Touch down

Skidding across the tarmac I was welcomed to Bangkok by more than 100 pictures of King Bhumibol.

Having reigned since June 9, 1946, Bhumibol Adulyadej, translating as “strength of the land, incomparable power” is the world’s longest-serving current head of state and the longest-serving monarch in Thai’s history. Long Live the King is imprinted on every airport entrance (if you’ve been to Bangkok airport, you would know that this translates to a lot) and stories of the royal family headline each of the papers and airline magazines.

Somehow I don’t see Australia ever getting to the point where hundreds of pictures of Johnnie or Kevvie will ever grace our cities, but am sure the headlines will continue.

As I wander around the airport with Bhumi watching my every move, I can’t help but wonder why the majority of travellers feel compelled to shop when they have a few hours on their hands.

I’d much rather enjoy the culture of the country in which I’m travelling and so instead of putting myself in the hands of my visa, opted for the hands of another and headed straight to the massage centre.

I can assure you there is no equivalent to the touch of a young Thai woman as she massages 11 hours of travelling and 4 months of emotion out of your aching calves and shoulders.

The Thai’s calm and gentleness was transferred through Ob’s hands into every knot inside me. With every knead and pummel, the journey of the last few months was transferred from tears and anger to that of appreciation, reassurance and calmness.

Thanks didn’t seem enough as I walked out of the room. I was finally excited to be back in Asia, my head was clear and I was ready for some great experiences and fun.

And so, feeling back to my old self, it was off to Ho Chi Minh. Vietnam has always pulled me and it isn’t just for the warmth of the people, the appealing scenery and culinary delights. My Dad’s tour of not so much duty, but hell, has always given me a purpose to travel here. Although over 30 years have passed since he was stationed here, as much as I try to encourage him to move on, this country has left an indelible imprint on not only him as a person, but his relationships, future and attitude, which saddens me deeply.

So it is with a newfound acceptance and calmness that I head to Vietnam, safe in the knowledge that even if my Dad can’t, I can move on and grab this journey with hands open to everything the next few weeks will bring. Then again, I’m also going to have my hands in there to ensure this trip is an incredible experience for everyone on it.

Arriving at the newly opened Tan Son Nhat international airport, I managed to take a record two minutes to pass through customs. I was very impressed with the modernity of the architecture, but there was a small part of me that missed the drabness of the old airport with its military presence and hour long queues: no more searching the faces of weary travellers, unaware of the chaos they were about to encounter.

Grabbing my bag and 22kg of gifts for Sunrise, I head to the taxi rank and the 45 min drive to Pham Ngu Lao.

When I was here last year, I managed to find a secluded haven amidst the deluge of noise, bikes and people this backpackers area exudes in every square inch.  Walking up to the door, I wasn’t surprised by the recognition: as much as I’d like to admit I’m unforgettable, the Vietnamese have an infallible memory for faces and the Nguyen family welcomed me back into their home.

I have always loved walking the back roads of this city, but was shocked to find the tremendous increase in the number of motor bikes, and smog that enveloped the already chaotic kaleidoscope that is Ho Chi Minh.

As I sat down and chilled on a street corner savouring the sweetness of my first Vietnamese caffeine fix, my friend Sau told me that with the dollar, bikes are now much more affordable, with a good second hand bike available for around $100. So for the price of one good night on the town, the freedom a bike can bring is now available to most, but with that the cost of increasing pollution and congestion is evident.

Sau enquired how my Dad was, as we had spent a few days together last year when I brought Dad back for the first time since he was stationed here. My response: same, same. Sau contemplated it for a while before surprising me with his response: “it is difficult for him to find balance, but it is important for him if he wants to find peace”. Funny how he knew, even though he had only shared a few beers with my Dad last year.

After farewelling Sau and organising my pick up for tomorrow, I headed off to order a flag for the Amazing Race and searched out a street vendor to buy my first bowl of pho. After catching a heady waft of broth, basil, chicken and lime, I sat down on the toddler stool and enjoyed not only this iconic Vietnamese dish, but the scene unravelling on the footpath in front of me.

I fully appreciate the local past time of sitting in a cafe for hours on end, watching the scenes as they change quickly, colourfully and randomly.

And then it came – rain I had not seen in a long time. Ducking into a local cafe, I sat for 40 mintes waiting for it to pass. When I realised that it wasn’t going to ease any time soon, I decided to make a run for it back to the guest house. By the time I was two blocks away, I found myself in 40cm of water as a river was soon being formed where a road had been an hour before. I didn’t want to contemplate too much the objects I was feeling with every careful step, and was glad to make it back to the dryness of the hotel.

A result of a typhoon in the Philippines, the rain is unusual for this time of year and it is expected to continue for the next few days. With lots to do, I’m off to buy a fluorescent poncho and will try not to be too distracted by the scene I am a part of, and yet, watching with heightened senses.

….I’m looking out the doorway and glimpse a man carefully scrubbing away the remaining hairs of a pig trotter, a young girl with a pile of books taller than herself, and a grandmother whose teeth have been stained by one too many betel nuts…

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