Tuesday, November 16, 2010

General Impressions speaking

I don't like to generalize, but there are some things I noticed that I didn't mention earlier and perhaps some things that need clarification. Firstly, Jetstar. I really didn't enjoy the flight because I firmly believe an A320 is too small for a flight of that duration, particularly when the seat pitch is that narrow. It's totally fine for domestic flights of an hour or two, but unsuited to overwater international flights lasting 4 1/2 hours. I'm as much a fan of cheap flights as the next person but never again would I subject myself to a flight like that. Nor was I the only passenger expressing that opinion on board, surely this must be of concern to Jetstar management? When we booked the flight it was on a A330, but Jetstar subsequently swapped it to an A320 with an inch less seat pitch and non reclinable seats. Treating your customers like this turns them into non repeat customers, and I am pretty easy to please when it comes to airline flying. If I'm confident I will arrive in one piece then I view this as the ultimate deciding factor, Jetstars safety record is hard to fault.

Let's say you moved to Vietnam and decided you wanted to buy a second hand car. One thing you don't have to worry about is the condition of first gear because after observing to local driving style I think you can safely assume first gear has never been used. Despite the fact I never went faster than 50km/ h we spent 95% of that time in fifth gear, occasionally changing down to fourth when stuck in a traffic jam. One thing you should inspect very carefully is the horn which is used almost continually in a kind of honking language that is probably taught in driving schools. A honk can mean I'm here, or I'm overtaking or more frequently to pedestrians get out of my way because I'm not giving way to you. It was explained to me with a straight face that Vietnamese drivers always follow the rules except when they really don't want to. Red lights are generally complied with, unless the driver I'd in a hurry, driving on the correct side of the road is mostly complied with except when the driver thinks the wrong side might be quicker, so you frequently have four, five or six lanes of traffic going both ways alternately on a two way street. Crossing the street itself is an adventure, but so long as you cross confidently and above all predictably the traffic will move behind you. Except for taxis which make a point of aiming straight for you, but I'm pretty used to that in Sydney. I have heard of westerners living for weeks in Vietnam and never crossing a road once, but it's really not that big a deal. Almost everyone owns a motorbike and although the rule is no more than two people per motorbike, the rule doesn't apply to children and is overlooked if the rider has a really good excuse. The strange thing is that it all seems to work pretty well. I was shocked to learn that the annual road toll is in the order 11,000 killed in a country of 85 million. The road toll in Australia is about 500 per annum with a population a bit over 20 million. 4 times the population. 22 times the road toll.

Dog meat, and presumably cat meat, is available for sale in Vietnam. I'm not judging this, merely stating it as a fact. The choice of which animals we name Fido and which animals we serve with chips is largely arbitrary and determined by the cultural norms of the society in which you live. I'm sure there are millions of Muslims who would be disgusted by my love of bacon, plenty of Hindus unimpressed by the popularity of Hamburgers. The vast majority of the worlds population is revolted at the thought of eating Vegemite.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Ten

Last day and not looking forward to the long journey home. Sleep in late and load up on our last breakfast. We lounge around the hotel room as long as we can, making sure everything is packed. We aren't looking forward to another tortuous Jetstar flight in Amistad class. We check out and ask them to hold our bags while we go have a last cheap meal and look around the town. We make friends with a little black cat tied up outside a small shop. His behaviour says he is friends with the owners of the shop, and privately I hoped he was a family pet. We had been careful to avoid markets where livestock and meat was for sale because on day two our guide had pointed out a dog meat restaurant.
Our lift to Cam Ranh airport arrived just ahead of a large storm building over Nha Trang. Cam Ranh airport was a US airbase during the Vietnam War and was used as a base for Soviet bombers for decades afterwards, but apart from a few blast shields much like those at Darwin airport and there was no trace of its military past. Another thing missing from the airport is anywhere to sit down while waiting for a flight before passing security. The exception was a cafe with exceptionally comfy looking lounge chairs. We sat down and carefully nursed an ice coffee and a fruit juice costing an exorbitant $4 for the hour or so before boarding the flight.
The thunderstorm caught up with us on the flight back to Saigon. We were rocked with turbulence all the way, the seatbelt sign remained on and a woman screamed during a particularly rocky patch. I can't say enough good things about Vietnam Airlines, though, comfortable seats, new aeroplanes, professional crews.
We had a long wait til our flight to Darwin, after a couple of hours we were allowed to check in and passed through security and found a little Japanese restaurant to eat a decent meal, likely our last for 12 hours or so. I was embarrassed to be Australian when a drunk with a twangy nasal accent admitted loudly that he didn't have any money to pay for his beers and food.
After several more hours waiting and having our sealed bottled water confiscated by order of the Australian Government, we jostled the other passengers and steeled ourselves for 4 1/2 hours on the torture bus. Time passed slowly.
Into Darwin and a mysterious 'computer problem' with the airline check in system saw us leave for Sydney over an hour late. Another crawling flight over the empty brown flat central Australian countryside and another 4 hours later we spot our first welcome glimpses of Richmond airbase, Prospect Resevoir and Sydney Harbour. We join downwind and touch down for a slightly sideways landing in Sydney against a stiff swinging crosswind.
We didn't check in any luggage as we were traveling late and do were out at the taxi stand sharply. And I know I am back in Sydney when the cab driver doesn't know where Croydon is.
I haven't calculated how many hours it had been since we left the hotel in Nha Trang but 20 hours would be in the ballpark.
I flopped into my own bed and napped like i desperately needed a nap, which I did. I woke up with that post-holiday feelings of regret mixed with relief.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Nine

