Category Archives: Ho Chi Minh City

A Day out on the Mekong Delta

Mattias and Elinor taking it easy

Yesterday going to the Ci Chu Tunnels I mentioned a couple of Swedes on the tour bus, guess what, today it was just me, Mattias and Elinor on the tour to the Mekong Delta ! Elinor is a film animator, Mattias and I share an affinity for electrical pylons, turns out he builds them as well. Not too busy in the darkness of a Swedish Winter so here they are, enjoying the warmth.
8.00 am came round and we promptly departed.
It’s quite a drive to the Delta, about 95 miles, with the traffic and scooters this is about a two and a half hour drive.

Freeway ahead

Just like home in Cali'

Most of the distance is covered by the Ho Chi Minh Freeway (no kidding), the locals are quite proud of it as it has a central reservation. Head ons have been seriously reduced since its introduction I am happy to relate.

First view of Mekong

The first view of the river as we drew into the parking area was stupendous, just as I had imagined, only better. Hugely wide, just over a mile, alive with watercraft of every description chugging, steaming, speeding or just moored. Our guide, San, had filled us with some trepidation with instructions on moving slowly so as not to capsize, to check the life jackets, and such so we were expecting some sort of canoe. No, not really, the three of us made our way onto a rather large Sampan with chairs, driver and a roof. We chose to sit in a heap on the stern platform, the sun came out, my kind Swedish friends shared their sunscreen and we were off into the stream. Our first stop was to see the floating market where the local farmers bring their produce to sell or trade. Quite interesting but apparently much busier at dawn.

A long run across the river

Then we were off on a long stretch across the river to a narrow tributary which we gained after running aground once due to the receding tide. We paused to tour a sweet (candy) factory, Mattias and I muttered comments about child sweatshops and we tried to look interested. After some assurances that this was a family run business and that the young children were part of the family we thawed somewhat and began to pay attention.

Container ship, Mekong style

One of the main trade goods on the river is rice husks, these are used to provide heat for cooking. So we watched what we assumed was the manufacture of pop rice (think popcorn) which was then flavored with strawberry flavoring. It tasted ok, far too sweet for my taste but I see the appeal.

Tea on the banks of the Mekong

Tea was served and local delicacies offered, the local ginger was tasty but I fell for the Lotus seeds and even bought a packet. It apparently is a sleep aid and how I need that.
Lunch followed at a great looking old French Colonial house with a huge back garden converted into an open air restaurant, a highly surprising destination in a narrow spur of the Delta.

A surprisingly good lunch in an old Colonial

Elephant fish in rice paper with salad was followed by king prawns, then rice and unidentified meat, pot stickers, all deliciously fresh. We three were pleasantly surprised. Further up what could be called the bayou we paused for a short music recital by local musicians on local instruments. I was somewhat put off as we arrived as the previous group was leaving, to the strains of Auld Lang Syne!

The race is on at high tide, heading for the open sea, South China that is. Fantastic.

Then it was off again and turning a corner we found ourselves in the main stream, packed with boats all heading downstream on the rising tide. I was in boat heaven !
Following that, we went to a brick factory, yes a brick factory. It was quite interesting tho Mattias and I muttered sweat shops again. It is a massive operation with enormous kilns baking hundreds of thousands of bricks at a time. Then it was over and we came back to HCMC through the rush hour, a three hour drive.
All in all a great day on the river and I wish there was an easy way to share photos instantly using the iPad. I will keep looking and will try and endure the glares in business centers.
To Hanoi in the morning. See you there.

Only 5,000,000 scooters in this City

Bye bye scooterland, oh, and correction, there are 8 million people in HCMC and five million scooters, there are half a million cars. Enough said.

The Ci Chu Tunnels.

Early morning decision made to go to the Cu Chi Tunnels.
This 150 square mile complex built originally by the local residents to hide from the French was started in 1948. With the arrival of the American forces in 1965 the complex was adopted by the Viet Kong who reinforced the tunnels and built two further deeper levels.

A crater not filled with tunnelling debris

These deeper tunnels provided protection from the bombs dropped by the B52s. I was wrong about them extending to the Lautian border, it is the Cambodian.
End of history lesson.
What’s great here is the opportunity to be spontaneous, I made the decision to take the tour at 6.00am and by 8.00 I was on the bus. A few Aussies, couple of Swedes, one American and half a dozen Brits. The Saigon Tourist bus was air-conditioned and the tour guide Phuong was extremely knowledgeable and, to give him extra credit, delightfully coherent.

Traffic photo

We chugged out of Saigon through the swarming motor scooters and for probably the first ten miles averaged probably 10 MPH. Then we were out in the countryside and I saw my first field since arriving. Not sure what was growing but sure was good to see green again.

