Through dragons and beyond

After a weekend of strolling days and musical nights in Saigon, we struck out for the beach to ‘get away from it all’ for a while. As I write I am sitting on the verandah of a little white-painted, thatch-roofed bungalow, looking out across a few metres of tended garden towards the sea and bright sands just beyond and listening to the rhythmic rustle of the surf. We are on the coast a few miles away from Phan Thiet in one resort amongst many that have been developing along this strip for the last fifteen years or so. Step down to the water and looking back you can see how all the different premises adjoin each other like gardens of terraced houses. Sitting here surrounded by privacy-providing trees it is possible to pretend you are in the middle of nowhere.

The drive here was an education. Leaving central Saigon, the mixture of boulevards and narrow streets is soon replaced by multi-lane ‘highways’ and the majority traffic switches from mopeds to articulated lorries. I use the term highway loosely because the surfaces and lane markings are very variable, the signposting erratic and the traffic… the traffic is armed combat. Moped riders stick to the edge of the road, they know they are outgunned. This leaves the other lanes open for the multi-wheelers to dodge and dice as they please, with the biggest trucks taking command. In the traffic jams, they nose for spaces like motorcycle couriers and when things are moving faster they duck, dive and slice like racing cars fresh off the starting grid, all with only inches to spare.

After over an hour of re-living the final chase scene from Mad Max II, we left the sprawl of outer Saigon behind us. The trucks thinned out and the Toyota four-by-four we were riding in suddenly gained a few ranks in the road hierarchy. From here onwards it became a simple process of hooting at mopeds when they were not close enough to the edge the road and overtaking just about everything else that came into sight. If that overtake was performed on a blind bend and something appeared coming towards us, some more hooting and jostling for position miraculously set everything right.

Throughout the journey the roadside was almost constantly lined by buildings. There were two notable breaks: one for a series of rubber plantations and an other as we passed through what felt like the world centre of dragon fruit production. Dragon trees look like three-foot tall succulent cousins of weeping willows with their fruits ripening at the ends of the ‘fronds’ and resembling large red hand-grenades. For a quarter of an hour or more we drove through acre upon acre of waist-high orchards punctuated by roadside fruit-sellers and numerous sheds with one or two container lorries in them, loading for export.

At journey’s end we were met with smiles and smiles and cool, re-vitalising glasses of passion-fruit juice. After the drive we had just experienced, it was just what we needed. The relaxation has continued.

First Impressions of Saigon

Dusk on the roof of the roof of the Renaissance Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City. The lights in the swimming pool have just turned on; the ambient/chill soundtrack on the bar’s PA is sparring gently with the sounds of rush-hour traffic twenty-one floors below; the first bottle of Saigon Beer has slipped down as effortlessly as the river of the same name is passing by.

The view out across the city and beyond is veiled by grey cloud and heat haze (it is still the rainy season here) but the flat terrain still affords a long horizon compared to the hills of Geoje. The brown, fast-flowing waters of the Saigon River are are clearly a division in the city. On this bank I am on top of one of a growing number of high-rise buildings in the lively heart of town. The other side looks more like semi-jungle interrupted by occasional patches of buildings joined by few lit roads.

So far we have been here for a little over twenty-four hours and first impressions are good. The city structure might be in a state of major renovation if the amount of building sites and roadworks is anything to go by but everybody from the street vendors to the suit-wearing executives has a cheerful, smiling demeanour. It feels like a very positive place to be.

The traffic flows much like the river: with strength, breadth and the ability to pass all obstacles. The moped is king here, constituting about three quarters of the motorised transport on the roads. Crossing the street as a pedestrian, you wait for any taxis, trucks or vans to pass and then just step out into the stream of two-wheelers. Measure your pace carefully, make eye-contact where required and the riders will pass round you harmlessly. Stand at the kerb waiting for a gap, you will probably be there all day.

Our summer holiday has got off to a good start.

Summertime and the living is…

So far it is a hot, sticky summer here.  The rainy season appears to be finished or at least winding down.  Some of the precipitation has been flood-heavy but even during the wettest days the temperature has remained warm and the ‘dry’ periods in between have matched high-twenties temperatures with humidity percentages in the nineties.  Now the blue skies and bright sun are becoming more frequent again and it is most definitely holiday season.

Last week the shipyard had its official one week break, during which time nearly every member of the twenty-five thousand-odd workers downed tools.  For those of us continuing to work it was an eerie change of atmosphere.  The constant background buzz of sirens, grinders, welders and engines fell silent.  The mad rush-hour flood of mopeds, motorbikes, cars and coaches diminished to a trickle.

Ironically enough, there was still a miniature morning rush-hour at the front gate: many of the holidaying workers bringing their families to meet an armada of Samsung coaches to take them to a Samsung-only beach for the day where they could cram themselves onto the beach with their other Samsung colleagues for company.  Kraft durch Freude springs to mind…

In the meantime, the other ninety-nine percent of the yard’s acreage did a passable impression of a ghost town; the only signs of activity being re-surfaced and re-painted patches of road and quayside as crews performed what appeared to be an annual rush to get everything mended at once.  No stone was left unturned: we even had a couple of power cuts in the office one day while the yard grid was switched off for routine maintenance.

Anybody who was missing the crush of humanity needed only to head south towards the beaches.  Geoje has a reputation as a major holiday destination for ‘mainlanders’ and I have seen the proof.  A group of us took a boat trip from the harbour at Gujora a couple of Sundays ago.  Gujora Beach next door is one of the island’s most popular sandy beaches and the traffic was nose-to-tail for miles around, car parks and verges packed.  What would normally be an easy half hour’s drive took us three times as long that day, making the ‘getting away from it all’ at sea particularly welcome.

The holiday traffic should be mostly over by September, leaving the remains of summer and what I am lead to expect will be a lovely autumn to enjoy quieter countryside corners of the island once again.