Ho Chi Minh City is hectic – let’s just get that out there. The streets are a torrent of traffic, through which you pass like a miniature Moses; while the biblical plagues of rats and cockroaches will have you worrying after your first-born.
But I’ll pass over those minor details and skip to the chase: we were here to meet some mates.
The first was Robbo – that’s his name, not John, as he sometimes introduces himself; just Robbo – who I went to school with and have known for two, long, pun-filled decades. He is almost infuriatingly kind and generous and thoughtful – if that’s possible – and is as funny as his favourite joke:
“Why did the girl fall off the swing? – Because she had no arms.”
Robbo has lived in South Korea for the last three or four years, so I was excited to see him and meet – for only the second time – his partner Erica, a suspiciously intelligent, well-read and forthright Coloradoan who has apparently fallen for Robbo’s polite, British charm. Begrudgingly, I presume.
Then there was Ant, our musically masterful amigo from Hong Kong. Ant works in a music studio in London and is the kind of guy who might try to tickle you by saying “Cu Chi Cu Chi coo” at culturally sensitive moments. He also had an elephant-dung fight with his best friend Mike the last time he was in Vietnam. He is ace.
Finally, I was going to be introduced to Ankit, an old friend of Swarana’s (both their parents had met in Nigeria in the ’70s). Ankit now lives (coincidentally, regarding Erica) in Colorado.
Let me paint you a picture of his character: Ankit works abroad a lot, accumulating frequent-flyer points and “Platinum” hotel privileges. He earned enough to stay a week in the Marriott Renaissance Hotel, a 5-Star tower in the heart of Saigon, and insisted we stay with him as his guest. He did not have to insist very hard.
Funny, friendly and an enthusiastic foodie, Ankit was a delight to hang out with. And as Platinum-Adjacent™ patrons, hanging out was served with free hors d’oeuvres and alcohol every day from 5.30pm.
So, while Robbo, Ant and Erica spent five or six days on the island of Con Dao, Ankit, Swarana and I were chilling in the Renaissance rooftop pool, or sipping G&Ts in the club lounge, or smashing 10K in the gym.
We were staying at the Marriott during the UK general election. We’d be getting results at around 8am, so we stocked the fridge with beers to celebrate or commiserate the result with our much-anticipated Election Breakfast.
However, if you read my post before the poll on why people vote Tory, you’ll have some idea of my mood that morning.
We did leave the Marriott on occasion – honest we did.
Ooh, suits you, sir
For a start, Ankit wanted a couple of suits made. The tailor we stumbled upon was apparently good enough for Joe Jackson, his picture indelibly sealed under the glass of the tailor’s desk, so Ankit had two cashmere suits made, finished within three days for a relative pittance.
Around the corner from the tailor was Ben Thanh market, a huge covered warehouse packed to the rafters with textiles, trinkets and tourist tat. If it was hot outside, there was no attempt to stop the market becoming a furnace within, so when we stopped for noodles, they were extra-seasoned by the salty sweat from our brows. Is that cannibalism? I’m not sure.
The food was excellent, and as cheap as chips; although, dwelling on it, chips – AKA “French fried” – are comparatively expensive in Vietnam, so that idiom is rendered rather redundant here. Either way, we wanted to be wise in the ways of the wok, so took a cooking course at Hoa Tuc, a restaurant in District 1.
Lead by a slick, smiling chef, the course was far more professional than the blasé (albeit delicious) course we’d taken in Phnom Penh. We made fancy prawn spring rolls with a spicy sauce, barbecued beef wrapped in betel leaf, and deep-fried sticky-rice pork dumplings.
I am consistently surprised by the food you can make yourself – the meals we’ve made on these courses has always been superior to what you receive in a restaurant, even though the bar is so high.
Before the others returned from Con Dao, we also had a walk out to the War Remnants Museum. Military equipment (or replicas thereof) are displayed on the grounds, while inside resides the victor’s version of events of the “American war”.
A thousand words
Regardless of whether you agree with the rhetoric or not, the quality of the photographs on display is breath-taking in their quality, composition and horrific subject. It was the first war to be so highly publicised by independent photographers rather than solely state-controlled propaganda peddlers, and it shows.
