Ho Chi Minh City, Reunification Day

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The bus ride to Ho Chi Minh City was a leisurely affair.

In the first place, the bus was less than half full. I had the seat in the front of the bus, at the top, so had lots of room, and a pretty good view of what was going on. I worried that I'd be the first one crushed to death if we ran into the back of a truck, but the benefits seemed to outweigh the disadvantages.

I was headed to Viet Nam on April 24th to meet up with old friends David Langille and Susan McMurray, who were on a whirlwind tour of Asia: Beijing, Bangkok, and three stops in Viet Nam. I'd left my travel arrangements a tad late while in Phnom Penh, and discovered pretty late in the game that you can't fly directly to HCMC from Phnom Penh—you have to fly somewhere else, and then to HCMC. Since that seemed a bit expensive for so short a jaunt, I began to consider taking a bus.

And what a good idea! Yes, it takes longer, but it's astonishingly cheap. Fifteen dollars got me a seat to myself (not always so), a driver, a gal that rode along as far as Viet Nam to help with border arrangements, a bottle of water, and a guy to come round to my hotel to pick me up (who didn't, but that's another matter, and the bus stop was a short tuk-tuk drive away). I don't know how that business plan results in profits for Cambodia Angkor Express, but there are certainly advantages for the passenger.

One thing I noticed on the bus, which I certainly wouldn't have if I'd been on a plane, is how much cleaner and more organized-looking rural Cambodia east of Phnom Penh is compared to what I'd seen west of that city. It was actually quite striking how little you saw piles of garbage sitting around festering.

There is no bridge over the Mekong River at Neak Loeang, close to the halfway point between Phnom Penh and the Viet Nam border. So buses, trucks, motorcycles, pedestrians all pile onto the ferries that cross the river at that point. It was great!

(Neak Loeang, by the way, is the locale for one of the opening scenes in the movie, "The Killing Fields," where the viewer is exposed to the rapacity of the Khmer Rouge for the first time.)

Ho Chi Minh City is actually quite close to the border with Cambodia—the lion's share of the trip takes place before you get to Viet Nam. But the Viet Nam part took almost as much time—once the bus got across the border, it slowed down considerably, and spent the rest of its time crawling—unnecessarily slowly, I thought—to the City. Until that day, I wouldn't have believed buses could go so slowly.

When I'd conversed through e-mail with David and Susan they'd planned to arrive at Tan Son Nhat (HCMC's airport) at 7:30pm, and so we could plan for dinner together after that. But they also mentioned their flight was on Vietnam Airlines, so I had to warn them that of the three flights I'd taken with Vietnam Air, exactly zero of them had left on time. One, my flight from Ha Noi to Hue, had been in the neighbourhood of five hours late taking off. Not that I wouldn't prefer to rely on Viet Nam's state-owned airline, but experience told me their flights were erratic, and the customer care was, not to put too fine a point on it, uncaring. ("Flight 1474 will be delayed to 2:15pm for technical reasons. Thank you for flying Vietnam Airlines.")

When they phoned me from Da Nang saying they were still in that city's airport at 7:30pm, I gave up on having dinner with them, at least that evening, and set out on my own.

I headed over to the Vu Dan, a few blocks west of my hotel on Pham Ngu Lao. It's the restaurant that my son Andrew and I went to on my last previous night in HCMC, March 24th. Not only did I have a great meal, but receptionist Nghien and Sapporo beer gal Gan were very happy to see me as well, as they were dying to find out what Andrew was up to.

(Many restaurants in SE Asia have attached to them what I call "beer gals." Their job is to dress up in very fetching, branded, skimpy dresses, and encourage you to drink their brand of beer. I've yet to come to any harm by doing what the beer gal wants me to do.)

I left promising to deliver Andrew's Facebook URL as soon as I could.

Later, as I was walking around the Pham Ngu Lao neighbourhood, looking for something to do, I passed the 17 Saloon. Now the 17 is an unusual place by HCMC standards. It's all tarted up as an old-time western saloon, complete with walls that look like they're built with logs, and so on (see photo gallery). I'd seen it there before, but thought a country-and-western bar in HCMC would just be a bit too too, so had avoided it. But the rock music coming from the second floor sounded interesting, so what the heck, I went in.

To my surprise and pleasure, I found myself in a bar that caters to HCMC's Filipino community, which up to that moment I hadn't known existed. The wait staff all assured me that the members of the two bands were all Filipino, though, from the sounds of their accents, at least when singing in English, they'd grown up in, or at least had spent a lot of time in, an English-speaking country. A couple of them actually seemed to specialize in singing in Vietnamese, though of course I had no idea about those accents. There were two bands, each with three or four singers, all but one female and skimpily dressed, and most quite talented. The musicians were excellent. Both bands performed constantly for over an hour apiece. Wow.

