The Secret Six in South East Asia! - Episode One - Good Morning Vietnam!!

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November 14th 2018
Published: November 18th 2018
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Alfie & FelixAlfie & FelixAlfie & Felix

What on earth are we gonna do without Grandma and Granddad for nearly 3 weeks......let's just have a hug Cuz!
For those of us of a certain age, watching the helicopters lift the last remaining Americans from the rooftop of the US Embassy in war torn Saigon back in 1975, the prospect of visiting the communist countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for a holiday was, simply unthinkable. But time, as they say, is a great healer and we're off on an 18 day trip to Indochina, with 13 days in Vietnam, 2 in Laos (it's not very big after all!) and 3 in Cambodia. A trip that promises to be full of culture, history, beauty and, hopefully, amazing food!

But who are 'we' you may well ask. Well on this experience, it is Mandy and I (however I try, I just can't shake her off!), our good friends Steve and Lily Forbes, their daughter Sarah Jo and Steve's sister Tina Filby - Steve and Tina are two of my fellow long distance walkers. But here's a good thing, we're not walking to Vietnam!! No, no dear readers, we're flying with Vietnam Airlines (as part of a tour organised by Mercury Holidays) in a 'nearly new' Boeing 787 Dreamliner; two little old engines taking us 12 hours and 6000 odd
The Secret Six - Minus One!The Secret Six - Minus One!The Secret Six - Minus One!

I will get used to doing selfies one day and gave us all in the picture!
miles to Ho Chi Minh City, former Saigon. As Enid Blyton might have called us, we are 'The Secret Six in South East Asia'.

The Forbes' Family drove down from Lymm in Cheshire to stay with us last night and Tina took the sensible option of avoiding the madness in the Kilby household (Vicky, Emma, Alfie and Felix came over to wish us 'Bon voyage') and stayed overnight at the Premier Inn by Terminal 4 Heathrow. No sooner had Steve arrived, than he announced that he needed to pop to the shops to buy a lightweight waterproof coat as he didn't possess such an item. But help was at hand and I was able to let him borrow my swanky Craghoppers coat, which fitted like a glove; whether or not this coat survives the trip, knowing Steve's reputation for losing or destroying stuff, remains to be seen however.

It was an early night for us all, and then up with the lark (or Margaret next door as the lark is sometimes known; Margaret who is always up early) for our taxi at 6.30am. Our driver was a very jovial and chatty Julia who got us safely to Terminal
The Post Office 1The Post Office 1The Post Office 1

Sorry about the van outside!!
4 just before 8, although not without a bit of a drama on the way.

As we wended our way through leafy Hertfordshire, steering clear of a gridlocked M25 as much as possible, Julia took a call from another of their drivers who was due to pick up one of their office staff (let's call him 'Simon') from the other side of Leighton Buzzard. But.......there was no sign of Simon. They knocked on his house, but no reply and unfortunately they didn't have his mobile number. Simon normally takes the firm's mobile phone home, but no answer on that either. This was very unlike Simon and 45 minutes later, everyone was getting a bit worried. Julia even called the firm's boss who was away abroad and he was going to try and call a friend of Simon's, who might have his number. There was even talk of forcing entry into Simon's property in case he was prostrate on the floor. But, all was well; just before we got to Heathrow, we got the call. Simon had just walked into the office and was safe and sound. He hadn't noticed the taxi waiting for him outside his home and had
The Post Office - 2The Post Office - 2The Post Office - 2

The ornate ceiling, with Ho Chi Minh at the end.
walked to work! We were all relieved, especially as we didn't feel that we could possibly get on a plane without knowing the outcome!

Drama averted, we said our farewells to Julia and headed off to the check in counter where we were due to meet Tina. But, we hadn't counted on that tricky, five minute walk that Tina had from the hotel to the Terminal, which unfortunately (somehow) delayed her by twenty minutes!! But, it was no problem and in no time, we were through check in and security and then into the Prince of Wales pub for a hearty breakfast of bacon sarnies and tea/coffee and where we, aptly (bearing in mind the name of the pub) toasted Charles' big birthday. We then strolled down to our gate, took a quick snap of the plane and, before long, it was 'all aboard' and we were on our way.

The flight was long but uneventful and we were well looked after, with some really good food - a big tick for Vietnam Airlines. We cruised at 39000 feet and those TWO engines packed a real punch, pushing us along at over 650 miles per hour at one
The Post Office - 3The Post Office - 3The Post Office - 3

The ceiling looking back to the front door.
point. Flight time was actually 11 hours 30 minutes and we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 5.40 am local time, 35 minutes ahead of schedule. We were there, touchdown in Indochina and as the late, great Robin Williams would have said, 'GOOD MORNING VIETNAM'.

Off to Immigration we trotted and I thought I would make an effort and greet the officer in the local language; 'Xin Chao (hello)' said I........'absolutely nothing', said he, but I guess it's fair to say that you don't find that many immigration officers around the world who seem especially happy in their work! Bags safely collected, we met up with the Mercury representative and we seem to have been lucky, in that the Mercury travellers have been split into two groups and ours is only 23 people......result!

