Posts Tagged 'Ho Chi Minh City'

Vietnam Travelogue : A Night Off in Ho Chi Minh City

A Night Off in Ho Chi Minh City

“The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity” – Benjamin Disraeli 

Wandering from the hotel one evening after a meal of BBQed buttered scallops, fresh crab and salad washed down with a cold Saigon Red beer, all for a mere three euros, I headed up Bui Vien Street (the trendy backpacker tourist area just a few minutes from the hotel)  for a stroll, passing a crowded pavement bar.

The street bar was full of young Vietnamese in their late 20’s/early 30s.  They immediately beckoned me over and insisted I join them.  They were in party mood, in great form and enjoying a few drinks.

They were friendly, welcoming, well educated, spoke perfect English, were interested and interesting and full of chat and bonhomie. These young people represent the new Vietnam, a country with a  successful market-led economy, for example, in 2010, Vietnam’s  nominal GDP reached $104.6 billion, with nominal GDP per capita of $1218.  They have a population of seventy seven million, 80% of which still live in the countryside.  Most Vietnamese businesses are SMEs.

This crowd were having a blast the same way that any group of young Irish or Europeans would do.  Positive in outlook, a good sense of humour and with expectations for a good life – this is the new Vietnam – tech savvy, educated, open to new ideas, gregarious, Generation Y, the iPhone generation?

Mr Ha

I got talking to Mr Ha, who runs his own gentlemen’s outfitters, the life and soul of the gang.  Gay, he cracked jokes, clinked glasses for toasting but was well read, well spoken and interested in why I was visiting.  I talked with Jen (28) who is fluent in English and Japanese, who is now considering a career in the hospitality industry and was eager for my advice based on her skill set.  There was Tuan with a career in IT, Mi Lan in the fashion industry and Jill from Cambodia, into catering.  The group eventually enlarged to include Indian, Catalan, American and German.

These guys gave me a night to remember full of insight and laughs.

Jen, fluent in English and Japanese hoping for a career in the hospitality sector

Jill from Cambodia

I’ve encountered a friendly and vibrant city and people, experienced some revealing moments, ate some great food and now leave for Hanoi just when I felt I was getting an angle on this fascinating city and its people.  I leave with a heavy heart (and my $12 Sopranos full series DVD box set).


I stayed in the Saigon Mini Hotel 1 – a group of five small boutique style hotels.  My double room cost around $20 a night – clean linen, comfortable bed, WiFi in the room  – but the real gem here was the young friendly staff of Ha, Miss Vicky and Christy – they couldn’t do enough for me and made the visit special.

Also Tuan Anh, my Ministry of Foreign Affairs translator who went to tremendous efforts to ensure my trip was a pleasant and successful one.  And it was.

Tuan Anh - Vietnam Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Goodnight Saigon!

Arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

It’s a 4.00 am wake-up call in Bangkok for the 7.00 am flight to Ho Chi Minh City.  I’ve booked the same taxi driver who got me to and from the Vietnamese Embassy.  He’s one of the good ones and to avoid the madness of the BKK traffic he skipped through the university and hospital grounds to get me there on time, so I book him for the airport trip..

It’s a 5.00 am pick-up and I’m standing in the dark outside the hotel listening to cocks crowing and observing the ‘last men standing’ at the all night bar along the alleyway.  It’s pungent, warm, very warm, humid and the food stalls are already being set up for breakfast.  Sooprah, the taxi driver is late.  I’m beginning to get edgy when eventually his car arrives around the corner.  He makes up for it by hurtling down the highway to the airport.

Arrive into the spankingly new Ton Nhat airport  (this is where the first shipment of Agent Orange was unloaded in August 1961 when the Americans started ‘tests’)

Heading into HCM city centre

A half hour taxi ride into the city and the motorbikes are swarming like mosquitoes – it’s unbelievable.  Ho Chi Minh City wows the senses, Not since Phnom Penh have I seen anything like this, The motorbikes are everywhere – thousands and thousands of them – horns beeping, weaving, swerving, riding up on pavements, going the wrong way (but then there is no wrong way!) and the air is pungent with food being cooked on sidewalks….and as Phil Lynott observed – “it’s so goddammed hot!”

I’m staying at a small boutique hotel called the Saigon Mini Hotel 1,  its in a quiet alleyway away from the noise  just next door to Bui Vien  – think Temple Bar, think Covent Garden –  no don’t – its so much funkier – full of art houses, restaurants, bars and alive with young Vietnamese and a rainbow of nationalities.

I check in, shower and get a call to say my translator from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has arrived in the lobby.  He is Tuan Anh (pronounced Too’in Ang).  He’s well dressed, smart, perfect English and only 28.

Tuan Anh, the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs translator

We have an hour long briefing and then its over to meet Major General Tran Ngoc Tho, Vice Chair of the Victims of Agent Orange Association (VAVA). The meeting with VAVA will be informational but the person I really want to meet, Dr Phuong, a tireless campaigner on behalf of Agent Orange victims, has promised to meet me at the offices as well.

Then tomorrow morning it’s a visit the Peace Village Agent Orange ward which spans two floors at the back of the Tu Du Hospital, southern Vietnam’s main maternity hospital. This will be followed by a two hour car ride out into the country, up to the Cu Chi tunnels area, north of the city to visit three families.

