I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City with Stewart, a friend of Nicola who is a friend of Jenny, the sister of my friend, Ali. A tenuous connection at best. I must also mention that Ali’s daughter, Kate, recently raised a very impressive 61 pounds for Room to Read selling Christmas cards she made – how beautiful – thanks so much Kate your selfless social entrepreneurialism blew me away (ask Daddy what that means, actually, better ask Mummy).
Stewart, a keen Ironman triathlete, cycled out to meet me at Cu Chi, and he and his wife, Deirbhle, very kindly put me up for my first weekend in Ho Chi Minh City, but his kindness and help didn’t end there – more on that later.
Punctuated by blocks of high rise here and there, the buildings in Ho Chi Minh, previously Saigon, sprawled out from a compact central block of taller buildings at a relatively low height. As Stewart and I cycled in from the suburbs only the increased population of people and motorbikes suggested we had arrived in the largest city in Vietnam. Home to nine million people and five million motorbikes the low rise skyline was a retrospective observation. Avoiding said people and motorbikes was all consuming.
The rules of the road were quite easy to pick up as there weren’t any. Summed up later when my Mum read out Vietnamese traffic light rules from a t-shirt in Hoi An:
‘Green = I can go
Orange = I can go
Red = I can STILL go!’
The absence of rules, however, appeared to cause everyone to travel in anticipation of immanent fatal catastrophe, and somehow it seemed to work. Despite the volume of traffic and the every-man-for-themselves ethos there is an unexpected patience and I haven’t yet witnessed or experienced road rage. Perhaps it’s because everyone is concentrating on not hitting anyone else, one near miss leads seamlessly into another until you reach your destination, emotions take too long to form along the way and when you arrive you’re simply overwhelmed by gratitude.
Settling in to life in Ho Chi Minh has been surprisingly easy due to the people I have met. Anh and Yen, the Vietnamese couple in whose apartment I rent a room, helped me buy a motorbike from a previous tenant, and are always on hand to help me navigate the map of life hidden behind the witchcraft otherwise known as the Vietnamese language.
Learning Vietnamese has been like learning how to talk all over again. Beyond the obvious differences in words and letters lies a range of pronunciation and intonation combinations that have caused me to make noises never before heard by the human ear. I know this to be true by the looks of confusion and horror, often followed by hysterics, that adorn the face of my tirelessly patient language exchange partner, Quỳnh.
I had visited the restaurant only once before when I met Thuy, a local lady who shared a table with me over lunch. Through a common interest in Yoga, Thuy invited me to join her and a friend at the home of an Australian Vietnamese couple who offered classes on a donation basis. The second time I visited the restaurant I was sat searching for language exchange partners on my phone when Thuy’s friend (whose name escapes me) and Quỳnh walked in and joined me for lunch. Quỳnh, bless her heart, fearlessly volunteered to help me learn Vietnamese in exchange for my help with her English.
The spoken languages of Vietnamese and Cambodian, my Dad observed, ‘always sounds like someone’s getting a bollocking.’
In less than two weeks I had somewhere to live that felt like home, a motorbike, a language exchange partner, running and yoga buddies, and, thanks to Stewart, my first English tuition student. Oh, and a nice lady who sells fresh coconuts at the right price and a sweet vendor with the tastiest (and highly addictive) banana skin (yes, banana skin) , peanut, sesame and ginger sweets, yum yum!
Mum and Dad arrived into Ho Chi Minh on time but without their luggage. This turned out to be good preparation for the remainder of their visit. A busy schedule of travel and discovery lay ahead, some of which might have taken place on bicycles. When the luggage caught up, some drastic down-sizing of perceived necessity and ‘stuff’ saw three suitcases shrink to three twenty litre dry bags with space to spare.
The next eighteen days took in a tour of Ho Chi Minh, the Cu Chi Tunnels, a river cruise through the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh, the killing fields, a taxi ride to Siem Reap where we cycled and walked around the UNESCO world heritage centre Angkor Archaeological Park, a flight to Da Nang on the east cost of Vietnam where we hired motorbikes to visit Hue, home to the Imperial City (another UNESCO centre) and Hoi An (yet another UNESCO centre), finally returning to Ho Chi Minh city to savour the last couple of nights.
Some pictures of the Baillie’s on tour….
I was totally spoilt the entire time, not so much by the extraordinary places we visited, the comparative luxury of the accommodation, or the delicious food we enjoyed. Which after eighteen months of bicycle touring felt like the sort of indulgences one might enjoy after winning the lottery. No. I was spoilt by the company of two of the most generous, caring and sincere people I know and have the privilege of calling Mum and Dad. Thank you Mum and Dad it was amazing to see your familiar faces in unfamiliar places, where will we meet again?
I’m pleased to say that life has gotten in the way of the ascetic daily rituals idealised in my last post, yoga and meditation being the only ones that continued as planned. More exciting changes ahead in the field of work look to further deviate the structure of my days away from the original plan. A great example of how setting goals and intentions, and putting yourself ‘out there,’ leads to events and circumstances that you could never have logically foreseen. All things going well, I will be spending a lot more time tutoring in possibly the best learning environment in Ho Chi Minh City, more on that next time….