29 Feb 2008
Saigon, Vietnam
10°45'32.23"N 106°39'45.09"E
31°

 

So, back in Saigon. I can't call it Ho Chi Minh City. Nobody does. Except the government.

I have, for the first time so far on Our Very Big Adventure come down with a serious case of the tums.

I think it was a dodgy lunch on a tour we did. We're currently holed up in a fantastic and incredibly cheap hotel from which I've been unable to wander more than 5 minutes away from for the last 3 and a half days. I don't go for Imodium and the like. It's like putting a cork up your bottom. Having the trots is your body's natural way of getting rid of whatever is upsetting it – flushing out the system so to speak, but I think another day or 2 and I should go and see a doctor just in case. I have been good though, and knew from the beginning that I had to have something to keep myself hydrated. We don't carry re-hydration medication with us as it's the kind of thing that adds weight and you can buy anywhere.

But.

In Vietnam there are a lot of shop houses – basically a counter and the customer is standing on the street. I told the pharmacist I needed something that I thought was called electrolytes or something similar. Her English wasn't too hot – I'm not complaining, we're in their country and we should be able to speak their language. I did a bit of dodgy stomach and drinking sign language, but she didn't get it. She asked me to write it down – I did, she looked it up in some kind of pharmacy translation book but still shook her shoulders. More sign language was necessary. Peter could see what was coming and did his walk to the other side of the street and pretend he wasn't with me trick. I did the dodgy stomach and pretend run to the toilet sign language. Nope. I'm sure she knew what I wanted, but I'd attracted quite an audience by this stage. In desperation I did the dodgy stomach and pretend run then did the Thhhhhhhh sound effect sign language, and indicated drinking. That did the trick. Out came the re-hydration sachets. Orange flavour – yeah, right. Salt flavoured more like. I swear she knew what I wanted right from the start. I'm just glad that I was able to provide a bit of amusement to a dozen or so locals who were at least pretending not to laugh – Peter was wetting himself along with a Swiss couple to whom he'd filled in the story and were watching from the other side of the road. I'm just glad that I had the camera in my bag, because I'm sure he'd have taken a photo.

We stayed in a guesthouse for the first few days we were here. For me, hotel good, guesthouse bad. It's not that I object to staying with backpackers, but good clean guesthouses hardly ever have cable TV or WiFi (which similarly priced business hotels do) and almost never have an elevator. What am I saying – I'm turning into an American. They almost never have a lift. The only real problem left over from my back surgery (apart from lack of sensation in my right leg and foot) is my inability to walk down stairs. Going up is no problem. I don't know why, but coming down is a very slow and laborious exercise I'm OK if I have a handrail on both sides, or a handrail on one side and Peter's shoulder a couple of steps below me for the other hand, or even a wall on either side to keep hold of. Otherwise – let's just say you wouldn't want to be behind me, 'cos it takes forever.

Peter wanted to chill though and do the backpacker thing. When we got in from Nha Trang we went around a lot of guesthouses without luck. The only good ones were on high floors with no lift. I was bemused by this. The Lonely Planet guide book says that accommodation is tight and expensive during TET – Chinese New Year. We arrived in Saigon 2 days before TET and the accommodation was plentiful and cheap. When we returned to Saigon, the day after the TET holiday period finished, hundreds of backpackers descended onto the city, so the accommodation was either (5%) overpriced or (95%) full. Proves they all read the same book eh?

We eventually found a nice enough place (review here), and after a horrid night on the first floor we took a room on the second floor and stayed 5 more nights. The price included breakfast, which was served on the 5th floor rooftop garden, but at least I only had to make that hike once a day. Their WiFi was so unstable that I used the unsecured signal from a neighbouring guesthouse, but apart from that it was pleasant enough. Then we decided that we've been being too mean. Time to spend a bit of money. We went on an all day tour to a Cho Dai Temple – a very odd religion based on a mixture of Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam – and the Cu Chi Tunnels, which originated from the Vietnam War (or the American War as they call it over here). They've built a couple of special (bigger) tunnels so that tourists can get down them to get 'the experience'. The original tunnels were built for Vietnamese, who are a lot smaller framed than westerners. They went on for miles, over several levels and had schools, hospitals and all sorts of amenities in them. Peter and most of the others on our tour went down the tourist tunnel – I'm a coal miners daughter, and women don't go underground. It's bad luck. A bit like women being on ships in the olden days.

