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Indochina Day 9 – The night train to Hanoi

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Having been dropped at the station and saying goodbye to Phu Duc and Mr Long, we bought some beers and later swopped them for colder ones on the platform.

The train was about 15 minutes later arriving than its scheduled 4.28pm departure and we were grateful for the privacy of our own compartment once we had scaled the steep steps onto the red rust coloured carriage number 10 of 11.

We soon barricaded ourselves in once we had satisfied the guard that we had possession of all four of the seat tickets necessary to secure the sole use of compartment 1.

Several glasses of wine and a shared pack of la vache qui rire cheese later we were rocked to sleep under duvets and on sheets provided.

At 4am I woke and thought we were already in Hanoi such was the size if the city we were going through and I nearly woke Heather but luckily made the right decision and stared out into the darkness through rain splattered windows instead.

5pm and to the tunes of the Hanoi song which would be a shoe-in for the indochinese song contest if there ever was such a thing and we were leaping down the 6ft or so drop luggage in hand into the damp dusty platform of Hanoi central where Sunny (by name and nature) was smilingly waiting to greet us.

We then went on an early morning tour of the flower market, heading in to central Hanoi afterwards for a delicious Pho chicken breakfast at a small street cafe where we ladled red chillies gingerly into a sweet and sour broth with soft white rice noodles and a variety of green leaves along with slices of chicken breast.

Easing ourselves from the low stools we headed for a vietnamese black coffee right in the centre under the puppet theatre and not far from our hotel, watching the city gradually gear itself up into the whirlwind of scooters and commuters that buzzed incessantly all day.

Off for some serious tourism now before checking in – Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum where after queuing an hour or so in pairs – a game the Chinese don’t seem to get at all, we all filed slowly past the waxy but peaceful looking body of the famous communist leader and “uncle” to the people.

Having asked in his will to be cremated, we wondered about how he might have felt about becoming such a celebrity sight to thousands of people daily and the inevitable indignity of being sent away to the Russians every September for a cosmetic make over?

His houses were indicative of the simple values of the man who is so revered in Vietnam by young and old and we found learning about him was fascinating as sunny peeled back the layers on the complex history of the region from the Vietnamese perspective. “History is written by the victor” someone said and nowhere is this truer than here.

The white guards jauntily marched bouquets of flowers to their position in front of the feng shue designed building and Chinese tourists squabbled with each other to get photos taken in every possible location around the site.

Then the one pyramid pagoda – an impressive reconstruction of a very old building and after that the visit to the Ethnological museum. 51 different groups and we met them all… Fascinating and yet too much to digest. One of those cases that once you know how much there is to know…

Lunch was Ban Cha – barbecued pork patties in a sweet and sour broth. My favorite dish of the trip so far. Sunny laughed with the owner about one of her previous charges washing his hands under the fish sauce tap. Only in Vietnam would they use the sauce so extensively that they actually pipe it in.

Kept her in fits of giggle thoughout the lunch while we enjoyed spring rolls and a local beer.

After lunch the old university (1040) temple and Buddhist, Tao and Confucian influences could be seen and explained. Left leg in, right leg out. We hoki kokied around the graduating students who made the earlier Chinese look amateurish when it came to taking photos – well it was a special occasion for them so understandable.

Back to the hotel to wash and change before settling in to watch the water puppet show where the best part was sitting next to a young Chinese or Vietnamese boy who got so excited by the antics in front of him that he fell off his chair.

Then a cyclo tour of the old town before getting my shoes resoled and cleaned for £7. The young lad did well…

Dinner at Little Hanoi was pleasant and we slept well in our luxurious suite at the Church Hotel despite not being able to turn the lights off.

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Indochina Day 10 – Halong Bay

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After breakfast we left at 8am to drive the three hours or so to Halong Bay, getting stopped by a policeman on a trumped up charge of alleged speeding which cost our driver $25 in an on the spot fine. Apparently incidences like this get more common before Xmas holidays. Funny that.

We embarked on the Auco number 2 – might need a rebrand, but the ship itself was large and comfortable and our cabin had a balcony which we took full advantage of. Our first cruise started really well, with good food for buffet lunch and a trip around a floating village being rowed by one of the local ladies in a coracle. The marine equivalent of a rickshaw ride.

