Vietnam

 

 

 

Vietnam was a detour from my original schedule. I had been heading there many times. But the only thing that is 100% certain in Asia is that the unexpected is sure to happen. The gods of travel had for one reason or another always deemed that I should head off on another tangent (usually following assignments to other areas...in some cases much less appealing). And once again I missed out on Vietnam. 

 

I have been in Thailand perhaps a dozen times and this time I was determined not to get sidetracked so from the very beginning I had scheduled Vietnam as a 3-week side-trip from my RTW route. I had heard that Saigon is an addiction. “Once you get to know it,” one old Asia hand had told me, “you will certainly fall in love with it and you won’t want to go anywhere else.” I nodded noncommittally, thinking it unlikely that it would ever rival Bangkok for pure excitement. I have always rated Bangkok as one of the most fascinating cities in the world. (This is no definitive list but Marrakech, Istanbul, Mexico City and New York would certainly also feature). I have never been able to get my head around calling Saigon ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ but it turns out that this is not a problem since it still remains almost universally Saigon to the locals. 

 

Bangkok will always be spectacular but Saigon is like Bangkok must have been fifty years ago. Such things as coolie hats, betel nut and pretty girls sitting side-saddle on the back of motorbikes are an increasing rarity in Bangkok. In old Saigon they are still common. Taxi motorbikes still race you through the traffic as they do in Jakarta (but with less dirt and dust and, usually, dents) making it a much faster – and more exciting – city to negotiate than is Bangkok. They are called Honda Om and the name literally means ‘Honda hug’, presumably because of the way terrified passengers cling to their rider.


In other parts of Asia you can see three people riding a moped and occasionally you might even see four: in Vietnam four is fairly common...and sometimes you can even see five people ‘riding bitch’ behind the rider!


I arrived in Saigon on the red-eye flight from Bangkok on Christmas morning and, enjoying some luxury for once, checked into the wonderful old Rex Hotel – once home to the likes of Graham Greene and a whole host of famous journalists and photographers from the war. I spent most of my time downtown among the old streets and markets though and by sundown on Boxing Day the city had stolen my heart. I fell in love almost at first sight and can’t remember the last time that I was so instantly smitten by a city.


Last week I was talking to an American retiree (I later discovered that he was an ex-spy...but don’t tell anyone) at a beach town in central Vietnam.“Don’t let ‘Nam get too much into your blood,” he warned me, “you will get hooked and you will die in Vietnam.”


Coming from a spy it could have been taken as a threat but he was just a complete devotee to life in Vietnam. He had been in the country almost consistently (discounting the odd unavoidable exile) ever since he joined the marines in 1964. Even after just a week I could well understand what keeps him there.


And he was right I did get hooked. Take my advice and let Vietnam hook you too. But don’t worry you probably won’t die there either.