The woman who mistook her menu for a hat…and Agent Orange


We shall gloss over 15 hours on a plane, sitting in front of an obese man whose snoring made me want to punch him repeatedly in the face. Mind you, I’d have had to have joined the queue. His every blissful snooze sounded like a particularly perniciousdeath rattle – you could practically hear the sucking vaccuum in his sinuses. His wife sat next to him with a peculiarly fixed expression on her face. He was also, unfortunately, clearly a person who has no trouble sleeping on planes as he slept deeply, joyfully and noisily whenever we weren’t eating.

I shall also draw a curtain over eating a curry at what was 4am UK time, 7am Doha time, and who knows Saigon time. I was a broken woman by the time I reached Saigon.

(ooh – time to go for a cocktail on a rooftop bar – to be continued)

Saigon is adrenaline and style on a stick. I love the taxi ride into a new place after you get off the plane. Saigon was an assault on the senses in every conceivable way. For a start, there is what looks like a constant motorbike rally going on. The streets crawl with them and the constant hoot and beep, but not the way we hoot and beep in anger at home. These hoots and beeps just say ‘I’m here’ ‘Don’t knock me over!’ ‘Thank you;. And crossing the road is an art form. I sort of remembered this from previous travels. At a zebra crossing the traffic will never stop for you. You have to walk straight out into a flood of oncoming cars, bike, buses and trucks and trust they will avoid you. So, first road I had to cross, off I went – straight into the path of a hundred motorized killing machines. Unfortunately what I hadn’t noticed is that this was one of the rare crossings where there are actually traffic signals. And the pedestrian signal was on red. Saigon paused momentarily and dropped its collective jaw and everyone leant on their horn as I with a certain amount of panache if not wisdom strode out into the unsuspecting traffic. Clearly I survived…..but I don’t think it’s anything to be proud of….

Bikes, heat, whistles, street vendors, a scrum of people wandering, selling, watching the world go by, shopping, eating. It’s busy invigorating, exciting and fun. It’s hot, sweaty, hectic but good tempered.

My first day in Saigon I did the ‘Lonely Planet Walking Tour’. Distance 5Km, estimated time 6 hours. Ha. This included 4 museums, Fine Art (lovely) the Ho Chinh Minh City Museum (boring as crap – all old pots and land tilling equipment), the War Remnants Museum (bloody hell) and the Reunification Palace. (Whatever) Unfortunately I got lost on the bit of the walk that allowed me to stop for an ice cream in a French villa. Annoying.

The War Remnants Museum was horrific. Everything about the atrocity of the Vietnam War. I had no idea about Agent Orange. The US sprayed dioxin on great swathes of the land. Dioxin alters the DNA and hideous malformations are being passed down to babies born even today. Photos and photos of the most hideous growths and disfigurements. A 21 year old girl who lives her life behind bars as otherwise she bites and gnaws everything in sight. Siamese twins conjoined in dreadful ways, the utter evil of the US government experimenting with chemical weapons on innocent civilians. As I stumbled downstairs after this display, I hear piano music coming from a band in the corner and I wandered over to have a look. As I got nearer I realisded the boy playing the piano had no eyes – and not just sockets but blind – but smooth skin where his eyes should have been – there never had been eyes and the rest of the group were all as hideously disfigured. There is nothing more to say on this.

I then made my way to the Reunification Plaace – a huge communist building filled with staterooms. I trailed round the, – the basement was more interesting – a sort of Vietnamese version of the Cabinet War rooms – except every room just had a desk and 2 phones, one green and one white. Then I saw a room saying ‘Video – in English’ – ooh – a chance for a sit down. When I opned the door – it was blessedly cool from the airconditioning, dark – and full of Westerners having a kip while a video played. I say down and promptly dropped off myself.

On my way back to the hotel, (in a basket being pedalled by a man on a bike – a wicked way to travel!) I stopped off at quite a nice air conditioned restaurant for a diet coke. Lots of white tablecloths inside and it was clearly no backpacker type place. Dear reader I came extremely close however to putting the menu ON MY HEAD. Why? They crought me a conical Vietnamese hat, I took it with some confusion…was one meant to wear this hat to order? – Just as I was automatically raising the hat to put it on, I realised no one else was ordering in hats and I noticed it had writing on it. It was in fact, the menu. I deftly switched my ‘putting on hat’ gestures to ‘reading the menu hat’ gesture (not an easy feat – but it’s not for nothing I won the Glos Best Actress Award) and disaster and humilation narrowly averted.

What sort of idiot would mistake their menu for a hat? The sort of idiot who walks into oncoming traffic I suppose….