We had heard horror stories about Saigon, or as it is correctly referred to nowadays, Ho Chi Minh City. Although Ho Chi Minh City has been the city’s official name since 1976, it is still often referred to as Saigon. We had heard that it was dangerous, full of pick pockets, that you would be easily robbed, that it was dirty and that it was a waste of time. We actually really enjoyed it, and had no problems whatsoever. Having said that, after 15 months on the road, Alex and I have a small array of combat moves, both physical and verbal, in order to disarm anyone who challenges us. Our recent blogs have most possibly demonstrated this. If Alex is Bruce Lee, I am Madam Lash (as in tongue)! My tongue is quicker than the speed of light. Again, many of my family and friends will attest to this. I can see my Dad nodding his head in agreement!
We thoroughly enjoyed the food in Saigon, and I want to make a special mention of the street food: the iced coffee (I chose to ignore the ice that went into it!) packed a mean punch, and the vegetarian rice paper rolls (again, I tried not to look underneath the fingernails of the lady who was rolling them) were delicious! Actually, street food can be found all over Vietnam, and often it’s much better than the stuff sold in restaurants, especially the western ones, which usually give you a fraction of the food at triple the price, and the food is usually very average, if even that!
After 5 weeks and almost 2000 kilometres later, making our way from the northern Vietnamese border (with China) all the way to Saigon, we were exhausted, and wanted to take it easy. Having said that there are some things one just has to do, such as the Cuchi tunnels,the War Museum and the Reunification Palace. We’d heard about these sights, but were still not prepared for the visions our eyes were about to behold. We’d heard a few “dodgy brothers” stories about Ho Chi Minh, but I quite liked it, if I may say so myself! It has this kind of electric, in your face energy. Sure, we were back in “dodge the cars and motorbikes, or get annihilated territory”, but that’s all part of the fun………….isn’t it!!??
The Cuchi tunnels are effectively a network of tunnels some 30 to 40 kilometres away from Ho Chi Minh, and they are famed for their role in facilitating the Viet Cong (VC) during the Vietnam War. At their height, the tunnels stretched all the way to the Cambodian border with approximately 250 kilometres of tunnels. It was fascinating to observe, especially the extremely narrow spaces these people had to fit or slip into. Alex gave it a try, but with my mild claustrophobia, I decided to give them a miss! At one point we had to walk through some of the tunnels through a bigger network of tunnels. Although I tried to give it a go, I was soon scrambling for out! My “favourite” part, surely, had to be the firing range at the end of the tour. Yes, for what they obviously deemed a small price( on a humanitarian level, Alex and I felt it to be enormous!), you could fire a few bullets into a target…….to “see how it felt”! What an oxymoron! How many people had aimlessly died in this war? And yet, here we were with the opportunity to see how it felt! Even out of such great misery comes the human desire to reap money! It’s that G word again, greed!
One of the other HCMC must see is the War Remnants Museum. What can I say? Whilst there are interesting remnants of US armoured vehicles, artillery pieces and bombs and infantry weapons on display, it’s the many photographs illustrating the US atrocities(from US sources, may I add), that leaves one gob smacked and with their heart around about ankle high (or low). For me, the photos were so distressing that I could not even talk and share my sentiments with Alex as we walked around. We actually ended up doing it separately, and whilst doing so, the tears streamed down my face (as they are now, as I relive this moment). Again, I found myself crying for humanity, for the heinous crimes committed, but most of all for the so many innocent victims who died in such a horrific and senseless way. Will we ever, ever learn? I was not the only one who needed down time. Many others were also walking around, alone and crying, and many had to stop and rest from sheer distress.
Our Vietnamese adventure was coming to an end, but not before we did a three day Mekong Delta trip, which would take us all the way through to the Cambodian border. I may have mentioned before that Vietnam is big on organised tours, and (often, unfortunately!) it is both cheaper and faster to do so. The Mekong really is Vietnam’s big bowl of rice, and the landscape consists of open green fields and sleepy villages, crisscrossed by a plethora of canals, which are fed by the Mekong. Our trip involved using a combination of small local boats and buses, and provided us with a brilliant insight to these peoples lives on the river. We had a few obligatory touristy stops, such as a crocodile farm, and a candy making factory (you know, see and buy!), but mostly it was fascinating. At one point I even had a python wrapped around my neck, and after a few seconds I wanted out! Poor serpent, it kind of hit the floor as I tried to quickly slither away! Oops, no pun intended!
