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Published: April 3rd 2009
The meaning of hot 23rd - 27th March 2009
Ben Tre & Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Plans formed, plans broken, new plans made, new plans broken, more new plans… ahhhh! My head hurts! We were never definite deciding where our next destination following Dalat would be. We had considered Mui Ne, Saigon, Can Tho, Phu Quoc Island, and Rach Gia to name but a few possibilities however we could never quite strike the balance required between potential fun, cost and desire to visit that we’d been searching for. All places have their virtues and flaws alike, but ultimately we decided upon Ben Tre for no particular reason other than it’s in the Mekong Delta, only three hours from Saigon by local bus and supposedly not visited that often. A few places would match that description, but we had to choose somewhere so this was a good enough rationale to me!
I’ve generally found expectations and anticipation of what a particular place might be like feature heavily in your ultimate opinion and enjoyment of any yet unvisited destination, depending upon how it either meets or fails to meet those preconceived mental images. I’ve frequently observed from my
own personal experience the greatest places are the places you have no prior expectation of, but which eventually produce countless surprises and leave you with great memories and experiences you never expected. Conversely, if a predetermined mental image you have of a place is too good, it’s also possible to be underwhelmed as the reality crushes the romantic vision you had. It’s on these grounds that I’ve always tried (often in vein) to arrive in any new situation or place without predefined ideas of what to expect. Easy to say - difficult to enact!
In its entirety, inclusive of all time squandered looking for the right buses to catch, the bus ride(s) from Dalat to Ben Tre actually ended up taking fewer than 12 hours. Recognising it’s perhaps only a 400km journey unquestionably makes that seem a disproportionately long time, but here in Vietnam (and in fact in most of Asia too) it’s pretty good going, especially making allowance for the fact five separate bus rides were required. First taste of the heat
Upon arrival in Saigon we discovered we’d failed to take into consideration the difference in temperature between Dalat and the Mekong Delta. We had
been told previously about just how excessive the temperature can get in this part of the world between March and April, but we didn’t quite comprehend just how hot that can mean. We first arrived in Saigon in our air-conditioned bus at five o’clock in the morning; in theory the coolest time of day, just before sunrise. As we stepped down from the bus the heat enveloped us like you’d experience stepping into a steam room for the first time, and the thick humidity instantly made our skin feel clammy to the touch. The bus we’d arrived in had the air conditioning set so cold throughout the night that momentarily our immersion in the heat and muggy warm humidity felt reassuring and comforting. Things quickly change!
By the time we arrived in Ben Tre, the clock had just passed 10am and intense sunshine was progressively stifling our every attempt at movement, and with all its ferocity, punishing us and anyone foolish enough to walk under its rays for more than a few seconds with suffocating waves of heat. We followed the sensible course of action and I left Caroline with the bags whilst I went and explored the available
accommodation. Ben Tre
Ben Tre instantly seemed well and truly off the tourist trail in spite of its relatively close proximity to Can Tho, Vinh Long and My Tho, all of which supposedly receive visitors in decent numbers. It was nice in some aspects because there was no one hassling us, there were no touts and nobody was trying to sell us books, sunglasses etc, and nobody was trying to clean my shoes.
After settling into a very cheap hotel we’d managed to find, we agreed upon sleeping between the hours of 11am and 3pm as the bus journey had only allowed for poor quality and fragmented sleep. Though it wasn’t our intention in the instant, this became standard routine for all five days spent in the Mekong Delta and Saigon. Between those hours, life is verging on the impossible. Even when riding a motorbike at 80kmh the heat is intolerably oppressive - the wind provides no cooling effect and you simply finish up incredibly dehydrated and sunburnt having gained nothing from the experience anyway, because the fear of the heat prevents you from stopping and appreciating what’s around you. Consequently I don’t have a single photo
of Saigon and precious few of Ben Tre. The heat evaporated my appetite for photography as the only thing ever occupying my mind was the next spot of shade.
We spent two days and two nights in Ben Tre. The first day we hired a motorbike and attempted to follow a shabby map we’d found of the Ben Tre peninsular. The map didn’t contain even half the roads which actually exist and our attempts to find the bird sanctuary and sand dunes/ beach on the Ben Tre peninsular both failed despite having ridden in excess of 130km to find them, asking locals along the way. According to the locals it was always just around the corner, but obviously that was a corner invisible to us!
