Saturday, 30 March 2019

Saigon


I paused a moment in front of the image below. A collage of more than a hundred good men (I didn't spot a woman...) who died doing their job. I paused to think. And it occurred to me that the difference between a glorious military campaign full of valour and courage and a pitiful battlefield full of gore and misery is the work of these guys. Generals and politicians can spin a war whatever way suits them. But for as long as there is a combat photographer in the field, the truth will out. I salute them. In a figurative sense, not militaristic.


The War Remnants Museum and the Independence Palace are among the first stops for most visitors to Saigon. Am I ok calling it Saigon? Technically, the correct parlance is Ho Chi Minh City. But it's still commonly referred to as Saigon by the natives. The airport code is still SGN. And Saigon is so much less of a mouthful. Easier to type too. There's an obvious reason behind the name change - the events in late April 1975, nearly 45 years ago. Within my lifetime, but just too long ago for me to have been aware of. But the news footage remains dramatic, does it not?


Could I picture the scene, as I stood at the gates of the Independence Palace? It's tough. Times have changed, and for much the better. I can better describe how Saigon feels today, or at least how it feels to a Westerner on a three night, four day visit. It feels vibrant. Organised. Young. Lively. Busy. It's clean and reasonably well maintained. It seems proud of its heritage, respectful of its past and, most importantly perhaps, confident about its future. I share that confidence. The beauty of the old French buildings are shown off. The tranquility and religious liberty of the many temples and pagodas are also on view. And then there are the War Remnants Museum and Independence Palace buildings serving as a reminder of it's more recent turmoil.


There's money being spent in Saigon, at every level of wealth. The markets are busy. The streets buzz with the sound of scooters, but there's a growing fleet of Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, Honda and Mazda automobiles. There are even a few Range Rovers and Bentleys braving it on the streets, risking their immaculate paintwork in the frenetic traffic. There are flashy new skyscrapers looming over the Saigon river. We went up the Bitexco Tower, to the bar rather than the slipped disc viewing platform. The bar is free to enter. But had we known that a simple coffee would be almost as expensive as the viewing platform, we might have chosen otherwise.


There was, however, something missing. This country is officially a communist republic. Yet there was no sense or sight of the controlling tentacles of government reaching into the lives of the people on any notable scale. Sure, a fleeting visit does not make me an expert. You'd probably get a more detailed and informed comment from someone who lives there. But the evidence I saw is more than just a little suggestive that communism is, as far as policy is concerned, being reversed even as we speak. 


What does this tell us? I offer this thought: there are sometimes more constructive ways of winning the hearts, minds and faith of a people than through the violence of warfare, inflicted on battlefields with bullets and bombs. I strolled around Saigon with my camera shooting the ongoing battle between conflicting  ideologies without needing to risk my life or limbs. No one will need to put my face on a poster in a museum. Viva Vietnam.


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Friday, 29 March 2019

The Bitexco Tower


The Bitexco Tower, 68 storeys tall, was completed in 2010. It was the tallest building in Vietnam for a year before being surpassed. It's currently the fifth tallest. The deck that sticks out hosts a viewing platform and a helipad. And it makes for a great shot when stood at the bottom looking up.
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Thursday, 28 March 2019

Vietnam - Timeless Charm


There are a lot of shops in Vietnam selling artwork. A lot. In Saigon, Hoi An and Hanoi, you can't walk for more than a few minutes without passing a gallery. Or ten. The artwork comes in every size and colour, but only one price - unaffordable. Of course, that last one is subjective, but it applies to me. But for those on a budget, there is an alternative - the Propoganda Poster shops. There are plenty of them about too. The posters are all of a communist bent, of course, with lots of different slogans. None of which I understood. But a lot of them are decent pieces of artwork, and we bought one, which will be duly framed and hung in the kitchen.

The slogans Vietnam is pushing today are aimed at the tourist. The key one is Vietnam - Timeless Charm. What do you think? I'm not blown away myself. They could do better, and I have a suggestion. Vietnam - Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy. It rhymes and is factually accurate, which is what all good slogans should be about. Also, there are lemons in Vietnam. But I digress. Allow me to explain.

