Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Getting lost and annoyed with myself

I had hoped to do some exercise this morning, cycling or jogging around the neighbourhood, but slept in until 10am, by which time it was too hot. When my alarm went off at 6.30am I woke to the sound of heavy tropical rain outside and in my confused, sleepy state thought that this meant I didn't need to get up. So instead I settled for a walk around 11am, and took Happy along as company. Thuy gave me a bamboo stick to walk with, in order to beat off any local mutts that came near the little princess. We kept to the shade, and walked to a park around the corner. Jessica's neighbourhood, a quiet community protected by security at the perimeters, is centred around three or four (I've not quite figured out the lay of the land yet!) well-kept parks. We entered one of these, an attractive garden with a pond. Overhanging the pond edges were wooden platforms under red tiled roofs supported by pillars, which provided park-goers some shade from the sun and a place to have a quiet moment. There weren't many others around at this time; a man sleeping on a bench beneath one of these structures, and a young couple making out under another. I walked into one of these shelters and tied Happy to the bench where she sat panting in the shade- I was coping better with the heat than she was! I took this opportunity to take a photo of her, which she normally shies away from, as I knew she was now too hot and bothered to complain. I then read the first chapter of an economics book Jessica had given me in preparation for her book group meeting next weekend, which I will be attending. The book is Scroogenomics by Joel Waldfogel, which argues that buying presents for the holidays destroys value and is damaging to society. I have little interest in this, especially as I have no intention of buying any Christmas presents anyway this year. (Sorry Grace!) At one moment I looked up from my book to notice that a photography party had appeared a short way from me, where a young couple were being photographed posing with flowers and balloons. I don't exaggerate when I say that I've seen at least one couple having wedding photographs taken each day that I've been in HCMC, mostly around Notre Dame cathedral. It must be the season. This woman was not in a wedding dress, but a short turquoise summer dress, so I imagined the photos were being taken for an engagement announcement or something similar.

Lunch was delicious today, and for the first time since I arrived I ate nearly everything Thuy prepared. Her portion sizes are suited for Jessica, which even I, a growing lass known for my hearty appetite, can't keep up with. Today it was fried tofu and fish pieces, rice and vegetables. Thuy was very anxious to know if I would eat the tofu, as she has had not cooked it for me before. With everything she prepares for me for the first time, be it tofu, eggs or ham, she will come over and ask "You can eat this?". She is pleased and relieved when I say yes, which is always. I imagine she'll soon realise I'll eat anything she serves, unless she plans to start trying me with sea urchins or pigs' hearts or anything. (Notably, Annie and I saw a selection of organs for sale at Ben Thanh market yesterday. They were grey and rubbery-looking, piled together on a shelf and pressed up against a glass window, so appetising).

After lunch the rain began again, but I had already planned to the 2.15 bus into town. The buses are hourly, or less frequent, and so I had to stick to my plan. It is only a thirty second walk to the bus stop from Jessica's apartment- to the end of the road and around the corner- but Thuy worries terribly about lateness so always pushes me out of the house and urges me to run even when I set off for the bus with a few minutes to spare. I have to persuade her not to send me off ten minutes early as the kitchen clock is too fast. Jessica is convinced that Thuy purposefully sets the clock ten minutes ahead as she is so concerned about Jessica being late for her appointments.

I had travelled to town to return to the clinic I went to yesterday, to see Dr. Frankenstein again. Happily, this time I left successfully, having had my Hepatitis B vaccination done without any more hassle. After this I headed towards the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, recommended in my Lonely Planet (such a tourist!) for its wide range of interesting and unusual exhibits. On the way down Duong Pasteur I felt tired and it was starting to rain so I stopped in at Highlands Coffee on Nguyen Du. I was keen to visit this popular Vietnamese chain as it has an interesting history. The first branch was opened in the capital Hanoi in 1998 by David Thai, a Vietnamese American, and was in fact the first private company to be registered in Vietnam by an overseas national at the time. Thai was inspired to open the chain after witnessing the growth of Starbucks, which originated in his hometown of Seattle. Interestingly, you cannot find a Starbucks anyway in Ho Chi Minh City, nor in the rest of Vietnam, as I found from the chain's online store locator. Neither are there any McDonald's in the city. The only American fast food chains I have seen so far have been a few large KFC and Pizza Huts and one Domino's Pizza.This amuses me as before I left for this country, a friend asked me which recognisable chains I thought I'd find in the city. I told her I thought there would be Starbucks and McDonald's, but none others.

At Highlands I was treated to waiter service- greeted at the door, shown to a seat and presented with a menu. I had a warm slice of banana cake and a strong, hot coffee, served the traditional Vietnamese way with condensed milk, for a modest 61,000d (around £2). I notice that my regular eating habits have returned to me. For the first few days I had struggled to eat three square meals, but now, after living here for almost a week, my appetite seems to be back to normal and I have regained my usual craving for something sweet around 4pm, a good sign I hope!

