Behold the recently elevated Lady Michelle Lia McEwing, looking regally resplendent in Saigon on the day of her installation. On that very same day, her husband was also elevated in a parallel ceremony. He is now Laird Fraser Beath McEwing.
You think I’m joking, but it’s true. As a birthday gift, Michelle purchased a small (very small, in fact) plot of land in Scotland for me which brought with it the title of Laird. Had it been in England, I would have become Lord Fraser Beath McEwing, but because of my Scottish heritage I preferred Laird. Michelle also bought herself a little plot so she wouldn’t have to rely on me for her title. We may now, at our discretion, add Laird and Lady to all official documents, business cards and licenses. Michelle’s generosity did not stop there. She also bought me a fabulous new Mac computer which I will use for obligations and ceremonial matters expected of me as a Laird, along with a computer music system that is yet to arrive.
On the same night as our investiture (incidentally, we’re still waiting for the Queen’s letter of acknowledgement and the official notice as to where I stand in succession to the British throne), we were waiting for our horse-drawn carriage when I noticed an establishment called a Bier Garden. I had to think like a Laird by adopting the British definition which is beir:a movable frame on which a coffin or a corpse is placed before burial or cremation or on which it is carried to the grave. “Och! what a strange wee thing to have in the middle of a Saigon garden,” I exclaimed in broad Scottish brogue.
Back to travel. Our guide Randy (his name, not his inclinations), and a driver Toyotaed us to the Mekong Delta region today so we could appreciate its vast waterways from a nicely appointed, long skinny boat which glided its way down tributaries and across huge intersections of rivers. In the narrower rives the houses are built out over the taupe coloured water, some of them toppling into it. The river people who live in them rely on the water to give and take almost everything in their lives. I won’t get too detailed here, but I wouldn’t like to fall into it – which would be quite easy, as we found when we had to negotiate steep, crumbling concrete steps and straddle rocking boat decks when we got on and off to visit places of interest. I asked Randy if anybody in his tour parties had landed in the virtual-cesspools and he said yes, because they hadn’t obeyed his safety instructions. Had he jumped in to save them? ‘No, not my fault,’ he replied. ‘So put the rope.’
We spent some hours in the Toyota where front seat occupants have to wear seat belts but those in the back seat are not required to and can be legally catapulted from the car in the case of a severe impact. During our trip we heard how communism in Vietnam had gone from idealism to corruption. Five million party officials enjoy luxurious lifestyles and wealth while the rest of the population has to pay through the nose for education, health care and aged care on near-poverty wages. Old people rely in their children to care for them. If there is no help forthcoming they simply die of neglect.
Randy upped the motorbike count to 60 million, which I wouldn’t dispute as we drove along in rivers of them. He said that riding scooters for long distances was exhausting because of the heat and the carbon monoxide fumes. The way around his was to stop for a ‘hammock coffee’ every hour or so. You can stop at one of the numerous roadside open-plan coffee shops and, for one dollar, have a coffee. But for a dollar fifty you can also hire a hammock and sling yourself back to roadworthiness.
One answer to the discouragement of religion is a branch I’d never heard of called Cao Dai, only found in South Vietnam. We stopped at a colourful temple of shiny tiles that attempts to be a one-
god-fits-all. It caters to Christians, Hindus and Muslims plus their offshoots. The three religions are represented among the decorations, figures and artefacts in the church building, and all are overseen by a big, single eye which represents the universe watching them. There are both men and women priests, who can be married, but the study required to attain priesthood is daunting because it must cover so much religious dogma – some of it contradictory.
We also clambered up precipitous steps to see what you can make out of the humble coconut and rice using original low-tech methods, inspected an ancient looking house that I was discouraged to learn had been build the year I was born, lunched in a delightful colonial house where we were brought an elephant fish that had to remain on its edge for serving otherwise bad luck would happen to the eaters. I immediately thought of falling into the river, so I treated he fish with due reverence. On the boat trip back, we passed a huge fish farm in the river where you could see many dead fish floating on the surface of the annexed tanks. I asked Randy if they would be rushed to restaurants before they went stinky and he said no, that the other fish would eat them. I then had an image of one huge smiling fish in each tank.
