A holiday diary: Part Two

This is a continuation from this post: A holiday diary: Part One. Sorry it’s taken me so long! The last time I left you, I was in the pretty little historic town of Hoi An, staying in a swanky hotel with my friend Manzana. It was Tet, Vietnamese New Year, and on Wednesday night, fireworks had marked the end of the Year of the Horse and the start of the Year of the Goat, and I had turned 34 years old.

Thursday, 19th February

I awoke on my 34th birthday, feeling a little groggy. My hotel bedroom was so close to the Vietnamese house across the road that i could hear the music they were playing as if it was actually in my bedroom. I looked around sleepily, trying to find and switch off the radio, before realising that the music wasn’t actually in my room. The song was the one Tet song I have grown to recognise. It’s a childish song, presumably the Vietnamese equivalent of Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer, and when you don’t understand Vietnamese, it will drill a hole in your brain for the entire period of Tet. In the rush to westernise, Vietnam has also adopted two English-language Tet songs as their own. For the whole month leading up to Tet, you hear a variety of mixes and versions of Auld Lang Syne and of ABBA’s Happy New Year, played over and over and over again. They appear to not have discovered my favourite English New Year’s song yet – Dina Carroll’s The Perfect Year. For about a week in the 90s, Dina Carroll was going to be the Scottish Mariah Carey. I’m still kind of sad that that never happened.

Anyway, I went for breakfast. After breakfast, Manzana gave me a present, which she had somehow sneakily bought since arriving in Vietnam, as it was something I had told her I wanted only a few days before. It’s lovely when someone makes a fuss of you, and Manzana did just that.She had also brought a card which my parents had posted to her house in Dublin before she came to visit. I had had this in my bag for four days, saving it for the right day, so I went to my bedroom and opened the card and had a little birthday dance with myself.

We had a final lunch in pretty Hoi An, and packed up again, ready to go to our next destination, Hue. Hue is the old, imperial capital of Vietnam, seat of the Nguyen emperors.

Because it was the main day of Tet, the transport we booked to Hue was expensive. We had been told that the drive would take between three and four hours and when our driver arrived, my heart sank. He spoke English and he wanted to make conversation. The last thing you want on a four-hour taxi journey is a chatty taxi driver practising his English on you. I have worked for YEARS, having people practise their English on me, and it’s not what I want from my holidays. Thankfully, the driver only made conversation for the first half an hour. We had the typical conversation: “Where are you from?” “Ireland” “Oh, it’s very cold” And then you try to decide whether or not to bother explaining that Ireland and Iceland are not the same place. Generally I let people here think I’m from Iceland. It’s easier.

There is a lot of beeping in Vietnam. It’s just part of life here. You beep when you are going to overtake someone, or when you’re coming to a corner or junction of any kind. You also just beep to let people know you’re coming up from behind. I’m used to Vietnamese beeping. But nothing on the scale of this driver’s beeping. He basically beeped non-stop all the way from Hoi An to Hue. 145 kilometres of beeping. Both Manzana and I were tired from the heat and the late night the night before and the accidental over-consumption of cocktails and we were nodding off. There may be no worse feeling than half-sleep and half-dreams, where the major plot point of the half-dreams is the sound of beeping.

When we arrived in Hue it couldn’t be anything other than a disappointment. Hoi An is so special and so atmospheric that poor Hue was bound to feel one of the lesser Districts from the Hunger Games. It’s also laid out oddly for a tourist (almost as if the city was designed to cater to the needs of the actual residents and not for me). All the hotels and restaurants are on the other side of the city centre from the historic sites. As soon as we were settled into our rooms, a great deal less fancy than the rooms in our previous hotel, we walked across to the historic sites and then decided not to look at them, as we had booked ourselves onto a tour the following day, so we walked back to the touristy bit and had drinks in a posh hotel overlooking the river.

