16.11.2012 - 24.12.2012
Some small Vietnamese children burst into a chorus of 'Jingle Bells' as soon the plane wheels hit the tarmac of Ho Chi Minh City airport. This was a good introduction to the level of randomness we should expect here (and also how ridiculously cute Vietnamese kids are). The taxi ride from the airport into town felt like being in an action movie trailer, hand-held jump-cut high-octane style, complete with insane traffic, crazy street life, dazzling lights, noise, heat, sweat and all those cinematic cliches associated with exotic urban locations.
Ho Chi Minh is huge, really sprawlingly vast. And there is so much to see - so many people, all busy busy busy, and so much happening, right in front of you on the street, all around you, above you and just everywhere. The sheer volume of people and whirl of activity is completely disorientating, but the sensation of losing yourself in the maelstrom is strangely pleasurable (once you re-learn how to walk along and cross a road). You can walk up and down the same street all day and see a hundred different things each time, and tomorrow it will be all different again. It's impossible to take in much beyond a few superficial immediate impressions. So here are mine, from our initial wanderings in permanent state of astonishment.
I loved the view of the city from the roof terrace of the hotel we stayed in - we spent most evenings just watching the street life below and the city lights (lots of the buildings have changing coloured lights at night for added kaleidoscopic effect)
There's a fascinating labyrinth of narrow alleyways and hidden courtyards that run off the main streets, where a whole other more private life goes on, although still very much on the streets.
The Saigon traffic takes a bit of getting used to. There are very few cars on the road, apart from taxis - but everyone has a moped. Traffic lights are purely ornamental, ditto pedestrian crossings, and pavements are useful things to ride along if you're in a hurry, although their main purpose is of course for parking your bike on. The trick to crossing the road is a zen-like technique of walking slowly and calmly and allowing the traffic to flow around you (grasshopper). It requires leap of faith to begin with but it works.
A chihuahua on a moped. And why not?
Vietnam is a country of dizzying contrasts, so after a few heady days in the cauldron of Saigon, we took off to the peaceful island of Phu Quoc. Not the prettiest of names, but a beautiful tropical island with vast empty beaches (probably not for much longer) and the warmest sea, where you could paddle along the shore among shoals of tiny bright green fish, if you're Lesley, or peacefully float on your back on the calmest of waters, if you're Caroline.
Three idyllic days here passed very slowly, with amazing food and pleasant company at this lovely place. The communal dinner table immediately developed a lesbian corner, where we hung out with a couple of Aussie restauranteurs, and a couple of German clowns. Yes, clowns. Yes, German. If there's one thing I've learned it's always expect the unexpected in Vietnam...