Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Vietnam Part 2: Here today, Saigon tomorrow

Continued from Part 1: Mopeds and pig heads.

Call it Western bias but when I first came across the Vietnam War being referred to as the American War it took me a moment to recalibrate. But, I know, obviously they wouldn't call it the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It was a bit like when I first discovered they don't call it the English Channel in France. (I mean, how dare they! It's the English Channel for English fish!)

Here though, I'll just call it 'the war'. And the memories of it became ever more tangible as we continued south from Phong Nha through Quang Tri province. Today, this area is mostly typified by lazy water buffalo bathing in muddy rivers, but scratch the surface - even just a little - and you may wish you hadn't.

The US dropped more explosives during the war than were used by all sides in World War II. Quang Tri province bore the brunt of it and a huge proportion - some estimates say up to 30% - didn't detonate.

As a consequence, since the war 'ended' - in inverted commas for good reason - over 100,000 Vietnamese people have been killed or maimed by explosives that didn't get the memo. Efforts to clear the country of unexploded ordinance is still very much a work in progress: a mission around 300 years away from completion, at the current rate. Ah, the legacy of war.

To avoid US airstrikes entire communities took their lives underground in hastily built tunnel complexes, with hollowed out maternity wards, classrooms and everything else a village needs to function. We crouched our way through one of these subterranean ghost towns, blown away by the sheer desire of the Vietnamese people not to be murdered by imperialist invaders.

Hue © Ryan Chapman
Leaving Quang Tri behind we crossed the bridge from what was North Vietnam to what was South Vietnam, stopped for a night in Hue, before hopping back on the Reunification Express for the coast-hugging train to Hoi An. The first part of the trip had been pretty hectic, but in Hoi An our hotel had a pool and we had the best part of a week with very little planned. A cooking class here, a cocktail there. A quick dip in the pool there, a cocktail here.

It is said that Vietnamese people can be straight-talking and abrupt. Not in a shock-jock, rabble-rousing, Nigel Farage way, but in a sweet, endearing way. I experienced this first hand when I went to do what every male tourist does in Hoi An: have a suit tailored.

Hoi An © Ryan Chapman
On the first measuring appointment a friendly, well-presented lady took me to one side and unravelled her tape. I clocked the cheeky glint in her eye. "Ah, I see you have no arse" she said, looking me up and down, before wrapping her tape around my waist and commenting on my "little flabby side bits". If it's a sales technique, it worked. And the suit fits like a glove. Even around my little flabby side bits.

This encounter with the seamstress reminded me that I'd promised myself I'd do some exercise while away. Which was hilarious to me. I'd even gone as far as to pack some running shorts. It's honestly as if pre-holiday me and on-holiday me inhabit entirely different universes. I pondered the absurdity of running in the tropical heat, before ordering another drink.

Hoi An © Ryan Chapman
Hoi An seemed a lot more on the beaten path than we'd expected. Mostly on account of the hoards of cruise shippers coming into town to sit in Western style bars with other cruise shippers. In contrast, the path to our next location - another several hours down the train line - was so un-beaten there literally wasn't one. A short traipse across a sandy beach being the only way to access the only accommodation in the village.

Nhon Hai is real Vietnam. Unfortunately, in real Vietnam there aren't hotels employing people to clean the beach. So, in reality - although the people are super friendly and the papaya salads are out of this world - real Vietnam is somewhat tainted by rubbish washed up by the South China Sea. To counterbalance this though, the papaya salads really were that good. So good that every time I got a bit depressed about ocean plastic (because, you see, I'm a massive snowflake who cares about things like that), I just ordered another papaya salad and let the spicy, peanutty goodness wash my woes away.

Nhon Hai © Ryan Chapman
Nhon Hai © Ryan Chapman
After a couple of days tip-toeing around a fucking exhibition of plastic packaging it was back on the Reunification Express for the final sixteen hours to Ho Chi Minh City. Or, as I - and most locals, apparently - prefer to call it: Saigon. (I mean no disrespect to Uncle Ho, but naming cities after revolutionaries is just a bit too Commie. Even for me. Besides, the name Saigon evokes exotic images of rickshaws and fiery sunsets. All the name Ho Chi Minh City evokes are images of some old geezer with a beard.)

Saigon is a surprisingly contemporary and cosmopolitan city. Surprising to me, at least, because I was expecting it to be like Hanoi on steroids. But, although they have an identical soundtrack of horns and mopeds, they're very different.  For a start, I've never seen so many roof top bars in one place. And I can assure you, I'm not complaining. 

Saigon © Ryan Chapman
We had four days in Saigon, which were mostly taken up by eating. However, we also found the time to spend an afternoon at the War Remnants Museum (a must do); explore the city's club scene (thus significantly increasing the average age); and even partake in a spot of karaoke, Vietnam's national sport (Yes, there are videos. No, you can't see them).

No wonder Saigon is home to so many expats, with its plethora of hipster hang-outs and its incredible and diverse food scene. It's a city I would certainly spend a lot more time in, if only RyanAir would find a way to make it a couple of hours away from Stansted.

And so, with a global pandemic just getting into the swing of things it was almost time to come home. But not before five more days in full-on holiday mode on the island of Pho Quoc: Vietnam's answer to Ko Samui. Pho Quoc is exploding in popularity, for good reason. And, judging by the sheer number of construction sites, is trying its damnedest to keep up.

Pho Quoc © Ryan Chapman
By the end of the trip coronavirus anxiety had hit fever pitch. We were sat in the back of a taxi and, I swear, I didn't even cough. I merely cleared my throat. But the driver - eye-balling me in the rear view mirror - simultaneously opened all four windows, gave his steering wheel a rub with a wet-wipe, and insisted on driving us to a pharmacy to buy some face masks. I managed to convince him we were leaving Vietnam later that day, but I don't think he believed me.

And then, on our internal flight back to Hanoi, a woman took her seat next to me on the plane wearing a full-body hazmat suit. She had the lot: gloves, goggles, mask. PPE quite literally from head to toe. She took a small bottle of disinfectant from her handbag and sprayed herself like it was perfume. Then she sprayed her tray table, and then proceeded to spray me. It was time to come home.

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Hoi An tips: climb aboard Uncle Dai's boat bar for pre-dinner drinks, dinner and/or post-dinner drinks with friendly cats, dogs and humans (it's not entirely clear who owns who). The Hoianian for something a little less rustic. Kimmy for tailoring. 

Saigon tips: pay-as-you-go karaoke at iCOOL. Incredible tapas at Octo. Saigon Cocktails or The Gin House for afters.

Pho Quoc tips: we stayed in Ong Lang which seemed the best of all worlds. Eat and be merry at the Bittersweet Bistro. Mango Bay for something special.

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