On my pre-birthday day, when I was officially, but not actually, a year younger, we visited Saigon’s biggest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower. On the 49thfloor you get an unapparelled view of the city. A feature of the building is a helipad two thirds of the way up, looking like a huge petulant lip sticking out of the side. Very impressive until you discover that it is useless because helicopters are not allowed in the city airspace. Neither are people allowed to walk on the helipad because some of them would jump off and that would disrupt the building routine and make a mess on the road below. And so the lip sits there inert, a lemon monument to the architect.
We took the Heineken tour on the 65thfloor where, for a hefty fee, we got a lecture on how beer is made, a dreadful, jerky ride in a simulator wearing virtual reality helmets in which we had to imagine that we were turning into beer, a lesson on how to pull a beer which we were obliged to gulp down because the next eager group was just behind us, a go at a race car simulator in which I was guaranteed to run into the fence because the sudden intake of beer pushed me over .05, and on into a make-believe pub lounge where I had to throw down three more beers before being returned the to the street blotto. The parting gift was a bottle of Heineken each with our names on them. Having lost my wits, I left my personal bottle in the taxi. I hope the driver’s name is Fraser and he likes beer. We finished the evening at a nice-looking Vietnamese restaurant in the arcade near our residence. Unfortunately, nice looks were all it had. The picture of the food in the menu did not resemble that served on the platter for two. Furthermore, it had no taste whatsoever. It would have been more exciting if it was going off. Maybe I should blame Heineken for anesthetising my palate.
I awoke on my birthday with the promise from Michelle that I could do whatever I liked for the day – with some limitations. We had an indulgent breakfast and then legged it to the Ban Thanh Market where I bargained for socks (“but papa, we only have two pairs of blue socks, and I know you asked for three in blue but why won’t you take grey or back? Look very nice for you”), a pair of perfect shorts that didn’t fit because it was my body’s fault, a one size fits all heads (except mine) hat, and a belt at a leather price for a strip of plastic (“but look here papa, the belt reversible so you get two and only pay for one. Plastic? Shhh! Don’t say loud because not good for other customer to hear”). The bargaining, which involves family hard luck histories, hopping about in anguish, fear of employer and blatant porkies, has to end in the customer paying half the ticket price otherwise somebody lose face. It became exhausting. But we came away happily laden with limited-life products.
Michelle took me for a birthday dinner at the Vietnam House Restaurant, offering very upmarket Vietnamese tucker and run by the fellow who owns the Red Lantern in Sydney. This excellent degustation came with a bottle of wine which the waiter made a great show of pouring just enough to cover the bottom of our glasses. He returned many times with practiced flourishes to repeat the dribble, even when we asked for a couple of fingersworth. Needless to say, we left a portion of it behind for the staff end-of-day celebration. Michelle made mention that it was my birthday and we looked forward to a cake, candles and a kitchen quartet rendition of happy birthday to Fraser. Instead, Fraser got a music-free cup of coffee on the house. Nevertheless, it was a memorable birthday meal booked and paid for (ouch, there goes the gas bill) by Michelle.
Hotel Toaster Review
The Intercontinental has a rare Double Veranda model with top furnace and bottom delivery tray. Knobbery is relatively complicated and should have a toast captain in attendance, but the guests must fend for themselves. The Double Veranda has an inherent fault called ‘two-in-one-out’. I placed two modest pieces of bread on the crawler, waited while the people behind me became restless, and then only one piece of toast came out. The other had lost momentum on the u turn and had lodged in a dark corner at the top of the slippery slide-out. There it might have stayed for decades but, being equipped to handle such adversity, I coaxed it out with a long knife. I realised, with a shudder, that in inexperienced hands this might have caused electrocution. I tried to explain the problem to a Japanese man in the queue, but he thought I was mad.
