4 nights in Saigon

Moped cart through the rice fields

Moped cart through the rice fields

A trip to Ho Chi Minh deserves more than the rushed mention in my last post. When I think of our short five days in town, us PCs and another family (in fact the ones soon to be leaving this exotic continent, as also outlined in the last post), there are three main points that stand out in my mind: traffic, food and rice.

With traffic the rule is simple: Do Not Run. Wait for a gap, hold hands, and step out in front of all the mopeds. The mopeds will stop, and then you must proceed slowly right in front of them. I mean, inches in front of them. Somewhere in the middle of the crossing you will find you have created your own Matrix-like invisible force-field that blocks off any vehicles from making contact with your skin. Continue in slow motion to the other side of the road.

With the food, all I can say is that I have never been so well fed and felt so healthy in tandem, and the more I ate the better I felt. The whole world should take note. I am now once again forcing down my usual diet but I’d rather be pulling up a chair to tables of wrap-it-yourself spring rolls, like last week.

As for rice, I saw most of it from the back of a speeding moped-truck. Lush, flowing locks of green, waving in the fields as we flew past with our bottoms in the air, as on some mad roller coaster ride. I found that digging the nails of one hand into Mr PC’s thigh helped restore any safety concerns, and while I should have been crooking the other arm around the small child in front of me (not in fact my child – my child was somewhere opposite, hanging his arm happily off the side and chattering away above the engine roar) sadly I could think only of myself, which worries me a little in terms of any real emergencies. Now and then we left the watery paddies, pulling out onto busy tarmac roads at sharp angles with a single honk of the horn, our driver scattering chicken carts and other bikes and readjusting wonkily while we all bumped about in the back. I did feel a little safer on the ‘proper’ roads, but of course then we didn’t have the amazing grassy views. I’m happier eating rice, I think, not looking at it.

Finally, a word about tourism. Of course it is here – I am it, and I was there, but as it’s still a growing concept in Vietnam, here are some basic tips:

• Use the standard backpacker code of smiling and learning to say ‘thank you’. It is always well received.

• Go easy with the haggling – there is a real sense here that when enough is enough, it really is enough, so don’t bargain people down to their last kernel.

• If you visit the War Remnants museum with children, let them run between the big tanks outside the entrance while you take it in turns to have a solemn look around the Agent Orange photos. If you’re squeamish, then leave yourself downstairs as well.

• Saigon citizens are proud of their landmarks for good reason. At the Reunification Palace (a stately nod to 1960s chic) be sure to remember that there’s a whole basement level with submarine-coloured cell rooms, plus a splendid rooftop ballroom with a retro padded bar where you can buy soft drinks and swan about pretending to be Jackie O.

• Do some homework before you go, because swotting up with a few hastily printed-out pages on the plane, like I did, is definitely not enough. #downloadingtokindlenow


This was supposed to be a post about Vietnam. I was having enough trouble with that, for whoknowswhat reason, and then we came back and something else happened and none of the other things I was going to say seemed relevant any more.

I’m sorry to sound so flat-eared when I’ve just been for an exotic spin around the paddy fields in the back of a moped-truck and then a slow paddle up the Mekong in a long boat wearing one of those conical hats before hitting up Saigon for more incredible fresh food and a whizz round the bonkers night market (there: Vietnam), but then the Thing happened, the sad Thing that happens all the time out here. And for a while that was that, in terms of any fancy travel writing.

I went and sat in the cinema for a bit, it being the only place in Singapore where I could have an #uglycryingface and no one would see, and while SM sat to attention through all the shooty bits, I had some popcorn and a think.

I know people leave. That’s life. In any case, I’m not knew to it, because we had a lot of this in our old town, a posh north London enclave once famous for writers and artists, now better known for smart shoe shops, gold card accounts and a thriving expat community, which implodes and explodes seasonally, as the expat community does here. I had a few friends come and go. I should be used to it. I’m not.

If I have to live here, then I have to have friends. If I have to keep saying goodbye to friends, then I’m not sure I can live here.

I jest, of course. Everyone knows I’m having a lovely time and I’m not quite ready to get down from the comfy chair yet. But how to adjust? Do you harden to it? Do the new friendships you make become skin-deep, less important, out of necessity? What’s it like to be a local here and to have this happen literally all of the time? I should know – that was me once – but I don’t.

In any case it’s really no one’s fault, and that’s an important point to make, and I think I even said it somewhere here: we come and go according to the tides of commerce. Whoever pays for the bacon is in charge of the schedule, and the workers and their families must change mercurially according to what’s needed, with the Home-Makers swept along in the wake of the Bacon-Getters, stuffing pants into a case, redirecting post, downing several bottles of wine at hurried goodbye parties with a cell phone tucked under the chin on speed-dial to the next international school. I say ‘our’, but I haven’t had to do this yet, and I hope I won’t have to, unless I feel like it, or ask for it. That’s not how it happens, though.

