Sunday, 30 September 2012

First day in Phnom Penh

For the first time in a while I could get up when I wanted, so this morning I slept in until about 9.30 (I would once have laughed at this statement...), and when I woke up I felt very well-rested. I went out for a breakfast of French toast and coffee with condensed milk, while I looked through my guidebook and decided what to do for the day. I went for the National Museum in the morning, and the Royal Palace in the afternoon. Starting with the basics, both in easy locations and situated right next to each other, so as not to over-stretch myself! My three-day Mekong Delta tour was so packed with activity and lacking in free time that from now on the pace will be slowed down by three or four measures.

The National Museum is a dark red structure in the traditional Khmer style, but which was built between 1917 and 1920. From the outside I first thought it looked a little out-of-place and overbearing in its style, but inside it was beautiful. The museum comprises four rooms built around, and open onto, a delightful courtyard garden with four lily ponds around a statue of Buddha. The museum of today was born out of the Khmer Museum, which was established in 1905 in another site site. The collection expanded, and in 1951 it was renamed the National Museum of Cambodia and was taken under the control of the Royal Government. The museum was closed during the Khmer Rouge period, and has been open again since 1979. It houses a collection of Khmer sculptures and other archaeological finds from across a millennium. 

I approached the museum in the 'wrong' order, going anti-clockwise and so with a muddled chronology. Firstly, I saw a collection of Buddha statues from the post-Angkorian period, which refers to the age between the decline of the Angkor civilization and the beginning of the French colonial period, cited as between the 15th and 19th centuries. These statues were mostly carved from a single piece of wood, decorated with mother-of-pearl, glass or precious stones, and protected by a layer of black or red lacquer paint. Unfortunately I couldn't take photographs of the exhibits to share here. Something I found particularly interesting were the bronze drums in the next room. From the 4th-1st centuries BC these were extremely precious and valuable masterpieces, which were treasured by a community and owned by the village chief. When the chief died, he would be buried with the bronze drum, often filled with jewellery and treasures, to bring him wealth in the next life. These finds are said to be the signature archaeological artefacts of South-East Asia, and over sixty have so far been discovered in North Vietnam, South China and two principal sites in Southern Cambodia. Jumping forward to the early 20th century, I saw a series of paintings depicting scenes from Reamkher, the Khmer version of a popular Hindu story originating in India, which tells the tale of a prince, Preah Ream, and his journey to find and return his abducted wife Neang Seda. Try as I might though, I couldn't follow the story by looking at the paintings. Maybe my imagination is just not good enough.

The next room was dedicated to Jayavarman VII, a Khmer king who ruled from 1177 to 1181. As a prince over 50 years old, he liberated the city of Angkor from a Cham invasion and declared himself king, embarking on a campaign of Empire-building and the construction of many temples and public buildings. Under his rule, the Khmer kingdom grew to its largest ever size, five times the size of modern-day Cambodia. He was known for his compassion for the people of the kingdom, and after his death, thought to be in 1218, he was given the grand posthumous title of Preah Mahaparamasaugatapada, meaning 'he who has gone where the great followers of the supreme Buddha reside'. The main feature of this room is a stone carving of the Jayavarman VII in meditation, his eyes closed and head titled downwards, wearing a simple hermit's loincloth. He must have been an interesting character.

Further on were more stone sculptures depicting divinities from Buddhism and Brahmanism, the oldest being from the 6th-7th century. These included many sculptures of Lakshmi, the female personification of the Vishnu and the goddess of fortune, as well as a peculiar pair of fighting apes. A sign on the wall explained that Khmer sculpture is signified by a balance between simplicity and attention to detail, the loyalty to human form in depiction and the distinctive 'Smile of Angkor' facial expression, a half smile with closed eyes.

In the final quarter of the museum I read a little about the two dominant religious followings in Khmer culture. Brahmanism had long been present due to Indian influence. The three key divinities of Brahmanism are Shiva, responsible for the destruction of the universe, Vishnu, preserver of the universe, and Brahma, the creator, a figure that was not as prominent as the former two in Khmer society and art. Buddhism has been practised since the 6th century, and Mahayana Buddhism first became the state religion under the reign of King Jayavarman VII. Buddhists worship the Buddha, the 'enlightened one', who has 'achieved liberation from the endless cycle of rebirth'. There is also Lokeshvara, the lord of compassion, and Pranjnaparamita, who represents the perfection of wisdom. Before the dominance of these two beliefs, the primary following was Animism, the belief in natural phenomena and in forest spirits.

Evidently, there was a lot of information to be gained at the National Museum, although it was just the right size to walk around for an hour. The smell of jasmine (offerings to statues) and the light from the courtyard made it really pleasant to walk around. I went for lunch at Friends, a tapas restaurant and training school for former street youths. The restaurant gives impoverished young people work experience and hospitality training to equip them for employment in Phnom Penh's tourist industry, so I felt like it was a valuable place to spend my lunch-money. My food took a long time to arrive but I could see it was an exception. I enjoyed a tasty light lunch of smoked aubergine dip with French bread. Next door is Friends & Stuff, a shop and manicure parlour which raises money for the same foundation, and there is also a Khmer restaurant in a different part of the city which is part of the same cause.

In the afternoon I went to the Royal Palace. It is the home to King Norodom Sihanouk and his family, so much of the grounds are off-limits to visitors. I had been told that the palace is overpriced and there is not much you can see when inside, but I felt that I couldn't come to Phnom Penh without seeing it, so I paid my $6.25 to go in. I'm very glad I did. I found that there was an hour and a half's worth of things to see, and it was incredibly beautiful and peaceful, particularly in the late afternoon. It was not permitted to take photos inside any of the buildings, but there was a lot to photograph from walking around the grounds. I loved the elegant golden-yellow tiered rooftops guarded by pigeons on every pinnacle. Yellow and white are used on all of the buildings to represent Buddhism and Brahmanism respectively. The palace as it now stands was constructed in 1866, but was originally built in 1434. After the royal family moved to Oudong to the north, the palace was reconstructed in concrete to the original design.


After this I took a walk at dusk through the park in front of the palace where people gathered to talk or play sports. I walked to the Independence Monument at the junction of the Norodom and Sihanouk boulevards. Constructed in 1958 to model the central tower of Angkor Wat, it is a commemoration of independence from the French, and is also used as a memorial to the war dead. Further along I saw the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, a strange combination of grey communist-style figures beneath a yellow Khmer-style roof. Walking along the riverbank I saw a commotion as people crammed into two box-shaped miniature-temples on the street, holding incense sticks. Music was playing and vendors were selling fruit and flowers for offerings, and carrying birds in cages for people to pay to set free (although they are trained to return again). I joined a few tourists who were watching the chaos and wondered what it could be about. Today is Children's day, the final day of Moon Festival and I had been expecting to see children's parades and parties, but I hadn't seen much to suggest it was a special day at all. I wondered if what I was watching could be a part of the Moon Festival, a special Sunday worship, or just an everyday event. There was no way of knowing. (I'll point out here that if anybody reading this blog has any insights to share with me they can be posted in the comment box below, and I will be grateful for the knowledge).

After a long afternoon and a lot of walking I appreciated a happy-hour mojito for $1.75 before dinner. I ate on the riverbank again, in fact only next door to the restaurant I ate at last night. I ordered fried pork and shredded ginger and again, the food was very nice. I feel very optimistic about this. Back in Saigon I've had a hard time finding quality budget meals when eating out by myself, but in Phnom Penh I now feel confident that I can't go too wrong and should easily be able to find a delicious and inexpensive meal. I finished the day with a frozen yoghurt bought from a specialist two doors down, and enjoyed this treat as I walked back to the hotel.