We saw pearls being engineered. Back to the boat for a rest and shower before happy hour. All hands (and feet) on deck…

Dinner of steak and prawns and oysters before back to our balcony to admire the night view, having passed on the optional spring roll making and squid fishing lessons.

A good nights sleep at anchor in this unique and beautiful part of the world.

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Indochina Day 8 – Dwarfless in Hue

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After another Pho for breakfast we were ready for our Perfume River trip.

Walking down the road a bit we then embarked on an old but private dragon decorated boat.

After having an unsuccessful haggle on board over the price of the small prints – we would have bought more had the crew member and first mate (same person) discounted from the ludicrously small sum of £1.50 down to something more reasonable. Discounts only available for purchases of 5 or more. Oh well. We will just have to pay full retail. But it was an unsatisfactory haggle on both sides and we eyed each other suspiciously.

Later I bought two over priced cans of seven up and gave her a generous tip for the trip as I was conscious that this is how the poorer people of this country are trying to make their living.

I later crumpled the print by putting the camera on top of it anyway. I still feel that she should negotiate a bit to encourage more sales and told Phu so. He was largely unsympathetic to the idea. I guess he might be right – they are so cheap – why haggle? He may not realise that we love haggling so we have been deprived of entertainment by people just try to earn a living. He has his priorities right I reckon….

We had to rush inside in case the river police saw us sitting outside on the bow of the boat. But that didn’t detract at all from a lovely river trip. 3 hours of being on the water. Still no pictures of fishermen although we do now have a nice but slightly crinkled print.

The tomb of the king was great – tranquil, picturesque and feng shue at its finest. Not many visitors so we lingered a bit.

600 wives and 168 children – no wonder he died at 51 Heather rightly observed.

On the way back to town we stopped in at a vegetarian restuarant run by nuns. Although we didn’t see any. Delicious food although we hadn’t a clue what we were ordering. When it arrived, mushrooms in tomato sauce, fried tofu and vegetable spring rolls were all very tasty. More rice than we could eat despite asking for a small one. A nice surprise when we realised that we didn’t need to pay as the tour company was picking the bill up despite that it being stated on the itinerary. Still who were we to argue -don’t look a £3 gift horse in the mouth!

Back to the hotel for a shower and change before heading to the station for the overnight train to Hanoi. I’m writing this in my bunk, having locked Heather and I in probably unnecessarily but heeding Phu’s advice. Not all of it though – he also suggested getting drunk on rice wine to be able to sleep. Well it is a bit lumpy but that’s part of the charm. The tour company booked all 4 seats for us in a compartment which was a good idea as we could stretch out and enjoy a glass of wine. Until the stomach trouble started – where’s that Imodium?

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Indochina Day 7 – Doc in Hue

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We headed from the hotel to Hue via a spectacular mountain pass with a convenient rest stop at the top although the low cloud meant we should have stopped to admire the view sooner.

“Where you from?” was the most popular phrase used by the persistent sales ladies at the roadside cafe. “Llanllachairn” we said which normally closed the line of enquiry neatly.

Avoiding buying pearls but regretting not stopping to photograph the lone fisherman in the lagoon at the bottom if the pass we had a near miss with a young girl on a cyclist. Phu remarked that 30 people a day were dying in accidents on Vietnams roads – a rate of death he thought was higher than during the war in the ’60s although I couldn’t compute that.

Phu explained private health cover versus the general population insurance. Of course if you have the money to get treated privately you will get seen quicker and by better physicians. Familiar story anyone? Anyway Phu Duc gives us the Doc dwarf of the day theme…

We stopped at a temple of one of the last kings – the last but one. Gay, so he allowed his wife to sleep with others in order to have his line succeed. Allegedly. His tomb is an interesting mix of Western and Oriental architecture although his taste in ceramics didn’t match mine. Oh and the temple could do with a good clean outside but I guess a communist government wouldn’t spend any taxpayers money on royalist restoration projects…

We pulled up at our hotel after a nice lunch at Mango and Banana – just outside the gates. But we decided we weren’t tired so didn’t take the offer of a rest period but went to the market where Phu showed us a bucket of frogs and cows penis among other delicacies.

