What does it take for me to fall in love with a country? Is it the natural beauty of the country? Is it the beauty of its buildings? Is it the history of the place? Is it the food and drink I experience? Is it the things I can buy from there? Is it the activities that I can do there? Which is it? For me, the X-factor is the people. They make all the difference. I have been to many beautiful places on this planet that are incomparable; such as Australia, New Zealand and Scandinavia. I have been to Austria and France, where the grand buildings proclaim the beauty of the country. I have been to UK and Italy, where history oozes from every wall and cobblestone. In Tanzania and East Europe, I had some awesome food and drink. From China and Russia, I took home some superbly crafted pieces. I have been with friends and family to many places in Europe and US, enjoying nightlife and the innumerable activities that the cities had to offer. Yet, for me, it is all about people. It is the people that make any village, town, city or country make me fall in love with it. They wouldn’t be anything without the people. That’s why my favourite destinations are in South East Asia.
A group of eleven countries are normally referred to as South East Asia; Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Timor, Brunei and Philippines. I have been to all of them, except the last three; Philippines being on the immediate radar. I have travelled widely in these countries too. What I have seen and experienced there and in Tanzania, about the people, have made me question the definition of development? I have come to staunchly believe that development is not about great infrastructure made by the people or the money in the hands of its people. It is the people. The happiness quotient, contentment and respect for fellow humans must define development. The human index must overwhelmingly define development. Most of the western world is developed. But, do they have the indices of happiness, contentment and respect? Doubtful. In South East Asia they have them in plenty and it is seen on the faces of people and how they deal with you.
After 7 am I went down to the reception of the homestay for coffee. Having fallen in love with the amazing cuppas of coffee that Ms. Yang made for me I picked up a few varieties of Vietnamese coffee to take with me to Chennai. The coffee this morning was glorious too. Ms. Yang confirmed with me the timing for breakfast, based on which she would get me sticky rice with chicken. When I returned to the courtyard after an elaborate bath and packing up luggage Ms. Yang’s nephew had fetched what I would have for breakfast. Having rice for breakfast is not anything new in this part of the world, but it is for me. However, I tucked into it with gusto. Sauces and dips are part of anything you eat in this city, as it was with the chicken and rice. It filled me up and I was certain that I would have to forgo lunch.
I had a few more hours to kill before leaving for the airport. Instead of idling those hours at the homestay I decided to take a peek at the An Dong Market and An Dong Plaza. It was a fair distance away from the homestay, but the Grab bike makes distances look small with their lithe movement weaving through congested traffic and making use of shortcuts through narrow bylanes. The An Dong Market is housed in a four story 17th century building. The variety of things on offer is such that all your shopping needs can be done in one place at this market. Hours will go by in the predominantly Chinese market looking for bargains and new arrivals. Overpowering aroma of foods, from food courts and stalls, dominate the ground floor of the market. The sight of shoes, sandals and chappals of all types and for all occasions slowed my progress on the next floor. The two floors above them are for clothes and handicraft. The piles of clothes in plastic are stacked high in the stalls that are brought down for inspection with cat like efficiency by young girls. I saw huge bundles of fresh arrivals being brought into the market and many bundles being done of clothes already in the stall. It looked to me as if the An Dong Market is a repacking centre for other smaller retail outlets in the city. The An Dong Plaza, the air-conditioned twin, is a few meters from the Market. The Plaza houses the Windsor Plaza Hotel and the America Discotheque. This too is a good place to shop for bargains that include even soft and hard furnishings for the house. I had spent a couple of hours gazing and window shopping. It was time to wind up, but I had just a couple of more things to do before the drive to the airport.
On the first day in HCMC I had seen 3D greeting cards being sold outside the Saigon Central PO. I wanted to pick up a few for my granddaughter, Eva, who was showing early signs of developing her mother’s craft skills. The Grab bike took me to the Notre Dame Cathedral and I requested him to wait for ten minutes, by when I was sure I would finish the selection and bargain purchase of the cards. He graciously agreed. and I took as little time as I could to choose the cards and pay for them. The biker took me to the co.op market that had become my haunt in the times I could spare. I bought some more sauces and coffee and reached the homestay.
After a wash and one final rearrangement of stuff inside the bag I lugged the large piece of baggage down the staircase. Ms. Yang had arranged for a comfortable sedan to take me to the airport and told the driver that she had made payment for it online and that I was not to be charged anything at all. A hug and a handshake and I was inside the car with wet eyes. The homestay had become a home, thanks to Ms. Yang and her sister and the people I met in this lovely city. I must return someday to this city, I quietly marked in my mind as the taxi moved away from the lovely young lady who stood there waving at me.
I was early at the airport; it did not take as much time as I had anticipated to get there. I had to wait for check in, which was about 30 minutes. Once I checked in – the luggage was within the free allowance permitted – I walked around the rather sparse duty-free outlets checking prices. I used the last few VND I had on me buying a sandwich and drink. While the Malindo Air flight to KL went off without any hassle the Batik Air flight from KL was initially a nightmare. Even though the boarding was completed in time push back was delayed and it started getting a bit uncomfortable inside the aircraft as air-conditioning was inadequate. When the aircraft was pushed back, and it started taxiing it looked as if the low-cost carrier, Batik Air, had decided to take the land route to Chennai, for the taxiing went on interminably in fits and starts! The flight was full, and passengers were getting restive over the sweet and smells. There were no announcements from the crew or the flight deck. Service request were completely ignored. After over 30 minutes had gone by a few passengers walked up to the crew and demanded to know whey had to suffer in the manner they were. Then came the announcement that they would shortly take off and air-conditioning would work well thereafter. The take off was delayed by 45 minutes and even then, there was no announcement from the flight deck. The entire matter was poorly handled by the crew and the captain of the aircraft. Service started very late after taking off and even water was not served to those in need. Passengers had to fetch it from the crew themselves! Intolerably poor service, indeed. In-flight entertainment did not work and there was no response from the crew when the deficiency was brought to their notice. When announcements were made it seemed that they were not meant to be understood by the passengers. They were so amateurish and unprofessional. Overall, the experience was extremely poor.
The flight landed in Chennai late, just as it had taken off from KL. Immigration, baggage retrieval and Customs were mercifully done in quick time. From the heat and humidity of HCMC Chennai weather felt more agreeable. But, I will never forget the wonderful people, places and foods that I experienced in HCMC. It had indeed been the most appropriate city to become a senior citizen with a contented heart.