Vietnam [week 4]

As most of you already know, Sam and I are back in England. This wasn't a planned move. We'd intended to continue travelling at least as far as Cambodia or Thailand, but a culmination of factors led to us pulling the escape cord early and booking a last-minute flight home.

In short, we left Southeast Asia because we were exhausted. We were tired of the heat, which prevented any kind of physical exertion during daylight hours. April is the hottest month of the year and all the guides recommend avoiding it like the plague. We were tired of the rampant overcharging everywhere we went, the national sport of Vietnam. I was tired of getting sick, which happened in waves of increasing severity, and which ultimately cost me 15 kg in body weight. Those who have met me will be surprised I still exist after losing 15 kg. Most of all, I missed home comforts in a way I have never missed them in four years of being away.

This all sounds very negative and anticlimactic but it's not. Vietnam is an amazing country and I'm so incredibly glad I experienced it - even more so than Taiwan or Hong Kong - but home is absolutely where I belong at the moment. Continuing to trudge around Asia feeling the way we did wouldn't be giving the region the respect it deserves. We'll go back another time.

Our bikes weren't due on the train for another few days so we spent the weekend ticking off a few of Saigon's tourist attractions. They included Independence Palace, the nerve centre of the South Vietnamese war effort. It ultimately fell to the north on the closing day of the conflict in 1975, when tanks smashed through the gates and replaced the South Vietnamese flag with the familiar communist star.

Parked outside was a replica of the tank that did the smashing. Depending on who you ask, the event is known as the "Fall of Saigon" or the "Liberation of Saigon".

Inside the palace are lavish banquet halls and conference rooms still used by the government today.

The palace has an underground bunker, supposedly preserved exactly how is was immediately following the liberation. Spread across the walls of the former command centre are maps used to choreograph the war, this one displaying the official line dividing the country in two.

Also underground were the president's emergency residence, and lots of bleakly decorated, windowless rooms housing ancient communications equipment.

On Saturday night we met up with Harry, who'd broken off from the gang the previous week and zoomed down to Saigon alone. We shared some drinks and wandered around the buzzing backpacker district.

Beers at the bar/bookstore we found ourselves in were shockingly cheap, the equivalent of 20p each. We all got drunk on a pound and played international Jenga.

The next morning we met up with the Airbnb crowd from last week. We caught the bus out of town to a busy leisure complex where we had planned to spend the afternoon paintballing. When we arrived, we decided paintballing in 38 degree heat was a stupid idea so we stationed ourselves by the pool instead. Having felt a bit hungover in the morning, my condition gradually deteriorated into something more sinister and by the time we left, I was a mess. It was during this low point, returning home aboard a hot, swaying public bus, trying not to be violently sick out of the window, that I first conceded that returning to England might be a reasonable option.

I spent the next day in bed while Sam looked after me and listened to my melodramatic whining. I didn't leave the bedroom except to eject the contents of my stomach into the toilet. We talked about the future and booked a cheap flight to London, which had cemented itself as a good idea overnight.

By the next day, I had recovered enough to claw back the broken ruins of my appetite, eating for the first time in two days. We moved out of our apartment and into Harry's hostel, which was cheaper and more central.

Sam's scooter finally arrived later that day. We collected it from the station and paid a man to wash it, so it would look nice and shiny in preparation for selling it. My bike was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, the guys at the station were characteristically reassuring about the situation, shaking their heads violently and motioning for me to go away whenever I produced the receipt.

The end of April marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and rehearsals for the celebrations were already in full swing. Patriotic songs whose lyrics were limited to the name of the country and of local hero Ho Chi Minh could be heard very clearly from my dorm bed every night and morning.

My bike finally materialised on Thursday (four days after it was supposed to), broken and requiring work on the engine to silence a new, horrible sound it was making. Fortunately we had began littering Saigon with adverts the day before and interest was already growing.

A Dutch couple came to view the scooters that evening and settled on a price, agreeing to collect them the following morning. We were relieved and delighted at how straightforward the process had been.

The sale made us instant millionaires. We got 10,000,000 Dong for the pair, basically the same amount as we paid for them in Hanoi.

Our final few days in Saigon were amongst our happiest. No longer encumbered by scooters we'd never grown particularly attached to, we could admire the utter chaos of Vietnamese traffic from a safe distance.

During our wanderings, we witnessed men on bamboo ladders cutting through giant nests of cables. I don't know why this was happening nor whether it was authorised.

A final tourist attraction was the War Remnants Museum (formerly known as the "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes"), a transparently anti-American gallery of artefacts and photography from the country's long war. A particularly harrowing exhibition on the disgraceful use of Agent Orange, which continues to ravage generation after generation with birth defects, featured hundreds of photographs of sufferers alongside two dead foetus victims preserved in a tank. War is horrible.

Still dizzyingly rich and needing cheering up from the museum, we decided to eat somewhere special for our final night in Vietnam. Dining indoors on chairs that weren't tiny and made of plastic contrasted with the usual street experience, and the food wasn't bad either.

The next morning we bid farewell to Vietnam and caught the early flight to Beijing, where we were given five hours to roam the glassy terminal.

The longer flight from Beijing to London was remarkably empty, with about three quarters of seats unoccupied. Sleeping comfortably across three vacant seats felt like a rare victory against the bastards in business class.

The sun set as we cruised over western Europe.

Our first glimpse of England was the port of Felixstowe. Further up the river, you could make out Ipswich. Sadly we failed to reach an agreement with the pilot about dropping us off early.

...which was a pity, because Sam faced some surprisingly harsh scrutiny at Heathrow. After more than half an hour of intense questioning, during which time she was formally refused entry and detained, they finally let her into the country. A special stamp in her passport highlights how naughty it is to work on a tourist visa.

And so after that miserable welcome, we arrived in friendly Ipswich to be reunited with my family for a lovely roast dinner. Two weeks have passed since then and we're still in Ipswich, still without a clear plan for the future, but still very happy to be home (or some version of it).

My plan is to write one more post over the next few weeks, then consider retiring this blog for a little while. Thanks as always for reading.


  1. Unlike Owen's review of your blog, I will miss it when it goes on hiatus.
    Thanks for the entertainment, Simon!
    Now go get some medical help before you disappear!!!

    1. Thanks Gregg. I think I would have disappeared if it wasn't for my fattening regime in California over Christmas, so thanks for that!


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