The drive is an hour and a half total so we were at the gate by 10.00 am, thankfully before it got too hot.

The explanation of the Cu Chi complex at the start of the tour

Inside a tunnel, concrete now but I am sure it was not originally

Comments going forward could be fraught, but, I was there, so here goes. They do say I believe that “The victor gets to write the history” and to be honest this tiny nation, admittedly with outside help, booted the good ol’ United States back home. The introductory movie I have seen critiqued on Trip Advisor as blatant propaganda, hmm, ever seen a movie about how the US won World War Two ? No, it wasn’t propaganda, just a straightforward description of what went on in the District of Cu Chi between 1965 and 1975. I have been fortunate enough, if you can say that, to have visited the sites of the Trench Battles of WW1, the Beaches of Normandy, Colloden, even the site of Valley Forge and frankly, Cu Chi is and deserves to be right there with those monumental memorials.
So, enough pontificating from me and thanks to my Sister for applying the necessary pressure last night when I was vacillating.

The Grande Dame of HCMC hotels

On a lighter note: I did go to the Majestic Hotel for tea and inhaled the atmosphere imaging what it must have been like back in the day. The grand old hotel is full of charm and auld worldliness, though how it will cope with the 30 odd storey annexe remains to be seen.
I wonder if this will work:

Tomorrow I am off to the Mekong Delta, more after that.
Thanks for the comments people.

Arrival into Ho Chi Minh City

“I am sorry Sir we cannot allow you on this flight, you’re papers are not in order”
Oh how I dislike hearing those words, could be a very bad start to the day!
Back up a bit or even a lot. Way back in October 2010 I booked this Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City flight, so I certainly am not winging it, yet. In November of 2011 I started the micro planning, visas, hotels, airport pickups and the like. Vietnam is special as one has to tell the immigration office exactly what flight # one is arriving on and where. Not a problem. Filled in all the correct forms online, received an Application for Entry and Exit on the email to duplicate with a space for my photo and blank questions for me to answer etc etc. Also another form that told me all the other people arriving that day in HCMC plus a letter from the Immigration Department of The Socialist Republic of Vietnam specifying me by name, Nationality, Port and Date of Entry inviting me to collect my Visa at my arrival airport.
In the boarding line and pounced upon by official, escorted to the desk which is where I heard the heart stopping words above. Hmm, be courteous, keep smiling, don’t lose it. Apparently most people have a visa stamped into their passports but these days, with the advent of the Internet, the opportunity to apply in advance and have the Visa issued at the port of entry has been instituted. Eventually, after the desk crew scrutinized the five pages issued to me by the Vietnamese Immigration Service I got my boarding pass stamped and here I am, 63A. CX767.
Surely I cannot be the first person to show up for a flight to Vietnam Nam with these e-forms. Baffling. But I am sure I shall encounter further interesting situations….
Time to listen to The Boards of Canada and chill a bit at 39,000 feet over the South China Sea. Oh, the thrill of it all.
So now here I be, downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Let’s start with “it’s different”.
Though maybe that is an understatement. Leaving the comparative peace of the Arrivals area and going outside is entering mayhem, hundreds and hundreds of people waiting for loved ones to arrive from all over the world, complete pandemonium. Plus of course the temperature is about 40 degrees warmer than HK. I was quickly reduced to a perspiring wreck. Searched and searched for my hotel’s ride into town, difficult to say the least with all those people in the way. Eventually found car and driver and let me tell you, a bottle of cold water and an iced towel have rarely been so welcome.
Checked into hotel, had a quick Skype ,back home to California, that was great, and set out to explore…and explore….and explore. First, the motor scooters, there are 3.5 million people in HCMC and it looks like each one owns a motor scooter and each of the 3.5 million were all out on a bright sunny Sunday afternoon. Someone (thanks George) advised me to just step off the sidewalk and walk across the street, the scooters will avoid you, hmm, well, so far so good. !
I do have a method for the said exploring, walk out of hotel, walk round block back to hotel, then expand to two blocks, then three etc. it seems to work. HCMC has a lot in common with many other cities I have visited, ie, two to three hustlers on each street. I have been offered everything from a shoe shine, a scooter tour, money exchange to, well, this is a family blog, but you can imagine ! Over and over again. Ha.
After I had got about five blocks out from the hotel the 5.00am started to take its toll, so here I am in the Saigon Saigon bar at the Caravelle. I’m sure I read somewhere that it, the bar, was featured in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and now I have lost the reference. Many references to the Majestic by the river so will check that out tomorrow maybe, after going to the tunnels. What tunnels? The Viet Kong complex at Cu Chi which apparently extends all the way to the Laotian border.
We shall see.
PS. Sorry about the lack of captions on the Photos of Hong Kong page. Next lesson for me.