Thursday, 28 January 2016


31st Dec - 10th Jan 2016

Saigon at night. Photo courtesy of Capt C Schenkl.

Happy New Year came and went and, for some reason and much to my relief, that dreadful old Abba song which used to be played non-stop, 'Happy Noo Yeer, Happy Noo Yeer', was nowhere to be heard.  Perhaps it has been banned. That is one of the many advantages of having a one party communist government; they can, should they wish, prevent irritants like this without the need to suck up to 'voters'.

Our New Year is not a pivotal moment in the Vietnamese calendar. Of course they go through the motions to amuse us westerners and to provide good business for bars and restaurants. Also, any excuse for a piss-up. The main event for them is Tet, the Lunar, or Chinese New Year. This is a movable feast, depending on the moon I suppose, and occurs towards the end of January or beginning of February. This coming Tet, signalling the Year of the Monkey, is celebrated on 8th February. Having said that the public holiday lasts for about a week either side to allow people to return to their families, often far away. It is a big family reunion time and as such much of the place closes down and air, rail and bus travel is booked solid. It is the only holiday most Vietnamese workers get. Not a good time for foreigners to visit. 

A few of us spent the evening at a typical noisy Viet restaurant where lots of "mot, hai, ba, yo!" was in evidence and the blokes all got hogwhimpering drunk. The Vietnamese, for some physiological reason I am told, do not hold their liquor well. In fact if a party starts a 7.00pm they are normally purple-faced and under the table by 9.00pm. As such the restaurants don't stay open much beyond 10.00pm, as was the case here. We went on to another, western style, bar to continue the action...apart from a couple of the pilots who were on duty the following day. Interestingly, it is only the Vietnamese men who get drunk. The women seldom, if ever, touch alcohol, neither do they smoke. Something to be admired there perhaps? You certainly don't see Vietnamese girls staggering arm in arm down the street only stopping to throw up in the gutter before collapsing over the street furniture.

Left: Me in bed the following morning.

Actually this is an embalmed corpse in the museum at the Saigon zoo. It didn't explain the significance or even who it was. Perhaps a long-serving loyal employee who retired dead on duty and they just kept him on while claiming his salary from the city council.....'good old Nguyen still working as normal'

Right: One of many civilised suppers amongst ex-colleagues at a local restaurant. The food really is quite delicious. You order a variety of dishes which turn up in the order they are cooked and you share. A 330ml bottle of Tiger beer costs about 50p and the total cost of a meal (including at least 6 bottles of beer each) never seems to come to much over £7, often less. 

Left: Normal traffic on a Saigon street. As mentioned before, perhaps, it looks chaotic, and there are few rules, but it works well. Traffic lights do exist but, for the most part, they are purely advisory. When riding a scooter, the overriding rule is to watch out in front between your 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position. The person behind you does likewise. There are surprisingly few accidents. I rode a scooter here for 4 years and when I left it didn't have a scratch on it (not because of my skill, I hasten to add, but because other riders are good at avoiding you!). Because there are few restrictions people 'think' what they doing and where they are going. If someone decides to go down a road in the opposite (wrong) direction, or takes a short cut along the pavement nobody gets cross; they just let him through. I never experienced or saw any hostile behaviour. They are, on the whole, most courteous and forgiving. Maybe something to be learnt from this. Likewise for pedestrians. To cross the road on foot looks a formidable task. In fact, if you pick a vaguely open spot to start and just keep walking steadily across, the traffic weaves around you. Simple. Can you imagine the screaming and yelling if you tried that in UK!

Right: A shop near the opera house is renowned for making, on site, these incredibly elaborate model ships; some of them of vast size and intricacy. It has been going for years. The craftsmen sit on the pavement making them and impressive to watch. I don't know who buys them and it would be interesting to see how you could get through the airport carrying one home. 

