My summer holiday is over and I have returned to a cooler Korea. Landing at the airport yesterday morning was tinged with a little sadness. I was really beginning to enjoy Vietnam when my time in this incredible country ran out. I spent ten days travelling around the south of Vietnam. I had quickly discovered that time was an issue that would restrain my adventure to only half the country, but nonetheless I filled my days and absorbed the vibe of Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon):
I landed at Ho Chi Minh airport shortly after midnight, jumped in a taxi and headed to Bui Vien street. My taxi driver sliced effortlessly through the minimal traffic that was to unprepare me for the mentalness of the morning. Despite trying to guide me to a hotel of his choice (taxi drivers usually get a commission for delivering visitors to a specific hotel) I jumped and looked for an open reception from the shortlist I had made. I plumped for the Saigon Sports Hotel $20 a night for a pretty decent room…..
I woke in the morning (just) and went downstairs to a cacophony of action. As I hit the street my pale skin attracted the attention of various touts, taxi drivers, cyclo riders and tour bookers. My intention was to go to a few sites around the city. After rebuffing everyone I got collared by an old cyclo rider called Tso. Tso asked me some questions and showed me a book of praise that he had gathered from various customers. Wanting to get away from the backpacker area and explore the city I jumped into his cyclo with a few destinations in mind. Tso expertly dodged the taxis and motorbikes on the rule-less streets and took me off to see some pagodas, the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace. I had read up about how to avoid being ripped off, however a combination of my sleepiness and general overwhelment meant I forgot to set a price before we set off. At the end this incredibly old, polite man gave me a price and I felt far to English to argue. It wasn’t so much but definitely more than it should have been. Anyway, lesson learnt and a mistake that made me the craftiest haggler in Vietnam from that point onwards.
I visited two pagodas in Ho Chi Minh: Giam Lac and Quan Am. Giam Lac is the oldest in Ho Chi Minh but Quan Am was definitely the more interesting. Giam Lac was very quiet and actually felt a little more like a random collection of buildings and statues. There was no real flow. I did meet a very nice old lady who seemed fascinated by me and managed to tell me and everyone else that was near us how handsome I was. She literally kept reappearing, leading some poor person to marvel at me. I felt more important than Buddha. Quan Am had an entirely different vibe. Quan Am had a lot more worshippers, all asking the various figures for favour and waving incense sticks around. The smell will live me for a while. Quan Am has a central square temple and is surrounded by an open area with various sheltered figure and figurines. While I was there Ho Chi Minh experienced a mighty downpour and it made for an unforgettable image as the rain lashed down through the incense smoke.
The War Remnants Museum left me with a rather more somber memory than the relaxing and mythical imagery of the pagodas. In fact I left the War Remnants Museum feeling angry, humbled and educated. Many people think of Vietnam as a war rather than a country. For 20 years Vietnam was savaged by war. I will not give you a history lesson as I am sure there are books and websites that will do it more justice than I would. On arrival at the museum I was mildly taken by the military hardware in the courtyard, poking around the tanks and planes and taking photos. However, the story of the Vietnam war is not one I am overly familiar with. I went in with confused opinions and lacking knowledge. I walked out angry with the unspeakable acts of the Americans in Vietnam. The various displays inside the museum gave a scale of death and destruction that I had underestimated. War is a horrific event but the Vietnam war appeared to be a war of no rules, honor or even just purpose. Agent Orange is possibly the nasty legacy of this war. I’m sure we have all seen the hellish images in movies like “Apocalypse Now” and “We Were Soldiers” of napalm being dropped on villages and jungle, but Agent Orange is something else. A chemical that still affects Vietnam today, children are still-born (or swiftly die) with unworldly disfigurements and disability as the chemical lingers in the genes of families. I would notice as I walked around Ho Chi Minh the first hand evidence. Disfigured citizens being carried around or riding in modified vehicles, begging on the street or making a living from what physical ability they retained. Although I left with a Vietnamese/communist perspective of the war the photographic and physical evidence is enough to believe the atrocities that were carried out. The stories were genuinely moving, the facts presented concisely and the imagery shocking. To understand Vietnam and the people it is imperative to visit this place.
Reunification Palace is a lasting monument to the end of the Vietnam war. Formerly known as Independence Palace this was the home of the South Vietnamese President and was used to coordinate the South’s fight against the North. At the end of the war as communist tanks crashed through the palace gates it was renamed Reunification Palace as the North and South were reunited under communist rule. Since 1975 it has stood as an iconic symbol of unity in Vietnam’s history. The eerie emptiness of this glamorous 60’s styled palace is a historic ode to the democratic South. Now it lies empty as a tourist attraction and occasional venue for government dinners and visits.
I headed back home, lighter in pocket but satisfied with my days adventuring. I stopped off to but internal ticket flights to Pho Quoc at a travel bureau and headed out for some Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup-delicious) and a few beers. Annoyingly I managed to meet an English teacher from Korea and we had a few beers and watched the touts and bar hosts annoy the tourists and talk shop. I headed to bed slightly early to get some rest for my trip to what I had read was an untouched paradise island……
Phu Quoc Island:
I flew to Phu Quoc with a $100 return ticket. Pretty bargainous for an internal flight and as I’d later discover, the best way to travel in Vietnam! Phu Quoc is off the Cambodia/Vietnam coast. As the plane flew over all I could see was a densely forested island surrounded by beaches, which was nice.
