Published: January 9th 2008December 1st 2007
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(N) We left central Vietnam on Thurs 22nd Nov in the same weather that we entered it, i.e heavy rain. The 24 hour bus journey to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC)
could have been worse, but we managed a reasonable amount of sleep overnight and travelled throughout the day, arriving 26 hours later at around 7pm. The scenery during the day consisted of a combination of beach and waves when the bus hugged the coast, and green countryside at other times, with mostly single-storey houses, shacks and shops indicating that we were passing through a small town or village. Really, the outskirts of HCMC was the only area in the 1000km journey that appeared built up. The few kilometres outside the capital were the same as others in the developing world: the road goes from one to two lanes and more, bars and food shacks appear, followed by motor repair garages then hotels and restaurants. The same dominance of scooters is present here as other Vietnamese cities - a
family of four (two children) squeeze onto one; three women onto another, the butt of the rear passenger not quite fitting on (not that we have seen any fat local people at all since we left Hong Kong). Helmet-wearing is a rarity and no doubt contributes to the high incidence of Vietnam's road accidents.
We had erroneously assumed that all Vietnamese people were behind the name change to HCMC from Saigon but in fact it was imposed by Hanoi in the north against the south, who ultimately lost the civil war against Ho Chi Minh and communism, not long after the Americans withdrew. Southerners often still prefer the name Saigon, especially the older ones, which was the name between 1956-75. There is a smouldering anger amongst the South Vietnamese at the way they have been treated by the communists over the last 30 years. Many of them were against the war and the leaders who led them, but plenty were imprisoned without trail in horrendous conditions, in places euphemistically called 'Re-education Camps', with their property and assets being seized at the same time. Our war veteran guide (see previous blog) said that he would have been well-off today if
he had been allowed to keep the money he earned during the war, but instead had to drive a bicycle taxi for 20 years. As with all communist states, there was also widespread political repression. The final Americans abandoned Saigon by helicopter from the roof of the US Embassy (there is some shocking footage of the event on Youtube) just before the Viet Cong tanks smashed through the gates of Saigon's Independence Palace, bringing about the end of the war. Ho Chi Minh himself died in 1969 and never saw the reunion between north and south. He is still revered in the country and the government is not allowing any commercial expolitation of his name (once rejecting an American proposal for "Uncle Ho's Hamburgers"!). No doubt the man himself would be somewhat nonplussed about the large quantities of t-shirts being sold on the streets with his face plastered across them.
Saturday morning was warm and humid, it was a relief to see on TV that the typhoon on the east coast was turning back into the South China Sea and not progressing northwest to HCMC. We stopped for lunch in a small eatery at the end of an alley
of cosmetic stalls, called Nam Giao, and most people were Vietnamese which we took as a sign of good food. The little desserts were of glutinous rice wrapped around a lightly sweet filling, which were encased in boxes made of folded leaf, themselves a work of art (see photo). We spent the day wandering around, catching some of the sights as we went, such as Notre Dame Cathedral
(with more life inside than its equivalent in Hanoi) and the ornate Town Hall
, outside of which there is a statue of Ho Chi Minh teaching a child to write, although when approached from the side it looked like he was teaching her to use a machine gun!!
That night we had a curry round the back of a mosque, which was a first. It was quite basic: a large cooking area in the centre, with tables all around, beyond which were lots of living quarters. The free banana at the end was a nice touch.
On Sunday afternoon, a visit to the city's Chinatown (called Cholon) helped us deal with any withdrawal symptoms we might have been having. It was a long walk there in the sunshine, and as
it is nearly Christmas there are several Father Christmas figures in shop windows, but all looking suffocatingly hot in their big red coats and hats - it's definitely an icon that belongs in more northern countries! In truth, I was expecting much more oriental appearance and a definite difference in peoples' faces, but the boundary is pretty blurred between Chinatown and the rest of the city. We visited some pretty interesting temples, such as Tam Son Hoi Quan Pagoda
, which provided little relief from the heat because it had a furnace in the centre, consuming paper money (for ancestors to spend) and other items. The air was thick from smoking incense coils and sticks, stinging our eyes as the smoke mixed with sweat and sunlotion. The red-faced god Quan Cong
(who we had seen in many other temples and with whom we were now well-familiar) was present, along with various others. This was one of the busiest pagodas we had been to, with people scurrying in all directions despite the heat, to light more incense, attend to a shrine, cook in the adjacent gloomy kitchen, or sweep up the constant dust. Three women were praying fervently in different parts of
the temple, each assisted by another woman who was softly chanting, quite possibly asking for a child, which this temple is well-known for.
