We have recently returned from a trip to the South of Vietnam; specifically Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and the villages along the Mekong River; Cai Be, Vinh Long, Ben Tre.
Flying from Hong Kong to HCMC takes 2 hours, where we touched down and experienced the overwhelming conurbation that is HCMC.
One of my favourite parts of any new cultural experience is the journey from the airport to our accommodation. It is the very first taste of what the country in question has to offer and more often than not sets the scene for the rest of the trip.
Our first sensory delight involved a cascade of never ending mopeds, scooters, bicycles, posties and motorcycles. The innovative helmets were cause for giggles, resembling anything from base-ball caps to glittering disco balls. Families of up to 5 people riding on just 1 scooter, all fighting to get home in what appeared to be peak hour.
It was bought to my attention that the popular show ‘Top Gear’ filmed a Vietnam special a few years ago where the presenters were given 15million dong (approx. $1000USD) to purchase vehicles in which they were to travel from Saigon (Vietnams largest city) to Hanoi (the countries capital).
May bought a 50cc four-stroke Honda Cub, Hammond purchased a Belarusian-built 125cc two-stroke Minsk, and Clarkson a green Piaggio Vespa (which had my vote). All these and more were constantly on display throughout our trip and eventually became part and parcel of the cities scenery…not just during peak hour.
The lack of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings proved another interesting experience for us in trying to cross the roads. Getting the hang on this death defying maneuver was an exhilarating accomplishment at journeys end.
After checking in the Sofitel Plaza, we ducked out to find some dinner. Arriving at the Ben Thanh Night Markets, we were seated at an outdoor food stall where we dined on Garlic Fried Clams and Giant River Prawns with Chilli and Salt, Saigon Beer and the company of Western Tourists.
As much as I love a good market, I have to say that after experiencing so many in so many different countries, they start to look quite similar in their touristy landscape. There is the Australian family in all their ‘Tiger Beer’ singlet-tanned glory – their children running amuck through the stalls. There are the American’s; loudly discussing the pain of the heat and humidity in unnecessary detail. There are the unfailing Russians with their socks and sandals – their svelte wives yielding plastic Hermes Birkins in a fluorescent rainbow. And then there are the Chinese, sitting quietly and observing the former in what appears to be a manner of mild disgust.
This trip, we were craving something a little more than your average curbside seafood dinner, we desired a wander down an unbeaten track where we could observe the culture in its native skin.
The next morning our guide, ‘Vinh’ collected us from our hotel and we began our excursion down the Mekong River, first stop Vinh Long, located 135km south west of HCMC.
Leaving the bustling city, the scenery changed fairly quickly from ‘cyclos’ and streetside vendors to lush rice paddies and conical hats bobbing up and down in the blindingly green pastures. This area is referred to locally as the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam’ and for good reason.
On arrival in Vinh Long we embarked on a boat ride to experience the Cai Be floating market. The boating vendors usually sell only one product; hanging their wares on the mast of their boat for all to see (think isle numbers at Woolies). Tapioca root, Rambutans, Mangosteen, Durians and Green Dragons line the shores. Cargo row boats passing at snail pace, loaded with recently harvested rice and river sand to be converted to salt.
Continuing downriver, the journey took about an hour, stopping along the way to visit a rice and coconut candy factory. Here, the family that owned the farm and factory showed us how they make the rice paper that we see used in Vietnamese Rolls, Rice Crackers (think CornThins), Coconut Candy and Salt.
Our next stop was at Binh Hoa Phuoc Island where we saw the Delta’s second most famous produce after rice, tropical fruits. Strolling through the orchids on this island, we saw where and how the fruit is grown. We stopped for tea and to taste a selection of the islands produce; Longans, Sapodillas, and Durians etc.
Our boat pulled into a tiny jetty, the Mekong equivalent of your houses driveway, where we pulled up stumps for lunch at local River Restaurant. We were lucky enough to share the restaurant with the owner’s son, who was celebrating his wedding. We feasted on a traditional Mekong Dish of Elephant Ear Fish wrapped in rice paper with a mint leaf mix, chili’s, bean sprouts and spring rolls, and of course, a dessert of fresh tropical fruit. Resting our full bellies in a near by hammock before jumping back in the boat and heading further down the river, where J took over the rowing and attempted to give the little Vietnamese lady driving it, a rest.
For the next hour, J rowed us down the river with more and more village people running along the bank laughing and pointing – somehow I don’t think this happened often. Other rowers passing us did a double-take, only to see that the large man wearing the “Non La” (traditional Vietnamese Conical Hat) was in fact a tourist. As you can imagine – this caused even more giggling.
After a huge day, we arrived at our home stay in the small village town of Cai Be. We disembarked the Sampan (Vietnamese wooden boat) at the front door of the farmer’s house, where we were delighted by what we saw. A vision of imperial grandeur, a 150 year old French colonial home, yellow and cream with huge colonnades and a wrap around terrace and the most beautifully kept garden…think ‘Misselthwaite Manor’ in ‘The Secret Garden’.