I was able to take this picture of the Double Veranda model in action. Note the subtle sign on the top warning people, for example, not to roast a turkey or warm their hot water bottle in the toaster. Other points of interest: release knife at the ready and a male baguette about to mate.
Hello from Saigon or Ho Chi Min City – depending upon which finishing school you went to.
Michelle and I are here for a week during which time I will uncelebrate my birthday and attend the well-known biennial Hotel Toaster Exposition at which my very good friend and hotel toaster critic for the New York Times, Derek Breadchamber, will give the keynote address: ‘Hotel toasters that have changed the course of history’. I can’t wait to hear him.
We travelled by Vietnamese Airlines in a shiny new Dreamliner which I can thoroughly recommend – with only two reservations. The lounge that the company shares in Sydney with some obscure airlines has made unwelcome advances in weight loss by providing plates that are so small they hardly hold any food. Of course, you can go back for a re-load, but they still win because that uses calories in walking. The other is the Dreamliner Vietnamese captain’s command of English which conveyed nothing more useful than that the PA system was working. I’m sure his Vietnamese is impeccable. Anyway, he did a nice feathery landing which gave us a feeling that all was right with the world – until we queued up in the arrival hall with twenty thousand other travel-weary souls, all with the shits. The numbers had been grossly swollen by the end of Chinese/Vietnamese New Year – something that we failed to factor into our well laid plans.
Not surprisingly, traffic in Saigon is chaotic. The city has two million motorbikes, moving about in swarms that somehow dodge the larger vehicles which continually change lanes for no reason other than cultural habit. Wherever you go in Vietnam you can’t avoid motorbikes. There are nearly 50 million of them, owned by population of around 100 million. The motor bike helmet business is also booming, coming with the slogan ‘if you are decapitated, at least your head will remain in one piece’. A green helmet plus white stripe designates the owner as being a member of Grab, the Vietnamese equivalent of Uber. You can Grab a motor bike or a lousy car or a better car. If you Grab a motor bike you must wear the green helmet as you cling for dear life to the back of the owner as he joins the deadly swarm.
Unlike many Asian countries still wedded to the US dollar, Vietnam likes everybody to use the local currency, the dong. It might just as well be called the dingdong because you hear bells ringing trying to equate it to Australian dollars. 100,000 dong dings down to A$6.50. I left Australia a multi-millionaire after I changed money at Westfield in Bondi Junction. My wallet developed a sudden carbuncle when I stuffed it in. I’m sure it will escape just as quickly.
We’re staying at the Intercontinental Hotel, but in an apartment (called a residence) rather than a room. For a rate less than a room, you get a generous bedroom plus a big lounge with fancy TV, washing machine, fridge, dining table and cooking facilities – which adds up to double the space. In future we’ll be looking for deals like this – although I’m waiting for the catch. Maybe we’re sharing with a family that hasn’t arrived yet.
Our first full day in Saigon was spent in the company of a guide and driver for a city tour. When walking on the footpath we were warned to keep one and a half metres from the gutter because of kingfishers. This charming reference is not to friendly wildlife but to bag snatchers on motorbikes who ride in the gutter and peck handbags from pedestrians in the manner of kingfishers taking prey from the water. If you are securely attached to your bag, you get taken for a ride – literally – until you eventually decide it is best not to hang on.
We visited a Buddhist temple where the locals come to pray that they will do better than the other locals. Their supplications are augmented by the lighting of candles and the purchase of bottles of vegetable oil which are poured on holy candelabra. There is so much oil that it has to be collected and then, I suspect, recycled. Our guide glared at me for suggesting such a thing.
Since Vietnam is now a unified communist country, religion is not encouraged. Buddhism is followed officially by about 12 per cent of the population and Catholicism comes a poor second. Our guide said that many non-affiliated people go the Buddhist temples because they feel a need to pray to somebody and Buddha covers a lot of bases.
