Wednesday, 24 December 2008

christmas greetings from hô chi minh city (saigon)

Hours of walking in my new crocs (made in China - does that make them fakes?)
The flipflops I bought way back in Ekaterinburg to negotiate the toilets (often awash) of the Trans-Siberian railway finally fell apart last night. RIP.

Saigon is replete with the most wonderful deco buildings. I stand amazed and open-mouthed at street corners, as I haven't since we left Russia.

The old hôtel de ville, a glorious nineteenth century extravaganza, is now the Hô Chi Minh Museum; the man himself, 'oncle' as the population fondly called him, sits in the front garden fondling a young girl, in innocent allegory no doubt. He is surrounded by confections of nylon lotuses in many shades!

Its very, very hot so I head for the Botanical Gardens and linger a while amongst the lush vegetation and shady glades, admiring painted storks in lovely greys and whites, and muted pinks, who rattle their long yellow beaks like castanets; I wish I could join the Siamese crocodiles who wallow in glorious cooling mud but opt instead for iced tea.

Hard by is the History Museum, another glorious building from the 20's, an amalgam of Deco and Chinese hard to describe. Inside too its lovely, in the cool halls where the last ten thousand years of Vietnamese history are quaintly displayed.

At the heart of the museum is a small open courtyard, set with tables and chairs, around a tinkling and splattering fountain. I order another iced tea in this enchanted spot where people come and go. The boy - or is it a faun? - who serves me tea, takes up a bamboo flute and plays an ancient air. A troupe of young nymphs arrive in shimmering white silks beneath transparent lime-green shifts which flutter and billow, though there is no breeze. I talk to my young neighbour, a girl from Amsterdam who has been studying town planning in Hong Kong, and is in little hurry to go home and put her clogs up.

I fall into a reverie. Gratitude wells up for all the AGM's which, over a vast landmass dispensed zlotys, roubles, touregs, yuan and now dong without a hiccup. A deeper gratitude too to my parents, who came to England as penniless refugees and worked unceasingly to improve their lot, and give me the best education they could conceive of. If the AGMs have anything to disgorge its largely due to their efforts.

Returning home slowly I stop at the twin-towered, red brick French cathedral. By its side is a grandiose old colonial post office which I mistake at first for a handsome belle époque railway station. Sitting at the base of a tall column which bears a three metre high Madonna simpering odiously at all the Christmas festivity around her, I reflect with sadness on Christmases past, gone with the dinosaurs and the Oriental Emperors.

Seasonal greetings to you all.

extinct now 37...........

..........this is where I had to publish and be damned, as the computer started playing up.

As I was saying : Tigers and crocodiles and oriental emperors, all extinct now. This Emperor, a confirmed francophile, scarpered in 1954 to the Champs Elysees, married a French lass called Madeleine, who as Empress of Vietnam perhaps found it easier to book a restaurant table, and gloried in her factitious elevation. The old palace above the lake fell apart amongst the frangipani trees and giant creepers, before being snapped up by a hotel chain and rebuilt.

We pass rice fields both wet and dry, and visit an illegal granite quarry which continues to operate thanks to backhanders to the local police supremo. A massive chunk of granite has been undercut by youths with hammer and chisel, and nothing more than flipflops for protection, and starts to groan and creak and expel little whirlwinds of dust. 10 minutes till it breaks away, the boys calculate. Fascinated, I want to stay and watch but my prudent and fearful companions hurry me along. We pass elephants which once worked the logging trade, and now labour beneath tourists. We see canoes on the lake carved from single massive tree trunks by folk from the many 'minority' villages.

We drench ourselves below monumental waterfalls, and stand by concrete monuments to ferocious tank battles. Both Mr.Wing and Mr.Yang are war veterans - they fought for the South; we hear tales from the horse's mouth.
We eat fruits I've never heard of, and learn the arts of rubber production in shady woods smelling of ammonia as the latex oxidises, where once workers died in droves from malaria and dengue fever. Have you ever seen a cashew tree, or drunk eau de vie from pomelo trees that grow outside your window, at a sweltering brickworks owned by a host who on the verge of bankruptcy and ruin, won the National Lottery? We drink to his good fortune, and admire his many grandchildren.

We take siestas in roadsides hammocks shaded by bamboo, sipping milk from coconuts, discover how rice noodles are produced in wooden shacks where whole families live, and marvel at the profusion and baroque invention of roadside Christmas cribs which line our route south on the Ho Chi Minh Road. Everywhere there are handsome new churches built since 2000, when restrictions on religious freedom were rescinded; the Virgin Mary has moved in with a vengeance, pouting and smirking at her good fortune from domestic doorways and ecclesiastical precincts.

We survive the entry into mad, mad Saigon without a graze or contusion.

Many thanks to Mr. Yang and Mr. Wing and Mr. Nam for wonderful insights into their country, and for two-wheeled adventures without a tumble.

Previous fear of motor-bikes, fed by my internal mother, has quite evaporated. Many times I wanted to wrest the controls from Mr.Yang, leave him a while under a palm-tree, and scoot off alone into the sunset. What bliss. So who out there wants to be Charlie Boorman to my Ewan McGregor for trips of the future?

Talking about Charlie, long before he knew Ewan he came to me for Alexander lessons as a sallow and ill-postured youth. I'm sure you have admired his grace and uprightness in the saddle these days.
While I am name-dropping here is another one. A nautical-sounding Mrs Sail phones to make an appointment for her husband. How pathetic, I think - can't he make his own arrangements? What's his name I enquire politely. Alexei. How pretentious; I have already taken against him. Alexei Sail.
Alexei SAYLE! Ohmygod! Not the vituperative, iconoclastic, foul-mouthed, hyperactive, deeply scarey, Jewish Liverpudlian comic? He'll surely have my guts for garters, make mince meat of me!
My friend Alexei turned out to be a softly-spoken pussycat, touched by melancholy.

Christmas Eve in Saigon. I have just had breakfast, and will step out now into the torrid streets.