Our guide called himself Jackie and he told us that our hotel rooms should be ready soon after 9.00am, but as it was then only just 7.00am, he was going to kill a bit of time by showing us a few sights on the way in, including a 40 minute walk! To be honest, we were all pretty exhausted and with the temperature knocking
Notre Dame CathedralNotre Dame CathedralNotre Dame Cathedral

Plus scaffolding of course!
on 30 degrees already, we weren't really dressed for traipsing around the city! But we went with the flow and were rewarded with a few cracking sights, including the beautiful French colonial post office, the Notre Dame cathedral (unfortunately closed for refurbishment), the famous Rex Hotel (renowned as the venue for the daily press briefing by the US military high command during the war), the equally famous Caravelle Hotel (a favoured haunt of numerous writers, including Graham Greene) and the fairly nondescript, former CIA HQ in Saigon during the war and site of one of the most iconic photos of the end of the war, showing people queuing up to board a helicopter on the roof of the building, to escape.

When we finally reached the hotel, we were directed straight up to the 16th floor to have breakfast, although to be honest, none of us were that hungry after the amount of food we had eaten on the plane. But, it killed a bit more time and soon after, our rooms were ready and we were able to crash out for a couple of hours. Rested up (ha, ha), we freshened up and then hit the streets, taking
The Roof of the CIA Building - 1The Roof of the CIA Building - 1The Roof of the CIA Building - 1

That iconic photo from 1975..........
in a large indoor market (too much for me!!), then worked our way down to the Saigon river (which, to be honest, is - as The Kinks once said - a 'dirty old river', but still a lovely sight) and had our first cafe experience (paying in the preferred currency if US dollars instead of Vietnamese Dong - pretty ironic really, bearing in mind that the locals kicked the Americans out in 1975). Steve, Sarah and I opted for a beer, Tina had tea, but Mandy and Lily went for a healthy detox drink recommended by the waiter, comprising Chai seeds, Kumquat and lemon grass, which they said was deliciously refreshing. I'm pretty adventurous myself food wise, but I had a taste and, in my humble opinion, it had the consistency of a cross between frog spawn and tapioca! But what do I know?

Incidentally, there are a modest 30,000 Vietnamese Dong to the Pound and as Steve remarked, the one quiz you don't really want to win in Vietnam is, 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire' - a cool 35 quid for answering 15 tough questions!

We then jumped in a taxi and went to see a temple called The Jade Pagoda, which looked quite good in the guidebook, but turned about to pretty ramshackle. It looked really old, but it was actually built in 1909 and the truth is........I've probably got socks older than that! After leaving the pagoda, we walked along to the entrance of the Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens, but when we got there, it was one entrance for both the zoo and gardens (when we were only really interested in the gardens) and as we were struggling for time (dinner was set for 6pm!) and energy, we jumped in a taxi and made our way back to the hotel.

Dinner was at a restaurant called Star Anise and our party of 23 ate together, hence the early start! It was a typical Vietnamese set menu and was really good, although it was a bit rushed and we were through the meal in a little over an hour! This did however, give us time to explore more of the City and the six of us went off to the Rex Hotel (which I mentioned earlier) to have a drink on the rooftop terrace. Although Ho Chi Minh City is pretty shabby in
The Multitude of Mad MopedersThe Multitude of Mad MopedersThe Multitude of Mad Mopeders

And this picture doesn't really do the masses of scooters justice, but gives a flavour.
places, it does come alive at night and this bar was no exception, with a great setting and super views over the illuminated city skyline. It had to be cocktails in the bar and we went for it! Expensive (relatively), but well worth it. By 9pm, with a combination of alcohol and little or no sleep over the last 36 hours, we were ready to drop and after heading back to the hotel, we fell into bed and I particularly, slept like a log!!

Before I close, a couple of interesting facts about Ho Chi Minh City. Firstly 'scooters'! Katie Melua once said that 'there are nine billion bicycles in Beijing', well........there are an estimated 7.5 million scooters in Saigon (and 44 million in the whole country!)!! They are everywhere, going the right and wrong way on the roads and more often than not, on the pavements too! Ho Chi Minh is the biggest city in Vietnam with over 13 million people and to avoid the traffic jams, the scooter is the most popular form of transport, used by boys and girls, men and women, young and old! There are even separate carriageways on some of the main roads,
Crossing the Road - Vietnam StyleCrossing the Road - Vietnam StyleCrossing the Road - Vietnam Style

Again, this only gives a flavour of the chaos, but there actually is a pedestrian on this crossing!
solely for use by the mass of scooters.

With this amount of traffic about, crossing the roads is one of the most perilous things I have ever done. There are plenty of pedestrian crossings around, but only a tiny fraction of these are governed by lights, which tell you when it is safe to cross. The rest of the time, crossing is a lottery. Basically, as the traffic is hurtling in your direction, you are advised to step onto the crossing and start walking slowly. The traffic, particularly the scooters, DON'T STOP, they just pass by either side of you or even between you. Absolutely hair raising!! But here's the amazing thing, we haven't seen a single accident so far!

And finally, finally......the recipe of the day from our guide Jackie. The specialty dish that he makes, is apparently called 'Chicken Ding'.........he sticks chicken in the microwave and when it goes 'ding', it's ready!!! Boom, boom!

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


The Rex HotelThe Rex Hotel
The Rex Hotel

Looking up at the roof bar.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance CyclistThe Loneliness of the Long Distance Cyclist
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cyclist

Tina just can't resist getting on a bike whenever the opportunity presents itself!
Cocktails at the Rex - 1Cocktails at the Rex - 1
Cocktails at the Rex - 1

The Saigon Beauty!
Cocktails at the Rex - 2Cocktails at the Rex - 2
Cocktails at the Rex - 2

Two Saigon beauties with two Saigon Beauties!!
Coctails at the Rex - 3Coctails at the Rex - 3
Coctails at the Rex - 3

Now that's a huge cocktail Sarah........or us it just something called perspective?!

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