After that we went to visit the citadel – hugely impressive even after substantial damage in the war and ongoing visible restoration projects. A couple of caches later we went back to the hotel to check in. A bath! Took advantage of that and then later found a lovely restaurant where we had the best food of our trip so far after we abandoned the noisy bar with the noisy Dutch people. And got stung at the ATM when it just charged £1.50 for a withdrawal without warning.

If only I could remember the name of the restuarant. I might have to street view it..

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Indochina Day 6 – Dopey in Hoi An

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A day off! Mind you it’s hardly been tough. Completely the opposite. Apart from losing both my heroes in GoW due to not concentrating after we got back from dinner last night, (Dopey!) it’s been stress free.

Heather sensibly had suggested that we do our cooking course through the hotel and that proved a good decision when the skies opened after the hotel boat had taken us to the market.

Dressed in an orange cagool, trying to keep the camera and the little cinnamon pot dry while wading around in ankle deep water rushing down the streets surrounding the market we were glad we didn’t have to walk back to the hotel.

We met Graham and Chris the Aussie couple who had suggested Pho instead of fish in banana and brought the price down to £16 for the morning each at 9.00am and we soon discovered they were a very interesting couple.

They had obviously done well, through running an upmarket wine shop in Melbourne which they have passed on to daughter and son in law, the latter running it now. Graham had served in the Vietnam war so had a fascinating insight into the history which we really enjoyed hearing about over lunch. A lunch which we were about to cook having sourced the ingredients in ths market under the watchful eye of the hotel’s young guide, Tam.

Back to the hotel to learn how to prepare spring rolls, shrimp and prawn pancakes, a lotus salad and the beef pho. Delicious even if we say so ourselves. With three of the hotels chefs helping me to reconstruct the pancake that I had flipped inside out, how could we go wrong? I guess we could have lost a digit or two with the large chopping knife but luckily no fingers were lost in the making of this meal.

After Graham had supplied a bottle of Vietnamese red, a far cry from his normal stock in trade but very quaffable, we enjoyed the chat and the chow.

Still heavy rain and we marvelled at the video Graham showed us of the resort the week before we arrived – up to the waist in water! We hadn’t noticed the effects of the flood at all and it was hard to believe that only a week ago the snakes had been wriggling along the tops of four foot high hedges, having been driven up by heavy flooding and then poked with a stick by Graham – even the poisonous ones! Apparently the staff were terrific and all the guests bar 6 Aussies relocated, while they stayed for the adventure and their holiday was literally baled out.

After a rest and a bit of emailing and game of war planning we went back into town for a lovely meal. After picking up our clean washing from Mrs Van of course. Pleased to see me as she was, the 22 items for £3 seemed good value.

In town the previous night we had sailed a few candles down the river for good luck so no need tonight. We remembered the umbrella and went back to the hotel for a nightcap.

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Indochina Day 5 – Bashful in Hoi An

After Pho for breakfast we waited a little while for Phu our guide who had forgotten our train tickets and had to go back for them – wherever that was, and even though we didn’t need them for a few days.

We took a drive to the My Son sanctuary, which took about an hour. On arrival it was beautifully humid and jungle-y. We decided to pass on the traditional recreation of the Cham dances and head up towards the ruins themselves, impressive and atmospheric although covered in a thick layer of tourists, which we added to.

Russians barged past us and French and Germans jostled with South Korean and Japanese. I became aware that we hadn’t seen any birds anywhere yet and even in this dense foliage bird life was noticeable by its absence. (I have since read a book on the Vietnam war and the author, a soldier, said there were no birds in Vietnam when the war was taking place – obviously frightened away by the bombing.)

We explored the site and ignored the cache. Under a stone indeed… The brickwork was again mortarless like other sites of this era around the world (11th century). The occupation by the VC and subsequent bombing by the US meant 60 percent of the site was destroyed. What remains is impressive although attempts to reconstruct are less so. The original bricks don’t allow moss to grow on them, but the newly replaced ones do for instance..

Back to the hotel and we walked into town finally crossing the river to the north for the first time but only just getting across the bridge before falling into the first restaurant where accompanied by the strains of the petrol generator next door we watched babies balancing badly on bikes while biting down on fish in banana leaves and grilled shrimp. Yum! Oh no – I can’t say that. Must find out why it’s rude in Vietnamese…

We wandered the streets of the old town after lunch sizing up the cooking class opportunities before heading back to the hotel to soak up the remaining sun just as the other sunbeds were being released by their occupants. Bliss.

