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Ah, the limitations of perfect peace. While most people publicly proclaim that is what they want, when they get it there is disappointment. The Anam is a hive of peace. The first days are sublime, the next few are relaxing, and the final ones feel they need stimulation, like overhearing a spirited row between guests. This is a beautiful place for recovery but, once you’re over the tensions of life, enough already. Bring on some more tensions to get over. Yes, I’m becoming philosophical, probably a sign that I’m ready to finish Vietcetera here and get back to join the other rats in the race. However, there are a few observations before we depart today.
Beer is just a twist away
One of the main attractions of the Anam is the beach, with its warm water and moderate waves. The hotel serves drinks and nibbles from a beach encampment which also houses the trusty, young, wade-worthy lifeguards. What few people have discovered is that the hotel pipes cold beer from its bar straight to the beach. I found the tap in the sand. You have to join the Beach Beer Club (BBC) to access it and it takes some practice to use it. You must lie on the sand and make a hollow with your cheek so that your mouth can entirely cover the faucet outlet. Thus engaged, you turn the tap and out gushes cold Vietnamese beer. If you turn the tap too far, your mouth is blown from the faucet and you get drenched in beer – for which you are still charged even though you didn’t drink it.
A well executed Frozen Forehand Drive
Every Asian hotel takes considerable trouble to train staff in how to direct guests. Since language can be a problem, hand signals become vital, especially the ‘over there please’ frozen forehand drive. To execute this properly, the arm must be extended, elbow locked, the hand open and flat, and the thumb down (up indicates disrespect for the directee). If the guest stupidly heads in the wrong direction, the other arm, also deploying the frozen forehand drive, is brought into play with the same action, often augmented by a nod of the head and an inaudible disparaging mutter.
Yesterday morning I noticed a small gathering of hotel staff near the swimming pool kneeling beside a large, flat, brown-with-white-spots plastic cut-out. There was also a pump on hand. I later saw it realised at the beach. While there are many blow-up horses and birds to keep swimming kids happy, this was new: a blow-up giant pretzel. Its proud owners took it into the surf and, as one might expect, it proved unseaworthy. Its interlooping curves offered nothing to sit on, it had no fore or aft and the waves kept capsizing it. I gave it one out of 10 with no chance of making the semi-final.
Until next time, dear friends, fare thee well.
Laird Fraser Beath McEwing (motto and coat of arms coming)
We’ve finally slowed down to the pace of sloths at the Anam and find it dangerously seductive. Maybe we will never be able to speed up to normal life-pace again. However, that hasn’t prevented me from observing some of the quirks of the place.
At two years old, this is a relatively new resort and not part of a big international chain. Rather than having a strict hiring and training policy the management plucks staff from here and there, often from LinkedIn on the Internet. While politeness and helpfulness are prerequisites, a command of English isn’t. Miscommunications and lack of staff coordination have brought some hilarious outcomes.
For instance, last night at the free guzzlethon hour at the beach club I ordered a gin and tonic from one young waiter and while he was away getting it another two asked what I was waiting for. Even though I explained I had ordered with the first one, I promptly got three G&Ts. The same thing happened with my spaghetti arrabiata – for which I requested extra chilli. Three different waiters, plus the manager, all went and told the chef to add chilli, and when it arrived, I could see it glowing from across the deck. I needed all the gin and tonics to put out the fire.
On Trip advisor, one contributor tells how he ordered up a surprise 19th wedding anniversary room for his incoming wife and when he threw open the door it was empty. Because of a problem in understanding numbers they’d put the decorations in a room in another block.
Down at the beach yesterday the peace and quiet was broken by the yells of a drowning man. Apart from his bellowing it was hard to take him seriously because he was standing in waist deep water near one of the floating markers that tell swimmers to venture no further. The two young lifeguards, suitably attired in official yellow lifeguard wear with impressive signage, ran down to the water, one holding a polystyrene flotation device above his head like a trophy. There was no indication that the lifeguards could swim either, because they were able to wade out to the drowning man and walk him back to the beach. Wondering what all the fuss was about I asked one of the heroes the next day what had happened. After I repeated my question three times slowly, like an elocution lesson, he looked at me for a long time, giggled to his colleague, and said “the sun benches all use up, sir.” Somebody later suggested that the drowning man had become tangled in the rope that tethered the marker which had been placed there to prevent drowning. I’ll never know.
Another water hazard concerns our private swimming pools. While you jump in, there is no ladder for you to get back out. There are basic steps at one end, but many people would find the rise too high to manage. To get out you must either have extra powerful legs in good working order or slowly propel yourself, snail-like, across the steps and up over the top.
