Saturday, September 26, 2009

Keepin' My Powder Dry

As not much goes on in Indonesia (Bali excepted perhaps) during the Islamic holiday, I thought that I’d skip the country and engage in a little ASEAN flavour this Lebaran. I apologize in advance if this week’s column makes Globe readers feel as cheated as Indonesians rightfully do when their local leaders jet off on global junkets under the guise of “comparative studies”. This week’s Metro Muppet may not result in such an audaciously brilliant scheme as the TransJakarta Busway but at least I’m not using government money to finance my vacation.

AirAsia has, in fact, just opened a direct flight between Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and so I thought I’d give it a go this Lebaran. After applying for a Vietnamese visa online ($US25) I soon found myself on an AirAsia flying cattle truck bound for Saigon.

The first thing to report is that Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat airport is a touch swankier than Sukarno Hatta. Alas, when I reached the immigration desk, I was held up by a hapless bule who’d been on my flight with his Indonesian girlfriend. He was pleading to be let into the country. “But my girlfriend said that I don’t need a visa!” He begged. Wrong. She doesn’t. You do mate. There’s no visa on arrival facility in Vietnam as there is in Jakarta and so he was ordered to take the next flight back to the Big Durian. In the parlance of the intraweb: holiday fail.

Outside, the cab drivers proved to be every bit as venal as their Sukarno Hatta counterparts and a couple of them tried to squeeze $US40 out of me for what should be a $US10, 20 minute ride into the centre of town. Bah. Handily enough the local currency, the dong (isn’t that an Indonesian word that doesn’t mean anything?) is worth almost exactly half as much as the rupiah is, which makes the old mental arithmetic easy for the mathematically challenged (and how often have I been in Jakarta whilst a pea brained shop assistant fires up a calculator in order to add Rp.2000 and Rp.3000 together?).

Downtown Ho Chi Saigon Minh is, quite frankly, a traffic Hades. The city is famed for its motorcycle chaos and I can attest to the veracity of these claims. If you thought Jakarta was out of control wait until you see Saigon’s motor madness. They also drive on the other side of the road, a fact that almost saw me smeared across the asphalt on a couple of occasions after a few cans of refreshing 333 lager.

The city centre is every bit as densely populated as Jakarta and a never ending human scrum swarms everywhere. There are beggars, of course, and on several occasions small kids approached me with brushes and offered to polish my blue and white sneakers a handsome shade of black, just as they do in Jakarta. Prices are generally cheaper than they are in the Indonesian capital although gasoline is more expensive. The city seemed cleaner and more pleasant though, as did Can Tho, another town that I visited in the Mekong Delta, confirming my prejudices about Indonesians’ lack of civic pride.

Street food is just as ubiquitous as it is in good old Batavia although it is perhaps slightly heavier on the swine than Indonesia’s new halal warriors would prefer. The markets are just as sweaty and colorful, the climate is just as humid and the same artfully crumbling colonial architecture can still be spotted amid the gleaming new facades. Most importantly, the general population is every bit as friendly to whitey as they are back home, despite the country’s history. Jakarta is ahead in terms of posh malls and swanky bars and restaurants but drinking cocktails at over Rp.100,000 a pop in Jakarta is proving less appealing than ever these days.

There’s plenty to do in the city if you fancy availing yourself of the new AirAsia deal. The presidential palace, which doubled as an allied nerve centre during the war, is fascinating and contains some excellent photographs of the hostilities, including the moment when commie tanks came bursting in through the palace gates in 1975.

In a sense, Vietnam’s recent history is a mirror image of Indonesia’s, specifically one that ended in communist victory rather than defeat. Obviously the big ideological conflicts in both countries resulted in colossal amounts of bloodshed, however the X factor for Vietnam was clearly its war with America. Despite the awful carnage of 1966 (the famous ‘Year of Living Dangerously’), Indonesia was at least spared a legacy of landmines and Agent Orange. America’s truly evil dioxin based defoliants are still claiming victims today in the form of tragic and quite horrifying birth defects, many of which are documented in harrowing detail in Saigon’s War Remnants Museum.

So that’s yet another column concluded on an upbeat note. Let’s not dwell on the horrors of war though chaps. All in all, I had a great break and I’d thoroughly recommend bagging the flight over to ‘Nam if you’re in possession of an NPWP fiscal avoidance tax card. Sorry Bali.