Besides, from what Peter told me my back wouldn't have appreciated the experience. The tunnel went on for 100 metres, with an optional 'escape' hatch every 30 meters. Out of the 14 people that went down with Peter, he was one of only 3 that made it to the end of the 100 meters. And these tunnels were twice the size of the originals!

Our initial plan (30 day maximum visa) was to spend a couple of weeks in Saigon, then a couple of weeks bunny hopping the towns along the Mekong Delta, ending in Chau Doc, from where we could get a boat directly to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Going to Nha Trang knocked that idea out of the water, but I still wanted to see the Delta, so we booked a 2 day, one night tour. It was - well - interesting. We were told that all we needed to take with us were our passports, essentials for an overnight trip and the big bags would be stored at the travel agency. Call me cynical, but I didn't want our valuables left in a travel agents office, and the guesthouse we stayed in allowed us to keep our English passports, credit cards and laptop in their safe until we returned. We even splashed out – there was an option for a homestay rather than a hotel for our overnight stay, and we paid the extra US$5 for it.

The tour was probably worth the US$21 (total) each including the accommodation, one lunch, one breakfast and entry fees (although I'd make a crude guess at entry commissions rather than fees). After a couple of hours on an uncomfortable minibus, we got lunch on the first day (which is the last meal I have had in 5 days) and plenty of stop offs at places where we could buy things. Some of them, like the disabled people's lacquer ware workshop were interesting, but others were just boring and hard sell. The last stop of the day was the Bonsai Gardens – really just a collection of restaurants and cafe's in a very nice garden setting. It is also the changeover point for the travel agency. People on one day tours or heading back to Saigon after a multi day tour or coming directly from Cambodia were put onto one minibus, those on a two or more day trip were put onto another. As we headed back for the car park after a walk around the gardens, we could see our minibus driving away. We ran after it, waving, but the driver didn't see us. We'd been assured it was OK to leave our bags on the minibus. I'm not that stupid. The bag with the money, camera, Aussie passports and mobile phone was glued to my shoulder, but the other one, with some toiletries and clean underwear had been left on the bus. Along with the receipt for the travel agent. After about 10 minutes of what are we going to do now, Peter went through his pockets and found a business card with a phone number for the travel agent. We phoned them, told them we'd been left behind and after 30 minutes or so the minibus returned and picked us up. And I thought it was only the snorkeling operations in far north Queensland that didn't do head-counts and left people behind.

We arrived in the surprisingly large city of Cho Do quite late. Most of our group were staying at a hotel in town. Peter, myself and Remi and Adrien were at the homestay. We were dropped off and deposited onto motorbikes for a dirt track ride through the jungle of about 15 minutes. Then the road was too narrow for the bikes. We had to get off and walk for about 5 minutes, with one of the motorbikes following with his light on so we weren't in complete darkness. Then we were met by our host, who led the way with a torch – wouldn't he have been better off behind us so we could all see where we were going? A few minutes later we came to the monkey bridge. As you can see, a monkey bridge is basically a bamboo pole to walk on with a couple of bamboo poles or, in places, ropes to hang on to. Not the easiest thing in the world for someone such as myself with not much balance, but at least we weren't carrying anything. Poor Remi and Adrien were continuing onto Phnom Penh the following day and had their very heavy packs with them. For more on our homestay, check the review. Over dinner, there was a lot of talk about football (yawn – Adrien is as keen on Marseilles as Peter is on Middlesborough, and I think the two teams are about as hopeless as each other) and politics.

I will reiterate here that it was great to spend the evening with the boys who, at 24, are young enough to be our children, but weren't junkies, piss heads or holier-than-thou 'I'm a traveller not a tourist' backpackers. It restored my faith a little in the next generation. I got an email from Remi yesterday telling me they were in Phnom Penh at a guesthouse costing 1 Euro per day. I replied that for that price I'd hate to see the bathroom. Remi replied that no, I wouldn't like to see the bathroom, but they're young enough not to care. Good luck to them.