Priority personal transport
VIP transport is important to Anam. Occupants of cheap rooms are taken there by electric car, but if you are about to move into an expensive space you are transported by elevated bicycle chair peddled by an on-staff, ex-Olympian cyclist who once rode for Vietnam.
Second hotel toaster report
I knew that in order to get five stars, a hotel had to have two washbasins in the bathrooms. What I didn’t know was that it also had to have two toasters. I found the second one today when we made use of the smaller, upmarket breakfast room. This toaster was the daughter of the big one in the main breakfast room. Called a Justa (short for justanothertoaster) it has narrow hips and long skinny legs – like women to whom I am not attracted. A chip off the old block, the Justa is ponderously slow but convulsively expels the toast into the front of the arrival tray – which is more than I can say for its mum.
I’ve had a bad hair holiday. Before leaving home I used my usual conditioner which has been known to bring out the hidden tints. But when its chemicals were combined with the resort’s shampoo and the salt water of the South China Sea an unexpected and unwelcome chemical reaction took place. I’ve now got a puce/copper head of hair. Even the massage girl was mystified by it. She tried pulling on it, thinking it was a wig. I may have to reintroduce myself to friends when I get home, especially to Tim Littlemore, who is always concerned about my hair colour. (I now expect Littlemore to come out of retirement and make a comment).
I know I have a bit of an obsession with things going wrong. I have a weakness for recounting them. But a lot more goes right, as it does at the Anam. This is a beautifully designed five-star resort, with unparalleled expanses of the best lawn I have ever seen, an outstanding beach, friendly staff that try very hard to give good service, a spa with high quality massage, and plenty of shady places to sit and take in the relaxing warmth. Michelle suggested that a better way the launch the resort would have been to lease it to an experienced hotel group for the first five years – because that’s what it lacks: professionalism. One day soon they’ll get it right, but in the meantime the deals it is offering on the likes of Luxury Escapes and Credo are good value for money – as long as you tailor the offer to suit you and you don’t expect outstanding food or cheap drinks.
If we had chalk, now we’ve got cheese. From the choke of Saigon we were taken by basic but determined Vietnam Airlines domestic A321 to Nha Trang and thence by car to the Anam Resort. Here is white sand and turquoise water. Swimming is a delight not found easily in Asia. Our room is actually a villa, with its own four-stokes-and-you-reach-the-other-end pool, separate lounge, and a massive bed which looks across billiard-table lawns to the inviting, clean sea. The suite has lots of nifty cupboards and places to recline, but not one drawer, obviously inspired by the popular people’s market concept of laying all the goods out where you can see them. There are two televisions in case of a program-clash crisis, a fraffly raj overhead fan, and a can of mozzie spray the size of a fire hydrant, sending a clear message that will be conflict after dark.
The mini bar is free and replenished daily, which obviates the inquisition at checkout time as to whether you have been fossicking in God’s cupboard. If you pay proper attention to the timing of the freebies, you can ward off starvation and remain drunk for no more than the room rate. On the other hand, if you like a bottle of wine with dinner it costs between A$80 and A$160. The food is underwhelming but going into town for a meal is a financially losing alternative because it takes 45 minutes and costs more than paying for a meal at the resort.
The temperature in Nha Trang is five to ten degrees cooler than Saigon and there are hardly any motor scooters – the same feeling you’d get if the bees had been struck down with a plague. Behind the sandy seaside flats rises a substantial collection of junior mountains. The whole area looks ideal for resort development and that’s just what an army of wealthy developers think too, because there is a building boom here of which Harry Triguboff would be proud. Buildings are growing in the profusion of Jack running a beanstalk competition.
You know you’re into multi-star accommodation when you look at the spa treatment prices. In Saigon an hour massage costs less than A$20 but it comes with a physical challenge. Lovely girls in the street implore you to take a brochure which is photographically attractive but does not relate to the services offered. If you allow them to ferry you into the establishment you are confronted by multiple flights of stairs which closely resemble ladders. People with bad hearts or poor balance may expire before reaching the massage floor. It comprises massage benches divided by floating polyester curtains, meaning that you can enjoy the audio of the bloke next door groaning through a dose of knees and elbows in the name of good health.
Cut to the Anam spa and you’re almost in hospital conditions, with whispering girls, tiled rooms, private showers and a variety of fragrant treatments which cost about the same as Sydney day surgery. The rule is that everybody must creep around as if riding on air cushions. Because our package includes a couple of free massages, we will become willing pamperees. We did a warmup with a body scrub comprising the application of special goop containing honey, sugar, lime and some mysterious herbs. My masseuse, who had the muscles of a daddy longlegs spider, prepared me like a pork desert – if here is such a thing. But instead of the oven I was sent to the shower to wash it off, followed by the application of a fragrant lotion. Then I was ready to serve.
