Indochina 2016 - Southern Vietnam

Central Post Office, Saigon

Saigon was a huge, modern city and we crawled towards our hotel in the centre through roads clogged with traffic. It seemed like the drivers down here were much more obedient to the rules & conventions of the road and as a consequence things didn't move as smoothly as in the more anarchic Hanoi but it might simply have been that the city was richer and there were more vehicles. One thing that did help (that I'd seen throughout Vietnam) was having countdown timers on the traffic lights showing when they would change from red to green (and vice-versa) so that everyone would start or stop together.

Reunification Palace, Saigon

Our morning flight had got us to Saigon in time for lunch and after a quick look around the Ben Thanh market - a huge building filled with hundreds of tiny stalls, each of which seemed to have a very insistent owner who would shout or grab at you to inspect their wares, quite scary at times - we crossed the road to the Pho 2000 restaurant to try some of their signature soup. Pho, a noodle soup cooked with meat broth and herbs, is available throughout Vietnam and it seemed like every place had its own secret combination of ingredients & garnishes. It was, needless to say, delicious. Moistened napkins were laid out on the table but these were charged for if you opened & used them, apparently this kept the food prices down in what was obviously a very competitive market.

Our next stop was the Reunification Palace, the presidential residence for the old South Vietnam and the place where the war had finally ended. Two tanks were displayed in the grounds with their barrels pointing directly at the building, a reconstruction of the two that had come through the gates and demanded the government's surrender in 1975. Inside it was a bit disappointing with typical government reception & meeting rooms but the basement had some wonderfully atmospheric security offices, all bulky radio equipment and drab, functional rooms.

From there we drove to the War Remnants Museum although we'd probably have got there quicker on foot - in hindsight it was only a couple of blocks away and the streets remained jammed & slow moving. The museum had foor floors of pictures from the war, some were quite graphic but in general they highlighted the tragedies on both sides rather than wallowing in blood & gore. The written material, however, was unrelentingly triumphalist, there was brief mention of the independence struggle against the French but most was stridently anti-American, painting them as grotesque, almost comic-book invaders pitched against the heroic Vietnamese defenders. No mention of the Vietnamese fighting for the South or of the wider global situation that had led to a superpower confrontation taking place in this small country. Having grown up in the last vestiges of post-WWII Britain the black & white presentation was familiar but it was a bit sad to see it repeating itself this way. Vinh had mentioned that in schools the Confucian tradition of not questioning the teacher was being undermined by free access to the internet, hopefully this is happening in the wider society too.

Outside the museum there was a display of captured (or abandoned) US military equipment - tanks, artillery, planes & helicopters. In contrast to the sombre atmosphere inside this was filled with grinning tourists taking selfies in front of the machinery of warfare.

Hidden tunnel entrance, Cu Chi

That evening the heavens opened with a torrential downpour which made walking to a restaurant for dinner a challenging prospect. I shared an umbrella for part of the way before buying myself one from a street seller - I managed to drive the price down a little but standing in your shirt sleeves in pouring rain is not a good bargaining position to be in. I bent my 'only eat local food' rule when we ended up in a Thai restaurant but the food was good and I got to experience beer served on the (very large) rocks.

Next day we drove out of the city to see the Cu Chi tunnels, a vast underground complex of tunnels used by the Viet Cong to conceal military resources and provide logistical & organisational facilities during the Vietnam War. The site was well organised & informative but it had a similar tone to the War Remnants Museum - ingenious & heroic fighters holding off a powerful, wholly evil aggressor. The 1967 propaganda film shown at the end of the tour and the fact that the tunnels you could go through had been widened to allow easier access made me think that this was the start of a theme park approach, a manicured presentation that placed it safely distant from visitors' lives.

