Tales from the Far East … our man in Vietnam

Ian Furbank is a long standing loyal client and Ambassador Club member ... we love his travel blogs (several others can be found here on the website!)  This time it's 'tales from the orient' as the Furbanks ventured to Vietnam .....

"As you may recall, this was not going to be one of my favourite holidays – not quite but nearly being bullied into going to Vietnam (not on my wish list) via the relatives (twice!). However being a happily married man – I do everything Mrs F tells me to do - and now being retired, I happily went along with the plan. It is my wont to read around the subject, so books started to appear on the geography and history of Vietnam, including the Vietnam War, but these remained steadfastly on my side of the bed as madam was too busy to read them. “I’ll catch up on holiday” always struck me as going to be a bit late in the day.

Once again I got grumpy with British Airways for not letting me check-in early and reserve seats that don’t entail sitting next to some fat South African’s sweaty armpit (as happened once flying back from Jo’burg overnight). So I researched the plane/seating plans, and bit the bullet and reserved two seats together at vast expense. How the best laid plans go awry!! I always find it is better to turn up to the airport with tickets and passports; it makes checking in so much easier. Luckily I had arranged things so that Mrs F and I could find our way to the Caviar and Seafood Bar in T5 for a bite and some Sauvignon, so we were early. A quick call to the taxi firm that had delivered us, brought the driver back, and then a dash round the M25 getting close to rush hour, allowed me to pick up my hand luggage exactly where I had left it having made sure for the nth time that I had passports and tickets. It was then getting very close to last call, so whilst I tried contacting the airport from my phone bouncing around in the passenger seat of the taxi, Mrs F calmly went up to a nice BA lady, showed her the passports on her phone, and semi checked in with her (she had stayed at the airport with the luggage). When I finally arrived, BA lady looked me up and down and said “Oh, here are the passports!” We were through, minus substantial fare for the cab, and lacking a half a bottle of Sauvignon. I have never done anything like that before, and was even more paranoid every time we went near an airport for the rest of the trip. (Oh and in ‘checking in’ the BA lady overrode my careful seat selection, convincing Mrs F that the front row seats of World Traveller Plus had great leg room, if not much view. But as this was now in the middle row with three seats together, came with free sweaty armpit of Asian man instead. I kept quiet. I know my place.)

Kuala Lumpar was very pleasant. Slightly unusual to be picked up by both in-laws with a flask of chilled G&T in the back of the car! Start as you mean to go on I guess.

Thence to HCMC (or Saigon as everyone there referred to it). It was a very strange feeling to arrive in somewhere like Vietnam having only flown for two hours. Maybe all the stranger because of my having a panic attack on the flight. If you have to fly to Vietnam in a Boeing 737-800 don’t sit in seat 8A. This is the window seat. But there isn’t one. A window I mean, it’s just a blank bit of white plastic. And the leg room is built for a five foot person. And the curvature of the cabin is such that there is no leg room for your left leg. So I felt slotted in place with no ability to move/escape or even breathe. They even served food, but there was no space to eat it. I now know what a champagne cork feels like when it was time to disembark.

Saigon at night

But hey! Then we arrived at the Hotel des Arts. As they only had a small foyer, we were ushered up to the executive lounge to get checked in, with free drinks and food, and the most beautiful helpful and pleasant people to check us in. We managed to drag this out for a couple of hours of luxury, before we were told that we could make full use of the lounge at all times. Why the need to check in then?? We would have been perfectly happy there for a week. We were ‘upgraded’ to a room with a bath (?) in the middle of the room, but this was only for the one night we were there, because the next morning we were on the road for the Mekong Delta. And we were on the road for about two and a half hours. Comfortable. Cool. Boring. But we got there.

