Saturday, 29 December 2012

Christmas in Saigon and the Angkor temples

It's been a mixed week for me. On Monday evening my mum, dad and sister arrived in Ho Chi Minh City to spend Christmas with me. I hadn't seen them for three and a half months so I was very glad to be back with them again. Earlier the same day, seven of Jessica's former classmates arrived for a reunion  holiday. Some of them hadn't seen each other for thirty years and they are all clearly loving the time they are spending together, which is really nice to see. Although most of the seven Taiwanese women can't speak English, we have been hearing from Jessica about their experiences at school. The women attended a highly competitive boarding school for girls from poor families. The entrance examination was exceedingly tough, but for those who got a place, all costs would be covered and the students would receive an allowance that they could use to support their families. Nonetheless, the school was incredibly rigid and authoritarian; Jessica and her friends, who were all training to be elementary school teachers, remember how difficult their time there was.

Over the course of the holiday the two parties have followed slightly different agendas. In typical Taiwanese style, Jessica and her classmates have been following a very busy schedule from the day they arrived; my family prefer to spend more time doing nothing while on holiday so we have been loosely following their itinerary with some days off to walk around the local area and relax in cafes. My family's first day here was spent as such, getting used to the climate and recovering from jetlag with strong Vietnamese coffee. The following day, Christmas Eve, we went out for a tour of the city. In the evening Jessica had a special treat in store. Christmas Eve is something of a celebration in Vietnam (or at least in Ho Chi Minh City), whereas Christmas Day is not. To avoid the busy traffic on the roads, we travelled by speed boat down the Saigon river to The Deck, the favoured restaurant of the District 2 expat community due to its stylish design and beautiful setting on the river. Jessica equipped us all with unique Santa hats, which we wore throughout the meal and for the rest of the evening.

With my family at our local cafe

At the Central Post Office, doing the sightseeing tour of Saigon

Lunch at Temple Club

My mum, sister and I onboard the boat

Me and Chris

Entering the city by the river

With everybody, at the Deck restaurant

After our Christmas Dinner we took the boat back to the city centre and walked along the high street to the cathedral, where Midnight Mass would be taking place. It was very busy on the streets; the atmosphere was a bit like that of Bonfire Night in Britain. A sorry sight was the emergence of lots of homeless and handicapped people begging from the crowds- a reminder of all the poverty in this city. Many vendors were selling cans of spray snow, which could have been soap or shaving foam. Jessica bought twelve cans for our group, which were fun but, as we soon discovered, probably made us more of a target for others carrying the same stuff (as did the Santa hats, no doubt). In the square in front of the cathedral we saw a bit of ugliness as groups of boys ganged up on passer- bys and plastered them with pretend snow, so we hid our cans and hurried into the cathedral. The service was surprisingly short and comprised readings from the bishop and a rendition of ' We wish you a Merry Christmas' in Vietnamese along with hand clapping.

Christmas socks
Christmas Day was more laid back. While the Taiwanese group went to the seaside town of Vung Tau to climb some hills and look at some statues of Jesus, my family and I stayed home to share Christmas presents. In the evening we all got dressed up and ate out together at  Camargue restaurant. We did a Secret Santa over dinner and shared gifts with each other. 'We' (as in my family, Chris and I), were shown up by the Taiwanese group, whose gifts included jade jewellery, beautiful ornaments and silk tablecloths. Our contributions were three tins of biscuits, a lantern and a phone case. I think there must have been some confusion about the price limit.

On Boxing Day we went out as a group on a Sinh Cafe day trip to the Mekong Delta. The tour included plenty of obligitary stops for shopping opportunities, but aside from this it was a nice day and I think everybody enjoyed themselves. The plan for after Wednesday was for everybody to fly to Siem Reap to spend four days looking around the Angkor temples. Sadly, for family reasons my mum had to make the decision to fly home early, so I had to say goodbye to her on Thursday morning as the rest of us headed to the airport. Chris, Grace, my dad and I were lucky enough to be upgraded to business class, which gave us a wider seat and an extra orange juice on our one- hour flight. We arrived at our lovely boutique hotel and in the evening went out to catch the sunset over the temples. It was so crowded that we struggled to take any photographs without other people's heads and elbows in the way. It was a beautiful sight, but I was concerned that we wouldn't be able to see any of the ancient sites without beating our way through the crowds. I needn't have worried- although the main temple of Angkor Wat was fairly packed, we didn't have to go far to escape the tourist trail. As a case in point, at one of the smaller temples we visited today, we overheard an exasperated American woman saying angrily "I only want to go to the main one and then go back. I don't want to be here!"'. World heritage sights are wasted on some people, I think.

On our first full day of sightseeing it was a 5am start to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We arrived in darkness, stumbling over rocks, and waited with a surprisingly large crowd of visitors for the sun to appear not-quite behind the great temple (unusually, Angkor Wat is built to face the West). It was all a bit of an anti-climax in the end as it was too cloudy for any impressive photographs. Still, the early start allowed for more sightseeing during the day. It's surprising how little can be seen in one day when you discount the midday hours (which should be spent out of the sun) and time spent travelling to and from the hotel. On the first day some of us hired bicycles, and in all probably cycled 25km going to and from the temples. Yesterday we saw Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom and today looked around some smaller temples in the larger region, much of which had been reclaimed by nature with huge trees growing out of the rocks. There were restoration works going on in parts- we discussed whether the temples should be forever conserved in their original form or whether they should be allowed to return to nature, giving an impression of how the ruins looked when they were discovered in the Cambodian jungle. It is hard to say decisively; perhaps it should depend on the site in question.


...and the following sunrise

The moat surrounding Angkor Wat

This evening we visited the Kantah Bopha children's hospital in the town, established by Dr Beat Richner, a Swiss doctor who moved to Cambodia to help the country's children. The five hospitals he developed have been a huge success story- all treatment is free and the hospitals use sophisticated modern technologies, maintaining a low mortality rate. Of this hospital's $40 million annual budget, 90% comes from private donations, and 10% from the Swiss government. Dr Richner himself performs two cello recitals a week to fundraise for his hospital and gives impassioned speeches, including some brave political statements about corruption in Cambodian ministries and the indifference of the international community. It was very moving and interesting. I will write about this in more detail when I have the time.

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