The flight to Saigon was quite eventful, the plane was late from Penang to KL, then when it came and completed the flight, they could not get the door open. I was not quite on the edge of panic, I had an hour to get on the sky train and make it over to the international terminal, I was right for sure. After probably twenty plus staff and numerous consultations, someone pressed the correct button and whoopee out we all poured, slightly sweaty as the Captain had switched the air conditioner off. I headed straight for the transit counter and was told to hurry and board the sky train, just happening to glance at the departure screen and noticed that the HCM flight had been rescheduled and was now leaving from the terminal building I was in… relief and amazement as I was saved from a hasty gallop and confused about an international departure from a domestic terminal. Mine is not to question, just do.

I had taken the precaution of getting a Vietnamese visa on line, as it turns out, a complete waste of time since when you go to the passport control, you are politely redirected to a small window with two smaller openings where you hand over your visa/passport and are given a form to fill out which, if I am not wrong was the same one I had completed online. Ninety minutes later I was summoned to the second small window and asked for US$25 (which I thought I had also paid and my passport handed back to me with a smart new visa. As I descended to the luggage collection hall, my small and unimportant looking piece of luggage was standing all alone in the cleared area, not a soul in site and no other luggage within the area, I was not sure if I felt sorry for me or it, but there was a sense of warmth as I gripped the retractable handle and wheeled it off.

Watch the whole taxi scene at HCM airport, it seems that local cabs are not permitted to ‘tout’ for business and that the taxi business is in the hands of either the Government or an astute group of private operators who somehow manage to charge about twice the going rate. There is little that you can do about it, but be warned that on your return to the airport for departure, you can use the every day taxi cabs at a fare and decent price.

The Majestic Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in Vietnam, it is over or near (depending on who you speak to, 100 years old) the rooms are sort of Rafflesish, all dark wood and fluffy pillows, my rooms looks out onto the mighty, badly polluted, Saigon River which starts its life in Cambodia and wends its way down through the city of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) where it is the principal source of water, flowing to the ocean and also joining the mighty Mekong river which is the life blood of so many countries in this region, it provides a means of travel, a food source, water for the harvests and everyday use. Just how long it can last with the demands being as polluted and such demands being placed on it, is anyone’s guess. Specially since it serves Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand… all doing their darndest to make sure that they get the maximum use from it.

The markets in Saigon are still the throbbing heart of the food scene in South Vietnam, they are the places you go to get your hands on all those specialty Vietnamese foods that are so addictive, pickled fruits and vegetables of many many kinds, its weird that we do not associate Asia with pickled preserves, it seems that we have always associate this long loved tradition with European heritage, but if you think about it, every country on earth has ways of preserving their harvest against shortages. Indeed it is likely that much of the methods of preserving was brought back to Europe by people returning from travels in many countries. Much of the harvest of the seas and rivers was preserved in various ways in Asia, some of which we have come to enjoy, others we have yet to embrace (fermented or salted fish for example which many find too aromatic, unless born in Scandinavian countries where this food is much loved), yet we embrace fish sauce and that in fact is fully fermented fish but in liquid form. I find the food of Vietnam to  be simple, approachable and real, I think like very many countries, there is two distinct cuisines, apart from regional, that is what the people cook and eat and what people eat when they eat out. I also suspect that the regional differences between the north and south of the country are very defined. The celebration of Vietnamese food and cooking is all about simplicity and a very direct approach.

The famous Pho tends to dominate and is available in three forms, beef, chicken or vegetarian, no matter what you choose it is a delicious dish with all its garnishes and add ons. Seafood is much loved in South Vietnam and the fish farms as well as the fishermen of the Mekong Delta ensure a good supply. Pork of course plays a large part in the local diet and foods since it reproduces so easily and with such stunning results. Duck is also very popular in Vietnam and outranks chicken as a favourite meat.

