The view from Lauren’s apartment in District 2 looking across The Mekong to District 1 which is the major centre of Saigon.
I was very happy to finally be on her veranda taking this picture as it took me 30 hours to get there. Having felt pretty smug at finding my budget airfare with Air Asia for a mere $405 return I was devastated to find on landing in Kuala Lumpur that my ongoing flight to Vietnam had been cancelled due to bad weather. Nothing was available until 11am the following day and as it wasn’t deemed “their fault” there was no offer of accommodation or even a food voucher to see me through the next 17 hours. I guess you get what you pay for….. So having decided I was way too old to crash on a bench in the airport terminal I went off in search of accommodation nearby. I suddenly remembered Lauren had stayed in a Capsule Hotel in Seoul (she reckoned it was clean and relatively spacious contrary to my long held idea of it being more like a coffin with bed bugs) and it made me brave enough to check in to one in the airport and to be fair, despite it being extremely tiny, it was clean and the futon style mattress was comfortable. There was no door, merely a pull down blind separating me from the corridor. The ‘hotel’ is segregated into male and female sections with a shared bathroom for each sex and a security locker downstairs for your luggage. If it hadn’t been for my blind/door flapping about all night due to the aircon in the corridor, inconveniently letting a huge industrial light shine directly onto my face, I think I would have slept better but despite that it certainly beat a seat in the airport and cost me the princely sum of $37!!
I was back at the airport by 8am just to find that my ongoing flight was already delayed 1.5 hours (no reason given) and I was beginning to think I would never leave KL airport but I decided to go with the flow and wandered off to look for something to eat and drink as I had had nothing since brekky 24 hours previously in Sydney. Due to the wonders of technology this is so easy nowadays. The ‘tap and go’ concept with a credit card is easy and safe and memories of having to change currencies several times for different countries in the past is well and truly gone thank goodness. Luckily I had bought a new book in Sydney and it helped pass the time and the free airport wifi kept me in touch with Lauren who was pretty sad that a whole day of our short time together had been wasted.
Lesson 1: Fly direct and pay for a decent airline as a budget fare can sometimes be a false economy.
However once I arrived Loz whisked me off to D1 to have a lovely lunch and the first of our many chats about her new life in Vietnam. The Secret Garden Restaurant was down a (rather dubious) alley and up 4 flights of stairs but it was worth it when we arrived at a little bohemian rooftop complete with colourful paper lanterns, handmade pottery, a resident cockerel who lorded it over the entire space and a delicious menu including those fresh herb laden salads that I love so much. The local Vietnamese are very friendly and hardworking but also know how to relax and can often be found snoozing on anything from a bench to a hastily slung hammock between 2 trees in the street to the top of their motorbikes if there are no customers to have to attend to.
Once home she showed me around her district which has a lovely village feel and is a real mixture of local and expat living. This is the area for all the International Schools and is therefore set up beautifully for any expat whim that you may have. The locals have worked out exactly what we all like to spend our wages and holiday dollars on and provide it in spades. Beautiful hotels, restaurants, beauty salons, art galleries, homewares shops, florists, cafes with local and western menus and a few gourmet food shops providing all the things you miss from home (at a hefty price of course!) were all here vying for our dollars. There was even a cockatoo in a cage at a nearby juice bar for the odd homesick Aussie!!! In between there are the local Vietnamese shops selling pho, banh mi, sweet Vietnamese iced coffee and fresh coconuts complete with a straw! Back to her complex and a swim in the pool and I’d nearly forgotten about the previous 24 hours!!
The snazzy part of expat life comes in the form of resorts and restaurants on the water. With the understated luxury that tropical architecture brings you can feel very relaxed within a very short period of time as you sip your beverage of choice under a lazy swirling fan surrounded by lush potted palms and water features that gently bubble in the background – the epitome of tranquility. The architecture is usually simple and textural and uses symmetry in a pleasing way and it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to feel like you are back in those old colonial days when the French had such a big influence in Vietnam.
At night the indoors melds with the exterior and you almost feel part of the Mighty Mekong, an entity all of it’s own that supports life and industry for many many people from China to Vietnam. The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia and offers a glimpse into the long history and diverse cultures of the region. The 12th longest river in the world and the 7th longest in Asia, it flows through six countries: China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
On a smaller scale expats have become the reason for many co-sharing ventures in Saigon. Lauren is just one of the MANY freelancers that work here and their office of choice is a café. The locals have cashed in on this in a big way providing ‘cool’ hangouts that are comfortable and conducive to a few hours work on your laptop. There is no pressure to buy more than the odd coffee or fresh coconut and in the evenings and the weekends they are a hive of activity as they cater to the Westeners tastes in both food, music, cocktails and even provide the odd pool table!
They have also picked up on our desire for fresh juices, organic food and permaculture, yoga and wellness and these are invariably located in tranquil surroundings which may also provide pods for working quietly and is a good place to share information with like minded souls. In this way it really doesn’t take long for an expat to feel at home and make friends, often far more quickly than you would at home as you are all in a similar shared experience a long way away from both family and familiarity.