The second pagoda we went to, Quan Am
, is a large temple with many gods and buddhas dressed in finery, music playing and a couple of rotating columns with hundreds of little gold Buddhas inside. There was a large tank of turtles, some large and some tiny, a fish pond and many worshippers holding sticks of incense, bowing up and down as they prayed, hoping the smoke would carry their prayers to the god that they were addressing. I took a video inside this temple.
We had street breakfasts for several days in the same place, from a middle-aged omelette lady and her small stall on a street corner. She had a small burner inside a large empty can of cooking oil. In her small frying pan she cooked up great food with just the right seasoning and buckets of tea that kept us coming back each day. The one drawback to eating breakfast (or, in fact, simply being) in the street is the almost constant sales pitches. Of course we have nothing against people
trying to make a living(!), but in the space of 10 minutes of breakfast at the street table, vendors tried to sell 5 or 6 things including chewing gum, a hammock, photocopied Lonely Planet books and a bunch of lychee fruit. And in the 5 minutes between there and the internet cafe I got asked as many times if I wanted a scooter ride somewhere; sometimes they just call out "moto", other times they make conversation before the pitch ("where you from?"), and still others will enthusiastically make motorbike handlebar gestures with their hands, as if revving the engine. Some guys also cycle round waving a rattle, it took us a few days to work out that they offered back and shoulder massages right their in the street or at your restaurant table.
Our final temple in HCMC was the Jade Emperor Pagoda
, built in 1909 by the city's Cantonese congregation, it's famous for its intricate carvings as well as grotesque heroes, scary-looking gods and buddhas on lotus blossoms. Once again there was the pungent smell of joss sticks as we entered, and wandered around looking at the wooden statues. Of special interest was the Hall of Ten Hells
a series of carved wooden pictures depicting the various torments awaiting evil people in each of the Ten Regions of Hell. A life-size model of a red horse stood nearby, belonging to the Chief of Hell, and worshippers stroked its mane and rang the bell round its neck, a custom before making a significant journey. A shaft of sunlight from above, illuminating the dust, was an effect straight out of Indiana Jones! A couple of things that I hadn't seen before: someone had left cooked meat as an offering to the gods (normally it's just fruit); and a man answered his mobile phone which went off while he was in the middle of bowing his head up and down and holding incense sticks in prayer! Other sights in HCMC Reunification Palace
- The site of the Reunification Palace was first used for the French governer-general in the colonial period. It was bombed in 1962 and the building the currently stands as Reunification (or Independence) Palace was completed in 1966 and has been preserved almost exactly as it was on 30/04/75, when communist tanks crashed through the front gates (replicas of which stand in the gardens) and the Viet
Cong hoisted their flag from the 4th Floor, signifying the end of South Vietnam as an independent state, one for which 58,183 Americans lost their lives, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.
There was a famous exchange between the invading communists and the government representative who sat there waiting for them. He said something along the lines of "I've been waiting for you in order to transfer power" and the communist retorted "You cannot give what you do not have."
The external appearance of this palace is attractive, which is perhaps surprising given that it was built from concrete in the 1960's. And because they haven't changed it, a lot of the furniture inside now looks incredibly kitsch, not least the gambling room with its loud carpets and cheesy bar in the shape of a large wooden barrel!! It used to be possible to sit in the the former president's chair, a highlight that I was looking forward to, but sadly this is no longer so. We did, however, see the president's family living quarters, and also the basement bunker which has a network of tunnels around the principal war room and communication centre.