For more of an overview of Vietnamese foods see…

The second day in I had hired a local guide, I was anxious to cover the markets (there are many but the two main ones are a wholesale and retail market… the wholesale is in China town area and the main retail market is located in central HCM. As well I was keen to see a couple of smaller local markets and to experience the street food. The latter was probably a mistake, since I later paid the price for indiscriminate eating, but that did not prevent me from exploring some excellent seafood at a very popular restaurant which had all the cooking done on low trestles to one side and if you cared, you could go and watch them cook. The meal was long and leisurely and a great flow of dishes that started with spring roll wraps in fresh rice paper and ended with a whole fish that I seem to have become obsessed about. The latter was accompanied by salt and pepper that was moistened with fresh lime juice as a counter to the rich meat of the fish and completely delicious. A late afternoon nap was essential to prepare for another onslaught in the evening at a quite unique restaurant that was located in a very old house and made use of slightly damaged old dishes and pots to serve the food. It was a slight trial as the guide had booked a table at the topmost level and that meant balancing over a narrow bridge that crossed a pool of water, clambering up a very steep set off stairs that rightly could be called a ladder and then stepping up three steps that had some of the steepest stairs I have ever seen and at the very top, you had to bob down to get through a door way that a midget would have found a challenge. I collapsed into the seat and decided there and then that some bottled courage was going to be needed and two gin and tonics provided the right amount of relaxation.

The meal was delicious and again was dominated by fish, and I suspect that the ice cubes in the gin may well have been an added culprit when it came to a ‘difficult’ stomach, yet one would have thought that the gin may well have counteracted that. I think in some ways, although I was boosted by the gin, I was worried about the descent and crossing of the water and it spoiled my evening. Turned out to be Valentines day and the streets of HCM were absolutely filled with young people buying and selling flowers. It’s quite remarkable that Saint Valentines day, which celebrates the life and death of a martyr from Rome and very much a European and USA experience, has become so popular in Asia. It shows once again the power of money which is undoubtedly what underlies the celebration and has now, little or nothing to do with the Roman Martyr. It was hard not to wonder if all those flowers would get sold and if not, what would happen to them, by next morning, none was in evidence and the streets were filled with rushing motor bikes instead. A tribute to the Communist party of Vietnam and its ever efficient ways. Mind you one should ask the question about why in heavens name they cannot fix the intense air pollution that engulfs HCM every day!

Sunrise over the Saigon river from my expensive hotel room was spectacular, mind you the room was double glazed I guess in order to save the delicate lungs and constitutions of the affluent who can afford the prices charged. (Don’t look at me like that!) You could, with effort, actually get to the fresh air, but it took a bit of opening and then, confronted by the relentless noise of a million motor bikes, as well as the exhaust fumes, the effort was clearly not rewarding. One of the joys of life in the tropics is the morning, it is kind of warm, mystical and soft, it embraces you with the potential of the day. Sadly in Saigon, even with the air conditioner turned off, the room remained cold and sure as hell did not resonate with tropical allure. Ah well, enough bagging Saigon, it does have other charms.

A trip by fast Hydrofoil down the Saigon river to Vung Tau which is the closest beach area to HCM city and very popular as a day trip with locals. The beach is a long stretch of sand and filled with rentable umbrellas and deck chairs with dozens of locals cavorting in the ocean. The area is most notable for the oil industry that is huge there. Vung Tau has another item of interest, a Russian housing and living enclave which is fully gated and secure, this has existed in this area for a long time. It is strange to see burly Russians on the hydrofoil and hear the language.

Lunch in Vung Tau is all about local seafood and the food and cooking of Southern Vietnam, it is cheap and delicious and available at many restaurants, we ended up at a two story restaurant off to one of the streets leading to the beach front called Nhuy Restaurant, the food was excellent and like many seafood restaurants in the country, the seafood is weighed and charged accordingly. My favourite was the deep fried fish that was served with a very delicious combination of salt, pepper and fresh lime juice. This balance of tastes is quite spectacular and I sat there pulling lumps of delicious (very fresh … since the animal was swimming only moments before) and dipping them into the salty sour mix. This whole meal which was for two people and in fact much more food than we had a right to confront, was less than A$30. Vietnamese food, contrary to what you may believe, is a simple and direct cuisine which balances the sweet, sour, salt tastes like the food of Thailand, but also includes the extensive use of fresh herbs which are served with many dishes.

