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Published: August 3rd 2006
Our last week in Vietnam as probably been the best for us, mainly due to Dalat.
Easyriding in Dalat
Dalat is a town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and has long been a favorite for travellers because of its cooler temperatures and picturesque countryside. It was a recreational town for the French when they controlled the country and the many deteriorating fabulous villas are a testament to this.
Dalat is known among travellers for the Easyriders, an informal group of guys that will tour you around the countryside on the back of their motorcycles. You don't have to worry about finding them because they will find you, with an incredible ability to spot a new backpacker. We met up with Hiep our first day and arranged a one day countryside tour with him and his mates, Mo, and Trung. We were a bit anxious about riding on the back of a motorcycle because none of us have much riding experience and of course riding a bike in Vietnam is a totally crazy experience. It was great riding around the mountains, winding around mountain curves on the back of these bikes.
Dalat is a major food producation area
and greenhouses, fields and gardens scatter throughout the mountain valleys. They grow a vast array of crops in Dalat including vegetables, flowers, coffee, and mushrooms. We stopped at many of these places and it was wonderful to have a personal guide teach us about the history and people of this area. We also saw how the silkworms are used and visited a rudimentary silk processing plant. Just having a typical Vietnamese lunch with these guys was fun because you really got to know all about them.
The Easyriders are a great group of guys that speak a plethora of languages and are very educated guys, many with university degrees. They opted to become Easyriders because you can make more money being in tourism than even being a teacher. In addition to offering day trips, they offer extended point to point tours, which would be amazing, but are a bit steep at $50 US/p/day.
We had so much fun that first day, that we decided to do another one day trip the next day. We visited a lot of the domestic tourists sites and it was a lot better touring on the bike than being herded along on a
bus tour. We visited a waterfall, minority village (Chicken Village), Meditation Centre, Ceramic Pagoda and even learned how tofu was made. Because it is summer holidays here, we have encountered bus loads of domestic tourists throughout the country.
War History 101 - Saigon
From Dalat we headed to the commercial centre of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City. After the end of the Vietnam War, the southern city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh after the father of communism in Vietnam. Driving into the city, we were surprised how large the city was and how progressive and Westernized it seemed compared with Hanoi, the capital. In Saigon, we learned a lot about the Vietnam War, which is called the American War in Vietnam.
We visited the Reunification Palace, which is a contemporary palace rebuilt in the 60s and was used by the southern Vietnam government. It was also the place where Vietnam was ''liberated'' in 1975 when the Viet Cong drove a tank through the front gates and raised the communist flag. The palace even had a bomb shelter built underneath with control centres so that communication could be maintained with the troops in the event of an
Next up was the War Remnants Museum, a "'museum dedicated to publicizing the horrors perpetrated by U.S. armed forces during the Vietnam War'' (Fodors). The museam is stunningly effective at showing the horrors of war. There are numerous photo exhibits showing Americans fighting and the lasting effects of Agent Orange and Napalm. We agreed with this Fodors statement, "'You'll probably come away with mixed feelings about the one-sided propaganda -- ashamed of the U.S. actions, angry about the Vietnamese inaccuracies in depicting them, or both.'' Unfortunately the Vietnamese communist government is using the museum as political statement pointing 100% of the blame at the Americans. There are no photos or comments about the atrocities commited by the communist Viet Cong.
To expand our growing knowledge about the Vietnam War (and in Paul's words to continue the propaganda parade) we visited the Cu Chi tunnels, located outside Saigon. The tunnels are the real thing and were a very important stronghold for the Viet Cong. They fought a guerilla war with the use of the tunnels and were able to ambush the US and South Vietnamese troops. We saw how the tunnels were entered and Paul actually managed to
squeeze into an original trap door (see picture). The ingenious nature of the booby traps that the Viet Cong created were extraordinarily creative as they used simple technology with ferrocious effects. They also relied heavily on the waste of the American troops, turning unexploded ordinances and waste like cans into homemade bombs and grenades. We all got to crawl through a dark damp tunnel that had been slightly enlarged for us larger foreigners. We were in the tunnel for less than 30 m and were quite ready to get out. The irony of this experience is that you go through the whole tour learning about how bad war is, but in the end you can use of the shooting range on site. This is an opportunity for tourists to fire a wide range of army weapons and the extremely loud bang-bang constantly pierced the air. Our tour finished with a 1967 black and white propaganda film made by the Communists highlighting Viet Cong heros, many of which were awarded ''American Killer Hero'' awards.
We signed up for a 3 day/2 night tour of the Mekong Delta, that finished in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was typical Vietnamese style
tourism at its best. Hurry up and wait...get on the bus...get on the boat...back on the bus...back on the boat....need we say more. You are herded from site to site with 45 people and little explanation about what your are seeing or why.
However, the Mekong Delta is a beautiful place and is one of the most highly populated areas in Vietnam. It is a very important agriculature/rice growing area. Vietnam is now the 2nd largest exporter of rice. Canels snake through the small islands of land that are barely above sea level. During the flooding season, the water rises 3-4 m, making it necessary for homes to be built on stilts. We went on various boat tours, visited a coconut candy production centre, rice noodle production centre and best of all the early morning floating markets.
Cambodia Here We Come
We walked across the rural Vietnam-Cambodia border crossing easily, probably due to the small bribe that our guide had arranged. We took a slow boat (its name was true to the speed we went) and then a minibus to Phnom Penh.
Wow, where do we start! Vietnam truly was a country of highs
and lows as we stated in our last blog. The southerners are known to be friendlier and we found this immensely true. It was very interesting learning about the war history and we have been reading lots of Vietnam books to try and get a more balanced picture about the war. We highly recommend the book, ''Girl In the Picture'' by Denise Chong. We had a hard time with the one sided propaganda story that the current Communist governmemt preaches through its tourist attractions. Vietnam is still classified as a communist country, however they are making market reforms that sometimes allowed you to forget that you were travelling in a communist country. We found quite a gender inbalance in work load throughout the country. The women are extremely hard working, often performing back breaking labour. While it was common to see the men hanging out in coffee shops or playing cards at the street corner. This certainly is a stereotype that doesn't always hold true because we did at times see men working equally as hard. Corruption stills runs rampant and as a result there is an increasing gap between the haves and have nots. Tourism is still in its
infancy in Vietnam when compared to its Southeast Asian neighbours. We found the chaos and lawlessness of the roads hard to handle and yearned for a magical police officer to appear to enforce some basic order.
We are glad we visited Vietnam and we really did have a good time travelling. However, we are excited to be on to a new country.
''I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, "Mother, what was war?"'' ~Eve Merriam
''It'll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers.'' ~Author unknown, quoted in You Said a Mouthful edited by Ronald D. Fuchs
''We first fought...in the name of religion, then Communism, and now in the name of drugs and terrorism. Our excuses for global domination always change.''~Serj Tankian
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