The War Remnants Museum
was formerly known as the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes
, but was recently changed as relations have thawed somewhat! In the central area outside are several full-size US tanks and helicopters, while various rooms display horrific accounts and photographs of American military aggression during the war, and also focus on the effect of US use of chemical herbicides / napalm / Agent Orange on local people, through accounts and pictures of deformed and severely disabled people: two malformed foetuses are preserved in jars. To ram the point home, the museum also recreated torture cells used by the South Vietnamese government. Sobering stuff.
The traffic in HCMC is legendarily bad and, like Hanoi, revolves around the scooters - larger than mopeds but smaller than motorbikes, they outnumber cars and buses by about 200:1. There is little sense of highway code, they ride on both sides of the road, only stop at traffic lights on the bigger roads and, during rush hour, even ride on the pavement: Paula and I once got hemmed in by scooters coming from both behind and in front of us!
One afternoon we passed a bath showroom, the piece de resistance
being a lovers' large rectangular bath with two foam pillows at one end, holes in the base and sides for jacuzzi bubbles and an embedded TV at the other end. How great would that be for Match of the Day?! That same evening, we stopped at a French-looking corner-bar at the end of a long day's walking and sightseeing. The roundabout we looked onto from our seats was crazy with rush-hour Saigon traffic. The carefully written menu was bereft of any pricing and, sensing yet another opportunity to be ripped off, I checked the prices before ordering:
"How much for the juice?"
"Twenty-four" came the reply from the young waiter, who, just to avoid any confusion later, carefully wrote down the figure '16' for me on his pad.
"And how much the beer?"
He wrote down '19' and the total bill somehow came to 29. Such are the daily confusions in Vietnam. In any case, there exists a fruit called 'custard apple' and it was in this particular bar that Paula had her first custard apple fruit shake; it was delicious. It really does taste of apple, custard and perhaps a hint of cinammon; it soon
became our favourite flavour. On a market stall, the custard apple fruit is about the size of an apple but has a scaly, reptilian skin. (On a related subject, we later learned that it also goes by the name of sour-sop, and that jackfruit shakes are equally delicious).
We made a day trip from HCMC to visit the site of perhaps the most eccentric religion in the world, the Holy See and Great Temple of the Cao Dai
religion, which was founded in Vietnam in 1926. It is described as as fusion of the secular and religious philosophies of East and West; a combination of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and native Vietnamese spirit beliefs, whose prophets consist of Jesus, Buddha & Confucius, amongst others. The goal is to escape reincarnation by the performance of certain duties and living within particular guidelines such as not lying or killing people. Historical figures whose spirits are supposed to have been in touch with the Cao Dai include Shakespeare, Joan of Arc and Lenin, while Victor Hugo is the chief spirit of foreign missionary work...
The temple has a large "divine eye" high up in the middle on the outside (as
on the back of a $1 note), and the interior is built over 9 levels, representing 9 steps to Heaven. Many columns feature entwined mulitcoloured dragons and above the main altar is a huge globe, which also bears the eye symbol.
At noon, the service started: the largest body of worshippers (the congregation) wore plain white robes (and consisted mostly of older people, as the younger ones were at work). The men wore small back turbans and the women went bareheaded, all led in to the rear of the temple hall by higher ranking officials (who were clad in red (Catholicism), blue (Taoism) or yellow (Buddhism), depending on which of those religions was the most important to them), to the sound of Chinese stringed instruments and gongs, which continued to play through the service. Before the congregation turned to sit down and face the front, the men and women stood on opposing sides, as if in large-scale human chess formation with too many pieces. During the service, the participants were either kneeling or bowing down, forehead to the floor, muslim-style.
Unusual perhaps, but even more amazingly it is the religion of choice for somewhere between 2 and 3
On the way to the Cao Dai temple, there was a stop at a large lacquer workshop (more interesting than it sounds!!) to see the craftmanship and processes involved in producing intricate lacquer art and objects being created, and came away with a new appreciation for it. We also passed through a place called Trang Bang, the village where the Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a girl fleeing a napalm attack was taken.
