Samad and I were resting in our hotel room when we heard persistent knocking on our door. It was Bahari searching for Rohani, his wife. She wasn’t in her room.
I was startled to see Bahari looking rattled. He was shaking slightly and beads of sweat covered his brow. He’d followed Md Nor for a body massage at a place nearby and had found himself in a tiny, dimly-lit, windowless room. While immersing his feet in a basin of water, he felt the onset of a panic attack and rushed out.
Bahari admitted that dark, cramped and confining places filled him with dread. On several occasions he’d entered a parking lot only to beat a hasty retreat. Bahari suffers from claustrophobia. Md Nor who doesn’t, returned looking decidedly chipper, determined to indulge in more body massages.
If Md Nor’s severe knee problems caused him great discomfort, he was not one to run around complaining about them. His wife Rokiah was deeply concerned that he’d had to put off knee replacement surgery to fly with us to Saigon. When we wanted to visit the famed Ben Thanh Market, he insisted we go there on foot. We got lost and had to constantly ask people for directions. After an exhaustive walk we reached it only to find it closed for the day.
That night, Md Nor, obviously in pain, went for a two-hour massage. We waited for him to join us for dinner at the hotel but Reception failed to give him Rokiah’s message. Then Bahari went looking for him but he proved elusive. When he finally appeared we’d finished eating. He opted to go dinner-less, a small sacrifice, he said, in exchange for his satiating marathon massage.
We depended on Kaziah to organize our one-day trip to the Mekong Delta. During our 2-hour bus ride our guide Tony told us many things. He explained how, despite being colonized by the French until 1954, French names had all but disappeared in Vietnam. Cap St James became Vung Tau, Tourane was renamed Danang, the street Rue Catinat in Saigon was replaced by Tu Du. After Reunification it took on a name which I thought had a lovely lilt to it, Dong Koi. I had Samad take a photo of me standing beneath that street name.
Tony told us about “Uncle Ho” as Ho Chi Minh was fondly known. For many years he trudged all over Vietnam (I’m reminded of Che Guevara’s motorcycle trip around South America), to learn about the Vietnamese people and of their hardships under their colonial masters. Sadly he died six years before his dream of seeing his country free and unified was realized.
The Coconut Monk of Ben Tre Province was reputed to have eaten nothing but coconuts for three years. It was probably while he sat on a stone and meditated for another three years that he was moved to found a new religion. It incorporated both Buddhism and Christianity and used the cross and Buddhist symbols.
Kaziah suddenly turned to us from her corner of the bus. Smiling radiantly she said she’d just heard that her grandson was on the way! So the young and glamorous Kaziah would soon be a grandmother!
The Mekong River, one of the world’s great rivers, flows through a number of countries, from Tibet through China and Laos, along the Thai border and through Cambodia and Vietnam before entering the South China Sea. The fertile Delta is Vietnam’s “rice bowl”, producing a massive amount of rice.
As we made our way to Unicorn Island on a motorized traditional boat we passed numerous clumps of water hyacinth, a free-floating plant. According to Tony, the Delta was a hot bed for Viet Cong guerrillas during the Vietnam War. They would traverse the Delta hidden beneath the hyacinth leaves but many became the target of enemy fire.
On Unicorn island we saw a magnificent pagoda and several Buddhas, a giant laughing Buddha, a large sleeping one and several others resting on lotus flowers.
In the web of waterways that is the Mekong Delta, boats, houses, restaurants and even markets float upon the rivers and canals. We eventually left the motorized boats to find ourselves riding three each in wooden sampans which took us along narrow canals lined by thickly growing palms. Rohani and I grabbed our sampan’s spare oars and soon we were merrily rowing along with the skipper. We could see Md Nor ahead of us similarly occupied. Kaziah and Syed Haron and his wife Rohaini or Ani as we are inclined to call her, were too far in front and out of sight.
At various stops along the way we sampled and purchased wild honey, coconut candy and Vietnamese coffee. At a tea-stop we were entertained by a group of traditional musicians and three young singers wearing graceful, flowing ao dai. Their performance was charming.
I was tempted to urge the hugely talented Syed Haron, to think up a little song in memory of our Delta trip. Syed is a celebrity. He has composed more than 200 songs one of which, “Warisan” (Legacy) which he wrote in 1980, has been particularly loved and repeatedly played at Malaysia’s official functions. Most recently, it was selected as the theme song for our nation’s 57th birthday. He was even invited to meet the Prime Minister of Malaysia.