Getting There 

Vietnam Airlines are a growing force in South East Asia  with new routes being flown by sparkly new planes. Being able to fly direct from London to Saigon and then back from Hanoi to London was a big plus. Mrs P and I don't like multi stop flights. Who does? While Vietnam Airlines are the topic, I'll just quickly mention that the service was excellent. Much, much better than we experienced on the dreadful flight we took with Air India in 2017.


15 Day Visa Exemption

If you are from one of  thirteen lucky countries as I am (eleven from Europe plus South Korea and Japan) then there's no need to worry about a visa so long as you sling your hook within the proscribed 15 days. Vietnam chose to introduce this in the middle of 2015, which Those days do include the day you arrive and the day you leave. Another ten more local countries get a 30 day visa exemption. And the good citizens of Chile, for some reason, get 90 days to roam Vietnam without needing a visa. For the rest of you? Most other countries can apply for an e-visa at reasonable cost.


Three Mobile

I signed up with Three shortly after returning from Mexico in 2011. It was a good decision. Not least because they have deals in loads of countries around the world that allow me to use my phone just as if I was at home in the UK. Data, texts and calls. It makes life easier when you want to look for somewhere to eat. Or to order a Grab taxi. Or just to walk from A to B using Google Maps, because you're in a strange city and B could be freaking anywhere. And by the way, I got a decent 3G connection pretty much everywhere we went. Even out in Ha Long Bay, although there were, unsurprisingly, some blackspots out there.

This was an easy, stress free holiday. I'd set it up to be potentially complicated, with two internal flights, a bunch of tours and all my hotels booked independently through Booking.com. But the Vietnamese provide an enthusiastic and slick service at every turn, whether at your hotel, online, dining out or on a tour. Everything ran just as it should. And always with a smile. What more could you ask for? Vietnam - Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.

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Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Why Vietnam?

Alas, our holiday is over and we have returned to the land of toil and turmoil. How best can I describe our two weeks in the Far East? Perhaps I should start at the beginning, with a question I was asked on day one and several times more. Sometimes by tourists, but usually by tour guides and hotel staff. Why Vietnam? It's a fair question, I guess. There are numerous other countries we could have chosen to visit. I was often tempted to answer the question with the cliched return question - why not Vietnam? But besides being a slightly churlish and unfriendly answer, I had quickly gathered why they were asking. Tourism is still relatively new to Vietnam. Where did all these people come from? And why?

Over much of the last century, the Vietnamese have put rather a lot of time and effort into violently repelling 'visitors' to their country. Inviting people in and making them feel at home is something of a novel concept. Happily, the quality of visitor entering Vietnam has improved considerably over the last couple of decades, and the number of people coming over to the country has soared from a paltry two million in 2000 to a a little over seven million in 2015, to a whopping fifteen million last year. That's pretty impressive growth, especially over the last three or four years. Vietnam is a now peaceful country, determined to reap the dividend and is busy building a thriving tourism industry. 

There's no escaping the fact that the wars against first the French and then the US put Vietnam in the public consciousness. The movies that followed in the 1980s also showcased the lush, beautiful scenery to be found in rural Vietnam. Well, providing you can overlook the inconvenient reality that most of the big films were shot in Thailand or the Philippines. Or in the case of Full Metal Jacket, London. But recent Vietnam based shows have thrown a more positive and modern light on the region. The Real Marigold Hotel on Tour recently spent time in Hanoi. Jack Whitehall took his father there. 

And a few years ago, Top Gear filmed a special episode there. They raved about the country. And funnily enough, I walked right past Jeremy Clarkson whilst strolling the streets of Hanoi. I'm not the sort to stop people in the street and demand a photo. So we just settled for stalking him for five minutes or so, until we began to feel a bit creepy and stopped.

There's also the power of 'word of mouth' and digital media. Bloggers, Instagrammers, Twitterists and YouTubers are all extolling the wonders of Vietnam and sharing what they've found. Mrs P and I watched most of the Vietnamese episodes of the Best Ever Food Review Show before we went, which were entertaining, informative and inspiring. Although, ironically, the only place we went to that was featured in his show, a fried chicken joint, sucked eggs. Such is life. And of course, I'm now doing my bit to showcase the wonders of Vietnam too.