I went to the Opera House (left), a Grand Relic of French colonial days, to see a performance called Ao; a traditional song and dance  show. It was amusingly and skilfully performed with plenty of juggling and gymnastics...great fun, even if, at $30 a ticket, somewhat expensive. Recommended if you are passing and it is still on.

The interior of the Opera House is well up to the standard of a West End venue. Drinks and food were provided in the foyer. We were warned "no photography" in the auditorium but considering the flashes from cameras and smart-phones nobody paid much attention, except the theatre staff who kept running up and down to identify and warn the perpetrators. I just joined in (tactfully) but didn't push it so only one poor shot. Surprisingly, lots of people wandered in late. It subsequently became full up. Perhaps late arrivals were offerd cut-price tickets.

Left: City Hall by night.

Right: A girl wearing the traditional 'Ao Yai', still much in evidence amongst shop workers, hotel staff, flight attendants etc. Quite fetching I think.

Left: Nguyen Hue Street in District 1. This, now semi-pedestrian, street runs south from the City Hall and is the venue for much decoration, lighting, flowers, fountains and celebrations during Tet.

Right: The interior of a smart and not inexpensive German restaurant called Gardenstadt in District 1. Very good food and rather Teutonic beer and schnapps. The girl bar staff wear those rather pretty Bavarian dirndl style dresses, but were too coy to let me photograph them. 

.....and now for the bad news. MacDonalds have opened their first 'restaurant' in Saigon. Apparently this happened sometime in 2014. The first of many I have no doubt. Vietnam staunchly resisted this invasion for many years but have now obviously yielded to the vast amount of filthy lucre offered by this giant American food-poisoning organisation. You would have thought they had done enough damage with their 'Agent Orange' in the 1970s. This signifies the beginning of the end for the almost universal slim, healthy and attractive Vietnamese physique. I recall that Thailand suffered this  fate about 15 years ago and whereas, with their previously healthy diet, Thai girls were of perfect dimension and the men were slim, hard and muscular, there is now a preponderance of fatties; not only fat but frequently suffering from diabetes. The Asian metabolism is especially not attuned to an intake of fatty sugary food. The trouble is that not only is the MacDonalds crap addictive, but the locals consider it 'cool' and 'fashionable' to eat there. Oh dear. Perhaps the World Health Organisation should take a stand, but money and profit rule, as always.

Right: The beginning of the end!

Well, that more or less sums up my latest visit to this delightful country. There is no NHS, no welfare hand-outs, no old age pension, no 'benefits' indeed none of the things that we take for granted and as of right (and spend our time arguing and complaining about). They do have good basic schooling, are literate and numerate, and well behaved. The people are industrious, enterprising, charming and cheerful. I'm sure it has it's faults, as all countries do, but there is a total lack of 'whinging' and blaming the 'system' for whatever befalls them. They take full responsibility for their own lives and have a very supportive extended family tradition. OK, maybe they are a bit robotic and have little say in national politics (they certainly have a say in local affairs), but they really do show a remarkable resilience and happily make do with what they've got. Also, by the way, they don't have a hint of a terrorist threat and their broadband internet service is way superior to that in most of the UK!

The flight back to Blighty was, as traditional with Vietnam Airlines, delayed by a couple of hours. However I successfully, for once, deployed my blagging technique to gain access to the VIP lounge (its always worth a try) and spent the delay consuming vast quantities of freeby wine. After boarding I subsequently fell fast asleep well before take-off. I was sitting next to a couple of charming English girls who were probably then subjected to my violent snoring, farting and dribbling, but they were too polite to mention it, and the 12 hour flight passed surprisingly quickly (for me anyway). What a joy to get back to the grizzly weather at Heathrow and the surly reception at passport control manned by.........I won't go on!

Oh!.....nearly forgot, I read that His Holiness the Pope spent New Year's Day praying for peace and goodwill in the world in 2016. So that's OK then; this year there will be no more fighting or conflict. Problem solved. I wonder if he writes letters to Father Christmas?

