A good night’s sleep, but all too short as breakfast arrives at 5.00 am. We just make it onto the airport bus and are promptly whisked back to Chek Lap Kok. Just as I am walking onto the Vietnamese Airlines plane, that part of my brain responsible for such things helpfully points out that I have left my Vander waterproof jacket in the wardrobe back at the Royal Plaza.
The good news though is that Cathay Pacific have confounded James’ scepticism—our luggage arrives safely at Tan Son Nhat airport on the same flight as us, and after a short delay while they wrestle with the cargo door, we are happily reunited. The four of us squeeze into a taxi that takes us to Ho Chi Minh city centre for $8. We have chosen a likely-looking hotel from the Lonely Planet, but the driver is quite determined to take us to his own choice, even going to the lengths of taking us first to a building site in an attempt to overcome our scepticism over his assertion that our chosen hotel is no longer in business. As it turns out, the Saigon Pink Hotel is very adequate and close to where we wanted to be anyway and we decide not to put up a fight. We would not have recognised it though from the brochure that the driver just happened to have in his taxi—the photograph shows a heavily retouched Saigon Pink Hotel standing proudly alone in green surroundings.
We are in fact in a wide street of tall buildings in front of which every inch of pavement seems to be taken up with street-traders. There are few cars, but there would not be room for them anyway with the hoards of mopeds that are constantly weaving in and out. After unpacking and refreshing ourselves at the hotel, our first challenge is to cross the road. It is futile to wait for a gap, so we simply step into the mayhem and are relieved to find that as long as we don’t hesitate or suddenly change direction, the mopeds simply drive around us. Many of the moped drivers are women, wearing conical hats and gleaming white silk dresses—how on earth do they manage to keep them so spotless?
We walk to Cong Vien Van Hoa Park, a few blocks up the road. The high humidity makes the heat very tiring. We are pursued by a cyclo driver who can’t understand why we are walking when we could be availing ourselves of his services. I note that although there are many people, very few of them seem to be going anywhere on foot. We escape the cyclo driver by walking through the park, but he is waiting for us at the other side.
The Reunification Palace is an ugly 60s building more evocative of a British polytechnic than a palace. The Rough Guide’s description is apt—a ‘time capsule of sixties and seventies kitsch’. The basement is indeed like a villian’s lair from a James Bond film, with its antique radio equipment and war maps. I would not have been surprised on pressing one of the buttons to see a large laser emerge from the roof, complete with sound effects.
We don’t linger over the War Remenants Museum (neé War Crimes Museum). Most of the exhibits are black and white photographs, but the infamous pickled baby is still there. It may nevertheless have been somewhat toned-down since our American friend from the airport visited.
We continue to Notre Dame Cathedral—an unimposing redbrick building that would not look out of place in Croyden. While a stream of equally unsuccessful postcard vendors take turns to try to ease us of some of our dong, a wedding party arrive and, after the photographs, the couple and mother all squeeze into the back of the wedding car and are taken away.
Returning to the hotel, we pass through Ben Thanh covered market, which reminds me of the one in Leeds, except that the smell is stronger. That evening, we have dinner at Kim’s Café in backpackers’ paradise, De Than. My crispy stir-fried lemon chicken is wonderful. We arrange a trip to the Cao Dai temple and the Cu Chi tunnels for tomorrow, and also a 2 day tour of the Mekong Delta. We discover that the delta trip does not return to Ho Chi Minh City in time to catch the overnight sleeper train to Da Nang, so opt for an internal flight instead, which might lack the romance of a rail journey, but will probably be a lot more comfortable.