My first day in Phnom Penh has been great and I have very positive first impressions of this city. The people are very friendly and chatty, which I appreciated as I'm travelling alone. Today I had conversations with several people in the street and the park, and restaurant service is very warm. The food has been fantastic so far and I have seen some beautiful sights today. Tomorrow may be less fun. I have arranged a tuk-tuk for the day to take me out to the killing fields at Choeung Ek, and then to the Tuol Sleng genocide museum in the former S-21 Khmer Rouge Security Prison. A very different aspect of Khmer history, but one that I am keen to learn more about, however dark and disturbing it may be.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Into Cambodia

This morning I joined a different tour group to complete the final stage of my journey to Phnom Penh. I was left at a dock in the town by the last group and was soon met by another. This one was smaller still than the previous one- a female guide and two men, Kai, a sunburnt German man, and the other a retired London banker who had gone to travel the world on his corrupt riches. Not that he introduced himself like that. They too were travelling to Phnom Penh and I would be crossing the border into Cambodia with them.

First on the the itinerary was a visit to a fish farm in a floating village, a short journey by boat from the dock. Around four hundred houses made up this village, built on individual rafts on the water. Many of these were fish farms, and we visited one of them. Inside this floating building we saw fish food being prepared in huge quantities. This is a grey-brown paste made out of a mixture of ingredients including sweet potato and spinach. I saw it being pulled out of the machine, dumped onto the floor and rolled into steaming balls the size of a head, to cool. The smell was awful. There were also square gaps in the floor so visitors could see the fish flopping about in the water below. Just as yesterday's guide had done at the orchard, we threw dry pellets into the water to see the fish wriggle and fight noisily at the surface. I had to stand well back to avoid the arcs of water thrown into the air by the strong beats of their tails. Our guide gave us the dimensions of the building and the depth of the water (approx 15 metres), and estimated that there were 120,000 fish beneath the property. Later we saw a boat that is used to transport fish. It had a deep hollow bottom with wire grill windows on the sides. When filled with fish it sinks low into the water, keeping the fish alive. They will then be sold live at markets.

A little further along the river we paid a visit to a Cham family who weave scarves. The Cham people are an ethnic minority group in South East Asia that originate from Malaysia and follow Islam. We balanced along a bridge made of planks raised above the water to reach the house. It was a large house that was the home to three generations, from the old man with a long beard who wore a sarong and smoked a cigar, to the cheeky little girl dressed in pink who skipped across the house and climbed over the loom used for weaving scarves, showing off to the visitors. At one point she got stuck inside the loom, her dress caught on a nail along a wooden beam. The woman working the machine, who may have been her mother, told her off and we watched in dread of a horrible accident happening. But the girl untangled herself and slowly shuffled back along the beam, hopped onto the ground and skipped off.

From here it was a long and leisurely journey along the river on the way to Cambodia. I had been offered the opportunity to travel by speed boat for an additional $15, but I was in no hurry. The boat driver relaxed and smoked, steering occasionally with his foot. It was a really beautiful and peaceful journey and the life we saw along the riverbanks was a fascinating glimpse of the rural Mekong Delta. After two or three hours we boarded the customs building at the Cambodian border. Our passports were checked and we had an hour for lunch. The rest of the journey was done by bus, another three hours with occasional stops, firstly to go through the police check points at the border, and later to pick up hitch-hikers along the road. We were dropped off at a 'bus station' outside of the city centre, which seemed to be a road with lots of parked buses on either side. Here a tuk-tuk driver met us (possibly part of a pre-arranged agreement) and agreed to take the three of us to our separate places for $2 each. Now, I was not quite sure where I was going. The tour I booked was meant to take me to the Sinh Cafe travel agents in Phnom Penh, and I slowly realised as we drew into the city that we would not be taken there, as the group I was now with were not travelling with Sinh Cafe. I had hoped that from there I could collect some tourist information and be advised on a good hotel. As it is low-season I was told there was no need to book in advance. I asked the tuk-tuk driver to take me to Sinh Cafe, but he warned against it and showed me on a map how far away it was from the riverside where most of the budget hotels are. I had no way of knowing if he was being truthful or not, but I went with it, and he agreed to take me to the riverside so I could look for a hotel. On the way to drop off the Londoner (I don't know his name), he stopped outside a hotel and tried to persuade me to go there, but he was clearly doing so for his own benefit, for a tip-off from the owner, and so I told him I would stay at the same youth hostel as Kai was headed to. But when we arrived there it looked to be quite far out of town. I probably should have gone for it, but at the time I decided to go to the river front area as I still had my $2 of the journey left. He took me in a long circle and back to the same hotel he had tried earlier. "Here very good!". I was annoyed, especially as I'd given him the name of a hotel that'd been recommended to me, but he wouldn't take me there. In the end I agreed to look around this one, and it is fine and costs $10 a night, which seems to be fairly standard for the area. I checked in for one night to see how things go. I may decide I'd rather be at a youth hostel in order to meet some people. Most of all I regret my lack of preparation which got me into a situation where I could easily be ripped-off. When paying for my room in dollars half of my change was given back to me in the local currency, Riel, and I had no option but to trust that it was the amount he said it was (I've checked, and fortunately his conversion was accurate).

After a few hours relaxing in the room I went out for something to eat. I was surprised that it was still complete daylight at 5.30, but after a brief visit to a bookshop I came back into the street to see it has suddenly begun to turn dark. I also happened to bump into the Londoner from my trip today. He was sat outside a bar having a beer with some friends, unmistakeable in his bright pink shirt. Of course, his hotel was right next to mine. I would be grateful not to bump into him too often while I'm here. I walked along the river front as the clouds turned to a dark blue. I got lucky with my choice of restaurant- I went for the Sinh Foo restaurant because of the persuasion of the waitresses and the cheap prices. On their recommendation, I ate Amok, a fish cocunut curry with rice. It was absolutely delicious and cost me only $4. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone visiting Phnom Penh on a budget. I felt very lonely this evening but the tasty food and an Angkor beer cheered me up. On the way back I was very surprised to meet Kai again. It must be a small city!

Friday, 28 September 2012

More Mekong

The rain had eased a little today although it was just as overcast as yesterday. We went to see a nearby floating market in the morning, named Cai Rang. Our guide told us that this name translates somewhat as 'teeth', because crocodile teeth and claws are sold as souvenirs in this area after a huge crocodile that had killed many local people was famously caught and chopped into pieces. The market was not as I had expected; I had pictured a colourful scene of a river channel locked with wooden long-boats, from where fruits and vegetables were exchanged. In reality we were on a wide part of the river and most of the boats were motor boats, some of them quite large and looked as though people were living on them, by the clothes that were hung up around the boats. These people make their livings by buying and selling goods at these markets. We were told that you can even buy sim cards and phone chargers here.

Next we travelled to an orchid and saw dragon fruit and coconuts growing on trees and pink water lilies in the ponds. At one pond, our guide threw handfuls of food pellets into the water and a dozen catfish snapped at the surface and instantly whipped back down again. I thought this would be a good method of checking for crocodiles. We sat and ate some fruit here, before moving on. Next, we took a scenic boat journey back to meet the bus, during which I had the opportunity to see some river-side life from the tin shacks that stood precariously on stilts above the water. Clothes were hung around these houses and I saw women washing or throwing dirty water into the river, chicken pecking around their feet.

