John Edward Cooper’s Notes

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Thursday 23 February 2017

[Wednesday 22 February 2017]

Saigon, Vietnam–Hanoi, Vietnam
Golden Central Hotel, 140 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Saigon
20:00–22:10 Vietnam Airlines VN276 Saigon–Hanoi

Because nothing was scheduled today till 5.30pm (the pickup from the hotel to the airport), we had a lie-in this morning. We went up for breakfast ca.9.15am. I had the unwelcomely sweetened corn flakes again. There was a pink liquid filled with crushed ice labelled “tomato juice”, but on tasting it I found it too thin to drink; I chose the putative “orange juice” instead, which was in fact highly coloured diluted orange squash with only, I suspect, a small percentage of actual orange juice in it. I had some leathery bacon shreds and some tiny so-called sausages. The coffee, though strange-tasting, was not unpleasant and was acceptably strong. Janet wanted to have her hair washed and dried, so she asked at reception whether the hotel had a hairdresser. She was told it didn’t, but was pointed to one across the road. We both waited for a lull in the cars and mopeds passing and braved the crossing of the street. It would be ₫170,000; and they told her she could have it done immediately. So I left her there, re-crossed the street, went up to the room, and got my wallet out of the safe; then I went back again. Janet was in the back room, having her hair washed; so after popping my head round the door, I withdrew and took a seat in the main salon. There was only one customer in there; so four or five petite, pretty hairdressers with long, black hair, wearing tight, black, short dresses, having nothing else to do, were preening themselves or trimming each other’s hair. It was quite a show! Then Janet was brought into the salon to be seated while her haired was blow-dried. They did a very good job. Janet tells me they gave her a head massage as well; and I saw the girl doing a shoulder massage during the blow-drying. We gave them ₫200,000 (ca.$9 or ca.£7). We went back to our room, and Janet did the packing; then some minutes before the 12 o’clock deadline we called reception, and they sent a porter up to kelp us to our late-checkout room, down from the 9th floor to the 6th. It was directly opposite the lift; and opening the door revealed a tiny, windowless cell with a single bed. Admittedly, there was a wet room containing a WC and shower off to the right; but we weren’t at all content with this arrangement, which was costing us $40. “Is there a safe?” we asked the porter before he left. “Yes,” he replied; but there wasn’t! What’s more, it felt stifling in there. We turned on the air-conditioning; there was the slight sound of a fan from the grille above, but this stopped almost immediately afterwards. We informed the housekeeper; she came in, and switched it off then on again, with the same result; then she picked up the phone, said a few words to someone, and left. She came back some minutes later, and, presumably seeing that nothing had been done, picked up the phone, spoke a few words, and left. Janet went downstairs to reception to ask about leaving valuables, and was told they could be left there. She perhaps also mentioned the air-conditioning (or lack of it!). Two men, one with a step-ladder, came in; the one with the ladder set it up, mounted it, removed a panel from the ceiling, and took out a large rectangular filter. It appeared to be full of dust and debris. He handed it to the other, who took it away, brought it back after a few minutes cleaned, and handed it to the first man; this one put it back, replaced the panel, and folded his ladder; and they departed. So we, having checked that air-conditioning was indeed restored, went down to reception, handed over Janet’s satchel in exchange for a receipt, and went out ca.¾-hour later than we’d intended. We went first to the FamilyMart convenience store for some bread rolls and bananas, then to the Lamenda Café on the nearby street-corner, where I had two cans of 333 (“ba-ba-ba” in Vietnamese) brand beer, and Janet two cans of soda water with slices of lime.

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 12:44:32
Drinks in the Lamenda Café, District 1, Saigon

Then we went to the Street Food Market, where I had beef with noodles, and a San Miguel beer. That the paper pack contained not two but three disposable wooden chopsticks nearly blew my mind! — or that’s what I pretended when I tried to work out how one might hold and use three of them. Janet had a soda water with slices of lime.

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 13:51:36
Lunch in the Street Food Market

After that, we walked a block or two to the Culture Park. “It was too hot to go too far,” Janet wrote. We found a bench to sit on, which, though not completely in the shade, was in the way of a cooling breeze. I got up to try to photograph a squirrel, but it was too quick for me. It appeared to have bushy red whiskers sticking out on either side of its head; but on seeing other squirrels unadorned in this way, I concluded that it must have been carrying something in its mouth. A shoeshiner persuaded me to have my shoes done. “How much?” “No problem, no problem!” he replied. I should have seen through that straight away and told him to piss off, especially when I asked again, “How much?” — “No problem, no problem!” — but I allowed him to do them. He then asked for ₫200,000. The shoeshine lad the other day had asked for $2 up front and been given that; so I proposed “$2.” “No dollar, no dollar!” I ended up giving him ₫100,000 (ca.$4.40 or ca.£3.50). He continued to hold out his hand, but I refused; and he went away not long after that.

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 14:43:36
Culture Park, District 1, Saigon

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 15:02:58
T‘ai-chi posturing in the Culture Park

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 15:03:50
T‘ai-chi posturing in the Culture Park

I continued to try to photograph squirrels, but they all either eluded me, or the photos were unacceptably blurred and I deleted them. There were grey-coloured squirrels; and tiny grey ones, which were either the young of the first ones or a different species; and others, slightly larger than these latter, but still very small, which had yellow and dark stripes along their backs.[i] Then a bird the size of a large starling, with chestnut back, white breast and crest, and black-masked lores,[ii] landed with a loud squeak, and they darted away. This bird strutted about, and didn’t seem to want any other creature around him, squirrel or bird. He repeated his squeak from time to time, and there were other similar calls from trees around.
[i] The Cambodian striped squirrel (Tamiops rodolphii), perhaps.
[ii] Almost certainly the white-crested laughingthrush (Garrulax leucolophus) — but it didn’t sound as though it was laughing; it sounded very cross!

