Vietnam PartOne 27th December
We left Perth for a lunchtime flight to Ho Chi Minh via Singapore. We were somewhat concerned we might have difficulties as Vietnam was evacuating thousands of people due to the typhoon in Malaysia heading towards Vietnam, the evacuation included many people from the Ho Chi Minh area. However we were fortunate that the typhoon had been downgraded by the time we flew out of Perth. When we got to Singapore our connecting flight was on time but eventually left about two hours late. The previous day all flights to Ho Chi Minh had been cancelled so we considered ourselves very fortunate to get there.We had taken advice on getting a Visa and because we were entering, leaving and re entering Vietnam again we needed a multi entry visa,so on the advice of our tour company for this leg of the trip we engaged a local company to help us. A young man met us at immigration and took our completed forms, money and passport and additional passport picture from us and disappeared, which made us a touch anxious. We then spotted him at the front of a very long queue of people all lining up to get their visas. To cut a long story short, all was well we got our Visas within 30 minutes whilst other people we spoke to were there for two hours. Essentially we had, un known to us employed a fixer, who goes to the front of the visa queue ( only relatives of government officials allegedly work in the visa department) pays money across to the official who then processes our visa immediately unless someone else comes along with more money in which case that visa is processed first. Not comfortable but that’s how it works.
We were picked up by our driver from the tour company All Points East ( this is the only section we have engaged a tour company the rest of our trip we have arranged ourselves)and taken to our hotel which was well placed in the city of HCM ( Ho Chi Mhin)
The following day we were free to do as we liked until we met our guide Loi that evening, so we took ourselves off to Ben Thang market, a massive indoor market which sold lots of silk items, many well know brands of clothing and accessories sold in the UK,including Kipling bags, North Face bags and a range of Under Armour kit and every make of training shoe you could think of. The centre of the market sold fruit and vegetables and provided meals in little cafes huddled around stalls amongst the noise and chaos of the market.
We were not sure if the branded items were real or fake, however many of these brands are made in either Vietnam or Cambodia and the view of locals is some are fake and some come out the back door of the numerous factories and some are seconds, however the items we looked at were about half the price we would pay in the UK.
I have seen some traffic in capital cities but HCM has to be some of the craziest I have ever seen. Traffic lights that do not work, so many motorbikes they out number cars at least 5 to 1 and follow no rules of the road,who if you do come across traffic lights that work, don’t take any notice of them, happily drive in the opposite direction to the traffic, are on their mobile phonesand are generally unpredictable and are in huge numbers.
Being British of course we head for the zebra crossing, like anyone takes any notice of those, so we were there for a while !
We had to cross a major highway when out and about exploring , it was not easy so joined a group of locals who just stepped out in front of cars and bikes holding their hand up, somehow we got across in one piece.
The parking of motor bikes is also amazing,they are parked on the pavement so you walk in the road, they are parked inside restaurants and coffee shops and frequently you see houses with them parked in the lounge. Clearly highly prized possessions and so many of them.
We met our guide Loi who took us for a delicious evening meal and made plans for the next morning which was a tour of HCM.
The following day he took us to the Chinese quarter which was established by Chinese migrants and a favoured shopping market in HCM. As it was close to New Year so many shops were selling the distinctive red and gold decorations associated with the Chinese new year plus all the many groceries and meats some of which we don’t see in the West.. From there to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and then on to the most significant of all the visits that day, to the war museum which told the very complex history of Vietnam and focused on what they call the American war, know to us as the Vietnam war. There have been so many conflicts that the American war was only one of them. Vietnam has had a tturbulent history. The most shocking exhibition was the one about Agent Orange, where the Americans dropped a chemical to kill off the jungle so they could see and attack the enemy, the Viet Cong. The devastation it caused was to kill the jungle off as intended, but it infected the ground so deeply that it is still infected even now in 2017. What is even worse is the devastating heath issues it caused for the local people, many developed cancers, neurological problems which then transferred horrificly to the next generation and now on to the third generation, co joined twins, children born with life limiting physical deformities and mental disabilities.. There is now a group of third generation children (young adults) appealing to the USA for help support and compensation, good to see they received some support from Barrack Obama, it is not clear how the situation is progressing for them now.
There is now a big clean up process going on in the areas were Agent orange was used by the Americans, Da Nang being one of them where we fly to when we leave Cambodia.
We left a very hot HCM ( Ho Chi Minh) named after the Viet Cong leader and headed off the next morning to the Viet Cong underground tunnels at Cu Chi. This was a massive place designed for tourism, as soon as we entered the area we were invited to go down a hole into the tunnels. I of course was straight in there, what a horrible experience that was, especially when you closed the metal cover over your head and then the realisation of where you were and what you were doing suddenly dawned. I was glad to get out but that wasn’t simple. Despite considering myself as someone who could do to lose some weight I did not expect to be a tight fit in a Viet Cong tunnel, but I was well wedged in. They were very slim and I was not, so it was not easy for me to get my fat little body out of the hole, but willing hands were there to haul me out.