Friday, 8 January 2016


29th - 30th Dec 2015

Paddling up one of the many streams
We left in a bus from the Pham Ngu Lau (backpackers' area) for a two day, one night trip to the Mekong Delta area. The Mekong starts on the Tibetan plateau and runs through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and out to sea through a vast delta network in Vietnam. It is the world's 12th longest river. In fact it is known in Vietnam as the Gu Lam 'Nine Dragons' presumably due to the nine main tributaries forming the delta. It is a vast flat rice producing area and around the fertile river banks it produces lots of fruit of all descriptions plus, of course, fish from the river itself.

There were 14 of us on the bus, including our guide, a fluent English speaker which helped. Apart from myself and the guide there were 3 South Koreans, a Vietnamese couple, a fat bloke from Macau, a Canadian Viet Khieu (Viet Khieu is the term for Vietnamese living abroad and descended from those who fled the country post 'reunification' in 1975. The majority of whom ended up North America and Australia) and a family of five from Australia.....and more about them later.

Out of Saigon south-west for 1.5 hours to the town of Ben Tre on one of the main tributaries. New roads and large bridges have been built over the area since I was last here. New roads they may be but I suspect there has been a lot of skimping on the construction, a common feature in Vietnamese building projects  where quality is paid for and junk provided and a neat profit is made by someone. Every few hundred yards we went over a (expansion?) joint in the road section often with a severe jolt. Rather uncomfortable. It was during this initial part of the journey it became apparent that the Australian family were going to be a 'pain in the arse'. The father, 40ish, stocky, thick-necked and of rather neanderthal appearance was irritatingly loud and kept making inane comments. I began to suspect he was a little bonkers. His wife, a Viet Khieu, was silent and passive. Their three children aged about 12 (girl), 10 (boy) and 3 (boy) were hyperactive, especially the manic 3-year-old boy, and were continually egged on by their stupid father. In short the family from hell.

Anyway we arrived at Ben Tre and into a small wooden motor-boat for an initial trip down the river past many fish traps and banks covered in coconut palms (water coconuts we were informed).

Left: A pile of coconut husks at a small factory which made matting from them.

Every bit of a coconut is used in some way. The outer husks for matting material, the shell for making cups etc. and the meat and milk for consumption. Coconut is, apparently, a very healthy food/drink. We were told that there is an order of monks who live on an island in the river who eat and drink nothing other than coconut for their whole lives. Can you imagine it? No point in asking "well, what's for supper tonight Brother Nguyen?" or "have you tried that new coconut joint 'Coco Nuts' down the track? Their roast coconut is to die for and they have a great cellar of coconut milk".

We were given a demo of how the husks and shells are removed. This was done by a young boy standing over a vicious 3ft high spear and whacking the coconut down over it to break off the husk. This looked impressively dangerous as one false whack would have resulted in the spear going through the boy's hands or into his chest. Elf 'n' safety be damned. I suspect there are no 'old' coconut husk removers.

One of the local 'boutique' industries is making coconut flavoured toffee. I tried it and it is rather good. Also coconut wine (55% proof). I tried that also....and bought a bottle plus coconut shell 'tumblers' to bring home to delight my dinner party guests. There was also coconut stuff to put on your hair and coconut tea, and just plain coconuts with straws in them to drink the milk. 


Left: Coconut toffee being produced 

 Another local produce is honey...with further off-shoots of honey liqueur (not tried), honey medicines and, of course, royal jelly, which is alleged to cure everything from impotence to dandruff. I was not clear as to whether you ate the stuff or rubbed it on.

Right: A lady showing off her frame of honey bees.


We were then invited to sit down to drink honey tea while being serenaded by local Mekong folk singers (left). They played old traditional love songs, seven of them, and none was short. OK, a lot was lost in translation and the melody was a bit obscure, an acquired taste perhaps, but they got 10/10 for effort, passion and endurance....and a tip at the don't bother to apply for a slot on X-Factor.

Onwards down, or up, the smaller streams and the boats got smaller............

....and smaller............