That night we went for dinner in an attractive restaurant, sitting on a terrace and eating Vietnamese food we had never tried before. I went for steamed rice pancakes with minced prawns. What arrived on my plate was a pile of dark green parcels, and the waitress had to show me how to eat them. The parcels were in fact banana leaves, which you don’t eat, and the pancakes had been steamed inside them. Steamed rice pancakes taste delicious, but are unnervingly close in texture and consistency to human semen, so they might not be for everyone.

We finished the night by toasting my birthday in a roadside bar. The staff of the bar appeared to be a group of women servers and a boy who sat a table playing with his iPhone. The boy’s only job was to figure out bills, like a human cash register, which the women then carried to the tables. Once customers paid, the money would be carried back to the boy.

It was a great bar for road-watching. Road-watching is actually worthwhile hobby in Vietnam, watching all those thousands of motorbikes with all those people, poultry and products on them. As it was Tet, a lot of the women were in their best clothes and so were riding side saddle on the back of their husbands’ or boyfriends’ motorbikes. The tourist area of Hue has a youth hostel feel to it, with random groups of foreigners befriending each other. Next to us, two young Swedish men were talking about their holiday plans with some Latin American tourists. Young blonde tanned Swedish men in flip flops are basically my kryptonite, and it was thoughts of them that soothed me to sleep that night.

Friday, 20th February

We got up early to join a tour seeing imperial Hue. After breakfast at our hotel, we got on a bus, which made a few stops at some other hotels and we set off to see the Imperial Tombs, an hour or so outside the city.

Our tour guide was a young Vietnamese man with an upbeat persona. He reminded me a bit of a demonic children’s TV presenter. He spoke a clipped English, sounding a little German at times, but he had the most bizarre set of pronunciation errors with the words he had to say most often, like “emperor” that he was almost uncomfortable to listen to. At the start of the bus journey, he told us the total we would have to pay in entry fees for the day and went from person to person collecting money. In almost every single case, he didn’t have the correct change and he promised we would get it later.

We saw three of the tombs/mausoleums. And they were impressive. I’ve never seen the Pyramids, or the Taj Mahal, but these are Vietnam’s version – over-the-top royal burial sites. They’re basically large palace complexes for the dead, with huge temples and residential quarters and moats and meeting rooms. The biggest one we saw was actually where the emperor who was buried there chose to live, as it was more spacious and peaceful than the Forbidden City in the Imperial Complex in Hue itself. Our tour guide led us round, and continued the pantomime tone of his children’s TV show, pretending to have never seen any of these sites before. He would turn to look at a temple and say “Wow! So beautiful! Extraordinary!” It had quite a disconcerting effect and you’d momentarily question whether he’d actually been there before, but then he would launch into his spiel.

He told us one “comic” story, about the national hero of Vietnam, the communist liberator, Ho Chi Minh, “Uncle Ho”, who had written a poem where he called the 13th Nguyen emperor a gay because he had no children. Oh the LOLs. I was delighted to see roadside pictures of Uncle Ho everywhere with flowers painted where his beard should be wishing us all a happy Tet later in the holiday. I like to think this was the revenge of a gay artist against Homophobe Chi Minh.

We got back to Hue and after a tour of yet more imperial buildings in the city itself (they’re lovely, but I can only work up so much interest in the architecture of the Nguyen dynasty) we were brought to a dragon boat for a cruise along the Perfume River. Both dragon boats and the Perfume River are misnamed. A dragon boat can neither fly nor breathe flames, but it does have a wooden dragon’s head attached to the front. The Perfume River is fine; it’s impressively wide, but it’s mainly brown and doesn’t smell anything like Chanel No. 5.

We cruised along the river for over an hour, passing herds of water buffalo (I presumed they were water buffalo, but they might just have been normal cows who fancied a swim). The driver of the boat was accompanied by a teenaged boy and two little girls, who I figured were his children. They ran around the boat happily. Then a dog appeared. It had been asleep on its bed. The boat may have been a dragon for the tourists, but it was a house for this family, as I looked at the back of the one doorless room where we were all sitting, but where they lived, and I saw a stack of mattresses and a TV.