History of the photo can be read on Wikipedia here
, but the best sized picture is on a a semi-trashy discussion site
Before we left the country, we wanted some more great Vietnamese coffee and headed to the city's Ben Thanh
market to find it. There is a famous type called Weasel Coffee and this is how it's produced (I kid you not):
1. Coffee beans are fed to weasel
2. It poos them out
3. They are roasted, perhaps in butter
4. Beans are sold to the punters, and usually second only in price to Jamaica's famous Blue Mountain beans.
We had to try it of course, and were disappointed to taste little flavour. It was definitely
Ho Chi Minh City
smoother than other coffees, but - as is sometimes claimed - stronger? Nah. While we were there, they also had Blue Mountain, which would have been rude not to taste, and it was good - a lot better than Weasel Butt. Anyway later that evening, over a beer and a curry, Paula & I ruminated over the origins of such an odd coffee: why a weasel? And what made someone process those beans for the first time? A quick internet search later revealed the answers, and perhaps also that we had drunk only a simulated
weasel butt drink. Topline info on coffee from a weasel's bum
I had really wanted to like this city, whose name conjures up fast-paced excitement. But Saigon is no more, replaced by the more serious Ho Chi Minh City. As a magazine quote puts it, talking about the once-famous Rex Hotel bar: "Once, it had allure, [but] gone is the edginess of a city existing on the back of a black economy, with its heady mix of war, women and opiates". One place I did find all this was in the pages of Graham Greene's The Quiet American
, a short fictional
tale of a British journalist's experience during the war, which I read over a few days during our time in HCMC. On our last night, while Paula was finishing packing, I walked to a local bia hoy
("fresh beer") stall, where draught lager is half the price of the bars for double the quantity, to finish the book. I didn't get far into it before two young Vietnamese motioned to me to join them, as they were keen to practise their English. Well, the one whose English was good was keen, but the other one was still at a pretty basic level, which was a bit of a worry because he had an interview for an engineering job the next day - in English. They were still there at midnight when I left, the interviewee subscribing to the old student view that the more one has drunk, the better one speaks foreign.
So anyway, HCMC for us was a place of little charm and much traffic, and although we didn't dislike it, we weren't sad to leave and head for the Mekong Delta, south east of the capital, in which we would spend three days before floating down the
river to Cambodia. The Mekong Delta
- One of the world’s greatest rivers, the Mekong originates high in Tibet and flows 4,500km through several Asian countries before spilling out into the South China Sea. It is so large that it has two daily tides, and its delta is full of rice paddies and fish farms. Known as the nation's rice basket, the Mekong region produces enough rice to feed the whole country. In fact, it used to be Cambodian territory but Vietnam - like Thailand - whittled away at their less powerful neighbour’s land, and it is said that if the French hadn’t invaded Cambodia, thereby protecting it, the country wouldn’t exist today as an independent state at all. (A delta
a is a flat plain (or island) formed by sediment between diverging branches of the mouth of a river).
Unlike in South America, going on a tour in Vietnam is oddly cheaper than going independently, although it does sometimes mean unscheduled stops in cafes belonging to the transport company (or lacquer workshops!).
We joined a group heading south west, first stop My Tho. After a ride on the Tien River to Unicorn Island, we stopped
at a bee farm(!) where we were given little cups of tea with orange flavour and, of course, honey. There was also dried banana & sweetened lotus blossom snacks, and banana wine at 35% (which didn't taste at all fruity). Shortly after, we were subjected to some traditional Chinese stringed instruments and singing. We left the island in small paddle boats through a small, narrow, winding river back to the main river, where people were up to their chest in the muddy brown water, casting out nets. We also saw a couple of long barges laden with massive piles of sand on deck, heading to a construction site.
In the afternoon, we went to a small place where they produced goodies from coconuts, such as toffee, and oil for beauty treatments. We saw that the toffee was made from coconut milk, honey and sugar (the bloke who was stirring it up for the necessary two hours was trying quite hard not to let any of his cigarette ash fall in). The funny thing was that, although the products were made in this sludgy Mekong backwater, the pictures on the front of the packaging were of palm-fringed white beaches!
