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Published: February 13th 2010
We got a new coach service from Kep in Cambodia over the boarder to Ha Tien in Vietnam with little fuss (we'd already got our visas) and got straight on a local bus north to a little town called Chau Doc. This place is a port on the river Hau Giang and is a good example of Southern Vietnam Mekong Delta living. We took a boat ride to see a village of floating houses that farm fish in cages underneath their homes. We were invited into a house and got to feed the fish (boy oh boy did they go mad for the fish food!). The family was really friendly and we stayed for ages eating spring rolls, sweets and ice cream with their son. Then we visited a riverside Cham village (Cham people are a Vietnamese ethnic minority) where they earned money from weaving with cotton and silk, so we bought some beautiful scarfes...it would be rude not to!
We browsed the wet market and saw and smelt all the fresh fruit, veg and fish for sale. It's a bit sad as they keep the fish barely alive in trays of shallow water rather than sell them dead on
ice so they are all flapping about and gasping.....very different from the fish counter at Tescos!! There was also many stalls selling fish sauce and dried fish and seafood, which was very stinky. The markets, pavements and riverfront promenade were filled with pretty flowers and plants for sale, including bonsai trees, kumquat trees ladened with tiny fruit and bright yellow chrysanthemum plants. It made the place look really beautiful.
Next day we got a bus to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) formerly known as Saigon, which took about 6 hours. We got a nice hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao area, which is bursting with tourists and backpackers and enjoyed the many cheap restaurants and streetside bars on offer. Despite the scorching temperature, we walked around the city centre a lot and checked out the sights including the many Buddhist temples and herbal medicine shops in China Town (Cholon), the wonderful Cho Benh Thanh Market where we ate the most scrumptious food and shopped wildly, the Saigon River, a luxury ice cream parlour called Fanny (!) where we tried durian and rice flavoured ices, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the lovely French colonial buildings like the Opera House. We
really liked Saigon.
Again, like in Chau Doc, the city centre parks and pavements were filled with thousands and thousands of flowers and plants for sale. There were huge displays of flowering bonsai, exotic fruit bushes, orchids, pink cherry blossom trees, blooming sunflowers and even life-size tigers made out of flowers and fruit. It was like Chelsea Flower Show! We realised this was the preparations for the annual Tet Festival....the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations, which this year is 14th Feb and it will be the year of the tiger. Plants are bought to decorate peoples homes and businesses to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Many people were buying plants at these markets and transporting them home on the backs of their scooters, never mind how big the plant pot or how high tree was!
The city centre parks were ideal for skating and it was where Dee hooked up with a group of local skaters who took him to some good local spots...with Dee riding his board while holding onto the back of their scooters through the crazy traffic. They took us out to dinner one night to a locals noodle restaurant, ordered us
the hugest steaming bowls of the 'Special Pho' (beef, meat balls and jubbly bits!), showed us how to correctly hold chop sticks and chatted all things Vietnam! Good times!
A part of Vietnam history that cannot be ignored is the American War (we, of course, call it the Vietnam War!) so we went along to the War Remnants Museum. The museum displays were very interesting and factual and filled with weapons and horrific images of war. We didn't know that the Americans dropped chemical defoliants (Agent Orange) on vast areas of Southern Vietnam that devestated the country and still causes many birth defects to this day nor did we realise how depraived the war was and that thousands of innocent children and babies were shot by American soldiers. It would have been good to hear the other side of the story too. A very sobering experience though.
We continued our history lesson the next day by visiting the famous Cu Chi Tunnels to the north west of HCMC at the Ben Dinh. The Viet Cong in this area built a massive network of tunnels and living space underground so they could hide from and mount surprise attacks on
the Americans during the war. At one point there were 250km of tunnels dug into clay, some of which were no wider than 80 x 80cm. The tunnels we visited had been widened for western tourists to go in but they are still quite small. We learnt how creative the Viet Cong were with their underground village, hidden bamboo-spike soldier traps and the way they disguised the tunnel air holes to look like termite mounds. They also made footwear out of jeep tyres so their footprints would look like vechcle tracks. Clever eh!
The highlight of the day was that Dee got to fire a real AK47 with live rounds. We were shocked at the power of the gun and the noise was deafening (especially as our 'ear defenders' were just music headphones without the wire, safety first!). Dee loved it!
As a treat for our last night in Saigon, we went for sunset cocktails at the rooftop bar in the Sheraton Hotel. Quite pricey but the city views were worth every penny. After having two to many, we extravagently chartered two moto drivers to take us to the furthest reaches of the city to a recommended banh
xeo restaurant where we ate fab pancakes stuffed with prawns, pork, duck and herbs, a welcome change from Pho Bo (beef noodle soup, we seemed to eat for every meal!).
What a good start to Vietnam! With it being Tet, we knew the whole of Vietnam would shut down to celebrate (as the festival is like their NYE, Christmas and Birthdays all rolled into one!) so we decided to move on. Our tans were fading so we booked our bus tickets to take us north to the beach...................
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