Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Vietnam Airlines

You'll be pleased to hear that Vietnam Airlines (VNA) have recently expanded their fleet to a total of 38 aircraft and started a new route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang in Laos. The latter is particularly good news for us because we need that route later in the trip.

But all this expansion is no use for Bach Trong San, Nguyen Thai Son and Lam Tuan Nagen. Lam is only 20 years old and you can find him at 287/2/A2 An Thoi, Ho Chi Minh City if you'd like to know why. Alternatively, just pick up a copy of the latest VNA in-flight magazine and flick it open to the History of Vietnam Airlines page.

On that page, there's a box entitled Key Events. There, the names and addresses of these three individuals are listed along with an intriguing note to the effect that VNA "permanently refuse to serve" them because they have "damaged VNA prestige." Quite what they've done to deserve being not only banned for life but also being publicly named and shamed we don't know. We've made a note to find out and let you know.

We will have travelled five times on VNA by the time we leave Vietnam the day after tomorrow so we think we have a pretty good idea what they're like. So far, the planes, big and small, have been clean and the flights have been on time on the whole. Take-offs and landings have been smooth and we've no complaints at all there.

Our flight to Hanoi awaits us at Cam Ranh

Airports have been a very mixed selection. Hanoi, the capital, boasts a relatively nice terminal. Ho Chi Minh City's new terminal (which isn't finished quite yet) also looks nice. But Nha Trang seems to have fallen into disuse. On the five hour drive from Dalat to Nha Trang to catch our morning flight, I followed the drive closely on my map. Panic set in as, with 90 mins before our flight was due to take off, the driver veered south and headed, not for Nha Trang as arranged but Cam Ranh instead - a much smaller destination.

We tried to communicate our panic to him to no avail. He could hardly understand any of our English and the only thing he could say was "Nha Trang no Cam Ranh okay". He then pulled onto a stretch of abandoned tarmac surrounded by sand and dead trees to a derelict building that had a sign above it saying Cam Ranh International Airport. On closer inspection it was actually a functioning airport despite its resemblance to some long-forgotten film set. We never did find out why Nha Trang airport had been abandoned in favour of this dump. Neither did we find out how our driver seemed to know. But he was right.

Cam Ranh airport - serving the wilderness...

If I may use a pun, our only "beef" with VNA is the food. And if I may be allowed to borrow an American phrase: it sucks. It really does suck. It sucks so much that for our next and last VNA flight to Laos, we've preordered vegetarian meals, something I've never done in 30 years of flying. When we got on our first flight in Cambodia, we were offered a choice of water, beer or Coke. We only later found out that this was three times as much as domestic flights where you get water or water.

Along with this dazzling array of beverages, VNA also gives you a little box. In it are the worst sandwiches I've ever had on a plane. Even the stewardess couldn't describe it in any more detail than simply "meat" when we asked her what was in it. It seems to be some form of pate and they serve it on every single flight. It's horrendous.

Now we know that it's only a matter of time before we hear the whispered "What is it?" "I don't know but I think it might be pate." conversations around the plane as other unsuspecting travellers discover the wonders of VNA cuisine. Occasionally a child is quickly smothered but not before they blurt out the inexorable plea "But I don't like it!" And who can blame them.

So, the day after tomorrow when we take our final flight, we have two missions to accomplish. Firstly, to discover what the content of a VNA sandwich actually is and secondly to discover what it is that Bach, Nguyen and Lam have done to so incur the wrath of the airline. Maybe they complained about the food!


Day 03/02 - Simmering Saigon

Our tuk-tuk driver drops us at the airport in Cambodia for the flight to Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.

You know those warning signs outside the more daring rides in amusement parks? Well Saigon should have one. And if it did, it would read something like this:

Danger: we warn those who suffer from the following not to enter Saigon
aversion to noise in any form
fear of two-wheeled transport
inability to haggle in the fact of emotional blackmail, tears, prostrations and threats
feelings of regret at paying seventeen times more than the next shop you find the same item in
concern of any kind about the possibility of being run over
irritation from the same phrases repeated every time you see a local
sensitivity to other's feelings during interpersonal communication
need to maintain eye contact during conversation
need to actually acknowledge someone during a conversation
need to actually be understood during a conversation

Come to think of it, now that we've been in Vietnam long enough to make sweeping generalisations about as many as 83 million people from nearly 20 ethnic groups, this might not be a bad list to give to anyone coming here. But Saigon seems to be where this is concentrated most.

