Saigon; I’m still only in Saigon

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.hcmc

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.

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Swimming pool sign at our hotel, Saigon
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For the love of layovers

For many travellers the layover is an inconvenience, a hassle, a waste of time – hours spent roaming miles of duty free shops, or whiling away the time drinking generic lager in overpriced, characterless bars, discombobulated by the change in time zone and complete lack of awareness of what time it is, because an airport is the one place where drinking a beer at 7am is completely socially acceptable.

For me, a layover is an opportunity to snatch a quick taste of another place, to tick off another country on an ever-growing list (I am nothing if not competitive.) Given the choice between a short layover and a longer one I’ll always, where possible, pick the longer one, provided it’s over 7 hours, as this gives you time to see something of an alien city. Many airports have become attuned to this, and indeed seen it as a lucrative opportunity. Incheon and Doha airports both offer tours if varying lengths to suit different tastes – shopping tours and cultural tours of varying lengths to introduce you to a new city.  Asiana and Korean Air give passengers with a long layover overnight a complimentary hotel stay, with a choice of hotels in Seoul city centre – a flight to the UK from Australia means you can have a night on the town, Gangnam Style, then if you’re up early enough, a wander round the Gyeongbokgung Palace before heading back for your 14.15 connection to Heathrow. Icelandair have gone a step further – you can stay up to 3 days in Iceland without paying extra for your onward journey, which is plenty of time to see the famous sites around Keflavik and Reykjavik.

So, after a work trip to Australia, passing up on the chance to visit Kuala Lumpur would’ve seemed churlish. With 9 hours to play with I was craving a decent mango lassi and a look around the famous old railway station, designed by the father of an elderly neighbour of my parents early in the last century.

The centre of KL is reached by a smooth, speedy and (you won’t appreciate quite how important this is until you’ve been to this region) air-conditioned train that runs regularly to and from the airport for just a few pounds. It deposits you at KL Sentral, which doesn’t feel very sentral at all from a tourist’s point of view. It takes some fairly cunning negotiation of the transit system to get to where you want to go after this. For the Petronas Towers it’s another few stops on the Putra line to KLCC, for us it was just one stop north.

I would have liked to see the Petronas Towers, but didn’t have time to do everything. Instead, after photographing some suitably ornate colonial buildings, wandering down a hot street and being turned back by two particularly stern-looking guards because there was a protest happening ahead (they made up for this by asking if I wanted my photograph taken with them, and I didn’t dare refuse) I went to Putrajaya, a suburb but really the administrative capital for the whole country, where I had dinner with a friend by the river, watched a particularly impressive monsoon shower, and ate spicy rice that gained my friend’s approval: “even though you’re English you don’t mind trying very spicy food!” (I smiled heroically and tried not to think of the 14-hour flight ahead.)

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My consolation prize for the road being closed