...until we were into 4 seaters; the Mekong equivalent of a gondola paddled by a traditional Mekong gondolier(ess). These little boats were rather unstable and demanded a bit of care when boarding or capsize drills would ensue. I don't think the paddler was up to an 'Eskimo roll'.

...and then a rather good lunch at a restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Beer extra. Fortunately the Australian delinquents had declared themselves to be 'Veggies' and sat at a separate table. I hoped that someone might have the good sense to put some elephant tranquiliser in their tofu.

After lunch the next mode of transport was Vietnamese tuk-tuk which took us along some very narrow tracks and over streams and ditches. Good driving, as the gap between wheel and edge of track over several unguarded bridges was only a few inches. 
Then on foot through orchards growing all sorts of weird and wonderful fruit (don't bring any jurian fruit with you) to our original boat which took us back to the quayside at Ben Tre at 2.30pm. Not a long day and reasonably interesting.


'Everybody back on the bus' for what should have been a 2 hour journey on to Can Tho, the major town in the Mekong district. In fact, due to traffic jams it took 3 hours which, in itself, would have been fine if it hadn't been for the little pack of feral Oz brats shouting and screaming and climbing over and under the seats ably encouraged by their moronic father and disregarded by their apathetic mother.

Can Tho, a city of 2 million people but spread out over an even larger area than Saigon (with 12 million approx), straddles one of the major river tributaries. It is the 4th largest city in Vietnam and probably quite a pleasant, if uninspiring, place. We arrived at our hotel, the Van Phat, boasting a 'Vietnamese' 4 star rating. Large Vietnamese hotels like this contain vast grandiose empty halls downstairs and are often, as in this case, remarkably free of guests. Bedrooms look reasonably decent and have the facade of luxury, except that lots of thinks don't work (ie bedside light and the sink didn't empty in my case) and the Vietnamese have a penchant for rock hard mattresses. They are, after all, people who think nothing of sleeping on uncovered concrete floors. 

We had a 'group' dinner in the rambling semi-covered outdoor hotel restaurant (there wasn't an indoor one) on the riverside. Fortunately, again, two tables and the demented Oz brood were not on mine...or at least I avoided theirs. I declined a 'ride' into town and spent a bit of the evening watching busy river traffic. Boats of all sizes were chugging up and down and most of them seemed to have no lights. Not sure how they navigated and avoided crashing into one another, but they must have known what they were doing, I suppose.

Next morning up quite early for a visit to the 'floating market'. We were asked to be on the bus at 7.30 am (the market starts at 5.00am) which we all were except for, needless to say, the Oz family. They arrived 15 minutes late and as soon as they were on the bus the 'father' gleefully announced he had to go to the 'toilet'. He was gone for at least 10 minutes. Why the hell he could'nt have gone earlier defies logic. We should have left without him, but our guide was far too conscientious.

The floating market is a purely wholesale commercial set-up for local businesses whereby all kinds of fruit and veg are brought up the river to be sold. The larger barges hold the sellers wares and customers in smaller boats come up and buy in bulk only, ie you can't just order a dozen apples apparently.  They display the stuff they are selling by hanging relevant items on a tall bamboo pole at the front of their boat/shop.


We boarded a smallish boat to tour the market. One of the Oz brats nearly fell in at one point (or was pushed possibly). I had happy visions of them all going overboard and us steaming on oblivious.....merely wishful thinking.

Right: A small boat was cruising around selling drinks and snacks; the equivalent of the NAAFI wagon.

We passed a couple of these (left) cruise boats, converted rice barges I am told, which take passengers in some comfort on trips up and down the river. Some of the bigger ones go on to Cambodia, past Phnom Penh and the Tonle Sap lake up towards Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

Right: A selling boat displaying yams or mangos.