As we got off the boat, our children’s TV presenter tour guide helped us onto the dock, saying goodbye to us, and being available for receiving tips. Now, he’d been fairly awful, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from giving him a tip. Except for the fact that he hadn’t given me my change at the start of the day. In fact, he’d given no one their change. In a singularly un-Irish move, I asked for my change as I was saying goodbye to him. He shushed me and had me wait until all the others were gone before he gave me my change. Some other tourists saw what he was doing, and turned back to get their change too.

We went to bed early that night. We had yet to fall in love with Hue, and Manzana and I spent some time trying to decide whether it was more like Limerick or Waterford. I mean it’s fine. And it’s got stuff to see and do. But you would question why you were spending very much time there.

Saturday, 21st February

Saturday was the last full day of our holiday and we were going on a bus tour of the DMZ, the demilitarised zone from the Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the American War.

The tour was a long one and we had to get up early. We had to leave at 7:00 am, before breakfast was served at our hotel. We were assured we would be provided with breakfast on the tour. Our bus took us to another hotel in Hue, one with a backpacker-y feel. There were about nine or ten of us. We’d all been up at six in the morning, so everyone was sleepy and we sat in the restaurant waiting. And we waited. Nothing happened. After about twenty minutes, a German woman in our group went out to the bus driver and said “We have been waiting for 20 minutes and nothing has happened!” She said “nothing” with an outrage I could never muster. The driver sent her back in. After another five minutes, the music in the restaurant came on full blast. I’d like you to imagine a group of impatient, sleepy, hungry and frustrated tourists sitting in a restaurant for 25 minutes when suddenly the opening notes of the Macarena come on at nightclub volume. It was the most inappropriate song possible and I thought it was hilarious.

A few minutes later, a very grumpy older Vietnamese man in a leather jacket came to us asking us what we wanted for breakfast. The choice was omelette with bread or fried eggs with bread (so basically the same thing but you had to choose whether you wanted your yolks and whites separate or mixed). Manzana and I went for the omelette. The Germans didn’t want eggs and asked if they could have jam and bread instead. A few minutes later, the leather-jacketed waiter came out with out breakfasts. Our omelettes were entirely flavourless, but we were lucky. The waiter walked over to the Germans, told them there was no jam, and literally handed them each a dry bread roll each for their breakfast. He didn’t even bother to give them a plate for their roll. Manzana asked if she could have a juice or a water. The waiter said no, but she could have a 7Up if she paid. Some Austrian guys in our group asked for coffee. They were told they would have to pay for it. They said fine. As it was a hot morning they asked for ice with their coffee. They were told there wasn’t any.

As we emerged from the hotel after our hour-long wait for a breakfast of dry bread and no drinks, no one was in a particularly good mood. And we discovered there were ten more tourists in our minibus, who hadn’t been there before “breakfast”. The minibus was now more than full. As the biggest passenger, I was put in the front, where I was basically falling out of an unclosable window. The others were all behind, getting all intimate and sweaty, with three to every double seat. As we started off, the driver started making jokes. The three young Austrian men behind me started making jokes back to him. Now, my tired brain could see the funny side of the awful breakfast, but nothing could ever make Austrobanter palatable to me. Luckily, it didn’t last long.

We drove North out of Hue, through small Vietnamese towns. One feature of Vietnamese life that has surprised me is the fact that there is no division between your home and your business. If you have a fridge shop, then you eat your family dinner gathered around one of the fridges and at night-time you pull your mattresses out and the whole family sleeps on the shop floor, surrounded by the fridges. The same goes for mobile phone shops, ceramics shops, green grocers and more. The family home is the shop, not behind the shop, or above the shop; it is the shop. On this drive, we saw a new example of this: a petrol station, where the owners and their children had set up a table on the forecourt and were having breakfast among the petrol pumps.