And so into this we descended from the tranquility of rural Cambodia. It was a bit of a shock. The blow was cushioned by the air-conditioned four-wheeler that met us at the airport and dropped us at Madame Cuc's guesthouse in the centre of a screaming whirlwind of traffic. We had a room with a balcony over the street and, if you closed your curtains, your windows, the door to the balcony and lay down on your bed, you could hear the traffic using it as a shortcut down the street. At least, that's what it sounded like.

The first obstacle we had was money. We'd run out of cash. No, they didn't take Visa and no, they didn't accept traveller's cheques. Hmmm... strange. So, I had to tramp off twenty minutes into the sprawl to change money at a bank. This involved crossing a number of roads. In Saigon, you step out and gently walk across. Don't run; mopeds can smell fear. Cross in a straight line at a steady pace and the traffic will simply go round you. That's the theory anyway and, so far, for us, it's worked. You don't half feel vulnerable though. If you're having trouble imagining it, imagine the busiest road you have where you live and being asked to cross it in your underwear. Now you have some idea of how vulnerable we feel.

The reception staff having relieved us of cash and our passports, we were left to ourselves. I was going to say "we hit the streets" but, in Saigon, the streets hit you. We ended up in a little restaurant overlooking the street downing coconut shakes with rum and eating some fantastic Vietnamese food. Very relaxing meal but as we had a bus to catch the next day, we tried to get an early night...

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Day 03/01 - Close-Up Cambodia

... fleeing the madness of the Christmas Eve entertainment here in Hoi An, Vietnam, we've come inside to write this...

We were up for dawn again on Day 03 except that this time, we wanted to see it at Angkor Wat. This has become something of a must see experience and so we were hardly surprised when, as our tuk-tuk bumped through the gloom, we joined an eerie procession of other tuk-tuks bearing tourists to the entrance of the temple.

Inside, people were scrambling for the best positions. We weren't really sure where to go really but Vannak had given us a choice bit of info the day before. He'd told where the sun would rise at this time of year. At spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun rises directly behind the temple making the main gate the best place to view the sunrise. At this time of year though, it was to rise far over to the right. Main gate viewers would see the sun rise to the right of the temple. The best place was over to the temple's left and that's where we headed.

We had the steps of one of the outlying buildings all to ourselves and waited for dawn. The sky was pitch black except for a faint glow in the east. The moon was a sharp crescent and the night was so clear you could see the new moon in shadow. Through the darkness came the flashes of cameras and here and there the laughter of some of the louder nationalities represented there.

The sunrise was spectacular and it really put the temple into perspective. Here was this edifice, the handiwork of 80,000 people and the largest religious complex in the world. Yet, it took a simple sunrise to make it look much like a child's attempt at model-making. It drove home to us just how magnificent our God is and how banal are even our greatest attempts to emulate his creative ability.

Back at the hotel for breakfast we rationed our last remaining hours: a couple of bikes would help us spend an hour roaming through local villages, a dip in the pool would take up the rest.

The villages were great. We just went where the path took us. We stumbled across a large school, perhaps junior high age. The teacher was leading chants of something in Cambodian. Outside children were digging in what looked like a patch of dirt - their dreams of vegetation taking root only in their imaginations as we watched. We found ourselves in front of a temple complex being built and chatting with a young Buddhist monk in a saffron robe. Standing looking at a grass house, we were invited in for hot tea and the host answered our questions about the shrine he had in his garden. A woman restoring a statue of Buddha got up to open the gate to her garden when she saw us watching over the fence. It was great to simply wander and be welcomed everywhere without question, without hindrance.

Too soon afterwards we were at Siem Reap airport having checked in and were enjoying a coconut shake at a coffee shop while we wrote postcards. We'd recognised a couple there who we'd seen in a restaurant in town. They looked pretty miserable for some reason. Later while sipping our shake, a woman spoke to an airport official and we overheard her story. She'd come to collect two tourists who'd arrived for the flight having left one of their passports at the hotel. Despite sending a driver back for it, they'd only got hold of it once their flight had left. Sure enough, a moment later, the very couple we'd seen before came out of the terminal building. What a complete nightmare. We talked about what we'd do if it happened to us.

But it hadn't and a few minutes later we were walking across the tarmac to our waiting Vietnam Airlines plane...

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