Day 56 Ho Chi Minh City
After 3 flights and 18 hours we touch down in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as the acronym says on the boarding passes, a discrepancy we hear a lot about over the coming weeks). The flights were all painless, though disappointingly we lost the bottle opener we'd bought all the way back in Buenos Aires to security at Singapore.
Remarkably our bags have made it, which we hadn't seen since dumping them on a conveyor belt in Christchurch. Ruth had been fretting about her pants again.
Yeesh, it's close. We're back in the Northern hemisphere now so technically it's winter, but not like any we're used to. I'm perspiring grimly by the time we've gone through customs.
We queue for a taxi outside. It's about 5 miles to the hotel so we figure even at rush hour it won't take long. But we hadn't figured on the traffic. Pulling out of the airport, hardly a haven of calm itself, we are emptied into an automotive free-for-all. Scooters, scooters as far as the eye can see and most of them bearing down on us. Whoooaaa as our taxi driver nonchalantly cuts across 5 lanes into the middle of it all, using the horn like it were a forcefield. Shiiiiiiiiiiit as a traffic light goes green to the right, unleashing another river of bikes towards us. Areyououtofyourfuckingmiiiiiind as he types a text with one hand, cheating death with the other on the wheel.
After 40 pulse-quickening minutes, he screeches up to our hotel, on a quiet (relatively: the surrounding streets are still horntastic) street. We gratefully unload the behemoth rucksacks and head inside. And, delightfully, meet Sam and Natasha, two friends from London who are cautiously curious to see how two months of close-proximity has treated us. After humid greetings are exchanged, with Ruth and I accepting how well we look with false-modesty, we check in and reconvene in the roof bar. Sam and Tash have also just flown in and are under duress from the same festive-fatigue/jet-lag/didn't need all those aeroplane meals as we are. But, it seems silly not to enjoy a banh mi, some spring rolls, and a few delightfully cold beers, so we do (I think I overuse the phrase "When in Rome..."). Sam has always displayed an aptitude for drinking beer, and the temperature here does not dull his abilities. A zesty pace is set and a very festive catch-up is had. It is not long before the cocktail of heat, jetlag and, indeed, cocktails catches up with us (also the hotel bar stops serving at 10pm) so we bid our adieus and fall into bed.
Day 57 HCMC
We all meet in the hotel restaurant this morning (which boasts the "best yoghurt in Ho Chi Minh!") and gamely plunder the breakfast menu. We also catch Sam and Tash up on Bite Banter (Ruth got got again last night). After a fruit course of deliciousness (fresh passionfruit is just unbeatable), we have, variously, Pho: the spicy meat noodle dish for which Vietnam is well known and is a breakfast revelation and Chicken Congee, a rice gruel which, honestly, I would happily not have again. We also have coffee but it's not the condensed-milk sweetened one for which Vietnam is renowned and for which I, with a dangerous penchant for sugar, am desperate to try.
We have two full days in Ho Chi Minh City, before heading on to neighbouring Cambodia for some Wat action. After that, we'll be returning here to head north through the country. So plenty of travelling ahead, as we kick off the last leg of the trip. It'll be nice to absorb the city for a few days. We walk east the few miles into town. And 'absorb' turns out to be bang on, because it's another boiling moist-fest. "I'm developing a 'pho-zone' layer" says Sam. "It's like an exclusion zone of meaty, noodley mist coming from my armpits and back".
Walking along the pavement is no less terrifying than being amongst the traffic in a car. Scooters regularly bonk up onto the pavement to bypass a particularly snarled up bit of traffic, and there are stretches of carriageway which have no pavement whatsoever, which means walking alongside 24 lanes of madly-weaving motorbikes. We are off to the War Remnants Museum (previously called the Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes) to have a cold hard look at humanity in this sweltering heat.
To briefly, and probably erroneously, give a rundown of recent events here: Ho Chi Minh City was called Gia Định from the 17th Century until the 1860s when the French colonialists moved in, said non, and renamed it Saigon, which was easier to pronounce. There had been squabbling for land and rule with the neighbouring Khmers for centuries but there was significantly more discontent about the colonial administration. After decades of griping and unrest, the situation came to a head after the Second World War and Vietnam was partitioned by the Geneva Accords in 1954. This separated it into what became (to grossly oversimplify) the Communist north with Hanoi as its capital (counting amongst its number, a revolutionary leader called Ho Chi Minh) and the Capitalist south, with Saigon as its centre. The USA had taken an interest in Vietnam as part of a wider-reaching 'Shit! Communism!' strategy, and had begun moving advisors and troops over to start spreading the good word. China and the Soviet Union were doing similar work in the north. In 1968, the so-called Tet Offensive was launched by Ho Chi Minh's People's Republic of Vietnam with the (stated) aim of reunifying Vietnam. This is widely seen as being the catalyst that kicked off the whole shitstorm. Though, inevitably, blame is also pointed elsewhere. The ensuing conflict, obviously called the American war here, tore the country open and raged at appalling human cost until 1975. Here, the Americans cut their losses and withdrew from Saigon, their final stronghold in the country. When Saigon then fell to the north, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to remember the (now late) leader who'd been so integral to their cause. It's not hard to see the motivations behind hanging on to 'Saigon' as a name rather than the one your conquerors forced upon you. Whatever the stance on the American legacy here, Vietnam IS still a Communist country but, as we are finding out, one which has thrown open its doors to Westerners to come and see the place.
