Vietnam Diary – Part One

Saigon  May 19th

Arrived mid evening after 14 hour flight via Dubai feeling buzzed out but not too tired.  The taxi from the airport was our first experience with Vietnamese traffic, the driver leaning on his horn while weaving through the only other vehicles on the road – motorbikes, motor cycles, scooters – the rules of traffic being seemingly non existant. Hands over ears and eyes most of the time. Check in to Hotel Continental – spartan but comfortable – not as ‘faded glory’ as I had imagined – polished marble floors, chipped paint and spotlessly clean if a little soulless – the colonial era has given way to socialist efficiency. If Graham Green and Somerset Maughan had stayed here there’s no sign of these illustrious guests – any other hotel would have huge pictures of them in the lobby .   There was however a massive photo of a bride and groom – weekends is wedding time as Michael the butler from Claridges would say and over this weekend the hotel would cram three in.   The first of these was in full swing in the courtyard, the music rising with the heat and causing Joe and Rosa some concern for their sleep. Jane and I had a room on the other side of the building. Jane was out like a light but I stayed awake till 1.30 having started to watch a documentary about the American war in Vietnam – “Hearts and Minds” a brilliant and beautifully made film.

When you open the hotel window on the morning of your first day in a foreign country, the novelty of it all wraps round you like a brand new scarf.  The heat, piped music from the square, the advertising hordings, the constant roar of motorbikes, all confirmation that we are here at the start of our journey to find out more about the country Joshua was traveling through. The motorbikes of course have special significance – Josh was riding a 100cc Honda Win when he died and every time I see one of these bikes, my thoughts spin back to those earliest imaginings in the days after we received the news of his accident.  But  already I’m getting a sense that these machines and the roads they inhabit are not ‘the accident waiting to happen’ as we had feared.    To ride in what looks like chaos does not mean it is unsafe though I guess a fundamental requirement is to have 360 degree awareness of everyone else around you.

It takes a while to learn how to cross the road

Breakfast was a disaster – every conceivable meal and taste seemed to be catered for – porridge with meat balls, noodles, dim sum, as well as croissants and fruit yogurts. The coffee was disgusting – was it laced with cardamon, coriander, or chicory – probably none of these, maybe all of them. I decide to stay with jasmine tea with slices of tropical fruits.

Ho CHi Minh is everywhere

We spent the first part of the day  wandering the streets of central Saigon – it is Ho Chi Minh’s birthday tomorrow and there are red flags and posters of him everywhere, even a special photo display in the square. Something to look forward to. We don’t have a lot of time in Saigon so whatever we do will be very cursory – a spin through the market, a visit to the War Museum, a high speed lift up the city’s archectural icon to modernity – the Bitexco Financial Building, a meal seated on children’s stools on the pavement. This unsurprisingly turned out to be the better of any of the food we’ve eaten. There was a menu but our order disappeared further off down the street to someone squatting over a small stove in a doorway. Call me old fashioned but food hygiene in the modern world leaves a lot to be desired – taste!

Good Morning Vietnam (photo: Joe)

Her first day in Saigon and Rosa is picked up for soliciting !?!?    (photo: Jimmy)
The War Remnants Museum (photo: Jimmy)
Sea Cadets at the War Remnants Museum (photo: Jimmy)

On Sunday we became a bonefide contributors to Vietnam’s booming tourist economy with the purchase of a day trip to the Mekong Delta. The mini bus arrived at the hotel at 8.15 on the dot – standard Viet punctuality – before rounding up our fellow sight seers from the various other internationally branded hotels in central Saigon. On board were Korean, Chinese, Japanese, even some Vietnamese all with American accents. Our destination was My Tho, nearly two hours away down Highway One. Just to make sure we were on the right road in the right country our guide galloped us through 3000 years of Vietnam’s history and the two Indochinese wars – the first against the French and the second against the Americans. I didn’t catch every word – his English was good but heavily accented and what with the constant beeping of the buses horn I think I just about got a sense that his war, or what would surely have been his parents war was in effect against the communists. Vietnam opened up to tourism with the lifting of the US blockade in the early 1990’s and the influx of foreign capital. Our guide seemed happy enough with this development. In one of the first documentaries I cut for television, ‘Apocalpse Then’, I well remember a scene with huge Coca Cola banners hanging on the façade of the Hanoi Opera House – (the equivalent would be 20 metre high portraits of HO Chi Minh draped over the National Gallery by Trafalgar Square). The Vietnamese call this ‘market socialism’ and in copying the Chinese, have adopted what is probably the most efficient and most developed form of capitalism, a state controlled commodity economy in which one of the best sellers is history and authenticity.

