Sometimes you just have to believe that you’ll end up where you’re meant to be, no matter what life throws at you.
Last year I was offered the chance to work for two weeks in June at a university in Singapore, which I grabbed with both hands. It would be a great opportunity to gain experience in teaching higher education abroad, but the island would also serve as a convenient base to travel to Vietnam for a few days too – which is somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit.
Of course life is what happens whilst you’re busy making other other plans and as you know, the summer of 2014 didn’t turn out quite how I’d thought it would. However early this year my eldest daughter Amy managed to secure a six month work placement (she’s a trainee solicitor) in Singapore and as soon as we’d booked her flight, mine was done too.
The last three months since she’s been out there we’ve all missed her a great deal, but with the wonders of FaceTime you sometimes don’t realise just how far away someone actually is. I’d been hearing all about her work, her colleagues, her flat and her lifestyle (which is essentially to work mad hours in the week and then fly to some gorgeous island at the weekend) but a week of catching up with her was something I really wanted to enjoy.
Ok, I’ll say it right here that I do know how incredibly fortunate I am that I could fly Business Class. And those who have followed this blog for a few years will know that back in 2012 I missed out on the chance to fly Business on the A380. So this time, with a great deal of help from a very nice man at Trailfinders I had a flight route that meant three out of the four flights would be on this much anticipated plane.
Friends of mine who work as cabin crew have said the most amount of in-flight problems come from the First and Business passengers and I can believe it. On the flight to Dubai one woman, travelling with her four young children, decided that as the plane trundled off the apron and onto the runway it was the perfect moment to get out of her seat to take her son to the toilet. Another insisted that his meals were served at a completely different time to the rest of the plane.
Family and friends know that for me, the most important part of the journey though is to help the pilot by keeping an eye on the wings in case there’s trouble and also to make sure that there are no other aircraft flying nearby. Imagine then my absolute joy at discovering that there are THREE cameras on the outside of the plane – on the tail, at the nose and underneath the body – so I could happily monitor all aspects of our position for the whole seven hours. The cabin crew did ask several times if I needed help selecting one of over 200 films available but I didn’t need to, along with the altitude details and a snazzy little map showing our geolocation I was a very happy bunny.
My only disappointment was that with less than 50 minutes of the flight left, I discovered that about five rows back there was a lounge area. Complete with a cocktail bar and a serious party happening! I plan on not making the same mistake on the flight back.
A quick stopover in Dubai and then another seven hours in the sky to arrive in Singapore mid afternoon the following day.
Humid doesn’t begin to describe what the city is like. I think I actually started to melt from the inside just by walking from the taxi to Amy’s front door. But it was lovely to see her and the lifestyle is clearly suiting her.
The next two days were spent being a real tourist, whilst she worked. Bus tours, river boat tours, museums, shopping – it’s an easy city to get around and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, especially meeting the good friends who have become such an essential part of her support network whilst she’s so far away from home.
We had also planned a holiday within a holiday, with four days in Ho Chi Min City. Having thoroughly researched for an airline company where I trusted the pilots (probably not a good idea as Google is full of horror stories about flying in South East Asia) we went for a two hour Jetstar hop up to Vietnam.
The weather in the afternoon tends to be a bit stormy and as we boarded you could see the dark clouds above. The pilot welcomes us aboard and says that the flight will be fine but we are expecting turbulence during the journey. All I can say is that I spent 120 minutes absolutely terrified – and it was a very smooth flight. Where did he get his information from?
Ho Chi Min is an unbelievable place. Apparently there are five million moped users within the city, which equates to one moped for every 1.8 people. How any of them stay alive is nothing short of a miracle – there are no traffic rules, driving here requires more bluff than any game poker. Pavements are considered fair game of you need to take a short cut, and driving on the right hand side seems to be a Government recommendation rather than a rule.
The hotel was lovely and right in the heart of District 1, so very convenient for getting out and about. Amy had visited the city a couple of years ago but only for a short time so she was happy to be very “touristy” with me. We booked onto a guided trip for the next day, which advertised itself as a trip along the Saigon River, a visit to the Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the war and a bike ride through the countryside. And in a group that would be no more than eight people. Perfect.
The river journey was by speedboat and it was fascinating to see the wide range of lifestyles along the river banks. As we ploughed through the beautiful water chrysanthemums that adorn the surface we saw stylish houses with stunning gardens through to wooden shacks with their owners waist high in the water, catching fish to sell at the local market.
