Thursday, 28 January 2016


31st Dec - 10th Jan 2016

Saigon at night. Photo courtesy of Capt C Schenkl.

Happy New Year came and went and, for some reason and much to my relief, that dreadful old Abba song which used to be played non-stop, 'Happy Noo Yeer, Happy Noo Yeer', was nowhere to be heard.  Perhaps it has been banned. That is one of the many advantages of having a one party communist government; they can, should they wish, prevent irritants like this without the need to suck up to 'voters'.

Our New Year is not a pivotal moment in the Vietnamese calendar. Of course they go through the motions to amuse us westerners and to provide good business for bars and restaurants. Also, any excuse for a piss-up. The main event for them is Tet, the Lunar, or Chinese New Year. This is a movable feast, depending on the moon I suppose, and occurs towards the end of January or beginning of February. This coming Tet, signalling the Year of the Monkey, is celebrated on 8th February. Having said that the public holiday lasts for about a week either side to allow people to return to their families, often far away. It is a big family reunion time and as such much of the place closes down and air, rail and bus travel is booked solid. It is the only holiday most Vietnamese workers get. Not a good time for foreigners to visit. 

A few of us spent the evening at a typical noisy Viet restaurant where lots of "mot, hai, ba, yo!" was in evidence and the blokes all got hogwhimpering drunk. The Vietnamese, for some physiological reason I am told, do not hold their liquor well. In fact if a party starts a 7.00pm they are normally purple-faced and under the table by 9.00pm. As such the restaurants don't stay open much beyond 10.00pm, as was the case here. We went on to another, western style, bar to continue the action...apart from a couple of the pilots who were on duty the following day. Interestingly, it is only the Vietnamese men who get drunk. The women seldom, if ever, touch alcohol, neither do they smoke. Something to be admired there perhaps? You certainly don't see Vietnamese girls staggering arm in arm down the street only stopping to throw up in the gutter before collapsing over the street furniture.

Left: Me in bed the following morning.

Actually this is an embalmed corpse in the museum at the Saigon zoo. It didn't explain the significance or even who it was. Perhaps a long-serving loyal employee who retired dead on duty and they just kept him on while claiming his salary from the city council.....'good old Nguyen still working as normal'

Right: One of many civilised suppers amongst ex-colleagues at a local restaurant. The food really is quite delicious. You order a variety of dishes which turn up in the order they are cooked and you share. A 330ml bottle of Tiger beer costs about 50p and the total cost of a meal (including at least 6 bottles of beer each) never seems to come to much over £7, often less. 

Left: Normal traffic on a Saigon street. As mentioned before, perhaps, it looks chaotic, and there are few rules, but it works well. Traffic lights do exist but, for the most part, they are purely advisory. When riding a scooter, the overriding rule is to watch out in front between your 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock position. The person behind you does likewise. There are surprisingly few accidents. I rode a scooter here for 4 years and when I left it didn't have a scratch on it (not because of my skill, I hasten to add, but because other riders are good at avoiding you!). Because there are few restrictions people 'think' what they doing and where they are going. If someone decides to go down a road in the opposite (wrong) direction, or takes a short cut along the pavement nobody gets cross; they just let him through. I never experienced or saw any hostile behaviour. They are, on the whole, most courteous and forgiving. Maybe something to be learnt from this. Likewise for pedestrians. To cross the road on foot looks a formidable task. In fact, if you pick a vaguely open spot to start and just keep walking steadily across, the traffic weaves around you. Simple. Can you imagine the screaming and yelling if you tried that in UK!

Right: A shop near the opera house is renowned for making, on site, these incredibly elaborate model ships; some of them of vast size and intricacy. It has been going for years. The craftsmen sit on the pavement making them and impressive to watch. I don't know who buys them and it would be interesting to see how you could get through the airport carrying one home. 