We visited the Independence Palace, once the home of the president of Vietnam but now occupied by government workers and exhibition spaces to show how things used to be. There are many grand meeting and dining rooms, all set up to be used, but frozen in time. The main meeting hall is, however, still in use. It can comfortably accommodate 500 people beneath whose feet is a huge woven rug – see below. I know a little about fabric weaving and this thing is 15 meres wide. How is it woven? Is there a fifteen-metre carpet loom or is it so cleverly joined that you can’t find he seams? When I enquired of Google, I was overwhelmed by rug suppliers wanting my money but no information on how the huge rugs are made. I concluded it was probably by hand. The biggest rug in the world is inside the Sheikn Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi. It has 2.2 billion knots and is 5453 square metres in area.
Take it away Frankie . . .
‘And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain’
In other words, this is the last Toungethaid, because today we do everything backwards, except, hopefully, being marched off the Emirates flight. As far as that matter is concerned, we’ll fire the first mortars when we get home. Maybe our local member, Karen Phelps, will help us storm the Arab desert stronghold and carry off a few A380s. I feel duty bound to post dispatches from the trenches as the war develops. One of the benefits of being chucked off Emirates and having to rebook with Singapore is that we get to try out our first Dreamliner between Bangkok and Singapore.
The night before last, we walked across to a new shopping mall called Bluport – which turned out to be quite spectacular. It felt like being in a Westfield of the future, with offerings from hastily sewn cheap clothes to expensive designer, along with a massive, high class supermarket down one side. Uniqlo, the Japanese clothing and accessories store, was vigorously flogging furry and quilted jackets suitable for Antarctica. Apart from European tourists, and bear in mind that Hua Hin is not popular tourist destination, who will buy the stuff?
The restaurant selection was overwhelming. We wandered from one to another, trying to judge the quality of the food by the expressions on the diners’ faces inside. One must accept that the billboards and lavish books on the lecterns out the front of the restaurants are not a reliable guide to the food. They show pictures of dishes that only faintly resemble what is served inside. One restaurant that looked promising was rejected for its billboard:
Would you eat this?
Yesterday afternoon we made a final visit to the massagery. I’ve grown quite fond of my auld boiler since she has brought such relief to my neck. She’s a no-nonsense woman and gets to work on me like a butcher would approach a bullock carcass. In case you’re wondering, the only things she is interested in pulling are my fingers and toes. She tuts with dismay when she fails to get a click out of my fingers, not realising that she is up against the adhesion of arthritis which has taken me years to accumulate. She doesn’t give up easily though, as she puts her considerable weight behind further attempts. My toes are more vulnerable, being small, distant and defenceless. She nearly broke a couple as she bent her back into the task and I had to tell her to stop. But I emerged with another incremental improvement on my neck. The massagery favours tiger balm oil as the rubbing solution. I suspect that is because it is cheap and covers up the rising smell of hirsute, less hygienic clients. But powerful! It makes your eyes water if you inhale its fumes. I remembered that, at home, if we wanted to keep the cats away from us for a while, we rubbed a bit of tiger balm on ourselves. But I didn’t want to smell like a football club dressing room in Hua Hin – which is why I paid a premium for an aroma therapy oil. That went well until it came to neck fixing time. The auld boiler reached for the tiger balm and slapped it on before I could stop her. I hope the pong has gone by the time I get home otherwise the cats will not be pleased to see Daddy.
I did a final check on the egg department mini-chart system at breakfast this morning and it seemed to be working well, except for final delivery by the waitresses. I saw one wandering around with four omelettes trying to find their owners. These are known, in the trade, as OOs: orphan omelettes. If no homes are found for them, they are fed to the jellfisss.