The second day of the tour was torturous for me. I think it's age. I just wanted to go back to a nice hotel and lie on a bed with a mattress, but we were in for a lot of other stops at 'interesting' places where we could sample and buy things. We stopped for a very early lunch at 10.30am where we parted ways with Remi and Adrien and picked up new people who had just arrived from Cambodia or were finishing their 3 day tours. I passed on lunch, as I had on breakfast earlier because I was getting a very bad feeling about my stomach. Our tour guide, Joey, also passed on lunch, and in it's place got into the grog. For the next couple of hours, we kept making pit stops so he could buy another can of beer, until he finally realised that he'd gone over the top and needed some food to soak up the alcohol. He was very embarrassed when he sobered up a bit, poor darling. Maybe it is an age thing, but I think we've established that 2 days is quite long enough. A 3rd day would have been too much for us.

We had one lovely experience last week. Out late at night, walking who knows where (Peter insisted he knew where we were but in reality he had absolutely no idea) we came across a small district where we stopped for a sit down and a drink. It appeared that Mama ran the show, Son made the food and Nana just sat there. Nana was lovely. I asked (in sign language) if I could take a photograph of her. I showed her the resulting photo on the LCD screen of the camera, and she kept asking to see it again. Every time she held my hand so tightly I thought I was going to break it. She had to be in her 90's, and her skin was so thin and her bones so fragile I was genuinely concerned I'd hurt her. When we got back to the guesthouse and download the photo from the camera to the laptop, it was was magnificent - what you see opposite is a very low resolution copy which cuts out a lot of detail. The next day, I went into a photograph shop and got an enlarged photo printed (plus another I'd taken that I didn't think was so good but she might have liked it better) and bought a frame to put it in. We walked around and she was still sitting in the same chair, snoozing. I had asked the owner of the guesthouse to write a note in Vietnamese saying that this was one of the most beautiful photographs I'd ever taken and thank you for allowing me to take it.

She recognised us straight away, and when I gave her the photograph in the frame she had more than one tear in her eye. Someone else had to read out the note to her, then she cried more. She held my hand even tighter than she had the night before. I'll never forgot that moment. She didn't speak a word of English and I don't speak a word of Vietnamese, but it was one of those times when you just didn't need words. I suppose you'd call it a feel-good moment. It was all very emotional and lovely. And I'm not the soppy type.

A couple of days before leaving for our Delta tour, I'd walked along to the hotel we'd stayed at the first time we arrived in Saigon and reserved a room. We turned up with our bags at 6pm only to find that they'd given our room away to someone else. Not because it was 6pm – they'd given it away the night before, even though I'd offered to pay up front when I made the reservation. The receptionist probably doesn't realise how lucky she is that Nice Tricia is back. Peter went to the hotel next door, which had been full the first night we had arrived in Saigon, and we've ended up in a much better, much bigger and cheaper room. Only thing is that they probably think we're stealing the toilet roll because we're going through so much of it.

To evade getting cabin fever, Peter has been venturing out alone – I really can't risk going too far from a nice clean toilet at the moment. We have a lovely park opposite and he's been going over there and reading (another) Jeremy Clarkson book, sitting in cafe's drinking coffee, going to a local gym and going out at night drinking mostly bottled water and making new friends. I have to be honest and say it's been good not to be on top of each other 24 hours a day. We should do it more often, and I think from now on we will. As long as I have a working computer – I don't even need an internet connection – I can keep myself happily occupied all day and all night.

Going out alone, Peter has been offered all sorts of mischief. A bit of dope here and there (can you imagine the biggest anti-smoker in the whole world sucking on a joint?) or a bit of the other. One man offered him 'massage with happy ending'. Peter asked how happy? Very happy. Yeah, but how happy? Very very happy. What kind of happy? Happy happy. He stood winding this poor bloke up for a good five minutes trying to get him to say brothel or prostitute, but he wouldn't. It's very illegal in Vietnam.

Our visa is about up and it's time to move on. I think it's time to move on anyway – don't want to stay in the same country for too long or it'll get boring. We've booked tickets on a bus to Phnom Penh on Sunday, so I have about 36 hours for the trots to stop. Actually, I'm OK as long as I don't eat anything. I know it's not healthy to not eat, so I've been doubling up on my multi vitamin tablets and eating banana's and oranges. It's incredible to think that a mere orange can send you off in a panic run to the toilet, and you don't want to know about the banana.

One last thing – we noticed last week that Peter's eyeball didn't look right. Fearing it was something to do with the infamous Pattya incident, I nagged him into going to a specialist eye hospital. Fortunately, the doctor gave him some eye drops and told him it was nothing to do with the accident. Unfortunately, she said it was just a burst blood vessel and quite normal for someone of 'your age'.

Squawk.