Hotel toaster review
In Buddha’s teachings on reincarnation it says that if you live life with a grumpy demeanour you will come back as a hotel toaster, identifiable by skinny black legs. The Anam has one! And it’s still grumpy, demonstrated by its painful slowness. To show its further professional disinterest it drops the toast right at the back of the tray. Gullible users can think their toast has vanished supernaturally. And don’t look around for the toast captain, either. They are a superstitious lot and are frightened that touching the black skinny legger will bring them bad luck.
We shrugged off the city on Wednesday and headed for Can Gio island in the midst of a mangrove jungle. Guide Randy said we’d get to see ‘many specie’ and should take bananas to feed the monkeys who can get very put out if you arrive bananaless. We bought these at a small food market where a lady was washing a dog next to the butcher’s shop. The meat of the day lay in the open in the sun. Oddly, the flies didn’t seem interested in it. Randy said the meat had been on the hoof only hours before and would be cooked before it could go off.
Along the way we saw, in the distance, a tall stand of classy apartment blocks that turned out to be part of a satellite city built by wealthy Koreans on land that their government leased for fifty years from the Vietnamese government. The lease runs out in 10 years and Randy said, ‘I dunno what happen then.” It is like a science fiction city where only rich people, most Korean business families and Vietnamese political fat-cats, live in isolated western luxury while the rest of Saigon rushes around like angry ants outside. The only restriction on who can live there is how much money they have.
The Toyota took us across on a ferry to the island where there was a waiting speedboat. Well, that’s the travel company’s description, but the boat was no threat to the water speed record. We crawled under a low, flapping fabric roof and settled into back-modifying plastic seats as we hacked into the caramel coloured chop. Getting on off the thing was a major balancing act. However, we were grateful that it didn’t sink, and it didn’t break down during the hours we spent on it.
Not so speedy boat
First stop gave us a long walk through the mangrove jungle where Randy had to use most of our bananas to keep the aggressive monkeys at bay. If you shout at them to go away they stop and display their scary full sets of teeth. That got us to a lake among the mangroves and a shallow boat in which we were serenely rowed to look at two small water fowl swimming and some bats high in the trees. Another breezy speedboat ride brought us to a jungle path that led to some listless brown Vietnamese deer in a bald paddock and crocodiles which we were permitted to feed, from a protective cage, tiddler fish on nylon lines. The crocodiles would clearly have much preferred to eat us.
“Is Michelle on the breakfast menu?”
We also saw the occasional small crab and dragon eel. “You see good specie!” Randy roared with delight. There were more monkeys, but not so nasty as the other lot. In fact, I sat down over a cold banana and had a chat to one who pointed out that they had occupied the land before humans invaded it and should be acknowledged as the traditional owners and put on a banana pension. That led to a spirited discussion about ownership in general and we agreed that amoeba really owned all the land when they crawled out of the primeval ooze. There were difficulties, of course, in seeing to their welfare because they’d evolved into animals which had all taken turns in ownership. “So what are you going to do about monkeys’ rights?” my companion screeched as we parted. I said I’d mention it to our next prime minister.
“We were here before you.”
More semi-speeding delivered us to the Toyota and lunch at a seaside ‘resort’ where we sat and partook of tasteless fare. Randy had suggested we take a dip in the swimming pool rather than the dirty looking South China Sea across the road. Although we hadn’t brought our swimming costumes, the pool rules would have kept us out of the water anyway. They stated, on a large official sign, that we were not permitted to swim if we ‘ran around and jumped straight in the water’, that ‘footwears, food and beverage are not allow to use in pool area,’ that ‘children and adult who can’t swim shouldn’t swim,’ and that guests who are ‘mental or have skin and eye infections are not allowed to swim’, nor are those who are ‘full or influence of drug, and liquor,’ and that smoking is not permitted while you are swimming. The final rule related to solicitors: ‘Hotel are not responsible for any lost cases at the pool.’
We drove home in Saigon’s peak hour traffic which is the stuff of nightmares. At one point we had to cross two roads to visit a Buddhist temple Michelle wanted to see at dusk to contrast traffic chaos with religious calm both taking place in the same place. There was a service in progress where men and women, dressed in grey robes, chanted over a PA system that drowned out the traffic noise. This temple was relatively new, built on four levels and beautifully appointed with splendid representations of Buddhism. But I preferred the incense smoke and decay of the old temples we’d visited previously.
