Our Final Stop in Vietnam
Saying goodbye to Vietnam wasn’t easy. Over the last month we have grown rather fond of the place, providing you don’t let the constant, fluctuating and often ridiculous initial prices sought by some traders get to you. I will forgive it that annoyance, because the country has given us some great memories and experiences.
The hotels we’ve stayed in have been of a very high quality and the service from the staff has been impressive. Especially as we have been staying in the budget end of the market. This continued at the Hello Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) which plopped us directly in the backpacker area of the city. This provided the base for our trips around the city itself and a little further afield into the Mekong Delta, the Cao Dai Holy See Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels.
There are countless trips on offer from the hundreds of tour shops around Saigon city and you can do the trip in one, two or three days. We opted for the two day overnight tour.
A couple of hours on a coach and we arrived at Ben Treo where we were treated to some locally grown fruit, pineapple, jack fruit, mango along with some local traditional music at a village farm. I don’t think any of our vocalists will be entering Vietnam Pop Idol anytime soon, but it was fun to watch for a while, especially their rendition of a song celebrating the life of the great Uncle Ho Chi Minh.
From here we wandered down to Tan Thach Canal on board a traditional rowed boat, ours was powered by a rather elderly woman, so John and our fellow passengers helped out with paddles while I concentrated on the photography!
At the end of this journey you got to see a local family who run a coconut candy manufacturing operation and get to buy some of this wonderful toffee.
They lure you with a sample taste just warm and freshly rolled and it really is good marketing, because it makes you want to buy sackfuls of the stuff. Just when we thought we were leaving the guide gathers us round and produces a huge snake from a sack, apparently it was a ‘rescue snake’ and no animals were harmed, the smile in the picture belies my inner feelings.
Then we were loaded onto a motor boat and got chugged up the mighty Mekong toward Tortoise Island where we were treated to a basic lunch and an offer of an upgrade to a set menu to include local crayfish and elephant ear fish if you were so inclined. Then it was back to the harbour, a brief stop at a temple with some epic laughing and lady Buddha statues before a two hour coach ride ready for our overnight stay at Can Tho.
Day two started very early and after breakfast we were on a boat heading to the Cai Rang floating market at about 7am. This was definitely one of the highlights of the two days, even though it was a bit of a cloudy day. It is fascinating watching the wholesale trading going on in all manner of fruits and vegetables and how the river gets used for everything by the boat and riverside dwellers, including the coffee being sold.
The rest of the trip that morning included another local farm, this time producing rice noodles and also a rice processing plant. Nothing of any great interest in these bits of the trip, especially as rain and cloud had stopped noodle manufacture for the day, so the staff took a day off. We then had a very long four and half hour trip back to HCMC to round off the trip.
I can’t say I was blown over by this trip, but for the cost of US $26 each including overnight accommodation you can’t grumble really so I won’t. We also had a great group of people who we met on the trip from Germany, England and the Netherlands. Some of whom we managed to bump into when we got back to HCMC one evening and enjoyed a rather long drinking session together.
Cao Dai Temple and Co Chi Tunnels Tour
The Cao Dai temples are about two hours drive from HCMC nestled in the Tay Ninh province about 100km outside Saigon. We had come across a Cao Dai temple during our trip in Hue. The Cao Dai beliefs are based on a melange of Buddhism, Confucianism, Mahayana and Taoism and some of the heads of the faith wear different coloured robes (in red, blue and yellow) to signify which strand they align to.
This temple is the headquarters of the faith and it is impressive for a religion only founded in 1926. The temple grounds are vast and in its centre lies the main temple where worshippers gather four times a day inside it’s candy coloured architecture. It really is a spectacular building with brightly coloured pillars encircled by dragons spiralling up their length. The all seeing eye of god features as an emblem throughout the temple and reminds you of the Freemasons eye of providence hmmmm….
Just before midday the temple stewards round you up, and send you up to the viewing gallery, before the ceremony begins. Once clear of tourists the gong is tolled and the worshippers take their places in orderly lines and spend the next hour being photographed by lots of curious tourists. It was a great experience and I only wish the tour would have given us time to explore a little more of the surrounding buildings and gardens.
A couple more hours on the coach heading back to the city and we arrive at the Co Chi tunnels. Thankfully most of the ‘tunnel only’ tours visit in the morning so by the time we arrived we had the place pretty much to ourselves. As you arrive you are ushered into the viewing huts to watch a short video about the war and the tunnels, and the part they played in the eventual Vietnamese reunification. We are now familiar with the ‘party propaganda’ type language of these Vietnamese produced videos, but it was informative and set the background for the tour of the tunnels and bomb craters to follow.
