Thursday, January 20, 2011


Watching a travelling couple sitting in Mumtaz restaurant, Saigon. They sit opposite each other. She asks him quietly to come and sit next to her. He asks why. Her response is inaudible. “Its weird” he replies. She gets up slightly and moves into the chair she beckoned for him. I go back to my caphe-sua-da. I’m thinking he should’ve got up and gone and sat next to her. Its presumptuous I know but I feel like telling him he just lost a beautiful opportunity for intimacy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Saigon, Jetstar and the meaning of success.

We’ve had nothing short of a bollocking from Jetstar since we left Melbourne. They left us sitting on the ground at Tullamarine for more than an hour, barely said a word about it to us neither, bit short on decency for a stoppage that was going to be “around 10 minutes”. In the air over Singapore they had us in a holding pattern for 30 minutes. On the 15th we went to Than Sohn Nhat airport in Saigon to fly to Hanoi, they informed us that our flight had been delayed by 10 hours; we got a lunch coupon though ;-) After standing around negotiating, translating, scratching on rocks and making clicking sounds with our mouths and lips we managed to communicate that flying out of Saigon at 1am wasn’t really going to work for us and that we’d like to be put on the next available flight that wasn’t going to put us in Hanoi at 4am. They switched us to a 5pm flight for the next day. I’m probably not capturing for you just how much too-and-fro and universal sign language it took to broker that little deal. So alls well that ends well right?, If it would but only end. The next day comes and we’re rocking some morning tea (that’s elevenses people) on Pham Ngu Lao and we get an email from Jetstar that tells us our 5pm flight has been delayed again, this time by 7 hours. Oh yay we’re back to having to arrive in Hanoi at 4am! So we get on Skype and try the travel insurance company, who initially remind us of just how bad off we really aren’t by pointing out that all non-medical emergencies will not be fielded today owing to Queensland having been submerged like Atlantis. Sheesh its hard to argue with that. So we attempt to get help from Jetstar Australia. We’ve heard that they speak English, but we have our street argot ready (Straight outta Blade Runner). The kindly folk at Jokestar Australia inform us that not only can they do nothing for us but that our midnight flight to Hanoi has been bumped once again and we will now be flying out of Saigon at 1:40am. We struggle, we resist, we prevaricate but that doesn’t achieve anything, largely due to the fact that nobody is sure what it means then finally we accept our fate and take the 1:40am black-eye (That’s the one after a red-eye flight). We lob into Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport at around 4am. The first thing I’m struck by is that it’s a freaking ghost town. Normally you have to elbow your way through a throng of touts trying to get you into their ‘Taxis’, (Den makes elaborate display of inverted commas with his fingers). There are two official taxis waiting outside and the other tourists have started in-fighting about whom is going to take those. So I pass up that malarkey and make my way up the road toward a less crowded part of the terminal. A likely looking Hanoi lad sidles up to me and starts his pitch: He’s got a taxi. He can take us into Hanoi for 300,000 dong. His taxi is better than other taxi’s in that whilst its doesn’t say ‘taxi’ anywhere on it, it is in fact an undercover taxi masquerading as a sports car…and he’s not kidding, it’s some sort of WRX knock-off and short of the neon blue under-chassis lights his car is pimping. Ok my eyes are bleeding right? I’m so tired I actually am asleep and all this happened in a dream last night whilst I yelped and twitched, puppy style, curled up on a Saigon street. So maybe I’m having a moment of weakness right? I nod wearily to the Hanoi lad and he leads us to the boot of his hottie and puts our backpacks in. He opens the back door and gestures that we should climb in. I peer into the darkened interior. There’s two dudes in there already and they aint smiling. Suddenly I wake up and I’m standing in Noi Bai airport at 4 in the morning with f-all people around and I remember the reams of official and anecdotal warnings about Hanoi airport scams and one of the most popular being the one where you get driven to a lonely spot in the city and then the price goes up and if you want to argue about it there’s a cabal of negotiators who have now appeared, out of nowhere, around the outside of the Taxi…and you know what, no offence to Eli, but if I had AB or AC with me I might’ve taken my chances --belligerent digger style, I mean f*#k it right? But I looked at my team and realised that us Vs three Hanoi chavs with possibly more lying in wait wasn’t our best move. So I spun on the bloke and told him what I thought of his ‘not-at-all dodgy’ undercover taxi and I demanded in English and then Vietnamese that he get our bags out of the boot because we weren’t riding with him. He freaks out a bit, starts coming on all tourist-bully with me, but I’m switched on now, channelling my very best impersonation of an “I don’t care mate” digger. “I don’t care mate… I don’t care what you say, you can find someone else…I don’t care mate” I drag our bags back toward the airport. He follows badgering and cursing in Vietnamese. He enlists other cronies and a little group of them get between Eli and I and start close-talking me. I show them my game face and thankfully they dissolve like so much pumped up suds. God bless front hey? An old bloke in Melbourne once said to me ‘I like you Den, you’ll be alright, you’ve got more front than a row of Woolies’. It’s an attitude and technique that have got me out of more than a few potentially sticky situations. The mob moved on to fresh arrivals and whilst they were distracted and distracting we grabbed a new taxi that arrived and skedaddled. When we got to our hotel in the Old Quarter we had to knock on the roller door to wake up the poor blighter whose turn it was to sleep in the foyer. There was no response initially so I peered through the glass and saw the man lying curled up on a couch. I tapped on the window and he seemed to open his eyes to narrow slits and nod, all without moving mind you, suddenly the roller door lurched to life and began to slowly open. We dragged ourselves up to the darkened reception desk and awaited his getting up to take our passports and check us in. He didn’t move. We chuckled quietly and began to look around to see if there was anyone in the dark corners whom we’d missed who might be going to help us. All I could think about was sleep at this point. After a while of standing around, slightly bewildered I told Eli to sidle behind the reception desk and grab a key off the wall (Well she’s smaller and tailor made for stealth ops!) She did so and we made our way up to an awesome two room hotel room that we knew from a previous visit, yes that’s right two rooms!) Sleep glorious sleep….oh except that I lay in bed for 20 minutes feeling guilty about possible scenarios in which the bad-denizens of Old Quarter Hanoi slithered into the now open hotel foyer and looted the place. It was too much for me so finally I got up, got dressed and dragged myself back downstairs with our passports to wake the guy up and remind him to shut the roller door that he had sleep-opened. Did I make that clear? Sleep-opened with his clicker! When I got downstairs everything was still dark and quiet and seemingly intact. The roller door was down. Sleep clicker.

