Monday, July 12, 2010
Saigon and beyond
Ho Chi Minh today is not the city I visited 17 years ago (17 years!). I think I recognized one roundabout. There are new roads, glass towers and expensive shopping malls standing next to the roadside coffee shops, where people drink together, sitting on tiny plastic stools on the pavement. Cyclists are hardly around anymore and the motorcycles have increased in numbers. The city seems to be booming, no longer hindered by the regime.
Obviously the same rules apply to crossing the road in Saigon as in Hanoi.
Wearing a helmet was made compulsory only a little while back. As a gesture, to avoid the fine, helmets are now worn in all shapes and sizes, which can be bought for less than two dollars on street corners. Safety does not seem to be the issue. The classic head covering helmet, ‘the electric rice cooker ‘as they call it here, is not in favour. The ears must be left free, so you can hear the beeping and honking of your fellow road users. Other than that, there are no limits. Helmets come in the shape of a sunhat, in the shape of a baseball cap or in the shape of a beetle. There are helmets with stripes, helmets with flowers or helmets with Winnie the Pooh. I got one with a stylish Burberry check running down the side. We also bought a bag full of mouth caps, worn against air pollution and the sun. We thought they might also protect against sandstorms in a desert at some point.
I liked the rows of ‘coffee with a hammock’ stalls on the side of the road, just after leaving the city, which allow weary travellers to drink a cup of the strong local coffee with condensed milk, and have a rest before they resume their travels.
In the bus: if Jip could keep the ice cube in his hand an ice cube until we got back to the hotel, he and his sister would be entitled to as much ice-cream as they could eat for the rest of their life. Rosie jumped up and down in her seat. Jip tried first by covering the ice cube with his hand to stop the heat getting to it and then holding it up to the blower, but he quickly cottoned on to it being a losing battle and sat grinning on the back seat, with a slinking cube in his hand, as Rosie urged him to stop it melting.
After this road game got everyone loud and excited, “the-ten-minute-of-silence for an ice-cream the next day” worked well. Rosie even stayed silent for two more minutes than necessary just to be sure, which was nice for all of us.
As you can see, ice creams are being used as a useful parental tool on our trip.
Unfortunately for the children, they cannot claim the promised ice-cream a day for the rest of the trip, "if the Dutch win the World Cup", which fortunately for us means we still have leverage.
We called the emergency number of the Dutch Consulate to find out where the Dutch contingent in HCM would be watching the Final, but ended up watching it in the lobby of our hotel with the night watchman, his friend, the receptionist and a lonely hotel guest who had also ventured down in his pajamas, as our time was 1.30 am in the morning. We brought our children dressed in orange and watched with the Dutch commentary streaming live from our computer, lagging twenty seconds behind the action, which is a little sad when you think about it.
We are now on our way to Australia, having just returned from our mini-trip to Cambodia to see Angkor and its temples. For us a highlight of our sightseeing so far; for the children not so much. “How many temples do we have to see today ?” they asked each morning. Managing expectations (“Five before lunch”) and a swimming break after lunch made it workable for us all.
How many temples can you see? We asked ourselves this question after the first hot day. But of the nine we saw, each one had something new, which we were glad to see; centuries old roots of trees growing through and over the temples looking like enormous pythons, giant squids or alien webs, made for strange viewing.
Visiting out of season has its advantages. We were often on our own, with the ruins, butterflies and grasshoppers to ourselves. Not to forget the girls and boys persistently trying to sell us bracelets, silk scarf’s and flutes. Compared to the Vietnamese, Cambodians have a good grasp of English we found.
We are now preparing ourselves for a change of scenery, diet and budget. It will be a shock to eat and drink for more than 20 USD with the four of us. No more Pho for a while and no more ice cold Tiger beer at lunch time.
On the other hand, I am looking forward to being able to understand our tour guides.