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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.
Hotel toaster review (see picture below)
The Intercontinental Hotel is a great place to stay in Hua Hin. Apart from more light switches than a piano accordion has buttons, the rooms are excellent, along with the food and extra friendly staff. The only flat spot is the hotel toaster which I encountered at breakfast this morning. I did a double take. I’d seen it before! It was a cautionhot single knobber with green light optional extra and the commemoration plaque to Max who fell into a large model and toasted himself. I rounded up the toast captain (you can see him anxiously watching in the background) and he admitted that he’d bought it on hoteltoastersales.com. This is the little-known online marketplace for new and used hotel toasters. It links to a network of hotel toaster repair shops around the world that recondition and, in some cases, panel beat and repaint used hotel toasters. The dishonest shops might take the front of one damaged toaster and join it to the back of another. Serial number are then filed off and the toaster offered for sale as an original. The toast captain said he thought he’d bought a new one, but when it began to prematurely turn yellow, he wasn’t so sure.
This toaster may not be authentic.
Last night we went to find a tailor to make Michelle some linen pants and tops in fabric we’d brought from Australia – without fitting in a pair of shorts for the tailor’s son. After some straggerling and huggerling in which we agreed on prices and styles, we went for a massage in a shop I’d fondly remembered from five years previously. Time had not been kind to the establishment. Gravity had got the better of the furniture. Michelle was allocated the beautiful young trainee for an hour’s worth of feathery fluttering of fingers while I got the auld boiler for a salt body-scrub more abrasive than a rubdown with a brick. Today I’m getting around without underpants to allow new skin to form over the welts and rashes.
In an attempt to put the negative massage experience behind us, we found a nice little Thai restaurant for dinner. While the food was superb, we had to wait for a long time to be served. I filled in by enquiring about Thai whiskey. The premier brand (A$10 a large bottle) is Hong Thong (sounds like cheap Chinese footwear) and is a blend – although the label doesn’t say with what. I decided to try a nip, expecting something akin to fly spray. But it was in for a surprise. I’m no whiskey drinker, but this was the most gentle and delicious I’ve ever tasted. (yeah, he’s no whisky drinker). It has 35% alcohol against Scotch at about 40%. Dan Murphy’s doesn’t sell it, so I’ll have to bring some home. I might add that it helps calm toothache, (I blame Emirates for that and will be claiming my dentist bill) and has minimum hangover consequences. It is probably the cheapest way to get drunk in Thailand. However, there are some unfounded suggestions that it can send you blind. That, incidentally, applies to all whiskey, not just to Hong Thong.
Today we went on a food tour of little places tourists don’t know about because they don’t look like restaurants, are hidden in the shanty hinterland and are mostly part of somebody’s house. There were five stops. Two of the eateries were outstanding and we’ll return under our own steam. They all served authentic Thai local food. I made a mistake at the first one by putting a generous dollop of ‘chilli jam’ into my chicken and veggie broth. Our guide cried out a warning but not before I had disabled my respiratory system. It took several bottles water and some counselling before I could continue the tour. At another place we had curried water fowl. That interested me. Did they wade through leech infested swamps to capture the birds or did they farm them? I could not get the question understood so I still don’t know.
The highlight dish (among many outstanding ones) was sticky rice and red bean cooked in a length of bamboo. You can’t order this in a restaurant but have to buy it on the street.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I ought to be in the currency exchange business. At Sydney airport we were offered about 17 Thai baht to one Australian dollar. Here, in Hua Hin, the going rate from a reputable money exchange is 22 baht. Even to my slow mathematical brain that is a crazy difference. Somebody is doing some ripping off and I’d say it is the airport. In fact, even duty-free grog is, for the most part at the airport, as dear or dearer than Dan Murphy’s. I will be using my incoming entitlement of spirits on Hong Thong Whithkey.
Since Michelle and I had taken only an eight-day drop-and-flop holiday in Hua Hin (gulf of Thailand) I had decided not to inflict my travelogues on innocent readers. But the start of it went so off the rails I had to get it down in print.
We’d booked a business class Bangkok and return fare with Emirates, leaving last Thursday (Oct 18) evening and promising a flatbed for a sound sleep induced by a superior meal and suitable liquids. We would wake in Bangkok. Cap khoon Kaa!
One of the nice touches with Emirates is that it sends you a classy car and driver for your trip from home to the airport and back. An Audi A8 duly arrived and we set off. Our journey was halted at South Dowling Street while the world stopped for Prince Harry, his wife Meghan and a 5% foetus screamed past accompanied by a team of beautifully groomed coppers in various white vehicles, including a helicopter. That added 20 minutes to the trip and should have been seen as an omen from the dark side.
We boarded our A380 and settled into our business class kennels. I downed a glass of champagne while Michelle asked if it was okay to plug in her CPAP machine (needed to combat sleep apnoea) into the power socket in front of her. This began a chain of events that is best summarised in a letter which I am drafting to the managing director of Emirates with a cc to God if he’s interested. The words in brackets are observations and won’t form part of the final letter.
