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Full Circle

Day 84: Saigon

Michael Palin - Full CircleMorning flight to Saigon. At the end of the American war in 1975, the city was renamed Ho Chi Minh City but most of the locals still call it Saigon. For the sake of brevity, and because I love the sound of the name, so shall I. Lunch on the roof of the Rex Hotel, another icon of the war. It is where the journalists gathered for daily briefings from the US military. So little information was gleaned from these sessions that they became known as the 'Five O'clock Follies'. The rooftop, with a fine fifth-floor view of the seething intersections at the centre of the city, is a wonderland. It combines a garden, dining-room, bar, swimming pool, zoo and aviary, all decorated with compulsive, eclectic abandon, like an over-stocked junk shop or a family attic. Heraldic flags hang out from the parapet on either side of an illuminated revolving crown. Everything, from plates, cups and saucers to the carrot in my salad has the hotel name inscribed on it. Most eccentric of all are the topiary deer, but I am reliably informed that topiary is very popular in Vietnam, as are the mountain deer.

I'm here to meet John Brinsden, a banker who has lived in Asia for thirty-four years. Beside our table is a large, hunched, crow-like songbird which makes sudden piercing shrieks as though trying to attract the waiter, and another which looks as though its perch is electrically charged, so persistently does it leap for the roof of the cage.

John, who is drinking Tiger beer in a hair of the dog attempt to mitigate the effects of last night's St Andrew's Ball, is confident that Vietnam will join the second-wave of Asian boom economies, after Singapore, Taiwan and Korea. 'They're remarkably open-minded people,' he says. 'In other parts of Asia you find a certain innate suspicion of foreigners and foreign ideas. In Vietnam that doesn't seem to exist.'
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 84
  • Country/sea: Vietnam
  • Place: Saigon
  • Book page no: 122

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