The bus took us back to our hotel for lunch, and then on to another stop to visit a market. But here I was to split with the rest of the group as I was the only one travelling to Cambodia; the rest of the group were taking the two-day Mekong trip and will be returning to HCMC today. I joined a different group from the Saigon Sinh Cafe, who are not heading to Phnom Penh but are crossing over with my journey today, so I have travelled with them this evening. Tomorrow I will join another group for the final stage of my journey, as far as I can gather. This complication is simply because I was the only person who wanted to do the Mekong Delta tour to Phnom Penh on the day I chose back in Saigon. But Sinh Cafe have accommodated me well considering this, and so far I've not had any hassle when changing groups. I hope everything will run as smoothly tomorrow.

My new group is only six people, including me, two newly-wed couples, one both German and the other Vietnamese and French, and a Vietnamese woman who is also travelling alone. We had a three-hour journey to Chau Doc, on the Cambodian border. Arriving at the town we visited a ladies' temple, which was not spectacular and in fact quite ugly with excessive red, gold and glitter. People were praying to Buddha and lighting incense for their loved ones, and we saw a small roast pig being carved up. The pig was a part of the Moon Festival celebrations that have been going on for the past week or so, and culminate on Sunday with Children's Day. This festival, also known as the Mid-Autumn Festival, marks the full moon and the half-way point in the lunar calendar.

We arrived in the hotel, which is very basic and a bit shabby but clean enough. We went out for a meal at a local restaurant, which was very nice. So, mostly a day of travelling today. Tomorrow we will visit a Cham fishing village, and I hope to arrive in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, in the early evening.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Ben Tre by boat

I needn't have worried about getting heat stroke or sunburn; it rained all day. This began as we were driving past drowned paddy fields on the way to the Ben Tre province from Saigon. We arrived in a small town where we boarded a motor boat, sat on wicker seats beneath a tarpaulin roof that sagged with rainwater. All of the group of about fifteen were issued with disposable rain macs to wear for the journey, and we rode along the milky brown Mekong river with rain spitting off the sides of the boat onto our faces. Soon we turned off into a passage of river canals, which we cruised down, passing low green trees and wooden boats with eyes painted on the front, to scare off sea monsters. Our first stop was at a river-side shop and cafe to eat some fresh and dried fruit, drink hot tea and listen to a traditional music performance, a refreshing and relaxing break from the rain. Next we saw how coconut candy is made across Vietnam, at a small workshop. The milk is extracted from the coconut and heated until it has a caramel-like consistency. It is mixed with other ingredients such as peanuts or ginger and rolled out on a board, then cut into squares and packaged by hand in edible rice paper and a plain white paper wrapping. So simple, but a tasty treat. I tried a square of the peanut coconut candy, which was sweet, chewy and nutty. At this stop a sleeping snake was being kept in a cage, perhaps as a pet? I didn't get too close. We walked through this village to reach a road behind, from where we were transferred by motorcarts on a speedy, bumpy journey to another point on the river, where we were picked up by river boats to take us to our lunch stop. I was impressed by how well-timed this operation was! I also loved the sight of a beautiful little girl, three or four years old, sat cross-legged and silent at the back of one of the boats, while her mother steered. She was wearing a full-size conical hat and had a face like a china doll. I was given one of these hats to wear for the journey, but I doubt I looked as picturesque as she did.

Lunch was included in our ticket and was a buffet lunch in a riverside cafe that presumably operates solely for tourist excursion trips. We were each made a fresh spring roll at the table, using raw vegetables, mint, lemon-grass and fish and wrapped in clear rice paper. Then we helped ourselves to rice, meat, soup and vegetables. The food was very plain and I was feeling sorry for myself for being so sodden. The drizzly rain was relentless and by now my plastic rain mac was torn to shreds. To add to my woes, I saw a spider as big as my hand in the toilets, giving me a nasty fright!

It was a long, damp bus journey to the hotel in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. I was very pleased to have a twin room to myself in this very nice hotel, and thoroughly appreciated the chance to have a hot shower. The group re-joined for dinner, a buffet meal again, but nicer than lunch. We ate chicken salad, beef with green vegetables and a delicious caramelised fish dish. A particular Vietnamese woman on our table was very keen to look after everyone else, serving everyone's food and providing wet-wipes and toothpicks at the end of the meal, both at lunchtime and dinner. Tonight she produced a Moon Cake to share after we had eaten. This is a special cake to celebrate Moon Festival, which occurs this weekend. I had been keen to try this cake, as I had seen many that Jessica has received over the past week and has passed on to Thuy. But it was not the sweet sponge cake I had hoped for, oh no. When cut this small cake looks like a pork pie, and in the centre is a solid egg yolk (to represent the moon). The 'cake' is dense and tastes like durian fruit.

After dinner we took the minibus downtown. I thought we'd be going out to a bar together, but instead this was an hour's sightseeing opportunity and everyone went their own ways. I wandered around the town by myself, seeing the statue of Ho Chi Minh on the riverside and looking through the night markets, one selling cakes and toys for Moon Festival, and another selling clothing and footwear. I didn't venture too far, and soon returned to the riverside where couples sat together on benches. I didn't want to sit down myself though as I could see rats everywhere, scuttling in and out of the bushes.

Tomorrow we will be seeing the Cai Rang floating market. I have always wanted to see a floating market and am hoping for some colourful, vibrant photographs. That will rely on decent whether though, as proven by today's photos- all white-grey from the cloudy sky and rain!

Grey day on the Mekong

Rolling out coconut candy

Looking even nerdier than usual

Front row seat on the river boat

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Jessica's tales

I started yesterday with a trip into town to have my final Hepatitis B vaccination and to book my Mekong Delta trip. At the time I didn't have enough money with me to pay for the trip but I returned today and now everything is booked. I will be leaving early tomorrow morning for a three-day tour along the Mekong River, arriving in Phnom Penh on Saturday evening. I will then spend some days seeing the capital before getting a bus back to Saigon, probably on Wednesday. I hope to be able to keep up with the blog during the trip, but I may have trouble for the two days while we are in the Mekong Delta as I may not have a good WiFi connection at the hotels we are staying in, or else may be too tired to write. I plan to take it easy in Phnom Penh as the schedule for the Mekong Delta tour looks to be quite busy.

Yesterday lunchtime I sat and chatted to Jessica about another trip we are considering for late October/early November, northbound to Hanoi, then Sa Pa and into northern Laos. Sa Pa is a hillside town in the Lao Cai province in the far northwest, near the Chinese border. It is visited by tourists for the beautiful mountain scenery and to see the lives of the minority ethnic groups that live there, including the Hmong, Dao and Giay people. Jessica told me of a time she had visited Sa Pa with a tour group and stayed in the house of the chief of the village she had visited. At night she needed to visit the toilet, which was outside of the main farm building. She very carefully manoeuvred down a step ladder in the dark from her top-floor sleeping area, careful not to wake anyone else in the house. Outside she struggled to find her bearings in the dark. Suddenly, she saw something long and thin, stood up in the air and writhing. A snake! She dived onto the closest thing off the ground, something that appeared to be a rock, but which turned out to be a sleeping cow. The beast stood up in fright and threw her to the ground. The 'snake' had been its tail. Jessica lay on the ground in a daze as the entire village had suddenly appeared to have a look at her. I still laugh now, re-telling this story, and I imagine when I visit Sa Pa myself I will meet people who still remember the strange woman who fell off a cow in the night.