From Duong Dong that serves as the main town and only airport on the island I got a taxi to the properties that lined the aptly named “Long Beach”. I went to the first place on my list a $20 a night collection of beach side bungalows run by a family. However, quite stupidly, following my encounter with Tso the charming shyster, I decided to see if I could find a better deal. I walked about three kilometres along the road behind the beach in searing heat before deciding the best place for rooms and price was the place I had already read up on and visited first. Much to the delight of the owner I returned as the sun went down.
I went to the beach after settling into my room with Mosquito nets, two double beds, hot water and A/C (all a rarity in Vietnam, especially for $20). The staff were cooking a seafood BBQ. I hate seafood/am scared to eat it, but ordered (for a mere 7$) my BBQ dinner. I had a choice of main meat (crab, tuna steak, red snapper etc…) and it came with jacket potato, two massive scallops, two king prawns and a whole squid. It was delicious. I was genuinely shocked at how much I enjoyed it, so much so, I had it for the next two nights! Afterwards they made a fire on the beach for people to sit round. I chatted to a French couple but ran out of language ability and went for a big walk down the beach under the moon as the waves crashed down at my feet.
The next day I had some delicious pineapple pancakes (a memory from the Philippines!) and went for a walk in the opposite direction. The previous night I had walked towards town past the main resorts, this time I headed for a rocky headland to see what laid beyond. the answer, not much but empty undeveloped beach! I walked for ages, helped some fishermen rescue their boat from a river delta sand bar, met some kids with a dead snake (I stuck to the shoreline after seeing that, it was big and evil-looking) and generally forgot about the world. I read my book, went swimming and watched for snakes.
In the evening I went to Duong Dong night market where I ate more BBQ seafood and practiced my bartering skills. The night market was a good place with a nice mix of locals and tourists. One thing I sensed here was the lack of chancers and touts which was a nice relief. You could chat with locals and traders without feeling like the were about to sell you something or try to drag you off to their shop. People seemed genuinely pleased to meet you.
The following day I decided to go adventuring and hired a motorbike for the price of $5 for the day. I filled up the tank ($2) and went off into the unknown. I drove along the beachfront and out-of-town. Instantly getting lost due to the lack of road signs. I was on a main road that sort of seemed to head diagonally across the island. However, it was difficult to tell due to the mountains and jungle….thirty minutes later my main road turned from asphalt to gravel to construction site to mud track. I finally got my bearings in a local town on the far coast (despite the first two people even being able to identify their own town on my map). I chose a route and went off in search of beaches and anything else that came my way. What came my way was not what I expected. Waterlogged roads, bog like muddy “roads”, remote creepy wilderness cemetery, creaky wooden bridges over rivers, stubborn road-hogging cows, angry dogs, soldiers, soldiers with guns telling me to turn around, friendly locals, confused locals, live snakes sunning themselves in the road, back-breaking potholes and eventually deserted beaches! I enjoyed my adventure but my back didn’t. I got home and dropped off my bike to the nice man and lady at the internet cafe next to my lodgings (they were extremely helpful all holiday, helped me book flights as well) his first comment was: “Wow, so much mud”. I went to the beach (10 second walk from my bungalow 🙂 and washed off in the ocean. My trainers and clothes took a little more persuasion to shed their coating of copper brown mud however! I settled down on the beach to eat BBQ and read my book (“A spot of bother” by Mark Haddon – very good and made me think about my family a lot), watched another incredible sunset and went to sleep before I sadly left the island the following morning….
Ho Chi Minh…again:
I got back to Ho Chi Minh early. My flight was at the ungodly hour of 7.50am but having decided that time was going quickly I wanted to squeeze some stuff into the day before I got a bus to Mui Ne in the evening. Getting into HCM at 10am I booked a bus ticket for 7pm and then decided to walk arounf HCM and get a real feel for the place in my own time. This also reduced my chance of getting fleeced!
I went to the Notre Dame Cathedral a legacy of French colonialism in Vietnam. I’m not one for cathedral or church visits, I’ve seen enough in England and I’m not religious, but it was kind of fun trying to cross the massive road that surrounds it. the key to crossing the road in Vietnam is to just be confident, walk out and pray that the millions of motorcyclists steer around you! It works but it takes guts!
Afterwards I just rambled around, looked inside Ben Tranh the massive indoor market of fake delights, local fabrics, food and souvenirs. I bought a Rolex. I ate some delicious red curry in a fancy french styled terrace and bar with the local hoi polloi, took in the incredible architecture and discovered the oddest pagoda yet. I really enjoyed just walking around, I didn’t have a knowledgeable, fleecing guide, but I would suggest it was the best way to explore HCM and discover its real gems.
That is it for part one….stay alert for part two!