After about an hour’s driving we stopped in a small city and waited. It was clear something was being changed. I heard the driver talking about space on the bus. There was an atmosphere of excitement – were we going to get a bigger bus? One that we actually fitted in?

Of course we weren’t. What we were waiting for was the tour guide, a capable woman, with much better English than the man the previous day. There wasn’t room for her on any of the seats on the bus, so she took a little plastic seat from a local restaurant and sat in the area just inside the door of the minibus. Apparently, she was a very good guide, but as I was sitting in the front hanging out of the unclosable window with the wind whistling through  my ears, I heard almost nothing she said.

To be honest, the DMZ tour probably isn’t worth doing. It’s nice countryside and there are a few military bases, memorials and other things to see, but you’d need to be a real military history buff to actually like it a lot. The bits I enjoyed were the non-military bits. I got a new chance to observe the centrality of poultry in Vietnamese life. In Ho Chi Minh City, I was used to queueing at the ATM while chickens clucked around my feet. In the countryside, chickens are everywhere. To my surprise, they seem to co-exist cheerfully with dogs, cats and buffalo. In the car park of one military history museum, I saw a chicken climbing a tree, which was something I didn’t realise was possible. The civilian life in the countryside was also more interesting than the military history and the houses on stilts built by the hill tribespeople who had been re-settled beside the main highway after the war were fascinating.

Our last stop was at the Vinh Moc Tunnels, where some Vietnamese sheltered underground during the war. In the museum area, I noted that a sign said that the tunnels were 90 cm wide at their narrowest point. I got out my phone and did a quick conversion. Yes, my waist would probably fit through, but only just and only if I didn’t count my arms. I decided not to go in, as I do have arms, and met the rest of the tour group at the exit of the tunnels.

It was a very long bus ride back to Hue.

That evening, we had dinner in a cheap Vietnamese restaurant, where I ordered the 5-spice chicken. The waitress corrected me, telling me it was called 5-spicy chicken. I didn’t protest.

Sunday, 22nd February

We got a plane back to Ho Chi Minh City that morning and I went back to my flat to wash some clothes and do some shopping while Manzana got settled in her hotel. That night we met for dinner and made plans for the last day of the holidays. There was one museum in Ho Chi Minh City that all the guidebooks raved about. We would go to that in the morning and then we would take a boat along the Saigon River.

Monday, 23rd February

We decided to walk to find this museum. It was in District 10, which is next to District 3, which is next to District 1, because why should numbers make any sense? It didn’t seem that far. We walked a lot. Our map wasn’t much help to us. We were getting very hot and sweaty. We thought we were near. We were surrounded by hotels. The kind of hotels where no one speaks English and rooms are rented by the hour. We asked for directions in one of these hotels and no one knew where the museum was. We eventually got into a taxi. The driver got us to the museum in about two minutes, and it did look nice, but it was closed for Tet. We asked the driver to take us back to District 1 and we had lunch in one of the amazing French Bakeries that are all over Ho Chi Minh City.

Our next mission was to go on a boat trip along the Saigon River. We went down to the harbour. An old man, who looked exactly as you would expect an elderly sailor to look, with a face of weatherbeaten leather and an aura of grit and perseverance, came up to us and offered us a ride in his boat. He pointed to a picture of a lovely boat, and told us he would take us around the river in that. We agreed on a price and he brought us to the boat.

The boat did not look anything like the picture. It was an old-looking wooden thing that was probably riverworthy, but looked uncomfortable. Also, it wasn’t tied to a pier or jetty. It was somehow moored on a slippery, sludgy slope. I didn’t see how we wouldn’t slide into the river in the process of getting into it. Once we’d navigated the slippery slope, it wasn’t even the side of the boat that we’d have to get into. The boat was moored with its nose facing the land. I had pictures of myself getting one leg over the nose of the boat and never getting the other leg over and the boat setting sail, with me at the front frozen on in the pose of Goddess’s head on the front of an Ancient Greek ship. We decided against getting on the boat. After 5 months, I can tell you that the Saigon River isn’t that pretty anyway.