There seems to be no bad blood with the US now; certainly, there are plenty of its citizens walking around the War museum with us, looking at a ghastly chapter in their history. The place is is well worth the trip, and many of the exhibits linger long after the visit. But as you might imagine, it's a pretty one-sided look at the War. The motivations are understandable - the Agent Orange section is so harrowing Ruth has to walk out, but there's little to balance the views. The North is portrayed as liberator throughout, with zero redress. But, to the victor belong the rights to have your museum say what the heck you want it to, to paraphrase.
The 'lunchtime alarm' goes off after we've seen about half of the exhibitions, which evidently means we have to leave. "You can come back in an hour,” the lady on the door says, encouragingly, but we're all warred out. There's little chance of us returning, so we go and sit in an outdoor bar over the road to discuss next moves. Ruth and Tash have a pulverised-fruit drink each while Sam and I culture it up with beer. Looking at maps, some chap walking along the pavement starts cleaning my shoe with a toothbrush. "No, I'm good thanks" I say, moving my feet away.
"I'll clean your shoes, they're dirty" he says, with an excellent handle on English but with a sales patter that frankly needs less insults.
"But that's how I like them," I say. He haggles a bit more in excellent English, but after I make it clear that I am as slobbish as I look, he moves on, grumbling.
We continue walking downtown, crossing more hair-raising junctions (the trick seems to be to stride out confidently but looking at every oncoming driver in the eye: they correct their trajectories if they’re sure of where you’re going, but show an ounce of uncertainty and they barrel past your face desperate not to get held up by another bloody tourist).
Drawn like moths to the enormous Sky Deck in the middle of town, a tall, glassy bastard with a bar at the top, we take a rest from the heat and traffic with a pitcher of beer and margaritas, and a fantastic view. Ho Chi Minh City unfolds as far as the eye can see in all directions.
The walking and the heat has nurtured quite a hunger so we move back west through the manic streets past the incongruous-looking Independence palace (check out its gardens on Google Maps, they look like a croissant) to a restaurant called Ngon. (‘tasty’). It’s styled like a temple, with a pond in the middle. The waitresses hand us a menu the thickness of a Tolkein novel. We order an embarrassment of food from numerous cuisines (Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese) in the hope that some of them hit the mark. Sam, lulled by the heat and beer of the day, falls asleep at the table.
He is awoken by a conveyor belt of food. Every dish that arrives over the next half an hour (and man, we ordered a lot) is delicious. Pork, chicken, noodle and vegetable courses of meticulous preparation and magical taste. Even the chilli I eat (which Tash falsely convinces me is a spring onion), which is so spicy I start sweating from my eyeballs, adds a certain joie de vivre to proceedings.
We leave, well fed, into late afternoon sunshine. We try to get a cab the three miles back to the hotel, but Sam (wisely) asks how much it’ll be first and the driver replies £15. The vast meal we just had didn’t cost much more than that, so we get out of the cab.
Traffic is also barely moving. It's possibly rush hour, but it's really hard to tell here. We walk back in the sweatbox. On the plus side, it does give us the opportunity to try our first proper Vietnamese Coffee in a cafe we pass. Ordering a ‘coffee with milk’ we receive four apparently black coffees which, when stirred, reveal the condensed-milk depth-charge within. This is apparently one of the gifts the French left Vietnam. I can’t remember where I heard this so it might, in fact, be horseshit: the colonialists would only drink their coffee with milk, and since it’s so bloody hot here the only way they could keep milk, pre-fridge, was to have it in condensed form (where it’s virtually preserved in sugar). I am pretty much alone in appreciation. My glowing reviews, buoyed by the glucose being extruded through my circulatory system, are met with indifference from Ruth and Sam. Tash is on the fence. It’ll take a few more to convince them, but type II diabetes will be a lonely road to walk on my own in my 40s, so it’s a battle worth having.
We head back to the hotel for a blissful shower. We make a mistake with dinner, choosing a restaurant based on its proximity to the hotel (the end of the road). It looks like a nice place - we cross a stream to get to our table, there’s bamboo. But we’re also the only customers, and we are sat by a tank of deeply unhappy-looking fish. There is a surplus of live seafood on display throughout Ho Chi Minh, but none have looked quite so desolate as these. We ask the waiter what he’d recommend for dinner. He says the pork is the ‘best in Ho Chi Minh’. May he be admonished for his lies.
We are served sad, sad meat, and he puts an ice-cube the size of an anti-aircraft round (we’re now depressingly familiar with what these look like) into our beer glasses. Fortunately, we ate enough to keep us going earlier, so we finish as quickly as we can and leave the sorry-looking fish to continue encouraging tourists to pursue vegetarianism.
Day 58 Mekong Delta
We are picked up disgracefully early by a lovely bloke called Jimmy. He and his driver dice with death on the streets to pick up another two tourists - Simon from Canada and Leonardo from Germany.
