Thursday, 17 March 2011

10. From Monarchy to Communism

The Bangkok Sofitel Marketing team
Thai Airlines' Royal Orchid Spa, Bangkok
Kids marching at a temple school in Saigon
Tin huts in Saigon
A typically friendly Vietnamese face
My guide, Mr. Quang
Another smiling local face

A Vietnamese market stall
Laden motorbike, quite typical
Laden barge on the Mekong
Royal service from Sof
Business Class with Thai Airlines has turned out to be an impressive experience. The ‘Royal Silk Class’ check in at Bangkok airport is delightful. I can’t think that I have ever actually been asked to sit down while a charming young lady sorts out the paperwork and someone else does all the hard work with the bags. With a lot of counters open, then Fast track through passport control and security, I have completed all formalities within 15 minutes.
Then, there’s a real treat. In addition to an excellent lounge, Thai offers Business and First Class passengers access to their Royal Orchid Spa, a very well fitted out environment, where I wait for my aircraft while enjoying an extremely relaxing massage.
The flight from Thailand to Vietnam is only just over an hour, but Thai’s lovely staff manages to serve a full meal with drinks and even present everyone in C-Class with a lovely orchid immediately prior to landing.
I am worried that entry into Vietnam might be the most challenging yet, but in fact it is as easy as pie. Straight off the aircraft, through immigration and my bags are among the first to come off the carousel.
I become a ‘dong millionaire’, having collected just over £30 worth of the local currency from an ATM. However, I have been alerted in advance to have six or seven US dollars ready for the taxi to my hotel, rather than proffer 100,000 Dong or so.
The welcome at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza is rather less impressive than that in Bangkok but it’s late, there’s nobody from management about, so I take a swim in the splendid rooftop swimming pool and retire to bed.
Next morning, having been offered where to sit in the 2nd floor buffet restaurant, I find my non-smoking table is immediately adjacent to a group of smokers. In fact, the whole area is open plan, so the segregation is absolutely pointless.
I resolve to establish if Sofitel’s CEO is a smoker, certainly the company’s views on the dreaded weed seem to be rather more in tune with those who indulge, than the vast majority of us who do not.
I spend most of the morning on a rather tiny coach, with two hours in between traffic jams visiting the Cu Chi tunnels. Everyone I know who has been to Vietnam says they are a ‘must see’, but, to be frank, I can’t recommend them at all. There’s a fairly ancient and poorly structured video, in which Americans are ‘the enemy’ throughout, a few badly-dressed manikins and a tunnel specially built for tourists, the originals being entirely unsuited for anyone but little Vietnamese folk. Of the many kilometres of underground passages where people lived, slept and fought for fifteen years, you see nothing. It’s a complete waste of time and a real disappointment.
However, things brighten up considerably when I meet Tim Russell, an expat Englishman who loved the country so much, he married a local girl and started his own tour company, Come and Go Vietnam (www.comeandgovietnam.com).
Tim has risen magnificently to my challenge of ‘quirky and different’ and has fixed up for me to go on a tour of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City on the back of a Vespa scooter.
It’s absolutely brilliant. We visit all sorts of little known pagodas, churches and markets, as well as some of the main sights. The trip (www.vietnamvespaadventure.com) is fun, entertaining as well as informative and all that I could have asked for. Not only does it give me a really great orientation, it gives me a real insight into the city, its people and the plans for the future. Highly recommended.
What it also does is introduces me to the madness that is millions of motorbikes. I have never been in a city where there are quite so many, vastly outnumbering cars. A game of chicken is played as they vie for road space, heading the wrong way up one way streets, weaving across lanes, dodging pedestrians, cyclists, dogs et al. But amazingly, it all seems to work. Amazingly, there is almost no hooting of horns and, apparently, a great deal of ‘after you, Claude’.
