Wednesday, 4 March 2009

of all things Saigonese

I loathe long flights. A tendency to retain water and swell like the perverbial balloon (thanks mes enfants....), along with accompanying aches and pains (airplane seats = notoriously uncomfortable) render anything longer than 2 hours a nightmare. It doesn't matter that there are countless movies, tv shows, cartoons etc to watch or hundreds of music channels to listen to, my brain goes into "I'm on this plane for HOW LONG?" mode and that's it, the flight is ruined.

So let's get past the fact that I hated the outward and return journeys with a passion.

And let's move on to the fact that I understand completely now why Mr H fell in love with Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City if you prefer).

Saigon is, quite simply, mad. Mr H had forewarned me of the fact that there are countless numbers of scooters being driven in this city and you just have to step off the kerb and "go for it" when crossing the road. Nothing prepares you for this spectacle, it's insane but somehow it works perfectly well. You do just step off and go for it, I became quite the expert by the end of our time there. The streets are lined with shops selling all sorts of lovely things you would want to buy, from hand made lacquered items to beautiful (and cheap) material. In the midst of these shops you will find a Louis Vuitton boutique, primarily for tourists I suppose.

The restaurants, oh I could wax lyrical about these for the rest of the day, range from the local version of a fast food outlet to a sumptuous Sunday brunch at The Sheraton. Two of the best restaurants we found were local; on the roof of a building you sit at your table with it's inbuilt barbecue, you order your food raw from the menu and you cook it yourself, such a simple idea yet absolutely brilliant. We had two fantastic meals there. The other was along a similar vein, you sit at your table, you order what you want to eat, the waiter takes your order outside to one of the many booths furiously cooking food and about 10 minutes later, your order is delivered to your table. And this was the restaurant where the Mister and I discovered Black Sticky Rice as a pudding, an unexpected treat, in fact so much so that upon returning home it was the first thing I "googled", found a recipe for and tried out at home (needless to say the four H's were not interested but the Mister and I had yummy puddings that night). Sunday brunch at The Sheraton was cheap as chips and a culinary experience the likes of which I have never, and probably will never, experience again. It was worth it for the Fillet Mignon alone (I have never, in all my 38 years, had a fillet mignon so that was a first), oh and the vodka passion fruit slushies went down well too.....

On a more touristy note now, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels (lifted from Wikipedia: are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968.

The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The role of the tunnel systems should not be underestimated in its importance to the Viet Cong in resisting American operations and protracting the war, eventually persuading the weary Americans into withdrawal.)

These tunnels were mystifying to me, how on earth did they stay down there for so long, weren't they incredibly dark and dank? Our tour guide was particularly enthusiastic about the day, which was as well otherwise I think my slight claustrophobia would have set in and I would have dismissed it entirely as being a waste of time. But it wasn't, it was fascinating. The highlight? watching 6ft 5 Mister descend into the darkness and re-appear at another exit some 50m away (and he does have claustrophobia, so bravo! - the tunnels have at some point been heightened and widened for tourists but I'm not sure for one as tall as he). The other highlight was sitting on the coach being driven through the Vietnamese countryside towards and from our destination, watching paddy fields, (incredibly scrawny) cows, more scooters and children of various ages going/coming to/from school, all in their neat uniforms.

We also had a day out to the Cao Dai temple about an hour's drive outside of Saigon. Now this I was extremely interested to visit as I have lately (well over the past two years at least) been drawn towards the serenity I feel from Buddhism. Caodaism is the third largest religion in Vietnam, after Buddhism and Catholicism and is made up of elements of Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Taoism (more info can be found here: The visit to this temple was the highlight of our trip for me, we were privileged to arrive in time for the noon prayers and to be able to stand on the viewing gallery and watch was beautiful, I felt such peace and tranquility and came away refreshed. The simplistic prayers and absolute faith of the followers at worship was extraordinary and it was wonderful to feel enveloped for at least a short while by this.

One of our mornings in Saigon was spent jumping from taxi to temple, to taxi to temple. We were lucky to arrive at one of the smaller Buddhist temples in time to watch a young monk make his morning offering. And to watch the locals coming in to burn incense and offer their prayers or thanks. A particularly small baby girl held in the arms of her mother was completely and utterly oblivious to it all,sleeping soundly with such an air of peace about here, her mother was there to give thanks for her safe arrival into the world. She was a darling little thing.

The Continental Hotel was officially a four star, but to be honest, it felt more like five. The room was huge, there was a king size and a single bed, a separate little seating area complete with an old steamer lounger - Mr H had to tell me on many occasions that no, it wouldn't lend itself to the flight home or look in place in our garden. Shame really......

I wasn't brave enough to ride on the back of a scooter but I was brave enough to partake of a small journey in a bicycle rickshaw, although upon getting off declaring it was second only to my terrifying experience of go-karting and I would never be doing that again.

There is an air of family in Vietnam, no matter (I think) where you go. Children are clearly adored and it shows. Every evening families with young children would gather in a particularly lovely flower filled area with a fountain, where the children would spend the evening splashing their hands in the water and running around playing with balloons that their parents had bought them from a nearby vendor. To see a family of three, four or even five, on a scooter riding through the streets with no air of nervousness about them was incredible - some children are mere babies, some being bottle fed by their mother as their father negotiates the traffic.

Saigon was an uplifting experience, I came home feeling renewed but once again that overwhelming ache that I feel whenever we land back in the UK took hold, and even though I had a wonderful time, spending quality hours with my beloved, the journey back home made me realise once again that this is not where I want to be.

And yes, the four H's were pleased to have their mama and daddy back. And I was glad that they were happy.

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