The hotel offered a street food market in the garden with a classical guitarist who was good apart from one song – Heather couldn’t recognise it. But then she doesn’t recognise the classics when I play them either, so I’m in good company. It’s no wonder no one dines in the hotel at night – no one needs to eat after the excellent free food served in the garden.

We did though, heading back into town to Morning Glory (strange name) for a very good meal after a conference call with Patrick and Gordon to talk about Mobiflock branding. Skype held up remarkably well!

Why Bashful? Well the sweet lady cashier at the bar told me off for working on my emails instead of being properly attentive to Heather and then looked terribly bashful when she realised she was criticising the guests.

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Indochina Day 4 – Sneezy in Saigon

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Breakfast was again an excellent selection of fresh fruit and Pho and the woman next table to us set the theme of the day through loudly and repeatedly sneezing. 😄

A slightly later start of 9.30 for our city tour with Mr Liam which involved a car trip round china town in district 5, about 4km from the centre. Then back into the centre to walk through the main hotel district before popping into the post office and visiting the outside of the notre dame cathedral. Quick cache and dash with some Germans looking for the same nano. Our first find in Vietnam!

After a short but messy lunch break in a local restaurant not much used by tourists but would be a good recommendation, we drive out to Cu Chi to see the tunnels of the Vietcong resistance fighters.

Fascinating insight into the incredible
hardships and harsh conditions experienced by the locals and the troops on both sides but amazing how the VC were able to live underground for long periods of time.

I was able to manage 50 metres of damp highly claustrophobic tunnel before being shown to the surface. And the tunnels were on three levels – the lowest being 8-10 metres below the surface.

Deciding shooting an AK47 wasn’t for us, although we heard loads of others doing so, we got taken to the airport where we had a few hours before the flight to Danang.

All went smoothly and the plane was much newer than the one from Gatwick so no loud noises this time!

Met by Fu and Mr Long the driver and taken by car to the hotel in Hoi An – a thirty five km trip on empty roads. We saw the sea and the huge golf complexes and giant hotels that told of advancing tourism in these parts.

We arrived at the Vuang Hang Riverside hotel at around 9pm and were greeted at our room by an enormous spider the size of my hand. Giving it plenty of respect we tried to shower but with no hot water and then no water at all that proved tricky.

By the time they fixed the water issue it was 10pm as we left the hotel again giving the spider a wide berth.

We went into the first Restuarant we came to where the French lady owner assured us she was still serving dinner even as we saw all the market stalls being dismantled outside.

A very nice meal and time for bed. Spider was nowhere to be seen on our return – almost making it worse…

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Indochina Day 3 – Happy in the Mekong Delta

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Waking early and refreshed in an very comfy bed in what proved to be a really good hotel, we joined breakfast and enjoyed dragon fruit, some indeterminate red fruit which may or may not have been the flower of a banana tree, and guava juice. The breakfast pho was also superb although Heather decided that scrambled eggs was more her thing. After buckets of tea, we were ready for the day and met Mr Liam, our guide, in reception at 8am.

Bundled into a gleaming land cruiser driven by the elderly Mr Kao, we tackled rush hour Saigon (Mr Liam explained that the city of 9 million inhabitants was called Saigon by the locals in the spoken word but referred to as Ho Chi Minh City in writing) on the way to our destination for today which was the Mekong Delta, some three hours drive or 170 km away.

We were told about the nine districts in three concentric circles within the city and shown the bridges that connected districts on the way through the teeming mass of vehicles most of which were the ubiquitous Honda scooters. At least the traffic was moving here, unlike when we were in Bangkok those 12 or 13 years ago.

We were shown the reclaimed land that had made the squatters rich overnight when the government reclaimed the land they were on next to the Saigon river, by paying the illegal inhabitants $50 per square metre and rehousing them in apartments provided nearby. Unsurprisingly, many took the cash and built great piles in the country where land is cheap, and rented out their apartments to live off the income. But it did achieve the aim of creating good roads that allowed the great numbers of incoming inhabitants who had given up the rice paddies in search of a more prosperous urban existence, to get from home to work on their Honda scooters…

Two children are allowed per couple we learned, better indeed that in China where of course male babies in the one per family system were so much more desirable to extend the family dynasty that female foetuses are being aborted apparently at 5 months or so.