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 15:13:36
White-crested laughingthrush

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 15:14:10
White-crested laughingthrush

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 15:14:44
White-crested laughingthrush

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 15:14:52
White-crested laughingthrush

Shortly after that, we headed back. We had a couple of drinks at the Lamenda Café then went back to our “cell” to shower and change. The fixture holding the shower head had no movement, so it sprayed onto the door. The drainage was slow, as well, so when Janet was showering, through the gap under the door I could see water lapping against the small step down. I showered with the water pressure reduced somewhat, so the door wasn’t sprayed. There were spare toilet rolls stacked up on the surface beside the sink, and these became wet and wrinkly. Ca.5pm, we vacated the room and went down. I went to reception, picked up the satchel and checked out, paying with my Visa Debit card. We joined P and Y in the lobby to await our pickup. They’d decided that sitting there was preferable to remaining in their “cell”. Opposite us, waiting in the lobby, were six others, staring fixedly at their iPhones, seemingly mesmerised.

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 17:35:28
People glued to their iPhone

Thursday 23 February 2017 — 17:35:48
People glued to their iPhone

Tien was late arriving because of heavy traffic, and it was almost 6pm before the bags were loaded and we were on our way. Our progress was frequently reduced to a crawl in the dense, slow-moving traffic, where any spaces between cars and other vehicles were filled by swarms of mopeds and scooters. But we eventually got to the airport, said our goodbyes to Tien and the driver, and headed for the check-in desks. We had boarding passes already printed; but new ones were printed and handed to us. The seats allocated were different from the ones on the original pass.

We had to take off shoes for the security check, and put them on the conveyor belt of the hand-luggage scanner. A few years ago it would have been painful to walk from there through the body scanner to the other side; but now, apart from some discomfort, it was quite doable. I think the aircraft shown when we were checking in for this flight was a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, with a 3 x 3 x 3 seat configuration, but the one we boarded was an Airbus 330, 2 x 4 x 2; that accounts for the change of seat allocation.

Our seats are shown in green.

Janet was on my left, but on my right was a man whose left elbow strayed over the armrest into my space. I tried as much as possible to sit with my right forearm hard against the armrest; but he repeatedly touched his monitor screen to navigate between on-screen menus, and every time he did that, he struck my upper arm when he returned his elbow to the armrest. And a number of times, he sniffed up with a noisy, implosive glottal burr (“Qrrr!”). (I noticed quite a lot of that happening on this trip, even from one or two of our guides; perhaps it’s not thought uncouth in Cambodia and Vietnam.) He sneezed loudly also, and I felt a droplet fall on my cheek. My unexpressed thoughts were rather less than charitable or Christian: “Piss off, you space-invading, snot-gobbling gook!” Takeoff was 13 minutes later than scheduled, 8.13pm;[iii] but we landed at 9.49pm,[iv] 21 minutes ahead of schedule. We had to squeeze into a shuttle bus to get from the aircraft to the terminal. Because it was an internal flight, we were able immediately to proceed to the baggage-reclaim carousel; but from there it wasn’t obvious where we should go next. Tien had told us that international flights were found in the same building as internal ones, but there were no signs to that effect. P asked a staff member, and was pointed outside the building and to the right. I think it was I who spotted a black shuttle bus going to “Terminal 2”; but when we got to it, it was full. “Five minutes,” we were told, till the next one. It wasn’t a suitable vehicle for international passengers: there were two steep steps up which to haul our suitcases (a young Vietnamese-looking female fellow passenger took one of ours off me and lifted it up); and there was little luggage space within. I put ours in the space set aside for wheelchair users (though how one would get a wheelchair aboard was unclear). When we entered the terminal, we checked in our luggage, then Janet and I went off first to look for a currency-exchange counter; there was one on the floor below, but it was closed. The crowd waiting for passport control was huge, but we couldn’t see P and Y among the multitude; the queue resolved itself at its end into several lines, each of which was for one of three categories; above each line was an illuminated sign alternating between English and Vietnamese: “FOREIGNER”, “VIETNAMESE”, “ASEAN” (meaning “Association of SouthEast Asian Nations”). At the end of our “Foreigner” line was a humourless individual, who took the proffered passport, rubber-stamped it, and returned it without a word or change of facial expression.

[iii] 8.13pm — according to Flightradar24
[iv] 9.49pm — according to Flightradar24

Passport page, finally stamped “23 FEB 2017”

Immediately beyond that, the queue for security scanning snaked this way and that, even before it came to the zigzag tape-and-stanchion barriers. Again, we had to take shoes off, and put them on the conveyor to be scanned. Once we were airside, we found another currency-exchange counter; but it too was shut. Janet, however, walked around and visited one or two retailers, asking, “What can I buy for ₫140,000?” (i.e. the exact amount I had left: ca.£5 or ca.$6); and she came back with a 100g box of cashew nuts in Belgian-style plain chocolate.

[Friday 24 February 2017]

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