As she is still recovering from Dengue Fever my dynamo daughter couldn’t execute her usual A4 list of things to do QUITE as much as she would usually do. We cancelled our overnight trip up the Mekong and instead opted to do a couple of more sedate things which wouldn’t tire her out too much. Number 1 on our list was to attend a ceramics workshop and MAKE SOMETHING! We spent the previous evening looking up various ideas on Pinterest and concocted a general plan for our forthcoming artistic endeavours. On arriving at the studio Alessandro, our teacher from The Virgin Islands, listened carefully to our wishes and got us started. 30 minutes later despite setting out to make different items we both ended up with identical things on our potters wheel, but it was great fun and as ceramics was something I have been wanting to try for ages I was really happy to have given it a go. He told me that if I could find a kiln near to me at home it would be quite easy to make some of the ideas I had come up with so that is now on my list of THINGS TO DO. Loz will pick up our glazed and fired bowls in a few weeks and use them to house her plants and cacti at home. No doubt she will feel very accomplished and creative with our handmade offerings displayed on her shelves!!
The other genteel thing we did was to visit The Saigon Opera house (not a patch on the Sydney version, pre drinks involved cask wine for goodness sake!) to see “The Mist” which is a contemporary dance based on Vietnamese life and which was serene and beautiful in parts and great fun and noisy in others. It incorporated both ballet and Vietnamese dancing and haunting music on local instruments as well as vigorous drumming and clapping which the audience enthusiastically joined in with thanks to the wooden clappers thoughtfully provided on our seats! A good night was had by all and in lieu of our usual after concert drinks we sought out my favourite Asian dessert of sticky rice, fresh mango and coconut icecream which is the MOST delicious combination imaginable and something I never tire of!!
Here is the trailer to give you a little idea …….
Well you can’t write about spending time in Vietnam without eventually talking about the traffic. It’s downright scary to the uninitiated and even on this, my 2nd trip to the country, I still felt unsettled at the mayhem of it all. It appears as if there are absolutely no rules at all, my usual sense of order all shaken upside down and spat out into a heaving mass of people simultaneously moving in all directions, cars, trucks, scooters and bikes all weaving in and out of each other, a friendlyish toot to let them know you are there or that they are about to overtake you, and somehow despite everything, it works !! I was full of trepidation as I hopped onto the pushbike that Loz had borrowed for me but luckily where she lives is a) very flat and b) relatively quiet during the non peak hour traffic. Basically we just peddled at a steady rate and it was up to them to work their way around us. They also drive on the other side of the road which meant I dreaded turning left especially as this meant you just made your way to the middle of the road, picked your course and cycled along it just trusting they would let you in and/or go around you which they did! For a start no one goes fast which helps and they all understand as they are in the same situation. No road rage, no accidents, no speeding and just a great sense of satisfaction at arriving at our destination INTACT! You can park your bikes anywhere, there are even “bike guards” at some of the posher expat venues but it is a really great way of getting about and I loved it!! It was a little disconcerting however when we went into the main centre to discover the scooters come up onto the pavement too!!!!
Take a look for yourself!!!
This picture below is a typical little local café with it’s plastic chairs, bikes parked on the pavement outside, traditional Vietnamese coffee for less than $1 and you can stay as long as you like!! Vietnam is super cheap, local food and transport in particular and I think we spent on my last night (at a flashy expat hangout) the equivalent amount that we had all week eating local! It’s going to be a horrible shock when the newlyweds come back to Oz and our inflated Sydney prices that’s for sure!
On this stretch of The Mekong there is a unique phenomena of moving vegetation, they are always moving on the tide sometimes in quite dense patches and are known by the Vietnamese as ‘nuisance plants’!!Nuisance plants, especially water hyacinth, thrive in conditions where the river receives nutrient-rich urban or agricultural run-off from the surrounding land making Saigon a perfect location. The boats often have problems getting through the larger ‘mats’ of plants, larger boats are ok as they stick to the deeper channels in the middle but the smaller local boats often get caught up in them alongside the bank.
I took this before we knew exactly what they were!
So, after an action packed 4 days I had to go back to the airport and do it all in reverse!! Despite the fact that I was only there for such a short time (even less thanks to Air Asia) I felt that I’d seen a good cross section of their local life and where they lived etc as well as making sure for myself that she was on the mend from Dengue and can now envisage what she’s doing on a day to day basis which for a Mum helps make it seem less far away!
The trip home was bumpy but on time and we landed in huge winds which scared me to death and was a sign of things to come as we have had terrible weather. NO rain, parched dry expanses of woodland and high winds being the lethal combination for bushfires and the local rural fire brigades have been fighting big fires just south of us for a few days now. I even received an emergency text from them yesterday warning us to “seek shelter as the fire arrives” despite the fact it was 5 miles away!! The winds have finally died down today and hopefully some rain is on the horizon soon as things will only get worse as we head into summer. Despite this it is nice to be home and as always my mind is brimming with all sorts of possibilities as travel always opens my brain in a way nothing else can and makes me want to make the most of every little opportunity that life throws my way. It’s an addictive feeling and not one I ever want to give up!