Ushered onto a fairly basic river boat we were driven about 20 mins up river then offloaded to tour a noodle/puffed rice/rice flour sweet place. We were a mixed bag of 16, Germans, and Brits, and I think as one, we all thought, here we go, high pressure ‘buy something from the poor people who work here’, but not at all. Apart from being non-plussed about the boat, it was all very interesting. Eventually we learnt from ‘Su’ who seemed to be in charge, we were awaiting Bassac 2 to get cleaned and ready for us. And it was worthwhile. This is an old boat beautifully redone into max 20 cabins, with dining area aft, and sun lounge, and bar area. The cabins would be described as bijou by an estate agent, but they were beautifully appointed with fully functioning wash/shower/toilet area, separate from the bedroom itself. We have spent time in far worse. We both absolutely adored the cruise and overnight stay, and a trip to a village and paddy fields was included, which in itself was amazing. Having said that we were blessed by having fabulous weather; in the next couple of days a tropical storm blew up with torrential rains and floods, which would have been no fun at all.

Back to Hotel des Arts – this time without a bath – it really is a most beautiful hotel, quite modern but made to feel olde worlde successfully. It’s also in the heart of restaurant land and easy walking (15 sweaty minutes) to most of the central sights. Our first night was influenced by Vietnam playing Myanmar in the SE Asia Cup at football. The main pedestrianised area downtown had huge TV screens erected, and thousands of the locals – and us – watched and cheered! A match later in the week against Cambodia was rained off as far as the screens were concerned; we just had to watch in the top floor lounge at The Rex Hotel, during Cocktail Happy Hour. Don’t know who won; didn’t care after a couple of BOGOF drinks!!

Saigon memories are mainly of the absolutely mad traffic, particularly motorbikes. The Highway Code seems to say, if it’s busy or you don’t want to go that way down a one way street, ride on the pavement. Or just ride on the pavement if you feel like it. And if the traffic lights are red, go anyway. Zebra crossings don’t mean anything. And hoot. Any time, for any reason. And it’s best riding on the pavement in the dark with no lights on. Crossing roads was utterly intimidating, until we got in the swing of stepping out slowly but with confidence and waiting for the Red Sea to part around us as we walked across.

But the food: OMG. We had the most fabulous food all week with only two disappointments. One was going to Pho 2000 as suggested by the guide, a restaurant made famous 18 years ago when Bill Clinton and his daughter ate there. It was full of embarrassing Americans and horrible beef pho and spring rolls. The other was a restaurant that came highly recommended by Trip Advisor (I suppose that should have rung bells automatically). Secret Garden was a rooftop restaurant obviously catering for the tourists, and accessed by the most dingy staircase. Mrs F reckons I got a dose of food poisoning there: as it was the same day as lunch at Pho 2000, it’s possible in either place.

Every so often I go somewhere where I’m thrown a curve ball: like in Cambodia last year, I had been vaguely aware of some bloke called Pol Pot, but had no idea he was responsible for disappearing something like a third of the population of Cambodia. Similarly my knowledge of the Vietnam War was from American films and propaganda. Whilst I’m happy to be told that the Viet side of things is propaganda as well, the impression I have been left with is a poor people, fighting to rid themselves of their French oppressors, who when they felt things were becoming unmanageable, simply retreated to France leaving a power vacuum which the Americans felt was their right to fill. And the Americans simply didn’t know when to stop and call it a day. The trip to the Cu Chi tunnels was a real eye opener even for an old cynic like me, and I hated the ‘War Remnants Museum’ in HCMC for all the right reasons. Our guide Lam and driver Thon were splendid and very knowledgeable, and made us very comfortable.

So . . . on to Con Dao. The ATR Turboprop seems a bit old school, especially sitting just by the engine, able to see all the oil leaks and flappy bits. Not a problem, except that we appear to be taking off into the teeth of the tropical storm that had been threatening to batter HCMC for the past few days. The flight was surprisingly calm, and we arrived in Con Dao in the sunshine, having somehow bypassed the storm. We decamped into a “Limousine” as the minibus stickers proudly informed us: even the seats were numbered aircraft style. The largest sticker simply said that the speed limit on the island was 45 kph, so even though the trip from the airport to the resort was only 5 miles, it took for ever as the driver was exceptionally careful. But then we had arrived in paradise.

