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.