After lunch Jessica was visited by a Vietnamese exercise therapist to help her with her bad neck and knees. Annie had recommended his work to Jessica and came over with him in the afternoon. Annie and I sat and watched as Jessica was 'tortured' with his firm hands and difficult stretches. At the end of an hour's session she was worn out and looked like a battered rag doll.

After enjoying the spectacle I decided to treat myself to a hair cut. My hair has been getting very long and scraggly which is a nuisance to me in this climate. Thuy came with me to a local salon to help with translation. We had a nice walk across the neighbourhood, and I tried to make small-talk with, asking her if she remembered my parents, and telling her how bossy Jessica is to her, to which she chuckled shyly. We arrived at the salon, where the staff were all too keen to get me into a chair and a pair of scissors to my hair. I didn't have time to have it washed, so it was just a quick trim. I felt a little anxious by the hairdresser's rough style, and cringed to see large chunks of my hair come away in his hand. But in ten minutes he had finished, and I was charged 70,000 dong (approx £2) for his handiwork. It may not be the best haircut I have ever had- in fact it looks as messy as before but at least now has a reduced total mass- but it was worth it for the price and speed! On the way back Thuy asked if it was cheap or expensive for me. I told that back home I pay one million dong for a haircut, and the cheapest you can have it done for is about 500,000. She pulled a face in horror at this gross excessiveness. On the walk back she had chirped up a bit and talked happily to me. She pointed out the chopped trees on the roadside, which had been cut down to stop them falling onto the houses in bad weather. Last week the tree in front of Jessica's house was savagely pruned by an over-enthusiastic gardener. The local authorities had ordered it to be chopped down, but Jessica had negotiated that it should be allowed to stay if she paid for it to be trimmed. "She was very angry at me", Thuy said, of Jessica discovering that too much had been taken away of this tree. "Yes, but imagine if you hadn't had it cut and it fell on the house", I said. "Then she'd be even more angry at you!". She liked that one a lot.

In the evening we went out for dinner. Trung, a man from Jessica's book club who I had met on Saturday, had arranged for Jessica to have a date with a woman he knows called Binh. He suggested that the two women would get along as they are of similar age, live in the same area and have lots of similarities, such as being successful in their careers but without having children, and that they both study Zen and Buddhism. They appeared to be a hit, and Trung and I sat and listened as they talked about themselves, sharing their spiritual experiences and comparing birthdays and horoscopes as a way of measuring their compatibility. They certainly seemed to have a lot in common, both saying that they feel they don't belong to the countries they were born in, both being interested in Latin American culture, and, strangely, both having had an interest in becoming nuns at some point in their lives. We were eating at a German/Austrian restaurant called One More in the centre of Phu My Hung. Binh knew the proprieter and came there often. I liked the decoration- red walls, low-hung lampshades and on every wall, black-and-white framed photographs of filmstars, musicians and leaders of freedom movements. I also relished the opportunity to eat some chips.

Today, as I have already said, I went into the city to book my ticket for tomorrow's trip. I also trekked around Ben Thanh market trying to get a good price for some flip-flops and trainers, as I needed some more appropriate footwear for my trip. I've spent the afternoon packing and getting myself ready. It feels a bit lonely now Jessica has gone away for a week so I'm very glad to be doing something exciting myself. I'm looking forward to the trip, although it will be a challenge for me. I've had to organise everything myself and make sure I have everything I need. Jessica won't make things easy for me, so I've had to work out an estimate budget myself which she has provided, and I hope will prove to be accurate! I imagine the next three days will be very interesting but very busy, and I'll have to look after myself to make sure I don't get affected by the heat as I did on my trip to the Cu Chi tunnels. I'm especially looking forward to checking into a hotel in Phnom Penh and spending a relaxing three or four days exploring the city by myself. I'll keep the blog updated as best as possible throughout my trip.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Meeting some Vietnamese students

I've been enjoying reading The Quiet American today. Jessica has prepared a reading list of ten books for me. As a part of my project I will write reviews of twenty books, of which ten will be put forward by Jessica and ten to be chosen by me. So I imagine that The Quiet American will be my first to critique, and I will post my review on this blog. I wanted to go swimming this morning but when I arrived the pool was closed, so I cycled back home again. Lots of things seem to be closed on a Monday and this is not the first time I've been caught out. Even so, I love riding the bike. I find it relaxing and a good way to take in the scenery. I feel very safe cycling around Phu My Hung despite the high volume of motorbikes and the 'semi-optional' nature of traffic laws that applies everywhere. Riding the bike makes me feel like I belong in the city, although I'm sure Phu My Hung is the only place I'd feel comfortable cycling as it is relatively quiet and less densely populated.

There was a power-cut around midday and we lost our water, electricity and internet connection. I remembered how, only on Saturday, Jessica had been praising Phu My Hung to her friends who live in district two as somewhere that never has power-cuts as it has its own power station. Without access to the internet I settled in bed with my book until I felt sleepy and dozed off for about four hours, to the comforting sound of the rain outside...

When I woke up it was dark and Jessica had returned home. We had a special appointment this evening, a visit to some students that Jessica sponsors to allow them to study at university. We travelled by taxi into district seven, to a busy road beside the river with small cafes and workshops. Residential houses run along back passages that stem from small, dark alleys which enter onto this main road. Each alleyway is numbered by the first house on the corner, such as 951, and so along the alleyway the houses will be numbered 951/16, 951/17, etc. Or at least that's as far as I can tell. This meant we had difficulty finding the right alley along this busy road. Luckily, we soon found Nguyet, the friend of Jessica's who co-ordinates the sponsorship of students, and has arranged this visit today. We were meeting a young man who Jessica has sponsored for his first years at university, as well as two others who she will soon begin sponsoring. We met at the house of one of these students, Tu, who is disabled and cannot travel easily. Nguyet met us with this boy's mother to show us to the house. Inside we met Tu, and Vy, another student who Jessica will be sponsoring. The house was one small room partitioned at the back, where there was a kitchen area. In the main room there was a single bed, a motorbike and a few plastic seats. Behind the wall partition I could see a step ladder leading to the attic room upstairs. Here lived Trung, another disabled boy and a classmate of Tu. Trung is an orphan and lives in the upstairs of the house with his grandfather, who supports him with his pension. He was helped down the stairs and onto a chair to meet us. His English was very good and he told us that he had done well in his exams at school. After meeting him Jessica told him she would sponsor him to continue his education like his classmate Tu. 

Later two more students arrived. Firstly, Huy, who Jessica has been sponsoring for two years. He has written her letters before but this was the first time they had met. Also, Phuoc. He is another student being sponsored by one of the two alumni who were also present. These two had been sponsored to attend university  and had gone on to be successful and to sponsor other students themselves. They helped to translate as the young students told Jessica about themselves. Vy told her about an illness she has suffered from for several years, although no diagnosis has yet been found. She has had problems with her bones and kidneys and is taking medication daily to keep her well. Although she looked very healthy today, she told us that she had once been paralysed from the waist up, could not eat and missed out on her education for a long time. Even today she never knows when she will become ill again. She is effected by elevators, easily tired and can not read for a long time as she risks going blind. All that had been confirmed is that it is a biological illness. 