For those of us waving goodbye through the patio doors, it’s not just about how we feel about the leavers, it’s about adjusting our own settings in accordance with what is happening around us, about how much emphasis we put on OtherPeople, and whether or not we feel the need to continually renew our social settings in this world, or if we’re happy to build a bubble around ourselves and push on regardless. I guess I’m just a bit rubbish at the bubble thing.

There’s a selfish slant to it too, that ‘left-behind’ suspicion that everyone else is going on to funky pastures new, while us lot get left behind to battle on with life in our luxurious condos with the pools and the gyms and the tropical holidays… (yeah, alright, I’m onto that one already).

After our trip to the cinema I explained to SM yet again about the fact that another batch of patio-door-knockers would no longer be knocking on our patio door, and he said three things: 1) Can we go too? 2) Let’s make the most of them. 3) Maybe what we need to do is have another barbecue?

Actually, he said four things: 4) Why does everyone have to do this?

Seats 44D and 44E

I’m writing this at 35,000 feet during a particularly bumpy spell somewhere over the north-west of India. We’re nine hours into a twelve-and-a-half hour flight (that’s the first one, the second one’s just a little transfer hop down to Sing) and I’ve not had a lot of sleep. SM has managed to doze off, with his feet in my lap and his head nudging the thighs of the elderly lady next to him. How he’s getting any is beyond me. For some time, hours possibly, a toddler a few seatbacks away has been howling, I mean really howling, which makes me think of how brilliant SM has always been on flights. I’ve spent the whole trip fixing his earphones, folding back the foil from his too-hot dinner, picking up his specs and extracting his toes from under the armrest as he wriggles in his sleep, but at least I don’t need ear-plugs.

I hate this enforced nighty-night time. The blinds are down and the lights are off but every time I shut my eyes and try and doze I get ticker-taping high-speed rabbit-voiced rewinds of the last month. Who said what is blurring, but when I sit down and think about it, all I really need to remember is that it was lovely. The last day (today, I suppose, or maybe yesterday) was spent just where I wanted it, high on the Heath with my family, looking down to the little red brick flats where I grew up with St Pauls and The Shard in the distance, notching iconic grey shapes onto the horizon. Up on Kite Hill we had the usual jolly crowd that a sunny day brings: kites flapping, a globe of dialects dotting the breeze, and – thrown in just for us – fluffy white seedlings blowing across the air as in some kind of arthouse film. Perfect.

Now I’m bobbing up and down on invisible wind mountains, I can look back down on the visit from a distance and try and pinpoint what it was to be a voyeur in my own land. ‘It’s not like this all the time,’ everybody told me. ‘You bring the sunshine’. They didn’t just mean it physically (we seem to always arrive in town just as the heatwave settles) but socially. We are spoilt when we go home, treated like royalty and carried (only ankle-high thanks to the slow drip of tea and cakes) from house to house on a wave of happy returns. I know it’s not like this all the time because I used to live here, and I know it’ll be back to basics when we return. Despite knowing all that I also know that it’s all just so nice that leaving again is going to be very hard.

Never mind. Trust bonkers old Singapore to give me no time to dwell. I’m not just sitting here high up in the clouds writing a blog post, I’m also sorting out a diary that is already looking like a mathematical riddle. Before I’d even got to Week Four of the trip the dates were inking themselves all over August: first night out, first weekend away, first coffee morning, a possible leaving do lined up, the next three major holidays organized, the next museum tour in the diary and a load of new work from Those Nice People Who Give Me Work. No time to lie down in a dark room feeling homesick.

Parting is such hugely sweet sorrow that this year’s was done briefly, and in various bits. During the final week I said the word ‘goodbye’ several ghastly times, using brisk armlocks rather than hugs and sometimes (Pudding family, for example) not even saying a proper goodbye at all. On the last day, last hour, even, Aunty kissed us on the pavement outside M&S then went to get her bus, waving us off until Christmas. Then Dad came back to the apartment, helped me squish the cases shut, dragged them down the stairs and stood on the pavement with us until the cab pulled up. Easter is a little longer to wait than Christmas but saying goodbye to Grandpa on a busy high street allowed for just 60 seconds of tight hugs and high-pitched trembly voices, and it also allowed me to crumple in private, tucked into the back of the cab with SM’s little hand on my arm, rather than stumbling through airport security blinded by tears like last year, which was not just embarrassing but also annoying because I couldn’t see what I was putting into the little x-ray trays. Next year I’m booking a morning return flight, because as lovely and winsome as that last day was, I know we all spent it quietly wading through troughs of sadness, a bit like trying to sip a very lumpy sad soup.

Breakfast is coming round, or lunch, I think. Someone just to my right needs help finding his headphones and the seatbelt sign has pinged again. Onwards.

NB: I’m such a Gemini. After I wrote this I shut down the computer, tucked it into my seatback, chose another film with a beach scene and started planning the next beach trip: sobbing with sadness one minute, choosing a swimsuit the next. Don’t listen to me. Ever.

PS: This post came to you from Malaysian Airlines flight M001 from London Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur and on to Sing. Still flying, still friendly and long may they last