In one unbelievable shot, the photographer captured the moment a US plane was torn apart in the air by friendly fire. There are the evocative photographs that made the cover of Time Magazine in the 1960s. And there are the images of children born disfigured by the US use of Agent Orange.
Unfortunately, as with many museums in south-east Asia, they take their closing hours seriously, so get there early or you’ll not make it round the entire place before they’re turning the lights out and sending you blinking into the glare of the afternoon sun, a sense of unfinished business reverberating through your head.
That evening, over Club Lounge hors d’oeuvres and one or two Bloody Marys, the conversation turned to gay marriage – I’m not sure why – and I mentioned Jeremy Irons saying men might marry their sons to avoid inheritance tax, while US politicians had said it was a slippery slope to allowing marriage with an animal.
This is, of course, absurd. My point at the time – and I admit I may have been making it rather loudly at a table shared with other hotel guests – was that Who cares who, or even what, people marry? It makes no difference to anyone else.
Animal marriage would still be illegal due to animal cruelty laws, would it not? Unless the animal’s spouse could somehow determine consent? And even that was subject to whether both parties wished to consummate their union.
(Bear with me, this becomes relevant.)
A few sheets to the wind, we set sail onto the streets of Saigon to find some live music and have a cocktail. We found a bar in Chinatown – near the backpackers district – where an immensely talented Vietnamese woman belted western pop to a young crowd.
A stranger approached…
As we sat there listening, sharing a jug of Mai Tai, an Indian fellow approached us and tapped Ankit on the shoulder. With a large grin he said: “Hello, I really enjoyed your thoughts about consummating with an animal.”
Our new friend was staying at the Marriott and had overheard our (apparently too loud) conversation. He bought us all a drink and introduced us to his girlfriend/secretary/Marriott-liaison, a fabulous Malaysian woman in her 50s who was so glam she used the word “darling” at the beginning and end of every sentence.
They were on a night out with one of the doormen from the Marriott who they had befriended, and now us. In payment for a chuckle over his dinner, he took us all out for some late-night supper and a few drinks. I got the feeling the man was ludicrously wealthy (although, Swarana has just told me Ankit picked up the bill – the bloody cheapskates).
“Cu Chi Cu Chi coo”
The next morning was a testing one. Ant, Robbo and Erica had returned from Con Dao and for Ankit’s last day we had booked to go on a tour of Cu Chi – the site of an infamous underground network of claustrophobic tunnels used by villagers to fight the Americans in the war.
It is not a good place to go hung over. For a start it’s a few hours’ drive on a bus. Secondly, the area is extremely hot – hotter than sweltering Saigon – due to hot air blown over from Laos (or something). Thirdly, you’re invited to go underground, where it’s even hotter, clammier and unbearably oppressive. Finally, there’s a sodding shooting range, where thundering gunshots pound your headache with a spade.
Despite the deforestation tactics of the US army, the area around Cu Chi has regrown its jungle, though by no means as dense. Still, with the sound of M16s being fired in the distance, and every direction obscured by vegetation, it wasn’t hard to imagine how frightening war in this environment would be.
This thought is juxtaposed, of course, with girls in Beerlao vests, sunburnt pensioners sweating a waterfall or, indeed, the man wearing a giant CHICKEN outfit for his stag do. Oh, and Ant’s shirt.
There’s a bit where the guide shows you a damaged American tank, just after explaining to us the gruesome traps the villagers devised to ensnare American soldiers. He mentions how the tank was destroyed and then says, “Ok, you may climb on the tank now.” After a moment of group-hesitation, grown adults climb on the tank and take pictures of themselves, like kids at a playground. It’s not a problem, you understand; it was just a bit weird.
So, anyway, some of us wanted to fire a machine gun. You can choose between an M16, an AK47, or the enormous Browning M1919 machine gun, but since you pay per bullet, it’s advisable to avoid the latter’s rapid-fire lunacy and opt for the American rifle.
It’s utterly terrifying: the noise is deafening, the rifle jams, its seemingly impossible to aim, and the mere thought of one of those bullets making a mockery of flesh sends a shudder down your spine. Just watch Ant’s glance having shot five bullets from the murderous machine.
We went down the tunnels too. It takes about 30 seconds to comprehend how shit and awful it must have been crawling around down there, so I had no qualms returning to the surface before the permitted 100-metre stretch.