A short boat trip from the bus station across the river and we were in what was explained to us as a ‘village’ and we were being shown around a ‘villagers house’ just down the path from the local ‘market’. It felt very conveniently mapped out for the continual stream of cameras and video recorders. On sale was of course was, every traditional handicraft – sarongs, t shirts, lacquer bowls, coconut sculptures, much more than I care to remember. We were then invited to sit and enjoy some ‘traditional’ folk music including horribly scraped out versions of John Lennons ‘Imagine’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  I suspect that we haven’t as yet found the Vietnam that Josh was getting to know.

On our return to Saigon, we found that the celebrations for Ho Chi Minh’s birthday were non existant… mind you he is a symbol of revolutionary fervour, not necessarily of capitalist growth, something that has been in double figures for the past two decades.

Midday – Mekong Delta – waiting for the rain to pass (photo: Jimmy)
Without Josh we wouldn’t be here … (photo: Jimmy)
The old and the new (photo: Jimmy)

12 Responses

  1. It is a facinating read about a country of which I am totally unfamiliar. I hope the trip is everything that you hoped it would be although I am sure at times it must be difficult for you all. I look forward to hearing more about it.
    Take care
    Rebecca x

  2. Really looking forward to the next episode – great photos; can you work out a way of making them scratch and sniff? Or even scratch and hear? Claire xx

  3. Sounds like you’re well and truly immersed and soaking everything in…the noises and roars
    and smells and tasty mad food.

    Was thinking of you all on the 23rd….a huge and special day. I raised a glass (of mineral water….gone teetotal at last) for Josh xxxx and lit the candles.
    25years xxxx

    On the 16th June Bruno xxxx would be will be 21years old xxxx going to Paris to join Saffia so we can all be together there. They had a lovely holiday there in 2010

    Looking forward to hearing more of your journey and more photos…..well cheeky comment with Rosas pic!

    Lots of love


    1. Hi Gillian, We raised a glass to Bruno as well. You, William and Bella are very much in our thoughts as we make this journey.
      How nice that you will be in Paris for Bruno’s 21st. Another bitter sweet experience and really glad you are marking it in such a special way. That is the day we are flying back so will be somewhere in the sky above sending you all our love
      Jane Jimmy Joe and Rosa x

  4. Hi Guys,
    It’s such a nice feeling that you are in Vietnam. It’s funny that you have noticed that there is some sort of system in the traffic. The traffic is really the most fun of the trip, they are masters in avoiding people!

    I hope you don’t become ill and getting chocolate rain( thats how we called diaria).

    I will follow this blog

    All the best!


  5. I remember trying to cross a road like that with Bodie when she was very small in Italy and after several attempts, sat back exhausted. Some kindly man from a cafe had been watching me and rescued us, by standing in the middle of the road and waving the incessant traffic down. It was a terrifying experience to me and looks just as scary where you were. What a strange and yet extraordinary experience of such a different culture. I can only imagine for Josh, a place so exciting, a real adventure.

    Hoping you find your peace too.


  6. Dear all four, we thought of you on Josh’s birthday and how you are going alongside him in spirit and imagination as you travel his route. And send you much love and kisses on the way. Thanks for the blog, it brings your adventure more close. Paul and I are going to see the Blockheads tonight at the subrooms. We will have a dance on y’all. Hot tub’s ready and waiting on your return. It’s now fixed after a bit of fiddling about with the pump. You really needed to know that,.. Anyway thinking of you darlings xxxx

  7. Wow… What an amazing start to your journey.
    Here, the wind lashes and it hails on Josh’s birthday. We got up to his tree and, amid dark skies, the sun broke through and we wished our love and peace across the oceans to you all today, and always in our hearts. Also today we bought you the special edition coke bottle..,”,share a coke with Josh” and will upload a photo when Rosie returns at the weekend. We have a candle burning in the star you bought for my birthday.Dear Josh. Love you all.
    We follow your steps.

    1. Its so lovely to hear from you and thanks for keeping an eye on the tree! With all our love
      Jane Jimmy Joe and Rosa xxxxx

Leave a Reply