Up early and off to Vin Pearl island amusement park, neglecting our swimmers which we would later regret. We took a taxi out to the cable car and stopped short at an anonymous looking office. In Vietnamese and sign language the taxi driver and a uniformed woman who opened the door and requested 640,000 dong. Which sounds like a lot but is only $32. Still I was dubious but handed over the cash, which was more than we had budgeted for, having relied on the information in the lonely planet guidebook. She handed me two battered electronic cards and closed the door. The driver drove on for the cable car, I settled the $4 cab ride, alighted and watched the cabbie speed off. Still feeling nervous we head for the cable car entrance, inserted the cards into the electronic turnstile and hoped for the best. Lo and behold, a green light. We stepped onto the cable car, refreshingly bereft of safety notices of questionable value and ride to Vin Pearl island. We rode the small rollercoaster but most of the other rides appeared closed. We gazed longingly at the inviting looking waters of the water park then wandered into the aquarium expecting to have to cough up the taxi fare home again. Entry was free and we thoroughly enjoyed looking at the various marine creatures which had mercifully escaped a Nha Trang dinner plate. I must mention that the aquarium is significantly downhill of the cable car exit and the one ride we really wanted to have a go on, the escalator, was shut down also, so we trudged back up the eight flights of stairs to get back where we started from. Back to the hotel again for a quick nap.
I visited the gym again while waiting for a massage, having been firmly convinced of its restorative properties. Feeling refreshed and reinvigorated we went out to dinner at Lanterns and thoroughly enjoyed the meal there.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Eight

Up early and off to Long Son temple after breakfast. The temple features a larger temple at the foot of the hill, a larger reclining Buddha halfway up the hill, a very large seated Buddha on top of the hill and an appropriate number of touts, beggars and general pests selling junk you don't want and not taking no for an answer. There are nowhere near the number of beggars in Vietnam you see in other poorer countries in south east Asia so it's rather startling to see any at all. It steadily rained as we climbed the hill, then we climbed back down again. I remained quiet and respectful in what I thought was a site dedicated to serenity and spirituality but the locals constantly waving postcards in face and blowing whistles made me wonder why I bothered. We then bravely crossed the road and flagged down a taxi who nearly ran a scooter rider off the road in his haste to pick us up. Using hand signals we directed the driver to the catholic cathedral in Nha Trang. I sat down inside to try and soak up five minutes of calm peace. I'm not sure what broke the spell for me, the gawking Russian tourists off the cruise boat using flash cameras and talking loudly or the ear blasting air horn of the 11 o'clock express to Ho Chi Minh City (the cathedral is located right beside the railway tracks).
We walked back to the hotel through a local market filled with strange fruits and vegetables, as well as various organ meats of unidentified creatures. A person of a more delicate disposition might find the sight of a butcher hacking a torso to pieces on the foot path disconcerting, and might make one less eager to try the local beef soup and stick to steamed rice and bottled water. Myself, I would describe it as enlightening.
Same same but different is a common saying in Vietnam and also the name of the restaurant we visited for lunch. When we arrived in Nha Trang the taxi driver pointed to the large sign above Vinpearl island spelling 'VINPEARL' and said "look, same same Hollywood!". In much the same same way as was the lunch venue same same to the finest restaurants in Australia. The both sell food. Actually the food there was very good and very very cheap. The only problem was the touts who constantly stream in and out selling cigarettes, pictures, postcards and
bootleg books. I bought two books.
Back to the gym to work out again and shoo away two American girls using the bench press as a lounge chair. Out to dinner at La Taverna, run by an Italian guy. Overall the food was great. The only thing I found unpalatable was the mixed deep fried seafood, which included a trio of whole fish, head, eyes, tail and all, battered and deep fried and staring accusingly at me with sightless eyes. Again there are certain lines I do not cross, even in the pursuit of a good meal.
We had been accosted upon entering by the spruikers of three competing bars, each side by side. The Vietnamese definition of competition being to put up an identical business next door and fight for the same customers. Enticed by the offer of two for one cocktails we went inside the blue lit pub while customers streamed in and out not long after. We had our two cocktails, asked for the bill and was unsurprised to find we had been charged for two cocktails anyway. Hampered by the language barrier and too tired to argue we paid our $6 and left.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Seven