That evening, walking back from another fabulous meal (and a surprisingly expensive ice cream to finish it off, it cost more than the meal & beer combined) I found myself in a small park filled with young people, I would guess mostly in their twenties. Most were sitting in small groups, eating & chatting, but there was a circle of maybe 50 or 60 gathered round a collection of guitars & drums and being entertained by a series of singers, each of which performed three or four songs before surrendering the space to the next act. The quality was high and the enthusiasm of the crowd even higher, there was lots of synchronised arm-waving 'dancing' and joining in with choruses, especially from the female half of the audience. I bopped around to a couple of the songs to the great amusement of the people around me. This little gathering (and the hundreds of other people all around the area) really changed my view of Saigon, after all the tall buildings and modern shops it was as if I'd caught a peek at the living, vibrant life of the city.

Oarswoman, Mekong Delta

From Saigon we headed south towards the Mekong Delta. Along the route we pulled in to what looked like a simple roadside café for a toilet break and found a group of huge dining 'rooms' with seating for well over a hundred people. It looked like a venue for weddings or large parties but there was no central stage or raised table, just lots of tables & chairs. The mystery was never explained.

A Cao Dai temple was our next stop - an eccentric religion that fuses elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity & Confucian teachings and which venerates Victor Hugo as a saint. The theology was a bit convoluted for me but the temple was a glorious riot of colour and symbolism.

Finally we made it to the banks of the Mekong, the river that had been our companion for a good part of the tour. Boarding a sampan we motored around on the pearly brown waters, visiting part of the floating market (which seemed to be mostly wholesale at this time of day), a brickworks, and examples of banana chip, rice wine & spirit, toasted rice and crunchy noodle snack preparation. The rice spirit featured snakes marinating in the undistilled wine, it tasted very nice (quite like whiskey) but I suspected they were there for their symbolic rather than flavoursome qualities. Along the way the driver (captain?) of our boat bought some coconuts for our refreshment, these were large, soft & green rather than the tough brown globes I was familiar with and were served by hacking a hole in the top with a machete and sticking a straw in. The thin milk was a wonderfully refreshing drink.

Stopping at a smaller river mouth we transferred into smaller (four person) boats and were rowed through the small waterways that threaded the land, the oarsman standing at the back and facing forward (and usually an oarswoman). It was a nice way to see the land as a local would but the gentle tranquility was frequently interrupted by modern music spilling out from the houses and after a while I felt a bit embarrassed by just sitting and being ferried around by this woman's efforts, especially as several of the boats clearly had engines attached but unused.

Mosquito net bed, Mekong Delta

After our various activities we arrived at the homestay where we would be spending the night as guests of a Vietnamese family. The house was large and had a very impressive front room, all dark hardwood and pearlescent inlays with a high ceiling. The other rooms were less fancy but very adequately equipped and, as with everywhere we stayed, there was free wi-fi and internet connectivity. This was to be my only night inside a mosquito net (everywhere else had air conditioning) but it turned out to be a much less tortuous process than I'd been warned about, the net was hung from four points and had ample material to tuck under my mattress, even from the inside, resulting in an unbroken cube of fabric. I survived the night unbitten. A morning stroll through the village revealed a lush abundance of verdant growth with small houses dotted along a central path that was used by as many motorcyclists as pedestrians. The pan-cultural cadence of Good morning Miss could be heard from the local school while the less tuneful chatter of morning TV and radio spilled out from several of the other houses.

The next day we were ferried back to our minibus and set off northwards towards Chau Doc and the Cambodian border. Along the way we crossed a wide river (presumably the Mekong in one form or another) by car ferry and were issued with bright orange life jackets by Vinh as the ferry would not carry enough for all the passengers on board. Resplendent in our fluorescent raiment we were more obviously marked as tourists than at any other point on the trip but apart from a couple of curious boys we attracted no great attention, our fellow travellers were at the own work and clearly not directly involved in the tourist economy.

I'm sure that Chau Doc has its charms but on a grey, drizzly day after a long drive there wasn't much incentive to go out and find them. I strolled to the Hau riverbank towards the centre of town but there wasn't much to see, even the man trying to sell me a riverboat trip was half-hearted about it. One unexpected occurrence was hearing the Muslim call to prayer drift over from the far bank, apparently there's a sizeable Islamic community in the area. With no great local options we shared a group dinner in the hotel restaurant and prepared for our crossing to Cambodia the next day.

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