Saigon and the Mekong Delta

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Asia » Vietnam
December 15th 2015
Published: December 15th 2015
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Good grief - it was only a 35 min drive from the Ho Chi Min City airport to downtown and that was all the time that it took for me to want to leave!!!!!! Holy traffic and scooters! Whatever happened to peaceful Vietnam?

Saigon was also to prove our most interesting hotel experience. Kelly had booked a room at Beautiful Saigon on Biu Vien St cos it had a swimming pool - and it was also on a very busy street in district 1 with heaps of restaurants and bars - and scooters! Our room was the teensiest possible with just enough room to walk around the bed and rather noisy into the wee hours. We had booked a second night when we returned to the city after a trip to the Mekong Delta and this time were given an inside room ie: the window opened onto the hallway. At least it was quiet although still tiny. Having another 3 nights in the city we thought we might as well keep the inside room but then found out that there were no rooms available. So now it was time to walk around the neighborhood to find a new home. Heaps of hotels and rooms available but I wasn't too keen on a 4 floor walk up in the heat. We lucked out on Alley 185 where we found the Ven Trang 2 - a ginormous room with a ginormous balcony overlooking the alley- and an elevator). Breakfast was not included for the $30.00 price but there were lots of restaurants around - an iced coffee and a baguette would suit me fine.

To explore the Mekong Delta we booked a 2 day cycle/boat trip with Sinhbalo Adventures and joined a young German couple for a great adventure. Our minibus left saigon shortly after 8 am for a LONG drive to Cai Lay where we started riding. Our guide Hai kept us entertained with stories about the areas we were travelling through as well Vietnam history. The bikes were in the back of the van and were put together by Hai and the driver - it didn't take Kelly long to figure out that the driver did not really understand how to lock the front wheel properly. The first ride was on country lanes and quiet roads through villages and along canals. This area of the mekong delta is known for its fruit growing - bananas, pineapples, coconuts, rambutan, jackfruit and durian. At times we did not really get to appreciate the scenery as it was always eyes on the pathway which was sometimes a concrete road, sometimes a rough path. It was only when we stopped that we realized the heat factor and so we kept up a pretty decent clip which improved the breeze. The only vehicles we encountered were bicycles and the occasional scooter. Everyone was so friendly although I think that "hello" was the only English word in their vocabulary. Passing a school yard was particularly entertaining as there was a whole cacophony of "hellos". We had already been confronted with the north Vietnam propaganda regarding the American War while in Hanoi and Hai informed us that the same used to be taught in the schools but then parents told children their version (south vietnam) version at home. Now history is no longer taught in schools at all.

After 14 Kms we exchanged the bikes for a boat in order to cross the wide Mekong River (known as the River of 9 dragons as there are 9 main branches). This journey took us past riverside villages and through the floating market at Cai Be - as it was late morning there really was not a lot to see. Then it was finally time for lunch with a " local family" on Binh Hoa Phuoc island. This was similar to trekking in Sapa where it actually was a fairly large open air restaurant built on stilts on the river. Great lunch of elephant ear fish which we wrapped in fresh rice paper as well as spring rolls and fruit.

After lunch we cycled another 5 km to the far side of the island to Dinh Khao where we caught a large ferry to Cai Ngang. Trucks loaded first then it was bicycles ( the 5 of us) and lots of scooters jostling for space. No being polite here or you will miss the ferry. Before we left the island we did try from fresh rambutan ( tastes like lychee) as well as some rambutan/peanut candy.

Then it was time for what felt like a very long 20km ride in the heat through some very pretty areas - river canals on one side, orchards on the other. The delta is very flat so it was easy riding except for the fairly frequent narrow bridges we had to cross. One very enjoyable stop was at a Khmer Pagoda where there are 8 Buddhist monks living. A bit further and we were picked up by the van again and transferred to the town of Can Tho which was to be our home for the night. Originally we had planned on doing a homestay on one of the islands but the German couple booked before we did and they wanted to stay in a hotel so that is what we did. In hindsight, air conditioning was very nice! We had seen one of the home stays when we stopped for lunch and quite honestly the little bamboo rooms didn't look all that comfortable.

Hai directed us to a couple of good restaurants near the river - "go past the yellow house, go left at the market until you come to the statue of Ho Chi Min and there are 2 restaurants on the other side of the road." However there was a bit too much western food on the menu ( this is a tourist town due to its proximity to the floating markets) so we settled for a couple of Bahn Mi with Gha Ca Ri ( chicken curry) from a roadside stand. There was a great night market with some very tempting looking food but Hai had told us earlier that people of the delta eat everything and when we saw signs like "khat" - which sounded like cat, except it wasn't- or "chien" which is French for dog, we decided to play it safe and avoid it. I have no idea what we ate for dessert but it was awesome - chopped up jackfruit, rambutan and other mystery fruit in a creamy liquid.

Our "standard" hotel: Hau Giang - was fabulous. Spacious lobby and large rooms led to a great nights sleep. Breakfast the next morning was a huge buffet of any possible type of food - it was unfortunate that at 6am I wasn't really hungry. By 6:30am we were back in the van for a short drive and then were back on the Mekong again to visit the floating market at Cai Rang. There are still 9 floating markets in this area. Local farmers bring their produce ( a single type) by small boat out to the bigger merchant boats. These boats in turn, sell the can tell what is sold by the items stuck on a pole at the front of the boat. In between this activity were small boats selling breakfast, bread even lotteries tickets. Apparently the govt is planning on improving all the small roads through the villages so small trucks can drive along them. This will make it easier for farmers to get their produce to market and probably be the end of floating markets - as well as peaceful cycling!. Then we spent some time just cruising some of the smaller waterways seeing life from another viewpoint. A couple of times, the boat came to a stop with garbage bags caught around the prop. I would hate to see what is actually floating in this river - it is so brown!

