It’s been about a year since my passport has seen light, gathering dust in my bedside table up until now, yearning for the day where it will see another stamp or two. The last two flights of fancy have been European centric – it’s time for a change from the snow of a European winter, to be replaced with the sapping humidity that a South-east Asian country can dish up. My travel itch needs to be be spread around like the Olympics or tinea in a hostel shower.
Vietnam is the country that will nurse me in her bosom for the next (nearly) three weeks. This story begins at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM. One of my biggest fears is running late for the airport and this is only heightened by today’s early flight from Brisbane to Ho Chi Minh with a whirlwind break in Kuala Lumpur. A later flight didn’t work, adding an additional ten hours to the journey. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and resist the urge to hit the snooze button. Getting up before the sun will be an adventure in itself for this night owl.
Nearly reached the airport under the cloak of darkness, giving me sufficient time to do all the housekeeping, for Malaysian Airlines who will be flying me north of the equator this time around. Much has been made of their recent tragedies, but my immediate family are worried that these things happen in threes. Their concerns have shifted from the airlines safety in the last week as all the talk about the coronavirus has hijacked the worldwide news headlines. Vietnam shares a border with China but my doctor gave me some reassurance and a medley of tablets and injections.
Filled in the time at the airport with Peter Carey’s “The True Story Of The Kelly Gang”. It was kind of the Brisbane Airport Corporation to get into the spirit of my upcoming trip with their palm trees on the concourse.
Managed to churn through more of the book than I had planned due to the plane arriving late. The masses at the departure gate have covered their collective orifices with medical masks, most looking that ridiculous they would have scared the coronavirus away. The plane was only two thirds full and I was asked if I would like to move to some vacant seats, which just happened to be the middle exit row. Seems like nobody was keen to fork out the extra cash so I wasn’t going to say no (what’s Malaysian for “no”?) A whole row to myself.
Everytime the hostess who granted me my new seat walked past I made the point of showing that my feet could touch the wall without trying. Was it that I wanted to reassure her she made the right decision or subconsciously I was trying to get a start in the pointy end of the plane? The first flight was like a successful marriage, it went without incident bar the odd episode of turbulence which got glossed over with a couple of drinks and some chicken. Passing the time was a test of patience as their was little “entertainment” on offer from the in-flight entertainment system. Think of the garbage you would see on Channel 7’s third string channel (repeats of “Big Bang Theory”) and the stuff on Netflix that would leave you with a diminished public standing if it was found on your viewing history. Podcasts it will have to be.
The late departure of the first flight meant that my already skinny connection time was squeezed harder than a hug at a family reunion. Originally what was going to be seventy minutes got pared back to barely fifteen. I mentioned it to the stewardess who moved me to Business Class as we were landing, in the hope I could make a quickish getaway? Fortunately a pasty white Englishmen (ain’t they all?) was in the same bind as me but he was familiar with the airport. You aren’t supposed to talk to strangers, especially if are red in the face and look like a sex tourist, but the two of us managed to catch the train between the terminals with a few moments to spare. Without him I think I would still be demonstrating with Customer Services. Made it to our respective gates (he was going to Thailand) as the final calls were being made.
Landing in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) I chose the bus because I had read a few articles about some unscrupulous taxi drivers. The bus on the other hand drops off near the hotel and is $1.50AUD. During the trip my initial impressions
- The sheer number of scooters was even more than I had expected and I was expecting enough to reach the moon if they were placed end to end
- Parts of the city are lit up that brightly it makes Las Vegas’ strip look like the headlights from a busted Toyota Corolla
The hundred or so metres from the drop off point to the hotel meant I had my initial experience with crossing the road. Sure there are traffic lights and pedestrian crossings but like your appendix I am unsure what purpose they serve? My research told me to be confident and after finding a slight break in the scooter onslaught, step out and maintain a constant pace as the scooters will go around you. Now is not the time to be timid. I played the odd game of Frogger in my childhood, who would have thought that these important life skills would resurface some thirty years later? There will have to be more detailed accounts of my traffic interactions another day.
The hotel is in the heart of District 1, the epicenter of the city. This brings with it all the good and all the dodgy tourist traps. On my way walk outside I was asked for three shoeshines (I was unaware that the Vietnamese could give suede a luster, a feat the rest of the world has been unable to achieve), six massages and four bike taxis. All these questions would have to wait, I was getting rather hungry. My first meal had to be pho, the dish that Vietnamese people hold in near religious asteem. Like a Italian Pizza or a Hungarian goulash everybody claims to have “best”. I’ve had more than my fair share back home but this was going to be a tad different.
Pho 2000 was the name of the place but it wasn’t as futuristic as the name suggested. It claims to be fit for a President because I believe Bill Clinton had a bowl or two back in the day. Word on the street is that Bill is handy with a see of chopsticks. After the usual communication issues were ironed out I got my steaming bowl of the good stuff with a heap of herbs, most of which I will need a degree in agriculture science to name. It is a bit different to the bean sprouts and basil back in Australia. For some reason I matched this up with a fresh ice-cold pawpaw juice. I don’t know why, I have never had a good one? Maybe the fatigue had set in?
Just the tonic I needed, the herbs were as if someone had dropped a few licorice all sorts into the broth. Will it be the best meal I will have on this trip? No, but it’s not a bad way to kick things off. Now back to wrestle with the traffic crossings.