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Floating markets used to be the primary means for people to buy, sell and trade their products, but this is changing with the development of the road network. We took a visit to Cai Rang and Phong Dien floating markets that morning on the Han Giung River, still interesting places to see local life. Vendors are moored in various positions in the river, with tall bamboo poles protruding from the end of their boats, dangling from which are the particular fruit or veg that they are selling. We also saw a boat pass by that was full of duck passengers! (in wooden crates).
Over these last couple of days, we’d had the chance to spend a lot of time on the rivers, it was really relaxing although also very hot. Passing plenty of boats, we saw that they were often dwellings as well as a means of transport, with people snoozing in hammocks throughout the day. The houses that lined the banks were built on wooden stilts and the river’s water sloshed right under them, some were built of brick on the land’s edge and the water came right up to them.
We had such a busy schedule
Making rice noodles
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
over these few days(!) that we also got to visit a place where Rice Noodles
are made [whereby a gloopy mix of boiled rice and water is boiled up, just like pancake batter, then a large spatula-ful is spread thinly across a heated cloth and covered to cook. After a few minutes, it is deftly picked up with a fat whicker tool, placed on stretchers and left outside to dry in the sun, before being thickly sliced]; a Crocodile Farm
where 10,000 of the animals are raised for their meat and skins [most are sold young but a few adults hung around and looked typically menacing]; a Fish Farm
on the river, which was actually a medium-sized wooden house under which the owners claimed 100,000 fish were contained in a giant net! There was a right feeding frenzy when they dropped some fish food through one of the large trapdoors into the water below; and a minority Cham
village, whose people were Muslim of Indonesian origin, they spoke Arabic, and sold weavings to visitors.
The afternoon was our last in Vietnam, and the scenery was very similar to the rest of the country: narrow roads, small towns and villages,
Mekong Delta, Vietnam
colourful and generally low-rise buildings, and the odd large communist-style concrete statue, showing noble-looking peasants triumphantly holding up harvested food and raised fists. Just before we left, we went to one of the oddest temples we’d been to, simply called the Cave Pagoda (Chua Hang
), with a huge statue of a cobra winding itself around an inner cave-like shrine.
To leave Vietnam, we took another boat and completed exit formalities, then had to enter a very pleasant sandy ‘No Man’s Land’ before entering the Cambodian side. A Vietnamese border guard checked our freshly-stamped passports and let us pass through a simple wooden fence that looked like the entry point to a country fete instead of a new country!
We took a 3-hour boat trip from there to just short of Cambodia’s capital. As in Vietnam, everything visible from the river looked to have not changed for a long
time. Tall green trees lined the banks, every once in a while there is a small community’s group of housing looking onto the water, the only apparent difference between now and a long time ago being the odd motorboat and an intermittent penchant for corrugated iron roofing over traditional thatch.
On the river itself, long thin canoes powered by hand or small motor fished by line and by net. I saw a fish being pulled off the end of a line and also, in the medium distance, a man vigourously hurl forward his large net from the prow, only to topple in right after it, in a piece of perfect comedy slapstick.
Five men on one boat that overtook us looked as quizzically at the foreign faces on our boat as we did at theirs. At almost every village, the children ran down to the banks and waved wildly at the boat, calling out with excited voices, as if it was the highlight of the day. We couldn’t help smiling and returning the waves. It was a great boat journey, with just the right amount of breeze cooling us down from the searing sun.
On the minibus into Phnom Penh, the sun set as a large red ball behind the wet green paddies. There were lots of large signs outside all sorts of buildings for main political parties, most numerous were those of the dominant one, Cambodian Peoples Party. Young boys sat and played in the driving seats
of JCBs, whose drivers on the road-building work had left for the night. The written script was one of the most unusual I have seen, looking more like music than a language. After the sun had set, our journey could have been in the middle of nowhere, given the small buildings and rural feel of the route we took. Phnom Penh is small and the outskirts came upon us quickly; a small flyover, slightly larger buildings, a couple of billboards, and finally some street lighting!
There are more photos below