Once we were settled, we took a bicycle ride along the river bank and into town to see the local produce market. Being a sleepy fishing village not regularly visited by tourists (we did not see one other during our stay) we were a spectacle. Kids were running after us, men and women wanting to show us their wares – so proud of their home-grown fruit and veg. J was most popular and many of the women enjoyed stroking his arms and rocky-boulders, almost as much as J did. Riding along the main road proved a challenge and wrestling with the local traffic and hap-hazard scooters made for a heart thumping afternoon.
Arriving back at the home-stay, with only adrenaline keeping us from dying of exhaustion, the family had cooked us a delicious meal of fish and rice accompanied by some traditional rice wine laced with ginseng – needless to say we slept very well.
The next morning we awoke to fresh farm eggs, fried and dropped into a warm Vietnamese Bread Roll. This was followed by a fish on the properties canal where J snapped up several huge catfish and gave them to the family.
Sharing a quick (and STRONG) Vietnamese coffee with ice and condensed milk (yum yum), we were ready to embark on the 2nd half of our journey.
Traveling through to Ben Tre in the province of Tien Giang we boarded another Sampan and cruised the aptly names Dragon, Unicorn, Turtle and Phoenix Islands. This day is a blur of honey tasting, bee keeping, python handling, tropical fruit farms, Rooster fighting, and a horse driven cart ride through the village. Finally we arrived at Turtle Island for lunch, before beginning our journey back to HCMC.
Our guide, Vinh, was a helpful fella although at times I thought a touch haughty, perhaps that was just me picking up on an egotistical ‘me Tarzan, you Jane’ vibe?!
Nevertheless, he provided us with some priceless information on the history of Vietnam and a great insight into the mindset of a true Saigon man.
HCMC was renamed in 1976 after the ‘reunification’ of north and south. The National Assembly unanimously decided to rename Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City after the North’s beloved president (Uncle Ho) who founded the Communist Party and army. There are polar views regarding the renaming on the South and depending on who you ask you will be given very contrasting answers. The North see the renaming as a great honor and one that should be respected and valued. Whereas if you ask a man like Vinh how he feels; you will be told that his hometown is called Saigon and always will be.
Back in Saigon (respecting the locals), we checked back into the Sofitel Plaza, freshened up and headed out for dinner. I was lucky enough to be taken to the Rex Hotel for pre-dinner cocktails. I was extremely interested in visiting this landmark because of its history and links with journalism during the Vietnam War.
Built in 1927 during French colonial rule in Vietnam, the building started out as a car garage selling mainly European vehicles. During the Vietnam War (or American war as the locals call it) the building was converted into a 100 room hotel. 400 U.S Army soldiers were the first guests in 1961 before the renovations were completed. They were billeted at the Rex for a week while their tents were being set up at camp.
The Rex played a huge role in the media coverage of the Vietnam War, hosting a daily press conference in the Ball Room, sardonically named The Five O’Clock Follies by derisive journalists who felt the optimism of the U.S to be imprudent. The rooftop bar where J and I indulged in a few cocktails was a well known hangout for military officials and war correspondents alike, which was the main attraction for me.
After a while spent people watching and looking down on the city below, sipping on our Saigon Iced Teas we peeled ourselves off the high chairs and wandered down to a restaurant I had picked out of the Lonely Planet. ‘Ngon’ a deliciously delicious restaurant, so delicious in fact that we returned the following day for lunch!
The next day we treated ourselves to a sleep in and finally broke away from the king size bed and wandered around town. We visited the War Remnants Museum – enlightening and distressing all at once. We witnessed graphic photojournalism from the Vietnam War, exhibiting the aftermath of Agent Orange, bomb attacks, and a whole list of torture tactics employed by the U.S Army on assumed Vietnamese Communists. Although this Museum was somewhat biased, it gave a grave insight into the persecution, suffering and cruelty used by the U.S troops in what is displayed as an extremely criminal and savage period in both Vietnamese and American history. A picture that tormented me most was of an Army tanker driving through a village with 3 Vietnamese men tied behind it. Apparently this was just another tactic employed by the army to torture locals that were thought to be communists.
We also went to see the Reunification Palace. This site marks of the end of the Vietnam War where a North Vietnamese Army Tank crashed through the gates of the president’s workplace on the 30th April 1975, also marking the fall of Saigon. The tanker remains on the front lawn to this day.
With the heat creeping well into the mid 30’sC, we stopped to buy a fresh icy young coconut from a street vendor, a young boy that thought J physique was most curious. Taking his stall off his shoulders (a long bamboo rod with 2 buckets at either end) and placing it on J, while laughing the whole time.
Spending the afternoon poolside, and reminiscing over the past few days we were sad to be leaving. Packing our bags and checking out, we made our way to the airport. Holiday blues setting in, we perched ourselves near the huge windows of HCMC Airport and watched a threatening tropical thunderstorm roll in.
Vietnam is a beautiful place with beautiful people and very different to other South East Asian Countries I have visited; a place I hope to return to, visiting the North and perhaps getting the other side of the story….