We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, hereafter referred to as HCMC) quite late in the evening and were met by our guide Hai. From the moment we met him, till the moment he left us in the southern Vietnamese town of Chau Doc, we barely understood a word he said. All our other guides in Indochina, although they were local, had good, understandable, English accents. Sadly, not Hai. I’m sure he had lots of interesting observations and he was a very nice man but his voice was just like that of Kim Jong-il in South Park.
Our hotel for our two nights in HCMC was the Caravelle, and ever so swanky it is too. Built in 1959, it was a communications hub during the Vietnam War and was also home to the Australian and New Zealand embassies. Very sweetly they had left a chocolate dessert in our bedroom with “Happy Wedding Anniversary” written in dark chocolate on a while chocolate slab. So kind. It still wasn’t our anniversary yet, but at least it was easier to manage (and tastier) than the huge bouquet Mrs Chrisparkle was given in Hué. After unpacking, we went for a walk around the block, but for simplicity’s sake, that night we ate in the hotel’s restaurant and for the life of me I can’t remember anything about it. Must have been ok, then.
The next morning we were all bound for our first excursion of the day, to the Cu Chi Tunnels. Cu Chi is about 25 miles out of HCMC, and is famous for its network of tunnels built by the Viet Cong, where they hid from American forces during the war. This intricate network has tiny entrance holes, many invisible as they are covered over by leaves and other natural vegetation. The majority of them were far too small for me to squeeze into, although Mrs C has more of a Viet Cong physique and was able to slide in and out of a few trapdoors. The advice to visitors includes forbidding them to enter the tunnels if they are of “old age (70 years or more)” (a bit cheeky) or “visitors got drunk on alcohol or beer”. Clearly Vietnamese beer doesn’t count as alcohol.
Not only does the area have this network of tunnels, it’s also littered with mantraps, and it’s also an area that was heavily mined, so you have to be careful where you walk, and keep alert. There are some contraptions that if you step on them the surface swings down – the earth effectively gives way – and spears the unfortunate person on grisly looking spikes. This was not a nice war. There are also displays of a captured American tank, some cluster bombs, an underground camp hospital, and waxwork models of prisoners. It’s a sobering, serious place; fascinating to visit, but you come away horrified at the miseries that war puts everyone through. On a more mundane level, I’ve never seen this before – but they have an ingenious way of making sure the Gents’ urinals are kept clean: each bowl is filled as far as possible with hundreds of gin-and-tonic-sized blocks of ice. Gentlemen will understand when I say it made for an entertaining, potentially artistic and sometimes unpredictable visit to the loo.
After the visit, we returned to HCMC, stopping briefly to admire a forest full of seemingly identical rubber trees, planted at regular intervals. Hai showed us the incisions made in the tree bark and how the sap drips out and gets collected in primitive little bowls. Apparently the trees belong to none other than the Michelin Company – I’m guessing its tyre division as opposed to the haute cuisine. You could have a great game of hide and seek here – especially if you’re quite thin.
These long roads between towns in Vietnam don’t have much in the way of service stations or accommodation for long distance lorry drivers, so enterprising café owners and farmers have come up with a lucrative solution to this problem – rows upon rows of hammocks, tied between the trees, perfect for a few hours’ rest – or indeed an overnight stay – before completing your journey. Let’s face it – it doesn’t get cold overnight, in fact I don’t think I’d been anywhere that humid. As we approached HCMC the roadsides were littered with hammocks, with drivers loafing on them enjoying a well-earned rest. As you get closer to the city centre, the numbers of bikes increase – as you might expect – and there were the usual amazingly ambitious achievements of balance on a bike to be gawped at. Massive bags of laundry, a mobile greengrocer stall, pet shop puppies, and charred lumps of wood were all being carried by various riders on their tiny bikes. The best one though was the guy who was carrying six boxes of goods and three massive pots of paint on his bike. An incredible feat of engineering! Whilst we watched these testimonies to commerce go by, Hai decided to put on his easy-listening cassette. The softest jazz covers of Killing Me Softly and Sealed with a Kiss were enough to give you a mild headache but it was We Wish You a Merry Christmas (in March) that really made me want to puke.
For lunch we went to Monsoon – good quality food in a very nice setting. Our menu included a Sweet and Sour fish soup, some mixed Vietnamese appetizers, braised pork and eggs in caramel sauce (that’s just the kind of taste mix that I really don’t need to revisit), stir-fried beef with pumpkin flowers, and (no tittering please) stir-fried morning glory with garlic. Unfortunately the restaurant continued with the gloopy western easy-listening sounds, that they obviously assume we tourists love to hear, so it didn’t encourage us to linger.
After lunch we had a trip to the Presidential Palace. This is a fascinating building, combining grand state rooms for visiting dignitaries, lecture theatres, posh drawing rooms, and amazing art work; while in the basement you can discover the military communication centre during the war, including the President’s war room (one of those places with lots of charts on the walls and a severe looking desk with just a green telephone on top) and the emergency kitchens. I had quite a lot of fun pretending to be the President taking urgent calls on the phone when no one was looking (and ignoring the sign next to the phone that says “do not touch”). It was just too tempting.
