I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City yesterday, and am already feeling like, for the good of my health, I need to leave as quickly as possible. I’m staying in the Pham Ngu Lao area, a backpackery haunt, therefore it’s rammed with shops selling dodgy North Face backpacks, pirate CDs, cheap food, T-shirts, lacquerwear souvenirs, and tours. The streets are lined with moto drivers who keep offering you rides even as you walk into your hotel saying ‘no’ for the tenth time, food vendors, book sellers, cafe owners attempting to herd you into their cafes to eat their Pho and drink their Tiger beer, and, obviously, many backpackers.
Not that I want to get bogged down in semantics here, but I can’t stand the word ‘traveller’ – it seems a very grandiose and important sounding term for people who may be adventurous enough to encounter remote minority hill tribes or hike distant landscapes, but are more likely in many cases to get hammered in a variety of settings and walk their hangovers off doing cheap tours, being ferried around a country in air-conditioned mini-buses, and bitching if they can’t find a hotel with satellite TV that serves muesli. I am guilty of a few of the aforementioned so am not taking the moral high ground here, but we are all just tourists, even if we haven’t washed for nine days and wear toe rings and henna tattoos.
In case you hadn’t noticed, I am experiencing a minor bout of travel fatigue, hence the need to get away from Ho Chi Minh City and my fellow, ahem, travellers. I just haven’t worked out yet if this is travel in general, the company, or maybe just Asia. I do know that when I was ill a few days ago, I felt a tremendous homing instinct, and missed family, friends, the dog, the cats, good tea, brown buttered toast, crisp frosty mornings, frothy bitter, fish and chips, regional news programmes, Sunday papers, Radio 4, Radio 2, driving my own car, cooking, wondering the aisles of Sainsbury’s, Porkinson sausages, the smell in my mum’s greenhouse, fresh laundry, long phone conversations, roughage, and duvets. You see, being ill actually caused me to remember nothing but all the good stuff about home, forget why I’m here, and therefore become an ungrateful arse who doesn’t know how lucky he is.
I took a tour round Ho Chi Minh City today on a cyclo (basically a seat on wheels stuck on the front of a bicycle), and after walking into what must have been my fifteen millionth temple in Asia, felt incredibly weary. The temples I’ve seen in Asia have been, with the notable exception of the rambunctious temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, quiet and peaceful places of worship, reflection, and incense-sniffing, occasionally very beautiful, often very kitch. They may have been Buddhist, Hindu or Jain, but after a while, they all start to feel the same, and after respectfully walking quietly round the temple and admiring the gold-plated deities and wood carvings, I’ve invariably felt as relieved as hell to get outside, breath air that isn’t choked with sandalwood, and move on to a place that wasn’t decorated like a cheap nightclub. This is an advanced stage of templed-out-itis.
Today’s temple visit was followed by a visit to the War Remnants Museum, a place where the Vietnamese have put on display an impressive range of US tanks, helicopters, jets and bombs left over from the Vietnam War, along with numerous archive photos from the war, including victims of bombings using napalm, agent orange and other innovative ways to melt people’s eyeballs and deform their offspring for generations. What with already having had a belly full of US foreign policy over the last few years, and having seen what I saw in Cambodia, I walked in and out quicker than you can say “grouchy disinterested old sod”.
A big frustration with Asia has been money, or lack of it – it affects everything about your trip. Being from the West, most people here assume you have a lot of money, and compared to most of them, you do. Beggars and street kids become a constant presence, appalling and unbelievable poverty becomes a part of the background, and having started off apologising to people on the very bottom rung of the ladder for not giving them money, you end up telling them a firm ‘no’ or ignoring them – treatment I would never want to be on the receiving end of in their position. If it’s not beggars it’s haggling – the fact that haggling is, like Eric Idle’s character in Life of Brian (“What? You’re not going to haggle?!”), expected in many situations becomes tiring. To argue over the price of something to save the equivalent cost of a Mars Bar with someone who doesn’t have that much to begin with has never felt entirely right to me from the start, I think I complained about it in India. That said, it’s even more infuriating when you think someone overcharged you by the equivalent cost of a Mars Bar, because you’ve been had, even by a paltry amount.
A highlight of the last week, after all this feeble complaining, was a day-trip to the Phong Dien floating market in the Mekong Delta, before I came to HCMC. I was picked up at about 5:30 in the morning outside my guesthouse by a tiny lady who led me by the hand all the way to the waterfront, making me feel like the only six foot two child in Vietnam going shopping with his mother. She put me in a narrow boat with a bunch of bananas for my breakfast, and we put-puttered down the river as the sun was coming up, her alternating between steering, trying to set me up with her sister in broken English, telling me I was beautiful, and bailing out water from the bottom of the boat.
After floating through the middle of the market at first light, fruit and veg being sold all around and many bemused locals grinning and waving, we stopped for something to eat at about nine o’clock, a bowl of the best rice soup with pork I have ever eaten, served to our boat by a woman in another boat with a huge, bubbling pot that looked heavy enough to punch a hole in the boat and take her to the bottom of the river. The soup was so hot and spicy that I started sniffing and coughing – this appeared to worry my ‘mother’ who muttered something to the cook in the other boat, before coming round my side and crouching in front of me holding two lime quarters. I was thinking this was slightly odd, and that maybe we were going to have some sort of lemon tea, but then she removed my raincoat and bag, and unbuttoned my shirt. By this stage the weirdometer was heading towards nine. Then it went over ten when she started vigorously rubbing my chest, shoulders and back with the lime quarters, hard enough to make me laugh hysterically, yelp with pain, and also to cause a bit of a rash that is only now clearing up.
The surprise of this citrus fruit-accessorised assault, or maybe some healing properties in the lime, was at least enough to make me stop sniffing. After recomposing myself and having her tell me I was beautiful again, we set off for another market. Lots more fruit and veg dealings and waves from friendly locals, and soon I was waving at everyone. I stopped when I realised that the woman I’d been waving at who was crouching at the back of her boat was in fact taking a dump – I’d been wandering why she was looking at me the way Audrey looks at me when she’s on the litter tray.
The day drew to a close after meandering down narrow canals and backwaters for a few hours, and stopping for late lunch and vast quantities of fruit at the home of a fruit farmer, Muoi, and his family, including his three lovely daughters, all single I was told. I was treated to fried noodles, papaya, pineapple, rambutan, banana and dragonfruit, and plied with a local spirit, and jasmine tea. Then the oldest of the daughters pulled out a range of souvenirs for me to buy – yes, this may appear to be a simple family of fruit farmers, but they were in fact shrewd businessmen. I felt lucky to get away with just buying a lacquered ring box, but I still paid through the nose for the fruit.
So anyway, it’s definitely time to leave HCMC until I’m due to fly to Australia, or I’ll lose my sense of humour. It’s a day trip to see the former Viet Cong tunnels at Cu Chi tomorrow, and then hopefully a longer trip to Dalat and further afield.