Vietnam Part l 27tthDecember – 2nd January
The flights to Ho Chi Minh City had resumed in time for our lunchtime departure, although thousands of people had been evacuated from the city due to the typhoon, now downgraded to a tropical storm. The only indication was that our connecting flight was about two hours late. When we arrived there was no sign of the storm.
We had engaged a local company,effectively a fixer, to help us to get visas. The forms had been in Vietnamese and we had been promised an express service. A young man met us at immigration and took our completed forms, money and passport and additional passport picture from us and disappeared into the crowd. We wondered if we would see him or our passports again. However he reemerged with our documents and visa after 30 minutes. We had, we discovered later, facilitated a corrupt official to prioritise our application and thereby reduced our wait from about three hours, which all others in the queue were contending with. Apparently all visa staff are related to government officials and subsidise their salaries in this way.
Even so we did not arrive at our hotel until after midnight.
The following day was free until we met up with our guide, Loi, in the evening. We negotiated our way to Ben Thang market, a massive indoor market which sold lots of silk items and designer brands such as Kipling bags, North Face, Under Armour and many makes of trainers. We were not sure if the branded items were real or fake. Many are made in either Vietnam or Cambodia but the items we looked at were about half the price we would pay in the UK. We succumbed to a few items.
We met our guide, went for dinner and he ordered a delicious local meal.
The following day he took us first to the Chinese quarter. It was particularly vibrant as it was between Christmas and Chinese New Year and many shops were selling the distinctive red and gold decorations as well as the usual market wares. From there we went the Jade Emperor Pagoda and then to the war museum. This focused on what is known here as the American war, know to us as the Vietnam war. I found the experience to be harrowing and shocking. There were three exhibitions of photographs representing the bombing and suffering and relating story after story of unimaginable barbarity. The most shocking was the exhibition about the effects of Agent Orange, a chemical dropped by the Americans to kill vegetation and expose the enemy, the Vietcong. There were graphic photographs of the devastation caused at the time, including terrible birth defects that have continued down three generations to the present day. There were photographs of victims of cancers, neurological problems, skin diseases etc etc. Just shocking. There is now a group of third generation children appealing to the USA for help support and compensation. They received some support from Barrack Obama but they are unlikely to get much from the present administration. There are still programmes operating now, mainly run by the Americans, to cleanse the affected areas, as well as clear the thousands of explosive devices still remaining in some areas. We saw for ourselves the following day evidence of stunted growth in the jungle in some of the infected areas.
We left a very hot Ho Chi Minh City the next morning to visit the the Viet Cong underground tunnels at Cu Chi. This was a massive and disconcerting place designed for tourism. As soon as we entered the area we were invited to go down a hole into the tunnels, through a tin entrance into a dank and muddy hole. I declined. Jane went in and found it to be a horrible experience, particularly when the metal cover closed over her head, when the realisation of where she was and and she was doing suddenly dawned. She struggled to haul herself out as the tunnels were built for the very slender Vietnamese ( no offence, Jane!)
We were not sure about this place. There was a firing range for tourists so there was the sound of constant gunshot, very loud and it veered towards presenting the exhibits more as entertainment than a place of significant history and much hardship and death for all sides.
Some of it was really interesting. The Viet Cong made sandals very skilfully out of old tyres. These were made just like normal sandals but with the wider part at the back so footprints looked to be going backwards to confuse the enemy. The straps of the sandals left distinctive stripes on the feet of the Vietcong, where the straps had prevented a sun tan. This was used at the end of the war to determine who had fought for the Vietcong as a basis for reprisals and executions.
The tunnels had kitchens which opened up underground like great caverns. The kitchens were only open between 3 am and 5 am so that the smoke was disguised by the morning mist.
After this, we moved on to the start of several trips on the Mekong. We left from a small jetty and were taken upriver to our accommodation for the night, which was a homestay right on the riverfront. We passed all sorts on the river journey. There houses hanging onto the banks of the river by struts of bamboo which looked as if they might snap at any moment. The Mekong rises and falls by up to 10metres according to the season and life has to accommodate all seasons. Some houses were on stilts, some were shored up with corrugated iron or polythene sheeting. We passed rubbish, a dead dog and a dead piglet and plastic waste in all guises. Parts of it were filthy, but everywhere the colour was vibrant.
Although we were here in the winter in the dry season, it was hot, 30 to 35 degrees every day with humidity at around 90%.
Our Homestay that evening was in the grounds of a traditional old house, but was quite basic. We were offered a cooking lesson where we made something which was a cross between a pancake and an omelette stuffed with vegetables or pork and mushrooms, all delicious.
The following day we got back on the boat for a visit to the floating market, where farmers had come down the river with their produce.
Some of the boats were wooden, long tail boats, powered by car or truck engines, steered using the very long propeller shafts and moving at some speed. After this we visited a small cottage industry on the banks of the Mekong, making rice paper and liquors and many other local items. The rice liquor was sold in bottles containing dead snakes, apparently as a male aphrodisiac. They had a range of produce on sale, rice cakes and liquor and alternative medicines such as fat of python and skin of cobra, suggestive of an alternative spell for the witches in Macbeth.
We transferred to our vehicle and headed to Vinh Long for a canoe tour of the former Vietcong jungle base at Xe Quit, which was the headquarters of the Vietcong communist party during the American war. It wasn’t quite the theme park that the Cu Chi tunnels had been as we were escorted by canoe through the waterways that had been carved out of the swampy jungle. It was a beautiful canoe trip, followed by a walk through some of the jungle, even though it had been annihilated and now stunted by Agent Orange.
New Year’s Eve was spent quietly in a hotel in Can Tho – in a good hotel with a swimming pool on the roof and dinner at a riverside restaurant. Bed around 10pm and no disturbance by fire works as Chinese New Year is a much bigger event here. We needed to be up early again for an early morning boat ride to the nearby morning floating market; one of the busiest of the Mekong Delta’s floating markets. There was serious trading going on at every level from every size of boat. Farmers brought their own small boats with their loads of pineapples, water melons and cabbages etc and traders filled larger dhow type boats to sell to the villages further upstream. As with every good market there is always a coffee shop and this was no exception. The man selling cups of coffee came along side attached his boat with a rope to ours whilst we were still moving and dispensed his wares. We bought some but realised it was probably river water, not necessarily boiled so we did not drink it, but our guide and boatman had no such qualms about drinking it.
We left the boat further upstream and transferred to our vehicle for the onward journey to Chau Doc, a small riverside town close to the Cambodian border, ready to board a fast boat to take us up to Phnom Penh the next day. A gecko decided to sleep in my suitcase, alarming me and it when I discovered it in the morning.
The boat company sent bicycle Tuk Tuks; one for us and one for the luggage. The poor man had to cycle hard with two fat ladies wedged in his carriage amid the early morning traffic chaos. It was better not to look as vehicles of all descriptions cut in front of us and squeezed next to us.
We boarded the boat which set off at speed to join the main Mekong River and headedfor the Cambodian border