KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We weren't sure of our plans for meeting up with my sister in Vietnam, but we remembered how pleased my brother David and his wife Jeong Ae were that we were at the airport to meet them in Beijing. We decided to fly directly to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and meet Donna, Hunter and Aidan at the airport as a surprise. We booked a flight from Hue that would arrive one hour before theirs. When we landed, we looked for the taxi driver that was dispatched from the Red Sun Hotel to meet them. We found him with a sign that he was holding up. I asked him if I could hold the sign and he was pleased to go off for a smoking break.
At last we spied our three weary travellers collecting their luggage and working their way towards the exit. Then there was an unusual hold-up. From a distance it looked like all the passengers were required to put all their luggage through a scanner as they left the airport. Now that's a new twist in homeland security. As Donna came out of the airport, she started looking for a sign with her name on it. You can imagine her surprise when she spotted me holding it high over the heads of the crowd. We had a warm and happy reunion; the first time we had ever met each other overseas. Donna kept saying how pleased she was to be joining us after watching me roam the world since she was ten years old.
The three were in pretty good shape as they had broken their journey from Canada with a week in Hong Kong and Macau. We piled into two taxis, the girls in one and the boys in the other. Donna and I had a good chance to talk while we drove into the city and all along the way she kept exclaiming that she was finally in the Asia she had imagined. She had enjoyed Hong Kong but felt that it was just a big modern city and she was really looking forward to seeing something a little more ethnic. Donna and her two younger sons arrived ahead of Duncan and Logan, the oldest son; they were due to arrive late on Dec 23rd. We suggested that Donna take the two boys to see the Cu Chi Tunnels on a day tour, as there wasn't a lot of time when the whole family could travel together. Duncan and Logan were scheduled to stay two extra days in Saigon and they could make the Cu Chi tour at the end of their stay.
We hadn't booked a hotel in Saigon before arriving and we found that the Red Sun was fully booked, but the receptionist helped us find another hotel in the area. Unfortunately, their only available room was on the sixth floor and it was a real ordeal dragging our luggage up the narrow stairs. The next morning, we changed to a newly built hotel almost next door to the Red Sun and stayed there for the balance of our time in Saigon. It would have been better for all of us to stay together but it was a busy time and we were just happy that we found a comfortable place for everyone to stay.
Donna, Hunter and Aidan enjoyed their day trip to the Cu Chi tunnels and were really looking forward to the arrival of Duncan and Logan that evening. To pass the time, we decided to walk down to the city center and have a look at the most modern part of Saigon. Boy were we in for a surprise! As we approached the main streets of the Don Koi district, we found crowds of people gathering along the sidewalks to view the Christmas lights strung on all the buildings and above the streets. There was a real carnival atmosphere, with dozens of vendors selling huge balloons, many with Christmas themes. We were surprised to see how many people had dressed their children up in Santa costumes and were posing them in front of the shop window Christmas displays. The motorcycle traffic on the streets was thicker than we were used to seeing in Vietnam and it just kept getting worse. Not only were there lots of motorcycles, but each one was packed with people, some with as many as five or six. They were obviously out to see and be seen as many were dressed in Christmas finery.
At times there was total gridlock - with no one moving in any direction, not even the five of us on the sidewalk. We tried to take a little video clip of the scene before us, but nothing can capture the experience properly. As we turned to head back to our hotel, we found the oncoming traffic had driven up on to the sidewalk in an attempt to move forward, and we were squeezing between the motorcycles and climbing over some trying to enter from the small lanes and side streets. It wasn't dangerous, just incredible. We read later in the guide-book that this sort of thing happens every Sunday evening; only in Saigon. The young people love to be out and about for what appears to be a party on wheels. This Sunday though, it was really over the top as whole families were out to celebrate the Christmas season.
Exhausted from the long day, Anil and I went to bed, but Donna stayed up late waiting for the taxi to bring the men from the airport. At around 1:00 am the driver arrived and announced that they weren't on the flight. Donna fired up her Blackberry and found a message from Jeong Ae that Duncan and Logan had missed the flight in Vancouver because there were mechanical difficulties with the aircraft leaving Edmonton and they were delayed at the start of their journey by over five hours. They contacted their travel agent at the AMA and she quickly booked them seats on the next Cathay Pacific flight to Hong Kong. Luckily Cathay has two flights a day whereas Air Canada only has one.
In the end, after a long ordeal, Duncan and Logan arrived, without their baggage, in Saigon about twelve hours late. We'd had a message that they were arriving in the evening and were out having breakfast when they got to the hotel. Unfortunately, we didn't return to the hotel before setting out to spend the day touring the markets and riding in cyclos, so we didn't meet up until late afternoon. This gave Duncan and Logan a chance to shower and have a meal on their own, but it would have been nice to be together sooner. It was Christmas Eve after all.
We were all surprised to see how festive the city was decorated for Christmas. It really helped to put us in the mood. Anil and I treated the McColls to dinner at Stella's to celebrate their arrival. We also presented each of the McColls with a present from David and Jeong Ae. They wanted to make the McColls millionaires, so the present was one million Vietnamese Dong each. Anil and I also gave them some beautiful Christmas tree ornaments to help them remember this special Christmas - their first away from Canada.
We had a great meal with drinks and dessert and were delighted to see the bill - for 999,000 VND.
The next morning the McColls were booked on a two-day tour of the Mekong Delta. There was no time to waste as we were only going to be together in Vietnam for eight days. Just as they were leaving, a taxi arrived with the missing luggage, but there was no time to retrieve anything so Duncan and Logan left without a change of clothes or their razors. Talk about toughing it out on the road.
Anil and I spent the time relaxing, catching up on uploading photos to the journal, and visiting a couple of sights that we had not seen when we were in Saigon previously.
We also happened to find a resort company that had properties in Dalat and Mui Ne and so we booked accommodations with plans to spend New Year's Eve at the Dynasty Beach Resort in Mui Ne.
For our last night in Saigon before heading inland, we all went to a highly rated Vietnamese outdoor restaurant called Quan An Ngom. The restaurant is unique in that there are cooking stations all along the perimeter where guests can view the dishes being steamed, grilled, sautéed and then make their selections. It was a real treat to see foods that we wouldn't eat (seafood, etc.), but could delight in seeing prepared. Hunter was impressed with the fact that the overhead fans had small water hoses attached so that the fans sprayed a cooling mist of water over us while we were dining.
Our holiday together was off to a great start.