My wifes birthday today, the dawn greeted us with low overcast and driving rain. We don't mind the rain that much anyway. A visit to the Su Spa was on the agenda today. It is reckoned to be the more upmarket of the spas in Nha Trang and although expensive by local standards still incredibly cheap by Australian standards. Kirrilys treatment cost $54 while the same treatment at the Observatory in Sydney would cost $230. I woke up with a bad shoulder, probably by lifting weights which is not something I am used to, so I opted for a hot stone massage and a manicure to stop Kirrily complaining about the state of my nails. I have never had such avrekaxing experience and although my shoulder felt good for a while later in that afternoon it started to feel painful again. I decided that was a good enough excuse for a rest day from working out.
We went to a little local cafe for lunch which cost $6 including tip then we went to pick up some shirts I'd had tailor made earlier in the week, $20 each. I know that if we went to Hoi An we could have got them a bit cheaper, but by my standards $20 for a brand new tailored shirt made to measure shirt, damn cheap.
Out for Kirrilys birthday dinner at the Brewhouse.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Six

Up a bit late and binges on the buffet breakfast once again. I've eaten more bacon since I've been here than in the six months previous. In my defense Dr Rosemary I spent over an hour in the gym afterwards onthe treadmill and cycling as well as lifting weights. I can bench 100 kgs. Is that good?
Kirrily is feeling a bit unwell. It might be a lot of things, the heat, the aircon, the unfamiliar food, a virus. I have prescribed fluids and bedrest, and I know which order will be complied with. As she is resting I decided to take a stroll along the beach. I never realized how spoiled I am with Australian beaches. Flotsam I can excuse after the heavy rains, but I find it difficult to ignore the discarded plastic bags, bottles, snack wrappers emblazoned in an incomprehensible script, tampon wrappers, tampons, condoms and worse which litter the high tide mark. I have so far found the locals to be very conscious of cleanliness but I can't explain why that attitude ends at the plimsol line.
I headed back to the hotel to check the condition of the spouse, which had improved somewhat and i was further excused to explore the comestibles of the Lousiane Brewhouse. On my way it started raining, coincidentally outside the Sailing Club and so I stepped inside until the rain abated somewhat. Now that I was there, well it would impolite of me not to order an iced coffee Vietnamese style. I finished that and it was still raining, so I thought a cleansing ale was appropriate. Now that a beer was on its way, well how about a bite to eat with which to be washed down.
One coffee, one peppered beef and one Saigon White later I continued my mission. The Louisiane Brewhouse. Again on the beach and not a short leisurely stroll, or determined stagger from the sailing club. They brew their own beer here under an Australian brewer and after just now having imbibed a tasting plate of four different beers I can tell you they are pretty good. A little too hoppy and gassy for my tastes but good nevertheless.
The rain having relented I wandered back to the Novotel, met with Kirrily and found a cheap place, the Paramount, for dinner. $7.50 for two with drinks, not bad. The food was good but the portions very small. I mean I could easily count the number of French fries on the plate. Went back to the hotel after wandering around for a while, Kirrily having looked forward to watching 'Up' and having an early night.
The movie was in Vietnamese. Early night it is.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Five

Got up nice and early for a jog along the beach. I still feel like I'm on Sydney time here and being close to the equator it gets dark relatively early. Very interesting to see do many locals jogging, doing calisthenics or playing badminton alongside the beach. Passed a platoon of Vietnamese soldiers armed with shovels off to clean up the beach after the fierce storms. Every one of the insisted on shouting hello at me ad try passed with me sweaty and exhausted after a 30 min jog. Back to the hotel to enjoy the buffet breakfast and then an extended session in the pool, rebelling in the decadence of poolside service. Tired by our exertions back to the room for a nap.
My wife has a habit of mistiming her run. We strolled down to the Sailing Club which is almost a Nha Trang institution by now. Opened back in the 90s by an Australian with local help it's an incredibly classy, cheap and laid back beach side pub and a compulsory visit. We started drinking and eating dinner early, 4 o'clock while the staff set up a stage on the beach beside us in preparation for a beach party. Kirrily pointed out we should be getting back to the hotel as it was getting dark, I pointed out it was five thirty. We stayed as I finished my beer, while Kirrily struggled to finish the 'jam jar' of vodka and pineapple juice. Highly recommended, cheap and very strong. Back to the hotel again we passed out for the evening.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Four