We did come across an unexpected sight that day as we stumbled across a whole group of black and white pyjama clad prisoners, being escorted by heavily armed military personnel in groups of 100 prisoners or more down a main road. It looked like they’d been labouring in the plantations since they were all carrying agricultural tools, which got me thinking; why don’t we make prisoners labour in the UK? Human rights no
doubt, but to me; surely if you commit a crime you made a choice to relinquish those human rights?? A long and separate debate I think!
The landscape of the Ben Tre peninsular was a flat working landscape beautiful in its own unique way. Every inch of the lush green irrigated land was under cultivation and everything from rice to bananas, mangoes, pineapples, plums, oranges, coconuts, bamboo and more that you’ve probably never seen or heard of is grown, and often processed in great abundance. Shade is hard to find since trees are of little agricultural use and the few palm and mango trees grown are mostly grown in heavily irrigated land far from roads. Transport throughout the area is best achieved by boat along the innumerable irrigation canals if you really want a true taste of the working landscape and so we arranged to explore them by boat the following day. Exploring the delta
We only glimpsed about two other foreigners the whole time we stayed in Ben Tre and hence the demand for English speaking guides is perhaps too insignificant for there to be a great number. The only guide we came across made it
his business to find us - easy in such a small market town.
Lahn, the boat guide, instantly seemed like a friendly guy and whilst he only spoke limited English he compensated for this with outrageous enthusiasm and a hysterical half nervous laugh, which made him instantly likeable and trustable. The price he quoted us for a three hour boat trip around the local waterways appeared honest and we agreed on the proviso that we could start at three o’clock, the theory being the temperature would have cooled off somewhat and the light would be at its most aesthetically pleasing.
For both Caroline and I, the trip proved most rewarding. We puttered around the narrow hardly visited waterways in our wooden blue ramshackle boat, appreciating a more authentic view of everyday life for those who live in the river delta. Almost the entirety of the palm fringed and shaded canals are man-made , and people inhabit even the most distant of the tiny outcrops of land, most of which have no access by road and are only accessible by boat. The place is obviously poor but in a land of agricultural plenty like this I suspect
their lack of contribution to the Vietnamese economy has little effect on their standard of living. Sure, they don’t have satellite TV or air-conditioned homes, but they have everything they require for life around them in both constant and inexhaustible supply.
For about twenty minutes we stopped on one of the larger islands to explore. We were amazed to find huge numbers of houses and concrete paths connecting them all, but also how each home owner used their garden to grow a plethora of fruits for personal consumption. What surprised u even more, as we walked further into the island we could hear the sound of loud music only to approach and find a large restaurant and bar filled with local people. Lahn told us the owners were Vietnamese who’d lived in the US until 8 years ago, and had returned with money to live a good life. Now they just spend all day drinking, partying and as a side show, run the restaurant and grow fruit. Funny that they would return to a small island in the Mekong Delta and live such a simple life after living somewhere so developed.
Only one final comment about the
boat trip; he also showed us a small fish farm over which there appeared to be a hut on stilts which he explained was a toilet. In the small lake below, catfish are grown he tells us. “So you’re telling me they eat fish grown with human s*@t?!” “no, this fish is for export to America - the locals wouldn’t eat it, but it does make the fish grow big and fast”. Vietnam is the world’s 4th largest fish exporter, so I have no reason to doubt him. Thank god I’m not a catfish eating American!
After that day we decided the heat had utterly beaten us and decided upon making a retreat back north to cooler climes. Our plan had been to explore the Mekong Delta for perhaps as long as two weeks, but now with a comprehension of the intolerable heat we decided that on this occasion, we’ll have to abandon the plan and return in the future to fully explore the region. We did still want to see Saigon though regardless of the temperature, and so booked a bus for the following day. From Ho Chi Minh to Saigon City..
I heard a stupid
rap song ages ago which had the lyrics ‘from Ho Chi Minh to Saigon city’ and they kept repeating in my head as we arrived back in Saigon - this time with the intention of exploring. Even more stupid that the lyrics have no meaning - they are the same place - and even more annoying for Caroline that they were the only lyrics of the stupid song I could remember!
We arrived in Saigon at 10am and the temperature, as expected, was 33C in the shade. Later that day it progressed to a massive 36C according to the (relatively accurate) thermometer on my phone, the whole time incredibly humid and in a city lacking in shade. We found a hotel room for the extortionate price of $14 a night right in the centre of the tourist ghetto, but a brief wonder around Saigon revealed a city I actually instantly warmed to - both literally and metaphorically!
