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Published: April 10th 2009
...Crawling through the Cu Chi Tunnels... and Cruising on the Mekong Delta... Saigon
is home to about 6 million people and what seemed like 20 million motorbikes. It’s a bit of an assault on the senses after the quiet of country Vietnam.
Our train arrived in Saigon at the ungodly hour of 4:30am, and while we waited for our rooms, we wandered down to the local park to watch Tai Chi being practiced…I was expecting deathly quiet, old world serenity and precision; however in this funky modern city, traditional Tai Chi was being practiced alongside open air aerobic style dance classes and nimble games of badminton. Love it. 😄
I started the day with a strong cup of gorgeous Ca Phe Sua Da
(iced coffee with condensed milk), then we hopped on a bus for a day trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels with most of the group. I’m not a big war person but Vietnam has its share of war memorabilia that had not bothered me until this point. But here the profusion of guns, war propaganda and the US$1 shooting range where you could try a automatic weapon, eventually got all too much for me and
I needed a cold coconut juice to calm me down. 😊
The tunnels themselves and the experience of crawling through them was quite interesting, but that was only 10 or so minutes of the 2 hour experience - I would not recommend the tour to anyone who doesn’t have a keen interest in war.
That evening our group was taken on a cyclo tour through the city in peak hour. It’s a good way to experience all those motorbikes by being amongst it! Although I did have a tense moment when the cyclo mounted the pavement and hurtled towards pedestrians...but I suppose it’s only fair, because on more than a few occasions the pedestrians wandered onto the road and hurtled towards us! I have to say again that I absolutely love cyclos and I cannot believe that the government is going to ban them all eventually. Andrew’s cyclo experience was marred by having a cyclo driver who kept harassing him for a US$5 tip by poking him on the back of the neck every few minutes. Generally speaking, you get used to ignoring the constant requests to buys things after you’ve said no a few times; but every
now and again there is an aggression that surfaces if you refuse to buy or tip, and that was really annoying.
One of the stops on the cyclo tour was the War Remnants Museum, and as mentioned, given I’m not into war at all - I found this experience very confronting. On the other hand, Andrew really valued the experience because it was the first time he was able to perceive the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese, rather than through an American or Australian perspective. However if you don’t like harrowing war photographs, stay out of buildings 2, 3 and 5...also watch out for the rather life like prisoner dummy in the model ‘Tiger Cage’ in building 4 – it scared the life out of me. I think a little girly scream may have even escaped my lips, I can’t really remember. Andrew can’t remember either; he was trying to deal with the fact that I had my fingernails firmly embedded in his forearm. 😞
Like Hanoi, crossing the street in Saigon can be scary, especially around the market areas - those 20 million motor bikes I mentioned...pretty sure we saw every single one of them
at some point during our stay! Ben Thanh is my favourite of all the markets I’ve been to in Vietnam (and there are a lot of them). Ben Thanh also has a night market every night. The clamour of women touting their wares; the meandering children and dogs who don’t seem to belong to anyone; the smiles and greetings of friends and family meeting for an evening beer or meal; the fierce bartering of experienced market goers contrasted by our unsure smiles; the rich smells of fresh fabrics mingling with cured leather; and the inescapable aroma of grilled meat and spicy noodle soup… it can only be a night market in Asia! 😊
We had a group dinner at the night market one night - crammed into a small table sitting on small plastic stools. We had the yummiest grilled prawns in tamarind sauce and stir fried beef with lemongrass and chilli - which is Andrew's new favourite dish. I mentioned in this earlier post
that the Vietnamese take their preparation of food very seriously and they have rigid ways of doing things. This non-negotiable attitude to their cooking extends to how you eat the food too; a case in point
was being very politely directed by Chinh on how to eat the grilled prawns in tamarind sauce. Apparently you should eat the whole prawn inclusive of crunchy shell and legs because by peeling them you lose the salty tamarind sauce; while this was a valid point, I’m not sure my tummy could handle a whole plate’s worth of prawn shells. At any rate, shells or no shells, we highly recommend a meal at the Ben Thanh night market.
The next day the group was taken on a day trip into the Mekong Delta. Starting at My Tho, we boarded a private boat for a cruise on the Mekong River to the four islands of Dragon, Unicorn, Tortoise and Phoenix. We stopped along the way to visit a coconut candy factory, where Andrew also got to taste banana and snake wine. Banana wine got the thumbs up, but snake wine got the thumbs down. The coconut candy was superb and we bought bags of the stuff!
At the coconut candy factory we boarded a motorcart, which is basically a trailer attached to the back of a motorbike that fits 4-6 people. This was a really fun and sometimes hair
raising way to explore tropical fruit orchards, farms and little villages. We had a small break at one of the farmhouses for some tropical fruit and tea and then drove on to another farm where a family of beekeepers make honey from longan flowers - a very old family tradition. I even summed up the courage to stick my finger into a beehive to get some honey. This was right off-the-beaten-track on one of the small arms of the Mekong. We had spring rolls, a beautiful lunch of fried Elephant Ear fish (local fish of the Mekong) with fried rice and salads, followed by refreshing longan honey tea which was served with fresh lime, and a rice wine chaser for those interested. We lay around on the family’s hammocks while we digested our lunch before being taken back to our boat on little row boats. Being low on the water in the row boats gave us a real sense of the labyrinth that is the Mekong with dense shrubbery, intense heat, and its world of tropical mosquitoes.
Back in Saigon that evening the group gathered for the last time for our final group dinner. I am very glad we
decided to tour Vietnam from north to south and end in Saigon - it is a modern Vietnam here that we had not seen yet. The shops are cooler and the motorbikes snazzier, this town has a great feel and it really makes you want to be a part of it. We were a bit disappointed that we had not planned to spend more time in Saigon, but we plan on coming back soon...maybe as part of a Cambodian trip? 😊
I have to say group travel was not as bad as we thought it may be, and Andrew and I both agree that we may do another Intrepid Travel trip - it really enables experiences that you would never encounter without local knowledge, and they also organised better/faster travel connections than we could have.
The next morning Andrew and I had a very leisurely breakfast and packed for our transfers to our beach break in Mui Ne...CANNOT WAIT!
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