I went to the Opera House (left), a Grand Relic of French colonial days, to see a performance called Ao; a traditional song and dance  show. It was amusingly and skilfully performed with plenty of juggling and gymnastics...great fun, even if, at $30 a ticket, somewhat expensive. Recommended if you are passing and it is still on.

The interior of the Opera House is well up to the standard of a West End venue. Drinks and food were provided in the foyer. We were warned "no photography" in the auditorium but considering the flashes from cameras and smart-phones nobody paid much attention, except the theatre staff who kept running up and down to identify and warn the perpetrators. I just joined in (tactfully) but didn't push it so only one poor shot. Surprisingly, lots of people wandered in late. It subsequently became full up. Perhaps late arrivals were offerd cut-price tickets.

Left: City Hall by night.

Right: A girl wearing the traditional 'Ao Yai', still much in evidence amongst shop workers, hotel staff, flight attendants etc. Quite fetching I think.

Left: Nguyen Hue Street in District 1. This, now semi-pedestrian, street runs south from the City Hall and is the venue for much decoration, lighting, flowers, fountains and celebrations during Tet.

Right: The interior of a smart and not inexpensive German restaurant called Gardenstadt in District 1. Very good food and rather Teutonic beer and schnapps. The girl bar staff wear those rather pretty Bavarian dirndl style dresses, but were too coy to let me photograph them. 

.....and now for the bad news. MacDonalds have opened their first 'restaurant' in Saigon. Apparently this happened sometime in 2014. The first of many I have no doubt. Vietnam staunchly resisted this invasion for many years but have now obviously yielded to the vast amount of filthy lucre offered by this giant American food-poisoning organisation. You would have thought they had done enough damage with their 'Agent Orange' in the 1970s. This signifies the beginning of the end for the almost universal slim, healthy and attractive Vietnamese physique. I recall that Thailand suffered this  fate about 15 years ago and whereas, with their previously healthy diet, Thai girls were of perfect dimension and the men were slim, hard and muscular, there is now a preponderance of fatties; not only fat but frequently suffering from diabetes. The Asian metabolism is especially not attuned to an intake of fatty sugary food. The trouble is that not only is the MacDonalds crap addictive, but the locals consider it 'cool' and 'fashionable' to eat there. Oh dear. Perhaps the World Health Organisation should take a stand, but money and profit rule, as always.

Right: The beginning of the end!

Well, that more or less sums up my latest visit to this delightful country. There is no NHS, no welfare hand-outs, no old age pension, no 'benefits' indeed none of the things that we take for granted and as of right (and spend our time arguing and complaining about). They do have good basic schooling, are literate and numerate, and well behaved. The people are industrious, enterprising, charming and cheerful. I'm sure it has it's faults, as all countries do, but there is a total lack of 'whinging' and blaming the 'system' for whatever befalls them. They take full responsibility for their own lives and have a very supportive extended family tradition. OK, maybe they are a bit robotic and have little say in national politics (they certainly have a say in local affairs), but they really do show a remarkable resilience and happily make do with what they've got. Also, by the way, they don't have a hint of a terrorist threat and their broadband internet service is way superior to that in most of the UK!

The flight back to Blighty was, as traditional with Vietnam Airlines, delayed by a couple of hours. However I successfully, for once, deployed my blagging technique to gain access to the VIP lounge (its always worth a try) and spent the delay consuming vast quantities of freeby wine. After boarding I subsequently fell fast asleep well before take-off. I was sitting next to a couple of charming English girls who were probably then subjected to my violent snoring, farting and dribbling, but they were too polite to mention it, and the 12 hour flight passed surprisingly quickly (for me anyway). What a joy to get back to the grizzly weather at Heathrow and the surly reception at passport control manned by.........I won't go on!

Oh!.....nearly forgot, I read that His Holiness the Pope spent New Year's Day praying for peace and goodwill in the world in 2016. So that's OK then; this year there will be no more fighting or conflict. Problem solved. I wonder if he writes letters to Father Christmas?

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