Archive for July, 2009

July 30, 2009

So many were the witty titles that we came up with for this post that we have foregone one witty title in favour of several witty subtitles.

Artelaris Now

It’s Ho Chi Minh City to the cartographers and communist autocrats, but it’s still Saigon to everyone else. Excited by the arrival of Kizza and Janeo and knowing that we would be easily distracted by fresh beer, French food and pho, we sweated out most of Saigon’s must-sees in the first few days (hangovers not withstanding). Saigon is a mad city, where the two-wheeled population almost equals the two-legged population and crossing the road is an extreme activity in itself. That elusive break in the traffic never comes, so you’ve just got to defy every instinct you have and let that bus honk and swerve around you. Or wait until a granny or mother-and-child crosses the road and shuffle along behind, not at all secure in the knowledge that no one would be callous enough to mow them down.

Obviously, a lot of the sightseeing to be had in Saigon relates to the war. The Reunification Palace is magnificently preserved in all its 70s glory, complete with official presidential gambling rooms, cinema and shooting gallery.

The War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the “American War Crimes Museum”) documents the impact of the war on the Vietnamese people, particularly those described at the time as the North Vietnamese. Unsurprisingly, the collection is not exactly shy in attributing blame to the USA and their southern “puppets”. It also includes an excellent exhibit on press photographers in the conflict. Reading the stories of these men, and a few women, while viewing their photos reminded us just how many iconic photos resulted from the war and what an important role they played  in communicating the horrors of that war to the people at home. It’s sad to think that nearly 40 years later, nothing like this sort of press freedom exists in Iraq, Afghanistan or any theatre where western forces find themselves.

We also spent an afternoon at the Cu Chi tunnels, where communist soldiers endured staggering subterranean hardships just 60 km from Saigon. Now, the site is managed by the military who let tourists experiment with firing automatic weapons. For a fee, of course. Yeah!

We combined our trip to Cu Chi with a stop at the Cao Dai Holy See. The Vietnamese seem to have an appetite for creating extremely ecumenical “fusion” religions with rather curious theology – although with over 2 million followers, they make Jedis look like rank amateurs. Actually, the temple was a mere sideshow to our tour guide “Slim Jim” Thong who was far more interested in showing off his extensive knowledge of Australian rhyming slang than telling us anything about the Cao Dai religion, which is a blend of Buddhism, Catholicism, ancestor worship, Confucianism and Taoism. Its three principal saints are Victor Hugo; Sun Yat-sen, a Chinese revolutionary; and Nguyen Binh Khiem, a Vietnamese poet. Other venerated historical figures include Joan of Arc, Thomas Jefferson,  Julius Caesar, Shakespeare and William Churchill. Unsurprisingly, all of this results in some fairly psychedelic architecture and colourful ritual.

After all this, we needed some touristic frivolity and heavily chlorinated fun. We stuck out like dog’s bollocks at the Dam Sen Water Park but mostly we were all too busy with the joys of the “Twister Space Bowl” to notice.

And of course, touristing needs fuel. We ate our way through numerous bakeries, had a fancy night with cocktails at the Rex Hotel and a French dinner which was really just Catie’s excuse to order a steak and sampled rice noodles in every which way, often baffling waitresses with our prolific ordering.

Phun times on Phu Quoc

On the meticulously-researched advice of Dodd, we all flew down to Phu Quoc island for a beach holiday. In short, it’s best noted that at this time of year Phu Quoc is probably better suited to a Meteorological Society convention for those interested in extreme monsoonal weather. But no matter – the fridge at the bar was well-stocked and staff were happy to keep a tab running for us (yikes). Flight delays resulted in Kieran and Jane having to make an “Amazing Race”-style bolt for their connections home and us witnessing some severe breaches of the Asian “save face” rule (read: homicidal dummy-spits) from Vietnamese passengers.

What’s going on, Mekong?

After the anonymity of Saigon, our egos needed some massaging and so we headed for the tiny towns of the Mekong Delta where tourists are still very much a novelty. Or, for one tiny boy, a Godzilla-style freakshow as he sighted a shaven-headed, bearded and sunglassed Linds and ran to take cover behind a gate.

Our return to bus travel was, if nothing else, an interesting experience. Bus stations are apparently not the place to get a bus in Vietnam; it’s far better to get a moto to the highway out of town and wave your arms at passing vehicles, applying the “abandon hope” strategy adopted in Malaysia.

