Lazy day on the delta

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Friday, December 2, 2005

Arriving in Vinh Long, just a couple of hours from Can Tho, we go through the usual rigmarole of finding a moto to take us to our selected guesthouse in the town centre.

Once in town, we are disappointed to find the place all closed up for business, so I pay the moto drivers, and we walk around to see what else we can find. A disabled guy who can't talk properly accompanies us to the next hotel and claims his commission quickly, even although we decide not to stay there.

Its hot in the Mekong Delta as there are only two seasons which have no bearing on the continuously high temperature- wet season and dry season. This is the start of the dry season in December, but even so we've had several massive downpours whilst out and about. Today its really sunny and bright and we try to walk slowly and as little as possible with our backpacks on.

Rachel finds a great room on the top floor of Phuong Hoang guesthouse for 120,000 Dong (GBP 4.50), which is much cheaper and nicer than the other hotels we look at. In Vietnam the price of the room has only a very weak correlation with the quality of the room, so you always have to take a look before agreeing to stay. I remember when we first started travelling I used to think it rude to look at a room and not take it; now it happens without thinking about it.

In the afternoon we take a look at the museum in town which includes some dull exhibits of old Vietnamese stuff (furniture, agricultural equipment, etc) plus a couple of buildings dedicated to war artifacts. There are also a few ex-US army tanks, planes and helicopters silently rusting away round the back of the place.

The war exhibition consists of lots of photographs of people, places, and action in the wars with France and USA. Whilst the individual images are certainly interesting, there seems to be no overall story to tie things together. Its a shame that the exhibits don't get across convincingly the history or the important message of why Western countries were wrong to meddle in the affairs of Vietnam.

I learn more from our 'Rough Guide to SE Asia' which tells us how, after briefly being controlled by Japan at the end of the 2nd World War, France picked up where it left off after 80 or so years of colonial rule. The Vietnamese surprised the French by starting a revolution which, according to the Geneva Agreement of 1954, should have peacefully split the country into two, as in Korea, with communists in the North of the country. Instead, further fighting broke out as Uncle Ho (Ho Chi Minh), who had been trained in Russia in communist ideals, sought to unite the entire country. Eventually the Americans were drawn in by concerns that if South Vietnam fell to the communists, then so could many other countries in the region. The Americans lost over 58,000 troops in the drawn out conflict, and their vicious tactics, such as carpet bombing and anhialation of entire villages, brought widespread criticism of the war. The unpopular nature of the war, plus the fact that the Americans just could not beat the Vietnamese, culminated in the withdrawal of American troops in 1973. This left the South Vietnamese forces to fend for themselves on the ground assisted in the air by carpet bombing from the Americans. In 1975, Ho Chi Minh's forces finally overcame Saigon in the south, and the country was once again unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The cost in Vietnamese lives is reckoned to be over 3 Million. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, and many of the Southern Vietnamese were sent for 're-education', as temples, churches, and monasteries were closed down. However in the mid 1980's Vietnam once again allowed freedom of religion and fully embraced capitalist economic reforms known as 'doi moi'.

In 1995, relations with America were normalised, and everything seemed to be very sweet until the Asian economic crisis of 1997 took place. Since that setback, Vietnam has recovered strongly making it one of the fastest growing economies in the region. Nonetheless 75% of the people are still involved in agriculture and rice is the principal export.

Vinh Long is not a touristy town and we enjoy a walk around its bustling streets and markets. Rachel buys lots of exotic fruits from the market for next to nothing, and I enjoy walking into some old fashioned grocers shops that look like they are from the 1920's. Jars and tins line the shelves and there is no such thing as self service. I find a pharmacists shop complete with a large curved hardwood counter, behind it hundreds of little wooden drawers for holding medcines, herbs and chemicals.

For each of these colonial gems there are 100 soulless concrete shells. The Vietnamese love to build their houses tall and narrow, near a busy road, so that they can have a shop downstairs. In the big cities, the facades of these narrow concrete structures are quite characterful and varied but in most little towns, where there is less money, the decoration is limited to dull white tiles that fade and become stained quickly. Pavements in Vietnam are not for walking on, but act as extended shop front displays or parking for motorcycles.

That night there is a massive downpour and the street in front of our hotel is briefly about a foot deep in water. We wade out to the nearest restaurant which fortunately happens to be just 20 metres away and eat fish in sauce with rice plus a bowl of soup for 10,000 Dong (GBP0.40) for us both. Most of the local Vietnamese restaurants are point-and-shoot affairs where the displayed dishes are then heated up and served with rice on request.

Next day we forgo the USD$10 tour to the floating markets and take the local ferry for 500 Dong (GBP 0.02)across to An Binh island, for a little wander around and a look at local life. The ferry is packed with smartly dressed school kids heading home after the early morning lessons. The High School girls look very dignified in traditional flowing white dresses with trousers, especially when seen sporting a parasol and riding a bicycle at the same time.

The roads on the island are so narrow here that there's only room for motorcycles, reminding us of Lamma island in HK. Everywhere we look around there is vibrant growth of vegetation, fruit trees, and vegetable plots. We stop in a cafe for morning coffee and end up staying for Pho Bo; noodles in a spicy broth, served with thin slices of beef, bean sprouts, and a selection of aromatic greens.

I buy a lottery ticket from one of the legion of ladies who are continuously pestering us to take one, using the purchase as and excuse to take a photo of her. We decide to head back to the mainland for an indolent afternoon of reading books and snoozing - its very easy to be lured into lazy inactivity in the heat of the Mekong Delta.

That evening in a cafe on the Mekong river, I check my 2000 Dong (GBP 0.08)lottery ticket with another of the lotto-ladies. Not surprisingly I loose, but the lady tells us and interesting but sad story. She used to be married to an American GI in the 1970's and regrets her stubbornness in not taking up his offer to move back with him to the US after the war. Her two blue-eyed children now have families of their own in Texas. Her daughter used to send her USD$100 every month which kept her comfortably, but six months ago the payments stopped and she can't get in touch with them now. Its also too late for her to get American citizenship. As a result, she explains in her Vietnamese accented Texas drawl, she's had to start selling lotto tickets to make ends meet.

We decide that its time to get a move on to Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in Vietnam. The receptionist in our hotel calls up the local minibus operator, and informs us to be in the foyer at 8.00am for the trip. Vinh Long really warrants at most, one day of a travellers time, and we've given it two, so we feel pretty keen to say our goodbyes.
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