The night train from Nha Trang rolls into Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) at 4:00 a.m. Our four hour walking tour of the city is scheduled to start at 8:00 a.m. Although we have grown used to a fairly punishing schedule by now, this is one appointment that we won’t be keeping. K and I check in, crash out, and eventually emerge for a late breakfast.
All the way through the trip, I have been suffering from weeping sores, which have been popping up randomly all over my body. I am now developing new sores at the rate of one a day, and currently have about five on the go. The sore on my backside is particularly large and painful – especially given the utter lack of soft cushions in this country. It is time to take some action. A doctor and nurse are called to examine me in our hotel room. They take particular interest in the sore on my backside.
After examining me, the young doctor remains silent for a few moments.
“These lesions are…very…strange.”
Oh dear. Not good.
“You must come with us to the hospital. A specialist will see you there.”
Oh goody. A new adventure!
“We have an ambulance outside.”
Even better! I’ve never taken a ride in an ambulance before. The attention-seeking hypochondriac inside me is exultant.
At the hospital, which is full of people who look like they have been waiting around for an awfully long time, I am efficiently fast-tracked through the system. Oh, the joys of being a pampered Westerner who can afford to pay full whack!
My consultant dermatologist is a brusque man, who crossly barks orders at me from behind his desk. Unbidden and unexpected, the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter flashes through my consciousness.
Show me! Turn round! Stop! Drop trousers!
At the sight of my bare bottom, the consultant says something to the assembled cluster of underlings who are standing behind him, in rather lighter tones than he has been using towards me up till now. Everybody in the room chuckles – except me. I have no idea what is being said. Nobody has ever laughed at my bottom before. The humiliation is considerable. However, it is also tempered by the knowledge that this will make a good story for the rest of the group. Minting entertainment from embarrassment has always been one of my coping strategies.
I pick up my various prescriptions from the hospital dispensary, and grab a taxi back to the hotel. It’s lunchtime, so we head off to a relatively posh looking place a couple of streets away. The large table next to us is full of braying, super-confident US yuppies in “business casual” attire – a new sight for us in Vietnam, but a sight with which we will become familiar during the next couple of days. These people all have the easy swagger which suggests that they own this city. As Saigon is a rapidly and visibly developing hotspot for the new Tiger Economy, it is reasonable to suppose that they probably do.
Indeed, it is the comparative Westernisation of Saigon which dominates our initial impressions of the city. Bigger buildings, wider streets, posher shops, hotels and restaurants – and, although they are still firmly in the minority when compared to the teeming thousands of bikes and mopeds, many more cars on the roads. We wonder apprehensively about what will happen to the traffic as the economy expands, and ever more people switch from two wheels to four. Is Saigon another Bangkok in the making, with the same nightmarish 24 hour traffic jams and attendant pollution just waiting to happen?
K and I stroll up to the famous old Post Office building: a glorious example of French colonial architecture, still with its original fixtures and fittings. As the old Post Office doesn’t have an international parcel post, we continue round the corner to a rather more modest modern building. Directly opposite is a shop which assembles precisely measured, neatly constructed little cardboard boxes for your parcels, while you wait on the pavement. Just what we need.
We spend most of the rest of the afternoon at the War Relics Museum, wandering round mock-ups of prison cells, inspecting instruments of torture, and slowly working our way round the comprehensive photographic displays. Harrowing but compelling stuff, which comes across all the more vividly in the light of our experiences to date.
The whole group is reunited for dinner, in a colossal hangar of a restaurant: open to the street, with the diners seated at long rows of simple trestle tables, under a high corrugated iron roof. No yuppies here – in fact, hardly any foreigners at all. Ooh, you can just feel the authenticity!
And taste it, too. This is hardcore stuff. Small barbecues are placed along our table, and live shrimps brought out for us to cook. To protect our delicate Western sensibilities, the waiters obligingly pith the shrimps for us at the table, so that we don’t actually cook them alive. Nevertheless, the ensuing rigor mortis means that they are still writhing around as they fry. It is all too much for Jennifer Lopez, one of the vegetarians, who excuses herself rapidly and dashes outside for a cigarette.
In stark contrast, K – a committed and adventurous carnivore if ever there was one – is delighted to find scorpion on the menu. We are duly taken down to inspect the tank of live scorpions at the back of the restaurant, near the kitchens. One of the kitchen staff extracts a scorpion, briefly placing it underneath his T-shirt for a laugh. Oo-er.
The cooked scorpion is served up whole, still in its shell, unceremoniously plonked on a plate with no sauce or garnish to detract from the purity of the experience. To eat it, you simply lift the blackened creature to your mouth, and start chomping. The shell is fairly soft by now, and can be easily spat out. The rest of the group oohs and aahs as K boldly takes his first bite. What does it taste like? Rather nutty, apparently. Quite dry, but perfectly pleasant. K offers the scorpion round to everybody, but I am the only one who takes up his offer. A quick little nibble suffices, and I pass it back to K, who devours the rest with relish.
It is said that after eating scorpion, you may experience a mild form of euphoria. K confirms this later on, when he uncharacteristically refuses a beer on the grounds that it would “spoil the effect of the scorpion.” Good grief – the man really must be as high as a kite.
Most of us round off the evening in a decidedly dodgy bar, with a Wild West saloon theme…and hostesses. In this part of town, there isn’t an awful lot of choice, apparently. We note with curiosity the row of toothbrushes in the corridor outside the loos, with a ladder leading to a mysterious darkened loft above. It’s a quiet night, and our arrival easily doubles the clientele. It probably also dampens the atmosphere. (Jeanne Moreau, cheerfully and with a certain amount of relish: “I bet they hate the fact that there are women in here now. We’re like cold water, aren’t we!”) After five minutes or so, the management actually turn the lights up on us. Half an hour or so later, presumably having written the night off as a dead loss at this stage, they shut the bar early. Or maybe that was just a tactic to get rid of us…who knows?
My lesions already in abeyance, I sleep like a baby.