We forsook our horse-drawn coach after yesterday’s vice-regal festivities and returned to the Toyota for a very hot tour of Saigon city. Randy explained that, commercially, the city is broken up into specialist trading districts. Apart from upmarket shopping centres of chrome and glass dotted about town, where designer labels of many genres do battle, you save time and money by heading your motorbike towards the product group you want. For instance, if you want a hi-fi system, you go to the electronics district where there are blocks of retailers all in hot competition. We wanted to see flowers, fabrics and temples.
As a warmup we went to the History Museum set in an old, charming French designed building containing artefacts not only from Vietnam’s history but much of Indochina’s. The exhibit notices glaringly avoided the advent of communism, declaring instead Vietnam to be a democratic republic, hadehaha. Oddly, I found the collection of Buddha related images the most interesting, and not necessarily those from Vietnam. My favourite was a very tall, very skinny (assisted by being partly rotted away) woman that was called a female Buddha. She stood about nine feet tall and had disconcertingly long toes. Then there was an early Cambodian stone sculpture depicting sexual harassment, where the bloke has is hand firmly clamped around the lady’s bum (see picture). She may have been his secretary. In any case, they both lost their heads over the incident.
On our way to the flower market, we dropped in at a Buddhist temple in full swing because this was the first day of the lunar new year. There was a swirling fog of incense as the believers crowded in to pray for good fortune. One of the favoured ways of doing this is to buy a coil of incense (it looks like a giant mosquito coil) and attach your prayer to it. It is then hung up in the roof, and when it burns out hours later your prayer flutters down for consideration by Buddha. There is no guarantee that he will grant your request because it may clash with more deserving others – which somewhat deflates the value of the investment in the incense. That didn’t stop Michelle who loaded in a number of prayers (some to my benefit, I hope) and had her coil hung up in a propitious position.
Still on Buddhist temples, we visited another one later in the day and it too was smoked out in burning incense. Michelle had already done the mozzie coil number, so she turned her attention to the whopper, highly decorated cylinders of incense that get a better hearing from Buddha than the bundles of uncooked spaghetti looking stuff that we’re familiar with. Michelle lit up her pole, waited until the flame had settled into a smoky smoulder, and then planted it in the alter sandpit. She made her prayer and we escaped into humid, but at least clear air. Later we discussed what we could possibly ask of Buddha. We have enough of everything to live on, our country and way of life is the best in the world, we probably live at the best time in history so far and, in my case anyway, I cannot die young. What more could I ask Buddha for? Maybe a few more healthy years and a painless death. So I’d just say thanks to the smiling fat man sitting cross legged on his plinth.
If you want to buy flowers either wholesale or retail, you go to the flower market district where there are hundreds of vendors with billions of blooms. Many of the flower sellers live in unbelievably small houses or flats in the flower market district. A two-floor apartment I photographed (see picture) was less than two metres wide. There were plenty of others of this size. Flower marketing is not a high profit business, I think, and neither is the commission in selling the real estate.
Our next market district was textiles and here I experienced bliss. I again forgave my father for making me work in a Melbourne weaving mill for a year and for the many textile people who force -taught me for the 20 years I ran Ragtrader. I love textiles, and buffeting down the narrow cloth- clogged alleyways in this market was a homecoming. Not that I intended to buy anything, of course. But I became so intoxicated by the smell and the infinite textures and colours that I emerged with fabric for two shirts and a pair of pants. When I went to Randy’s tailor she said I had supplied too much for my trousers and threw in an additional pair of shorts. Usually it is the tailor’s son who gets the shorts.
Across the road from the tailor Randy took us into a little shop that specialised in Vietnamese chocolate and honey. The chocolate tasted like laxative, but I bought a couple of blocks because the old granny at the back looked like she needed dental work. But the honey products held a stronger attraction. There were bottles of Mat Ong Len Men fermented honey liquor. ‘What’s this,’ I asked?
‘Oh wine,’ the lady said. ‘Very nice. Made only from the honey.’ It came in a whisky type bottle with square shoulders. ‘How many percent alcohol,’ I asked? She tried to tell me what she thought I wanted to hear – because the label was all in Vietnamese and no percentage was mentioned. ‘Ah, maybe five.’ She held up her fingers. I looked disappointed. She laughed and held up both hands. ‘Really ten,’ she said. I tasted it and got hit by Muhammad Ali. ‘Maybe forty,’ I said. Of course, I had to buy a bottle. It couldn’t really be that strong. It called for further investigation. Back at the residence I drank three fingers and went down to dinner with two personalities, one spouting unfunny one-liners and the other telling it to shut up. Over a pizza the sensible one got the upper hand and saved me from divorce and being thrown out of the restaurant. Bee keepers have a lot to answer for.
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.