After 90 minutes we were at the meeting point for our guide for the day, to discover that Tang only had two customers that day – us. We saw our bikes, all ready with helmets, and we were then asked to sort out what personal belongings we wanted to keep in the little bike bags as “you won’t be seeing the support vehicle until after the first 17km”.
Errrr….what? There we both were, dressed in shorts, a pretty little summer top and sunglasses. And there was Tang in full cycling gear. Seems that it was actually a 30km event. From a copywriters perspective I think they need to improve their information leaflets.
We were hastily given some sun cream, water bottles were filled and off we went. In a heat that was well into the 30s and a humidity that made you leak more fluids than you could possibly take in.
I have to say that it was a stunning ride, through rubber tree plantations and rough tracks across farmland and local communities. We stopped at a very small market to sample local ways of cooking fruit and vegetables, spent time in a man’s garden to learn about cashew nut trees and also visited a very small business that made the rice paper that is used for spring rolls. Don’t ever worry about the hygiene in a UK production factory, where the rice paper is made there are cats roaming freely and workers dressed in dirty clothes and dripping sweat due to the hard work and humidity found within the corrugated tin building.
After a few other interesting breaks we stopped at a tiny, roadside shop where we ate Chinese mango (unbelievably great) and rice crackers whilst trying to rehydrate. I realised that I’d drunk two litres of water on the ride and yet still had no urge to use the loo, so it was time to add energy powder to the next litre. Amy had drunk even less than me and was really struggling with the heat, so after a good chat we decided that she would do the next 13km in the support vehicle and I’d do the remainder of the ride with the guide.
By now the sun was beating down on us, as we cycled past water buffalo immersing themselves in pools of muddy water to keep cool. We stopped at herb farms and flower-growing fields; Vietnamese people use marigolds at the shrines of their loved ones as a token of remembrance.
Finally we’d covered the 30km and reached the tunnels, and found a much refreshed Amy. As we set off with the guide into the start of the jungle Amy shouted at me to just keep walking – quickly. Seems that me and a huge spider had only been inches apart.
The tunnels were fascinating, clearly with a biased perspective of their history from the guide but it was hard to imagine how people would have lived down them for weeks at a time. The traps they created to injure or kill the American soldiers were macabre and clearly the source of inspiration for some horror films.
The journey back to the city was broken with a late lunch at a local restaurant with delicious Vietnamese food and plenty more water! I am still paying the price though for not being well prepared for the day with insect repellent- so far, nearly 60 itchy bites on my arms and legs.
We arrived back at the hotel late afternoon, ready for a very long shower. That night we ate at a venue run by a local charity that works with disenfranchised young people who live on the streets. The people they support run the kitchen or serve in the restaurant and it was a really great experience.
The next day was more relaxed – time spent by the hotel roof pool or in the spa having wonderful treatments for ridiculously cheap prices. Dinner was at the street market and equally good.
The final day saw us visiting the War Remanents Museum, which is Vietnam’s interpretation of their war in the 1960s and 1970s. We did get ripped off a little though – we had paid to go into the Museum and within the first area was an elderly Vietnamese man with both arms removed above his elbow. He stopped to speak to us, asking where we were from and telling us that he had lost his arms from a landmine during the war. He then asked if we would buy one of the books he was selling and I noticed that he had one called “The Girl in the Picture”. Now I had the honour of meeting Kim Phuc (whose photo became the iconic image of the Vietnam War) a couple of years ago so I said that I would buy this one. Bartering is a standard and expected activity in Vietnam so I got him down from 700,000 Dong to 400,000 Dong (which is about £12). Didn’t feel quite so good that I had supported a war injured veteran when I saw the same book an hour later in the gift shop for 100,000 Dong. It also occurred to me much later that if he’d lost both his arms, he was probably setting the landmine rather than accidentally stepping on to it.
Amy persuaded me to do something that I would normally shout at my daughters for doing – the local people will do virtually anything to make money from the tourists so we each got on the back of mopeds of two men who were offering us a taxi service back to the hotel. It was fun, but girls – do as I say, not as I do!
By early evening we were back in Singapore and time to pack before heading off for dinner by the Singapore River and the essential ending of the holiday with, a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel.
Now, I’m half way home with a quick stopover in Dubai before the last leg back to Manchester, upstairs on the A380. And I think that this time the pilot is going to have to take care of the wings himself, as soon as the seatbelt sign goes off you’ll find me at the cocktail bar. Celebrating that it might have been a year later than planned, but I got to Singapore.