Sunday, June 1, 2008

A Culinary Tour Of Vietnam (Day 26-30)


The day got off to a slow start with us catching up with Thuan at the Cuu Long Hotel. We sat there a long time waiting for the driver to show up, but Phuoc was apparently waiting for us at the Floating Hotel's carpark. Another surprise was sprung on us today with Thuan presenting us with a bill for $565 for the clapped out car that we'd thought we'd very carefully confirmed first at $200, then, absolutely finally, at $250. We were stunned enough to just let it go - we'd resolve the issue with Evan when we got back to Australia.
We said our goodbyes and walked over the the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Museum only to find it had closed (harassed along the way by a couple of persistent children). So we went back to Dong Khoi Street to look at antique shops and the historic hotels like the Caravelle, the Continental and the Rex. Actually the Rex is next to the square fronting the City Hall building and there were a lot of women dressed in white Ao Dais, many students. The reason is that it is Women's Day, the day women "get the day off" so to speak. After the Air Vietnam offices, we went for a 333 in the roof garden of the Rex Hotel, famous for its very kitch layout and as a watering hole for journalists during the American War. Then to the Givral for lunch, a famous gossip location during the war: grilled deer, beef and dry noodles and wild boar. While there, these two very tarty girls came in, obviously call-girls. They got very disapproving looks from the women workers (probably because of the padded bras).

Thuan went off to do some business and we sauntered off to Dong Khoi Street, then to the Floating Hotel. After arranging with Nicola to meet that night, we went off to get Thuan for another try at the Memorial Museum on the wharf. It is in the building that was the maritime hall from which Ho embarked for his world travels early this century. Later we returned to the Hotel for a clean-up, and watched half of "Total Recall". Chuong finally got through to us and we've arranged to meet tomorrow. Nicola was waiting in the lobby with a friend, Sarah, and we headed off to this new Indian Restaurant called the Delhi. The service was terrible, the food expensive and uncoordinated. Still we had a ripper of a time, which continued back in the Lobby Bar where we were joined by Adrienne, the training officer for the hotel. She and I had a pretty good talk about Vietnamese attitudes to customs, language, etc. Adrienne pointed out that Vietnamese probably think we're young because of our attitude - we don't behave like 40 year olds, so we can't be. She also agrees that the use of symbolism is a key feature; during her classes, the Vietnamese get enthusiastic about conceptual ideas. Two French guys showed up which led to an even bigger party and David and I ended up leaving about 12.30am, missing the end of "Total Recall".


The first event of the day was a two-hour boat ride on the Saigon river, with lots of rusting hulks and plenty of activity. On one side of the river was the industrial and city aspects, on the other a shanty town and rural setting that Thuan says is reminiscent of the Mekong Delta to the south.
At the end of the trip, Thuan ended up in a shitfight (a word we've taught him) over the price of 40,000d. As a farewell to Thuan, David paid for lunch in the restaurant of the Floating Hotel, which, for the three of us, came to a massive $54: Viet spring rolls, sweet and sour pork, spicy chicken, beef and vegetables, and rice with vegetables. We then wandered off to the old Saigon markets, then walked over to the Ben Thanh markets where we bought some souvenir-t-shirts. There were a considerable number of beggars, many scarred by war wounds. As we left Thuan at the front desk of the Floating Hotel, he hit on David for his Seven Sport jacket, saying it was getting cold in Hanoi and he didn't have a coat with him. He didn't get it, David telling him it was one of only 20 produced by the Network.

We got back to the Floating Hotel to do some filming in the kitchens, then caught up with the chief engineer, a Vietnamese boat person who'd spent 11 years in Sydney, and, as I said, he's still on a boat! He took us into the bowels of the ship, showing us the only boiler in Saigon, and telling us this great story about how their sophisticated ballast system had broken down, and how they're now using a plumb bob and a string.