Sleep in and wander the streets for a bit, bought some souvenirs while waiting for our transfer to the airport. Getting there and checking in no problem and have some lunch at the very ordinary airport cafe. Darwin airport is luxurious in comparison. It seems that it is unlucky in Vietnamese culture for a flight to depart from the gate it was originally intended to leave from as every single flight had an announcement advising of a change of gate.
Boarded a bus for a short trip to the airplane, a newish A321. Vietnam Airlines have quite a new fleet, well maintained and well appointed. About half the passengers appeared to be Russians. All I can say is, you can take the peasant out of the potato farm but... One would think they had never been on an airliner with seatbelts before, and the smell of vodka was almost overpowering.
Anyhow we made it to Cam Ranh Bay airport, the Russians clapping and cheering at the landing. Seriously, why do people do that? A sense of relief? Was the outcome of the flight in doubt? If so, I missed that announcement. Maybe the Russians were on to something because we landed long, braked hard and used most of the runway. As we taxied clear I noticed we had landed with a stiff tailwind. Found our lift to the hotel ok, the driver pointing out the recent landslides. The day before we arrived had apparently seen some very heavy rain, 300 mm on one day. The beach was covered in flotsam, the road and beach washed away in places, huge boulders having fallen of the cliffs and reduced the four lane road to one in places. Did I mention this is no impediment to a Vietnamese driver? Driving or riding on the wrong side of the road for extended periods is so de rigeur as to be expected.
Staying at the Novotel which is one of the top hotels in Nha Trang. Fantastic gym, steam room, sauna, room ultra modern, service great. We took the lazy option of the buffet in the hotel restaurant.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Three

Today's tour was of Nui Dat and Long Tan. The first stop was the village of Phuong Long, I think. It was known cynically as 'VC Village' and it turns out the soldiers cynicism was well placed as the tour guide was a local whose father was VC and the village hid an extensive network of tunnels which mostly remained hidden. We went on to visit the Long Tan memorial, which was quite emotional, and then Nui Dat, or at least what remains of it, which isn't much. Around half the runway remains, many of the roads and some ruined foundations.
Back to Saigon again for dinner at Ngon, which is highly recommended, and was ripped off at the night markets, which is probably compulsory.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Vietnam Holiday Two

Day two we got up bright and early (earlier than we wanted to due to the time difference) for a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. You can look up the history behind them if you like, I'm not going to relate that here. I can tell you that it is a theme park version of the Vietnam War, which the locals call the American War, purely to distinguish that conflict from all the other wars that have been going on here pretty much continuously for 150 years or so. I got to crawl down a tunnel, interesting, shoot an M16, cool, look at improvised booby traps, horrifying and watch a grainy black and white video propaganda film. Coming to Vietnam and not seeing the Cu Chi Tunnels would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.
Back to Saigon for lunch and then a quick tour of the local landmarks. Passed out asleep from exhaustion after hitting the treadmill and woke up at 11 o'clock grumpy and sore with hunger. Discovered that most restaurants close at 10 o'clock for dinner but got a late bite to eat at the Rex hotel rooftop bar. Fed a stray cat there and went back to our hotel to sleep again.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Vietnam Holiday One

Day 1 of my holiday in Vietnam. We left a day late because my passport expired less than six months from my departure date Jetstar refused to let us board. I had to apply for an expedited passport renewal from DFAT. This caused us a great deal of anguish and worry as DFAT will only guarantee delivery with 48 hours and I needed mine fr a flight the next day. To their great credit the passport was ready the following morning. Kirrily and I were ecstatic at this news as we thought our holiday would be ruined.
We flew Jetstar to Ho Chi Minh City via Darwin. This was a very cheap flight but let me warn you it us cheap for a reason. We had been switched from an A330 to an A320. Jetstars A320s were designed and built for short hops between Brisbane Melbourne Sydney etc., NOT 4 1/2 hour over water international flights. The seats are close together, bolt upright and not reclinable meaning it is impossible to sleep. Jetstar dont provide outgoing immigration forms or even tell you you are supposed to fill them out at Darwin so there is a mad scramble there. There's nothing to eat at Darwin and you can't take any water through customs even though you bought it in the secure area in Sydney. I was patted down to ensure I didn't have liquids concealed on my person. I felt like emptying my bladder on the guy just to be sure. Basically the flight is a little short of torture and I would never do it again.
But we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City safe and on time which are the most important things, passed through immigration worried they would reject my new passport and send us back and finally made it to the Majestic Hotel in Saigon, exhausted, hot, smelly, dirty and thoroughly pissed off at the world. Off to a great start.