Thursday, January 6, 2011

Saigon Day 3 - Sensory Overload

5 January 2011:

We decided to have a little lie in this morning since we don't have to be anywhere until 3:00pm, at which time we're being collected for the airport. Ben Thanh Market is on the agenda. A quick check of the ankles reveals that they're still somewhat larger than is preferable, but they're better than they were yesterday. My room overlooks a primary school, and the children commence classes at 7:00am. This morning's assembly address carries over the buildings and up into the hotel. The children are reciting some form of learned text and then they sing songs. It sounds lovely, although it's quite loud. On the way downstairs to breakfast I encounter the same French couple I've seen a few times since we arrived. I practice my French on them and am relieved that I can still communicate with some degree of effectiveness. I do feel though that I'm becoming quite rusty, and make a mental note to attend to my fluency when I arrive home. 

Once breakfast is over, we quickly pack up our belongings and check out. The lovely people at the hotel are quite happy to store our luggage until we return. We order a taxi and head down to the Ben Thanh Market. It is like an ant farm on steroids. There are people everywhere - yelling, pushing their products into our faces, pulling our clothing, trying to lead us into their shops and generally offering us things we really don't want. It is extremely hot and we are aglow with the Saigon Sheen within minutes. Perspiring is unladylike and I'm not enjoying a single minute of feeling hot and bothered without good reason. The heat and humidity have dulled my finely tuned bargaining senses and I just can't be bothered trying to bring the vendors down to an embarrassingly low price. I buy a gorgeous watch and pay $35AUD for it, but am happy. The girls head off to buy table runners and table cloths and settle on some attractive choices at good prices. We made the decision to complete a full circuit of the perimeter shops before heading into the scary labyrinth of the internal stalls. 

We were doing very well until we hit side three of the square. Upon rounding a corner, we were immediately assaulted with smells of every description. It was food stalls a-go-go with every type of food group that could be imagined, and some that couldn't. We were about to head into the thick of it when I spied a rather scrawny looking rat scurrying down the gutter in search of some discarded morsels. I immediately let out a blood curdling scream and started hopping about as though the bricks were on fire, desperately trying to get as far away from the offending rodent as was humanly possible in the shortest possible time. The girls followed suit and were emitting the kind of noises one usually only sees in horror movies or on reality tv. This of course was of great amusement to the stall keepers, who are all clearly very familiar with the odd rattus rattus gracing their workspace from time to time. They were ridiculously calm in the face of our obvious distress and were in bits laughing and pointing at us whilst we squealed and got the vapours. The poor rat wasn't overly impressed either with all the undue attention, and quickly darted into the nearest pipe to take cover from the scary monster women with the painfully high-pitched voices. After a few moments, we thought it perhaps might be safe to continue traversing down the lane way. Unfortunately, at the precise moment we set foot to cobblestone, Monsieur Rodent decided to pop his head back out of the pipe and the St Vitus's death dance was on again. I do believe we scared some considerable amount off the poor creature's life, whilst providing the kind of entertainment the locals would normally have to pay money to see. Eventually, we managed to run the gauntlet in relative safety.

Sadly, our promenade through the food market didn't improve. No sooner had we escaped the rat when we spied all sorts of live seafood in various states of torturous captivity. There were hundreds of crabs all tightly bound together in a large plastic tub on top of a table, and a few of them had managed to get themselves over the side and were hanging vicariously off the edge of the table. Another table had a large flat tray of live prawns being stored in nothing but ice, and they were frantically throwing themselves around trying to escape their frozen fate . Another table again had a large catfish sitting on a metal tray, its gills furiously but futilely working to try and gain some oxygen from its surroundings. Lots of tubs had fish crammed in by the dozens, with only the barest amount of water covering them and they clearly struggling for enough air to breathe. These creatures were all in extreme pain and it was blatantly obvious just by looking at them. We were sickened to our stomachs and ran out of there as quickly as we could. I have never been able to understand how any person can think it's OK to kill another living thing with such cruelty. Although we do consume animals, surely the humane dispatch of a living creature should be both logical and mandatory? It just does my head in to see sights such as this and it was truly awful. We tried to compose ourselves as we arrived back at our starting point. Without taking too much time lest we change our minds and back out altogether, we bit the bullet and entered the frenetic maze full of activity. Again, there were people everywhere and the stalls were so closely configured that people were hemmed in cheek by jowl at every turn. It was hot, loud, and uncomfortable and even I, the legendary shopping scam queen of the universe, had had enough within a relatively short period of time. We decided to call it quits while we were ahead and head off for some refreshment.