We went on to the War Remnants Museum. This, by contrast, isn’t a place for levity. There were various exhibitions of different aspects of the war, and there’s no holding back on the plentiful illustrations that cannot fail to upset you. We endured some of the images of gruesome deformities brought about by Agent Orange, but it was all very sad and distressing, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to go upstairs to look at the (apparently even worse) images up there. We’re all different, and people deal with the repercussions of war in many ways; but I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing a middle-aged American man posing victoriously in front of some of these exhibits, accompanied by his children (aged about 10?) whilst his wife took pictures of them all smiling and looking delighted alongside images of dead and deformed Vietnamese. Outside are some wartime US Army aircraft, tanks and a helicopter which you can wander around; they are genuinely interesting and evocative to see.
It was getting late in the day but we still had a couple of sights left on the list. We visited the 19th century Notre Dame cathedral just as they were closing but snuck in long enough to take a couple of photos – very imposing, but seeming bizarrely out of place in this Buddhist land with a violent past. It’s a very charming building though, with its spires and rose window and French colonial style. Even livelier and grander, we visited the old Post Office, still used as such today as well as being a tourist information centre. It was designed by M. Gustav Eiffel, of the Tower fame.
After a much needed nap, we went out to explore the night time streets and to forage for food. We discovered a very quirky and upmarket shop which I think was called Mainan (or something similar). It was next door to the Parkson department store on Le Thanh Ton. Whilst Mrs C and our co-travellers were browsing the goods, I thought I’d take a couple of photos of their amusing décor. At that point, their security guard (who looked about 19) stepped forward and told me loudly “NO!” Well, I’m sorry, no one tells me “NO” when we’re considering buying things from their shop. Briefly explaining what had happened to Mrs C, I marched out making it clear to the security guard (whose jaw had fallen to the floor in astonishment) that he’d definitely lost any custom I might have brought to the shop. So rather than blogging about what an enjoyable experience you can have at Mainan, I will instead tell you it’s full of absurdly overpriced unwearable rubbish (800 dollars for a shirt, are you serious?) and not to waste your time there. After I’d left, I sulked around Parkson until the others joined me.
We were out to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and we’d noticed this nice-looking restaurant on a brief round-tour the previous night. It was Colonial French rather than authentic Asian, and we fancied a change. It was the Brasserie of Saigon. We had a lovely French meal in its elegant and refined surroundings – the Chateaubriand, and a fantastic bottle of Saint Emilion to accompany. You really felt like you were in Paris. Sadly, according to Trip Advisor, it looks like it’s now a Starbucks. That’s a real pity. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel because we wanted to try the Saigon Saigon rooftop bar atop the Caravelle. I have to say – it was amazing. The night time views are stunning, and you feel so spoilt and cosmopolitan up there. It’s a real privilege.
The next morning we left HCMC for a long day’s travelling down to the Mekong Delta and the city of Can Tho. The journey was divided up into different segments to make it more interesting! First, we drove to Ben Tre to pick up a motorboat (courtesy of mientaytourist.com) to take us on the Mekong to one of the four islands there – Unicorn Island (the others being Dragon, Turtle and Phoenix Islands). The water is very brown and muddy as you drive past the stilt houses and the fish farms on the wide stretch of the Mekong, but turn off down a tributary and it gets narrower and narrower as you approach Unicorn Island – so much so that you can almost touch land either side of the boat with your outstretched arms. Once we got off we were met by a donkey cart to take us to this little place where we sampled some local fruits, drank traditional tea with honey and lime, and heard a local folksong performance. Then it was back on the boat again to travel past the backs of the little villages, where people spill out off the land and on to rowing boats moored up against the jungle to live a life on water. We visited Tan Thach Market where they showed us how they made the traditional coconut candy. That was yummy.
Lunch was taken at My Tho – I can’t remember anything about the restaurant or the meal, as the only photograph I took was of the bizarre illustrations above the urinals (yes I know it’s the second mention of urinals in this blog post) where images of attractive young Vietnamese women look down upon you as you’re doing your duty and pour scorn on the beefiness of your manhood. Then it’s back on Road Number 1 all the way to Can Tho, with only Hai’s easy-listening torture music to keep you awake.
Our hotel at Can Tho was the lovely Victoria Can Tho, splendidly located by the water’s edge which was perfect for a late evening stroll to the sound of the Mekong. The hotel has lush gardens and is a haven for geckos, hence the warning in your room that geckos might invade at any time. Dinner was delish, and we had a particularly helpful waitress called Dung.