You get the chance to pop down one of the tunnel entrance hatches (they are extremely small) I only just made it and my pre trip girth would have stood no chance. From here you are shown a variety of deathly, gruesome yet ingenious traps that the Viet Cong used in the conflicts and could not help but marvel at their creativity in the face of French and American superior weaponry and firepower.
If you want you can also get to fire some of the weapons used during the conflicts at a shooting range. You can hear the reports of the gunfire from the range as you go underground into one of the western sized specially widened tunnels which makes for a more authentic experience I suppose!
You can choose how far you want to crawl underground as there are exits at 20, 40 and 100 metres depending on how fast your claustrophobia sets in (I managed just 20, I know I am a wimp).
City Round Up
Saigon is a large city with a growing population currently over seven million which gets about on around a million mopeds. The main area for visitors is contained in District 1 of HCMC the main downtown area.
It has a completely different feel to it than Hanoi, feeling newer, more developed and westernised than its northern counterpart. It is full of temples, museums and as much traditional market and upmarket designer shopping that you may care to indulge in. We had only two days after our trips to explore the city, before we headed west to Cambodia, so our pick of them was limited.
The food here was good and street bars are plentiful, particularly around backpacker area where you can eat and drink in some great low cost establishments. If you want to spend your dong faster there are lots more upmarket and expensive places available but we ate very well and had some very enjoyable meals without ever spending more than four or five US dollars each.
Our pick of the sights took us on a HCMC walking tour around the city starting at the impressive Notre Dame Cathedral in the north east of District 1 built by the French in honour of its more famously located sister. Right next to the cathedral is the equally impressive Central Post Office with its picture of Uncle Ho staring at you as you enter the magnificent service hall.
From here we walked down Dong Khoi street towards the People’s Committee Hall, a rather splendid French colonial yellow shutter clad building. We admired the building from the gardens in front, which also hosts a rather wonderful statue of Uncle Ho himself. Round the corner you will also find the Opera House which while interesting is not a patch on Hanoi’s (one-nil to Hanoi on that one)
Our favourite place had to be the Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace) which is a wonderful piece of 60s architecture and interior design which has relatively recently been restored to its former glory. It has huge historical significance. You may recall the news images when tank number 843 rolled over its main gates on 30th April 1975 it marked the end of the Vietnam war and the reunification of North and South Vietnam.
At the end of your tour of the building you can watch a half hour video of the conflict and events leading up to the tank entering the grounds. It is laden with party speak and was an interesting history lesson about the “American imperial invaders” and prepared us for our final visit of the day at the War Remnants Museum.
We knew that our visit here would be moving, the atrocities of the Vietnam conflicts were all too real, witnessed in the images on display. These are at times unbearable, as you see the effects of the chemical and biological warfare which was used dispassionately by the Americans in their effort to stop the spread of communism. John had to leave the Agent Orange information area early to recover from the harrowing images and I found myself close to tears on a number of occasions.
There is also a not to be missed exhibition of wartime photographers, which tells the story of the Vietnam wars through their images. It also gives you the life stories of the journalists who perished covering the conflicts for the newspapers and magazines for which they worked. Remarkable and fitting given that many of these images published at the time helped fuel the anger and anti war sentiments around the world.
Our Flashpacking Final Thoughts on Vietnam
HCMC has some great treats, the Mekong tour was interesting if not the complete Mekong Delta experience we’d imagined (the one I wanted to do sadly costs over US $300 each, and not even our special ‘flashpacking experience budget’ could stretch to that) but the tunnels and the temple trip is a must do. I think for me as a city experience Hanoi wins over HCMC. Hanoi’s old city and the vibrancy and hubbub of daily life there captivated me.
Where Vietnam wins super bonus flashpacking points is in its wifi coverage. Not only was it available in every budget hotel we stayed at (for free), it was reliable and fast. With the exception of HCMC you can wander anywhere in a town or city and find an open wifi hotspot, they don’t bother with passwords.
Even more fantastic through was the mobile 3G coverage. Our sim card in our little mifi device never once struggled to get a signal even on fast moving trains and slower moving coaches in the middle of rice paddies or up the mountains in Sapa. Best of all, for a month I spent only US $4 on the sim and top ups.
However, the ‘bamboo firewall’ that the government puts in place stops you easily accessing some sites (facebook, twitter and even the BBC in some cases). It is not consistent either, so it will depend which ISP your hotel connects through. The laughable thing is that it’s so easy to get round by pointing your connection at Google’s public DNS server (126.96.36.199 or 188.8.131.52 if you are interested) and you have complete unrestricted access.
So Vietnam I love your internet, love your 3G, love your cities, love your people, (apart from the unscrupulous traders), love your beaches, love your mountains, but most of all I love your food.
See you again soon.