I am more than ready for a swim, but there’s been a catalogue of miscommunication at the Sofitel, which takes rather a long time to sort out. But there are effusive apologies, access to the Sofitel Club lounge is provided and promises that when I return from the Mekong Delta, I will see the hotel in a rather different light.
I am up bright and early, because Come and Go Vietnam has organised for me to go with them on a two day trip to the Mekong Delta. There’s a call to the Club Lounge where I have had an absolutely splendid breakfast, to tell me that my driver and my guide, Mr. Quang, are waiting for me in reception. The driver turns out to be Mr. Phuc, whose name I pronounce very carefully, with an emphasis on the ‘oo’, rather than the ‘uh’.
As I write this back in Saigon, the memories of the trip are vivid in my mind. I think they will stay with me for a lifetime. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a tourist itinerary quite so much. With no messing, no fuss, just brilliant research and planning Tim’s team has put together a programme that exposes you to the sights, sounds smells and atmosphere of the real Vietnam. You visit markets, villages and cottage industries where tourists rarely go, have dinner and spend the night with a Vietnamese family, cycle the local lanes, sit in cafes and enjoy a drink with local folk.
What it really does is expose you to the genuine friendliness of the Vietnamese people. Everyone smiles at you, the kids all say ‘Hello’ and are thrilled to bits when you answer them back. The other remarkable thing is just how clean and tidy everything is. The streets, paths and gardens are immaculate. Whether that is down to education, culture, pride, or local regulations, I am not entirely sure. But it is very noticeable indeed and it puts us westerners to shame.
I’m interested that the children wear a red scarf with their school uniform which, invariably, is clean, smart and clearly worn with some pride. The scarf, I am told, is to remind them of the blood shed by the martyrs who fought for them. In fact, passing schools, you can’t help notice how neatly the bicycles and motorbikes are parked. Order and discipline are clearly a big part of how this country operates.
What also becomes apparent is the way that nothing is wasted. Rice husks are used to fire brick kilns, coconut shells are used for barbecues and fires, palm leaves for roofs. It’s not uncommon to see a car or lorry broken down at the side of the road, with its entire engine stripped down and the parts carefully laid out on the verge while the broken bit is rebuilt.
What is also remarkable in the Come and Go Product is that you never once feel like a tourist. You become so interested and immersed in what they have arranged for you, that you just become integrated with local life. The people respond with pleasure to your obvious enthusiasm and nobody is ever unwilling to answer your questions or offer you a sample of what they are selling.
Having two locals with you is of course invaluable, but, even then, you give back. My guide speaks excellent English, my driver less so. But after breakfast, we have an impromptu English lesson where Mr. Phuc becomes my ‘star pupil’ and Mr. Quang gets sent to the ‘naughty corner’ because he keeps interrupting teacher trying to show how clever he is. All done amid great hilarity.
Well done Come and Go Vietnam. I wish more companies delivered this sort of amazing experience rather than the turgid and inappropriate programmes so often on the agenda.
Back in Ho Chi Minh City, the welcome at the Sofitel is akin to that reserved for Royal Princes. Perhaps not Prince Andrew of course, because he’s also currently in the naughty corner.
But Vincent, the Executive Assistant Manager, has clearly been doing team briefings and I am most certainly being treated as a welcome guest.
But, oh boy, life is busy. I hardly have time to write the blog, upload the Mekong photographs and repack my bag before a quick dinner in town and an early start to catch the 0650 train to Mui Ne to see a little bit of the ‘Vietnam Riviera’.

By the way, thank you to the more than 1000 folk all over the world who are now reading my blog. Thank you as well for all the feedback. I am delighted that you are, almost literally, on the journey with me.

My Thai and Vietnam photos are now at
https://picasaweb.google.com/MDSouter/AroundTheWorldIn60DaysThailandAndVietnam#

And, when I have time, I’ll be adding the best of Vietnam and Thailand to
https://picasaweb.google.com/MDSouter/TheBestOfAroundTheWorldIn60Days#