Thursday 3 November 2011

Bonjour Saigon

'He wouldn't listen to me,' says Maggie, the Dowager Countess of Montmarch. 'None of them would. Of course I knew, but they were all in his thrall because you said he was in charge.' It turns out that the group traipsed after Steve around the airport, from the Reef Bar to the Glass Bar to Caffe Nero to the Mango Tree and back to the Reef Bar, pausing for a few hours' restless kip, strewn across strips of empty seats.

'We sang songs to keep our spirits up,' says Maggie, taking a swig of her daiquiri. We are sneaking in a secret cocktail before meeting the others for dinner.

'What,' I say, 'like Roll Out the Barrel and It's a Long Way to Tipperary?'

She lets out a booming guffaw. 'We're not that old! I was there for the Summer of Love! No, things like I Can't Get No-o Satisfaction and I'm Leavin' on a Jet Plane, don't know when I'll be back again and I've got a Ticket to Ride and I don't care!'

Oh my God. They all look like my parents in their slacks and Hush Puppies and uncrushable travel wardrobes. But the reality is, half of them are nearer my generation than my parents'. Maggie can only be about 15 years older than me. 20 max. I must say, though, this trip is otherwise marvellous for the self-esteem and fear of Early-Onset. Honestly! They may have a good handle on 60s song lyrics, but Maggie and I are the only pair with any common sense around here. Maggie, despite her girl-guidey/pony-club boom, has a youthful twinkle in her eye and a dark sense of humour. Steve is out. Maggie is my new right-hand person.

Yesterday, though. Quel nightmare. After a mad frenzy of discussion to officials, texts back and forth to Mike and Loc, and invoking the name of the British Ambassador, the manager of the Oriental and various CEOs dredged up from my old Bangkok days in order to expedite reclaiming the group's baggage which was thrown off the previous day's Saigon plane and being held in some sort of top-security nuclear bunker, and reissuing new boarding passes which by some miracle they agreed to do at no extra charge despite it being against company policy, we made it onto the Saigon plane. Loc was there to greet us, all smiles as he wiped the sweat off his brow.

At the Grand, we met up with the two Americans, Luna and Nancy.

'My, you finally got here,' said Luna, a smart New York doctor in her late 50s. In contrast to my dazed-looking, whiffy, beslacked flock, she was all washed and blow-dried, in a little slip dress, gold jewellery and clouds of perfume.

'Well, we've sussed out Saigon, haven't we, Nancy?' she said with a dazzle of red lipstick and white teeth. 'We've done the Cu Chi tunnels. I was interested in the dioxins and incidence of cancer, because I'm a doctor. And then we did the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes but it offended a lot of Americans, so they rightly changed the name. Nancy thought the foetuses in the jars were like a freak show, but they didn't worry me because I'm a doctor. And we stopped for a café. Basically, you just say any word in French and it's the same in Vietnamese! Ca phe. Ga. You know, gare, station.'

I didn't say, 'pho!' I gave her the forced toothy smile of one who has a Passion for Tour Leading.

'We're not together,' said Nancy, who is young enough to be Luna's daughter and whose style is more outward-bound grunge. 'I'm from California.'

This morning I proposed a day off to the Lost-in-Bangkok contingent. 'I thought you might like to recoup,' I added.

'What, recoup our losses?' snorted Miss Chick.

'No,' I said defiantly, despite feeling caught out by one who should be the more senile. 'You know, recoup... recuperate.'

But no, they were all on for the full tour. While I had to catch up on business matters by the pool, they trotted off with Loc to the Ben Thanh market and Thu Thiem across the river before breakfast (in my defence, they have had a whole extra day in Asia to get over the jetlag), and then we split up - me with the ones who wanted to see the tunnels and the foetuses, Loc with the others to see the Reunification Palace, History Museum and various pagodas. I must say, they may be naive but they're full of energy, these silver citizens. I was flagging in the 30 degree swelter, but nothing would induce them to give up and go back to the Grand for a swim.

'Better drink up, Maggie,' I say, nodding in the direction of the lift. Our ladies are emerging in blue and beige shirtwaisters, our gents – Man No 2 joins us this evening - in outward-bound Rohan trousers with zip-off legs.

'We're poor little lambs, who've lost our way...' sings Maggie.

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