The next morning we were off on yet another boat trip, this time to visit the floating markets at Cai Rang. Four miles out into the river, it’s the largest floating market in Indochina. Boats of all sizes and colours vie for position selling their wares – fruit and vegetables, flowers, fish, in fact everything you would expect from a typical Asian market. Some boats approach you rather than wait for you to come to them – these tended to be the ones selling tourist trinkets and hot food and drink to take away. Yes, there’s even Fast Food on the waters of the Mekong. We clambered off our boat and on to another one where a lady was preparing fresh pineapples for snacking. They tasted fantastic. The market area is not limited to the water of course; your little tourist boat moors up and you get out in the middle of a very extensive market, not only full of the usual fruit, vegetables and fish, but also clothes, toys, and other household equipment. One stall sold what looked like gargantuan sized pieces of Crystal Meth – but we were advised it was sugar.
After we’d had enough market to last a lifetime, it was time to head back to Can Tho by boat for the onward journey. We were happily chugging on the crest of a wave when the sound of the boat’s engine started to get a bit panicky. It slowed down; the skipper looked concerned. We pretended that we weren’t remotely worried about being on a little boat that was about to sink in the middle of the Mekong. He started lifting up the floorboards to reveal the engine beneath, where he stared, prodded and poked, with a bemused expression and looking all the world like the legendary boy sent in to do a man’s job. After a quarter of an hour or so of discussion with the skipper of an adjacent boat, it finally occurred to them that we were simply out of fuel. A watering can of fuel was therefore procured from another vessel, and we limped our way back to the bank.
It was all aboard the minibus for the next leg of the journey, aiming for the Crocodile Farm at Trai Ca Sau Long Xuyen. It wasn’t a very big minibus to accommodate us five passengers, plus all our cases, as well as the driver and the guide, and things started to get a little fractious as we tried to sort out the best configuration of seating to make it as spacious as possible. Inevitably, if one person ended up with sufficient leg room, someone else was being squeezed in a corner. Still, we tried to make the best of it. The Crocodile Farm was quite interesting – there were hundreds of them, all flopped over each other in that unusual crocodily way they have of looking like they’ve just been toppled out of some gigantic bucket and just left where they landed. We ended up having lunch with the crocs; or at least at the Farm tea room.
We continued our minibus journey up to the border town (with Cambodia) of Chau Doc. We’d noticed a particularly bizarre affectation of the local menfolk en route – their way of keeping cool. It’s a very hot and humid country. But what the guys do is to roll up their shirt from the bottom upwards, so that it clings round the top of their chest. It may make them cool but it certainly doesn’t look it. I couldn’t work out why they didn’t simply take them off. The journey carried on. We were all a bit uncomfortable because the bus wasn’t quite big enough. Hai put on his gloopy easy listening cassette again. This time, a horrendous version of Those Were The Days; honestly, words cannot describe how execrably bad it was. Suddenly, one of our fellow passengers snapped. “TURN THAT AWFUL MUSIC OFF!!! PLEASE!!! NO MORE MUSIC!!! I CAN’T STAND ITTTTTTT” Whilst we were surprised at her outburst, we were definitely in agreement and it did the trick. Muttering with surprise, Hai ejected his cassette and we drove on towards Chau Doc in blissful silence.
We checked into our hotel, the beautiful Victoria Chau Doc (the Victoria chain have got the monopoly on these quality southern Vietnamese hotels!) Still slightly frazzled from our fellow passenger’s outburst on the minibus we headed straight for the bar and knocked back two Harvey Wallbangers and some chilli nuts for lunch. Thus fortified, we headed out again for yet another water adventure, this time to visit a fish farm in a floating village. It was enormous fun. Our boat moored us up against this structure on stilts, and, once inside, it felt like a genuine farmhouse – kind of barren but grand, but with big square gaps in the floorboards which were actually fish tanks and in which you could see dozens of very big fish all swimming around contentedly. How to stir them up? Chuck some fish food in. They went berserk! Flapping and sloshing around in their water pen, fighting each other for the tiniest morsel, cascades of water being splashed out into the air – it was a very amusing – and noisy – sight.
A precarious walkway – with ominously loose floorboards barely protecting you from a sudden dunking into the Mekong – took us back on land to a small village. It had a bright, but modest little mosque into which the locals welcomed me, but wouldn’t let Mrs C in, so I just had a quick look around and took a few pictures whilst she pretended not to be offended at the sexism. Then it was back to the boat via the terrifying walkway, and a return to the hotel. On our way back, watching out for the next collection of weirdly overloaded bikes – as you do – we saw one of the sadder sights of our holiday – a man, riding a motorbike, and carrying on the seat behind him a very large cage containing two, equally large, live, pigs. They were squeezed in for all they were worth, with their little legs dangling out of the holes in the cage over the side. One can only assume this was to be an uncomfortable final journey before the slaughterhouse.
In the evening, we went out into Chau Doc to see what the nightlife was like, having already taken dinner in the hotel. There were lots of lively night markets, a little town centre fountain that was lit up with coloured lights, some groovy civic art; and many Tai Chi classes. Tomorrow we would be continuing our journey up the Mekong and into Cambodia, so we fancied an early night and a good sleep. We hadn’t, though, bargained on spending half the night playing Hunt the Gecko.