days earlier I'd arrived in Ho Chi Minh City for what
was to be another adventure of a lifetime. The previous twenty years seemed to
be full of them, but I wasn't getting any younger and had no serious ties as
such so what the hell. Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as it
was formerly known is a very unusual place in as much as there is no other
place really like it. It's food is very influenced by
French cuisine, making it unique for that part of the world. The people are a
mixture of kind and loving to fanatically patriotic and the weather varies
between the very hot of summer to the sub tropical rainstorms that blow in from
the Indo China sea and wreak havoc in their wake.
I'd had my fill of the big city though so
fulfilled another ambition by riding on the Reunification Express. With its one
and only railway track that stretched from Saigon
to Hanoi it was my means of escape. The full twelve hundred
and fifty mile trip could take anything between forty-five and sixty hours,
depending on how many disturbances there were on the way. Disturbances
that came in a variety forms. It could be a simple meeting with a train
coming from the opposite direction, or a passenger losing a goat to thieves
holding up the train. Whilst in reality the latter wasn't so commonplace the
former was a regular occurrence. I wasn't going all the way though. I only
wanted to go far enough to be somewhere else but close enough to fly to Bangkok if I really needed to escape.
After an event filled trip which included
meals cooked on gas burners in the middle of the train, animals crawling over
me on the train, and tying my luggage to the overhead racks like everybody else
did to prevent it being stolen on the train NhaTrang finally arrived ten hours later at Unlike most other destinations I'd made it to I was
on my lonesome. Not a sole was in sight save the all night vendors who seem to
be everywhere in the Far East. All in all it's a pretty industrious region where
people do what they can to earn a crust of bread. The only problem is that so
often that's all they ever get. Whatever, I hailed a pedlo
(cycle pulled rickshaw) and gave it's driver my
instructions in the only word that we both understood, "hotel"
After ten minutes or so, in the distance, and
from the general direction of the centre of the palm lined avenue that we were
on came the sound of rock music. As we got closer the music got louder until as
we passed it's source I saw the large loudspeaker amid
the leaves of one of the trees. There wasn't the sign of any action. No people.
No buildings. No anything. Just a speaker in a tree with rock
music blasting out at four in the morning. Believe me when I say,
"Viet-Nam is a very crazy place".
Everything about the country is unusual. From
the discarded warships on the banks of Saigon's aptly named Saigon River that
the locals live in, or the local delicacies of deep fried chicks (complete with
their feathers), or snake blood, to the insanity of my ten hour seven dollar
train journey that had a handling fee of twelve dollars. All in all the place was driving me nuts and I had to get out.
NhaTrang doesn't have a travel
agency as much as a roadside hut that made the necessary arrangements for such
movement from one place to another. I'd been arguing the toss with the receptionist
for some time over the availability of a seat on the next days
flight and it was only out of sheer frustration that I'd eventually agreed to
take a seat the day after. Offering to pay, for the first time since I'd
arrived in the country, I heard the dreaded words, "sorry, no take
dollar". From the day I'd arrived in that god forsaken country I hadn't
been asked for the local currency once. Of course the street vendors wanted the
local currency of dong but when it came to established businesses like hotels
and travel agents, they almost insisted on American bucks.
Realising that it was getting late in the
day, sooner than argue any more I stepped outside, hailed a pedlo,
and pronounced "bank". Five minutes later we were there, only to be
told that it was just closing. After summoning all my grovelling powers I
managed to gain entry and eventually obtain my passport to freedom....money.
The pedlo driver was still waiting in the torrential
tropical rainstorm which didn't seem to worry him as long as he got his fare. So.off we went in the opposite
direction until we came to a very wet stop outside the travel hut. "Sorry,
finish" the girl informed me as she turned the key in the lock. I was by
this time very angry and not in the mood for taking no for an answer. I started
to rant and rave that it was only because of her refusal to accept dollars that
I had to leave in the first place and if she only had some kind of modern
facilities in the hut, like a credit card machine her work would have been
finished a long time ago.
Reluctantly, she opened the door again and
offered me the one way ticket for the next but one day that was already made
out in my name. I was on a roll. I was beginning to see things going my way so
I resorted to my original stance. "I don't want to fly on that plane. I
want a seat tomorrow". "But all seat tomorrow full". "I
don't care. What if the king of Viet-Nam or whatever you call him wanted a
seat? You'd find him one wouldn't you"? "Well, umm". "O.k. I'll take his". No matter what she said,
there was no way she was gonna win, and after another
ten minutes I got my way and a ticket for the next morning.
Back at my luxury four-star, seven dollar a
night (yes, it really is that cheap there) I lay on the bed contemplating the
events of the last few hours. Now you can call me a superstitious fool if you
like but the next thing that happened really gave me the spooks. If you were to
ask me my favourite number I instinctively say five and thirteen. I don't know
why but I do. Well, there I was laying on the bed,
staring through the window at the rain wondering "what the hell am I doing
here? This is supposed to be a holiday"! Looking down at my watch it was
spot on five-o-clock. Then, turning to my ticket for the next morning I
realised for the first time that I was flying on Friday the Thirteenth. I
didn't know if it was supposed to be good or bad but whatever else it was
supposed to be it was scary.
The next morning I arrived in enough time to
see our plane touch down on the first leg of it's trip
from Saigon to NhaTrang.
As it hit the tarmac it bounced a dozen or so times and jumped and swerved left
and right as many times before coming to a stop at the other end of the runway.
Oh boy, I'd made my bed and was about to lay in it. Or was I? I still didn't
know if the five and thirteen thing was good or bad and now I was even more
I eventually took off in the same plane that
had just bounced all over the tarmac when arriving, landed in Saigon, flew on
to KoSamui via Bangkok, had
a glorious five days of wind free sunshine and took the boat from the island
resort of KoSamui to SuratThani on the Thai mainland,
en route for Phuket in the South. Half way across, I
noticed a girl wearing a "Good Morning Viet-Nam" tee-shirt. From her
looks she was obviously European so I just had to ask. "Yes, I've been
there with my daughter and husband for the last three months. Did you hear
about the plane"? "What plane"? Oh, there was a crash last
Saturday. The flight from NhaTrang to Saigon. There
were no survivors".
I still have the ticket stub for the doomed
flight number crossed out and overwritten with the previous days
number. If it hadn't been for my insistence I would have been on it, but that
doesn't matter. I was later to discover that a Dutch lady had survived by
taking off her top and drinking the rainwater she'd squeezed from it until she
was found, lost and disheartened, eight delirious days later in the jungle. I
firmly believe that had I been on the flight I would have been in her seat.