After an 8 hour flight from Melbourne, we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. A taxi took us to Hotel Memoires de Saigon which would be our home for the next three days. We spent much of the first morning catching up on sleep before venturing out. Our first task was to get a haircut which went surprisingly smoothly and cost around £9 for three of us. Michelle unwittingly also got a face, neck and shoulder massage thrown in! Ho Chi Minh City was a world away from Melbourne – hazy and humid, the roads teeming with cars, street food vendors and scooters. We thought Bali had plenty of scooters but Saigon was in another league! They were everywhere, even on the pavements, horns beeping, coming from all directions. Crossing the road was a life-in-your-hands challenge that we had somewhat mastered by the end of the first day!
The following day, we visited the Independence Palace which has remained unchanged since the North Vietnamese tooķ Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The inside is filled with all of the 60’s furnishings and comes complete with its own cinema, pool room, bar and roof terrace disco! The basement houses the bunker, filled with cold war communications, where the Vietnamese President, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, controlled his troops during the war. One can only imagine the conversations that took place between Thiệu and his US counterparts as they fought together against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong.
We went for lunch at Ben Thanh Street Food Market which was nicely set up with a vast selection of inexpensive but tasty authentic Asian cuisines. After lunch we walked through the famous Ben Thanh Market that sells almost everything from fake branded T-shirts to fresh meat and vegetables. Following that, Michelle went to the War Remnants Museum, a history of the Vietnam War (or American War) from the Vietnamese perspective. It highlights some of the atrocities perpetrated by the US and also by the French prior to the US intervention. I had already been to the museum on a previous visit to Saigon so I took the girls back to the hotel. In broken English, we discussed with the taxi driver to drop Michelle at the museum which he said would be 100000 dong (£3.30) and then us at the hotel which we agreed would be 150000 dong (£5) total. However, when we arrived at the hotel he said it was 250000 dong (£8.30) total. As Michelle had only left me with 150000 dong, he then, unhappily, had to drive us around to find an ATM. I later discovered that Michelle’s taxi back from the museum had only cost 60000 dong (£2)!
The girls really wanted to ride in a rickshaw. We had seen the Golden Dragon Water Puppet Theatre in the guide book and decided to get a rickshaw tour of the city ending at the theatre. The experience was less hair-raising than we feared! Being in the traffic was actually less daunting than trying to cross it! Unfortunately, there was some miscommunication and we were taken to the theatre immediately for the same price we had agreed for an hour tour. We got tickets for a later show and decided to eat at the street food market again, walk to see the sights we’d missed on the rickshaw, then get a taxi back to the theatre. By the time we’d walked to City Hall we were short on time and we had read that the best seats go fast. Judging by the traffic we figured it would be faster to walk. We quick-marched back to the theatre and arrived, dripping with sweat as the bell rang for the start of the performance. We showed our tickets and were very happy to find that we had been allocated front row seats. The show was a delight, consisting of a series of short comedic stories acted out by puppets in a large pond of water. We were intrigued by how the puppets were operated by the people hidden behind a screen and fascinated by the intricate workings of the puppets. It was our highlight of the city and well worth the mad dash back to watch it. There was a dampener on the evening when the metered taxi home took us on a mystery tour and then had no change for the already extortionate fare!
We had booked a tour for the next few days to take us to the Mekong Delta region then on to Cambodia by boat. We don’t do tours very often so we weren’t sure what to expect. Having learnt from the previous day’s taxi debacles, we decided to get an Uber from the hotel to the tour office. It was only 10 minutes walk away but we didn’t want to walk with all of our luggage as it was still hot despite only being 7am. Unfortunately, we ended up walking 15 minutes in the opposite direction from the tour office, with all of our luggage, to the bus! We were fortunate to have most of the bus to ourselves as there were only four other people, including the guide, on the tour. The Mekong river runs 4350km from Tibet, through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before entering the sea off the south coast of Vietnam. It has long been a trade route between these seven countries, and one can only imagine the pollutants in it, which is reflected in its colour!
The first surprise to us was that the region was more populated and urbanised than the farming countryside we had anticipated. The area has a population of 4 million people so the main roads and riverside are well built-up. Our first stop was at Ben Tre, an area famous for the water coconut trees that thrive in these conditions. We took a noisy, 40 minute boat trip to a more rural area where we were shown some of the local trades. We saw how they make rice paper and they showed us some honey bee hives. The guy simply lit a cigarette, blew some smoke and opened the hive with his bare hands. No bee suits in sight! The milk and flesh from the water coconut is not edible in its natural form so they use them to make coconut candies which involves a very labour intensive, hands on process. After checking out the unhygienic washrooms, we wondered about the quality of the products but it didn’t stop us buying a bag of the ginger flavoured coconut candies! From there we were piled into a trailer attached to the back of a scooter which took us along the narrow lanes, past many different types of fruit trees, irrigation canals and coconut trees to a waiting paddle boat. This peaceful paddle boat trip down a smaller tributary was a highlight, we saw fishermen casting their nets and it felt like an authentic insight into local life on the banks of the river. There were so many amazing sights on the river, including large barges filled so full, that it was a wonder how they didn’t sink as the water flowed over the top of their decks!
We spent the night at Van Phat Riverside Hotel in Can Tho. Can Tho has the largest floating market on the Mekong Delta. We left the hotel at 5am to experience the best of the floating market before traders left and masses of tourists arrived. It was still dark as we boarded the boat but the dock and the river was already buzzing with activity. The local women were doing an aerobics class on the waterfront and the river was busy with boats of all shapes and sizes, many without lights on! We reached the market as the sun was starting to come up. It was bustling with boats selling all varieties of fruit and vegetables. Each trading boat had a spike at the front onto which they would display what they had on-board to sell. Just as we were wondering how there were no accidents with all the boats coming and going, we managed to collide with a larger trading boat that was coming into dock against another! The front of our boat hit the side of the larger boat and as the front of the larger boat scraped along the side of ours, we feared that we would be capsized and have to make use of the token life-jackets we had been wearing! We escaped with minor damage and there were no harsh words exchanged even though the larger boat had a small hole in its side! We carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. We were glad we didn’t have to enter the murky water!
We returned to the hotel and had time for a swim before continuing on towards Chau Doc – the gateway to the Cambodian border. We stopped for a break in a small market town and bought some snacks for the 3 hour journey ahead of us. The roads were busy and the driver was taking no prisoners. It’s a wonder we managed to get there without any casualties! Even crossing the river on a car ferry was an experience as several packed ferries seemed to jostle for positions to dock on the other side and unload. Chau Doc was a pleasant town, we had a good meal and a wander around the market. We came across a courtyard where students were practising a lion dancing routine which was fun to watch. We had been told that we needed US dollars for the Cambodian visa but all of the banks were closed and would not reopen before we had to leave in the morning. There was a chance that jewellers in the town might be able to change some money for us but after asking a couple we gave up and returned to the hotel. We spent the night in Hung Cuong Hotel and parted company with the tour operator the next morning. We were told our transport to the dock would arrive shortly. We were surprised that the transport turned out to be two rickshaws onto which we piled our luggage and clambered on – an interesting way to start the day! They took us to the dock where we would be getting the fast tourist boat, five hours up the Mekong River, to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. That’s if we can pay for the Cambodian visa!
Click here to view some more of our HCMC and Mekong Delta photos.