Today I reflected on the effects of sleep deprivation and the tendency of our Vietnamese cousins to burn the candle at both ends. The average Vietnamese person works incredibly long hours. Up at 6am, working till midnight, you do the maths. When I went down stairs this morning to give them our passports and possibly, sheepishly, explain to them how we had come to self-serve our way into their hotel at 5am in the morning I found that they knew nothing, or rather just assumed that the night porter (Read exhausted sleeping man on the couch) had checked us in. They didn’t ask any questions at all so I didn’t tell them any lies. The whole nation is kind of like that and once you realise it you start to see them in a new light. The whole nation is a bit sleep deprived and the lack of sleep does curious things to your behaviour. Jovial, mercurial, erratic, prone to bouts of inspiration followed by scattered plummeting despair, (sounds like our author)…but jovial and mercurial and that’s something I really like about the Vietnamese, whilst we’re doling out generalities. They are a great people and this is a fascinating country to visit.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Descending from the stars...

I try to remember to savour the first few moments of anything good. Descending from the stars last night, through the haze over Ho Chi Minh City. Plane gently hovers in, twinkling lights wink through the gloom, surveying the darkened rooftops, catching occasional signs of life, a xe-om picking its way through some half deserted street, a truck unloading down a lane.
Anticipating my first definitive glimpse of HCMC’s intensity and then it comes as we crossed in front of a large building. Descending lower than the rooftops, surging down, opened up across a main arterial, the lights of a thousand motorbikes, street full to bursting, a pulsing heart… the blood of light. Curtain pulled back, I shield my eyes for a moment, glare adjustment then neon colour washes over my face-- slack-jawed, open-mouthed awe…