Back in Saigon, one of Ant’s friends showed us a few night spots, like the Coloradoan brewery Pasteur Street, or the home-brewed rum bar, and tasty-gorgeous eats in Propaganda.
Robbo, Ant and Erica were staying at a fancy-pants hostel they’d found on AirBnB called The Common Room Project, and had made friends with a couple of girls from Taiwan who were working in the countryside as accountants for some company in the sticks and who came to Saigon every weekend.
One of the girls, Joan, joined us that evening, and nearly had us booking tickets to Taiwan to check it out. Sounds mega!
We had to say goodbye to Ankit at that point, and to the Marriott <sniff>. Our next hotel had some mildly offensive tiling in the bathroom, and smelt mildly of cigarettes. They also didn’t have free beer all day or a radio in the bathroom. Guess what -> NEGATIVE REVIEW.
The next few days we just hung out, eating some mega-food with Ant before he too had to leave to go back to Hong Kong.
One more trip: to check out the Mekong Delta. We skipped through the area visiting a bunch of towns in roughly a week.
The first stop was Ben Tre, where we bumped into Cody, the guy from Utah we hung out with in Luang Prabang. He was unfortunately heading back home the next day, so, after taking a few photos of our tatty guidebook, he went on his merry way.
We stayed in a nice guesthouse resort thing in Ben Tre, waking early in the morning to attempt a cycle round around the Delta’s little lanes and jungle paths. It was absolutely bloody sweltering, but the backstreets that twisted and turned over streams and through villages were a real treat. It would have been nice to stay a little longer.
Can Tho is a cool place. The largest city in the Mekong Delta, you think you’re going to find a horrible, polluted upriver port, but it’s actually really nice. There are two excellent street markets, selling local food to locals, and a nice river-front promenade that runs alongside a fairly happening night-scene.
You can also take a trip upriver to the floating market, where farmers sell their harvests wholesale to market vendors from their boats on the Mekong. Each boat’s produce is displayed on the end of a long bamboo pole, so customers can see from afar where they can get what they need.
We bought a durian from one chap. We’d been putting it off for a while, but it’s apparently a delicacy and is well-loved by the Vietnamese, so, when in Rome, right?
DO NOT TRY DURIAN IN YOUR LIFE
There is a reason it is banned from aircraft and subways and restaurants and practically everywhere but the sodding street. It is absolutely revolting, like pickled banana and brie, a stinging, acidic cheese fruit that’s been through a cat.
Finally, we went to Chau Doc: this slightly rundown little border town is within spitting distance of Cambodia, but it’s unfortunately devoid of any Khmer cuisine. However, it does boast a fascinating floating-village community, just around the bend of the river.
It’s really quite stunning. Lines of houses stretch from the river bank over the river, making little aqua cul-de-sacs, with each building floating on a bed of plastic drums. Beneath, a submerged wire cage keeps thousands of fish captive, facilitating both a handy place to dispose of scraps of food and an easy source of protein whenever you need it.
A tour of the village takes you aboard one of the houses, where you are shown the frenzied fish feeding on grain, survey the living quarters, ut generally feel awkward about being aboard someone’s home.
Then, inevitably I suppose, you’re taken over bamboo bridges to the mainland, crossing bodies of water entirely covered with floating vegetation, to a village where houses on stilts shelter conveniently open market stalls. Oh look something to buy! It was cheaper than a night market, to be fair.
Aside from the river, there are a few Buddhist temple sights to see in the area, so Swarana and I opted for a moto-taxi guide to take us round.
You get taken round a bunch of temples, see some weird mirrored cave rooms, climb up a mountain and watch the sunset over Cambodia. Makes a nice afternoon jaunt.
The following day we made our way back to Saigon, again. For the last time. We took it pretty easy, even going to the cinema a couple of times (Avengers 2: dull, boring, superhero schlock; Mad Max Fury Road: intense thrill-ride, with a fight scene of Jackie Chan quality).
But soon it was time to say goodbye. It was great to see so many old mates over in Vietnam, but as ever, the road inevitably beckoned.
However, I take heart in one further thing. I’m a big Die Hard fan, so when I see any of them subsequently, I can legitimately quote Special Agent Johnson:
“Yeeehaaw! Just like back in Saigon! Eh, slick?”
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