Vietnamese Venture

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Moving from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) through the Mekong delta was much easier by organised tour rather than trying to arrange it ourselves, so we crossed the border from Cambodia on the river and travelled on through Chau Doc, Can Tho and a variety of sight seeing stops. At our hotel in Phnom Penh we met up with a couple from Byron Bay in Australia, Mark and Jenny. and by coincidence we found that we were on the same trip to HCMC. Then on the way to the boat we met Hannah from Wales who was travelling alone so the five of us made the journey together which was really enjoyable. It is a complicated journey using minibus, boat and coach and there were other people who joined us for some stages and then went off in different directions and others whom we crossed with as they did the journey in reverse. I don't know how the company keeps track of everyone but they seem to manage it.

In Chau Doc we spent the night in a floating hotel which was more comfortable than expected. The local market was fascinating with displays of all kinds of fish, fruit and other life stock which we didn't want to recognise. Mark bravely ate snake curry for dinner. I tried a piece and thought it tasted like a small piece of carpet dipped in curry sauce. It was very chewy but the curry was good!

The visit to a rice farm and factory was interesting and we saw them making rice paper, which in this area is then cut up to make noodles. However, the most fascinating stop was at a fish farm, which is under the floor of someone's house. To feed the fish the woman just lifted a hatch in her floor and the fish scrambled up to the surface for their food!

The stop at Sam Mountain required a steep climb up to a cave which is used for worship. Some time ago a woman wanted to go into a monastery but the men would not let her join them, so she found this cave and started living there alone as a hermit. Eventually she taught the local people to cut hair (can't imagine what they did before she arrived) and sew, so they honoured her memory by maintaining her cave as a pagoda, or place of worship.

The wholesale floating vegetable market was very different from the floating market we saw in Bangkok. Here, people come from some distance to buy vegetables and take them back to sell in their villages.

The delta is huge and at this time of the year, the rainy season, it appears even bigger as so much land is flooded. It made me appreciate how vulnerable the area is because it takes very little extra rainfall to flood the villages completely and higher land is scarce. It is also a highly populated area so a huge number of people are affected if it floods.

After three days we reached Ho Chi Min City (previously Saigon)– a mixed blessing! It is huge, chaotic, and dirty with very little to recommend it. A few buildings are worth visiting, the Reunification Palace, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Post Office and some others are attractive from the outside but the traffic is so bad that walking around is really draining.

The Reunification Palace is part civic building and part museum and intriguing to walk around. It was originally built by the French for the Governor General and when the French departed (not voluntarily!) it became the home of the South Vietnamese President Diem and called the Norodom Palace but it was bombed in 1962 by the President's own air force in an attempt to kill him. He ordered a new building with a large bomb shelter to be built and it was finished in 1966 but he was killed by his own troops in 1963 before it was completed. The new building was called Independence Palace until1975 when the country was 'reunited' at the end of the American War, as it is called here. It is now used for official gatherings and state occasions but of course the capital is now Hanoi.

The architecture and furnishings are so 60s it looks like a pop art museum in places, but then down in the basement it becomes a rabbit warren of communications and battle planning rooms used during the American War.

We had a minor panic there.  We followed the visitors route through the building and up to the top floor. I went to the rest room on the top floor, and when I came out I could not find Jim. Although he swears he was in the next room, I think he was hiding behind a display as I walked through the room twice but did not spot him. So I thought he must have wandered on and followed the signs down to the basement. I went down thinking I would catch him up. I had not realised the basement was so vast and maze like. I did not find him but it took me 15 minutes to find my way out. Then I could not find the rest room where I had last seen Jim – it is a very complicated building! After 20 minutes we met up again but only after I had embarrassed myself by asking at Reception if they had seen a lost husband – they must have spotted him as they pointed me in the right direction immediately.

From Saigon, as the locals still call it, we flew in a propeller plane to Quy Nhon. This is a small town on the beach but when we landed Jim and I looked at each other and said, 'I didn't see any sea?'. In fact we had landed at an old military airport and the town was nearly 30 miles away, but luckily we managed to get on to the one and only, chock full, local bus. How they managed to fit our cases on board I can't imagine but as we were jammed in the back we couldn't see. Quy Nhon is not on the tourist route, we saw no other westerners there apart from a few expats but the down side was no-one spoke English. When we ordered food or drinks we never knew what would arrive but it made life exciting. There are a few largish tourist hotels but they seem to be empty or occupied by a small groups of business men attending conferences or training sessions. Surprisingly the town has a lovely sea front area with gardens and a long,well designed, promenade. The town itself was a lesser version of the chaos in HCMC. We visited some local Cham towers and lovely beaches.

Then we made the mistake of moving up the coast by bus to Da Nang. It has a very good Cham museum, the best in the world, but apart from that it is a total nightmare. Thankfully our hotel was small but well equipped and quiet despite being on a main street. It became our oasis of calm in the middle of the chaos and noise of the squalid, overcrowded city.

Just stepping out of the hotel was risky. To say it is hazardous there is like saying being bitten by thirty rabid dogs might not be good for your health. Thousands of motor bikes race constantly through the town, never stopping (only a handful of traffic lights in the whole town) even when they leave the road to cross the pavement to drive into buildings or side roads. And of course they shoot out of buildings without stopping. In fact, we realised that is the key to how all road users operate – they never stop, at junctions and cross roads they ride on, only adjusting their speed (up or down) and weaving in and out or using the pavement. Despite having one way streets motor bikes and cycles ride both ways and take corners on the wrong side of the road. The roads are like boulevards and could be very pleasant but walking is amazingly difficult as the pavements are blocked by parked bikes, building work, stalls, rubbish and anything else you can think of! And if that doesn't make it dangerous enough, at nightfall people light incense sticks and put them randomly in holes in the pavement at the optimum height to burn legs. Fires and braziers are lit to cook food.

Jim also had the problem of avoiding hazards at head height too as wires, pipes and awnings criss cross the pavement as low as five feet. Then we had someone cutting branches off trees in their roof garden and throwing them down to the ground. Honestly, any Health and Safety expert would have a heart attack in the first 60 seconds of being here.

All the guide books and other travellers warned about the aggressive tactics employed by vendors, as well as the wide range of scams used to part visitors from their cash as quickly as possible. For example, a current one is to rent out motor bikes. Then a friend of the owner follows the hirer and once they park the bike they use a second key to steal the bike – result, the hirer has to pay for the bike as it is in the contract! In fact after a short time here I concluded that the writer of the later Star Trek series, New Generation, based the Ferengi on the Vietnamese as I am sure they use the same Laws of Acquisition. (Full listing of Laws can be found online)

It was at this point we asked ourselves 'why are we in Vietnam?', then we arrived in Hoi An, an absolute gem of an old town, the Rye of Vietnam, but even better. There is even an area of road closed to all but pedestrians and 'primitive vehicles', pedal bikes and trishaws I think. More about this wonderfully preserved 16th &17th Century trading centre in the next blog.
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Comments

jenny on

I see you are now in Vietnam, looks very very interesting. See you soon!! jennyxx

Sheila Garcia on

Hi Sue and Jim - Just been reading your blog for the last 3 hours! It is so interesting - I envy you! Seems like you are having a fantastic time! Can't wait to read your next expedition! I guess you will be on your way home soon! Hope we can all meet up and chat about your experiences! Don't know why you haven't visited India? You really must go out to South Goa and Kerela! Look forward to seeing you soon - Lots of Love - Enjoy the rest of your trip! xx

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