Major General Trans Ngoc Tho – Vice Chairman of VAVA

We take a taxi to the VAVA offices to interview Tran Ngoc Tho.  Ngoc Tho appears to be an old style apparachik dressed head to foot in grey. We pose for photographs with the official VAVA photographer and Ngoc Tho is joined by two colleagues.    The meeting, which lasts over one and a half hours, does not go particularly well.  Each question put through Tuan Anh receives a wordy and long reply but with seemingly little substance.  As the interview wears on, apart from some of the obvious facts and figures that are in the public domain and I already know, it appears that I am not getting straight answers to questions.

I change tack and I am now trying to ascertain the level of increased cooperation between the US and Vietnam through funding and resources for  clean up in the dioxin hot spots.    I feel I am being stonewalled but then realize that it is not just me who feels this.  I notice his colleagues grimacing and moving uncomfortably as he talks.  He finally produces some interesting figures that the US Government eventually released to the Vietnamese Government outlining the provinces, the populations and the quantity of chemical sprayed during the ten year period.

Eventually I get a breakthrough when he tells me that there has been a giant leap forward in the US funding for clean up.

Nontheless, I am just slightly disappointed on two fronts – its taken me nearly two hours to get information  and a call has just come through to say that Dr. Phuong cannot make the meeting.

We shake hands, take some more photographs and head back to the hotel.  Tuan Anh knows it has not been a great but there is good news – Dr. Phuong has just called him on the mobile to say she can meet at 9.00 amtomorrow morning at the Tu Du hospital.

Today has been an early start and a long day.

Tomorrow I visit the hospital, interview Dr. Phuong, meet some of the children and then head up the country to to visit three of the families.

VAVA have agreed to supply a car and driver and I agree to provide monies to buy foodstuffs for the three families.

Travel to Vietnam to do story on Agent Orange

C123 US army planes spraying Agent Orange

I’ve been commissioned to do a story on the legacy of  the spraying of the defoliant toxic chemical Agent Orange by the US Army across the Vietnamese countryside.  Apart from the use of conventional weapons, chemical weapons were used to defoliate the forests in a bid to flush out the Vietcong.   Over  a ten year period from 1961, toxic rains poured down continuously over Central and South Vietnam defoliating mountains, plains and crops, destroying clean water resources and upsetting the delicate ecological balance.  Its a legacy of devastating environmental damage and serious public health issues which still have a profound effect today.

Flying to Ho Chi Minh city via Bangkok, I will concentrate on health issues and meet with the Victims of Agent Orange Association (VAVA), with Dr Phuong of the Peace Village at Tu Du hospital where AO victims reside and will travel up into the Cu Chi area to visit three families who have seriously deformed children as a result of AO.  From HCM I travel to Hanoi to cover environmental issues and  interview an environmental expert and visit the Friendship Village.

This is a staged travelogue of the journey.

Arived jetlagged after a Dublin–Frankfurt/ Frankfurt BKK flight.  Enjoyed Frankfurt stop-off for a few cold German beers before the second leg of the journey.  Lufthansa flight food was really poor.  I expected more from a Gernam airline. There is absolutely no excuse for producing food of this low quality for long haul flights. The inflight media entertainment was also limited in its choices.

Qatar and Etihad,  who also fly this route daily, are streets ahead in nearly every department – quality of jet used, ambience, comfort, efficiency and friendliness of staff, inflight entertainment choices includingfood and drink.

The only reason I flew Lufthansa was the competitive price and the expectation that German standards would be high.   They were barely sufficient.

I left Dublin at 18.00 hours and arrived in Bangkok around 14.30 (8.30 am Irish time) so the trip took 12 hours.  After a mere five hours in-flight sleep,  I ended up stuck in a massive tragic jam in downtown BKK and didn’t check into the hotel until about 17.30 hrs.

Exhausted, I sleep, shower, eat and more sleep again into Sunday morning.  Sunday is taken up with Skyping and Emails finalising arranging for the Ho Chi Minh city start of the trip.

My main concern is Monday down at the Vietnamese Embassy.  I have been granted a work visa from theVietnam Minister of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and have a letter from them to that effect.  However I must have my visa stamped before I can enter the country so I’ve a 7.00 am start to get across town  in heavy traffic. (I’m staying in Banglampoo along the river on the north west side but the embassy belt is over by Lumpini Park along Wireless Road).  I want to be first in the queue.  With memories of the queuing at the Dublin Passport office this could be a difficult day.   I’m first in the door only to be told the stamp will be ready on Wednesday.  “Too bad”, I said.  “My flight to Ho Chi Minh City leaves at 7.00 am in the morning.”  “Well then come back between 3.30 and 4.00 ”, she replied.

I  arrive back at 3.30 pm on the nail and go up to the same woman I met earlier with my docket to Window 3.  There are 3 numbered glass windows, all within a couple of feet of each other – one for tourists, two for business, three for special trips.  She looks at me blankly, waves the docket back at me and sternly tells me to go to Window 1.  I move two feet to her colleague at Window 1 and hand him the docket.  He breaks into a broad smile and tells me to move back to Window 3.  I take a few  steps back to Window 3 as the colleague hands the docket back to the woman.  He’s in stitches while she stares at me blankly then looks down at my application and passport which is lying face up on her desk.  There is absolutely no communication.  She leaves me standing as she flicks through folders, writes two receipts and each time very slowly and deliberately inserts a sheet of carbon paper into two differently coloured  receipt books.  Finally after what seems like an interminable wait, she turns to me blankly, stares through me and hands me MY STAMPED PASSPORT.  I move a few feet back to her colleague and ask:  “Is it always like this on Mondays?” He breaks into a huge grin.

The whole day has been spent focused on getting the passport stamped.

I celebrate by heading to a nearby bar for a cold Singha.  Its all systems go for Vietnam.

US Army soldier spraying Agent Orange

November 2020