Jessica had brought Chinese dumplings and vegetables to provide dinner for the students, which Thuy had cooked earlier. There was no table in the house so Tu's mother visited the neighbours' houses to collect enough chairs for everyone, plus one to serve the food from. While we ate Jessica interrogated each of the students, asking how many hours they studied every day, what time they got up in the morning, and so on. I felt humbled by how much more hard-working they all seemed to be than me, yet I have had everything so much easier in my life. Most of them had long-term illnesses or disabilities and lived in poverty, and would not have been able to afford to go to university without the support of sponsors such as Jessica. In the taxi on the way home Jessica told me the amount that she contributes to each of these students: living costs of 600,000d a month (about £18), about as much as we'd spend on a meal out or taxi fares for a week, but it can make a huge impact when given to someone who really deserves it. I was impressed by the good work that Nguyet does in co-ordinating the sponsorship of these students. I will include her email address for anybody who would like to find out more about her work or to contribute to the cause, perhaps even to sponsor a student in Ho Chi Minh City themselves. Thu Nguyet can be contacted at:

Back: Tu
 Front, L-R: Huy, Vy, me

03.10.12: Please see for my follow-up post from this meeting, including more photographs and a letter sent by Vy

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A weekend of fine dining and merriment

Way back to Friday night, and I met Jessica in the city where we took a taxi out to district two for my birthday meal. This area of the city is crawling with ex-pats, who live in high-walled compounds in a bubble of privacy. Jessica had booked a table at the Deck, a stylish restaurant with an Asian menu, where we had a river-side table decorated beautifully with a candle and lotus flower. The front of the restaurant was open onto the river, which drifted by slowly, high up against the side of the deck. We sat talking and enjoying the atmosphere, and only realised the time when it was ten minutes after we were supposed to be meeting friends back in district one. We got a taxi back to the city, where we met Yvonne, Jessie, Jasmine and Shoko, who took us out in Saigon, eventually winding up at Lush, a club that Shoko had told me about when we were in Mui Ne together. She must be a regular because she knew half the people in there! Lush plays  British and American chart music and is supposedly mostly frequented by Western men with Vietnamese girlfriends. It was not my sort of place, but it was fun for the occasion, and I was really touched that everyone had come out to celebrate my birthday. I even received some cute little gifts of silk bags, make-up and chopsticks, something I had not expected at all.

Dinner at the Deck

Yesterday I was tired all day. At midday Lisa came round for our second language class, and after this Jessica took me out for her book club meeting. By this time I had finished all but the final chapter of Scroogenomics, and was worried that I would have to blag my way through the meeting without knowing what the conclusion of the book was. I needn't have worried though, as I had probably read more of the book than anyone else because it was so dull to read. Jessica had read the least, owing to the fact that I had hogged her copy for over a week , but still had the most to say about it. We met in an unusual cafe called Coffee Farm, tucked away in a residential street in district one, which everyone had trouble finding. It reminded me of the type of anarchist-run cafes or pop-up shops you find on the outskirts of cities back in Britain. On stepping into the entrance of this tiny building you cross three stepping stones over a soil patch into the main room, where there were two tiny crying kittens tied with string to the furniture. In the bathroom there were toothbrushes and razors in a mug, and tied to the door was a brown label declaring 'you are beautiful'. We had the room upstairs provided for our book club meeting. To get there it was necessary to climb a very steep and wobbly step-ladder. This room had a low table in the centre with cushions for seating, a box of free clothing and books scattered everywhere. I enjoyed the meeting, from the amusement about the choice of location to the discussion of the book, which travelled from a discussion of the commercialisation of Christmas, to credit card debt, American spending habits and the effect on the economy, through to the best gifts we had ever received, and concluding with Jessica's theory for the most efficient shoe-shopping method.

Looking for Coffee Farm

Jessica and I had an hour spare when we had finished the meeting before a dinner date later on. We travelled to Sinh Cafe to look into a trip for me to take next week. From Wednesday Jessica will be away for about a week, in Hanoi and Langkawi, and suggested that I take a week's trip in her absence. It looks as though I will be taking a three-day trip along the Mekong river with the Sinh Cafe travel agency, arriving in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, where I can spend three or four days before taking a bus back to HCMC. After collecting some leaflets we popped into a cafe next door to have a drink and kill some time. I warned Jessica that if we went into a cafe I would be tortured by not being able to eat; I was so hungry, but we would be having dinner in half an hour. But lucky me, as Aunty Jessica gave me permission to have something to eat beforehand. And luckier still that I was allowed to have my new favourite, pineapple pancake with chocolate sauce! But when our pancakes arrived they were the size of dinner plates. Oh no, I thought to myself, there's no way I can resist eating all of it, and will undoubtedly ruin my dinner. But remarkably I maintained my appetite after eating this massive treat, plus some of Jessica's, and went on to have a starter and main course while snacking on bread inbetween. Jessica told me off for eating too much bread, but I challenged her here as her normal complaint is that I am like 'a little bird' and don't eat enough at mealtimes, and then want to snack between meals. And on this occasion, when I was eating plenty at dinner, she rebuked me for my greediness! I was further confused when she was disappointed in me for not having a dessert, although I had effectively had my dessert before my meal and was now stuffed. I told her to get off my back about what are, in reality, perfectly normal eating habits.

We were eating at Lucca Cafe, an incredibly nice American-owned Italian restaurant with a New York style that reminded me of an old train carriage or train station, with its dark wood interior, red-brown leather booth seats and the large, old-fashioned clock on the wall. I had a mozzarella and tomato starter followed by a hand-made pasta dish with aubergine and tuna. It was probably the best food I have had since I arrived! We were eating with Jessica's friend Yvonne who I know quite well now, a colleague of hers called Bella, and a French couple named Frances and Dominique, who had chosen the restaurant. This couple had lived in Cheshire for four years and have since lived in Saigon for eight years, where they work in the textiles industry, but run a restaurant as a side project. In fact, Frances is the general manager of the Deck, and it seemed we had only narrowly missed him on Friday night. After the meal we headed to Carmen, Jessica's favourite bar, and for good reason. It is a small Latin-American style bar with red lighting and waiting staff dressed in flamenco costume. We sat on high stools to watch the live music, which was fantastic. Two Filipino women were singing as we arrived, and later we were treated to all sorts of lively performances, including a growling rendition of What a Wonderful World on Jessica's request, Kalinka for the  group of Russian men in the house, and some Irish folk. To be honest, I came into the bar unhappy as I was too tired and my knee that I had grazed earlier from tripping on the stairs at Jessica's house was now leaking fluid down my leg in a very unattractive manner. But I left in good spirits, cheered by the lively atmosphere, great music and the obvious enjoyment of performers.

L-R: Han, Thuy, Jessica, Hanh.
Front: Happy
As any Sunday should be, today has been a day for recovering from the weekend and I stayed in besides going for a run in the evening (luckily no snakes this time). Thuy has a day off on Sunday, but came back around three in the afternoon anyway, bringing her youngest daughter Han, as well as Hanh. I took a picture of the three of them together. At first Hanh would not join the picture with her mother and sister, and I thought she didn't want to be photographed. But Jessica explained that the Vietnamese would never have three people in a picture together, so she joined them to make four.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Birthday in Saigon

Today is my birthday and I've been having an enjoyable day. Jessica had gone when I woke up so I had breakfast by myself, opening the two birthday cards I had been given before I left. I am expecting some more in the post, but so far have not received anything. Every morning I ask Thuy if there's been any post and she says 'No, sorry', looking at me pitifully. I thought this was because all my cards and letters were in the process of rigorous checks for anti-communist propaganda by the authorities, but as it turns out, my friends and parents have since admitted that they may not have sent their cards in good time...