Welcome to sunny Hua Hin where you can laze by the pool or swim in the gentle sea or walk along the beach. Unfortunately, none of these currently applies. Lying by the pool in the rain while your book turns into papier mache has little appeal nor does walking along a beach fighting through a downpour. And if you venture into the gentle sea you join a massive and welcoming population of jellyfisss (local pronunciation with a long hiss at the end to emphasise the unpleasantness of the creatures.) These are particularly ugly jellyfisss, the size of garbage bin lids and coloured blue so you can be cuddling one in the water before you realise it. Jellyfisss have no brains, so you can’t reason with them. Like hammerhead sharks, I don’t know why they were created.
The upshot of this is that we’re rained in. But massage, the great pastime of Thailand, goes on undeterred. Based on a recommendation from the food tour operator, we tooktook a tuktuk to a modest establishment not far from our hotel. It was run by a very attractive Thai girl and three rubbers – as distinct from tuggers. Two were youngish and there was one lantern jawed auld boiler. The two youngish were busy rubbing behind curtains. Michelle, of course, was allocated Very Attractive while Fraser, as usual, got the auld boiler. At least this was to be an oil massage, thus no abrasion like the last auld boiler’s body scrub. I was nonetheless apprehensive, but this auld boiler turned out to be a real pro. Since I couldn’t see her, (I was either face down in the bench aperture or face up with a towel over my eyes) the only substances in existence in the universe were my creping body and her hands of firm rubber. The greatest benefit was to my neck, which had been sore and stiff for weeks. I’d say she made a 50% improvement in it. I’m therefore going back again until I can enter Neck of the Yearand be a contender.
While we were in the shop’s waiting area a man emerged post-massage from the curtained -off section and we got talking. He was Belgian and had come to Hua Hin seven years ago on holiday. He had never been married and was quickly seized by a Thai girl with a view to whizzing him up the isle as quickly as possible. He bought a house for them but had to put it in her name to comply with foreigner land ownership laws. He soon discovered that his was a marriage made in hell. Divorce followed, and she scored the house. However, he loved the Hua Hin lifestyle and retired from his job to settle here. He now rents a house and has a beautiful Thai girlfriend. His comment on Thai girls is that they all have bad eyesight. “They call me handsome, so I know they can’t see properly.”
The night before last I had a particularly bad attack of toothache which I still think was the fault of Emirates, but the anger didn’t get rid of the pain. I had three alternatives. I could wait until I arrived home and see my long-trusted dentist, or I could go to a local dental clinic variously called Extractopan, Thripdrillers and Nohurtu or I could take the Hong Thong spirits cure which relieves you of caring about anything. Since the clinics were closed and my dentist was a week away, I chose Hong Thong. It not only banished the pain but today I have no hangover and my tooth has kind of settled down. A business is now staring me in the face. Some crowd funding and a simple change of label is all I need:
HONG THONG PAINKILLER! Especially good for toothache. Taken orally, this pleasant -tasting remedy is a natural molassesproduct. Warning: can cause drowsiness or slurred speech. Users should not be in charge of vehicles, operate heavy machinery or sign important documents for 36 hours after the last dose.
The Intercontinental pool between thunder storms
At The Intercontinental, as at many Asian hotels, breakfast is an event of major proportion. There is particular pressure on egg departments to produce a variety of egg dishes quickly. As I understand it, when the International Egg Preparers Union renegotiated ordering terms and conditions The Interconnectional supported the move with an egg ordering mini-chart, in the form of a block of tear-off coupons bearing the table number and a dizzying array of ways to cook an egg along with additions and subtractions of ingredients. After taking some trouble in filling it in with the egg-pen provided, one is required to present it to the Egg Captain who stares at it as though he has never seen it before and then hands to an eggling (lower ranking egg cook) who prepares the dish. Gone are the days when you could march up to the man in white with the tall hat and ask for two poached eggs. It’s all gone upmarket-automated. In my case, I carefully formulated an omelette, presented the mini-chart to the Egg Captain and waited at my table. Twenty minutes later I was still eggless. Apparently, the new regulations had failed to specify that the egg had to go somewhere after cooking. I spied it sitting like a poor little orphan on a shelf behind the eggery. Everybody very sorry.