Contrary to popular opinion, I didn’t just go to Ho Chi Minh City so I could write the above, and “Goooood Morning, Vietnam!” as my Facebook statuses. Admittedly I DID write both of these as Facebook statuses, but the city itself was fabulous.
Saigon (I discovered that this is what the locals still call it, and indeed our hotel was the Grand Hotel Saigon) was one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, and I snuck in a trip at the end of one of my visits to Singapore. Before leaving I jovially told a friend “I’m flying to Ho Chi Minh City on Tiger Air. What could possibly go wrong?” He misunderstood my jokey tone for genuine concern, and his reply – “Oh, that was all blown out of proportion. Nobody died” – was designed to reassure me. It didn’t.
But the flight passed without notable incident, except for almost every passenger besides us getting out their old 3210 mobiles the moment we landed, with the electronic, Nokia theme tune echoing repeatedly round the cabin.
If you do ever land at Saigon airport, a word of warning: trying to get a taxi into the centre is possibly one of the most stressful, frustrating experiences you will ever have. There are no signs; there are lots of companies advertising private taxis which, apparently, it’s advisable not to get; there is an angry lady with a clipboard coordinating the taxis that ARE apparently safe to get, but with no apparently discernible system. There is no queue, and you are looked at like an idiot if you politely ask exactly how one goes about getting a taxi. The lady takes your name and then proceeds to ignore you as you melt in the humidity. Taxis roar past, people who came after you get into them, and eventually you are directed angrily into YOUR taxi, as though you should have known telepathically which one you were supposed to get. Once in the taxi, the driver will try to charge you extra for a road toll which he actually only has to pay in one direction, but he will claim you need to pay for both. You don’t.
All this aside, the drive out of the airport (which could be anywhere in the world) into the centre of Saigon (which couldn’t possibly be anywhere else) was one of the most exhilarating of my life. On turning out of the airport a strange noise greets you, like a very loud garden strimmer, and suddenly you’re in the midst of literally hundreds of mopeds, many holding an impossible number of people and things balanced precariously on the back – couples with their arms around one another, whole families clinging on for dear life, pots and pans and building materials and baskets full of fruit, all storming into the city alongside us like fantastical outriders. The humidity means everything feels different – or, to me, irretrievably foreign – and even the air around us seems a different colour – heavy and slightly grey-brown.
Here’s a tip for getting around the drivers and indeed anyone else you fear may be trying to get one over on you in Vietnam: make sure they know you’re English. Apparently they’re not so keen on Americans. I can’t imagine why.
We had a wonderful couple of days in Vietnam, culminating in the best meal we’ve ever eaten, at Xu. This is one of the posher restaurants in the city, and we rather let the side down on arrival, having blithely decided, as only the British would, that walking through a monsoon shower would be perfectly sensible (“it’s only a bit of rain!”) We arrived so wet that we had to wring our clothes out like bathing suits fresh off after a swim, and leaving a conspicuous puddle in the doorway. The staff professionally tried to hide their giggles and failed, and fetched us a pile of paper napkins that really were beyond usefulness in this particular scenario. The food, though (we had the taster menu, 8 or so perfect little courses), was amazing, and the service exemplary. Firstly, the staff asked if we had any allergies, and were unphased by the answer that yes, we did. This was a new experience for me: in the UK, if you admit to an allergy, it’s not unusual for staff to tell you that you can’t eat anything on the menu as they can’t guarantee its safety and you might then die and sue them from beyond the grave. Once, at a posh dinner, upon asking if there were almonds in my dessert, it was briskly whisked away with a tutt, and replaced by an unpeeled orange. At Xu, allergies seemed no problem. Furthermore, when they heard me say to husband that I might leave the dessert with the durian in it (I maintain that durian is a ruse for the tourists, and nobody really, truly eats something that looks like a gangrenous porcupine and smells like a sewer) they offered to substitute it for me.
We finished the evening in an Irish bar run by an Australian watching a Scot win Wimbledon. Nobody can tell me Saigon hasn’t become a truly global city.