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VIETNAM | Saturday, 31 January 2015 | Views [408] | Comments [1]

Anita, our guide, and drying rice paper

Anita, our guide, and drying rice paper

What a bustling city!  Packed with people, vehicles, and new construction everywhere, this is certainly an indicator of Vietnam’s ongoing economic surge in an otherwise blighted world economy.

We were docked in Saigon for two days.  (The official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone here still calls it Saigon.)  After a small communications glitch, we met up with our private guide on the first morning, then drove about 1.5 hours south down into the Me Kong river delta.  It’s a patchwork of islands, waterways and villages, and some incredible bustling activity along the river day and night.  We got out of the car and boarded a water taxi that we had all to ourselves, and wandered around a bit looking at houses, fish farms, and all the commercial traffic, big barges down to tiny fishing boats.  We stopped at a fruit vendor’s boat parked out in the middle of the river, and bought a few things we’ve never had before.  Some good, some horrible.

Then we got out of the boat and started walking some small footpaths on a couple of islands.  We watched some ladies making rice paper for spring rolls, and passed lots of rice paper laid out to dry in the sun on bamboo racks.  We went into a house where a family operation was making *delicious* coconut candies, and another house where the family was popping rice exactly like our puffed rice breakfast cereal.  After puffing the rice, they would mix it with various flavoring ingredients and form it into cakes for sale.  Some cakes were sweet, but the best tasting was a savory flavor similar to chicken broth, onions, and a few other subtle spices.

Everywhere we walked on these islands, we were surrounded by lush greenery.  Grasses and bamboo everywhere, but also plenty of cultivated fruit, nut, and vegetable plantings.  We jumped from our water taxi onto a small gondola-like boat rowed by a single woman, and rode up a very narrow canal to our lunch destination.  It was at a family’s home, and they served us several fun things, starting with some home brew made from their own nut trees.  We had some delicious noodle soup to start, then they brought us a whole deep-fried elephant fish.  They showed us how to dip dried rice paper into water to rehydrate it, pull some of the fish apart and lay it on the rice paper, add an assortment of fresh veggies, top it with one or more sauces, then roll and eat.  Locally grown tapioca and fruit finished off the meal.

As we drove back to the ship for the night, we saw more river life, and rice paddies everywhere.  Our guide told us they eat rice three times a day, and in the south part of Vietnam, they are able to get three rice harvests per year.

The next day, we got an earlier start and headed right into the heart of Saigon.  With a population of 10 million, Saigon is the country’s largest city and was the former capital, remained the capital of South Vietnam during the civil war, then Hanoi became Vietnam’s capital in 1975.  This is the first city on this trip (although not the last, I’m sure) where we really got a feeling of a massive crush of people.  It’s difficult to describe the number of motorbikes moving in an unstopping flow along every street and road.  We included some photos, but seeing and hearing is the best way to really appreciate what’s happening.  The government has instituted a two-child policy, but it’s not too strictly adhered to.  The only sanctions are loss of government health and education subsidies for the “extra” kids, although members of the Communist party with more than two kids can kiss their hopes for advancement goodbye.

Our guide had the car drop us off on a busy street—actually, they’re all busy streets—so we could go far a stroll through the “alleys”.  (We were in a new Toyota SUV, about halfway between a Rav-4 and a Highlander, driver and guide in front, us in the back.  I was on the driver’s side, and the first time I tried to open my door, I discovered that the child lock was on.  The driver got out and opened the door for me, I went to turn the child lock off, and he gestured no-no to me.  I thought about it and decided that past tourists had probably opened the door into charging motorbikes or vehicles…)  Anyway, the “alleys” in Saigon are streets that are lined with residential high rises, and shops and stalls have spilled so far out into the street from both sides that the streets have become alleys, passable only by pedestrians, mostly turned sideways.  We saw meats, fruits, veggies, and lots of fish for sale.  Clothes, jewelry, handbags.  Frogs, both butchered and alive, the latter face to face in pairs with a big rubber band around both to keep them from hopping away.  Spice stores, and chilies, lemongrass, and limes available everywhere.  We saw a gorgeous area dedicated to flowers, all ramping up for the upcoming new year’s celebration in mid-February.

We walked a few more blocks to the historic city center, full of new shiny high rises, more under construction, and several French colonial buildings.  We walked through the Victorian-style post office, still in use today by the Vietnamese post, and through the Notre Dame cathedral, a modest replica of the cathedral in Paris. 

Then in a hush-hush operation, our guide ushered us into a very modest office building, spoke briefly with the security guard in the foyer, and ushered us onto an ancient Otis elevator.  Up five floors, then a set of stairs onto the roof, and we were standing on top of the former CIA headquarters in Vietnam.  This is where a reporter snapped the iconic photo of the US helicopter landing atop this building—the last helicopter to leave Saigon during the chaotic evacuation of the city on 1975.  Our guide told us that no other tourists go us there, but he “made arrangements” to bring very small groups up there once in a while.

Next was lunch at one of the street vendors that everyone warns us away from.  But we had no problems, and it was delicious.  Our guide took us to a rather large indoor food stand, which started as one woman selling off the back of her motor bike 17 years ago.  Now she owns the ground floor of a downtown building, with seating for 150+, customers and staff bustling everywhere.  The French left a wonderful legacy of bread in this country, so the guide and I each had a baguette with sliced pork and veg, Anita had a bowl of noodle soup with fresh veg.  Most amazing of all—the entire lunch for all three cost about $3.50.

We finished the day shopping in downtown Saigon, and picked up several fun things to bring home.  Then back to the ship and north to Da Nang.




Actually delighted to hear such a robust and fun description of Vietnam. I found the people to be lovely, hard working, caring and wishing to be left alone to prosper. They are a fine featured people with thin noses, beautiful eyes and a brightness to their demeanor. Your decision to get off the beaten track seemed to have paid off handsomely. I love the hand on Anita's shoulder offered by guide in pict!

  Sp4 Stephen Jensen, 101st Airborne, 1969 Feb 7, 2015 10:48 AM

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