He’s driving us to the Mekong Delta, a trip we arranged yesterday. The delta is the vast agricultural region which borders Cambodia to the west of Ho Chi Minh. It provides (gleaned from Wikipedia) nearly half of Vietnam’s rice crop, and, naturally, has a fighty past with the Khmers. We all introduce ourselves in the van. Jimmy explains the Saigon/Ho Chi Minh issue I took credit for yesterday. He also provides some stats on Ho Chi Minh City. Nearly 14 million people call it home, with a large amount of commuters arriving from all over the country in the week, and emptying out at the weekend. Sam and Tash return the favour by explaining about the British monarchy: Jimmy asks why Prince Philip isn’t called ‘King’ Philip. Tash says “She's got the royal bloodline so it’s just her who gets the title, He's a Prince Consort.”
Sam adds, “She doesn't do much really, but they needed someone's face to stick on the stamps.”
We’re on the road for a fair few hours before Jimmy stops at us at a huge Buddhist temple which we are invited to look around. It’s a fascinating site. Interestingly, decorating this place of peace is the hooked cross which was inverted and appropriated by a small-moustachioed dictator in the early 20th century. Amazing what circumstance will do to your logo. We take our shoes off, and walk around the fragranced rooms with some deference. Jimmy enlightens us with some entry-level Buddhist symbolism (Big Belly = prosperity and long life. Long Earlobe = no longer weighed down by material possessions, spiritually aware). Standing in a beautiful, silent wooden room watching incense smoke rise into shafts of sunlight, I can see the appeal. Like a million gap year students before me.
Another hour’s driving gets us to the Delta, and after some admin, we get onto a little boat piloted by a silent man and his tiny daughter, which chugs us up the river.
It takes us into a small tributary which incongruously has many other boats towing tourists down it. We are deposited in a clearing of coconut palms and jackfruit trees, where there are live crocodiles followed by handbags made from crocodiles. Good to see the supply chain I suppose.
We watch a local band play a remarkable set of instruments and sing a traditional ode while we are fed another diverse array of fantastic fruits (passionfruit still reigning champ). We are shown a handful of women making coconut sweets, before we are ‘made’ to try (with little persuasion) snake wine, a local liquor. Jimmy says “We call it happy wine because it makes the wife of the husband happy if he drinks it. Makes him strong in bed. If you are over 30, I recommend a glass a day.”
The bottle lacks any branding at all, but better than any packaging could, the contents denote exactly what's in it: a deceased cobra coiled up and flaking. The lady behind the 'bar' pours us all a measure (Tash refuses, on the grounds of always trusting her eyes and reason). I get the feeling this might be just for the benefit of the tourists. It tastes like any other regionally-brewed spirit you may have tried from any locale in the world. Abrasive.
After leaving the crocodile/sweet factory, we are kayaked down the tributary further to get onto another vehicle, a Tuc Tuc, for yet more white-knuckle thrills (quite aside from the roads being barely as wide as our Tuc Tuc, Ruth swears she sees a snake). We get off for lunch, white-faced and jelly-legged 10 minutes later in the middle of Vietnamese suburbia - small houses and gardens with kingfishers.
It's an idyllic scene. Jimmy takes us to our table in a large wooden barn overlooking hammocks and more crocodiles (the former, fortunately, separated from the latter). We eat more excellent food. An enormous fish is masterfully dissected in front of us, followed by 6 other courses of spice and rice.
Sam and I retire to a hammock afterwards, while Simon from Canada tells Ruth and Tash how he plans to motorbike to Hanoi after this trip. Simon must be well into his 60s, and the roads seem to rely on lightning fast reflexes, but he’s confident of the task. He’s already been around Laos, Myanmar and China on his tod, so he’s clearly cut his teeth here more authentically than we have (or plan to).
We make the long journey back to Ho Chi Minh City (past a horrifically viscous looking accident on the other side of the road of which, presumably, there are many a day) and say well-wishing farewells to our passengers and guides. We clean up back in the hotel, before returning to the centre of town. We have another fine meal in an accidentally-retro-looking place called Lemongrass, where we again over-order because of the cheapness of the menu.
With a now accustomed over-eaten feeling, we look for another open bar (they are few and far between, as there appears to be a government-enforced curfew). We find another tall building, illuminated by what appear to be multi-coloured bat-signals, and head up it curiously. At the top, we are greeted by Ho Chi Minh’s young and rich. We are (or at least I am) underdressed for such a crowd. Everyone sparkles. Drinks cost as much as they do in London (an obscene leap in price, given that you can buy a beer for about £1 elsewhere). So we grab a table, deflect the opportunity to buy an £80 bottle of vodka, and have a round of lively-coloured drinks. It’s an intriguing crowd of cash-splashing businessmen and hangers-on, designer labels and energetic dancing. Sam and Tash cheerfully get involved in the latter, while Ruth and I intently watch the table next to us. A suited chap surrounded by a table of women half his age fuels Ruth’s body-language fixation for the next few days. 30 storeys below us the scooters honk at each other interminably. It’s been a day of contrast.