If you’re faced with killing time, you’d hope there’d be plenty of things to do. Not so in Saigon, unless you book a place on a day-long Mekong Delta tour or lounge on your behind all day swilling beers in or outside the ‘Crazy Buffalo’ or ‘Allez Boo’ bars. There’s always lounging on a park bench, of course, unless you get shifted or told to sit up by a park official.
I’d booked the slow way back to Hanoi; a two-night train journey that wasn’t due to depart until 10 p.m. I didn’t want to hurry back to a college campus that would, in all respects, be lonesome, dispiriting, not to mention shrouded by cold dreary weather. I decided to stay away for a few more days and recapture the spirit of travel. The colder air in Hanoi would perhaps be welcoming.
I left my rucksack downstairs. The guest house owner immediately suggested a motor bike ride to the railway station, once I told him about the train journey. I thought a taxi would be a safer idea. These folks will try anything to rake in more dosh.
“How much?’ I asked.
“Thirty thousand,” cheaper than the taxi.
I found an indoor restaurant along the street on the opposite side and ordered some breakfast: a ham omelette and two iced teas. If I thought, because it was Chinese New Year, that there’d be 50% off the price of food and drinks, think again. I was actually charged 15% more – branded ‘lucky New Year money.’ I was surprised that I had to pay 11,000 more. Foolishly I made a song and dance about the unexpected increase.
“Why didn’t you put the notice on the menu folders at the beginning of your shift?” I asked a flustered young waitress.
“I told you already about the increase, man. It’s the boss’s decision.”
She’d already sped off on the back of a motor bike to celebrate the New Year leaving her meagre staff to do all the work.
“It’s only half a dollar, man. Most of the restaurants on this street are closed.”
Maybe I should have told her to speak more slowly, but I agreed. Besides, am I that hard up? What about the poor soul, rushed off her feet?
I went off to the market where all the confusion took place with the elderly beggar woman, but it was also closed, so I stretched out for a while on a park bench. I lay on the concrete for what lasted like a long time, watching a squirrel dart up and down the thin branches of a couple of hovering trees, until I was motioned to sit up by a park official.
I sat in the ‘Crazy Buffalos’ bar drinking a glass of Vietnamese tea and scrutinizing excitable trampy pop videos. The Lady Ga Ga type is what a sizeable proportion of young clientele like these days. The music’s loud and beaty, too. How else do you kill time, except exchange more Chinese currency and saunter around stores picking a few more DVDs?
The backpacker streets were full of waifs and strays falling out of the woodwork, coming in from all over the place. The mind boggles. Everyone’s coming to Saigon, if not Vietnam, it seems. Well, it’s cheap and congenial. It’s 2,000 dong for a single banana, 6,000 for a large bottle of water – normally 10,000, although I got fed up with paying out tidbits of money.
I called round to the guest house to pick up my rucksack and claim the motor bike ride. The owner said his son would take me to the station. Sitting at a computer, he’d had too many beers. His speech was slurred.
“You’re drunk!” came my dismayed response. I was worried I wouldn’t make it. His father stepped on the bike instead.
The streets were infested with legions of motorbike riders – a plague of Pied Piper rats being tuned away. In this case, the tune came from ratcheting throttles of accelerator handlebars. He almost bumped into one causing an impatient outburst. For a big city like Saigon, the railway station is rather small.
The train slowly clunked and clattered away. I agreed to change cabins so that a guy from Hong Kong could keep an eye on his ailing father. I’m glad I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have shared one with an Irish guy who’d turned up from a day-long Mekong tour. Wish I’d joined it. Recounting his experiences, there were some eccentric group members too.
“Raced here to get away from a lady,” he said.
‘No, the real thing.”