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Al's epic odyssey "A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving." - Lao Tzu

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and the Mekong Delta

VIETNAM | Monday, 12 October 2009 | Views [767]

Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it is still referred to locally is a sprawling city of some 8 million people (and apparently 6 million motorcycles). It’s hard to say where the city starts or ends as the roads in this part of the world are inevitably lined with buildings. When entering or leaving it seems to go on forever. The tourist / backpacker center of the city is much like other cities in SE Asia, except for the noticeable exception of massage parlours or tuk-tuks. All the other usual candidates are there hustling for your business – motorcycles, taxi’s, restaurants etc. It’s interesting that the suit makers seem confined to Thailand, and the massage parlours to Thailand and Cambodia. I went to visit what is officially called the ‘War Remnants Museum’, which would probably be better called the ‘American War Crimes Museum’. A tour guide actually did call it the ‘War Crimes Museum’ on a later tour. It was both interesting and disturbing, although quite a one sided perspective. I personally think it would have greater impact if it presented a more balanced view and used less propagandistic language. The Vietnamese people did (and continue to) suffer terribly from the effects of the chemicals that the Americans used. The following day I took a trip down to the Mekong Delta, which is home to around 20 million people. We visited some of the islands and cycled along the narrow roads linking the villages, some barely wide enough for two motorcycles to pass. We took a rowing boat up a small river to a honey farm. I felt quite bad having a lady probably old enough to be my mother doing the rowing. At one of the stops I tried the rice wine, banana wine and snake wine. They all taste pretty much the same. High octane firewater! I’m sure that the snake wine is the same as the rice wine with dead snakes (and the occasional scorpion) preserved in it. I’m sure they don’t add to the flavour. My final excursion in Saigon was a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels. These are a labyrinth of interconnecting tunnels and underground bunkers and rooms dug by the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. They are incredibly complex and quite sophisticated. Thousands of people literally lived below ground during the day, and surfaced at night. The tunnels are tiny. I went through a very short one that was in its original state and it was a very tight squeeze, especially getting in through a tiny manhole cover. Without a torch I would possibly still be down there. There is a longer tunnel of around 120m that they have enlarged, lit and ventilated for the tourists and even that one was a little nerve wracking to go down. My knees were knackered from crawling. The traffic in Saigon is something else. I think Cambodia may be a bit more chaotic, but here it is massive and chaotic. I don’t believe I’ve seen a stop sign. I don’t think they have them. People just approach junctions slowly and somehow manage to avoid everything. One of our guides gave some sound advice. When crossing a road simply walk forward slowly. Stop if you must, but never step backwards. Traffic knows how to avoid you if you’re going in one direction. I look in all directions all the time, but locals simply walk and somehow a path seems to simply open up. A few days in manic Saigon was enough and time to head for the hills. Dalat is a town in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and only 300 km away. The bus trip took over 10 hours. The roads are in a poor state, there were road works on one of the mountain passes causing about an hours delay and to cap it all our bus ran out of oil about 5 km from the end. It was quite amusing, a local minivan stopped after initially giving our driver a lift down the road, eventually returned and offered us some of his oil (out of his engine), so the driver tapped a container full from under the minivan and we were on our way.

Tags: ho chi minh city, saigon


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