It’s good living in Singapore. It means you get out every weekend to the kind of exotic places many people dream of visiting just once in their lifetimes. I went to the airport straight from work. I needed to get out of here. Singapore to Saigon seemed a snip at $300. Getting out of the airport and being met by a man with a posh-looking sign reading ‘Majestik Hotel welcomes Neil Donovan’ was pretty cool too. Vero and I were ushered into a white limo Mercedes by the smiling Vietnamese chap, given two bottles of Saigon ‘Tourist Water’ (it says that on the bottle), then driven to District 1 and to Hotel Majestik. http://www.majesticsaigon.com.vn/ . My $200 a night room was well worth the price, judging by the ambience. Dating from 1925, the Hotel Majestik is an extraordinary piece of French Colonial architecture, the Old Wing immaculately preserved, grand chandeliers hanging elegantly and proudly from the roof, polished wooden floors, gold trim fittings, lavishly appointed.
A concierge-of-sorts greeted us, an old lady called Fleur. She looked as old as the hotel, and was dressed in a beautiful traditional black Vietnamese Ao Dai. As she led the way to our room, 329, she seemed to float, and when she’d shown us our velvety and luxurious room and given us some information about the hotel and left quietly with a smile; Fleur, fluent in French from an earlier time, and fluent in English too, disappeared down the corridor. I wasn’t sure is she was dead or alive. The ghost of the Majestik.
We headed straight out, I was so excited I hadn’t even changed out of my work clothes. We took a short walk across the road to the riverside, all lit up and full of life. Tour boats were readying for the popular dinner cruises, cyclo drivers were trying to entice us on cheap trips around the city, and motorbikes. Motorbikes. Motorbikes everywhere, buzzing around like the most annoying fly ever x 10,000. On the way in the driver had told us that, of the population of 10million here in Saigon, there were 6 million motorbikes. They engulf the city. Whole families can squeeze onto one bike.
We wandered up and down, then got a taxi from outside Majestik to the Bonsai River Cruise port in District 4, a 5-minute drive and a $2 fare. Lots of tourist boats were here, huge 3-level beasts offering dinner cruises on the filthy Saigon river, but none of them has the charm, tradition and quality of the Bonsai River Cruise. http://www.bonsaicruise.com.vn/. A small boat built with exact specifications of boats 200 years before, the Bonsai is something special.
We enjoyed a scrumptious buffet dinner with live entertainment from (who else but) Filipina dancers and a band singing classic feel-good songs. The views of the docks and skyline aren’t exactly Hong Kong or Singapore, but it didn’t matter. I had a few Saigon 333 beers and a cocktail served by the very attentive crew, and kicked back and soaked in the atmosphere. I could hardly believe just a few hours earlier I’d been at work in Singapore. I was a bit disappointed for it to end, but end it had to, and we pulled back into the port. We took a taxi back to the riverside outside Majestik. I bought a can of 333 from a street vendor or a dollar. Sat by the river watching the boats throwing their rubbish out into the water – the water so filthy and polluted that surely nothing lived in it. The rats scurrying around the river bank seemed to enjoy it though. This area is a favoured hangout of young Vietnamese couples, who were locked in loving embraces gazing out at filthy water.
We walked up Thung street by the hotel and came across a club in a little alley, obviously busy judging by the number of motorbikes parked outside. It turned out it was ladies night. This is where young, trendy and moneyed locals come to play. It was full of gorgeous, leggy beauties, hard-faced guys and a huge team of security guards ushering everyone around by pushing your shoulder or pulling you in. Like in China, the style is big tables with a bottle of spirits in the middle, around which are gathered a big bunch of friends who are actually having a really cheap night splitting the cost of the bottle. It cost a bottle to reserve a table. It’s a good idea. Get a group of friends, get a bottle, crowd around it all night, and get drunk. Each table also got a huge bowl of delicious looking fruit, and I stood there enviously wondering if I could nick a grape.
We had a drink then we hit the M bar on the 8th floor of the Majestik, commanding lovely views over the unlovely Saigon river. A classy, and pricey, place. I had an Irish coffee to wake me up, Vero a glass of white wine. From here, we hit the casino on the first floor. Surprisingly, I won $40 on roulette, breaking a 10-year losing streak…the weekend was shaping up to be a memorable one.