We wandered the streets immediately surrounding the market and came across Pho 2000, a completely unpretentious noodle bar. It's claim to fame is that Bill Clinton dined there in 2000 (hence the name) and really loved the food so much that he came back specifically for it. There are photographs of big Bill up on the walls everywhere one looks. The food was ridiculously cheap and absolutely delicious. For the princelyof $5, we had a huge bowl of noodle soup, some spring rolls and a can of soft drink. I rolled out the door at the end of it because the servings are large. We walked around a bit more and looked at shops in the side streets off the market. It is much better to shop here, as people don't get up in your face as much as they do in the market, and it's quieter so you can see what you're buying. I got a fabulous bag and some shoes and the girls shopped well with other purchases. We came across a very quaint Vietnamese-French patisserie that sold the most divine macaroons for about a tenth of the price we can get them at home. It was cheaper for 500grams than it was for a single macaroon in Brisbane. We stopped and enjoyed a post prandial snack before heading off into more side streets. Roaming vendors still accosted us at every opportunity, but they were reasonable and generally tended to go away when rejected. Some didn't quite get the hint the first, second or even the tenth time and we were forced to be a little bit rude to them. Once some unfortunate manners had been exhibited on our part, I then felt the need to bold-facedly lie and say that we were from America so that we weren't giving our countrymen a bad name. 

We headed back to the hotel with our purchases in hand and appetites fulfilled to the brim. Once we'd retrieved our luggage it was a bit of creative repacking to ensure that everything fitted into the suitcases, but we got there in the end. Our driver came to collect us and take us back to the airport. The traffic situation was hotting up by then, as peak hour was approaching fast. We encountered our first traffic bingle when the choreographed chaos went a little awry. A bike rider (who appeared to be in his 70s) decided to cut in front of our vehicle whilst we were slowing down to traverse a busy intersection. Unfortunately for your bike rider, our vehicle happened to move forward at the exact same time he made his move and he crashed straight into the front left hand side of the car. There were a couple of moments of tension and raised voices, but your man simply extracted his bike from the wheel rim and disappeared into the traffic. We arrived at the airport and proceeded to the check in counter where we were promptly informed that our flight had been delayed by four hours. Not. Happy. Jan. was suddenly the order of the day. Your man on the counter was very apologetic and kindly arranged to phone our hotel in Hoi An to inform them of our delay. We also were given some vouchers for a meal in the restaurant. We headed outside so that Caramel could enjoy a compensatory fag and we could ponder how to kill the next four hours without committing suicide first. We'd encountered a lovely young Australian couple at the check in counter and chatted with them for awhile before we all headed upstairs.

Curry decided to do some recon work and returned some time later with the very best news a girl could possibly receive under such circumstances. There was a foot spa in the airport! The question was put - do we want to spend some money and indulge ourselves in pampering for an hour or so? The earth tilted gently on its axis for about 0.00067 of a second before the answer was given. Yes, indeedy doody! Off we headed towards the foot spa, stopping along the way to admire some duty free goods and other interesting items for sale. 

Entering the foot spa was like going into a perfumed cocoon - dark, warm and beautifully fragranced like lavender. We were utterly pampered and given the most divine ginger tea to drink. There were two American couples in there as well (their annoying voices almost shattering our calm serenity) and the husband in couple number 1 decided to have a head and shoulder massage. He was clearly enjoying it so much that he started making the kinds of noises that inspired that classic phrase, "I'll have what she's having". His wife started to snigger quietly, but of course it became infectious and within two minutes every woman in the room was in bits laughing. Just as the hilarity died down, the wife in couple number 2 says "If I'd known you were going to make those kinds of sounds, I'd have gotten out the video camera", to which wife number 1 quickly responded, "I'm so glad you didn't. Our kids definitely don't need to see or hear that". The laughter started up again and we were all in bits over it. 

After pampering ourselves to death in the foot spa, we wandered back outside where I found a kiosk with free internet. I start typing up the day's events and am just about finished when the computer has a major meltdown and I lose the lot. I could have cried on the spot, but decided to simply walk away and let it go. We have some dinner and faff around for a bit longer and then it's time to board the plane. It's still lashing with rain and we're taken out to the plane in a big bus. The flight to Da Nang takes next to no time at all and we'd hardly had time to fall into a snooze before we're landing again. Our driver collects us and our luggage to drive us to Hoi An. Even though it's night time, I'm astonished at how much Da Nang has changed and progressed. It's massive and so much more modern than it was last time I was there. We finally arrive in Hoi An just after 11:00pm and we are absolutely shattered. A second wind blows in once we get a look at our hotel. Oh my goodness, it's gorgeous!!! We wandered around in open-mouthed fascination for a little while before I simply could no longer keep my eyes open. A luxuriously hot shower and into bed. Tomorrow is going to be very exciting indeed. Good night world.

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