For dinner, we went to the Givral with Chuong who'd finally caught up with us. He brought along two of his friends, English students, a guy called Quoc who is in the final stages of leaving for America, and a delightful beautiful girl called Nhu. We ended up splashing out big to the extent of 190,000d mainly on heaps of 333. David slipped Chuong US$100. Back at the Hotel, we took photos of everybody - apparently it's a status symbol to have been there. Nicola, Craig and co came along, trying to drag us down to the disco; they'd been to the German beerfest run by the Hotel in the forecourt area. We were supposed to have an early night, to pack and unwind but we ended up having a few more beers and watching some of David's video, which was fun, but stupid in the circumstances. We got to bed about 2am.


We both woke up to serious hangovers, as expected, and not enough time for breakfast. Thuan arrived to ferry us to the airport, and maybe to do Evan's photo of an Air Vietnam plane taking off - which didn't happen - nor did visiting the military plane graveyard at one end of the strip. Chuong, Quoc and Nhu came to say goodbye, which was nice of them. The departure lounge was in chaos, with no pattern to how you get your luggage checked in, etc. Thuan pushed through with our tickets and tried to sort out the problems. I was surprised to have him ask me if we'd reconfirmed the flight - held not only been there, but had actually dialled the number!
Worse was to come, I sauntered through customs, but David was detained for one and a half hours for smuggling antiques - the old iron he's bought in a Government gift shop right in front of Thuan! David was carrying it in his hand luggage and it showed up on the x-ray. It's a circumstance that Thuan must have been aware of, but gave us no warning. Luckily my incense burner, of similar antiquity, was in my big suitcase. To say the least, David was pissed off - and rightly so. It was sold openly in a gift store in a Government tourist hotel. Thuan was present at the time and you'd expect that a man with 20 year's experience in the Foreign Press Centre might have encountered this before. He even said to David that a certificate from some Department would have caused him no problems. Too late to tell him now. No one gave us any warning, and as a result, the iron was confiscated. David signed it over as a gift to Nicola, in the hope that she can bring it out when she comes to Australia in September.

In the Tan Son Nhut lounge chaos, we met an overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) Mrs Kim, now resident in Perth. She married a Korean, so manages a Korean restaurant as well as a gift shop. She was in Saigon for Tet and suggested that she won't be back again. On the plane, we ended up sitting next to her. She was heavily laden down with lacquerware, items for her store. What she'd bought for one dollar, she'd sell in Perth for fifteen. We departed, arriving in Bangkok, settling into the Indra Regent about 5pm. Even though we'd eaten nothing today, we still didn't feel hungry, so we repacked all our declarable items into one bag, and walked around the markets, then retired early. Today, I came down with something, with stomach pains and the runs. We put it down to dinner at the Givral. David ate only his meal, while I shared the others? meals. Another possible explanation is that the first beer can arrived opened with water swimming in the top.


Luxury! We slept in until 10am, then spent the rest of the day trying to shop. I needed some new jeans, work pants and work shirts but couldn't find anything I wanted. We lunched at what has become our haunt. I would have liked to try somewhere else, but I guess we were too exhausted to go through the-effort. We spent the last two hours in the Indra lobby drinking, before we took a cutrate limo to the airport for home. Flight movies: "Quigley Down Under" and "Rocky V".


Home at last! The flight was pretty uneventful. It was nowhere near full, so I grabbed a window seat behind David to make it easier to sleep. David slept, but I didn't. We breezed through Brisbane customs. With everything listed and categorised for inspection, there were no real hold-ups and no real questions. I was surprised that the tobacco and the bamboo pipes didn't receive more attention. Anna was waiting for us outside, driving us to my place where we split up the goodies. Linda had already returned the car with videos of stuff I'd missed over the four weeks.
I just gradually unpacked, sorted a few things out and dawdled around trying to remember where I'd hidden things like my wallet and my keys. About 7pm I went down Trevor and Rosanne's to get the mail and the key I gave them, then went back home to start watching videos. First meal back in Australia: pizza.

And so ends this adventure.

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