Saturday, March 31, 2018

March 27th & 28th – Birthday Treats in Saigon

If it’s your wife’s 40-something birthday and you want to give her a few treats, then where better to go than the vibrant city of Saigon? Health and Beauty treatments are incredibly good value, the shopping is legendary, while the food is delicious – we did a little of each on our first day.

Our day started with a two-hour massage where we were pummelled within an inch of our lives – highlights were the masseuse crawling up and down my spine with her knees, and then getting me to arch over her legs and balance precariously (face up) until the pain got too much. If you subscribe to the “no pain, no gain” theory of treatments, then I think it must have done us a world of good.

At the end of this pleasurable torture, we were left a little dazed and confused, which is not a good state to be in when launching into the crazy, traffic-filled streets of Saigon. It didn’t help that there were massive construction works going on for the city’s new subway, which is causing all kinds of traffic disruption in an attempt to improve this city’s perennial traffic problems. No pain, no gain clearly applies here too.

Actually, it doesn’t take long to see that this is a city on the march. Just sailing in and seeing the long lines of brand new apartment blocks and skyscrapers in the suburbs shows you the phenomenal speed at which Ho Chi Minh City is expanding and developing. At least 2 new bridges are being built over the river, while the new subway should hopefully make the city more efficient.

That evening, the birthday girl was treated to a fabulous meal at the Mandarine Restaurant – Vietnamese fine dining at its best.

After this day of relaxation and indulgence, our second morning was a bit of a shock to the system. A 5.15am start to join the World Cruise Event – “Tai Chi Minh City”. As the sun came up, we were bussed over to the Tao Dan Park, to join in with the locals as they did their morning exercises and Tai Chi routines. As one of the few open spaces in this congested city, the park was packed with people being active – if we were feeling tired when we got there, the sheer energy and non-stop activity of the place was an instant tonic.

Everywhere you looked there were groups of people doing all sorts of workouts – graceful Tai Chi, high energy aerobics, ballroom dancing, jogging, walking and doing push-ups. No wonder that the average Vietnamese person is so lean and fit looking. We were given a quick Tai Chi lesson, which was a little less graceful in its execution, but good fun. Next we went for coffee in the park, where all the old men brought their caged birds along to socialise. It was the first time that I’ve ever heard birdsong in this concrete jungle.

After this, we walked through the park to the gardens at the back of the Reunification Palace, where we were treated to a wonderful set of performances (lion dances and martial arts demonstrations) while we slurped on pho (Vietnamese soup) and ate spring rolls and all sorts of delicacies. It was all extremely well done, and amazing to think it was still only 9am. If we were feeling blessed at being able to experience all this, we then went to a temple to be literally blessed by the Buddhist monks in an interesting ceremony.

I’ve been coming to Saigon for 10 years now, and it’s wonderful to still be able to have new experiences in this fascinating city. A really wonderful couple of days

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

March 25th – Cycling Round Hoi An

It's been 8 years since I last took a bicycle ride around Hoi An (in Central Vietnam), so given the phenomenal increase in road traffic that Vietnam has experienced in that time, I was a little apprehensive. Basically, if you volunteered to take a cycle ride around pretty much any other Vietnamese town, you'd be accused of having suicidal tendencies.

I shouldn't have worried. Hoi An has definitely grown a lot in that time, as the tourist industry has well and truly discovered its many charms, but this is a place that hasn't yet allowed itself to be swamped and it has kept its historic character. That means that the countryside around the town is still taken over with green fields of rice paddies and market gardens – if you could zone out the motorbikes and overhead wires, I doubt that these scenes have changed much in centuries.

Very sensibly, our bike tour avoided the roads where possible, so we stuck to the laneways in between the fields, where the friendly locals would shout out cheerful "xin chaos" (hellos) to us. But even in these idyllic rural surroundings, like the rest of Vietnam, you could sense change all around you. Everywhere you looked, new houses were being built, and new "boutique" hotels and homestays were being constructed. You can see why Vietnam is attracting so many more tourists these days – it's cheap, it's exotic, and it's beautiful – but they need to be careful not to overdo it.

Actually, once we got to Hoi An, it was nice to see that they were doing a good job of preserving its unique historic character. Its lines of old shophouses have all been cleaned up and restored; and even if most have now become tourist shops and restaurants, this has always been a place that's attracted visitors and traders from around the world. Hoi An has stayed true to its roots, and it's still a great place to visit.

Whether you're on two wheels, or two legs, Hoi An is one of Vietnam's gems. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

March 23rd – What’s Happened To Ha Long Bay?

The Ha Long Bay we visited today is completely different to the Ha Long Bay we first visited 10 years ago, which would have been totally different to how it was 10 years before that. Unfortunately, you'd have to say that all this change has not been for the better.

Of course, the natural beauty of all those dramatic islands sticking out of the green waters of the bay, cloaked in an enigmatic mist hasn't really changed. But, it's what's happening on land that's quite alarming.

This used to be just a small fishing village, but it's now an ever-expanding town of amusement parks, ferris wheels, cable cars and tourist bars. To me, all these modern entertainment venues seem to have very little in common with the sublime landscapes offshore, but I guess that's "progress". The tacky is taking over from the timeless.

Actually, Hong Gai – the town that the Shuttle Bus takes you over, on the other side of the bridge from the amusement parks – would be a perfectly nice town in most other circumstances. It's not too busy (so you don't fear for your life just crossing the road, which can happen in other Vietnamese towns), the market is interesting, and the people generally friendly, although there are no "sights" as such.

Where we're dropped off, really sums up the contrasts of Vietnam's rapid modernisation. You can turn right, and head into a glossy 4-storey mall selling the kind of upmarket goods that are out of reach of the ordinary Vietnamese (it was pretty much empty, but I presume that it's aimed mainly at Chinese tourists). Or, you can turn left and head into a down-and-dirty traditional wet market, that scarcely makes a nod to modernisation. This bustling place really puts the "wet" into "wet market", as you step through puddles and past overflowing bucketfuls of all kinds of weird and wonderful fish. A fun place to explore, but not recommended in flip flops!

So, Hon Gai is OK to visit for a few hours, but if you're missing out on a trip to Hanoi (admittedly a 4-hour trip away), or the treasures of the Ha Long Bay islands, then you're short-changing yourself. Having just done both those trips in November, I was happy to take it easy and survey the "progress" (or the damage) that was taking place on land.