Tag Archives: Ho Chi Minh City

Day 130 – With a little help from my friends

The travelling aspect of travelling is sometimes the least fun part of the whole seeing the world thing.  Airports are boring and you are made to get to them far too early (presumably just to get to you to pay more that is reasonable for a cup of coffee and a sandwich), buses can be slow and sometimes uncomfortable, boats can make you feel seasick….and therefore we are glad that Vietnam allows you to perhaps use the best of all forms off long distance travel, the train.

One of the things we are slightly excited about is the the fact that from Saigon all the way to Beijing, we can let the train take the strain.  Today is our first experience of Vietnamese trains.

As our journey is only a day trip we opt for the cheaper soft seat with air-conditioning rather than a sleeper room, but not the bargain option of a hard seat without A/C.  Apart for the A/C being a little over sold as it only seemed to operate for about an hour of the 11 hour journey the experience was overall positive and a great way to see some of the country and the people.

Shockingly the train departs bang on time and is pretty much full.  There are very few western faces onboard, and we are surrounded by Vietnamese playing cards, watching the quite simply awful ‘Rail TV’ or trying to pacify their tired and bored children with various electronic gadgets.

A constant supply of coldish drinks and food trundles past (which is probably as representative of  Vietnamese food as the British Railway packet sandwich is of ours).  The time is useful to catch up on blogs, journals and photograph sorting, but by the end of the journey we are glad to get off feeling hot and a little tired.

What could have been a pretty dull and average day was rescued by a wonderful evening.  Travelling means that you don’t often get to have an evening out with friends, but tonight we have managed to arrange to have dinner and drinks with Morgan and Andrew (a couple we met on our Mekong Delta tour) and Jane and Rob (who we met in Australia in 2012 and more recently in Luang Prabang).  An evening of laughter, beer and food with friends is a great way to make the endless journeys all worthwhile.

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Day 129 – War!

Vietnam is a name that prior to visiting conjured up certain things in my brain.  The pop culture references associated with this country are almost entirely associated with the war.

There are lots of them. Films such as Good Morning Vietnam, Apocalypse Now, Platoon were fairly influential at the time of their release.  Music was another source with 19 (Paul Hardcastle), Camoflague (Stan Ridgeway), and perhaps the most famous one of all, War (Edwin Starr) that I chose to be the music title of this blog entry.

These tended to tell the story’s of the war from a very US centric point of view, even whether that was one that was for or against the conflict in Vietnam.  Today we visited a much recommended attraction called The War Remnants Museum, located pointedly in a building that was previously home to the United States Information Agency.

Before you go, you suspect that the story that you will see if likely to be from a different point of view, when you realise that the current name of the museum has changed from the original “Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes” via “Exhibition for War Crimes and Aggression”, to the less provocative title it currently holds.

The change of name does not appear to have changed the content of the viewpoint that is displayed across the three floors of exhibits.  The afternoon we spent walking round was, like COPE and the Khmer Rouge Genocide experiences, harrowing in parts.

The outer grounds of the museum contains a good selection of US Military hardware displayed with pride, almost as if its a trophy cabinet, that demonstrates that Vietnam took on the might of a superpower and won.

Without doubt the information shown within is subject to an extreme dose of propaganda by a single party communist state and never hints that there might have been aspects of the tactics employed by the North Vietnamese (and I am sure that there are many skeletons in that closet).  Notwithstanding that, some of the information shown about the “war crimes” of the US is hard to read, and even harder to look at as the museum contains some graphic photographs.

One of the most memorable (and balanced) rooms was one dedicated to the photo journalists that put themselves in danger to provide images of the war to people and news agencies around the world.  Some of the images are haunting, showing the true horrors of war first hand, and over 50 of these individuals ended up paying the ultimate sacrifice for their work and are remembered in a worthy tribute.

The aspect of the war that we knew least about and that most shocked us, was the evidence to show the extent to which the US developed, experimented and deployed chemical and biological weapons during the war.  A couple of rooms are dedicated to this “Ecocide” and show the impacts during and after war, many of which are still evident today in large numbers of birth defects in parts of Vietnam.  The photography accompanying this section takes a good deal of resolve to work your way through.

You leave knowing that the rhetoric you have seen is shown from a Vietnamese point of view, but there is enough evidence and information to shame the US for how they acted.

After an experience like this you need something to lift the spirits, and our evening with Vespa Adventures and our wonderful guide Depp did just that.  A four hour city tour, combining street food visits and a pub crawl (with drinks included) all orchestrated from the back of a pack of 1960s Vespa’s that weaved, dashed and cut through the nighttime traffic and city lights was a wonderful way to say goodbye to Ho Chi Minh City (or Siagon as the locals prefer).

Day 128 – The Ripples Rock My boat

Travelling through Asia our and the Mekong River’s paths have crossed on a couple of occasions, but as we enter Southern Vietnam it’s journey comes to an end.

The Mekong Delta was a gift from Cambodia to Vietnam as a mark of thanks for assisting them in fighting off an invasion from Thailand a long time ago.

Home to some 9000km of water ways it is home to a number of large water based animals, which were quite terrifying to the Vietnamese who started a tradition of painting large eyes on the front of their boats.  The practice was to make the boats look like even bigger monsters and frighten the others off, and it’s nice to see that the tradition continues today.

A population equal to the entire of Australia resides in the delta and the boat trip that we have booked for the day took us into the heart of these communities for a chance to see how daily life goes on.