Whilst on the Mekong tour we also visited a couple of riverside markets as well as a floating market. It’s always fascinating to see how people trade and do commerce, especially when it’s not on land. Ultimately, making a living is making a living! Whilst the accommodation on offer was mainly in the form of hotels, we were also given the opportunity to do a home stay, which we opted for, in a place close to Can Tho. For Alex and I it was undoubtedly the highlight of our Mekong trip. We had to travel down a tiny canal, in the dark, guided only by moonlight, for about 8 kilometres until we reached a small mud house, and that’s where we slept the night! Our hosts offered us traditional food, and also a look into their traditional lifestyle. It was light years away from a life as we know it in the west! They seem to have so little by our standards, yet they also seem content! Is more better?
On the second day of the tour, we visited a Cham Village, and as in many areas of the delta, the house we visited was on stilts, and we had to walk on a wooden boardwalk (which partially collapsed as we walked on it!) to get there. It is believed that these people are of Malay ancestry, and they now live in parts of Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Their peculiarity is that they are Muslim, and adhere to their customs, dress and culture as in any other Muslim country. We also visited a temple, more famous for the view one has if one indulges in the 15 to 20 minute walk uphill, than the temple itself. And yes, for the record, the view was amazing indeed. At the top, we were greeted by a small group of rather intoxicated locals, who urged us to join in with them and drink some beer. Whilst not wanting to offend, I just don’t do beer! I politely declined, whilst Alex joined them with throwing back a couple. Being the only female around there, they still seemed pretty happy to have me around. We were with Filipe, a great Portuguese guy who was on the tour with us. The locals were stoked with the excellent participation of the foreigners beer guzzling antics, and it really was one of those “minties moments”. We had to virtually fly down that hill, in order to get back onto a bus full of waiting people. They appeared mildly agitated that we were fractionally late, but cest la vie. Whilst most people just wanted to do the touristy temple look see, we were getting up and personal with the locals! It is these memories, not those of the temple that will forever remain in our hearts and minds!
Our last night was spent in a town called Chau Doc, a tranquil town near the Cambodian border. It is interesting as it’s rather multicultural for Vietnam, and has sizable Chinese, Cham and Khmer communities. I knew I liked it as soon as we arrived, but with our Vietnamese visas expiring the next day, I also knew that we would have to make do with a short stay. The most fascinating part of visiting this tiny town, ever so briefly, was specifically meeting one of the locals. I do not remember his name, but I do remember the very poignant conversation we had. We met him whilst walking around the main square. He worked as a taxi driver. Alex and I were lucky to be able to do what we were doing he said, and then he continued to tell us that due to the poverty and corruption in his country (he also seemed to think that the former was somewhat exacerbated by the latter) he and many others had no hope of fulfilling such a dream. He then went off on a political tangent, stating that the so-called socialist country in which he lived was a farce, and that even today, as an educated man, he was unable to get a decent job, as most government positions required the applicant to be at least “3 generations communist”. As his father had fought with the US during the war, he reiterated that he had buckley’s hope! Tell me what you think about that, he said a few times! Now, you tell me….what could I possible say to him? So much was running through my head! The fact that it is so easy for us to “bag and judge” when we can do virtually anything we want seems somewhat ironical. There are so many things that outrage me about capitalism, but at least I am allowed and have the opportunity to flap my arms and scream if I so desire! Communism and socialism appear to be marvelous ideas on paper, and this trip has shown me exactly that…….on paper! The reality is that in practice, it simply does not work! I have reached this conclusion from living and breathing it, not by simply reading about it! It seems that humankind is still not ready for that quantum leap which excludes greed and includes equality!
It was with our heads reeling, and our hearts thumping that we left Vietnam, the border to Cambodia only a short trip away. Little did we know that we were in for even more heartbreak in Cambodia. It is with our love of both people and life, and a profound fascination for different cultures, that every day of our trip has filled us with experiences which have included both intoxicating highs and exasperating lows. With each new experience and day, we continued to grow as individuals, our world never ceasing to amaze us!
Dedication: To all the victims of war, past, present and future. To all the people who have aimlessly died in wars, and to all of those who will continue to do so. One day, we will wake up and realise the futility, but only time will tell if it will be too late!
“The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder” – Ralph W. Sockman.
(Photos:1.- So, where exactly do the pedestrians cross?, Saigon. 2.- Mobile fruit vendor, Saigon. 3.- I get the feeling the soldiers were a fraction slimmer than Alex, Cuchi Tunnels. 4.- A photo of a photo, War Remnants Museum, Saigon. 5.- Ombi does python! Mekong River Delta trip. 6.- Frogs for lunch? Riverside market, Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam. 7.- Hanging out with the locals, view from the walk above the temple, Mekong River Delta trip. 8.- Fruit vendor on her way to market, Mekong River. 9.- Goodbye Vietnam! Little girl in boat, Mekong River. 10.- Chillin’ out in Chau Doc. One of the educated professionals? 11.- Pictures speak louder than words! A child’s impression of the Vietnam war, War Remnants Museum, Saigon.)