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January 27th 2007
Published: February 4th 2007
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Flowers for Sale - SaigonFlowers for Sale - SaigonFlowers for Sale - Saigon

Fresh flowers from Vietnam's central highlands fill the cluttered markets of Saigon. © L. Birch 2007
The bus dropped us at a Chinese restaurant overlooking the border. Outside it was hot and the restaurant stood on its own in what looked like a field of dust. Not for the first time, I wondered if dust was a major crop in Cambodia. We were certainly going to be exporting a fair amount of it in our clothes when we crossed the border into Vietnam but first, we were going to have to get to the border. The bus driver didn't speak any English but it was clear from his brief mime that he wasn't going any further and that we were expected to walk the remaining 2kms to the other side.

Fortified by a drink in the restaurant, we collected our packs and trudged back to the road. In total contrast to the small, unassuming facilities on the Laos / Cambodian border, the Moc Bai crossing was extravagant and more than a little intimidating. It was a long walk to the imposing buildings of the immigration and customs department where the red communist flag of Vietnam fluttered in the breeze. On this sunny morning in January, I wondered what we would make of this - our 4th
Goodbye Cambodia, Good Morning VietnamGoodbye Cambodia, Good Morning VietnamGoodbye Cambodia, Good Morning Vietnam

Entering Vietnam at the extravagent Moc Bai border post. © V. Birch 2007
country since leaving the UK in almost as many months.

We had grown up through the Vietnam years and I could still remember watching nightly news reports on my grandparent's old black and white TV. We became accustomed to a diet of Vietnam war movies, soul searching documentaries and later - video games. But as you travel through the green and verdant fields of the delta, there is - at first glance - very little evidence of the conflict that nearly tore the region apart, changing people's lives and altering the political geography. Despite the best efforts of the US, the political ideologies of Mao and Ho Chi Minh seem very much alive and well. That said, local people exhibit a fierce commercial streak that seems in complete opposition to the communist ethos. 'Business' in Vietnam - whether it is selling postcards on the beach, running a market stall or a multi national company - is everything.

Saigon - 2 hours further on - was the largest city we had yet visited. Home to 8 million people, it is a heaving metropolis where the medieval world seems to meet the present. Motorbikes throng the streets where ordinary traffic
Hall of the Ten HellsHall of the Ten HellsHall of the Ten Hells

Incense smoke fills the Hall of the Ten Hells at the Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon. © L. Birch 2007
rules don't seem to apply. In such a place, where mobile phones are a ubiquitous and 'must have' accessory, it seems strange to see ladies in conical hats balancing a yoke across their shoulders supporting baskets of fruit, noodle dishes or great mounds of vegetables. On every sidewalk and along every alleyway, dishes of food simmer beneath the neon. Food stalls serving up soups, grilled chicken's feet, rice and stir fried vegetables or spicey curries, line the pavements - punters sitting at plastic tables, oblivious to the traffic or passers-by. Among it all are the beggars - with ragged clothes and matted hair - that tug at your sleeve and implore with pitiful, liquid eyes.

Saigon: the very name conjures up images and expectations. At the time, it was almost hard to believe that we were 'actually there' and not still seeing it through the window of a movie frame....

... an American soldier, laying on a bed beneath a slowly revolving ceiling fan. As he watches the fan turning, the slow "chop, chop, chop" of the blades become those of a helicopter. Suddenly, he is back on the battlefield, the sound of mortar fire and their concussive
Going UndergroundGoing UndergroundGoing Underground

Viv explores the tunnels at Cu Chi, built by the VC to evade US chemical weapon and bombing campaigns. © L. Birch 2007
explosions mingle with the smell of blood and the cries of his men as they desperately seek cover . "Incoming..... take cover!" yells the Leiutenant but it's too late, there is no cover. The enemy are everywhere, there are too many of them and they just keep coming....

Movies of course, have had a powerful influence on our expectations but Vietnam is never quite like you imagine.

From Delta to Dunes

Saigon, everyone told us, was the one place in Indochina where we were most likely to be robbed, mugged or conned in some horribly devious way. It didn't stop us from engaging with the country but it did make us more wary. Leaving our passports with Lon - the nice Vietnamese lady who ran the hotel we were staying in - we made a foray into the busy central market off Pam N'gu Lao. it was a cluttered rabbit warren of tightly packed stalls where aggressive vendors demanded that you look at their wares. If you accepted an invitation to look at a stall but left without buying anything - either because you didn't want any of the products on sale or didn't like the
A Life AfloatA Life AfloatA Life Afloat

Mingling with the locals among the floating markets of the Mekong Delta. © L. Birch 2007
prices (as a bargaining ploy, this often worked well, but not in Vietnam) - you were usually treated to a torrent of Vietnamese invective as you walked away. This was a new experience for us and not something we had encountered anywhere else in gentle, South East Asia. It was just one of the many surprises that Vietnam had to offer.

We also chartered motorcycle taxis - known in Vietnam as 'Xe Om' - to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda on the other side of the city. The ride was considerably more of an adventure than the sight itself, a crazy dash through the most horrendous traffic we had ever seen. The driving was sheer anarchy. People overtook on the right or left, cut each other up and at crossroads - where there were rarely any traffic lights - the "right of way" did not seem to exist. Everyone drove into the junction at once, from all four sides, weaving to avoid those in front as they crossed to a lane on the other side. To an outsider, it looked as if it couldn't possibly work but somehow it did. I was just glad that I could close my
Mui NeMui NeMui Ne

Red dunes hover above the fishing village of Mui Ne on Vietnam's SE coast. © L. Birch 2007
eyes and that I wasn't the one having to do the driving!

After an almost obligatory visit to see the Cu Chi Tunnels - where the Viet Cong successfully eluded American troops by going underground - we headed into the Mekong Delta. Coming to the end of its long, 4500 km journey from Tibet, the Mekong splits into a complex series of rivers and tributaries before emptying into the South China Sea. It was to be the last contact we would have with the mighty river since we joined it in the far north of Laos almost 3 months previously. Hopping on and off buses, ferries and boats, we made our way to the town of Can Tho so that we could catch a brief glimpse of a disappearing way of life. Out of necessity, it is a life lived afloat and the delta is still one of the best places to experience the last traditional floating markets of Asia. It's a colourful affair with sampans, junks, barges and numerous small boats cluttering the canals, their decks laden with fruit and vegetable produce. You could even buy a boat if you wished but we chose simply to charter one for an hour or two, drifting among the traders as they went about their daily business.

From the delta, we began our long journey north to Hanoi but our first stop - 5 hours from Saigon - turned out to be one of our biggest surprises. So far, we hadn't really been able to do the 'beach thing' any justice, travelling through largely landlocked countries, so Mui Ne was our first chance to really unwind and enjoy it. Mui Ne on the south east coast, was famous for its red sand dunes and was often referred to as Vietnam's "Little Sahara". Sand dunes, palm trees and beaches washed by the Pacific Ocean: it didn't get much better than this.


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