Our GEM (Guest Experience Manager) was the beautiful Lucy who appeared at breakfast times to try and get us organised for the day. Or she arrived at our sumptuous duplex villa with a bottle of fizz, or another time with some fresh fruit. I can’t really recall what we did for 5 days; it was so demanding to have to make the choice between sunbathing by the infinity pool, walking the 20 yards to the sandy flat beach, getting a massage, or simply hitting the beach bar. Irritatingly I was still suffering the effects of Saigon, and couldn’t do justice to the half-board. However, Mrs F made up for me; one evening the chef (from Manchester) came out with fish of the day, a huge Red Mullet which he could do steamed or curried. Mrs F managed to have both, together with fish head soup from the same fish, having started with a first course of local clams. I think even the chef was impressed with how much she ate as he came to our table the next night and said "you didn’t leave much yesterday!” The food was of a very high standard, with both a proper Vietnamese restaurant and the more cosmopolitan main restaurant. We sampled both, and were very impressed.

Pool villa at Six Senses Con Dao

The couple who had arrived with us on the same flight have decided to spend a week in a Six Senses resort each year at the end November. Whilst at first we thought it was a long way to fly for a week of R&R, by the end of our five days we could well understand their thinking. We booked a bike ride into the local town (although I would downgrade that to sprawling village) as snorkelling was off due to rough seas from the storm that we never actually saw, but thankfully having got the free Limousine ride in, we realised that half the six km was a 1:4 hill each way. It was far too hot to struggle on a bike. Similarly we considered walks in the ‘jungle’. These were billed as 4-5 hours long, and despite our best intentions, somehow the call of the sea and pools were too much for us. The next day we got the call to snorkel, which was delightful. They had provided fresh cold water bottles, biscuits and fruit, nice big towels as well as all the gear. They even had towels for the limo seats on the way back. Fabulous morning spent swimming/chatting, and despite liberal use of “water-proof” sunscreen, were as the lobsters on backs and shoulders. All the staff were wonderful at Six Senses; it is just a tad embarrassing that by the second night they had our room number and drinks worked out before we hit the bar for pre-dinner drinks. I blame Mrs F for being too enthusiastic with the G&Ts.

Beach dining at Con Dao

We eventually had to leave Paradise, and were met at HCMC by Vee our local agent for the afternoon. We were driven to the Eastin Hotel which was almost equidistant as the Hotel des Arts from the airport. The Eastin is a little bit soulless as a business hotel, but having decided to swim we went from out room down to floor 3 where the pool gym and Spa were. We wandered around the pool and into the spa to ask where the changing rooms might be. I have a thing about being soaking wet in the hotel lifts so felt that it would be better if we could change somewhere by the pool. The poor girl there didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, and eventually after a fruitless backwards and forwards about going swimming, took us outside and showed us the metal steps to get into the pool. “You go swim here”. So we changed in the room!

We eventually checked out, giving the keys to reception and asking them to pick up the bags from our room whilst we had a quick bite to eat. Vee, the tour guide, eventually came to find us as the bell boy had apparently been to our room to get the bags but no-one would let him. I explained to reception again that they had our keys, and we couldn’t get in either. It was almost ‘Oh Dear what are we going to do then’ until Vee suggested that they get another key printed and get the luggage. I think even she couldn’t believe how blonde the reception girl was.

Back to KL in the evening, and thence to Penang and Georgetown on Saturday morning, for the weekend, with the O-Ls, as a birthday present from them. We stayed in the magnificent old Eastern & Oriental Hotel, actually in the Rudyard Kipling Suite! We arrived on the 1st December and were invited to the lighting of the Christmas tree, and carol service. We turned up in shorts and T-shirts to find the great and good, ex-pats and hoteliers, all mingling drinking the free wine and canapes. We of course all tucked in with gusto, so when the carols started we seemed to be the only few singing, apart from the choir made up of a variety of staff. The high point came at half time, when the oldest bloke in the choir, who sang bass, got out a large saw and violin bow and proceeded to play a carol on the saw! I don’t think carol services will ever be the same again.

We eventually arrived back at Heathrow at 05:30 on an dark cold wet winters morning. Time to plan the next journey..."

Beach at Six Senses Con Dao