Saigon often isn’t viewed as positively as Hanoi because it lacks the sites of historical interest and generally is more modern, therefore in theory it has less character and is less charming. That’s the theory anyway, but I actually really liked
Saigon from the outset. Just like mentioned at the start of this blog; expectations play a big part in opinions and I arrived in Saigon with almost no expectations, hence when I actually saw the place it made for a pleasant surprise.
Saigon is a city of seven million people where there are an estimated three million motorbikes in use, and within a few minutes of arriving I’m sure anyone would realise that statistic is probably true. The numbers of them are quite simply incredible. A traffic light only has to turn red for perhaps 20 seconds, and during that time perhaps 100 or more motorbikes will have arrived and lined up. The lights go green and the roar of their engines reaches a crescendo as they race away, each jostling for position, whilst some unfortunate people are left stranded in a bad position, waiting for a break in the traffic in order to make a manoeuvre whilst everyone else swerves around them. Mix a few cars, vans, trucks, buses, cyclists and pedestrians into the picture and imagine the deafening noise of non-stop horns and squealing brakes and you might begin to understand just how crazy the roads are
here. I wanted to hire a motorbike instantly and be part of the fun - but sadly Caroline had other ideas. Getting a Laos visa
Our first priority when arriving in Saigon was to arrange a visa for Laos, as we decided we would enter Laos across the Bo Y border in the very south of the country which we’d read many times does not have a ‘visa on arrival’ service like the other borders. Under normal circumstances I hate going to embassies - they are often unhelpful, rude, obstructive and demand ridiculous sums of money if you want your passport back any time before next year. The Laos embassy really surprised me.
We arrived at about nine o’clock and nobody was around, so I walked around the back of the main window hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble, and met a man who very cheerily shouts ‘good morning, sorry I didn’t see you, I’ll be there in a second’. He comes, asks us how he can help us, so we explain we want a visa and he tells us ‘no problem, just fill out the form and attach two passport photos’. We filled out the forms
and ask him how much ‘$50’ came the answer. A bit steep I’m thinking, and I ask if the validity of the visa will start today, or on the day of arrival. He tells me it will start today, at which I look a little disappointed, so he says ‘I can give you a two month visa’. Great! I ask him how long it will take - ‘you can have it in 20 minutes if you want to wait’. Even better! ‘So how much does this cost?’ - ‘$50’. Great! No ridiculous extra charges, no stupidly long wait and no obstructive people!
Why can’t all embassies be so helpful! I’ve always wondered why they need your passport for so long just to put a sticker on one of the pages, but this guy answered my question - they don’t! I can only hope this is a forerunner to how easy things are going to be in Laos. Can’t take the heat!
The rest of our time in Saigon was spent hiding from the heat in various café’s and in the cooler hours of the day, exploring on foot some of the trivial and rather boring attractions, but
generally soaking up the good vibe and feel of the place. It’s chaotic, but there’s a method to their madness and everything runs mind bogglingly smoothly given what it may appear like in the instant. I guess the city is modern compared to Hanoi, and often in a rather tasteless concrete high-rise way, but the endless buzz and energy of the easygoing and cultured city I saw endeared itself to me like no other Asia city I’ve visited yet. I honestly think I wouldn’t mind living here.
In any corner of the city we visited it’s possible to smell great food being cooked, be greeted by friendly locals, pass endless café’s all selling excellent Vietnamese coffee, see street food vendors hawking their goods, be harassed by moto-taxi drivers, watch people exercising in the oppressive heat or just sit down, slow down and relax watching the city fly by. The energy of the city is relentless, night and day, twenty four hours - it really never stops. It’s also an incredibly varied city where you can watch the rich and poor intermingle as well as see many different ethnicities and fashions, but most importantly for me, the people seem really
happy and I like the culture of the city. You can chill out or party, there is always something going on for all tastes. The city has a vibrant street life where you can eat cheap but delicious food, or drink cheap beer until whenever you like. I guess Saigon for me is reminiscent of London which I also love so much. The place is hectic but I find it strangely liberating and easy to find peace within the cacophony of noise and activity, and to take enjoyment, feeling as ease, as the world whizzes around me at breakneck speed.
I would love to have stayed in Saigon for a week, but the reality is that I just can’t tolerate the heat! Saigon appeared to be cooler than Ben Tre, but only very marginally and not enough to make the slightest difference to our perception of it. Just like Ben Tre, I guess we’ll have to shelve Saigon for visiting another time when the weather is more favourable.
We’ve arranged a bus to our next stop, which will hopefully be a little cooler; Buon Ma Tout in the Vietnamese Central Highlands. I have no idea what to expect
of the place, so we’ll just have to see!
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