After breakfast I went for a swim at the local public baths. Jessica had showed me the route there on bike before, but I was pleased with myself for remembering the way on my own. The first time it had been dark, and my concentration was mostly focused on not getting killed by a motorbike, rather than the route we were taking. I enjoyed the leisurely cycle ride, even though I had to wear the sweaty plastic yellow rain mac as it had just started drizzling. Luckily for me, this meant that it was cool out, and that when I reached the pool, I had the whole place to myself.

A moody sky over my personal swimming pool

I cycled home in time for lunch, which I ate while talking to my family on Skype, who were eating their breakfast before going out to work or college. I sat patiently as they sung Happy Birthday to me. Next, I had my birthday treat, courtesy of Jessica. She had given me vouchers for a body massage and facial at her spa, a lovely gift. I will save the facial for another day, and today had the body massage, which was blissful. So much so that I briefly fell asleep and jolted myself awake with the sound of snoring. Well, what do you expect when you are very relaxed, lying on your back with your eyes covered in a dark room in the mid-afternoon? So I wasn't too embarrassed.

Later I am going to meet Jessica in the city, where she is taking me out for dinner. Then we'll be meeting some friends for drinks down-town. My mum rudely suggested today that I'm not getting any work done here! But of course, it is a bit sad being away from the people I care about on my birthday, so I will gladly accept Jessica's spoiling today.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

A snake for good luck

The past two days have been pretty relaxed, spent doing boring jobs such as working on my university application for next September, and slowly inching my way through the economics book I am obliged to read for Jessica's book club meeting on Saturday. But my time has been primarily filled with the exciting news that my boyfriend Chris has booked his flights to Ho Chi Minh City for early December, so I can now start looking forward to his visit. My mum, dad and sister will be arriving a few days before Christmas, the same day as some of Jessica's former classmates also arrive, and we will all be going on a trip to Angkor Wat between Boxing Day and New Year. As I have mentioned before, I am hoping to take Chris on a trip up North by rail to Hanoi and have been doing some research about this journey. The so-called 'Reunification Express' runs mostly along the coastline along a 1,726km stretch between Hanoi and Saigon. It was completed in 1936 by the French in order to connect north and south. In 1954 the country was separated at the 17th parallel by the signing of the Geneva Accords and the railway line was split accordingly, until national reunification in 1975 led to the line being repaired and restored. It is now considered an exciting, comfortable and cheap way for travellers to get about and to experience the country. I am certainly very keen to take this journey, which takes roughly three days and two nights from end to end.
Saigon-Hanoi (green line),

The only news from yesterday was the horrifying experience of seeing a snake perhaps two feet away from me when out running in the evening. Thin, black and about a metre long, it slithered out of a drain and disappeared into the grass on the roadside. On seeing this, I dived in the opposite direction, clasped my heart and danced around on the spot for a while, swearing out loud. When I got home, Jessica was equally horrified and was surprised that I'd seen a snake in this area, but told me that according to Chinese superstition, a snake is a soldier from the king of the underworld, sent to welcome you if you have arrived in a new place! More good luck for me then, as she has also informed me that several unlucky-seeming things that have happened to me while I've been here (seeing a funeral procession on my first day, dreaming about a family member dying (I won't mention which one!)), are all symbols of good fortune according to traditional Chinese beliefs. I wonder when all this good luck will take hold?

Today I had to travel into the city to have my phone looked at as it has been playing up, and to buy a top-up card. Miraculously, this job was completed successfully, so I then went to Ben Thanh Market to do a little shopping. I was interested in buying a silk kimono-style dressing gown, the type of which can be found everywhere in this city, and of course after expressing a hint of interest at the sight of some I was cornered by the shop owner. At first she tried to offer me a relatively extortionate 600,000 ('my manager says 860,000, but for you...'etc), but I would not accept, trying my best to leave the shop, now blocked at both sides by three other eager saleswomen, until she accepted my best price, half of what she'd asked for. This made me think of two things. Firstly, if this woman was happy to sell the item at this price, how much was it really worth? And secondly, are tourists often convinced to part with as much money as her first offer was?

Really, that has been the extent of the past two days. I've been feeling lazy and unmotivated, but this has just convinced me further of the need to organise myself better as I don't like wasting the day as I did yesterday. I'm looking forward to tomorrow a lot- it's my birthday and Jessica has very kindly given me two spa treatments as a present! She is also taking me out for dinner, after which we will be meeting some friends for drinks downtown. A note of interest here- Jessica asked me if I was prepared to buy drinks for everyone I'd invited out with us. I said yes, of course, but surely they'll all be buying me the drinks if it's my birthday? No, that's not how we do it here (Asia, I assume, as most of the group will be Taiwanese), Jessica told me. You are the birthday girl, so you invite your friends and buy them all drinks! Lucky I don't have that many friends yet!

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

At last, some education

Today was my third attempt to do some museum-visiting in the city. I got the 11.30 bus into town and went for lunch at a chain cafe called Pho24, which is just at my bus stop. Pho is the national dish of Vietnam, a noodle soup, usually with either chicken or beef, which is served in a huge portion with beansprouts, chillies, lime and fresh herbs on the side for flavouring. I was keen to have an enjoyable lunch after yesterday's disappointment, but I didn't think much of the pho. I had tried this dish once already and didn't like it much, but I hoped that at this chain, which Annie and Jessica had both recommended to me, I would find it to be better. But still, for me, it was unexciting, the only distinctive flavour being the chicken, which was tough and gristly, Chinese-style. As someone who is not that keen on meat anyway, this didn't appeal to me much. Nevertheless I was filled up by the half-bowl I finished; I think pho can always be relied upon if you need a hot, filling meal on the cheap.

It was a pleasantly warm day as I left and walked to the museum, as it hasn't rained as much today and yesterday as it did last week. The Museum of Ho Chi Minh City is situated a short walk from Dong Khoi, on Duong Le Ty Trong. When I arrived I was displeased to see two couples posing for wedding photos at the entrance, a sight I have not been able to escape so far around the city and has become an irrational source of annoyance for me. I later learned that this building is considered one of the most popular sights for wedding photographs in Saigon owing to the neoclassical style of the building, which is painted baby-blue, as well as the attractive old staircase within.

