Travel Journal

Saigon (Ho CHI Minh City) and the Mekong Delta Thurs 21 to Sun 24

(Wednesday 3 August 2011) by Julia Bartholomew
I went first to the War remnants museum, as something I thought I ought to see, but which I anticipated would not give a great deal of pleasure. By now, I’d decided only to use my feet where strictly necessary in Vietnamese cities. It’s safer – better to be on a bike than under one – less work in the heat, and there must be a reason why the Vietnamese never walk anywhere. So I hopped on a cyclo, which is a push bike where the passenger sits on a throne in front and was peddled laboriously through Saigon traffic by a puffing old boy, hoping this journey wouldn’t be his last, and who I tipped in gratitude for getting me there without having a heart attack! The museum was utterly depressing, with a preponderance of blown-up photos of deformed children suffering from the effects of Agent orange, used by U.S. forces in their chemical warfare against the Vietnamese communists. There were also photos of U.S. soldiers doing various unspeakable things to Vietnamese soldiers and civilians alike and many contemporary letters and newspaper cuttings from around the world showing support for the Vietnamese and condemnation of the Americans.
The next day I went off east to the Mekong river for a couple of days which goes towards Cambodia. The area is lush, green and very fertile and thus the south is richer than the north because of its great natural resources. I discovered, first-hand, the reason for its deep verdant hue, when I was caught in the monsoon whilst being rowed along in an open river, and by the time it stopped I was wetter than if I’d dived in of my own accord and my clothes were tinted with lovely muddy river water colour. We trundled along in a boat through floating markets where the goods sold are strung up on poles to alert customers: all fruit and veg like pineapples, dragon fruit, bananas. I was with a group and we also had to trail around a few obligatory ‘things of interest’ and so learnt about the many varieties and uses of rice (noodles, paper, husks for fule...) and of coconut. We stayed the night in bamboo huts, all part of a guesthouse type arrangement run by a family, accessed by boat. A few of us got up early in the morning to take the little boat taxi across the river to the local market. We arrived at 6.30 and it had already been in full swing since 4am. Conscious of the short time left to me in Vietnam I took plenty of snaps of the ladies in their gorgeous, vibrant outfits and conical hats, squatting down by their wares of fresh fish, lychees, or little donuty-type friend things. And also, of course, the men in the caf opposite relaxing over Vietnamese coffee and bowls of noodles for breakfast, which is where our host made a bee-line for as soon as he’d dropped us off on the shore.

On my return to Saigon, my friend Tran, a Vietnamese friend who lives in Saigon and whom I met when studying for the bar, came to pick me up for dinner. It was rather a novelty having a meal in an establishment with chairs of adult height and a menu, and we were also gawped at throughout dinner, as an object of abject curiosity. Tran told me that Vietnamese man with a Western woman is a very rare sight and that my presence was conferring on him the status of a hero. I was happy to vary a diet of mostly noodles, soup and chicken with a few new dishes, and it seemed a suitable last night to end my journey in Vietnam. We had traditional dishes including one of tart mango with salty fish, clams in a pungent lemongrassy soup and a dish of whole king prawns, pork and lotus leaves, which you pile onto a prawn cracker.

Sun 24 to Bangkok
I had time for a quick dash round the indoor market to pick up some t-shirts for my bro’s, some Vietnamese coffee (which I have a feeling might not taste so nice at home), and a few other miscellaneous items which I cannot recall, but for which I was persuaded to part with my last few dong by the skilful sales-men and –women in the market. Then to the airport for my flight to Bangkok, and the following day Bangkok to Stansted, the end of one phase of adventures and the start of another.


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