Despite the restrictions here imposed through making the parents cover the financial cost of the birth of a third child (a significant sum in the tens of thousands of dollars) which could be afforded by the more affluent city traders, but not by the rural majority, the population in Vietnam continues to grow exponentially with over 90 million Vietnamese now in the country. Think of all those scooters!

The freeway (not free) had two lanes, one for 100km per hour and one for 80km per hour. The latter was empty and we spent much of the time tailgating the slow vehicles in our faster (in theory) lane.

Red licence plates for military and blue for government officials replaced each other in front of ours although we didn’t see any yellow ones which would have been ex pats allowed a car after three years residency.

We stopped at the “Happy House” – Mr Liam’s quaint name for the local equivalent of the motorway service station, a place to pee and get a coffee. So we did and had our first local black coffee which was good although slightly sweet and with a tinge of chicory.

Mr Liam kept us amused as he quizzed me as to what the 5 main criteria were that I regarded as most important in a good wife. Heather looked on wryly as I spluttered to come to terms with the question and fumbled my way feebly through an answer including companionship and cooking. His were:

Cooking
Looking after the children
Not complaining at him
Not comparing him with other men
Sex

We arrived at the boat embarkation point at Cai Be and had a private boat to ourselves. We then floated through the area where the market would take place although it was long since over. We ended up on an island where we were shown how they make puffed rice, coconut candy, rice noodles and we drank the snake wine and snacked on peanut brittle, candied banana and a host of other delicacies. We bought a few pairs of cinnamon scented sandals a salad server set, a fridge magnet and some jasmine tea which had washed away the taste of the earlier snake wine quite successfully.

We then got back on the boat and went to a restuarant where we were served Elephant ear fish which I originally thought was so named because the fish looked like an elephants ear but I then realised once I had my first mouthful was because it tasted like it. To be fair they served us lots of other dishes too which were delicious and I was starting to realise that my ambition of losing some weight on this trip was going to be challenging.

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We jumped back on the boat after lunch and headed for the other side of the river to pick up the car. Agreeing that another market would be too similar to make it worth the stop at, we headed back to Saigon to try and beat the rush hour.

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We ate out that evening at the local BBQ where we had an excellent light meal of prawns and chicken skewers which we were able to cook ourselves on the hot plate in the centre of the table.

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Indochina Day 2 – Sleepy in Ho Chi Minh City

The plane touched down at 7.05 after it looked like we were doing a city tour in it before landing. We passed over lots of rice fields with brown water everywhere and rivers bursting their boundaries.

The visa process was run by a man grumpier than me, which I didn’t think was possible. Several visitors seemed oblivious of the process involved and that made him grumpier. Luckily we were first in the queue and the “Rawson” shout soon signalled our acceptability to the communist government of Vietnam, if not to its officials. $90 helped smooth the way.

After tracking down the luggage, and having it scanned, we were then met by the young representative of Go Travel, who took us to the hotel and explained he had learned his excellent English in Australia during a three year stint at college in Manley Island. He had moved to Saigon from Hanoi and it was cold in Hanoi. 10 degrees.

8 million people in Saigon, most of them on scooters. Although the traffic was heavy, it moved, unlike Bangkok. We were at the Liberty Central Hotel in half an hour.

Unable to check in to our room we went out to explore and saw the old opera house, now a theatre, the Hotel Continental, and even walked through a shopping centre to get a respite from the humidity by enjoying the air conditioning within it.

After we agreed that we were both too hot to carry on walking and having tried and failed at a Multi which involved counting the numbers of cows (I swear one was a sheep) on the market walls, and visiting the Ho Ch Minh gardens and statue before ending up at the roots of an old tree surrounded by people, we went back to the hotel to await our room being ready.