The Majestic is the hotel where even if you are not staying there, is considered good form to drop into the main foyer and order a Gin and Tonic and for reasons which remain obscure to me at least, raise a glass to the courage of the western  reporters who lived there in splendid isolation and in some luxury, for the extent of the war in Vietnam. This maybe can give some insight into the situation, my memory is very biased in that like most others of my generation, I was strongly opposed to the war and the USA’s intervention, as well as the fact that conscripted Australians were sent there as a way of expressing solidarity with the USA, something that was roundly condemned in Australia.  But read the story of the people who were there..

The airport at HCM is, to say the least a little ‘rigid’ and perhaps lacking in some of the standards we have come to expect in most airports, I was caught between a rock and a hard place, having stayed in my room at the Majestic until 12 midday and then caught a taxi to meet up with my daughter and her partner who had been travelling in the North of Vietnam, we sat down for lunch and then they headed off to explore HCM, I decided that since I had a Business class ticket and usually that meant you could check in any time, I would do that and seek some comfort in the Business class lounge… Vietnam however decided to remind me that whilst it is good and proper to travel at what ever level you deem acceptable, rules and regulations would be imposed and that for a 6.30 pm flight, 4.30 pm check in would be adequate. I sat for a couple of hours in the steel grey severe surrounds of Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Thank goodness for my ereader and an ability to allow a book to absorb me. I also suspect that as a ‘concept’ the business class lounge is not quite acceptable and so is placed at one end of a very long terminal building requiring you to descend and eventually find a chair. Indeed in fairness, should you want it there was plenty of wine, food, tea and coffee, so I decided to forgive them.

My flight to Singapore was delayed and I worried that I might miss the connection with my flight to Melbourne, also we would likely land and deplane at a different terminal to the one that I knew my flight to Melbourne was departing from… one should never underestimate the efficiency of the Singaporeans, they did indeed land at a different terminal and in short order I was whisked in a sky train to the terminal I needed and along to the departure lounge in plenty of time for my flight. Its odd that when you travel, you do have these minor panicky moments.

This is not the fault of the airline, after all it was me who booked the overnight flight, but, leaving Singapore at 12.30 am local time (think 3.30 am Melbourne time) I for one find a dinner at 3.30 am in the morning, just that one step to hard, so I politely declined, mind you a sandwich may have been good, but that wasn’t offered. I decided instead that a breakfast in Business Class of Singapore Airlines would be  a great treat and I would give myself over to that special treat!

No one can say that those flat bed on the majority of airlines these days are not great, maybe at 3.30 am Melbourne time, I was just so tired it all was not going to matter, but I slept a good five hours. Yes I know, not quality sleep, but at least the arrival in Australia was not quite the zombie moment it has been on a few occasions over the years. Mind you I was still not up for the unseemly rush that is de rigeur for passengers as they arrive into Australia and who can blame them with the horrors of Melbourne airport.

I digress

After a good five hour snooze and yes, I cannot remember a thing, I woke as the cabin lights came on. Feeling hungry I have always enjoyed a good breakfast, mind you some of those on offer from the cafes offering plates of food that would make a strong man blanch, as well as doing things to scrambled eggs that no egg should ever have to endure, can be very daunting. But I figured fresh juice, some cereal and fresh fruit and maybe a fried egg or two. Did not happen. I know that fresh juice and non soggy toast or croissant is a big ask, I also guess that a good fried, poached egg would also be a difficulty, but omelette is not it seems and that along with some moderately awful sausages was the order of the day. Suffice to say that I will have many second thoughts about flying SG again, considering that their airfare is so non competitive. And below is NOT what happened.


~ by peterwatson on March 21, 2012.

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