Ben Tre: Where the bins are all shaped like penguins; couples canoodle by night around an artificial lake and the beginning, end and 2-hour lunch break of the working day are heralded by an air-raid siren. Run by those dirty (literally) trade unionists, guesthouse is a close contender for worst accommodation of the trip – cigarette butts clogging the bathroom drain, friendly roaches and no toilet seat.

Vinh Long: Marred by a head-cold, activity was charmingly limited to drinking coffees by the Mekong. And speculating about the proportion of hotel residents who were renting the rooms out by the hour, if you know what I mean…

Chau Doc:  Roll-call for the bus here included 2 puppies, a baby chicken and about 20 plastic garbage bags full of pig’s livers. Thankfully, they and all their water-logged defrosted glory were in the cargo hold. Ewwww.


tropical beer notes # 10: the beer hunter edition

July 24, 2009

Beers of Saigon

Wowsers, there’s a lot of beer in Viet Nam. After months of monopolies and duopolies, it’s all a little bewildering. They are largely indistinguishable from one to the next, but it’s still fun seeking out newies. An added bonus is that most of the labels look like they haven’t changed since the 60s (probably because they haven’t). All this adds to the mystique that comes from downing beer in Saigon – a city that’s had more than its fair share of history (boozy and otherwise). All are lighter than light and light on the fizz so you can slam it down fast.

Those sampled thus far include:
Saigon Export
Saigon Lager
Saigon Special
Dai Viet

Going to go for regions – not individual beers – in this part of the world, although I can’t but help think I am missing the opportunity to turn our blog completely over to beer…

one way ticket to hell… and back

July 20, 2009






*DA: Dangerous Assumption.
*HR: Hideous Realisation.

0900: Arrive at bus station. Buy ticket. Eat baguette. ETD 1000. Feeling good.

1000: Bus leaves on time. A good omen, no? Consecutive screenings of Terminator 1, 2 and 4 (don’t ask). Monotone Laotian dubbing but Dodd knows all the lines anyway.

1500: Border crossing. Exchange worthless kip for marginally less worthless dong. Have temperature taken and written down on a Very Official Piece of Paper which is later screwed up and thrown in the bin by immigration dude. Hello Viet Nam.

1800: Arrive Hue. Pleased with the number of socialist-realist billboards and statues sighted so far. Bus station largely deserted except for one dude. Sleeper bus to Saigon leaving “somewhere between 2300 and 2400.” Vagueness arouses some concern but proceed with transaction as there is no other option. It’s 1000km to Saigon but apparently the NH1 highway is in good condition, so surely we’ll be there by lunch tomorrow (DA* #1).

1830 – 2130: Eat fish noodle soup. Get laughed at by locals. Buy muffins. Find internet place and write upbeat emails to Kieran and Jane about how we’ll be in Saigon very soon (DA #2).

2130: Return to bus station. Better to be there early, as we would hate to miss the bus (DA #3).

2130 – 2400: Spend time in the company of itinerants, mosquitoes and rats. Pee in a deserted corner of the bus station because the toilet is locked. Get excited when a few buses pull in to the station; disappointed to discover they aren’t ours. Discuss how the sleeper buses look quite comfortable (DA #4).

2400: Bus arrives. It’s ours. If not for us, the only reason bus would have stopped is to take on board a small cardboard box. Sleeper berth makes a child’s cot look roomy but no matter – after all, we’ll be there by about lunchtime (ibid DA #1).

0005: Catie realises her bed is above the toilet (HR* #1).

Unknown small hours of the morning: Dodd awakes. Bus pulls in to depot for no apparent reason. Bus goes to another depot to have windscreen washed. Bus then goes back to first depot so driver can smoke fags and watch TV with other drivers. Dodd closes his eyes and hopes this is all a bad dream.

0600: Driver switches on bus “entertainment” system. First auditory treats of the day are Asian Abba and Kylie medleys. OMG.

0800: Catie sees sign out the window – 650km to Saigon. Something has gone terribly wrong (HR #2).

0900: Breakfast stop. Thank God for muffins. Awkward conversation about ETA. Even Dodd’s maths can work out that travelling 350km in 8 hours is very, very bad.

0930 – 1300: Morale slumps. Turns out NH1 “highway” is more like Bagot Road (HR #3). Max speed 80km/h. Subjected to screening of entire series of Vietnamese “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Dark Knight” (with monotone Vietnamese dubbing), the violent scenes of which are particularly enjoyed by the small children on the bus.