It was, and after a glorious shower we had some lunch in the bistro downstairs before having a sleep in the afternoon. Waking at around six we had a very pleasant evening in the surroundings of the hotel, starting in the bar for happy hour, then sitting opposite the market and people watching in the outside pavement bar until a couple of large rats put us off that idea, especially when they started jumping onto nearby tables and climbing the shrubbery next to us.

Having consumed 2-3 tonnes of peanuts by now, we weren’t hungry and despite the great smells coming from the kitchens of the BBQ Garden just down the road from our hotel, we just had a bottle of slightly tired Australian wine in said gardens, and still feeling tired ourselves, headed for bed. We resolved to give the food at the BBQ gardens a try the following evening as the place was quite full and the menu and choices looked great.

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Indochina Day 1 – Grumpy in Vietnam

Today I officially became a grumpy old man. I’ve been working towards this, especially since I became 50, but today finally forged the final elements that sealed the condition.

It started with losing an SD card that I carefully put aside to take on our trip to South East Asia, visiting Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia over a 16 day journey. I must have swept it off my desk with my arm while collating some tax return info to put in the post. Short of time, I left it to be discovered again some other day, when it isn’t pouring with rain and so looking in the drive just in case I dropped it between the annexe and the house doesn’t get me soaked ahead of Rod taking us to the airport at 9, to make sure we are there early to get an aisle seat for Heather.

Then on departure the gates stopped working, or at least carried on being eccentric and opening and closing at their own whim, so that meant another half soaking as we let the school run traffic pass and I fiddled with the remote.

The traffic made me a bit more grumpy. But we arrived in good time and the lady at the Air Vietnam desk (actually run by Swiss Air) helped to cheer me up with her helpfulness and the fact that the travel agent Sarah had secured us an aisle and a window next to each other. With a spring in our step we headed for security and bam, got grumpy again when I saw the long queues. Why can’t an airport organise itself properly to process passengers smoothly and efficiently through the security area? Is it so difficult? Gatwick North has got worse and worse and just didn’t have enough staff on. Those managerial types talked to each other about the Gatwick express cancellation and let the occasional fraught persons through ahead of us to avoid them missing our plane.

Not helping my humour was the family of three who had enough luggage between them to fill the cabin of a commercial aircraft, including an Xbox, computer, iPads and a crate load of scarves, bling jewellery and belts and coats. Off to somewhere in the tropics but with no regard for the process and now holding the whole airport up.

Grrr.

Luckily I had patience when I was stopped for a random swab and I did think that the people that work in security must be very patient too dealing with the sorts of passengers we’d seen today.

More grumpiness at the rate of exchange offered for dollars. Even more grumpiness when I realised that one of the lounge vouchers I get from the IOD had expired and the hawkish woman at reception was delighted to point that out.

Luckily i had another one and after brushing the crumbs from the seats in the lounge (can’t they kerp it tidy?) I tackled a load of inane emails and by now my temper was at boiling point.

The plane looked quite empty as we sailed through the gate and took off about ten minutes behind schedule. Swearing under my breath at the Virgin jumbo that pushed past us and jumped ahead in the queue to take off, I had a look around me at the interior of the very old plane we were on, having scooted the idiot that was sitting in our seat back to his own one, none of which did much to cheer me up.

C’mon I thought, as i tried to get my legs under the seat in front, how lucky are you? Millions would trade places with you to be on your seat, on that plane, going to your exciting destination on an adventure holiday that you’ve really been looking forward to. Get a grip. Stop being so grumpy.

A minute or two after take off, during the most dangerous part of the flight, the ascent, there was a sharp bang outside just under the wing next to the engine and a flash of light. No smoke though and while I contemplated that there has been no safety briefing (although Heather did point out the wispy shadowy figure on the one old screen in the cabin had an outline of something vaguely humanoid which might have been explaining where the exits were) I realised that the engine was still running although in a way that made me think it had a cold, coughing and spluttering slightly in the damp rainy conditions.

After realising we weren’t going to die when the cabin crew starred serving dinner, and the engine had settled down after we got above the cloud line, and we enjoyed some glorious sunshine streaming in on us, my spirits lifted. Even asking for fish and twice being given chicken didn’t put me back in a bad mood. Vietnam here we come!

Only 11 hours and 45 minutes to go and we would be on the other side of the world in the exotic, humid, hectic, humbling Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon. What on earth was there to be grumpy about?