We had managed to make it to 4:00 pm on our day of touristing and all we had done was have lunch at a bakery. We decided to go for a drink instead of attempting any more tourism. We watched the sunset over the Ho Chi Minh City skyline in a bar in the tallest building in the city and it was truly impressive (and horrendously expensive). We finished the evening with a meal in a beautiful colonial restaurant. I decided not to go for one of my normal dishes and eat outside my comfort zone, which was foolish of me. Comfort zones are comfortable. I got shrimps in tamarind sauce, one of the messiest, oddest, most unsatisfying dinners I’ve ever had.

Tuesday, 24th February/Wednesday, 25th February

Manzana was spending the next two days on a tropical island and I went back to work. I  like travelling, but I never quite “got” the whole “not working” thing. I had been checking my work emails regularly while on holidays, answering a few of them, but they were building up. It was a beautiful thing to go to the office and get them all out of the way. It’s not that I don’t know how to be lazy. I do. It’s just that I’ve never really had a normal work/life balance. I have always had evening jobs or weekend jobs or online jobs, and it’s very strange for me to be on “holiday” from them. I’ve done CELTA interviews on Skype at Christmastime, I’ve set up log-ins and online portfolios for trainee teachers in a youth hostel in Istanbul on a Saturday night, I’ve answered work emails surreptitiously in a hotel in Hoi An on New Year’s Eve. I don’t know how to do things any differently, but it was a relief to be able to answer my work emails on the day after my holiday.

Thursday, 26th February

Manzana returned from her trip to the island and after work, I went out to meet her for dinner and say goodbye to her. We had arranged to meet on one of Ho Chi Minh City’s main streets: Pasteur. I got into a taxi and asked to go to Pasteur. Pasteur is a French word, of course, and I discovered that the way an Irishman mispronounces it is entirely different from how a Vietnamese taxi driver mispronounces it. Eventually, once I had written it down, he knew where I was going. I should, apparently, have pronounced it “Peh-tuh”.

Anyway, Manzana and I found each other and went in search of somewhere to eat. We decided to try a barbecue, a kind of restaurant you often see in Vietnam, where everyone sits in a beer-garden-type space and food is brought to the middle of the table and everyone shares. We were brought to our seats.

It is common in Vietnam for service to be a bit on the brisk side. Your plate will be taken from you as soon as the last forkful has entered your mouth, before your fork has had a chance to sit back on the plate, regardless of whether or not your friends have finished eating. You will also be asked if you’re ready to order before you’ve read the menu. This is normal, but this restaurant was an extreme example. Four waiters and waitresses stood around us as we made our way through the very long menu, looking frustrated and bemused by the fact that we needed menus at all. Eventually we decided and one of them took Manzana’s order. She was in such a hurry that she didn’t bother to take mine, so we had to get a second waiter to do that.

You don’t see Vietnamese people drinking an awful lot. They don’t tend to go to pubs and street food restaurants might serve beer, but you don’t really see anyone drinking to excess. Barbecues seem to be the exception. Most of the customers were men, and a lot of beer was being drunk. Drunk men in suits are no more appealing in Vietnam than they are in Ireland. One customer was falling asleep from the drunkenness and a waitress stayed by his side for the whole time we were there, trying to coax him to leave and trying to ensure he didn’t fall over.

The food was nice, and I was glad I experienced this type of Vietnamese restaurant at least once.

I said goodbye to Manzana. It had been a very good holiday and I made my way back to my building. For the third time since I’d moved in, both lifts were broken and I walked up to my twelfth story apartment in the 30-degree humidity, panting, cursing and sweating the crab spring rolls out of me.

******

I have at least one more, if not two more, Vietnamese blogposts left in me. I let a real backlog build up, but I’ll clear it soon! I promise!

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