Saturday, April 25, 2009


On April 3, I took a bus from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The city's name was changed from Saigon shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975; however, the central district is officially known as Saigon and many locals still refer to the whole city as Saigon. So I will refer to it as Saigon, but there are many images of Ho Chi Minh all over Vietnam and his picture is on all the Dong (Vietnam currency).

Many people I've talked to either loved Vietnam or they hated it. One British couple was planning to stay there for a month and left after two days. Two Australians I met were going back for the second time in three years. I liked it. The hassle level was high, but I didn't thin it was too unbearable.

I got in to Saigon about 6:00 at night. Saigon is really big and really crazy. I've never seen so many motorcycles in one place.

Crossing the street in Saigon is like jumping into the pool. It requires momentum and a little courage. It's also a little like playing the old Frogger video game. Avoiding motorcycles is easier than avoiding cars. The hardest part is trying to determine which side the motorcycle will take, and whether the driver will take into account that you are moving.

My first full day I toured a few sites in the city. First stop was the Ho Chi Minh City museum. It was fairly small and didn't have many things. They were doing a photo shoot of bridal fashions.

The next stop was the Independence (or Reunification) Palace.

The Independence Palace housed the president residence and offices of what was then South Vietnam. It was captured in 1975 when North Vietnamese tanks rolled in. The decor had a seventies vibe and looked like not a thing had been changed since then.

It had a really cool gambling room that I want to recreate in my house one day.

On April 5, I signed up for a one day tour of the Cow Gai temple and the Cuchi tunnels. The Cow Gai is a minority religion in Vietnam that utilizes parts of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. We watched a service, or at least the first part of it. I don't know how long it went on after we left, but after about 20 minutes of kneeling, bowing, and chanting, I had had enough.

We were able to catch a service there.

The second part of the tour was the Cuchi tunnels. These are a series of tunnels used by the Viet Cong to hide from..........well, from us. It is amazing how small and intricate these tunnels were. They had one section of tunnel the had been just about doubled in height and width. Even with the widening, it was incredibly small and I got pretty claustrophobic. They also had replicas of traps made from bamboo spikes. It was a weird feeling touring this place, knowing it was used against our soldiers 40 years ago. But it's a big tourist draw and everyone that goes to Vietnam goes on this tour. It was pretty free of propoganda though.

I signed up for a two day tour of the Mekong delta and departed Saigon on April 6 by bus. Several of the people on this tour were also on the previous day's tour. The first stop was at a Vinh Long village in the An Binh Islands. They showed us how they made coconut candy, rice paper, and puffed rice. Then they obviously asked us if we wanted to by any. We left the village by boat and went to a rice mill.

After a lengthy explanation (too long) by our tour guide, we left Vinh Long and went, still by boat, to the Mekong Delta city of Cantho. It was about a 3-4 hour boat ride through some tiny villages. We saw many, many people in the villages, and practically all of them seemed very happy to see us. They were waiving enthusiastically. We also saw a bunch of people bathing in the river - a very common practice. These people are quite poor, but they seem really, really happy.

Cantho is the largest city in the Mekong Delta. It had a few restaurants and bars, but nothing really special other than being a jumping off point for the floating markets.

I had dinner and a few drinks with a 40 something British couple. The wife ordered Snake, a Vietnamese specialty. I wanted to try snake, but was too hungry to order it for my dinner since I heard it wasn't good. I tried a bit of hers. It was tough and stringy. Not very good. But at least I got to try it.

They were on a three week holiday. European vacation laws amaze me. Most European countries have a legally minimum holidays of 4-6 weeks and almost all expect at least three consecutive weeks of vacation every year. When I ask Europeans how long they're traveling, if it's less than two months, they will say, almost apologetically "Only for three weeks". Most Americans will never see a three week vacation in the absence of a job transition.

The next day we visited the Cai Rang floating market. The floating market is mostly for locals selling produce to other locals.

But there was one boat selling pineapples to tourists

These were the world's smallest life preservers. No one could zip them up.

The Cantho market was near the floating market. They had all parts of all animals for sale. Again, they were selling to locals and mainly loeft the tourists alone.

We got back into Saigon about 7:00 that night. I had to catch an overnight train to Da Nang departing at 11:00. I shared a sleeper cart with this really nice older Australian couple. They were on a three week holiday.

View of the rice fields from the train.

On the morning of April 8 I got into Da Nang. There is really nothing special about Da Nang except for a cool sounding name. I was there to travel to Hoi An, about 20 kilometers away. While waiting for the local bus, I got many offers for a motercycle ride to Hoi An. I was told everything in the book. I was told the bus wouldn't come for three hours. I was told the bus was really crowded and uncomfortable (which was true). I did not want to ride a motorcycle all the way to Hoi An, but the dude just didn't understand. He got down to 50,000 Dong (about $3 US). Finally the bus came, well before he said it would. They really loaded the bus up. Several really old women got on the bus and sat on the floor. Other than that, I got into Hoi An without incident.

Hoi An is a really beautiful town that has been well preserved. It reminded me a bit of New Orleans. It is strictly for toursits, and many people traveling there kind of poo poo it, but I thought it was really nice. Also, if a place is beautiful, it stands to reason that there will be a lot of tourists there.

On April 10 I took a bus from Hoi An to Hue. Hue's main attraction is the very well preserved Citadel. The Citadel was built between 1805 and 1832 by the Nguyen dynasty. Hue served as the capital until 1945.

I wanted to eat lunch at a restaurant near the Citadel that I'd read about in my guidebook. The name of the restaurant was Lac Thien. It is run by a deaf family and it is in all the guidebooks and highly recommended. I found Lac Thien, but the restaurant next door was Lac Than, and the restaurant three doors down was Lac Thuan. A good review in a guidebook cannot be underestimated in the amount of business it will draw. And some will try to cash in on a tourist not paying close attention. At the Lac Than restaurant, a man was standing outside looking at me and making eating motions (rather than yelling "Hello, excuse me sir!!"). It was humorous. The meal was delicious.

There were quite a few Catholic churches in Vietnam, which is unusual for Southeast Asia. Vietnam is about 7% Catholic, which makes it one of the most Christian nations in Southeast Asia, next to the Philippines.

The Vietnamese language uses the Roman alphabet, albeit with a lot of accent marks. So it looks kind of familiar compared to Thai and Cambodian. At least city names and street names can be reasonably identified.

My favorite food in Vietnam. A nice sandwich on a baguette. They cost 10,000 Dong (about 60 cents US) from a street stall.

On April 11 I got up early to take a bus to Vientiane, Laos.


ryan said...

Two things:

1. The phrase "Ho Chi Minh City" was in one of Heypenny's songs when I used to play with them. I would always listen for it because that was when I had to switch to a different drum part.

2. If you are not really on a world tour and this is some kind of elaborate hoax, it's incredibly elaborate and I salute you for that.

Ozzy Nelson said...

I was travelling with some friends years ago, one of which had served in Vietnam. After a night in a super dumpy hotel, his quote was "I haven't stayed in a crappier place since I was in Da Nang Vietnam."

Anonymous said...

hey jay, looks like you are having a ball. Good to catch up with you by reading and looking at all the pictures. Joe steakley