We were not sure about this place it had a firing range so you were hearing constant gunshot, the exhibits were presented more as entertainment than a place of significant history and respect where there had been much hardship and destruction for the local people and huge numbers of deaths for all sides involved in the conflict. Some of it was really interesting, the Viet Cong made shoes very skilfully out of old tyres and they were made almost like normal sandals but they put them on backwards in such a way as to confuse the enemy as they made tracks which made it look like they were walking one way when in fact they were walking in the opposite direction. This sandals had very distinct straps so the Viet Cong all had marks on their feet where the straps had prevented a sun tan. This was used at the end of the war to determine who were Viet Cong, many stating they weren’t involved with the Viet Cong movement but inspection of their feet gave it away and they were executed.
The tunnels had kitchens which opened up underground like great caverns. The kitchens were only open between 3 am and 5 am , the reason being that at that time of the day mist often hung in the air and so the smoke trails from the kitchen mixed with the mist and did not give the position of the Viet Cong away to the Americans.
From here we moved on to the start of several trips on the Mekong River,, we were fortunate that our tour was made up of the two of us our guide Loi and a driver and we were driven around in a very comfortable Toyota four wheel drive land cruiser. After an interesting drive through the countryside we arrived at a small jetty, our bags were taken across a gang plank and onto a boat and we were taken on a water journey to our accomodation for the night which was a homestay right on the river. The first impression of the Mekong was immediately that it was the life blood of the delta . As we chugged along in our wooden boat we went past rubbish, water hyacinth, a dead dog and a dead piglet. We also passed a range of houses hanging onto the banks of the river by struts of bamboo which looked like they might snap at any moment. The Mekong rises and falls by up to 10metres according to the season and as such life has to accommodate that. The houses were colourful often shored up with corrugated iron,polythene and plastic sheeting, they have to cope with searing heat and torrential rain depending on the time of the year. Plastic bottles all over the place of every colour and size. Some banks and small inlets were filthy, the water a brown green colour but it plays a crucial part in the lives of so many people and there was something vibrant and exciting about this river.
Our evening at the homestay involved a cooking lesson where we made something which was a cross between a pancake and an omelette stuffed with vegetables or pork and mushrooms, all delicious.
We were here in the Vietnam and Cambodian winter which is also the dry season, it was 30 to35 degrees every day with humidity at around 90%, it was hot! The best way I found to cool down was to have a shower and then stand in front of the air conditioning to blast cooling air over you, not something I have ever done,being someone who moans about being cold most of the time but it was a delight at the end of each day.
An early start the next day saw us back on the boat and a tour of a floating market, where farmers had come down with produce in large bulbous dhow shaped boats full of produce. This first market was not as big as we expected but gave us our first experience of how skilful the Mekong dwellers were in seamanship. The boats were long tail boats ,powered by car or truck engines, very long propeller shafts and manoeuvred by lifting the propeller completely out of the water to slow down and shifting it around to steer. The boats were long, thin and quite shallow but moved at great speed and were deafening as they approached and then were skilfully manoeuvred alongside other boats to buy or sell produce.
We then investigated a small cottage industry on the banks of the Mekong, they made rice paper and liquors and many other local items. They had a range of produce on sale, rice cakes and alternative medicines such as fat of python and skin of cobra, sounding remarkable like the start of an alternative opening scene for Macbeth.
We left the boat and returned to our vehicle and headed towards the jungle headquarters of the Vietcong communist party who during the American war operated from right inside the swampy jungle, the only way to get there was on a shallow wooden canoe and wind your way through the waterways.On arrival at Xe Quit we were taken by canoe around the waterways, the jungle waterways were beautiful and afterwards we took a jungle walk to see the buildings of the Viet Cong headquarters and more entrances to tunnels which were hiding places.
Some of the jungle had been damaged by the spraying of Agent Orange but had grown back over the years but it was not the same, plants and trees had been affected and growth was stunted.
We left and drove on to Can Tho were we stayed in a nice hotel with a pool on the roof were we enjoyed a swim before a drink and meal on the river to celebrate New Years Eve, not that we stayed up as we were up early and back on the river the next morning to another floating market. This one was about an hour away by boat, a lovely ride and was used by locals to buy fresh produce for their own use and also by traders who negotiated for the contents of large dhow lIke boats full of cabbages or water melons which were then unloaded onto their small long tail boats.As with every good market there is always a coffee shop and this was no exception, the coffee shop came along side attached his boat with a rope to ours whilst we were still moving and dispensed his wares, however too risky for us to drink but we were very pleased to buy them for our guide and boatman.
We left the boat further upstream and transferred to our vehicle for the onward journey to Chau Doc where we stayed in a hotel close to the Cambodian border ready to Board a fast boat to take us up to Phnom Penh. We visited a Buddhist temple on Sam Mountain where we could get a good view of Cambodia before returning to our hotel.
That night a gecko decided to sleep in Sue’s suitcase overnight and got the shock of it’s life when she started to pack up her case the next morning,Sue was pretty surprised as well to find something wriggling in one of her compartments, but stayed remarkably calm.
The boat company sent a bicycle Tuk Tuk for us, one for us and one for the luggage. Poor man had to cycle hard with two fat ladies wedged in his carriage.
We boarded the boat which set off at speed to join the main Mekong River and head for the Cambodian border and our next destination the capital of Cambodia Phnom Penh