There were lots of skimpily dressed serving staff, all drop-dead gorgeous. Their job description seemed to include standing with middle-aged Filipino men encouraging them to drink themselves silly. (A server said the men had to pay to get the gals to stand with them, but not so sure about that...)

And the audience also appeared to be mostly Filipino, as near as I can tell, with the odd westerner, such as me, mixed in to the lot. A great surprise, and a great time, not the least of it the baskets of popcorn that came with every glass of draft.

The next morning I took a motorcycle taxi over to the Northern Hotel, where Susan and David were staying. On the way down Le Loi, I spotted a jazz bar. More on that later. When we got to Northern, it thought it was, well, a bit swank. When I got inside, I didn't change my mind. Susan and David treated me to a very nice breakfast of pho, great coffee, and other stuff, and we later planned our day.

That night, we went to the Barbecue Garden, a very nice open-air restaurant just off downtown on Le Thanh Ton. It has lots of trees and other flora, and those LED lights that hang down like curtains, giving a nice waterfall effect. When it started to rain, tarps were rolled out overhead, kind of like the Skydome, but not quite as sophisticated. The food was great, but can't remember what, except David doesn't like squid, so we didn't have any of that.

I mentioned the jazz bar, which I knew would be pretty close, and we could walk. They were game, and so we did. And what a nice surprise! The musicians were terrific, especially one guy whose name was Ru Rong. He played an old, beautiful saxophone, soprano sax, Vietnamese traditional instruments, and sang. He was astonishingly talented, playing beautifully and with great emotion. The other musicians clearly enjoyed playing with him. We had a great time. David and Susan bought a Ru Rong CD, and got it autographed. I thought I'd certainly be back again, so would do it then.

(Each bar was the venue for quite upsetting misunderstandings about bills when I returned to re-live the experiences. At the jazz bar ("Saxsmart") my server for some reason didn't feel it necessary to give me the bill I'd asked for. Fifteen minutes later, I complained to someone who appeared to be in charge, who yelled at another server, who brought me another beer. In the end, everyone was mad. In the 17 Saloon, the servers, who had up till then been very nice, short-changed me VND40,000 (or about USD$2). Not such a big deal, but when one of them accused me of having given it to my own server, who was standing right beside me, I thought it a bigger deal. Still no word from the manager, to whom I complained via e-mail.)

The next day's highlight, for me, was my walk over to the Fine Arts Museum. Unfortunately, only about 1/3 of the exhibits were available, due to renovations, but the couple of hours I spent there were well worth the time spent.

That night, I took Susan and David to the Vu Dan, and introduced them to the wonderful menu there, not to mention Nghien and Gan. While the gals were charming as usual, there were young, handsome men to flirt with, so we didn't get as much attention from them as I'd been used to (thanks to their interest in Andrew, of course).

Susan and David moved into the Dong Phuong, my hotel, and were just down the hall from me; they were busy on their own things, though, so, if anything, I saw them less in their last two days in HCMC than in the first. But they also became fans of the Allez Boo, the pub across the street. The intersection of my hotel's street—De Tham— and Pham Ngu Lao is one of the busiest in HCMC. Tour buses come and go, seemingly thousands of motorcycles at a time wrestle for room to drive, and slow-moving taxicabs add to the congestion. The Allez Boo is perched on that corner, and is a great place to sit, drink beer, and watch the mayhem.

I'd returned to HCMC to be in Viet Nam for Reunification Day—on April 30, 1975, tanks crashed through the gates of "South" Vietnam's presidential palace and relieved that government of the illusion that they controlled anything—and I was, but it was a bit of a letdown. Like many national holidays, it's viewed more as a chance to get away than a celebration to attend, so there was little on April 30th that you'd know was special. Just to prove I was bored, I guess, I did visit the observation deck of the Bitexco Financial Tower, which used to be the tallest building in Viet Nam, and is currently the 124th tallest building in the world. I was disappointed that there was no outside observation deck—all my photos from the Tower have glare from the glass in them.

There was a stage set up in 23/9 Park, but when the time came I was tired enough to have lost interest in seeing what was going on there. It looked like it was going to be pretty standard stuff.

As I prepared for my next journey, a short hop to Nha Trang, a well-regarded resort spot, for a few days of beach, the weather in HCMC became almost unbearably hot. Weathernetwork.com said it was only 35C, but "felt like" 45C, and it sure did. Activities outside were few.

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