1300: Lunch stop. Dine in silence.

1400: A few other beds vacate and Catie is able to move from her toilet bed. Grandpa in bed underneath Dodd emits series of stinky farts. Catie enters delirious state characterised by fits of uncontrollable giggling.

1600: Abba and Kylie medleys are repeated. Pray that “entertainment” offerings have been exhausted and we’ll soon be delivered from auditory hell.

1610: No such luck. Screening of Peking opera. Abandon all hope.

1900: Dinner stop. Highlight is bathroom featuring a female urinal (several pairs of bricks placed squatting distance apart over a concrete trough).

2000: Catie and Linds enter robotic states.

2200 – 2330: Any excitement over relatively imminent arrival is tempered by boredom of endless Saigon suburbs which seem to solely comprise enormous churches and brothels. Oh, and it’s pissing with rain too. Catie wills herself to sleep.

2330: Arrival. Not at all excited due to robotic states. Make our way to earmarked hotel. Nearly cry when lady says they’re full. Nearly kiss lady when she says they have room at their other hotel and they’ll send someone to pick us up.

2400: Ride through deserted streets on back of motorbike to hotel. Collapse. Vow to never set foot on a bus again. Ever.

leaving lao

July 18, 2009

And so we headed south on an overnight bus to the Laotian capital, Vientiane. God bless Mervin (or “Mer-VIN” as he introduced himself and who we quickly dubbed just “Merv”), the ebullient Singaporean beer bottle collector whose high spirits were contagious despite being weighed down by 6kg of glassware. Even against a soundtrack of spewing passengers (yet another delightful feature of Lao bus travel), it wasn’t such a bad journey and little did we know that our bus experiences were about to get a lot, lot worse in the not-too-distant future (to be continued…).

Vientiane: Apparently the Perth rental shortage migrated to Vientiane – who knew? Dodd took one for the team as he worked himself into a lather for over an hour trying to find us a room. The city is punctuated by the follies of leaders past and present: grandiose palaces both presidential and accommodational; ambitious civil works projects for the upcoming SE Asian Games and the Patuxai, Lao’s very own Arc de Triomphe aka the “Vertical Runway”, given the cement used for construction was actually supposed to pave a new runway for the airport. Runway schrunway. Heck, even the official signage talks it down:

Nevertheless, this shabby capital grew on us with each passing day. We hired bikes and cruised around, which, as well as making us the source of much amusement for locals, is proving to be a key element to us enjoying ourselves. Stay Another Day continued to deliver the goods – we really can’t rave enough about this organisation. Hands-down highlights were the excellent COPE visitors centre, which we visited on a whim and ended up staying for several hours, and an awesome dinner-for-a-cause at Makphet restaurant. Even sipping a beer in the mud on the banks of the Mekong had a certain appeal.

Savannakhet: Stinking hot and replete with faded colonial glory, this dusty little town was like something out of our new favourite book, Love in the Time of Cholera. We followed the walking tour suggested by the tourist office which featured the immaculate Saint Therese church, derelict stadium and the nostalgic Musée des Dinosaurs, a flashback to your high school science lab and as much a museum of museums as it is of dinosaurs. In proof that the world really is a global village, we even stumbled across a tiny expat enclave although, like the Druids, nobody knows who they were or what they were doing…

It would be remiss of us to make our final notes on Lao without mentioning what is known as the “secret war.” Despite a fairly horrific history of their own, Lao has just as much been a victim of the historical conflicts of its neighbours. The stats are jaw-dropping: over 500,000 bombing missions were conducted over Lao during the Vietnam war, which is the equivalent of one every 8 minutes for the duration of the war. About 260 million cluster bombs, with 680 submunitions in each casing, were dropped and of those, it is estimated that 30% of these did not explode. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war: this is the overwhelming legacy that Lao has to grapple with. By pure coincidence, a few weeks ago we managed to catch the Lao episode of Tony Bourdain‘s show, No Reservations. For a show about food, he gives a lot of coverage to this issue and offers some interesting comments on being a tourist and, to some degree, a voyeur in a land that has suffered so much for so little reason.

Yet, without wanting to sound romantic about it, there is a palpable sense of will for a better future. The New Internationalist country profile puts it well: a sort of tranquility that will hopefully lead to critical reflection and positive change.

Good luck Lao 🙂