and stopped. That threw the bikers, who had to make drastic turns then, just as drastically, take further corrective action to avoid colliding with one another. Later the hotel people told me that stopping mid street is the one thing a pedestrian must never do.
Over coffee this morning I read the English paper, Vietnam News, for a fascinating glimpse of a dilemma similar in principle if not in scale and detail to that faced by China: encouraging a vigorous entrepreneurialism while keeping tight control. The main story had the Party General Secretary saying a three year drive to emulate the moral leadership of Uncle Ho had paid huge productivity dividends. Other stories, to a western reader surprisingly business focused, were: tourism down but seafood and agricultural exports up; plans to make it illegal for the big construction projects visible all over town to go uninsured; what to do about world beating levels of pollution in both Hanoi and HCMC.
On that last, I’m flying to Phu Qoc today as the pollution really is high and HCMC not that interesting architecturally; unlike Hanoi, described in my guide as the most beautiful capital in S.E Asia. Alas, I won’t see Hanoi this trip. It’s too far and I don’t want to spend my eight days in the country on planes, buses and trains. Hence the Mekong Delta. One thing I might do on my return to HCMC is visit the maze of underground tunnels twenty kilometres out of the city, built by Vietcong in their war against first the French, then the south, then the south and Americans. It’s a big tourist attraction but, irony of ironies, tunnels wide enough for the Vietnamese – but impassable to your average westerner – have had to be specially widened. Funny old world innit?
Talked out, tara.