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Published: March 6th 2007
View From The Rex
This picture was taken from the rooftop terrace of The Rex Hotel, in Ho Chi Minh City. A statue of HCM can been seen in the bottom, right-hand corner, and the stauesque Jen is seated at the left, reading.
We arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) on February 8th, and left for Hoi An on the 21st. We toured the city, and met up with my old friend and ex-roommate Jean-Christophe and his father Gilles. JC has been livinf in Taiwan for seven years, and I hadn't seen him since he moved there to teach english. I was delighted to see him, and we had a chance to catch up as we all travelled together to Mui Ne (the beach)and back to Saigon for the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) celebrations.
Saigon is quite a city, indeed. Vietnam is a socialist country, but Saigon is a hotbed of free enterprise and capitalism. The pace is frantic, the mood dynamic, and the beef noodle soup (Pho, pronounced kind of like fao) is fantastic. I can't tell you how often we had soup for dinner, but I can tell you that Jen and I had a bowl of soup and a beer, each, for a total under $3US, with no adverse events.
We had two days to ourselves before JC and Gilles came to town, and we took the opportunity to do some ground work; we had to figure out
how to get from Saigon to ... well ... anywhere. You see,
1: Tet is quite a festival:
It marks the beginning of the new lunar year, but it is also everyone's "birthday", etc., and it's the only time of the year that some vietnamese get to a) go back to their home town, or b) get away from their home town. So, movement within Vietnam before, during, and after Tet can be challenging.
We knew we didn't want to spend two weeks in Saigon, so we consulted the guide book and settled on Mui Ne as our destination to get away from it all for a few days, and to get some beach time in. Mui Ne is a lovely little coastal town, which, until recently, was nothing more than a fishing village and fish sauce production centre. Now, it is the kiteboarding capital of Asia, and perhaps the world. And, I'm told that it is the site Disney has chosen for their next theme park resort. Take a good look at the sand dune pictures: it may be the last you see of them because that's where Mickey's house is going up.
any case, Mui Ne is a great little resort town. It's busy on the weekend, but it was pretty much dead while we were there. Most hotels are on the beach, and they have a great little Italian restaurant with 10 set menu options every night, the name of which escapes me, but it wasn't Luna d'Automno, which looked very good but was WAY overpriced.
After a few days at the beach, it was back to Saigon to greet JC's girlfriend, Tinna (Pronounced just like Tina, and not Tin-A. You make that mistake only once.) the day after Tet (the day).
2: Tet is the day before which you have to pay off your debts, and get your house in order (literally AND figuratively):
The whole Tet Festival lasts 10 days, during which all the banks are closed. So, everyone relies on the ATMs to get cash, and those run out because no one refills them. People withdraw large sums of money to make through Tet, and hotels will only cash travellers' cheques for their guests, otherwise hoarding cash, like everyone else. Sooo, we have an interesting situation: cash desperate people (looking to pay off their debts)
Sand Dunes in Mui Ne
Future site of Disney's latest addition to its network of theme parks
are surrounded by tourists (and locals) with pocketfulls of cash; AND it turns out that, ethically speaking, it is a graver offence to not pay your debts before Tet than it is to steal. Care to guess what happens next?
Petty theft and pick-pocketing are never higher than during Tet, and the crowds are never thicker than at the fireworks display on Tet eve. JC, Jen, and I (Tinna wasn't with us, yet, and Gilles has seen fireworks so he stayed in that evening) emptied our pockets and removed any and all personal items which were not clothing from our persons, and we set out to watch the show from a bridge which spans the Ben Nghe Channel (an estuary of the Saigon River). The fireworks were, you know, OK. The real show for us was being the only foreigners hanging out in a crowd of, oh, 100000 Vietnamese and their scooters on a four lane bridge. They were all very friendly, especially the police lieutenant who shook our hands as he walked by, saying"Hello" to each one of us, and then posting one of his officers next to us. It's the little things that make all the difference...
3: Things move slowly during Tet:
Did I mention that the train service in Vietnam shuts down for eight days during Tet? Well, it does, which meant that Jen and I were "stuck" in Saigon for a few days longer than we would have liked before heading north to Hoi An, but we got there.
Next issue: How Hoi An is not what it used to be. Sorry to break to anyone who has been there or was planning a trip there, but...
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