As I left Highlands it was pushing 6 O'clock and starting to get dark, so I made my way swiftly to the museum as I had a bus to catch at 7.15. At this point you are probably considering something quite important that didn't cross my mind at this point, but I will get to that. I followed my Lonely Planet map towards the site of the museum, careful of the rush hour traffic and glad to be exploring further afield than Dong Khoi, the street that connects my bus stop to the cathedral, post office, clinic and palace. I slowed to a stop when I realised I didn't know where to go next, and slowly it dawned on me that I had confused the key on my map, and was now stood outside the People's Committee, not the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City, although luckily the museum was not far away. Here, a helpful man with an American accent asked if I was lost. I told him I was looking for the museum. He pointed me in the right direction but told me it would be closed at this time. Of course. I like to think that I have my head screwed on pretty well, but I certainly have my moments, usually to do with timings. I had spent too long in the coffee shop and missed my chance to go the museum, which I had been really looking forward to. Never mind, I thought, as I have plenty of days ahead to fill with wandering around the city's museums and galleries.

Instead, I wandered towards Me Linh Square, a roundabout that circles a statue of Tran Hung Dao, the 13th century warrior who led the Bao Viet army in repelling two attempted Mongolian invasions. He is celebrated as one of history's finest military tacticians. Attempting to cross the road to see the front side of the statue, I thought that perhaps this roundabout could rival the Arc De Triomphe for traffic volume. Alas, I couldn't get a decent picture of the statue because it was dark, and, without wanting to state the obvious, the statue was very tall.

As I walked to the square, I had had an interesting moment halfway down Dong Khoi. I chanced to look up and saw the Caravelle Hotel in front of me, which put a smile on my face. I had passed this hotel many times already, where I watched couples nibbling on afternoon tea through a large window above the street, but had not yet clocked the name. The significance was that, after talking to my mum and dad, I worked out that Martin, the man who recognised me in Sea Links in Mui Ne, must have met me at the Caravelle hotel some twelve years ago. We had stayed in this hotel for one night, as Jessica had somehow won a night's stay for two in a beautiful suite here, a chance that she donated to my parents. It's even more remarkable to consider that this man had recognised me from the age of seven, knowing that I had been at the hotel on only one occassion, and was technically being 'smuggled' in! I thought I'd go in for a look around, to see if I remembered any of it. Wondering how far I could get without a room key, I walked into the Caravelle with an air of self-importance, I hooked my umbrella over my forearm and held my LP to my chest as if it were the FT. But when I saw myself in the lift mirror I was brought back down to earth at the sight of my scraggly hair and the plaster that was still on my arm from my vaccination earlier. The lobby of the Caravelle was nothing to see, so I went to the top floor to the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar, but this too was nothing extraordinary so I headed out. I remember the luxury suite we had stayed in the night, in particular the magnificent platter of tropical fruit in the central area that we devoured much of, and was disappointed that the hotel lobby was not as grandiose. As I made my way to the exit my eyes somehow deceived me and I almost fell down a set of stairs to the glass door! In all I wouldn't recommend the Caravelle for a walk-through visit.

I also had the chance to do a little shopping in my spare hour before the bus. Pretty paper greetings cards with pop-up pictures of Saigon sights are sold everywhere in the city at the moment, and I was keen to buy some for friends back home with birthdays this month. Yet I had so far been unable to find a stall offering these cards at less than 100,000d a pop (an extortionate £2.50-£3). But today I managed to negotiate three for 60,000, using my hard-headed Yorkshire tightness as a useful bargaining aid. Fifteen minutes before my bus was due, feeling at a loose end and with new confidence in my haggling skills, I tried my hand at getting a new purse, which I knew could be found at any corner of this street. At home I use a coin purse, which is no good for a currency that is all in notes, so I was certainly in need of a new one. Who knew you could pick up a real Chanel purse for US$5? What a wonderful country.

I got the bus home, feeling satisfied with the day's activity even though I had not managed to get to the museum. But this feeling only lasted until Sky Garden, a huge apartment complex in the district centre, where all the other passengers got off the bus and the engine switched off. Oh dear. It seemed I had taken the wrong bus; although it was identical to the one I needed and turned up at almost exactly the same time, this one did not continue around the neighbourhoods. I had forgotten to check for 'S', not 'H', at the top of the bus. Now I had to get a taxi to My Thai, but I was dropped off at the wrong side and had to walk around in the dark for a good twenty minutes before I found my way home again. I returned home very fed up, a lousy end to an enjoyable day. I can only expect to make more mistakes like these over the coming weeks, they are an avoidable part of travelling to a new place with an eagerness to explore. I'll try not to get too fed up when I get lost, take the wrong bus or time my day wrongly. I'm so keen to know the city like a local but I'll have to be patient as I get used to this new lifestyle. Walking around today I felt I was getting in step with the motion of the city, and really enjoyed the chance to decide my own course as I wandered around by myself.

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