We leave at low tide froma pier in the city and set off down the Saigon River.  It soon becomes very clear that the culture of the ramshackle houses built on precarious looking stilts on the banks in the city still to use water courses as a system of waste disposal.

Having worked in the UK to help protect the water environment it is particularly depressing to see that the water is black, gassing (resembling a badly managed primary tank at a sewage works), malodorous and with non-biodegradable rubbish that floats on the surface,

Thankfully as we head away from the city and the tide comes in the quality of the water does improve and we start to see people making the the waterways part of their lives.

This means that our captain for the day has to keep his wits about him.  Our boat is a speedboat which at full pelt can create a fair bit of wake, and with local ferries crossing the watercourses, people in the water searching for worms to sell to fishermen and small boats tide closely together, we regularly need to slow down to prevent the ripples we creat causing drama.

Our guide for the day speaks great English (though sounds like Woody from Toy Story because he learnt by watching cowboy films as a boy) and is very good at answering questions and giving his take on life in Vietnam in general as we make a number of stops during the day.  One of note  was at a Caodisim Pagonda, a recent Vietnamese religion that attempts to unite other religions, so that inside there are carvings of Jesus, Buddha and Hindu gods on the same altar.  A curious religion that was formed in 1927 and apparently one that is not taking the world by storm as there is only one temple outside of Vietnam (Melbourne).

On the journey back you notice how like the Amazon in South America, the waterways are the major transportation system in the area with massively overloaded boats chugging their way slowly up and down the rivers.  Some of them look partially submerged due to the weight they are carrying and appear to have pumps permanently running to keep them afloat.

As well as slowing down for sensitive water traffic we also slow down as we pass the police station, a bit like drivers slowing down for a speed camera, and we are told about the level of corruption in Vietnam.

Apparently one of the best jobs to have is a policeman.  They can earn $500 a day due to the level of bribes and payoffs they can get.  It is such an important job that the government won’t let anyone with less that “three good generations” be employed in the role, meaning that there needs to be 3 generations since a family had a member that fought on the “wrong” side during the war.

Day 127 – Summer in the city

The transfer from “democratic” Cambodia into communist Vietnam is one of the largest culture shocks we have experienced on the trip so far.

Lack of western brands, poverty stricken people, beat up old cars, an agricultural dominated economy…are all left behind to be replaced by bright lights, skyscrapers, designer shops, expensive cars and Starbucks.

On first impressions Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon does a pretty good impersonation of a typical capitalism based city.  It’s the massive bustling crazy metropolis that we expected, but didn’t quite get, from Bangkok.  We love it.

Crossing the road here is something that you have to see to believe.  Traffic, and in particular mopeds, provide a constant stream of motorised movement with few junctions subject to any formal control.

With no breaks in the flow you are left doing what the locals do. Just walk out into the traffic.  Very slowly. And then the magic happens, as the drivers just avoid you, step by step you make your way to the other side.   I found it easier if I didn’t look, because if you do the years of Tufty Club training starts to kick in and you can find yourself trapped in the middle of the road with traffic streaming by on both sides and nobody takes pity on you to let you cross.

A wonderful relaxed day spent walking round the city (taking some refuge from the heat in lovely air-conditioned shops and cafés), getting a feel for the place, visiting the Opera House for a very arty performance involving a lot of bamboo poles, and finally enjoying a drink or two in a rooftop bar on top of one of the many glamorous hotels watching the neon light the sky.

Day 126 – Hungry like the wolf

Day 126 – Hungry like the wolf

A very early start means that we have to head to the bus station without a chance to grab breakfast.

We say goodbye to Battambang, a place that despite its lack of any genuinely great tourist attractions, manages to be more than the sum of its parts somehow and we have genuinely enjoyed our brief stop here.  It has given us a chance to see Cambodia without the throngs of tourists and the associated perversion of the local shops and cafés.

Our 7:00 bus leaves punctually at 7:32 after we were shuttled from the city centre to the actual bus station in a minibus that adopts the Cambodia car loading formula:

x = n + >1

Where x is the number of passengers and n is the number of seats vehicle possesses.  Our bus only breaches the actual number of seats by 1 but we did witness 9 adults and 2 children get out of a 5 seater Toyota Camry the other day.

The bus TV shows a double dubbed and subtitled 1980s Hong Kong Martial arts film, that changed quality (2 different versions of the same film) during the elongated journey, and seemed to amuse the Cambodians at least.

Our arrival in to Phnom Penh was almost 2 hours late meaning that we had to do a mad dash to get our second bus to Ho Chi Minh City using all our remaining cash on the tickets and with no time to visit the ATM or get any lunch we were were off.

By the time we crossed the Mekong on a ferry we were pretty hungry having missed two meals but had no cash with which we could buy any of the mainly unidentifiable snacks on offer by the locals.

In the distance you can see a large road bridge over the river being constructed, which we guess like every other infrastructure improvement we have seen in Cambodia will be funded by a foreign government. It is the pattern here, roads, schools, hospitals all bare a sign to tell you which country has paid for it (China and Japan are the biggest donors).

The prevalence of the roadside signs displaying the logo and name of the Cambodian People’s Party that we have seen everywhere seems to increase to ridiculous levels the nearer we get to the border.  Perhaps the government should spend less money on propaganda and more on the things that are needed to improve the country?

Eventually we stop just short of the border to allow passengers to grab some food and thankfully before I got to the point I might eat my arm there is a cash point and we can eat.  Less positive news is the food that is on offer, but a Cambodian version of a Pot Noodle and Pringles is enough sustenance to get us through to our destination and the home of arguably the best Asian food in the region.