Back on dry land again we set off for a final 20km ride. It had rained overnight so the humidity level was higher than yesterday and the heat really saps the energy. We stopped at a monkey bridge - rickety bamboo bridge over the water - basically a narrow log to walk on with a flimsy hand rail. Quite fun to walk out on. Falling in the murky water was not really a concern. We had learnt that laundry and dishes were washed in the river and so suspect that we had eaten off Mekong washed dishes the previous day at lunch.

Finally we got a break from the heat and humidity when we stopped to visit an old friend of Hai's. This was a very spry fellow of 81 who attributed his health ( and full head of hair) to drinking a small glass of snake wine twice a day. And on the verandah was a large bottle with rice wine and TWO dead snakes in it as well as ONE dead bird. Nice!!!! Turns out you make this by sticking the head of a poisonous snake in the rice wine and as it drowns it releases the venom into the wine. Then it's body is also put in the jar along with 1 or 2 more snakes and a bird for good measure. Needless to say, no one was interested in sampling this liquor.

Back to CanTho for lunch at Sao Hom in the market place. The food was a little westernized but a great location on the river. And that was the end of the biking part of the tour. We still had to travel 4 hours back to Saigon and that seemed to be a LONG drive. We did pass through extensive rice fields in Ben Luc - as this part of the delta never floods, there are 7 rice crops a year. Quite amazing use of the land when you consider that in SaPa they only had one crop a year.

Back in Saigon I was not minding the scooters quite so much ( in reality when there are an estimated 5 million scooters in a city, what can you expect but I did continue to get irritated when even the scooters came up on the sidewalk because the roads were so congested).We still had three days left to explore the city and eat as much as we could. Our new home away from home ( the Ven Trang 2) was our oasis when we needed a break from the streets or the heat. The alley it was on ( and the alley next door) became our favorite for restaurants and bars - cheap and relatively quiet.

As a total contradiction to the craziness that is the streets, saigon has some amazing green spaces. Very close to our hotel was the 23-9 Park ( Named after the anniversary of the day Ho Chi Minh rallied the newly independent Vietnam against the returning French in 1945). During the day there were always people exercising on the many free exercise machine, or ball room dancing in the small pavilions. Evenings it seemed like the world came to play jainzi (Chinese hackey sack) or rollerblade around with LED lit wheels. Then there was the free aerobic sessions and still more people exercising. And all this happened in the heat and humidity. Don't forget the groups of students who wanted to practise their English by chatting to us.

In case we had not yet had our fill of Communist propaganda, the War Remnants museum filled that gap. Many countries protested against the US invasion of North Vietnam, but the Vietnamese interpretation of these protests was that communism was supported by these foreign countries. Remember that north Vietnam eventually won the war and therefore wrote the history. A couple of rooms were used to display photographs of there effects of Agent Orange which was quite disturbing. Personally the best area was the Requiem rooms which had many photos taken by photo journalists - many who were killed during the conflict.

The Ben Thanh market was also very close to our hotel - a covered market, you can buy absolutely anything you wish in its crowded aisles. The sellers are fairly aggressive as it is close to the tourist hotel area but it is an entertaining place to spend a bit of time. Delicious food was sold in the center food area and there was some interesting meat products in the wet market just outside. We also explored Saigon Square and a huge electronics store where they had the biggest TVs I had ever seen.

A rainy evening was spent visiting the Saigon Skydeck 861 feet above the ground in the Bitexco building. A grand 360 degree panorama of the city.

Yet another adventure was visiting the Cu Chi tunnels - an explanation from Wikepedia: "The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong's base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968. The tunnels were used by Viet Cong soldiers as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous North Vietnamese fighters. The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped to counter the growing American military effort."

The tunnels were a mere 50 Kms from the center of saigon but took over 2 hours by tour bus to get there. This was partly because so much of the drive was on crowded streets but also because there was the obligatory "rest stop" at a centre where handicapped people made artwork from crushed egg shells - pretty amazing.

Once at the tunnels we had to sit through yet another propaganda presentation before going on a walking tour through the jungle. Some rather ingenious "traps and torture instruments" were made from bamboo or bits and pieces of bombs. 100 m of the underground tunnels have been widened slightly to allow for western tourists. There were 50 of us on our tour bus and only 10 of us made it the whole way through. Kelly baled on the last exit to the end as his hands and knees were getting sore. Being a bit shorter than him I was able to go through in a squat although I was VERY glad when the end came. The humidity and claustrophobia levels were high! The return bus ride was a mere hour as there were no stops!

And then it was the last day - last iced coffee, last spicy beef noodles for breakfast, last minute things to buy and three weeks holiday was over. All that was left was the return adventure with China Southern Airlines - cheap airfare, great planes ( Dreamliner) but awful food and pretty lousy movie selection. Our second time through Guangzhou Airport we were a lot smarter than the first time. If you want a bottle of water, buy it off the shelf NOT from the cooler ( $1 vs $9) and don't even think about getting a coffee unless you are prepared to pay $10.00 for a yummy cappucino. One feature about the Dreamliner that is worth mentioning - the windows do not have actual shades on them but are able to be darkened to keep out the light - but it does not keep out the direct sun. So if you are flying westwards and sitting on the left side of the plane, there will be a period when the sun will be off the wingtip and shining right in your eyes. So plan your seating accordingly.


16th December 2015

What a fantastic trip you two......Gretchen you should write a travel book ! At any rate, you should write really well. You are talented !
21st December 2015

Working the river
I love this photo
21st December 2015

Nice one

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