Vietnam: The South

Trip Start Aug 18, 2010
Trip End Aug 31, 2011

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Flag of Vietnam  , Hồ Chí Minh,
Monday, December 10, 2012

With a brief flight from Jakarta my arrival in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh (HCMC) was met with ridiculous lengthy queues of disembarking passengers waiting to get visa approvals and amongst them a surprising large number of Russians which would become a theme of my trip travelling through south and central Vietnam. Despite pre purchasing my visa approval which is required and completed through a through online company everyone is still required to wait in lines to pay for the actual visa, which is all a bit of a joke and smells of 3rd world efficiency at its peak.

Once the formalities were completed I met  my pre arranged driver who waiting for me to take me from the airport to my hotel in the backpackers area of HCMC. The journey to the hotel, albeit brief was a typical chaotic journey through traffic hell with the sound of the car horn permeating the air the entrie route. At least I had a great room to myself and was greeted by some helpful staff which again would be another continuing theme of my trip.

The first evening I decided to stay put, get some travel tips and catch up on rest and do the email and web catch-up stuff. I also had time to put together a rough plan of attack for my first full day in the city and decide on some trips as there are quite a few choices. Once I had exchanged some funds and started getting used to the local Dong currency and new conversion rates I also had to ready myself for another busy city and like in Bali get used to the usual harassment being a westerner in an Asian country but the hawkers didn't seem to be as pushy as Indonesia except for the bike taxis who are a little more persistent  but you can soon enough figure out some witty responses and play them at their own game to avoid the hassle. The first questions they all ask are: Where are you from? How long are you here for? And then try sell you a tour or drugs or women….If you answer the first question with " I am from my mother", which is a joke they like to use, they seem to quickly asses you are used to this travel game or quickly get confused as they cant link it to one of their pre programmed answers…

So on my first full day I explored the chaos that is Vietnam traffic, you quickly learn that there are no rules and parting the traffic by simply stepping off the curb is the only way to get anywhere! After parting the sea of scooters and bikes a few times I made it to the main market called Binh Thay which is crammed with an assortment of cheap rip off clothes and trinkets and the other end a mixture of local fruits, vegetables and exposed meats. The vendors were very touchy feely with similar sales techniques, usually starting with the opening line “Hey Mister, you are so handsome, you want a shirt etc etc”. After surviving this for a while I made my way to the Notre Dame Church which is located near the central post office building, both of which are apparent highlights but not that fancy.

With a quick bowl of Pho lunch and a good location for people and Vietnam city life watching I headed back to the Independence Palace which is where the puppet south Vietnamese government and president was based during the war with the US and which famously North Vietnamese tanks stormed the gates of to mark the end of the Vietnam war. Although some of the vast rooms are picturesque and grand, especially after some recent restoration works, the real highlights for me are the tanks, plane and helicopters. Unless you want to pay extra for the walking guided tour a lot of information is probably missed but the looped video located in the building’s basement was pretty informative.

Afterwards I walked on to the War Museum which was truly amazing, emotional, informative and graphic. Outside there is an assortment of weaponry and vehicles and aircraft from the Vietnam – US war, and inside the history lessons are unfolded through the use of photos and images which are sad, educational and much needed. The 4 storey building houses some terrific material and the segments focusing on the suffering of the Vietnamese citizens and the effects of Agent Orange are particularly good. Outside again a small area visits the darker and more horrible aspects of the war by exploring the torture methods used through the wars which are horrendous.  In the late afternoon I made my way through some of the larger parks, in which many of the locals play a hacky-sack type football with badminton type shuttle-cocks or exercise on free park equipment.

In the evening I booked some trips and decided to head through the Mekong on a 2 day and 2 night trip, staying an extra night more than most so I could venture on to Phu Qouc Island before heading back to Saigon and then making my way north on the hop on/off busses north.

So my next morning was a early rise, which was greeted with a breakfast of baguette, egg and coffee. The bread and coffee in Vietnam is nearly second to none, seriously, it’s on the thing the French probably did right when they had control here in Colonial times.  The bus picked me up at around 7:30 am and I joined a growing collective of tourists for the trip through dodgy roads for several hours before the change of scenery which announced the entry to the Mekong. We were hoarded together and clambered on to the boat with our guide who had a knack of repeating words several times with the funniest annunciations which we all chuckled at.  The boat took us on the river towards Unicorn island, at which we stopped to witness some cultural lessons as the island housed local beekeepers ( I get selected to stick my finger into the moving mess of bees and wax and taste the sweet honey which was pretty cool). Afterwards we are treated to honey tea and some snakes in the background drape around tourists shoulders for photo opportunities.