Back at the hotel for a quick lunch and then back on the bus at 12.30pm for the return journey to Saigon. The Oz Family From Hell (OFFH) were late again. This journey was meant to take 4 hours, including a stop half way at a town market selling more fruit (I really did'nt want/need to buy fruit). However, we got into the mother of all traffic jams after the 'fruit stop'. The OFFH were at their wildest worst; the 3 yr old brat had acquired a sort of Star Wars sword that lit up and made a filthy racket with which he proceeded to further irritate the very patient and fortunately non-violent passengers who were mostly trying to get some sleep. Stuck in the traffic jam alongside another bus full of Vietnamese, the Oz father proceeded to stick his nose against the window and blow silly faces at them to both our and their great embarrassment. I think by now you might begin to get the measure of this dysfunctional family.

We arrived back in Saigon at 8.00pm. Phew. A 7.5 hour, rather uncomfortable, bus journey.

OK, all in all, an interesting and educational tour and we were efficiently hosted by a very charming, polite and patient guide....although what he made of the OFFH one can only imagine. My only slight gripe is that we spent 9 hours touring the Mekong, 14 hours at the hotel and no less than 13 hours on the bleeding bus being harrassed by the OFFH. Choi Oi! As the cry of exasperation in Viet goes.

Saturday, 2 January 2016


29th Dec 2015

Christmas survived in a remarkably enjoyable low-key fashion....despite many Rudolph the Poxy Red Nosed Reindeers towing sleighs over polystyrene snow and "we wiss you a Merry Keesmah" blaring out from the larger shops.
Shop girls wearing Santa Claus hats.......

.....and waitresses and others donning reindeer antlers. Herds of them in fact. It was all the rage this year. 
A pleasant, if somewhat drunken, Christmas eve dinner was spent in a German restaurant (I am the guest of a German ex-colleague) where Teutonic beef and much schnapps  was consumed. My contribution was mince pies and brandy butter brought over for the occasion.
Christmas day was spent recovering from a monumental Teutonic hangover.

....more antlers. Staff at a local restaurant.

......the locals 'sort of' entered into the spirit of the occasion, especially when it came to selling things to 'nguoi nuoc ngoai' (foreigners)........

......even expensive 4x4 cars on display in a department store had a Father Christmas offering a test drive.

On Boxing Day I decided to go to the races at Phu Tho racecourse, 3 miles west of the city centre where Saturday and Sunday are/were racedays. I remember going there a couple of times in 2010 and found it quite amusing. Not exactly the equivalent of Kempton Park and the King George V1 'Chase, but it was the only alternative.  On arrival, wearing my best Panama hat for the occasion, I found it was closed. Not only closed, but derelict! I learnt it had been shut down in 2011 and the centre of the course has been turned into an athletics training ground, of a very scruffy nature. I had, stupidly, not checked it out on the internet previously. Typical.......

Right: Derelict stands and the old number board at the now defunct racecourse. There is now no horse-racing in Vietnam, although I gather there are plans to open a new course somewhere north of the city. Maybe.

It was reported that all the ex-racehorses have now been eaten; probably by their starving jockeys.

Wandering home I passed the railway station which has been considerably upgraded....except for this train on nearby tracks. Not sure if it works but is possibly of interest to train spotters.

On Boxing Day evening a small group of us 'pushed the boat out' and had a sumptuous, and rather expensive, dinner at a French restaurant called 'Les Trois Gourmands' in An Phu district (right). It is owned and run by old friends, Gils Roux and his Vietnamese wife Phoung. It was previously called 'Le Toit Gourmand' in Tan Binh district where I lodged for a couple of years. It is an iconic eatery in Saigon and well worth a visit, and the price, for the occasional night of epicurean debauchery. Spectacular menu and wines and a brilliant chef (whom I taught to play backgammon a few years ago and then he regularly beat me at it!).

So now looking forward to New Year's Eve, Vietnam style. The music in the shops and restaurants now changes and blasts out that hideous old Abba number 'Happy New YEER, Happy New YEER....etc.' I am tempted to arm myself with  sub-machine gun and hand-grenades to express my appreciation.