The first room I entered was based on commerce and trade in the city. Saigon is built around a port, which led to its development as a manufacturing and trade centre. Exhibits within the room included photographs showing the development of the port, displays of lights, ropes and other equipment from boats, and scales and containers used to measure rice. Across the entrance hall was a room devoted to industry and handicraft in the southern regions of Vietnam, which explained that mechanisation in Saigon was pushed forward in the French colonial period, with modern technologies being introduced to factories and workshops between 1954 and 1975. The sign by the entrance to this room explained that although the economic role of cottage industries found in small villages had now diminished, there was still significant cultural value attached to such handicrafts. To demonstrate, the first exhibit showed pottery, which has been present in Southern Vietnam since the stone age in the production of bowls and plates, vases and statues, and continues to thrive in district nine of the city, as well as the Cu Chi area I visited last week. Next was jewellery making, present from the second century but which grew rapidly during the 18th century when the process of clearing waste from the city led to growth in manufacturing, and is today focused in districts five and six. Wood engraving was introduced to Saigon in the 17th century by Viet and Hao immigrants and today Vietnamese wood engravings are exported to several countries world-wide. Shoe-making, textiles and bronze casting were also represented in this room, before a central exhibit of photographs and machinery relevant to the modern industries that dominate today, such as telecommunications, electronics, biotechnologies and information technology.
Saigon riverside- 2005, 1955

Another room downstairs is focused on the administrative process of establishing the city of Saigon, which was of course to become Ho Chi Minh City in July 1976, the year following the communist capture of the city. I learned that Saigon became an administrative centre in 1698, and that the present-day city is divided into 24 districts. A chart of 2006 figures showed that the average population density in the urban districts was 10,905 people per square kilometre. The lowest population density for urban areas is in district two, the richest area of the city (ex-patriots with compounds and drivers, and home of the president of Nike SE Asia, I'm told), and highest in district four, the small industrial suburb near the port that I pass through every day on the bus. Unsurprisingly, Jessica's affluent district where I now live (seven) had a relatively low population density. There were also some interesting photographs in this room comparing the palace, riverside and city centre in 1955 with 2005.

Khmer theatre masks
A small room is devoted to the nature and archaeology of the site of the city. From this I gathered that the natural site of Ho Chi Minh City is a staggering 2,095 square kilometres, built on a salt-marsh forest ecosystem. In this room were examples of wood and rock types native to the area, and photographs of archaeological digs, along with some of the finds, which were mostly ancient tools and jewellery. The final two rooms on this floor make up a cultural section, seen from a traditional perspective. A sign explained how Southern folk beliefs were formed from the superstitions of the ancient rice farming culture, and have been shaped and influenced by a multi-ethnic immigrant population. Inside the first room you can see wedding photographs and certificates, an explanation of traditional rites of a wedding ceremony, and wedding costumes from the late 19th century for the Viet, Hoa, Cham (Islamic) and Khmer groups, all of which were very colourful although they varied in levels of elaboration. The second room had exhibits from traditional music and theatre.

The second floor was more interesting, in my view, devoted to nationalist and communist political struggles from the French and American periods. 'Anti-French resistance 1930-54' features biographies of key members of the Communist Party of Vietnam, established in 1930, and a recreation of Ho Chi Minh's Declaration of Independence speech in Ba Dinh square, Hanoi, in 1945. Next door was 'Revolutionary Struggle 1954-75', with images of Buddhist anti-Diem campaigns including the famous sight of monk Thich Quong Duc's self-immolation, and others of global demonstrations against US presence in Vietnam. You can also see weaponry and soldiers' equipment on display and a model of the Cu Chi tunnels, amongst other things. Finally, there was a special exhibit on Vietnamese currency, within which unfortunately I had to oblige with the museum rules not to take photographs. I saw the first coins from the Ding Dynasty years 968-980, which were named 'Thai Binh Hung Bao'. These coins were circular with a square hole in the middle, and four Chinese symbols around indicating the king's reign and the coin's value. There were many succeeding coins to follow, then silver bars, introduced in the mid-19th century. The first notes were Piastres, from the French colonial period. Like the current-day Dong, these notes were beautiful, although the vingt and cent Piastre notes were nearly as big as an A5 page! Finally, the Dong was introduced in 1945.

Recreation of Ho Chi Minh's Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

Inspiring song of the Outerspace Language School
There were also private collections of antiques in other areas and examples of military hardware in the grounds, but by now I was pretty worn out and some loud music had started up downstairs, where plastic seating had been set up for some kind of event, so I moved on. I went to read for an hour in a square in front of the Reunification Palace, which seems a popular place for young and old to hang out in the city, as there are no benches of any kind in the streets to stop and rest if you don't want to sit on the floor. Engrossed in my book, I was approached by a young man called Nam, who asked if he could practice English with me. I said that was fine, so he sat down next to me and asked me a few questions about myself, struggling to understand as I explained what I was doing in this country. He was studying at the Outerspace Language School, and showed me his textbook. On the front page was the school's song, and I found the lyrics funny. After a while he thanked me and said goodbye. I thought he had been trying to chat me up, and going about it in an unusual way, but barely ten minutes after he left two girls came over and asked if they too could practice English with me! These two were much less bold and stood conferring with each other before shyly asking me a question and giggling. I don't want to sound patronising, as I can't speak Vietnamese and certainly wouldn't feel confident asking a stranger to practice with me, but they were very endearing and it was sweet of them to talk to me. I tried to explain the plot of my book- set in the moors of Yorkshire, which they hadn't  heard of, a romance, yes sort of, but very dark as well! (God's Own Country by Ross Raisin).

I met Jessica in a taxi as she finished work, and before tea she took me out on a bike ride. She showed me a local swimming pool I can go to, and then took me to the spa she is a member of, which she is kindly giving me a token for on Friday, my birthday, while she is out during the day. The bike ride had some challenging moments for me. I tried a different bike of Jessica's today  in preparation for Sunday, when we will be joining a group for a 45km cycle journey to visit an orphanage. But the seat of this bike was definitely too high for me as I couldn't reach the ground when on the saddle, leading to several scary moments at traffic lights as I found myself surrounded by motorbikes and struggling to get on, made worse on one occasion by nearly losing my flip-flop. Better footwear and a lower seat, next time!

Monday, 17 September 2012


I took a taxi with Jessica into the city in the late morning. She had a lunch appointment with a colleague and I was hoping to go to the Central Post Office, and then the History Museum. Jessica invited me to join them at the restaurant where we got out of the taxi, provided that I sat on another table, but I decided to go somewhere a bit cheaper by myself. I found my way onto Dong Khoi, a street I know very well by now. Along this route you pass several significant landmarks, such as the Saigon Opera House and the Hotel Continental, an important political and social hub during the French colonial period, and famously featured in Graham Greene's The Quiet American.

Statue of soldiers outside post office
I reached the Central Post Office, which I have now visited about three times. I like it very much in here, with the polished wooden benches, high vaulted ceiling, old fashioned telephone booths, each one adorned by a clock showing the time in major world cities, and of course, the large portrait of Uncle Ho that greets you as you enter. After paying for stamps and posting my mail, I sat down briefly to check the route from here to the History Museum. At this point I was disrupted by a woman with a camera. I assumed she wanted me to take a photo of her with her boyfriend, so I started to stand up. But in fact she wanted a picture taken with me, and sat down snugly next to me with her arm around my shoulder. She then switched places with her boyfriend so he could be photographed with this unusual foreigner, and they both thanked me and left. When travelling in South East Asia as a kid with my parents I had occasionally been pulled into photographs with strangers but I assumed I'd grown out of my youthful cuteness by now. I wasn't too bothered, however, and returned to my map. But just as I was about to leave the same couple returned, this time with some friends, so that they too could take photographs with me. I obliged, but when they had finished I quickly scuttled away before I became some sort of permanent exhibit at the post office.