This letter has two intended outcomes. One is to assist Emirates Airline in properly addressing the needs of passengers in relation to CPAP machines. The other is to request compensation from Emirates for the wrongful and distressing treatment metered out to myself and my wife when we boarded flight EK0419 from Sydney to Bangkok on 18 October 2018
We had checked in on time and were seated in business class – for which we had paid full fare. My wife carried with her a CPAP machine which is used to assist breathing during sleep. On all the other airlines with whom we have flown, the machine can be plugged into a power socket near the seat. The Emirates A380 did not offer this service. In relation to the use of CPAP machines the company’s website covers only policy rules for the use of battery powered CPAP machines. So, in effect, my wife’s machine was irrelevant to the flight. This being the case, she decided to stay awake during the flight and offered to surrender the machine to cabin crew – to be returned to her upon arrival. This offer was declined.
There the matter should have ended, but the crew, later backed by the captain, deemed that my wife was now a health risk and we were offloaded during a humiliating public address announcement by the captain to the effect that the ensuing delay was because two passengers were being taken off the flight. Other passengers would have looked upon us as being engaged in some criminal activity. (At this point I did my lolly and shouted, “this is outrageous!” at the security team, done up in green flouro and equipped with anti-uprising devices. I could see that other passengers were thoroughly enjoying this piece of free live theatre. We all love listening to a spirited row between other people.)
From that point we were escorted back through the terminal, our unopened bags put through security checking and then taken upstairs to a service desk where, we were told, we would be booked on another flight and accommodated at a hotel overnight. The offer evaporated once we spoke to the service personnel. We were not offered another flight unless we paid a second full fare because we had been categorised as a ‘no show’ – which was clearly not the case. Moreover, we would be expected to pay for the accommodation. Later that night, without notice, your airline cancelled our return flight from Bangkok scheduled for 27 October 2018. It was also suggested that we might be charged for the delay to the A380’s departure of the Sydney flight when we were ejected.
Your service desk assistant said that we had been taken off the flight because we had not read, and adhered to, the company policy on its website regarding CPAP machines in which prior notice had to be given to the airline and a doctor’s certificate produced supporting the machine’s use. If you read your own online policy, you will see that it applies to battery-powered machines. Ours is a mains powered plug-in model and could not have been used anyway. We were therefore removed from the flight based on misinformation. Furthermore, I was also removed from the flight even though I had nothing to do with the CPAP machine issue.
To your credit, we have been refunded (yet to be confirmed) the full value of the fares, but not before a cancellation fee of ($ to be determined) each had been deducted. The facts are that we did not cancel, nor did we contravene your website stated policy, nor did we fail to board the aircraft on time. Even though totally innocent of these accusations we have had to meet the cost of hotel accommodation and taxi fares to and from the airport. That is to say nothing of the distress, holiday time loss and embarrassment caused to us by Emirates through this whole episode.
We therefore request that you return to us the cancellation fee you have deducted and that you compensate us for the other costs we have incurred. Since we believe you value your good name, we will leave the compensation figure for you to decide in the spirit of fairness. (if our anger doesn’t subside and, based on legal advice, we might go for a substantial trauma-based figure)
May we suggest that you reword your online policy rules regarding CPAP machines, bearing in mind that there are some millions of users around the world who use plugin models. As our offloading on Thursday would indicate, Emirates deems all of these people to be medical risks and should refuse to carry them. There are many CPAP user forums around the world and they should disseminate Emirates policy in regard to this matter. My wife would be happy to share this information on these public forums.
And so we returned home, tails between legs, and tried to explain to explain to our cats why we were back, and went to bed in somewhat larger spaces than we had anticipated. The next morning Michelle donned her travel battle suit and declared war. She was so scary that I escaped up the street for a haircut that I had intended to entrust to a Thai barber. He will sue Emirates for compensation as well. When I returned, Michelle had us booked on a Singapore flight for that evening. We love this airline, especially as they invite the use of CPAP machines, no questions asked. The downside of the flight was that is went via Singapore but not before it had stopped in Canberra to take on pollies for their needful study tours. We finally arrived in Bangkok not knowing what day or time it was. We were picked up by our driver for the three-hour car trip to Hua Hin. She had parked her Toyota all-purpose in the airport carpark which is roughly a quarter the size it should be. The way around this is to double park so that cars in designated car spaces cannot get out. The way around this is to leave every blocking car in neutral with the handbrake off. It can then be pushed out of the way to block somebody else. If you are having trouble pushing, there is are signs on the wall giving the phone number of official pushers who will come to your aid. I wonder how this works in sloping areas when all the cars illegally parked roll down to the lowest point. The pusher teams would need reinforcements.
We set off on another car ride, but although Prince Harry and party were not around, we were seriously delayed by pounding rain and crazy Saturday traffic. One huge sign that we passed near the city warned people not to place tattoos or draw additional features, such as moustaches or spectacles on images of the Buddha’s face because it was disrespectful. I agree.
The joys of Thai food