How can I ever forget the time when Rohani, Samad and I had the temerity to persuade Syed to teach us to play the piano. He took it up in earnest, developing beautiful charts and chord tables to help us. Alas! He quickly discovered our musical skills were sadly wanting. The lessons ceased soon after.
Back to the traditional musicians and singers. In the middle of their performance they unexpectedly gave us an English song, that well-loved ditty, “When You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands”. Ani got us to exercise our vocal chords and sing along with them:
When you’re happy and you know it clap your hands (Clap! Clap!) (Repeat)
When you’re happy and you know it, your face will always show it
When you’re happy and you know it clap your hands (Clap! Clap!)
Lunch which was served on another island consisted of noodles, soup, fried rice, fried spring rolls and fresh, do-it-yourself rolls. For the latter you cut up pieces of crispy fried tilapia fish and spread it with an assortment of vegetables on paper-thin skin and then you roll it. The rolls are eaten with a hot sauce. There was red and white dragon fruit for desert. A fully satisfying meal.
A friend of mine described Vietnamese food as “brilliant”. Famed as they are for their cuisine, the Vietnamese can also turn out excellent Malaysian food. The fish curry with ladies’ fingers we had at our hotel was better than many I’ve tasted.
The fare at the Kampong Melayu (Malay Village) restaurant located outside one corner of Ben ThanhMarket seemed to get better with every meal. So we would go there whenever it was time to eat.
It was always unnerving taking a taxi to anywhere in this city of nine million people. There were more motorcycles (exceeding three million) than spaces for them on the city’s clogged arteries.
After arriving at Saigon Square one day we wandered around for a bit before pausing to rest our legs by the roadside and to enjoy cool coconut water and its juicy fruit, courtesy of Md Nor. Rohani spotted a tailor shop opposite the road we were on. Just what she and Md Nor wanted. They trotted across to it with Bahari hauling a suitcase filled with linen, silk and cotton materials.
Rohani had astonished me by checking-in four large suitcases for a four-night stay in Saigon. She was, in truth, just being pragmatic. One can get low-cost, high quality tailoring here.
The next moment we all found ourselves inside the shop and being greeted by a smiling lady who assured Rohani and Md Nor she would have their clothes ready for them the following day. We ran into young Kala, a lawyer from Singapore. She was a repeat customer who was fully satisfied with the cost and quality of the workmanship there.
Kaziah fervently wanted to be home in Malaysia when the little one arrived and left very early on the morning after our Mekong Delta trip. As it turned out, her timing was perfect. She got to the hospital just in time to give her approval for a Caesarian section to be performed on her daughter-in-law. She was overjoyed to be able to welcome Baby Rayyan Rizal to this world!
That same afternoon Syed Haron, who works as the Registrar of UNIRAZAK, the University of Tun Abdul Razak, and Ani, an Associate Professor at the University of Malaya, left for home as they had to go to work the following day. So the six of us were left to our own devices.
I loved the intricately woven designs and exquisite play of colors of the traditional tote bags Rokiah had purchased at Ben Thanh Market so I braved the narrow, crowded aisles and the people clamouring to sell all manner of things, so determined was I to get the same tote for myself. Blissfully I found it, and Rokiah and Rohani ended up adding more totes to their collection.
A day before our departure Rohani opened her suitcases to discover many more pieces of materials and resolved to have them sewn before returning home. She persuaded the hotel owner, who made a brief appearance that day, to recommend a reputable tailor. Shortly thereafter, the tailor appeared at our hotel and met up with Rohani.
On our last day in Saigon Samad and I had some time on our hands so we decided to browse the art reproduction galleries Saigon is famous for. People who’ve acquired a deep knowledge of art would scoff at such reproductions but that did not deter us.
We found a place called the Thanh Hoa Art Gallery which had a large collection of masterpieces reproduced by the many talented artists of Vietnam. Samad was particularly interested in a work by the Impressionist painter Renoir. He happily came away from the Gallery with not one but two works by Renoir.
At the appointed time on our day of departure, Rokiah, Md Nor, Samad and I assembled at the hotel lobby. Rohani and Bahari appeared soon after, looking perturbed. The tailor had failed to deliver Rohani’s clothes. Then, just as we were about to board our taxi, in he walked with a huge bundle in his arms – her sewn clothes! Rohani found it impossible to conceal the huge smile that lit up her face!