In a previous post, Great Expectations, I wrote about one of the key factors in choosing to go to Vietnam now - the 'sweet spot'. I didn't want to be an early adopter, suffering my way through a country that just hadn't sufficiently developed its tourist infrastructure. Nor do I particularly want to visit anywhere that has become swamped with a plague of tourists. I thought that now is the time to visit Vietnam. Was I right? I think I almost got it right. Truth be told, I suspect that the very centre of that sweet spot was two or three years ago. But we managed to go on the edge of that sweet spot, and I'm happy for that. 

I suspect, I am certain, Vietnam will grow its tourist industry considerably in the years to come, but it's still a long way from turning into the next Thailand. Which, for the record, attracts about 40 million visitors a year. So, yes. Now is the time. And that is why Vietnam.






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Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The Switch



The DNS settings have been changed. The CNAME entry amended. Wordpress Nameserver records deleted. My personal domain no longer points to my Wordpress blog and is now settled in here at its new home, Blogger. 

You should now be able to add the feed from this blog to the RSS reader or blogroll of your choice. This post will self destruct in seven days.
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Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Great Expectations



I'd never expected to be a multi-millionaire. Yet here I am, rolling in filthy lucre. I didn't need to work my fingers to the bone, invent the latest big thing nor did I rely on six lucky numbers coming up in a lottery draw. I simply strolled into my local Eurochange, handed over my debit card, and walked out with nearly thirty million Vietnamese Dong. Fifteen million for me, fifteen million for Mrs P. Fifteen million is the maximum that one is allowed to take into Vietnam.  Silly though it is, don't we all get a little kick out receiving wads of foreign notes, even though they look like they've just come out of a Monopoly set? But this post isn't really about any expectations I might have of turning my rags into riches. And anyway, I long ago settled for simply being financially solvent.

You may have guessed that Mrs P and I will shortly be off to Vietnam. Where else would we spend the Dong?  We will spend two weeks there, travelling from Saigon in the tropical south to the more temperate Hanoi in the north, via Hoi An and Ha Long Bay. Like most people, we will jet off with the standard holiday expectations.  The stuff that travel brochures have so desperately tried to sell since the dawn of time. Hot and sunny weather, blue skies, friendly locals, delicious food, white sand beaches, palm trees gently swaying in a refreshing sea breeze, a vibrant nightlife,  beautiful temples, grand palaces and...have I missed anything?

Whether reality will meet ones expectations is rather dependent on a range of factors. Will Mother Nature co-operate? Did that delicious steak go woof just before it met its maker? Did the hotel somehow forget to mention that the place is only half built, with works ongoing twenty four hours a day? The sensible, seasoned traveller will understand that one should board the flight out with an optimistic sense of hope, and a degree of flexibility,  rather than any fixed expectations. I am a great believer in moving on from any disappointments as quickly as is feasible rather than engage in a fruitless fight to rectify shortcomings that should have been addressed before arrival.

But I do have one very specific expectation of Vietnam. Only time will tell if my expectation will collide with reality, or if my experience there goes off in a totally different direction. My expectation is simply: this is the time to visit Vietnam. Right now. This is the sweet spot, where the significant private and public investment in tourism infrastructure makes travelling about the country easy and comfortable, but international uptake of what the country has to offer is still low enough to keep prices competitive and the sightseeing free from the hordes that 'plague' better known destinations. As Budapest is to Prague*, I expect Vietnam to be to Thailand. Rougher around the edges, possibly. But ultimately more rewarding.

I have no desire to be a travelling pioneer, if that is even possible these days. But neither have I any wish to jump on a bandwagon that is already full and standing. I want to be an early adopter, if you will. Mrs P and I will shortly find out just how well my great expectations of Vietnam stack up against reality.

*Perhaps this comparison worked better a few years ago. Alas, I think the hordes have now discovered Budapest, and the plague is in full swing.




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