From here I took a right onto Duong Le Duan, which I walked down for about ten minutes, passing the American and Birtish consulates as well as other important-looking buildings. Bizarrely, there was a long queue of people manned by security guards outside the American consulate, and I couldn't think why. At the end of the street I reached the zoo and botanical garden, where the History Museum is situated. As it was lunch hours and the museum wouldn't be open for another half an hour, I went to a cafe nearby for lunch, and by now I was starving hungry. Unfortunately, the food I ordered- fish and rice at 30,000 dong- was no good; all the food was barely lukewarm and the fish had a horrible smell and an overly salty taste, so I hardly ate any of it. I suppose that it the cost of refusing to eat anywhere that isn't dirt cheap! To my surprise the waitress was very gracious about this, apologising for the food being cold. My experience so far of Vietnamese restaurant service has been mostly abrupt and impersonal, and total refusal to believe that there is anything wrong with the food! A case in point is a meal we had at Mui Ne. I was sat at one end of a long table of about twenty-five people and next to me was a Vietnamese girl called Thi. Halfway through eating her salad she silently stood up, took the dish back to the kitchen area and spoke to one of the waitresses. It turned out that she had found piles of cockroach droppings in her salad, but the staff refused to believe her and even accused her of planting them there herself. Thi returned to the table empty-handed and as far as I know she and her boyfriend still had to pay the full cost of their meals. Considering how polite Thi had been in not disturbing the rest of the party about this rather ugly incident, I thought that the staff could certainly have shown some more respect and generosity to the unlucky girl instead of putting pride first.

I left the cafe and rounded the corner to the History Museum, but was very disappointed to find that it wasn't just closed for lunch, it was closed all day Monday! My Lonely Planet (published 2001) had said it was open on Mondays, so I think it is perhaps time to get an updated guidebook. Just down the road was the Ho Chi Minh Military Museum, but this too was closed. I gave up on the chance of a day of education, and instead went to the zoo, where I spent a few happy hours watching giraffes, elephants and hippos. The place is huge once you venture inside, and I would recommend visiting due to the incredible value. An adult ticket costs 8,000 dong, equivalent to about 25 pence, from which you can spend a day walking around and looking at the animals, or else relax in a quiet shaded spot amongst the botanical gardens. Monday lunchtime seemed to be a good time to visit as it was fairly quiet and peaceful, and fortunately the rain held off, making it very pleasant weather. When I saw Jessica again and she asked me how my museum trip had gone, and I told her I went to the zoo instead, she rolled her eyes at me despairingly. She asked whether I had at least seen the water puppets, which I told her I hadn't. Water puppetry is a traditional Northern Vietnamese type of entertainment dating back to the 11th century, when peasants would make wooden puppets appear to dance on the water in flooded paddy fields. Jessica told me that the Saigon Zoo is the only place in the city to see water puppets, so I had let slip the only chance I had of seeing some culture today! I hope I will be more successful tomorrow.

Bust of Louis Pierre, director of the zoo from 1865

Burmese pythons: magical and terrifying

Happy terrapin enjoys the sunshine

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Arabian nights in Saigon

Yesterday I was visited by a woman called Lisa who used to work with Jessica, and has agreed to have weekly language classes with me. She will teach me the basics of Vietnamese while I help her to improve her English grammar and pronunciation . She arrived at midday and we talked for an hour and a half. I had been a bit worried about this; although I like learning languages I have never taught before so was worried at what I could offer Lisa. Fortunately, she was very competent in English and mostly asked me the things she wanted to know. She taught me the numbers one to ten (from which you can work out all the numbers up to ninety-nine), how to address people in Vietnamese according to age, gender and relationship, and a few other useful phrases.

I've been told that it will be very difficult to learn Vietnamese. The grammar is very complicated and pronunciation relies on understanding six different tones that, as in Mandarin Chinese, indicate the way in which a vowel should be pronounced (whether falling or rising, heavy, sharp, etc). Fortunately for me, the Vietnamese language is now based on the Latin alphabet, which should make it infinitely easier for me to learn. This is due to the work of Alexandre de Rhodes, an early French missionary who first arrived in Vietnam in 1627 and created quoc ngu, a phonetic Latin alphabet system to replace the Chinese characters previously used in written Vietnamese.

In the evening it was time for the long-awaited Arabian Nights ball. This was the annual charity ball of AusCham, the Australian Chamber of Commerce Vietnam, of which Jessica is a member. She invited some friends, most of whom I had already met at Mui Ne last weekend. There were some impressive outfits on display, including some rich Saudi Arabian oil tycoons, women in niqabs teamed with short black dresses and several Egyptian kings and queens.The reception and dining hall decoration was equally well done. Around our table were Jessica and I, Yvonne and her boyfriend Conrad (a Latin American man who Jessica thinks resembles George Clooney), Jessie and Jasmine, a Puma colleague named Vincent, as well as a quiet Russian couple who won the raffle twice, and a dried-up old rich man with a heavily-botoxed blonde who everyone steered clear of.

Jessica with some new male friends
My first time on a camel!

As we ate and drank lovely Australian wine, we were entertained by belly dancers (very good) and a sword-swallower (not nice when eating). Dessert was a real treat- turkish delight and baklava. Dinner was followed by more drinking and dancing to a fairly unexciting live band playing the usual Florence and the Machine and Kings of Leon covers. The DJ set afterwards- DJ Jases' 'Magic Carpet' Mix, was much better, playing some golden oldies. For example I was very happy to hear two Prince songs over the evening, although several members of our group made a point of commenting on how much older the songs were than me...

Laoshi Lu gives a dumpling masterclass
Today I had a long lie-in after the late night before, and when I awoke Jessica was expecting her friends round any minute for a book- and movie-club meeting. When they arrived we made dumplings together as a fun activity, which were then eaten for lunch. After this I retired to my room as the book and film would be discussed in Chinese, so I sat on my bed listening to The Smiths and generally making good use of my time. I thought that today would be a right-off in terms of interesting things to write about in my blog, as the only other thing I had planned was being taught some yoga by Jessica before tea. But in the middle of our stretches Jessica received an unexpected phone call. She had been invited to a dinner event for this evening, but had never received the invitation, and was being called to see whether she would be attending.
"Chi Thuy! No dinner tonight!", Jessica called down the stairs, and told me we would be going out to a party for a free dinner. I was very confused but continued with her yoga class as instructed, after which I had to hastily get ready for this surprise dinner party. I asked Jessica if this sort of thing happened to her a lot, and she said yes. From now on I will have to be prepared to rush off to some social occasion or another at any moment!

In the taxi I tried to establish from Jessica what sort of event we were going to, but she told me she didn't know, apart from that it was being held by the developers of a new set of apartment blocks in the district, and she had most likely been invited because she has recently bought one of these apartments. We had arrived late and were seated on a round table in a room lit with green lighting where middle-class Vietnamese couples were listening to speeches by the host. This was followed by a dance performance by a troop of young girls and one eager looking lad, all wearing glittery orange outfits. It seemed that this event was being held to mark the 20th anniversary of the host company, and the dancers were performing a 'happy birthday' routine to some garish pop song, pumping their fists and shaking their hair a lot. We agreed that they were quite talented kids although the routine was a bit of an eye-sore! The dinner was a Chinese-style banquet, with numerous courses served, which kept the waiters and waitresses very busy. Jessica and I were disappointed that the huge white birthday cake on the stage turned out to be an ornament, and we were not going to be offered a slice. However, a surprise perk of the evening was the announcement (which somebody translated into English for us) that everybody attending would be given a complimentary two-night stay at a four or five star resort in Dalat or Ninh Binh, courtesy of the event's sponsors. How lucky! I had managed to free-load an awful lot this weekend, so I should feel very fortunate to have such an important friend as Jessica Lu!