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.