I Befriend 2 English girls, a Swiss girl and a Brazilian guy and as part of the group we take river cruises on small narrow wooden boats along the jam packed estuaries on the island. There are some near misses on the boats as they scratch each other as  we pass by other boats before then heading  to see where a famous local family makes candy from Coconut,  which are tasty and I buy 2 bags for the pending future long bus trips! Then we stopped for lunch, at which the Brazilian and I agree to share a preorder of fish which comes lavishly displayed with scales and all and we get It prepared for us with rice paper and spices and it turns out to be delicious but crunchy due to the scales! Our last stop of the day takes us to a performance of local Vietnamese singing and we are provided some fresh fruits. Some of the fruits are amazing (Jack fruit, Pineapple etc) but others distinctly less so. Although we are polite enough to not say anything the local singing is truly awful mainly as the local language sounds like angry banshees all the time and that combined with the semi wailing singing makes it a uneasy on the ear experience! At the day’s end the we hop back on the original boat and head back to the bus. Some of the group has opted for hostels (including me) and other for a homestay so we make the necessary stops before our final destination of Cai Tho

We have plenty of pre warnings to take care of our valuables, but our 2 star hotel is based only 5 minutes from the River so I head out for a dinner for one at a magical riverside restaurant, get seated right on the river’s edge and after some deliberation settle on prawns, Saigon beer and some ice cream while I watch the busy river life pass me by. This includes a massive four storey karaoke party boat which is decked out in all kind of horrible bright lights as it screeched an wails along the river, the wailing from more terrible local wannabe pop stars; they love their karaoke here, they are just not very good singers!.

The next day we start off by heading to the Cai Rang floating markets on the Mekong which are famous and  a highlight. The rivers are already busy by the time we arrive around 8AM and the mix of wares being sold and how they do it is extremely interesting, resourceful and entertaining. We stop alongside boat selling pineapples which are quickly and immaculately carved up on a stick and sold for a pittance. We spend a bit of time watching the bustle of the market before heading off to a tad more boring segment of the day in which we visit local companies at which the rice husking process and rice noodle making are explained to us in painful detail. Again what is apparent is how hard working the people are and they incredibly resourceful working with few modern machinery or tools.

I get dropped off around lunch to catch my connecting bus to the coast at Rai Chai as the tour heads back to Saigon. My bus takes longer than expected and once I reach my destination there is a bit of confusion as I was expecting a hotel drop off but instead use my broken Vietnamese and hand gestures to get a  taxi bike to take me to the hotel at a cheap rate. Once at the hotel, which is located right near the docks for the ferry to take me to Phu Qouc Island the following morning, there is more confusion as they speak no English and only a call to my tour organizer manages to resolve the comical farce or organizing for the paid room! I head out for a wander and am greeted by a stunning sunset by the docks before two local girls chat to me to practice their English and then treat me to a local pommel dessert which is real tasty. I manage to find a cheap meal later on and again suffer the language problem as I thought I had paid for the full meal before heading back to my hotel only to receive a knock on the door ten minutes later from the food vendor to explain I hadn’t fully paid, still the meal and drink cost me $2.50 in total!

The next warm morning ( I haven’t mentioned the weather but every day has been a humid and sticky affair) I manage to check out successfully and retrieve my passport – you have to leave your passport at every hotel so the police can monitor your movements – and board my ferry. The trip’s entertainment is a blasting loud presentation of some Pop Idol type Vietnamese extravaganza which is between the absolute ridiculous and insane. Thankfully it only lasts a few hours before we reach the island and I grab a taxi to take me to my hotel which again is staffed by incredibly polite and friendly locals with varying degrees of English and they never lack a smile.

Phu Qouc Island has become increasingly developed over the years and more recently again been overrun by Russian tourists escaping their miserable winters. The restaurants bear evidence of the Russian invasion and they are pretty unpopular with other western travelers and the locals from what I can gather as they tend to replicate life at home without trying anything different culturally, food-wise and all have a serious and moody demeanor. I head down to the beaches which are now scattering of resort style sun loungers but the despite the obvious trash along the coast line (and the whole country in fact) the waters are clear and easy swimming. I spend day being lazy and tanned, reading, catch up on emails and in the evening try and walk to the main town and locate the night markets which I fail at. I do manage to find a decent restaurant which makes me a specialized seafood dish and I get talking to a girl working there who hails from Philippines, before I walk back and get slightly drenched by the start of what is a typical tropical storm which sees through the night and the following morning.

One of the other regular features of the trip is the common question asking if I am single and travelling alone, sometimes its asked regarding tours but most of the female staff and guides ask it as a “and if you are single and staying around, wink , wink” not in a dodgy way. I get the impression that money talks here even for the local Vietnamese guys and as they say “No money, no honey”.

The last day I spend some more time on the beach before booking an evening sunset night squid fishing trip. We get picked up late afternoon as I join some local tourists, a family from China and Australian couple. We are greeted to another awesome sunset and I get asked to pose in the photos with the Vietnamese and Chinese tourists, which also will become a recurring trend! I spend lot of time talking to guide, who is both pretty and smart as are many if the local people I end up chatting to. On our night excursion we stop by some fishermen who live on floating houses with squid and fish held in nets offshore. After sunset attempt to fish for squid unsuccessfully, but the crew and captain of trip do catch some dinner for us. We are treated to seeing massive schools of fish in the well lit up waters as well as some passing massive crabs and a couple of squid who manage to avoid the fishing lines. We get our meals prepared, but most of guests get seasick except for the westerners, so we head back early. I get a taxi the following morning to the brand new airport- more signs of the development here – and fly back to Saigon for the night.

In Saigon I take it easy and buy some snacks for the following days bus trip but in the evening manage to find a bar to see the Manchester premier league derby at which all the expats come out of the woodwork, and the bar could have been anywhere in the UK except for the obvious sights of the local girls who are being paid for by the English and Irish guys. I head back to the hotel and get some Vietnamese language tips before going to bed and my early morning bus trip to Mui Ne, another beach side mecca.
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